About this Recording
8.110844 - BEETHOVEN:Symphony No. 5 / MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Toscanini) (1926, 1929, 1931)

Beethoven • Mendelssohn • Dukas

Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York • Toscanini

With the conjunction of several forces irresistibly fated to fall into place with one another, Toscanini’s appointment as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929 almost bears comparison with the events leading up to the First World War. After the departure of Mahler in 1911, the orchestra had been led by Josef Stransky, who nurtured a solid team, but remained unadventurous in repertoire and interpretative flair. Then in 1923 came the great Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg, who transformed the orchestra with meticulous rehearsal training and flamboyant platform charisma. It was also in the early 1920s that the influential Clarence Mackay became chairman of the board, quickly signing up Arthur Judson as orchestral manager and executive secretary. Despite Mengelberg’s raising of standards, his chief conductorship of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra limited his availability, and the new directors were eager to find a successor to forge a partnership that would rival those of Stokowski in Philadelphia and Koussevitzky in Boston.

In January 1925 Furtwängler made his eagerly anticipated début with the orchestra, to be followed just one year later by Toscanini. The battle royal between the two guest conductors had begun, but the dice were loaded from the start. As a director of the Metropolitan Opera Association, Mackay had previously worked closely with Toscanini during his visits there, and was acutely aware of the Italian conductor’s dissatisfaction with the stress of conducting opera at La Scala and the political tensions with Mussolini and the Fascists at home in Italy. Despite Furtwängler’s initial public and critical success in New York, the overtly spiritual qualities of his style sat uncomfortably alongside Toscanini’s indomitable, single-minded approach, which went much more hand-in-glove with the administration’s desire and local competitive spirit to see the home team produce a winning orchestra. Furtwängler ultimately returned to Berlin, destined never to conduct in America again.

Surprisingly, Toscanini’s operatic career had precluded major concert activity in Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna and he made no secret of his desire to concentrate on conducting the symphonic repertoire. When the Philharmonic merged with the New York Symphony Orchestra in 1928, the maestro was given unprecedented responsibility to determine which orchestral players stayed or went. Given the new-won backing from the players themselves, the open support of Mackay and Judson, together with that of Olin Downes, the powerful music critic of the New York Times, the outcome was inevitable. The collective will of conductor and management to put the Philharmonic on the international map, especially through European touring, produced a triumphant coup for both. Mengelberg’s star waned and at the start of the 1929 season, Toscanini claimed his prize knowing that his American players could rival and surpass their European counterparts. The Philharmonic’s first tour there in 1930 vaporised any fustian cobwebs in the hallowed concert halls of the continent, and a golden age in the orchestra’s history blazed meteorically.

How fascinating therefore to ponder the comparisons between the performances of the Mendelssohn Scherzo. For all the deftness and delicacy of the 1926 performance, recorded when Toscanini was new to the orchestra, there is an underlying tension and nervous edge even more manifest in the accompanying Nocturne not repeated for the later sessions when the relationship had galvanised. The central string melody is strikingly passionate, but the opening horns sound edgy although notably more relaxed and content at the reprise. Come the 1929 recording, the tempo of the Scherzo is fleeter, the articulation tighter and more keenly accented, rhythms more buoyantly sprung, with tension and fantasy generated from within the music rather than by the orchestral personnel. Only a transitory passage of slightly precarious ensemble and a tiny domino at the end of the closing flute solo could have prompted the retake.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains one of the most urgent accounts ever recorded. The constraints of two 78 sides would be an unkind cynic’s riposte given the potency and ebullience of a brand of magic that sweeps all before it. The virtuosity and unanimity offered by all sections of the orchestra are phenomenal, the only passing regret being that the recording techniques of the time offer only a tantalising glimpse of one of the most wonderful glockenspiel solos in the repertoire. However, there is no denying the extra persistence of the climactic trumpets in the second take, and the gradation of the diminuendo gradually receding into the far distance before the final flourish bristles with sinister atmosphere.

It was Beethoven, however, who became the composer central to Toscanini’s vision and success in the early 1930s. He conducted two complete cycles of the symphonies in New York between 1932 and 1934, latterly with an added high-profile protest factor against Fascist advances in Europe. For all its occasional precariousness, this first attempt by Victor to capture a live Fifth Symphony magnificently catches interpretative and executive adrenaline in full flow. Tempi are flexible rather than rigid, phrasing is pliant rather than rigorous, and the piece is taken whole as a genuinely symphonic struggle for victory with little of the overbearing defiance that trounced any hint of vulnerability in Toscanini’s later recordings with the NBC orchestra. The third movement in particular expectantly pads a similar path to the Mendelssohn and Dukas scherzi, all three composers offering Toscanini an opportunity to trip the light fantastic with supreme control yet beguiling sleight of baton.

Ian Julier

Producer’s Note

This final volume in our series of the complete Toscanini/New York Philharmonic recordings takes us back to the very beginning of their association. Just three weeks after Toscanini first appeared as a guest conductor with the ensemble, a recording session was held in the Chapter Room on the fifth floor of the Carnegie Hall building. The orchestra had recently switched from the Victor label to Brunswick, with its new "Light-Ray" electrical recording system. Although the process was able to record at moderate volume levels with clarity, climaxes tended to become congested.

By the time Toscanini next stood before a microphone three years later, the orchestra of which he was now co-director (with Mengelberg) had rejoined Victor, and recording sessions were being held in the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall. Like several other recordings made during the 1928-29 concert season by Victor, these discs tended to be distantly miked, and featured a higher-than-usual degree of ambient hiss and surface swish (even in the quiet pressings Victor was releasing in the mid-1930s).

The alternate takes presented here were substituted during the 1940s, as the metal parts for the original takes had begun to wear out. The first take of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo was probably not released initially because of a flute mistake at the very end of the side. It reveals a wider dynamic range than Toscanini was to use on the originally approved take. The alternate take of the second side of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice begins more in tempo with what comes before it than the version issued first, although it lacks that take’s delicious string slide (6’11" into Track 6).

The Beethoven Fifth presented here was the first of two attempts Victor made to record Toscanini and the Philharmonic in this work during a live performance. (Their 1933 effort was featured on the first volume of this series, 8.110840.) The original recorded sound is problematic. Nearly every side is a sonically-compromised dubbing, often taken from discs which were not properly centered during playback. In addition, a couple of measures at the end of Side 1 seem to have been dubbed in from a murky-sounding, inferior source. These problems, coupled with some obtrusive audience coughing and occasional ensemble mishaps, doomed any hope of release at the time. Subsequent listeners have had a different verdict. Calling it "outstanding", Alan Sanders wrote in Gramophone (4/92) about the "extraordinary power and eloquence" of this performance.

The source used for the transfer of the Beethoven was a set of test pressings from a private collection. The originally-issued takes of the Mendelssohn and Dukas came from mid-1930s U.S. Victor "Z" pressings, while the substitutes were taken from post-war RCA shellacs. The 1926 recordings came from a rare mid-‘30s laminated pressing made by American Columbia at a time when that firm had bought out the Brunswick label.

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor’, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially-released restorations.

The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.

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