Yes, boys and girls, it’s time for another edition of the scratchy-old-record show. Today’s subject is Arturo Toscanini, the great Italian conductor whose scowling visage was the very face of opera and classical music for the first half of the 20th century. He was best known as the music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble created by RCA exclusively for Toscanini for concert broadcasts and to make recordings. The bulk of his recorded legacy comes from this association, produced between 1937 and 1954 in New York.
That material alone would seal Toscanini’s reputation as a conductor of impeccable attention to detail and driving passion that still inspires conductors to this day. But Toscanini was at the end of his creative life by that time — hardly out of gas, but sometimes displaying lapses in his customary ironclad concentration. And the NBC band, though comprised of superb musicians, did not quite have the pedigree and polish of the older orchestras in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, let alone Europe.
There are a handful of recordings made by Toscanini with other orchestras that greatly enhance his artistic profile, including a wonderful session he made in Philadelphia in the early 1940s. Alas, that set is marred by faulty masters, limiting its appeal to all but the most hiss-tolerant fanatics. Now West Hill Radio Archives has produced an extraordinary four-CD collection of the recordings that Toscanini made in London in 1935 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring music of Brahms, Elgar, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz and more, beautifully restored for this release.
Very critical listening is not required for one to appreciate the piercing power of these performances. I do not know of any other recording of the Brahms Fourth Symphony that so incisively reveals the texture of the score, nor so tenderly cradles the meltingly beautiful melodies. The Enigma Variations of Elgar crackle with energy, and beam with regal splendor, but without a trace of pomposity. The Wagner is glowing.
Music lovers who cherish old recordings of Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker or Erroll Garner, as I do, quickly forget the compromised sound quality as the intensity of the artistry at hand pushes aside such mundane matters. It is just as true with classical oldies, as this blazing tribute amply demonstrates.