Toscanini 150th Anniversary (CD review)

Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York. Bridge 9493.

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.

Steven Richman
The Carmen Suite that follows is one Toscanini put together himself when in his seventies. The differences between Toscanini's suite and others are so slight I couldn't detect them, but I could easily see how Richman tries to emulate Toscanini's celebrated no-nonsense approach to the score. Tempos and modulations are on the quick, succinct side, with no hint of dallying or sentimentality. Likewise, Richman handles the Nutcracker Suite in a completely unfussy manner.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa