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ISSUE:  Autumn 1976

Verdi was so plagued by organ grinders endlessly playing his music that on one vacation he rented every barrel organ in town and hid them in his basement just to be spared the sound of his own melodies. A good deal of Verdi’s more infectiously bumptious music seems eminently suitable for hurdy-gurdy, and none more so than / Masnadieri (1847). It is a lively, lyric, bombastic, tuneful work, with the kind of silly plot (brigands, royalty, loyalty, and love) that Romantics loved and Verdi never grew out of. But the performance here is so exciting and dramatic, the singing so fine, that one can forget the drawbacks of the plot and enjoy what is simply an outstanding performance of a very likeable, lesser work.

RECORDINGSBARTOK: Music for Strings, Percussion, & Celesta; Dance Suite. London Philharmonic, Solti (cond. ). Turnabout TV-S 34613.

Crisp, incisively rhythmic interpretations of two standard works of the Bartok repertory. Recorded ten years apart, in 1955 and 1965 respectively, these performances are examples of the same style, skill, and control we have come to associate with Solti’s most recent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Technically, the sound is quite good and, considering the year in which Music was recorded, clear.

RECORDINGSMOZART: Requiem in d, K. 626. Ameling, Scherler, Devos, Soyer; Symphonic Chorus and Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation of Lisbon, Corboz (cond. ) RCA AGL1—1533. Bogard, Murray, Lewis, Rippon; Amor Artis Chorale, English Chamber Orchestra; Somary (cond. ) Vanguard VSD-7121.

Two vastly different, equally uneven recordings, neither of which can be recommended. Corboz takes a lyrical, legato approach that is all too frequently lifeless; Somary opts for a more dramatic, forceful interpretation, bringing out the individual melodic lines but at the expense of a homogeneous musical texture. With the possible exceptions of Ameling and Rippon, none of the solo work is more than merely bearable; the RCA chorus sings without inspiration, the Vanguard chorus without precision. The sound of the RCA disc is rich but distant, the pressing poor, while the better-made Vanguard record has been miked too closely and unevenly mixed.

RECORDINGSSCHÖNBERG: Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5. Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan (cond. ). DG 2530 485.

Schonberg’s symphonic tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903) is a surprisingly accessible early composition—a lushly romantic amalgam of Strauss, Mahler, and Scriabin, thickly scored for colossal orchestral forces, episodic and relentlessly chromatic. Karajan’s interpretation is exciting, expansive, and full, as a whole more satisfying than the earlier Craft version, even though the recorded sound is muddy, which makes it difficult to hear some of the critical inner voices.

RECORDINGSDEBUSSY: Etudes for Piano, Books I & II. Jacobs. Nonesuch H-71322.

The twelve Etudes are among the most intriguing of Debussy’s significant works for piano, yet are seldom performed or recorded. Composed in 1915, they reflect the earlier Romantic tradition as well as foreshadow the modern period that was to follow. Filled with nuance and technically complex, the Etudes may be approached either as the exercises and studies they are, or simply as pleasurable music. Paul Jacobs’s playing is just right for these short pieces, capturing the thoughtful and emotional qualities of the music in a manner that is reserved without being detached.

RECORDINGSSCHUBERT: Quintet in C, Op. 163. Rose, Guarneri Quartet. RCA ARL1—1154.

The Quintet in C is Schubert’s most lyrically sustained, melodically captivating chamber work. Yet because of its sheer length and repetitiveness, it can become tedious and fragmented unless the performers fuse melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements into an organic whole. No recorded performance has been more successful at presenting a cohesive, integral interpretation than this magnificent version: the ensemble is flawless, the style rich, lush, and warm in almost a Brahmsian manner, the rhythm forceful without being overbearing, the total architecture of the work superbly delineated.

RECORDINGSBELLINI: I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Sills, Baker, Gedda, Lloyd, Herincx; New Philharmonia Orchestra, John Alldis Choir, Patanè (cond. ). Angel SCLX-3824.

This is a recording that doesn’t live up to its potential. Although Baker, as Romeo, sings magnificently, and although she and Sills do some lovely ensemble work, Sills’s musical and dramatic sensitivity is marred by an uncontrolled vibrato which creates inaccuracies in pitch. The male singers are all adequate, though Gedda’s voice sounds rather thin, but their ensemble singing lacks sufficient precision and coordination. The orchestra’s muffled sound provides a lackluster accompaniment to the singers, and Patane is not always able to hold soloists, chorus, and orchestra together through complex passages.

RECORDINGSJ. S. BACH: Concertos for Harpsichord & Orchestra; #1 (BWV 1052), #4 (BWV 1055), #5 (BWV 1056). Heiller; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Caridis (cond. ). Bach Guild HM 44SD.

A fine performance with a very full sound and excellent technical balancing of solo instrument and orchestra. In contrast to conductors who allow the spritely quality of these concertos to engender enthusiastic accelerandi, Caridis has kept the tempo moderate. Nothing is rushed, and the result is quite pleasing.

RECORDINGSTCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto #2 in G (unabridged, original version). Kersenbaum; Orchestre National de L’O. R. T. F. , Martinon (cond. ). Connoisseur CSQ 2076.

Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto is so overshadowed in popularity by the more conventionally melodious first that it is easy to forget just how exciting a work it is. It is also more typical of the composer’s symphonic style than is the earlier work, a fact made evident in this recording, the first recording of the recently discovered original 1880 score. Kersenbaum’s performance is everything one could hope for—she plays solidly, with a sense of verve yet with a fine awareness of both melodic and rhythmic motifs. This, in conjunction with Martinon’s grasp of the total architecture of the work, makes for a very pleasing interpretation.

RECORDINGSVIVALDI: Juditha Triumphans. Finnilä, Ameling, Springer, Hamari, Burmeister; Kammerorchester Berlin, Negri (cond. ). Philips 6747 173.

Vivaldi is so strongly associated with instrumental music that we forget that he wrote more than 40 operas and oratorios and was highly successful as an opera composer. Juditha Triumphans, an opera-oratorio based on the biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes, demonstrates Vivaldi’s ability to create music which, despite the highly stylized compositional language of 18th-century opera, is both musically and dramatically interesting. The performance here is unsurpassable, the orchestral playing and choral singing crisp, rhythmic and vibrant; the singing of the soloists is not just magnificent, it’s miraculous.

RECORDINGSORNSTEIN: Quintette for Piano & Strings, Op. 92; Three Moods. Westney, Stepner, Strauss, Sacco, Mansbacher. CRI SD-339.

Incredibly, this is the first recording of any of the music of Leo Ornstein, who just after World War I was the enfant terrible of futurism in American music. His best known works are frenetically, insistently rhythmic, the harmonies consciously jarring. (Three Moods (1914) contains what is possibly the first use of tone clusters. ) The Quintette (1927), however, is far more Romantic in character (though rhythmic motifs comprise an important part of its structure) and, for all its avowed modernity, is a bit banal. Pianist Westney plays the Moods well, but the Quintette suffers slightly from a frantic, tense performance which makes the overall sound more unpleasant than it should be.

RECORDINGSTIPPETT: A Child of Our Time. Norman, Baker, Shirley-Quirk, Cassilly; BBC Singers, BBC Choral Society, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Davis (cond. ). Philips 6500 985.

A magnificent recording of Tippett’s oratorio. Written during World War II as a protest against man’s inhumanity to man, the work is lushly Romantic, often ethereal, and always emotional. The performance, like the music, is never static. Colin Davis does a remarkable job of molding this Passion into an expressive, beautifully phrased musical continuity. The singing, both solo and choral, is uniformly excellent, and the balance between voice and orchestra is perfect. This is an appropriately dramatic and moving rendering, true to the nature of the text.

RECORDINGSMOZART: Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581; Oboe Quartet in F, K. 370. Pieterson, Pierlot, Grumiaux, Toyoda, Lesueur, Scholz. Philips 6500 924.

This recording is recommended with some reservations, for while the group’s overall conception of these two works is spirited and musical, there is a tenuous feeling to much of the rapid passage work. Although somewhat nasal in tone, oboist Pierlot’s performance is accomplished; Pieterson’s virtuoso clarinet playing is properly bright and sonorous. The recorded sound is warm and intimate.

RECORDINGSJOPLIN: Treemonisha. Balthrop, Alien, Rayam; Original Cast Orchestra & Chorus of the Houston Grand Opera, Schuller (cond. ). DC 2707 083.

With its European manner, ragtime motif, and African dances, Treemonisha (1917) is a mutation sui generis of almost unbelievable proportions. To be fair, an actual stage performance of the work— with its elaborate sets and costumes—is likely an event of some excitement. These elements, of course, are missing on the recording, and while the performance is competent and energetic, there is little that arranger, orchestrator, and conductor Schuller can do to disguise the fact that the music is among Joplin’s least interesting.

RECORDINGSDVOŘÁK: Concerto for Cello in b, Op. 104. Harrell; London Symphony Orchestra, Levine (cond. ). RCA ARL1—1155.

This disc marks the recording debut of Lynn Harrell, and it is a stunning one. Harrell has a sweet, honeyed tone, a fast, brilliant intense vibrato (with a slight tendency to go sharp), a sustained, smooth right-arm technique, and a marvelous sense of line and direction. Unfortunately, the performance as a whole is unsatisfying because of the lack of stylistic congruence between soloist and orchestra—while Harrell’s playing is precise but not gutsy, Levine’s conducting is loud but not crisp enough to be exciting and without a sense of structure and direction to it.

RECORDINGSTHOMSON: The Plow That Broke the Plains; The River; Autumn. Stockton; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Marriner (cond. ). AngelS-37300.

Thomson’s two scores for Pare Lorentz’s Depression-era documentaries are gems of Americana, evoking sentimental images of open spaces, hard times, and simple gifts. Marriner’s interpretation is straight-forward, sympathetic, integral, and appropriately nostalgic, but somehow fundamentally lifeless. Autumn (1964), for harp and orchestra, gets a far, far better performance here than it deserves.

RECORDINGSSCHUBERT: Nine Songs. SCHÖNBERG: The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Op. 15. DeGaetani, Kalish. Nonesuch H-71320.

In addition to a welcome performance of Schonberg’s expressionistic song cycle of phantasmic beauty, this disc contains mezzo-soprano DeGaetani’s first recording of Romantic lieder. It is a disappointing debut. DeGaetani has an incredibly smooth voice with a warm tone, but it is raspy on top and slightly muddy throughout, so that her consonants are swallowed. Thus, though her interpretations are marvelously lyric, they lack the dramatic essence and changing vocal color which animates the songs. All this may be blamed on the recording’s faulty engineering, as may the fact that though Kalish’s proficient playing is steady, supportive, and an integral part of the musical conception, the sound of the piano is muffled and distant.

RECORDINGSCOPLAND: Sonata for Violin & Piano. IVES: Sonata #4 for Violin & Piano. BINKERD: Sonata for Violin & Piano. Laredo, Schein. Desto DC 6439.

Though composed over a span of more than 60 years, these three sonatas share the same sense of meditation, thoughtfulness, and remembrance. The Copland and Ives works are already firmly established in the repertory, and the Binkerd should be—its melodic line is fragmented and alternates between the two voices yet forms into an almost continuous lyric flow. Laredo and Schein bring a youthful vitality to their performance that nicely complements the introspective character of the music.

RECORDINGSSTRAVINSKY: L’Histoire du Soldat. Gielgud, Courtenay, Moody; Boston Symphony Chamber Players. DG 2530 609.

Composed in 1918, in the period when Stravinsky was just beginning to develop his neoclassical style, the music from L’Histoire has achieved a deservedly firm place in the repertory. However, the work was originally conceived as a fabulistic theater piece, and that is how it is presented here, in a clever translation from the French by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black. The speaking roles are well cast, the musical performance is flawlessly clean, jazzy, and bright, with the overall result a work of captivating charm, period flavor, and dramatic integrity.

RECORDINGSThe Art of Renaissance and Baroque Ornamentation and Embellishment. Bach Guild HM 47/48 SD.

It is small wonder that the revival of interest in pre-Classical music should also engender renewed concern with and controversy about the role of improvisational ornamentation, which was a critical factor in compositional forms and performance practices for more than three centuries. This interesting anthology contains some two dozen disparate examples of works by composers from the mid-15th century to the mid-18th; each selection is first played in an unornamented version and then in a second version, with a different instrumental combination, with embellishments added. The many artists involved, all of international stature, perform competently.

RECORDINGSSEEGER: Two Movements for Chamber Orchestra. MEKEEL: Corridors of Dream; Planh. MUSGRAVE: Chamber Concerto #2. Boston Musica Viva, Pittman (cond. ). Delos DEL 25405.

This disc features first recordings of four works for diverse instrumentation by three well-known contemporary American women composers. All four selections are in a dramatic, post-expressionist, semi-pointillistic style, evocative and emotional. The Boston Musica Viva, founded in 1969 and devoted to the performance of contemporary music, makes its recording debut here, with playing that is remarkably energetic, polished, and balanced.

RECORDINGSMASSENET: La Navarraise. Home, Domingo, Milnes; London Symphony Orchestra, Lewis (cond. ). RCA ARL1—1114.

Composed in 1894, La Navarraise represents Massenet’s one brief, torrid fling with verismo; and from beginning to end the score is replete with violence, passion, and melodrama. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable minor work and this performance has just the right sense of vigor and urgency needed to convey the intensity of the story. The singing, though, is uneven—at times dramatic and forceful, at times lackluster and characterless—as if the principals knew that they were supposed to sing their hearts out but couldn’t quite figure out why.

RECORDINGSROSSINI: Overtures (Barbiere, L’ltaliana, Cambiale, Scala di Seta, Tancredi, Signor, Turco, L’lnganno) Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Marriner (cond. ). Philips 6500 878. (Barbiere Cenerontola, Gazza Ladra, L’ltaliano, Signor, Assedio. ) London Symphony Orchestra, Abbado (cond. ). DG 2530 559.

Two equally excellent recordings, though for very different reasons. Marriner’s interpretation is brisk and exciting, and under his direction the Academy orchestra performs with precision and brilliance. By contrast, Abbado’s less frenetic, more lyrical, more sculpted approach, one for which the London Symphony is admirably suited, is a highly appealing change from traditional bravura interpretations. The recorded sound on both discs is first-rate: that of the Marriner is mellow and sonorous, that of the Abbado closer and livelier. Each disc contains some rarities: the Philips three of the lesser known, and lesser, overtures and the DG the infrequently heard Assedio, one of Rossini’s most dramatic works.

RECORDINGSBOLCOM: Open House; Commedia. Sperry; Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Davies (cond. ). Nonesuch H-71324

It’s not often that one hears contemporary music as enjoyable as Bolcom’s, full of effects and character, high-spirited, humorous, and immediately likeable. He is an eclectic borrower: Open House (1975), an inventive song cycle based on poems by Roethke, honors, imitates, and satirizes Bach, Bernstein, Britten, and, most importantly, Berg; Commedia (1971) is a very funny parody of a tarantella. The orchestral playing is excellent, but though tenor Sperry’s interpretation is dramatic and moody, his voice is vinegary, painfully pinched, and strained.

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