Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - September 2014

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. 


Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - June 2014

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.

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - May 2014

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.

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - April 2014

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. 

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - March 2014

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.

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - February 2014

 

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.

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - December 2013

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. 

 

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - Noovember 2013


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. 

 

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - October 2013

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.

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - September 2013

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.

OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES – Fine Old Recordings Re-released - July 2013

01 modern jazz quartetTo paraphrase Clara’s lullaby in Porgy and Bess, summertime and the listening is easy. How much easier and “cool” could it get than listening to the original performances of the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet, particularly their early recordings from 1956 through 1960? The group came together in 1952 with pianist and leader John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and (from 1955) percussionist Connie Kay. Their complete Atlantic recordings can be found a new four-disc set for about the price of one CD (Enlightenment EN4CD 9008). The 52 tracks include some 20 popular ballads, many jazz classics and original material. The first CD is monaural, the rest in stereo.

Read more: OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES – Fine Old Recordings Re-released - July 2013

OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES – Fine Old Recordings Re-released - June 2013

Mercury Living Presence guarantees on the label that the recording, from performance to finished product, has maintained a sonic integrity that could very well mirror the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.”

The first of their recordings came to us in Australia on the HMV label and I can still recall the excitement generated by the astounding realism of the 12” LP of the 1951 performance of Rafael Kubelik conducting the Chicago Symphony in Pictures at an Exhibition. That performance remains a first choice in every respect. It mattered not that the recording was superior to the commercially available pick-ups and electronics of the day. Mercury has come a long way since then but the truthfulness of all their recordings remains and we hear what was heard at the sessions, without an engineer spotlighting or rebalancing the dynamics as chosen by the performer or conductor.   

01 mercury collectors 2Mercury Living Presence: The Collector’s Edition, Volume 2 (028947 85092, 55 CDs) in a limited edition is now available, filling in some of the omissions in Volume One. (Issued 15 months ago Volume One is now out of print and copies offered on-line range from $500 to a ridiculous $1900). In addition to some usual repertoire items, including Beethoven’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh (Dorati), complete ballets: The Nutcracker, Coppelia, Sylvia and Le Sacre du Printemps (Dorati, 1953); there are many composers and compositions that could only appear in a collection so diversified as this one. There are eight discs of Paul Paray’s superb performances of French music with the Detroit Symphony including a ripping version of the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony with Marcel Dupré, Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé, his own Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc, plus all the overtures and bonbons you could wish for by Ibert, Ravel, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Berlioz, Massenet, Thomas, Herold, Auber, Debussy and lots of Chabrier. Also works by Liszt and Richard Strauss. Marcel Dupré has a disc of Widor and Franck. Harpsichordist Rafael Puyana has three CDs containing works by Picchi, Frescobaldi, Telemann, Scarlatti and the Bachs, JS, JC and WF. The third disc, The Golden Age of Harpsichord Music from anonymous to Couperin le Grand is quite enchanting. Howard Hanson with the Eastman Rochester has no less than ten discs, eight of which are devoted to American composers including, to my great pleasure, Chadwick’s 30-minute Symphonic Sketches that comprise four pieces including Jubilee. Also two volumes aptly titled Music for Quiet Listening

And that’s not even half of what’s in the box. For detailed contents go to deccaclassics.com/us/cat/single?PRODUCT_NR=4785092.

02 wagner at the metToday millions of people around the world, sitting comfortably in their local cinema, are seeing live performances direct from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Previous generations only heard live Met performances at home, sitting around their radios and for the most part not visualizing the settings but simply listening to the music and enjoying the artistry of a favoured singer and conductor.

Recently, Sony Music has issued a few single CDs of complete operas from the radio era derived from the Met’s own archives. Now they have a 25-CD boxed set of nine renowned performances of Wagner’s music dramas from 1936 to 1954. 

The earliest of these is Götterdämmerung from January 11, 1936 boasting the incomparable Wagnerian heldentenor of the day, or maybe any day, Lauritz Melchior as Siegfried and Marjorie Lawrence singing Brunnhilde. Friedrich Schorr was Gunther and Ludwig Hoffmann sang Hagen. Artur Bodanzky conducted. Lawrence made history when she surprised and thrilled the audience and horrified the Metropolitan management by mounting and riding a live horse into the flaming Valhalla. I had hoped that the sound on the Götterdämmerung transfers would be cleaner than the Naxos edition but it is not. Clearly they are each based on the same source. The valorous decision to include this performance was an artistic choice, not a technical one. The sound of Götterdämmerung is atypical of the rest of the Ring and the other five dramas which are all eminently listenable and enjoyable. As a matter of interest, the selection of the repertoire was discussed between the Metropolitan Opera and Sony Masterworks who came to a joint agreement on the performances.

Very briefly, the others are Das Rheingold (1951) with Set Svanholm singing Loge, Hans Hotter is Wotan, Jerome Hines is Fasolt, and Jarmila Novotná is Freia. Fritz Stiedry conducts. Siegfried (1937) has Melchior at the anvil with Kirsten Flagstad’s Brunnhilde and Friedrich Schorr as Wanderer. Die Walküre (1940), complete with a wind machine in the opening, has Melchior and Lawrence as Siegmund and Sieglinde with Flagstad as Brunnhilde. Leinsdorf conducts.

Another Flagstad/Melchior collaboration is Tristan und Isolde (1938) and while the original discs are not quite pristine, the voices are clear. Bodanzky conducts. Lohengrin (1943) stars Melchior with Astrid Varnay as Elsa conducted by Leinsdorf. Fritz Reiner conducts Der Fliegende Holländer (1950) with Hotter, Varnay and Svanholm. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1953) is conducted by Reiner with Hans Hopf as Walter, Victoria de los Angeles is Eva and Paul Schöffler is Hans Sachs. Finally, Tannhäuser (1954) has George Szell in the pit with Varnay as Venus, Raymón Vinay as Tannhäuser and George London as Wolfram.

This impressive collection of legendary performances, Wagner at the Met (88765 427172, 25 CDs) includes a 128-page booklet with historic photographs, etc. but, of course, no libretti. The Met is quite serious about bringing their archives to life: Grace Row, the producer who oversaw the restoration and mastering of these performances, was previously a producer at Sony Classical in the 1990s and is now the in-house producer at the Met.

A similar collection of Verdi at the Met will be issued this fall… a welcome prospect of hearing further legendary voices in their prime.

03 archiv produktionIn 1941 Deutsche Grammophon was purchased by Siemens Electronics and following WW2 in 1947 it was proclaimed that DGG, Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, had formed Archiv, a special division to document Germany’s rich musical culture. Performances were to be historically correct in every detail with musicians playing on authentic period instruments following the performing practice of the time. Their first recording was of Helmut Walcha playing works by Bach on a small baroque organ built in 1636 housed in the Lübeck Jacobikirche. Those first sessions are to be found on the first disc of an important, strictly limited edition, Archiv Produktion 1947-2013 (00289 4791045, 55 CDs) that contains delicious performances of treasures from Gregorian Chant to Beethoven. Sometime after 1947 it was reported to “Mister Siemens” that the Archiv division was losing money. His emphatic response, I am told, was that this was of no concern as they were not in it to make money! Meticulously assembled, the early LPs were in fold-out jackets with a certificate enclosed, signed by the persons involved in the production of the disc! The 55 CDs are housed in a silver presentation box that contains a 200-page booklet detailing all the particulars of each disc plus a history of the label and lots of colour photographs of the artists. I’m sure many will find this package, subtitled “A Celebration of Artistic Excellence from the Home of Early Music,” irresistible… and rightly so. For full details check deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/single?PRODUCT_NR=4791045.

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - May 2013

In its june 1935 issue, the opinionated periodical Etude ranked Myra Hess among the twelve greatest pianists of all time and more recently she was included in the Philips omnibus edition, Great Pianists of the 20th Century. Julia Myra Hess was born in London in June 1890. At the age of seven she was the youngest person ever to receive a certificate from Trinity College. She next studied at the Guildhall School where she was awarded the coveted Gold Medal and then went on to the Royal Academy of Music where she studied with Tobias Matthay, with whom she had been awarded a three-year scholarship, and where she befriended fellow pupil Irene Scharrer. Hess made her debut, aged 17, playing the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with the 29-year-old, newly knighted Thomas Beecham conducting. She concertized extensively and in 1922 made her debut in the United States, instantly becoming a concertgoers’ favourite as she was in Europe.

01-HessMyra Hess – The complete solo and concerto studio recordings (Appian APR 7504, 5 CDs) presents her once-prized recordings to a new audience. Disc 1, the American Columbia recordings from 1928 to 1931, has 21 selections beginning with her celebrated transcription, Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, that became her signature piece. It was the first and also the last (in 1957) piece she recorded. These early performances are immediately captivating as the music appears to simply emerge, drawing the listener into a private, one-on-one appreciation of the composer. Lots of Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Debussy concluding with, surprisingly, Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance! Here are only some of the highlights of the four other discs: Disc 2 has the four English Columbias from 1933 and the HMVs from 1937–1949 including the 21st Mozart concerto conducted by Leslie Heward (1942). The HMVs from 1937–1949 continue on disc 3 with Schumann’s Carnaval (1938) and the Concerto in A Minor under Walter Goehr (1937), Franck’s Symphonic Variations under Basil Cameron (1941) and Howard Ferguson’s F Minor Sonata (1942). The HMVs from 1952 to 1957 on the last two discs include the Beethoven Sonatas Opp. 109 & 110 (1953), another Schumann A Minor Concerto with Rudolf Schwarz (1952) and his Symphonic Etudes Op.13 (1953). A final session took place on October 12, 1957 that included an inspired performance of Granados’ Maiden and the Nightingale, concluding as mentioned with her Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.

The generous liner notes are typical of Appian, being very readable with ample biographical material, recording dates and original matrix numbers, etc. The transcriptions are exemplary. This set is issued as a commemoration of the artistry of Myra Hess and while not every performance herein is equally praiseworthy, complete means complete; all 397 minutes! Those who revel in and look for the latest, fastest and loudest fingers around must look elsewhere.

Footnotes: by definition, not included is the 1927 Columbia recording of the Schubert Trio D898 with Jelly d’ Arányi and Felix Salmond or the 1935 d’ Arányi and Gaspar Cassadó Brahms Trio, Op.87 that Appian issued on APR7012. At the 1960 Edinburgh Festival she and Isaac Stern played sonatas by Brahms, Schubert, Ferguson and Beethoven that were recorded by the BBC and issued by Testament (SBT1458, 1 CD). There are a few other live performances to be found on Sony, BBC and Music and Arts CDs. Myra Hess died in London in 1965.

02-BarbirolliIn audiophile circles, the reference recording of the Sibelius Symphony No.2 is usually the Sir John Barbirolli 1962 version for Readers Digest now on Testament. A new Barbirolli performance that sweeps the field has appeared on an ICA Classics release of a concert from February 7, 1969 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (ICAC5096, 2 CDs). The program opens with an elegant reading of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony followed by Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. The tenor for the Britten is Gerald English whose voice has a texture and timbre different from Peter Pears’ for whom the work was written. Although Decca recorded the definitive version of the work in 1944 with Britten conducting the Boyd Neel Orchestra with Pears and, who else but Dennis Brain as the horn soloist, this version from Cologne is absolutely gorgeous, beautifully nuanced and abetted by the virtuoso horn soloist, Hermann Baumann.

Barbirolli’s reading of the Sibelius is exceptional even by his own high standards. He may have thought, “I’m not holding back any longer ... it’s now or never.” Perhaps not, but it certainly sounds like it. From the confidently measured opening to the closing measures this is a mighty performance from one of the very best orchestras around. In the coda of the Finale Barbirolli unexpectedly broadens the tempo as if to hold back the inevitable. The effect is stunning, a real lump-in-the-throat experience. The recording of all three works is state of the art, crystal clear and dynamic with wide open tuttis. 

03-ShostakovichOne of the less talked about Shostakovich works is the Symphony No.8 Op.65, written in 1943 during World War Two. Of one hour’s duration, on first hearing it may feel to be an enigmatic, sprawling work… the first movement alone lasts nearly 25 minutes. This impression should be dispelled by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in a live performance from The Royal Festival Hall on October 30, 1983 (LPO 0069). Rozhdestvensky is intuitively in sync with the Shostakovich of the time and is perfectly suited and able to pass it on to the audience and to us, 30 years later. The performance, while rather straightforward, is flavoured with many empathetic moments, but the most arresting surprise is the very long fermata in the percussion a few bars from the end of the third movement. The effect is still chilling after many hearings. As the final movement closes I feared that there would be an outbreak of applause to shatter the tranquility but happily there is none. Perfect!

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - April 2013

Old Wine 1As 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), record companies are issuing new and re-issuing existing recordings. Decca has outdone them all with the ultimate collection! As extensive as their catalogue and archives are, it was necessary for Decca to look beyond its own resources to assemble Verdi – The Complete Works (4784916, 75 CDs plus two 265-page hard-bound, informative books) and truly include everything. The majority of the performances come from Decca’s own archives, some from DG and two operas from EMI plus some oddments from elsewhere. Every opera is here, all 29 of them (30 if you include the 1869 version of the 1862 La Forza del Destino as a different opus), plus the Manzoni Requiem, the string quartet, sacred music, songs, ballet music, sinfonias and a group of “discoveries.” An astonishing achievement at a very low price. The packaging is unique, with each opera in an individual cardboard package listing the full cast. Synopses are included but not the libretto translations which can be found on the website. The musicians involved comprise a virtual who’s who of the last half century. Tebaldi, Pavarotti, Domingo, Caballé, Milnes, Gobbi and a page full of other great voices. Conductors include Karajan, Chailly, Abbado, Giulini, Kleiber, Muti, Solti, Levine et. al. Complete details at Arkivmusic.com.

A curiosity, The Hymn of the Nations played by the Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus and Pavarotti turns out to be a boring, indifferent piece. Compare it elsewhere to Toscanini’s electrifying arrangement and extension filmed by the American Office of War Information in December 1943. Toscanini added both the Internationale (hacked out of all subsequent audio and video reissues shortly after the war) and a heroic Star Spangled Banner.

02 GurreliederIn 1900 Schoenberg began setting to music verses by Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen that related the story of the doomed love of the Danish King Waldemar and his beloved mistress Tove, who is murdered by Waldemar’s jealous wife Helvig. Schoenberg worked on the project until 1903 when he laid it aside. In 1910 he applied himself to the task of setting and orchestrating parts two and three and by 1911 Gurrelieder, Songs of Gurre (Waldemar’s Castle) was completed. It is full of good tunes, clearly post-Wagnerian and regarded as Schoenberg’s Tristan and Isolde.

Leopold Stokowski conducted the North American premiere in Philadelphia on April 8, 1932 with repeat performances on April 9 and 11. RCA recorded and issued the final performance on 28 78rpm sides that included Stokowski’s brief discussion of the work. It is readily available on CD and the second performance, given on April 9 and taken from 33 1/3 transcription discs, is available on Pearl (CDS 9066, 2CDs).

There was much excitement when it was announced that Stokowski would conduct the work at the Edinburgh Festival in 1961 and Stoki’s admirers overseas awaited hearing it via the BBC transcription service. Alas no. The story in circulation was that the BBC tapes had been lost between Edinburgh and London. A recording of that historic performance has surfaced and it would be picayune and pointless to critique any of the soloists by comparing them to their counterparts in other recordings. James McCracken is Waldemar, Gré Bouwenstijn is Tove and Nell Rankin is the Wood Dove. Forbes Robinson is Bauer, John Lanigan is Klaus-Narr and Alvar Lidell is the speaker. The London Symphony Orchestra is joined by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. The raison d’être for the publication of this performance is Stokowski who really gets what its all about and is completely immersed in the music. Under his baton the score grows organically, culminating in the glorious and overwhelming choral sunrise. The mono recording is not quite as articulate as we now take for granted but it is eminently fulfilling with unrestrained dynamics. I was not in any sense disappointed (Guild GHCD 2388/89, 2 CDs).

Included in this set is Verklärte Nacht that was recorded by Victor in 1952 just months after Schoenberg’s death. The string orchestra was comprised of New York musicians chosen by Stokowski, whose practice it was to telephone each individual and personally engage them. Here is a passionate, heartfelt performance that, while amply dramatic, has no hint whatsoever of bathos. The transfer is exemplary. This is the first of Stokowski’s three recordings of the work. Incidentally, Stokowski is unique in having performed all of Schoenberg’s orchestral works during the composer’s lifetime.

03 AitkenCanada is blessed with a certain number of outstanding classical musicians of international calibre and reputation. Flutist Robert Aitken is one of them, still enjoying an impressive international career spanning more than 50 years. In addition to his engagements as a flutist, he is a composer, conductor and the founding artistic director of Toronto’s New Music Concerts. Aitken also held the position of professor of flute at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany until his retirement in 2004.

With more than 60 recordings over the years, his collaborations have included a host of luminaries, including the late, great harpsichordist Greta Kraus. This disc features Aitken and Kraus in live direct-to-disc recordings from 1979 of J.S. Bach’s Three Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord BWV1030-1032 and from 1969, the Partita BWV997. Bach composed the partita for lute alone and here Aitken and Kraus play their own transcription.

This new CD amply demonstrates Aitken’s supremacy in his field ... silky tone, breathtaking virtuosity and fluid pyrotechnics. His always immaculate intonation and artistry communicate the best of the composer to his audience. In the familiar C.P.E. Bach Concerto Wq22, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting, Aitken and the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra offer a crisp and enthusiastic performance as fine as any that I’ve heard. Live from 1981, the restored sound is outstanding, as it is on each and every track on this CD (DOREMI DHR-6611). 

 

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - March 2013

Although Gramophone Magazine recently determined that Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra was the finest orchestra in the world, other surveys have given that honour to the more highly esteemed Vienna Philharmonic. Unlike the Concertgebouw and other orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic does not engage a permanent conductor. It draws its members from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera and its home is Vienna’s illustrious Musikverein where most of its recordings are made. TV viewers around the world know the Musikverein thanks to the annual telecast of the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concert.

01 WienerThe Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is a democratic, self-governing body founded in 1842 by composer Otto Nicolai (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and since then the greatest conductors of their time have stood before them, from Hans Richter, Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner and Wilhelm Furtwangler to Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Clemens Krauss and George Szell. The list goes on to include the maestros who are heard in the Wiener Philharmoniker Symphony Edition from Deutsche Grammophon (4790718, 50 CDs) containing 95 symphonies by 13 composers.

In June 1984, James Levine recorded Mozart symphonies 28, 29 and 30, initiating what would become a complete cycle. A year later, in June 1985, he set down six more, with further sessions in December 1986, December 1987 and June 1989, with the final two sessions in February and December 1990. Levine was George Szell’s apprentice in Cleveland in 1964 and 1965 and assistant conductor until 1970. Levine absorbed Szell’s characteristically crisp articulation and clarity of the melodic line, qualities that serve Mozart well. Unavailable for many years, the return to active duty of this complete cycle, occupying the first 11 discs, is more than welcome.

Discs 12 and 13 are devoted to Haydn’s symphonies 88 to 92 and 105 conducted by Karl Böhm whose traditional Kapellmeister elegance will charm those who look for such music making (1972/73 recordings). Discs 14 to 18 find the nine Beethoven symphonies divided up between Bernstein (1, 3 and 9); Abbado (2 and 4); Kleiber (5 and 7) and Böhm (6 and 8); judiciously allocated, as demonstrated by the selection of Böhm’s perfect realization of the “Pastoral” from 1971.

Discs 19 and 20 contain Schubert’s 3, 5, 8 and 9 with Kleiber, Böhm and Gardiner while disc 21 has Gardiner again in Mendelssohn’s 4 and 5. Discs 22 and 23 have Bernstein’s final recorded interpretations of Schumann from 1984/85 revealing an understanding and commitment beyond him ten years earlier in New York. Discs 24 to 26 find the Brahms symphonies allocated to Bernstein (1, 2), Giulini (3) and Kleiber (4). No arguments here. Discs 27 to 32 have six of Bruckner’s nine, with three given to Abbado (1, 4 and 5), Karajan’s swan song 7 (1989) and 8 (1988), with the 9th under Giulini. Discs 33 to 35 have Karajan’s arguably finest performances of Tchaikovsky’s 4, 5 and 6, all from 1984.

Discs 36 and 37 offer only four of Dvořak’s nine: unexpectedly by Myung-Whun Chung (6, 7) and Maazel (8, 9). Discs 38 to 47 offer an almost complete Mahler cycle: Abbado (2, 3, 4 and 9), Bernstein (5, 8 and the Adagio from 10) and Boulez gets the 6th.

Discs 48 to 50 are given to Leonard Bernstein conducting astounding performances of Sibelius 1, 2, 5 and 7 and finally the 6th and 9th by Shostakovich. Both Sibelius and Shostakovich receive performances of a lifetime, no ifs, ands or buts. A supercharged, over-the-top coda to this exemplary, ridiculously inexpensive collection.

02 PresslerWe know Menahem Pressler primarily as the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, the group that he founded in 1955 which soon became one of the most respected chamber groups in history. He also performed and recorded outside the trio as a soloist and in concerted works. The trio disbanded in 2008 but Pressler continues to perform as soloist and accompanist. DOREMI has issued a set of CDs featuring Pressler’s Chopin recorded c.1960 (DHR-7989/90, 2 stereo CDs). Heard are three works with orchestra, the two concertos and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Op.22 together with three polonaises and five mazurkas. Pressler was evidently in top form on each occasion and we witness his Chopin to be expressive and eloquent with touches of refreshing originality.

The sound is pleasantly warm and quite convincing due to the tube-based electronics used for the meticulous transfers. I must comment that, as in the original LPs, the sound in the three concerted works (all with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra) tends to favour the piano. This is volume two in a series and I am informed that volumes three and four contain Pressler’s entire Mozart, Prokofiev and Shostakovich recordings including concertos.

03 BarbraWhen Classical Barbra was issued in 1976 a few “classical music lovers” expressed righteousness indignation at the thought of Barbra Streisand even attempting to perform “their” repertoire. Claus Ogerman made the arrangements and conducted the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Ten tracks were issued on the LP and then on a CD which has never left the catalogue. It is now exactly 40 years since these songs were recorded and Columbia has taken the opportunity to remaster the ten originals and add two unreleased songs (Sony 92255-2).

No one is claiming that any one of these is the best version but Streisand fans will enjoy 40 minutes of hearing her distinctive voice in unusual and attractive, evocative repertoire including chansons of Debussy, Cantaloube and Fauré and lieder of Wolf, Schumann and Schubert among other offerings. 

Old Wine, New Bottles | Fine Old Recordings Re-Released - February 2013

01 CelibidacheMany of us have attended or heard performances of the Brahms First Symphony that for the most part have slipped from memory. As important as it is, this symphony has fallen into the war-horse, crowd-pleaser category and a performance whether heard live or via recordings can appear to be just another work on the program, or a revelation! Granted any first hearing will be a unique experience but one would need to be quite familiar with a few different versions to recognize that a particular new performance is exceptional. Case in point is a new release of a concert performance by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Celibidache (Vienna Symphony CD, WS002 mono).

Celibidache refused to make commercial recordings, stating that such documents would only reveal how he conducted the work at that time of day, on that date, in that venue ... etc., etc. On the evening of October 30, 1952, in the Konzerthaus, this is how they played! It remains a truly memorable event. The playing is articulate, no slurring, clean winds and brass and no pregnant pauses. The music seems to drive itself. This is a passionate performance directed by a young firebrand and is no way akin to his later settled-in and comfortable versions — from the 1976 Stuttgart RSO (DG) and the 1987 Munich Philharmonic (EMI). This performance remains not a monument to Brahms but a celebration. The mono sound is full bodied and dynamic, typical of the best engineering of the day.

02 Fischer-DieskauAlthough there were others, for the second half of the 20th century and beyond, when one considered performances of Schubert lieder, the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau enjoyed his well-deserved prime reputation. Of course, he was also known for his Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Mahler and Richard Strauss and others from Bach to Berg and Britten. And he loved to make recordings.

He recorded the three Schubert cycles many times, because, unlike instrumentalists and some conductors, he wanted a wide audience to know how he sang it that day with that accompanist. He talks about this in a charming interview/conversation dating from the 1985 Schubertiade, part of a DVD release from Arthaus Musik of Schubert (Arthaus 107523, 2 DVDs). Die Schöne Müllerin was recorded live in 1991 at the Montforthaus in Feldkirch with Andres Schiff including, as a bonus, the conversation with Franz Zoglauer. Winterreise was filmed a dozen years earlier in Siemens Villa, Berlin in 1979 and includes almost an hour of rehearsal for the recital with Alfred Brendel. So why would this singer require a rehearsal of what was his basic repertoire? As he says on the other disc, different accompanists can elicit different variations in his interpretation and together they work it out. Together, the two DVDs provide a most satisfying evening.

03 Das LiedI must remind readers of what I consider to be the most satisfying recording ever of Das Lied von der Erde: Fischer-Dieskau conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra with alto, Yve Janicke and tenor Christian Elsner (Orfeo C494001 B). Not surprisingly, the orchestral playing is unusually expressive and much more sublimely lyrical than other versions particularly, but not only in the winds. The overwhelming loneliness and resignation of Der Abschied is heart-breaking. Recorded in concert on June 22 at the 1996 Schubertiade in the medieval town of Feldkirch, this would be one of my ten Desert Island discs.

Alfred Cortot was one of the most respected musicians and pianists of the early 1900s and into the 1950s. His recordings were once the cornerstones in the libraries of Chopin and Schumann aficionados around the world. Cortot was born in 1877 in the Suisse Romande and studied and was awarded in Paris. He was choral conductor in Bayreuth in 1901 and was responsible for the mounting of Götterdämmerung in Paris in 1902 which he also conducted. The Cortot, Casals and Jacques Thibaud Trio had a well-deserved reputation and was in part responsible for elevation of the trio form from the salon to the concert stage. Cortot was a sensitive accompanist for singers and string players alike. He also conducted notable recordings.

Today, perfect technique has become the norm and the prime concern of audiences who, to paraphrase Professor Higgins, don’t care about what instrumentalists play as long as they play all the right notes. Cortot was one of the last musicians from the times when personal and intuitive interpretations overrode minor concern for technical perfection.


04 CortotThe motherlode of his recordings, Alfred Cortot An Anniversary Edition, contains every EMI recording from 1919 to 1959 including unreleased items (EMI 5099970490725 40 CDS). As of this writing, a complete list of the some 275 works can only be seen at Arkivmusic: arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=817326.

Chatting about this totally new, all newly remastered set recently, I was asked “Did they leave in all the wrong notes?” Yes, they did.

05 Britten RostropovichICA Classics continues to release DVDs of concert performances featuring Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in The Maltings Concert Hall in Aldeburgh as they were recorded for broadcast by the BBC. From June 16, 1968 (ICAD 5025) Mstislav Rostropovich is the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations Op 33 and the Pezzo capriccioso Op.62. The orchestra plays the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Also on this DVD, the orchestra is joined by the Aldeburgh Festival Singers on June 5, 1970, from a performance of a suite from Britten’s Gloriana: The Tournament, The Lute Song (with Peter Pears) and Apotheosis. As this is the only recording of Britten conducting anything from Gloriana it will be of particular interest to collectors. 


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