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CD Review

Toscanini Conducts

NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Opus Kura OPK2045
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These are apparently all from European 78s found in record stores by Opus Kura, a Japanese label that specializes in historical reissues. That labels are willing to traverse the globe to find new Toscanini Mozart and Bach performances not only speaks to the conductor's compelling nature scores later, but also speaks to how crazy classical collectors are in their quest to find every possible interpretation alive. I suppose that since I asked for this disc, I'm not helping, and the truth is that it's all quite good.

The Tallis Fantasia is warped at the beginning, but I find the performance to be interesting. Toscanini has another performance of this work, now on Guild in a collection of wartime benefit concerts. I've not heard that one yet, but I have read positive things. In contrast to the lush, heartfelt English readings, this sounds just like you might expect Toscanini to sound. Straightforward and surprisingly propulsive, the maestro refuses to languish and pushes the music hard. Still, early NBC is far preferable to late; the orchestra plays with as much warmth as this rather relentless rendition will allow. The solo quartet also finds the conductor willing to slow down and let the music breathe. Climaxes are understandably congested, yet undeniably effective. This is pretty exciting stuff, even if the upper strings sound a touch harsh. The bass is solid, too. Opus Kura has my thanks.

I like Toscanini, but I'm in no position to compare the conductor's many Mozart recordings. However, I have always admired just how modern his readings actually sound. They are crisp and maybe even fierce. The Symphony #40 is anything but elevator music. When you play a masterpiece like it should sound, the score takes on a whole new dimension. At worst, the maestro could be stiff and unsmiling; we get some of that here, but never to the point where anything sounds too severe. I also appreciate the precision of the NBC winds and strings. I imagine that his New York Mozart is even finer, since nothing from the NBC years quite touches his earliest work. Still, in reasonably fine – and typically dry – this #40 is worth owning.

The same goes for the Jupiter, recorded seven years later. While not exactly demonstration quality, the sound is noticeably improved and less dry (some adjustments to Studio 8H were supposedly helpful from 1939 onward). Whatever the reason, this fine sounding performance is the highlight of the disc. A bracing first movement is followed by two lovely, singing ones. It's all capped by a beautifully played and conducted Finale, which shows the NBC forces at their best. The encore, a direct and unsentimental Air on the G String, brings the disc to its conclusion. A must for Toscanini fans, even if the liner notes are dicey.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman