Arturo Toscanini Anthology 2 = BIZET: Carmen Suite No. 1; BERLIOZ: Roman Carnival Overture; Queen Mab Scherzo from Romeo et Juliette; SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre; HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel Prelude; SMETANA: The Moldau; SIBELIUS: Finlandia – Opus Kura

by | Dec 12, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Arturo Toscanini Anthology 2 = BIZET: Carmen Suite No. 1; BERLIOZ: Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9; Queen Mab Scherzo from Romeo et Juliette Symphonie, Op. 17; SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre, Op. 40; HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel Prelude; SMETANA: The Moldau; SIBELIUS: Finlandia – NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini

Opus Kura OPK 7047, 64:51 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Culled from HMV transfers of RCA inscriptions 1950-1953, these masterly and exciting readings of concert staples derive from Carnegie Hall appearances, with the exception of the Danse Macabre, recorded in Studio 8-H. The uncanny performance of the Queen Mab Scherzo is a live broadcast from 1951.

Despite some sonic compression in the opening selection, the Bizet Carmen Suite, the lithe rhythmic vitality of the reading strikes us at once, especially the clarity of interior definition and innate sensuality of the score. The dialectic of flute and strings proves magical, the “fate” motif shattering without lapsing into molasses. Toscanini utilizes a harp cadenza to segue to the Intermezzo, again for a thoroughly aerial flute over harp arpeggios. The Prelude to Act I resounds with exhilarated energy; the trumpet work proves exemplary, maybe a half-step away from Aida‘s pageantry.

Toscanini made his one inscription of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture in 1953. The initial splashy motif yields to fine work in the oboe, English horn and woodwinds, the string work the soul of linear, flexible clarity. The innate rhythmic propulsion infects every bar, though the cello line remains suave and self-assured. The ensuing saltarello moves in bold flashes of brassy and percussive lightning, a veritable whirlwind in the Mediterranean style. The Queen Mab Scherzo, on the other hand, benefits from Toscanini’s deceptively light hand, a diaphanous precision rivaled only by his contemporary Mitropoulos.  

For his famed interpretation and right tempo for Danse Macabre, Toscanini had earned plaudits form the composer himself; here in 1950, concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff plies Death’s figures to raise the Dies Irae in eerie and seductive trips of the light fantastic. From heresy to piety we move, with the Children’s Prayer from Humperdinck, the lovely Prelude inscribed in Carnegie Hall, 1952. Even with its softened Wagnerian ethos, the music emanates a joyful vista rife with childlike wonder. String articulation, in the long flexible line and in the ethereal trills, serves a model of its kind.

Every collector cherishes his favorite inscription of The Moldau: Talich, Furtwaengler, Fricsay, Kubelik, Karajan, Mackerras, Walter, Ancerl and innumerable others have left their mark. Toscanini’s 1950 account moves with a singular grace, unsentimental but plastic, heraldic, passionate, and sinewy. The polka drives us with electric currents, while the lovely nocturne breathes a more than “national” calm. The raging rapids, the final approach to the High Castle, all bespeak a power of conviction that make us wish Toscanini had bequeathed us the full Ma Vlast cycle.

Finally, a towering Finlandia from 1952, in which brass and tympani threaten us not with national pride, but with downright imperialism. Toscanini’s marcato in the opening pages communicates a deep, resonant song, the contrabassoon literally vibrating with intensity. Equally martial and nobly elegiac, the Toscanini rendition commands the same respect we accord the more “idiomatic” interpreters of this heroic score.

–Gary Lemco

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