Great Conductors of the 20th Century (3)

0 of 5 stars

Eduard van Beinum

Brahms, Elgar, Nicolai, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert, Richard Strauss and Thomas

Recorded 1949-57

(2 CDs)

155 minutes

Rudolf Kempe

Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Ravel, Johann Strauss II, Wolf

Recorded 1960-1974

(2 CDs)

156 minutes

Dmitri Mitropoulos

Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, Richard Strauss

Recorded 1950-59

(2 CDs)

153 minutes

Evgeny Mravinsky

Bruckner, Glazunov, Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky

Recorded 1967-83

(2 CDs)

145 minutes

George Szell

Auber, Debussy, Delius, Dvořák, Rossini, Josef Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Recorded 1954-70

(2 CDs)

146 minutes


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

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

The third cluster of this intriguing series adds another five Great Conductors. We now have 29 of the proposed 60. We won’t necessarily agree on the significance of each – but it’s fun making discoveries.

Eduard van Beinum (1900-59) had the difficult job of succeeding Willem Mengelberg as Chief Conductor of the Amsterdam (now Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra. Mengelberg was (to some) a wilful interpreter, extravagant and dictatorial, albeit quite fascinating in his approach, whereas van Beinum was the ’quiet man’, a gentleman among conductors, with respect for the scores he conducted. He was equally respected (and liked) by his musicians. Van Beinum’s temperate music-making may not, then, be for those who mistake a big noise for something important.

With van Beinum there is no artifice, just wholesome regard for the music. He is neither literal nor pedantic. His is an intelligent approach to the music he plays through scrupulous attention to detail, balance, dynamics and so on, his renditions being full of personality not ego. Van Beinum conducts the overtures to Thomas’s Mignon – delightfully done – and Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor (a jewel of a piece, if a little too fleet here) with the same devotion as he does symphonies of Brahms and Schubert. Which is not to say that everything comes off. While Schubert’s Sixth dances infectiously and is tailored immaculately, there is some haste – in the ’outbursts’ of the ’Andante’ and in the Finale. Brahms’s Second finds the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing in Stuttgart (September ’55), van Beinum leading a gentle and flowing account, which tugs at the heartstrings and develops organically. Initially Strauss’s Don Juan, from the same concert, could use a little more space with which to express itself. Alan Sanders’s note informs that van Beinum made no commercial recordings of this composer.

There’s also a superbly musical account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – that is blessedly free of crass mannerisms and cheap vulgarities – with power and sensitivity in equal measure, and sweetly lyrical violin solos from Jan Damen. Away from Amsterdam, van Beinum also headed the London Philharmonic for a few years. Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture is welcome (his recording of Arnold’s Beckus the Dandipratt would have been even more so!), albeit it’s a little hustled along at times.

Rudolf Kempe (1910-76), a musician’s musician who came from the ranks (principal oboist in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) to be a selfless yet percipient symphonic and opera conductor. His Bruckner Romantic Symphony is described, as are some of the Mitropoulos and Szell tapings, as a “Live Studio Recording”, this one from 25/11/72. With Kempe the music finds itself, speeds are invariably well judged. Kempe’s sense of cohesion and erudite revealing of Bruckner’s expression offers a satisfying if not, however, an especially illuminating rendition. The stereo recording reveals Kempe’s use of antiphonal violins well enough but the sound is slightly diffuse and grainy, maybe from a degree of over-processing. (In this respect, Robert Matthew-Walker suggests that Kempe’s studio recordings of Bruckner 4 & 5 are unavailable; I wish he were correct – what were fine-sounding BASF LPs are now appallingly-transferred Acanta CDs using, it seems, every ghastly no-noise process.)

Kempe leads a superb Beethoven Eroica, from a 1974 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert in Prague, which is lofty and unhurried – space and flow in equilibrium, the RPO’s cultured, chamber-like playing a tribute to Kempe’s depth of musicianship. There’s also a fiery and proud account of Brahms’s Tragic Overture (Berlin Phil, 1960), a pellucid and soaring Ravel Daphnis and Chloë Suite No.2 (Munich, ’74) and a delightfully teasing account of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, its quirkiness savoured. Johann Strauss’s Light of Heart polka enjoys the attention of a musician who realises the greatness of Viennese dance music.

Dmitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) makes his appearance with a dramatic, manipulated account of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony from August 1959 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. The mono sound is ample and detailed. Although the opening tempo is well judged, there’s a lack of electricity and determination. A twee dynamic dip then crescendo around 0’11” suggests unnecessary interference from the podium. Tempo fluctuations throughout are rarely convincing. Not surprisingly, the Scherzo comes before the slow movement, yet it seems that although Mahler was indecisive as to the middle movements’ published order, he always conducted the slow movement second. In the vast ’Finale’ the first hammer-blow hardly registers. The second one is more impactful. Overall this performance blazes but also drops in temperature. It’s a partial view, the final pizzicato curiously inconsequential.

The second CD features the New York Philharmonic, Mitropoulos its conductor from 1949-57. From 1952 it’s good to have the five main orchestral movements from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet (the Introduction and the Tomb Scene tend to be overlooked when the ’dramatic symphony’ is excerpted). Without bullying the music – no false stridency, superficial fast speeds or tawdry excesses – Mitropoulos gives the music momentum, keeping in view Berlioz’s meticulous notation. The music for warring factions and the party scene isn’t mashed through, while the Love Scene has tenderness and an apt sense of growing abandon. If the ’Queen Mab’ scherzo lacks translucence and needs more filigree textures, the Tomb Scene is charged and visceral. Debussy’s La mer (1950), despite moments of over-emphasis, is vivid, shimmering, precise, elemental and glinting. Transitionally impressive if sometimes a little brusque and mannered, Mitropoulos can intrude to no great purpose with speed and dynamic fluctuations, which are irritating rather than illuminating. The composer-removed, Ansermet-reinstated fanfares (ad lib) in the last movement are included. The Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome is pretty marvellous as a performance!

Evgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) was for 50 years, until his death, the conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and in being so enjoyed an autonomous reign to build and perfect his orchestra. Three of the performances here are from 1968, and all are mono. Haydn 88 is crisp, clear and weighty, which the music can take, although it resists some of the Romantic extrusions Mravinsky applies to the first movement. The slow one is deeply expressive and the brilliant Finale sparkles. For all his reputation as a dictator, Mravinsky doesn’t pressure Haydn, nor Glazunov’s Fifth Symphony, which is given with affection; Mravinsky relishes the music’s mellifluous and piquant charms, the mix of tradition and fantasy, the folk or folk-derived tunes, and Glazunov’s unpretentious art in fashioning balletic fleetness, soulful lyricism or imperialistic grandeur.

From 1982, the only stereo item, is Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, an account that is the antithesis of the ’showpiece’ performance. The music is tormented, doom-laden, starkly laid out and intensely sung. Such rawness doesn’t concern itself with plush theatrics – consequently the music is raised in ambition and cuts through the recording’s limitations. What a performance of Bruckner 7 (1967) – living, breathing and glowing! The arched lyricism and intense delivery really grabs the listener, so too Mravinsky’s minute attention to detail and dynamics. This traversal, by turns intensely moulded, richly expressed, gracefully treading and virile, also accommodates sentiment and etherealness. Some may find the brass playing stinging! The overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni opens balefully, double basses are suitably ominous, the main allegro taken at quite a lick, which the unanimity of the Leningrad strings makes viable

George Szell (1897-1970), the Cleveland Orchestra’s famous Music Director (the notes’ ’musical director’ smacks more of Broadway or a London show), isn’t too well served here. Szell fans with links to Japan will have already nabbed Auber’s Fra Diavolo overture on a Sony release – in a slightly livelier transfer, and worth noting that the two issues disagree on stereo information! Charming piece though, and a Heaven-made performance. Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, one of Szell’s last recordings, lacks rusticity and exuberance; even so it lasts several minutes less than the 44 suggested. While this performance is relaxed (not always a Szell quality), it is also curiously lifeless in places, which the dried-out timbres (the re-mastering?) exacerbates. A tender account of Delius’s Irmelin Prelude (1956, mono) is a collector’s item, while Josef Strauss’s superb Delirien waltz is a tad hard-edged; so too Rossini’s Italian Girl overture, a smoother transfer of which is on the same Japanese CD just mentioned (stereo channels agreeing this time).

Away from Cleveland, there’s another La mer (Cologne, 1962), which is seen as a symphonic whole, an altogether finer grasp of timing than Mitropoulos shows; no fanfares though. Tchaikovsky 5 (Cologne, ’66, in very good stereo) has a fantastic first movement – pungent, trenchant, powerfully wrought, time-taken yet with no indulgence or lack of discipline; the duration lavished on the first movement might surprise some people. Especially telling is the concern Szell displays for different weights of expression in accompanimental figures. It’s a full-throated and sensitive performance, unmistakably from a master conductor. What a shame, then, that Szell makes a needless cut in the ’Finale’; nevertheless, an interesting adjunct to his complete commercial recording. I found the 1954 New York Philharmonic Mastersingers prelude efficient.

This isn’t, then, about competitive versions, it’s about celebrating interpretation and music-making in all its possibilities. Whether we agree or not on any one performance – what’s important is that this material is available for enlightenment and discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content