- Published on Amazon.com
Hark hark! I won't wait until I have something to say about Toscanini's Strauss Don Quixote, a composition I haven't yet found the time to immerse myself into (and it might be some years before I do), to let the readers know what needs to be known about this performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, from October 30, 1938: that it is the most radical and breathtaking I've heard of Toscanini - and I've heard almost all of them - which means also that it must be one of the most radical and breathtaking performances of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, ever.
During his tenure with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, from 25 December 1937 to 4 April 1953, the fundamental tenets of Toscanini's interpretation were fixed, and didn't budge. He recorded the symphony for RCA in February-March 1939 (now on RCA's great Toscanini collection vol. 25, Symphony 5 / Egmont Overture) and played it in concert five more times (and RCA officially released the last of these performances, from 22 March 1952, now on RCA's vol. 4, Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 8; Leonore Overture No. 3, and on their later "Toscanini The Immortal" edition, with vol. 2 of the complete symphonies, in much improved sound, Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5-8 (The Immortal, Vol. 2)), in addition to which he performed the first movement only, on 9 September 1943, to celebrate the downfall of Mussolini. All are marked by the absence of any of the customary rhetorical and somewhat emphatic enlarging ot tempo on the various statementss of the "fate" motive and its transformation into the second subject (which Toscanini still followed in his early New York years, as testified by his recording of March 1931, Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Scherzo and Nocturne / Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice / Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 - traces of those rhetorical devices were still present in the performance of April 9, 1933, but only as vestiges, Sym 5-7), the slight easing of tempo in the harmonic dialogue of woodwinds and strings in the development, the more pronounced rubato in the marvelous little passage for flute-oboe-clarinets in the "Andante con moto", and always, the relentless drive, explosive bite, breathless urgency, huge drama, barely relieved by the moments of repose.
Where Toscanini's performances may have varied is in the peripheral domain of tempi - and, more often than not, even there, they didn't: The first movement tempo of the 1939 RCA studio recording, the November 1939 broadcast performance (Beethoven: Symphony Number 5 & 6"Pastoral") and 1952 broadcast performance that RCA officially issued, are virtually the same. In the remaining movements Toscanini also tended to adopt more flowing (in the "Andante con moto") or faster tempi than those he had favored in his New York years - but surprisingly the 1939 studio recording reverts to the somewhat more deliberate tempos of New York (keeping in mind that Toscanini's deliberation is, with a few exceptions, Furtwängler's race).
But this broadcast performance of 1938 is something else, because it has the same interpretive characteristics, but all at faster tempos (first movement runs 6:45, to the other versions' 7:12 to 7:14, Finale is at 7:54, where the others range from 8:23 in 1952 to 9:01 in the 1939 studio recording) and higher voltage, and to those elements of breathless urgency and relentless drive, it adds, I find, a sense of explosive rage. The Finale is simply incredible, and the members of the NBC Symphony are heroes. Oh, sure, you won't find "subtlety", "suppleness", "grandeur", "majesty" if it is those sorts of things you are looking for in Beethoven's 5th Symphony. You will find punch, electricity, an enthusiasm almost to the point of rage, a sense of triumph, a driving force sweeping away everything on its passage. No way Hitler and Mussolini were going to win the war when America and a small, freedom-loving, nerve-ball Italian were able to produce this. Not doubt all this will feel as TOO much voltage by listeners with softer ears. Electricity is good for the progress of civilization, but the electric chair may be too much of a blessing. I find it absolutely irresistible - Toscanini's 1938 performance, not the electric chair, which I've never actually tried -, and I must rank it as my favorite Toscanini performance, if not my favorite performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony.
Did I say this was Toscanini's most radical and breathtaking performance of the 5th Symphony? Okay, I lied. There's another one just like this, given on the occasion of VE-Day, on May 8 1945 (Mortimer H. Frank, in his authoritative "Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years", says 18 May). It's on Music & Arts, Toscanini Conducts Beethoven's 3rd & 5th Symphonies or Toscanini Conducts Beethoven's 3rd & 5th Symphonies. Despite the 7-year gap, it's uncanny how close they are, like clones of each other:
1938 (1) 5:23 (2) 8:45 (3) 4:35 (4) 7:54
1945 (1) 5:29 (2) 8:45 (3) 4:34 (4) 7:50
And it's not like Toscanini adopted a certain interpretive approach in 1938 and didn't change, because both his studio recording of February-March 1939 and concert performance of November 11 of the same year are very different:
1939 studio (1) 5:47 (2) 9:40 (3) 5:09 (4) 9:01
Nov. 1939 (1) 5:46 (2) 9:12 (3) 4:45 (4) 8:33
In fact those two 1939 performances are both very similar to the later 1952 performance in the first movement, and likewise with the three other movements in the November concert performance, but there the studio recording surprisingly reverts to Toscanini's earlier approach from the early 1930s with the New York Philharmonic. So there's something hard to pin down in the evolution of Toscanini's approach: it wasn't linear. It is more like he had two or three different sets of interpretations for each movement - very fast, not as fast, somewhat more deliberate - and could never decide which one he prefered, but combined them at will ("mmmh... what will I put in my Minestrone today?").
Anyway, this October 1938 performance is preferable to the one from May 1945: first, because, contrary to his general NBC custom, Toscanini didn't observe the first movement repeat in 1945 (in my above comparison of timings I gave the other versions without the duration of their first-movement repeat to make things comparable with 1945); second, because the sonics of Guild's reissue of 1938 are much better than those of Music & Arts for the 1945 concert, which come with crackling surface noise. In fact Guild's sonics are outstanding, clear and vivid on the orchestra and very limited background noise. The liner notes by William Youngren are thorough, informative and interesting, but in fact they are not entirely accurate in their comparison of timings and tempos in Toscanini's various performances of the 5th, and his contention that in the 1938 performance Toscanini changed his approach to Beethoven's 5th because "the NBC symphony clearly could not achieve the Olympian air of settled composure peculiar to Toscanini's [New York] Philharmonic" is belied by Toscanini's May 1939 performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (not widely available commercialy but it is on You Tube), very similar to the NBC concert performance of November 1939. It wasn't something with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, it was something with Toscanini.
What a great concert and oh lucky happy few who got invitations for the broadcast performance of October 22, 1938 (for tax reasons those NBC broadcast concerts could not be sold at the box office). I'm sure the Strauss Don Quixote with Emmanuel Feuermann and Carlton Cooley is also a great performance, although it is not yet a piece I know well enough to have a personal judgement on that. But the Beethoven alone warrants the purchase of this disc - no: makes it indispensable. Thank you Guild.