About this Recording
8.110840 - BEETHOVEN Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (Toscanini) (1933, 1936)

Toscanini 1

These two performances represent a great conductor at his best; indeed one of them has claims to be the finest interpretation of any symphony on record. So we are in the realms of myth here, and myths need to be re-examined from time to time. Especially the myth of Arturo Toscanini. For much has happened since he died in New York on 16 January 1957 and if he is the best known conductor of the past, he is also the most elusive. His true nature has been lost behind a blizzard of books, articles, critiques and legends. Endless anecdotes have trivialised him into a monster of the podium, forever losing his temper or acting unpredictably and intransigently. He has been represented as an anti-intellectual, although he had a penetrating, all-embracing grasp of the music he played. Simply to contemplate the scores he knew by heart, down to the last semi-quaver, is to be humbled by the breadth of his mind. And its depth, because those who worked closely with him on complex operas, choral works and symphonies found that this ‘simple Italian musician’ knew all the relevant background material. His favourite singers were those who brought the text of what they sang most vividly to life.

What brings us closer to the Maestro than any written (or spoken) word is his recorded legacy. We can never recreate the frisson which his very appearance caused in the opera house or concert hall, nor can we realise the full beauty of the sound his simple, eloquent gestures released to set the air quivering around the ears of his hearers. But through his records we can at least approach an understanding of why he was so important to the generations who heard him conduct in the flesh. And we can come to appreciate his still-blazing relevance for the 21st century. These Beethoven performances document his art when he was still at his peak, in the 1930s, and show him in command of an established orchestra rather than the radio ensemble which was specially created for him not long after this astonishing recording of the Seventh Symphony was made.

Like most conductors of his time Toscanini, born in Parma on 25 March 1867, learnt his trade in the opera house. And as an Italian raised in the twilight of the bel canto era, he brought a knowledge and love of singing to all his musicmaking. In the 19th century the human voice was treated with more care and attention than on today’s stages. The emphasis was on beauty of tone, articulation and legato rather than weight. If singers in l9th-century opera houses were to be heard, orchestras could not play too loudly. Stringed instruments were strung with gut, at a slacker tension than today, and wind and brass instruments were of narrower bore than their modern equivalents, so the texture of the orchestra was more transparent. Singers such as Enrico Caruso, for all that they preserved many principles of bel canto, changed all this, responding to the more complex Late Romantic orchestrations they heard coming from the pit at the turn of the 20th century. As they put more pressure on their tone, orchestras and conductors felt able to produce more noise – and composers could thicken their scoring still further. The increase in popularity of the purely orchestral concert, going hand in hand with the creation of the great symphony orchestras, allowed composers to indulge their fantasies without reference to the human voice.

Yet orchestral standards were abysmal compared with what we expect now. Toscanini played the major role in raising those standards, through meticulous rehearsal; and he presided over the period in which the modern orchestra, with its thicker, heavier sound, developed. Yet he never forgot his l9th-century origins and his ‘sound’ retained its luminosity to the end of his long life. While the bass player Koussevitzky and the organist Stokowski built up massive walls of sound on a foundation of 12 double basses, the cellist Toscanini kept his bass lines light and athletic. The inner parts were treated with unusual respect but were merely equal parts of a balanced string sound. Toscanini knew many string quartets by heart and loved to hear the Busch Quartet rehearse. Not for him the over-emphasis on the cello line that was heard from his fellow cellist Barbirolli; his cello melodies had a singing, sinuous grace.

A major influence on Toscanini was Verdi; he played in the Orchestra of La Scala under the Italian composer and revered him as man and artist. Time and again, as we read Verdi’s admonitions to singers and other musicians in his letters, it could be Toscanini writing. In his later years Verdi was appalled by the Romantic rallentandi with which many interpreters distorted his music, and he railed against the liberties they took with his scores. Almost singlehanded, Toscanini campaigned for the sanctity of a composer’s work – although even he, as a pragmatic musician, made adroit adjustments here and there. Some of his re-orchestrations were done with the composers’ blessings.

One thing Toscanini surely learnt from Verdi was that the impact of a note, or chord, depended on the precision of attack with which it was sounded, rather than its weight. His chords were like whip-cracks – especially in Beethoven – and they generated far more excitement than the sonorous chords of other conductors. These two symphonies furnish other examples of his strengths: his acute judgment of tempo (in the Seventh, the Allegretto and the Scherzo’s Trio were thought fast at the time but he has been proved right); his wonderful sense of rhythm, which buoys up not just quick movements but slow ones and keeps the Seventh Symphony dancing lithely along; his humour, which animates the lighter moments; and his exhilarating energy, which turns both finales into triumphant releases of animal power. His phrasing is like that of a great singer – the end of a phrase is comprehended in its beginning. Similarly the end of a movement seems implicit in the way he launches it, so sure is his grasp of symphonic form. His humanity can be heard in the way he phrases the ‘question and answer’ in the Andante con moto of the Fifth Symphony – the ‘answer’ is the epitome of consolation and conciliation. But then Beethoven’s music always benefited from Toscanini’s idealism, the sense of striving which he brought to all his work and which was peculiarly appropriate to this composer.

So here we have a perfect match of the pieces and the performers, for the musicians of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony play above even their usual exalted standard for Toscanini.

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