Classical CD Reissues, Part 2   
for March 2003

A lot of Brahms Symphonies on the following two CDs... BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98/MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night's Dream--Incidental Music

Rudolf Kempe conducts Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Testament SBT 1278 68:57 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976) became Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic in 1960, in order to maintain the orchestra's discipline during Beecham's long absences and failing health. Kempe's first recorded project was the Brahms Fourth, a work Beecham had never inscribed on records, and a work Kempe had done in monaural sound in Berlin. I imagine the idea of challenging Decca's series of Brahms recordings with the LSO and Kertesz must have occurred to someone as well. The Mendelssohn suite was inscribed early in 1961, from late January to February 3. It appeared in the US as a Seraphim budget issue, coupled with Humperdinck's Haensel und Gretel as arranged by Kempe as a concert suite. 

The Brahms is eminently sober in concept, with very little of the "lingering mysticism" that pervades readings by Furtwaengler and Knappertsbusch. Though not so linear as Toscanini, it has a propulsion and forward motion that still finds time for detail, but in a literalist tradition. I found the Andante moderato the most satisfying movement, its Phrygian temper restrained and elevated in character. Kempe manages the final chaconne judiciously, balancing the individual pearls against the contour of the necklace, as it were. There are some dark moments in the winds that emerge well just prior to the coda. Some may find the whole too academic. The Mendelssohn is aptly fleet, wistful, virtuosic, and charming. I think the players enjoy each other's sonority more in this recording, where Kempe must have had time to establish the kind of rapport and homogeneity of sound for which he was noted.

--Gary Lemco

BRAHMS: Four Symphonies; Variations on a Theme of Haydn; Academic Festival Overture; Tragic Overture; Schicksalslied; 2 Piano Concertos; Violin Concerto; "Double" Concerto; Horn Trio; 2 Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano; 5 Songs, Op. 105/MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216

Srephen Kovacevich, piano
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Heinrich Schiff, cello
Ann Murray, soprano
Nobuko Imai, viola; Marie Luise Neunecker, horn
Wolfgang Sawallisch, piano and conducting London Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic (Violin Concerto); The Ambrosian Singers

EMI 5 75502 2 (7 CD set):

I am not partial to "integral" editions" of composers' works, especially by one artist, since I like to diversify approaches to the repertory. This being said, as I collector I certainly do try to assemble my favorite, historic artists in everything they did, so I have no reservations in acquiring Furtwaengler's, Mitropoulos' or Celibidache's complete Brahms Symphonies. Wolfgang Sawallisch (b. 1923) will be 80 this August, and his 1990-1996 Brahms edition gives us a modern, fin-de-siecle vision by a mainstream German artist still active in our concert halls.

The performance of the London Philharmonic in Brahms goes back through Boult to Abendroth, Damrosch, even to Steinbach's influence (which includes Toscanini). Sawallisch elicits a warm, plangent glow in the symphonies, a hearty sense of detail that recalls Jochum's interpretations, given that Sawallisch works in a literalist tradition. He keeps an uncommonly light hand on the textures of the B-flat Piano Concerto, allowing Kovacevich rhythmic sway without distorting the basic pulse. For the symphonies, I suggest auditors gravitate to the F Major for openers, where Sawallisch can exploit its ambiguous tonality in the first movement at leisure and then bask in the romance of the Andante. The collaboration with Zimmermann in the Violin Concerto and in the Mozart G Major are live performances from Berlin, and they have that incisive verve that makes the BPO an ensemble apart. Heinrich Schiff's cello tone is worth the price of admission to the Double Concerto, again given the solid, Teutonic tradition that these readings reinforce. The Tragic Overture is relatively streamlined, no romantic dawdling a la Knappertsbusch.

The virtues of Sawallisch as a keyboard artist are celebrated on many discs; my first encounter was on an Ermitage CD of his playing the klavier part of the Bach Brandenburg Fifth from Italy. He participates in the Horn Trio with more than competence, if not the innate poetry that Horszowski brings to my favorite reading with Szigeti and Barrows. Kovacevich does the piano honors with a poised Ann Murray in the Op. 105 Songs, whose "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer" recaps the Concerto; the Op. 91 songs stay with me via Marian Anderson and Kathleen Ferrier, whom Murray will not displace, but her readings are sensitive without becoming too austere. The Song of Dwstiny is among the best I have heard, rivalling Bruno Walter and the live Isserstedt recordings for alternately dirge-like and brawny recitation. EMI sonics are quietly unobtrusive, the packaging and notes classy; and the entire set recommends itself to anyone interested in more than a basic Brahms library.

--Gary Lemco

HANDEL: Royal Fireworks Music/GLUCK (arr. Mottl): Ballet Suite/KODALY: Hary Janos--Suite

Rudolf Kempe conducts Bamberg Symphony (Handel) and Vienna Philharmonic

Testament SBT 1277 66:53 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

The performances on this disc derive from 1961-62 sessions, the one incursion by Kempe into the music of Handel made between takes for his complete recording of The Bartered Bride. The approach to the Handel is typical, middle-European style, unaffected by urges to original instruments. The Bamberg Symphony, once the province of Fritz Lehmann, consisted of many displaced musicians from the Czech Republic after the Communist invasion. The dance movements are well-paced and slick, with lovely phrasing in oboe (Kempe's own instrument), bassoon, and trumpets. The phrasing is relatively straightforward, with minimal added trills and roulades, no Scherchenesque luftpausen or ungainly, slow tempos.

The Gluck Ballet Suite is in four sections, each itself subdivided; the famous excerpt from Orfeo has some silken flute playing and aura reminiscent of Monteux's equally effective approach. The opening Air (from Iphigenia in Aulis) was previously familiar to me only with Stokowski, who takes it even more blithely. But even in the course of baroque and pre-classical figures, we can hear adumbrations of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The parodic Hary Janos is a fine one, perhaps less echt "Hungarian" than what Szell and Fricsay could elicit from this score. Nevertheless, the French horn in the Intermezzo section is outstanding. Typical of Kempe is the clarity of inner voicings, with all sorts of colorful weavings of instrumental choirs. For Rudolf Kempe in slightly more diverse, offbeat musical styles, this disc has a singular attractiveness.

--Gary Lemco

LALO: Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21/SAINT-SAENS: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 61; Danse macabre, Op. 40

Henri Merckel, violin
Pierro Coppola conducts Pasdeloup Orchestra
Philippe Gaubert conducts Paris Symphony (Danse macabre)

Opus Kura OPK 2028 64:13 (Distrib. Albany):

French violin virtuoso Henri Merckel (1897-1969) is celebrated in this Japanese-label transfer of pressings (Japanese RCA Victors) made 1932 1935. Merckel's is a thin but pleasing, nasal tone; his interpretation of the Lalo, which includes the "intermezzo" movement, is the first complete performance of this familiar suite for violin and orchestra. The recording was lauded in its own time, receiving the Grand Prix di Disques for 1934. The conducting is no less aggressive, with the cosmopolitan Pierro Coppola (1882-1971) leading the orchestra, a conductor-composer whose catalogue is truly imposing. The Saint-Saens concerto is equally gripping, with some real fire in the outer movements, the Andantino a piece of the French countryside. Philippe Gaubert accompanies Merckel in the saucy Danse macabre; Gaubert's claim to fame rests on accompanying Ignaz Friedman's Grieg Concerto and Artur Rubinstein's early inscription of the Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto. Prior to this full-fledged Merckel disc, I only knew him from music by Delanoy he did with Munch, transferred a few years ago to CD by A Classical Record. This disc should win him new friends and accolades by those connoisseurs who appreciate a real sense of Gallic style. Opus Kura restorations are a bit noisy but still acoustically vivid.

--Gary Lemco

SMETANA: Overture and Incidental Music from The Bartered Bride/DVORAK: Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66/HUMPERDINCK: Hansel and Gretel--Suite

Rudolf Kempe conduct Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Testament SBT 1279 58:03 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Another series of four Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976) restorations by Testament from EMI originals (1961) reminds me of how impressive the LP's were when they first appeared on the budget Seraphim label. The glory of this reissue, the suite from Humperdinck's lush and timeless children's opera Haensel und Gretel, was coupled with Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, now spliced onto Kempe's fine reading of the Brahms Fourth (SBT 1278).

Recorded the year before Kempe assumed full control of the Royal Philharmonic (after Beecham), the rich sonic patina reveals how much discipline and enthusiasm for color Kempe could evoke in German and Slavic repertory. Smetana's The Bartered Bride, whether in excerpt or in the entire production, is still among Kempe's finest accomplishments on records, here restored by Paul Baily. The Overture starts in full throttle, with the string tremolandi conveying the spice and irony of innumerable country gossips. The Polka, Furiant and Comedians' Dance are hearty and brilliantly pointed. Dvorak's Scherzo capriccioso Kempe took on twice, this being the brisker of the interpretations. The work in the French horns (Alan Civil and company) is exemplary. String players will appreciate how vibrantly Kempe can control martellato and pizzicato effects. The Humperdinck basks in any number of color effects, without the over-ripe approach Stokowski took to this delicious score. The Witch's Dance and Ride are bits of orchestral wizardry, literally, with effects that rival Moussorgsky and Liadov. The Wagnerian impulses are all there, but softer, with muted horns and silky violas. I would imagine that this compilation captures what the conductor would choose as his natural legacy.

--Gary Lemco

Leonid Kogan, violin = YSAYE: Sonata in C for 2 Violins/LECLAIR: Sonatas for 2 Violins, Op. 3: No. 1 in G; No. 3 in C/TELEMANN: Canonic Sonata No.1 in G for 2 Violins/BACH: Sarabande from Partita in B Minor/LOCATELLI: Sonata in F Minor/PAGANINI: Cantabile, Op. 17

Elizaveta Gilels, violin; Andrei Mitnik, piano

Testament SBT 1227 72:15 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Of the six Testament reissues by the late Soviet violinist Leonid Kogan (1924-1982), this installement is perhaps the most musically esoteric, comprised as it is of Kogan's 1955-1963 French Columbias of baroque pieces and two romantics, Ysaye and Paganini. The allure of the album is Kogan's collaboration with his wife, Elizaveta Gilels, in sonatas by Ysaye (ersatz Bach, with plenty of lilt), Leclair and Telemann, with their especial beauty of tone and poised cantabile in the slow movements of the Leclair C Major Sonata and the Telemann. While purists will find fault with the overtly romantic approach, where even the Locatelli Sonata (with Mitnik) is in the Ysaye arrangement, the exalted, sustained melodic line carries a nobility impossible to deny. The 1955 Sarabande from Bach's Partita No. 1 is an Abbey Road inscription, his only commercial excursion into unaccompanied Bach; and it has that same patrician elegance endemic to Kogan, who had to imbibe the Bach style on his own, there being no tradition for this music in Soviet Russia. The Paganini Cantabile (1955) with Mitnik was a steady encore for Kogan, who lavished no end of restrained inflection and selective rubato in this piece. Even within the limits of this repertory, this is a showcase for Kogan's natural talents.

--Gary Lemco

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