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.