BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16; Les Francs-Juges Overture. Op. 3; Romeo and Juliet--Love Scene; Rakoczy March from Le Damnation de Faust
Classical CD Reissues
November 2003 - Part 1 of 2
William Primrose, viola
Arturo Toscanini conducts NBC Symphony Orchestra
Music & Arts CD-4614 72:36 (Distrib. Albany):
If anyone is single-handedly responsible for a Berlioz "tradition" in the USA, it is Arturo Toscanini; so a reissue of his 2 January 1939 Harold in Italy and his 5 April 1941 concert overture, Romeo love scene and excerpts from The Damnation of Faust now, on the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth, is most apt. Violist William Primrose (1904-1982) had a special relationship to the score of Harold, learning it for his NBC presentation of the piece; then Primrose went on in 1944 to record it with Koussevitzky and again twice more, once with Beecham and then with Munch. While the sound of the Toscanini issue is quite brittle, with highly variable bass, I still prefer this and the more rhythmically wayward Koussevitzky versions to the later renditions, which for me drag too much in the second movement Pilgrims' Procession. Primrose manages to give the 'symphony' a sense of a concerto with viola obbligato, rather than the 'concertante' approach Toscanini achieved with first violist Carlton Coolie in his RCA inscription (LM 2026).
The Toscanini love scene from Romeo is music played from the heart to the heart: though played for speed as well as lyricism, it has an intensity not found in the commercial reading once available on LM 1019. Toscanini premiered the Romeo and Juliet Symphony in North America with the New York Philharmonic one year after this performance--on October 7-11, 1942. His remarkable affinity for this music inspired--from jealousy as well as admiration--Munch and later Reiner to pursue the full score of this music, much of which adumbrates Tristan und Isolde. And while the Rakoczy March is buoyant and lithe, a quick-march, played allegro marcato not andante, the real find is the Les Francs-Juges Overture, a real powerhouse, exuberant and scintillating at once, with effective singing lines in the NBC strings that are a model of what the 'Toscanini sound' should be. It reminds me that four years later, in 1945, Mitropoulos led the NBC is an equally knockout performance of King Lear, Op. 4, the tape of which needs to be issued on CD. Purchase here
RACHMANINOV: Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 &39/BUSONI: Sonatina No. 6- Chamber Fantasy on Carmen; Elegy No. 4; Variations and Fugue on Chopin's C Minor Prelude from Op. 28
John Ogden, piano
Testament SBT 1295 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Another disc in the extended Testament restoration of the formidable legacy of John Ogden (1937-1989), the Rachmaninov etudes and Busoni Variations on the Chopin C Minor Prelude have been available through Philips' "Great Pianists of the 20th Century." The 1974 Rachmaninov group is exemplary, using the edition that adds the big C Minor study in Op. 39, although for my money, its gloomy repetitions only widen this composer's already large pit of nostalgia. For digital dexterity however, Ogden has few peers. Some may recall that Beveridge Webster rendered a remarkable set for the Dover label that stands up to Ogden's blistering, staccato etudes and ironic cross-rhythms. Knotty piano scores were to Ogden what labyrinthine orchestral scores were to Mitropoulos: both men revelled in complexity. So, Busoni's especial polyphony, conceived as a natural evolution of Liszt and Bach, appealed to Ogden's (1961) sense of layered form. That he can spin out a pure melody is certified by his lovely G Minor study from Op. 33. Rather than reissue already-available materials from the alternately lyric and obsessive Ogden, why not restore his visions of Alkan and Nielsen, composers of flair and angular temperament who elicited equally remarkable effects from this individual and tragic artist? Purchase here
Horowitz Live and Unedited - The Historic 1965 Carnegie Hall Return Concert - 2 CDs plus free bonus DVD-V - Sony Classical Legacy S2K93023:
Another effort in the growing number of combination music disc & video disc residing in the same package: This is a card-stock foldout three-disc package adorned with interesting photos of Horowitz bowing onstage as well as of fans who camped out in the street to get into the historic event. The first two discs are standard CDs, but not the same as the original LP set of the concert. More on that shortly. But first, the third disc: its a DVD video with ten minutes of footage that was edited out of the documentary film Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic. Filmed in the pianists living room, the video shows him conversing with the filmmaker and with his wife and dashing off a few short pieces. Dashing is an appropriate description because his hands seem to just glide rapidly over the keys, hardly touching some of them in the process. The result is disturbingly rough playing and had me dreading what the concert discs might be like.
The set celebrates the 100th birthday of the late piano virtuoso. It is unclear how many LPs comprised the original release. The two CDs now run a total of 108 minutes, but the second disc is filled out with a studio performance of the complete Scenes of Childhood of Schumann. It seems it would have required three discs but perhaps there were some cuts in the recital to fit on two LPs. The major fact about this release revolves around (sorry) Horowitz wanting to put out a note-perfect recording even though he felt that his live performances - with their occasional clams - represented his art more faithfully than did his studio recordings. His manager at the time, who is now President of Sony Classical, observed that substantial doctoring was required. These edits have been the subject of controversy ever since, with strong criticism coming from those who were present at the concert and realized the recording was not the honest record of the event.
So Sony decided to reissue this set from pristine-quality backup tapes that were made during the concert, and without editing the life out of it to achieve technical perfection. This is the pure unexpurgated Horowitz - mistakes and all - amazing his audience for the first time after a mysterious dozen-year sabbatical from any public performance. It truly is a live recording this time around. The remastering is excellent, with a very clean piano sonic of great presence. The audience is appropriately worshipful in keeping noises down. From the opening Bach-Busoni work to the closing familiar Traumerei of Schumann, Horowitz has them in his pocket.
PROGRAM: BACH-BUSONI: Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, SCHUMANN: Fantasy in C Major; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 9 in F Major, Poem in F Sharp Major Op. 32, No. 1; CHOPIN: Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 30, No. 4; Etude No. 8 in F Major Op. 10; Ballade No. 1 in G Minor; DEBUSSY: Serenade for the Doll No. 3; SCRIABIN: Etude No. 1 in C sharp minor; MOSZKOWSKI: Etude No. 1 in A flat Major; SCHUMANN: Traumerei; SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen Purchase Here
- John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas: No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 "Moonlight"; No. 2 in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2; No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Friedrich Gulda, piano
Orfeo C 591 021B 79:44 (Distrib. Qualiton):
Recorded in the Mozarteum, Salzburg, 29 July 1964, this document presents scholar-virtuoso Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) in four Beethoven sonatas, given some four years prior to his recorded traversal of the entire cycle. At the time, the youthful Gulda seemed the academic-philosopher technician, a model for Alfred Brendel and a direct descendant of Eduard Erdmann. Only later did Gulda let the beatnik in him have free rein, sporting hang-loose garb and bandanna, a hip Glenn Gould riding a motorcycle to concerts and pounding out Brubeck and Corea along with Brahms. Gulda brings a pungent clarity to the lines of all these works: local Salzburg critics lauded the A Major, Op. 2, but the Moonlight has a liquid pulsation and ineluctable grip on the harmonic proceedings that quite subdue the listener. The late sonatas are particularly instructive in maintaining a fluid, polyphonic line in the A flat's fugue and dextrously making colors of the pulverized materials in the C Minor's Arietta. There is a cool severity in some of the playing, a detachment and attention to formal elements that sound more like Richter and Kempff. But when Gulda gets fired up, as in the Moonlight's finale or in the tender figures of the Op. 2 Largo appassionato, the atmosphere attains that "holy dread" of which the poet speaks. A large, powerful intellect playing with big ideas, in lovely sound. Purchase here
SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Concertos; 3 Fantastic Dances, Op. 5; 5 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87
Dimitri Shostakovich, piano
Andre Cluytens conducts French National Radio Orchestra
EMI "Great Recordings of the Century" 7243 5 62648 2 76:06:
The two piano concertos of Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) with the composer at the keyboard originally appeared in the US on EMI's budget Seraphim LP label. Recorded in 1958, the performances inspired some detractors to quibble at Shostakovich's waning piano technique, although his recording of the Piano Quintet released via Vanguard received good notices. The two piano concertos have something of Les Six about them, a mixture of slapdash virtuosity and unapologetic sentimentality, especially in the Andante of the Concerto No. 2 in F, likely a gentle parody of compatriot Rachmaninov. Andre Cluytens cannot be faulted as an accompanist: he keeps a tight leash on the mercurial changes of tempo and rhythmic inflection; his trumpet for the Op. 35, Ludovic Vaillant, makes his presence known in bold strokes. If the digital accuracy is not always there, the jaunty, circus humor does not suffer. The Op. 5 Dances are a bit sloppy, but they still have the aura of the composer's personality. The five selections from Op. 87 are almost mystical, attesting to a resurgence in formal procedures after the political ban on such investigations in the Soviet Union had relented. The workings of the D Minor Prelude and (double) Fugue are testimony to an ever-active, musical mind. Any collector and musician devoted to Shostakovich will covet this album, whatever its deficencies Purchase here.
VILLA-LOBOS: Erosion, or The Origin of the Amazon River; Dawn in a Tropical Forest; Danses Africaines; Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 - the Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney & Jorge Mester, conductors - First Edition Music FECD-0016 (Dist. By Harmonia mundi):
The super-colorful and sensual music of Brazils best-known classical composer has been much recorded, and the last of these four works can be found in many different versions, but all four were at the time of their initial release world premiere recordings. They carry a special nostalgia for those of us who discovered them via the original Louisville Symphony LP series. Though the first two works here were performed and recorded in l952 and 54 respectively and are therefore in mono, these remain worthwhile versions of rarely heard works of the Brazilian composer. They are both filled with spectacular symphonic tone-painting - the Dawn portrayal especially emulating the many exotic sounds of the rain forest.
The Louisville band may not be in the upper tier of U.S. orchestras, but they provide a felicitous treatment of Villa-Lobos highly individual sounds and seem to have a good time doing so. Also, these CD transfers are greatly improved over the original thin and dead-sounded LPs of yore. It appears a modicum of hall reverb was judiciously added. (Though its not as badly needed as with the MGM LP series; if anyone reissues those they will require almost Elvis-level reverb to relieve the dry acoustic - the result of recording in an MGM film studio!) Purchase here
- John Sunier
Maurice André - The Trumpet Shall Sound - Works of TELEMANN, HANDEL, JOSEPH & MICHAEL HAYDN, RICHTER, A. SCARLATTI, VIVALDI, VIVIANI, TORELLI, and STOLZEL - Conductors: Mackerras, Richter, Sacher, Stadlmair - DGG B0000193-02 (2 CDs):
André has had a distinguished career for the last 40 years as perhaps the leading classical trumpet virtuoso of international stature. It is hard to accept that for the first four years of his working life he was required to follow his familys tradition and worked in the mines underground in the South of France. But his father was an amateur trumpeter and eventually Andre went to the Paris Conservatory and the rest is history. This collection brings together all the recording he made for DGG between 1965 and 1977. While he took an active interest in contemporary music, these recordings concentrate on the Baroque literature for trumpet and orchestra. Many of the works feature the valveless Baroque trumpet, of which André is truly a master. The quarter-hour-length concerto by Richter was a surprise and quite lovely. The three Handel concertos are mainstays of the trumpet repertory and exciting to hear in the hands of such a skilled virtuoso, and the second of the two discs concludes with a rousing instrumental rendition of the aria The Trumpet Shall Sound from that composers Messiah. The Original Image Bit Processing used on these historic recordings is more than a gimmick - it brings them up to present-day standards of 44.1K fidelity, because most DGG LPs of that period were far from audiophile quality. Purchase here
- John Sunier
Florence Foster Jenkins & Friends - Murder on the High Cs; plus eight other songs from people who should have known better - Naxos Nostalgia Series 8.120711:
Nostalgia is one of Naxos Historical labels, but it should really have been called part of the Hysterical series, because almost any music lover will be rolling on the floor after the first few notes of one of the great Florence Foster Jenkins old 78s. Known as the Dire Diva, the singer had the worst possible operatic voice and delivery that one could imagine. She gave regular concerts which soon were packed with those in the know, and she was fully convinced until her dying day that she was being appreciated as a truly great artist. Mme. Jenkins recorded for the Melotone label and sold her records herself. The labels own literature described her first release as a most unusual record which must be heard to be believed. Her primary accompanist was a well-known pianist who used the appelation Cosme McMoon and never revealed his real name. Jenkins had special outrageous costumes for some of her arias, and for the flower song from Carmen she tossed flowers out into the audience - which always demanded that she sing it again. That required her to go out among them and retrieve the flowers so she could toss them out again.
RCA issued many of Jenkins 78s on both LP and CD, but this CD claims to be the first to bring together her complete recordings - nine of them. And the fidelity - with recent enhancements in resusitating old sources - is considerably improved. The extras on this disc may appeal to some collectors of sonic curiosities as even more of a delightful discovery than Mme. Jenkins. Most fall into the category of operatic stars who let themselves get talked into recording something totally ridiculous - probably at the urgings of some insane label executive who thought he had a terrific idea. The great basso Alexander Kipnis sings Little Jack Horner, would you believe? Lauritz Melchior sings Please Dont Say No, and Josephine Tumminia warbles some idiotic lyrics to The Blue Danube accompanied by Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra! But the gem here has to be Ezio Pinza in a situation so absurd it sounds like something from Saturday Night Live - backed gamely by the Sons of the Pioneers he sings The Little Old State of Texas. Yee-ow!
Two of the tracks dont really fit in here (I once had a treasured 45rpm of them): Opera soprano Helen Traubel and Jimmy Durante in A Real Piano Player, and The Songs Gotta Come from the Heart. The pair knew exactly what they were doing and not only was it funny but after all it was giving prime time network radio audiences a taste of an operatic voice (just as it also did famous pianist and violinists). Name one prime time network TV show today that has had a famous classical artist on as a guest performer! Purchase here
- John Sunier
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