Due to an unfortunate slip of the fingers, I'm pretty well committed to this post. It's just one of those things, I suppose.
Arturo Toscanini was, perhaps, the last of the great 19th century conductors. He was conductor at La Scala by 1898, by way of comparison, Wilhelm Furtwängler was twelve years old and Herbert von Karajan wouldn't be born for another ten years. His ascendancy, before the turn of the century, puts him in a different class of conductors. He joins the ranks of Gustav Mahler, Wagner himself, Hans von Bülow, and others as great conductors influencing the generation which influenced the ones working today. It is some surprise, then, that his interpretations are so - for the lack of a better word - modern. Especially his Wagner, who would have been - for him - roughly contemporary music. Maybe a half a generation old, or so. However, modern though his Wagner is, I am not entirely sure what I should make of it.
In fact, it bears noting, Toscanini conducted the premiere of Puccini's La bohème; I don't know if it can be stressed, when one takes his work with Verdi, enough that he was present at the creation (pace Dean Acheson) of much of what we consider canon.
I'm no Toscanini expert: Furtwängler and Boulez tend to be the conductors I follow most closely. However, a brief example - his 1940 Parsifal excerpts (the prelude and the Karfreitagszauber, excepting his synthesis for the moment) tend to be a bit more leisurely than some later conductors'. His thirteen minute Parsifal prelude is longer, even, than Knappertsbusch's 1962 reference. (13'19" vs. 12'02"; as it happens, Daniel Barenboim is the only serious contender in the field with a longer prelude, at 13'42".) Let's not talk about Herbert Kegel and Pierre Boulez, for the moment. Does it drag? Does it seem long? Not a hope. So focused is it that it seems to arrest the ordinary aural laws. Now, a lot of that's Wagner himself and his transcendent (in the most precise sense) score, but some of it is Toscanini.
His 1941 live Götterdämmerung finale, with Helen Traubel, is another example of the intense, laser-beam like focus, for which he was famous, applied to Wagner. Toscanini seemed to reflect the drama (the literally cataclysmic cosmic drama, but that's a book - to say nothing of a blog post) in his tempi. They whir along, caught up in one of Wagner's most tense and taut scenes. There is no excess fat on Toscanini's recording. This focus, this insistence on playing the scores as they have come down (viz his famous "Allegro con brio" comment), and taut style make Toscanini - in fairness - a very modern conductor. I don't care who constructed the notions of a modern conductor, but it seems to me that Toscanini embodied them, even if he didn't create them.
His Wagner, given favorable remarks by none other than Gustav Mahler, is nice. But I don't really know what to make of it. It has intense focus, a sense of drama (not surprising for someone who got his start in operatic conducting and was a great success there), and a precision that many conductors would do well to emulate. Maybe I am too used to conductors like Boulez and the lesser-known Herbert Kegel*, with overt - seemingly - rhetorical programs behind their interpretations, but Toscanini seems like he is applying his usual bag of talents and genius to Wagner. That's good enough, but at times I wonder if it's good enough for Wagner.
*A conductor who studied under Böhm and turned in a recording of Parsifal (1975, RSO Leipzig) that is notable for electric tempi - not unlike Boulez' 1970 Bayreuth version - and the only time René Kollo has ever convinced me of his talent without some reservation on my part. His final monologue is, in this recording, second only to James King's for Boulez in my esteem.