BUZZ: This is Toscanini's only concert recorded in stereo that survives complete! Deleted six years ago from our catalog, this long-time best seller has been reissued in response to widespread demand, with new graphics.
Writes critic Peter Gutmann: "Conventional wisdom is that Toscanini's last concert was an artistic failure, driven by the great conductor's anguish over his impending retirement. The day before, he had exploded in anger at a musician's perceived mistake, cursed the orchestra, stormed out of the final rehearsal and demanded a last minute program change to the Tannhäuser excerpt that would prove his downfall. During the concert performance of the substituted piece, the national broadcast audience heard the ensemble crumble, followed by 14 seconds of silence, announcer Ben Grauer claim that there were technical difficulties, more silence, the opening half minute of a Toscanini record of Brahms's Symphony # 1, and then the concert back in progress. Although it was unclear exactly what had happened, it was obvious that something beyond mere technical difficulties had gone wrong. Toscanini momentarily had lost his concentration and had stopped beating time. The national media, though, reported the event in tones of high melodrama and cosmic symbolism: the supreme perfectionist had made a dreadful mistake; the infallible memory had suffered a grievous lapse; the perpetually youthful conductor had succumbed to the ravages of age; the most glorious career in classical music had crashed to an ignominious end. Subsequent authors have perpetuated this soap-operatic view. B.F. Haggin, one of Toscanini's inner circle, in his adulatory Conversations with Toscanini termed the concert "tragic" and offered that "it would have been better if he had never conducted it." Even the reliable Harold Schönberg in The Great Conductors describes the last concert as "heartbreaking" and "shocking".… But the recorded version reveals that while there is indeed a moment of uncertainty at the crucial … the orchestra, intimately familiar with Toscanini's interpretation, recovers immediately and continues to play with cohesion and commitment. In fact, the entire concert, and particularly the fatal Bacchanale, is more inspired than the stiff "official" versions of these pieces later released by RCA. Those in the control room had no cause to lose their heads and turn a minor lapse of attention into the sensationalism of the world's greatest conductor ending his career in abject disgrace. But the most far-reaching significance of the CD is the sound itself. Critics uniformly praised the luminous sonority Toscanini achieved in concert, but the recorded evidence is confusing. The NBC Symphony records (on RCA) were harsh, brittle and flat, while the better balance and depth of his earlier New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra discs were compromised by deficient top ends. The new disc approaches high fidelity and is probably the most accurate Toscanini sound we will ever hear. And as if that were not enough, the concert is in genuine stereo! Any list of essential Toscanini CDs must now find room for this marvelous concert which gives us the opportunity to set the historical records straight and, if for only an hour, to revel in the sonic glory that was Toscanini."