The ideal cornerstone for any library of orchestral music

All the great conductors on Deutsche Grammophon from the 1930s to the 2000s in one essential  box set. Including original covers, a 112-page booklet with liner notes by Julian Haylock and several recordings which are new to CD.      

Int. Release 30 Jun. 2017
40 CDs 0289 479 7477 2

Great Conductors on Deutsche Grammophon

It seems fitting that the first-born and earliest-recorded conductor in this outstanding collection should be the redoubtable Carl Schuricht, for his 1938 account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 (CD 37) – in which fine-paced paragraphs of burnished musical sound build inexorably towards exultant climaxes – helped set an interpretative agenda for the rest of the century. It is remarkable, too, how far the Berlin Philharmonic adapted its playing style, just a year later, for the Trieste-born Italian maestro Victor de Sabata, who imbues Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (CD 10) with a formidable sense of emotional narrative, culminating in a final passacaglia statement that plunges us over into the abyss.

Two other distinguished musicians born towards the end of the 19th century also produced highly contrasted results with the Berliners during the 1950s. Wilhelm Furtwängler (CD 13) created a tantalizing aura of implacable fluidity in Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, while in Schubert’s “Unfinished” he traced the music’s underlying harmonic function with a composer’s profound symphonic instinct. By comparison, Hans Rosbaud (CD 34) brings clarity, warmth and an invigorating charm to Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 92 and 104, clearly relishing the music’s rich humanity and inimitable sparkle.

The sense of a composer’s music being experienced through the interpretative prism of a conductor’s personality is felt particularly strongly in the work of those musicians born in the post-Romantic age between 1890 and 1920. Take Fritz Busch, for example, who turned the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra into a world-class outfit during the late 1940s and whose light-as-air reading of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (CD 7) feels like a celebration of life itself. Karl Böhm, on the other hand, in a career-defining performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (CD 5), creates a perfect symbiosis of the physical and spiritual worlds that feels like a natural extension of his un-distracting podium presence.

Although by then in his early seventies, William Steinberg entered an Indian summer of music-making as director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1969–72) that produced a series of first-rate recordings, including a 1971 Strauss/Hindemith coupling (CD 39) of the greatest energy and excitement. Just two years later, Eugen Jochum, who shared Steinberg’s economical conducting style, although he was inclined to give his phrasing a little more elbow-room, recorded a coupling of Mozart’s “Jupiter” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphonies with the Bostonians (CD 18) that exudes serenity and affection beneath its expert musical surfaces. Two years Jochum’s junior, Fritz Lehmann similarly triumphs over the opulence of pre-period-instrumental textures in 1952 readings of Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti grossi with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (CD 22) that exude humble dignity and affection.

For much of the 20th century, Russian orchestras possessed a vibrantly colourful “off-the-leash” quality that had a liberating effect on ears accustomed to the well-honed sophistication and timbral integration of the West’s finest ensembles. When Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic recorded Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon in the mid-1950s, few had heard anything quite like it before, and in his searingly incandescent “Pathétique” (CD 28) the charismatic Mravinsky fearlessly rides the restless tide of Tchaikovsky’s churning emotions into the depths of despair.

The galvanizing musical intensity generated by Russia’s finest conductors can also be savoured in interpretations of Classical repertoire by two celebrated maestros, both born in 1912. Working with the Leningrad Philharmonic in the Vienna Konzerthaus in 1956, Kurt Sanderling turns Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 (CD 28) into a life-affirming experience of uncontainable joy and celebratory zeal. Similarly, in mid-1950s recordings shared between the Berlin Philharmonic and Lamoureux orchestras, Igor Markevitch imbues Mozart and Gluck with a surprisingly modern-sounding crispness and alertness that keep the music on its collective toes (CD 26). Also born in 1912, Ferdinand Leitner proves no less compelling on his Mozartian home ground with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and then lifts the roof off in Berlin with a pair of exhilarating Tchaikovsky performances taped in 1959 (CD 23).

Of all the conductors featured here, the one most indissolubly linked in listeners’ minds with the “Yellow Label” is Herbert von Karajan (CD 19), whose early 1960s cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies has assumed legendary status: enveloping the listener in an intoxicating sonic cocoon of peerless instrumental expertise, it offers a symphonic experience like no other.

1914 proved something of a red-letter year for conductors. Hungarian-born Ferenc Fricsay, who studied under both Bartók and Kodály and made the first stereo recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for DG, is heard in a beguiling programme of Strauss favourites with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra at its most lithe and silken-toned (CD 12). Rafael Kubelik, arguably the finest of all Czech conductors, shared with Fricsay a profound instinct for rhythmic and textural transparency and also possessed a flair for melodic enchantment that can be savoured in a captivating pairing of Dvořák’s last two symphonies (CD 21).

Early on in his career, Carlo Maria Giulini was celebrated principally for an unmistakably Italianate combination of sparkling precision, elegant phrasing and Mediterranean charm. By the late 1980s, when he recorded a mesmerizing account of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in Vienna (CD 15), he was tending more towards temporal expansiveness, conveying a profound sense of stillness that uncannily suggests the infinite opening up slowly before us.

It is difficult to imagine two conductors more temperamentally contrasted than Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez. For Bernstein, each performance was a cathartic experience to be savoured as if it might be his last – as is borne out by passionately devoted performances of Mahler’s first two symphonies, captured in Amsterdam and New York respectively (CDs 3 & 4). Boulez was, on the other hand, more instinctively attuned to a composer’s technical proclivities and creative thought-processes, as is evidenced by meticulously sounded, subtly nuanced performances of Schoenberg and Stravinsky (CD 6).   

Two notable conductors born in the late 1920s both started out as cellists, yet from very different musical perspectives. Having formed the period-instrument group Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953, Nikolaus Harnoncourt maintained his questing spirit for interpretative revisionism when he began conducting more widely, as heard in a 1980s series of Mozart recordings made in Vienna with the probing Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer (CD 16). Mstislav Rostropovich, on the other hand, was a world-renowned cello virtuoso who had only recently taken up his first regular conducting appointment with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington when he recorded an enchanting Tchaikovsky ballet album with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1978 (CD 35).

André Previn also moved into “classical” conducting by an unconventional route, having started out as a piano virtuoso-conductor-arranger specializing in jazz and film music. More than any other conductor of his generation, he tended to communicate a sense of radiant warmth and bonhomie, which makes his harrowing 1992 version of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra all the more startling (CD 32).

Two of the finest conducting technicians of the last century were born coincidentally in 1930. Carlos Kleiber (son of the celebrated conductor Erich) directed fewer than 100 concerts in his entire career and made only a handful of official recordings, most notably a galvanizing 1974 account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (CD 20), yet each one was a musical event of the greatest magnitude. If Kleiber tended to articulate within a grand architectural sweep, phenomenal conductor-prodigy Lorin Maazel insisted upon high-precision playing and pacing that unwound like a finely-tuned watch mechanism in even the most opulently indulgent of scores, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (CD 25).

Thanks to his charismatic presence and gestural intuitiveness, Claudio Abbado could get the very best out of even the most notoriously exacting of orchestras without having to utter scarcely a single word. His alluring 1970s French programme with the Boston Symphony (CD 1) features a considerable bonus in the form of Brahms’s Tragic Overture with the London Symphony, previously available only on LP in Japan.

Shortly after Abbado made that Boston recording, Seiji Ozawa became the orchestra’s music director, launching an unprecedented 29-year partnership that witnessed a string of critically acclaimed recordings, including a Respighi Roman trilogy spectacular (CD 31). With over 400 albums already behind him, Ozawa’s Estonian-born contemporary Neeme Järvi has proved especially revelatory in Nordic music, as witness a wide-ranging Sibelius collection with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (CD 17), with whom he was principal conductor for 22 years.  

As both pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim has been captivating audiences since childhood with his magisterial command and insight. During the 1970s his conducting career took off at a dizzying pace that is seemingly encapsulated in an electrifying Chicago recording of Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony (CD 2), which feels at times as if it might explode with excitement.

Few conductors’ careers can be said to follow a set pattern, as is exemplified by three maestros born during the 1940s. John Eliot Gardiner became one of the leading figures in the period-instrument revival, brushing aside decades of interpretative accretion to reveal pristine musical surfaces, most strikingly in the symphonies of Beethoven (CD 14). A former prodigy pianist, James Levine later focused his attention primarily on New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, where he raised playing standards to previously undreamt-of levels of virtuosity (CD 24). Like Boulez, Giuseppe Sinopoli started out as a modernist composer before turning his creative spotlight on other composers’ music, rethinking such traditional standards as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (CD 38) with an almost forensic ear for detail.

It was the generation born in the 1950s that largely swept aside traditional concepts of the conductor as dictator. Throughout his distinguished tenures with two of the world’s finest orchestras – the Royal Concertgebouw and Leipzig Gewandhaus – Milanese Riccardo Chailly has retained the same youthful energy and infectious enthusiasm already evident in his early (1981) breakthrough album of Prokofiev masterworks (CD 8).

Like James Levine, Myung-Whun Chung started out as a piano virtuoso before taking up the baton in earnest, excelling in music of a highly colourful and complex nature, most notably the intoxicating soundscapes of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony (CD 9).

If, during his 18-year tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle established himself most notably as a champion of 20th-century and contemporary music, since taking over the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002 he has also proved himself a master of the Austro-German repertoire (CD 33). Conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen has, by comparison, continued to forge a special relationship with music of a groundbreaking nature, as witness the almost savage intensity with which he conducted the music of Stravinsky, Bartók and Mussorgsky, marking the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first live recordings (2006) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall (CD 36). 

Christian Thielemann, who worked for a while as Karajan’s assistant, has proved an exception to the general rule by basing his career on the core classics of the repertoire in the time-honoured Kapellmeister tradition (CD 40). Marc Minkowski, by way of contrast, devoted his early career to French Baroque opera on period instruments before directing music of the Romantic era with the same inspirational zeal, as witness his bracing performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Les Musiciens du Louvre (CD 27).

Rounding things out in style are three outstanding musicians of the younger generation. Canadian conductor-pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director designate of the Metropolitan Opera House, can be heard in invigorating 2012 performances of Schumann’s Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (CD 30). Latvian Andris Nelsons is currently music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made an outstanding coupling of Shostakovich’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies (CD 29), and director designate of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Last, but by no means least, is the charismatic Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, still only 36 at the time of writing and already seven years into his music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; his 2008 album Fiesta (CD 11), recorded live with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, positively crackles with high-voltage electricity.

Julian Haylock