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Recordings


ISSUE:  Summer 1981

It is often said that Rossini’s William Tell (1829) is a difficult opera to mount, detractors noting its length (excessive) and its construction (awkward) as factors problematic to its stage worthiness. Its recordings have tended to compensate for these limitations, and in Riccardo Chailly’s charismatic new version (London OS A-1446), sung in Italian, we have the most overtly theatrical recording to date, due chiefly to all-star casting and the spirited performance of the National Philharmonic. Luciano Pavarotti’s presence ensures the set’s commercial viability, and for good reason: in the role of Arnold he gives a truly dashing performance, freely producing the high notes and stopping the show with the aria “O muto asil.” As Matilde, Mirella Freni is in fine voice and is finely attuned to her character’s varied emotions. And as the heroic William, Sherrill Milnes provides the commanding stage presence needed to bind the episodic libretto.

For years, 61-year-old Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli has been more talked about than heard, his near legendary status built upon a small number of recordings and concerts, most recently a televised appearance in Vienna in September 1979, ably partnered by the Vienna Symphony under Carlo Maria Giulini. The featured work that evening was Beethoven’s C major Concerto No. 1, and the performance has now been issued on disc (DG 2531 302). It is a study in paradoxical contrasts: impeccably executed, there is overall a true feeling of spontaneity; free of eccentricities, details jump out at the listener like sparks from a fire; poised, it offers both vigorous dramatic emphasis and real repose. Michelangeli’s uncanny instinct for this piece is everywhere evident, including his use of the composer’s controversial third cadenza, which seems perfectly placed. The past quarter has brought us few more enjoyable and thought-provoking recordings.

The manuscript of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor contains so many corrections and erasures that it is often presumed the composer intended to revise it. He never did, but the score was reworked in 1919 by Vilem Kurz, and it is the Kurz version that is most often heard in concert. The Richter/Kleiber version of the original (Angel) seemed mainly an historical hommage, yet the appearance of a second recording of the original, by noted Dvořák interpreter Radoslav Kvapil, suggests a growing critical acceptance of the composer’s first thoughts as the standard for this work. Our preference remains the fluid Kurz version, though Kvapil offers a compelling account, less grand than the Richter issue yet better attuned to the music’s lyrical impulse (Supraphon 1110 2373).

A work such as Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 plays to the strengths of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy (RCA ARL1-3555). Those who prefer the Seventh in the lyrical manner will welcome the Ormandy touch and won’t mind that the reading lacks much in the way of passion and intensity.

Though he rates only brief mention in most texts, including the useful, recently reissued History of Music in England by Ernest Walker (Da Capo, $27.50), composer Peter Warlock (1894—1930) was a fascinating figure. Alcoholic, a heavy drug user, and a dabbler in the black arts, he was a menace who destroyed the careers of several contemporaries. His wide-ranging oeuvre of nearly 100 songs has its share of the bizarre as well as an acknowledged lyrical masterpiece, The Curlew (1922), four Yeats poems scored for tenor, flute, English horn, and string quartet. This treasure, long unavailable domestically, has now been issued on Arabesque 8018, coupled with the somewhat more familiar Vaughan Williams song cycle, On Wenlock Edge (1909), the composer’s setting of Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.” The source of these recordings is English EMI, and the performers in both instances are lan Partridge and the Music Group of London, whose interpretations are sensitive and thoroughly idiomatic.

Would that the same could be said for a pair of English imports pressed domestically by Nonesuch. One offers a convenient coupling of Hoist’s two Suites for Band and Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite and Toccata Marziale in tepid readings by Denis Wick and the London Wind Ensemble (Nonesuch H-78002). The second is the first recording in years of Sir William Walton’s First Symphony (Nonesuch H-71394). This handsome work deserves greater currency in America, but it won’t earn it through Vernon Handley’s unsympathetic reading with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. All of these works have been better served elsewhere: the Hoist and the Vaughan Williams by Fennell and the Cleveland Winds on separate Telarc discs, and the Walton by Previn and the London Symphony on RCA, now unfortunately out of print.

In somewhat the same manner as Rampal and Galway with the flute, and Holliger with the oboe, 22-year-old Danish soloist Michala Petri seems destined to stir the public’s appetite for the recorder. She is an attractive performer whose interpretations of concertos by Handel, Vivaldi, Sammartini, and Telemann are stylishly fleet and utterly unstuffy. Her new Philips LP (9500 714) is sure to earn her the wrath of the Baroque purists and the admiration of the rest of us. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is under the alert direction of lona Brown.

One of the most engaging of the past quarter’s first recordings is Donizetti’s setting of Psalm 50, Miserere (Hungaroton SLPX-12147). Completed in 1820 when the composer was 23, it remained unpublished during his lifetime, its various movements thought to be separate works until pieced together by scholar Istvan Mariassy. For a sacred work, it is less grand and profound than it is vivid and warm, particularly in the opening movement, with its echoes of Haydn. The performances, by soloists Júlia Pászthy and Zsolt Bende with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, are vigorous and expert.

Kirill Kondrashin, the Soviet conductor who defected to the West in 1978, died earlier this year in his adopted Amsterdam, where he led the Concertgebouw Orchestra and where his first recording with that group (Philips 9500 618) was issued just weeks before his death. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade has for years suffered from the kind of overexposure and blowsy theatrics that have made virtual cliches of a number of standard repertory works. Kondrashin’s treatment peels away the layers of kitsch, revealing a dramatic work that is gentler in its sense of unfolding narrative, even-handed, and free of bluster. The splendid recorded sound is an asset, as is the exceptional playing of violinist Herman Krebbers, who, in a further tragic twist surrounding this recording, recently suffered an accident that ended his performing career. Philips may have more tapes of Kondrashin and his Amsterdam forces, but this affectionate version of an old favorite is, for many reasons, quite special.

Kondrashin was noted for his recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies, territory Bernard Haitink has also been covering for the past few years, most recently with the Leningrad Symphony (London LDR-10015). Until the 1979 publication of materials alleged to be the composer’s memoirs, the Leningrad was considered to be Shostakovich’s testament to the endurance of the people of that city during the war siege of 1941. The 1979 materials aver a different set of extra-musical ideas and a specific religious reference which positions the work more as a general lamentation for the people of Russia during the years of the Stalin purges. The LP’s liner notes provide the details of this controversy, and one detects elements of this revisionist view in numerous small details throughout Haitink’s interpretation, which seems to emphasize the Seventh’s heartfelt qualities over its strident, propagandistic tendencies. The playing of the London Symphony is gorgeous throughout, and The Age of Gold ballet suite is a large bonus.

The Guitar Quintets of Luigi Boccherini are curiosities, to say the least. Products of his years in Spain, they are adaptations of his earlier chamber works devised for the pleasure of a patron, the guitar-playing Marquis de Benevente. That the guitar was an afterthought is unfortunately evident throughout the Quintets Nos. 4—6, played distinctively by Pepe Romero and the Chamber Ensemble of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Philips 9500 621). Not even this first-rate group can do much with this music, which flickers to life but once, in a swirl of castanets and Iberic rhythms at the close of the Fandango Fourth.

A fascinating new issue features the first American recordings of a trio of works by contemporary Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu performed by Tashi, the chamber group for whom the works were written (RCA ARL1-3483). The three are the single movement meditation Quatrain II (1977), the gossamer Water Ways (1978), and Waves (1976), a study in textures and dynamics. Takemitsu’s music is occasionally soporific, but these three pieces have a fine-grained delicacy and gentle seductiveness that are wholly rewarding.

Four rarely-heard American works for string orchestra are the subject of a collection played by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra lead by Gerard Schwarz (Nonesuch D-79002). The earliest piece is Samuel Barber’s Serenade for Strings, the composer’s first published work, completed in 1929 before his 20th birthday. Its quiet eloquence is of a piece with the most recent work, 1955’s Serious Song by Irving Fine, the Boston composer whose small oeuvre offers a surprising variety of delights. Between are David Diamond’s lyrical Rounds for String Orchestra (1944) and Elliott Carter’s pensive Elegy, a 1952 arrangement of a piano and cello work he wrote in 1939. The distinctive performances are captured in excellent digital sound.

Also new to us are a pair of attractive works for viola and piano by two of the most celebrated musicians of the Romantic era: the Sonata in F minor (1855) by pianist Anton Rubenstein, and the Opus 9 Hebrew Melodies (1854) by violinist Joseph Joachim. The Rubenstein, dominated by the piano part, is robust and outgoing, while the Joachim is a melancholy reflection of Lord Byron’s poems on the history of the Jewish nation. The performers are pianist Libuše Křepelová and Lubomír Malý (Supraphon 1111 2475).

For his second full-length opera, Jules Massenet blended the exotic, the melodramatic, and the supernatural in glorious excess to create Le Roi de Lahore, a resounding success at its 1877 premiere and most recently revived in Canada in its centenary year. In a persuasive new recording* Joan Sutherland takes the demanding role of Sitâ, the young priestess of the god Indra, while Luis Lima is Alim, the King, and Sherrill Milnes is Sitâ’s scurrilous uncle, Scindia. The characterizations are paper-thin, and the mood of the score doesn’t always match the stage action; but the pomp and lyricality are pure Massenet, and the production—played to the hilt under conductor Richard Bonynge—captures its rough charm in full measure (London 3LDR-10025).

The tenth volume of Eva Knardahl’s survey of Grieg’s piano music contains the composer’s first and last published piano works—the Opus 1 Four Piano Pieces and the Opus 73 Moods. They are mainly of historical interest, and the real gem of the collection is the composer’s piano arrangement of the familiar Two Elegiac Melodies (BIS/Qualiton LP-113). The same authority Miss Knardahl brings to her recording project characterizes the inspired performances of the youthful Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in their collection of Grieg’s 12 works for string orchestra (BIS/Qualiton LP-147), featuring the Two Elegiac Melodies in more familiar guise, From Holberg’s Time, and At the Cradle, among others. The performances are virtually definitive.

Lynn Harrell is soloist as Pinchas Zukerman conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in a concert of four works for cello and orchestra (Angel SZ-37738). Chief among them is the C.P.E. Bach Concerto in A, which receives lively and discerning treatment, and two Vivaldi works, the Concerto in G (P. 120), and the Concerto in G minor (P. 369), which are no less communicative of their freshness and vigorous character.

While Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi is known in the West chiefly for his witty Variations on a Nursery Song, this work is eclipsed in popularity in his native land by the Ruralia Hungarica, a lyrical pastiche of folk themes from the 1923 Bartók/Kodály collection. Westerners who consider Dohnányi to be a one-work composer will be delighted by Ruralia, which depicts the Hungarian countryside with warmth and charm. And there is pleasure also in having both the Ruralia and the Variations on a single disc (Hungaroton SLPX-12149), performed with spontaneity and evident admiration by György Lehel and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, with István Lantos taking the piano part in Variations.

Two recent releases highlight the diversity of the sizable catalog created over the years by the talented group of London brass players known as the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. Three contemporary English works written for the group comprise Modem Brass (Argo ZRG-906), of which the most ambitious piece is Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony for Brass Instruments (1978). The performances are committed, yet none of these bland works is terribly individualistic. More on target is Romantic Brass (Argo ZRG-928), a delightful compendium of unfamiliar works by a coterie of early Russian brass composers, including Victor Ewald and Nicolai Leontovich, and transcriptions of familiar bonbons by Mendelssohn and Dvořák.

Stravinsky’s Le Sucre du printemps, an acknowledged masterwork of the 20th century in its orchestral version, is also occasionally heard in a piano four-hand reduction prepared by the composer in 1913 to assist in rehearsing the ballet. Now there is a solo piano version as well, devised by Sam Raphling as a virtuoso concert piece. It was first given in 1979 by Dickran Atamian, who has recorded it in digital sound for RCA (ARC1-3636). As heard here, the arrangement is no mere novelty but, rather, a work that can stand on its own. Atamian gives it a stirring treatment, making the most of the big moments and bringing out its astonishing pianistic color and range.

Carlo Maria Giulini, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gives distinctly personal interpretations of three Debussy works in a new collection (DG 2531 264). La Mer is the least successful—too detached, too literal. In the Rhapsodic Espagnole, however, his lean textures and relaxed tempos give this concert piece an added dimension, and his performance of Ma Mère l’Oye, a work he obviously loves, is an interpretation of great delicacy and tender evocativeness.

Another familiar concert work given fresh treatment is Itzhak Perlman’s recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which is favored by that sense of easy virtuosity that characterizes Perlman’s best work. For his part, conductor André Previn extracts from the Pittsburgh Symphony one of the best performances of their tenure together, if not one of the Pittsburgh’s best recorded performances ever. The fill-up is Norwegian composer Christian Binding’s lovely, technically difficult Suite in A minor (Angel SZ-37663).

Perlman also appears in EMI’s all-star account of Brahms’ Double Concerto, with Rostropovich as cellist and Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Angel SZ-37680). It is a strong-willed performance, played with considerable technical finesse and ripe with the score’s poetry and rapt emotional charge.

We’ve long been partial to guitarist Ralph Towner, whom we first heard as a member of the group Oregon, and later as a featured player paired with various of the ECM label’s roster of musicians. His introspective playing is perhaps heard to best effect on his solo LP’s, the latest being Solo Concert (ECM 1-1173), live performances gathered from two European concert tours. For those who don’t know his music, this is an excellent disc with which to start, as it contains four Towner compositions as well as Miles Davis’ Nardis and a truly magical rendition of fellow ECM guitarist John Abecrombie’s Timeless.

Weather Report, one of the earliest and most important of the early fusion jazz groups, has proven to be a durable commodity, thanks mainly to the consistency provided by current members and cofounders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Night Passage (ARC/Columbia JC-36793), their latest, offers the same high levels of energy and invention that characterize the best of their numerous albums. Most of the compositions are by Zawinul, but side two opens with a rollicking, space-age version of Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Unique.

Other jazz albums that attracted us include Journal October (ECM 1-1161), a solo outing by cellist David Darling, whose Slow Return is a mesmerizing piece of phase music that dominates the disc. Rhapsody and Blues (MCA 5124) is vintage Crusaders music, with pianist Joe Sample in especially fine form and singer Bill Withers doing a guest turn in Soul Shadows. Crusader drummer Stix Hooper has his own album, The World Within (MCA 3180), which includes African and Oriental rhythm pieces as well as standard Crusader bump and thump. Saxophonist Marshal Royal swings gently on his second album for Concord Jazz (CJ-125), joined by bassist Ray Brown and pianist Monty Alexander, among others. Eddie Gomez, Jack de Johnette, and Joe Henderson are the sidemen on Ancient Dynasty (Columbia/Tappan Zee JC-36593), new from pianist JoAnne Brackeen. On the same label is H (Columbia/Tappan Zee JC-36422), pop-flavored music from Bob James, best known for his theme for the television show Taxi. Noel Pointer’s new release is called All My Reasons (Liberty LT-1094), and it is highlighted by an ethereal version of Chuck Mangione’s Land of Make Believe, which does the original one better.

Word from the P. D. Q. Bach Research Center concerns the link established between the notorious 18th-century composer and American bluegrass music. Professor Peter Schickele conducts the New York Pick-Up Ensemble in the ineffable Bluegrass Cantata and several other works, including the No-No Nonette, in which are revived those ancient instruments the moo cow cylinder, the ice pick, and the heavy cloth (Vanguard VSD-79427). From England comes a handful of comedy albums imported by Gillette-Madison (P.O. Box 5987, New York, N.Y. 10022). The Worst of Monty Python (BBC 22073) is, alas, only moderately funny, despite offering the classic “Flying Sheep” and “Pet Shop” sketches. A better bet is a disc comprising two episodes from John Cleese’s television series Fawlty Towers, “Mrs. Richards” and “Hotel Inspector” (BBC 22377). There are some for whom Peter Sellers will be remembered less for his screen appearances than for The Goon Show. Although the last show was broadcast in 1960, Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Seacombe gathered again some ten years later for The Last Goon Show of All (BBC 22142).

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