Erich Leinsdorf Conducts Wagner & Beethoven (1965)

by | May 18, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Erich Leinsdorf Conducts Wagner & Beethoven  (1965)

Program: WAGNER: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Goetterdaemmerug; A Siegfried Idyll; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, OP. 125 “Choral”
Performers: Jane Marsh, soprano/ Eunice Alberts, contralto/ Richard Cassilly, tenor/ Thomas Paul, bass/ Harvard Glee Club/ Radcliffe Choral Society/ New England Conservatory Chorus/ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Erich Leinsdorf
Studio: VAI DVD 4361
Video: 4:3 Black &White
Audio: PCM mono
Length: 107 minutes
Rating: ****

We witness two concerts, 19 October and 14 December 1965, at the mid-point of conductor Erich Leinsdorf’s tenure (1962-1969) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in music of large scale, of which he was a past master. Leinsdorf (1912-1993) enjoyed a thorough familiarity with Wagner repertory at the MET, having worked with “der big stahrs,” Melchior and Traubel. Leinsdorf also managed large forces exceedingly well, and the requiem and oratorio repertory was his to command at will.  While the B&W kinescope has a rather bleached quality, the sonic elegance of the BSO remains intact. The lovely oboe of Ralph Gomberg, the tympani work of Everett Firth. If size matters, the sheer length of Leinsdorf’s baton and the smooth, liquid stick technique. Leinsdorf cuts a Furtwaenglerian figure himself, thin and fixated on his cues. The gestures for Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods are huge swooping arcs, the long, lean arms of Leinsdorf making a pointed cathedral above his head. 

Two points of view dominate: from directly behind the orchestra and in close-up to Leinsdorf; and from right profile, sometimes drawing back to include the second strings and battery. Occasionally, we get a long shot from the dress circle audience perspective. Nice shot of James Stagliano’s French horn and the antiphon from oboist Gomberg. The BSO horns, trumpets, and tubas create the Wagner sound par excellence, the Rheingold shines below the undulating waves of the river, the Rheinmaidens ever beckoning avarice and heroism.

The string serenade (with winds and horns) A Siegfried Idyll (19 October 1965) is so smooth as to sound what glossy vinyl looks like. Leinsdorf uses the expanded orchestration; no chamber music downsizer he.  He closes his eyes while ushering in the oboes. The effect remains startlingly intimate in spite of the mass of assembled players. Gomberg intones the step-wise Siegfried motif as the strings provide the aura, Nature’s lullaby. Leinsdorf’s left hand, the small finger almost at a right angle, keeps the muted horns subdued, waiting for the string trill (which Schoenberg borrowed for his own serenade) to carry the music forward. The ever reliable Doriot Anthony Dwyer delivers her flute part with easy zest.  The polyphony becomes martial, animated, an assualt on Valhalla itself. Armando Ghitalla’s trumpet barks out from his own row, solo. The camera pulls in and out, focused on a solo, then to Leinsdorf’s gently leading an obedient flock of strings, cellos, and horns to the Elysian Fields. William Pierce inadvertently announces the piece as having been by R. Strauss!

The Beethoven Ninth has the solemnity of a regal occasion. Even the vocal soloists are out early.  The long shot from behind the audience indicates the number of forces involved, all elegantly lined up as part of a military parade. When Leinsdorf pulls his baton and left hand close in, he communicates the cosmic mystery of the forces Beethoven is unleashing. Despite the emotional vehemence of the music, the tempo is not forced; everything unfolds with a leisurely inevitability. For the development section, just after the ferocious tympani part, we have our first superimposed shot of the orchestra and the arm-swinging Leinsdorf.

Leinsdorf opens the Scherzo single-handed, baton arm only. The motor rhythm established, the gestures become abbreviated arcs, like two letter m’s. Wicked attacks for the short, staccato riffs for strings, horns, tympani. Bassoon solo Sherman Walt intones for the trio section; then the winds pick up the serpentine melodic line, the oboe outstanding. The visual image occasionally flickers or jumps and we lose a physical segue which would be spun glass. Da capo has the camera close into the woodwinds then back to kapellmeister Leinsdorf, his right hand an unyielding metronome. To speak of this interpretation’s proceeding like clockwork invites redundancy. The camerawork for the Adagio molto e cantabile unobtrusively follows the course of the double-theme-and- variations, focusing on individual players and Leinsdorf’s molding of wind and horn phrases, sometimes holding them up with his left hand. The quality of sound is gorgeous, emerging at a pace that suggests we have all the time in the world until the trumpet call, wherein Leinsdorf accelerates the musical line.

The last movement’s opening flourish has the camera on trumpets and tympani, then moves along the recitative to the bass fiddles. Behind Leinsdorf for the woodwind and cello annunciation of the main theme. Strings and bassoon pick up the color. At the full crescendo, the camera pulls back, right, for the effect, then superimposes Leinsdorf against the tutti. The chorus shoots up at the tympani, and Thomas Paul admonishes no more of these tones without the human voice. Paul and oboe proceed, and we are in the throes of an appeal to heaven’s joy. Leinsdorf mouths the words prior to the scherzino between bassoon, Janissary band and tenor. The placement of the singers among the orchestral instruments makes them a natural extension of Beethoven’s sound concept: a human vocal obbligato. The Seid umschlungen millionen slow movement projects a cathedral sound, with brass, the equivalent of Mozart’s Tuba mirum from the Requiem, Leinsdorf’s eyes ablaze with devotional fire.  The vocal quartet at Deine zauber skyrockets, the trumpets heraldic for Alle menschen. The final peroration at the reentry of the Janissary motif and full complement of players captures the magnificence of the emotional effort, the strain to embrace a flawed humanity.

— Gary Lemco

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