Classical CD Reissues, Part 2  November 2003

OFFENBACH: La Belle Hélène – Janine Linda, Andé Dran, Roger Giraud, Jacques Linsolas, Lucien Mans, Jean Mollien, Paris Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by René Leibowitz – Preiser 20026 (2 CDs, 104 mins.):

Recorded in 1952 by Renaissance, this remains a stunning example of what Offenbach can be when performed as he must have intended, with a unique French combination of eroticism and rationality. It completely eclipses the charms of Gilbert & Sullivan and shows the French composer to be in league with Johann Strauss.

The recording benefits from the light, unsentimental hand of conductor René Leibowitz (1913-1972), the Warsaw-born conductor who studied composition with Ravel and Schoenberg and conducting with Pierre Monteux, who went on to teach composition and conducting to Pierre Boulez, and whose recordings ranged from mainstream classical repertoire to outposts of the 20th century.

But it is the French cast that makes this an unalloyed delight. Nothing here of the operatic heaviness that afflicts nearly all Offenbach recordings, and so the parodies of opera come off with brilliance and hilarity. Janine Linda is a thrilling, young-sounding Hélène, overwhelmed by her sensuality; André Dran is a virile Paris, overwhelmed by Hélène’s beauty. There is fun and silliness everywhere; the mock dramatic touches are superb, and the finales to all three acts go like thunder.

Preiser have cleaned up the sound so that the voices come through with a sense of physical beauty that was almost entirely absent on the original vinyl, and the distortion has been totally erased (with an occasional hint of echo). Even the Paris Philharmonic (as much as one can tell from the non-audiophile sound) seems a respectable operation. Bernard Lebow’s brief liner notes are unfortunately inadequate to the documentation this obscure recording deserves, and the absence of a libretto means that, unless you are a French speaker, you will miss the delightful twists and turns of the dialogue. Don’t worry about the short playing time, if you are at all into Offenbach, take a chance and snap this up! Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

MOZART: The Magic Flute – Lieselotte Fölser (Pamina), Fritz Wunderlich (Tamino), Erika Köth (Queen of the Night), Walter Berry (Papageno), Graziella Sciutti (Papagena), Gottlob Frick (Sarastro), Chorus of the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Joseph Keilberth (live recording, Salzburg Festival, August 12, 1960) – Golden Melodram GM 5.0044 (3 CDs, 157 mins.):

The fine German conductor Joseph Keilberth (1908-1968), who is becoming increasingly obscure, was a much admired opera conductor for much of his career, and an underrated symphonic one (his recording of Dvorak’s New World Symphony for Teldec remains one of the best ever, and his Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic are well worth looking up). His 1955 recording for Decca of The Flying Dutchman remains the gold standard for this opera for some reviewers, as does his 1958 EMI recording of Weber’s Der Freischütz—an audiophile spectacular in its lean, mean Electrola way). He became a footnote in Norman Lebrecht’s diary when the English critic recounted that Keilberth was one of a number of conductors who died at work, “in Munich in July 1968, moments after conducting Tristan's aria, ‘Let me die, never to awake.’”

This 1960 Salzburg Festival performance is to be warmly welcomed on many counts. In addition to Keilberth’s warmly human yet passionate and occasionally urgent conducting, creating a total concept that perfectly captures Mozart’s genius, there is the gorgeous playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and the radiant presence of the young Fritz Wunderlich, able to dominate the performance not only by the sheer beauty of his voice but through its rhythmic pulse. Much of the cast is outstanding—particularly a surprisingly flexible Gottlob Frick as Sarastro and Walter Berry as a delightful, for once unmannered Papageno—and the two women have their moments (the way Keilberth manages the opening of the second Queen of the Night aria is unmatched on disc).

The mono sound captures the power and beauty of the voices to the slight disadvantage of the orchestra, but once the listener accepts the sonic shortcomings, there is very little to worry about. The liner notes are brief. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

IBERT: Divertissement/IPPOLITOV-IVANOV: Caucasian Sketches, Op. 10/TCHAIKOVSKY: Suite from The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66/SCARLATTI (arr. Tommasini): The Good-Humored Ladies- Ballet

Roger Desormiere conducts Paris Conservatory Orchestra - Testament SBT 1309 71:20 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

The companion reissue for Roger Desormiere (1898-1963) on Testament (the first issue featured his performance of Poulenc's Les Biches), these 1951-1953 inscriptions for Decca coincide with work Desormiere did for EMI on Tchaikovsky and Glazounov. Both labels contracted this versatile stylist only for his ballet work, a big mistake, I think, when one considers the breadth of his repertory. But we take what we can get. Ibert's is "kitchen sink music," a farcical, cabaret-style pastiche of musical styles from Mendelssohn to Strauss waltzes to Les Six. That Decca issued a Caucasian Sketches to rival equally colorful renditions by Rodzinski and Mitropoulos on other labels bespeaks tremendous respect for Desormiere's command of familiar music that demands idiomatic flair. The Tchaikovsky suite makes us wish we had more than a mere five excerpts. The Panorama and Rose Adagio have tensile strength and grace to spare; I only wish we had the Act III Polonaise. Tommasini's transcription of Scarlatti sonatas for orchestra is music-box sonority at its best. Whatever treasures by this conductor remain in the vaults, bring them out! Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

MENDELSSOHN: Fingal's Cave Overture, Op. 26; A Midsummer Night's Dream--Complete Incidental Music, Opp. 21, 61/HAYDN: Symphony No. 101 in D Major "The Clock"

Edith Mathis, soprano/Brigitt Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano/Otto Klemperer conducts Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus - Melodram 4.0069 54:54; 42:03 (Distrib. Albany):

Ever since I first heard Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) conduct the music of Mendelssohn for EMI, which included brilliant, exalted accounts of the "Scotch" Symphony and the complete score for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Janet Baker and Heather Harper, I have been a believer. Avoiding sentimental bathos, Klemperer's classical, poised monumentalism manages to imbue in Mendelssohn a breadth and grandeur that combines playfulness and spirituality. The May 23, 1969 renditions of Fingal's Cave and the Shakespeare incidental music are patent Klemperer, with the Bavarian Radio's accepting every nuance and fleet rhythmic gesture demanded of them. Strings, winds and brass simply shimmer; the choral numbers have body and superb inner voicings; the overture and big numbers--the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March--have a ceremonial, if mock, pomp and circumstance that are consistently infectious. The Haydn Clock Symphony from October 19, 1956 has resonance and excellent work in the tympani. Some may find the eponymous Andante just a hair stiff in the joints, not quite enough at the music box tempo that can make this music magical. The audience did not seem to mind; it goes nuts. I do wish Melodram had added another piece to round out the second disc, which runs short. Great sound, great performances. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

MOZART: Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201; Symphony No. 34 in C Major, K. 338; Serenade No. 9 in D Major, K. 320 "Posthorn"

Peter Maag conducts Orchestre de la Suisse Romande - Testament SBT 1318 78:14 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Having just reviewed Guenther Wand in an abbreviated version of the "Posthorn" Serenade on Testament and wishing for the restoration of the uncut Beinum rendition with the Concertgebouw,  I have had half of my wish granted: we have the 1951 uncut version of the work with Swiss conductor Peter Maag (1919-2001). I first heard Peter Maag on LP, working with Edith Pienemann for DGG and asking her about him directly when she appeared in Atlanta. "Good musician" was her verdict. Maag made a strong reputation on Decca records in the music of Mendelssohn, later inscribing all of the symphonies in Italy just prior to his death. His 1978 operatic work on Paer's Leonore gained him repute in a work that heralded Beethoven's treatment of the same materials. One of my treasures is Maag on Decca, playing the Nocturne for 4 Orchestras by Mozart, K. 286. An assistant to both Furtwaengler and Ansermet, Maag had a deep sense of musical styles, although he eschewed any overly romantic ethos. His Mozart has buoyancy and spontaneity; it is a bit fast for me: he does not take repeats in his 1950 version of K. 201, so the first movement plays two minutes more quickly than Cantelli's 1956 classic performance. And except for the first movement in the 1951 K. 338, Maag outraces Szell's version with the Concertgebouw by almost four minutes. The notes Maag keeps are crisp, the accents and mordants articulate and graceful. The light touch in the "Posthorn" is athletic and delicate without becoming effete. Very nice detail in the woodwinds in all these works. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

RACHMANINOV: 6 Preludes; Lilacs; Moment musical No. 4 in E Minor/MEDTNER: Sonata in G Minor, Op. 22; 2 Fairy Tales; Round Dance/KABALEVSKY: Sonata No. 3 in F Major, Op. 46/PROKOFIEV: Suggestion diabolique, Op. 4, No. 4/KHACHATURIAN: Toccata in B-flat Minor; Sabre Dance from Gayaneh (arr. Levant)

Benno Moiseiwitch, piano/Nicolai Medtner, piano (in Round Dance) - Naxos Historical 8.110675 79:21:

The seventh of the series devoted to Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963), the favorite pianist of Serge Rachmaninov, here playing the Master's music in recordings 1940-1948. The diaphonous touch and tone Moiseiwitsch cultivated under the tutelage of Leschetizky seems to have found its fullest expression in the music of Rachmaninov, where Bach and Chopin converge in the guise of Russian colors. The program opens with the etude-like Moment musical in E Minor, and then proceeds to the preludes, of which the C# Minor and the G Minor prove prowess and bravura; but the non pareil gems are the two recordings of the brooding B Minor ("the Return") and the silken G Major, Op. 32, No. 5, virtually definitive readings. The middle sections of the C# Minor literally bristle with tremolandi in rapid motion, while the respective section of the G minor is rarified nostalgia. The dark and knotty scores of Medtner had an attraction for Moiseiwtisch, and he inscribed the somewhat Brahmsian Sonata in G Minor in 1943. Fairy Tales (skazki) abound in Metner's catalogue: they are the equivalent of Schumann's characteristic maerchen. The E Minor from Op. 34 comes from a 1928 session, while the F Minor, Op. 42, No. 1 is from 1944. The more communicative Round Dance with the composer is from 1946. Like Horowitz, Moiseiwitshc liked Kabalevsky's exuberant Third Sonata, a mixture of youthful panache and melodic cliches. The 1928 Prokofiev makes us wish Moiseiwitsch had inscribed the five concertos, especially the G Minor. Finally, pure magic and blistering ostinati in the music of Khachaturian, a tempestuous outpouring from a colorful, enigmatic personality, who along with Shura Cherkassky, is one of the Cheshire Cats of the musical pantheon. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade, Op. 35/TCHAIKOVSKY: Marche Slav,
Op. 31/Stokowski in Rehearsal

Erich Gruenberg, violin
Leopold Stokowski conducts London Symphony Orchestra
Cala CACD0536 78:40 (Distrib. Bayside):

The Leopold Stokowski Society and Cala have delved into the Decca "Phase 4" Stereo archives to retrieve the 1964 Scheherazade by the Old Master, perhaps his ultimate, sonic excursion into this much-traversed score. The Marche Slav is important: from 1972, it was part of the historic recreation of Stokowski's 1912 appearance with the LSO, when he performed the same program, which included the Glazounov Violin Concerto (with Zimbalist) and the Brahms C Minor Symphony. In 1972, his violin soloist was Silvia Marcovici. When I asked Ms. Marcovici what first came to mind when she thought of Stokowski, she quipped, "That there were 60 years between us."

Erich Gruenberg, concertmaster of the LSO, provides a fine "storyteller" for Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite. His lean, poignant tone found equal appeal to Jascha Horenstein, with whom he recorded the Beethoven Concerto. The only epithet I can find for the Scheherazade is "splashy," and I guess that works. The playing, the phrasing, is all over-ripe, a real immersion into the waves and pounding on the rocks. Along with a really visceral Tchaikovsky Marche, we do have some 21-plus minutes of Stokowski's rehearsal methods, where he worries about everything from microphone placement for the clarinet to string entries. To hear the ninety-year-old Maestro shed the signs of age and admonish his young players to show more energy is an aesthetic irony not to be missed. An audiophile's "test pressing." Purchase here

George Szell = AUBER: Fra Diavolo Overture/ DVORAK: Symphony no. 8 in G Major,Op. 88/DEBUSSY: La Mer/DELIUS: Prelude to Irmelin/ROSSINI: L'Italiana in Algeri Overture/ TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64/WAGNER: Prelude from Die Meistersinger, Act I/STRAUSS: Delirien Waltz

George Szell conducts Cleveland Orchestra and WDR Cologne (Debussy, Tchaikovsky)
EMI "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" Vol. 33 7243 5 75962 2 72:55;72:36:

When I studied with th late Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, the subject of George Szell (1897-1970) arose: "I was his assistant in Cleveland," offered Stefan. "And he had a bay window put in his office facing the orchestra's parking lot, so he could spy on the quality of the members' cars. If someone showed up sporting a new car, Szell would assault him and ask, 'Wouldn't it be better you spent your money on a new violin?' He tried so hard to be a monster; but I tell you, when he played Mozart, the humanity came through in spite of himself."

This EMI collection does not include any Mozart, nor some of the wonderful Haydn Szell bequeathed us, but it does convey something of his catholic--albeit conservative--tastes; and it certainly demonstrates the orchestral discipline Szell achieved with any ensemble, a level of execution that rivalled and often surpassed his model, Toscanini. The recordings date 1954 (Wagner)-1970 (Dvorak), the year of his death, when his work for EMI took on a decisively autumnal color. The New York Philharmonic and (CBS) Cleveland inscriptions often had a hard edge; they communicated the slick veneer of a conductor in the Karajan mode of objectivity and linear propulsion. The Auber, Delius, Josef Strauss, and Rossini pieces are prime examples of the remarkable homogeneity of sound and crispness of articulation Szell demanded from his players, almost like Mravinsky. My own preference from this period is not included: the dazzling Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov (on Epic LP). The Debussy from Cologne (November 26, 1962) and the Tchaikovsky from Cologne (June 24, 1966) reveal a more intimate, warmer personality, a sense of fluidity and tempo rubato Szell often eschewed.

The Dvorak, completed a mere three months before his death, places the Hungarian-born conductor next to his Prague affinities in music he loved long and well. It is unfortunate that EMI avoids collaborations for this series, for in Szell's case his work with Francescatti, Pienemann, and Casadesus (where their wayward repertory took them to Paganini, Saint Saens and Bartok) in a live concert might have illuminated Szell's uncanny sense of collaborative balance. Still, this is a sturdy vein of treasure from a musical mine that has untapped riches, especially in the opera house. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

MASSENET: Scenes pittoresques; Scene alsaciennes/ ADAM: Si j'etais roi --Overture/ AUBER: Le domino noir --Overture/ HEROLD: Zampa Overture/ REZNICEK: Donna Diana Overture/ SUPPE: Pique Dame Overture

Albert Wolff conducts Paris Conservatory Orchestra
Testament 1308 77:56 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Known primarily for his turn-of-the-century work in the opera pit, then at the Opera-Comique and succesor to Paray at Concerts Lamoureux in the late 1920's, Albert Wolff (1884-1970) was a contemporary of the Golden Age conductors. His own repute was as a composer-conductor of solid musicianship, especially in the ballet medium, a kind of Gallic equivalent of Constant Lambert. I knew him through perhaps to Decca LP's devoted to Massenet (here reissued) and to Glazounov. The two Massenet orchestral suites date from 1955; the overtures were recorded in the summer months of 1957. At the time that the Alsatian Scenes appeared, Wolff's only rival on disc was that with Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony on a 10" CBS LP. All of the music on the Testament reissue is eminently idiomatic, each illuminating Wolff's suave, unobtrusive, and economical means in theater music. Herold's Zampa! was a favorite of such disparate personalities as Toscanini and Malko; Wolff rides it for its rhythmic refinement and inner colors. The Adam, Auber and Suppe overtures each enjoy a supple athleticism that bespeaks finesse and discipline. As for Reznicek, I cut my teeth on Frederick Stock's version, so I can appreciate the old school approach by Wolff, lyric and pointed.  So far as I know, only John Eliot Gardiner ever took on all the Massenet suites, and his readings are hardly definitive; so for the Alsatian Scenes and the infrequent Picturesque Scenes, I would suggest grabbing up this sleeper disc that will likely not be among the year's best sellers. If Testament heads in Wolff's direction again, let it be to reinstate his Balakirev and Bizet. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

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