Toscanini’s radiant heights recaptured

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Page is a professor of music and journalism at USC. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 while with the Washington Post.

It is always illuminating to immerse oneself every now and again in the collected works of a great artist. Ezra Pound defined a classic as something that “remains news,” and after listening to many, many hours of Arturo Toscanini’s recorded conducting over the past month, it is clear that he more than passes Pound’s test.

Toscanini’s bristling energy, his sense of propulsion and his ability to exact clear, clean, precise playing from the orchestras he led contributed to a career that lasted almost 60 years. “Whatever you may think about Toscanini’s interpretation of a specific work,” the Cleveland Orchestra’s George Szell once noted, “that he changed the whole concept of conducting, and that he rectified many, many arbitrary procedures of a generation of conductors before him, is now authentic history.”

RCA has just issued virtually the entire Toscanini catalog in an 84-CD set with a bonus DVD, titled “The Maestro,” thrown in for lagniappe. A similar project was undertaken in 1992: Then it cost the would-be listener about $1,200. Now an improved, repackaged and remastered version is available for $149.98, reminding us that at least one thing in the world -- recorded sound -- gets ever less expensive.


Some historical perspective may be in order. Toscanini (1867-1957) was born only seven years after Gustav Mahler and 15 years before Stravinsky. He knew Giuseppe Verdi personally and played cello in the world premiere of “Otello” at La Scala in 1887. He conducted the first performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 1896 and lived to record the opera half a century later. He led the world premieres of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. And, through his long series of broadcasts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, he helped bring classical music to a huge new audience.

The recordings preserved here date from 1920 (when Toscanini had already passed his first half century) through ’54. It has long been acknowledged that they are flawed representations.

Toscanini was not especially interested in the recording process, and the sound on many of the discs is arid and constrained compared with what Leopold Stokowski had managed with the Philadelphia Orchestra as far back as the late 1920s (or, for that matter, the mid-’50s Fritz Reiner recordings, which sound as though they could have been made yesterday).

Moreover, some of the received wisdom about Toscanini is true. He had a tendency toward fast tempos (sometimes comically so, as in the Scherzo to the Haydn “Surprise” Symphony) and his later Beethoven and Brahms recordings lack some of the innigkeit that we admire in the most eloquent conductors from the Germanic tradition. By all accounts, his earlier versions were more spacious, and I regret that RCA chose his 1953 “Missa Solemnis” for inclusion instead of an incandescent (but still officially “private”) version from 1940.

But there is so much that is beautiful here. We knew Toscanini was a magnificent Rossini conductor (no condescension intended -- I think Rossini the most underrated genius of the early 19th century), but what about Gluck? Here is a loving, radiant, proportionate and altogether heartbreaking rendition of Act 2 of “Orfeo ed Euridice” with the soprano Nan Merriman. And Toscanini is unusually fine in Berlioz, who was still considered a minor composer in the mid-20th century.

He never cared for the “Symphonie Fantastique” but helped affirm the composer’s greatness with meticulously controlled yet deeply passionate performances of “Romeo et Juliette,” “Harold in Italy” and other works, which were revelatory in their time and continue to spark fire today. What a wonderful “Les Troyens” he could have given us -- but that work had to wait until 1972 for a complete American production.


But we do have his “Aida,” “Otello” and “Falstaff” among others, allowing us to hear the mixture of detailed tenderness and irresistible sweep that Toscanini brought to opera. All in all, this is a wonderful set of recordings and, at the price, an irresistible bargain.