Toscanini Collection, Vol.41
Toscanini's 1953 recording of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony is everything you would expect it to be: fierce and cogent but with textures as firm as sculpted marble and the moments of lyric nostalgia sung with that unmistakable dark Toscaninian cantabile. Though conducted by an Italian, it is very much an American view of the work, a New World New World without peer. There is, of course, another way with the symphony as exemplified by the great Czech conductors on record such as Talich Stupka (Talich's deputy, and much underrated), Kubelik and Ancerl. But among non-Czech versions, why bother to seek out any thing other than this astonishingly fervent performance that is ablaze in every moment? The fill-ups, sadly, are less successful.
The Hary Janos suite is a rarity, and Toscanini's response to Kodaly's fantasy world is full of spirit and point: but the 1947 Studio 8-H recording gives the whole performance a slightly dusty feel. As for Smetana's ''Vltava'', recorded in Studio 8-H in 1950, it responds neither to Toscanini's methods nor to the studio's desiccated acoustic. The wedding dance lacks joy, the nocturnal sequences lack all sense of fantasy and deliquescence. But, at mid price, it is worth acquiring the CD or cassette for the Dvorak alone.
The Strauss and Respighi collections are also exceptionally fine. It is conceivable, with music as spectacular and as colourful as Respighi's, that some collectors will want stereo—nay, digital sound in these works. But in doing so will they get sharper-focused, more brilliantly coloured, or more decisively projected performances than these by Respighi's earliest and finest champion? I very much doubt it. Certainly, I have never heard a stronger case made out for what is allegedly the weakest of the three pieces, Feste romane. Toscanini's performance is sensational. Happily, the recordings were all made in the Carnegie Hall and are very fine. Collectors who already have an LP version of Fountains and Pines may find the CD a touch more strident and lacking in bass. That was RL's reaction in last November's ''Quarterly Retrospect''. But it was a minor quibble. As he said: ''these are such stunning performances that they must be strongly recommended''.
Like many of the very greatest conductors—Beecham and Karajan come to mind in this respect—Toscanini had a genius for making one believe absolutely in works that assorted snobs and killjoys would have us think second rate. Apparently, the opening of Strauss's Tod und Verklarung always gave him—or, rather, his orchestra—a certain amount of trouble. But few conductors helped paint more lucidly or less mawkishly the sickroom scene. There have, curiously enough, been more nerve-shattering readings of the work than Toscanini's. A case in point is Knappertsbusch's old mono Decca recording (11/56—nla) with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra which appeared in the UK the same month as Toscanini's LP on HMV. But Toscanini's lucidity gives unfailing pleasure and listening to the CD transfer I must say I am less worried by recorded balances and audience noise than Trevor Harvey was in his original review.
By contrast, LS had almost unqualified praise for the live 1953 Carnegie Hall recording of Don Quixote. ''Nothing,'' he wrote ''more clearly demonstrates Toscanini's true quality than the fact that it is possible to take one of his ordinary (one cannot use the word 'routine', for obvious reasons) broadcast performances and issue it in permanent form on record to complete satisfaction''. He noted a momentary slip in the first variation equally, one might like the two concluding chords of the work to have been re-made. But what a tour de force this is of orchestral wizardry and musical characterization in one of the repertory's most difficult works. What's more, Toscanini honours Strauss's original plan by having the orchestra's own front-desk cellist and viola player as the soloists. (Only a week later Carlton Cooley would distinguish himself as viola soloist in Toscanini's broadcast from Carnegie Hall of Berlioz's Harold in Italy RCA (CD) RD85755, 2/88.) I think it is reasonable to prefer this performance musically and sonically to Toscanini's 1938 NBC recording (Toscanini Society—nla) and to Strauss's own version with Mainardi recently reissued by DG (11/90), where the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin is frankly not in the same league as that of the NBC musicians.
Neither Strauss nor Toscanini much indulges the work, its end in particular, but Toscanini's is a superb exposition both at the level of its larger structure and in terms of its myriad detailing of Quixote's adventures and states of mind. The CD transfer is at a lower than usual level and the sound image is rather a constricted one, though with perfectly good dynamic range. I would not say that this is 'the' Don Quixote—versions conducted by Beecham, Reiner, Kempe and Karajan all too easily come to mind—but it is very fine.
The other two volumes are less easily recommended. The Beethoven concerto disc will attract attention because of the soloists and because of the old canard about star conductors disliking limelight-grabbing instrumentalists. In fact, Toscanini proves to be a masterly and sympathetic accompanist in the Violin Concerto where he understands both the symphony and the song and negotiates some sensitive exchanges between Heifetz and the orchestral purveyors of Beethoven's accompanying lines. The first movement, which can so easily fall apart at the seams, has a wonderful line to it, conversely, Heifetz and Toscanini realize to perfection the sense of sublime inaction in the Larghetto. Sadly, the last 78rpm side, affecting the work's conclusion, is rather rough.
By contrast, the 1944 Rubinstein account of the C minor Concerto is for the first time reproduced from the engineers' acetates of the broadcast. Good as the surfaces are, however, the dynamic levels are still remorseless—there isn't a piano or pianissimo in sight—and there are times when the piano sound has all the allure of a sustained trumpet solo. Toscanini sets a promisingly brisk pace in the first movement but later on the tempo is all over the place with Rubinstein ill-advisedly following the bad old tradition of speeding up at certain key points in the development where the necessary increase of speed is already there, built into the music by Beethoven himself by dextrous use of his (here very drily played) semiquaver figurations. The C minor is the most elusive of Beethoven's piano concertos and this performance brings us nowhere near a solution to any of its problems.
Finally, there is Vol. 40, a rare assortment of musical lollipops a good deal spoiled by some pretty vicious recordings made either in Studio 8-H or in Carnegie Hall under evident technical limitations. The collection includes a revelatory performance of Ponchielli's ''Dance of the Hours'' (Carnegie Hall, 1952, one of the better tracks), Toscanini's own stupefyingly brilliant arrangement for full string orchestra of a moto perpetuo by Paganini, and a cholesterol-free account of An der schonen, blauen Donau that is a tremendous relief from Viennese tendentiousness in this waltz. Other tracks are less appealing. In fact, Toscanini's ferocious 1941 account of Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony, or Kindersymphonie, probably ought to be referred to the NSPCC as a matter of some urgency. Genius is rarely without its darker side.'