Program: BRAHMS: Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello, Op. 102; Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52; Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G Minor; MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor; DVORAK: Symphonic Variations; WAGNER: Tannhauser–Overture
Performers: Mischa Mischakoff, violin/ Frank Miller, cello/ Artur Balsam and Joseph Kahn, pianos/ Choir, directed Walter Preston/ NBC Symphony Orchestra
Studio: Testament DVD SBDVD 1004 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi)
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 112 minutes
The concert of 13 November 1948 opens with a major work, the Brahms Double Concerto, as performed by two of the NBC Symphony principals, Mischa Mischakoff and Frank Miller. After a slight bow, Toscanini leads the tutti with the baton hand, reserving his left hand, which has remained on his lapel, for well into the tutti after the soloists’ entry. The visual quality of the DVD is decidedly poor, with blurred images, streaks, and loss of focus. At the end of the first movement, Martin Bookspan makes the disclaimer that the original kinescope was deteriorated. The Andante pans the orchestra as the two soli make their opening thematic statement. Toscanini’s tempos have been taut, the phrasings rather laconic, the sonority lean. Mischakoff and Miller are quite able musicians, and their concertante elements soar both individually and in duo passages, the whole sonority easily borrowing from the Baroque concerto grosso or Mozart’s K. 364.
The sound belies the faded-out, almost ghostly, quality of the visuals. Watch Toscanini’s left-hand thumb as he marks the beats with rounded gestures. Though half the length of the first movement, the Andante lingers longer in the memory. The Vivace non troppo moves, though Miller’s cello enjoys some plastic rhythm. Once the rondo comes full tutti, the Maestro’s left forefinger is as active as his baton hand. Miller rushes to turn his page so to make his entry. Cut to the tympani for the tempo change and the pedal point. The lyrical interlude is circling baton and extended left hand, then back to the lapel for the agogic shifts; then the camera backs up for soli and Toscanini in right’side profile. A shot from the back of the orchestra, then cut to the recapitulation and Mioschakoff‚s big entry of the rondo with flute. Toscanini clearly sings the coda entry, the baton’s assuming the cello’s bow line. The final quiet interlude, the soli in octaves, then the ascent to the cadence marking the march-like motif that carries us to a bold, tympani-laden finale. Toscanini avoids the applause, walking directly between his two, bowing principals.
Toscanini is suddenly in the curve of a piano, leading his two pianists and a mixed chorus in a rendition, in German, of the Brahms Op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes. Toscanini is clearly singing through his chorus, the Maestro’s face a canvas of shifting emotions. The left hand is ever active, splitting the fingers like a citizen of planet Vulcan. Fingers to the lips for diminuendi. Superimposed cameras of the Maestro and the piano and chorus; later, the superimposition includes the Maestro and the piano. The lightness of the baton belies the force Toscanini can unleash in a heartbeat. Cut to pianist Balsam awaiting his cue; then the women’s choir intones. Nice shot behind the piano to capture Toscanini framed against the audience, the baton arm in fertile swoops. The Maestro molds the series of lullabies, his eyes fixed on chorus members. A loving salute from the Maestro to his assembled forces expresses his approbation. The G Minor Hungarian Dance is a robust, high-colored rendition, the flutes and triangle prominent. The middle section does not slacken; rather, it gains in gypsy flourishes and sweep. The visual definition improves slightly, and we can see the Maestro winding up his orchestra like a fine-tuned spring for the rousing last chords.
The telecast of 4 December 1948 features Toscanini’s favorite Mozart symphony, the G Minor, which he recorded twice commercially. The visual acuity is good, and we open from behind the orchestra, slightly left of the Maestro’s active but restrained version of Mozart’s tragic music. A reduced complement of strings and minimal vibrato testify to a chaste sensibility, not so far from modern “authenticity.” The articulation of Toscanini’s baton arm and elbow are a precisioned miracle to watch. The shadows and grays of the set lighting add to the musical drama. Camera to Mischakoff in his principal chair for the key change, then to Toscanini for the fugato, all led by baton arm alone. The heat from the lights is clearly a factor, but Toscanini’s focus is rapt on the rhythmic thrust of the Molto allegro. One can detact a slight relaxing of the pulse at the second subject iterations. The Andante maintains its walking tempo throughout, unsentimental poise. The athleticism of the Menuet cannot be denied, making its Trio section appear even more galant by contrast than its ordinary wont. Some struggle in the horn ornaments and with intonation. Back to business for the da capo. The last movement, Allegro assai, hardly dares breathe – Toscanini is driving the tempo hard, with, again, the slightest sense of relaxation for the soft second subject. Nice shot of the clarinet section, then the flute, before the return to the main theme. A superimposed shot for the grand finale, a blur of classical motion and dead-on ensemble.
Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations receives one of only two readings he led with the NBC; and only Beecham – of other noted, contemporary interpreters – seems to have programmed the work and recorded it. We see the baton framed against principal Mischakoff; then, the variations move to the string section, panning left to take in Toscanini’s left arm; then a crane shot from over the bass cellos. Bucolic lyricism pours forth, then the frothy variation whose bustling energy sounds like Elgar. The Maestro’s face remains almost immobile as the baton weaves and the left hand maintains dynamic balances. Cut to the woodwinds for the serenade-like excursions, then to Mischakoff’s solo. A quick subito and on the flute variation. Nice shot of Toscanini’s head and arms extended over the maestoso variation for winds and trumpets, then the segue into something taken from Tchaikovsky. The waltz variation pans directly on the middle strings, then to oboes and bassoons. Oboe solo for the galloping variant; then, Toscanini’s gestures gain in size and the music becomes a galliarda. Toscanini’s demeanor intensifies at the mezzo-voce upon which he insists; the shadows under his eyes deepen. The staccato variation almost resolves into a dew. Then the fugue, driven with the customary Toscanini baton discipline, the camera on the double basses. The camera pans outward, and we can realize the scope of the NBC sound, resplendent for the period. Cut to the triangle for the dancing finale, a Slavonic march whose peroration is all bristling energy.
Hardly a bow from the Maestro, and he turns for the Tannhauser Overture. The tempo is quite braod, making us recall that Toscanini gave some of the most expansive readings of The Ring cycle at Bayreuth, in violation of the myth of his fast tempos. The cameras moves through the textures, panning strings, horns, trumpets, tympani. Superimposed shot of the Maestro demanding a graduated decrescendo; then, the light, diaphanous evocation of the Venusberg. Cut to the woodwinds; and now, the erotic impulse shoots through Toscanini’s baton arm, although he conducts in march tempo. The brew simmers into Mischakoff’s string contingent’s response to the oboe solo. We can well appreciate Toscanini’s long tenure as a military bandmaster. The NBC battery gets its seconds of fame. Toscanini takes the whole ensemble down the dynamic scale of the Pilgrim’s Chorus and running strings. Cut to Frank Miller’s rapt attention at the cello, then superimpose to the first violins. Now Toscanini is singing, too. The struggle between sensuality and the spirit has been temporarily resolved.