DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Arturo Toscanini conducts The NBC Symphony: The Television Concerts–1948-52, Volume Four

Brilliant performances of Wagner and Brahms from the Maestro via 1951 NBC-TV kinescopes

Published on March 18, 2006

Arturo Toscanini conducts The NBC Symphony: The Television Concerts–1948-52, Volume Four
Arturo Toscanini conducts The NBC Symphony: The Television Concerts–1948-52, Volume Four
 
Program: WEBER: Euryanthe Overture; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor; WAGNER: Lohengrin: Prelude, Act I; Siegfried: Forest Murmurs; Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod; Gotterdammerung: Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music; Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyies
Studio: Testament SBDVD 1006
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 108 minutes
Rating: ****

An energized Arturo Toscanini steps before his Carnegie Hall audience of 3 November 1951 to lead a brilliant rendition of Weber’s Euryanthe Overture. While I note the energy in Toscanini’s musical presence, his physical and psychic condition was not good: an injured knee and a small stroke had made it necessary to provide a railing around the podium for support. The Maestro’s wife had passed away in June, and many near the conductor thought he might retire permanently.  Toscanini allows Weber breathing space to the musical phrases in a more relaxed fashion than in his rendition some thirteen years prior.  He holds the railing with his right hand to receive the applause.

Toscanini made adjustments to the tympani part for coda of the last movement of the Brahms C Minor Symphony. Camera placement in Carnegie Hall was a relative novelty, and many of the shots and angles capture not so much Toscanini, but the strings’ homogeneous bowing and long-shot ensemble sequences. Those of the Maestro are right out of Robert Hupka’s famous studies. The acceleration of the tempo in the first movement is something to behold, especially for the full sonority Toscanini elicits, even in tremolando string work with the oboe.  The Allegro becomes a firm quick-march with nostalgic interludes. For the last period, some nice camera work, panning from tympani through the ranks to the Maestro’s wicked baton technique, the left hand either on the lapel or designating entries.

The finale of the Allegro makes a brilliant study in graduated dynamics. Shots through violins into the basses open the Andante sostenuto. Toscanini maintains a solid underlying pulse into which the oboe and then the clarinet offer their plaint.  Now Toscanini’s left hand is all urgency, while the camera pans over the musicians’ scores, turning black and white notes into sound, then cutting to Mischakoff’s solo. He and the French horn takes us to the quiet coda.  The Maestro has a lean way with the composer’s five-bar phrases in the Un poco allegretto e grazioso, simultaneously molding and urging the material forward.  Once the tempo is high, he swings both arms in a rocking motion. The transition to the Adagio of the final movement is lightning: the camera follows the pizzicati to the winds and to the horn call, here less forte than in prior readings. Flute to trombones back to French horn, then to the Maestro, the tension builds via the camera to the chorale theme.  Toscanini plays the big tune cantabile, letting the drama occur in the sonata-form development, rendered with Swiss-watch precision. Pan down the second violins then to the tympani for the third period and coda sequences. The musical impetus seems to emanate between Toscanini and cellist Frank Miller. The music swells to typhoon status, the tympani and strings playing for all they are worth to the horn chorale, then the music comes tumbling, cascading into a superimposed shot of the Maestro and his splendid ensemble.

The all-Wagner concert of 29 December 1951 is likewise telecast [and kinescoped...Ed.] at Carnegie Hall. As always, Toscanini’s Wagner enjoys a startling clarity of detail. The Lohengrin Prelude moves rather briskly, with Toscanini’s left hand quite active in molding orchestral motifs and eliciting instrumental vocalizations. Critics of NBC Symphony sonics will have few quibbles with the silken, even generous, orchestral tone and sonority. Forest Murmurs, an excerpt Toscanini had programmed on his initial broadcast, is more expansive in this version, the warmth of Miller’s cello quite evident in the mist of busy string, wind and horn filigree. Mischakoff’s violin leads to the flute answer, and we are deep in the woods. Shimmering orchestral textures, riveting rhythmic pulsation, and our involvement in Siegfried’s pantheistic rapture is complete.

The kernel of this concert is the Prelude and Love-Death from Tristan, taken with a slow attention to the passion’s unfolding and denouement. Toscanini’s left thumb and forefinger are as active as his baton.  The melody surges up in, dare we say, Verdian contours, the singing line inflected by color detail in winds and horns. The Liebestod gives us viola detail we often do not hear. We can hear the harp but no camera reveals it. The sudden shift in tempo is fast, superheated. Toscanini himself is vibrating, the eyebrows condensing the furor. Explosion and subito stumble over each other, the frenzy mounts even as the textures thin. The camera loves Toscanini at this point; the moment is all his. The Funeral Music opens with string chords, horns, and harp which reveal Siegfried’s corpse. The rising string motifs allude to the Rheingold itself. Dramatically, as well as musically, the context is ripe for valedictory heroism. The trek to Valhalla proceeds inexorably, the French horns in perfect unison. Toscanini stretches out the marcato chords, singing the lines himself.  “Zu neuen thaten” is heard in the winds over strong pizzicati and tympani beats. Elegant.

The perennial crowd-whipper-upper the Ride of the Valkyies flourishes those French horns, and the Maestro bestrides the proceedings like a colossus, planted and square, a la military bandmaster. Frank Miller saws at his cello as though he, too, were fodder for winged transport. By now, Toscanini is a combination of ferocity and sweat; he slows the tempo down just a hair for the final, crashing chord.  A happy crowd, and Martin Bookspan places Toscanini’s Wagner in historical context for the expert interpreter he was of this cherished composer. [It appears that the reason for so many closeups of Frank Miller is that the unwieldy cameras were not very maneuverable and lacked telephoto lenses, and Miller was right next to the podium, so handy to pan over to from shots of the Maestro.. By the way, could you imagine NBC-TV - or any commercial station - airing anything remotely like this seres of telecasts today?...Ed.]

–Gary Lemco




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