This 4-CD set celebrates the 100th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra, tracing its development and rise to a place among the world's premier orchestras. Founded in 1904 by 46 disgruntled members of Sir Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra and 53 adventurous young colleagues, the LSO became the first self-governing, cooperatively owned English orchestra. (It was also the first to tour America.) To safeguard its autonomy, the LSO had "Principal Conductors" and guests instead of music directors; in the booklet, the players talk about them very affectionately. Observing the orchestra's evolution and its incredible responsiveness to these very different conductors is one of the fascinations on this journey through a century of music-making. Although the recorded sound is influenced by advances in technology and, in the live recordings, varying acoustics, the playing is invariably wonderful: terrific performances of great music, chosen to bring out the best in musicians and conductors.
The LSO's very first recording of 1914 opens the set: Weber's "Oberon" Overture under Arthur Nikisch. The sound is antique, the strings slide, the trombones bray, the ensemble is messy, but the playing has an exuberance that augurs well for the future. The set ends with two excerpts from Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini under the LSO's present Principal Conductor, Sir Colin Davis, a renowned Berlioz specialist, with whom the orchestra has had a long, close relationship. Captured at London's Barbican Center in 1999, the performance is thrilling, although, like several of the set's live recordings, imperfectly balanced.
Among the highlights are appearances by two guest conductors. In 1938, Bruno Walter--whom the players "felt God had put in charge"--made Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture sound ravishingly warm and singing; by contrast, Stravinsky's Petrouchka and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, recorded live at the 1994 Salzburg Festival, are driven, steely, almost militaristically precise under George Solti. Josef Krips' performance of Schubert's Sixth Symphony of 1948 projects elegance, delicacy, sweetness, grace, clarity, and leisurely expressiveness; the players felt Krips was turning them into a "suave, homogenous Austrian" orchestra. One of the orchestra's favorite maestros was Pierre Monteux, "who had so much… musicianship and wisdom to impart." Recorded live in Vienna 1963, his Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet is lush and surging, going from ardent lyricism to turbulent passion, and sounds fabulous. In a 1966 Promenade concert, István Kertész goes all out in contrasting dynamics and emotions in Schubert's "Unfinished" and Dvorák's Sixth Symphonies, but the sound at the Albert Hall is not good. At the Barbican in 1997, Debussy's Jeux is all shimmering color, atmosphere and mercurial mood under Michael Tilson Thomas. In this musical cornucopia, listeners will find their own favorites. --Edith Eisler
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