William Steinberg, Vol. VIII - Mahler 7th - Boston   (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-915)
Item# C1751
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William Steinberg, Vol. VIII - Mahler 7th - Boston   (2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-915)
C1751. WILLIAM STEINBERG Cond. Boston Symphony Orchestra: Symphony #7 in e (Mahler); 'Linz' Symphony #36 in C, K.425 (Mozart). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-915, Live Performance, 18 Dec., 1970, Symphony Hall, Boston. [...beautifully displaying the splendor of the Symphony Hall acoustic.] Transfers by Yves St Laurent. F


“William Steinberg’s brief tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1969–1972), a position held simultaneously with his longer tenure in Pittsburgh (1952–1976), was not generally considered a success. He had heart problems, and trying to oversee two major orchestras would have been difficult for a healthy person. His Boston performances were uneven, frequently lacking in energy. It would be a mistake, however, to think that this was always the case. The Mozart and Mahler program presented here from December, 1970 cannot be characterized in blanket fashion.

The Mozart ‘Linz’ Symphony is, by the standards of that period, lean and crisp. Yes, it is ‘big band’ Mozart, but transparent textures, reasonably fast tempos, and crisp attacks make Steinberg’s approach sound less old-fashioned than what we might expect. There is energy throughout and terrific playing from what was then (and is now) one of the world’s great orchestras.

The main attraction, however, is the Mahler. In 1970 the Seventh Symphony was not frequently performed or recorded. It is in some ways the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies for a conductor. It encompasses a huge diversity of moods and even styles, and the challenge is to make it all sound as if it is a single coherent work. The two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements require an almost gossamer-like touch and very carefully thought through tempo relationships, while the last movement presents problems because it combines an almost exuberant vulgarity with moments of great finesse. Steinberg and the Boston Symphony sound completely committed to the work. One senses a feeling of participating in a special occasion because of the rarity of the work. The Boston Symphony had played the work only twice before, in the 1948-49 season under Serge Koussevitzky. Two decades later it must have required the musicians to learn their parts all over again if they had been around that long.

I would not recommend this as ‘the’ recording of the Mahler Seventh for a collection. But for those who have an interest in the legacy of Mahler performances or in William Steinberg, this is a gratifying release. The energy and concentration at the core of the performance never flag, and Steinberg’s coloristic flair is likely to surprise those who categorize him as only a skilled Kapellmeister. At 71 minutes the performance is on the quick side, but it never sounds rushed because of the flexibility of the phrasing. While this Mahler Seventh lacks the unique flair of performances by Bernstein and Tennstedt, neither is it routine. I am definitely intending to return to it in the future. There are some inevitable bloopers in a live performance (some French horn bobbles in the second movement, for example). The FM-stereo recording, made originally by WCRB in Boston, is a bit congested at climaxes but overall is pleasant and clear enough. As usual with St. Laurent Studio, the transfer is very good and there are no notes. Conveniently, the Mozart occupies first disc, the Mahler the second.

William Steinberg is one of those conductors highly respected by musicians and critics familiar with his work, but who never developed the kind of public acclaim accorded to some of his contemporaries. His relative neglect is partly due to Steinberg’s long association with the Pittsburgh Symphony, an orchestra whose reputation, while good, was not seen as front rank. Many collectors prized his recordings with Pittsburgh on the Command label (and his EMI discs too), but in those days there was more glamor associated with Charles Munch in Boston, George Szell in Cleveland, and Fritz Reiner in Chicago.

It has been widely reported that the Boston Symphony board wanted to appoint Steinberg to replace Munch in 1963 when Munch announced his retirement, but RCA pressured them to engage Erich Leinsdorf instead. (Yes, there was a time when record companies wielded the kind of power that enabled them to do such things.) After Leinsdorf left, Steinberg did get the job (1969–1972), but he was in failing health and tried to hold down both Boston and Pittsburgh. It didn’t work very well. He left Boston after four seasons but remained with Pittsburgh until 1976. He died in New York City in 1978."

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE