EMI: Great Conductors of the 20th Century

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: EMI

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EMI’s second tranche of Great Conductors of the 20th Century, drawing not only on the company’s own catalogue but also on other labels and radio archives, includes a great deal of fascinating material, in state-of-the-art remastering and handsome packaging.

However, the track listings are short of detail about the recordings, and only some of the essays make good this deficiency.

More seriously, the series has little sense of unified purpose: some issues set out to demonstrate a conductor’s greatness, others take it for granted and explore lesser-known aspects of his repertoire or his activities; some range across an entire career, others concentrate on a narrow period.

The earliest recordings here are of the Anglo-Russian albert coates, all from the period 1926-30: they include a spirited Borodin Second Symphony and the famous recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde love duet, made half in Berlin and half in London, which creates an extraordinary feeling of delirium even before the entry of the singers Lauritz Melchior and Frida Leider (CZS 5 75486 2, £16.99).

Coates’s contemporary, leopold stokowski, is represented by recordings from the end of his long life, including his own orchestral suite of the Tristan love music, a fine Nielsen Second Symphony from a Danish Radio broadcast, and an astonishingly urgent Brahms Tragic Overture which he recorded at the age of 95 (CZS 5 75480 2, £16.99).

The pierre monteux set similarly consists of late recordings, among them a muscular Beethoven Second Symphony for North German Radio, an ardent Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony in sadly dim Danish Radio mono and an affectionate selection from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty (CZS 5 75474 2, £16.99).

The highlight of the charles münch release is a terrific 1956 recording of MartinuÞ’s Sixth Symphony (dedicated to him), which perfectly captures the work’s elusive atmosphere of dream and nightmare; there is also a purposeful Beethoven Ninth, with Leontyne Price among the soloists (CZS 5 75477 2, £16.99).

The václav talich set is devoted chiefly to Czech music, including his loving account of Suk’s string Serenade, his deeply felt last recording of Dvorák’s New World Symphony and a tautly dramatic live performance of the same composer’s The Water Goblin (CZS 5 75483 2, £16.99).

Paul Kletzki is less well served by live recordings of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in Prague, leaden in the middle section of the finale, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth in Munich, with hysterically exaggerated tempo changes (CZS 5 75468 2, £16.99).

adrian boult is portrayed not as the master-architect of the BBC Symphony Orchestra but as a jobbing studio conductor in his later years: he is cool and clear in the Franck Symphony, rather more excitable in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, and delightfully at ease in the Theme and Variations from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite (CZS 5 75459 2, £16.99).

carlo maria giulini, too, is heard mostly in commercial recordings, including a strong Beethoven Seventh Symphony in Chicago, an excellent Schumann Third Symphony in Mahler’s (surprisingly unradical) reorchestration and an unexpectedly charming Bizet Jeux d’enfants (CZS 5 75462 2, £16.99).

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otto klemperer, although an EMI stalwart for many years, is, however, represented almost entirely by Fifties German radio recordings, including an unsmiling Strauss Till Eulenspiegel and an untidy but powerful Janácek Sinfonietta (CZS 5 75465 2, £16.99).