PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Symphony No. 7 in C# Minor, Op. 131
Jean Martinon conducts Paris Conservatory Orchestra
Testament SBT 1296 72:05 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Inscriptions from November 1957 reissued from the Decca originals, featuring the late Jean Martinon (1910-1976), the able composer-conductor whose estimate in France was under-rated, but whose repute in Britain and the United States was high, especially in French music and in modern works. Martinon took his cue from Charles Munch, his mentor and professional guide, but Martinon's touch and colors were slightly more classical than Munch's penchant for colossal, romantic intensity. Martinon reminds me more of the classical chastity I hear in Roger Desormiere, whose sensibilities almost match Martinon's exactly. Both traverse modernism with elements of the classical ballet, qualities apparant in the Prokofiev C# Minor Symphony, the composer's swan-song that here, in this pristine rendition, might be an homage to Tchaikovsky.
The Prokofiev Fifth Symphony has had its eloquent interpreters, in the manner of Koussevitzky, Mravinsky, Stokowski and Celibidache. The slow build-up in the return of the main theme of the Allegro marcato second movement provides the acid test for the conductor's aesthetics. Martinon's is a rather chaste, controlled reading, as is the Seventh Symphony, both in good stereo sound. We hear the pasticity of the lines, the lovely interweaving of parts; in the Seventh Symphony the harps' contributions to the orchestral palette are delciously highlighted. The Fifth enjoys Martinon's clear sense of structure, the architecture of Ravel superimposed on the Russian iconoclast. What we miss here is the savagery and merciless wit that Koussevitzky could release from the score. Critics of the Prokofiev Seventh find it a lackluster conclusion to the composer's symphonic ouevre. But Martinon's reading, and Nicolai Malko's inscription before it, convince me that the work is an affectionate look back at moments of lightness and grace, with some momentary effusions of exaltation. That's still saying quite a bit, I think.
SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in D Major, D. 850/BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 "Emperor"
Radu Lupu, piano
Josif Conta conducts Romanian Radio-Symphony Orchestra
Electecord EDC 437 74:51 (Distrib. Albany):
Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (b. 1945) came to international prominence at the 1966 Van Cliburn Competition; then again at the Georges Enesco Competition, 1967; and at Leeds in 1969. Trained in Moscow by Heinrich and Stanislaus Neuhaus, Lupu packs a big technique with an erratic temperament, capable of as much physical violence to the piano as inifinite tenderness. Many collectors like his Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann, but are divided on his Mozart and Beethoven. The 1981 performance of Schubert's 1825 Op. 53 Sonata is a case in point: it varies in dynamic intensity in sudden shifts, like the difference between a downpour and a sunny day. An aggressive first movement yields to an introspective Con molto second movement, with very different pedalling and digital approaches to staccato markings. Artur Schnabel set the standard for the interpretation of this lofty piece, which under Lupu seems a series of disconnected emotional dramas. Still, the fire in Lupu's sensibility is worth a listen. The Beethoven Emperor dates from February 1970 and is altogether a cleaner, more consistent vision of a high order. Pianist and conductor meld in their conception, a big, bravura demonstration of a virtuoso piano part with equally electric accompaniment from the Romanian Radio-Symphony. High velocity all the way, with a sighing Adagio un poco mosso theme-and-variations second movement. A sleeper album that can wake you up.
VERDI: Overtures to La Forza del destino; Nabucco; Alzira; The Lady and the Fool--Ballet (arranged Mackerras)
Following the success of Charles Mackerras' 1951 arrangement of the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan for Pineapple Poll, Mackerras (b. 1925) decided to arrange the music of Verdi's lesser operas for a Sadler Wells Theatre Ballet production in 1954. The Lady and the Fool, the story of a rich society belle who chooses to live with a clown rather than to marry any of her wealthy suitors, was recorded in 1955. It consists of thirteen balletic numbers and an epilogue, of which I found the Entree and Solo (of the Prince of Arragonza) rather compelling listening. The selections derive from operas like Alzira, Joan of Arc, Il finto Stanislao, Attila, Aroldo, Macbeth, I vespri siciliani, and I due Foscari. There are more quotes if finding them makes you happy. This is the only complete recording of this arrangement, so take it or leave it. The opera overtures each come from sessions in November 1956, when EMI was actively trying to establish a Verdi catalogue that could compete! with Toscanini on RCA, Cleva on CBS, and Serafin on DGG. Mackerras knew the music of Verdi au fond, and his lively sense of color and pageantry comes through in the playing of flute and clarinet solos, and really brisk ensemble from the Philharmonia brass and lower strings. The relatively exotic colors of Alzira were new to me, so I played this disc again. As a companion to the Mackerras surveys already reissued by Testament, this compilation adds to his strong taste for ballet and color music, a clear indication that the mantle of Constant Lambert had fallen happily on his shoulders.
WOLF-FERRARI: Overtures, Inermezzi and Dances: The Secret of Susanne; The Four Rustics; The Jewels of the Madonna/VERDI: Overture to Luisa Miller; Ballet Music from Il Trovatore; I vespri siciliani; Otello/PONCHIELLI: Dance of the Hours from La Giaconda
Charles Mackerras conducts Philharmonia Orchestra and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (Otello)
Testament SBT 1327 75:35 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Testament culls HMV inscriptions made 1956 and 1958 by Charles Mackerras (b. 1925), just after his having left the BBC Concert Orchestra to become EMI's resident replacement for indisposed leaders Giulini and Klemperer. Mackerras, however, is more than a mere substitute: his light hand in this all-Italian fare reveals a light hand bearing the mantle of Constant Lambert. Connoiseurs will relish the sound of clarinet Bernard Walton in the Luisa Miller, as well as in The Four Seasons ballet from I vespri siciliani. While Wolf-Ferrari pieces are typically witty and bright, although the two Intermezzi from The Jewels of the Madonna attain poignancy and a grand line.
The Verdi ballets are almost singularly the product of the composer's having to stage Paris productions of his operas, which required ballet sequences. The Il Trovatore set includes a quick reference to the Anvil Chorus before to flits and bounces away. I cannot recall a bad performance of Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, going back to Frederick Stock and forward to Rudolf Kempe. Mackerras' 1958 account is luminous and fleet, with plenty of pep from strings and battery before it's over. Only in the Otello do I prefer Fricsay's version, which hints of tragedy lurking just beneath the surface mirth.
MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major, K. 207; Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Major, K. 211; Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218; Adagio in E, K. 261
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin/Riccardo Muti conducts Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Neville Marriner conducts Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (K. 207; K. 261)
EMI "Great Artists of the Century" 7243 5 62826 2 73:22:
Recorded 1982 and 1991, this disc captures Mutter (with Muti) just five years after her 1977 debut with Herbert von Karajan, who had become her sponsor. We might mention, too, that Riccardo Muti's own prestige in Mozart found ample testimony in a recording of the Symphony No. 29 he inscribed for EMI around the same time. Mutter takes a thoroughly modern approach to Mozart, no flattening of accents to suit "authenticity" buffs. The Andante cantabile of the Mozart D Major K. 218 is more sostenuto and drawn out than I prefer, after the Novak/Talich version for Supraphon, but the rendition with Mutter certainly sings. All of the pieces dance. The infectiousness of her collaboration with Marriner in the K. 207 has caused me to play this reissue several times. Deeply impressed by David Oistrakh's playing, Mutter might be accused of borrowing his vibrato and his penchant for the middle of the musical marshmallow. But I doubt that loveliness of tone can be a debit. The E Major Adagio, an alternate for the slow movement of the Turkish Concerto, receives a grand line, more lush than Milstein's version, if not so tightly etched. The entire album has the light hand and the gemutlichkeit to keep it long active on and off your record shelf.
BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1/MOZART: String Quartet in D Major, K. 499 "Hoffmeister"/SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor "From My Life"
BBC Legends BBCL 4137-2 77:40 (Distrib. Koch):
Culled from two distinct venues, this disc grows progressively more intense with each of the three quartets inscribed by the Smetana Quartet (1945-1989). The Beethoven comes from a BBC Studios inscription, 12 January 1963. Collectors still cling covetously to the complete Beethoven cycle the Smetana Quartet made for Denon around fifteen years ago. The F Major recorded here is quite subdued and intimate, and its second movement Adagio seems illuminated from within. Violins Jiri Novak and Lubomir Kostecky impart some wonderful antiphons, and Anton Kohout's cello is a legend unto itself. The Mozart and Smetana "From My Life" (this ensemble's perennial calling-card) are from a live concert at Royal FEstival Hall, London, 14 June 1965. I have several times alluded to Jiri Novak as a fine Mozart player; witness his D Major Concerto recording with Talich. The "Hoffmeister" Quartet is a miracle of clear, liquid lines and seamless transitions. Violaist Milan Skampa has his many moments of glory, given Mozart's own preference for the alto part. Finally, the eponymous Smetana, played with a verve and vigor that burns the agony of the composer's personal torment into our ears. Alternately passionate, exuberant, and agonized, this is a performance to hear and to keep. This disc is one of chamber music's high points so far for 2004, a watermark album.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 6 in E Minor/TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet--Fantasy Overture/MOZART: Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 "Haffner"/SCOTT: From the Sacred Harp/WEINBERGER: Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper
Leopold Stokowski conducts New York Philharmonic
Cala CACD0537 78:58:
Volume 3 of Stokowski's tenure with the New York Philharmonic (1946-1950), just prior to the assumption of full directorship under Dimitri Mitropoulos, includes inscriptions Stokowski made in 1949, including the elusive January 1949 V-disc of Thomas Jefferson Scott's From the Sacred Harp, an attempt to disseminate two Southern American hymns to an international audience. The big work is the Vaughan Williams E Minor Symphony from February 1949, which had prior CD incarnation via Sony import, coupled with the Mitropoulos version of the F minor Symphony No. 4. Cala, in cooperation with the Leopold Stokowski Society, has remastered the sound, which now packs a tremendous whollop. The music is rife with emotional upheaval and spiritual turmoil, but Stokowski finds many moments of repose and lyric evocation. His tempos are fast but close to the metronome markings indicated by the composer: I believe there exists a photo of the composer and Stokowski scrutinizing this very score.
The Romeo and Juliet (from November 1949) is another of those soft-ending Stokowski readings, sanctioned in part by Modeste Tchaikovsky's insistence that his brother meant to make a final copy of the piece that eliminated the jarring chords of the finale. At a little over 19 minutes, the performance is grand and lyric without becoming inflated a la Celibidache. Mozart's Haffner Symphony, a rarity in the Stokowski catalogue, is from a live broadcast also in November 1949. Rather brisk and suffering a dry acoustic, the piece still has dash and that sense of emotionalism Mozart took from C.P.E. Bach. As I recall, the cache of live Philharmonic broadcasts includes a C Major Haydn Concerto with Stern and the American premier of the Richard Strauss Metamorphosen; hopefully, these to be transferred at a later date. Scott himself introduces us to his folksy piece of Americana: those who know Stokowski's way with Thomason, McDonald, and Canning will appreciate this moment of Southern psalmody. The Weinberger from January 16, 1949, seems to be the only inscription Stokowski made of a piece by Weinberger. A somewhat perfunctory reading, the Polka is a bit staid, and the Fugue has good clarity of line, if not the audacious and unbuttoned quality Mitropoulos squeezed out of it for CBS. This is another important addition to the Cala-Stokowski catalogue, and collectors know that I urge such purchases.