Reviews

GHCD 2298/99 – TOSCANINI – Grieg – Sibelius – Franck – Ravel – 1940

NBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, Arturo Toscanini

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Toscanini – gimlet eyed and full of insinuation and menacing drive …

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Another feast for Toscanini admirers from Guild. Whether the programme will tempt those not addicted to the man Americans call Maestro is another matter altogether and I think those who are wavering will probably need to concentrate on Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. This joins Toscanini’s Second as a statement of invincible, eviscerating drive – a very quick reading, intense, devoted to the long line, but one capable of considerable elasticity and unexpected lightening. In the first movement the orchestra is not entirely tidy and the recording, which is slightly muddy, doesn’t really help, in this of all works. He doesn’t press too hard in the second movement where one might have expected the indication Allegro molto vivace to have roused his sense of the athletic. But no, he’s nowhere near Beecham’s tempo and is on a par with such as Berglund, amongst the Moderns. There are glints of wit here as well as the darkening. I find the slow movement unconvincing though I daresay acolytes will welcome his impress here. Yes, the high winds are desolate, and those middle string voices are well brought out but at just over eight minutes this is a brisk and rather superficial view. The finale is steady. Coupled with the Symphony is a large rehearsal segment. We can hear Toscanini’s insistence on rhythmic exactitude, accents, phrasing and his care over the woodwind passages. Unusually he speaks far more in English than I’m used to hearing in NBC rehearsal sessions.

Elsewhere we have a clean-limbed, dry-eyed Holberg Suite (don’t expected Scherchen or Beecham here – not that you would) and a lean and powerful Franck. The Ravel is in slightly muddied sound but Toscanini is gimlet eyed and full of insinuation and menacing drive. There is a Concert for the Liberty of Italy from September 1943, a hodgepodge of an affair that adds nothing to what we already know, many times over. There’s the first movement (only) of Beethoven’s Fifth with some uncertain horns, the William Tell overture, with a splendid clarinettist and cello principal (Frank Miller was it?) and a couple of dodgy woodwind ones. We end with Garibaldi’s War Hymn and the Star Spangled Banner.

It might have been better sense to have issued this as a single disc and concentrated on the Sibelius and Grieg and added something else. The broadcast commentaries are included which gives the set historical resonance though obviously there will be many who won’t give a damn for such things. I happen to give a damn.
Jonathan Woolf