I hadn’t planned a same-time-next-year thing, but it has become that. For the past two Septembers, I’ve written about the mammoth series called Great Conductors of the 20th Century. This is the project superintended by IMG Artists that documents forty conductors in forty “volumes” of two CDs each. (Originally, the project was to have covered sixty conductors. But forty is plenty, really, especially if you are clinging to the conceit of “Great.”) The series gives us every style, virtually every name, and reams of music. Frankly, this is one of the greatest recording projects in history.

In the previous two Septembers, I opted to discuss the lesser-known conductors: not Monteux, but André Cluytens; not Koussevitsky, but Nicolai Malko; not Ansermet, but Ataúlfo Argenta (the most obscure of the forty). But IMG’s final batch of volumes contains only noted conductors, and I will deal—fairly briefly—with seven of these, in this third and final September.

Begin with Eduard van Beinum, the old Dutchman, though not as old as Willem Mengelberg, the man he succeeded as conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Van Beinum got the job in 1945, when Mengelberg was judged guilty of “impermissible dealings with the Nazis.” Van Beinum’s own wartime conduct is not beyond reproach, but in any case he was much less prominent than Mengelberg.

The IMG discs show him with his home orchestra, and with the London Philharmonic, of which he was chief conductor for a few seasons. The first CD features Schubert’s Symphony No. 6, in which van Beinum’s musical intelligence is clear. Phrasing, in particular, is exemplary. The opening movement is covered in Schubertian warmth, but free of a sickly sweetness. And the Concertgebouw was a supremely royal instrument in the 1950s: rich-sounding.

The second movement—Andante—is both proper and sighingly Romantic. The third, a Scherzo, is one of the most beloved in Schubert—and happens to be a hard movement to get right. Van Beinum gets it unquestionably right. It bubbles along, and yet is not without muscle. As for the closing movement (Allegro moderato), it is graceful and spirited. Listening, you feel that you are in the company of a civilized man—van Beinum—who is presenting to you great music in the manner required. There is about this conductor an air of correctness, which is not to say that inspiration is absent.

Disc 1 continues with Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, and one has the same feeling of being with a civilized man. He puts me in mind, actually, of Sir Adrian Boult, who excelled in this D-major symphony. Van Beinum’s is a “live recording,” and it is not technically perfect—but it has clinching virtues. The opening of the symphony takes you away, as in a dream, which is the aim—or certainly the effect—of the music. And the last movement (Allegro con spirito) is rhythmically joyous, by which I mean joyous in its rhythm. It is headlong but firmly controlled. The ending growls—actually growls—in a way seldom heard.

We come upon much different music in Disc 2, where we get Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. Van Beinum’s is not a soakingly sensual account, but neither is it stodgily Dutch (if you will pardon the ethnic stereotype). The music shows plenty of thigh, but it is tasteful—unsluttish. And we are treated to really beautiful solos by the Concertgebouw concertmaster of the day (1956), Jan Damen.

Van Beinum had a sideline in English music, and IMG nods to this with a recording of the Elgar concert overture called Cockaigne. The performance is witty and eccentric, like the piece itself—also noble, also like the piece itself. The British chin is stuck out, but not arrogantly. Moreover, van Beinum exhibits a superb sense of orchestra management, with each section given its right say, and all of them in balance. The members of the London Philharmonic (in 1949) seem to be enjoying themselves to the hilt—as well they should.

Move now to Rudolf Kempe, widely acknowledged as major, but still underrated, in my opinion. His IMG volume is a bracing reminder of his greatness. Unusually, Kempe had been an oboist, a principal in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. (When I say “unusually,” I mean for a conductor; they tend to come from the ranks of string players and pianists.) Kempe began his conducting career in the opera houses—as used to be normal—and ascended to the podiums of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic, among other bodies. He was known in particular for Beethoven and Strauss, but was an all-purpose conductor, as these discs indicate.

To begin with, he leads one of the better TragicOvertures (Brahms) you’ll ever hear: streamlined, focused, purposeful. Kempe knows his own mind, and is able to communicate his conception to an orchestra absolutely. (In the case of the TragicOverture, the orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic.) The piece builds excitingly, not knowing that it is thought hackneyed and boring.

The glory of Kempe, however, is seen in his traversal of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, the “Romantic,” with the Munich Philharmonic. (The year is 1972—a bad year for Munich.) Bruckner sounds important here, but he is neither heavy nor muddled. He is light and graceful, when he wants to be; and when he orders the famous “cathedrals of sound,” they appear, in the sky. Like van Beinum (or perhaps more so), Kempe is a master of phrasing and balance. This is obvious especially in the second movement. He also knows the usefulness of pauses. And the great cries in the third movement have dramatic flair, demonstrating that Kempe, though intellectual, is not stiff.

The beginning of the fourth movement is portentous but not ponderous. It also moves. Kempe doesn’t fancy that he is being profound; he knows that Bruckner is profound—but also passionate, intensely human! The suspense—the piano suspense— that Kempe generates toward the end is almost unbearable. There have been several towering exponents of Bruckner: Eugen Jochum, George Szell, Bernard Haitink (to name a living conductor). Kempe need take a backseat to no one.

Among the littler pieces in this volume is Wolf’s Italian Serenade, which from Kempe is quirky, edgy, and newborn. When you first hear this piece, you figure it is a simple serenade, but then it catches you off guard. A serenade is given a Wolfian queering—and Kempe sees into this perfectly. His playing with tempo is marvelous, and his dynamics are daring (and just). Further, he gives proof that a big orchestra can sound plenty light—you don’t need to strip down to some band, fashionable as that may be now.

The last item on these discs is Johann Strauss’s Leichtes Blut, which one listens to in amazement: Kempe, a giant, is pure delight—and true feeling—in a frothy miniature. I have said before that this is one of the virtues of Great Conductors of the 20th Century: The monumental works, such as Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, are mixed with … say, Leichtes Blut. We are able to evaluate and appreciate conductors in an infinite variety.

Rafael Kubelik you well know, although I will remind you: the Czech conductor who fled his country after Communism came in 1948, who went on to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (among others), and who returned to his homeland—now democratic—in 1990, before dying six years later. On that 1990 return, he conducted Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Country) to open the Prague Spring Festival. A more satisfying concert could hardly be conceived for a movie.

Kubelik, like the others, was a versatile conductor, but IMG has certainly not neglected the Czech repertoire. Disc 1 begins with Dvořák’s Slavonic Rhapsody in A-flat, a rarity (common as the composer is). This is not a work on which Dvořák would want his reputation to rest, but it is still Dvořák, and Kubelik handles it with undoubted understanding. Next comes the Symphony No. 4 of Bohuslav Martinů, a work this conductor loved. Would you love it too? Perhaps. It is a difficult piece to classify, stylistically, though I can tell you that it sometimes reminds me of Korngold or Zemlinsky (Korngold’s teacher), Czechified. In any case, it will likely never have a better champion than Kubelik.

A two-and-a-half-minute work comes next —Berlioz’s Dance of the Sylphs from La Damnation de Faust—all innocence and charm, followed by Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, which is unfortunately on the pedestrian side. Another work that Kubelik championed was Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, which here is brilliantly and exotically effected. And did you know that Schumann wrote an opera? He did, Genoveva, and it is almost never performed, although sometimes you hear the overture, which Kubelik undertakes with the Berlin Philharmonic (1964). The overture borrows heavily from Beethoven—and Kubelik conducts it with sympathy and verve.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 3—recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1960—is palpably Austrian, its famous burbling last movement lovingly led. But the pièce de résistance comes in the form of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, or rather, the Adagio planned for it, which is all that truly remains of the symphony. Kubelik was one of the great Mahler men, and this Tenth—with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—is transcendent. You feel, as it unfolds, that you are in the presence of something rare and holy. But Kubelik is not too much in awe of it: He conducts it boldly, and mercifully avoids the slows. The undulations are just right, in these tempi. With Kempe’s Bruckner Fourth, Kubelik’s Mahler Tenth is one of the peaks of the series.

His volume closes with more Czech music, this time Janáček’s well-loved Sinfonietta.

About Sergiu Celibidache, the unconventional Romanian, reams have been written, and I do not propose to add much here. He is accorded his two discs, and they are stocked with odd items—odd items for an odd guy. There are standard works, yes: symphonies by Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev, and some Nutcracker excerpts. But “Celi” is also shown in Franz Berwald, Hilding Rosenberg, and Heinz Tiessen. Those first two composers were Swedes, advocated by Celibidache in his Swedish period (he was conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1971); the third, a German, was his teacher and mentor.

From Berwald, we have the Sinfonie singulière, in which the conductor commands attention all through. He conducts the symphony as though it were a masterwork, and, through such care, it almost becomes one. I had a similar feeling when listening to Rosenberg’s Marionetter Overture: Just as Celibidache could lift obscure orchestras—and he lifted many of them, in a peripatetic career—he could lift obscure (sometimes deservedly obscure) pieces. The Tiessen is his Hamlet Suite, and in Celibidache’s performance, you can hear a good deal of that play itself. Celi goes deep into psychology. He is spellbinding, in music that is inherently less so. If one ever questioned Celibidache’s wizardry—one wouldn’t, after hearing this.

I found him less effective in the standard items. His Nutcracker excerpts are unusually emphatic—and that is interesting—but they are also without much mirth or grace. In Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (the “Classical”), he is idiosyncratic—which he is expected to be, and which he cannot help being—but his (famous) slow tempos are altogether too slow: It is one thing to stop time in a Bruckner symphony, which Celi unforgettably did; it is another to stop time in the Prokofiev First. So too, the Fledermaus Overture is limp and turgid. A decent, but far from rousing, Radetzky March takes us out.

I said that I would not add much to the Celibidache commentary; I certainly don’t wish to add much to the libraries written about Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini, those antitheses. But I will say a quick word or two about their IMG volumes.

Furtwängler is shown in Beethoven, and only Beethoven: three symphonies, the Third, the Fifth, and the Ninth, the first of those with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the other two with the Berlin Philharmonic, all in live recordings, from 1953 (Munich), 1944 (Berlin), and 1937 (London). Furtwängler left many recordings of Beethoven symphonies—for example, recording the Fifth twelve times—and he is always worth listening to.

Why? Because, for one thing, he never conducted a symphony the same way twice, relying on inspiration, the leadings of the moment. The Fifth presented here is not my favorite Furtwängler Fifth, but it has its own, peculiar power (and we might reflect for a moment on Berlin ’44). I believe that the second movement is much too slow—it is marked Andante con moto (my emphasis)—but it might also be described as “expansive.” I would also say that the third movement is downright sluggish. But, but … the transition between the third and fourth movements is extraordinary, excruciating in the suspense it creates. Furtwängler always comes up with something—inspiration, indeed.

That final movement has a most unusual pulse, and the ending is one of the fastest on record (in both senses). I relate a rule about Furtwängler: His greatness is to be found in wholes, not details.

Mr. Toscanini did not neglect details. IMG shows him only in live recordings, with the NBC Orchestra (created for him in 1937). Those who love Toscanini will find much—everything—to love here. Those who disdain him will find nothing to love. Those who have mixed views of him will find themselves once again mixed.

The big works—I should really say the longer works—are the Brahms E-minor symphony and the Beethoven “Pastoral.” The first of the smaller pieces is the Overture to Les Francs-Juges by Berlioz, whom Toscanini liked a lot (an overlooked fact). This performance has sternness and severity, two qualities not often associated with Berlioz, but very often associated with Toscanini. My own view is that Berlioz can often use some sternness and severity, though perhaps not this much. Later on, we have Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations, a piece —like the Slavonic Rhapsody in A-flat—that is virtually unknown. Toscanini not only understands the variations’ internal logic, he clearly relishes it. And it should go without saying that the orchestra plays immaculately for him. The great question, with this conductor, is whether the orchestra plays scared. The fear Toscanini often inspired was not always conducive to musical expression.

Disc 1 concludes with Puccini’s little Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut. It spoke well of Toscanini that he loved Puccini, a composer whom the immature mock. That Intermezzo, however, might be played with more leniency, more giving in—more love. Some of the same might be said about the Rienzi Overture (Wagner), the work that begins Disc 2. It is imposing, grand, and correct, but also hampered by that tightness and fear. It is stifled, sort of choked. Toscanini might relax his fist a little—but, of course, we are dealing with a different nature. To his credit, the maestro hated Mussolini—but Mussolini might have conducted the Rienzi Overture this way. Yes, the trains run on time, but they’re not very comfortable or enjoyable.

In the Immolation Scene, Helen Traubel is on a very short leash, but she sounds unbelievably heroic (if I may apply that term to a soprano). Then the discs conclude with a chorus and cavatina from Bellini’s Norma—“Ite sul colle, o Druidi”—which is explosive and ennobling. Today’s conductors, as they lead bel canto, could use more of this masculinity. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Bellini can be this way. And yet, the singers’ invocation of the moon, and other things, is not all that mystical. Mystery is crushed by iron strength.

I wish to end our three Septembers with George Szell, whom many of us regard as an ideal. Like a number of these conductors, he started as a pianist-composer—Richard Strauss premiered one of Szell’s pieces—and he always remained an excellent pianist (if not a composer). From 1946 to 1970, he led the Cleveland Orchestra, making it one of the greatest orchestral forces ever. He was a kind of high priest of music: a teacher, a model, a sage, the keeper of the tablets, a repository of musical wisdom.

He was known for the canonical repertory—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner—but he ranged far and wide, and the IMG discs feature him in none of these composers (except Wagner, whose Meistersinger Prelude is here). Leading off, we have the humble Fra Diavolo Overture by Auber (Daniel Auber, not to be confused with Jacques Aubert, or Jacques Ibert!). As soon as that snare drum starts, boy, do you pay attention. You can almost see Szell glaring at you. What follows is a miracle of precision—Szell’s usual miracle of precision—and yet the playing is not necessarily tight. The music isn’t stifled, and the players aren’t scared (noticeably). Furthermore, Szell lavishes everything he has on this little work, as he always did, on works high and low. Auber never had it so good.

And neither did Delius. Szell in Delius? Yes—and you can hear the English countryside, on a soft afternoon (the music is the Irmelin Prelude). Szell’s reading has a matter-of-factness, an unhurriedness, and an understatement that is perfectly English. Also, it is sad and not-sad, in that curious English way. (Think of Holst, or Vaughan Williams, in addition to Delius.)

And talk about idiomatic! Rossini’s overture to L’Italiana in Algeri is Rossini to the nth degree—supercharged, crackling, wildly disciplined. It is a revelation, in its very undaintiness. What does Szell think this is? The Egmont Overture? Yet some Beethoven in Rossini is not so bad. The sound and playing in this performance are extraordinarily full, but not—not at all—too thick. Much as we may love Tullio Serafin (the old, venerated Scala capo), Rossini does not get better than this; he is, in fact, practically apotheosized.

And how about Szell—the fearsome Dr. Szell—in Delirien, the Delirious Waltz, of Josef Strauss? Sure. It is utterly charming, but in a Szellian way: with plenty of discipline and heft, in addition to Viennesy bounce. Szell doesn’t come down to the music; he brings it up, treats it as great. (This is a common trait of the best conductors—or musicians in general.) Szell believed that if you were going to do something, you had to do it right. The story is told that he once overheard his wife singing in the house. He said … well, just that: “Helene, if you’re going to sing, you might as well sing correctly.”

At present—an infant present—it doesn’t look like the twenty-first century will be anything like as rich in conductors as the one just past. But music has a way of surprising you: You may get a flowering, when you least expect it. May we all live long enough to sniff some fresh blooms. In the meantime, however, at least we have this superb collection, a monument to musical excellence, and to traditions that we must hope are undying.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 1, on page 48
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