Music September 2003
Great conducters (cont.)
On the current installment of IMG’s series Great Conductors of the 20th Century.
Regular readers may recall a piece I wrote for this journal a year ago on the Great Conductors of the 20th Century. This was the new, mammoth series of CDs produced by IMG Artists documenting … well, just as the name states: the great conductors of the twentieth century. There were to be sixty of these in all, so the definition of “great” had to be somewhat flexible. Nevertheless, this was, and is, probably the finest survey we will ever get of conducting in the first century of recording.
As of September last year, IMG had released the first fifteen volumes in the series, which is to say: It had unveiled its first fifteen maestros, each of whom is represented on two CDs. Some of these conductors were firmly established legends: Fritz Busch, Serge Koussevitsky, Sir John Barbirolli. Others were considerably more obscure, including Nicolai Malko, Carl Schuricht, and perhaps the least known of them all: the Spaniard Ataúlfo Argenta. Taken together, these discs do just what the company boasts they do: “present sound portraits of a wide range of … conductors and their art,” encompassing all “‘schools’ of interpretation and style.” The liner notes are superb, the photos are abundant, and the packaging is attractive. In absorbing this series, we get not only the history of twentieth-century conductors, but a good deal of the history of musical performance in that century, and of just plain history: These conductors’ lives tend to reflect the tumult of those too-interesting hundred years.
We now have available another batch of IMG volumes. Again, they are a mixture of the well known and the less well known—or should-be-better-known. Among the celebrated maestros are Pierre Monteux, Sir Adrian Boult, and Leopold Stokowski. About dear, dizzying Stoki, a million pages could be written (and have been). But, as before, we will concentrate on the maestros who have suffered a bit of neglect—before closing with a glance at the conducting scene today, which is not hopeless, but not happy.
Although the name Igor Markevitch is not a household one, it is a most distinguished one among musicians. Markevitch led the life of the storm-tossed twentieth-century citizen. Born in Kiev, in 1912, he had a West European education. He studied the piano with Alfred Cortot, conducting with Monteux and Hermann Scherchen, and composition with Nadia Boulanger. Markevitch—like many of our maestros—really wanted to be a composer. He had some success in this realm, and was even labeled “the second Igor” (the first being Stravinsky). As Alan Sanders tells us in his liner notes, this did not thrill “the first Igor.” During World War II, Markevitch joined the Italian resistance, and later penned a political study, Made in Italy. He led orchestras all over the world—in Stockholm, Montreal, Havana, Paris, and Madrid—and died in 1983.
The IMG discs show him with a variety of orchestras, and in a variety of music. They begin with a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, made with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1963. This work is, of course, based on Lord Byron’s poem, and it is perhaps not Tchaikovsky’s most accomplished. But Igor Markevitch makes a stunning case for it. He is purposeful and compelling all through, relating the story as though speaking it. His conducting is intense and exact. This is not blowsy, carelessly Romantic Tchaikovsky; it is level-headed, rigorous Tchaikovsky, which is the way the composer ought to be treated. Markevitch never lets one’s attention flag.
The second movement is light and sprightly, but not frivolous, and the trio of this movement is warm and songful, but far from soupy. In the third movement, Tchaikovsky’s, and Byron’s, and Markevitch’s storytelling continues, at gratifyingly brisk tempos: The score is not browbeaten—it breathes—but neither is it allowed to dawdle. The final movement is actually thorny, angular, and modern-sounding. Markevitch delivers a coursing, thrillingly precise account. I suspect that many listeners will gain a new appreciation of the Manfred Symphony through this performance—as I did.
Disc I moves on to Glinka, some excerpts from A Life for the Tsar, in which Markevitch leads the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux and the Chorus of the Belgrade Opera (a curious combination of forces). The conductor brings to bear his stern but musical purposefulness. One could imagine a goofier Polonaise—a more unbuttoned one—but there is much to be said for Markevitch’s sobriety. The Krakowiak crackles nicely. The Waltz is a little restrained for my taste, but, again: sobriety.
The overture to Verdi’s Forza del Destino—which follows the Glinka—is a revelation (to use the most overworked phrase in criticism—my apologies). What I mean is, this recording—with the New Philharmonia Orchestra—reveals Verdi, and it reveals Markevitch. I would be hard pressed to cite a more gripping account. The opening tempo is slow: about the slowest you will ever hear. But Markevitch maintains an intensity (which these discs show to be a persistent quality of his), and he sells it. When the storm breaks out, it is all the more effective, for the slowness and intensity of the opening. When Verdi breaks into major, Markevitch’s players swoop and startle all over the place. To hear this recording once is to want to hear it again, immediately—which is extraordinary, for a work so familiar.
Then we visit some French literature, beginning with that old warhorse La Mer recorded with the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux. Markevitch’s reading is fizzy, kaleidoscopic, and engaging. It also projects more vigor and strength than is often found in this music. Markevitch is not retiring or overly subtle—cutesily subtle; he is unafraid to bring out the blood in Debussy. He thus proves a very good friend to the composer. The second movement, Jeux de vagues, is super-shimmering, as we can practically see the varying lights play on the waves. The final movement—Dialogue du vent et de la mer—is safely Debussyan, but it is positively muscular. Of course, as I would argue, muscularity is part of what it means to be Debussyan.
We move on to Chabrier’s España, played with a Spanish orchestra—the Orquesta Sinfónica de la Radio Televisión Española. The piece bops along delightfully. Markevitch commits no excesses, indulges in no Bernsteinian nonsense. He just rips through it, letting the work stand on its own.
Then come excerpts from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, played not with a French orchestra but with the Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks and its chorus. This performance has a judicious drive. It might strike some as a little brusque and whipped up—but I found it refreshing, cleansing. Following Daphnis is the final item on these two discs, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Strauss, in which Markevitch, once more, leads a “wrong” orchestra: the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française. This is not the most polished account ever, and some may wish for more merriment, but it packs its punch, and is innocent of overmilking.
Really, this is a great orchestral compilation, showcasing a conductor who seemed to contain all nationalities within himself, and who was nearly all-capable.
Albert Coates was another man of the world, in a distinctly twentieth-century way. As Mr. Sanders, again, relates: Coates was born in St. Petersburg, in 1882, to “a Yorkshire-born businessman who ran the Russian branch of Thornton Woollen Mills” and “a Russian-born young lady of English parents.” When Albert was six, he had “a brief encounter with Tchaikovsky… . Both were guests at a party where [the boy], bored with grown-up conversation, found a piano and started to extemporise. The great man heard his playing, and sat with him for a while, listening intently.”
Coates studied composition with Rimsky- Korsakov, and acted as répétiteur for Arthur Nikisch, perhaps the most influential conductor of the time. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Coates was appointed head of opera houses in Soviet Russia. By 1919, however, “not only [had] Coates’s musicians beg[un] to suffer from malnutrition, with some even dying, but Coates himself, physically weakened and greatly distressed by what was happening, succumbed to a blood infection… . He and his family were smuggled into Finland, where he recovered and than travelled to England.” Albert Coates died in 1953, in South Africa, where he had gone to live with his (second) wife, a singer from that land.
The Coates discs begin with a recording of Weber’s Oberon overture, made with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1929. The sound is poor, but enhanced manfully by today’s engineers. Soon enough we come to the Symphony No. 2 in B minor by Borodin —a once-popular composer who seems to have dropped off the map. Not even his Polovetsian Dances, once ubiquitous, are played, and we seldom hear his songs (many of which are excellent). The Second Symphony used to be a virtual staple of the concert hall, and Coates handles it aristocratically and confidently. Then we get some Rimsky-Korsakov—odd to think of the conductor’s having studied with him—his “Procession of the Nobles” from the opera Mlada. This work has never lost its appeal, and probably never will.
After Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, we find the little Gopak by Mussorgsky, another work that used to be hugely popular, performed in all sorts of transcriptions. (Russian pianists, for example, would offer it as an encore, after a program of finger-breaking dazzlers.) Coates dances it off in a sweet two minutes and forty-seven seconds, just right for a side of a 78.
The conductor is not to be shut out of the French repertoire, represented in La Valse, Ravel’s gloriously gallicized tribute to the Viennese dance. (Great Conductors of the 20th Century includes many, many performances of this piece.) Coates’s account is filled with anticipation, and then laughing gaiety.
Of particular interest is the stretch of Wagner on Disc II. In several orchestral excerpts, Coates shows himself a man of strong ideas who knows how to get his way with an orchestra. Sometimes his rhythm is a little uncertain, and these 1920s cuts lack some of the sonic richness desirable for Wagner—but flaws are fairly easily overlooked. The jewel in the crown is the Love Duet from Tristan und Isolde, sung by Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior, those golden Wagnerians. The virility of Melchior is almost shocking, and Leider is smooth and opulent. The sheer giddiness of the lovers’ encounter is perfectly portrayed, and then comes almost unbelievable lyricism: a highly sensuous lyricism. Melchior, Leider, and Coates send you into Dreamland, just as should occur in this remarkable music.
Closing out the discs are Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel prelude and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The first—that little gem—is filled with dignity and beauty. The middle section is rough, technically, but we remember that there were not many “do-overs” in 1926—you laid it down as well as possible and moved on. Speaking of moving on, Death and Transfiguration is duly transporting, with Coates building the piece expertly.
Václav Talich? This is the great Czech conductor who taught Karl Ancerl, discussed in the piece of a year ago. Born in 1883, Talich actually sang as a student chorister under Dvorák. He went on to study with Max Reger and Nikisch. When the Communists came to power, his career was damaged, but he survived, faring better than many. He died in 1961, the giant of the Czech musical establishment.
His IMG program begins with Smetana, a chunk of Má Vlast, but not the familiar Moldau—the Šárka, an exciting section. The Czech Philharmonic, in 1954, sounds splendid, and Talich’s authority is unquestionable. We then hear The Water Goblin, one of Dvorák’s less familiar tone poems. In Talich’s hands, it is sweet, clear, ingenuous—a surprising evocation of nature. He continues with Josef Suk, that composer’s Serenade for String Orchestra, written when Suk was but a teenager. This is a darling work, showing Suk to be something of a Czech Mendelssohn. Patrick Lambert tells us, in his liner notes, that Talich’s “unique recording, so lovingly and tenderly phrased, was for many years traditionally broadcast by Czech Radio every Christmas Eve.”
Janácek’s Cunning Little Vixen suite is filled with color, lyricism, and snap, as Talich and the Philharmonic do justice to the strangeness of that composer’s mind. Then comes a rarity: a symphony for string orchestra by Georg Benda, who lived in the eighteenth century. It does not banish Haydn, but it is poised, well crafted—and brief.
We leave Czech composers for Mozart, his Symphony No. 33 in B flat (which is something of a rarity itself, for a Mozart symphony, particularly for a relatively late one). Of course, the Czechs, given Mozart’s success in Prague, consider him practically an honorary countryman. The sound in Talich’s live 1954 recording—from Smetana Hall—is not optimal, but the performance is: Its sighing phrases are irresistible. The balance and taste with which the Menuetto is conducted are outstanding. Next is the Preghiera from Tchaikovsky’s “Mozartiana,” suitably, and beautifully, prayer-like. And then we return to Czechoslovakia for Smetana’s Prague Carnival, which is not to be confused with Dvorák’s (much better known) Carnival Overture.
Almost inevitably, we get to a Dvorák symphony, the No. 9, that “from the New World.” Talich treats this score with the utmost seriousness, as if it were great (which it is). After countless schlocky performances, it is a relief to hear this symphony under Talich. The famous Largo—which some Americans sing as “Goin’ Home”—has supreme dignity, an honesty of expression. Similarly, there is nothing shallow about the third movement, Molto vivace. It retains its excitement without sounding like a pops piece. And the closing movement—Allegro con fuoco—shakes a defiant, almost Beethovenian fist. This is a superb traversal of a work that may be underrated because we, humanity, have rendered it hackneyed.
The Talichfest concludes with a bit of Vitezslav Novák, the “Amorous Couple” from his Moravian-Slovak Suite. Talich once described Novák as “the greatest landscape painter among Czech musicians.” This little taste of his Suite is lovely and winsome, played with charm but no sentimentality.
Finally, consider Paul Kletzki, a name that is all but forgotten today. It, and he, should be remembered. He was born in 1900, in Lódź, Poland, thirteen years after the pianist Artur Rubinstein was born in the same town. He—like Igor Markevitch—wished to be a composer, and his cause was taken up by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, among others. But he would settle for the life of the international conductor, spending time in such diverse outposts as Liverpool, Dallas, and Bern.
IMG features Kletzki with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Royal Philharmonic, the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Czech Philharmonic. The truth is, conductors—many of them—have long had jet-setting, international careers. This is not a recent phenomenon.
Highlights of the Kletzki discs include the opening work, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini overture, which is tight (in the commendable sense), committed, and rip-roaring. And just when you think you cannot possibly listen to another account of the Tchaikovsky Fifth: Kletzki’s is eminently listenable. The first movement is sensitive, warm, and well paced; the second is daringly slow, and, in truth, perhaps a little too slow; but the Valse is airy and sigh-making, with a kind of shy happiness behind it; the Finale is enveloping and completely enthralling. It would take a very hard heart and mind to stay unmoved by this rendition.
Elsewhere on these discs are three Slavonic Dances of Dvorák, for which the orchestra is the one from French radio: This Polish conductor has these Frenchies sounding mighty Czech! As with Talich, he respects the music, and makes it difficult to listen to less respectful, more callow performances again. Later on, Kletzki guides the Philharmonia Orchestra in Wagner’s orchestration of his song “Träume,” from the Wesendonck Lieder. Taking the part of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (so to speak) is the violinist Hugh Bean. This is a competent performance, if not a perfectly melting and ethereal one. More satisfying is Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien, with which the volume ends. Kletzki is solid, sunny, and Italian—Russian-Italian.
And what of today’s conductors? We have played some musical chairs recently. James Levine, capo of the Metropolitan Opera, is scheduled to take over the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2004 (while retaining his post in New York). If Levine’s energy holds out, that could be a golden era, a golden tenure. As it is, he has made the Metropolitan Opera orchestra—a mere opera orchestra!—one of the most impressive in the world. Lorin Maazel begins his second season with the New York Philharmonic, capturing the public’s imagination as usual, being both brilliant and obtuse, often in the same evening (or in the same piece of music). Christoph Eschenbach replaces Wolfgang Sawallisch at the Philadelphia Orchestra, making many of us nervous. Franz Welser-Möst is in the beginning of a so-far spotty tenure at the Cleveland Orchestra (his contract runs for many years, and we must hope for personal and artistic growth). Daniel Barenboim continues to handle the Chicago Symphony Orchestra solidly, and Esa-Pekka Salonen makes an impression with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as Michael Tilson Thomas does with the San Francisco Symphony. And many people are high on Robert Spano, who has recently been ensconced in Atlanta, a job that comes with a recording contract—a sine qua non for international visibility.
Moving to the Continent: Sir Simon Rattle settles in for his second season with the Berlin Philharmonic. He has a long way to go, in my estimation, to justify the hype that will not die around him. Riccardo Muti—who, like Lorin Maazel, can be both brilliant and frustrating—seems content to remain in Italy. Kurt Masur is directing the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France, which may be comedowns from the New York Philharmonic (which he led from 1991 to 2002)—but at least he is where he is wanted. André Previn, Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, and Pierre Boulez are all senior conductors, and excellent ones, and they have taken to guesting, hither and yon. The two grand maestri italiani—Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado—are in quiet phases of their careers.
We are not without great conductors today (or not entirely without). But they are scarce. Music critics and fans should not come under the spell of nostalgia, a bad vice. Still, one cannot help sighing a little in the face of Great Conductors of the 20th Century—instructive, enriching, and, in fact, great.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 1, on page 48
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