Mu­sic Richard Os­borne


A cen­tury and a half has passed since the birth in 1867 of Arturo Toscanini, the man who brought the fledg­ling craft of con­duct­ing to a more or less un­sur­pass­able pitch of per­fec­tion dur­ing a ca­reer that spanned the best part of 70 years. It’s as­ton­ish­ing to think that Toscanini was born ten years be­fore Edi­son’s in­ven­tion of the phono­graph in 1877, yet re­mains a liv­ing pres­ence, a life force from a van­ished age whose work re­fuses to date.

To mark the 150th an­niver­sary Sony Clas­si­cal has re­leased a 20-CD set Arturo Toscanini: The Es­sen­tial Record­ings. His ear­li­est record­ings were pre-elec­tric, made in 1920-21 and are not drawn on here; nor, sadly, is the record­ing he com­pleted in 1954 at the age of 87 of what re­mains by some dis­tance the most el­e­men­tal and erot­i­cally charged of all recorded ac­counts of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

Toscanini knew Verdi well. In 1887, he was the sec­ond solo cello (vi­tal to the Act One love duet) in the Mi­lan pre­miere of Verdi’s Otello. A decade later he won the com­poser’s ad­mi­ra­tion for his in­tu­itively sen­si­tive con­duct­ing of the Four Sa­cred

Pieces. He was even with the old man the day be­fore he died in Jan­uary 1901. Toscanini’s post-war broad­casts of Otello and Fal­staff, both of which are in­cluded in the new set, re­main hors con­cours, for all that the casts were not as fine as some Toscanini had directed in ear­lier times.

Also in the set is the 50th an­niver­sary broad­cast of Puc­cini’s La bo­hème whose pre­miere Toscanini had con­ducted in Turin in 1896. ‘Toscanini is now re­ally the best con­duc­tor in the world,’ wrote Puc­cini in 1922. ‘He has ev­ery­thing – soul, poetry, flex­i­bil­ity, dash, re­fine­ment, dra­matic in­stinct – in short, a real mir­a­cle.’

Some used Toscanini’s prow­ess as a

con­duc­tor of Ital­ian opera as a stick with which to beat him. ‘The per­fect opera con­duc­tor but a poor mu­si­cian,’ opined the ter­mi­nally pre­ten­tious Sergiu Celi­bidache, ap­par­ently obliv­i­ous of the fact that it’s im­pos­si­ble to be both. In re­al­ity, Toscanini was as revered in the con­cert hall as he was in the opera house. Along­side the 117 op­eras he had in his reper­tory, there were also some 500 or­ches­tral works. And all this re­hearsed and con­ducted from mem­ory.

It’s said that near-sight­ed­ness caused Toscanini to forego the score. But the mem­ory was a phe­nom­e­non in it­self. When a sec­ond bas­soon lost his mu­sic for Act Two of Wag­ner’s Die Meis­tersinger, Toscanini sat down and wrote out the part there and then. No won­der he was one of the opera’s great­est in­ter­preters.

Dap­per and ath­letic, Toscanini was pos­sessed of un­usu­ally finely drawn fea­tures and a deep-set brow be­neath which, it’s said, his eyes shone ‘like burn­ing coals’. He was a prodi­gious lover (lis­ten to his 1951 record­ing of Strauss’s

Don Juan for vi­car­i­ous ver­i­fi­ca­tion) and, more im­por­tantly, an hyp­notic ros­trum pres­ence. Isa­iah Ber­lin, who heard him a good deal in Lon­don and Salzburg in the 1930s, talked of ‘the in­ten­sity, the se­ri­ous­ness, the sub­lime ter­ri­bil­ità’ of his con­duct­ing. One left the con­cert hall or opera house, Ber­lin re­called, con­vinced that ‘this and only this was the truth’. There were, of course, the well­doc­u­mented re­hearsal rages, but these were as much directed against him­self as against the mu­si­cians who mostly revered (and in many cases loved) him deeply.

As with many mu­si­cians who came to promi­nence be­fore the First World War and who lived to see out the Sec­ond, Toscanini’s ca­reer was much af­fected by pol­i­tics. The son of a tai­lor who had fought along­side Garibaldi in the wars of Ital­ian in­de­pen­dence, Toscanini’s own fiercely repub­li­can, anti-fas­cist, an­ti­monar­chist, anti-cler­i­cal stance served him well in the 1920s and 1930s, though the riches he ac­quired and the celebrity sta­tus con­ferred on him by Amer­ica’s Na­tional Broad­cast­ing Com­pany, which cre­ated for him the be­spoke NBC Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, caused him to be bad-mouthed by the in­tel­lec­tual Left in the years af­ter 1945.

Those times are vividly re­called in Philo Breg­stein’s su­perb 100-minute doc­u­men­tary Otto Klem­perer’s Long Jour­ney through his Times (Arthaus Musik DVD). Eigh­teen years Toscanini’s ju­nior, Klem­perer was a great ad­mirer of Toscanini who shared with him sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences and ideals. Breg­stein’s doc­u­men­tary, which be­gan life way back in 1973 but has only now reached its fi­nal state, uses mem­o­rable wit­ness state­ments and what must be get­ting on for a thou­sand still and mov­ing im­ages from pre- and post-1914 Europe and Amer­ica to tell its re­mark­able story. Sadly, the DVD is avail­able only as part of a three-disc £70 boxed set. At a price nearly dou­ble that of Sony’s 20-CD Toscanini edi­tion, this is poor mar­ket­ing.

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