June 2004, Pt. 1 of 2 [Pt. 2]
CHOPIN: 13 Etudes; Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23; Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35; 3 Mazurkas; Valse in A-flat, Op. 34, No. 1
Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Testament SBT 1335 73:52 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
The Testament reissue of the 1950-1952 Geneva-based Chopin recordings by Wilhelm Backhaus (1885-1969) is the same Decca set of inscriptions prior licensed to Ermitage (ERM 186-2) in 1996. While Backhaus admirers rarely cite Chopin as his strong suit, they are not loathe to mention his 1928 set of the complete Chopin etudes that appeared on EMI LP transfers. The master of a huge, splendid technique, Backhaus could certainly play Chopin with polish and finesse, if not the poetry of affect the natives of the style call “zal.” There is something prosaic about the directness of the approach, although I find the lilt in the A-flat Waltz attractive and unaffected. His attacks in the D-flat Mazurka, Op. 30, No. 3 do not blaze like Michelangeli’s, but Backhaus’ gradations of color and rhythmic inflection are there for us to savor. The knotty, neapolitan Ballade in G Minor is all business, perhaps a bit glibly played but solid as a rock. I find the second subject o! f the eponymous Funeral March quite pointed and unhurried, with lovely syncopations and beauty of tone in the upper registers. The Etude in E Major from Op. 10 is made to stand alone, and it has a girth and majesty reminiscent of Arrau’s playing. Backhaus’ span is spacious enough to encompass the left-hand stretches in the A-flat Op. 25 Etude to keep its “Aeolian harp” sonority continuous and flowing, despite some overly heavy staccato punctuations in the right hand. The light hand is there for the F Minor and F Major Op. 25 etudes; and I would wager anyone’s not knowing Backhaus were playing would not suggest him as a happy candidate for the glitter and studied ritards he provides. True, some Teutonism sneaks into Op. 25, Nos. 7 and 11, but the articulation is always secure and the sense of complete control is never in doubt. A different brand of Chopin but worth keeping.
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39/RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34/TCHAIKOVSKY: Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3 in G Major, Op. 55
John Barbirolli conducts New York Philharmonic
Dutton CDSJB 1025 66:35 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi):
Dutton, once again with the collaboration of the Sir John Barbirolli Society, has reissued Volume I of the CBS Masters John Barbirolli recorded with the New York Philharmonic, inscriptions made 1940-1942. I must say at the outset that rarely have I heard such stunning aural presence from remastered shellacs from this period, especially from CBS, whose surfaces were notoriously noisy. Except for a bit of surface swish in the Andante of the Sibelius E Minor, the sounds are virtually seamless, allowing us to hear nuances and orchestral definition not present in the old Entre LPs that first instantiated the long-play version of these performances.
The quality of the playing by the Philharmonic was the big issue in the early part of Barbirolli’s tenure with “Murder, Incorporated,” as the New York ensemble was affectionately called. After the departure of Arturo Toscanini, invidious comparisons, especially from critic Olin Downes, were the order of the day. But if these shellacs are worthy testimony, the affection and electric sympathy of orchestra and conductor were palpably high-spirited: witness the sizzling heat of Michel Piastro’s violin soli in the Rimsky-Korsakov, and the beautiful interplay of violin, viola, horn, and harp in the aforementioned Andante from the Sibelius E Minor Symphony, with its chordal harmonies’ providing Bernard Hermann with all the sonic ammunition he would need for his film scores.
The Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius derive from the same sessions in early August 1942, when wartime restrictions on recording were already a factor. That Barbirolli was permitted to make records of essentially new (that is, non-Toscanini) repertory is a blessing we must enjoy while we can. The immediate communication of Barbirolli’s enthusiasm for all of these pieces is apparent in every bar, the Sibelius’ standing the test of time with a vigor and muscularity that is nothing less than startling. The legato passage work is no less broad and effusive than it is lithe and flexible in the rhythms. Only the Tchaikovsky suffers a bit of hollow reverberation at the opening, but after one accepts the sound quality, the individual choirs and the relatively fast tempos fall into logical place. I can only hope the subsequent editions of the Barbirolli NY Philharmonic legacy are as pungent and sonically faithful as this marvelous release.
BEETHOVEN: Christus am Oelberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Op. 85
Cristina Deuterkom, soprano
Nicolai Gedda, tenor
Hans Sotin, bass
Volker Wangenheim conducts Bonn Philharmonic and Choir
EMI “Encore” 5 85687 2 55:20:
Beethoven composed his oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, for performance at the Theater an der Wien in 1803, while at the same time he worked on his Mass in C Major, Op. 86. Liturgical music fascinated Beethoven at the time; likely, he was already sketching aspects of his Missa Solemnis. Highly dramatic in structure and in the arrangement of Christ’s meditations in the Garden of Gethsemane on his conscious decisions to be martyred, the writing seems to echo Mozart’s The Magic Flute, especially in the breadth and tessitura for the soprano part. The forceful, vocal style is equally compelling for the tenor part, here effectively rendered by the great Swedish artist, Nicolai Gedda in a recording from 1970. His opening recitative and aria are splendid. The chorus doubles as disciples and soldiers; while the part of Peter (Hans Sotin) enters late, offering to take up the mantle of Christ as his living voice after the Crucifixion. I did not know the voice of Cristina Deuterkom, but I am not surprised that other collectors who know her recommend her Queen of the Night. Under the able direction of Volker Wangenheim, the whole oratorio bespeaks a human struggle on an epic scale, a secularized search for spiritual meaning in a world riveted in materialism and doubt. Controversial in its own day, Beethoven’s treatment still manages to engage us and to get our musical blood pumping.
BERLIOZ: Romeo & Juliet–Dramatic Symphony, Op. 17; Scenes 6-7 from The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24
Gladys Swarthout, soprano
John Gaddis, tenor
Nicola Moscona, bass
Mack Harrell, baritone (The Damnation of Faust)
Arturo Toscanini conducts NBC Symphony and Chorus
Guild GHCD 2218/2220 79: 02; 77:43; 71:50 (Distrib. Albany):
Guild has reissued one of the more remarkable Toscanini documents, the all-Berlioz concerts of February 9, 1947 and February 16, 1947, which include the complete Romeo et Juliette Symphony and an extended interlude from The Damnation of Faust, where Mephistopheles entices Faust to dream of Marguerite, followed by the voices and dances of the sylphs and gnomes. Significantly, we have the complete rehearsal sessions as well, where Toscanini hones the orchestra and soloists into his own vision of a score he loved and respected deeply, and whose revival he almost single-handedly championed in the United States.
As early as 1896 Toscanini had expressed interest in the Romeo and Juliet Symphony, and he had already run into opposition to the mounting of a performance, due to the composer’s lack of popularity. After numerous programs of Berlioz’ overtures and the Queen Mab section of the Romeo score, Toscanini (along with Beecham and Mitropoulos) had instilled, by 1945, some healthy respect for Berlioz’ oeuvre, and so the 1947 broadcast became feasible. Gladys Swarthout, who had suffered a broken knee prior to the 9 February performance, sings with a remarkable lightness and buoyancy. I did not know John Garris prior to his fleet reunion of the Queen Mab aria from Mercutio. Toscanini keeps the whole symphony moving at an inexorable pace, but with no loss of the sustained, unfolding crescendo that marks Romeo’s solo scene, his entry to the Capulets’ feast, and the love-scene, which Toscanini called “the most beautiful of all.” To hear Toscanini rehearse the fete-sequence (No. 26 of the rehearsal score) and its tricky fugato of high strings and violas is a wonder of orchestral discipline and response. The tomb-scene, in which Romeo enters the “dead” Juliet’s vault and defies Paris, is ghoulish in its dissonances and metric disjunctions.
One could spend limitless ink (or bytes) on Toscanini’s lean, concentrated propulsion throughout this rich score, so objective does it seem to me, raised on the Monteux/Munch tradition of Romeo and Juliet. And while I did own the RCA commercial inscription from 1951, the visceral, even raw energy of this 1947 broadcast seems superior, in spite of some points of distant micing. The clarity of Berlioz’ coloristic polyphony–winds, harp, battery– never ceases to astonish. The tympani parts, too, seem to rise above the ordinary under Toscanini’s care. Nicola Moscona, known for his appearances in Boito for Toscanini and his heavy intonations in the Stokowski rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, makes splendid, dramatic sense of the long declamation of Friar Laurence to heal the warring families of Verona. Mack Harrell’s contribution to Mephistopheles’ lulling aria is a studied combination of grace and malice. A pity The Maestro never recorded the whole of this Dramatic Legend, which he always admired. Here, one month before his 80th birthday, the old man is busy singing, cajoling, even browbeating his players: “We are fresh, no? We are not tired?” I urge collectors to hasten and to pick up this remarkable Berlioz document.
SCHUBERT: Fantasia in F Minor, D. 940, for Piano, Four Hands; Andantino varie, Op. 81, No. 1/MOZART: Sonata in D Major, K. 448 for 2 Pianos; Andante and Variations in G Major, K. 501/FAURE: Dolly Suite, Op. 56
Robert Casadesus and Gaby Casadesus, pianos
Sony 5033982 63:20:
One of some twenty Sony CD’s issued as part of the Casadesus Series, this disc celebrates the ravishing duo created by husband-and-wife Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) and Gaby l’Hote Casadesus (1901-1999) in recordings made 1952-1954. At the 1950 suggestion of conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, son Jean joined the ensemble so they could perform the Bach and Casadesus Triple Concertos. On Sony Special Import, these Casadesus Edition discs have not been easy to obtain, but their intrinsic musical value, as well as the fact that I studied with their son Jean (d. 1972), motivates my covering this item in my survey of historic reissues. The brunt of the program, excluding the Faure, occupied one CBS LP (ML 5046), dominated by the magnificent rendition of Schubert’s F Minor Fantasia, one his archetypal, one-movement works that subdivides into four sections, as does his Wanderer Fantasy, Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, and Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. The Andantino variants are certainly Schubert’s homage to Mozart, but they have their own pathos which is both intimate and troubled.
The combination of sonorous finesse and virile power is such from this duo that no one could know who plays which part without having asked: I did, and Robert leads in the F Minor Fantasia. The diaphanous alternates with the monumental so far as dynamic range is concerned; one truly “harmonic” moment occurs in the fourth variant from the Mozart K. 501 taped in 1954. The Mozart K. 448 has had many proponents, including Artur Balsam, Geza Anda, Clara Haskil, Benjamin Britten, Sviatoslav Richter, and Daniel Barenboim. The Casadesus keep the piece moving without losing the light touch and the big architecture. The Faure has appeared on American Sony as part of an all-French assemblage of four-hand music. Faure’s Dolly comes of the same sensibility as Debussy’s Children’s Corner, and it has a fluent and ingenuous carriage that bespeaks an eternal sense of youth. Transparency of texture and a high, melodic gloss mark this superb rendition. My only quibble is with the liner timings and dates, which misinform us on Faure (1845-1924) and give incorrect timings on the Dolly Suite. The performances, however, defy translation.
THE GREAT VIOLINISTS: Volume XIX, Beethoven Violin Sonatas – Jenö Léner and Louis Kentner (Op. 30 No. 1, rec. 1939). Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff (Op. 30 No. 3, rec. 1928). Adila Fachiri and Donald Tovey (Op. 96, rec. ?1927) – Symposium 1312 (66 mins.):
If this at first seems like another in an interminable series of historical reissues of mostly obscure violinists, take another, very close look. For this is the only recorded example of the work of Sir Donald Tovey who, until recently, may have been for American and British music critics the 20th century’s single most influential writer.
If you fancy yourself an audiophile, and you’re not familiar with Tovey, you ought to be. Not because he had any particular interest in the art of recording, but because his extraordinary ability to describe musical events was combined with an ability to integrate the inner workings of sophisticated technical concepts like sonata form. If you can develop the same skill in describing the recording process and outcome, you will be able to think both more profoundly and analytically about what makes great sound. Most of Tovey’s writing, including the six volumes of his famous Essays in Musical Analysis (most of which were written as program notes for the Reid Orchestral Concerts he conducted at the University of Edinburgh), is out of stock at the publisher, but used copies seem to be available at reasonable prices through Amazon.
Tovey’s playing, as one might expect of a musician who was shaped by an association with the great violinist Joseph Joachim, is wonderfully plastic, quick to surge and relax, and full of restrained emotion. It sounds like what you want Tovey to have played like: Not one academic note in the whole performance! The lovely contribution of Adila Fachiri, a niece and student of Joachim, is quite touching (she and her famous sister, Jelly d’Arányi, were the dedicatees of Holst’s double violin concerto). The Léner/Kentner performance is fine (Léner was leader of the great Léner quartet, founded in 1919) and the Kreisler/Rachmaninoff is a known quantity (distinguished but missing the point).
The transfers, which are very clean (although there is intermittent surface noise in the Fachiri/Tovey recording) and remarkably alive, respond well to higher volume. The unnamed liner note writer covers the biographical ground well and seems to know his stuff about where and why the six artists fit into the evolution of the modern musical world. Very strongly recommended (and if you’re interested, Symposium 1115 contains the world premiere performance from 1934, and the only recording ever, of Tovey’s huge, neo-Brahmsian Cello Concerto, played by its dedicatee Pablo Casals and the BBC Symphony conducted by Adrian Boult).
– Laurence Vittes
The Art of Julius Katchen, Vol. 2 = BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major,Op. 58; Choral Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 80/MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, K. 415; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466; Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503; Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331
Julius Katchen, piano
Peter Maag conducts New Symphony of London (K. 415)
Piero Gamba conducts London Symphony and LSO Chorus
Karl Munchinger conducts Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (K. 466, K. 503)
Decca 460 825-2 TT: 151: 42 (Distrib. Universal) (2 CDs):
Decca has issued four volumes, each 2-CD sets, devoted to the art of American piano virtuoso Julius Katchen (1926-1969), but I have decided to review the second installment, for the colossal beauty of Katchen’s tone and the totally infectious manner of his playing. A pupil of David Saperton, Katchen grew up in the virtuoso, American tradition of William Kapell and Eugene Istomin. Katchen went on to make a name for himself in the music of Brahms; but his range embraced diverse styles and periods of music, from Mozart to Rorem, from Beethoven to Gershwin, Dohnanyi, and Prokofiev. The inscriptions given here date from 1954 to 1966, and they reveal an artist who matured from an enthusiastic firebrand to a thoughtful, balanced interpreter of Mozart on a par with Clifford Curzon.
“Passionate clarity” might serve as a rubric for all of Katchen’s playing, and a good place to begin is with his 1965 Choral Fantasy with Gamba and the LSO. Composer Darius Milhaud called the Choral Fantasy “a curious piece,” with its mixture of piano improvisation, chorale that adumbrates the Masonic sentiments of the Ninth Symphony, and an orchestral part that uses free variations with an outstanding flute part. Katchen has a jolly, good time with his keyboard filigree, flashing in and out of the orchestral meanderings after a rapturous opening fantasy: like Serkin, Katchen has plenty of percussive power for staccato strokes, but he has an equally velvet paw for the arpeggios. The “Aeolian Harp” character of the G Major Concerto is again that happy alchemy of elan and tender meditation, the Fifth Symphony turned into song. That conductor Piero Gamba had nothing of a solo, record career surprises when one hears the sympathy and prowess of the orchestral parts of the concertos, the complete set of which rivaled the Serkin and Rubinstein accounts for CBS and RCA, respectively.
Katchen the Mozartean is a delight. His work with Peter Maag from 1955 in the underperformed K. 415 (although a favorite of Clara Haskil) is heady, even pushy, with Katchen’s accelerating the tempo and catching up the orchestra in his velocity. Crisp attacks, sharp trills, and lucid turns, all conspire to make the Mozart K. 415 quite mesmerizing, a tour de force in the spirit the virtuoso composer intended. The 1966 collaborations with Munchinger however reveal a mature, thoughtful artist, seeking balances and thoughtful phrasing so that even the spitfire and fioritura color passages in Mozart have an autumnal color and cool serenity. The architecture in K. 503 is grandiose; the spirit of the A major Sonata is a cross between Solomon’s objectivity and the Horowitz sense of play. Katchen’s favorite orchestral partner was Istvan Kertesz; but had Katchen played with conductor Benjamin Britten, the ensuing Mozart would have been heaven-sent, indeed. Meanwhile, back on earth, the complete Katchen Edition awaits your pleasure.