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.