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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The Planets, Op 34, H126 (1914-17) [46:03] Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Also sprach Zarathustra, Op 30, TRV 176 (1895-96) [29:53]
New England Conservatory Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg
rec. September & October, 1970 (Holst), March 1971 (Strauss), Symphony Hall, Boston
BD-A remastered at 24 bit/192 kHz in LPCM 4.0 surround sound DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4798669 CD/BD-A [75:56]
William Steinberg (1899-1978) began his career in his native Germany but his progress was cut short when the Nazis came to power. He left Germany in 1936, moving first to Palestine and then, in 1938, to the USA where he settled. He forged a distinguished career in the USA, notably as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony (1952-1976). He became a highly regarded guest with the Boston Symphony and the late Michael Steinberg (no relation) relates in the booklet that there was a widespread assumption that he would succeed Charles Munch when the latter stepped down from the music directorship of the orchestra in 1962. However, it appears that RCA, with whom the orchestra had a longstanding recording relationship, exerted pressure for Erich Leinsdorf to get the job and as a result Stenberg had to wait until Leinsdorf departed in 1969 to claim the Boston podium. By then his health was in decline and his Boston tenure was brief, lasting only until 1972.
During his time in Boston Steinberg made three LPs for DG. One consisted of music by Hindemith while the other two have been combined in this present reissue. DG have paid Steinberg the compliment of remastering the recordings for BD-A and offering them in a package that gives collectors the opportunity to experience the performances both on a conventional CD and in BD-A with 4.0 surround sound. I don’t have a surround system so I listened to both options in conventional stereo.
Last year I reviewed an SACD coupling of these same works by Holst and Strauss in new recordings made by Chandos in Symphony Hall, Birmingham with Edward Gardner and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYOGB). I was impressed by the disc – I still am – but my colleague, Dan Morgan, reviewing the same release felt that it didn’t match the Steinberg performances, which had impressed him especially as a download (review). I’d never heard those Boston recordings so when the chance
came to hear them – and, moreover, in BD-A sound – I couldn’t resist the opportunity. It was only logical to use Gardner as my comparator.
The DG presentation opens with Steinberg’s account of The Planets. At this point it’s appropriate to mention that Michael Steinberg tells us in the notes that the conductor didn’t know Holst’s work until DG proposed recording it: he tried it out in Pittsburgh before conducting the work in Boston. Michael Steinberg (1928-2009) was in a position to speak with authority: he was music critic of the Boston Globe (1964-1976) before becoming programme annotator for the Boston Symphony (1976-1979). Thus, we can take it that William Steinberg came very fresh to the score. As Michael Steinberg comments, “One of the refreshing things about [William] Steinberg was that he never underlined or italicised what was already extravagant in the score. His Planets, therefore, is along the lines of the performances by Adrian Boult, Holst’s favourite interpreter of the work.”
In ‘Mars’ my usual preference is for performances which are paced in such a way as to emphasise the implacable nature of the music. Gardner falls into this category but not Steinberg. He sets a swift and urgent – though not excessive – tempo. The music bristles with intent, energy and menace. The DG recording is tremendously immediate so that, for example, the strings’ col legno playing really makes its mark. Gardner is, as I indicated, more measured and his opening dynamics are softer than Steinberg’s, though that may be determined by the Chandos recording, which is not as close. Steinberg leads a truly driven performance and the BSO respond with tense playing. At this pace the moment when Holst applies the brakes immediately prior to the 5/2 episode is a juddering halt at the edge of a precipice. The 5/2 passage itself is full of menace: Steinberg makes the music grow inexorably until the explosive return to 5/4, which is gripping: here we experience a war machine moving at pace; dare one say a blitzkrieg? The end is shattering. The Chandos engineers deliver the goods for Gardner at the movement’s close but his performance, though impressive, isn’t as visceral as Steinberg’s.
In the contrasting ‘Venus’, the Gardner performance carries with it a real sense of the space of Symphony Hall, Birmingham, an acoustic I know well. Gardner obtains sensitive playing from the NYOGB. The DG recording is more closely balanced and while that enables the listener to appreciate the sophistication of the BSO’s playing a little more distance on the recording would have lent greater enchantment. In particular, at the very end Steinberg’s celeste and harps are just a bit too prominent, I feel, whereas the instruments are ideally balanced on the Gardner recording.
I’ll pass with mercurial swiftness (sorry!) over ‘Mercury’, pausing only to comment that the deftly dancing strings and woodwind of the BSO gave me great pleasure. The Bostonians turn in a bravura display at the beginning of ‘Jupiter’ though the NYOGB players also acquit themselves very well. Moreover, I like the swifter pace that Gardner adopts; arguably he puts across the ‘Jollity’ rather more successfully than Steinberg. When the famous big tune arrives, Steinberg unfolds it in a steady fashion, investing it with a touch of solemnity. It’s impressive, especially with the richly sonorous BSO to do the honours. Gardner, however, moves the tune on just a fraction more, which I like, and to my ears he substitutes nobility for Steinberg’s solemnity.
‘Saturn’ is superbly controlled by Steinberg, not least through the iron discipline he exerts over dynamics. His patience bears fruit in a towering climax. My only reservation is that his harps are too prominent in the closing pages – again this is a question of the recorded balance, I’m certain. Gardner is steadier in his tempo and his modern recording achieves more distance and, therefore, mystery at the start. When the gravely majestic processional arrives he’s again steadier than Steinberg and the section culminates in a massive climax, thrillingly conveyed by the Chandos engineers. In the mysterious close the NYOGB harps are far better integrated than is the case on the DG recording
The opening pages of ‘Uranus’ feature razor-sharp enunciation from the BSO; for all their accomplishment the NYOGB players can’t match this. The Bostonians’ virtuosity means that the invention and detail of Holst’s scoring register with terrific precision. The compound-time march is superb in Steinberg’s hands, the playing really vital, and there’s an irresistible swagger to the music. The Boston traversal of ‘Neptune’ is very fine indeed. I love the subdued washes of orchestral sound and there’s a good sense of the hall’s ambience. However, modern recording techniques really come into their own on the Chandos disc; the engineers achieve excellent distance without sacrificing definition and the results are magical. Even more magical is the sound of the CBSO Youth Chorus. Symphony Hall Birmingham has ideal off-stage facilities for pieces such as this and that is demonstrated in spades here. The New England Conservatory Chorus sing well for Steinberg but the Birmingham singers need not fear the comparison and they’re much more magically balanced. At the very end the listener is aware that the Boston singers have stopped; on Gardner’s recording the sound of the voices fades until it’s beyond our hearing.
As a performance and interpretation, I have to give the palm to Steinberg but there are times when his recording, while terrifically exciting and dynamic on BD-A, has to yield to the Chandos sound when it comes to atmospheric effects and balance.
If Steinberg is very convincing in The Planets then he’s even more impressive in Also sprach Zarathustra. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise as he had a lifetime’s experience of conducting the music of Richard Strauss. I find the DG recording even more successful here: I was never conscious of individual instruments being too closely balanced, as was occasionally the case in the Holst, yet there’s no less impact to the sound.
The famous opening is imposing in Steinberg’s hands and the remastered sound is just as opulent as the Chandos results from more than forty years later. In ‘Von dem Hinterweltlern’ it becomes apparent that the BSO performance is a very classy one indeed. The richness and tonal resourcefulness of the Boston strings is wonderful to hear. By comparison, the NYOGB strings, well though they play, can’t match the opulence of their more seasoned American rivals. Furthermore, Steinberg’s shaping of the music is more compelling than Gardner’s and that carries over into ‘Von der großen Sehnsucht’.
As we move into ‘Von den Freuden und Liedenschaften’ the excellence of the Steinberg reading becomes even more apparent. At the start of this section the BSO strings and horns are in full cry and what a sound it is! The full, proud DG sound does full justice to both the music and the playing. By comparison, Gardner’s way with the music seems rather too contained. But it’s ‘Das Tanzlied’ that really seals the deal for me. Steinberg brings life and good humour to the music whereas Gardner’s conception seems more gentle and lyrical. Steinberg’s violinist is Joseph Silverstein, at that time the BSO’s concertmaster; he plays mit Schwung and with no little panache. Steinberg’s view of this section is very different to Gardner’s and from him I hear vitality and exhilaration to a much greater degree then I experience with Gardner. At the climax near the end of the section Gardner is very energetic but the sweep of Steinberg’s reading is thrilling and irresistible – hear the exuberance of the Boston horns! Both conductors do the concluding ‘Nachtwandlerlied’ very well but while the NYOGB follow Gardner’s lead and play very expressively for him I think there’s even more poetry in the Steinberg performance.
Steinberg’s recording of Also sprach is a very considerable one. Indeed, I think it’s touched by greatness and the resplendent sound in which its now presented on BD-A makes it a particularly compelling experience.
Not long ago this DG set was auditioned in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. On that occasion we admired the BD-A very much but were less impressed by the sound on the CD. Now that I’ve had the chance to play the CD on my own equipment I like the results rather more. The CD gives a very good representation of the performances but I’m in no doubt that the BD-A is the best way in which to hear these Steinberg interpretations.
Hearing these two tremendous performance, now in superb BD-A sound which wears its four decades and more lightly, I regret that William Steinberg’s time at the head of the Boston Symphony was so short: he deserved better. His work in Pittsburgh and elsewhere was far from negligible but a longer period at the helm of the USA’s most aristocratic ensemble would surely have further and deservedly enhanced his posthumous reputation. DG are to be congratulated in giving these splendid performances the BD-A treatment and I’m thrilled to have them in my collection.