on 12 March 2014
*** THIS REVIEW WAS PUBLISHED ON FINANCIAL TIMES ON DEC 6TH 2013 ***
By Andrew Clark
Live recordings used to be the exception rather than the rule. Today, “live” is considered more truthful than the studio, because the adrenalin generated by a one-off occasion usually spurs musicians to create that extra frisson of vitality. This poses the question: what would it be like to hear a live performance by legendary conductors whose legacy is studio-based?
Thanks to ICA’s access to broadcasting company archives, we now have the answers. I never attended a performance by Kempe (1910-76) but have long admired his Brahms, Strauss and Wagner. Here, on film, we have a Brahms Second Symphony with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture with the Royal Philharmonic, both captured at public concerts in 1973. Kempe was the opposite of a showman. The Brahms unfolds with a fabulous naturalness, subtlety and balance. The Wagner is majestic rather than bombastic, and you can see from the musicians’ faces why they loved playing for him.
The Rozhdestvensky recording is “only” audio but just as fascinating. Born in 1931 and hugely experienced when he took over the BBC Symphony in 1978, the Russian conductor had a notoriously relaxed attitude to rehearsal. The upside was that, when conditions were favourable, the performance took off, as this Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony from that year’s Flanders Festival attests. Rozhdestvensky shows a master’s touch – not a whiff of vulgarity – and the orchestra plays with finesse and brilliance. Janácek’s Taras Bulba, recorded at a 1981 Prom, is another sizzler.