Of late I’ve been teaching a course called “The Orchestra” at San Francisco’s Fromm Institute. The premise of the thing is coverage of the major orchestras and their most notable conductors, complete with lots of music, stories, and even a bit of gossip here and there as seems appropriate. Berlin, Vienna, Dresden, New York, Chicago, Boston, and so forth — all of the big ones.
Preparation involves a lot of listening to my voluminous collection of recordings, in order to pick the examples for the class, and in that process I have been re-visiting, and in some cases re-evaluating, conductors. For the most part my favorites remain my favorites, but I have also strengthened my relationship with some, and come to admire others anew.
A few specimens on offer:
The mercurial, paranoia-prone conductor managed to shoot himself in the foot on several high-profile occasions, such as when he stomped out of his directorship of the New York Philharmonic mid-season during the 1940s, or when he was terminated after one season at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Such self-destruction is flabbergasting: there he was, a Toscanini successor at the NY Phil and from all reports doing a bang-up job, and he picked a nasty fight with the administration and left in a huff. And Chicago? In those days following Frederick Stock’s long tenure it was already America’s dream-machine of an orchestra—powerful, elastic, flexible, and sonically spellbinding.
He screwed the pooch with two of America’s supreme orchestras, but earlier in his career he didn’t mess up his decade-long tenure in Cleveland. In those days before George Szell and the quasi-reign of terror that made the Cleveland Orchestra a precision music-making machine, Rodzinski headed up a jim-dandy ensemble that already displayed the sizzling virtuosity that so many people think was Szell’s bailiwick.
The thing about Rodzinski: he was a Szell-like conductor in that he hewed closely to the score, avoided conductorial hi-jinks, and turned in performances that are invariably well-shaped and totally satisfying. He had a lot more musical sex appeal than Szell, that’s for sure.
Even if the Cleveland stuff has become difficult to find (oh, where art thou, Sony Classical, in thine ownership of that sizable catalog via Columbia Masterworks?) what’s out there is clear evidence of Rodzinski’s imagination, his control, and his technique.
I think we need a Rodzinski big box. One that covers him in Cleveland, in New York (although a lot of that is on the 175th Anniversary Set), and whatever else might be lurking out there, such as his period of helping to build the NBC Symphony in preparation for Toscanini’s mighty arrival, and maybe all those nice stereo Westminsters he did with the Royal Philharmonic near the end of his career.
Herbert von Karajan
I am an unabashed Karajan fan. Maybe that will earn me a few poisonous spiders in the mail, since he remains nothing if not controversial, even after all these years. But he sells—all those gigantic retrospectives from EMI and Deutsche Grammophon and if you think I don’t have them all you don’t know me very well—and his music-making can still knock your socks off.
The big lush sound that is such anathema to some: Dammit, it was the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s supposed to sound wonderful. Did the lever du jour in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë ever sing out with such richness of color and erotic excess? His 1963 Beethoven cycle is muscular, unapologetic: Beethoven for people like me who don’t like their LvanB all twee and dance-y, but want a Beethoven with gonads and heart-stopping beauty and the grandest of grand gestures. Brahms? Wow, whether the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s cycles. His Sibelius, double-wow. Really so much of his work was glorious, whether with the Philharmonia, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, or even the squally Orchestre de Paris. I am in awe of his abilities, his command of so much music, his overall consistency. I don’t care that he was kind of loosey-goosey with 20th century stuff since for the most part I don’t go for that music anyway. And I really like his Haydn, big-band or not.
Watching Toscanini conduct, on some of those muddy videos from the late 1940s, is a revelation. How much he could achieve with so little! Despite his fearsome temper tantrums—which were almost certainly never actually necessary given the stellar quality of his orchestras—he was a conductor of surprising warmth once you got past the almost militaristic precision of his rhythm.
I come out of this project with renewed admiration for him as a musician, if perhaps not so much as a man. He was definitely better-read and more intelligent than some of his detractors make him out to be, but he was also a serial philanderer with a long-suffering wife. And he could be an utter bastard when he put his mind to it. I suppose it was the era; conductors had a tendency to be overbearing alpha males in those days. But even by those standards he was extreme.
My dirty little secret is that I’ve never much liked George Szell as a conductor. I recognize that the Cleveland Orchestra during his 25 some-odd years was a precision instrument second to none. But to my ear it never had those qualities that make an orchestra lovable as well as impressive: it wasn’t particularly interesting tonally, at least not like Berlin, Vienna, or Dresden; it didn’t have the sheer power and grandeur of Chicago; it lacked Boston’s warmth and civilized French demeanor; it couldn’t even approach the lush tonal beauty of Philadelphia.
But it was accurate, almost inhumanly so. Szell was such a fundamentally unattractive person—his nastiness to the superb musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra, his waspishness, his heavy-handed dictatorial attitude—that it can be a bit difficult to approach his recordings, some of which display that same mean-spiritedness. He certainly could show warmth in his interpretations. But I never seek Szell for warmth or interest. He’s more like the lab-test instrument that you use for precise readings of this or that. But when I want to be enchanted or moved or caught up in the magic of it all, I go elsewhere—Stokowski, Karajan, even Bernstein in all his unpredictability.
Almost every time I encounter a Jochum recording, regardless of the orchestra I find myself thinking: “wow, that’s just about as well as that piece can go.” The London Philharmonic? All too often scrappy with a phoned-in, sight-reading quality about it. But under Jochum the LPO produced some of the finest Brahms symphonies in gramophone history. His Haydn symphonies are glorious, as are the Bruckner. Is there any more completely satisfying Bruckner Eighth Adagio than his Dresden recording, with its to-die-for sustained grandeur and sensitivity?
Jochum is on my “I must explore him a whole lot more” list. I have extensive amounts of Jochum in my library—and the big Deutsche Grammophon set is winging its way out here to Brentwood even as I write—but I haven’t given him enough time and energy yet.
He was a lot more innovative and unpredictable than you might think. Those glorious RCA Living Stereo discs from Boston; they were living-room standards par excellence and for lots of listeners the touchstone performances of various important works—think the big violin concertos with Heifetz. But some of them are downright subversive in their daring tempo choices and almost jarring departures from the accepted norms. Listen to his Boston Eroica again, if you haven’t heard it in a while.
But what really makes Munch for me is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under his direction a splendid thing with gorgeous tone, balance, and technical sheen. Just listening to the 1959 La mer is a continual revelation, not only for the stellar recording quality (it’s like standing right in front of the orchestra, maybe too close for some, but exhilarating) but for Munch’s dead-on pacing and insight into the Debussyean sound world. The best thing about Munch’s BSO? It was lovable, and that’s a tricky and elusive quality to pin down. Truly lovable orchestras are few and far between, but they do make up a certain kind of honor roll amongst the world’s great bands: Boston, Dresden, Vienna. It’s an indication of the importance of the music director that the BSO’s lovability evaporated, first in wisps under Leinsdorf, and then altogether under Ozawa. I have hopes for a future BSO that regains that fundamental wonderfulness.