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Toscanini Beethoven Ninth Symphony and 5 April 1941 Complete Concert | IPCD 1079-2

Reviews for IPCD 1068-2



ARTURO TOSCANINI

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO. NINE IN D MINOR

TOSCANINI • Arturo Toscanini, cond; 1Vina Bovy (sop); 1Kerstin Thorborg (alt); 1Jan Peerce (ten); 1Ezio Pinza (bs); 1Schola Cantorum Ch; NBC SO • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1079 mono (2 CDs: 143:34) Live: Carnegie Hall, New York 12/6/1938; Studio 8H, New York 24/5/1941


BEETHOVEN 1Symphony No. 9. ROSSINI 2Il Signor Bruschino: Overture. MENDELSSOHN 2Symphony No. 3. BERLIOZ 2Les francs-juges: Overture. 2Roméo et Juliette: Love Scene; Queen Mab Scherzo. 2Le Damnation de Faust: Rákóczy March


Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
September/October 2017


Arturo Toscanini’s collaboration with the NBC Symphony Orchestra began in 1937, launched by a broadcast Christmas Day concert. The legendary association lasted (apart from a few years of disruption during World War II) until 1954, a few years prior to Toscanini’s death at the age of 89. A new release on the Immortal Performances label comprises performances from two separate concerts from the early years of the Toscanini-NBC legacy. The first disc is a February 6, 1938 Carnegie Hall Beethoven Ninth, part of a concert to benefit New York City’s Italian Welfare League (the Beethoven First was also on the program). Disc 2 is a complete NBC Symphony Orchestra concert from April 5, 1941. Both programs were broadcast on the radio. There are several Toscanini performances of the Beethoven Ninth from the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the NBC SO, as well as other ensembles. Toscanini’s artistic approach is relatively consistent, with the opening two movements played at brisk tempos, and an often demonic intensity. Toscanini’s fleet pacing of the third-movement Adagio molto e cantabile must have been striking to audiences who preceded the age of “historically informed performances”; nevertheless, Toscanini’s basic tempo is slower than Beethoven’s own designated metronome marking. Whether or not one agrees with Toscanini’s tempo choice for the third movement, the gorgeous, singing line and heartfelt expression he draws from the musicians are never in question. The finale takes on a theatrical, almost operatic quality, with the dramatic sequential invocation and rejection of the themes from the first three movements yielding to a rapturous presentation and development of the “Ode to Joy.” But despite the similarities between the various Toscanini Beethoven Ninth performances, none is a carbon copy of the other, each with individual touches and strengths. The February 6, 1938 Ninth is played with an arresting combination of stunning intensity and tonal beauty. And the finale includes what is probably the finest quartet of vocal soloists to be found among the Toscanini performances preserved on recordings. Olin Downes, music critic for The New York Times deemed it “the most dramatic performance of the Ninth Symphony it has ever been this writer’s privilege to hear.” It is a rendition that certainly merits a place in any representative collection of Toscanini’s recorded legacy, and should be of interest to all who love this unique masterpiece. Comparing the new mastering of this performance with a very fine 2004 Music & Arts issue reveals a warmer and more natural acoustic in the Immortal Performances release, better conveying the sense of the expanse of Carnegie Hall, but without any corresponding loss of clarity or definition.


Some of the performances from the April 5, 1941 NBC Symphony Orchestra program have been previously released as individual items. The Immortal Performances release is, however, the first time the concert has been presented in its entirety. I’ve previously argued the historical and musical significance of being able to experience Toscanini performances in this fashion. Toscanini was a master programmer, someone who selected and sequenced concert repertoire to make the greatest musical/dramatic effect. Toscanini intensified that impact by the manner in which he interpreted and juxtaposed the various works in the context of the individual concert. It’s also fascinating to listen to how Toscanini manipulates the NBC SO’s tonal quality to showcase the different sound worlds of Rossini, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz. The concert, in very good broadcast sound for the period, opens with Rossini’s Overture to the opera Il signor Bruschino, light as a feather, immaculately played, and brimming with a subtle and delightful flexibility of tempo, too often overlooked in assessing Toscanini’s art. The April 5, 1941 Mendelssohn Third Symphony is the only performance of the work by Toscanini that is preserved on disc, and it is a very special one indeed. Toscanini takes a strikingly broad approach to the first movement’s introduction that nonetheless generates a breathtaking intensity and forward drive, before resolving to the ensuing principal quick-tempo section. Here, Toscanini’s fleet tempos, superb execution by the NBC SO, and (once again) brilliant application of rubato, make the opening movement the arresting dramatic experience it should be. The second-movement scherzo, once again taken at an impressive clip, ideally balances the quicksilver and more robust rustic elements. The third-movement Adagio glows with a rapt lyricism, but never loses its sense of pulse and momentum. The finale opens with a violent, razor-sharp fortissimo chord. From there, Toscanini and the Orchestra generate breathtaking momentum, culminating in a blazing account of the closing bars. This is among the most compelling accounts of the Mendelssohn Third I have ever experienced. In 2010 Guild Historical issued this performance as part of a two-disc Toscanini-Mendelssohn set. The sound on that release was very good indeed; with admirable presence, dynamic range, and detail. The new Immortal Performances issue has more (albeit not intrusive) surface noise, but also a far better representation of the higher frequencies, and a less claustrophobic overall acoustic. For want of a better term, the new Immortal Performances set offers a more “musical” document of this sterling interpretation.


The April 5, 1941 concert concludes with four excerpts by one of Toscanini’s favorites, French composer Hector Berlioz. The Overture to the early, unfinished opera Les francs-juges is beautifully and enthusiastically dispatched (like the Mendelssohn, this is the only recording of Toscanini performing the work). Two ravishing excerpts from the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette may well be the highlight of this unforgettable concert. The “Love Scene” is performed with aching tenderness, and a lyricism that flows unabated from start to finish. The occasional appearance of delicate string portamentos is an added delight. Over the years, Toscanini poured his heart and soul into surmounting the fiendish challenges posed by the “Queen Mab Scherzo.” It is music that demands almost superhuman precision of execution, all the while conveying an otherworldly delicacy. Here, Toscanini and the NBC SO deliver a sterling rendition. The softer passages of the two Roméo et Juliette excerpts contain the most noticeable surface noise, but not enough to detract from the magic of these renditions. The program concludes with a propulsive, hair-raising performance of the “Rákóczy March” from The Damnation of Faust.


The booklet contains the Olin Downes New York Times review of the Beethoven Ninth performance, an essay by Robert Matthew-Walker on the featured works and Toscanini’s interpretations, Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes, and description of Toscanini’s contentious relationship with Charles O’Connell, RCA Victor’s head of recordings. The recordings include radio broadcast commentary by Milton Cross (1938) and Gene Hamilton (1941). The finale of the Beethoven is subdivided into five separate tracks, in case you are in the mood for some highlight-hunting. This is a most welcome set that will be self-recommending to fans of Toscanini, and well worth exploring by all who love this repertoire. .




ARTURO TOSCANINI

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO. NINE IN D MINOR

TOSCANINI • Arturo Toscanini, cond; 1Vina Bovy (sop); 1Kerstin Thorborg (alt); 1Jan Peerce (ten); 1Ezio Pinza (bs); 1Schola Cantorum Ch; NBC SO • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1079 mono (2 CDs: 143:34) Live: Carnegie Hall, New York 12/6/1938; Studio 8H, New York 24/5/1941


BEETHOVEN 1Symphony No. 9. ROSSINI 2Il Signor Bruschino: Overture. MENDELSSOHN 2Symphony No. 3. BERLIOZ 2Les francs-juges: Overture. 2Roméo et Juliette: Love Scene; Queen Mab Scherzo. 2Le Damnation de Faust: Rákóczy March


Colin Clarke
FANFARE magazine
September/October 2017

Here’s a fascinating coupling from Immortal Performances: one of Toscanini’s finest performances of Beethoven’s Ninth (certainly his most focused) coupled with a concert that included Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, not a work he was generally associated with.


The first movement of the Ninth exudes a real sense of structural integrity, the first great statement of the theme thereby achieving huge impact. Orchestral detail is stunning throughout. Double bass lines, so important in this piece, can be heard with clarity in the Immortal Performances release; no mere rumbling, the low horn neighbor-note idea around 11 minutes in is also clearly audible. It is fascinating to compare Immortal Performance’s issue with that of Music & Arts 1135, where the Ninth is coupled with two string orchestra performances of the Adagio/Lento and the Scherzo from Beethoven’s op. 135 String Quartet (1/1/1938). Mortimer Frank is right to mention the brightening on this Music & Arts transfer (Fanfare 28:4); he is also right to state that this performance “shines as one of Toscanini’s finest surviving Ninths.” Immortal Performances’ release seems truer to the orchestral sound than Music & Arts, with a wider dynamic range. The first movement climax at just after seven minutes is far more satisfying in the new issue. The only other release of this performance I am aware of is a Dante disc (LYS 408) that sadly I have not been able to locate.


The second movement Scherzo finds honors more evenly spaced, although the same quality of detail remains a defining factor of the Immortal Performances release. If moments of the first movement were marked by their ferocity, it is this trait that defines the second movement. Performance-wise, the opening of the third movement surely provides one of Toscanini’s greatest moments enshrined on disc: While the woodwinds at the very opening are fine indeed, it is the soft-grained string line that is finely, even pliably, controlled by the maestro. The horn solo (it’s impossible to tell, of course, if it is the designated fourth player or the principal) is beautifully done. It’s also interesting how the final chords of the movement have so much more effect on the Immortal Performances remastering (an A/B comparison shows a loss of presence on Music & Arts).


The opening Urschrei of the finale is clearly problematical as neither version surmounts all problems here, although Immortal Performances is the better of the two. Again, Pinza’s voice is conveyed in truer fashion in the Immortal Performances pressing; one can appreciate the soloists’ strengths as a quartet more as well. The huge choral climax at “Vor Gott” is hugely imposing, again with Immortal Performances just getting the upper hand


Tenor Jan Peerce’s contribution is fabulous. Toscanini favored Peerce for many operatic roles (Peerce was at the Met until 1968), and certainly this is no reedy account of the part at “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen.” Whilst Kerstin Thorborg might be a familiar name, and her contribution is beyond reproach, perhaps there needs to be a word or two about soprano Vina Bovy, who studied at the Ghent Conservatory. She only sang at the Met for two seasons (1936–38); later she was to return to Ghent as director of the opera there, as well as taking on roles such as Desdemona and Elsa. Her voice is free and mobile, especially noticeable at the quartet moment of “Freude, Tochter aus Elysium” towards the movement’s close.


Neither the Mendelssohn Third Symphony nor the Berlioz Francs-juges appear in Toscanini’s commercial discography. Leaving aside the nickname of Mendelssohn’s symphony, this is a terrific performance. (“Scottish” is the nickname typically but sometimes, as in this release, it is “Scotch”; I mention it only because I was once subject to a lecture from an admittedly tipsy Scottish person over this very point: “Scotch is a drank, laddie.”) The opening wind and horn chorale viscerally speaks of craggy Scottish scenery, the main body of the first movement exquisitely judged in terms of tempo and orchestral balance. More, Toscanini strikes exactly the right balance between excitement and ferocity, invigorating the music’s surface with bracing energy. The second movement scherzo benefits from Toscanini’s characteristic exactitude, while he brings a certain nobility to the third. The finale has a momentum and depth few can find in this movement; Toscanini brings a grittily determined way to the music so that even the piping pairs of woodwinds cannot fully relax; and his way with the final statements of the “big theme” is rather unsmiling. This remains, however, a fascinating take on Mendelssohn’s Third, beyond doubt.


The concert actually begins with Rossini’s overture to Il Signor Bruschino. Toscanini’s way with Rossini overtures is justly famous, as is his RCA disc of overtures. From this it is easy to see why. The bows against the music stands work well, but the prevailing memory is of tight rhythms and ensemble coupled with something of the feel one might get in the opera house itself.


The remainder of the program is taken up by music by Berlioz. The overture Les francs-juges, the only performance Toscanini gave of this piece in America, finds the brass in blazing form and the Maestro himself in full command. Again, one is amazed by Immortal Performances’s ability to allow detail to resurface; the tight, clear but not insubstantial lower strings here offer particular joy. The two excerpts from the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette show two complementary aspects of Toscanini’s art: the heady, floaty stasis of the 15-minute “Love Scene” followed by the gossamer “Queen Mab Scherzo.” The former excerpt is gentle (dare I say caressing?), while the Scherzo really is sonic quicksilver; there, even the horns keep up, something of a miracle. Detail, again, is magnificently rendered. Personally I find the final item, the “Rákóczy March,” rather severe until right at the very end, where it catches fire—all excerpt and no Damnation, by which I mean it perhaps seems not to capture the greatness of the piece it is excerpted from.


This is the first time the concert of April 5, 1941 has been available complete, in itself some cause for jubilation. The coupling of Beethoven’s Ninth with the 1941 Studio 8H concert works excellently. Notes are, as usual from this source, detailed and full of enthusiasm and knowledge.


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