MENDELSSOHN: 200th Anniversary Tribute – NBC Symphony/Arturo Toscanini – Guild (2 CDs)

by | May 6, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

MENDELSSOHN: 200th Anniversary Tribute = Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”; Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 “Italian”; Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 107 “Reformation”; A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture and “Ye Spotted Snakes”; Overture “The Hebrides,” Op. 26; Overture “The Fair Melusina,” Op. 32; Adagio lento from String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87; Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 – Jascha Heifetz, violin/Edna Phillips, soprano/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini

Guild GHCD 2358/9 (2 CDs) TT: 2:32:12 [Distr. by Albany] *****:

Arturo Toscanini found the music of Mendelssohn–its light dexterity and suppleness of style–congenial to his own essentially lyric-dramatic spirit, and he programmed Mendelssohn’s scores with some regularity. The rarity on this set is Toscanini’s ardent performance of the Scottish Symphony (5 April 1941) from Studio 8-H, an elastic fluid reading relatively articulate in its sonic sweep, without the de-mystifying dead spots of that recording venue’s oft-maligned acoustics. The so-called “Holyrood Castle” motif enjoys a lovely shape and resonance, though the sonata-form working-out moves at often hectic speed. The NBC strings, winds, and tympani endure a feverish series of gymnastics, but the essential lyricism of the figures–notwithstanding its impulsive thrusts–remains essentially Mediterranean. The Scottish highland spirit pervades the second movement, its war cries moving in feathery storms akin to a more manic Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo. Some clapping from the audience certifies the success of the effect. The processional Adagio assumes a distinctly balletic contour under Toscanini, and even the funereal impulses manage a stately dance, especially in the clarinets. The hymn of praise that erupts forecasts the last pages of the final movement. A decisive war-cry opens the last movement, and Toscanini plays this music as an Allegro guerriero without apologies. The fierce contrapuntal tension relents only at the entry of celebratory song or Festgesang, which Mendelssohn designated to be played with the same clear authority as a male chorus.

Record collectors well treasure their copy of the RCA inscription (LM 1851) of the Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony (coupled with the Italian) with Toscanini. The performance offered here (8 November 1942) moves in alternately heraldic and visionary energies, the Dresden Amen’s bearing an exquisite sensuality. Toscanini moves the major portion of the Andante first movement with a visceral power and contrapuntal might we associate with Bach’s great C Minor Fugue. The NBC trumpets and battery have rarely been so motivated, and the low strings move with gravely driven purport. Pert woodwind riffs mark the light, even charming Allegro vivace, whose trio section conveys bucolic tenderness. The expansive lyricism of the finale’s Andante proceeds to a stalwart pageant in Toscanini’s delivery of Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, Luther’s perennial expression of faith now become a contrapuntal etude of extraordinary virtuosity.

The Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1 November 1947) trembles with pearly magic, a deft incantation in fluttering colors. “Ye Spotted Snakes” proves a nimble exercise for soprano and fairy chorus, the tympani  and the NBC flutes tripping out the incantation to a sleeping Titania.  From earlier in that same year, we have an explosive Overture to The Fair Melusina (1 January 1947), a Beecham staple here executed with fervent lyricism and expert oboe and tympani work. The Adagio e lento from the String Quintet in full string transcription (11 January 1947) provides us a rare glimpse into a dramatic intermezzo–lithe and romantically muscular–from a chamber music source, similar to Toscanini’s success with the F Major Quartet of Beethoven.

If tempestuous speed does not belie the “authenticity” of the performance, the Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifetz (4 September 1944) features the virtuoso on the same instrument–the “David” Guarnerius which belonged to the leader of Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1844–which premiered the work.  Obviously, the instrument had been restrung and returned since David’s time, and Heifetz plies the instrument like a rapier in the hands of Tyrone Power in the outer movements, but the lyrical spirit reigns in the Andante. The collaborators never made a commercial recording of the efforts in the Mendelssohn, so the document remains the more valuable for their often volcanic live reading. The Hebrides Overture (11 April 1945) both captures the stormy Scottish coast and sails through the melodic tissue with affection . Typical of Toscanini, the agitated counterpoint in the latter pages achieves a febrile clarity in all parts.

Finally, the Italian Symphony  (28 February 1954), incandescently performed in resounding sonics, even possessing an aristocratic leisure in its optimistic romp through the evocation of a countryside the composer considered “the supreme joy in life.” It always impresses one to realize how much of the work lies in the minor keys, like the D Minor Andante con moto, which depicts a Neapolitan religious procession, and the last movement Saltarello, which ends in the tonic minor. For the second movement, Toscanini adopts a tempo quite similar to the Pilgrims’ March in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. The clarinet and low string work commands our admiration. The bucolic third movement moves with glad figures, though Toscanini imbues the music with a degree of urgency. The fleet Saltarello and whirling Tarantella again suggest Berlioz – in his Roman Carnival – with Toscanini making facilely energized work of the marvelous interplay of infectious rhythms.

–Gary Lemco