René Leibowitz was a conducting student of Pierre Monteux, composition student of Maurice Ravel and later taught Pierre Boulez--his musical credentials are pretty sound whichever way you look at it.
He was a highly thought of composer and conductor in his day and although he is hardly known now, he left a wonderful legacy of recordings which deserve wider appreciation and respect not least his Beethoven cycle with the RPO which is groundbreaking and thought provoking as well as being one of the most vital interpretations I have ever heard on record.
The reason for his neglect is easy to trace, he made many of his finest recordings for the Readers Digest in the early 1960s and although millions of records were sold by mail order, the tapes have remained on the dusty shelves of the Digest ever since. Only in recent years have his performances been championed by both Chesky and Scribendum, who put this collection together.
The set features both symphonies and orchestral show pieces well known to all, but what Leibowitz does with many of them is revelatory. His strong link with Ravel shows up here with very fine performances of La Valse and Bolero played by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra and this partnership also play music by Bizet, Gounod, Saint-Saens, Dukas and Debussy, covering all their major lollipops with equal bravura and style and recorded in excellent sound. Overtures by Offenbach, Strauss and Auber zip along with pin point precision and this is extended to Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and Schubert's Great Symphony played by the magnificent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra then in their heyday.
It is the Beethoven symphonies however that really knock spots off the contemporary competition. Recorded in 1960 and 1961 they offer readings as close to Beethoven's metronome markings as you will ever get with a modern orchestra. Despite years of ridicule about his faulty metronome markings, they are similar to modern period instrument performances but with the real power of a great 20th Century orchestra.
The RPO were recording these works only weeks after the death of Sir Thomas Beecham who founded the band and the sense of wanting to show what they could do with a fine conductor is electric.
It's worth mentioning some of the players in these performances, Alan Civil – Horn, Jack Brymer – Clarinet, Archie Camden - Bassoon and Lean Goosens – Oboe give an idea of the quality that Leibowitz was conducting as well the strings led by Hugh Bean and the cracking Timpani playing of James Blades, among many others.
The Fifth Symphony's recording is an equal to Kleiber's VPO recording in many respects and the Ninth is revelatory in its sense of rhythmic drive and total modernity. I was struck by how close to the late quartets the first movement really is. What makes these performances special is the feeling of one composer understanding the mind of another and wishing to show the listener how much power there is in these works.
Charles Gerhardt produced and Decca's legendary Kenneth Wilkinson was the recording engineer, so the sound is as good as you will get. Each symphony is a joy and this box set is an opportunity to get some great performances that will not be around in hard copy for very long. If you still have any of the LPs from those days they are now worth something, too.
13 CD collection.