Arturo Toscanini: italian titan - Antonio Pappano
Every Italian conductor — even one like myself, born in England and brought up in America — has the spectre of Arturo Toscanini looking over his shoulder. His name alone conjures up the definition of conductorial authority and the legacy of Italian lyric theater; this is undeniable. Toscanini’s temperament was so clearly Latin, so dramatic, yet he was preoccupied (maniacally so) with marrying his Mediterranean nature to a most scrupulous approach to musical execution, precision of a rare intensity. He rehearsed through repetition, virtually imprinting the music on his players — it was almost as if they were being carved into the shape he wanted. This precision was always allied to an immense sense of theater, and of history. To think that this man gave the first performances of Pagliacci, La Bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot is truly awe-inspiring.
We know him mainly from recordings made for NBC in the terribly dry Studio 8H. What we hear is distilled conducting, no fat, absolutely lean — the effect is electrifying but there is not a lot of tonal allure. His feverish, passionate approach to music needed a warmer environment. If you go back to the recordings he made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, or the New York Philharmonic, or the BBC Symphony, or at Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic, you hear a different conductor: color, allure, breath.
To accentuate the many positive attributes, I think his qualities of articulation, phrasing, style and energy, of structural clarity and balance, should appeal very much to a modern world. Toscanini put a microscope on each score he conducted.
His fidelity to the score was famous. He had tremendous class, even in the way he dressed, tremendous taste. He came along at a time when orchestras had developed a lot of bad habits, the use of portamento had gone to an extreme, and “tradition” was a catch-all for sloppiness and cheap effects.
He had an important role in simplifying things, in making conductors really look at what is written in the score, and encouraging them to become the most ardent disciples of the composer. It was religion for him. Toscanini redefines the notion of pulse. He gives it an incredible, life-enhancing energy: it’s so real, so wonderfully palpable in so much repertoire.
As to how we conductors should view Toscanini today, I think that to be confronted with such directness is a challenge. We’re all looking to be different, searching for ways in which we can express our own personalities; but to be faced with a directness, a clarity of expression and delivery like Toscanini’s, is like a gauntlet thrown down to us.
His music-making is still relevant. If one has ideas, they have to be clear to one's audience; the ideas crafted so that the audience can receive them clearly. The template for “ideas” being, of course, the score. Fidelity to the score above all.
How interesting to listen to those late recordings of his — as performances in general were getting slower, he was getting faster! The first thing that people mention about any Italian conductor is his lyrical quality, but there is far more to Toscanini. The way we perceive him has to do with propulsion, forward motion.
Music that has very long paragraphs is performed in a way that always moves forward, the direction of the phrases is always fluid.
That sense of fluidity can be all the greater from a Latin temperament because of the natural fluidity of the Romance languages and their inevitable relationship to music and to the “home team” musicians. I am of Italian heritage, the challenge for me is to give warmth and generosity of sound and still keep this strong life-pulse. Toscanini has pointed the way for us.
The octogenarian Arturo Toscanini, circa 1950, described himself to a young colleague “They say I’ve always been the same. That’s the most foolish thing that’s ever been uttered about me. I’ve never been the same, not even from one day to the next. I’ve known it even if others haven’t”.
The statement could serve as an appropriate introduction to a reevaluation of Toscanini’s gigantic position in the history of musical performance.
Toscanini had a rather amazing life: born in the provincial town of Parma, Italy, when Rossini and Berlioz were still alive, when Verdi had just completed Don Carlos, when Wagner was working on Die Meistersinger and Brahms was working on his Deutsches Requiem, and when Elgar, Puccini, Mahler, Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius were between two and ten years old, he lived to see all of these composers become “classics” and to perform the music of some of them on television and record it on long-playing discs.
A rich and complicated figure was Arturo Toscanini, and let’s hope that the events connected to this anniversary year will stimulate young musicians and music lovers to become acquainted with his personality and his remarkable and forever valuable recorded legacy.