Beethoven, Bruckner, Copland, Debussy, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, etc

COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Bruckner,Copland,Debussy,etc,Mahler,Tchaikovsky,Wagner
LABELS: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Twentieth Century
WORKS: Works
PERFORMER: Soloists; choirs, Chicago SO/various conductors
CATALOGUE NO: CSO CD00-10 (available for $225 only from www.chicagosymphony.org or tel +1 312 294 3000)
One might be tempted to characterise this wide-ranging collection (31 concert recordings from 1933-96 under a total of 26 conductors) by its most alluring gems. Four of these are Third Symphonies: Prokofiev’s has rarely seemed so inexorably harrowing as Kiril Kondrashin (1976) makes it out to be; Mahler’s finds an energetic, poetic advocate in Jean Martinon; William Schuman’s emits electric sparks under Leonard Slatkin (1986); and Roussel’s sweeps by with great flair under Charles Munch (1967). Malcolm Sargent imbues Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony (1967) with vigorous wit, and Daniel Barenboim leads a committed, classy performance of Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives (1996) in which tenor soloist Ben Heppner finds an affecting tone of anguished expressiveness.

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But the attractions of this set are more pervasive than its highlights; careful attention allows one to gain invaluable insight into how a great orchestra can adapt to and enhance the leadership of many different conductors. A wonderful example comes in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony: Paul Hindemith (1963) makes the first movement sound like bristling ‘new’ music through direct, incisively articulated phrasing, while Klaus Tennstedt (1984) surprisingly favours tender, brooding elegance. The Chicago Symphony excels in strenuous brilliance, but another essential component of its sound is gleaming, luminous line, which is nowhere more eloquent than in the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger under Pierre Monteux (1961). This quality, quite distinct from Philadelphian opulence, means that the interaction of the Chicagoans with Leopold Stokowski in Beethoven’s Second Symphony (1962) creates a heady concoction of sensual styles – the slow movement is especially magical. Although Bruno Walter imposes his brusque vision of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (1958) and Schumann’s Manfred Overture (1956) so thoroughly as to override the Chicagoans’ special qualities, the orchestra transforms János Ferencsik’s stolid Beethoven Seventh (1979) into something vivid and beautiful. An ideal synthesis occurs in Fritz Busch’s Beethoven First (1949): Walteresque impetuosity from the conductor elicits a spirited but graciously textured response from the orchestra. All told, this set is a triumph in selection, processing, and presentation, and will amply repay attentive listening.