An Orchestra for Everyman – by Rob Cowan
Few accolades in musical history match the praise that the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini lavished on the Philharmonia when, after the second of two all-Brahms concerts included in the present collection, he announced to
An Orchestra for Everyman – by Rob Cowan
Few accolades in musical history match the praise that the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini lavished on the Philharmonia when, after the second of two all-Brahms concerts included in the present collection, he announced to the Orchestra’s founder Walter Legge that if he were ten years younger he would have all his published records withdrawn (meaning, one presumes, the ones he made with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York) and devote the rest of his life to recording the whole of his repertoire with the fledgling London Orchestra. Later still Toscanini recalled how when rehearsing Brahms’s Second Symphony for the same series at the Royal Festival Hall, he stopped only once; ‘for the only time in my life I was simply a musician making music with other musicians’ [‘The Birth of the Philharmonia’, The Times Saturday Review, December 27th 1975]. Listening now to those vigorous and transparent Brahms performances one senses mutual respect between the Orchestra, then merely seven years sold, and a conductor who many years earlier had led the premieres of Puccini’s La bohème and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and who before the Second World War was lionized at the Bayreuth Festival. Pre-War, Toscanini was in London leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in coltish, firebrand accounts of Brahms’s Second and Fourth Symphonies, the latter, from 1935 (also available from Warner Classics) quite different in mood and texture from the equally energetic but more fastidiously balanced live Philharmonia version – also lacking the senseless firecracker intervention that you’ll hear in the Philharmonia finale!
Toscanini’s polar opposite, the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, a Dyonisus to compare with Toscanini’s Apollo, made what is surely the Orchestra’s greatest opera recording, a surging traversal of Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde, its vocal spearhead the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. Otto Klemperer’s live 1958 accounts of Strauss’s tone poems Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel are revelatory, for while there is discernible common ground between Toscanini’s Brahms in post-war New York and London, the extra shot of adrenalin that charges through Klemperer’s Don Juan, pushing the tempo as it goes, really makes you sit up. Suddenly his claim of being an ‘immoralist’ as opposed to the ‘moralist’ Bruno Walter makes perfect sense.
And yet for all the spontaneous excitement of Klemperer’s Strauss what most marks him out as a remarkable interpreter are his marmoreal yet finely detailed Philharmonia accounts of the Austro-German classics, his Beethoven famously big on confrontation and positive closure, his Mozart dignified yet full of warmth, his Mahler patient, insightful and entirely lacking in any unwelcome sense of kitsch. Hearing Klemperer’s droll Philharmonia recording of Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik reminds us that from 1927 to 1931 he was conductor at the Kroll opera in Berlin presenting much new music.Then again new music, starting with the fin-de-siècle works of the early twentieth century, have always been central to the Philharmonia’s repertoire. Our collection concludes with Esa-Pekka Salonen cossetting the finely woven counterpoint of Schoenberg’s narrative masterpiece Verklaerte Nacht whereas composer-conductor Igor Markevitch, whose creative flare was much admired by Bartók, frees the savage beast in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, far more so in stereo in 1959 (the version included here, balanced by Robert Gooch) than in 1951 in mono, where Legge’s production relegates the all-important timpani part to the middle distance.
Markevitch was a true maverick whose imagination ranged creatively over vast musical terrains, whereas Herbert von Karajan who Legge had brought from Germany virtually penniless, was a musical athlete in the making. While Klemperer’s Don Juan is a highly sexed curb-crawling rake, Karajan’s is a dashing Erroll Flynn character, handsome, lissome, and seductive. His Philharmonia Beethoven is a sleek offshoot of the Toscanini tradition, possibly akin to the sort of Beethoven that Toscanini might have given us had he realised his dream of re-recording his American repertoire in London, his account of Respighi’s Pines of Rome – another Toscanini speciality – truly stunning. And there’s the man often cited as the Maestro’s protégé, Italian-born Guido Cantelli who tragically lost his life in a plane crash in 1956, aged only 36.Toscanini invited Cantelli to guest with his New York Orchestra, and claimed afterwards, ‘I am happy and moved to inform you of Guido's great success and that I introduced him to my Orchestra, which loves him as I do.’ Cantelli’s Philharmonia legacy, which often replicates repertoire that Toscanini himself had conducted in New York, illustrates just what was special about him: impeccable musical judgement, disciplined ensemble, and highlighting the colouristic properties of the great Orchestra that was in his temporary charge at the time.
Early in the Philharmonia’s life Legge had to work hard forging a string section that met with his exacting standards and no recording illustrates his achievement more fully than Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings as taped at London’s Kingsway Hall in 1952 under another composer-conductor, Paul Kletzki, with the vigour of the first movement, the charm of the second, the warmth of the ‘Elegie’ and the brilliance of the finale. Of the later benchmark recordings that kept the Philharmonia at the forefront of the world’s musical stage Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1964 Verdi Requiem anticipated the terror of Judgement Day like no other since Toscanini’s. In fact all of Giulini’s Philharmonia recordings from this period, witty Rossini and Bizet, brooding Ravel, and sensuous Franck, represent this highly gifted conductor at the very height of his youthful powers. Add the lighter fare and brilliant work by various Philharmonia soloists and you soon realise what makes the Orchestra so special, its adaptability to any number of styles, both musical and interpretative, always delivering the goods in such a way that audiences were, and still are, regularly drawn to their feet. The ecstatic reaction to Klemperer’s Till Eulenspiegel proves the point admirably.