Liiive, At Carnegie Hall!
Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, 1938
Gift of Lawrence Marx / Carnegie Hall Archives
Vladimir Horowitz Hadn’t played a concert in almost 12 years when he decided to test the waters. To get the feeling of being on stage again, the legendary pianist arranged to rehearse in Carnegie Hall, the scene of great New York triumphs from his 1928 debut to his 25th anniversary recital in 1953 when he last performed in public. At his suggestion, Columbia Masterworks recorded some of the sessions. After one run-through, Horowitz looked out from the stage to the late Julius Bloom, then Carnegie Hall’s director, and said “Not so bad today!” Bloom retorted, “Not so bad? You should have had an audience!”
The earliest surviving live recordings from Carnegie Hall concerts stem from broadcasts, beginning with a fragment of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem van Hoogstraten on Dec. 17, 1923, and excerpts from Willem Mengelberg leading the ensemble in Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration on April 2, 1924. By the time electrical recording had been firmly established, RCA Victor set out to record the orchestra live in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its then studio-shy music director Arturo Toscanini. Unfortunately, the Maestro rejected both recordings, although Carnegie Hall broadcasts eventually would provide the source material for future Toscanini releases with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
However, the first fairly complete Carnegie Hall event to be commercially released on a major label was Benny Goodman’s groundbreaking concert of Jan. 16, 1938. At first Goodman hesitated: Would jazz go over in New York’s most hallowed classical venue? Yet he worked hard to create a strong and well-organized program that not only sold out, but also paved the way for future Carnegie Hall jazz events. Pioneering engineer Albert Marx had the foresight to preserve the concert and sent microphone feeds over a broadcast telephone line to various recording machines. Goodman’s copies remained stored away until his sister-in-law stumbled upon them in 1950. The brand-new LP medium made it possible to release the concert more or less in its entirety. John Hammond’s 1938-1939 “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts, Duke Ellington’s annual 1940s appearances, the September 1947 Dizzy Gillespie Big Band show with special guest Charlie Parker, and the 1957 benefit featuring Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane also yielded important archival recordings that would gain commercial release.
Many popular singers and entertainers equally benefited from albums bearing the “Live at Carnegie Hall” imprimatur. In the aftermath of The Weavers’ McCarthy-era blacklisting, original members Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman reunited on Christmas Eve 1955 to a sold out and wildly enthusiastic house. Producer Don Friedman’s Nov. 10, 1956 show tied in to Billie Holiday’s recently released “autobiography” Lady Sings the Blues, which found the singer in precarious health yet in great voice. Holiday died in 1959, the same year that Harry Belafonte made his Hall debut as a headliner in a meticulously produced show and recording that still allowed for carefree audience interplay and participation. No one would have suspected that Judy Garland, sidelined by ailments and personal demons, would shortly work her way back to health and the height of her career in a 1960-1961 concert tour, culminating in a two-hour tour de force at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961.
The recording vividly showcases not only Garland’s newfound power and authority, but also the celebrity-packed audience’s genuine enthusiasm and love. One wonders if this album’s mega-success started a trend, with Tony Bennett’s two-LP 1962 Carnegie Hall release and a less heralded yet equally riveting disc from the up-and-coming Nina Simone just around the corner, along with the legendary encounter between Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews that was both recorded and televised. Certainly it had an enormous impact on Rufus Wainwright, who galvanized the audience in Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage in 2006 with his note-for-note re-creation of Garland’s concert.
Judy Garland greeting the audience at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961.
Yet Carnegie Hall plays host to more than just music, from an extensive lecture series presented by the Urania Astronomical Society of Berlin and a 1901 talk by the young Winston Churchill, to its role as a latter-day showcase for comedians and satirists. On Feb. 4, 1961, the controversial comedian and counterculture icon Lenny Bruce had the stage all to himself for a midnight concert. Braving two feet of snow, a blizzard, and a driving ban, nearly 3,000 people showed up, inspiring Bruce to the peak of his verbal and creative prowess (“You know, working Carnegie Hall, I dig it. I had a lot of fantasies with it … Maybe they don’t know we’re here!” he crows on the recording). Following Bruce’s death in 1966, United Artists issued an LP of excerpts, and, later, the entire concert.
By the 1950s, specially produced live recordings from Carnegie Hall by classical artists began to grace the catalog in earnest, with at least three featuring operatic icons. To benefit the Symphony of the Air, the legendary Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad came out of retirement on March 20, 1955, performing the Wesendonck Lieder and signature excerpts from the Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde. A limited edition recording came out four years after Flagstad’s death. RCA Victor culled a treasurable LP’s worth of material from tenor Beniamino Gigli’s three April 1955 farewell Carnegie Hall recitals. By contrast, tenor Jussi Björling was in prime voice for his Sept. 24, 1955 concert (listen to the effortless coloratura in Mozart’s “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni), and its first complete appearance on CD in 2011 was long overdue. So was American soprano Leontyne Price’s magnificent and eclectic Feb. 28, 1965 Carnegie Hall recital debut, rediscovered and mastered for release for the first time in 2002.
To celebrate the Hall’s 125th anniversary, the Great Moments at Carnegie Hall 43-CD box set chronicles eight decades of unforgettable performances at the world’s most famous concert hall.
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“Comebacks” occupy the grey area between debuts and farewells, and no “comeback” generated so much excitement and anticipation as on May 9, 1965, when Vladimir Horowitz returned to the stage with Columbia’s engineers in tow. The award-winning recording sold fabulously, although there was some critical controversy over post-production editing. Although Horowitz left in some wrong notes—such as the exposed clinker at the start of his opening selection, the Bach/Busoni Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue—he corrected other mistakes. The complete unedited concert eventually saw the light of day in 2003. Ten years later, Sony BMG issued a 42-disc box set devoted to live and unedited Horowitz Carnegie Hall concerts, including recitals and concerto collaborations, plus the 1976 “Concert of the Century” benefit to commemorate the Hall’s 85th anniversary that brought the pianist together with Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Leonard Bernstein, Lyndon Woodside, the Oratorio Society, and the New York Philharmonic.
Horowitz likened recordings to photographs, as “remembrances of things past.” After all, a picture postcard of a mountain range might remind you of its beauty, yet it’s not the same as seeing it in person. All the more remarkable, then, how such a wide range of recordings still manages to capture the Carnegie Hall experience, to preserve the singular sense of occasion, and to convey the intangible yet palpable communication between artist and audience that transcends the performance itself.
This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available at carnegiehall.org/125th_Anniversary_Magazine.