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Brahms: The Four Symphonies, Etc / Toscanini, Philharmonia


Release Date: 03/10/2000 
Label:  Testament   Catalog #: 3167   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Mono 
Length: 3 Hours 20 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

By 1952 the Philharmonia Orchestra, in its seven years of existence, had evolved into one of Europe's finest ensembles. Its reputation was in many respects consolidated by Herbert von Karajan's role as music director and orchestra builder, and was further shaped by legendary guest conductors Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Victor de Sabata, and Sir Thomas Beecham, and emerging podium figures such as Guido Cantelli, Issay Dobrowen, Igor Markevitch, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Carlo Maria Giulini. Otto Klemperer's long, productive Indian Summer at the helm of the Philharmonia lay just ahead.

Orchestra founder Walter Legge's dream of dreams, however, was to have Arturo Toscanini guest conduct the Philharmonia. They met in
Read more Milan, during the orchestra's spring tour in 1952. At first, the 85-year-old Maestro expressed reluctance to take on a new orchestra, but he quickly relented. He and Legge devised six programs of diverse repertoire that would take place at London's Royal Festival Hall that summer. For various political and logistical reasons, the concerts were not possible to schedule as planned. Toscanini had to return to New York in the fall for his NBC season. It was finally agreed that the Maestro would stop over in London en route to America and conduct two all-Brahms concerts, September 29th and October 1st.

Independent label editions of these concerts have long been in circulation, in sound ranging from muffled and compressed (Fonit Cetra) to atmospheric and open (Hunt). Testament's new refurbishing, though, stems directly from Legge's original tapes. Though the basic sonic image is similar to the Hunt CDs, Toscanini's extraordinary dynamic range is considerably opened up due to the increased detail and hall ambience. What's more, Testament presents the music in the order it was originally heard, including both previously unreleased Britsh National Anthem readings that opened the concerts (the second one is slightly broader and more shapely).

More to the point, the interpretations offer a significant gloss on Toscanini's more familiar 1951-52 studio Brahms recordings with the NBC Symphony. For one, the Philharmonia was a more tonally alluring, mellifluously blended ensemble in comparison to its New York counterpart. This impression is reinforced by the slightly distant recording quality, which nevertheless conveys the full scope of Toscanini's incisive yet warm sonority, with plenty of body and bottom to it. What's more, the wind and brass solos are handled to more imaginative effect in London. The trombone fluffs in the First Symphony's finale matter very little. Similarly, the firecrackers set off at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony's Passacaglia movement might have been jarring at the time, but because they explode on the beat they don't ruin the performance. In any case, the London Fourth provides an equally bracing, slightly more flexible counterpart to Toscanini's studio version. The Second Symphony always elicited intense geniality on the Maestro's part, and his NBC rendition is one of his finest recordings of anything. I prefer it to the Philharmonia version, whose rushed finale sometimes threatens to spin out of control. While the First Symphony is demonically taut and highly charged, the lyrical passages have more breadth and emotional dimension via the conductor's mesmerizing May 6, 1940, broadcast (available from Naxos and Music & Arts).

By contrast, the Third Symphony sings out in flowing, judiciously contoured lines that allow every orchestral strand to be heard, and is vastly superior to the Maestro's rather stiff and self-conscious studio effort. Dennis Brain's third movement horn solo arguably crowns a performance that Legge claimed was the best interpretation of any work he had ever heard. The wonderfully lithe Haydn Variations mirror Toscanini's classic 1936 New York Philharmonic version in their fusion of precision and poetry. And the Tragic Overture's brooding resonance belies the conductor's apparent distraction: he had started to conduct what he thought was the First Symphony, only to be unnerved by the Tragic Overture's sharp opening chords.

Alan Sanders' notes provide an informative context for the performances in hand. But his assertion that the Philharmonia's "typically English character of style and timbre brought out particular qualities of warmth and lyricism in the fiery maestro's interpretations" smacks of provincialism. A list of the orchestra's personnel at these concerts also is provided in the booklet. Kudos to Testament for bringing out a well-produced "official" edition of these milestone concerts, which all Toscanini's admirers should acquire.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1876; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1952 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
2. Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1952 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
3. Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1883; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1952 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
4. Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1884-1885; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1952 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
5. Variations in B flat major on a theme by Haydn, Op. 56a "St. Anthony" by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1873; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1952 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 
6. Tragic Overture, Op. 81 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1880; Austria 
Date of Recording: 1952 
Venue:  Live  Royal Festival Hall, London, England 

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