Inventive, classic Brahms from Toscanini's early NBC concerts
Excellent sound quality achieved in these XR remasters
FLAC Downloads include PDF scores of both works
"...The Double Concerto provides a different situation, with the two NBC performances, both featuring the same first-desk soloists, contrasting markedly. As issued by RCA on LP, the second of the two broadcasts was almost unlistenable: shrill, thin, and painfully cramped. Transferred onto compact disc (and videocassette), the performance sounds far more musical: the shrillness has been eliminated, the orchestra has been given more weight, and the overall ambience seems less cramped. As a result, the musical virtues—veiled in the original LP— have become more apparent, notably the way in which tightly knit organization and a steady pulse underscore the work's suggestion, with opposition of paired soloists against larger tutti forces, of the concerto grosso style. Brahms, it should not be forgotten, was a first-class musicologist who had edited Handel (among others) and was thoroughly familiar with the baroque concerto idiom, as Toscanini's 1948 performance reminds us.
The 1939 broadcast comprises a considerably more improvisational reading, rhythms being less rigid and melodic lines lingered over more caressingly. None of this, however, violates good taste or the music's integrity. Indeed, it is a prime example of Toscanini's (and the soloists') command of rubato. In short, this is a performance that adds considerable dimension to Toscanini's Brahms."
"Of all the Brahms symphonies, the Second may pose the fewest interpretive problems. Not surprisingly, then, it is the Brahms symphony in which one encounters the fewest changes in approach from one Toscanini reading to another. The main differences among them center on the pacing for the finale: sometimes relatively expansive, as in the magnificent 1952 studio recording, other times swift. The 1938 broadcast features a blend of both approaches. And common to all of Toscanini's surviving accounts is his refusal to accelerate in the movement's coda, where the lullabylike second subject is transformed into a festive peroration for full orchestra.
As in the Brahms First, Toscanini's way with the Second Symphony is distinguished by a prevailing freedom from sentimentality. Neither of the first two movements is unduly protracted, and both benefit from an exceptional clarity of texture and firmness of pulse, with rubato, if often evident, subtly applied. In both movements surging dynamics and arching phrases suggest the ebb and flow of the sea that Brahms knew so well and that clearly influenced his music. And in all of Toscanini's performances the third movement is a model of unaffected, straightforward simplicity."
From "Arturo Toscanini - the NBC Years" by Mortimer H. Frank (Amadeus Press, 2002)
Notes on the recordings:
The two recordings presented here were transferred from tapes donated to the Pristine Audio collection which, although they may be a generation or three away from the original disc recordings (I honestly don't know), have done a remarkably good job of preserving the fine detail captured by NBC's microphones in the late 1930s. If anything the later, 1939 recording is slightly sharper - it certainly presented fewer restoration problems, though hopefully no major differences will be heard in this release between the two.
In both recordings I have managed to find considerable clarity and range extension, and though the top end is occasionally marred by hiss and mild peak distortion, both the Concerto and Symphony sound remarkably fresh and alive in these transfers.
Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra
Biographical notes from Wikipedia
Fleeing Italy, he returned to the United States where the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created for him in 1937. He conducted his first NBC broadcast concert on December 25, 1937, in NBC Studio 8-H in New York City's Rockefeller Center. The acoustics of the specially built studio were very dry; some remodeling in 1939 added a bit more reverberation. (In 1950, the studio was further remodeled for television productions; today it is used by NBC for Saturday Night Live. In 1980, it was used by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a series of special televised NBC concerts called "Live From Studio 8H", the first one being a tribute to Toscanini, punctuated by clips from his television concerts.)
The NBC broadcasts were preserved on large transcription discs, recorded at both 78-rpm and 33-1/3 rpm, until NBC began using magnetic tape in 1947. NBC used special RCA high fidelity microphones both for the broadcasts and for recording them; these microphones can be seen in some photographs of Toscanini and the orchestra. Some of Toscanini's recording sessions for RCA Victor were mastered on sound film in a process developed about 1941, as detailed by RCA producer Charles O'Connell in his memoirs, On and Off The Record. In addition, hundreds of hours of Toscanini's rehearsals with the NBC were preserved and are now housed in the Toscanini Legacy archive at The New York Public Library.
Toscanini was often criticized for neglecting American music; however, on November 5, 1938, he conducted the world premieres of two orchestral works by Samuel Barber,Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra. In 1945, he led the orchestra in recording sessions of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé in Carnegie Hall (supervised by Grofé) and An American in Paris by George Gershwin in NBC's Studio 8-H. He also conducted broadcast performances of Copland's El Salon Mexico; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with soloists Earl Wild and Benny Goodman and Piano Concerto in F with pianist Oscar Levant; and music by other American composers, including marches of John Philip Sousa. He even wrote his own orchestral arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner, which was incorporated into the NBC Symphony's performances of Verdi's Hymn of the Nations. (Earlier, while music director of the New York Philharmonic, he conducted music by Abram Chasins, Bernard Wagenaar, and Howard Hanson.)
In 1940, Toscanini took the orchestra on a "goodwill" tour of South America. Later that year, Toscanini had a disagreement with NBC management over their use of his musicians in other NBC broadcasts. This, among other reasons, resulted in a letter which Toscanini wrote on 10 March 1941 to RCA's David Sarnoff. He stated that he now wished "to withdraw from the militant scene of Art" and thus declined to sign a new contract for the up-coming winter season, but left the door open for an eventual return "if my state of mind, health and rest will be improved enough". So Leopold Stokowski was engaged on a three-year contract instead and served as the NBC Symphony's music director from 1941 until 1944. Toscanini's state of mind soon underwent a change and he returned as Stokowski's co-conductor for the latter's second and third seasons resuming full control in 1944.
One of the more remarkable broadcasts was in July 1942, when Toscanini conducted the American premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. Due to World War II, the score was microfilmed in the Soviet Union and brought by courier to the United States. Stokowski had previously given the US premieres of Shostakovich's 1st, 3rd and 6th Symphonies in Philadelphia, and in December 1941 urged NBC to obtain the score of the 7th as he wanted to conduct its premiere as well. But Toscanini coveted this for himself and there were a number of remarkable letters between the two conductors (reproduced by Harvey Sachs in his biography) before Stokowski agreed to let Toscanini have the privilege of conducting the first performance. Unfortunately for New York listeners, a major thunderstorm virtually obliterated the NBC radio signals there, but the performance was heard elsewhere and preserved on transcription discs. It was later issued by RCA Victor in the 1967 centennial boxed set tribute to Toscanini, which included a number of NBC broadcasts never released on discs. In Testimony Shostakovich himself expressed a dislike for the performance, after he heard a recording of the broadcast. In Toscanini's later years the conductor expressed dislike for the work and amazement that he had actually conducted it.
In the summer of 1950, Toscanini led the orchestra on an extensive transcontinental tour. It was during that tour that the well-known photograph of Toscanini riding the ski lift at Sun Valley, Idaho was taken. Toscanini and the musicians traveled on a special train chartered by NBC.
The NBC concerts continued in Studio 8-H until the fall of 1950. They were then held in Carnegie Hall, where many of the orchestra's recording sessions had been held, due to the dry acoustics of Studio 8-H. The final broadcast performance, an all-Wagner program, took place on April 4, 1954, in Carnegie Hall. During this concert Toscanini suffered a memory lapse reportedly caused by a transient ischemic attack, although some have attributed the lapse to having been secretly informed that NBC intended to end the broadcasts and disband the NBC orchestra. He never conducted live in public again. That June, he participated in his final recording sessions, remaking portions of two Verdi operas so they could be commercially released. Toscanini was 87 years old when he retired. After his retirement, the NBC Symphony was reorganized as the Symphony of the Air, making regular performances and recordings, until it was disbanded in 1963.
On radio, he conducted seven complete operas, including La bohème, La traviata, and Otello, all of which were eventually released on records and CD, thus enabling the modern listening public to have at least some idea of what an opera conducted by Toscanini sounded like.