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Beethoven: Complete Symphonies & Selected Overtures / Toscanini

Beethoven / Toscanini / Nbc Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 07/30/2013 
Label:  Music & Arts   Catalog #: 1275   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jarmila NovotnáKerstin ThorborgJan PeerceNicola Moscona
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 5 
Recorded in: Mono 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews



BEETHOVEN Symphonies No. 1–9 1. Leonore Overtures Nos. 1–3. Egmont Overture Arturo Toscanini, cond; 1 Jarmila Novotna (sop); 1 Kerstin Thorborg (mez); 1 Jan Peerce (ten); 1 Nicola Moscona (bs);
Read more 1 Westminster Choir; NBC SO MUSIC & ARTS 1275, mono (5 CDs: 372:00) Live: New York 10/28/1939–12/2/1939


This is the latest sonic restoration of the famed 1939 Beethoven cycle conducted by Toscanini, although it omits (along with Toscanini’s orchestration of the Septet and the Creatures of Prometheus Overture) the Choral Fantasy with pianist Ania Dorfmann (available on Music & Arts 4259, a 2-CD set with the 1940 Missa Solemnis ). I consider that one of the best and most important performances from the cycle despite the fact that Dorfmann, a friend of the Toscanini family, was a rather brittle, jittery pianist.


In his excellent and intelligent liner notes, Christopher Dyment asks the million-dollar question regarding Toscanini at this juncture in his career: why did his musical approach change so much, becoming not merely swifter but also more “streamlined” in terms of inflection and phrasing? Dyment gives one of the three correct answers in the booklet: that Toscanini, who constantly rethought his approach to every score every time he performed it, had come by the late 1930s “to the view that all of the great Germans simply performed much of their own music at the wrong tempo.” I wholeheartedly endorse this idea, and it is almost ironic that his much-hated approaches (by Germans and Austrians) to Beethoven, Brahms, and especially Schubert are now considered the correct ones to these works. In fact, the more musicological research that is done, such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s perusal of the autograph scores of all the Schubert symphonies, the more Toscanini’s views—and good taste—are verified, and the excesses of the Furtwänglers, Abendroths, etc., are seen as inflated, bloated, and distorted accounts of the music. In Beethoven especially, the only earlier conductor whose approach has survived unscathed is Felix Weingartner, whose 1907 book on Beethoven remains a landmark in the first steps towards historically appropriate performance.


I would, however, suggest two other factors that, allied with Toscanini’s continual renewing on his approach, changed his style.


The first of these, I humbly suggest, was the fact that after a hiatus of nine years, Toscanini began not only recording more often but approving those recordings for release. First there was the April 1936 session with the New York Philharmonic, then the BBC Symphony sessions of 1937–39, and last but certainly not least, the early NBC Symphony broadcasts—all of which were recorded for the Maestro’s approval or rejection for release—and recording sessions. Between 1936 and 1940, he had recorded all of the Beethoven symphonies except the Second and approved all but the Ninth for release (a 1938 recording with astonishingly good and natural hall sound, which he objected to because he couldn’t hear “all the instruments” clearly, i.e., the sonics were natural and blended instead of unnaturally segregated and dry)—and one of these recordings, the Third, was the very performance that emerged from this broadcast cycle.


The other factor in his aesthetic change, I believe, was the NBC Symphony Orchestra—an ensemble with an exceptionally bright, almost sharp-edged profile—and Studio 8-H, which became his “sound laboratory” for 15 years, until he was forced out of it and into Carnegie Hall once again. It is instructive to understand that Toscanini was intensely angry and resentful at being “pushed out” of 8-H and into Carnegie Hall, whereas almost any other conductor in the known universe would have jumped at the chance. Even the NBC Symphony musicians hated 8-H; as they complained to B. H. Haggin and reported by him in Conversations with Toscanini, they couldn’t hear each other properly. But Toscanini loved 8-H because he didn’t like listening to an orchestra recorded in a natural acoustic. He felt that you couldn’t “hear everything” in such an environment; thus, when he was forced to go back to Carnegie Hall, he insisted that his concerts and recording be miked very, very closely, much more so than his New York Philharmonic concerts of the 1930s had been. And at least part of the reason for his preference for this tight, dry sound was his declining ability to hear upper frequencies properly—another fact documented by Haggin in that same book, where he described Toscanini’s home phonograph having the treble (and bass) controls turned up to their fullest setting. (At one point, when Haggin objected to having louder timpani dubbed into his recording of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture because it would damage the lustrous sound of the strings and winds, Toscanini told him, “You have a better ear; I will not notice it.”) This is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, in and of itself, and is perfectly normal when one considers both the enormous dynamic range of Toscanini’s orchestral performances over a period of 41 years (by the time he moved into 8-H), plus the fact that he conducted the Italian Army band on the front during World War I, with bombs literally bursting around him. Just as he was too vain to wear his glasses when conducting in concert (he always wore them in rehearsals), he was probably too vain to get a hearing aid. Studio 8-H was his hearing aid, and so he welcomed the dry, airless, percussive effect of an orchestra exploding its forte s in Studio 8-H. With this sound, as well as his auditioning of his own records with increasing frequency on a machine with the treble jacked up to full volume, he almost had to increase the tempo and shorten the gaps and spaces between notes. Without a normal sound decay, there was no other way for the music to “bind” itself, for phrases to sound continuous in such a way that there was at least a modicum of sound overlap.


I’m sure that Toscanini-haters will infer from the above two paragraphs that I dislike all Studio 8-H performances and recordings, but this is not so. Nor should any auditor who loves the Toscanini recordings of 1920–1937 suddenly come down on him or reject most of what came after as musically invalid just because of these conditions. The simple fact is that he was still Arturo Toscanini, and the live performances he gave with the NBC Symphony (on its two tours, one of South America in 1940 and the other of the U.S. a decade later), the Teatro Colón, La Scala, and Philharmonia Orchestras, attest to the fact that under good concert conditions he was still the same Toscanini, merely one with a more modern and less tradition-bound view of the scores he conducted, and even among his NBC broadcasts and performances there was still a huge number that could and should be admired for their new, more modern approach to a repertoire that was stagnating under the weight of German “tradition.” You simply can’t throw out the baby with the bath water, and if you agree that the Toscanini of 1920–37 was a musical genius, you cannot argue that he became less so just because he changed his style.


All this brings us to this Beethoven cycle, which has achieved an almost mythical status over the years. I’m not sure if it’s just because this is the only complete “live” cycle he conducted over a short period of time that has survived intact (the live New York Philharmonic performances often have chunks of music missing) or because it came at a point when he was still capable of giving more spacious performances (the second movement of this “Eroica” is a full minute longer than the ones he gave us in 1949 and 1953), but as a complete cycle, inextricably bound together like a hardcover book without replaceable pages, it does have its quirks. By and large, this is idiosyncratic Beethoven conducting, of a school and a style that has since disappeared, and Toscanini is the man who helped make it disappear. Take, for instance, the Luftpausen and ritards in the first movement of the Eighth Symphony: despite the dramatic thrust, such things really don’t suit the character of the music. In April of 1939, Toscanini recorded an Eighth Symphony for RCA Victor that was just as febrile and dramatic as this one, but lacked the rhetorical slow-downs, and had a greater contrast between the soft and loud passages; the soft ones sound feather-light, almost skimming just above the level of silence, as they are supposed to do. Here, in Studio 8-H sound, the soft passages are just a bit too loud.


Yet the least convincing of them, ironically enough, is the Ninth (the only one of these concerts broadcast from Carnegie Hall instead of Studio 8-H), the symphony he refused to approve for release on records until 1952. I like the third movement here—despite its swift speed, he manages to “suspend time” in the middle in such a way that the notes seem to hang, suspended, for several moments before continuing—and the last movement is my all-time favorite of any Toscanini Beethoven Ninth, not least due to the wonderful propulsion of the orchestra and the inspired, flawless singing of the vocal quartet—but the first two movements are rushed through so ridiculously that they sound as if they were produced by a machine. (The second movement, at certain points, almost sounds as if it’s played on an accordion, so rushed is the tempo and so compressed is the sound of the winds.) In 1948, Toscanini conducted his only other Ninth at such blistering tempos, and here there were moments of superbly-judged relaxation in the first three movements, though the fourth lacked both force and distinguished soloists (Anne McKnight, the Musetta of his La bohème, was the soprano, and the little-known Erwin Dillon, who jumps the beat in his solo, was the tenor). But it’s interesting to note that these two performances of the Ninth were probably compressed for time constraints. In the 1939 cycle, he also included the Choral Fantasy on the same program, and in 1948 he was desperately trying to fit the one-hour time slot he was allotted for a television broadcast.


But what of the rest? Some are relaxed, more so than corresponding commercial recordings of the symphonies, and some are not. The first movement of the First, for instance, has a very relaxed introduction, but the principal melody is played much faster than the La Scala performance of July 1946 or when he re-recorded it in 1951; but then, Toscanini surprisingly relaxes for the second subject each time it emerges, and despite the febrile tempos the main theme doesn’t sound so much rushed as merely dramatic. (Furtwängler achieved something similar in his tempo-fluctuating reading of the Fifth in 1937.) Indeed, if I could make this observation, I would say that most of this cycle (but certainly not all) seems partially influenced by Furtwängler’s less distorted performances, modified, of course, by Toscanini’s own personal view of the scores. The remainder of the First is also somewhat faster, but again with ritards in unusual places and a feeling of relaxation that he was never to achieve again.


The first movement of the “Eroica” begins with the two opening chords not played in strict tempo (the last time he would do so) The rest of the movement has a wonderful alternation of intense drama and singing relaxation that I find positively hair-raising, yet in some ways this combination of elements doesn’t entirely gel. There’s just something a bit too heavy-handed here for my taste, but I will admit that this is the clearest and most beautiful transfer of this performance I’ve ever heard. The rest of the Symphony, however, goes better, the second movement in particular, being a full minute longer than his last performance from December 1953. Here we get a glimpse of the “Toscanini of old,” pacing and phrasing the music with tremendous feeling and longer pauses than we are used to. The last two movements, though taken at tempos we’re used to hearing from Toscanini, have an exceptional lightness and fleetness to their execution that make the string figures at the begging of the scherzo, for instance, practically jump like a rabbit. B. H. Haggin, in Conversations with Toscanini, asserted that the NBC Symphony was not a great orchestra until they went on tour with the Maestro in 1950, but aural evidence does not bear this out. In point of fact, since this was an orchestra in which certain members came and went, and some of their replacements didn’t stay long enough to be fully sensitized to Toscanini’s leadership, the orchestra had periods of greatness, and the years 1937–41 was certainly one of their greatest. It floundered a bit in the early 1940s, and again in the late 40s just before the tour, but in 1945–47 it again had a stable personnel roster and thus produced some of Toscanini’s greatest and most luminous performances. By the way, the order of the symphonies as presented on this set is pretty much the order in which Toscanini broadcast them: Nos. 1 and 3 on October 28, 2 and 4 on November 4, 6 and 5 (in that order) on November 11, No. 7 on November 18, No. 8 on November 25, and the Ninth on December 2.


The broadcast of November 4 is one of the greatest in this series. The first movement of the Second, the Beethoven symphony least played by Toscanini, is given an absolutely thrilling reading, much more flowing than the 1949–51 studio recording and, wonder of wonders, the repeat is observed. (In fact, except for the “Eroica” and the Seventh Symphony, Toscanini here observes all first-movement repeats, which he rarely did, even in earlier performances.) The last two movements are particularly surprising for their exquisite lightness and fleetness of execution (take that, Joseph Horowitz!), and this performance of the Fourth is my absolute favorite of any of Toscanini’s recordings or broadcasts of it. The opening of the first movement, for instance, has the hushed quietude and almost “dead” movement of the BBC recording, but the detail of the orchestral playing is astonishing, and in the second movement Toscanini achieved a perfect syncopation on the dotted rhythms (I still recall a film clip of Carlos Kleiber telling an orchestra to think of the name “Ther- ese, Ther- ese ” every time they played it). The Leonore Overture No. 3 here is an excellent performance as well.


The November 11 performance of the “Pastorale” is a revelation: as lovely, and with the same kind of rhythmic lilt, as the famous 1937 BBC recording, but with the first-movement repeat intact. The problem here is that ultra-dry sound, which makes every strand of the orchestra stand out as if it were a stick of cactus in the desert, and for that reason I much prefer the BBC recording. I also disagree with Dyment that it is superior to the 1952 RCA recording; that version is simply different in phrasing and tempo, the first movement (later played without the repeat) being in fact more leisurely. This version of the Fifth Symphony has many features in common with his studio recording of February-March of the same year, yet again I prefer the recording, even though there is a bit more lilt in the second movement, largely because in the finale Toscanini surprisingly starts whipping up the tempo in the last two minutes, and keeps on whipping it up until, at the end, it is a whirlwind of overly-anxious notes pressing against each other in a mad scramble to the finish line.


November 18th gave us the Egmont Overture and Seventh Symphony in superb readings, while November 25 gave us the Leonores Nos. 1 and 2 in good but not great performances, and the Eighth Symphony, which I’ve already discussed above. Then came the concert of December 2, where the venue was switched to Carnegie Hall but, as in his later concerts from this venue, so tightly miked as to make virtually no difference in the dead, dry sound quality. I know this will sound heretical to Toscanini’s “true believers,” but I am more than ever convinced that these recordings—and in fact most of the others—would benefit tremendously to modern ears by adding some “room resonance” and a judicious amount of echo, as Pristine Classical did with this conductor’s 1952 studio recording of the Ninth Symphony. I can attest that, to my ears, a recording I had never been particularly happy about suddenly became listenable in this newly-processed edition, and I heartily wish that Music & Arts had done the same here, though I know that (to reiterate the point) the True Believers would be down their throats in an instant. But wait, there’s an alternative! Why not offer it both ways, in “listenable sound” or “original concrete sound,” as Pristine did with the 1952 Ninth? (Yes, I’m joking about the actual descriptions, but you know what I mean.) This way, those of us who like to hear the natural connectedness of orchestral sound, where the overtones decaying in a natural space binds the sound together, can more fully enjoy this set which, as I said, has many outstanding performances that simply cry out for better sonics.


When Music & Arts last issued this set, in 2007, the sound was greatly improved over what had circulated for decades (I especially remember a budget LP set from the early 1970s with absolutely atrocious sound: distortions, hiss, pops, crackle, and a low-level hum), but not perfect. There was still some residual background noise and hum and, possibly even worse, almost no silence allotted between movements, so that they followed each other with the speed of an express train. Both these faults have been corrected here. These transfers are so quiet, in fact, that you almost feel as if you’re sitting in 8-H listening to the performances—you can even hear the musicians turning pages in the score between some movements—and the sound is both bright and solid. This is important. Far too many NBC Symphony recordings and broadcasts, even those issued by RCA themselves, reduced bass (possibly to eliminate hum) and boosted the treble to the point where the sound of the orchestra was actually painful to listen to. Not so here.


So again, the question arises: is this the “greatest” Beethoven symphony cycle? I’ll put it this way: this set, with the exception of the overly-rushed Ninth, is the symphonic equivalent of Annie Fischer’s Beethoven piano sonatas, which I consider the greatest of all time because you can never tell what’s going to happen from moment to moment. Both Toscanini and Fischer keep you on the edge of your seat, the one difference being that, by and large, Fischer’s overview of the 32 sonatas is more stylistically consistent. But this alternative view of the symphonies by the greatest conductor of the 20th century, certainly one of the very greatest Beethoven interpreters, is a one-time vision that, despite inconsistencies of style, is absolutely fascinating. It is, then, recommended not only to fans of Toscanini but even to fans of Furtwängler who would like to hear some of the influence the younger man had on the older in terms of Beethoven style at this specific period in time. I haven’t heard any other set of the symphonies with more variety in its approach or more surprises within essentially consistent tempos, and in this new remastering the sound (such as it is) is virtually flawless. If you’d like a much better contemporary version of the Ninth, however, I strongly suggest that you replace the disc here with Music & Arts CD-1135, which includes the far superior performance of February 1938.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley


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Complete Symphonies and Selected Overtures, from the legendary October-December 1939 NBC cycle.

CD 1: Symphony No 1 in C Major, Op. 21 & Symphony No 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 "Eroica" (Studio 8H, 28 Oct. 1939.
CD 2: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Symphony No 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60 & Leonore Overture No. 3 (Studio 8H, 4 Nov. 1939).
CD 3: Symphony No 6 in F Major, Op. 68 "Pastorale" & Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (Studio 8H, 11 Nov. 1939).
CD 4: Egmont Overture & Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (Studio 8H, 18 Nov. 1939); Leonore Overture No. 1 & Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op. 93 (Studio 8H, 25 Nov. 1939).
CD 5: Leonore Overture No. 2 (Studio 8H, 25 Nov. 1939}; Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 1(Jarmila Novotna, Kerstin Thorborg, Jan Peerce, Nicola Moscona, Westminster Choir, Carnegie Hall, 2 Dec. 1939).

New 2013 digital transfers by Aaron Z. Snyder using the revolutionary harmonic balancing process. Notes: Christopher Dyment. Total time: 6 hrs 12 min.

"These are superb transfers... They give a great cycle its best sonic shout to date." --Rob Cowan, Gramophone [on the previous edition]

"The NBC Orchestra is in fine form and the great conductor's sometimes controversial genius combines with that of Beethoven to produce dazzling and memorable performances." -- www.new-classics.co.uk [on the previous edition] Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Symphony no 1 in C major, Op. 21 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 10/28/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
2. Symphony no 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 "Eroica" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1803; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 10/28/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
3. Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 36 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1801-1802; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/04/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
4. Symphony no 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/04/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
5. Symphony no 6 in F major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1808; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/11/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
6. Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/11/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
7. Egmont, Op. 84: Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1810; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/18/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
8. Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/18/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
9. Leonore Overture no 1 in C major, Op. 138 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/25/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
10. Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/25/1939 
Venue:  NBC Studio 8-H, New York City 
11. Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jarmila Novotná (Soprano), Kerstin Thorborg (Alto), Jan Peerce (Tenor),
Nicola Moscona (Bass)
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 12/02/1939 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York City 
Language: German 
12. Leonore Overture no 3 in C major, Op. 72a by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1805-1806; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/04/1939 
13. Leonore Overture no 2 in C major, Op. 72 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1805; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/25/1939 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 The Reissue so good you must buy it. January 24, 2014 By Michael Ludvik (Ocala, FL) See All My Reviews "I have owned two previous sets of Toscanini's 1939 Beethoven cycle and both were listenable if you made great allowances for noise in one case and excessive signal processing in the other. Despite these defects they revealed superlative performances so passionate, so powerful Toscanini never matched them in his later RCA recordings in the 1950's. This set is a different matter altogether; it is clear, close-up, not distorted and with very minimal surface noise. I understand these issues originated from Wave Hill where Toscanini's recordings are archived. Bravo to all concerned! If you believe the later RCA recordings give an accurate picture of Toscanini's way with Beethoven, all I can say is that you are mistaken. The funeral march from the Eroica must be heard to be believed." Report Abuse
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