CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
[10 CDs only available from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra]
I think it's fair to say that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra initiated this
type of archive set. Back in 1991, it issued a 12-CD centennial set (The
First 100 Years) which contained some wonderful things. Since then the CSO
has issued more material (usually 2-CD sets devoted to a particular conductor
- Giulini, Kubelik, Martinon, Reiner et al). For current availability, and
for ordering this Collector's Choice box, please see below.
While Chicago continues to serve up these very desirable releases, so too
the Orchestras of New York, Philadelphia and St Louis have produced winning
sets. There's more to come from New York, and Boston will shortly join in.
This latest box from Chicago contains some inspired choices. Housed in an
attractive red box are 10 CDs in 5 slimline pouches. I must mention that
these do not offer the best storage to keep the product pristine - my sealed
review set arrived with a few scratched CDs (which played perfectly OK) -
nor free of the inevitable fingermarks caused by accessing and re-filing
them. Each CD breaks through the 70-minute barrier with most playing for
75 - "12.5 hours of music" to quote the press release.
I'm not going to be pedantic and suggest this set is a year early - the
twentieth-century will not be over until 2001 - because there's a treasure-trove
of 32 performances (so says that press release) to be auditioned. In fact,
it's 31 (of thirty works) - Jean Martinon's Mahler 3 straddles two CDs and
has been counted twice in the tally. Of these 31 performances, three works
are incomplete (albeit reproduced here as given). Paul Hindemith conducts
the first movement of Bruckner 7 (which Tennstedt conducts complete) and
Giulini leads four (of five) movements from Mozart's D major Divertimento
K251. Hans Rosbaud plays six of the nine sections of Richard Strauss's Suite
from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (and carves a slice out of the Dinner Music,
here a couple of courses short of a banquet).
Each pouch contains basic details of contents. There is also a handsome 64-page
book which contains photographs, sung texts, technical notes and a full appraisal
of the CDs' contents by Mark Kluge, part anecdotal, which makes for a good
Although I've listened to the CDs in order - each a concert I suppose - I
propose commenting under the following four headings: Standard Repertoire;
Twentieth-Century Music; Americana; Diversions. Before discussing the music
and the performances, let me just say that the recordings are all very good
(often better than you might suppose in the case of the earlier ones) and
they have been very well transferred. For those who worry about mono sound,
some late 'fifties and early 'sixties recordings are (surprisingly)
single-channel. I'll detail those that might be thought stereo but are in
fact mono as we go through. With a set like this though the sound is not
a priority concern (and there really is nothing to quibble about on this
score). Where a technical makeover has been required it has been done with
enormous expertise and care.
Three Beethoven symphonies are included in this set. The pick is Fritz Busch's
1949 account of No.1. This is a terrific performance, wonderfully buoyant,
keenly accented, with superbly articulated playing from the CSO. Busch's
nimble, athletic reading never sounds rushed despite the quick speeds.
Leopold Stokowski's No.2 (1962, mono) starts raggedly, the slow introduction
hasty and perfunctory. The Allegro itself is certainly worthy of Beethoven's
con brio; forcefully accented, the brusqueness is recognisably
Beethovenian. The development is dramatic; but, for me, Stokie rather loses
the import of the coda. Speed and bluster do not a great performance make.
In the slow movement Stokie draws attention to how he's conducting the music
rather than the music itself. I find the scherzo rather flat-footed and the
finale gabbled. The only possible reasons for including this not very good
performance are (1) it's Stokie and (2) he didn't record it commercially.
I'm not sure why Janos Ferencsik's 1979 Beethoven 7 is included. He didn't
have any real association with the Orchestra - just two short working periods
(presumably at the personal invitation of fellow Hungarian and then Music
Director Sir Georg Solti) - and his Beethoven 7 is, well, ordinary
(and he recorded it commercially). Don't let me mislead you, this
Chicago 7 is very good - ably controlled, powerful, trenchantly played -
but with few illustrative features (the slow movement's very quiet dynamics
being among them).
Fritz Reiner was an immensely distinguished MD of the Orchestra. He never
recorded Tchaikovsky 4 so this 1957 (mono) performance is welcome - especially
as it's pretty marvellous! A last-minute substitution for Prokofiev 5 (which
Reiner conducts in the Centennial box) I would have welcomed knowing how
much rehearsal there was or whether it had been played earlier (on tour perhaps)
and Reiner simply fancied playing it again. The opening brass fanfares sound
suitably dark and foreboding, the woodwinds are pertinently suggestive of
Tchaikovsky's isolation (but the violins are uncertain around 2'02"). Reiner's
conducting has tremendous symphonic sweep and inner tension. Woodwind and
brass playing is superbly characterised, while the strings come into their
own with hauntingly dusky tones in Reiner's fluid account of the
canzona. In short, Reiner offers exactitude, expression, passion,
sensitivity and telling dynamics (and a clearly audible triangle on the final
Bruno Walter's 1958 Schubert Unfinished Symphony is both mono and less clean
in sound than Busch's decade-earlier Beethoven. I don't care for Walter's
rather pushy account of the first movement. To my ears it sound impatient;
it may also be considered spontaneous and highly charged - there's certainly
plenty of incident along the way. I do though like Walter's spacious, ethereal
way with the second movement, in particular the expressive significance he
places upon pizzicato passages.
Walter's account of Schumann's Manfred Overture (1956) is fiery and played
with electricity. For me it lacks some depth of feeling - a sense that the
emotion is coming from within - but then Walter is not one of 'my' conductors:
I usually find him somewhat urbane.
Believe it or not March 1967 saw the Chicago premiere of Mahler 3. Perhaps
it's not so surprising given the Bernstein-led general interest in Mahler
was then only a few years old (although both Adler and Scherchen had already
recorded the Third). Today, you can't help feeling that concerts and recordings
bring a little too much Mahler. Not this local premiere of No.3 though! It's
conducted by Jean Martinon, a most wonderful musician (a composer of some
really fine music) whose discography I'm always keen to extend (not for the
sake of it of course) but this is a major work, and it's an inspired performance.
This music lives under Martinon's baton - his humanity, sensitivity and eloquence
are balanced by an emotional fervour, a structural awareness and a musical
intelligence which presents imagery in an aural context that is never beautiful
for its own sake or crassly rhetorical. The close of the vast first movement
(which Martinon negotiates seamlessly, joyously and vividly) is thrilling.
The off-stage posthorn in (iii) is not only beautifully played by Adolph
'Bud' Herseth (who remains at the First Desk after 52 years) but
magically distant. The string playing in the Finale is radiant, the phrasing
naturally generous as Martinon charts from the quietly meditative to the
ecstatic - a transcendental experience. (An afterthought: if the CSO hadn't
played Mahler 3 before, which presumably it hadn't, it says much for the
musicians' abilities and Martinon's leadership that this No.3 is so assured
and idiomatic; indeed it's among the very best recordings of this work.)
Klaus Tennstedt's 1984 Bruckner 7 is a major addition to his recorded legacy.
Bruckner appears to have been his calling-card when making various debuts
once he was out of East Berlin - the Eighth in Boston, the Fourth in London
(LSO). This Seventh is one to bask in, one to contemplate spiritual dimensions.
It's a very beautiful performance - resplendent, intense and expressive.
It's sincere too, no mistaking that, but it doesn't always have symphonic
logic or argument as its first concern. That said, I know enough Bruckner
lovers who prefer an outer-body experience when listening to this composer,
so Tennstedt's drama, pathos and blazing climaxes will do very nicely.
After Brucknerian splendour, the charms of Mozart's D major Divertimento,
under the great Giulini (1967), are balm to the ear. Giulini's depth of feeling
permeates into and raises the stakes of this most fluent music, which can
be realised with a Beechamesque elan, but is here sculpted from bronze. It's
a shame about the rhythmic hiatus at 1'08" in the last movement (track 5)
- poor edit or hapless ensemble I'm not sure.
Prokofiev's Third Symphony - one of his finest scores in my view - may have
an oppressive atmosphere, be dark and claustrophobic, contain violent outbursts
and have some knife-twisting moments, but there's some really stunning music
in it (shared with Prokofiev's opera The Fiery Angel). Kyril Kondrashin really
understands the music's psychology and leads as lucid a reading as you will
hear. The CSO love the thrills and spills of it all. While I wish the last
movement could be 'nastier', I thought the climax of the first movement thrilling
and the middle movements dank and eerie (the slow movement darkly beautiful,
the scherzo ghoulish). Kondrashin in 1976 shows how much light and shade
this score possesses, which cruder renditions overlook.
For all his volatility and passion, Charles Munch didn't skimp on precise
ensemble. His Roussel Third Symphony has all the vitality and drive this
piece needs without sacrificing the constructively interwoven details. With
virtuoso playing, and a conductor embracing a rhythmic punch, sense of mischief
and a light touch, this 1967 performance is a winner. Curiously how the opening
of the slow movement sounds so American here - these measures could be from
Solti conducts Bartok's Two Portraits (Op.5) in 1987 with concertmaster Samuel
Magad a plangent-toned, poised and eloquent (quietly suggestive) soloist
in the First. Solti - who didn't record this music commercially - brings
his characteristic drive and energy to the Second but without rushing and
compromising the music's bite.
I can't recall hearing any of Ralph Shapey's music before. Born in 1921,
he's taught at the University of Chicago since 1964 (the notes suggest that
he might still). The composer himself conducted Rituals in 1966, a piece
from 1959 which now sounds somewhat quaint in its modernist gestures - aleatoric
passages, plenty of percussion, a crossing into jazz, instrumental and tonal
conflict. Hearing Rituals - noisy, with not much substance - near the end
of the twentieth-century, it's difficult to know if Shapey, forty years ago,
was a convinced banner-waving avant-gardist or poking fun at the composing
trends of the day.
This wouldn't (or shouldn't) have included Elliott Carter (now turned 90,
currently writing a second opera and also a concerto for Yo-Yo Ma) who initially
composed in a style that is a Copland/Stravinsky mix. Then he went his own
way - one formal and intellectual. Quite whether Carter is a composer of
American music, or an American who composes, is open to debate. Early works
- Symphony, Holiday Overture - are obviously American; equally, despite the
textural complexities and more European declaration, both the later Concerto
for Orchestra and Symphony of Three Orchestras have the power of representation
that is recognisably home-grown. Carter's more recent music - Clarinet Concerto
and Symphonia (in particular its Adagio tenebroso) seems more explicitly
American than anything he's written in the last four decades. Solti conducts
Carter's 1955 Variations - music worked-out to the smallest detail, and really
quite accessible. Solti's 1982 performance enjoys the CSO's delicacy and
power - and for all the brickbats aimed at Solti for his high-octane conducting,
he is a master of this score's design and difficulties; his preparation of
it is meticulous. (Solti once played Variations in London - with the London
Philharmonic - sandwiched between Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes and Walton's
Belshazzar's Feast. Box-office constraints don't allow too many programmes
Innovative and stimulating concert juxtapositions are one of Leonard Slatkin's
hallmarks. He is also an unflinching champion of his country's music. Among
Great American Symphonies, William Schuman's Third is right up there. Slatkin
tells me that he has located bars that Schuman cut from the Toccata and that
he will re-instate them one day. Obviously this 1986 performance doesn't
play these errant measures. Slatkin conducts this music - of which he says
"one is immediately struck by the rhythmic vitality, melodic lyricism, and
harmonic intensity" - with huge commitment and natural affinity. Whether
it's the brilliant brass roulades of the Fugue or the heartfelt strings in
the beautiful Chorale, the CSO pull out all the stops for two of America's
finest - Schuman and Slatkin.
Copland's represented by the suite from Billy the Kid, James Levine conducting
at a 1981 Ravinia Festival (outdoor) concert. This didn't do a lot for me,
I'm afraid. I admire Levine for his work at the Metropolitan (some of his
opera conducting is thrilling, not Verdi though in which he can be crude).
His symphonic work I tend to find chromium-plated and inflexible - the latter
a hangover from his Toscanini affiliations (and right now I'm doing some
serious soul-searching over 'The Maestro') - let it suffice that I found
Levine's Billy efficient, the CSO dropping a few stitches along the dusty
A 1968 Ravinia performance of Copland's Preamble for a Solemn Occasion (under
Seiji Ozawa) features contralto Marian Anderson - a black woman speaking
words (from the UN Charter) about equal rights. Like A Lincoln Portrait,
this is an occasional piece where the words are more significant than the
John Corigliano's Campane di Ravello is a 3-minute tribute piece composed
for Solti's 75th birthday. This 1987 birthday-concert performance, under
Kenneth Jean, reveals touching, carillon-dominated music that works-in a
pretty familiar tune!
The set starts with Hail Bright Abode from Tannhauser - Wagner in English
sung by a Festival Chorus (2,500 strong) given at a concert during the 1933
A Century of Progress Exposition. Under the swinging baton of Frederick Stock
(German-born, the CSO's Music Director from 1905 to his death in 1942) this
is an uplifting start to the set.
Charles Munch conducts a suite from Rameau's Dardanus in an updated dressing
by Vincent D'Indy (1851-1931). Whether D'Indy (a fine composer in his own
right) made his version in this or last century I know not. I do know that
some listeners will find these four movements hopelessly anachronistic and
heavy. I love them! Munch is one of my favourite conductors - his love for
this music shines through every bar and I respond to that, as I do some lovely
playing (1963, mono).
Artur Rodzinski is another favourite - make no mistake: he's one of the great
conductors. His leads a brilliant account of the Act 3 Prelude to Lohengrin
(1948) and finds time for some affectionate and dynamic phrasing in the lyrical
middle section. He also plays Frederick Stock's not ineffective concert-ending.
Pierre Monteux - a musician to his fingertips - also conducts a Wagner snippet:
the Prelude to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger. Sometimes I feel that Monteux
doesn't do enough in his conducting - certain emotions underplayed, details
not quite together, but this 1961 (mono) Wagner is simply sublime. The natural
phrasing and quiet, intense playing create a special and moving atmosphere.
Paul Hindemith's conducting of the first movement of Bruckner 7 is a valuable
document - a great composer conducting a great composer. He led the CSO in
a complete Bruckner 4 and 7 but we have here just the movement he performed
for television in March 1963 (mono). The curiosity of a change of perspective
at 0'17" aside (it can't be an edit as this is a one-off performance) Hindemith's
conducting is direct, not hampered by pseudo-religiosity or sanctimonious
expression. Instead he focuses on length and line, counterpoint and instrumental
division - in other words, the music.
Hans Rosbaud displays similar characteristics in his shortened Strauss (1960,
mono). Rosbaud, not famous, but a musician's musician, and prized by those
in the know. He championed contemporary music and conducted a wide repertoire
with X-ray focus, humility and outstanding musicianship. He gets some wonderful
playing from the CSO in this lively and beguiling Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
(the various solos are exquisite) - I hear this music in a new light. (Might
the Mahler 9 Rosbaud conducted in 1962 - the year he died - remain in the
CSO's archives?) (A contemporary counterpart to Rosbaud in both ability and
world-ranking underestimation is Michael Gielen - I note he's due in Chicago
for a two-week stint in January.)
I liked Bizet's marching and lyrical Patrie Overture under Desire Defauw's
energetic baton (1947) - he keeps the music on the move and retains the
I hold Ernest Ansermet in the highest regard - for his "deep understanding
of the creative character of the musicians whose works he conducted" (Alain
Paris). So Ansermet's orchestration of Debussy's Six Epigraphes Antique (Ansermet
recorded these in 1953 with his Suisse Romande Orchestra; Decca recently
reissued this in Japan) could be the work of Debussy himself- refined
arrangements, these enigmatic and hauntingly beautiful miniatures were touchingly
played by the CSO for Ansermet in 1968.
From 1986, Erich Leinsdorf leads his arrangement of Debussy - Preludes
and Interludes from Pelleas and Melisande, which utilises the opera's Act
preludes and the orchestral interludes that link the scenes (Marius Constant
has done something similar). It's enchanted stuff but perhaps 27 minutes
is a prelude and interlude too much despite much to admire in this rendition.
A Vaughan Williams symphony is hardly a diversion - for me it's great music.
A London Symphony (Second Symphony) may not be the greatest of his nine (that
could be the next one, A Pastoral Symphony - do tapes exist of Reiner conducting
this in Chicago in the early 'fifties?). I've chosen to put this VW recording
in this category because of the relative novelty of hearing supposedly insular
music given with an American glint and polish. (I've recently become aware
that Kubelik did VW6 in New York, Sixten Ehrling the 5th in Cleveland; better
known is Koussevitzky and Munch respectively conducted 5 and 8 in Boston
- how about a 'Vaughan Williams in America' box?) Had the CSO played this
music before? They sound thoroughly at home and play with devotion. Conducting
is Sir Malcolm Sargent in a July 1967 Ravinia Festival performance. I'm very
moved to think that the already-ill Sargent - who would die in London just
a few months later - is here away from home, conducting this wonderful score
that is exclusively concerned with "the power, the glamour, the striving
and achievement of a great city," Sargent's own description. While I have
reservations about Sargent's conducting generally (the sobriquet Flash Harry
isn't entirely inappropriate), a friend noted to me his excellence as an
accompanist (Heifetz worked with him) and I have heard some wonderful 'Sargent
live' recordings (VW 1 & 4, The Planets and Enigma Variations among them).
This CSO London Symphony is really quite special in places. Let's remember
that Sargent knew the London that VW wrote about (Sargent was 20 or so when
VW drafted his original version). Sargent's marvellous, in the first movement,
at changing the dusky opening to the bright light of morning; nor does he
have any embarrassment with the tunes in the vernacular; the slow movement
is lovingly shaped. I'm sorry Sargent misses the scherzo's repeat (where
we should go back, at 1'14", a light shower of rain offers a splash of local
colour) but I love, from 2'50", Sargent's broadening for a juicy barrel-organ
effect. Having launched the Finale with appropriate bitterness for VW's
social(ist) commentary, Sargent is inappropriately jaunty with what should
be a hesitant march (a slow-moving, looking-for-work queue of men?) which
Boult directed unerringly. Sargent does though fully realise the tragic climax,
the gong stroke (marked 'solo' in the score) is very effective, and the magically
nocturnal coda is hauntingly realised.
Daniel Barenboim, the CSO's current Music Director, plays Busoni's Comedy
Overture, a bustling piece of orchestral incident and harmonic surprises
that constitute a lively, good-natured piece by a composer I'm a great admirer
Barenboim's three appearances in this set all date from 1996. Busoni supplies
the concert-ending for the second item with his one-minute coda to Mozart's
Overture Die Entfuhrung (which segues into the opera) - it's no mere tailpiece.
Busoni published this with his Comedy Overture; it's nice to have them both
even though I thought precision of ensemble to be slightly awry - or is it
that these later recordings are more reverberant and smudge detail? I do
prefer the earlier stereo recordings where a true perspective may be missing,
but, boy, do you hear everything.
Finally, and I think a diversion given its rarity, is Christ on the Mount
of Olives - Beethoven's Op.85, the late opus number disguising this as a
revision of earlier music. It's rather good this solo vocal/choral/orchestral
Handel-inspired Oratorio, a blueprint (with recitatives) for Leonora and
Fidelio. Daniel Barenboim conducts with dramatic intensity and enough expressive
grunts to signal his belief in the piece. The soloists are Laura Aikin, Ben
Heppner and Rene Pape - all in fine voice - and the CS Chorus is thrillingly
unanimous and involved.
The great items are: Busch's Beethoven, Monteux's and Rodzinski's Wagner,
Reiner's Tchaikovsky, Kondrashin's Prokofiev, Rosbaud's Strauss, Martinon's
Mahler, Sargent's VW, Slatkin's Schuman, Ansermet's Debussy, Munch's Roussel,
Solti's Bartok and Carter, Giulini's Mozart and Barenboim's Beethoven.
I'm pleased to have heard and will return to: Hindemith's Bruckner, Walter's
Schubert, Munch's Rameau/D'Indy, Defauw's Bizet, Leinsdorf's Debussy,
Corigliano's Campane di Ravello, Barenboim's Busoni and Mozart.
I'm pleased to have heard once: Stock's Wagner, Walter's Schumann, Ferencsik's
Beethoven, Shapey's Rituals, Tennstedt's Bruckner, Ozawa's Copland.
I wish the following hadn't been included: Stokowski's Beethoven, Levine's
Copland (but I only think this having heard them!).
So about 6 CDs are needed to contain essential items for the collector. This
is high scoring and there are another 2 CDs-worth of performances to be returned
to with pleasure. This is a wonderful set that I recommend with enthusiasm.
Here's to the next one!
* Collector's Choice is available exclusively from The Symphony Store for
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 220 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60604.
* To order by telephone - from UK - 001 312 294-3345.
* Or, of course, order over the Internet www.symphonystore.com or www.cso.org
and to check through the Store's other merchandise.
* The cost of the 10-CD Collector's Choice set is $225.00.