Classical Music classical CDs reviewed New CD reviews every day latest Classical CD releases Buy your CDs of the classics here

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Collector's Choice

[10 CDs only available from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra]
order $225


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 read.

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.

Standard Repertoire

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. That's understandable.

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 chord!).

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.

Twentieth-Century Music

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 William Schuman.

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 like that.)

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 trail.

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 music.

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. Perfect!

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 listener's interest.

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 of.

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!

Colin Anderson

* 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 or and to check through the Store's other merchandise.

* The cost of the 10-CD Collector's Choice set is $225.00.


Colin Anderson

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers : - The UK's Biggest Video Store

Concert and Show tickets


Musicians accessories

Click here to visit

Return to Index