The final year of the 1970’s was unkind to the music industry, particularly the classical music industry. It was a year in which RCA made substantial reductions in recording projects; the giant Polygram combine absorbed financially troubled London/Decca; Capitol abandoned its EMI Imports division; HNH cut back dramatically and gave up its distribution to Euroclass; and Warner Communications topped them all by firing virtually the entire staff of Nonesuch Records, ending an era and placing in doubt continuation of the honorable traditions established there by Tracey Sterne. On the positive side, numerous smaller outfits, especially those dealing with imports and reissues, continued to show signs of health. One of the most intriguing catalogues of imports continues to be maintained by the German News Company (218 E. 86th St.; New York, N. Y. 10028), which has a large stock of unusual German and Scandinavian recordings, and which now is the only major American source for EMI discs. Qualiton, with its well-developed domestic distribution system, offers not only the familiar Supraphon and Hungaroton labels, but also English imports from Pearl, Royal, and Aurora, and the excellent releases of Swedish Bis. Quintessence continues to thrive as a purveyor of important reissues, while pop leader MCA, which last year bought ailing ABC Classics, has begun in a modest way to restore the best of the American Decca catalogue, a task it shares with Varese Sarabande. Best of all signs is the emergence of new labels, and as we welcome Caedmon’s Arabesque Records, launched early this year, we are cheered also by the prospect of a new imprint from the resilient Ms. Sterne—perhaps the most auspicious sign of all for the 1980’s.
Any number of factors may account for the neglect of a musical work over time, yet few of our age’s ubiquitous world premiere recordings of forgotten compositions can rightfully lay claim to masterwork status. The new recording of Massenet’s Cendrillon (Columbia M3-35194) may prove to be an exception. The story is the familiar Charles Perrault fairy tale, with an overlay of magic provided by librettist Henri Cain. With its rich, melodic score and dazzling stagecraft, the 1899 Opéra-Comique premiere was a triumph, yet the work vanished after the First World War, a victim of changing musical tastes and the untenable expenses required of a properly lavish production. If its slot in the performing repertory is still in doubt, its new recording ensures a durable tenure in Schwann. In ravishing voice, Frederica von Stade was a superb choice for the title role, and while the casting of Nicolai Gedda as Prince Charming—a part written for a dramatic soprano—was a mistake, it is not a fatal one. Jules Bastin is effective as the hapless Pandolfe, and Jane Berbié is delightfully imperious as the social-climbing Madame de la Haltière. The whole production, in the hands of Julius Rudel, has warmth and charm.
Franz Schubert may have been a failure when it came to opera, but it wasn’t for lack of trying: he wrote no fewer than 17 works for the stage. Several years ago, Philips gave us an LP of highlights from these little-known compositions, and now EMI has the first complete recording of Alfonso und Estrella (Angel SCLX-3878). Schubert thought it his best opera, and it probably is. The new recording shows it to be a likeable, lesser work: lesser not for want of musical imagination, but because of the inept libretto by Franz von Schober. Philips had it right in selecting the three duets and two arias from the second act forest scene as the opera’s romantic wellspring. They also had it right in selecting soloists Claes Ahnsjö and Elly Ameling, whose gorgeous singing eclipses the otherwise admirable performances of Angel’s Peter Schreier and Edith Mathis, just as Otmar Suitner’s genial account of the complete score with the Berlin State Orchestra sounds dull compared with the vivacious playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic on Philips.
Most welcome is an integral set of Dvořák’s cello works played by Miloš Sádlo and the Czech Philharmonic, Václav Neumann conducting (Supraphon 1 10 2181/ 2). Included is the rarely heard, and otherwise unavailable, Concerto No. 1, a pleasurable rhapsodic piece which preceded the famous Second Concerto by some 30 years. Sádlo’s expressive playing has strength as well as warmth, and the Czech players respond with full measure of eloquence and passion. The set’s shorter works include the frothy Polonaise in A for cello and piano, in which Sádlo is joined by Alfred Holeček, and the durable Silent Woods.
Dvořák’s New World Symphony is not a work in need of a new recording. Nonetheless, the recent Rostropovich/London Philharmonic collaboration has much to commend it. It is a score Rostropovich plainly admires. His gently ruminative interpretation avoids the pitfall of excessive sentiment, and there is a good sense of forward momentum without loss of Dvořák’s exquisite lyrical detail. Moreover, the LPO has rarely sounded better, playing with a rich, full sound, captured in EMI’s softfocus engineering (Angel SZ-37719).
The Debussy and Ravel string quartets comprise the most popular chamber music coupling ever put to disc, and to the dozen or so current listings are now added new recordings by the Melos Quartet (DG 2531 203) and the Tokyo String Quartet (Columbia M-35147). The approaches are quite different, for while the Melos players emphasize the music’s seductive warmth and lyrical introspection, the Tokyo group seeks out the scores’ restlessness and urgent intensity. The choice is between poetry and ardor on the one hand, and fire and vision on the other. The playing in both cases is of the very highest order.
Colin Davis, a conductor of strong Stravinskian instinct, covers familiar ground in a new recording of the Firebird (1910) with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips 9500 637). It is a performance abounding in orchestral color and rhythmic thrust. The playing is incisive, yet spirited as well, and the spacious acoustic enhances the interpretation’s keen sense of theatre.
An engaging sampler of music of the Renaissance comes from Calliope, a New York-based ensemble consisting of Lucy Bardo, Lawrence Benz, Allan Dean, and Ben Harms. Their mostly unfamiliar program ranges from music of the late 15th-century Franco-Flemish school to the works of Ruffo, Banchieri, and Gesualdo, representing the composers of late 16th-century Italy. Several Tielman Susato dances and a fanfare written by two members of the group fill out the LP. The performances are skillful, lively, and utterly unstuffy. The recorded sound and pressing are uncommonly good for a small label (Calliope CAL-101).
When it comes to the music of Frederick Delius, the recordings of Sir Thomas Beecham are virtually definitive. Thus the appearance here of a previously unreleased 1957 performance of the Songs of Sunset (1911) is, for Delians, a special event. An important work in the Delius catalogue, its charms have always eluded us, even though the Royal Philharmonic and soloists Maureen Forrester and John Cameron give a performance that is fluent in the kind of lyrical repose the composer likely had in mind. Overside, the dances ending the second act of Borodin’s Prince Igor receive the kind of bracing workout that Beecham was famous for. Good mono sound throughout (Arabesque 8026).
One of the most cogent expressions of the competing strains of passion and melancholy in Tchaikovsky’s music and life is found in his Fourth Symphony, for which the composer provided notes outlining the score’s thematic ideas concerning man’s domination by forces beyond his control. It has been recorded often, including a recent entry by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips 9500 622). Haitink takes the traditional approach to the Fourth by emphasizing symphonic architecture and balancing the rival forces comprising the music’s textural swirl. In its drama, propulsion, and evocative power, it is a brilliant enumeration. No less brilliant is a version that couldn’t be more different: Karl Bohm’s with the London Symphony (DG 2531 078). In Böhm’s conception, the Fourth becomes less a symphony than a set of emotional tableaux depicting the composer’s extramusical ideas. In the interplay between the light of man’s spirit and the darkness of the Fate motive, it is darkness that predominates—a darkness that is at once dramatic and tinged with sadness and regret. Deeply thoughtful and moving, it is quite unlike any previous version we’ve heard.
Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies used to be little-heard, though there now is an abundance of recordings. Herbert von Karajan’s first essay of this trio was recently issued in a DG box (2709 101) and has become the yardstick by which others will be measured. The sheer magnificence of the Berlin Philharmonic in Karaj’an’s hands is evident at every turn in performances that are clear-textured, astonishing in dynamic range, and disciplined without aloofness. From the haunting opening signature to the swaggering big moments of the Finale, there is no more compelling version of the Winter Dreams Symphony on disc. Notable for its rhythmic vitality and freshness, Karajan’s Little Russian is a gem that easily holds sway over strong competition. And the Polish has great warmth while underplaying the work’s garish aspects.
Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, based on the enduring Grimm Brothers story, has become a staple of the stage, if mainly at Christmas, and the subject of numerous recordings. The latest (Columbia M2—35898) offers one of the most impressive casts on disc. Frederica von Stade and Ileana Cotrubas bring vitality, finesse, and brilliant singing to the title roles, while Elisabeth Söderstrom is a delight as the Witch, a performance that avoids the usual histrionic excesses. Both the Sandman and the Dew Fairy are small parts often taken by a single singer, yet here we are treated to Kiri Te Kanawa and Ruth Welting, both of whom play their roles to the hilt. The performances individually and collectively are so effective that one doesn’t mind that the Cologne Giirzenich Orchestra, lead by John Pritchard, plays far too cautiously.
Although Joaquin Rodrigo’s most celebrated compositions are written for guitar, his Concerto Pastoral (1978) is scored for flute. James Galway, its dedicatee, gives the world première recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Eduardo Mata (RCA ARL1—3416). The title is something of a puzzle, for only the central movement resembles anything of the pastoral, the outer movements consisting of a veritable obstacle course of technical difficulties which Galway negotiates with ease. Not a durable work, perhaps, but one with plenty of spark and personality, played here in like manner.
Galway is also heard mining the familiar lode of the Mozart flute concertos, with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra (Pickwick SHM-3010A). As with his previous recording of these delectable pieces, with the Lucerne Festival Strings (RCA), his style is too freely romantic for our taste. The popularity of the earlier recording, however, would indicate that there are many who prefer their Mozart so, and for them, the good news is that the new LP is about half the price of the domestic issue, and the New Irish Chamber Orchestra plays far better than one might guess.
Charles Gounod’s reputation rests chiefly on three operas, of which Faust (1859) is the best known. There is more, of course, though most will be surprised that his oeuvre includes two symphonies, written very much against the prevailing French musical grain in 1855. Of traditional architecture, the Symphony No. 1 is bouyantly rhythmic and sunny of disposition, much in the manner of Haydn. Several times during the 1950’s it was used for ballets choreographed by George Balanchine. Of a deeper hue, even grave at times, the Symphony No. 2 is perhaps the more substantive of the pair. Both works delighted us, and on a new Angel LP (S-37726) the playing of Michel Plasson’s Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse is excellent.
Distinctive playing is also characteristic of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which continues to shine under the leadership of Carlo Maria Giulini. Their new recording of Beethoven’s Third Symphony ranks as one of their most effective collaborations. It is a performance of considerable technical finesse and, moreover, offers a fresh look at this warhorse. There are few longer versions of the Eroica on disc, yet Giulini’s unhurried approach is far from idiosyncratic, as the deliberate tempos and repeats give the score unusual poignancy and dramatic weight (DG 2531 123).
Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra have less success in taking a similar approach with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (Philips 6769 028). Despite numerous effective moments, the overall result is too willful in its underlined epic status. Just the opposite is attempted by James Levine in his interpretation of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, played by the Philadelphia Orchestra (RCA ARL2—3461). This is probably the brightest view of one of music’s darkest works, yet the result, as in the Giulini disc, strikes one less as idiosyncratic than as a fresh view.
Among the projects of his final years, Manuel de Falla pursued the the vision of a scenic cantata depicting the lost continent of Atlantis, using for a text a lengthy poem by Catalan priest Jacinto Verdaguer. When he died in 1946, his heirs entrusted completion of the work to composer/conductor Ernesto Halffter, whose labors with some 300 manuscript folios resulted in two versions, one in 1963 and a second in 1977. The latter has now received its first recording, with a mostly Spanish cast lead by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Angel SBLX-3852). As the final musical thoughts of a major composer, Atlántida is of undeniable historical value, and those who take an interest in such things will long debate the extent to which the result reflects Falla’s true wishes. The layman, however, will find it impossibly tedious, and the dreadful performance heard here not so much illuminates the score as embalms it.
DG’s successful new issue of Fischer-Dieskau in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle prompted our keen interest in the singer’s first recording of the opera, an interest heightened by the fact that the conductor was Ferenc Fricsay, a responsive exponent of Bartók’s music. Unfortunately, the performance, made in 1960 when the work was not often heard, is a disappointment, for not only is Fricsay off the mark with his arid interpretation, but the singing, despite being committed and assured, is in German, thus robbing the piece of the unique Hungarian verbal rhythms that have become so familiar and contribute so much to the work’s atmosphere (DG/ Dokumente 2531 703). Greater pleasure is derived from Fricsay’s accounts of the Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta and the Divertimento for String Orchestra, both with the Berlin Radio Symphony (DG/ Dokumente 2531 702). For delineating the complex textures of Music and capturing the inner power and tension of the Divertimento, few have done as well as here, recorded in 1958. (Available from the German News Company).
Max Bruch wrote nine works for violin and orchestra, of which the First Violin Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy are international concert staples and the remainder are virtually unknown. Salvatore Accardo’s survey of the nine includes a single disc pairing the Serenade and the Adagio In Memoriam (Philips 9500 590). In four movements, the Serenade is stylistically and emotionally the successor to the Third Concerto. Of equal measures of tenderness and virtuosic display, its appeal is direct, if fleeting, in the same way that the Adagio —a mood piece apparently not dedicated to the memory of anyone in particular—is pleasant without being of durable interest.
André Previn conducts the London Symphony in Debussy’s Images and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Angel Digital DS-37674). This is EMI/Angel’s first digital effort, and the result ranks among the very best available. The recorded sound is exceptional in its clarity and openness, and is particularly good in revealing the fine-grained dynamic shadings of these two works. The performances are quite good. Previn’s account of Images strikes the right balance between drama and lyrical flow, and the Prélude has poise and beauty, even if it doesn’t fully surrender its secrets.
Gerard Schwarz, best-known as a trumpet soloist, has of late turned to conducting, and on two new digital discs we hear him in both roles. The Sound of Trumpets (DMS/Delos 3002) offers a Baroque program, including works by Vivaldi, Torelli, and Telemann, while The Classic Trumpet (DMS/Delos 3001) features concertos by Hummel and Haydn. Schwarz’s playing is stylish and vividly projected, and the Y Chamber Symphony of New York follows apace. Excellent digital sound.
Leonore (1805) was Beethoven’s first of three attempts with the J. N. Bouilly story that propels his only opera, the work we know as Fidelia (1814). It received its first recording in England several years ago and now appears here under the aegis of Caedmon (Arabesque 8043—3L). Lighter in feeling and texture than its famous successor, Leonore was conceived as a light musical entertainment for popular audiences, and only its two successive failures sent Beethoven on a different tack toward a work for the more sophisticated tastes of the opera-goer. It is mainly of historical interest, though a good deal of its music does not appear in Fidelia, and much of it is worth hearing. The competent cast is headed by Edda Moser and Richard Cassily, and the Dresden Staatskapelle is under the alert direction of Herbert Blomstedt.
Beethoven wasn’t the first composer to use the Bouilly story as operatic material, and, from the evidence, he borrowed liberally from Ferdinando Paër’s 1804 opera Leonora. Comparisons between Leonora and Fidelia show striking similarities, both in the librettos and in certain musical devices. Of course, the music is quite different, and Paë’r used recitative to Beethoven’s spoken dialogue. Leonora is no masterpiece, but it is a competent, well-crafted work. Its first recording (German Decca 6. 35428) offers Ursula Koszut and Siegfried Jerusalem in the central roles, and, if the singing is variable, the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra gets things played very well under Peter Maag’s direction. (Available from the German News Company).
Each of two new recordings of Fauré’s Sonatas for Violin & Piano has a special appeal. An almost aristocratic approach to this gloriously romantic music may seem anachronistic, yet the superb discipline, exquisite tonal blend, and utter technical security Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley bring to their playing belie the abiding warmth of their performances (Philips 9500 534). Also recommended, but for very different reasons, are the super-charged accounts by the team of Yuriko Kuronuma and Jan Paneka, whose drive and panache yield impassioned results (Supraphon 1 11 2323).
Kyung-Wha Chung, one of our favorite young violinists, covers some familiar territory on a disc pairing the Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 3 and the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 (German Decca 6. 42152). Ms. Chung’s personable playing has character and vitality to spare, and her responsive partner, American conductor Lawrence Foster, puts the London Symphony through its paces in readings that are authoritative without heavy-handedness. (Available from the German News Company.)