Willem Van Otterloo
The original recordings 1951-1966
all items conducted by Willem van Otterloo
Full contents list below
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72383 [7 CDs: for timings see individual disc details]
When I began collecting records in the late 1960s there were a few LPs in the catalogue conducted by Willem van Otterloo, usually with the Hague Residentie Orchestra, also described for the benefit of non-Dutch listeners as the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra. The pernickety EMG “Art of Record Buying” gave two stars – their maximum – to versions of the first two Beethoven Piano Concertos in which they accompanied Cor de Groot (review). Also listed were Van Otterloo’s Beethoven Ninth and Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the latter with the Berlin Philharmonic, all on budget price Philips Concert Classics. The Berlioz had a certain legendary status but in all truth I don’t think I ever heard it. Indeed, I’m not sure that I have previously heard Van Otterloo conduct anything except an off-the-air taping I have of the Hindemith Piano Concerto with Helmuth Roloff, from a 1961 concert with the RAI Naples Scarlatti Orchestra.
His career was a distinguished one, albeit mostly tucked away in Holland till his last years, which were spent even further out of sight in Australia. Born in 1907, in 1932 he won first prize for a composition to be played by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was to have been conducted by Willem Mengelberg, who fell ill with the result that Van Otterloo conducted it himself. After various smaller posts in Holland he was appointed to the Residentie Orchestra in 1949, quickly raising its standards. The very informative notes by Otto Ketting stress the fact that in those days a chief conductor really was that, dedicating most of his time, right round the year, to conducting and organizing the orchestra. By January 1961 Van Otterloo had already conducted a thousand concerts with Hague RO. He remained their conductor until 1972.
He was disappointed, however, in that he failed to achieve Holland’s greatest musical prize, conductorship of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. This fell vacant with the untimely death of Eduard van Beinum in 1959. After a short hiatus the decision was made in 1961 to jump a generation and appoint the young Bernard Haitink, then so inexperienced that he had to be “assisted” during his first years by the senior – and non-Dutch – conductor Eugen Jochum. Van Otterloo was understandably wounded at being passed over and eventually left Holland. His last appointment was with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Even before he became conductor of the Residentie Orchestra, Van Otterloo had made several recordings with it for Decca. He conducted the first Philips LP with the orchestra and recorded prolifically for this label until 1961. Most of the discs were with the Hague Residentie Orchestra, but set down in the hall of the Concertgebouw for acoustic reasons. There was also a substantial number with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and a few with the Lamoureux Orchestra. The two Franck performances on CD 1 are his only recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The performance of “Siegfried Idyll” on CD 4 was set down at the same sessions as the Symphonie Fantastique and these are his only recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic. His contract with Philips terminated in the same year that he was passed over by the Concertgebouw. Whether the two facts are connected in some way, I don’t know. Actually, a small number of recordings – and specifically those on CD 1 – were still made for Philips in the mid-1960s.
A few discs were made over the next decade for DG and for MMS/Concert Hall – the latter include a Beethoven Seventh – but Van Otterloo’s recording career really picked up again after his move to Australia. Most of these recordings were for the fledgling Chandos label, then linked with RCA. Until very recently, any conductor who took up a post in Australia, New Zealand or Canada fell out of the bottom of the recording world. I’m not sure how far these late LPs circulated in the Northern Hemisphere at all and precious few seem to have made it to CD. Van Otterloo died in 1978 following a car crash in Melbourne. Two days earlier he had completed The Rite of Spring with the Sydney SO. A projected Beethoven cycle had covered nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6. [see also a further recording of the Berlioz].
Otto Ketting’s observation that Van Otterloo belonged to an age when a chief conductor was really that has already been remarked. The conductor’s extensive series of recordings for Philips in the 1950s would seem to reflect another aspect of a bygone age: a time when a purely national market would repay recording investments. I seriously wonder how many of these LPs reached the UK market, for example. A fair number of the present recordings already existed when the 1955 edition of “The Record Guide” came out, yet Van Otterloo’s name doesn’t not appear anywhere in it that I can find. Nor can I find any of his recordings in the 1963 “Art of Record Buying” beyond the three I’ve mentioned. The implication is that they just weren’t issued in Great Britain. Some seem to have come out in the USA on the Mercury label.
I also wonder how widely he guest conducted. A thousand concerts with one orchestra in twelve years do not seem to leave time for much else. Still, as I noted above, he conducted a concert in Naples in 1961 so he was not entirely unknown outside Holland.
And thus Van Otterloo might have remained, a footnote to Dutch orchestral history, or a conductor who sometimes cropped up as accompanist to more famous names such as Clara Haskil. But for the Willem van Otterloo Foundation. The booklet lists a Board of seven Directors, but from a spot of Googling I learn that the Foundation is essentially the creation of Van Otterloo’s daughter Gaby and her husband Otto Ketting, a composer and trumpeter. An act of filial piety? It’s not quite that simple.
Personal relationships may not have been Van Otterloo’s strong point since he had four divorces and five wives. I’m not sure which of the marriages Gaby belongs to, but not the last since she experienced the drama of divorce as a child. As is likely with a young girl, she took her mother’s part and in fact scarcely knew her father. Furthermore her husband-to-be had played under Van Otterloo as an orchestral trumpeter and disliked him at the time. Later he came to state that, if he could meet him again, he would take off his hat to his sheer professionalism. This is from an interview available on the Internet. Also to be found on the Internet is a suggestion that Van Otterloo was an introverted man with a foul temper, and it was this latter that cost him the conductorship of the Concertgebouw. Given that the performances presented here reveal a conductor of a similar stature to Van Beinum and Haitink it seems only too likely that his drawback was his personality rather than his musicality.
Many people find in later life that they remember better, even with affection, the crusty schoolteachers who blighted their existence as children but actually taught them something. In the case of the schoolmaster, probably nothing concrete remains with which to create a posthumous reputation. An orchestral conductor who set down hundreds of recordings is another matter. Thus began Gaby van Otterloo’s journey in search of her father. So far the Foundation, through Challenge Classics, has issued a record of Van Otterloo’s compositions (CC72180) and a 13-CD set of reissues (CC 72142) which John Quinn reviewed enthusiastically and chose for “Record of the Month” status. This follow-up likewise contains excellent re-masterings of Philips originals. Except where I’ve made some specific comment, you can take it that all recordings sound at least as good as you would expect from a commercial recording of that date, and in most cases much better.
Opening CD 1, the previously unreleased “Bartered Bride” overture sets the tone for the set: lively, cleanly played but with sufficient space for the contrasting themes to make more mark than they often do. Any counter-melodies or opportunities for instrumental colouring are gratefully seized upon. The three dances are played as an uninterrupted sequence, with slight adjustments to the end of the first two in order to make this possible. I’ve never heard this done before and I’m not entirely convinced. Each dance has its own character and rhythm and there is a slight feeling that Van Otterloo has reduced the contrasts between them in order to bind them into a continuous whole. He keeps the rhythms well alive but I’ve heard more zest in some native Czech performances of the Furiant.
Les Eolides makes a good introduction to Van Otterloo’s Franck. The tempo seems not especially swift but he tugs at the hairpin dynamics and the inner parts to create a restless effect, curiously modern-sounding and far removed from the usual Pater Seraphicus image of this composer. I say the tempo “seems” not especially swift and originally wrote “is”, since that was my impression. However, Otto Ketting’s notes refer to a 12-minute rendering by Monteux with the same orchestra in 1939. A bit of Googling reveals that Van Otterloo is actually a minute faster than the next fastest around – Tortelier – and some two minutes faster than Toscanini. I can only repeat that the effect is not of haste, but of restlessness and repressed energy.
So it is with the Symphony. I should say at this point that the Franck Symphony was a teenage passion of mine and my introduction to it was Boult’s Readers’ Digest recording. As time went on it seemed to me that no other performance I heard captured the same youthful spirit. The structural weaknesses the critics professed to find in this piece simply disappeared under a surging impetus that swept all before it. Much later I was able to renew acquaintance with this recording on the Chesky label – it also appeared in the Boult volume of the Great Conductors of the 20th Century series. My youthful impressions had not been wrong. Boult’s is one of the swiftest performances put on record. His interpretation was influenced by hearing Fauré’s protégé Pierné conduct the work during his earlier years, so he may have been close to what Franck wanted. In the meantime I had found that Munch’s performance shared much of the same spirit. So, too, does a far more recent version under Janowski, an obvious choice for anyone wanting an urgent performance in state-of-the-art sound. Only very recently I also discovered that Celibidache, at least in the 1950s, took an urgent, flowing view of this symphony.
Van Otterloo takes a little more time and finds a much wider range of moods. The symphony in his hands is brooding, restless, troubled, its more affirmative moments hard-won but bearing great conviction when they arrive. An unusually Mahlerian concept. The downside is that the structure begins to creak at the seams as it doesn’t with Boult. Several times during the first movement, especially, things almost ground to a halt in a way that reminded me of Mengelberg’s version with this same orchestra. Could it be that Mengelberg’s way with the work was still deeply embedded in the Dutch collective musical conscious?
In the end, I am grateful to Van Otterloo for revealing several facets of the music that I had passed over, but I shall listen more often to my previous favourites. The symphony itself sounds more triumphantly successful in their hands.
CD 2 is dedicated to more classical repertoire. No Mengelberg reminiscences affect Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. There is a slight touch of rhetoric around the pauses in the later stages of the first movement, but it is kept within reasonable bounds. Even today not many conductors would opt to hammer out the four-note motto with total metronomic rigidity. Van Otterloo also accepts certain Weingartner retouchings. Signally, horns not bassoons usher in the second group in the recapitulation. The first movement repeat is given but not that of the finale. All the same, this is among the fifths that count.
The first movement displays Van Otterloo’s ability to find a tempo that can be swiftly driving yet with space for relaxation in the few lyrical moments. The movement builds up impressively. The second movement is even more successful. I have rarely heard such a steady tempo, yet one which allows the music to sing, stalk, strut or blaze as needed. The third movement is swift but not so much so that detail does not register. In particular, the eerie return after the trio, often played so far below the sound barrier that you cannot hear what is happening, gets a Stravinskian clarity. The shifting bass line and the changing timpani rhythms are finely charted in the transition to the finale.
Like Klemperer and some others, Van Otterloo has the half-note of the finale approximately equal in tempo to the dotted half-note of the scherzo, though his tempi are faster than Klemperer’s. Beethoven actually marked the finale to be played slower than the scherzo, but few conductors have attempted this. Erich Kleiber showed that a very broad finale can come off but the traditional solution has been to reverse Beethoven’s indications and play the finale faster than the scherzo. Van Otterloo’s solution means, in practice, that his finale is fairly broad, but also superbly buoyant. He may well have you thinking you’ve never heard such a spot-on tempo for it. This finale crowns a Fifth that begins well and rises to something like greatness by the end.
Fidelio Overture adds little. It is slightly underwhelming in its initial attack. The slowish tempi prove justified as Beethoven wraps counter-melodies around them and Van Otterloo gets increasing conviction as he goes on. The problem is not so much the interpretation as this particular performance of it. Maybe it was foisted upon a tired orchestra at the end of a session.
Otto Ketting’s booklet notes describe the Schubert 5 performance as “somewhat neutral”. I must say I liked it very much. It is strong and muscular rather than schmaltzy and charming, and maybe the better for it. Both outer movements show once again Van Otterloo’s ability to find a single tempo for a movement that will suit both its energetic and its lyrical moments. The warmly sung second movement sustains its length well – over ten minutes with both repeats. Even if Van Otterloo doesn’t basically go for charm his relaxation into the Trio after the vigorous Menuetto is memorable.
Of the various performances of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture on my shelves, only Klemperer and, surprisingly, the 1950s Boult, exceed the ten-minute mark. At ten-and-a-half, then, Van Otterloo is unusually slow. On the other hand, even the fastest I have – the 1970s Boult – shaves less than a minute off it. Van Otterloo’s opening is well sprung but nocturnal, mysterious. The following chorale has a feeling of calm expectancy. Later on the tempo is sometimes allowed to move on slightly – the bassoon theme for example – but the emphasis is very much on grandeur and depth of feeling. It is as though, for Van Otterloo, Brahms paid tribute to the Academic Festival by choosing a handful of students’ songs, but then got on with composing a grand symphonic movement in his own way. It was salutary to be made to think again about a piece I’ve heard many times, but I imagine I’ll more often return to one of my jollier favourites.
CD 3 is given over to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Ketting remarks on Van Otterloo’s very broad tempo for the Adagio, two minutes longer than Wand’s 1980 recording and about seven longer than Schuricht’s MMS recording with Residentie Orchestra. To which I might add that it’s also about two minutes longer than Furtwängler’s Cairo performance and four minutes longer than Rosbaud’s Vox recording.
To my ears, this Adagio is the glory of the performance and a major reason for reviving this recording. Van Otterloo is certainly slow, but never reverential or heavy. The music gently wafts onwards from the opening bars and so it builds up, patiently but inexorably, the climaxes mighty but unforced. Even conductors who begin slowly often opt for a more flowing tempo when the second theme arrives. Many of them cannot resist some sort of accelerando in the big crescendos. Van Otterloo holds steady, triumphantly vindicating the strength of Bruckner’s construction. Interestingly, not only is the controversial cymbal clash eschewed, but I believe that for Van Otterloo the actual climax to the whole movement is not the place where the cymbal clash was inserted by Schalk or whomever, since in his hands the music goes on growing beyond that point till the actual diminuendo begins a few bars later.
Also highly effective is the Scherzo, vigorous but not hectic. This part of the movement is effective under most conductors. The Trio is more problematic. Van Otterloo is as fine as I’ve heard, very slow and loving but not sticky or sentimental. A sort of golden nostalgia clings to the notes.
With the first movement I have to nail my colours to the Furtwängler mast. From a slow beginning he allows the music gradually to gather pace. By the time he reaches the lolloping dance material he’s forging ahead pretty fast and he succeeds in transporting the listener in a tide of emotion right through the movement. Theoretically that’s wrong, of course. Van Otterloo builds the movement more patiently, never hurrying, never flagging. And theoretically that’s right. I don’t think Van Otterloo loses his way, but I think Bruckner does. Maybe the problem is mine. This is my least favourite Bruckner first movement. Beautiful as the opening theme is, later on it gets gunged up with fumbling harmonic transitions where Bruckner seems to be getting stuck on purpose. Furtwängler manages to disguise this. Van Otterloo tells it as it is, which has its limitations when it would be better if it wasn’t.
With the finale, Van Otterloo again tells it as it is. This time, though, I’m not sure that Furtwängler or anybody else has found a better solution. I belong to that fraternity for whom Bruckner’s most perfect symphony is the Ninth because it hasn’t got a finale. Though I get on better with some of his other finales than with this one. If you don’t agree, I should think you’ll find Van Otterloo ideal in all four movements.
This is, however, one recording where sonic limitations may affect our perceptions. The dynamic range is limited and, while the effect is pleasant, the great climaxes just don’t envelop the listener as one would wish.
CD 4 Remains with the romantics. Siegfried Idyll was set down as part of the 1951 Berlin Philharmonic sessions that produced the first of Van Otterloo’s celebrated recordings of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – the first time the orchestra had ever played that work. Obviously they were not unfamiliar with the Wagner, but this performance was issued only five years later. Ketting notes that its timing of less than 17 minutes falls between Paray’s 15 minutes – Boult shaved another half-a-minute off this – and Glenn Gould’s amazing 24-and-a-half. I must say Van Otterloo’s tempo sounds just about ideal. The work has a gentle, tender, bright-eyed flow, exactly suited to the circumstances for which it was written. The more rapturous later sections retain an old-world charm, are never over-heated. I’ve never enjoyed this piece so much.
I must also say that I put the disc on without immediately noting which orchestra was playing. When I saw that it was the Berlin Philharmonic I could only marvel at the consistency of the sound Van Otterloo drew from whatever orchestra he was conducting. In 1951 this was still Furtwängler’s orchestra, yet the transparent, rather “modern” sound of this performance is light years away from the deep, saturated sound typical of Furtwängler. Furtwängler’s intensity can, it is true, engage the emotions more, and in most Wagner this would be for the better, but I think not here.
In the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony Van Otterloo balances the elements of grandeur, transparency and romantic warmth with great skill. The reading rightly notes that Saint-Saëns is a tad more classically based than Franck and a coursing energy carries all before it. And yet … Charles Munch’s more emotive rendition, with the Boston Symphony in all its many-coloured glory, maybe conceals better the fact that symphonic development, for Saint-Saëns, meant just going round and round in circles until it was time to stop. Another case, I dare say, where telling it as it is has its limits when it would be better if it wasn’t. Or perhaps it just wasn’t tactful to place this symphony after a work by Wagner, the master of “endless melody”.
Cor de Groot recorded the Beethoven Concertos with Van Otterloo and was planning to record all four by Rachmaninov. Paralysis of his right hand in 1959 brought his career to a halt, however. Maybe the project derived from the astute consideration by someone at Philips that nobody had recorded all four since Rachmaninov himself. The two we have do not suggest any special identification with this composer. Rather, they suggest a competent pianist doing a decent job. There are some exaggerated ritardandi and some expressive lunges, seemingly because that’s how this sort of music is “done” rather than from inner conviction. The slow movement of no. 2 stops at every bar line. Very few pianists except Rachmaninov himself have avoided this, but still, the evidence is there that he didn’t want it. There’s no great tonal allure and the finale of no. 2 is laboured. Van Otterloo sticks to him like a limpet – though his strings hardly have a Philadelphia sheen – and if the idea was to demonstrate his excellence as an accompanist, the point is amply made. However, a couple more of their Beethoven concertos might have made the same point and provided something one would more readily return to.
Following Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto on CD 5 is a rare outing of Franck’s Psyché, complete with the choral parts. Presumably this was its first recording, not that there have been many since. Ketting notes that Van Otterloo’s performance is shorter by eight minutes than a recent Chandos version under Otaka. However, if we make our comparisons with what is logically the most authoritative alternative, the Supraphon recording conducted by Jean Fournet, Van Otterloo is swifter by only a couple of minutes.
Franckian as I am, it was a red-letter day when this latter came out in my teens. To tell the truth I’ve never felt the need to look for another performance, Fournet is so convincing. I’ve never heard the work played live, or broadcast complete. Obviously, the Psyché et Eros movement comes up on its own from time to time – it was a favourite of Giulini – and semi-complete performances minus the short choral interludes occasionally take place. I can only add that romantically-inclined listeners who don’t know it have a real treat in store.
Though Fournet takes only two minutes more than Van Otterloo, this enables him to present a more relaxed, evanescent, impressionistically-lit view. Under Fournet, Franck’s evocation of the classical world sounds to be a forerunner of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë. Van Otterloo takes an almost expressionist, modern view, restless, passionate, dramatic. Fournet’s makes the music more lovable, perhaps more magical, Van Otterloo makes it more gripping. He must have been a commanding rostrum presence, for he obtains here the sort of total conviction, the sense of the players being stretched to their utmost limits, that we associate with the truly great conductors. It is an interesting reflection on his sense of the appropriate style that he avoided Furtwängler-like hysteria when conducting Siegfried Idyll with Furtwängler’s own orchestra, yet conducts Psyché rather in the manner of Furtwängler conducting Tristan. The 1954 recording strains a bit to contain the massive climaxes but somehow this adds to the excitement. With a work that has had very few recordings, we can be grateful that two of them are so fine, and in different ways.
Back to Beethoven for CD 6. The Pastoral, like the Fifth, begins excellently and rises to a finale approaching greatness. The first movement is well sprung, forwardly mobile but unhurried. The repeat is given. The second movement has an easy flow, neither dragging nor pressing onwards. As the textures gradually fill – the arpeggios in the wind, for example – one is struck by the sheer rightness of the pacing. This movement can outstay its length, but not here.
The curious thing is that, while I was convinced this was one of the faster-flowing brooks I’d heard, this proves to be an illusion created by the sense of movement the conductor is able to conjure up. In reality, most of the other Pastorals on my shelves offer faster brooks. It’s true that Van Otterloo’s 12:48 is well short of Erich Kleiber’s 14:36 (Prague 1955), Kubelik’s 14:20, or even Klemperer’s 13:22 (the EMI studio version). And already in 1960 (Milan), Celibidache came in at 13:09. On the other hand, Scherchen got through the movement in 10:52, Weingartner in 10.56. I haven’t checked with the metronome but I think this must be close to Beethoven’s marking. Not far behind them is Boult (EMI 1978), at 11:11. A whole clutch come in somewhere between 11:50 and 12:10: Krips, Keilberth, Harnoncourt, Matacic (Milan 1962), Mravinsky. But the interesting thing about this is that slowish brooks usually go with slowish first movements. Timings are a complicated matter here since about half these conductors omit the first movement repeat but, generally speaking, conductors who go for a swift first movement, as Van Otterloo does, go for a swift brook too. Van Otterloo’s pacing of the symphony is one of the most varied, then.
So it continues. The Scherzo goes at a lively pace, though not so much so that the accelerando before the storm breaks cannot be observed. The contredanse trio is relatively slow, though with a joyful lilt. The storm is extremely effective at a vigorous but not breakneck pace. Then we have one of the slower finales on offer.
This last movement is actually one of Beethoven’s famous metronomic conundrums. Whether or not you take these markings literally, the fact has not escaped scholars, and even some conductors, over the years that Beethoven’s marking for this movement – 60 to the dotted fourth-note – is not all that much faster than his marking for the brook – 50 to the dotted fourth-note. This no doubt explains why Scherchen, who took a lively interest in metronomic matters and played the brook very fast indeed, provides a fairly middle-of-the-road finale at 8:52; the fastest I have is Klemperer’s 1951 Vox recording, at 7:42, closely followed by Weingartner at 7:48. Similarly Harnoncourt matches his 11:59 brook with one of the slower finales on record: 9:44. The purveyors of the slowest brooks, E. Kleiber and Kubelik, at least have logic on their side in offering the slowest finales too: 10:46 and 10:13 respectively. Van Otterloo, at 9:20, has presumably taken into account this metronomic relationship. Whereas Klemperer (EMI), in pairing a slow brook with a finale timed at 9:12, appears to be following an agenda of his own. It should be said, though, that several of the conductors who make a fairly swift job of the finale, actually begin it quite slowly and serenely, then let it run ahead later.
While in theory I’m all for a slowish finale – since Beethoven appears to have asked for it – in practice Van Otterloo’s performance is just about the first I’ve heard that begins slowly, continues that way all through, and sounds totally convincing. As with his brook, there’s a fullness of emotion and an inexorable forward movement that means it doesn’t actually feel slow at all. The stride is long, but it really exalts. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this movement done better.
Maybe it would have been preferable to place the concerto first. It is in any case a thoroughly rewarding performance, showing De Groot in much better light than the Rachmaninov. Van Otterloo’s precise counting out of the rests at the beginning is the harbinger of much that is to come. Having set a broad, majestic tempo, De Groot simply plays the music as it is written, but warmly and musically. A particular high point of the movement is the cadenza, not attributed and clearly written by someone used to a post-Beethovenian harmonic language – De Groot himself? – but most effective. If some may crave more sheer personality – this is to be found in the cadenza – the richly poetic playing of the Largo should silence any such carping. The steady finale allows much detail to emerge, maybe too much since the piano is excessively to the fore in the recorded spectrum. Still, this is a fault common to many concerto recordings of the 1950s. The performance leaves one wishing that space had been found for more Beethoven, or some of the Liszt and Mozart that these artists recorded together, in place of the two Rachmaninov concertos.
Some lighter Beethoven opens CD 7, starting with a springy Turkish March. As for the Romances, I have to say I have never understood why pieces that are labelled “Romances” and marked to be played in divided common time – two beats to the bar – are always played as religious meditations with four dead slow beats to the bar. But there it is, I’ve never heard them played any other way. So presumably violinists like them that way and there are listeners who find them less insufferably tedious than I do. If they must be done as religious meditations, probably the most nearly convincing performances come from Menuhin whose oh-so-soulful tone, at least in the early 1960s, could add a spiritual dimension to anything, whether it’s really got it or not. Olof and Krebbers nevertheless provide very sweet-toned, serene renditions of the traditional view. Van Otterloo is very supportive in op. 40, but in op. 50 he seems to agree with me that it’s too slow and moves on noticeably when the orchestra is on its own.
The Rosamunde overture provides more evidence of Van Otterloo’s way with Schubert – purposeful and energetic rather than charming and schmaltzy. I thoroughly enjoyed it. A well-sprung Rakoczy March follows. Maybe I expected something a bit more special, though, from the conductor of a famous Symphonie Fantastique.
Ketting tells us that Van Otterloo didn’t greatly care for Weber’s Second Symphony. He nevertheless provides plenty of vitality and seems to relish the often enterprising orchestration. I don’t recollect hearing the piece before, but I can’t imagine a better presentation. One or two wind solos are not entirely immaculate, however. The engineers seems to enjoy the orchestration too, beefing solo players up to the same size as the full orchestra.
We are not told whether Van Otterloo thought Meyerbeer’s march from Le Prophète was better as music. He might have made the point that the Weber disappoints not so much in itself as because the composer could do far better. Meyerbeer’s outrageously corny piece is vindicated with an infectious, self-important strut. The “real” Weber of Der Freischütz is warmly done, with great panache in the finale section.
The two Grieg song-transcriptions are quite extraordinary, their homely warmth transformed into stark expressionism. The dynamic range is huge, the emotion uncompromisingly violent. I had not imagined Grieg’s gentle muse could bear such angst, and maybe it can’t since the harmonic tensions of the music do not seem to support the expressive weight the conductor is drawing from it, as they would have in an adagio by late Mahler or early Schoenberg. Still, it’s fascinating to hear what he finds in this music. I’d be very interested to hear how he interpreted the Peer Gynt Suites – he recorded both.
A chunky Prokofief march rounds off the disc.
I wrote my comments on the individual discs before I began Googling and came across information about Van Otterloo’s possibly problematic personality. Even without this knowledge, it had maybe emerged that Van Otterloo’s interpretations are marked by internal tensions and drama rather than affectionate warmth. On the other hand, these tensions, checked by a sense of formal balance and orchestral style, created extraordinarily fine performances of a range of music, particularly romantic music. Furthermore, they did not prevent him from producing a gloriously serene Siegfried Idyll and patiently unfolding Bruckner. Ketting rightly describes him as an ideal recording conductor since, however the results were obtained, when the red light went on he proved invariably able to fire up an orchestra as opposed to goading it into action. There is not a bar on these 7 CDs – and John Quinn came to a similar conclusion about the 13 CDs he reviewed – in which the conductor does not genuinely feel the music and express that feeling through the orchestra. At the very least, his Franck, Wagner, Bruckner and above all his Beethoven remain important versions of many-faceted works.
So where now?
It would be interesting to hear the Chandos Australian recordings. If, as it appears, Chandos themselves do not see them as a likely source of revenue, maybe they could be licensed to Challenge Classics. These are presumably technically excellent.
More problematic would be the group made for MMS/Concert Hall, since these were done on the cheap and not usually – I’m speaking of other MMS recordings I’ve heard – of the best sonic quality. In addition, if the masters have not survived, their LP pressings were poor. Still, it might be worth the effort if repertoire is included that was not set down for Philips or Chandos.
And then, the remaining Philips LPs. Signally, there is no Mozart in either of the two Challenge Classics sets. Otto Ketting describes Van Otterloo’s Mozart as “somewhat neutral”. But I didn’t agree with his similar description of the Schubert 5 so maybe I would like his Mozart too. In any case, perhaps the time has come to hear Van Otterloo warts and all. Even if his Mozart is dire, some small proof of this would seem in order. There is also the question of duplications. I see, for example, that there is a Franck Symphony from 1952. Would there be any point in hearing it alongside the one we have here?
And lastly, live performances. John Quinn mentions – maybe this information was given in the booklet to the earlier set – that live Van Otterloo performances from broadcasts with the HRO would not yield satisfactory results since the orchestra’s own hall had poor acoustics. However, tolerance levels are fairly high among aficionados of historical recordings. Exceptional performances of works not set down commercially – how about the other Brahms symphonies, or more Bruckner? – may justify the effort. Could a complete Beethoven cycle be pieced together from various sources? Symphony no. 2 seems to be missing from the studio recordings. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation very likely holds material of good sonic quality. And what about his guest appearances with radio orchestras? I’ve mentioned the Naples Hindemith – and he gets good playing from this unpredictable orchestra. Presumably RAI also holds whatever else was played at the same concert. The Van Otterloo industry may only be at the beginning.
Extraordinarily fine performances of a range of music. When the red light went on Van Otterloo proved invariably able to fire up an orchestra.
Full Contents List
WILLEM VAN OTTERLOO - The original recordings 1951-1966
CD 1 [64:57]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride (1866): Overture [6:32], Polka, Furiant, Dance of the Comedians [12:11]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Les Eolides (1876) [8:39]
Symphony in D minor (1888) [37:16]
Hague Philharmonic Orchestra (Smetana), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Franck)
rec. Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, 5 January 1966 (Smetana Overture), 3 January 1966 (Smetana Dances), 7-12 January 1964 (Franck)
CD 2 [76:30]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 5 in C minor op.67 (1807) [31:48]
Fidelio (1814): Overture [6:13]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 5 in B flat D485 (1816) [27:17]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture op.80 (1880) [10:31]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven op.67), Hague Philharmonic Orchestra (others)
rec. Vienna Musikverein (Beethoven op.67), Amsterdam Concertgebouw (others)
23-26 February 1958 (Beethoven op.67), 24 April 1957 (Beethoven Fidelio), 18-19 May 1960 (Schubert), 23 December 1953 (Brahms)
CD 3 [64:30]
Symphony no. 7 in E (1883) [64:30]
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
rec. Vienna Musikverein 23-26 March 1954
CD 4 [74:01]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1 883)
Siegfried Idyll (1869) [16:41]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony no. 3 in C minor op.78 (1886) [31:14]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor op.1 (1891 rev. 1917) [25:38]
Feike Asma (organ) (Saint-Saëns), Cor de Groot (piano) (Rachmaninov), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Wagner), Hague Philharmonic Orchestra (others)
rec. Berlin, Jesus Christus Kirche (Wagner), Amsterdam Concertgebouw (others)
18-25 June 1951 (Wagner), 2-3 April 1954 (Saint-Saëns), 21 December 1954 (Rachmaninov)
CD 5 [76:16]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor op. 18 (1901) [33.46]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Psyché (1887-88) [42:12]
Cor de Groot (piano) (Rachmaninov), Netherlands Chamber Choir (Franck), Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, 12-13 December 1952 (Rachmaninov), 21 October 1954 (Franck)
CD 6 [76:52]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 6 in F op.68 – “Pastoral” (1808) [42:30]
Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor op. 37 (1803) [33:41]
Cor de Groot (piano) (Concerto), Vienna Symphony Orchestra
rec. Vienna Musikverein, 22-24 February 1953 (Symphony), 22-25 February 1953 (Concerto)
CD 7 [74:15]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Ruins of Athens op.113 (1811): Turkish March [1:45]
Romance no. 1 in G op. 40 (1802) [8:02]
Romance no. 2 in F op. 50 (1802) [9:11]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rosamunde D.644 (1823): Overture [9:54]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1846): Rakoczy March [4:15]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1768-1826)
Symphony no. 2 in C (1806) [17:02]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Le Prophète (1849): Coronation March [3:56]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1768-1826)
Der Freischütz (1821): Overture [8:44]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
2 Elegiac Melodies op.34 (1880) [8:44]
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Love of Three Oranges (1919): March op.33 bis [1:36]
Theo Olof (violin) (Beethoven op.40), Herman Krebbers (violin) (Beethoven op.50), Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Amsterdam Concertgebouw 20 May 1960 (Beethoven op.113, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Prokofief), 4 January 1952 (Beethoven op.40), 24 November 1951 (Beethoven op.50), 24 November 1951 (Schubert), 8-9 March 1956 (Weber Symphony), 11 October 1951 (Weber Overture), 6 June 1951 (Grieg)
All items conducted by Willem van Otterloo
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72383 [7 CD, for timings see individual disc details]