C1731. Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 6, 8, 9; Leonore Overture #3. ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. New York Philharmonic 1936, w. Rosa Tentoni, Charles Kullman, Rose Bampton, Ezio Pinza and the New York Schola Cantorum. (Canada) 2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1104, with 1936 broadcast commentary by Davidson Taylor. Published in association with the Toscanini Estate. Transfers by Richard Caniell. The handsome booklet features Notes by Robert Matthew-Walker, John Sullivan & Richard Caniell). - 644216110124
“A new release by the Immortal Performances label, in association with the Toscanini Estate, features 1935–36 broadcasts by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic of compositions by Beethoven. All of the performances on this set represent the earliest recorded documents of Toscanini conducting the works in question. Toscanini first led the NY Philharmonic in 1926. For a period, Toscanini shared music director duties with Willem Mengelberg, the legendary conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. In 1930, Toscanini became the sole music director, a position he held until 1936. In my review of the superb Immortal Performances release of Toscanini’s Victor studio recordings with the NY Philharmonic (IPCD 1087-3) [C1582]), I discussed the value of these discs, vis-à-vis their more famous counterparts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra: ‘The Toscanini-NYPO recordings document a conductor at the height of his energy and powers and able to call upon the benefit of a lifetime of experience, leading one of the world’s great ensembles, also at the peak of its artistry. To be sure, the attributes of Toscanini’s famous NBC SO recordings are present here as well: the breathtaking precision of execution, a lyrical, singing tone, a magnificent grasp of a work’s proportion and architecture, and perhaps above all, a stunning drive and momentum. But the NYPO recordings document a Toscanini far more willing to explore expansive tempos, as well as a liberal application of rubato, and even string portamento. Indeed, I often wonder how many who are unfamiliar with these recordings would first identify Toscanini as the conductor’. To be sure, the NY Philharmonic studio recordings are of the utmost musical and historical value. But we should bear in mind that Toscanini, who began his conducting career in 1886, was always first and foremost a man of the theater and concert hall, not the recording studio. In order to gain a more complete understanding of Toscanini’s craft, the ability to study his in-concert performances, including those with the NY Philharmonic, is a priceless gift. The new Immortal Performances Beethoven set provides such a gift. In his Recording Notes for the new set, Richard Caniell discusses the challenges involved in restoring the source material, a challenge enhanced by broadcast engineers who often failed to capture an accurate, realistic, and detailed sound document. And to be sure, these 1935-36 broadcasts are far from the sonic equal of the magnificent Toscanini NY-Philharmonic studio recordings (1926, 1929-36). That said, Richard Caniell has done remarkable work to restore these off-the-air recordings (each more than 80 years old!) to a state that will provide great pleasure to any listener with a tolerance for historic sound documents.
The performances themselves, like the contemporaneous studio NY Philharmonic studio recordings, showcase a remarkable musical partnership. The opening Leonore #3, taken from an April 26, 1936 broadcast, is representative of the performances on this set as a whole. Toscanini adopts a broad tempo and flexible phrasing for the Adagio introduction, and elicits playing of remarkable lyricism and beauty. This, in turn, makes the ensuing Allegro all the more dramatic and impactful. And speaking of impact, the NY Philharmonic players under Toscanini achieve a sonority of far more warmth and depth throughout than do their NBC counterparts. As a result, Toscanini’s monumental, razor-sharp attacks have a far greater (even visceral) impact in the NY Philharmonic performances featured here. Indeed, it is a singular thrill to hear an orchestra of such tonal richness and beauty play with this kind of hairpin precision. Even though the November 4, 1939 NBC broadcast of the Leonore #3 proceeds within similar parameters as the NY Philharmonic 1936 performance, it is the latter that (despite inferior recorded sound) repeatedly gives me goose bumps. The remaining performances are on a similarly grand level. The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, taken from a February 3, 1935 performance, strikes an ideal balance between the work’s lyrical and more dramatic elements. Two years later, Toscanini made a famous HMV studio recording of the ‘Pastoral’ with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (both versions omit the first movement’s exposition repeat). The BBC recording is justly admired, but the 1935 NY Philharmonic performance strikes me as having an even freer and more flexible approach to phrasing. Perhaps this is a product of the latter’s origin as a live concert. The remainder of the set features a complete March 8, 1936 Carnegie Hall program, including the Beethoven Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. The Eighth receives a brilliant performance, executed to perfection. Toscanini was perhaps the greatest interpreter of Verdi’s operatic comic masterpiece, FALSTAFF. The Maestro understood that in FALSTAFF, Verdi employed techniques previously found in his tragic works, but now to grand comic effect. So it is with the Beethoven Eighth, and once again Toscanini rises to the challenge. Every comic moment is savored to its utmost, but never at the expense of the work’s overall momentum. In the Ninth, Toscanini contrasts blazing renditions of the first two movements with a third-movement Adagio that, taken at a relaxed tempo, and played with radiant tone, is arrestingly beautiful. As in the February 6, 1938 NBC Carnegie Hall performance of the Ninth (IPCD 1079-2 [C1556]), Toscanini emphasizes the dramatic (even operatic) conflict of the opening measures, setting the stage for the radiant ‘Ode to Joy’ melody. The great Italian bass Ezio Pinza, in magnificent form, heralds the arrival of the vocal soloists. If the vocal quartet is not overall quite the equal of the 1938 NBC soloists, they acquit themselves admirably, as does the Schola Cantorum. This is a great performance of a work Toscanini adored and spent his entire life exploring, with the hope of doing it justice. The new Immortal Performances restoration strikes me as having a warmer, more transparent acoustic [than any previous issue], and would be my first choice.
The March 8, 1936 concert includes broadcast commentary by Davidson Taylor. The accompanying booklet includes a thoughtful and eloquent essay by Robert Matthew-Walker on Toscanini and Beethoven, conductor John Sullivan’s highly detailed and informative analysis of the recordings (with comparisons to other Toscanini versions), and Richard Caniell’s aforementioned commentary. Toscanini’s approach to conducting was in a lifelong state of constant self-reflection and evolution. If you are interested in exploring Toscanini’s way with Beethoven during the 1930s, I think the 1939 NBC cycle (IPCD 1064-10 [C1685]), wonderful renditions in very fine sound, offers the marvelous starting point. But the performances included on this Immortal Performances release offer a priceless window into the unique magic Toscanini and the NY Philharmonic achieved in this iconic repertoire, especially in live concert. If you are a devotee of Toscanini and/or historic recordings of Beethoven, this set is a ‘must’.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE Nov. / Dec., 2018