Great Conductors of the 20th Century (1)

0 of 5 stars

Karel Ancerl

Dvorak, Janacek, Krejci, Mácha, Martinu, Novák, Smetana, Shostakovich

Recorded 1950-71

IMG Artists 5750912
(2 CDs)

156 minutes

Ernest Ansermet

Bartók, Chabrier, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky

Recorded 1953-64

IMG Artists 5750942
(2 CDs)

151 minutes

Ataúlfo Argenta

Falla, Liszt, Ravel, Schubert

Recorded 1951-57

IMG Artists 5750972
(2 CDs)

144 minutes

Sir John Barbirolli

Elgar, Mahler, Puccini, Ravel, Wagner

Recorded 1956-1970

IMG Artists 5751002
(2 CDs)

150 minutes

Fritz Busch

Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Weber

Recorded 1936-51

IMG Artists 5751032
(2 CDs)

157 minutes

André Cluytens

Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Schumann, Wagner

Recorded 1953-64

IMG Artists 5751062
(2 CDs)

152 minutes

Ferenc Fricsay

Beethoven, Dukas, Hindemith, Kodály, Mozart, Shostakovich, Johann Strauss II

Recorded 1950-61

IMG Artists 5751092
(2 CDs)

157 minutes

Nikolai Golovanov

Glazunov, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky

Recorded 1948-53

IMG Artists 5751122
(2 CDs)

148 minutes

Erich Kleiber

Beethoven, Dvorak, Mozart, Schubert, Johann Strauss II, Josef Strauss, Richard Strauss

Recorded 1929-55

IMG Artists 5751152
(2 CDs)

136 minutes

Serge Koussevitzky

Beethoven, Harris, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky

Recorded 1933-45

IMG Artists 5751182
(2 CDs)

149 minutes

Nicolai Malko

Borodin, Dvorak, Glinka, Haydn, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Suppé, Tchaikovsky

Recorded 1947-56

IMG Artists 5751212
(2 CDs)

158 minutes

Igor Markevitch

Chabrier, Debussy, Glinka, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi

Recorded 1956-67

IMG Artists 5751242
(2 CDs)

148 minutes

Eugene Ormandy

Brahms, Kabalevsky, Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Webern

Recorded 1959-1978

IMG Artists 5751272
(2 CDs)

138 minutes

Carl Schuricht

Beethoven, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert

Recorded 1954-63

IMG Artists 5751302
(2 CDs)

146 minutes

Bruno Walter

Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Mahler, Johann Strauss II, Wagner

Recorded 1930-53

IMG Artists 5751332
(2 CDs)

144 minutes


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: September 2002
CD No: See above
Duration: See above

The man in the street – must meet him one day – would I think have difficulty recognising some of these conductors as great. Even the man with wall-to-wall recordings and floor-based piles of waiting-to-be-played issues might raise an eyebrow. The person who only knows conductors that are alive and hyped has a real problem.

The serious collector will look at these releases as an opportunity to extend a favourite artist’s discography with previously unreleased items, perhaps also to reappraise a hitherto disregarded musician. With another batch of “Great Conductors” due imminently, the fifteen maestros chosen to launch this innovative series are refreshingly unhackneyed; if the epithet ’great’ is arguable in some cases – and this oft-used word is in danger of becoming meaningless – perhaps ’individual’ would be more apposite if not quite a banner headline.

These fifteen 2-CD packs are attractively packaged with excellent artwork and good documentation. Each release offers a generous cross-section of each conductor’s work utilising commercial and radio recordings. Re-mastering is generally good but there are some less than satisfactory examples.

Open to debate, of course, but most people would acknowledge that Ancerl, Barbirolli, Fricsay, Kleiber, Koussevitzky, Markevitch and Walter were great conductors. I would swap Walter for Ansermet. Ormandy was consistently good and capable of greatness. Schuricht was a bastion of German tradition, Cluytens a lyrical rather than heroic conductor, Malko similarly but not as charismatic, Argenta died young with promise unfulfilled, Golovanov was a maverick, and Busch, even with a limited discography, has strong claims to be thought of as among the very best.

Invariably in such a big project there will be high- and low-points. The most disappointing issue is that of Ormandy (1899-1985), the man in charge of the Philadelphia Orchestra for forty years and a prolific recording artist. The Brahms Fourth Symphony (1967) is thick-textured and rather elephantine, not in tempo but in weight, and not helped by a recessed, blowsy recording. So too the pedestrian Don Juan (Bavarian Radio SO, 1959, mono) especially as there is a NDR Don from 1963 that is preferable (ORIGINALS SH 853). Webern’s Wagner/Strauss Im Sommerwind (1963) is more like it – atmospheric and malleable conducting that holds its own against later competition (Boulez): Ormandy conducted the premiere in 1962 (it was composed in 1904) and then made this first recording with his plush-sounding Philadelphians. The sparkling overture to Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon (Bavarian Radio, 1965) is bright and breezy enough but a bit heavy-handed. The last of Ormandy’s Rachmaninov Seconds (1973 and previously issued on CD by parent-company RCA) might be complete (save the exposition repeat) yet although better recorded (albeit string-dominant) than the Brahms, it is somewhat maudlin and ’filmy’ – not a patch on his CBS/SONY cut version! ’Lemminkäinen’s Return’ (1978), the last of Sibelius’s Legends is a prime example of Ormandy’s late work for EMI. Ormandy’s unsurpassed Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances should have been included; and what about his Prokofiev 6?

Ormandy’s straight conducting could have no greater contrast than with Golovanov (1891-1953). Reckless, dramatic, hugely involving, Golovanov could sacrifice good ensemble for the heat of the moment. His Glazunov Sixth Symphony (1952) is stunning – eloquent, massive and with real emotional edge, and how affecting is the string playing at the beginning of the second movement ’Theme and Variations’. From the same year, the ’Overture’ and ’Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are beguilingly individual regarding nuance and balance – undisciplined, even raw playing has to be tolerated … but it’s worth it for a white-hot 1812 Overture (1948, with a ’political’ cut and insertion at the close) and five of Liszt’s symphonic poems (1952/53), underrated music given with tremendous theatre here.

Another Russian, Igor Markevitch (1912-1983), strict and technically gifted, invested clarity and drama even-handedly as his stunning 1963 LSO account of Tchaikovsky’s glorious Manfred Symphony shows. With strong claims to be the finest of all recordings (and sounding excellent) – the second movement is dazzling – collectors not needing Philips’s complete Tchaikovsky boxes won’t hesitate. Orchestral excerpts from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, with the tangy timbres of the Lamoureux Orchestra (1957, mono) are very enjoyable – not least the brilliant, moreish ’Krakowiak’. A 1959 Lamoureux Debussy La mer flows along with some telling detail and underlying threat (no fanfares in the last movement). A brilliantly pointed Chabrier España is terrific, the 1966 Spanish Radio & TV Orchestra in nimble form. Whether we need another Daphnis Suite 2 in mono (there’s one on TESTAMENT) – this 1960 Hamburg account is inconsistent – or a 1956 French Radio Till Eulenspiegel is debatable.

Till is also on the Erich Kleiber set (NDR, 1953), a whiplash performance full of energy and scamper (Markevitch is staid in comparison). Kleiber (1890-1956) conducts the LPO in a Mozart 40 (1949) that sounds too processed in this re-mastering, questionably pitched too, and an unexceptional reading anyway; Dvorak’s Carnival Overture is dulled by the 1948 recording. However, from the same year, is a wondrous account of Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres – absolutely captivating: if Kleiber can persuade a London orchestra to play a Viennese waltz like this, he must have been great! Equally wonderful is a Czech Philharmonic ’Pastoral’ Symphony (1955), nostalgically imbued and lyrically turned to moving effect. An elegant NDR Schubert 5 (1953) with double basses weighty enough to imitate timpani in the ’Scherzo’ (not in Schubert’s scoring) and enough tenderness to suggest this music as being special to the conductor. Anyone requiring first movement repeats will be disappointed!

As they will with Bruno Walter (1876-1962). His VPO ’Pastoral’ from 1936 is rather unsettled to my ears with slight changes of tempo. It’s cosy and warm-hearted but little else. The dreaded no-noise process harms timbres in the second movement. I do find much of Walter’s conducting somnambulant. The New York Brahms 2 (1953) is once again over-processed – to dulling effect; I’m afraid Walter’s lyrical overlay just isn’t interesting enough. The ’Finale’ responds to the alarm clock and jumps out of bed joyously if a bit late. A spirited Figaro overture with the quaintly-titled British Symphony Orchestra (1932) is delightful, the Mastersingers Prelude a tad pompous, while the 1938 Haydn ’Oxford’ Symphony (No.92) enjoys Parisian timbres (and some shellac surface: better this than tonal degradation courtesy of a computer). It’s a nifty reading, slightly too hasty, and the slow movement is gently phrased. The ’Minuet’ is queasily pitched, flat in other words (source material presumably), and the Mahler 5 ’Adagietto’ (1938) is an object lesson in how to conduct this music (at 8 minutes it is exactly half the time that Scherchen took in Philadelphia in 1964!).

Duplication of repertoire is an interesting sub-theme running through these issues – a couple of Tills, two Brahms 2s, a double dose of Don Juan. There’s also a brace of Isles of the Dead – from Ansermet (not associated with Rachmaninov, although a fine conductor of Russian repertoire) and the Russian-born Koussevitzky.

Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) was Swiss-born and founded the Suisse Romande Orchestra in 1919; he conducted it for fifty years and made many prized records with it. No doubts in my mind that Ansermet was a great conductor – a thinking, perceptive musician whose expressional clarity, architectural awareness and precise rhythms and balances have long been among the most treasured listening experiences of this listener. That said, the most devoted Ansermet fan will already have tracked down the 1954 Scheherazade (Paris Conservatoire; the second of Ansermet’s three recordings) in a Germany-only issue and the 1956 Bartók Concerto for Orchestra that came out in Japan shortly before this issue. Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale is a classic entrée – so full of understanding and in a slightly better transfer than Decca has in its own Ansermet/Stravinsky 8-CD box. Understanding is a key word – you will read nonsense that the SRO was a poor orchestra; it wasn’t a super-virtuoso one certainly, but it had fine musicians who really knew what they were doing. This Song of the Nightingale is bar-by-bar gripping for the intellect on offer. The Rimsky is not quite as vividly transferred as the German CD (461 192-2) but there’s not much in it – a satisfying performance that lacks the last degree of vibrancy, but then all three did (version one on Dutton, the third on Decca). Nor is the Bartók (1956) a classic, although it’s interesting; I wonder what happened to the cymbal clash in the final bars (though there is the suggestion of it as a ’puff’). This transfer is a poor second to the Japanese one, which may have slightly more hiss but also more truthful timbres. The music-making seems as a consequence more lively. Debussy’s Faune (1957) is inspired, although it sounds slightly more vibrant on a new Decca transfer (470 255-2). Ansermet’s SRO La valse is the one for me (recently re-available on Decca); this Paris one from 1953 is also good to have. Ansermet’s Sibelius 4 and Bartók Music for strings, percussion and celesta would have been very welcome – never on CD as far as I know.

Also from Ansermet is The Isle of the Dead (Paris Conservatoire, 1954, stereo), an unsentimental, organic reading, grippingly charted. Interesting that Isle attracts non-Rachmaninovians (Gielen and Masur for example). Koussevitzky’s 1945 account of it is dramatic from the off, surging and emoting. Russian-born Koussevitzky (1874-1951) was the Boston Symphony’s conductor for 25 years. The 1944 Tchaikovsky 5 is a bit histrionic and unnecessarily retarded at times: if you’re going to sectionalise Tchaikovsky’s structures better this than Gergiev’s mauling! Indeed, for the most part, Kouss’s timing is convincing in this soulful, resounding account. Similarly in the familiar live 1933 Sibelius 7 (1933, BBCSO) there is deep-seated passion that pervades the whole; the unwritten trumpet on the final chord is crass though. Roy Harris’s marvellous Third Symphony is a natural successor to the Sibelius. This 1939 Boston account is a historical document (so too Toscanini’s version) without upstaging Bernstein (Kouss’s pupil) who had a magical way with it. A trenchant 1934 Beethoven 5 with the LPO completes the Kouss survey. Despite the consistent fanfaring on the outer cases – “Contains rare material previously unreleased on CD” – I don’t think this applies to Kouss (nor Walter?).

Ferenc Fricsay (1914-63) died young but left a potent legacy of recordings. This set features live performances and includes Shostakovich 9 and Hindemith’s Weber Metamorphoses as new to his discography. That’s justification enough perhaps – except the Shostakovich lacks irony and little suggestion that the notes are but a mask, and the Hindemith suffers poor balances. Altogether more compelling is a thrilling Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1961), a death-haunted, time-taken ’Eroica’ (1961, so different to Fricsay’s 1958 DG account just out in Japan) and a fabulous Kodály Dances of Galánta with the Vienna Philharmonic (1961) that weaves fantasy, earthiness and a fascinating de-construction of the faster music – fiery, intense and analytical, and rarely out of my CD player.

Of Belgium-born André Cluytens (his surname more correctly pronounced as if Dutch I’m told – Clay-tons), it’s more difficult to designate his status – honourable, sincere, with the composer coming first. A little short on imagination, a little heavy in emphasis, certainly in Bizet’s evergreen Symphony in C (also on TESTAMENT). Not a profound interpreter maybe, yet, his Debussy Images are wonderful, so expressive and detailed, the Paris Conservatoire’s sonorities coming into their own; the 1963 sound is superb. From Tokyo comes the touring PCO is Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique from 1964 (already issued in Japan by NHK on ALTUS). Truth to tell I can’t find my copy, so I cannot compare transfers; this one is certainly vivid if not always as ’clean’ I suspect the Japanese one is; terrific performance, the Parisians ’up for it’ in this caught-on-the-wing rendition.

Also thrillingly live is Karel Ancerl’s Toronto account of Martinu’s Fifth Symphony (1971), more than just a supplement to his SUPRAPHON recording. Toronto was Ancerl’s post-1968 deliverance after his Prague-based, Czech Phil days; the Canadian band seems inspired. Also included is the definitive Janacek Taras Bulba but I would have opted for the Czech PO ’Vltava’ (from Smetana’s Má vlast) rather than this earlier Vienna Symphony version – and not just because the channels are reversed! (This fault is now corrected I understand and, anyway, faulty copies should not have reached the shops.) Ancerl (1908-73, not 1905-1967 as the cover states!), who survived a Nazi death-camp and established a reputation as an orchestra-trainer of the first rank, leads the Czech Phil in Novák’s In the Tatra Mountains, a slowly-evolving outdoor piece that breathes clean air – Mahler on a skiing holiday! Certainly more distinguished than the dull piece by Mácha, although Krejci’s cheerful Serenade is fun in its busy parody, a tad Poulencian, and a suggestion of Frank Bridge in the central ’Andante’. With the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1970, Ancerl conducts a Dvorak 8 both idiomatic and flowing – the opening measures for once not treated as a slow introduction – that gets to the heart of the music’s Slavonic motivation. The husky transfer is virtually indistinguishable from the TAHRA counterpart.

Of the remaining five conductors, the Spaniard Ataúlfo Argenta was Fricsay’s almost exact contemporary and was to die even younger, in 1958 aged just 44. The pungent tones of Orchestre des Cento Soli (either the Conservatoire or Lamoureux orchestras being contractually anonymous or a pseudonym for whichever musicians were available) enliven Argenta’s broadly traditional Schubert 9 (’Great C major’) but not Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, which is unsubtle and noisy. Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1955, stereo) is intense, melodramatic and loving and keeps within budget by opting to use Liszt’s first thoughts – i.e. no choir or tenor soloist required for the final pages. Argenta, not surprisingly, finds the heat and dust of Falla’s El amor brujo. Was his Suisse Romande Tchaikovsky 4 considered? The Barbirolli collection begins with a leaden account of the Mastersingers Prelude (LSO, 1969), and “Glorious John” (1899-1970), fine though the Hallé Enigma Variations and Mother Goose are, is perhaps not best served by a Mahler ’Resurrection’ recorded live (no applause) at the end of his life in Stuttgart. True, JB didn’t record this commercially, yet there have been at least two ’pirate’ issues already; while the sound here is preferable, the performance is only intermittently inspired. Fritz Busch (1890-1951), part of the Busch clan, was a musician’s musician – the examples here are a little rough-and-ready but a complete and devoted musical response is always apparent. Proportion, timing and address are in-line with the music – a graceful Mozart ’Linz’ Symphony (1949), an articulate Mendelssohn ’Italian’ Symphony (1950), and purposeful and lyrically shapely Brahms – respectively Tragic Overture and Second Symphony. The Danish State Radio SO can be fallible but there’s no doubting its commitment. The downside is the transfer – the Mozart shows signs of ’watery’ timbres and the Brahms 2 (1947) is diabolical – the colourless, eaten-away textures and echoey acoustic ruinous to meaningful listening (the source must be better than this). The set is completed by a wonderfully fleet Strauss Don Juan from 1936 – very well transferred – the LPO in vital form. Nicolai Malko (1883-1961), from St Petersburg to Sydney via London. Philharmonia tapings dominate – an unrushed Ruslan overture, a Borodin 2 with more bite and purpose (if a bit pedantic), an excellent Prokofiev 7 (HMV’s first stereo recording, 1955) – a shame Malko uses the composer’s second-thought and coerced ’happy ending’ – and a rather dour if likeable ’New World’ Symphony (1956, stereo); excerpts from the ’Nutcracker Suite’ prove unsatisfyingly bitty (especially when Malko recorded all the movements). Haydn 92 (’Oxford’) is good (Royal Danish Orchestra, 1953) but pales (as do most others) in comparison with an electrifying Willem van Otterloo performance just re-issued in Japan. The overtures by Suppé and Nielsen are very enjoyable. Finally, but not least, is Carl Schuricht (1880-1967) – reliable, straightforward, clear-sighted both texturally and structurally, lean, lithe and unaffected; yet, I found this selection rather unenlightening. The murky bass at the beginning of Schubert’s ’Unfinished’ and the pallid sickly-sounding strings thereafter make the heart sink at another inadequate transfer; the Beethoven 1 (1958, mono) is not as smooth as in the box of Schuricht’s Paris Beethoven symphony cycle. Bruckner 8 (a Haas/Nowak composite) is rather hard driven and earthbound; a pity the great VPO Ninth wasn’t chosen.

Reservations aside, this Great Conductors series is very welcome and instructive, which will hopefully be enjoyed by a whole new generation of collectors. The next batch is eagerly looked forward to.

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