FORGOTTEN ARTISTS - An occasional series by Christopher Howell
11. VLADIMIR DELMAN (1923-1994)
All articles in this series
This article marks a slight departure from earlier ones. So far, however forgotten the artists were, or however little known they had always been, they nevertheless made a sizable number of discs. It was not always easy to hunt these down, but the industrious reader could do so.
I had long wanted to include the conductor Vladimir Delman in the series. The problem is, he made very few discs. Of these, only that of Bruckner 9 is at all easy to find. How fair would it be to base my discussion on off-the-air tapes I happen to have, augmented by a few more I was able to swap with a Delman enthusiast resident in Germany? Fair, I decided, if it led to increased awareness of Delman’s art. Better still, to an interest in issuing some of the many radio tapes conserved by the Italian radio and television company RAI. At least I can offer some assessment of this material, and the pros and cons of issuing it.
Moreover, the signs are that Delman is acquiring a certain underground reputation. A couple of items have been posted on a Russian-based blog. Quite a few have appeared on YouTube. These include some videos in which Delman’s undemonstrative but purposefully directed conducting technique may be seen. Some of these are very recent postings, so the process may be an ongoing one. I do not give specific links because I am uncertain about the copyright situation. However much one may sympathize with those who flout copyright restrictions over material that the rightful owners prefer to keep locked in their vaults, the law is the law. None of these recordings can be earlier than 1974, the year in which Delman left the Soviet Union and settled in Italy. Under the new 70-year rule, therefore, they will remain under copyright for a good while. It is to be hoped that Delman’s growing underground reputation may result in the official release of some of these performances.
I have already written about Delman when reviewing the Bruckner disc. I shall repeat part of what I wrote, since my personal memories were a little bit fresher then. I shall also draw on the essay by Piero Rattalino that accompanied the original issue of the Bruckner. As I understand it, the performance is currently obtainable from another label, but without this essay, which is a major contribution from a leading Italian critic who knew the conductor.
A FIRST MEMORY
It was in about 1978 that I went to the Milan Conservatoire to hear a concert by the Radio Orchestra which should have begun with a Shostakovich work (Symphony no. 14, I think), followed by Harold in Italy. The conductor, as yet unknown to me, was Vladimir Delman.
In the event, the Shostakovich was not performed. The Soviet artists’ agency had discovered at the last moment that two of their singers were booked to perform under a Russian emigré conductor who had renounced his Soviet passport, settled in Italy and, worse still, had Jewish blood in him. Their loyalty to the Communist vision might never have survived and they were ordered back home. It was announced from the platform that Maestro Delman felt there was insufficient time to prepare an alternative work. The first part of the concert therefore consisted of the violist, Dino Asciolla, playing a Berio Sequenza. After the interval the orchestra assembled and a small, stooping, white-haired man stepped out. Batonless, he blinked as though the last thing he expected to find was an orchestra. He then proceeded to coax from them a performance of Harold in Italy which, if sometimes slow, was often revelatory in texture and phrasing. The orchestra played far above its usual standard.
EARLY YEARS 1923-1974
Only a very few glimpses can be found of Delman’s pre-Italian career. Vladimir Isaakhovich Delman was born in Leningrad on 26 January 1923. Before anyone says, “but it’s called St. Petersburg again now”, this will serve to introduce one of Delman’s many little quirks. His story suggests he had no love for Communists in general and Lenin in particular, but the city was called Leningrad when he was born there. Anyone who suggested in his presence that he came from St. Petersburg was firmly corrected. He studied piano and conducting at the Conservatoire of his home city but spent the later war years in a concentration camp. He is said to have escaped a firing squad by a miracle. The rest of his family were not so lucky. He never spoke of his past though it was understood he had no surviving family in Russia. As we shall see shortly, he seems to have had a half-sister who emigrated to Israel before the war and died there around 1970.
In 1961, Delman recorded the final scene of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugène Onegin”, with Galina Vishnevskaya and the baritone George Ots. He conducted the Grand Symphony Orchestra of the State Radio and Television. This recording was briefly available on a Melodiya compilation of Vishnevskaya performances issued on CD more than a decade ago, but it is hard to find now. Fans of Vishnevskaya’s Tatiana have understandably concentrated on her complete recordings of the role. By this time, Delman was already 38 and one supposes that only a conductor of a certain reputation would have been engaged to accompany the leading Tatiana of the day. I can find no mention of his career up to that point, however.
On 12 May 1963, the BBC Third Programme broadcast a performance, loaned by Moscow Radio, of Prokofief’s “The Duenna”. This was a production by the Stanislavsky Theatre, conducted by Delman. Maybe this recording is still hidden away in Moscow. However, when Melodiya recorded the Stanislavsky production in 1963, the conductor was Kemal Abdullayev.
Some time in the 1960s, Delman visited London, conducting “Sleeping Beauty” with the Kirov Ballet and its lead ballerina Natalia Makarova. The orchestra was not the Kirov’s own but a London one – Rattalino tells this story but does not give the year or say which orchestra was involved. Delman insisted on a lot of rehearsals, but impressed the orchestra so much that they wished to engage him for further concerts. The Soviet “Goskoncert” agency insisted that they should engage a different conductor, at which the London orchestra dropped the project.
A series of photos can be found on the Internet portraying Delman and Makarova in London. They are dated January 1964. This would seem to settle the date of the above episode, except that all information on Makarova says she visited London, with the Kirov Ballet, for the first time in 1961, performing “Giselle”. Whereas in 1964 she toured the United States with the Kirov, and “Sleeping Beauty” was not on the repertoire. One reference book, however, states that she appeared in London in 1966 with just part of the Kirov company, and performed “Sleeping Beauty”. The incomplete company could explain the use of a “local” orchestra rather than the Kirov’s own. So, either the photos are dated wrongly, or Delman and Makarova stopped off in London on the way to the USA in 1964.
The Makarova-Delman association raises an interesting question about a Soviet film of “Sleeping Beauty” made by the Kirov Ballet, with Makarova, in 1964 or 1965. No reference I can find to this film names the conductor at all. This would be standard Soviet practice with artists who had become “non-persons” by moving to the West. Makarova herself had, of course, famously defected, but even Soviet officialdom could hardly think to remove the name of a ballerina recognizable to all and sundry. I should be interested to hear from anyone with more information, but a possible default assumption is that the conductor is Delman.
Some time in the 1960s, Delman was evidently sufficiently trusted by the Soviet authorities to be allowed to visit Italy as a tourist. According to Rattalino, he formed then and there the ambition to move to Italy.
The next glimpse of Delman comes in January 1972, when the newly created Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre was inaugurated with a specially revised version of Shchedrin’s “Not Love Alone”, op.47. If you look up the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre on the Internet, you will find a full exegesis of the genius of its co-founder and longstanding Artistic Director Boris Pokrovsky. You will also find 18 January 1972 given as the date of the company’s inaugural performance, with “Not Love Alone”. You will not find a conductor named before Rozhdestvensky’s 10-year reign. Look up Rodion Shchedrin and you will be a little luckier. The date shifts to 20th January and, more to the point, Delman is described as the conductor. Whether they wish to remember him today, he was, in fact, the co-founder of the theatre, with Pokrovsky. A collaboration between Delman and Shostakovich – whom Delman believed was the greatest musician of the 20th century – has been claimed, without dates or details. Since Delman was 49 in 1972 and had presumably almost 30 years’ career behind him, however unaccounted for, opportunities would seem not to have been lacking. Rather more specifically, the first big success of the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre, and the beginning of Rozhdestvensky’s conductorship, was a revision of Shostakovich’s “The Nose”, an early work that had been in limbo since before the war. This took place in 1974, the year in which Delman left the Soviet Union. Possibly, then, Delman had contacts with Shostakovich in the early stages of preparation.
And so to 1974 and Italy. I’ll quote Rattalino directly:
While he was fighting the losing battle with Goskoncert [over the London engagements], Delman received a letter from a step-sister who had emigrated to Israel before the war. She had read of his success in the British papers, congratulated him, and asked whether he too had any plans to settle in Israel. There was a brief exchange of letters, and Delman, still furious with Goskoncert, requested a visa to emigrate. It was granted after a long wait, and he was flown to Vienna, where he was accompanied to the Israeli refugee centre and had his passport taken away. He called his sister. A government official answered, who informed Delman that his sister had died some years before, and that he had written those letters to help Delman leave the Soviet Union.
Delman hung up the phone, went to the Soviet Embassy, and asked to return to Russia. They told him it was impossible. He remained at the refugee centre for several weeks, not knowing what to do and refusing to go to Israel. But an executive at the centre, a music lover, happened to speak of Delman to an important person in Italian music… A few days later, a conductor who had been signed to conduct Eugène Onegin in an Italian theatre became ill. … The important person was a very important person, and so the usual problems with a residence permit were swept aside. … Delman stepped up on the podium and started to work with the orchestra.
We might note again the obtuseness which continually crops up in Delman’s career. Why not go to Israel, after all? Once fixed up with an Israeli passport, he could have accepted engagements anywhere in the West. With that London orchestra, for a start.
There it is, he had set his sights on Italy, he got there, and there he remained. In the following years, he acquired a baton, a thick, bushy white beard and slightly more girth. His principal appointments were with the Teatro Comunale di Bologna (1980-1983), the Orchestra Sinfonica dell’Emilia-Romagna (1986-1988) and the Milan RAI Symphony orchestra from 1989. Here he battled manfully against the increasingly philistine attitude of the RAI to music in general. It was an open secret that the orchestras were to be dissolved, maintaining only that in Turin. The question was only "when", not "whether". Meanwhile the orchestra of Naples went, the choirs of Rome and Milan went and rumours flew. Players who left were not replaced by fixed-contract players, just by temps booked on a concert-by-concert basis. Under the circumstances it is remarkable that Delman managed to obtain some fine performances and even to improve the general level of the orchestra, which finally fell to the hatchet in 1994. And all the time public money was being spent on the restructuring of the Teatro del Verme (in which many years previously Toscanini had conducted the première of “Pagliacci”, but which was by then semi-derelict) as a new home for the RAI orchestra! Delman then set about organising the Milan Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra, in the first place practically a youth orchestra, but he died, in Bologna on 28th August 1994, before very much had been done. The Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra later became, under Chailly, an established part of Milanese musical life, but the rather enigmatic figure who founded it has not been forgotten. Delman set down no real roots and was apparently happy to live in a hotel in the centre of Milan. He declined to be represented by an agency, which probably explains why his career remained anchored in Italy.
Hardships in the Soviet Union (not to speak of his period in a concentration camp) had clearly left their psychological mark on Delman. At times he could behave with an old-world courtliness; but nothing could rid him of the idea that the artists’ room at the Conservatoire was his personal room even when he was not conducting that evening. "Intruders" could provoke frightful storms, followed by the lavish application of disinfectant in an attempt to make the room inhabitable once again. He could be unpredictable at rehearsals, of which he demanded a great many, and he looked far older than he really was. His forays into non-Russian operas were controversial, but many Italian critics held him to be the greatest living interpreter of Tchaikovsky, and he was also felt to have a particular insight into a range of romantic works by composers such as Berlioz and Mahler.
RAI RECORDINGS AND A FEW OTHERS
Delman conducted the RAI orchestras frequently throughout his twenty years in Italy. In addition, this was a period when opera houses and other organizations were increasingly making in-house recordings for their own archives. Italy was also very lax over members of the audience who were visibly using recording equipment during performances. A large amount of Delman’s work, maybe even all of it, therefore survives in some form or other. In the case of the RAI recordings, these had lost the dryness that tended to characterize them in the 1950s and 1960s and are usually of excellent quality.
However, Italy has never been particularly famous as a centre of world-class orchestral playing. Moreover, Delman managed only rare engagements with the two orchestras that do have some claim to be considered of international quality. With the Santa Cecilia in Rome he conducted, atypically, Haydn’s “The Seasons”, on 30-31 January 1977. For the orchestral season of La Scala, he conducted three batches of concerts. On 8-10 September 1978, the programme was Schubert’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. On 3-6 October 1979 he conducted Shostakovich’s First Symphony, Chopin’s First Concerto, with Krystian Zimerman, and Mussorgky’s “Pictures”. The last of these dates was in the Alfa Romeo Plant at Arese and the Chopin was omitted. Considerable photographic documentation of this event can be found at the site of La Scala. Lastly, on 4-7 November 1981 he conducted Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with La Scala Orchestra in Mantua, Carpi, Cremona and Bergamo, but not in Milan itself.
It may be noticed that these engagements with Italy’s “top two” came early in his Italian career. It seems strange that he lived in Milan all those years without conducting a single opera at La Scala, but there it is. He was offered the chance to conduct some ballet there but refused because the rehearsal time was too little. A more pragmatic conductor might have accepted as a way of getting a foot in the door – Delman’s obtuseness got in his way once more. He did, however, conduct 12 performances of Darghomyzhky’s “The Stone Guest”, between 17 May and 3 June 1983 at the Piccola Scala. This theatre, no longer operating, was an offshoot of La Scala which presented works for smaller forces.
MAINLY RAI RECORDINGS
FROM J.C. BACH TO BEETHOVEN
Sometimes Delman would take something quite out of his usual haunts and seemingly delight in showing what he could do with it. In J.C. Bach’s Symphony op.18 no.5 (Naples, 24 February 1975), tempi are leisurely but well sprung and not sluggish. There is a wealth of care and affection to the phrasing and colouring. A harpsichord is present if well in the background. Delman shows that J.C. Bach can reveal unexpected stature if treated with the same respect we apply to Mozart. As often in the Naples venue, the recording is unduly close.
In 1977, Delman conducted MOZART’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Rome Opera. The cast was Enzo Dara (Il Conte d'Almaviva), Adriana Maliponte (la Contessa Rosina), Angelo Romero (Figaro), Carmen Lavani (Susanna), Biancamaria Casoni (Cherubino), Maria Borgato (Barbarina), Angelo Marchiandi (Don Basilio), Maria Luisa Cioni (Marcellina), Enrico Fissore (Don Bartolo), Mario Ferrara (Don Curzio) and Guido Guarnera (Antonio).
The recording can be heard on YouTube and I won’t catalogue the awfulness of the sonics. If you can get to the end, you’re welcome. I did stay the course but wouldn’t go back unless a much better sound source were to emerge. In such a hypothesis, it’s a performance of some interest though hardly a top Figaro.
As far as Delman is concerned, he was not, at this stage in his career, inevitably subscribed to slow tempi. You can hear this at once in the upfront Overture. Cherubino’s first aria, “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio”, goes about as first as it can if the singer is still to get the words out. On the other hand, “Voi che sapete” is very slow, with romantic ritardandos into the bargain. Delman told Rattalino that Cherubino was the main character in Figaro, and “Voi che sapete” was at the heart of the opera. “What a struggle I had to get the colour right!” Another very slow tempo is Susanna’s “Deh! Vieni, non tardar”, which sounds like a spare section from the Requiem. Barbarina’s little aria is so infused with romantic longing as to suggest that Delman wished her to vie with Cherubino for the central role. Not every tempo is so unusual and it must be said that, since 1977, provocative Figaros from the likes of Harnoncourt have cascaded upon us. Delman was something of a pioneer, and his Figaro would not sound so oddball now as it did at the time. Orchestrally, he is not heavy and a good deal of Mozartian grace comes across – in the Act II finale, for example. A lot of work has gone into pacing the recitatives, too.
The singing is a mixed pleasure. Both the Figaro and the Susanna are better in recitatives than in their unremarkable singing, though Carmen Lavani copes very well with Delman’s slow tempi for her Act IV aria. Catherine Malfitano sings beautifully – “Dove sono” is a highlight – but is staid in her recitatives, unless this is a deliberate attempt to give her an aristocratic tone. I presume that Enzo Dara’s excellent Count can be heard in better recorded contexts, and Bianca Maria Casoni’s Cherubino can be enjoyed in a RAI performance under Maag that surfaced, in excellent sound, a few years ago. Enrico Fissore was a major artist who only got to record smaller roles for some reason. His Bartolo would be a collectible assumption if we could hear it properly. Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias are cut. Just as well in the first case, since Maria Luisa Cioni sings very poorly. It might have been interesting to hear Basilio’s aria.
Also on YouTube is a televised programme in which the Milan RAI SO plays in Mantua Cathedral. No date is given, but Delman’s haggard appearance suggest it was among his later concerts – maybe for the Mozart year of 1991? It’s typical of Delman that, with all the later Mozart we might have liked to hear from him, he lavished his attention on three very early symphonies: no. 10, K.74, no. 11, K.84 and the unnumbered one in C K.96. Placed between these last two was the concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te”.
Another pointer to a latish date are the calm, unhurried tempi. We are in a different world from the 1977 Figaro. As with Klemperer’s later Mozart, these performances speak of the Age of Enlightenment. A steady humanity illuminates them from within. It is remarkable to discover how much these early works, sometimes dismissed as of little account, can yield up in depth and sheer human dimensions.
On the other hand ... Klemperer himself never ventured so far back into early Mozart – nothing before Symphony 25 if I remember rightly. So we don’t know if he would have felt justified in applying such an approach here. Furthermore, Klemperer himself, when “only” the age Delman had reached by 1991, could still cut some pretty dashing tempi in Mozart. Delman, then, is sui generis. And with him, as with Klemperer, it is possible to have contradictory feelings. A sense of gratitude to the conductor for revealing what depth can be found in these “minor” works can run counter to an increasing feeling, as the programme wears on, that it isn’t half a weary slog.
Edith Wiens copes well with the slow tempi in her concert aria. This is very good Mozartian singing of the kind a conductor like Böhm, or Klemperer himself, would have recognized. The rich and vibrant string playing, albeit by a smallish band, also speaks of yesteryear. In this context the use of a fortepiano, neatly played by Sergio Lattes, sits rather uneasily. The clunky sound takes some getting used to and maybe needs a more HIP context all round.
I think more enjoyment is to be got from watching the televised version than by just listening. Delman, though undemonstrative in his gestures, is nevertheless a “presence”, and the sense of being there and getting caught up in the event compensates for the cumulatively slow tempi and – it has to be said – for some imprecise playing.
Delman conducted a complete Beethoven cycle with the Orchestra Sinfonica dell’Emilia Romagna in 1992. Though hardly a musicologically obsessed conductor, he used scaled-down forces. I have no idea whether a recording of this cycle exists.
A performance of Symphony no.5 from fairly early in Delman’s Italian career (Turin, 7 December 1978) tells a rather different tale. It is greeted with a combination of cat-whistles and – by far the more numerous – bravos. The former probably tell us as much about the innate conservatism of certain sectors of Turin society as about the actual performance. Turin, back in the 1890s, had seen the rise to fame of the young Toscanini. Presumably few if any there in 1978 had memories going so far back, but the Turin RAI SO had been the “property”, from the post-war period till only shortly before this performance, of Mario Rossi, in his youth a Toscanini protégé. To judge from the one example I’ve heard – the seventh – Rossi developed a good Beethoven style in a brisk, Toscanini-without-the-extremes, manner. The earliest approaches to Beethoven by conductors of the next generation, such Abbado and Muti, show that this was how Italians expected their Beethoven to sound. Back in 1955, when Leopold Stokowski conducted this same symphony with the Turin orchestra, a gentleman – I will call him thus lest he is still alive and has a taste for lawsuits – rose to his feet and shouted “Buffone” at the conductor. The ensuing performance showed why Klemperer admired Stokowski in this work.
Not everyone in Turin was ready, then, for what is effectively the Full Klemperer Monty. The tempi are much as in the final, stereo, Klemperer recording, with repeats in the outer movements. The text is a “pure” one, so bassoons not horns usher in the return of the second theme in the first movement. Delman does, however, make one startling deviation from the score. Since readers of this article can access the recording on YouTube, I will only say that it regards timpani dynamics and is shockingly effective, whatever the rights and wrongs of it are.
Like Klemperer, too, Delman has a single tempo for the last two movements, a bar of the scherzo being equal to a half-bar of the finale.
But I don’t wish to suggest that Delman arrived at these tempi other than through his own perception of the score. The sudden wistful tenderness he finds in the second subject of the first movement has no parallel in Klemperer – or anyone else that I’ve heard, really. Delman finds a greater range of moods than usual in a movement than is sometimes reduced to bloody-minded hammering. While the “motto” theme is rammed home absolutely in tempo even on its last appearance. Or at least, this was the idea. Unfortunately a handful of players seem to think that the traditional rallentando should be there and try to instate it, slightly undermining what should be an overwhelming moment.
In the second movement, too, Delman finds a notable contrast between heartfelt inner communing and public address. This is an unusually involving account of a movement that can sound marmoreal.
The steady scherzo seems not to have reached all the players as a concept. Very near the beginning it is all but scuppered by an incident that reminds us that Delman’s beat was not always easy to follow. Delman’s intentions – a menacing, Shostakovich-like tread – are clear but the listener has to hear them through numerous orchestral lapses. The grandly purposeful trio – anticipating the mood of the finale – fares better. Maybe it is a pity Delman did not make the controversial repeat of the scherzo – not in the score, but some musicologists think it was omitted by error. By the time of the finale repeat the orchestra seems to have understood what Delman wants of them, and they correct most of the muffs they made first time round.
An interesting touch is the deliberate dipping of tension – and dynamics – at the start of the finale development. This enables Delman to build up fierily to the next climax – an idea that would hardly have occurred to the plain-speaking Klemperer. Nor, perhaps, would Klemperer have obtained quite such an explosion of triumph at the end.
Overall, Delman achieves a dramatic build-up and a sense of fiery engagement with the music that the elderly Klemperer, at similar tempi, was unable to manage. Though it is possible that some of the live Klemperer performances that have emerged tell a different story. But Klemperer was conducting great orchestras. The orchestral drawbacks I have described mean that this performance, if it were to be issued, could only be taken as a fascinating but deeply flawed document, a hint of greatness that might, under other conditions, have been achieved.
The back-story to Delman’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is among the blackest pages in the history of the RAI. Word was getting round that the RAI choirs might shortly be disbanded. Not least for this reason, on the day booking opened I joined a queue that straggled across the entire courtyard – a pretty large one – of the Conservatorio, to book seats for what many of us feared would be the choir’s swansong. A miserable sticker on the concert poster informed us that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would be replaced by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. They couldn’t even stay the choir’s execution for the few weeks necessary for it to fulfil an engagement that would certainly have ensured a full hall two nights running, more than covering its costs.
By the next season, choral works were back on the menu – using choirs from the ex-Soviet bloc. With the recent fall of the Berlin wall these countries were now free but with practically valueless currencies and a cost of living way below the European norm. The RAI could pay them fees that a teenage babysitter would have turned down in Italy and they were glad to come. They were expected to pay their own expenses out of their fees so, rather than waste a single precious lira, they dossed down on the cold marble floors of Milan’s gargantuan Central Station before getting the cheapest train back home.
And so Delman got to conduct the Ninth. The Milan RAI SO was joined by the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Eva Johanssen (soprano), Evgenia Dundekova (contralto), Michael Pabst (tenor) and Thomas Thomascke (bass) (16-17 December 1993).
My assumption at the time was that the RAI’s purse strings were still tight. I recall something like four desks of first violins and the rest in proportion. Little enough for the orchestra to look rather lost in the Great Hall of Milan Conservatoire. In this I was perhaps uncharitable. It seems that Delman actually wanted small forces for Beethoven.
Be that as it may, several of the wind players who did excellent work in Shostakovich that same year seem not to have been available. In particular, the horn who made a strong showing in Shostakovich One was replaced by a weedy specimen who lost his way in the wind-band variation of the slow movement, followed by a dicey attempt at his scale passage. More positively, I was struck by an unusual sense of an inevitable harmonic pulse governing the entire work. My abiding impression, though, was of Delman himself. For long passages of the last movement he did not conduct, simply following the score as if monitoring the players, raising his baton only occasionally to cue in key moments. Strangely enough, the effect was not that of abdication of the conductor’s role. It was as if the music was flowing directly out of the score, through him, and transmuted into music by the performers. This is not such a bad idea when the score knows many things that most conductors seem not to know. Ultimately, I found the occasion intensely moving.
Hearing it again, the first movement once again impresses me for its steady, inexorable growth. On a moment-by-moment basis, it might be possible to feel that the “big moments” are underplayed. My abiding sensation is of an unhurried, yet unstoppable, majestic tread that expounds the whole movement in one breath.
The scherzo gets off to such a shaky start it’s a wonder they didn’t stop and begin again. It soon settles into a brisk but not overdriven tempo. Here we come to one of those things that the score knows but most conductors don’t. The score knows that Beethoven marked the half-bar of the trio to go at the same speed as one bar of the scherzo. Some conductors have tried to argue he meant a whole bar of the trio equals one of the scherzo. Others do as they please. I don’t guarantee Delman is spot on the marked relationship, but the point of his fast scherzo is now clear. He can relax his stride for a steady, dancing trio that brings a first premonition of sustained joy. All repeats are played.
The strings phrase the third movement very well – the violins are particularly good in their first variation. Would that the wind were their equal – the distressing rendition of the wind-band variation has already been remarked upon. Nevertheless, Delman manages to obtain a serene, never-dragging, never-hurrying unfolding of the movement. Here, too, the score knows something that many conductors don’t, namely that Beethoven marked a minimal difference between the two tempi: 60 and 63, which is virtually tantamount to no change at all. This is perfectly realized here.
The hammering that opens the last movement is better not scrutinized too closely. Delman handles the cello and bass recitatives very expressively, with more nuance than usual. Unfortunately there are passengers in the back desks and, like Newbolt’s “Old Superb”, they’re “lagging, lagging all the way”. But now we come to the biggest thing of all that the score knows and most conductors don’t. This is that Beethoven marked the 6/8 section following the first statement of the “Joy” theme – the “Turkish march”, the orchestral fugue and the restatement of the “Joy” theme – to be played at a tempo barely more than half that of the first statement. Quite often, we hear it frog-marched along at about the same speed as before. There are problems, though. One stickler for metronomic fidelity, Sir Roger Norrington, duly played by the book in his first recording but has since concluded that the marking has to be wrong, for it simply doesn’t work. Granted that exact observance of the markings seems untenable, is it possible to convey their sense?
Delman could. We have a swift first statement of the “Joy” theme. He then broadens his stride for a springy but unhurried “Turkish march” in which the tenor has time to sing his music for once. A feeling of steady elation informs the orchestral fugue and the “Joy” theme returns as a broader restatement, a glorious fulfilment. The new theme at “Seid umschlungen Millionen” is not allowed to become too portentous, so when it is combined with the “Joy” theme the two sound as if they were always destined to go together, rather than a forced piece of clever counterpoint. And then full sail to the end, often very swift but not hysterical in the coda.
There’s greatness seeking to emerge here. Whether this performance should be made available I really can’t decide. For myself, I listen to it from time to time for an interpretation that I find movingly direct and unusually close to Beethoven’s apparent intentions. But the conductor is one thing, the orchestra another and I daresay it would be, if it were ever issued, the worst played performance in the entire catalogue.
FROM MENDELSSOHN TO BRUCKNER
Of the earlier romantics, it is perhaps not surprising that Delman gravitated in particular towards the “imperfect” Schumann and Berlioz. Of the “perfect” Mendelssohn, I have heard only The Hebrides in an undated performance with the Milan RAI SO.
Delman takes a very slow tempo – he is longer than Klemperer by about two minutes. This is the slowest I’ve ever heard but also the most atmospheric. Unfortunately the recording I have is really very bad indeed and I would need to hear it in better sound to decide whether this tempo works in the stormier sections, or whether they get heavy. The recording does not hide a patch of squally intonation from the wind around the middle. Nevertheless, this seems to be an original and fascinating view. I hope to hear it properly one day.
I usually find that the repetitive and over-insistent material of SCHUMANN’s Symphony no. 2, especially in the outer movements, responds best to a swift approach that minimizes the problems by literally making light of them. Delman’s fairly broad tempi (Milan RAI SO, 18 April 1986) suggest a nod in the Klemperer direction. Such a comparison, to be fair, should not be made with Klemperer in this same symphony, a dispiriting, even embarrassing product of the conductor’s declining years, but in Schumann’s First. This was the one real success of Klemperer’s Schumann cycle, in which broad tempi are wedded to a pounding rhythmic vitality and a sense of fiery engagement.
Some of this description would apply to Delman’s Schumann 2, yet there are differences. Deryck Cooke, not always a strong Klemperer admirer, once spoke of the way Klemperer seems to lean backwards rather than forwards in his slow tempi. He attributed the marmoreal effect to this rather than to the tempi in themselves. A comparison with Delman is illuminating. Even in a Klemperer success like the Schumann First, you can hear what Cooke meant. Delman’s Schumann Second, after an introduction that speaks of solemn, even sacred things, launches into an allegro that, contrary to what the metronome might suggest, has all the impetuousness and coursing energy we would expect from Schumann in Florestan mood.
Delman’s scherzo is vigorous rather than Mendelssohn-lite and he does not go out of his way to charm in the trios, but this fits in well with his overall conception. The slow movement is gravely expressed, with restrained but evident emotion, and the finale surges along a little faster than might have been expected, building up to a stirring conclusion. Furthermore, Delman has clearly done a lot of work over phrasing and colouring. Schumann’s repetitive sequences are cunningly graded so that they build up rather than get stuck in a groove. Textures are full but not clogged. They glow with inner warmth.
So far so good. If this performance were to be made available it would, in some ways, represent a fine choice where a broad option is preferred. Yet there is no denying that performances set down in Berlin, Dresden or Cleveland, just to name the venues of a few famously successful recordings of this symphony, have a head’s start – nay a waist-upward start – regardless of what the conductor does. The Milan brass at the beginning are queasy, though no one actually falls off the raft. For most of the time the conductor’s gut conviction saves the day. But the rushing string passages in the finale show that no amount of rehearsal can compensate when many of the back-desk players lack the basic competence to play the notes. Still, this Schumann Second is much more than the sum of its periodically rickety parts, and I expect to return to it quite often.
A few years ago, when reviewing Giulini’s RAI recording of Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri, I compared the last fifteen minutes – which only last nine minutes under Giulini – with a Delman performance. The differences were certainly fascinating. Unfortunately, those fifteen minutes are all I have.
The opening bars of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (Milan RAI SO, 22.5.1989) do not bode well. The players struggle to follow the conductor’s ultra-personal approach, dotting every expressive “i” and crossing every agogic “t”. But things soon gel and, from the main Allegro onwards this is actually one of the least orchestrally compromised Delman performances. No one would suppose he is listening to a first-class orchestra, but there is nothing really to disturb our involvement in the music and indeed, given the extreme demands made of them, the players come out of it very creditably.
While Delman does not wilfully juggle with the tempi, his concern is not primarily with ensuring that every bar-line meets its metronomic appointment. In this first movement he lives to the utmost each single phrase, loading it with fevered expression or longing. It is extraordinarily involving – the repeat is taken – and is capped, after its groping beginnings, with a climax dominated by braying, rhythmically sizzling brass, the secret of which only Russian conductors seemingly know.
The Waltz is elegantly turned while the Scene in the Country is again remarkable. This movement can seem interminable. Delman draws the fullest expressive heat from every phrase and infuses the vast meditation with a sense of unattainable human warmth.
The remaining movements are truly nightmarish. It must be said that a person who has lived through a concentration camp and a police state must surely have a conception of terror that we more cushioned individuals can barely imagine. The March to the Scaffold is hard-hitting and sometimes, I thought, parodistic. The Witches Sabbath piles one sinister, distorted effect upon another, creating a claustrophobically nerve-wracking experience light-years distant from the mere virtuosic display we often hear.
In spite of the discouraging opening and, perhaps, the recording which seems from my off-the-air tape to be dry and too closely-miked, this performance, if it were ever issued, would earn a place among the great Fantastiques on disc.
This concert began with a rare outing for Berlioz’s Herminie. The curiosity of Herminie is its use of the theme which became the “idée fixe” in the Symphonie Fantastique. Given that, it’s surprising that more conductors don’t think of using as a first part to a concert ending with the Symphony. It is, nevertheless, a more classically oriented piece, reflecting Berlioz’s admiration for Gluck. Delman realizes this perfectly well, with luminous orchestral textures and plenty of agitated, but not hysterical, involvement. The soprano Isabel Garcisanz makes a fair showing in a piece that seems to require Callas, or more realistically Crespin, in full cry.
Berlioz’s Le Carnaval Romain (Milan RAI SO, 30 June 1988) finds Delman in unusually hedonistic form. The cor anglais theme and its follow-up are phrased with a wealth of affection yet free-flowing and not at all sticky. For the rest, the performance is swift, joyful and dancing. I thought I was past enjoying this piece so much. Delman made me love it as I did when I was a teenager. As I noted at the beginning, a recording probably exists of Harold en Italie with Dino Asciolla as viola soloist.
Bruckner seems to have been a late acquisition to the Delman repertoire. His live recording of the Ninth Symphony, with the Orchestra Sinfonica dell’Emilia Romagna “Arturo Toscanini”, was set down only four months before his death and has already been reviewed by me for MusicWeb International. Further listening have not changed my reactions and for convenience’s sake I repeat below what I said at the time.
Most other performances I have to hand seem to agree on a first movement which comes in at about 24-and-a-half minutes, and this includes a late Giulini and a Celibidache from 1969 (in those years his tempi were still relatively normal). In general, the character of the music does not change a lot between these different performances even if some move a little faster or slower. With Delman the issue is not just that he stretches it out about three minutes more (27:21), it is that the music takes on a quite different character. He uses the extra time to obtain a lot of subtle shading and this is a very resigned Bruckner, left apparently numbed by the powerful climaxes. The second subject material is almost becalmed, and it is here that the differences between Delman and everyone else in my experience are the greatest. It is as though he has never heard the work in other hands and has in all innocence come to the conclusion that the lines to be brought out of the texture as those of principal melodic importance are different ones. There is a fairly general consensus of opinion as to where the melodic lines lie and it is a strange experience to hear a well-known work apparently recomposed. And yet, strictly speaking, nothing in the score actually says that the others are right and Delman wrong, the more so when his actual results are extremely beautiful.
As I suggested above, some ragged ensemble prevents us from appreciating fully the conductor’s stern interpretation of the scherzo until after the rather secretive, will-o’-the-wisp trio. This is, perhaps, his most "normal" movement. At 20:58 the last movement would appear to be faster than many, but Delman’s complete avoidance of gushing romantic expression in favour of much very intimate phrasing actually makes it sound very slow. This is another case where Delman seems to be reconstructing the score in complete ignorance of how it is "usually" done and proceeding, like Walt Whitman’s in his journey to the "unknown region" with "nor map there nor guide", balancing and phrasing so many passages in strange but perhaps wonderful ways so that we feel like strangers in a land we thought we knew.
One of the few concerts Delman managed to give with the new Verdi Orchestra during his last year included Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.
Almost as soon as he had settled in Italy, Delman was being hailed by the Italian press as the greatest living conductor of Tchaikovsky. It is Tchaikovsky, not surprisingly, who constitutes the core of such discography as there is. In 1993 Ricordi issued the opera “Iolanta”, taken from a concert performance given with RAI Milan forces in December 1989 (RFCD 2017). Two complete cycles of the Tchaikovsky symphonies have, or have had, a tenuous existence. The first is taken from a live cycle given with the Turin Teatro Regio [Royal Theatre] Orchestra in 1984. It was issued on Nuova Era and seems to have sunk without trace.
A little more accessible is a cycle first shown on RAI television 1994. This was conceived in 1989 by Delman as a political gesture as well as a musical one. It is played by student orchestras from the then Soviet Union, Europe and the United States. The first and last symphonies are performed by the orchestra of the “Tchaikovsky” Conservatoire of Moscow, nos. 2 and 4 are allotted to the orchestra of the “Giuseppe Verdi” Conservatoire of Milan, while nos. 3 and 5 go to the orchestra of the Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh. Delman had hoped to conclude with a concert given in Milan by the three orchestras combined, but East-West relations had not yet thawed sufficiently to allow this. Each orchestra plays separately, then, on its home territory. We are not told the exact dates of these concerts. Some pretty momentous changes took place in Russia between 1989 and 1994, and it would be interesting to know where Delman’s return visit to his native country actually slotted into the process.
These video recordings were transferred to DVD and issued in 2013 by the Orchestra Sinfonica Giuseppe Verdi di Milano as a commemoration of their own first twenty years and of the 90th anniversary of the birth of their founder. The discs have every appearance of a private issue. They have no number and can be purchased from the orchestra’s bookshop in the Auditorium di Milano Fondazione Cariplo, Largo Gustav Mahler, Milan. Though they will not be easy to obtain, I suggest you avoid the soft option of listening to the YouTube incarnation of no.1 (only). This is evidently a videotape somebody made of the original broadcast and the sound is truly awful, with severe distortion on anything above mezzo forte. The sound on the DVDs ranges from acceptable to good. For some reason the Pittsburgh no.5 is transferred at a very low level. This is the first time I have ever turned the volume of my equipment right up to the maximum, and I could have done with a notch or two more if it had been available. Remember to turn it down at the end before you put anything else on!
Though I would certainly rather have these DVDs available than not, this isn’t a definitive answer to the need for a Delman Tchaikovsky cycle. The problem is not so much the snippets of rehearsals, chats with students – and one of the student’s dogs – plus choice bits of philosophy along the way. I could wish these didn’t break in after each movement quite so abruptly, but still, there are some interesting things as well as a few bizarre ones – such as the Mad Maestro dashing a bunch of red roses to smithereens on the floor because “that’s how life sometimes treats you”. Like all documentaries of this kind, you would probably be content to see it once, and it would be nice to have just the music next time round.
But you can’t, at least not in symphonies 1-3, where the picture sometimes switches from the concert to the rehearsal and you hear Delman in full philosophical spate over the music. It would be nice to think that one day the tapes could be re-edited to give us the performances without these interruptions. Fortunately nos. 4-6 are not affected in this way. Delman speaks in Italian almost all the time, by the way, even in Russia. This makes me suspect that these are not really spontaneous glimpses of work-in-progress but carefully scripted gags intended for television consumption.
If an audio cycle were to be extracted, it would have a lot in its favour. Delman’s tempi always flow naturally from each other so that the first movement of no.4, for instance, while it may seem low-key to begin with, grows and grows as it continues. Tchaikovsky is revealed to be a master of clear and limpid – almost Mozartian – musical form.
If this is a common feature, the orchestras nevertheless show their national characteristics. I’m afraid the Milan one is the roughest, but they manage a trenchant no.2 and, as I have just said, no.4 builds up wonderfully. The Pittsburgh students show an inclination towards hard-boiled efficiency in spite of their youthful years. Nevertheless, no.3 gets a peach of a performance, with a sort of beaming radiance all its own. I didn’t know this symphony could sound so good. Delman’s explanation of what Tchaikovsky really meant (perhaps) by the “Alla Tedesca” marking, is politically incorrect but rather amusing. In no.5 Delman mostly manages to goad the players into leaving behind their innate efficiency and the cumulative impact is considerable.
Over in Moscow, it is fascinating to hear the brass braying and the wind screaming, almost as if Mravinsky had come back from the dead. There’s also some remarkably strong string tone from such young players. Delman, moreover, brings human qualities to the music that we don’t quite get from Mravinsky’s iron rigour. There is a wonderful forward-moving vitality to the first movement of no.1, and great tenderness in the second subject with very little relaxation of tempo. The second movement opens up long vistas of snow-clad steppes and the finale has a coursing vitality. The third movement is, for some reason, a bit slow and pedantic, though the trio is gorgeous. The 6th perhaps gains over the two Milan performances I’ve heard in its sense of a shared culture between the conductor and the orchestra. The first movement is truly overwhelming.
Before accepting this as the definitive Delman Tchaikovsky cycle, though, the various RAI performances would need to be examined. He gave at least one complete cycle in Milan (1990) and numerous single performances.
I find his performance Symphony no.5 from 14 July 1978 (Milan RAI SO) profoundly disconcerting, however. I simply can’t square it with the Delman whose Tchaikovsky performances I attended 12-15 years later, with the performances I have just discussed or, for that matter, with the Serenade performance just four years later. Nor, indeed, with the Delman who can be heard on Youtube, many years later, berating a student for making an unmarked accelerando, followed by fulminations about conductors who think they’re so more intelligent than the composer. I even wondered if the RAI got the labels switched, for their orchestras were witness, during the 1970s, to a good many gratuitously wilful and ultimately infuriating, if intermittently enthralling, Tchaikovsky performances under Juri Ahronovich. And that’s about the way to describe what we have here.
Working on the presumption that this really is a Delman performance, it seems to show that certain scars on his personality resulting from his experiences in Russia stabilized during his years in Italy. Only the second movement, as yet, could be called great. It’s very free, but passionately convincing. It’s also better played than the rest, suggesting that only here were the orchestra really convinced by what they were being asked to do. For the rest, the incredibly long-drawn opening to the first movement may not be atypical, but what follows mingles crude excitement with drooling sentiment. Extreme rubatos and sudden slamming on of the brakes also disfigure the third movement. The finale is slow without the pounding drive that Mengelberg managed at a similar tempo. The coda is depressingly portentous.
Some weird orchestral balances may be charitably blamed on the engineers – the clarinet is completely swamped by the strings at key points in its opening solo, for example. The general crudeness shows that, for all the problems of the Milan orchestra in its final phase, in terms of blend, colour and sheer musicality of phrasing, Delman did obtain a more responsive band after he became its principal conductor.
A dyed-in-the-wool Delman completist might find it fascinating to follow through the development of the conductor’s relationship with this music. As a performance to convince doubters that Delman was a potentially major figure, it’s a non-starter. There must be several later performances of this work that are far preferable – memory tells me I attended one such, and the Pittsburgh video bears this out.
How different from the perplexing 1978 Fifth Symphony are the two “Pathétiques” from the latter end of Delman’s career (13 July 1990 and 14-15 January 1993, both with the Milan RAI SO). Though they are intensely personal, they are about as free of wilful accretions as it is possible to be in this sort of music. The 1990 performance, in particular, has the formal elegance of a Mozart symphony and is prevalently elegiac in tone. The 1993 performance is a little freer and more overtly passionate. The timings show that Delman was slower in the outer movements in 1993 but faster in the middle ones:
I II III IV TT 1990 18:33 8:32 9:19 9:53 46:19 1993 19:05 7:46 9:05 11:04 47:01
On balance, I think the later version gains from the greater range of expression in the first movement and is definitely more free-flowing and passionate in the second movement which was actually a little placid in 1990, though nicely phrased and affectionate. It is in the third movement that the quality of the orchestra is more of an issue. This is more noticeable in 1993. Both manage to be pretty exciting in spite of this. There is no yielding of tempo towards the end. The 1990 performance elicits a round of enthusiastic if misplaced applause. The 1993 performance is certainly more viscerally involved in its slower finale, with plentiful groans from the podium. I am not sure this is entirely to its advantage, though, for there is a wonderful tenderness to the second subject in 1990 which is not recaptured in the beefier 1993 rendering. The difference in the finales would be my principal reason for wanting to hold on to both versions. Apart from the beginning of the third movement, neither performance is seriously compromised orchestrally, certainly not to the extent of hiding the fact that this is an interpretation up there with the very finest. For its sense of shared culture, though, I think the Moscow video performance may have the edge over either of these.
Obviously, Delman’s Tchaikovsky was not limited to the symphonies. “Eugène Onegin” was central to his career, going right back to that final scene with Vishnevskaya in 1961. It was the work that provided his entrée to the Italian musical scene. That the opera was close to his heart in any case is abundantly clear from the 30-minute RAI documentary on the Bologna rehearsals that can now be seen on YouTube. Incredibly, this Bologna performance came about by accident too – the originally appointed conductor, Gelmettti, had backed out. Instructive as these rehearsals are, at any rate for Italian speakers, they can only be an hors d’oeuvres for the performance itself, or would be if we could hear it. As it is, we can only hope that a recording, if not in video at least in audio, survives and will surface one day. The opera was given in January 1991 with a stellar cast including Mirella Freni, Paolo Coni, Giuseppe Sabbatini and Nicolai Ghiaurov,
Delman conducted the opera again at La Fenice, Venice in May/June 1993. At least a pendant to this survives, since two of the singers, the soprano Ana Pusar and the contralto Evgenia Dundekova, joined Delman in Milan on 1 October 1993 for a 27-minute selection from the opera. This inevitably consists mainly of the Letter Scene followed by a contribution from the contralto. The Slovenian Pusar and the Bulgarian Dundekova had both studied in Milan and had settled there by the time Delman took over the RAI orchestra. They were evidently happy to collaborate with the conductor and appeared frequently in his programmes. I remember attending a performance of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” with Pusar, conducted by Delman, and finding her more than adequate but nothing special. She makes a stronger impression here and is clearly in the part. Dundekova is more effective in the Shostakovich Suite discussed below. Delman obtains tender, loving playing from the orchestra, but never so indulgent as to lose a sense of forward movement.
Guest-conducting the Turin RAI SO in Romeo and Juliet in Turin (1991), Delman is watchful, even a little cautious in the opening stages, though he sets a proper air of foreboding. By about a third of the way in, he is pushing his players to their limit and from then on the performance is as enthralling as any I know. The return of the love-theme is colossal in its impact.
In 1982, the Serenade in C got a performance (Milan RAI SO) of such astounding emotional range it has you wondering if this is not one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest and most universal works. The expressive nuances Delman draws from his band are extraordinary and he has them follow to a man his sometimes extreme rubatos. They respond with a much richer string sound than they usually managed, though some lapses of intonation reveal that this is not a top-notch orchestra.
If this description suggests a demonstration of how to get a third-rate ensemble to play far above its usual level, far more important is the way Delman transforms a work that can often seem, in three of its movements, merely agreeable, into a wonderful poem of love and longing. And as for the Elegy, Delman and his players live and breathe every detail of its emotional progress. This is what great conducting is all about.
There’s not a lot for the orchestra to do in the Sérénade mélancolique (Milan, 30 June 1988), but Delman lays out a suitably melancholy backdrop to Nina Beilina’s plaintive, tender violin solo.
A 24-minute selection from Swan lake (Milan, 30 June 1992) does not always choose the obvious numbers – there’s no Waltz – but it begins with the famous oboe solo, caressed with improvisatory freedom and as magically unfolded as any I’ve heard. I don’t know how Delman’s approach would have gone down with the dancers but he certainly brings out the passion and colour of the score. The orchestra is in remarkably good form and the two extended violin solos, beautifully handled, are a welcome souvenir of the RAI’s hardworking orchestral leader, Marina Ghigino.
Delman gave Hamlet on 13 July 1990 and I remember attending a performance of the Second Piano Concerto with Mikhail Pletnev on 22 June 1990. These were all part of an extended cycle of the symphonies and quite a lot else in the summer of 1990. There seems to have been a performance of the First piano Concerto with Gavrilov, but I don’t have details. Strange that his symphony cycles never seem to have included “Manfred”. At least one performance of this was given in Milan.
OTHER RUSSIAN ROMANTICS
When we study the other Russian works set down by Delman it becomes clear that he conducted Tchaikovsky assiduously because he believed he was among the greatest of composers, not out of patriotism. The Russian conductor of a radio orchestra might have been expected to explore all sorts of byways, but one gets the impression that Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries did not greatly interest him. No doubt there is repertoire I do not know about, but he certainly did not incessantly plug works such as “Scheherazade” or Borodin’s Second Symphony, as might have been expected. Performances exist of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmila Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Spanish Caprice, but apart from this, the one member of the “Mighty Handful” to attract him seems to have been Mussorgsky. The long arching, aching lines of the atmospheric Prelude to Khovanschina (Milan, date unknown) are distilled with a mastery and a participation that transcend the limitations of the orchestra.
Pictures at an Exhibition, while using the Ravel orchestration, sound more bleakly Mussorgskian than usual (Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 1985). In seeking out the emotion underlying music that can sometimes seem just quaint, Delman finds some novel solutions. The children playing in the Tuileries are very gently, tenderly portrayed, unlike the cheeky little blighters we hear more often. But Delman’s tempi are not always slow. Signally, in the Old Castle, which is frequently made interminable, his tempo flows quite swiftly, without any loss of its melancholy expression. The ox-cart, too, forges ahead quite purposefully. I must admit that this work has never really engaged me, in spite of all its clever tone-painting. Delman has made me look forward to hearing it again – conducted by him. I should warn those who don’t like that kind of thing that there’s something of a vibrato-fest among the orchestral brass. Otherwise the Bologna orchestra acquits itself well.
We may surmise that Delman’s visceral engagement with the music he conducted led him to prefer Tchaikovsky, and to some extent Mussorgsky, over the picturesque story-tellers of the Rimsky school. But what about Rachmaninov? A performance of the Second piano Concerto with Aldo Ciccolini was given. Rather more interestingly, The Miserly Knight was programmed for Delman’s (and the RAI orchestra’s) last season, in January 1994. Given the orchestra’s problems and Delman’s by then fragile state of health, the performance may not have taken place.
Mahler clearly loomed large in Delman’s affections. With the Milan RAI orchestra he did Symphonies 1, 2, 3 (three times), 5 and 9, plus Das Lied von der Erde. Symphony 8 was performed during his Bologna period and no. 5 was one of the few works he lived to conduct with the new Verdi orchestra. Symphony 4 was programmed for the RAI orchestra’s last season, in the spring of 1994, but this is another that may not have taken place.
Delman’s Mahler 2 comes from the late phase when the RAI chorus had been disbanded and the “Land of Bel Canto” had to send to Hungary for a choir – the Budapest Radio Chorus – to sing twenty minutes of Mahler. They sing very well. The soloists – good except for a momentary intonation lapse from the contralto – are Ana Pusar (soprano) and Liliana Bizineche-Eisinger (contralto) (Milan, 12.11.1993).
In spite of an evidently under-nourished string department, Delman and his forces get the message across powerfully. Delman is good at both the vehement outbursts and at the gentler themes, which seem as memories of a heart-easing beauty that the composer has left behind him. The first three movements, and especially the beautifully-cadenced dance–based movements, are interpreted as a sort of Mahlerian “Winterreise”. The vocal movements gather their forces gradually and inevitably. I hope I may one day hear the conclusion in the better sound that I imagine exists in the RAI vaults.
Detailed comparisons in a work like this, even limiting myself to the six or seven alternatives I have available, would take the best part of a month. I will merely point out that Delman is by no means especially slow in the earlier stages of the work. Indeed, he is slightly faster than two conductors – Ormandy (Cleveland 1972) and Steinberg (Boston 1972) – who I might have expected to be quicker. On the hand, Delman is slower overall in the final movement than any other version I have, including Klemperer’s. I never found him hanging fire.
If I were reviewing the concert rather than a recording of it, I would be happy to state that the orchestra, for what it is, and given that it knew its future was threatened, acquits itself finely. There are ragged moments, but in truth it’s less of a mess than Klemperer’s Concertgebouw performance. Nothing actually comes really adrift and the colours are right. On the other hand, if this were issued as a disc, there is no denying that plenty of really great orchestras have set this work down. Not all of them play with the total conviction you get here and not many conductors pace the work as inevitably as Delman. Yet another case of flawed greatness.
Delman’s 1990 performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (Milan RAI SO) can be heard on YouTube, minus a few seconds at the beginning of the third movement but otherwise in listenable form. The very opening will probably decide whether you are going to stay the course. The shrill, vibrato-laden trumpet, encouraged to considerable agogic freedom, seems to have strayed in from an early post-war Soviet recording. The effect – quite deliberately I imagine – is of a military bugler ad libbing by the graveside. The strings then enter with a numbed intensity. Delman is very fine at expressing both the gentler sides of the music – which emerge completely without sentimentality – and its more vehement outbursts. Furthermore, he is extremely fine at switching between these elements so as to create an integrated whole. These remarks can be taken as applying to the entire symphony, not just the first movement. There are clearly moments of high risk in the orchestral playing, but nothing goes radically askew and the sheer gut conviction aligns this performance more with the pioneering accounts of the 1950s than with the chromium-plated efforts we often hear today. Those repulsed by the trumpeter should note that the first horn does a pretty good job in the third movement.
Delman’s handling of the Adagietto is an extreme example of plastic tempo-moulding. As the first three rising notes seep in, you might expect this is going to be a slower-than-slow traversal. But no, over the bar-line the music is momentarily released, and so it goes on, the flow dammed and released, dammed and released. Bruno Walter did something similar, but with less overt emotion. Delman risks going over the top – his vocalizings have to be heard to be believed – but I for one was completely enthralled. Incidentally, at 09:14 this is actually a far cry from certain modern versions that stretch it to 13 minutes and beyond.
In general, Delman is slowish but not really slow. I have a rather odd selection on my shelves and the only one that is slower than Delman in all five movements is Horenstein’s 1961 Edinburgh Festival performance with the Berlin Philharmonic. It is interesting, though, that some conductors who are brisker in four movements out of five take longer over the third movement. Scherchen and Steinberg, for example, take 18:21 and 17:04 compared with Delman’s 16.35. However, there are lot of internal tempo changes in this movement and some careful study would be needed to see what has really happened. What is not in doubt is that Delman’s interpretation is up there with the best, whatever the accompanying drawbacks.
Delman made it clear that, for him, the core composer of the twentieth century was Shostakovich. He made only occasional, and unpredictable, forays in other directions. Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc, for example, was performed in Genoa in 1977. Roussel’s Piano Concerto, with Ugo Trama as soloist, cropped up in a concert with the RAI Naples Scarlatti of which I do not know the date. RAI have an interesting track record for getting unlikely conductors to do this work – another version in their vaults with this same orchestra is conducted by Harry Blech. When you come to think about it, Roussel’s hard-hitting, gritty emotionalism ought to have appealed to Delman, and it certainly sounds so here. I hope one day I shall hear this in better sound, for Delman’s driving energy combined with some piquant colouring, all in close collaboration with the pianist, make this piece sound better than it is usually held to be.
Even more off the beaten track was Casella’s Second Symphony (Milan 28 February 1991). This was the work’s second performance ever. Following its Paris première in 1910 it had never been published and the score was believed lost until shortly before this revival. Given that it has now been recorded a couple of times, it would be interesting to hear what Delman made of it.
Though separated by less than four years, two Milan performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 (30 August 1989 and 18-19 February 1993) show considerable differences:
I II III IV TT 1989 07:59 04:10 08:11 08:14 28:36 1993 08:47 04:29 09:17 09:40 32:14
To be really meaningful, it would be necessary to compare the timings of the individual sections within the movements. I suspect the later performance is actually faster in some places. You only have to hear the first few minutes of each to realize that the 1993 traversal is not simply the same interpretation slowed down, but a radical rethink. In 1989 Delman gave the music a certain neo-classical poise. In 1993 he seeks out its expressionist leanings. He drives furiously at times, but he also holds back with some exquisitely nuanced playing of the more intimate sections. In lesser hands the music might have fallen apart. Instead, we witness an inner drama which is perfectly structured on its own terms. Indeed, I would say that in the third and fourth movements especially, Delman’s control of tension and structure bear the marks of truly great conducting. It helps that the orchestra was on extremely good form that evening. It is a Pavlov response to say how bad these RAI orchestras were and of course there are some ragged moments. But how beautifully, for example, the oboe launches the slow movement. The Delman admirer will find it fascinating to compare the two, though it is the 1993 performance that is richer in the type of interpretative originality that makes Delman worth seeking out.
Also played at the 1993 concert was the Suite for Contralto and Orchestra on poems by Marina Svetayeva. The soloist, Evgenia Dundekova, was often to be heard at Delman’s concerts. After a slightly husky start, she reveals a typically rich Slavonic-style voice. She opens out thrillingly at the climaxes but can also fine down her timbre almost to a whisper in the more introverted moments. Since I do not know Russian and do not know what the poems are about, I can’t really say more than that the performance seems a thoroughly dedicated one from all concerned. It would be interesting to know if the presence on the programme of this late, tormented work induced Delman to seek parallel expressive qualities in the much earlier Symphony.
Shostakovich’s Symphony no.10 was performed by the Milan RAI SO on 1st October 1993. Where some conductors opt for an unremittingly straight course, Delman charts a more complex emotional growth. Touches of warmth in the early stages of both outer movements might lead a first-time listener to suppose that an optimistic ending is as likely as the opposite one. The clarinet melody that emerges from the string-based opening radiates a certain hope. This makes the crushing blows of the consequent development – in which Delman stretches his players to breaking-point in the Russian manner – and the descent to nihilism and utter despair all the more devastating. As with so much else about Delman, we don’t know where he stood over “revisionist” interpretations of Shostakovich. His second movement may or may not be a deliberate portrait of Stalin. It certainly expresses O’Brien’s words in Orwell’s “1984”: “If you want an image of the future, think of a boot stamping on a human face”. An interesting point is that Delman contrasts the tempi in the first movement more than usual. His basic tempi is fairly, but not exceptionally, broad, but the third theme, introduced by the flute, is faster than we often hear, sounding like a gawky waltz.
This is not only one of Delman’s great interpretations, it is also remarkably little compromised orchestrally, considering that the Milan RAI orchestra was at its last gasp by the end of 1993. There are inevitably a few spills, but overall they cope amazingly well with the conductor’s expressive and colouristic demands.
A performance of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto in which Delman accompanies 13-year-old Davide Clabassi (13 June 1990), can be seen – just about – on YouTube. I think this is an amateur video not a television broadcast, since the picture is misty and taken entirely from a position in the auditorium. Shut your eyes and the sound is fair though with the piano too much to the fore. This is a good concerto for a young soloist, except that it does not really show if any depths are burgeoning under the surface. Clabassi is nimble and gutsy and has a good singing tone in the middle movement. Orchestra and conductor have little to do except follow along energetically, but Delman gets some thoughtful shading from the strings at the start of the second movement.
Of other Shostakovich works, the Eighth Symphony was certainly broadcast. The Ninth was programmed in the same 1994 concert as “The Miserly Knight”, so may not have been performed.
Delman showed much less interest in other 20th century Russians. That “Duenna” performance years earlier suggests that with Prokofief, as with Rachmaninov, he was attracted to the more off-beat works. As it is, the RAI archives contain just a performance of the 3rd Piano Concerto with Paolo Wolfgango Cremonte. Stravinsky, too, was limited to a few works, and not those one might have expected: Apollon Musagètes and the Symphony of Psalms. From the post-Shostakovich generation, he gave Schnittke’s Third Symphony.
A few other YouTube items might be mentioned. You can see the first few minutes and the last few minutes of the inaugural concert of the Milan Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra on 13 November 1993. If the entire concert was recorded, it would be interesting to hear it, though the works in question, the Tchaikovsky Serenade and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, add nothing new to the Delman canon. A RAI documentary of a course/competition for young conductors in Parma, entitled “A me l’orchestra”, is more frustrating than anything. The shots pass from one conductor to another without time to appreciate what is happening, or to realize what Delman is trying to convey to his charges. You’ll need good Italian to understand it, too. You will get glimpses, though, of at least two conductors who subsequently made a career – Kazushi Ono, who won the competition, and Johannes Wildner who made it to the first selection but not to the final trio. It’s an interesting reflection on the way of the world that Ono’s site make no reference to this competition or to Delman, while Wildner always described himself, in his bio, as a pupil of Vladimir Delman.
If someone was inspired – or foolhardy – enough to issue a handsome Delman box, concentrating on Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich, with maybe some Beethoven and Schumann and the Casella and Schnittke, all officially transferred from RAI tapes, what sort of future would it have?
Various reactions on internet to the Bruckner 9 are fairly indicative. Some listeners stop at the scrappy playing and the conductor’s grunts and groans and refuse to go further. Some recognize the conductor’s original interpretation but find it too compromised to be worth a second hearing. And some find it an enthralling document that all Brucknerians should hear, whatever the attendant problems. This, I suppose, is the likely range of response to a more extensive series.
Just suppose, for a moment, that the only existing recordings of Furtwängler, Walter and Klemperer were those of their concerts with the RAI orchestras. What would we make of them? Their interpretative qualities would doubtless shine through the murk, but they would inevitably be cult-figures, off-limits to more general listeners. Rather as is actually the case with Golovanov. The message of all that I have written above is that Delman could have made recordings of the repertoire closest to his heart that would have vied with the best. What we have is, at best, material for a cult-figure.
In the event of an extensive series, I think it would also reveal a fascinating development. Judging from “Figaro” and the 1978 Beethoven and Tchaikovsky Fives, the Delman who reached Italy in 1974 was a fascinating, frustrating, provocative and intermittently enthralling conductor. Life in the west seems to have stabilized his personality.
Rattalino, after describing the exhaustive, but also exhausting and frustrating, rehearsal methods of the “earlier” Delman, has this to say:
In his later years, when I no longer had the chance to see him at work, they tell me he changed. … Whereas before I had always heard performances that didn’t measure up to the rehearsals, many of the last performances I heard from him were superb, without evidence of unrealized intentions. And whereas before one noted a certain imbalance of results between simple forms and complex forms, … at the end his mastery of forms that were very complex, structurally and dramatically, was complete.
The “great” Delman, then, who was able to combine his visceral emotional response to the scores with philological and formal rectitude, seems to have been a phenomenon of his last decade. If we project this process back to his “hidden” years in the Soviet Union, dare I suggest that he made relatively little mark back then because he wasn’t actually all that good? Brilliant at times, maybe, but erratic and unreliable, a Don Quixote of conductors?
He was, too, in spite of his desire for extensive rehearsals, only a semi-ideal solution for a third-rate orchestra. His rehearsals were concerned – the various bits and pieces on internet seem to make this clear – with colour, atmosphere and feeling. In terms of musicality, the Milan RAI orchestra gained in flexibility during his years at its helm. But these methods would have been better still if applied to an orchestra whose tuning and articulation could have been taken for granted. During this same period, the orchestra was guest-conducted two or three times a year by a noted disciplinarian, Gary Bertini, with results that were much cleaner. Indeed, Bertini’s 1994 performance of Mahler 7, from their very last season, could be issued without much embarrassment, if this interpretation were not adequately represented elsewhere. I don’t think Bertini, excellent musician though he was, had the vision of Delman, but he was very good – as I remember from further back in my Edinburgh days in the early 1970s – at making a second-rate band sound better than it was. Delman perhaps needed a first-rate band to carry out his ideas.
Maybe, though, Italy is not a bad place for a square peg in a round hole. It is tempting to imagine scenarios, such as Delman arriving in London in the 1970s to capture a public eager for an heir to Klemperer, but what would really have happened? A brilliant honeymoon, culminating in a memorable Tchaikovsky cycle, lost to the world because not broadcast by the BBC, then disillusionment at some of his more controversial interpretations leading to a parting of the ways as the orchestra got more and more cheesed off with his philosophy-and-tantrums rehearsal methods? Remember Celibidache and the LSO in the 1970s? At least Italy gave Delman recognition and the freedom to pursue – if not always to achieve – his musical ideals.
Regarding my speculation as to who the conductor of the 1964 Kirov “Sleeping Beauty” may be, my fellow reviewer Rob Maynard, who has a copy of the film, tells me that two conductors are named: Boris Khaikin and one Yu. Galamei. So, unless we wish to speculate over the real identity of the latter, who is otherwise unknown (but let’s not look for reds under every bed), we can take it that Delman did not conduct on this film.
An update - January 2016
An encouraging feature about this “Forgotten Artists” series is the extent to which people volunteer extra information or offer further recordings. Internet itself is a constantly self-renewing platform and new postings can bring new revelations. My sources for this update prefer not to be named, but they know who they are and my profound thanks are due to them. I am now able to provide a much wider picture of Delman’s Mahler, to compare the video Tchaikovsky cycle with the earlier one with the Turin Regio orchestra and to introduce a new composer into the Delman equation – Verdi.
Though I am virtually certain that a complete Mahler cycle under Delman could not be assembled, I can now comment on performances of nos. 3, 8 and 9, plus Das Lied von der Erde, in addition to those of nos. 2 and 5 I discussed previously. A performance of no.1 apparently exists. I have still not been able to discover whether the performance of no. 4, announced for Delman’s last season with the Milan RAI orchestra, actually took place.
Mahler in Italy
Before describing these, however, it may be worthwhile to look at the history of Mahler performance in Italy.
Italy has never been credited with any particular Mahler tradition. No Italian conductor with roots going back before the Second World War – no Italian conductor before Claudio Abbado, in short – acquired an international reputation as a Mahler interpreter. The one partial exception was Giulini in the small selection of works he took into his repertoire. For the rest, Italy mainly depended on visiting – or resident – foreigners for its Mahler. Even after the Second World War, the Mahlerian cause was slow to develop, but had pretty well caught up with the rest of the world by the 1980s. Italy’s Mahlerian “coming of age” may be dated from Abbado’s complete cycle, one symphony per year, at La Scala from 1977 to 1986.
My information for this survey comes from a paper, “I direttori italiani in Mahler”, presented at Toblach in 1991 by Luigi Bellingardi. A typescript of this can be found on the internet. Though Bellingardi’s brief was “Italian Conductors in Mahler”, there were so few of them that he extended his viewpoint to Italian performances of Mahler generally. He examined the concert programmes of La Scala, Florence, Rome (Augusteo – Santa Cecilia) and the four RAI orchestras. Possibly, he might have also taken in Bologna, the Turin Regio and the Venice Biennial, but by and large it is unlikely that any significant Mahler performances took place in Italy outside the centres he examined. I cannot check the complete accuracy of Bellingardi’s lists and I note that Delman’s 1983 Rome performance of no.3, which I discuss below, is missing. Nevertheless, all other performances I knew about are listed, together with a great many I knew nothing of, so I think he provides a pretty full picture.
At the very outset, things looked promising for Mahler in Italy. Mahler himself conducted two concerts with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome in 1910, but did not venture to include any of his own works. Bruno Walter gave the Italian première of the First Symphony with the same orchestra in 1912. Two years later the Fourth Symphony had a double Italian premiere: Mengelberg presented it with the Santa Cecilia, while Nikisch performed it at La Scala.
However, after that things got stuck. Apart from isolated movements – the obvious one from the Fifth but a few others too – Mahler was represented only by the First Symphony till well after the Second World War. Mengelberg conducted it in Rome in 1921, Bruno Walter in Florence in 1936 and Rome in 1937. Even the Fourth Symphony languished until Mario Rossi gave it at La Scala in 1949. RAI certainly offered no initiative similar to the BBC’s complete cycle in 1947, though it would be interesting to know if they broadcast any of the symphonies by courtesy of other European radio stations or the few available discs. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Italy had heard the entire canon in concert.
The indefatigable Hermann Scherchen led the way with the Ninth in Florence in 1949, followed by the young Bernstein with the Second at La Scala in 1950. Das Lied von der Erde was heard at La Scala under Steinberg in 1953. RAI had Mahler’s distant relative and namesake Fritz conduct the premières of the Sixth (Turin 1956) and the Fifth (Rome 1958). The Third should have been performed under Mitropoulos at La Scala in 1960. Sadly, he died of a heart attack during rehearsals and the symphony had its Italian première under Scherchen in the same year. In 1962 the canon was complete, with the Seventh under Harold Byrns (RAI Rome) and the Eighth under Scherchen (La Scala). Byrns also gave the Italian première of the Tenth in Cooke’s completion (RAI Turin 1964).
Over the next few decades, Mahler became as much part of the orchestral musician’s daily work in Italy as anywhere else. More specifically, the Milan RAI orchestra itself, when Delman took it over in 1989, while it may not have developed a Mahler tradition all its own, was hardly new to the music. Delman’s immediate predecessor, Carl Melles, would seem not to have been interested, but RAI booked Chailly for a Mahler symphony every season from 1986 to 1989 – 8, 2, 5 and 6 in that order. From 1978 to 1983 the orchestra’s principal conductor was Zoltan Pesko, a convinced Mahlerian who gave 5 (1978), 3 (1979), 7 and 1 (both in 1981). I attended the Fifth and recall it as a sound reading, creditably played. A little earlier, 1977 saw performances of no. 2 under Juri Ahronovich and no. 6 under Gabriele Ferro. Moreover, this orchestra narrowly missed being perhaps the sole Italian orchestra with a real indigenous Mahler tradition, for in 1971 the avant-garde composer Bruno Maderna, Italy’s one militant Mahler disciple from the generation that still needed to fight for this composer, was appointed principal conductor. His untimely death in 1973 left many hopes unfulfilled, but not before he had conducted symphonies 7 (1971), 3 (1973) and 5 (1973). These, plus a 9th with the Turin orchestra, were once issued by Arcadia, but seem inaccessible at the moment.
The point of this preamble is that Delman’s Mahler performances belong to an age when playing Mahler was normal for any regularly constituted symphony orchestra. It has been noted frequently that the gain in accuracy, even with lesser bands, has been counterbalanced by a loss of that missionary zeal, that sense of living on the brink, that characterized earlier performances under the likes of Adler, Scherchen, Mitropoulos or, in Italy, Maderna. In the same years that Delman was plying his wares, Gary Bertini also did the rounds of the RAI orchestras, offering Mahler performances that were scrupulously prepared, musicianly and idiomatic, but clearly belonged to an age where Mahler needed special pleading no more than Brahms. And yet, Delman’s Mahler sounds as if it belonged to that earlier age, and not just because the orchestras are not always impeccably tuned, immaculate of ensemble or tonally lustrous.
Symphony no. 3
In the earlier of the two performances I’ve heard of the Third Symphony (Teatro Comunale di Bologna 1979, with Viorica Cortez, mezzo-soprano), massive work has clearly gone into colouring and phrasing. Where most performances present the opening horn theme as a striding march, Delman is rhetorical. The tempo is broad, with an added ritardando at the top of the phrase. The punctuating orchestral chords are not only arresting in their vicious attack, they deliberately avoid swinging along in march time. The effect is more akin to the orchestral comment on an operatic recitative. I am a casual rather than an encyclopaedic Mahlerian, but the only precedent for such an opening I know could be significant – Berthold Goldschmidt (Philharmonia Orchestra 1959). This BBC studio recording, only the second time the work was played in the UK, has never been officially issued, so far as I am aware, but is not too hard to find on the internet. Interestingly, though, the very first British performance, under Boult (BBCSO 1947), also took care not to set out in straight march tempo. Delman goes beyond even Goldschmidt, however, in his honing in on the specific moments. The brass chords at the end of the first paragraph snarl more viciously under Delman in Bologna than any others I can find. Later on, the rising wind phrases scream across a terror-struck landscape. When lyrical relief comes, it is heartrendingly poignant. Every moment, therefore, is characterized to the maximum. All this needs its space, and the result is the slowest reading I know – see the table below. The attendant risk is that, dinosaur-like, the performance might collapse under its own weight. I don’t think it does, for the sheer concentration and gut conviction carry the day. Dangerous living has its price, nonetheless, and this performance nearly dies the death when, in the lead-up to figure 6, a trumpet, quite possibly miscued by the conductor, comes in a bar early. Not only does he stick to his mistake, but the brass and wind make a majority – though not unanimous – decision to stay with him. Meanwhile the strings, who play through the entire section and therefore had no problems about counting empty bars, carry on regardless. The spirit of Charles Ives hovers over the proceedings until things straighten out at figure 7. No sound is heard from the rostrum. Presumably, as the figure approached, Delman held up seven large fingers and gave a firm downbeat. In the fourth movement, too, in the 4th bar of fig. 5, the strings enter with their high D before the horns have even started their rising figure, and do so with such splendid unanimity that misdirection from the rostrum can be the only explanation. Several Ivesian bars are needed to straighten this out.
At this point I should say that I’ve received this recording through an enthusiast who got it from another enthusiast. I have no idea what the ultimate source was. It sounds like a poor copy of a better recording. As it stands, soft low notes just disappear from the sound spectrum. At several moments in this first movement the bass drum is pattering away its march rhythm all on its own, and these moments simply come across as gaping black holes in the music. It’s difficult to tell, then whether Delman holds the tension through these moments. Similarly, it is difficult to comment on the fourth movement when, even listening on headphones with the volume very high, it is almost impossible to discern anything happening at all until the soloist comes in. If a good source for this recording exists, I hope I shall hear it one day.
The second movement begins with the right rustic charm and is memorable for the aching nostalgia that develops as it continues. The third movement is actually quite sprightly in the “Ablösung im Sommer” sections, certainly preferable both to the lugubrious tempo adopted by Barbirolli and to the breathless despatch to be found in many other readings. The post-horn sounds very distant and an element of precariousness robs it of its full magic. Of the fourth movement, I can only say that Viorica Cortez acquits herself well and the right sense of mystery is present when one can hear what is happening. The fifth movement is enigmatic. The boys sound uncertain at the beginning and the whole piece takes on the air of a bizarre parody rather than an angelic joy-peal. The suspicion remains that inadequately trained choirs, rather than the conductor’s interpretative vision, may have created this effect. The great slow finale is very finely managed. Delman is basically more flowing than one might have expected. Moreover, he knows just when to let it flow freely and when to dam up the ongoing surge, and has clearly worked hard over dynamic shading and colour. For all its manifest shortcomings, there is a greatness trying to get out of this performance that demands to be heard. Quite possibly the longest performance ever given, it testifies to a raw contact with Mahler’s inspiration that smoother renderings lose sight of.
Nevertheless, we are probably on safer ground with the slightly later performance I’ve heard (RAI Rome 1983, with Daphne Evangelotos, mezzo-soprano). The off-air recording has been provided to me in a listenable form, without black holes, the real source of frustration being that RAI themselves are presumably sitting on a good, almost certainly excellent, stereo tape of the occasion. Delman’s approach has become a shade more classically contained, and my immediate impression was that proceedings were a little more low-key. However, I soon found that this is an impression you get only if you play the Rome first movement immediately after the Bologna one. The Rome performance is still one of the most phantasmagorical on offer by most other standards, and a certain tightening of the structure – by three minutes, see the table – brings its advantages. The Rome orchestra is basically more proficient than that of Bologna and they come unscathed through figures 5-7. The impression that Delman was not the safest of guides when the various sections of the orchestra have to fit different rhythms across one another is confirmed when, in similar music just before figure 9, the trumpet – yet again – this time comes in a bar late. This error causes less lasting damage – the rest of the orchestra continues and the trumpeter finds his place at his next entry. It’s curious, too, that the harp glissandos in this movement are played a bar early in both performances.
In the second movement, I would like to point out how beautifully, indeed wonderfully, the orchestra slide back into the swaying minuet rhythm at fig. 14, with the most natural rubato playing around the beat. If great conducting means, not just getting spick and span precision, but penetrating telepathically the entire orchestra so they feel as one man the music as the conductor feels it, then there is great conducting to be heard from here to the end of the movement.
The third movement is the only one that has a longer timing in Rome. The “Ablösung” sections are still poised and sprightly, but here Delman has a flugelhorn player who is a really fine artist, and he lets him take all the time he wants, to magical effect. The fourth movement creates plenty of brooding mystery and Evangelotos, a long-serving member of Bavarian Opera, sings well. The fifth movement, though more secure than in Bologna, still has an uneasy, spooky feeling. The last movement seems to me perfectly paced. Again, Delman knows when to move forward, when to hold back, and obtains consistently pliant, flexible phrasing.
I worked out the table below, showing timings of most of the older, pioneering recordings plus Delman’s. In the end, it shows less than I thought it would. We certainly see that Delman in Bologna was the slowest of all, and still broad in Rome. We also see that the first two commercial recordings, both made with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra only two years apart under dedicated Mahler disciples, practically juxtapose one of the fastest with one of the slowest. It is a sobering thought that Scherchen could have played the finale twice and still have been only about a minute longer than Adler. The Goldschmidt-Schuricht pairing seems to confirm that thoroughgoing Mahlerians were divided between a broad interpretation and a more impetuous one. Interesting that Horenstein practically crossed from one camp to the other between 1961 and 1970. Interesting, too, that Barbirolli, usually the man to make a luscious meal out of a romantic slow movement, keeps the finale on the move whereas Boult, so often the master of the elegantly-turned not-so-slow slow movement, offers one of the most expansive finales.
What the timings do seem to confirm, at any rate, is that Delman offers a very individual slant on the symphony. To my ears, he is equal to the greatest of those I’ve listed. I understand, by the way, that two further recordings exist – from 1984 (Milan, with Maureen Forrester) and from 1990 (Milan, with Gabriel Schreckenbach).
MAHLER SYMPHONY 3 I II III IV V VI TT Boult BBCSO 1947 33:28 08:20 15:47 10:02 04:59 25:58 98:34 Scherchen VSO 1950 30:17 08:21 15:25 07:59 03:50 19:57 85:53 Adler VSO 1952 37:42 09:06 17:53 09:03 04:48 26:00 104:32 Goldschmidt Philh 1959 35:25 10:43 15:24 12:05 04:38 22:53 101:43 Schuricht Stuttgart 1960 30:38 07:57 15:10 08:31 04:21 21:03 87:43 Horenstein LSO 1961 30:42 08:46 16:14 08:56 04:07 21:10 89:57 Barbirolli Berlin 1969 36:08 10:23 17:26 09:05 04:34 22:04 99:42 Barbirolli Hallé 1969 33:03 09:28 17:29 08:53 04:09 22:22 93:28 Horenstein RAI Turin 1970 35:09 09:15 17:46 09:16 04:48 21:26 97:40 Delman Bologna 1979 38:37 10:55 16:15 11:19 05:21 23:12 105:42 Delman Rome 1983 35:36 09:58 17:34 10:49 04:49 21:10 100:09
Symphony no. 8
My sources for Delman’s Mahler 3 and 8 give only the year, 1979, not the exact date. A reminiscence on internet suggests the Eighth Symphony was given in the autumn, with the “thousand” reduced to about 400. The soloists were Maria Luisa Cioni and Sylvia Rhys-Thomas (sopranos), Reinhild Runkel and Juanita Porras (mezzo-sopranos), Giuliano Ciannella (tenor), Attilio D’Orazi (baritone) and Boris Carmeli (bass).
Given the proximity of this performance to the massively slow but deeply meaningful 3rd, I settled down to hear a performance of rugged, slow-moving grandeur. You could have knocked me down with a feather! Delman sets out at a lively clip, almost baroque in feeling, and HIP baroque at that. He keeps even the more lyrical sections moving strongly forward. Corporate exaltation is the keynote to the whole thing, and his forces acquit themselves remarkably well.
In Part II Delman again keeps things flowing. He shows the same ability he revealed in the finale of Beethoven’s 9th to hold a long, sectional movement together, making each part emerge from the next. There is no sense of rigidity, the music comes at the listener in long, overlapping, euphoric waves. Nothing seems to call for particular comment, because everything fits together so well.
The table below lists Delman’s timings together with those of most of the historical recordings and a few slightly more recent ones. In order to say something really useful, probably I would need to give timings for the individual sections, since similar timings could enclose a completely different range of tempi. However, for what it’s worth, Delman is the fastest of all these in Part I and faster than most in Part II. Overall, he and Kubelik – something of a master of euphoric Mahler – tie for first place. This would raise no particular eyebrows if this 8th was the only Mahler we had from Delman. It remains extraordinary that the same conductor should have produced the slowest 3rd and the fastest 8th in the same year.
The recording – as I have received it – is much better than that of the 3rd. It is obviously professionally made, given the absence of distortion in the weightiest passages. I suspect, though, that it is the work of a mobile unit called in to preserve the occasion, with just two (excellent) microphones reflecting pretty well what the audience heard. It is bright and generally clear. When I saw Delman conduct Beethoven’s 9th he had the soloists lined up behind the orchestra, just in front of the choir. I suspect he did the same on this occasion. We hear them much as the audience would have heard them, but with the difference that we do not see them. In Part I this is fair enough since they are absorbed into the texture. In the more operatic Part II, the ear does really require them to stand out a little more. In view of this, maybe it is unfair to say that, while the soloists seem middling to good, more lustrous (because more closely miked?) voices can be heard on other recordings. All the same, this performance is a prime candidate for any “official” release dedicated to Delman’s art.
MAHLER SYMPHONY 8 Part I Part II TT Stokowski NY 1950 22:24 55:19 77:43 Scherchen Vienna 1951 26:08 54:20 80:28 Horenstein London 1959 23:20 57:14 80:34 Mitropoulos Vienna 1960 24:11 55:14 79:26 Abravanel Utah 1963 22:33 52:00 74:33 Kubelik BRSO 1970 (DG) 21:53 52:03 73:56 Delman Bologna 1979 20:56 53:00 73:56 Neumann CPO 1982 24:11 54:46 78:57 Bertini Turin 1988 21:46 56:45 78:31
Symphony no. 9
By 1991, as I note elsewhere, Delman’s Tchaikovsky symphonies were gaining a Mozartian transparency of form. The Mahler 9 from that year with the Milan RAI Symphony orchestra shows that the process was not confined to Tchaikovsky. The timing shows a broad reading, but the opening avoids the becalmed sluggishness we sometimes hear. The germs are being laid for what is to come, and they are laid in tempo. The mood is one of numbed pain. Nor does Delman dig in too early. Later comes passion and fervour, but without too wide a range of tempi. Above all, the impression held throughout is that of a steady, visionary gaze. The playing is about the best I’ve heard from this orchestra, remarkably trouble-free for a band that never made any claims to be world-beaters. Much work has been done on phrasing, shading and colouring. The realization of the final wind-down would be remarkable from a much finer orchestra.
Of the second movement, MusicWeb International’s late-lamented Mahler expert Tony Duggan noted that “it usually takes a conductor of Horenstein's generation to appreciate the fact that this is awkward, ugly music that needs to be taken at a relatively measured tempo to bring out the remarkable things Mahler does with the dance rhythms - ländler and waltz. Many more recent conductors seem rather frightened to get their hands dirty with it”. Looked at simplistically, the faster ones would be the ones that scrub away the dirt. The swiftest of those below, the pioneering stereo version under Leopold Ludwig, would seem to bear out Duggan’s point – neatly sprung but a little bland. Delman was never the man to shy away from being awkward. At a virtually identical tempo he “dirties his hands” with all the gawky inflections that are missing from Ludwig. He does not portray the world-weariness Duggan found in Horenstein, and presumably had other ideas. This is a more upfront, even cheeky concept.
The third movement begins with some suitably rasping sounds and proceeds trenchantly rather than precipitately – fair enough for Mahler’s “sehr trotzig”, translated by Duggan as “very stubborn”. The D major episode is finely handled, bizarre at first but ineffably tender just as the time is coming to leave it.
The last movement begins with an oddity. No other version I know separates the C flat at the beginning of bar two from the preceding note in this way. Yet it is arguably implicit in Mahler’s request for a down-bow, when the previous note had a down-bow too. Sorry to be so technical, but I know no other way to describe what is done here. What follows is heartfelt but never heart-on-the-sleeve – no wallowing in the horn melody on the second page, for example, though it is beautifully played. The music proceeds inexorably to the final leave-taking, which is very movingly done.
For some, it will flow too easily. At 18:25 it is the fastest of those listed below. Only one other comes in at under 20 minutes. That one, however, the famous 1938 Bruno Walter, slower by a mere 11 seconds, is hardly ignominious company. Never more than here, though am I aware of how little the timings tell us – a breakdown of the timings section by section might be more to the point. Why, for example, did Tony Duggan find Scherchen’s 20:15 impossibly hasty when he was prepared to accept Walter’s 18:36? The answer must lie in the range of tempi, in Scherchen’s tendency to start off – both here and in the first movement, which he despatches far faster than anyone else – at a quite plausible tempo, and then lurch ahead wildly at the least excuse.
I listened to the first paragraph in all of these versions. Walter, Scherchen and Delman were very similar, not only in their tempi but also in their control over shading and colouring, so that each harmonic event breathes its own life. This sort of mastery is obviously crucial. Maderna is slightly slower but sounds hurried. This is because, whatever his gifts as a creative musician, he was not technically a conductor on the level of the other three and the music does not breathe. Kubelik and Barbirolli, on the other hand, bring off a potentially sticky tempo by their mastery over string phrasing. So, too, does Klemperer, with a slower tempo still. I was also struck by the noble sincerity of Abravanel and, especially, Ludwig.
Turning to Horenstein reveals an interesting point. Walter, Scherchen and Delman, but also Kubelik, Barbirolli and Klemperer, manage to give the impression that the music has four beats in the bar. In even the fastest of the four Horenstein versions listed – which actually goes at the same tempo as Klemperer’s – you can somehow feel him beating eight. I am talking, obviously, of a feeling; as to whether these conductors were actually beating four or eight I have no idea. This means that the first LP version set a dangerous precedent. If Mahler had intended the movement to be beaten in quavers (fourth-notes), he would surely have written it out in notes double the value. Moreover, if he wanted it beaten in eight, Walter would have known this and done it. In short, though Horenstein set the tone for later twentieth century interpretations, he must have been “wrong”. I put “wrong” in inverted commas because maybe this interpretation conveyed to late twentieth century audiences what they wanted to find in Mahler. Anyway, there it is. In Delman’s more flowing, but unhurried interpretation, there relives the spirit of Walter’s “authentic” reading.
One further point is worth making. In general, performances are either slow all through or fast all through. Although I started by denying that there was an Italian tradition of Mahler interpretation, it’s curious that the one previous – if less extreme – case of a broad first movement combined with “normal” middle movements and a flowing finale, is the recording under Delman’s predecessor at the Milan RAI, Bruno Maderna.
Finally, the recording. As I have received it, it is pretty good, apart from a blip where a few bars are lost and some fizz from the radio reception. Characteristically for a RAI broadcast, dynamic levels are compressed. The original must surely be very fine. Combined with orchestral playing far better than usual for this band, one day it should be possible to hear, without serious distractions, a very fine, probably great, performance.
MAHLER SYMPHONY 9 I II III IV TT Walter VPO 1938 24:57 15:45 11:24 18:36 70:43 Scherchen VSO 1950 21:04 16:08 12:09 20:15 69:36 Horenstein VSO 1952 29:15 17:26 13:18 25:15 85:16 Ludwig LSO 1959 25:39 14:12 11:50 23:33 75:15 Barbirolli Turin 1960 24:54 14:59 12:45 20:22 73:00 Horenstein VSO 1960 25:28 16:02 12:31 24:36 78:37 Kubelik Boston 1967 27:00 15:28 13:28 22:24 78:20 Klemperer NPO 1967 (EMI) 28:22 18:46 15:18 24:15 86:41 Horenstein Paris 1967 27:08 16:46 13:46 24:30 78:10 Horenstein LSO 1967 29:16 16:55 13:50 26:06 86:07 Abravanel Utah 1969 28:05 15:50 12:21 24:57 81:15 Maderna BBCSO 1971 29:29 14:18 13:11 21:01 77:59 Delman Milan 1991 27:53 14:35 13:02 18:25 70:55
Das Lied von der Erde
Delman conducted Das Lied von der Erde with the Turin RAI SO in October 1977. The soloists were Regina Fonseca, a Portuguese contralto whose career was mainly spent in German opera houses, and Gosta Winbergh. The Delman enthusiast who sent me a copy said it was the most “heart-rending” performance he had ever heard. I must say that I am pretty tolerant of poor quality sound in off-the-air recordings, but my correspondent must be far more tolerant still. Somebody has made a heavy-handed attempt at cleaning it up with a de-noising programme, with the result that the sound – what remains of it - has a husky, whistling quality in the strings with curdled oboe tone. Even so there’s some sort of rhythmic throbbing at the start of Der Abschied that nearly, but not quite, goes at the same tempo as the music. Mercifully this clears after a bit and the voices come across passably. This is nevertheless several degrees worse than the 1952 Barbirolli with Ferrier and Lewis. I am deeply grateful to hear, however imperfectly, a marvellous Delman performance, but it is frustrating to think that decent tapes of it are presumably sitting in the RAI vaults. It’s difficult to judge the performance, then, and if I find that Delman, more than anyone else, concentrates on stark expressionist horror, the suspicion remains that the recording makes it sound like that.
1977 Delman is early Delman as far as his Italian adventure was concerned, and he was much more interventionist than he later became. The table below will give the idea that his tempi were fairly average ones, but this is where timings become unstuck unless they are broken down to small sections of each piece. Take no. 3, “Von der Jugend”. The timing, though swift, is identical to Walter’s. Nevertheless, many seasoned Mahlerians will throw a screaming fit when they hear what a lick Delman starts off at. “Behaglich heiter” (Comfortably bright) is Mahler’s indication and many conductors take a very comfortable view indeed, hardly “bright” at all. Delman is certainly bright, and Mahler’s duple time indication is on his side. Winbergh tries to sound comfortable. Then, the passages marked to be played slower go very much slower, which is how the timing ends up the same as Walter’s. Delman also encourages his soloist to linger on single words – such as “Aermel” the bar after figure 8 – in a manner typical of lieder singers, who have just one pianist to cope with it, but is not usually thought possible with an orchestra in tow. None of the other performances I’ve listed point this word in any way at all. This is basically the pattern for the four faster songs. The young men on horseback in “Von der Schoenheit”, for example, are truly frightening – a stampeding horde of hooligans.
In the two slow songs, Delman draws concentrated phrasing with hairpin dynamics from the instrumental soloists and sees that the textures never clot. There’s a nagging intensity to most of it that makes the few moments of release all the more moving. The most heartrending performance of all? I would have to consider carefully the claims of the Klemperer/Ludwig “Abschied” which, in its noble simplicity, might be more moving still. Certainly, the Delman could be the most harrowing. Quite possibly, in its wild extremes, this is something like the interpretation Scherchen would have given us – strangely, no Scherchen performance seems to have survived.
But what of the soloists? Winbergh is a known factor. Suffice to say he acquits himself well and is unfazed by Delman’s manic tempo for “Von der Jugend”. The first song nearly swamps him, but you can say that of practically every performance. The big question is whether the virtually unknown contralto is up to it. And yes, she is. Her voice is rich, generally even and steady. She has clearly been coached carefully by Delman and she realizes his interpretation finely. She does not have the sheer vocal personality of a Baker or a Ludwig. I am none too sure that the instantly recognizable timbre of Ferrier is quite the plus people used to think it was. Be that as it may, I think Fonseca can be preferred over at least some of those listed below, none of whom let their conductors down.
MAHLER DAS LIED VON DER ERDE I II III IV V VI TT Schuricht Thorberg Oehman Concertgebouw 1939 9:01 9:50 3:33 6:52 4:41 28:56 62:55 Klemperer Cavelti Dermota VSO 1951 7:03 9:04 3:18 6:26 4:08 22:31 52:34 Barbirolli Ferrier Lewis Hallé 1952 8:15 10:12 3:19 7:04 4:25 31:00 64:17 Walter Ferrier Patzak VPO 1952 8:48 9:22 3:04 6:49 4:26 28:36 61:04 Rosbaud Hoffmann Melchert SWGRSO 1958 8:43 10:56 3:33 6:42 4:38 28:58 63:30 Keilberth Wunderlich Fischer-Dieskau Bamberg 1964 8:27 9:35 3:08 6:51 4:14 29:50 62:09 Klemperer Ludwig Wunderlich (N)PO 1964-66 8:07 10:12 3:44 7:50 4:43 29:33 64:11 Steinberg Forrester Vickers Boston 1970 7:39 7:55 3:11 6:42 4:29 25:49 55:47 Horenstein Hodgson Mitchinson BBCNSO 1972 9:41 10:27 3:38 7:54 5:22 32:12 69:17 Delman Fonseca Winbergh RAI Turin 1977 9:23 10:26 3:04 7:17 4:22 28:24 62:57
Delman’s Mahler is certainly enigmatic. Here we have a highly subjective, expressionistic “Das Lied” from 1977. From 1979 we have one of the slowest Thirds ever and one of the fastest Eighths. I can only suggest that this was all part of a process of experimentation that gradually settled into the more objective manner we hear in the 1991 Ninth. It is a fascinating journey of (self)-discovery by the conductor, and each stage of it is memorable. I am inclined to feel, now, that, however significant Delman’s Tchaikovsky was, his Mahler was more important still. An album, using original RAI tapes, of as many Mahler works as can be found, carefully choosing the best performance where several exist (as with the Third Symphony), however unlikely in the present climate, would reveal a Mahler interpreter of the stature of a Scherchen or a Horenstein.
If you hunt diligently enough, YouTube will yield up two versions of the final scene of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” conducted by Delman. The earliest, from 1961, was recorded in a Moscow studio with Galina Vishevskaya and Georg Ots. It is the only recording I have ever heard of pre-Italian Delman. The second looks like an amateur video from the 1991 Bologna performance with Mirella Freni and Paolo Coni. In judging the Moscow performance, we have to remember that this was a fairly young conductor accompanying two of the leading Soviet stars with consolidated experiences in these roles. And that’s how it sounds. Delman does a good job, and it would have taken more than a young Delman to stop the prima donna from holding her final top B far longer than written. But maybe he did not wish to stop her anyway – 30 years later he allowed Freni to do the same thing.
In terms of celebrity, Freni and Coni yielded nothing to Vishnevskaya and Ots. But they were willing to bow to Delman’s Russian wisdom and be coached in their roles from A to Z. We find here all the tugging emotions, the nervous phrasing, from singers and orchestra, that we expect of a Delman Tchaikovsky performance, and which do not hear in 1961. Without further evidence, though, it is impossible to say whether Delman developed this musical personality only after leaving the Soviet Union.
No sooner had I made this comparison, than I discovered that a complete audio recording of the Bologna “Onegin”, from a performance on 29 January 1991, can be had for a handful of dollars at a site called Opera Passion. The recording seems to have been made from a seat in the theatre, I should say with a mini-disc. It is more than listenable to, and I am grateful to have heard at last what must have been a wonderful experience for those present. It is not as good as the “Otello” recording from 1981I discuss below, but it’s far better than the intractable “Figaro” recording I described in my first article. The video recording mentioned above is actually fuller and warmer, but it distorts more on the top notes. Unless the performance was broadcast, I dare say this is the best we are going to hear. The full cast is Gloria Banditelli (Larina), Mirella Freni (Tatiana), Francesca Franci (Olga), Nucci Condò (Filipievna), Paolo Coni (Onegin), Giuseppe Sabbatini (Lensky), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Gremin) and Oslavio De Credico (Triquet).
The opening phrase says it all, in a way. This gently descending figure can sound smooth and rather melancholy, or it can be infused with greater passion, even a foreboding of tragedy. Here it is divided into three phrases-within-phrases, each with its distinct meaning, weight and colour. Yet at the same time, there is nothing at all unnatural or mannered about it. It would be easy enough to improvise it this way on the piano, but not many conductors can play on the orchestra as if it were a single instrument. Without going into further detail, Delman has probed deeply into the meaning, expression and tone of every tiniest phrase. Abetted by an extraordinarily responsive orchestra, the result nevertheless sounds perfectly spontaneous. Furthermore, he has then related it all to the overall shape of each act. The music never sounds overheated or melodramatic. Essentially, it has a conversational fluidity. The moments of high passion and drama emerge as undercurrents of ordinary life that periodically break loose and take charge of events. Little need be said of the singers beyond the fact that each takes his or her place in the scheme. Voice for voice, some may be more beautiful than others, and Freni was nearing the end of a long career, but I think this is not really the point. This is Delman’s performance, and this sort of total identification with a composer and a work is something that comes only very rarely. In fairness, I should add that Delman’s reverence for the work does not prevent him from cutting a few choral sections, and his tempi for the three dances are almighty fast, though they certainly have verve.
A little more needs to be said about Freni. In 2002, she received a Doctorate “Honoris Causa” from the University of Pisa. In her acceptance speech, she discussed the many conductors she had worked with and concluded: “I would like, however, to remember the great help I received from Maestro Vladimir Delman in increasing my understanding of the Russian repertoire. Delman enabled me to enter fully into the character of Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, conveying to me the cultural background and what it means to feel Slav”. Other conductors she mentioned were Karajan, Giulini, Kleiber, Maazel, Ozawa, Levine, Gavazzeni, Abbado and Muti, so implicitly she ranked Delman on the same level. Her tribute was all the more remarkable considering that her husband was Nicolai Ghiaurov, so it is not as if coaching in the language and in “feeling Slav” was not available at home. Freni’s “official” recording of the role of Tatiana was made a few years earlier, in 1987, under Levine. MusicWeb International's Colin Clarke was not especially enthusiastic about it. One day I hope to make a detailed comparison, since this would demonstrate the extent of Delman’s influence.
Delman and Pletnev
Mikhail Pletnev was the soloist in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto which Delman conducted, with the Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra, on 22 June 1990. I attended this and so have been very interested to hear it again, in good sound apart from a couple of blips. Pletnev’s international career was in full swing by then but, truth to tell, I had not been especially impressed by what seemed an efficient rather than inspiring account of the solo part.
My perceptions are slightly adjusted as the result of a recording that, without bringing Pletnev exaggeratedly to the fore, causes his solo work to project in a way it didn’t in the hall – and I was sitting quite near the front. There can be little doubt that pianist and conductor were in substantial disagreement over the first movement. Delman conducts with a grand solidity and my subjective impression is that the music sounds like Tchaikovsky when the orchestra is on its own and doesn’t when Pletnev is on his own – a skittish, decorative element takes over. When they are both playing, Pletnev sometimes seems to be deliberately contradicting the conductor. On the recording, with the piano well forward, I find the pianist’s contribution rather irritating. In the concert hall, it sounded merely irrelevant. Fortunately, the rest is much better. Delman gives the long opening duet with solo violin and cello all the romantic warmth and suppressed tension we might expect from him, and Pletnev, when he enters, responds with much beautiful playing. In the finale, too, they seem well agreed to give the Cossack dance plenty of drive while keeping it buoyant and spirited, never aggressive. A slight curiosity is that, while basically this is the full, original version, Delman makes a small cut in one of the orchestral episodes in the first movement. Nothing remotely on the scale of Siloti’s drastic foreshortening of the structure; indeed, the cut is so small I wonder why Delman bothered to make it.
On the whole, then, this is not one of the more pressing candidates for official release. Pletnev himself can be heard to much better advantage in a video from the following year, recorded in Frankfurt under Fedoseyev. This time, conductor and orchestra work hand in hand in the first movement, with considerably more mature, far less skittish playing from Pletnev.
The Symphonies – two cycles compared
In my original article on Delman, I discussed in some detail the video cycle of Tchaikovsky Symphonies recorded with conservatoire orchestras in Milan, Pittsburgh and Moscow. First shown on RAI TV in 1994, it appeared in DVD in 2013. I also mentioned the existence of a 1984 cycle, recorded with the orchestra of the Turin Teatro Regio and issued on Nuova Era. Thanks to the kind offices of a reader, I am now able to compare the two cycles.
There are no fundamental differences of concept between the two versions of the First Symphony. However, by the time of the video version Delman reveals a greater control over the long line. The outer movements are slightly more segmented in Turin. In particular, the finale builds up more inexorably in Moscow, helped by the typically Russian baying brass, young as the players are. In Turin, the thought of the triumph scene from Aida did cross my mind here and there.
In one movement the Turin performance perhaps scores. The third movement, which seemed to me almost pedantically spelt out in Moscow, is that little bit more fleet in Turin, to its advantage. This is offset, however, by the quite extraordinarily tender playing of the central waltz in Moscow.
I felt, too, that, young as the Moscow musicians are, they maybe have the potential to rise beyond the level of a decent provincial theatre orchestra such as the Turin Regio. I daresay many of them have now done so. The wind solos are more flexibly phrased, more artistic in Moscow. So, while regretting the slow third movement, and regretting even more the interjections inserted for the benefit of the television audience, my choice has to be Moscow.
The video performance of the Second Symphony was recorded by the Milan Conservatoire Orchestra playing, not in the Great Hall of the Conservatoire itself, which can produce reasonable sound, but in a more photogenic venue in Mantua, replete with marble floors that create a boomy acoustic with ill-defined bass lines. This probably does not matter much in the second movement, otherwise it’s only in the finale that Delman gets such a visceral attack that the acoustic is largely overcome.
In my previous account of these video performance I noted that the Milan orchestra was the least proficient of the three, yet they display something like mastery over the notes compared with the Turin Regio players, who can get very sketchy and crude when most challenged.
Mind you, Delman drives harder, even wildly in Turin. Again, the later performance shows a greater mastery over the long line and in both outer movements Delman seems much surer in his treatment of second subjects, which fit into the scheme of things in Mantua whereas they slightly lose tension in Turin. On the other hand, the first and third movements sound merely amiable at times in Mantua – maybe there was really more grip but the swimming acoustic robs us of it. I might prefer the tempo of the third movement in Turin if the orchestra could play it better.
So where does this leave us? By a small margin the video version seems preferable, but this is a case where I’d really like to know what else RAI have in their vaults. Memory tells me I attended a performance in Milan that might be preferable to either of these.
I’ve already described how Delman makes a really gorgeous thing out of the Third Symphony in the video version, recorded in Pittsburgh. Indeed, by now he’s almost made it into one of my favourite symphonies – almost, because I don’t get the same pleasure out of it from many other performances.
The Third is nevertheless the best so far in the Turin cycle and I could be very happy with it if I didn’t have the Pittsburgh one. Very marginally, there’s more bonhomie to the “Alla tedesca” movement in Pittsburgh. Otherwise it’s a question of the later recording having more space around it and the young American players being less challenged by the notes. The swirling passages of the fourth movement, blurred by inaccuracy in Turin, take on a slightly impressionist haze there.
Incidentally, I’ve said “the young American players”, and Delman failed to achieve his goal of having the three orchestras play together at a final concert in Milan, but I notice there was some degree of interchange. The timpanist here is the same as in the Milan orchestra’s nos. 2 and 4 while at least one violinist flits from place to place.
When I heard the video Fourth Symphony for the first time, with the Milan orchestra playing in Mantua, I was a little worried that it seemed rather low-key to begin with. Listening again, I feel I didn’t give Delman full credit for the way it builds up inexorably. When the power comes, it’s devastating, and the final bars are shattering.
A comparison with the Turin performance rather makes the point. Delman gets excited earlier and it’s often thrilling, but tension sometimes sags between the climaxes. Nor do the final climaxes cap the previous ones. The orchestra has fired all its guns already. The Turin performance gets off to a very bad start, by the way – somebody seems to have trodden on one of the trumpet’s tails.
It may seem remarkable that no such serious mishaps bedevil the Milan students’ efforts, but perhaps it is not. I would need to make a careful face-by-face comparison but I got the idea that the fourth horn wasn’t the same person all through – in other words, it’s been edited from two performances. Not that I’m suggesting we’re being conned – no dates are given so it is not actually claimed that these are unedited performances.
In the central section of the second movement, Delman is more manipulative with the tempi in Turin than in Mantua. The Turin performance is very interesting, but I think he proves the point a few years later that the same expression can be obtained, even intensified, with greater fidelity to the score. Likewise in the finale, he slows down considerably in Turin when the “leafy birch tree” tune is taken up by legato strings. Very effective, but the video performance is even more so. All this means that the Milan-Mantua performance has an overall line that eludes the Turin one. It’s curious how two performances that, in detail, may seem fairly similar, since Delman’s ideas about tempi and phrasing remain broadly the same, actually feel quite different. I think the video performance is likely to grow in stature with every new hearing and I’m sorry I hadn’t quite given it its full due before.
Delman’s Tchaikovsky Fourth, then, apparently reached structural maturity in the video version. His Turin Fifth Symphony, on the other hand, is not only the best in the Turin cycle up to this point, it is also the most perfectly laid out account, structurally, that I have heard. Having achieved this structural transparency in 1984, he did not basically change his ideas again, but a little more freedom is allowed in the video performance, recorded in Pittsburgh. In three movements out of four, this works slightly in favour of the Turin version. It is delivered with a Beethovenian trenchancy, the third movement takes flight particularly well and the orchestra is at its best. Even so, with a warbling horn at the start of the second movement, not always in tune, the orchestra knows how to hit where it hurts most. Playing and recording are better in Pittsburgh, though the recording needs to be played at a very high level, and the extra freedom makes for a memorable second movement, which will be the heart of the matter for most listeners. I suppose this adds up to another win for the video cycle, but not such a clear-cut one this time.
Delman starts the first movement Allegro right up to tempo, and in the video he explains why. He sees this rhythm in the strings as the beating of a heart, which persists right through “and it can’t be shifted even a millimetre”. I notice that the pounding march rhythm that introduces the coda of the finale goes at practically the same tempo as this first movement in both performances, giving a remarkable sense of structural rounding off. After the symphony, in the video, we see Delman travelling in a taxi to the airport with two students. He looks up with bemused wonder at the Pittsburgh skyscrapers. “Do you like skyscrapers, Maestro?” asks one of the students. “Yes”, he says with a teasing smile. “I’ve got a collection of them at home”. “What, skyscrapers in your house?” “Yes, they’re scores, scores of symphonies. By Mozart, by Beethoven, by Shostakovich …. and by Tchaikovsky. It takes a lot of calculation to build a skyscraper. And so it does to build a symphony”. Just a rehash of Goethe’s statement about architecture being “frozen music”, I suppose, but nevertheless it gives some idea of why Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony stands up so strongly in these two Delman performances – but not in that aberrant affair from 1978 which I discussed in my main article. If that was really by Delman – I still think it might be by Ahronovich – he revised his entire concept of music-making in those few years.
The “Pathétique” is, very properly, the finest performance in both cycles, but in slightly different ways. Delman’s “Pathétique”, like his Fifth, reached structural maturity in 1984. The first movement, in Turin, is expounded with truly remarkable clarity, particularly the various stages of the development and Tchaikovsky’s highly original recapitulation, which I have never heard sound so logical. Everything unfolds naturally, but also with great conviction. If the playing itself, though responsive, had not been less ragged, this could have been a definitive rendering. Both middle movements take a few bars to settle down, but are then strongly characterized. The second is not allowed to become lugubrious, is it did in some old-school interpretations, such as Furtwängler’s, and there is no halting the impetus of the third as it hurtles to its manic conclusion. The finale is a noble threnody – no simple tear-jerking.
If all this had been played and recorded as well as it is in the video, with the Moscow Conservatoire Orchestra, I could find myself preferring it in some ways. In Moscow, Delman is freer at times, as though so sure of the symphony’s structural anchors that he can permit himself a little leeway. Nevertheless, there is no denying the massive inner conviction of the Moscow performance, a sense of a shared emotional inheritance that goes to the heart of the music. Furthermore, in the third movement, Delman, maybe for the only time in his life, had an orchestra that could bring off, at a slightly faster tempo, the vicious clarity of his conception. I shall keep the Turin performance to hand for its structural steadiness, but in the end the Moscow version has to be the winner.
On the whole, then, it is the video cycle that best represents Delman’s Tchaikovsky, in spite of the real, and sometimes distinct, merits of the Turin cycle. I can only repeat my wish that this cycle may one day be separated from the distractions of its video content. And also my wish that one day the 1990 Milan RAI cycle may emerge from the vaults for comparison.
A Complete “Otello”
A new chapter on Delman’s art – as far as my awareness of it is concerned – has been opened by the posting on YouTube of a performance of Verdi’s “Otello”. This was given at the Teatro Comunale of Bologna – of which Delman was principal conductor from 1980 to 1983 – in 1981. The cast was Zurab Sotkilava (Otello), Maria Chiara (Desdemona), Vassili Janulako (Iago), Renato Cazzaniga (Cassio), Aronne Ceroni (Roderigo), Ferruccio Mazzoli (Lodovico), Alfonso Marchica (Montano), Tiziano Tomassone (a herald) and Laura Londi (Emilia).
Happily, the recording is not at all bad, suggesting a semi-official origin. It is a little shallow and shrill, but one quickly adjusts. The only significant drawback is that the off-stage chorus in Act 2 is so very off-stage that you can hardly hear it at all. This may be OK in the opera house itself, when you can see things going on, it’s a bit frustrating when there’s only audio to follow. Even so, if this were the only source, sympathetic mastering could produce acceptable results.
And I think it should be issued. Any fears that Delman might try to make a Mussorgskian epic out of Verdi’s late masterpiece should be reassured when he pitches into the opening storm with all the right “slancio”, maintaining plenty of impetus through the following “Fuochi di gioia” chorus. Tempi, in fact, are mostly within the norm. The only exception is the last act, which is stretched out a little in comparison with traditional masters like Serafin, but with such a sense of brooding atmosphere as to be wholly convincing. Normal tempi do not mean a routine response, however. Rhythms are taut, detail is sharply etched and the colours of Verdi’s orchestra are revealed in all their beauty and originality. Each act is firmly and clearly shaped, furthermore. In short, this is Verdi conducting of the highest mastery.
The name in the cast that will have caught most readers’ attention is that of Maria Chiara. In a way, she is almost as much of a mystery as Delman himself. Her three recital records made for Decca in the 1970s were an instant success and have been loved and admired ever since. With the release of “Il Segreto di Susanna”, also in the 1970s, she looked like becoming a regular in Decca opera sets for at least the next decade. Yet a live Aida from La Scala in the 1980s was the completion of her official discography.
Desdemona had been Chiara’s debut role, in Venice in 1965. Another unofficial release has her singing the role, again in Bologna, in 1971 under Molinari-Pradelli. A rapid vocal decline doesn’t seem to be the reason for her disappearance, for here in 1981 her timbre is clear, even and perfectly focussed. She is also fully inside the role and collaborates with Delman in making the opening of act IV as moving as it should be.
Still, magnificent conducting and a splendid Desdemona can’t carry “Otello” on their own. You need an Otello and a Iago, so what about the rest?
Zurab Sotkilava was born in 1937 in the part of the USSR that is now Georgia. He studied in Tbilisi and Milan (La Scala), and taught at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1966 to 1988. He appeared at the Bolshoi as José (in “Carmen”) in 1973 and became a member of the Bolshoi company the following year. Outside Russia and his native Georgia, he was particularly active in Italy, where he is an honorary member of the Bologna Academy. In an interview, he recalls that “My happiest memories are connected with ‘Otello’. Thank God, the Bolshoi staged it. It was put on by the renowned opera producer Boris Pokrovsky and conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov. The part of Otello won me an honorary membership of the Academy of the Arts of Bologna. I am very proud of it. This is the brightest episode in my career”.
Delman and Pokrovsky were the co-founders of the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre, and Sotkilava was active in Moscow during Delman’s own Moscow years. Did Delman particularly want Sotkilava for the role, one wonders?
Sotkilava has a clear voice, well-focussed and fairly flexible. The feeling that there is a certain hardness to it is tempered with the discovery that it does not become any more so as the volume increases or as the top notes are reached. Bigger and better voices have sung the role, but this is by no means an assumption to be dismissed.
A more specialist resource than the internet is evidently needed to unearth any biographical mention of Vassili Janulako, or indeed anything at all except very occasional references in cast lists. Nevertheless, I was actually more impressed by him than by Sotkilava. The voice is firm and focussed and he has the resources to make Iago far more than a mere pantomime devil.
Here, though, I think we should give all credit to Delman’s guiding hand in preparing the singers. The vocal material is adequate, and this evidently gave him enough to work on. The theatrical and psychological truthfulness of all the exchanges between the characters, and in particular those between Otello and Iago as the latter worms his way into the hapless Otello’s soul and unhinges a fine if over-passionate mind, did not come of itself. An unerring awareness of when to dwell on a phrase, when to toss a phrase off, when to sing, when to whisper; all this must have been Delman’s doing, however well prepared the singers were in a general sort of way. A great operatic evening is always far more than the sum of its parts. The mistake is to think that a trio of “great singers” plus a “great” conductor, all flown in at the last minute, can somehow and mysteriously make a great operatic evening.
Of the other singers, the name of Laura Londi should be noted. She had a considerable career as a soprano in the 1960s – Donna Anna under Markevich and Donna Elvira under Giulini, for example. By 1981 she was singing mezzo roles and her final operatic appearance was later that same year, at La Scala, as the Countess in Andrea Chénier. She sounds a little jaded as Emilia but of her, as of all the smaller roles here, it can be said that the singers do what is required of them. If issued officially, this set might not match, voice for voice, the best of the other versions – excepting perhaps Chiara. But it would be second to none in its reflection of Verdi’s genius.
Extracts from another “Otello”
A few extracts from another “Otello” under Delman can also be heard on YouTube. These are to be found on a channel mainly dedicated to the baritone Mario D’Anna, who sings Iago. Glimpses are to be caught of the tenor Luigi Ottolini, who sings Otello, and of Renato Cazzaniga who, as in the other performance, sings Cassio.
Unfortunately, this channel displays some of the less happy aspects of YouTube. No dates or locations are given. Delman, Ottolini and Cazzaniga are lucky to be mentioned, since most postings fail to mention either the conductor or, many cases, the “other” singers. To judge from this example, the recordings originate from amateur cassettes, and I’m not sure they benefit the people, or the person, they are supposed to benefit. The sound on these “Otello” extracts is overloaded and crude. The channel certainly demonstrates that D’Anna got to sing on stage with several distinguished names, such as Caballé (Nottingham in Roberto Devereux), Pavarotti (Alfonso in “La Favorita”) and Kaibavanska (Iago in “Otello”, in Budapest). But some hard facts and dates would have been welcome. From another source I have at least a firm date and place, 6 May 1971 in Naples, for a Geronte in “Manon Lescaut” in Naples with Suliotis and Domingo, with De Fabritiis conducting. Opera Passion also clears up some dates. The “Favorita” mentioned was from Bologna, 1974, under Molinari-Pradelli. D’Anna can also be heard as Des Sirieux in a Fedora with Magda Olivero and Giacomini, under Ferruccio Scaglia (Como 1971). A further Manon Lescaut, again from 1971, had Zeani and Cioni under Luciano Rosada (Bergamo), while a slightly earlier one had Kabaivanska and Domingo under Santi (Arena di Verona, 1970).
A little more can be found on Luigi Ottolini (1925-2002), who got to sing Radames to the Aida of Birgit Nilsson in 1963. Opera buffs will remember that he sang Kyoto to Magda Olivero’s Iris in Amsterdam under Fulvio Vernizzi, again in 1963. He also sang in Verdi’s Requiem under Giulini at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. This was once available on Myto and Ottolini’s contribution was well received by Alan Blyth. He can be heard in the same work under Patané on Brilliant, a 1974/1975 recording that garnered much less approval from our own Göran Forsling. 15 years can take their toll of a heavily used tenor voice, and there is no reason why both critics should not be right. Anything conducted in Italy by Delman cannot be dated earlier than 1974, and I’m afraid I hear the same pressurized bleat of which GF complained.
My guess is that this performance comes from a few years earlier than the Bologna one. Delman seems less style-conscious, more inclined towards Soviet-type realism. The first extract, the “Brindisi”, sounds like an authentic pub-brawl. The remaining extracts are the first and last parts of Act II. The “Credo” is far more melodramatic than Janulako’s in Bologna. The end of the act suggests battle-scarred operatic heavies shouting their wares across the footlights. Under the circumstances Delman can hardly be blamed when he, too, goes at it hammer and tongs. If a better source-tape exists, it might nevertheless be interesting to hear this performance complete. How would Delman’s more bullish approach work over the longer span? Would the voices sound more sympathetic in better sound? And who was the Desdemona (not heard here at all)?
While I was hunting around for information about these performances, I came across an adulatory review of a Verdi Requiem under Delman. His Bologna tenure, moreover, began with “Aida”. He tried hard to persuade Fellini to produce this, but it was not to be. Also in his Bologna years, he gave “Così fan Tutte” and, more enticingly, “The Queen of Spades” and “Khovanshchina”. This latter was the Italian première of the Shostakovich revision.
All this would be very interesting to hear if passable recordings survive. More RAI Milan material must surely surface. Quite recently, RAI’s 5th TV channel showed Delman conducting Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” with Marisa Tanzini as pianist. On 17th and 18th December 1992, Delman gave two performances of Berlioz’s “L’Enfance du Christ” – the last appearances by the RAI Chorus before it was disbanded. Nor was his interest in Italian 20th century music quite to begin and end with Casella’s 2nd symphony – he conducted a performance of Petrassi’s “Noche oscura” in 1991. One must always be circumspect about programmes that were announced while no review of the actual concert emerges, but the 1992-3 season certainly promised Beethoven’s “Cantata on the death of Joseph II”, a Bruckner 9 that might be compared with the slightly later Emilia-Romagna one available on CD, and a Schubert 9.
Memories of Delman are still coming to light, such as this Interview with the harpist Lisetta Rossi.
“I played Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Strauss under Delman with the RAI orchestra of Milan. He was a “moulder” of orchestras, as has been said of Celibidache, Abbado and Muti. His gestures were enigmatic, but his words evoked musical meanings and situations. He was extenuating in his insistence on probing into sound, into pianissimos and into the extreme tensions of the phrases. He insisted in two weeks of rehearsals for a symphony by Mahler. Tireless, to the point of intransigence and stubbornness, he wasn’t reckoned an easy man to deal with. He was small; with his face hidden behind glasses and his great white beard, disorderly like his hair, he was nicknamed the “Puffo” (“Smurf”). He was always obsessively washing his hands with alcohol and avoided touching things and people. Once, though, as he was entering on stage he passed near me and patted me lightly on the nape. The height of affection!”
All roses and flowers, then? This extract from an article on the Orchestra of Emilia Romagna by Harvey Sachs, published in the New York Times of 9 August 1987, suggests as many guns as roses.
“Randall Masselink, the orchestra's principal horn and a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., agrees that … “Mr. Delman is a fine conductor and we've played some exciting concerts with him, but he's terribly negative toward the orchestra. He insists on an unrealistic number of rehearsals - as many as 15 for a single concert - because many of the players are very young. We are told that in two or three years he'll need much less time. But many players quit because they don't like working with him, and others leave when more stable job possibilities come up. So in two or three years, Delman is going to have a different orchestra.''
Mr. Delman sees the situation in a different light. ''More and more musicians are putting unripe produce on the market and pretending that everything is fine,'' he says. ''It's true that too many rehearsals are suicidal. Every orchestra has its level, and you can't expect it to leap to a higher level all at once. Still, a good theatre director wouldn't dream of putting on 'Hamlet' with less than a month of rehearsals. Why should I be expected to prepare the Mahler Third in two days? I am not trying to do anything revolutionary. I am simply trying to teach young artists that they have a responsibility to the music they perform and to the society in which they perform it.”
So we’re back to the refrain that comes up every time Delman’s name is mentioned. A great conductor, a great musician, but a difficult personality whose failure to get jobs – or even occasional engagements – with the world’s great orchestras was as much his own fault as anyone else’s.