Various: Historic Broadcasts and Recordings 1917-98

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Philadelphia Orchestra
ALBUM TITLE: Philadelphia Orchestra: Centennial Celebration
WORKS: Historic Broadcasts and Recordings 1917-98
PERFORMER: Soloists; Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, etc
CATALOGUE NO: (available from www.philorch.org or tel +1 800 457 8354) ADD/DDD mono/stereo
A glance through the contents of this Philadelphia Orchestra centenary set – consisting largely of performances recorded for broadcast but supplemented by commercial and experimental recordings – raises expectations to fever pitch, and its best performances really are extraordinary. In Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the composer leads with blazing conviction while narrator Marian Anderson provides an awe-inspiring mixture of dignity, subtlety, and emotional force. Leopold Stokowski’s devastatingly erotic 1960 Columbia recording of love music from Tristan und Isolde, grandly stylised Beethoven Fifth (an unpublished 1931 Bell Telephone Laboratories recording) and vivid 1962 Götterdämmerung Immolation Scene (with Birgit Nilsson in phenomenal voice) cement his reputation as an incomparable orchestral wizard and powerfully communicative musician. Jacqueline du Pré’s ecstatic, rhapsodic 1971 Saint-Saëns A minor Concerto triumphs over boxy recording perspective, and Hermann Scherchen is revelatory in Mahler’s Fifth (1964): despite substantial cuts in the third and fifth movements, his idiomatic phrasing, extremes of tempo, and breathtakingly intimate Adagietto make this essential listening.

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Among the many recordings making their first official appearance here, the prize is undoubtedly what was to have been the debut recording of the Sibelius Concerto, with Jascha Heifetz and Stokowski (1934). Heifetz did not permit its release, partly owing to clashes with the conductor and partly because he was able to play the piece better (as he did the following year in the published remake with Beecham), but, especially in the finale, this is white-hot music-making. Other ‘new’ performances feature Bruno Walter in Debussy, Klaus Tennstedt in Barber, Riccardo Muti in Britten and Varèse, Eugene Ormandy in Piston and Penderecki, Wolfgang Sawallisch in Martinu, and more typical repertory from István Kertész, Igor Stravinsky, Charles Munch and many others.

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Everything in this collection looks intriguing on paper, and producer Mark Obert-Thorn represents the orchestra’s wide-ranging sympathies and artistic associations with astonishing thoroughness. Despite occasional disappointments (among them a fervent but technically scrappy 1945 Brahms D minor Concerto from William Kapell and an uncomfortably brittle Beethoven Choral Fantasy featuring Sawallisch as both conductor and piano soloist), this important set is as fabulous as the Philadelphians it documents.