Joseph Horowitz: Classical Music in America

1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, movement one (6:47)
Arthur Nikisch conducting the Berlin Philharmonic

Arthur Nikisch, later the premier concert conductor in Europe as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras, served as music director of the Boston Symphony from 1889 to 1893, leading 388 performances (in an era innocent of the guest conductor). This was too early for Nikisch to have made any Boston recordings, but his 1913 Beethoven Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic - the earliest complete recording of a complete symphony - tells us everything we need to know about why Nikisch's Beethoven Fifth caused a cultural crisis in Boston, splitting opinion between enraged "traditionalists" for whom Nikisch's interpretive liberties were anathema, and more open-minded, open-eared arbiters of musical taste. No conductor has ever more eloquently conjured a special space for the first movement oboe cadenza - neither the retard/diminuendo nor the accelerando/crescendo Nikisch applies are to be found in Beethoven's score.

2. Wagner:
Prelude to Lohengrin, Act III (3:12)
Karl Muck conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Victor 1917

Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony, ultimately settled on a conductor more to his (and Boston's) taste: Karl Muck. Stiffly erect and nervously alert, he radiated authority and intensity. Though he insisted on proper rhythm and fidelity to the score, he managed to maintain discipline without straitjacketing the musicians. Like Nikisch's Berlin recordings, Muck's Boston recordings suffer from primitive studio conditions: the players were crammed into a pair of igloo-like structures. The first-desk men sat on high stools outside the igloos and played directly into horns of their own. Nikisch's recordings (with a reduced orchestra) are about spontaneity. Muck's are about precision. Though the orchestra's configuration obviously created ensemble problems, and though crudities of reproduction canceled the dynamic contrasts, fine details, and smooth blends for which Muck was noted, the excellence of the orchestra remains apparent.

Recorded 2nd October, 1917 in Camden, New Jersey
Matrix: B-20818-2
First issued on Victor 64744

3. Wagner:
Prelude to Parsifal (14:40)
Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
Victor 1936

The Philadelphia Orchestra, as recreated by Stokowski, acquired a unique sonic signature: a New World invention dispensing with Old World tradition. The soft-edged attacks and majestic swells and recessions, the smooth textures and lavish colors he adored all derive from the Romantic organ - his own instrument before he turned himself into a conductor. The tensile strength and flowing cantabile of the "Philadelphia sound" were partly a function of "free bowing." In every other orchestra, the up and down bow strokes were uniform; in Stokowski's, they were not. He reasoned that by having his players bow individually and naturally, he could obtain a warmer, more intense, more continuous sound. The Stokowski sound was not for everyone. Nor was it for all music. Significantly, the two composers Stokowski most recorded were the two composers he most remade: Bach, in his own transcriptions, showcased his orchestra's particular splendor, and so did the symphonic Wagner as extrapolated by Stokowski . No singer ever surpassed Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra in the sensuous lyricism of excerpts from Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan, and Parsifal, as recorded between 1927 and 1937.

Recorded 28th November, 1936 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrices: CS-03116-1, 03117-1, 03118-1 and 03119-1
First issued on Victor 14728 and 14729 in album M-421


Symphony No. 5, movement two (6:26)

Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
Live recording, November 21 and 30, 1931, by Bell Telephone Laboratories
(available via the Philadelphia Orchestra as part of the set "The Philaldelphia Orchestra 1900-2000")

Stokowski invited Bell Laboratories to make experimental recordings at the Academy of Music. They are the truest documentation of what Rachmaninoff described in 1929: "Philadelphia has the finest orchestra I have ever heard at any time or any place in my whole life. I don't know that I would be exaggerating if I said that it is the finest orchestra the world has ever heard." Stokowski's Beethoven's Fifth, captured in concert by the Bell engineers in state-of-the-art sound, is the most feline Beethoven on record. It races or glides on cat's paws, a marvel of rippling musculature, of poised power and energy. The most memorable movement is the least dramatic: the Andante, taken as an Adagio, but with such flexibility of pulse and with long phrases (contradicting Beethoven's markings) so firm and shapely that it never sounds slow.


Pictures at an Exhibition (beginning with "Two Polish Jews") (16:49)

Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Live broadcast, October 9, 1943

Koussevitzky played a string instrument - the double bass - and the symphonic sound he preferred was string-based: his Boston Symphony recordings are beautifully sung. Like most conductors, he is best represented in live performance. In this broadcast of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures - music Koussevitzky commissioned and premiered in Paris - the sudden breadth of "The Great Gate of Kiev" conveys the kind of electricity, galvanizing players and listeners, that his admirers relished; the performance ends on an unforgettably high plateau of elation.


La traviata Preludes to acts one and four (7:39)

Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic
RCA Victor, 1929

If Stokowski's music-making identifiably began in an organ loft, Toscanini's was grounded in opera and the human voice. In these rapt, minutely detailed performances, the vocally conceived inflections and phrase groupings are spellbinding. Smoothly diminishing from forte to piano, the intervening short notes as rounded and polished as the strong-beat quarters and halves, Toscanini's cellos exhale the big tune in La traviata's act one prelude; their singing is so articulate one can almost hear each pregnant, preparatory intake of breath. Verdi asks that the hushed beginning of act four be played "extremamente piano." Toscanini's rendition, poised "on the breath," trembles with tenderness. This is the most incisive, least sentimental Verdi imaginable.

Recorded 18th and *29th March, 1929 in Carnegie Hall, New York
Matrices: CVE-48936-3 and *489424
First issued on Victor 6994


Symphony No. 1, movement

Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra
Columbia, 1940

With Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra, Mitropoulos's Minneapolis Symphony possessed the most distinctive sound of any twentieth century American orchestra. The jagged outlines and ripping intensities of his Minneapolis recordings document a condition of hyper-commitment. No less than Mahler - his scoring and conducting - Mitropoulos rejected the Romantic cathedral sonority: the warm blanket of strings, the recessed winds and percussion favored by generic conductors give way to shards of saturated melody and tone. No wonder he excelled as a Mahler conductor, and also in Berg, Webern, and Strauss's Elektra.

Recorded 4th November, 1940 in Northrup Memorial Auditorium, Minneapolis
First issued on Columbia 11610 and 1161 1-D in album M-469


Piano Concerto No. 2, movement one (9:44)

Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
Victor, 1929

A throwback to the nineteenth century, before performance specialists took over, Rachmaninoff arrived in the United States highly accomplished as a conductor, pianist, and composer. He essentially quit conducting. His compositional output plummeted. He capitulated to the American hierarchy: performance first. He transformed himself into a touring solo artist, under contract to RCA Victor. For RCA, he recorded his Second Piano Concerto with a dream accompaniment from the orchestra he most admired.


Chopin: Waltz in C-sharp minor (3:35)
Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano
Victor, 1927

Chopin's evergreen waltz, as recorded by Rachmaninoff for RCA, is an act of sorcery. The insinuating inflections, the majestic breadth of texture (Rachmaninoff adds notes in the left hand), the veiled, will-o'-the-wisp velocity of the faster sections create a demonic vignette undreamt of by the composer.

10. Chopin:
Sonata in B-flat minor (Funeral March), movement one (5:52)
Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano
Victor, 1930

In this most famous of all recordings of the Funeral March Sonata, Rachmaninoff fixes on the galloping rhythm of the opening theme (here played with rare clarity and precision). When Chopin has the galloping theme return in sotto voce left-hand octaves at the beginning of the development section, Rachmaninoff renders them fortissimo: a Cyclopean eruption. Afterward, the theme growls and rumbles, restless and insatiable, in counterpoint with powers more benign. Still later, when Chopin instructs fortissimo, Rachmaninoff is soft; he has relocated the climax. The vicelike grip of this pianist's musical intelligence partners romanticized freedom and passion.

Recorded 18th February, 1930 in Camden or New York
Matrices: BVE-59408-2 and 59409-2
First issued on Victor 1489 in album M-95


Saint-Saens: Havanaise (9:16)
Jascha Heifetz, violin, with John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (1937)

Known for decades in the United States as the "world's greatest violinist," Heifetz was perceived to have elevated the art of the violin to new and undreamt-of heights. In fact, no vocalist, conductor, or pianist has ever crafted or sustained such preternatural perfection of technique. Meticulously, scrupulously, he weighted every deft turn of phrase. He could swell his sound to a razored opulence, or trim it to a finespun, flawless thread. His impassive countenance conveyed poise complete and unfathomable. The most frequent observation about Heifetz the musician, at all times, has been that his playing, appearances notwithstanding, is "not cold." These protests are of course significant. Heifetz was not remotely a bland violinist. But Fritz Kreisler, whom Heifetz displaced, projected more tenderness and warmth, Nathan Milstein a worldlier elegance.


Paganini Etude No. 2 (3:12)

Paganini Etude No. 5 (La chasse) (3:27)
Vladimir Horowitz, piano (1930)

Known for decades in the United States as the "world's greatest pianist," Horowitz
exerted the fascination of a psychological and physical mechanism strung so taut that it had to implode and yet did not. Notwithstanding the panegyrics of his admirers, he typically sounded happiest and most completely himself in lesser music: brains-in-the-fingers cameos. Employing his clairvoyant aural imagination, his prankster's sense of fun, he empties his full bag of tricks. Depth, decorum, fidelity are unnecessary, even out of place; a superior sort of pandering is the very raison d'etre.


Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 47 (Kreutzer), movement one (Adagio sostenuto; Presto) (11:18)

Joseph Szigeti, violin, and Bela Bartok, piano
Live performance at the Library of Congress, April 13, 1940

Szigeti was the Heifetz antipode. He lacked technical ease and disdained sweet vibrato. His range of repertoire and expression was unrivaled. His intimate relationship with his countryman Bela Bartok was formative. From Bartok he acquired a roots-in-the-soil sensibility and, in his playing, an earthy directness, wedding naked feeling with naked tone. He memorably partnered the composer in Stravinsky's Duo Concertante, premiered Bloch's Violin Concerto, and championed Berg, Honegger, Martin, Milhaud, Ravel, Roussel. His performances and recordings of the sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms - as bona fide duos, with such pianists as Bartok himself - made ever more pervasive "violinistic" renderings seem sleek and featureless. The example of Szigeti proved that a major American solo career could coexist with important contemporary music; it illustrated how close identification with leading creators could refresh and enrich the performer's art.

Recorded 13th April, 1940 in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC
First issued on Vanguard SRV-304 and 305


Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 47 (Kreutzer), movement one (Adagio sostenuto; Presto) (10:12)

Adolf Busch, violin, and Rudolf Serkin, piano
Columbia, 1941

A prime exemplar of the "German school," Busch was in every sense not a virtuoso. His performances were fiercely pure, denuded of superfluous detail. Fleeing Hitler, he moved to the United States with his duo partner and son-in-law Rudolf Serkin. After Busch died in 1952, Serkin established the most formidable American solo career of any Germanic artist. Though stylistically he resembled Busch, he was a more secure instrumentalist, a tornado of speed, precision, and power in the big sonatas and concertos of Beethoven and Brahms. That his tone was never sensuous, that his physical agitation at the keyboard did not preclude foot-stomping and other extraneous noises, that he wore spectacles and looked professorial all contributed to an impression of unvarnished integrity. He seemed an ethical force.

Recorded 12th December, 1941 in Liederkranz Hall, New York
Matrices: XCO 31974 through 31976
First issued on Columbia 71344-D and 71345-D in album M-496


Prelude to Die Meistersinger (9:35)

Glenn Gould, piano
Columbia/Sony, 1973

The most original North American keyboard talent of his generation, Gould possessed an ability to translate precise intention into sound on a par with Heifetz. No other pianist exercised such control of texture and articulation. Like Leopold Stokowski - an equally original New World artist whom Gould revered - he excelled in music he could re-imagine: not sonatas and concertos for piano, but Bach and Wagner. More than any conductor, he animates the contrapuntal bustle of the Meistersinger Prelude. Gould's Wagner transcriptions are, needless to say, unlike anyone else's. In particular, they are unlike those of Liszt, who knew how to make a piano sound like an orchestra. Gould makes no attempt to sound symphonic. Where the Meistersinger polyphony grows densest, he cheerfully overdubs "extra hands" - as Liszt, the virtuoso, would never dream of doing. In short, he does not celebrate the polymorphous possibilities of the piano as a Romantic sound medium. He values the piano for its self-sufficiency: its subservience to his complete command.

Recorded 30th June, 1973 in Eaton's Auditorium, Toronto
First issued on Columbia M-32351

16. Verdi: Otello, act one (complete);
Act I: Una vela!
Act I: Esultate!
Act I: Fuoco di gioia!
Act I: Roderigo, beviam!
Act I: Inaffia l'ugola!
Act I: Capitano, v'attende
Act I: Ola! Che avvien?
Act I: Gia nella notte
Act I: Quando narravi
Act I: Venga la morte!

oath of vengeance (act two);
Act II: Si, pel ciel (Otello, Iago)

final scene (act four)
Act IV: Calma come la tomba (Otello, Emilia, Desdemona, Cassio, Iago, Lodovico, Montano)
Act IV: Niun mi tema (Otello, Cassio, Lodovico, Montano)
Giovanni Martinelli (Otello), Lawrence Tibbett (Iago), Elisabeth Rethberg (Desdemona)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ettore Panizza
Live broadcast, February 12, 1938

Martinelli - who had studied or discussed his role with the librettist, Boito; with Victor Maurel, who created Iago; with Toscanini, who played in the premiere under Verdi's supervision - is the complete Otello. So realistic is his choked and debilitated projection of grief at the opera's close that his ability actually to sing "Desdemona!" is nothing short of miraculous. His Iago is the first and most complete in a line of distinguished American Verdi baritones; unlike any of the others, Lawrence Tibbett is a consummate singing actor. Here, his swarthy baritone is prodigious in scale and yet totally pliable. Rethberg's Desdemona is both opulent and strong. No studio recordings of these three famous Verdians convey the high voltage of this stage performance, not least because (the broadcast's least-anticipated revelation) of the incandescence of the Met's orchestra and its conductor. By the time James Levine took over the 1970s, it was a pardonable assumption that singers at the Met had forever suffered indifferent, dull, or inept support. But this 1938 Met orchestra is an Italian powderkeg. And it is Panizza who stylistically binds the polyglot cast. Compared to Toscanini, who esteemed him, he favors a broader play of tempo. But the velocity and precision, the taut filaments of tone, the keen timbres, the clipped, attenuated phrasings are all Toscanini trademarks. Like Toscanini, Panizza will bolt suddenly to the end of a scorching musical sentence; like Toscanini's, his musicians are lightning respondents. And Panizza is a master of controlling the show while showcasing his cast; calibrating Martinelli's titanic climaxes and magisterial breadth of phrase, he achieves a unity. Encountering this memento of times past is a humbling experience.


La traviata - Prelude to act four through "Addio del passato"
Rosa Ponselle (Violetta), Frederick Jagel (Alfredo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ettore Panizza
Live broadcast, January 5, 1935

With Tibbett, Ponselle was the Met's other great American star of the twenties and thirties. W. J. Henderson, who knew the Met from day one and tirelessly documented its declining vocal standards, made certain exceptions. Kirsten Flagstad was one. And, following a period of skeptical resistance, he capitulated, too, to Ponselle: "one of the most voluptuous dramatic soprano voices that present-day operagoers have heard." In La traviata, Ponselle's luscious soprano proves (more than in the studio) a galvanizing vehicle for musical theater. Under Panizza, the prelude to act four is (like Ponselle's singing) finely drawn, boldly elongated, memorably impassioned; a reading of this caliber today would stop the show.

18. Wagner: Siegfried - final scene
Scene 3: Selige Ode auf sonniger Hoh!
Scene 3: Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!
Scene 3: So starb nicht meine Mutter?
Scene 3: Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich
Kirsten Flagstad (Brunnhilde), Lauritz Melchior (Siegfried)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Artur Bodanzky
Live broadcast, January 30, 1937

The elemental impact of Flagstad's soprano is of course imperfectly conveyed on recordings. Still, the immensity of her portraiture registers -- but so does a certain temperamental placidity. Her art was untouched by the demonic. Rather, the serene amplitude of her Isolde or Brunnhilde achieves a penetrating breadth. Melchior is a different kind of artist. Vocally, he dwarfs his successors much as Flagstad does hers. If his tenor lacks the transporting timbre of Flagstad's soprano, it is tireless and immense. Like Flatstad, Melchior is a singer of words; more than Flagstad, he is a gifted vocal actor for whom words, clearly pronounced, are a starting point for expressive coloration and inflection. Bodanzky - once an assistant to Mahler in Vienna, later recommended to Toscanini and the Met by Busoni - is a mercurial Wagner conductor whose signature trait is a winged intensity; he shuns Teutonic tonnage as surely as Busoni or Toscanini did. James Gibbons Huneker once wrote, "No living conductor has the fiery temperament of Bodanzky save Arturo Toscanini." In the final scene of Siegfried, Bodanzky's supercharged style attains a frenzy of exuberance that clinches the ecstatic self-abnegation of the lovers. Henry Finck, in 1893, called Siegfried "the grandest role for tenors of the future" - an empty prophecy but for Melchior's single prodigious example.

19. Wagner: Gotterdammerung - Siegfried's narrative, death, and funeral music
Act III - Scene 2 - Brunnhilde! Heilige Braut!
Act III - Scene 2 - Funeral March
Lauritz Melchior (Siegfried)

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Artur Bodanzky
Live broadcast, January 11, 1936

Has any subsequent tenor matched Melchior's achievement in this famous scene? Wagner's peerless musical/dramatic inspiration - the dying Siegfried, pursuing his enthralled life narrative, describes the awakening Brunnhilde as he is himself expiring -- is here clinched.


Beethoven: Fidelio -- Florestan's aria
Jon Vickers, tenor

The most original North American operatic singer of recent decades was the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. In an era when other singers worked to recapture the fleeting essence of styles Italian, French, German, or Russian, Vickers eschewed every pretext of stylistic authenticity; like the comparable New World originals Stokowski and Gould, he was sui generis, one of a kind. None of his signature roles sounded idiomatic as he sang them. In fact, closer contact with a Giovanni Martinelli or Peter Pears could only have diluted his Otello or Peter Grimes - not because he was the greater artist, but because his artistry was whole, and wholly iconoclastic. One foundation of Vickers's singular vocal personality is obvious: unlike most other North Americans of his generation, he had extensive experience singing in his mother tongue. He could not otherwise have become a peerless singer of words. A specialist in outcasts - Florestan, Tristan, Siegmund, Parsifal were among his other roles - he was himself an operatic pariah who disdained publicists and interviews.