EW reviews the latest in classical music
Arturo Toscanini looms so large in the American musical imagination that it comes as something of a shock to realize that, were he still alive, he would be 123 years old. Toscanini died in 1957, just short of his 90th birthday, but the Italian maestro’s memory is very much with us — and not only for those graybeards who grew up listening to his concerts with the NBC Symphony. This month, the first of what will eventually be an 82-CD series (or 81 cassettes, along with nine videos on laserdisc or cassette) of the complete Toscanini discography for RCA Victor are being issued by BMG Classics on the RCA Gold Seal label. The remainder of the Toscanini Collection will be released through 1993.
Let me state my feelings right up front: The Toscanini of these recordings was perhaps the most overrated musician of the 20th century. This is not Toscanini’s fault, but that of the cult that sprang up around him in his dotage — the period that, unfortunately, most of the NBC Symphony records date from. When we listen to the famous set of the Beethoven Nine, we are listening to recordings made between 1949 and 1952, when the conductor was already in his 80s.
This Toscanini was not the firebrand who created a sensation at the Metropolitan Opera, leading the world premiere of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West in 1910. This was not the magisterial Toscanini who had a stormy tenure as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic between 1929 and 1936. Alas, these performances are much closer in time to the old, forgetful man who lost his place in a Wagner piece during his last Carnegie Hall concert on April 4, 1954, and whose resignation from the NBC Symphony had been forced a week earlier. Three years later, Toscanini was dead.
The first batch of releases consists of the Beethoven set, perhaps the most influential recording of the cycle ever committed to disc; the four Brahms symphonies, the double concerto for violin and cello, and some smaller works, which date from the same period; and Verdi’s Aida, Falstaff, and Requiem, along with some lesser pieces and operatic excerpts. For those of you watching at home, there are also videos of the Aida studio recording and, in an earlier performance than the one in the Beethoven set, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The next group of releases, of various symphonies, tone poems, and concertos, is scheduled for May, with this year’s final installment in September.
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies, ”Leonore” Overture No. 3
This is the set that cemented the Toscanini legend. Unfortunately, it’s almost unlistenable today. Hard, rough, even at times brutal, this is the ”bad” Toscanini at his stereotypical worst, running rough-shod over Beethoven’s corpse. Yes, we know that to Toscanini the first movement of the ”Eroica” Symphony was not a romanticized musical portrait of Napoleon, but simply allegro con brio, but couldn’t he have found a little poetry in the score? It’s not Elliott Carter, for crying out loud. D
Brahms: The Four Symphonies, Concerto for Violin & Cello
What a contrast! Here is the ”good” Toscanini, flashing back to his early, fine form: just as propulsive as in the Beethoven, but now direct, focused, sensitive to both line and nuance. A major surprise for those who know only the Beethoven cycle. A
Verdi: Aida, Falstaff, Requiem
A mixed bag here. The two operas are big disappointments, both marred by the shrieking of soprano Herva Nelli (just listen to her ”O patria mia” in Act III of Aida), although Richard Tucker is wonderful as Radames and Giuseppe Valdengo acceptable as Amonasro and, in Verdi’s last opera, Sir John Falstaff. The Requiem, however, is a marvel, taut, controlled, and passionate, with splendid singing from mezzo Fedora Barbieri, tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, and bass Cesare Siepi; even Nelli can’t wreck it. Aida: D+ Falstaff: C Requiem: B+
In all, this is a worthy project and a valuable documentation, if unrepresentative of the scope of Toscanini’s career. Overall grade: C