Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Böhm and Beethoven




 



Deutsche Gramophone 479 1949 (2013)
Beethoven: The Symphonies
Five Overtures
Karl Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 
 


What sheer, beautiful, divinely-sparked joy to have Karl Böhm's magnificent, classic Beethoven performances back in my collection again after far-too long an absence, all together in this handsomely packaged 6-disc box set.

Not that these recordings, made between 1970 and 1971, have ever been out of the catalog for very long (if at all) since their initial release; the integral 8-LP box set was available for many years under several different cover designs, including the ubiquitous introductory come-on from the International Preview Society (BMG Music Service) in its early days, as well as individual albums on LP, cassette, and CD. I've owned a number of them in addition to that much-treasured box set; an early full-price 2-LP pairing of the superb Eighth and Ninth (DG 2707 073 (1977)), a cassette of the Sixth coupled with the Egmont Overture (DG 3300 476), and a rather disappointing late-eighties or early nineties-era CD-re-issue of the Ninth. Much better was the delightful 1996 coupling of the Sixth with Schubert's Symphony #5 (DG (Originals) 447-443-2). The complete cycle was initially re-issued on CD as part of the DG Doubles series between 1994 and 1995, and again in a series of single and double-disc sets on DG Eloquence in 1999. As of this writing it's a pretty safe bet that most long-time collectors will have at least a few of these—in one iteration or another—already.

Why then plop down $30 for yet another re-issue of Böhm's Beethoven? Aside from the quality and convenience of this new packaging (individual discs in printed cardboard sleeves housed within a sturdy, laminated cardboard clamshell box with no excess "shake" room), improved sound is a major plus. Many of the earliest analog-to-digital transfers were less than adequate, certainly lacking the warmth and immediacy of vinyl without much gain in depth, detail, or fidelity. While DG was often ahead of the industry's technological curve, it too had its share of disappointing releases in the first years of the CD boom, when it was all some companies could do to keep up with the frenetic, ever-growing demand for more. (The muddy-sounding re-issue of Böhm's brilliant Ninth mentioned above is a case in point.) Then too, some engineers didn't quite know what to make of the new digital technology. As such, one was often subjected to shrill, shrieking trebles, raucous, loud, rock-n-roll-like basses, and murky, nebulous mid-levels that were virtually unlistenable. Sound levels were often set to extremes, sometimes barely turned up beyond a whisper (as in Eric Fenby’s otherwise magnificent recordings of Delius for Unicorn), other times, deafeningly wide open (as in a few of Chandos' early symphonic releases); discs on the BIS label at one point came with a warning label affixed to the jewel case. 
 

Although there is no reference to re-mastering in the documentation accompanying this present album—no dates or mention of processing other than 2013 as the year of compilation—my ears remark a greater clarity in the overall sound picture of these transfers, blessedly devoid of tape hiss without the concomitant loss of detail at either end of the spectrum; the trebles less harsh, the basses less rambunctious. These masterings do, naturally, retain some of the odd idiosyncrasies of the original. In the symphonies, most notably, the aural perspective seems to shift occasionally, from passages that sound fairly closely miced, to others that seem to have been recorded from a greater distance. Could there have been some creative splicing here and there in original post-production? These recording sessions predate DG's notorious practice of micing every individual instrument in an orchestra, which led to some very odd-sounding results indeed. 
 

Yet here the sweet sound of the Vienna Philharmonic woodwind section has never been more pleasantly apparent. The strings shimmer, and the sometimes rather mellow-sounding brass shines through with admirable grace and nobility. This effectively takes the bad taste of so many earlier ill-conceived re-issues from my perpetually skeptically-discriminating palate
.
Recording dates are listed in the documentation accompanying the album. Symphony #1, 4, 6, and 8 were recorded between May and September, 1971; Symphony #5 and #9 in April of 1970. The overtures that are also included in the set originate from several sessions between March of 1969 and September 1971. The recorded sound of the overtures is quite different from the symphonies. Perhaps the orchestra is a bit more closely miced? As noted above, no documentation is included pertinent to remastering, nor any dates listed beyond those for recording sessions and initial releases. Historically, DG has been rather cagey, and not always particularly fastidious about including precise information concerning remastering, except, rarely, when it seems to suit their marketing purposes. Apparently, this was not one of those occasions. 
 

Still, the best and most important reason to own this set is for these splendid benchmark performances, among the last of the great "old-school classical" interpretations, and definitely among the finest of their most-celebrated near-contemporaries, the 1958-1967 cycle by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony 88837 37152 (2013 re-issue)) and Herbert von Karajan’s 1963 traversal with the Berlin Philharmonic  (DG 00211 4502 (1999 re-issue)). Where Szell could seem obsessively rigid in his quest for technical precision, and Karajan almost flippant in his prettified, breezy, surface-skimming approach, Böhm emphasized drama without sacrificing lyricism or buoyancy, his lucid, well-paced performances striking a comfortable balance between dramatic heft and textural clarity. Beethoven's compositional technique often reminds me of one of those clear-glass clock cases, in which all the workings are plainly (and intentionally) visible solely for the sake of aesthetic delectation, and Böhm takes expert advantage of this artfully built-in transparency. Listen, for example, to the scherzo movements of the Second and Third symphonies, or to the wonderfully lithe first movements of the Fourth and Eighth.

While it wouldn't be exactly right to refer to Böhm as "self-effacing"—one is always aware of a strong hand at the helm—there is no conductorly self-indulgence here, no idiosyncratic excess. This is not the all-stops-pulled heaven-storming of Toscanini’s Eroica in which the conductor seemingly endeavors to channel Beethoven's tortured soul anew (BMG 82876 557022 (2003 box set)); nor Klemperer at war with his own demons (or, as in the case of his Ninth, with his own orchestra (EMI 4 04275 2 (2012 box set)); nor is it Karajan striking off in some radically new "modern" interpretive direction, largely involving playing the music faster than anyone before him. [I think Carlos Kleiber's interpretations are far superior to Karajan, eloquently demonstrating that brisk tempi don't necessarily equate lack of substance. Kleiber's
splendid Fifth (DG 2530 516 (1975 LP) and Seventh (DG 2530 706 (1976 LP), have both been re-issued on DG (Originals) 447-400-2)), a record worthy to stand next to Böhm's Beethoven.]

This set features what may be the finest versions of Beethoven's Fourth and Eighth ever recorded; a glorious, top-flight Eroica, a Ninth that comes as close to "perfection" as any one is ever likely to hear, with one of the most exquisitely synergistic vocal quartets ever assembled for the work, a brilliant Pastoral for the ages, and, overall, some of the most consistently satisfying readings of these iconic, eternally quintessential works made in modern times. 
 

Enthusiastically recommended. 
 
 
 
 

DISCOGRAPHY 

 


LPs 
 
DG 2721 154 (8-LP box set) (1972)
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies
Karl Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
 
 
DG 2530 958 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #1 in C major Op. 21
Leonore III Overture Op. 72a
Fidelio Overture Op. 72b 
Böhm/VPO 
 
DG 2530 448 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #2 in D major Op. 36
The Creatures of Prometheus Overture Op. 43 
Böhm/VPO
 
DG 2530 437 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #3 in E-flat major Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ 
Böhm/VPO 
 
DG 2530 451 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #4 in B-flat major Op. 60 
Böhm/VPO
 
DG 2530 062 (1970)
Beethoven: Symphony #5 in c minor Op. 67 
Böhm/VPO 
 
DG 2530 142 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #6 in F major Op. 68 ‘Pastorale’ 
Böhm/VPO 
 
 
 
DG 2530 421 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A major Op. 92 
Böhm/VPO
 
DG 2707 073 (1974)
Beethoven: Symphony #8 in F major Op. 93
Symphony #9 in d minor Op. 125 ‘Choral’
Gwyneth Jones/Tatiana Troyanos/Jess Thomas/Karl Ridderbusch/
Böhm/VPO
 

 
CDs 
 
DG (Doubles) 439-681-2 (1994 re-issue)
Symphony #1
Symphony #2
Symphony #4
Symphony #5
Böhm/VPO
 
 
DG (Doubles) 437-368-2 (1995 re-issue) 
Symphony #3
Symphony #9
Jones/Troyanos/Thomas/Ridderbusch/ 
Böhm/VPO
 
 
DG (Doubles) 437-928-2 (1995 re-issue)
Symphony #6
Symphony #7
Symphony #8
Böhm/VPO 
 

 
DG (Originals) 447-443-2 (1996 re-issue)
Beethoven: Symphony #6
Schubert: Symphony #5
Böhm/VPO (Beethoven)/Berlin Philharmonic (Schubert) 
 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1942 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #1
Symphony #2
Böhm/VPO
 
 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1962 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #3 
Böhm/VPO
 

 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1952 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #4
Symphony #5 
Böhm/VPO 
 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1982 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #6
Leonore III Overture 
Böhm/VPO
 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1992 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #7
Symphony #8 
Böhm/VPO 
 
 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1972 (1999 re-issue)
Beethoven: Symphony #9 
Jones/Troyanos/Thomas/Ridderbusch/ 
Böhm/VPO 
 
 
DG (Eloquence) 480 3794 (2011)
Beethoven: Symphony #8
Schubert Symphony #5; Symphony #8
Böhm/VPO (Beethoven)/BPO (Schubert)
 

 
 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Symphonies of Walter Piston: A Discography


In his 1967 essay, The Symphony in America, English musicologist Peter Jona Korn lauded Walter Piston (1894-1976) as “without doubt, America’s most mature composer”, going on to add that “there is virtually no such thing as ‘bad Piston.’” Far from that of a lone voice crying in the wilderness, Korn’s praise was typical of the critical adulation that greeted the composer throughout his long, productive life, a life distinguished by a forty-year tenure as professor of music at Harvard, by the publication of important and highly influential textbooks on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, and by a prodigious output of expertly crafted compositions, garnering numerous awards, including, on two occasions, the Pulitzer prize for music (for Symphony #3 (1947) and Symphony #7 (1960)). 

Piston was certainly one of the finest American composers of the twentieth century. Though far less well known than his younger contemporaries, Copland and Barber, his unfailing originality, monumental craftsmanship, and deep musical erudition set the standard for the "American Athletic" school of the 1930s and `40s, even as works such as Roy Harris' Symphony #3 became much better-known examples of the style. For many years Piston's influence as an educator eclipsed his reputation as a composer; Leonard Bernstein was his most famous pupil at Harvard, and his influence is clearly audible in the younger composer’s early "Jeremiah" Symphony.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that only a handful of Piston’s many compositions have received more than a few performances in concert or on record; possibly because of the demands the music frequently makes on the skill and virtuosity of those who would endeavor to play it. If one were to judge on the basis of available recordings, the most widely performed and popular of all the orchestral works is the suite from the 1938 ballet, The Incredible Flutist, with, possibly, the Symphony #6 (1956) a distant runner-up. Piston’s eight symphonies, composed between 1937 and 1965, are among the most shamefully neglected of his large-scale orchestral works, and, indeed, of the entire American symphonic repertory.

Piston’s symphonies are conceived on an expansive scale, often reminiscent of Copland’s “populist” style of the ‘30s and ‘40s, employing orchestral colors, harmonies, and rhythms that seem to evoke the proverbial “wide-open spaces” of the American West alongside the frenetic hustle and bustle of more urban landscapes. But with Piston, as with Haydn or Beethoven, the listener is always conscious of the workings of a singly classical musical mind, a mind that expresses only what needs to be expressed, directly and without excess. There is often great beauty and melodic grace in this music, which is never acerbic or inaccessible, but is, nonetheless, an absolute music, eschewing shallow romanticism and programmatic connections, its passions that of a well-honed and vigorous intellect.

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As of today, collectors who want all the symphonies, whether on CD or LP are forced to settle for a perplexingly diverse assortment of products ranging from the mediocre and the monophonic to the brilliant-but-badly re-channeled, the perpetually out-of-print and the next-to-impossible to find. Accurate discographical information has, until now, been scattered chaff-like hither and yon across the internet and in older print references. There is as much need for a consistent and comprehensive discography of these works as for new, committed performances and state-of-the-art recordings. (I hope the list accompanying this article will begin to fill at least one of those needs.) 

The best relatively recent individual recordings of Piston’s symphonies are probably Michael Tilson-Thomas’ 1970 rendition of the Symphony #2 with the Boston Symphony for Deutsche Gramophone (discography #s 7 and 19 below), and Leonard Slatkin’s 1991 reading of Symphony #6 with the St. Louis Symphony for RCA (#13). Now-historical performances of Piston’s Third and Fourth by Howard Hanson for Mercury, and the Sixth by Charles Munch for RCA have yet to appear on CD other than through small-scale independent “transfer services”. An MP3 of Hanson’s mono 1954 reading of the Third is available on-line, and Naxos has also issued Eugene Ormandy’s mono 1955 Columbia recording of the Fourth in the “disc-less” digital format. The effort of collecting these works can be a virtual scavenger hunt at times, but the best “finds” are no-less exciting. 

As far as possible, I have arranged the discography chronologically by date of release or re-issue. Dates of composition and first performances are as follows:  


Symphony #1 (1937) (Boston SO/Piston, 8 April, 1938)  
Symphony #2 (1943) (National SO/Kindler, 5 March, 1944)
Symphony #3 (1947) (Boston SO/Koussevitzky, 9 January, 1948))
Symphony #4 (1950) (Minneapolis SO/Dorati, 30 March, 1951)
Symphony #5 (1954) (Julliard Orchestra/Morel, 24 February, 1956)
Symphony #6 (1955) (Boston SO/Munch, 25 November, 1955)
Symphony #7 (1960) (Philadelphia Orchestra/Ormandy, 10 February, 1961))
Symphony #8 (1965) (Boston SO/Leinsdorf, 5 March, 1965)


DISCOGRAPHY

LPs



1.
American Recording Society ARS-1 (1953) (10” LP) (mono)
Piston: Symphony #2
Dixon/Eastman-Rochester SO

2.
Mercury MG 50077 (1953) (mono)
(American Festival Series #5)
Piston: Symphony #4
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO

3a.
Mercury MG 50083 (1954) (mono)
(American Festival Series #11)
Piston: Symphony #3
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO

3b.
Mercury MC 40010 (re-issue, date?)
Piston: Symphony #3
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO


4a.
Columbia Masterworks ML 4992 (n.d. 1955?) (mono)
Piston: Symphony #4
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra



4b.
Columbia Special Products CSP AML 4992 (n.d.)
Piston: Symphony #4
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra








5a.
RCA 24-192 (1957)
Piston: Symphony #6
Toch: Symphony #3
Munch/Boston SO

5b.
New World NW 286 (1977 compilation) (mono)
Piston: Symphony #6
Kirchner: Piano Concerto
Munch/Boston SO






5c.
RCA (Gold Seal) AGL1-3794 (1981 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #6
Martinu: Fantaisies Symphonique (Symphony #6)
Munch/Boston SO

6.
Louisville (First Edition) LS 653 (n.d. 1965?)
Piston: Symphony #5
Whitney/Louisville SO











7.
DG 2530 103 (n.d. 1970?)
Piston: Symphony #2
W. Schuman: Violin Concerto
Tilson-Thomas/Boston SO

8.
Louisville (First Edition) LS 746 (1975)
Piston: Symphony #7
Mester/Louisville SO






9. (q.v. 2, 3)
Mercury Classics SRI 75107 (1978 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #3
Symphony #4
Hanson/Eastman-Rochester SO

10.
Louisville (First Edition) LS 766 (1979)
Piston: Symphony #1
Mester/Louisville SO


CDs and MP3s



11a. (q.v. 6, 8)
Albany AR 011 (1988)
Piston: Symphony #5
Symphony #7
Symphony #8
Whitney/Mester/Louisville SO





11b.
First Edition FECD 0010 (MP3) (2002)
Piston: Symphony #5
Symphony #7
Symphony #8
Serenata for Orchestra
Whitney/Mester/Louisville SO

12a.
Delos DE 3074 (1990)
Piston: Symphony #2
Symphony #6
Sinfonietta
Schwartz/Seattle SO 






12b. 
Naxos 8.559161 (2003 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #2
Symphony #6
Sinfonietta
Schwartz/Seattle SO
  





13.
RCA 60798-2-RC (1991)
Piston: Symphony #6
Three New England Sketches
The Incredible Flutist (Suite)
Slatkin/St. Louis SO




14a.
Delos DE 3106 (1992)
Piston: Symphony #4
Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra
Serenata for Orchestra
Three New England Sketches
Schwartz/Seattle SO 






14b.
Naxos 8.559162 (2003 re-issue)
Piston: Symphony #4
Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra
Serenata for Orchestra
Three New England Sketches
Schwartz/Seattle SO



15a. (q.v. 4)
Albany TROY 256 (1997 compilation)
Piston: Symphony #4
Harris: Symphony #7
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

15b
Naxos NS 0239 (MP3)
Piston: Symphony #4
Harris: Symphony #7
W. Schuman: Symphony #6
Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

16 (q.v. 10)
Albany TROY 044 (1998 compilation)  
Piston: Symphony #1
Menin: Cello Concerto
Kurka: The Good Soldier Schweik (suite)
Whitney/Mester/Louisville SO


17.
Citadel CTD 88134 (1999)
Piston: Symphony #6
Concertino for Piano
Concerto for Orchestra
Strickland/Moscow Radio SO


18.
Albany TROY 400 (2000)        
Piston: Symphony #3
plus works of James Yannatos
Yannatos/Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra 




19. (q.v. 7)
DG (Originals) 289-463-633-2 (2001 compilation)         
Piston: Symphony #2
Ives: Three Places in New England
Ruggles: Suntreader
Tilson-Thomas/Boston SO

20. (q.v. 5)
Haydn House SDA 2001-270 (2001 compilation)
(music on this disc was transferred from original RCA LPs)
Piston: Symphony #6 (1956 recording)
Bloch: Schelomo (1957 recording)
Stravinsky: Jeu de Cartes (1960 recording)
Munch/Boston SO





21.
Audite 21423 (13-disc box set) (2013)
Celibidache--The Berlin Recordings (1945-1954)
Piston: Symphony #2 (live recording, 1950)
plus works of Barber, Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Chavez, Cui, Gliere, Milhaud etc.
Serge Celibidache/Berlin Radio SO