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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 / BRAHMS: Tragic Overture (Toscanini) (1937-1938)
Great Conductors • Arturo Toscanini
Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’
Brahms (1833-1897): Tragic Overture
Mozart (1756-1791): Die Zauberflöte Overture
Together with Beethoven’s First and Fourth Symphonies and
Leonora Overture No.1 (Naxos 8.110854), these Toscanini performances with the
BBC Symphony Orchestra complete the commercial releases sanctioned for issue by
the Maestro at the time of his visits to London at the invitation of the BBC in
the middle and late 1930s. Although several other works set down mainly during
his first visit in 1935 remained unissued for many years, these recordings made
in 1937 and 1938 have rarely been out of the catalogue.
Inaugurated in the spring of 1933 as a concentrated end of
season showcase for the burgeoning talents of their house orchestra, the BBC
initially saw the festival as an opportunity to extend its public profile
beyond the studio onto the concert platform. It also very quickly realised the
advantages of engaging some of the most prestigious international conductors to
develop the versatility of the orchestra as a rival to the top European and
Koussevitzky, Walter and Weingartner appeared in the early
seasons to supplement the more regularly heard principal conductor, Adrian
Boult, but despite the excellence of execution, the first two festivals met
with a lukewarm response mainly owing to indifferent programming. Thus it was
with considerable anticipation and a genuine sense of a coup that the agreement
of Toscanini was secured to conduct the orchestra at the 1935 festival. His
only previous visit to Britain had been with the New York Philharmonic in 1930
and this was the first time he had conducted a British orchestra. The
engagement signalled not only a huge vote of confidence in the growing
reputation of the orchestra itself, but also the Maestro’s awareness and
admiration for the training and interpretative standards of Boult, with whom he
shared a similar high regard for the letter of the score and structural span.
Given the notoriety of Toscanini’s temperament, apprehension amongst musicians
and administration ran high. In the event, matters could hardly have gone
better. The four concerts met with an ecstatic reception from the public,
critics, players and not least the conductor himself, who declared the
orchestra, in a press statement, one of the best he had ever conducted.
After unsuccessful bureaucratic and financial wrangling
trying to engage Toscanini for the following year, the 1936 festival was
cancelled at the last minute. He was successfully contracted, however, for the
1937 event, which coincided with the coronation of King George VI, for which
Owen Mase at the BBC was able to secure seats for the Maestro and his family at
Westminster Abbey. Toscanini’s repertoire for the five concerts dwelt safe in a
collection of orchestral showpieces, but with a core of symphonies ranging from
Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral, Brahms’s Symphony No.1, Mozart’s Symphony
No.40, a Cherubini rarity, familiar excerpts from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette
and rather more enterprisingly, Shostakovich’s First Symphony. London had never
heard anything quite like it and Toscanini himself praised the orchestra for
playing even better than in 1935.
The Pastoral shared the programme with a Rossini overture,
the Brahms Haydn Variations and Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Apparently,
Toscanini laid great emphasis on wanting the symphony to sound smooth and ‘pastoral’.
Listening to the results, surprisingly coherent given the sessions were spread
over the time at the festival and the return visit to London for two concerts
at the start of the same year’s autumn season, there is a wonderful fluidity
and spontaneous ease of expression, even relaxation that is not found in many
of his other recorded performances of the work. Although the storm is duly
threatening and tempestuous, the overriding impression remains one of wonder
and enchantment, much enhanced by the conductor’s own vocal encouragement to
nail the climax of the final thanksgiving with maximum lyrical outpouring.
Toscanini’s vocal muse can be heard to even more audible
effect in the recapitulation of the soaring second subject in Brahms’s Tragic
Overture. With such palpable tension in the air throughout this gritty and
incisive performance, it is tempting to wonder whether there may have been
something of a premonition of the famed outburst that occurred a few days later
during the rehearsal for Beethoven’s Ninth, when Toscanini walked out, feeling
that the orchestra was not giving of its best. Basically trivial, the incident
was blown up out of all proportion by the press, who then had a field day when
the Maestro subsequently lashed out at a photographer on leaving his hotel only
to hit his wife instead. The reception for Toscanini’s 1937 autumn concerts,
however, was as rapturous as ever. As water off a duck’s back and no doubt
deliberately to confound the press and ingratiate himself with the BBC, he
declared the orchestra easy to rehearse and magnificently disciplined.
An invitation to return to London the following May for the
1938 festival duly materialised, this time for a total of six concerts. By this
time, however, the international situation was tense and fast deteriorating.
Nor were matters at the BBC as harmonious as in previous years. The founding
Director General, Sir John Reith, had announced his intention to leave at the
end of June after eleven years in post and Owen Mase, the prime mover in the
music department who had secured Toscanini’s continuing engagement with the
orchestra, had left to pursue a career as concert agent and promoter.
Fortunately the BBC was shrewd enough to keep his services on hand to look
after the conductor for the duration of his stay. Capitalising on approval of
the BBC Choral Society for the previous autumn’s Beethoven Ninth, the
highlights of 1938 were two performances of the Verdi Requiem with soloists
Zinka Milanov, Kerstin Thorborg, Helge Roswänge and Nicola Moscona. By this
stage the relationship between conductor and orchestra was restored to full
love affair status. ‘It is impossible to go on praising Toscanini; yet there is
little else to do’, wrote Neville Cardus.
The opportunity was quickly taken to set down the Mozart,
Rossini and Weber items that complete this disc. Thereafter Toscanini was
persuaded to return in May 1939 to conduct a complete cycle of Beethoven
symphonies and two performances of the Missa Solemnis for the last London Music
Festival. War was in the air and it was not until after the cessation of
hostilities that serious efforts were made to woo the Maestro back to London to
conduct a British orchestra. The BBC very nearly succeeded for the opening
series of the Royal Festival Hall in 1950, when contracts were signed with Owen
Mase in his capacity as Concerts Adviser to the new hall, but Toscanini had to
withdraw at the last minute owing to an accident. It was not until 1952, this
time with Walter Legge’s rapidly ascendant Philharmonia Orchestra, that
Toscanini finally returned for the famous Brahms concerts in the same hall.
Although perhaps more renowned for the wealth of recordings
with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, both live and more particularly in the studio,
there is no question that the BBC caught Toscanini in full maturity and at the
peak of his powers. It must have been a relief for him to find an oasis from
the political machinations of concert life in the United States and elsewhere.
This, together with his relationship with Ada Mainardi at the time, prompted
inspiration and achievement to run especially high.
The second movement of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, the
Rossini overture and the Weber-Berlioz Invitation were only ever issued as
dubbings, electronic re-recordings from the original disc masters. Some of these sides were not perfectly
centered when originally dubbed, leading to some unavoidable pitch wobble
during playback (e.g., at the end of the Pastoral movement). In addition, some music was missing
during the changeover from the second to the third side of the Beethoven, as well
as during the side breaks for the other two recordings, which I have attempted
to fill in for the current transfers.
The sources for the restorations were pre-war U.S. Victor
“Gold” pressings, the most quiet form of issue for these recordings.
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