Symphonies n°1 op.68, n°2 op.73, n°3 op.90, n°4 op.98 - Variations sur un thème de Haydn, op.56a - Ouverture tragique, op.81 / Philharmonia Orchestra, dir. Arturo Toscanini
Testament's catalog is full of gems, few as important as this set of Toscanini's legendary 1952 Philharmonia Brahms concerts. Available in various wretched-sounding pirate editions, this is the first "official" release, made from EMI's original concert tapes but unpublished because of contractual conflicts. Toscanini's Brahms is familiar from his contemporaneous RCA recordings
with his NBC Symphony. But these are quite different from the driven and unyielding RCAs, made more unrelenting by dry, airless engineering. With the Philharmonia, we get a warmer, more lyrical Brahms, though no less intense. The 85-year-old conductor is rhythmically less rigid and his phrasing more flexible. Even the Third Symphony, never a comfortable fit for Toscanini, comes off well, while the more lyrical Second is as poetic as it is intense. But there isn't a weak performance on this set, and the quicksilver Variations rival Toscanini's classic 1936 recording with the New York Philharmonic. Throughout, his often episodic approach in the late RCA Brahms recordings is replaced by an ebb and flow that brings the music to life.
The Philharmonia is magnificent under Toscanini's baton, playing with warmth and imbuing brief solo turns with imagination. Trombone fluffs in the First's finale and firecrackers exploding on the roof in the Fourth don't dim enjoyment. Dennis Brain's golden tone and distinctive sound make his horn solos a joy to hear. The engineering is better than we might expect from 1952 concert recordings--solid, well-detailed monophonic sound. This set is a must-have, and not just for Toscanini idolaters. --Dan Davis