18 Classical Reissue Reviews Part 1

by | Apr 1, 2005 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments



April 2005, Pt. 1 of 2    [Pt. 2]

Annie Fischer piano recitalHAYDN: Andante and Variations in F Minor/BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; 32 Variations in C Minor/CHOPIN: Scherzo No. 3 in C3 Minor, Op. 39/KODALY: Dances of Marosszek/MOZART: Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457

Annie Fischer, piano
BBC Legends BBCL 4166 74:22 (Distrib. Koch)****:

Studio recordings from Hungarian virtuoso Annie Fischer (1914-1995) made 1958-1971, mostly in dark intimate colors. Although Fischer’s repertory embraced an international assemblage of composers, she made a reputation on discs in the music of Beethoven and Mozart. Her approach to the familiar Moonlight Sonata (2 November 1958) eschews anything like a sentimental affect, opting for a linear detachment in the opening Adagio sustention and high fioritura in the final movement that outstrips her commercial EMI recording for sheer speed. Fischer’s grasp of the architecture undergirding the C Minor Variations (19 May 1963) of Beethoven is no less firm, playing the groupings as studies in dark and light, with effective cascades of sound that move toward a preconceived end. The Mozart Sonata (24 February 1971) is both graceful and supple, the last movement achieving a clarion quality in its repeated sixteenth notes forming upbeats to the main theme. If the one-take Chopin simply extends the bravura element of this recital, the Kodaly proves tonic in luxuriant and rhythmically free lyricism and a woven tapestry of authentic Magyar sounds. Alternately rustic and exalted in the manner of national opera, the Fischer manages to evoke a symphonic palette out her piano – the sonority the composer himself favored in its original version of 1925. Powerful, introspective performances from an under-represented superstar of the keyboard.

–Gary Lemco

Dennis Brian & Benjamin BrittenBEETHOVEN: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 16/JACOB: Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano/HINDEMITH: Horn Sonata/VINTER: Hunter’s Moon

Dennis Brain, French horn/Benjamin Britten, piano (Beethoven); Dennis Brain Wind Quintet; George Malcolm, piano (Jacob); Noel Mewton-Wood, piano (Hindemith); Vilm Tausky conducts BBC Concert Orchestra (Vinter).
BBC Legends BBCL 4164 65:21 (Distrib. Koch)****:

Another gently persuasive series of recordings to benefit the legacy of Dennis Brain (1921-1957), the brilliant horn player whose passing all-too-soon robbed us of a delightful talent. Taken from Aldeburgh (the Beethoven from June 22, 1955) and the BBC studios, the performances attest to the lithe grace and impeccable taste of a natural musician of the highest order. The most meaty addition is the Beethoven Op. 16, with Benjamin Britten in excellent form at the keyboard, assisted by Leonard Brain, oboe; Stephen Waters, clarinet; and Cecil James, bassoon. Though Britten often expressed an aversion to the music of Beethoven and Brahms, one can find no evidence of any antipathy – only brisk, deft ensemble.

These members of the Dennis Brain Wind Quintet make a pleasant sense of Gordon Jacob’s musical eulogy (22 July 1957) for Aubrey Brain, who had died in September 1955. The piece uses a Schumannesque anagram ABEBA for Aubrey Brain, providing a thematic basis for the composition – excepting the Cortege – although it too centers on B, this time B-flat Minor. Brain and ensemble provide a French sound to the works they play, making the Jacob piece a close cousin to the Poulenc Sextet. Gareth Morris provides flute work rife with breezy flair. The Hindemith Sonata (January 28, 1953) is a dry, academic-sounding piece that has the talented but tragic Noel Mewton-Wood at the keyboard. (He committed suicide later in the year.) The last piece by Gilbert Vinter is a little serenade, rather in a Hollywood notion of what outdoor music should sound like. Recorded 16 June 1957 with Czech musician Vilem Tausky, the inscription testifies to Brain’s exuberant gifts just some 75 days before his untimely demise.

–Gary Lemco

Wm. Bolcom SymphoniesWILLIAM BOLCOM: Symphony No. 1 (1957); Symphony No. 3 for Chamber Orchestra (1979); Seattle Slew Orchestral Suite (Three Dances in Forequarter Time – 1986) – The Louisville Orchestra/Lawrence Leighton Smith – First Edition Music FECD-0033, 69:15 ****:

The Santa Fe Music Group is to be commended for their excellent program of CD reissues from the over 400 works by over 250 composers in the library of original recordings by the Louisville Orchestra. They first appeared on rather dull-sounding mono LPs, then on better stereo LPs, and made the transition to CD but not necessarily with improved sonics. Now the First Edition Music label has dedicated itself to eventually releasing the entire Louisville catalog thru the most up-to-date technical remastering means. While I didn’t have any earlier version of Bolcom works to compare, sonics were definitely improved on previous ones I have compared. The three works on this CD were only recorded in l990 and 91, so sonics don’t suffer a bit. The First Symphony and the Suite are also recording premieres.

The very early Symphony No. 1 comes from a summer workshop Bolcom had at age 19 with composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud asked if any of the students wanted to try writing an orchestral piece. Bolcom came up with a fur-movement symphony in five weeks! Reviews show that the composer started his career right off the bat with what has distinguished his work ever since. The New York Times reviewer said he “helps himself to bits and pieces of styles from any handy source.” And that’s been a one-sentence description of his approach to most works, including the massive Songs of Innocence and of Experience which we reviewed in December. A sardonic short symphony in the classical mold is what Bolcom intended, and got. The Third Symphony is also involved with classical models but is more serious and twice as long. The Suite honors a horse named Seattle Slew who won the Kentucky Derby and two other races. There was also a dance step in the 1830s called the Slew Step. Bolcolm decided to put the two elements together and came up with three dance-based movements for a ballet – tangos, gavottes and rag dances. Great fun; listening to Bolcom keeps you on your toes – always ready for the unexpected.

– John Sunier

Weill: 7 Deadly SinsKURT WEILL: The Seven Deadly Sins; 4 Weill Songs – Marianne Faithfull, voice/Hudson Shad choir members/Vienna Radio Sym. Orch./Denis Russell Davies – RCA Red Seal Classic Library 82876-60872-2, 50:46 ****:

This rather odd but interesting work comes from the European Weill period when he was still working with Bert Brecht, who contributed the lyrics. The year was l933 and they met in Paris. The story concerns young Anna, who is sent by her family to dance her way thru seven America cities to scrape together enough cash to buy a house for them. The realities of Anna’s struggle are too much for her and her personality splits, with Anna 1 being a singer and Anna 2 a dancer. Each of the seven movements adapts a different dance such as foxtrot, march, tango, etc. And in each of the seven cities a different deadly sin is emphasized. Brecht got in plenty of harsh anti-American and anti-capitalist criticisms. Weill’s score has great emotional impact; sometimes sounding almost like Mahler. The family of Anna provides some comic relief, partly from the fact that the role of the family is sung by a male quartet in close harmony – reminiscent of the popular German Comedian Harmonists of the time. And the moralizing mother is sung by the basso! Some consider this work the pinnacle of the Weill-Brecht collaboration

The premiere’s Anna was Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya, and her recording of the work is still available. Others have tackled the quirky 35-minute theatrical work, including Julia Migenes, Ute Lemper, Judy Kaye, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Teresa Stratas – the latter even available as a video DVD. Marianne Faithfull’s version was only recorded about seven years ago – I don’t know if this is its first appearance on CD. Somehow her non-operatic, sultry and rough voice reminded me more of the original Lenya than any of the others. Weill and Brecht designed their creations for singers of the people – not polished professionals – and Faithfull seems the most faithful to this intent. (Sorry ‘bout that…) The recording is excellent sonically, and her encores of Alabama Song, Bilbao Song and of course Pirate Jenny are most welcome. Everything is in English, which most listeners will also find welcome.

– John Sunier

Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven & SchoenbergBEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1/SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17/SCHOENBERG: Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11

Claudio Arrau, piano
BBC Legends BBCL 4162 64:08 (Distrib. Koch)****:

Sacredotal studio inscriptions 1959-1960 by Chilean master Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), with his special Herculean imprint on music he knew well. The curio in this recital is the Schoenberg group from 3 March 1959, played with both delicacy and restrained power; the harmonies (such as they are) often disturbingly reminiscent of moments from Moussorgsky. Arrau manages to color the pieces so that they lie somewhere between Hindemith and Debussy, an uneasy meandering that is not without its continuities albeit in a veil of mist.

The Beethoven E-flat Sonata quasi fantasia (16 October 1960) seems to have appealed to Arrau’s fascination with its sphinx-like query-and-answer in the opening bars, since he programmed the piece with virtually the same architecture in his Ascona Festival recital on Ermitage 182-2 (September 17, 1971), a performance only some 20 seconds different in playing time. The studio performance has more of a sense of experiment, Arrau shifting colors with a bit more introspection. The Schumann Fantasy (16 October 1960), with its several homages to Beethoven via Op. 101 and the song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, has a muscular, sinewy weight, along with the thick velvet that was the hallmark of the Arrau tone. Arrau allows the music’s poetic cast to achieve some haunting, haunted passions, the alternation of power and mystery that makes for ravishing textures. Towering thought from the Old Master, whose facility, in the words of Emanuel Ax,”could make us young ones seem arthritic.”

–Gary Lemco

Beecham cond. Franck d minorFRANCK: Symphony in D minor; LALO: Symphony in G minor; FAURE: Pavane. Sir Thomas Beecham. EMI Classics, 5 6294929 ****:

I always wondered why Cesar Franck wrote only one symphony. I think I found the answer on the Web. Madame Franck detested his music, and their marriage deteriorated when she expressed her particular hatred of his D minor symphony and his F minor Piano Quintet. (Interestingly, he also wrote only one Piano Quintet.)

Apparently she suffered an amusia rivaled only by some of Bach’s richer patrons. No such pat answer exists as to why his contemporary Eduardo Lalo also wrote one symphony. No matter. Both are splendidly reproduced here in early sixties performances by Sir Thomas Beecham. Franck’s use of cyclical form, invented by Berlioz, is presented with firm muscularity by Sir Thomas. There is no ambiguity in his crystalline interpretation, no room for doubt that here is a composer who cupped his hands in Wagner’s chromatic well and drank enthusiastically if not deeply. Both Franck and Lalo created themes that climb the ropes of wavering crescendos, then slither down again like frisky sailors aboard a clipper ship.

EMI throws in a nice five minute bonbon as a bonus, Faure’s charming Pavane. In the Franck and Lalo, frequent modulations abound and Sir Thomas catches them all, yet doesn’t fillip your ears with them like his contemporary Otto Klemperer often did. Lalo’s piece doesn’t boast the thematic consistency of Franck’s and a few meandering moments do arise in the Adagio. Yet the Allegro, with its strutting march and contrasting string consonance would have pleased Berlioz. A word of warning: Both major pieces on this disc are overplayed on classical public radio stations (particularly during fund raising). Avoid warhorse overload and do not listen to them more than once a week!

— Peter Bates

Walter Gieseking 4-disc setWalter Gieseking, piano = BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15; Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 “Emperor;” Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53; Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101; Bagatelle in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 1/BACH: Partita No. 5 in G Major; Menuets and Gigue from Partita No. 1 in B-flat/BRAHMS: 5 Intermezzi/DEBUSSY: Reverie/STRAUSS: Staendchen, Op. 17, No. 2/GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16; 2 Lyric Pieces/SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54/MOZART: Sonata No. 15 in C, K. 545/RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18; Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30

Hans Rosbaud conducts Berlin State Opera Orch. (Beethoven Op. 15; Grieg); Bruno Walter conducts Vienna Philharmonic (Beethoven, Op. 73); Wilhelm Furtwaengler conducts Berlin Philharmonic (Schumann); Willem Mengelberg conducts Concertgebouw Orchestra (Rachmaninov)
Andante AN 2090 (4 discs) 70:20; 76:39; 69:01; 70:51 (Distrib. Naxos)****:

For sheer motor power and facility of execution, few pianists will ever rival Walter Gieseking (1895-1956), whose reputation rests mainly on his realization of the music of Debussy and Ravel, but whose repertory was among the most catholic in the history of pianism. Blessed with lightning musical reflexes, a thoroughly retentive memory, and a diaphanous sound capable of infinite degrees of nuance, Gieseking achieved an almost complacent security at the keyboard, at times glibly palming off the most complex scores without effort. But when he is in good form and mentally alert, his technique bristles with an electric current and molded beauty impossible to convey in words.

This Andante collation from inscriptions made 1934-1949 integrates the very best and worst of Gieseking’s idiosyncratic approach to the repertory he championed. For the less favorable moments, the opening movement of Mozart’s C Major Sonata from 1939, with its abbreviations and throw-away runs; the Bach G Major Partita from 1939, again with a peremptory fluency that seems born of haste. But even here the transparency of texture and the fleetness of execution – as in the Courante of the Partita without any sustain pedal – and the melting textures in Mozart’s middle movement Andante prove consistently redemptive.

The 1938 Beethoven Waldstein suffers a monochromatic level of sound that undermines much of its drama, though the lyric elements shine. What was said of Cortot, that “even his mistakes were marks of genius,” is no less true of Gieseking. Try the Rachmaninov readings from 1940 with Herculean support from Willam Mengelberg, and you have Promethean fire in the form of two concertos, Horowitz blessed with a passion for colors. Generally, Gieseking’s live concert recordings enjoy a renewed vigor of delivery that occasionally evaded him in the studio. The 1942 Schumann Concerto, a reading out of the dark days of humanity, shimmers with reverberant drama and an almost hysterical, tragic impulse that transcends the music.

The collaborations with Hans Rosbaud and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, of the Grieg and C Major Beethoven concertos, are old friends of mine; I owned the 78 rpm shellacs, along with Gieseking’s work with Sir Henry Wood in Liszt and Franck. The Andante engineers have not particularly cleaned up the ubiquitous hiss from many of the shellacs: they might learn a thing or two from Michael Dutton. The Beethoven C Major has pomp and bounce, with limpid, arched phrases and ornaments galore. The Grieg set is given to us intact, with the little Cradle Song and French Serenade that provided filler for 1937 originals. Jeweled miniatures are a Gieseking specialty; and we collectors await reissues of Gieseking’s 1950s surveys of Schubert and Brahms. The 1939 Brahms group from Columbia shellacs has a haunted melancholy, not quite so bleak in tone as Glenn Gould could exact from these pieces but a fin-de-siecle sensibility nevertheless. The A-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 3 grabbed me by the heartstrings this time around. Debussy’s Reverie needs no review to sell its timeless pedal-perfect graces; the transcription of the Strauss Staendchen is as liquid as anything in Liszt. The 1934 Beethoven Emperor with Bruno Walter is among Gieseking’s more muscular approaches to Beethoven, not so delicate or even effeminate in glossy patina as some of his Beethoven, whose music some claim simply did not suit Gieseking’s dynamic style. I value Gieseking’s artistry much as I delight in the art of Josef Hofmann; but Gieseking was the more generous of the two, bequeathing countless hours of astonishing piano wizardry with pedal effects that bespeak as much magic in the feet as in the hands.

–Gary Lemco

Rene Leibowitz conductsRAVEL: Rapsodie espagnole; Pavane pour une infante defunte; La Valse; Alborada del gracioso; Bolero; SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder: Prelude and Interlude

Rene Leibowitz conducts Paris Radio-Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra of the New Symphony Society of Paris (in Schoenberg)
Preiser Records 90601 74:02 (Distrib. Albany)****:

I do not often get an opportunity to discuss the art of Rene Leibowitz (1913-1972), a Polish-born conductor who was almost an exact contemporary of Igor Markevitch, with whom he shared many of the same Gallic predilections. Although Leibowitz styled himself a Schoenberg disciple and acolyte of the twelve-tone principle of composition, his musical tastes happily often savored of the sentimental – with a penchant for Offenbach light operettas. I first met Leibowitz’ art through his recording of Satie’s wiry little oratorio Socrate; then Leibowitz seemed to be the first to reveal the weird beauties of Berlioz’ Lelio. Having created an impression of Leibowitz as a master of the unusual, I greeted the Chesky release of his Beethoven Nine as a kind of anomaly, at least until I heard them.

The present CD from Preiser gives us all of an original 1952 Vox LP (PL 8150) a bit of Haydn Society HSL 100 from 1953. If Schoenberg were a divinity for Leibowitz, he was not alone in the Pantheon. Ravel gleans as much color, albeit in a literalist tradition, as his scores will muster. Each of the selections, excepting a particularly plangent Pavane, is one of those dance-forms that Ravel has explode at its conclusion. The Alborada del gracioso struck me as nimbly executed, with dancing figures plucked and strummed most effectively. The La Valse enjoys that uneasy fin-de-siecle sensibility that makes it both graceful and disturbing at once; the performance is not so manic as that of Albert Coates, but it isn’t over-polished, like some of Munch’s musical apples tend to be. The Bolero is forthright but steeped in leisurely colors. I wonder if Leibowitz were influenced more by Inglelbrecht and Desormiere than by Coppola and Munch. The Schoenberg excepts from Gurrelieder are that composer’s attempts to capture Wagner’s Forest Murmurs (as cross-fertilized by Parsifal) in his own, lushly overblown syntax. Parts of the score (if you didn’t forewarn me) I would guess as moments from Gliere’s Ilya Mourometz or an unknown piece by Franz Schmidt. Glowing sound from both LP originals and the Schoenberg makes – despite its monaural sound – a real audiophile showpiece.

–Gary Lemco

Toscanini conducts Haydn, Mozart, Rossini etc.HAYDN: Symphony No. 88 in G Major/MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550/ROSSINI: William Tell Overture/PAGANINI: Moto Perpetuo, Op. 11/BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 16 in F, Op. 135: Lento assai; cantante e tranquillo

Arturo Toscanini conducts NBC Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8.110895 71:56****:

The inscriptions offered on this disc, 1938-1939, represent Toscanini’s earliest recorded efforts with the musical organization David Sarnoff expressly created for the Maestro’s idiosyncratic leadership. The engineering by Mark Obert-Thorn has resurrected much rich sound out of the infamous Studio 8-H venue that came to be synonymous with a total lack of warm reverberation in Toscanini’s commercial legacy. Two of the Toscanini hallmarks there are in abundance, the rhythmic, forward-moving urgency of the readings, and their utterly singing ethos. The Haydn G Major (old No. 13 B&H) has a lyric but explosive propulsion that only finds relief in the Largo, and even that has an undercurrent of grumbling resolve. Intricately flexible as the tempos and nuances are, the headlong rush to the finale seems inexorable as fate. The G Minor Symphony of Mozart has a bit of the valediction it provided as Toscanini’s farewell to the New York Philharmonic in 1936. Disquiet within the fearful symmetries abounds, and the lyrical moments have a tender melancholy swept away in the fury of emotion. I am reminded in this performance how much Mozart’s dark style owes to the influence of Gluck’s Orfeo. After Toscanini plays concertmaster of an ethereal enlarged string quartet for the arrangement of the Beethoven F Major Quartet {which certainly reminds us how Mahler employed its angelic beauties for his Third Symphony) the rest of the program is sheer virtuoso ensemble – from the busy Paganini to the rambunctious William Tell, all stops removed. Alternately wistful Muse and cyclonic whirlwind, Toscanini already presages the kind of inflamed, histrionic and lyrically exciting music-making that would dominate the American airwaves until 1954.

–Gary Lemco

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