I have long envied Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon for their discoverery of Tut's tomb. The feeling of awe must have been overwhelming. I feel I came close to that sensation when looking over the contents of this set. Even more, I felt a sense of being able to travel back in time, as did those Egyptologists. I can imagine many of you wanting to hear Nadia Boulanger, who influenced so many composers and conductors earlier in this waning century. Here she is!! Conducting Fauré's Requiem no less! Listening to these performances is better than coming across old photos. Here you can hear how it looked.
Okay, let me nit-pick a bit. I kind-of wish they had issued the Stokowski led U.S. première of the Prokofieff Symphony #6. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. It is the fact that just such items like the Prokofieff exist in those same archives that makes my mouth water. Also why no Furtwängler? Were none of his concerts broadcast? There must be another undiscovered tomb out there somewhere. At the same time, one of the things I like about the set is the absence of the predictable. There's no Beethoven's 5th, for example, or other fare you might expect. What is here are treasures rare.
This set joins a similar issue of 12CDs from the Chicago Symphony as essential listening. Anyone who is a serious student of the history of recording and performance should be without this set for reference. You will be hearing a different era, a different style of performance. As you dip into the past you will perhaps have a bit of time-lag. You will enjoy it. If you can, I urge you to scrape together the $185.00 for this set.
In one sense the table of contents should be sufficient reason to purchase this set. Here is Toscanini on one whole side of a disc. I notice he played Sir Henry Wood's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue. Funny, why not Stokowski's? Apparently Toscanini objected only to certain transcriptors. Listening to the Wood you know why orchestras today play the Stokowski transcriptions. I leave it to better Toscanini scholars, I hope Mort gets a shot at this, to pass judgment on the relative merits of these particular selections.
The set opens with the first broadcast, in December of 1923, with the orchestra's "summer conductor" performing excerpts from Beethoven's Corilanaus Overture. Now, I know nothing of Willem van Hoogrstraten other than this performance, but it is full bodied and powerful. The excerpts from Mengelberg's Strauss (from April of 1924) are riveting. Most important of all on this disc, however, is the complete performance, not touched by his disciples, of Bruckner's 9th with Otto Klemperer in 1934. This is the real thing.
I have already mentioned the Boulanger/Fauré fare on disc seven. Add Monteux and Cantelli with Ravel and Debussy…they sound great, too. The next disc offers some material Bernstein, for some odd reason, didn't record with the New York Philharmonic: Webern and Berg. Go figure. Then comes a lovely Brahms 2 from Reiner, who usually leaves me cold.
Of course there is Stokowski in Mendelssohn's "Scottish". I have to confess that I have never cared for the piece, until now. As I listen I can feel the bump and roll of a horse carriage bouncing along the Scottish hills. It is a weird experience. Perhaps the tempo has something to do with the effect. Stokowski gets through the piece in 35:23 compared to my previous favorite, Maag on London, at 38:03. Reproduction in this piece does have some swish at points but the Stokowski Sound is there: firm bass and rich strings.
Stravinsky performing Tchaikovsky's Symphony #3 "Little Russian"??? It is a powerful, Russian performance. Stravinsky considered Tchaikovsky the greatest composer Russia had produced (according to the insert note which quote him). Then there is Schnabel and Szell in the only existin testament to their work together. (Oddly, there are no 'contemporary' comments about the performance in the notes in the CD booklet.) I have to admit that I generally do not care for Szell's conducting, but here the collaboration is super. Schnabel always makes me feel like I am listening to someone very special and this is no exception. I no longe have my LPs, nor never have gotten the performances on CD, of Schnabel' commercial recordings for comparison, so will leave such commentary to others.
There is also a generous helping of Bruno Walter in the set. Hearing him with Rubenstein in Chopin is almost too good to be true. I think I prefer this over any of the other Rubenstein recordings of this piece, power and poetry combine like hand in glove. Walter's Symphonia Domestica is arguably the finest interpretation this piece has ever had.
Then there is Kubelík's Bartók (see my comments below, too). Kubelík i among my favorite conductrs. Others include: Stokowski, Walter, Furtwängler, Barbirolli and Beecham. Nobody does Bartók better than Kubelík and his "Concerto for Orchestra" on EMI is the best ever. Bluebeard's Castle is among the most morbid pieces I know. I cannot listen to it often and there are long periods between such sessions. This performance conveys the mystery and horror better than any others have heard. I would almost recommend the whole set just for this recording.
Sound quality throughout varies, but is never less than good. There is some surface noise from the acetates used for many of the older recordings. On the other hand, such liabilities, if you wish to use that word, are duly acknowledged in the booklets. It is one of those trade-offs. You can only suppress a certain amount of surface noise from the originals before you start to compromise the actual performance. To these ears the producers have succeeded admirably.
The booklet that comes with the set is fascinating. I cannot pretend t be a critical expert on the New York Philharmonic, my specialty is Stokowski. So, I cannot spot any errors, but the reading is really easy. The comments are educational and insightful. There are some wonderful photos, like that of Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanin, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer an Wilhelm Furtwängler together in 1930. The section including critical commentary contemporary with the performances is interesting. Note Donal Henahan's (1981?) on Kubelík's Bartók, "[Kubelík's] Furtwängleria way of indicating attacks with his elbows and forearms rather than the tip of his baton makes him less than the ideal Bartók conductor, but th musicians seemed to know what he meant and did it with remarkable precision." The booklet will provide a lot of interesting reading.
The set is boxed in a brownish photo of the New York Philharmonic in 1930 on the outside. The two-per jewel box discs are similarly packaged. The "musical element" on the cover, above the orchestra, is a reproduction of Beethoven's 7th as marked by Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanin. All this adds to the feeling of coming across a bit of antiquity. Here is the picture of what you are about to hear. Enjoy the journey.
Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II