Anyone who knows my personal tastes in conductors knows that my favorites are a bit of an obscure lot. I honestly don’t consider myself a contrarian by nature, nor do I think there’s any sort of cachet in appreciating some hidden gems. I love the big dogs, too. Early on in my classical music life, I was drawn in by Leonard Bernstein, then I hated him because I thought he deviated from the score too much, and now I love him again because he reaches musical and emotional peaks no one else has been able to. I love Gustavo Dudamel’s enthusiasm and charisma if not his music-making (he has PLENTY of time to get there, though). But there are some really wonderful musicians who spent their entire careers in the shadows of more famous contemporaries (as my boy Otmar Suitner did with Karajan), and their legacies have become obscured.
As the tens of people who have read this blog in the last year can attest, a name that has creeped up with regularity is Sir Alexander Gibson. Gibson was Scottish through and through, serving as conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra for almost 30 years, and founding Scottish Opera. Unfortunately, that meant dwelling in the shadows of some of the finest conductors in the world who plied their trade at one time or another in Britain (among them Monteux, Kertesz, Abbado, Haitink, Solti, Tennstedt, Klemperer, and Barbirolli). Consequently, Gibson has become a bit of an afterthought.
He was a champion of Sibelius in much the same way that Mitropoulos was a champion of Mahler; Gibson’s recording of Sibelius’ 3rd and 7th symphonies on the Saga label (which you can apparently still find on vinyl for a cool $98) came at a time when Sibelius’ reputation was at the bottom of a crater. Gibson would go on to record a complete cycle of the symphonies and the tone poems with his SNO, but even these recordings have been overshadowed by Barbirolli’s much heralded set (and to a lesser extent, Anthony Collins’ set with the London Symphony). Barbirolli’s cycle is worthy of the praise it garners, no doubt, but it pales in a head-to-head comparison with Gibson’s (did I just come up with an idea for another Showdown?).
Sibelius’ orchestral works demand an iciness and an element of harshness that is difficult to attain. Some of the colors are incredibly raw and unrefined, and too often they receive the gloss that a world-class performer can provide. One of the great beauties of Gibson’s Sibelius is that he coaxes the Scottish National Orchestra into playing with the kind of sharp-edged sound that a culture of freeballing kilt-wearers should have, yet there is still a radiant warmth when it counts (like the end of the 2nd Symphony, for example). The brass playing in particular is crazy good…Gibson obviously did not heed Strauss’ advice about encouraging looks in their direction. The range of expression that Gibson and the SNO achieve is unparralleled in this repertoire.
Sibelius – Symphony no. 5, Finale
Gibson was also a fine interpreter of the music of Carl Nielsen, another composer with a rough-around-the-edges sensibility ideally suited to Gibson’s aesthetic. Likewise, his interpretations of British music were highly regarded, including a wonderful Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 5.
But the other composer who Gibson really shines in is Berlioz (he conducted the first uncut performance of Les Troyens with the Scottish Opera), though the recorded legacy is limited. But it is impressive: probably the greatest recording of La mort de Cleopatre out there (with the incomparable Janet Baker) and a disc of overtures that features some amazing interpretations.
Berlioz – Le Corsaire Overture
The relationship between conductor and orchestra is such a key for memorable performances. When we think of our greatest conductors, there is often an orchestra that brought out their greatest attributes. Furtwangler was great regardless, but he was really great with his Berlin Philharmonic. Solti recorded with basically every great orchestra in the world, but it is his Chicago recordings that really stand out as a group. Long-term partnerships like Ormandy/Philadelphia, Szell/Cleveland, Karajan/Berlin, and even Bernstein/New York have impressive recorded traditions.
In my opinion, Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra belong in that same class. Like the more famous pairings mentioned above, theirs was an artistic match that we see less and less of these days. It is music-making of the most aggressive kind, and that Sodom-and-Gomorrah approach is rewarding in a way that few others can match.