06_Bruce_01_Boulez_20th.jpgPierre Boulez turns 90 this year and DG honors the milestone in two limited edition sets, one of which is Pierre Boulez – 20th Century (DG 4794282, 44 CDs). Packaged in the familiar cube, the set contains every recording that Boulez made with DG of music composed during the last century. There are 13 composers represented, some of them familiar and some that are not exactly household names.

Born in Loire, France, Boulez early showed an aptitude for music and mathematics. He studied mathematics in Loire but music led him to the Paris Conservatoire and Olivier Messiaen whose analysis classes introduced him to the 12-tone technique of composition. Today he is regarded by his peers as composer, conductor, teacher and essayist, in that order. Simon Rattle stated that “There is a whole generation of us who were completely educated by Boulez.” As a composer, his output remains strange to the ears of many music lovers but Boulez the teacher states that to prepare a performance, an analysis of the score must be the first step. “True spontaneity comes only after analysis.” This works very well for much of the music by 20th-century composers, his performances being regarded as definitive and his recordings lauded far and wide. I recall having my high expectations exceeded attendinf a concert on May 22, 1969 in the Royal Festival Hall’s 20th Century Concerts with Boulez conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with soloist Isaac Stern. The depth of their Berg Violin Concerto still lingers in my ears.

The discs are sorted by composer starting with Bartók through to Webern on disc 44. Bartók is well represented on eight discs with Four Orchestral Pieces, Op.12; the Concerto for Orchestra; the Dance Suite Op.10; the Hungarian Sketches; Divertimento; The Miraculous Mandarin; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the Cantata Profana all played by The Chicago Symphony… and there’s more including The Wooden Prince; the three piano concertos (Chicago/Zimerman, Berlin/Andsnes, LSO/Grimaud) and finally Bluebeard’s Castle with Jessye Norman from Chicago. Bought singly a few years ago these eight CDs alone would have cost about the same as this 44-CD box. 

Berg has three works here: The Chamber Concerto, Lulu Suite and, on three CDs, a complete Lulu with Teresa Stratas, Yvonne Minton, et.al. and the orchestra of the Paris Opera. Harrison Birtwistle has three CDs; Boulez the composer has four including Le Marteau sans Maître and Debussy has three all with the Cleveland Orchestra including a longtime favourite, the Première rapsodie for clarinet. Ligeti, who enjoyed a burst of interest after the film 2001 where his music was heard, has two discs as does Messiaen. Ravel has five and Schoenberg has four including Pelleas und Melisande, Pierrot Lunaire and a complete Moses und Aron. Stravinsky’s five discs include all the big ballets and other works with the Cleveland and Chicago orchestras. A disc each for Szymanowski and Varèse and three for Webern conclude this most interesting and important set. One can only muse… what if Boulez had not been interested in mathematics but architecture? Think about it.

06_Bruce_02_Boulez_DVD.jpgEuroArts has issued a Blu-Ray disc of different Boulez performances of three pieces included in the above compendium. In a concert on May 1, 2003 in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Boulez conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in their yearly special concert celebrating the orchestra’s founding in May 1882. Fittingly, Maria João Pires is the soloist in the Mozart Piano Concerto No.20 that contrasts nicely with the 20th-century works: Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Fêtes from Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes (EuroArts 2053074). The very first image that strikes the viewer, long before the music starts is the monastery itself and its Gothic Portuguese architecture that “integrates architectural elements of the late Gothic and Renaissance, with associated royal symbolism, Christological and naturalist.” Construction began in 1501 or 1502 and was well-funded by trade with the East. As time passed and construction continued it became a pantheon to the monarchy with no expense spared. It is almost beyond belief and understandably Lisbon’s prime tourist attraction.

The orchestra does not employ the full complement of players in the concerto but a reduced number to balance correctly for the Mozart. Pires is always so poetic in this repertoire, a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to hear. As for the other three works, the orchestra knows them and Boulez knows them even better but they come off sounding fresh and eminently correct. The video and audio are exceptional although recording the music must have been a challenge because of the long decay time that can cause some problems but hearing it a low level contributes to the sense of occasion and location. There is a bonus of a 19-minute tourists’ tour of Lisbon and environs including several examples of fado and some historical information. The ridiculously illegible cover design notwithstanding, this disc is recommended don’t judge the contents by the cover! 

01_Renata_Tebaldi.jpgThe treasured recordings of Renata Tebaldi that grace the collections of countless music lovers around the globe have been re-issued, all of them, in an omnibus edition in the now familiar cube issued by Decca (4781535, 66 CDs). These are not reissues from doubtful sources but from the archives of Decca itself, ensuring the very best sound of the original recordings.

53 of the CDs contain 27 complete operas: Mefistofele, La Wally, Adriana Lecouvreur, Andrea Chénier, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Gioconda, La Bohème (1951 & 1959), La Fanciulla del West, Madama Butterfly (1951 & 1958), Manon Lescaut, Tosca (1951 & 1959), Turandot, Il Trittico, Aida (1952 & 1959), Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, La Forza del Destino, Otello (1954 & 1961) La Traviata and Il Trovatore. Also the Verdi Requiem (1951).

Included in the casts are Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Björling, Mario del Monaco, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, George London, Luciano Pavarotti, Caesare Siepi, Marilyn Horne, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Regina Resnik… and the list goes on. Conductors include Karajan, Solti, Bonynge, Serafin and many others.

Also included are albums of Songs, Folk Songs, Opera Arias, Opera Duets, a Christmas album and Rarities.

Tebaldi’s recording career began in 1951 and ended with her retirement in 1973. Some operas were recorded twice giving us the opportunity to do the thing collectors do and compare the first Tebaldi to Tebaldi seven years on. Or just to enjoy hearing Tebaldi again and again. Complete casts and recording data are included but no librettos and translations.

To make it possible to easily locate a particular recording I suggest that the first thing to do is clearly copy the disc number, 1 through 66, on the top right-hand corner of the paper sleeve.

02_Furtwangler_Lucerne.jpgWilhelm Furtwängler’s final performance of the Beethoven Ninth was in Lucerne on August 22, 1954 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Chorus and soloists Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Elsa Cavelti, Ernst Haefliger and Otto Edelmann. Based on the original analogue tapes from the broadcasting archives, audite has produced an exemplary re-mastering (SACD 92.641). The rather dry acoustic exposes a lot more than the relatively murky 1951 Bayreuth Festival recording from EMI. The Philharmoniafrom London is heard here in its glory days, the tempos are familiar to Furtwängler’s devotees and absolutely everything fits together to perfection. From the first bars the superior sound of this new disc unzips all the nuances and dovetailing of instrumental colour. Furtwängler’s elemental vision of the third movement is singular. The forces are so inspired and well-rehearsed that the staggering difficulty of the fourth movement finale is achieved without any sense of effort; not at all easy in a live performance. This is consistent with and a perfect document of Furtwängler’svision of the Ninth and is an essential addition to an appropriate collection. Incidentally, the Tahra SACD issued in 2008 sounds to have been based on a later generation copy.

03_Oistrakh.jpgAnother new SACD re-mastering from Praga of legendary performances features David Oistrakh playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the Triple Concerto both licensed from EMI (PRD/DSD 350082 SACD hybrid). Neither recording is the first time Oistrakh was showcased in this repertoire but this was the first time he had recorded them in stereo. The soloists in the 1958 Triple were not strangers, being members of the David Oistrakh Trio, pianist Lev Oborin and cellist Stanislav Knushevitzky accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra under EMI’s house conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent.The Violin Concerto, also from 1958, was recorded in Paris with the ORF Orchestra directed by André Cluytens. David Oistrakh’s various recordings of Beethoven and just about anything else remain landmarks and their value undiminished. The sound on this new production is cleaner, more spacious and detailed than the original stereo discs.

04_Argerich_Abbado.jpgMartha Argerich & Claudio Abbado – Complete Concerto Recordings (DG 4794155): The first collaboration between Abbado and Argerichto be recorded by DG was in 1967 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestraplaying the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto and the Ravel G Major. The last concerto in this inexpensive little 5CD box documents their last concert in March 2013 at the Lucerne Easter Festival playing the Mozart Piano Concertos No.20, K466 and No. 25, K503. In the intervening years DG recorded the Chopin Concerto No.1, the Liszt First Concerto and the Ravel G Major made during Abbado’s tenure with the London Symphony; the Tchaikovsky First with the Berliner and the Beethoven Second and Third Concertos with the Mahler Orchestra. In every case the performances are perfectly judged and persuasive, displaying both sensitivity and authority that serve the composers well.

05_Argerich_Chopin.jpgThe welcome series of the young Martha Argerich on Doremi has arrived at Volume Four (DHR-8036) containing items from the 1965 Seventh International Chopin Competition in Warsaw of which Argerich was the First Prize winner. By 1965 Argerich had already won the first prize at two other international competitions in Geneva and Bolzano. And she was already signed to a recording contract with DGG. These selections of award-clinching performances as recorded live from the Chopin Competition, presented in flawless sound, are valuable documents of the rising star. Works include the Third Sonata, a selection of Nocturnes, Etudes, Preludes, the Polonaise Op.53 and more. A bonus track is a very rare recording from Buenos Aires of the 14-year-old “lioness at the piano” playing the Etude, Op.10, No.1. 

unnamed.jpgIn the New Releases section of The WholeNote last October I enthusiastically reviewed Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrouchka performed by an orchestra new to me, Les Siècles directed by François-Xavier Roth. The initial interest was the score of Le Sacre, a scholarly and painstaking reconstruction of Stravinsky’s original, played on period instruments. It proved to be a lot more than simply that. Since then I now have all seven of their recordings made since 2009 and each disc is exemplary and first in its class. I am pleased to briefly draw them to your attention.

Les Siècles, founded in 2003 by their conductor François-Xavier Roth, is an orchestra of outstanding younger musicians drawn from France’s best ensembles. They have full access to original instruments from the Baroque period forward and employ the instruments in use at the time of each composition… not copies but the instruments themselves. The effect on the different overall timbre is a revelation, not weakening the impact but increasing and refining as never before. Except for the Berlioz, the liner notes with each disc list the name of every player together with their instrument and its provenance. All their recorded performances, regardless of the many venues, enjoy the same translucent 3D sound thanks to Jiri Heger, a professional violist and composer, who produces, balances, mixes and edits the recordings.

A review of Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910) and the Fokine ballet Le Orientales (1910) (ASM 06) appeared in the Classical and Beyond section of the November issue, easily found at thewholehote.com. Here are the other five North American releases on their own label, Les Siècles Live:

07 Bruce 01 BerliozBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (ASM 02). With all of the competition it is impressive how many unsuspected shadowy areas are gently illuminated to emotional effect. I’ve never noticed that at the end of the first movement the dreamer falls into deep sleep. The second movement has all the diaphanous textures that one could want – extraordinary articulation in the strings so well captured in the recording. Movement three is a little gentler than usual and still the soundscape is uncanny in revealing everything without highlighting anything. The fourth is rich timbres as opposed the usual blaring or shrieking. The tempo stays moderate and constant to great effect. The final movement is very controlled and has a steady forward stable flow, which without sounding driven, is faster than usual. Very satisfying indeed. Recorded live at La Côte-Saint André.

07 Bruce 02 LisztLiszt: Dante Symphony; Orpheus (ASM 07). This is an outstanding performance of this most elusive of Liszt’s large orchestral works, with long solo lines that require sensitive treatment; they certainly get it here with flowing sinuous lines, unmistakably pre-Wagnerian. The gentle effulgence of the final Magnificat is ethereally sublime with a boys choir. An uncommonly poetic reading of Orpheus benefits from the same acoustic, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. Definitive performances and a must-have for fans of the repertoire.

07 Bruce 03 DuboisTheodore Dubois: Piano Concerto No.2, Overture de Frithiof, Dixtuor (ASM 09). Attractive works made all the more charming by the sound of the less percussive 1874 Érard piano. It is important to music lovers to have such sensitive performances of this still out-of-the-way French minor master. This repertoire is something Les Siècles obviously enjoy doing and they do it uniquely.

07 Bruce 04 DebussyDebussy: Premiére Suite d’Orchestre, La Mer (ASM 10). This disc contains the 25-minute orchestral suite written in 1883/84 when Debussy was departing from the tradition of his masters at the Conservatoire. Although the scoring was completed by Philippe Manoury it is self-recommending, especially after the subtle and colourful account of La Mer played with all the finesse now expected of this ensemble.

07 Bruce 05 DukasDukas: L’Apprenti Sorcier, Velléda, Polyeucte (ASM 12). The playful Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas’ best known opus based on the amusing tale of the magician’s acolyte whose invocations get out of hand, is just made for this versatile group. It is nice to also have two out-of-the-way works to fill out his meagre catalogue; Velléda, a cantata for soprano, tenor and bass-baritone based on a text by Fernand Beissier, and the dramatic overture to Corneille’s tragedy Polyeucte.

Les Siècles’ live recordings are published by Musicales Actes Sud, a part of the publishing empire Actes sud in Arles.

07 Bruce 06 NovaesOne of my most pleasant memories from back in the day, around 1960, was a recital given at the University of Toronto by the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes. I recall a lady of slight stature gently walking over the piano, seating motionless and waiting for the recording light to indicate that she was “on.” She immediately began playing and when she finished she just walked off. I was enchanted by her playing as were the other members of the audience. Today I still see her clearly in my mind’s eye but sadly cannot recall the repertoire. Novaes (1895-1979) was a pianist firmly rooted in the Romantic era who began making recordings in 1919 and continued well into the LP era, recording some major works including concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Schumann with conductors Otto Klemperer, Jonel Perlea and Hans Swarowsky. Among her admirers was the respected New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg who wrote in her obituary that “the sheer beauty of her playing managed to transcend any other considerations; it was its own reward… it is hard to think of a pianist whose playing gave so much pleasure as that of Guiomar Novaes.” It is claimed by the cognoscenti that her aristocratic and seemingly effortless playing is best represented by her pre-LP recordings, long out of print and sought after by collectors. Appian has collected her Complete 78RPM Recordings and issued them on a reduced price two-CD set (APR 6015). Recorded between 1919 and 1927 (disc one) and 1940 to 1947 (disc two), the sound reflects their vintage but the collection of short works reflects an era when an artist was expected to inflect performances. The 53 tracks include works by Gottschalk, Chopin, Albéniz, Liszt, Beethoven, Scarlatti and others, including 16 of Villa-Lobos. Note that the surface noise of the original 78s is, of course, omnipresent.  

07 Bruce 01 Strauss KraussIn 2000 Testament issued four CDs of orchestral music by Richard Strauss, recorded by Decca in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Clemens Krauss. My excited review of them at the time found these uniquely inspired performances to be incomparable in every respect. Decca has gathered them all together in a compact 5-CD set, Clemens Krauss – Richard Strauss The Complete Decca Recordings (4786493), together with the still talked about 1954 recording of Salome with Christel Goltz, Julius Patzak, Anton Dermota et.al. The Vienna-born Krauss, although he worked through the Nazi era, was not a Nazi. These Strauss performances, writes Nigel Simeone, reveal an interpreter “who understood the importance of transparent orchestral textures, intelligent pacing, a natural sense of line, a fine ear for detail and a clear sense of trajectory.” These qualities are abundant in each of all nine works; Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Sinfonia Domestica, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, Aus Italien, Till Eulenspiegel and Salome.

Early in the 1950s when these recordings were made, English Decca’s FFRR LPs had already achieved a level of recording excellence unsurpassed by the other companies, thriving in the new, world-wide enthusiasm for classical music, an enthusiasm well supported by the press and dedicated periodicals. People no longer had a record player… they had a hi-fi. Victor Olof, Decca’s head recording producer led the team that documented these Strauss recordings that awed and delighted the music lovers of the day. The inspired and inspiring recordings now find their ultimate realization in this dynamic little set that is the icing on the cake honouring this 150th anniversary year of Strauss’ birth.

07 Bruce 02 Karajan 1980sWith Karajan 1980s, DG completes its decade by decade re-issue program of their entire library of Herbert von Karajan’s orchestral recordings (4793448, 78 CDs). In that decade Karajan became separated from his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and returned to the Vienna Philharmonic to conduct and make recordings, both audio and video. Which was Karajan’s best decade? The 1960s (DG 47900559, 82 CDs) the 1970s (DG47915775, 81 CDs) or the 80s? The 1960s box witnessed the emergence of Karajan the Superstar and contents include a vast repertoire of Beethoven including his now legendary second complete Beethoven symphonies cycle, a Brahms symphony cycle, Haydn symphonies ... let’s forget the Pachelbel Canon and the Albinoni Adagio. The 70s box had new repertoire and also another Beethoven cycle, a Tchaikovsky cycle, another Brahms cycle, a Second Viennese School collection and some fine Mahler. This new big box of recordings from the 80s contains some daring excursions into new repertoire together with tried and true Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn and the usual suspects. Here we may judge performances of some of these 154 works against Karajan’s own acclaimed versions and I must say that they face some formidable standards. I am informed that the entire production of this limited edition has shipped and is in the hands of dealers around the world. Full details at
deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/4793448.

07 Bruce 03 Hindemith BrucknerIn her book On and Off the Record, a memoir of her late husband Walter Legge, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf relates an example of conductor Otto Klemperer’s perverse sense of humour. In the autumn of 1958 Klemperer was too ill to conduct a Beethoven Ninth in London. Against his better judgment, Legge took Klemperer’s earnest pleading to heart and engaged Hindemith as replacement. The performance was a disaster. Legge: “It’s your fault; you insisted that I engage him. I’ll never take your advice about artists again.” Klemperer: “You have been in the music business long enough to know that gloating over the misfortunes of colleagues is the only joy left in life.” Months before that London performance, on June 24, Paul Hindemith had conducted a vital performance of the Bruckner Symphony No.7 with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony in Saxony. Remastered from the original SWR tapes, Hänssler has issued an immaculate recording of that event which clearly demonstrates that Hindemith was more than at home with Bruckner (CD 94.222). It is gratifying to hear that Hindemith had well-defined views and a sense of overriding control of arguably Bruckner’s most beautiful symphony. His reading is at least comparable with any of the strong performances from the 50s including Furtwängler and Jochum, although his sober control is closer to Jochum even though in places where we expect a pause, there is none. The long lines are beautifully spun out and never overindulged. Indeed, the final coda which is usually handled as a blazing apotheosis is achieved in subdued manner so the moment of arrival is realized with a great sense of serenity. The performance is lean which better reveals the structure and sinew of the symphony without sounding at all undernourished.

07 Bruce 04 Kleiber MahlerThe late highly esteemed conductor, Carlos Kleiber’s sole performance of any Mahler work took place on June 7, 1967 in the Konzerthaus in Vienna. On the Vienna Symphony Orchestra program was the Mozart Symphony No.33 followed by Das Lied von der Erde with alto Christa Ludwig and tenor Waldemar Kmentt. The orchestra now has its own label on which they have released this Das Lied in quite good mono sound (WS007). We can only bewail that Kleiber’s recorded legacy is so very small due to his famously temperamental approach. He was easily offended and capable of scrapping a well-rehearsed and consummately prepared production in a fit of pique. So it is all the more valuable to have this salvaged and restored archival tape from this source. He brings his vaunted objectivity and clarity of approach to this final word of Mahler’s. It is not usual to describe a performance of this work as refreshing but this is what it is, while doing full justice to the unsparing subject matter.

07 Bruce 05 Richter“And now for something completely different.” After listening to an endless stream of basic and not-so-basic repertoire, a new disc from Doremi had me sitting up and paying fresh attention to some really stimulating off-beat repertoire played by the legendary pianist Sviatoslav Richter (Volume 23 DHR-8037). The music of Szymanowski is by no means a simple affair. His scores are complex and rich in unique post-Romantic originality which may seem initially foreign to many ears and yet here we have music that is full of surprises and unexpected turns. From our point of view this exciting excursion into new repertoire is actually very rewarding. Heard complete is a recital in Warsaw on November 26, 1982 to commemorate the centenary of the composer’s birth where Richter played the Second and Third piano sonatas and was joined by the great violinist Oleg Kagan playing the exquisite three Mythes Op.30. The stereo sound is of studio quality. I am eager to know these pieces better. 

07 Bruce 01 OriginalsThe Originals (Deutsche Grammophon 4793449), 50 CDs in the now familiar compact cube, is an exceptional collection of outstanding performances from the second half of the 20th century that are significant in three aspects: repertoire, performance and sound. The composers range from Bach to Orff performed by artists who were acknowledged masters of the works chosen for inclusion in this edition beginning with Bach – the Oistrakhs’ Violin Concertos and Pierre Fournier’s Cello Suites; Beethoven with the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies by Carlos Kleiber; the Sixth from Böhm and Karajan’s 1963 Ninth. Wilhelm Kempff plays the fourth and fifth concertos (BPO/Leitner) and four sonatas.

Throughout the 50 discs, the reality of the remastered sound is a revelation and at times startling. For example, the patrician performance of the Mahler First with Rafael Kubelik, taken from his complete edition, is a reminder of this conductor’s always intuitive readings of whatever he conducted, heard here in freshly minted, realistic sound. Carl Orff’s remarkable Carmina Burana received its definitive recording in October 1967 conducted by Eugen Jochum under Orff’s personal supervision with an all-star cast including Gundula Janowitz, Gerhard Stolze and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That recording, heard on disc 33 of this set, is a model of remastering, sounding a tad cleaner than the original Originals single CD.

Karl Böhm’s entries include his celebrated versions of Magic Flute, Tristan and Isolde and the late Mozart symphonies. This set is a well-considered collection of close to 100 works of symphonic music, concertos, chamber music, instrumental solos and vocal music of interest to music lovers and audiophiles alike. Check out full contents on the DG site and listen to samples from every track in the set at deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/4793449.

07 Bruce 02 ProkofievAsk the average music lover if they like Rachmaninov and the usual answer is a knowing yes. They mention the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Second Piano Concerto and perhaps the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor. Then they are obliged to repeat the usual demeaning put-down about the four piano concertos being merely one concerto orchestrated four times. What a surprise then that Decca could devise a 32 CD set of Rachmaninov: The Complete Works (4786765) performed by top-notch orchestras and conductors, chamber groups, choruses, soloists et al., recorded over the years when the performers were in their prime.

Disc one, track one is, rather appropriately, the aforementioned prelude played by Vladimir Ashkenazy followed by the complete Op.23 and Op. 32 Preludes. Ashkenazy is featured many times in the collection both as pianist and conductor. Some of the works he plays are the four piano concertos and the Paganini Variations all conducted by André Previn; the First and Third Symphonies, the Symphonic Dances, the “Youth” Symphony and The Bells, all with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The symphonic poems, Prince Rostislav and The Rock and Five Etudes-Tableaux (orchestrated by Respighi), the Scherzo in D minor, and Vocalise are all with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. On disc 32 Ashkenazy very frankly discusses Rachmaninov and his music.

There are many other artists, of course, Mikhail Pletnev, Sviatoslav Richter, Zoltán Kocsis, Jorge Bolet, Alexis Weissenberg, Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire, Byron Janis, the Beaux Arts Trio, Olga Borodina, Neeme Järvi and many others. Here is the chance to get to hear the entire published works by Rachmaninov including all the operas and not to be missed, the complete songs sung by Elizabeth Söderström. Complete contents and excerpts can be found at deccaclassics.com/en/cat/4786765.

07 Bruce 03 MartzyThirty-five years after her premature death at the age of 54, Hungarian violinist Johanna Martzy is still an icon among violin aficionados and record collectors. In addition to a spectacular concert career, working as soloist with luminaries such as Bernstein, Szell, Cluytens, Fricsay, Kletzki and Sawallisch, Martzy was featured as a recording artist of two of the world’s leading companies, Deutsche Grammophon and EMI. In addition to these recordings, documents of her live performances are much sought after. DOREMI has issued a third volume of mostly unreleased live performances and radio broadcasts (DHR-8034/5, 2 CDs). Gems include a 1959 radio recital from Johannesburg, preserved in pristine sound of works from Vivaldi to Bartók. A pleasant revelation in these tracks is her empathetic partner, the South African pianist, Adolph Hallis (virtuoso pupil of Theodor Leschetizky). Here is real music making! Also heard are two stylish viewpoints of Mozart’s third violin concerto (both 1961) and an impassioned Bartók’s First Rhapsody with George Szell (Cleveland 1960). The set ends with the finest performance I know of Suk’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op.17. In this sparkling performance from 1969 she is partnered by the fine Hungarian pianist, István Hajdu (Arthur Grumiaux’s accompanist).

07 Bruce 04 ArgerichSimilar to the repertoire presented in volumes one and two, DOREMI’s Martha Argerich Volume 3 (DHR-8030) includes her live performances when around age 20. Argerich shot to world fame when she won the 1965 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. She has maintained her status to this day and listening to her early performances, her magic was already in evidence. Over her long career, she came to prefer presenting music with others, playing in chamber groups and as soloist with orchestra. This CD opens with a vivacious rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.7 Op.10, No.3 in which the Largo is uniquely introspective and, as they say, worth the price of the disc. Then an elegant Schumann Kinderszenen and an animated Toccata Op.7 and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.6. Finally, a brilliant performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto accompanied by Carl Melles conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. The sound throughout the disc is first-rate.

It seems that every record company of standing is issuing packages of discs selected from their vaults of worthwhile, saleable performances. Of the omnibus editions, the RCA Toscanini Edition on 100 LPs was surely the first. Soon after Karajan’s death, EMI gathered every one of their recordings and issued them in two compact boxes. DG has been assiduously re-mastering their treasured recordings including Karajan’s and issuing them in impressive, well documented editions: Karajan 1960s then Karajan 1970s (Karajan 1980s will appear before Christmas); also Karajan complete analogue recordings of Richard Strauss and Karajan – The Beethoven Digital Recordings. Two unexpected boxes are now on the shelves: Karajan Symphony Edition and from 1963 Beethoven The Symphonies.

07 Old Wine 01a Karajan Symphony EditionThe Karajan Symphony Edition (4778005) is an extraordinary offering: 38 CDs for no more than $60 retail! Here are the complete Beethoven symphonies (1972 version) + overtures; the four Brahms symphonies + Haydn Variations and Tragic Overture, the nine Bruckner symphonies, Haydn’s Paris and London Symphonies; Mendelssohn’s five symphonies; Mozart’s late symphonies; Schumann’s four symphonies and Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies, etc. All the discs reflect the latest remasterings. How is this giveaway price possible? There are a few factors to consider: DG owns the masters; the recording sessions are long ago paid for and DG is making a lot of copies for worldwide distribution. It still is hard to figure out, but who’s complaining?

07 Old Wine 01b Karajan BeethovenBeethoven The Symphonies – Karajan’s 1963 performances are widely considered to be not only the onductor’s best but the best. DG has completely re-mastered the analogue tapes at 24 bit/96 kHz and has also produced a “Pure Audio Blu-ray disc” of the nine plus a rehearsal of the Ninth that is included in a limited edition, smartly bound as a hard cover book (94793442, 6 discs). Karajan was a longtime admirer of Toscanini and preparing for this important cycle, he studied Toscanini’s recordings. Both conductors’ cycles remain in print.

07 Old Wine 02 Kondrashin ShostakovichOn December 18, 1962 defying admonitions from Premier Khrushchev and the Soviet Presidium, the first performance of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony was given in Moscow and dutifully ignored by the press. The composer had set five of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems, including the recently published Babi Yar, the subject of which was anti-Semitism and the well documented, wholesale massacre of Jews in Kiev by the Nazis in WWII. Further performances were banned until Yevtushenko altered the text, which he did, but not before December 20 when there was a repeat performance with the original text. Praga has issued a hybrid SACD of that event with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic, two choirs and Vitaly Gromadsky, tenor and speaker (PRD/DSD 350089, texts and translations included). This is the same performance heard on the complete 12CD Russian set (CDVE04241) but now delivered in a more impressive, open and persuasive sound. More than a performance, this is a declamation. I know of no other recorded performance to come even remotely close to the intensity and impact of this significant and valuable document.

The hybrid SACD includes excerpts from Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution Op.74. This commemorative work was inexplicably unpublished and unperformed during the composer’s lifetime. Altogether, this is an outstanding release.

07 Old Wine 03 Solti WalkureHis Decca Ring Cycle was years away in October of 1961 when Georg Solti conducted a new Die Walküre at Covent Garden. As I recall, it was Hans Knappertsbusch that Decca originally had in mind for their project. Testament brings us that live performance of October 2nd as recorded by the BBC in appropriately dynamic mono sound (SBT4-1495, 4 CDs). Upon the persuasive urging of Bruno Walter, Solti had just accepted the post of music director of the Covent Garden Opera Company and this performance presages the discipline and vitality of productions to follow, as his many recordings attest. Hearing the voice of the not quite 35-year-old Jon Vickers as the unfortunate Siegmund in the first act and into the second is still, to this day, an electrifying experience. Claire Watson turns in a believable Sieglinde, the only character to appear in all three acts. Brünnhilde is the Finnish Wagnerian soprano Anita Välkki and Wotan is Hans Hotter, in whom I was slightly disappointed in the final scene where he initially seems to be pushing his voice. Perhaps he needed a broader tempo but as the opera runs its course he is back on top. The whole production is very satisfying with splendid orchestral sound and no off-mike voices.

07 Old Wine 04 Abbado finalThe late Claudio Abbado enjoyed a career that spanned more than 50 years, during which he conducted the world’s finest orchestras. His last recorded concerts, those of August 16 and 17, 2013 were with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Accentus has issued a splendid DVD of the complete program of that opening concert of the season, comprising Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Schoenberg’s Song of the Wood Dove from Gurrelieder and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (ACC20282). I doubt that there could ever be a nobler and more flowing version of the Tragic Overture than heard here. Gurrelieder, Schoenberg’s great ultra-Romantic post-Wagnerian masterpiece has been a special favourite of mine since I first heard the Stokowski/Philadelphia recording. For me it is a heady experience. The Song of the Wood Dove that brings the news of the death of Tove to King Waldemar stands well on its own, magnificently conveying the enormity of the awful news. The immense augmented orchestra supports the outstanding mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura as the Wood Dove. The very fine Eroica is played with total commitment, immaculate in detail and dynamics and enormous authority. A well balanced, albeit unusual program played with effortless virtuosity and a fine showcase for the late conductor. 

06 Old Wine 01 FricsayConductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) was a significant figure in the international music world in the mid-20th century. He was born in Budapest and studied with Bartók, Dohnányi and Kodály at the Budapest Academy of Music. He held several posts before 1945 when he became co-conductor of what would become the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and sole director of the Budapest Opera. By the 1950s his interpretive talent was recognized and he was in demand as a guest conductor by leading orchestras. He left the Budapest Philharmonic in 1948 to become music director of the recently formed RIAS Symphony in Berlin. He held that post from 1948 through 1954, then again from 1959 to 1963.

Thanks to Deutsche Grammophon (DGG at the time) who recorded Fricsay working with his own and other orchestras, there is a wealth of superb performances in the vaults that are about to surface and re-surface in two omnibus CD packages. The first is available now, Ferenc Fricsay The Complete Recordings Volume 1: Orchestral Works (479 2891 45CDs, mono and stereo). Recorded mostly in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, with either the Berlin Philharmonic or the RIAS and its successor, these performances represent the highest level of musicmaking.

I recall my excitement in 1958 over acquiring the Beethoven Ninth in stereo! It was by Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Berlin Philharmonic with soloists Irmgard Seefried, Maureen Forrester, Ernst Haefliger and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It was on two Decca LPs and was outstanding in every respect. As I write this I am listening to that very performance on disc nine of this collection and it really does stand the test of time. This is a different Beethoven from, say, the Klemperer or Furtwangler Beethoven. The textures are translucent without any suggestion of inevitability, particularly the slow movement which is open and at times radiant. In total there are five discs of Beethoven in the box and lots of brilliant performances of Bartók and Kodály. There are four discs of Tchaikovsky, five of Mozart. Soloists include Géza Anda, Tibor Varga, Monique Haas, Annie Fischer, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Pierre Fournier, Nicanor Zabaleta, János Starker, Joanna Martzy, Erica Morini, Clara Haskil, Yehudi Menuhin and many others. Clearly there is no space to detail the extensive popular and esoteric repertoire but the detailed track listing of the contents is at deutschegrammophon.com.

Thanks to the soundtrack of 2001, A Space Odyssey, Also Sprach Zarathustra is Richard Strauss’ most familiar work … well, at least the opening pages. Producer and director Stanley Kubrick carefully chose the music and selected the Herbert von Karajan-Vienna Philharmonic recording on Decca as his must-have. The request was unequivocally declined but after much negotiating, Decca agreed on condition that the performance remain anonymous and never identified. A soundtrack album was issued, substituting a Böhm recording. The secret was safe. Years later all was revealed and we wonder if Decca or Karajan was calling the shots.

06 Old Wine 02 Karajan StraussThat performance and the other Richard Strauss recordings made by John Culshaw in the Sofiensaal in 1959 are contained in a sumptuous package of all Karajan’s analog recordings of Richard Strauss for Decca and DG with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. Karajan Strauss (4792686) is a limited edition, LP-sized package, about an inch thick, containing eleven CDs, a Blu-ray audio disc and an informative art book. None of these recordings is new to the catalogue. All the usual suspects are here including the live 1960 Der Rosenkavalier from Salzburg (including libretto), plus two historic recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1943, The Dance of the Seven Veils and Don Juan, set beside the 1970s recordings from Berlin. The astounding new 24/96 processing of all these analog originals is an unexpected revelation of just how much more information there was to hear. The Blu-ray disc contains the same repertoire as on six of the 11 CDs.

06 Old Wine 03 ShumskyOscar Shumsky (1917-2000) was one of the most cultivated and exquisite violinists of his time, revered by his fellow musicians. He enjoyed a busy career, from the child prodigy engaged by the likes of Stokowski and Reiner settling into the role of concertmaster of New York orchestras and a much-loved and sought-after chamber musician. He played regularly with Glenn Gould, William Primrose, Bernard Greenhouse, Leonard Rose and Earl Wild and vocalists Maureen Forrester, Lois Marshall and James Melton. He was also a conductor and teacher. Canadians may well remember hearing performances in Stratford where he was co-director (1961-64) or director (1965-67) of music. I recall a Mozart concerto there “conducted from the keyboard” by Jose Iturbi in which the orchestra depended entirely on concertmaster Shumsky for their cues. He remained a regular contributor to Toronto’s musical life in addition to his role as teacher.

As sometimes happens, a major talent often is underutilized by the record companies in concerto recordings. In his later years however, Shumsky was taken over by an influential British concert management and became a busy soloist in recordings with leading orchestras.

A new Doremi set (DHR-8031-3 , 3 CDs) is a treasure house of mostly previously unreleased highlights of four decades of Shumsky’s great artistry in various musical styles, in concert with the above artists, playing composers from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven to Hindemith. Complete details at Doremi.com. 

When Carlo Maria Giulini died in 2005 the music world lost one of the last supreme conductors of the second half of the 20th century. Giulini was born in Barletta, Italy in 1914 and began violin lessons at the age of five, later switching to viola. In 1932 he auditioned and was accepted as a member of the viola section of Italy’s foremost orchestra at the time, the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. There he played under Fritz Reiner, Victor de Sabata, Pierre Monteux, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Richard Strauss and others including Bruno Walter. In 1944 he was appointed conductor of the Italian Radio (RAI) Orchestra. A performance of La Mer impressed Arturo Toscanini who had heard the broadcast. The two met and formed a firm, lasting friendship and Toscanini recommended Giulini to La Scala where he became assistant to the great Victor de Sabata, whom he succeeded as musical director in 1953.

06 old wine 01 guilini in viennaIt is axiomatic that the first items in any program should not be showstoppers but DG does that in this set (Giulini in Vienna 479 2688, 15 CDs) with unmatched performances of three Beethoven piano concertos, the First, Third and Fifth, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Recorded live in 1979 in the Musikverein, Michelangeli is in winning form, magisterial, dynamic, probing and articulate, as is the orchestra.

The next five discs are devoted to the four Brahms symphonies, the Tragic Overture, the Haydn Variations and the German Requiem, all recorded in the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic. I was not looking forward to the symphonies for, as some readers may have intuited, I am weary of hearing them. Listening to the First renewed my enthusiasm for the work however. This is played not as a “Beethoven Tenth” but a Brahms First. It is quite formal and beautifully laid out, with no deliberate emphasis on this phrase or that or by retarding or accelerating to make a point. This performance vividly recalled my unexpected euphoria at first hearing the work so many years ago. His performance of the Requiem is right on the money, with a strong pulse drawing together the seven sections featuring soprano Barbara Bonney, baritone Andreas Schmidt, and the choir of Vienna State Opera. His balancing of choir, soloists and orchestra is exemplary, although one must acknowledge the art of the engineers at getting just so on this very impressive recording of 1987. Three Giulini Bruckner symphonies, Seven, Eight and Nine, have had a devoted following since their initial release and the sound on these reissues is of demonstration quality. The two Liszt Piano Concertos with Lazar Berman and the Vienna Symphony deserve their inclusion as does the 1979 complete Rigoletto with Domingo, Cotrubas, Ghiaurov, Obraztsova, et al. and the Vienna Philharmonic. The final work in this set is the 1973 cantata An die Nachgeborenen (To Posterity) by Gottfried von Einem, his most important work. There are nine sections in this unusual and moving piece with texts from Bertholt Brecht, the Psalms, Hölderlin and Sophocles. Featured are mezzo Julia Hamari, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Vienna Singverein and the Vienna Symphony, recorded in 1975. Without exception, all the interpretations and performances in this collection are of enduring stature, offered in the finest sound that makes the repertoire doubly satisfying.

I have enjoyed the following fine old wines in new bottles over the last little while and pass them along for your summer listening:

06 old wine 02 strauss conducts straussAmong the many collections issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss is the DG compilation of their recordings of the composer conducting his own works and others (Strauss conducts Strauss, 479 2703, 7 CDs). Included are all the Strauss tone poems including two Don Quixotes and waltz sequences from Acts II and III of Der Rosenkavalier. He seems to ignore his quoted advice to conductors, “Play everything twice as fast” and “Don’t look at the brass, it only encourages them.” Included are Mozart’s last three symphonies and Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh; also overtures by Gluck, Weber, Wagner and Cornelius. From way back in 1921 Strauss plays piano for fabled baritone Heinrich Schlusnus in four lieder. The sound is bright and dynamic throughout featuring the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Bayerisches Staatskapelle. Low price, high recommendation.

06 old wine 03 arkhipovaI was first aware of the Russian mezzo, Irina Arkhipova from the 1963 recording of the Bolshoi’s Boris Godunov which I bought for George London’s Boris. She sings Marina and the Act III duet with Dimitri, building to her adoring and close-to-sublime No, no Tsarevich, I beg you, which is unequaled. Melodyia has issued The Art of Irina Arkhipova (MEL CD 10 2123) in which she sings songs by Tchaikovsky, Six French Songs, Op.65 and Six Romances, Op.73; seven songs by Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. I do not understand Russian but I find sung Russian very pleasing and satisfying, hence I have no idea of the English translations but, regardless, I continue to listen to these songs for the pleasure of hearing her voice. But, as they say in the ads, your mileage may vary.

06 old wine 04 don giovanniFrom the very first bars of the overture, you know that the live 1962 Don Giovanni from Munich conducted by Joseph Keilberth with the Bayerisches Staatskapelle will be spectacular! Here is the cast: George London (Giovanni), Gottlob Frick (Commendatore), Hildegard Hillebrecht (Donna Anna), Nicolai Gedda (Don Ottavio), Sena Jurinac (Donn’Elvira), Benno Kusche (Leporello), Albrecht Peter (Masetto) and Anneliese Rothenberger (Zerlina). A dream cast if there ever was one and it is a truly sparkling performance. It’s on Andromeda (ANDRCD 918, 3 CDs) and very inexpensive. Dynamic live sound…not a note is wasted or unheard. A must-have.

Leonard Bernstein had a long career as conductor, composer, pianist, lecturer and educator. We witnessed his growth in every aspect through his recordings, from 78s to CDs and SACDs and visually from Beta to VHS tapes to DVDs. The recordings began in 1945 when RCA Victor initiated a series of American music played and conducted by Bernstein. In 1953 American Decca issued performances of popular symphonies accompanied Bernstein’s spoken analysis and then came the steady procession of his seemingly boundless repertoire recorded by Columbia mostly with his own New York Philharmonic but also with the London Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic.

He made his television debut on November 14, 1954 on CBS’ Omnibus with an analysis of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a grand copy of the first page from the score painted on the floor. The orchestra, members of Toscanini’s then recently dissolved NBC Symphony, played discarded passages from Beethoven’s workbook. Fascinating, yes, but there were only six more of Bernstein’s inspired creations, passed between CBS and NBC and finishing at ABC in 1958. 

He expended a lot of time and energy on and took much pride in his memorable Young People’s Concerts that ran on CBS-TV from 1958 to 1972-73 with such subjects as “What does music mean?” “What is a Concerto?” “Humour in Music” and “Berlioz Takes a Trip.” 

In 1957 he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic and in 1958 began his tenure that lasted until 1969 when he resigned, declaring that it took up too much time and that he would never again take on the role of music director of any orchestra. He continued to conduct them from time to time and make further recordings. He was named conductor laureate.

In 1972 DG recorded the Met production of Bizet’s Carmen with Marilyn Horne and James McCracken. It was Bernstein’s first recording for DG and by the way, it won a Grammy. Off to a good start. From then on he recorded mainly for DG, occasionally returning to Sony and on one or two occasions appeared on Decca, EMI or Philips. DG was there for his final concert in Tanglewood on August 19, 1990 when he conducted Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and the Beethoven Seventh with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He died on October 14 and New Yorkers lined the streets of Manhattan for the funeral procession and construction workers were seen to remove their hats and call “Goodbye, Lennie.”

07 old wine 01 leonard bernstein collectionThe Bernstein Collection Volume One (Deutsche Grammophon 479 1047) contains all his audio recordings for DG by composers A to L. There are 59 CDs and one DVD, packaged in a sturdy LP sized box, two and a half inches deep.  Each disc is individually sleeved in a replica of the original art work but without the liner notes on the back; they would have been too small to read anyhow. Instead there are track listings with timings and recording session data.

Bernstein had made studio recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies with the New York Philharmonic (NYP) for Sony in the early 60s but there is no question that the sweep and continuity of the live versions with the Vienna Philharmonic (VPO) outclass them in every way for many reasons. The orchestra has a signature sound that is passed on from player to player, from one generation to the next. The sonority of their string sound is nurtured and protected. The aura of their winds, particularly the oboe is specific to the VPO. The burnished brass is legendary. Also Bernstein had certainly matured considerably as a conductor and a musician regardless of where he conducted. The differences are unmistakable interpretively and most certainly in the quality and reality of the recorded sound. These evaluations apply equally to the four Brahms symphonies. The DG years documented Bernstein’s finest music making both at home and abroad.

Although there is no mention of any new remastering, the sound on every disc that I played is disarmingly real. I went straight to disc 58 to hear a recording of a longtime favourite that I knew so well, Liszt’s Faust Symphony, the one with the Boston Symphony. I don’t recall the sound being so compelling and real. It made me very happy to be in Symphony Hall where it was recorded.

There’s lots of Bernstein conducting Bernstein, Copland, Ives and Harris, Haydn and Hindemith and the Carmen mentioned above, plus an interesting DVD of the making of West Side Story with Te Kanawa, Carreras et al. Check the complete contents of this Limited Edition set on the DG website, deutschegrammophon.com/us/. The Omnibus programs and The Young People’s Concerts are available on two DVD sets from kultur.com.

07 old wine 02 milsteinIn July 1957 EMI recorded Nathan Milstein playing the Goldmark Violin Concerto No.1 with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Harry Blech. Milstein championed this ravishing concerto when it was virtually unknown. This stereo recording was reissued in 1995 by Testament in a faultless and satisfying transfer (SBT1047). The reel-to-reel stereo tapes from those sessions have passed into the hands of Praga Digitals who have prepared an SACD version coupled with the Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Anatole Fistoulari (Praga PRD/DSD 350105).  The DSD remastering of the original tapes has produced ambient recordings of unsurpassed reality, as clear and present as one could wish.

08 bruce 01 bergIn 1991 a new record label came into being when Continuum/Testament issued seven CDs that restored several esteemed recordings from the past of interest to music lovers and collectors alike. Their first disc (SBT1001) featured acclaimed hornist Aubrey Brain, Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin playing the Brahms Horn Trio, Op.40 (rec.1933) coupled with Reginald Kell playing the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the Busch String Quartet (rec.1937). The others for that year were two more Kell programs, discs by Richard Tauber, Yehudi Menuhin and a CD of Ten Top Tenors, a CD that included Caruso, Roswaenge, Thill, Martinelli and others. Quite unexpected was a CD of Alban Berg that included the Violin Concerto played by Louis Krasner, who commissioned the work, with the BBC Symphony conducted by Anton Webern! (SBT1004). The source was Krasner’s own acetates which were far less than pristine, but that was soon overlooked after experiencing this enthralling and unique performance. Today, some 500 releases later, Testament is at the forefront of issuing and reissuing licensed recordings of outstanding performances of every classical genre by artists that are now deservedly legendary, including conductors, instrumentalists, singers, symphony orchestras, chamber groups and two Ring Cycles, Keilberth from Bayreuth (1955) and Kempe from Covent Garden (1957). From the last few months, here are four out-of-the-ordinary releases of special interest:

08 bruce 02 bohmA 2-CD set from the 1962 Salzburg Festival features an August 19 performance with Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic (SBT2.1489). The program opens with Mozart’s Symphony No.40 played in tempi that may sound to some ears to be on the slow side. However, that was how Böhm heard it and how he played it over the years in Dresden and everywhere else. As such the elegance is very pleasing. Hearing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Kindertotenlieder was always a moving experience and with Böhm and the Berliners supporting him, the 37-year-old singer is inspired. The big, after-the-intermission work is Also Sprach Zarathustra. DG had recorded a Böhm version in 1958 but this later performance is far more powerful, probing and intense. Böhm does not stay on the surface of the score to give a brilliant effect but is fully aware of and reveals the brooding energy beneath. A performance of this magnitude most certainly adds new dimensions to this mighty tone poem.

08 bruce 03 karajan verdiThe Verdi Requiem was played by the Berlin Philharmonic ten days earlier at the same 1962 Salzburg Festival, on this occasion conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The soloists were Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe Zampieri and Nicolai Ghiaurov with the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien. Testament’sCD (SBT 1491) of the ORF’s recording was authorized by the Salzburg Festival. Frankly, I wondered why issue yet another Karajan Verdi Requiem. From the ethereally balanced strings and voices of the “Requiem and Kyrie,” the performance unfolded, not as expected but as a haunting and respectful homage to Verdi, empathizing with his emotions and his inspiration to write the work. The soloists and chorus are fully enrolled, all rising to the occasion.

08 bruce 04 britten requiemThe world premiere performance of Britten’s War Requiem, given in Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1960 is finally available on CD (SBT 1490). Taking part in this historic event were Peter Pears, Heather Harper, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Coventry Festival Choir, Boys of Holy Trinity, Leamington and Holy Trinity, Stratford and John Cooper, organ, all conducted by Meredith Davies and the Melos Ensemble conducted by Benjamin Britten. The genesis of this work, commissioned in remembrance of the bombing of Coventry, is well known, together with the many obstacles to be overcome. This is from the BBC’s original recording digitally remastered in 2013. There have been some picayune criticisms of the occasional untidiness in the playing and some off-the-beat entries or that the recording does not make certain passages as clear as they would be in a modern studio recording. For heaven’s sake! This is not an audition tape! It’s an “historic document”! We can now hear how that notable first performance sounded to the people in attendance 54 years ago. There is a sense of occasion throughout the performance from instrumentalists and singers alike as all three soloists demonstrate their total absorption in their roles. I find this monaural recording to be gripping, convincing and eminently moving.

08 bruce 05 mewton-woodNoel Mewton-Wood was an Australian pianist, born in Melbourne in 1922. He studied at the Melbourne Conservatorium and was passionate about all forms of music. In the 1930s he studied with Artur Schnabel and later with Frank Bridge. He had an enormous talent and was highly regarded and respected by his peers and many conductors, especially Beecham with whom he performed often. Britten chose Mewton-Wood to premiere the revised version of his piano concerto and later to accompany Pears while he, Britten, was occupied with Gloriana. Pears commissioned pieces to be featured in their upcoming May 1953 concert. Later that year, devastated by the death of his partner, the 31-years young Noel Mewton-Wood knowingly ingested cyanide. The four-movement Britten Piano Concerto mentioned above was recorded in 1946 by Mewton-Wood with the London Symphony conducted by Basil Cameron. This BBC recording, previously un-released together with the songs commissioned by Pears for their recital, is now on Testament (SBT 1493) with comprehensive notes. The vivacious Britten concerto is played with great gusto and the song cycles, To Poetry by Mátyás Seiber and Voices of the Prophets by Alan Bush were recorded at the time for broadcast by the BBC. 

Long-playing discs were developed by Bell Laboratories in the early 1930s and a few recordings of Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra were issued by Victor. The shellac discs of the time were not viable and they were withdrawn. In 1948 thanks to vinylite and other factors, LPs were perfected at Columbia Records under Peter Goldmark. By the early 1950s LPs were in common currency, to the chagrin of RCA, the final holdout, who tenaciously supported their “convenient” seven-inch 45s including multiple-disc sets. The transfers of existing 78 rpm masters to LPs were much sought after and required no costly recording sessions and Columbia and RCA had performances dating back to the turn of the century. Tape recorders had newly enabled anybody to inexpensively document performances anywhere… well anywhere but in the United States where the musicians’ union held sway.

The Westminster Recording Company, founded in NYC in 1949, promptly looked to Europe to record those artists and ensembles that had not been signed up by producers such as Walter Legge for EMI. Through these Westminster recordings, new names became familiar to the record-buying public. Included in this exhilarating new collection of superb musicians was the German conductor Hermann Scherchen. Over the years into the stereo era he produced a Beethoven symphonies cycle, Haydn symphonies, Liszt tone poems, Mahler symphonies, Bach choral works, plus a body of work by Mozart, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Offenbach, Ravel, Honegger and others. Not only were the performances fresh and exciting but the sound, as heard on any and every Westminster recording, was the ultimate in realism and meticulously edited, on the best pressings in the industry.

08 old wine 01 westminsterIn The Westminster Legacy, The Collector’s Edition (DG 4792343, 40 CDs) music lovers and collectors alike will find some usual and lots of unusual repertoire not to be found in any other omnibus edition. Some examples: 14 songs by Henri Duparc sung by Léopold Simoneau; Sena Jurinac singing Schumann’s Frauenliebe & Leben and Liederkreis, Op.39; Julian Bream playing Turina, de Falla and Sor; The Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet plays Schubert’s Quintet in C major, Op.163 and the Octet Op.166; Paul Badura-Skoda plays Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie, Moments musicaux D780 and the four Impromptus D899; Jörg Demus plays César Franck and Fauré; the Smetana Quartet plays two Beethoven quartets and joins the Smetana Quartet for the Mendelssohn Octet Op.20. The venerable Egon Petri performs three Beethoven Sonatas, the Pathetique, the Appassionata and the Hammerklavier; the young Daniel Barenboim gives us Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22 and the Piano Sonatas No. 8 & 16; Clara Haskil plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 and 11 Scarlatti Sonatas. Violinist Erica Morini plays the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos.

And there’s more, a lot more, including Holst’s The Planets (Boult), the complete Nutcracker Ballet (Rodzinski), Handel’s complete opera Rodelinda (Priestman) and Beverly Sills singing Bellini and Donizetti Heroines. The sound on these discs remains as vital as when we first heard them. Check the complete track listing at deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/4792343.

08 old wine 02 argerichMartha Argerich is recognized as one of the finest pianists in the pantheon. From her early years when she was not yet 20, Doremi has unearthed four Mozart performances of works that she has not recorded commercially (DHR-8024). The 21st Piano Concerto, aka Elvira Madigan, with Peter Maag conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony was broadcast on September 8, 1960. From the same year she is heard in the only minor key sonata, K.310 in C Minor and also K.333 and K.576. Argerich already possessed all the magic ingredients for outstanding Mozart interpretations: sensitivity, style, lilt, a pulse and breathing with captivating innocence. A Mozart lover’s delight.

08 old wine 03 verdi requiemDoremi has happily restored to active duty the 1970 Verdi Requiem with Gundula Janowitz from Salzburg with Karajan conducting (DHR-7734/5, 2 CDs). There is no commercial recording of the Requiem with Janowitz which is surprising because the ethereal beauty of her voice that illuminates this performance is quite incomparable. On stage with her were Christa Ludwig, Carlo Bergonzi and Ruggero Raimondi.

08 old wine 04 karajan beethovenOn November 15, 1958 Herbert von Karajan made his first appearance with an American orchestra, The New York Philharmonic, in a program of Webern, Mozart and Richard Strauss (Heldenleben, of course). Their November 22 concert consisted of the Beethoven Symphonies Nos.1 & 9 with the Westminster Choir and soloists Leontyne Price, Maureen Forrester, Léopold Simoneau and Norman Scott. Archipel has issued this concert (ARPCD 0556, 2 CDs). I was not expecting the polish and suavity of the playing, after all these were New Yorkers, not Viennese or Berliners who were simpatico with Karajan. The First is immediately seamless and articulate, a quality that continues throughout. There is no lingering to smell the roses or make a point. Orchestral balances are ideal and the mono sound good enough to hear all in perspective.

The Ninth has the enormous sweep and drive, played with often astonishing fire and occasional raw energy. Unfortunately, the recorded balance seems to have been adjusted during the intermission as timpanist Saul Goodman often swamps his colleagues in the tuttis making the sound somewhat dense. The third symphony in the package is a Beethoven Fifth from Salzburg recorded August 18, 1948 with The Vienna Philharmonic. This Promethean performance from Salzburg has astonishing assurance and an unmistakable aura of optimism. Those familiar with Karajan’s Ninth recorded eight months earlier in Vienna by EMI will know exactly what I mean. The monaural recording is dynamic and very satisfying. This performance is recommended without any hesitation. A must-have.

 

Not so many years ago in real time, Sir Adrian Boult was a name known to concertgoers and record buyers and those who were up on the music scene. Today his name is almost unfamiliar, although his recorded performances are still highly thought of (by those who think of them at all) and even HMV, the company for whom he recorded exclusively during the 1930s and well into the post-World War II era is no more. The decline and fall of The Gramophone Company, once the greatest recording company in the world, the company that owned HMV, Angel, Columbia, Parlophone, Capitol, et al, is a cautionary tale but not an uncommon one. Adrian Boult was born in the north of England in 1889 to a well-to-do family who supported him in his interest in music. As a youth studying in London, he attended concerts between 1901 and 1908 where he heard such luminaries as Debussy, the already famous Richard Strauss, Henry J. Wood and Arthur Nikisch among many others. Still a schoolboy, he met Edward Elgar with whom he enjoyed a lifelong friendship and whom he would later champion. Attending the Leipzig Conservatory in 1912 and 1913 he was indelibly impressed by the precision of Nikisch’s conducting technique, although not by his interpretations. Boult’s first professional public concert was on February 27, 1914 with members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Eclectic hardly describes the program… works by Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Wagner, Hugo Wolf and George Butterworth plus, for an abundance of riches and likely the star attraction, Mrs. Hamilton Harty, the deservedly acclaimed soprano Agnes Nicholls, who sang arias by Mozart and Verdi.

Boult’s repertoire was vast but he was regarded by many as merely a British conductor of British music.

08 old wine 01 boultA new CD from ICA Classics contains two previously unissued performances, a live Elgar Second Symphony from the Royal Albert Hall on July 24,1977 and a BBC studio recording of the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser, both with the BBC Symphony plus the BBC Chorus in the Tannhäuser (ICAC 5106). By 1977, Boult had recorded the Elgar five times, beginning in 1944, and this was to be his last performance. This is no fading reading of a score that he knew so well. The tempi are alert and vital, often more telling than in the recordings. The orchestra, his orchestra from 1930 to 1950, plays their hearts out for him. With all this in mind, listening now is quite an experience. The Tannhäuser music is essentially a live performance given in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studio 1 on December 8, 1968. It is an intense, reverent reading befitting the noble subject matter and the antithesis of the pomposity favoured by some. You may not be aware of this until you don’t hear it. The Venusberg ladies are warmly enticing. Arguably, these may be the best versions around of both works. Excellent sound throughout.

08 old wine 02 richterCuriously, the late piano superstar, Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) played only two of the Beethoven piano concertos, the First and the Third. Both works receive splendid performances, recorded live, on Volume 22 of Doremi’s ongoing treasury of Richter Archives (DHR-8022/3, 2 CDs). The First Concerto comes from 1963 with Kurt Sanderling conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and from 1973 Rudolf Barshai and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra support Richter in the Third Concerto. Both find the pianist in remarkable shape delivering superb realizations of the two works. He is magnificent in the lyrical segments and dazzling in the faster passages. Altogether this is high voltage musicmaking with both conductors in tune with the soloist’s buoyant interpretations. This all-Beethoven set includes the Diabelli Variations, the Sonata No.28 and two Rondos, Op.51 all recorded at a recital on July 3, 1986 in Heide, Germany. Richter is in fine form with an unusually cohesive Diabelli.

08 old wine 03 gilelsThe other piano giant from the Soviet bloc of the era was Emil Gilels (1916-1985). Volume 10 (DHR-8000) of the ongoing Doremi series contains live performances of Brahms and Mozart. Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto was performed in 1972 with Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic, four months ahead of the well-known recording with Eugen Jochum. I find that the chemistry between soloist, conductor and orchestra works far better under Kondrashin than it does with Jochum. Gilels’ approach is similar but the Moscow Philharmonic partnership brings more sizzle and support. Splendid mono sound. The two short Mozart gems are the Rondo K382 with Neeme Järvi and the Leningrad PO (1968) and the solo Gluck Variations K455 (Salzburg 1970). All performances are new to CD.

08 old wine 04 isaac sternIt is always a pleasure to find another Isaac Stern recording from his early years in the late 1940s and 50s. At that time his artistry and individual sonority made him an ideal performer of the classics, the romantic and the contemporary. He always had something special to say. He was perfect in every detail, the spontaneous aspect of his musicmaking was engaging, convincing and sweeping. One has to remember that Stern was rising to fame and influence at the time the violin world was overshadowed by Heifetz and Oistrakh, but hearing Stern was a special experience for me. He was the classical model of perfection as a soloist and a chamber musician (check out his Casals Festivals recordings). Examples of these qualities may be heard on an Audite CD (95.624) which has two live performances from the Lucerne Festival that I have been playing repeatedly since it arrived. The Tchaikovsky Concerto is conducted by Lorin Maazel (1958) and the Bartók No.2 by Ernest Ansermet (1956). These are performances to treasure.

07 old wine 01 berliner centenaryThe Berliner Philharmoniker Centenary Edition (DG 4791049, 50 CDs) celebrates “100 years of Great Recordings.” The first disc, of interest only to archivists, contains the usual orchestral excerpts from Parsifal conducted by Alfred Hertz (12 to 16 September 1913) and Arthur Nikisch conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1913) and Le carnaval romain (1920). Disc two contains a Beethoven Fifth from Furtwangler (Oct 1926), Fingal’s Cave conducted by Bruno Walter (1924) and into the electric era, short works and overtures conducted by Richard Strauss and Hans Knappertsbusch, both from 1928. On disc three Jascha Horenstein conducts the Bruckner Seventh from that same year. On disc four Karajan’s first Pathetique Symphony (1939) is well played and recorded as is a very affectionate Moldau (1940). Discs 5/6/7/9 feature Furtwangler in the Beethoven Fifth (27 March 1947), Mozart 39th (1942/43), the Schubert Ninth, the Haydn 88th and his own Second Symphony (all 1951) plus the Brahms First (1952) and the Schumann Fourth (1953). There are 42 more discs of notable performances by eminent artists who played with this great orchestra in good times and bad. See the complete details at arkivmusic.com.

07 old wine 02 fritz reinerWhen Fritz Reiner came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953 it presaged an exceptional, albeit short-lived era during which they produced recordings that half a century later are still lauded and sought out for their spectacular performances and exceptional sonic excellence. The Hungarian conductor arrived in the United States to take the post as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony where he remained until 1931. Reiner had found it very difficult to get an engagement in the 1930s. He was disregarded by orchestras across the country until 1938 when he began his ten-year engagement as music director of The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra where he recorded extensively for Columbia. Thence he became a familiar conductor at the Met.

After Arturo Toscanini, RCA’s star attraction, conducted his last concert on April 4, 1954, it was necessary for RCA Victor to fill the void. They had recorded Reiner conducting pick-up groups in New York and the Reiner/Chicago Symphony marriage was garnering some critical acclaim where RCA had already recorded an extraordinary Also Sprach Zarathustra in Chicago in March. So there it was ... RCA’s new star attraction in the quality of sound never accorded “The Maestro.” By April RCA had assigned Richard Mohr as producer and the now legendary Lewis Layton as recording engineer and there followed a stream of superlative recordings of distinguished performances of repertoire from Richard Strauss, Brahms, Prokofiev, Beethoven, de Falla, Tchaikovsky, et al. to Rolf Liebermann’s Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra.

When RCA issued their Living Stereo Series many of these recordings were the backbone of that program as they were of the SACD issues. Mohr and Layton, who would eventually be deified by audiophiles, also produced equally fine-sounding recordings elsewhere, particularly in Boston with Munch and Fiedler, which discs are still available on RCA Living Stereo.

Fritz Reiner Chicago Symphony Orchestra – The Complete RCA Album Collection (RCA 888837019828, 63CDs ) has all 130+ recordings newly re-mastered from the original analogue tapes, each sturdily sleeved in reproductions of their original LP covers. A 150-page, full-colour hardcover book gives biographical material and details of each recording. Soloists include Maureen Forrester, Arthur Rubinstein, Byron Janis, Jascha Heifetz, Inge Borkh, Emil Gilels, Lisa Della Casa, Antonio Janigro, Rosalind Elias, Van Cliburn, Leontyne Price and many more.

This set is a trove for both discerning music lovers and devoted audiophiles alike. Those who worship analogue sound will be very happy here. You can find full details at arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=1014187.

07 old wine 03 david oistrakhIn the November issue of BBC Music Magazine David Oistrakh was voted by today’s leading players to be the greatest violinist of the 20th century. Coincidently, Doremi issued David Oistrakh, Volume 14 (DHR-8020-21, 2 CDs) containing five concertos, in excellent stereo sound, derived from Swedish Radio archives of 1970 to 1974. These performances appear for the very first time with three items that are new to his discography; the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante Op.84 and two works by Swedish composers. The collaboration between soloist and the Swedish musicians is of the highest quality imaginable, treating us to a stirring Brahms Double Concerto, a crisp Bach Concerto for violin and oboe, a refreshing Mozart Third and an involving Prokofiev First. The romantic Stenhammar Sonata and a Berceuse by Tor Aulin bring this collection to a pleasing conclusion. These were played by Oistrakh in the last years of his life yet his proficiency and artistry are undiminished.

Footnote: Oistrakh’s universally acclaimed first concerto recordings in the West (June 1954, Beethoven and Sibelius) were made in Sweden as were, ironically, these swan song performances.

07 old wine 04 clara haskilFinally, two historic concertos from the Lucerne Festival. From September 8, 1959, Clara Haskil, Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 K466 and from September 1, 1957, Robert Casadesus, Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Vienna Philharmonic play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. “She was sent to earth to play Mozart” wrote a critic quoted in the accompanying booklet. Never were truer words written. Haskil and Klemperer are hand in glove in this exceptional performance which she declared “unforgettable.” French pianist, Robert Casadesus, too, was a highly respected Mozart interpreter as his recorded legacy attests. Also Beethoven, and the sense of occasion in this grand performance is unmistakable. The perfectly balanced sound on this disc (Audite 65.623) was transferred directly from the original analogue master tapes and not off the air. 

 


Two notable big cubes of CDs this month are well worth investigating. One is from the Metropolitan Opera’s own archives containing ten significant performances of Verdi operas and another from DG, containing their complete recordings of Herbert von Karajan in the 1970s.

October 10 was the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth although his mother remembered the 9th as his natal day. The Met, in collaboration with Sony Classical has selected outstanding performances of ten Verdi operas to commemorate this bicentennial year. The first offering in Verdi at the Met is La Traviata from January 5, 1935 and is deservedly legendary. Rosa Ponselle is Violetta with Frederick Jagel as Alfredo and Lawrence Tibbett as Germont. The conductor is Ettore Panizza. Callas said that Ponselle was “the greatest singer of us all” and here is a good reason why. The sound is admittedly very dated, watery in the two preludes, but by and large good enough to hear and appreciate this memorable performance. Panizza also conducts a mighty performance of Otello from February 24, 1940 with Lawrence Tibbett as Iago, Giovanni Martinelli as Otello, Elizabeth Rethberg as Desdemona and Nicola Moscona as Lodovico. This familiar drama’s production is involving and persuasive.

Maestro Panizza’s final outing in this collection stars Jussi Björling and Zinka Milanov in the December 14, 1940 mounting of Un Ballo in Maschera. My late friend Aldo Maggiorotti, who lived and breathed opera, said that Björling sounded better on records than live. So which would this be? Björling is heard a year later as The Duke in Rigoletto from December 29, 1945, together with Leonard Warren as Rigoletto and the legendary Bidu Sayao as Gilda. From February 26, 1949, Fritz Reiner conducts a star-studded Falstaff, illuminated by Giuseppe Di Stefano, Leonard Warren, Regina Resnik, Giuseppe Valdengo and Licia Albanese. Leonard Warren is Simon Boccanegra supported by Astrid Varnay and Richard Tucker under the direction of Fritz Stiedry. From November 29, 1952, now two years into the era of the great and powerful Rudolf Bing (the Met’s general manager from 1950 to 1972) we hear Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, Jerome Hines and Mildred Miller heading a fine cast in a gorgeous, attention-grabbing and holding performance of La Forza del Destino under Stiedry. The pick-up on the voices and the orchestra is very natural and correctly balanced, supported by convincing dynamics. On February 21, 1959, Leonard Warren assumed the title role in Macbeth with Leonie Rysanek making her triumphant Met debut singing Lady Macbeth, a role she assumed following Callas’ celebrated departure. Jerome Hines is Banquo and Carlo Bergonzi plays Macduff. Erich Leinsdorf conducts. On December 3, 1960, Rysanek, now a Met regular sang Abigaile to Cornell McNeil’s Nabucco with Cesare Siepi and Rosalind Elias, conducted by Thomas Schippers. Part III opens with “Va, Pensiero,” the chorus of the Hebrew slaves that is as familiar to the general public today as it was in Verdi’s time. Finally, Aida from the February 25, 1967 broadcast conducted by Schippers. There could be no other choice for the title role than the pre-eminent Leontyne Price, with Carlo Bergonzi as Ramades, Grace Bumbry as Amneris and Robert Merrill as Amonasro. A living tribute to all involved, although I was very surprised when the audience began applauding before “O terra, addio” was quite finished.

07 old wine 01 verdi at the metVerdi at the Met (Sony 88883 721202, 20 CDs) is a well-chosen collection of performances spanning 35 years featuring many of the justly celebrated idols of their day. The costly and meticulous restoration of these broadcast recordings was borne by the Lloyd E. Rigler-Lawrence E. Deutsche Foundation and the Dunard Fund USA, who also funded the excellent Wagner at the Met set reviewed earlier this year.

Glenn Gould was a great admirer of Herbert von Karajan and the admiration was reciprocated to the extent that they had attempted to co-ordinate their windows of opportunity to record a Beethoven concerto cycle. They had performed together in Berlin on May 26, 1957 playing the third concerto. Gould said that the only live performance he would ever wish to attend was a Karajan concert. They were like-minded about the merits of studio recordings which could be honed to “perfection” versus those of a one-shot, live concert performance.

07 old wine 02 karajanKarajan 1970s (DG 4791577) is an 82-CD set containing all his orchestral recordings made by DG in that period. They are analog “studio” recordings. Until 1973 they continued to use the acoustically perfect Jesus Christus-Kirche, Berlin and after that they recorded in the Philharmonie.

There is no way of knowing how much time was spent rehearsing the familiar warhorses on disc 10, Opernballette, containing “The Polovtsian Dances,” the usual two from Eugen Onegin, ballet music from Aida and Otello and the “Dance of the Hours.” All familiar pieces but what made these performances outstanding was Karajan’s characteristic total dedication to each work, according it the care and attention to the composer’s intentions that he bestowed on more demanding works. By the time these recordings were made, January/February 1971, conductor and orchestra were already a single entity and they continued to produce outstanding, often unrivaled performances, as the more than 200 on these discs of repertoire from Corelli, Vivaldi and Bach to Berg, Schoenberg and Webern attest. There are no ho-hums here.

Each of the 82 discs bears the Original Image Bit Processing identification that the early mastering has been superseded by newer technology to replicate the original tapes. An informative book contains biographical material and a Karajan timeline together with details of the recording sessions. Missing, I regret, is a simple alphabetical listing of the pieces to make it simple to locate any work in the box. See a presentation video at arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=993685. 

 

It may have occurred to regular readers and those who listened to “Records in Review” on CJRT that I am enamored by Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, written in 1899 for string sextet. The composer made his final arrangement in 1943 for string orchestra. Schoenberg wrote it in just three weeks when smitten by his teacher’s sister, Mathilde von Zemlinsky, and motivated by Richard Dehmel’s melodramatic poem. He married Mathilde and Verklärte Nacht became his most popular opus.

Naïve has produced “La Collection Naïve ... sixteen rare and precious jewels waiting to be discovered or revisited.” Verklärte Nacht played by the Arditti Quartet is one of them.

01-SchoenbergThe Arditti string quartet, founded in 1974, specializes in contemporary music. Over the years there have been exits and entries in the personnel, and for this 1993 recording there were violinists Irvine Arditti and David Alberman, violist Garth Knox and cellist Rohan de Saram plus Thomas Kakusa, violin, and Valentin Erben, cello (Naïve NC 40022). Their version is completely new to me and this re-issue is a first hearing. It is cast in the mould set by the Hollywood String Quartet in 1950, which was, I believe, the very first recording of the sextet. Schoenberg stated that the music “does not illustrate any action or drama but was restricted to portray nature and to express human emotions.” His notes for the Hollywood recording conclude ... “It should not be forgotten that this work, at its first performance in Vienna, was hissed and caused riots and fist fights. But it soon became very successful.” The very fine Hollywood performance borders on the passionate, and that differs from many of the subsequent readings from other groups that strive for a harmonious approach. However, it wasn’t until I heard the Arditti disc that it became clear that the Hollywood Quartet did not go far enough in articulating the raw emotional conflicts and the final resolution. The Arditti’s is a thrilling, sinuous performance, fervent and intense, unlike any other of which I am aware. The passionate conflicts between the woman and man overflow as all six musicians vehemently climb the top of their “voice.” The recording is first rate and the dynamics are thrilling. Lasting less than 28 minutes, a CD of only one work may seem pretentious but in this case it’s a very good buy. The work could easily pass for absolute music and many will hear it this way without regard to the inspiration.

02-Rostropovich-ShostakovichSupraphon has released an irresistible 2-CD set entitled Rostropovich plays Shostakovich that is self-recommending (SU 4101-2). In 1958 Shostakovich, reviewing a Rostropovich concert, wrote in Pravda, “I am overpowered by the artist’s authoritativeness. He is always convinced of the correctness of his opinion, which he expresses with such zealousness that it is impossible not to believe him.” With Rostropovich in mind he wrote the First Cello Concerto. There are two performances here, both live; the world premiere recording, from Moscow on October 6, 1959, conducted by Aleksandr Gauk and from the following May in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. The premiere performance is carefully played and amply virtuosic from all concerned but some eight months later the audience heard a stirring performance, refreshingly played with irresistible enthusiasm. In the Second Cello Concerto (1966) the conductor is Yevgeny Svetlanov from a concert in Prague on December 11, 1967. Of the two cello concertos, I do prefer the second. It is a contemplative work that presages much of what the composer would express in his later works right up to the 15th Symphony. No quibbles about this performance. Lastly Rostropovich, with the composer at the piano, plays the lyrical Cello Sonata, Op.40 (1934) recorded in 1959. Rostropovich later recorded this sonata accompanied by Benjamin Britten in 1964 but that must take second place to this one. Shostakovich plays Shostakovich! The recordings are all mono which is of little consequence as the sound is crystal clear with a front to back perspective.

03-LortatRobert Lortat? Have you ever heard of him? Today, very few have. Lortat (1885–1938) was a French pianist, renowned for his interpretation of Chopin and who made one of the very first recordings of any Chopin in 1904. He was a very successful concert pianist in his youth. The reason for his obscurity was chronic ill-health, the memento of a poison gas attack while serving in the French army in WWI. This severely curtailed his concertizing and he turned mostly to teaching and, as it happened, to recording. As one of the most respected interpreters of his generation, the Columbia Graphophone Company (later Columbia Records) invited him to record the music of Chopin. Lortat recorded the Waltzes, Etudes, Preludes and the Second Sonata. These recordings were so successful that Columbia issued them in five continents. Unfortunately, Lortat did not complete the Chopin project, nor continue with any other recordings. It is likely that with the wide availability of his recordings in these late years of the 78rpm era that the leading pianists of the day heard them. It would not be at all fanciful to believe that pianists of Dinu Lipatti’s time were influenced by Lortat’s interpretations. A new release from DOREMI (DHR-7994/5, 2CDs) contains all these recordings. Lortat plays with ease and authority, arguably more appealing than Cortot with the advantage of being virtually note-perfect. This set is a real find, both welcome and necessary, reintroducing these cornerstones of the modern French school of piano playing. These recordings from the 1920s and early 30s are a credit to engineers in Paris. Now faultlessly restored and most certainly belying their vintage, they are easy on the ears and listening to these performances was a great pleasure. A well-merited release.

04-KarolyiDoremi has issued Volume Two of Julian von Karolyi, the Hungarian-German pianist who enjoyed tremendous success for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and other Romantic composers. Volume I featured Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Liszt. On this new CD (DHR-8009) Karolyi plays the Emperor Concerto with Robert Heger conducting (1958); the Haydn Piano Concerto in D, Hob.XIII/11 with Richard Schumacher conducting (1967) and Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (1958). As in the first volume, the unanimity between soloist and orchestra, particularly in the Haydn that sparkles and is laced with humour, makes this a very attractive offering. The sound, by the way, is exemplary.

05-MilsteinNathan Milstein was one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, along with Heifetz, Oistrakh, Menuhin and Francescatti, all of whom had long, illustrious careers. Milstein’s attributes were his pure, unaffected stylistic approach and violin technique that was breathtaking, athletic and secure. He came to North America in 1929 as did Horowitz and Piatigorsky, with whom he had played trios earlier. As with many artists, Milstein’s live performances had an extra sizzle. Listening to a new CD from Doremi (DHR-7752) makes this point. We hear the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, from Paris in 1969 with Jean Martinon conducting; Mozart Violin Concerto No.5, K219 in 1961 with Carl Schuricht conducting, along with Bach’s Chaconne and three Paganini Caprices from 1957, all from Ascona, Switzerland. Another disc for the fans presented in fine sound.

01 Britten Complete

Benjamin Bitten: The Complete Works.
Limited Edition of 3,000 copies world-wide.
Benjamin Britten, conductor, pianist.
DECCA 4785364 The deluxe boxed set of 65 CDs, one DVD
includes a 208 page, 6”x 8” illustrated hard cover book.

Of all the omnibus anniversary sets and innumerable artist-driven collections that have arrived recently, none has been more eagerly anticipated in this house than this Benjamin Britten collection. Now it is here in a limited edition of 3,000 copies worldwide in a deluxe boxed set of 65 CDs, with a DVD and a 208-page 6˝×8˝ illustrated book and there is not one whit of disappointment.

My first awareness of Britten (1913–1976) came on recordings of a handful of his arrangements of British folk songs from HMV with Britten accompanying Peter Pears: The Foggy Foggy Dew; The Ploughboy; Come you not from Newcastle?; Oliver Cromwell; The Sally Gardens and some others. I found them very pleasing and looked for more Britten in the record shops. One piece led to another, evolving into a continuing interest in Britten’s other works. Even more enticing was that he was alive then and there would be more to come. And there certainly was!

The Complete Works is divided into four groups: The Operas (CDs 1-20); Stage and Screen (CDs 21-32); Voices (CDs 33-48) and Instruments (CDs 49-61). There are four extra discs described below.

In Voices, discs 46, 47 and 48 contain 100 songs and folksong arrangements, including the above and all the others of that era (1945–47) plus later recordings, including six settings of W.H. Auden sung by Pears, Philip Langridge and Felicity Lott with various accompanists. This group includes the War Requiem, recorded in 1963, with soloists Galina Vishnevskaya, Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, plus three choirs, organ, the Melos Ensemble and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Britten (CD 33).This compelling work was commissioned for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 for which Britten, who had a completely free hand, chose the traditional Latin text from the Missa pro defunctis juxtaposed with nine poems by Wilfred Owen, who was slain in the last days of the First World War. Other works in Voices are the Spring Symphony; Cantata Academica; Saint Nicholas; A Boy was Born; A Ceremony of Carols; Rejoice in the Lamb; Missa Brevis; The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (with Barry Tuckwell); Les Illuminations; The Five Canticles; The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo; and all the others including the shorter works.

Until 1945 Britten was widely thought of, particularly in the older British music circles, as clever but superficial ... that was until June 7, 1945. That date marked the first performance of his second opera, Peter Grimes. The audience went wild as did critics and the British music establishment. Britten had emerged as an overnight, international success. He was now a composer of stature, lauded by all and sundry. In the premiere, the wronged, anguished Grimes was superbly realized by Pears, as he was on the 1948 recording of an abridged performance conducted by Reginald Goodall (EMI) and a decade further on in the 1959 complete recording conducted by Britten (CDs 3&4). Once a listener tunes in to Pears’ unmistakable timbre and the emotional depth of his performance, it is very easy to understand why Britten so vehemently disliked Jon Vickers in the role.

With the exception of the brilliant A Midsummer Night’s Dream (CDs 15&16), central to Britten’s operas is a misunderstood, injured and/or offended character who is also something of an innocent. The lonely and misjudged Peter Grimes is a perfect example, but none more deeply touching than Aschenbach in Death in Venice (CDs 19&20), based on Thomas Mann’s well-known story and the last of Britten’s operas. They are all here including Gloriana (CDs 11&12), conducted by Charles Mackerras in 1993. I am particularly fond of The Rape of Lucretia (CDs 5&6) which followed one year after Peter Grimes. Reginald Goodall conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra with Pears and Joan Cross in 1947 in a truncated version (HMV) that sold me on the work but under Britten in 1971 with Pears (the male chorus) and Heather Harper (the female chorus), plus Janet Baker, Benjamin Luxon and others we have the definitive version.

As there is little space left to muse upon the many more works that continue to attract, let me direct you to the Decca website (deccaclassics.com) where there is a detailed list of the complete contents.

02 Hidden HeartThe last four discs (CDs 62 to 65) are unique to this edition. They are: Making Music with Britten — a documentary with singers, instrumentalists, orchestral musicians and producers recalling their experiences with Britten; rehearsal excerpts of the War Requiem recording sessions; historic recordings from 1944 to 1953 — four recordings including the 1948 Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings with Britten, Dennis Brain and the Boyd Neel Orchestra and also the Four Sea Interludes with Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw; and supplementary recordings from 1955 to 1989. The extra disc is a DVD of the Tony Palmer video of the recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace.

The recordings heard are mainly from Decca, who also drew upon the archives of EMI, Virgin, Warner Music, Onyx, Bis and 14 other labels. It is of no consequence, except to pedants, that some very early works and film music are not included.

Earnestly recommended and a must see for those who might be interested is Benjamin Britten: The Hidden Heart, a DVD from EMI (509992 165719). Subtitled A Life of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, this 78-minute film produced in 2001 contains interviews and quotes from their associates, friends and relatives together with rare archival footage of significant performances. This is not an apologia but an appreciation and recognition of their symbiosis.

Back to top