Classical Notes

Toscanini: The Last Concert

Wagner: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I; Siegfried: Forest Murmurs; Gotterdammerung: Siegfried's Rhine Journey; Tannhauser: Overture and Bacchanale; Die Meistersinger: Prelude to Act I.

    The NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini conducting
        (Carnegie Hall, April 4, 1954).

Arkadia CDMP 414

Keeping track of all the great Toscanini CDs out there (mostly of his concerts, rather than the often disappointing studio versions) strains the inventory of most stores and the budgets of most collectors.treble clef graphic Yet, one recording is unique, as it compels a reevaluation of the close of his great career and presents an unprecedented documentation of the actual sound of his work.

Conventional wisdom is that Toscanini's last concert was an artistic failure, driven by the great conductor's anguish over his impending retirement. The day before, he had exploded in anger at a musician's perceived mistake, cursed the orchestra, stormed out of the final rehearsal and demanded a last minute program change to the Tannhauser excerpt that would prove his downfall.

During the concert performance of the substituted piece, the national broadcast audience heard the ensemble crumble, followed by 14 seconds of silence,Toscanini's Last Concert - CLS LP cover announcer Ben Grauer claim that there were technical difficulties, more silence, the opening half minute of a Toscanini record of Brahms's Symphony # 1, and then the concert back in progress. Although it was unclear exactly what had happened, it was obvious that something beyond mere technical difficulties had gone wrong.

Toscanini momentarily had lost his concentration and had stopped beating time. The national media, though, reported the event in tones of high melodrama and cosmic symbolism: the supreme perfectionist had made a dreadful mistake; the infallible memory had suffered a grievous lapse; the perpetually youthful conductor had succumbed to the ravages of age; the most glorious career in classical music had crashed to an ignominious end. Subsequent authors have perpetuated this soap-operatic view. B.F. Haggin, one of Toscanini's inner circle, in his adulatory Conversations with Toscanini termed the concert "tragic" and offered that "it would have been better if he had never conducted it." Even the reliable Harold Schönberg in The Great Conductors describes the last concert as "heartbreaking" and "shocking." The previous release of the concert on CLS LP RPCL-2033 supports the standard view, presenting in lo-fi AM quality sound what the radio audience heard, announcements and all.

The Arkadia CD, though, gives a wholly new perspective. Although its source is unidentified, it apparently derives from a tape before manipulation by the control room. There is indeed a moment of uncertainty at the crucial moment (18:30 into track 4) but the orchestra, intimately familiar with Toscanini's interpretation, recovers immediately and continues to play with cohesion and commitment. In fact, the entire concert, and particularly the fatal Bacchanale, is more inspired than the stiff "official" versions of these pieces later released by RCA. Those in the control room had no cause to lose their heads and turn a minor lapse of attention into the sensationalism of the world's greatest conductor ending his career in abject disgrace.

But the most far-reaching significance of the new CD is the sound itself. Critics uniformly praised the luminous sonority Toscanini achieved in concert, but the recorded evidence is confusing. The NBC Symphony records were harsh, brittle and flat, while the better balance and depth of his earlier New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra discs were compromised by deficient top ends. The new disc approaches high fidelity and is probably the most accurate Toscanini sound we will ever hear.

And as if that were not enough, the concert is in genuine stereo! Until now, Toscanini in stereo invariably meant the filtered and echoed electronic gimmicks with which RCA tried to modernize the flat mono sound of its most famous musician for renewed LP and tape marketing. This, though, is the real thing, even though it is not the standard "fifth row center" perspective to which we are accustomed. Rather, it is a strange aural image in which strings are largely massed to the right, brass to the left and winds in the middle. But the sound has a sense of concert-hall atmosphere rather than the cramped, boxy tone which we have come to associate with late Toscanini until now. Once the instruments are spread out, middle voices emerge much more clearly and the beautiful orchestral blend evokes and confirms the wondrous descriptions of those who heard Toscanini live.

Incidentally, as so often happens, one label's historical find spawns a sharing of the wealth, as so it is here: the same program seems to be available on Music & Arts 3008, Originals SH 829 and perhaps other labels as well.

Any list of essential Toscanini CDs must now find room for this marvelous concert which gives us the opportunity to set the historical records straight and, if for only an hour, to revel in the sonic glory that was Toscanini.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1995 by Peter Gutmann

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