Toscanini: Philharmonic-Symphony of New York: Complete Recordings, Vol. 2 = GLUCK: Orfeo ed Eurydice: Dance of the Blessed Spirits; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67; MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Incidental Music, Op. 61: Scherzo and Nocturne; ROSSINI: Il Barbieri di Siviglia – Overture; L’Italiana in Algeri – Overture; Semiramide – Overture; VERDI: La Traviata – Prelude, Act I; Prelude, Act III: DUKAS: L’apprenti sorcier – Philharmonic-Symphony of New York/ Arturo Toscanini – Pristine Audio PASC 588 (2 CDs) TT: 2:24:19 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn continues his extensive project dedicated to those recordings – made by Toscanini almost in spite of himself, given his thorough aversion to the recording process – with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, 1926-1936. RCA, happily, felt that music history demanded that documents exist to preserve The Maestro in his capacity as a director of orchestra-hall music beyond his work in opera. Among the documents here restored we have the results of the 1936 compromise achieved between Toscanini and RCA, the studio sessions and retakes preserved, along with the 1931 Beethoven Fifth – originally rejected by Toscanini for publication – now enhanced by pitch stabilization and equalization methods facilitated by Andrew Rose.,
Toscanini opens with “The Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice, which exists in multiple takes, each with solo flute John Amans. The published version, take 4, at 5:01, proves the lengthiest, although the “faster,” alternate versions vary only within ten seconds. What impresses us lies in the consistency of execution, the wistful transparency of texture, and the response between the solo flute and string ensemble. The “live” Beethoven Fifth combines the linear, driven ferocity of Beethoven’s “fate” impulse while retaining the composer’s capacity for lyrical consolation. The oboe part of the first movement Allegro con brio shines, but we might wish for better definition from the tympani. The astounding homogeneity of execution in the stretti will glean many admirers for the Maestro’s demonic sense of ensemble.
The Toscanini command that music sing, cantare, flows forth in the Andante con moto. The sforzatos that emerge do not shatter the continuity, nor do they feel percussive. The horn and low string work warrants repeated listening; we clearly discern the “fate” motif in the basses and tympani. A strong pause, a cough, and the flute and bassoon resume the progression, which sails upward to involve the tutti in martial glory. The extended coda appears somewhat distant, though string and flute parts achieve a poetic sense of closure. The Scherzo (Allegro) unleashes the French horn sound that would inspire Wagner, while the “fate” motif assumes a new resolve. Whiplash attacks and urgent tempo shine in the clarity Toscanini elicits, especially in polyphony. Given Toscanini’s penchant for (Verdian) drama, the transition to the monumental finale receives graded, nuanced development, even in pizzicato. We can sense the audience anticipation as the pedal point explodes into the Allegro whose rhythmic shifts already herald the energies of the A Major Symphony. Potent Mannheim rockets take us to martial tune – yet another permutation of the “fate” motif – and the blazing, stratified textures that dissipate into flute and woodwind serenade. The terrific momentum culminates, only to hurtle into some abyss, phoenix-like, to rise again. The oboe and ensemble renew the titanic energy, driven by Toscanini, and a force not to be denied. The extended coda – which exists in an alternative, proffered take previously unreleased – could be more definitive in the piccolo, but the sense that the most minute of musical materials has wrought a veritable whirlwind now remains for posterity to savor.
The Mendelssohn excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream derive from the 1926 Brunswick sessions from the fifth floor of Carnegie Hall. The Scherzo take comes in at 4:49, and its pungent clarity reveals a responsive wind and string ensemble of the first order. The takes from 1929 assume a more breakneck speed, reducing the playing time by a full half-minute. It’s as Toscanini wished to create his own, virtuoso page, a la Mengelberg. While flutist John Amans appears in the Scherzo, French horn Bruno Jaenicke shines in the flexible, fluid (1926) Nocturne.
Disc 2 represents Toscanini in the music of three composers: Rossini, Verdi, and Dukas. The three takes Obert-Thorn provides for Il barbiere testify both to the dynamism of Toscanini’s style and the consistency of tempo that he set for his concept with their balanced, nuanced openings, each slightly adjusted but always the soul of the sung line. The renditions, collectively, run within five seconds of one another. The taut string line enjoys, respectively, the oboe, flute, and horn parts – and later the bassoon – collectively swelling with the tutti in the patented manner of “Monsieur Crescendo.” The sheer volatility and flexibility of the string line in L’Italiana in Algeri quite astound us for homogeneity and brilliance of execution. And so we reach the potent 1823 Overture to Semiramide, a vehicle beloved by Beecham as well as Toscanini, if only for its ability to conceal the tragedy of the Assyrian queen. The explosive fortes immediately yield to the horn motif, a funereal motif close in spirit to a chorale. At its mightiest, the sound approaches Beethoven; at its most delicate, the model seems to be Mozart. Lightness of touch mixed with ferocious sforzatos guarantee a real Toscanini experience for this virtuoso overture. The trumpet and cymbal work warrant the price of admission. As Obert-Thorn indicates, the RCA engineers, using two recording devices in delayed tandem, captured the momentum of the Toscanini fire with a minimum of interference.
The two Verdi preludes to the Act I and Act III La Traviata remind us, with mystical and transparent ardor that the F minor “fate” tonality must recall the love remains the ultimate mystery, even in its urgency unto death. Only eight seconds separate the three instantiations of the Act III Prelude. We end with two takes on the Dukas realization of Goethe’s ballad, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, his Scherzo in C minor. The bassoon playing alone wins the berries, and the string pizzicato and horn staccatos merit high praise. The trumpet tonguing late in the score serves a source of pride for any American orchestra. The ensemble proves so brisk we might easily confuse accuracy and evenness of pace for excessive speed.
It’s been a dazzling ride into a living past, so vital that its “presence” demands immediate and repeated audition.