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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Brahms in London - Volume 2
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a (1873) [16:45]
Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90 (1883) [37:18]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [37:19]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, October 1952
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC377 [57:10 + 43:29]

Arturo Toscanini's return to London in 1952 to conduct all the Brahms symphonies in a pair of concerts was considered of sufficient import to merit nationwide broadcast by the BBC. Pristine Audio's two-volume issue has similarly treated them as such an event, presenting all of the broadcast content. In this volume, besides the music, we get the commentator's announcements (too loud relative to the music); the playing of the National Anthem; and the interval feature, a prerecorded encomium to Toscanini by Sir Adrian Boult. This is why the total timings listed for the discs in the headnote add up to more than the durations of the actual performances.

EMI recorded the two concerts but didn't issue them, apparently owing to contractual conflicts. Pirated releases, reportedly in restricted sonics, surfaced on vinyl, first in the "Turnabout Historical Series" and then on Testament. The current issue represents what I assume is the first authorized release of these performances. Andrew Rose's mastering certainly brings the best out of the source recordings, which come across here with a wide frequency and dynamic range -- no nebulous pianissimos or distorted tuttis -- and plenty of colour. A modicum of hiss remains, but it's not bothersome once the music starts.

These concert readings make for rather interesting comparisons with RCA's "canonical" New York versions. The NBC recordings -- also made in performance, in Carnegie Hall -- sound better than their reputation: though the Victrola LP transfers sounded like AM radio, the remastered Red Seal CDs (RCA 74321 55838 2) are pleasingly full and immediate. But these accounts are more spontaneous and lyrically expansive, and they offer greater warmth and depth, notably among the brasses.

This F major Symphony, in particular, is a useful corrective to the NBC recording, in which Toscanini, attempting to bring tonal weight and mass to the first movement, gets off to a stiff, gear-grinding start. Here, instead, a no-nonsense attack launches a surging, incisively accented reading. Ensemble, surprisingly, is less tight than you might expect, but, amid the prevailing turbulence, the conductor elicits moments of grace. The Andante, simply presented, moves along; the uneasy second theme feels more measured, and the tone expands nicely in the recapitulation. The clear, dusky cellos are striking in the unfussy Poco allegretto. The finale, hushed at the start, is buoyant and dynamic, and tends slightly to pick up speed; in the final winding-down, however, the rhythm is firmly controlled.

The purposeful E minor Symphony is more like the NBC account. The strings almost sneak into the opening phrase of the flowing first movement, in which the contrasting motifs are all clearly audible, and the rhythm is alert. The development is trenchant and roiling, the recapitulation both explosive and exuberant. After the horns' initial call to attention, the Andante moderato's first theme is restrained, even subdued, while the second is more expansive in tone; the little string chorale at 7:29 sings with dignity. The scherzo drives, but it doesn't rush -- the sound is solidly grounded; the passacaglia finale is forthright and dynamically varied.
 
The Variations on a Theme by Haydn -- billed thus, though the announcer invariably calls them the "St. Anthony [sic] Chorale Variations" -- opened the concert. The performance is characterful, though I can imagine listeners carping over this or that episode. At the start, Toscanini allows, or encourages, the players to double-dot, as in his 1936 New York Philharmonic recording (RCA 6017-2-RC), injecting an incongruous hippety-hop into the otherwise dignified theme. The variations are -- well -- varied. The first goes with a nice surge; the fourth is darkly brooding; the vigorous sixth has lightness and point; the seventh's dotted rhythms are lilting, even in the basses. On the other hand, the third seems stuck at mezzoforte, the fifth is almost chaotically fast, and the eighth gets off to a slurry start. The finale, initially elegiac, builds to an impressive, proclamatory finish.

Not only are the Pristine Audio albums important documents, but the performances they enshrine are first-class.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

 

 




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