Rain Comes to the Hertz Desert

Over the course of several articles devoted to the Alfred Hertz tenure (1915-1930) at the San Francisco Symphony I have been heard to bemoan the unavailability of the fine set of RCA Victor recordings made by Hertz and the SFS between 1925 and 1928.

Here I am on August 9, 2008, whining:

There's no justice in this world. If there were, Alfred Hertz's SFS recordings from the 1920s would be available in a meticulously remastered and lavishly annotated multi-disc album, possibly presented with pride by the San Francisco Symphony itself. Instead, they mostly languish in audio-incunabula status, never transferred to LPs, much less lovingly digitized/remastered as they so richly deserve.

And on March 1, 2009, griping:

These call out for re-release; they've never been on LP, much less CD. To the best of my knowledge they remain under copyright, so legalities would require the appropriate permissions and so forth. But they're out there, and they can be (and should be) heard.

At long last, the Hertz/SFS recordings can be heard by everybody, at least part of them for now with more to come.

Thanks to the fine folks at Pristine Classical, particularly Andrew Rose and audio restoration wizard Mark Obert-Thorn, the first of four volumes bringing out the complete Hertz/SFS recordings has been released. From Mark Obert-Thorn's notes on the Pristine Classical website:

Between 1925 and 1928, he [Hertz] recorded extensively for the Victor Talking Machine Company with the San Francisco Symphony, whose music director he had become in 1915. Despite his notoriety, none of these recordings has ever been reissued on CD; and indeed, only one (the Tristan Prelude) was ever available on LP – and that only on a limited release from the Met.

The Hertz/SFS recordings, Volume 1

Being an avid follower of the San Francisco Symphony's recordings, I lost no time in downloading the release, available in FLAC, MP3, or as a physical CD. (I downloaded the FLAC, a "lossless" format that plays bit-by-bit identically to the original recording but does not require as much storage space.)

This first volume contains the following works:

  • Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, recorded February 1928 at the Scottish Rite Temple on Madison Avenue in Oakland

From a series of April 1927 sessions in the Columbia Theater (renamed as the Geary Theater, now the American Conservatory Theater) in San Francisco:

  • Schubert: Rosamunde Entr'acte No. 3 in B-flat
  • Schubert: Marche Militaire
  • Weber: Die Freischütz Overture
  • Mendelssohn: Four movements from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne, and Wedding March)

In my collection I have a duplicate copy of the Weber, so I was able to do a bit of comparison listening between that and the new Obert-Thorn transfer. The smoother sound of the Obert-Thorn is matched by a bit of pitch correction here and there, repairing the occasional bothersome fluctations in the originals.

I had not heard the Leonore Overture recording before, but it now stands very high on my list of "best" Hertz/SFS recordings. Many of the 1928 recordings feature exceptionally fine sound for the era, most likely due to the fine acoustic of Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple (now the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, by the way.) As always I'm struck by the shimmer of the strings in the SFS of yore; to be sure, I enjoy string portamenti, so sadly absent from orchestra playing today. But overall it's clear to me that Hertz was aiming for an overall cohesion of sound, a rounded whole that contrasts with the sharply differentiated instrumental choirs of the Monteux era SFS. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, mind you: it's just different.

The relatively distant acoustic of the 1927 Columbia Theater comes as a bit of a shock after the opening Leonore Overture's Scottish Rite Temple lushness. Nevertheless, once hearing has adjusted to the changed environment, that same warmth of tone makes itself felt. I particularly love the portamenti (slides) decorating the descending fifths in the Schubert "Rosamunde" selection; nowadays such technique is considered impossibly old-fashioned, at least when layered on quite as thickly as in the SFS recording -- but if I had my way, portamento would return in full flower.

The concluding Mendelssohn selections are particularly intriguing. In the Overture, Hertz takes a solidly thumping tempo for the ass-braying sections, while at the same time the light-spirited elfin sections fly right along beautifully. The Wedding March is appropriately stately and ceremonial, the Nocturne distinguished by splendid horn playing. Oh, perhaps the ensemble doesn't have the same crisp articulation of most modern performances, but 'twas a different time and values have changed.

In fact, it's a good idea to keep that in mind throughout the entire recording. The San Francisco Symphony of 1927 was staffed by mature musicians -- meaning people whose outlooks were formed by 19th-century thinking, not 20th. A fifty-year-old orchestra member would have been born in 1877; had he (mostly guys then) started conservatory training at the usual age, around 1895, his teachers would have been born most likely around or before midcentury. For both teacher and student, Brahms would most likely be a "living" composer in that they could remember him as living (as I think of Stravinsky, Copland, Messaien, and many others.) That player's teacher could very well have heard Mendelssohn conduct "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Leipzig or London -- and it's a cinch that Wagner's conducting style would be a personal memory.

In short, in hearing the Hertz SFS you're hearing what is fundamentally a 19th-century orchestra, albeit an exceptionally forward-looking one -- first to hire women players other than the harpist, among the first American orchestras to record regularly. So don't expect to hear an 82-year-old version of today's San Francisco Symphony; it's a different animal altogether.

If this recording intrigues you, here's the Pristine Classical page to the release; the page includes a streaming sample of the Rosamunde Entr'acte, so you can hear all that wonderful string playing for yourself.

I'm already holding my breath in anticipation of volumes two through four...