GHCD 2384/85 -Toscanini conducts various Orchestras 1929-52

The Philadelphia Orchestra, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, La Scala Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Nathan Milstein (violin), Arturo Toscanini (conductor)

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MusicWeb – August 2012

The novelty value in Guild’s latest historical release resides not so much in the performances, most of which are well known, but in the fact that Toscanini conducts six orchestras in performances ranging from 1929 to 1952. Should this tempt you, and should the programme prove enticing, then you might overlook the quixotic nature of the compilation and respond instead to the music-making.
The first disc contains Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in the commercial, studio inscription made in Philadelphia in 1941. Surviving NBC broadcasts are numerous, dating from 1939, 1945, 1947 and 1953 and there’s a 1936 Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York performance as well. They are all pretty similar. Toscanini included the work in his first orchestral concert back in 1896 and he had long familiarity with it, so it would be interesting to know if he took the slow movement then as gracelessly, and despotically, as he does here. The uninflected linearity of his conducting is certainly a tribute to implacable will, but it’s not much of a tribute to Schubert. His Elgar Enigma Variations (live, Queen’s Hall, June 1935) is also direct and intense, but it’s far more flexible and he sounds far less tense than in Philadelphia. The famously parochial local criticisms of Toscanini’s ‘Un-English’ interpretation brought forth a chorus of indignation led by such as Landon Ronald, then probably Elgar’s greatest living interpreter. Listening to it again one notices the breathless legato, the dynamic power and the stoic intensity, a true ‘symphonic’ cohesion, though for that one sacrifices genuine depth in BGN, which is far too cool.
The second disc opens with Mozart’s Haffner Symphony (New York, studio, 1929) in a perfectly reasonable performance but a dull old transfer. Rossini’s Thieving Magpie overture comes from La Scala in May 1946, and is full of brio and excitement albeit courtesy of a crude recording. Siegfried’s Funeral Music is from the Vienna Philharmonic, live in Salzburg in 1934 and in swishy sound, but powerful evidence of his Wagnerian credentials, albeit in miniature. The British National Anthem prefaces a rather stop-go performance of Brahms’s St Antony Chorale (Philharmonia, 1952), or as we’d better ponderously call it, the Variations on a theme of Haydn, Op.56a. Toscanini certainly adopts a rich variety of tempos, not always to the good of the music. Then there’s a ‘bonus’ (as described in the booklet), an eleven minute plus excerpt – part of the slow movement and the whole of the finale – of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Milstein from New York in 1936. Congestion, overload and a half second dropout don’t do much to enhance this torso.
This is a mixed bag of a twofer. The conceit of six orchestras is a decent enough gambit, and the programme ranges quite widely over time, place and repertoire. The transfers are no more than adequate, however.
Jonathan Woolf