DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Legendary Conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (5-DVD set) (2013)

A fine historical look at one of America's greatest orchestras.

Published on March 8, 2014

Legendary Conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (5-DVD set) (2013)

Legendary Conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (5-DVD set) (2013) 

Conductors: Erich Leinsdorf, Charles Munch, William Steinberg
WGBH Media Library: Keith Luf
Studio: ICA Classics ICAD 5071 (10/29/13) [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 4:3 black & white/color
Audio: PCM Mono, Enhanced Mono
Subtitles: None
Length: TT: 375.52 minutes (5 DVDs)
Rating: ****

The Boston Symphony is one the country’s oldest and greatest symphony orchestras. Founded in 1881, the group was correctly thought of as one of the nation’s “big five” for much of the 1950s through 1970s along with – by most accounts – New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. Boston also touts one of the country’s oldest and best PBS-TV broadcasting stations, WGBH. This superb five DVD set gives us full length concert footage from the BSO in what many consider its “heyday” under three different legendary music directors: Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf and William Steinberg.

The period of time covered in this set is approximately 1958-1970. This period really was what many consider the “glory days” for large, powerful orchestras, populated by Szell in Cleveland, Reiner in Chicago and Ormandy in Philadelphia and, toward the middle, Bernstein in New York. This set gives us an almost nostalgic look at live classical music as entertainment before technology made it possible to listen – or do so many other things – instead of attending your local stately orchestral palace. In viewing these DVDs it is great fun to see the masters on video and pick up on their personalities, not to mention seeing some of the historically significant solo winds, such as clarinetist Gino Cioffi and flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the first and only female principal in an American major orchestra at the time.

The first DVD is devoted to the music of Ravel and Debussy under Charles Munch. Something of an expert in the French repertoire, Munch brings a refined style to these works. I did find a couple of his tempos in the Mother Goose Suite a bit different than what I am used to (Laideronnette really fast and the Beauty and the Beast waltz very leisurely) It is also kind of fun to look at Munch’s imperious gesturing with that dated 16-inch baton! Munch was one of the first to put his celli in the center of the orchestra with the violas to his outside right. These performances were recorded at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, where WGBH did their telecasting from.

The next two DVDs in this set are devoted to performances under Erich Leinsdorf, BSO music director from 1962-1969. The booklet notes here by Richard Dyer are very interesting and revealing. We are reminded that Leinsdorf was a technician and a consummate professional with an eye for detail. His podium demeanor is lean and concise, in contrast to Munch. He typically directed without a baton, for example, and his gestures are sparse and necessary. I actually had the pleasure of seeing Leinsdorf in later life a couple of times in Chicago and he always struck me as someone who coaxed a fine, warm sound out of an ensemble and where the music was the “show”. In the history of the BSO his tenure was also seen as a bit controversial for his somewhat difficult relationship with management and his driving out or firing several players who had figured prominently in the BSO roster for a number of years. The performances here are excellent. We get to hear the very well known Schubert Symphony No. 9 and the Schumann Fourth, as well as the Wagner Good Friday Music from Parsifal. These performances are also known for some somewhat unusual tempos (slower, more deliberate) and very purposeful crescendi and diminuendi.

Many of these same characteristics are also quite prominent in the second of two Leinsdorf videos, featuring the Beethoven Egmont overture, the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 and the first Minuet from Mozart’s “Posthorn” Serenade. This video is fun to watch due to it being in color and having better sound quality even than the videos produced just a few years earlier. These broadcasts emanate from 1969 and 1963 and we see and hear the BSO, under Leinsdorf, at a high point in my opinion. The booklet notes do correctly point out Leinsdorf’s attention to detail and a somewhat “fresh” approach to the much played Tchaikovsky (especially the fairly brisk opening movement!)

The last two discs are dedicated to the work of William Steinberg, who served as the BSO music director for but three years, from 1969-1972. As the booklet notes point out, Steinberg was already in poor health and had to miss several concerts, which opened the way for the then up and coming star, Michael Tilson Thomas. Steinberg had a crystal clear podium style and brought a very clean, authentic reading to works like those here, the Haydn Symphony No. 55 and the Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8. I am more familiar with many of Steinberg’s excellent recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony, just prior to his brief engagement with Boston. I also greatly enjoyed the disc with Steinberg conducting the Bruckner Symphony No. 8. I was not as familiar with this work as the others, so I enjoyed getting to know it as well. ICA is to be commended for producing a whole series of historic symphony broadcasts. I think they are fascinating viewing for lovers of orchestral music and the American symphony scene. In my case, I would welcome a Seiji Ozawa video to add to the Boston Symphony collection as his tenure covered an amazing twenty-nine years and his style was nothing like his predecessors! I would also jump at a Chicago Symphony retrospective set too!

—Daniel Coombs




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