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Pristine Classical

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.1 in C minor, op.68 (1876) [41:55]
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73 (1877) [37:32]
Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90 (1883) [39:44]
Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98 (1885) [37:02]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 6 November 1951 (no.1), 11 February 1952 (no.2), 4 November 1952 (no.3) and 3 December 1952 (no.4), Carnegie Hall, New York.
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC349 [79:27 + 76:46]

The best news here is that as well as illuminating the sound in general, Pristine engineer Andrew Rose has been able to enhance the previously inferior sound for the Third and Fourth symphonies so that it matches that of the first two. Their better recorded sound explains why the First and Second Symphonies have long been available and very recommendable to anyone tolerant of mono. Now all four symphonies have some air around them, the glare and harshness tamed and erratic pitch corrected. They are still no aural feast but as with the Pristine re-mastering of Furtwängler’s Brahms from the 1940s and 1950s, the obvious performances for purposes of comparison, a new depth and spaciousness have been revealed and the listener’s enjoyment of the very different approach to Brahms by both maestros has been enormously enhanced. 

Furtwängler’s interpretation is generally much warmer and more Romantic than Toscanini’s but there is certainly no lack of feeling in the latter’s Andantes and Adagios, even though he is on average some two minutes faster than Furtwängler. However, the default position criticism of Toscanini - “he conducts everything at breakneck speed” - hardly applies here, even if it is true that he takes the opening to the First faster than any other conductor I know. As is often the case when re-encountering Toscanini after listening to more modern or later accounts of Brahms symphonies by Abbado and Karajan, my first thoughts were that he was rather perfunctory and unyielding - but the ear soon adjusts to what he is about. Once the second subject of the magical Andante second movement in the First Symphony spirals heavenward on soaring strings, you know that you are safe in the hands of a master Brahms interpreter. It is possible to miss the depth of sound we enjoy in those more recent recordings but Toscanini's insistence upon individual instrumental lines emerging clearly pays dividends; one hears harmonic details and nuances you do not always catch in warmer, stereo sound. He is never speedy for its own sake; his direction is always taut and purposeful, his frequent use of ritenuto judicious and his phrasing sublime: the dotted second subject in the Andante sostenuto in the First Symphony really sings, helped by the sweetness of the solo by the NBC’s first violinist and the sonority of the contribution of the principal horn. There is often a kind of febrile joy in Toscanini's music-making which sweeps the listener along; thus the Scherzo is breathless but exhilarating - more "allegro" than a true "allegretto" - but it works. Not that Toscanini cannot plumb the depths; there is a brooding majesty to the Adagio opening of the fourth movement, as a bemired C minor struggles to emerge into the sunlit uplands of C major via those plangent horn and flute solos and the Big Tune builds massively to an explosive finale which is simply glorious with its uplifting, climactic chorale.
Probably recognising Brahms’ reference to his symphony no.2 as “elegiac and melancholy” as another of the sardonic composer’s little ironic jokes, Toscanini eschews the dragginess which afflicts recordings by such as Giulini and refuses to linger. He does not replicate the fluidity that Karajan achieves, or the melodramatic “Sturm und Drang” approach of Furtwängler, or the dark warmth of Klemperer but, surprisingly, instead, aims for charm, again phrasing gorgeously, catching Brahms’ Alpine holiday mood. The finale is a little breathless and frenetic but Toscanini relaxes for the second variation and eventually steers us home in the most exhilarating fashion imaginable without adopting an especially fast tempo.
The Third is in many ways the most straightforward of Brahms’ symphonies and elicits the most relaxed of Toscanini’s interpretations. He brings a confident swing to the frequent, swaying three-quarter-time rhythms which run throughout this symphony. Toscanini maintains a gentle pulse, moving inexorably towards a grand finale which is another of Brahms’ trademarks. The Andante finds Toscanini at his most genial, hence he is even slower than Furtwängler, Levine, Abbado and van Zweden. Then in the finale all that restraint is thrown aside for a rip-roaring Allegro before the return to serenity.
“Relaxed” is not the first word we usually apply to this conductor, but the Fourth again finds him effortlessly synthesising the plethora of ideas based around the interval of a third that flood this most musically fertile of Brahms’ symphonies. There is a massive exuberance about the conclusion, following the pattern we have seen in Toscanini’s love-affair with Brahms. Technically, there are some problems in the synchronisation between the violins and the rest of the orchestra, symptomatic of the sense of urgency characteristic of Toscanini’s typical forward momentum. 

Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphonies