Sir Neville Marriner
Edo de Waart
Michael Devlin (baritone: Shostakovich Symphony No.14/Slatkin)
Ernö von Dohnányi (piano: Mozart Concerto in C, K503/Doráti)
Susan Graham (soprano: Mahler Symphony No.4/de Waart)
Elizabeth Holleque (soprano: Shostakovich Symphony No.14/Slatkin)
Eunice Norton (piano: Honegger Concertino/Ormandy)
David Oistrakh (violin: Beethoven concerto/Skrowaczewski)
Richard Paige (tenor: Casella La Giara/Doráti)
Egon Petri (piano: Liszt/Busoni Rhapsodie espagnole/Mitropoulos)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2004
CD No: MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PRODUCTION OF COMMERCIAL AND CONCERT RECORDINGS FROM 1924-2003: PURCHASE DIRECT FROM THE ORCHESTRA (12 CDs)
This is a wonderful set, one produced to the highest standards in every aspect, which celebrates 100 years of the Minnesota Orchestra (Minneapolis Symphony until 1968). Here is enshrined the work of the Orchestra’s music directors (save Emil Oberhoffer, the first to hold the post) and some notable guest conductors and soloists.
The first CD is of recordings from 1924-1935. One’s heart leaps at the excellent quality of the transfers – here is not something no-noised to within an inch of its tonal life; rather, the compensation for a little mechanical background is clear-sounding (not watery) woodwind timbres and focussed strings, which betray no eaten-away textures and murky bass and pianissimo frequencies. Congratulations to the re-mastering engineer, Seth B. Winner, for his transfers on the first six CDs, which fall into the historic (mono) category, for not only his technical expertise but also his musical sensitivity.
This first CD straddles the reigns of Henri Verbrugghen (Permanent Conductor between 1923-31) and Eugene Ormandy, the latter we now know destined to Philadelphia for a 40-year stay. Verbrugghen is heard in a couple of light-music charmers, a spirited Der Freischütz overture, and a sensitively turned then boisterous Roman Carnival, which is slightly abridged; seven selections in all, recorded between 1924-29. Ormandy is also heard in ’light’ mood – Drigo’s Valse Bluette – and in a scintillating Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No.1, a suitably manipulated Funeral March of a Marionette (Hitchcock would have approved!) and a colourful account of the Háry János Suite (its first recording, albeit a piano substitutes, very well, for the cimbalom!).
CD 2 is devoted entirely to Ormandy, the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director from 1931-36. At his first rehearsal, so the booklet notes relate, he asked merely for “cooperation” from the musicians and that they should call him “Gene”. Among the treasured items here is a rather regal and affirmative Schumann Fourth Symphony (Revised Version) that is Classical in its deportment. The Polka and Fugue from Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper rarely disappoints, certainly not here, while Honegger’s Concertino, neo-classical, pithy and jazzy, features Eunice Norton as the affable soloist.
The remaining Ormandy items on this second CD include commercial and live recordings. In the former category are pieces by Roy Harris (When Johnny Comes Marching Home), Zádor (Hungarian Caprice) – both previously available on Biddulph – and Carl Stix’s Spielerei, a real challenge to the Pizzicato Polka. The three 1936 radio broadcasts are a Bach chorale prelude orchestrated Caillet (sic, it’s usually Cailliet), Debussy’s Faune, time-taken, and a Brahms Hungarian Dance, its orchestrator not credited.
Next up is Dimitri Mitropoulos who, courtesy of Columbia, dispenses a resplendent account of Leo Weiner’s orchestration of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, really quite thrilling, and then a fleet Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, all over in 32 minutes, that leaves one exhilarated rather than breathless. Egon Petri ignites his piano for Busoni’s orchestral version of Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole; a thrilling example of great pianism. Live ’takes’ feature Dvorák’s Scherzo capriccioso in a 1943 performance held on an “Office of War Information lacquer disc”, a charged reading, and Morton Gould’s American Salute (1944), which is irresistible in its rousing.
CDs 4 and 5 bring us to Antal Doráti, who served as music director from 1949-60. A disciplined Oberon overture (1955) kicks off. La mer (1956) is oddly described as being played in its “revised version”. Hmmm! I assume this is a reference to Doráti playing the brass fanfares in the finale that Debussy removed and Ansermet reinstated? (Doráti opts for horns at this point.) Whatever, this is a scrupulous and dramatic rendition, one tender, luminous and flexible that, in all honesty, listening blind (which I was) didn’t suggest Doráti as the author. It’s one of the highlights of the set.
An up-tempo Mozart K503 follows from 1957 with Ernö von Dohnányi (Christoph’s grandfather) as a fallible soloist. Despite several examples of fingers not meeting the right keys, tempo divergence, no-control speeding, and even something of a breakdown in the finale, this is an engrossing performance with its own particular insights. Dohnányi supplies rather Brahmsian cadenzas. Doráti is then himself in a no-nonsense (if springy), hard-edged and colourful Three-Cornered Hat Suite No.2. Dvorák’s C major Slavonic Dance (Op.46/1) is the ’encore’, recorded in Tehran in 1957, and which enjoys lissom woodwind playing.
CD 5 begins with a surprisingly deliberate if engaging Rossini Journey to Rheims overture (1958). Then Doráti is heard in three ballet scores – Sessions’s Black Maskers (1955), Casella’s La Giara (1956, which lasts 18 minutes rather than the stated 31) and the second suite from Roussel’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1957). Sessions’s rhythmic verve is given full measure, so too, less admirable this, its raucous side. The charms of the Casella don’t quite infiltrate the mind as something to return to quickly, while the Roussel, music in a different league, is rhythmically alive, as to be expected with Doráti.
CD 6 – another Beethoven Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh! Well, this is a good one, which finds him in consistently fine form, a lyrical and thoughtful rendition, alertly accompanied by Skrowaczewski, which must have been something of an occasion back in 1965.
Following is the Scherzo, attractively folksy, of Harald Saeverud’s Minnesota Symphony. Doráti conducts, and if from a complete performance, in 1958 (the state’s centennial), I wonder why there’s applause!
CD 6 closes with two composers conducting – Stravinsky in his own Fireworks (1966), which takes a while to light, and Aaron Copland leads Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía India (1967); it’s a really exuberant and caring performance, a priceless document of one composer paying homage to another.
It’s not until CD 7 that we encounter stereo sound – and then magnificently so in Skrowaczewski’s extravagant transcription of Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue, recorded in 1997. This work inaugurated the Orchestra’s current Hall in 1974. It’s a version that tries to outwit Stokowski. (Expect a Chandos release of this soon from Leonard Slatkin, officially its premiere recording!) Then comes Bruckner’s Third Symphony (2001), which is simply marvellous. Skrowaczewski is a master Brucknerian, and while, for many, he conducts the ’wrong’ edition of this Wagner-inspired work (i.e. the 1889 second revision as edited Nowak), so deeply-peering is ’Stan’, so focussed on, and believing in, this music that one is absorbed by his exhaustive determining of this (here) mighty score. It’s an epic reading, maybe too heavy in the dance music of the scherzo and finale, yet the chorus of bravos that ring out after the triumphant coda totally chime with this listener’s in-performance reaction: that this is special.
CD 8 begins with a non-rushed Ruslan and Ludmilla overture under Tennstedt (1981). Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel is well documented on Decca; nevertheless, this 2003 account of the Mother Goose suite is magical enough to warrant inclusion. Also from 2003 is Enigma Variations under Sir Neville Marriner, a moving document of Marriner returning, after a long absence, to his former Orchestra, for a reading both loving and acute. He also conducts a fine Bax Tintagel from 1985.
CD 9 begins with the rhythmic ingenuity and street-noises of Eric Stokes’s Symphony No.4, Ghost Bus to Eldorado, where musical and mechanical synthesis combine for what seems to be a most likeable ’fun’ piece. Yet, there is a serious ’message’ to this 15-minute symphony, as the composer’s written notes testifies, and which is found at the centrepiece of the work. Sad to report that Eric Stokes was killed in a car accident in 1999; the booklet picture of him shows an avuncular-looking man, an immediate friend, one imagines, on meeting him. David Zinman conducts here in 1992; he and Stokes remained friends from student days.
Leonard Slatkin has had a long and close relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra. It’s good that CD 10 swells his discography with something as substantial as Shostakovich’s Symphony No.14, settings of death-related poetry for soprano, baritone, strings and percussion. Both soloists, Elizabeth Holleque and Michael Devlin, in this 1987 performance, are well attuned to the subject matter of this unhopeful if vibrant work. Slatkin has a real affinity with Shostakovich’s music and makes much of sound itself (not least from the double basses), dynamic contrasts, and theatrical shadow play. (I wonder if there was room on this CD for the same-concert Warlock Capriol Suite? And was it Haydn 103 in this programme? Opening timpani aside, it’s No.100 that is more obviously percussive.)
CD 10 includes a magically atmospheric and hushed account of Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake, from Valery Gergiev (1991), a conductor I take as I find; this is just fine though. Then there’s a very special Beethoven Pastoral under Klaus Tennstedt (1989), in which the Scene by the Brook is exquisite, and the Scherzo has an unforced balletic quality. This individually pointed account, one built on a strong and flexible foundation (some telling details in the double basses), has the Minnesota Orchestra seemingly hanging on Tennstedt’s every gesture. This fresh and spontaneous Pastoral is wholly winning – and the final music Tennstedt conducted in Minnesota.
Edo de Waart begins CD 11 with John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby (1988), mostly a pastiche of ’twenties jazz that might pall if it wasn’t for de Waart’s care for the inner dynamic of the music. He then conducts Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1997), an affectionate, lightly articulated account that might not find the nightmarish aspects of the first movement, or stakeout its contrasts, but establishes a likeable demeanour that testifies to the Minnesota Orchestra ability to play with grace and attention. The slow movement is certainly beautiful-sounding yet there’s a lack of characterisation, though a perfect attacca ushers in a suitably heavenly sing from Susan Graham, and the fade to nothingness (and, rightly, to no applause) is tapered ideally.
Finally, the outgoing and incoming music directors are showcased. From 1997, Eiji Oue directs Tchaikovsky’s Fifth with a strong will, personal attention and, thankfully, none of the indulgence that can bring this symphony crashing down. (A shame that a digital-watch bleep is documented for posterity in the slow movement, at 10’27”!) From 2002, Osmo Vänskä, as incumbent (his tenure began in September 2003), looks beneath the skin of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music; this vital and detailed account of the two suites (the movements re-sequenced) bodes extremely well for the Minnesota’s tenth music director. They will be setting down a Beethoven symphony cycle for BIS over the next few years.
Presentation is first-class. Each of the 12 CDs, housed in a pretty sturdy box, is in a proper jewel case with a relevant photograph tastefully presented on the front cover. An anecdotal note is inserted. Then there’s a bigger stand-alone booklet that is everything one could wish for regarding biography, photos, texts/translations and a discography.
All in all, exemplary, and recommended with enthusiasm. Hopefully, the Minnesota Orchestra is already planning a sequel.