Arturo Toscanini leads a wartime concert that celebrates the American musical character.
Toscanini Conducts American Music, Volume 1 = LOEFFLER: Memories of My Childhood (Life in a Russian Village); CRESTON: Choric Dance No. 2; GOULD: Lincoln Legend; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue – Earl Wild, piano/ Benny Goodman, clarinet/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini – Pristine Audio PASC 495, 54:03 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Andrew Rose restores to full, intensely resonant sonics the live NBC Symphony broadcast from Studio 8-H of 1 November 1942, dedicated to American music by way of lifting the morale at the front during wartime. Rose notes that prior to this concert, only the Loeffler work had enjoyed attention from Toscanini; and, after this concert, none of the selections was to receive a second session, a trait that lies closer to Stokowski than to Toscanini.
The Loeffler piece has a curious history, having been premiered in this country by Frederick Stock in 1924. Loeffler led a rustic, village life in the Ukraine village of Smela; but the family left for Germany, where his father ran a sugar factory. When Bismarck sought the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, Loeffler’s father joined an organization in opposition, suffered conviction and imprisonment in 1878, and likely died a martyr. The tone-poem Loeffler leaves us omits the political strife, rather seeking – in Loeffler’s written account – “to express through music through music the vision in his “heart and memory” of “Russian peasant songs, the Yourod’s Litany-prayer, the happiest of days, fairy-tales and dance-songs.” The work ends by commemorating “the death of Vasinka, an elderly peasant, a Bayan or story-teller, singer, maker of willow pipes on which he played tunes of weird intervals.”
At first, the bucolic scenes, musically, remind us of Respighi, in terms of pure landscape; but the music assumes a decidedly Russian character, as if cross-fertilized by Respighi’s own teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. We hear church bells, Eastern doxology, modal harmonies, soaring strings, and lush melodies. The NBC players prove particularly alert in the woodwinds, and the resultant sonic image finds us mesmerized by Loefler’s sheer competency in having scored this large canvas, much in accord with our high opinion of A Pagan Poem.
Paul Creston (nee Guttoveggio) is an Italian-born composer whose work conveys a consistent, dark energy and easy vitality. He likes counterpoint, pungent harmonies, and long, linear melodies set instrumentally in challenging colors for the participants. He won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for the best American orchestral work heard during the 1942-43 season. This Choric Dance, an abstract work set choreographically for a body of dancers, enjoys decisive, rhythmic and color flair. Toscanini makes us wish to hear it again.
Announcer Ben Grauer (1908-1977) calls the succeeding Lincoln Legend “one of the most ambitious works of pianist and composer Morton Gould,” completed in 1941, “and it might almost be titled after Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln’s “Prairie Years” and “War Years.” After a bucolic, lyrical opening, Gould fashions patriotic and folk materials from the Civil War era into a symphonic poem of some seventeen minutes that ends rather quizzically, a kind of “whither shall I fly?” “John Brown’s Body” introduces a litany of war tunes, some of which enjoy a jaunty optimism. The music intends to solidify an “American idiom,” much in the manner of Aaron Copland, and given the rampant, anti-fascist ethos of the period, it succeeds, “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” Grauer indicates that Morton Gould came forth to shake hands with Maestro Toscanini and to receive audience appreciation.
Benny Goodman and Earl Wild join the NBC Symphony for George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; and after a false start the music cooks. Replete with jazzy wah-wah effects and no mean riffs in swing and stride style, with plenty of raucous effects in low winds. Earl Wild had been serving as the NBC staff pianist, but his time was nigh. The elemental, rhythmically aggressive, instrumental-slide invested performance evolves out the same, idiomatic cloth we know from the likes of Paul Whiteman and Andre Kostelanetz. The 1924 work set the standard for “symphonic jazz” and became a template for composer like Ravel and Stravinsky. Earl Wild himself performs with a carefree abandon, hustling through his ecstatic part with no demure nod to Oscar Levant. At times, the Wild octaves resound with a speed and force of Grieg or Chopin. That the original orchestration actually belongs to Ferde Grofe no longer disturbs us; and for this grand performance of 1942, it did not factor into the spontaneous uproar the audience bestows on all participants.