Reviews

GHCD 2256/57 – TOSCANINI – All-American Concerts 1942 & 1944

NBC, Toscanini – Conductor, Benny Goodman, Earl Wild – Oscar Lavant

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BBC Music Magazine – September 2013

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin – Geoffrey Smith
Perhaps surprisingly, Toscanini had a real feeling for Gershwin’s vibrant idiom, and this historic live account from 1942 brims with the Italian’s customary vitality and precision. Equally notable is the piano soloist: Earl Wild played the Rhapsody innumerable times in his long career, claiming it as his own with a potent blend of élan and virtuosity, as if Liszt had come to Broadway. And the sense of a starry occasion even extends to the clarinet solo, which is delivered by none other than the `King of Swing’, Benny Goodman, in exemplary classical style. In fact, the whole performance is exemplary, except for Toscanini’s chronic penchant for improving compositions — in this case, adding cymbal crashes to the Rhapsody’s big tune.

Fanfare July/August 2005

This recent reissue makes available two of Toscanini’s broadcast concerts with the NBC Symphony that documented the maestro’s attention to American music, which was notoriously limited, in comparison with that of such conductors as Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, Eugene Ormandy, and others. The release is likely to hold considerably more interest for Toscanini specialists and collectors of historical performances than for American music aficionados, even though the pieces by Gould and Mignone are not otherwise available. This is partly because those two pieces are of limited artistic value, and partly because the sound quality of much of the material, as captured here, significantly compromises whatever interest is generated by the music and the performances.
It doesn’t require a prophet to suppose that the Gershwin performances are the chief draw here. The Rhapsody in Blue features not only the 27-year-old Earl Wild, but also boasts Benny Goodman in the all-important clarinet solos, one of which is marred by a most indiscreet squeak. From my standpoint-and I should confess here to being one of the few music-lovers who is not an admirer of this repertoire favorite-this grim, tight-lipped reading holds only documentary historical interest, imparting little or nothing in the way of interpretive insight. On the other hand, Oscar Levant’s similarly taut rendition of the Concerto in F-the only work of Gershwin’s for which I can generate any enthusiasm-is far more effective. By 1944, Levant virtually owned this work, and the interpretation is clearly as much-or more-his as Toscanini’s. It is brilliantly executed-sizzling with energy, while not lacking either tenderness or flexibility of phrasing. The sound quality is quite tolerable here as well. (Should there be Toscanini fans out there who are unacquainted with Oscar Levant [1906-1972], let me summarize: a brilliant pianist and composer, he had been closely associated with Gershwin and was regarded as his most authoritative interpreter. However, his career-which at its height embraced the worlds of both Carnegie Hall and Hollywood-was cut short by serious psychiatric illness an which he then capitalized, creating a media persona as a shamelessly self-mocking raconteur. “There is a fine line between genius and insanity,” he Said. “I have erased that line.”)
Beyond the Gershwin pieces, the repertoire here will strike the mainstream listener as little more than historical footnotes, but enthusiasts of the esoteric may find something worthy of raising an eyebrow or two. Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was better known during his lifetime than he is today. Born in Alsace-Lorraine, he came to the United States at the age of 20. A fine violinist who had studied with Joachim, he earned his living as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, remaining an active and respected figure in Boston’s musical life. An aristocratic and highly cultivated individual, he regarded composition as his primary occupation, and his works-largely impressionistic in style-were held in high esteem by his contemporaries. He produced some of the finest music written in America at the turn of the 20th century. As a child, Loeffler had lived for three years in the Ukraine. In 1924, he composed the tone poem, Memories of My Childhood, which he subtitled, “Life in a Russian Village.” It is an appealing work, alternately solemn and playful, that leavens its impressionistic harmonic textures with the modal chorale style associated with Russian liturgical music. Alternate recorded performances include a 1936 New York Philharmonic broadcast conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (available an Volume I of “An American Celebration”) and a 1954 Mercury LP (MG 50085) with Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. The former, of course, suffers from similarly compromised sound quality, while the latter-preferable for its superior sound-has never been reissued an CD.
A work of similar aesthetic import is Festa das Igrejas (translated here as “Symphonic Impressions of Four Old Brazilian Churches”) by the Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone (1897-1986). This is a picturesque if blandly innocuous composition in a Respighian vein, accented by a strongly folk-like melos. Its representation here is somewhat disadvantageous, as the murky sound quality vitiates the element of orchestral color, which is its strongest aspect.
Near the end of his life, Paul Creston identified Toscanini’s performance of his Choric Dance No. 2 as one of the peak moments of his career. However, from the standpoint of a CD listener, this veiled and murky representation of the five-minute excerpt is of questionable interest and value. Among the composer’s most appealing and frequently performed works, Two Choric Dances (1938) is overdue for a modern recording. Although other recorded performances have floated around the periphery, the most effective was on an all-American Capitol LP (P-8245) featuring Vladimir Golschmann conducting the Concert Arts Orchestra-a recording that has never been reissued an CD. Given the 1950s recorded sound, a comparison of that performance with Toscanini’s favors the former an every dimension.
Admirers of Morton Gould may find this release noteworthy for the only recorded representation ofA Lincoln Legend. Like its natural musical analogue, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, Gould’s 16-minute symphonic impression was composed during World War II, when patriotic concerns were in the air. Gould’s piece was actually completed before Copland’s, although its premiere, captured here, took place several months after that of the other. A comparison of the two works provides ample evidence for the perennial popularity of the one, as opposed to the total obscurity of the other. Putting aside the matter of the spoken component unique to the Copland, both works attempt to integrate American tunes and quasi-Americana phraseology into some sort of symphonic entity. While Copland devised for his nationally flavored works a modestly spare musical language that served as an apt medium for the often-simple melodic material, Gould typically subjected such material-sometimes ditties of unredeemable banality (as in this piece, “The Old Gray Mare”)-to drastically incongruous contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic complexities. During the less active moments, the piece meanders aimlessly through terrain charted by Roy Harris. At one time, Copland’s Americana vein was characterized as “synthetic” by less sympathetic commentators, but the passage of time has confirmed his magic touch with such material, while Gould’s approach seems to embody that characterization ever more keenly.
I must conclude by stating that this reissue gives little evidence of Toscanini’s undeniable genius as a musical interpreter having been engaged by these two programs (although I can readily call to mind some American works for which his gifts, alas, might have been ideally suited). Recommended chiefly to historically oriented collectors.
Walter Simmons

 


MusicWeb Monday February 02 04

The sort of repertoire listed above is not commonly associated with Toscanini so it’s good to hear him in something different, and enterprising of Guild to make these recordings available. Both derive from Toscanini’s hour-long radio broadcasts for NBC from Studio 8H and each disc contains a complete concert. As is Guild’s custom, the interlinking continuity announcements have been retained. This is something I rather like as it imparts a period feel but if you dislike such intrusions, don’t be put off; all the announcements are brief, none lasting above 50 seconds. For those unfamiliar with this series, the recordings derive from the collection of Richard Blaine Gardner who was Toscanini’s engineer and editor of choice at RCA Victor. Gardner received the tapes from either Toscanini himself or from the Maestro’s son, Victor. Subsequently Gardner made the recordings available to Richard Caniell who oversaw their restoration. Mr. Caniell says in a brief note accompanying this release that it is uncertain whether the present recordings derive from line-checks or air-checks. His supposition is that the 1942 concert is from an air-check and that its companion derives from a collector’s private disc recording. In general, the CD transfers have been well managed although inevitably some surface noise is audible and some climaxes sound a mite congested. Apart from the Gershwin items the other pieces may be as unfamiliar to you as they were to me. Actually, I had heard one of the non-standard items before. The work by Loeffler is included in a 1936 Barbirolli reading in the New York Philharmonic’s substantial set, An American Celebration. I’m afraid I found it rather a bore then and Toscanini’s account doesn’t persuade me either. Loeffler, though born in Alsace, spent some of his childhood years in Ukraine (and in Hungary and Switzerland also) before emigrating to the USA in 1881. In this short symphonic poem, composed in 1923, he depicts a variety of things familiar to him from his Ukrainian days including Russian peasant songs, the Yourod’s Litany prayer, fairy tales, dance songs and, at the end, the death of Vasinka, an elderly peasant storyteller. It’s pictorial music and pleasant enough but not desperately memorable, I think, though Toscanini does what he can for it. In fairness to the composer perhaps there is more to this music than I have discerned for it won first prize in 1924 at the Chicago North Shore Festival. This success led to it receiving a première from the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock and Stock revived it a few months later. So three major conductors evidently thought it worth an airing. The Creston piece was new to me but I found it as attractive as those other works of his that have come my way. Our editor, Rob Barnett, who contributes the very useful liner notes, is right to draw attention to the importance that dance played in Creston’s music. This short piece, first heard in 1939, flaunts its dance inspiration. It is a busy, even vehement piece for full orchestra, founded on propulsive rhythms, which are driven on by what I take to be a large-ish percussion section and an orchestral piano. The assertive opening sounds a bit brash in the acoustic of Studio 8H but maybe the composer, who was present for the performance, would not have been displeased. Certainly he must have relished a virtuoso conductor and orchestra expounding his music. The work by Morton Gould, which I’d not previously heard, was actually receiving its first performance, in the presence of the composer, at this concert. I’ve acquired several other works by Gould in my collection over the years but I’m bound to say that in general, while I find them immaculately crafted and pleasant to listen to none of them has struck me as having a particularly distinctive musical profile. A Lincoln Portrait is no different. The radio announcer suggests that the structure of Gould’s work might have been inspired by the title of a biography of Lincoln, Prairie Years, War Years. The piece begins with evocative open-air music, not unlike Copland in his Appalachian Spring vein (here surface swishes are rather intrusive, I’m afraid). Various American folk songs are recollected. In the central section, which is more robust, old war songs are quoted in a marching band style before, around 8’27″ the music slows again and more old American songs are quoted, this time with more vigour than at the very beginning before a tranquil, string-dominated close which seems to bring the music back full circle. Though technically very assured it’s all rather homespun and didn’t lodge in my memory, I fear. Incidentally, at 5’42″, just where the central section begins, there’s what, after several hearings, I can only think is a momentary dropout in the recording but it only lasts for about a bar’s length. The highlight of this concert must have been the performance of the Gershwin Rhapsody. The soloist was the young American virtuoso, Earl Wild, just a few weeks shy of his twenty-seventh birthday. Another celebrated American musician was involved too, for the announcer tells us that he has spied the “smiling countenance” of Benny Goodman in the ranks of the orchestra. Apparently the Maestro himself had invited him to play the first clarinet part. Goodman launches the work stylishly although there’s an unfortunate cracked note right at the end of his solo. Actually, I wonder if Goodman’s real value was a bit more discreet? A bit later on the rhythms around 3’47″ are a little foursquare, though the NBC brass, like all good American brass players, can bend the notes well enough, but there in the background you can distinctly hear Goodman’s idiomatically wailing clarinet egging them on. Perhaps his presence in the ranks fired the other players. It has to be said that Toscanini’s rhythms can seem a little plain but this, I suspect, may be less to do with an unidiomatic approach from him and more to do with the difficulties of getting a full orchestra to swing. We should remember that the work was then only 18 years old so a performing tradition was still being established. By the late twentieth century the demands of modern composers had made orchestral musicians incomparably more flexible but in the 1940s it can’t have been easy for the NBC players, or any of their peers, to switch from, say, Grieg to Gershwin. It’s interesting to read two contemporary critiques of this concert that are reproduced in the booklet. In the New York Times Olin Downes avers, rather portentously, “the Maestro might have spent his life with the denizens of Tin Pan Alley for any backwardness that he showed in his comprehension of an apparent enthusiasm for the American idiom.” However, an anonymous reviewer in Musical America in an evident oblique reference to Toscanini commented “Mr. Wild, wearing a Navy uniform, all but stole the show with his spectacular playing in those episodes that permitted him to go his own (and Gershwin’s) way.” I’d certainly agree that Wild gives a pretty fine performance. However, despite his extravagantly gifted pianism his reading here is not as spontaneous as I’ve heard from others. This may be indicative of a lack of rapport with his conductor. Just as likely a cause, however, is a lack of adequate rehearsal time due to wartime contingencies. No matter, he displays great virtuosity with athletic fingerwork and rhythmic flexibility. The romantic “big tune” (at 10’38″), though perhaps a touch broad for some tastes, is given the full treatment by all concerned. There’s more Gershwin in the second concert and that programme also contains a substantial rarity in the shape of Festa das igrejas by the Brazilian composer, Francesco Mignone. This work, the Portuguese title of which I think roughly translates as “Festival of Churches” was another recent composition at the time, having been begun in 1939. The announcer tells the audience that the piece is a “Symphonic Impression of four old Brazilian churches.” More than this I cannot tell you. However the piece, which plays continuously is a most effective one. It is colourful, atmospheric and resourcefully orchestrated for what sounds like a large band (including, at the end, an organ; here a most egregious and synthetic electric instrument is used). There’s abundant rhythmic vitality and, to borrow Rob Barnett’s felicitous phrase several “voluptuous eruptions of sound.” Mr. Barnett is surely right in pointing out in his notes the similarities with Respighi (and how appropriate, since Mignone was the son of an Italian flautist and spent some years studying in Italy.) The compositional language is firmly tonal but dissonance is employed to good effect. The most substantial section of the piece (between 10’35″ and 17’03″), depicting what I take to be the third church, is eerily reminiscent of the Aria from Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The work ends in an exuberant riot of orchestral colour and syncopated rhythms and here the link with Respighi is especially pertinent. I wouldn’t claim this work to be a masterpiece by any means but I enjoyed it very much and am glad to have made its acquaintance. Toscanini and his musicians can be heard to do it proud despite the sonic limitations. Back to Gershwin for the final item with Oscar Levant (1906-1972) as soloist in the F major Concerto. In the first movement (where surface noise briefly obtrudes into Levant’s first solo) the performance is good (and Levant himself is excellent) but here, more than in the Rhapsody I missed a sense of verve and rhythmic élan, especially in the more up-tempo passages. The last degree of freedom and of buoyancy in the rhythms is lacking though conductor and soloist drive the movement to an exciting conclusion. The famous, evocative trumpet solo in the slow movement (truly, music of The City) is well done though I can’t escape the feeling that other conductors might have encouraged more ‘bending’ of the notes. When he enters Levant is decisive and the quicker central section, which the soloist leads, has a good deal of bounce. The finale is played for all it’s worth and makes for a rousing conclusion. No wonder the audience goes wild. This wouldn’t be a first choice for this concerto but it’s an enjoyable performance with an excellent soloist in Oscar Levant. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s also of documentary importance as a part of the establishment of the performance tradition of this work, which had been written as recently as 1925. In summary, a fascinating pair of CDs, showing one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated conductors in a less familiar light. The music is uneven in quality but all is worth hearing and the performances are of the high standard you’d expect. The recordings inevitably betray their age but Mr. Caniell and his colleagues have done their considerable best with them and at no time does the recorded sound mar enjoyment to any serious degree. Documentation is up to Guild’s usual high standards. An issue which all those interested in twentieth century Americana should try to hear and which will be self-recommending to acolytes of Toscanini.
John Quinn

MusicWeb Monday January 12 04

Derived from two NBC concerts given in November 1942 and April 1944 these all-American concerts (given that Loeffler was born in Alsace and Mignone in Sao Paulo) demonstrate the range of Toscanini’s enthusiasms and expertise. We get an invigorating slice of his fringe repertoire in recordings that presumably derive from discs supervised by Richard Gardner, a favoured recording engineer of Toscanini’s. They sound very well indeed with some exceptional spatial detail audible, not least in the earlier concert. Allied to which the repertoire ranges from cantilena to melodrama and back again and makes for a satisfying programme.

Loeffler’s tone poem is peasant dark with an admixture of Russian threnody to which we can add Mussourgskian surge and a sense of evocative romanticism; maybe also a sly reference to Volga Boatmen. Its last movement, commemorating a death, is eerie in the extreme and beautifully extrapolated by Toscanini. Paul Creston’s Choric Dance No. 2 opens quite melodramatically and soon explores rhythmic implications with concentration and vivacity; more an exercise than a totally convincing piece but certainly bracing. This was the première of Morton Gould’s A Lincoln Legend, a piece that opens with contemplative string writing but soon introduces a raft of quotations (John Brown’s Body among a number) in a determinedly vulgar melange – at least I think it’s determinedly vulgar. After the tumultuous Americana we return to the more reflective intimacies that had ushered us in.

The 1942 concert and the first disc conclude here with Rhapsody in Blue in a performance given by Earl Wild. He was the youngest soloist to have played with the orchestra and always wondered why he and not a raft of others had been selected. Wild reminisced elsewhere that he later found out that Toscanini used to listen in to NBC’s chamber concerts on Sunday mornings and had heard Wild there – a more or less humble NBC staffer catapulted to fame. The Rhapsody comes complete with a celebrity clarinettist in the shape of Benny Goodman, soon to test classical waters with the Budapest Quartet but not yet a student of the legendary English player Reginald Kell. His nervousness shows with a fluffed note at a registral change but it’s salutary to hear Goodman’s wailing opening bars. Toscanini unfolds during the performance and Wild is fine though not as idiomatic as he was later to become (especially with Fiedler); the ending is magnificent though and properly conclusive.

Mignone’s Festa das igrejas evokes the solemn simplicity of Brazilian religious contemplation before unleashing fiesta drama with buoyant parts for piano and bass pizzicati. Mignone certainly introduces lashings of colour, alongside the rapt passages for solo strings and the brassy processionals and fanfares, ending the piece in pearly – maybe gaudy – grandiosity and rambunctious Christmas festivities. It’s played here with dollops of wit and rhythmic drive. The 1944 concert ends with the Concerto in F with Oscar Levant as soloist. Levant had first worked with Toscanini the previous year and had pointed out something in the score of the Concerto in F to the conductor. According to Levant’s memoirs the Italian sniffed a bit and said “Thatta poor boy…he was a-sick” and that was that. I’ve read that there was considerable antipathy between soloist and conductor, but Levant was generous to Toscanini in his autobiographies and said his accompaniment in the Gershwin was “truly remarkable.” There are perhaps one or two moments when one feels Levant chaffing somewhat but it’s a cohesive performance and very well recorded.

Imagine my frustration on reading the booklet notes that in the first sentence contain the names of American conductors previously unknown to me – John Barnett and Richard Bales amongst them – and the feeling of piqued animosity thus engendered towards the writer. He turns out to be Rob Barnett, editor of this site. There’s no place for sycophancy here but he writes with his accustomed blend of authority, energy, adjectival incandescence and the unearthing of unusual nuggets in a style that has come to be known as Barnettian. It caps a fruitful and splendidly enjoyable double from Guild.
Jonathan Woolf


Classical Net Wednesday October 15 03

Guild’s memorable Toscanini series continues apace with an intriguing all-American programme of works that reveal the maestro’s intrinsic capacity and hunger for variety.

The rarely heard Loeffler work is a gem of beauty with a characteristically expansive opening and a rumbustious Russian dance as a Finale. This finds Toscanini on top form with the NBC responding alertly to his fast speeds.

Creston and Gould also receive the Toscanini touch especially in the mélange of the ‘Lincoln Legend’. The party continues with Gershwin’s classic ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ finding Benny Goodman and earl Wild in inspired mood.

I was unaware of Mignone’s egregiously titled ‘Festa des igrejas’ but this is a work of great beauty and also conjures up vast vistas of the Texas Hill Country in mind. This is an important work that should enjoy revivals much more often. Levant and Toscanini round off proceedings with a suitably fired up rendition of the Gershwin Piano Concerto that also deserves special mention.

The remastering is of high quality with sound of quite amazing quality for 1942. The pieces may not seem to suit Toscanini’s temperament to the fore but listeners will be enthralled by these great performances of American music.
Gerald Fenech