10 CDs in 5 Volumes (two per jewelcase), boxed and annotated, available on special order. For repertory/conductors see below:
PT for each CD: 73:01 | 77:05 | 78:56 | 75:11 | 79:08 | 75:32 | 78:50 | 77:30 | 77:15 | 71:03

This humungous compilation is a belated pendant to the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1992-3 by and for the New York Philharmonic (more accurately, Philharmonic-Symphony after the 1928 merger of Manhattan's two most competitively prestigious orchestras, until image-makers shortened it several decades later). Every music director from Willem Mengelberg (1922-29), through Leonard Bernstein (1958-69) is included, yet nothing by Pierre Boulez (1971-77), Zubin Mehta (1977-91) or Kurt Masur, the current lame-duck leader. Plenty of guests include Guido Cantelli, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux -- even Nadia Boulanger, the Paris-based doyenne of so many American composers starting with Piston, Copland and Virgil Thomson.

The podium roster includes three interim caretakers: Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, and George Szell. Igor Stravinsky was in a class by himself, although Francis Poulenc is granted an appearance as piano soloist in his Concert champétre (the original version for harpsichord, however, is far more piquant). Though a majority of the repertory is orchestral, one can hear pianists Artur Schnabel, the Rubinstein formerly known as "Artur," Edward Steuermann, and the Lhevinnes, Josef and Rosina; violinists Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, and clarinetist Stanley Drucker in the concerto that John Corigliano Jr. overwrote for him in 1977. There are some singers too, ranging in caliber from Kirsten Flagstad to Roberta Peters, by way of Marilyn Horne, Tatiana Troyanos, Mack Harrell, Donald Gramm, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Reri Grist.

Although Corigliano is the only living composer on these 10 disks, the 20th century is represented: Aaron Copland (a reflexive kowtow to the only other American), Bartók, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Berg, Walton, and even a token performance under Bernstein of Anton Webern's nine-minute Symphony, Op. 21. But since much of the music here is standard rep, this shines a klieg light on performances, which are uneven -- no surprise, given the NYP's reputation for Dead-End-Kid-napping when it didn't respect a conductor.

Especially in NYPSO days, they have been the guys and a few dolls who nicknamed Boulez "the French Correction" (after a film released shortly before his appointment). They repeatedly challenged John Barbirolli from 1937 to '43 in the tidal wake of Toscanini (1929-36) to "show us," knowing he usually couldn't. They detested Toscanini, Szell, Reiner and Artur Rodzinski as martinets; the latter was instructed by the trustees to clean house, which he did (and thereafter carried a loaded pistol in his back pocket). They were contemptuous of Cantelli (as a Toscanini protégé) until, at a rehearsal I attended, he stabbed his left palm with the baton but was unaware until the loss of blood made him faint; then the canaille began to play for him, superbly too. They mocked Stoky and Lenny behind their backs (sometimes to their faces). And more, so very much more.

The first CD in Vol. 1 begins with a 1923 "fragment" of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, conducted hell-for-leather by Willem Van Hoogstratten, associate conductor in Carnegie Hall for the seasons 1923-5. His boss was a far more famous and influential Willem -- the storied Mengelberg of Amsterdam, with whom the NYPSO recorded, in 1928, still the benchmark Heldenleben on disks (plurally remastered on other CDs). Included here are two "fragments" lasting some 12 minutes from an earlier tone poem by Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, disfigured by what's missing. A cutoff just before the climactic declaration of Transfiguration amounts to coitus interruptus. Disc 1 concludes with the first American performance, in 1934, of the "original version" of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, cleansed of Ferdinand Löwe's posthumous graffiti. The conductor is a younger and brisker Klemperer than collectors know from his many EMI recordings, although the NYPSO longtime solo oboist, Bruno Labate, complained legendarily at the time, "Mista Klemps, you talk-a too much!" The problem today is grundgy sound from source discs that suggest unsleeved storage in an attic or garage. Historically it is singular; but even when one has become familiar with the superimposed garbage, this is not pleasant to hear.

If ever the contents of this omnibus are separately issued, the first one to buy would be Disc 2 -- 77 minutes of Toscanini recorded in the midwinters of 1935 and '36, after which he was gone from Carnegie Hall (only to resurface in 1938 as radio-conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, recruited for him, but swaddled sonically in a notoriously "dead" studio, the infamous 8-H, at Rockefeller Center). Any who knew Toscanini and the NYPSO only from their few commercial 78s, and grew up listening to his Sunday broadcasts on NBC (as I did), will be staggered by these achievements of his prime with the NYPSO. There's only one ho-hum in the lot: Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils," ein Kitschwalzer no matter who conducted it where. The disc begins with Sir Henry J. Wood's kitchen-sink orchestration of "the" D-minor Toccata and Fugue of J. S. Bach, a virtuoso performance of as mad a transcription as anyone ever made of old Johann-the-father -- doubtless Toscanini's "up-yours" gesture to Stokowski's lily-gilding, even (and often) before Fantasia.

A prize of inestimable value follows, although less for Toscanini than for Heifetz, who was soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto February 24, 1935. Neither of his commercial recordings -- in prewar mono with Koussevitzky in Boston, or in "Living Stereo" with Reiner in Chicago -- reproduces the sheer rapture of this performance, played with the same precision that made Mischa Elman sweat when Heifetz made his stateside debut 18 years earlier, also in Carnegie Hall. I write this, furthermore, as a limited admirer at best of many of Heifetz's recordings and most of his recitals from the late '40s until his retirement two decades later. Toscanini accompanies with glove-like oneness, yet is less persuasive, nor has the NYPSO the weighted gloss of Boston or the silken substance of Chicago on disks.

As fine -- perhaps finer given the unlikeliness of subject and executant -- is the final (1902) version of Sibelius' En Saga, in a dramatic reading of such spacious proportions -- 19:50 vs. the excellent Alexander Gibson's 18:08 -- that its climax becomes uniquely monumental. During the NBC era, Toscanini tended toward matter-of-factness in his few Sibelius performances -- the Fourth Symphony in particular. But En Saga of March 29, 1936 eclipsed one and all, including the NBCSO recording.

Disc 3 (in Vol. 2) begins with three Stravinsky performances -- Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, his own Fireworks and Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony, concert staples whenever he conducted as long as he was able with nose-in-score routine. A bracing performance of Beethoven's Third Piano concerto by Schnabel with Szell is next, from June 1945 -- special but not quite extra (I prefer Schnabel's 1933 commercial recording with Malcolm Sargent, and regret along with many others that he didn't live to remake it for EMI with Issay Dobrowen).

Disc 4 (same Vol. 2) begins with as loving a performance as ever there's been of Mozart's Three-Piano Concerto (K. 242) in the composer's own reduction for two players -- from 1939, without any stylistic anachronisms. Josef and Rosina Lhevinne play as one, delectably, and their impeccable accompanist is Barbirolli (nary a whiff of portamento in the string playing or phrasing). A 1947 performance under Stokowski of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony follows, rather bloated for my taste yet something of a rarity in the conductor's vast repertoire -- of course voluptuously played, whether or not the composer would have recognized it as his. The final 15 1/2 minutes of this CD belong to Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon, broadcast November 26, 1944, three days after the world premiere, with Rodzinski conducting the NYPSO strings, Steuermann as piano soloist, and Mack Harrell narrating Lord Byron's poem about the shared fate of all dictators -- the most significant historic document in this entire collection, if neither easily grasped nor amiably heard.

In Vol. 3, the first disk (i.e. 5) documents Bruno Walter's long association with the orchestra. Rubinstein is his soloist in a beautiful 1947 performance of the E-minor Chopin Concerto (the second one, published first), most startling for the vigor and subtlety of Walter's accompaniment. Strauss' brobdingnagian Symphonia domestica follows, in a remarkable 1945, pre-Christmas performance that builds an immediate head of steam -- OK, aromatic vapor -- preserved until Strauss loses it in a triple-fugue finale (Spitzbergen on top of Pelion on top of Ossa? -- pure hubris!). By then, conductor and players sound a little tired -- no doubt from their efforts all that week to make a third-rate work sound at least second-rate, and sometimes first-rate. Recorded sound on this disc is not a noble specimen of AM-radio engineering, and yet suffices.

Disc 6 opens with still another warm-blooded Walter performance -- of Brünnhilde's "Immolation Scene" from Götterdämmerung, sung heroically by 57-year-old Kirsten Flagstad on March 23, 1952. If New York City hadn't forgotten or forgiven her Norwegian husband's collaboration with the Nazis (and, by extension, her putative culpability for being a Hausfrau instead of a Dietrich-type heroine), Flagstad was cheered for her singular vocal art both here and after a few farewell performances in the old Metropolitan before retiring. Poulenc's countryside concerto follows, rowdily conducted by Mitropoulos, co-conductor with Stokowski in mid-November of 1948, and music director later on (1951-7).

But when he led the last work on Disc 6 -- the U. S. premiere of Shostakovich's stark Violin Concerto No. 1, with Oistrakh to whom it was dedicated -- Mitropoulos was on the way to being replaced by Bernstein. The same parties recorded the work for Columbia Masterworks, but as fine as that commercial recording still sounds, their concert version on January 1, 1956, was performed at white heat. It stands out as a touchstone in this collection.

Disc 7 (in Vol. 4) -- all French -- begins with Boulanger's bare-bones performance of her teacher Faure's Requiem, and continues unremarkably with Monteux conducting Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin. It ends spectacularly, though, with La mer that Cantelli conducted in March 1954 -- less than two years before his untimely death in an air crash near Paris. This has an intensity not always evident in several of his commercial recordings (though surely forthcoming had there been a kinder, gentler God), a command and control of nuance and dynamics that are astounding coming from an orchestra in the doldrums. Beyond prodigies of execution, decently preserved in CBS broadcast-mono, it is an illumination of Debussy's music few have matched and none, arguably, have bettered.

Disc 8 (still in Vol. 4) is a mixed bag that begins with the aforementioned lurch through Webern's rigidly dodecaphonic Symphony, then Berg's alternately yowling, growling, unleavened and (for me) unloveable Three Pieces, Op. 6, likewise led by Bernstein without much insight into its textures, shape or patterns of speech. Next, however, is a semi-treasure: Brahms' Second Symphony, guest conducted by Reiner on March 12, 1960, in the best transfer I've heard to date. He loved the work from his pre-teens on, attested to by the burnished glow from an orchestra that, after Mitropoulos and currently Lenny-B, could be downright scrappy. Anyone who still clings to the canard that Reiner was all technique (and the best in the world, still!) but cold and unfeeling, should listen and then eat soap. Felicities of orchestration emerge with startling clarity but no disruption of flow or equilibrium. I'm sorry this was never made in stereo with the Chicago Symphony, but George Marek (an RCA Red Seal wheeler-dealer whose machinations deserve full-disclosure) preferred Munch in Boston, and Leinsdorf after Munch. Disc 8 ends trivially with Roberta Peters, ever the soubrette, singing the housemaid's two ditties from Die Fledermaus, with Josef Krips conducting.

The final volume is two more mixed bags from 1977-87, with one throwback to 1967 -- Munch leading surely his eighth or tenth recording of Debussy's Prélude á l'après-midi d'un faune, but without flutist Julius Baker's name anywhere to be found, nor anything about him in the overall program book. The Faun precedes, on Disc 10, Bartók's only opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, which always seems more effective in the concert hall, this one a 1981 performance conducted by Rafael Kubelik. The noble-voiced mezzo-soprano, Tatiana Troyanos, sings inquisitive Judith with a clarion high-C in the scene that reveals Bluebeard's domain, while Siegmund Nimsgern (on leave from Alberich) is stylistically savvy in the title role. But this is not basically a gripping performance in the way a Hungarian conductor can make it sound -- think of Kertesz, or Ferencsik, or Solti, or Dorati. The orchestra's respect for Kubelik is evident in their response, and by then Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center (where the orchestra moved in 1962) was being vitalized acoustically as Avery Fisher Hall.

Disc 9 begins with a remarkably suave, elegant playing of Mozart's A-major Symphony, K. 201, from the NYP near the end (January 1987) of Mehta's blatty era, although guest-conductor Leinsdorf remains aloof from its expressive content. Then, for almost half-an-hour, the NYP is put through its paces by Corigliano's Clarinet Concerto, with Bernstein as ringmaster, and Drucker a soloist of truly prodigious virtuosity, not to mention lip &-lung power. The music was composed not just for Drucker but for "the entire orchestra" Corigliano had known since childhood, as the son of John, Sr., its concertmaster from 1944 until 1967, and for a decade before that the assistant principal. To mix metaphors, Jr. didn't just throw in the kitchen sink (like Henry Wood in his Bach transcription on Disc 2) but the stove, microwave, blender, coffee-grinder, percolator, electric can-opener, disposal, and fridge. Some of the brass are spatially dispersed, and everyone seems to be playing something all the time. On the evidence of his score for Altered States, Corigliano is a "natural" film composer (although excerpts from it don't work as a concert suite without visuals). In 1977 he hadn't yet composed his pastiche-opera, The Ghosts of the Versailles, or what has come to be called the "AIDS" Symphony, likewise a pastiche. As for this pastiche-concerto, maybe when Godzilla vs. Jurassic Park gets made.....

Seven Copland settings of Old American Songs (from Books I and II) are sung next with characteristic beauty and strength of voice by Marilyn Horne in 1981, who never made a smarter move, vocally or career-wise, than her switch during the '60s from soprano (spinto-weight) to coloratura mezzo. Bernstein conducts, and their best are the bracketing songs, "Simple Gifts" and "At the River." In between, those with an appetite for concert-hall cuteness can listen to barnyard imitations in "I Bought Me a Cat," and the quasi-whimsical, queasy-making "Ching-a-ring Chaw." Record 9 ends with (by-then Sir) William Walton's bantam-weight Capriccio burlesco, commissioned in 1968 by the NYP and completed the year after, with a dedication to Andre Kostelanetz, the long-time conductor of NYP pop concerts, who revived it in 1978.

Praiseworthily, these 64 years of radio recording have been preserved without filtering devices or suppressors such as vampirized the Chicago Symphony's earlier archival collections -- sound so bloodless and waxy that many of the performances were misrepresented. This NYP issue has individual CD volume notes, a tad skimpy due to white-space typography but solid for what they are; and an overall history, running to 142 pages, slipcased with the five two-in-one jewel cases. Front and back is a panoramic, wrap-around photo of the orchestra from 1930, and inside a bonus roster of every player who participated in these performances, and during which seasons. Now that's doing it right!

R.D. (2002)