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TV REVIEW : PBS' 'Toscanini' Takes a Look at the Life, Work of the Maestro

January 08, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

"You know why conductors live so long? Because we perspire so much." Or so said Sir John Barbirolli, who lived to be 70.

Arturo Toscanini was almost 90 when he died in 1957, and "Toscanini: The Maestro" (on "Great Performances" tonight at 9 on Channels 28 and 15, and at 8 tonight on Channel 24) shows the literal and figurative sweat of obsessive commitment and concentration that went into his performances.

Or at least those of the conductor's later years. Toscanini's early life and career understandably offer little material for a video documentary. In introducing the first telecast of a symphony concert in 1948, NBC's David Sarnoff noted how happy he was that the medium developed while the Maestro was still a young man--of 81.

There is thus no evidence of how Toscanini conducted opera in the theater, with which he began his conducting career in 1886 and made his reputation. The first half of the 90-minute program, written by Harvey Sachs, traces the externals of the conductor's life creditably, though in detail only with his coming to NBC in 1937.

Toscanini's affair with Geraldine Farrar, his leading soprano at the Met, is duly noted, as is her demand that he leave his wife. That was unthinkable, we are told, but not why. And Toscanini's anti-fascism is clearly documented, though not what brought him and Mussolini together on a socialist ticket in the 1919 Italian elections.

There is little mythologizing here; reality is imposing enough. James Levine, the nominal host, gives us a few minutes of superlatives, including paeans to Toscanini's devotion to the composer's purposes. The conductor's liberties with scores are later acknowledged, with the seriously asserted stipulation that his emendations clarified the composers' intentions.

Actual music-making is confined mostly to brief clips. The longest excerpts are from the 1944 "Hymn of the Nations" film Toscanini made of Verdi's potpourri--with his own addition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Soviet national anthem--the "Ride of the Valkyries" from that 1948 telecast, and the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, from 1952.

There are many faces and voices on this program, produced by Peter Rosen. Besides Levine, Alexander Scourby narrates and Gordon Gould reads the quotes. Walfredo Toscanini, the conductor's grandson, and a host of musicians who worked for Toscanini provide pertinent reminisences.

But the dominant image is of Toscanini himself, at work and en famille. His stern face relaxes into beaming geniality at home; on the podium it stares starkly down the cameras into an unheard future.

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