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CD Review

Toscanini Conducts Six Orchestras


* Nathan Milstein, violin
1 Philadephia Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
2 BBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
3 New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
4 Orchestra of La Scala/Arturo Toscanini
5 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
6 Philhamonia Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Guild Historical Toscanini Edition GHCD2384/85 2CDs 2:22:41
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This set is tremendously valuable, and my only issue is that Toscanini buffs probably own most of these from various labels. Many of these performances can be found on RCA if you look hard enough, others on Naxos Historical (albeit only in Europe), EMI, and on Testament. However, if you want to sample a broad range of Toscanini's gifts without playing globetrotter, I can wholeheartedly recommend this set to whet the appetite. It worked for me.

We begin with a famous Philadelphia account of Schubert's Symphony #9. I've not heard his supposedly inferior NBC version, but I can't imagine it scores over this one in terms of playing. Yes, it's driven in the typical Toscanini fashion, but he also allows the orchestra to play with its particular brand of polish. Toscanini had collaborated with Leopold Stokowski on a number of occasions, and doubtless knew Eugene Ormandy, who had just assumed control a few years prior. While it's hard to imagine two men with which Toscanini had less in common musically, his recordings in Philadelphia work well because he is either unwilling or unable to bend the orchestra away from their distinct qualities. In any event, this might just be the finest Schubert Great to come from this ensemble; nobody since save for Muti was really a great Schubert conductor.

Before Toscanini became famous in New York with the NBC Symphony, he made several notable guest recordings in London. Among them were a fine Pastorale issued on BMG's "Great Conductors" series, and this excellent Enigma Variations with the same BBC forces. No, it's not the most "English" version around, full of sharp attacks and swift tempos, but it is great fun. Also fun is Toscanini's Haffner from the podium of the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra is milked distantly, but the full impact of what the maestro achieved with these forces has to be heard to be believed. Like all of this conductor's Mozart, it's very modern. Urgently paced and using reduced forces, this reading sounds amazing considering its 1929 vintage. There is a Naxos Historical issue somewhere out there with this performance, but those are very hard to acquire in the United States.

After the Mozart that begins disc two, the Rossini follows. It's part of the concert that reopened La Scala after the war, and the whole affair has always struck me as historically interesting as opposed to musically important. Poor sound – worse than the Mozart that precedes it – hampers an undeniably excellent interpretation of this famous overture. This is exciting stuff. Wagner was another composer Toscanini was associated with all his life, and a rare recorded document of his work with the Vienna Philharmonic proves valuable despite some rather horrible live sonic quality. Despite the murky and swishy haze, you can largely appreciate the gloriously warm and tightly controlled ensemble on display.

Finally, we get part of the maestro's only appearances with Walter Legge's Philharmonia Orchestra, from live all-Brahms concerts in 1952. "God Save the Queen" is mostly unimportant, but Testament also includes the anthems from both concerts, and it's a nice historical touch. The Haydn Variations show the conductor in excellent form and working with the finest players in the U.K. I find the English winds to be uncomfortably acidic, but otherwise this is a sampler for the entire cycle. As a final "bonus", we get parts of the slow movement and the finale from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. There's some dropout in the finale, but hearing Nathan Milstein is nearly always worth it. This is no exception, and violin fans can compare it to Heifetz's live reading with the same conductor. I don't find any of these recordings to sound especially good; if you have the RCA and Naxos issues, keep them. Still, as an intro to a great artist, this well-chosen collection fits the bill.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman