Reviews for IPCD 1074–10
BEETHOVEN CYCLE 1939
BEETHOVEN Symphonies 1–9. Leonore Overtures Nos. 1–3. Coriolan Overture. Egmont Overture. Septet in E. String Quartet No. 16 in F: Lento assai; vivace. Prometheus: Ballet music, excerpt. Choral Fantasy. Piano Concerto No. 3 k • Arturo Toscanini, cond; Jarmila Novotna (s); Kerstin Thorborg (mez); Jan Peerce (ten); Nicola Moscona (bs); Arthur Rubinstein (pn); Westminster ch; NBC Orchestra • Immortal Performance 1064–1067 (10 cds: 487:13) • Piano Concerto No. 3, rehearsal and performance; Arthur Rubinstein (pn). New york 10/44. Stereo versions of Leonore 3 and Egmont Overtures.
November / December 2016
In 1939, his third season with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini conducted a series of six broadcast concert programs comprising all of Beethoven’s symphonies, several of the composer’s overtures, and various other works. The first five concerts took place in NBC’s Studio 8H, with the finale at Carnegie Hall. Toscanini’s approach to Beethoven is best known through the iconic set of the Nine Symphonies, issued by RCA, taken from various NBC SO concerts and studio sessions from the late 1940s to early 50s. The RCA set remains a magnificent achievement, and forms a cornerstone of the Beethoven discography. But the 1939 Beethoven cycle, while not the equal sonically of its successor, is for this writer (and many others) the more compelling. Toscanini’s studio recordings of the 1930s, and perhaps even more emphatically, his concerts from that same period, reveal an artistic approach that contrasts with the conductor’s later and more familiar work. To be sure, the intensity, breathtaking precision of attack, superb instrumental balances, and sense of proportion and architecture are present in both cycles. But the Toscanini of the 1930s employed a much broader range and spectrum of tempos. That, coupled with a greater flexibility of phrasing, give the earlier performances more variety, pulse, drama, and ultimately for this writer, musical and dramatic satisfaction. The 1939 cycle represents Toscanini at the height of his powers, inspiring the NBC Symphony musicians to deliver some of the most electrifying Beethoven performances on record.
Music & Arts has previously issued the 1939 Beethoven cycle as a five-disc set, most recently in 2013 (CD-1275). It’s a considerable achievement, reproducing the broadcast performances in quite listenable sound. In his recording notes for the Immortal Performances release that is the subject of this review, Richard Caniell explains that previously, rather than compete with the 2013 M&A issue, he chose to focus on other Toscanini projects. But the 2013 M&A release, as well as its 2007 predecessor, omit several components of the 1939 broadcasts. While the 2013 M&A cycle includes some audience applause, announcer Gene Hamilton’s commentary is absent. More important, several of the works performed as part of the six broadcast concerts are cut in the M&A issues. They include:
October 28, 1939: Fidelio Overture
November 11, 1939: Coriolan Overture
November 18, 1939: Septet, opus 20
November 25, 1939: Excerpts from the String Quartet No. 16 and The Creatures of Prometheus .
December 2, 1939: Choral Fantasy
In addition to omitting almost 90 minutes of (brilliantly performed) music, the excisions mask a complete and true picture of these concerts. Toscanini chose and interpreted works in a concert program to complement each other for the greatest overall musical and dramatic effect. To give just a few examples, the M&A disc of the November 11, 1939 concert pairs the Beethoven Sixth and Fifth Symphonies. Both are sterling performances, enjoyable on their own merits. But how the flow and impact of the concert change when, as in the actual broadcast, it opens with the Coriolan Overture, omitted in the M&A release. The breathtakingly intense Coriolan sets the stage for the “Pastoral” Symphony, radiating lyricism from start to finish. The “Pastoral,” in turn, serves as a foil to the concluding Beethoven Fifth, which opens by returning to the C-Minor world of Coriolan. To be sure this performance of the Fifth, almost unbearably intense, would have an unforgettable impact under any circumstances. But how much greater is that impact when it serves as the culmination of the concert program’s three contrasting works. Likewise, it’s unfortunate to miss Toscanini’s delineation of the profound connection of the ecstatic choral apotheosis in the Choral Fantasy to its counterpart in the finale of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony (December 2, 1939).
The new Immortal Performances release (10 discs, priced as eight) includes all of the music performed in the 1939 cycle, plus Hamilton’s commentary. And so, the release that invites the most direct comparison is not the M&A issue. Rather it is a set of eight discs, issued in 1998–99 by Naxos Historical. That release, long out-of-print, also restored by Richard Caniell, had more than accept- able sound. But, as Caniell notes in his commentary for the new Immortal Performances set, modern technology allows for “a much higher, finer fidelity.” And indeed, the new mastering opens the previously somewhat cramped acoustics to reveal a soundstage of much greater depth, warmth, definition, and balance. These sonic improvements offer a far more enjoyable and rewarding listening experience, particularly in the context of Toscanini’s intense approach. Although the new Immortal Performances and 2013 M&A releases have significant content differences, I do think it’s appropriate to offer a comparison of the respective sonics for the considerable repertoire they do share, especially given that the Naxos set is no longer in active circulation. I think that in this case as well, Immortal Performances has achieved similar types of improvements over its competitor. The prior Naxos Historical and M&A releases allowed listeners to hear the 1939 broadcasts in sound that did not obscure the unique value of the performances. For the first time in my experience, the present Immortal Performances 1939 cycle may finally be heard in a sonic environment quite close to the studio recordings of that era.
The six concerts are divided over nine discs, so that there are no interruptions in the performance of the repertoire. The bonus 10th disc includes a rehearsal sequence (orchestra only) and the October 29, 1944 broadcast performance of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, with Arthur Rubinstein as soloist. Richard Caniell felt that he could achieve a more natural, balanced reproduction than the official RCA issue. Of even greater interest, I think, are the concluding tracks on the bonus disc; versions of the Leonore 3 and Egmont Overtures from the 1939 cycle. For years, the NBC SO broadcasts were recorded with three microphones clamped to the bar. The first was for the broadcast and to record reference discs, while the second served as a backup in case of technical failure. The third was for short-wave broadcasts to Latin America. As the microphones were positioned differently from each other on the bar, they captured distinct sonic perspectives. By synchronizing the recordings made from each microphone, Robert S. Carlson was able to assemble multi-channel masters of the two overtures. And while the results are not the equal of stereo recordings from the past half-century or so, there is a dramatically enhanced concert stage ambience, as well as a hint of left-right separation.
The accompanying booklets include essays by Robert Matthew-Walker, Richard Caniell, and John Sullivan, as well as soloist photos and bios. For reasons I’ve attempted to articulate, I believe that the Toscanini 1939 NBC SO Beethoven cycle demands to be heard in its musical entirety, and in the best sound possible. The new Immortal Performances release fulfills that demand. This set, issued in commemoration of Toscanini’s 150th birthday, deserves the highest recommendation, and is at the top of my 2016 Want List.