I was very interested to read in John Holmes’s Conductors on Record that Paul Paray never listened to recordings, either his own or anyone else’s. Not only that, but apparently he only went to four concerts in his life; concerts presided over by Furtwängler, Toscanini, Schuricht and Mengelberg. Naturally I harbour, without a shred of evidence, a sneaking feeling that this was an example of Gallic hauteur, or simply pulling a gullible leg – were it not for the fact that Holmes seems not have been a man easy to get past in that way. Not that it matters one way or the other but if true it does suggest an almost hermetically sealed critical faculty.
Mercury boxes have reissued many of Paray’s recordings of late. This Tahra twofer is different. It explores his concert performances in the years 1959-60 showing him as an accompanist and directing the fifth symphony of a composer one wouldn’t necessarily have thought a predictable reportorial choice for him, namely Mahler. First we approach the collaboration of Paray and Glenn Gould in a favoured concerto of the Canadian’s, Beethoven’s Second in B flat. He recorded it with Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony in 1957, and from the same year a live performance exists given with Ladislav Slovák and the orchestra of the Leningrad Conservatory, which was made during an eventful Russian tour. Paray hadn’t recorded a huge amount of Beethoven by this time and in fact some of his better known recordings of the composer’s music had come on 78, before the War with the Colonne Orchestra – the Pastoral (very good performance) and the Piano Concerto in E flat of 1784, a reconstruction by W. Hess which Paray set down with Frugoni and the Pro Musica band on Polydor.
Paray’s orchestral introduction is full of big-boned elegance. His uncluttered approach to internal balancing generally ensured that the music he most favoured was stripped of accretions and any fat. Gould could be changeable in this work, as in so many, and there are distinctive qualities that set apart each of the three performances cited. Here he and Paray strike a workable compromise in which he takes a first movement tempo familiar from the Leningrad recording but which in the Adagio tightens appreciably on the slower Bernstein studio traversal. The finale is more Leningrad than Columbia, but the Detroit Symphony plays with spirit and ensemble is seldom awry. I recall that Karel Ančerl said he found it all but impossible to follow Gould in Toronto. The other concerto on disc one is the Mendelssohn. The soloist here is the young Arnold Steinhardt, then in his very early twenties. This was before he went to study with Szigeti and before he won the international awards that launched his name. Since he is so must a chamber player and never made concerto recordings this is a curio of his young self in action. I’d add a brief addendum in that he did make some recordings for the outfit that called itself Sheffield Lab, and then very much later, long since established, he recorded a raft of Robert Fuchs’s music for Biddulph. This is a fluent reading, but one can hear that more work was needed. At this stage he was still tonally one-dimensional and despite the cleanliness of the playing – the mechanism well honed - the playing lacks definable personality, and also metrical flexibility. He doesn’t press too hard in the finale which is a point very much in his favour.
Disc two houses Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, not at all a work I’d characterise as prime or even sub-prime Paray territory. Programmed on the same concert as the Mendelssohn, Paray brings to it a strong incisive rhythm combined with a sense of clarity and proportion familiar from his studio inscriptions. There is no string saturation, instead a lean and taut body of sound that supports an interpretation of some speed but little breathlessness. A month or so later Mitropoulos’s New York live performance (Music & Arts) was to prove significantly more expansive and richer in sonority – Mitropoulos’s Adagietto alone is three minutes slower than Paray’s. Later still Kubelík’s (studio) Bavarian recording was far more expansive in the last three movements. No, structurally the performance Paray’s most resembles is that of Bruno Walter in New York in 1947, though even Paray doesn’t dare Walter’s fast flowing tempo for the Adagietto nor his barnstorming second movement. Paray’s care over balance – note the pizzicato episode in the Scherzo, which in some hands sags, but doesn’t here – makes this a strongly directional Fifth. It’s perhaps on the cool side, but it’s not objectified.
The notes are in French and English and deal interestingly on Paray’s repertoire, with a couple of listings of pieces performed by him in Detroit. In the onrush of big Mercury rising, don’t overlook this more discreet offering, especially given the nature of the repertoire.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concerto 2 ~~ Mendelssohn violin concerto ~~ Mahler symphony 5