Handel’s Acts and Galatea, a masque based on the pastoral story by Ovid, has been recorded by the English Baroque Soloists, under John Eliot Gardiner, with vocal soloists Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Norma Burrowes, Martyn Hill, and Willard White. This is the original version, first given in a private performance at Commons in 1718, of the work that was Handel’s most popular during his lifetime. The singing is graceful and authentically embellished, and the orchestral work is light-textured and has a fine sense of spontaneity. Nicholas Kraemer provides the harpsichord continuo (Archiv 2708 038).
A recording of Acis and Galatea is rare, but rarer still is a recording of anything at all by Jan Dismas Zelenka, about whom the standard reference works offer little. A respected Dresden court composer whose contemporaries included Bach and Handel, Zelenka nourished for a time but was forgotten after he died in 1745. If his music finds a niche in the 20th century, it will be due to Heinz Holliger, who specializes in such esoterica, and DG, which has now recorded Zelenka’s complete orchestral works (Archiv 2710 026). Although recorded oddities have become commonplace, Zelenka’s music is special. Telemann is the composer who most readily comes to mind as a basis of comparison. Even so, Zelenka offers enough musical twists and turns to belie the notion that his talents were chiefly imitative. All this is shown to best effect by the Camerata Bern and a variety of first-rate soloists including Barry Tuckwell and, of course, Holliger.
A specialty set of a different sort (English RCA RL-25033) offers the first five of Charles-Marie Widor’s ten Organ Symphonies, which were in part modeled after Franck’s Grande Piéce Symphonique, regarded as the first French organ work written in sonata form. The collected movements for organ which Widor ascribed as symphonies are more correctly suites, and some have suggested that the composer used the term less in a literal sense than as a means of imputing “breadth and loftiness.” The five heard here, variously played on the organ of Coventry Cathedral by Arthur Wills, Graham Steed, and Jane Parker-Smith, contain the familiar Marche Pontificate from the First Symphony, and the Toccata in F, which ends the Fifth Symphony and is Widor’s most enduring contribution to the literature. Despite this familiarity, these are works for very special tastes, and RCA has not yet seen fit to offer the set in the United States. It is currently available as a German News Company import.
Prokofiev completed his seventh and final symphony in 1953, one year before he died. It was a commissioned work, written in response to a request by the Children’s Division of the Russian State Radio for “a simple symphony for young listeners.” André Previn’s new recording with the London Symphony (Angel S-37523) follows the established practice of pairing it with the First Symphony, the Classical. They make a fine contrast: the earlier work ebullient and youthful in spirit, and the later piece reflective and delicately balletic, echoing earlier compositions such as Cinderella. Previn, at his best with the 20th-century repertoire, has a special affinity for the Russian oeuvre, and these performances are now the best on the books.
In many ways, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony summarizes the varied musical forces that shaped his life before and during the Second World War. In the program notes for the premiere in 1946, the composer self-consciously noted the absence of overt references to jazz or folk materials in the work, though the flavor of those influences is clear enough to modern ears. The Third is something of an epic statement, done in a grand and optimistic manner epitomized by Copland’s quoting of his earlier A Fanfare for the Common Man. The new composer-led recording (Columbia M-35113) surpasses the previous versions of the work, particularly the Bernstein reading (Columbia), which has a great deal of punch but also an abrasiveness that one never senses in either the new outing or the composer’s ancient Everest recording. The Philharmonia Orchestra plays competently, but this music deserves better, and one wonders what the Boston or Chicago symphonies might have done with it.
American composer Randall Thompson is so sparsely represented in Schwann that a single recently issued disc (Angel S37315) has doubled the Thompson entries in that catalog. The Testament of Freedom, Thompson’s opus on the words of Thomas Jefferson, was written during a stay at the University of Virginia during World War II. It receives a deeply felt reading from the Utah Symphony Orchestra, under Maurice Abravanel, though it is the words that matter here, and in this regard the Utah Chorale is drearily uninspired. Overside, the Symphony No. 1 (1930) fails to make a lasting impression, despite a committed performance.
If ever there were a composer remembered for a single work it is Ambroise Thomas, and the work is Mignon (1866), which came at the end of an academically distinguished but theretofore commercially fruitless career. Mignon was an international success but was soon forgotten, save for the lively overture. Thomas was not a great composer, but he was a skilled crafter of lyrical, superficially stylish music that perfectly suited the conservative public taste that dictated the operacomique conventions of the day. Mignon’s tunefulness and deft stage sense are as appealing today as they were a century ago, and its revival will no doubt be hastened by a new recording by Antonio de Almeida (Columbia M4—34590). In the lead, Marilyn Home gives an imaginative turn to the role of the ageless tatterdemalion, while Alain Vanzo ably portrays Wilhelm Meister, the student who purchases Mignon’s freedom from a gypsy troupe. Ruth Welting is well cast as the sassy, outof-work actress, Philene, and Frederica von Stade is glorious (if wasted) in the minor role of one of Philene’s suitors.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the past quarter is a boxed set (Philips 6768 023) devoted to Eduard van Beinum, the Dutch conductor who was associated with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1931 until his death, in 1959. Although there are 21 performances in the set, contemporary listeners may be struck by the lack of”a readily discernable musical personality in van Beinum’s conducting—at least in the sense that Karajan, for example, may be said to have a distinct musical personality. That van Beinum strove for objective performances—the “realisation” rather than the “interpretation,” as his son once put it—is not to say that the results were bland or undistinguished. He was able to extract from his Amsterdam players a marvelous sound (well preserved in these pressings) with a splendid sense of orchestral coloring and detail. And the range of music the orchestra played well under his hands was remarkable. For us, the highlights of the collection are Bruckner’s Fifth, a noble live performance appearing for the first time, and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which is firm and dark hued without loss of the work’s requisite sense of urgency. The set includes a handsome, informative booklet, but the lack of the original recording dates is a puzzling frustration.
It is surprising that Rachmaninoff’s agreeable Symphony No. 2 was once a neglected work, both in the concert hall and on record. Add to the current versions a new effort by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, lead by Edo de Waart (Philips 9500 309). It is easy to make romantic mush of this score, and de Waart ranks among the best in his ability to bring out the Second’s lyrical warmth without saccharin. There is a lightness to the musical textures and a fine sense of flow in the tempos selected. The recorded sound is good, but could have been more spacious: this music can take it.
Rachmaninoff dedicated his Second Symphony to Sergei Taneyev, who holds a distinguished place in the history of Russian music not only as an academician whose students included Rachmaninoff, Gliere, and Scriabin but also as a virtuoso pianist who gave the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. His music survives in his native country but is rarely heard in the West. For a sampling, we suggest his Symphony No. 2 in a new issue by the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev (ABC/Melodiya AY-67043). This is hardly music to write home about—the disc also offers the soporific cantata “John of Damascus”—but neither is it uninteresting, and the third movement is a sonic gem that gallops at a Tchaikovskian clip.
Of the Western countries, only England seems to have taken to the music of Karol Szymanowski (1882—1937), often touted as the greatest composer of Polish descent since Chopin. While there have been several English stagings of King Roger (1926), the second of Szymanowski’s two operas, Americans must content themselves with an imported recording by the Warsaw State Opera (Aurora/Qualiton AUR-5061/ 2). S/ymanowski’s career encompassed three distinct musical styles, and King Roger is representative of the third, which can only be described as a kind of oriental impressionism. There is almost no action, and the libretto is an odd, murkily religious amalgam of fact and fiction centering on a 12th-century prophet and the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian philosophies his teachings engender. It is an unconventional but curiously moving work, and the production heard here is quite good.
The American career of Klaus Tennstedt began some five years ago with a series of concerts in which he served as guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His reputation in Germany was as a Mahlerian, and though Bostonians warmed to him, the transcriptions of his BSO concerts frankly left us cold. His affinity for Mahler is more evident in a new recording of the Symphony No. 1 with the London Philharmonic (Angel S-37508). That this is an insightful reading is certain right from the hushed opening notes of the recording. His is a keen sense of the First’s complex architecture and pulse. Emotional climaxes are free from affectation, and the LPO players give him just the right sense of momentum, both within and between movements.
Another recent Mahler recording comes from an unlikely source: Claudio Abbado. His version of the Symphony No. 4 (DG 2530 966) is marked by the felicitous pairing of the Vienna Philharmonic and mezzo Frederica von Stade, who takes the vocal part usually reserved for a soprano. The result is a performance of sheer poetry. There is simply not another recording of the Fourth that features orchestral playing of such beauty. Abbado has captured the work’s lovely long lines without sacrificing the important detail that lies beneath the surface and gives the piece its underpinning of emotional conflict, and Miss von Stade’s elegant vocal work is woven into the music of the fourth movement in a way that is utterly natural.
The mid-20th century witnessed a gradual embracing of Western musical ideas by the Japanese, who began at that time to compose orchestral works for the standard complement of instruments. A collection of compositions from this period has been recorded by Japanese Victor and is being imported by Varèse Sarabande (VX80161). The earliest piece, Kohsaku Yamada’s tone poem The Flowers of Mandala (1914), owes an acknowledged debt to Richard Strauss, while Shiro Fukai’s Quatre Mouvements Parodiques (1937) is a lively satire on the music of Falla, Stravinsky, and others. The most appealing of the lot is Yasuji Kiyose’s fascinating blend of Eastern and Western sounds, Japanese Festival Dances, in which traditional instruments join with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Shigenobu Yamoka.
Although Vivaldi came to the genre late in his career, his operatic output was apparently considerable. Whether these works are of much worth may be judged as they slowly find their way to disc. For the first recording of Tito Manlio (1719), Vittorio Negri has assembled a brilliant cast, including Julia Hamari, Birgit Finnila, Giancarlo Luccardi, and Norma Lerer (Philips 6769 004). The work has many flaws (Vivaldi claimed to have dashed it off in just five days), but its gift is melody, and that tunefulness is enough to propel a rather lame libretto centering on a host of improbable romantic alliances further entangled by an inconvenient war between the Romans and the Latins. It is doubtful that it could ever be staged, but the recording is well worth seeking out, particularly as Negri has struck a balance between authenticity and stylishness, clipping some of the more tedious stretches of recitation and fleshing out the harpsichord accompaniment for those that remain.
The LP Contrasts in Brass (Unicorn UNI-72012) carries the notation “Volume Two,” though we can find no reference in Schwann to an earlier disc. A pity, for the recording at hand is a treasure trove of unfamiliar delights covering ten composers from five countries in music that spans 400 years. The oldest work, Psalm 92, was written by the obscure 16th-century composer Salomone Rossi, while the newest entry belongs to veteran British composer Gordon Jacob, whose Salute to the USA (1976) was written in honor of our Bicentennial. Each item is special in its own way, and the performances, by the Locke Brass Consort, are marvelous.
A delightful English import from Capitol Records is a collection of some of the earliest folk song arrangements of Ralph Vaughan Williams (EMI HQS-1412). Represented are samplings from the 1908 and 1935 published collections, three carols, four rare fishermen’s songs from Newfoundland, a handful of French songs, and three songs with violin accompaniment. Particularly haunting is the very early “The Captain’s Apprentice,” though the most unsettling of all is the familiar “The Unquiet Grave,” perhaps the most eloquent song in the Vaughan Williams catalog. The performers, all long associated with VW’s music, are Robert Tear, Philip Ledger, and Hugh Bean.
One of the most valued of recent reissues is the Geza Anda/Ferenc Fricsay recording of Bartók’s Second and Third Piano Concertos (DG Privilege 2535 262). A popular European concert performer, Anda developed a comparatively small American following and died, as did conductor Fricsay, before the full bloom of his career. These two Hungarians knew the Bartók concertos to the core, and Anda was in top form when the disc was recorded nearly 20 years ago. His playing is clean and authentic in style, with lines vividly projected without forcing the expression. And Fricsay, leading the Berlin Radio Orchestra, is with him at every step, capturing the works” unique pulse in a way that has yet to be bettered.
Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A (K. 581) and the Quintet for Piano & Winds in Eflat (K. 452) have been recorded under the banner of Tashi and assorted musical guests (RCA ARL1—2863). After a somewhat sluggish start in the Clarinet Quintet, the playing is stylish and effective, with soloist Richard Stoltzman in top form throughout. Peter Serkin, who takes the lead in the K. 452, has the measure of this piece, and his performance is at once fluent and resourceful. The recorded sound is rather boxy.
Handel’s Water Music suites have been recorded by everyone from Eugene Ormandy to Pierre Boulez, so a reissue of a 1972 Collegium Aureum performance on original instruments (Quintessence PMC7085) was nearly lost in the shuffle of new releases. What saved the LP from the storage room was the jacket, which carried a Gramophone review promising a joyful performance in which those unwieldy ancient instruments—the clarino trumpet and such—sounded remarkably modern and were free from the lifeless, dry-as-dust tone favored by numerous academic purists. The review was on target. This is a performance that takes wing, and its unaccustomed lilt is a welcome change of pace.
Some of the Water Music appears, albeit in unfamiliar dress, on a new recording by Kenneth Cooper (Vanguard VSD-71224). Cooper, of course, is a premier harpsichordist and musical sleuth, and the Water Music transcription is but one of a number of oddities he has uncovered, all of which stem from Handel’s time and, as they were published by the composer’s publisher, John Walsh, appear to have had his blessing, if not his active participation in the transcription process. Certainly they must have been in demand for the parlor and for social occasions—even the 1755 offering entitled “Handel’s Sixty Overtures from all his Operas and Oratorios Set for the Harpsichord or Organ,” which was made available in smaller numbers as well as in the complete edition. The LP will only accommodate a handful of Cooper’s infectiously enthusiastic renditions, but one suspects that he could easily—and willingly—plow through the whole lot of them.
One measure of the popularity of audiophile recordings is the fact that they are now listed in a separate section of Schwann. Direct-to-disc LP’s, in which the music is put directly to a master without the use of tape, still predominate this specialty market, although digital recordings, which provide the editing capability that the direct-to-disc process lacks, would seem to have a more promising future. All audiophile issues are about twice as expensive as ordinary discs, but some are worth it, as in the case of Audio Technica’s imported direct-to-disc recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played with character and vitality by the Vivaldi Ensemble, Tokyo (Japanese RCA RDCE-501—2). Even if the performance were less proficient, the opportunity to hear this familiar score in a sonic framework would alone warrant the steep price of this two-disc, 45 RPM set. Also from Audio Technica is a digital disc that not only provides a much needed modern recording of Hoist’s two Suites for Military Band, but also marks the return to recordings of Frederick Fennell, whose Mercury LP’s (which are slowly being reissued in European pressings by Phonogram) helped set the American audio standard of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The Cleveland Symphonic Winds give winning performances of the Hoist as well as Handel’s Royal Fireworks and Bach’s Fantasia in G, and the recorded sound is ravishing, with bass notes that are so powerful that the jacket warns (with good reason) that they may be too much for many home sets (Telarc 5038).
Our introduction to the phase music of Steve Reich was through the hypnotic It’s Gonna Rain, which Columbia released and then deleted in quick order in the late 1960’s. We used to try out the disc on just about everyone—there was nothing quite like it. In fact, there is still nothing quite like it, though Reich’s recent Music for Eighteen Musicians (ECM 1—1129) is of a similar mold: pulsating, gently shifting patterns of sound of which the closest kin is probably the gamelan music of Asia. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, but, like Rain, a little goes a long way.
The Viennese operettas of Franz von Suppe are long gone, but the lively overtures to these once popular works will probably last forever. They have been used for everything from concert openers to accompaniments to silent movies, and even those who profess never to listen to classical music are quite likely to recognize the Poet and Peasant and the Light Cavalry. Neville Marriner and the London Philharmonic give them just the right touch, and strung together as if in color guard review—a half dozen, in all—they can brighten even the dullest of hours (Philips 9500399).
Revues, those sophisticated amalgams of sketches and songs that sparked the theater between the World Wars, were dominated in England by Noel Coward, who recorded on HMV 78’s much of what he developed for “London Calling,” “On With the Dance,” and numerous others. Coward himself was without doubt the best interpreter of his own material, and it is truly a treat to hear him go through the paces with “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “I Wonder What Happened to Him,” “A Room With a View,” and the dozens more contained in a two-disc set imported by Capitol (World/EMI SHB-44). On this side of the Atlantic, some of the best “smart shows” of the same period featured the songs of George and Ira Gershwin— songs such as “They All Laughed,” “The Man I Love,” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” Fourteen of these gems have been recorded by William Bolcom and Joan Morris, and the result—witty, knowing, intelligent—gives further credence to the notion that in the performance of the American popular song, these two performers are in a class by themselves (Nonesuch H-71385).
So many recordings are released each year that not all of them can be reviewed at length. Forthwith are brief notes on a variety of recommended issues that have accumulated over the past few months. Herbert von Karaj”an has recorded Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 numerous times, but seldom with the dramatic sweep of his latest effort (DG 2530 883). No strangers to our ears, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini sound remarkably fresh as played by the London Philharmonic, under Mstislav Rostropovich (Angel S-37528). Rostropovich in his more familiar role as a soloist can be heard in a hearty recital of music by Vivaldi, Tartini, and Boccherini (DG 2530 974). Another virtuoso soloist, trumpeter Maurice André, gives pleasure with an affectionate collection of famous opera arias transcribed for his instrument. Mozart, Rossini, and four others are represented (RCA ARL1—2872). The glorious American Quartet of Dvorák is coupled with a less well known piece, Smetana’s Quartet No. 1, on DG (2530 994). The sumptuous performances are by the Amadeus Quartet. In a similar vein, Nonesuch has a collection of Czech works for violin and piano played well and with a generous amount of sentiment by Sergiu Luca and Paul Schoenfield. The selections include Smetana’s bittersweet From My Homeland and Dvorák’s Four Romantic Pieces (H-71350). Jaroslav Krombholc conducts the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in four of DvoráK’s concert overtures (Supraphon 4 10 1990), while Colin Davis extracts from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw a satisfying, if somewhat cool version of Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony (Philips 9500 511). Well matched are Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia players and pianist Emanuel Ax, paired for a warm, yet poised and direct Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 (RCA ARL1—2868). Pianist Lazar Berman, whose records appear less frequently of late, breathes new life into tired chestnuts such as Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance in a collection entitled Encores (Columbia M-34545). Capitol Imports is the source for an appealing collection of Debussy works, including the Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra, played by Aldo Ciccolini. Jean Martinon leads the Orchestre National de l”Ortf (French EMI 2C 06914030). The Beaux Arts Trio continues their survey of the Haydn trios with a recording of four infrequently heard works including the Trio in D, which some claim is not by Haydn at all (Philips 9500 472). Other new issues of the music of Haydn include spry readings of the Oxford and London Symphonies from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-theFields (Philips 9500 304), and a version of the Violin Concerto No. 1 played with great elan by Pinchas Zukerman and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (DG 2530 907). Mozart’s ubiquitous flute concertos are played on period instruments by Frans Vester and the Mozart Ensemble, Amsterdam, under Frans Briiggen (German Philips 6575 060). Also from the German News Company is a reissue of a 1954 recording of Benjamin Britten conducting his Diversions, with Julius Katchen and the London Symphony, coupled with his Sinfonla da Requiem, played by the Orchestra of the Danish State Radio, also under the composer (Telefunken/Decca 6.42234). The Diversions is the best available, and the Sin/onto will have to do, as London is deleting its composer-lead issue with the New Philharmonia, the only other listing.
We eagerly look forward to ECM’s jazz releases, and the latest batch of discs offers an unusually large number of successes. Few recordings have pleased the ears as much as one spearheaded by guitarist Pat Metheny (ECM 1—1114). He and his quartet offer some of the most rhythmically upbeat, ingratiatingly melodic music around, and the LP has become a justifiably popular one. A guitarist of a different sort is John Abercrombie, whose Characters (ECM 1—1117) is an introspective solo outing in which an electric mandolin is added to his usual complement of electric and acoustic guitars. Even those who have long followed the career of pianist-composer Keith Jarrett are surprised by the disparate directions he takes with each new release. My Song (ECM 1—1115) takes him away from the conservatory phrasings of his solo efforts and back toward ensemble work—A jazz foursome, in this case.
One wonders why radio broadcasters, who are always on the lookout for the next musical trend, have somehow overlooked the revival of mainstream jazz, which is selling well and is generally available in the marketplace after a long absence. As an example, we recently received an LP by Dave Frishberg (Concord Jazz CJ-74) who, though he apparently has been around for awhile, is new to us. Frishberg is a terrific piano player and has a winning, slightly husky voice which he exercises from time to time. His record sounds fresh to the ears, but is at the same time as comfortable and welcome as an old friend. Concord Jazz also sent us new releases by two long-time favorites. We haven’t seen an album by guitarist Charlie Byrd in years, yet here he is on Bluebyrd (CJ-82) sounding, if that’s possible, better than ever. The program ranges from ballads to hard-swinging jazz, and his trio includes drummer Wayne Phillips and Joe Byrd, Charlie’s brother, who handles the bass and an occasional vocal. Marian McPartland won us over in a concert we attended in a remote part of northern New England about ten years ago. Her concert sites have improved since then, but her move to Concord Jazz marks her first—and long overdue—association with a good-sized label. On From This Moment On (CJ-86) she is joined by young English bassist Brian Torff and veteran drummer Jake Hanna for a delightful sampling of music that includes, in addition to the Cole Porter tune that gives the LP its title, an upbeat version of Isham Jones’s “No Greater Love” and McPartland’s own “Ambiance.” Why isn’t this music getting the airplay it deserves?