Notes and Editorial Reviews
This twenty disc set, curated by Christopher Dyment and Harvey Sachs and drawn from RCA’s epic 80+ CD box of Toscanini’s complete authorized recordings, really does constitute an “essential” selection. Fans will quibble, as will I, but you can’t argue that the set contains a representative sample of the Maestro’s finest work, in the best sound to date. For example, I would not have given pride of place to the conductor’s Philadelphia recordings of Debussy’s La mer and Iberia, or Respighi’s Feste romane. The NBC performances stand among Toscanini’s most successful, and sound much better. On the other hand, the Schubert Ninth, lovingly restored, represents the Philadelphia recordings more than adequately.
Almost all of Toscanini’s major New York Philharmonic recordings are here, however, and rightly so. These include Haydn’s “Clock” and Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphonies, Beethoven’s Seventh, Brahms’ “Haydn” Variations, Wagner’s Lohengrin preludes plus Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and two Rossini overtures. These were the sounds and executional standards that revolutionized the musical world’s conception of what orchestral playing should be. As such, they remain historical documents of the first order, as well as astonishingly enjoyable performances, to this day.
Other selections, such as Kodály’s Háry Janos Suite, Barber’s Adagio, Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter, and the second act of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice show off Toscanini’s broad range of interests in an unusually wide repertoire–again revealing what a modern conductor was expected to be able to do. Certain performances remain iconic examples of the Toscanini style, stunning in their discipline, clarity, and intense lyricism: I’m thinking of the Brahms Second, Mendelssohn’s music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, and Beethoven’s Forth and Fifth Symphonies. Haydn’s 98th Symphony is missing its concluding keyboard solo, but is otherwise pretty terrific, though Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” must yield to more spontaneous versions (such as Fricsay’s); but for the most part this is great stuff.
The most important selections, arguably, are the operas, whether whole or in part. Toscanini played cello at La Scala in the first run of Otello, and specialized in Falstaff. Both are here, the latter especially well recorded (sound clip). He premiered La Bohème, and while it’s impossible to say that the interpretation remained unchanged over the years, his authority is incontestable. Perhaps most remarkable, though, are the Wagner excerpts–preludes from Lohengrin (as already mentioned), Meistersinger, and the Siegfried Idyll, plus scenes from Götterdämmerung and Walküre, with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior. Anyone who thinks Toscanini’s conducting got stiffer as he aged should hear his handling of the “redemption” motive at the end of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene (sound clip). Has it ever been done better?
Issued for the 150th anniversary of Toscanini’s death in 2017, this set represents a worthy tribute to a truly great musician. It’s amazing how well these performances have held up after all these years, a testament to their sterling musical qualities, and a fundamental example of excellence that remains ageless.
– ClassicsToday (David Hurwitz)