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Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years Hardcover – March 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

In this book Mortimer Frank, former curator of the Toscanini archive, traces the maestro's extraordinary 68-year career, then focuses on his 17 years leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra, created for him in 1937--when he was already 70 years old--by David Sarnoff, president of NBC and RCA. Along the way, Frank describes Toscanini's often troubled relationship with NBC, his interaction with the musicians, and the impact on him of the European war.

Many great artists generate controversy, but few have inspired as much adulation and animosity as Toscanini. Battling recent criticism, Frank, a devoted partisan, uses as his weapon the maestro's entire recorded legacy, from the official discography, including RCA's 82-CD Toscanini Collection, to unreleased archival tapes and reference discs of all his NBC broadcasts and rehearsals, as well as his recordings with other groups, especially the New York Philharmonic. To refute the familiar allegation that Toscanini made everything sound alike and to demonstrate his open-minded interpretive flexibility, Frank compares different performances of the same works, and also refers to many other conductors' recordings to prove that the maestro's tempos did not simply get faster as he got older. This must have required listening to a positively staggering number of records.

Unfortunately the book is dominated by lists: of broadcasts, programs, dates, names, etc., which leads to a lot of repetition and redundancy. The most interesting chapter is "The NBC Repertory," which reveals that along with acknowledged masterpieces, Toscanini programmed much music of doubtful value, and offers frank, illuminating comments on the relative quality of his performances. One learns that despite Toscanini's famous faithfulness to the score, he had no qualms about undertaking radical alterations, from changing orchestrations to cutting, transcribing, combining pieces, and adding original material; that in a small way he anticipated the "authentic" style movement; and that he was relentlessly, obsessively critical not only of others, but himself.

The book omits some important information: no credit is given for the photographs, and no mention made of the orchestra's Japanese tour, on which the maestro unexpectedly laid himself open to the musicians' cameras, resulting in some stunning Toscanini portraits. Frank treats Toscanini's retirement, whether voluntary or enforced, and its aftermath for the players surprisingly casually. It was widely felt that the National Broadcasting Corporation showed unpardonable callousness in disbanding its Symphony, especially since it collected the royalties on the orchestra's RCA records, while the musicians who had them got nothing. --Edith Eisler

From Publishers Weekly

Frank, an expert on the conductor and his work who has served as the curator of the archive at Toscanini's former home in Riverdale, N.Y., offers a detailed view of the last phase of Toscanini's life and the one in which he became a revered figure to a generation of American music lovers and casual radio listeners. In 1937, NBC head David Sarnoff, anxious to capitalize on the cultural (and advertising) potential of radio, offered the Italian conductor, then in his 60s and recently retired from leadership of the New York Philharmonic, his own orchestra to mold for a series of weekend radio broadcasts of classical staples. With some initial reluctance, Toscanini accepted the offer; he then threw himself into the task with his customary high energy and for the next 17 years created a string of sometimes revelatory, seldom routine concerts. Discussing these concert programs chronologically (and at more length than the average reader will need), Frank illustrates the narrowness of Toscanini's focus compared with other conductors who shared broadcasts with the NBC orchestra occasionally most notably Stokowski and Mitropoulos. But Toscanini concentrated on what he knew best the central classics, particularly Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and various opera snippets and pieces of light music. Frank, an ardent advocate, takes to task Toscanini's critics for their sometimes unfair partisanship, and insists that, despite his tantrums and seeming rigidity, Toscanini was always faithful to the composers' intentions. Frank's book breaks no new ground, but certainly offers a closeup of a fascinating episode in American popular culture one that seems unlikely ever to be repeated.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Amadeus Press; 1st edition (March 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1574670697
  • ISBN-13: 978-1574670691
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #816,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most of what we know of the conducting of Arturo Toscanini comes from his recordings with the NBC Symphony, an orchestra formed by RCA for radio broadcasts and recordings from 1937-1954. As Frank points out in this excellent book, most of these recordings were made when Toscanini was in his 80's, and therefore perhaps not representative of his best work. This book tries to put these recordings in perspective by detailing and describing the NBC Broadcasts season by season. As Frank points out, some of Toscanini's best performances occured when the conductor was in front of an audience, where he was more relaxed. Frank gives a detailed season by season description of the NBC years, as well as complete program information. Also included is a complete (as possible) discography of both official and unoffical recordings. There is also a balanced discussion of the criticism and "hero worship" of the conductor in the intervening years. Other goodies: A complete list of NBC Symphony Personnel, a list of guest conductors and broadcasts, and a very interesting discussion about the "deconstructing" of the Toscanini image. After reading this book, I wanted to hear more of Toscanini's broadcast performances (and how about some of Guido Cantelli's broadcasts, also)!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Lawrie Cherniack on March 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
It's true that this book is really only for fans of Arturo Toscanini, but there are many of us. It provides information not otherwise available. (And with due respect to the review above by Edith Eisler, I am certain that there never was a tour of Japan by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and I am virtually certain that Toscanini never went to Japan to conduct any orchestra. The Symphony of the Air, composed of ex-NBC Symphony players, did go to Japan.) Mr. Frank is fair, musical, knowledgeable, and informative.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Alexander Arsov on October 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a book for Toscanini buffs only. But for them it is priceless. Unless the legendary Italian conductor has something special to say to you, for which reason you are dedicated to serious exploration of his vast discography, you have no business reading this book. But if he has, and you are, Mr Frank's study is indispensable.

This is not a biography of Toscanini, nor is it a biographical portrait. Rather, it is a book about broadcasts and recordings, exclusively concentrating on a single period of Toscanini's long, eventful and productive life. For the rest, Harvey Sachs' Toscanini (1978) is still by far the most comprehensive and authoritative, if dry and not especially perceptive, account; not for nothing does Mr Frank quote from it extensively. But why, somebody not familiar with the subject might exclaim, should one dedicate a whole book on Toscanini's association with NBC only? Because it is a terrific story of extraordinary importance - at least for the classical music history. Mr Frank has brilliantly summarised the events, and their far reaching consequences, in his his first chapter. Before discussing the book in detail, it is worth recalling the essence of the story again.

The story, indeed, is every bit as good as many novels - and better than most, no doubt. In the end of April 1936, Toscanini gave his last concert as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, after seven years at the helm of this prestigious orchestra. He was 70 years old and already a living legend. He had announced his leaving the New York Philharmonic the year before. Virtually everybody at the time thought that, not just New York, but the United States in general was seeing him for the last time.
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