By John H. Haley
Yep. The recordings from the last part of Toscanini’s career, from which we best know his work as a conductor, have always been remarkable for their musical content, whether or not one agrees with the interpretations, but they have never scored high marks for their sonic quality. HDTT has sought to do something about this situation, just releasing two well-known Toscanini recordings with his NBC Symphony Orchestra, in various hi-def formats (as well as on regular CD). These are his famous November 6, 1951 recording of Brahms First Symphony and his equally famous February 2, 1953 recording of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, both (fortunately for posterity) recorded by RCA Victor in Carnegie Hall.
Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma, Italy on March 25, 1867, well back into the 19th Century that gave rise to our “Romantic” masterpieces that still today form the core of the standard orchestral repertoire. As a point of reference, after Brahms had reportedly worked on his First Symphony for more than fourteen years before he deemed it to be finished, its first performance was on November 4, 1876, when Toscanini was nine years old. Brahms was himself born on May 7, 1833, forty-three years before Toscanini, and by today’s standards died young, from cancer, in 1897, at age 63, at which point Toscanini was 30 and well on his way to becoming well-established as a major conductor.
Dvořák’s New World Symphony (his ninth and last), was composed in 1893 and was premiered in New York City on December 16, 1893, by which time Toscanini, at age 25, was already active as a conductor, having conducted the world premiere of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci the prior year. Toscanini’s last orchestral concert was on April 4, 1954, and he died January 16, 1957 at the age of 89. His conducting career spanned the years 1886-1954, more than two-thirds of a century. The two HDTT offerings, recorded in 1951 and 1953, are obviously near the end of that long career.
It is worth pausing a minute to consider a few other conductors and musicians who were blessed with long lives and careers, all of whom, unlike Toscanini, lived on to make fine recordings in the stereo era (for reference purposes, RCA, for example, started taping recordings in stereo about 1954, and the first commercially marketed stereo LPs were released in March, 1958).Pierre Monteux Born April 4, 1875; died July 1, 1964 (age 89)
Bruno Walter Born September 15, 1876; died February 17, 1962 (age 85)
Pablo Casals Born December 29, 1876; died October 22, 1973 (age 96)
Sir Thomas Beecham Born April 29, 1879; died March 8, 1961 (age 81)
Leopold Stokowski Born April 18, 1882; died September 13, 1977 (age 95)
Igor Stravinsky Born June 17, 1882; died April 6, 1971 (age 88)
Otto Klemperer Born May 14, 1885; died July 6, 1973 (age 88).
Perhaps the most remarkable of these in terms of the quality of their last recordings was one of the two who lived the longest, Stokowski, who was still making fine recordings in his last year, but all of them were active in their eighties.1
The point of this exercise is that, while all of these maestros, including certainly Toscanini, left a definite imprint of their personalities on the music they recorded, as listeners we are obliged to study their recordings for what they tell us about these maestros’ understanding of the style of the music written in the 19th and early 20th centuries--in a very real sense, they were performing and recording music of their own time or from not so long before. They all musically came of age when such music was either new or relatively young, and they were all steeped in the musical traditions out of which such music arose. While of course, we want to enjoy their recordings at face value, we must also be mindful of what they have to teach us about how such music is supposed to be played. The music in which these maestros excelled does not need any kind of revolutionary reinvention for modern ears based on scholarly research or current trendiness—the musical style demonstrated by their recordings is “authentic” by definition. Against this background, Toscanini’s recordings have a great deal of importance going beyond their surface appeal.
During his lifetime, Toscanini was lionized in many circles as the greatest of all maestros, and he acquired a mystique that became ironclad but became gradually dissipated in the latter half of the 20th century. For example, the esteem, even worship, that was accorded Toscanini was summarized thus by none other than conductor Otto Klemperer in a 1929 Berlin newspaper article:
"One says very little about Toscanini when one says that he can conduct everything by heart. It is more important to say that, in the truest sense, he conducts everything from the heart. If we wish to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate manifestations in art, Toscanini is legitimacy personified: he is the king of conductors. His performances are more than beautiful. They are right.
…In 1923 at La Scala in Milan I heard a performance of Die Meistersinger under his direction, and I can only say that I have never heard so consummate a presentation of this work in any other theater in the world. In New York I heard Toscanini’s concerts with the Philharmonic Orchestra, comprising the entire literature from Haydn to Stravinsky. Always the same delightful impression of uncalculated rightness.
Toscanini not only works with the orchestra to the last detail but also rehearses … the most subtle shades of expression, which, as he himself says, “can no longer be expressed in words.” No one makes greater demands on the orchestra. Nevertheless, I never noticed in his rehearsals, which I had the pleasure of attending, any weariness or resistance in the orchestra. Any resentment would ricochet off his unassailable personality, for it stands above everyone. Over and above the great musician there is a wholly integrated character ."2
As Toscanini’s legend grew, he even acquired the moniker “the Maestro,” as if he were something other than one among many great 20th-century maestros.
As research about Toscanini’s personal life developed in the decades following his death, it became well documented, such as by the publication of his personal letters, that his personal character was anything but “unassailable.” Further, his reputation as a strict follower of scores who always completely respected the composers’ wishes, was disproved over and over by the revelations of the tinkering he did to the orchestration in many hallowed masterpieces. Greater familiarity with his recordings from the 1920’s and 1930’s gave rise to the view, with some accuracy, that the greatest years of his conducting career occurred before his assumption of leadership of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937 at the age of 70. From that point forward, his repertoire became increasingly more limited, dwindling down to several dozen masterworks, and as his hearing declined, the orchestral playing under his command could seem to become louder and coarser, with tempos thought to be more rapid and inflexible, adjectives that are not associated with recordings from his earlier years. He also become known for his temper tantrums at rehearsals, personal capriciousness (especially in connection with his recordings), and general dissatisfaction with a good many elements of his life and career. In retrospect, we are left with the impression that somehow his enormous level of professional success did not sit that well on him, rather bringing out less admirable aspects of his talent and personality as he moved into his eighties.
However, today, perhaps we might want to take a longer perspective, allowing for the possibility that there is some overkill in some of these assessments, based largely on the fact of the rather poor sonic quality of his recordings made in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, by which we are most likely to have judged his work. There are a number of factors at play in that regard, first among them Toscanini’s own well documented impatience with and even disdain for the process of making recordings. For example, he would insist on approving all released takes, while at the same time refusing to listen to them for long periods, to the great frustration of the people at RCA Victor who were responsible for coming up with new Toscanini records for an eager public.
A second factor was the decision, however it was made, to release a number of his recordings deriving from the dry, airless acoustics of Studio 8H in NBC’s New York studios, from which many NBC radio broadcasts originated (that space still exists and is well known to television viewers today as the venue of the long-running television show, Saturday Night Live). This space, often recognizable in Toscanini’s recordings for its flawed sound, was basically inhospitable to good orchestral sound, making recordings sound harsh and dry, especially in the case of a conductor known for thunderous orchestral climaxes. We are fortunate that both recordings being released by HDTT were made in the alternative recording space used for this orchestra, Carnegie Hall, renowned worldwide for its warm yet brilliant acoustics.
Another factor was RCA’s own slowness to adopt more modern recording techniques in the early 1950’s (starting in the mid-1950’s, RCA made up for lost time, playing a large role in ushering in the “golden age” of stereo recording). Recording on tape only became the norm starting in 1950-1951, but even so, and even in a great recording venue like Carnegie Hall, RCA’s results were no match for what some of its competition were realizing on tape. One need go no further than the fabulous series of monophonic recordings made of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelik in 1951-1953 by the renowned recording team of Robert Fine and Wilma Cozart Fine for Mercury Records. The latest reissue of these glorious recordings on CD, though not in a high resolution format, reveal just how superior these recordings were, and how great they can sound using today’s techniques. Comparing them to the existing catalog of Toscanini recordings from the same period, Toscanini’s recordings, as they have been released, are not even on the same playing field. Nor was pressing quality of RCA’s early 1950’s mono records in any way outstanding. For those of us who grew up with RCA’s LP box sets of Toscanini’s Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies, as well as a host of other recordings, no further explanation is required.
A subset of the problems to be laid at RCA’s feet consists of its insistence on trying to establish the 45 RPM record as the new dominant recording format in the early 1950’s, a battle that it quickly lost to the superior LP format created and initially promoted by RCA’s rival, Columbia Records. In both Toscanini recordings just released by HDTT, it was clear that the recordings had been carried out in segments suitable for the length of 45 RPM record sides, which were later spliced together for continuous play on LP. For example, RCA initially released the New World Symphony recording only in a 45 RPM set in 1953, with the LP version appearing in 1954. The side-join splices are sometimes visible in the waveform as well as audible, moreso because in both recordings there are pitch discrepancies caused by the early tape recorders used by RCA not having maintained exact speed to the end of a reel of tape. All such splices and pitch discrepancies have been repaired in HDTT’s current releases, probably for the first time.
There is another less obvious reason why Toscanini’s recordings have largely languished in the digital era, and that is the fact that some number of Toscanini’s original master tapes are reportedly missing from RCA’s (now Sony’s) vaults. The story that has circulated about this situation is that a former employee, now a minor conductor located in Europe, assuming he is still living (who shall remain nameless for present purposes), checked them out of the RCA archives and simply never returned them. Thus a good many (all?) of the original master tapes appear to be lost. This is obviously not a situation that Sony would have wanted to disclose, but the veracity of this story has been supported by the lackluster sound quality of the various efforts to reissue Toscanini’s recordings in the digital era. Improvements have been made, to be sure, but not the kind of improvements that would spark any kind of reassessment of Toscanini’s recorded legacy. For the most part, at least up until now, the view that one must make a lot of allowances for the sound quality when listening to Toscanini’s recordings has remained in force.
A handful of Toscanini’s early 1950’s recordings made their way to release by RCA on reel-to-reel tape, and we wondered how they would sound when dubbed in a very high resolution format (DSD256), using HDTT’s most up-to-date techniques and equipment and further applying today’s best restoration software and methods. We have assumed that such reel-to-reel tapes were probably sourced from master tapes that are now apparently lost.
The Brahms Symphony recording is considered to be one of Toscanini’s very greatest recordings, and one which tends to run counter to a number of generalized negative beliefs about his later recordings. With the exception of a rather unlovely oboe tone (also heard in the Dvořák Symphony), the Brahms recording, as restored, shows us a superb dramatic presentation of this complex symphony, thoroughly idiomatic and played with both flexibility and radiant, well-balanced orchestral sound. It is an exciting and altogether satisfying recorded version of this symphony that stands alongside other great recordings of this piece as one of the very best, at least as it can be heard in the present high-definition transfer and restoration. Both Toscanini recordings demonstrate plenty of upper frequency content, which we are always happy to encounter when restoring a historical recording.
The Dvořák New World Symphony recording is very familiar, yet we are now invited to enjoy it with new ears. Past versions offered what could seem like some unruly, blaring brass playing, with screechy strings and a basic lack of perceptible orchestral “perfume” in the orchestral tone—in short, a recorded performance that sounded hard and pressed. In the new transfer and restoration, we still have powerful brass that can occasionally dominate, but its tone is now far more rounded and realistic, and the string sound has a much more natural glow. In addition, we now become aware of great distinction and subtlety of phrasing throughout the orchestra, in a way that was not so apparent previously.
Both of these HDTT Toscanini releases present a wider frequency response than heard previously, that now qualifies these recordings as truly “high fidelity,” and we believe that the favorable acoustics of Carnegie Hall are considerably more apparent. We hope that they open a new window onto the quality of Toscanini’s recorded legacy in his final years.
1. This list can obviously be extended ad infinitum with the birth of more great 20th century maestros, such as Fritz Reiner (1888-1963). The selected names are merely illustrative, not comprehensive. The list omits the conductor who was most often “compared and contrasted” with Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was born January 25, 1886 and died on November 30, 1954, at age 68, right at the dawn of the stereo era. Until very recently, Furtwängler’s late recordings suffered from the same fate as Toscanini’s—with a few exceptions, our inability to hear them well enough to judge them fairly against the better sounding recordings by his contemporaries who lived longer. That fact did not stop the growth of Furtwängler’s posthumous reputation based on the enjoyment of his recordings for their merits, taken on their own historical terms, but fortunately, the situation has improved substantially in the last few years with the most recent wave of Furtwängler releases, which have revisited original tape sources, extracting far better sound from those old sources using today’s technology and skills. Toscanini’s later recordings have not fared nearly as well.2. As quoted in Sachs, Reflections on Toscanini (Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1993), pp. 163-164, which credits Klemperer, Über Musik und Theater (Wilhelmshaven Heinrichshofen, 1982, p. 50), reprinting an article that appeared in Das Tagebuch, Berlin, May 25, 1929. The English translation is uncredited.