THE BELOW WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON[...]
By Stephen Smoliar
ICA Classics presents some of the ‘finest hours’ of BBC concert broadcasts
About half a century ago, if you lived in the United Kingdom, it was possible to get the foundations of a basic education in music appreciation simply by having a radio. Those were the days when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had a major commitment to bringing classical music performances of the highest quality to anyone having a licensed radio (since the expenses for doing this were covered in part by the tariff paid by any radio owner). That commitment involved not only inviting some of the best performers of the time to perform before an audience in a BBC studio but also maintaining several of its own “house” orchestras. To this day those activities continue to set one of the highest standards for what any government would dare to call “public broadcasting.”
At the end of last October, ICA Classics released a twenty-CD box entitled BBC Legends. This is a generous sampling of what one might hear over the radio during those glory days of the BBC, and the title of the collection is far from hyperbole. Indeed, the box establishes the high caliber of its value from its very first disc, an interpretation of Gustav Mahler’s eighth symphony recorded in the Royal Albert Hall on March 20, 1959 with Jascha Horenstein conducting the vast resources required for the performance of this “symphony of a thousand.”
While there have been some impressive recordings of this symphony, drawing upon more recent technology, that have been released since this concert, in my book Horenstein remains the “leader of the pack” when it comes to making sense of this particular symphony. Through this recording one can appreciate that, while the second movement is almost three times longer than the first (there are only two movements), the opening movement’s setting of the hymn “Veni, creator spiritus” (come, creative spirit) lays out the thematic lexicon for the second movement, Mahler’s abridged version of the final scene from the second part of Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, making that second movement one of the most extended exercises in prolongation to have been undertaken by any composer.
Impressive as Horenstein’s efforts may be, one must not neglect the superior work of the BBC technicians responsible for capturing this event. This was, after all, a “live” concert, which would not afford the luxury of retakes and patches. Furthermore, beyond the sheer number of performers, there is a breadth of dynamic range that may exceed that of Richard Wagner’s entire Ring cycle. Indeed, is there any other composition whose performance requires the full power of a pipe organ on the one hand and a solo mandolin on the other? Thus, while it may be folly to say that the listener can “take it all in” from this recording, it may come impressively close to what can be “taken in” when listening to this symphony in a concert hall (where “taking it all in” is not that much easier).
Nevertheless, my enthusiasm for this opening selection should not detract from the high standards of performance provided by the other artists in this collection. The set also offers opportunities to listen to conductors such as Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Beecham, Pierre Monteux, and Benjamin Britten. Instrumental soloists include pianists Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Wilhelm Kempff, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, as well as cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performing concertos conducted by Britten and Gennady Rozhdestvensky and chamber music with Giles and violinist Leonid Kogan, as well as Dennis Brain performing Johannes Brahms’ Opus 40 horn trio in E-flat major with Max Salpeter on violin and Cyril Preedy on piano.
If all this sounds a bit overwhelming or if 20 CDs sounds like too much of a commitment, I am happy to report that ICA Classics is continuing to put out new single-disc releases of BBC concert recordings. Only a few weeks after releasing BBC Legends, the label added to the set with a single CD of Rozhdestvensky conducting the BBC Symphony in selections from two concert appearances, one in September of 1978 (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 symphony in E minor, his fifth) and the other in August of 1981 (Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba suite). These two compositions could not be more different in their respective rhetorical stances. However, each has its own approach to dealing with both grand sounds and intimate introspections; and Rozhdestvensky is equally in his element in giving each of the composers his respective due.
After listening to the full scope of these recordings, I am tempted to fall back on that old declaration that “They don’t make them like they used to;” and, while that may be some exaggeration, there is no ignoring the value of having this major auditory document of how “they used to” give concert performances.