The Forgotten Great Conductors

Fritz Reiner Conducts StraussFritz Reiner Conducts Strauss

They dominated the record catalogues of the 1950s and 1960s. Orchestras trembled at their every irate, intemperate word and record company executives scuttled to do their bidding. When the CD arrived, their recordings were again released in swathes. And then, like the dinosaurs, they suddenly disappeared. The once-mighty maestros Pierre Monteux, Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch, George Szell and Eugene Ormandy seem to mean little to today’s record collectors, who have their own contemporary heroes and, if they turn to conductors of the past, pay more heed to Bernstein, Solti, Tennstedt or Karajan. Toscanini will always, like his compatriot Caruso, stand for the ultimate in quality. Beecham, Stokowski and Furtwängler have their cults, Talich and Mravinsky their niches, Walter and Klemperer their Mahler connections. But what has happened to the reputations of the five men who once bestrode the podiums of some of the best orchestras in the world? Are they a generation of extinct volcanoes?

Pierre Monteux (1875–1964) was a persuader rather than a tyrant, his attitude typified by his admonition of a London percussionist: ‘Monsieur, be modest with your timpani.’ He also had a sense of humour: asked why his hair remained jet black, while his moustache was white, he explained that the moustache had acquired so much more experience. It was Monteux’s misfortune to be the man trying to beat time during the near-riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913. For the rest of his life, like the sportsman he was, he gamely conducted or recorded that and other Stravinsky scores; but for my taste, he was no Stravinskian. Not that he lacked fire or even a touch of barbarism – his 1931 Symphonie fantastique with the Paris Symphony Orchestra, which he founded, is still unsurpassed – but French music was ingrained in him, in a way Russian music was not.

A Parisian, he started on the violin at six and at the Conservatoire took a first prize in 1896 alongside Jacques Thibaud; but he had already begun playing viola under private tutelage from Benjamin Godard. This instrument gave him employment in the Quatuor Geloso, with whom he played a Brahms quartet for Brahms, at the Opéra-Comique, where he participated in the premiere of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and the Concerts Colonne, where he was also assistant conductor. Being in the centre of the harmony gave him invaluable insights. Having first conducted aged 12, Monteux gained experience in Dieppe and in 1911 joined Diaghilev, presiding over five major premieres. Stints at the Paris Opera and the New York Met led to his first spell with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Back in Europe he worked in Amsterdam as well as Paris and he served San Francisco for 16 years. He was the most cosmopolitan of the great maestros. ‘Playing with this man was a delight,’ wrote George Norwood Humphrey, a viola player with the Boston SO for 43 seasons. ‘His knowledge of the score; his baton technique, sufficient to indicate everything without saying a word; his authority of what the composer had meant; his years of conducting all the great works of the literature – all combined to bring great joy to those playing with him.’

David Schneider, a longtime San Francisco SO violinist, wrote: ‘When he conducted, he moved what was necessary – an arm, a finger, an eyelid, his moustache – each part of his body had its function and knew its place.’ Invoking his ‘warmth of spirit’, Humphrey added: ‘With no special attribute, he was the most well-rounded conductor, if one considers all aspects of his art. His authority was unquestioned, his ear extraordinary.’ Personally, I love his Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but an added aura surrounds his beautifully balanced Franck, Delibes, d’Indy, Chabrier, Chausson, Debussy and Ravel.

Film of Fritz Reiner (1888–1963) shows him looming over the orchestra like a malign, hooded-eyed bird of prey, his minuscule beat forcing his cowed players to watch his every move. Those who could take the flak often respected him. Janos Starker, his principal cellist at the Met and in Chicago, wrote that ‘Reiner was the greatest conductor I have worked with, met, or even heard’, citing these attributes: ‘knowledge, total control, minimal gestures, no time-wasting, and no show-biz’. Born Reiner Frigyes in Budapest, he studied composition at the Academy with Hans Koessler but the piano was his main vehicle, Béla Bartók being his teacher for two years. A fellow student, Leó Weiner, taught him much through their piano duo sessions and got him his first breaks. Aged 19, Reiner conducted Carmen at the Vigopera and worked at Ljubljana and the Budapest Népopera before going to Dresden in 1914 as a kapellmeister (he liked to imply that he had been more illustriously titled, but he did get to know Richard Strauss, conducting the 1919 German premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten). Nine years in Cincinnati, 10 in Pittsburgh, five at the Met and 10 in Chicago made him one of America’s most powerful musicians. Under him the Chicago SO, while never quite equalling the sophistication of Boston or the brilliance of New York, developed a new flexibility.

The Chicago-Reiner RCA records became legendary, although I find the Pittsburgh Columbias just as good musically, while the early RCA stereo sound, with its vast spread and Hollywood-style miking, is not to my taste. Nor do I care for the Chicago clarinets and horns of that vintage. No one, however, can gainsay the precision of Reiner’s Bartók and Richard Strauss, as well as Falla and such showpieces as Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila and Weinberger’s Svanda Polka and Fugue. Then there is the grandeur of his Brahms B flat Piano Concerto with Gilels. He twice recorded the same selection of Brahms Hungarian Dances, in Pittsburgh and Vienna (with the VPO), the second time adding some Dvořák Slavonic Dances. I often return to those exhilarating dances and his Vienna Till Eulenspiegel. His Brahms Fourth with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and two Haydn symphonies with a pick-up band show some mellowing just before his death.

In contrast to Reiner’s small-mindedness, Charles Munch (1891–1968) was a big man, in physical stature and the sweep of his interpretations. ‘Quite soon after he became our conductor, we began to notice that he did not like to rehearse,’ wrote George Norwood Humphrey. ‘He was definitely a man of the moment. He could give an inspiring performance of any of the music with which he felt a sympathy; then the next day that same music would take on a lacklustre quality that could not fail to be boring.’ But Humphrey noted: ‘We very soon learned that he was, indeed, a very large musician in other senses than that of his size. He had a comprehension, a sympathy for, and the ability to handle the most difficult scores. The baton technique Koussevitzky lacked was his without seeming difficulty.’

Born in Strasbourg into the Alsatian musical Münch dynasty and a violin pupil of Carl Flesch, he was drawn to Paris and studied there with Lucien Capet from 1912, but as Carl Münch served in the German army during the Great War and later co-led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1926–33). He should have had one foot in each of the French and Austro-German camps, but Harold C Schonberg justifiably alleged that his tempos in Viennese classics could be too fast.

He was 43 before he started conducting in earnest, in Paris, but he quickly became known for new or unusual repertoire: two lovely 78rpm sets were Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante (with four soloists) and Delannoy’s Violin Concerto (with Merckel). In his Boston years, 1949–62, he lost his umlaut and found fame. He was the ideal conductor for Berlioz’s grandiose gestures but he could focus on detail when he had a mind to – witness his glowing, glittering recording of Martinů’s Sixth Symphony, a work he commissioned and premiered. He was also the man for d’Indy, Debussy or Ravel. With the Lamoureux Orchestra he set down one of his indispensable interpretations, Roussel’s Third Symphony.

If Munch under-rehearsed George Szell (1897–1970) minutely over-rehearsed, behaving as if he had taken Reiner’s correspondence course in Orchestral Dictatorship. He once suggested to a Cleveland Orchestra violinist that he needed a better instrument. When the man protested that he could not afford one, Szell pointed out that he had a very nice car. That musician’s days in the ensemble were numbered. Phenomenally gifted, Georg Szell was born in Budapest but brought up in Vienna as a prodigy pianist-composer (he later decided he had nothing original to say). Among his teachers were (for piano) Richard  Robert and (for theory and composition) Eusebius Mandyczewski, Karl Prohaska and JB Foerster. He said he learnt little from Max Reger in Leipzig because he was always being sent out of the room so that Reger could tell the older lads dirty jokes. When Martin Spörr bowed out of a summer spa concert, Szell conducted the programme at a moment’s notice. His rise was rapid through opera houses in Berlin, Prague, Darmstadt, Düsseldorf, Berlin again and Prague again. As the Nazis tightened their hold on Europe he moved to Scotland and then, in 1940, to New York.

After a stint at the Met he gained the Cleveland job in 1946, causing a turnover of 84 players in five years. No conductor has gained more than Szell from the advent of CD. Listening at home on inferior, bass-heavy equipment, he insisted that the engineering team emasculate his recordings. Remixed for CD, his Mozart blooms and such virtuoso items as the Háry János and Lieutenant Kijé suites come alive. Szell made good records in Europe but really he had a European-style orchestra in Cleveland. He was a meticulous accompanist but often restricted his soloists – Rudolf Serkin’s revenge for various condescensions was to glue Szell to a lavatory seat. Like Reiner, Szell relaxed a little when he felt death approaching – his final concert in Tokyo includes the most beautiful Mozart G minor Symphony you are likely to hear. Not often was the golden-eared Szell fazed. Rehearsing a northern British orchestra in the 1930s in Dvořák’s Eighth, one of his specialities, he said: ‘Mr First Trumpet, I think Dvořák was thinking here of the cornet à piston. You know what that sounds like?’ He could not understand why the entire hall erupted in laughter. He was addressing Harry Mortimer, one of the great cornet players of his generation.

Try as I may, I cannot see Eugene Ormandy (1899–1985) as a great original interpreter, but he was a fabulous accompanist, equalled in his time only by Kyrill Kondrashin. He also had a unique way with English. ‘Why do you always insist on playing while I'm trying to conduct?’ ‘Who is sitting in that empty chair?’ ‘Beauty is less important than quality.’ ‘Don't ever follow me, because I am difficult.’ ‘I'm conducting slowly because I don't know the tempo.’ ‘I am thinking it right but beating it wrong.’ Like Reiner, young Jenö Blau came up through the rigorous Budapest training. Named by his father after Jenö Hubay, he started on the violin at two and soon studied with that master, as well as Zoltán Kodály (harmony and composition), Leó Weiner (interpretation, counterpoint and form) and David Popper (chamber music), graduating at 14.

From 1921 he worked in America (it is untrue that he and his brother took their new name from the SS Normandie, which did not make her maiden voyage until 1935). An accidental conductor, Ormandy proved good enough to be musical director in Minneapolis by 1931; and he began his association with Philadelphia in 1936, staying until 1980. He was undoubtedly a master of his craft. ‘He has such control that he can do anything with us,’ clarinettist Anthony Gigliotti told me. He was also a modest man, who admitted to my colleague Richard Freed that he did not understand Sibelius’s Third and Sixth symphonies. Yet Sibelius was one of his strong suits, from his 1941 First Symphony for Victor to his 1978 Sibelius Lemminkäinen Legends for EMI. He also knew his Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and could make their string phrases glow. He was first to record Prokofiev’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies and the full Mahler Tenth, and was early in the field with Shostakovich’s Fourth. Yet he seemed to go up a gear when working with a soloist. Try any of his three Brahms B flat Piano Concerto recordings with Rudolf Serkin (1945, 1956 and 1960) and you hear great symphonic conducting. Then compare that experience with Szell’s disappointingly tense, tight direction on Serkin’s final recording (1966). Ormandy also did great accounts of Brahms’s Double Concerto with Heifetz and Feuermann (1939), Beethoven’s B flat and G major concertos with Serkin (1954–55), Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Oistrakh (1959) and Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto with Gilels (1964), among many other such delights.

I wonder if something in the modern record collector, from a more democratic age, reacts against the World Domination League represented so blatantly by Reiner and Szell. With rare exceptions, these two men’s recordings impress the mind but leave the heart cold. Nor would anyone today accept the one-way street in which they worked. Players in today’s orchestras often want the conductor to discuss the music with them and teach them something new. For the orchestral musicians of yesteryear, a talking conductor was anathema. It was always true that every orchestra included players who knew more about the music than the conductor, but today they not only burst with knowledge, they know their rights. Whatever we think of the recordings being produced now, they are more likely to be collaborations than one-man shows (and for that reason, it is high time we started having composers’ portraits back on CD covers).

Today’s conductors use much better editions and play essential repeats. Orchestras take in their stride works with which their forerunners struggled, and it is much easier for a conductor to create the sort of sound which it took the older generation years to arrive at. Playing music should ideally be as pleasurable as listening to it. Just as I like to know that my eggs come from free-range hens, I am glad that orchestras are no longer terrorised by the podium equivalent of Tyrannosaurus rex. It goes further than that: I honestly believe that if a recording has been made under conditions of repression, it shows in the way the music comes out. I sincerely hope that the more persuasive performances of Monteux and Munch will be reissued from time to time, and I am sure that Ormandy’s best concerto accompaniments will survive, but I do not miss Reiner and Szell.

Recommended Recordings

Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Royal Opera House Chorus, LSO / Pierre Monteux Decca Originals 475 7525 Buy from Amazon

R Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra. Ein Heldenleben Chicago SO / Fritz Reiner BMG Living Stereo 88697 68699-2 Buy from Amazon

Berlioz Grand Messe des morts Léopold Simoneau ten New England Conservatory Chorus, Boston SO / Charles Munch BMG Living Stereo 82876 66373-2 Buy from Amazon

Mozart Symphonies Nos 35, ‘Haffner’, 40 & 41, ‘Jupiter’ Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell Sony SBK46333 Buy from Amazon

Shostakovich Symphony No 1. Cello Concerto No 1 Mstislav Rostropovich vc Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy Sony Originals 88697 85832-2 Buy from Amazon

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