'The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 80th Anniversary': A Historic Gem

A boxed set of recordings marking the 80th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is of musical value and historic importance as well.

Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, at a concert in 2013.
Shai Skiff

“The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra / 80th Anniversary” is a set of 12 CDs plus a bonus album of a Mozart concerto and a Beethoven concerto with Daniel Barenboim as soloist and conductor. Most of the recordings were taken from the archive of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, whose future is uncertain. There are no commercial recordings done by the IPO for prestige labels such as Deutsche Grammophon or Decca. A perusal of the blurb shows that considerable thought went into the compilation (by Moshe Goldstein, head of the classical department at Helicon), with interesting results. It’s immediately clear, even before the box is opened, that this is a product possessing historic and archival value. And after a series of listening sessions, it turns out that one can find musical value as well.

The first work in the set is a 1957 recording of “Festival Prelude” by the Israeli composer Noam Sheriff, written to mark the opening of the Mann Auditorium, the IPO’s home. The conductor is Leonard Bernstein. The same CD contains Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in a 1958 performance by one of the finest clarinetists of that era, Yona Ettlinger, under the baton of Sergiu Celibidache. The recording is of poor quality, but the playing fuses energy with lyricism.

There are many other interesting performances. Some are intriguing, such as a 1963 recording of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” conducted by the composer. It’s an opportunity to connect with history, even if it wasn’t Stravinsky’s finest day as a conductor or that of the recording technicians. Some works offer musical enjoyment, such as a 1980 recording of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, or a 1996 rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony under Zubin Mehta. Afterward, on CD 10, there’s a 1962 performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, badly recorded, but played with passion by Frank Peleg, conducted by Anatol Dorati. This is followed, on the same CD, by Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw,” a dramatic work written in the United States in 1947 under the shock of revelations from the Holocaust, which is primarily an expression of commemoration and emotion. The conductor of this 2006 performance is Kurt Masur, who was a soldier in the Wehrmacht – irony, or perhaps historic reconciliation.

Zakai’s last appearance

Works by Israeli composers are also featured: Paul Ben-Haim’s Violin Concerto and “The Eternal Theme”; “Mediterranean Symphony” by Menachem Avidom; Alexander Uriyah Boskovich’s Oboe Concerto. Possibly the archive contains additional works that could have been included.

The most important conservation of an Israeli work in the set is the 2000 recording of Mordechai Seter’s acclaimed “Midnight Vigil.” Regrettably, a lacuna occurred in the documentation of this recording. The producers of the set from the Helicon label found only the name of the work’s conductor, Gary Bertini, which appears on the cover of the CD. The name of the soloist in the role of the worshiper is omitted, even though the marvelous voice of the alto Mira Zakai is easily identifiable. It doesn’t take long to discover that this is a performance from the first day of the new millennium, January 1, 2000, and that it was Zakai’s last stage appearance. This recording is of considerable importance in its own right, and also possesses distinctive qualities. It’s more introverted than previous performances, even slightly enervated, meditative, such that the performance softens the work’s excessive dramatics. This is one of several recordings in the set that deserve more than one listen.

“The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 80th Anniversary,” 13 CDs of live recordings from the archive, 1957-2006, Helicon