Skip to main content


ISSUE:  Winter 1980

Those who admire the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams have long awaited a modern recording of his pastoral opera Hugh the Drover, a work begun in 1914 but not completed to the composer’s satisfaction until 1956, when he was 84. Of the five Vaughan Williams operas, it is the most frequently revived in England, though it is virtually unknown here, save for a highly abridged recording made by Malcolm Sargent in the 1920’s (Pearl/ Qualiton). Set in the Cotswold hills in spring during the Napoleonic Wars, it is a celebration of country life abounding in folk melodies, lyrical warmth, and orchestral color. For the central roles of Hugh and Mary, the composer wrote some of the most highly charged love music in the history of the English stage. Hugh’s “Song of the Road” and Mary’s aria “In the Night-time” highlight the work and echo the earlier Songs of Travel cycle, based on the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson. Sir Adrian Boult might have brought his special insights to EMI’s new recording of this enchanting work (Angel SZBX-3879), but Sir Charles Groves is no stranger to Vaughan Williams’ music, and he directs the new production with a sure hand. It is possible to quibble over minor points, yet the performance as a whole is worthy of the music and drama it sets forth. The central roles are taken by Robert Tear and Sheila Armstrong, and the orchestra is the Royal Philharmonic.

The first American recording by E. Power Biggs was made in 1938 and featured the newly installed organ of the Germanic Museum in Cambridge. RCA Victor signed him for a ten-year period, and then short-sightedly let him go, citing their inability to support profitably an organist as an exclusive artist. Promptly signing with Columbia, Biggs carved out a distinguished, prolific, and varied recording career that spanned more than 30 years. In our lifetime, there has been no better known organist, a fact made plain upon his death in 1977 at age 71. The inevitable boxed-set tribute has been issued (Columbia M4X-35180), and it has been done with care, style, and intelligence. For us, the highlights are Walter Piston’s Prelude and Allegro for Organ & Strings, the only recorded pairing of soloist Biggs and conductor Koussevitzky; selections from the marvelous Frescobaldi and Gabrieli LP’s of the 1960’s; a sampling of the fascinating Historic Organs of Europe series; and a dozen of Handel’s Aylesford Pieces, performances previously unreleased. Columbia has even included the sound of Biggs’ voice, heard in remarks made at a Radio City Music Hall concert in 1973.

The rustic musical landscape Grieg created for Peer Gynt in the late 19th century has become familiar to us through two orchestral suites which excerpt the scores of various productions given between 1876 and 1886. Two new recordings depart from these concert staples. One is a double-disc compilation of everything Grieg ever wrote for the play, adroitly performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Per Dreier (Unicorn UN2-75030). There are 32 pieces in all, and while the additional music—folk dances, interludes, and so forth—is of historical interest, the complete edition will not likely be worth the extra expense for most. Herbert Blomstedt’s recording with the Dresden State Orchestra (Angel S-37535) also purports to being complete, though it is shorter than the Dreier set by 20 pieces. Still, it is longer than the suites and presents the music in a sequence that matches the action of the play, which the suites do not. In this regard, it duplicates the 1969 Barbirolli/Hallé Orchestra recording, also on Angel. The Barbirolli is a long time favorite, but in the final analysis it is Blomstedt who is the more masterful phraser of this magical music. The new version may be less overtly theatrical in gesture, but it is warmly shaped and exceptional in detail, both in the vocal work and in small ways, such as the viola solo in the opening pages.

A recording of special merit pairs pianist Martha Argerich and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, under Mstislav Rostropovich, for two staples of the piano concerto literature: the Chopin Second and the Schumann A Minor (DG 2531 042). Miss Argerich’s ardently youthful playing is fresh and convincing at every turn, displaying plenty of power and attack and an incisive rhythmic vitality. Her natural mastery of line serves her well in the Chopin and also in the Schumann, which is taut but without loss of the work’s gentler qualities. And under Rostropovich, the Washington players resourcefully match the soloist’s finesse in their confident, agile performance.

Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic serve up Tchaikovsky in the grand manner in recordings of the first two symphonies: Winter Dreams (Angel SZ-37293) and the Little Russian (Angel SZ-37294). The playing is lush and sumptuously recorded, but there is too little fire. For us, the slow tempos are far from ideal: what the music gains in opulence it loses in propulsion. Our choice is for a jauntier approach, and in this regard the Bernstein (Columbia) and Dorati (Mercury) interpretations are preferred issues.

The three string quartets and the sextet Souvenir de Florence are comparatively minor works in the Tchaikovsky catalogue. The Quartet No. 1 is the most convincing of the three quartets and contains the famous Andante cantabile movement, while the sextet has been the most favored on disc, with five current versions listed in Schwann, two of them scored for chamber orchestra. Tchaikovsky was more at ease working with larger forces, and his chamber works are uneven. Even so, there is plenty of rewarding music in this group, and the four pieces are not likely to see more committed performances than those by the Borodin Quartet, with Rostropovich taking the second cello part in the sextet (Odyssey/Melodiya Y3—35237).

While his creative energies were focused on the Third String Quartet, Tchaikovsky received a commission from a St. Petersburg music magazine to compose a short piano work each month of the year 1876. Published later in a single volume known as The Seasons, these pieces have long been popular vehicles for transcription, including an orchestral version by Soviet conductor Alexander Gauk. On a recent double-disc Russian set (Columbia/ Melodiya MG-35184) we hear both the Gauk orchestration and the original piano version. The orchestration is an effective one, though the USSR Symphony Orchestra’s performance of it is lifeless. It is the piano version that captures the imagination here, due mainly to the inspired playing of Alexei Cherkassov, who weaves a spell over the familiar Barcarolle (June) and Troika (November) and throughout these charming, idiomatic pieces.

Respighi’s glorious Ancient Airs and Dances has been recorded by Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (DG 2530 891). The new disc has stiff competition from Neville Marriner, whose Angel recording shows a clear affinity with this music, and from Antal Dorati, whose potent version with the Philharmonica Hungarica (Mercury) fails to show its age, despite its long tenure in the listings. The Ozawa LP is extremely well-played and is not without its own perspective on these suites. There is more lift here than we are accustomed to, with the conductor pushing ahead with expansive speeds where the others linger. The Dorati is a magical interpretation and is the sentimental favorite, but the Ozawa has more life, more sprightliness to it, and it is a disc we recommend.

An exciting collaboration that occasionally borders on a duel is that between soloist Alexis Weissenberg and Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan in a boxed set of the Beethoven piano concertos (Angel SD-3854). Weissenberg receives more consistent support from Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in his warm interpretations of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 9 & 21 (Angel S-37567). Giulini is paired with another of our favorite pianists, Krystian Zimmerman, in a live performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (DC 2531 125). Theirs is Chopin in the aristocratic style, with Giulini showing the progress he has made in turning the post-Zubin Mehta Los Angeles Philharmonic into a first-class ensemble.

It is often difficult to judge the effectiveness of a performance of a work that is unfamiliar or is entering the recordings catalogue for the first time. Such was the case with Daniel Barenboim’s 1978 recording of the André Caplet orchestration of Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (DG). It struck us then, as now, as an effective interpretation. The choice has become more complicated, however, by the first appearance here of a 1972 version by the Orchestre Philharmonique de 1’ORTF, conducted by Marius Constant (Erato/ RCA STU 70 719). In listening to the disc, one is immediately taken by the transparency of textures, achieved by Constant’s slightly faster tempos and the clarity and openness of the recorded sound. Without loss of the work’s melodic breadth and sense of mystery, Constant infuses the score with a lightness and grace missing in the Barenboim account. Our first choice is the Erato LP, though there is much to admire about the DG, and those who warm to this work will most likely want both.

Neville Marriner conducts the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1, 2, & 4 (Philips 9500 424). Marriner breaks no new ground in this familiar territory, though the playing, particularly in the second half of the Variations, is full of life, alternately eloquent and exultant as the music demands. One wishes that Philips had tried harder to fit the Variations on a single side, though there is no cause for complaint regarding the recorded sound, which is close to digital quality.

Yuletide, Wassail, and New Year’s are among the celebrations that make winter a season traditionally associated with festive events. A plethora of music written expressly for these and other fireside fetes has accumulated throughout the centuries, from the lively wassailing tunes of the country tavern to the formal dances of the courts of kings. A sampling of this oeuvre from the 12th to the 17th centuries may be found on To Drive the Cold Winter Away (Vanguard VSD-71261), a delightful patchwork quilt of carols, dances, and folk tunes played on a variety of unfamiliar ancient instruments, such as vielles, rebecs, curtals, and citoles. The spirited performing is by the St. George’s Canzona.

Beethoven’s early Quintet in C, op. 29, and Mendelssohn’s Quintet in B-flat, op. 87, comprise a new recording by the Guarneri Quartet and Pinchas Zukerman (RCA ARL1—3354). These are silken, perfectly controlled performances of two relatively unfamiliar works. The Beethoven has a genial air to it while also foreshadowing, in the Scherzo, the tense urgency that would characterize his music in subsequent compositions. The Mendelssohn is an appealingly lightweight affair notable for its elegiac slow movement, in which the players capture full measure of the composer’s contrasting moments of shadow and light.

Isaac Stern is the guiding force behind two world premiere recordings of contemporary violin concertos: George Rochberg’s (1975) with Previn and the Pittsburgh (Columbia M-35149), and Krzysztof Penderecki’s (1976) with the Minnesota Symphony led by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Columbia M-35150). Both are of the necromantic mold, though while the Rochberg has a free-flowing sweetness to its well-developed solo part, the Penderecki is ill defined in form and broods in a manner that eventually becomes tedious. A pleasant surprise is Englishman David Morgan’s Violin Concerto, which also is vague of structure but abounds in color and intricate detail. Soloist Erich Gruenberg makes the most of it (HNH 4082).

Eugen Jochum’s new recording of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony with the Dresden State Orchestra (Angel SB-3893) parallels the reissue of his 1964 account with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG Privilege 2726 077). Though the Dresden forces give more bite to the music, repeated hearings turned up few interpretive differences. Dynamics and tempos are well judged, the Adagio glows without overheating, and the overall architecture is expertly delineated. The recorded sound might well be the determining factor: the muted sound of the older DG discs is no comparison to the openness of the EMI-engineered recording. Among the recordings favoring the Nowak edition, the Angel set is a first choice.

It is curious that Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony remains one of the least performed works of the cycle. Often cited as the most personal of the nine, it is actually quite characteristic in its intense religiosity, its utterly beautiful Adagio (arguably the most affecting of the cycle), and its thundering climax. In a first-rate performance— the deleted Klemperer (Angel) and Steinberg (RCA) discs come to mind— there is much to admire about it, and a first-rate performance is what it receives from Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony on a new DG issue (2531 043).

Barenboim and the Chicago players are less successful in their sampler of concert hall favorites (DG 2531 054). Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes is turned out rather blandly, but worse still are the flaccid Dvořák Slavonic Dances and the shapeless “Moldau” from Smetana’s Ma Vlast. On firmer ground, with the Orchestre de Paris, Barenboim gives his distinctive musical stamp to Debussy’s La Mer, coupled with the luminous Nocturnes (DG 2531 056). Debussy’s Images pour Orchestre have been recorded often, yet few interpretations are as appealing as that by the Czech Philharmonic under Serge Baudo, whose command of phrase and musical architecture creates a performance of sheer poetry (Supraphon 4 10 2429).

In another recording in his series of early Verdi operas, Lamberto Gardelli conducts the ORF Radio Orchestra & Chorus in La Battaglia di Legnano (1849). As with the six previous entries in the cycle, Gardelli has made much of slender material, in this case a love triangle set against Italy’s fight for freedom from the invading armies of Frederic Barbarossa. The performance is good enough to give rise to thoughts of an eventual stage performance. In the central role of the heroic soldier, Arrigo, José Carreras gives an electric performance which brilliantly blends his character’s strains of nobility and erratic impetuosity. Katia Ricciarelli, in a role perfectly suited to her voice at this stage of her career, is Lida, torn between her love for Arrigo and loyalty to her husband, Arrigo’s military comrade, Rolando, expressively sung by Matteo Manuguerra. The score has much excitement, and one truly memorable moment in the third act farewell duet between Rolando and Lida (Philips 6700 120).

Frederick Fennell, continuing his recently revived recording career, leads the Cleveland Symphonic Winds in a digital disc collection of marches (Telarc/Audio Technica DG-10043). The march form, of course, responds splendidly to the digital recording process, and the result is a stirring anthology of mostly familiar material, and two surprises: Sea Songs, in which Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged three maritime ballads in the setting of an English march, and the easy-gaited official March of the Belgian Paratroopers by Pierre Leemans.

Eugene Ormandy disappoints with two new recordings of the music of Bartók. His Concerto for Orchestra issue is doubly unfortunate as it is RCA’s first digital disc (ARC1—3421). The Concerto is the perfect vehicle for the sonic treatment, yet to our ears the LP sounds little different from the analog versions in our collection, perhaps due to the extremely low recorded sound level. The red vinyl RCA used for the disc is attractive but didn’t disguise a pronounced warp. As for the performance, one might never guess that this is one of the masterpieces of the 20th-century literature, even though the Philadelphia Orchestra plays with its usual well-oiled efficiency. The performance’s lack of tension and mystery also characterize Ormandy’s readings of The Miraculous Mandarin Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion if Celesta (Angel SZ-37608).

Our admiration for pianist Idil Biret is tempered by her out-of-the-way repertoire, which has limited her appeal to the general record-buying public. Her latest release (Finnadar SR-9023) is a tour de force interpretation of Liszt’s piano transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonic fantastique. This oddity requires a fierce, bravura performance to compensate for the lack of orchestral color and weight that characterize Berlioz’s familiar score, and Miss Biret is up to the task, which includes one passage—achieved without tape splices, the liner notes inform—that Liszt himself said could probably not be played. It’s quite a feat, but it’s not likely to ensure the piece a secure foothold in the concert hall.

Each of two new collections of French compositions for harp offers something special. The first (Desmar DSM-1018G) presents a concert of familiar works which have been scored for two harps, including Ravel’s Introduction & Allegro and Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, both of which were adapted from the composers’ versions for two pianos, and the Morceau de concert by Saint-Saëns, in which the second harp assumes the orchestra’s role through an adaptation of the composer’s own piano reduction of the music. The stylish performances are by Lucile Johnson and Marcela Kozikova. Even more adventurous is a program by Spanish harp virtuoso Nicanor Zabaleta (DG 2531 051), who offers several familiar works not originally meant for harp—Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 and Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante défunte among them—as well as some intriguing unfamiliar pieces, including the technically demanding Sicilienne variée of Jean-Michel Damase, and the attractive Six Noëls pour la Harpe by Marcel Tournier.

French conductor Serge Baudo and the Czech Philharmonic continue their survey of the Arthur Honegger catalogue with a boxed set of the five symphonies, comprising the composer’s reflections on the human condition during the years of the Second World War. Of the five, only the chamber-like Second has much currency in the concert hall today, though the powerful, ambitious Third, known as the Liturgique, and the bouyant Fourth are thoughtful, well-characterized works, if not in the same league as the Second. The versions of the Second and Fourth heard here have won recording awards in Europe, and the performances as a whole are vivid, vigorous, and assured. Several short pieces are used as filler, including the stalwart Pacific 231 (Supraphon 1 10 1741/3).

Smetana’s nationalistic tone poem Ma Vlast has received two fine new recordings. Under Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande gives a polished, atmospheric account that neatly balances lyric line and dramatic impact (RCA CRL2—3242). Almost as good is the version by Paavlo Berglund and the Dresden State Orchestra (Angel SB-3870). The differences between the two are minimal. Where Sawallisch presses hard, Berglund lets the music take a more natural course. Sawallisch develops more of the work’s essential ferver, while Berglund offers a better developed sense of architectural cohesiveness. The RCA set is spread out over four sides, while the Angel box manages Dvořák’s Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 and the Scherzo capriccioso as well.

Carl Orff’s experience as a pedagogue after the First World War resulted in a curious body of music for percussion orchestra known as the Schulwerk (1930—33), the purpose of which was to illustrate to children and other learners the basic components of music, starting with rhythm and melody. Some of these pieces appear on a reissue of a 1975 BASF/Harmonia Mundi disc with the composer conducting an unnamed German instrumental ensemble (Quintessence PMC-7127). It is a fascinating LP: inventive in its exotic instrument groupings—xylophones, bells, glockenspiels and the like in combination with recorders, guitars, and simple hand-clapping— and hypnotic in its insistent rhythms and recurring patterns of sound, the closest approximation of which is probably the gamelan music of Asia and the phase music of contemporary composers such as Steve Reich.

A group of top Swedish performers, including Arve Tellefsen, Hans Pålsson, and Gunilla von Bahr, are heard in solid performances of Debussy chamber works, among them the violin and cello sonatas (Bis/Qualiton LP-28). A German News Company import is the Stockholm Philharmonic’s performance of individualistic Swedish composer Allan Petterson’s Symphony No. 12 (Caprice CAP-1127). Scored for chorus and orchestra, it is a rather too literal epic statement on the human condition based on Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s “The Dead in the Marketplace.” In the same bleak vein, and equally as disappointing, is Petterson’s Vox Humana (HNH 4047), which also uses the poetry of Latin America to vocally underscore social points covered more subtly in his quasiprogrammatic early symphonies. Stig Westerberg’s performance is, like the Stockholm players’ reading, earnest to a fault.

Despite his use of an instrument we rarely hear—the wind harp—saxophone player Jan Garbarek’s solo Dis (ECM/ Warner 1—1093) was a tedious recording. The piercing tone and meandering freeform lines that marked the disc had disappeared by the time he recorded My Song with Keith Jarrett (reviewed last year), and are absent as well from Photo with Blue Sky, White Cloud, Wires, Windows and a Red Roof (ECM/Warner 1-1135), his latest ensemble work. Like the imagistic title, the music is ethereal and distinctive. Among the sidemen are bassist Ebberhard Weber and guitarist Bill Connors.

Among the women musicians and singers who inhabit the musical zone that skirts both jazz and popular music, Patrice Rushen is new to us. She has a winning voice and the makings of a fine contemporary song stylist. On Patrice (Elektra 6E-160), an LP of her own material, her piano accompaniments are effective and her arrangements are just right. What is missing are lyrics with depth. Though a capable melodicist, her words are bland by comparison, and one hopes that her repertoire will expand with successive releases.

Street Life (MCA 3094) for The Crusaders is no longer the gritty rhythm of the inner city but, rather, the more measured musical ambiance of Beverly Hills. The garish cover photo, showing a deserted Rodeo Drive at night, suggests the emptiness of the music to be found on the disc inside. Not far up the California coast, yet miles away musically, is Carmel (MCA AA-1126), Crusader Joe Sample’s paean to that placid coastal community. Crusader Stix Hooper is among the sidemen in music that’s alive with feeling and is as easy on the ears as that town’s scenery is easy on the eyes. Just as easy to take are guitarist Mick Goodrick’s In Passing (ECM/ Warner 1—1139), and Bunky Green’s Places We’ve Never Been (Vanguard VSD-79425). Bassist Eddie Gomez plays on both discs, with Goodrick joined by sax player John Surman and drummer Jack de Johnette, and saxman Green backed by drummer Freddie Walts, pianist Albert Dailey, and Randy Brecker on trumpet and flugelhorn. Both discs are recommended.

Crystal Records, a serious outfit which maintains a healthy catalogue of offbeat recordings, caught our attention recently with their apparent move from Los Angeles to a place called Sedro Wolley, Washington. We’ve never been there, but it sounds like just the place to contemplate Crystal’s latest releases, including a disc of works for solo and accompanied accordion (S106), a collection of music for saxophone and woodwind quintet (S353), and an LP by an ensemble known as The Mighty Tubadours (S421), whose chief claim to fame seems to be regular employment during the Christmas and summer seasons at Disneyland and a first-prize appearance on TV’s The Gong Show. The Tubadours are off and running with an Alistair Cooke-deflating rendition of the Masterpiece Theatre theme, Mouret’s Rondeau. You’re bound to be pleased if you’ve long had a hankering for a down-and-dirty tuba version of Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll, or a tastefully harmonious rendition of Down by the Old Mill Stream. Here is Too Fat Polka cheek by jowl with Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and even Tchaikovsky’s dancing sugarplum tuba fairies. RCA has Tomita, and Angel has its all-koto orchestra, but Crystal has a bead on them all with the glorious Mighty Tubadours.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading