Sunday Afternoon Live

New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts, 1923-1987 book, 21 conductors, 18 soloists.

ten compact discs of digitally remastered recordings, with 144-page
New York Philharmonic Special Editions, $185.00

Sedgwick Clark, the producer of New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts, 1923-1987, tells us that the album’s twelve hours of recorded music were chosen by him after listening to “hundreds of hours of live music-making.” But since he provides no information about the selection process and the winnowed options, the other choices that had been under consideration, critical comment on these subjects is limited to guesswork. Ultimately the discussion of repertory is lowered to the level of “de gustibus….”

Clark does reveal that he and Kurt Masur, music director of the New York Philharmonic, decided to restrict the contents of the records to broadcasts, Masur being “keen on preserving the spontaneity of live performances.” But so far from all or even most live performances generating much feeling of spontaneity, a high proportion of them are moribund, and not a few altogether brain-dead. What they do guarantee are distractions resulting from bronchial disorders, the crepitations of program page-turning, the shifting of positions in seats, and other extraneous noises, as exemplified in varying degrees in all ten of the album’s CDs. Studio recordings, on the other hand, demanding at times greater intensities of sustained concentration, have been known to convey a high sense of the naturalness and the unprompted instinctiveness that define spontaneity. But all of this seems beside the point, which is that the live broadcasts, thanks in part to coughs, etc., give the listener the sense of being there.

Another Masur precondition was that “only conductors no longer active on the podium”—i.e., not alive—“would be considered.” The reason for this mandate is withheld, however, perhaps because Masur himself, of the three maestros to whom it applies, did not wish to participate. One suspects, too, that Rafael Kubelik (who died in August 1996) was still among the quick when his unsurpassed performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle was nominated for inclusion, since this, the longest piece in the album, alone accounting for one of the twelve hours, is not likely to have been a last-minute choice.

The selection of conductors and soloists seems to have taken precedence over the selection of repertory, as, in some cases, musical politics has over music. Of the twenty-one conductors represented, Bruno Walter is given the lion’s share of performing time. He and Toscanini have entire discs to themselves, but Walter has a substantial part of another one as well. The absence of Wilhelm Furtwängler is thus all the more glaring, since he and Toscanini were the chief contenders for the position of music director in the late 1920s, and no one, I think, would rank him below Willem van Hoogstraten, André Kostelanetz, Josef Krips, Erich Leinsdorf, and John Barbirolli, who do appear. The debate about Furtwängler’s wartime career in Germany can hardly have been an issue in this decision, since Willem Mengelberg, an ardent Nazi sympathizer, is included. Oddly, the conductor Karl Böhm, an out-and-out Nazi, is referred to glowingly in the album booklet’s abbreviated history …

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