ROSSINI: La Scala di Seta: Overture. SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, “Great.” VERDI: Otello: Ballabilli. TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet Overture. MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL: Pictures at an Exhibition / Teatro alla Scala Orchestra, Milan; Arturo Toscanini, cond / Originals (no number) or Radio Years 99, also available for free streaming on YouTube (live: Milan, September 16, 1948)
Occasionally, I still discover Toscanini concerts I’ve never heard before. Some of them don’t interest me much, mostly because the repertoire is fairly common for him and/or because the sound is awful, but this one really struck me the right way because so much of it is truly superb—and a bit different from his NBC recordings of these pieces.
The main difference is that here, as in some of his Lucerne concerts with La Scala or the Hague Residentie Orkester of 1938, the engineers, while not capturing the full fidelity of the orchestra at all times, did one thing that RCA Victor’s engineers normally did not do, and that was to stop fiddling with the volume knobs as the concert was going on so as to change the conductor’s dynamics changes. It’s well known that Toscanini had the widest dynamics range of any conductor of his time, perhaps of all time, but that only a few of his NBC broadcasts and recordings had engineers who left well enough alone and let the recordings be captured the way he actually led them. Even as late as the 1954, in his broadcast of the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele, they would often roll back the volume on his tremendous, gradual crescendo at the end of the piece because their microphones couldn’t take it, and more often than not they refused to turn down the volume to a level where his crescendo would not blast their microphones because his pianissimi would then be lost. This happened, for instance, in the experimental 1933 recording of his New York Philharmonic performance of the Beethoven Fifth. The quietest passages were almost inaudible. One might say Oh well, that was just the way it was in the 1930s and ‘40s, but that’s patently untrue. In 1938 they caught his Carnegie Hall performance of the Beethoven Ninth with perfect fidelity to his intentions, and there were other examples, though the minority, where this happened. The problem was that RCA-NBC had a bevy of sound engineers, most of whom were rotated to record Toscanini, and most of them either didn’t give a damn or had their own quirky ideas on how to record the orchestra.
This concert, it seems, has been around for quite a while. It first popped up on vinyl in the early 1980s on Relief 822-2, then later on was issued on CD by Radio Years (99), Rare Toscanini (005) and the label pictured above, Originals (with no number). I just ran across it a few days ago on YouTube and have been listening in some amazement.
Ironically, the best-sounding pieces recorded from this concert were the two “bonbons,” Rossini’s Scala di Seta Overture and the ballet music from Act III of Verdi’s Otello (written for the French production and then dropped by order of the composer). These have a sheen and tonal beauty that rivals the best of the Lucerne-La Scala performances of 1946. By contrast, the Romeo and Juliet Overture and the two major works by Schubert and Mussorgsky have a drier, scrappier, less resonant sound, but they all have a more realistic sound than many of the conductor’s NBC broadcasts. I’m thinking that part of this is due to the fact that these were the acetates most frequently played over the decades before a competent sound engineer was able to get them onto LP and CD.
More importantly, the way he phrases the two major works is quite different in certain respects from his RCA recordings of them. Rossini’s La scala di seta overture is one of the few by that composer that Toscanini did not play or record for RCA; his surviving versions are a live performance and a studio recording with the BBC from 1937. This one, though a little more driven than the BBC versions, still has a remarkably light touch that makes one smile. The Old Man could indeed, even here at age 81, turn a phrase in Rossini like no one else.
The Schubert Ninth presented here is faster than his last NBC version of it, nearly as brisk as the 1941 Philadelphia Orchestra recording, but there are several differences in phrasing and in the way he brings out detail in the score. Also, even more than the Philadelphia recording which has the most amount of “space” around the orchestra, one can hear the dynamics contrasts between soft and loud passages with more startling realism. Even though the sound is drier, it’s not too far removed from his 1939 BBC Symphony performance of the Beethoven Fifth, the most dramatic and powerful of all his readings of the score. Yes, of course I would have wished that the sound wasn’t quite as dry as it is here, but what a great performance this is! Despite the fact that the post-war La Scala Orchestra was still comprised of at least half old geezers who had played with him “back in the day,” plus the fact that there are a few minor flubs in execution, the performance has a kinetic energy about it that is startling. The Milan string section wasn’t as bright as that of NBC, where Toscanini had stocked it with many Russian-school violinists who had a much more piercing sound, yet they give it everything they’ve got. In the first movement, he brings out the staccato clarinet triplets with even greater clarity than he did in any of his American performances or recordings of the work, and introduces some interesting rubato touches in different places. The tympani behind the orchestra at 9:49 is also more prominent; this was something RCA was always trying to repress because it made the needles jump, not only on their 78-rpm players but even in the early years of microgroove LPs (maybe especially in the early years of LPs, when the tone arms weighed something like a quarter-pound…I know because my family had one of these babies, a full-sized “console” radio/phono player made of ebony with a slide-out drawer which contained the turntable and tone arm, which used a ceramic cartridge).
The basic tempo of second movement is quite fast, though even within the very first phrase Toscanini is making modifications to the line in order to give it more breadth, which continues and in fact becomes even more noticeable as the movement proceeds. This is especially noticeable in the lyrical string episode that begins at 2:45. In the following wind passage, he does the same thing, in fact slowing down considerably at the 4:30 mark before picking the tempo up again at 4:45, and in the ensuing section he brings out the solo trumpet in the background with such great clarity that you’re stunned to hear it because, in most performances, you barely even know that a trumpet is playing there! (He also brings out a solo violin passage with equally startling results.) More rubato around the 7:30 mark, when the pizzicato celli lead into a mid-range string passage, then resuming his faster pace at about 8:05. All of this may sound to the reader as if the performance is too fussy, but to my ears it is not because Toscanini maintains the flow and continuity of the music. All of it fits together, and he almost makes it sound logical and necessary.
The third movement practically jumps out at you like a jack-in-the-box, yet it is phrased more smoothly than in his 1947 NBC recording of the symphony—and again, the tympani as well as the bass passages are clearer and more audible. Some of those descending string triplets may sound a bit over-aggressive to some people, but Toscanini always believed that in this symphony, as in the Second, Schubert was emulating Beethoven, thus he gave the music a Beethoven-like sound profile. There’s also a wonderful messa da voce (crescendo followed by a decrescendo) played by the horns as they lead into the trio theme. (As one critic said, “Until I heard Toscanini, I didn’t think it was possible to ‘play’ an orchestra as one plays an organ!”)
The last movement is simply rip-roaring, closer in tempo and drive to the 1941 Philadelphia recording than to either of his NBC Symphony recordings—but again, you actually hear more of what he is doing because the sonics, although somewhat dry, are still better than in 1941. The orchestra plays with feverish glee, if one can imagine such a thing: a perfect example of the musicians giving 110%, and they’re as tight in their ensemble playing as you can possibly imagine. (So far as I know, this is the only Schubert performance by Toscanini-La Scala captured for posterity.) The wind and soft string passages in the middle are marred by crackle and surface noise, unfortunately the worst part of the entire concert, but keep tuned, folks, because you’re never going to hear playing like this again in your lives. The end section, with the alternating basses and trumpets leading to the finale, is absolutely hair-raising.
As mentioned earlier, the Verdi “Ballabilli” is played with a wonderful smoothness that is better than the NBC broadcast version, “bouncier” and less hard-pressed, and the sonics are far superior. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture is slower than his 1946 RCA recording but not quite as spacious as the 1953 account. As in the case of the Schubert Ninth, Toscanini poured emotion galore into the music but removed all traces of sentimentality, and it is exactly this that makes some listeners consider his music-making “brutal” because they WANT sentimentality—and he would never, ever give it to them. Even in the opening section, which is all legato and long-held string (and wind) notes, he refused to buckle to sentiment. Toscanini viewed this overture as an extension of the Berlioz Romeo et Juliette, full of drama and contrasting moods. He does not “cheat” the listener when he comes to the love theme, but neither does he play it cloyingly. For him, it is an oasis of calm and beauty between the two storms before and after. He does not linger, and he keeps slightly pressing the beat forward. And again, you can hear the tympani, softly but very clearly, in the background. Very often, even in digital stereo recordings, you are just barely aware of the tymps at all in this section. Around the 14-minute mark, when the tempo increases and the love theme is played gradually louder and louder, you also hear the tympani increase like the advent of a thunderstorm, knowing that violence is about to interrupt the lovers and destroy their lives. It’s a thoroughly valid view of the music, but WHO TODAY PLAYS IT LIKE THIS? In my experience, no one, because they don’t view this overture in dramatic terms. They’re missing the forest for the trees.
Like Toscanini’s 1938 NBC broadcast, this performance of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures is for the most part considerably faster than his January 1953 recording—only “Tuileries” and “Limoges” come in at exactly the same tempi. The three sections of the suite that are somewhat harmed by this are “Il vecchio castello” (3:59 here as opposed to 4:22 in the NBC recording), “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” and “Catacombs,” while other sections (“Gnomus,” “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and “Baba Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”) actually benefit from the quicker pace, particularly the second of these where he does an excellent job of emulating the “pecking” sound of the baby chicks. But in some places the phrasing is different, too; despite the faster tempo, Toscanini introduces a nice bit of rubato at the 3:15 mark in “Il vecchio castello.” In addition, the suite gains a certain amount of frisson from being a live performance that offsets the somewhat quick pace, and again there are individual moments here and there where his phrasing and/or accents are different.
Someone once said that, when you live in Toscanini’s sound world for a couple of hours, no other classical recording you listen to will sound nearly as good, as tight, as well-bound, or as exciting. To a certain extent, this is true. Nowadays, it seems that the tautest and most exciting conductors are those who perform a lot of modern music, because that aesthetic demands precision and energy, but although there are a few (not many) who can come close to what Toscanini did, none truly duplicate it. He was one of a kind and, as Bruno Walter said, young conductors at least have his recordings to study to hear how he modified the musical line here and there to produce performances of genius.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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