Monday, 4 April 2016


Arturo Toscanini was considered a living legend during the late 19th and early
20th century. His all-Wagner programme of April 4, 1954, the conductor's
last public concert, did not go exactly as planned for the icon who had wished

to make a most dignified exit from the podium. Thankfully for both conductor
and prosperity, Toscanini's skill behind the baton and his prolific oeuvre of
masterful recordings have obtained legendary status for both the man
and his music.

On April 4 1954 the much celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini lead the NBC Symphony Orchestra (an orchestra specifically made for him, no less, and of which he would lead for 17 years) for the last time. His repertoire of choice: Richard Wagner.

On the evening’s billing would be a selection of five preludes, overtures and other favorite selections of the composer Richard Wagner’s most epic works.

1. Lohengrin: Act I Prelude

2. Siegfried: Forest Murmors

3. Die Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey

4. Tannhäuser: Overture and Bacchanale

5. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act I Prelude

The timing of Toscanini’s final concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra was truly the end of an era for the man with the baton whose highly prized station as head of the orchestra had, through a particular set of virtuosic skill and his own unique inflections on popular works made the conductor a household name (and I dare say, in terms of pop culture status at the time, one of the first crossover sensations for conductors of classical music).
 Laymen to the classical music genre and it's counterpart opera may have never heard Toscanini tenderly (yet exhaltingly) usher Isolde into her much entreated "liebestod" (love death) with such an endearing tenderness and respite (even into the lovelorns' rapid descent into that hybrid state of madness and bliss known to so many lovers, and as depicted in Wagner's Tristan), but they certainly will have known, and heard of the name Toscanini.

As Toscanini’s nearly two decades of employment with one of the world’s finest orchestras drew to a close, a new era was just beginning, and it would be glorious.

In a very brave gesture (for any famous musician, whether known to take risks or hide from them), Toscanini would agree to ride the new wave of experimental sound, agreeing to have his final performance recorded using a concept that was, at that time, sitting on rather primitive ground: It was during 1954, the year of Toscanini’s final concert, that record label RCA Victor began experimenting with ‘binaural recording’ (Stereo) to replace the flat monaural records then in existence which did nothing to serve listeners with a lifelike listening experience, delivering to the audiences at home a sound that was disappointingly flat and which would leave those tuning in wanting a more authentic aural experience. RCA-Victor was one of the premier labels to attempt to heed this public demand. By experimenting with binaural sound on what would be a historic performance (Toscanini's last public concert) the label hoped to deliver to audiences at home a recording so clear, so spatially separated, it would leave those unfortunate enough not to have purchased tickets for the event with the impression of having been right there with the orchestra in the concert hall.

Unfortunately, feeling the pressure of RCA-Victor who were improving on techniques seemingly on the fly, the aging Toscanini could not quite keep up with directing the orchestra and keeping mental tabs on the recording equipment of which he had previously expressed a distaste for.

It would be during the “Paris version” of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, that the mentally taxed conductor temporarily lost focus and briefly yielded from beating time, which, for audiences listening from home, silenced both orchestra and conductor effort for the quite lengthy (at least, for Toscanini) period of around 14 seconds before one Guido Cantelli, a fellow conductor working in the broadcast booth that evening, was quick to provide backup for the gaffe in the form of playing for the stunned listeners a pre-recorded work of the conductor Toscanini: the composer of choice: Johannes Brahms, the music: his 1st Symphony (an interesting choice indeed: both classical music aficionados and critics alike often attempted to pit Brahms and Wagner against one another in life). The interruption of Brahms lasted about a half minute, after which the regularly scheduled program once more emerged on the airwaves, seemingly showcasing the seasoned conductor Toscanini resuming where he left off  as he continued to effortlessly complete Wagner’s masterpiece.

The media, of course, had a field day with event, highly romanticizing the already romantic life of the conductor, with rumors bordering on dementia, a rivalry with RCA and NBC, to the crass listener declaring for himself ‘proof’ of a feeble in mind conductor who should never have been allowed to work past his truly was a cause célèbre to round out the first half of 20th century classical music and performance.

Enjoy below an excerpt from the concert, featuring the rather unusual and very primitive sounding
recording by RCA-Victor during the label's early experimentations in Stereo Sound Recordings. The
excerpt below is the infamous Tannhäuser that had caused the sensation discussed, however the
'offending' portion is not included in this clip:
  UPDATE:  The video previously described  is no longer available on YouTube, however I managed to find one that has been cleaned up (i.e. "repaired.") Listen below:

Scroll down list to listen to Toscanini's Final Concert April 4, 1954;                           PUBLIC DOMAIN


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