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October 02, 2005

Conductors You Can Count On

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I confess: I'm not a music guy. One less worry for Terry Teachout.

Matter of fact, about all I can do musically is work (most of) the buttons on my compact CD player. And I'll take a pass on my career as a clarinetist in grade school and junior high. But why let trivial matters such as incompetence and incomprehension deter me from opinionating? You canít get your head chopped off if you donít stick your neck out -- right?

Having dazzled you with my credentials, allow me to address the subject of classical music orchestras and the fact that the conductor, like a football coach, "sets the tone" as it were, and that some win more reliably than others.

Actually, there's more at issue than conducting, and some of these other issues seem to be shaping the state of conducting today.

I won't try to document it here, but over the last few decades I've noticed a parade of articles in newspapers and magazines stating the classical music appreciation has been experiencing a decline in America.

Mostly this decline is measured by sales of classical music as a percentage of total recording sales (dropping, despite the fact that many new classical music recordings have been issued over the last 20-30 years) and the declining number of radio stations with a classical music programming format. As best I recall, these trends might be mitigated by the number of symphony orchestras in the country; surprisingly small places have boasted orchestras, including the 225,000-population county where I currently live.

Another issue is the lack of new works entering the classical music canon. This is a huge subject offering grist for numerous Blowhards posts, so let me skirt the whys and wherefores and simply assert that the amount of classical music available for recorded or live performance has been nearly static, for practical purposes.

So let's inventory: (1) lots of orchestras, (2) limited repertoire and (3) declining media presence in terms of radio play and sales. Now pretend you're a conductor with an orchestra, a recording contract and, yes, a huge ego. What to do?

One option is to perform works in a traditional vein, assuming that advances in recording technology will make your output attractive to audiophiles who cringe at the thought of listening to re-mastered 1949 or even 1989 recordings. But that's just ... too easy. Besides, you're a genius, remember?

No, the only serious option is to be creative. Do something different with those tired old compositions. Fiddle with the tempo a bit -- that'll wake up some of the audience. Better yet, after slowing down those allegros why not change the sound? Where brass predominated, cut that back and feature the woodwinds or strings. While at it, add or delete players from sections of the orchestra in order to enhance these emphasis changes. And this doesn't mean going back to that instruments-of-the-time-of-the-composer jazz -- that's old hat, and we're into new. Finally, there's the really hard part -- inventing a reasonable justification for the press and the CD jacket-notes writers.

Friends, this is happening. Maybe not quite the way I told it above, but the results are there. I sometimes notice what to me are odd performances of familiar pieces on the local classical music station (plug: KING-FM Seattle, 98.2 on the dial). Worse, I sometimes buy CDs featuring same. One example is Anatol Fistoulariís (London Symphony Orchestra) recording of Khachaturian's Gayne ballet suite. The first cut is the famous Sabre Dance, and it doesn't sound quite right: neither does the Lezghinka nor do the remaining cuts. I hate the thing and probably ought to throw the CD away.

Let me quickly add that conductors have been putting their own stamp on performances for years -- it only seems more noticeable lately because the differences are quirkier. In the past it might have been a classicism-romanticism thing perhaps loosely tied to swings in composers since the time of Beethoven. On the conductor level this was played out in terms of either trying to serve as a conduit for the composer's intentions or reinterpreting the composer to suit modern instruments, sensibilities, whatever.

This means that it can pay to know which conductors perform to your liking and which do not. My own acid test is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, especially the first movement. I happen to like the way Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony did it back in 1961. The quality of the recording isn't good, but it doesn't hide the roaring, driving, ballzout performance. Sadly, some other conductors opt for a slower-tempoed, galump-galump-galump approach that drives me nuts. So I figure that conductors who botch the Seventh are likely to botch other works as well, and I generally avoid buying their CDs.

On the other hand, there are a few conductors that are reliably good. (Keep in mind that "botched" and "good" refer to my own tastes.) So far as I'm concerned, one can't go wrong with the Eugene Ormandy-Philadelphia Orchestra combination -- that's the gold standard. Close behind in my ranking are (in no order) Herbert von Karajan, Neville Marriner and George Szell.

Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski seem reliably good, though I haven't heard that many of their recordings; a problem is that much of their work dates to times when recording technology was fairly primitive by todayís standards. Undoubtedly there are others doing good work, but I haven't heard enough of their recordings to unquestioningly buy a CD. On the pops side, Arthur Fiedler and Erich Kunzel are reliable in my judgment.

Lurking beneath the surface of this discussion is the question of where I acquired my tastes in classical music. The answer is that my main source was a classical station in Seattle (KISW) that operated back in the 50s. Note that of the conductors noted above, only Marriner and Kunzel were not active in those days. Like it or not, first impressions count. And it's quite possible that my teen-aged mind was imprinted regarding the "correct sound" of various compositions by listening to what that station played.

This is one essay where I can't remotely pretend to be an expert, so don't expect sage advice from me in the Comments. Instead, I'm hoping that you add your own star conductors in Comments (and maybe include a few conductors/orchestras to avoid) and then duke it out amongst yourselves



posted by Donald at October 2, 2005


Toscanini is, has been, and probably will for some time to come be my favorite. I've got a postcard of him, looking dapper, thumb-tacked to the wall above my computer. Sometimes I ask him for advice. In fact, just the other day, I realized that I've been listening to his Beethoven cycle since I was twelve and I still havenít grown the least bit tired of it, which is ponderable indeed. (His first movement of the Beethoven 7 is extremely high voltage, BTW.)

He's great in anything Italian. Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Rhesphigi. And the German Romantics work surprisingly well with Toscanini, too. They take off his harsh edge, and he counters their tendency to go into a Keatsian wilt. Weber and Schubert with the NBC Symphony, Mendelssohn with the Philadelphia Orchestra; great stuff.

Hmmm, what else... Pictures At An Exhibition, all of Brahms (Song Of The Fates never sounded half so fatal), Barber's Adagio, Beethoven symphonies and overtures and the Septet - probably his most genial recording.

I'll think of more the minute I hit Send.

With anything Toscanini, I'd recommend you haunt the used record stores and keep an eye out for the old RCA Gold Seal edition. White cover, gold lettering, B&W photo of the Old Man on the front. RCA reissued his discography a few years ago as The Immortal Toscanini with "improved" sound, but I found it anything but an improvement. Gold Seal is still the one you want.

The other top favorite of mine is Pablo Casals. Known to most as a cellist, he led his Marlboro Festival Orchestra (a pickup group of New York pros) in his later years. His Brandenburg Concertos are unapologetically inauthentic - piano in number 5, or instance - but the spirit is glorious nonetheless. Authentic, hell! Purism is just a substitute for good taste.

His Mozart symphonies (35-41) and concertos (20, 22, Turkish, Sinfonia Concertante) are great. His Mendelssohn Italian likewise.

Casals is from the old school. Since the 1970s the bias in classical performance has been toward the mushy, the blended, the unaccented, the overcooked. But with Casals one hears the voices alongside one another, rather than on top of each another in the smoothed-over modern way. A great sense of balance and sturdiness about it, yielding great passion in the end.

Too few recordings from Casals.

I tend to agree with Stephen Pollard that the day of the Great Conductor is over and done with. The fact that he mentions Mariss Jansons as one of today's top contenders only confirms the point.

Posted by: Brian on October 2, 2005 10:57 PM

I have fairly lousy ears for classical music (not that I don't enjoy it), so where the orchestral stuff is concerned I'm very conductor-dependent. If the specific performance doesn't work for me, then the music (no matter how amazing) doesn't grab me. Of the current biggies, Pierre Boulez and Michael Tilson-Thomas tend to do it for me -- they bring the music into super-sharp focus. The Wife also turned me on to the "original instruments" movement, outfits that perform baroque and early-classical (generally) music with the instruments that would have been used at the time, and often in very different performing styles than the ones we're generally used to now. There have been a lot of arguments over how much respect to give these outfits and these performances where "authenticity" is concerned, but I don't really care -- the performances often make my hair stand on end. Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, William Christie, Reinhard Goebel, and Sigiswald Kuijken have all KO'd me. But my knowledge of classical music is about a half an inch deep, so don't take my word on anything ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 3, 2005 12:08 AM

Donald and everyone:

I've only listened fairly closely to classical music in the past 2-3 years, and I'm a musical ignoramus, but my experience seems oddly divergent from yours (which, granted, probably makes me wrong). I don't find the conductor/orchestra issue terribly determinative of the pleasure quotient of a piece of music, but rather the composer. I honestly can't think of a bad experience I've had listening to a recording of Haydn, nor a good experience I've had listening to late Romantic music. (And most 20th century music sounds suspiciously like a movie soundtrack.) I've certainly heard a variety of conductor/orchestra versions of each, but that doesn't seem to overwhelm the primacy of the composer, at least for me. Or maybe the ultimate primacy is of the century--it seems to me that classical music (if it makes any sense to talk about such a 'genre' over such an extended period of time) has been going fairly steadily downhill for most of the past 200 years, per my taste.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 3, 2005 2:38 AM

I agree that declining media presence has had a tremendous impact on the apparent shrinking appeal of classical music. You can also add to this the cutting back of classical music sections in many record stores (and the lack of knowledgeable store clerks). I also like your ideas about changing performing practice. I also sometimes wonder whether some cities, having problems maintaining full size orchestras, might do as well with a chamber orchestra.

On the other hand, the Internet and podcasting might help spur classical music listening. In early summer BBC Radio 3 made live performances of the nine Beethoven symphonies available as a download. The result: over 1.4 million downloads, and as a story in The Guardian noted, ĎTo put another perspective on the success of the Beethoven downloads, according to Matthew Cosgrove, director of Warner Classics, it would take a commercial CD recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies "upwards of five years" to sell as many downloads as were shifted from the BBC website in two weeks. The BBC has been stunned by the response - so much so that its director general, Mark Thompson, opened his annual report with Beethoven's inscription on the score of the Missa Solemnis: "From the heart ... May it go again to the heart!" ... í

As for favorite conductors, Iíve enjoyed Pierre Boulez (Rite of Spring), Carlos Kleiber (Beethoven 5 and 7), and Fritz Reiner (Beethoven 9, Mozart 40).

Posted by: Alec on October 3, 2005 4:22 AM

I beg to differ about Toscanini. I like Donald's other selections -- all of whom produce reliable and sometimes great performances -- but Toscanini is an egregiously bad interpreter of the symphonic repertoire. But don't believe me. Believe Dmitri Shostakovich. Toscanini recorded Shostakovich's 5th Symphony and someone mailed the composer a recording.

Shostakovich was appalled. He said that Toscanini cut everything into little bits and poured syrup all over it. [Excellent description of Toscanini's inability to understand and convey the structure of a piece.] Shostakovich asked himself what he was supposed to do with this LP and said that he probably should give it to someone, but not a friend because the friend would be insulted to receive such a bad recording.

Posted by: jult52 on October 3, 2005 10:04 AM

Most audiophiles prefer to listen to remastered recordings (preferably on vinyl lp) from the early stereo period (roughly 1955-65) because of the peculiar combination of sound and "Authentic" bourgeois-romantic conducting.

In that regard the two touchstone names are Fritz Reiner and Ernest Ansermet. Reiner's RCA Living Stereo LP recordings with the Chicago SO are becoming the Faberge eggs of the collector's world as are the Mercury Living Presence recordings by a less well-known mix of conductors and orchestras. Cf his recordings of Dvorak, Brahms or Bartok. Listen to the reissue SACDs on an SACD player if you can.

For the Russian and French repertoire -- think Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Glinka, or Ravel and Debussy, the early recordings on London-Decca with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande are well-nigh unbeatable for sound and performance when heard on the very best equipment. The early stereo Ansermet version of Petrushka may have no overall equal (sound + performance). Sadly, none of the CD reissues have done full justice to the sound of early Ansermet thus depriving listeners of some measure of appreciation for how good these recordings were.

In comparison most recent recordings seem overprocessed, needlessly eccentric, and less sonically "pure". Plastic recordings for the video age that often prefers the sound of an amplified violin to the actual sound of a live Strad.

Posted by: nn on October 3, 2005 12:31 PM

Plenty of new music in the "classical" vein, it just doesn't sound like Beethoven, et al. Orchestral music is a better label. Look to the Russians. Also, smaller groups like Alarm Will Sound, that play orchestral music, albeit very modern. And there's always (relatively) old standbys like the Kronos Quartet, who are completely fantastic on CD or live. They are always highlighting works of new composers.

Posted by: sac on October 3, 2005 12:49 PM

I have little experience. I have a few recordings by this composer, a few by that one, not enough to competently judge any conductor. However, I'll stick my neck out far enough to say that I like Rafael Kubelik.

Of those you mentioned, I like Marriner. I always think of him as a "safe" choice.

Posted by: Lynn S on October 3, 2005 5:43 PM

nn- Another problem with modern recordings has to do with the editing. Some recordings are literally snipped together from dozens of takes. Despite the note perfect nature of the recordings, the lack of long-term coherence and interpretive intensity is noticeable.

Posted by: jult52 on October 4, 2005 8:24 AM

Interesting choice of listed conductors, since they all have distinctly different styles. Ormandy and the Philadelphia have a very lush, string-heavy sound, ideal for the sorts of late Romantic Russians that they seemingly specialized in. On the other hand, Neville Marriner has a much lighter, somewhat more precise touch.

There was an article I read somewhere a number of years ago that suggested that the characteristic sound of the various major American orchestras had a lot to do with the acoustics of their home halls, and it made a certain amount of sense.

I personally think that the best orchestra performing in the US today is the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of James Levine, however...

Posted by: Frankenstein on October 4, 2005 11:53 AM

I agree on Casals and the Marlboro Festival Orchestra - beautiful recordings.
Ormandy and the Philadelphia have a very lush, string-heavy sound, ideal for the sorts of late Romantic Russians that they seemingly specialized in. On the other hand, Neville Marriner has a much lighter, somewhat more precise touch.
Very true - which is why you'd pick up a Marriner recording of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendellsohn, but never Mahler. By the same token, an Ormandy interpretation of the London Symphony would be an absurdity. Colin Davis, on the other hand, nails Mozart and Sibelius. But I prefer the punchier sound of original instrument orchestras on pre-Romantic works.
For what it's worth, I've been going to the NY Philharmonic for over 20 years now, and I'd say the best conductor with that orchestra is Leonard Slatkin.

Posted by: ziel on October 4, 2005 3:50 PM

I worked on Peter Rosen's PBS film about Toscanini (ca. 1988) and know T's grandson Walfredo. But I notice no one has mentioned any female conductors. One of the best around is my brilliant and beautiful classmate Elizabeth Schulze (worked for Leonard Slatkin before acquiring this orchestra):

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 4, 2005 4:08 PM

Heh. No sooner do I say Toscanini is my favorite conductor than jult52 says he's a bum. The cycle of violence!

Any Blowhards who'd like to read up on the controversy can check out two books:

- The contra-Toscanini position was voiced by Joseph Horowitz in his book Understanding Toscanini. The gist: Toscanini was imported by Corporate America to deliver a shallow version of high culture to Americans, who were too stupidly middle class to appreciate the real thing.

(The real thing is represented by Horowitz's own favorite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler. The Toscanini/Furtwangler feud is sort of a heterosexual version of the Sutherland/Callas catfight.)

- The pro-Toscanini refutation was set forth by Harvey Sachs in his book Reflections on Toscanini. The chapter which fact-checks Horowitz is called "Misunderstanding Toscanini". The gist: Toscanini's reputation precedes his RCA years; Klemperer, Walter, and Monteaux all loved him; and Joe Horowitz can go suck a rock.

Happy reading!

Posted by: Brian on October 4, 2005 8:00 PM

For my money much of the best work today is being done in the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) field, with period instruments and the like. It used to be that this kind of performance was mostly very bland and easy-listening, sort of Marriner with period instruments, but nowadays the good HIP conductors tend to take more risks than a lot of their "regular" counterparts.

Some conductors whom I consider "safe bets":

- Rene Jacobs. A countertenor who became a conductor specializing in baroque and classical vocal music -- as befits his background, he has good taste in singers, and he always brings out the drama in any music he's conducting. His "Marriage of Figaro" makes a lot of classic recordings sound a little uninvolved, and his Haydn "Seasons" has the best performance of the hunting chorus (with the brass imitating barking dogs).

- Charles Mackerras - Australian/American/British veteran, really good at just about everything. His conducting of Janacek operas is famous, he's a terrific Mozart conductor, and his Beethoven symphony cycle -- with the Liverpool Philharmonic -- beats many cycles by superstar conductors with superstar orchestras.

- Michael Gielen - German veteran, and an avant-garde composer, sort of Pierre Boulez with heart. His Mahler cycle is probably the best in years.

- Leonard Bernstein always delivered something interesting, if not necessarily perfect, when he was with the New York Philharmonic in the '60s and early '70s. From the late '70s on he got more "respectable" and started turning out dull performances with very slow tempos, but when he was in his prime he was fantastically exciting.

- Otto Klemperer - he could be super-slow, but I've never heard a recording by him that didn't at least have something to interest me. I especially love the way he highlighted the woodwinds instead of burying everything in strings like other conductors (Ormandy) used to do with Romantic music.

Posted by: Jaime Weinman on October 4, 2005 9:28 PM

"most 20th century music sounds suspiciously like a movie soundtrack" - funny. It works the other way around though. Movie composers are notorious for borrowing. Shoskatovich seems to be a favorite source.

Posted by: Brian on October 4, 2005 11:06 PM

Actually, pretty much all of the Russian romantics have been pretty heavily plundered by movie composers. And then there are the blatant lifts, like the main theme from Jaws coming straight out of Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Posted by: Frankenstein on October 4, 2005 11:23 PM

Jaime Weinman: I am actually a very big fan of Klemperer, who created some remarkable performances (the recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Christa Ludwig and Wunderlich is an amazingly passionate performance -- for you audiophiles out there -- run don't walk to get this remarkable recording), but calling him a "safe bet" is off. Klemperer himself admitted he was not good all the time.

Brian -- "cycle of violence" -- funny.

Same comment about Bernstein -- I think it's fair to say he is an inconsistent conductor with some very good performances mixed in with some less successful one.

Posted by: jult52 on October 5, 2005 9:09 AM

Brian and Frankenstein:

I was aware that the overt borrowing ran from classical to the cinema. Sorry if I implied otherwise. But I would say that there appears to be a more profound aesthetic borrowing, or influence, running the other way: 20th century music seems to have a lot of submerged narrative or drama in it and also has a bad tendency to underline, or pump up, its aesthetic effects, both of which might well have come from movies. The defect of Romantic music is that it wants to do your feeling for you, while the defect of 20th century music is that it assumes that you're incapable of feeling at all without being hooked up to their apparatus.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 5, 2005 10:56 AM

You could just as easily say that that tendency comes from opera--Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, the other versimo composers...

Posted by: Frankenstein on October 5, 2005 4:21 PM

Does no one have any opinion at all about Georg Solti? Being in Chicago, I probably have an exagerrated impression of his stature. But IIRC, the Solti CSO was rated among the best in the world. He received 31 Grammys (a record), and a knighthood. Maybe he was the real deal, maybe it was hype - but it seems really surprising that he isn't even mentioned.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 7, 2005 11:18 AM

Solti -- mixed bag. As an ex-Chicagoer, I used to be a big fan but as I've grown more knowledgeable, I've become aware that some of his recordings are simply very bad. He has a tendency towards clumsiness and heavihandedness. I can't assess his entire discography but here are 3 that jump to mind:

Brahms #4 + Haydn Var /CSO: very good.

Mahler #2 (London/Decca version): good.

Mahler #6: very bad.

Most conductors are inconsistent. Even Karajan.

Posted by: jult52 on October 7, 2005 11:44 AM

Rich: Solti's Eroica Symphony with the Vienna Phil is my favorite recording of that work. Slow, confident, beautifully played. He recorded it when he was doing his famous Ring Cycle. It's on a set from Decca with Beethoven 5 & 7.

Posted by: Brian on October 7, 2005 8:37 PM

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