A Complete Maestro
The Indian summer of the Great Conductor on 85 discs.
Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Another musician, William Carboni, testified to how much Toscanini’s terrifying demeanor on the stand elicited from the musicians: “That red face—that violence—it could kill anyone. It was like nature—like a raging sea or a thunderstorm: it’s bigger than you, and you don’t buck it—you have to go along with it.” These and other testimonies are from The Toscanini Musicians Knew (1967) by B. H. Haggin, who himself had a try at describing Toscanini’s conducting, writing that it exhibited “cohesive tension from one sound to the next . . . changes of sonority and pace that were always in right proportion to what preceded and followed,” an effect Haggin called “plastic continuity.” The result was an ideal view of the work based on the composer’s score and on its performance markings.
One of the listening activities this collection tempts one to engage in is comparing different performances of the same work. For example, we are given three different recordings of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—from 1939, 1949, and 1952—and the scrupulous listener may decide which is preferable, which clarifies the most details. One of the liveliest books on the conductor is The Toscanini Legacy (1970) by the English critic Spike Hughes, who is very stern about moments when this or that performance shows Toscanini at less than his best. (Toscanini’s own attitude toward his performances was one of “relentless self‑dissatisfaction.”) This comparative activity is probably not essential for a nonprofessional listener intent on refreshing his or her ear, not just in bringing to life relatively unfamiliar pieces like Mozart’s early Divertimento (K. 287) but, more significantly, in taking the measure once more of the 19th century composers—Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi—whose work the conductor invariably makes new.
During the vinyl era, I purchased at modest prices many Toscanini albums, often unfortunately souped up with stereo sound that made for unnecessary racket. These LPs have moldered on the shelf, particularly the ones that include performances of lighter classics such as The Skater’s Waltz (Waldteufel), The Moldau (Smetana), Rossini’s overture to William Tell, and Sibelius’s Finlandia—not to speak of triumphant renditions of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and El Capitan. (It has been noted that when Toscanini toured the South with his orchestra, they played “Dixie,” something that, however politically incorrect it now seems, I would like to have heard.)
One of the musicians interviewed by Haggin referred affectionately to such lighter pieces as “junk stuff,” but tags The Skater’s Waltz as standing out in his memory of great moments. Something like that happened to me on hearing Finlandia for the first time in many years. The piece takes about nine minutes to perform, seven of which are junk indeed: Sibelius at his windiest and most pretentious. Then, suddenly, a break—and the great, beautiful theme announces itself, as pure and ice‑cold as one imagines things are in Finland. I would expect to be stirred by this or that second subject in a symphonic movement of Beethoven or Brahms, but was unprepared for this burst of noble utterance.
Toscanini can sometimes be heard singing along with the orchestra or singers, especially in rehearsals (none of which, unfortunately, are included in this collection). One of these instances occurred in the third act of La Bohème, when, as one of his favorite singers, Jan Peerce, noted, Toscanini sang along with him. Peerce observed that some people said it spoiled the record; for him, it made the record:
In “The American Scholar,” Emerson says, with students in mind, that great books are for nothing except to inspire. I feel sorry for my own students who, not brought up with classical music, will never hear these performances. For me, there is no better word than “inspire” to name the way they can fill someone, perhaps listening from a comfortable chair in the living room, with a sense of heroic possibilities.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.