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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: 20th Century Music, Volume 1
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955) Symphony No. 5 (1951)
Ernest Ansermet (conductor)
Rec 2 December 1951, Musikverein, Vienna
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) The Rite of Spring (1913)
Igor Markevitch (conductor)
Rec 26 April 1952, Musikverein, Vienna
Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928) Sinfonietta (1926)
Rafael Kubelik (conductor)
Rec 3 March 1955, Musikverein, Vienna
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945) Passacaglia, Opus 1 (1908); Six Pieces, Opus 6 (1909)
Zubin Mehta (conductor)
Rec 3 December 1983, Musikverein, Vienna
Alban BERG (1885-1935) Der Wein (1951)
Dorothy Dorow (soprano)
Karl Böhm (conductor)
Rec 1 June 1969, Musikverein, Vienna
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Pelleas und Melisande, Opus 5 (1903)
Karl Böhm (conductor)
Rec 1 June 1969, Musikverein, Vienna
Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939) Symphony No. 2 (1912)
Erich Leinsdorf (conductor)
Rec 29 October 1983, Musikverein, Vienna
Egon WELLESZ (1885-1974) Prosperos Beschwörung, Opus 53 (1935)
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Rec 24 February 1985, Musikverein, Vienna
ANDANTE AND4080 [3CDs: 79.37+75.27+79.37]

This 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 performances.’

From 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 masters.

The 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.

What 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.

When 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.

Similar 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.

Of 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).

Any 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).

Another 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.

The 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.

Egon 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.

This 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’.

Terry Barfoot

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