Classical Notes

Toscanini, The Recorded Legend

A survey of the Maestro's career and recordings –
the Legend, his Beginnings, his First Recordings, the New York Philharmonic Years, his Activities in Europe, his Philadelphia Orchestra Recordings, his NBC Symphony Recordings, his Recorded Concerts, his End, his enduring Legacy and my choice of Ten Great Recordings.
For a version of this article without illustrations, please click here.

Toscanini! Arturo Toscanini - portrait Even today, thirty-five years after his death, Toscanini remains the supreme legend in classical music. Nearly every musician who ever played with him considered the experience to have been the pinnacle of his career. The greatest composers of the time implored him to conduct premieres of their works. Seasoned critics ran out of superlatives describing the power of his performances. Even his rivals acknowledged that he had no peer. He was called, quite simply, the Maestro, as if there was no other. His influence still shapes our modern perception of classical music. And yet, the modern listener is perplexed: Toscanini's records often fail to affirm his reputation.

A major part of the problem is that the vast bulk of Toscanini's commercial recordings were made at the extreme end of his long career, when the creative spark had dimmed and his graceful lyricism had all but calcified into grim determination. A far better perspective emerges from his concerts and his earlier records.

The anomaly also stems from the fact that, in a way, Toscanini became a victim of his own success. Toscanini stunned the musical world with a startling new style which proved so influential that it became the interpretive norm. As a result, the performing scene was so crowded with Toscanini clones that the novel approach upon which his fame was anchored no longer amazed and indeed seemed quite commonplace. And yet, the potency of the Toscanini legend has barely diminished.

The Legend

What was the key to Toscanini's magic? Most of the simple generalizations which have been offered are unconvincing.

The most persistent is that Toscanini was a literal interpreter of the written score. Often cited as proof is his famous quip about interpreting Beethoven's Symphony # 3, the so-called "Eroica": "To some it is Napoleon, to some it is philosophical struggle; to me it is Allegro con brio." But that remark begs the point: a naked score has no sound and even "allegro con brio" is at best a relative tempo indication.Toscanini conducts the Beethoven Symphonies - RCA LP box set Indeed, the very notion of playing a score exactly as written is musically absurd. As Robert Marsh has argued, since musical notation is far from perfect, a composer cannot possibly indicate exactly how he intends his music to be played; as a result, a performer must read into the score those elements of style and execution that lie well beyond the limits of the printed notation. Verdi himself once assured Toscanini that a true musician must know when to read between the lines.

Had Toscanini really been a literal interpreter of the scores he performed, it would stand to reason that his records of the same works through the years would have been virtually identical. In fact, there are striking differences which are reflected in their timings. Take the Eroica: Toscanini's 1939 recording of the second movement lasts a full minute longer than in his final 1953 recording. Similarly, a 1926 recording of the "Scherzo" from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream runs a full 5 minutes, whereas only three years later, his rerecording ran 4:16. The most extreme example is the third movement of Mozart's Symphony # 39, which accelerated all the way from 4:07 in 1920 to a mere 3:07 in 1948! Clearly, the scores hadn't changed, but Toscanini's interpretations surely did. Toscanini himself took great offense at the suggestion that his interpretations were uniform.

Another myth is that Toscanini was guided solely by the composer's intentions rather than by his own ego. And yet, the sober, respectful approach which Toscanini claimed to have derived from Brahms's scores are a far cry from the wild and impulsive Brahms recordings made by Joseph Joachim, to whom Brahms dedicated most of his violin music and whose interpretations surely were authoritative. Classical music is a recreative art and every performer sincerely believes that he is communicating the true essence of the written music.

Yet another belief is that Toscanini was a "fast" conductor, as contrasted with Klemperer and Furtwangler, whose tempos were considered ponderous by comparison. And yet, while some of Toscanini's tempos were indeed quick, much of his Brahms is more leisurely than Klemperer's and his Wagner tarries longer than Furtwangler's. Indeed, Toscanini's highly acclaimed Wagner performances during his two opera seasons at Bayreuth were the slowest ever timed at that famed theatre. It is often said that Toscanini's readings only seemed fast due to their extreme precision and transparent sonority.

If there is indeed an explanation for Toscanini's fame it lies in his attitude. Toscanini was a fanatic. He approached music as religion and performance as a sacred rite. His concentration during rehearsals and performances was unbearably intense and the kinescopes of his televised concerts remain mesmerizing. He had a savage temper and flew out of control at the slightest provocation. He demanded precise playing and was plunged into despair over a single lapse. He insisted that any musician, no matter how famous, who did not share his attitude be fired. He would sooner quit (and often did) than tolerate the slightest lapse in standards.

As a corollary to his dedication,Toscanini conducts Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (1953) Toscanini believed that no performer had the right to deflect attention from the composer. It was here that Toscanini's real revolution took place. His age was one in which conductors routinely molded the works they performed to their own personalities. (This was not merely ego run amok; rather, most 19th century composers expected their music to be handled that way.) Toscanini's art was more subtle: his aim was to let the music speak for itself and to add only those inflections necessary to elicit the structure, balance and image which the composer had written into the piece. Toscanini's readings throbbed with vitality and feeling, but always with a sense of tight control appropriate to the emotional pitch of the composition. His overall aim was a clarity in which each instrument was audible, even in the most densely scored passages. Once unnecessary rhetoric was eliminated, even Wagner emerged as light and lyrical.

Toscanini refused honors and shunned applause. He often described himself as "an honest musician". Others lauded his artistic integrity. His objectivity startled the musical world with its simple effectiveness and paved the way to our modern standards of interpretation. Proof of the validity of his direct approach lies in the vast number of seasoned musicians who claimed that Toscanini had made them aware for the first time of the essence of a long-familiar work.

But Toscanini's surface simplicity concealed a man of complexity and contradictions whose art could not be reduced to absolutes. Thus, nothwithstanding his reputed fidelity to scores, Toscanini occasionally retouched them for effect, going so far as to write an outrageously unstylistic cadenza for Mozart's Bassoon Concerto, heard on RCA CD 60286. In spite of professing pure allegiance to a composer's intentions, Toscanini performed Bach almost exclusively in syrupy lush orchestral arrangements by Respighi and others. And while scornful of encores and other audience accommodations, Toscanini reversed the middle movements of Beethoven's Quartet, Opus 135 to end with the lively scherzo and routinely concluded concerts with an upbeat crowd-pleaser.

Toscanini may now be gone, but he certainly has not been forgotten. After decades of sporadic abuse, in 1990 RCA/BMG launched the Toscanini Collection, a comprehensive 82 CD series of all of his commercial 78s and LPs, together with a few previously unreleased broadcasts. Although originally planned for a four-year roll-out, the schedule accelerated and was completed by 1992. The Toscanini mystique can best be savored by judicious sampling of the series, supplemented by his electrifying concerts. The key to such selectivity lies in the context of his fabulous career.

The Beginning

Toscanini was born in 1867 in Parma, Italy.Arturo Toscanini - portrait of the artist as a young man The crown of local culture was the opera, to which the young Arturo was taken at an early age. He attended the Parma Conservatory for nine years, playing cello in its orchestra. He graduated in 1886 at the top of his class and was hired as principal cellist for an opera company which was to tour South America.

It happened in Rio. The company played under a Brazilian conductor, whom they soon grew to despise. Finally in Rio de Janeiro they rebelled and fired him. Local pride was deeply offended, and his replacement was booed off the stage. Toscanini was asked to substitute on the spot as a last-ditch compromise. He was an immediate sensation and continued to conduct the remainder of the season. He was a natural choice, as he had helped rehearse the singers and had memorized every part of all 12 operas in the company's repertoire.

Toscanini's practice of conducting from memory rather than from an open score was quite novel. Toscanini later would boast of the importance of a true conductor having the score in his head rather than his head in the score. An entire generation of younger conductors followed suit and established Toscanini's quirk as the norm. Toscanini's rivals, though, were not impressed; when asked why he still bothered with a score at concerts, the ascerbic Hans Knappertsbusch snapped, "Why not? I can read music!" Actually, Toscanini's feats of memory stemmed from a far more practical need than abstract musical philosophy: he was so nearsighted that he couldn't have used a score on the conductor's stand if he had wanted to. Indeed, pictures of Toscanini studying a score invariably show his face nearly pressed against the paper.

When the touring company disbanded, Toscanini returned home in time to play second cello at the premiere of Verdi's Otello, led by the composer. Over the next several years, Toscanini obtained various cello and conducting assignments in provincial opera houses throughout Italy. He garnered fine reviews and established a reputation for superb musicianship. A sure sign of Toscanini's rising prestige was his selection to lead the coveted world premieres of Puccini's La Boheme and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci.

It was not until 1896 that Toscanini conducted his first orchestral concert.Program for Toscanini's first concert - Turin, 1896 The program was significant: Schubert's Symphony # 9, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Brahms's Tragic Overture and an excerpt from Wagner's Das Rheingold. Nowadays, such selections seem conservative and dull. But in 1896, they were quite daring. The Schubert, now a concert favorite, was rarely played, and the others were all modern; in fact, the Tchaikovsky had been composed only four years earlier, and the Brahms was an Italian premiere. The frequent criticism that Toscanini ignored modern music held true only in his later years; like baby boomers who cling to early rock and their parents who dote on big bands, the mature Toscanini ultimately held the greatest affection for his own youthful idols.

In a similar vein, Toscanini is often criticized for his limited repertoire. Toward the end of his career, he did focus his attention on the works with which he had identified the most. Thus, by Joseph Horowitz's tally, of the 30 concerts Toscanini gave in New York from 1926 to 1936, he included Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude in 9, Brahms's Haydn Variations in 8 and Beethoven's Third Symphony in 7. But these favorites were distilled from an enormous repertoire of over 600 works (including 117 complete operas) by 190 composers, including such obscurities as symphonies by Atterburg, Gillis, Orefice, Pedrollo, Sammartini, Stanford, Svendsen and Alberto Williams. According to George Marek, more typical of Toscanini's earlier breadth (and energy) were the 213 performances of 133 works by 54 composers which he gave in Turin during 4 1/2 months of 1898.

Ultimately, Toscanini would phase out opera performances in favor of orchestral concerts. The reason was simple efficiency: several concerts could be prepared and given with the energy consumed by casting, designing, rehearsing and performing a single opera. But for now, operas were his dominant activity.

La Scala and the Met

The same year as his first orchestral concert, Toscanini was appointed principal conductor at La Scala, the most famous opera house in Europe.Arturo Toscanini - caricature by Enrico Caruso He immediately made his mark by instituting radical reforms in the name of artistic integrity. Among other things, Toscanini cast the operas according to merit auditions rather than the patronage system then in vogue. He cancelled the amusing but irrelevant ballets which were traditionally tagged onto the end of tragic operas to send the audience home on a buoyant note. He had the house lights dimmed during performances and placed the orchestra in a pit so as to focus attention on the stage action. He refused encores, which the public was in the habit of loudly demanding but which ruined dramatic continuity. He paid scrupulous attention to the production, once going so far as to insist that the entire ensemble be refitted with new shoes in a different and, to him, more authentic style. He abruptly canceled performances when he sensed a lapse in the quality. And Toscanini achieved all of this in an unyielding, confrontational manner. That he succeeded can only attest to the enormous respect which he enjoyed.

In 1908, Toscanini left La Scala to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where his career and international reputation continued to soar. He left in 1915, ostensibly miffed over the management's austerity in limiting rehearsal time, but more probably in order to escape from Geraldine Farrar, a beautiful diva with whom he was ending an affair. (Although married from 1897 until his wife's death in 1951, Toscanini's talent, energy and ravishing looks led him to follow the accepted double standard for artists of the time and was an extremely active philanderer.)

The First Records

Toscanini spent World War I in Italy,Arturo Toscanini leading an Italian military band in World War I where he limited his activities to benefits, military bands and sporadic concerts. Deeply depressed by Italy's devastating casualties, economic setbacks and diplomatic humiliation, he resumed activity only in 1920. To prepare for his return to La Scala, he formed a new orchestra from the best players in Italy. After two months of rehearsals, they embarked on an eight-month tour which, even today, is remembered as one of the most grueling ever undertaken by a full orchestra. For the first leg in Italy, they played 33 concerts in 21 cities in less than 5 weeks! Then, they headed for America for 68 concerts – in barely 3 months.

Toscanini's first records were cut at the beginning and end of the American segment of the tour. Sessions were held for the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey in December 1920 and March 1921. Although we tend to think of these efforts as early and primitive, it is essential to remember that they fell in the exact mid-point of Toscanini's extraordinary career. Moreover, Toscanini was no aspiring novice at the time, but the most acclaimed conductor in the world.

The importance of these sides is enormous.Arturo Toscanini's first record, cut December 18, 1920 While we have many reviews of Toscanini concerts, they necessarily grope to translate musical matters into imprecise literary form. The La Scala records are invaluable as our very first direct evidence of Toscanini's talent.

Toscanini, who had no patience for artistic, much less mechanical, annoyances reportedly hated the experience of cutting records. And yet, Toscanini lavished great care over the assignment. He spread the six 10-inch and ten 12-inch sides he recorded over 11 days, finishing at most two and more often only a single side per session – highly unusual, if not unprecedented, in an era when multiple takes were rare.

The fanatic attention paid off. Unlike the vast majority of acoustic recordings, which may be valuable historically but are often painful to hear nowadays, every one of the Toscanini sides remains highly listenable today without apology or compensation for musical or technical deficiencies. The playing is incredibly precise and the ensemble superbly disciplined. The transparent textures which critics praised are clearly evident. Tempos are moderate, but flexible and convincing. Most remarkably, although Toscanini was hardly known for an accommodating temperament, his dynamic balances are ideally adjusted for the acoustic recording process – the soft passages sound quiet without ever slipping below the considerable surface noise, while the climaxes exude power without blasting or distortion. Above all else, the sound is modern, with none of the portamento (sliding between notes) which was typical of most instrumental playing at the time.

All 16 sides are collected on RCA CD 60315-2. The program ranged from Mozart and Beethoven to Pizzetti, 13 years Toscanini's junior and somewhat typical of his lifelong weakness for trite old-fashioned music of his Italian compatriots. Although Toscanini would rerecord most of the substantial pieces, the acoustic sides preserve his only recordings of some lighter fare and the feathery Wolf-Ferrari "Secret of Suzanna" Overture remains a marvel of virtuostic performance which easily transcends the sonic limitations of the acoustic process.

And what was Toscanini's reaction to all this? He pronounced these precious mementos "a pile of rubbish" and swore he would never record again!

The New York Philharmonic Years

In January 1926, Toscanini came to America to lead the New York Philharmonic. During the first season, he shared the podium with Furtwangler and Mengelberg – arguably the three greatest conductors of the era. From 1929 until 1936, Toscanini served as principal conductor.

Fortunately, New York's musical wealth was preserved on record. In 1929 Toscanini recorded 20 sides with the Philharmonic and followed in 1936 with 30 more.Arturo Toscanini conducts the New York Philharmonic They are his finest achievement in the studio and demonstrate that all the critical clamor was fully justified. Unlike the La Scala acoustic sides of atypical light fare and excerpts, here we have full symphonies and generous helpings of the repertoire that formed the core of Toscanini's fame.

The New York Philharmonic records are magnificent, both artistically and sonically. The sensitive artist that emerges is a far cry from the severe and unyielding Toscanini most of us know from the later NBC recordings. Tempos are constantly alive. Phrases are beautifully shaped. Precision is allied with a humanizing lyricism. The execution sounds spontaneous and yet blended and smooth. It was the Toscanini who could achieve such wonders who dazzled both critics and audiences.

The sound itself is wonderfully natural. In later years, Toscanini would insist that his records convey the same sonic perspective that he heard on the podium. As a result, balances became awkward and the atmosphere was dry and brittle. The New York records, though, were recorded in Carnegie Hall and convey the blended, reverberant sonority of a real orchestra from the audience's perspective.

The recorded program included Haydn's Symphony # 101 ("The Clock"), Mozart's Symphony # 35 ("Haffner"), Beethoven's Symphony # 7, the Brahms Haydn Variations, four Rossini overtures, Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and operatic excerpts, and short pieces by Verdi, Dukas, Gluck and Mendelssohn. All are available on three single RCA midprice CDs (60316, 60317 and 60318) or on Pearl set CDS 9373. Although a full priced import, Pearl's sound is better and they add a wonderful bonus: an astounding reading of Beethoven's Symphony # 5, recorded "live" in 1933. As an accommodation to Toscanini, who rebelled against carving his recorded performances into four-minute fragments, NBC captured a continuous take of the entire symphony on film, which was later transferred to discs but never issued. (Throughout his career, Toscanini insisted upon the right to reject any release bearing his name, a right which he wielded quite often and for seemingly trivial reasons. Since these were the days before tape corrections, a single flaw caused the entire performance to be jettisoned.)

European Activities

Toscanini's activities with the New York Philharmonic occupied only a few months each year, leaving him ample time for European projects. Politics, though, soon conspired to restrict his options.

Toscanini's closest ties were to Italy.Arturo Toscanini contemplates the Red Sea during his stint as founding conductor of the Palestine Philharmonic Toscanini first met Mussolini as a journalist in World War I and had been impressed with his plans to restore the national economy and society. His attitude quickly changed, though, upon the emergence of Mussolini's fascism. When Mussolini ordered that the fascist anthem precede all concerts, Toscanini refused to comply. On one such occasion, Toscanini was attacked by a fascist mob. He was constantly harassed through confiscations of his passport. Toscanini was no longer welcome in his native land.

Toscanini was also active in Germany between the wars. Enamored of Wagner, Toscanini longed to conduct at Bayreuth, the theatre Wagner built for personally-supervised performances of his operas which was now administered by his descendants. At first, Toscanini considered it a privilege to enter such a temple of art, but soon became disillusioned by the political intrigues of the management. He declined to return for the 1933 season as a gesture of protest against German persecution of Jewish musicians and even sent a telegram to Hitler, whose response was to ban all further sale or performance of Toscanini recordings. In part to retaliate, Toscanini conducted at the annual Salzburg Festival in neighboring Austria until it, too, fell to the Axis.

Toscanini left the New York Philharmonic in 1936.Arturo Toscanini meeting with Wilhelm Furtwangler and looking none too happy about it As a measure of his integrity, he recommended as his successor Wilhelm Furtwangler, head of the Berlin Philharmonic, whose emotional and wildly mystical musical outlook was diametrically opposed to his own, but whom Toscanini respected nonetheless as an artist. He soon developed suspicions about Furtwangler's Nazi sympathies and when Furtwangler refused to emigrate, Toscanini denounced him as a collaborator, apparently misunderstanding the German's considerable (and highly dangerous) work behind the scenes to alleviate conditions for persecuted musicians.

Throughout this period, Toscanini was among the most vocal opponents of fascism. In part to exemplify his humanistic concern, Toscanini interrupted his hectic schedule of guest appearances to lead the Palestine Philharmonic, newly formed by European refugees, through its inaugural season of 1936-1937. A clear labor of love, Toscanini refused any fee and even absorbed his own travel expenses. When Italy passed its racial laws in 1938, Toscanini insisted upon returning to Palestine for further concerts, despite threats to his safety.

Toscanini found a brief but comfortable musical home in London,Arturo Toscanini conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra where he recorded Beethoven's Symphonies 1, 4 and 6 and several overtures with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (now on Biddulph WHL-008-9, 2 CDs). Although the sound is thinner and the playing less precise, the genial performances are stylistically similar to the New York Philharmonic ones. Also recorded were a series of broadcast concerts with the BBC, which included absolutely stunning accounts of the Sibelius Symphony # 2 on EMI CD 63307, the Brahms Symphony # 4 on EMI CD 69783 and Wagner pieces and Debussy's La Mer on EMI CD 63044. The BBC concerts clearly demonstrate the phenomenon of how under Toscanini a merely decent orchestra would play superbly. The concert performances are further significant because they introduce a wholly different aesthetic from the relaxed, sunny studio readings; their tense energy clearly points the way to the ultimate phase of Toscanini's style.

The Philadelphia Recordings

Before considering the final and most prolific phase of Toscanini's career, there is one more transitional series of recordings. In 1941, Toscanini briefly drifted away from NBC, upset over his belated discovery that NBC was assigning the members of "his" orchestra to other musical tasks, thus earning their keep but diluting their energy.RCA Soria LP album for first release of the 1940 Schubert Ninth Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra Although Toscanini would return after a reconciliation, in the meantime NBC hired Leopold Stokowski to lead the broadcast concerts. That, in turn, freed up Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra, which proceeded to engage Toscanini.

In theory, the combination would be unbeatable – one of the world's greatest orchestras, known for its distinctive lush sound, led by the world's greatest conductor, known for his discipline and dynamic precision. At the first rehearsal Toscanini reportedly foreswore his normal terrorization routine, led the entire program without stopping once, proclaimed that he couldn't imagine a single improvement, and left beaming. Expectations rose to a fever pitch. The result, though, was rather disappointing, lacking both the astringent, jabbing excitement of the NBC concerts and the subtly nuanced ensemble of the New York Philharmonic.

RCA recorded 54 sides with Toscanini in Philadelphia in 7 sessions held from November 1941 to February 1942. Included were Schubert's Symphony # 9 ("The Great"), Tchaikovsky's Symphony # 6 ("Pathetique"), Debussy's La Mer and Iberia, Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, Strauss's Death and Transfiguration and Respighi's Feste Romane. While the Schubert is magnificent and the Tchaikovsky quite good, the others, although smoothly played, lack the distinctive Toscanini touch. Part of the problem may have been Toscanini's unusual respect for the orchestra, which led him to hesitate to bend them to his will, as he did to nearly every other musician and ensemble with which he performed.

The major problem, though, was the sound itself. The wax masters reportedly were fine, but somehow were ruined in the laboratory through a potent combination of human error and substitute materials mandated by wartime shortages.RCA LP set of Toscani\ni's complete Philadelphia Orchestra recordings By the time Toscanini was prepared to rerecord them, the American Federation of Musicians strike against the record companies was under way. When the strike ended in late 1944, the Philadelphia Orchestra had switched affiliation to Columbia, and RCA simply had Toscanini rerecord the repertoire with the NBC symphony.

The records lay fallow until 1961, when the Schubert was restored for broadcast on WQXR, New York, to mark the fifth anniversary of Toscanini's death. RCA engineer John Corbett reportedly spent 800 hours hand-splicing the clicks out of a tape transfer of the damaged glass acetates of the first two movements. The symphony was released on LP in 1963 in RCA's deluxe Soria series on LD 2663 to enormous critical acclaim. The rest of the Philadelphia records were issued in 1976 on CRM5-1900. CD transfers are on RCA 60311 through 60314. Although the Schubert sounds fine, on the others highs are lost in the surface noise and climaxes have a blasty, gritty distortion. RCA has "solved" these problems on the CDs by filtering the highs, yielding a blurry, undefined sound that is considerably worse than the LPs and which makes you eager to trade that "ADD" designation on the liners for Corbett's humble splicing block.

The NBC Symphony

At the age of 69, after a career of 50 years, having reached the pinnacle of fame, Toscanini had every right to retire and spend his final days basking in well-deserved adulation. Instead, he embarked on a new project that would endure longer than any previous association and would boost his reputation even higher.

His way was paved by David Sarnoff,Toscanini with David Sarnoff an immigrant telegraph boy who rose to the presidency of the huge RCA communications conglomerate. Sarnoff's lifelong passion to develop radio as an educational and cultural force in American society culminated in his creation of the NBC Symphony Orchestra for Toscanini to lead in weekly broadcast concerts and recordings. The core of the orchestra were staff musicians, augmented by the best personnel money could snare from other ensembles. Toscanini himself was lured by a salary many times greater than that of any other conductor.

The orchestra was trained by Artur Rodzinski,Arturo Toscanini's first NBC Symphony concert - Myto CD whose artistic standards and temperament were similar to Toscanini's. Broadcasts would emanate from RCA's largest studio 8-H, familiar to modern audiences as the site of "Saturday Night Live." Toscanini's first concert of Vivaldi, Mozart and Brahms was given Christmas Day, 1937 and is preserved on Myto CD 89009.

Toscanini's NBC releases comprise the vast bulk of his recorded legacy. At their best, they are incredibly exciting, but others, including much of his most famous repertoire, are rather bloodless. Despite the inconsistent quality, though, Toscanini's popularity continued to soar. In face of the vast NBC publicity machine, criticism was rare; Toscanini was touted as a national treasure and dissention would have been tantamount to treason. The striking image of Toscanini's glaring face, framed with pure white hair and moustache, became an icon of popular culture. Hi-fi mania led discographers to vaunt Toscanini's latest recordings and to automatically disdain the musically superior earlier ones. The myth of unchallengeable greatness continued as strongly as ever, despite declining merit.

In general, the early NBC records are the best.Toscanini Conducts Beethoven Symphonies - RCA LP cover To the exquisite architectural balances and subtle tempo modulations of the past was added a new feeling of overt drama. This element was abetted by RCA's recordings, most of which were made in Studio 8-H (familiar to modern audiences as the site of "Saturday Night Live"), in which the flat, dry, unresonant but clear acoustic lent a thrilling immediacy and presence to the performances. Typical of this new, dramatic era are magnificent 1939 performances of Mozart's Symphony # 40 (on RCA CD 60285), Beethoven's Symphonies 3 and 8 (on 60260) and Beethoven's Symphony # 5 (on 60270), and 1941 readings of Brahms's Symphony # 1 (on 60277), Wagner excerpts (on 60304) and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto # 1 with Vladimir Horowitz (Toscanini's son-in-law) as soloist (on 60319). But just to show how Toscanini defies generalizations, on RCA CD 60323 is a previously unreleased 1940 broadcast of the first and last tableaux of Stravinsky's Petroushka, which is fleet, light and utterly undramatic – and superbly idiomatic and effective.

After World War II, though,Toscanini conducts Elgar and Brahms something was lost. In Joseph Horowitz's convincing analysis, Toscanini adopted a simplified, all-purpose formula in his final years. No longer did Toscanini strive to uncover the unique character of each composer and composition, but came to treat all music abstractly. The subtle plasticity of expression that had cemented his fame dissolved into a rigid pulse that he maintained throughout an entire movement. The wondrous "singing" quality of the past was subdued beneath faster and seemingly metronomic tempos. Climaxes often fell flat, as Toscanini would no longer "lean" into them. The notes were all there as precisely as ever, but the human emotion was nearly all gone.

The performance style was mirrored in the recordings. Toscanini insisted that each instrument be heard distinctly.Toscanini conducts Beethoven's Eroica Symphony This was no problem in Studio 8-H, especially after 1941 when a shell was installed to surround the orchestra and reinforce the sound. Even after 1950, when the venue shifted from the antiseptic studio to Carnegie Hall, there still was little ambience, as the orchestra was closely miked to keep the sound flat.

The early NBC records, while artistically the best of the series, were often marred by substandard recordings which, for better or worse, have been transferred straight to the new CDs, without efforts at sonic repair. Thus, Toscanini's meltingly beautiful 1945 reading of Waldteufel's Skaters Waltz (on RCA CD 60308) remains mired in rumble, Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony (also on 60308) is annoyingly shrill, and much of the subtlety of Beethoven's Symphony # 8 (on 60269) is lost in gritty distortion.

The detail and impact of these recordings as originally issued was compromised by a parade of sonic horrors.Toscanini in fake stereo Early LP transfers were cut so softly and with such a steep treble cut that the music was often hard to discern. Then RCA's "new orthophonic" equalization characteristic added a harsh shrillness to the already unnatural balance. Next, RCA "enhanced" many recordings by adding false reverberation, exaggerating the highs even more and all but eradicating any bass. The final damage arose from the increasingly shrill and characterless sound that emerged from higher stamper numbers of the most popular Red Seal originals in the catalogue. And it was these depreciated masters that were used for many of the budget Victrola LP reissues (some of which boasted "electronic stereo" – only $1 extra!) and tacky cassettes through which a new generation would come to know Toscanini.

Fortunately, most of these sonic crimes have been expunged on the RCA/BMG Toscanini Collection CDs. Generally, the sound is at least comparable to the early stampers of the LPs, and often substantially better. But not always. A few 78 surfaces are decidedly crunchier than on their LP transfers; the 1947 Tchaikovsky Symphony # 6 on CD 60297 is ruined by gouges absent from its previous appearance on Victrola 1266.Toscanini conducts the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony Sibelius's Finlandia on 60294 is afflicted with tape swish and phase distortion, none of which marred the fine sound on LM-1834, the original 1954 LP issue. The 1949 Schumann Symphony # 3 on 60292 is soured with wow. And we have already noted the misguided filtering on the Philadelphia series. But these are minor quibbles after the horrors of the past.

The presentation of the new series, though, is only a mixed success. Although the discs are mid-priced, many volumes could easily have held another selection or two. Included are some fascinating, previously unreleased items, but, reminiscent of its Elvis marketing, RCA has stingily sprinkled these among entire sets of reissued material which serious collectors already have on LP. The programming is logically arranged by composer or era, but is still somewhat haphazard, unnecessarily scrambling early and late recordings on the same disc, which results in jarring transitions among interpretive style and sonic detail. And while the booklets contain brief and informative performance notes, they are overstuffed with translations into four languages and bulge further with the very same perfunctory biography (also multilingual) which is found in each and every other volume, an unconscionable waste of paper in light of all the recent environmental concerns over the late longbox. (In contrast, Deutsche Grammophone's most recent releases provide only English notes in a slender gatefold; if a European company can manage such efficiency for American distribution, why can't RCA?)

Among the most successful of the late NBC recordings are works having strongly differentiated sections, in which interpretive flexibility is secondary. Toscanini conducts Richard StraussAmong the best of these are Strauss's Till Eulenspeigel and Don Juan on 60296, Weber Overtures (on 60292), Elgar's Enigma Variations (on 60287) and, especially, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (also on 60287). Also successful are works with complex orchestration, highlighted by Toscanini's precision and clarity; his record of Debussy's La Mer (on 60265) is a near-miracle. The late Toscanini also excelled in invigorating relatively simple early classics, including symphonies of Haydn on 60281 and 60282 and Mozart on 60285 and 60286. Another category of late successes is light pieces, which seem thrillingly propelled by Toscanini's energy and concentration. These include Prokofiev's Classical Symphony on 60323, Bizet's Carmen Suite (on 60274), Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice on 60322, Rossini Overtures on 60289, Weber Overtures on 60292, obscurities from Cherubini and Cimarosa on 60278, and a real surprise – the most stirring performance you will ever hear of Sousa's El Capitan march on 60307. And finally there are splashy ephemera, which are transformed by Toscanini's earnestness; among these are Resphigi's Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome on 60262 and Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite on 60307.

Even the least exciting of the NBC readings share one common virtue: durability. The readings of many other conductors make a more immediate initial impression, especially to listeners who already know the works and who are apt to be fascinated by unique interpretive imprints.Toscanini Conducts Your Favorites - RCA LP And yet, years and even decades after a first hearing, Toscanini's straightforward renditions still hold their appeal. Much like an old reliable friend or a favorite chair, they have a timeless quality and can always be revisited with pleasure and comfort.

That said, too many of the late NBC recordings fail to fully ignite. Unfortunately, these include virtually all of the serious repertoire upon which Toscanini's fame was founded, including the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and the Verdi and Wagner operas. The problem is more of comparison than absolute quality; while the late recordings still impress with their musical integrity and would do honor to most other conductors, they lack the revelatory quality of Toscanini in his prime. None of the late records is bad or even uninteresting, but their energy, drive and precision remain too close to the surface and only rarely enter the depths that Toscanini plumbed in earlier years and in the concert hall. Many still speak of these performances in awe, perhaps out of residual respect for a legend. But as the Toscanini mystique fades into history, others are increasingly willing to admit that while they are certainly decent, the late recordings simply do not adequately represent the greatest conductor of the century.

The Concerts

Much of the problem with Toscanini's late NBC recordings may have been a casual attitude engendered by the routine and sterile atmosphere of studio procedures. As with all great performers, from classical to jazz to rock, Toscanini thrived on the tension, spontaneity and added energy of concerts. Fortunately, NBC recorded Toscanini's weekly broadcasts, first on acetates and then on tape.Toscanini's all-Sibelius concert - Naxos CD In need of new product after Toscanini's retirement, RCA began to release broadcast performances of works Toscanini had never cut in the studio. Among the best were Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony (on RCA CD 60284), Sibelius's Symphony # 2 and Pohjola's Daughter (on 60294) and a complete Berlioz Romeo and Juliet (on 60274).

NBC also televised selected Toscanini concerts. RCA has supplemented the CDs and cassettes of the Toscanini Collection with ten televised NBC concerts from 1948 to 1952, available on laserdisc and videotape. Although technically primative, they provide the best evidence of the intense concentration which Toscanini lavished on his music, even toward the end of his career.

It is his concert recordings that the true greatness of Toscanini's last years emerges. Among the most extraordinary ones available on the RCA/BMG reissues are white-hot performances of Beethoven's Leonora Overture # 3 from 1939 (on 60255) and Act IV of Verdi's Rigoletto from a 1944 Red Cross benefit concert (on 60276). Each is a superb example of Toscanini absorbed in his best-known repertoire. Each also documents the wild enthusiasm Toscanini generated: in place of the gradual crescendo of genteel applause that typifies a normal cultured appreciation, the last several measures of the Verdi are drowned out by a frenzied ovation and the final chord of the Beethoven is followed by what can only be described as a rebel whoop!

The Rigoletto excerpt is treasurable as our best indication of Toscanini's electrifying presence in the opera house. Although the stage dominated the entire first half of Toscanini's career, the only recordings of actual Toscanini opera productions are miserably crude tapings of his Salzburg Festival performances of 1937 and 1938. (Mozart’s Magic Flute is on Melodram 37040, 3 CDs.) The closest we can get to a complete Toscanini opera are the concert performances (that is, without costumes, scenery or stage action) that Toscanini included in many of his NBC broadcast seasons. The first was Beethoven's Fidelio (on RCA 60273, 2 CDs), undoubtedly chosen in 1944 for its theme of victory over political repression, but inconsistently sung and rather slack.Toscanini leads the concert to reopen LaScala (1946) - Naxos CD The stand-out is a riveting 1947 reading of Verdi's Otello (on RCA 60302, 2 CDs), which may replicate the world premiere in which Toscanini had played 60 years earlier. Those who had heard Toscanini live dismissed his opera broadcasts as pale shadows of the glory of his prime. Judging from what we have, Toscanini's brilliance as an opera conductor must have been absolutely dazzling.

Numerous import CDs allow comparison of Toscanini studio readings with contemporaneous concert performances of the same works. AS Disc 611 and Arkadia 417 have Toscanini's Dvorak Symphony # 9 ("From the New World") from a concert given January 31, 1953, just two days before his studio recording (on RCA 60279). Similarly, Hunt 706 (2 CDs) preserves concerts of the Brahms symphonies made within days of their studio renditions. In each case, the concert is far more energetic and persuasive than the record.

Other Toscanini concerts have now appeared on various CD labels, including Dell'Arte, Relief, Music & Arts, Myto, Melodram, SRO, Fonit/Cetra and Naxos. Although the sonic quality of the sources and transfers varies considerably, nearly every one is artistically compelling and well worth exploring.

The End

The end of Toscanini's career was every bit as dramatic as its beginning.

The final concert of the 1953-54 season, an all-Wagner program, was scheduled for April 4. A week earlier, Toscanini had announced his retirement. In previous years, in what had degenerated into a pathetic ritual, he had often threatened to resign, but had always been cajoled back by a supplicating parade of colleagues and NBC brass. This time, though, he meant it.

Although concerned over his advancing age, Toscanini remained in excellent health, both physically and mentally. Even though he had suffered a minor stroke in 1951 while pedalling an exercise bike (at the age of 84!), his subsequent recordings and television concerts reveal no significant slackening of his powers. And yet, when preparing for the concert, Toscanini was not only anguished over his own retirement, but was also plagued by NBC's refusal to guarantee work for the orchestra after his retirement. (In fact, the musicians were promptly cut loose and struggled to continue as the Symphony of the Air, both under guest conductors and in conductorless concerts designed to symbolize the strength of Toscanini's lingering influence.)

There had been premonitions of trouble. That January, Toscanini had woken in a panic, having temporarily forgotten the words to Verdi's A Masked Ball, which he was to begin rehearsing for a broadcast concert. On April 3, Toscanini stormed out of the final rehearsal after exploding at the timpanist for a supposedly wrong entrance which in fact had been correct. During the first part of the concert itself, Toscanini failed to beat some of the time changes, although the orchestra, accustomed to his methods, did not falter.

And then it happened,Toscanini at his moment of truth during the quiet final section of the second to last piece, the "Overture and Bacchanale" from Tannhauser. Toscanini, who had the most phenomenal memory of any musician – who conducted without any score and who really could remember every nuance of every note of every performance he ever gave – drew a complete blank! Toscanini's face drained of expression. He stopped conducting and covered his eyes. The ensemble first disintegrated and then ceased altogether. After 14 seconds of unbearable silence, the radio announcer implausibly intoned: "Due to operational difficulties, there is a temporary pause in our broadcast from Carnegie Hall." The mood was then shattered by a record of the thunderous opening of Brahms's First Symphony, which was awkwardly faded out in mid-phrase, after which the concert selection faded in.

During his mental lapse, the supreme classical perfectionist must have confronted the horrible realization that he no longer could live up to his own exacting standards. After recovering control, Toscanini wanly resumed beating time for the rest of the piece and then began to leave the stage. A musician reminded him that the stirring Meistersinger Prelude remained, which he proceeded to conduct numbly (although the well-rehearsed orchestra apparently ignored him and gave a full-blooded reading). Before the final chords Toscanini dropped his baton and shuffled off stage. He never conducted in public again.

In June, Toscanini did return to the studio to record some patches for pending releases. He divided his last years between Italy and New York. He considered a number of projects, but none was realized. His health rapidly deteriorated. Toward the end, not even a wisp remained of the musical firebrand; when a respectful visitor addressed him as Maestro, he sadly replied, "Do not call me Maestro. I am no longer Maestro."

The Legacy

Toscanini left no direct musical heirs. His only protege was Guido Cantelli, whom he met at a La Scala rehearsal in 1948. Toscanini undoubtedly was impressed both by the young man's musical intensity and by his strong opposition to fascism, for which he had spent much of World War II interned in concentration camps. Recognizing something of his younger self (and perhaps of his father, a patriot who had fought with Garibaldi for Italian independence and had been imprisoned for 3 years),Guido Cantelli Toscanini groomed Cantelli and arranged for him to conduct the NBC and New York Philharmonic orchestras, among others. Numerous Cantelli concerts have been released on the Italian AS Disc label. They reveal a remarkable musician who combined Toscanini's authoritative precision with youthful passion and impulse. Perhaps this is how Toscanini sounded in the decades before his first records.

Would Cantelli have matured into another Toscanini? His taut Franck Symphony in d minor (recorded with the NBC only two days after Toscanini's traumatic final concert and last available on RCA LP LM-1852) and his no-nonsense Tchaikovsky Symphony # 6 (on EMI CDH 69785) are both strikingly similar to Toscanini's readings. And yet, EMI CDH 63085 combines a Brahms Symphony # 3 that is more flowing than his mentor's and a Schumann Symphony # 4 that bursts with an ecstatic passion wholly absent from Toscanini's emotional arsenal. Cantelli also revelled in Bartok, Hindemith and other modern repertoire that Toscanini couldn't stomach. All of this suggests that once his apprenticeship was over, Cantelli was apt to have found his own way. Whether or not Cantelli would have extended the Toscanini era into our time, he surely would have been one of our preeminent conductors.

When Toscanini died in January 1957, he was comforted by the knowledge that his devoted Cantelli would bear his ideals into the next century. Reportedly, though, he had been concerned that Cantelli hadn’t visited in a while, but was told that he was away on a busy concert schedule. Apparently Toscanini had been sheltered from the news that Cantelli had died in an air crash two months before, at the age of 36.

In a broader sense, though, Toscanini's influence was enormous. His objective outlook was an essential correction of the trend toward a performer's personality overwhelming the composer and even the music. Toscanini's approach served to refocus the spotlight. His success literally changed the direction of musical interpretation toward modern classical performance as we now know it.

But in a way the pendulum swung too far. Toscanini's influence was so strong that he became a cult himself and was worshipped by public and musicians alike as representing the only true way. Conductors and performers of the former subjective school were crowded out by a horde of newcomers who tried to emulate their artistic hero. Enamored of Toscanini's late, simpler recording style, his admirers forgot (or never knew) Toscanini's earlier and greater achievements. Mechanical precision and superhuman technique supplanted emotion and humanity; uniformity and sterility replaced the diverse interpretive wealth mined by earlier artists, who imbued their work with authentic romantic feeling and exemplified a rich and irreplaceable tradition, but who became scorned as hopeless relics.Arturo Toscanini - a portrait Only recently has the balance been restored so that the late Leonard Bernstein, for one, could unabashedly wring every drop of emotion from Brahms, Sibelius or Tchaikovsky in a way that a Toscanini acolyte could never have tolerated.

But everything does have a way of coming full circle. Toscanini's lifelong search for musical honesty to reveal the composer's intentions has reemerged in a most unexpected but hopefully enduring form of which the Maestro surely would have wholeheartedly approved. The most recent trend in classical performance is "original instrument" ensembles such as the Hanover Band, the London Classical Players and the Academy of Ancient Music, whose recordings of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others are among the most exciting CDs yet issued. These groups conduct scrupulous research to ensure that every aspect of their performance practices reflect as accurately as possible those of the composers' eras. Amazingly enough, when these authentic scholarly restorations are compared to Toscanini's purely intuitive performances, they sound almost exactly alike!

For Further Reading

A few well-chosen records will reveal more about Toscanini's art than a shelf full of books. Even so, for further reading, it is best to avoid material written about Toscanini during or shortly after his lifetime; although Robert Marsh's Toscanini and the Art of Orchestral Performance (Lippincott, 1956) is a courageously well-balanced analysis, nearly all the others are adoring puffery, treating the Maestro as the most perfect human being who ever graced the earth. If you require proof of the strength of the Toscanini cult, though, by all means feel free to indulge yourself.

More informative and level-headed evaluations had to await authors too young to have become mired in the Toscanini idolatry. Harvey Sachs's Toscanini (Harper & Row, 1978) is the best biography –heavily researched, but anecdotal, concise and very readable. Joseph Horowitz's controversial but brilliant Understanding Toscanini (Knopf, 1987) both probes the music (fearlessly condemning the late dross where appropriate) and places the Toscanini phenomenon in the perspective of European and American art and popular culture. This article is heavily indebted to both of these sources.

A Toscanini Top Ten

Everybody likes a list. Here's a highly subjective one of essential Toscanini recordings. The issue of "the very best" has been finessed through alphabetical order. Please note: Toscanini CDs come and go with bewildering speed.Sampler volume of the Toscanini Collection As time passes, the specific issues cited here will be replaced by others. I haven't tried to keep track of them to post updates and substitutions, but the performance dates should help you find them.

First, you may need to test the waters. "The Toscanini Collection – Highlights" (RCA CD 60340-2) is a budget-priced sampler which includes Smetana's The Moldau, Berlioz's Queen Mab Scherzo, Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, Rossini's William Tell Overture, two opera excerpts and that fabulous live 1939 Beethoven Leonora Overture #3. If you aren't suitably transported, consider your $6.99 a failed but worthy experiment. Otherwize, please proceed ...

Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. NBC Symphony, 1939 (Relief CR-1894-2, 6 CDs; also available separately). A committee of Mensa (whose membership is restricted to the top two percent of IQs) recently voted Toscanini's brittle 1950s studio set of Beethoven symphonies the best classical recording of all time, thereby proving that intellect and musical appreciation don't always coincide. The Relief set is the vastly superior 1939 NBC broadcast cycle which, together with the 1933/6 New York Philharmonic Fifth and Seventh Symphonies (on Pearl CDS 9373) is as close as we will ever get to Toscanini's celebrated mastery of this acid test of conducting. Portions of the 1939 cycle are included on three of the RCA CDs: the Symphony # 3 (on 60269), the Egmont and Leonora # 2 Overtures (on 60267) and the Leonora # 3 Overture (on 60255). Despite occasional surface noise, the fidelity is decent and the balance is better than on the later studio remakes; the performances are overwhelming.

Beethoven: Symphony # 5. NBC Symphony, May 8, 1945 (Music & Arts CD 753). Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, with its incessant Morse-code "V" motif, became a symbol of the Allied struggle for victory in World War II. Upon Mussolini's overthrow, Toscanini promised a special concert to celebrate Hitler's defeat on V-E Day. Here it is. Toscanini distilled his emotions into a breathless, hyper-dramatic reading (the fastest on record) and his orchestra responds with superheated virtuosity – a stunning synthesis of politics and art. The companion is a less inspired reading of Beethoven's Symphony # 3 given on V-J Day.

Brahms: The Four Symphonies. Philharmonia Orchestra, 1952 (Arkadia CDHP 524.3, 3 CDs). Even as Toscanini seemingly slept through some of his late RCA studio sessions, he could still perform as vigorously as ever. These stunningly powerful readings, taped during two London concerts, are among the finest Brahms ever recorded. The sound is an awesome improvement over the previous incarnation in a miserable Turnabout LP box.

Debussy: La Mer. NBC Symphony, 1950 (RCA CD 60265). One of Toscanini's favorite scores in a classic reading that benefits from his late precise, clear style. Equally fine is the passionate 1938 BBC concert performance on EMI CD 63044 2.

Dvorak: Symphony # 9 ("From the New World"). NBC Symphony, 1953 (AS Disc 111 or Arkadia CDMP 417.1). A glorious example of the effectiveness of Toscanini's "straightforward" approach to a work that often is molded by interpretive extremes. This is a concert performance, and is far more vital than the much-praised studio recording (on RCA CD 60279) which followed two days later. The CD boasts a magnificent bonus: an equally fine 1941 Berlin Philharmonic concert of the same work, initially attributed to Furtwangler but now thought to be by Oswald Kabata, an Austrian who should have been far more famous that he was. Although quite dissimilar, each blazes with its conductor's total artistic conviction. Either one withers all other records of this warhorse into insignificance.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. NBC Symphony, 1953 (RCA CD 60287). A fine late studio reading, and superbly well recorded, too.

Mozart: Symphonies # 39, 40 and 41. NBC Symphony, 1948, 1939 and 1946 (RCA CD 60285). In an era when Mozart was played like an effete, lovable child, Toscanini's brisk, muscular readings were often condemned as hard-driven and graceless, but they were the most vital Mozart to be heard until the recent appearance of authentic instrument versions. For another Toscanini restoration of a formerly dandified composer, try Haydn's Symphonies # 88, 94 and 98 (on RCA CD 60281).

The Complete New York Philharmonic Recordings (1926-1936). Pearl 9373 (3 CDs) or RCA 60316, 60317 and 60318. The glories of this set are described above. Toscanini's final concert with the orchestra on January 13, 1945 (on AS Disc 600) repeated the program, and perhaps much of the wonder, of his Philharmonic debut 20 years earlier.

Verdi: Rigoletto, Act IV. Leonard Warren (baritone), Zinka Milanov (soprano), Jan Peerce (tenor), Nan Merriman (soprano), Nicola Moscona (bass), NBC Symphony, 1944 (RCA CD 60276). Toscanini is still considered the greatest Verdi conductor of all time. Here's why. His 1947 broadcast concert of the complete Otello (on RCA 2-CD set 60302) is equally exhalted.

Wagner: Excerpts from Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. Helen Traubel (soprano) and Lauritz Melchior (tenor), NBC Symphony, 1941 (RCA CD 60304). Ditto for Wagner. These are deep, brooding, intense readings, a world apart from the later, perfunctory orchestral ones.

Toscanini’s Last Concert (all-Wagner program, April 4, 1954 (Arkadia CD 414). All right, so I’m cheating a bit, since this is the eleventh entry on my top ten list. But it’s of overwhelming significance, both historically (the last Toscanini concert, including the infamous flub) and aesthetically (our only genuine stereo recording of the famous Toscanini sound). I’ve posted a separate review of this item which provides a fitting coda to our survey.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1992 by Peter Gutmann

Contents Introduction 
Home Contact Info Links

For a note about the illustrations, please click here.

copper rule

Classical Notes

copyright © 1999-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.