The last time I wrote about Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York, it was an album of Gershwin music that became one of my favorite recordings of 2016. This time out, Maestro Richman chose to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a fellow conductor, the legendary Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).
I say "legendary" because in my mind Toscanini really was a legend. Growing up in the 1940's and 50's as I did, to me Toscanini was one of those gods of the classical world with strange and exotic names like Stokowski, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. But Toscanini was, again for me, the master of them all, and later when I got into collecting classical recordings, I always regretted that Toscanini had not lived much into the stereo era. So, here we have Steven Richman taking up some of the slack by providing us with a little of the old Maestro's favorite lighter fare, many in Toscanini's own arrangements and with Richman using one of Toscanini's own batons to direct the proceedings.
Audiences loved what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call "lollipops," fun pieces with which he often closed shows, and Leopold Stokowski might be best known today for his work in the Disney film Fantasia. But we don't often think of the great Toscanini as having a lighter side at all. He did. And here is some of that.
The disc includes Verdi's Aida Overture, Bizet's Carmen Suite (arranged by Toscanini), Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Waldteufel's Skaters Waltz (again arranged by Toscanini), and Rossini's William Tell Overture.
Richman begins things, then, with the Aida Overture, which one doesn't often hear by itself, understandably because the composer never actually published it. Verdi wrote it for the opera's premiere but set it aside in favor of the more-familiar prelude. Toscanini performed it only once, in 1940, and essentially from memory. So, the opening number is a rarity, and Richman appears to do it full justice, with zest and enthusiasm.
For some listeners, Toscanini's style was too cold and calculating; to others, it perfectly reflected a composer's intentions. Richman attempts to convey that same spirit of contention. You either love the conductor's methods or you don't. I found it all quite persuasive.
Emile Waldteufel meant his Skaters Waltz for a smallish chamber orchestra, and that's how we usually hear it. But Toscanini wanted to do it up for a bigger group, so he reorchestrated the piece in the 1940's for his NBC Symphony Orchestra. As expected, it's a full, lush, vigorous rendition, although in Richman's case I don't know that the size of the ensemble seems to matter.
The program ends with Rossini's William Tell Overture, which Toscanini conducted for the first time when he was nineteen and for the last time when he was eighty-five. Richman captures the work's excitement as Toscanini doubtless did but imposing on it few idiosyncrasies of his own. He uses the composer's manuscript but also follows Toscanini's practice of doubling the five solo cellos at the beginning for a fuller, mellower sound.
Most classical fans will probably already have in their collections multiple versions of these chestnuts (with the exception, perhaps, of the Aida Overture), so why would they want yet more? In this case, the performances are so direct and so straightforward that the music actually appears fresh and new. And the sound is so good and so natural, it puts most other recordings to shame.
Producer Steven Richman and producer and engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the album at the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York in March 2015. There's a fine sense of place and space about the recording, imaging depth and spread providing a realistic ambience without sounding exaggerated. Detailing is good, too, without being bright or edgy. The dynamics help as well, with huge increases and decreases in volume as the occasions arise. A commendable disc all the way around.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: