On The New York Philharmonic’s 175th Anniversary

Recordings in Review

Dewey Faulkner
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

By one of those fortunate coincidences, 2017 was both the 175th anniversary of the founding of the New York Philharmonic and the 100th anniversary of its first recording. To commemorate these occasions, Sony/BMG has created a 65-CD box set called New York Philharmonic: 175th Anniversary Edition (Sony 533636) that samples the orchestra’s releases, from Josef Stransky’s initial recording of Ambroise Thomas’s overture to Raymond to Kurt Masur’s 1995 recording of Antonín Dvořák’s cello concerto with Yo-Yo Ma. With a very few exceptions it includes the orchestra’s releases originally on both the RCA Victor and Columbia labels only. What came before and what came after are missing, for quite different reasons.

The before, from 1842 to 1917, is easily explained. Sound recording only began in 1877, and early orchestral recordings weren’t often attempted since the sound of an orchestra could only be approximated. Available were acoustic (that is, recording horn) input and unamplified output (again via horn), all heard via 78-rpm shellac discs playing for around four minutes each. The Philharmonic’s early years are consequently aurally undocumented, from its initial concert in 1842, which began with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, through the age of the Master Conductors, especially Theodore Thomas (1877–91), Anton Seidl (1891–98), and Gustav Mahler (1909–10). There were also interim years, many of them characterized by multiple conductors, an unhelpful situation replicated in many years to come.

The Philharmonic set starts with Mahler’s successor, Josef Stransky (1911–23). The quality of his work is disputed, but it appears that despite being adventurous in repertoire, his talents were unequal to his chosen music. His recordings, the orchestra’s first, were of twenty-six brief, popular pieces set down in 1917–19. Our set has the Raymond overture and an abridged reading of the slow movement to Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, premiered by the Philharmonic under Seidl in 1893. As Barbara Haws’s brief but informative notes point out, several players on the recording probably played in that first performance. The 1917 sound on both pieces is understandably crude and says little about the orchestra.

After Stransky left, the Philharmonic in 1923 engaged Willem Mengelberg from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra as principal conductor. Stransky and Mengelberg were made co-conductors for the 1922–23 season, a typical situation for New York. Less typically, Mengelberg never became sole conductor: he always shared the job with one or more others. Even so, doing the bulk of the work, he restored the orchestra’s playing and made a series of recordings with it from 1922 to 1930.

In the Aprils of 1922, 1923, and 1924 the Philharmonic and Mengelberg recorded fourteen pieces acoustically for (RCA) Victor. Their sound is improved from Stransky’s efforts of five years earlier but still crude. The set includes one of these, the first movement (the only part recorded) of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But work on microphones (and amplification and loudspeakers) in the early 1920s had revolutionized sound capture and enabled “electrical” recording, whose sound was capable of far greater dynamic range and subtlety than acoustic horns allowed. Alas, the medium of delivery remained the four-minute 78-rpm disc, and recording sessions were arranged to capture pieces in these small chunks, although some recordings could be made on film stock, allowing greater lengths to be set down uninterrupted. (Behind this was Hollywood’s addition of sound to silent motion pictures in the mid-twenties.)

RCA Victor between late 1925 and early 1930 brought Mengelberg and the Philharmonic into their updated studios to make these new electrical recordings. From the 1925 sessions the set has two pieces, one being the orchestra’s first electrical recording, Richard Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman. From 1928 it has the ambitious complete recording of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, premiered by and dedicated to Mengelberg. The sound is quite good, and the performance, with its subtle shifts in tempo, demonstrates the exceptional precision and solid sound of the orchestra’s playing. By 1930 Mengelberg had become merely a guest conductor, but he recorded then both the First and Third Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonic. The Third, a superb reading, is in the set. (It sounds far better on Pristine PASC 412, coupled with the First. All Mengelberg’s Philharmonic recordings have been restored, by Ward Marston [RCA, Biddulph], Mark Obert-Thorn [Biddulph, Pristine], and Andrew Rose [Pristine]. Only the Pristine issues [the 1928–30 recordings] remain in print.)

Mengelberg’s sole recording of an American work is included, Ernest Schelling’s splendid tone-poem A Victory Ball (recorded 1925), after Alfred Noyes’s eponymous 1920 poem. Mengelberg knew Schelling because he had founded the orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts in 1924. Later popularized by Leonard Bernstein, they still exist.

Mengelberg and the group were also involved in 1926 and 1927 in electrical capture of sound on film through “Light-Ray,” by the Brunswick Company, a bowling-supplies firm that decided to cash in on the new craze. (The bowling part of the company thrives today.) Its greatest accomplishment, a complete Pyotr Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony on twelve sides, was never released. But slipped in among all these were the first Philharmonic recordings of Arturo Toscanini.

Toscanini had joined Mengelberg and the orchestra in 1926 as one of several guest conductors. By 1927 he and the Dutchman had become co-conductors, and in 1928 he was allowed to select the musicians to remain from the merger of the Philharmonic with Walter Damrosch’s New York Symphony, renamed the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York. (The clunky new name remained for several decades but will be ignored here.) By 1929 Mengelberg had been shunted aside to guest status, and Toscanini became the Philharmonic’s principal conductor, a position he held until mid-1936.

In the 1920s the Italian maestro was transitioning from decades of operatic work to orchestral conducting, much as Mahler had done in New York in 1909. Toscanini had conducted a symphony orchestra of La Scala players intermittently for some years, but was new to much of the standard repertoire, so throughout his Philharmonic career much of the music was fresh and exciting to him, leading him to experiment with interpretations. He had an exact ear, a prodigious memory, an awe-inspiring ability to study and master scores, and an iron will (and ferocious temper) with which to impose his ideas. And he did not like to make recordings.

His Brunswick “Light-Ray” sides, two movements from Felix Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, did not please him. But RCA persuaded him to try again in March 1929 using their new method, and Toscanini set down, along with shorter pieces, both Mozart’s Haffner Symphony (number 35) and Haydn’s Clock Symphony (number 101). RCA’s special hope was to record Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to accompany Mengelberg’s two, preferably in a live concert. A 1931 attempt did not please Toscanini, nor did another in 1933. Finally he agreed to set down Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in 1936, yielding one of the greatest of all Philharmonic records.

Nearly all these commercial Toscanini releases with the Philharmonic are in the box set, including the unissued 1933 Beethoven Fifth. (The 1926 Brunswick Mendelssohns are here rather than RCA’s 1929 remake of the Scherzo only.) As with the Mengelbergs, alternative attempts have been made to improve the sound of each of them. Mark Obert-Thorn did one such restoration for Pearl in the late 1980s and another on five CDs for Naxos in 2002 that included all the recorded takes. (The latter also included a painstaking and successful restoration of the discarded 1931 Beethoven Fifth. Both these sets are out of print.) Best of all is Richard Caniell’s 2017 restoration for Immortal Performances, The Victor Recordings Restored (IPRMS IPCD 1087-3; 3 CDs), which has both greater clarity and more body and heft in the Philharmonic’s sound. This was done as a contribution to the 150th anniversary of Toscanini’s birth in 2017, the year’s third cause for celebration.

As RCA knew, the true Toscanini magic could only be heard, and captured, in live concerts, and this only really became possible off the air in the maestro’s last two Philharmonic seasons, in the springs of 1935 and 1936. With the assistance of the Toscanini Estate, Caniell is restoring many of these concerts, including the six-concert Brahms cycle and concluding Beethoven Missa Solemnis from 1935 and four complete concerts (so far) from 1936. (Another, all-Beethoven CD is forthcoming.) In these, despite occasional surface scrapings, one can hear the Philharmonic and Toscanini playing gloriously, setting performance standards that would hang over the group and its conductors for decades to come.

RCA Victor in March 1932 also captured a stray recording by Sir Thomas Beecham, Strauss’s Don Quixote, which resulted from Toscanini’s absence, caused by upper arm pain, which left dates to be filled by guests. Beecham’s New York success with the Strauss piece led to this delightful recording, included in the box. As with the earlier Heldenleben, sound is fairly good.

Then in mid-1936 Toscanini left the Philharmonic. Apart from Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was rejected (and also declined), he proposed two candidates to succeed himself, John Barbirolli and Artur Rodzinski. The young, relatively inexperienced Barbirolli was chosen and began with the orchestra in the fall of 1936, opening with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, which is included in the box set. That first season went well, both critically and with the audience, largely because Barbirolli had played most of it with his Scottish Orchestra (today the Royal Scottish National Orchestra). In later seasons he became overwhelmed by all the new scores he was required to learn and was less successful with them. Worse, he fell prey to the orchestra’s “I-played-under-Toscanini–Who-do-you think-you-are?” syndrome, which remained part of their approach to conductors through the 1970s, when Boulez put an abrupt stop to it. (Well, partly–Zubin Mehta got this as well.) And unwisely, he was far less demanding than Toscanini: “Mr. Barbirolli would do well to realize that the Philharmonic can play as well as any orchestra there is but will only do so if it is made to.” Barbirolli’s position was not helped by Toscanini’s return to New York in 1937 to conduct the NBC Symphony, created for radio broadcasts by the maestro, many issued on recordings by RCA Victor. Critics grew savage toward the young Englishman, especially the newly appointed Virgil Thomson, and Barbirolli increasingly was forced to share conducting duties with others. He lasted through the orchestra’s 1942 hundredth anniversary when, amid a host of “guest conductors,” Toscanini conducted a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the Philharmonic. In 1943 Barbirolli not unwillingly returned to England and to restoring the Hallé Orchestra.

Barbirolli programmed modern works (conservative ones) and English compositions; both types alienated the audience, which had been taught by the “Music Appreciation Racket” (as Thomson termed it) that only the “Great Classics” mattered, particularly those played by Toscanini. Everything else was “experimental” and to be despised. Most of Barbirolli’s recordings from 1938 through 1942 were of core repertoire, if a little less core than Toscanini’s, largely because they were on Columbia Records, then an upstart rival to the established RCA Victor label, and Columbia needed such pieces to compete. In the box set are Franz Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, Brahms’s Second Symphony, and the first two symphonies of Jean Sibelius. The orchestra does all of them well, though playing less precisely than under Mengelberg or Toscanini, and Barbirolli’s readings are generally uncontroversial. (The Sibelius is erratic.) Their restored sound here is rather flattened out. It is served much better by Michael Dutton’s restorations for the Barbirolli Society, which also offers CDs of other commercial and live Philharmonic concerts, the latter recorded professionally off the air for the conductor. (Most of these are now available from the Barbirolli Society website.) Considering all the evidence, Barbirolli did notably better than the myths of Philharmonic history would have it.

Barbirolli’s guest conductors included Igor Stravinsky, whose influential 1940 recording of Le sacre du printemps is included here, and Beecham, whose 1942 excellent Sibelius Seventh Symphony should have been included. Most important for the Philharmonic was the return of Mahler’s apostle, the exiled Bruno Walter, who had led the orchestra often from 1923 through 1935. Walter opened his Philharmonic guest performances in January 1941 with Anton Bruckner’s mighty Eighth Symphony (Music & Arts CD-1106) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, both works novel and not much welcomed in New York. Walter soon settled in and became Columbia Records’ chief pillar of the standard Austro-German repertoire, their bulwark against Toscanini–another reason Barbirolli became redundant. Our set includes both Walter’s Beethoven Third and his Fifth Symphony from 1941, done in his fiery early style.

Toscanini’s approach was restored to the Philharmonic by Barbirolli’s successor, and Toscanini’s first choice to succeed him, Artur Rodzinski, who took over in the fall of 1943. Unfortunately, Rodzinski’s first notable action was to fire fourteen players, including Toscanini’s hand-picked concertmaster. (The musicians’ union was especially unhappy.) He went on to rebuild the orchestra, restore much of its precision, and perform a wide selection of programs. Because the central repertoire was being recorded by Walter, Columbia had Rodzinski branch out, especially into Russian composers. The box set has Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and Fourth Suite, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, and Prokofiev’s Fifth–along with Sibelius’s seldom-heard Fourth, all in good sound. These might usefully be supplemented by a splendid live 1944 Shostakovich Eighth Symphony on Guild (GHCD 2322). There is not a lot of romantic sweep or passion in any of these, but Rodzinski’s performances are idiomatic and the Philharmonic’s playing is assured.

Rodzinski liked to perform operas in concert, and on 25 November 1945 the Philharmonic broadcast a major Wagner concert comprising “bleeding chunks” from Der Ring des Nibelungen as well as the complete Act 3 of Die Walküre and the Immolation Scene ending Götterdämmerung, both featuring the Metropolitan Opera soprano Helen Traubel. To save time the Walküre act was cut in the standard Met fashion. But a recording of the uncut act had been made the previous May, was released by Columbia, and is listed by Sony on the box program. Alas, it isn’t as advertised. Sony has erroneously included the actual concert instead, with cuts (51 minutes), although it had issued the complete act (61 minutes) in 2001 on its obscure Retrospective CD label (SBK 89599). This means that the Sieglinde is not the advertised Irene Jessner but the concert’s Doris Doree. (Both ladies are quite good.) A better restoration of the concert with the cut parts added in from the 78s (and notes by this author) has been issued by Immortal Performances (IPCD 1093-2). We still need a reissue of the complete recorded act from May.

Rodzinski brought in as a frequent guest George Szell, at the time conducting primarily at the Met. Szell is another of the box set’s appalling omissions, not appearing in it at all, although he conducted the Philharmonic frequently from 1943 to 1970 and made several recordings with them. Like Rodzinski a Toscanini disciple, Szell always restored discipline to the group, most notably during the Bernstein period. Bernstein himself made his Philharmonic debut as a guest in 1943, during Rodzinski’s tenure. His debut concert broadcast has been reissued on CD by the Philharmonic.

Rodzinski programmed more adventurously than Barbirolli and thus likewise fell out with reactionary New York audiences. He fell out with management as well, leading to his abrupt resignation in 1947. Bruno Walter agreed to become “Musical Advisor” while the search for a replacement was under way from 1947 to 1949. (He had been asked to take over from Barbirolli in 1943 but declined.) Walter continued to record and managed to have Columbia capture the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies of his master Mahler with the Philharmonic (1945 and 1947); both are first recordings, and both are in this set. A lively 1947 Dvořák Eighth Symphony is also included.

After 1949, recording itself changed, owing to two major alterations in technology. Benefiting artists, it began to be done on magnetic tape, which allowed both increased fidelity of sound and less interruption for side changes. On the consumer side, the introduction of long-playing records, or LPs, that spun at 33 1/3 rpm rather than 78 rpm (a benefit of wartime motor improvements) meant that playing times increased from around four minutes per twelve-inch side to around twenty-three minutes. And the records were plastic (today’s “vinyl”) rather than shellac and thus “unbreakable.” (On how many occasions have we heard corporate hype like this that turned out to be untrue?)

As a result of these changes Walter gradually increased his number of recordings. In 1949 he led a Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonic and recorded all the symphonies and much else; in 1951 he did the same for Brahms. None of these memorable recorded performances is included in the set, distorting the picture it gives of Philharmonic history and accomplishments. (The Beethoven and Brahms were reissued on Sony’s now abandoned United Archives label around twenty years ago; the Brahms symphonies are still available on an Anglo-French set on Sony Classic Recordings [517187; 2 CDs]. Walter’s live Brahms performances are beautifully restored on Pristine Audio [PABX005; 6 CDs].) More significantly there would be more Mahler: the First Symphony (1954), the Second Symphony (1958) (Sony SM2K 64447; 2 CDs), and Das Lied von der Erde (1960) (Sony SMK 64455), the latter two using the next innovation, stereo. The Lied should be supplemented with Walter’s live New York performances of 1948 (Kathleen Ferrier, Set Svanholm) (Pristine PACO 137) and 1960 (Maureen Forrester, Richard Lewis) (Music & Arts CD-206), the latter being the Mahler Festival evening concluding the Philharmonic’s centenary celebration of the composer’s birth. In light of all this activity, the lack of all Walter recordings after 1947 in the box set is unforgivable.

In 1947 Walter shared the podium with three candidates for principal leadership: Charles Munch, who went to Boston in 1949, Leopold Stokowski, who probably would (and should) have stayed with the group, and Dimitri Mitropoulos, who got the job. All three have representation in the set. The unnecessary Munch disc features Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, which he did far better in Boston. Far more representative is Stokowski’s disc, featuring Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension; Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, its first recording; and a couple of Wagner items. “Stokie” was a master of all these pieces, particularly the modern ones, and this is a valuable CD. (All of Stokowski’s Philharmonic records, plus several live pieces, are reproduced on three Cala CDs, all sadly now out of print. His legendary 1950 live New York performance of Mahler’s enormous Eighth Symphony is on Music & Arts CD-1130.)

Dimitri Mitropoulos took over the Philharmonic in 1949, was subjected like Barbirolli to increasing critical (and some public) hostility, and like Barbirolli and others was compelled to share his final season with a newcomer. The Greek conductor was hired partly to bring New York into the modern era while Walter maintained the core Austro-German repertoire. (“Modern” to New Yorkers in the fifties was almost anything from the previous half-century, and they didn’t want to hear it. The contemporary music of the time fared even worse.) Mitropoulos struggled on, recorded a good deal, especially Russian music, and some of the best of it is here, the final sessions being in stereo (particularly suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet). A great deal more has been preserved elsewhere “live” off the air, often yielding more striking performances than the commercial ones.

The set includes the concert performances of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, with Eileen Farrell and Mack Harrell, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, with Dorothy Dow. It contains many French tone poems and many Russian pieces (by Alexander Borodin, Alexander Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich). Of Mitropoulos’s important commercial recordings it lacks Hector Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été (with Eleanor Steber), Claude Debussy’s La Mer, Morton Gould’s Fall River Legend, Leon Kirchner’s Piano Concerto (with Kirchner), Peter Mennin’s Third Symphony, the Prokofiev Violin Concerti, the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, and others. Of his live performances, his Mahler concerts should be heard (many of these are on Music & Arts CD-1021; 6 CDs), while his concert reading of Richard Strauss’s Elektra with Astrid Varnay, Elena Nicolaidi, and Herbert Janssen from 1949 was called by Olin Downes, no fan of the conductor, “one of the legendary musical events in the history of this city” and “astounding” by Virgil Thomson, another non-fan. (It can be heard on Guild, excellently restored by Caniell [GHCD 2213/14; 2 CDs].)

Mitropoulos conducted entirely from memory, was almost mystically involved in the music he was conducting, and frequently had special insights into it. In many cases a Mitropoulos performance is like no one else’s, quite often more convincing than other performances. His Shostakovich Tenth Symphony (included in the box) and Violin Concerto (with David Oistrakh and, alas, not included) remain landmarks to be set beside the creator’s recordings of Yevgeny Mravinsky. His live Mahler performances, with Walter’s, created a New York audience for the Philharmonic’s earlier conductor. Unfortunately, Mitropoulos was not a disciplinarian, and the orchestra came to treat him shamefully in their customary way.

By mid-1956 it appeared that Guido Cantelli would replace Mitropoulos with the Philharmonic. (Pristine Audio offers seven CDs of Cantelli’s live appearances with the orchestra.) But Cantelli died in November 1956 in a plane crash, and the search continued. Soon the position was offered to Mitropoulos’s protégé, Leonard Bernstein, who was co-conductor for the 1957–58 season. After his unplanned 1943 appearance, Bernstein had conducted the Philharmonic occasionally, more frequently during the 1950s. He recorded his Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, with them in 1951; this is in the set. As the new permanent conductor, Bernstein began to record extensively with the Philharmonic starting in 1958. By 1989 he had set down with them over two hundred compositions, the bulk in stereo, made for both Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon (the latter not in the set). A major problem for him was the recording venue. In 1962 Bernstein presided over the opening of Philharmonic Hall at the new Lincoln Center (some of this concert is in the set), where acoustics were never right for recordings. (And still aren’t, though better than in 1962.) But Columbia found alternative sites for him, and their increasing uses of electronic manipulation and “creative” tape editing always produced an acceptable sonic product–although not always one that sounded like what was heard in the hall.

All things came together for Lenny, as he was affectionately called. He was educated, articulate, handsome, inquisitive, capable of mastering new scores rapidly and of conveying his excitement when he did. He was flamboyant on the podium, but he had charisma to burn, and it burned through his listeners. He was a creature of the stereo LP era, when classical music was still familiar to young people and was listened to by them. The Columbia Record Club ensured that his recordings had wide distribution, and his weekly Philharmonic broadcasts reached a large audience throughout the United States. Not everything he did succeeded, and he recorded (and played) lots of lesser pieces, but there had been no one like him in New York since Toscanini, not even the masterful Stokowski. He was our Lenny, and his shadow still falls across the Philharmonic.

Bernstein’s list of recordings with the Philharmonic is enormous. In James North’s Philharmonic discography it takes up twelve pages, whereas most permanent conductors have around two. The centenary of Bernstein’s birth falls in 2018, and Sony has issued a “remastered” 100-CD set commemorating it (541714), a set that still omits many important items.

The Philharmonic set has many good choices and many dismissable ones. Invaluable here are Charles Ives’s Second Symphony, Roy Harris’s Third, Shostakovich’s Fifth (an interpretation that delighted the composer), Mahler’s Second and Third (the latter performed in memory of Mitropoulos), two of Haydn’s Paris symphonies, Carl Goldmark’s Third, Carl Nielsen’s Fifth (an electrifying reading), four Aaron Copland scores, some Samuel Barber, some George Gershwin. These are all Lenny at the top of his game. Here too are often interestingly interpreted French scores, as well as fascinating moments in lesser pieces. (His overture to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra and that to his own Candide are classics; both are here.) And there is a lot of the popular trivia that kept Columbia Records going. A lot.

The set’s problem is what is not here that might have been were the deadwood cleared out. Unexpectedly, Bernstein was a great interpreter of Haydn and Beethoven. So where are Haydn’s London symphonies, and most of Lenny’s Beethoven: the magisterial Violin Concerto (with Isaac Stern), the amazing Fifth Symphony, and above all the stunning Missa Solemnis? Where are the Mahler Seventh and Tenth Symphonies, unequalled even today? Where are the American pieces he so championed: the William Schuman Third Symphony, Ives’s Third and Holidays Symphonies, Randall Thompson’s Second, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Lenny as pianist)? And where are Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Paul Hindemith’s E-flat Symphony, and, above all, Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, whose opening movement is the most perfect expounding of the Romantic sensibility we will ever encounter? And on we could go.

More understandably missing are the live performances. The Philharmonic itself issued a box of these (New York Philharmonic: Bernstein Live; 10 CDs), and others are scattered through their Historic Broadcasts, 1923–1987 (10 CDs) and American Celebration (two volumes; 10 CDs) box sets. (Most of these are available from the orchestra’s online store.) Especially striking are the three missing Wagner evenings with Eileen Farrell (Leonard Bernstein Conducts Wagner [Gala GL 100.613; 3 CDs]). As with omitted (or overlooked) commercial CDs, we could go on and on.

It is said that no one is indispensable. Yet with age we learn that there are cases where that simply isn’t true, and Bernstein, like Toscanini, was one of those cases. The Philharmonic would spend decades trying to replace him–arguably, it is still doing so. Fortunately, when his official position ended in 1969 he returned often and made recordings until his death. But the Philharmonic still needed a permanent conductor, and in an attempt to be “with it” and continue Bernstein’s (and Mitropoulos’s) work of dragging New York kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, it engaged Pierre Boulez.

Boulez had begun in Paris as an enfant terrible, but in the 1960s he turned to conducting large orchestras, proselytizing for modern music that needed to be heard. He worked with London’s BBC Symphony from 1964 to 1969, after which he accepted the New York offer. He was in charge there from 1971 through 1977 and made recordings with the Philharmonic during that period.

Boulez tolerated none of the foolishness that the orchestra imposed on new conductors. He had a comprehensive memory and perfect pitch, and he noticed everything, corrected everything, and appeared to strike terror into the musicians’ souls. Because of his international affiliations, Boulez recorded with both British and American orchestras, and his only large-scale recording project in New York was the music of Ravel. The box set includes his glorious complete Daphnis and Chloe and several other pieces, including the infamous Boléro. His complete Mother Goose, also included, is beautifully shaped and played and utterly without charm, as is so much of his work. Also included are works by Schoenberg, Berg, Béla Bartók, Stravinsky, and Edgard Varèse (a staggering Amériques).

One CD is wasted on his Handel, which would have been better used for his brilliant complete Stravinsky Firebird, or Albert Roussel’s Third Symphony, or Varèse’s Arcana and Ionisation. In concert he tried music from earlier centuries (the “core repertoire” again) but was hugely unsuccessful–his Liszt festival was without any trace of Romantic ardor. Yet what he did well was done with enormous skill and conviction, and it desperately needed to be done for the conservative New York audience.

In New York everything changes, all the time. In 1976, at the end of Boulez’s tenure, Philharmonic Hall was severely renovated into Avery Fisher Hall. The entire auditorium was suspended to reduce noise from the subway under it, necessitating the removal of the organ. (An ill-advised change.) Seating was reconfigured, and the interior was painted an off-white. Did the acoustics improve? Some, not a lot. But the orchestra’s recording activities were returned to the remade hall.

By 1977 the orchestra’s governing board had decided that youth and the future had been served enough and brought in Zubin Mehta. Zubie Baby, as he was called, had good looks, glamour, experience, and a Viennese background that would bring the “Great Classics” back to New York. All he lacked was any significant involvement with or insight into much of the music he played. He was music director of the Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991 and made recordings from September 1977 through May 1991, though those set down after late 1989 are on Teldec (now Warner Classics) and not included in the box set. His most interesting recordings are of lesser-known American works, done for New World Records; they are likewise missing here.

Mehta’s flash did not improve his record sales, a failure which was not entirely his fault. Columbia, which became CBS Masterworks in 1980, kept his recording work focused on the core repertoire despite his more far-reaching and fairly imaginative concert programming, and the box set reflects that. Thus here we have an acceptable 1980 Verdi Requiem, whereas the curators might better have selected Schoenberg’s grand 1983 Gurre-Lieder, which Mehta performed in both that year and 1991 (at his farewell), both times to great acclaim. What CBS chose to set down its customers already mostly owned, even the Gurre-Lieder in an uncharacteristic lushly romantic 1974 Boulez reading with the BBC Symphony, also on Columbia. Not much of Mehta is here: some Richard Strauss, some Ravel, music from Woody Allen’s film Manhattan (why?). The Philharmonic throughout plays expertly. Mehta kept them under tight rein, to the benefit of all. Still, as someone once remarked, “Mehta’s great flaw was that on concert days he saved his energy for the post-concert parties.” Zubie Baby.

The great change during Mehta’s term came in the switch to digital recording. In May 1979 he and the Philharmonic made CBS’s first digital LP, of Stravinsky’s Petruchka (not included here). After 1983 the digits would migrate from vinyl to the new medium of compact disc, or CD, the most profound change in recording technology since the introduction of electrical recording in the 1920s.

By Mehta’s departure CBS was no longer the Philharmonic’s only label. Bernstein continued to record with the orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon, and he was joined on that label by Giuseppe Sinopoli, who led in New York a varied repertoire in highly variable performances–though without conducting the group in concert very often.

Mehta was followed from 1991 to 2001 by Kurt Masur, former Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Philharmonic’s first conductor in whose selection the musicians had a major say. Most of Masur’s recordings with the orchestra were made by Teldec, now part of Warner Classics, so few are here. Most of these were of the core repertoire, with a few excursions into slightly more adventurous titles. CBS, which became Sony Masterworks in 1991, signed the group only once, to accompany cellist Yo-Yo Ma in two concerti associated with New York, by Dvořák and Victor Herbert. The Dvořák is here, but the Herbert would have been a better choice, as it was written for and premiered by the Philharmonic under Seidl in 1894.

Everybody loved Masur (apart from Executive Director Deborah Borda, who is said to be the main reason he left), and the Philharmonic both published a lavish book about his tenure, Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic (2001), and issued an eponymous 10-CD set of live performances that Masur himself chose, containing both central (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis) and more esoteric items (Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, Stravinsky’s Perséphone). Masur also benefited from a 1992 renovation of Avery Fisher Hall, especially of the stage. The interior is now a warm brown. Again the acoustics were improved–somewhat.

Despite his lovefest with the players, Masur was a disciplinarian, so they played well. Yet he was thoroughly a Kapellmeister, which meant that a heavily Austro-German repertoire was presented within strict interpretative limits. Of excitement and special inspiration his recordings show little evidence.

Masur is the last conductor to appear in the Philharmonic box, and his Dvořák concerto was set down in 1995. After his stay, the orchestra’s recordings as physical artifacts largely disappeared, replaced by digital downloads taken from concerts (in “compressed” .mp3 format) or streaming broadcasts. With Lorin Maazel, director from 2001 through 2009, a few CDs were published by Deutsche Grammophon with a few more on other labels, but most of his Philharmonic recordings, including a complete live Mahler symphony cycle, are available only as downloads from the orchestra’s website. This also is the case with Maazel’s successor from 2009 to 2017, Alan Gilbert, who at least has left us a set of four Carl Nielsen CDs on the Danish Dacapo label (6200003), of which some items are exceptional (Symphonies Three, Five, and Six, and the concerti) and some ordinary.

What will Gilbert’s successor, Jaap van Zweden, do? He already has made CDs of all the Beethoven, Bruckner, and Brahms symphonies–and some of Mahler’s–with other orchestras. He and the Philharmonic appear to have a new contract with Decca: Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies have just been released on CD (Decca 279560). The downloads most likely will continue, one hopes in higher resolution sound: .mp3 is not a serious medium for a great orchestra’s sonorities in our century. Deborah Borda plans to redo–not rebuild–the hall (now David Geffen Hall) yet again. As of this moment, as so often in New York, everything is up in the air.

So what does this set offer us? The orchestra itself has remained a preeminent group throughout the time covered. It always had a flexible sonority, if not always a sonically ingratiating one. (Virgil Thomson complained of its “cast-iron tone.”) On record (though not always in concert) its brass were outstanding, its strings capable of whatever was asked–especially by a demanding conductor–and its winds distinctive (if too often suppressed or “blended in”). Like most orchestras, in the 1970s it acquired a more generic sound, which it has retained to this day. That is, it sounds like most other first-rank orchestras nowadays, although it plays better than most.

The box set also illuminates the qualitative changes in recorded sound in the past century, containing as it does everything from acoustically to digitally captured orchestral timbres. This would probably be clearer if the restorations had been done as well as competing ones from other sources. Some changes here are improvements. Sony has apparently reduced the impact of distortions made by tape editing, multiple microphones, and mixing boards, particularly during the 1960s: what was played was not necessarily what the listener at home heard. Less helpfully, from a documentary perspective, though understandably, the set has no CD transfers of today’s .mp3 digital recordings of the Philharmonic, mostly issued by the orchestra, whose compressed sonics take us backward, not into that glorious future of fully accurate representation that we had hoped for. One still has to hear the Philharmonic in its hall–even in its current state–to appreciate what a splendid ensemble it is.

The primary value of this extensive set, and others like it, is its ability to remind us of–or set forth to some for the first time–the achievements of the New York Philharmonic in its glorious past. It showcases important leaders and their accomplishments, important players and their performances, important music and forgotten styles of playing it. The set also recovers the struggle to capture the group’s sound in evolving media and preserve it in disc or tape artifacts. Its restorations can often be bettered elsewhere and its contents can (and should) be supplemented extensively. But it re-presents a great orchestra, an old orchestra, led by many great and creative artists, as it was heard in homes over the past century. Above all, it says “Happy Birthday” to the Philharmonic. Let us hope for many happy returns.

Dewey Faulkner has taught at Yale and at the University of San Antonio. He has also worked for many years in newspaper, television, and radio as a music critic.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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