The mid-20th-century was a Golden Age for orchestral conductors—a fact underlined by today's dearth of larger-than-life maestros.

The mid-20th-century was a Golden Age for orchestral conductors—a fact underlined by today's dearth of larger-than-life maestros. As a surpassing follow-up to its seven-CD boxed-set adjunct to the 1996 IMG Artists film The Art of Conducting, EMI Classics has joined with IMG to produce 60 double-disc titles surveying the era's most inspiring podium artists. The series draws on the archives of EMI, RCA, Sony, and Universal's Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, and Philips labels, as well as from Czech indie Supraphon and, most important, previously unreleased live radio tapes; remarkably, much of the material is new to CD. The first round of 15 sets features bona-fide legends (Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, Sir John Barbirolli), as well as names known only to connoisseurs (Ataulfo Argenta, Nicolai Golovanov). Four of the most compelling titles showcase the divergent talents of Fritz Busch (1890-1951), Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), André Cluytens (1905-67), and Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969). Steeped in the Central European way, Busch excels with Brahms and Mozart; the rare postwar live recordings with the Danish Radio Symphony sound surprisingly good. With his flair for color, the Belgian Cluytens was an expert conductor of Debussy but also of much else, as we find here in a Boris Godunov excerpt. A key value to this series is the chance to compare different interpretations of the same repertoire, such as with Koussevitzky's vivid, almost-wild version of Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead and Ansermet's more-painterly rendition. While the Ansermet set provides wonderful listening from start (Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale) to finish (a Chabrier encore), the Koussevitzky album is perhaps the most revelatory title so far; his powerful takes on symphonies by Sibelius and Roy Harris remind us why he was one of his era's most influential musicians. Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Toscanini will be covered in future "Great Conductors" installments.—BB

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