GHCD 2228/29 – TOSCANINI – Beethoven – Serkin – 1944/1936

New York Philharmonia, Toscanini – Conductor, Rudolf Serkin – Piano

To the CD in our Shop

American Record Guide May/June 2005

A particularly interesting set: the first disc is the complete broadcast performance of No-vember 26, 1944. The Coriolan Overture is very fast, with whiplash sforzandos, which work very well for the stark dramatic passages but are inappropriate for the beautiful, lyrical, yearning and pleading theme, which Toscanini races through without a trace of expression. This is evidently the way Toscanini generally perceived the work, because his other recordings are quite similar, and the 18-mimte segment of a rehearsal of Coriolan for a performance two years later is almost identical.

The Maestro arranged two movements of Beethoven’s 16th Quartet, which he performed often and recorded commercially. But this is a surprise: a string arrangement of the rollicking concluding fugue from the Quartet 9 (with some preceding material) and the Cavatina from 13. I had never heard these before. Toscanini performed them in America only once-these performances! Both are played rather fast; the fugue is very exciting, and the Cavatina’s lyricism is still preserved, but with an urgency.

The 1944 performance of Piano Concerto 4 is very good, if a bit matter-of-fact in Spots, noticeable especially in comparing it with the 1936 performance an CD 2, which was Serkin’s American debut. Perhaps that is why every passage was played with more conviction in the earlier performance. The interpretations are quite similar otherwise, except that the slow movement in 1936 is almost a minute slower. Also, Serkin’s playing seems more fluid.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto 27 was also an the 1936 program, at a time when it was hardly known. (There was only one recording of it at that time-Schnabel in 1934.) This perfor-mance is lovely, and the concerto must have been a Toscanini favorite, because he only performed two other Mozart concertos in the USA: 20 and 21.

The sonics for the 1944 concert are quite good, considering that it was Studio 8H. The sonics of the 1936 concert are not as good, and the miking failed to capture the Carnegie Hall acoustics. Also, there is considerable surface noise from the 1936 acetates. Still, this is a set worth acquiring, especially because of the rarity of Toscanini conducting a Mozart piano concerto, “being there” at Serkin’s American premiere, the two almost unknown arrangements of the Beethoven quartet movements, and the rehearsal track.

MusicWeb Sunday June 13 03 05

Those of us who belong to that subspecies of the human race homo musicalibus collector are a peculiar lot. In my case it must go back to the time I lost forever the only woman I have ever truly loved. She struck out at me, and at my shock and hurt, she laughed — and left me. I sought out and drenched with my tears my mother’s breast, and she with wisdom soothed me: “You’ll meet many nice girls in your life my son, especially next year when you start kindergarten ….” However as the bitter years passed I resolved that if I could never possess my true love, I could at least have six recordings of Vaughan Williams’ Seventh Symphony. In time this became a pact with — God? Or the Devil? Does it matter? As everyone knows, not to a record collector.

Anyway, it’s been almost a year since I noted, and remarked out loud, “I don’t seem to have a single really good recording of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto…” Someone was listening, and, mysteriously, recordings began to come my way. And now has come to my attention this set with not just one, but TWO recordings of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto in one box; and one of these is of the best performance of the work I’ve ever heard, the second time in three months I’ve had to ratchet up my standards.

Only a couple of little problems. Predictably, the later concert with the better sound is not the best musically, but the earlier concert with the better performance of the Beethoven is at times very difficult to listen to. So, what you’re supposed to do is listen to the old recording, gaps, dropouts and crackles and all, and superimpose its musical values over the greater sonic values of the later recording. If this makes sense to you, you are a true dyed-in-the-wool record collector.

The Coriolan rehearsal from 1946 contains a superb performance of the work, albeit in bits and pieces. The sound is much better, also — this is the Toscanini Beethoven of the great RCA LP recordings that excited me so much when I was getting to know this music during my college days. As to his rehearsal technique, he seems to just lead them through, singing here and there, screaming here and there. It’s after this when they’re working on details in string playing and ritardandi that the real yelling starts. Without a libretto, you don’t catch many of the words, but I thought I heard a few vergogna’s (shame!) and some long invocations to saints. But me, I thought they played it pretty well. What a shame the complete performance from 1944 is nowhere near this good, sounding hollow, rushed and uncommitted.

As to the other works on these disks, the less said the better. The Mozart concerto is very well played but most of the time barely audible through the hiss, crackle and audience noise, with large gaps and level fluctuations as well. As a document of how Toscanini and Serkin played the work together it’s adequate, but trying to enjoy the music is a struggle most of the time, although the clouds clear dramatically for the third movement cadenza and finale.

The two quartet movements have gained nothing and lost quite a bit by being pumped up to full orchestral size. The orchestra version of the cavatina from Op. 130 is played with heavy portamento, achieving the rare miracle of sounding at once both dragged out and rushed through; at odd times it resembles a sketch for Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Then we hear the Andante con moto introduction to the first movement of Op. 59 #3 followed immediately by the allegro molto fourth movement fugue which becomes a mad and unsuccessful scramble by the string sections to keep up with the conductor. Toscanini fans will want these, of course, but others, particularly Beethoven fans, probably will not.

If you collect outstanding Beethoven Fourth’s, or are a dedicated fan of Toscanini and/or Serkin, you’ll want these disks. If in addition you have your own audio restoration software, you may want to try your skill to do some cleaning up on these noisy old recordings. If the Mozart concerto particularly could be repaired and cleaned up significantly it could become a recommended version.
Paul Shoemaker

BBC Music Magazine July 2003

Devoted adherents of Arturo Toscanini’s artistry continue to keep the legacy of this podium giant alive. Two Guild releases focus on complete broadcast concerts by the NBC symphony Orchestra: and all Mozart concert from 3 November 1946 ( plus extensive rehearsal excerpts) and an all-Beethoven Concert (26 November 1944 ) which includes soloist Rudolf Serkin Beethoven’s G major concerto; here the additional material is Serkin’s debut with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic eight years earlier, in the same concerto and Mozart’s K595. Those earlier performances have occasional gaps in recording continuity but sound more humane than the often brittle and hard-driven Forties performances.

Gramophone July 2003

Replay – Rob Cowan on recent reissues and treasures from the archives

Spoilt for choice

When Arturo Toscanini heard Serge Koussevitzky conduct Mozart’s B flat Divertimento for horn and strings, K287 he was so appalled that he decided to programme the work himself – ‘for Koussevitzky’s benefit’, apparently. The idea might seem arrogant, but the evidence, both on commercial record (RCA) and on a Guild CD of a broadcast from the same period, is positively Beechamesque in its elegance and piquant phrasing. Toscanini’s broadcast and recording differ from each other in tiny detail, enough to warrant closer comparison, but the real find on this recent Guild ‘twofer’ – at least for those who missed various past incarnations – is a rehearsal and performance of the Haffner Symphony, Toscanini’s Mozart at its most persuasive. Both works, plus a Magic Flute Overture, were played early in November 1947.

Readers who, like me, harbour minor reservations concerning a 1944 collaboration between Toscanini and Rudolf Serkin in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto can now compare it with a performance that Serkin, Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic gave in 1936 as part of Serkin’s New York concert début. Greater subtlety and musicality are only occasionally clouded by inferior sound quality and the companion performance of Mozart’s K595 is equally arresting.

Toscanini’s rehearsals could on occasion be more riveting than his concert performances – Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso, for example (Naxos). Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, too, burns brighter in rehearsal and is newly released (together with the full performance) by Guild with Scene 6 from The Damnation of Faust added. Even those who already own the slightly brighter RCA transfer of the full performance stand to learn from the extensive rehearsal….

By Jonathan Woolf

Essentially an all-Beethoven affair (barring the Mozart B flat major) the first disc of this two CD slimline double, in Guild’s latest release devoted to the Toscanini-NBC broadcasts, dates from 26 November 1944. There’s also a Coriolan rehearsal from November 1946. The second disc is a much earlier broadcast from 24 February 1936 and in good sound for the period. I admire the series – much as I remain ambivalent about some of the musical results obtained by these forces – but it seems to me that interest in this issue will invariably be lessened by the inclusions of two versions of the Beethoven G major Concerto – both played by Serkin and conducted by Toscanini with the accustomed array of clipped phrase endings. There are also the Quartet movements – intellectually un-nourishing in theory but, as Josef Gingold averred, rather marvellous in execution, should you ever wish to hear them in this bloated guise.

Coriolan starts proceedings – firm, decisive chording, scrupulous dynamics and some kinetic attacks that seethe through the work and give it dramatic life (the rehearsal from 1946 makes explicit some of Toscanini’s occasionally brittle priorities in the work). There’s little to say of the Quartet movements except that they are beautifully played – in their way – but that the Cavatina from Op. 130 is fast (albeit with a magnetically sustained legato) and the Fugue from the first Razumovsky shows off some sterling uniformity of string entry points (as well they had to be) but that the arrangement for a string orchestra in this case simply doesn’t work. Serkin’s playing of the G major in 1944 is exceptionally uneven. His passagework in the first movement is strangely frivolous and unyielding – albeit fluent – and a certain breathlessness pursues the reading; a generalised feeling for want of a better phrase and superficial. In the slow movement he is glacial and to me – others will doubtless find him otherwise – un-engaging. And in the finale he engages in too many abstract point-making phrases for comfort. Yes, there is much that is fluid and fine but measured against the greats – Fischer, Solomon, Schnabel and so on – this is simply not operating on the same level of emotional and intellectual engagement.

The 1936 performance of the same work is better. The acetates have some wear and the recording is at a lower level but nothing is seriously amiss. There is increased expressivity in the first movement and no sense of mechanical or frivolous passagework. There’s greater flexibility and sense of texture both from soloist and conductor – a pity about the doubtless very difficult acetate join towards the end of the movement. Serkin is much slower in the second movement than he was later – there is a concomitant gain in verticality of tonal response and emotive participation. And Toscanini’s veiled string shading in the last movement is apt and well played – even though the timings are identical in this movement the earlier performance has notable gains in incision and is, aural problems notwithstanding, much to be preferred. That concert ends with the Mozart Concerto, suave strings (maybe over suave) but affectionate pointing in the slow movement and the flute and piano exchanges are full of wisdom and affectionate understanding.

Transfers and notes are to a high level and the release keeps up the standard set by Guild. I’m less happy about some of the performances.