Reviews

GHCD 2358/59 – Toscanini – Mendelssohn 200 Anniversary Tribute

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini (conductor)

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Fanfare Magazine Jan. / Feb. 2011

Most of the material here has appeared in other CD editions. For ease of reference I am including the dates of each in the body of the text, partly because some of those supplied by Guild are inaccurate. Save for the “Italian” Symphony, which is from a February 28, 1954, Carnegie Hall broadcast, all of the other performances took place at NBC’s studio 8H.
The “Italian” is, perhaps, the most valuable item here. It offers this superb performance exactly as it was broadcast with the extended ritardando imposed on the transition of the first-movement exposition. In the subsequent RCA release, that tempo modification was, at Toscanini’s insistence, expunged and replaced with the corresponding portion of the more rhythmically rigid dress rehearsal. As a gloss on the “edited” version, this uncompromised performance fascinates. Sonically, it is very close to the highest studio standards of the time.
Various factors may contribute to making the remaining items in this set less attractive. The account of the “Scottish” Symphony (broadcast of April 5, 1941) comprises Toscanini’s sole performance of the work in the U.S. and, I suspect, the only one he ever led. It is a taut but never unduly hasty account, free of mannerism, yet flexible. Although this transfer is certainly adequate, the performance can be heard to better advantage in a superior transfer on Testament (SBT 1377), which makes clear that 8H, while certainly not acoustically ideal, was far better than it seemed in most of RCA’s recordings. The Hebrides Overture (from November 4, 1945) is also included on that Testament release, where it, too, is heard to better advantage. It shares all the virtues of his account of the “Scottish” Symphony: direct, unmannered, atmospheric, and like that performance, unique in Toscanini’s U.S. programming. As for this “Reformation” Symphony, the less said the better. Although certainly acceptable, it and two others he gave at NBC fail, both sonically and musically, to match the splendor and power of the account he led during his last season (available from RCA: 74321 59480) ), the finale there having a tension and climactic grandeur that I have never encountered elsewhere.
One aspect of Toscanini’s greatness that is often overlooked is prominent in his account (with a complement of NBC strings) of the Adagio and Lento from the B6-Quintet. Here, the conductor who could produce shattering climaxes reveals a different kind of power in conveying the music’s tender delicacy. It was part of an all-Mendessohn broadcast of November 1, 1947, from which other performances are also included here. That of the Die schöne Melusine Overture is the first of two Toscanini gave at NBC, fleeter than one often hears today yet never breathless. Two other items from that broadcast are included: the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, and closing chorus, “Ye Spotted Snakes,” from the incidental music. Neither shows Toscanini at his best, the overture, in particular being pushed too hard.
Finally there is this 1944 performance of the E-Minor Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifetz. It is like none I’ve ever heard – viriuosic beyond belief, but unrelentingly breathless in outer movements and driven with a haste that cries out for greater inflection. Indeed, in a few instances one feels that Toscanini is trying to rein in Heifetz. The sonic deadness of 8H is obvious, but not to the point that makes things sound as if they were coming from a padded closet. In short this is an uneven release. But for those who never heard these performances, it certainly can be recommended as a means to gaining familiarity with them.
Mortimer H. Frank

Klassik.com August 2010

Beherrscher des Taktstocks
Interpretation
Klangqualität
Repertoirewert
Booklet
In der Geschichte der Persönlichkeiten am Dirigentenpult gehört Arturo Toscanini zu den ältesten Protagonisten seit Erfindung des Tonträgers. Dass man sich heute noch an ihn erinnert, mag vielerlei Gründe haben, eine Vielzahl guter Argumente dafür findet man jedenfalls auf dieser Aufnahme. Die gewichtigsten Werke Mendelssohns für Orchester sind in Aufnahmen der 40er und 50er Jahre mit dem NBC Symphony Orchestra zu hören, denen man kaum anmerkt, dass Toscanini eigentlich eher den Sinfonien eines Brahms oder Beethoven zugeneigt gewesen war. Man hört am ehesten noch die Gewichtigkeit eines Brahms aus diesem Mendelssohn heraus: Wenn die Musik es hergibt, dann ist großes romantisches Pathos da, jedoch immer kontrolliert. Überhaupt ist Kontrolle wohl das entscheidende Merkmal der öffentlichen Person Toscanini gewesen, denn die zäumenden Zügel einerseits und die Peitsche andererseits, die er dem Orchester im Wechsel spüren lässt, sind oft fast fühlbar – manchmal werden sie auch zum Fallstrick. Das Hören ist dennoch durchweg eine Freude, denn das Kräftemessen zwischen Orchester und Dirigent sorgt für eine stete, den künstlerischen Prozess befruchtende Spannung. 

Dabei bietet der genannte Fallstrick die in höchstem Maße erhellende Erfahrung dieser Aufnahme und heißt mit Namen Jascha Heifetz. In der Aufnahme von Mendelssohns e-Moll- Violinkonzert op. 64 treffen zwei Egos aufeinander, die zu groß für einen Konzertsaal sind: Beide ‚Diktatoren‘ haben eine ganz eigene Interpretation des Konzerts und setzen sie rigoros gegeneinander durch, wobei Heifetz das letzte Wort behält. Er erzwingt ein quälerisches Tempo in hochvirtuoser Nervosität, welches er jedoch in gleichem Maße am Limit der Brillanz durchhält – nebenbei bemerkt hat der Rezensent einen derart irrwitzigen dritten Satz noch nie gehört. Diese zerrüttete Interpretation dürfte einmalig sein in der Geschichte dieses Konzerts und hat allein deshalb schon einen Ehrenplatz verdient. Mitreißend ist sie auf ihre ganz eigene Weise, aber man sollte das Ganze doch mit einem Augenzwinkern nehmen. Unfreiwillig komisch, wenn man nun das Booklet zur Hand nimmt und sich folgenden ernst gemeinten Kommentar zu Gemüte führt: ‚No commercial recordings of Heifetz and Toscanini in the Mendelssohn Concerto were ever made.‘ Der Verfasser dieser Zeilen macht sich darauf keinen Reim, doch die Gründe für die ausgebliebene künstlerische Zusammenarbeit sind hier unmissverständlich dokumentiert.

Die ‚normalen‘ Interpretationen der Sinfonien und Ouvertüren fordern demgegenüber das Geschmacksurteil nicht in gleichem Maße heraus, aber das müssen sie auch nicht. Sie haben ihre Qualität und einen gesunden, eigenwilligen Charakter. Ein Meisterstück dynamischer und agogischer Ausarbeitung ist etwa der dritte Satz der ‚Schottischen‘, wie überhaupt die genannte Sinfonie sowie die ‚Italienische‘ zu den weiteren Höhepunkten zählen. An ihnen spürt man denn auch die Peitsche in den schnellen Sätzen, doch das an Toscanini jahrelang geschulte NBC Symphony Orchestra zieht brillant mit, sodass eine höchst erfrischende Musik das Resultat ist.

Etwas zu hektisch ist dann doch die ‘Sommernachtstraum’-Ouvertüre geraten: Das Potential einer ausgearbeiteten Finesse insbesondere in Bezug auf den filigranen Streichersatz ist spürbar, geht dann aber im Gesamtbild unter. Letztlich stoßen die Übergänge hier reichlich schroff aneinander, was wohl der Nachteil einer bis ins Letzte beherrschten Musik sein mag. Man staunt zuviel über Details und verliert letztlich den Überblick. Was den ‘Sommernachtstraum’ etwas ausbremst, betrifft die ‘Hebriden’-Ouvertüre ebenso: Allzu oft klingen die Ritardandi und Accelerandi sehr erzwungen und leicht inkohärent, was nach dem atmosphärischen Beginn sehr schade ist. Packend interpretiert sind dagegen die Ouvertüre ‘Die schöne Melusine’ sowie das umarrangierte Streichquintett op. 87, die durch schöne Momente in großer Zahl überzeugen. Sehr leicht etwa der schwebende Beginn der Schönen Melusine, gedämpft und getragen dagegen das Streichquintett.

Aus dem Spektrum Toscaninis zeigt sich die hingebungsvolle Seite im letzten Satz der Reformationssinfonie am vordringlichsten. Hier herrscht der sonst treibende Maestro mit einiger Geduld, doch die Strenge tritt schnell wieder hervor, sobald das Choral-Thema verklungen ist. Beides zusammen, Strenge und gestalterische Geduld, bilden eine hypnotisierende Kombination, die die manchmal akademische Strenge des Satzes vorführt und gleichzeitig aushebelt. Da kann man es gut verschmerzen, dass der erste Satz doch sehr nach einem motorisch-sturen Bach klingt.

Ohne Zweifel kann diese Aufnahme auch neben vielen heutigen Alternativen bestehen, denn Toscaninis Geist in ihr ist ein fordernder, der kaum langweilen kann. Den Napoleon des Dirigentenpults (auch im Hinblick auf die Körpergröße) stellt man sich gerne ins Regal, auch wenn er vom Cover aus noch so grimmig dreinschaut. Oft schafft jedoch gerade eine solche Dialektik zwischen dem harten Äußeren und der empfindenden Musikerseele die faszinierendsten Interpretationen.

Das informative, gut geschriebene, aber knappe Booklet trägt das Übrige zu dieser gelungenen Archivausgrabung bei, gegen die nicht viel spricht. Man muss den Stil Toscaninis noch nicht einmal mögen, denn gerade für die kritische Auseinandersetzung gibt es reichlich Angriffsfläche – man ist eine ganze Weile damit beschäftigt.
Oliver Schulz Klassik.com


MusicWeb International Tuesday July 20 2010

The first question that goes through my mind with Toscanini reissues concerns the quality of the sound, or to be more accurate, how comfortable is it to listen to at length. A warning on the outer cover states that “these are rare live recordings from second generation transcriptions which have been re-mastered to a high standard; however some patches of noise, dropouts and distortion remain”. This is perhaps excessively fair to the listener as, taken as a whole, the quality of the sound as re-mastered by Peter Reynolds is more than adequate to appreciate the quality of the performances. There are a few uncomfortable moments, chiefly in respect of distortion, but by the time these are reached the performances had gripped to such an extent that these blemishes were of no consequence to me. Curiously one of the least comfortable is the most recent recording – the “Italian” Symphony, but even there the fierceness which once seemed an inevitable part of Toscanini recordings has been substantially tamed. 

It is however the performances that matter, and taken as a whole they more than justify the care taken over the re-mastering. In brief, Toscanini manages for the most part to combine urgency, clarity and eloquence in just the right combination to bring out the character of the music. To be sure, it is not the whole of that character – there is a lack of the kind of affectionate and easeful approach that is certainly an important part of it – but it is never merely comfortable or routine, a common danger in performances of these works. What surprised me was how flexible Toscanini is in matters of rhythm and phrasing. The “Scottish” Symphony is the best example of this, at such moments as the introduction to the first movement, or the end of the third movement. Not demonstrative flexibility certainly, but neither is it the kind of bandmasterish approach of which critics used to accuse the conductor. Speeds throughout tend to be fast, but no more so than many conductors employ nowadays, and always within the bounds of legitimate interpretation of tempo directions or metronome marks. These are exhilarating performances, full of energy and eloquence.

The violins are directed to play staccato at the start of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture, and usually this is interpreted to give a kind of feathery lightness to the music, conjuring up pictures of the delicate fairies found in many nineteenth century pictures. As heard here, however, the notes are certainly short but also fierce, even threatening, more akin to the fairies of Britten’s opera than those we are used to. This may be simply an effect of the recording but it made me think again about the music and its character, as indeed did the majority of these performances.

Helpful and interesting notes by Robert Matthew-Walker explain that the discs contain concert recordings of virtually every work by the composer that Toscanini conducted in the USA. Thus they supplement the commercial recordings, in particular in respect of the Violin Concerto with Heifetz as a soloist unruffled by the fast speeds and apparently using the same violin that David used at the work’s first performance. It is however possible that Mr Matthew-Walker was not given the final list of the contents of the discs as he explains both the importance of the first movement repeat in the “Italian” Symphony and that Toscanini included it only in his 1938 recorded concert which it is therefore of the greatest interest to hear. I entirely share his view on the importance of the repeat (which involves 23 bars of music not heard if it is omitted) and would have loved to have heard the earlier performance, especially given the poor recording quality on the 1954 performance that is included. Perhaps it can be included on a later disc with the String Octet and the wind arrangement of its Scherzo both of which are omitted from this set.

This is self-evidently not for those wanting well recorded modern versions of these works, but it is a fascinating supplement to other versions of them. The urgency and care of the performances helps us to understand more fully Mendelssohn’s genius and a similar care over their restoration allow us to hear them in acceptable sound.
John Sheppard


International Record Review July / August 2010

Toscanini and Heifetz in Mendelssohn
Finally, if there is a more thrilling Performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto than the concert broadcast given
by Heifetz, Toscanini and the NBC Symphony an September 4th, 1944, then I haven’t heard it. Heifetz takes the outer movements very quickly but his rhythmic control is sensational, so there’s never any Sense of things running away, and nor is there any lack of expressive phrasing. This is marvellous music-making and there are at least two other points of interest noted in Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes: first, Heifetz is playing the Same Instrument – the David Guarnerius – as Johann Nepomuk David used for the work’s Premiere a century earlier, in 1844; and second, this is the only time Heifetz and Toscanini broadcast the work together (and they didn’t make a commercial recording of it either). It really is a remarkable Performance, in Sound that has come up very well for its age in this transfer.
The concerto comes in a set that includes a lot more Mendelssohn conducted by
Toscanini: the Scottish, Italian and Reformation Symphonies, the Overtures Die schöne Melusine and Hebrides, a movement from Mendelssohn’s String Quintet, Op. 87, played by string orchestra, and two extracts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the Overture and `Ye Spotted Snakes’. It’s very useful to have these vibrant, energized Toscanini Performances of the symphonies, together with the shorter pieces, and Guild has taken appropriate care to ensure that the Sound restoration has been done to the highest possible Standard (Guild
GHCD2358-9, two discs, 2 hours 32 minutes).