Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2012 and the recording is still available.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Egmont Overture op.84
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony no.5 in E minor op.64
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Minuet I from “Posthorn” Serenade K.320
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 15 April 1969 (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky), 15 January 1963 (Mozart), Symphony Hall, Boston (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky); Sanders Theatre, Harvard University (Mozart)
ICA Classics ICAD5059 [57]

The previous Leinsdorf offering in this series had a very good-to-fine Schubert 9, an even finer Schumann 4 and a wonderful Wagner “Good Friday Music”. However much you enjoyed it, I should think that only those present in the Boston Symphony Hall on 15 April 1969 could be fully prepared for the impact of the present resuscitation.

The first pleasant surprise that the material is in colour, even if definition is not up to modern standards. The second is that Leinsdorf, who was usually seen – before and after 1969 – without a baton and said in a late interview that he felt freer to mould the music expressively with just his hands – marches on with a longish baton and seems accustomed to wielding it. Richard Dyer, whose eye-witness notes continue to be such a valuable feature of this series, makes no mention of this. It would be interesting to know more about Leinsdorf’s use and non-use of the baton.

But all this pales before the fact that this sometimes austere and pedantic conductor is on truly inspired and inspiring form, conducting with total involvement. This doesn’t mean that it’s all fast and loud: the Beethoven goes at a good but not excessive pace and there is plenty of expressive weight to the introduction. The wind phrases in the allegro are beautifully turned and the coda truly blazes.

Leinsdorf’s Beethoven is a known factor. If it wasn’t always this good, I suppose it doesn’t need a lot of imagination to see that, on the right day, it could be. But his Tchaikovsky?

Leinsdorf only recorded one Tchaikovsky Symphony commercially, the Sixth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic some years before his Boston appointment. I’ve never heard this, nor have I ever seen it spoken of with bated breath. Whereas the internet grapevine has been shouting excitedly about this Fifth ever since somebody posted an incomplete sound-only version, as Richard Dyer relates. I can well understand those internet commentators who say they’ll never listen to their other discs of the work now this is available, or one who actually heard it at the time and has been unable to find a performance to match it – not even Mravinsky – ever since.

On the face of it, Leinsdorf doesn’t “do” anything particular with the music. The introduction is brooding but also purposeful – he notes that it is “andante” not “adagio” and one senses a great latent power behind waiting to be unleashed. His “Allegro con anima” does not sidle in slowly, gaining speed later, he sets an up-front tempo straight away. It will sound very fast to some listeners. But this is his tempo, so the first crescendo is not accompanied by an accelerando and the hammering passages go at about the “normal” speed. Nor does he deviate from this tempo, except where Tchaikovsky actually requests a slower pace for the second subject. Leinsdorf plays this with great tenderness and free rubato, even risking some less precise ensemble. On paper, this might sound like one of Leinsdorf’s dogmatic demonstrations, and if he had subsequently taken the performance into the studio I fear it might have turned into just that. I must emphasize that here everything is white-hot and convinces as a free expression of emotions.

So, too, does the slow movement. The tempo is pretty steady but there is a sense of free-soaring passion which completely effaces any sense of the four-square. The waltz has an elegance which does not prevent exploitation of its darker moments while the finale carries all before it. The coda has an air of crude triumph presaging Mahler. Audience reaction is rightly rapturous and even Leinsdorf manages some smiles. It looks as though the Bostonians learnt to love Leinsdorf just as he was on his way out.

I haven’t ventured to compare this with other favourites. Once the initial impact has worn off I cannot believe that performance by such as Mravinsky or Markevich, which have provided inspiration to generations (and to me) can be wholly and eternally eclipsed. The case still remains for a cooler, more brooding approach, notably provided – in very primitive sound – by Landon Ronald. At the opposite extreme, the capacity of late Celibidache to bend your internal clock and suspend disbelief at his time-dilations is not to be dismissed either. What I am quite sure of is that Leinsdorf has belatedly entered the select list of the greatest Tchaikovsky performances on record.

Back to batonless Leinsdorf in black and white for the Mozart bonus. He puts on an incredibly autocratic face with black looks all round. Those used to modern Mozart will gasp at the fullness of the first attack, yet there is lilt as well as majesty, and delicacy later on, Leinsdorf shaping the music with crisp finger-movements.

An interesting filler, perhaps. But don’t miss the Tchaikovsky on any account.

Christopher Howell

Technical information
Picture: 4:3, Colour/B&W; Sound: Enhanced mono; Region: 0 (worldwide)

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