BALAKIREV: Islamey; Overture on 3 Russian Themes; Russia/TCHAIKOVSKY: Hamlet--Fantasy Overture, Op. 67; Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3 in G Major, Op. 55
Lovro von Matacic conducts Philharmonia Orchestra and Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milan (Suite No. 3)
Testament SBT 1331 71:22 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Another in the Testament restoration of EMI inscriptions by Lovro von Matacic (1899-1985), this disc captures the fiery Croatian conductor in color repertory, some of which had prior issue on EMI's own Artists Profile Series (5 68739 2) back in 1996. New are the 1954-1956 Balakirev entries, each of which is ablaze with arrangements of folk melodies; in fact, the Overture on 3 Russian Themes utilizes The Crane tune that dominates the final movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. The Second Overture on Russian Themes might have been spliced together from Liadov's Op. 58 Eight Russian Folk Songs. Particularly lively is the Franz Schalk orchestration of the piano piece Islamey, here in a scintillating performance that rivals my old EMI favorite by Eugene Goossens.
The 1956 performance of Tchaikovsky's Hamlet is a powerful account not far from the level of tempestuous intensity Stokowski garnered for his Lewisohn Stadium rendition with players of the New York Philharmonic on Vanguard. The oboe work in the Matacic is ravishing, the several martial and love episodes compelling. Both Hamlet and the ensuing Theme and Variations with the La Scala Orchestra were issued on the EMI Profile. The 1960 account of the theme and twelve variations is quite idiomatic, given that the piece plays as a sequence of character sketches, one of which with English horn seems to rise up out of the Scottish heather. We could wish that Matacic had recorded the entire Suite; or, that some enterprising record company will resuscitate the under-rated version by conductor Thomas Scherman that was on CBS. Even if collectors already own the Matacic Artists Profile, the Balakirev works are welcome additions to Matacic's impressive catalogue.
RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27; The Crag, Op. 7
Evgeni Svetlanov conducts The USSR Symphony Orchestra
Moscow Studio Archives MOS20002 69:12 (Distrib. Allegro):
Volume II of the Svetlanov Edition features two intense readings of music by Rachmaninov from 1968 (Symphony) and 1973 (The Crag), played with fervent lyricism by the USSR Symphony. The E Minor Symphony, the composers most popular orchestral work, has a reading easily comparable to the famed Sanderling/Leningrad Philharmonic account on DGG, equally resplendent and broad, with only Svetlanovs taking two small cuts in the last movement to make his performance finish about a minute faster than Sanderlings. The liquid playing of the Adagios clarinet is a minor wonder in itself. The opening Largo--Allegro moderato is generously spacious and lush, with lower strings - especially the violas and cellos - providing a thick tissue and romantic undercurrent that sweeps us along. The Crag (or The Rock) is a large fantasia based on a short story by Chekhov, with a strong, musical debt to the colors in Balakirev, Nicolai Tcherepnin, and in the final pages, Scriabin. Svetlanov (1928-2002), who always is attentive to colors and to rhythmic urgency, makes this piece exciting and exotic at once, and the remastered sound is potent. While most collectors will already own the Symphony, this combination by one of Russias most gifted conductors is still worth pursuit.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 10 in E Minor , Op. 93
Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts Ostankino Large Symphony Orchestra
Moscow Studio Archives MOS19063 52:56 (Distrib. Allegro):
Composed in June, 1953, the Shostakovich Tenth both celebrates and eulogizes the passing of Josef Stalin and his reign of terror. The predominantly dark atmosphere of the entire piece is allayed only slightly by the E Major finale; and this only after tortuous labyrinths of gloom, despair and fear, so that the ending chords suggest Now, what? The second movement Allegro is a conscious portrait of the emotional havoc Stalins regime could wreak o the human spirit. For collectors, the core performances of this Mahler-like, epic struggle have been Mravinsky, Mitropoulos, and the Stokowski reading with the Chicago Symphony reissued in the CSO's radiothon series.
The Fedoseyev account offered here is from 1987, and it has a distinct personality in its unfolding. Fedoseyev retards the pace of the ferocious Allegro, substituting weight and materialism for the swiftness of the tyrant's menace. The C Minor waltz motive in the Allegretto has a pungent irony, both in its sound and in its hidden agenda, which spells out an anagram of the composer's initials. Given the work's scale and its unflagging melancholy, that Fedoseyev can urge his regional players to sustained heights is a real coup, one audiophiles are too apt to miss if they fail to invest into this unsuspected treasure.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor "Resurrection"
Janet Baker, contralto Rae Woodland, soprano
Leopold Stokowski conducts London Symphony Orchestra BBC Chorus; Goldsmith's Choral Union; Harrow Choral Society
BBC Legends BBCL 4136-2 79:59 (Distrib. Koch):
From the concert of 30 July 1963 we have Stokowski's earliest inscription of the Mahler Second Symphony, pre-dating his Philadelphia concert of 9 November 1967 and his commercial recording for RCA of July-August 1974. Making his debut with the Henry Wood Proms on July 23, 1963, Stokowski was eighty-one years old; and so engaging was his original appearance with the Proms that Stokowski was back one week later to present Mahler to an audience conditioned to light fare and "lollipops." Prior to this program, Stokowski had not performed the Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony since 1921, in his early tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There is, by the way, a 1965 performance with the American Symphony Orchestra, but I have not heard a tape of it.
Listening to this performance relative to his other records, we find Stokowski's taking the exterior movements at a more frenzied clip, where even the Andante moderato is pushed vigorously, an eerie combination of laendler and tormented march. Proceeding methodically, balancing the emotional tumult with long periods of exultation, Stokowski seems thoroughly in command of his forces. The Scherzo actually is a bit elongated in this rendition, comparative to the Philadelphia and commercial LSO performances. Extremely pointed in the winds and brass sections, the uneven metrics of the Scherzo, as had the post-Walkuere textures of the opening movement, urge Stokowski to more accentuated pulsations and declamations in each repetition of the themes. Rae Woodland replaced Elizabeth Harwood in the soprano part; I had -not known her voice prior, but she has a fluid attack and reaches the high A-flat without strain. Janet Baker is likely the natural heir to Kathleen Ferrier for projection and duskiness of voice. She and the choral altos combine(in the first 8 bars of the finale) to underscore the "O Schmerz, du Alldurchdringer" duet most effectively, a bit of balancing that Mahler added ad libitum to his directions. The real coup, moreover, is Stokowski's architecture, the sense of an ever-mounting crescendo to a preconceived epiphany of personal crisis and faith. The cumulative effect is quite monumental, a real testament to a veteran orchestral leader too often dismissed as a mere showman.
R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40; Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils; Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche, Op. 28
Richard Strauss conducts Bavarian State Orchestra; Berlin Philharmonic (Salome); and Berlin State Opera Orchestra (Till)
Dutton CDBP 9737 62:31 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
This is a remarkable document, capturing composer-conductor Richard Strauss in some of the best sound I have heard from the 1929 (Till), 1928 (Salome) and 1941 (Heldenleben) shellacs that on LP were poorly represented by American Decca. Mid-1941 the Seimens company had refined a new recording process that permitted extended frequency range, and Strauss took advantage of the new process, having just returned to the recording studio in 1940, when he led Bavarian State Opera Orchestra in his Festmusik, Op. 65 to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire.
The inscription of Ein Heldenleben is the main selling point of this restoration, and it is well worth seeking out. Typically, when we speak of Golden Age recordings of this massive tone-poem, we really are referring to only two, both from Willem Mengelberg: the 1940 Amsterdam performance with Ferdinand Helman and the (as yet not reissued) New York Philharmonic version from 1927. No violin soloist is listed on the Strauss version, but the part is clearly etched, and Strauss must have spent time coaxing and mentoring its evocations of his wife, Pauline. The section devoted to The Heros Works of Peace is especially pungent, and its clear allusions from Feuersnot are brought out in a high relief that is new to me. The 1928 Salomes Dance is the only music Strauss conducted by himself in his sessions with the Berlin Philharmonic. Both the Dance and Till Eulenspiegel give us a glimpse of the suavity of Strausss orchestral leadership, with its fine rhythmic sense and seductive charm in strings and winds. Attention to orchestral balance is not the least of the superior qualities of these inscriptions; and I, for one, cannot wait for Dutton to reprocess the Don Quixote Strauss led with Enrico Mainardi.
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; Dawn on the Moscow River, from Khovantschina/RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34/BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor/LIADOV: Enchanted Lake, Op. 62
George Szell conducts Cleveland Orchestra - Sony SK 93019 72:43:
Recordings from 1958 and 1963 with the Cleveland Orchestra under its distinguished George Szell (1897-1970), who at the time had honed one of the premier ensembles for international export. The Mussorgsky Pictures from 1963, in Ravel's orchestration, was hailed by critics for its firmly drawn, vivid strokes of color. The excerpt from Khovantschina and the Rimsky-Korsakov were on an Epic LP I personally treasured among my showcase albums of orchestral brilliance. The Fandango section of the Capriccio espagnol fairly sizzles with excitement, a textbook of color effects. Everything Szell touches has a grand sense of scale, and the blending of the wind and battery choirs makes it a demonstration exercise in tonal adjustments. Liadov's Enchanted Lake, his own answer to Wagner's Forest Murmurs, is equally pointed and lucid, clarity's being the byword in all of Szell's energized, intense readings: here, it just misses the mystery Koussevitzky gave this lovely score. ! The Polvtsian Dances derive from the same sessions as the Rimsky-Korsakov in 1958, brilliant and suave, vividly projected in their orchestral definition. Audiophiles will want to possess these exemplary performances by an arrogant, albeit truly gifted genius, Herr Szell.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony in B Minor, Op. 58; romeo and Juliet--Overture-Fantasy Arturo Toscanini conducts NBC Symphony Orchestra Music & Arts CD-4260 64:09 (Distrib. Albany):
Culled from two concerts of 1953, we have additional documentation of Arturo Toscanini's ambivalent response to the music of Tchaikovsky, a mixture of passion and skepticism as to the intrinsic value of the composer's mode of expression. Toscanini's association with Tchaikovsky's treatment of Byron's gloomy poem Manfred goes back to 1933; the performance here, from 10 January 1953, is the volatile conductor's last confrontation with this program music, which Leonard Bernstein once derided as "trash." Toscanini's attitude was more paradoxical: while claiming there were no "banal notes" in the score, Toscanini excised passages ruthlessly, cutting its pristine performing time from 70 minutes down to 47. Maybe someone will restore conductor Nathan Rachlin's version of the original.
Given Toscanini's commercial RCA readings of both Manfred and the popular Romeo and Juliet (here from a 21 March 1953 broadcast), only hard-core Toscanini enthusiasts will gravitate to these inscriptions, drawn by their live presence from Carnegie Hall and a degree of febrile vivacity that eludes the earlier 1949 and 1946 records. Some stiffness in the Manfred interpretation, and the use of splashy effects (the cymbals in the last bars of the first movement) do not add to the conductor's mystique. The woodwind playing in the Vivace con spirito evocation of the Alpine Fairy, with its large, singable tune, is quite fine, as is the happy content of the following Andante's pastoral qualities. The Romeo and Juliet (which Toscanini first led in 1934) is significantly stronger in tone and effect than Manfred, and it has a full bodied sound to make Stokowski envious. I'll keep this for the Romeo and Juliet but take my Silvestri Manfreds off the shelf when that kind of melodrama is warranted.
VERDI: La Traviata--Complete Dress Rehearsal for 1946 Broadcast
Licia Albanese, Violetta
Jan Peerce, Alfredo
Robert Merrill, Giorgio Germont
Maxine Stallman, Flora
George Cehanovsky, Baron Duopol
Arturo Toscanini conducts NBC Symphony
Music & Arts CD-4271 TT: 1:43:52 (Distrib. Albany):
Considering the context of this performance, with no audience in attendance, this is a white-hot run-through of Verdi's enduring opera of bittersweet love and death. Licia Albanese plays the courtesan Violetta Valery, and her solo singing and her duets with a passionate Jan Peerce are rousing and engaging, with excellent sound, courtesy of Graham Newton. This remastered CD had been available in 1987. To be sure, there are moments of indecision in Albanese's delivery, as in the ornaments in Sempre libera, but Toscanini is attentive to every nuance and coaches her with patience. We can hear his periodic admonitions to singers and to the orchestra, even one belligerent moment when an early string entry warrants For God's Sake and the opening of his more famous Heads of Donkeys! Toscanini's grip on the underlying tempo of this production is quite comprehensive, maintaining the solemn andante of the opera's unfolding, the F Minor tonality's becoming a color o! f ineluctable doom. In my recollection, only Pierre Monteux came close to Toscanini's leisurely but tragic sway with this music, but Toscanini's cast is vocally charged, at times emotionally overpowering.
In the midst of the swirling parties and dervish emotions, Robert Merrill's elder Germont provides a contrast steady as an anchor, pleading for order and civility, a moment of sobriety against the call to spiritual intoxications. Both he and Albanese reach a musical concord in their resignation to better judgment, a more effective realization of Verdi's intentions, I think, than they were to achieve in the RCA commercial recording. As the performance proceeds, there is a palpable furor in the air: singers and orchestra articulate their passages with a bounce, a demonic fervor that is absolutely compelling. By the time I audited the segue to the Act II Finale, I was enthralled by the throbbing, bristling pulse of this conception. The Maestro can be heard singing. croaking, stamping, yelling out Legato or Crescendo or Subito! Toscanini speeds up the denouement, accelerating the written tempo for Alfredo's Ah non piu after the solemn duet with! Violetta; and Jan Peerce catches fire. For collectors of this opera, the rehearsal may well replace the standard performances, simply by dint of this cumulative force of the conductor's will.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Coriolan Overture, Op. 62/MOZART: 3 German Dances, K. 605/HAYDN: Finale from Symphony No. 88 in G Major
Bruno Walter conducts Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Sony SK 93087 76:33:
I recall when CBS brought out the original LP of the two Beethoven symphonies on this disc with Bruno Walter (1886-1962), who was then making records with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and appearing on the 15-minute spots for The Sound of Genius. In spite of Walter's advanced age in 1958, he was quite capable of commanding the warmth and sonic breadth in the performances we hear, with wonderful nuances in the finale of the C Major Symphony, with its little Mannheim rocket figures in the woodwinds. Rather bubbly, gemutlich inscriptions, they reveal the sunny side of the composer and the interpreter, with some lovely, generous harmonies in the Larghetto of the D Major Symphony, which remains for the composer a breakthrough in a sustained symphonic cantabile. The 1959 Coriolan Overture, while not oppressively dramatic in the manner of Furtwaengler, is high on melodic beauty. The Mozart German Dances have a bit of history, as well. In early 1950 or so, Walter made a recording of Mozart light fare in the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg (ML 5004), some of which he later re-recorded in stereo sound (MS 5725) in 1954. The perky Haydn excerpt taken from sessions in 1961 is among Walter's last inscriptions; and we can hope the whole Haydn 88 is reissued soon. Walter in Hollywood rather basked in his own icon, pontificating in his books on music and, like Otto Klemperer, considering himself the last living link with the Great German Tradition. He may have been right. Audiophile sound, resounding and thoroughly enjoyable renditions.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33; Manfred Symphony in B Minor, Op. 58 - Dong-Oo Lee, cello/Vakhtang Jordania conducts Russian Federal Orchestra - Angelok 1 CD 9911 67:00 (Distrib. JamesArts):
I knew of conductor Vakhtang Jordania from his stint in Chattanooga, TN with their symphony orchestra. A student and assistant to the legendary Evgeny Mravinsky, Jordania won the Karajan Competition in 1971, then he established himself as a colorist in the league with Neeme Jarvi. The cellist, Dong-Oo Lee, is a colleague of Leonard Rose and Leslie Parnas. He sports a warm and vibrant tone, one that recalls Gregor Piatagorsky. He plays the popular Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Rococo Variations, and I found his treatment compelling. If it has not the girth and size of the Rostropovich accounts with Rozdestvensky and Karajan, it has a degree of warmth and vitality that is alluring and sells the piece. I thought his cadenza prior to the final variation dramatic and singing, by turns.
The Manfred is always a problem for conductors, since it has many rhetorical gestures and repeats that add little to advance the music. Like Toscanini before him, Jordania has prepared his own judicious cuts to the score, reducing its playing time to a relatively tame running time under forty minutes. The Russian Federal Orchestra (mostly Moscow players) makes some ripping points with this volatile (and at the same time, often static) music, capturing its brooding pathos, its sometimes brilliant and balletic moments. The counterpoint in the Scherzo, where the gloomy, Manfred leitmotif in the bass line underscores the flittering winds and longing strings, clearly hearkens back to Berlioz' ball-scene from Romeo and Juliet. Strong performances, energetic playing, good sound reproduction (2000-2002), all contribute to a disc which, despite its replication of old, familiar music, makes a case for our curiosity when new issues come along.