My Favorite CSO: Tom Bachtell

Tom Bachtell self-portrait

Tom Bachtell

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s commercial recording legacy began on May 1, 1916, when second music director Frederick Stock led the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Columbia Graphophone Company. The Orchestra has since amassed an extraordinary, award-winning discography on a number of labels — including Angel, CBS, Deutsche Grammophon, Erato, London/Decca, RCA, Sony, Teldec, Victor and others — continuing with releases on the in-house label CSO Resound under tenth music director Riccardo Muti. For My Favorite CSO, we asked members of the Chicago Symphony family for their favorite recordings (and a few honorable mentions) from the Orchestra’s discography.

Trained as a pianist at the Cleveland Institute of Music and with a liberal arts degree from Case Western Reserve University, Tom Bachtell is self-taught as an artist. His distinctive drawings and caricatures appear in “The Talk of the Town” and other sections of The New Yorker, where he has been a contributor for more than 25 years. Bachtell’s work also appears in many national and international publications, from the New York Review of Books to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, London’s Evening Standard, and l’Uomo Vogue. He has exhibited in New York at the offices of The New Yorker; invitational exhibitions “Drawing the Candidates” at The New York Times; and “Politics ’08” at the Society of Illustrators. In Chicago, Bachtell has exhibited at the Water Tower Gallery, Arts Club of Chicago, Cliff Dwellers and Adventureland Gallery, and he will exhibit at the Union League Club of Chicago in the fall of 2022. He was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2016.

"The recordings I love and remember — whether of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or any other great orchestra or band or musician — are guideposts to my musical experience. They may represent a moment when I first sat up and took notice of something significant in a musician’s performance or something in the recorded sound, or they may be tokens of particular moments in my life. To experience recordings again, to listen again, is to be reminded of those moments and also is an opportunity to consider anew my musical development.

“There are so many wonderful recordings of the CSO to consider, and here are just a few of my favorites.”

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1942 for RCA Victor
Frederick Stock conductor
Artur Schnabel piano
"This recording reminds me of two things: 1) the distant, dreamy quality of the 78s that I listened to as a child from my parents’ record collection and 2) my ever-growing appreciation of Artur Schnabel and the work of second music director Frederick Stock and the CSO musicians from 1942. I don’t know exactly how much time I spent as a child placing records on the family turntable and plopping down on the floor to listen — my father had installed the turntable and speaker in separate furniture cabinets and wired them himself — but it must have been significant. I recall sitting cross-legged on my family’s newly carpeted living room floor, taking in the smell of the metallic, tweedy fabric that covered the speaker, and the soft, rhythmic hiss of the 78s. Schnabel was the epitome of a wonderful musician from that period of recorded sound — and his idiosyncratic playing lodged in my ear. Listening was not yet a critical experience for me; I was soaking up sounds I’d never heard before. Interestingly, Schnabel’s recordings flummoxed me when I later studied piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Although teachers held him up as a great musical example, Schnabel doesn’t really employ the evenness of sound and rhythm they extolled. He’s beyond that. He plays with such controlled intent that he uses rhythm and dynamics and a keyboard approach in rhetorical ways that I couldn’t quite grasp as a student. In this recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, he expressively grabs and emphasizes handfuls of notes — say, to announce the beginning of a scale or to outline the quirky personality of a particular figure — subtly bending rhythms and speeding up or slowing down, without ever giving the sense of lurching around the keyboard. His playing is expressive and alive. Stock and the CSO respond in kind, with a pliant, complementary sound. The recording is proof that the Orchestra was, even then, an exceedingly sophisticated instrument."

PROKOFIEV Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60 and STRAVINSKY The Song of the Nightingale
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1957 and 1956 for RCA
Fritz Reiner conductor
"This Living Stereo RCA recording was a childhood favorite — wonderful 1950s record cover and all. It embodied the technological prowess of the new stereophonic high-fidelity long-playing records and featured a powerful, confident CSO under the baton of Fritz Reiner. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also hearing a young Adolph “Bud” Herseth play the trumpet on these two showcases, the Lieutenant Kijé Suite and The Song of the Nightingale. I always listened to both sides of this album, and still tend to think of the two pieces together. Thus I became aware of Stravinsky and Prokofiev as prominent musical figures — Stravinsky was then very much alive and Prokofiev had only recently died. This recording celebrates orchestration — all the various instruments of the orchestra parade gloriously through a sonic landscape and, thanks to stereophonic sound, land in different places in the mind’s inner ear. It was and remains a wonderful listening experience."

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Recorded in Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, in 1974 for London
Sir Georg Solti conductor
1974 Grammy Award for Album of the Year–Classical
"I moved to Chicago during the era of Sir Georg Solti and became a practicing illustrator and caricaturist. I first attended CSO concerts at that time. One of my first published caricatures was a portrait of Solti for Chicago magazine in 1987. Solti had a heroic stature in the city, along with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bears. No list of favorite CSO recordings would be complete without one of his. My partner Andrew Patner frequently told the story of Sir Georg stepping in to lead a great but unnamed orchestra in Beethoven. At the first rehearsal, he stopped the musicians after a bar or two. ’No more Mickey Mouse!’ he charged, and restarted them. That was Solti in a nutshell. He knew exactly what he wanted and got it. He and the CSO unfailingly delivered hard-driving, brilliant performances, and this recording of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony exemplifies that."

STRAVINSKY Symphony in Three Movements, Four Etudes and Pulcinella
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 2009 for CSO Resound
Pierre Boulez conductor
Roxana Constantinescu mezzo-soprano
Nicholas Phan tenor
Kyle Ketelsen bass-baritone
"This recording of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella is one of a slew of brilliant recordings from the 1990s and early 2000s that document the CSO’s post-Solti development. Orchestra Hall’s acoustic enhancement in 1997, at least to my ears, created a more prominent and resonant string section, and that is in evidence here. Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink finessed many wonderful performances of music that pushed the bounds of the traditional Germanic canon — Mahler, yes, but also Stravinsky and Ravel and Bartók and Schoenberg and Boulez and Berg and Webern and Lutosławski. The Orchestra exudes a sort of quiet, confident, transparent sound in this neoclassical work. The singers — Nicholas Phan, Roxana Constantinescu and Kyle Ketelsen — lend an additional archaic timbre. The recording transports me to a time when I began attending and listening in earnest to CSO concerts. It also reminds me of my fascination with Boulez’s concise and elegant conducting technique — I never tired of watching his hands, palms ever-so-slightly cupped with fingers together, slicing through the air and guiding both orchestra and audience through complicated 20th-century music."

MAHLER Symphony No. 5
Recorded in Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany in 1997 for Teldec
Daniel Barenboim conductor
"Daniel Barenboim’s tenure at the CSO was at times a sort of dialectic — with Mahler, for example, his opinion and comfort and understanding of the music seemed to take place and evolve before the public, and he took the CSO and its audiences into unaccustomed directions. It was a thrilling ride for some, if not for everyone. This recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, made shortly after Barenboim first conducted the work with the CSO, recalls that time for me, as Barenboim lets the Orchestra fly — particularly in the first movement — with a roiling neurotic energy. The Adagietto is, by contrast, suspended in grace, and almost seems to be in a different piece. The performance as a whole is not entirely cohesive and doesn’t march inexorably to a brass-driven conclusion as audiences had come to expect from the Orchestra, but it shows the restless intelligence of the conductor and the extraordinary talent of the CSO musicians at work."

VERDI Otello
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 2011 for CSO Resound
Riccardo Muti conductor
Krassimira Stoyanova soprano
Barbara Di Castri mezzo-soprano
Aleksandrs Antonenko, Juan Francisco Gatell and Michael Spyres tenors
Carlo Guelfi baritone
Eric Owens bass-baritone
Paolo Battaglia and David Govertsen basses
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Duain Wolfe director
Chicago Children’s Choir
Josephine Lee director
"I attended the April 7, 2011, performance of Verdi’s Otello with Riccardo Muti conducting. From the first few nanoseconds of the storm scene to every moment throughout, one could only think, ’Now I get it. This is what all the fuss is about.’ Maestro Muti is at one with this music — its highly charged drama, its pacing, its glorious sound, its heart — in a way I’ve never experienced with anyone else. To have the CSO, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Muti’s preferred soloists at his disposal makes for a singular musical event. This award-winning CSO Resound recording captures that occasion. Nothing more need be said."

A few honorable mentions:

  • BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra with Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon (1992)
  • BARTÓK The Miraculous Mandarin with Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon (1994)
  • BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastoral) with Sir Georg Solti for London (1988)
  • BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été with Fritz Reiner and Leontyne Price for RCA (1963)
  • BOULEZ Notations for Orchestra I-IV with Daniel Barenboim for EuroArts (2001)
  • BOULEZ Notations for Orchestra VII with Daniel Barenboim for Teldec (2000)
  • BRAHMS Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 with Daniel Barenboim for Erato (1993)
  • BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B‑flat Major, Op. 83 with Fritz Reiner and Van Cliburn for RCA (1961)
  • BRAHMS Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 with Fritz Reiner and Jascha Heifetz for RCA (1955)
  • DEL TREDICI Final Alice with Sir Georg Solti and Barbara Hendricks for London (1979–80)
  • ELGAR Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma) with Sir Georg Solti for London (1974)
  • IVES The Unanswered Question (original and revised version) with Michael Tilson Thomas and Adolph Herseth for CBS (1986)
  • LISZT Totentanz with Fritz Reiner and Byron Janis for RCA (1959)
  • LUTOSŁAWSKI Concerto for Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim for Erato (1992)
  • MAHLER Symphony No. 1 in D Major with Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon (1998)
  • MAHLER Symphony No. 6 in A Minor with Bernard Haitink for CSO Resound (2007)
  • RACHMANINOV Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with Fritz Reiner and Artur Rubinstein for RCA (1956)
  • RAVEL Daphnis and Chloe with Bernard Haitink for CSO Resound (2007)
  • RAVEL La valse with Jean Martinon for RCA (1967)
  • SCHOENBERG Pelleas and Melisande with Pierre Boulez for Erato (1991)
  • SCHOENBERG Transfigured Night with Daniel Barenboim for Teldec (1994)
  • SCHUMANN The Four Symphonies with Daniel Barenboim for Deutsche Grammophon (1975–77)
  • SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 with Daniel Barenboim and Maxim Vengerov for Teldec (1996)
  • STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms with Sir Georg Solti for London (1997)
  • TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 with Fritz Reiner and Jascha Heifetz for RCA (1957)
  • VERDI Messa da Requiem with Riccardo Muti for CSO Resound (2009)
  • WAGNER Overture to Tannhäuser with Sir Georg Solti for London (1977)
  • WALTON/Kreines Crown Imperial with Jay Friedman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass for CSO Resound (2010)