Some Favorites from the SF Symphony Discography

This is the eighth, and final (at long last...) installment in a series of articles covering the San Francisco Symphony's fourscore-years discography. The story so far:

For this final article, I propose a gander at some of my personal SFS favorites. I may have mentioned some of these recordings in previous posts, but in this article I'm dropping any pretense of being objective. This is stuff I really like; your mileage may (and will) vary.

I can't really say much of anything about the Alfred Hertz recordings of 1925 - 1930, except that they deserve better than they've gotten, i.e., almost complete neglect.

The Monteux recordings (1941 - 1952) make up the first available treasure chest of SFS recordings. One particular favorite of mine is the 1945 rendition of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. I freely admit to being somewhat gaga about recordings with claims to historical authenticity, and any Monteux Sacre sports solid credentials; the guy conducted the première, after all. Monteux's best known recording is probably his Boston Symphony rendition from the 1950s, but nonetheless this San Francisco outing is a worthy addition to the Sacre catalog. Our SFS of yore could burn some serious musical rubber.

Among the other Monteux recordings, I have a soft spot for the Brahms 2nd Symphony in its 1945 version. (A later 1951 recording is musically similar, but the sonics aren't as good.) David Schneider, in his book on the S.F. Symphony, mentioned that "occasionally there was a Franck, a Berlioz, a Ravel, or a Brahms piece that gave us a glimpse of those heights we were capable of scaling." Certainly he must have been thinking of this particular symphony; the orchestra plays exquisitely throughout, and the finale is one of the most powerful on disc. This is not the recording on the RCA "Pierre Monteux Edition", by the way (that's the 1951 version) — my copy comes from the out-of-print Brahms Symphonies set put out by Andante records.

I must admit that none of the Ozawa recordings really stand out for me, either on the plus or minus side of the scale.

However, the De Waart era definitely produced some hits as far as I'm concerned. I've already mentioned the beautiful recordings of Shéhérazade, and La damoiselle élue. Another delight is De Waart's recording of Grieg's Peer Gynt with Elly Ameling as soloist. I tend to focus more on Blomstedt's later rendition, but as part of writing this series I heard the De Waart version again and I must say it's a dazzler.

But for me the absolute, hands-down winner of the De Waart era is John Adams's The Chairman Dances. For one thing, it's one of my favorite Adams works, so I value having such a prime source recording handy. But authentic or not, I love the warm, affectionate performance it receives from the Symphony and the beautiful acoustics of the recording. (I've also wondered if, perhaps, The Chairman Dances might have been running through John Williams's mind when he wrote the score to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.)

Where the Blomstedt era is concerned I become a kid in a candy store, grabbing at this and that and t'other, unable to make up my mind because everything is just so darned tempting. But I'll try to keep a lid on, really I will.

Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, recorded in 1990. I thought that An Alpine Symphony was low-rent travelogue music until I heard this performance.

Paul Hindemith: Nobilissima visione, currently on the 3-CD set of Hindemith orchestral music. I dig this particular score, extracted from the ballet of the same name, but mostly I dig the SFS brass, always burnished but never blaring.

Jean Sibelius: The Symphonies. All seven are tiptop; not a dud in the bunch in my opinion. Several really stand out: Symphony No. 7 is one of the tougher pieces in the repertory pacing-wise, but Blomstedt and the SFS carry it home flawlessly. Another standout is the seldom-played Symphony No. 3, here given what is to me its most compelling performance on disc.

I'm in similar straits with the MTT era; there are a lot of recordings and I like a lot of them. But just maybe I can single out a few special high points.

George Gershwin: Concerto in F, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. The combination of MTT's flair, Ohlsson's tonal beauty, and the sonic splendor of the SFS make this the Gershwin Concerto to die for.

Serge Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet, arranged from the ballet score by MTT. This most radiant of 20th century ballet scores has been very well treated on record, but never better than here.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6. I am a latecomer to Mahler's music, despite having sung in the chorus for a performance of Symphony No. 2 back in my Peabody days, and despite having taught some of Mahler's music to my music-appreciation courses at UC Berkeley. I loved Das Lied von der Erde at first sound, as it were, but the First Symphony offended me deeply, also at first sound. MTT's Mahler set with the SFS has gone a long ways towards bringing me closer to Mahler, with this particular recording and the Fourth vying for first place in my affections.

I should mention that the new MTT/SFS recording of Das Lied von der Erde is due out early in September; I have a post in the pipeline about the piece and this new recording. Stay tuned.

So what of the future? If I had my own personal genii who transformed my whim into reality, what recordings would I want?

Well, genii, I have two wishes.

Wish Number One: since the San Francisco Symphony's 100th birthday comes up in 2011, I would like for the Symphony to produce a centenary box set of SFS recordings, dipping all the way back into the Alfred Hertz years, and including perhaps some stuff that has never been released, along with great highlights of the past 80 years. Several other orchestras have done this — the Chicago Symphony comes to mind — very successfully. This could come out with a lavish commemorative book, or even a DVD production. Great fundraising item, and historically priceless.

Wish Number Two: I would like for MTT and the San Francisco Symphony to start a project of the complete Shostakovich symphonies, perhaps on the same model as the current Mahler series, i.e., from live performances.

So hop to it, genii, and make it so. Music lovers (well, one at least) await anxiously.

Coming up: the forthcoming season at the SF Symphony, the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and a pair of premières at the San Francisco Conservatory. Back to concert life for a while after lotsa record-talk.