WORKS: Graener, Liszt, Sibelius, Sousa
PERFORMER: NBC SO
CATALOGUE NO: CD DA 9024 AAD mono
Arturo Toscanini was just 15 when Liszt completed his final tone poem, From the Cradle to the Grave. Almost sixty years later, the venerated maestro directed his only NBC broadcast of the work – a lean, ethereal affair, eloquently phrased. Dell’Arte do their best with the 1941 sound, while the remaining programme (which includes Liszt’s Orpheus and Paul Graener’s neo-classical The Flute of Sans-Souci) substantially extends our experience of Toscanini’s art. Similar claims might be made on behalf of Biddulph, whose Serge Koussevitzky series now extends to the gramophone premiere of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy and an album that’s billed as ‘the complete HMV recordings’.
The Berlioz is an aural riot, with the lustiest pilgrims imaginable and a white-hot Brigands’ Orgy, whereas the London recordings include a still-unsurpassed live Sibelius Seventh, endearingly old-fashioned Beethoven (the Fifth and Eroica Symphonies) and a Mozart Fortieth that shifts tempo virtually by the bar. Not one for the purists – and yet even they would surely marvel at an infinitely malleable Rhenish Symphony under Bruno Walter, where flexibility reigns and the conductor’s every wish is the orchestra’s command.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, however, is rather less impressive and a famous 1937 broadcast of Ravel’s left-hand Concerto with Paul Wittgenstein is more well-meant than well-aimed. That’s with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose regular maestro, Willem Mengelberg, makes a Wagnerian meal out of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, one that’s as artful as Walter’s Schumann but many times more wilful.
This is chutzpah with knobs on, but the playing has immense character and most of the remaining programme follows suit. It’s much the sort of thing you’d have expected from Leopold Stokowski, except that even he could occasionally turn the tables and dish up food without dressing – as indeed he does for much of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the Scherzo especially.
Stokowski’s All-American Youth Orchestra makes most professional bands sound glum, and to hear them sweep through Brahms, ignite Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung or fondle Bach-Stokowski is to confront youthful zeal head-on. There’s certainly no substitute for inspired leadership, which is perhaps why the Vienna Philharmonic responded so lovingly to Wilhelm Furtwängler – even to the conductor’s own Second Symphony, a powerful, eighty-minute synthesis of Brucknerian gesture and fin de siècle rhetoric that’s often superior, at least in my view, to other late-Romantic symphonies that are currently being touted as ‘underrated’.
Some thirty years after first hearing this piece, I could still remember the tunes. In fact, I’d learned and loved Furtwängler’s Second long before I delved beneath the gritty surface of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, a work that still occasionally draws a blank. However, once exposed to the obvious commitment, directness and integrity of the composer’s own 1937 recording, any doubts soon vanished. Still, I have to admit that the Fifth strikes me as an altogether finer work, one that compares favourably with the best of Holst, Delius and Elgar.
It’s beautifully performed by John Barbirolli and his wartime Hallé Orchestra, while Michael Dutton’s transfers achieve new-found dynamism at the expense of some clarity. By contrast, Beulah’s Malcolm Sargent anthology sounds very much as it did on 78s and LPs.
Postwar recordings of Holst’s Perfect Fool Suite and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide sit comfortably among Coleridge-Taylor’s vigorous Othello Suite, Bax (an oddly discursive Coronation March) and of course Elgar – including larger-than-life performances of Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos 1 and 4 that milk those tunes for all they’re worth.