on 5 July 2004
If you've followed the fortunes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra only casually, then you'll probably be thinking that, over the last half-century, this orchestra has had only two music directors: Charles Munch, followed by Seiji Ozawa. (If you were to go back yet another quarter-century, you'd throw in the name of Serge Koussevitsky.) But there was a decade, from the early 60's to the early 70's, when the BSO was led first by Erich Leinsdorf, a fine opera conductor whose strengths did not translate particularly well to the concert stage, and then by William Steinberg, who led it all too briefly for a few years (1969 - 1972). Regrettably, Steinberg made only a handful of recordings with the BSO, and this was probably his finest.
For me, Steinberg will best be remembered for his traversal of the Brahms symphonies on Enoch Light's Command Classics label, and for this Boston recording of Gustav Holst's "The Planets." Long a favorite piece of British music for me, I believe I've owned (or at least heard) all of the recorded performances by Sir Adrian Boult (long considered the "owner" of this work), as well as critically-acclaimed recordings by Bernard Hermann, Andre Previn, Sir Malcom Sargent and Leopold Stokowski. But this Steinberg performance immediately went to the top of my list when it first came out on LP thirty years ago. It has also been critically acclaimed by that all-too-British publication, the Penguin Guide, which seldom holds American recordings of British music in such high esteem, particularly when every British conductor of any merit whatsoever has recorded this work.
Now, with its reissuance as part of DGG's "The Originals" series, Steinberg's performance is back up there, on the top of my list, getting its fair amount of playing time. I don't believe that any other conductor has provided a "Mars" with anywhere near the visceral excitement that Steinberg supplies here, or the heroic "swagger" of the Elgarian "nobilmente" theme in "Jupiter." In "Saturn" one can feel - if not hear - the organ underpinnings at the close of the movement, and again in the allegro section of "Uranus." The ethereal mysticism of "Neptune," with its wordless chorus, is gauged very well, with a satisfyinlgy realistic fadeout at the end. All-in-all, a true showpiece for the virtuosic work of the BSO soloists, sections and full ensemble, captured in vivid sound.
The Strauss companion piece, at first glance an odd partner for the Holst work, is not really a strange discmate at all. "Also Sprach Zarathustra" - like "The Planets" - requires virtuosic solo, section and ensemble work. Joseph Silverstein, long the BSO concertmaster, is about as fine a violin soloist in this work as you're bound to hear. And, lest one forget (and how can one?), the Strauss work begins with the famous Introduction for brass, organ and timpani, so that in a sense it is the use of the organ that provides a point of continuity, so to speak. Unlike far too many recordings of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," in which the organ is either "overplayed" for dramatic effect or is not appropriately in tune with the orchestra, the balance and intonation here are nigh-perfect.
Probably - no, make that definitely - the best archival record we'll have of the brief association of Steinberg and the Boston Symphony. At a time in the relatively recent past when it could easily be said that the BSO was one of "the big five."
Is there a best version of Holst's magical suite, "The Planets"? No, of course not, the music is too rich and varied for any one version to be the "only" one to buy, but there are some very good ones indeed, and this recording on DG by the Boston Symphony directed by William Steinberg is one of the very best.
From the outset, with a terrific accent on the first beat of the lopsided 5 over 4 rhythm, "Mars, the Bringer of War" hurtles into terrifying action, and Steinberg maintains the pace, atmosphere, drama and romance of this wonderful music throughout the entire suite.
The Strauss performance too is excellent and together with the Holst this disc offers very good value.
The recording is first rate and shows little sign of its age. The only regret is that William Steinberg was appointed to the Boston Symphony too late in his career, by which time he was in poor health and had a very short tenure. Accordingly this disc is worth treasuring as a great memorial to a fine musician.
on 2 July 2015
I just have to put in a good word for this. In short, it's fantastic. While I don't think Steinberg's Zarathustra is the best I've heard by any means, I can on the other hand say that his Planets is. The DGG recording does show its age slightly, but that is offset by the virtuosity of the Boston Symphony and the outstanding acoustics of their hall. Some critics--most notably British ones anxious to defend their homegrown readings against this one from Boston--have criticized this one for its fast tempos in movements such as Mars, or even Saturn. But Steinberg's tempos match those of Holst's own readings far more than do those of Boult or Dutoit, to name two 'classic' readings, and the excitement and beauty of the performance are never in question. Further, movements such as Saturn benefit greatly from the added cohesiveness Steinberg brings, as against the drooping, sagging melody lines of the slower tempo readings.