Critics’ Choice: Video Treasures Historic And Novel

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1948: Toscanini conducts Beethoven Symphony No. 9
NBC Symphony Orchestra, Collegiate Chorale
Soloists: Anne McKnight, Jane Hobson, Erwin Dillon, Norman Scott

It’s a familiar epithet the announcer applies to Arturo Toscanini as the conductor makes his way to the podium for this April 1948 television concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The descriptor is “legendary.” Indeed. But the slight figure before us, his thinned hair a white wisp above sharply chiseled features that betray expression only in occasionally raised eyebrows, is neither legend nor myth, but a musician in flesh and blood – and consuming concentration. The work is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Toscanini uses no score. It’s the first time I’ve seen this video, and it is one of the greatest Beethoven Ninths I’ve ever heard – generally brisk, at once stentorian and incisive, fluid and aspiring. The orchestra is very fine, the sound surprisingly good. The stuff of legends. – Lawrence B. Johnson

1964: Solti conducts Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

This short, purely instrumental excerpt comes from a documentary film, The Golden Ring,  created by Humphrey Burton in 1964 for BBC Television. Still available on DVD, the 90-minute film (the longest music documentary made to date), depicts the challenges of recording Wagner’s immense opera Götterdämmerung, part of London/Decca’s complete Ring cycle. Spanning the years 1958 to 1965, the Solti Ring was not only the first studio recording ever made of the cycle, but more than half a century later remains the benchmark against which nearly all subsequent Rings have been judged. In the film, we see 52-year-old Georg Solti at his most manic, driving the superb Vienna Philharmonic to almost unbearable heights of intensity. The camera zooms in on a hugely enthusiastic cymbal player, the horn section (all playing the identical so-called Vienna horns, with their unique shape and sound), the quartet of Wagner tubas (instruments Wagner had made especially for the Ring), German trumpets (held “sideways”), and, near the end, a solo from the bass trumpet (another Wagner invention). The film comes from an era when there were no women in the orchestra (the two lady harpists are “extras” – the opera requires six of them!), and when men all wore suits and ties even to rehearsals and recording sessions. A fascinating glimpse of the past.  – Robert Markow
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1931: Mengelberg conducts Weber, Bizet, Berlioz; Van Beinum conducts Beethoven; Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam

Recordings made by Willem Mengelberg, the long-time conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam whose American career overlapped for several years that of Arturo Toscanini, have long fascinated and amazed collectors; in this Age of the Internet, virtually all of his discs are now available for anyone to hear, for free, at this important website. He also appeared in one very interesting film, produced in France in April 1931 before a set that replicated the interior of his concert hall, back home. This is the sole video example of his conducting other than newsreel footage. The selections include the Overture to Oberon (Weber), an excerpt from L’Arlésienne (Bizet), and the Rákóczy March (Berlioz). Mengelberg’s approach to music making would now be considered totally passé, and anyone who permitted all those slippery portamentos today would be laughed off the podium and run out of town, but these few minutes contain remarkable interpretations and world-class playing, too. For sharp contrast in terms of what some might call cleanliness of playing, compare these pre-War items with Eduard van Beinum‘s May 1957 Eroica with the same orchestra (but surely with very few of the same players – included here as a companion to the Choral Symphony selected by my colleague Lawrence B. Johnson. – John W. Lambert
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1945: Rhapsody in Blue from George Gershwin bio-pic
With Robert Alda as Gershwin (piano dubbed by Oscar Levant)
Clarinetist Al Gallodoro, Paul Whiteman conducting

Rhapsody in Blue is a schmaltzy, inaccurate account of George Gershwin’s life, but the musical numbers in the 1945 movie from Warner Brothers (available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime Video) are terrific, with performances by several musicians who knew Gershwin. They include Anne Brown, who originated Bess in Porgy and Bess, singing “Summertime;” Hazel Scott at the piano in a Paris nightclub, singing “The Man I Love” and “Fascinating Rhythm;” and Al Jolson (in blackface) belting out Gershwin’s first hit song, “Swanee.” My favorite scene from the movie is featured in this crisply restored video, with Robert Alda (Alan Alda’s father) as Gershwin performing the piano solo in the 1924 world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Alda’s playing is dubbed by pianist Oscar Levant, a Gershwin friend and definitive interpreter of his works (at 1:31 in the video, Levant is the man in the balcony). Paul Whiteman is conducting, as he did for the premiere; the scintillating orchestration is by Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé; and Al Gallodoro, the great clarinetist of the Whiteman orchestra, is heard in the famous opening glissando. Sometimes Hollywood gets things right.  – John Fleming
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2020: Making new history: Portland Baroque Orchestra
Theatrical Concerti: Comedy, Delight, and Drama

In Portland Baroque Orchestra’s first-ever live-stream, listeners took a deep two-hour dive into theatrical Baroque music of the 18th century – divertimentos, scherzos, even burlesque. Violinist Carla Moore guest-conducted instead of 26-year leader Monica Huggett, who is retiring this year. Several elaborate comedic pieces telegraphed colorful stories, and if any orchestral group can play with the velocity and verve essential to pulling off this kind of music, it’s PBO. Marin Marais’ 1725 Pieces de Viole, Cinquième Livre, Suite No. 7 (1725) includes music depicting a surgical  “operation for the removal of a stone” – a kidney stone – followed by G.P. Telemann’s “Gulliver Suite” for Two Violins in D major. (Moore and violinist Rob Diggins are featured along with narrator Suzanne Nance.) Other energetic pieces: Lorenzo Zavateri’s Concerto Teatrale in F Major, Op. 1, No. 9, along with Pietro Locatelli’s Introduttione Teatrale in G major, Op. 4, No. 4.  Giovanni Guido’s Scherzi Amonici sopra Le Quattro Staggioni dell’Anno was the final blockbuster. During the stream, there were 533 peak viewers– with a total of over 2,200 views, according to PBO’s Rachel Smith: “Based on the analytics, 40 percent of our online audience was under the age of 45.” – Angela Allen