Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Swan song

The story behind this album is an intriguing one. This is the final concert Robert Shaw conducted as Music Director with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, from May 21, 1988. In an indication of how much he was loved in Atlanta, there's a full track of applause after the Beethoven symphony: an amazing 8 minutes and 41 seconds of it! Shaw continued as Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate, and though he made many recordings for Teldarc with the ASO, he never had a chance to record the 9th Symphony. Telarc's founding producer Robert Woods was planning just such a recording in 1999, but the Maestro died months before the sessions were to begin. We're lucky to have this disc, a digital transfer of the unedited concert performance, and published just in time for the Shaw Centennial later this month.

Many years before a very young Shaw had prepared the chorus for Toscanini, for an NBC Symphony recording of the 9th Symphony. In a heartfelt tribute written soon after Robert Shaw's death in January 1999 for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Wendell Brock tells a story of how Toscanini, calling the young choral conductor 'maestro', complained about Beethoven's 9th Symphony:
"You know, maestro, I never have had a good performance." He said almost always the soloists are bad, and he said sometimes the chorus is behind, and the orchestra doesn’t always play together, and I never feel equal to this piece.
After Shaw's careful preparation of the chorus, Toscanini was pleased with the results: "Maestro, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever heard it done." Then, Shaw said, "Of course we all began to cry!"

In another story Brock tells how Shaw would write a formal letter to his choristers after each rehearsal, headed "Dear People". After a rehearsal of Beethoven's 9th Symphony he had this to say to his singers:
Our tenors are adolescent. Our altos have not passed puberty. Our sopranos trip their dainty ballet of coloratura decorum, and our basses woof their wittle gway woofs all the way home.... Get your backs and bellies into it! You can’t sing Beethoven from the neck up - you’ll bleed! Beethoven is not precious. He’s prodigal as hell. He tramples all over nicety. He’s ugly, heroic; he roars, he lusts after beauty, he rages after nobility. Be ye not temperate!
Rather than Shaw's legendary control over his musicians, it's this fire that dominates the final movement of Shaw's 9th on this new disc, from a lusty live performance. No wonder there was such an emotional response to the performance of the 9th at the Festspielhaus in East Berlin, during Shaw's tour of Europe with the ASO in 1988. This is music that runs through Shaw's career, and it runs in his veins.

Shaw came late to, and, he always felt, was somewhat musically unprepared for each new stage in his evolution from Glee Club Captain to Choral Conductor to Symphony Orchestra Music Director. In every case, though, he brought his game up to a very high level. It's not only the voices that shine in this recording; all the music shines in a way that's almost beyond criticism. There's more than an hour of white-hot music on this disc, along with 8 minutes and 41 seconds of love from Atlanta.

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