Thursday, August 27, 2015

YouTube Library of Examples of Great Conducting Part 1 - Stand By For Added Commentary

Everybody born pre-1900, though I'm sure I've forgotten a few from the 1890's not listed in Arthur Bloomfield's very interesting "More Than The Notes." hopefully I'll get around to conductors born post-1900 as well and even have a similar series of posts for great pianists and violinists. Everything here is good, but the star system is for just how extraordinary it is. If something is given five stars, it means that even if you knew the work well, you couldn't even imagine a more characterful performance. I could explain why, each clip is what it is, but that would literally take weeks to write up. Instead I'll settle for making paragraph long synopses of each performer and what particularly makes them extraordinary. If any of the links don't work, let me know (yeah... like that'll happen...) and I'll substitute. Also, when listening to YouTube, always listen with headphones. Almost any computer speaker can't possibly take in the full dynamic range.

Artur Nikisch
** Beethoven Symphony no. 5

Robert Kajanus:
**** Sibelius Symphony no. 2,
**** Sibelius Symphony no. 1

Karl Muck: Parsifal

** Gabriel Pierne: Giration

** Max Fiedler: Brahms Symphony no. 2

Felix Weingartner
*** Mendelssohn Symphony no. 3
**** Brahms Symphony no. 4,
** Beethoven Symphony no. 3

Richard Strauss
****  Beethoven Symphony no. 5,
*** Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

Arturo Toscanini
**** Verdi Otello, 
*** Beethoven Symphony no. 5,
***** Respighi Pines of Rome

I've long suspected that the Toscanini we all know is nothing like the real Toscanini. Surely the Toscanini known to us from recordings is a caricature of a musician who could inflame imaginations across every corner of the earth. The Toscanini of his final twenty years is a vital but isolated old man who has forgotten what it's like to make music with others - much too often, his performances seem like the musical equivalent to military drills: clipped, metronomic, unyielding, inhuman. Certainly, the military discipline we associate with Toscanini has its own benefits. We hear the benefits in his Otello - for once in our lives, we hear opera singers reined in to project nothing but what's in the score - marking by marking, tempo by tempo, rhythm by rhythm. What unfolds is not an opera but a drama so precise and perfectly paced that it is closer to Sophecles than Shakespeare. Toscanini had meditated on this music his entire life, and when you were the composer's preferred interpreter, your dictations are better than anyone else's collaborations. But we hear the evidence of what must have been a greater of a conductor of much greater sensitivity in his Beethoven 5, which is very nearly as echt-German as it gets and only has the smallest hint of the military about it - put it on for someone who didn't know the performance, they would probably guess it was an old Bruno Walter or Klemperer performance. The elderly Toscanini, vital until the end, was perfect for the fascist pomposity of The Pines of Rome. The music is a piece of trash, and I love every second of it. Never has this most exciting piece been played with more excitement.

Lorenzo Molajoli
****  Verdi Il Trovatore

Carlo Sabajno:
** Verdi Aida

Henry Wood
***  Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music

Franz Schalk
** Schubert Symphony no. 8 "Unfinished"

*** Max von Schillings: Wagner The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla

**** Leo Blech: Wagner Die Meistersinger Overture

Hans Pfitzner
*** Schumann Symphony no. 2

Oskar Fried
*** Beethoven Symphony no. 9 Finale

Willem Mengelberg:
***** Beethoven Symphony no. 5
**** Beethoven Symphony no. 7
***** Franck Symphony

No conductor is truly a free spirit - a free spirited conductor rides over the desires of 100 other musicians. But the best of the best, whether through persuasion or coercion or some unholy mix of the two, get their players to execute their wishes with an excitement that makes it seem as though they believe in their conductor's ideas as much as the conductor does. No conductor was ever more exciting than Mengelberg, even his weirdest ideas are brought off with such a surfeit of conviction that they work in practice when they absolutely shouldn't. For years, he has been dismissed unfairly as a bombastic virtuoso, the perfect conductor for Les Preludes - which he absolutely was by the way. He is, moreso even than Toscanini, responsible for the rise in the standard of playing in orchestras everywhere - a standard that was set by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam which he lead for fifty years. But whereas Toscanini would seem to have obtained his results at the expense of emotional expression, the emotions in Mengelberg's performances practically throbbed. The more I listen to his Beethoven, the more I wonder if in spite of their gaucheries, or perhaps in part because of them, they are sui generis, closer in spirit to the revelatory, revolutionary nature of Beethoven's inspiration than any other master's performances in the long and glorious history of these works.

** Siegmund von Hausegger: Bruckner Symphony no. 9

**** Alfred Hertz: Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Overture

Frederick Stock
** Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 5

Sergei Rachmaninov:
** Rachmaninov Isle of the Dead

Serge Koussevitzky
**** Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 5
**** Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
*** Copland: Appalachian Spring

Koussevitzky's reputation was eclipsed by his greatest achievement - Leonard Bernstein. From learning at the elderly Koussevitzky's feet during the older musician's quarter-century at the Boston Symphony, his star pupil learned that unnameable spark that transmutes music from a flat experience of playing notes on a page to a poly-dimensional experience that changes lives. He also championed all the best music which Koussevitzky did so much to birth from the greatest musical minds of his time - not just Appalachian Spring, but also Copland's Third Symphony, and Pictures at an Exhibition (the orchestral version we all know), and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and Britten's Peter Grimes, and Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony... But Bernstein was a genius, and Koussevitzky was merely a great conductor and an even greater servant of music. At the heart of his archetypally Russian music-making is a heart of gold - that heart was sometimes molten, as in the most dramatic passages of Tchaikovsky, but anyone who's ever experienced the immediacy of Bernstein's performances will recognize the fearless risktaking - the extremities of tempo and dynamics, the slowing down to underline musical climaxes, the milking of beautiful phrases to get the maximum possible most emotional expression, the sheer humanity of it all. Many classical music lovers find such emotionally vulnerable musicmaking unseemly, others of us call it the reason we need music.

Pierre Monteux:
**** Elgar Enigma Variations
**** Schumann Symphony no. 4
*** Ravel La Valse

Monteux was too sane and practical a musician to aim all the way to stratosphere. Yet he came more consistently close to it than most conductors who shoot for the moon at every performance. There is no such thing as a bad Monteux performance, nor is there such a thing as a generic one. Everything he did was shot through with intelligence, imagination, passion, and just a little too much good taste. Even if he never aimed for absolute revelation, he was a revelation all too often. No one but a fiery musician could ever play Schumann 4 like this - as a worthy Beethoven successor rather than a wooden Beethoven 5 imitation. No one but a truly perceptive musician could play Elgar's Enigma Variations - practically the national anthem of the English Concert Hall - with more passion and imagination than any English conductor I've ever heard has. And as the conductor whom young Stravinsky and Ravel entrusted their most important premieres, he has the kind of effortless vim (perhaps a bit too effortless sometimes, finding this quite visceral La Valse took some time) it takes to make Ravel's carefully wrought constructions lift off and stay in the air.

Ettore Panizza:
***** Ponchielli Dance of the Hours
**** Verdi Otello

I have no idea if Panizza's ultra-dramatic, tempo-change-a-minute approach to opera was how it was practiced when it was first performed - I doubt 19th century Italy had orchestras capable of keeping up with interpretations like this - the 1930's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra barely could. But if they did, I can't imagine audiences feeling anything but on fire from the result. In comparison to the sort of anodyne opera performances we usually hear, Panizza's performances seem to come to us from another planet where opera is more like a sporting event - every performance is expected to be completely different from every other. The tempos are often slow as a snail, so that every musical nuance from singers can be savored and pondered in the moment for its full weight, and no matter how weird the phrasing of the singer, Panizza stays exactly in timing with it. But when there's an orchestral interlude, the music suddenly snaps to at maximum speed and excitement and volume. Perhaps musicmaking like this was only possible in a brief era when the entire 'educated' world knew these works backwards and forwards and the best singers of every country descended on New York to flee war. But short of war, what I would not give to hear musicmaking like this live.

Bruno Walter:
***** Mozart Don Giovanni (then click here) (then here)
**** Mahler Symphony no. 9
***** Beethoven Symphony no. 9

There's the Bruno Walter we and our parents hear on recordings today, and then there's the Bruno Walter which our grandparents and great-grandparents heard in the concert hall. The recordings we hear today, wonderful as many of them are, come from the last six years of his life when he was recovering from a heart attack in his 80's and his energy was severely depleted. A lifetime's worth of wisdom lies in that Brahms and Mozart, but wonderful as they are, they are not the Walter that matters most. The Bruno Walter who existed until he was roughly 80 was the Bruno Walter who was Mahler's star pupil, and probably the closest we'll ever get to approximating what Mahler's performances sounded like. This Bruno Walter was perhaps the greatest conductor of the German classics there has ever been - combining Furtwangler's omnipresent imagination with Toscanini's omnipresent fire without Furtwangler's sanctimonious solemnity or Toscanini's oppressive rigidity.

Artur Bodanzky:
** Wagner Tannhauser

Only a Wagner skeptic such as I can offer up Bodanzky as the greatest of all Wagnerians. Through the antique sound lies a perfect image of Wagner as opera, not as Wagner. Never could Wagner have more commanding singers than the Met's roster of the late 30's - Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad of course, but also Friedrich Schorr, Marjorie Lawrence, Elisabeth Rethberg, Emmanuel List, Helen Traubel, Kerstin Thorborg... The cast in itself was enough to overwhelm Wagner, and were a traditionally great conductor like Walter or Furtwangler or Klemperer or Kleiber in charge of the Met's Wagner performances during this period, there's no doubt that these voices would be put to the task of properly serving Wagnerian seriousness of purpose. Thank God, that was not to be the case. Bodanzky, an shallower-seeming musical personality, wanted nothing more than theatrical immediacy from his performances. To my knowledge, Bodanzky's performances are the only recorded Wagner which throbs with dramatic purpose for every minute of the performance. All the potentially dull meandering fat is excised form the score, and what emerges is a lean, unphilosophical dramatic genius that is completely alien to Wagner's intentions, and quite an improvement on them.

Tulio Serafin:
*** Verdi Requiem
Bellini Norma
** Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana

Thomas Beecham:
*** Bizet Carmen
*** Mozart Symphony no. 35
***** Brahms Symphony no 3

For what should be obvious reasons, there's no conductor I'd have rather played for than Thomas Beecham. Even if he weren't a great conductor, Beecham's witticisms can take up whole books (I own one) and websites. but his musicmaking speaks for itself. Beecham was a man of mostly sunny disposition whom, while many times more intelligent than most conductors (who are generally not the most intelligent or curious bunch of people), had very little use for anything in music that stank too much of metaphysics. To put it more finely, he had little tolerance for bullshit. He loved the plainspokenness of Viennese classicism and 19th century France, and performed their music masterly naturalness. But perhaps it's all a bit too natural - compare Beecham's Carmen to Andre Cluytens (more on him later...) and you'll see the clear as day difference - Beecham is enjoyable and the soul of pleasantry, Cluytens is ecstatic and revelatory. But then, there are performances like Brahms 3, in which Beecham, clearly not content with the customary German stolidity, takes the bull by the balls and squeezes. You can hear Beecham in the outer movements, exhorting the players with all manner of shouts. Beecham is on record in a radio broadcast having some reservations about Brahms, so perhaps Beecham was best in works whose quality he was unsure about. I have never heard performances of Beethoven 7 which I found more persuasive and moving than his live performance (sadly not available on youtube though part of his hardly worse studio performance is), but it was a work about which Beecham said of the first movement (not without basis) "What can you do with it? It's like a bunch of yaks jumping about?"

Desire Ingelbrecht:
Debussy: La Mer
Debussy Fetes

Carl Schuricht:
** Beethoven Symphony no. 5
*** Mahler Symphony no. 3
*** Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2

Albert Coates:
**** Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini
*** Beethoven Symphony no. 3 (first movement)
**** Tristan und Isolde Love Duet

Leopold Stokowski:
*** Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
** Bach: Toccata and Fugue
*** Sibelius Symphony no. 2

Hermann Abendroth:
*** Schumann Symphony no. 4
** Brahms Symphony no. 1 (Finale)
*** Beethoven Symphony no. 9 (In Russian) 

Ernest Ansermet:
** Debussy Nocturnes
*** Stravinsky: Song of the Nightingale
** Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade

Nikolai Malko:
** Prokofiev: Symphony no. 7

Fritz Steidry:
Nicolai: * Merry Wives of Windsor Overture

Vaclav Talich:
**** Smetana: Ma Vlast
**** Dvorak Symphony no. 8

Samuil Samosud
** Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades

Vittorio Gui:
Rossini: Barber of Seville

Otto Klemperer:
**** Mahler Symphony no. 2
**** Beethoven Symphony no. 3
** Brahms: German Requiem

The same problems that beset Bruno Walter beset his career-long rival. The two Berlin-trained Jewish students of Mahler represented two contrasting pictures of Germany - one supposedly the great humanist and conservative, friend to Thomas Mann, champion of the musical establishment - the other supposedly the great revolutionary and progressive, friend to Bertolt Brecht, champion of the new. And yet, in their dotage they inevitably resembled one another far more than they differed. Both were great but spent in their old age, and their musicmaking is the musicmaking of wise masters who must husband their energies. Perhaps even more than Walter, the manic-depressive Klemperer's music-making practically burst at the seams with fanatical vitality, as this Mahler 2 from Amsterdam can demonstrate all too well, as can this Eroica from Copenhagen. But Klemperer's musicmaking was never as flexible as Walter's. He had other virtues - a far wider musical curiosity and repertoire, and a Boulez-like concern about projecting form and detail. But while Walter, a larger star for longer, was captured far more in his prime, we have far more of Klemperer from his ubiquitous final years. The picture the world has of Klemperer is unfairly weighted toward the lethargic old giant he became. But even at Klemperer's most ponderous (and my God, listen to his Mahler 7 to hear how boring it could get, or better yet, don't...), Klemperer was clearly, as Furtwangler also did, misfiring as only a genius could. Good or bad, there was a zen-like, x-ray projection whose conviction carries the listener forward. I don't have the secret to how Klemperer managed to make such a cool style so expressive, hardly any other conductor ever has, but what's incontrovertible is that Klemperer did precisely that.

Wilhelm Furtwangler:
***** Bruckner Symphony no. 5
***** Brahms Symphony no. 1 (Finale) 
** Wagner: Ring

Today's cult of Furtwangler can be as nauseating as the cult of Toscanini was to previous generations. Even if Furtwangler did not consistently elicit shoddy execution from his forces, listening to his performances can still be as boring as watching paint dry. There is as little reason to to stretch Beethoven's 9th symphony to nearly eighty minutes as there is to try to compress it to under an hour. Whatever the occasional virtues of his Beethoven, the ponderous solemnity and absence of light-heartedness with which he conducts Beethoven and his rough contemporaries is unforgivable - as is the rhythmic slovenliness that accompanies his performances of later composers. Nevertheless, in Middle Romantic generation between Wagner and Brahms during which German music reigned supreme over all, Furtwangler is Holy Writ - never to be surpassed though none would claim to, and never to be duplicated though many have tried. Furtwangler rarely earns the claim of 'greatest of all conductors' to which many, perhaps most, critics would assign him, but in certain works of Wagner, Brahms, especially Bruckner, and yes, certain works (or at least passages) of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and Furtwangler's ecstatic will to music will reign supreme forever.

Paul Paray:
** Debussy Nocturnes
**** Rimsky-Korsakov: Spanish Caprice
** Gounod: Ballet Music from Faust

Piero Coppola:
*** Saint-Saens Organ Symphony

Hans Knappertsbusch
* Das Rheingold

Fritz Reiner:
*** Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
***** Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
**** Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Adrian Boult:
*** Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony
** Schubert Symphony no. 9

Fritz Busch:
*** Schumann Symphony no. 4
*** Brahms Symphony no. 4
** Mozart: Don Giovanni

Erich Kleiber:
**** Mozart Marriage of Figaro Act I
*** Beethoven Symphony no. 3 
***** Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

Erich Kleiber was a martinet - he was also so much more. Look at clips of his conducting and contrast it with the conducting of his still more famous son - Carlos, and you see two diametrically opposed styles. Carlos was all imagination and psychology, but Erich was all discipline. He possessed the clearest beat anyone had ever seen, and looked like a military bandmaster rather than a conductor for the concert hall. In classic repertoire, he could be as metronomic as such an approach would lead you to believe. But even at his most disciplined, there was a poetic streak with incredibly beautiful balances and weighted chords and only a little of the Toscanini-like chopped attacks. One critic likened his approach to a mythical beast - Toscwangler, as close to the perfect synthesis of Toscanini's discipline and drama with Furtwangler's freedom and poetry. Perhaps that is a false ideal, but in their differing ways, the two Kleibers are as close to capturing that ideal as we will ever see. And like Carlos, he might have been best of all in light, sparkling, comic music which needs rhythmic panache more than flexible depth. Good as his Beethoven is, and masterly as he's known for being in Beethoven, the true master's hand is found in places like Mozart and Richard Strauss, where Kleiber's light touch is nearly unparalleled.

Charles Munch:
***** Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique
***** Honegger Symphony no. 2
***** Schubert Symphony no. 9

While Beecham is the one Golden Age conductor I wish I could have sat in on a rehearsal, Charles Munch is the Golden Age conductor I would have most wanted to hear live. A few years ago, I made a list of the conductors I thought were the greatest of all time - Munch ranked fourth. Today, I wonder if I would not rank him first. He is the one conductor whom in my experience has never given a performance that disappointed me. Even the most viscerally exciting conductors - Mengelberg, De Sabata, Mitropoulos, have performances when their passion seems to leave them and the phone in a generic performance. But there is not a single generic performance in Munch's discography. Every work I've ever heard of his has his elan, his imagination, his passion, operating at full blast. I have no idea whom the greatest conductor of all time is, but at this point in my life, I can tell you my favorite without a doubt.

Victor De Sabata:
**** Verdi Aida
***** The Salzburg Concert
*** Beethoven Symphony no. 8

When I came to make my ranking of the world's greatest conductors, I somehow forgot Victor De Sabata - a hugely regretful omission, as he would have ranked at very least #7 - not as high as Bernstein or Munch, or Kubelik and Mitropoulos, but higher than Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Mengelberg, Monteux, Mackerras, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Fricsay, Jochum, and other more famous conductors I esteem slightly less... What I'm sure about De Sabata is that he was the very greatest conductor who is not a personal favorite of mine. Whatever that means... it is nevertheless impossible to hear Victor De Sabata and not immediately be bowled over by the sheer animalistic intensity of the playing he elicits. Even among the most physically exciting conductors - Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Munch - there can't possibly be anything like this in the annals of orchestral precision. It's all a bit high-strung, I could only wish for a bit more repose, but to have wound an orchestra so tightly also gives it incredible freedom and flexibility of the kind that, unlike Toscanini, De Sabata exploits to explore every possible musical nuance.

Nikolai Golovanov:
***** Mussorgsky Boris Godunov
*** Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade

Hermann Scherchen:
**** Beethoven Symphony no. 3
*** Schoenberg Moses und Aron
** Bach St. Matthew Passion

Clemens Krauss:
**** Wagner: Siegfried
*** Strauss Salome
***** Johann Strauss: Voices of Spring

Artur Rodzinski:
*** Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet
** Brahms: Symphony no. 1
*** Shostakovich: Symphony no. 1

Karl Bohm:
Mozart: Symphony no. 36
*** Schubert: Symphony no. 2
*** Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Dmitri Mitropoulos:
**** Mahler Symphony no. 3
**** Shostakovich Symphony no. 10
*** Strauss Elektra

George Szell:
**** Beethoven Symphony no. 9
**** Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream
**** Sibelius Symphony no. 2

John Barbirolli:
**** Sibelius Symphony no. 2
*** Mahler Symphony no. 9
*** Nielsen Symphony no. 4

Eugene Ormandy:
Rachmaninov Symphony no. 2
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet
** Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

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