ONE-HUNDRED and fifty years ago, Viennese composer Otto Nicolai offered a special concert featuring "the entire orchestra of the Imperial and Royal Court Opera House," which he called the Philharmonic Academy for the occasion. On this day, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) as we know it today, was born.
It remains one of the singular orchestral institutions in the world - all male, self-governing, and in a very real sense, self-perpetuating: All its members are trained in the same music academy by the orchestra's principle players, so that when they do join the ensemble, they are already imbued with the VPO traditions, technical and social, and the orchestra is able to maintain its unique sound and musical flexibility.
The orchestra is celebrating its sesquicentennial with a world tour, and the release, through Deutsche Grammophon, of a special 12-CD box it has put together of never-before-released broadcast tapes dating from 1940 to 1976. Another two-CD set focuses on studio recordings of Strauss waltzes and other Viennese bonbons, with a dazzling lineup of some of the greatest conducting names of the century.
Meanwhile, London Records has put out its own 12-CD compilation of studio performances, featuring conductors who have appeared on its label; Sony Classical's sesquicentennial box is devoted to Lorin Maazel's Mahler cycle, all of which has been previously released.
The world tour of the orchestra included two nights at Carnegie Hall last February, with Maazel on the podium in programs of Brahms, Richard Strauss, Mozart, and Mahler (who was director of the VPO from 1898-1901). The concerts were more impressive as superb showcases for the current state of the orchestra than as musically memorable events. Maazel might have seemed an odd choice, yet his VPO concert performance of Strauss's "Elektra" last season, as part of Carnegie Hall's 100th anniversary celebration,
had been unforgettable. Maazel completely lost himself in the score; the orchestra outdid itself for the nearly two-hour duration of this grueling score, playing with a sheen, a burnished fire in the brass and winds, a searing aching passion in the strings; Eva Marton, the Elektra, gave one of the outstanding accounts of the role I have ever heard.
In fact, the entire performance was one of three or four of the most astonishing musical events of my concert-going life, thanks to Maazel, Marton, and the VPO equally.
However, expectations were probably too high for the two Carnegie concerts. Most alarming was Maazel's insistence on stepping between the music and the orchestra - setting tempi consistently too slow, prodding them into executing eccentric phrasings, and so forth.
In the case of Brahms's Third Symphony, this led to serious problems in ensemble, and in general, musical tension was allowed to sag within too many movements on both nights. Only Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" really survived Maazel's peculiar ministrations.
What becomes clear in listening to the DG box is that most conductors who elicit memorable performances from the Vienna Philharmonic have let the Vienna become partners in a musical exploration, where each taps the others' strengths to create something unique. The sterling example of this is a Bruckner Ninth Symphony with Herbert von Karajan from the 1976 Salzburg Festival. It is, quite simply, Karajan's finest Bruckner recording; the radio microphones capture the Vienna brass with thrilling impact. Less
well recorded (1963 mono) but gripping in its majesty is Carl Schuricht's Bruckner Fifth, one of the best accounts of the work on CD.
Ten conductors are represented on the 12 CDs. And whereas space precludes mentioning them all specifically, there are some real standouts within this standout set. There is a volatile and passionate reading of Schoenberg's "Pelleas und Melisande" by Karl Bohm from 1969 (paired with a fine Strauss "Tod und Verklrung" from 1963 in mono). Richard Strauss's account of Wagner's "Meistersinger" Overture proves the composer's reputation as a conductor to be well founded. Otto Klemperer's granitic way with
Beethoven's Fifth has rarely sounded more majestic and thrillingly inexorable than on the 1968 broadcast. Bernstein is represented in two performances - Haydn's 102nd, and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, with the conductor at the keyboard - that are sure to raise eyebrows among the purists, but to these ears are refreshingly alive. Bernstein's mentor, Bruno Walter, is represented by a Mahler Fourth Symphony from 1953 (Hilde Guden, soprano soloist), that is far superior to his studio account.
There are only two disappointments on the set. First is an oddly aimless account of Beethoven's Ninth from Wilhelm Furtwngler (1953), whom the Viennese called the greatest musician-interpreter of all time; the Brahms Second Symphony (1945) also included, is far more representative of this fine artist. Second is a Stravinsky "Pulcinella" suite led by Clemens Krauss that is so imperfectly executed as to do no service to the VPO or Krauss. Happily the maestro is also represented by a towering performan ce of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," captured on shellacs in 1940, hence a noticeable amount of surface noise.
The Krauss "Missa Solemnis" brings up the one major point about the DG set - it is a historic document, aimed for collectors who value performance over up-to-date sound. Some of the tapes are surprisingly good for their age, and they all capture unique history. London Records could have captured an equally unique history, since the VPO was its "exclusive" recording property (i.e., it had the first option on sessions) for four decades. Unfortunately, the selections are fairly unimaginative. Yes, there are
a few items new to the CD catalogue, like a Fritz Reiner "Tod und Verklrung," and Pierre Monteux's Haydn. But Karajan, for instance, is represented by two terrible-sounding performances of Strauss and Brahms, while a superior Beethoven Seventh collects dust in the archives; Christoph von Dohnanyi gets an entire CD, yet Istvan Kertesz is totally ignored.
Even the documentation is less effective. DG offers specific essays by 90-year-old Otto Strasser, the VPO's living archivist; from him we get a sense of the conductor in question, his relation to the orchestra, and what was going on in the VPO's history at that moment. The London booklet offers a complete discography of its VPO releases, and a reminiscence by Christopher Raeburn, producer on less than a third of the selections, who discusses only seven of the 17 conductors represented.