Schoenberg on Toscanini
However it was more than ones' life was worth to criticize Toscanini or to say you didn't like him. You would have to defend yourself to a degree that I didn't feel like doing. One summer I was doing a summer school in Santa Barbara, California with Schoenberg. One day I gathered my courage and asked him, "Arnold, what do you think of Toscanini?" And he spat and said, "That bandmaster," with a great deal of derision in his voice. He went on to tell me that Toscanini had received all his musical training in military school, which explained everything."
Now listen to a 15 minute MP3 file of "that bandmaster" conducting Beethoven (after a brief Finnish introduction) "without humanity" and make up your own mind -
The quote above is taken from A Cellists Life by Griller Quartet cellist Colin Hampton. It is a fascinating read which roams across a wide range of composers. About Ernest Bloch he writes: "His string quartet No 1 is to me one of the great works in this world. It was a logical conclusion, as far as I am concerned, to the Beethoven quartets. I would put Bloch in front of Schubert and Brahms anytime."
Ernest Bloch is one of those unfortunate composers branded by a single work, in his case Schelomo (which I have to confess I wouldn't shed a tear if I didn't ever hear again). His string quartets, which inhabit a sound world somewhere between Shostakovich and Schoenberg, are very different, and something of a challenge, with the first lasting for almost an hour. But they are most certainly great works which reward exploration. And the recent re-issue of Colin Hampton and his colleagues in the Griller Quartet playing Bloch's four string quartets gives us a chance to explore and reappraise these neglected works.
The sound from these mono 1954 Decca studio recordings is staggeringly good. The producer is my old boss from my EMI days, Peter Andry, recorded when he was at Decca. I was talking to a violin playing friend about why early recordings such as this have such a good string tone. (The various Artur Grumiaux recordings on Philips are another outstanding example). His view was that it is not the recording technology that has gone backwards (although some would argue that is also the case), but rather that string playing technique has evolved to a leaner, more analytical sound. If that is so it is a shame, and may explain why so-called 'authentic instrument' recordings with their gutsy string tone are so popular (I was listening to the Salomon Quartet recordings of Mozart using original instrunents on Hyperion the other night, thinking what fantastic sound the players were producing) .
A book remains to be written about the Griller Quartet, who based on these recordings deserve their place up their with the Amadeus and Hollywood in the pantheon of all time great quartets (I must explore their Mozart and Haydn on Dutton). John Amis writes in his autobiographical 'Amiscellany': "Later the Grillers went to the States, their stay their ending in stark tragedy when an internal homosexual fracas ended in denunciation to the police and sudden death, at which point the always happily married Sidney Griller came back to England."
* A Cellist's Life by Colin Hampton is published by Back Stage Books, ISBN 1890490350
* MP3 file of Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in the adagio molto e cantabile from Beethoven's 9th symphony from the superb Finnish national radio station YLE Radio 1, many more wonderful audio files there - do visit.
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