Toscanini's late Beethoven
Robert E. Nylund | Ft. Wayne, Indiana United States | 10/23/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Here are the two late, great Beethoven works as interpreted by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the recorded performances the Maestro approved for release.The Beethoven ninth symphony was a work the Maestro loved and was featured in a number of concerts over the years. He made it clear to his friends and colleagues that he was never satisfied with his performances of the work. He admitted that sometimes the soloists were bad, sometimes the orchestra, and sometimes himself. Finally, in 1952, he recorded the work in Carnegie Hall following a broadcast concert. Toscanini was satisfied enough with this recording to allow it to be released. It's true there are some things in earlier recorded performances that are quite admirable, but this is the version that Toscanini approved. He was 85 years old and he said he was finally beginning to understand this masterpiece. He assembled a fine group of soloists and once again used the Robert Shaw Chorale, a rather small but outstanding group that had first worked with him in a broadcast performance of the ninth in 1945. There's no doubt that all of the musical forces in this recording worked very hard to please the Maestro and he was satisfied with his own work.I find that the Maestro achieves the mysterious, dramatic qualities Beethoven intended in the first movement. The second movement is spritely and spirited as Toscanini really masters the lively scherzo. Then comes the profound third movement, so filled with longing and hoping. Beethoven rejects all previous attempts at dealing with life in the fourth movement, leading to the bass singing, "O Friends, not these sounds." The orchestra has already introduced us to the main theme of the "Ode to Joy," which is now sung by the bass and then the chorus. The theme returns again and again, interspersed with other wonderful thoughts. In Toscanini's hands, the finale builds until it is almost overwhelming. Admittedly, Beethoven had a hard time ending many of his works and one is almost amused at how long it takes for the composer to conclude his "joyous" thoughts. Perhaps Beethoven is reluctant to let go. He was indeed the first composer to write such extended codas and, in many ways, embraced many of the ideas that later became part of nineteenth century romanticism.An interesting comparison is provided in the video recording of the April 1948 telecast of the ninth symphony by the NBC Symphony and the Robert Shaw Chorale from NBC Studio 8-H in New York City's Rockefeller Center. Here one can SEE how hard the Maestro worked on this symphony. It's also apparent, particularly in listening merely to the audio recording of the concert, that the orchestra was exhausted by the fourth movement. It's quite true that Beethoven, in the ninth symphony, demands a lot from the performers. Little wonder that only a few recordings or performances ever succeed completely. It may be that it's impossible to have a "perfect" performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony, but this 1952 recording may come close.The challenges to the singers, both soloists and chorus, are especially demanding in Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." Again, Toscanini approved a late recorded performance of this powerful work. This one dates from 1953 in Carnegie Hall. The demands on the chorus are incredible in the "Gloria" and in the "Et vita venturi" section of the "Credo," where Beethoven basically has the chorus sing a fantastic fugue that starts slowly and gradually speeds up to an almost impossible tempo. This is clearly what Beethoven asks from the singers. He also stretches the ranges of the individual vocal parts, as he does again in the ninth symphony. When RCA Victor originally issued this recording on vinyl, they failed to cut the results of the Robert Shaw Chorale tackling the "Gloria." At the very end, just before the needle went into the inner grooves, members of the chorus could be heard coughing!!Some say that the April 1935 broadcast performance of "Missa Solemnis" with the New York Philharmonic and the Scola Cantorum is far better in interpretation. It also features some very outstanding soloists from "the Golden Age" at the Metropolitan Opera, notably Giovanni Martinelli and Ezio Pinza, even if Martinelli's voice doesn't blend very well with the other soloists. In 1990, an elderly woman who had sung in those concerts told me how Toscanini demanded so much of everyone and, when he wasn't satisfied, he threw wooden chairs across the stage and broke them! The Philharmonic management threatened to fine Toscanini for the damage, but I don't think they followed through. The problem with the airchecks of the 1935 concert is noisy surfaces and generally low fidelity, but it's still possible to get an idea of the intensity of Toscanini's interpetation.Here is the approved 1953 recording of Beethoven's "Missa Solmenis," which may be one of the best versions ever released on recordings. It only lacks stereo and, at least in the original releases, suffered from a shrillness typical of some of RCA Victor's "New Orthophonic" recordings. The original liner notes indicate that RCA only used two microphones in Carnegie Hall; one was suspended over the Maestro's head and another was used occasionally for the soloists. Hopefully, digital reprocessing has improved the overall sound of this great performance."
Improved sound, but not his best performances of these works
madamemusico | Cincinnati, Ohio USA | 07/01/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"With this set, we begin to enter the dichotomy between superior sound and superior performance. These versions of the Beethoven 9th and "Missa Solemnis" certainly sound beautiful, and they do have their moments (particularly the "Missa") as readings of the score, but to be honest, Toscanini achieved better elsewhere. His best Beethoven 9ths were the 1936 New York Philharmonic broadcast (recorded with a piece of the last movement missing and with bad acetate sound and crackle) and his first two broadcasts with NBC (1938, with Bovy, Thorborg, Peerce and Pinza, now out of print; and 1939, with Novotna, Thorborg, Peerce and Moscona, available on a Naxos import), but they suffer from the tight, boxy sound of Studio 8-H (boost treble to restore some of the more luminous sound that Toscanini achieved). In this version, his tempi are considerably slower than before, and in his advanced age (85 at the time of recording) he was no longer able to sustain slower tempi in this music. Parts of it, especially the last movement, seem on the verge of coming to a stop. There is less forward flow and momentum here than in any of his previous Beethoven 9ths, and this lack of legato "flow" affects the singers as well. (This was also the first performance he gave, and one of the very first ever, to use a dramatic soprano in place of a lighter lyric, as even Furtwangler did in 1951 with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.)The "Missa Solemnis" comes off better as an overall performance than the 9th, due largely to the surprisingly beautiful and expressive singing of Lois Marshall, Eugene Conley (actually a quite fine tenor who would probably make it much further if he were around today) and the late Jerome Hines, but once one has heard the MAGNIFICENT 1940 performance with Zinka Milanov, Bruns Castagna, Jussi Bjorling and Alexander Kipnis, taken at slower, more expansive tempi that really jells, one is literally overwhelmed by the power and majesty of this music. Here in this 1954 reading, one is merely impressed, which is not the same thing! Still, this is better than anyone else's "Missa," so if you cannot find the 1940 version this set is worth getting for it. But please, seek out a copy of the 1939 Beethoven 9th on Naxos (which also includes the wonderful "Choral Fantasy," one of my favorite pieces of underrated Beethoven). You will be glad you did."