Reviews for IPCD 1072–2
First Broadcast NBC 25 December 1937
VIVALDI Concerto Grosso, rv 5651. MOZART Symphony No. 40. BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 • Arturo Toscanini, cond; Mischa Mischakoff, Edwin Bachmann (vn); Osvaldo Mazzuchi (vc); NBC SO • Immortal Performances 1072-2 (2 CDs: 158:50) Live: New York 12/25/37 • Interviews, broadcast speeches, and rehearsal of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture
November / December 2016
After resigning in 1936 as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini, approaching his 70th birthday, considered retiring. David Sarnoff, the head of Radio Corporation of America, tried to convince Toscanini to lead the Philharmonic in a coast-to-coast U.S. tour. When that plan failed, Sarnoff proposed assembling a new orchestra, comprising world-class musicians who would perform weekly radio broadcast concerts under Toscanini’s baton. At Sarnoff’s behest, Samuel Chotzinoff traveled to Italy and convinced Toscanini to agree to lead the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Thus began the legendary association that (with some disruption for a few years during World War II) continued until Toscanini’s retirement in 1954, at the age of 87. Toscanini’s debut concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra took place in New York in NBC’s Studio 8H on Christmas Day 1937. A new Immortal Performances release, issued as part of their commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Toscanini’s birth, documents that historic concert in its entirety, and provides fascinating supplementary material as well.
The ability to hear Toscanini’s first NBC Symphony Orchestra concert and broadcast, in quite good sound for its source and vintage, makes this set self-recommending to devotees of this conductor. But there is so much more to enjoy. Perhaps first and foremost is the amazing rapport demonstrated between Toscanini and the NBC Symphony on this, their maiden voyage. Toscanini demands much of the musicians on this occasion (as he always did), but they are with him every step of the way, delivering a concert of remarkable precision, musicality, and emotional power. Of course, as I mentioned before, the ranks of the NBC Symphony Orchestra were formed from top-flight musicians. Toscanini, perhaps more than any conductor, had the ability to get what he wanted out of an orchestra. Further, in advance of Toscanini’s arrival, they prepared assiduously, including rehearsals and concertizing with Pierre Monteux, also one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. Still, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that during the December 25, 1937 concert, the Orchestra sounds as if it had been performing under Toscanini’s direction for years. Many of the Toscanini- NBC trademarks are there from Day One: razor-sharp precision, a lovely singing tone in the strings, and superb balancing of orchestral voices.
Another crucial aspect of this release is that it allows us to hear a complete Toscanini concert, from start to finish. Over time, I have become ever more convinced that this context offers the best opportunity to appreciate Toscanini’s unique talents as a programmer and interpreter. Toscanini was one of the finest opera conductors, in great part because he understood how to pace and phrase such works to convey best their musical and dramatic architecture. Of course, in the case of an opera, the composer is responsible for the entire evening’s repertoire. In the case of a multi-work symphonic program, the concert architecture is the province of the programmer, Toscanini’s sole dominion during his NBC Symphony years. In the case of the December 25, 1937 concert, we find Toscanini assembling a masterful program of three works, one each from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. The compositions by Vivaldi, Mozart, and Brahms are all based in minor keys (D, G, and C, respectively). The first two works conclude in the minor key as well, and it is not until the grand C- Major apotheosis of the Brahms First Symphony that the concert’s minor-major tension is fully and finally resolved. Toscanini interprets the three works in such a way that further accentuates the harmonic tension, making the triumphant final moments of the Brahms all the more overwhelming.
The program opens with a fine performance of the Vivaldi Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Opus 3, No. 11, with admirable contributions from the Orchestra, and the concertino of violinists Mischa Mischakoff and Edwin Bachmann, and cellist Osvaldo Mazzuchi. The first half of the concert concludes with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The Mozart G-Minor is one of the first works Toscanini recorded with the NBC SO (March 7, 1938 and February 27, 1939). While the overall profiles of this recording and the 1937 concert performance are similar, there are contrasts, some significant. The 1937 version has, in the first three movements, a more expansive approach, most notably in the second-movement Andante (1937–7:45, 1938 and 1939–7:07). This sets the stage for a finale that hurtles at a breathless pace (1937–3:59, 1938 and 1939–4:16). The terse and unsettling effect of the final bars of the Mozart G-Minor is thereby further accentuated. The next music the audience hears is the thunderous C-Minor opening of the Brahms First. Once again, there is a relatively contemporaneous studio recording (March 10, May 14, and December 11, 1941) for comparison, an impressive version in its own right. Toscanini was always a great interpreter of this work, but the 1941 recording documents a more flexible approach to tempo and phrasing than was the norm in his later performances. However, the 1937 concert performance is even more striking in this regard. The plasticity of phrasing culminates in a remarkably broad rendition of the finale’s “alphorn” episode. This yields to a tender introduction of the great principal melody that builds inexorably to an overwhelming proclamation. The performance continues at white heat to the final bars, and the audience’s ecstatic ovation.
As I mentioned, the broadcast took place in NBC’s Studio 8H, whose dry, clinical acoustics may have pleased Toscanini, but also produced sonically problematic recordings. These challenges were even more pronounced for the 1937 concert, prior to a time when NBC made some acoustic improvements to the theater. But producer Richard Caniell has worked his technical magic, applying a subtle layer of resonance to give the soundstage a warm acoustic, without any loss of detail. Caniell states in his “recording notes” that he has always been troubled by the lack of applause following the performance of the Vivaldi, mandated by RCA to fit the concert into a proscribed time frame. This release affords the listener the option to listen to the concert as originally broadcast, or with applause and commentary by announcer Howard Claney following the Vivaldi. The latter version was assembled by Richard Caniell from other portions of the original broadcast.
Additional materials include Samuel Chotzinoff describing his 1937 meeting with Toscanini, NBC Symphony cellist Alan Shulman’s recollections of the Maestro, and David Sarnoff’s address to the concert broadcast audience regarding Toscanini’s return for the 1938–39 season. The jewel of the supplementary material is a November 23, 1946 rehearsal by Toscanini and the NBC SO of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. Both the playing and Toscanini’s exhortations are at a fever pitch from start to finish. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard or witnessed a more thrilling rehearsal sequence. The CD booklet includes Caniell’s essay, as well as one by Robert Matthew-Walker. A separate booklet, “Toscanini: A Lifetime of Influences” is Richard Caniell’s extended, heartfelt, and moving tribute to the conductor’s influence on his own musical life, as well as the writer’s tireless efforts to preserve the Maestro’s legacy. This is a magnificent release in every way, and one that quickly joins by 2016 Want List. Highest recommendation.
First Broadcast NBC 25 December 1937
November / December 2016
It is appropriate to begin a discussion—in four reviews I am privileged to write for the present Fanfare issue (40:2)—with the first concert Toscanini presented with the orchestra formed to enable his return to the United States, after ending his prior decade in New York City.
The story has been often told—and is recounted here in fascinating interviews—how, after retiring from the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society, Toscanini had retreated to his island home in Italy and intended not to return to the United States (at least not in any permanent conducting capacity). General David Sarnoff (has anyone ever wondered about that sobriquet?—he was named a Reserve Brigadier General in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1945), sent one of his staff members, Samuel Chotzinoff, to Italy in the spring of 1937 to propose to Toscanini that he direct a hand-selected orchestra, and in an NBC concert studio dedicated (at least one day a week) to his con- certs, a proposal the maestro accepted. Artur Rodzinski, surely the greatest builder of orchestras the U.S. had seen until the advent of James Levine, was recruited to help select the players (Toscanini had a number he named and wanted) and to drill them into readiness.
If we can believe Halina Rodzinska, the Dalmatian-born conductor’s widow, Sarnoff had hoped to add a few good players to the NBC studio band and be off to the races (see Our Two Lives , Scribner and Sons, NY, 1976). In fact, Rodzinski told Sarnoff that this would not do: Toscanini would not accept such, and in the event an orchestra was recruited, including musicians that Toscanini knew and desired, and others from the New York City area whom Rodzinski knew would meet the required standard. Thus, violinists such as Mischa Mischakoff (concertmaster), Sascha Jacobson among the violins, William Primrose (arguably the world’s finest violist), and other string players of hardly less fame—these and the rest came to be as one band, trained by Rodzinski for weeks, followed by two radio concerts under Pierre Monteux and two more under Rodzinski (offended that his older French colleague had the premiere performances), and finally on Christmas Night the concert we hear on these amazingly resuscitated discs.
What do we hear? In remarkably clear sound, a virtuoso orchestra. Technically, the playing is remarkable, the attack and response crisp and clear. The players seem to give Toscanini what he asks of them. I am not, by any means, an HIP fanatic, nor perhaps even as knowledgeable in the area of performance practice as I should be. But even I find the Vivaldi a bit “old fashioned.” It is played with great clarity by the strings and the trio of soloists, however, and we need to remember that in 1937 it was remarkable to find such a work on a symphonic program. It cannot be coincidence that Toscanini chose three works with a minor key signature for this concert, and I for one enjoy hearing his take on a composer who, after World War II, kept countless tape recorders busy for decades until almost every note of his output had been recorded. I don’t know that I’ve heard a Vivaldi performance earlier than 1937.
The Mozart, by contrast, is a symphony central to the conductor’s repertory. The maestro admitted that he did not always (or often) feel comfortable with Mozart. “Too perfect” was one of his descriptive comments. The “Haffner” was performed (beautifully), and there is a quite thrilling 1945 recorded performance of the “Jupiter” (at least, it thrills me). He did the 39th (my personal favorite Mozart symphony) only once; Harris Goldsmith, the distinguished pianist, critic, and Toscanini devotee (alas, no longer with us), actually tells us how bad it is in notes for the RCA-BMG release. Well, it’s one of my favorite performances of the work—sorry to differ from a much admired critic. Goldsmith is helpful regarding K 550, however. The present performance, well controlled and highly dramatic, adds to what we have from Toscanini in this work—probably the Mozart symphony closest to his heart. The studio recording from 1938 features the exposition repeat and I prefer it for that. The much later remake for LP, like this performance, omits the first movement repeat, but is overall rather lighter in texture. It is lovely, and one of the last “studio” recordings Toscanini made in 8H. It does not, however, dig in as deeply as the earlier studio recording, nor, to make the important point, as this performance. Even though I appreciate the repeat, this concert performance is a terrific reading: superbly played, sensitive to the work’s deep emotions. The finale is particularly effective. Caniell’s sonic remastering enables us to hear and enjoy a thrilling interpretation. The announcer comments that Toscanini left the stage actually showing pleasure in the audience response. Well he might have.
A point about this first CD in the set: Caniell has included, first, the two opening works in his full sonic restoration. Then, he presents the raw NBC broadcast with only the corrections necessary to ensure that pitches are accurate. Caniell had the space on the disc to give us this alternate hearing, and it is absorbing. This takes us back to the discussion of broadcasts and microphoning by Robert Hupka, which is included on the second disc of the Verdi release also reviewed in this issue (40:2). The NBC transmission was by no means awful. Immortal Performances has cleaned up the sound and we have more presence, a more realistic timbre of the orchestra in its total resonance. In his memoirs, Cadenza (Houghton, Mifflin Co., Boston, 1976), Erich Leinsdorf discussed at length how nothing was ever settled at the RCA recording sessions of the BSO in the 1960s. RCA’s engineers constantly shifted microphone placement and seating. It seems such was the same with the NBC Symphony in 8H in the 1940s, and even later, in the 1950s in Carnegie Hall. They could not leave well enough alone. Hupka suggests this was the same in the 1940s and 50s.
For this first broadcast of Christmas Night, 1937, however, they did well. As enjoyable as are the Vivaldi and Mozart from the first portion of the concert, the “old man” came out for the Brahms in the mood to produce an inflammatory performance. My introduction to Toscanini as a child was the 1941 studio recording of the Brahms C-Minor Symphony on 78s. For my 18th birthday, I was given the 1951 LP recording; I also own the 1952 Philharmonia performance (Testament). This 1937 performance is unique. It is broader in both the opening movement and the second. But, there is no undue sentimentality in the second movement: Mischakoff’s violin solo is so restrained you would never believe he was of the Auer school (and what a great violinist and concertmaster he was!) The third movement is much like that from the other Toscanini performances we have, but the finale is fierce. The only performance which compares is the amazing Furtwängler Hamburg concert from 1951. This performance greatly expands our knowledge of Toscanini in this work. In addition to various spoken items, the supplemental material which fills out the second CD gives us a portion of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture in rehearsal. We hear Toscanini at white-hot energy and drive urging his players on in Italian and English, at times with pleasure and at times in frustration. It reminds us of the effort required to achieve the results which concert goers and radio listeners enjoyed.
This Immortal Performances release is indispensable for those with an interest in the conductor and orchestra, and also for those whose musical interests include comparing different performances by great interpreters. As usual with this label, the written material is beautifully presented, informative, and well written, a beautiful addition to that which we hear on the CDs. Those CDs include informative interviews, but, perhaps most unexpectedly, a separate booklet shares Richard Caniell’s own exposure in his extreme youth to Toscanini and those broadcasts from Studio 8H. I found his writing moving in the extreme and commend it to you as an amplification of the interest of these truly historic performances.