Willem van Otterloo and the Residentie Orkest

[…] Willem van Otterloo was by no means a dictatorial conductor, nor was he a glamour-seeker or showman. The music itself had the highest priority. His thorough knowledge of each and every score was legendary, and he conducted nearly all the larger works from memory. But above all he was a true orchestral trainer. He worked tirelessly on intonation (he could sing entire chords flawlessly), rhythmic precision and consistency in sound and timbre. He preferred taut, forward-moving tempos; he demanded orchestral discipline and total control; he had the uncanny ability to maintain a coherent musical line and never lost sight of the structure and form. In these respects Van Otterloo was a conductor perfectly suited to the recording studio.

The Residentie Orkest’s concerts in The Hague were given in the Palace of Arts and Sciences (Gebouw van Kunsten en Wetenschappen), an ancient, draughty cavern. Nevertheless the hall welcomed a 2000-strong audience – two, three, even four times a week – for subscription concerts, youth programmes and lunch concerts. Like most multifunctional halls (it was also suitable for opera and the ‘Snip & Snap’ revue) it was acoustically mediocre, with the curious characteristic that while the sound throughout most of the hall was muffled and bland, on the furthest balconies it was as good as sitting on the stage itself. The venue was agreeable enough for the musicians but wholly unsatisfactory for making recordings for radio broadcast, and therefore little recorded documentation of live performances remains from the 1950’s. Historical radio broadcasts of the Residentie Orkest, such as present-day Concertgebouw Orchestra CD releases, are almost non-existent. In 1964, shortly after the Palace of Arts and Sciences was closed for good, it burnt to the ground, which in more ways than one left a nasty smell in the air.

Van Otterloo’s composers of choice in the 1950’s were Haydn, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, Bartók and Stravinsky. But in his subscription concerts he also programmed the Fünf Orchesterstücke by Schoenberg, the Orchestral Variations by Anton Webern, Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 6 and a wide variety of Dutch composers. It was Van Otterloo’s comportment, however, that would be his undoing in the Netherlands. While always correct, he could be sarcastic and oafish in front of an orchestra. This unfortunate mannerism probably played a role in the choice of a successor to Eduard van Beinum at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961. Van Otterloo – undeniably the Netherlands’ best conductor at that time – was justifiably miffed at having been passed over in favour of Bernard Haitink and subsequently lost interest, many say, in the Netherlands. He sought gainful employment abroad: Dusseldorf, Tokyo and Melbourne, and in the end was appointed chief conductor in Sydney.

In July 1978 he recorded Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. The day after the final recording session Van Otterloo was killed in an automobile accident in Melbourne. He was 70 years old.


CD 6: Mahler

An LP of a Mahler symphony was still something of a rarity in the Netherlands until Van Beinum broke the ice with his 1952 recording of the Symphony No. 4 (Concertgebouw Orchestra, soloist Margaret Richie) for Decca.
The Symphony No. 4 under Van Otterloo (1956) was thus the second studio recording of a Mahler symphony, but the Philips recording engineers were unable to coax the Concertgebouw’s expansive acoustics onto the tape. The result sounds rather matt, a fault one finds on the original masters as well as the LP itself.
Nevertheless this performance exhibits all the standard Van Otterloo trademarks: faithfulness to the score, lyrical continuity and emotional restraint. Not only was Mahler still far from being standard concert repertoire, Van Otterloo himself was not yet much of a Mahler buff. Of the four Mahler symphonies he conducted in the 1950’s, the Symphony No. 1 heads the list with 13 performances, followed by No. 4 with just seven renderings.
This CD harbours another Mahler premiere: the American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall (born in 1927) recorded the final movement twice. One version, which eventually ended up on LP, where she is recorded from such close proximity that the listener feels as though she is suddenly standing next to him, and an unreleased second version, with a more natural balance. It is this version that is presented here for the first time.

CD 13: Tchaikovsky

Van Otterloo’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 with the Residentie Orkest is the very first Philips classical LP made with a Dutch orchestra and conductor. With twenty performances, the Symphony No. 4 was Van Otterloo’s favourite Tchaikovsky symphony, as this performance clearly demonstrates. This interpretation combines Van Otterloo’s characteristic reserve, self-control and common sense with uncharacteristic passion and sensibility. The recording itself is technically so sensitive that the microphones picked up every scuffed foot, every brush against a music stand, every page turn. The information on the original archive form is somewhat of a mystery: the date of the release is two months prior to the recording session! It most probably refers to a recording made by Decca in 1950 that, when Decca stopped producing classical records, was sold to the newly established Philips Phonographic Industry. Whatever the explanation, it offers undeniable proof of the performance level achieved by the Residentie Orkest within just one year under Van Otterloo.
The original tape had been reduced to a bowl of spaghetti and was utterly unusable. But in the same box, unopened for more than fifty years, lay two partial copies – with radically different sound qualities – that have here been reconstructed into a single performance.

(original Dutch text: Otto Ketting)