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Label : EMI
Format : Ape
Cover : Yes

The excellence and prestige of the Philipstreble clef graphic Great Pianists of the 20th Century series demanded a successor, and logically this is it, since so many superstar performers of the last century were conductors who collectively shaped the course of classical music. Any serious attempt to compile a project of such daunting scope demands instant respect and attention.

Great Conductors of the 20th Century is a joint venture between the production and licensing expertise of IMG Artists and the international marketing and distribution clout of EMI. Sixty volumes were planned with hopes for even more. Unfortunately, though, perhaps reflecting our leaner climate for classical projects, the producers now advise that only forty will be issued. Thus, rather than a proud celebration of the full wealth of this keystone of classical art,six of the Great Conductors of the 20th Century volumes the truncated result is tinged with regret for what might have been. Even so, the edition stimulates many thoughts, not only about its particular subjects but of trends and issues that transcend the specific contents.

Through the time of Mendelssohn, the conductor (often the composer himself at the keyboard or on violin) kept time, coordinated the entrances of the players and generally assured the accuracy of the rendition. But in the mid-19th century, with Berlioz and especially Wagner, the conductor emerged as a full-fledged contributor to, and even sculptor of, the performance, often adding his own strong interpretive input to craft a subjective response that went well beyond the immediate demands of the score. Wagner himself placed primary emphasis upon tempo, but soon notions of texture and intangible qualities of personality emerged and became dominant. Modern conductors routinely supplant the fame of their ensembles.

An edition of this type faces an immediate difficulty – how to effectively summarize a career, which typically spans several decades and hundreds of recordings, in a mere 2½ hours? The lazy answer would have been to compile a series of “greatest hits” packages, but, to their credit, the producers resisted that temptation. They also confronted the challenge of appealing to fans who presumably already have most of a favorite conductor’s commercial output and are not about to buy it all again. Their solution was two-fold.

First, they attempted to broaden the edition’s appeal and attract new-comers by emphasizing mainstream repertoire. In a way, that’s appropriate, since the focus here is on interpretation, the nuances of which are more readily heard by comparing versions of familiar material. The hitch, though, is that the volumes overflow with warhorses while by-passing pieces that could use more exposure and might have presented its subject conductors in a unique light. Apparently, the producers gambled that potential collectors would prefer yet another Till Eulenspiegel, Meistersinger Overture or La Valse (three versions each) to less familiar material that would expand their horizons.

Second, despite the overlap of repertoire, the producers have tried to avoid duplication of existing collections by choosing performances from radio broadcasts and LPs not previously released on CD. While the results aren’t consistently revelatory, they often supplement available material and thus are apt to attract seasoned collectors. The unavoidable risk in such an approach is to present novices with a skewed view of a lengthy career that necessarily omits portions already well documented.

Despite inevitable second-guessing (do Cluytens, Malko or Busch really deserve to be in such an exclusive group?)the efficient Great Conductors slimline packaging the volumes present a mix of acknowledged giants (Walter, Stokowski, Klemperer) and more obscure but deserving talents (Coates, Talich, Golovanov, Munch). One aspect of the edition that can’t be disputed, though, is the fine presentation. Each 2-CD volume is mid-priced (with the final sets two-for-one), well-transferred, efficiently packed into a compact slimline box inside a slipcase, enhanced with cogent and informative liner notes, graced with striking black and white portraits, and dignified with a uniform and elegant graphic style. To the frustration of those of us in the cultural backwater of the US, though, our release schedule had lagged about six months behind Europe. (The reason for this escapes me – in our age of multinational retailing, perhaps the reason why US sales seem depressed is that by the time material becomes available in America enthusiasts already will have bought their selections from e-tailers and overseas distributors, thereby only worsening the perception that US classical consumers are withering away.)

Although few of the performances warrant top recommendation, they neatly define and enrich our knowledge of their subjects and more generally foster appreciation of the variety of conducting styles that defined the recorded era. Indeed, the vast majority struck me as being of exceptional interest in some way. I’ve presented them below roughly in the order of my personal enthusiasm. I’ve omitted filler pieces and specific orchestras and recording dates from the contents listings, since you can get complete information on the EMI website. If you’d like to jump ahead to a favorite conductor, here’s an alphabetical index:

Tracklist : Great Conductors of the 20th Century Series