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The Total Toscanini : The first installment of 16 CDs and two videos by the venerated maestro raises again questions of his historical contribution

RCA began to record Arturo Toscanini in the 1920s, when he was already in his 50s, with the orchestra of La Scala and with the New York Philharmonic.

But the bulk of the label’s Toscaniniana derives from the final decade of his career, 1944-1954, when the Italian conductor ruled the airwaves as music director of the NBC Symphony, created for him in 1937 by the network’s mogul of moguls, David Sarnoff.

By 1949, with the long-playing record afact of life and RCA’s Toscaninimania hitting full stride, we democratic, egalitarian Americans had already been worshipping this Old World martinet for over a decade.

This, after all, was no toffee-nosed, overeducated swell terrorizing his colleagues. Toscanini was the son of a tailor-- self-made, tough, earthy, volatile, tyranny-hating (on a national and global level, at any rate). All his actions, no matter how rude, served that most demanding of mistresses: art.

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He had become a venerated figure even before NBC/RCA made him into an supra-musical icon.

He was that good at what he did, not only in the estimation of critics and buffs but to the younger conductors whose lives he touched. George Szell, Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, Pierre Monteux, Adrian Boult, Fritz Reiner, Ernest Ansermet, John Barbirolli, Herbert von Karajan--all described Toscanini as a profound inspiration and influence.

Toscanini’s reputation plummeted after his death in 1957, just short of his 90th birthday.

The publicity mills stopped grinding out adulatory prose. Other, living RCA properties (i.e., artists) had to be promoted. Suggestions appeared in the no-longer so worshipful press that the Toscanini style had finally degenerated into a simplistic, universally applied routine. It also became evident that his recordings weren’t sonically up to the industry’s current capabilities, and not only because they predated stereo.

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Whatever his ultimate legacy as an interpreter, Toscanini turned millions on to classical music with his Saturday evening NBC broadcasts, starting in 1938 and ending with his retirement in 1954. He was the Leonard Bernstein of an earlier generation: a master media communicator. But Toscanini did it without talking to the millions, without being your, or your kids’, pal and--for the most part--without TV.

This is not, however, the place to recall

all the ingredients of the Toscanini persona and mystique. The occasion for this article is the launching of BMG Classics’ (the German parent company of today’s RCA) “Toscanini Collection.” It includes all of the Maestro’s--capital M, and don’t you forget it!--RCA recordings, a project that will over four years (or two, depending on which press release you read) see the issuance of 82 midpriced RCA CDs, ten VHS videocasettes and as many laserdiscs.

Crucially, this first installment--16 CDs and two videos--finds the harshness and restricted dynamic range of earlier audio incarnations mitigated to a remarkable degree, thanks to the skill of remastering supervisor Arthur Fierro, engineer William Lacey and producer John Pfeiffer.

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The CDs are contained in three separate boxes: the first (60324, five discs) packages the nine Beethoven symphonies; another (60325, four CDs) is all-Brahms--the four symphonies, the Double Concerto and shorter works--and a Verdi collection (60326, seven discs), whose major offerings are the complete “Aida” and “Falstaff” and the Requiem.

More than half of these recordings originated in NBC’s notorious, sound-deadening Studio 8-H in New York, with an audience--admission was by application, at no charge--often present. The other venue was Carnegie Hall, never recording-friendly. In either place, audience silence was the rarely contravened rule, NBC’s image-makers having decreed the concerts to be solemn rituals.

The real audience was at home, by the radio. You could partake of Toscanini--that distant but fiercely glowing star--anywhere in the country, in farmhouse or penthouse, whether through the wee speaker of a tabletop Philco or the sonic portals of a Capehart console. NBC’s announcers described the proceedings as if they were emanating from St. Peter’s rather than a cramped studio in midtown Manhattan.

Part one of the “Toscanini Collection” is likely to revive old questions: Was Toscanini’s perfectionism “heartless”? Was it, in fact, perfect? Was this the work of an old man, with waning mental and physical powers, employing simplistic interpretive devices to get through the music with a minimum of complications? Or was his so-called literalism the musical truth in all its original, raw brilliance?

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We needn’t spend much time on the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies as they’ve never been unavailable for long.

The Beethovens are without exception tense, jagged, hard-driven affairs unconcerned with breadth, grandeur, grace or humor. The opening movement of the 1952 Ninth Symphony approaches Toscanini self-caricature. No mystery, no contemplation of life, death, joy or the cosmos; just lots of D-minor and peevishness.

Brahms being an expansive composer, Toscanini’s pushy latter style has proven even more objectionable to some listeners. Still, the kinetic NBC Brahms retains admirers among the substantial number who find these symphonies bloated and sentimental.

If one agrees with the widely held view that Toscanini was above all a man of the theater, then the Verdi package will be of particular interest.

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Toscanini, who revived “Falstaff” at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, is credited with bringing the opera to a wider audience than it had ever enjoyed before with the 1950 broadcast preserved here. In the latter, one has to be impressed with Toscanini’s grasp of detail and his players’ ability to project it. Not in vain were our major orchestras plundered to make the NBC Symphony the lean, mean machine that so admirably suited the Maestro’s style.

Whether the wit and humanity of Verdi’s operatic swan song are conveyed is, however, debatable. The conductor’s singleminded pursuit of linear clarity shortchanges characterization at every turn. Giuseppe Valdengo sings--never barks or declaims--the title role. But his Falstaff doesn’t bluster, exult or dream: he deliver notes.

The others--including the Ford of Frank Guarrera, Herva Nelli’s Alice, Teresa Stich-Randall’s Nannetta--are likewise voices rather than characters, with only Chloe Elmo’s delectably juicy Quickly more than incidental to Toscanini’s sleekly symphonic concept.

“Aida,” with which Toscanini began (in 1886) and ended his conducting career, occupied two Saturday evenings in 1949, at which time it was also telecast. RCA now offers it in CD, videocassette and laserdisc formats. It remains a gripping experience, particularly when one watches it.

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Toscanini captures us from the start with his hugely dramatic and probingly detailed leadership. If Herva Nelli is hardly the Aida of one’s dreams, it’s ludicrous to regard her as a monster of ineptitude, as some Toscanini-bashers would have us do. She is, rather, a competent, dramatically pallid singer not too comfortable--as suggested by her unvaryingly droopy-bewildered facial expression--in the spotlight.

It might be noted that Toscanini’s sole podium appearance after his retirement was a 1954 studio session to repair three minor, Nelli-related glitches in this “Aida.” A phone call to remastering producer John Pfeiffer confirmed that while the corrections are on the CDs (as they were on the LPs), they could not be synchronized with the video images. This listener/viewer was, however, unable to detect the supposedly offending spots in the video edition.

This “Aida” remains mandatory watching and listening. Seeing Toscanini in action--that fierce brow, the penetrating eyes, the precise, unfussy beat and subtle cueing--contributes to what is an involving theatrical experience despite the singers’ evening dress, their refusal to look at each other (eyes are for looking at Maestro) and that 90 musicians, rather than the royal palace of Memphis or the banks of Nile, serve as backdrop.

The camera focuses on the singers when they are working and there’s some visual involvement with the orchestra. In the video Beethoven Ninth--not the same performance as the one on CD, but similar--orchestra and soloists are all but ignored in favor of the conductor.

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Visuals would have been welcome in the Verdi Requiem, a 1951 broadcast from Carnegie Hall, but its impact is readily felt with the ears alone. Notable aside from the grandly dramatic conducting are (again) Robert Shaw’s superb chorus and lush, impassioned singing from Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano and Cesare Siepi, with Nelli adequately rounding out the solo quartet.

Some suggestions to RCA regarding future releases in the series: Provide information on all the artists involved. Toscanini, whose biography is the only one included, didn’t do it alone. Why not a profile of the NBC Symphony, two of whose principals (violinist Mischa Mischakoff and cellist Frank Miller) are soloists in Brahms’ Double Concerto, as RCA should proudly proclaim?

Care should be taken to achieve accurate on-screen documentation in the videos. Here, for her efforts in “Aida,” Stich-Randall is rewarded by having her name misspelled, while screen credits for Beethoven’s Ninth list the slow movement as “Adagio molto e con brio,” an oxymoron for the ages. RCA deserves a brickbat too for providing “Aida” video buyers only with a synopsis while the CDs come with an Italian-English libretto.

Then, too, RCA should seriously consider in future segments mixing materials from various phases of Toscanini’s career, to present a more realistic and balanced picture of a man who did not achieve his celebrity merely by conducting faster and more ferociously than anyone else.

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