CD Review: Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration, Live and Uncensored, Part One

Here is Tanglewood live and uncensored, as it were, with music often thrillingly brought to life by some of the hallowed legends of the BSO’s storied past: Koussevitzky, Monteux, Munch, Leinsdorf, Ozawa, Bernstein, Previn -— the list goes on and on.

Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration. Featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Tanglewood fellows, soloists, etc.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

(Here is Part 2 of this look at Tanglewood, live and uncensored)

If you haven’t heard the legendary pairing of conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, let this recording be your introduction.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) is certainly holding nothing back in celebrating the 75th season of the Tanglewood festival this summer with major soloists performing with the orchestra, recreations of historic programs, gala concerts celebrating special events and individuals, and so forth. But perhaps the most long-lasting and meaningful tribute to this anniversary summer is the set of 75 archival recordings the orchestra is making available to commemorate the occasion.

Begun on June 20 and continuing to September 2, the BSO is releasing one archival performance a day on its website. The recording will be available to be streamed for free for 24 hours on the orchestra’s Media Player and thereafter for purchase in either MP3 or FLAC (lossless) format. Additionally, the BSO is selling subscriptions for all 75 performances for $50 (MP3) or $60 (FLAC)—which comes out to well less than a dollar per release.

Here is Tanglewood live and uncensored, as it were, with music often thrillingly brought to life by some of the hallowed legends of the BSO’s storied past: Koussevitzky, Monteux, Munch, Leinsdorf, Ozawa, Bernstein, Previn—the list goes on and on. Culled mostly from radio broadcasts, the recordings span the years 1937 (Koussevitzky conducting Mozart) to 2009 (Stefan Asbury leading Lukas Foss’s Introductions and Goodbyes) and offer something for just about everyone.

The majority of the performances are orchestral, though there’s a good mix of chamber music, opera, and assorted “other” events included. The BSO has always put an emphasis on the standard repertoire, both at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, and that is reflected here: there is quite a bit of Mozart, some Beethoven, even a little Bach (a big-boned reading of the Concerto for Two Claviers and B minor Orchestral Suite from the late ‘50s), as well as Berlioz, Brahms, and Mahler. There is also a remarkable selection of twentieth-century fare, some of it rather unexpected (Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Berio’s Sinfonia) and some more familiar (Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto).

In addition to the recordings, the BSO has provided in-depth notes on the music and the individual performances written by Richard Dyer, as well as samplings of reviews of the concerts, both positive and negative. If you want an honest sense of what summer music making in Lenox has been like since 1937, wish to relive past glories, or just want to hear some fine music making, these recordings and adjunct information provide about as thorough a documentation to the many sides of Tanglewood as one might desire.

With such a large number of recordings, it’s next to impossible to give equal space to each. Below is a sampling of choice selections divided by genre and available as of July 31. I’ll add to it as the releases continue this month and next.

Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto no. 1 with Rudolf Serkin, piano, and Seiji Ozawa conducting (July 18, 1975). Often performed as a lightweight, late-Classical concerto, Serkin and Mr. Ozawa play up the expressive extremes of Mendelssohn’s writing for keyboard and orchestra, making this concerto sound much closer, stylistically, to Beethoven than Mozart (which makes sense, as the piece was written just three years after Beethoven died). This is one of the most invigorating Mendelssohn performances I’ve heard. (June 22)

Berio conducts Berio (August 22, 1982). Remember when you could expect to hear staples of the avant-garde performed during the regular Tanglewood season (not just relegated to the Festival of Contemporary Music)? Neither do I, but even this event was probably more exceptional than commonplace: Luciano Berio conducting a blazing performance of his own Sinfonia, one of the landmark, post-war scores in any genre (and the only recording of the five-movement version of the piece led by the composer). (June 30)

Mozart, Symphony no. 25 with Serge Koussevitzky (August 5, 1944). In Koussevitzky’s hands, the symphony becomes a taut, wartime musical drama. The BSO’s energy is palpable, as is the connection they feel with their conductor. If you haven’t heard this legendary pairing, let this recording be your introduction. Even if you are familiar with them, this is an important addition to the Koussevitzky/BSO discography. (July 6)

Bernstein conducts Bernstein (July 4, 1981). Half of an all-Bernstein Fourth of July concert taped around the time of Bernstein’s blow-up with BSO management (due, in part, to a cancelled recording project) features a furious performance of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story as well as the only recorded Bernstein/BSO performance of his BSO-commissioned Divertimento. As Dyer notes, you can hear Bernstein’s mood softening as the concert progresses: the encores come from a totally different emotional place. (July 8)

Messiaen, Turangalîla Symphony with Yvonne and Jean Loriod, Seiji Ozawa conducting (August 16, 1975). Mr. Ozawa’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s epic symphony (which was premiered by the BSO at Symphony Hall in 1949) is earth shaking, all but definitive. Messiaen himself, who was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood that summer (listen to the audience roar when he comes to take his bow at the end), signed Ozawa’s score afterwards: “To the great Seiji Ozawa—his symphony.” (July 9)

Dvorak, Symphony no. 8 with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (TMCO) and James Levine (June 30, 2008). While it’s easy to be frustrated with the way Mr. Levine’s tenure in Boston ended, it’s perhaps best to recall why he was brought here in the first place: he’s a damn fine musician. And this recording of one of the repertoire’s symphonic warhorses showcases him and a clearly inspired TMCO magnificently in a performance that positively crackles. Electrifying. (July 10)

Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 17 (July 4, 1975) with Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor. Bernstein certainly has his detractors as a conductor and even more as a pianist, though I’ve found myself far more often charmed by him than not. And this performance demonstrates why: it’s not note perfect, to be sure, but there’s a conviction and honesty to every phrase and an emotional spark behind each note that can’t be feigned. (July 21)

Mozart, Requiem conducted by Sir Colin Davis (August 8, 1971). Colin Davis’s long relationship with the BSO continues to be among the most productive and remarkable of any orchestra/conductor pairings of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This performance, recorded during Davis’s first weekend at Tanglewood three years after his Symphony Hall debut, is a moving, full-bodied account of Mozart’s final score. (July 25)

Conductor Pierre Monteux, one of the conducting giants of the 20th century, in action.

Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra with Pierre Monteux (July 22, 1956). Monteux was one of the conducting giants of the 20th century (he led the first performance of The Rite of Spring, among other pieces) and he was Koussevitzky’s predecessor as music director in Boston (1919–24). The last nearly 15 years of his long life (he died in 1964 at age 89) saw him return to the BSO podium after an absence of more than a quarter century, and this performance dates from the middle of that period. The recording documents one of only two times Monteux conducted the Concerto for Orchestra with the BSO (the other was in Scotland in August 1956), and it’s a performance of remarkable vigor and vitality -— especially coming as it did from a conductor well into his 82nd year. (July 26)

Verdi’s Otello with Maralin Niska, Sherill Milnes, and Erich Leinsdorf conducting (July 26, 1969). Performed six days after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Leinsdorf’s Otello makes for a tremendous opening to this set of 75 recordings. Niska’s Desdemona is beautifully sung, with a silky, warm tone and plenty of fire. Richard Cassily makes for a strong Otello, though it’s Mr. Milnes’s Iago that steals the show—as he would in this role time and again for the next 20 years at the Met. (June 20)

Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict with Sylvia McNair, Frederica von Stade, and Italo Tajo; BSO and TFC conducted by Seiji Ozawa (August 4, 1984). You can’t go wrong with Berlioz and his adaptations of Shakespeare, and the BSO has long been one of the best Berlioz orchestras on the scene. This cast, which features some of the finest voices of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, also leaves little to be desired. (June 27)

Wagner, Act 1 from Die Walküre with Margaret Harshaw, Albert daCosta, and James Pease, Charles Munch conducting (June 1956). Munch was not much of an opera conductor (the only complete opera he ever led was Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande), but you wouldn’t know it from this blistering account of Walküre: everything is clearly focused, tightly wound, and grippingly dramatic. Harshaw’s Siegelinde can be counted among the best of her generation (which is saying something), and daCosta—though he tires a bit towards the end of the act—presents a convincing, impassioned Siegmund. Also included on this release is a 1958 performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (also with Harshaw and Munch) that, while not quite as pristine as the Margaret Price/Carlos Kleiber pairing 20 years later, is more than satisfactory. (July 18)

Brahms’s Clarinet Trio performed by Harold Wright, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax (August 1, 1990). An all-star cast headlines Brahms’s elegiac Trio: Mr. Ma, as always, is the picture of perfection, and Mr. Ax is totally in his element. So, too, is former BSO principal clarinet Harold Wright, whose liquid tone blends beautifully with both his colleagues. (June 26)

Beethoven, piano sonatas nos. 30-32 with Garrick Ohlsson (July 20, 2006). This performance made quite the close to Mr. Ohlsson’s monumental survey of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, a feat he undertook not once in the summer of 2006 but twice (at Tanglewood and Ravinia). His playing in Beethoven’s final keyboard essays is nothing short of astounding: his technical chops are jaw dropping in and of themselves, and here, combined with impeccable musical thinking, they deliver some potent expressive results. This is some of the finest Beethoven playing you’ll hear—and that it was done live is all the more extraordinary. (July 3)

Stravinsky, L’Histoire du Soldat with Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and TMC fellows (July 25, 2006). There is an American tradition of including prominent composers in the spoken roles of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire, and here it continues with two of the legends of the post-war avant-garde (Mr. Carter was a youthful 97 at the time of the recording, Mr. Babbitt a robust 90) and one familiar face from a younger generation (Mr. Harbison, who was a positively adolescent 67 by comparison). Babbitt—who would have been one to know—claimed this the “best performance [of the piece he’d] ever heard.” (July 15)

Conductor Erich Leinsdorf — in 1965 he created the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.

Beethoven’s Septet with the BSO Chamber Players (July 13, 1965). Erich Leinsdorf created the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in 1965, and this performance documents their initial season at Tanglewood. The Septet isn’t, perhaps, the most important piece Beethoven wrote, though it certainly is one of the most popular, and it gets a vigorous performance here. Of special note, there’s still one member of this ensemble still active in the orchestra: (current) principal cellist Jules Eskin, who had joined the BSO the year previous. (July 31)

An Evening with Danny Kaye (July 13, 1961). You certainly lose something here without the visual element, but Kaye’s shtick and the BSO made for a clearly enjoyable partnership, and a good deal of their rapport carries over into the broadcast. (June 24)

James Taylor and the Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus (August 30, 2009). Mr. Taylor is a Tanglewood staple these days, but this performance marks his only known broadcast (until this summer’s Anniversary Gala, that is) with a full orchestra. The set is standard Taylor—“Sweet Baby James,” “Caroline,” and so forth—but there’s nothing commonplace about the performance, especially with John Williams conducting and the TFC along for the ride. (July 1)

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (August 7, 2004). Mr. Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble are no strangers to Tanglewood audiences, the ensemble appearing with regularity since its founding in 1998. This performance features a mix of traditional music alongside a couple of newly composed pieces, all played with great soul and (sometimes) not a little abandon. (July 30)

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