Toscanini: All Verdi, All Sibelius Concerts – NBC Symphony – Immortal Performances

by | Jul 27, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Toscanini NBC Symphony Orchestra; All-Verdi Concert 25 July 1943; All-Sibelius Complete NBC Concert 18 February 1939 [complete listing below] – Immortal Performances IPCD 1141-2 (2 CDs 2:29:40) [www.immortalperformances.org] *****

Certainly, among the various sources of aesthetic pleasure that this issue from Immortal Performances provides lies in the “Recording Notes” by Richard Caniell, who details the callous lack of sympathy on the part of NBC towards matters artistic. To wit: the broadcast of 26 April 1943, an all-Tchaikovsky War Benefit Concert that omitted the major work, the “Pathetique” Symphony because the length of the program would not conform to the network’s strictures on timing that had to include the commercials and various, sponsored interruptions. The details become both sordid and vulgar when Caniell describes the nature of the too often pedantic and jingoistic subject matter of commercial sponsor General Motors’ spokespersons, material Caniell describes as “dreadfully boring” and “lifeless in language and empty of content,” respectively. Add to these philistine values the limits of Studio 8H acoustics, and we can begin to appreciate Toscanini’s justifiable impatience with the entire, “treacherous,” situation that often led to sudden, premature endings to broadcasts or rushed tempos, in order to satisfy the mania, even hysteria, to end on time.

The concert of 25 July 1943 features an all-Verdi program especially dear to The Maestro, given that Giuseppe Verdi embodied the symbol of Italian civilization at its height, a country that had fallen in dignity to the warped throes of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Toscanini opens with the Overture to the 1849 opera Luisa Miller, a melodrama tragico based on a libretto of a play by Friedrich Schiller. The principal clarinet of Augustin Duques stands out. The impassioned Overture leads to Jan Peerce’s rendition of the rousing, spinto aria from Act II, “Quando le sere al placido,” Rodolofo’s testimony to the doubts of protested love felt by a man betrayed. From Verdi’s 1867 Don Carlo – yet another adaptation from Friedricjh Schiller –  mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman sings “O don Fatale,” Princess Eboli’s aria cursing her beauty as the cause of her deep grief. In performance, the opening chord – repeated, fortunately -had been cut by Ben Grauer’s commentary, but the edited splice is seamless. Merriman’s potent spinto captures the cruel range of the aria, meant to strain her emotional poise,

Baritone Francesco Valentino follows with the potent “Eri tu” from Un Ballo in Maschera, Renato’s lament that itself undergoes a series of conflicting emotions, aggressively angry and soon, nostalgic in his pain, here at the realization that Riccardo and not Amelia “stained his soul.” The orchestral outbursts in martial tones well convey the intensities of the moment. Soprano Gertrude Ribla enters for “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from La Forza del Destino, Leonore’s ardent plea for death to relieve her agony over past injuries, including the death of her father. Ribla makes much of the Fatalita in her destiny, coloring its three appearances in a tension-filled performance. 

News Flash!  Benito Mussolini has resigned, even though Italy will fight on. . ..
Invigorated by the news, Toscanini and cast members resume their historic concert – historic, in the immediate sense that Toscanini had not led a full act from an opera since his departure from the MET in 1915 – with Act III from Verdi’s 1851 opera Rigoletto, after the play by Victor Hugo. Act III fulfills the courtier’s curse placed upon the Duke of Mantua and Rigoletto after the Duke, with the jester’s Rigoletto’s encouragement, had seduced the courtier’s daughter. Rigoletto has conspired with the assassin Sparafucile to slay the Duke, who openly flirts with the assassin’s sister, Maddalena. Maddelena tries to intercede for the Duke with her brother, but he demands another victim before midnight. The disguised Gilda, who also loves the Duke, resolves to sacrifice herself; and, upon having entered a tavern, she is stabbed to death by Sparafucile. The hapless, Rigoletto, convinced Gilda’s seduction avenged, comes to collect the covered body of what he thinks the Duke, only to discover Gilda’s corpse, and the malediction realized. The opening “La donna è mobile” sets the cruel and ironic tone for the opera’s brutal finale, which rather culminates in the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” a transcendent study in opposing emotional values. The ensuing storm and tolling bell during Maddelena’s “Eppure il denaro” well, even maniacally – mainly due to Toscanini’s marvelous propulsion – anticipates the fatal resolution. While about to drag the bagged body to the river, Rigoletto hears the unrepentant voice of the Duke, urging Rigoletto to see whose corpse he bears to the watery grave. The dying Gilda reveals herself to her loving father, and Ribla and Valentino share a soaring, tragic moment, underscored by the orchestra’s sweet recollections of former, loving days. But, ah, the curse! I must admit that for most of the vocal elements I had been somewhat placid, excepting for the resonance of Jan Peerce in the role of the Duke, though I must always prefer Bjoerling. The dying duet, however, convinces me that in soprano Ribla we had a talent strong in chest tone, supported by a canny sense of dramatic poise and timbre. 

Portrait_of Arturo Toscanini by Arnold Genthe

Portrait_of Arturo Toscanini, by Arnold Genthe

We then proceed to September 9, 1943, and the commentary of Toscanini’s leading the Garibaldi Hymn and March in honor of the downfall of fascism in Italy. Richard Caniell details in his notes how much rhetoric had to be cut in order to preserve some good taste in the occasion. Toscanin next performs Star Spangled Banner. Then, two 20-second examples of a replaced passage in the 25 July 1943 broadcast.

Disc 2 gives us the all-Sibelius concert of 18 February 1939 from Studio 8H and its relatively dry acoustic. In the book Toscanini and the NBC Years by Mortimer Frank, we read that Toscanini led music by Sibelius in 1936 with the New York Philharmonic and with the BBC in London in 1937. Toscanini led the Symphony No. 2 for the first time with the NBC in 1938. Italian audiences experienced the music of Sibelius under Toscanini as early as 1904. The appearance of this concert makes its debut on disc, a concert whose taut, linear rendition of the Symphony Frank finds superior both to the 1938 and subsequent 1940 readings. . The NBC Symphony could be said to have become well familiar with Sibelius by the time, a few months later, when “specialist” Georg Schneevoigt led the concert of 28 September 1939, which has already had its CD incarnation on Pristine Audio (PASC 631).

The opening work of the Sibelius concert, a haunted and intensely atmospheric The Swan of Tuonela, features the work of Filippo Ghignatti on the English horn, the “voice” of Death’s swan-song. Toscanini then launches into one of the more elusive of the Sibelius one-movement tone-poems, En Saga (1892; rev. 1902). A spirit of the enchantment of the Eddas infiltrates the work, almost runic in character, though Sibelius conceded the piece reflected “the reflection of a certain state of mind,” moving from a modal A Minor to a conclusion in E-flat Minor. Toscanini exploits the Northern muscularity of the piece, its confluence of rushing energies. Sibelius assigned some influence to the power of Arnold Boecklin’s paintings, the same artist who manifests an aura to Rachmaninoff. The NBC brass ring particularly direct and strident, as do the NBC violas, the Studio 8H acoustics, to which engineer Caniell adds a “touch of resonance,” notwithstanding. The more militant pages literally fly with an unsurmountable momentum, some of the most securely ferocious gestures in the whole concert.

Toscanini first addressed the ever-popular 1899 Finlandia in concert in 1905. The spirit of independence, the urge to break away from Russian domination, already fierce in this music, had to wait until 1917 for true political reality. Toscanini’s rendition quite explodes in emotional force , and the audience reacts appropriately. Curiously, for all of Toscanini’s enthusiasm for Sibelius’ music, he led only two of the seven symphonies, the Symphony No. 2 in D Major and the knotty Fourth in A Minor. The great tugs in energy in the D Major, its naturalistic and dramatic ebbs and flows, emerge in an organic whole, though perhaps without quite the cosmic power achieved by Koussevitzky in this score. The NBC string sections, high and low, project a finely honed resonance, supported by often militant brass and timpani. Toscanini’s tempos tend to be quick, and in the first three movements a minute faster than Schneevoight’s reading in September with the orchestra. The clarity of line, however, remains taut, and the timbre the woodwinds creates a vivid, “Northern” sensibility in the second movement, set in the Aeolian mode and often reminiscent of Brahms in its sudden onrushes of convulsive power. Given the bucolic, landscape sentiments captured in this music, the facile reduction of the score as ”provincial” by critic Virgil Thomson seems either spiteful or intellectually myopic.

What becomes significant in the review of the concert by New York Times Olin Downes lies in the critic’s note that “Toscanini had conducted the Second Symphony. . .last season. . .and that he returned to the work last night with the accumulation of a year’s evolution of thought upon the subject.” The kind of musical maturation Downes’s remark asserts is exactly what we miss in the Eugene Ormandy ethos, which, having once read through a score, considers the artistic matter mastered and finished. The persuasive Trio from movement three, the fine segue into the Finale, and the grand perorations of the last pages have made for a glorious evening of Sibelius, restored with loving devotion by Immortal Performances.

—Gary Lemco

Toscanini NBC Symphony Orchestra All Verdi, All Sibelius Concerts = 

All-Verdi Concert 25th July 1943

VERDI: Overture to Luisa Miller; “Quando le sere al placido”; Don Carlo: “O don Fatale”; Un Ballo in Maschera: “Eri tu?” La Forza del Destino: “Pace, pace, mio Dio”; Rigoletto: Act II; Announcements of Mussolini’s Downfall; Garibaldi Hymn and March; Star Spangled Banner – Jan Peerce, tenor/ Francesco Valentino, baritone/ Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano/ Gertrude Ribla, soprano/Nicola Moscona, bass/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini

All-Sibelius Complete NBC Concert 18 February 1939

SIBELIUS: Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2; En Saga, Op. 9; Finlandia, Op. 26; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 

. Toscanini All Verdi All Sibelius NBC, Album Cover




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