About this Recording
8.110854 - BEETHOVEN: Symphonies 1 and 4 (Toscanini)

Beethoven: symphonies Nos

Beethoven: symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 • Leonore Overture No. 1

BBC Symphony Orchestra • Toscanini

The famous performances of Beethoven’s First and Fourth Symphonies, and Leonore Overture No.1 by Toscanini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have rarely been out of the catalogue since they were recorded in the famed and much-missed acoustic of the Queen’s Hall, London in the late 1930s. The Fourth Symphony and Leonore Overture No.1 were set down during the last London Music Festival before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Inaugurated in the spring of 1933 by the BBC as a concentrated end of season showcase for the burgeoning talents of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this concert series was an opportunity to engage some of the most prestigious international conductors as well as to extend the public profile of the orchestra beyond the studio onto the concert platform.

Koussevitsky, Walter and Weingartner appeared in the early seasons to supplement the more regularly heard principal conductor, Adrian Boult. But despite the general excellence of execution, the first two festivals had met with a lukewarm response, mainly because of indifferent programming. It was, therefore, with eager anticipation and a genuine sense of a coup that the agreement of Toscanini was secured to conduct the orchestra at the 1935 festival. His only previous visit to Britain had been with the New York Philharmonic in 1930 and this was the first time he had conducted a British orchestra. The engagement signalled a huge vote of confidence in the growing reputation of the orchestra itself, but also the Maestro’s awareness and admiration for the training and interpretative prowess of Boult, with whom he shared a similar high regard for the letter of the score and structural span.

Tickets sold out overnight for the first concert, which featured Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Cherubini’s Anacreon Overture, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, interestingly all Boult specialities. Needless to say, given the notoriety of Toscanini’s inflammable temperament, levels of apprehension and trepidation amongst musicians and administration ran high. In the event, matters could hardly have gone better. Boult’s instillation of technique, commitment, and a collective readiness to listen and adapt proved to be oxygen to Toscanini’s own brand of dedication and rehearsal method. The four concerts met with an ecstatic reception from the public, critics, players, and not least the conductor himself, who declared privately to Ada Mainardi: ‘I’ve found an excellent, intelligent orchestra that immediately showed me liking and affection’, and more publicly in a press statement: ‘It is one of the best orchestras I have ever conducted’.

Boult and the BBC were quick to consolidate their landmark success by immediately wooing the Maestro back for more. In the event, at the eleventh hour, bureaucratic and financial intransigence impeded his reappearance in 1936 and the festival had to be cancelled. When Toscanini finally agreed to return for the 1937 festival, expectations ran higher than ever and coinciding with the coronation of King George VI, media attention for the great conductor even vied with that lavished on royal events. The main works were Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies, the First Symphonies of Brahms and Shostakovich, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2, Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung, and a final concert devoted wholly to Wagner. London had never heard anything like it and Toscanini himself praised the orchestra for playing even better than in 1935.

With no repeat of the bungled 1936 arrangements, Toscanini’s services were speedily contracted for a return in October 1937, this time specifically to work with British choral forces, which he also much admired, together with a further visit to the London Music Festival in 1938, the highlight of which was to be two performances of the Verdi Requiem. For autumn 1937 Beethoven’s First and Ninth Symphonies together with Brahms’s German Requiem were scheduled. Despite a misunderstood, but much-publicised walk out at one of the rehearsals for the Choral Symphony, the reception was as rapturous as in the previous spring. As water off a duck’s back, Toscanini wrote to Ada Mainardi that the orchestra was easy to rehearse, confirming that it was superior to all others, at least for its magnificent discipline.

It may be tenuous to read too much of Toscanini’s passionate and compulsively adulterous temperament into his relationship with the BBC orchestra. Nevertheless, the spontaneity, exuberance and lack of inhibition of his performances with them have all the attributes of a love affair, perhaps reflecting some of the intensity of the conductor’s emotions for Ada Mainardi at the time, as well as the liberation of the period of inter-regnum between his resignation from the New York Philharmonic in February 1936 and the assumption of his post with the NBC in late 1937. Whatever the stimulus, the recording of Beethoven’s First Symphony demonstrates Toscanini at the very height of his powers, shining as an all-singing-and-dancing performance drenched in Mediterranean warmth and almost Rossinian operatic humour.

By the time of the 1939 London festival, the international situation was grave and Toscanini was uncertain about attending, but the tenacity of the much-trusted Owen Mase, the festival planner and ex-assistant director of music at the BBC, prevailed. In a defiant counter to the mood of the times, a lavish and extended concert series was planned with a complete symphony cycle and two performances of the Missa Solemnis all conducted by Toscanini as the centrepiece of a Beethoven celebration that also featured Boult and soloists of the calibre of Solomon, Backhaus and Szigeti.

As in the Beethoven First, the sunny demeanour of the Fourth Symphony belies the seriousness of its context. Interestingly, another performance recorded later in November the same year with the NBC orchestra shows the BBC zest, wit and rhythmic flexibility yielding to a much terser, harder driven and generally more aggressive reading that has little comparable light and shade or sense of well-being. The infamous well-drilled terror of the striving for perfection of the NBC years is audibly manifest from the start of the relationship. Comparisons aside however, the BBC orchestra clearly adored playing for Toscanini, and the joyously reciprocal nature of a relationship made in heaven resounds with life-enhancing vigour across the years into our current century.

Ian Julier

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor’, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially-released restorations.

Producer’s Note

The present transfers were made from pre-war U.S. Victor pressings, using the best sides (or portions thereof) from four copies of the First Symphony, seven copies of the Fourth and six of the overture. Normally, so many copies would not need to be assembled for transfer purposes. However, the 1939 recordings in particular proved to be highly problematic, both in terms of the original mastering and the inconsistent quality of the shellac employed for the pressings (which, in any event, is quieter than that used in British HMV discs).

Despite their drawbacks, pre-war Victor shellacs are as good a source as we are likely to get, as EMI destroyed their copies of the original metal masters after their first LP transfers in the 1950s. A subsequent EMI LP release in 1986, drawn from RCA’s copies of the parts, merely proved the degree of the deterioration which a decade in the 78rpm catalogue and many subsequent years of storage had wrought.

I have covered over the abrupt cut-offs at the ends of the two sides of the final movement of the First Symphony and the first side of the first movement of the Fourth through the use of digital reverberation. Another flaw in the original recording, however, could not be remedied: the second half of the Fourth’s finale was only ever issued in a sonically-compromised dubbing which sounds noticeably different from the rest of the symphony.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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