The Forgotten Leinsdorf Centenary

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     This has been a year of centenaries for a number of 20th-century podium giants born in 1912 – Georg Solti, Kurt Sanderling (who missed his 100th by just a year), Igor Markevitch, Sergiu Celibidache – all of whom still have their fame, or at least a cult. Yet a fifth, Erich Leinsdorf (1912-1993), remains in a curious state of limbo, not exactly reviled but not particularly loved.  One wonders why.  Perhaps his outspoken ways, of not suffering fools or even worthy adversaries kindly, often expressed with words that could cut and burn, left a trail of enemies who have put the kibosh on his posthumous reputation.  Perhaps his brisk, objective, composer-comes-first musicmaking is not the stuff that can attract a cult. 

     Yet musicians revered Leinsdorf as they did few other batonmeisters. He knew the repertoire like the back of his hand, he knew exactly how he wanted the music to go, he didn't waste time, he made the players work, and the players respected him for all of that. The Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted polls among their members about its guest conductors – and whenever Leinsdorf conducted during a given season, he reportedly finished at the top of the list. When the Phil went onto the old MGM (now Sony) soundstage on three occasions to record some direct-to-disc LPs – meaning that no editing was possible; every 18-to-20-minute side had to be perfect from start to finish – Leinsdorf was the man entrusted to keep the orchestra on track.

     I first heard Leinsdorf in person leading the L.A. Philharmonic on tour in Ames, Iowa – and he made that orchestra play better than anyone else could at that time – and this was the middle of the now-storied Carlo Maria Giulini era. Some players in the Phil told me afterwards that they would miss him, for this was his last performance on the tour (Michael Tilson Thomas took over from there).  

     Shortly after that soaring performance of Brahms's First Symphony, I interviewed Leinsdorf – and it was, to put it mildy, an experience.  For starters, upon greeting me in the hotel lobby, he took one look at my tape recorder, launched into a monologue about the dangers of technology enslaving the artist (three decades later, it sounds prophetic), and commanded that I not use it and take handwritten notes instead.  "I trust you more than the machine," he said in that brusque, peppery Viennese accent.  Then Leinsdorf suggested that we go outside on the patio facing a manicured lawn to do the interview, and he would give me the amount of time it took for him to smoke a good cigar.   

    Luckily, it was a very long cigar, and It turned out to be a very good interview, full of Old World charm, prickliness, crusty advice from his long backlog of experience, discourses about recording direct-to-disc ("Nobody could monkey around with the balances. I adore it."), the sorry condition of opera ("It is a pity to try to cast the great Wagner tenor roles today." I remember him saying – and one can add, then as now), jet lag, and even world politics.  And when I took my leave and thanked him for his time, Leinsdorf replied grandly, "Always happy to help young people."

     Leinsdorf left an enormous recorded legacy stretching back to the days of 78s, crowned by his 70 LPs with the Boston Symphony – ten discs for every year of his term as BSO music director (1962-69) as per his RCA Victor contract, which would be an unimaginably large order today.  A  lot of it went out of print only within a few years after Leinsdorf left Boston, and much of what remains available exists only because a famous soloist (Arthur Rubinstein, Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, Leontyne Price) is the headliner. There were all of the Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos, all the Brahms symphonies, recordings of Mahler's First and the then-rarely-encountered Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies just as the Mahler boom was getting underway, some contemporary music by Elliott Carter, Gunther Schuller, and Alberto Ginastera.  

     Yet the recordings that were most consistently admired in their time was Leinsdorf's Prokofiev series – though most of it went out of print just as fast, if not faster, than the rest. Except for some expensive transfers on the British Testament label, the bulk of these recordings stayed off the American market for nearly four decades.  But now, in what so far is the only observance of the Leinsdorf centenary by his old label RCA (now in the hands of Sony Music), almost all of Leinsdorf's Boston Prokofiev recordings have just been re-released in a compact six-CD box at a stupendously low price (Amazon has it listed for as little as $16 and change), part of an outpouring of bargain boxes from the CBS/RCA vaults.

     I imagine that the intent was to record all seven symphonies, but Leinsdorf only managed to set down the Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 6 before he left Boston.  He did record all five piano concertos with John Browning, both violin concertos (the first with Heifetz disciple Erick Friedman, the second with a 21-year-old Perlman), a well-chosen selection of highlights from "Romeo and Juliet" in the order presented in the ballet, and the "Lieutenant Kije" Suite. Also in the stash, but curiously omitted from the box, were Leinsdorf's renditions of the "Scythian Suite" and the Symphony-Concertante for cello and orchestra with BSO principal cellist Samuel Mayes – the latter is a monster of a performance.  These two MIA recordings could have been included on just one more disc, or even squeezed onto two of the existing discs that have enough empty space.

     Nevertheless, this box is a revelation for those who have only heard about this series second-hand.  Leinsdorf was sometimes accused of being a cold, overcalculating, nit-picking interpreter, but there is nothing cold or uninvolved about these blazing performances, where Leinsdorf's habitual objectivity and good rhythmic sense are fused with fervor and a feeling for Prokofiev's dark recesses, bizarre violence, and outpourings of melody.  Leinsdorf probes deeper into the darkness of the Sixth Symphony than almost anyone, nails the relentless, complex juggernaut of the still-little-known Second's opening movement; his accompaniments in the concertos are loaded with details that one usually never hears, yet never at the expense of the balance with his soloists. And there are those golden, reverberant acoustics of Symphony Hall.  Leinsdorf may have complained in his autobiography "Cadenza" that they never could get the orchestral seating in the hall for recordings exactly right, but the hall and orchestra sound magnificent in these extroverted remasterings. There are also times when the BSO sounds raw and raucous, but only when the music screams out for that kind of treatment.

     Leinsdorf's Prokofiev still sounds fiercely modern and voluptuous today, extending Boston's Prokofiev tradition that stems from Serge Koussevitzky's brilliant early recordings. And I can just see Leinsdorf on the podium through all this furious, motor-driven sound  – a short man, shoulders up, controlled in motion, thoroughly in charge.