C1755. ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. NBC S.O.: Complete Concert, 1 November, 1947: All Mendelssohn: Die schöne Melusine Overture; String Quintet #2 - Third Movement; A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Overture and Incidental Music, with Edna Phillips (s); Genevieve Warner (mez); Peter Wilhousky Chorus. Bonus: Hebrides Overture, 4 November, 1945; ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. NBC S.O.: Complete Concert, 30 March, 1947: All Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings; Symphony #5. Each concert with broadcast commentary. Transfers by Richard Caniell. The handsome 22pp. booklet features Notes by Robert Matthew-Walker & Richard Caniell. - 644216896752
“From Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances comes yet another marvelous release that invites us to experience and evaluate the artistry of Arturo Toscanini in a new and even more favorable light. As the liner notes remind us, Toscanini was a frequent advocate for the music of Felix Mendelssohn, and at a time when the great German composer’s works did not enjoy the favor of the past several decades. This new Immortal Performances set features two complete Toscanini-NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, performed during the centenary of Mendelssohn’s death (a 1945 ‘Hebrides’ Overture is also included). Among the repertoire on the set, both the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Overture and Incidental Music, and Toscanini’s arrangement for string orchestra of the magnificent Octet, have been previously released by RCA. RCA has also issued a 1953 Toscanini-NBC S.O. Mendelssohn 'Reformation' Symphony (#5). The Immortal Performances set features the 'Reformation' from the March 30, 1947 broadcast.
At the outset, I will note that in each case, the sonic qualities of the performances, as restored by Immortal Performances, are a significant improvement over the RCA issues. Richard Caniell has managed to provide a much greater sense of warmth and depth to the cramped Studio 8H acoustic that is all too familiar from RCA issues. In addition, Caniell has tamed the harshness of the recordings’ upper registers, and given the bass much more presence, definition, and depth. Thanks to Richard Caniell’s admirable work, these recordings no longer sound harsh and top-heavy. Quite the contrary, they boast depth, color, and a true sense of concert hall perspective. And while it is true that we are discussing two different performances of the 'Reformation' Symphony, the acoustic of the 1947 performance included here is preferable to its 1953 counterpart, for much the same reasons I’ve outlined for the RCA/Immortal Performances duplicated material. The source materials for this release are, as Richard Caniell describes, ‘sub-master lacquer’. It is true that the surfaces of these lacquers are by no means pristine, but thanks to Richard Caniell, you will be able to enjoy these performances for the treasures that they most assuredly are.
The improved sound allows us to appreciate performances that, to a great degree, counter many of the stereotypes associated with Toscanini. Yes, the legendary precision of ensemble and razor-sharp chords are present throughout. But we also hear a Toscanini who is willing to take a broader approach to tempos than might be expected. The most obvious example is the measured and grand approach Toscanini adopts for the finale of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony. In addition, and along related lines, Toscanini often applies tasteful, but readily apparent, rubato in his phrasing. Thanks to Caniell’s restorations, we can also hear the tender, gossamer effects Toscanini draws from the NBC SO. Listen, for example, to the magical opening of the ‘Fair Melusina’ Overture, the start of the Overture to A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, or the Scherzo from that same work’s Incidental Music. These are treasurable moments on their own, but all the more so when they serve as foils to the more robust, energetic music often juxtaposed within the same work. Toscanini was, of course, a great opera conductor, and Mendelssohn’s evocative, and at times even theatrical, orchestral works bring out the best in the Italian maestro. And so, the ‘Hebrides’ Overture becomes the compelling mini-drama that it should be, one that kept this listener on the edge of his seat.
Among the featured works, I am perhaps less convinced by the Octet for Strings. On its own terms, the performance is a tour-de-force, with a sizeable body of strings immaculately executing a chamber work originally scored for double string quartet. But a performance featuring the original, far more intimate ensemble, allows for the kind of detail and give-and-take that is beyond the scope of a large-scale group of performers, even when that group is directed by Toscanini. That said, the Caniell restoration reveals far more of the warmth and beauty of the performance than reflected on the RCA issue. The 1947 ‘Reformation’ proceeds along similar outlines to its 1953 counterpart. But I also find a greater sense of dramatic and musical breadth and contrast in the earlier version. Take, for example, the slow-tempo introduction to the symphony’s first movement. Toscanini adopts a slightly broader approach, one more tenderly phrased (note, for example, the exquisite violin portamento in the second voicing of the ‘Dresden Amen’) in the 1947 rendition. Once again, such an approach makes the implacable launch of the ensuing Allegro con fuoco all the more impactful. This kind of contrast, and light and shade, continue throughout. [This] 1947 performance earns preferred status, especially in Caniell’s beautiful restoration.
The booklet features essays on Mendelssohn and Toscanini by Robert Matthew-Walker and Richard Caniell, an 80th birthday appreciation of the Maestro by Olin Downes, and the previously referenced Recording Notes. The Immortal Performances release of the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM excerpts restores ‘You spotted snakes’ (scored for two sopranos, women’s chorus, and orchestra), omitted in RCA’s version. The sung texts are reprinted in the booklet. Broadcast announcements, including a touching plea to help people in need in post-war Western Europe, enhance an already rich experience. I think that when the history of Toscanini’s recorded legacy is reassessed at some future date, Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances will be celebrated, and with great appreciation. This all-Mendelssohn release is a prime example of their superb and most valuable work, and is therefore given the highest recommendation.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, March / April, 2019