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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Overture [13:47] (1)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Symphony no. 3 in E flat, op. 97 Rhenish [31:43] (2), Manfred: Overture [11:18] (3)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Mephisto Waltz no. 1 [10:17] (4)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 3), "International Symphony Orchestra" (2, 4)/René Leibowitz
Recorded in London in 1960 (2, 4), 9th January 1962 (4), 28th December 1962 (1)

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In the 1960s the Readersí Digest corporation embarked on a quite extensive programme of recordings of mainly popular classical repertoire, marketed in boxes with titles such as "The Great Classics" and "The Great Conductors". They were advertised as exclusive products, a unique opportunity for the purchaser since they would "never" be sold to the general public. I had better point out, in case any reader has long memories, that the publicity blurb came with a letter signed by one Christopher Howell. He wasnít me or anybody to do with me.

In spite of the promises, by the early 1970s RCA (who had actually made the recordings) were marketing a selection of these recordings on LP, and indeed there were mouth-watering items on offer, such as the Earl Wild/Jascha Horenstein Rachmaninov cycle, various other Horenstein recordings, a number conducted by Kempe and the Boult recording of the Franck Symphony. In the CD era a fairly extensive selection of these recordings has been made available by Chesky.

The music room of the school I attended as a teenager had one of these boxes, and among other things it contained the present recording of the "Rhenish" Symphony. I put the record on casually, "knowing" that Schumann wasnít at his best as a symphonist, and was absolutely knocked flat. It remained one of my favourite symphonies for many years to come.

I didnít particularly attribute my enthusiasm to the performance, since I "knew" that René Leibowitz (whoever he was) wasnít one of the great names in contemporary conducting and had no idea what the "International Symphony Orchestra" might be (and still havenít Ė canít we be told the real identity of the orchestra 45 years later?), and vaguely supposed that I would hear greater performances of this work in the years to come.

But I never did, though I looked in all the approved places and, despairing of ever hearing this one again, tried to get used to some of the others. Until, browsing in a record shop, I discovered the present album and took it home, fearing and trembling lest my childish memories should crumble to dust.

And lo and behold, the first movement leapt out of my speakers in all the refulgent glory I remembered; Leibowitz finds a swift tempo and a clear yet full orchestral texture (Schumann appears a masterly orchestrator in his hands) which carries one on in a tide of exaltation and beside which every other conductor Iíve heard sounds slow and heavy Ė except Boult who, uncharacteristically, is too fast, though better this than the reverse and he would be my second choice. And hear how Leibowitz finds all the time in the world to shape the lyrical second subject, yet when it is combined with the first theme we realize that he hasnít actually slackened the tempo, he has simply ceased to drive forwards.

In the Ländler he finds a tempo which accommodates perfectly the very different thematic elements, while never losing the spirit of the dance. The next movement is marked by Schumann "Nicht Schnell", "Not fast"; it is often interpreted as a kind of delicate intermezzo. Leibowitz is more expansive, investing it with a deep feeling that never degenerates into heaviness. The organ evocations of the next movement are majestic yet onward-moving while the finale has a wonderful liveliness. And I should emphasize that, while Leibowitz keeps his textures unclotted, there is always a Schumannesque fullness to the sound, while the brass have a golden quality which suggests exactly the sunís rays glinting on the great river.

In short, my enthusiasm for the Symphony has been rekindled and I cannot see that this is other than a great performance, one to set alongside Furtwänglerís 4th as the recording of this particular symphony.

So who was René Leibowitz (1913-1972)? If you visit the site you will find a biography and details of all his known recordings. Briefly, he was a Pole who made his home in Paris, studied composition with Ravel, Schönberg and Webern and conducting with Monteux. He became a teacher (with Boulez among his pupils) and a theorist Ė in his many books he proselytized tirelessly for the Second Viennese School Ė as well as a composer. As a conductor his range was wide; in the early 1950s he recorded some imperishable sets of Offenbach operettas (now on Regis) and the Readerís Digest project included a Beethoven cycle. Like certain other modernists, such as Hans Rosbaud, he approached the classics with a clean-limbed brilliance which anticipated later trends and which was maybe not adequately appreciated in his own day. Many commentators also stress the sheer zest of his interpretations, something which certainly comes across in this Schumann.

That the "Rhenish" was not a flash in the pan is demonstrated by the volatile performance of "Manfred" overture, on a different occasion and with a different orchestra. He recorded no other music by this composer. The disc opens with a clean-textured "Tannhäuser" overture in which the Venusberg music sounds uncommonly joyful, the inner parts taking on a life of their own. This is at the opposite pole to the seething textures normally preferred in Wagner and while I am not going to throw out my Furtwänglers and Knappertsbuschs I shall keep this on hand as an antidote, though I shall always wonder why Leibowitz has the trombone separate each note in the pilgrimís chorus, rather than play a long legato line. The Liszt is thrilling, with Leibowitz stressing the modern sound of the orchestration. Compared with the famous old Koussevitzky version, which practically alternates between two quite different tempi, this one is straight down the line and I suppose you could find it brash. I think, though, that Leibowitzís zest saves it from this Ė he is patently loving every moment, not merely showing off.

It is very strange that a conductor could record performances such as these with a major London orchestra (assuredly the "International SO" is one of the London orchestras playing out of contract) yet not be engaged to conduct extensively in London or to record regularly for a major label. Especially when you think of some of the people who did get to record Schumann in those days Ö

Chesky lay great stress on the quality of the recorded sound and I must say it is quite stunning for the date. I seem to remember it sounded a bit crude and strident in the old Readersí Digest box, but it has depth now as well as brilliance and the brass are just magnificent.

Donít miss this "Rhenish"

Christopher Howell


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