Classical CD Reissues  
May 2003 - Part 1 of 2

VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Callas Forever. Soundtrack from the film directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Original arias by Maria Callas. EMI 5 57389 2 9:

I’m certainly looking forward to this bio pic. It won’t even matter if it’s good. So what if it plunges into a vat of soap--although how could it, with Fanny Ardent playing Maria Callas? It will have all the great Maria Callas arias culled from EMI’s vaults: Un bel di vedremo from Madama Butterfly, O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi, plus a hefty helping from Maria’s most famous roles, Carmen and Tosca. The sound is so lush and deftly re-engineered you hardly notice that some pieces are over forty years old. The Gypsy Song from Carmen is an extraordinary piece of theatre, conducted even more rapidly than usual. For some reason, Callas’ earthy mezzo voice sounds more sensuous when singing low notes in her nasal French accent. There is even a bonus track not in the film – the Act II finale of Tosca. Uh oh. This must mean that Callas’ best scene is not in the film, her plunging the knife into Scarpia and gloating “Before him all Rome trembled.” Too bad. Luckily we have Callas herself doing it in grainy black and white. This album has everything, even a touch of triviality in Alessio Vlad’s syrupy orchestral interludes. Don’t let them bother you. They take up less than ten minutes. That still leaves over an hour of pure Callas. Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

HAROLD ARLEN: Blues Opera; HUGH MARTIN-ALEC WILDER: The Grandma Moses Suite - Andre Kostelanetz and his Orchestra; Ch. orch. conducted by Daniel Saidenberg - DRG B’dway Collector Series mono 19044:

Vinyl collectors frequently point out the many great recordings that are only available in their hoary format and have never been issued on CD. Until now that has been true of these two gems which date from the 1950s. I’ve been enjoying them first on open reel and then dubbed to cassettes for decades now, dubbed originally from 10-inch LPs at one or another of the FM stations I worked at. So this enhanced reissue without hiss and with fascinating notes by composer Martin and critic Edward Jablonski is super- appreciated.

Arlen’s Blues Opera was intended to be a sort of sequel to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The location is St. Louis’ black ghetto in the late 1880s rather than South Carolina’s Catfish Row. The composer intended to write a full-length opera in the language of the blues. Conductor Kostelanetz was a big Arlen fan and had already recorded with his orchestra four Arlen songs - Out of This World, That Old Black Magic, Stormy Weather, Blues in the Night - which are heard in between the two major works on this disc. So as soon as the opera was completed Kosty had someone arrange an instrumental suite from it, and recorded it for Columbia - which is what we hear on this CD. It’s great stuff in the style of Gershwin’s opera and Richard Rodgers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Among the hit tunes in it are Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home, One for My Baby and One More for the Road, and Come Rain or Come Shine. The original liner notes proclaimed the opera would be given its premiere in Europe in l958. Unfortunately that didn’t occur; the premiere was on Broadway in 1959 and due to various problems it soon closed and was forgotten. So this snappy suite is really all we have.

Composer Martin traveled to upstate New York to visit Grandma Moses before composing his music for a 20-minute documentary on her amazing DIY achievements in art. She fixed him hot tea and he found her enchanting. Martin’s basic themes were dolled up and arranged by Alec Wilder, who was undoubtedly responsible (if you’ve ever heard any of the Wilder Octets) for the inclusion of a harpsichord in the score. Straightforward Americana is the main theme here, but not overly Copland-derivative. I think just listing the ten cues will give the best view of whasup: Cambridge Valley, Whistlestop, Anna Mary, Sugaring Off, Sewing, Children’s Children’s Children, Winter in Hoosick Falls, Pioneer Stock, Lullaby, Christmas. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

WEBER: Oberon Overture/LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1/BORODIN: Symphony No. 2 in B Minor/RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Procession of the Nobles from Mlada/TCHAIKOVSKY: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32/MOUSSORGSKY: Gopak/RAVEL: La Valse/WAGNER: Tannhauser Overture; Excepts from The Ring and Tristan/HUMPERDINCK: Haensel und Gretel Prelude/STRAUSS: Tod und Verklaerung.

Frida Leider, soprano/Lauritz Melchior, tenor
Albert Coates conducts London Symphony Orchestra and Berlin State Opera Orch. (Tristan)
EMI "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" 17 5 75486 2 79:03; 78:48:

I remember writing record producer Thomas Clear in the throes of his transfer of Albert Coates (1882-1953) and the London Symphony of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, a performance as hysterical as it was energized, massive and sparklingly resonant at once. Everything about Albert Coates was larger than life, a huge man with a huge talent, more than often under-utilized by record producer Fred Gaisberg of EMI. Along with Sir Thomas Beecham, Coates was the greatest Wagner interpreter in Britain, and his1929 Love Duet from Tristan will demonstrate why. When the music suddenly breaks off after Isolde's Love-Death, the silence on your speakers will roar as loudly as any of Frida Leider's high C's.

The Russian-born Coates was the spiritual heir of Nikisch, delineating clear lines and spare portamenti, but Coates' perspective was large, after Napravnik and competitive with Mengelberg, so that Coates formed and invigorated the LSO to rival any of the panoramic canvasses of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Listen to the Procession of the Nobles from Mlada, and savor the clean articulation of the brass, while the strings and winds quiver and twist with all minds of rhythmic accents and colors. The opening of Ravel's La Valse from 1926 is an invitation to a nightmare, played with an agony and pulsating fury only equalled by Celibidache in his quirky reading of Debussy's Fetes.

Both Tchaikovsky's Francesca and the Strauss Death and Transfiguration are taken at blinding speed, so the fires of Dante's Inferno burn with an especial vigor and the reflections of Ritter's protagonist writhe in his deathbed with a fervent nostalgia. Whether the limitations of the 78 rpm format drive Coates's tempos or his sheer tempestuousness is a matter of debate. The Coates Ring excerpts, like the Rhine Journey, are all cut, but the grandeur and earthy passion are not. The Tannhauser (and Liszt Mephisto Waltz) has the same flexibility of tempo as in Mengelberg's slightly broader approach. The Borodin Second (1929) is no less streamlined, but it has character and style to spare. I can't help wondering how much the Coates (and Oskar Fried) influences in Russian music-making had their impact on Evgeny Mravinsky. For those who admire uncanny orchestral discipline and often heroic, bravura performances, take heed of the Albert Coates legacy. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

DANCES FROM OLD VIENNA: J. Strauss, Diabelli, Lanner - Ensemble Bella Music / Michael Dittrich - Harmonia Mundi Classical Express 3951013 (57 mins):

First released in 1979 when Harmonia Mundi was in the first blush of its success on the U.S. scene as one of the great French labels (soon to be known as an abundant provider of audiophile gems, to boot), this is one of many releases with which audiophiles used to show off their components or go trolling for new ones.

From the very first bar, you can hear what made Harmonia Mundi so special: The spring in the low strings, the sweetness of the uppers strings and the flute, the unselfconsciousness naturalness of the dynamic range, the lovely instrumental colors, and the almost tangible sense of presence, each decadently Viennese dance bringing with it new delights. The small ensemble - flute, three violins, two violas, cello, double-bass and two guitars - was recorded in a church in the small Provence town of Lurs which is famous both for a great restaurant and the infamous affaire Dominici. (See<http://perso.wanadoo.fr/vincent.carrias/dominici.htm>)


I remember asking famed producer Robina Young at the time how she explained the utterly superb sound that Harmonia Mundi's engineers were able to achieve, and she replied, tongue in cheek (I imagined), that they didn't know what all the knobs and dials were for. I am sure they knew better than most which knobs to twirl and which dials to spy on, but simply had good sense to let them alone and let the wonderful acoustical spaces they chose - and the musicians, of course - do the rest.

Although I remember the LP sounding even more tactilely real, I can't imagine anything sounding better than this very generously-priced reissue in the label's Classical Express series. Michael Dittrich's liner notes are as gracious and pleasant to read as his musical performances. Here is a recording which made history, and continues to do so.
Purchase Here


- Laurence Vittes

WAGNER: Die Meistersinger--Overture; Tannhauser Overture; The Flying Dutchman Overture; Lohengrin: Preludes, Act I and Act III; Ortrud's Aria; Tristan: Mild und liese" (Liebestod)

Rita Gorr, soprano/Andre Cluytens conducts National Theater Orchestra of Paris and Vienna Philharmonic (with Rita Gorr)
Testament SBT 1256 54:52 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Andre Cluytens (1905-1967) was a Wagner acolyte, having been introduced to the composer by Cluytens' father, and having led Die Meistersinger in 1943. By 1955, Cluytens' prowess in Wagner production had come to the attention of Wieland Wagner, always on the lookout for that "Latin school" of conducting that would eschew the overblown rhetoric that made Wagner teutonic and heavy. Soprano Anja Silja, who sang for Cluytens in Wagner and in Verdi, called his approach "Debussian," with its transparent textures and lithe underpinning for the singers.

This collation of the essential non-Ring Wagner excerpts derives from inscriptions made 1957-1959, with a responsive French orchestra and the silken, effortless gloss of the vienna Philharmonic. Belgian soprano Rita Gorr came to Bayreuth for Hans Knappertsbusch, and she sang for Cluytens in his La Scala Parsifal. She brings a slick projection to Ortrud's brief aria from Lohengrin, then a thrilling, focused reading of the Love-Death. I miss the Tristan Prelude, which is a standard splicing. The Die Meistersinger Prelude is rounded and poised, with excellent exposure of th middle voiced polyphony. Both the Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman are played more for lyricism than high pageant, but this intimacy carries over into the reading of the Lohengrin Act I Prelude. Few revelations, but solid, consistent musicianship of high quality. Warm sound restorations by Paul Baily. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

WAGNER: A Siegfried Idyll; Forest Murmurs from Siegfried; Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March from Goetterdaemmerung/R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20; Love Scene from Feuersnot, Op. 50

Andre Cluytens conducts National Theater Orchestra of the Paris Opera and Vienna Philharmonic (Strauss)
Testament SBT 1255 70:36 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

The music of Richard Strauss was no less natural to Andre Cluytens (1905-1967) than that of Wagner, having led performances of Salome in the early 1940's. The inscriptions here from 1958 bespeak a fervent reader of Strauss scores, with Cluytens' challenging Beecham in the Feuersnot love scene, treated as an erotic tone poem of its own. The Don Juan has the VPO playing at whiplash speed, with no loss of the sensuous patina that befits the picaresque character of the protagonist. Some Knappertsbusch influence here? The Wagner is relatively streamlined, warm in the manner of Bruno Walter, and played without the rythmic exaggeration. Although born later than the Bauhaus movement's prime, Cluytens seems to have taken his cue for Wagner from the Neue Sachlichkeit, the new plain-speaking style we associate with a literalist like Hindemith. The Goetterdaemmerung excerpts are cut right at Zu neuen thaten to the tumultuous Rhine Journey. The Forest Murmurs are soft, glimmering, and the Paris Opera woodwind soli are quite pointed. Strong playing, sympathetic interpretations. But for owners of various interpreters of this repertory, there is little to motivate purchase except a devotion to Cluytens. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco


DORUMSGAARD: Songs from the Anthology Canzone scordate: BACH and C.P.E. BACH/FRANCK/CARISSIMI/LOEHNER/DORUMSGAARD

Kirsten Flagstad, soprano/Gerald Moore, piano
Testament SBT 1267 69:22 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

GRIEG: 11 Songs/DORUMSGAARD: 18 Songs

Kirsten Flagstad, soprano
Warwick Braithwaite and Walter Susskind conduct Philharmonia Orchestra/Gerald Moore, piano (2 Grieg Songs; Dorumsgaard)
Testament SBT 1268 73:32 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1952) remains, to the vast populace of opera lovers, the supreme heldensoprano of her time - who along with heldentenor Lauritz Melchior set the standard for Wagner performance for a generation. Her only serious rivals were Frida Leider and Helen Traubel. Flagstad's later years were devoted to art-song, and she twice recorded Grieg's cycle Haugtussa in fine form. Several of the Grieg songs (rec. 1948) in this collation appeared on a 10" RCA LP, and I recall being much impressed with The Swan and the two songs Grieg also used for his Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34.

Flagstad and Grieg are a natural combination. Along with her native diction, Flagstad imparts all kinds of nuance to A Dream and to Eros, with its rejection of self-abnegation. I did not know of Anre Dorumsgaard (b. 1921), who seems a versatile song-writer, though his demands on Flagstad's tessitura occasionally strain her upper register, which has some shatter at the top in these 1952 inscriptions. Many of the songs are gloomy and dark, about sorrow and solitude, much in the tradition of Schubert, but given a Nordic slant by way of Gade and Nielsen. The entire SBT 1267 is devoted to Dorumsgaard's arrangements of older art-songs, from antique German lieder 1648-1714, and to individual post-Renaissance composers like Carissimi and Wolfgang Franck, as well as pious incantations by Bach, like his Komm, suesser Tod and Liebster Herr Jesu. I suggest taking these discs in select portions, since many of the sentiments are cut from the same dark, liturgical cloth. Gerald Moore, ever the velvet glove, is captured in perfect form. Both albums are a must for Flagstad enthusiasts.Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

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