Toscanini conducts Contemporary Russian Music = PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 10; KABALEVSKY: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 19; Overture to Colas Breugnon – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini – Pristine Audio PASC 548, 74:56 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Portrait Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev,
circa 1918

Arturo Toscanini celebrated his 80th birthday in 1947, and he received well wishes from Russian contemporary composers, glad to have his imprimatur of a performance of their music.  The music of Serge Prokofiev generally did not appeal to Toscanini, but he programmed the “Classical” Symphony several times, and the performance preserved here comes from 15 November 1947.  Restoration editor Andre Rose has touched up the sonic patina to a high gloss, and the reading has bite and wit. We might find more affection in the recorded documents by Malko and Koussevitzky, but the virtuosic level of the NBC cannot be disputed.

Portrait Shostakovich

Dimitri Shostakovich

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 in F Major (rec. 14 January 1939) served as the composer’s graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory, premiered by Nicolai Malko with the Conservatory Student Orchestra.  The work condenses much of the Shostakovich style that would identify him even in later years, with its juxtaposition of lyricism, nervous tension, wit, sarcasm, and tragic somberness.  If early influences might be cited, we can find references to Mahler, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky.  In his musical maturity, Shostakovich would add Bartok to his sonic palette.  If a playful grotesquerie dominates the first two movements, a feeling of militant, tragic despair sets in that echoes aspects of both Mahler and Tchaikovsky.  Although Toscanini made strong efforts on behalf of securing the first American, world-premiere 1942 performance—much to spite Stokowski—of the Leningrad Symphony, he felt Shostakovich expressed too much dissonance for his taste.  Despite a lack of general sympathy for this music, Toscanini manages a clear, direct, and dramatic rendition, supported by nothing less than brilliant work in the NBC winds, strings, and brass.  The sound for a 1939 broadcast has remarkable resonance. At the final chord, the audience seems a bit startled that the symphony has concluded.

The symphonies of Dmitri Kabalevsky have enjoyed only a limited popularity, of which the No. 2 in C minor (1934) appears to be a direct reflection of Kabalevsky’s musical mentor, Nikolai Miaskovsky.  Albert Coates led the world premiere. The first American performance by Toscanini (8 November 1942) injects lively verve and suave energy into the Allegro quasi presto, with a militant confidence and warmth that enjoys the “oriental” flavor we know from Borodin and Balakirev.  Even the brash or splashy moments do not attack us but move to a dark mix that finds a line between Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.  The audience appreciates the first movement, and low strings and flute open a dreamily sweet Andante non troppo that crescendos to something like Technicolor spectacle music for brass. The music dissipates once more into a dream world, bucolic and soothing, in the manner of a national lullaby.  Kabalaevsky marks his last movement Prestissimo scherzando, music that has much in common with his “Youth Concerto” triptych. Jittery and clever, the music moves in a fashion that pays homage to Tchaikovsky and to Soviet pomp at once, rife with trumpets, tympani, and cymbals. The last few minutes incorporate the jazzy, pounding  rhythms we hear in the very next selection, the Colas Breugnon Overture.

From 11 April 1943 Toscanini leads Colas Breugnon in a re-broadcast performance.  The music corresponds to the adventures of the Romain Roland romance hero, who cavorts in Burgundy in the 17th Century. Told in the first person, the narrative follows Colas the free, lusty, and jovial wood carver who always embodies a good fellow, well-met.  He might be a counterpart of the rascal and picaro Francois Villon played by Ronald Colman in If I Were King.  Pert and witty, the performance by Toscanini has charm and the light touch, fundamental for this brisk piece.

–Gary Lemco

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