Arturo Toscanini - The Essential Recordings, 150th Anniversary Edition
NBC Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic*, The Philadelphia Orchestra†
rec. 1929-1952 RCA RED SEAL 88985 376042 [20 CDs: ca 20 hrs]
Can you remember when you lost your Toscanini virginity? For me it was as recently as 2009 when I came across a cheap download of his later Beethoven symphony cycle. Subsequently, I have also acquired recordings of the Missa Solemnis (BBC Legends) and the Brahms German Requiem (Pristine Classical), but that was all until this box arrived. Issued to commemorate 150 years since his birth and 60 since his death, it is a newly re-mastered selection of almost a quarter of his "official" RCA recordings, many of them made and/or broadcast live. Over the years, there have been two issues of his complete RCA legacy but it is currently only available second-hand at high cost. Many of the individual recordings in the box have long been available as separate issues but this reasonably priced — less than £50 — 20 CD box fills a niche and is very neatly presented. I cannot offer a comparative view on the re-mastered sound but, in general, it seems excellent for a period spanning 1929-52; sample for example Falstaff which it seems hard to believe was set down in 1950. Most of these recordings were made with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (which was created for Toscanini) but there is a smattering of his work with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras.
I would be surprised if many doubted the great influence of Toscanini but his reputation appears to vary between being the greatest conductor of the 20th century and rigid, all too hard-driven and largely of historical interest. Having been through this box my view would be closer to the former. By way of background, I found very useful an 83 minute documentary about him made in 2006 on You Tube. I only intended to dip into it but everything else immediately went on hold. Listening to these recordings could be a similar experience - not much else has been in my player since it arrived. There is undoubtedly a magnetism about his music-making which can be felt in just about all of these records as easily as it can be seen and heard in the documentary.
In terms of content, more than a third is opera with three complete operas, a couple of bleeding chunks from Wagner's Ring, Act II of Orfeo ed Euridice and Act IV of Rigoletto. Toscanini's Verdi is otherwise represented by Otello — for which he played the cello in the premiere — and Falstaff, which would certainly be less well-known had it not been championed by Toscanini. Neither of these would be among my favourite Verdi operas but, in both cases, I was riveted by the seamless drama of recordings that are generally considered to be amongst Toscanini's finest. Not that the comic element of Falstaff is underplayed. The other complete opera is La Bohème which Toscanini premiered in 1896 and recorded fifty years later. Here I won't gainsay Göran Forsling's fairly negative review of the conductor's often hurried approach. His vocalise at big moments is very prominent and, even before considering the principals, this would not be a contender to displace Beecham's recording in my affections.
The purely orchestral recordings range quite widely across the repertoire and often belie Toscanini's reputation for being hard-driven. There is lyricism aplenty in Brahms Second Symphony and a pleasing sparkle to his Haydn, for example in the finale of Symphony No. 98. Toscanini also showed plenty of affinity with Debussy and Ravel. The opening of La Mer is highly atmospheric and the drama is saved for the concluding Dialogue du vent et de la mer. Ibéria which follows is all of a piece too, the idiom perfectly caught. However, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony is emotionally restrained and certainly less idiomatic - an antidote to Mravinsky if you need one. Toscanini gave the premiere of Barber's Adagio in 1938 and there is no lack of emotion in this work, despite a fairly flowing tempo.
Aside from Verdi, Beethoven is perhaps the composer most associated with Toscanini and there are symphony cycles available from both the 1930s and 1950s. Here we get samples from both periods, the 1936 Seventh perhaps being the peak but the 1951 Fourth is also gripping and a must-hear. Tempi are generally very fast but are never beyond the players and isn't that what Beethoven ordered? Whilst there could perhaps have been more Beethoven in the box, anyone warming to the conductor's way with him is surely going to need a complete set.
Finally, to the Wagner, of which there are two discs running for just under two hours covering the climaxes of Act I of Die Walküre and Act III of Götterdämmerung, and several orchestral items, most notably a cracking prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. These are among the peaks of the set, in particular the Immolation scene with Helen Traubel. They also serve to cause regret that he never recorded a complete Wagner opera, let alone the Ring cycle. Still we should be grateful for what we do have here and, if there are any Toscanini virgins still out there, this is now the obvious place to lose it.
Patrick C Waller
CD 1: Haydn Symphonies Nos. 98 (rec. 1945) and 101* (rec. 1929)
CD 2: Mozart Symphonies No. 41 (rec. 1945-6) and
No. 35* (rec. 1929); Beethoven
Symphony No. 7* (rec. 1936)
CD 3: Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 (rec. 1951) and
No. 5 (rec. 1939)
CD 4: Schubert Symphony No. 9† (rec. 1941); Schumann
Symphony No. 3 (rec. 1949)
CD 5: Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream (1947); Weber Overtures: Der Freischütz (rec. 1945), Euryanthe (rec. 1951) and Oberon (rec. 1952); Berlioz Scherzo Queen Mab (rec. 1951), Marche hongroise (rec. 1945)
CD 6: Brahms Symphony No.2 (rec. 1952); HaydnVariations* (rec. 1936)
CD 7: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (rec. 1947); Liadov Kikimora (rec. 1952)
CD 8: Debussy La Mer† (rec. 1942), Ibéria† (rec. 1941); Ravel Suite No. 2 Daphnis and Chloé (rec. 1949)
CD 9: Richard Strauss Don Juan (rec. 1951), Dance of the Seven Veils (rec. 1939), Tod und Verklärung (rec. 1952); Sibelius Pohjola's Daughter (rec. 1940), The Swan of Tuonela (rec. 1944)
CD 10: Respighi Feste romane† (rec. 1941); Kodaly Suite Hary Janos (rec. 1947); Barber Adagio for Strings (rec. 1952)
CD 11: Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice Act II (rec. 1952) Robert Shaw Chorale, Nan Merriman (Orfeo), Barbara Gibson (Euridice)
CD 12: Rossini Overtures: The Italian Girl in Algiers*, Semiramide* (rec. 1936); Verdi Rigoletto Act IV (rec. 1944) All City High School Chorus, Leonard Warren (Rigoletto), Zinka Milanov (Gilda), Jan Peerce (Duke)
CDs 13-14: Verdi Otello (rec.1947) NBC Symphony Chorus, Ramon Vinay (Otello), Herva Nelli (Desdemona), Giuseppe Valdengo (Jago)
CDs 15-16: Verdi Falstaff (rec. 1950) Robert Shaw Chorale, Giuseppe Valdengo (Falstaff), Herva Nelli (Mistress Alice Ford), Nan Merriman (Mistress Meg Page)
CD 17: Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Prelude Act I (rec. 1946), Prelude Act III (rec. 1952); Lohengrin Preludes Acts I and III (rec. 1936); Siegfried Idyll (rec. 1952)
CD 18: Wagner Götterdämmerung Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey (rec. 1936), Immolation Scene (rec. 1941) Helen Traubel (Brünnhilde), Funeral March (rec. 1952); Die Walküre Act I Scene 3 (rec. 1941) Helen Traubel (Sieglinde), Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund)
CDs 19-20: Puccini La Bohème (rec. 1946) NBC Symphony Chorus, Licia Albanese (Mimi), Jan Peerce (Rodolfo), Anne McKnight (Musetta)