RCA Marks Its Chicago Symphony Years

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to The Times</i>

Unlike the recent 12-CD set produced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the 100 years of its existence, RCA’s humbler “Centennial Collection” (60206, three mid-priced CDs) is devoted strictly to reissues from its own commercial archives.

Its star entry is a recording that became a connoisseur’s delight during its brief period of availability in the late 1960s, and later a collectors’ item: the Concerto for Seven Winds, Percussion and Strings by Swiss composer Frank Martin, whose centennial (birth, not death) last year went virtually unnoticed in this country.

The conductor was Jean Martinon, a master at projecting just such buoyantly rhythmical Gallic scores.


The soloists, all CSO principals and as accomplished a collection of in-house virtuosos as any orchestra could boast, are--incredibly--not credited in this CD reissue. The LP (yes, they still have their uses) lists them as flutist Donald Peck, oboist Ray Still, clarinetist Clark Brody, bassoonist Willard Elliot, trumpeter Adolph Herseth, hornist Dale Clevenger, trombonist Jay Friedman and timpanist Donald Koss. A quarter-century later, all but the clarinetist remain CSO principals.

Bartok’s charming, rarely encountered “Hungarian Sketches,” spiffily conducted by Fritz Reiner (1958), is another highlight of the RCA set. And the distant past is honored by an elegant, very decent-sounding 1929 Schumann “Spring” Symphony under Frederick Stock.

There is undoubted curiosity value in having that incomparable example of conductorial chutzpah Leopold Stokowski directing his own reorchestrated edition of the “Russian Easter” Overture by Rimsky-Korsakov, who knew at least as much about orchestration (particularly of his own music) as any composer who ever lived.

And there are other worthwhile, less controversial items--some, however, available elsewhere--set amid bleeding chunks more suitable to a Greatest Hits bargain cassette than to this distinguished occasion.

Recent CSO history is documented elsewhere by a pair of simultaneously released Bartok programs. One, led by Georg Solti, hurls out characteristically terse, violent readings of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and the Divertimento for Strings (London 430 352).

The other, under James Levine, offers a glossier-sounding orchestra--a difference attributable as much to recording philosophy as to conductors’ tastes--in slicker performances of, yet again, the Music for SPC and the 24th (at least) CD recording of the Concerto for Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 429 747).

Music by that other 20th-Century Hungarian master Zoltan Kodaly constitutes the program of recent and frequent CSO guest conductor Neeme Jarvi, who leads the “Galanta Dances,” “Peacock” Variations and “Hary Janos” Suite (Chandos 8877).

Chandos presents the CSO from yet another sonic perspective, projecting a darker, more plangent string sonority than do London or DG.

Jarvi’s readings are for the most part engagingly vital, but he does fuss with rhythms and dynamics in “Galanta,” not at all to the score’s benefit.

A glimpse into Chicago’s future is afforded by two recent releases presided over by Music Director-designate Daniel Barenboim. They are on the orchestra’s new label, Erato of France, the first a coupling of Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and “Till Eulenspiegel” (45621), the former in particular a superbly organized, emotionally charged and gorgeously executed interpretation without the textural density and rhythmic sluggishness that have afflicted some past Barenboim ventures.

The other Erato release (45601) is the first recording of the major CSO centennial commission (in conjunction with the Meet the Composer residency series): John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, written in memory of his friends and by implication all who have fallen victim to the scourge of AIDS.

The Symphony obviously comes freighted with much extra-musical baggage. How can one not respond to the composer’s so fiercely expressed--in his accompanying program notes and then translated into the language beyond words--”feelings of loss, anger and frustration”?

Corigliano’s emotions engulf the listener in a blazingly orchestrated, often noisy 40 minutes of aural nerve endings. The Symphony is, however, not without its reflective moments.

Particularly touching is an effect that might seem gimmicky in a less honestly emotional context: a solo piano (a self-effacing guest appearance by Stephen Hough), heard from afar, in the quaintly perfumed Godowsky arrangement of an Albeniz Tango, a favorite of one of the deceased to whom the work is dedicated.

The Symphony may take some time to assimilate--or, perhaps, it needn’t ever be examined dispassionately in purely musical terms. That, most likely, was never the composer’s intent.