Welcome to the League, dedicated to helping orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century.
by Chester Lane, Michael Klinger, and Melinda Whiting
Archival collections from Boston, Cleveland, and New York seal the legacies of departing music directors.
Five or six years ago, the canceled recording contracts of some of our most prominent orchestras seemed an unthinkable loss. Many observers mourned the end of an era; critics pointed fingers, citing the expense of studio recording and the much-rumored but never-fulfilled "death" of classical music as a relevant art form.
But long before commercial record companies lost faith in orchestras, several orchestras (Chicago and Saint Louis come to mind) had already entered the record business themselves, privately issuing limited-pressing sets of archived concert performances that had been recorded live. Initially viewed as fund-raising premiums, these collections soon took on greater significance. First, they were popular with subscribers and donors -- to whom they were directly marketed - as well as the patrons of orchestra gift shops and local record stores. Second, they drew on decades of historic performances that deserved a modern audience. Finally, this new generation of discs replaced the record companies' increasingly clueless A & R departments with local personnel who knew the real strengths of the orchestras in question. Control over artistic decisions suddenly resided where it belonged: with the orchestras themselves. The result has been a series of thoughtful compilations that promise to clarify America's greatest orchestra-music director partnerships as definitively as did the most notable releases of classical recording's golden age.
During the 2001-02 season, three major collections were issued by orchestras with long and distinguished histories: Boston, Cleveland, and New York. All are bidding their music directors farewell this spring, and two of the sets are occasioned by those departures. Three SYMPHONY editors offer their impressions here.
Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration: From the Broadcast Archives
Boston Symphony Orchestra, various conductors 12 CDs, $225.00, available through www.bso.org
Acoustically speaking, Boston's Symphony Hall is often touted as among the very finest in the world, a space commensurate with an orchestra of the highest caliber. And the Boston Symphony Orchestra punctuated the start of the 2001-02 season with a fitting aural companion to the two books it published in 2000 to chronicle the hall's distinguished history. Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration -- produced by the BSO in an initial quantity of 4,000 -- showcases the orchestra's artistry in that hall under Seiji Ozawa, his five immediate predecessors as music director, and sixteen other conductors. It's a magnificently annotated twelve-CD treasure trove that weighs in at just under three pounds.
Ozawa's two discs are devoted to music composed between 1911 and 1949, including a work, Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence divine, by a composer, Olivier Messiaen, whose association with Ozawa has been one of the hallmarks of his historic 29-year tenure as music director. Most of the other conductors represented in the set are no longer with us. An emphatic exception is Michael Tilson Thomas, whose youthful brilliance can be heard in Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, broadcast in 1972 during his time as the BSO's principal guest conductor. (He had earlier served as assistant conductor and associate conductor.)
The earliest broadcast included is of a work conducted May 1, 1943 by Music Director Serge Koussevitzky, but the set actually captures an 80-year legacy of BSO leadership by devoting a disc to the work of Koussevitzky's predecessor Pierre Monteux, as heard in three of that conductor's return engagements during the 1950s and '60s. As music director from 1919 to 1924, Monteux had replaced a third of the orchestra following the devastating strike of 1920-21, and the notes tell us that he'd been "instrumental in changing the tonal complexion of the BSO from a German conception to a French one." Yet Monteux is represented here -- splendidly -- in works that are decidedly not French in character: Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and two Richard Strauss classics, Don Quixote and the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier.
Curiously absent from the set is Beethoven, the one composer that Symphony Hall's planners saw fit to enshrine in the proscenium arch. Repertoire is heavily weighted toward late Romantic and early- to mid-20th century, with the Classical period represented solely by Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony (under Bruno Walter) and by the Overture to Don Giovanni as dramatically shaped by an 86-year-old Leopold Stokowski in 1968. Like the Symphony No. 3 of Schubert -- the set's lone exemplar of early Romantic repertoire, conducted here by Bernard Haitink in 1992 three years before he assumed the title of principal guest conductor -- these older works are presented in the unabashedly lush mid-century orchestral tradition, in sharp contrast with the more transparent textures that today's period-performance practitioners bring to this repertoire.
As befits a passionate crusader for the music of his time, Koussevitzky's disc includes From the Apocalypse by Anatol Liadov, a 1913 work he had introduced to BSO audiences in 1925 and was serving up again in 1943; the world premiere, in 1949, of Symphony No. 2 ("The Age of Anxiety") by Koussevitzky's protégé Leonard Bernstein (whose breathtaking virtuosity as solo pianist dominates the performance); and the BSO's most enduring commission, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, which had been premiered December 1, 1944, and is heard here in its broadcast premiere 29 days later. The latter is truly an historic document in sound, as it includes the composer's original ending; the expanded, far more dramatic ending heard today is one that Bartók added based on discussions with Koussevitzky following the premiere. (Both endings appear in the published score.)
Largely devoid of guest soloists, the set focuses our attention on the virtuosity of BSO principals. Especially lovely are the solos in Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (an exquisite performance from 1965 under Music Director Erich Leinsdorf); those of cellist Samuel Mayes and violist Joseph de Pasquale, who bring Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza whimsically -- quixotically -- to life in some of the most programmatically rich music ever penned by Richard Strauss; and Concertmaster Joseph Silverstein's soaring violin arias in the Tallis Fantasy, a work that in Monteux's hands becomes an orgy of string textures, unbelievably lush and varied. (Just tune out the coughing: This December 20, 1963 concert occurred at the onset of Boston's cold-and-flu season.)
An illustrated 140-page booklet included with the set provides exhaustive information on the BSO, an account of its broadcast history, and texts for the Messiaen, Bartók, and Stravinsky works led by Ozawa. Each of six two-CD booklets includes the original program notes as well as bios, photos, reminiscences, and selections from contemporary reviews. Inclusion of these critical comments along with the notes is an inspired feature of the collection, as it gives us a window into what the critic was hearing as we hear it ourselves. Franck's Le Chasseur maudit describes a cursed huntsman "pursued by a pack of demons...by daytime across abysses, at midnight through the air," and when Charles Munch conducted this tone poem in October of 1959 Boston Globe critic Cyrus Durgin likened the performance to "a general alarm conflagration." We can now revisit a long-ago evening in Symphony Hall and delight in that fire, still raging after more than four decades. -- Chester Lane
Christoph von Dohnányi Compact Disc Edition: Live Performances 1984
The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. 10 CDs, $175.00, available through www.clevelandorchestra.com or by phone at 1-800-686-1141
When the Cleveland Orchestra appeared this season at Carnegie Hall, their New York programs were emblematic of those throughout Christoph von Dohnányi's tenure. They invited the audience to imagine the lines that inevitably connect the many paths of a rich orchestral legacy -- lines from Beethoven to Wolfgang Rihm. And they fully justified the frequent application of the term "intellectual" to Dohnányi.
This boxed set provides a similar sweep, with aural snapshots of what the orchestra sounded like on given evenings in Cleveland. Because the recordings are live, there is -- in addition to the vague sense of an audience (coughing) -- the intangible sense that at any moment something truly amazing is about to happen. All live recordings strive for this; what's most rewarding about the Dohnányi compilation is its success on that front. More than a few times, some truly amazing things do happen.
The first hits immediately: a riveting and vital performance from October, 1984 -- early in Dohnányi's first full season as music director -- of Schoenberg's large-scale choral work, Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder). From the beginning, hyperactive rumblings in the low strings betray Dohnányi's sincere devotion to Schoenberg's music. The set ends with similar power, in the emphatic last movement of Sibelius's Symphony No. 5. In between, Bruckner's mammoth Symphony No. 4 is presented with such understanding and generosity that listeners will, at several points, wish they had been present in the concert hall to bear witness.
What the recordings naturally lack -- and some pieces suffer more than others -- is the finish that studio recordings can achieve. In particular, the strings give a matte sound, hard-working and muscular (although this works to astonishing advantage in Beethoven's 5th Symphony). Generally, the balance favors the back of the orchestra -- the glorious playing of the brass and winds -- at the expense of the strings. This may be why the whole orchestra seems to make its strongest statements in pieces like Edgard Varèse's Ecuatorial and Lutoslawski's Musique Funèbre, where solo playing shapes the interpretations to a larger extent.
The set, as seems true of Dohnányi's work generally, raises questions about symphonic forms: their relevance, their durability, and their relationship to the past. When works by Varèse appear alongside Delius and Haydn, one starts inevitably to wonder about the conductor who can advocate so convincingly for all three. How does the same orchestra, the same conductor, approach both the simple -- almost embarrassingly so -- ardor and might of Anton Bruckner, and then also address Charles Ives in Central Park in the Dark? How do they capture Wagner's straightforward "Rienzi" Overture, and also make a mark on Shostakovich's First Symphony? Of course this is a conductor's job. But Dohnányi's feat is remarkable simply because the performances are so convincing; some of these composers really should be irreconcilable. That they are not, at least for today's Cleveland Orchestra, seems owing in large part to the magnanimity of Dohnányi, and his polite refusal to acknowledge such boundaries.
Dohnányi responds with typical erudition to the uneasy pairing of music in which all elements fall cleanly into place (Schubert's "Unfinished") alongside music which, in the fashion particular to the 20th century, refers to a terrifying crisis of belief (Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw). Alfred Schnittke walked the line between them, assimilating music from both sides of an impassable divide and commenting on it. Listen, for instance, to the neo-Classical jargon of Schnittke's (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, in which we hear the strains of Ives's marching bands against a delicate Mozartean parlor waltz.
Most conductors are easily able to perform music of the old alongside music of the new. But Dohnányi sets himself the added labor of examining openly the artistic and human shifts that have transpired over time. Straddling centuries through which the very purpose of orchestral music has constantly evolved, Dohnányi gives a sense of his orchestra's relationship not only with the past, but with the very exciting future. -- Michael Klinger
Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, cond.
10 CDs, $140.00, available as a full collection or in six separate sets from www.nyphilharmonic.org or by phone at 800-557-8268
When Kurt Masur was named the New York Philharmonic's new music director more than a decade ago, much of the music world let out a collective (albeit polite), "Who?" Of course he wasn't unknown; in a happier era for the classical recording industry, his discs with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra had become a familiar presence on record store shelves and on the airwaves. But with a reputation built behind the Iron Curtain, Masur was hardly a household name in the United States. As it happened, he was one of several middle-European maestri taken on by major American orchestras from the mid-1980s to the mid-'90s (Dohnányi, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Hans Vonk). All had quietly built solid reputations as thorough, probing musicians who gave deeply satisfying performances; none had set the world on fire. Given a few years in America, all proved to be masters at honing the distinctive qualities of their respective orchestras.
In New York in 1991, the task was widely acknowledged to be the taming -- and seduction -- of a group of 106 soloists. Masur encouraged them to listen more carefully to one another, and to shed their aggressiveness, bred perhaps by the notoriously loud Avery Fisher Hall. The ten-disc farewell set produced by the Philharmonic's own Special Editions label documents Masur's success; this is an orchestra that melds in a way it never used to -- at least when playing for its music director. And several impressive solo appearances by Philharmonic members testify to their undiminished virtuosity.
First-stand violists Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young are standouts in the graceful Two Paths, a double concerto in a single movement by Sofia Gubaidulina that Masur has been eager to disseminate widely through tour performances and a national broadcast. In May of 2001, Two Paths was played to an especially broad audience in a free concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where thousands listened in rapt silence as the two viola lines wound sinuously around one another. (Masur's advocacy of this work is a model for how new music should be treated: carefully rehearsed to start with, and pulled out frequently for the musicians to grow more at ease with it and the audience to peel back its many layers.) Though this recording was drawn from the premiere performances, already there's an obvious comfort with the music's overall shape that few commissioned works achieve in their first outing. Phelps and Young are perfect partners, their discourse almost conversational in its repose. One could as easily single out the melting sweetness of Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow's "Benedictus" solo in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, or Principal Percussionist Christopher Lamb's keen exploration of every variation of water sound in the eerie and luminous Water Percussion Concerto by Tan Dun, or the crystalline chamber musicianship of a core of Philharmonic players in Stravinsky's Pulcinella.
Another Masur signature was the rediscovery of great choral classics. Here the set also shines, with satisfying traversals of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis and Symphony No. 9, and several dramatic choral works that resist obvious categorization as either oratorio or opera. Consider: Perséphone, Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. (It's interesting to note how many of these are in French -- an unexpected twist.) For good measure, he adds Hans Werner Henze's angst-ridden choral Symphony No. 9.
The box spotlights some of Masur's favorite collaborators. The clarion-voiced Stuart Neill appears as tenor soloist in no fewer than three works; Swiss actress Marthe Keller narrates two, with an appealing immediacy and specificity of emotion. Peter Schreier's Evangelist in the Saint Matthew Passion is unforgettable; his clarity of intent easily vaults the language barrier. Joseph Flummerfelt prepared almost all the choruses, whether the professionals of the New York Choral Artists (its mature sopranos' vibrati spiked with the squeaky-clean straight tone of the American Boys Choir), or the eager conservatory youngsters of the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
Viewed on the podium, the towering Masur rarely seemed a witty figure. So it's an unanticipated pleasure to hear the humor emerge so readily in Pulcinella and in two jaunty Shostakovich works (the Second Piano Concerto and the First Symphony). These are counterbalanced by a more thoughtful Russian entry, Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead. Masur creates a compelling impression of a passing boat's gradual magnetic pull toward the island, where death exerts an ever-stronger influence, and its passage beyond, quietly and irrevocably changed. He judges this slow unfolding with perfect restraint.
The ten discs are cannily programmed as six separate sets, available out of the box for those who have specialized tastes. This makes for some intriguing combinations. There's the monumental Beethoven pair (Missa Solemnis, the Ninth), the Russian masters disc (Rachmaninoff, the Shostakovich First Symphony, Gubaidulina), the neoclassic-dramatic set (Stravinsky, Honegger), religious subjects approached from sacred and profane angles (Bach, Debussy), the up-to-the-minute contemporary duo (Kancheli, Henze), and -- with a certain sense of collecting up the uncategorizable leftovers -- the catchall collection (Tan Dun's Water Percussion Concerto, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Till Eulenspiegel, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, and Kurt Weill's "September Song").
This collection was clearly designed to define a legacy. Though Masur's full range is not quite fully embraced -- oddly absent are Mendelssohn and Brahms, probably because he's recorded them commercially -- the set also declares to the world the less obvious, but no less impassioned, advocacies of this complicated musician. Widely characterized as a guardian of the mainstream Classical and Romantic repertoire, Masur deserves credit for his convincing interpretations of a much broader range of works. New York's audiences have been fortunate indeed to hear such a focused, dramatic reading of Jeanne d'Arc, such delicacy and mystère in the orchestra's playing of Saint Sébastien, the muscle of Masur's Missa Solemnis. As he and his producers no doubt intended, this collection clarifies once and for all who Kurt Masur is. -- Melinda Whiting