Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Review: R. Strauss, Haydn, Mozart - Toscanini - 1941 (Naxos)

Stupendous performances in outstanding (for its time) sound

This is a mind-blowing CD essential for everybody seriously interested in Arturo Toscanini.

To begin with, the sound is absolutely unbelievable for a broadcast from February 1, 1941. It has depth, clarity and naturalness one seldom finds in recordings of those times, especially live broadcasts. Naxos did, as usual, an outstanding job in this respect. So, no doubt, did the RCA engineers in 1941: there is nothing of the notorious ''dead dryness'' of the NBC Studio 8-H. The only minor qualm about the sound is that the dynamic range is necessarily rather limited by modern standards; so the solo violin or the woodwinds in Strauss may sound rather too much brought forward. But that can't be helped. Still, the dynamic range is quite good enough to appreciate Toscanini's stunning achievement in this direction.

Ein Heldenleben is by far the most important work on the disc, all the more so since this is the only time Toscanini played it with the NBC Symphony during his 17 years as their chief conductor. (And he prepared it just twice more with the New York Philharmonic in earlier years.) It passes belief that such monumental work can be interpreted with so much understanding by somebody who has prepared it but three times in his career. But when that ''somebody'' is Arturo Toscanini, things are quite different. This is a stupendous performance that easily stands comparison with anything recorded before (e.g. Mengelberg's version) or after (any of Karajan's renditions with the Berliners, Kempe's one with Staatskapelle Dresden, and even the composer's own recording, for instance). It must be heard to be believed.
There is nothing more to be said about it.

Haydn has never been my cup of tea, so I can't say anything about his 99th symphony except that Toscanini's performance of it has his usual drive, clarity and power. So does the overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute, which is indeed very much my cup of tea. Toscanini delivers here a marvellously exhilarating rendition way removed from some of today's soporific misunderstandings. Whatever you may have heard about Toscanini's complete recording from Salzburg in 1937 – everything's ''too fast'', etc. – this particular live performance, though certainly brisk, is never rushed and shows no insensitivity to Mozart's masterful orchestration.

As a bonus track, there is one short excerpt from a rehearsal of the overture. Sadly, it is only three minutes or so long, but there is not much space available anyway; the total timing is some 78 minutes. Toscanini's trademark mixture of Italian and heavily accented English is difficult to understand, but at one place one can clearly hear one of his most famous ''I am stupid!'' exclamations. It's a delicious bonus, this rehearsal excerpt, eloquently demonstrating the Maestro's passion for music; his singing Mozart's tunes is riveting.

The Naxos booklet leaves something to be desired, but at this price one is unwise to expect more. In addition to decent, but a little pretentious, liner notes about the works by Bill Newman, it also contains one fulsome essay by Richard Caniell about Toscanini's rehearsals in general. A piece about the place of this particular broadcast and the works included in the context of Toscanini's life and career would have been better.

Never mind. An indispensable disc for any Toscanini admirer.

No comments:

Post a Comment