Classical Reissue Reviews
Reissue CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on April 1, 2004
April 2004, Pt. 1 of 2
MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor
Sir John Barbirolli conducts Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Testament SBT 1342 74:50 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) led and recorded (some are live broadcasts) all the Mahler symphonies except the Eighth. Having rediscovered his affection for the music of Mahler in the mid-1950′s, Sir John made Manchester a haven for Mahler interpretation; he then extended his repute in this music to Berlin, playing Mahler’s Ninth with the BPO in1963. Given his emotional, driven style of leadership, the Berlin players responded warmly, especially after their years since 1954 with Karajan’s cool, over-refined demeanor. Karajan would not conduct Mahler in Berlin until 1972, when he led the Fifth Symphony.
This frenzied account of the Mahler 6th (which includes periodic “singing” by Sir John) derives from the concert of 13 January 1966, where the rest of the program was filled in with Mozart’s Symphony No. 34. This so-called “Tragic” Symphony has any number of pitfalls for the interpreter, including severe shifts of tempo and mood, a strange, almost occult mixture of spiritual malaise and bucolic nostalgia, captured in the shambling cowbells that intermittently intrude on the music. I won’t try to describe Barbirolli’s way with each of the movements: suffice it to say that everything has high voltage and tender sympathy, with superheated execution from the Berlin strings and the horns. Barbirolli puts the Andante after the opening Allegro energico, and the striking of the string bows against the wood, col legno, is as aggressive as I’ve ever heard. The hammer strokes at the end bring to a cosmic peroration a reading headstrong, focused, and passionate in a way that must be heard by Mahler devotees. This record alone would justify the legend of Barbirolli’s
Mahler in Berlin.
ELGAR: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47; Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55
Sir John Barbirolli conducts Halle Orchestra
BBC Legends BBCL 4106-2 67:14 (Distrib. Koch):
With this release of two-thirds of the all-Elgar concert Sir John Barbirolli gave with the Halle on 24 July 1970 at the St. Nicholas Chapel as part of the King’s Lynn Festival, we can enjoy the entire evening, provided we own Intaglio INCD 701-1, which gave us Kirstin Meyer’s rendition of the Sea Pictures, Op. 37. Sir John was in failing health, and he would pass away only a few days later, after having rehearsed Britten and Mahler for a tour to Tokyo, dying in his hotel from his final heart attack. Much aware of his precarious health, Barbirolli told his producer at each concert of 1970, “You know, this music might be my last.”
The Introduction and Allegro and Barbirolli go back to 1927, when he made the first of six recordings. A kind of concerto grosso “with a devil of a fugue” is one way to see the piece. Its tender section is in G Major. Barbirolli takes an aggressive stance with this work, even broader than the approach he takes in his 1960’s recording. The so-called “Welsh” theme has a misty-eyed grace, and the fugal scherzo is all sizzle. When the Welsh theme returns at the conclusion, nobilimente, Sir John has the audience in the palm of his hand. Sir John did not first attempt the First Symphony until 1933, but it was a work he came to cherish. Its main tenor seems to be a dignified series of march tempos, interrupted by short bursts and fragmented bits of rhythmic figures. Eventually, the fragments congeal into more extended melody in D Major. Barbirolli delivers a measured, elegant performance, again emphasizing the nobility and sincerity of the occasion. Although I find the music somewhat meandering, a tenuous splicing of Brahms and Bruckner, the audience obviously relishes every note, and its explosion of approval makes a wonderful valediction for a grand master in Britain’s musical life.
FRANK MARTIN: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra – The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney/ Paul Kling, violin. Concerto for Cello and Orchestra – The Louisville Orchestra/ Jorge Mester/ Stephen Kates, cello – First Edition Music FECD-0020:
In 1950, The Louisville Orchestra released a recording of William Schuman’s Judith and Undertow to great critical acclaim. The LOS recordings of works commissioned by composers as Hindemith,Villa Lobos, Carter, Martinu, Milhaud followed. 125 Louisville recordings were issued by Columbia Records from 1952-1967. Among them were these concertos by Frank Martin.
Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) has written what is described as “free wheeling” music delving here and again into atonality, creating biting dissonances,and using unorthodox instruments such as the alto sax within a classically-formed cello concerto.
The violin concerto, composed in 1950, has a strong association with Martin’s opera, The Tempest. As Martin says in the fine liner notes:”Begun directly following the composition of the Five Songs of Ariel (after the Tempest of Shakespeare) the violin has retained from it – especially at its beginning – the same kind of mysterious and fairytale-like atmosphere…I had simply remained somewhat spellbound by the charms of Prospero’s island.”
This major 20th century violin concerto is lyrical and full of harmonic surprises, masterfully composed, well performed with great commitment by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney with Paul Kling as the splendid soloist. The work was recorded in 1963 at the Macauley Theater. It is well balanced though lacking in soundstage – actually quite good reproduction for 1963 with early stereo recording. The Kling recording compares favorably with that of Dene Olding on ABC classics from 1991 with The Melbourne Symphony conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki.
The cello concerto was composed in 1965 for Pierre Fournier. A Radio Suisse Romande recording made of a live concert in 1967 with Fournier and Ernest Ansermet conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is available on the Cascavelle label. It is a reference recording in good mono sound.
This 1973 recording by The Louisville Orchestra under Jorge Mester with Stephen Kates as soloist is comparable, capturing the lyric sweep and biting sonorities of the work. The soundstage is shallow but the soloist and orchestra sections are well-defined. Vital instruments such as alto sax and piano are are nicely spotlighted.
The First Edition label issued by the Santa Fe Music Group is in the process of releasing the entire LO series of 158 LPs and 10 CDs with over 400 works by more than 250 different composers. This represents a significant achievement in the service of 20th century music. Highly recommended!
– Ronald Legum
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor , Op. 125 ‘Choral’
Mari Anne Haeggander, soprano
Alfreda Hodgson, contralto
Robert Tear, tenor
Gwynne Howell, bass
Klaus Tennstedt conducts London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir
BBC Legends BBCL-4131-2 68:24 (Distrib. Koch):
Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998) came into international prominence in 1974, substituting for Karel Ancerl to lead the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Openly romantic by temperament, Tennstedt’s work in Beethoven and Mahler easily reminded auditors of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, with his focus on intensity of expression and the often improvisatory quality of his readings. Several successful concerts with the Boston Symphony–I recall a vivid Don Quixote of Strauss–confirmed our impression of a driven, visionary conductor whose emphases on expression and extreme dynamics, rather than rhythmic and tonal precision, made him a passionate force in music, so that Mahler emerged as natural consequence of Tennstedt’s stormy character.
The performance of the Beethoven Ninth comes from a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 September 1985. From the very outset, we are in the throes of great emotional urgency, the open fifths of the first movement sounding a Miltonic firmament beset by volcanic eruptions. The whole presentation of the music has the quality of spontaneity, as though the tones were freshly composed, a character akin to what Horenstein could yield in front of an orchestra. The orchestral playing and richness of texture are admirable, the London Philharmonic driving the score for all its worth. The third movement double-theme-and-variations is particularly broad in concept, a huge series of arches, each of which is pure singing. Then, without any pause, a rush to the blazing, brazen chords of the last movement Presto, an emotional plunge that takes our breath away. The fervent singing, the clear declamations of both vocalists and chorus, make the Schiller text, with its constant admonitions to kiss and to embrace Humanity, a thrilling and poignant experience. Tennstedt, soon to be diagnosed with the throat cancer that claimed his life, did return to the LPO to conduct a Mahler Sixth in March 1986, a collaboration we can hope is preserved.
BRAHMS: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Hans Hotter, baritone
Herbert von Karajan conducts Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI “Great Artists of the Century” 5 62812 75:45:
Recorded over a period of a week in late October 1947, this document, which used to be on CBS LP, captures post-WW II Vienna in a spirit of profound valediction. It is the first recorded performance of the entire work on disc. Conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), whose career, too, had arisen phoenix-like from Germany’s ashes through the auspices of EMI producer Walter Legge, the collaboration between Karajan and his two fine soloists is classic, a rendition deeply affecting in al its parts. The late Hans Hotter is in excellent voice for his troubled characterization of Lord, Teach Me Mine End, a pensive meditation on the transience of life. Karajan’s accelerated pace for the latter part of the waltz-march All Flesh is Like Grass at the section.
But the Lord’s Word Endureth Forever moved me forty years ago when I heard it on LP, and it still gets my blood pumping. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, on the brink of her international renown in lyric roles, is in lovely voice in her solo, where her voice rises effortlessly to accept spiritual consolation from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The large choruses, especially the contentious We Have No Continuing City, with its taunting of Death via the courtesy of Hans Hotter, is beautifully paced, with Karajan’s seeming conscious of the careful architecture of each section and its relation to the whole. The farewell quality of the final Blessed Are the Dead is almost mystical, in a realm similar to what Karajan achieved with his recording of the Strauss Metamorphosen from the same period in Vienna. This inscription of the Brahms Requiem was a coup in its day, and now, with its sound remastered, it remains a great monument to its principals.
BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini Overture, Op. 23/REGER: Variations on a Thme of Hiller, Op. 100/SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120
Fritz Busch conducts NWDR Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg
TAHRA TAH 447 70:07:
The apocryphal story about Fritz Busch (1890-1951) is that in June, 1933, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels held an audience with the conductor to apologize for the rude behavior of the SA at the Busch performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto and to offer Busch full directorship of all musical activities in the Reich. Busch replied with a hearty handshake and big Thank You and promptly boarded a train for Genoa and South America with wife Grete, never to return. After 1945, Busch conducted at the MET, in Copenhagen and Stockholm. In Denmark, Busch and Nicolai Malko did much work with the Danish Radio Symphony, building repertory and training the orchestra. Busch died in London after having led a performance of his beloved opera Don Giovanni.
This program the Musikhalle in Hamburg is from February 25-26, 1951, and is issued as part of TAHRA’s tenth anniversary. Each of these pieces is new to the extant Fritz Busch catalogue; and to hear Busch leading the music of Berlioz is a rare delight. As a young man, Busch regarded Nikisch as his musical god; and like that maestro, Busch favors the long line, lean and fluid in tempos. The big work is the Hiller Variations of Max Reger, a Brahms clone who wrote conservatively, blending traditional harmony with colors borrowed from Weinberger, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. Busch plays a slightly cut version, omitting variants 9-10. The full score consists of the theme, eleven variations, and a fugue. Occasionally the piece reaches a static zone, and we get instrumental blends in the manner of Delius. The reading has breadth and tension at once, not so far from a Toscanini conception, but harmonically driven ad poised, like much of the German school of conducting. The fur really flies for the last two movements, and we can hear why Busch retains his repute as an exciting, durably intelligent musician.
SAINT-SAENS: Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 44/FRANCK: Symphonic Variations/RAVEL: Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand
Robert Casadesus, piano Jascha Horenstein conducts ORTF Eduard van Beinum conducts Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (Ravel) Music&Arts CD-1133 54:45 (Distrib. Albany):
I don’t believe I have ever heard Robert Casadesus (1988-1972) play a false note, and this is after 40 years of record collecting. A student of Diemer and friend of Ravel, Casadesus made his early reputation in chamber music of Faure, Ravel, and Debussy, then with the concertos of Mozart. He was perhaps the first solo pianist to program all-Ravel recitals. His repertory had a Germanic range as well as French: he played the Brahms B-flat Concerto with some consistency; he liked the Liszt Second Concerto; and he had three of the Beethoven concertos at his command, two of which he recorded with Eduard van Beinum.
This disc, mostly from the September 26, 1961 Montreux Festival, pairs Casadesus with Jascha Horenstein (1898-1973), whose output in piano concertos is small, involving the disparate personalities of Earl Wild and Vlado Perlmuter. Having made two inscriptions of the fleet, Lisztian C Minor Saint-Saens Concerto, Casadesus plays a seamless, high voltage performance, with the ORTF strings providing a luminous halo around the piano. The Franck, whose pedigree Casadesus inherited through his training, is likewise a veritable, unspoiled poem in one movement, with effortless transitions between its three sections.
The Ravel Left-Hand Concerto with Beinum is from 1946, with the crackle and surface hiss we expect from old records. Still, it is a welcome addition to Casadesus’ traversals of this witty, intricate work with Ormandy and the live, Vienna Philharmonic reading with Mitropoulos. Interchanges between piano, bassoon and harp, along with the strings and battery of the Concertgebouw make this a captivating, urgent performance, much appreciated by the contemporary audience. The disc is over all-too-quickly, so we can only hope there is more vintage Casadesus
LISZT: 12 Transcendental Etudes; Mephisto Waltz No. 1
Gyorgy Cziffra, piano EMI Great Artists of the Century 5 62801 2 75:44:
I discovered the art of pianist Gyorgy Cziffra (1921-1994) on an EMI LP of Liszt pieces, which included his famed rendition of Les Jeux d’Eau de la Villa d’Este and the wild Grand Galop chromatique (35528). My teacher Jean Casadesus called Cziffra ‘the gypsy pianist,’ meaning no compliment. I must admit Cziffra made a paradoxical impression: there was a sense of an untamed, undisciplined talent, with a great sense of style and panache, who could run off double octaves and perform acrobatic leaps at the keyboard with ease, a kind of brilliant ruffian. But further study of his work, with the help of recordings issued by the Cziffra Society, reveal a deeply committed and conscientious artist who could achieve sustained moments of spiritual insight.
The Transcendental Etudes of Liszt were recorded over a series of sessions, November, 1957 through late June, 1958. The power of the individual interpretations of the Etudes varies, with some being played in a perfunctory manner, like Wild Jagd, which I prefer with Ovchinnikov; and others having the mark of a consummate Lisztian, like Paysage, Vision, and Mazeppa. There are indeed mannerisms apparent throughout the cycle, like sudden accelerations of the measure and added digital pressure to chords at strange moments. But given Cziffra’s free and libertine adventures with meter and dynamics, we get some hair-raising Liszt in the grand style. The Harmonies du Soir might be worth the entire price of admission. The 1957 Mephisto Waltz is a stunner and could have been used for Ira Levin’s film bearing that name (the production used a rendition by Jakob Gimpel). It always bewilders me that Cziffra could be so natural in Liszt and yet be so finicky and prudish ! in Beethoven, for both composers have the Dionysiac element natural to Cziffra’s temperament. An idiosyncratic but compelling collection, this.
SCHUBERT: Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 114 “Trout”; String Quartet in D Minor “Death and the Maiden”
Artur Schnabel, piano/Pro Arte String Quartet (Trout)/Claude Hobday, double bass/Busch String Quartet (Death and the Maiden)
Dutton CDBP 9743 67:07 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Two classic Schubert performances from November 16, 1935, in excellent, restored sound and tasteful packaging via Dutton Laboratories. The Pro Arte Quartet was among HMV’s resident ensembles during the 1930’s, and they had a considerable range of repertory, often playing contemporary works for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. Their work in Haydn is as refined as their work in Milhaud and Martinu.
The Trout Quintet with Artur Schnabel (1881-1951) is among the few chamber music works Schnabel recorded commercially (along with the Mozart G Minor Piano Quartet, Schumann’s Piano Quintet, and the Dvorak Piano Quintet). His keyboard work is quite lucid and breezy, showing little or no strain in the presto passages, and always classically clear in the lyric sections. Violin Alphonse Onnou and cellist Robert Maas are in good form as well, providing sunny and facile articulation of Schubert’s singing figures.
The Busch Quartet rendition of Death and the Maiden is a classic of its kind, dark and feverish. The performance was fairly typical of Adolf Busch and his revisionist, classically severe treatment of Schubert, not as a naïve lyric, but as a profoundly, sometimes morbidly obsessed visionary. The climaxes in the last movement virtually explode with emotion. The solo and concert ante sections of the eponymous theme and variations are hothouse readings, lyrics inscribed after a perusal of “Flowers of Evil.” In scintillating, often incandescent sound, these old gems flourish in the Dutton restoration, and collectors ought not to let this one get away.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Rococo Variations, Op. 33/SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129; 3 Romances, Op. 94; 3 Fantasy-Pieces, Op. 73
Maurice Gendron, cello/Ernest Ansermet conducts Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Jean Francaix, piano (Schumann, Opp. 73, 94)
Testament SBT 1310 61:20 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Maurice Gendron (1920-1990) was a cellist who matured in the same tradition as his slightly older associates Paul Tortelier and Pierre Fournier, admiring the model of Emanuel Feuermann, and making his international repute around 1944, when among other achievements, he played the Dvorak Concerto with Willem Mengelberg. For a brief period, Gendron and the talented but doomed Dinu Lipatti played recitals. Gendron formed a trio with Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, and the Menuhins asked Gendron to teach at their conservatories at Bath and Gstaad. There was a short-lived Epic LP of the reconstructed Boccherini B Minor Concerto with Pablo Casals conducting that ought to be restored to the active catalogue. In the 1960′s, composer-pianist Jean Francaix paired up for recitals and recordings. Gendron’s last inscriptions, for the Camerata label, were made in Japan.
Gendron’s tone is silken and refined. Perhaps he lacks some of the visceral excitement a Rostropovich brings to the cello, but the intelligence and security of his playing makes him the cello equivalent of violinist Arthur Grumiaux. The Rococo Variations of 1953, along with the Schumann Concerto, were inscribed in Geneva Hall, and each has the benefit of Ansermet’s pert and understated accompaniment. The Tchaikovsky is the Fitzenhagen bowdlerized edition, but Gendron plays it for elegance and tonal beauty. The Schumann unfolds rather naturally, with moments of breath and ritard that suit a melodic conception of the piece. The short works are rather literally executed–they can be played on cello or clarinet–although now and then Francaix injects a bit of rhythmic wit into the Fantasy Pieces. A solid document of Gendron’s gifts, but I’m hoping for the return of the Boccherini.