GHCD 2337/38 – Arturo Toscanini – All Brahms – 1935/36
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini – Conductor
American Record Guide January / February 2009
Guild is a Swiss firm that has distinguished itself in recent years with a number of valuable releases of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony. Notable among them are an excellent issue of the 1940 Beethoven Missa Solemnis with Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Bjoerling, and Alexander Kipnis [2CD], never released commercially but occasionally available in varying jolly roger editions; a beautiful Brahms Requiem from 1943; and a superb remastering, using new source material, of the great Verdi Otello of 1947 originally issued by RCA. The Guild album (3CD) also offers 62 minutes of rehearsals of Act III (1/A 2005).The Sound of this new Brahms album with the NY Philharmonic from 1935 and 36 is not on that level. The release stems from broadcast recordings several generations removed from the Originals, and unless someone comes up with better transcriptions (one assumes Guild has looked), these are probably all that is left to document these performances. For the Toscanini enthusiast that is probably all that needs to be Said, but the faint-of-heart generalist may well think twice. Listeners with perfect pitch should beware. What we get are sometimes-wobbly silhouettes of the performances that offer the contours, tempos, and the poise of the Works but not the color or the full blending of choirs that so characterized the maestro’s work. The Winds are often wavery in tone, the clarinets in particular, suggesting that somewhere along the live the recordings may have been preserved on a tape recorder with pinch-roller problems.
This album does attest to the fact that Toscanini was playing the two Serenades at a time when almost no one else was. He obviously loved them, and these are among the best-tempered (now vigorous, now affectionate) things he ever did. The pacing is broad and relaxed, which was typical of much of his work with the Philharmonic. The scherzo (II) of Serenade 2, for example, is paced genially; whereas the Same movement of the same work in 1942 with the NBC (released by RCA) is fast enough so that the clever dialog between the strings and the Winds, particularly those woodwind echoes, is cramped and poorly articulated.
The inclusion of the Four Songs, Op. 17, for Women’s voices, harp, and French horns, reflects Toscanini’s innate curiosity and the fact that his repertory then was broader than it later was. The third Song -probably the best- is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Come away, come away; death). T’he fourth is Brahms’s arrangement of Schubert’s setting of Ellen’s second song in Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. The Sound of the NY Ladies Choir is somewhat shrill, and texts would have helped.
Piano Concerto 2 is a January 1936 broadcast from Carnegie Hall near the end of the conductor’s last season with the Philharmonic in low-fi, somewhat tolerable Sound. It is an exciting reading, the conclusion of II particularly; and the remarkably versatile Robert Casadesus, whom we do not usually think of as a Brahmsian, displays command of that composer’s style and agreement with Toscanini’s dramatic ideas about the Concerto. In fact, Casadesus ripples through Brahms’s knuckle-crunching piano writing as though it were the Moonlight Sonata.
Today when we think of this work and Toscanini, we think of his son-in-law Vladimir Horowitz, but they would not come together for the work until 1939 in Lucerne. Their famous recording for RCA was made in 1940. In the meantime, Horowitz was busy playing Brahms’s First Concerto-in 1935 with Toscanini and the Philharmonic (perhaps still available an Appian 6001) and in 1936 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bruno Walter (on Archipel 168, minus 4 minutes of the first movement).
The winter of 1936 was a particularly rich interpretive period for Toscanini. In February with the Philharmonic he recorded Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey for Victor. Two months later, in a remarkable burst of collaborative energy with his orchestra, he did Wagner’s Preludes to Acts I and III of Lohengrin, the overtures to Rossini’s Semiramide and L’Italiana in Algeri, Brahms’s Haydn Variations and Beethoven’s Symphony 7. Such was the ensemble perfection of the playing that all six Works were recorded in two days, April 9 and 10. Classics every one, originally issued on 78 rpm, they became available again in 1990-92 as part of RCA’s 71-album reissue of everything the maestro made for that company. Also at that time they were issued in a sonically superior 3-CD remastering by the now-famed restorer Mark Obert-Thorn on Pearl. Obert-Thorn’s latest remasterings of the Philharmonic recordings, as well as those Toscanini made in the 1930s with the BBC, are currently available on Naxos. They have to be ordered from England (see March/Apri12007).
His Philharmonic work done, Toscanini put on his hat and in less than a year accepted an offer from David Sarnoff of NBC to conduct an orchestra specially created for him. Starting with the first broadcast in December 1937, he quickly established the NBC Symphony as a first-rate ensemble (has there ever been orchestra building to match it?) and achieved recognized orchestral landmarks such as the Beethoven cycles of 1939, the 1940 Verdi Requiem and the Missa Solemnis, Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos with Horowitz, concert performances of the operas Fidelio, La Boheme, Aida, Otello and Falstaff: And the by now 70-year-old had to conduct only one performance a week, as opposed to four with the Philharmonic. Put together, Toscanini’s considerable accomplishments with the NBC and earlier with the Philharmonic are enough to make it fashionable these days to condemn portions of his later work with the NBC. A favourite target has been his last set of the Beethoven symphonies, recorded from 1949 to 1952, two of them (4 & 5) from NBC broadcasts. That was amended when the great 1953 broadcast of the Eroica was substituted for 1949 in the 1998 remasterings (but 1949 was erroneously listed in the booklet). It is one thing to deplore the hype and mistakes indulged in by NBC and RCA back in the 1950s and 60s-worst of all RCA’s decision to mass-market the recordings in dreadful artificial stereo. It is quite another to equate that hype and marketing with Toscanini’s musicianship.
The 1950s Beethoven symphonies are different from 1939, but not inferior. 1939 is generally more compressed and tightly wound, creating a surface tension that lends excitement and vitality to the performances. The best is 3, which was issued commercially by Victor despite a prominent cough between the two opening E-flat chords. Technology of the day did not permit editing the cough out. The worst of these performances is the 9th, which is fierce and almost brutal sometimes. As good as are the 1939 and 1949 Eroicas, the 1953 is more open and spacious, yet more contained and to the point. The first-movement exposition of the later 2 has a natural lyricism and thrust hat contrasts with the forced phrasing of 1939. The stark clarity of the 1950s 9th is something that took Toscanini a long time to get right, but did he ever. His late work with the NBC, his “nine” in particular, was characterized by a purist overview he came to in his last years. One challenge for him was to demonstrate that favoring strict tempos did not mean being unyielding or unwilling to embrace beautiful moments as they came along. It meant achieving cumulative power not otherwise attainable. This he did very well.
Fanfare Magazine January / February 2009
I was extremely curious to hear this release for a number of reasons. First, to hear how Toscanini conducted the Serenade No. 1; second, to See how this performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 compares to the magnificent 1948 NBC broadcast with Horowitz; and third, to hear how good the Overall Sound quality was. I felt I was an adequate judge of this since I already had “raw feeds” of the Serenade No. 2, Academic Festival Overture, and the four part-Songs (three written by Brahms, the fourth a Schubert song arranged by Brahms).As I suspected, Toscanini’s performance of the first Serenade is an the brisk side. Comparing it to my favorite performance, Gerard Schwarz conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (Nonesuch), Toscanini’s ferst movement is 9:02 compared to Schwarz’s 12:28 (though Toscanini omits two repeats); in the second movement, Schwarz actually beats Toscanini to the finish line (7:18 compared to 7:33). Toscanini is again much swifter in the third movement, but once more because of an omission of repeats. Schwarz throws caution to the Winds in the fourth-movement Menuettos, running through them at 3:58 compared to Toscanini’s relaxed 5:16. Toscanini is slightly quicker in the fifth movement, 2:34 to Schwarz’s 2:54 (again, a repeat observed by Schwarz). In the last movement, they are virtually identical.
But as with many of the New York Philharmonic performances, Toscanini’s tempos are not the Same as his phrasing. What sometimes sounded like a race to the finish in the NBC years, even when a bit slower, was due to the greater impetuosity of his phrasing and a much grander conception of the drama inherent in the music. This is illustrated by his version of the Second Piano Concerto. All four movements are quicker than their NBC counterparts, but with the elegant Frenchman Robert Casadesus at the piano, the entere performance takes on a softer contour and warmer acoustic without sacrificing the drama. Indeed, Casadesus plays more dramatically here than in any other performance of his that I’ve heard.
For those who’ve never heard it, this performance of the Serenade No. 2 is revelatory an many grounds. First, one almost never hears the music presented with this clarity of texture; second, except for the Philharmonia Brahms set, one rarely hears Toscanini conducting anything of Brahms with such airiness and complete lack of hurry. Each movement practically wafts across the listener’s mind like a summer breeze. There is not the slightest trace of impetuosity or haste here. This is as close to perfection as I have ever heard this music, by anyone.
Moving beyond the performances to the sound quality is quite another matter. The biggest problem with most of the Toscanini/NY Phil transcription discs is not so much presence of the orchestra as it is the most ungodly scritch-scratch sounds you’ve ever heard in your life. Even Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio cannot eliminate them, but the approaches of Pristine and Guild (this set was remastered by Peter Reynolds) are poles apart. Both engineers try to balance the sound of the orchestra as much as possible, but whereas Pristine attempts to restore a more natural Luster to the upper range, Guild rolls off the top end in an effort to mask the scritch-scratch. The result is that both companies retain a slight amount of scratch, but Pristine modifies it and tries to blend it into the restored upper string and wind sound, whereas Guild’s solution seems to me to muffle the music without always muffling the scratch. Thus you can just barely hear upper string and wind partials, but you can still hear that damn scratching sound like nails an a blackboard. Neither solution is ideal, mind you. But there is one other thing. Three inner movements of the Serenade No. 1 Buffer from wavering pitch, which may be due to an offcenter pressing or to instability of the original turntable, which caused the discs to slip when they were being recorded. Either way, however, Guild made no attempt to correct it.
But since none of this material is commercially available elsewhere, and since it is quite interesting (particularly the part-songs, conducted with a delicate and sensitive hand and again featuring Casadesus an piano), I can easily recommend this as a most valuable addition to any Toscanini aficionado’s collection. Even a blown note in the opening Serenade by hornist Bruno Jaenicke cannot detract from the exquisite warmth and delicacy of these performances, and the highly idiosyncratic reading of the Academic Festival Overture is guaranteed to rebut any Toscanini hater’s dismissal of his style as rushed and abrupt, though many listeners think it sub-par and prefer his 1948 NBC broadcast (not commercially issued).
Lynn Rene Bayley
Fanfare Magazine November / Dezember 2008
This set offers material taken down from CBS AM Sunday-afternoon broadcasts in 1935 and 1936. Two key points need to be made: this Set is only for those with a special interest in Toscanini, its sound being antediluvian even by the standards of its time. But the two serenades and the Songs are invaluable. This account of No. 1, the only surviving complete one we have from Toscanini, suggests a far more relaxed, singing approach than his two NBC performances of the work’s first movement convey. So, too, with this No. 2, a more graceful and easy going reading than Bither of his two complete NBC performances, especially the second one which was issued by RCA. The four Songs, which Toscanini neuer performed again alter this concert, are scored for Women’s Chorus, harp, and two horns. One of them is actually an arrangement by Brahms of Schubert’s Jäger ruhe von der Jagd! Given the comparatively small number of performers they involve, the sound does them less damage than that accorded the other items here. Finally the collaboration with Casadesus in the concerto, though fine, is strikingly similar to Toscanini’s surviving accounts with Hornwitz, and therefore the least valuable fitem here. In short this release is mainly significant as a relic, but as such fit is extraordinary.
Mortimer H. Frank
The caveat to this remarkable two-disc set must be the recorded sound. It’s boxy and limited and given the off-air recording date of 1935-36 that’s only to be expected. Nevertheless persistence is called for because the performances are formidable and interpretatively cut from the finest cloth.
The most important things here are the two Serenades, which Toscanini programmed infrequently and never recorded commercially. Given the magnificence of the performances one can mark this as a decided loss. The performances were given a week apart at the end of March and the beginning of April 1935. The D major is lyrically buoyant and superbly eloquent. The lusty drones of the opening movement are balanced by the refined liquidity of the wind playing; the tempo is not over-pressed. And the sinewy directional command of the slow movement – a rapt Adagio non troppo – has commanding, graphic proportions. By the finale the winds are in tremendous form, the whole performance in fact attests to their warmth and incision.
The companion Serenade fares equally well. Its slow movement is the highlight, warmly moulded and nobly unfolded, albeit with some sectional imprecision – which hardly matter given the outstanding and communing depth of the playing. The warm joviality of the Rondo, with its complement of hunting horns, and sturdy rhythmic profile runs it a close second though. Toscanini was taped live in this with the NBC in 1942 but this earlier inscription is the warmer, more malleable and preferable, albeit in worse sound.
The second disc opens with a sonorous and yet yielding Academic Festival Overture and continues with the Second Piano Concerto. The commercial recording Toscanini made with Horowitz is a well enough known artefact but this Casadesus survival, though once out on LP, much less so. The uneasy partnership between the conductor and his son-in-law Horowitz is reflected in their recording, which I’ve always disliked. Casadesus’s performance is a different matter. He’s lithe, lean, light on the pedal, and drives into the drama at the heart of the first movement with enviable determination. The slow movement is warmly textured, poetically inflected by the French pianist and if not the last word in expressive penetration still finely nuanced. Altogether this is the better performance, and casts the irascible and uneven Horowitz recording in a different light. As a rather unexpected bonus we have some big-boned Part Songs sung by the New York Ladies’ Choir and recorded in January 1936.
One must reiterate the question as to the recorded sound but reinforce the superiority of the performances. The Serenades in particular are a joyful example of Toscanini’s mid thirties way with Brahms – in fact the set, well annotated and presented, is bursting with important things.