Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)
Musical genius of Toscanini on looking back was in his ability to convey what the composer had in mind not only musically but psychologically and thus playing his work he made it a dramatic experience. By studying the score sheets he saw beyond the notes the intention of the composer and by memorizing it, brooding over it he saw the work as a totality of the man, his work and his role as a faithful translator of his ideas . As he told George Marek, his biographer ‘When I look at a score I see the profile of the composer on the page’.
He was a stern taskmaster and yet he was not a martinet. He respected individual ideas. He said to an oboist playing the cadenza in the Beethoven’s Fifth, ‘That is not the way I would have phrased it –but I like it. There is nothing absolute in music.’
Pianist Rubinstein once played Beethoven C Minor Concerto under the leading of Toscanini. It was their first encounter. The pianist was a bit apprehensive and on the first rehearsal Rubinstein came and sat at the piano. The maestro nodded and the pianist began. It was a catastrophe since they found their ideas were completely different.
At the end of the first movement Toscanini looked at the pianist and asked him if he intended to play his part like that.
Toscanini asked him to repeat the first all over again. While he played Toscanini listened noticing the tempo, phrasing and every expression mark. On the repetition they had the look as if they had been playing the music together all their lives.
At the time he was developing and perfecting his technique as a conductor he set new standards of interpretation in his insistence that music should be played exactly as was written. One occasion,- and it was not the only time, Toscanini stopped a rehearsal because the timpanist failed to give an accent to a particular note. ‘There is no accent marked here on my copy, maestro’ the timpanist said.
‘Then put it on’ said Toscanini and he was certain it was how originally written. Some time afterwards the timpanist went to a library where the original of the composer’s score was kept. On checking it he found the maestro was right: the accent was there.
Once he hollered at a well-bosomed soprano in Italian and he said pointing to her head ‘If you had up here what you have down here, what a singer you would be!’
(Toscanini, A Biography: Gorge Marek,1975/Atheneum)
Tailpiece: The other day I heard a Chinese girl of 9 playing Chopin and not a note was missed and her playing was faultless. On the other hand I heard Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Piano concerto #1 ( BBC program) recently at the Albert Hall-having heard him and enjoyed his music, I was disappointed. His facial contortions in bringing solo passages to a close was distracting to say the least. I hear often criticism of lacking in experience leveled against Far Eastern performers. Nationality of players have not come in way of enjoying their recitals.
Is life experience needed in order to play Chopin or Liszt?
In my opinion a player should stick to the score faithfully and if the player could get the dynamics and tempo right it is all needed for me. My life experience and mood is what counts and not the players’ contortions to be transcendental.
Herbert von Karajan was like a sphinx but his presence was unmistakable. Toscanini was tempestuous while rehearsing but on podium he was the conductor and his personality also made it an satisfying experience.