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Erich Leinsdorf in Rehearsal
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal: Preludes and Interludes [41:49]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony no.4 in D minor, op.120 (first version, 1841) [26:02]
With rehearsal sequences of both works [21:38 and 23:50] in German, with subtitles available in English, French and Spanish
Recorded in the Brahmssaal, Karlsruhe in 1989 but copyright 1984
DVD Video
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 153 [118:00]


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To tell the truth, the name of Erich Leinsdorf (1912-1993) was not particularly one to conjure with in my earlier listening days. His London visits drew comments from the press such as “Leinsdorf seemed to conduct every quaver without leaving anything to the imagination of the players”, and “the symphony was not so much performed as analysed by Leinsdorf”. His Beethoven 9 at the Proms was dismissed as “unmusical”. I thought it impressive over the air; a friend who actually went to it objected to the rich vibrato Leinsdorf wished on the strings in the slow movement, and he did have a point. Without really probing the matter, Leinsdorf seemed to me to belong among those rather heartless American-based conductors whose popularity on the other side of the Atlantic just showed what a funny lot our Yankee cousins were. That things were a bit more complicated than that was revealed when I lodged with an American student (in Edinburgh in the early 1970s) and made some sweeping, disparaging remarks about “conductors like Szell and Leinsdorf”. I got a stiff lecture about the greatness of Szell - later that decade the British public came to agree - while Leinsdorf was dismissed with a four-letter word. Potentially I’ve been a Leinsdorf apologist ever since! Potentially, because quite a large number of his numerous Boston recordings of the standard symphonic repertoire were never released in Great Britain and so I’ve never had much material to go on.

In recent years there has been a slight re-evaluation of Leinsdorf’s image. At least one critic in “Gramophone” admires his Beethoven cycle, prompting, however, a Boston reader to write in pointing out that Leinsdorf’s years there (1962-1969) saw a decline in public attendance as a result of concert after concert that was too professionally prepared actually to get him sent away but not charismatic enough to draw the crowds. If this were so, the choice of William Steinberg as his successor – more of the same, surely – seems odd. One thing I do remember is his appearance on Joseph Cooper’s “Face the Music” programme. I could only wonder at the difference between his austere interpretative image and this dapper little man, bubbling with life and an irrepressible talker.

The story did not end with his departure from Boston. Almost exclusively a guest conductor; he headed the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1977-1980 but held no other permanent post. He shed his baton, feeling he could mould the music more effectively with his bare hands, and became increasingly interested in the music’s spiritual side. He also developed a passion for assembling symphonic sequences from Wagner’s operas which he fitted together without recourse to a few bars here and there from other hands, as is customary with concert versions; he explains this at the opening of the first rehearsal. Unfortunately, with his departure from Boston, the recording world gradually lost interest in him, regarding him, perhaps, as a trouble-shooter who could be relied upon to control a big work like Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt” of which he made the first recording. Nor, from the other end of his career, has there been any attempt to examine his pre-Boston recordings, in Rochester and Cleveland. The same applies to London, where, unless I am much mistaken, he was the first conductor to record the complete Mozart symphonies. Record collectors mostly know him as an authoritative and sometimes inspired conductor of opera.

Does this film, made at fairly late stage in his career - the notes claim it was made in 1989, when he was 77, but the copyright date is 1984 - help to focus his image? Yes, I think it does. The rehearsal sequences show that, whether 72 or 77, he was still very firmly in command and still enjoying robust health; he conducts all rehearsals standing. He is unfailingly patient while pursuing his aims doggedly. He is extremely courteous to his players – when the flautist gets ahead at one point he says “My dear colleague, I get the idea you feel this in a faster tempo” and explains just why he believes it should be very relaxed in pulse. Then, when she gets it right, he doesn’t just accept it with a grunt, he tells her “it sounds lovely that way, brava as they say in Italy”. When after the umpteenth attempt, he gets the horns to come in all together and softly, he immediately praises them: “beautiful, you see we’ll get there in the end”. He is also quite transparent in his directions: “Just so that there will be no tricks, I’m holding the fermata for about five beats”. Many a lesser man (and a few greater ones) would prefer to leave themselves free to hold the fermatas as they feel. Something similar happens at the end of the Schumann. It’s tempting to suppose that, before the final coda, the conductor holds the pause till the tension breaks and then, by the magnetism of his personality, whips the orchestra into a brilliant flurry of quavers. Perhaps Furtwängler actually did that. Leinsdorf has none of it: he counts out the pause for four beats and the presto starts on the next upbeat. Does this exactness, this meticulous preparation, give us a clue to both the strengths and the weaknesses of Leinsdorf’s art? Possibly, but I must say there is no lack of tension at that point in the performance itself.

Though patient and calm, Leinsdorf is nevertheless in total command and perhaps somewhat aloof from his players, though at the beginning of the Schumann rehearsal we get a more human glimpse of him dealing with questions from a group of players who have come up to the rostrum. At the performance we can see that, like his early master Toscanini, he makes many gestures which are directed purely at the orchestra and would be invisible to the public. A student of conducting will find this DVD a very fine demonstration of the fact that in conducting, everything must be anticipated. Every one of Leinsdorf’s gestures has a point and can be seen to make something happen - how easy it is to beat along with the orchestra and encourage things that are happening anyway! At the very least, we are in the presence of a consummate craftsman.

Considerable thought has also gone into the rehearsal sequences. Those for the Wagner concentrate on roughly the same point in the score at three rehearsals, so we can hear the performance taking shape. In the Schumann, maybe someone has been a bit too clever since we get what sounds like a single, logical sequence, and yet, since it jumps backwards and forwards in the music, it cannot be. All the same, it is all fascinating, and if the archives contain the complete rehearsals, I hope more will eventually see the light of day.

What of the actual performances? The Wagner, a sequence of some 40 minutes, builds up grandly and spaciously, each section capping the last. There is that sense of grand inevitability which is the essential ingredient of Wagner conducting and, if there is no indulgence, there is plenty of warmth, too.

If the Schumann were ever to be released in purely aural form, it would rank pretty high, and very high among the few that have preferred the first version of the work. It is at the opposite pole to Furtwängler’s feverishly romantic conception - hors concours, a truly great one-off and a dangerous model, as Christian Thielemann has found to his cost. Leinsdorf’s choice of the first version, on account of its greater transparency, as he explains to the orchestra, shows he has another agenda. Yet, within its classical conception, it has great vitality and warmth, as well as structural cogency. The note-writer suggests that it looks ahead to period performances by the likes of Herreweghe, Gardiner or Norrington. It may be that Leinsdorf’s clean, analytical yet intense interpretative manner will yet come into its own. This DVD certainly leaves me very curious to get to know his recorded legacy better.

Videos of conductors in rehearsal can be disappointing; this one has something to teach us about the music, about music-making, about conducting, and about a figure who, for me at least, has always been rather enigmatic.

Christopher Howell



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