BEETHOVEN Symphonies: No. 7; No. 8. HAYDN Symphony No. 55 • William Steinberg, cond; Boston SO • ICA 5067 (DVD: 86:00) Live: Boston 1962–70
Whoever was the anonymous music critic for Time magazine in the mid 1940s really had it in for William Steinberg. Reviewing one of his performances with the Buffalo Philharmonic, the critic proclaimed that Steinberg was like Toscanini: “loud and pompous.” Thus in three well-chosen words did he dismiss not only Steinberg but also the most famous conductor of his day. (I’ve sometimes wondered if Virgil Thomson wasn’t moonlighting for Time back then.) Despite this insensitive dictum, Steinberg went on to have a distinguished career in America, not only with Buffalo but also with the Pittsburgh Symphony and, for three seasons fraught with ill health and cancellations, the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Watching this video you ask yourself if Steinberg was a great conductor. Although he was a trained conductor, his baton technique isn’t really as clear as those of Karl Böhm or Toscanini. Sometimes he does raise his baton up to eye level, but more often than not it is down around his waist. He swings his arms back and forth a lot, and the horns crack several times during the first movement of the Beethoven.
Yet there are so many wonderful things that stand out, for instance the lilt and charm of his Haydn performance despite the fact that the BSO strings have a luminous sound with plenty of vibrato. I’d almost forgotten what Haydn performances sounded like in my youth—no straight tone in the strings? What heresy! And yet there is a wealth of detail, and that charming bounce. Even in the Beethoven Seventh, despite a few technical shortcomings by the horns, there is a wonderful sense of life and urgency. Steinberg may not have been one of those rare conductors who had a specific sound quality, like Furtwänlger, Koussevitzky, Stokowski, or Toscanini, but he knew what he was doing and he produced lively, luminous performances.
Steinberg’s tempos may be close to those of Toscanini—faster in the second movement, a bit slower in the third—but his phrasing is rounder, with more bounce to the rhythms and fewer sharp angles. Nor does Steinberg attempt to replicate the intensely focused and discrete section sound that Toscanini achieved (only a few other conductors, such as Rodzinski and Kempe, were able to do this), yet in his own way Steinberg’s orchestra has clarity—certainly more clarity than his predecessor, Erich Leinsdorf, was able to produce. I can still recall, without knowing (at the time) exactly why, that even when they employed the same tempos, Leinsdorf usually sounded stiff and boxy while Steinberg sounded buoyant. Listen to the splendid finale of the Beethoven Seventh, for instance; the orchestra almost sounds as if it’s bursting at the seams with joy and excitement. But then, the darn horns crack again. Oh, well.
The orchestra sounds in altogether better shape in the 1962 Beethoven Eighth, presented as a “bonus” performance. Filmed in 1962, it is in black and white while the other two performances are in color, yet Steinberg looks immeasurably healthier, and not just because his hair is darker. There’s more energy flowing from him to the orchestra; you can actually see it happening. His back is straight and unbowed, the swing of his arms looser and more natural, yet again—if you close your eyes—the animation of the performance is nearly the same as it is in the 1969–70 performances. Partly because the BSO was such a large orchestra, it doesn’t quite match the lift and spirit of Pablo Casals’s magical recording with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra on Sony (unquestionably the greatest Beethoven Eighth ever recorded), yet again he manages more charm and momentum than Leinsdorf.
In retrospect, Steinberg’s resolutely unflashy podium manner probably worked against him. When you just listened to him, as I did occasionally on the radio or records, he was one of the most enlivening and enjoyable of conductors, but watching him on this video, you sometimes have to close your eyes to get the full effect. Michael Steinberg, the Boston Globe music critic during this time, put it best: If you were watching a silent film of Steinberg conducting, you’d think he were leading the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and not some of the most powerful climaxes of Beethoven or Mahler. What a contrast to some of our more animated podium-jumpers today! Moreover, it’s interesting to contrast the richer, heavier sound that Steinberg drew from the BSO to the lighter, blowsier, almost diaphanous quality that Charles Munch got out of them—they really do sound like two entirely different orchestras.
All in all, despite the horn slips in the Beethoven Seventh, this is a marvelous time capsule for those of us who appreciated William Steinberg for what he was and could do, and didn’t try to pit him against Koussevitzky or Toscanini, that 1945 Time article notwithstanding. As a now-deceased friend of mine once put it, “Everybody loved Buffalo Bill [Steinberg’s nickname from his stint in that city]. How could you not? He was always good!”
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
From my childhoodSeptember 3, 2012By William C. Stivelman (Thousand Oaks, CA)See All My Reviews"I heard this performance as broadcast over stations carrying the BSO concerts weekly. I've had it on open reel tape, transferred to cassette, and then burned to CD for personal use. This is the exact same performance, caught by different in-house microphones, but this performance is divine, exciting, driven an shares pride of place along with 1977 Kleiber, 1962 Karajan, and other great interpretations. The hair-trigger accuracy of the playing cannot be denied. This is the BSO in great form with an inspired conductor whose duration of tenure with the BSO should have been exchanged with Ozawa. This performance of the Seventh proves why."Report Abuse