What was the first major orchestra in America to make records under its own conductor? Would you believe the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock in 1916, a full year before RCA brought Karl Muck with the Boston Symphony and Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra before the recording horn?
Although those 1916 acoustics were made for Columbia, by the end of the following decade the Chicago Symphony had transferred its allegiance to RCA, the company with which it remained most closely allied through the 1960s. This gives that company a unique archive to draw upon in celebration of the orchestra's 100th anniversary this season.The result is the three-CD set listed above, documenting the CSO under each of its music directors from Stock to Solti, as well as some important guest conductors. And only in the case of Rafael Kubelik did they need to dip into another company's vaults, in this case PolyGram's.
Most of this material, moreover, is new to CD. That is certainly the case with Stock's "Spring" Symphony (Schumann), dating from 1929, and the Franck "Redemption" that his successor, Desire Defauw, recorded 17 years later, both previously available only on 78s, and that long, long ago.
Stock may not have been the world's greatest conductor, but in his 37 years at the orchestra's helm - a tenure beaten only by Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia - he presided over performances that seldom fell below a certain technical and interpretive level. To my ears, this "Spring" Symphony catches both him and the orchestra at what then must have been close to their best, eagerly taking the music in their teeth and only occasionally betraying a
RECORD tendency towards the slapdash. The Belgian Defauw likewise brings an idiomatic thrust to the Franck, maybe not as resounding as his "Scythian Suite" (not included here) but still an appropriate choice.
Ditto Rodzinski's "Liebestod." In RCA's place I might have opted for his "Sabre Dance" - to my knowledge still the only classical recording ever to top the Hit Parade - but Wagner's "Tristan" was a piece he was associated with on more than one occasion in Chicago, even if this generally clean-limbed account does not find him at his most transcendent.
With Kubelik came not only "hi-fi" but what many recall as the beginnings of the orchestra's greatness. Both are apparent in this 1952 recording of "The Moldau," from what is still arguably the best of his many "Ma Vlasts." To that RCA and Fritz Reiner added stereo and an executional polish that have made their collaborations legendary. In both this "Don Juan" - the earlier, and better, of their two recordings of that piece - and Bartok's "Hungarian Sketches," one senses he is hearing an orchestra at its peak.
Certainly nothing in Solti's Verdi Requiem - here the "Dies irae" - contradicts that view, a performance notable mainly for the contributions of Leontyne Price and Janet Baker. Even from a sonic standpoint this strikes me as the least impressive of the stereo recordings. On the other hand, Jean Martinon's way with Frank Martin's Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and Strings suggests he may have been, along with Kubelik, the CSO's most underrated music director.
The final CD highlights the work of various guest conductors - including Ravinia Festival directors Seiji Ozawa and James Levine - and concerto soloists. Most important here is the restoration to the catalog of Stokowski's "Russian Easter" Overture, a knockout interpretation to which the orchestra lends its own weighty magnificence. And although I would not have minded hearing Gilels represented, I will not quarrel with extracts from the work of Rubinstein (the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Giulini), Richter (the Brahms Second, with Leinsdorf) or Heifetz, whose Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Hendl, has stood as a classic from the day of its issue.
Transfers seem generally fair to middling, although Stokowski's "Russian Easter" falls considerably short of the impact of the original LP. But then, as with most of the really vintage Chicago recordings, that is saying a lot.