November 2004, Pt. 1 of 2 [Pt. 2]
BEETHOVEN: Piano Variations
John Ogden, piano
Emil Gilels, piano (Op. 76)
EMI Classics 7243 5 85761 2 69:16; 75:44****:
John Ogden (1937-1989) recorded the lion’s share of these thirteen sets of variations in 1969, works Beethoven wrote mainly in the period 1790-1800, when he used tunes from other composers’ operas as springboards for his touring reputation as a brilliant keyboard improviser. All but the Op. 76 set composed on Beethoven’s own “Turkish” theme in D (1809) are without opus number, although their relatively youthful composition does not belie their invention, some of which are quite ambitious. For example, Beethoven’s 24 variations on Righini’s arietta Venni amore, WoO 65 (1791) are decorative and virtuosic, applying to the piano legato and singing qualities that would later illuminate his own sonatas. The WoO 73, 10 Variations on the duet La stessa, la stessissima, from Salieri’s opera Falstaff, pay homage to one of Beethoven’s teachers and point to refinements well beyond Salieri’s imagination. The 32 Variations in C Minor, WoO 80 (1806) are perhaps the most notable of the sets from the period, rife with Handelian modulations worthy of the Emperor Concerto, Violin Concerto and Fidelio, the major products of this fertile period. Emil Gilels (1916-1985) recorded the zesty Op. 76 Variations in May, 1968, and the performance served as filler for the concerto set with George Szell. For the admirer of sheer pianistic dexterity, as well as for an insight into the burgeoning facilities of a creative genius, these variations that range from the topical to the jingoistic assertions of the British Empire, make for riveting listening. Formidable.
Caruso in Great Opera Arias: Amor Ti Vieta – Digitally re-engineered works. Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gottfried Rabl, conductor. RCA Red Seal 82876625182, 56:07 ****:
Call me a dilettante, but I can’t help it. I’m strongly attracted to these Caruso recreations. I loved Caruso 2000 and Caruso: Italian Songs, partly because I was dazzled by audio technologies that can extract a singer from his briar patch of 78 rpm hiss, then transport him to an orchestra 100 years in the future. Caruso: Amor ti vieta is a collection of the singer’s acoustic recordings (made between 1902 and 1913). I think it works on several levels. First, the shock of the new. After the quaintness veneer wears off, old acoustic recordings become tiresome. Amor Ti Vieta places the singer in a fresh context where you can critically evaluate his voice. You can hear when he is transitioning from a bel canto to a verismo style, or even combining the two.
Then there is the level of the downright peculiar. Against a modern orchestral backdrop, Caruso sounds like he’s hovering eight feet above the stage like a phantom. (Perhaps he is.) The effect is so persistent that it’s a kick playing it to your friends, purists and technophiles alike. It’s like seeing Woody Allen standing next to Hitler in Zelig. Finally, there is the level of ingenuity and attention to detail. Caruso didn’t get ideal musicians to accompany him into the recording booth. Intimidated by a newfangled gadget, they played too slowly or missed cues. So Rabl’s musicians had to occasionally miss beats to follow Enrico. I always attributed the slow tempo of his acoustic Ora per sempre addio (Otello) to primitive technology, but hearing the same pace from a modern orchestra is pleasantly unsettling. Finally, there’s the aesthetic element. Rather than distant interest, I felt beauty in his articulation of Una furtive Lagrima (L’Elisir d’amore). Isn’t that the best litmus test?
— Peter Bates
WEBER: Der Freischuetz Overture/SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “Great”/BRITTEN: The Building of the House Overture, Op. 79
Carlo Maria Giulini conducts New Philharmonia Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra (Schubert)
BBC Legends BBCL 4140-2 73:13 (Distrib. Koch)****:
One of several 90th anniversary tributes to conductor Carlo Maria Giulini (b. 1914), this BBC offering culls three distinct moments from his appearances at Royal Festival Hall. The big work, Schubert’s C Major Symphony, comes from 14 May 1975, and reveals a particularly lithe, transparent and lyrically muscular approach, with lovely response in the London Philharmonic winds, brass and strings. The openness of the playing has something of Karl Boehm’s readings, but here with a clearly Italian character. The opening Overture to Der Freischuetz, from 13 December 1970 provides a darker, more Furtwaengler-inspired side of Giulini’s musical make-up, with brooding, long-held luftpausen and dramatic arches. Giulini has held a special place for the music of Benjamin Britten, having given as I recall a fine reading of Les Illuminations from Chicago. The performance from 16 January 1968 of the ceremonial Overture to the Building of the House, with the New Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, provides a lush and stately dimension to what does not seem to me all that powerful a piece, its debts to Beethoven’s Op. 124 notwithstanding. What we do hear are wonderful, resilient textures from chorus and instrumental players, a kind of shimmering hospitality of mind that sends an electric current through the appreciative audience. The 3-minute interview between Alan Haydock and Giulini is much too brief: Guilini speaks with affection of having played 12th viola under Bruno Walter for the Brahms C Minor Symphony; and even there, he felt that each player found encouragement to communicate something personal to the whole. The commitment to bring hope and love to the scores he plays dominates Giulini’s ethos.
MOZART: String Quartet in C, K. 465; String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516; Quintet in E-flat for Horn, Violin, 2 Violas and Cello, K. 407
Max Gilbert, viola
Dennis Brain, horn
Dutton CDBP 9717 74:21 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi)****:
Inscriptions 1944-1948 with the suave Griller Quartet and the music of Mozart, featuring a two superb quintet collaborations. The G Minor Quintet is among the treasures of the chamber music medium, with two adagios, the first of which is played on muted strings and has an elegant part for the second viola. The music gravitates between B-flat Minor and B-flat Major in a way that is uneffable, even for Mozart. The second Adagio surpasses the first for eerie beauty. Although there are some shrill moments in the rather tight-lipped account of November 1948, it still shimmers and sings most effectively.
Dennis Brain (1921-1957) remains the epitome of elegant horn playing in the French-British school which he inherited naturally. His 1944 reading of the K. 407 is light, breezy and deft, with tremendous delicacy of execution in staccato and running passages. Max Gilbert, viola, was the lead for the Boyd Neel Orchestra, then principal for Walter Legge’s Philharmonia Orchestra. His fine playing graces the Griller’s work in the G Minor Quintet and the Horn Quintet. The K. 465 C Major reading comes from 1949. Purists will frown at some of the liberties taken with Mozart’s tempo and dynamic indications, but the performance flows stylishly. What sells the reading is the lustrous tone the aggregate ensemble achieves – a uniform, clean, homogenous patina that has no rough edges.
GRIEG: 6 Poetic Pictures, Op. 3/BARTOK: Burlesques, Op. 8/LISZT: 6 Consolations/BABADJANIAN: 4 Pictures/STILL: “Kaintuck,” Poem for Two Pianos
Seta Karakashian, piano
Richard Field, piano (Still)
Romeo Records 7227 68:44**:
Under the aegis “Rarely Performed Piano Works,” Juilliard virtuoso Seta Karakashian plays some lovely music, the Grieg Op. 3 and Liszt Consolations; and she plays with plenty of fingers and plenty of feeling. Unfortunately, only the Grieg pieces receive anything like a pleasant piano tone-reproduction on this CD; after band six these works, performed in live recital, suffer all kinds of acoustic distortion–flutter, wow, pitch variation–that distract us from the musical, experimental dimensions of the playing. Upon more thorough consideration, we find that these pieces have not suffered benign neglect: the Grieg have had Knardahl and Gilels; the Liszt, Bolet and Magaloff; the Bartok, Gyorgy Sandor and Zoltan Koscis. So. It boils down to two composers, Babadjanian (1921-1983) and Still (1895-1978), who receive some new light. William Grant Still’s “Kaintuck” is a bluesy piece he wrote in 1935 while aboard a train passing through the Bluegrass State. With easy strides and some Gershwinesque harmony, the piece has a kind of Hollywood aura with only occasional episodes of darker possibilities. It is a colorful, moody piece, worthy of the elegant sounds Karakashian and the late Richard Fields coax from the keyboards. The 1965 serial music of Armenian Arno Babadjanian is percussive and superficially folksy, an academic’s attempt at Bartok and Kodaly via the Second Viennese School. The bad sound of the recording did not help either.
George London 1953 = MOZART: 5 Arias from Le Nozze di Figaro; 3 Concert Arias/VERDI: Aida: Ciel, mio padre/BORODIN: No Sleep, No Rest from Prince Igor/WAGNER: Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walkuere
Astrid Varnay, soprano (Verdi)
Bruno Walter conducts CBS Orchestra (Mozart)
Hermann Weigert conducts Bavarian Radio Orchestra
Preiser 90580 71:16 (Distrib. Albany)****:
A tribute to the remarkable talent of bass-baritone George London (1919-1985), whose 1949 appearance in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in Lohengrin and Aida with Set Svanholm marked the modest beginnings of an illustrious career. Record collectors will recall CBS ML 4699, the all-Mozart recital that provided the complement to an earlier disc by London entitled Of Gods and Demons, with music by Wagner, Moussorgsky, and Darghomizky. Prior to his recording contract with CBS, London had been part of the Belcanto Trio with Frances Yeend and Mario Lanza, until Lanza jumped at Hollywood’s beckoning. It was in 1950 that London portrayed Count Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Salzburg; he then scored a triumph as Amonasro in Aida with his resonant and voluminous voice, a singing intellect of high caliber, matched by a deep sense of color in various languages. His 1960 performance as Boris Gudonov in Russia marked a major breakthrough, since he became the first non-Russian to sing this sacred role. London was in Cologne in 1963, but one of his vocal cords was stricken with paralysis, and he announced his retirement at age 47.
The two sessions that appear on this Preiser disc derive from the CBS recordings of May 7-8, 1953, and a live broadcast from Bavaria 3 October 1953. London and Walter prove a decisive Mozart collaboration, with Walter’s accompanying on cembalo in the dry recitatives. The Se viol ballare and La vendetta have wonderful intonation and malice diluted by cosmic wit. The Non piu andrai achieves a martial bounce and pungent delivery that makes London a natural successor to the bel canto we had with Walter and Ezio Pinza. Cellist George Neikrug provides a lovely obbligato for the concert aria Per questa bella mano, K. 612. From the Radio Bavaria we hear London and Varnay in a grand duet; my personal favorites are the latter inclusions from the live broadcast: first, the Borodin, in Russian, with a diction and lyrical drama rivaling the work done by Christoff and Rossi-Lemeni. The Lebwohl, du kuehnes is herculean in breadth; we are in the presence of a true Wagnerian in the manner of Hermann Uhde and Hans Hotter. The orchestral patina under Weigert has the energy and drama of some of those Westphalian talents like Klemperer, with huge arches and shimmering strings and horns. For the admirer of George London, this album is a perfect starting place.