Great Conductors of the 20th Century (5)

0 of 5 stars

Sergiu Celibidache

Berwald, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Rosenberg, Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Tiessen

Recorded 1948-70

(2 CDs)

147 minutes

Wilhelm Furtwängler

Beethoven [Symphonies 3, 5 & 9]

Recorded 1937-53

(2 CDs)

158 minutes

Herbert von Karajan

Chabrier, Liszt, Mussorgsky orch. Ravel, Offenbach, Sibelius, Johann Strauss II, Wagner, Waldteufel, Walton, Weinberger

Recorded 1949-71

(2 CDs)

160 minutes

Rafael Kubelik

Berlioz, Dvořák, Hindemith, Janáček, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Martinů, Schubert, Schumann

Recorded 1948-68

(2 CDs)

155 minutes

Fritz Reiner

Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Falla, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Ravel, Strauss, Wagner

Recorded 1946-59

(2 CDs)

159 minutes

Arturo Toscanini

Beethoven, Bellini, Berlioz, Brahms, Dvořák, Puccini, Wagner

Recorded 1937-48

(2 CDs)

153 minutes


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

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

What was planned as 60 releases to honour 60 famous conductors has ceased at 40. This, sadly, is the last batch, although let’s hope that a future generation of listeners and collectors has been inspired by this well-presented series.

Sergiu Celibidache (1912-96) had a remarkable ear for balancing an orchestra with regard to instrumental oscillation, acoustic, and by insisting that individual players listened acutely to each other and reacted sympathetically. (I simplify!) Celibidache divides opinion sharply, and usually does so over what are regarded as slow tempos, which tended to get slower as he got older, although the (cosmos- and science-related) reasons for particular tempos are often overlooked and not enquired about. Put simply he was a remarkable musician who delivered performances of astonishing dimension – whether in London in the 70s and 80s (when I came on board, a life-changing experience), or in Munich, his last position (EMI has issued over 30 CDs from this period), or through his earlier work from Stuttgart and Stockholm (which DG has made available).

The end result was usually a deeply satisfying and revelatory musical experience, and if the choices of recordings here lack an example of what a compelling experience a ‘late’ Celibidache performance could be, there are treasureable items. These include a stunning 1970 Danish account of the overture to Nielsen’s Maskerade, and a propulsive, eloquent and mercurial version of Berwald’s delectable Sinfonie singulière (Swedish Radio Symphony, 1970). There’s also a beautifully timed Mendelssohn Italian Symphony (Berlin, 1953) that is perfectly poised between spirit and expressiveness, with sound that significantly improves over previous ‘pirate’ issues. Four movements from the Nutcracker Suite (which Celibidache recorded complete, in London in 1948, and which Dante Lys and Decca have both issued), are meticulously turned.

Also from this period is Mozart’s ‘little’ G minor Symphony (No.25), big-band, deliberate-tempo Mozart, that is also lucid and shining, although the Minuet plods rather. The pitch changes a little at 3’48” in the Andante (which makes for a slow if very rewarding ‘walk’). Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (Berlin, 1948) is rhythmically exact and affectionate; Heinz Tiessen’s Hamlet Suite is strong on atmosphere if short on music (Tiessen was Celibidache’s “musical mentor”); and Hilding Rosenberg’s Marionettes Overture is a delight when it finally gets going. Of the four Strauss Family items, all carefully prepared, the Fledermaus overture is simply too inflated, for which the quicksilver Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka more than compensates.

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) reached palpable spiritual dimensions – through a mix of intuition, re-creative freedom, and peering deeply into his chosen scores. A towering Eroica from Munich with the Vienna Philharmonic (1953) is deeply expressive, searching and trenchant, built from within and from the ground upwards. The ‘funeral march’ seems burdened by the world’s woes. The Fifth (Berlin, February 1944) casts long shadows, and is curiously compelling for Furtwängler’s total identification with the music and making that music mirror the era in which it was played. It’s fascinating and the sound is remarkably good (so too for the Eroica, which like the Fifth has not been issued before).

The 1937 Choral (given in London’s Queen’s Hall by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic) is at its most convincing in the daringly spacious account of the Adagio molto e cantabile, almost suspended in time, and remarkably sustained. Furtwängler’s conception doesn’t always gel, but it’s a reading caught on the wing that transcends the years. A shame though that in order to accommodate this programme, a couple of repeats in the scherzo have been excised. Although Furtwängler (as far as I know) never observed all of Beethoven’s prescribed repeats in this movement, these cuts do rather dwarf the scherzo further, certainly in relation to the surrounding vastness.

Herbert von Karajan (1908-89) is mostly represented here by Philharmonia Orchestra recordings that range from ‘popular classics’ (lavishly prepared and wonderfully played) including Mussorgsky’s Pictures, although the admirably clear recording can be rather left-biased (and always has been so in my experience), and rather bass-light. Karajan usually conducted Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony with compelling concentration, although his later recordings got progressively darker. This 1953 one gets off to a rough start as far as lower-string tuning is concerned, but the sense of the music’s organic power and bleakness is well conveyed. The finale’s glockenspiel sounds insipid; no chill. Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ (Helga Dernesch) arrives with a bump (excerpted from Karajan’s complete EMI recording and is an example of manicured Wagner to love or hate. Earlier Karajan, less manipulative, closes the CD with some joyous orchestral showpieces, those by Chabrier being especially adorable.

But the most intriguing Karajan performance is a remarkably idiomatic one of Walton’s First Symphony – live in December 1953. Presupposing the quality of Italian orchestras at this time, the Rome Symphony Orchestra of Italian Radio negotiates remarkably well the demands of Walton’s writing. Karajan is really inside the piece: the first movement has convincing breadth and reach, the malicious scherzo is spectral and well articulated, the melancholic Andante deeply felt, and the finale has an intensity that is riveting. What a huge pity, then, that Karajan makes three cuts in the first movement (at 2’40”, 8’04” and 11’15”) and that the trumpet solo towards the end of the finale is transferred to oboe (from 9’42”), which is affectingly played nonetheless. This is presumably one of the changes that Karajan asked Walton to make, which the composer refused to do. Karajan’s emendations (not mentioned in the booklet note) are regrettable because his interpretation is of considerable stature.

Czech-born Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) was a musician to his fingertips, artistry and humanity notably combined. He gives a winning rendition of Dvořák’s Slavonic Rhapsody No.3 and a superbly vibrant one of Martinů’s great Fourth Symphony, which was recorded in Prague in 1948 eighteen months after Kubelik and the Czech Philharmonic had given the premiere. The limited sound is no barrier to appreciating Martinů’s kaleidoscopic scoring, although a few watery timbres suggest that the removal of surface noise was a paramount objective (which is fine providing the music’s tones are not eaten into). A vital and tender Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream overture is quite among the best recordings of this evergreen masterpiece (Philharmonia), and Kubelik’s famous Mercury/Chicago recording of Hindemith’s Weber Metamorphoses has just the right blend of incision and spontaneity.

Schubert’s Third Symphony (Vienna Philharmonic) is graceful and robust and is followed by a simply wonderful Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No.10; superb sound too as Kubelik and his Bavarian Radio Symphony sweep through this music with aching intensity and heartfelt emotion that leaves the listener profoundly moved. Of Kubelik’s several recordings of Janáček’s Sinfonietta the one here is from March 1955, recorded by Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic (Andante has issued a live performance from a few days earlier); this fresh and vigorous studio recording has already appeared in Japan and now enjoys wider currency. Add in some delightful Berlioz (Dance of the Sylphs) and an generously Romantic account of Schumann’s Genoveva overture for an excellent portrait of a great conductor who commands respect and affection.

Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), supremo in Chicago, begins with a dramatic and unsentimental (if subtly shaded) Beethoven Coriolan Overture. Emil Gilels’s notable 1958 version of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 reports leonine playing. The transfer here seems over-processed with pianissimo bass passages being a little murky (a bit more hiss wouldn’t have mattered!), so too in Brahms’s Tragic Overture, which Reiner drives with precision if not the most soulful expression. Mozart’s Linz Symphony, sounding altogether happier, is given a weighty conception of dignified breadth, singing lines and spruce rhythms – quite superb and culminating in a genuinely Presto finale that is a always focussed.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘Scherzo’ with the wonderfully titled Robin Hood Dell Orchestra (a pseudonym, presumably for contractual reasons, for the Philadelphia Orchestra) is a springy, non-rushed delight, and the Chicago ‘Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung is pregnant with anticipation and wonderfully released. A Bartók dance is meticulously authentic, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (RCA Victor SO, 1950) lampoons athletically and presents the work’s slyness unambiguously. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin (NBCSO, 1952) could do with more measure, especially the opening ‘Prélude’, which is gabbled at times, but Reiner keeps the middle movements moving agreeably, and the sentiment of the ‘Menuet’ remains intact. Falla’s El amor brujo (Reiner’s 1946 Pittsburgh account), smartly addressed and diaphanously textured, completes the package.

The white-hot intensity of Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) is in evidence in Berlioz’s Francs-Juges Overture, so too some stinging brass and hard-driven tempos. Toscanini was a master of the orchestra and the notes he presided over, yet one sometimes strains to hear an imaginative response beyond those notes. Brahms’s Symphony No.4 is certainly full of vigour and purpose, if a little ruthless. Although Toscanini appreciates the ingenuity of Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations, not least the scoring, the music’s urbanity is sometimes glossed over. There’s no hiding place from the passion unleashed in the ‘Intermezzo’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. The famous 1937 BBCSO recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral begins with a clump and sounds less inviting than in Mark Obert-Thorn’s recent transfer for Naxos [8.110877]. Obert-Thorn allows more ambience before the music begins and achieves more beguiling timbres: the oboe’s clucking about 40 seconds into the first movement is less hectoring, for example, although IMG’s transfer is fine on its own terms. (Naxos’s documentation adds recording dates in June and July to the agreed-on 21 & 22 October.) Wagner’s Rienzi overture and an excerpt from Bellini’s Norma are also included in IMG’s release.

So, six more conductors to cherish and discuss. It’s a great shame that this series has finished early – but congratulations and thanks to all concerned for their initiative and enterprise and for carrying the idea though with such devotion.

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