The ICA Classics Legacy is a series of film and video recordings of historical performances, all being released on DVD for the first time. The next DVD in the series (which will be released tomorrow with a pre-order option from Amazon.com for those who can’t wait) consists of three 1970 performances of Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For those who do not want to do the mathematics, MTT was 25 years old when these recordings were made, having been named Assistant Conductor after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1969.
The recordings were videos made for broadcast on public television for the WGBH-TV program Evening at Symphony. The first selection, Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, was recorded at a concert given on January 13. The remaining two, Jean Sibelius’ Opus 63 symphony in A minor (the fourth) and the “Dawn” and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” orchestral sections from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung were recorded on March 10. All recordings were directed by William Cosel and produced by Jordan M. Whitelaw, whom many would declare to be the first true master of creating videos of symphonic performances that significantly enhance the listening experience.
Regular readers know that I live in San Francisco; and, as a result, I enjoy the opportunity to listen to MTT conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in his capacity as Music Director with considerable frequency. I was therefore particularly struck by the fact that these three compositions play as significant a role in his repertoire today as they did when he was in Boston. Indeed, his focus on both the Ives and Sibelius selections is particularly significant.
In the case of the latter, it is important to remember that MTT succeeded Herbert Blomstedt in San Francisco. Blomstedt had a keen understanding of Sibelius; and he recorded the full canon of the seven Sibelius symphonies for Decca between 1991 and 1996. Within that set there tends to be general agreement that Opus 63 is the most problematic, particularly since the tritone figures significantly in the motif that permeates all four of its movements. It also has the most disorienting conclusion of any of the symphonies. I do not know if I was there the first time MTT performed this symphony with SFS; but the first time I was there for a performance, he took the trouble to orient the audience with some introductory remarks before launching into it. Those comments were greatly appreciated. MTT apparently did not do the same in Boston, but the booklet notes provided by Andrew Farach-Colton provide a reasonably adequate substitute.
On the other hand one gets the impression that MTT has been enthusiastically interested in Ives for as long has he has been conducting. There is a keen sense of detail in his approach to balancing the resources for Three Places in New England, particularly when different sections of the orchestra seem to be going in different directions. For the most part Whitelaw did an admirable job in supplementing the auditory experience with visual cues to guide the attentive listener through the seeming chaos of Ives score pages. This is as good an introduction to Three Places in New England as one can hope to get, and it comes with an excellent approach to video enhancement.
That same talent for managing large and diverse resources through a score that abounds with significant motivic material is also evident in the Wagner performance. Those familiar with Wagner’s Ring cycle are likely to be the more attentive listeners, but they will also probably be the more critical ones. However, MTT’s performance provides a clear understanding of the roles played by these orchestral excerpts in Wagner’s overall narrative, making for yet another highly satisfying experience of both listening and viewing.
This is definitely a historic document of a history that should not be forgotten.