What sort of a man was Arturo Toscanini? After watching "Toscanini: The Maestro" on "Great Performances" tonight (at 9 on Channel 22 and at 10 on Channel 26), you may end up wondering whether he was merely human.
At the beginning, Metropolitan Opera artistic director James Levine looks you right in the eye and says matter-of-factly: "Toscanini was the most consistently great conductor of our century." At the end, one of the orchestral musicians who played for Toscanini sums him up: "He wasn't conducting an orchestra, he was doing a Sermon on the Mount every time he took that stick in his hand."
About midway through this documentary, a violinist with the NBC Symphony deifies Toscanini: "Maestro was the only man who made you play better than you thought you're able to do. That is a gift that is given only to divine characters, and in that respect, he was divinity."
They are talking about a man who once stalked over to a mezzo-soprano in midrehearsal, hefted her ample breasts in his hands and lamented loudly, for the whole orchestra to hear: "If only your brains were so big." A man who regularly cursed his orchestra with threats of impotence and foul diseases. A man who would call a singer a "star" only if he could be the sun because "when the sun comes out, you don't see the stars." They are also talking about one of the most carefully constructed public relations personae in the history of the performing arts.
Any statement that can be made about Toscanini is incomplete, oversimplified. Tonight's documentary, hosted by Levine and narrated by the late Alexander Scourby, is less incomplete than was customary in the maestro's lifetime, when anything short of adoration was considered heretical and possibly evidence of Nazi sympathies. The tone is still reverent, but the show does bring out points that used to be glossed over.
It frankly discusses the affair with soprano Geraldine Farrar, after which Toscanini felt he could no longer work in New York. But it does not indicate that l'affaire Farrar was merely one of many. The show includes some rare audio footage that shows Toscanini having a temper tantrum (in Italian) that would register around 12 on the Richter scale. And it quotes one of his orchestra members: "I dare say that no conductor today can carry on the way he did with the musicians. He was a tough guy." But then the musician adds, "As far as I was concerned, I forgave him his behavior because ... he was tough on himself, too."
The image of the suffering Toscanini, the never-satisfied perfectionist, is a recurring theme. And the frank, often justified admiration of fellow musicians is well displayed. "That baton was a Stradivarius," says a violist who used to play for him. Also featured is the theme of Toscanini as an artist entirely, in Levine's words, "at the service of the composer and the music." Much is made of his objectivity, his fidelity to the composer's wishes, but the admission is quietly slipped in that "he occasionally made changes in scores in order to realize the composer's intentions better." The implication that, for example, Toscanini knew better than Beethoven how the third movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony should go is mind-numbing. But at least the show notes that this fabled purist did tamper with scores.
More than 30 years after his death, some of Toscanini's idolaters are beginning to realize that he was not the only great conductor of his time: The spectrum ranged from Stokowski to Furtwa ngler, and the use of superlatives like "greatest" is reckless when discussing such an array. A healthy corrective, recommended to all impressed by this show, is Joseph Horowitz's recent book "Understanding Toscanini," where the myth-making process in Toscanini's life is carefully scrutinized and "guaranteed febrile excitement" is cited as the prime quality of his "compressed, vehement, all-purpose style."
Music heard on the program includes snippets from the First Symphony of Brahms, "Aida," the Overture to "La Forza del Destino," and Verdi's "Hymn of the Nations," plus all of "The Ride of the Valkyries" and the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Video Arts International sells, in Beta and VHS, a 74-minute version of this 90-minute show, minus the Beethoven and the "Valkyries" but including the complete "Hymn of the Nations" -- a sort of anthology of national anthems to which Toscanini the purist added those of the United States and the Soviet Union.