Testament SBT 1377, 78:25 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
I well recall having purchased RCA LP LM-1851, Mendelssohn’s Italian and Reformation Symphonies with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, and after having auditioned his persuasive way with this composer, wondering why there were not more such repertory. Testament has resuscitated what are likely Toscanini’s only U.S. accounts of the Hebrides Overture (4 November 1945) and the Scottish Symphony (5 April 1941), performances which attest to the linear, albeit supple approach to rhythm in the conductor’s arsenal. Tempos are generally quick, with a decidedly lyrical emphasis in the quieter sections of the Allegro un poco agitato. Unsentimental but not devoid of sentiment, the Toscanini interpretation adjusts the masses of sound as a kind of evolving antiphon, with the opening Andante con moto material acting as a connecting leitmotif.
The recorded sound is somewhat shrill in the high strings, but the phrasing is so gracious, so Italianate, it proves to be Mendelssohn by way of Verdi. The nervousness of the folksy Scherzo and Scotch snap becomes quite wild, a heart-thumping affair. Nice string pizzicati detail and wondrous woodwinds at every turn. The stretti become volcanic yet remain transparent. Strong pizzicati again in the Adagio, in which Toscanini’s subtle rubato comes into play, along with powerful strokes from the tympani. Graduated crescendi as the Scottish march-tune gathers momentum, Toscanini lulling a pure singing line from flute and cellos. Despite the rather dry acoustic in Studio 8-H, the pulse and resonance of the Allegro vivacissimo prove thrilling, the sforzati pungent in the manner of Beethoven. The woodwind interplay with the strings brings a chamber music definition to the fugato. The heroic impulse returns; a pity Toscanini did not give his fierce energy to Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang Symphony, a piece that would have to wait for another generation of conductors for consideration. The transition to the Allegro maestoso assai is huge, Toscanini from the first molding a markedly graduated peroration. While Otto Klemperer still retains my first place among Scottish Symphony inscriptions, Toscanini’s rendition in no way disappoints.
The 29 March 1941 (Studio 8-H) Schumann C Major is the first of two performances Toscanini programmed with the NBC Symphony; he had first surveyed the piece in 1897 in Turin. Like Mahler, Toscanini felt compelled to add orchestral touches to Schumann’s scoring, adding trumpet parts and polyphony in the first and last movements. Such emendations belie Toscanini’s repute as a strict literalist. Collectors might compare Toscanini’s suave, albeit quick, pacing of the outer movements with contemporary performances by colleagues Szell and Mitropoulos. Under Toscanini the cellos, double-basses and trumpets literally bristle with excitement. Ascending scales and pulverizing marches streak by, the C-G motif holding the kaleidoscopic movement in some kind of underlying order. The Scherzo with its two trios blazes past us, breathless, a testament to the NBC’s nimble virtuosity. The second trio, however, enjoys a moment of lyrical repose, but we don’t get to become attached to it for long. The last bars echo Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo, Op. 11.
I have always considered Schumann’s Adagio espessivo his own introduction to Mahler, even to the coloring in Tristan; Toscanini does not linger for its metaphysics. Clarinet and oboe carry us to the big string trill, but it all moves too rapidly for my taste. What Toscanini does, however, is ritard the Allegro molto vivace to increase its pomp and ceremony. Now the passion is restored, easily competitive with Mitropoulos and the later Schumann firebrand, Bernstein. This movement alone would justify any serious collector’s investment into a particularly fine Toscanini restoration. Liner notes are from my old colleague from “First Hearing,” Toscanini archivist Mortimer Frank.
— Gary Lemco