The enduring influence of Toscanini

Critic's Corner//Music

50 years after his death, his presence still looms large

Music Column

January 16, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Fifty years ago today, Arturo Toscanini died. The Italian conductor had loomed over the operatic and orchestral worlds for the better part of seven decades, shaping tastes, forcing people to take sides (musical and otherwise).

He generated enormous respect and devotion during his lifetime, something close to idolatry afterward. But he also drew his share of critical attacks throughout a long career that included historic work with the most important opera centers (La Scala, the Metropolitan and Bayreuth among them), and with several excellent orchestras (notably the New York Philharmonic and his own NBC Symphony).

At the time of Toscanini's death in New York, a couple months shy of his 90th birthday, he was what he had long been - one of the best known and most popular classical musicians in the world. Probably the best known and the most popular. The shadow he cast was so large that some people think it never dissipated.

In 1987, a provocative book by Joseph Horowitz made that plain: Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music. The conductor was, in essence, blamed for generating a cult that eventually ruined classical music in this country with such abominations as Luciano Pavarotti appearing in giant stadiums and on late-night TV shows.

Thanks to Toscanini, Horowitz argues, we don't get enough contemporary music in our diet because of the example set by the old man, who wasn't much of a champion for new works. And the conductor's obsession with technical polish and faithfulness to the printed score, not to mention a preference for propulsion, proved highly detrimental, too, making people care more about the surface than the heart of music.

The intensity of Horowitz's arguments point up just how important Toscanini was. As for the persuasiveness of those arguments, I have serious doubts. When it comes to laying blame at the man's feet for all sorts of things, even posthumous ones, I think Horowitz positions himself on a not-too-sturdy limb. (Harvey Sachs' rebuttal to Horowitz in the 1991 book Reflections on Toscanini makes good and persuasive reading.)

To be sure, the conductor had his flaws, artistic and human (Toscanini himself reportedly told fellow conductor John Barbirolli, "I am a pig"). His temper tantrums at rehearsal are legendary, and sometimes awfully amusing, as when he warned one unresponsive ensemble: "After I die, I am coming back to earth as the doorkeeper of a bordello. And I won't let one of you in."

What counts most today, of course, is how this astonishing force of a man made music. His interpretive ideas, preserved on many recordings and a few films, will always provoke strong reactions. You cannot be neutral about Toscanini.

He was never neutral himself, and not just about music. His stand against fascism, after a brief flirtation with Mussolini's ideals, made him a moral beacon in the 1930s and '40s, while some conductors, like Wilhelm Furtwangler (himself a cult figure), managed to make personal and philosophical accommodations.

When considering different conducting styles, there are still no better polar opposites than Toscanini and Furtwangler. For a long while, I've been in the Furtwangler camp, drawn to his deep spirituality and often astonishing individuality. I'm just as enthusiastic about other non-Toscanini-like conductors from his era, such as Willem Mengelberg, and, of more recent vintage, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein.

But every time I dig out a Toscanini recording, I'm won over. Even when I find a detail or two that doesn't do enough for me, I'm invariably caught up in the electricity of a Toscanini performance, the thoroughness, intelligence and commitment.

Lately, I've been enjoying some of his lesser-known recordings, the ones he made in 1941 and '42 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. They've just been freshened up digitally and released on a three-disc set from Sony BMG that provides arresting examples of the conductor's ability to coax not just cohesive, but beautifully expressive, playing.

Highlights include an intense account of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique; an incandescent La Mer of Debussy; a joyous ride through the Incidental Music from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream; and a taut, potent performance of Strauss' Death and Transfiguration.

The anniversary of Toscanini's death is a perfect time to get reacquainted with his sizable discography (almost all of it available on CD), a time to revisit the misconceptions and myths about him (starting with the notion that he took everything too fast or by-the-metronome). That Toscanini, half a century after be breathed his last, still breathes life into musical discourse, is perhaps his greatest legacy.

`Salome' in concert

One of the season's must-hear events is a concert version of Richard Strauss' Salome presented by the National Symphony Orchestra with soprano Deborah Voigt. Leonard Slatkin will conduct. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues Northwest, Washington. Call 800-444-1324.

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