TOSCANINI CONDUCTS RICHARD STRAUSS. Don Quixote. Tod und Verklärung. Salome -- Dance of the Seven Veils. Ein Heldenleben. Don Juan. Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.
Emanuel Feuermann, cello; NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini.
Pristine Audio PASC 549 TT: 146:47 (2 CDs)
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Revelatory. In an age of legendary conductors, Toscanini dominated, especially in the United States, throwing such luminaries as Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Koussevitzky, Walter, and Stokowski into the shade. Critics, for example, rhapsodized that his Beethoven performances were like hearing them inside the composer's head. Having heard Toscanini, composer Richard Strauss, a great conductor himself, seriously considered abandoning that career. A few dissented. Mengelberg sneered at the Italian conductor as an "Italian organ grinder." Virgil Thomson sniffed at what he considered Toscanini's lack of intellectual curiosity, because the conductor ignored modern music and because Thomson felt the conductor took the same approach to every composer -- the Toscanini Treatment. An inevitable reaction set in. Those Toscanini had eclipsed became models for many of the younger generation of conductors. Now it seems that while he no longer is Conductor Jehovah, he remains an outstanding conductor among a pantheon.

Pristine, the label that cleans up "historical," crackle-pop, and constricted recordings and allows us to examine artists in a new light, has appeared with another Toscanini disc, this time in a program devoted to Richard Strauss's tone poems. Toscanini's insistence on textural clarity and rhythmic excitement as well as his concern for musical architecture would help Strauss's work, which has a tendency toward filigree on filigree in its inner voices and which seems almost to suffer from ADD as it switches from one mood to another.

For me, Don Quixote stands as Strauss's finest instrumental work, a marvel of fantasy and heart. Strauss conceived the work as a set of variations "on a theme of knightly character," with the main solos (Quixote, cello, and Sancho Panza, viola) played by the principals of the orchestra. Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on Epic/CBS/Sony, I must admit, remains my favorite recording of Don Quixote by far. I've had that recording since its first incarnation on an Epic LP. My favorite cellist, Pierre Fournier, took the part of Quixote, and Abraham Skernick, first violist of the Cleveland, played the part of Sancho. Even the liner notes, by composer Klaus George Roy, have become for me unattainable models of writing about music. Man, I loved that record.

At any rate, most orchestras (including the Cleveland) don't perform the work as Strauss intended. Star cellists, with a more limited repertoire than violinists and pianists, have appropriated the score, with star violists occasionally joining in. Here, we have Emanuel Feuermann, the finest cellist of his time (and I'm not forgetting Casals), in the principal part. The performance comes from 1938. I judge performances of the tone poem not by the descriptive parts (the fight with the windmill, the ride through the air, the battle against the sheep, the magic boat, and so on), since these almost always take care of themselves, but by the more reflective sections -- the introduction, the statement of the theme, the knight's vigil, and especially the finale, where Quixote comes to his senses and then dies.

So how does Toscanini do? His virtues are certainly there: sharp attacks, clear textures, an ever-forward impulse (so hard to achieve in Strauss). But it lacks poetry. In Szell's hands, the opening has a magical, "once-upon-a-time" quality and evokes the Spanish plains. With Toscanini, the notes are there, but not the intention behind them. Even such a sure-fire section as the scattering of the sheep suffers from a crude, literal fidelity. Szell evokes an impressionist painting of sheep in a meadow, Toscanini a pantomime farce of actors playing at sheep. The reading seems to suffer from a lack of deep thought and dramatic concern. The end of the unfortunate incident with the magic boat, where the Don emerges angry and dripping wet passes without distinction. Even Feuermann seems subdued. The only section where the score comes to life occurs at the very end, where Quixote regains his sanity and dies. Toscanini allows the nobility of the sane man to shine through.

I've regarded Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) as a compendium of 19th-century claptrap, plus a genius theme. Four major sections comprise it: man on deathbed; man recalling his struggles; man reviewing his entire life; death and transfiguration. The opening depicts a heart beating irregularly. It's a pet peeve of mine, but most conductors produce the wrong irregular rhythm, not nearly as subtle as what Strauss wrote, and Toscanini is no exception. However, aside from this, Toscanini wipes the self-indulgent gush from the score and reveals it as a very well-made piece indeed, as he emphasizes motific development throughout the work. There's an admirable forward impulse, and again all is rhythmically sharp and texturally clear -- a highlight of this set.

Unlike the case of Wagner, the "bleeding chunks" taken from Strauss's operas always seem to lose most of their effectiveness outside their context, a misfortune not avoided by the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome. Nevertheless, Toscanini delivers a steamy, urgent performance. We not only see Salome's wrigglings and writhings, but feel the power of Herod's lust.

Written concurrently with Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) stands as one of Strauss's most opulent and complex instrumental scores, as well as perhaps his most controversial. Beethoven's Eroica Symphony inspired it, especially its use of French horns, but whereas Beethoven celebrates an heroic type, it's pretty clear that Strauss's hero is himself -- an heroic artist struggling against an uncomprehending world (never mind the fact that he made a ton of money from his work). Since the premiere and down to the present, critics have excoriated Strauss as an egomaniac on the basis of this work. However, they miss the considerable wit, which sometimes the composer directs against himself. It really is over-the-top fun.

Some see the score as a gargantuan sonata-allegro with three thematic groups (one more than the usual two) in six movements: "The Hero," "The Hero's Adversaries," "The Hero's Companion," "The Hero's Battlefield," "The Hero's Works of Peace," "The Hero's Retreat from the World and Consummation." The first three movements represent the exposition of each group, the next two development, and the last the recapitulation. Except for a written-in "grand pause" at the end of the first movement, the movements follow one another without a break.

I argue against trying to bring Strauss into the classical fold like this. He did write sonatas, but they don't constitute his best works. Sonata always seemed to confine him. If Heldenleben is a sonata-allegro, it's grotesquely misshapen -- a huge exposition, skimpy development, and no real recapitulation. Strauss's musical imagination was, as noted before, pictorial, dramatic, and literary rather than abstractly architectural. The thread of his music is primarily story-telling.
Strauss wrote this piece for an orchestral Rolls-Royce. Half of a listener's joy comes from listening to a virtuoso conductor and orchestra cruise through it. The sounds are both glorious and cleverly imaginative. My years with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago as my front-runner gave way to Dohnányi and the Cleveland and Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic. Dohnányi' s reading has more character than Reiner's, while Beecham's has the most of the three. Beecham falls down in precision, however. Toscanini's, if not at this level (and you can argue that it is -- a live performance, at that), comes mighty, mighty close. It suffers mainly from its monaural sound, despite the miracles performed by Pristine. Ein Heldenleben is almost a guilty pleasure. You want the whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles of voluptuous sound.

However, Toscanini begins strongly, not only delivering Strauss's textures clearly, but with a terrific forward drive to the whole. Passages which in other hands seem to be merely "one note after another" appear in long, coherent paragraphs. From the first movement alone (and, again, this is a live performance), you understand Strauss's admiration for this conductor. It very likely sounded better to him than in his head.

In "Adversaries," a scherzo movement, critics swarm like annoying gnats around the hero's head. We hear not only Wagner's Beckmesser motive from Meistersinger but the hero's theme in melodramatic minor, one instance of the composer's self-mocking in this piece. For all of Strauss's work in fashioning ties to conventional musical development, this makes you realize that his primary impulse is narrative and dramatic, even pictorial. Opera suited his talent more than "abstract" music. Strauss seemed too crimped by "pure" music, although he produced very attractive works and at least two masterpieces of this type. Toscanini, a superb opera conductor, realizes Strauss's plot and characters. The critical plague gets counterpoint, modern even by today's standards, that must have raised eyebrows past the ears back in the day, and again the virtuosic clarity of Toscanini's orchestra comes through. Toscanini also captures the melodramatic self-pity of the hero.

The hero briefly rouses himself from his funk, and we immediately find ourselves before his "Companion," Strauss's portrait of his wife Pauline. Pauline was an opera diva, with all the temperamental baggage. Strauss's portrait of her is tenderly at odds with all contemporary testimony. The movement, perhaps the most difficult in the score to keep together, is mostly a violin recitative with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral aria, a nod to her career. Most people considered Pauline an overbearing shrew, given to emotional explosions and wondered why Strauss didn't flee. It was, in any case, a strange marriage. Strauss even proposed to her during a rehearsal where she had blown her top in front of his orchestra and singers. He took her forcibly to her dressing room, from which they emerged engaged. He told several friends, "She's what I need, you know."

Not coincidentally the longest movement in the score, it strikes me as the most difficult to present coherently. As a very long recitative, it starts and stops several time, breaking the movement into pieces. Further, Strauss portrayed a person in constant emotional change, someone who was "never the same way twice." For me, most Heldenlebens break down here. The companion, vivacious and energetic, gets interrupted by morose moans dominated by the low winds, perhaps the hero in low spirits. However, as the movement progresses, the music pulls itself together into a super-love song worthy of Wagner. Toscanini keeps the music moving through the recitative section and the orchestra sings gloriously in the aria.

Shortly before the end, we hear the distant buzzing of the adversaries, so it's one last kiss before the hero goes into battle. Dramatically, the hero contends with his critics in a nearly equal match but prevails. At first, we hear offstage brass and fanfares, which signal the approach of the enemy. A solo trumpet sounds the military version of one of the "critic" motives, accompanied by heavy percussion -- still a very modern sound -- with the hero's theme softly in the strings. The hero slowly gathers strength, and suddenly his theme gloriously bursts forth in a very close repeat of its appearance in the work's opening measures. All the critics' music disappears in a poof, except for a dismally weak echo of the "Beckmesser" idea toward the end, like a toad that's been stepped on. A final point of interest: a "triumph" motive from Don Quixote receives extensive quotation.

However, the "Hero's Works of Peace" movement quotes even more Strauss and thus links the score's hero more closely to the composer. A beautiful elegiac fantasia, "Peace" dips into Tod und Verklärung, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Also sprach Zarathustra, and other Strauss scores. He spends most time on Guntram, his first opera and a flopperoo, which he retained an affection for all his life, even revising it in 1940 in an unsuccessful attempt to foster more performances.

For the final section, the adversaries again return (the "Beckmesser" motive), but they quickly dissipate and give way to a pastoral episode signaled by the English horn in an echo of the "Morning" section of Rossini's William Tell overture. A descending triad, originally found in the "Peace" movement, becomes a full-fledged theme, noble and striving. However, the adversaries, a persistent buzz-kill, come back one last time (battlefield motives) and again quickly vanish. The solo violin, the instrument associated with the Companion, returns and leads to the return of the aspirational music, interwoven with the solo violin. Perhaps it is Strauss's version of das Ewig-weibliche, drawing the Hero ever higher. The Hero's theme, grand in a brass chorale, ends the work on a sturdy E-flat major chord. Toscanini's handling of the noble theme is absolutely glorious, and again he manages to make sense of a rather sectional movement. This is undoubtedly the finest performance on the program and one of the great Heldenlebens.

Curiously, the figures of both Don Juan and Faust generally receive different treatment in Catholic and Protestant countries. Mozart's Don Giovanni is a womanizer who winds up in Hell. Gounod's Faust is an old man lusting after a young girl. Both are sinners, pure and simple, and get what's coming to them. However, in Germany, for example, both figures are regarded as seekers after knowledge -- Don Juan wants to meet the ideal woman and know an ideal love and Faust wants to perfect his soul. Strauss skips Mozart and da Ponte and bases his tone poem on a poetic drama, Don Juans Ende, by the Romantic poet Nikolas Lenau, in which Juan's search for the ideal leads to his despair and death.

Strauss's score opens spectacularly with music to watch Errol Flynn by, all thrill, buckle, and swash. It alternates with tender or melancholy episodes (presumably the Don's courtship and disillusionment). After the second such episode, a genius horn call sounds, perhaps representing the Don's aspirations toward the ideal. The Errol Flynn music returns against statements of the horn call. But the energy collapses. The horn call gets a despondent variation. The thrill music comes back, with a full orchestral climax on the aspiration theme. Again, the excitement passes, and the music plunges into black despair for the conclusion. The precision of orchestral attacks provide most of the excitement in this performance, very similar to Szell's. But the trick of this piece for me is getting interest into the quiet movements, so you're not twiddling your thumbs until the next exciting leap from the balcony. Toscanini does well, but not as well as Szell and the Cleveland.

Great humor in music runs rather rare on the ground. Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Papageno's music from The Magic Flute, certain Haydn piano sonatas and string quartets, Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream overture, Poulenc's Le bal masque, and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) and Don Quixote spring readily to mind. Till is based on stories about a legendary trickster from the German medieval period, who basically blew up establishment prejudices and pretensions with his foolery. Strauss structured his score as a sort-of rondo -- a repeating theme alternating with differing "episodes." Again, the primary impulse is narrative, rather than architecture. The work begins with a once-upon-a-time introduction (a family resemblance to the opening of Quixote), with a descending theme that foreshadows Eulenspiegel's mocking laughter. Immediately afterwards, we hear Eulenspiegel's main theme on the horn, tipsy and off-center. The man is somehow skewed. After the theme gets passed around different instruments, we hear Eulenspiegel's laughter in its full form from the clarinet. The various episodes consist of Eulenspiegel's mischief among burghers at a market, the clergy, pretty girls, and academicians. We finally come to an extended passage on the principal theme, which becomes ever more manic, until it abruptly cuts off. Eulenspiegel is caught and sentenced to hang. The scene that follows graphically depicts the execution as Eulenspiegel tries unsuccessfully to talk his way out. The hangman's heart is hardened and Eulenspiegel drops through the trap in mid-wheedle, his neck snapped. But Eulenspiegel's anarchic spirit survives. "Once upon a time" returns, as does the Eulenspiegel theme, ending on a triumphant Eulenspiegel laugh.

Toscanini's reading, while precise and rhythmically impulsive, nevertheless comes across as broad and rough. The dramatic details of the execution, normally sure-fire, become blurry and rushed-over, which truly surprised me, given Toscanini's opera background. Again, I prefer Szell and Dohnányi with the Cleveland.

Postwar, Toscanini never really had the reputation of a Strauss conductor. His reputation survived as an interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi. However, these discs show that Strauss, no slouch, was right to worry as a conductor of his own work. When Toscanini focused, he became as distinguished a Straussian as anybody. Again, Pristine has not only cleaned up the Schmutz from the original masters but provided a surprisingly spacious, rounded sound for the notoriously dry Studio 8H at NBC.

S.G.S. (June 2019)