Toscanini in Britain
By Christopher Dyment
Boydell Press; 398 pp. $50
The ranks of Arturo Toscanini's devotees have been shrinking in recent years. Because his recording career preceded the age of stereo, classical radio shies away from broadcasting his recordings. Meanwhile, more than a few present-generation critics have bought into the fad for debunking what they see as the Maestro Myth. This places the burden of evaluating his legacy on the eyes and ears of a handful of devotees willing to keep at the serious digging. Christopher Dyment, who previously performed a similar service with his book about Felix Weingartner, has picked up the challenge with his new study, focused on Toscanini's forays into England. Though some of the Maestro's most interesting recordings were made there, little has been written about the details of these visits, their local reception and the relevance to the Toscanini legacy. By adding the dimension of historical research to that of personal, in-depth musical analysis, Dyment has not only picked up the trail cleared by such precursors as B. H. Haggin, Robert Charles Marsh and Spike Hughes — he has focused the whole inquiry into clearer perspective.
Dyment intended to base his book on annals of the concerts and a critical discography, but the scope broadened as he examined the material surrounding Toscanini's London concerts. The launch setting for this narrative is London's musical life in 1930, when uncertainty of quality prevailed among the city's orchestras. Responding at last to persistent invitations, Toscanini made his local debut leading his own orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, which was touring Europe in the spring of 1930. Favorable press, led by the doyen of British critics, Ernest Newman, had the ripple effect of raising new concern for improving local orchestral standards. Five years later, when Toscanini came back for the 1935 London Music Festival, he led the BBC Symphony, which he judged by then to have reached world-class status. His first trip to London, it seems, had set the mark, aroused debate and triggered a renaissance of musical life in the city.
There are personal touches aplenty here: we're introduced to society ladies who developed a crush on the Maestro; to worthy London orchestral musicians; and to the tireless BBC music executive Owen Mase, who became Toscanini's personal representative and eased the way through touchy concert and recording negotiations. In all, Toscanini led thirty-two concerts in London between June 1930 and October 1952 — four with the New York Philharmonic, twenty-six with the BBC Symphony and two (postwar) with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Chapter 12 devotes twenty-two pages to the author's substantial analysis of Toscanini's recordings with the BBC Symphony, and, as a hefty afterthought, Dyment includes his "Historical Excursus" on Toscanini as a Brahms interpreter, measuring him against other noted exponents of the era. This book, an exhausting, exhilarating read, unearths a huge chunk of how much we still haven't learned about Arturo Toscanini.
JOHN W. FREEMAN
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