LABELS: New York Philharmonic Special Editions
PERFORMER: New York PO/various conductors
CATALOGUE NO: (available from www.newyorkphilharmonic.org or tel +1 317 781 1861)
Having already achieved conspicuous success with its previous two compendia of archival performances, the granddaddy of American orchestras now greets the advent of the 21st century with a masterful retrospective of American music of the 20th century.
Taken from live performances, the recordings were made between 1936 and 1999, and feature 21 of the century’s pre-eminent conductors, from Stokowski, Munch and Toscanini to Slatkin, Mehta and the orchestra’s present music director, Kurt Masur.
Two names naturally enjoy places of particular honour: Copland is represented by six works, including standards like El salón México in an uninhibited 1955 performance under Guido Cantelli as well as overshadowed scores like Prairie Journal, beautifully interpreted by Mehta in 1985.
The other anchor is Bernstein, as the orchestra’s music director, laureate conductor, and as composer. In his case too there are old favourites and works that come to mind less frequently. In this survey one is not just struck by how much producer Sedgwick Clark has managed to include, but also how much of this engaging, provocative, and often downright gorgeous repertoire is still unfamiliar.
This doesn’t just pertain to the avant-gardes of their respective days, but to the more conservative voices. Here you can savour Masur’s sinewy take on Ruggles’s Sun-treader, Mitropoulos’s gripping 1957 performance of Schuller’s Dramatic Overture, Bernstein’s witty 1960 account of Lukas Foss’s mini-opera Introductions and Good-Byes and Boulez conducting Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra. The fabric of the American idiom contains myriad strands.
Some earlier works uphold the Romantic German ideal: MacDowell’s Indian Suite and Chadwick’s Melpomene Overture. Others reveal the tension between European tradition and exploration, most notably when Varèse’s clangorous Intégrales is framed between the more accessible gestures of Copland’s Music for the Theatre and the suave American Impressionism of Loeffler’s Memories of My Childhood.
There’s newer music as well from composers including Christopher Rouse, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, William Bolcom and, like a bridge between past and present, Wynton Marsalis’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Tone Parallel to Harlem.
As with previous Philharmonic sets, these recordings are accompanied by superb background material – 500 pages’ worth. Don’t be scared by this all-American package. It’s too good to miss.