Feature CD Review – London Philharmonic Orchestra 75th-Anniversary

Written by: Colin Anderson

Recordings made by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and here issued by the Orchestra to celebrate its 75th-anniversary

”The London Philharmonic Orchestra made its first recordings on 10 October 1932, just three days after its first public performance following its founding by Sir Thomas Beecham.”

There are three sets, each containing four CDs:

Volume 1 (1932-1957) features Sir Thomas Beecham, Eduard van Beinum, Sir Adrian Boult and Anatole Fistoulari [LPO-0097; 4 hours 42 minutes]

Volume 2 (1958-1982) includes Sir John Pritchard, Sir Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink [LPO-0098; 4 hours 25 minutes]

Volume 3 (1983-2007) highlights Klaus Tennstedt, Franz Welser-Möst, Kurt Masur and Vladimir Jurowski [LPO-0099; 4 hours 19 minutes]

These 12 CDs are arranged into three sets of four discs and chart chronologically recordings made by the London Philharmonic Orchestras and its various Principal Conductors. Some are of commercial origins while others are taken from broadcast concert performances; individual discs are either already available on the LPO’s own label or are issued for the first time in these boxes, but all will be available separately (as detailed within the text) in due course.

Sir Thomas Beecham Bt (1879-1961)

The first volume of four CDs charts from Sir Thomas Beecham to Anatole Fistoulari. Beecham, in recordings from 1934-1939, dispenses some vivid Sibelius – his music for “The Tempest” – excerpts from Mozart’s “Mass” in C minor (K427) and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”, Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony – elegant and weighty – and an effervescent version of Chabrier’s ever-delightful España. The performances are undoubtedly characterful, but the sound while colourful and lively, also betrays signs of over-processing and of fluctuating pitch. (LPO – 0006; 71 minutes)

From Beecham to Eduard van Beinum, recorded between 1946 to 1950. A welcome first track brings Malcolm Arnold’s fizzing overture, Beckus the Dandipratt (in its first recording). One imagines that Arnold, then principal trumpet in the orchestra, was at the sessions (but surely not playing!) and the account is brilliant. Very different is Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”, with Eugenia Zareska as the dark-toned mezzo-soprano. It’s a poised reading, orchestrally well detailed if lacking in variety from the soloist. Beethoven’s Leonore No.1 Overture reflects van Beinum’s Classical leaning, as does a clear-sighted account of Brahms’s Variations on the St Anthony Chorale. The Second Suite (six movements culminating with ‘The Wild Bears’) of Elgar’s The Wand of Youth is given with agreeable affection and bright-eyed enthusiasm. But, again, the discoloured transfers disappoint, especially in the bass and pianissimo areas (treble and fortissimo respond much better), and with mechanical noise just as processed. (LPO – 0011; 65 minutes)

Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983)

To Sir Adrian Boult, once described as “a prince among conductors”. This collection (1949-56) enjoys better transfers, generally: they are more open across the tonal range – and with more realistic surface noise! (It makes a difference to critical listening.) How often these days does a gem like the overture to Otto Nicolai’s opera “The Merry Wives of Windsor” turn up in our overture-restricted concert-programmes? Not enough! Boult’s cracking account reminds what an adorable piece this is. Three German Dances by Haydn (Hob IX/12 for the Hoboken-minded!) are an unexpected and delightful second item; robustly delivered. No.7 turns out to be better-known as the trio from Symphony No.86; Boult has its lilt. Then to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (as expanded by Hamilton Harty); Boult shines the music’s majesty and deftness, although the ‘Alla Siciliana’ – affectingly shaped – is just a little ‘watery’ transfer-wise. A rather stately version of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture follows and is succeeded by an imposing one of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor (BWV537) as transcribed from organ to orchestra by Elgar. Boult’s 1949 account is quite superb, full of wonderment, incision and orchestral wizardry. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (a desert-island piece) features Jean Pougnet as the violin soloist – but the opening bars are noticeably affected by contaminated orchestral textures; fortunately Pougnet’s silvery violin sound is not compromised and although Boult’s later account, with Hugh Bean, remains unsurpassed, there is much affecting frisson to relish

Anatole Fistoulari (1907-95)

here. Boult was a champion of Sibelius and his account of En Saga appreciates the composer’s symphonic logic, vivid tone-painting and dramatic contrasts, the 1956 mono sound being a fine complement. (LPO – 0021; 75 minutes)

To the stereo era for undated accounts of Khachaturian’s Piano and Violin Concertos, both made for Decca, with the Violin Concerto recorded in the late-1950s. Decca has no doubt issued these recordings under its own aegis, but this is not music to which I generally respond, therefore they have not come my way. That said, these are very persuasive performances – and, thankfully, very well transferred by Phil Rowlands who has retained enough tape-hiss in his transfers so that textures are not compromised. (Take too-much hiss or crackle out and ‘true tones’ suffer – strange but true.) The result here is superb sound, save for some ‘dark’ coloration in the rambling first-movement cadenza of the fiddle concerto, a handsome tribute to Decca’s early-stereo achievements (one assumes that this recording was made in Kingsway Hall). The Kiev-born Anatole Fistoulari (1907-1995) conducts – he was Principal Conductor of the LPO in 1943 and 1944 – and he kept ties with the LPO; indeed he died in London. Ruggiero Ricci plays the Violin Concerto – and is given a natural concert-hall balance – a reading full of panache, direction, sultry lyricism and folk-dancing. Moura Lympany is the soloist in the Piano Concerto (actually this is a mono taping, from 1952, and also with Kingsway Hall characteristics); like Ricci, she does her utmost to articulate the music rather than just put a show on. Khachaturian’s scores, after all, are already ‘high’ on melody, rhythm, colour and atmosphere – and Fistoulari and the LPO serve this up with gusto. (LPO – 0022; 72 minutes)

Sir John Pritchard (1921-89)

Volume 2 begins with two contributions from Sir John Pritchard (LPO Chief from 1962 to 1966), but just as Fistoulari is ‘restricted’ to Khachaturian, so Pritchard is heard only in Britten, the 1974 Classics for Pleasure recordings of “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” and the Violin Concerto. In “Serenade” Ian Partridge is the tenor and Nicholas Busch the horn soloist (the latter a recent retiree from the LPO). John Boyden’s expert original production, made in the sympathetic space of Fairfield Halls, Croydon, is a canny piece of balancing between singer, string orchestra and the ‘journeying’ horn. Partridge’s diction is exemplary, his projection ideal, his likeable tenor a pleasing alternative to originator Peter Pears. Pritchard elicits a variegated response from the LPO’s strings – and I find this version climbs very quickly in the ‘recommendation’ stakes. Rodney Friend, a former Leader of the LPO, assumes the solo in the Violin Concerto, equally well-balanced and lucid in terms of sound. Friend is not the last word in burnished tone and flawless intonation, but this meaty and passionate account is certainly involving, with much to admire from Pritchard and the orchestra. The transfer (the person responsible is not credited) is of the highest standard. (LPO – 0024; 55 minutes)

Sir Georg Solti contributes two Royal Festival Hall performances. The quiet nether-regions opening Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony (26 February 1982) do not survive the over-processed transfer – oh dear. The dried-out sound and BBC Radio 3’s unnaturally ambient interfering do not help an account that is at best hard-driven. The 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird (10 May 1985) is

Sir Georg Solti (1912-97)

altogether more magical – and is much better reproduced, too – and reveals the tender side to Solti’s art, the ballet-score pointed and cosseted and, indeed, eminently danceable, the ‘Infernal Dance’ rhythmically vital without lunging. The Firebird is a real highlight. (LPO – 0025; 65 minutes)

Bernard Haitink (b.1929)

More vagaries of sound afflict Bernard Haitink’s conducting of Britten and Elgar. The former’s “Our Hunting Fathers” to texts by W. H. Auden (Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 1979) enjoys soprano Heather Harper’s deep conviction and many insights, Haitink’s sympathy evident in every bar – but the reproduction is less than pleasing. The Elgar items fare better – not so ‘cooked’ in terms of the transfer. Introduction and Allegro (RFH, 27 November 1984) is given all the time in the world, probably too much, for the performance hangs fire somewhat. Enigma Variations (RAH, 28 August 1986), however, glows with character and subtlety; it’s a wonderful performance of interior searching – note the ‘extended’ oboe line in ‘Nimrod’ (around the 1’54” mark), which is an LPO ‘tradition’ and goes back, as I understand it, to Leon Goossens spontaneously ‘holding on’ and receiving Elgar’s approval. If the dynamic range is somewhat restricted the actual sound is realistic, the RAH organ well captured in the nobly resounding final bars. (LPO – 0002; 75 minutes)

John McCabe (b.1939) ©Peter Thompson

The final disc of Volume 2 includes two substantial pieces by John McCabe (born 1939). The 25-minute Concerto for Orchestra is heard here in its world premiere performance, Solti conducting in the RFH on 10 February 1983. McCabe here matches form – effectively a “large passacaglia” (the composer’s description from his booklet note) – with intense lyricism, rhythmic guile and brilliant orchestration; it’s a very impressive piece, virtuosity and particular focuses on orchestral groups and soloists always seeming part of a bigger argument that leads to a considerable climax and an enchanted coda. Of this first performance, McCabe says: “Solti’s energy and control of large-scale form, plus the brilliance of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, gave the Concerto the ideal start in life.” In Phil Rowlands’s transfer, although the recording is acceptable in terms of clarity and impact, smidgens of processed detritus (for want of a better description) are unfortunately evident: try the few seconds of silence before the enthusiastic applause; if you don’t hear the ‘swishing’ problem, you’re lucky! Such intrusion is mercifully not audible for McCabe’s The Chagall Windows, which Haitink conducts (this being the London premiere in the RFH on 30 November 1975, which closely followed the Hallé Orchestra/James Loughran first performance). The Chagall Windows is as much a symphony as ‘pictures at an exhibition’, a 30-minute kaleidoscope of orchestral tapestry that contains some haunting invention and timbres. Haitink led the premiere of Malcolm Arnold’s Philharmonic Concerto (a Sunday afternoon affair in the RFH on 31 October 1976), a concise winner of a piece. (LPO – 0023; 70 minutes)

Klaus Tennstedt (1926-98)

Volume 3 begins with a magisterial Beethoven ‘Choral’ Symphony under Klaus Tennstedt – from the RFH on 8 October 1992 and therefore should not be confused with the earlier Proms performance that is on BBC Legends. Tennstedt (who died in 1998 anything but an old man) was forced to retire; his time with the LPO as Music Director (from 1983 until his resignation in 1990), while yielding electrifying concerts, was also a time of cancelled appearances due to worsening health. This Beethoven performance is one his last before retirement. The first movement is given on a huge scale (with excellent detail from the timpani) – no ‘authentic’ fast tempo here, a patient momentum remarkably well sustained to the tempestuous climax. The scherzo – shorn of every repeat (logical: play all or none) – is mercurial, the trio puckish, the ensuing slow movement expanded with a Furtwängler-like space and flexibility over its heavenly length of (here) 19 minutes. The vocal finale – with Lucia Popp, Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, René Pape and the London Philharmonic Choir – is an outsize conception of considerable thrall – music-making on an exalted level: very human and truly of brotherhood. This outstanding performance is captured in excellent digital sound and with equally excellent re-mastering by “On Balance Ltd”. (LPO – 0026; 72 minutes)

Franz Welser-Möst (b.1960). Photograph: Roger Mastroianni

Franz Welser-Möst also had a troubled time during his LPO tenure (1990-96) – not through illness but through much criticism: some of it justified given there were some decidedly dispiriting performances. Of course, Welser-Möst has gone on to triumph at Zurich Opera, The Cleveland Orchestra and is announced for the Vienna State Opera. This selection of LPO concerts and commercial recordings begins with a hasty version of the ‘Moonlight Music’ that heralds the Final Scene of Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio”, Dame Felicity Lott establishing meaning to proceedings and really crafting the words to which the conductor responds. Excerpts from EMI recordings of Mozart’s C minor “Mass” (K427) and “Requiem” (K626), and Bruckner’s “Te Deum”, while disciplined, are rather one-dimensional (and that was my main problem with too many of the Welser-Möst concerts I attended). The Bruckner has a certain impulse but there’s a lack of depth, although Schubert’s “Stabat Mater” (in G minor, D175), from the RFH on 26 October 1992, has more shape than Welser-Möst affords elsewhere. Was there nothing else the LPO could have found to include? He did Nicholas Maw’s 15-minute Morning Music proud, but maybe that wasn’t broadcast. (LPO – 0027; 60 minutes)

Kurt Masur (b.1927)

Kurt Masur’s conducting of Shostakovich’s Symphonies 1 and 5 (RFH, January and February 2004) stands high in the discography of both works. Very much remaining an international presence, his 80th-birthday came and went in 2007, Masur’s LPO tenure (2000-07) yielded many superb concerts, embracing a grand tradition. I cordially direct you to my review of this release (a CD/SACD Hybrid) on its first issue. (LPO – 0001; 79 minutes)

Succeeding Masur is Vladimir Jurowski. His contribution to this set is anything but celebratory – Shostakovich’s Symphony No.14, for soprano (Tatiana Monogarova), baritone (Sergei Leiferkus), strings and percussion, which sets death-related poetry (texts and translations typically included in the booklet). With (vivid) sound that is a little inflated for the Queen Elizabeth Hall (a reminder that the Royal Festival Hall was closed for a couple of years), this performance from 18 February 2006 impresses in both its introspection and sear; there’s real edge to the faster numbers and a considered blackness to the slower ones, Shostakovich’s orchestral writing finely revealed, both singers embracing dramatic rhetoric and confronting mortality. (LPO – 0028; 48 minutes)

On a life-enhancing note, it is Tennstedt’s ‘Choral’ that takes very particular plaudits and these recordings – there’s more available from the LPO – signal well the distinguished history and versatility of the Orchestra.

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