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ISSUE:  Winter 1977

It is always astonishing to hear just how different two recordings of a single work can be, a fact brought home by the recent release on Columbia (M2 33594) of Schönberg’s Moses and Aaron, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Günter Reich’s version (Philips 6700 084), released last year, emphasizes the declamatory aspect of Schönberg’s textual settings, and is recorded with a clarity that delineates each instrumental line, but the end result, though theatrical, lacks a feeling of musico-dramatic unity. Boulez’s version could not be more different: since the sound is less close and immediate, one hears shifting instrumental textures rather than individual nuances; the sprechgesang is more sung than spoken, so that the work sounds expressionistic rather than serialistic; and the whole is integrated into an organic synthesis of music and drama that is quintessentially operatic.

Some delightful minor gems by Mozart are offered on two Philips discs. One (6700 097) is devoted entirely to Zaide, an early Singspiel, performed with grace and charm by a cast which includes Edith Mathis and Peter Schreier. The other disc (9500 011), an irridescent reading of The Impresario and Lo Sposo Deluso, is crisply conducted by Colin Davis and features some captivating singing, especially by Leiana Cotrubas, whose limpid vocal quality is particularly well-suited to music of this period.

Miss Cotrubas’s singing is equally marvelous in the first recording of Haydn’s comic opera La Fedeltd Premiata, directed by Antal Dorati with Frederica Von Stade, Luigi Alva, Lucia Valentini, and Alan Titus (Philips 6707 028). The pastoral plot is silly beyond belief, but Haydn’s music is so graceful, animated, and cheerful—qualities which cast, orchestra, and conductor realize to the utmost—that the opera is enjoyable from start to finish.

The release of recordings by Lazar Berman outside the Soviet Union has been heralded as a musical event of monumental importance. Indeed, it is immediately apparent on the two recent Columbia Melodiya discs (M 33927; M2 33928) of Liszt selections, including the Transcendental Etudes, Sonata in B Minor, and Mephisto Waltz, and on the Saga recording (5430) of the Liszt B Minor and Beethoven Appassionata sonatas, that Berman is a master of keyboard technique. However, whirlwind speed and thunderous chords alone cannot generate excitement, especially when, as on the Saga disc, accuracy is sacrificed for overall effect. Berman’s interpretations seem too calculated and lacking in poetic sensitivity, and as a result are surprisingly undramatic and curiously unmoving.

Equally as disappointing is William Bolcom’s humorless performance of delightful piano pieces by Darius Milhaud (None-such H-71316). Bolcom’s keyboard manner is so easygoing that passages often lack the requisite crispness, sweep, direction, and rhythmic delineation that would bring them to life; and his interpretations are so subtle that the gentle theatricality inherent in the music is all but lost in a blur of sameness. Unfortunately, the heavy, muddy piano sound only detracts from the quality of the performance.

Mstislav Rostropovich both plays the solo part and conducts the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in performances of the two Haydn cello concertos (Angel S-37193). While his playing is as expressive and lyrical as always, it lacks the spark that would bring the music to life. That spark is certainly present in Rostropovich’s performances of the cello concertos by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, both composed within the last decade (Angel S-37146). These are magnificient, overwhelmingly expressive works, and Rostropovich’s masterful playing exploits their emotionality to the fullest.

In the 1920’s, Leo Ornstein was notorious for the modernistic dissonances of his music, but today much of his music seems to be lyrically, banally impressionistic. Such is certainly the case with his Sonata for Cello & Piano and Three Preludes (Orion 76211), both of which might have been written by César Franck. Bonnie Hampton and Nathan Schwartz give appropriately lush, romantic performances here, and the end result is actually rather enjoyable.

Of all the flutists today, none, and that includes Rampal, plays with the technical and musical mastery and the verve of Paula Robison. Vanguard has just released her first solo recording (VSD 71207), an album of five petit morceaux by Godard, Genin, Boehm, Gaubert, and Hummel, the type of florid but mindless salon music that was the staple of recitals in the late Romantic era. That Miss Robison and Samuel Sanders, her accompanist, can make this music not only interesting but appealing is a tribute to their ability and artistry.

The same type of Romantic salon music can be found on Jeffrey Solow’s and Doris Stevenson’s recital of lovely bonbons for cello and piano by Tchaikovsky, Toch, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Fauré and Weber (ABC/Command 9006). That Solow was a pupil of Piatigorsky is obvious: he plays with the same fluid lyricism and emphasis on line as Piatigorsky did, and he also has the same lack of interest in properly controlling his bow or playing in tune.

Crystal Records has four fine additions to its growing list of chamber music for winds played by young American musicians. The Cambridge and Annapolis brass quintets are each featured in samplers (S204 and S206 respectively) of some excellent and unusual music ranging from Baroque to contemporary; S361 features Thomas Stevens in six contemporary works for trumpet and various instrumental combinations; and flutist Anne Giles, accompanied by her husband Alien on harpsichord and piano, is heard in two likeable sonatas by Quantz, Dutilleux’s Sonatine and Muller-ZUrich’s. Capricdo (S312). The performances on all these recordings are musically interesting and exciting,

Young American pianists are generally lauded for their high degree of technical proficiency and often criticized for their lack of musical sensitivity. Such is certainly the case with Bruce Hungerford, who wends his way competently, albeit lifelessly, through two records of familiar chestnuts by Brahms and Chopin (Vanguard VSD 71213 & 71214). Similarly, duo pianists Nadya and Steven Gordon’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s lyrical Fantasy, op.5, and Poulenc’s diverting Sonata for Two Pianos (Klavier KS 549) are strong and well-sculpted, but otherwise unremarkable. In marked contrast to these two discs is one by Stephen Bishop (Philips 9500 043). Although there are several recordings of Bartok’s first and third piano concertos currently in the catalogue, Bishop’s collaboration with Colin Davis is by far more spirited, more rhythmically sure, and more elegantly shaped than any other version.

Soon after his emigration to America in 1916, Ernest Bloch began composing pieces which expressed his love for his new country but in an unfortunate new idiom which reminds one only of the background score for a grade B Western.America: An Epic Rhapsody, written in 1926, Bloch’s most ambitious choral-orchestral paean to the American Dream, has been recorded by the Symphony of the Air with Leopold Stokowski conducting (Vanguard SRV 346), but even this performance cannot make the music worth a second hearing.

While a few recordings of operas by contemporary American composers are available, notably Ward’s The Crucible (CRI S-168), Beeson’s Lizzie Borden (Desto 6455/7), and Moore’s Carry Nation (Desto 6363/5), for the most part the finest American vocalists have not been recorded singing American vocal music. Thus, the release of the excellent 1959 New York City Opera production of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (DG 2709 061) featuring Beverly Sills, Walter Cassel, and Francis Bible is especially welcome. Sills’s legendary interpretation of the title role made her famous, and rightly so, for her portrayal is so sensitive, dramatic, and moving that one doesn’t mind the familiar vibrato and uneven vocal production.

A recently released recording by Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish (Nonesuch H-71325) is now unquestionably the best performance available of the songs of Charles Ives. DeGaetani’s voice is not always easy to listen to, especially in the higher register, which often sounds raspy, but her collaboration with Kalish is spirited and very effective. Always musical, their renditions here are variously gentle, humorous, languid, or ebullient, as each song demands. Kalish also appears on Nonesuch recordings of Haydn keyboard sonatas, which he performs with grace and a clear sense of melodic line (H-71318 & H-71328). And Miss DeGaetani gives a lyric interpretation of Richard Wernick’s ethereal elegy for voice and percussion, A Prayer for Jerusalem on CRI (SD 344), a disc which also includes an excellent performance by the Wichita State University Percussion Orchestra of Walter Mays’s fascinating Six Invocations to the Svara Mandala.

Orion has issued a recording of Yolanda Marcoulescou singing some very lovely impressionistic songs by Roussel and Enesco (75184). The songs, never before recorded, may be lovely, but Marcoulescou, who was a leading soprano in the operatic world of Eastern Europe before moving to Wisconsin, and who has a good sense of drama and musicality, has a dreadful Slavic wobble.

Recordings of Italian solo vocal music of the early 17th century are amazingly rare, so Nigel Rogers’s virtuosic performance of eighteen canti amorosi by members of the Florentine Camerata (DG 2533 305) is more than welcome. Rogers is such a master of ornamentation and the songs are so beautiful and totally captivating that one forgives an occasional vinegary sound. On Saga (5338), Sheila Armstrong and the English Consort of Viols give lively, lyric performances of 15 works by English composers of the early 17th century that almost make one forget how academic English music was at that time.

The Beaux Arts Trio always brings a sense of rhythmic vitality to its performances, as evidenced in its recording of Shostakovich’s impassioned Trio #2 and Ives’ jejune Trio for Violin, Cello if Piano (Philips 6500 860). One can only wish, however, that either the trio or the engineers at Philips would adjust the balance so that the end result doesn’t sound like a sonata for piano with strings obbligato. Vitality is characteristic also of the Grumiaux Trio’s performance, with Gérecz and Lesuer assisting, of Mozart’s last two string quintets (Philips 6500 621), but that vitality is more than counterbalanced by the group’s painful intonation problems and by the close miking, which renders the dynamic level a constant mezzo forte.

Two or three of Paganini’s flamboyant Caprices should be enough for most appetites, but for those who must have everything, Advent has recorded all twenty-four (5019—2). Daniel Majeske, concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, is the violinist, and his intense and spirited performance meets the technical demands of these pyrotechnic works, though in trying to maintain a full tone at all times, he plays scratchily and without accurate intonation.

Gidon Kremer, winner of the fourth Tchaikovsky Competition, makes his recording debut in a performance of Brahms’s violin concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (Angel S-37226). Kremer has such a smooth bow technique and even tone that his playing is an uninterrupted flow of mellowness, but the lack of delineation makes for a performance that is characterless. This much of a muchness interpretation is not helped by either the muddy recorded sound on the disc or the fact that the Berlin Philharmonic sounds as if it is performing in its sleep. Character-less is also the word for several other recordings of string music. Josef Suk’s interpretation of Beethoven’s violin concerto, with Sir Adrian Boult leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Vanguard SRV353SD), starts out promisingly but loses drive somewhere in the middle of the first movement, so that what at first sounds elegant becomes merely blandly pleasant. Eduard Melkus and Huguette Dreyfus bring little rhythmic pulse or dynamic variation to their brisk rendition of Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord (DG/ Archive 2708 032). A lack of intensity, which may be the fault of the engineering, spoils the Zaslav Duo’s performances of Franck’s violin sonata (in its transcription for viola) and Milhaud’s two sonatas for viola and piano (Orion 75186). Bernard Zaslav’s viola playing is zesty and lyrical, but Naomi Zaslav’s accompaniment is too subservient to be an integral part of the musical dialogue.

Some fascinating works which explore new dimensions of sound are featured on three CRI discs. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies (SD 345) and Five Sonorous Inventions (SD 346) each involve various preparational techniques which extend the tonal range of the piano, including bowing the strings, which produces an eerie and highly evocative effect. Charles Dodge’s Speech Songs, In Celebration, and The Story of Our Lives (SD 348) have been created through a medium that is unique—speech synthesized by computer transformations. By altering the pitch, duration, and timbre of artificial speech sounds, Dodge constructs moments of speech which he plays off against other moments, creating a repetitive, ritualistic effect that is admirably suited to Mark Strand’s beautifully imagistic poems of pathos and anomie. There is wit and whimsy here, and some intriguing inter-plays of words and inflections, but there is also a certain sameness to the.tonal quality that eventually wears thin.

A number of interesting recordings of organ music figure among recent releases. Mireille Laglace performs music of Buxtehude with uncommon verve on Titanic (Ti-11); Heinz Marcus GOttsche has recorded the liturgical toccatas of Georg Muffat, a contemporary of Buxtehude (Oryx 1761 & 1762); Messiaen’s L’Ascension receives a bravura performance by Charles Krigbaum (Lyrichord LLST 7297); and George Markey’s handling of some of Duruflé’s complex compositions is impressively unhesitant (Psallite 103/300770F). Philips has issued a recording (6500 925) of eight of J.S. Bach’s familiar chorales, chorale preludes, and fantasias for organ for which Bach had written or specified a part for trumpet William Neil plays the organ spiritedly, but the recording is remarkable chiefly for the preternatural skill with which Don Smithers plays the natural trumpet.

Richard Strauss was renowned not just as a composer but as one of the great conductors of his day. Few of his recordings have survived, however, so Vanguard’s issue of the 1944 recordings of Strauss conducting seven of his own tone poems (SRV 325/29) is a welcome addition to the Strauss discography. Newcomers to Strauss’s music should opt for one of the more recent, sonically powerful recordings of these works (the sound here ranges from very good to abysmal), but for the aficionado these performances are a must. No one else would have the nerve to conduct Strauss’s music as eccentrically, as unabashedly emotionally, or as energetically as does Strauss himself.


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