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Review for Toscanini NBC 1940/44 Concerts | IPCD 1038-3

Review for IPCD 1038-3


Jascha Heifetz (vn); NBC SO • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1038-3 (3 CDs: 184:32)


MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition. ELGAR Introduction and Allegro. DVOŘÁK Scherzo Capriccioso. MOZART Symphony No. 41. WAGNER Parsifal: Prelude and Good Friday Spell. MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E Minor

& & rehearsal

David DeBoor Canfield
FANFARE magazine
November/December 2014

Arturo Toscanini didn’t record much Russian music: a few works by Tchaikovsky, including the “Pathetique” Symphony, and a work each by Stravinsky, Liadov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Glinka were all I could find in a quick search of one of his discographies. Of course, there’s also his famous 1951 recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a classic of its time, and first issued on LP in the U.S. on RCA LM-1838. It was a bestseller, judging by the number of copies of the recording that have come through my hands over the years. RCA also took advantage of its popularity by issuing it in many formats (electronic stereo LP, numerous other LP and CD incarnations, open reel tape, cassette, 45-rpm, and probably even on 8-track tape, although I haven’t encountered that version yet). After the maestro’s death, various live performances of the work began appearing as well on LP and CD. Those known to me include performances from January 29, 1938; April 20, 1940; February 14, 1948; September 16, 1948; and January 24, 1953. I also own recordings of movements from a couple performances given in South America, and perhaps there are others that exist, as yet unknown to me. All but the September 1948 performance are with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the lone holdout being done with La Scala Orchestra. It’s fairly clear, then, that Pictures held a special place in the heart of the fiery Italian genius, as often as he returned to it in the concert hall.

Although I am not qualified to give a thorough analysis of Toscanini’s conducting style, such as Mortimer H. Frank, Fanfare’s resident expert on the maestro, could and would do, the present 3-CD set was a very welcome arrival into the Canfield household. For one thing, it contains the entire concert from April 20, 1940, including a Pictures performance, which I had previously had represented in my archive only by the rehearsal for this concert. Add to that the expert transfers by engineer Richard Caniell, and one realizes what a treasure this historical document is. The sound is rich and full, and rather astonishing for the technology of the era, given its presence and vitality. Caniell has wisely retained the commentary by radio announcer, Gene Hamilton, which adds to the sense of the history of the occasion. Because of the original source recordings, there is an occasional shrillness, especially in loud brass passages, and in Pictures, a slight degradation in the sound in some spots. Caniell describes these as “gritty,” and elected not to attempt to remove them or the shrill spots and risk degrading the other sonic and musical qualities of the recording. I assure the reader that the entire concert is very listenable.

It is worth remembering that in 1940 when this concert was heard by its audience, Pictures at an Exhibition was still a fairly obscure work in the concert hall, and was by no means the warhorse that it was to become within a decade or two. If Toscanini’s reading of the piece sounds for the most part “mainstream,” it was because he played a large part through his radio broadcasts and later 1951 recording in establishing a performance tradition of the Ravel orchestration (Stokowski and Ormandy—via Lucien Cailliet—had their own competing orchestrations). This is not to say that the 1940 performance by the NBC orchestra didn’t yield a few surprises from the baton of its conductor. The first comes at the end of the opening Promenade, which has a much more pronounced ritardando than one generally hears. In “Il vecchio Castello,” we are reminded that the development of saxophone sound had not yet reached its current pinnacle (a state brought about in large measure due to the influence and teaching of Eugene Rousseau), such that the NBC saxophonist has a rather pronounced salon quality to his sound. In “Tuileries,” Toscanini has the oboes match the staccato articulation of the flutes, with whom they play in unison, whereas Ravel has them slur their parts against the staccato flute. To those who view Toscanini’s tempos as invariably fast, the middle section of that movement should be noted: Beginning in measure 35, the maestro’s tempo is downright leisurely, and the entire movement is played somewhat more slowly than the current norm among conductors. Parenthetically, I would add that I’ve heard quite a few faster performances of every single work on this set, with the possible exception of the last movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and that was almost certainly Heifetz’s doing.

Toscanini’s “Baba-Yaga” is appropriately thunderous, but he changes Ravel’s articulation once again, this time in the trumpets in measure 33 (and similar passages), where he has them slur the first two notes of their phrase. This change serves to create an entirely novel effect in that line, and made me sit up in my chair. When the “A” section of the movement returns in measure 125, he holds the tempo back for some measures, and gradually accelerates to the trumpet entrance. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this performance was certainly not of Toscanini’s doing, however. In measure 13 of “Samuel Goldenberg,” the oboist plays a very noticeable incorrect pitch, which he quickly corrects. The effect was pretty grating, and I’d be surprised if that performer didn’t hear a few choice words from his boss after the performance.

Comparing this early live performance of Pictures with the 1951 studio recording, I did not hear many major differences. The end of the first Promenade in the studio recording is given quite a bit less ritardando by the maestro, and in “Baba-Yaga” there is a quicker return to the tempo of the first iteration of the “A” section in the studio version. In short, in this work at least, Toscanini’s approach varied little in the decade between these two readings, and both readings convinced me that he was approximately to the Ravel orchestration what Sviatoslav Richter was in his live 1958 Sofia performance to the piano version of Pictures. Both men awakened the musical world to the work through these seminal recordings.

The Elgar Introduction and Allegro that opens the concert is a vibrant reading, with the solo string quartet of the NBC orchestra playing with almost a Heifetz-like intensity. Their intensity carries over, not surprisingly, into the tutti string ensemble, and Toscanini extracts every ounce of passion from his forces in this dynamic performance. The quick swelling and subsiding of the sound levels somehow reminded me of waves on the sea. I also note the maestro’s use of portamento at certain climactic points.

Toscanini reduced the size of his string section for the following “Jupiter” Symphony of Mozart to maintain proper balance between the sections. Such a thing was not usually done in this era, so I guess Toscanini can make a claim to period performance practice. (If the editor would allow it, I would insert a smiley-face emoticon here). Missing from Mozart is the passion of the Elgar, replaced by the Classical aestheticism required by the work. Akin to the Elgar, however, was the maestro’s sudden dynamic contrasts, albeit here generally in a tiered instead of a swelling fashion. The quickly moving string runs in the second movement, whispers at their onset, grow into mighty statements shortly thereafter. Every line herein is clearly delineated and every woodwind interjection clearly audible in Toscanini’s meticulous balancing. Colleague Frank is quoted in the program notes as preferring this performance of the “Jupiter” to the two later Toscanini readings captured on tape, calling this performance “free from excessive haste, texturally transparent, and remarkably flexible in rhythm.”

Dvorak’s Scherzo Capriccioso startled me at its opening with the very brassy horn sound that Toscanini demanded from his players. After that initial surprise, the reading seemed to reflect his fiery temperament in the orchestral outbursts found throughout the score. To be sure, the quiet lyrical moments were as subdued as one could wish, but these made the outbursts seem all the more dramatic (and exciting). Purists will note the omission of the rather long repeat in this work, not Toscanini’s choice, but his reluctant acceding to the demands of the producers of the broadcast who saw to it that all NBC Symphony broadcasts were forced into the Procrustean bed of the allotted broadcast time.

As a bonus, we are treated to a second complete broadcast program from April 9, 1944 containing a noble and elegantly honed reading of Wagner’s Parsifal Prelude and Good Friday Spell, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifetz as soloist. Despite the fact that I like Heifetz a great deal in much of his repertory, his approach to the Mendelssohn Concerto is not particularly to my taste. Briefly put, I do not believe that he allows the piece to breathe, and that is as true in the live performance heard here as it is in his commercial recordings of the work. Despite that caveat, there are unquestionably some exciting things to be heard in this performance, including the cascade of broken octaves that comes near the end of the first movement. No one else I’ve heard makes this as exciting as Heifetz.

It should be noted that the 1944 program was previously released by Caniell on the Naxos label in 1998, but there were some problems (pitching and sonic) out of his control in that issue, leading him to look for an opportunity to reissue the broadcast elsewhere.

As a second bonus (and a free third disc), we are treated to 46 minutes of Toscanini at work in rehearsal, where he is heard working on portions of the pieces heard in the 1940 concert. In the Elgar, he has rather little to say, but more so in the Mozart, where he is heard in several extended descriptions of what he wants from the players. In one place, one of the players (likely the concertmaster) asks him a question, and often Toscanini demonstrates what he wants by singing the phrase in question. I note that only in the “Limoges” movement of Pictures does he have a passage played by only part of the orchestra, first the strings and then the winds. Less than an hour of rehearsal excerpts isn’t enough to make any sort of thorough analysis of the maestro’s rehearsal technique, but one does hear the odd Italian interjection (e.g. andiamo!, i.e., go!) and he more often than not fixes things “on the fly,” (i.e. making corrections without stopping the orchestra).

My conductor father, now 90, had the privilege back in the 1950s and at the invitation of Don Gillis, producer of the NBC concerts, to attend one of their rehearsals. He was required to be there 15 minutes before the rehearsal was to begin, sit in an unobtrusive location, and be as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. When he arrived all of the men (no women were in the orchestra in those days!) were already seated quietly in their places, and no one was practicing his part. When the maestro walked in they all stood up for him, and sat down only when he asked them to take their places, and the rehearsal commenced. My father did witness one of the outbursts for which Toscanini was famous (there is none heard in the excerpts in this set), but after he completed his rant, he calmed down and the rehearsal resumed as if nothing had happened.

My only minor quibble in this set is that the space between some of the movements of the pieces was too short. This was a live concert, and you can be sure that Toscanini left, for instance, more than four or five seconds of silence between the first two movements of the Mozart at the performance. Admittedly, this won’t likely bother the majority of listeners, as it would be the proper amount of space for a studio recording. [Sound Engineer’s note: The shorter length of silence between movements was to accommodate all the music within the limited length a CD can hold, so as not to break up one of the works. This CD is at maximum length.] This set is recommended highly, and not only to Toscanini enthusiasts who will particularly welcome its issuance, but to all aficionados of great conducting and historical musical documents.

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