In June, I had a long talk with Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano. In the course of our talk, I said, “Aren’t you glad you lived and worked in the age of recordings?” Pre-Caruso, no singers were recorded: not Maria Malibran, not Jenny Lind, not any of them. Horne, born in 1934, worked in the second half of the twentieth century. The opera roles she performed, the songs she sang—a great deal of that is captured on recordings. Her career, her art, is well documented.
Yes, she said, she was glad. But she added something I hadn’t thought of: singers today have many fewer opportunities to record than their predecessors did—fewer opportunities than their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, did. The recording industry is transformed. Who will pay for an album of, say, Schubert songs? A person can go to YouTube and hear Hans Hotter, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Fritz Wunderlich, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau . . . Marilyn Horne.
So, Horne wasn’t born too early, true—but neither was she born too late. She had her career right in the heart, right in the breadbasket, of recordings.
About ten years ago, I interviewed Trevor Pinnock, the English conductor and harpsichordist. He is one of the most recorded musicians in history. Virtually everything he studied and performed, he told me, he got to record. He began to think he was entitled to do so—and to do it for substantial fees! But no one is entitled to record anything, he concluded. “I was very lucky.”
Pinnock’s fellow English conductor, Neville Marriner, was very lucky too. He made about six hundred recordings, covering about two thousand works of music. An obituary of Marriner in the Telegraph (2016) recalled a cartoon, showing a parrot listening to the radio. The announcer says, “That was the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields . . . ,” whereupon the parrot picks up, “conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.”
Not long before she retired, Barbara Bonney, the American soprano, said to me, “I’m now at a hundred, Jay.” She meant: she had made her hundredth recording. I asked, “Is any other singer up there with you?” Yes, she said: “Anne Sofie,” meaning Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo.
One of the best singers today is an American mezzo, Isabel Leonard—a supreme singer, in song and opera. I checked her discography (if “discography” is the right word for these times). She has made recordings, yes—but a relative handful. There is another thing, too.
Schwarzkopf was called “the most glamorous woman in Europe.” Isabel Leonard can see her and raise her. She ought to be a celebrity, a fixture on television. She “oughta be in pictures.” And yet . . . the environment is different, in multifarious respects.
In the past, the leading conductors were able to lay down their Beethoven symphonies, let’s say: to record those nine. They had to have their say, make their statement, for all time. Those days are long gone. Jaap van Zweden is soon to be gone, as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He assumed this post at the beginning of the 2018–19 season and will relinquish it at the end of the 2023–24 season. He will have had too brief a tenure, for my taste. (And it was interrupted by a pandemic.) I got to wondering: is Van Zweden’s time with the Philharmonic documented?
It is, to a degree. There are four recordings of Van Zweden and the Phil. that were made via a partnership between the orchestra and Decca Gold. These recordings capture live performances. If you want Beethoven symphonies, one of the recordings will give them to you, or will give you two of them: Nos. 5 and 7.
The Philharmonic also has a service called “nyphil+”—which ad copy says gives you “the best of the New York Philharmonic from the best seat in your house.” The copy further says, “Our collection of new and historic New York Philharmonic performances is available on apps for Apple, Android, Amazon Fire, Roku, and other major streaming platforms.”
That word “historic” is interesting. You may find that you heard these performances, as they happened. Or reviewed them. Or played them. Which may make you gulp a little.
“America, what a country” (in the words of Yakov Smirnov, the Soviet-born comedian).
There are some radio recordings on offer at nyphil+, but most of the recordings are videos, and most of these come from Live from Lincoln Center, the pbs program that started in 1976. The program’s original announcer was Martin Bookspan. He did the job for a full thirty years. The Boston-born son of immigrants from the Pale, he majored in German literature at Harvard. “America, what a country” (in the words of Yakov Smirnov, the Soviet-born comedian).
The earliest video I see at nyphil+ dates from January 30, 1976. Van Cliburn plays the Grieg Piano Concerto. André Previn guest-conducts the Philharmonic. (Its music director at the time was Pierre Boulez.) Cliburn is forty-one, Previn forty-six. You don’t hear the Grieg concerto much these days. Repertoire is like hemlines, rising and falling. Previn was a keen pianist himself. As good as Van? In some things, surely.
In October 1977, André Watts played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat with the Philharmonic. Conducting was another guest, Erich Leinsdorf. Watts was thirty-one. And he is magnificent in the concerto. He is relaxed and commanding, in total possession of himself. “It’s the hardest concerto,” Yefim Bronfman told me a few years ago. The pianist was speaking of the Brahms B-flat. Watts simply eats it up, in a glorious way—a big, Brahmsian way. I was flabbergasted by this performance.
A lot of people think that Watts became erratic and mannered in later years. Are they right? We might have that discussion another time. Regardless, this video lets you know why Mr. Watts became a big deal in the first place.
The cello solo in the slow movement is handled by Lorne Munroe—who had a sterling career: principal cello of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1951 to 1964, principal cello of the New York Philharmonic from 1964 to 1996. Not bad for a kid from Winnipeg.
If you want to hear Rudolf Serkin play Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, you can turn to commercial recordings. There’s his version with the Philadelphia and Eugene Ormandy in 1950. There’s his version with the New York Phil. and Leonard Bernstein in 1962. But, at nyphil+, you can also see him perform the “Emperor” in a televised concert from September 1978. He is seventy-five and not as supple as he was. But of his authority, there is no question. This is virile, Beethoven-like Beethoven. Staying right with Serkin, and Beethoven, is Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s new music director. He is forty-two and “a handsome Joe,” as my grandmother would say.
There is still another video of the “Emperor” at nyphil+, if you like: Stephen Hough, the Englishman, with Alan Gilbert (then the music director) in January 2017.
Isaac Stern, the violinist, celebrated his sixtieth birthday with the Philharmonic in 1980. He played the Brahms concerto—Brahms’s sole violin concerto—with Mehta on the podium. This is not Stern’s best account of the Brahms, ever. But it is a very good one. Playing the oboe solo in the Adagio is Joseph Robinson, then forty. He would hold the first chair until 2005. I recall something he said when he retired.
One of his teachers had been Marcel Tabuteau, the great oboist born in 1887. As Robinson explained, Tabuteau’s assessment of his own career was this: “There were a few good notes. And they are still ringing.” Joe Robinson played a few good notes too. And in this Brahms concerto with Stern and Mehta, they ring.
Watching the videos is a little like Old Home Week if you know the players. How young Glenn Dicterow looked! (He was the concertmaster from 1980 to 2012.) And look at Phil Smith, with long hair and a mustache! (He was a principal trumpet.) Man, could Stanley Drucker blow, when he bestrode the world of clarinetists. Judith LeClair joined the orchestra as the principal bassoon in 1981, when she was twenty-three, and she is still at it. Her looks are remarkably unchanging, and so are her skills.
If you want comic relief, you might find it in Danny Kaye, who performed with the orchestra at the beginning of the 1981–82 season (when LeClair joined). His back to the orchestra, his front to the audience, he conducted—or mock-conducted—the Triumphal March from Aida. Kaye is not for everyone. But he was a real talent, with a face and body made for comedy, especially of a physical sort. Among his heirs is Jim Carrey.
Now, it can be dangerous to revisit something you liked—in the case of this concert, forty years later.
The 1982–83 season opened with Leontyne Price. I remember this concert well—not because I was present, but because I was present at home, watching on television. With Mehta conducting, the great soprano sang Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss: “Come scoglio” (Così fan tutte), the Willow Song and Ave Maria (Otello), and the Final Scene (Salome). Price was in her mid-fifties and had plenty of singing left in her. This was a superb outing, in my memory. Now, it can be dangerous to revisit something you liked—in the case of this concert, forty years later. But, yes, she was—is—superb.
A footnote: The nyphil+ video does not include the Verdi. And a question, before I move on to another video: is it dangerous to revisit something you disliked, as well as liked? It can be, yes. You may be disappointed in your prior judgment. Your thought may have liberalized, along the way. As I grew older, I acquired more tolerance toward varying interpretations, particularly by conductors. Young people tend to be very strict: this is right, this is wrong. Sometimes that is true; sometimes it is blinkered.
More singing comes on New Year’s Eve 1984, when Kathleen Battle, another American soprano, sings Mozart. She does so in the company of Shlomo Mintz, the Israeli violinist, as well as Mehta. Their music: “L’amerò, sarò costante,” from Il re pastore. Battle is in her prime. All her troubles seem so far away (to borrow from a popular song). She is elegant and pure. The execution of this piece, by all concerned, is top-notch.
Those of a certain age may remember another televised performance of this aria, also with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic—and Leontyne Price and Itzhak Perlman. That was in January 1980. The name of the broadcast: Live from Studio 8H: A Tribute to Toscanini. I found it on YouTube in about two seconds. An age of wonders, is ours—certainly when it comes to calling up the old.
Zubin Mehta was the music director of the Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. The reputation of his tenure is that it was a disaster. The players didn’t like or respect him. They wouldn’t play for him. It was a period of sloppiness and mediocrity. I cannot say, with confidence, whether this is true or false. But I know that many good performances came out of this tenure, and some great ones too. Perhaps that is inevitable, even with a star-crossed or rocky relationship.
You’ve heard of the company 3M. The Philharmonic had a 3M period stretching from 1978 to 2009. The orchestra’s music directors in this period were Mehta, Masur, and Maazel. (The conductors were consistent in their two syllables, too.)
At nyphil+, we see Kurt Masur conducting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. The whole period—Masur’s whole tenure—came flashing back to me. First, the configuration of the orchestra: violas immediately to the conductor’s right; cellos in front of him. Second, the sight of Masur himself, conducting: no baton; shoulders hunching; feet stamping, in that funny side-to-side dance he danced to elicit extra energy. In the Tchaikovsky, he pays attention to detail while bearing in mind the big picture. At the end, he blows a fond kiss to the orchestra. Oh, it was wonderful.
Longtime and regular readers of The New Criterion have heard me tell this story, what—three times, over twenty-plus years? Perhaps they wouldn’t mind a fourth. After one Tchaikovsky performance by Masur, I said to the critic sitting next to me, “That was Tchaikovsky for people who don’t like Tchaikovsky.” (Disciplined, Classical, rigorous, no-nonsense.) The critic replied, “Anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky is a jerk.” (He used a much stronger word than “jerk,” not suitable for this venerable publication.)
The third M, Lorin Maazel? He arrived at the Philharmonic in 2002, when he was already seventy-two. He had been making records for many decades—with the Vienna Philharmonic, for one orchestra. (The complete Tchaikovsky symphonies, the complete Sibelius symphonies, etc.) He did not, does not, need to have his tenure with the New York Phil. documented, you could say. Still: it’s nice to have some documentation. One of the videos shows him with Sir James Galway—“Jimmy,” to most—in the flute concerto of Jacques Ibert.
Breaking the pattern of M conductors was Alan Gilbert, who became the music director in 2009. nyphil+ has him in two standard symphonies: the “New World” of Dvořák and the Third of Brahms. Fair enough. But Gilbert was especially good, in my opinion, in contemporary works, the more complicated the better.
Finally, we get to Jaap—the orchestra’s current, and almost outgoing, maestro. We have him in two big works—grand ones: Act I of Die Walküre (the second opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle) and the Fifth Symphony of Mahler. One of Van Zweden’s outstanding qualities, as I see it, is vividness. The sheer aliveness of his music-making, when he is on, which he can be counted on to be. This aliveness gives a listener a proper musical—a proper emotional and artistic—experience.
While talking of the New York Philharmonic, its music directors, and the Mahler Fifth, I might as well mention the following, macabre as it may be: Leonard Bernstein was buried—in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery—with a copy of that score lying across his heart.
Listening to a recording is like kissing a photograph of Brigitte Bardot.” Sergiu Celibidache, the great Romanian conductor, no more said “kissing” than my critic friend said “jerk.” We get his point nonetheless. Pace Celi, recordings are a wonderful second-best—a lucky second-best to in-the-flesh performances. I never heard Celibidache, in the flesh. But I feel I know him, know his conducting, from recordings—both audio and video. Can we really know what Enrico Caruso sounded like, from the records he made at the dawn of recordings, at the dawn of the twentieth century? We get a very helpful approximation. What our ears miss, our imaginations can fill in.
One of my favorite musical anecdotes—and human anecdotes—is this: Caruso meets John McCormack. Caruso says, “It’s an honor to meet the world’s greatest tenor.” McCormack answers, “I was just going to say the same.”
McCormack was pretty much the favorite singer of Martin Bernheimer, the late, great critic. Martin heard hundreds and hundreds of singers in his lifetime, in song and opera. I’m betting he never heard McCormack. (The tenor retired when Martin was seven.) But he knew. He could tell.
There are a million more things to say, but I have said enough, for now. Perhaps I could end where I began—with an interview with a great singer. This one, Beverly Sills. She once made a comment to me about her recorded legacy: “If, in the future, they ask, ‘What was all the fuss about?,’ let them listen to the recordings. Then they will know what all the fuss was about.” I hope that all great musicians get to have a recorded legacy, of some kind. The not-quite-great ones, too.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 1, on page 56
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