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CD & Download: Pristine Audio

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Toscanini at NBC: The Early Years
Double Concerto in A minor, op.102 (1887) [31:28]
Symphony No.2 in D major, op.73 (1877) [37:26]
Mischa Mischakoff (violin); Frank Miller (cello)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. venue not specified; 12 February 1938 (symphony) and 21 October 1939 (concerto)

Experience Classicsonline

The fact that Pristine Audio’s unique selling point is its audio restoration might be sufficient justification to start any review of its products with a discussion about sound quality. But, in addition to that, any pre-1950 Toscanini recording is also likely to have some very specific issues of sound quality that need to be addressed and so the whole issue takes on an even greater significance.
Although the recording venue of these radio broadcasts isn’t specified here, I’m assuming that it’s likely to have been Studio 8H in the Rockefeller Center’s GE Building (known at that time as the RCA Building) in New York City. While today’s US TV viewers will be most familiar with that as the recording venue for the massively popular show Saturday Night Live, audiophiles will always associate its famously dry acoustic with the many broadcasts made by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and its legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini between 1937 and 1950. Many of these were subsequently issued on disc. Although the minimal degree of reverberation may sound odd to ears that are unused to it, the aural clarity apparently appealed greatly to Toscanini, who would certainly have been able to initiate changes should he have been dissatisfied with the sound. [There is a fascinating discussion of Studio 8H in Mortimer H. Frank’s authoritative study Arturo Toscanini: the NBC years (Portland, Oregon, 2002), pp. 33-35 and 245-248.] In fact, the spare, rather sharp-edged quality of the recordings actually suits the conductor’s incisive and thrusting accounts of these two Brahms works very well.
Toscanini seems to have been especially fond of the Double Concerto. It was, in fact, the only concerto by any composer that he included in the series of ten television concerts he gave in the late 1940s and early 1950s, all of which were thankfully preserved and are currently available on five Testament DVDs, SBDVD 1003 - SBDVD 1007. The soloists in both the 1939 recording under consideration and the TV broadcast of 13 November 1948, the soundtrack of which was subsequently issued on disc, were not stellar names but both members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra itself - concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff and principal cellist Frank Miller. But whatever Mischakoff and Miller may have lacked in public profile they more than made up for with the very obvious empathy that they, as long term colleagues, display towards both each other and Toscanini.
The 1948 performance is the better known. Featured as part of volume 8 of RCA Victor Gold Seal’s mammoth Arturo Toscanini Collection in the 1990s, it is consistently brisker than the earlier performance that we have here.

I. Allegro
III. Vivace non troppo

That is not, however, to characterise the 1939 performance as generally sluggish. Rather, it is a somewhat more lyrical and rhapsodic account, gaining - especially in the andante - a degree of emotional intensity while sacrificing some of the post-war account’s more purposeful, driven quality. The playing from all sections of the hand-picked NBC orchestra is, needless to say, superb and Andrew Rose’s expert XR re-mastering delivers a feeling of immediacy that actually works very well with Studio 8H’s dry acoustics to offer a real “in your face” sound (see the Pristine Classical website for a fascinating explanation of the technique).
The sound is, however, rather less of a positive element in the 1938 recording of the Second Symphony. We know that between 1937 and 1939 Studio 8H’s sonic drawbacks - magnified further for radio listeners by the technology involved in broadcasting - were causing some concern. Composer Virgil Thomson opined that “the NBC hall is not a pleasant place to hear music” (Frank, op.cit., p.33) while even a more favourably disposed critic such as Olin Downes described a rather odd experience “as if you listened to each instrument under the microscope” (ibid. p. 34). Later broadcasts and recordings were improved - from 1939-41 by the addition of artificial resonance that, by all accounts and to judge from the Double Concerto recording, improved matters considerably and, from 1941 onwards, by structural work to the studio itself. The 1938 symphony recording on this new disc had thus been made when conditions were at their worst and, in spite of Pristine Audio’s sterling efforts, quite frankly it shows.
Moreover, while the survival of any recording of this vintage is naturally welcome, this particular account of the D major symphony is not significantly different in approach to Toscanini’s well known 1952 Carnegie Hall recording and so throws little if any new light on his approach to the work.
This is, then, very much an issue where the primary focus is on the concerto and if you admire the work as much as the conductor evidently did, you will certainly find the disc a worthwhile purchase.
One final note: given Toscanini’s huge public profile, these Studio 8H broadcasts were something of a high society event at the time and do seem to have attracted audiences who may not have been familiar with the normal conventions of concert-going. They therefore applaud vigorously at the end of every movement of the concerto. One can, across more than seventy years, surely see the expression of annoyance on Arturo Toscanini’s famously irascible face.
Rob Maynard





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