Great Conductors of the 20th Century
BERLIOZ: Les francs-juges Overture (live/April 5, 1941). BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 99 (live/Nov. 27, 1948). DVORAK: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 (Dec. 4, 1948). PUCCINI: Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (live/July 2, 1944). WAGNER: Rienzi Overture (live/Dec. 3, 1938). BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 "Pastorale" (BBC SO/Oct. 21/22, 1937). WAGNER: Immolation Scene from Gotterdämmerung (Helen Traubel, sop/live/Feb. 22, 1941). BELLINI: Introduction Chorus and Cavatina from Norma (Nicola Moscona, bass/live/Dec. 2, 1945) (all with NBC SO unless otherwise indicated)
EMI 62939 (2 CDS) (B) (ADD) TT: 74:59 & 78:22

DVORAK: Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3, Op. 45 No. 3 (Royal PO/Jan. 24, 1959). MARTINU: Symphony No. 4 (Czech PO/June 10, 1948). BERLIOZ: Dance of the Sylphs from The Damnation of Faust (Philharmonia O/May 10, 1950). MENDELSSOHN: Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (Philharmonia O/Feb. 16-17, 1952) HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (Chicago SO/April 3, 1953). SCHUMANN: Genoveva Overture (Berlin PO/Sept. 10, 1964). SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 3 in D (Vienna PO/Jan. 11-14/1960)
EMI 62863 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 78:32 & 76:46

NIELSEN: Maskarade Overture (live/Danish National RSO/Dec. 12, 1970). BERWALD: Symphony No. 3 Sinfonie singuliere (live/Stockholm RSO/June 9, 1967). MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 Italian (live/Berlin PO/Nov. 9, 1953). TCHAIKOVSKY: Excerpts from The Nutcracker Ballet (London PO/Dec. 28-29, 1948). ROSENBERG: Marionetter Overture (live/Swedish RSO/Oct. 21, 1962). TIESSEN: Hamlet Suite, Op. 30 (llive/Berlin RSO/Oct. 7, 1957). MOZART: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183 (London PO/Dec. 28-29, 1948) PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25 Classical (Berlin PO/Feb. 4-6, 1948). JOHANN STRAUSS II: Overture to Die Fledermaus. Annen-Polka, Op. 117. Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, Op. 214. JOHANN STRAUSS I: Radetzky March, Op. 228 (live/Danish NSO/Dec. 12, 1970).
EMI 62872 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 69:07 & 77:49

JOHANN STRAUSS II: Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, Op. 214 (Vienna PO/Oct. 18, 1949). WALTON: Symphony No. 1 (live/RAI SO/Dec. 5, 1953). MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (Philharmonia O/Oct. 11-12, 1955 & June 18, 1956). WALDTEUFEL: Les Patineurs, Op. 183 (Philharmonia O/Sept. 21 & 23, 1960). SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63 (Philharmonia O/rec. July 6-7, 1953).
EMI 62869 (2 CDs) (B) ADD) TT: 79:52 & 79:41

IMG’s “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” for EMI release has added four more CD-duopacks to its series, bringing the total to date to 39. I would dispute the earlier inclusion of hectic Hermann Scherchen, for example, and at this point Sergiu Celibidache’s early and late music making (other than performances leading the Swedish and Danish orchestras during a dozen or so years he spent principally in Scandinavia, before reemerging as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic in 1979 until his death in 1996). But Toscanini is a given, despite the scrappy sound of most of his recorded legacy, and winds and trumpets in certain performances that sound respectively squally and blatty. The NBC Symphony Orchestra was never a world-leader, especially when some players who had rehearsed were playing for other network broadcasts at concert time. Toscanini being progressively near-sighted didn’t seem to notice different faces from time to time, and one has to question the acuity of his hearing: he was, after all, already 70 when he conducted that orchestra for the first time on Christmas Day 1937, and continued to do so until the depredations of age forced his retirement in 1954, at 87. Besides, most of the material on these two discs has been reissued in various remasterings ever since, many of them still in print on BMG/RCA.

Herbert von Karajan, however, especially his pre-Berlin Philharmonic period, certainly does rate a major niche in the pantheon, if not in all the performances chosen for these discs. And Rafael Kubelik, too, despite the travails of political change, authoritarian bosses and precarious health before he settled in Munich 1961 as music director of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (whose discipline was untrustworthy but could repeatedly rise to an occasion). In the Kubelik collection covering a 20-year period from 1948 to 1968, we hear mono performances on the first disc, except for the opening Dvorák Slavonic Rhapsody: loving recreations of Martinu’s Fourth Symphony with the Czech Phil (from 1948), excerpts from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture with the Philharmonia Orchestra at its peak, and the rollicking Chicago Symphonic Metamorphosis of Hindemith in 1953 from Mercury’s single-mike “Living Presence” series there, which ended with Fritz Reiner’s arrival in the autumn of that year. The second disc has Schumann by the Berlin and Schubert by the Vienna Philharmonics (the latter’s Third Symphony elevated to musical importance in a remarkable performance), a glowing performance of the Krenek-edited Adagio first movement of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth with the unpredictable Bavarians on their mettle, and a quite brisk mono performance with the Vienna Phil of Janácek’s Sinfonietta (under 21') – the second of three recordings of a work obviously close to his heart, this one vividly played.

Celibidache is burdened before one even starts playing the discs by a program-note that may make sense to Germans of a more philosophical bent than the rest of us. I found most of it sycophantic gobbledegook. Occupying forces in Berlin chose him from obscurity when the Philharmonic needed a leader before Furtwängler and Karajan were de-Nazified (as the phrase went): his 1953 Mendelssohn “Italian” is solidly sonorous but squarely phrased and otherwise stolid, although a 1948 Prokofiev “Classical” hath its charms. However, excerpts from Tchaik’s Nutcracker that same year with the London Phil are freakishly too fast or too slow, and the Mozart “Little G minor” Symphony, so-called, with the same players on the same days, is tolerably heavy until a finale that is plainly too sluggish. The less said the better about a morbidly tuneless Hamlet Suite by Celibidache’s favorite teacher, Heinz Tiessen – a 1957 concert performance with the Berlin Radio Symphony. This leaves Danish performances of Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture and four Johann Strauss I and II works, plus Swedish performances of Berwald’s Sinfonie singulieree (No. 3) and Hilding Rosenberg’s enchanting Marionetter Overture to admire if not (in the case of Strauss) to prefer over a multitude of other versions. In greater part, then, chiefly for Celibidache mavens.

The Toscanini set includes a band-shell performance of Berlioz’s Les Francs-Juges Overture in execrable 1941 Studio-8-H sound from NBC. Morton Frank’s genuflecting program notes say the 1948 Brahms Fourth may be best of x-number Toscanini gave, but I found the performance ungracious, certainly not Viennese or even Central European, with pitch shrill to a point just this side of distortion (a 446-A?), no doubt to compensate for all the asbestos that lined Studio 8-H. Toscanini was fond of Dvorák’s Symphonic Variations, played a week after the Brahms and relaxed as well as sun-dappled, but then structurally it is a simple and straightforward piece. The Wagner Rienzi Overture from 1938 at a suitably stately pace may be the best of the dross from 8-H on these discs, despite its age, while the Puccini third-act Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut is a lollipop with, gasp!, string portamenti. The 1937 Beethoven “Pastoral” with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded by HMV in Queen’s Hall, shows the gentle side of Toscanini’s legendarily volatile temperament, yet doesn’t shake allegiance to de Sabata (review) or Reiner at the top of my favorites list. The Immolation Scene that ends Wagner’s Ring was a Carnegie Hall performance from 1941 (ditto the Norma excerpt four years later) with Helen Traubel doing her St. Louis best to meet the standard of Kirtsen Flagstad, who went home to Norway for WW-2 as the dutiful and loving wife of a Quisling. Birgit Nilsson didn’t arrive on the international scene from Sweden until the 1950s to become the second-half-of-the-20th-century’s Best Brünnhilde. This is not to denigrate a heroic vocal spillage from Traubel, but she lacked a degree of involvement that was a matter of culture, I suspect. Nevertheless it is a memorable souvenir, with Toscanini on his best behavior. Startlingly, on the other hand, an excerpt from the first scene of Norma, concluding with Oroveso’s ‘Ite sull colle, o Druidi,” eschews any of the nuances he lavished on Puccini’s lachrymose bagatelle a year earlier. Nicola Moscona sings as finely as ever in his career with “the Maestro,” but Bellini never really comes to life.

Which leaves the protean Karajan, twice a registered Nazi, who was rescued from the punishment corner by Walter Legge of EMI (along with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf whom Legge married, just to be safe). In war-ravaged Vienna during the late ‘40s, they made some glorious performances with the Philharmoniker, including the Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka here of J.Strauss-II. By this time Legge had not only founded the Philharmonia Orchestra but, with Karajan as his principal conductor, in so doing created Britain’s finest of the time. In 1956, Karajan made a Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition in London that Richard Osborne (in his sycophantic notes) drools over, but I find it short on character and long on orchestral weight. However, a 1953 Sibelius Fourth is one of the Karajan treasures, superior to two remakes with the Berlin Phil, although queerly prefaced on disc-2 by Waldteufel’s Les Patineurs waltz. It is followed by Isolde’s “Liebestod” sung by Helga Dernesch before Karajan ruined her spinto-sized voice in overparted roles, this with the Berlin Phil recorded in the Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin-Dahlem, before the Neue Philharmonie rose from the ashes. The rest of disc-2 is a cherishable string of Lollipops with the Philharmonia: a rip-roaring Liszt-Doppler Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, the Polka from Weinberger’s Schwanda der Dudelsackpfieffer (but no Fugue!), Chabrier’s España and Marche joyeuse (these perhaps most treasurable of all), and finally the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. This leaves one last surprise, on disc-1 – a white-hot albeit hectic performance of Walton’s Symphony No.1 with the RAI Orchestra of Rome, recorded live in December 1953, meaning after Furtwängler’s Ring in the same venue. The orchestra is bewildered and sloppy, but inspired by the sheer force of Karajan’s conception and drive. It was made with an audience in a dry-ish studio by engineers who sheared the top and bottom off the sound lest Italian table-radios explode. Yet with much in the minus column, this is a performance to keep – in spirit, if not in the flesh, superior to the composer’s own version, to André Previn’s first one with the LSO, to Vernon Handley’s with the Bournemouth, much less Slatkin’s, Litton’s or Rattle’s. I hadn’t expected to keep this duopack, but it and the Kubelik stay – Celibidache and Toscanini I’m too old to listen to again, even out of curiosity.

A final word about IMG. By and large, remasterings by Paul Baily are remarkably fine, contingent of course upon the source material he had to work with (the Walton even includes an apology for background noise). But nowhere is the listener told what’s mono and what’s stereo. And the program notes tend to puffery (even such philosophical maundering as those for Celibidache), although the Brits (and Mort Frank) know their scores. They’re just willing to look away when an icon missteps or blindsides a composer. Otherwise, except for the kind of detailed background data Naxos gives us on its historical reissues, IMG is doing admirably indeed, even when their choices of who to include can be controversial.

R.D. (July 2004)