Skip to main content

Recordings


ISSUE:  Winter 1981

Piano music has always played an integral role in motion pictures, but perhaps never so much as during the 1930’s and 1940’s when a lush piano and orchestra score was considered essential to convey romantic emotions. Some directors, like David Lean in Brief Encounter, used repertory works, but many others commissioned scores written specifically for the film at hand. A collection of these is found on a new EMI release (Angel SZ-37757) played by Daniel Adni and the Bournemouth Sympony Orchestra. The most famous piece, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, wasn’t written for a film at all, but has been included because of its prominence in Universal’s 1930 King of Jazz as well as in Warner Brothers’ 1945 Gershwin biography starring Robert Alda. The 1941 English film Dangerous Moonlight caused a stir with its Warsaw Concerto, a sweeping affair written by Richard Addinsell, whose other film credits include the scores for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dark Journey. Similar in scope to the Warsaw Concerto is the score for the 1944 English Love Story, in which Margaret Lockwood, as a pianist with a fatal disease, falls in love with Stewart Granger, an RAF pilot who is going blind. The plot line suggests the flavor of the film’s Cornish Rhapsody, composed by Herbert Bath. Miklos Rozsa, one of the most successful of such composers, is represented by his 1945 Spellbound Concerto, from the Hitchcock film and featuring that eerie electric instrument called the theramin. It’s a diverting program, and though the Gershwin is played a bit stiffly, the remainder tugs at the heartstrings in a most effective manner.

The Brahms Violin Concerto has been newly recorded by Pinchas Zukerman and the Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim conducting (DG 2531 251). The opening is taken very slowly, though not with as much grandeur as, for example, Giulini and the Chicago Symphony (Angel). Overall, however, Barenboim’s is a well-balanced view of this work. Zukerman’s playing is gorgeous and sensitive in phrasing throughout, and, for their part, the Paris players have the measure of the music’s warmth and intensity. A distinctive performance.

Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 has received two new recordings, the more successful of which is Misha Dichter’s with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Philips 9500 410). Dichter’s playing is poised and direct, and he is given admirable support by the Leipzig forces. There is less evident involvement in the Garrick Ohlsson interpretation, with Klaus Tennstedt leading the London Philharmonic (Angel SZ-37568). Ohlsson’s is not a graceless performance, but it is wayward, lacking much in the way of nuance and sounding especially prosaic beside the muscular playing Tennstedt elicits from the LPO.

Several years after the successful premiere of his fairy tale opera, Cendrillon, Jules Massenet again turned to fables as the inspiration for a ballet based on La Fontaine’s “La Cigale et la Fourmi” (“The Grasshopper and the Ant”), which tells the story of how the industrious ant survives the harsh winter through hard work and foresight while the carefree grasshopper perishes, having whiled away the warm summer days singing in the tall grass. Cigale, as the ballet was called, turned the tale on its head, sympathetically portraying the grasshopper as a victim of an uncaring world whose values are askew. It must have been a lovely theater piece, but it lasted for just four performances after its less than auspicious opening as the last item in a 1904 charity matinée. While we may never see a stage version of this miniature, we now have a first recording of the music (London CS-7163). It is an imaginative, effectively written score of utter grace and charm, and it’s splendidly delivered by Richard Bonynge and the National Philharmonic.

As a cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich is no stranger to the music of Dvořák, having recorded the Cello Concerto numerous times. And as a conductor, he is traversing the symphonies in a cycle that has much to recommend it. His reading of the Symphony No. 7 (Angel SZ-37717) is a strong characterization, with unusually slow tempos used for dramatic emphasis and weight rather than to develop lyrical flow. While some may find his account cold and unyielding, it is, for us, bold and eloquent. The LPO’s playing is up to this grand design, and the recorded acoustic is spacious, which helps.

Dvořák’s comic opera The Jacobin will be new to most Americans. A staple in the composer’s homeland, the work’s depiction of early village life and political mischief make it a favorite for provincial performances, giving it a popularity second only to Russalka in Dvořák’s operatic oeuvre. Its folk idioms and nationalistic sensibility make it a work of many charms, and its new recording (Supraphon 1112 2481/3) ensures that it will be heard outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. Aptly enough, the zesty performance, by Czech soloists and the Brno State Philharmonic, is much like what one might hear in a regional Czech repertory production.

The idiomatic feeling the Brno forces bring to the music of Dvořák is missing in their recording of three Russian concert favorites (Supraphon 1110 2279). Antar, the familiar symphonic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov, is given decent play, though Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia doesn’t pass muster by a long shot, and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain fails to stir the listener, let alone the witches and demons of the night.

The Land of Smiles (1929) is one of Franz Lehar’s most enchanting operettas: a bittersweet tale of romance between a Chinese prince and a Viennese lady. Although not in the same gay vein as The Merry Widow and others of his earlier works, Smiles abounds in colorful melodies and attractive songs. German EMI recorded it more than a decade ago, and it is now available here in its first domestic pressing (Arabesque 8055—2). The performance does the work justice, with Nicolai Gedda as Prince Sou-Chong and Anneliese Rothenberger as the high-spirited Countess Lisa. Under Willy Mattes, the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra help weave the score’s magical spell.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations has been recorded many times, notably by Sir Adrian Boult, whose interpretation stands among the most insightful in the catalog. Conducting the London Symphony, André Previn produces a realization of steadiness and character, if not of the distinction of the Boult version. The same may be said of the companion pieces, Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia and Overture to “The Wasps,” which are deftly played without reaching the heights (Angel SZ-37627).

The poems of Janáček’s remarkable song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared (1919) tell the lyrical tale of the love of a peasant boy for a gypsy girl. A sequential work in 22 parts, it is an oddity among song cycles—more on the order of a “song novel,” as the liner notes have it. Janáček was enchanted by the poems, and the settings he provided for them—scored mainly for tenor and piano—comprise one of his most inspired compositions. Recordings have seldom been satisfactory or durable, but the latest (Supraphon 1112 2414) comes closest. Vilém Přibyl and the other Czech soloists are not always technically secure, but their performance as a whole is favored by the requisite emotional commitment and sincerity.

Few recordings by conductor Carlos Kleiber are issued each year, yet they are among the most eagerly awaited. Filled with fresh ideas about familiar works, his interpretations are invariably stimulating, whether or not one agrees with them. On a new DG disc (2531 124) he leads the Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert’s Third and Eighth Symphonies. The Third contains more tightly wound energy than any previous version we’ve heard, with rapid tempos, especially in the Allegretto, and playing that is involved, affectionate, and full of life. The Vienna forces also shine in the Unfinished, which Kleiber imbues with a brilliant balance of dramatic urgency and transparent beauty.

A program of short works and overtures features the conducting of Erich Kleiber (Past Masters PM-30). None of these Berlin Philharmonic performances, recorded by Telefunken in the early 1930’s, is familiar to us, but each is noteworthy and individualistic, profiling the senior Kleiber at the height of his powers. Highlights include quicksilver renditions of the overtures to Die Fledermaus and Reznicek’s Donna Diana, and Stravinsky’s seldom heard Fireworks. (Distributed by the German News Go.; 218 E. 86th St.; New York, N.Y. 10028).

Handel’s Samson has been recorded under Raymond Leppard with a fine English cast that includes Janet Baker, Helen Watts, Robert Tear, John Shirley-Quirk, and Benjamin Luxon (RCA ARL4—3635). The composer altered the work many times, but the version heard here is basically what was heard at the first performance, in 1742. Samson is rather dramatic for an oratorio, and Leppard pursues that drama vigorously, extracting splendid performances from the soloists and the English Chamber Orchestra. The London Voices provide the choral work.

Ricardo Muti and Andrei Gavrilov are an inspired pairing in their vibrant account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (Angel SZ-37679). Gavrilov’s playing is the usual display of technical wizardry—sure-fingered and aggressive, save for the second movement in which he and the Philharmonia Orchestra strive for the long line in too deliberate a manner.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 7 has been recorded by the Berlin Radio Symphony under Heinz Rögner (Spectrum SR-116). You are not alone if you have never heard the Seventh, for Schubert completed only the first movement introduction and 75 measures of the principal subject before abandoning it. Left behind, however, were detailed sketches on the work, and there have been occasional attempts at fashioning these into a complete score, most notably that by conductor Felix Weingartner in 1934. The neglect of the Seventh is unfortunate, for, in the Weingartner version at least, it is a distinctive piece with a lovely slow movement, a spirited finale, and everywhere recognizably Schubertian. The Rögner performance is very good indeed and is the only currently available recording. (Distributed by UNI-PRO Recordings; Harriman, N.Y. 10926).

Tenor Robert White’s RCA recordings have ranged from Beethoven songs to John Corigliano’s Poem in October, with text by Dylan Thomas. His most natural repertory, however, is represented in his newest release, entitled Danny Boy (RCA ARL1—3442). Today, the Irish ballads that once were heard in every American parlor during the 19th century have been relegated to a single day of the year—St. Patrick’s Day, when we are likely to hear them sung by the popular singers of the day who have not the slightest sense of affinity for them. Robert White is one of the few contemporary singers who can capture the magic of these evocative songs, and his performances are much in the style of the genre’s great popularizer, John McCormack. Piano is the most common accompaniment, but the arrangements here are for orchestra, performed by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic.

Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster, who was born in 1859 and died in 1951, used his many years of life to create an extensive body of music, including symphonies and operas. Little of it survives, though some of it should. His orchestral suite Cyrano de Bergerac (1903) is a trenchant concert piece, filled with accessible thematic ideas and a variety of imaginative touches. Direct in its emotional appeal, it is by turns heartfelt and noble. A minor work surely, but a convincing one nonetheless. It has been newly recorded in Prague (Supraphon 1110 2456) with Václav Sematáček and the Czech Philharmonic, and one doubts that it can ever have been played with more admiration or feeling than as heard here.

There apparently remains much to be discovered among the works of Charles Gounod. Shortly after we welcomed Angel’s fine recordings of the two 1855 symphonies last quarter, Nonesuch released an edition of the much later, but equally obscure, Petite Symphonie (1895). A delightful, bucolic work scored for nine wind instruments, its fresh, evocative air outshines its more formal predecessors as well as its recorded companion piece—D’Indy’s lyrical, if ultimately forgettable, Chansons et Danses, scored for seven winds. The performances—vivid and assured—are by the Maurice Bourgue Wind Ensemble, all of whom are members of the Orchestre de Paris (Nonesuch H-71382).

Three popular principals take the leads in EMI’s new recording of Puccini’s La Bohème (Angel SZBX-3900). The standout performance is by Sherrill Milnes, who is a powerful and appealing Marcello. Alfredo Kraus’s Rodolfo is finely drawn and stylishly effective, and Renata Scotto is affecting as Mimi, though occasional moments of vocal stress mar her knowing performance. James Levine and the National Philharmonic give a lively, glowing account of the score, and the Trinity Boys Choir and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus make first-rate contributions.

A movement from a long-forgotten violin concerto written by Beethoven when he was 20 years old is one of a number of unfamiliar pieces played by Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony, Emil Tchakarov conducting (DG 2531 193). It is a dull affair, even in Kremer’s hands, and so, unfortunately, are Schubert’s Polonaise in B flat (D. 580) and Konzertstuck in D (D. 345). The better-known territory of Beethoven’s Romance in G (Op. 40) and Schubert’s Rondo in A (D. 438) are covered well but are available elsewhere with more inspired pairings.

Two additional recordings of violin music feature accessible works from the fringes of the repertory. The old Decca recording of Ruggiero Ricci and the Cincinnati Symphony in the Saint-Saëns First and the Paganini Second has been restored to Schwann (MCA/Westminster 1402). The Saint-Saëns, a one-movement miniature, is light as a feather, and the Paganini has plenty of razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics. Neither work has much currency today, but the performers play as if this were the greatest music ever written. Virtuosic display on a smaller scale is found in 14 brief showpieces by Sibelius (Finlandia FA-301). None of them is overly familiar, though they occasionally turn up as encore numbers in concerts. The estimable performances are by the young Israeli winner of the 1975 Sibelius Competition, Yuval Yaron, and his accompanist, Canadian pianist Rena Stipelman. (Distributed by the German News Co.)

The Dallas Symphony has made much progress under Eduardo Mata, and they are shown to best effect in two recordings of Ravel’s music. The new Daphnis et Chloé (RCA Digital ARC 1—3458) has strong recorded competition, and it must be said that the playing here is not as luminous as the best. That said, however, the performance is more than respectable, with refined playing by the strings and a good sense of detail-shaping. Best of all is the digital sound, which captures all of the score’s transparency of textures in a way that is seldom heard except in live performance. The second disc offers three concert favorites: Rapsodie espagnole, Alborada del gracioso, and Bolero (RCA Digital ARC1—3686). Again, the digital sound is ravishing, and the playing has all the life and color one would wish.

A sampler disc of well-known short compositions is designed to demonstrate the superior sound of the EMI/JVC digital recording process (Angel DS-37758). Included are Dvořák’s Nocturne for Strings, Fauré’s Pavane, Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, Boccherini’s Minuet, and Tchaikovsky’s “Andante cantabile” from the String Quartet No. 1. Angel’s digital sound ranks among the best, and, for those who seek these familiar items on a single LP, the performances, by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, offer impeccable playing and generous sentiment.

The distinctive stamp of Marriner and the Academy is also found in a sampler of Scandinavian works in which Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies reappears (Argo ZRG-877). Also included are Nielsen’s Little-Suite, and Sibelius’ Valse Triste and Rakastava. New to us is Dag Wiren’s gently ruminative Serenade, a lovely discovery. Compared to the Angel collection, the Grieg is slightly undercharacterized here, but the rest of the program is played with warmth and clarity, and the English pressing is first-rate.

The digital sound of the late 1950’s, meaning the state of the art at that time, was called high fidelity, and few companies offered recorded sound as good as that found on Vanguard records. The Vanguard Demonstration Series discs, some of which survive in our own collection, offered examples of their superior technology on bargain-priced LP’s featuring complete performances of standard repertory fare. What brought these discs to mind is a new Vanguard release (VA-25000) with another gimmick: simultaneous tapings of a single performance using both digital and analog methods. The work is Haydn’s Military Symphony, performed smartly by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under Johannes Somary. The record would have been a better idea had Vanguard not all along possessed superior analog sound, for if there is a difference between the two sides of the disc, we couldn’t hear it.

One of the appealing characteristics of Edo de Waart’s conducting is his ability to make a straightforward account of a score sound refreshing. Such is the case with a recent recording of Franck’s Symphony in D minor (Philips 9500 602). Carefully shaped, it offers well-defined tempos, a good measure of poetry in the second movement, and superlative playing by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Adoration of the Clash (Finnadar SR2-720) is the unusual title of a fascinating collection of works celebrating Henry Cowell’s musical device known as the tone cluster. The artistic force behind these first recordings is pianist and composer Doris Hayes. Cowell is represented by his Piece for Piano Paris (1924), in which the instrument is strummed, plucked, and hit from the inside. There are also works of interest by Leo Ornstein, Russell Peck, and Ilhan Mimaroglu. Most appealing to us were Morton Feldman’s gentle Verticle Thoughts IV (1963) and Hayes’ own Saturday Nights, a piece recalling church service singing in Rossville, Georgia, where the composer was raised.

The merry face of flutist James Galway peers out at us from record shop windows, magazine covers, and television talk shows, and his sudden celebrity status would be all for the good had his recordings not taken such a wrong turn. Take, for example, James Galway Plays Song of the Seashore and Other Melodies of Japan (RCA ARL1—3534), whose excessive title hints at the excesses committed to vinyl inside the jacket. Though the album notes describe the plaintive simplicity of these lovely miniatures, what we are offered are lush orchestral arrangements, which not only are inappropriate to the music but also verge on obliterating the soloist. Even more unlovable is Sometimes When We Touch (RCA ARL1—3628), pairing Galway with pop singer Cleo Laine, whose intense, husky-voiced delivery results in several unintentionally humorous sendups of some of the pop music world’s favorite classical music clichés, including Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 —here called “Drifting, Dreaming,” with innocuous words to match—and Pachelbel’s Kanon, retitled “How, Where, When?” Dreadful stuff.

Horn player Barry Tuckwell has better luck in the popular vein in his album of songs by Jerome Kern (Angel SZ-37723). The selections are a good blend of the familiar—”Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “All the Things You Are”—and the unfamilar—”A Sure Thing,” “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” “Up With the Lark.” The Richard Rodney Bennett arrangements, played by a small orchestra led by Neil Richardson, are tasteful and understated, though the performances are a shade more reverent than they need be.

The problem with novelty albums these days—at least the albums that appear on classical labels—is that they take themselves too seriously. As an antidote to Tomita, the All-Koto Band, and Wendy Carlos, we not long ago recommended a disc by the glorious Mighty Tubadours, our affection for which has only increased with time. Those who warmed to it will also appreciate an imported album by Tamas Hacki (Pepita/Qualiton SLPX-17576). It comes from Hungary and it’s an album of virtuoso whistling. The record is no joke, which is not to say that Hacki hasn’t a sense of humor. Nothing in the program is as we expect—the Triumphal March from Aida, for example, which is given a jazzy beat and a banjo accompaniment. Through Greensleeves, the Volga Song, and a handful of others, the music is infectious. Chances are you’ve never heard anything like it before. And chances are that you can’t whistle like Hacki, whose range, control, and assorted trills and embellishments are astonishing—if not breathtaking.

In the years since he abandoned his famous Quartet in the 1960’s, Dave Brubeck’s recordings and career have taken numerous twists and turns, giving evidence of an artist exploring musical realms—including serious composition—long of interest but set aside to meet the rigorous demands of concerts and recording sessions. Despite several interesting recordings, including Two Generations (Atlantic), nothing emerged to rival in pleasure the old Columbia LP’s with the original Quartet. Early in 1980, Back Home (Concord Jazz CJ-103) was released, featuring the lineup of Brubeck, Jerry Bergonzi on tenor sax, Chris Brubeck on electric bass, and Butch Miles on drums. It was a disappointment. Perhaps because it was something of a homecoming—a concert in Concord, California, where Brubeck was born and raised—or perhaps because of the live concert atmosphere, the players seemed edgy and too eager to please, lacking the sense of ensemble and thoughtful qualities that are the hallmarks of a Brubeck group at its best. It is good to be able to report that, with their latest disc, Tritonis (Concord Jazz CJ-129), the new Quartet has found its voice. Not only are the four more cohesive as a unit, but individually the playing is more sharply defined, accentuated by Bergonzi’s punchy sax work and the drumming of Randy Jones, who has replaced Butch Miles. Above all, the album is denned by Brubeck’s piano playing: the raggedy edges and amusing asides in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”; the smooth lyrical impulse of the standard, “Like Someone in Love”; and the improvisatory feeling of “Theme for June” and “Lord, Lord.” An irresistible album.

None of the traditional labels, catchphrases, or adjectives seem wholly to apply to the music of the young Brazilian, Egberto Gismonti, even though his works contain familiar elements and touch the senses in an elemental, almost primitive way. Solo (ECM 1—1136) is probably the most personal of his three albums, yet it is free of the kind of self-indulgence that often spoils such efforts. The music is characteristically improvisatory in feeling and rhythmic in texture. Alternating between eight-string guitar and piano, he occasionally adds his voice and the delicate sound of glass bells to the eclectic, magical weave. The effect is haunting and unforgettable.

Trumpet player Woody Shaw is a musician who can be counted on for consistently high quality albums of mainstream jazz. For Sure (Columbia FC-36383), Shaw’s fourth recording for CBS, is especially appealing, highlighted by a string-accompanied version of Claire Fischer’s “We’ll Be Together Again” and his own “OPEC,” arranged for sextet and featuring Gary Bartz on alto sax. Larry Williams’ piano playing is just the right accompaniment.

RCA has completed its reissue of the Benny Goodman Bluebird recordings with volumes seven and eight (AXM2—5567/ 5568). They cover 1938 and 1939, a period of major change and adjustment for the band, following the departure of most of the big guns, including Krupa, Hampton, and Freeman. If the final volumes lack the excitement of the earlier sessions, they retain the high degree of professionalism that characterized all of Goodman’s work. Volume seven is a collection of miscellany—”Louise,” “Sent For You Yesterday,” “This Can’t Be Love”—while volume eight offers pieces not included in the earlier albums as well as alternate takes and previously unreleased material, including a marvelous “S’Wonderful” from 1938

Of the many performers probing fusion jazz, few have come to grips with the contradictions and limitations of the style as well as the Pat Metheny Group, consisting of Metheny, Lyle Mays, Mark Egan, and Dan Gottlieb. Their latest release, American Garage (ECM 1—1155), is a kind of aural road trip across a musical landscape that’s as fresh, airy, and appealing as a drive through wide-open spaces on a clear, warm day with the top down.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading