Testament SBT2 1404 63:51, 77:37 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
There might be something delectably jingoistic in the nature of the programs here assembled of the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), covering the years 1938 (Meyerbeer) to 1945 (Smith). Much of the collation is devoted to wartime concerts, including several works which Toscanini performed brilliantly, but once only at that time. The two Sousa marches (27 August 1944) have a Hollywood flag-waving aura about them. The musical surprises include a rousing El Salon Mexico (14 March 1942), with wicked rhythmic thrusts and drunken clarinet, a piece I might have attributed solely to Toscanini’s protégé Guido Cantelli, not to the Maestro himself. A pity Toscanini did not inscribe the entire Rustic Wedding Symphony of Karl Goldmark (3 September 1944). The “In the Garden” section waxes sweetly after a brisk opening; the Serenade, too, is taken quickly, but the music sings delightfully, as Beecham and Bernstein would prove in their fuller realizations.
The earliest recording is that of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah Overture (12 November 1938), when Toscanini and his relatively new ensemble were still feeling each other out. The piece is lengthy, with a vocal section. From 15 February 1941 we have a fine moment of ensemble from Mischa Mischakoff, Carlton Cooley, and Toscanini, all of whom would collaborate on the Brahms Double Concerto; and Cooley proved a worthy solo in Berlioz’ Harold in Italy. Here they offer a thrilling Sinfonia concertante of Mozart, with sinewy, graceful lines and pungent attacks that never distort the intimacy of the principals’ approach. While the Studio 8-H acoustic is forever dry, the sound engineering on these restorations does not detract from the viscera of the music-making. The French aspect of the programs’ Bizet and Massenet suites are virile, thoroughly melodious affairs; the Massenet must have impressed Mitropoulos, who likewise performed the Alsatian Scenes in his early CBS recording career. The Bizet shows off the fine woodwind ensemble of the NBC, with flute, oboe and clarinet prominence coming to the fore. The big work is the Kalinnikov G Minor Symphony 7 (November 1943), offered likely as tribute to our Russian allies at the time. Toscanini exerts a powerful presence here, with tender attentions to the textural details of the Andante commodamente. Oboe solo and pizzicato strings make an indelible, ever-so-oriental impression, the portamenti generously bestowed. While available for a time on Music & Arts LPs, I for one am glad to have these sterling documents restored to the active catalogue of America’s most energetic conductor of the 1940s.
— Gary Lemco