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Music: Glory from a Golden Past

3 minute read
Elliot Ravetz

At a time when the classical market is glutted with multiple recordings of the same old compositions, the New York Philharmonic has charted a more satisfying route back to the future. Delving into its recording archives, the orchestra has issued The Historic Broadcasts: 1923 to 1987, a dazzling 10-CD set that offers 32 live and unedited radio performances by 21 of the century’s most celebrated conductors and 18 of its legendary soloists.

The performances were culled from hundreds of hours of recordings by Sedgwick Clark, a musicologist and critic, who has sought to showcase the Philharmonic’s sustained virtuosity in a wide range of repertoire evenly distributed over its broadcast seasons. Listening to the selections (and reading the 144-page book of essays, interviews and notes) provides a rare opportunity to experience the changing approaches to music-making and the evolution of recording technology over the past 75 years. (The set, which retails for $185, is available at select Tower Records stores, or it can be ordered directly from the orchestra by phone or via the Internet at www.newyorkphilharmonic.org

The collection begins with a fragment from 1923 that is among the earliest known surviving symphony-broadcast recordings. At first its sound seems irritatingly thin and scratchy, but as the listener’s ears adapt, the focus turns to Willem van Hoogstraten’s white-hot, meticulously sculpted rendering of most of Beethoven’s Coriolanus overture; the level of orchestral precision is breathtaking. Even more remarkable is Willem Mengelberg’s spellbinding presentation in 1924 of two fragments from Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Mengelberg achieves an almost spiritual intimacy in the work’s tender, meditative broodings and a radiant beauty in its soaring climactic passages.

Moving through the years, the set includes such highlights in the symphony’s history as Otto Klemperer’s masterly U.S. premiere in 1934 of the original, and now standard, version of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9; and the youthful ardor and easy virtuosity of Jascha Heifetz and Arturo Toscanini performing Brahms’ Violin Concerto in 1935. The impassioned responsiveness Toscanini elicits from the orchestra demonstrates why his players held him in awe.

Also on hand are performances of works the artists never recorded commercially, such as Fritz Reiner’s elegant, pastoral reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and the lyrical and propulsive performance of Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 by Bruno Walter and Arthur Rubinstein, who, under contract to different labels, were never permitted to record together. There are David Oistrakh and Dimitri Mitropoulos in their nonpareil, rivetingly intense U.S. debut of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and memorable farewells like the thrilling immolation scene from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung in 1952 with Walter and Kirsten Flagstad in her last appearance with the Philharmonic, which had the audience applauding for 21 minutes. This set will have you applauding too.

–By Elliot Ravetz

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