Toscanini conducts Brahms = Academic Festival Overture; Gesang der Parzen; Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Hungarian Dances: Nos. 1, 17, 20, 21; Tragic Overture – Robert Shaw Chorale/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Arturo Toscanini – Pristine Audio PASC 678 (64:12) [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Restoration engineer Andrew Rose decided in 2022 to restore and improve—via his patented XR process in warm, ambient stereo—the Toscanini legacy in Brahms outside of the symphonies and concertos, recorded 1948-1953. The two overtures, one laughing, the other in tears, are welcome; but the real addition from the RCA catalogue comes in the form of the 1882 Gesang der Parzen, a dark work to which I have been exposed only once, in a New York City performance by the late David Randolph and his Randolph Singers.
Toscanini opens with an especially athletic reading of the good-humored Academic Festival Overture, conceived as a tribute to the University of Breslau, honoring Brahms in 1879 with a degree, Doctor of Philosophy. A brilliant composite of drinking songs and university humor, the piece ends with a stupendous rendition of Gaudeamus Igatur The new resonance—now shorn of the original shrillness it suffered in its prior release—accorded the NBC strings, winds, and brass guarantees that devotees of this score will return to Toscanini’s 6 November 1948 consistently for reference and refreshment.
From 27 November 1948 Toscanini and the Robert Shaw Chorale join forces for the Brahms Song of the Parcae, or Fates, the composer’s last work for chorus and orchestra. The text derives from Goethe, based on Euripides’ grim tale of Iphigenia in Taurus, a true disaster within the House of Atreus. Agamemnon had sacrificed his wife Clytemnestra’s favorite child, Iphigenia, so as to gain the gods’ favor to sail out of Greece to make war on Troy. Clytemnestra will take on a lover in her husband’s absence, Aegisthus, and they will conspire to slay Agamemnon, a murder the son, Orestes, must avenge on his own mother. The inexorability of Fate consumes the text, and the harmonies and rhythms Brahms employs paint an unforgiving, moral landscape. The resonance of Studio 8-H, here in a world-premiere recoding, is much enhanced in this restoration.
The remainder of the selections derives from Carnegie Hall, with its more grateful acoustics. The 1873 Haydn Variations of Brahms endured as a Toscanini specialty over the course of his career, with this performance of 4 February 1952 enjoying a pungent energy, as original chorale in B-flat Major undergoes a series of eight character transformations and a grand finale. The two Vivace variants project a Herculean character, literally a tumult of sound, prior to the sweet siciliano (Grazioso) that follows. Here, the NBC string line proves incandescently attractive. The tiny Presto non troppo leads to a gradually building a luscious mountain of sound in the form of a passacaglia, the same antique dance form to which Brahms would turn in his E Minor Symphony.
Of the four Hungarian Dances (rec. 17 February 1953) only the first in G Minor is an arrangement by Brahms himself; the other three come from friend Antonin Dvorak. Each of the dances projects a gypsy fervor Brahms came to know from his ill-spend youth, working in bordellos and in taverns as a pianist, often with the violin virtuoso Remenyi. Toscanini is bold in his application of required rubato, and he always insists the dances sing as well as cavort in rustic energies. The Dance in F# Minor comes close to Liszt and Enesco in spirit, and it likely gave Bartok food for ethnic thought. Editor claims rightful credit for the sonic improvements instituted to make these brief, color pieces fresh and effective.
The final work of this Brahms program, the Tragic Overture in D minor, derives from a broadcast of 27 November 1953. Brahms himself admitted of this 1880 “companion” to the mirthful Academic Festival Overture, “I (simply) could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for tragedy.” In sonata form, the music presents three themes, two of which contrast D Minor with its relative major in F. The emotional tugs and releases, with few moments of respite, become eminently thrilling in Toscanini’s fierce approach, the polyphony episodes made abundantly (marcato) clear. A pity there exists no comparative reading by Furtwaengler, himself an ardent acolyte of the Brahms tradition. Thusly, this, and all, the Toscanini renditions come highly recommended.
Toscanini conducts Brahms:
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80;
Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89;
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56;
Hungarian Dances: No. 1 in G Minor; No. 17 in F# Minor; No. 20 in E Minor; No. 21 in E Minor;
Tragic Overture, Op. 81
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