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March 2004, Pt. 1 of 2
DEBUSSY: Jeux--poeme danse; Six epigraphes antiques (Orch.
Ansermet)/DUKAS: La Peri; The Sorcerer's Apprentice/SAINT-SAENS: Danse macabre
Ernest Ansermet conducts Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Paris Conservatory Orchestra (Dukas)
Testament SBT 1324 69:02 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Vintage 1953-1955 performances led by Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969), mathematician and conductor extraordinaire, known for the chaste and self-effacing literalism of his style, which eschewed aggrandized subjectivity. Ansermet's reputation, somewhat like that of Munch and Inghelbrecht, lies mainly in French music, but his range was quite broad and embraced Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Bloch, Falla, Handel, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. A strong similitude of taste and style exists between Ansermet and Igor Markevitch, although the latter tends to be more fiery in temperament. But I recall that one of Ansermet's last records for London Decca, his performance of the Lalo Scherzo, had my telephone ringing at WHRW-FM, where I broadcast it for the SUNY Binghamton station.
At least two inscriptions included by Testament are noteworthy: La Peri, from 1955, is in sterling, stereo sound, and it has strong personality and lovely, arched phrasing. It omits the more famous fanfare, but the ballet proper is exalted Dukas. The Debussy ballet Jeux received its second commercial recording here under Ansermet, the first belonging to Vittorio de Sabata on RCA. This music, an interwoven rondo-burlesque, still mystifies even after ninety years of existence. Ansermet makes smooth logic of its elusive figures. More successful as melos are the six Ancient Epigraphs in Ansermet's own orchestration, vividly colored and nuanced, delicately rendered. The two popular pieces, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Danse macabre, are certainly poised and balanced, perhaps a bit less neurotically effective than the Stokowski and Mitropoulos versions which provide more earthy electricity.
STRAVINSKY: Pulcinella Suite/RODRIGO: Concerto d'ete/BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Ataulfo Argenta conducts Orchestre National de France
TAHRA TAH 427 77:46:
The professional career of Ataulfo Argenta (1913-1958) lasted only fifteen years, the Spanish conductor's dying of a questionable asphyxiation on the verge of his assuming the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande at the request of Ernest Ansermet. Decca wanted Argenta to record the Brahms symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Beethoven symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic, easily making us think of comparisons with Istvan Kertesz. And while EMI has included Argenta in its multi-volume tribute to "Great Conductors of the 20th Century," this TAHRA edition from producer Myriam Scherchen gives us some rare, vintage music otherwise unavailable.
Taped at the Cente Pistor April 4, 1951, the recording is in fine sound and captures Argenta with an equally tragic artist, violinist Christian Ferras (1933-1982), only eighteen-years-old, performing the Summer Concerto of Rodrigo (which he went on to record commercially with Enesco), a personal specialty. A lean, linear style characterizes Argenta, who might be considered the Spanish Guido Cantelli. Argenta's clean lines and rhythmic acumen permeate Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite in a performance reminiscent of Markevitch. Its neo-classic polish and frothy imitation of Pergolesi originals is deftly charming. The Brahms D Major is drawn along neo-classic lines, with a large, generously inflected first movement and a rather streamlined B Major Adagio. The last movement's rush of a finale testifies to the fact that Brahms was Argenta's favorite composer, despite the many hours Argenta spent popularizing his native zarzuelas. The accompanying booklet has a discography of this short-lived conductorial talent.
BRAHMS: Ballade in D Minor; Ballade in D Major;Klavierstuecke, Op. 118; Waltzes, Op. 39; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1; Paganini Variations; Scherzo, Op. 4; 2 Hungarian Dances; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Selected Intermezzi and Caprices, Opp. 76 and 116
Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Music&Arts CD-1132 58:13; 71:46 (Distrib. Albany):
A complete assemblage of the 1929-1936 Brahms inscriptions by the great German virtuoso Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), once offered on electrola LP and available on pirate CD's like Lys and Arkadia. In good restorations by Maggi Payne, the two discs are rife with musical interest and excitement. Backhaus certainly knew the Brahms style, capturing its "rainy day" sentiments and thick-based uneasiness. Occasionally, Backhaus plays individual pieces too fast, in the manner of an etude, so the poetic impulse is minimal. But the E Major Intermezzo (in two versions) from Op. 116 is hazy and mysterious, much in the mold Gieseking inscribed in his wonderful EMI records in the 1950's. The Waltzes are blistering performances, with Backhaus' detached chords glistening on top of the keys. He pedals the B Minor Rhapsody effectively, making its middle section a carillon of tender beauty. The Scherzo in E-flat Op. 4 was a Backhaus specialty. The two Hungarian Dances, Nos. 6 and 7, are muscular and vehement. Along with the two Op. 10 Ballades, there is my favorite, the G Minor from Op. 118, played in a linear, forthright manner, big in athletic prowess although somewhat bland emotionally. The two sessions, from December 1932 and January 1936, yielded mixed results, revealing a pianist of considerable technique and breadth but wandering sympathies. still, the overall effect is that of a master pianist much at home in repertory the lies easily under his fingers.
SMETANA: The Bartered Bride (Complete Opera, Sung in German)
Hilde Konetzni, soprano
Richard Tauber, tenor
Fritz Krenn, bass
Mary Jarred, mezzo-soprano
Heinrich Tessmer, tenor
Sir Thomas Beecham conducts London Philharmonic and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Somm-Beecham 14-2 47:27; 64:48 (Distrib. Qualiton):
A live performance from May 1, 1939, this set captures Sir Thomas leading a veteran cast in Smetana's beloved folk opera of true love, albeit in a slightly cut edition. Beecham seems to have had no great affection for the Furiant, so often included in the orchestral excerpts, and he had to overcome some initial problems with soprano Konetzni until Richard Tauber intervened. The political situation in Europe, with clouds darkening towards war, made Beecham eager to placate friend and colleague Vaclav Talich, whose proposed tour of Britain with the National Theatre of Prague (for Rusalka and The Secret) was cancelled by Hitler's propaganda machine. Richard Tauber, although commandeered for the role at short notice, was eager to contribute his mature talent as Jenik as a gesture to the internationalism of art.
The entire ensemble seems in high spirits, and Konetzni makes a believable Marenka, with some fine vocals and a balanced polish to her duets and trios, with good work from Fritz Krenn as Kezal. To be sure, the opera's choruses are equally important to the progression of the story, a la Moussorgsky's Boris, and the Finale of Act II fairly sizzles. Despite some distant and scratchy sound, the inscription, made via the Phillips Miller film system and transferred to 78 rpm discs in 1946, has solid resonance and a nervous sense of the live staging. I had not known Heinrich Tessmer prior to this role as Wenzel, but he impresses me as a versatile lyric who should have received more prominence on records. Kudos to Somm for the production and notes, all of which recreate an artistic and moral moment in Britain's operatic history.
Karl Bohm conducts = MOZART: Overture to Cosi fantutte/BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor/HAYDN: Symphony No. 91 in E-flat Major/SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 TheGreat
Karl Bohm conducts Philharmonia Orchestra (Cosi); Cologne Radio-Symphony (Bruckner); Vienna Philharmonic (Haydn); Staatskapelle Dresden (Schubert)
EMI Great Conductors of the 20th Century 27 55 759442 78:50; 77:44:
Karl Bohm (1894-1981) rebuilt his career after his unapologetic support of National Socialism in Germany, having made a solid reputation in Dresden, particularly in operas of Wagner, Mozart and Richard Strauss. Wielding a long, lean baton, Bohm sported a clear, articulated beat, and his readings of the German and Viennese classics had transparency and drive. unlike Karajan, Bohm was not afraid to allow a composer's rough edges to show through, and his Haydn, of which we have in the set the infrequent No. 91 from his 1973 sessions in Vienna, is a prime example of his often athletic style.
Given the colossal range of Bohm's records over 50 years, EMI has taken a line of least resistance by offering only four pieces, two of which were LP's unto themselves. The 1974 Bruckner 8th from a live, studio session in Cologne has a fine sense of the Bruckner style and its periodic structure. Not so exalted as Furtwaengler, Bohm's Nowak edition is tightly knit, and it has majesty and sweep. Transitions are seamless, with emphasis on cello, bass and low brass, a strong sense of urgency right up to the final peroration. The Schubert 9th is from a January 1979 inscription with the Dresden State Orchestra, a lithe and sympathetic reading that has something of Bruno Walter's style about it, a tendency to mold the cadences while keeping Schubert's cross rhythms well articulated in the manner of Toscanini. The little Overture to Cosi comes to us from the 1962 set of the entire opera, one of the classics of its kind, and making us wonder why we needed more Bruckner in the Great Conductors series when Bohm could have proffered Mozart serenades and opera excerpts conspicuous by their absence.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet--Fantasy Overture; Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique"
Collectors will recall an RCA 2-LP set devoted to Romeo and Juliet, with music by Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Prokofiev (LM 6028), and excerpts from the play read by Hurd Hatfield and Geraldine Fitzgerald. The Cantelli performance of the B Minor tone-poem was a substantial part of this set's attraction, the 1951 inscription's being a driven, fluid account, without any sentimental dawdling and yet rife with poignant emotion and some wonderful playing in the Philharmonia wind and brass sections.
Guido Cantelli (1920-1956) continues to maintain a cult status, a sort of James Dean of the classical music world, dying in an untimely plane crash near Orly, Paris. Often stereotyped as a Toscanini clone, Cantelli's interest in modern scores and his idiosyncratic tempo decisions made his a hybrid style, with elements of interpretation taken from Vittorio de Sabata and Wilhelm Furtwaengler. The 1952 Pathetique Symphony, which appeared here in the US on the LHMV LP format, is an organic, powerful account. Once the listener accepts Cantelli's tempos, which tend to be fleet in the Rodzinski mold, the experience is rock hard and rife with accents and adjustments in the dynamics that will endear the reading to anyone with an affection for this music. Besides Cantelli's having a clear sense of the music's architecture, the playing by individual Philharmonia players, like Dennis Brain's French horn, is masterly. This account has passion, drive and unbridled enthusiasm; and it will prove a tonic to the overwrought, drawn-out readings that Bernstein and his ilk instigated in the 1970's and 1980's that made sentimental syrup of this work. For Cantelli collectors, this is a consummation devoutly to be sought.
Clifford Curzon Decca Recordings, 1941-1972 Vol. 2 = SCHUBERT: 4 Impromptus, D. 899; Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960/MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488; Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491/BRAHMS: Piano Sonata\ No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5; Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15; Intermezzos in E-flat and C Major/DVORAK: Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81/FRANCK: Piano Quintet in F Minor/GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor
Josef Krips conducts London Symphony (Mozart)
Anatole Fistoulari conducts London Symphony (Grieg)
Eduard van Beinum conducts Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (Brahms); Vienna Philharmonic Quartet
Decca 475 084-2 79:50; 78:10; 76:53; 69:25 (Distrib. Universal):
Clifford Curzon (1907-1982) had the rare pianistic pedigree of having British training and two years of study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin, which combined facility, touch and insight in an astonishing degree. Like his contemporary, Solomon, Curzon had a great affinity for the German-Austrian tradition, as well as for French music, Grieg, and occasional excursions into British music. The range of this set of inscriptions is 1941 (Schubert Impromptus) to 1970 (Schubert B-flat Sonata), and each recording bears the mark of a mature, finished artist in complete control of his medium and his message.
Anyone who thinks of British pianist as enervated or lacking sheer power ought to begin with the Franck Piano Quintet with the Vienna Quartet from 1960, where cellist Emanuel Brabec fills out his part, while in the 1962 Dvorak the cellist is Robert Scheiwein. To call the opening Molto moderatoquasi lento "ferocious" is an understatement. It is hard to imagine the vinyl not melting fron the superheated emotions engaged in this performance. The Dvorak, on the other hand, is liquid sound, equally loving and reverent as Curzon's famed inscription for CBS with the Budapest Quartet.
Curzon's Schubert is a direct legacy of his Schnabel influence. Built on huge periods, with a lovely singing line, the B-flat Sonata resonates with lyric pensiveness. Curzon's legato, even in the "study" piece, the Impromptu in E-flat, is even, fluid, and filled with a sense of breathing the music. Brahms, too, was a Schnabel staple: the D Minor Concerto with Beinum returns to the catalogue a volatile, fluent account, with magisterial lines in the strings and horns under Beinum, and some visceral ensemble at the coda of the first movement and in the rondo finale. I have already commented in my survey of the Decca Krips restoration on that conductor's facility with Mozart. The two concertos with Curzon are entirely stylish, the F-sharp Minor Adagio from Concerto No. 23 being rather a standout. While I have rarely found conductor Fistoulari capable of exerting any personality on his own, his capacity to accompany is long established, and his traversal of the Grieg Concerto (1951) underlines Curzon's individual style without intrusion.
Again, this set bespeaks a monumental personality in music on a par with Solomon, where a self-effacing luster is present in every bar. Thoughtful, imaginative, often brilliantly bravura in approach, Curzon is a consistently satisfying interpreter of everything he plays. I had looked forward to his scheduled 1983 appearance in Atlanta, to play the Brahms B-flat Concerto, if I am not mistaken, with every musical anticipation. Curzon's passing was a loss to music on every level.
MOZART: Violin Sonata No. 17 in C, K. 296; Duo No. 1 in G Major, K. 423/BEETHOVEN: "Eyeglass" Duo in E-flat/Serenade in D Major, Op. 8
Szymon Goldberg, violin; Frederick Riddle, viola (K. 423); Paul Hindemith, viola; William Primrose, viola ("Eyeglass" Duo); Emanuel Feuermann, cello; Lili Kraus, piano (K. 296)
Opus Kura 2044 62:13 (Distrib. Albany):
Admirers of Polish violinist Szymon Goldberg (1909-1993) and the legendary Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942) will enjoy this restoration from Opus Kura, taken from Japanese Columbia recordings 1934-1948. The surfaces are not particularly quiet, so audiophiles beware. But the playing bespeaks the glories of some charmed, musical personalities, whose sense of ensemble illumines every page they play. The partnership of Lili Kraus and Szymon Goldberg was equal to anything Szigeti and Schnabel or Milstein and Balsam achieved. Both artists were interned in Japan during WW II, but their playing did not suffer. Goldberg went on to conduct the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and appear as soloist in New York, for instance, playing the Beethoven Concerto with Mitropoulos. Even 1935 shellacs cannot suppress the high, vigorous spirits infiltrating Mozart's C Major Sonata.
Emanuel Feuermann (his name spelled without the last "n" by Opus Kura) was a meteoric cello talent, the natural successor to Pablo Casals, but whose technique was set in the 20th century the way Casals' was set in the 19th century. His fluid, sometimes blazing, playing is heard in the Beethoven works, mostly light fare, but defined by the 18th century cassation and divertimento style that is always ingratiating. Viola Paul Hindemith has quite a singing tone in the interior movements of the Beethoven Op. 8, with its late theme and variations. Frederick Riddle (1912-1995), a competent British player who premiered the Walton Viola Concerto, appears in the perky K. 423 Duet by Mozart, a noisy shellac from 1948. The veteran William Primrose (1903-1982) and Feuermann, who would collaborate in Hollywood with Heifetz as a string trio, plies his hefty vibrato in the bubbly 1941 inscription of the "Eyeglass Duet" of Beethoven, WoO 32, so named because Beethoven and his partner Nikolaus Zmeskall had to wear thick spectacles to see their music. You can leave your eyeglasses off and just listen to these colossal talents enjoy every note of the chamber music they champion.
Ida Haendel in Recital = BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30, No. 2/BACH: Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor/MOZART: Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 378/DVORAK: Two Romantic Pieces, Op. 75/WIENIAWSKI: Polonaise No. 1 in D Major, Op. 4
Ida Haendel, violin
Valentina Lisitsa, piano
VAI VAIA 1219 70:12:
Ida Haendel (b. 1923) remains the elder states-person of violin virtuosi; along with Ruggiero Ricci, Haendel is the living link to the generation of teachers including Carl Flesch and Georges Enesco. This disc captures her art at the Newport Music Festival, June 23, 2000, and her playing still has its solid intonation and her own ideas of phrasing. For avid collectors of Haendel's work, only the Dvorak and Wieniawski pieces will be completely new to her discography: the Beethoven and the Mozart works are available with other pianists (John Newmark and Ronald Turini) through the DOREMI label.
Nevertheless, to hear the seventy-seven-year-old musician at work is a pleasure not to be denied. Her playing of the Bach Chaconne has an ethos entirely her own, rivaling the authority Nathan Milstein brought to the D Minor Partita. Executing the variations with a virtually religious fervor, Haendel demonstrates a security of pace and bowing that can still astonish. I am at a loss why we get only the first two sections of Dvorak's Four Romantic Pieces, but what we have is elegant and affectionate. The Beethoven and Mozart are thoroughly stylistic, especially in the punctilious inner-voicings between her and pianist Lisitsa in the opening Allegro conbrio of the Beethoven. The Wieniawski takes us back to Haendel's native Poland, where the combination of folkish rhythms and Chopinesque, aristocratic elegance make compelling listening. If the audience response is an indicator, Haendel continues to pack a musical whollop worthy of her mythical status.
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde/Interview with Rudolf Kempe
Janet Baker, contralto
Ludovic Spiess, tenor
Rudolf Kempe conducts BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Legends BBCL 4129-2 78:42 (Distrib. Koch):
Recorded at Royal Festival Hall on October 8, 1975, only a year before the death of conductor Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976), this document captures an extended, lyric moment in the all-too-scarce Mahler legacy Rudolf Kempe left us. The only other recording that comes to mind is his Kindertotenlieder with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for EMI. The performance, certainly from the orchestral point of view, is luminous, especially in the final movement, Der Abschied, where the contralto's musings on the life of eternity are punctuated by orientalisms and ominous portents of fate. The tenor is relatively unknown to me: Ludovic Spiess was a member of the Bucharest Opera, and his voice is a lyric much in the timbre of Anton Dermota. The notes blame poor microphone placement in the opening Drinking Song of Earth's Woe for his distant vocalization, and I accept this explanation since his little hymn To Youth in the third movement is lithe and playful, not a far cry from Wunderlich's splendid account with Klemperer.
Janet Baker is clearly the star of the evening, adapting her timbre to the several moods of Bethge's poetry, and peaking in the passionate and lachrymose paean to immortality at the end. Her dark, grainy color is certainly an heir to Kathleen Ferrier's stunning renditions of this piece. Kempe's conducting, moreover, urges the tempos and the vibrancy of the affects; ordinarily, I would have thought this was another of Jascha Horenstein's brilliant British ventures into this knotty score. The disc closes with a 12-minute interview between Kempe and Gillian Widdicombe from London, March 21, 1974. There are some recollections of Richard Strauss the conductor, and Kempe's desire to do more with Italian opera, unwilling to concede that only native Italians or Russians conduct their music best.
Hans Knappertsbusch conducts = BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37/WAGNER: Prelude and Love-Death from Tristan; Die Meistersinger: Act III Prelude; Immolation Scene from Gotterdaemmerung
Christa Ludwig, soprano; Andor Foldes, piano
Hans Knappertsbusch conducts North German Radio-Symphony, Hamburg and Munich Philharmonic (Leonore Overture)
Melodram GM 4.0070 59:04; 46:34 (Distrib. Albany):
Assembled from concerts 1959-1963, these discs capture the expansive art of Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) in a genial spirit, particularly in his work with pianist Andor Foldes (1913-1992) in the Beethoven C Minor Concerto from January 15, 1962. The liner notes contain an affectionate remembrance of the collaboration by Foldes, whose concerto recordings are few and far between. I am waiting for DGG to reissue his Beethoven sonatas as well as the Choral Fantasy with Fritz Lehmann. Knappertsbusch asked Foldes upon their meeting if Foldes had a good sense of rhythm, to which Foldes replied that the proof would be in their playing. Judge for yourself: the playing is linear, assertive, but rife with tiny adjustments of rhythm and dynamics that keep our ears occupied.
Wagner was a Knappertsbusch staple, with the conductor's appearing at Bayreuth consistently between 1951-1956. Noted more for Parsifal and The Ring, we get to hear a superheated Christa Ludwig in her prime (March and October 1963), when her high C's and sustaining tone could equal Birgit Nilsson's range, without the metallic ping that Nilsson could educe. Always supple in Tristan, Knappertsbusch applies his leisurely but voluptuous palette to the Prelude, even adding a bit of erotic sadness tio the Third Act Prelude of Die Meistersinger. After hearing Furtwaengler's Coriolan, the Knappertsbusch version sounds a tad puffy and soft; but the expansive approach to Fidelio's huge overture achieves a solemn pageantry that avoids sag in its sonata-form working out of the elements. For Kna collectors, this collection is a refreshing tonic away from the usual Bruckner collations that glut this artist's catalogue.
MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder; Adagio from Symphony No. 10 in F# Minor/WEBERN: In Sommerwind; Passacaglia, Op. 1
Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano
Michael Gielen conducts SWR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden
Hanssler CD 93.062 71:30 (Distrib. Albany):
Late Romanticism is in full bloom with these works, recorded 1989-1998 with Michael Gielen and Hans Rosbaud's old orchestra of the German Radio, Baden-Baden. We have the music that helped establish the Second Viennese School, especially Mahler's ominous Songs on the Death of Children, composed at the same time as his fateful Fifth Symphony. Having grown up with the Ferrier/Walter performance as a high standard, I found Cornelia Kallisch quite effective, capturing the plaintive, forbidding evocations of nature with a simplicity of attack that transforms the narrator's reassurances of safety into bitter moments of self-deception. And since my purist blood disowns the "official" reconstructions of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, I gravitate to those conductors who play the passionate, mercurial Adagio (and, perhaps, the extant bars of the Purgatorio) as a kind of Unfinished Symphony, with its angular, even serpentine, melodic line and twin tempos, one conciliatory, the other a weird totentanz.
Webern's 1904 tone-poem both in the Strauss manner and Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, Im Sommerwind (1904, after Bruno Wille), is the equivalent of the poetic effect Jean-Paul Richter's Flegeljahre had on Schumann, a kind of pantheistic exuberance in self-development. Its big gestures made their first impression on me through a recording by Eugene Ormandy. Gielen's approach is stoic and poised, in the George Szell mode. Gielen then applies his gifts in interior clarity to Webern's first authorized opus, the 1908 Passacaglia (after Brahms' E Minor Symphony), with its twenty-three variants that feature many outstanding instrumental solo parts. For those that collect Michael Gielen (and Wolfgang Sawallisch), these performances exemplify the clarity and expressiveness of German conducting from that generation who matured post-WW II.