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Now that the age of the autocratic conductor is past – not before time, many would say – it is far too easy to underestimate Toscanini’s impact on the musical world. This book of more than 900 pages, full of personal recollections and testimony (including material from the conductor’s only surviving grandchild, Emanuela), is vastly comprehensive, balanced and indispensable. An overwhelming number of musicians and serious listeners recognised Toscanini as ‘someone who stood apart’. Maestros as dissimilar as Monteux and Klemperer saw him as ‘the greatest of all’ and ‘the king of conductors’ respectively, and musicians in the various orchestras which he conducted feared him and loved him. They recognised that this man, as the author writes, ‘spent his life working extremely hard at his art, which he loved profoundly’.

As Sachs observes, Toscanini (born in 1867) was at the height of his powers in the 1920s and 1930s, but critics often based their views on later performances. His fiery nature has encouraged the stereotype of an intense, highly-strung, impatient, intolerant conductor, while his interpretations – quite apart from the fantastic orchestral discipline he achieved – are not to everyone’s taste. Within only a few years of his death, opinions had polarised, but it has to be acknowledged that this man who could excite such universal acclaim was truly extraordinary. The fierce demands and volcanic outbursts must be balanced against the kindness and boundless generosity, the merciless self-criticism, the absolute, incorruptible dedication to music. He did not indulge in self-glorification and shunned compliments.

The uncompromising approach which brought Toscanini such startling results in his career equally characterised his political views – hence the ‘conscience’ of the title. His fearless, implacable opposition to Mussolini and Hitler contrasts sharply with the compliance or apathy common among his contemporaries.

Sachs’ own dedication to this force of nature has been fulfilled in a book which ranks among the best of 2017.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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