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BRAHMS: The Four Symphonies, Variations on a Theme by Haydn & Tragic Overture    Philharmonia Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini   (recorded live at Royal Festival Hall, London 1952) Testament, SBT 3167, 3 CDs (Full Price)

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These recordings obtained legendary status quite soon after the concerts themselves in 1952, but this is the first official release of the performances on CD (in fact, in any legitimate format), and stem from Walter Legge's own EMI tapes of the sessions. It must be said from the outset that these transfers are markedly superior to anything that has appeared beforehand - certainly much better than the dreadfully transferred World Record LPs. The performances have, of course, appeared on CD before - on two releases from Hunt/Arkadia - both versions of which have now been deleted from the catalogue. In those transfers, the sound was often dry and brittle, a contrast to the warmth of the present transfers - even given the difficult acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall.

The performances of the symphonies are compelling - and certainly much warmer and more lyrical than his recorded cycle with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. As interpretations, they rather contradict the impression that all Toscanini performances were somehow symmetrically constructed, with tempos often staggeringly similar from performance to performance. With the exceptions of the First and Fourth Symphonies, these Philharmonia accounts are often less expansive than the NBC cycle he recorded in late 1951/early 1952. The notable achievement in this cycle is the Third Symphony which here receives the most assured of all Toscanini's interpretations of this symphony - a performance of considerable sunniness with the most beautiful of cantabile ever-present. This contrasts with the NBC recording which is slow, lacks rhythmic tension and seems drawn downwards by an interminably long beat.

The First Symphony is a powerful performance, although as in all Toscanini's interpretations of this work he fails to conduct the opening bars of the work as they should be. These opening bars, with its unrelenting timpani strokes, are amongst the most grand and profoundly moving of all passages in the symphonic canon, yet Toscanini, like virtually most conductors, seems confused by Brahms' marking of sostenuto. Taken at almost quaver 100, the development of the opening timpani seems too fast - and he accelerates the timpani ruining the grand line that Brahm's intended (and for which you have to turn to Furtwängler or Celibidache to hear correctly played). This aside, however, the movement develops inexorably, with the contrapuntalism of Brahm's construction not only implied, but grandly developed. Dynamics, whilst not as scrupulously observed as Celibidache (the most inspired interpreter of this symphony) are actually more clearly heard in this Philharmonia account than in his NBC recording of the work. The opening drum rolls, even if tempi are wayward, do clearly distinguish between the opening f and the concluding ff, and in the first movement's main theme cellos, woodwind and horns play perfectly before the appearance of the crescendo. In fact, the care given to the woodwind is an example of this performance's individualism, and this is no more evident than in the finale with its horn and flute melodies, here played gorgeously by Dennis Brain and Gareth Morris. The playing here is certainly more distinctive than on the NBC recording, and recalls another Philharmonia recording of the First Symphony with Guido Cantelli (a performance remarkably similar to this one). The trombone's missed entry in the finale (and then his fluffed notes) do not noticeably ruin what is one of the very best (and most exciting) recordings of the work available.

Listening to the opening of the Second Symphony, with its low strings and horn and woodwind exchanges, I was amazed at how much presence exists in this Testament transfer. Toscanini was reputedly somewhat worried that string tone was somewhat undernourished, yet hearing the opening bars and then the entry of the string's first theme, one is aware of an extraordinary depth of tone. Tempi in this symphony are all swifter than in Toscanini's studio recording of the work, yet this is never at the expense of the string's beautifully phrased playing. The playing is at once lyrical as it is idyllic, with the tunes given a statuesque presence, the penumbral shading of Brahms' scoring spot-lit neatly against the borders of lighter melody. The second subject of the first movement is as song-like as one could ask for, the coda intense and evocative. If the middle movements are gracious, with felicitous woodwind playing, the finale, marked Allegro con spirito, is as grandiose and driven as any. The playing is wonderfully dynamic, the development to the coda remorselessly laid out before us but not overdriven in any way. When the triumphal coda appears, one of the most astonishing things Brahm's wrote (and as similarly transparent as the closing pages of Bruckner's Fifth symphony) the exuberance is infectious. The great brass sonorities are here captured magnificently, strings arching ever higher upwards, horns and trombones radiant to the close. The cheers at the end say it all!

As I have already suggested, this performance of the Third Symphony is the finest Toscanini has left us. As if to illuminate the point further, Manoug Parikian, the leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra for these Toscanini concerts, later said that for him the most sublime and unforgettable moment of the series was the third movement of the Third Symphony. The opening cello theme had, according to Parikian, an unusual tenderness to it that stirred the depths of human feeling. It was, he added, " of my most profoundly moving experiences, and a lasting reminder of Toscanini's undoubted genius".

Great recordings of this work are thin on the ground, possibly because it is Brahms' most misunderstood symphony. It is a work that combines passion and resignation in equal measure and few conductors have been able to unite those two contrasting facets into a workable performance. This is the symphony where Toscanini's tempi are most diverse - the first movement of this Philharmonia account is almost 1½ minutes faster than on his NBC recording. Because this symphony, the most unique of all Brahms' symphonies in that it ends all of its movements piano or pianissimo, is so emotionally complex it is surprising that Toscanini, ever the objectivist, is actually able to encourage the Philharmonia to play with such astonishing weight and passion. The first movement positively surges, the finale opens in an exhilarating fashion, with strings astoundingly fleet. In between, the contrasts between the melancholic phrasing and wild outbursts are laid bare. Pianissimos are here given suppleness, and the most fearsome fortes seem to come from the core of the earth, so shattering are they. No wonder this performance is one of the most memorable things Toscanini did in his last years.

Almost as memorable, in fact, as the astonishing Fourth. This was the symphony Toscanini most admired by Brahms - and one can see why. It is a work of greatness, moving between tragedy and wild exclamation, often within the same movement. Just as it is the culmination of Brahms' symphonic output, so it is the epoch making performance on this cycle. This is the greatest single performance in Toscanini's NBC cycle and this Philharmonia account is as inspired as that, perhaps the single most impressive 'live' Fourth ever recorded (and notably different from an equally great Fourth from Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic).

The conception is laid out in the grandest of terms, the opening bars given astonishing presence. The development is built up inexorably, and the coda to the first movement, still noble and statuesque, generates enormous energy. Toscanini, crucially, does not slow before the timpani enter near the penultimate bar, and thus the climactic ending actually gathers momentum. There is no mannerism here, just the thrill of hearing the closing bars as they should be played. The second and third movements appear in this performance more than just intervals before the extraordinary unwrapping of the great passacaglia of the final movement. True, we hear the intervention of fireworks from the roof of the Festival Hall, but Toscanini remains unfazed and the listener cannot fail to be unaware of the very conscious build up of the layers of this extraordinary movement. The music arches forward nobly and naturally, the dynamics amplified by some of the finest wind playing on any recording of the work. Horns are given astonishing girth, strings play with the most sensitive of balance. Toscanini does hold back in the final moments of the movement's coda, but this allows the inevitability of the triumphant finale to reach its apogee. The moment is sublime.

These are all performances that pay more than repeated listening. Coupled to the symphonies are performances of the Tragic Overture and The Variations on a Theme by Haydn , both fine examples of Toscanini's craftsmanship in interpreting the genius that is Brahms. The playing on these discs is superb throughout, as one would expect of the Philharmonia Orchestra of the time. The trombonist may have his problems in the first symphony, but strings play with passion and the woodwind are really quite without rival. The brass are majestic. What probably would persuade me to recommend these recordings over Toscanini's NBC SO one is the sheer personality of the orchestral playing. You simply do not hear horn players of the stature of Dennis Brain today, or the saintly playing of Gareth Morris, Sidney Sutcliffe, Frederick Thurston or Cecil James on woodwind. To say the playing is heavenly is not an understatement. The Testament transfers, for the first time, really allow the greatness of this orchestra of individuals to emerge in the most clear of terms.

Alan Sander's notes give much of the history behind these recordings - anecdotes that amuse as much as they amaze. However, neither he, nor reviewers, have mentioned the BBC talk which Sir Adrian Boult gave about these concerts, during the interval of the second concert. I assume the reason the talk has not been reproduced on these discs is because it is lost from the archives ; if it is not, it is an error that should have been addressed. However, as an example of one illuminating conductor talking about another it is probably worth reproducing here:

"I expect there are few of you listening to me now who missed the first Toscanini broadcast on Monday. You will have been thrilled by the intense power of performances, by the way they pressed forward relentlessly to their climax and, above all, by the way they sang. I remember his calling out at a rehearsal....'Sing, sing, always sing, even when you are counting your rests.' Those of us who were lucky enough to be present in the Festival Hall for Monday's concert will, I'm sure, never forget it. As Toscanini came onto the platform the entire audience rose to its feet in homage to the great conductor - a homage, needless to say, without a trace of hysteria which came from our hearts and our minds. After each work, as the applause broke out, Toscanini at once had the Philharmonia Orchestra on its feet and so it was each time he came back. It was indeed only because the orchestra at the end resolutely refused to rise, that we were able, with them, to express our deep appreciation to the Maestro himself. Tonight we have already heard wonderful performances of the Brahms' Variations on a Chorale of St Anthony and the 3rd Symphony. And, as last Monday, we heard the music bathed in a brilliant light with every detail crystal clear and eloquent in a way we hadn't heard before. Some people have felt it a pity that the programmes are restricted to Brahms, and some of us might perhaps have preferred the splendid series of mixed programmes that were planned for the opening of the Festival Hall when the Maestro's illness prevented us the pleasure of welcoming him. But I am sure this is part of a definite plan. When Toscanini came to the BBC in 1939, he said he wished to put, as it were, a seal on his previous visits with a complete cycle of Beethoven Symphonies with the Great Mass. Now he goes on to Brahms, a composer for whom he has shown a special sympathy, unusual among his countrymen, for whom he has done much. The Latin countries were slower than Austria, Germany or England in their reception of Brahms' works as they came out. And Toscanini, both in Italy and elsewhere, did much to further them. When he was still a young man, I remember hearing of his great powers from Alberto Randiger, an Italian who was then one of the leading teachers of singing in London. He said, "He is great, even in the Brahms symphonies". I've told elsewhere how he interrupted me when I called him great: "No, no, no not that at all, just an honest musician." Well, we have heard how honest and how great besides. And now we are to hear the finest of Brahms' symphonies - the Fourth. I am looking forward with the keenest anticipation to Toscanini's interpretation of this great work; above all to the slow movement and the passcaglia - the final movement. Au revoir, dear Maestro, we want to see and hear you again soon. "

One of the finest sets yet to appear from the archives of EMI and Testament.


Marc Bridle


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Marc Bridle


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