It was an extraordinary set of circumstances that, between November 1941 and February 1942, brought together for the only time on records Arturo Toscanini and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

While in the middle of a short-lived contract dispute with NBC, the legendary Italian maestro was invited by Eugene Ormandy to guest conduct the orchestra made famous by the latter's immediate predecessor, Leopold Stokowski. At the behest of RCA's Charles O'Connell, a series of recordings was made at the time, recordings that likewise became legendary because it was many years before the public at large was given a chance to hear them.Part of the problem, as recounted by those on the scene, related to the stringencies of wartime manufacturing, which, combined with mishandling in the lab, resulted in seemingly irreparable damage to the masters. From August 1942 to November 1944, another contract dispute, this time between the American Federation of Musicians and the recording companies, made it impossible for Toscanini to return to the Academy of Music to re-record the rejected sides, and by the time this was resolved the Philadelphia, along with O'Connell, had signed with Columbia, understandably lessening RCA's interest in salvaging the project.

Finally, in 1963, the first of these recordings, the Schubert Ninth Symphony, was issued on LP - a deluxe Soria Series package - to be followed 13 years later by the rest of the series, now combined with the Schubert in a five-LP box. The results were astonishing. Via magnetic tape and, one presumes, a fair amount of re-equalization, surfaces were cleaned up to a remarkable degree, the sound of the Schubert in particular emerging with remarkable freshness and clarity.

At least in its original issue. For some reason the 1976 reissue came across as a bit harsher and hashier, a problem only slightly ameliorated on the above-listed CDs.

It's still a great performance, combining the fabled Toscanini discipline with the then-unrivaled tonal opulence of the Philadelphians. Moreover, like the other performances preserved herein, it seemed to catch the maestro himself in a more flexible vein. Witness the slight broadening before the first-movement Allegro and the rhetorical pause just before the final pages, all achieved without diminishing the music's strength and cohesion in the slightest.

Less disciplined (with some surprising intonational lapses) yet no less incandescent are the "Midsummer Night's Dream" extracts (Mendelssohn), more complete and more mercurial than the same conductor's NBC Symphony recording. Here, moreover, the CD seems to me an improvement on the LP, being both fuller and sharper. Ditto the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony and Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," the first for its superior balances and the second because it both brightens and solidifies the somewhat dullish LP sound.

Again each may lack the strength and, in the case of the Strauss, the conviction of the later NBC Symphony recordings. On the other hand, one hears in these performances a poetry and fire they often lack, of particular advantage in the "Pathetique," where, despite its better integration of individual instrumental details, I have always found the NBC recording overly taut and a bit constricted emotionally.

That has never bothered me vis-a-vis the Toscanini/NBC "La Mer" (Debussy), where the classical strength does not seem misplaced. Nonetheless, could I only have one it might well be this Philadelphia account, with its greater sense of flow, more pronounced than in the similarly impulsive, and even earlier, BBC Symphony performance on EMI. Likewise the accompanying "Iberia," even if the LP still registers a bit more resoundingly than the digital transfer.

Nor does the maestro let us down in Respighi's "Roman Festivals," both he and the orchestra making the most of this indefatigable noisefest. Here again I suspect many will opt for the increased brilliance and generally tighter focus of the recently reissued NBC recording (coupled with a stunning "Pines" and "Fountains"). But if nothing else this set should give the lie to the myth that Toscanini was an inflexible martinet who was incapable of luxuriating in the sheer sound of an orchestra, even when it wasn't his own.