by Walter Simmons
ARTURO TOSCANINI: ALL-AMERICAN • Arturo Toscanini, cond; NBC SO; Earl Wild, Oscar Levant (pn) • GUILD GHCD-2256/7 (www.guildmusic.com), mono (2 CDs: 1:47:08)
LOEFFLER Memories of My Childhood, “Life in a Russian Village.” CRESTON Choric Dance No. 2. GOULD A Lincoln Legend. GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue(Live performances: 11/1/42)
MIGNONE Festa das Igresas. GERSHWIN Piano Concerto in F (Live performances: 4/2/44)
This recent reissue makes available two of Toscanini’s broadcast concerts with the NBC Symphony that documented the maestro’s attention to American music, which was notoriously limited, in comparison with that of such conductors as Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, Eugene Ormandy, and others. The release is likely to hold considerably more interest for Toscanini specialists and collectors of historical performances than for American music aficionados, even though the pieces by Gould and Mignone are not otherwise available. This is partly because those two pieces are of limited artistic value, and partly because the sound quality of much of the material, as captured here, significantly compromises whatever interest is generated by the music and the performances.
It doesn’t require a prophet to suppose that the Gershwin performances are the chief draw here. The Rhapsody in Blue features not only the 27-year-old Earl Wild, but also boasts Benny Goodman in the all-important clarinet solos, one of which is marred by a most indiscreet squeak. From my standpoint—and I should confess here to being one of the few music-lovers who is not an admirer of this repertoire favorite—this grim, tight-lipped reading holds only documentary historical interest, imparting little or nothing in the way of interpretive insight. On the other hand, Oscar Levant’s similarly taut rendition of the Concerto in F—the only work of Gershwin’s for which I can generate any enthusiasm—is far more effective. By 1944, Levant virtually owned this work, and the interpretation is clearly as much—or more—his as Toscanini’s. It is brilliantly executed—sizzling with energy, while not lacking either tenderness or flexibility of phrasing. The sound quality is quite tolerable here as well. (Should there be Toscanini fans out there who are unacquainted with Oscar Levant [1906-1972], let me summarize: A brilliant pianist and composer, he had been closely associated with Gershwin and was regarded as his most authoritative interpreter. However, his career—which at its height embraced the worlds of both Carnegie Hall and Hollywood—was cut short by serious psychiatric illness on which he then capitalized, creating a media persona as a shamelessly self-mocking raconteur. “There is a fine line between genius and insanity,” he said. “I have erased that line.”)
Beyond the Gershwin pieces, the repertoire here will strike the mainstream listener as little more than historical footnotes, but enthusiasts of the esoteric may find something worthy of raising an eyebrow or two. Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was better known during his lifetime than he is today. Born in Alsace-Lorraine, he came to the United States at the age of 20. A fine violinist who had studied with Joachim, he earned his living as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, remaining an active and respected figure in Boston’s musical life. An aristocratic and highly cultivated individual, he regarded composition as his primary occupation, and his works—largely impressionistic in style—were held in high esteem by his contemporaries. He produced some of the finest music written in America at the turn of the 20th century. As a child Loeffler had lived for three years in the Ukraine. In 1924 he composed the tone poem, Memories of My Childhood, which he subtitled, “Life in a Russian Village.” It is an appealing work, alternately solemn and playful, that leavens its impressionistic harmonic textures with the modal chorale style associated with Russian liturgical music. Alternate recorded performances include a 1936 New York Philharmonic broadcast conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (available on Volume I of An American Celebration) and a 1954 Mercury LP (MG 50085) with Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. The former, of course, suffers from similarly compromised sound quality, while the latter—preferable for its superior sound—has never been re-issued on CD.
A work of similar aesthetic import is Festa das Igrejas (translated here as “Symphonic Impressions of Four Old Brazilian Churches”), by the Brazilian composer Francesco Mignone (1897-1986). This is a picturesque if blandly innocuous composition in a Respighian vein, accented by a strongly folklike melos. Its representation here is somewhat disadvantageous, as the murky sound quality vitiates the element of orchestral color, which is its strongest aspect.
Near the end of his life Paul Creston identified Toscanini’s performance of his Choric Dance No. 2 as one of the peak moments of his career. However, from the standpoint of a CD listener, this veiled and murky representation of the five-minute excerpt is of questionable interest and value. Among the composer’s most appealing and frequently performed works, Two Choric Dances (1938) is overdue for a modern recording. Although other recorded performances have floated around the periphery, the most effective was on an all-American Capitol LP (P-8245) featuring Vladimir Golschmann conducting the Concert Arts Orchestra—a recording that has never been reissued on CD. Given the 1950s recorded sound, a comparison of that performance with Toscanini’s favors the former on every dimension.
Admirers of Morton Gould may find this release noteworthy for the only recorded representation of A Lincoln Legend. Like its natural musical analogue, Copland’sLincoln Portrait, Gould’s 16-minute symphonic impression was composed during World War II, when patriotic concerns were in the air. Gould’s piece was actually completed before Copland’s, although its premiere, captured here, took place several months after that of the other. A comparison of the two works provides ample evidence for the perennial popularity of the one, as opposed to the total obscurity of the other. Putting aside the matter of the spoken component unique to the Copland, both works attempt to integrate American tunes and quasi-Americana phraseology into some sort of symphonic entity. But while Copland devised for his nationally-flavored works a modestly spare musical language that served as an apt medium for the often simple melodic material, Gould typically subjected such material—sometimes ditties of unredeemable banality (as in this piece, “The Old Gray Mare”)—to drastically incongruous contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic complexities. During the less active moments, the piece meanders aimlessly through terrain charted by Roy Harris. At one time Copland’s Americana vein was characterized as “synthetic” by less sympathetic commentators, but the passage of time has confirmed his magic touch with such material, while Gould’s approach seems to embody that characterization ever more keenly.
I must conclude by stating that this reissue gives little evidence of Toscanini’s undeniable genius as a musical interpreter having been engaged by these two programs (although I can readily call to mind some American works for which his gifts, alas, might have been ideally suited). Recommended chiefly to historically-oriented collectors.