This four-CD set, also available separately, combines all of Arturo Toscanini's authorized recorded releases of his performances of Johannes Brahms' work in one neat package -- and that is more important, as regards history and matters of interpretation, than one might conclude at a glance, more than a century after Brahms' time and 50 years after Toscanini's death. Composer and conductor were born more than three decades and several national borders apart, but they overlapped in the years that would be the most important to us, as listeners: Toscanini's first 34 years, when he was developing his musical sensibilities, coinciding with Brahms' last three decades as one of the world's leading composers. And for a conductor who was principally associated with the opera house until age 63 (in 1930), and a composer who never wrote an opera in all of his career, the histories of Toscanini and Brahms became intertwined surprisingly early. Toscanini's relationship to the composer's work started at the beginning of his career in the concert hall, from his very first orchestral concert in 1896. Brahms was still a living composer, and the Tragic Overture was part of the program of Toscanini's first orchestral concert, receiving its Italian premiere at that performance.
Toscanini's approach to Brahms epitomized his work as a musician -- he took the music of the premiere symphonist of the Romantic-era and applied to it his preferred lean, precise approach to playing, which derived from a spirit and vision much closer to that of the Classical era; and in doing so, he created performances of the symphonies that were likely as close to the composer's intentions as any interpreter had gotten at least since the composer's death in 1897. Brahms himself straddled two distinct periods in music history in a manner much like Toscanini; though born in 1833, and a denizen and offspring of the middle-/late- nineteenth century, Brahms always counted as his inspiration Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn and regarded himself as a dedicated adherent to Classical-era principals and sensibilities in his writing. He and Toscanini -- whose dates (1867-1957) overlapped by 30 years -- were kindred spirits in that respect, each man regarding himself in some key aspect of his music-making as a bullwark against what he regarded as some of the worst excesses of his own era. Brahms regarded himself as a descendant of Beethoven as a symphonist, but also of Mozart, and found himself cast in stark cultural opposition to such late-Romantic figures as Richard Wagner, while Toscanini came to the podium as a figure bent on stamping out -- at least during his tenure -- the over-exaggerated practices of late nineteenth century orchestral playing and operatic performance. Each man, in his way, regarded himself as a Classicist living in an era of excess and even decadence.
Toscanini treated Brahms' work with a respect that was exceeded only by that which he accorded Beethoven. He was always seemingly trying to find a balancing point between Brahms' late nineteenth century, Romantic-era scoring and scope, very visible on the surface of the orchestral pieces, and the Classical unity that held his work together at its core. That he labored at this is reflected in the fact that his recordings and preserved performances of the Brahms symphonies across three decades varied more than those of any other body of work in his repertory to which we're able to refer. Even late in his career, when now octogenarian Toscanini was forced to ration his strength and stamina, he struggled with these pieces -- just months before his recordings of the symphonies for posterity with the NBC Symphony, he chose to do them all in concert in his last performances in Europe of his career, with the Philharmonia Orchestra (which have since been issued on CD by Testament Records); those interpretations differ in some marked ways from what we hear on this set. His performances of the four symphonies here, from 1952 and 1953, are all characterized by what, for their time, is a lean, precise, and brisk approach, not at all different from what he did with Beethoven's work. His tempos are a matter of some controversy, especially on the Symphony No. 1, where he opens with a much quicker tempo than anyone else of his era (and especially the German conductors epitomized by Wilhelm Furtwängler) ever took. But his performances are clean and crisp enough so that one actually hears everything going on in the score, and that only adds to the illusion of briskness -- there's a LOT in these recordings to keep the listener busy that is normally not heard in the sharp relief we get here. The same goes for the Academic Festival Overture, the Tragic Overture, and the Double Concerto, which here features the NBC Symphony's concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff on violin and first-chair cellist Frank Miller, both of whom enjoyed long careers for many years after Toscanini's retirement, even if they're not as well known as, say, Heifetz and Piatigorsky would have been.
There should also be a note made about the attributes of this edition. The sound on this set and the individual CDs contained within it were cleaned up and remastered to an exceptionally crisp level by the standards of the early '90s, when the Arturo Toscanini Collection was released. On most of it, the audio quality, if not quite up to modern standards, is exceptionally good -- there is a little bit of "boxiness" in the textures, on the Tragic Overture and, more so, the Academic Festival Overture, as though we're listening to a transcription of the original recording, but they are still clean and nicely detailed. It should also be noted that some of the fill-up works were recorded earlier, all the way back to 1948 in NBC's Studio 8-H, as opposed to the Carnegie Hall recordings from the early '50s for the symphonies, the concerto, and so on. The Studio 8-H recordings are a bit harsher to the ear and drier than the Carnegie performances, and apparently no amount of tweaking by the producers could get them to match 100 percent. Those interested in just the symphonies should recognize that the four of them were remastered yet again in the late '90s, and upgraded in the process to virtually a modern standard, as Vol. 4 of RCA/BMG's The Immortal Arturo Toscanini collection. That is highly desirable, but it doesn't contain the two overtures, the Double Concerto, the Liebeslieder Waltzes, or any of the other pieces that the symphonies are paired with here; that's a special pity in the case of the Tragic Overture, which Toscanini treats almost as a lost symphonic movement, relentless in it tempos and expansive in its detail. It deserves an upgrade as much as the symphonies did, as do the Haydn Variations; the latter, in fact, offers one surprise in the absence of a designated repeat that the conductor took, often as not, in his earlier career but evidently had decided as of 1953 it was a detriment to the structural integrity of the larger work. This set is the only way to get the totality of the conductor's authorized output of the composer's work (and it's only a pity that, for reasons never explained, Toscanini, NBC, and RCA/Victor never prepared an authorized release of his wartime broadcast performance of the Brahms German Requiem -- sung in English -- which would have made the perfect capper to this set. It is available in a sparkling CD reissue, however, apparently from an exceptionally clean source derived from the Toscanini private archive, from the Guild label, which makes a perfect companion to this set). Additionally, the Concerto for violin and cello also exists, in the very same performance, as a television account, as Vol. 2 of the Toscanini/NBC Symphony televised concerts, available on DVD from Testament. The Symphony No. 1 in this set, from November 6, 1951, has as a companion performance a television broadcast (also out on DVD from Testament, as Vol. 4 in the televised concerts), from three days earlier, for those who wish a visual account of a nearly identical interpretation.