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Out of sight, not out of mind

Since past posts scroll quickly off the main page, I wanted to flag a couple of discussions that are still of interest. Some notable pianists have weighed in on the Steinway thread; and the comments on concert hall acoustics offer much food for debate. (One commenter is very convincing about the advantages of traditional architecture over more streamlined modern architecture, but that doesn't account for Strathmore, which, as another commenter noted, is excellent. As for Munich's concert halls, and Sergiu Celibidache -- that is, indeed, material for a whole new discussion.)

By Anne Midgette  |  October 27, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
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Well, I have to admit that I cheated a little bit when I gave Celibidache as an example of how an orchestra can be improved in a less than ideal hall. Celibidache started his directorship of the Munich Philharmonic in 1979. At that time, the problematic Gasteig Arts center did not exist, being inaugurated in 1985 (perhaps prophetically, the first piece that Celi conducted at the inaugural concert was Funeral Music by Sch├╝tz.)

But before Gasteig, the Philharmonic played in the acoustically superior, though smaller, Herkulessaal. And Celibidache did start to to put his stamp on the orchestra from the begining. One can listen to Celi's various live recordings from that era to see what I mean, and also to those in which the orchestra plays with the guest conductors.

The CD that I will talk about is form the "later category." It contains live recordings from concerts conducted by Eugen Jochum. Jochum is of course associated with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, but he in fact he made his conducting debut with the Munich Philharmonic and he occasionally returned to conduct it later in his life. The CD, released in Japan, contains performances of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde recorded in 1979, and Bruckner's 9th Symphony from concerts in 1983.

In Tristan, Jochum does take his time with the music (the timings are almost identical with a Celibidache performance from the early '80s) and the orchestra certainly plays well though in a generic fashion.

Things are changed a few years later. Though this is clearly a Jochum reading in the flexibility of tempos and the organ-like sonorities of the orchestra, Celibidache's hand can also be seen in the extraordinary clarity and transparency of the strings and in the tone of the woodwinds (the brass, especially the trombones, and the percussion were a strenght of the orchestra even during Rudolf Kempe's tenure.) Indeed, there was a chamber music-like feeling even when the strings played forte. Interestingly enough, this is also a slower reading than Jochum's studio recordings in Berlin, Munich, and Dresden, though not as slow as a Philadelphia concert from 1985.

Of course Celi continued his wonderful work even in the acoustically-imperfect (I am being generous) Gasteig, though I do have to admit that in the last two years of his life, with his falling health, the playing standards declined a little bit. And even if today a great deal of Celi's legacy is lost in the playing of the Munich Philharmonic, I would still take the orchestra over more polished bands since it still preserves an old-world sound. For how long, it remains to be seen since Thielemann is leaving; Thielemann actually improved the orchestra.

One further comment on acoustics. There are of course some good modern halls: Strathmore, Meyerhoff, and Disney, already mentioned, but also the ones in Lucerne, Rio, and Budapest, plus our own Terrace Theater. As for the balance of the various compartments of the orchestra, I think a conductor has as much influence as the hall.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

This is not of this topic, but it is relevant to NSO subscribers so I am posting it here since I don't know where else to put it. Basically, the NSO has filled the timpanist position:

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

cicciofrancolando: Thanks for the link on the timpanist. I've been waiting for that.
As for Celi: I thought the playing standards at the Munich Phil declined for considerably longer than just the last two years of his tenure. I think Levine did considerable remedial work there to prepare the way for Thielemann.

Posted by: MidgetteA | October 28, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Let's not forget that the Munich Philharmonic was without leadership for three years between Celi's death and Levine's tenure. This is a killer for any orchestras, even those at the very top.

In the early 90s I remember a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Carnegie Hall under Bernard Haitink. This was after Karajan's death but before Abbado could spend any significant time with it. It was a huge disappointment and by far the worst Haitink concert that I have ever attended. John Rockwell summarizes it well for me (sometimes I do agree with NY Times critics, ha, ha!)

Standards of playing also became lower during Klemperer's last years with the Philharmonia. Dare I even say same thing happened last year of Szell's tenure in Cleveland? (though not to the same extend) This is not to denigrate these titans, but simply to state that the passage of the time simply takes its tolls; their health problems are well known. So yes, I do admit that it also happened to the Munich Philharmonic under Celi.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

One more example of orchestras without leadership: the disastruous season of the Philadelphia Orchestra between the Muti and Sawallisch tenures (I would argue that the whole Muti tenure was a disaster but that'a another thing.) The management did learn the lesson and hired Dutoit for the interim position - and the orchestra sounded terrific when I heard it, whatever their internal problems may be.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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