Classical CD Reissues, Part 2   Oct. 2003

SCRIABIN: Complete Symphonies = Symphony No. 1 in E Major, Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Symphony No. 3 “Le Divin Poeme,” Prometheus - Poem of Fire, Piano Concerto in F Sharp Minor, Reverie, Poem of Ecstasy - Peter Jablonski, piano/Brigitte Balleys, mezzo/Sergei Larin, tenor/Berlin Radio Choir/German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy - Decca 473 971-2 (3 CDs):

That toward the end of his life Scriabin was a bit loose in his loafers is fairly clear, though he had created early on a body of enchanting piano music highly influenced by Chopin. He had exaggerated ideas about himself and his place in music, taking some of Wagner’s theories about radical music drama into stratospheric realms. But he created one of the most unique individual styles of any composer in his big orchestral works, as well as his piano sonatas. A pervasive sensuality and ecstatic feeling is found in most of these works. Only Messiaen has consistently worked in the latter area, and it is interesting that both composers came to their individual sounds via spiritual means - although entirely different ones: pantheistic/occult in the case of Scriabin and Catholic in the case of Messiaen.

The Piano Concerto was Scriabin’s first large-scale symphony work, with a virtuosic solo part. The First Symphony is his version of Beethoven’s Ninth, with a grand finale complete with vocal soloists, a chorus, and a message in praise of art. With the Second the composer made more of an individual statement, using contrasting “active” and “passive” themes. Occult and mystical ideas were beginning to occupy him at this time. The brilliant March finale always makes me think of soundtrack music for a Soviet propaganda film, but it was a couple decades before that. I still find it brilliantly stirring music that I can’t help conducting a bit when I hear it.

The Divine Poem symphony is one of the composer’s best-known works, along with the Poem of Ecstasy. Scriabin wanted to express the evolution of the human spirit. It strives for the biggest sound possible, pushing the trumpet section to their limits. The Poem of Ecstasy continues a similarly excessive philosophical program, with the ecstasy being not so much erotic or spiritual but the ecstasy of artistic creation. These recordings were made between l990 and l995 and at the time were hailed by Gramophone as “the steamiest Scriabin on disc.” I’ll second that. I have Riccardo Muti’s 3 CD set of the same repertory on EMI Classics, recorded at about the same time with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps being Russian is to Ashkenazy’s advantage (I recall the exciting Scriabin performances - on execrable-sounding LPs - I once brought back from a student tour of the Soviet Union) but he is definitely more unbuttoned and ecstatic-sounding than Muti. Even more so than Pierre Boulez on DGG, who did the Concerto and Poem of Ecstasy in 1999. Plus Muti’s sonics are rounded off and a bit opaque-sounding, whereas Ashkenazy’s are cleaner, more open and spacious, and with much more of an acoustic impression of the hall. Perhaps this is due to the advances that have been made in CD remastering and pressing in the last few years (which have been pushed to their greatest success in JVC’s xrcd series).

- John Sunier

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90

Rudolf Kempe conducts Munich Philharmonic
Arts Archives 43013-2 75:48 (Distrib. Albany):

Inscriptions from late in the career of Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976), these two Brahms symphonies are part of a complete cycle he recorded in Munich. Often perceived as an objective or literalist conductor, Kempe's style lay between the subjective romanticism of Furtwaengler and the icy, glossy distances Karajan cultivated. Kempe enjoyed the music of Brahms, playing the piano concertos with Gelber and often traversing the symphonies. His version of A German Requiem for EMI (with Grummer and Fischer-Dieskau) still remains a sober, reverent reading in a classic mold. He gets a warm patina from his Munich players, a linear, directed luster. Its phraseology is less quirky than Kubelik's sometimes idiosyncratic, even eccentric, readings. The stormy lines of the C Minor Symphony are quite clear, especially in the bass line. The last movement has a broad, sincere sentiment without overplaying the heroics. If it misses the herculean breadth of Jochum's reading with the Berlin Philharmonic, it isn't by much. The F Major dates from only a few months before Kempe's death in May 1976. Kempe does not take the repeat in movement one, but it does not feel rushed. The interior movements are warm and resonant. The last movement, with its Beethoven's 5th motto, has great verve and impetus, given the Brahms tendency to emotional repression. This issue may appeal more to Kempe collectors than to the Brahms specialists, but the readings are more than solid and represent a gifted conductor in his natural milieu.

--Gary Lemco

PETER MENNIN: Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra - Janos Starker, cello/The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester - First Edition Music FECD-0013 mono & stereo:

These are all three first appearances on CD for these recordings made between l954 and l969 for the Louisville Orchestra subscription LP series. The two symphonies are in mono while the Cello Concerto is stereo. Mennin, who lived until l983, followed an individual path of tonal though often dissonant music growing out of the motivic counterpoint of polyphonic voices of the Renaissance period. The youthful Fifth Symphony is the most accessible of the three works, displaying plenty of musical enthusiasm. Mennin described the work as placing emphasis on the broad melodic line with little use of color for color’s sake. The Sixth is a denser work, highly contrapuntal but lightly scored. An ostinato figure heard in the introduction becomes central to the rhythmically-driving Finale. The Cello Concerto benefits from the superb playing of the legendary Starker who makes its Adagio movement extremely moving. The dramatic Finale brings the concerto to a crowd-pleasing conclusion.

- John Sunier

WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Afro-American Symphony; AMY BEACH: Gaelic Symphony in E Minor - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Krueger - Bridge 9086:

Another in the series of CD reissues from the pioneering set of LPs issued in the 1960s by the Society for the Preservation of the American Musical Heritage. Considered the Dean of Afro-American Composers, Still wrote works in many different forms, received many commissions from leading orchestras and was an important figure in American musical life. His symphony - the first by an Afro-American composer - was premiered by Howard Hanson in l931. It is a musical portrait of the African American; the four movements are Longing, Sorrow, Humor, and Aspiration. Hanson spoke of the lovely melodies, gorgeous harmonies, insidious rhythms and dazzling colors of Still’s work.

It seems fitting to pair the black composer’s work with “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach’s” Gaelic Symphony since she was the first American woman composer to gain attention for large-scale concert music, bucking the many barriers society raised against women. (She also wrote some excellent chamber music.) Her symphony was inspired - but in a roundabout way - by Dvorak’s recommendation that American composers turn to the music of Afro-Americans for a truly American style. Mrs. Beach disagreed with Dvorak’s choice, saying the literature of her ancestors was old English, Scotch and Irish songs. She then made a musical answer to Dvorak in her symphony - using both Irish themes and two original themes of her own. By using Anglo-American folk music Beach began a practice later followed by Ives, Copland and Virgil Thomson. Bridge’s remastering of these mid-60s original tapes is excellent and a great improvement on the original LPs. In fact, the Gaelic Symphony is superior in both sound and performance to the new recording on Naxos by the Nashville Symphony - though that one also includes Beach’s very worthwhile Piano Concerto.

- John Sunier

JUSSI BJÖRLING REDISCOVERED: Carnegie Hall Recital, September 24, 1955 – with pianist Frederick Schauwecker – RCA82876-53231-2 (80 mins.):

THE VERY BEST OF JUSSI BJÖRLING – EMI Classics 5-75900-2 (2 CDs, 2 hrs., 34 mins.):

RCA’s release of the complete, uncut edition of Jussi Björling’s 1955 Carnegie Hall recital, 25 tracks strong, is a poignant reminder of the Swedish tenor’s sweet passion. Containing nine never-before-released tracks, including three arias and songs by Grieg, Sibelius and Sjöberg, the CD will be an irresistible treat for his fans and for those who have yet to discover the thrill of his incomparable art. Special praise must go to his long time American accompanist, Frederick Schauwecker, who in an often thankless role provides frequent moments of real illumination.

Together with EMI’s anthology - mostly of arias (but with some songs) recorded between 1936 and 1959 - these CDs serve as an enticing introduction to Björling. Taken from their vast library of studio recordings with Björling, the EMI set captures over and over the open-hearted goodness of his personality, as immediately apparent in the opening selection Questa o quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto, opening the set, as it is in the closing selection, Adolphe Adam’s famous Christmas song. Che gelida manina, from the La bohème he recorded under Beecham in 1956, is a miracle!

The sound in the RCA has a direct, honest quality that, in moments like Beethove’s Adelaïde, Schubert’s Ständchen and E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca, is almost unbearably moving. EMI’s sound is consistently polished and often ravishing, some of the late 1930s and 1940s recordings very impressive, with only the very earliest recordings showing their age.

In the RCA release, executive producer Daniel Guss provides a detailed description of how and why the uncut recital was released and Cantor Dan Goldberg chronicles Björling’s life. For the EMI set, Tony Locantro provides a highly interesting critical essay on the tenor’s art. “As a tenor,” Locantro remarks, “Björling was supreme: the rare ability to add dramatic power to his lyrical voice at will enabled him to sing almost any tenor role in the French and Italian repertoire, in much the same way as Caruso had done before him.”

- Laurence Vittes

MOZART: Overture to Don Giovanni/BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E Major/HAYDN: Symphony No. 88 in G Major/ TCHAIKOVSKY: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32/GLAZOUNOV: Symphony No. 5 in B flat Major, Op. 55

Evgeny Mravinsky conducts Leningrad Philharmonic
EMI "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" Vol. 30 7243 5 75593 2 67:26; 77:29:

Evgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) established, along with Willem Mengelberg, one of the great hegemonies in music, reigning over the Leningrad Philharmonic for fifty years (1938-1988) and eliticing a homogeneity of orchestral sound virtually unequaled by any other world class ensemble. A pupil of Alexandre Gauk and Nicolai Malko, Mravinsky made his reputation in the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, neither of which finds representation in this set of live broadcasts, 1967-1983. Having renounced commercial recordings in 1961, Mravinsky could only be captured in concert performances; and several of the EMI restorations have been prior available on Russian Disc and (in the case of Tchaikovsky's tone-poem) on the short-lived Icone label.

The opening Mozart overture establishes the singular sweep and forward movement Mravinsky favors; even the D Minor surges of the Stone Guest do not dissuade Mravinsky's unfolding of a 'drama giocoso' with cosmically dark humor. I do miss Mravisnky's unconquerable live rendition of Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla, for sheer brilliance and severity of orchestral discipline. We get Mravinsky's own edition (rather streamlined, especially in the finale) of Bruckner's 7th Symphony from February 25, 1967. If Abendroth and Klemperer brought Bruckner to the Soviet Union, Mravinsky kept his music there, balancing a muscular energy with a strong, spiritual appeal.  The Haydn symphony is all grace and tender wit, with soft dynamics in the winds and horns. The Glazounov from September 1968 is the composer's balletically dramatic self, akin to the spirit of Raymonda. Most of the filigree is lyrically harmless; but it does take on the scented pageantry of the Mighty Five in the final Allegro maestoso. The big piece emotionally is Tchaikovsky's Francesca from March 19, 1983, a let-out-the-stops blizzard of sound, tortured and lyrically resonant at once. For the collector who missed the individual releases, this compendium will more than satisfy his Mravinsky urge, a compulsion to hear a master orchestral dictator of the old school.

--Gary Lemco

THOMAS: Mignon Overture/SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 6 in C Major, D. 589/BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73/NICOLAI: Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor/STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20/RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade, Op. 35/ELGAR" Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40

Eduard van Beinum conducts Concertgebouw Orchestra and London Philharmonic (Elgar)
EMI "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" Vol. 26 7243 5 75941 2 75:43; 78:54:

Eduard van Beinum (1900-1959), the sober-minded, emotionally reliable successor to Willem Mengelberg, is enjoying a resurgence of interest, with commemorative sets issued by Philips and EMI. This EMI collation, 1949-1957, is mostly taken from Philips' sources, except for the 1949 Decca inscription of Elgar's lively overture Cockaigne (in London Town), whose LP and CD incarnations were both devoted to Elgar, sharing on the program the Cello Concerto and The Wand of Youth suites. A fine Beethoven interpreter, Beinum made two concerto albums worth a note: the Violin Concerto with Grumiaux is still a classic; and the two Piano Concertos, in C and in G, with Robert Casadesus on Sony, are ever acquirable. There was a Beethoven Symphony No. 2 in D on Epic that I would like to hear in the CD format, as well.

Many Beinum collectors want his complete Brahms cycle re-instated to the active catalogue: as yet, with this fine D Major from September 16, 1955, there are two: a 1947 C Minor is offered by Dutton (CDK 1210); audiophiles want the 1950's series on Epic. A real find is the charming, even ebullient, Schubert Sixth from late May 1957, a performance light, witty, and filled with Haydenesque good humor. The interior movements are especially perky and stylish: recall that van Beinum had fine readings of the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth symphonies on records. The Richard Strauss Don Juan is a rarity for van Beinum. It comes from the same Stuttgart concert as the Brahms Second, and it seems to respond to its German audience with a breadth and pointed drive that made van Beinum an exciting presence in music. Collectors of Lipatti recordings will remember the Bach D Minor Concerto is accompanied by a febrile Eduard van Beinum.

The other big work is clearly Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, with Jan Damen as violin solo, from late May 1956. The whole is somewhat prosaic, although Damen was a solid concertmaster who teamed up with Monteux for performances of the Sibelius Concerto. The lines are all strong, and anyone with ears will respond to the wind and battery sections of the Concertgebouw and their capacity for shimmering colors. I find the Nicolai more magical, with a deft hand and suppleness that rivals Beecham's way with this happy music. Van Beinum had a great sympathy for British music, including Britten and Arnold, so the Elgar comes as no particular surprise, except that it is sure-handed and rhythmically alive. It is interesting to me that of all of Thomas' music, the energies in the Mignon Overture appealed to both van Beinum and his polar opposite personality-wise: Otto Klemperer.

--Gary Lemco

MOZART: Serenade No. 7 in D, K. 250 "Haffner"; Serenade No. 9 in D, K. 320 "Posthorn"

Guenter Wand conducts Guerzenich Orchestra of Cologne
Testament SBT 1302 75:50 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

I have prior remarked that I was not a Guenter Wand (1912-2002) acolyte prior to having heard the Testament restorations of his Beethoven, recorded for Club Francais du Disque in the 1950's. His later RCA work, mostly Bruckner and Beethoven, I found stuffy and pedantic. But here again, in recordings made 1954 (Haffner) and 1959 (Posthorn), respectively, Wand proves himself a lithe, spirited molder of musical phrases in repertory he clearly cherishes. My only quibble with this reissue is the use of an abridged version of the Posthorn Serenade, which excludes the charming Andante grazioso and the rondo. If we must have an historical account of this splendid music, let Testament bring back Eduard van Beinum's resonant inscription done for Philips around the same time.

The Haffner Serenade gives me no grounds for unease, being a free, often whimsical reading of one of Mozart's most happy compositions. Concertmaster Guenter Gugel does the violin soli honors in the mini concerto movements two-four. Recalling that Mozart wrote the piece for a wedding in 1776, the playing has the requisite pomp and flair, along with a fluency of gesture and execution, that conceals the art behind the gaiety. A nice touch in the Posthorn Serenade is the use of an authentic, valveness instrument to preserve something of the work's original energetic integrity. Within the limits of the edited Posthorn reading, this is an eminently musical disc.

--Gary Lemco

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