ARTURO TOSCANINI

1867-1957

Eight thousand words here, but anyone on the receiving end of such an ocean of adulation (“the world’s greatest conductor” and all that) should be examined carefully. Toscanini’s genius is not in doubt, but enough rubbish has been written about him to fill a sizeable ground zero. We must thank profusely such commentators as Harvey Sachs who’ve demolished the clichés as they came flying in our face: that Toscanini always stuck to the precise letter of the score, that his later style was “simpler,” that his tempos got faster, that only he had the right key to the lock behind which lay the “correct” sort of interpretation that’s right for us, that like some unimpeachable and beloved precinct cop he was saving us from the indigestion of sentimentality as practiced dangerously and always inappropriately by most of the other well-known conductors in music from several eras.

But it’s neither as simple nor as silly as that.

Toscanini was without a doubt one of the greatest conductors, but the department in which he truly achieves absolute top-dog status is that of his volatility. As the handsome little Maestro told the conductor Gavazzeni, “I am never the same, even from today to tomorrow it will change.” Like the piscatorial components of an Anconan brodetto! But be grateful for Toscanini’s many moods, the moods he was unable to leave behind when he mounted the podium on Monday, Tuesday, or heavens, the Sunday afternoons of this Magnavox listener’s childhood, they certainly made him interesting. So the Toscanini oeuvre is full of performances in as many flavors as that celebrated ice cream merchant with a hyphenated name used to advertise. They come simple and complex, masculine and feminine, peremptory and kindly, dead slow and wildly brisk, spare and rich, very poised or quite erratic, and he can swing from one interpretive branch to another in the twinkling of a baton. He wears us out and we enjoy it! Well, mostly.

But it wasn’t always easy for a lot of us: amid all the hype from critics fallen on their knees and all the whirlwind changeability on his assorted podiums many of us suffered  pangs in our hi fi corners, we were thrown into a love-hate listening relationship with the Old Man.

Myself, I traveled from youthful Hero Worship to a long term in Backlash Gulch, eventually achieving what I think is an autumnal impartiality. It feels good. It’s as if I’ve listened to “your captain speaking” on the 757 as he cheerfully advises us to sit back and relax. Well, relax isn’t quite it, Toscanini was often too exciting for that. Given such a controversial figure, I’ve decided to lay out for you as much sonic experience as seems digestible, and then you the reader can add it all up as you see fit. All performances below are “live,” and with one exception are from his longest tenure, that with the NBC Symphony 1937 to 1954. Call this Diary of a Studio, meaning that much-maligned but bright-as-a-pin Studio 8-H in New York’s Radio City where most if not all of these performances were broadcast. As the courtly Gene Hamilton the charming NBC announcer for four seasons beginning 1938-39 used to tell his many listeners, voice rising vibrantly, “ARTURO TOSCANINI is now making his way onto the stage of Studio 8-H and in a few moments . . . .”

12-25-37 (the first Toscanini NBC broadcast) — BRAHMS’ FIRST SYMPHONY: Wrestled together out of some mystic combination of sweet inspiration and seeming stage fright, some of its machinery dashingly exposed, this is a heart-on-sleeve, rough-and-tumble affair, quite loveable, trumpeting the sometime klunkiness of genius. Spontaneous, occasionally homely, ultimately grand, it reminds more of Spencer Tracy than David Niven. And what about James Bond? Toscanini has in mind certain interpretive ideas sure to recur in principle but not necessarily atmosphere, in other of his Brahms Firsts: this performance has a particular crazyquiltness not to return. The first movement’s introduction unloads a familiar urgency, then Toscanini allows himself a theatrical and tension-embracing retard, a sore thumb for pedants of course, into the allegro — not at first a terribly fast allegro but certainly a taut one. Next: appropriate braking for intimate passages in the second subject. And this felicity is rudely countermanded by a brisk and mighty grip on the exposition’s closing episode, a bit of a fling in which the music Tarzan-like seems to leap from branch to branch in novel dot-dot-dot-dashes. Beethoven’s ghost at work!

In the majority of Toscanini’s Brahms First finales a crucial objective is to make the great horn and flute solos, and of course the attendant brass chorale, a place of refuge from the stormy weather of the introduction: he interprets Brahms’ change from introductory adagio to the più andante of the solos as not a very big leap. So the horn and flute of 1937 emerge quite slow and certainly comforting, and the chorale enters as broadly, and wonderfully, as those provided by wickedly “romantic” conductors. In the finale’s second subject there’s an endearing duet between first and second oboes, a love scene waiting for any willing maestro to find it in its little carnal corner, and the pilot of this finale, taut, flexible, full of creativity, strikes a charming connubial note therein. When the scene recurs in the recapitulation in the strings tempo is again reduced, the effect almost X-rated . . . and off Toscanini sails to Brahms’ final pages, adding as was his habit to the smashing chorale shortly before the end a swashbuckling and totally inauthentic role for his timpanist. Showmanship unbounded, and how hip! Perhaps the sleeping Beethoven could dimly make it out and initiate a smile . . .

Earlier on this broadcast, a Christmas present to the radio public, there was a mellow and poco nervoso performance of MOZART’S G MINOR SYMPHONY. Details in the first movement: the edgy and interesting “cresCENDO-AND-SUdden-diminuendo” Toscanini adds to Mozart’s skimpy indications just after the first eight measures are done and the music takes a slightly different tack; then the absolutely tearful state betrayed so fetchingly by the violins late in the development, five bars after Letter C, in a lovely sighing figure, a variant on the symphony’s opening. In the succeeding andante the exposition comes to a fond and lingering end — no retard, of course, posted in the score — then in the finale, allegro assai, we quake a little before the brisk and almost ferocious excitement delivered to the folks in that gleaming studio. Here is Toscanini the Fauve of sound, a wild beast of the podium.

Also played at this concert was VIVALDI’S  CONCERTO GROSSO OPUS 3 No. 11, almost lush in its opening allegro, profoundly touching in the slow movement to follow, with a passionate finale as well.

1-8-38 — BEETHOVEN’S PASTORAL SYMPHONY: A genial performance, this, with a Scene by the Brook that’s vibrant, radiant, supremely murmurous, more than anything else fluid. Top honors go to the finale with its unique calm. The word “lulling”might have been invented for this ultra-friendly and not unpropulsive allegretto that finds Toscanini burrowing in a coziness his nerves du jour don’t permit him to fully recapture in his next NBC Pastoral, 11-11-39 . . . 1-22-38 – HAYDN SYMPHONY NO. 98: Haydn was obviously one of Toscanini’s favorite composers, the comedy of his harmony, rhythm, farting bassoons, not to mention the trademark songfulness in the slow movements, made him feel at home. This 98th boasts an imperial introduction, ominous and suspenseful; a charming allegro to follow; a moving adagio cantabile; a get-up-and-go minuet; a jolly finale.

2-6-38 – BEETHOVEN’S NINTH SYMPHONY (with soloists Bovy, Thorborg, Peerce, Pinza): Toscanini begins in a “simple” style with a stately and serioso first movement, fluid, with subtle rubati, and a certain delicacy too, that feminine touch which doubtless had something to do with his success with women. The neat and sparkly scherzo that follows is off the same rack. And yes, with the slow movement the conductor of this Ninth seems to be almost deliriously in touch with his muse/lover, the young Ada Mainardi to whom he wrote frequently (a few hours after this performance he would tell her “you work magically on me from far away”). The quiet passion and extreme tenderness of the opening measures should blow the most complacent of minds, likewise the wonderful vibrancy of it all as the movement continues is remarkable, the sense of awe before the B flat variation!

And if Arturo and Ada had been born in another age they’d be twittering . . .

The battle of the flashbacks at the opening of the finale is a scene of pingy brass, gruff basses, chords like daggers. And as the finale proceeds one’s struck not only by the utter transparency of presentation, basso and woodwinds for instance totally equal in their Freude, schoener Goetterfunken, like fork and spoon placed ever so symmetrically to left and right of your plate at a state dinner, but the prevailingly deliberate and suspense-inducing tempos too. No wonder Toscanini told Ada, “I was a devil. I conducted, I believe, as never before . . .”

2-26-38 — BORODIN SECOND SYMPHONY: An example of the fairly unusual repertoire Toscanini quite frequently embraced, although surely he had his blind spots and challenges too far. Find here an appealing performance covering all bases from the earthy to the punctilious and most notable perhaps for its first movement being considerably slower than that of Erich Kleiber who took over this symphony in the NBC repertoire 12-20-47. Also he’s slower than that man-in-a-hurry Albert Coates in his attractive but lightly rehearsed recording. A perk of this spaciousness is the revealing attention given the suspense-dipped opening of the development where — to borrow words from that post-Toveyan  annotator Alfred Frankenstein – one hears low mutterings. Now from the finale . . .

10-15-38 — BRAHMS’ THIRD SYMPHONY: Many adventures lie in the path of Toscanini’s various Brahms Thirds across his later years but this moderate and caring one is not especially controversial. I’m partial to its wistful and amorous first movement. Note at bar 6 how Toscanini with a passing caress reduces volume when the grand main theme as if spinning on its toes is about to change from a prevailingly downward to upward motion. Virtually nobody else has thought of this no-brainer nuance involving a two-note portato upbeat which is not of course spelled out in Brahms’ score. James Levine seems to be its fondest adherent, I can’t think of any other copycats. I suppose, though, if everybody did it, this gesture like the raised eyebrow of an observant person, we wouldn’t enjoy it half as much. Toscanini repeated it many times; but curiously enough he was much less faithful to a similar moment in the opening of the slow movement of Brahms’ Second.

10-22-38 — RICHARD STRAUSS’ DON QUIXOTE (with Emmanuel Feuermann, cello; Carlton Cooley, viola): A clean and expressive performance in which Toscanini relishes the atmospheric effects of the Quixote-and-Sancho adventure. Strauss’ sheep with their madcap screeching are in this case obviously thinking of the remark by my friend Frankenstein who called their appearance “a brassy symphonic version of the Bronx cheer.”

11-19-38 — BACH’S SECOND BRANDENBURG CONCERTO (with Bernard Baker on trumpet): Toscanini and his forces have a ball here, jiving through the exuberant outer movements, with a soulful respite between . . . and HAYDN’S SYMPHONY NO. 31, “HORN SIGNAL”: Toscanini in rare repertoire again, passionate, songful and neat. Interesting to read that the fourth variation of the finale had to be omitted because the signal corps of the NBC horn section didn’t feel up to it . . . 12-3-38 — WAGNER, RIENZI OVERTURE: Shameless portamento in the strings, what fun! An elegant, unrushed, macho performance this, with Weber-like swirling figures in the strings suggesting a bit of post-Euryanthe-ian bustle . . . and why don’t we hear oftener EDMUND RUBBRA’s lively – well, it can be a little tinny here and there – orchestration of BRAHMS’ HANDEL VARIATIONS: it was given a sprightly performance on 1-7-39.

Now 2-4-39 — MOZART’S SYMPHONY NO. 38, “PRAGUE”: The first movement is rather in the Fritz Busch mold, brisk, springy, leggiero, a buffo sort of thing. In fact, the base tempo of its allegro is very brisk, Toscanini with great charm adding the word vivace to Mozart’s tempo indication. This is not a tempo from which he could graduate to something faster.

10-14-39 — A rich little program on the safer side of the Atlantic autumn of ’39: it included a courtly, relaxed account of the rare HAYDN SINFONIA CONCERTANTE; the latest indication of Toscanini’s high comfort level with the music of RICHARD STRAUSS in DON JUAN; a sturdy, sweeping performance of the BACH-RESPIGHI PASSACAGLIA AND FUGUE IN C MINOR in which the lyric side of this nominally stern music is addressed head-on in Toscanini’s best amoroso style — the woeful opening has one fantasizing that a letter from dear Ada is overdue! — and this vein is also ascendant in the sighing of the syncopated violas accompanying the super-lyric second theme of SCHUBERT’S UNFINISHED SYMPHONY. The second movement of this Unfinished is seriously unrushed, with relaxing of the tempo when the clarinet in C sharp minor surrenders to an oboe in the major, their subject matter a wonderfully rocking-and-reaching lyric theme. A bedroom scene perhaps; meanwhile Ada was on the other side of the big U-boat-infested ocean. A letter did get through to her, saying how much the orchestra had improved and that he had a wonderful new first cello, Frank Miller, who was only 26 (and would stay with Toscanini till the end, going on to Chicago where he could still be spotted under Georg Solti’s spastic baton forty years later, a massive near-Buddha of Michigan Avenue).

Four days after this letter was written Toscanini launched a Beethoven Cycle:

10-28-39 — EROICA SYMPHONY: A neat, classical (which is to say non-evocative) opening movement, moderate in tempo with subtle rubati, gives way to a remarkable Marcia Funebre in which the tendency to rush ahead as the movement proceeds, especially in the fugue, is strenuously resisted, a great quarry of pathos piling up from this suspense-inducing care. Enjoy if you hear this performance the husky heart-on-sleeve coloring of the low-lying violins as they announce early on the E flat theme, a theme softening the blow of the movement’s initial dirge – and quite a bit later note how the pathetic little suspended figures in the D flat theme of the coda seem to be g-gasping, so filled with emotion they are. Toscanini the nimble, visceral romanticist is at work. This, by the way, is the Eroica with the immortal cough between the two initial chords: the era of handing out lozenges at concerts had evidently not begun.

11-11-39 — CORIOLAN OVERTURE: Talk about visceral, this performance is positively manic, delivered with brute force. One can’t, however, automatically charge it to some pining-for-Ada account, Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic performance of 2-2-36 was similar, suggesting this jittery brio was a studied reaction to the music’s literary content he was not ready to abandon. More on this subject in 1953! . . . and 11-25-39 — Where are the other conductors who answer the call of the LENTO from the OPUS 135 QUARTET to sing forth with the voice of a full string orchestra? Toscanini adored this candidate for a funeral piece, its soul and the grander sonority it seems to beg for, and made it very moving on this occasion . . . EIGHTH SYMPHONY: While we usually associate the trio of the Tempo di Menuetto with horns – who may or may not crack on at least one impish note lying in wait – Toscanini deems the clarinet the more forward character in this vignette and allows it bigger crescendos here. Well, as they say, a matter of interpretation.

12-2-39 — NINTH SYMPHONY (with Novotna, Thorborg, Peerce, Moscona): The opening movement is a little faster than in 1938, and a bit snappish too — deliberate, this, or a matter of passing mood we cannot say. At its best it develops a scherzando springiness, with the recapitulation enormously exciting, but Beethoven’s qualification un poco maestoso has pretty much blown out the Manhattan window. The slow movement is lovely while missing by a little the utter intimacy of ’38. The finale is on the whole much faster than ’38, Toscanini taking off after the big orchestral interlude like a wild horse kicking down the stable door. This is the Ninth in which Toscanini truly seems the “devil” he was writing to Ada about almost two years earlier. One can’t help missing the utter composure, and resultant greater power, of that un-hyper Ninth from his first NBC season.

3-16-40 — In his earlier years in New York – he was, of course, chief conductor of the Philharmonic 1929-36 – Toscanini had to field a lot of flak about not conducting American music in the America that was paying this charismatic figure frequently photographed in a striking chiaroscuro and lavished with enviable avalanches of praise a quite gargantuan salary. In due course he responded with a fair number of performances of an on-the-average Center-Right U.S. repertoire. Surely nothing he played to answer this call was better music than ROY HARRIS’ compact THIRD SYMPHONY, an enduring piece in one movement to which he gave his all. A case could be made that the sonorous and tragic first section is a trifle thick and headlong (the effect of defiance is characteristic and not ineffective), but the pastoral episode is enchantingly fond and fluid; and the emphatic fugue that follows, and the ultimate timpani-punctuated peroration, find Toscanini riding the music’s steed boldly into battle. An A for effort, and scarcely less for the results.

3-23-40 — A “SUITE” FROM WAGNER’S PARSIFAL: Is this Stokowski conducting? No, it’s Toscanini. And did he put together this “symphonic synthesis” as Stokie would have called it, a whirlwind tour of bleeding operatic matter woven from the turbulent second and dour third act prelude, Parsifal’s brassy arrival, the cooing flower maiden scene and the opera’s sweet finale? At all events it’s the proverbial barrel of fun, wild and sometimes scary enough to make a listener jump. I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers of some of radio’s neighboring attractions, The Lone Ranger, Bulldog Drummond, Suspense, were envious of such sonic blood-and-thunder that could have served their needs for intermittent symphonic titillation aimed at pimply youth. I nominate this curiosity for the Toscanini hit parade!

4-13-40 — DEBUSSY was a Toscanini spécialité and spring of ’40 he devoted a full program, an hour and a half in those days, to the French master. I have a small bone to pick with his NUAGES, which is dangerously low on the trés expressif requested by the composer in the wigwagging opening bars, leaving us only a miasma of mindless woodwind fluff – but then, aha, the music becomes expressive as can be, compassionate, one hears that Melisandan fragility Wilhelm Furtwaengler caught so well in this music . . . and  IBERIA: Another hit parade entry, elegant, earthy, the opening movement quite palpably swaying with the joys of carousing, the slow centerpiece tingling with erotic delicacy (my what a lover the Maestro must have been!) and the finale full of sexual strutting. Where is V.S. Pritchett to write about this experience? . . . and then LA MER: The performance has hardly begun and this commentator is scribbling on his pad “dangerous, nostalgic, cantabile, rueful – such a bundle of emotions.” The long diminuendo (pp . .  più pp . .  ppp) to the little timpani episode halfway along in the opening movement is exquisitely shaved off into nothing, like less-than-paper-thin prosciutto, an effect not quite duplicated on another Debussy program dated 2-14-53.

4-27-40 — Although he only programmed about half a dozen pieces by this mountain man of music Toscanini’s SIBELIUS certainly ranks as a specialty of his symphonic maison. How interesting that among these few pieces we find the “difficult” FOURTH SYMPHONY. But this 1940 performance finds him hugely enjoying the soft lyric sweep of the opening movement’s early pages, the passion of the strings’ tussle mid-movement, and obviously he’s totally comfortable with the elliptical nature of the scherzo, the lost soul lyricism of the slow movement. And why not? Sibelius is not reserved for Kajanus, Beecham, Koussevitzky.

Nor is RAVEL off limits. Toscanini’s LA VALSE captures the beast in toto, the gliding movement, the mysterious atmosphere, the diaphanous textures, the blasé-ness of it all.

5-6-40 — BRAHMS’ FIRST SYMPHONY: A marvelous performance in which inflections of tragedy come to the fore, for instance in the wind dialog of the first movement’s second subject. It’s as if Toscanini has his ear like some prescient animal to the rail carrying along its phantasmal path pre-shudders of the bombing of Rotterdam about to come. The slow movement has a quivering lyricism and the intermezzo-like third movement, a kind of upbeat to the finale, appears out of nowhere. In the finale chart a seriously un-quiet desperation early on, then a flute solo deep and comforting, awash with PEACE. Tempo arrangements in the final allegro are not dissimilar to those of ’37, but more somber notes are struck. The once-connubial duet of the oboes remains amorous in intent, but its mood is sad, the lovers (Arturo-Ada is it?) are apart.

12-7-40 — In SIBELIUS’ SECOND SYMPHONY the ravishing delicacy of the trio in the third movement – it’s in 12/4 time and marked lento e soave – is not to be missed. But the whole performance is highly engaging as well as neat and idiomatic. If Toscanini had smoked cigars Sibelius would have sent him a crate-full, U-boats be damned.

And 12-21-40 — Toscanini conducting STRAVINSKY? That’s rather like the Bay Area question proposed by a dairy merchant, Farms in Berkeley? Well, he conducted a staging of Le Rossignol in his La Scala days prior to settling in New York, and here in 1940 he pulled off the shelf the outer leaves so to speak of PETROUCHKA, leaving alone what for him must have been the indigestible central tableaux. What a lark! He conducts marvelously these segments he evidently rather likes, the opening scene is festive, exuberant, transparent, the shimmer before the Danse Russe particularly vivid, and so on: all goes well. There seems no doubt Toscanini would have been a wonderful conductor of the sensuous post-Rimskyian Firebird, the suite at least, and could have managed the ascetic lyricism of Orpheus or Apollo with aplomb, perhaps the post-Haydnesque zing of Jeu de Cartes as well. And not much else!

12-28-40 — BEETHOVEN’S MISSA SOLEMNIS (with soloists Milanov, Castagna, Bjoerling and Kipnis): From a trance-like Kyrie to a dream sequence Agnus Dei this is a performance echoing that grand composure so noticeable in the finale of Toscanini’s Beethoven Ninth of February 1938. There’s an overall climate of reverence, absolutely no rush, the conductor is sharing with his listeners a mystical package of aesthetic satisfaction, carefully opening a succession of doors to sonic pleasures of an elevated sort . . . 2-1-41 — HAYDN’S SYMPHONY NO. 99: Note the rubato creating an expressive little question mark at the beginning of the first movement development; the guffawing good spirits of the minuet contrasted with a very nostalgic trio; the utter charm with which the tootly antiphony of the winds is projected in the finale.

2-22-41 — All-WAGNER: The ACT 1 TRISTAN PRELUDE-cum concert ending is an intimate, unrushed (that word again!) performance with “vocal” string playing that comes direct from the heart. The tack of this performance is a quest for oblivion, a place where love is safe . . . From the same mold is a LOHENGRIN ACT 1 PRELUDE no less intimo and spell-creating, with despair in the air: at the entry of the winds the attendant strings are on the verge of tears . . . Meanwhile ACT 1 SCENE 3 OF DIE WALKUERE with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior dwells on two intertwined planes, one of beautiful espressivo and another of almost clinical detachment. Pity!

4-19-41 — TCHAIKOVSKY’S PATHETIQUE SYMPHONY: A sleekly affecting performance with a third movement highlighting Toscanini’s love of a good ol’ “molto scherzando” effect. Curiously he skimps on the expressively useful repeats in the throbbing and rather hypnotic trio of the second movement, a three-legged waltz as they used to call it with its 5/4 signature — this is Serge Koussevitzky territory par excellence, and we musn’t forget Erich Kleiber either.

And now a Brahms Cycle (which I first heard if I remember right on the Philco in my father’s study lined with medical journals):

12-20-42 — THIRD SYMPHONY: An almost glamorous performance, bright, forward, tonally felicitous, with a certain well ordered gleam and weight suggesting a Marine officer standing tall, lithe, tanned, just muscly enough, medals shining; maybe a character out of one of those elliptical but poetic novels by James Salter. A bit less lyrically heart-on-sleeve than Toscanini’s ’38 Brahms Third, this one is however intensely spirited and attractive. It runs as smoothly as a well-tuned Austin-Healy. And of course the volume reduction in bar 6 is observed.

12-27-42 — SERENADE IN A: A winning performance boasting delicate allegro moderato, whirling scherzo, radiant adagio non troppo, a light gallop of a rondo; and best of all is the trio of the quasi menuetto in which a ruminative half-doleful oboe, a confused swain perhaps, talks in little lyric spurts, a freckled language of uncertainty few conductors are adept at capturing. Very special!

1-17-43 — FIRST SYMPHONY: We meet again. A rather crude and not very appealing, in fact at times quite maddening performance. The introduction, charged with worry, is interesting, but rhythmically unstable, which is not the same thing as rubato felicitously applied. There seems to be some attempt to recapture the tragic element of 1940 but the almost hyper volatility of beat is not a plus. Most disappointing is a finale in which the itchingly macho unleashing of overly aggressive brass deprives the più andante following the introduction of the calm registered in earlier Firsts. And those poor oboes — in this performance they are neither connubial nor sad.

1-24-43 — GERMAN REQUIEM (in English, with Vivian Della Chiesa and Herbert Janssen): Wonderful, wonderful – find here the same composure, grace and unrushed espressivo noted in the 1940 Missa Solemnis. The searching second movement (“behold, all flesh is as the grass”), which Brahms marked with seeming uncertainty slow, moderately moving, is VERY SLOW, monumental and enveloping. And in no way rigid. No wonder Brahms gave up trying to pin metronome markings to his music as piece after piece wriggled determindedly from his hand. This requiem movement can work superbly at Toscanini’s relative crawl or conductor X or Y’s more hastening approach.

And time out to say Toscanini’s less charming performances however disappointing don’t make me angry, they are not candidates for Teacher’s demerits. They’re simply evidence of the swerving fluctuations of his temperament, the drama (soap opera sometimes?) of his creativity.

Now we reach the first of the famous Toscanini opera broadcasts: 2-10 & 17-44 — BEETHOVEN’S FIDELIO (with Bampton, Steber, Peerce, Janssen, Belarsky, etc.): A congenial performance, crisp and with lots of verve, but hampered of course by the lack of spoken dialog cueing the arias, duets and sublime quartet. And on to:

3-19-44 — HAYDN’S SYMPHONY No. 92: Sweet strings in Haydn’s introduction sound a note of amorous diffidence: such delicacy and exquisite suspense! Here’s a diamond cutter of the orchestra at work, a connoisseur of subtleties. Then in the allegro spiritoso that follows what fun: the violins are encouraged to play with soloistic color and zest, an approach favored some years later by the violinist-turned-conductor Yehudi Menuhin. The adagio is so slow – teasing us with some interesting secret! — it might be Hermann Scherchen on the podium. And note in the finale Toscanini’s promotion (demotion?) of Haydn’s piano to pp for that dancing/sprawling second subject Professor Tovey likened to a daddy-long-legs.

9-3-44 — MOZART’S SYMPHONY NO. 29: Curiouser and curiouser. Toscanini can’t seem to find the tempo at the start of this performance: “fast” is succeeded by “faster” in just a few bars of theoretical allegro moderato, then, before a minute is consumed, he’s braking seriously. Such a graceless and hyper takeoff, who would want to fly out of JFK or Heathrow in a plane lurching like this? But my dears it’s elementary, to quote the sage of Baker Street, the problem is that damned, elusive wording moderato, the mother of all ambiguities! Well, a few minutes later all is sublime at the cruising speed of a buoyant andante, in which we note by the way that portamento is allowed. A couple dozen Fritz Kreislers might be playing in the vibrant, tiptoeing minuet that follows. The captain has switched off the Fasten Seat Belts sign.

And now from a New York Philharmonic Pension Fund concert, 1-13-45 — WEBER’S EURYANTHE OVERTURE: A big festive performance to suit the occasion, with a reduced tempo for the lyric second theme, and in that visionary largo midway, a passage signalling Weber’s intense embrace of the Ultra-Romantic, a tempo about three-fifths the speed posted in the score, the result of this generosity a heaping dose of delicacy, molto molto tranquillo.

Back at NBC, 1-28-45 — DVORAK CELLO CONCERTO (with Edmund Kurtz): Toscanini in his NBC years rarely collaborated with instrumentalists other than members of his orchestra. Stars could collide! But obviously he and Kurtz saw bow-to-baton and who could ask for a more attractive performance, full of verve, with an especially dreamy close to the slow movement . . . 11-8-45 — VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’ FANTASIA ON A THEME BY THOMAS TALLIS: A favorite of Toscanini’s, and here it is in a performance so beautifully filled with tension and urgency the effect is much more Tingling Drama than the Exurban Idyll we frequently encounter. Three stars! . . . and 1-6-46 — WAGNER, PRELUDE TO ACT 3 OF TANNHAEUSER: Baleful, luminous, tautly lyrical, with lessons in the art of building awesome climaxes.

3-24-46 — FRANCK SYMPHONY IN D MINOR: An unashamedly romantic Franck with a very slow lento at the start and a full meal of vibrato in the string playing, see the p espressivo at bar 6. In the suspenseful second approach to the allegro non troppo the music in this tension-amassing performance becomes creepier than ever, music for a monster movie almost — for Franck’s perhaps intended Todesverkundigung (the notes are an obvious homage to Wagner’s Die Walkuere) better to go to steely Karl Ancerl and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw 1970. And note the vivid lyric heavings at measure 95, the molto crescendo serving as slippery dormat before the molto cantabile of the consoling second theme. Toscanini frequently has the music on the ropes, in the fragile lyricism for instance of the swaying, shrugging dolce cantabile at bar 49 of the second movement, this where a double bar marks a change in the music’s texture, now we have floating first violins and Jeeves-like noodling seconds. And an interesting thing in the finale: Toscanini’s unusually quiet delivery of the cellos’ and bassoons’ dolce cantabile tune, we’re at bar 7, suggests he’s taking more of a cue than some of his colleagues from the steep drop in the accompanimental tremoli of violins and violas two measures earlier, ff to pp in an instant.

3-31-46 — BRAHMS’ THIRD SYMPHONY: A composite as it were of previous performances, not intentional I suspect. This Third has in its opening movement some of the sadness of ’38 and some of the Superman aura of ’42. The sound of the mellow solo clarinet in the second movement (Robert McGinnis?) is so delightfully woody it’s as if a whole forest were participating. In fact the texture of this performance frequently seems quite tropical.

10-27-46 — BERLIOZ’ HAROLD IN ITALY (with Carlton Cooley, viola): Bad boy, bad boy, the second movement here, the March of the Pilgrims Singing Their Evening Prayer, is so delightfully jaunty it’s as if the devout travelers pictured in this performance had drunk more than their share of Montepulciano. We musn’t forget that Toscanini for all his solemn manner on the podium was no stranger to levity. Actually this is a Harold of superior refinement as well as, well, imagination. The viola’s opening scene lowers its spoon into the most exquisite pianissimi, ruminative as can be. Then we’re off to the races in a saucy main allegro. The finale, an Orgy of the Brigands marked for starters allegro frenetico, brings snarly, zoomy brass and an almost deranged Byronic protagonist in the voice of Mr. Cooley’s beautiful viola.

12-1 and 12-8-46 — VERDI’S LA TRAVIATA (with Albanese, Peerce, Merrill, etc.): No conductor has captured better in Violetta’s first act E strano (she’s just been left alone with her thoughts) this challenged woman’s excitement at being loved. The sparks continue in a brisk Ah, fors’è lui, Verdi’s andantino taken at a “party” tempo. And when Violetta hears her man Alfredo in the background a few minutes later she’s all sighs and shivers. I have to say, though, that the second act belongs to Tullio Serafin in a live performance with Renata Tebaldi in which the heroine’s utter misery is perfectly caught by this other white-haired maestro as he digs into incomparably vivid sostenuti.

2-9-47 — BERLIOZ’ ROMEO ET JULIETTE (with Swarthout, Garris, Moscona): Toscanini’s affinity for that elegant bad boy Berlioz is evident in this gem. Enjoy the graceful handling of the tumultuous prelude, the beautifully enunciated choral recitative that follows. The scene of Romeo Alone is delicate, ecstatic, LOST. In the Love Scene with its lean vibrancy we hear the foliage rustling in the warm Verona air – and how shy the stumbling oboe protagonist accompanied by pizzicati! Young love isn’t easy; ask that expert Shakespeare. Add to the credits the Queen Mab Scherzo, a Toscanini calling card: it’s as light as a Salzburger Nockerln.

10-25-47 — BEETHOVEN, CONSECRATION OF THE HOUSE OVERTURE: A hoot, this performance of a piece not associated with Toscanini. The opening chords are brusque enough to blow a sizeable edifice to kingdom come, and on the music prances with collegiate gusto. So this is not your dignified and stately Consecration as delivered by a Pierre Monteux or Otto Klemperer. I’d call it a party, and send you an invitation! . . . Then, 11-29-47, beginning with an exceedingly subtle page 1 a mellow, elegant, irony-rich HARY JANOS Suite of Kodaly that seems in its knowing tone the work of a true intellectual, not some crazy peasant from Parma.

3-20-48 (on television as well as radio) — WAGNER, TANNHAEUSER OVERTURE AND BACCHANALE: Ingredients as follows – 1) a stately quiet at the start, 2) a sad, slow, meditative movement toward the pilgrims’ procession after  the cellos enter so melodically in the sixteenth bar, 3) a very big and muscular procession indeed – burly folk, these people who walk to Rome without caterers in their wake, 4) an allegro that slips in (shoosh!) on the sly, fast at first but 5) settling somewhat slower for the hymn to Venus, 6) a taut Bacchanale – and watch for interesting adjustments of this scheme a few seasons later, 11-8-52.

4-3-48 (televised as well) — BEETHOVEN’S NINTH SYMPHONY (with McKnight, Hobson, Dillon, Scott): Interesting variations on earlier Ninths – this time the opening movement is particularly engaging: fresh, plaintive, playful, the music on tiptoe, talking to you, played with a fetching flexibility of tempo. The music feels re-studied, not just a pawn in the grip of Toscanini’s mood of the day-hour-minute. In any event he seems happy! The trio of the scherzo has never sounded more like a cousin to the master’s Pastoral Symphony. This time it’s the slow movement that’s done in “simple” style, it’s certainly attractive but Ada the muse seems long gone, the Maestro is no longer carrying special messages in his pocket. In the Ode to Joy Norman Scott, an underrated Met basso adopted by Toscanini (possibly because his vocal timbre could sound amazingly like that of Ezio Pinza) actually phrases his cumbersome opening recitative, a portion of music tending to engulf rather than coddle those who would attempt to sing it accurately. And the conductor of this performance remembers to close the stable door: tempos are exhilarating enough without becoming madcap — although the latter sort can, as in his ’39 Ninth, be stimulating!

Incidentally, the orchestra’s two-chord rejection of the scherzo flashback near the beginning of Beethoven’s finale calls to mind nothing so much as the dread Fricka giving her husband a terrible time in the second act of Die Walkuere. Nicht doch indeed . . . And speaking of re-studying a score: I’m reminded of Nicholas Harnoncourt’s remark about Mozart’s Zauberfloete, that it’s like an onion, you peel it and it keeps revealing more food for interpretive thinking. Well it would have been fun to call this book Harnoncourt’s Onion.

12-4-48 — DVORAK’S SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS: More unusual repertoire. This attractive piece could be all or part of a newly discovered Brahms Serenade and Toscanini does it up brown, with unashamedly schmaltzy solo work by concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff and there’s a panting flute solo worth special notice too. Who will revive this gem? . . . 3-5-49 — RICHARD STRAUSS’ TILL EULENSPIEGEL: The comic possibilities here are certainly enjoyed, in a performance with some rather broad pacing and a tilt toward the majestic that could fool you into thinking its pilot was none other than Otto Klemperer in his autumnal EMI phase (I’m thinking rather more of his “studio” than “live” performances from that era, more about that later).

3-26 & 4-2-49 — VERDI’S AIDA (with Nelli, Tucker, Valdengo, Scott, etc.): I cannot tell a lie, I really find much of this performance maddeningly disappointing. The sound of it is of course that of a concert rather than a staging, the orchestra a bit too dominant. But that slight imbalance is as nothing in the face of a prim and pouting Maestro barreling through passages that need more expansion — and Verdi sometimes does write in the score: con espansione — to fulfill their dramatic potential. A performance in first communion dress! No need to cite chapter and verse from a disappointingly long list, any of you who love Verdi will hear what’s missing. One looks to Panizza, Previtali, Cleva, Steinberg, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Kubelik, Leo Blech, Nicola Luisotti, Fabio Luisi: the list of great Aida onductors is vast.

2-10-51 — MENDELSSOHN, OVERTURE TO A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: Creative handling of tempo here. Mendelssohn in comparison to the artful Toscanini is a cop-out artist: for many pages he remains glued to the marking allegro di molto which is perfect for the wagging elfin staccati of the strings from bar 8 to 62 but a shade stressful for the rather “pomposo” fortissimo from 62, and worse for the lyric clarinets at measure 130. To accommodate the later situations many conductors simply adopt a hopefully all-purpose “allegro non troppo” from the start but that strategy tends to turn those introductory elves into clods. Toscanini’s notion is to begin hell-for-leather and subtly adjust later on, sitting on the tempo a little this way or that.

BRAHMS’ SECOND SYMPHONY: A luminous, sylvan first movement, the second theme almost weightless. But the best is yet to come, a slow movement in which the opening song of the cellos, poco f espressivo, is exquisitely colored by a small but palpable reduction in volume with the upbeat at the end of the second full bar, a gesture not indicated in the score that makes many another account of this passage sound in its absence a tad overbearing, a flow of thickish gravy rather than Michelin-starred pan juices. Toscanini may be finding a cue in Brahms’ pianissimo for concurrently arriving winds and trombones cast in supporting roles upstage from those hyper-melodious cellos. The situation is not unlike that in bar 6 of Brahms’ Third wherein Toscanini habitually lowered volume; again the theme is essentially changing direction.

Curiously enough Willem Mengelberg makes a small crescendo exactly where Toscanini drops volume in the slow movement of the Second: a case, then, of a place-in-the-score where some gesture seems indicated. I’m reminded of a composer friend whose sleep was interrupted one night by a choral conductor calling him in some agony and pleading, “Kirke, what on earth should I do at bar 267 of your new piece?” Kirke responded, as if in tune with old Mengelberg and Toscanini, “I don’t care what you do at 267 so long as you do SOMETHING.” Meanwhile, to complicate matters, so far as I can tell Toscanini was not as faithful to his coloristic inspiration in Brahms’ Second as he was to that in the Third: there are only slight hints of it in a 1938 BBC performance and another with the Philharmonia in London in 1952, and it’s not to be detected at all in the NBC broadcast of 1-3-43, part of that kaleidoscopic Brahms cycle of 1942-43.

2-17-51– ELGAR, ENIGMA VARIATIONS: You can hear the great Nimrod variation coming, like some elegant train down a fantastical track. A Toscanini specialty, the Enigma with its portraits as it were from a  Malvern gallery, done here with refinement and love . . . and 12-29-51 (this was televised) — the WAGNER LOHENGRIN Act 1 PRELUDE: The instant fatigue after the great climax suggests said climax was a veritable ejaculation.

11-1-52 — BRAHMS’ THIRD SYMPHONY: The festive opening of Toscanini’s penultimate NBC season  . . .  Timings of the first three movements are significantly slower than those of vintage ’38, ’42 and ’46 and these adjustments bring many rewards. Movement 1 is poignant, wistful, crafted with a kind of Nordic luminosity, and Brahms’ innately suspenseful succession of retards before the recapitulation is built as if by Wagnerian giants into the mightiest of mysteries, culminating in a regular fortress-in- motion of a crescendo. The recap arrives in Glory!

A musing slow movement follows; then a poco allegretto in which time-taking fosters an intense sense of regret: it’s a wistful serenade almost out of Hollywood, without sugar added. Even more in the recording Toscanini made three days after this broadcast, its almost identical twin, the trio of this movement travels to the furthest depths, where comfort and anguish meet.

Surely Toscanini was aware he probably wouldn’t conduct this beloved music again, he holds it to his bosom.

11-8-52 — WAGNER, TANNHAEUSER OVERTURE AND BACCHANALE: Obviously music Toscanini would carry to his desert island, here it is again. This time 1) the darkest orchestral colors are emphasized at the beginning, 2) the procession is perhaps even bigger than in ’48, penetrating and defiant, with the usual curious ambivalence of tempo in the violin triplets accompanying those parading trombones — almost certainly this is a case of deliberate tension-boosting, an expressive asymmetry, 3) in the main part of the overture the hymn to Venus is even broader than before, very erect, with a grand profile and panache galore. The style of this performance reminds me of, guess what, the stalwart Brahms Third from 1942.

2-7-53 — WAGNER, MEISTERSINGER PRELUDE TO ACT 1: A few seconds longer, this, than its broad-paced predecessor at the fabled 1937 Salzburg Festival (I stopped counting at the point the Chorale would come in, before the concert ending) and certainly this is a better-ordered performance, the Austrian version for all its charms had a strangely unsettled quality. But how amusing the drowsy Chorale that follows in the Salzburg show, it’s as if the congregation had had a collective one-too-many the night before . . . 2-14-53 –DEBUSSY’S IBERIA: The near-perpetual fizz of the zephyrean Toscanini is certainly muted in a tight first movement that misses altogether the characterful raffishness of 1940: libido perduto, alas. But the playing is absolutely stunning, the orchestra gently erupting at times with a gamelan sparkle . . . 3-7-53 — WAGNER, PRELUDE AND LIEBESTOD FROM TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: We’ve been talking lately of slow tempos and this prelude sounds no faster than its counterpart from 1941.

3-21-53 — TCHAIKOVSKY’S ROMEO AND JULIET OVERTURE-FANTASY: Toscanini, this is no news, had a way of identifying poetically with amorous musical situations and the tiptoeing caresses of Tchaikovsky’s haunting second subject show him on form  Well, I think he must have played the women in his life like an orchestra.

ll-22-53 — BRAHMS’ TRAGIC OVERTURE: A much more “romantic” (accursed word!) performance than Toscanini’s ’37 recording with the BBC Symphony which is the one many of us grew up on, feeling vaguely dissatisfied. A fist-shaking intensity at the start tells the gods or someone else VeryImportant where to get off, a couple braces of macho horns aiding the cause. Then the lovely second theme comes on warm as Jamaica, rich and enfolding. And the molto più moderato serving as a central intermezzo is taken very slowly indeed, as if the music were searching through a long tunnel, well we are dealing with tragedy (and find me a conductor who strictly observes Brahms’ mathematical formula, one note value = another, for fixing the tempo here), and it remains quite slow in that bridge passage to the return of the second theme which Brahms marked tempo primo ma tranquillo, the practical-and-poetical translation of which might be: “tranquil enough to register as such and not really tempo primo (the two cannot be literally combined) so long as you don’t lose momentum entirely.” The most affecting performances of the Tragic I know take that tack.

And notice how in bars 309 to 311, shortly into the second subject recap, Toscanini doubles Brahms’ oboes with those Big Joe friends of his in the horn section. Smashing!

This concert opening Toscanini’s final NBC season also brought a palindromic revival of RICHARD STRAUSS’ DON QUIXOTE which he’d programmed at the opposite end of his NBC tenure, with lots of Strauss between. Frank Miller may be only 99.99 pct. as good as his predecessor the lamented Emmanuel Feuermann, missing the delicacy of the latter’s dying fall, but altogether this is a fun performance, crisp as your favorite toast and transparent as any veil you’d like to look straight through.

The sheep? A hoot as before.

12-6-53 –BEETHOVEN, CORIOLAN OVERTURE: Urgent enough, but not trigger-happy as in ‘36 and ’39: Toscanini is only building the music with granite, not hurling it at his audience. As the stopwatch reports, this Coriolan is 42 seconds longer than the ’39 version, a considerable difference when you’re only dealing with six or seven minutes and change . . . Also here is Toscanini’s last EROICA SYMPHONY, in this one the funeral march is a little faster (but the change is scarcely noticeable) than in autumn ’39, the point again not to rush through the fugue and such. Beware of listed timings — on the sleeve of my RCA vinyl copy the duration of the march is given as 15:12, but in reality it’s 15:42, vs. the 16:18 of 1939.

12-13-53 — MOUSSORGSKY, KHOVANCHINA PRELUDE: The ravishing upward wind arpeggios at the end are worth the price of admission. Rather brisk, this one . . . . And on the same program FRANCK’S  LES EOLIDES in a filmy, feminine account, perfect in its Frenchness, exciting with no rough edges. One thinks of a more decorous La Valse . . . . After the Franck the WEBER-BERLIOZ INVITATION TO THE DANCE, this is an enchantingly springy and youthful performance, well let’s see, Toscanini was 86 at the time, with coquettish winds, an amorously panting second theme, the works.

2-28-54 — MENDELSSOHN, ITALIAN SYMPHONY: Enough to give a mortician pause! The opening movement is ardent, hearty, festive, the second radiant as you could ask for. Then something very interesting: movement 3, that difficult-to-sustain con moto moderato — the territorial limits of moderato are as you know generally hard to find — is taken quite slowly, very patient and con amore, as if Dr. Toscanini were sitting at the bedside of some ailing charge, reading a soothing story. One’s reminded of Carlo Maria Guilini’s youthful visit with Toscanini at which he found the baton-hurling Maestro “not only unbelievably gentle but also very kind.”

And 4-4-54 — WAGNER: DAWN AND SIEGFRIED’S RHINE JOURNEY FROM GOETTERDAEMMERUNG: This was Toscanini’s last concert. Apparently he was not  “all there,” he said he felt as if he were in a dream, but this performance is all one could ask for, the best trip ever on Auto Pilot . . . And that matutinal clarinet intoning early on an amorous theme, it’s so full of hope . . .

. . . And as you read these pages I’m still scratching my head a bit over the game that sly dog Toscanini so often plays with us: What kind of interpretation will this performance be? There are certainly recurrent playbooks: the Fun Fauve Romp which I’ve just found again in a Mozart 39th broadcast from NBC 3-6-48, the Painfully Dry in a Siegfried Idyl recording dated 3-11-46 on its tombstone (not to mention a stony Brahms Double Concerto I hustled off my turntable pronto), the Spacious and Affecting in a Philadelphia Orchestra Death and Transfiguration recorded 1-11-42.

Split Personality? Find it in a Brahms Fourth from NBC 12-3-51 in which the interweaving of cellos and violins in the slow movement’s exquisite second subject is felicitously lirico and a revelation of symmetrical give-and-take across the page but so deficient in warmth it doesn’t speak at all. And the fact Toscanini as the pianist Claudio Arrau remembers was “beautiful” in his mustachioed chiaroscuro is no consolation! In the finale of this performance the famous flute rushes along shunning the tragic implications of Variation 12, but the Maestro, as if to salt a stew going begging, applies unusual and touching angst to the rest-spaced notes of the strings and horns calling to the flute from their lonely islets on the staff. Ah, who can explain it?