EMI: Great Conductors of the 20th Century

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: EMI
CATALOGUE NO: See text for individual catalogue numbers and BBCMusic Magazine Direct prices

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Five releases in EMI’s latest crop of Great Conductors of the 20th Century reissues reveal sides to their subjects that might catch even specialist collectors off guard.

The GEORGE SZELL collection, for example (5 75962 2, £10.99), contains none of this redoubtable conductor’s standard Austro-German symphonic canon.

Instead, the Cleveland Orchestra’s frightening precision and chamber-like agility manifest themselves through such atypical fare as Auber’s Fra Diavolo Overture, Rossini’s Overture to L’italiana in Algeri and Delius’s Irmelin Prelude.

Szell’s looser, less regimented persona comes out in Debussy’s La mer and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra: both refreshing supplements to their fabled Cleveland counterparts. But the warm and genial 1970 Szell/Cleveland Dvorák Eighth defers to the conductor’s more joyous and sparkling 1951 Concertgebouw Orchestra account.

The Concertgebouw’s growing excellence in the Fifties had a lot to do with music director EDUARD VAN BEINUM’s first-class musicianship and extensive repertoire (5 75941 2, £10.99).

A concert performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony largely mirrors the conductor’s superb studio traversal, while a bubbling, dramatic live Strauss Don Juan shows van Beinum’s natural affinity for a composer otherwise absent from his discography.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade is a shade upholstered and held back compared to a winged and animated Schubert Sixth (the finale really takes off), while Elgar’s Cockaigne counts among the finest of van Beinum’s LPO collaborations.

Given the variable nature of many DIMITRI MITROPOULOS broadcast performances clogging the shops, you’ll be shocked to hear what this erratic yet passionately gifted conductor could do when he and his New York Philharmonic were mutually on form (5 75471 2, £10.99).

They push Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils to incendiary limits, bring fire and ice to Debussy’s La mer and give Toscanini and Münch a run for their money in the orchestral music from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette.

Compared to a red hot Mitropoulos/New York 1955 Mahler Sixth broadcast, the Cologne RSO (Living Stage) displays less tonal allure, yet equal commitment in a 1959 live studio transmission, with better sound to boot.

One wonders why EMI needed to bring out a live RUDOLF KEMPE Eroica when there are two studio versions available (5 75950 2, £10.99). But once past a sluggish, soft-grained opening movement, the performance grows more alive and incisive as it progresses, with the Royal Philharmonic horns on stellar form.

There are tauter, more shapely Bruckner Fourths than Kempe’s to be had, but his powerful Brahms Tragic Overture, zest-filled Johann Strauss Leichtes Blut and ravishingly hued Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 are alone worth the price of the set.

Although EVGENY MRAVINSKY abhorred making recordings, and didn’t set foot in a studio after 1961, he managed to pile up quite a discography via tapings of concerts.

In his hands, Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 are intense, even overwrought at times: characteristics, however, that suit Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Glazunov’s Schumannesque Fifth Symphony (5 75953 2, £10.99).

Bruckner’s Seventh is not quite on the level of the conductor’s better-known Eighth and Ninth readings, largely because the Leningrad Philharmonic struggles at times (sour intonation, a few wrong notes and mis-cues).

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The eloquent, pliable slow movement, however, makes a deeper impression, once you get used to the nasal, vibrato-laden brass.