Paul Paray (1886-1979) served as musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for eleven years (1951-1962). During that time he gave more than 240 concerts with the orchestra on home turf, and over 110 on tour. After that time he appeared as guest conductor to the orchestra on many occasions. Yet, whilst living in the States his work wasn’t exclusively focused on Detroit, he was known to spread his wings further afield, and worked with such orchestras as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Chicago and Cleveland amongst others. Whilst his repertoire focused on French orchestral works, it also extended beyond to embrace a fairly eclectic mix.
These live recordings made available by Tahra are very welcome indeed. Paray recorded a sizeable roster with the Detroit players for the Mercury label’s ‘Living Presence’ series, yet none of the works here was recorded commercially; in fact, I could not find any other recording apart from the one here, either live or studio, of a Mahler symphony in Paray’s discography.
The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 is afflicted with a heavy, stodgy accompaniment by Paray, and this laden approach feels stolid and perfunctory. It doesn’t really inspire Gould to give of his best, with the performance lacking verve and excitement. Despite this, Gould, singing along as was his wont, displays some of the pianistic qualities for which he was renowned – clarity of articulation, evenness of tone and a wide dynamic range. A far better live airing from December 1951 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest MacMillan can be found on CBS Records (PSCD 2015). This is much more inspirational and engaging. Timings of the first movements of the two performances further emphasize the qualities that make the Toronto performance the more energized and thrilling ( Macmillan: 12:57, Paray: 14:18 ).
The violinist in the Mendelssohn Concerto is the twenty-two year old Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist and a founding member of the Guarneri Quartet in 1964. His teachers included Ivan Galamian, Josef Szigeti and Toscha Seidel. In 1958 he won the Leventritt International Violin Competition, a year before this live performance took place. This success lead to an invitation by Szell to take up a position on the first desk of the Cleveland Orchestra, partnering Josef Gingold.
In this recording, Steinhardt has a smallish tone, and fairly fast vibrato, at times sounding a little tense. At this stage in his career, his vibrato was of one speed, rendering his playing one dimensional and monochrome. Intonation is pristine. He employs some beautiful expressive slides and position changes. However, there is limited expression, especially evident in the lyrical second movement. The finale sparkles and is well-articulated, with crisp, incisive spiccato bowing. Paray is a sympathetic partner, and provides a much lighter and captivating accompaniment than in the Beethoven. The violin is forwardly placed, with the Detroit players sounding slightly recessed, resulting in some loss of orchestral detail. Of interest is a clip on Youtube of Steinhardt playing the second movement of Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata in C minor. Here his vibrato is much more relaxed and varied thus enhancing his range of tonal colour.
The highlight of this ‘Twofer’ for me is the Mahler Fifth performance. By all accounts it’s a compelling performance of epic proportions. Nicely paced throughout, Paray brings to this complex score a coherence and understanding of the elaborate orchestral architecture and structure. With attention to the minutiae of orchestral detail, tempi are flexible and transitions expertly handled. String tone is warm, the brass have a burnished intensity, and the timpani play with rhythmic incisiveness, especially in the second movement.
Sound quality is more than acceptable in each of the three works, with audience noise at a minimum. This is a very desirable release much welcomed by collectors of Paray’s recorded legacy.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concerto 2
~~ Mendelssohn violin concerto
~~ Mahler symphony 5