The Magazine

A Complete Maestro

The Indian summer of the Great Conductor on 85 discs.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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The convergence of two events has shaped my life as a music listener over the past few months. The first was a significant birthday, after which I decided to reacquaint myself with the classical records—many of them long-playing vinyl—that I’ve lived with over the decades. I resolved to spend less time listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the songs Frank Sinatra recorded with Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s, and celebrate, instead, Haydn and Brahms and Debussy. 

Toscanini in action, 1944

Toscanini in action, 1944

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As if somebody up there took heed of my resolution, I was made aware that RCA Victor had recently released its archive of Arturo Toscanini recordings, previously available on individual compact discs. Now gathered together were 17 years of his performances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, from 1937 until his retirement in 1954, plus a number of those previously made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the BBC Orchestra. For 72 discs in all, plus a video of Toscanini conducting, the selling price is an amazingly low $120. (Purchased as they appeared individually in the early 1990s, the price tag would have been more like $1,200.) 

A day or so after I placed the order, the discs appeared in a large shoe box—along with a pocket‑sized, elegantly produced handbook containing a discography, short essays by critics, and photos of the great man at work. I was in business.

I heard Toscanini conduct just once, when I was 15, at an NBC Symphony Sunday afternoon program consisting of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (What I mainly remember of it was my shameful tendency to doze off after too many activities during a short New York vacation.) Toscanini had begun to conduct the symphony at the invitation of David Sarnoff, head of RCA, for a series of weekly broadcasts; some were later televised. He would have full authority over the repertory, the soloists (a number of operas were sung), and whether the performance merited a thumbs-up for release on record. 

Toscanini was then 70 years old, time for a lesser man to have retired, after concluding 12 years with the New York Philharmonic. Before that, in the early years of the 20th century, he spent decades as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as with various orchestras in Europe and America. Here was a man who, if it can be believed, conducted Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony only four years after it was written and Brahms’s Tragic Overture in 1896, when Brahms was still alive. So to begin a new operation in 1937, and continue with it for 17 years, retiring when he was 87, is one of the great heroic stories of artistic achievement.

I began listening to the discs in a serendipitous manner. Deferring the operas till later on, I let fancy and impulse direct me where they would, with one performance suggesting another. My point of entry, for no good reason, was Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, an early work not much performed and not listened to by me in years—but absolutely delightful to hear under the crisp forcefulness of Toscanini’s direction. This was followed by an even more brilliant work: Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then came Mendelssohn’s Octet, a teenage work with a brilliant Scherzo that was expanded in Toscanini’s recording by many added fiddles and articulated with breathtaking intensity.  

The stereo in my living room consists of, among other components, a new, powerful amplifier and two ancient, large KLH speakers—top of the market in their day, now looking a bit like old elephants. One of them has mysteriously died, but the other is sufficient to play the monaural recordings from a time when stereo was but a dream on the horizon. The sound, as Toscanini and my equipment deliver it, is on the harsh side, shrill at times, but absolutely electric in its tension, detail, and forward impulsion.

Many critics, along with some of the musicians who played under Toscanini, have put words to the propulsive excitement of his performances. A member of the NBC Symphony’s bass section, David Walter, spoke of the large, sweeping movements of the right arm as one of the means for getting the orchestra intensely involved. Walter’s teacher, Fred Zinneman, onetime member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, said that Toscanini’s beat was very clear and precise and very beautiful; he had the most elegant way of holding and moving that stick. So it was almost impossible to make a mistake if one watched him.