ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Great Conductors of the 20th Century
PERFORMER: Various orchestras/Karel Ancerl, Ernest Ansermet, Ataulfa Argenta, John Barbirolli, Fritz Busch, André Cluytens, Ferenc Fricsay, Nikolai Golovanov, Erich Kleiber, Serge Koussevitzky, Nicolai Malko, Igor Markevitch, Eugene Ormandy, Carl Schuricht, Bruno Wa
CATALOGUE NO: (see text for disc numbers)
Great Conductors’ is EMI’s response to the mammoth Philips ‘Great Pianists’. This new project is more intelligently chosen, and also brings to light performances that have not been released before. Asked to name the ‘great conductors’ of the last century, I dare say your thoughts would turn to the likes of Koussevitzky, Walter and Barbirolli rather than Nikolai Golovanov or Ataulfa Argenta. It is one of the merits of this handsomely produced series to prompt reappraisal of some maestros whose celebrity was fleeting. Most of these first batch of double-CD sets are desirable and a handful are absolute musts.
Fame fades fast. When I was growing up Koussevitzky was a household name, but by the end of the Fifties he was virtually ousted from the catalogue. EMI’s Koussevitzky compilation includes some of his most incandescent performances: the famous BBC Sibelius Seventh, the fervent, magisterial account of the Roy Harris Third Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead – marvellously brooding, this – and some highly individual Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. If I were buying only one of these sets, this would have to be it (CZS 5 75118 2). But there is so much else that fires enthusiasm. It is good to see Carl Schuricht represented with the Bruckner Eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic, which never received its proper due. A glorious performance, finely proportioned and noble, in a splendidly restored 1963 recording. It is as good as many modern and more celebrated rivals (CZS 5 75130 2).
The Bruno Walter set concentrates on pre-war rarities including a Beethoven Pastoral of great freshness and the Haydn Symphony No. 92 of great elegance, both treasured possessions of mine in their shellac form (CZS 5 75133 2). The Fritz Busch compilation is of particular value for the famous Danish State Radio Orchestra versions of Mozart’s Linz Symphony, Brahms’s Second (already on Dutton) and the Haydn Sinfonia concertante with the wonderful Danish wind soloists of that day (CZS 5 75103 2). There is much exciting playing elsewhere, an impressive Eroica Symphony from Ferenc Fricsay and a fine Shostakovich Ninth, both live broadcasts as is everything in the Fricsay set (CZS 5 75109 2).
The Spanish conductor Ataulfa Argenta was already set on an international career when his early death brought it to an end. His 1954 mono account of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is musicianly but he is heard to better effect in Falla’s El amor brujo and Spanish repertoire generally than in Liszt or Schubert’s Great C major Symphony (CZS 5 75097 2). Nikolai Golovanov was an exact contemporary of Prokofiev but the sensitivity and vitality of his Glazunov Sixth Symphony are offset elsewhere by the raw wind and somewhat blowsy horns of the 1952 Moscow Radio Orchestra (CZS 5 75112 2).
André Cluytens is getting long overdue attention (Testament has just issued a number of CDs) and the present compilation serves as further reminder that French orchestras speak with specially idiomatic accents in French repertoire. Cluytens is totally natural in his approach, and completely unconcerned with effect. The highlights are the atmospheric 1962 Debussy Images, and the Symphonie fantastique, a different account from that newly issued on Testament. Recorded at a 1964 concert in Tokyo while on tour with the Conservatoire Orchestra, it is a gripping, strongly narrative performance, new to the catalogue, that brings freshness and character to music whose originality never ceases to amaze (CZS 5 75106 2). First-rate transfers throughout.