TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This season, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its 175th birthday with a 65-CD set, dating back to its very first recordings a century ago. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been doing a lot of listening and has this review.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: In January of 1917, members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Josef Stransky went to the Columbia studio in New York's Woolworth Building to make the orchestra's very first recording. The Philharmonic had already been around for 75 years. And six years before this recording session, Stransky had succeeded the orchestra's most celebrated music director, Gustav Mahler. That first recording was Ambroise Thomas' charming "Raymond" Overture. Through the scratchy din of time, you can hear qualities we still associate with the New York Phil, a crisp brilliance of attack balancing an elegant, unschmaltzy lyricism.
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SCHWARTZ: Less than a week after that first recording, the orchestra was back in the studio recording a drastically abbreviated version of the famous Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony, maybe the most beloved work introduced by the Philharmonic, using a score annotated by Dvorak himself. The Philharmonic has many milestones. In 1846, this fledgling orchestra gave the American premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. 1926 marked the release of the very first silent feature film to coordinate music and other sound effects with the action - "Don Juan" starring John Barrymore. And the orchestra on the soundtrack was the New York Philharmonic. Besides Dvorak's symphony, the Philharmonic's notable commissions include George Gershwin's "An American In Paris," Stravinsky's postwar Symphony In Three Movements, his first work to be composed in the United States, and John Adams' 9/11 memorial "On The Transmigration Of Souls."
The 65-CD set includes some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, like the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, who in 1928 made a landmark recording of Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," which Strauss dedicated to him. Mengelberg was succeeded by Arturo Toscanini, whose recordings with the New York Phil combined his customary exhilaration with more spacious timing than his better-known later recordings when he was well into his 70s and 80s. Released here for the first time from 1936 is a thrilling live Toscanini performance of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.
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SCHWARTZ: Well-represented in this set are two of the most famous but radically contrasting New York Philharmonic conductors - the exuberantly irrepressible Leonard Bernstein and the precise, probing Pierre Boulez. Six of the 65 discs here are devoted to Boulez and 25 to Bernstein. It's also good to be reminded of New York Philharmonic music directors who aren't so well-remembered. The Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski in the 1940s significantly raised the level of the playing but alienated the orchestra and the board with his autocratic ways. In the 1950s, the distinguished Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos commissioned 50 world premieres. He was especially admired for leading the first complete recording of Alban Berg's chilling opera "Wozzeck" and for his memorable recordings of Russian music.
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SCHWARTZ: Opinions about a huge set like this are bound to vary. Some people have wished for more live broadcasts than commercial recordings, though the orchestra has now released nearly a hundred historic radio broadcasts for streaming. Could there have been more guest conductors instead of devoting more than a third of this entire collection exclusively to the much-recorded Bernstein? Still, this set takes a satisfying long view of the great orchestra. Next season, the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden takes over as music director. I wonder how secure his place will be on whatever the orchestra chooses to release 25 years from now to celebrate its 200th anniversary.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed the New York Philharmonic's 175th anniversary box set.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be religion scholar and bestselling author Bart Ehrman. His new book is about how early Christianity expanded from a small group of believers to the religion of the Roman Empire. We'll also talk about Ehrman's own doubts that led to his transition from being a born-again Christian to being a self-described Christian agnostic. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.