TOSCANINI The 1939 Beethoven Cycle, Volume 6 (1939) - PASC557

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TOSCANINI The 1939 Beethoven Cycle, Volume 6 (1939) - PASC557

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BEETHOVEN Choral Fantasy
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 'Choral'

Live broadcast recording, 1939
Total duration: 79:46

Ania Dorfmann, piano
Jarmila Novotna, soprano
Kerstin Thorborg, alto
Jan Peerce, tenor
Nicola Moscona, bass

The Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra  

conducted by Arturo Toscanini

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On 2 December 1939, Arturo Toscanini took to the podium at Carnegie Hall, New York, with his NBC Symphony Orchestra to complete what would prove to have been a unique series of six concerts: his only recorded Beethoven integral symphony cycle. Over six weekly concert broadcasts Toscanini had conducted all nine symphonies, roughly in order, together with various overtures, excerpts and other works - perhaps most interestingly the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80. This was coupled with the Ninth "Choral" Symphony in this special broadcast live from Carnegie Hall (the other concerts took place in his more usual radio studio venue), and constitutes the only recorded example of him conducting this work ever. Mortimer H. Frank suggests that Toscanini considered conducting the work again in 1952 in London but dropped the idea - he also suggests this may have been the only time Toscanini ever conducted the Choral Fantasy.

As with our recent issues of Toscanini conducting Russian music (PASC548) and the music of Richard Strauss (PASC549), I have been able to access source recordings of unprecedented quality, taken from acetate discs recorded directly by NBC and almost certainly not played since. For optimal sound quality this is crucial - the delicate surfaces of these discs are prone to immediate deterioration when played, especially when the weighty pick-ups in common use in the 1940s were used, resulting in distortion, higher background noise, and potential loss of high frequencies and other details. Previous issues have relied on Toscanini's own copies, discs which have seen considerable wear and use over the years.

The use of these new source discs translates directly into remarkable audio quality, with quiet backgrounds and a particularly wide frequency range - and sound quality that would have been considered excellent on a hi-fi era LP record from twenty or more years later. The use of the latest audio restoration technology brings with it rock-solid pitching, excellent tonal balance, and a clean, clear sound quality throughout. As with previous releases there were some speed (and thus pitch) differences between disc sides, as well as a degree of wow and flutter, though in the case of this volume neither was as extreme as seen on previous volumes.

Of the six volumes if there is to be heard a dip in sound quality, from the superb to the merely great, it is perhaps here with the final volume. Although once again our discs were in incredibly good condition, they lack the finest edge of quality heard in the studio recordings which preceded the Carnegie Hall concert. A part of this may be down to acoustics. We might also consider the sub-optimal recording conditions by comparison to a dedicated studio with carefully tailored microphones and equipment. A third possibility is that our discs may have been cut at NBC's headquarters having passed down a long analogue line from the concert hall venue and lost a degree of fidelity as a result. I'm prepared to believe all three of these may have played a part.

Nevertheless there is still remarkable sound quality to he heard here - it is in truly excellent shape for an 80-year-old recording, and offers superb fidelity for its 1939 vintage; only up against the previous five volumes might it be held to be anything less than ideal. If I was to give the previous volumes five stars for sound quality then I suggest this would merit four and a half.

A certain amount of gain-riding was clearly being used by the NBC engineers - no great surprise here given the forces involved. In its most blatant and unfortunate application I've endeavoured to correct this, though any correction can only be a mixture of experience, a careful reading of the surrounding musical sections, and an element of educated guesswork.

Each of the concert broadcasts ran for longer than was usual, and it has been necessary to trim some of the commentary from these recordings in order to fit each one onto a single CD release without cutting any of the music. The amount of speech editing has varied from release to release, but the intention is to preserve as much as possible the occasion as heard some 80 years ago - this is, we believe, the first time they have been presented as broadcast in this manner. This final volume came particularly close to requiring a second disc, but by keeping the commentary to a minimal back-announcement at the end of each work and trimming the amount of applause I have been able to keep everything within the bounds of a single disc - helped in no great amount by Toscanini's often brisk tempi!

BEETHOVEN  Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80
1. Adagio  (2:57)
2. Finale. Allegro  (5:44)
3. Adagio ma non troppo  (1:57)
4. Marcia assai vivace  (1:59)
5. Allegretto ma non troppo quasi andante con moto  (2:06)
6. Presto  (2:10)
Ania Dorfmann, piano

BEETHOVEN  Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral"
7. 1st mvt. - Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso  (12:36)
8. 2nd mvt. - Scherzo. Molto vivace - Presto  (12:42)
9. 3rd mvt. - Adagio molto e cantabile  (13:00)
10. 4th mvt. - Presto - Allegro assai  (24:35)
Jarmila Novotna, soprano
Kerstin Thorborg, alto
Jan Peerce, tenor
Nicola Moscona, bass

The Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra   

conducted by Arturo Toscanini

XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Toscanini

Broadcast of 2 December, 1939, Carnegie Hall, New York

Total duration:  79:46    

Toscanini Directs Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia and Ninth Symphony With the NBC Orchestra


Mr. Toscanini accomplished two more of his marvels when he led the NBC Symphony Orchestra last night in Carnegie Hall in performances of Beethoven's Choral Fantasia and Ninth symphony, for the benefit of the New York Junior League Welfare Fund. The thrilling effect of the Ninth symphony was anticipated, especially by those who had heard Mr. Toscanini direct the same work with the same orchestra two seasons ago in the same hall. What had not been anticipated was the astonishing vitality and significance which he conferred upon the Choral Fantasia.

That work, scored for piano, orchestra and chorus, in a curious form which wavers between classic design and contents that anticipate, thematically as also, in a degree, structurally, the last Beethoven symphony, is usually hailed as a historic curiosity, or billed as a piece which hires a pianist as well as a chorus and a symphony orchestra to give the audience the worth of its money. And there may have been those present last night who were attracted by the array of talent involved—Miss Anita Dorfmann, pianist, and the hosts of the Westminster Choir, to augment the orchestral scheme.

The thing that happened and which in happening conveyed, as Mr. Toscanini is apt to do, the sense of sheer wonder was the rebirth of this relatively early Beethoven music, so that the audience was for the nonce a gathering in 1808, hearing for the first time this new and fascinating music. Every element in the score took its place as part of one thought and design. Every idea glowed with life and beauty. The passage work and the flourishes of the piano were just as germane to the musical scheme as anything done by the singers or gentlemen of the orchestra. Miss Dorfmann played admirably in the style of the period and in perfect taste. This also held for the chorus and the orchestra. Each element was merged in the conception of a single despotic spirit—that of Toscanini—and, together with Toscanini, glorified Beethoven.

We had heard no such performance of the Choral Fantasia, had never before perceived the music in its real light, nor had we attached very much importance to it anyhow. Well, it was shown again that Beethoven was seldom unimportant; that, like other composers, even great masters, he needs constantly the insight and the passion of a worthy interpreter.

The Ninth symphony, given with the assisting quartet of Jarmila Novotna, Kerstin Thorborg, Jan Peerce and Nicola Moscona, was of course the capstone of the occasion, and for everyone involved a towering experience. It is extremely possible that when a performance of such music, as great as the previous one that Mr. Toscanini had given in the same hall, is repeated, its significance is more fully grasped by the listener. It may also be the case that Mr. Toscanini, who never, whatever he attains, stands still as an artist, sculptured more mightily than ever before the shape of the great tone-poem. The result appeared as a further evolution on the part of an artist whose intuition and faith bring him always nearer the very center of Beethoven’s thought. Certainly the last movement surpassed anything the conductor had previously done with the passage. For its ecstasy was cosmic. There was a scene of wild enthusiasm following this performance.

New York Times, 3 December 1939