New York Philharmonic

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: New York Philharmonic Special Editions
WORKS: The Historic Broadcasts 1923-87
PERFORMER: Various soloists; New York Philharmonic/various conductors

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One of the oldest musical organisations in the United States – the New York Philharmonic – became the country’s first major orchestra to be carried live on radio, starting in 1922.

In the earliest years, broadcasts were preserved on 1S’/Mncn shellac discs, and as electrical recording through a microphone was not introduced commercially by the Victor Talking Machine Company until 1925, the first performance on this set-fragments of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture under Willem van Hoogstraten experimentally transmitted live in 1923 – represents the earliest electrical record of an orchestra.

More than sixty years of stylistic development are embodied in this extraordinary retrospective, and we hear the orchestra perform under the batons of 19 conductors, from Mengelberg, Toscanini and Barbirolli to Leinsdorf, Mitropoulos and Bernstein. It must have been sheer torment for producer Sedgwick Clark and the orchestra’s archivist Barbara Haws to choose which broadcasts to include here, but they did a capital job.

Among the highlights, Mengelberg’s two tantalising fragments of Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklarung (1924) reveal pronounced tempo rubato and some beautifully emotive string portamentos. As Mengelberg was Strauss’s own conductor of choice, this rates as a bit of authentic performance practice. Klemperer’s 1934 performance of the Bruckner Ninth is not just the earliest surviving broadcast of a complete symphony, but was also the North American premiere of the original version, and the first recorded performance of the score.

This is the young Klemperer, vigorous rather than ponderous. Then there’s the patrician warmth of the 1935 Heifetz-Toscanini Brahms Violin Concerto, a new addition to the Toscanini discography. Another feature of this set is the inclusion of performances of works not commercially recorded by the artists involved, eg Reiner’s Brahms Second Symphony, Bernstein’s account of the Webern Symphony, Op. 21, and Monteux’s delicious rendering of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.

This isn’t just great music and music-making, it’s history: Schoenberg’s bitter Ode to Napoleon, arranged for strings in 1944 at the suggestion of the orchestra’s music director, Artur Rodzinski, who conducts it to honour the composer’s seventieth birthday. Apart from those gnashing wartime strings, the ironic text, by Lord Byron, is delivered by the American baritone Mack Harrell (father of cellist Lynn Harrell) whose vibrant tone recalls the grandeur of the 19th-century dramatic stage.

Here too is the premiere of John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by the Philharmonic, and played like quicksilver by the orchestra’s principal clarinettist Stanley Drucker, under Bernstein. In what was billed as her final American orchestral appearance (1952), Kirsten Flagstad sings the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung accompanied by Bruno Walter, who gives the music breath and breadth lacking in Flagstad’s studio recording.

Ten years later – the day that Walter died – the orchestra performed the Faure Requiem. The conductor was one of the composer’s pupils, Nadia Boulanger, a great teacher in her own right, albeit a rather cool interpreter of this haunting work. Composers conduct their own music: Stravinsky sets off his Fireworks in 1946, and in 1948 Poulenc is soloist in his exuberant Concert champetre under Mitropoulos.

David Oistrakh and the same conductor burn up the airwaves in the electrifying North American premiere of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto on New Year’s Day 1952 (almost worth the price of the whole lot). There’s even a complete opera, equally incendiary: Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with Tatyana Troyanos and Siegmund Nimsgern under Rafael Kubelik in 1981. And this isn’t the half of it.

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Painstakingly transferred by the historical sound engineer Seth Winner, this package is a landmark, and a must-have for any serious collector. Barrymore Laurence Scherer