RCA has reissued their Toscanini catalog for decades, but newcomers and collectors need to know that there's something new here. For an older generation Toscanini's interpretations set the standard despite the sonic defects of RCA's old mono recordings. It sued to be said that the ones done in Carnegie Hall had more air and spaciousness than the suffocating, dry acoustics of Studio 8-H, the venue for NBC Sym. radio broadcasts. Neither comes close to the best from that era right after the war. Happily, this line of RCA reissues, unlike any previous incarnation, put a musician in charge of the remastering and gave him carte blanche to massage the sound any way he wanted to get a fuller, more musical result.
At times the results are a breakthrough, and at the very least they offer a marked improvement. CD 1 begins with the version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition that young music lovers in the postwar era first heard. It's still very fine, even though we now have dozens of exciting, well recorded modern accounts. Rather to my surprise, the Maestro isn't driving the pace, and his phrasing is actually yielding rather than stiff and overly disciplined. Stereotypes don't always hold, fortunately. The sonics form 1953 in Carnegie Hall have come up very well in the new remastering; there are no obvious defects, not even the old curse of hard edges in the treble region. The big brass chords in The Great Gate of Kiev burn too brightly, however, and there's an inescapable thinness in orchestral tuttis. "Pictures" contains few of those, however, before the big finale.
before 1963 or so we in America didn't get to hear many German recordings, and it came as a revelation how Richard Strauss was played by Kempe, Karajan, and Furtwangler, among others. I remember Toscanini's Death and Transfiguration as too taut and impatient. Actually, it's neither. This is a very impressive performance, the only problem being that the sound, taken form a live broadcast, doesn't come up resplendent. It's a bit distant and thin, yet the new remastering brings a big improvement. Things improve in a romping studio reading of Till Eulenspiegel, which has more life sonically. both Strauss recordings were famous in their day and retain almost all of their luster.
RCA calls this twofer "Orchestral Showpieces," but that's a stretch for Brahms's Haydn Variations, which opens CD 2. the sound is all but exemplary in the new remastering, with real fullness in the orchestral sonority. The only defect is some shrillness in high violin lines at loud volume. Toscanini had a great reputation as a Brahmsian, but in hindsight he seems to drive the music to achieve brilliance rather than depth, and that criticism holds true here. His zest is better applied to the marvelous Hungarian Dances that follow, including No. 1, 17 20, and 21. All sound very good if a mite distant. finally we get the most famous Nutcracker Suite in the era before stereo; it must have sold in the millions and was beloved by every baby boomer with musical inclinations. The sound has come up trumps, as the Gramophone loves to say; there's air around the instruments, and the celesta in the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy could have come form a modern recording. The pacing is a bit impatient throughout, however; luckily, nothing is frantic. Overall, this twofer is one of the better ones, sonically and musically, in RCA's admirable series.