Like the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and others, the Boston Symphony has now "unlocked" it vaults and offers us a set of jewels. Not all the jewels are gems, but that is just a bad play on words. The price is daunting, but there are special items in here that more than justify the price. So, despite my occasional griping, I really believe that any serious classical collector should have this set.
It occurs to me that undertaking a task like putting together a set like this must be daunting. First you have to decide what essential things must be in it, like the Koussevitzky Bartók Concerto for Orchestra… Next comes "what else"? Well, of course you have to have Ozawa just because he is the current director. So it goes. Munch is a must as is Monteux. Leinsdorf was another director so he has to be in. Okay, now what? Well, there is there are several guest conductors… gotta use the famous ones. What should we include as the music to represent them? Now, some people are going to complain about those choices. You know, why not more Stokowski? He did whole symphonies there including Beethoven. Why is fill-in-the-blank in there? You know, that kind of griping. You get the idea. Now on to the show.
After some thought, though not a whole lot, I have decided to see if Dave will let me change the usual format for listing contents. Instead of listing the contents in one mega heading, I will list them per two-disc volume at the beginning of each review. There are 12 discs in the set, with two in each volume. Also, I will not attempt to describe the music. I assume anyone interested in this package (at a hefty $225.00) is not a tyro.
The world première broadcast of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is nothing short of "wow". It sounds like the orchestra is playing by the seat of their pants. This is not a derogatory comment. Koussevitzky is exploring the music, bringing out facets as he is playing it. I listened to it with my friend Bruce on Thanksgiving. We sat with our eyes closed, Bruce muttering "wow" periodically. The notes tell how the "original" ending is different and why Bartók changed it. Frankly, I think you can hear why. I would recommend the whole set just to hear this. Liadov is one of those composers who wrote little because he was a methodical about his music making. It is nice to be able to add this to my collection, but it is nothing special. Bernstein was only about 30 when he finished this second symphony. For those who like his music this is an indispensable item since it has the original version of the Epilogue and has the composer at the piano. As a composer he is nowhere near Shostakovich even in that composer's first symphony (see below). When I listen to this piece, I hear Copland, I hear Gershwin, I hear "West Side Story" but nothing seems to cohere. It is interesting that Koussevitzky led the world première since he was Lenny's mentor. You really must hear the Bartók.
The Monteux disc contains music not normally associated with the conductor. (In the 15-disc RCA Monteux Edition there are only two short items from Strauss and none from VW.) So, this provides a nice supplement to anyone's Monteux collection. Monteux always provides an interesting facet of the music for me. His "Eroica" on Philips offers string filigrees in the first movement that I have never heard before or since. His Don Quixote also offers a viewpoint that is different from those I have heard. This is not the Don of Rostropovich or Tortelier but that is not a bad thing. The sound, perhaps, has something to do with the perspective, but it could also be the result of Monteux's sense of relief, casts a more orchestral than two-concerto feel to the music. In the Introduction, I can visualize Quixote sitting in front of a fire, reading, the demons plaguing his mind as he slowly goes nuts. One listening was done whilst driving to Columbus, Ohio, about 60 miles from here. It was a very good experience. I could "see" the charge into the sheep as just one example of the quality of this performance. Maybe I am just in a readiness stage, but on another evening I thought about what I wanted to listen to and the first thing that came to my mind was, "Well, Monteux's Quixote" It is an engaging interpretation that invites such a rehearing. The second Strauss offering is cut from the same thread but the seams are different.
If his Strauss offers another facet on the music, the Vaughan Williams is a whole new gem. At first I thought of Stokowski's and Barbirolli's recordings. Monteux sounded faster, however, in a couple of places a lot so. Then I looked at the respective timings. Monteux is considerably faster than either. 12:49 compared with over 16 minutes for the other two. It doesn't sound rushed, however and offers insights that help to better understand the music.
Well, this volume offered two major surprises. When I looked at the contents I was glad to see so much Munch but disappointed at seeing the Leinsdorf. In fact, my responses were the opposite.
For some reason the Munch material is too brassy. Perhaps he looked at them too much. The strings are not as rich as his studio recordings. While the Franck is more exciting than the studio version, it is the only item I can truly say that I enjoyed. The brass dominates Debussy's sea to the detriment of the other instruments. This does allow me to really appreciate the coronet addition that Debussy indicated could be used. Still, it is two minutes slower than the RCA issue and it sounds it. Martinon at around the same timing, however, doesn't sound slow. Others may find my opinions to be incorrect. Munch's Roussel is always special and that is true here. The Ravel sounds a little string-lite, I prefer Stokowski in this music.
My introduction to Leinsdorf was listening to him accompany Rubinstein in the Beethoven piano concertos. He was a faceless companion and so were all of the recordings I heard. They were, frankly dull. My opinion changed just as soon as I heard the Janáček. My God! What a wonderful work and so well interpreted. My friend Bruce and I listened to the Shostakovich on Thanksgiving Day. Leinsdorf gets into this music and kept us on the edge of our seats throughout. It occurred to me, for the first time, that this music just seems to sprout from the composer's head. From nonexistence to existence is such a fine line. WOW! The Wagner and Smetana are good, but don't displace my preference for Stokowski.
I have to admit that when I saw who was conducting the Bruckner I had my doubts. I have found his music making uninvolving (apparently a word I just created). I was more than pleasantly surprised. This is one of the most mind-blowing performances of the Bruckner 8th I have ever heard. The horn duet in the first movement is one of the most beautiful passages of music ever written by anybody and Steinberg imbues it with a tenderness that is almost poignant. For once I can appreciate the belly laughs in the 2nd movement. These are just two comments from a plethora taken over five consecutive nights of listening. William Steinberg uses his own "edition" which is based on Nowak. I cannot begin to tell you what the emendations are, but I can tell you that listening to this recording was an experience of a lifetime. I would probably recommend the whole set just to hear this.
The Vaughan Williams is a disappointment. The whole thing felt episodic; there was anger, but no coherence, no point of view. I kept recalling the Stokowski broadcast, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1943. After listening to the Davis and making notes of the kind indicated above, I got out the Stokowski performance. From the very outset the intensity is greater, more in context with Job. If Davis does have anger, Stokowski reminds us that anguish is related to anger and possibly more intense. I noticed, however, for the first time that Vaughan Williams provides a partial quotation of the Dies Ire. It follows 1-2-3-4 but then does not go 4-3-2-1.
The Schubert 3rd is next on this disc. I admit that when I saw Haitink was the conductor I had my doubts. His music making is almost always self-effacing, which means it has no personality. Again, I was surprised. I recalled a live performance of Haitink doing the Tchaikovsky 5th (I think) at the end of the third movement the audience burst into applause. Perhaps Bernie is better live. It is an animated, bucolic performance. The woodwinds are particularly good. I then listened to Karl Böhm's recording (recently released with all the symphonies on DG 471307 (a set I highly recommend). Bohm had the advantage of James Galloway as principal flutist and the Berlin Philharmonic. Bohm is more "intense" and links Schubert with Beethoven. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is a "Cadillac" to the Boston Symphony Orchestra "Lincoln". You really don't know a piece of music unless you have heard more than one interpretation; otherwise you have an instance and not the concept. The comparison and contrast was fascinating.
Prokofieff's Scythian Suite is another intense experience. I am still deciding about Tilson Thomas. He may be one of the few conductors around today who is similar to the "old school" (especially Bernstein). In this case there is no doubt. The composer's music most often brings to mind Chaplin's "Modern Times" in this piece. As the music entered the finale moments, I was sitting on the edge of my chair and muttered, "YES!"
This volume is the only one I could not recommend without a reservation. For some time I have felt that Ozawa is a pedestrian musician. I approached the disc warily. Unfortunately, I was not surprised. Now, I cannot listen to Bluebeard's Castle. It is either a very depressing story on a tragically doomed woman, or a black comedy about a terminally stupid person. The Strauss was a delightful surprise. I don't think I have heard it before. It certainly is not in my collection anywhere. On first hearing it I thought of Mozart and guessed it was a late Strauss composition because it reminded me of the oboe concerto. Dan if I wasn't right. The soloists are just plain like a good marriage. The duets are lovely. Now, the orchestra primarily provides a tapestry or continuo and this is done very well, thank you. Another aspect from Ozawa that I realized whilst listening is that every composer has his "voice". You know what I mean, you can tell almost instantly who wrote a piece of music even if it just popped up on the FM as you were driving. For example, the opening violin solo (the concertmaster I assume) puts Strauss' voiceprint on it immediately. Dan is it good. I enjoyed listening to this music and the orchestral collaboration is excellent.
The next disc does offer an interesting alternate listening experience for Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. While I cannot say that I like it, I can say that comparing it with Boulez's recording is fascinating. I swear that Oz imbues the whole experience, from the very opening, with an oriental flavor. Boulez, on the other hand, gives a more Hasidic feel to the music. At another point in my notes, however, I penned, "Oz has a sense of Carmina Burana to the music, Boulez is more like a Gregorian Chant… or the twilight zone." Now, I am not completely sure what that means, I am still working on it, but I do know that these are two very different perceptions of the gem. I don't know if I like one better than the other, but the educational experience of listening to both of them was fascinating. I am afraid that I cannot comment on the other pieces because, frankly, I don't care for them. It may be that I don't appreciate the music or it might be because Oz doesn't convey the music to my mind.
[Editorial] There are many of you who will disagree with my feelings about the Great Oz, but you are wrong. No, seriously, I was just kidding. Hahaha. Anyway, if you happen to like the music making of the Seiji Ozawa you will probably find this disc valuable and will think I have been merciless. I apologize if my references to Ozawa seem flippant. I thought it was a funny play on "words". I have been told I have a weird sense of humour. One day I must crack the Bluebeard nut. Maybe you already have. If any of my readers can help me with this please do.
Verdi is an acquired taste I have not yet acquired. This piece has not changed things. I don't know if it is the conductor or the music. Markevitch's "Roméo and Juliet" however, is another matter. I have always compared any recording of this Tchaikovsky work with (you guessed it) Stokowski. Now, Stokowski does change the ending, but that is not a problem for me. Markevitch is the first conductor I have heard that matches the Old Magician's depth, intensity and sorrow. Cantelli was one of those "what ifs" in life. He died so young and promised so much. Though he was Toscanini's "student" he had more passion in his music making. I do not know what else was on this concert, but the Respighi does remind me of Toscanini's recording (one of the few I like). Then there is Giulini's Hindemith. I had the pleasure of having my first hearing of this piece at a live concert in Columbus, Ohio when Giulini conducted it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on tour. This broadcast is much the same as what I listened to and that is high praise. As my friend Bruce said on hearing the concert with me a few years after this performance, "That Hindemith kicked my shit."
Stokowski's Mozart comes from a program that included Beethoven's 7th and Stokowski's Mussorgsky's "Boris" Synthesis à la Stokowski. Stokowski's Mozart reminds me of Beecham's way with that music. There is grace and a dance-like quality. In fact, I found myself swaying to the music. The interesting thing is that the Maestro evokes The Stokowski Sound from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is different from any other performance you will hear on this set. The bass is deeper, richer and the flow of the music seamless. Stokowski didn't care for the ending that was normally used, so wrote his own. It closes with the Don being dragged to hell. Neat stuff.
Martinů is, arguably, my favorite composer. I have more recordings of his work than Mozart. When I saw that I was going to hear it in a live performance with Kubelík… well, this was one of the first pieces I played. The opening timpani whack literally made me jump and it is more dominant than in any other performance I have heard. This is intense. My friend Bruce Knecht and I listened to it one evening and the experience left us dumbfounded… for a moment anyway. Then, like the audience, we started yelling "Bravo!" Okay, it wasn't that demonstrative a response but you get the idea. I was so bowled over that I felt I had heard the music for the first time. On czeching (sorry) I found I have two other recordings (one by Kubelík) but they never struck me as forcefully as this one has.
Next we turn to Stokowski again. Tchaikovsky was a Stokowski specialty. Like going to a fine restaurant and asking the chef to do "his" thing, you will always come away with the best on the menu. His Tchaikovsky discography runs several pages, from the last four symphonies to items like "Hamlet". I have heard the Everest recording and it is damn good. This is, if anything, even better. You have probably heard that a live performance often has more fire than in the studio. This is certainly the case here. Good stuff.
Morton Gould writes the music that Copland didn't. His music is okay, but the sound difference between the Stokowski and this entry takes some getting used to. Frankly, I would have preferred other fare than this and Tennstedt's Brahms, which offers another jar as we time travel.
Being able to listen to a Bruno Walter performance of Haydn is an opportunity not to be missed. Walter was among the highest tier of conductors of the first half of the last century. His Mozart was "romantic" but not heavy like Karajan or Bernstein. In fact, it is much like Beecham or Stokowski (who recorded so little Mozart or Haydn, but listen to the Haydn 78th for an idea of what I mean. There is the dance element to the music making. The 1947 sound is just fine.
I had to read the notes to find out who Richard Burgin was. Read for yourself, but I will tell you he was Concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, originally appointed by none other than Pierre Monteux, from 1920 to 1962. He was also Associate Conductor of the orchestra from 1943 on. His Stravinsky was compared with Stravinsky's own in a previous concert. (One of the nice things about the notes is that they quote from writers about the performances) Burgin's work is, "gentler, with polish, delicacy and… sly humor… [has] more resilience, color and variety." These words really do capture the essence of this performance.
This is one of the most interesting pieces by Copland that I have ever heard. His music really does evoke New York City at that time. For that matter it might still be applicable today. The Subway Jam is a 'jam session'. The music has variety and is not predictable like so much Copland can be. Since the composer is also the conductor we may assume the performance is authoritative. Good stuff.
Okay, now on to the Encores disc. I am not listing the complete contents because that would likely take more space than the review. There are ten 'encores'. The most interesting items, however, are two rehearsal segments. Track 11 has Koussevitzky with the orchestra in Vaughan Williams' Symphony #6. The next track features
Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the orchestra in Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony. Koussevitzky uses argot like "piano" "d sharp flat" etc. Then comes Lenny, whose voice is not as deep as it became later. He is rehearsing the sixth movement where he says the music should "induce a sense of rest, of relaxation." That says it all.
Okay, I will close matters for those who skip to the last line. Don't do that, just order the set:
Post Scripts: The insert booklet is full of interesting essays. There is one by Michael Steinberg, who wrote two fascinating books you ought to own, especially if, like me, you don't read music. There is another that discusses in depth the process of taking the music from the acetates or tapes and transferring them to disc. Then there is… well, you get the idea.
Thoughts about the sound: Consider that whenever you listen to a radio broadcast the sound has been altered to fit your screen… I mean ear. Unlike a 'wide screen' VHS, the normal one is a recreation so the film will fit your screen. The process by which this is done was primitive in the beginning but has become more refined. An analogous process transforms the sound from an orchestra hall to fit your stereo system. The result is the 'broadcast sound". It is different from recordings, even if the recordings were made "live". It is certainly different from studio recordings. You might argue that the 'broadcast sound' is less good than the others. This is even more pronounced in the older broadcasts. The FM white noise was always bothersome, but here it is not a problem. Even today, however, as I listen to the radio, the sound is different from the other two mediums. Now, this is neither an indictment nor a reason to avoid releases like this one. In fact, the sound on this set is excellent.
Copyright © 2002, Robert Stumpf II