The continuing, and seemingly irreversible, abandonment of classical music by the major recording labels has had at least one positive consequence. Over the past 15 years, most of our leading orchestras have taken matters into their own hands and begun to issue their own discs, to the point where we have remarkable collections devoted to performances by the principal ensembles in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and several other cities.
Now the National Symphony Orchestra, in commemoration of its 75th anniversary, has issued its own set of three CDs, taking the group from its formative years under Hans Kindler and Howard Mitchell through the tenures of Antal Dorati, Mstislav Rostropovich and its current music director, Leonard Slatkin.
The collection, available at the Kennedy Center Gift Shop, begins with a glittering moment in American history, as the Mutual Broadcasting System introduces the Presidential Inaugural Concert for John F. Kennedy at DAR Constitution Hall in 1961.
At the time, the NSO was almost exactly 30 years old and had already been recording for two decades. Kindler led the orchestra's first discs in the early 1940s, and three of them are included here -- an agreeably ersatz baroque "Toccata," attributed to Girolamo Frescobaldi but in fact confected by the cellist Gaspar Cassado; "Stars," a dramatic miniature by the American composer Mary Howe; and "Andalucia," by the Cuban composer Ernest Lecuona (a melody best known through its incorporation into a popular song of the time, "The Breeze and I").
The recorded sound is tubby, of course, and the orchestra sounds pretty tubby, too, with reliably blunt and heavy-handed playing from the massed strings. Still, it was a start, and these performances maintain a certain antiquated charm. I do wish it had been possible to find some better representation of the Mitchell years, however, for the interpretation of Chabrier's "Espana" included here is unrelentingly hard-driven.
Nor, for all of the attendant fanfare, does the orchestra sound in very good shape at the Kennedy inaugural. Even if you can still listen to "Rhapsody in Blue" for pleasure (an ability I lost sometime between Woody Allen's "Manhattan" and those United Airlines ads), the orchestra's ragged ensemble work and Earl Wild's hammered-out, ostentatiously brilliant rendition of the solo piano part are decidedly unattractive. Surely there are better Mitchell performances out there. (I recall his mid-'50s RCA Victor recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 as a sympathetic and exciting one.)
What a difference 10 years and the arrival of an exacting director made! The changes in the NSO by the time the Kennedy Center opened in 1971 were extraordinary, and they are immediately audible on record. Only a year into his tenure, Dorati had already brought a new focus and unanimity to the orchestra. Suddenly there were genuine and variegated textures in the ensemble work, and the playing took on a new lightness, a modicum of grace. Moreover, for those who heard Isaac Stern only in his declining years, when his tone was usually sour and his interest minimal, a spirited and soulful performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 on the Concert Hall's opening night serves as a reminder of what were once very real gifts.
Kindler, Mitchell and Dorati all share space on a single CD, but Rostropovich and Slatkin are accorded discs all to themselves. The Rostropovich CD contains welcome samplings of the NSO in the Soviet repertory, which everybody agreed played well under his leadership: Shostakovich's unusually jolly and effervescent Symphony No. 9 and a brilliant rendition of Serge Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. But, lest we forget Rostropovich's commitment to music of his own time, it also includes selections from four pieces commissioned by the orchestra during his tenure, one of which (the late Stephen Albert's "River Run") went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. And there is a distinguished guest appearance from Leonard Bernstein, conducting his own "Slava! (A Political Overture)," written in honor of Rostropovich and played at a 60th birthday celebration for him in 1987.
And finally to Slatkin, who is similarly represented by material he loves, in this instance mostly contemporary and American music, along with a lush and vigorous performance of Dvorak's Symphony No. 7. There are three NSO commissions on the disc, the most distinguished of which, Walter Piston's Symphony No. 2, dates to 1943 and the Kindler era. Half a century after its premiere (and some intermediary performances by Rostropovich), Slatkin revived interest in the symphony and took it with the orchestra on a European tour in 1997. It is a grave, brooding work, mostly consonant, immaculately made, and the NSO played it with abundant but appropriately elegant reserves of feeling.
Roberto Sierra's "Fandangos" is yet another in the series of splashy, colorful, agreeably eclectic but not exactly groundbreaking new American pieces that Slatkin has championed during his decade here. The same might be said for Slatkin's own "Fin," a chipper little encore piece originally created to follow a 2004 performance of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka," that serves to close the set. Self-indulgent? Perhaps, but who is going to begrudge Slatkin his 2 minutes and 42 seconds, particularly when they dash by so playfully?
All in all, this is a welcome document that reminds the listener of where the orchestra came from and suggests some directions in which it might head. The recorded transfers are excellent, and there are engaging and informative program notes from Richard Freed. It's hard to gauge what sort of appeal these discs will have for those who don't follow the NSO closely. Still, for the thousands who fill the Kennedy Center each week, it ought to prove an attractive souvenir -- and good local history to boot.