Some BBC Legends

0 of 5 stars

Overture – Leonora No.3
Symphony No.9 “From the New World”
Suite – The Love for Three Oranges

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Kempe
BBCL 4056-2

Symphony No.3 in F
Overture – The Italian Girl in Algiers
Symphony No.4 in D minor (revised version)

BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (Brahms, Rossini), BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux
BBCL 4058-2
Sonata pian’ e forte
Mephisto Waltz No.1
Symphony No.6 “Sinfonia semplice”
Concerto for Double String Orchestra

London Symphony Orchestra (Gabrieli, Liszt and Tippett), New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski
BBCL 4059-2

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: June 2001
CD No: BBCL 4056-2, 4058-2 & 4059-2

Here’s another batch of releases from the BBC’s archive to set the pulses racing! I’m delighted to have this Kempe selection available. The Prokofiev and Dvorak have haunted me since the live Royal Albert Hall broadcast during the 1975 Proms. On 29 August that year I don’t think Kempe had officially begun his tenure as the BBCSO’s Chief Conductor … he was to die in May 1976 (aged 65) having held this position for just seven months. How the BBCSO would have developed in its identity and repertoire can only be surmised – we must be grateful for the tapes that remain of Kempe’s few and auspicious BBC concerts.

Kempe’s core repertoire would be cited as the German classics, with an especial regard for Richard Strauss. Yet he was looking to widen his repertoire at the BBC and was not keen, it seems, to undertake much more Strauss or Wagner. One wouldn’t associate him with Prokofiev, yet he has a wonderfully instinctive feel for the fantasy of the opera’s six-movement suite. A superb rhythmic sense, it’s the delicacy with which Kempe traces so much of Prokofiev’s writing that entrances the listener; not that this suggests a lack of panache, colour or drive – quite the reverse: there’s much that thrills and – in The Prince and Princess – much to move. Twenty-five years ago I thought I’d heard something definitive: I did.

The Dvorak is just as fine. Gently expressed, scrupulously detailed and transparently sounded, there’s so much here – in terms of blend and balance – that I’ve listened for in vain in so many subsequent performances. Kempe gets to the heart of Dvorak’s particular world by letting the music express itself, but with an attention to finer points of articulation and scoring that reflect his keen but judicious musicianship. In one sense this is a very traditional New World but it is raised to something notable by the tangible rapport between players and conductor and Kempe’s innate understanding of the music’s inspiration and construction. This spontaneous, sensitive and fiery performance radiates joy in the music-making; sadness too for what might have been had Kempe lived longer. The Beethoven, from two Proms’ nights earlier, reminds us of Kempe’s operatic credentials – this Leonora 3 is pregnant with atmosphere and humanity.

The stereo sound on Kempe’s CD is excellent and allows appreciation of his use of antiphonal violins. That’s a feature that would almost certainly have been present on Monteux’s performances garnered here, but his release, like Stokowski’s, is mono. Notwithstanding how disappointing it is, Stokowski’s conducting of Tippett’s two string groups would have benefited from greater width – I can only hope that Kempe’s quite wonderful BBCSO account of Tippett’s masterpiece (RFH, 18/02/76) will also be released.

Pierre Monteux, like Kempe, was a musician first and only: no tricks, deviations or tampering with the musical process – instead they had the ability to get to the music’s core and persuade orchestral musicians to give of their best. We all have our favourites and despite my praise, neither Kempe or Monteux quite make it into my (unwritten) list of maestri who have consistently delivered the goods over my thirty years of serious listening (I started young!). Yet, of course, I’ve heard some marvellous things from both (Kempe more than Monteux) and would certainly nominate this Kempe CD as containing outstanding examples of his art.

The Monteux disc brings a Rossini overture that I find too careful and short on sparkle. While the recording allows us to hear Rossini’s trademark crescendi well enough, it also affords us Monteux’s over-emphatic, overloud cymbal-clashes, which smack more of the bandstand than the concert-hall. Monteux’s Brahms (like the Rossini recorded in Manchester’s Town Hall in November 1962) is admirable in it’s pacing but is a tad earthbound in encompassing Brahms’s world of freedom and happiness (’frei aber froh’ said the composer about the opening F-A flat-F motif). The playing is good if a bit too drilled – the BBC Northern Orchestra was not a ’symphony’ in 1962 and not as virtuosic as its present-day Philharmonic successor. Although the middle movements of this Brahms 3 have some warm and attractively curved expression, I’m afraid the whole did little for me.

I must though record that there’s an obvious affection and commitment for Monteux from the Manchester-based orchestra; it is often reported that musicians loved playing for him. If Brahms 3 sounds a little weary, I wouldn’t want to worry about Monteux being 87 at the time because only a year earlier in the Royal Festival Hall he led a sprightly, energetic Schumann 4 with the BBCSO. It’s a reading full of expressional ebb-and-flow, and has a heart. I do find a lack of poise though and some of the ensemble is precarious, which leads to gabbled articulation. Nevertheless, the spirit is there and there’s a lot to enjoy in Monteux’s freewheeling approach. He has the measure of the music’s shape and direction (as he does the Brahms; first movement repeats are observed) and a further hearing is looked forward to. Yet, when it comes down to it, I simply don’t find myself on Monteux’s wavelength – those that do will surely find more than me in this CD’s contents.

Leopold Stokowski is another ’problem’ conductor for me. Individual rather than great it seems to me (although capable of greatness); that Stokowski could be wilful and tamper with the printed page is well documented; not that the score is necessarily sacrosanct … but there are limits.

It appears that Stokowski only conducted these Nielsen and Tippett pieces once – and he was on his best behaviour with the texts, though Tippett’s wonderful Concerto is here less the masterpiece it actually is, which with Gabrieli and Liszt is from a 1961 Edinburgh Festival concert. Included in the booklet notes are selected press comments about this rendition: some are ridiculously extravagant; only Andrew Porter’s lone voice of dissent seems to have grasped its failings – “somewhat lacking in charm and sprightliness” are his words. How right he was! This is a great work in which polyphony and rhythmic ingenuity inform the outer movements and much tender and heartfelt expression unfolds in the second. Stokowski’s clipped rhythms are indeed charmless, the lyrical music above failing to expand; the slow movement has a superficial sweetness which all but covers Tippett’s depth of feeling (no sunlit radiance here); Stokowski does though conduct the closing bars with some understanding and places the grace-notes with exactitude and meaning. The playing is good, but not of the standard that “D.H.” of the Evening Dispatch thought he heard.

While the Gabrieli sonata (grandiosely arranged for wind and brass by the conductor) and a rather sober, deliberately paced Mephisto Waltz are neither here nor there, it’s the Nielsen that makes this CD a mandatory purchase. This most ambiguous of Nielsen’s six symphonies is anything but simple; in my opinion it’s his greatest achievement in the genre. A visionary work, it poses questions all along the way, and with Stokowski its four movements are unbroken: I like that! With sardonic Shostakovich-like wit and Ivesian clashes, something very personal and disturbing is expressed in this remarkable work; the quixotic phrases and scoring (always notated with a Scandinavian translucence) find a sympathetic and vivid interpreter in Stokowski. His carefully prepared and dramatic realisation is impressively sharp both in orchestral timbre and emotional contradictions. That said, he could have made more of a ’raspberry’ out of the bassoon’s closing salutation (Nielsen with two fingers aloft I’ve always thought), but Stokowski certainly captures the ’exit stage left’ feeling I usually register with a chilled spine (I do here, from 9’14”) and puts the seal on a penetrating and absorbing performance of this strange, complex statement in which allusion and inner-turmoil collide.

It’s a shame (and surprising) that this September 1965 BBC studio recording (Maida Vale) should be mono: but Stokowski’s conducting eclipses any limitation of sound and, like all the selections here, is made to sound at its best. The Kempe and Nielsen 6 are recommended without reservation.

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