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Recordings


ISSUE:  Summer 1982

Buskers are street musicians, and the Cambridge Buskers are Michael Copley and Dag Ingram, who are said to have got their start when a temporary shortage of change for the ride home led to a impromptu fund-raising concert in a London tube station, providing the necessary coin as well as the idea for similar concerts on the streets and in the train stations of cities all over Europe. Appearances in concert halls of the more traditional type resulted in a recording contract, and the best of their LP’s have now been issued here on a single disc entitled A Little Street Music (DG 2536 414). Copley’s bag of instruments includes flutes, ocarinas, piccolos, and recorders, while Ingram’s instrument is the accordian. Their repertoire is extensive, offering charmingly offbeat arrangements of nearly everything from the William Tell Overture to Joplin’s The Entertainer.

Despite its lack of appeal for many listeners, minimalism’s critical acclaim and commercial success have earned it the right to be taken seriously as an important trend in contemporary music. Minimalist elements—repetitive rhythms, shifting patterns of sound, spare orchestration—can be found in albums as diverse as Arthur Blythe’s Illusions (Columbia JC-36583) and John Surman’s The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon (ECM 1—1193), but it’s composers such as Philip Glass who have come to epitomize the genre. Glass’ attractive new collection is called Glassworks (CBS FM-37265), in which his usual grouping of seven players has been extended to include a string ensemble. The half-dozen pieces share minimalism’s characteristic sense of being both focused and buoyant. At its best, as in the lyrical Opening and Facades, the music has a hypnotic power and spare elegance that—for better or worse—is simplicity itself.

Ponchielli’s marvelous La Gioconda (1876) has received a top-notch new recording with an all-star cast (London LDR-73005). Caballé, in one of her best recent performances, handles the difficult wide emotional swings of the title role with a smoldering intensity and total conviction. Convincing too are Pavarotti as Enzo, who offers full measure of his role’s requisite ardor, and Agnes Baltsa as Laura, a performance that suggests a tender vulnerability. Sherril Milnes and Nicolai Ghiaurov are the menacing duo Barnaba and Alvise, and Bruno Bartolletti gets maximum contrast between episodes of high drama and romance through his effective conducting of the National Philharmonic.

Sergei Taneyev (1856—1915) is scarcely known in the West but is an important musical figure in Russia. A pupil of Tchaikovsky, he was a composer and virtuoso pianist who later taught Rachmaninoff, Gliere, Scriabin, and many others. Three new releases have doubled his Schwann entries. The Suite de Concert for violin and orchestra is a large-scale work with an abundance of charm and a variety of imaginative touches. Violinist Christian Altenburger has an obvious admiration for its music, as does conductor Yuri Ahronovitch, who secures the warmest of performances from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Pro Arte PAD-110). Taneyev’s. chamber music is represented by his Piano Trio in D with the Odeon Trio (Pro Arte PAL-1052), and the Piano Quartet in E with the Cantilena Players (Pro Arte PAD-107). Both are distinctive, persuasive works, with effective writing for the piano and an overall direct appeal.

Three popular Sibelius symphonies are the subject of a quartet of new issues. The Symphony No. 5 already is well-represented in the lists, and two new recordings—by the same orchestra, no less—strike us as excessive. Under Simon Rattle (Angel DS-37883), the Philharmonia Orchestra gives a performance more competent than inspired. The weighting is toward expressive warmth, though there is no want of drama, even if the final movement drags noticeably. With the same orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy gets brighter, more responsive playing, achieving a heightened sense of symphonic breadth and more of the Sibelian mystery that informs this enduring work. The brass has real bite to it, climaxes are brilliantly built, and tempos and musical textures are superbly coordinated (London LDR-71041). The Second Symphony also is well represented, yet the sheer beauty of the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing under Herbert von Karajan makes EMI’s new release of special importance (Angel DS-37816). No stranger to this work, Karajan provides an interpretation that’s an insightful balance of reflection and majesty. There also is much to commend a recording of the First Symphony by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra led by José Serebrier (RCA AGL1—4093). Playing with all its heart, and far better than one might think, this orchestra puts in a stylish performance with just the right balance of shadow and light.

Colin Davis conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in his Covent Garden production of Verdi’s II Trovatore (Philips 6769 063). It’s an odd performance. José Carerras makes the most of his inward moments as Manrico but is miscast, lacking the sheer vocal bravura required of the role. As Leonora, Katia Ricciarelli’s performance has its moments but is inconsistent. And Davis has embued the entire production with a refinement and easygoing manner that rob the score of its dramatic impulse.

Verdi is better served in the La Scala production of Un Ballo in Maschera under Claudio Abbado (DG 2740 241). Placido Domingo is a splendid Riccardo: a perfect amalgam of manly vigor and grace. Katia Ricciarelli appears in this recording as Amelia, singing well with a sure sense of involvement and without the tentativeness that marred her performance in Trovatore. Above all, the performance is shaped by the La Scala Orchestra, whose playing exhibits a formidable technical control and a firm grasp of the structural and expressive essences of this masterwork. Superior recorded sound completes the picture.

From James Galway comes a fine new recording of a nearly forgotten work: Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concerto (1908). Reinecke was admired in his day as a pianist, teacher, conductor, and composer of works for virtually every form. The Flute Concerto was written toward the end of his long life, but it has a buoyant spring to its step rather than a melancholy tread. Galway showcases it to the fullest, and the Undine Sonata, Reinecke’s most enduring work, makes a fitting companion piece. Philip Moll is the pianist in the Sonata, while Hiroyuki Iwaki leads the London Philharmonic in the Concerto (RCA ATC1—4043).

A Mozart rarity is his Thames, King of Egypt (K. 345), written in 1773 as incidental music for a play by Tobias von Gebler. The play was unsuccessful, but Mozart was correct in proclaiming that his music had value; moreover, the work’s themes of enlightenment and freemasonry would appear to foreshadow The Magic Flute. It’s a pleasant discovery, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra in an impeccable performance (Telefunken 6.42702).

The Salzburg Symphonies (1775—83) are the focus of the second volume of the Academy of Ancient Music’s complete set of Mozart’s symphonies played on original instruments (L’Oiseau-Lyre D171D4). Under Jaap Schröder and Christopher Hogwood, tempos are brisk, the music is crisply articulated, and the playing is refreshingly free of the raspy dryness one often associates with “authentic” endeavors.

Dvorák is well represented this quarter. The Devil and Kate (1899) is another of his marvelous operas combining folk and fairy tale materials. The story concerns a fool-hardy devil and a feisty, courageous lass named Kate who literally dances her way through the story. This melange of polkas, waltzes, and marches is whipped up properly in an earthy performance by regional Czech singers and the Brno Janácek Opera Orchestra under Jiri Pinkas (Supraphon 1116 3181—3). More dance music can be found in the Prague Waltzes and Czech Suite, given exceptionally silky readings by the Detroit Symphony and Antal Dorati (London LDR-71024). Dona’s early symphonies have neither the dramatic sweep nor the lyric power of his later works in this form, so Václav Neumann’s performance with the Czech Philharmonic is of less than general interest, despite its authenticity and commitment (Supraphon 1110 2877). The First Cello Concerto may also fall into this category, though we’ve always been partial to its affectionate melodies. Neumann again leads the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon 1110 2728), and soloist Miloš Sádlo’s playing is warm and sensitive in phrasing.

Violinist Josef Suk (1874—1935) was Dvořák’s pupil and son-in-law as well as a member of the famous Bohemian String Quartet. He was an active composer, but while his works are often heard in his native land, they have been slow to travel elsewhere. A Fairy Tale (1900), as the title suggests, is a magical piece of late-Romantic music which began as incidental accompaniment to the Julius Zeyer play Raduz and Mahulena. It’s good to have it on disc (Supraphon 1410 2699), along with its companion piece, the Fantastic Scherzo, with its numerous attractive melodies. Aptly enough, the major violin parts are handled by the composer’s grandson, also named Josef Suk, with the Prague Symphony Orchestra’s sympathetic performances under the alert direction of Jirí Belohlavák.

Otakar Ostrcil (1879—1935) was a contemporary of Suk, and a teacher who attained modest success in his native Prague as a composer and as a conductor who championed Mahler and Berg. Calvary (1926), a set of variations for large orchestra, is said to be his most representative work, and it can now be heard played by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Neumann (Supraphon 1110 2548). Despite the obvious religious symbolism of the title and despite the numbering of the variations to correspond to the 14 stations of the cross, Ostrcil is said to have eschewed literal interpretations of his music, and the piece’s astringency and unsettling detachment seem to bear him out. Overside, The Orphan’s Tale (1906), a ballad for voice and orchestra based on a folk text, seems almost tender by comparison, though it too lacks warmth.

The Welsh National Opera’s production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde may not be cast with international stars, but it manages to be stellar nonetheless (London LDR-75001). Conductor Reginald Goodall has given this regional production imagination and style, with singing that’s authoritative on all counts, and at least one performance—Linda Esther Gray as Isolde—that’s as eloquent as most of the competition.

James Levine and the Philadelphia Orchestra are effective partners in the four Schumann symphonies, boxed by RCA as ARL3—3907. Levine is the most genial of Schumann conductors, showing a real affinity for this music’s gentle persuasiveness as well as its mercurial tendencies. For their part, the Philadelphians play with the polished sonority honed through their many years under Eugene Ormandy.

Mussorgsky was a young man in his mid-twenties when he attempted his first opera, Salammbô, based on the controversial Flaubert novel of love and death in Carthage. He never finished it, but enough of it existed for Zoltan Pesco to devise a performing score of six acts, which shows a good measure of the work’s richly colored tapestry and languorous charm. The performance, taped in front of an audience and featuring a large international cast and the RAI Orchestra with Pesco conducting, is as persuasive as it is indispensable (CBS M2-36939).

Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony (No. 4) may be one of his sunniest creations, but its complex architecture has tripped up any number of conductors. Not so Sir Georg Solti, whose new recording with the Chicago Symphony has a fluidity, a fine polish, and an attention to detail that give it an edge over the competition (London LDR-71038).

A new collection of Kreisleriana features most of the best-known miniatures performed lovingly, but with their own distinctive touch, by Shlomo Mintz and accompanist Clifford Benson (DG 2531 205). Itzhak Perlman, who also has recorded most of the Kreisler miniatures, has a new recording of the Violin Concerto in D by Erich Korngold, Hollywood’s favorite composer of film scores during the 1940’s. The Concerto is based on themes from four of his movie scores, and the performance, with Previn and the Pittsburgh, captures the piece’s swagger and emotional swell (Angel DS-37770). Perlman also is heard in a trenchant reading of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Angel DS-37471), and in a three-disc set of previously released performances of the four most familiar Romantic violin concertos—by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Bruch (Angel SZC-3912).

Now in his seventies, Sir Michael Tippett continues to compose, the most recently recorded of his contemporary works being the Fourth Symphony (1977), a onemovement piece combining emotional tautness and intellectual strength in its representation of man’s life cycle. It’s played by the Chicago Symphony, which commissioned it, under Georg Solti, who shows utmost regard for its complex textural detail and the composer’s distinctive style. The topical coupling is the resplendent Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, Tippett’s 1948 work featuring joyous quotes from folk tunes, carols, and jigs (London LDR-71046).

Freshness and spontaneity are the hallmarks of Alexis Weissenberg’s account of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (EMI Angel SZ-37722). At the helm of the Orchestre Nationale de France, Leonard Bernstein neatly balances the score’s easygoing elements with its basic sense of urgency for a balanced reading of real impact and conviction.

Roussel’s Piano Concerto, Honegger’s Concertino, and Poulenc’s Aubade comprise a new LP featuring the young Czech pianist Boris Krajny (Supraphon 1410 2705). His affinity for the Gallic sensibilities that inform this trio—all of which were written in a five-year span between 1924 and 1929—is evident throughout, especially in his playful reading of the Poulenc, which brings to the fore the work’s theatrical origins. The Prague Chamber Orchestra is under the alert direction of Stanislav Macura.

Hindemith’s opuses 49 and 50 Concert Music pieces reflect his experiments in creating new sonorities by setting various instruments against a brass choir. Opus 49 is scored for strings and brass, while opus 50 is written for brass, piano, and harp. The music has a certain nobility to it but isn’t consistently interesting. His Morning Music for brass alone is more appealing but short. The authoritative performances are by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (London LDR-71053).

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, recording technology often ran ahead of record technology, which meant that what was captured on tape in the recording studio was often lost in the process of the sound transfer to disc. RCA has revived a number of their historically important recordings from this period through the Point Five series of discs, which have been pressed in Germany using half-speed mastering, a process which brings out more of the fine qualities of the original tapes. Van Cliburn’s bravura performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto (RCA ATL1—4099) brings back memories of the Texas pianist’s triumph at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition and his subsequent American tour, which qualifies as a major cultural event of the late 1950’s. With conductor Kirill Kondrashin at the podium, there is enough firepower in this collaboration to fuel a half-dozen competitive versions. A reading of depth and visceral excitement, it still sets the standard. For many, the Charles Munch/Boston Symphony recording of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (RCA ATLI-4039) has always been the version to own. For many years, it also seemed to sound the best, with its sonic framework and wide dynamics, but the performance has always stuck us as hurried and wanting in orchestral color. More compelling is Franck’s Symphony in D Minor played by the Chicago Symphony with Pierre Monteux (RCA ATLI-4156), which is sure in its sense of the score’s architecture and majestically played.

Horn player Dennis Brain was 36 year old when he was killed in an auto accident in 1957. Numerous recordings documenting his tragically abbreviated career have been issued in the intervening years, including a recent English import of his last BBC Radio broadcasts (BBC 22175). Mozart’s Horn Quintet (K. 407) receives a fine workout with the Carter String Trio and violinist Eileen Grainger, but the real attraction here is the Brahms Trio in E-flat (Op. 40), which is as warm and silky as one could ever hope for. The recorded sound is quite good, and the set ends with Brain introducing and playing his traditional concert encore, Marin Marais’ Le Basque, a recording made just one week before his death. (Imported by Gemcom; P. O. Box 290007; Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. 33329).

Straight Ahead (Concord Jazz CJ-168) is the apt title for one of last year’s best jazz LP’s, featuring Art Blakey and the latest incarnation of his Jazz Messengers: James Williams on piano, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Bill Pierce on tenor sax, Bobby Watson on alto sax, and Charles Fambrough on bass. This group has drive and panache through a half-dozen tunes.

Sax player Stan Getz’s style hasn’t changed much in the years since he developed Brazil’s bossa nova sound into an international music phenomenon in the early 1960’s. The Dolphin (Concord Jazz CJ-158), recorded at a San Francisco club date, is easy on the ears, with Luiz Eca’s mellow title cut setting the pace for this showcase of the new Getz lineup, featuring Louis Levy on piano, Victor Lewis on drums, and Monty Budwig on bass.

One of the last year’s best records was Breaking Away (Warner Bros, BSK-3576) by singer Al Jarreau, who has an amazing ability to mimic the inflections, rhythms, and textures of musical instruments with his voice. It’s a skill tested to its limit with Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, for which special lyrics were devised. His smooth stylish vocals show an unerring sense of artistic craftsmanship and an ability to make a song uniquely his own. He has these qualities in common with Angela Bofill, whose work is closer to pure pop music, but whose albums consistently delight. Something about You (Arista AL-9576) is upbeat and attractive at every turn.

Soupy Sales, who once had the run of one of the most popular television shows of its time, has long since settled into the comfortable anonymity of the quiz show and dinner theatre circuits, his pie-in-the-face style of comedy out of fashion and long absent from the small screen. We’ve missed him. Much to our delight, the old Soupy turned up last year at a New York night club, and the best bits from those shows have been collected on Still Soupy after All These Years (MCA 5274). His jokes are still terrible, but we laughed just as hard. What’s more, there’s a White Fang story to end all White Fang stories, and a reprise of his hit song, “The Mouse.”

Vanguard Records maintains a varied and extensive catalogue, but for many they will always be known as the label that was at the forefront of the folk and blues revival of the 1960’s, offering artists as diverse as Joan Baez, Jim Kweskin, and Buddy Guy. As the catalogue life of most discs is short, we were pleasantly surprised to note that Vanguard’s latest listings still show just about everything they’ve ever issued, prompting a record store order for some long-lost favorites and a promise to make note here our pleasure that this extraordinary collection seems to be in good hands at Vanguard.

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