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Erich Leinsdorf in rehearsal and performance
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal: Prelude Act I; Act I Scene II Interlude; Prelude Act III, Interludes from Act III
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 (1841 version)
Südwestfunk Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden
Recorded in 1989 in the Brahmssaal, Karlsruhe
TV Format 4:3, Sound PCM Stereo,
Languages German
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Region Code 0 (worldwide)
EUROARTS DVD 2001338 [118:00]

Erich Leinsdorf (1912-93) was 77 when he was filmed with the orchestra of Südwestfunk in these performances of Wagner and Schumann. His most internationally renowned period had been his leadership of the Boston Symphony though after 1967 he accepted only one further fixed appointment – as conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1980. Otherwise he was something of a free agent, taking on a series of guest conductorships, though in his last years he worked a great deal with the Südwestfunk Orchestra.

The concert preserved here was given in 1989 in Karlsruhe. The Parsifal rehearsals last just over 21 minutes and the Schumann 24 minutes. Despite his earlier reputation as something of an irascible conductor, Leinsdorf here cuts a thoroughly disciplined, no-nonsense and unthreatening figure. He explains – all in German – that he employs the composer’s transitions in the Parsifal preludes and interludes as all other arrangements have a ‘common problem’ – which is that none of them are by Wagner. It shows Leinsdorf’s seriously jesting spirit in these encounters. With jumper sleeves rolled up, and glasses, but baton-less he offers clear, helpful advice. Sometimes it’s couched in the form of a suggestion-cum-admonition: he turns to the flutes and says; ‘In one breath? Think about it.’ We then see the flute principal turn with a shake of the head to a colleague. Later on Leinsdorf worries away at details with her, before finally, satisfied, giving her an eloquent thumbs-up. He is scrupulous about horn entries, getting them to rephrase. ‘No, the mood is lost’ he says, working them still harder.

It’s interesting that without glasses and in tie and tails he looks very much older in the concert than he had during the rehearsals. There’s a greater gravity about his deportment too, a more piercing and expressive control. To my amazement, he positively beams at the young flautist as she carries out what he’d asked in the rehearsal and then, beside himself with delight, and during the concert, blows her a kiss.

His Schumann rehearsal is equally practical, and quietly droll. ‘Those who aren’t practising’ he says, surveying the orchestra, ‘needn’t play’. At one point he says: ‘conductors whose faces reflect everything should turn round and face the audience’, advice I’m sure that could be extended to many a maestro of our own generation. The players are clearly interested in his method and also in the work, and one can see them chatting away about things during the rehearsal. In the concert performance of the Fourth Symphony he controls the dynamics very cannily and you can see him drawing up the winds in particular through subtle gestures. Smiling contentedly at the oboe principal he reveals his sympathetic, unflamboyant direction.

I found these sequences growing on me. The music-making is clear, precise and not without expressive depth. Camera angles allow the viewer access to sections, individuals as well, obviously, as to the conductor. Nothing truly amazing happens and therefore I would hesitate to recommend this to those who value charisma and incident. However, for a look at an example of integrity and devoted music-making, without ostentation, this is an attractive proposition.

Jonathan Woolf



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