It is Friday afternoon and my daughter Adrienne just called me and asked what I was doing now. “I’m having a wonderful afternoon, wallowing in the music from a box of mono recordings.”

01_Decca_mono_years.jpgThe Decca Sound The Mono Years 1944-1956 (Decca 4787946, 53 CDs) is a treasure trove of exemplary performances of symphonic and instrumental music by artists in the Decca stable at the time. FFRR, the ear and ffrr logo, standing for “full frequency range recording,” were registered trademarks and their appearance on the label informed the consumer that this recording sounded better than anything else on the market. For sure, the tipping point into the classical market was when Ernest Ansermet came to London and recorded Petrouchka with the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be released on five 78rpm records. Records are what recordings were called at the time. In November 1949 Ansermet recorded Petrouchka once more, this time in Geneva with the orchestra he had founded in 1918, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Issued, as before on ten 78rpm sides, it also appeared as Decca’s first Long Playing Microgroove record in June 1950 (years ahead of EMI, as usual) and three months later on, yes, as five 78s. As American Columbia, who developed the LP, had trademarked the name and the lp symbol, other companies could not call their LPs, LP. Phillips, who was Columbia’s partner in Europe, for example, coined “mini-groove.” Eventually however LP became generic.

That Geneva Petrouchka elevated Decca as a label and equally important spotlighted Ansermet and his orchestra. The Petrouchka is on the first disc in this Decca box along with their Le Sacre du Printempsrecorded in October 1950. Both are fine performances that are still admirable, dynamic and cleanly recorded, the harbinger of the many wonderful, highly sought-after Decca recordings to come from Ansermet conducting the Suisse Romande and other orchestras in an astonishingly wide repertoire. Included here are Roussel’sThe Spider’s Feast; Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin; Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead; Dukas’ Le Peri and Debussy’s Six Epigraphes antiques and Jeux.

01b_von_Beinham.jpgThe world’s expanding demand for more ffrr recordings necessitated finding new artists and the recruiting began, acquiring many now-familiar names. The young Georg Solti was signed in 1947 as a pianist and made several recordings with violinist Georg Kulenkampff. Solti was itching to conduct and so he did with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Many of his recordings from the time are included here: with the LPO are Bartók, Kodály and Haydn and with the LSO Mozart. In March 1946 The Concertgebouw Orchestra under Eduard van Beinum visited London and in the Walthamstow Assembly Hall they had their first recording session with Decca. Their sessions in mid-March 1947 included the Leonore Overture No.2 that was issued on two 10” 78s and hasn’t been heard since. Decca made regular trips to Amsterdam, where in September 1948 Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was taken down and in 1953, Decca’s final year before the orchestra went to Philips, van Beinum recorded William Pijper’sThird Symphony and a suite from Diepenbrock’s Marsyas produced by John Culshaw who had joined Decca in 1946. Many more items of the Eduard van Beinum recorded legacy with Decca are available on a 5-CD set Decca Original Masters (4731102).

One wonders why EMI let Benjamin Britten change record companies. Britten and Peter Pears had already recorded folk songs for EMI who also released an abridged Peter Grimes and Rape of Lucretia but as heard here, Decca has Britten conducting his Sinfonia da Requiem, Diversions for Piano left hand (with Julius Katchen),Four Sea Interludesand Passacaglia from Grimes and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

On a personal note; from 1952 to 1955 Decca had recorded Sir Adrian Boult in the complete Vaughan Williams Symphonies (seven at the time) with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Those performances were assembled and issued in a uniquely packaged set soon after. My wife presented me with that set for my 25th birthday. Some great wife!

Long gone are the many, many artists who live on in their performances documented by Decca, always in technology ahead of state of the art. The hi-fi era was ushered in by Decca’s ffrr recordings. The CDs in this set are sensibly arranged by artist with a composer’s directory in the booklet. Surprisingly, there is no duplication of any work. Here are but a few of the artists represented in this collection with a significant work:

Alfredo Campoli: Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (with van Beinum), Elgar Violin Concerto (with Boult); Amadeus Quartet: Mozart Piano Quartets (with Clifford Curzon); Adrian Boult: Vaughan Williams Job and the Suite from the Wasps; also Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev; Sir Arthur Bliss conducts his Colour Symphony and his Violin Concerto (with Alfredo Campoli); Anthony Collins: Walton/Sitwell Façade (with Sitwell and Pears) and Elgar, Falstaff; Clifford Curzon: Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 (van Beinum); Mischa Elman: Beethoven Violin Concerto (with Solti); Christian Ferras: Brahms Violin Concerto (with Carl Schuricht); Anatole Fistoulari: Graduation Ball and ballets by Gluck, Grétry and Tchaikovsky’s usual three; Pierre Fournier: Brahms’ two cello sonatas (Backhaus); Maurice Gendron: Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata (Jean Françaix), Schumann Cello Concerto (Ansermet); Griller Quartet: Bloch’s four string quartets and Sibelius Voces Intímae; Friedrich Gulda: Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas 26 & 29 and Eroica Variations; Quartetto Italiano: Quartets by Haydn, Boccherini, Schumann and Verdi; Thomas Jensen: Sibelius Lemminkäinen and Karelia Suites; Erich Kleiber: Beethoven Symphonies 6 & 9 plus Wagner; Hans Knappertsbusch: Bruckner Third Symphony (third version, Schalk & Loewe) VPO; Moura Lympany: Rachmaninov Third Concerto (Anthony Collins), Khachaturian Concerto (Fistoulari); Peter Maag: Mozart Symphonies 28 & 29, Serenade in D major K203I; Jean Martinon: Lalo, two Namouna Suites; Fauré and Françaix Concertino (with Kathleen Long); Boyd Neel: Handel 12 Concerti Grossi, Op.6; Zara Nelsova: cello sonatas by Rachmaninov and Kodály; Ruggiero Ricci: two violin concertos by Paganini (with Anthony Collins); Trio de Trieste: Beethoven Archduke Trio, Brahms Trio No.1; Erik Tuxen: fifth symphonies by Prokofiev and Sibelius; Vegh Quartet: string quartets by Smetana, Kodály and Schubert; Wiener Oktett: Mozart Divertimenti 10 & 17, Mendelssohn Octet, Brahms Clarinet Quintet (Alfred Boskovsky).

Because British Decca and American Decca were unrelated, the records were re-labelled London for distribution in North America and elsewhere. The offerings in this box are not presented as a sonic spectacular but as a true reproduction of the original truth of the monaural recordings heard better now than then.

02_Stern_Berg_Bartok.jpgLast month I mentioned attending a Boulez 1969 concert in the Royal Festival Hall that included the Berg Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern. There is no Boulez/Stern recording but in 1959 Stern recorded the concerto in New York with Leonard Bernstein conducting. Praga has produced an SACD “DSD remastered from the original quadraphonic tentatives…without artificial back effect.” (Praga PRD/DSD 350099 hybrid). The disc-mates are the Bartók Violin Concerto and Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. Stern had a unique, recognizable timbre that makes this an attractive disc particularly in view of the interpretative insights all around and the ideal sound.

03_Dohnanyi.jpgBack in the days of classical AM stations, there was a place for attractive works of lasting interest but of shorter rather than longer duration. There was a Dohnányi piece that surfaced regularly, the Rhapsody in C Major, Op.11 No.3 played by the renowned pianist Eileen Joyce. Testament has issued some previously unissued concert performances by Ernö Dohnányi (AKA Ernst von Dohnányi) recorded live at the Edinburgh Festival in 1956, at Florida University in 1959 and a couple of BBC transcriptions (SBT2 1505, 2 CDs). Born in 1877 in Bratislava (then Pozsony), Dohnányi attended the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest where he studied with Istvan Thomán, a pupil of Liszt. As did Béla Bartók and György Cziffra. Dohnányi became a composer, pianist and conductor. Through the first half of the last century he was regarded as a pianist of the first rank but today most music lovers might only recognize him as the composer of Variations on a Nursery Tune for piano and orchestra. He did however write a significant amount of chamber music, which is well represented in the catalogue, and composed major symphonic works.

The Florida recital opens with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.16, Op.31. No.1, Schubert’s No.18 D894 and three pieces of Dohnányi’s  own. Disc two contains six solo pieces and a concerto, Symphonic Minutes, Op.36. This is a brilliant, interesting four-movement work of which there are another two performances in the catalogue – neither of which I have heard – but this one has the composer-pianist playing. It must be noted that because of the variation of recorded quality of the originals, this release is intended for avid collectors and archivists who can listen through the artifacts. However, I find that the brain soon adjusts and diminishes the steady extraneous distractions. 

April_Editor_scans_01_Amram.jpgI was intrigued to receive a package from Woody Guthrie Publications in New York City and more so when I opened it to find it contained This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie by David Amram performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (coloradosymphony.org). I first encountered the music of David Amram almost half a century ago on the soundtrack to the seminal Beat Generation film Pull My Daisy directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. The film included Amram’s jazz setting of the title poem written by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The somewhat haunting theme proved to be an earworm that has stuck with me since first hearing. (If you haven’t seen the film you can check it out at ubu.com/film/leslie_daisy.html.) My next exposure was at the Mariposa Festival one of the years it took place on the Toronto Islands where Amram was featured in a variety of guises, including in the children’s tent with Raffi who sang a catchy song to the tune of Arkansas Traveler with the words “Peanut butter sandwich made with jam, One for me and one for David Amram…” which still pops up in my ears from time to time. Amram is a renaissance man who is seemingly comfortable in all genres and on almost all instruments. A pioneer of jazz French horn and a trailblazer of the World Music movement, he is equally at home in the concert hall, having conducted more than 75 orchestras and performed as orchestral soloist on a host of different instruments. In 1966 Leonard Bernstein appointed him as the first composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and his oeuvre extends to more than 100 orchestral and chamber works, several operas and a couple of notable film scores (Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate). All of which is to say that he has impeccable credentials to pay tribute to one of the most iconic songwriters and chroniclers of American life.

Lasting nearly 40 minutes, This Land uses the orchestral palette to paint a vast pastoral portrait of the land that Guthrie traveled so extensively and described so aptly in his songs. The work is divided into six main movements with descriptive titles: Theme and Variations for the Road (in which we first hear the familiar tune from the marimba) & Variation I: Oklahoma Stomp Dance; Variation II: Sunday Morning Church Service in Okema (Guthrie’s home town); Variation III: Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance; Variation IV: Dreaming of Mexico; Variation V: Dust Bowl Dirge; Variation VI: Street Sounds of New York’s Neighborhoods (which includes Caribbean Street Festival, Klezmer Wedding, Salvation Army Hymn and Block Party Jam). The melody of This Land Is Your Land is cleverly woven throughout the textures of the work, sometimes hidden but never far from the surface, and appears in some surprising contexts such as the ground bass for the klezmer clarinet solo. My only concern is the overall subdued nature of the work. It never gets truly raucous or rambunctious and we never hear the hard edge of Guthrie’s gritty side, his working class hero with the emblem “this guitar kills fascists” etched on his axe. This Land is complemented with another pastorale, a mellow set of variations for flute and strings on the American classic folk song Red River Valley.

April_Editor_scans_02_Monk_Feldman.jpgA disc that met all my expectations was recently released by New World Records (80765-2)Soft Horizons features works by Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman performed by pianist Aki Takahashi, the Flux Quartet and the DownTown Ensemble. It opens in a very contemplative mood with the title piece, a solo piano work reminiscent of the composer’s late husband and mentor Morton Feldman. The sparse, gentle, meandering work gives each note time to breathe before moving on, producing a wondrous sense of calm while at the same time creating a sense of anticipation as we await the next quiet event. Written in 2012, Soft Horizons is the most recent work presented.

Although currently residing in Guelph, Monk Feldman lived for many years in New Mexico. Her 2004 String Quartet No.1 is subtitled Desert Scape and presents two visions of that geological phenomenon. The first begins with a consonant viola melody commented upon by bird- or insect-like sounds from the violins. As the movement develops the harmonies get closer in a kind of gentle abrasiveness which is supplanted by melodies echoed in higher octaves and later a Bartókian “night music” section, but in slow motion. The second movement maintains the sense of uneasy calm, this time with high melodies and commentaries in the lower strings. As the piece gradually unfolds we are drawn into a delicate soundworld where the sense of disquiet gradually seems to become the new normal.

The final piece, The Chaco Wilderness (2005), while maintaining the overall sonic mood of gradual progression adds a wealth of colour to the textures through its use of vibraphone, flute, clarinet, guitar/mandolin and piano. The work is in three contrasting movements and is the shortest by far on the disc. It may seem surprising that it contains the most “activity” per se, but I rather think that this is indicative of Monk Feldman’s style. The pieces in which “nothing happens” need a longer time frame to unfold.

All of the artists on this recording are masters of the genre. Aki Takahashi has been in the forefront of the avant garde since the 1970s, working with Cage, Xenakis, Boulez and Takemitsu to name but a few. In 1980 she was invited by Morton Feldman as a Creative Associate of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY, Buffalo. FLUX, which includes Canadian violist Max Mandel, was founded nearly 20 years ago and has been active on the New York scene ever since. Among their achievements is the performance (and recording for Mode Records) of Morton Feldman’s stunning five and half hour String Quartet No.2. The DownTown Ensemble, founded by Daniel Goode and William Hellermann, is now in its fourth decade of presenting experimental music in virtually all of its diverse forms.

April_Editor_scans_03_Gonzales.jpgComing at it from a very different angle, Europeanized Canadian MC/pop arranger/composer/performer Chilly Gonzales (aka Jason Charles Beck) has been working extensively with the Hamburg-based Kaiser Quartett lately and has just released a disc of original compositions for piano and string quartet. Chambers (Gentle Threat Records GENTLE016, chillygonzales.com) is intended as a reimagining of “Romantic-era chamber music as today’s addictive pop” and the project succeeds, with catchy melodies and warm harmonic writing. While it certainly doesn’t push any boundaries of new classical vocabulary it will open the ears of people who don’t normally have occasion to listen to string quartets or thoughtful instrumental music. The overall feeling of the disc is surprisingly laid-back, with only three of the twelve tracks proceeding at anything faster than a moderato pace, but this makes for a sense of continuity throughout. The titles are playful, including clever wordplay as in Prelude to a FeudFreudian Slippers, and Green’s Leaves. One surprise is a slightly melancholy piece called Odessa, dedicated to the Ukrainian-born Russian composer Reinhold Glière. Another is a haunting vocal ballad, Myth Me, the earworm which concludes the disc. Concert Note: Chilly Gonzales and the Kaiser Quartett perform at Koerner Hall on April 21.

April_Editor_scans_04_Lefevre.jpgAnother album with a somewhat similar feel comes from renowned classical pianist Alain Lefèvre who is known for his recordings of Chopin, Liszt and Mozart and also for his championing of the music of Canadian wunderkind André Mathieu (1929-1968). Rive Gauche (Analekta AN 2 9295) is a collection of Lefèvre’s own compositions, in his words “films for the ear, images for the piano” so it is likely no coincidence that the disc begins with a piece entitled Cinema Lumière. There is an overall sense of nostalgia in these warm, melodic pieces that range from swinging solo piano miniatures to chamber jazz tunes with the addition of bass (Michel Donato) and drums (Paul Brochu). Violinist Angèle Dubeau makes a cameo appearance on the tune Paris de mes souvenirs, a lovely ballad full of longing, and Léane Labrêche-Dor adds her pleasing jazz-infected voice to the closing track Au bout de mes rêves.

April_Editor_scans_05_Saint-Saens.jpgWhen we think of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) such works as the Carnival of the AnimalsDanse macabre and the magnificent Organ Symphony come most readily to mind, but he also left some chamber gems behind, including a number of sonatas for various instruments, a piano quintet, a piano quartet and two piano trios. It is the Piano Trios which are featured on a new disc by Trio Latitude 41 (Eloquentia EL 1547 eloquentia.fr). The curious name of the trio stems from the geographical placement of both their first engagement in Rhode Island and the city of Rome, where the Italian cellist Luigi Piovano lives. The other members are American violinist Livia Sohn and Canadian-born pianist Bernadene Blaha, who for the past two decades has made her home in Los Angeles where she teaches at the University of Southern California.

While far from unknown, these trios are quite underrepresented in the catalogue – only three other recordings of the two together, including one by the Vienna Piano Trio who appeared in Toronto recently courtesy of Mooredale Concerts, turned up on a quick search at Grigorian.com – and these sensitive and nuanced performances are a welcome addition. The trios were composed three decades apart, the first having been written in 1863 and the second not until 1892. The disc opens with the latter, with rumbling bass from the piano’s left hand and a welcoming melody from the strings accompanied by ebullient passages from pianist’s right hand. Although not a work we hear very often it sounds familiar in wonderful way, with hints of Mendelssohn’s A Minor Trio without seeming derivative. At 35 minutes it is an exhilarating and at times intense journey. The charming earlier trio, itself nearly half an hour long, is lighter and more playful, perhaps indicative of the youth of the composer, but balanced and well crafted. Both receive compelling performances in this rewarding release. I thank Trio Latitude 41 for bringing these works (back) to my attention.

Review

April_Editor_scans_06_McBirnie.jpgAnd in closing, something completely different – the latest from Mr. “Extreme Flute” Bill McBirnie. On Grain of Sand (EF07 extremeflute.com) McBirnie once again teams up with Latin multi-instrumentalist Bruce Jones, revisiting a partnership which resulted in the 1998 album Desvio. Jones wrote all the music, some of the tunes in collaboration with McBirnie, and the results are predominantly Brazilian-inspired samba and bossa nova style with plenty of Jones’ distinctive nylon-string guitar and vocals. Although only the two musicians are involved they have used the recording studio to good advantage, creating a multi-layered offering that is especially effective in the flute duet over guitar and ambient drone in Lembrando Paul Horn (Remembering Paul Horn). Other influences include hip-hop and funk and the end result is a diverse mosaic ranging from the mellow Vai Bem Devagar  (Proceed with Caution) to the bouncing Cê Tá Com Tudo (You Are Everything), while maintaining an integral continuity. McBirnie’s flute, although not particularly “extreme” in this instance, is lively and lilting as it soars over the bed tracks laid down by Jones, in the forefront in the instrumental tunes where it has the dominant melody and tastefully in the background or heard in duet with Jones’ voice in the songs with lyrics. I only wish they had included the words and translations in the package. This is good time music, well played and obviously enjoyed by McBirnie and Jones. It takes me back to my introduction to this genre back in the 1970s when I first heard Brazilian icon Jorge Ben (Jor). Thanks for the memories!

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, expanded and archival reviews. David Olds, DISCoveries Editor discoveries@thewholenote.com

01_Vocal_01_Handel_Ariodante.jpgHandel – Ariodante
Ann Murray; Joan Rodgers; English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus; 
Ivor Bolton
ArtHaus Musik 100065

Ariodante is a late opera by Handel. It is also one of his finest. It broke new ground in a number of ways: there are important ballet scenes; there is a real chorus; and there are substantial parts for the tenor and for the bass. This DVD is a record of the English National Opera production of the work, first mounted in 1993, then revived in 1996. Like all ENO productions it is sung in English. I think there is some point in translating a libretto into the language of most people in the audience in the case of comic operas or works with spoken dialogue. I don’t think it helps with an opera seria by Handel.

The production is by David Alden, who has in recent years given us several controversial productions for the Canadian Opera Company. There are a number of directorial excesses such as the quite gratuitous dream sequences, while the ballets that conclude both the second and third act are abominable. Moreover, the artists whom we see and hear are singers, not film stars. Several of the women are heavily made up and would no doubt look splendid from the second balcony. They do not in close-up and yet close-ups are what we get much of the time.

The conductor, Ivor Bolton, is very good and there is some fine singing from Ann Murray and Joan Rodgers, from Lesley Garrett and Gwynne Howell. But if your main interest is in the music you are better off listening to one of the CD sets available such as the version conducted by Raymond Leppard on Philips (with Janet Baker and Norma Burrowes) or that conducted by Alan Curtis on Virgin (with Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux).

 

01_Vocal_02_Mozart_Zauber.jpgMozart – Die Zauberflöte
Schmitt; Landshamer; Oliemans; Lejderman; Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra;
Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte OA 1122 D

Die Zauberflöte is not an easy opera to pull off, as it needs a director who is able to present the farcical elements such as the serpent that threatens Tamino at the beginning of the opera and the antics of Papageno, but is also in tune with the sense of ritual needed for the scenes with Sarastro and his initiates. This production, directed by Simon McBurney, is on the whole quite successful. I did not like everything: I could have done without the crowds of actors running on the stage, waving pieces of paper and pretending to be birds. I thought the initiates in their suits and with their neckties looked too much like the personnel of an insurance company. I don’t understand why the Queen of the Night was in a wheelchair or why the Three Spirits (very well sung by three boy sopranos) were made to look like wizened old men or why the Speaker was so grim and unsympathetic.

But there are marvellous moments. Pamina (the wonderful Christina Landshamer) and Papageno (Thomas Oliemans, a fine actor and a fine singer) set up a great relationship in their first scene together which then leads to a beautiful performance of the duet: Bei Männer welche Liebe fühlen. In several scenes Tamino plays his (magic) flute. Clearly unless the tenor is also a flutist he will mime these scenes while the flute is played by an orchestral musician. McBurney has taken the conventional presentation a stage further by either having the flutist join Tamino on stage or moving Tamino down into the orchestra pit. This is an inventive production set on a bare stage without any emphasis on theatrical illusion. Michael Levine’s set designs complement the production very well. The whole opera is well sung and there is no weak link in the cast.

01_Vocal_03_Etienne_Dupuis.jpgLove Blows as the Wind Blows
Etienne Dupuis; Quatuor Claudel-Canimex
ATMA ACD2 2701

Etienne Dupuis developed for himself a reputation of being a clown – first with his classmates at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University and then with the attendees of his concerts. In this recording, Dupuis is all (most) business, as the mood called for in the songs of British composers is sombre. Loss of faith, end of life ruminations and such are only occasionally relieved by the wonders of nature (“O, the month of May, the merry month of May”). His voice is full and robust, and yet Dupuis uses vibrato, not very often associated with the baritone, to an interesting result in Barber’s Dover Beach. The accompaniment of Quatuor Claudel-Canimex, whose members are the mainstays of the Orchestra of Lanaudière – Canada’s best-loved classical music festival – harmonizes beautifully with his voice. The mood continues with the Adagio for string quartet by Barber – a piece no doubt demonstrating the Quatour Claudel-Canimex’s abilities, but in my opinion, unnecessarily omnipresent.

Speaking of omnipresent, the imp in Dupuis raises its head, with the hammed-up rendition of Danny Boy – though I cannot deny the beauty of the last note! The true gem of the album hides at the very end: Réjean Coallier’s setting of poems by Sylvain Garneau. Garneau died at the age of 23, leaving behind a small body of lyrical works. Coallier, a Montreal-based pianist, composer and teacher, offers a loving treatment of the poetry, with beautiful melodies lining the words with silky gentleness. Again, Dupuis sounds great – which he does whenever he overcomes his inner clown.

 

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