GHCD 2348 – Toscanini – Atterberg, Barber, Ravel etc. – 1940 & 1943

NBC Symphony Orchester conducted by Arturo Toscanini

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MusicWeb International Monday January 25 2010

Buy with confidence if you enjoy historical recordings and want to hear a great conductor leading energized live recordings of timeless late-romantic repertoire
Here is a collection of rare historical treats. The second half of the program is a live concert in which Arturo Toscanini celebrated his relationship with South America; the first half is, perhaps, even more surprising. Kurt Atterberg’s Symphony No 6 won the Columbia Record Company’s $10,000 grand prize and international renown in 1928, but has fallen into obscurity since. It remained in the spotlight long enough, however, for Toscanini to perform the symphony exactly once, on 21 November 1943, in a broadcast which appears here.
The connection between Atterberg and Toscanini is an odd one: Toscanini’s first residence in the United States was a home he rented from Atterberg’s father. The Italian maestro discovered the score of this symphony on the family piano and apparently was unaware that it had been a major prize-winner praised by composers as prominent as Carl Nielsen. But he immediately recognized the symphony as a masterwork, and the result is this recording.
Atterberg was one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century, and his importance is still belittled today because he took the trouble to write his nine symphonies in a purely tonal, tuneful musical language which requires no academic background or technical jargon to explain. One could call Atterberg the last of the great romantics; his symphonic cycle, penned between 1909 and 1956, postdates at least in part the masterworks of Sibelius, Strauss, Elgar and Rachmaninov. His style is certainly more outgoing and folksy than that of Sibelius, and more cheerfully free of pretension than some of the late-romantics who found their inspiration in Mahler and Bruckner. Perhaps the most useful analogy for a newcomer unfamiliar with Atterberg’s style is to point out that this composer’s native land, Sweden, is wedged between Grieg’s Norway and Sibelius’s Finland, and that his musical language is situated somewhere between those two as well. Atterberg’s orchestral work has the folk-tune festiveness and bright orchestration of Grieg, alongside the pensive melancholic moods of Sibelius and the Finnish composer’s willingness to invent new structural forms to suit his material.
The Sixth Symphony is probably not Atterberg’s best symphony; I prefer the Seventh and the stunning Eighth, and my personal favorite is the Third, with its miraculous finale. But the Sixth has an abundance of great ideas bursting out of a compact three-movement framework. It lasts just a half-hour but has enough tunes and thematic plot twists to fill a work twice the length! The first movement is remarkable for its surprising opening, off-kilter strings and harp setting the rhythm of the section while the horn announces the main tune. The finale was a conscious attempt by Atterberg to create a movement of real dramatic substance using the most trivial main theme he could imagine – and the tune is indeed incredibly silly.
Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra turn in a remarkable account of the symphony, fast-paced and bustling with energy. At times, I felt that much more could meet the ears if the music was paced more slowly, or that a slower speed could have prevented the feeling of out-of-control tune-spinning. But evidently Atterberg himself – who was in the audience for the broadcast – considered this the best performance of the symphony he had ever heard!
If this is the way Atterberg wanted the symphony to be heard, he wanted it to project supreme confidence and youthful enthusiasm … and perhaps hyperactivity, though he was already 40 years old. He wanted us to observe the stunning quality of the orchestration. These are the qualities most obvious here, capped by the symphony’s gloriously cheerful ending.
Toscanini and the NBC orchestra certainly have a great way with the work: the finale’s main theme is gloriously banal here, with flutes and triangle given true prominence; the first movement’s climaxes have enormous impact and one of the subsidiary tunes (track 1, 1:21) really makes my ears perk up. Toscanini chooses an ideal tempo for the first movement, superior to the too-fast modern recording on CPO (with Ari Rasilainen and the NDR Radio Philharmonic).
My main reservation is that a historical recording of this vintage, with hiss- and pop-free but fairly limited mono sound, cannot accurately convey the humongous range of colors Atterberg and Toscanini draw from the orchestra. Climaxes especially become super-congested as the full orchestra competes to be heard. Anyone really interested in Atterberg’s orchestral music will be acquiring the CPO cycle to explore these lavish symphonies in the modern sound quality they deserve.
The rest of this historical disc comes from a live broadcast given on 14 May 1940 in Washington, D.C., in which Toscanini celebrates his interest in South American music. For reasons unknown, the program included only one work by a South American – but let that not concern us. The Brahms symphony which began the night has been lost to time, but works by Strauss (Don Juan), Ravel (La Valse), Barber (Adagio for Strings) and that token bit of genuine South American music (Oscar Fernandez’s Batuque) are preserved for our enjoyment.
The Barber Adagio is given an emotionally harrowing performance. Toscanini stretches out the climactic chords until they are very nearly unbearable, and with the NBC strings in top form the result is heartrending. Little wonder listener polls have regularly named this one of the saddest works ever composed; fine performances of the Adagio for Strings abound, but even the very best – such as Alsop’s account on Naxos – sound restrained compared to this.
Strauss’s Don Juan receives an enjoyable performance, a little indulgent in the slower passages (rare, for Toscanini) but very well-played. Amusingly, the radio announcer, whose comments are retained in separate tracks, introduces Don Juan as “one of the masterpieces of modern music”, which will, perhaps, come as a surprise to those who associate the term “modern music” in the year 1940 with composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Hindemith.
The single South American selection on the program, Batuque by Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez, is a pops-concert smash bursting with Brazilian rhythms and played here with wonderful panache. La Valse is paced quickly, around the eleven-minute mark. Short of the mono sound itself, there is little to fault with this fine performance of Ravel’s little masterpiece.
Toscanini fans will need no urging from me to check this disc out; Atterberg aficionados will need it as well, though newcomers to his symphonies might best start elsewhere. Broadly speaking, however, if you enjoy historical recordings and want to hear a great conductor leading energized live recordings of timeless late-romantic repertoire, buy with confidence. The budget price is a very welcome bonus.
Brian Reinhart