Classical CD Reissues, Part 2   
for September 2002

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde - conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Philharmonia Orchestra, Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Tristan: Ludwig Suthaus; Isolde: Kirsten Flagstad; Brangäne: Blanche Thebom; Kurwenal: Dietriech Fischer-Dieskau; King Mark: Josef Greindl; Seeman/Shepherd: Rudolf Schock; Helmsman: Rhoderick Davies; EMI 67626 (4 discs), mono:

Let me say at the outset that we are not likely to see another studio recording of this caliber. Although Furtwängler disliked recording in the studio, here he has assembled a superb cast of singers. From the first hushed notes to the last sorrowful cadences, the vocalizations and the instrumentals are indescribably harmonious, with all the complex elements of the composition nesting inside each other like priceless Russian dolls.

And now that this 1952 EMI recording has been released in a wonderful new remastering, we can clearly hear the expansive, deeply sonorous tone of Furtwängler's mesmerizing conducting and Suthaus's incomparable vocal modulation. The variety of colors and textures in this tenor's voice and his sweetly rolling vibrato are irresistible. He is both ardent and refined, heroic and vulnerable, a rare feat. Flagstad, the preeminent Wagnerian soprano of the twentieth century, is somewhat past her prime, and at times she sounds matronly, but her exceptional musicality is never in question; and she has no difficulty sounding girlish when the occasion requires it. Thebom as Brangäne was a bit of a wild card, but she rises to the occasion with her melodious and rounded voice. And for once Fischer-Dieskau's spinto lyricism, which can be annoying in Lieder, blends beautifully with Furtwängler's overarching dramatic vision. Greindl as King Mark phrases his long lament accurately and movingly. And last, Schock is an exceptional Seeman and Shepherd.

This recording is indispensable for any serious collector. Wagner lovers will surely be carried away by its grandeur and oceanic sweep.

-Dalia Geffen

VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Caruso Italian Songs. RCA 74321-82569-2. Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Gottfried Rabi, conductor. Enrico Caruso, tenor.

It was only a matter of time before someone succeeded at this trick. Aided by acoustic experts from the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, RCA has extracted Caruso's near-century old voice from those scratchy discs, digitally enhanced it, and gave it new orchestral accompaniment. Perhaps the greatest tenor of the century, Caruso now has new life, singing his beloved Neapolitan songs. "Heresy!" say the purists, convinced the process has scraped away the patina of quaintness misting over these works. I say, more power to them! I only wish that the program notes had explained the digitization process. Just how did they yank Caruso's voice away from those fishbowl orchestras? No matter. Conductor Rabi has done an excellent job rearranging the songs, which are missing their original orchestrations. However, "the details of the [original] accompaniment are seldom clearly audible," says Rabi. So in many cases, he had to extrapolate. He succeeds so admirably, he even approximates the schmaltz level beloved by 1913 audiences. It's an eerie experience, hearing Caruso's voice--still slightly grainy, still singing a little too far in the distance--yet accompanied by a shiny new orchestra with nary a pop or hiss. It is like walking into New York's Museum of Natural History and finding the Brontosaurus rearing up on its hind legs in an archeologically appropriate pose. Unlike the previous disc, Caruso 2000, the tenor sings no opera--just these wondrous old songs that only the well established (Pavarotti, Domingo) deign to sing. I admit it, I don't play Caruso's old archival recording that often. I find them more historically than aesthetically enthralling. Hearing the master sing "Santa Lucia" (1916) and "Ideale" (1906) in shimmering new renditions is an experience worth sharing. It is the best centennial celebration of Caruso's first recording.  Rating: *****

--Peter Bates

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Leopold Stokowski conducts Philadelphia Orchestra - Archipel Records ARPCD 0059 79:45 (Distrib. Qualiton):

Connoisseurs of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) will cherish this CD, despite its minimalist packaging and data, mainly because the restorations are especially vivid.

Taken from 1929 (D Major) and 1933 (E Minor) inscriptions, the performances capture Stokovski {sic} at the height of his powers with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in repertory he cultivated until his final days, when he recorded the D Major with the National Philharmonic and employed the first-movement repeat.

Stokowski prior to his Hollywood sojourn in the late 1930's was a different conductor from the musician who catered to the populist mentality around World War II. His interest in color was no less polished, but there are fewer gimmicks, tasteless slides, and orchestral "sighs." There are portmanti, to be sure, particularly in the Adagio in the D Major and the Andante in the E Minor, but the tension and rhythmic flexibility are marvels to audition. The most spectacular surprise is Stokowski's handling of the Allegretto grazioso from the D Major: it begins as a loving wind serenade that takes on layer after layer of an autumnal nocturne. The finale of the E Minor, with its notorious pitfalls in maintaining the chaconne's arch while preserving the individual variants, has a liquid, sensuous tension that is Stokowski's own contribution to orchestral discipline. There is little doubt that, whatever your predilections are in Brahms and your opinion of Stokowski, he had honed one of the superb orchestral instruments of the age.

--Gary Lemco

Beecham Conducts - BERLIOZ: Requiem, Op. 5/MENDELSSOHN: Overture, The Fair Melusina, Op. 32/ADDISON: Carte blanche-Ballet/BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92/encores by GOUNOD, SAINT-SAENS, DEBUSSY

Richard Lewis, tenor (Berlioz); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus

BBC Legends BBCS 4403-2 79:16; 75:09 (Distrib. Koch):

This BBC set conjoins two distinct concerts from 1959: the Addison/Beethoven concert of November 8 and the all-Berlioz concert of December 13, both in fine sound. Most of this material (excepting Addison) circulated in the form of LP's in the 1960's via the Thomas Beecham Society and Music & Arts Programs of America.

Some of the works were perennial favorites with Beecham: he only came to Mendelssohn's The Fair Melusina in 1947, but thereafter it was a staple of his repertoire. It has the lithe grace and incandescent energy of all his readings, with the particular flavor of a live audience. In concert, Beecham followed the Mendelssohn with a real rarity not included, Ghedini's Musica da Concerto for viola solo Frederick Riddle, certainly worth a restoration. Addison's piece is simply pompous, busy fluff, so far as I am concerned. It sounds a poor clone from Lambert's Checkmate, but Beecham fans will want to have it, both for Beecham and for the virtuosity of his principals. The Beethoven 7th has the resilient rhythmic velocity and unsentimental flair Beecham brought to this score, which he led some 60 times between 1934 and 1960. The encores include Saint-Saens' Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon, Gounod's Last Sleep of the Virgin, and the Cortege and Dance from Debussy's Prodigal Son cantata, old Beecham standbys played with infinite finesse and hazy grace.

The Berlioz is a valedictory celebration in every sense, its being Beecham's last appearance at the Albert Hall. Beecham used a slightly smaller vocal force than he had at the concert of the Royal Philharmonic December 3, 1958, where he felt the acoustics did not serve him well. Here, the 148 voices are under good control, with some hair-raising moments in the Tuba mirum and Lachrymosa sections: one could write a fascinating study of Beecham's unorthodox approach to choral works like the requiems of Mozart, Beethoven and Berlioz. They have an irreverence in the midst of their passion that suggests a 'secular' religion in Beecham. Richard Lewis is in lovely voice for the Sanctus, although my personal favorite is Leopold Simoneau. The concluding Agnus Dei makes a tremendous effect, even through its dimuendi, that make us crave more Berlioz and more choral masterpieces from this versatile, iconoclastic conductor. A Russian delegation was so impressed by the performance they invited Beecham to their country for a tour, but Fate did not permit Beecham's fulfilling this request.

--Gary Lemco

Alfred Cortot, The Late Recordings (1947) - SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen, Op. 15/CHOPIN: 2 Nocturnes; Trois Nouvelles Etudes; Prelude, Op. 45; Polonaise-Fantasie/DEBUSSY: Children's Corner Suite; La cathedrale engloutie

Alfred Cortot, piano

APR 5571 66:53 (Distrib. Albany):

This disc could be named 'The Battle Between Poetry and Precision,' since Alfred Cortot by 1947 was in decline as an active pianist, and patient practice was never his strong suit. This disc offers rare glimpses of pieces Cortot did not commit to commercial recordings. Some of these unpublished waxes have appeared prior, on the Music & Arts label, but APR has done an outstanding, conscientious job in collecting them under one roof, as it were.

The big pieces are the E-flat Nocturne from Op. 55 and the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. The latter is a bit rushed, the result of the 2-shellac-sides mentality that plagued the recording process at the time, a demand Cortot's fingers could not meet. Cortot's ideas are always heroic, larger-than-life, with huge, rhetorical arches and loving phrasings. The E-flat Nocturne has an inner pulsation that could teach countless pupils of the genre. The late C-sharp Minor Prelude is a colossal instance of concentrated affect.The Three New Etudes are wistful and valedictory. More secure entirely are the Schumann and the Debussy, each with its own spirit of the child, deftly played. The pedal-effects in "The Snow is Dancing" urge us to consider even the aging Cortot a master. So, too, the inner pulsations and grades of dynamics in The Sunken Cathedral, rife with elements from Tristan. The finger-slips, the occasionally slovenly rhythmic glitch, all are part and parcel of the Cortot persona. For some, even Cortot's errors are those of a god.

--Gary Lemco

DI STEFANO: Arias & songs--Decca 289 467908:

This release in Decca's "The Singers" series brings us a tenor who was almost--but not quite--among the very great. Giuseppe di Stefano (b 1921) was Sicilian, made his debut at La Scala and the Met in 1947, and sang there until 1952 and intermittently thereafter, often with Maria Callas. They made a number of notable opera recordings together, though their late recitals when she was trying to come back are pretty sad. He had a fine voice, but the reason I (and others) don't put him in the very top rank is its quality; it was more acerbic than sweet. His interpretations never had much subtlety and his voice coarsened as he aged and moved from lyrical to more dramatic roles. But it was strong, clear, and accurate, ringing out with forceful passion, and he could produce a crooning pianissimo that was very beautiful. This disc contains 13 Italian opera arias and six Sicilian folk songs. The critic J.B Steane thinks he was better in French than Italian roles, but he does a lovely job here with "Celeste Aida" and "Cielo e mar!". Maybe not the greatest, but certainly worth hearing.

--Alex Morin

SUZANNE DANCO--Arias--Decca 289 467908:

Decca's "The Singers" series continues on its useful way by bringing us the historic record of artists who were well known in their time but only hovered on the edge of greatness. Soprano Suzanne Danco (b 1911), for instance. She was born and trained and mostly sang in Belgium, made a few visits to England, never came to the US, and didn't achieve the international reputation she might have had if she had been more venturesome. She had a pure, full, accurate voice, at home in a wide range of idioms but without much variation of color or intensity. The selections on this disc go from Purcell's lovely "When I am laid in earth" and two charming Mozart arias to a group of Strauss lieder and a beautiful version of Debussy's Ariettes oubliées. There are more exciting and more interesting accounts of all this, but her smooth, creamy voice is worth remembering.

--Alex Morin

The Kolisch Quartet -- SCHUBERT: Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887; Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, D. 805; Quartet No. 12 in C Minor, D. 703 "Quartettsatz"; Scherzo from "Death and the Maiden: Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810

Symposium 1304 73:51 (Distrib. Albany):

Ironically, Vienna did not have a "resident" quartet until the 1970's; prior, the contender for this distinction was the Kolisch Quartet, an ensemble born of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances founded in 1921. The group premiered works like Berg's Op. 3 and the Lyric Suite: changes of personnel, mainly due to Schoenberg's intrusive administration, eventually resulted in the hiring of Benar Heifetz, cello and Jeno Lehner, viola, along with second violinist Felix Kuhner. Theirs was a linear, highly intense approach to chamber ensemble, with only minimal vibrato and razor-thin intonation. In the rarified world of late Beethoven quartets and Schoenberg's quartets, their clarity of line had a charisma all its own until it disbanded in 1942.

The recordings collected by Symposium date from 1934, with the exception of the "Death and the Maiden" scherzo from 1929. Despite some crackly sonics, the music comes through in a fury and a flurry of notes, with fascinating fluctuations of rhythm within the same movements, akin to Scherchen's way with Beethoven. (By the way, the order of the quartets is reversed from the labeling, so the G Major comes first.) Most of the pieces are played fast, possibly to accommodate the shellac format, but more likely because the aesthetic is geared to lightness and aerial projection. Even the G Major's lovely secondary theme, reminiscent of the big tune in the C Major Quintet, has a sang froid we get when pianist Solomon plays Schubert. The restrained lyricism continues with the A Minor Quartet, whose andante is no less immortalized as an Impromptu. The Quartet-Movement is a nervous, quirky affair, with the players bowing high, near the bridge, to effect a curious alliance between Schubert and his modern successors, Berg and Schoenberg. Definitely worth a listen.

--Gary Lemco

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