Classical Reissue Reviews, Part 2 of 2

by | Mar 1, 2004 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

March 2004, Pt. 2 of 2

SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto Op. 129 (rec. 1962); HINDEMITH: Cello Concerto (1940) (rec. 1967); A Tortelier master class: The Hindemith Concerto – Paul Tortelier, cello, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati (Schumann) and the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Edward Downes (Hindemith) – BBC Legends 4133-2 (63 mins.):

Although the great and charismatic French cellist and composer Paul Tortelier (1914-1990) had a massive impact on the history of the cello on LP as it transitioned from mono to stereo, particularly through his recordings of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and Rudolf Kempe, his recordings of the rest of the major repertory for his instrument were not always successful (perhaps his occasionally untidy tone and spontaneous sense of occasion were not entirely compatible with the discipline required by the recording studio).

His commercial recording for Supraphon of the unaccountably neglected Hindemith Concerto benefits from a strong, poetic accompaniment by the Czech Philharmonic under Karel Ancerl (due for reissue eventually on Supraphon’s Ancerl Gold series) but Tortelier’s playing, though more technically immaculate, lacks the abandon it has here (even if Downes is a more mundane conductor). As far as I remember, the Schumann has no commercial competition; in any event, this is a great performance, wild, willful (in the best sense) and benefiting from the soloist’s own cadenza, a tribute not only to his love for Schumann but to the French tradition of cello playing of which he was a supreme representative.

The two concerto performances are supplemented by a charming thirteen-minute discussion of the Hindemith by Tortelier (in English),illustrated with musical excerpts, that throws great light on how the concerto works and why he had such affection for it.

The sound is alive and involving as only BBC engineers, working under the pressure of live performances with no chance for retakes, could be. It may have been Stereophile magazine’s legendary founder, J. Gordon Holt, who called BBC live recordings the standard for sound in the 1960s. If it was he, he may have been right.

As always, Tully Potter’s liner notes are themselves worth the price of admission, combining historical perspective, a keen judge of how music making happens, and a rich, fluid writing style that makes them not only a gold mine of information but an almost decadent pleasure to read.

– Laurence Vittes

MENDELSSOHN: The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60/LISZT: Mephisto Waltz/MOZART: German Dance No. 2, K. 509 Sleigh Ride/CHABRIER: Fete Polonaise

Sieglinde Wagner, soprano/Anton Dermota, Tenor/Otto Edelmann, bass; Igor Markevitch conducts Vienna Symphony and Academy Choir; Orchestra of the Florence May Festival (Liszt, Chabrier, Mozart)
Archipel Records ARPCD 0148 56:17 (Distrib. Qualiton):

The long, lean figure of Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) always meant fiery but controlled music making, and his 1952 performance of Mendelssohn’s cantata Die Erste Walpurgisnacht from Vienna is no exception. The text, with its chorus of Druids and eerie, pagan fertility references, is the composer’s attempt to achieve what success Carl Maria von Weber had with his opera Der Freischuetz, a popular, singable singspiel of lively energies. Vocalists Wagner, Dermota, and Edelmann, each a veteran of the Vienna Opera and, at that time, recently active with Karajan in his recordings of the Ring excerpts for CBS, is in strong form. The recording quality is somewhat distant; I believe this performance had a brief life on the Verona label, also in tinny sound.

The shorter pieces all derive from Markevitch’s May 22, 1946 sessions with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, but are not all-inclusive: there was at least another recording, of The Blue Danube Waltz, which was issued by Tahra in its celebration of Johann Strauss inscriptions, 1928-1951. The Liszt is nervous and filled with swagger, effective in spite of some scratchy strings. The Fete Polonaise is Markevitch’s catching up with Monteux in clear, articulated rhythms and relaxed pulse. The little Mozart dance is over too soon. A brief but animated portrait in sound of a conductor whose catholic taste always paid tribute to his cosmopolitanism.

–Gary Lemco

JANACEK: Sinfonietta; Four Opera Preludes/ENESCU: Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 11/BARTOK: Romanian Folk Dances/DVORAK: Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E Minor/BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances No. 5 in G Minor; No. 6 in D Major

Charles Mackerras conducts Pro Arte Orchestra (Janacek) and Philharmonia Orchestra
Testament SBT 1325 75:58 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Sir Charles Mackerras (b. 1925), while British in temperament and training, also has the special pedigree of having studied with the legendary Vaclav Talich, who inculcated Mackerras into the mysteries of Leos Janacek. A conductor of wide-ranging sensibilities, it was Mackerras’ EMI version of Handel’s Messiah, in a reduced-orchestra edition, that made a stunning impression on record collectors in the early 1970’s. His Pineapple Poll for CBS with the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra was a classic of the LP era. The Janacek herein presented was inscribed, in stereo, for the Pye label in 1959; their resident orchestra was the Pro Arte Orchestra. When Mackerras decided to record the Sinfonietta, the coupling was with four relatively unknown opera preludes, each of which has tonal and textural affinities to the Sinfonietta and to Taras Bulba, while maintaining an ethos unique to themselves.

I would single out the Prelude to Katya Kabanova (the others are The Makropoulos Case; From the House of the Dead; and Jenufa) as the most fascinating of the lot: it has an eerie harmonic flavor and a fragmentary melodic contour that hint of Debussy and Faure, but still there is the Moravian, modal coloring that gives Janacek his signature. The Sinfonietta is ablaze with brassy color (it has nine extra trumpets), a steely surface, and a ringing sonority worthy of anything in Talich and Kubelik for this score. The popular items, Dvorak, Bartok, and Enescu, recorded in 1960 for Walter Legge, are singularly spirited, especially the Enescu, which could easily pass for the best work of Constantin Silvestri. This disc indicates the burgeoning talents of Mackerras forty-five years ago, when Andrew Porter had already singled him out as “one of the finest Janacek conductors.”

–Gary Lemco

BORODIN: Prince Igor: Overture; March; Polovtsian Dances/ TCHAIKOVSKY: Capriccio Italien, Op. 45; Eugen Onegin: Introduction; Waltz; Polonaise; Overture–The Storm, Op. 76

Lovro von Matacic conducts Philharmonia Orchestra (Borodin) and La Scala Theater Orchestra
Testament SBT 1330 74:40 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Listening to the art of Lovro von Matacic (1899-1985) is an experience similar to witnessing the craftsmanship and artisanship Mayes describes in Under the Tusan Sun when she watches old masters shape stone and metal. The 1960 inscription of Capriccio italien opens with the individual lines’ weaving and converging, an ineluctable tension rising, like hearing Furtwaengler shape Wagner. But instead of gloom andheaviness, we get a Mediterranean sensibility that plays with light and dances in many rhythms and diverse colors. The deft phrasing has a clarity that reminds me of actor Eduardo Cianelli’s diction. I don’t think even Beecham squeezes all the different characters from this music as does Matacic, although Kempe makes the final tarantella blaze as no other.

Matacic’s musical pedigree reads akin to that of Clemens Krauss, both Vienna Choir Boys and both raised in the Richard Strauss tradition. Matacic’s recording of Lehar’s The Merry Widow remains a classic of its kind. Testament has issued three discs devoted to Matacic, whose name I first encountered on the Parliament LP of Beethoven’ Eroica, with the Funeral March split on either side of the record. The Borodin, with the Philharmonia from 1958, has some wonderful individual lines, from Alan Civil’s French horn to the phrasing and the contour of the suave lines in the Dances (without chorus). The excerpts from Eugen Onegin are poised and touched by a sense of the tragedy that ensues. The early piece based on Ostrovsky’s The Storm simply is not profound music, but Matacic’s 1957 reading makes it dramatically agitated, sort of an Errol Flynn soundtrack.

–Gary Lemco

BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas, Op. 5/PFITZNER: Cello Sonata in F# Minor, Op.1/BACH: Solo Sonata for Cello No. 6 in D, BWV 1012/FRESCOBALDI: Toccata for Cello and Basso Continuo/DVORAK: Adagio in D; Rondo in G Minor, Op.94/HINDEMITH: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 11, No. 3/MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D, Op. 58

Ludwig Holscher, cello; Hans Richter-Haaser, piano
Bayer DaCapo BR 200 038/39 73:54; 71:08 (Distrib. Qualiton):

Ludwig Hoelscher (1907-1996) had the reputation as “the Faust of the cello,” after his 1936 debut with the Berlin Philharmonic with Furtwaengler. With the death of Emanuel Feuermann in 1942, Hoelscher may have been the greatest cellist of the modern, 2oth century style; and only his remaining in Germany during WW II tarnished his international renown. He formed a trio with Walter Gieseking and Gerhard Taschner and played duos with Elly Ney. His recording of the Dvorak Concerto with Abendroth is still regarded a major interpretation of this oft-traversed masterpiece. Hans Richter-Haaaser (1912-1980) joined Hoelscher for a series of recitals, of which these discs comprise two: from October 10, 1951 and December 6, 1958, both recorded at the Ordensaal des Schlosses.

The major works are the two Beethoven sonatas, Op. 5 (each from a separate concert) and the Mendelssohn D major, no less a favorite of Feuermann. Starker, and Piatagorsky. Hindemith might have composed his burly, feverish sonata with Hoelscher in mind, so aggressively does Hoelscher attack it, with Richter-Haaser’s having to scramble to keep up. The Pfitzner is a Brahms clone, much neglected but not without its points of lyricism and counterpoint. The Unaccompanied Sonata in D of Bach gives us an opportunity to savor the intensity of Hoelscher’s vigorous, unsentimental approach, where the opening Prelude sets the tone for the entire piece. Those who know Richter-Haaser’s understated style will appreciate his blending of colors for Dvorak and Mendelssohn, and his attempts at pointillism for the old-world Frescobaldi Toccata. This installment by Bayer is marked “Volume 8” of the Hoelscher edition, and I suggest connoisseurs check the Qualiton website for the rest of the programs.

–Gary Lemco

SCARLATTI: 3 Sonatas/BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111/CHOPIN: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35/CLEMENTI: Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 1

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano
BBC Legends BBCL 4128-2 78:58 (Distrib. Koch):

Listening to the legendary Michelangeli (1920-1995), I am reminded of Liszt’s estimation of Carl Tausig: “The infallible, with fingers of steel.” This BBC disc is culled from two recitals, 12 May 1961 (Scarlatti, Beethoven) and 10 June 1959 (Clementi, Chopin), some of which has been available on pirate editions. Collectors are always seeking out Michelangeli materials, but the fact is he narrowed his repertory to a few works traversed over and over, resembling Hofmann’s stingy programs. We do get a new Scarlatti piece, in B-flat Major, K. 172, in a quicksilver reading. And the Clementi Sonata in B-flat Major is crystalline, rivaling anything in Horowitz and even more translucent.

After a rather austere opening in the Beethoven C minor Sonata, the pace becomes increasingly blistering and driven to fever pitch. The objectivity of the playing is minimalist at times, with detached chords and non-legato phrasing that might be the envy of Glenn Gould. If presto is your tempo of choice, wait until you hear the Finale from Chopin’s eerie B-flat Minor Sonata. Michelangeli takes the first movement repeat, which adds a singular breadth to the willful figures and filigree he employs that mark every bar with his personal stamp. The Funeral March proceeds at a hair’s pace beyond andante, and the Trio receives rhythmic license that must infuriate purists. But is Chopin suffering disservice in this demoniac reading? Whether possessed or merely inspired, Michelangeli remains in a class by himself.

–Gary Lemco

BACH: Ricercare a 3 Voci, from BWV 1079; French Suite No. 4 in E-flat, BWV 815/SHOSTAKOVICH: 4 Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87/BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor , Op. 111; Andante from Sonata in G, Op. 79

Tatjana Nikolajewa, piano
Orfeo D’Or C 612031 B 71:15 (Distrib. Qualiton):

The rare appearance by Tatjana Nikolajewa (1924-1993) at the Salzburg Festival August 18, 1987 is captured on this precious disc, where her gentle and fleet approach to Bach and the contrapuntal aspects of Beethoven and Shostakovich is revealed to a select but appreciative audience. Winner of the 1950 International Bach Competition, Nikolajewa had been stereotyped a Bach specialist; but her repertory embraced the complete Beethoven sonatas and some 35 concertos. She made her Salzburg debut in 1956 in Mozart under Carl Schuricht. Her supple and hearty tone is at times triumphant, as in the concluding Gigue of the Fourth French Suite. Her intimacy in Bach comes through from her opening Ricercare from The Musical Offering.

The four excerpts from the Shostakovich Op. 87 cycle, the whole of which she had herself premiered in 1952, display a wide range of emotions and technique, with No. 14’s sounding like Liszt and No. 2’s clearly taking its cue from Bach toccatas. The A Major No. 7 is particularly liquid and luminous, a kind of condensed ecstasy and meditation on the A Major triad. Beethoven’s powerful and labyrinthine Op. 111 plays like a composite of Bach studies, but with an occasional outburst of steely drama that must have galvanized an audience lulled by the artist’s mezzo-fortes. The one encore from Beethoven’s G Major Sonata arrives in a spirit akin to Schnabel’s dictum that after Beethoven only Beethoven is appropriate. This is a special record, and collectors of musicians, and not just “pianists,” are urged to seek it out.

–Gary Lemcos

WILLIAM PRIMROSE – The Early Recordings, violin and viola (music by Bach, Saint-Saëns, Kreisler, Chopin, Purcell, Paganini and Tchaikovsky), with Iodole Menges (piano), Sidonie Goossens (harp) and Gerald Moore (piano) – Pearl GEM 0207 (68 mins.):

Fifty years ago, when I was a callow lad learning the big, bad cello, these ancient recordings by the great William Primrose would have been relatively recent, roughly speaking of the same vintage as the Pablo Casals recordings of the Bach Suites with which I grew up.

Now, however, they have become considerably more obscure and we owe Pearl a great debt of gratitude for making available some of the most elegant string playing I can remember hearing, and providing insight into an artist who became famous for my generation as “just” a violist. The high point of the violin recordings made through 1935 are a marvelous Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso of Saint-Saëns and, with Isolde Menges, an ecstatic sonata by Purcell. The viola recordings, dating from 1934 and 1935, start off with a dazzling pair of Paganini caprices and include a gorgeous Ave Maria of Schubert.

As always, Tully Potter’s liner notes (worth the price oaf admission themselves) help to recreate the world in which this wonderful music was being made, from his wide and detailed historical perspective to his poetic account of Primrose’s revolutionary style: “From the start [Primrose] was aiming at a new kind of playing—limber and athletic, with a fair amount of tenor tone but even more alto sonority, revealing a whole range of colours in the viol’s middle register.”

Roger Beardsley’s miraculous transfers enable the sound of Primrose’s instruments to shine through the inevitable surface noise with a sense of burnished beauty as if they were aural equivalent of Rembrandt’s great Biblical paintings, raising profound questions about the nature of sound and how its essential nature can be preserved even in sound of such antiquated vintage.

– Laurence Vittes

RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 13; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14

Evgeny Svetlanov conducts USSR Symphony Orchestra
Moscow Studio Archives MOS2001 56:18 (Distrib. Allegro):

Recorded in 1966, this disc is No. 1 in the “Svetlanov Edition” celebrating the art of Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), the composer-conductor who spent a considerable time assembling “The Anthology of Russian Music” for discophiles. In strong sound, this performance of young Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, a fiasco when it premiered in 1897, has an assertive lyricism its score demands. While my first impression of this music came to me via Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia, this version has the echt Russian feel to it that the USSR achieves through its strings and brass. The long-line Vocalise, here played with enough repeats to keep it going, urges us to languor and mystery. The disc runs a bit short, so I miss having a Prince Rostislav or The Crag as a solid filler. Glad to have this one, though.

–Gary Lemco

BACH: Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068/MOZART: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro; Symphony No. 33 in B-flat, K. 319/DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World“/TCHAIKOVSKY: Suite No. 4 in G, Op. 61 “Mozartiana

Vaclav Talich conducts Czech Philharmonic (Dvorak) and Slovak Philharmonic
TAHRA TAH 518/519 42:44; 62:07:

A major addition to the discography of the great Vaclav Talich (1883-1961), this set restores the extremely elusive Fourth Suite of Tchaikovsky, recorded June 7, 1950 with the Slovak Philharmonic, of which Talich was a founder. Considering the relatively brief duration of the discs, I am surprised Tahra did not include the Song Without words in F, Op. 2, No. 2 that Talich recorded June 20 and the Andante cantabile arrangement he made 18 June 1950. Those were stressful days for Talich, according to both Ivan Moravec and Charles Mackerras, when Talich was harassed by the Soviets, allowed to conduct for export, but forbidden a work card and any regular conducting tours.

The Dvorak New World is from his 1941 sessions at the National Theater of Prague, again under the pressure of Nazi occupation. The performance is rather tightlipped, made for the Czech branch of His Master’s Voice, the first of three versions of this work. There is an aggressive quality to the playing absent from the 1954 account that all collectors of Parliament LP’s knew. The Bach and Mozart performances are taken from Multisonic tapes, issued as part of Supraphon tributes to the Czech Philhamonic’s hundredth birthday. The Bach Suite, played without repeats, dates from June 19, 1950; while the Mozart Figaro Overture is from June 20, the Symphony in B-flat recorded between middle May and June 21, 1950.  Mozart was a major composer in Talich’s oeuvre, but his recordings are destitute of his fondness of Mozart opera. The playing has an almost religious fervor, the conductor obviously aware of the limits of human politics and human mortality. The extensive discography of commercial recordings included in the booklet adds to the valedictory character of this fine production.

–Gary Lemco

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