About this Recording
8.110895 - HAYDN: Symphony No. 88 / MOZART: Symphony No. 40 (Toscanini) (1938-1939)

Great Conductors • Arturo Toscanini
HAYDN: Symphony No. 88 • MOZART: Symphony No. 40
BEETHOVEN: Movements from String Quartet, Op. 135
ROSSINI: William Tell Overture

1938 was a momentous year for Toscanini. Apart from Britain, he had severed most of his links with Europe as the climax of a prolonged and very public stand against Fascism and in particular by refusing to conduct a revival of Die Meistersinger at Salzburg, leaving the spoils to Furtwängler. He was effectively barred from his homeland and his ongoing relationship with Ada Mainardi was in full spate emotionally. Having been lured back to the United States after his departure from the New York Philharmonic as recently as 1936, he was now making his first commercial recordings following his inaugural season with the orchestra specially formed by NBC as the bait.

No-one understood the dual chemistry of artistic pride and marketability more acutely than David Sarnoff, the mastermind behind the foundation of the National Broadcasting Company in 1926. By 1930 he was firmly in control as president and embarked upon a visionary realisation of the power of radio as a communicator, educator and purveyor of entertainment with boundless mission and business acumen. Consolidating perceptive advice from his team of programmers and advisers, especially Samuel Chotzinoff, Toscanini’s swift return to the United States was targeted as one of his prime objectives. Contemporary polls confirmed that more than sixty per cent of Americans enjoyed listening to classical music on the radio. Moreover, nearly forty per cent had heard of Toscanini and knew correctly that he was a conductor. In other words, a mass audience lay ripe for the picking.

During his final season in 1936, Toscanini’s demands on the New York Philharmonic administration became increasingly at odds with the financial and artistic realities of an orchestra trying to adapt and survive in the post-depression environment. He objected to certain guest conductors appearing without being consulted, potentially practical mergers with other orchestras were rejected and any reduction in the numbers of concerts, particularly his own, were dismissed out of hand. For all the public ballyhoo and outpourings of grief that registered on a scale of national musical bereavement at his farewell concerts, the Maestro had made his own position untenable and his ultimate resignation inevitable. Compromise and concession were never negotiable within the context of his artistic standards and he effectively left himself with no choice.

Following his departure from the Philharmonic, Toscanini’s field of operations shrank rapidly. His flagship concerts with the newly formed orchestra of Jewish immigrants in Palestine in December 1936 had been a considerable success, but hardly offered him the most far-reaching development opportunity given his career to date. Sarnoff knew that America and specifically radio offered a new and unique means to establish and market a musical icon as well as to make a fortune into the deal. Toscanini’s renowned amour-propre could be readily pandered to, not to mention the prospect of revenge on a rival organization on home ground. He also knew that the element of mystery, remove and concentration generated by the sound only medium would play well with Toscanini’s musical temperament, particularly with regard to his obsessively high standards of rehearsal and execution. So it was that the cream of orchestral musicians was headhunted from across the continent and beyond, expressly to custom-build an orchestra for a man ready to be groomed for cult media status.

The debate will probably endure for all time whether Toscanini’s peak was his activity at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, his tenure of the New York Philharmonic or the years with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Whatever the view, there is no question that Sarnoff’s shrewd manoeuvring catapulted the Maestro to international glory in a completely unprecedented manner, establishing a promotional template that has endured in the musical world to this day. It was not all one-sided however. Toscanini was equally expert at his own brand of brinkmanship in his dealings with the corporation, but from the initial offer of the best post Toscanini could have hoped for in the context of the deteriorating international political situation, Sarnoff was cleverly able to keep one step ahead in the game.

Listening to these first forays in the infamously dry acoustic of Studio 8H brings a surprising impression of mellowness and flexibility that was increasingly sapped out of the music in the sometimes severe and aggressive demeanour of Toscanini’s subsequent recorded commercial releases with the NBC. Many witnesses, including members of the orchestra themselves, have consistently cited the dress rehearsals as often being far more adrenal. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate whether the NBC recordings in many ways offer evidence of Toscanini being the first great conductor to be compromised by recording a musical testament and artistic legacy that is unrepresentative of the true quality of their achievement. Given the special quality of his orchestral work with the NYPO, the circumstances of his departure must have festered, leaving him not only with lessons to teach, but also owing to Sarnoff’s influence, things to prove to posterity. Maybe some of this was at the root of the impatience, anger and even brutality that became more pronounced in the NBC recordings.

It can hardly be coincidence that Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 was chosen for these first NBC recordings, when it had also featured in Toscanini’s farewell concert with the New York Philharmonic just two years previously, especially when the work itself was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it has since become, nor with the composer being at the forefront of his repertoire. The interpretation is unexpectedly expressive and generously lyrical, enriched by a dynamic range widely delineated, but without undue exaggeration. A fieriness and spontaneity wholly in keeping with Mozartian G minor at its most subtly tragic are neatly balanced with eloquent phrasing and articulation, confounding those who look to these very qualities from Furtwängler. Paradoxically, the Maestro’s arch-rival’s tempi in his commercial recording with the Vienna Philharmomnic Orchestra from ten years later are more urgent, the reading notably more intense and ruffled.

Much the same trend is evident in Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, which was even less well known at the time. There is an engaging geniality and lack of artifice that taps into the playful vitality and refined contrasts of the composer’s invention at its most dashing. The two movements from Beethoven’s last String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 form an intriguing diptych when heard with a full body of strings. The designation of the lento assai as cantante e tranquillo is a gift for Toscanini’s vocal phrasing of leading lines, which here emerge with a tonal richness and inevitability that amply reflect Beethoven’s emotional gravitas and architectural surety. The fleetness of the following vivace provides a deft, satisfying volte face that unexpectedly compensates for the missing context.

The programme is rounded off by two of the Maestro’s favourite calling cards, his own arrangement of Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo and the overture to Rossini’s William Tell. The corporate virtuosity of the NBC string section is on its mettle in both works and Toscanini’s lean presentation of Rossinian classical lines rather than obvious graphics offers an unusually coherent reading of work that can all too often sound sectional and gratuitous. An auspicious start to a collaboration and enterprise that was to last through to his final concert with the NBC orchestra on 4th April, 1954.

Ian Julier

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