Arturo Toscanini, The Television Concerts 1948-52, Volume Five

by | Mar 20, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Arturo Toscanini, The Television Concerts 1948-52, Volume Five

Program: FRANCK: Symphonic Interlude from “Redemption;” SIBELIUS: En Saga; DEBUSSY: Two Nocturnes: Nuages et Fetes; ROSSINI: William Tell Overture; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; RESPIGHI: The Pines of Rome
Performing: NBC Symphony Orchestra/Toscanini
Studio: NBC-TV/Testament SBDVD 1007
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Duration: 107 minutes
Rating: ****:

Of the Toscanini broadcast kinescopes, this fifth volume is the most anomalous: it has  the greatest aural diversity and the least active visual component. The opticals on this video are poor in several respects, not only because of the washed-out, bleached composition and poor lighting, but also because the cameras seem intent on focusing only on Toscanini’s face and baton arm. Occasionally, the left hand manages to cut across the Maestro’s chest, or we have a frontal pose which allows us to see him give cues. Rare is the shot from the orchestra’s left side behind the second violins and violas, but it provides a welcome relief from the visual myopia of the 15 March 1952 Carnegie Hall concert. We miss some startling huge effects, as the full entrance of Franck’s horns in Redemption; we never see the woodwinds ply the modal harmonies in Nuages. Almost the entirety of the broken string work at the opening of En Saga is heard but unseen in its methods. For my money, Toscanini plays Nuages too quickly.  Finally, there is a long shot for the opening of Fetes that includes the harp, but the texture of the shot is monochromatically lifeless. Only when we cut to the baton work do we coordinate the energized rush of music with the deftness and articulation of the Maestro’s lead. Rossini reverts back to Toscanini’s expressive eyes, where an occasional raised baton and left hand wander. The ubiquitous Frank Miller cello is there for the legato introduction, then a pull-away for Toscanini in profile. Almost the entire storm sequence is a Robert Hupka character study.

Musically, the film is a revelation of the catholicity of Toscanini’s taste and command of some unfamiliar repertory. To hear Franck without the two main warhorses – the Symphony and Symphonic Variations – is rare enough; usually the honors would go to Psyche and Eros. I wish the audience would hold their applause and allow the music to breathe at its conclusion, but they are on emotional automatic. En Saga enjoys a slow buildup to the main motif, then Toscanini’s momentum takes over.  The sonata-form development never emerged so clearly. William Tell’s interior woodwind lines are the soul of clarity and transparency, but we see not a whit of the instrumentation, not even the triangle.  For the anticipated horn call, we must be content with Toscanini’s hands and virtuoso baton work, his face doing its own tremolandi. The intensity of the rendition is never in doubt. The baton brushes out huge strokes; it could be the Sistine Chapel.  Automatic applause for the 85-year-old conductor, but the shadows absorb his features.

Only two works comprise the 22 March 1952 broadcast from Carnegie Hall. These would be the Maestro’s last appearances before a television audience. He appears clad in black; and it only takes a peremptory flicker of baton and left hand to engage the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth. No repeat, but the camera stands away, allowing us a perspective shot of the Maestro’s working out the development section with his full ensemble.  Too soon, we hover again too close to the Maestro to see the horns and tympani or the all important oboe. The interpretation is firmly linear, with few rhythmic inflections or breathings in the phrase lengths. Tautness of line and dynamic propulsion are the rule. The Andante certainly abides by its “con moto” indication, no dallying. The camerawork, again, shows Toscanini leading a string quartet. We pull back for the woodwind variation and the horn entry, but the ominous five-beat pattern in the basses we hear without seeing it. Wonderful flutters from the left hand to lead the woodwinds and flute in their variation.  The forte statement with full strings takes us back to the Hupka portraiture.

What do you know! We do see the horns insert their version of a militant fate, but our romance with the big picture is short-lived. Nice cut to the basses and celli for the fugato, Toscanini caught in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame.  But the stretti are all closeups of an increasingly perspiring and uncomfortable Maestro under implacable lighting. The transition with tympani is foreshortened, but the heroic C Major and the rhythmic thrust (shades of the Seventh Symphony) are long shots.   By the time Toscanini has taken the repetition of the secondary theme, he no longer cares about his own physical condition–it is all about Beethoven, although the visuals affirm the conductor’s iron will. The Pines of Rome opens with a good sense of the massive orchestral forces at work, the harp now moved directly to the conductor’s left. The baton arm does all the work after the opening flourish, although the left hand comes in for the ratchet, tambourine, battery, and woodwind saturnalia and descent to the catacombs. For the gradations of color and resonant stoicism of expression, we need not fear. We hear the piano obbligato, then the oboe; the shot is almost static except for the right arm baton in front of a pallid orchestra. Cut to the oboe and the sound of a harp. Toscanini has Respighi’s approximation of Forest Murmurs well in hand, and now we are ready to proceed along the Appian Way. In retrospect, we are witnessing Siegfried’s entrance into a Roman Valhalla, and the Hupka frame of Toscanini’s febrile brow, his incredible concentration, remains as the lasting image of a bygone age.

If I may make a request of Testament–how about the Liszt Faust-Symphonie kinescope of Mitropoulos which was done for NET?

— Gary Lemco

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