Reviews

GHCD 2369/70 – Toscanini – Christmas Day & Farewell Concerts

NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini (conductor)

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Audiophile Audition February 21, 2011

This “Hail and Farewell” installment of Guild’s ongoing tributes to Arturo Toscanini revives two concerts at the extremes of Toscanini’s tenure with the NBC Symphony: the Debut Concert of 15 December 1937 in Studio 8H, Radio City Music Hall, NYC, and the Farewell Concert of 4 April 1954 (all-Wagner) from Carnegie Hall. We note that Toscanini’s programming of a Vivaldi concerto from the 1711 L’Estro Armonico set of Opus 3 on Christmas Night 1937 already announced to his American admirers an intention to incorporate neglected masterworks along with strong performances of the standard repertory. The string choir of the NBC displays in those twelve minutes a sensitive and alternately delicate and muscular capacity for shifting dynamics and layered harmony.
The Mozart G Minor Symphony receives a linear soberly propelled interpretation that eschews anything like a “rococo” view of the composer. The faster transition passages appear clipped, but the melodic contour enjoys a broad singing line, landing heavily on the periods. The Studio 8H acoustic does not always help the ample interior woodwind work enunciate clearly, but the architectural pathos of the work emerges passionately, the (bass) counterpoint molded with care. The Andante literally receives the heart of the reading, moving resolutely and unsentimentally but with studied intimacy. The Menuetto truly forces itself upon our consciousness, hardly “polite” in the courtly manner at all. While the trio relents into something like “civilized” tropes, the aggressive outer sections hasten the bristling, whirlwind Allegro assai that all but invokes Beethoven’s “fate” motif.
The Brahms C Minor Symphony came to be a calling-card for the Maestro, who took his cue from Fritz Steinbach in terms of the German’s often dark brooding style. Certainly, Toscanini approaches its tumultuous opening movement as an extension of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, attending to the contentious agogics in the bass and treble lines. If Furtwaengler aims at spaciousness in the first movement, Toscanini realizes dire willfulness. The grinding crescendo that trumps the recapitulation literally explodes with manic passion, detumescent with nostalgia and regret in the final bars. Even with the E Major Andante sostenuto Toscanini barely relaxes the tension, driving its three thematic groups into each other in such a way that the underlying tympani rolls suggest an unrelieved despair. The French horn and violin collaborate in tenderly tragic interplay that invokes late Beethoven, but without that composer’s lofty repose. Symmetry always captivates Toscanini, and the Allegretto of the Brahms C Minor proves a natural medium for his long lined quasi-rondo welter of mercurial emotions that still manage to sing, even in extremis. No preliminaries to the fateful Adagio of the last movement, almost grim until the appearance of the alphorn that, at last, invokes a sense of vast spaces and Nature’s restorative powers. If the NBC Symphony strings can be called “warm,” they certainly attempt the effect in the heroic theme and its (contrapuntal) variants all admire in this work. A heartfelt burst of light and pain, and the sweet consolation of melody wafts from Toscanini’s strings and woodwinds. Marvelous tremolandi in undeviating momentum cascade us forward to the extended coda, the trumpets and tympani ablaze, impelling the Maestro to even more demonic expression in the C Major peroration that ends his first NBC program.
The 4 April 1954 Wagner concert has become both the stuff of legend and apocrypha.
The Lohengrin Prelude, within Toscanini’s stylistic parameters, proves a perfect rendition, long-lined and artfully graduated in dynamics and layered colors. The sound for the Forest Murmurs seems a bit thin, given the intense pantheism of its subject matter and the innate richness of the woodwind and brass parts. But the near-hysterical urgency of the Toscanini line cannot be denied, and the cumulative impact knocks us out. For the Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, we can only wish Traubel and Melchior were present to fill in the vocal parts. The upward sweeping motif (“Zu neuen taten, teurer Helde”) combined with Siegfried’s motifs invoke a new world, a redemptive hope for the post-Lapsarian frailties of Valhalla’s cynical gods who stole the Rheingold. The rising chords of the Rhine River quite illuminate any darkness in Carnegie Hall this fateful afternoon. The longest sequence–the Tannhauser Overture and Bacchanale–projects a taut tensile strength and flexible tempo whose end is already in the beginning. Noble and inspired, the sacred Pilgrim’s Chorus hurtles forward only to encounter the temptations of the profane Venusberg. The ballet music for the 1875 French production–or more precisely, the French taste–still seems puffy and rhetorical but a field-day for the NBC strings and battery.
Lastly, the “controversial” moment: the Die Meistersinger Prelude in which Toscanini suffered a temporary break in his concentration that–in retrospect–marks the end of an illustrious career. To pinpoint the exact moment of “doubt” or “insecurity” or “confusion” remains literally impossible to detect, given the NBC’s degree of discipline to play through any gestured distraction. That Toscanini decided, at age eighty-seven, to retire from his musical kingdom does not imprint itself in this recording but from a deep conviction in the Maestro’s mind that he could no longer maintain the magisterial standards he had defended all his musical life.
Gary Lemco

New Classics.Co January 2011

Rudolph Ganz (1876-1972) (GHCD 2377) was one of the most remarkable Swiss musicians of the 20th-century, as pianist, teacher and conductor. Born in Zürich, he was a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin an from his earliest days he knew, performed and recorded music by the latest composers before World War I. When he went to America he became head of piano studies at the Chicago Musical College and conducted the St Louis Symphony Orchestra as well as the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestras for many years. Ganz continued to give concerts in his 80s as a pianist, and the range of his achievements is considerable. This new CD is a magnificent tribute to a great musician, friend of Bartok, Korngold and Busoni – Ravel dedicated one of his most famous piano works to Ganz – and the conductor who gave the world premieres of music by Copland and Elliott Carter, among many others. This invaluable CD includes recordings from piano rolls of 1913, a radio interview given at the age of 80, and a very rare performance of Grieg’s Holberg Suite recorded in the late 1940s. The booklet notes are fascinatingly detailed and include many photographs. Also new from Guild is TOSCANINI – AVE ATQUE VALE (GHCD 2369/70), a double album featuring the great conductor’s first ever broadcast concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra founded expressly for him in 1937 in New York. The Maestro’s last appearance with the Orchestra in April 1954 is also included, making this a true ‘hail and farewell’ to the art of the conductor many regard as the greatest of all. GREAT PIANISTS, VOL. 2 (GHCD 2367) features historic live performances by three masters of the keyboard from the latter half of the 20th-century: Alexander Brailowsky, Shura Cherkassky and Rudolf Serkin. The CD includes two performance of Liszt’s virtuoso ‘Don Giovanni’ Fantasy played by Cherkassky and the conductors are Serge Koussevitsky and Dmitri Mitropoulos, lending their own artistry to this unique release.