Here's the next installment in BMG Classics' newest Toscanini retrospective. These discs contain the same recordings, but they offer much better sonics than those included in the label's first attempt to bring the Toscanini legacy to CD. They bear the signature of Walfredo Toscanini (the conductor's grandson), Allan Steckler (manager of the conductor's estate), and Niels Høirup (product development at BMG Classics). Major innovations in sound preservation and processing – including 20-bit recording technology, UV22TM Super CD Encoding, Cello and Studer tape systems – seem to have been the secret of success this time around.
If one does an A:B comparison between the old and new CDs, the improvement is noticeable almost immediately. As I mentioned in earlier reviews, now the sound is more airy, and a natural-sounding resonance has juiced up the soundstage. The bass is more present than before, and the occasional stridency of the treble has been tamed without an apparent loss of musical information. Also, there is less noise. The instruments have more presence and separation. These are monaural recordings, and some of them are more than 50 years old, but BMG Classics' latest techniques have made them very listenable. It is worth repeating here that these volumes are twofers – two discs for the price of one – so this series is a better value than the previous one.
The introductory note to these discs states that Toscanini was "perhaps the most towering Maestro of the 20th century." I don't know what it means for a Maestro to tower, but if that's another way of saying that he was the greatest conductor of the century, I believe that's an overstatement. (After all, there could be no one "greatest" conductor.) He tended to drive music so hard that it seemed tense and dry. When lightness, grace, or humor were needed, Toscanini could not be counted upon to supply these qualities; he did much better with power, structural integrity, and attention to detail. Nevertheless, many of his recordings, while not "definitive" in the strictest sense, continue to be held up as a standard, and his legacy is in no danger of being degraded by a little objective criticism.
The Wagner collection is very strong, as it plays to the conductor's strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. Even the Siegfried Idyll, a work whose repose could have escaped him, is glowing and peaceful in this 1952 recording. The Prélude and Liebestod from Tristan also is given plenty of room to expand, and there is no undue pressure on the Prélude's climax in this 1952 recording. The Ring excerpts are the highlight of this twofer. Toscanini's sense of theater allows them to remain gripping, even at slowish tempos, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra plays them with superhuman concentration.
Orchestral Showpieces opens with a fine Pictures at an Exhibition, although other conductors enjoy the wickedness of Ravel's orchestration more than Toscanini does. He's right at home in "The Great Gate of Kiev," though, which is given massive stature. The Strauss tone poems are intense, which is fine for Death and Transfiguration, but less so for Till Eulenspiegel, for whom Toscanini seems to feel little sentiment. The Brahms Haydn Variations are treasurable balm for a troubled soul. Finlandia and The Moldau are gripping, the former particularly so because of Toscanini's disciplined phrasing of the "big tune." The Nutcracker Suite is a little too controlled, and the chords that the conductor added at the end of "Waltz of the Flowers" serve no purpose that I can discern.
The French program is masterful in proportion to the intrinsic quality of the music that it contains. Most of the Debussy and Ravel items are outstanding. Ideally, one should also read Debussy's score as one hears Toscanini's 1950 recording of La mer. This would allow one to see and hear how precisely the conductor realized thousands of little details while remaining acutely dedicated to the music's spirit. I found "Nuages" too fast (and where is "Fêtes"? – Toscanini sometimes programmed "Fêtes" without "Nuages," but he never conducted "Nuages" in the absence of "Fêtes."). The Berlioz items are done with excitement, a quality also present in the Thomas and Hérold overtures, which nevertheless are too unsmiling to be really competitive. The Carmen suite strikes me as perfunctory. On the other hand, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Danse macabre, while tense, have a glittering brilliance that gains my deep admiration.
As on the previous six volumes, the spines of the CDs consistently identify Toscanini's orchestra as the "NBC Symphoniy [sic] Orchestra." Does BMG Classics not care that this sends a very bad message to collectors, and that these same collectors will be reminded of the label's carelessness each time they go to take one of these sets off of the shelf? And what are we to make of the following designation: "The Nutcracker, Suites #1-8"?
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle