WAGNER: Orchestral excerpts.  Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries. Siegfried: Forest Murmurs. Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfriedís Rhine Journey; Siegfried's Death and Funeral March. Siegfried Idyll. Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act III: Prelude. Parsifal: Act I: Prelude; Good Friday Music. Lohengrin: Act I: Prelude; Act III: Prelude. Tannhäuser: Overture and Bacchanale.
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini

RCA Red Seal  59482  (2 CDs, Mono, A.D.D.) TT: 143:19. 

RCA's new issue gives us a fresh opportunity to consider Toscanini's Wagner, at least through the orchestral excerpts—I suppose the Walküre duet with Melchior and Traubel will turn up in a subsequent issue.

Toscanini applied the same musical insights and techniques to Wagner as he did to Verdi and Beethoven, techniques patently at odds with the customary "Germanic" approach of Fürtwängler and his disciples (and would-be disciples!). Where the German school plays the music for brooding weight and grandeur, Toscanini emphasizes its line and driving thrust; where the Germans evoke a spacious, brooding mystery, Toscanini's tempi foster a natural, singing flow. Performances are thoroughly compelling, shaped as they are with musicality and unerring assurance; still there lurks the question, is it Wagner? (A residual ethnic prejudice perhaps inheres in the question; the Czech George Szell and the Hungarian Georg Solti, after all, gave Wagner performances strikingly similar to these, without their credentials being questioned.)

Thus, the initial wind attack of Siegfried's Death is a fierce stab—though it immediately melts into a long, arching line—and the woodwind figures over the horns are unusually marked. The explosive brass chords in the Funeral Music are noticeably sharp-edged and dry; the "Valhalla" fanfare near the conclusion has plenty of breadth, but some will find a lack of sheer mass. In the Meistersinger excerpt, the vibrant, finely drawn celli and the bronzen authority of the horns produce a performance that is sinuously lyrical, then proclamatory, rather than introspective.

Even where Toscanini's conducting displays the approved Germanic qualities, the music often sounds (and feels) completely different. Take  Forest Murmurs: the opening is darkly colored—inevitably so, given Wagner's scoring—but the instrumental lines project with a bright edge, undoubtedly Toscanini's way of giving them his characteristic sharp definition. The horn choir is focused and sufficiently round, but the timbre is narrower, the sound less weighted, than the "traditional" Anglo-German sound. The bubbly flute and clarinet soli, and later the staccato triplets, evoke nature, but also push the music forward (without necessarily increasing the tempo), culminating in crisp final cadences. It's certainly convincing as you hear it, but it dispenses with the metaphysics (as well as the associated pretensions, which is probably all to the good).

There are, of course, many wonderful things, from any standpoint. Toscanini molds his clean, straightforward Lohengrin Act I Prelude with carefully graded dynamics; the consistent speed gives the effect, not of rushing, but of exceptional concision. The vibrant violins shape their line at the start of the Rhine Journey with a firm pulse, and the piece can only benefit from the conductor's assured pinpoint transitions between lyrical passages and tautly driving ones. In the Parsifal Prelude, his feeling for harmonic tension creates a fluid expressivity and mystery. The Lohengrin Act III Prelude and the Ride of the Valkyries have a nice tensile strength.

The Siegfried Idyll remains one of my favorites, though the forthright opening produces little lullaby feeling, and sometimes the reeds seem too "present." The second,¾ theme, though held in tempo, is plastically shaped; the violin's downward plunge is dazzlingly clear; the horn and clarinet are woodsy and nostalgic. Toscanini shapes the marked accents at the climax to avoid the bandmasterish effect of such similarly febrile conductors as Paray (Mercury).

The Tristan excerpts leave me with mixed feelings. There's plenty of breadth and a nice sense of suspension in the purposefully shaped opening; the theme develops with a nice interplay between horn and strings, while the answering woodwind phrase truly yearns. The clarinet introducing the Liebestod arises quietly from the depths; the masterful dynamic control with which the line steadily builds conjures up ecstasy—and then the climax arrives with a thwack rather than an expansive cushion.

The monaural sonics are fairly dry, which shouldn't surprise anyone; fortunately, most of these recordings, excepting the Meistersinger and Tannhäuser selections, originated from Carnegie Hall, not from Studio 8-H, producing at least a measure of bloom as well as clarity. An important release, then, for students of interpretation, for lovers of Toscanini, and for Wagnerians open to a "different" approach.

 S.F.V. (April 2000)