Executive Summary: I can only assume you haven't bought this already because you didn't know about it. If you have a serious interest in orchestral music and great playing, this is for you. Not for the casual listener.
It would be impossible for me to contain my enthusiasm for this set, so I won't even try. Commenting on every item on these discs would seem unnecessary since many of these broadcasts have already assumed "legendary status" in pirate issues often with worse sonics. I will attempt to highlight some of those performances which require special mention. All of these performances are from live broadcasts.
The first disc features the earliest known examples of a broadcast recording of the New York Philharmonic. The tantalizing excerpts of Mengelberg's reading of the Strauss can only be described as transcendental. The orchestra plays beautifully. Listening to those eleven minutes of the Strauss was akin to the thought of the scenario of the movie "Somewhere in Time." It was like eavesdropping on an era when music making was so very different, a very different time. The style of playing was marked by practices like the use of portamento, rubato and changes in dynamics, which when tastefully applied could heighten the expression. This however should not be confused with sloppy playing, for the orchestra, based upon these excerpts, was a magnificent, expressive instrument back in the 1920s. The playing had a humanity one less frequently encounters. The Beethoven excerpt conducted by van Hoogstraten shows an orchestra that played with precision and virtuosity. Anyone with interest in the music of Bruckner will want to hear the Klemperer performance. Is this a great Bruckner performance? Probably not for everyone, but for me it was very moving.
Disc two is devoted to Toscanini performances. The first offering, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in d minor as orchestrated by Sir Henry Wood, would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Wood's orchestration, glockenspiel and all, conducted by Toscanini the purist is an odd combination at the very least but if this performance doesn't give you goose bumps, you must be dead. As with all Heifetz I have ever heard, his performance of the Brahms Concerto is impeccably controlled and yet more expressive than his usually playing. It will not disappoint.
Music of Glinka in a spirited performance, conducted by Stravinsky opens disc three. With Szell's respectful and attentive accompaniment, Schnabel's Beethoven Third Concerto, dropped notes and all, is touching. He plays the slow movement as beautifully as I have ever heard it.
One of the great surprises in this set can be found on disc four, Stokowski in the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony. Certainly this is not repertoire generally associated with him yet it is a spirited, convincing and committed performance, truly a delight!
Listening to Walter and Rubinstein's collaboration on the Chopin First Piano Concerto on disc five makes me sad to think that these two artists did not record together. This performance produced one of the most elegant readings of the Chopin I have ever heard. While it might not be all that Kempe brought to the work, Walter's reading of the Strauss Symphonia Domestica is well paced and most satisfying.
The only recommendation the performance of the Wagner, on disc six, needs is the mention of the soloist, Kirsten Flagstad. Poulenc plays his Concert Champêtre, in the piano version, beautifully. Mitropoulos seems to be trying to bring the seriousness and sense of scope he would bring to Mahler to the sudden shifts of mood and humor of Poulenc. They both compromise. The performance of the Shostakovich by Oistrakh and Mitropoulos is, in a word, electrifying!
Nadia Boulanger conducts a moving Fauré Requiem on disc seven. Monteux's reading of the Ravel Tombeau de Couperin is delightful. It was over twenty years ago when I first acquired a tape of Cantelli's New York Philharmonic broadcast of La Mer. It is one of those works that invites a wide range of expression in its interpretation, hence I find it impossible to limit myself to one favorite performance. However, Cantelli's broadcast remains one of my favorite readings along with performances by Koussevitzky, Toscanini, Munch and Reiner with each offering something wonderfully different.
I found hearing Bernstein, on disc eight, in music from the Second Viennese School to be fascinating. He gives a respectful reading of the Webern and a dynamic performance of the Berg. For me the highlight of this disc is Reiner's exacting, knockout account of the Brahms Second Symphony.
Disc nine opens with a well paced Mozart 29th Symphony conducted by Leinsdorf. André Kostelanetz' contribution to building the repertoire is highlighted with his conducting of Walton's Capriccio burlesco, a work he premièred with the Philharmonic in 1968. When it came to stating his favorite interpreter of his music, Copland mentioned the name of Leonard Bernstein. It is easy to understand Copland's preference when listening to Bernstein conduct Marilyn Horne in portions of the Old American Songs.
On disc ten Munch somehow manages to completely transform the tonal quality of the orchestra in a captivating performance of Debussy's Prélude. It is both a tribute to flexibility of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic and to the creative powers of Charles Munch. It would be difficult to imagine a more exciting performance of the Bartók than Kubelík's broadcast of 1981.
Each of the selections on these discs was obviously chosen for specific reasons, conductors in repertoire they did not record, first performances, and conductors and soloists who, for contractual reasons, were prevented from making commercial recordings together. There would also seem to be an intent to address the interests of the more general audience by providing a wide range of repertoire, almost a little something for everybody who would likely have attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic. The fact that this set even exists must be close to a miracle. One can only wonder at how many legal considerations, permissions, etc. that were required to make these performances available.
Sound quality is a major concern, especially in historical issues. The credit for the transfer work goes to the Seth Winner Studios and Jon Samuels. That alone will tell us that these transfers are the best of what could have been obtained from the available sources. How good is that sound? It varies. Those of you familiar with the art of recording back in the 1920s will marvel at the relative excellence of the sound quality of the Mengelberg. There were times when I personally felt there was a bit too much noise reduction used, however since I am used to the sound of older recordings I might be an exception, for the more general listener is likely to wish for more noise reduction! By the time you get to the third disc and the 1940s you are hearing, to my ears, sound comparable to the best of commercial recordings of the period. Broadcast recordings of that time have, to my ears, the added advantage of more natural resonance versus many recordings of those years which featured a drier ambiance. Yes, you will hear plenty of audience noise, especially in the more recent broadcasts. There are instances where the surviving discs did not offer smooth, easily reconstructed side breaks. However if great sound is your thing, this set is not for you. If however you don't mind listening past the noise to experience magnificent, expressive playing and have the money, click on your web browser and surf over to the New York Philharmonic and order this set.
There has been talk that this set is the first of many. One can only imagine what other treasures could be made available. One wonders if much of the Koussevitzky Philharmonic performances survive. A set of the orchestra doing American Music could include the likes of the music of Schuman done by Bernstein, Cantelli and Mitropoulos. Other offerings could include Bruno Walter conducting music of Daniel Gregory Mason. How about Bernstein doing the Copland Variations for Orchestra? It would seem that a multidisc set of Barbirolli years and yet another focusing on the Mitropoulos tenure would provide a wonderful impetus to explore the outstanding contributions of these musicians. If this current set is viewed as the "tip of the iceberg," it clearly one of the most beautifully sculpted chunks of ice imaginable.
10 October 1997
Copyright © 1997, Karl Miller