The fact that Pristine Audio’s unique selling point is
its audio restoration might be sufficient justification to start
any review of its products with a discussion about sound quality.
But, in addition to that, any pre-1950 Toscanini recording is
also likely to have some very specific issues of sound quality
that need to be addressed and so the whole issue takes on an
even greater significance.
Although the recording venue of these radio broadcasts isn’t
specified here, I’m assuming that it’s likely to
have been Studio 8H in the Rockefeller Center’s GE Building
(known at that time as the RCA Building) in New York City. While
today’s US TV viewers will be most familiar with that
as the recording venue for the massively popular show Saturday
Night Live, audiophiles will always associate its famously
dry acoustic with the many broadcasts made by the NBC Symphony
Orchestra and its legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini between
1937 and 1950. Many of these were subsequently issued on disc.
Although the minimal degree of reverberation may sound odd to
ears that are unused to it, the aural clarity apparently appealed
greatly to Toscanini, who would certainly have been able to
initiate changes should he have been dissatisfied with the sound.
[There is a fascinating discussion of Studio 8H in Mortimer
H. Frank’s authoritative study Arturo Toscanini: the
NBC years (Portland, Oregon, 2002), pp. 33-35 and 245-248.]
In fact, the spare, rather sharp-edged quality of the recordings
actually suits the conductor’s incisive and thrusting
accounts of these two Brahms works very well.
Toscanini seems to have been especially fond of the Double Concerto.
It was, in fact, the only concerto by any composer that he included
in the series of ten television concerts he gave in the late
1940s and early 1950s, all of which were thankfully preserved
and are currently available on five Testament DVDs, SBDVD 1003
- SBDVD 1007. The soloists in both the 1939 recording under
consideration and the TV broadcast of 13 November 1948, the
soundtrack of which was subsequently issued on disc, were not
stellar names but both members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra
itself - concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff and principal cellist
Frank Miller. But whatever Mischakoff and Miller may have lacked
in public profile they more than made up for with the very obvious
empathy that they, as long term colleagues, display towards
both each other and Toscanini.
The 1948 performance is the better known. Featured as part of
volume 8 of RCA Victor Gold Seal’s mammoth Arturo Toscanini
Collection in the 1990s, it is consistently brisker than
the earlier performance that we have here.
|III. Vivace non troppo
That is not, however, to characterise the 1939 performance as
generally sluggish. Rather, it is a somewhat more lyrical and
rhapsodic account, gaining - especially in the andante
- a degree of emotional intensity while sacrificing some of
the post-war account’s more purposeful, driven quality.
The playing from all sections of the hand-picked NBC orchestra
is, needless to say, superb and Andrew Rose’s expert XR
re-mastering delivers a feeling of immediacy that actually works
very well with Studio 8H’s dry acoustics to offer a real
“in your face” sound (see the Pristine
Classical website for a fascinating explanation of the technique).
The sound is, however, rather less of a positive element in
the 1938 recording of the Second Symphony. We know that between
1937 and 1939 Studio 8H’s sonic drawbacks - magnified
further for radio listeners by the technology involved in broadcasting
- were causing some concern. Composer Virgil Thomson opined
that “the NBC hall is not a pleasant place to hear music”
(Frank, op.cit., p.33) while even a more favourably disposed
critic such as Olin Downes described a rather odd experience
“as if you listened to each instrument under the microscope”
(ibid. p. 34). Later broadcasts and recordings were improved
- from 1939-41 by the addition of artificial resonance that,
by all accounts and to judge from the Double Concerto recording,
improved matters considerably and, from 1941 onwards, by structural
work to the studio itself. The 1938 symphony recording on this
new disc had thus been made when conditions were at their worst
and, in spite of Pristine Audio’s sterling efforts, quite
frankly it shows.
Moreover, while the survival of any recording of this vintage
is naturally welcome, this particular account of the D major
symphony is not significantly different in approach to Toscanini’s
well known 1952 Carnegie Hall recording and so throws little
if any new light on his approach to the work.
This is, then, very much an issue where the primary focus is
on the concerto and if you admire the work as much as the conductor
evidently did, you will certainly find the disc a worthwhile
One final note: given Toscanini’s huge public profile,
these Studio 8H broadcasts were something of a high society
event at the time and do seem to have attracted audiences who
may not have been familiar with the normal conventions of concert-going.
They therefore applaud vigorously at the end of every movement
of the concerto. One can, across more than seventy years, surely
see the expression of annoyance on Arturo Toscanini’s
famously irascible face.