GHCD 2364/65 – Rehearsal – VERDI: La Traviata – Act I & Act II (28 November 1946)
NBC Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Baker (trumpet), John Wummer (flute), Robert Bloom (oboe), Mischa Misschakoff (violin), Arturo Toscanini (conductor)
American Record Guide – March/April 2012
This collection will appeal strongly to people who love Toscanini and people who despise him. The former will admire how Toscanini’s Bach vaults to the heights of sublimity; the latter will chortle at how it plumbs the depths of vulgarity. I am of the latter camp; the Vivaldi affects me much the same way. One can tolerate older, stylistically bloated performances of baroque music and still be appalled at this one. Still, it deserves to be heard, along with the more palatable Rossini.
So too with the hour of rehearsal excerpts taken from LPs once issued by Walter Toscanini (in a limited edition at an extraordinary price): if Marcia Davenport’s unctuous spoken commentary is repellant, the Maestro’s energetic and compelling character is on full display. What a remarkable man he was in his old age! Yet his NBC performances often verge on self-parody. The odor of sanctity emanating from this reissue helps to explain why.
MusicWeb International June 2011
This is a somewhat unusual two disc release. The first CD is devoted to baroque repertory, recorded over the years between 1938 and 1954, whilst the second re-releases a limited edition LP of 1960 devoted to Toscanini’s rehearsals. In fact everything here was first issued via the authorisation of the conductor’s son, Walter, and the booklet includes photo reproductions of the relevant LP sleeves and vinyl labels.
I’m never defensive about reviewing older recordings or broadcasts of baroque works. This is how it was done or, rather, these are the ways in which it was done. Leopold Stokowski did it, Henry Wood did it, even Hamilton Harty did it – but they all did it differently, whether it was Bach or Handel or Frescobaldi. The current habit of apologising, or cringing, at the massive sonorities engendered by conductors such as the trio above has always struck me as bizarre. In any case the counter-attack, and a more subtle one, as practised by wily critics such as Mortimer Frank (a Toscanini specialist) is to play off Toscanini against Stokowski, holding the latter up to retrospective ridicule in the light of the former’s more temperate, indeed stylistically more ‘modern’ sensibility. But then, wasn’t Anthony Bernard in London with his chamber orchestra in the late 1920s doing the same thing as Toscanini, and wasn’t Adolf Busch too with his, only rather better?
I enjoy Stokowski’s Bach and Toscanini’s, and do so differently. One doesn’t have to choose. Toscanini’s Brandenburg Concerto is deftly motored, textually clear and has plenty of brio and bite. It has splendid contributions from trumpeter Bernard Baker in particular, but also from John Wummer the flautist, elite oboist Robert Bloom, and concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff, whose name is misspelled in the booklet. Unmentioned there as well is the audible harpsichordist, who is none other than Erich Leinsdorf. This lightly textured, finely conceived, small-scale reading was recorded with the NBC in a 1938 broadcast and is a credit to all concerned.
More massive is the hyphenated Bach-Respighi Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. The regular pulse of its progress, and the enveloping sonorities create a truly engulfing sound, during which you can just make out the conductor’s moaning encouragement. Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto grosso completes the baroque trio in good style, whilst the Rossini String Symphony is heard in its American premiere performance in this November 1952 broadcast. The genial, rather Schubertian writing comes most alive in the Allegro finale. Keep on your toes in these last two, as they’re mis-tracked. If you think Vivaldi sounds like Rossini, that’s because it is – and vice versa.
The second disc is the rehearsal one. The excerpts come from 1946, 1947 and 1952 and the works are the overture to The Magic Flute, the finale of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Acts I and II of La Traviata. The commentary is by Marcia Davenport, patrician sounding daughter of the singer Alma Gluck, and it takes up 16 minutes of the side’s hour or so length. Commentary is extensive at the beginning and is then interspersed throughout the rehearsal extracts. You will note the wearying references to ‘Maestro’ – the familiar genuflectio that Americans reserve among conductors only for Toscanini. It’s not because there is an absence of watch-stomping, score-tearing, baton-breaking and chair-kicking that I found these rehearsals less than engrossing. After all they were, I suspect, chosen precisely to debunk the idea of Maestro as a rehearsal dictator – which he was, or could be. What’s left is scrupulous, professional, collegiate, and rather dull. One doesn’t really learn much, other than the questions of balancing, articulation, dynamics and the like, and these are surely familiar to all rehearsals by all, or most, conscientious conductors. When Toscanini sings the parts, that gives one an indication of his idea of line, but I can’t say I was riveted.
So, whilst I appreciate that the theme of these two discs is that the material derives from Walter Toscanini’s limited edition LPs, I don’t know whether that in itself is enough to warrant a thorough recommendation. I will say this however; Toscanini’s intimate and astute way with Bach is well worth hearing, and admiring.
Toscanini’s intimate and astute way is well worth hearing, and admiring.
Audiophile Audition April 16, 2011
Entitled “In Memory of Arturo Toscanini issued by Walter Toscanini for his friends,” the first disc of this set reveals the Maestro in relatively early repertory, 18th Century music and its immediate beneficiary by way of youthful Rossini. The inclusion of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (29 October 1938) from Toscanini’s second season with the NBC Symphony reveals the disarmingly modern approach–with one player per part among the concertino–that incorporates a harpsichord into the texture. Bernard Baker provides the piccolo trumpet flourishes; while flute John Wummer, Robert Bloom, oboe, and Mischa Mischakoff, violin complement the corps (ripieno) of the NBC with fluid virtuosity both solo and in ensemble.
Bach’s massive Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582 (22 November 1947) receives a driven account from Toscanini, a grand structure that rivals the more familiar Bach transcription by contemporary conductor Leopold Stokowski. The huge bass line exerts itself throughout, while the upper line cascades and sings in refined harmony. As opposed to the liner’s program, the Rossini Sonata a Quattro in C Major follows , a performance from 15 November 1952. The Maestro’s only realization of this charming work by the adolescent Rossini, the reading entirely projects a genial Mediterranean spirit – light, lithe, eminently clear in texture.
Toscanini had programmed Vivaldi’s D Minor Concerto Grosso from L’estro Armonico in his first season with he NBC, Christmas Day 1937. The interpretation offered here arrives late in Toscanini’s career (14 March 1954), not far from his retirement from the concert stage. The dark churning energy of the first movement allows us to savor the viola and cello section of the NBC strings in often solemn harmony. Toscanini takes the Largo e spiccato at a lugubriously measured pace, but the upper strings achieve a distilled beauty of regal power. Pungent intimacy reigns in the final Allegro, the strings in resplendent separation of parts, gritty in the continuo and panoramically grand in the ripieno or tutti responses.
Marcia Davenport (soprano Alma Gluck’s daughter)provides the narrative commentary for the rehearsal disc, a musical portrait of the Maestro at work. We join the immediate and personal circle of friends and colleagues who knew to what pains Maestro would exert to reach musical perfection, courtesy of Walter Toscanini. We hear a brief passage from Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute (5 November 1947), the detail to which Maestro broke down the phrase to accomplish a singing line and spontaneous expressiveness. “Make it smile–Allegro, allegri, con spirito” and Maestro slaps his own face after having sung the line himself in the fugato. A joke , a smile, a laugh–these moments debunk the myth of Toscanini’s “terrors” as a conductor. From the Beethoven Ninth (27 March 1952) we hear Maestro singing, urging the particular orchestral choir to sing with him. Here, the cello and bass fiddle line–recitativo–that opens the last movement. A brief dialogue with cellist Frank Miller about a diminuendo speaks volumes of the eighty-five-year-old conductor‘s passion and sympathy for this score. The Verdi excerpts embrace La Traviata, Act I-II (28 November 1946), the best-loved and most remembered music in opera houses of the day. Toscanini here sings all the vocalists’ roles, starting with the Brindisi. Next, the contrabassi alone to refine their sound. “Sempre libera” exacts from Toscanini the youthful brio of his own voice, done with ardor, just no “vocal ability.” Toscanini and the harp intone “mysterioso.” He drills the orchestra in Act II, sparing the singers because “the orchestra is no good.” He sings Alfredo’s aria. Germont’s plea and Violetta’s renunciation follow, all sung by Toscanini. To the orchestra, “You devour the notes like street musicians. Even Traviata can be played well.” And indeed it was and shall be.
N.B.: the liner inverts the Disc I program for the Vivaldi and Rossini pieces