Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bernard Haitink: Symphony Edition and The Philips Years

Decca 478 5671 (20-disc box set) (2013)
Bernard Haitink: The Philips Years
works of Andriessen, Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Bruckner, Debussy, Dvorak,
Haydn, Liszt, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Mozart, Ravel, Schubert, Smetena,
R. Strauss, Stravinsky, Takemitzu, and Wagner
Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw/London PO/Vienna PO/Boston SO et al.

Decca 478 6360 (36-disc box set) (2014)
Bernard Haitink: The Symphony Edition
complete symphonic cycles by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner,
Mahler, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky
Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Discophiles, musicologists, and critics will undoubtedly have their debates about Bernard Haitink's place in the pantheon of 20th-century conductors for decades to come, and only the long hindsight of history will properly sort out his significance. In the meantime, it is, I think, fair--nor would it be stretching a point-- to say that Haitink is among the most remarkable and consistently engaging conductors of the past fifty years. His recorded performances are unfailingly fine; brilliantly understated, technically impeccable, exquisitely detailed, probing, revelatory, moving and memorable. An interpreter with a musical Midas-touch, his readings of Brahms, Bruckner, Debussy, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky (among others) have attained a rarefied reputation, and still remain easily among the first-choice recommendations for much of the standard repertory. These two recent box sets from Decca, marking Haitink's eighty-fifth birthday in 2014, offer a broad, tantalizing overview of the great Dutch conductor's  compelling artistry, together making a perfect introduction to one of the truly magnificent recorded legacies of our time.

Both sets are sturdily packaged in heavy, attractively laminated cardboard. Discs are individually sleeved in stiff--but not overly snug-- cardboard jackets, all reiterating the box-cover illustration on the front, with titles, track numbers and basic artist information on the back. Track timings and recording data are included in the large semi-glossy booklets accompanying the set. (The booklet in my copy of  The Symphony Edition was missing eighteen of its pages; a few other pages were bound out of order, and several showed up twice.)

Re-mastered sound is consistently superb--as listeners have come to expect from these Decca retrospective sets. Levels vary somewhat from disc to disc; the Mahler cycle in The Symphonies Edition (SE) was transferred at an annoyingly low level, necessitating a rather substantial rightward twist of the volume knob. (Admittedly, once properly amplified, the sound of these performances is nothing short of breathtaking.) I did not notice the same problem with the two Mahler symphonies included in The Philips Years (TPY).

Somewhat perplexing, too, is the SE transfer engineer's irritating habit of splitting up some of the symphonies across discs (Bruckner's  #1, Mahler's #2, #6 and #9), which is neither necessary or desirable. The same recordings of the Mahler #6 and #9 both comfortably occupy single discs in the TPY set, and the "Resurrection" might easily have been accommodated on a disc of its own in the SE had the Adagio from Symphony #10 simply been coupled with the "Titan" (#1) on Disc 19. But this is, at worst, a small-ish complaint.

There is relatively little overlap from one set to the other. Points of duplication include: Brahms Symphony #3 from 1970; Bruckner Symphony #8 from 1970; Mahler Symphony #6 (1969), and #9 (1970); Tchaikovsky Symphony #1 "Winter Dreams" (1980) and Symphony #2 "Little Russian" (1978). The Symphony Edition features the superb analog Bruckner Symphony #3 (1877 version) from 1964, and #9 from 1966, while The Philips Years includes the early digital recording of #9 from 1982, and the 1989 reading of #3. The Beethoven symphonies included in the TPY box are the earlier 1977 readings with the London Philharmonic as opposed to the equally fine 80s-era recordings with the Concertgebouw in the SE.

The performances themselves are uniformly outstanding, revealing--especially in the Concertgebouw recordings-- the conductor's deep rapport with his orchestra, a studied understatement which allows detail to emerge from even the most complex score while eloquently elucidating structure and line. The quintessential Haitink interpretation is distinguished by the conductor's ability to achieve just the right degree of emphasis on each note and phrase--no more, no less-- lending the music precisely the momentum necessary to maintain structural cohesion and listener interest, while never drawing attention away from the composer's vision. Listen, for example, to the sublime opening bars of Brahms' Symphony #2 where the three-note figure in the bass gently propels the gossamer melodic statement in the horns and strings, like surface tension on water. Note, too, the unmistakably powerful--but never bombastic or distorted-- reading of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. This interpretive approach effectively opens up dazzling new vistas in pieces by Mahler and Liszt, composers whose work--under the batons of less-thoughtful "showboat" conductors-- so often comes off as pompous, overblown, or exaggerated to the point of caricature. Yet, listening to Haitink's recordings, one is enlightened--gobsmacked!-- by the depth, subtlety, and sheer endearing musicality of these works, as if hearing them for the very first time.

In fairness, it is true that Haitink's "laid-back"--some might say "self-effacing"-- approach is not always equally effective. His Schumann is good, but hardly great, and his Tchaikovsky, while lithe, luminous and gorgeously detailed, sometimes lacks the last full measure of drama and power. (I would give the laurel to Mariss Jansons with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos along with the classic recordings of Pierre Monteux for RCA, with Haitink a still very respectable second runner up.)

It seems fashionable nowadays to complain about what these retrospective albums leave out, as opposed to celebrating what they include. Yes, it would have been wonderful--albeit very possibly cost-prohibitive--for Decca to  have shoehorned Haitink's landmark Shostakovich cycle with the Concertgebouw and LPO into the SE box. Then, too, I would have liked more of the fabulous readings of Struass tone poems in the TPY set, including the 1978 Don Quixote and Also sprach Zarathustra from 1974. In any case, I strongly urge Decca to get to work on a dedicated box of Haitink's Strauss as soon as possible!

Muted grumbles aside, both sets are highly recommended, especially as they compliment one another so well, and, side by side, offer a colorful and compelling portrait of a truly great musical artist.

The Philips Years

Where known, I have included information about original LP releases and re-issues. To the best of my knowledge, at least a few of these recordings were initially available only in Europe, and some did not appear in the American market until after the advent of compact discs in the early 1980s.

Bartok: Concerto for Violin #2
Henryk Szeryng (violin)/CBW (recorded 1961)
Concerto for Orchestra
CBW (recorded 1970)
(LP: Philips 6500 021 (1970))
[Still probably the finest-ever recorded performance of Bartok's Violin Concerto #2]

Beethoven: Concerto for Piano, Violin & Cello in C major Op. 56
Beaux Art Trio/LPO
(Philips 9500 382) (1977)
Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61
Herman Krebbers/CBW
(LP: Philips 6599 851 (1975))
[not to be confused with the Szeryng/CBW performance of Op. 61
(LP: Philips 6500 531)]

Beethoven: Symphony #1 in C major Op. 21
Symphony #3 in E-flat major Op. 55 "Eroica"
(recorded 1977)

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45
Gundula Janowitz/Tom Krause/Vienna PO & Konzertverein
(recorded 1980)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod
VPO (recorded 1975)
Bruckner: Symphony #3 in d minor (1877 version)
CBW (recorded 1989) [not to be confused with the earlier analog recording (Philips 835 217 (1964)]
[An inspired pairing of music by Wagner and the composer who was, perhaps, his most enthusiastic disciple.]

Bruckner: Symphony #8 in c minor (1890 version)
(LP: Philips 6700 020 (1970) [not to be confused with the digital LP (Philips 6769 050 (1981)]
[The 1970 reading is one of the great Bruckner recordings of all time]

Bruckner: Symphony #9 in d minor
(digital LP: Philips 6514 191 (1982))
[Somewhat disappointing in its original issue, due in part to exaggerated sonics and less-than-stellar mastering, a  better understanding of the technology and recent transfer techniques reveals this to be a very fine recording indeed]

Debussy: Nocturnes; Jeux
CBW/Collegium Musicum Amsterdam
(LP: Philips 9500 674) (1980)
La Mer; Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faun
(LP: Philips 9500 359 (1977))
[These late-analog recordings sound better than ever, especially the 1980 Nocturnes]

Dvorak: Symphony #7 in d minor Op. 70
CBW (recorded 1961)
Smetena: Ma Vlast; The Moldau
CBW (recorded 1962)
Schubert: Symphony #8 in b minor D 759 "Unfinished"
(LP: Philips 9500 099 (1976) (coupled with Schubert Symphony #5))
[What a joy to hear Haitink's beautiful Schubert readings again. The lovely 1976 "Great" C major is also included here on DISC 15]

Liszt: Piano Concerto #1 in E-flat major
Piano Concerto #2 in A major
Totentanz; Mephisto Waltz #1
Alfred Brendel/LPO (recorded 1972)
Les Préludes
LPO (recorded 1969)
[Haitink and Brendel elucidate a musical substance far beyond the kind of shallow virtuosity one usually expects in this repertory]

Mahler: Symphony #6 in a minor
(LP: Philips 6700 049 (1969))
[In highlighting details often hidden or overlooked by those more interested in the work's heavier, melodramatic elements, Haitink convincingly reveals the Sixth as a kind of maturely dark reflection of the youthful, sunny Third. A truly great performance, marvelously recorded]

Mahler: Symphony #9 in D major
(LP: Philips 6700 021 (1970))

Mozart: Overtures K 620, 527, 588, 492, 366, 384, 621, 486, 135
LPO (recorded 1981)
Haydn: Symphony #99 in E-flat major
CBW (recorded 1965)
(LP re-issue Philips (Festiva) 6570 083)

Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet)
Boston SO/Tanglewood Festival Chorus
(recorded 1990)
Alborada del gracioso; La Valse
(LP: Philips 9500 347 (Alborada) and Philips 9500 314 (La Valse) (1977))

Haydn: Symphony #96 in D major
CBW (recorded 1965)
(LP re-issue Philips (Festiva) 6570 083)
Schubert: Symphony #9 in C major "The Great"
(LP: Philips 9500 097 (1976))

R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op. 40
Herman Krebbers (violin)/CBW
(LP: Philips 6500 048 (1970))
Tod und Verklärung Op. 24
(recorded 1983)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e minor Op. 64
(recorded 1960)
Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in g minor Op. 26
(recorded 1962)
Arthur Grumiaux/CBW

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #1 in g minor "Winter Dreams"
Symphony #2 in c minor "Little Russian"
(LP (box set) Philips 6768 267 (1980))

Wagner: Preludes to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Parsifal; Lohengrin (Acts 1 and 2)
(LP: Philips 6500 932 (1975))
Brahms: Symphony #3 in F major Op. 90
(LP: Philips 6500 155 (1970))

Andriessen: Symphonic Etude
(recorded 1960)
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite
(recorded 1963)
Takemitsu: November Steps
Messiaen: Et expect resurrectionem mortuorum
(recorded 1970)

The Symphony Edition
All of these cycles have been issued separately on CD in a series of Philips box sets from the mid-1990s (catalog prefix 442-). Where known, I have included information about previous CD re-issues as well as 60s-70s-era LP releases.
Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9:
Overture to "Egmont" Op. 84
(recorded 1987-88)

Beethoven: The Symphonies
Philips 442-073-2 (5-disc box set) (1994)
Brahms: Symphonies 1-4;
Tragic Overture:
Academic Festival Overture
Haydn Variations;
Serenades 1-2; Hungarian Dances 1, 3, 10


Brahms: The Symphonies
Philips 442-068-2  (4-disc box set) (1994)

Brahms: Complete Symphonies and Concertos
Decca 00147 9902 (7-disc box set) (2010)

4 Symphonies; Overtures; Haydn Variations
Philips 6747 325 (4-LP box set) (1973)
Symphony #1 in c minor Op. 68
Philips 6500 519 (1973)
Symphony #2 in D major Op. 73
Haydn Variations Op. 56a
Philips 6500 375 (1975)

Symphony #3 in F major Op. 90
Tragic Overture Op. 81
Philips 6500 155 (1970)
Symphony #4 in e minor Op. 98
Philips 6500 389 (1972)
Serenade #1 in D major Op. 11
Philips 9500 322 (1977)
DISCS 10-18
Bruckner: Symphonies 0-9


Bruckner: The Symphonies
Philips 442 040-2 (9-disc box set) (1997)
Symphony #0 in d minor "Die Nulte"
Philips 802 724 (1966)
Symphony #1 in c minor 
Philips 6500 439 (1972)
Symphony #2 in c minor 
Philips 802 912 (1969)
Symphony #3 in d minor (1877 version) 
Philips 835 217 (1964)
Symphony #4 in E-flat major "Romantische" 
Philips 835 385 (1965)
Symphony #5 in B-flat major 
Philips 6700 055 (2-LP set) (1972)
Symphony #6 in A major 
Philips 6500 164 (1971)
Symphony #7 in E major
[with Te Deum]
Philips 802 759/60 (2-LP box set) (1967)
Symphony #8 in c minor 
Philips 6700 020 (2-LP set) (1970)
Symphony #9 in d minor 
Philips 835 381 (1966)
DISCS 19-28
Mahler: Symphonies 1-9;
Adagio from Symphony #10

Mahler: The Symphonies
Philips 442-050-2 (10-disc box set) (1994)

Symphony #1 in D major "Titan"
Philips 6500 342
Symphony #2 in c minor "Resurrection" 
Philips 802 884/5 (2-LP set)
Symphony #3 in d minor 
Philips 802 711/2 (2-LP set)
Symphony #4 in G major 
Philips 802 888
Symphony #5 in c-sharp minor
Adagio from Symphony #10 
Philips 6700 048 (2-LP box set)
Symphony #6 in a minor 
Philips 839 797/8 (2-LP box set) (1969)
Symphony #7 in e minor "Nachtgesang" 
Philips 6700 036 (2-LP box set)
Symphony #8 in E-flat major "Symphony of a Thousand" 
Philips 6700 049 (2-LP box set)
Symphony #9 in D major 
Philips 6700 021 (2-LP box set) (1970)
DISCS 29-30
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4;
"Genoveva" and "Manfred" Overtures


Schumann: The Symphonies
Philips 442 079-2 (2-disc set) (1994)
DISCS 31-36
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 1-6;
"Manfred" Symphony; Romeo and Juliet;
Marche Slave; Francesca di Rimini; The Storm;
Capriccio Italien; 1812 Overture 


Tchaikovsky: The Symphonies
Philips 442-???-2  (6-disc box set) (1994)

Tchaikovsky: The Symphonies
Decca 0019 15402 (6-disc box set) (2013)

Symphonies 1-6; "Manfred"
Philips 6768 267 (7-LP box set) (1980)

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