“Arturo Toscanini, The Final New York Philharmonic Concert” = Works of HAYDN, RESPIGHI, SIBELIUS, WAGNER & WEBER – NY Philharmonic – Pristine Audio

Arturo Toscanini, The Final New York Philharmonic Concert” = HAYDN: Symphony No. 101 in D Major, Clock”; RESPIGHI: Pines of Rome; SIBELIUS: The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2; WAGNER: Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music; WEBER: Euryanthe Overture, Op. 81 – Philharmonic-Symphony of New York/ Arturo Toscanini – Pristine Audio PASC 454, 79:53 [avail. in var. formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

The review on the following day by Olin Downes for The New York Times, in response to Arturo Toscanini’s final appearance with the New York Philharmonic (13 January 1945) notes that Toscanini had presented the same program “at his historic opening performance of January 14, 1926.” Downes comments that the passing of nineteen years indicated “not the slightest weakening of his phenomenal capacities . . .nor the abatement of his power to electrify an orchestra and audience.”  Producer Andrew Rose contributes his own notes as regards this special program, “really . . .[Toscanini’s] last farewell to the orchestra: a special one-off concert in aid of the orchestra’s pension fund. The concert was not broadcast live, and as a result it is unclear as to exactly where our source recording originated. It was clearly an in-house recording, cut onto acetate discs, and there is a suggestion it may have been made for Toscanini’s personal use. It is also possible that the concert was broadcast overseas as part of the war effort.”

Toscanini opens – in somewhat compromised sound – with Haydn’s 1794 Clock Symphony, whose somber d minor introduction lacks brass, clarinet, and tympani. The explosion, Presto, has Toscanini and his forces in fine trim, energetic, muscular, and lithely virtuosic. The cumulative whirlwind testifies to the thorough co-ordination of conductor and a resonant, responsive ensemble. The eponymous tick-tock second movement Andante plays some wonderful effects against each other, spreading the over two octaves and then coloring the motion between the flute and the bassoon. When the musical mass gains heft as well as emotional, contrapuntal power, the resonance becomes quite hypnotic. The ensuing Menuet runs longer than any other such Haydn creation, and it works in marvelous touches, such as an extended tympani solo and a real, rustic Trio that exploits missed cues, wrong, notes and late entries. Toscanini’s approach remains driven in the outer sections and delicately controlled – and forceful – in the middle. Toscanini embraces and clearly relishes the Finale, a virtuoso exercise in motion and contrapuntal craft, including a double fugue. The melodic contour enjoys the singing quality on which Toscanini always insists, despite any colossal motor demands. The Philharmonic players certainly earn their pensions in this one!

From classically chiseled to the sheer gaudy, Toscanini segues to Respighi’s 1924 display piece, Pines of Rome, which combines virtuoso instrumental fanfares, a recorded bird call, and a thorough knowledge of plainchant. The trumpet work consistently shines from the outset, and Toscanini certainly raises some ancient specters in Pines Near a Catacomb. The mounting pulse of the clash of rhythms, 6/4 and 5/4, achieves the “Roman triumph” character we experience in spades in the final section, Pines of the Appian Way. The third section, Pines of the Janiculum, offers Toscanini at his tempered best, with a serene calm maintained in the course of nuanced colors from piano, celesta, and harp against a lovely clarinet part. At the ineluctable, final climax, the audience in attendance rushes to happy judgment.

The lachrymose chant of Sibelius’ 1895 The Swan of Tuonela places a plaintive English horn adrift on a sea of dark waters, an effectively moody piece of symphonic writing. The luminous quality of the Philharmonic strings heightens the nervous, passionate character of the whole, a real testament to Toscanini’s unerring dramatic poise and sense of plastic tension. The familiar excerpt from Die Goetterdaemmerung opens with chords reminiscent of Lohengrin – winds, harp, and high strings – then suddenly the music erupts into the voices from previous Ring portions, including the Valhalla motif. Toscanini’s Wagner, of course, presents its own inestimable logic and stylistic correctness – lyric, majestic, and urgently propelled. Film director John Boorman would have done well to utilize this splendid version for his 1981 epic Excalibur.

An over-eager tympanist perhaps opens Weber’s lovely Euryanthe Overture, the surviving concert piece from the 1822 opera in the singspiel tradition whose impossibly weak libretto hardly sustains the fine music the composer wrought. Typically, Toscanini brings out the music’s clear anticipation of Wagner’s own style. The polyphonic aspects of the concert piece hardly sounded better than in this deliberately molded performance under the seventy-six-year-old conductor, here sounding as thrilled with this music as he had been in his glorious youth.

—Gary Lemco

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