There is a good deal of poignancy in noting that the last recording by Walter Susskind to be released during the late conductor's lifetime was his performance of Das Lied von der Erde, the first segment of Mahler's tripartite farewell to life. Lili Chookasian is the contralto, Richard Cassilly the tenor, and the orchestra is the Cincinnati Symphony (Candide QCE 31117; Vox cassette CT2258).
While Susskind's death on March 25 (in Berkeley, Calif.) went unnoted in the Washington press, keepers of musical statistics here may remember him as the first conductor to perform in both the Concert hall and the Opera House in the Kennedy Center's first season. On March 31, 1972, he brought the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra to the Concert Hall to perform Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony, and on May 3 he returned with the New York City Opera to conduct Janacek's Makropulos Case.
Susskind himself had an eye for such statistics. He liked to keep track of the number of countries in which he introduced Mahler's Ninth Symphony and other works Mahler and Shostakovich, two symphonists especially close to his heart (his memorial piece for Shostakovich is one of the strongest of his compositions), and he could note the curious set of coincidences that led him to follow in the footsteps of George Szell, whose assistant he became at age 20 at the German Opera House in his native Prague. Susskind's first two positions as music director were with orchestras Szell himself had headed -- the Scottish National Orchestra and the Victoria Symphony in Australia -- and it was with the Saint Louis Sumphony that Szell made his own American debut in 1931.
Susskind got out of Czechoslovakia just as the Nazis were taking over, and made his way to England; he took out British citizenship and held it proudly to the end of his life. After World War II, he began recording with the newly formed Philhamonia Orchstra, and with a few years ran up a discography of some 200 titles. Many of his early recordings were with such distinguished soloists as Heifetz, Rubinstein, Schnable, Solomon, Milstein, Firkusny, Schwarzkopf, Lili Kraus and Szymon Goldberg. He came to North America in 1956 as conductor of the Toronto Symphony, and in 1962 began a six-Year stint as music director of the Aspen Festival.
The Saint Louis Symphony, which Susskind served as music director from 1968 to 1975, is the second-oldest orchestra in th U.S. (now rounding out its 100th season). In his first two or three years Susskind transformed a pretty good orchestra with a long history into perhaps the strongest of the several fine American ensembles on the level just below that of the so-called Big Five. This was the same period in which Antal Dorati was performing a similar service for the National Symphony, and indeed Susskind, like Dorati, was especially valued as an orchestra builder.
It made excellent sense for the Cincinnati Symphony (another of America's oldest and most distinguished orchestras) to turn to him when Thomas Schippers died at the end of 1977. By then Susskind had decided not to accept any further permanent posts, but agreed to serve as "music adviser" until a permanent appointment could be made -- as it was last year when Michael Gielen was named music director in Cincinnati. By a coincidence more grisly than those that linked him to Szell, Suskind died of the same rare variety of lung cancer that had felled Schippers.
Among the activities that gave Susskind the most pride, but of which he spoke least, were those related to his encouragement of young musicians. He founded National Youth Orchestras in both Britain and Canada (the one in Canada became that country's first orchestra to tour Europe), took a leading part in the International Festival of Young Orchestras held in Switzerland, and in fact made his last Washington appearence in a festival of American youth orchestras in July 1977. Less known, but more striking, are his uncounted kindnesses and boosts to individual young musicians, ranging from auditions and advice to actually arranging bookings to, in one case, pretending to be late returning from lunch so the parents of a young assistant conductor, who happened to be visiting, would get to hear their son rehearse the orchestra. While some bigger-name conductors of several big orchestras and kept then in the background, when Susskind went to Saint Louis he took with him the most talented young conductor he could find, Leonard Slatkin, who was then not quite 24. He gave him every opportunity in Saint Louis and helped to create opportunities for him abroad. When the SLSO began recording again in 1974, after a hiatus of about a dozen years, Susskind not only agreed to include Slatkin (by then associate conductor) in the recording program, but allowed Slatkin's first recording to be issued before any of his own. This is a gesture for which no parallel is to be found -- but it is typical of the generosity Susskind demonstrated when he felt the talent justified it. (Slatkin became music director of the SLSO last fall and appeared with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center in February.)
Susskind, who would have been 67 on May 1, specifically forbade any sort of memorial service, but left an impressive memorial to himself in the form of recordings. Of the Saint Louis series, the two-disc set of Smetana's Ma vlast (Turnabout QTVS 34619/20; Vox cassette CT 2116) and the Dvorak Piano Concerto with Firkusny (Turnabout QTVS 34691; Vox cassette CT 2145) are outstanding. A "direct-cut" disc of works by Prokofiev, Ravel and Falla with the London Philharmonic was issued last year by Crystal Clear, and several recent LPs with that orchestra for EMI have yet to be released in this country.
There are also two more Cincinnati records awaiting release: Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto (with Shura Cherkassky) and the Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9. In the meantime, the already issued Lied von der Erde (in a sense the first segment of Susskind's own tripartite valediction) happens to exude poignancy irrespective of the circumstance of Susskind's death: It is poignant in the way Mahler wrote it to be, and beautifully so. The Cincinnati orchestra has never sounded better, Cassilly is splendid, and Chookasian makes up in sheer commitment what she now lacks in the way of the vocal finesse displayed in her earlier recording of the work with Ormandy. An altogether noble presentation.