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London Symphony Orchestra (1904-2004): The Centennial Set
Laurent Naouri, Carl Maria von Weber, Hector Berlioz
London Symphony Orchestra (1904-2004): The Centennial Set
Genre: Classical
This 4-CD set celebrates the 100th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra, tracing its development and rise to a place among the world's premier orchestras. Founded in 1904 by 46 disgruntled members of Sir Henry Wood...  more »


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This 4-CD set celebrates the 100th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra, tracing its development and rise to a place among the world's premier orchestras. Founded in 1904 by 46 disgruntled members of Sir Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra and 53 adventurous young colleagues, the LSO became the first self-governing, cooperatively owned English orchestra. (It was also the first to tour America.) To safeguard its autonomy, the LSO had "Principal Conductors" and guests instead of music directors; in the booklet, the players talk about them very affectionately. Observing the orchestra's evolution and its incredible responsiveness to these very different conductors is one of the fascinations on this journey through a century of music-making. Although the recorded sound is influenced by advances in technology and, in the live recordings, varying acoustics, the playing is invariably wonderful: terrific performances of great music, chosen to bring out the best in musicians and conductors. The LSO's very first recording of 1914 opens the set: Weber's "Oberon" Overture under Arthur Nikisch. The sound is antique, the strings slide, the trombones bray, the ensemble is messy, but the playing has an exuberance that augurs well for the future. The set ends with two excerpts from Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini under the LSO's present Principal Conductor, Sir Colin Davis, a renowned Berlioz specialist, with whom the orchestra has had a long, close relationship. Captured at London's Barbican Center in 1999, the performance is thrilling, although, like several of the set's live recordings, imperfectly balanced. Among the highlights are appearances by two guest conductors. In 1938, Bruno Walter--whom the players "felt God had put in charge"--made Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture sound ravishingly warm and singing; by contrast, Stravinsky's Petrouchka and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, recorded live at the 1994 Salzburg Festival, are driven, steely, almost militaristically precise under George Solti. Josef Krips' performance of Schubert's Sixth Symphony of 1948 projects elegance, delicacy, sweetness, grace, clarity, and leisurely expressiveness; the players felt Krips was turning them into a "suave, homogenous Austrian" orchestra. One of the orchestra's favorite maestros was Pierre Monteux, "who had so much? musicianship and wisdom to impart." Recorded live in Vienna 1963, his Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet is lush and surging, going from ardent lyricism to turbulent passion, and sounds fabulous. In a 1966 Promenade concert, István Kertész goes all out in contrasting dynamics and emotions in Schubert's "Unfinished" and Dvorák's Sixth Symphonies, but the sound at the Albert Hall is not good. At the Barbican in 1997, Debussy's Jeux is all shimmering color, atmosphere and mercurial mood under Michael Tilson Thomas. In this musical cornucopia, listeners will find their own favorites. --Edith Eisler

CD Reviews

A Spectacular Collection of 100 Years of the LSO
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 02/13/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Not all the Andante boxed sets I've heard have been wonderful, indeed some (like the 'Falstaff' set) have been not very competitive at all. But this collection of performances by the London Symphony Orchestra is spectacularly good. It contains the orchestra's very earliest recording, under Nikisch, from 1914, and comes all the way forward to some 1990s performances under Colin Davis, Georg Solti and Michael Tilson Thomas. Since Amazon has not (as yet) listed the contents, I shall do so by speaking of each performance in order of its appearance on this 4CD set.

CD1: Nikisch led the orchestra, of course using the old acoustic recording technique, in a historically interesting performance of Weber's Oberon Overture. It is in execrable sound but still one can hear why people revered Nikisch; he shapes and molds the performance beautifully. And it also shows that as far back as 1914 there was an artful application of vibrato (and, alas, rather annoying portamenti) in the string-playing, lest anyone think, as some apparently do, that string vibrato is a more recent thing. This is followed (1935) by the Berlioz's King Lear Overture led by a conductor we don't often associate with that composer, Hamilton Harty. Because of its form, 'Le Roi Lear' is hard to hold together, but Harty shows himself to be a fine Berliozian. We get a warm, dramatic and cohesive 'Coriolan' Overture by Bruno Walter (1938). From 1948 we have Josef Krips leading Schubert's 6th Symphony and I swear they sound like the Vienna Philharmonic of that period, with a warm bloom in the violins and a lightness of spirit that one doesn't hear in the earlier performances. CD1 is finished by what for me is one of the really great performances I've ever heard of Tchaikovsky's 'Romeo and Juliet' Overture, led by Pierre Monteux (1963). There is backbone and lucidity in this performance, something sometimes missing in this hyper-romantic score. The wind playing is magnificent.

CD2: This is given over, rightly, to two marvelous performances, both recorded September 1, 1966 in Royal Albert Hall by István Kertész. Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony is given a dark, lustrous performance; Dvorák's rarely heard Sixth Symphony is, in contrast, as light and wistful a reading as one is ever likely to hear. These two performances, as far as I know never released, are worthy of being placed in the pantheon of great performances of these two works. Stunning playing. It is important to recall that this was the point at which the orchestra had really begun to be considered the greatest in England, and for good reason. Kertész was only the music director for three years but he really brought the orchestra along and it was in exceptional shape when taken over by its next music director, André Previn.

CD3: This CD is devoted to a conductor who was never the LSO's music director but one who had a close relationship with it: Georg Solti. And the two performances here--both recorded the same day in 1994 at the Salzburg Festival--are electrifying. The complete 'Petrushka' features razor-sharp rhythmic ensemble, clarity of texture and, something sometimes not associated with Solti, a romantic, if melancholy, tinge to the tenderer moments of this marvelous score. This is easily the equal of well-regarded recordings by Rattle, Bernstein, Chailly and the composer himself. And it is followed by the echt-Romantic 'Fifth Symphony' by Tchaikovsky. Anyone who thinks Solti couldn't conduct Russian music should take a listen to this and the Petrushka. Any doubts they might have had will evaporate. The amazing thing about the Tchaikovsky is that it is an almost classic performance; he does not give in to the temptation to slobber over the most expressive passages. The orchestra plays like gods; this is perhaps the most virtuosic playing in this set (although there are others that are right up there: the Berg, Berlioz (C. Davis), the Dvorák).

CD4: An astoundingly effective 'Three Pieces for Orchestra' by Berg, conducted with absolute precision coupled with romantic and yet lucid style by Claudio Abbado (rec. 1970, prev. released on DG). (I have been a latecomer to that band of music-lovers who admire Abbado, but that has changed for me over the past year or so. This performance cements my feeling that he is one of the great conductors of our age.) The LSO play for him as if possessed. This is followed by a bit of a letdown, the Elgar 'Cockaigne' Overure, led by André Previn (rec. 1975). I've heard commercial recordings of Previn leading the LSO that rocked my world, but this one remains a bit earthbound. And, I'm sorry to say, much the same happened with Debussy's 'Jeux' (a score I adore) led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The filigree and delicacy is there but the rhythmic precision and emotional heart seem to be a bit lacking. (Somewhat surprisingly, given his reputation as a bit of a stick, Bernard Haitink's recording with the Concertgebouw remains my favorite.) Finally, there are two selections from a live performance of Berlioz's 'Benvenuto Cellini'---the Overture and the Act I trio (with G. Sabbatini, E. Futral, L. Naouri) (rec. 1999). There is, of course, no greater Berlioz conductor currently before the public. Colin Davis has played and recorded most of Berlioz's oeuvre with this orchestra; the LSO has the style in its bones at this point. And this performance is incandescent. (The sound for this selection alone is a bit treble-shy, but that can be easily fixed at playback.)

This set comes with an elaborate program book, hardbound, that contains essays by a number of people associated with the orchestra, as well as interviews with LSO players going back forty or more years. This is definitely a keeper. I am always a little leery of compilation sets like this one, but the high level of artistry and presentation are maintained except as noted above.

4CDs: TT=ca.5 hrs

Scott Morrison"
A few performanes are not to be missed
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 11/27/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Although is presently struggling, it started out with high ambitions. One of them was to forge special links with great orchestras, which gave the site access, for example, to the reorded archives of the Vienna Phil., Philadelphia Orch., and London Symphony. Hours of suprirses have resulted, and this cenenary colleciton from the LSO contains more than a few.

The previous reviews have been detailed and enthusiastic, so I will add only a few comments. The LSO struggled for almost five decades before beginning to develop into a genuinely outstanding ensemble. They became, and still are, a jack-of-al-trades orchestra for hire, playing for film scores ad crossover albums. Their personnel was erratic, especially when Thomas Beecham came poaching for his Royal Phil. and Walter Legge for his Philharmonia Orch., both of which outshone the LSO until the mid-Sixties.

Therefore, what you hear on the first two CDs is pretty variable. Even the excellent Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet from 1963 is more notable for Monteux's relaxed, natural conducting than for anything special in the orchestra. One begins to hear international-level playing in 1966, when Istvan Kertesz conducted a Proms concert of the Schubert "Unfinished" and Dvorak Sixth Sym. with undisguised brio and vitality. Both readings suffer from boomy, distant recordings made in Albert Hall (the Wembley Stadium of concert halls), which is a shame. The Schubert is a great dramatic performance, better than what Kertesz did in the studio with the vienna Phil., and the Dvorak is at least as good as his famous complete set of the symphonies, a hallmark in its day. One is reminded again that Kertesz's shocking death from drrowning at the age of 43 in 1973 deprived us of a talent at least as great as Guido Cantelli's -- the Italin died fifteen years before in an airplane crash.

To hear the LSO sounding as fine as any orchestra in the world, one has to wait until CD 3 and a live concert under Georg Solti from 1994. The transformation from a very good British ensemble to a world-class one is startling. Solti tended to be more relaxed in concert, I think, but I wasn't prepared for how exubrant and good-natured his Petrushka would be -- it's a high point in his career on disc -- or how musical and undriven his Tchaikovsky Fifth. The orchestra outdoes itself, although I msut say from recent concerts attended in London that they play just as brilliantly today.

From the late Sixties on, the LSO has enjoyed uninterrupted accalim, but there have ben higher peaks under Abbado and Colin Davis than under Andre Previn and Tilson Thomas (the incandescent Valery Gergive, who is now in charge, postdates this collection by three years). No wonder, then, that the best things on CD 4 are Abbado's Berg 'Three Pieces' (already available on disc, unlike the concert material around it) and Davis's excerpts from Berlioz's opera, 'Benevenuto Cellini.'

In all, this set exceeded expectations, because it contains a handful of genuinely great performances. The super-budget price on the used market is another plus, given the copious notes inside and Andante's deluxe presentation."