Toscanini On TV: Maestro to The Masses

Arturo Toscanini, in an undated photo, watches himself conduct in the 1944 film
Arturo Toscanini, in an undated photo, watches himself conduct in the 1944 film "Hymn of the Nations." (By Herbert Gehr -- Time Life Pictures/getty Images)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

In 1948, only one in 10 Americans had ever seen a television. There were no more than 350,000 sets in the entire country, and more than half of those were in the New York area. Still, a good deal of television history was made in 1948, even if there weren't yet many people watching. A venerable stand-up comic named Milton Berle, whose career dated back to the silent-film era, appeared on "Texaco Star Theater" and soon became a phenomenon. "The Toast of the Town," a new program hosted by a newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan, brought the vaudeville experience to television, with brilliant success. And the National Broadcasting Co. began a series of live telecasts featuring Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) and his own NBC Symphony.

The conductor was already in his eighties when the series began, but he appeared in 10 programs, most about an hour long, between 1948 and 1954, the year that he retired and the orchestra was summarily disbanded. This was the first major attempt to bring symphonic music to television; the Leonard Bernstein "Young People's Concerts" began in the late '50s. Now virtually all of Toscanini's television work has been reissued on five DVDs by the enterprising Testament label, and it provides a terrific answer to that perpetual question: "What is it that a conductor does, exactly?"

Toscanini was unquestionably the most celebrated conductor of his time; many listeners thought him also the greatest. His bristling energy, his sense of propulsion and his ability to exact clear, precise playing from an orchestra all contributed to a career without parallel -- one that lasted 68 years. "Whatever you may think about Toscanini's interpretation of a specific work," the Cleveland Orchestra's George Szell once noted, "that he changed the whole concept of conducting, and that he rectified many, many arbitrary procedures of a generation of conductors before him, is now authentic history."

History, to be sure: Toscanini knew Giuseppe Verdi personally and played cello in the world premiere of "Otello" at La Scala in 1887. He conducted the first performance of Puccini's "La Boheme," in 1896, and lived to record the opera half a century later. He led the premieres of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. And Toscanini's weekly radio broadcasts, which began in 1937 with the orchestra that NBC created for him, introduced classical music to a huge new audience. Leopold Stokowski, the only conductor in America who could rival him for influence and charisma, had long since turned his attention toward Hollywood with such films as "Fantasia" and "100 Men and a Girl." It seemed imperative, then, to capture some visual representation of the art of Toscanini.

The circumstances under which these programs were made were hardly ideal. Walfredo Toscanini, the conductor's grandson, later recalled that the extremely bright lights required caused the old man a good deal of suffering. (Some members of the orchestra wore dark glasses.) But roughly 11 hours of Toscanini's conducting were preserved. The DVDs include performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth symphonies; Brahms's First Symphony, Double Concerto and selected shorter works; Mozart's 40th Symphony; two Wagner programs; Respighi's "Pines of Rome"; and music by Dvorak, Weber, Rossini, Franck, Sibelius and Debussy. There is also a complete concert rendition of Verdi's "Aida," with Richard Tucker, Herva Nelli and Giuseppe Valdengo.

Watching Toscanini at work is an electric and somewhat unnerving experience. At the beginning of each black-and-white telecast, he walks briskly to the podium, and seems acutely embarrassed by the enthusiastic applause from the studio audience. After a curt acknowledgment, he is all business -- and very serious business at that, even when he is conducting Rossini. His eyes dart back and forth over the musicians incessantly, and are quick to flash disapproval if anything begins to go awry. There is never any doubt about the beat, or about the desired interpretation of a given phrase. The players respond reflexively to his demands; the strings slice in elegant motion, and the most minute signal to quiet or slow down is instantly obeyed.

Toscanini is undeniably dynamic and inspirational. He is also more than a little frightening. His presence emanates a coiled, ferocious tension, and I defy any viewer who has ever played or sung under any conductor to watch these performances without a certain anxiety. One has the sense that the price of the NBC Symphony's legendary unanimity was high, and there is a greater emphasis placed on taut, nervous energy than openhearted lyricism in the playing.

Still, I would not want to be without this dark, lithe performance of Sibelius's "En Saga," or the wonderfully evocative musical landscapes of Wagner's "Forest Murmurs." Toscanini's interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth was legendary: Some critics have found it too propulsive and goal-oriented, but it now seems a prefiguration of the headlong performances favored by a later generation of musician-scholars such as Roger Norrington.

The films dispel some of the received wisdom about Toscanini. He may have seemed a literalist compared with such subjective and self-indulgent (if often marvelously original) conductors as Willem Mengelberg. But nobody as slavishly devoted to textual fidelity as Toscanini supposedly was would ever have let more than one cello at a time play the wrenchingly poignant solo that starts the "William Tell" Overture. Detractors sometimes charged that Toscanini played everything too quickly, but his rendition here of the "Prelude and Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" is spacious, ruminative and altogether haunting.

The televised "Aida" leaves an odd impression, as many listeners will know this same performance from the RCA Victor audio recording that has been available for half a century. Listening to the recording alone, one can imagine Richard Tucker as the noble warrior Rhadames, Herva Nelli as lost, luscious, homesick Aida, and a wide expanse of sand and pyramids surrounding the action. On television, we are confronted with grainy images of middle-aged, well-fed, decidedly non-heroic-looking performers all dressed in some of the dowdiest fashions of a dowdy era.

Much of the singing is good (although there will always be debate on the merits of Nelli's Aida, and even more, perhaps, on Eva Gustavson's Amneris), but Toscanini himself rarely puts in an appearance. We see him mostly from behind, a constant frustration as his interpretation is the most compelling thing about this "Aida."

The producers, after all, were only just learning how to televise the performance of live music. A very few cameras were used, and they often seem to be pointing just where we don't want them to point -- at a seemingly randomly selected section of the orchestra while a solo is being played on the other side of the stage, for example, or at Toscanini from the shoulders up, eclipsing whatever wonders he was working with his baton.

I wish that Testament had preserved the original announcements, by the late Ben Grauer. Instead, we have prefaces recorded in the mid-'80s by Martin Bookspan, the longtime radio "voice of the New York Philharmonic," when these performances were telecast for the first time in more than 30 years. These are perfectly acceptable, of course -- Bookspan is a seasoned pro -- but some of the "you are there!" time-capsule quality that pervades the rest of the presentation is necessarily diminished.

And yet one is grateful that the best-sounding aural recordings of these performances are used, from tape recordings made at the time that were surely of greater fidelity than what audiences heard in their living rooms.

In all, "Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra: The Television Concerts -- 1948-1952" is one of the most exciting and revelatory releases of the year. After watching these precious souvenirs of a master musician, you may be tempted to join the ghostly crowd at Carnegie Hall and shout a tardy "Bravo!"

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