The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What are the best recordings by Arturo Toscanini and why did critics turn against him? | July 10, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, The Ear posted a story about the massive new biography of the legendary Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini (below).

In case you missed it, here is a link that will also take you to the terrific book review by Robert Gottlieb of the fascinating new biography by Harvey Sachs that appeared in The New York Times:

Turns out that The New Yorker magazine also featured two stories that relate to the new biography, which appears on the 150th anniversary of Toscanini’s birth.

The first story by David Denby focuses on the best recordings by Toscanini. They include the new and impressively re-mastered ones, and most can be found for FREE listening on YouTube.

Here is a link to that critique of the great Toscanini recordings that proved so influential in the history of classical music in the modern era.

It includes what famed Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine considers the most perfect orchestral recording ever made — which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom (be sure to read the comments):

And here is a follow-up story by Denby about why critics turned against the famous and revered Italian conductor:


  1. His 1942 live recording with Horowitz of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is still my reference version of this work. And his Brahms is truly exciting.

    Comment by Musicophile — July 10, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

    • “His Brahms is truly exciting.”

      But face it: it was Toscanini’s Brahms and not Brahm’s Brahms.

      As Linda Fairtile has conclusively shown (see link below), Toscanini added flutes, piccolos, and other higher pitched instruments to alter the texture (and the score) in Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, as well as Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe suite.

      He also ADDED mid and lower pitched instruments to alter the scores of Brahms Symphony #3, Listz’s Les Preludes, Schubert’s C Major Symphony, and Respigi’s Pines of Rome. Fairtile also talks about he altered Beethoven.

      She also notes that Maestro T. added extensively to viola parts that Brahms had written.

      I have no problem with these changes but you cannot at the same time say that the Maestro was a follower of the “pure score” as many do. That’s simply untrue and it was sold on a public who was also sold on NBC’s marketing of Toscanini’s recordings as being the only authentic ones available.

      Comment by FFlambeau — July 11, 2017 @ 1:01 am

  2. I missed a few notables:

    Hindemith, Paul
    Prokofiev, Sergei
    Ravel, Maurice

    Comment by FFlambeau — July 10, 2017 @ 6:52 am

  3. There’s a fascinating article that has been written by musical scholar, Linda Fairtile, called “Toscanini and the Myth of Textual Fidelity,” published in the Journal of the Conductor’s Guild. In addition to being a noted author, she was the librarian at the New York Public Library who processed Toscanini’s papers (and those of other notable musicians).

    She did a detailed examination “Of the approximately 1,500 orchestral scores in the Toscanini Legacy” and determined that over a third contain annotations in the conductor’s hand. “Many are routine clarifications” or “technical notes:

    “Other markings, how-ever,
    directly contradict Toscanini’s reputation for
    strict adherence to the printed score.” She gives many examples.

    She concludes: “Contrary to his American reputation
    for literal adherence to the printed score, Toscanini
    actually modified details both large and small in
    many of the compositions that he performed.” For instance, he added instruments to scores not called for by composers in music from Brahms to Ravel to Mendelssohn to Schubert and Respighi.

    Hers is not a hatchet job and she recognizes many of the good qualities of the Maestro, but she demolishes this argument about him.


    Comment by FFlambeau — July 10, 2017 @ 5:10 am

  4. With him, the “star” system was perhaps not only born but reached it apotheosis. Lots of nonsense was written about him, often contradictory in the same article. Like the article linked to in the New Yorker. It notes his rigid adherence to the score (and is that always a good thing as it implies?) but later says of his approach to Beethoven’s 9th: ” In his 1952 rendering with the NBC Symphony, he uncharacteristically departs from the score.” Which is it? Strict adherence or something else?

    He also did very, very little to advance classical music composers in America and/or contemporary music. Compare his life with that of a far greater conductor and orchestra leader, Serge Koussevitzky of the BSO. Much more innovative, had a tremendous ear for good new compositions and music and pushed and programmed them.

    Look at this list of notable premiers under Mr. K. and contrast it with the lack of work under Mr. T:

    In concert

    Alexander Scriabin, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, Moscow, March 2, 1911
    Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Paris, October 19, 1922
    Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, 1923
    Sergei Prokofiev, First Violin Concerto with Marcel Darrieux as soloist, Paris, October 18, 1923
    Prokofiev, Second Symphony, Paris, June 6, 1925
    Arnold Bax, Symphony No.2, Boston, December 13, 1929
    Prokofiev, Fourth Symphony, Boston, November 14, 1930
    George Gershwin, Second Rhapsody, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, January 29, 1932
    Béla Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, December 1, 1944
    Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (suite) Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1945
    Samuel Barber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Eleanor Steber as soloist, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1948
    Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety, Leonard Bernstein as soloist, Tanglewood, 1949

    On record

    Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Boston Symphony Orchestra, October 1930
    Jean Sibelius, Seventh Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra, HMV, London, 1933
    Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1935.
    Roy Harris, Third Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1939
    Hector Berlioz, Harold in Italy with William Primrose as soloist, 1946
    Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (suite), Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1946

    Comment by FFlambeau — July 10, 2017 @ 4:00 am

    • Here is a very abbreviated list of musicians whose works were sponsored or commissioned by Maestro Serge Koussevitzky and the foundation that he set up for this purpose. I challenge you to find anything similar for Maestro T:

      Adams, John
      Barber, Samuel
      Bartók, Béla
      Bernstein, Leonard
      Blitzstein, Marc
      Bloch, Ernest
      Bolcom, William
      Britten, Benjamin
      Cage, John
      Copland, Aaron
      Corigliano, John
      Crumb, George
      Davies, Peter Maxwell
      Diamond, David
      Feldman, Morton
      Foss, Lukas
      Guarnieri, M.
      Hanson, Howard
      Harbison, John
      Harris, Roy
      Harrison, Lou
      Higdon, Jennifer
      Honegger, Arthur
      Hovhaness, Alan
      Ligeti, György
      Marsalis, Wynton
      Martinou, Bohuslav
      Mernier, Benoit
      Messiaen, Olivier
      Penderecki, Krzysztof
      Piston, Walter
      Poulenc, Francis
      Reich, Steve
      Schoenberg, Arnold
      Schuman, William
      Schwendinger, Laura
      Sessions, Roger
      Sheng, Bright
      Stockhausen, Karlheinz
      Stravinsky, Igor
      Stucky, Steven
      Thompson, Randall
      Thomson, Virgil
      Villa-Lobos, Heitor
      Walton, William
      Zhou Long


      Comment by FFlambeau — July 10, 2017 @ 6:43 am

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