Richard Nisley

The Big Five
Music - Classical Released - Aug 18, 2019
From the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, they were known as "The Big Five." Who were they? They were the world's five best conductors of classical music. They made their reputation first in opera and then in the Central European repertoire (the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert). Their legacy extends down to our time in the scores of recordings they made, many of which have been remastered and are available today on compact disc.

Two were German jews (Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer) who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and found refuge in America. One was an Italian (Arturo Toscanini) who, after seeing the persecution of jewish musicians in Germany and in his home country, emigrated in protest to the U.S. One was Austrian (Erich Kleiber), who, as Hitler spread his poison across Europe, moved first to South America, then to the U.S. The fifth was Wilhelm Furtwangler, who was born in Berlin and remained in Germany during World War II. In doing so, he intervened on behalf of several Jewish musicians in Germany and in Austria who otherwise might have been arrested and perished in Nazi death camps.

Having achieved world-wide fame, they recorded for the top record labels of their time: in Europe with EMI, and with what would become Deutsche Grammophon; and in the U.S: with Columbia (now Sony), RCA (now BMG), and with Decca (now Decca-London).

Three achieved such distinction that their record companies created special orchestras for their exclusive use: Bruno Walter, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra; and Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Erich Kleiber, with Decca Records, recorded almost exclusively with the famed Concertgebow Orchestra in the Netherlands, while Wilhelm Furtwangler made records with Europe's two top orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

All five specialized in recording the symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven; that remains their legacy.

Below is a list of their most noted recordings. Some are rated as "classics of the gramophone", definitive recordings that have never been surpassed. Many are in mono, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Given these recordings were made with the most advanced recording equipment of the day, and remastered in the digital era, they sound very good indeed. Sonically, nothing is lost in mono. Think black-and-white movies, and how good they look when restored with today's technology.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)

Toscanini first gained attention as a conductor of opera. In 1896, he conducted the premier of Puccini's "La Boheme." Having said that, he built his reputation conducting the nine symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven. He recorded all nine not once but twice. His earlier account, recorded live in Carnegie Hall, in the late 1930s, is considered by most critics to be superior. However, the latter account, recorded in the early 1950s, and remastered in the 1990s, has superior sonics and is by far his most popular work. It's available today as a boxed set (nine symphonies on five compact discs, plus an informative booklet); a real bargain at about $20. From BMG Classics (#82876-55702-2).

Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954)

When it came to interpretation, Furtwangler was Arturo Toscanini's polar opposite. Where the Italian held fast to the score and was all about maintaining a strict consistent tempo. Furtwangler, on the other hand, looked past the score and was forever probing for nuance; as a result his tempos are often as lax as pulled taffy. His greatest interpretations are highly individual and, some would say, idiosyncratic. With Beethoven, three of his recorded symphonies stand out–nos. 3 ("The Eroica"), 5 and 9. His account of Beethoven's Third, recorded live in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic is legendary (available from Music & Arts #17685 08142 2).

There's no middle ground with Furtwangler; you either think he's the greatest conductor of all time or you think he's bombastic and over-rated. His 1954 account of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI CDH 69803-2) is a case in point. It's a riveting performance, but is it the best ever recorded? Ted Libby, music critic with National Public Radio, thinks so. He writes: "Here the conductor is caught in the act of creation, at the height of his powers, in a performance that develops from measure to measure. . . . No one has ever said more with the four notes of the first movement's motto theme, found greater nobility of sentiment in the Andante, made the transition from the scherzo to the final movement more suspenseful, or communicated the triumphant C major symphony more overwhelmingly." Personally, I prefer Toscanini's by-the-book no frills account from 1953.

Erich Kleiber (1890-1956)

Somewhere between Toscanini and Furtwangler is Erich Kleiber. His faithful, mainstream accounts of Beethoven's symphonies are exceptional. Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to record all nine in the post-war years; what he did record is highly regarded: Symphony Nos. 3 ("The Eroica"), 5 and 6 ("The Pastoral"), all with Amsterdam's Concertgebow Orchestra. The three possess a lyricism that beguiles the ear. Symphonies 5 and 6 come coupled on one disc, which I reviewed for in 2012. My review: "Kleiber's approach to the sixth is firm but gentle, loving without being sentimental, illuminating the details without letting the tempo sag. Despite mono sound, this is a performance that glows. Originally, I purchased Walter's fine version and enjoyed it very much. I then tried Klemperer's version which is finer still. Then I listened to Kleiber's account and found it to be the finest of the three. I have since purchased accounts by Karajan, Toscanini, Furtwangler (surprisingly uninspired), Dohnyanyi (ditto), and Gunter Wand, as well as Karl Bohm's highly praised account. None can match Erich Kleiber's perfect execution. The coupling with Beethoven's Fifth, makes an unbeatable combination." (Decca-London #417 637-2)

Bruno Walter (1876-1962)

As with Erich Kleiber, Walter's warm interpretations tend to be mainstream. He lived well into his 80s; as with Toscanini, he recorded Beethoven's Nine symphonies twice; once in mono and once in stereo. His most popular accounts are in stereo, two of which come packaged together: Symphony nos. 4 and 6 ("The Pastoral") (Sony #74646-44622-5). This release is as fine an example of Walter's art as you'll find.

Otto Klemperer (1865-1973)

As with Bruno Walter and Erich Kleiber, Klemperer's interpretations are warmly lyrical and tend to be mainstream. Like Walter, he recorded Beethoven's Nine Symphonies in both mono and in stereo. His two most famous recording are Symphony Nos. 3 (“The Eroica”) and No. 6 (“The Pastoral”). It's a question of taste as to which Third Symphony is his best–the one in mono (EMI #5 67741-2), which is gripping, or the one in stereo, which is more lyrical (EMI #404275-2). With the Sixth, there is really only one choice–the one in stereo (EMI #747188-2).

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