Classical CD Reviews
Classical Reissue Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on September 1, 2004
September 2004, Pt. 1 of 2 [Pt. 2]
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a; Lelio, Op. 14b: Chorus of Shades; Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus
RCA 82876-60959-2 75:30****:
Recordings from 1997-1998 that have been assembled for RCA’s “Classic Library” collection, these inscriptions from Michael Tilson Thomas are clearly sympathetic readings of Berlioz’ familiar, quasi-biographical symphony of 1830 and its melodramatic sequel, the unfamiliar Lelio of 1832. From the audiophile point of view, these are audacious, powerfully projected performances, with Luis Baezís E-flat clarinet a standout among the throng of orchestral effects; his is the perverted vision of the beloved, the idee fixe, in the March to the Scaffold.
Inscriptions of Lelio are still rare; collectors will recall that it was Rene Leibowitz who took the risk of exploring this odd assemblage to art and ego. Later, for EMI, Jean Martinon gave this weird score a try. With the theme of Lelio’s being death-and-resurrection, the model for the Chorus of Shades would seem to be Gluck’s Orfeo. The lightness of the orchestration for the Tempest Fantasy recalls pages from Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet. If Liszt can have his tenor repeat “the Eternal Feminine” in his Faust Symphony, Berlioz has his chorus intone the name of Miranda as his symbol of innocence, his answer to Dante’s Beatrice. I do note that the spoken text for this version was prepared by Jack Larson: remember Jimmy Olsen from Superman?
LISZT: A Faust Symphony
Jascha Horenstein conducts BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
John Mitchinson, tenor/Men’s Voices of the BBC Northern Singers -
BBC Legends BBCL 4118-2 74:31 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
Liszt completed his final version of Eine Faust-Symphonie in 1857; and one hundred years later, in 1957, Vox issued Jascha Horenstein (1898-1973) and the SWF Orchestra, Baden-Baden in their passionate rendition of the work on LP. Issued in 1958, the recording had to share honors with that of Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic, still a classic. Another ten years would pass before Horenstein again programmed this lengthy, often unwieldy piece, in Stockholm 1 February 1967. The performance inscribed here by the BBC derives from a concert 23 April 1972, and it has had prior life on Music&Arts and some pirate editions.
My own relationship to this colossal work began in New York, when Dimitri Mitropoulos broadcast excerpts with the New York Philharmonic, with his own commentary, for a WNET-TV presentation. I only heard the piece live for the first time with the Atlanta Symphony under Louis Lane. Meanwhile, I had written a letter to Leonard Bernstein about his own version for CBS with the New York Philharmonic, a performance whose “Gretchen” movement clarified for me the debts Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht owes Liszt’s original. Alternately dramatic and lingeringly episodic, the Symphony conforms less to classical sonata-form than to a kind of programmatic, cyclic logic wherein many of the themes set in the Faust movement reappear in transformation and inversion. The unique sound-picture in the scoring of the work, with strings, winds, and harps, along with lofty brass, adumbrates much of Mahler and Bruckner. We can hear echoes of the composer’s other tone-poems, like Tasso and Orpheus, in passing. Horenstein makes the chromatic lines in this work sing as few can, and the orchestral definition in the playing is multilayered. Broader than Beecham’s concept in the opening movement, Horenstein does not dally in the Mephistopheles movement, ending with a resounding Chorus Mysticus, a kind of hybrid symphonic-cantata that obviously kept the University of Salford engineers on their best behavior.
Guido Cantelli: The NBC Broadcast Concerts = BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra/ROSSINI: The Siege of Corinth Overture/SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, D. 125/GHEDINI: Concerto dellíalbatro/VIVALDI: Concerto in A Minor, Op. 3, No. 8/BRAHMS: Tragic Overture, Op. 81/DEBUSSY: 4 Fragments from The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian/STRAVINSKY: Fireworks, OP. 4/MOZART: Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201; Overture to The Marriage of Figaro/GILLIS: Prairie Sunset/MENDELSSOHN: Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 “Italian”/RAVEL: Pavane for a Dead Princess; La Valse
Guido Cantelli conducts NBC Symphony Orchestra
Testament SBT4 1336 48:27; 51:16; 76:23; 48:50 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:
Testament restores a series of New York concerts led by Guido Cantelli (1920-1956) and the NBC Symphony given both in the Manhattan Center (January 1, 8, 15 and 22) and Carnegie Hall (1 December) in 1951, when the conductor’s repute had already been assured, and he wore the mantle of Toscanini with confidence, albeit in his own way. Cantelli’s programs always bore his special stamp, with an emphasis on new and old music: here, we have the Vivaldi A Minor Concerto, a double-violin concerto featuring Mischa Mishakov and Max Hollander in the solo roles, with slow, inflated phrasing from the conductor, sounding a bit unstylistic by the standards set by I Musici. Both Bartok (1943) and Ghedini (1943) works were not ten years old at the time of the broadcasts. The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, with its commission derived from Serge Koussevitzky, could well have meant “the enemy camp” to Toscanini’s taste. Yet the performance from 1 January 1951 is totally relaxed and idiomatic, especially in the “play of the pairs” second movement, where bassoons play in minor sixths, oboes in minor thirds, clarinets in minor sevenths, flutes in fifths, trumpets in major seconds. Ghedini (1892-1965) had been Cantelli’s teacher, and Cantelli favored this music much as Toscanini had championed Martucci. The 1943 Concerto for the Albatros is a real curio, featuring a piano obligato (Artur Balsam) in the gloomy, modal manner of Josten’s Concerto Sacro I and II; then, it becomes a kind of sinfonia concertante (with Mischa Mischakov, violin and Frank Miller, cello); then, a narrator (Ben Grauer) intrudes with words by Melville over an eerie, streaky kind of violin and wind writing that suggests the “prodigy” of the albatross, whose life and death held ominous portents for sailors.
The remainder of the programs plays as showpieces for Cantelli’s gifts in color and tempo. The Siege of Corinth Overture, like the Schubert B-flat Symphony, is breezy, though the symphony is even frenetic. The Mendelssohn A Major and the Mozart A Major were Cantelli staples: here, from 22 January 1951, Cantelli plays Mozart without the first movement repeat, which he did take in commercial recording. Cantelli’s Mozart 29th is still the finest interpretation I know, eschewing totally the heavy hand that clogs performances by Beecham, Walter, and Fricsay. The excerpts from Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, too, were Cantelli favorites; he played them again with the RAI orchestra in 1954. Stravinsky’s Fireworks always enjoyed Cantelli’s whirlwind approach, displaying its many debts to Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The Brahms Tragic Overture has punch and power, a piece Cantelli clearly liked. While I find the Pavane of Ravel played for exquisite, serene stateliness, the fin-de-siecle La Valse is perhaps too polished, too refined for my taste: I like what Albert Coates accomplished for the piece by making the cranky opening emblematic of the whole, a tottering edifice that achieves a supreme moment of elegance before it topples to its death. Finally, a gesture of affection to composer-producer Don Gillis of NBC, whose Prairie Sunset has the evocative texture of Grofe and Siegmeister in a five-minute tone-poem, graciously rendered. I do think that the whole set could have been accommodated on three CDs rather than four, but the return of these concerts to the active catalogue is well worth any collector’s investment.
Robert Casadesus in Concert = BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”/MOZART: Concerto No. 10 in E-flat for 2 Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365; Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491/BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Schicksalslied, Op. 54
Gaby Casadesus, piano (Mozart K. 365)
Joseph Keilberth conducts Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven, Brahms Op. 73); Rafael Kubelik conducts Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Mozart K. 365); Eugen Jochum conducts Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Mozart K. 491; Brahms Op. 54)
Golden Melodram GM 4.0071 76:54; 70:03 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
A truly mixed bag, this collection of concerts ostensibly celebrating the great French pianist Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) and his work with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, but sharing the program with unlikely fare by Brahms more suited to an all-orchestral compilation. The collaboration on the dark C Minor Concerto by Mozart under Eugen Jochum from March 11, 1954 has appeared under the aegis of the Greenhill label (GH-0011-0012) without any performance data. The Emperor Concerto was a major staple of Casadesus’ concerto repertory, with his having made commercial inscriptions with Mitropoulos in New York and Rosbaud at the Concertgebouw. With Keilberth (May 5, 1967), Casadesus takes a median approach, neither so fleet and linear as in New York, nor as rhapsodic as he had been with Rosbaud. The clear articulation of the rapid passages might recall Michelangeli at several points, though Casadesus’ tone is not so steely.
Casadesus made his American reputation in the music of Mozart, originally under Barbirolli in New York, although it was Toscanini who proclaimed Casadesus the natural Mozart interpreter with whom he would tour in the concertos. While Casadesus inscribed his lion’s share of Mozart with George Szell, he performed Mozart with many other conductors, and Mitropoulos (in the C Minor from Salzburg on Orfeo) and Koussevitzky (in the “Coronation” from Boston) stand out as major restorations to his recorded oeuvre, especially if the Koussevitzky Trust could be convinced to publish the latter. I find the live performance of the E-flat with wife Gaby (February 2, 1970) and a determined Rafael Kubelik extremely broad and volatile at once, superior to the lyric but flabby accompaniment Ormandy provided in Philadelphia. Devotees of Joseph Keilberth usually restrict their plaudits for his opera appearances, but I do recall a profoundly powerful Bruckner Sixth he made for Teldec some fifteen years ago. His Brahms D Major (December 8, 1966) has spirit and warmth, as well as stereo sound, in a style that may remind auditors of Isserstedt and Jochum, quite the European-German tradition. Eugen Jochum’s Song of Destiny (19 January 1961), while an unlikely filler, is a rare moment to hear Jochum in a choral work other than by Bruckner.
DEBUSSY: Pour le Piano; Children’s Corner Suite; Images, Books I&II; Estampes; 12 Etudes; Preludes, Books I & II; Suite bergamasque; Danse; Reverie; 2 Arabesques; Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; Valse romantique; Le petit negre; La plus que lente; L’Isle joyeuse; Dane bohemienne; Nocturne; Mazurka; Ballade slave; Berceuse heroique; Hommage a Haydn
Daniel Ericourt, piano
Ivory Classics 73006 69:20; 66:03; 72:23; 75:54 (Distrib. VAI) ****:
Originally recorded 1960-1962 by Kapp Records, this traversal of the complete Debussy piano oeuvre features Daniel Ericourt (1903-1998), famed pupil of Nadia Boulanger and Roger-Ducasse, and later a colleague of Debussy himself. Like Ricardo Vines before him, Ericourt gained an international reputation in the music of France and Spain, playing Mompou with as much savoir faire as his Debussy. Sporting a touch and sound falling midway between Gieseking’s diaphanous filigree and the more full-bodied Robert Casadesus, Ericourt brings a sensuous luster to all the works he plays, if not always in immaculate sound from Kapp’s vinyl surfaces, remastered by Ed Thompson.
The extensive liner notes by Cecilia Dunoyer with accompanying photographs more than illuminate the piano works and the historical personages involved in Debussy’s progression as a pianoforte composer. The actual playing by Ericourt is monumental and intimate at once, with never a sag in the melodic line or an avoidance of the chromatic polyphony that makes Debussy especially miraculous. The Sarabande of the Pour le Piano is a wonderful example of Ericourt’s liquid phrasing that can bring an almost still-life quality to the harmonic movement. So, too, his renditions of the early piano pieces, like Reverie, Suite bergamasque, and Tarantelle styrienne (Danse) enjoy a silken patina and erotic undercurrent. To hear Ericourt pedal the final movement of Pour le Piano, the driving Toccata, is a study in itself of graduated attacks and interior colors. The same epithets apply to the sets of Preludes and Etudes; and each auditor will find his own favorites am! ong them. The opening of Ericourt’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum is more than a model for Michelangeli’s approach, and the soft lustero f the digital pressure on the keys reminds me often of Moiseiwitsch. I found myself gravitating to Ericourt’s way with the more neglected fare in the cycle: Berceuse heroique, a kind of eulogy for Belgian soldiers of WW I, and the A Minor pieces, Masques and L’Isle joyeuse, richly illumined evocations of Debussy’s fruitful affair with Emma Bardac and the isle of Cythara in ancient myth. The 1915 Etudes are Debussy’s final contribution to keyboard literature, and Ericourt (like Gieseking before him) makes them his own. Their combination of tradition and experimentation is beautifully captured by Ericourt’s disciplined reading, which promotes their pedagogical and rhetorical fervor without becoming austere and digitally arid. This is a real collector’s edition, and those who enter its sacred halls will find countless rewards, musical and spiritual.
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 3 in D Major, D. 200/MOZART: 3 Concert Arias/WEILL: Symphony No. 1/STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (in Mozart)
Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts London Symphony Orchestra
Orfeo C 606 031B 77:18 (Distrib. Qualiton) ****:
Several labels honor the 80th birthday of conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch (b. 1923); this concert captures the Munich-born musician in a concert from Salzburg 8 August 1973. Sawallisch had been touring with the Schubert Third Symphony, and there exists a performance of this work from the Swiss Radio from same period. Sawallisch takes the Schubert rather broadly – certainly his thoughtful pacing in the Menuetto is not the brisk, pert clockwork of Carlos Kleiber, but it is pointed and lyrical. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau repeats the kind of Mozart program that he and Ferenc Fricsay had popularized a decade earlier and the real find among these concert gems is “Un bacio di mano,” K. 541, which is a vocalization of the main theme from the Jupiter Symphony’s first movement. Of the other two pieces, “Mentre ti lascia, o figlia,” K. 513 is a thoughtful, plaintive aria much in the mold of Sarastro’s arias in The Magic Flute.
The Salzburg audience had an ear-opener in Kurt Weill’s one-movement First Symphony (1921), a product of Weill’s association with Ferruccio Busoni. Freely alternating between dissonant passages and periods of relative calm, the music has an insistence and energy that might be an analogy for the Berlin art pieces George Grosz created to parody and condemn the moral atmosphere of the decadent Weimar Republic. For my money, only conductor Gary Bertini has taken this music to heart, and it is worth repeated listening. Finally, the Strauss tone-poem, allowing the wind and horn principals of the LSO unbuttoned virtuosity and wit in supple and sonorous form. At a time when Istvan Kertesz fairly ruled the LSO, this guest-appearance by Sawallisch makes an audacious impression.
Kirsten Flagstad in Paris = BRAHMS: 5 Songs; SINDING: Cherche la vie; Je voudrais ne pas tíaimer/ALNAES: Matin de fevrier dans le sud/WOLF: 4 Songs/STRAUSS: 5 Songs/GRIEG: Ich liebe dich; Un reve
Kirsten Flagstad, soprano/Hans-Willi Haeusslein, piano
TAHRA TAH 538 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) 63:52 ****:
Still regarded as the 20th century’s supreme Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) brings to mind heroic interpretations of Sieglinde, Brunnhilde, and Isolde, but no less so countless recitals of the world’s great lieder. Tahra restores a rare appearance by Flagstad from 2 October 1953 at the Theater of the Champs-Elysees, Paris, a program divided among German and Norwegian composers. She begins with a Brahms group, including Eternal Love, Op. 43, No. 1, as well as three of the Magelone Romances, Op. 33. While her voice flows effortlessly, we sense that nuance is sometimes sacrificed for power. Flagstad seems to warm up by the time she sings the two Sinding contributions; her middle range and semitones gain an added luster and poignancy. The Wolf zur Ruh, zur Ruh captures the kind of legato and dynamic swell Flagstad could command with ease, qualities which make her rendition of the Richard Strauss Wiegenlied, Op. 41, No. 1 overpowering, ravishing on a par with the classic Elisabeth Schumann and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf versions of this haunted piece, with words by the incomparable Dehmel. While I did not know the little serenade by Alnaes, it is a pleasant addition, and the two Grieg songs have a luster that quite sweep the audience away. Piano accompaniments by Hans-Willi Haeusslein are sparkling and fleet, a delicacy of sound for which Flagstad’s wonted Edwin McArthur was no less famous. Fine sonic restoration by TAHRA/INA.
HAYDN: The Seven Last Words, Op. 51; String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 103: Minuet and Trio
The Griller Quartet
Dutton CDBP 9739 66:57 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:
Conceived in 1785 for a Canon of Cadiz Cathedral as a series of seven adagios, Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is his instrumental equivalent of the Stabat Mater, a series of meditations and psychological commentary on the fateful statements attributed to Jesus. The entire concept moves from D Minor somberness and gloom, through a series of “human” instantiations of Jesus’ sufferings, concluding with a convulsive, C Minor earthquake movement, a programmatic rendering of “And the Earth did quake and the Rocks rent,” accompanying the words, “He is no more.” Originally scored for small orchestra, Haydn recast the work in 1787 for string quartet (and for piano). His models seem to have been Bach and Handel, and the part-writing and the harmonic modulations speak of an intense concentration on economy of means and poignancy of expression.
The Griller Quartet recorded Haydn’s Seven Last Words over six sessions, begun in the war year 1943 and concluded between December 2 and 14, 1946. Restrained and intensely lyrical at once, the Griller keep a tight, intimate leash on the proceedings, and the quiet transfers of the shellac surfaces help us focus on Haydn’s use of tiny, often chromatic, intervals to produce affective translations of the Biblical action. Plaintive cries often lunge out in the course of Christ’s passion. The entire F Minor “My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?” must have provided any number of composers, including Verdi and Tchaikovsky, with their notions of a fate motif. As Haydn himself claimed for this piece, “It was no easy matter to compose seven adagios, to last ten minutes each and succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners.”
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathetique); Symphony No. 4 in F Minor , Op. 36
Erich Kleiber conducts Paris Conservatory Orchestra
Testament SBT2 1352 44:16; 39:48 ****:
The earlier of these inscriptions, the Tchaikovsky Fourth, dates from July 1949; the Pathetique derives from sessions in October 1953. Both resonate with the kind of honed artistry Erich Kleiber (1890-1956) could bring to the podium in orchestral staples he cherished. Those who know Kleiber’s noncommercial, recorded legacy are well familiar with his 1948 NBC Symphony reading of the F Minor as well as his 1955 WDR broadcast of the Tchaikovsky Sixth. It seems Decca favored the use of the Paris Orchestra for the recording of Russian repertory, a feat it accomplishes with considerable verve and even scintillating aplomb.
As I auditioned the F Minor, I was struck by how much Kleiber’s lucid and crystalline reading has in common with that of Guido Cantelli and the NBC made around five years later, 14 February 1954. With some fluctuation in tempo between them for the first three movements, their approach to the final Allegro con brio is virtually the same. Attention to orchestral detail in the Kleiber is articulate and the soul of clarity, as when the violins must play detached staccato notes in upward scales. Brilliant color dynamics as well as smooth transitions to frenetically fast dance passages are the rule. Entirely sober in concept but without any loss of Slavic sympathy, the Fourth is a virtuoso reading in the Toscanini tradition had that maestro been so inclined to favor this histrionic score. The Pathetique is no less compelling, from the opening string aura around the bassoon solo to the frenzied third movement Allegro molto vivace with its dark undercurrents, to the fatal Adagio lamentoso. While Kleiber only had recorded an abridged Capriccio italien for Telefunken in 1933, he seems to have possessed an avid, passionate respect for Tchaikovsky’s large scores, an unsentimental but ardent sense of the style that often elicits blistering heat. That Testament offers both discs at a two-for-one price only furthers my advocacy for their purchase.
KODALY: Chamber Music (Sonatine for cello and piano. Intermezzo for string trio. Adagio for cello and piano. Duo Op. 7 for violin and cello. Sonata Op. 8 for solo cello) – Miklos Perenyi and Lorantz Szucs (Sonatine). Czech Trio (Intermezzo). Igor Gavrish and Tatiana Sadovskaia (Adagio). Josef Suk and Andre Navarra (Duo). Pierre Fournier (Sonata)- Praga PR 50065 (72 mins.) ****:
This is one of the first in a series of budget priced reissues of material from the fabulous Czech Radio (this program was first released in 1995) and it is a stunner. In addition to releasing a 1959 performance by Pierre Fournier of the great solo sonata, a work he never recorded commercially, this is a voyage of exploration that will reward a variety of music lovers.
Particularly cellists: Kodaly wrote for the cello with special affection and understanding, exploiting its wide range and drawing on colors and effects (check out the pizzicato in the last movement of the Sonata) that few other composers realized it capable of. The Sonatine captures the underrated Perenyi (a student of Mainardi and Casals) at his impassioned best in 1979, and the lovely Intermezzo is a demonstration of how mellifluous a string trio can be. The Duo (recorded in 1967) is quite brilliant if without that lightly febrile sense of movement which the best Hungarian players bring to this music. There are no qualifications to Fournier’s incandescent performance; from the first chords, he plays with a hair-raising virtuosity and brilliance that makes it clear why he was ranked alongside Rostropovich and Piatagorsky as the leading cellists of his day.
The sound ranges from gorgeous (Perenyi’s cello has never sounded so richly beautiful) to serviceable which, even in the case of Fournier’s thrilling playing, gives the listener an strong sense of presence, emotional intensity and vivid dynamic range. Pierre Barbier’s liner notes, titled “The cello, the Magyar minstrel,” are nothing if not thorough with an impressively dry take on the composer and his music.
- Laurence Vittes
FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A Major; String Quartet in D Major
Gidon Kremer, violin
Oleg Maisenberg, piano
Prague String Quartet
Praga PR 50024 75:03 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:
Violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Oleg Maisenberg collaborated in the Franck Sonata on 18 June 1980; the Prague String Quartet performed the D Major Quartet 14 February 1978. It was around 1980 that conductor Herbert von Karajan proclaimed Kremer “the greatest violinist in the world.” Whether that epithet was simply hype for their EMI collaboration in the Brahms Concerto is a matter of debate. Kremer and partner Maisenberg appear in fine fettle for the 1886 A Major Sonata, Franck’s only work entitled Sonata, and it still ranks as the great example of the form in French music. Like its younger companion in this CD, the 1889 String Quartet, it benefits from Franck’s application of the cyclic form and tonic epicenters that Bach worshippers in the D’Indy mold find so compelling. If I am correct, D’Indy likened the architecture of the D Major Quartet to a circle inscribed in a square.
While I find Kremer’s tone wiry, in the manner of Szigeti, he still makes organic sense of the Violin Sonata, accenting the second and fourth movements’ legato and cantilena elements, while adding gusto to the tricky, rhythmic combinations in movements one and three. Kremer excels in the Recitativo-fantasie, a kind of improvisation that later becomes a canon of mystery and intimacy. The Prague Quartet, known for its renditions of the complete Dvorak string quartet cycle, project no less an incandescent luster to the D Major Quartet, whose Schubertian length is matched by its Mendelssohnian lightness and lilt. The muted strings in the Scherzo communicate a wistfulness in the midst of great energy. Absorbing the entire Franck Quartet in one gulp is a coup for both players and auditors; but in the tradition of the classic Pro Arte Quartet version, the Prague ensemble brings a lyric intelligence to this imposing work.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Claudio Arrau, piano
APR 5633 69:53 (Distrib. Albany)****:
Curious how tiny the musical universe can be: when this inscription of the last three Beethoven sonatas was made, 20 December 1975 at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, New York, I had been hearing and speaking to Arrau around the same time in Atlanta, where he played Liszt with Robert Shaw. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), though a Chilean by birth, came to the German repertory legitimately, via his teacher Martin Krause. Arrau reminisced that Krause had insisted on The Bach 48 and the 32 Beethoven Sonatas as the foundation-stones of the basic repertory, “not only for pianists but for our Western tradition.” It was in 1964-1965 that Arrau made his Philips inscription of the complete Beethoven sonatas-cycle, a set which, along with those of Wilhelm Backhaus and Wilhelm Kempff, still provides collectors with their definitive versions of these works.
Entitled “Claudio Arrau in Concert 3,” this recital complements other APR reissues from the 1976 Prague Spring Festival and Avery Fisher Hall (1978) capturing the formidable veteran in German repertory and his beloved Chopin. The current set, while not in particularly vivid sound, gives us the intimacy and profound concentration Arrau could apply to works he had deemed spiritual in his own estimation, calling the A-flat “ecstatic, towering, and passionate.” Arrau became known, like Elly Ney before him, for increasingly slower tempos as he aged, but the E Major Sonata moves with a feline grace and sturdy sense of pulse. Arrau’s trills and repeated notes are crisp and ripe in all three sonatas, and especially in the C Minor, where Beethoven achieves a kind of liberation of the trill (and dissonance) that finds a rival only in late Scriabin. In each of the huge variation movements Arrau sees a pattern of sorrow, struggle and resurrection. Alternately dolorous and rejuvenated, Beethoven’s melodies become Arrau’s realization of a musical Pieta. The APR document makes us feel as though we had tiptoed into a sacred space, a rare communion between composer and interpreter.
RACHMANINOV: Prelude in C# Minor, Op. 3, No. 2; 10 Preludes, Op. 23; 13 Preludes, Op. 32
Moura Lympany, piano
Testament SBT 1349 75:43 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi) ****:
The second set of complete Rachmaninov preludes inscribed by Moura Lympany
(b. 1915), this 1951 for Decca appeared on the Everest LP label. Lympany’s keyboard pedigree was a fascinating mix of colorists and authoritarians, like Paul Weingarten, Mathilde Verne, and Tobias Matthay, the last the noted teacher of Myra Hess. Lympany became a solid, fleet virtuoso, and her repertory embraced Liszt, Chopin, Litolff, Khachaturian, Bach, and Mendelssohn, each without affectation and complete facility. I have never heard her 78 rpm traversal of the Rachmaninov set. Lympany’s later series, from 1993 for Erato (4509 91714-2), is more expansive in terms of tempo and breadth. Her fine recordings with conductors Sargent and Malko have yet to return to the active CD catalogue, and I would urge Testament to restore them with all possible haste.
The Rachmaninov Preludes seem to form two sets, those that have Chopin as their basis, and those that gravitate more towards Russia. The etude-like B-flat Major flows effortlessly, but marked by strong accents. Power and translucence are Lympany’s calling cards. I found myself repeating the E Major, Op. 32, No. 3, her wonderful, festive tone. No less compelling is the C Minor, No. 7 from the Op. 23 set. The more familiar pieces, like the G Minor, C# Minor, and B Minor, each has atmosphere and sensibility to burn, putting Lympany in the company of stellar Rachmaninov interpreters Moiseiwitsch, Hoffman, and Bachauer. Even the febrile F Minor (Allegro appassionato), Op. 32, No. 6 Prelude takes on a sober sense of form under Lympany’s tempered hands. Along with Solomon, Curzon, and Eileen Joyce, Lympany was a stalwart representative of the chaste but no less enthusiastic British style of keyboard mastery, from which we still have much to learn.