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Throughout the era of recordings, classical performance has been defined by conductors. Through the time of Felix Mendelssohn, the conductor (often the composer himself at the keyboard or on violin) kept time, coordinated entrances, and generally assured the accuracy of the playing. But in the mid-1800s, Hector Berlioz and especially Richard Wagner transformed the conductor into a full-fledged contributor to the performance, adding his own strong interpretive input to craft a subjective response that went well beyond the immediate demands of the score. Wagner himself placed primary emphasis upon tempo, but soon less tangible notions of texture and personality emerged and became dominant. Modern conductors constantly supplant the fame of their ensembles. Thus an aural project to assess their art seems essential. Great Conductors of the 20th Century is a joint venture between the production and licensing savvy of IMG Artists and the international marketing and distribution clout of EMI. An edition of this type faces an immediate challenge � how to effectively summarize a career spanning several decades and hundreds of recordings in a mere 212 hours. To their credit, the producers opted for more creative programming than “greatest hits” packages. To attract seasoned collectors, the performances have been chosen largely from radio broadcasts and LPs not previously released on CD. Yet, to broaden the edition’s appeal (and possibly attract newcomers), mainstream repertoire predominates. While this keeps the focus on interpretation, where nuances emerge from comparing versions of familiar material, the volumes overflow with war horses while bypassing pieces that could have used more exposure and might have presented its conductors in a distinctive light. The 29 sets released so far present an intriguing mix of acknowledged giants and more obscure but deserving talents. I’ve posted a full survey on my Web site at www.classicalnotes.net/columns/emiconductors.html. Despite inevitable second-guessing (do Andre Cluytens, Nicolai Malko, or Fritz Busch really deserve to be in such an esteemed group?), one aspect of the edition that’s beyond dispute is the fine presentation. Each two-CD volume is midpriced, well-transferred, efficiently packed into a compact slimline box, and graced with cogent and edifying liner notes, striking black and white portraits, and a uniform and elegant graphic style. The Great Conductors edition prompts many thoughts of trends and issues that transcend the specific contents. The Golden Age.The most influential conductors of the 20th century boldly stood apart from the current norm of deferential respect for the composer. Albert Coates (1882-1953) represents a bygone era when intrepid personalities asserted themselves as worthy creative partners with the composer rather than as mere dutiful translators of the written score. Among this first generation of conductors on record, Coates’ records consistently startle with their sheer speed, energy, and invention. His whiplash shifts among extreme tempos generate a sense of galvanic urgency and ardent improvisation. Some may find this outlook crude, uncultured, and downright immature, but it thrills me beyond words. While repeated hearings tend to dissipate the edge of excitement and turn delighted surprise into mannerism, the initial exposure is indeed an experience to savor. The astounding 1929 account of the Love Duet from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is truly awesome, beginning at full boil and never relenting as Coates kindles the fervor of Melchior and Leider in their matchless prime toward a climactic orgy that still terrifies with its raw violence. Enter the Young.At the other extreme of both age and temperament is Carlo-Maria Giulini. Born in 1914, he’s the only one of the conductors represented in this series so far who’s still with us (physically, at least � he retired nearly a decade ago). None of the others even came close � the next youngest was Eugene Ormandy, who died in 1985. If the producers’ choices imply that those with the most interesting and significant personalities all were trained in the ethos of the 19th century and reached their peak in the first half of the 20th, I wholeheartedly agree. Indeed, the Giulini volume shows why. While all his performances are solidly idiomatic, finely detailed, wonderfully played and richly recorded, none really stands out as unique or special. Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste � those who dismiss the earlier personal approach typified by Coates as vulgar and misguided egotism will breathe a huge sigh of relief at the prospect of Giulini’s impeccable, self-effacing guidance. But my preferences lie with his predecessors. Evolution.The collection devoted to Fritz Busch (1890-1951) unwittingly illustrates a related point. Nearly all of his performances are good, solid, middle-of-the-road, competent readings, but nowadays that’s just not much of a compliment � cruel, perhaps, but reflective of how far our musical culture has evolved in the last century. When the only way to hear music was in live concert, the sheer rarity of the experience was thrilling enough and the effort to produce even a minimally proficient performance deserved acclaim. But with the advent of broadcasting and records our listening habits have shifted radically and the competitive stakes have soared. Now we routinely immerse ourselves in masterful recordings that defy time and geography, and the giants of the past are no longer relegated to memory, but remain fresh and immediate to perpetually challenge all who would follow. Busch’s records are good, but they’re eclipsed by the superstars who provide an extra spark of inspiration. Unburied Treasure.Beyond transforming music from an evanescent art to one of permanence for the study and enjoyment of future generations, records propagate the work of musicians barely known outside their immediate spheres of influence. Nikolai Golovanov (1891-1953) was the dominant force in Russian opera for nearly three decades. Summarily purged in 1952, he died the following year and as a political imperative of Soviet rewriting of Russian cultural history was conveniently forgotten. Only recently have his records resurfaced to reveal a true visionary, galaxies apart from the polished discipline of those who had towed the party line, both politically and aesthetically, and whose more restrained art has been touted as representing the Soviet ideal. While in most other hands Franz Liszt’s tone poems can seem ploddingly empty bombast, here they spring to life as tantalizingly fresh. But the most sensational surprise is a staggeringly intense 1812 Overture, that tiresome old warhorse which Golovanov stirs with ecstatic fervor in a wild, uninhibited, electrifying account (although even he felt compelled to appease the authorities by replacing the climactic quotation from “God Save the Czar” with an innocuous fragment from Glinka). Of Age and Beauty.Of all the 20th century conductors, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) recorded the most prolifically � nearly a thousand records, from acousticals to quad � and remained active to the very end. Far more than a geriatric stunt, his Sibelius Symphony No. 1, made in his 96th year, defies age by combining Stokowski’s trademark color with riveting dramatic intensity � the opening is seeped in mysticism, the insistent scherzo scorches with savage force, and the meandering structure is thoroughly fused with a focused vibrant commitment. The Things That Really Matter.While the biographies of most conductors read like a charmed tour of high culture, the biography of Karel Ancerl (1905-73) was quite different. The only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, his life was one of rebounds from misfortune and unstinting allegiance to music. He founded a string quartet in the ghetto, proudly led the postwar renaissance of his country’s culture as head of the Czech Philharmonic, and when driven into exile upon the 1968 Communist occupation, settled in Toronto and raised its orchestra to a world-class ensemble. Many of the pieces he loved, played, and recorded are slight and rather unexceptional. But after all his struggles, if Ancerl ultimately sought to bring some joy and light into a world whose sorrows and darkness he knew first-hand, who are we to argue? Que Ocurri� con Espa�a?I’ve always wondered why, of all the great European cultures, Spain’s contributions to serious music have seemed so negligible. Of the years of Spanish both my kids took in high school, the cultural units dwelled upon literature, painting, and theater, but barely said a word about music. The charismatic Ataulfo Argenta (1913-58) seemed destined to change that. Although pushed by producers into unexceptional readings of mainstream works, his early records of zarzuela and other characteristic Spanish fare suggested a unique talent that would have made both him and his country’s music famous, but those hopes were extinguished by his senseless death from carbon monoxide poisoning at a mere 44. The Role of Sound.The set by Nicolai Malko (1883-1961) provides a fascinating opportunity to explore the impact of technology on the listening experience. His February 1955 Prokofiev Seventh Symphony is the fulcrum, as it was the first stereo recording made by EMI and presents a thoroughly convincing aural image of a wide and fully detailed soundstage. Malko’s other records here, all poised on the cusp of multi-channel sound, provide crucial context. A mono Borodin Symphony No. 2 boasts finely balanced natural sound, with every instrument clearly heard while nestled in the ensemble’s ambiance, a reminder of the striking detail and atmosphere of a good mono take. Several early stereo tapings have a dim, boxy sound, but their spatial array invokes a sense of clarity that largely overcomes the tonal deficiencies. But sonic quality isn’t everything � the aural clouds lift for a 1956 Dvorak New World Symphony, yet even the fine sound can’t redeem this dull, uninspired performance or create a sense of excitement that’s otherwise absent. Just Ignore Them and Maybe They’ll Go Away.The sticker on the front of the Bruno Walter (1876-1972) volume brags that it “contains rare material previously unreleased on CD,” but that’s just not true � I have every one of their “unreleased” pieces on CDs from Italy, France, and other countries with lax copyright protection. Such “unauthorized” editions are readily available � Tower and other conventional and Internet retailers openly stock them alongside “legitimate” product. The majors may like to pretend that pirate labels don’t exist, but the fact is that they do. What’s more, they’re an important supplement to any collection, especially now that historical release projects are increasingly being curtailed. Unfortunately, so is this one. Although 60 volumes were planned with hopes for even more, the producers now advise that only 40 are to be issued, omitting such legends as Leonard Bernstein, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Hans Knappertsbusch, Fritz Reiner, and others who were far more influential and produced a far more distinctive catalog of recordings than many of those who have been included. Thus, rather than proudly celebrating the full wealth of this keystone of classical art, the truncated result is tinged with regret for what might have been. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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