An “Easter egg” is a hidden file on a DVD or Blu-Ray disc. From time to time, I will put Easter eggs on the Counter-Currents site, which are hidden files which will be publicized only to my FaceBook friends and followers. The purpose is to share really good deals on classical music.
The naive view of classical music is that if the score is all written out, every performance should be the same, provided that it is competently executed.
But every text can be interpreted in different ways. And just as every human voice is unique, every instrument is as well — although, of course, these differences are usually inaudible, as the goal is standardization. And the same voice or instrument performing the same piece can sound different each time. Thus when you have a long piece of music, with dozens, if not hundreds of performers, the result is infinite variety.
This is good, because the supply of great compositions is, unfortunately, finite. Which means that classical music lovers like me start to accumulate ridiculous numbers of different performances of the same pieces of music. (I have between 30 and 40 recordings of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, for example.) I also have multiple performances of Wagner’s Ring and his other operas; the principal symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev; the piano concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev; the piano music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, and Chopin; the tone poems of Richard Strauss; and the chief concertos of Elgar (violin and cello), Shostakovich (cello), and Khachaturian.
When it comes to conductors, I have a number of favorites: Herbert von Karajan, particularly for Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, and R. Strauss; Wilhelm Furtwängler; Leopold Stokowski; Pierre Boulez, particularly for Wagner and Mahler; Karl Boehm for Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss; Eugen Jochum for Bruckner, Brahms, and Orff; and Rafael Kubelík for Mahler, Schumann, Dvořák, and Wagner.
Setting aside Furtwängler, who is in a class by himself, the common features of the conductors I come back to again and again are: (1) the ability to maintain dramatic tension and forward movement in a performance, whether or not their tempos are fast (Reginald Goodall, for instance, is very slow when measured by the clock, but the experience is still intense and driving); and (2) transparency, articulation, and attention to detail. These two values are in tension with one another, and conductors who attend to the latter often turn in slack and sprawling performances. This is particularly deadly with long works that already put inordinate demands on one’s attention span.
Finally (3), I prefer conductors who do not oversell the music. Great classical music is inherently emotional and compelling. Thus conductors who “milk” it for emotion are actually doing us a great disservice. When I was young, I loved George Solti’s conducting. But then I actually saw him conduct, and I found his ghastly mugging repellent. (Leonard Bernstein did the same thing.) I still recommend Solti’s Mahler recordings, and his Wagner and Strauss operas have great singers; but there is something distastefully meretricious about his work.
This brings us to Eugen Jochum and Rafael Kubelík. If you asked me one month ago if they belonged on my favorite conductors list, I would have scoffed at the suggestion. But an objective survey of my collection shows that these two dark horses slipped unnoticed into the winners’ circle.
Eugen Jochum (1902–1987), a Bavarian Catholic from Babenhausen near Augsburg, was most famous as an interpreter of Bruckner. He recorded two complete Bruckner symphony cycles, one for Deutsche Grammophon, the other for EMI. My first encounter with his work was his definitive complete set of Bruckner’s Sacred Choral Works, now remastered (Masses Nos. 1-3 and Te Deum, Motets, Psalm 150). Then I encountered Jochum’s equally superb Brahms piano concertos with Emil Gilels. After that it was his Carmina Burana, recorded in the presence of Carl Orff himself, who declared it definitive.
Jochum’s Bruckner symphonies have everything I like: drive, detail, and humility before the master. Of the two cycles, I prefer the second one with EMI, which is now available in a 9 CD box at an embarrassingly low price (even better when one orders through Amazon Marketplace):
However, if you are in the market for additional repertoire, for a few dollars more, you can get the Bruckner set, plus complete cycles of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, a legendary recording of Bach’s B Minor Mass, and some sacred choral music by Mozart (23 discs in all):
Not to be outdone, Deutsche Grammophon has created a similar set with their own Jochum Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner symphony cycles (17 discs in all):
The EMI set is a slightly better deal, but you can’t go wrong with either one.
Rafael Kubelík (1914–1996) was a Czech conductor and composer (in the late Romantic style). He was an admirably outspoken anti-Communist exile from his homeland. I first encountered him as a conductor of Antonín Dvořák, who along with Tchaikovsky was an early love. But I first realized his greatness with his recordings of Mahler’s symphonies and Wagner’s Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Die Meistersinger.
Now, Kubelík’s Mahler, Dvořák, Schumann, and Beethoven symphony cycles have been released by DG in a 23-disc budget-priced box:
I have always liked Schumann’s symphonies, but only Kubelík makes him sound like a first-rate composer (even though he really wasn’t). Again, these performances have everything I like: forward momentum, inner transparency, and piety toward the text. (This was my favorite Christmas present last year.) This is still a relatively new release, and if it is not already a good enough bargain for you, the price will probably drop at Amazon Marketplace.
To end this with the word “Enjoy!” would be superfluous.