Music

ALBUM REVIEW

Expansive box set looks back at decades of BSO

Andris Nelsons figures prominently in the Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the BSO.
Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons figures prominently in the Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the BSO.

One happy byproduct of Andris Nelsons’s tenure at the helm of the Boston Symphony has been the return and renewal of an old relationship with the venerable recording label Deutsche Grammophon. 

It had been a very long time since the BSO recorded with Deutsche Grammophon. Indeed those elusive “younger audiences” that, depending on the night, Nelsons seems capable of bringing in to Symphony Hall, could be forgiven for not knowing that the orchestra and the prestigious Yellow Label had ever worked together. Indeed, by the early 1990s, what was once a robust flow of recording projects had dried to a trickle. And between 2004 and 2014, the number of BSO releases on DG was precisely zero. 

Yet apparently there’s no time like the present to recall the good old days. Like a couple that, after renewing their vows, have chosen to assemble a scrapbook of their decades together, DG has just released a new 57-CD limited edition box set devoted to the label’s complete recordings of the BSO as well as the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, from 1969 to 2017.  

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The newest of the lot is being released for the first time: Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, the latest in the orchestra’s ongoing Shostakovich project, recorded at Symphony Hall in live performances last spring.  

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Both sonically and interpretively, this Sixth is very much a worthy successor to the previous releases in this series. Nelsons’s tempos in the opening Largo are far more spacious than those taken by, for instance, his mentor Mariss Jansons, but they allow him to marshal a cumulative power and a nearly Brucknerian heft in the massed strings. In the middle movement, the BSO winds and brass find a way of lacing old-school virtuosity with a knowing twist of irony. And the forcefully propulsive gallop of the closing presto drives the entire work home.  

Apparently, DG has included the Sixth as a kind of teaser in this box set; it will eventually be paired with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony on a standalone release slated for January 2019.   

Prior to the Nelsons discs, the set jumps rather quickly back in time. Suddenly we have André Previn conducting his own music (in 2003), John Williams doing the same (in 2001), and before long we are back in the vast Seiji Ozawa era. Over half of this box set, in fact, is devoted to Ozawa recordings made over the course of his 29-year-tenure. Yet there are also some well-remembered releases with high-profile guests (including Rafael Kubelik’s famous account of Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” Claudio Abbado’s diaphanously beautiful recording of Debussy’s “Nocturnes,” and a Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony with Eugen Jochum). Other previously unreleased material includes an Ozawa-led Brahms Second Symphony from 1975. 

Michael Tilson Thomas’s deep roots at the BSO are recalled here in several releases, including a hard-charging “Rite of Spring” and two discs of American music (by Ives, Ruggles, Piston and William Schuman). Happily there are also no fewer than six discs devoted to the work of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, including an all-Schoenberg release from 1980, here finding its way to CD for the first time. 

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For all its breadth, this set of course offers only the DG perspective on the last five decades. Colin Davis is not here; neither is Bernard Haitink. But most notably of all, there is not a single disc documenting the music directorship of James Levine, whose own recordings with the orchestra were mostly made on its in-house label BSO Classics. The gap reflects the vicissitudes of the business relationship between the BSO and DG, and to some extent, the larger trends in the recording industry as a whole. But it’s still a striking absence, especially given how much the hard work of the Levine years has so clearly contributed to the orchestra’s current flowering.

In other BSO recording news, this month marks the centenary of the orchestra’s very first commercial recordings. In October 1917, music director Karl Muck and a full complement of orchestral members traveled by train to the studios of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, N.J.. There, they recorded what amounted to ten 78 RPM sides of music, including the Finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The recording is easily found on the Internet, and it was issued on the BSO’s own label in 1995. It’s worth a listen, through the hiss of the years, to the other end of a century of recording.   

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com or follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.