handsomely presented set of three CDs is the first volume in a
projected series of recordings of great orchestras, and the Vienna
Philharmonic in particular. As preface to this volume, Andante
Recordings give us a ‘mission statement’: ‘Radio stations along
with private music lovers all over the world have collected a
treasure trove of acoustic documents that preserve the moment
of musical performance with all its spontaneity and rare atmosphere.
The live performances included in this set derive from a variety
of sources, including tape copies of analogue masters, and/or
disc recordings of over-the-air broadcasts. All sources were painstakingly
integrated and processed with the most innovative techniques available
to create new digital masters that bring fresh life to these historic
the above it is clear that the quality of the recorded sound will
be variable, and so it proves from the experience of listening.
The theme collecting this programme of music together is of course
the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but for the ‘average collector’
the problem is likely to be one of duplication of repertoire.
However, there is no question that this collection is beautifully
presented and a most interesting set of recorded performances
of interesting music across a range of 20th century
discs are contained in a substantial but well planned booklet,
which has some beautifully produced photographic material, which
is of such a standard as to add to the appeal of this issue. At
a time when the standards of supporting documentary material accompanying
CDs is often a cause for concern, this set has the highest standards
in this regard. In fact this aspect of the product is one of its
strongest selling points.
of the music, then? Looking through the roll-call of great conductors,
the performances themselves will at the very least be sound and
reliable. But of course they are a good deal better than that.
The problem is more often the quality of the recorded sound and
the occasional contributions for the Musikverein audiences. Clearly
the former is more at issue with the early 1950s recordings than
with the more recent ones.
Ernest Ansermet conducted Honegger’s Symphony No. 5 towards the
end of 1951, the music was only weeks past its premiere. The performance
sounds well prepared and thought through, although in truth the
quality of the recorded sound is acceptable only as an historical
document. There is a lack of tonal lustre, a certain dullness
in the sound, which robs the music of its drama. Among more recent
recordings that conducted by Neeme Järvi (Chandos) stands
out. But Ansermet brings a special commitment to what must have
been an opportunity to advance the cause of his friend Honegger.
issues surround the recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with
one of its great interpreters, Igor Markevitch. And one of the
other issues with live recordings is present here: orchestral
mistakes. The bassoon makes a real hash of the opening phrase,
and though the performance recovers, this is one of those pieces
in which the opening measures make such a strong impression that
it lingers in the memory.
course there is a terrific excitement and passion as the music
continues, but as with the Honegger Symphony, so too in the Stravinsky,
the sonic restrictions mean that the listener has to suspend disbelief.
Markevitch’s later recording with the Philharmonia (presently
available on Testament) is altogether preferable).
performance of Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a special occasion,
and when it is conducted by one of the great Czech musicians it
is even more true. During the 1950s and 1960s Rafael Kubelik developed
a close relationship with the orchestra, and this 1955 performance
has a marvellous cogency as well as a real sense of occasion.
But again the sound itself lacks bite and presence, which is an
important factor in this music. An interesting historical document,
but not a recorded performance to recommend. Kubelik himself has
provided one of the greatest of these (with the Bavarian Radio
Orchestra, for DG).
conductor to have developed a significant relationship with the
Vienna Philharmonic is Zubin Mehta, and over the years they made
several notable recordings, not least of Bruckner symphonies.
One of Mehta’s strongest fields of repertoire has been his ability
as an interpreter of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg
and Webern), and this set captures his performances of Webern’s
Passacaglia and Six Orchestral Pieces. These are both excellent,
well recorded and beautifully played. The second disc also contains
music by the Schoenberg and Berg, including the latter’s orchestral
song cycle Der Wein, with soloist Dorothy Dorow. She sings splendidly,
supported by the sympathetic conducting of Karl Böhm, another
master conductor who is appropriately represented here. The Schoenberg
item is his thrity-five minute long symphonic poem Pelleas and
Melisande of 1903, an exact contemporary of Debussy’s opera on
Maeterlinck’s play. This is taken from the same concert. Böhm’s
performance affords the music a sweeping intensity, and the sound
is quite good, too. The Vienna Philharmonic, of all orchestras,
can do best justice to this ripely romantic idiom.
third disc contains perhaps the least well known music, but the
performances and recording are strong enough to present a firm
advocacy. Erich Leinsdorf was born in Vienna in 1912, but made
his career in the United States, one of the host of musicians
forced to leave Europe by the Nazi threat. He conducts the Symphony
No. 2 of Franz Schmidt, who of all these composers had the strongest
links with this particular orchestra, playing in it as a cellist
for many years. This late romantic symphony is typical of its
time, and anyone who enjoys, say, the works of Mahler and Strauss
can approach this score with interest. Leinsdorf conducts an urgent
performance, as fine as there has been on record perhaps.
Wellesz, like Berg and Webern, was a student of Schoenberg. His
set of five Shakespeare pieces, Prosperos Beschwörungen,
was one of his last compositions during his period in Vienna,
before he opted to leave Austria and make a new career as an Oxford
academic. This is a most imaginative score, developing both strictly
and cogently, while using the orchestra with a sure sense of colour
and variety. For instance, there is a delightful scherzo movement
entitled Ariel and the Storm, and an appropriately hefty ostinato
rhythm depicting Caliban. The last movement speaks of romantic
love. It is a glowing Adagio surrounding the love of Miranda and
the noble prince Ferdinand, and the Vienna Philharmonic plays
with marvellous tone. The recorded sound from Austrian Radio has
a splendidly full tone; anything less would surely disappoint
in this music.
is a compilation which is never less than interesting, and sometimes
it is a good deal more than that. Whether it will appeal will
depend not only on the artists and their chosen repertoire, but
on the listener’s attitude towards recorded sound, which ranges
across the three discs from excellent modern recordings to others
that can only be described as historical. For this is what we
might term ‘a collector’s item’.