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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.1 in c, op.68 (1876) [43:40]
Symphony no.2 in D, op.73 (1877) [37:32]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded in Carnegie Hall, New York, November 6th 1951 (no.1) and February 11th 1952 (no.2)
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876 62322 2 [79:23]

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During Toscaniniís lifetime it was virtually a truism that he was the greatest of all conductors; even in my own youth, by which time he had been dead for about a decade, his last London concerts a cherished memory dating from around the time of my own birth, the myth still held. If Toscaniniís impact on the collective conscious is anything to go by, the legend must be true; Toscanini is one of the few musical names that the average man in the street, totally uninterested in classical music, is likely to have heard of, whereas a mention of Klemperer or Furtwängler will draw a blank. As proof of what I have just said, my Word 2003 programme has just underlined these last two conductors as "spelling mistakes", while it accepted Toscanini.

Excessive adulation led to a backlash, while the work of many of his contemporaries came in from the cold. "Overdriven", "brutal", "rabid" were the adjectives typically applied to his performances, though this has not prevented the issue of many of his radio performances, often by more than one rival company, as a complement to the very wide range of "official" recordings he made for RCA. Here we have the "official" versions of the first two Brahms symphonies and at least one "truism" can be disposed of. It was always claimed that these RCA recordings were unduly strident in their tone quality and did not do justice to Toscaniniís phrasing, and on their original issue this was often true. The sound here is clear but warm and, if it is vibrant rather than mellow, with the upper lines predominating over the lower, this is plausibly a reflection of Toscaniniís melos-oriented approach. As now presented, the sound seems to me extremely good for its date.

Is it possible to get some perspective today on these much-discussed performances? Here, for a start, are the timings of the first symphony, together with those of three other conductors whose careers ran alongside Toscaniniís for many years and were noted for their Brahms. I only regret that I havenít a version by Bruno Walter to hand.


The Toscanini/Furtwängler comparison perhaps yields the sort of results one might have expected, that with Klemperer and Boult rather less so, especially in the finale. But, as we shall see, the timings tell us remarkably little about the type of performance on offer.

Toscanini treats the first movement as a gripping tragedy, keeping a firm hand on things right through the introduction, which is kept moving inexorably forward. In the main body of the movement it is again forward thrust which dominates. Second subject material is allowed to relax just a little, only to be cast aside brutally as the first tempo returns. Eruptive, bracing, dynamically charged though it is, it is possible to feel this is a rather one-sided view of Brahms.

With Klemperer, more than a gripping tragedy, this is a monumental tragedy. Key moments in the introduction almost grind things to a halt, the subsequent themes rising from the debris, as it were. It is massively impressive but unfortunately the Allegro is less so. Klemperer brings a rugged grandeur to those moments which respond to an "Eroica"-like drive, but lyrical moments seem not to interest him and he allows the tempo to slacken and hang fire.

Furtwängler appears to see the music not so much specifically tragic as dramatic. Each moment in the introduction is presented as if it represents one of the actors in the drama which is to follow. The introduction is not interpreted as a steady progress from A to B but as a prologue. It is really useless to analyze the ensuing Allegro in terms of tempos and timings, since it veers from moments of extreme incandescence, when it moves faster even than Toscanini, to moments of contemplation, where he goes slower than Klemperer, though without a similar loss of tension. With Furtwängler you have to let yourself be caught up in the total experience; if you cannot (with comparisons well away from me I find I usually can), you will be forever disturbed by the details.

I get the idea that Boult is seeking neither a tragedy nor a drama, but an abstract musical argument. He closes the introduction, for example, rather as though he has just finished a Bach Prelude and is now about to launch the Fugue. And yet he is subtle; in this introduction he has something of Furtwänglerís way of making each moment seem like the presentation of one of the actors in what is to follow, but musical actors. In the Allegro he is not much slower than Toscanini (considering that he plays the repeat, it is remarkable how little difference there is between his timings and those of Klemperer and Furtwängler) but he finds more space to express the more lyrical moments. He may not knock you out of your seat (though the movement gains in excitement as it proceeds) but I am bound to find his a more complete performance than Toscaniniís and far preferable to Klempererís erratic, disappointing version. Furtwängler is hors concours.

It would be nice to think that the beefy mezzoforte with which Toscaniniís second movement opens was the result of the recording rather than the performance, but since a degree of piano shading is to be heard here and there later on I fear we have to take it that what we hear is not far from the truth. Passionately sung as it is, this movement again seems to concentrate on only one aspect of the music. No twilight poetry at the end, where the solo violin has to fit his flight of fancy into a rigidly strict tempo.

Each conductor, in fact, is true to his own lights in this movement, Klemperer finding a Mahlerian angst and Furtwängler a Tristanesque love-scene. (Incidentally, in another of his recordings, he draws out the closing pages quite incredibly, suspending our disbelief with the rapt poetry he extracts). Alongside these Boult, for all his affectionate shading, may seem a little contained. On the other hand, it could be argued that he is the only conductor of the four who lets us hear Brahmsís own voice without trying to impose another voice on it. For myself, I agree in principal with everything he does, but feel that this is not an especially inspired example of his art; I wonder if BBC Legends could lay their hands on a first-rate Brahms 1 from Boult.

In the third movement Toscanini again concentrates on soaring melodic lines and forward movement, though he is not actually particularly fast and avoids the temptation to press on in the central section.

It is difficult to believe that Boult is only 15 seconds longer, for he expresses a completely different mood, vernally fresh, tender and springlike (shades of "The Wand of Youth"?), the countermelodies given an almost Debussian refinement. He does not permit the central section to break too much with this mood, preferring a Schubertian lyricism.

Vernal freshness was not notably part of Klempererís make-up; he sees that the melodies sing and seems here, in fact, to be a graver cousin of Toscanini.

It is surprising to find Furtwängler opening the movement in a very similar manner to Boult; however, he takes the chugging string accompaniment from b.45 as an excuse to forge ahead with much agitation, as he does again in the central section. It may be wondered if this brief movement does not burst at the seams under so much imposed contrast, but Furtwängler is Furtwängler and he seems to get away with it.

The introduction to the finale finds the four conductors repeating their methods from that to the first movement. Toscanini keeps thinks moving inexorably forward, though two details jar; the fact that the hornís vulgar crescendo on the fourth note of his famous theme was allowed to remain on the record presumably means that Toscanini accepted it or even asked for it; and the chorale theme is delivered surprisingly ponderously. But this is Toscaniniís best movement; he takes the great C major theme unexpectedly grandly and broadly, and does not whip things up unduly at the ensuing animato; furthermore, his relatively relaxed tempo allows more affectionate shaping of the second subject material than anything we have heard up to now. All in all, he builds the music up powerfully but less one-sidedly than in the other movements and restores our faith in his powers as a Brahms interpreter. A pity that he ruins everything by subjecting the concluding "Più allegro" (Brahms said nothing about "prestissimo") to a tasteless display of speed.

Boult and Klemperer certainly do not feel faster than Toscanini, whatever the chronometer may say. Boult takes up the C major theme in a more free-flowing manner and characterizes the various moments with more subtlety than Toscanini, reaching his final climaxes more gradually. Klemperer is urgently forthright while Furtwängler is once again sui generis. The timing is virtually meaningless, for he draws out the introduction enormously, creating a pregnant Wagnerian drama, and then is faster than anyone in the Allegro, incandescent if not febrile and even in the more lyrical passages he is accommodating but lingers little. This finale caps an enthralling performance which can really only be compared with others by the same conductor. Of the other three, Toscaniniís single-mindedness (the coda apart) is certainly impressive, but this is also Klempererís best movement while Boultís comes as a just finale to his finely structured account.

It will be evident that Toscanini is hardly a first choice, yet one would logically have supposed this symphony to have suited him better than no.2. Oddly enough, it isnít quite like that, but first, some timings. This time I have Mengelberg as an "idiosyncratic" choice in place of Furtwängler, and I have added four more recent performances, one from one of the major conductors of our times, the others as typical examples of Brahms interpretations from the 1990s. I will discuss these very briefly at the end.

* includes repeat

Toscaniniís opening does not bode well, since the cello motto is gruff and, while the horns are romantic enough, the magical violin entries are too present, directly hitting the note rather than easing into it. However, as the flowing violin melody takes over from the threatening trombones, all is light and grace, with no attempt to hustle things on. Later Toscanini is forthright in the stronger passages, the strings soaring passionately, but this does not prevent him from caressing the second subject and presenting a quite lovely performance.

Boultís opening is actually faster than Toscaniniís but this is because he begins as he means to continue. This mood is caught ideally, gently lilting and quite in tune with Brahmsís own description s "so merry and tender, as if it were specially written for a newly-wedded couple". It is less highly powered than Toscanini but reveals its strength as it builds up.

Klemperer takes his time over the opening, relishing the dark colours and creating an air of foreboding. In much of the movement he is briskly Beethovenian, his basic tempo faster than Boultís, but in second subject territory he slows down for an amiable ramble around the Austrian woodlands.

Mengelberg is something else again. His basic tempi is very fast indeed, but right from the outset he is willing to dwell on phrases and even single notes, creating a sense of almost tempo-less flexibility. Orchestrally it is one of the most beautiful performances ever recorded, quite without that grumpiness which often seems part and parcel of Brahmsís orchestral writing, and it is convincing enough to make you wonder if this is actually what Brahms might have liked (remember that he walked out of a Hans Richter performance because the tempo was to rigid). But who ever could control an orchestra well enough today to bring such an interpretation off?

The cellist Toscanini produces some very careful, detailed phrasing at the opening of the Adagio non troppo, but when the woodwind take up the themes his insistence on full tone at all times becomes a little four-square. Boult is more naturally flowing and gracious though some will find this another of those key moments where he "digs in" less than the others. Klemperer certainly digs in, his burnished string tone suggesting a noble threnody; but later, though his tempo is not really all that much slower, it is enough so to sound a little doleful at times. Mengelberg is slower still, but his plastic, vocal phrasing avoids any sense of heaviness. Almost needless to say, he moves on far more than the others in the central part.

Toscanini is precise but rather cautious and tight-reined in the Allegretto grazioso, the contrasting episodes prophetic of Prokofievís motor rhythms. It is hard to believe that Boult is actually faster, so much more relaxed and delicate does he sound. However, the execution is a little slack Ė the first of the oboeís acciaccaturas is smudged and might reasonably have been retaken. No smudge with Klemperer who exploits the acciaccaturas to give the music the feel of a tangy Mahlerian landler. On the whole I feel it is he who finds the most character in this movement. Mengelbergís extreme range of speeds in such a short movement sound somewhat confused.

Toscaniniís finale is basically a taught, fiery affair, marred only by a tendency to rush ahead at times, already noticeably in the first tutti. Boult takes more time to build the music up, finding character in moments where Toscanini barges onwards. Klemperer is closer to Toscanini in his brisk urgency Ė if his timing is longer it is only because he does not hurry within is chosen tempo. He stronger on overall surge than individual moments Ė and is positively bluff with the second subject material. Mengelberg cannot resist the temptation to begin below tempo and the burst in excitedly, but thereafter he is very fine and indulges the second subject material less than one might have expected.

So how has the Toscanini myth emerged? As far as these two symphonies are concerned, the myth of the racing tempi is not borne out (only in the first movement of no.1 is he notably faster than the others); nor, for that matter, is that of Klempererís ponderousness. That of Boultís architectural idealism seems to hold (I know my American colleagues will have been chortling with mirth at the idea of putting Boult in this company; I have already been taken to task once. For reasons I donít quite understand, an Englishman who admires Boult is considered a hopeless provincial, while an American who admires Bernstein is not). If we set Furtwängler and Mengelberg aside as representatives of a different type of interpretation, we nevertheless find that Toscaniniís supremacy over the other two hardly bears examination. Quite the reverse; what the comparisons reveal is that Toscanini tended to approach each work with a fixed idea about it and pursue that idea rigorously to the end, come what may. Unfortunately, what came across to a simpler-minded world than ours as impressive single-mindedness, risks seeming merely simple-minded in our own more complicated age. Nevertheless, these are performances which still need to be heard.

In matters of tempo, my four modern comparisons show that it is not really a question of Toscanini versus Klemperer but of the "oldies" against the moderns. Brahms performances have been getting disconcertingly slow recently. Christian Mandealís first movement development all but grinds to a halt under its own weight Ė he seems to think he is conducting Shostakovich 10. Virtually any older performance will provide a refreshing antidote to this trend.

Christopher Howell

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