Music Review: Arturo Toscanini | The HMV Recordings

Conductor Arturo Toscanini’s BBC records for EMI were collected some years ago as a six-CD recording set which I bought to become better acquainted with the art form and its highly touted orchestral master. My goal was to immerse myself in properly performed, quality classical music. Knowing that Toscanini, whose reputation is legendary, was noted for seeking to create the objective musical performance of a composer’s work, I thought this product would be a good starting point.

While I’m clearly not an expert on classical music, I think I made the right choice. The series leaves this pop, dance and rock fan enchanted and wanting more.

I had known that Toscanini (1867-1957) is best known for authoritative accounts of standard pieces of music in opera and orchestral music, though most seem to know his NBC recordings for the broadcasting network’s symphony orchestra, which NBC created for him in 1937. Toscanini also recorded music with the BBC Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Most of his BBC records are available on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings, a single boxed set which is part of EMI’s Icons series. The collection features compositions by Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms, as well as Toscanini’s conduction of music by Wagner, Mendelssohn and Mozart, among others.

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The energetic performances are detailed and enunciated. How familiar classical music pieces are uniquely framed and delivered is striking both in terms of quality and distinctiveness. Many of these records are almost 90 years old.

Brahms is a favorite. I have enjoyed listening to various recordings of his music for years. However, under Toscanini’s direction, his symphonies and overtures are faster, more urgent and, sometimes, more powerful. The conductor’s passion is evident in these live concert recordings. Works by Beethoven, Mozart and other masters are irresistible here, too. Even if a prelude or piece of music is not to my personal preference, the performance under Arturo Toscanini, who died at the age of 89 after retiring in the 1950s, is always compelling. The Italian immigrant, who refused to sanction authoritarianism, conducts composer Richard Wagner’s overture from Faust with vigor.

These recordings are old, so don’t expect perfection (or liner notes; the box contains only six discs and six sleeves). Expect imperfection in the audio quality. But I was surprised at how well preserved they are given the context and my adaptation to today’s superior technology. I am thoroughly enjoying discovering the joys of Arturo Toscanini. I feel like I’m just getting started and newly motivated to listen to classical music with deeper appreciation from a master’s perspective. In short, Toscanini leaves me greedy for more of his remarkably studied, practiced and expertly performed work.


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