Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony no.55 in E flat Hob.I/55 [21:54]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.7 in A op.92 [37:55]
Symphony no.8 in F op.93 [26:07]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg
rec. 7 October 1969 (Haydn), 6 October 1970 (sy 7), 9 January 1962 (sy 8), Symphony Hall, Boston (Haydn, sy 7), Sanders Theatre, Harvard University (sy 8)
For most record collectors the name of William Steinberg is synonymous with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, of which he was musical director from 1952 to 1976 and with which he made a long series of well-considered recordings. Londoners scarcely recall that he was Boult’s successor as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958. Ill-health ended what may have been a promising association in 1960.
Illness also prevented his conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1968-1972) from becoming more than a hiatus. As Richard Dyer’s notes – a welcome recurring feature of this series – tell us, the period in question was more notable for the opportunities his cancellations offered to his young assistant Michael Tilson Thomas.
Steinberg’s appointment to Boston came at a time of low morale for the orchestra. Leinsdorf’s period had not worked out, for reasons not readily explained by the video material emerging in this series. Great things had been expected of Steinberg, who had been assistant to both Klemperer and Toscanini and was famed as an orchestra builder. It is therefore interesting to have at least one early colour video of him in action with the orchestra during his tenure, plus a guest appearance from somewhat earlier, filmed in black and white. What it doesn’t explain is why anyone should have thought he could do anything Leinsdorf couldn’t. Both, after all, were eminently straightforward interpreters with a strong eye for orchestral discipline. Nearly fifty years on it is Leinsdorf who seems to have had the more enquiring mind and – at least often enough for it to be worth keeping him on – the ability to create a sense of occasion. Possibly the contrast between Leinsdorf’s acerbic wit and what Dyer describes as Steinberg’s “pipe-smoking geniality” carried more weight with good Bostonian society that the actual performances.
Steinberg’s movements were famously minimalist. However, like many conductors of an earlier generation, he used a longish baton and presumably expected the players to follow the tip of it, rather than his arm movements. Looked at this way his stick is actually both energetic and vital. I was curious to note that, when beating three-time, his second beat goes to his left, rather than to the right as is more usual. This can be seen very clearly at the beginning of the Haydn. No doubts about his clarity, however.
Steinberg’s four performances of Haydn’s Symphony no.55 in 1969 are apparently the only ones the orchestra has given of this work. Unlike Munch conducting no.98 in 1960, Steinberg has a harpsichord, particularly active in the slow movement. This sounds big-band Haydn today but is slimmed-down by the light of its times. It’s all very neat, buoyant and nicely phrased.
The Beethoven symphonies are resolved with swift tempi, clean textures and clear phrasing. The effect is again buoyant rather than driven. Many conductors who take the first movement of no.7 swiftly are unable to maintain proper articulation of the dotted rhythms right through. The beginning of the development is a danger point where even Reiner falters. Steinberg is one of the best I’ve heard from this point of view.
But, having admired the performances for their avoidance of pitfalls, I still can’t help feeling that the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its music director ought to have offered something more. There was a greater distinction in the public view back then between the “big five” American orchestras and all the others, good as many of them were. Pittsburghers had every reason to be proud of having such a tip-top bandmaster for over two decades. Impecunious record collectors in the UK who got to know Beethoven symphonies through Steinberg’s Pittsburgh recording as issued on Music for Pleasure had cause for gratitude that they could obtain such an excellent introduction so cheaply. I am sure that Steinberg’s guest appearances with the “big five” were justly appreciated. But did he have that something extra you expect from the music director of one of the “big five”? Go to Leinsdorf’s performance of the “Egmont” overture in this same series, right at the end of his criticized reign and you’ll hear that something extra – a Beethoven orchestra in full cry and a conductor inspiring them, not just directing them.
I’m sure purchasers will enjoy this video, but the real revelations of this series so far have been the Leinsdorf issues, though I say that without having heard all the Munch ones, which are pretty numerous.
Useful documentation of a conductor whose time with the orchestra was short.
Christopher Howell
Useful documentation of a conductor whose time with the orchestra was short.