Commemorative set presents 32 works Recordings: Ten-disc collection by New York Philharmonic includes six decades of performances with 21 conductors and 18 soloists

it's a bargain at $185.

March 01, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

In the last few years, more and more American orchestras have been issuing commemorative sets, usually culled from broadcast archives, of their own performances. The pioneer in such efforts was the Chicago Symphony, but its example has been followed by other major orchestras, including those in Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and, most recently, New York.

The economic motivation for these sets is easy to understand. Given current fees, the time that it takes an orchestra nowadays to record enough material to fill a 70-minute CD is likely to cost considerably more than $100,000. But these commemorative sets are cheap to produce. Because the run of CDs is usually limited to a few thousand, the orchestra's musicians sign a waiver on royalties. And most of the experts and collectors who supply their expertise to the project usually contribute their services. Because the discs are issued at a premium price -- anywhere from $15-$20 a disc -- it's a bargain for the orchestras involved.

But as the latest such issue -- a 10-disc set from the New York Philharmonic, "The Historic Broadcasts: 1923 to 1987," going for $185 -- demonstrates, it's usually a bargain for listeners as well.

It's impossible to discuss every performance in a collection that contains more than 12 hours of music in a period that extends over six decades and that features 21 conductors and 18 soloists in 32 works. It's equally impossible not to mention at least a few.

Some of the performances feature great conductors in works they never recorded commercialner's blazing account (from 1960) of Brahms' Symphony No. 2, as it is with Bruno Walter's 1945 reading of Strauss' "Symphonia Domestica." The latter performance is filled with the conductor's characteristic warmth, and everyone who loves this work should try to hear it. Walter's reading is somehow more domestic -- not better, just different -- than the incandescent, in-your-face-brilliance of Reiner's classic recording with the Chicago Symphony.

Then there are works that the conductors had recorded commercially. But when such conflict exists -- as it does between Guido Cantelli's 1954 performance of Debussy's "La Mer" with the Philharmonic in this set and the same conductor's recorded performance (also from 1954) with the London Philharmonia (recently re-issued on Testament) -- one sees the reason for the duplication.

Great as Cantelli's commercial recording is, his live account is more vibrant and much, much wilder. It makes his studio version seem dull. This newly issued Cantelli performance is perhaps the most exciting "La Mer" I've ever heard -- and the recorded sound is both warmer and more detailed than it is in the studio version.

Some of the performances contained within the set may be new even to dedicated collectors. I did not know, for example, of the existence of a recording of the 1935 turo Toscanini in the Brahms Violin Concerto. Why this performance has not previously appeared on a pirate disc is a mystery. It shows Heifetz in even more fiery form than he was in his recording (made at about this time) with Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony and with a partner even more incisively like-minded than Fritz Reiner (with whom the great violinist was to record the work a little more than two decades later).

Some of the performances have appeared previously on pirate discs -- such as a collaboration in Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 in C minor between conductor George Szell and pianist Artur Schnabel and another between Bruno Walter and pianist Arthur Rubinstein in Chopin's Concerto No. 1 in E minor. But if owning those discs dissuades you from investing in this set, allow me to persuade you to do otherwise.

The mastering of these performances on this new set is incomparably better. When you compare previous issues of the Rubinstein-Walter performance of the Chopin E minor to the one in the Philharmonic's new set, you realize that the pirates were recorded a half-tone sharp -- thus presenting Chopin's First Concerto, like his Second Concerto, in the key of F minor.

The set's 144-page booklet contains essays, interviews and rare archival photographs that make it a worthy companion to the superb performances.

The set can be obtained for $185 (plus $4.85 shipping and handling) by phone (1-800-557- 8268), mail (NYP Historic Broadcast CD Set, P.O. Box 3836, Milford, Conn. 06460), by fax (1-203-877-1601) and over the Internet (www

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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