Philadelphia Orchestra Centennial Collection
Another scrumptious transatlantic treat, and a victorious collaboration between two of America's most noted historic recording experts. Mark Obert-Thorn served as the Philadelphia Centennial Collection's artistic consultant, and Ward Marston is named as its remastering engineer. Most selections are taken from broadcast sources, many having never previously surfaced on disc in any form ever. A generous quota of the set marks the successive reigns in Philadelphia of conductors Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch and the excellent annotations (invariably by Barrymore Laurence Scherer) help focus musical and historical fact.
Stokowski and Ormandy are rightly seen as the pivotal rostrum figures and the first three CDs are devoted entirely to their performances. Thereafter, individual programmes centre, respectively, on Muti, Sawallisch, guest conductors, composers as conductors, singers and instrumentalists. Stokowski's musical character is evident from the off. In Brahms's Fifth Hungarian Dance (his first record with the orchestra), excitable speedings-up, racy slides and calculated crescendos etch a very definite character. It might sound primitive, but there is already at least a suggestion of that unmistakably well-drilled 'Phili' tonal profile.
Beethoven's Fifth, which was recorded live for Bell Laboratories during 1931, grants us an early sampling of the orchestra's lustrous string choirs. At the outset, Stokowski hammers an emphatically theatrical 'dah-dah-dah-dum', then passes on the repeat and builds the tension to white heat for an animated development. The second movement is a majestic processional, the third accommodates swaggering basses (though there's an unspecified clang at 3'57'') and the finale is brazenly extrovert. Yes, there are some unmarked broadenings, but generally speaking Stokowski holds the plot with characteristic tenaciousness. The Philadelphia's playing is outgoing, wonderfully incisive and captured in sound that, although scuffed and worn, is still pretty good for the period.
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet is served up in Stokowski's by-now familiar revision (including the original slow ending), excitingly if sometimes imprecisely played in concert in 1962 but a Sibelius Second from two years later, though cumulatively impressive, suffers distracting lapses in concentration. To be honest, Sony's studio Tristan und Isolde Symphonic Synthesis of 1960 (music from Acts 2 and 3 rendered purely orchestral) is tighter, sweeter and better considered than either. Stokowski surely never made a finer stereo recording.
Eugene Ormandy's batch includes a rare, rapt and interpretatively dramatic studio-recorded Verklarte Nacht from 1950 and a sumptuous live Isle of the dead from 1977. Walter Piston's bracing Seventh Symphony is by turns busy and luxuriant, a well-crafted essay given a sizzling world premiere performance in 1961. Thereafter, the Philadelphians' solidly-packed string tone lends extra body to Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, especially in the first movement. Penderecki's disorienting Threnody reduces the Phili Sound to a jittery morass (much as it should), but the experience still tells.
Shifting from the Ormandy era to Riccardo Muti brings extra visceral excitement, a leaner orchestral profile and rather less in the way of interpretative character. The overtures Le Carnaval romain and I vespri siciliani are swift and well groomed (the latter is more gripping than the former) and Respighi's Pines of Rome - a fairly regular performance - is granted spectacularly fine sound. Britten's Four Sea Interludes work best in 'The Storm' and Varese's Arcana sounds positively punch-drunk. You actually hear a woman talking - protesting, perhaps? - as early as 0'17''. It sounds as if she's saying 'Goodbye'!
Wolfgang Sawallisch's sojurn is represented by a warm textured set of Brahms's Haydn Variations, a relaxed though fastidiously balanced Beethoven Choral Fantasy (where Sawallisch conducts from the piano) and an urgently voiced account of Martinu's Fourth Symphony. It would indeed be wonderful if EMI could commission a complete Martinu symphony cycle from these artists.
The various guest conductors provide as many extra perspectives on the orchestra's familiar sound profile. Fritz Reiner is meticulous in the quieter sections of Parsifal's First Act Transformation Music and Bruno Walter brings a certain radiance to Debussy's
Toscanini rehearses the magical 1941 recording of Berlioz's 'Queen Mab scherzo' that we already know and Istvan Kertesz directs a fairly straightforward account of Bartok's Dance Suite.
The composer as conductor collection opens with a mindfully considered account of Kodaly's Peacock Variations (minus its 12th variation). Stravinsky marks some telling textural contrasts in an uncharacteristically impulsive reading of his Divertimento (bags of character and some beautiful string playing) and Virgil Thomson directs his entertaining but ephemeral Five Portraits. Marian Anderson teams with Copland for a performance of the Lincoln Portrait that gains in stature as it progresses, and her previously unreleased - and unusually broad - account of Brahms's Von ewiger Liebe is 'wrapped by the purple mantle' (Scherer) of her voice.
Many collectors will be particularly drawn to the various selections that feature singers and star instrumentalists. Birgit Nilsson is resplendent as Brunnhilde under Stokowski's authoritative baton in Gotterdammerung's Immolation Scene and Richard Strauss is handsomely represented by Arabella's big Act 2 duet where Anneliese Rothenberger and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau affectionately inter-relate under Daniel Barenboim's direction. Dame Joan Sutherland is breathtaking in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. Stokowski is again at the helm, as he is for Franco Corelli in Andrea Chenier and George London in Faust. All three occasions find the respective singers vying with the orchestra for centre-stage prominence. Beverly Sills is exceptionally agile in Mozart's
Ormandy in Philadelphia was always a superb accompanist and the live performances included here with Josef Hofmann and William Kapell reveal a true master of musical collaboration. Hofmann's 1938 Philadelphia account of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto is not dissimilar to his more familiar 1941 New York broadcast under Barbirolli. Exquisite delicacy and supple runs contrast with fierce accents, occasional brusqueness and an approach to rubato that seems better suited to Chopin than to Beethoven (witness the slow movement).
The Brahms D minor with Kapell (a 1945 broadcast) is lissom, lavishly expressive and touch-sensitive, though there are fistfuls of wrong notes and some occasions where the sustaining pedal releases an all-obliterating welter of tone. My ears tell me that the music's surface is vividly coloured, but its depths are barely acknowledged. Michael Rabin provides a parallel experience in his 1961 account of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto under the accomplished but little-known conductor William Smith (1924-93). Like Kapell, Rabin died tragically young (35), though, again, not before forging an enviable reputation as one of America's most charismatic up-and-comings. He was allegedly Ivan Galamian's favourite pupil and his suave, full tone and brilliance at speed anticipate a playing style that Itzhak Perlman would develop and perfect just a few years later. Rabin's Tchaikovsky croons, gushes and ignites in a manner that, while not to my own personal taste, makes its mark and drives the audience wild. It's fleshy and flashy, though with precious little in the way of subtle expressive nuance.
By comparison, Sviatoslav Richter's Mozart G major is an object lesson in unassuming virtuosity and pianistic finesse, and while Ormandy's accompaniment is heavier-grained than most (remember his Mozart wind concertos on CBS?), it remains consistently sensitive.
The previously-unreleased 1934 RCA set of Sibelius's Violin Concerto with Heifetz - the work's premiere recording - chronicles a glorious musical mis-match. Scherer relates how tensions during the sessions climaxed when Heifetz asked Stokowski to soften the violin line and Stokowski responded by asking everyone else to play louder while bidding the violins to 'stay the same'. Not that you need to be told. Woodwinds are unusually prominent and the viola soloist in the first movement (he crops up on a couple of occasions) is actually louder than Heifetz. As with Stokowski's RCA Sibelius Fourth, the Depression necessitated a reduction in orchestral forces but, still, there are one of two out-of-sync passages and the alarming contrast between Heifetz's silver-beam solo line and Stokowski's glowering approach to the orchestral score serves more to frustrate the musical arguments than fuel them.
Leonid Kogan was probably the most Heifetzian of vintage Russian violinists and his 1969 Berg Concerto under Ormandy is a brilliant tour de force that softens in tone only for the latter half of the second movement. Interesting as it is to hear this most personal of violin concertos granted a virtuoso going over, neither Kogan nor Ormandy seem especially responsive to the soul or spirit of the piece. Jacqueline Du Pre, on the other hand, throws herself at Saint-Saens's First Cello Concerto like a hungry tigress and Barenboim's forceful accompaniment sounds more authentically 'Philadelphian' than Ormandy's does for Berg. The solo image is unusually fierce, but the performance itself is highly sensitised and openly emotive.
Needless to say, one or two auditions are scarcely enough to assess the manifold riches included in this set (there was hardly time for more) but readers who have already invested in similar box sets from orchestras in New York, Chicago and Cleveland now should rejoice in this Philadelphia Collection. It goes without saying that chosen highlights will differ according to the musical tastes of individual listeners, but I cannot think of a single item that was not worth including.'