Arturo Toscanini = MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4, “Italian”; Symphony No. 5,“Reformation”; WAGNER: Parsifal, Prelude, Act I – NBC Symphony Orchestra (Mendelssohn)/ London Symphony Orchestra (Wagner) – Praga Digitals

The natural power and persuasive brilliance of the Toscanini experience return in music of Mendelssohn and Wagner.

Arturo Toscanini = MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 “Italian”; Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 107 “Reformation”; WAGNER: Parsifal: Prelude, Act I; Good Friday Music – NBC Symphony Orchestra (Mendelssohn)/ London Symphony Orchestra (Wagner) – Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350128, 78:54 (11/11/16)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****: 

I can recall having traveled downtown to 49th Street in New York City, specifically to obtain from Sam Goody’s record store a copy of RCA LM 1851, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5 with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony, performances that benefit from the Carnegie Hall venue, 1953 and 1954. At that time, Toscanini’s presence on the podium carried a guarantee of propulsive energy tied to a virtually religious devotion to the letter of the composer’s intentions. Mendelssohn’s 1833 Italian Symphony seemed to convey an innocent, idealistic Mediterranean impression, with none of the gritty, new Realism I might find in contemporary cinema of the period, Fellini’s La Strada or Pasolini’s Accatone. Rather, the symphony invoked blue skies in the first movement and a somber but optimistic Roman processional in the d minor Andante con moto. The strings and winds of the third movement intoned an archaic minuet whose trio signified a hunting-horn motif. And the lively saltarello last movement caught in a Presto fervor the relentless spirit of the dance, a kind of impassioned whirlwind which I likely attributed to the conductor’s own personality.

Today, I am not quite so positive Toscanini’s reading means to represent Mendelssohn as merely a musical picture-postcard of an enchanted Mediterranean and Neapolitan land of dance tunes. What impresses me now in this etched remastering of the performance (26-28 February 1954, including rehearsals) comes from the precision of execution, the finely honed attacks in strings and winds, and in the last movement, the colossal coordination of brass, winds, and tympani. Mendelssohn’s natural capacity for polyphony and stretto effects accrues with a surety and grace that never feels academic. The famed evenness of Toscanini’s rhythm creates an effect of more speed than he applies, so the nuances emerge from oboes, clarinets, and viola choirs with maximum impact. The entire symphony seems to have been wrought out of one cloth, polished and opulent, immaculately focused.

The so-called Reformation Symphony (rec. 13 December 1953) of 1830 arose as an “occasional” piece from Mendelssohn, namely as a commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther’s formal declaration of faith. Mendelssohn fused elements of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony to motifs appropriated directly from Lutheran liturgy, the “Dresden Amen” and the hymn Ein feste Burg is unser Gott.  No wonder the producers of this disc tack on the Wagner Parsifal Prelude, which unabashedly borrows the same rising sequence of chords, the “Dresden Amen,” for its own testament to spiritual devotion. The Reformation Symphony, on its own terms, casts a decidedly ceremonial, austerely festive cast, monumentally intense at times, driven by Toscanini. Detractors of the work in its own time found it too contrapuntal, too learned without the benefit of real melody, so they claimed. Toscanin treats the first movement as a real crisis of faith, so that after the mortal storm, the “Dresden Amen” invests a consolation of form and content, even announcing the recapitulation in the first movement.

The dotted rhythm of the ensuing Allegro vivace supplies the scherzo of the work, a rather militant gesture offset by a waltz impulse as a counter theme. The pizzicato from Toscanini’s strings, in concert with winds and a lovely, vibrant legato, virtually define the controlled colors The Maestro could command at will. The NBC violins have their serene moment in the third movement Andante, the music here likely inspiring much of Max Bruch in its evolving arioso. The flute part modulates from the song proper to intone, solo, Luther’s hymn as it gather supporting voices to harmonize the chorale into a jubilant proclamation of joy. Unfortunately, the edit to the last movement suffers a brief delay. Mendelssohn, ever the classicist, develops his ideas in sonata-form, keeping in mind Mozart’s contrapuntal gymnastics in his last symphony. Toscanini has imparted to this ceremonial piece an innate dignity of expression that eschews anything like “religious” jingoism.

The two Parsifal excerpts derive from a live performance from Queen’s Hall, London, 5 June 1935. Toscanini’s credentials in the music of Richard Wagner proved worthy even to hardened acolytes at Bayreuth, who saw in Toscanini “a different tradition than ours but just as legitimate.” The scenic drama of love, hope, and faith captures the nobility of impulse that surrounds the drama at the chateau-monastery at Montsalvat. Even Debussy, the staunch anti-Wagnerian, found in the Good Friday Music a beauty and glory of expression rarely achieved in music. Toscanini exercises transparent control over his forces, allowing the devotional aspects of the score – in strings, winds, and brass – their grand collaboration without sentimentality. The silences carry as much weight as the colossally triumphant brass passages. And the string legato in the Prelude could well have raised envy in the artistic imagination of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

This disc has reminded me of the might and majesty that defines the art of Arturo Toscanini.

—Gary Lemco

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