❧ Play On ❧ One collector’s connections with the classics on records

by | Apr 1, 2006 | Special Features | 0 comments

Why listen to, collect, and fuss over music and sound gear? What is this all about? I reflect lots about this as I move through this life. Just what am I doing buying my 13th recording of the Vivaldi Four Seasons; 12th of Scheherazade; fifth of the Hindemith violin concerto? How can I spend  thousands on this year’s preamp? “If  Music be the food of Love.. play on ..Give me excess of it…” Let me tell you the Four Seasons I speak of. It is First Impressions Music SACD 052 recorded by the Sonatori de la Giosa Marca at San Viglia Italy, March 10th 1992. It is  quite simply the most exciting, magnificently recorded unpredictable, spontaneous performance/recording of the overworked Vivaldi Four Seasons that I have  encountered.  It is quite literally “like a live performance” – evoking uncontrollable wows! along the way .      

Unpredictable? Yes this is one of the prime characteristics which hooked me 50 years ago on classical music. There are risks galore in this reading of The Four Seasons -risks comparable to throwing a change-up on a 3 and 2 count with the bases loaded. The violins not only chirp but also chirrup and chortle during the Spring segment. There is an unmistakable sense of improvisation about this performance. Risks are a significant component of what I find startling about music. The fact that one can find a dozen or more comparably played – no – excellently played, but similar recordings of a work like the Four Seasons or Scheherezade and then come across the FIM Four Seasons and the Decca Ansermet  L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) 1961 Scheherazade(443 464-2) leads one to remember “God’s in his heaven–All’s right with the World.” Scheherazade has been called with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony a warhorse. I suppose this relates to a well-worn, well-traveled, predictably reliable means of transportation. Unfortunately the description also connotes a well-worn, often hackneyed piece that has been played literally to death.    

From the opening bars of the Ansermet OSR Scheherazade the listener finds anything but the well-worn and hackneyed. This is the essence of a freshly conceived performance. L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (I still love to announce this orchestra on the air) absolutely shimmers with Rimski’s orchestral colors. The recorded sound is gorgeous. This fairy-tale Scheherazade is just that portrayed by Maestro Ansermet who led the OSR for over 40 years and whose  legacy includes reference recordings of Stravinsky, Honegger, Bach and Beethoven, not to mention a wonderful set of the Haydn Paris Symphonies. The Suisse Romande, while not sharing the precision or tonal splendor of The Cleveland, Philadelphia or other major US orchestras, was able with uncanny accuracy to convey the interpretative vision of M. Ansermet whose formidable intellect and legendary musical ideals permeate his recordings.    

On the Swiss Cascavelle label Radio Suisse Romande has issued archived performances of the OSR/ Ansermet. These are unique. In good 50s-60s mono sound is the Berg Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist (VEL 2003).This is the most intelligently-conceived, clearly-presented performance of the Berg. It is chamber-like, reflective of this most personal of great 20th-century violin concertos. The Bach Cantata “O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort” which serves as the basis for the concerto is never far from the core idea of Berg’s “to the memory of an Angel” (Manon Gropius – who died at age 18 of a sudden and rapidly-fatal disease). M. Ansermet has written the authoritative notes for the concerto, and they illuminate this reference recording. It is a must for lovers of this genre and of all music.    

Recognition, recollection, familiarity are a few of the notable experiences music provides. My familiarity with Petrouchka of Stravinsky began with the  London FFRR recording of the early 50s. L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande led by Ernest Ansermet provided the clarity of very early, but very good mono sound which cried for a good sound system to do it justice. EV corner horn enclosures with University 12″ coax speakers, a friend-made Williamson 30W amplifier and the nearly 100 hours construction which went into my surprisingly successful completion of the Lafayette Radio Master Control Center with the equalization settings required to accurately reproduce London (LP/AES), Columbia (LP/LP) and the ultimate winnah in the equalization sweepstakes: RCA (RIAA/RIAA) comprised my first homemade gear. The Lafayette was an unnecessarily complex preamp which used seven 12AX7s and functioned relatively hum free and clean for about 30 years. Most importantly L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande became a brilliant dynamic vehicle for my entry into the musical world of Igor Stravinsky. Geneva’s Victoria Hall had an ambiance which was my first soundstage for orchestral music.    

In the 60s CS9016, Ansermet’s stereo rendering of Petrouchka was issued. It had SOTA sound–and still does! It remains my reference recording for this seminal early 20th century masterwork. For me, Stravinsky took his adult steps with Petrouchka.

I recently acquired the Decca 8-CD set of most of Igor’s orchestral music plus the Symphony of Psalms, Les Noces, Renard, L’histoire et.al. It is really something special. If you want to get to know Stravinsky through billiantly conceived, well-recorded performances by the master Ernest Ansermet with the OSR, I cannot recommend this set highly enough.    

The notion of sound gear recreating the live musical experience seems to me at odds with the reasons we seek the kinetic, transient, unpredictable nature of witnessing a live performance which cannot be anything but unique.Yet,this quest for realism persists.What is the purpose of “high end” audio equipment? Surely monies are better (and less) spent by committing to subscription concerts of the nearby symphony orchestra and/or chamber music series found at the university or church setting. To experience a live performance is a rare phenomenon.
Part of the joy of collecting recorded music is the quest. It is seeking the unusual in music, performance or recording. If a recording is difficult to find, is exemplary in sound and in performance, and is a bargain in price, one has drawn a hand of all aces.

On the website broinc.com is found the catalog of the Berkshire Record Exchange. This is a fabulous repository of unusual classical recordings – many of which are great bargains. Such a recording is the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) CD containing three excellent 20th century violin concertos. These are The Violin Concerto by Frank Martin, the 2nd Violin Concerto of Darius Milhaud and the Barber Violin Cocerto. These are gorgeously performed by the Australian, Julliard-trained violinist, Dene Olding, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki (ABC Classics 8.77000 4).    

The Martin and Milhaud concertos are fine examples of mid-twentieth-century non-serial compositions for violin and symphony orchestra. There is adequate melody and sufficient edginess to create enough sense of anticipation that the listener becomes imbedded within these works. The Martin in particular, I find compelling, as it has many similarities to this composer’s orchestral writing from his opera The Tempest.    

The Violin Concerto of Samuel Barber is a masterpiece. Barber’s music has been called Romantic. If by this it is meant that it is lushly melodic and capable of evoking powerful emotional responses, then this description is most apt. I am familiar with three other recordings of the Barber. Those by Stern, Silverstein and Shaham. Each of them is a most worthy performance of this rhapsodic concerto. The Dene Olding performance, however, captures the complete range of this magnificent work. The Melbourne Symphony under Hiroyuki Iwaki provides vibrant renderings of the wonderful orchestral parts. The second movement’s lengthy oboe solo is perfomed flawlessly with great poignancy by the Melbourne’s principal oboe. The recorded sound is extremely wide range and provides a most natural soundscape. This recording is available for now at broinc.com for $2.99! It is a glorious recording of three major twentieth century violin concertos performed with great elan and committment.

While the discovery of new music may be fresh and exciting, the recollection of a familiar piece of music may verge on epiphany based upon the circumstances associated with it. It is welcoming dear old and trusted friends, who have built a structure of associations along the way.

As a twenty year old I underwent U.S. Army basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I felt isolated, terribly homesick, and generally at sea during boot camp. The days were eighteen hours long literally, and the nine weeks seemed endless. I discovered the Fort Knox library during my third weekend there. These were my first free hours out of barracks. The library contained a small collection of classical LP records with a basic turntable and headphones. There was my great old friend the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor  transcribed and performed with inimitable panache by Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphians.
As a fifteen year old I had seen Ormandy conduct this in Baltimore where The Philadelphia performed ten times yearly. That concert had galvanized me to undertake a self- taught program of musical education. The Philadelphia Orchestra had joined Rudolf Serkin for the Brahms Second Piano Concerto and had concluded the program with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I was dazzled. But the sound that orchestra created for the Bach-Ormandy Passacaglia and Fugue was unique and indelible and remains clearly within my consciousness today. I likely shortened significantly the playing life of that Columbia ML 4797 vinyl.

I went to that library every chance possible and played the hell out of those Bach and Handel Ormandy transcriptions. The sound was pretty dreadful from those headphones, but the sound within my head was the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra whose tonal sheen had been amplified many times by my imagination since that concert in Baltimore five years earlier. ML 4797 gets much credit for getting me through basic training intact.

Thirty-five years later one Friday morning in May, I sat alone in darkened Severance Hall in Cleveland. I had been invited to attend a rehearsal of the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph Von Dohnanyi. I felt like Prince Esterhazy enjoying his court orchestra perform Maestro Haydn’s newest symphony. Only this was the Cleveland Orchestra and I was the only non-orchestral person in the hall. The experience was magical – particularly when I was shown on stage during the intermission. The orchestra members were in place as I was led to the podium by the orchestra manager. Directly in front of me sat principal cellist Stephen Geber. He smiled and gestured to me “Are you going to conduct now?’’ I  grinned and bounded off the stage back to the safety of my seat.

The rehearsal was a replica of what followed that evening. This concert was prime Dohnanyi: Music from Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner, the Hindemith Violin Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmerman, Liszt  Les Preludes and Varese Integrales. I was dazzled by the virtuosity and sheer beauty of the Cleveland sound. I had been familiar with Les Preludes since it was used as a backdrop for the adventures of The Lone Ranger via WXYZ Detroit in the 1940s. It never sounded like this. Not even the legendary Mengelberg/Concertgebouw recording conveyed the drama with such gorgeous phrasing and sound. The Hindemith Violin concerto and the Pfitzner Palestrina pieces have become regular favorites while the memory of that rehearsal/concert continues to provide great joy  and alas, regret at muffing my chance to conduct one of the world’s great orchestras. “Come with us now thru the pages of history”….(hoofbeats) “Heigh O Silver!”……The Lone Ranger rides again.

As exciting as live music can be a new recording of an offbeat musical selection by an established artist is always provocative. There is a sense of adventure and an assumption of risk when the well-respected classical artist strays from the standard repertory.

Ann-Sophie Mutter debuted with Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic at age 13. Her performances and recordings of the great violin repertory of the 18th and 19th centuries are considered within the very top echelon of achievement. It is with the twentieth-century concerto masterpieces that Anne-Sophie Mutter has achieved an even loftier position. Her performances of the Sibelius, Berg and Lutaslawski concertos are considered second to none.

In 1997 Andre Previn composed Tango Song and Dance as a set of lighthearted virtuoso pieces for Anne-Sophie Mutter.” The two were recently married. The DG  CD (B0000058-02) was released last year. It contains, in addition to the Previn piece, Three Hungarian Dances by Brahms, Three Pieces for violin with piano by Kreisler and the Faure Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Op.13 all with Lambert Orkis, piano.  Andre Previn is the pianist in his Tango Song and Dance and in the Heifitz transcription of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The violin playing is sensational! Anne-Sophie Mutter’s intonation is flawless.This is an eclectic collection of pieces. Ms. Mutter adapts her phrasing and tone so characteristically to portray not only the essence of each selection but also all of the trappings – the ambiance of pieces as diverse in style as the Brahms and Gershwin. The recordings were made in 2001-2002 at the Herkulessaal in Munich. The air around the violin and piano, the placement of the instruments within a sizeable space, the sweetness and solidity of sound is all present. This is a beautifully rendered violin/piano disc which I return to frequently. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Attention to and intimate involvement with classical music has become a vital and progressively compelling part of my life as time has passed. What was fascination and curiosity as a young man is now a maturing understanding of the beauty of music based upon life-long experience and ever-increasing familiarity with this most wondrous of arts. Music is more than enriching. It can be galvanizing, soul-stirring, and capable of a life-expanding role.

 — Ronald  Legum      




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