Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 9 in C major D.944 [51:20] (1)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony no. 4 in D minor op.120 [33:40] (2)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal: Good Friday Music [11:10] (3)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. live 26 March 1963 (1), 13 November 1962 (2), 7 January 1964 (3), Sanders Theatre, Harvard University (1, 2), Symphony Hall, Boston (3)
Bonus tracks with introductions to the symphonies by William Pierce [2:30]

There isn’t a lot of Leinsdorf material on DVD, but maybe this ICA series of long-hidden BSO telecasts will gradually change that. A few years ago I reviewed a DVD in which Leinsdorf, around twenty years later, rehearsed and performed a sequence from Parsifal and Schumann 4 with the South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Arthaus 101 153).

The elder-statesman Leinsdorf had a more well-fed appearance, above all a more satisfied one. He recalled his Boston years as particularly fraught and he has here the shifty, nervous look of a harassed garage mechanic, a conductorial presence that might have amused Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, he has more than a passing resemblance to the actor chosen as the hired killer in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, so what a pity Leinsdorf could not have conducted the Benjamin “Storm Cantata” in place of Bernard Herrmann, opening up potential vistas of cinematic cross-play. I doubt if the maestro would have accepted, though.

Leinsdorf has always aroused mixed feelings, not least in Boston itself. Comparing this DVD with the Munch one I recently reviewed it’s clear he didn’t have Munch’s natural charisma, he wasn’t a “ladies’ man”, he was interpretively austere and his batonless gestures, of exemplary clarity and purpose when seen from the orchestra’s side, looked dull from the back. On the other hand, I doubt if he ever in his life made a travesty of the music like Munch’s really awful Bruckner 7.

The Schubert – which Leinsdorf did not record in the studio – opens with a majestic tread. The Allegro is punchy but steady enough to accommodate the second subject with little or no slackening of speed. The coda, while not slammed through dogmatically – go to René Leibowitz for that – avoids lurching to a halt the way it often did under conductors of Leinsdorf’s generation. There’s just a little broadening in the very final statement.

All this is admirable, and I really do admire it. All the same, a little bird – or maybe a carrion crow – sat on my shoulder making all the traditional anti-Leinsdorf points about the well-oiled mechanism, about the gestures that seemed aimed, not so much at spontaneously igniting the music as at reminding the musicians of points painstakingly made in rehearsal. The suspicion that everything is following a pre-ordained trajectory that surprises no one is potentially damning. I was reminded, too, that John Holmes (“Conductors”, Gollancz 1988) approvingly quoted Paul Henry Lang’s remark that “he is not adept at those nearly imperceptible tempo and dynamic adjustments that give life to music”.

I think this, like my carrion crow, misses the point, or misinterprets the point. It is not a matter of being “adept” or not at such things, rather that for Leinsdorf the austere intellectual these things didn’t “give life to music”, they were the icing on a cake that tasted better plain. He elected to live in a musical world where every phrase, every gesture, had its logical place, its logical connection with the other phrases and gestures. These are the fundamentals of music construction, we must surely agree, and for him they were enough.

Maybe they should be enough for us too. Or rather, since it takes all sorts to make a world, we should expect Leinsdorf to convince us at least for the duration of the performance that he is giving us all we need. And there we are; since my carrion crow squawked a few times during that long first movement of the Schubert, thus far Leinsdorf had engaged me mainly intellectually.

But then, just when you think you’ve got Leinsdorf pigeon-holed, he comes up with something unexpected. The second movement is ambling along very nicely, you are thinking, when he starts really digging into the phrasing and engages you on a deeper level. This second movement, painfully expressive, tender, dramatic and passionate by turns, ranks with the best I’ve heard, and this begins to colour my reaction to the whole symphony.

The scherzo is slightly slower than the norm, but with very detailed care over the rhythms to keep it alive, the finale is punchy and grand. Bostonians may have missed Munch’s ebullience – his studio recording of this symphony is celebrated – and maybe too his tow-path shouts. Let’s hope at least some of them queried whether Leinsdorf was not penetrating more deeply under the skin of the music.

Schumann 4 was a particular favourite with Leinsdorf. He made a studio recording of it in the teeth of RCA’s protests that it wouldn’t sell. Perhaps it didn’t – they refused his wish to record the second. Much earlier, he had recorded the first in Cleveland (1946).

At the end of his life Leinsdorf came to prefer Schumann’s first version of the symphony and light, transparent textures. In 1962, as Richard Dyer’s notes point out, he was using the traditional revised version with some of Mahler’s accretions. As can be heard from the beginning, he makes full use of the deep sonorities the BSO was able to provide.

Furtwängler’s seething textures and febrile conviction, in his DG recording, virtually created this symphony for several generations of listeners. Leinsdorf takes a more deliberate, stern view of the first movement allegro, yet the tension never flags and this joins the few recorded versions that enable me to set aside the memory of Furtwängler.

The “Romanze” brings another of those Leinsdorf minor miracles. Deeply tender and expressive, it touches on sublimity as concertmaster Joseph Silverstein’s solo violin weaves around the texture. Great energy in the remaining two movements with a terrific transition between the two.

The upward trend continues in the Wagner extract, reminding us that Leinsdorf maybe unbent most easily in the opera house. While in a sense he remains true to his strict-tempo convictions, the music is shaped overall in great waves, suggesting a long-term fluidity. The restless spiritual yearning of the music is ideally present and this time it’s the solo oboe’s contribution that rises to sublimity. A great piece of Wagner conducting.

This DVD, then gives a very truthful picture of Leinsdorf. It reveals his very considerable strengths and, if the Schubert occasionally hints at his less sympathetic side, it does not do so to the extent that it’s likely to put anyone off. The picture and sound are reasonable for the date.

Christopher Howell

A very truthful picture of Leinsdorf, including a great piece of Wagner conducting.