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This excellent book provides detailed accounts of Toscanini’s London concerts and recordings, and their critical reception, but there is also ‘connecting tissue’ (Dyment’s words) – brief descriptions of Toscanini’s more extensive activities elsewhere. Reading of the numerous unsuccessful attempts to entice him over here, we have to especially admire the persuasiveness and tireless diplomacy of BBC executive and subsequent concert promoter Owen Mase.

Toscanini is regarded as an unfeeling dictator by many, so it is important to read of his charm and kindness, his delight in working with both BBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestras, as well as his attacks of pre-concert nerves. Toscanini still divides opinion, but some critics of his interpretations base their views on a limited number of recordings, often unrepresentative and/or in shocking sound. There is no doubt that – as reflected in Annex A, an annotated discography of EMI recordings 1935-51 – he could sometimes be affectionate, flexible and subtle, just as on other occasions he is rigid, brusque, impatiently pressing forward. As with Callas and some other legendary artists, one has to be very careful to select the best performances – and especially careful to avoid the caricature of Toscanini as an irascible, impossibly demanding tyrant.

Whatever we now think of Toscanini’s performances, nobody can ignore his stunning impact on the British music-loving public. In the opinions of most critics (including Ernest Newman, W J Turner and Cecil Gray), musicians such as Bernard Shore and Archie Camden, and the ‘overwhelmed’ 21-year-old Benjamin Britten, Toscanini established previously unimaginable standards of orchestral discipline, clarity, balance and long-sighted architectural vision. Neville Cardus was one writer with reservations, but even he wavered between ‘dyspeptic’ and ‘ecstatic’ (p86). Time after time we read how Toscanini (to quote Newman here) ‘made us feel that that, just that, was what Beethoven intended’.

Dyment’s book, beautifully produced, is essential reading and thoroughly recommended.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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