Classical CD Reissues  
July-Aug. 2003 - Part 1 of 2

BUSONI: Piano Concerto, Op. 39

Noel Mewton-Wood, piano/Sir Thomas Beecham conducts BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Nen's Chorus
Somm-Beecham 15 68:56 (Distrib. Qualiton):

Here's a disc that makes its bid for 'most unusual of the year,' the January 1948 inscription of Busoni's massive, labyrinthine Piano Concerto (1904), with the ill-fated Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953) at the keyboard and Sir Thomas Beecham's conducting music far away from his wonted haunts of Handel, Delius and Mozart.

Busoni's Piano Concerto apparently has two close kin: Liszt's Eine Faust Symphonie, with its Chorus mysticus from Goethe's Faust for a finale; and Scriabin's First Symphony, with its own concluding Hymn to Art . We can throw in Beethoven's Choral-Fantasia, Op. 80 as another probable rival. For his fifth movement Cantico, Busoni uses the Hymn to Allah from Adam Oehlenschlaeger's Aladdin. There are two Italianate movements, the latter of which, an extended tarantella, has some pep and may remind listeners of the popular Litolff Scherzo. The central movement, in four parts, is marked Pezzo serioso; and it is here that Mewton-Wood lavishes the most caresses from his formidable palette.

Having known Busoni's Piano Concerto (I prefer the D Major Concerto for Violin) from John Ogden's rendition from the generation after this, I was unaware that Mewton-Wood championed the work, playing it with Beecham and with Norman del Mar. The piece itself eludes easy, melodic capture: it seems built up of big rhetorical moments that evaporate into arpeggiated fluff. The piece rarely offends anyone's harmonic sensibilities: Prokofiev could sleep through it. I do recall a bit of fugue, some Mahler-like intimations in the opening of the last movement, some churning bass lines here and there. What stands out are Mewton-Wood's delicate, spider-thread filigree and seamless roulades in the course of a rather inflated fantasia. Beecham gets to BBC to cooperate nicely in all this, and there are captivating colors in the winds from time to time. With only minimal surface noise and pops, a few obvious splices, and a very low-level acoustic, the recording will appeal to the Beechamite and those who follow Mewton-Wood, whose suicide in 1953 rudely interrupted what was well on its way to a brilliant career in music.

--Gary Lemco

MENDELSSOHN: Fingal's Cave Overture, Op. 26; A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, Op. 21/SCHUBERT: Ballet Music No. 2 and Entr'acte No. 3 from Rosamunde/BERLIOZ: Hungarian March/WEBER: Overture and Entr'acte No. 3 from Der Feischuetz; Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 (orch. Berlioz)

Wilhelm Furtwaengler conducts Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Opus Kura OPK 2036 58:37 (Distrib. Albany):

Entitled "Wilhelm Furtwaengler conducts Romantic Music, Vol. I," this disc assembles the legendary conductor's Polydor records, 1929-1935, in fair to good sound, taken from Japanese pressings from the period. Some of this material, along with earlier inscriptions from 1926, appeared on the Koch label around ten years ago. Listening to Furtwaengler's pre-War recordings always reveals a different artist than the haunted, tragic artist plagued by the unholy conscience of his race. Tempos are often brisk, the textures transparent; and the free use of portamento lends an old-world flavor to the good-natured spiritis of the proceedings. The major work emotionally is the Weber Freischutz, with broad tempo in the overture and a mock pomp in the orchestral rendering of the Huntsman's Chorus entr'acte. Each of these works received later inscriptions by Furtwaengler, but these give us an amiable, albeit classically refined, sensibility easily reminscent of a Weingartner reading with more warmth. The sound quality will deter all but hard-core Furtwaengler collectors, since surface noise infringes on too many of the conductor's delicate pianissimos and dimuendi. Opus Kura promises a Volume II, and I and the Furtwaengler cult will be looking  for it.

--Gary Lemco

Friedrich Gulda Live = MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271; Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488; Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491; Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503/HAYDN: Andante and Variations in F Minor/BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110

Joseph Keilberth conducts Orchestra of Radio Stuttgart (K. 491) and Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra (K. 488); Karl Bohm conducts Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra (K. 271)
Sir Georg Solti conducts Orchestre National de France (K. 503)
Melodram GM 4.0066 47:21; 62:13; 47:50 (Distrib. Albany):

A true contemporary of Glenn Gould and his anti-conformist persona, Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) has some lovely representation in these three discs, derived from recitals 1956-1967, in excellent sound. Brandishing his sweatband and his Hawaian shorts, Gulda played the chic hipster in concert; maybe he was Tommy Lee Jones's model for the role in Under Siege. But of his keyboard technique there can be no disparate opinion: along with Gould, Serkin, and Eschenbach, here was a stunning, strong and fluid, digital prowess in the service of a poetic temperament. Witness the 1959 Haydn Andante and Variations from Vienna: supple, concentrated, constantly adding dynamics and shifting ornamental stresses, with nary a sag in the ongoing melodic invention that more than hints at Beethoven in the finale. Only some metallic ting in the last page of the recording mars this perfect execution.

The most stunning of the orchestral collaborations is the 1967 Jeunehomme Concerto of Mozart from Munich under Bohm. The security and boldness of the playing has the daring and elated finesse we get when Serkin and Gieseking are in top form. Gulda adds all kinds of turns ad libitum without missing a beat. This is not to downplay the work with Keilberth, whose accompanying skills are hardly less accurate and sensitive. The Bohm, however, just has the magic that embraces posterity. Solti and the French orchestra have the breadth but not the intonation, especially in the French horn, and the sonics are a bit muddy, as they are in the middle register of Gulda's piano in Op. 110. Still, the 1959 Vienna reading of Op. 110 pre-dates the traversal of the complete sonata-cycle of 1968, and as such it has immense value as a testament to a Beethoven acolyte of the first rank. For those who have always harbored Gulda as an under-rated genius of style and technique, this set proves them right.

--Gary Lemco

BEETHOVEN: Romance No. 1 in G Major, Op. 40; Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61/TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade melancolique, Op. 26

Yehudi Menuhin, violin and conducting Menuhin Festival Ochestra; Sir Adrian Boult conducts Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Tchaikovsky)
EMI 7243 5 62607 2 61:37:

More Menuhin, these previosuly unpublished performances from 1971 (Beethoven) and 1959 (Tchakovsky). Menuhin (1916-1999) reached the peak of his tonal form around 1960, so the Tchaikovsky with Boult comes at at a time when a performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto would have been ideal. Unfortunately, EMI cannot issue the incomplete studio recording with Boult since Menuhin did not return to tape the cadenza. We are left with the Fricsay collaboration from 1949. I asked Menuhin about the gap in one of the world's most popular concertos, to which he replied that "Heifetz always seemed to me to have had the last word in the Tchaikovsky: it was his 'Beethoven Concerto.' So, as much as I cherish the work, I felt I had little to add." Instead, we get the charming Serenade, Op. 26, with its hint at the Concerto's Canzonetta. Menuhin's plaintive account is nicely balanced with Boult's winds, horns and strings.

The Beethoven Concerto from 1971 will remain a musical curiosity, given its chamber-music approach with no conductor as such. The performacne is quite lovely, trying for an expansive breadth that Menuhin achieved with Furtwaengler, but without either the power or the incisiveness of their 1947 account. I think the G Major theme-and-variations Larghetto fares best of the three movements. Menuhin's conducting lessons with Robert Masters contribute to a lithe, airy accompaniment in the orchestra, with strong beats in the tympani and persuasive tuttis. Occasionally, the rhythms get a bit ragged, and the finale simply lacks punch. The Romance in G, another work Menuhin inscribed with Furtwaengler (and with Pritchard), is sweet and bar-for-bar more successful thn the Concerto. Menuhin collectors will want this one anyway, but they will play the Tchaikovsky for their friends.

-Gary Lemco

BRAHMS: Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18; Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36

Yehudi Menuhin and Robert Masters, violin
Cecil Aronowitz and Ernst Wallfisch, viola
Maurice Gendron and Derek Simpson, cello
EMI Classics 5 74957 2 75:00:

Recorded 1963 and 1964, these Brahms sextet performances find Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) and ensemble in top form, playing warm and sympathetic readings of music long familiar to these instrumentalists. Robert Masters, besides being a competent violinist, was also Menuhin's conducting coach and was advisor on tempos for these big readings. The B flat Sextet, the more tragic of the two works, has broad, symphonic dimensions, with Gendron's tone particularly poignant. The Andante, which Brahms arranged for keyboard as well, is almost rarified melody, built as a gradual variation and crescendo that never sags. The B-flat was coupled on LP with Menuhin and sister Hephzibah's blistering rendition of the C Minor Scherzo from the FAE Sonata, which has yet to come back on CD. The G Major Sextet has been for me the more elusive emotionally, with its blend of rich melody, gypsy elements, and Mendelssohnian light feet. Ernst Wallfisch made his own sojourns into this music with alternate ensembles, no less refined than what we have here; but at the budget price and with brilliant sound and committed, elegant playing, this is a go.

--Gary Lemco

VARIOUS COMPOSERS: The Very Best of Fischer-Dieskau. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Gerald Moore, Wolfgang Sawallisch, George Szell, et al. EMI 59222.

It’s sad to be reviewing this disc right now, because I know that as a reviewer, this will probably be the last time I listen to it as intently as now. In a day, I’ve shelve it and move onto other CDs and DVDs. It is indeed a marvelous collection. Many know baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau primarily as a lieder singer and his nineteeth century standards—Schubert, Wolf, Brahms, Strauss, and Mahler—are well represented on the first of this two-disc set. His Schubert is extraordinary, perhaps the best ever recorded. Try listening to Die Erlkönig without shuddering at Fischer-Dieskau dramatic, but not overstated rendition. His was the first version of Das Lied im Grünen I heard and I’ve never experienced a more joyous one.

As honest as this set is, it also includes pieces that Fischer-Dieskau didn’t sing that well, such as the three Brahms lieder. In his later years, he veered toward rhetorical excess. The pieces aren’t terrible, just not his best. On the second disc, Fischer-Dieskau performs some of his best operatic arias. Yes, he excelled at that too. Experience the tenderness of Il balen del suo sorriso from Il Trovatore or the furious Cortigiani, vil razza dannata from Rigoletto. It doesn’t get better than this. It’s a pity that EMI didn’t include an aria or two from his greatest role, Wozzeck. Like the title character, Fischer-Dieskau suffered indignities in the army, so how this role must have resonated! His Wagner is full-chested and profound, his Bach and Handel a mixture of stolid and airy. Don’t miss this one. Even without libretto, it’s still worth it.

--Peter Bates

SZYMANOWSKI: Mythes, Op. 30; Sonata, Op. 9; Caprice No. 24/STRAVINSKY: Duo concertant; Suite italienne

Graf Mourja, violin/Natalia Gous, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901769 76:21:

Graf Mourja is a capable, Ukrainian violinist of talent and temperament, if this disc is at all representative. For this recital program he has chosen Stravinsky's neo-Classical side, those violin pieces Stravinsky wrote in collaboration with Samuel Dushkin and promoted by Dushkin as well as Joseph Szigeti. The more opulent and exotic Szymanowski pieces have been espoused by Oistrakh and Wilkimorska (and by their original inspirator, Paul Kochanski).

Nowhere on this well recorded disc is Mourja's instrument named, but its fine tone reminds me of the Guarnerius that Szeryng played. Along with his gifted pianist-partner Gous, they keep the motion going in the Suite italienne, with its modern harmonizations of Pergolesi originals. The Op. 9 Szymanowski is a spitfire piece, spliced bits of Franck and Debussy with Eastern, modal harmony, played passionately and articulately by this duo.  I found Mourja's approach to Duo concertant austere, purposely spare in vibrato and the application of bow pressure. The effect is quite ethereal, if not a bit eerie, the more slashing elements reminiscent of L'Histoire du Soldat. The Szymanowski Mythes turn pianist Gous (dare I say "loose"?) into a colorist of Lisztian note, on a par with Pires and Perahia. I would love to hear this duo perform Bloch's Baal Shem. The finale, from Szymanowski's Op. 40 recasting of Paganini's A Minor Caprice, has all the bravura and fioritura we require from proper virtuosos, here rendered in spades.

--Gary Lemco

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47/KODALY: Peacock Variations on a Hungarian Folksong

Istvan Kertesz conducts L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Shostakovich) and London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Testament SBT 1290 71:33 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz (1929-1973) died in Israel, drowned while swimming in waters he had been expressly warned to avoid. A pity, since Kertesz was enjoying the first rush of an international career, having just been appointed successor to Pierre Monteux as principal conductor of the London Symphony. The Dvorak and Schubert symphonies cycles Kertesz recorded are still considered classics of their kind. Pianists Clifford Curzon, Hans Richter-Haaser, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Julius Katchen each made fine records with Kertesz, among which the Mozart concertos are particularly inspired.

The May 1962 inscription of the Shostakovich 5th with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is Kertesz' only collaboration with the ensemble, here in repertory largely ignored by founder Ansermet. The piece, conceived in 1936-37 as an "answer" to Communist "just criticism' of non-proletarian musical values, is a re-writing of the Mahler D Major Symphony, with flute and harp parts that often echo Mahler's pantheism. While Mravinsky's Leningrad performances may have been familiar to Kertesz, it is more likely that he came to know this music from Janos Ferencik, whose autocratic style often acted as an intermediary to the West, the Soviet Union via Budapest.

The more idiomatic reading is the 1970 reading of The Peacock, the set of variations on a folksong Kodaly (Kertesz' teacher) wrote in 1938 especially for its first champion, Willem Mengelberg. Kertesz manages to get that string swoop and swoon endemic to Kodaly's big orchestral works, even with harmonic moments found in Janacek. The sonority Kertesz elicits from the LSO is quite magnificent; no wonder Barry Tuckwell spoke of the elan and enthusiasm Kertesz could coax out of the players, many of whom were "old codgers (quoting Tuckwell), "not bloody likely to dance to any youngster's tune."

--Gary Lemco

The Chicago Principal: First Chair Soloists Play Famous Concertos=MOZART: Oboe Concerto in C, K. 314; Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat, K. 447; Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, K. 191/HAYDN: Trumpet Concerto in E-flat/SCHUMANN: Concerto for 4 Horns in F, Op. 86/VAUGHN WILLIAMS: Tuba Concerto in F Minor/BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31/RAVEL: Bolero

Ray Still, oboe; Adolph Herseth, trumpet; Dale Clevenger, French horn; Willard Elliot, bassoon; Arnold Jacobs, tuba; Robert Tear, tenor; Richard Oldberg, Thomas Howell, and Norman Schweikert, horns

Claudio Abbado conducts Mozart and Haydn
Daniel Barenboim conducts Schumann and Vaughn Williams
Carlo Maria Giulini conducts Britten
Sir Georg Solti conducts Ravel
DGG B0000025-02 (2 CDs) 69:53; 69:12 (Distrib. Universal):

Culled from broadcast performances 1976-1984, this excellent set would usually wind up being a Chicago Symphony Radiothon fund-raiser, but here it is at commercial prices. It features the principals from the various symphony food-groups, in splendid form; and an appendix at the back of the booklet lists the number of Chicago and Ravinia performances each piece had with the soloist.  Oboe Ray Still joined the CSO in 1953 and stayed forty years. His silky tone cuts through the Mozart C Major like butter, and Abbado is in buoyant form in March 1983. Dale Clevenger gets much air time, with swopps and swirls galore in Britten's tricky Serenade, Op. 31, where the anonymous, 15th Century Dirge calls for some virtuoso runs. I grew up with the Peter Pears/Dennis Brain set on Decca, but this 1977 inscription with Giulini is solid and sympathetic at once. Clevenger again in ensemble for Schumann's bravura Concerto for 4 Horns, this under Barenboim's rather lush officiating, 1977. The perky Tuba Concerto with Arnold Jacobs (again March 1977) is as definitive as it gets. The Clevenger/Abbado Mozart E-flat Concerto is as pure poetry as anything since the golden days of Dennis Brain. Kudos to Elliot's version of the Bassoon Concerto; and Adolph Herseth on the Haydn is a joy. Finally, Solti and all his principals get to caper the Bolero from May 1976, a clear, hard-driven realziation that comes down with a resounding thump. Turn up the volume for these performances, each a showpiece for the most polished symphonic ensemble of its era.

--Gary Lemco

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