CD Review: Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration (Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Tanglewood fellows, soloists, etc.), Part 2

One can’t really go wrong with any of the individual concerts, but below are a few highlights released between August 1st and September 2nd. All are available for purchase on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s website.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Conductor Charles Munch sits during a rehearsal at Tanglewood shed. Photo: Heinz Weissenstein-Whitestone.

The BSO’s release of seventy-five archival recordings to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center concludes on a very strong note with a series of performances that are richly varied in terms of content and performed, generally, with breathtaking technical precision and expressive clarity (especially remarkable considering the limited amount of rehearsal time available to the orchestra each summer). Again, one can’t really go wrong with any of the individual concerts, but below are a few highlights released between August 1st and September 2nd. All are available for purchase on the orchestra’s website.

(Here is Part one of this overview of the performances available on the BSO site.)

James Levine conducting Mahler’s Symphony no. 8 and Varèse’s Amériques (July 8 and 17, 2005). Though his contributions were mostly left out of the commemorative film Music Under the Stars, several of Mr. Levine’s Tanglewood triumphs are represented among these archival recordings. Mr. Levine began his music directorship with a gala performance of the gargantuan Mahler Eighth at Symphony Hall in October 2004, a concert I was fortunate enough to attend (it rocked). This performance captures much of the electricity of that earlier performance, even if the playing is not quite as clean. Amériques, Varèse’s wildly extravagant ode to his adopted homeland, was also performed during Mr. Levine’s first season in Boston (paired –- in a stroke of programming genius of the type it would be nice to see more –- with Gershwin’s An American in Paris). This version is nothing short of spectacular: dazzlingly colorful, brash, vulgar, and not a little bit endearing – you’re not likely to hear a better performance of Amériques any time soon. (August 2)

Leon Kirchner conducting Music for Orchestra I with the TMCO (August 7, 1985). Kirchner was a musical fixture in New England for nearly fifty years: composer, conductor, teacher (at Harvard), pianist –- he did it all, even if much of his compositional output is not widely known. Kirchner’s musical language is not easy to pigeonhole: his harmonies are atonal, to be sure, but never in the academic manner that so much 20th century Serial music seems to follow. Despite the complex aesthetic, Music for Orchestra I is filled with rich, expressive ideas and gestures: there’s an honesty and conviction to this music -– and, because of that, a kind of accessibility -– that is rare, indeed, to find among contemporary composers. The performance is a knockout, confidently and colorfully played. (August 11)

Boston Pops and Keith Lockhart performing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (July 10, 2007). The pairing of Rodgers and Hammerstein was arguably as inspired as Mozart/da Ponte and Strauss/Hofmannsthal, and this extraordinary musical shows them at the height of their creative powers. This performance, taken from a 2007 Pension Fund Benefit, is deliriously well played and sung. (August 12)

The Juilliard Quartet tackling Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15 in A minor (July 8, 2004). The Juilliard’s give a focused, dynamic performance of, arguably, Beethoven’s greatest string quartet. A high point of the concert is the work’s famous third movement (with the wonderfully cumbersome title “A Holy Song of Thanks to the Deity from a Convalescent Made Well, in the Lydian Mode”), which receives a rapturously lyrical reading, but the dramatic thread that ties all five movements together comes across with uncommon power throughout. If there’s one release in these seventy-five that “mustn’t be missed,” this might well be the one. (August 14)

James Levine conducting the BSO and TFC in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (July 14, 2006). Gurrelieder was one of the highlights of the second season of Mr. Levine’s Beethoven-Schoenberg retrospective, played by these forces in February 2006. If anything, the piece’s size –- both physical and philosophical –- fits Tanglewood even better than it does Symphony Hall, and the performance here is blazing and committed. Missing from the February cast is the incomparable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died less than two weeks before this concert took place. (August 15)

Erich Leinsdorf and Marilyn Horne performing excerpts from Götterdämmerung (August 20, 1967). Ms. Horne never sang a complete Wagnerian role, so it’s a special treat to hear her in the famous Immolation Scene from the closing installment of the Ring, her rich, honeyed soprano soaring over a very German-sounding BSO. The orchestral scenes that pass before show just what a good Wagner orchestra the BSO was at the time. (August 16)

Seiji Ozawa talks with Leonard Bernstein during a lecture for Tanglewood students. Photo: Hilary Scott.

Seiji Ozawa conducting Takemitsu and Bernstein (July 12, 1985 and July 5, 1996). Mr. Ozawa certainly was a fine conductor of 20th century music during his tenure in Boston, as this release further demonstrates (I cited his performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony earlier). Here Yo-Yo Ma plays the daylights out of Bernstein’s “Three Meditations” from Mass, giving Mstislav Rostropovich, the work’s dedicatee, a run for his money; and a young Peter Serkin presents a riveting performance of Takemitsu’s Impressionistic riverrun. (August 17)

Gregor Piatigorsky performing Strauss’s Don Quixote with Joseph DePasquale and Charles Munch (August 9, 1953). Piatigorsky was the Yo-Yo Ma of the first half of the 20th century: technically impeccable and deeply engaged, expressively, in everything he played. Here, he and former BSO principal viola DePasquale deliver a beguiling account of Strauss’s Cervantes adaptation. With the orchestra and Munch reveling in Strauss’s brilliant orchestration there’s not much not to like about this performance. My only complaint is that it would have been interesting to also hear Piatigorsky’s account of Darius Milhaud’s Cello Concerto no. 1 (performed on the second half of this program). Oh, well. (August 24)

Oliver Knussen and the TMCO performing Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (August 23, 1995). There’s nothing safe about the rollicking, intense playing of the TMCO in this performance: this is edge-of-your-seat Stravinsky in a score that comes thrillingly to life when played like it matters (as it is here). Knussen brings out the best in the orchestra (as reports say he did again this year during the Festival of Contemporary Music); it whets the appetite for what’s to come during his Symphony Hall residency next April. (August 25)

John Williams’s jazz arrangement of My Fair Lady (August 9, 2004). If you’re expecting to hear Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn (dubbed by Marni Nixon) in this, you’ll be disappointed: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Dianne Reeves give a strongly Americanized twist to Lerner and Loewe’s classic, but it’s a treat to hear such excellent singers in these songs. The Tanglewood Big Band Ensemble and Steve Houghton Quintet take up the roles of the remainder of the cast with aplomb and great spirit, and Mr. Williams’s spoken introduction is both eloquent and informative. (It’s also interesting to note that the 1964 film’s soundtrack was conducted by another Tanglewood regular, Andre Previn.) (August 26)

Serge Koussevitzky conducting Brahms and Ravel (August 3 and July 27, 1946). The Brahms Alto Rhapsody and second suite from Daphnis and Chloé receive vital, gripping performances in these two excellent releases from the summer of 1946. Carol Brice’s singing in the Rhapsody is a marvel of expressive vocal color and technical control, while the BSO’s playing in the Ravel is sumptuous and wild. (August 30)

James Levine conducts Berlioz’s LES TROYENS on Opening Night at Tanglewood 2008. Photo: Hilary Scott.

James Levine conducting Part 1 of Les Troyens (July 5, 2008). The BSO is, arguably, the preeminent American Berlioz orchestra, thanks in large part to the advocacy of Charles Munch and Colin Davis. Levine, too, has demonstrated a great enthusiasm for Berlioz’s operas throughout his career and this performance of the first act of Berlioz’s magnum opus marks one of the late triumphs of his directorship. The cast -– led by Anna Caterina Antonacci and Marcus Haddock –- is terrific, fully invested in their roles and the BSO’s playing is magnificently fiery. (August 31)

Colin Davis conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (August 8, 1980). The Berlioz revival of the 1960s and ‘70s owes much of its success to the efforts of Davis, whose long relationship with the BSO has resulted in some legendary performances and recordings. While it’s too bad there wasn’t any Davis/Sibelius among this summer’s releases, Davis/Berlioz is just as good, as this mercurial, impassioned performance of the Symphonie attests. Davis and the BSO capture Berlioz’s bizarreness and wildness, to be sure, but this performance is about much more than superficial effects: there’s a sure-footed musical conviction to every bar. (September 1)

Seiji Ozawa conducting Bizet’s Symphony in C and Thompson’s Alleluia (August 16, 1964 and July 14, 2002). The BSO’s longest-serving music director, not surprisingly, also has one of the longest associations with Tanglewood, so it’s appropriate that excerpts from Mr. Ozawa’s first concert as a BSO guest conductor in Lenox and his last as BSO music director close out this commemorative set. Bizet’s Symphony is all youthful charm and that comes across winningly here (interestingly, the 1964 program Mr. Ozawa led was supposed to have been conducted by Pierre Monteux, but he died a few weeks prior at the age of eighty-nine). Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was written for the inauguration of the TMC in 1940 and has been sung at every opening exercise since; this performance, which includes an overflow audience and the BSO raising their voices with the TFC, majestically sums up all that’s good and magical about summer at Tanglewood. (September 2)

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