Toscanini Television Concerts Vol. 1

by | Feb 25, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Toscanini Television Concerts Vol. 1

Program: WAGNER: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III; Overture and Bacchanale from Tannhauser; Siegfried: Forest Murmurs; Gotterdammerung: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Die Walkure: Ride of the Valkyries; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral”
Performers: Anne McKnight, soprano/ Jane Hobson, contralto/ Erwin Dillon, tenor/ Norman Scott, bass/ Collegiate Chorale/ Robert Shaw, conductor/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini
Studio: Testament DVD SBDVD 1003 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi)
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 121 Minutes
Rating: ****

Through agreement with the Estate of Arturo Toscanini, Testament issues Television Concerts 1948-1952, of which this is Volume I of five.  Set in the famous–even infamous–Studio 8H, the visual concept for capturing Toscanini in concert is relatively primitive by today’s standards, but the often mesmerizing aspects of Toscanini’s facial expressions and infallible baton technique manage to affect us. To the Maestro and orchestra’s left there is a reflective glass rectangle, reminiscent of the window at a police interrogation room, through which a side camera may give us another perspective. The intensity of the lighting plays a factor, too, with several shots devoted to the fine art of perspiration. Narration and liner notes are provided by my old colleagues at “First Hearing,” Martin Bookspan and Mortimer Frank, respectively.

The concert of 20 March 1948 is devoted to Wagner and opens with the frenzied Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. The Maestro leads completely with his baton arm, the left hand perched on his lapel until the soft middle section. Toscanini’s lips move as he sings the main lines, his eyes in constant movement as he cues each orchestral choir. Firm discipline marks every bar, and the players are riveted to the Maestro’s gestures. The Tannhauser excerpts are furious but lavishly mounted, with high, polished arches and a beautiful gradation of diminuendo as the Bacchanale dissipates into space. Occasional shots let us view the strings, even the harp. Toscanini ushers his responsive players to their collective feet with a flourish of his baton.  The left had extends, palm down for Forest Murmurs, then to the lapel, then a soft flutter of the fingers as the strings undulate the spell of the forest. The index finger points to the oboe then the horns, then pull back for the Maestro in front of the large arco melody. Concertmaster Mischakoff in relief, then the camera searches for the flute. Toscanini lets his baton float in small swoops to capture the ethos of forest panoply. The sound is remarkable clean and clear, cavils against Studio 8H acoustics notwithstanding. Flute and triangle shimmer. The Maestro picks up the tempo; the Valhalla motif soars over the pizzicati, emanations of Wotan’s Farewell appear, and then the magical brew vibrates in a host of color that point directly to Sibelius.  The audience refuses to let the final note breathe in decay before their applause smothers the affect.

Watch Toscanini‚s left hand introduce the horn motif in the opening of Dawn from Gotterdamerung. Frank Miller’s cello dominates the camera, just left of the Maestro’s hand. The strings lift the vocal line and the resonance is a revelation to those only familiar with audio versions of this concert. To see four salient harps amid the flurry of string and wind sound is visual tour de force. The music moves ineluctably toward high C, the Maestro’s baton becoming ever more flexible, and then the explosion of erotic triumph moves to the French horn call to adventure. Toscanini’s left hand is contorted into an eagle’s claw as he implores more intensity from the strings. The dance begins in counterpoint, and we can see another absurd little projection-booth box poised for another camera angle. The Rheingold motif sails and dissipates into the waters of the Rhine. The Ride of the Valkyries spends perhaps too much time lingering on Toscani’s baton arm and facial features, especially since he has the NBC in firm fettle from the opening notes. The syncopations enjoy clean articulation, and the Old Man lets his arms swing down to capture the fierce momentum he has realized. One superimposed shot of Toscanin and the full frontal perspective of him before the ensemble. The tremolandi are white hot at the conclusion, the applause equally frenzied.

The Beethoven Ninth dates from 3 April 1948. The video image is bleached out, but it is a privilege to watch the Maestro mold this eminent work into a cohesive, if somewhat overdriven whole. The first movement tempo is uncompromising, fiercely linear, although the soft passages display a touch of rhythmic flexibility. The first period of motives has ended almost before we can savor its effect. We begin again, and this time Toscanini’s eyebrows lift the arch into the next level of ether. He takes a big marcato for the march-like theme and tremolandi, then the dark descent into polyphony, the shot taken well back behind the audience. Superimpose Toscanini on the string and tympani line, then the left hands and eyebrows impose their firm control. The playing is so strict in tempo that it begins to sound like a relentless, monumental exercise in organ diapason transposition. That the NBC players have anything left for the grim coda is a testament to their own stamina.

The dancing elements of the Molto vivace, too, are sacrificed to a higher or at least, more willful, purpose. The extension on Toscanini’s left thumb wants to roll this whole movement into a ball, with apologies to Andrew Marvell. Winds, horns, and second strings are whipping up a fine brew, but the periodic rests allow them to breathe. The camera refuses to cut to the tympani section, unfortunately–we want to se him sweat, too. Great woodwind playing at the speed indicated; even the contrabassoon is in perfect form. A bit of relaxation in the Trio, then we do see the tympani in a long shot as the Scherzo winds up for another round, semi-automatic. A long moment of handkerchief work before the Adagio, as the soloists enter for the choral finale.  But first the exalted double-theme and variations, into which the Old Man leans, left on his heart for emotional emphasis. The camera follows the diviso strings while the woodwinds play through without video complement. The oboe entry has instead a shot of the contrabassoon and Toscanini’s rapt face.  After the horn and pizzicato string variation, the cameras superimpose a long shot onto Toscanini’s right hand profile. Left hand to Toscanini’s cheek for subito after the horn clarion. The long, sinewy lines proceed too quickly, the threads become thin arabesques, gossamer but colorless.

Impatient for the Presto of the Finale, Toscanini swings his baton arm and quick-walks the recitative, then the recollections of motifs from earlier movements. Toscanini and the cellos, particularly Frank Miller,  grope for a theme; Toscanini hits the two chords dead on prior to the diminuendo announcement of the theme in the low strings. The dynamics rise, and Toscanini lets his baton carry the forte statement as he sings the melody, then the winds call upon his left hand. Enter Norman Scott and chorus, then the vocal quartet, Anne McKnight’s soprano stratospheric from the outset. End of the first period and onto the scherzino and an index finger to Erwin Dillon and his “Turkish” march. The fugato is a hectic affair, sheer nervous energy. The martial slow section enters, the chorus raising the stakes of love to the entire world. Watch Toscanini mold the adagio section of altos and basses. The diminuendo before the choral fugue is all the Bruckner Toscanini never conducted.  The vocal quartet has to make tracks through their rising scales, then the chorus with “All men are brothers” and “deine zauber” to the a cappella quartet, Ms. McKnight from interstellar space. The Turkish motif and Toscanini’s arms flailing, a superimposed shot of his increasing energy to the coda, winding up the machine like Sandy Koufax about to release a cosmic fastball. Applause erupts, but Toscanini is oblivious, intent on retrieving Robert Shaw from the wings to share the ovation.  Martin Bookspan puts the broadcast into historic perspective, and the video is over.

–Gary Lemco

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