Artur Rodziński (conductor)
The Cleveland Orchestra—The Complete Columbia Album Collection
rec. 1939-42, Severance Hall, Cleveland, USA
Sony Classical 19439 928772 [13 CDs: 585]

I have been collecting recordings long enough to have witnessed several stages in the shifting critical reputation of Artur Rodziński (1892-1958). There has never been any doubt about his technical prowess as a conductor, nor have Rodziński’s skills as an orchestral builder ever been questioned. In their day, his recordings in Cleveland (1939-42) and New York (1944-46) were widely hailed, and the series of recordings in the mid-1950s, mostly for Westminster with the Royal Philharmonic (for contractual reasons identified on the LPs as ‘The Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London’), were also well-regarded. Rodziński’s interpretations were straightforward, brisk, energetic, and highly rhythmic, all very much in keeping with the mid-century musical aesthetic. His orchestras were unfailingly well-disciplined, and textures were clear and beautifully balanced. His music-making was hardly lacking in expressivity and flexibility, though for a time, I think, critics arrived at a consensus view that these latter characteristics were overshadowed in the face of Rodziński’s relentless vigor and strength.

Recently, though, his reputation is again on the rise, and we have seen reissues of nearly the whole of Rodziński’s studio discography (as well as releases of quite a few live performances). The present set containing the complete Cleveland recordings fills a significant gap and significantly fleshes out our picture of Rodziński’s artistry.

Rodziński directed the Cleveland Orchestra from 1933 until the end of 1942, at which point he left to take over the New York Philharmonic (then known, of course, as the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York). There can be no doubt that by the late 1930s Rodziński had built the Clevelanders into a first-class ensemble, and between the end of 1939 and early 1942, he made just over two dozen recordings for Columbia that amply demonstrate the performance standards of the orchestra in the years before George Szell took over in 1947 and raised the orchestra to even greater heights.

These recordings are assembled here in an attractive reissue on 13 CDs. The box has the same design as the 2021 issue of Rodziński’s New York recordings (Sony 19439 787752, review), so they look nice next to each other on the shelf, though this time the background color is an odd shade of apple green. The transfers and remasterings, by Nancy Conforti and Andreas K. Meyer of Swan Studios, are exemplary, from the best possible sources. The booklet contains a brief but intelligent essay by James H. North; as usual, discographical information is detailed and comprehensive, and many cover scans and other images are included.

The Columbia engineers provided Rodziński with satisfactory recorded sound from the outset in the Severance Hall sessions. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Columbia reissued most but not all of these 78-rpm discs on LP, a reminder that for quite a few years many of these Rodziński Cleveland performances were considered reference recordings. Typically, the 78 originals sounded more vivid than the dimmer LP reissues. The contents of this box are organized according to the contents of the LP reissues, the covers of which serve as the CD sleeves; the mostly shorter works not reissued on LP are sprinkled judiciously throughout. (Since all these recordings were made within a concentrated two-and-a-half years, it is of no import whatsoever that these discs are not presented chronologically.)

One previously unissued recording has been included in the set: a 1942 Mendelssohn Violin Concerto recorded with Nathan Milstein that predates the famous 1945 recording with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. This has been added to the final CD that includes Louis Krasner’s Schoenberg and Berg Concertos.

Most of the Cleveland recordings are familiar to collectors. Transfers have circulated on, for example, and Dante LYS published a 10-CD Rodziński series in the mid-90s (long out of print) that included most of them; I never heard those transfers, though given that label’s spotty reputation they can now safely be ignored. More formidable is the extensive ongoing Rodziński series of studio and live recordings on St. Laurent Studios; again, almost all of the Cleveland 78s have appeared. The St. Laurent transfers are generally fine, with an occasional spotty side-join; on the other hand, packaging is minimal, with no notes and some iffy discographical attributions, and these issues are not cheap. Pride of place clearly goes to the new Sony box.

In his booklet essay, James H. North observes that throughout this period the Cleveland Orchestra’s string section remained considerably smaller than those of the more prestigious Big Three (New York, Boston and Philadelphia), despite Rodziński’s pleas for more players. On the evidence of the recordings, this proved for the most part not to be a liability, as the conductor’s instinct was for streamlined interpretation, with an emphasis on precision and energy.

The repertory covered here tracks neatly with Rodziński’s interests, and the majority of these works are not otherwise represented in his studio discography (about a third were re-recorded by Rodziński in the 1950s). So let us briefly discuss each disc, drawing particular attention to the highlights as we encounter them.

CD 1: Rodziński had a real feel for the music of Ravel. and the Suite no. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé was a favorite work, often programmed. His recording is highly atmospheric and expressive; orchestral choirs are balanced beautifully and full of detail. The original recording was excellent, and the transfer is superb. Rapsodie espagnole is striking as well, though some congestion remains, especially in the first section, that presumably could not be eliminated. Alborada del gracioso is very well-played and sounds lovely in this incarnation; this was a single 78 release that wasn’t reissued on LP. None of these Ravel works was re-recorded by Rodziński.

CD 2: Debussy’s La mer fares less well, suffering for once because of the undersized string section, which saps the performance of some of its atmosphere; both ‘Jeux de vagues’ and ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ have nice sweep, however. La mer was first reissued as an early 10’’ LP, so this CD is filled out with a substantial, if odd, companion work: Kern’s Show Boat (Scenario for Orchestra), a big seller that never made it to LP. Much like the contemporaneous Porgy and Bess medley arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, this is a lovingly orchestrated symphonic picture with, perhaps, an overabundance of gorgeous melodies; conductor and orchestra are clearly enjoying themselves.

CD 3: Rodziński had an affinity with the music of Shostakovich. (As is well-known, Rodziński conducted the U.S. premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Cleveland in January 1935.) The orchestra plays exceptionally well in the Fifth Symphony, a performance well worth hearing. The first movement is brisk, churning, intense, and powerfully expressive, with a carefully rounded-off conclusion. The Scherzo is quick and unyielding, while the Largo unfolds as an uninterrupted line that downplays the sense of tragedy. The finale is exceptionally fast, like a careening train, exciting and powerful. Rodziński remade the Fifth Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in October 1954 for Westminster (now available in the Scribendum compendium, SC 807). This later version is similar to the Cleveland account; the Scherzo is slightly less driven, while the finale is even more so.

CD 4: Rodziński pushes Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel very hard, without a touch of humor (compare any of Szell’s performances). The Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, however, is beautifully judged and brilliantly played. In Rodziński’s arrangement of Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, emphasis is more on verve than charm. The Suite from Rosenkavalier recorded in 1955 for Westminster, in the Scribendum set, is an expanded arrangement, made in 1944 by Rodziński and his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein. The Dance of the Seven Veils from Rodziński’s final recording sessions in 1958, with the Philharmonia Orchestra for HMV, is more relaxed than the Cleveland version, with a wealth of colorful detail.

CD 5: Rodziński’s Tchaikovsky on CD 5 exhibits a carefully judged balance of seriousness and intensity, on the one hand, and lyricism and warmth on the other. Romeo and Juliet has an appealing straightforwardness, and the 1812 Overture is equally convincing. The curious question of whether Rodziński was actually at the helm of the recordings of Marche slave and the 1812 Overture is not resolved here. James H. North, in his booklet notes for the Rodziński New York box, posits that these recordings were made under the direction of associate conductor Rudolf Ringwall, but he ignores the issue here. We don’t get images of the Columbia job sheets for the relevant dates, which might be informative. In any event, these interpretations certainly sound Rodzińskian.

CD 6: Rodziński’s Sibelius is highly compelling. The Fifth Symphony is superbly played, with crystalline textures throughout, while Finlandia is equally enjoyable. The Järnefelt Praeludium, the side 10 filler for the Sibelius Fifth set, is a delightful lollipop. Surprisingly, perhaps, Rodziński didn’t remake either the Fifth or Finlandia; his New York Fourth Symphony, from 1946, is splendid and well worth seeking out.

Excellent transfers of this Sibelius Fifth, along with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and 1812 Overture on CD 5, may also be found on Pristine PASC 619, coupled with 1939 Rodziński recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and the Franck Symphony with the NBC Symphony (review). These Sony transfers in the current box are just a bit brighter and more open, and I think I prefer them slightly.

CD 7: The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony on CD 7 exhibits the same qualities as the shorter works on CD 5: a no-nonsense directness without any eccentricity but with plenty of characterful detail. The 1954 remake with the Royal Philharmonic for Westminster is quite similar in approach, in more modern sound, of course.

CD 8: A highly engaging and intense reading of the Shostakovich First Symphony is featured on CD 8. As with the Fifth Symphony on CD 3, the First is driven and determined, and the orchestra is fully committed. A couple of live Rodziński performances of Shostakovich’s First are preserved, including the broadcast of December 7, 1941, which is interrupted mid-work by a studio announcement of the Pearl Harbor bombing; this fascinating historical document is available on St. Laurent Studio YSL 0404.

CD 9: Rodziński enlisted his superb concertmaster, Joseph Fuchs, for his recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This fine performance, like so many others in this set, is straightforward, unsentimental, and excitingly played.

CD 10: This disc features Beethoven’s First Symphony, often programmed by Rodziński, coupled with the Overture and incidental music from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Beethoven receives an invigorating, modern-sounding performance, much preferable to the 1952 remake with the subpar Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra for Remington, nicely restored on Pristine PASC 569 (review), while the Mendelssohn is of lesser interest.

CD 11: Joseph Fuchs is again called upon to serve as soloist, in a distinguished performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Fuchs is again quite convincing, the whole is beautifully shaped and the orchestra’s efforts are captured with considerable clarity. Rodziński did not re-record Heldenleben, nor Weber’s Freischütz Overture, which doesn’t seem to have fully engaged him.

CD 12: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, on CD 12, is well-played, but is overcontrolled and lacking in interest, adding to our growing suspicion that Rodziński was not inspired by music written before the middle of the 19th century (though the Beethoven First discussed above is quite impressive).

CD 13: When Louis Krasner, who commissioned Berg’s Violin Concerto and gave the first performances of both that work and Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, recorded the latter work with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic in 1952, Columbia sensibly released it with a reissue of Krasner and Rodziński’s 1940 Cleveland recording of the Berg, which remains an impressive achievement, though I don’t often find myself returning to it. There seem to be no musical reasons for the rejection of the 1942 Milstein Mendelssohn Concerto, which receives its first release here. James H. North suggests that the recording may have been rejected for publication because one side was longer than normal. In any event, the performance, not so different from Milstein’s famous 1945 New York version with Bruno Walter, is nice to have.

Almost all of Rodziński’s studio discography is now currently available. It’s an important legacy, and this reissue of the Cleveland recordings is a significant part of it. I am pleased to have reacquainted myself with all these performances in first-rate transfers, and am particularly delighted to recommend the Ravel, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven.

Jeffrey Hollander

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CD 1
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no. 2
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel: Alborada del gracioso

CD 2
Debussy: La mer
Kern: Show Boat, Scenario for Orchestra

CD 3
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 5 in D minor, op. 47

CD 4
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28
Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils, from Salome
Strauss: Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier

CD 5
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy
Tchaikovsky: Ouverture solennelle, op. 49 ‘1812’
Tchaikovsky: Marche slave, op. 31
Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina (‘Dawn over the Moscow River’)

CD 6
Sibelius: Symphony no. 5 in E-flat major, op. 82
Järnefelt: Praeludium
Sibelius: Finlandia, op. 26

CD 7
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 in E minor, op. 64

CD 8
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 1 in F major, op. 10

CD 9
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, op. 35
Joseph Fuchs, violin

CD 10
Beethoven: Symphony no. 1 in C major, op. 21
Mendelssohn: Overture and Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp. 21 & 61

CD 11
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op. 40
Joseph Fuchs, violin
Weber: Overture to Der Freischütz

CD 12
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, op. 14

CD 13
Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, op. 36
Louis Krasner, violin, Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Berg: Violin Concerto
Louis Krasner, violin
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64
Nathan Milstein, violin