'THE CHICAGO PRINCIPAL'
MOZART:  Oboe Concerto in C, K. 314.  Horn Concerto No. 3 in E Flat, K. 447.  Bassoon Concerto in B Flat, K. 191. HAYDN:  Trumpet Concerto in E Flat.  SCHUMANN:  Konzertst¸ck in F, Op. 86.  VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:  Concerto for Bass Tuba in F Minor.  BRITTEN:  Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31.  RAVEL:  BolÈro.
Ray Still, oboe; Adolph Herseth, trumpet; Dale Clevenger, Richard Oldberg, Thomas Howell, Norman Schweikert, horns; Willard Elliot, bassoon; Arnold Jacobs, tuba; Robert Tear, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orch/Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Carlo Maria Giulini and Sir Georg Solti, cond.
DG 27982 (2 CDs for the price of one) (ADD/DDD) TT:  69:53 & 69:12
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Herewith, a digital repackaging of mainly excellent music making from the post-Martinon period in Chicago: from 1976 (Solti’s remarkably relaxed Boléro, at Ravel’s tempo, which lets everyone star) to1984 (Adolph Herseth’s high-wire Haydn Trumpet Concerto). Basically, with the principal exception of hornist Dale Clevenger, who joined the roster in 1966, this was the Reiner Chicago Symphony of 1953-62, inherited by Solti in 1969, who stayed for 22 years. But Sir Georg’s label was London/Decca, not DG, although both are properties today of Universal Classical Group along with Philips, under the umbrella of UMG Recordings, Inc., with an Eighth Avenue address in New York City!

The first principal conductor to share Solti’s podium was Giulini, represented here by Britten’s poignant Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, written in 1943 after returning to the UK from a three-year absence in the US, just prior to Peter Grimes. The first recording was on 78-rpm Decca monodiscs in 1944, featuring the work’s commissioner, Dennis Brain, as horn soloist, and Peter Pears as tenor soloist, accompanied by the Boyd Neal Orchestra under Britten’s direction. A stereo remake was taped in 1963, several years after the uniquely characterful Brain had been killed in a late night accident, driving home to London from the Edinburgh Festival. (As a sidebar, Eugene Ormandy shared a long-held secret that he’d begged Brain, following their performance together at the Festival, to wait until morning; Ormandy had a premonition, but the young hornist wanted to see his children.) Pears sang in the 1963 remake, again with Britten conducting, but this time either the London Symphony or English Chamber Orchestra strings (Decca’s ADRM reissue is remarkably unforthcoming about who played in which of three song cycles on a treasure of a disc),but Barry Tuckwell had replaced Dennis Brain, with a lovely if cushier sound backed by solid musicianship.

Giulini’s 1977 version featured tenor Robert Tear (of the latter-day Pears timbre) and Clevenger, who ran a distinguished race, no mean feat even if he did come in second. This performance has a haunted undercurrent, wonderful in its way, also found in Giulini’s Los Angeles Verdi Falstaff, and furthermore plushly recorded. For that alone I’d keep the set. But there are other keepsakes: Ray Still’s singular oboe sound and adroit musicianship of 1983 in Mozart’s C-major Oboe Concerto (with cadenzas by his son Thomas), accompanied by Abbado, who led all the Mozart as well as Herseth’s Haydn. In other words, the Third Horn Concerto in E-flat, K. 447, with Clevenger, made in 1981, and the Bassoon Concerto with Willard Elliot in stellar form., recorded at the same session. For original instrument fans there are too many strings, and for the rest of us an overbright sound that DG has fancied in many of its transfers from analog to digital. If you have tone controls it can be moderated, but if yours is a purist preamp, that kind of sound can be fatiguing to hear in one sitting of Mozart and Haydn.

Abbado was Giulini’s successor as principal guest, but a blinkered management chose Barenboim rather than Abbado as Solti’s successor. Here DB conducted two of his best performances from the ‘70s: the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto with incomparable Arnold Jacobs as soloist in March of ‘77, when he also led the pace-setting Schumann Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra, with a stellar solo quartet led by Clevenger. It’s hard to reconcile DB’s muscular vivacity back then with his faux-Furtwängler posture subsequently, which has led the Chicago Symphony of palmier days into a musically turgid, rhythmically foggy cul-de-sac since 1991, leaving Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland and New York to fight over first place stateside.

That said (OK, off my chest), this packaging offers the most personable set of solo performances by orchestra personnel since the best of Sir Thomas Beecham’s years with the London Symphony just before WW2, and with the Royal Phil after.


R.D. (June 2003)