Great Conductors of the 20th Century (2)

0 of 5 stars

Sir Adrian Boult

Beethoven, Berlioz, Franck, Schubert, Schumann, Sibelius, Walton, Wolf

Recorded 1956-74

(2 CDs)

149 minutes

Albert Coates

Borodin, Humperdinck, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Weber

Recorded 1926-30

(2 CDs)

158 minutes

Carlo Maria Giulini

Beethoven, Bizet, Ravel, Rossini, Schumann, Johann Strauss II, Stravinsky

Recorded 1956-79
(2 CDs)

152 minutes

Otto Klemperer

Beethoven, Janacek, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Weill

Recorded 1931-58

(2 CDs)

152 minutes

Paul Kletzki

Berlioz, Brahms, Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Recorded 1951-1967

(2 CDs)

148 minutes

Pierre Monteux

Beethoven, Debussy, Hindemith, Rouget de Lisle, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Recorded 1955-64

(2 CDs)

147 minutes

Charles Munch

Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Martinu, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns

Recorded 1948-66

(2 CDs)

156 minutes

Leopold Stokowski

Brahms, Dukas, Glière, Grainger, Ibert, Liszt, Nielsen, Sibelius, Turina, Wagner

Recorded 1950-1976

IMG ARTISTS 5754802 (2 CDs)


Václav Talich

Benda, Dvořák, Janácek, Mozart, Novák, Smetana, Suk, Tchaikovsky

Recorded 1951-54

(2 CDs)

157 minutes


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: See above
Duration: See above

The second batch of “Great Conductors” offers riches galore, and is perhaps less contentious regarding selected maestro and series title. Boult and Klemperer, Giulini and Munch – each with at least one novel piece of repertoire.

Spoilt for choice, I went back to 1926 for Albert Coates and the LSO in the wonderful overture to Weber’s Oberon. A magical opening and a fizzing allegro confirm Coates’s abilities. Not to be confused with his namesake Eric, Albert Coates (1882-1953) was born in St Petersburg (his father a Yorkshire-born Russia-based businessman). Coates’s globetrotting took him to London, the States, Leipzig and, finally, South Africa where he died. He studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and assisted Nikisch and was the LSO’s conductor between 1919-21 and remained in close contact with the orchestra; with the exception of a few minutes of Wagner, everything here is with the LSO.

A slower than usual tempo for Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz brings malevolence and sinister shadow-play. Borodin’s Second Symphony is majestic, the opening weighty and imperial, the contrasts are like echoes. Quite unlike any other performance of this terrific piece that I know, Coates seems to have a hotline to Borodin. Supple, spirited and very individual, there are some special insights. The Russian connection continues with Rimsky’s Procession of the Nobles, as swaggering as Mussorgsky’s Gopak is swinging. Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini is red-hot and surges passionately, as does Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Ravel’s La valse lifts off the dance floor and heads to destruction without pussyfooting around.

Coates’s Wagner vies richness with athleticism, the Tannhäuser Overture laying down a moulded and frenetic benchmark. Die Walküre’s ’Magic Fire Music’ is suitably smouldering, as is the extended ’Love Music’ from Tristan, with Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior, both compelling in a composite of recordings from Berlin and London made in 1929; I couldn’t hear the join!

Control and flair mark out Coates’s work in this invaluable release; the transfers are excellent.

Of those conductors chosen so far, only Carlo Maria Giulini is still alive, born 1914, now retired save for some coaching in Milan. With Giulini there is an inescapable sense of divinity. Reference is made to Giulini’s saintly aura, and there is certainly a tangible degree of concentration and identification that transcends the norm. He is among the truly great conductors – his blend of musicianship, sensitivity and the unexplainable transporting of the listener. I smiled at Rossini’s Tancredi Overture without Giulini having to underline the wit. The trenchant Beethoven 7 from Chicago is unremarkable in one sense yet wholly personal in another and absolutely gripping – finite attention given to lower string parts, the foundation of the music; rhythms dance, ideal for this symphony. The Egmont Overture with the Turin Symphony (1968) speaks volumes about Giulini’s persuasive powers when working with less than great orchestras.

While one immediately connects Giulini to great religious statements – B minor Mass, Missa solemnis, Verdi’s Requiem – he has a lighter side and commands the palette of a master painter. Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (Bavarian Radio, 1979) is sad yet inspiring, Giulini’s humanity omnipresent, the orchestra’s response magical; the music is lit from within (Giulini was an orchestral violist) and touches one to the core. Several passages that I have in my mind as perhaps unattainable in performance are now reality!

Giulini conducts music he loves; therefore Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants is as important as anything else – a sparkling, tender account, beautifully played by the Philharmonia, the orchestra that Giulini conducted in London in the ’fifties and ’sixties and returned to later; here it plays Schumann’s ’Rhenish’ Symphony and Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird from 1958 and ’56 respectively.

The Schumann is as “Re-orchestrated by Gustav Mahler”. Well, Aldo Ceccato’s BIS recording would suggest this is a complex area, not least in dynamics, for if Ceccato is verbatim, Giulini goes his own way, perhaps taking just what he needs. Peter Quantrill in his note states that Giulini returned to Schumann’s original for his Los Angeles recording (DG). The additional horns from 1’02” in the Philharmonia first movement are Mahler’s and were retained in LA; indeed there are many textural and interpretative consistencies between the two recordings. Leaving Mahler out of it, Giulini’s conducting produces ineffably lovely results, sweet-toned and reflective, exuberance built from structure and devotion.

Firebird is hypnotically still at it’s secluded opening and seductive in orchestral warmth. Painstaking in instrumental clarity, Giulini serves only to bring the best out in the music, and there’s also plenty of spite from King Kaschei in his Infernal Dance. The recording is a bit dry for Kingsway Hall, but at least is without over-zealous no-noising to harm timbres. Hallelujah! That said, there is an edge on the oboe, and tuttis are rather bright, in the Vienna Symphony Emperor Waltz, from 1974 and in mono. Giulini conducts a Strauss waltz! Perhaps the greatest in Johann II’s catalogue, and how affectionately spacious Giulini is (all repeats observed), how entranced the waltz; elevated above the dance floor, nobility and grace are entwined.

Coates will extend your horizons and Giulini is indispensable.

And so to the mighty Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), a giant of the podium, literally so in his younger days before illness and time ravaged him. Architecture and honesty are Klemperer’s hallmarks. His late-period recordings found him slower than his younger self, sometimes illuminating, sometimes not. Uncompromising strength determined his last years. This splendid collection, mixing familiar and unfamiliar Klemperer repertoire, also neatly encompasses his work with German orchestras – from Berlin, Cologne and Munich – and reports his characteristic focus on the music, not the sound it makes or the attention it can place on the conductor. Mozart’s ’Prague’ Symphony is a model of lucidity and grandeur, so too Beethoven’s Second, while Mozart’s ’little’ G minor symphony (No.25) enjoys urgency and poise. All are wonderfully satisfying. Q: Furtwängler or Toscanini? A: Klemperer.

Under Klemperer, Janácek’s Sinfonietta is extraordinarily deliberate in the opening and closing fanfares, a real militaristic edge. Clarity informs the inner movements, Janacek’s quirky instrumentation clearly delineated, trills and staccatos structural rather than decorous, thrillingly raw at times. Till Eulenspiegel (its third appearance in the GC series) is characterful and malleably paced. Excerpts from Weill’s Threepenny Opera are from 1931 and sound marvellously authentic. Rest assured, ’Mack the Knife’ is included. The suite from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella has too stately an opening and there’s always the feeling that deliberation is outweighing sparkle; yet time-taken is a virtue, so I’m not complaining. Wit and tangy sonorities win hands down in the last two movements.

An important collection to extend Klemperer’s profile beyond his Philharmonia discography. With only the Sinfonietta not duplicated, there’s plenty to compare and contrast.

Pierre Monteux next … he also conducts Beethoven’s Second.

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) was greatly loved; orchestral musicians and listeners have a special place in their hearts for him. I have no personal memory of him, so can perhaps be more objective. Yes, one can always hear that he had orchestras on his side; there’s no whip-cracking and the music is served with warmth and heart. But! For me there’s often something lacking in Monteux’s performances, despite the musicianship.

The Beethoven Second simply doesn’t compare with the gravitas of Klemperer, and even on it’s own terms this 1960 Hamburg recording is disappointing. A bit scrappy in execution, Monteux’s view is rather effete if sprightly and the variable recording highlights woodwinds and renders timpani reticent; antiphonal fiddles are clear enough though (as they would have been with Klemperer but for mono sound!). There’s a contemporaneous Second from Monteux and the LSO for Decca. Then comes Wagner’s Tristan ’Prelude and Liebestod’ (Hamburg, 1964), which is elliptically charted to climaxes; attractively subfusc, growing in intensity and destiny, this fluorescent account is an ideal antidote to overly Teutonic accounts.

Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony comes from Danish Radio, a 1962 mono recording. Purity of texture there may be, there is also a lack of intensity and roughness of execution that steals intensity from the music. The last movement does though develop impetus and a sense of narrative; the Danish Radio Symphony is palpably giving of its best. Debussy’s three Nocturnes find the Boston Symphony’s precision and translucence in perfect accord with the music and Monteux’s extemporised unfolding of it; ’Fêtes’ is a bit hectic though. The 1955 stereo sound is a model of clarity and rather better than Decca’s 1957 recording of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, which is left-justified and thin-toned. I got little pleasure from Monteux’s curt conducting that renders the music less great than it is – matter-of-fact with little sense of theatre or enchantment, the bandstand cymbal clashes and the music being harried – the famous ’Waltz’ by turns stolid and hasty – proves very resistible. The LSO plays with commitment and artistry, yet there is the unavoidable feeling of this being made up on the day. An off-the-cuff La Marseillaise (1962 rehearsal) rounds off the release in fine style.

The volatile conducting of Charles Munch (1891-1968) has always been appealing – allure, intensity and fire: from within Munch’s being, not as a calculated overlay. Forever to be associated with the Boston Symphony, it is this orchestra that is heard on the majority of the selections. Saint-Saëns’s jolly overture to La Princesse jaune (1951) is a mite overplayed perhaps but it’s good to have such charming exoticisms given with charisma. Beethoven 9 (1958) is charged and driven. It’s all a bit tense if exciting. Undoubtedly Munch’s conviction shines through, as does the Boston Symphony’s greatness, yet the clipped process through the opening movement seems to mistake rhetoric for profundity, an approach that pays dividends in the Scherzo. Not a reading of great individuality (or subtlety) Munch’s ’Choral’ is plush and big-hearted.

To end the first CD is Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture – an odd concert this, Beethoven 9 between two overtures – not from Boston but an earlier (1948) account with the Paris Conservatoire; a dashing reading full of thrills and spills and ’authentic’ sonorities. CD 2 begins delightfully – the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Op.20 Octet as composer-orchestrated, done without rush and plenty of light and shade; Bizet’s ever-delightful Symphony in C (1966, Orchestre National) is oddly recorded – changes of perspective and swifts from stereo to near-mono – but preserves an energetic if uningratiating reading that’s at its best in the Finale.

Great to have Martinu’s Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony 6) back – and in stereo (Boston, 1956). Written for this team, Martinu’s final symphony is less of a textural mosaic than the composer’s previous works. It is a heartfelt outpouring of mixed emotions, rhythmic ingenuity and vibrant colours a constant feature. The performance is candid and exact. If only Walter Piston’s Sixth (the other side of RCA’s LP) could have been included (I’d have lost this particular Bizet rendition quite happily). Four movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet complete the package – rather tame, surprisingly, and the orchestral piano is too forward. The Martinu makes this an essential purchase, but Munch hasn’t been as well served as he might have been.

With Munch, one is conscious of a big personality. With Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) one is aware of the composer and an interpreting musician serving the music. Berlioz’s Rob Roy overture, rarely heard, and here in low-fi stereo (1956) came as a tonic – it sounds absolutely idiomatic. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, long regarded as poor Berlioz. Franck’s Symphony is said to be with the London Orchestra Society. My LP says RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, a familiar pseudonym, in this instance, for the Philharmonia Orchestra – pure and simple I thought; Malcolm Walker’s notes suggest it’s actually various London musicians including some from the Philharmonia. Whatever, this 1959 performance is superb (note the squeaky door five seconds in!). Anyone thinking this work shrouded in cobwebs from Franck’s organ loft would think again after hearing Boult’s masterly shaping of what is, in fact, a splendid work.

The ’Theme and Variations’ has become a favourite stand-alone from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite. Boult recorded the suite complete twice, in Paris and London, and the LPO account (1974) has been chosen. Delectably pointed and conducted with affection, one regrets the whole work isn’t here, but it has been on CD already. Anyway, there wouldn’t have been room for some of the ’unusual’ items. Unusual that is to Boult’s repertoire. He didn’t conduct too much Walton, so Portsmouth Point (1967, actually Boult’s third recording of it) is welcome; this steady reading scores points over faster rivals.

An inspired Beethoven Coriolan overture (New Philharmonia, 1970) is driven and integrated, fiery and meticulous – caught on the wing as an unedited ’take’ one suspects; an outstanding moment. The Fourth symphonies of Schubert and Schumann are particularly fine. I bought Boult’s Schumann cycle on two Pye LPs for 50p each in Eastbourne about 25 years ago. I loved the music albeit, even then, thinking Sir Adrian a little headstrong, especially in the ’Rhenish’. The Fourth (1956, stereo) seemed the finest performance. Boult’s expressive and energetic account, with no spurious elongation, remains thrilling and propulsive. The Schubert (1959, mono), a ’long lost’ in Boult’s discography, is taut and muscular, the antithesis of prissy Schubert, and with no lack of tenderness in the ’Andante’. Hugo Wolf’s spirited Italian Serenade (1957, mono), another Boult rarity, is beautifully done; Sibelius’s prelude to The Tempest (1956, mono) literally raises a storm.

Paul Kletzki might be said to be Boult-like: the music came first. Kletzki’s individuality is to be heard through particular sound and sensibility, not in writ-large gestures. I’ve always admired Kletzki’s unpretentious and passionate art. Poland-born in 1900 as Pawel Klecki, Kletzki died in Liverpool in 1973. He was a frequent visitor to London for concerts and recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra – a fine, long-viewed account of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini overture (1951) begins this excellent collection. Other ’shorts’ include Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Israel, 1954) – atmospheric, driven and sympathetic; a movement from Schubert’s Rosamunde music is most eloquently turned; three Dvořák Slavonic Dances (Paris, 1961) are in wide stereo – ridiculous really – with performances lithe and buoyant; and Wagner’s ’Träume’ (Wesendonck-Lieder) is radiantly played by violinist (and Philharmonia leader) Hugh Bean (1958), straight from the vocal part. There is also a scintillating account of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien.

An impulsive live Tchaikovsky 5 (Bavarian Radio, 1967) certainly has its detours but each seems natural; a great example of episodes being seen for themselves within the whole. It’s a vibrant reading that enjoys the balletic moments as much as the dramatic ones – and the recording is superb. Thrilling! Also live is a Czech Philharmonic Brahms 4 (1965, mono), another close-association orchestra, with Kletzki underlining the music’s lyricism and ardour.

The Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) collection is more of a mixed bag. Sibelius’s First Symphony (National Philharmonic, 1976) is atmospheric, considered and controlled, with some very expert playing from a hand-picked orchestra. It’s a measured reading, evoking northern climes as surely as it does Sibelius’s poetic concentration and, in the last movement, freedom of form. The first movement is a great success, not least for underlining effects such as threatening bass drum rolls, and for galvanising fervour. One can quibble that the opening of the second movement sounds too Tchaikovskian, that as a whole it is too slow and that expressive emphasis is overdone; conversely that ’Stokie’ pushes through the opening of the last movement with disdain and also other moments. The recording is pretty good for London’s West Ham Central Mission – save the emerging-from-nowhere timpani at the Scherzo’s close.

Nielsen’s Second Symphony, The Four Temperaments, has a superbly trenchant first movement, which is very carefully planned and vitally realised. The 85-year-old Stokowski was conducting this work for the first time; the response from the Danish Radio Symphony (1967, mono) suggests he had a kindred understanding of the music – that force doesn’t means speed, that Nielsen’s harmonic blocks need time to be made invincible and that phrasal beauty needs no sentimentalising to make its effect. Superb!

Percy Grainger’s for-Stokowski orchestrations of Handel in the Strand, Country Gardens and Shepherd’s Hey have the fascination of Grainger playing the piano; I only wish I didn’t find these particular versions over-busy, distracting and, at times, crude! The magnificent Fanfare to Paul Dukas’s La Péri is finely done, albeit the brass timbres are a little steely. Brahms’s Tragic Overture, another ’late’ Stokie offering, from 1977 as a coupling to the Second Symphony (now on Cala), which moves along with no lack of intensity or lyrical import.

Stokie’s colour-quotient comes into its own with Liszt, Turina, Ibert and Glière – corn and charisma in a Hungarian Rhapsody, glossy ambience for a toreador’s song, magical vistas for Ports of Call (the final section lacking poise, with details lost in the massive acoustic) and a rather premeditated Russian Sailors’ knees-up. Twenty-six minutes of Wagner’s Tristan – one of Stokowski’s syntheses, from Acts 2 and 3 – finds the 1960 Philadelphia Orchestra in richly responsive form, vocal lines transferred to instruments; purist objections understood! The day/night love duet is invested with much intimacy and erotic smouldering. Some doubts but worth the occasional listen. Perhaps Stokowski should have included the Prelude also.

Last but not least, Václav Talich (1883-1961), who was a Czech hero, the conductor of the country’s Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague National Theatre, indefatigably nationalistic and unstinting.

Included is a somewhat brusque and scrappy Mozart Symphony No.33 (spot the similarities between the opening of the Benda symphony also included and the ’Minuet’ of the Mozart); then there’s the ’Prayer’ from Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana Suite, a beautiful performance with the Slovak Philharmonic.

Everything else is with the Czech Phil including Smetana’s Prague Carnival, which Talich has the measure of; it’s an unpredictable piece of patriotism that seems to want to go in a different direction to the public-spirited piece Smetana intended. Smetana’s Sárka (Má vlast) opens the selection; there’s something a little tired about this particular version (1954, there are earlier Talich’s of this cycle) – been there, done it – while the third of Talich’s Dvořák ’New World’ Symphony recordings (also ’54) is trenchant and glows with identification, so too Suk’s glorious Serenade for Strings, which, while a little heavyweight, has the most wonderfully-expressed slow movement.

Standing out on the first CD is a live Prague Spring Festival performance of Dvořák’s The Water Goblin, concentrated and observant; also from 1954 is Talich’s own suite from Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen – the glades, the mischief and the pathos that Janácek could invest in ’unreal’ situations; Talich has the full measure of the composer’s angularity, raptness and epigram. The charming ’Amorous Couple’ from Novák’s Moravian-Slovak Suite has a transcendent beauty that winds down this time spent with Talich perfectly.

Perhaps the reservations that I expressed regarding the first issues, 15 conductors in total, was in part registering some disappointment with the final results of what is a fantastic project. This second release brings some real gems, and one must appreciate that the producers of this series cannot always, for a whole host of reasons, use the material they would always like to. Stokowski’s Nielsen 2 stands out and I heartily recommend Boult, Coates, Giulini, Klemperer, Kletzki and Talich.

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