May 2006

Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra - The Television Concerts Volumes One - Five
Testament SBDVD 1003-1007
Format: DVD
Original Broadcast: 1948-1952
DVDs released: 2006

by Wes Marshall

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality **1/2
Image Quality **
Overall Enjoyment ****

When television was in its infancy, the two major networks, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), both wanted to project a highbrow image by adding symphonic music to their programming. CBS hired Bernard Herrmann to conduct the CBS Symphony Orchestra. NBC already had one of the most famous conductors alive, Arturo Toscanini, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra for their radio network, so they just moved conductor and orchestra into the TV studios.

The NBC Symphony was a battle-tested group. Not only did they operate under Toscanini’s iron hand, but they also had to provide all the incidental music for the network’s radio and TV shows. This was a true working orchestra, not just a pick-up group. They had started in 1937 when General David Sarnoff, the head of NBC, bought the best players in America and Europe specifically to please Toscanini and lure him out of retirement. Toscanini stayed with the orchestra for 17 years. He was so central to its workings that when he retired, NBC disbanded the group.

During 1948-1952, Toscanini performed ten times on television with his orchestra. Scarcely anyone saw the performances, because hardly anyone had televisions. Now, thanks to Testament, we can see the performances anew, in the best-looking versions we’re likely to see. Five discs, each with two telecasts, cover the Maestro’s complete oeuvre on screen with his orchestra.

Toscanini was in his 80s when he created these performances, but they have the vitality of a student just falling in love with music. On his first telecast from March 20, 1948, notice his exceptional handling of dynamic shading and his raucous baton work (he’s an "on the beat" conductor for you air-baton wizards). Has there ever been a better Italian conductor of Wagner? Even through the haze of 58 years of video and sonic grunge, the excitement of his music-making shines through. Also on the first disc, he does a masterful job with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Toscanini’s muscular approach to the Fourth Movement's argument between the celli and the tutti is fascinating to watch and to hear. If you can only spring for one disc, make it Volume One.

My second favorite of the five volumes is Volume Three, a concert performance of Aida. Toscanini’s professional career started at age 19 when he filled in as an emergency replacement conducting Aida. The opera was truly in his blood. On the DVD, the singers are pedestrian, and sometimes worse, but what an opportunity to hear the old gentleman’s final thoughts on the opera.

My single favorite performance amongst the 11+ hours of music is the final piece on Volume Five, a riveting version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. The NBC Orchestra simply crackles with energy. Did they realize this was to be their last concert ever? I think so. They play hot enough to set those pines on fire.

Testament’s mastering of these old TV shows looks like they faced a choice between noise or blurriness and chose the latter. I saw almost no normal noise-related problems, but the picture frequently looks washed out. Sonically, the range below about 100Hz and above about 5kHz is non-existent, and, of course, the sound is all mono. What’s left is clean and gives you a clear impression of Toscanini and his band. There are no extras, other than a brief but well-written essay on each DVD’s insert.

If you’ve ever wondered why classical music aficionados seem to worship the old-timers and decry the current crop of conductors, pick up one of these DVDs and you’ll see for yourself.