Great Conductors of the 20th Century (4)

0 of 5 stars

Sir Thomas Beecham

Delius, Dvorák, Handel, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Weber

Recorded 1934-58

(2 CDs)

156 minutes

Karl Böhm

Bruckner, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert

Recorded 1962-1979

(2 CDs)

156 minutes

Artur Rodzinsky

Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Richard Strauss, Wagner

Recorded 1945-58

(2 CDs)

153 minutes

Hermann Scherchen

Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Orff, Reznicek, Schoenberg, Stravinsky

Recorded 1954-60

(2 CDs)

152 minutes

Felix Weingartner

Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Liszt, Mozart, Wagner, Weber

Recorded 1936-40

(2 CDs)

154 minutes


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: February 2004
CD No: See above
Duration: See above

Five more conductors whose legacy lives-on thanks to recording and to IMG and EMI’s ’snapshot’ initiative. Typically of this series, which now reaches 34 issues, and which are all reviewed on this site (links below), some recordings are made available for the first time.

Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) continues to be held in such high esteem that the barest suggestion of criticism is likely to be met by hostility. Fortunately for your reviewer’s welfare, this selection of recordings is a fine lot – full of joie de vivre and melodious glow; the William Tell overture (1934) and Dvorák’s G major Legend (1935) are lovingly turned, the latter though displaying some timbre discoloration that betrays too much filtering. The close of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (1947) passed me by; maybe it’s the very ’English’ singing (of German), yet the RPO’s finesse is commendable. Some charming Mozart, from the B flat Divertimento (K287), follows; a hairsbreadth below pitch it seems; and from a Queen’s Hall concert in November 1935, and despite a few more pitch concerns, there’s a wonderfully revealing account of Delius’s Appalachia, one of Beecham’s most closely associated composers, and a Der Freischütz overture of real theatrical import.

CD 2 of Beecham begins with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar, a 1951 studio recording made as backing to a TV film, which Beecham shapes benevolently and relishes the cut and thrust of the more dramatic pages. The sound can be a little thin and synthetic. Norman Del Mar’s orchestration of two Mendelssohn Songs without Words (1947) could do with a little more recorded ambience, even if that means more surface noise (!); that said, Beecham’s conducting is the epitome of affection and sparkle. Tchaikovsky 4 is in stereo; well the first movement is, recorded in 1958 in London’s Kingsway Hall; the other movements are from Paris in two different months from 1957 – the RPO consistent to all this! – and while I sometimes find Beecham wanting in the ’big’ works, this ’Tchaik 4’ is pretty fabulous – not least the first movement of power, grace, detail and direction. The remaining movements are scarcely less fine; just a very close triangle and gratuitous cymbals detract in the finale. A moving Handel Sarabande (1949) closes this excellent release, one for the ’doubting of Thomas’ listener to acquire (and write about!).

I guess that most of us would think Austrian-born Karl Böhm (1894-1981) a sober conductor of the Germanic repertoire. Böhm is here presented as thoroughly consistent. A warm welcome for Haydn’s Symphony No. 91, DG’s 1973 studio recording; I don’t think it’s been on CD before – DG issued symphonies 88, 89 and 92 on 429 523-2 – and No. 91 is given a lovely performance: moderately paced, full-toned and fastidiously prepared, and not without wit and affection. The Schubert 9 (live, Staatskapelle Dresden, 1979) I recall being on a DG LP; I think it’s also a ’CD first’. One or two unconvincing gear changes aside, this is an enjoyable if not especially revealing account. Rhythms have spring and details lustre and there’s a fine sense of momentum: old-fashioned Schubert, as I suppose we now term Böhm’s view. I’m not sure if this one quite adds up, and some of the raucous brass playing is resistible, but the Scherzo is delightfully pointed and the finale is given with unforced vitality.

The major Böhm account here is likely to be thought the Bruckner 8 (Cologne Radio SO, 1974), which comes as something of a surprise in terms of Böhm’s swift tempos and volatility. Given in Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Böhm conducts what is described as a “Live Studio Recording”, although tape joins (edits?) are evident, as are. a few coughs. The sound is very good. This swift, 73-minute rendition of Nowak’s edition can be compared with Böhm’s DG recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. The live version is intensely sculpted, a not-always-settled mix of direction and repose. Rhythmic strictness can be monotonous, especially in the Scherzo, yet when Böhm yields there is some moving expression, the slow movement rising to eloquent heights, broadly conceived and dramatically dovetailed. The finale begins confidently – but the should-be-bold timpani-interjection disappoints – and is somewhat one-dimensional overall (if concentrated); the coda is resolute. Mozart’s Cosi fan tutteoverture, extracted from Böhm’s complete 1962 EMI Philharmonia recording, has all the breadth. Böhm wasn’t one to force the pace, subdivide structures or create a happening. He had musical values, and he stuck to them.

Next up, the firebrand Artur Rodzinski (1892-1958) who quarrelled with orchestras’ management’s and was a passionate and exacting conductor. A fervent, bright-timbre Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Festival Overture kicks-off, and mediation arrives with Rimsky’s adaptation of the prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (both RPO, 1958, stereo). A 1945 New York Philharmonic Rachmaninov 2, in remarkably good sound, is a freewheeling, emotional and vibrant account, cut of course, that has no truck with streamlining Rachmaninov’s volatility. The finale of the William Tell overture (Columbia Symphony, 1950) has to be heard to be believed: daringly fast and remarkable playing hand-in-hand.

CD 2 of Rodzinski includes some really terrific Wagner excerpts, with the RPO (1955) and Chicago Symphony (1947), and more London stereo tapings (Philharmonia Orchestra, 1957-58), this time of Strauss, the Salome Seven Veils Dance, molten in its seduction, and Death and Transfiguration, in which Rodzinski’s binding of motifs and soliciting pertinent details is especially potent, the whole enveloping the listener immediately and sustaining sweet remembrance and drama until transcendence wins through.

Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966) could be idiosyncratic and was not above cutting things; yet he could be extraordinarily penetrating, and something of a pioneer with both contemporary and classical repertoire, not least Haydn, as this Military symphony (No. 100, 1958) demonstrates, a rather different view from his earlier Westminster recording just re-issued on DG; the finale tempos are contrasting – this latter one scampers by! So too a Beethoven 8 (1954) that is rapid-fire but never loses poise and shape, the RPO’s nimble articulation helping the ’authentic’ process. It’s no criticism of the performances to report that Schoenberg’s retrospective Suite in the Old Style (1959) is tedious beyond belief, and Orff’s Entrata (1960), after William Byrd, simply runs out of ideas after a promising opening.

Scherchen is also heard in a plain-speaking and, at times, cosseted Brahms 1 (1952) that spins between rawness and warmth, fire and comfort; and strict observance of the printed page that breaks with traditional ’wrongness’ and gives exactly what Brahms wrote, not least the one-tempo coda, here explosively triumphant. Scherchen’s conducting of Reznicek’s winning Donna Diana overture (1957) is a particular highlight.

Finally, for the moment – there are 26 more releases to go (60 were announced) – Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), a classicist whose conducting could be termed ’neat and tidy’ where it not for the many subtleties he drew from orchestras, ones serving the music and detailed within the grander design. Weingartner was a colourful character off the platform, so the booklet note reveals, but he left that behind him when on the podium. There’s nothing dull here though – fastidious, elegant and unexaggerated, yes. Beethoven 2 (LSO, 1938) is a particular delight for its springy countenance, swift but not rushed. Brahms 3 (LPO, 1938) responds well to Weingartner’s tailored approach, as does Mozart 39 (LPO, 1940), here very shapely, and he conducts a swinging Berlioz Trojan March and a dignified non-bombastic Wagner Rienzi overture, which does Wagner many favours, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra from 1939.

Weingartner also conducts his own orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (LPO, 1938), some inspired decisions, some less so, and distils an impromptu account of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (LPO, 1938) and searches out, with the 1940 LSO, the shadows, thrills, pastoralism and triumph of Liszt’s Les Préludes, and conjures a luminous Mephisto Waltz, music that can be bludgeoned along but, here, dances infectiously. Excellent pitch-perfect and full-toned transfers throughout – so it’s not me – which here come with silent surfaces too!

Roll on the next Great Conductors!

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