Reviews

GHCD 2368 – Toscanini – Gala Concert 1945

Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra Of New York conducted by Arturo Toscanini

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MusicWeb International August 2011

Guild have issued a large number of Toscanini recordings but this one is of uncommon interest. It documents one of the maestro’s relatively few appearances with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (hereinafter, for ease of reference, the PSONY) since resigning as their Principal Conductor in 1936.
As Robert Matthew-Walker relates in his very interesting booklet note, it turned out to be his last appearance with the orchestra. Before going any further, I ought to say that I think Guild are in error in giving the date of the concert as 13 November 1945 in their track-listing. Mr Matthew-Walker says several times in his note that the concert took place in January, though he doesn’t give an exact date. I’ve also read elsewhere an on-line appraisal of this disc by the American critic, Mortimer H Frank, who knows a thing or two about Toscanini. He states that the concert took place on 13 January 1945. I’m inclined to back the judgement of these two well-informed writers.
Toscanini’s choice of music for the concert programme is an intriguing one for it replicates exactly his very first concert with the PSONY on 14 January 1926 – which included the American première of Pini di Roma. Toscanini was to repeat this programme in its entirety at his very last concert with the orchestra before leaving their podium in 1936.
The programme plays to many of the strengths of both Toscanini and the orchestra. Indeed, though the sound has some inevitable limitations, one can still tell that the playing is superb. The Respighi piece, for example, receives a splendid performance. ‘I pini di Villa Borghese’ is full of sparkling colour; this is a performance of great virtuosity. Toscanini achieves a brooding intensity at the start of ‘Pini presso una catacomba’ and when the skies lighten (2:07 – 3:23) the playing has great refinement before the conductor builds the final climax masterfully. In ‘I pini della Via Appia’ Toscanini may not be as implacable as Reiner in his great 1959 Chicago studio account but he builds great cumulative power in a hugely impressive performance. No wonder the audience goes wild.
The Swan of Tuonela is also superbly played. This performance is of great yet unforced intensity. The Wagner is interesting, not least because Toscanini begins this ‘bleeding chunk’ rather earlier than one is accustomed to hear in a concert version and the familiar concert extract begins 4:18 into this performance. Robert Matthew-Walker rightly draws particular attention to the quality of the playing in this item. There’s nobility as well as sorrow and power in Toscanini’s eloquent interpretation.
I wondered what the Haydn symphony performance would be like and, in truth, I feared it might be a little lacking in charm but I was wrong. There’s a Beethovenian tension in the introduction to I, which is given spacious treatment by Toscanini. However, the main allegro is spirited and lithe, and although this is ‘big band’ Haydn it doesn’t sound too heavy. An elegant grace is brought out in the ‘ticking’ slow movement but the maestro’s treatment of the minuet is too emphatic for my taste; the music is rather hammered out. However, I enjoyed the trio in which the flute and bassoon solos over a delicate accompaniment give much pleasure. There’s energy and pleasing use of contrast in the finale and overall this is a good performance of the symphony. There’s little sign of the alleged ‘bandmaster’ in this interpretation.
Given the age of the recording and its provenance from a radio broadcast the sound quality is remarkably good and the transfers have been well managed. This concert shows Toscanini at his dynamic best and it also reminds us what a fine band the PSONY was at this time.
John Quinn
A concert that shows Toscanini at his dynamic best and that also reminds us what a fine band the PSONY was in 1945.

Fanfare Magazine May / June 2011

This release offers Toscanini’s last appearance with the New York Philharmonic  – a benefit event for the pension fund of the orchestra occurring on January 13, 1945. The program duplicates the content of his first appearance with the Philharmonic as a guest conductor in January of 1926. I doubt very much, however, if it duplicates the performances that he gave at that debut. Indeed, this account of the Haydn symphony, if in ways similar to his 1929 recording with the Philharmonic, is, at least in the first movement, a bit more hard-driven and tense. And the “Appian Way” conclusion of the Respighi lacks the controlled tension and breadth of Toscanini’s superb NBC recording. Even the Weber Euryanathe Overture seems a bit breathless in its faster moments when compared to Toscanini’s best broadcast efforts. But the Wagner and Sibelius works are superb and a match for his best studio accounts, the latter, in fact, being an even more aptly brooding reading than the NBC broadcast of 1944 released by RCA.
What is most important here, however, is the responsiveness of the Philharmonic to Toscanini’s return. The crispness of attacks, the delineation of textures, and the overall sense of shape that stamped so much of the conductor’s work at NBC are evident here as well and made all the more appealing in being produced in Carnegie Hall rather in the confines of the all-too-dry 8H. But one caveat mars this release: the poor equalization of the sound that Guild has provided. Put differently, there is more in the source than meets the ear, but it requires a flexible (preferably) 10-band equalizer to do it justice. When so processed it is every bit as good as the best commercial releases of the period, indeed, better than many. One small blemish: As in other Guild releases the date of the concert is erroneously given as November. It is a small point, but it may confuse the uninformed who do not read the accurate insert notes. Certainly for those interested in Toscanini, this is an essential acquisition.
Mortimer H. Frank

International Record Review March 2011

Historic and Reissues Round-up by Nigel Simeone
Toscanini concerts are often preserved in grim sound, so it’s a pleasure to report that Guild has found a clean-sounding source for its release of the Pension Fund Concert with the New York Philharmonic Symphony from November 13th, 1945. As Robert Matthew-Walker points out in his note, the programme is a replica of Toscanini’s first concert with the orchestra in 1929, and it turned out to be the last time he conducted the New York Philharmonic. The programme opens with beautifully characterized Haydn (the ‘Clock’ Symphony) and this is followed by Respighi’s Pines of Rome – by turns sparkling, subtle and gripping here. Toscanini finds infinite sadness in the Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius and gives a searing performance of `Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The concert ends with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture. This is Toscanini at his greatest, working with an orchestra he loved.

MusicWeb International March 2011

Though this question is often raised when discussing Toscanini’s recordings, it’s worth a brief moment to consider it in the context of this concert. It relates specifically to the superiority, or otherwise, of Toscanini’s performances with the NBC vis-a-vis the New York Philharmonic-Symphony orchestras. The consensus is that the sonic disadvantage of Studio 8-H and the leaner string tone of the NBC puts that body of recordings at a disadvantage when set against, say, the Carnegie Hall and the NYPSO. It is certainly pertinent to cite the pre-war recordings, live and off-air, that preserved the conductor’s partnership with the BBC Symphony in London, where a similar combination of a superior location in Queen’s Hall and a superior body of tone from the BBC strings, leads to a greater sense of rhythmic relaxation. And this November 1945 Pension Fund benefit concert, live in Carnegie Hall, reinforces the view that a congenial acoustic, coupled with a responsively firm body of strings and eloquent wind and brass principals, encouraged Toscanini toward a slightly more affectionate address than with the NBC.
The Haydn symphony he performed was something of a talisman. It was the first Haydn symphony he ever conducted, back in 1896, at the very start of his career on the rostrum. It was in his first NYPSO concert in 1929, the year in which he first recorded it (he did it twice in the studio) and the only Haydn symphony he took on tour with his orchestra. His approach remained very consistent and the tempi vary very little over two decades. We find in this concert performance a vital, imaginative and highly attractive reading. Interestingly it’s not over-vibrated by the strings, though they could have done had they wanted – and the Presto, after the opening slow introduction, is articulated very deftly. The flute lines come through well, attesting to assured balancing between the winds and the strings – especially true of the lower string line which is well articulated but not too forceful. Altogether this is a well textured and highly convincing performance, worthy of the conductor at his finest.
Again his Respighi Pines of Rome proves the superior of the NBC version in 1953. There is greater colour, and texture and also flexibility. Richer tone accounts for some of this, but the glittering characterisation of the first, the Pines of the Villa Borghese, attests to a more immediate rapport between the conductor and his old orchestra. The clarinet principal shines in the third panel whilst the finale is a blazing affair, inciting frenzied applause. But there is also atmosphere in this concert, and that comes via Sibelius, whose Swan of Tuonela receives a sensitively phrased and perceptive reading, surely the best of Toscanini’s performances of it. There are numerous examples of his Wagner chunks, and this commanding Götterdämmerung is about as good as it gets. To end with Weber’s overture to Euryanthe is to send people home in high spirits – a brightly and engaging animated reading.
The musical virtues of this disc are manifold, and even those jaded by the Toscanini Question will find much to enjoy here.
Jonathan Woolf
The musical virtues of this disc are manifold, and even those jaded by the Toscanini Question will find much to enjoy here.

Audiophile Audition December 2010

The concert at Carnegie Hall (13 November 1945), Arturo Toscanini conducting, returns to us in a blazing restoration from Guild, a momentous occasion, really, since Toscanini always maintained a deep affection for the ensemble from which he had resigned in 1936.  The program duplicated verbatim Toscanini’s debut with the Philharmonic 5 January 1926, the occasion of the American premier of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. The evening, moreover, turned out to be the last appearance of the Maestro before the New York Philharmonic, and in retrospect we sense a tone of relaxed valediction in the performances, which still retain the manic energy we associate with the feisty music director.
Toscanini had made a 1929 inscription of Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony in D, and his canny pacing–at an even greater speed–exploits Haydn’s penchant for rhythm and color details that make the music dance and sing. The long slow introduction becomes a study in orchestral tautness, only to explode in thunderous colors, a vital pageantry. The eponymous Andante relishes the string line over the woodwinds, the extension of which–the trumpets and tympani surging–dances with lithe elasticity. Toscanini takes the Menuetto Allegretto fiercely risoluto in long lines, Mediterranean quarry granite. The trio, however, softens the tissue for the interplay of the flute and strings in the form of a pastoral serenade. The horses run wild for the Vivace, breathless but not shapeless, and the audience agrees with Toscanini in matters Haydn. Respighi’s gaudy hymn to Rome lunges at us in full panoply, and we can easily picture Scipio Africanus in regal raiment in triumph along either the Borghese or the Appian Way. The solemn dirge of the Pines near a Catacomb emanates the best of the orchestra’s low strings and trombones, mystical and evanescent. The sonorities rise to a magnificent peroration of religious fervor. The movement to the Janiculum Hill offers a lovely nocturne with piano obbligato and bird calls, a model of repose and refinement. The Pines of the Appian Way confirm Rome’s commitment to Mars, a triumph of the first order whose sheer jubilation provides a dramatic foil to the gloomy melancholy of the Sibelius invocation of Tuonela, the realm of death marked by some fluid playing by the Philharmonic‘s English horn. Toscanini takes the invocation music to Siegfried’s Act III Funeral March, the high strings, harp, and winds sailing to Valhalla in nostalgic yearning before the dread tympanic patter and snakelike chromatic line announce Siegfried’s passing. Toscanini’s dramatic pace proves exemplary, even shattering. The woodwind lines and harp rise up to mourn the lost hopes in Siegfried, the mortal chosen to redeem the sin of the gods, the stealing of the Rhinegold. Finally the buoyancy returns in ecstatic force with Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe, here played as a bravura tour de force for wind band, tympani, and strings with some stentorian chorales from the brass. The love theme of Adolar and Bertha carries us sweetly to the woods and then to the counterpoint of which Toscanini remains an undisputed master. With the coda the New York audience wildly acknowledges the historic significance of the musical captured on this essential Toscanini disc.
Gary Lemco