The Music Plays On — Toscanini Conducts Wagner

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Arturo Toscanini

Arturo Toscanini was one of the greatest Wagner conductors of all time. Facts like this often get obscured today, especially here in the U.S., because of the classical music industry’s rather insipid penchant to pigeonhole artists based on their nationality. The French play Debussy. The English conduct Elgar. The Russians perform Tchaikovsky. While I think that in today’s world this is complete rubbish, these nationalistic preferences, which often boiled over into blatant racism, were in ample supply during the first half of the twentieth century. It is a testament to Toscanini’s brilliance that he was a coveted guest at Bayreuth until politics and principle made it impossible for him to conduct there.

Toscanini’s total command of Wagner’s music is made apparent in practically every example we still have left of his recordings and performances. There is always clarity of thought, dramatic tension, and a clear sense of Wagner’s sound world that, frankly, most German conductors of a similar generation overlook. Listen to this absolutely searing performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture.

Unfortunately, there are only a few complete performances of Wagner’s operas conducted by Toscanini and the sound quality is quite poor. However, he did record as much as he could of Wagner’s music with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. I recommend listening to all of it!

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Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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