C1969. ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. NBC S.O: Symphony #2 in D Major, op. 36 (Beethoven); 'Enigma' Variations, op. 36 (Elgar), Live Performance, NBC Studio 8H, New York, 5 November, 1949; 'Enigma' Variations, op. 36 (Elgar), Rehearsal Excerpts, New York, February 14, 1951. (Canada) 2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1152, with Commentary by Ben Grauer. Notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. Transfers by Richard Caniell. – 793888826434
“On November 7, 1951, Arturo Toscanini and the NBC SO performed a concert, broadcast to radio audiences from Studio 8H in New York City. The program included Beethoven’s Symphony #2 and Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations; both products of the composers’ early years, and each bearing the Opus #36. In the studio audience for the broadcast concert was a young man recently promoted to the Sound Division of RCA Victor. As Richard Caniell describes in his Recording Notes for a new Immortal Performances (IP) release of the concert: ‘at the end of the 'Enigma' Variations, everyone just jumped up from their seats (some 1200 in the audience) in one body in an immense ovation. I could scarcely believe that the famed conductor about whom I’d read, conducting the world premieres of LA BOHÈME and PAGLIACCI in the 1890s, was actually standing there in front of us, creating such a performance and later, reluctantly bowing his head in acknowledgement of the ovations’.
And now, thanks to Caniell and IP, we can hear this historic concert, released in its entirety for the first time, and restored in superb sound. And as a bonus, IP includes an extended excerpt from a Toscanini-NBC SO rehearsal of the ‘Enigma’ Variations, from February 14, 1951.
Following NBC announcer Ben Grauer’s introductory comments, Toscanini and the NBC SO launch into the Beethoven Symphony #2. This November 5, 1949 performance, with the addition of some touch-up work on October 5, 1951, was included as part of RCA’s iconic Beethoven Symphony cycle with Toscanini and the NBC SO. It is also featured on Volume II of the 72-volume CD set: ‘Arturo Toscanini: The Complete RCA Collection’. In the CD release, the recorded sound of the Beethoven 2 is full-bodied, with a wide dynamic range, and packing considerable visceral impact. But the sonics also suffer from harshness in the loud tutti episodes, and a lack of sweetness in the string tone. IP’s restoration offers a more realistic and better equalized concert perspective. Here, Caniell and IP demonstrate that it was possible to obtain fine-sounding recordings from the often-maligned Studio 8H. This well-known performance is fleet and propulsive, shorn of the first-movement exposition repeat, and featuring a minimal amount of rubato. It is polished to perfection, and played with scintillating energy and precision by Toscanini’s NBC SO. My preference is for Toscanini and the NBC SO’s November 4, 1939 broadcast performance. The 1939 version is broader and more flexibly paced, but without any loss of momentum, and includes the first movement repeat. It’s part of the 1939 Beethoven Cycle that has been superbly restored by IP (IPCD 1064-7; reviewed by me in FANFARE 40:2, Nov. / Dec., 2016). But the 1949 Beethoven 2 is justly famous and now, thanks to IP, may be heard in sound that does the performance proud.
A comparison of the IP restoration of the November 7, 1949 ‘Enigma’ Variations with the one included on Vol. 35 of ‘The Complete RCA Collection’, recorded in Carnegie Hall on December 10, 1951, reveals a similar improvement in the recorded sound. But here, other factors enter into play. The 1949 and 1951 renditions proceed along similar interpretive lines. But the 1949 broadcast performance is notably fleeter. It times out at about 26:00, while the 1951 rendition lasts a bit over 29 minutes. Interesting to note, too, that Toscanini’s June 3, 1935 Queen’s Hall, London performance of the ‘Enigma’ with the BBC SO is similar in TT to the 1951 Carnegie Hall recording (28:24) (there is a fine restoration on WHRA-6046). The stereotype is that Toscanini’s tempi became increasingly quicker as he got older. As with many stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in that statement. But here, the 1949 is the outlier of three performances spanning the years 1935-51. Having read many of Richard Caniell’s essays on the pressure NBC placed on Toscanini to fit his interpretations within fixed broadcast time blocks, I am tempted to believe this was a performance dictated to some degree by necessity. That said, this is a gorgeous rendition of Elgar’s early masterpiece. Perhaps it goes without saying that Toscanini and the NBC SO perform this work with remarkable precision and energy. But the rich, singing tone, tender and flexible phrasing, and characterful wind playing Toscanini coaxes from the orchestra are all quite remarkable. I’ve always felt that Toscanini’s experience in the opera house served him well in programmatic orchestral music, and it’s wonderful to hear how affectionately and incisively Toscanini etches Elgar’s various character studies. There is also plenty of humor where appropriate; no surprise coming from a conductor who was perhaps the greatest interpreter of Verdi’s comic masterpiece, FALSTAFF. If limited to but one Toscanini ‘Enigma’, I’d probably opt for the 1935 BBC; broad, flexibly phrased, and featuring the seductive string portamentos that were more common in Toscanini’s earlier recordings. But thanks to Richard Caniell and IP, we may hear the 1949 broadcast ‘Enigma’, a considerable performance in its own right, in excellent sound.
The second disc (also a CD premiere) comprises more than an hour of Toscanini rehearsing the ‘Enigma’ with the NBC SO on February 14, 1951, in preparation for a Carnegie Hall concert. If fast tempi are part of the Toscanini folklore, so is the Maestro’s volcanic temper. To be sure, recordings of Toscanini in rehearsal document the occasional flare-up, which can be quite monumental! But for the far greater part, Toscanini was businesslike and collaborative when working with his musicians in rehearsal. Such is the case with the 1951 ‘Enigma’ rehearsal sequence. While some conductors like to engage in lengthy verbal explications, Toscanini allows his musicians to play through the work, stopping only when necessary (which here, is infrequently). It’s instructive to hear that the legendary precision of execution by Toscanini and the NBC SO was the product of scrupulous and repetitive attention to challenging passages. Toscanini’s temper does not emerge until the rehearsal of the ‘Enigma’s final section, a musical depiction of Elgar. There, Toscanini is not pleased with the string basses, and tells them in no uncertain terms (The contrabasses inspired another Toscanini explosion during rehearsals for the 1949 televised broadcast of Verdi’s opera AIDA. This led to one of Toscanini’s finest zingers: ‘Don’t play from memory. You have no memory’). Caniell and IP do a fine job of equalizing the volume levels of the orchestral playing with Toscanini’s comments (the engineers at the time ran the rehearsal tape without much attention to such details). Thanks to IP, we have a prime seat in Carnegie Hall to witness Toscanini and the NBC SO, intensely preparing a masterwork. That’s quite the gift. The rehearsal CD contains 14 separate tracks, allowing easy access to various portions.
The CD set’s booklet includes engaging and informative commentary by both Robert Matthew-Walker and Richard Caniell. I have to confess that reading some of Caniell’s first-hand accounts of the concert we hear on this release inspired goosebumps. How wonderful that he chose to share that experience, restored in its finest sonic guise. This superb release is self-recommending for Toscanini devotees. But its appeal and value are considerably more far-reaching.
5 Stars: A superb 1949 Toscanini/NBC SO concert, and 1951 ‘Enigma’ rehearsal, beautifully restored.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2021