Arts Review

The Complete Toscanini

Sony’s new release of the 84-CD boxed set, The Toscanini Collection, is a reboot of RCA’s epochal 1992 release of a complete Toscanini set, which collected all of the commercial recordings that Toscanini made with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and his own NBC Symphony. The new set includes all of the recordings from the previous release, along with the maestro’s recordings with the BBC Symphony, a scant hour of early acoustic recordings with the La Scala Orchestra, and a bonus DVD entitled The Maestro. The new set comes in a sturdy box with a handy hardcover indexed discography. Each disc has its contents clearly printed on the spine, allowing for easy browsing and identification. My only complaint about the packaging: the official name of the group in question is not the “New York Philharmonic Orchestra,” but simply the “New York Philharmonic.”

Besides the additional repertory, there are several signal differences between the RCA release and Sony’s new set (in the intervening years, Sony purchased BMG which had purchased RCA). In the two decades since, many of these recordings have been digitally remastered for various individual releases; the new set includes these remastered versions whenever possible, accounting for about a third of the selections. Spot checks indicate a wide range in the level of improvement. Some discs show no difference while others demonstrate a complete removal of the patina of age-related hissing and scratching with no concomitant loss in brilliance of sound. The new set unfortunately loses the invaluable if somewhat obsequious liner notes that came with each volume of the previous complete set.

But one difference trumps the others. In 1992, the complete boxed set of recordings sold for $1,200. Today, the new boxed set sells for $125 retail and considerably less than that on most websites. The demise of the classical recording industry has yielded a late-summer bounty of ultra-low-priced compendiums. Twenty years ago, these back-catalogue items sold CD by CD at full price (approximately $15). Now they are brought together in themed packages that encompass multiple CDs in wonderfully handy, compact boxes that retail for anywhere from $1 to $5 per disc. Liner notes and libretti are usually missing, but those items are easily found online. These releases are particularly felicitous for city dwellers for whom shelf space is a precious commodity. A set of Beethoven symphonies that took up a foot in its original release now only needs two inches for its nifty, colorful box.

The consumer reports task of this article is a simple one: if you’re interested in this music, can afford $125, and don’t already own most of these recordings, then buy this set. At approximately $1.40 per disc, it’s one of the best classical music bargains you’ll ever find. The more interesting question revolves around the figure of Toscanini himself, his worth and lasting legacy as an artist, and the quality of these recordings. Their very existence is somewhat miraculous, given the span of time that Toscanini’s career encompassed. His seven decades of music making took him from the golden age to the modern age. It is flabbergasting that the man who played cello in the pit on the opening night of Verdi’s Otello lived to conduct on NBC television. For an entire generation, the word “conductor” summoned his image: fierce glare, bushy eyebrows, arms dramatically poised. His career took him from Milan to New York to Salzburg and to the capitals of the world, never less than idolized wherever he went. He was the father of the modern orchestra, a never-ceasing champion of professionalism and impeccable quality. The sense that a city’s (or country’s) orchestra is its high-culture standard-bearer is a sense that did not originate with Toscanini, but it crystallized in the mass consciousness through him. In the 1930s and ’40s, he was as well known for his brave anti-Fascism—a stand that put his life into danger more than once—as for his music making. He was also a great lover, conducting tempestuous affairs with dozens of women, including the ravishing soprano Geraldine Farrar. And he was what we would today call a rage-aholic: a screamer, a petulant baby, vicious to those who did not live up to his standards. It seems that every Toscanini anecdote ends with him breaking his baton in half and storming out of the room.

Toscanini did not create the “cult of the conductor”—the notion that the conductor is at the center of the music-making experience (as opposed to the composer, the soloist, the impresario)—but he popularized and normalized it. The result was undeniable: better orchestras. The scrappiness of most nineteenth-century bands yielded to the professionalism of twentieth-century ensembles, used to extensive rehearsal and tutored by the demands of the recording studio to achieve virtual perfection. Artistically he was essentially a conservative, devoted to a strict reading of the text. He was avant la lettre in this respect, the first advocate of what ultimately became known as the come scritto (or “as written”) approach. This literalist tactic removes the encrustations of performing tradition by returning to exactly what is written in the score: no embellishments, no show-boating high notes, no swaying from exact adherence to dynamic and tempo markings. Toscanini was not like today’s historically informed performance practitioners, humbly attempting to re-create the sound and feel of the composer’s original intent. He simply despised the laziness of habit and used the composer’s score as the quickest route to shaking off the yoke of convention. In a famous story, Toscanini argues with an old German conductor over a specific Beethoven passage. The conductor says, “I learned from Maestro so-and-so who learned from Herr Maestro such-and-such who learned from Beethoven himself that he wished the passage to be played in this way.” Toscanini slams down his fist and shouts, “And I learned directly from Beethoven himself: he wrote it down my way right in the score!”

The corollary to this strict approach is an unflinching integrity, a devotion to precision and exactitude of interpretation that is often revelatory. While today we most associate Toscanini’s conducting with the notion of “vitality,” an equally good phrase might be “moral clarity.” There is something lucid and gratifyingly basic about Toscanini’s interpretations. They do not feel compromised by the slippery slope of interpretation (although, granted, even the most neutral approach is interpretation of one sort or another). They very much feel like “this is how the music should go.” Toscanini can be obvious. His precision can feel like a lack of tenderness. His urgency can become driving and relentlessly vigorous. At worst, a soulless efficiency creeps in. The standard rap on these recordings is that everything is very fast. And certainly, some of the recordings in Sony’s set are inordinately, even damagingly, rushed. The La Traviata is the only one that I find truly unlistenable—so fast as to seem callous at best, comic at worst. The Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet is just as rushed, although to my ears the effect here is one of urgency rather than heartlessness. Reports from the era indicate that Toscanini got faster as he got older (reversing the usual trend); and since the recordings almost all date from the last third of his career, it’s no surprise that the artist is captured in fleet form. But a close listen to the set shows that it’s not so much that Toscanini sped everything up; it’s more that he didn’t let the orchestra slow down when it didn’t need to. And contrary to the perceived notion that his tempos were inflexible, there is in fact a great deal of variation from measure to measure, as with all great conductors. It’s just that he privileged a forward momentum that brooked no sentimental rubato.

In recent years, the inevitable backlash has centered on what musicologist Joseph Horowitz calls the “Toscanini cult” which Horowitz sees as a function of marketing and brand building, not music making. The question is not whether Toscanini was a great conductor; no one argues that he wasn’t. It’s whether NBC and the conductor himself colluded to shut out any criticism, any alternative approaches to repertory and interpretation. One could argue that it is with Toscanini that the calcification of classical music begins. Thanks to his fame, his media ubiquity, and his best-selling recordings, he popularized a very fixed notion of the canon, one centered on the great German and Austrian symphonists with a few French and Italian outliers thrown in for color and flavor. Even in his heyday, Toscanini was taken to task by the leading critic of the time, Virgil Thompson, for not paying enough attention to contemporary music. Seen from today’s vantage, this criticism seems unfair. Sure, Toscanini completely avoided the SecondVienneseSchool and the avant-garde. But many of the mainstream works he programmed were by living, working composers: Sibelius, Shostakovich, Kodály, Prokofiev, Elgar, Barber, Gershwin, Ravel, Debussy. He was still of an age when conducting living composers was not remotely unusual, and he quite happily championed many of these men.

Toscanini was already seventy years old when he began the last and best-documented stage in his artistic life, his association with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. His career was already legendary at that point, encompassing stints leading the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and La Scala Milan. Now an old man, he had just endured a scare in Italy where authorities had confiscated his passport. For a decade, his fame had shielded him from reprisals for his outspoken anti-Fascism, but the tide was turning in Europe, and he knew that he would no longer be safe. An offer from NBC to lead an orchestra, created and customized for him, came at just the right moment, and ultimately he stayed with the network for seventeen years. NBC built Studio 8-H in Rockefeller Center specifically for his broadcasts (and, sadly, its dry, resonance-free acoustics were decried from the very beginning; eventually, the orchestra recorded more music in Carnegie Hall, and even now the acoustic difference between these recordings and those from 8-H is marked). Striking a deal with NBC seems to us today like something of a sellout, or at least an unglamorous choice. NBC was the home of Jack Benny (of the acidulous violin playing) and Fibber McGee and Molly. From the fabled opening night of Otello at La Scala to Pepsodent sponsorship—what must the maestro have been thinking? The answer was simple: the largest audience any conductor had ever had in the history of the world and complete artistic freedom in choosing repertory. There were then and are now much better orchestras than the NBC Symphony, but these players knew what Toscanini was looking for and they gave it to him. The recorded legacy is therefore vital documentation of a supreme maestro from the golden age working with a handpicked group on the music that most interested him. Some of the recordings on Sony’s set are live NBC broadcasts, but most were recorded in the studio for commercial release by RCA Victor, originally on 78s and then, after 1950, on the new LP format.

Due to the technical limitations of the time, these recordings are only shadows of what it must have been like to hear Toscanini conduct. Contemporary reports emphasize the intricacy of his multilayered sound, the virtuosity and drama of his dynamic range, and the incredibly expressive colors he drew from an orchestra. Not much of this can be captured with monophonic recording technology. And Toscanini’s predilection for using very few microphones results in little sense of balance among the sections of the orchestra. The mass of sound is undifferentiated. What we can hear is his driving sense of rhythm, his precision, energy and clarity, characteristics that have, perhaps unfairly, come to define Toscanini in the present age. We can also occasionally hear the maestro humming, singing, sighing and shouting along with the music. The last quarter hour of La Bohème’s first act is just about everyone’s favorite Puccini music, and apparently Toscanini agrees as he is vocally rapturous throughout.

The bulk of the set is Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi and Wagner, composers that Toscanini had a special reverence for throughout his career. The Beethoven works are exemplary: electric, grand, rich if not hugely deep. As always, Toscanini’s readings are on the fast side to our ears, but each of the symphonies retain their special color, with the Sixth surprisingly gentle and warm. One of the treats of the set is the chance to hear some of the great solo artists with whom Toscanini habitually collaborated: Jascha Heifetz joins him for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Arthur Rubinstein for the Third Piano Concerto, both in superb form. In general, early Romantic composers fare well. Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sprightly and fleet, especially in the earlier recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A set of Weber overtures are dazzling (Der Freischütz, Oberon, and Introduction to the Dance), and Toscanini’s championing of Cherubini, somewhat forgotten at that time, is something very special. The composer’s sole symphony is vigorous and lovely, and the overtures to his theater work, especially that to Medée, are simply dazzling. Toscanini was also an early Berlioz advocate, and the set has a surprising amount by this composer, including a picturesque Harold en Italie and a complete Roméo et Juliette.

As one moves back in time to the Classical era, Toscanini’s grip begins to slip. His Mozart is simply too driving, lacking in grace and nuance. His reading of the Bassoon Concerto, for example, rarely takes a breath and does not “dance” as intended. Haydn’s symphonies lack wit—perhaps their essential element. The problem is not the absence of historically informed performance practice. Plenty of conductors led big modern pit bands to good effect in this repertory in the 1940s and 1950s. It is that Toscanini seems to barrel through the music, more out of duty than pleasure. Bigger dividends lie forward, in the High and Late Romantic periods. Franck’s once hugely popular symphony gets a rousing reading, the familiar figure in the third movement toyed with in a genial fashion. Of Dvořák, only the ever-popular Ninth Symphony appears, in a recording good enough to make you wish Toscanini had devoted more attention to this composer. Moving into the early twentieth century, we find persuasive accounts of Shostakovich’s First Sym- phony, Stravinsky’s music for the Petrouchka ballet, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and, most interestingly, a reading of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” that may not be the last word in jazz style but is tight and animated. The trio of Respighi tone poems constitutes one of the finest discs in the set and carries the authority of Toscanini’s friendship with the composer and his conducting of the world premiere of the final work, Roman Festivals, in 1929. Toscanini also displays a surprising affinity for Debussy. Although his version of La Mer is more taut than what one might hear from a conductor more versed in the French style, it has real warmth and feels in no way the product of an old man in a hurry.

In addition to Verdi and Puccini, Toscanini had a special affinity for lesser-known Italian composers, including Respighi, Wolf-Ferrari, Catalani, and Cimarosa. Attributing national characteristics to specific conductors and works can be specious, but it is undeniable that the Italian works in Toscanini’s repertory have a certain sparkle and sunniness that can be lacking in his readings of other light music; a disc of stolid Viennese waltzes is a case in point. Perhaps the most sheerly delightful volume in the whole set is Toscanini’s rundown of Rossini overtures, each more delicious than the last.

In the opera recordings, the whole is generally greater than the sum of its parts. With one possible exception, none of these recordings are definitive, and the problem is generally the cast. After spending his entire career working with the greatest singers in the world, it seems incredible that Toscanini turned to such solid, uninspiring performers as Giuseppe Valdengo, Jan Peerce, Rose Bampton, and Herva Nelli, the latter claiming the soprano lead in five different Verdi recordings despite her lack of vocal charisma (wags back in the day dubbed her “Helluva Nervi”). Only Licia Albanese, the Mimi and the Violetta, dominates the music with personality and magnetic vocalism. Toscanini’s Fidelio is especially disappointing, the lack of dialogue a real deficit, although the dynamic prelude is exhilarating. On the other hand, the conductor’s La Bohème carries a special aura, enhanced by the fact that it was recorded 50 years to the month from the world premiere, conducted by Toscanini himself under Puccini’s supervision. This is a rapturous but not an indulgent reading of the work: for Toscanini the opera is not iconic but rather a great show. Many have noted the shocking lack of ritardando at the end of the second act: every other conductor slows down for the final few notes, but Toscanini breezes through them with a practical insouciance that reinvents the music, putting a jaunty spin on the lightest moment in the work and thereby making the ensuing tragedy even more devastating.

Verdi was revered by Toscanini above all other composers, even Beethoven. The young conductor was personally inspired by the venerable legend and saw him as an artistic, political and spiritual mentor. Unsurprisingly, the Verdi works in the set have a special authority, with the exception of the ludicrously fast Traviata. Toscanini heard Un Ballo in Maschera as a child, only 12 years after the opera had been written, and he lived to conduct it in 1954 at the age of 87. This was the last opera he recorded, yet his control over the dynamics and tempo is still phenomenal. Only the cast disappoints, a problem shared by the Otello although again, the reading feels close to definitive in terms of structure and dynamics. Best of all is Toscanini’s Falstaff, which seems to have been his favorite opera and the one he conducted more than any other throughout his career. Just as the opera was an uncharacteristically (and miraculously) youthful, intoxicating, joyous work from a composer at the end of a long life, so is Toscanini’s recording astonishingly lively, quicksilver even, for a conductor of 83 years. This opera is more forgiving of a less than perfect cast, and so this album holds up the best of all of his opera recordings. Its lively theatricality makes it feel like a great Original Cast Album of a Broadway musical.

In some ways the most interesting of all the items in Sony’s set are the Wagner excerpts (alas, he never recorded a complete Wagner opera commercially). Toscanini’s great affinity for the composer was notable throughout his career and was instrumental in the de-Germanization of the composer’s work. Famously, he conducted at Bayreuth at the express invitation of the arch-nationalistic Wagner family and left a still-unbroken record for the slowest Parsifal in the history of the theater. Toscanini’s Wagner has immense feeling for the tectonics and the flow of the music. He focused on concert excerpts (many of his own arrangement) but a few bleeding chunks of the operas exist, most featuring the finest available Wagnerian vocalists of the day, Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel. Like many connoisseurs, I have several “test case” moments that I turn to when evaluating recordings. The final minutes of the first act of Die Walküre are one such passage: Solti brings a neurasthenic intensity that emphasizes the priapic horns; Karajan a transparent clarity that reveals subtle wind shadings; Goodall a fat, brass-heavy power that feels irresistibly epic. Toscanini’s approach is intensely theatrical. The stop-and-start structure of the music is handled with rich agitation: each of the phrases leading up to the “stop” moments is breathlessly accelerated. The delicious agony that ensues is purged in the final measures with a rush of astoundingly fleet tempos that push the strings to maximum virtuosity.

In an article in the pages of this publication’s Winter 2003 issue, Harold Fromm, reviewing a new collection of Toscanini’s letters, notes that much of his innovation has been superseded in the decades since his death (Harold Fromm, “Toscanini, Then and Now,” The Hudson Review, Vol. LV, No. 4). Many conductors now adapt a lean, rhythmically driving style, and to those he cites (Szell and Boulez) we might add Muti, Böhm, and many more. Toscanini’s recordings were once essential for their authority and impeccable quality. But the ensuing years have brought a cornucopia of recordings with much better sound, the level of orchestra playing has improved, and conductors have absorbed the maestro’s lessons. These discs are probably no longer indispensable in the way they were fifty years ago. “It’s the fate of world-class innovators to transform the way we experience reality even as we gradually lose consciousness of their genius,” says Fromm. But Sony’s bargain reissue of these still-commanding recordings provides immense pleasure, not to mention a glimpse into a world when a maestro like Toscanini was an unquestioned cultural leader.