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Gramophone, August 2009

CLASSIC ARCHIVE: Ferenc Fricsay (NTSC) 3078528

CELIBIDACHE, Sergiu: You Don’t Do Anything – You Let It Evolve (Film, 1992) (NTSC) 101365

TOSCANINI IN HIS OWN WORDS (Docufiction, 2008) (NTSC) 3077928

Profiles of three legendary conductors

All three of these biopics are recommendable as introductions to those who know little or nothing about their subjects. With that stricture in mind, Gramophone readers will likely be drawn first to a life-and-work portrait of Ferenc Fricsay with a chronological backbone taken from the autobiography that he recorded for DG in 1962, and which was reissued to conclude a carefully compiled Original Masters set (Al03). His own story is illustrated by stock footage of varying relevance, but the talking heads are renowned and thoughtful. Antonio Pappano emphasises the importance of private study, how Fricsay arrived at a rehearsal with all points fixed, how persuasive he was in music with a story, and how his stickless technique engenders the Fricsay sound—hair-trigger yet supremely well balanced. Rehearsal excerpts from Vltava and Háry János are garrulous and compelling but clearly staged.

Celibidache is much more comfortable with a camera pointed at him, and happily dispenses his familiar but unpredictable round of scornful put-downs, avuncular humour, offbeat aperçus and mystical pronouncements whether rehearsing his Munich Philharmonic, coaching young musicians or addressing no one in particular.

Robert Croan
Opera News, June 2009

In his lifetime and beyond, Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) was widely regarded as the greatest conductor of all time. He performed Verdi’s operas while the composer was alive and led the world premieres of La Bohème and other modern masterpieces. Above all, he created an aloof, dictatorial persona that shaped public perception of what a conductor is. From 1937–54 an entire generation learned to love classical music from his weekly radio broadcasts with the NBC Symphony.

He professed a lifelong “unbearable shyness,” gave no interviews and left no memoirs, though his letters have been published. Walter Toscanini, the conductor’s oldest son, secretly taped 150 hours of family conversations, and these are the basis of the present film by Emmy Award-winning director Larry Weinstein.

The film is a cross between a biopic and a documentary. Dramatized segments in the Toscaninis’ living room (with actors portraying the maestro, his family and friends) are interwoven with recordings, photos, films and TV clips of the maestro himself. The script for the staged episodes uses words from Walter’s tapes.

Though Weinstein’s cinematography is superb, the maestro’s life trumps the director’s art. The dramatized segments are the least convincing, while the real-life flashes give a compelling portrait of what made Toscanini great—his total knowledge of the music (he always conducted from memory), his driving energy, his fidelity to the scores, the clarity of every line. The best of Toscanini is encapsulated in his rendition of the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino with the NBC Symphony. A brief clip from Act II of Aida is equally thrilling, and Toscanini imparts a sense of power to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis like no other conductor in memory. With this mastery, however, came a rigidity of the beat and preference for fast tempos, which have drawn their fair share of criticism.

“Uncompromising” is the word Toscanini used to describe himself. He was his own severest critic, and early in the film we learn that he stopped conducting after suffering a memory lapse on the podium.

Toscanini was the antithesis of his German contemporaries, among them Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter, who preferred leisurely tempos and a more flexible approach. Anti-German sentiment, combined with Toscanini’s anti-Fascist stance, may have helped bring the American public to his side. Mussolini derided him as “an honorary Jew.” In a particularly touching moment, the conductor describes the reopening of La Scala after the war as “the most moving moment of my career.”

The reconstructed scenes in the Toscaninis’ Riverdale, New York parlor are forced and artificial. Barry Jackson manages a reasonable facsimile of the maestro seen in historical footage, but the others—impersonating his children Walter and Wally, conductor Wilfred Pelletier, Iris Cantelli (wife of conductor Guido) and La Scala colleague Anita Colombo—come across as bad actors. At the end, the simulated Toscanini party rings in the new year of 1955 with a toast, and the camera cuts to the conductor’s funeral procession, accompanied by his own majestic performance of “Va, pensiero.”

What Toscanini has to say, of course, is intrinsically interesting. “His own words” are part of the film’s title, and its raison d’être. He proclaims that Puccini “never had a real idea in his head” but praises the near-forgotten Alfredo Catalani. He calls conductor Leopold Stokowski “disgusting…ignoble…unmusical.” Hearing a recording of Maria Callas, he says, “You cannot understand a word she sings.” And on the subject of marriage, he proclaims, “I was a good, honest but unfaithful husband…In a marriage, [fidelity] is not everything.”

At one point in the conversations, the maestro says, “Conductors should know when they get boring.” This film makes it clear that no one will accuse Toscanini of that.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

Walter Toscanini, engineer son of the conductor, surreptitiously recorded family conversations after the great man retired (3077928). From these tapes, a 70-minute script emerged, and—superbly acted by Barry Jackson (you think you are watching Toscanini himself)—with other actors playing family members and friends—fairly interesting scenes take place, mainly reminiscences, but including some devastating opinions on other performers. (He fails to appreciate Callas, but don’t underestimate the competition she offered as an operatic idol.) There are film clips of his emotional post-war return to Milan to conduct at La Scala, showing the wartime devastation of the city, and of his Italian state funeral. Surprisingly, for a film about a great conductor, there is very little music (mainly from filmed NBC Symphony concerts) and what there is sounds quite poor.

Bryant Manning
Time Out Chicago, April 2009

Most classical documentaries about dead icons follow a maddeningly simple formula: A narrator speaks stoically over sweeping shots of the musician’s homeland. Stock footage and slow pans of photos are interspersed for historical authenticity. Interviews with a few friends and colleagues provide conversational intimacy. And a soundtrack of the musician’s work rolls constantly. Market it to as few people as humanly possible—call it a day.

Which is why Weinstein’s new film on conductor Arturo Toscanini stands out. Drawing on recorded interviews the Italian maestro made with his son Walter, quirky Canadian music documentarian Weinstein hired actors to sit around the fireplace and reenact the Toscanini dialogues with dramatic flair. They’re pretty believable, too. In the lead role, Barry Jackson inhabits the one-time NBC Symphony Orchestra leader with crotchety gusto, showing how a Parma émigré single-handedly made it acceptable for white-haired European statesmen to become American idols.

The then-87-year-old conductor is entertainingly crusty with his iconoclastic dismissals of Leopold Stokowski, Puccini and that darling of operatic divadom, Maria Callas. “You can’t understand a word she sings,” he spits.

When he heaps praise, the crankiness dissolves into misty-eyed idolatry. “Beethoven is in a different sphere, and everything is below it,” he rhapsodizes. Toscanini never gave press interviews nor kept a journal. So for Peeping Tomism into one of America’s most enigmatic and transformational classical icons, this is a must-see.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, April 2009

Director and writer Larry Weinstein, collaborating with the Toscanini family and fellow writer Harvey Sachs, has created a visual conversation-piece, interspersed with historical footage from the life and career of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). The dialogue finds its source in the 150 hours of recordings the Maestro’s son Walter made, unbeknownst to Toscanini, of home conversations on all sorts of musical, familial, and philosophical topics. In 2007, the family permitted the film’s creators to audition and utilize the conversations as they saw fit. Weinstein here dramatizes a typical gathering of the family around the patriarch, arguably the greatest orchestra conductor of the 20th Century.

It is the eve of the year 1955, and around Arturo Toscanini in his Riverdale, New York home are gathered children Walter Toscanini (1898–1971) and Wally Toscanini (1900–1991); conductor Wilfrid Pelletier (1896–1982); assistant Anita Columbo; and Iris Cantelli, wife of the talented Guido Cantelli, who died tragically young in an airplane crash in 1956. The film, in eight sections, explores their various inquiries and topics of conversation, freely shifting to visual, documentary B&W footage that illuminates the subject as hand. We open with the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco, and Verdi will dominate much discussion, especially his place alongside Wagner in Toscanini’s estimate, especially his approach of the Master when Toscanini was preparing the Four Sacred Pieces and took an accelerando in a passage not so marked. “I played it [on the piano] as I felt it,” offers Toscanini. Verdi congratulated him. “A real musician understands,” said Verdi, “that I cannot designate every note with a dynamic gesture.” Reminiscences of Puccini prove not so flattering: “The man never had an original idea in his head. Never a direct inspiration. Everything he borrowed from elsewhere.” Toscanini disparages Maria Callas, whom we glimpse in I Puritani: “I can’t understand a single word she sings. Every singer with a high note becomes a huge star. I recognize only those stars in heaven.”

More fondly, Toscanini speaks of composer Alfredo Catalani, whose La Wally also inspired the names of Toscanini’s second child. “He was a most simpatico spirit, and he had the most beautiful eyes, which women could not resist. I recall that Puccini became jealous towards Catalani, often wondering how a man could write so many beautiful melodies. I still play his lovely song ‘The Dream.’” On the subject of women, the aging maestro (played by Barry Jackson) concedes that “a woman’s love aims to divinity. I, on the other hand, was a good, honest but unfaithful husband…” Daughter Wally (Carolina Giametta)  shrugs her disapproval, but Toscanini betrays no embarrassment: “Carla [nee de Martini], my wife, was a saint. But matrimonial life was not what I had imagined. As for the many…offers I had from women, I said No many times, but I was not made of stone. Verdi and Puccini loved women: do we blame them?

Certain dates loom as milestones in this docudrama: April 4, 1954: Toscanini’s previously infallible memory fails: “I felt like I was dreaming, in a fog.” He would never appear again before an orchestra. May 11, 1946: the re-opening of La Scala in Milan after WW II. We hear strains from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. “I could not bear to walk the streets of Milan, to see the destruction. I kept my head down as I walked back to the hotel.” Toscanini’s resistance to Fascism opens several conversations and their concomitant images. We see the rise of Mussolini in 1919, when he was left-of-Socialist, and Toscanini considered running on the same political ticket! “As soon as he went to the Right, I abandoned the rascal. And Hitler, he ruined my tenure at Bayreuth—a temple, one of my joys. I led all major Wagner opera except Das Rheingold. Even when I went to Salzburg, he came and annexed Austria. Delinquents! People like Furtwaengler stayed and played for him and his gangsters. What a bad race we are…it’s even worse when our morals are tested. The spine curves when the soul has already curved.”

We see and hear Toscanini leading the opening figures from Lohengrin; we even see (and do not hear) a “silent” film of his leading The Ride of the Valkyries. “When I am working, I have no time to feel joy. I am like a woman, giving birth in pain and suffering. But Beethoven—to think he composed in deafness—his Ninth Symphony expresses the inexpressible. To have music descend from some realm ‘up there.’ There is no gravity; I am weightless. To really worship this music, his Missa Solemnis, I should conduct it on my knees.” For the darker thoughts from Toscanini, we have moments from the Brahms C Minor Symphony.  Toscanini rails at his colleague Leopold Stokowski: “I suppose we have our gangsters in music just as we do in politics—those thugs Mussolini and Hitler. I heard Stokowski give a disgusting Franck Symphony in D Minor and wrote him a letter to the effect of his desecration of great music—but I did not mail it.”

The purely “historical” segments of the retrospective prove visually illuminating: family photos of Toscanini’s parents, especially his father; the 1886 embarkation from Genoa to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where Toscanini would debut as a conductor of Aida at age nineteen. “You play me my recordings of Aida, and all I can hear are the flaws.” The discussion gravitates to the formation of the NBC Symphony. “They promised me an orchestra to be made from members from all over the country, the first in precision, in ensemble. They did it! To rival Boston, Philadelphia, and a joy to work with. We hear and see La Forza del Destino Overture. “Music has always managed to pull me back up, to rejuvenate me.  When Carla turned 70 she became too ill to accompany me on my tours…I needed her, not for the details but for the big questions of purpose. I am so shy, still, after so many years. And I need to be alone; me, who is never alone because of the work I do.” The last visual sequence juxtaposes Toscanini’s profile with the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan, and we realize that Toscanini’s entire being was a tragic love-affair with music, the marriage of the timely and the timeless.

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11:43:24 PM, 7 October 2015
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