Toscanini's "ardent, blazing performances" of the complete Brahms Symphonies
New XR remasters have completely revitalised the sound of these masterworks
REVIEW - complete Brahms Symphonies
The reappearance of Toscanini's recordings of all the Brahms symphonies on the R.C.A. label is a most welcome event, for they should never be unavailable. As commercial ramifications are the only reason for their ever being off the market I had intended to give them what I believe is called in book circles a "reviewer's reading", a skim through. But, started on the first, I could not leave these ardent, blazing performances alone. They are wonderful and it is certain that, whatever the claims of other conductors, no Brahms lover should be without these. On their new label they sound very well and one need not fear the unpleasant sound associated with many Toscanini recordings, only the 3rd being less good...
T.H. The Gramophone, May 1959 (Reviewing R.C.A. RB16097-16100, LP reissues, excerpt) (link)
REVIEW - Symphonies 1 & 2
As a second-best for those unable to hear Toscanini's "live" performances of the Brahms symphonies in the Royal Festival Hall, which will have taken place by the time these words appear—and as a permanent reminder for the fortunate others—these records should have a considerable appeal. When they were made I do not know, but despite the great man's advancing years they are as full of fire and finesse as ever. (I am irresistibly reminded of Widor, at the age of nearly ninety, ripping his way through the finale of his Fifth Symphony for H.M.V.). The meticulous care over every detail, the beautiful phrasing and the breadth of line, the rhythmic bite, are hallmarks of the master. It has been claimed that, as an Italian, Toscanini is not the ideal interpreter of Brahms' typically Teutonic genius; but the Second Symphony elicits from him a perfectly appropriate lyricism, and there is not the smallest suggestion of stylistic impropriety in the more virile First. Besides, remembering Furtwängler's wilful exaggerations, is the German spirit necessarily more en rapport? There are, needless to say, none of these distortions here, but instead a choice of tempi which is made to seem inevitable: I would draw attention to the perfect tempo-transitions in the third movement of No. 2. The "bell-chime" horn tune and the trombones' chorale-like passage in the finale of No. 1 are taken slower than usual, and later in the movement the speeds do vary somewhat, but there is the evidence of Brahms' markings to justify this. In the orchestra's playing there is much of great beauty—I instance the glowing 'cello tone in the Adagio of No. 2 and the truly sotto voce quality of the start of the finale; and indeed the only real flaw I can find anywhere is the out-of-tune held A on trumpet and horn at the close of the first movement of the same symphony. Students of Brahms' scores will notice with interest that in No. 1 Toscanini suppresses the viola-and-timpani triplets at the two breakoffs a couple of dozen bars before the end.
On the technical side these issues are less satisfactory, though never enough seriously to detract from appreciation of the music. The worst fault for me is the extremely sharp pitch at which both works are recorded—I cannot get used to a Brahms' symphony in D sharp—but others without perfect pitch may not be worried by this. I suspect, however, that the consequent increase in speed may be partly responsible for the metallic tone of the strings (the wood-wind suffer less). The quality in general is rather coarse and thick, particularly in forte sections (e.g., in the Allegretto of No. 1 and the finale of No. 2); and the engineers seem to have been reluctant to allow a true p or pp level: the solo violin in the Andante of the First Symphony has been unduly amplified. In the SP version of No. 2 there is an overlap of four bars on the change-over from side 1 to side 2, and of three bars from side 7 to side 8; and in the first movement of No. 1 the gap between sides 2 and 3 comes just at that dramatic change of harmony between the chords of G7 and the 6-4 of B minor, so that Brahms' effect is lost. In these regards, at any rate, the LP issue which is promised is bound to be an improvement.
L.S. The Gramophone, October 1952 (Reviewing HMV 78rpm issues) (link)
Notes on the recordings:
It comes as no surprise to find Toscanini's studio LP recordings of Brahms' four symphonies still in RCA's catalogue. Alas the sound quality , whilst adequate for the first two symphonies, slips dramatically for the Third and Fourth, and all have anomalies throughout. This remastering aims to set the balance straight, to raise first the sound quality of Symphonies 1 and 2, and then to bring Symphonies 3 and 4 up to this same new standard. Careful application of the XR remastering system has achieved this and more - Toscanini's magnificent recordings of the Brahms symphonic canon have never sounded as wonderful as this!
I've also been able to fix some pitch anomalies, most acute in the Third Symphony, where both the second half of the 1st movement and the entire finale were considerably sharp.
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 atSun 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.
Notes continue here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toscanini