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ISSUE:  Winter 1979

Sergei Eisenstein’s massive Ivan the Terrible marked the final collaboration between the film director and his chief composer, Serge Prokofiev: only two parts of the film were completed before a heart attack felled Eisenstein and brought an end to the proposed trilogy in 1945. Though Prokofiev often turned his film scores into concert vehicles, the music for Ivan lay fallow until it was worked up as an oratorio in 1962 by the film’s conductor, Abram Stasevich, Angel’s new issue of this 25-movernent epic (SB-3851) features the superb Russian mezzo, Irina Arkhipova. Rich-voiced Boris Morgunov’s narration sets forth the Tsar’s pronouncements and provides the tapestry’s historical continuity, and the whole production is given sympathetic treatment by Ricardo Muti, leading the Philharmonia Orchestra. A fascinating curio.

Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra have recorded the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which appears in an attractive coupling with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes (RCA ARL1—2744). Through his numerous accounts of the Fantasia, Sir Adrian Boult has come virtually to own this music, yet Ormandy and his players derive a reading equally as brilliant in its emotion and sense of orchestral coloration, if perhaps larger in scope than the composer intended. The Britten has received fine recent recordings by Bernstein (Columbia) and Previn (Angel), yet this new version has the edge, displaying an especially well-developed sense of tension and mystery. Excellent recorded sound throughout.

The long-awaited recording debut of Soviet-born pianist Mark Zeltser (Columbia MX-34564) is a thrilling display of virtuosity that lives up to the acclaim garnered in his American concert debut in 1977.The program, however, couldn’t be less compelling. Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 was the last of the War Sonatas, completed in 1944. It shares with the op. 17 Five Sarcasms, written during the previous World War, complex rhythms, thick musical textures, and a bleak outlook characterized by harsh dissonance that, in the latter piece, approaches atonality. A brief but bright note is the inclusion of Islamey, Balakirev’s colorful compilation of formidable difficulties culminating in a fierce presto furioso.Zeltser is brilliant throughout, and one hopes that his next outing will cover more appealing territory.

Another Russian-born pianist of prodigious abilities is Andrei Gavrilov, winner, at age 18, of the 1974 Tchaikovsky Competition. On Angel S-37486 he plunges headlong into the Prokofiev First, playing fiercely yet clearly in a performance enhanced by the polished support he receives from the London Symphony, under Simon Rattle. Overside, he unfortunately takes the same tack with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, a work that, though at times highly charged, has a yearning quality and an atmospheric elegance that are obliterated by his whirlwind tempos.

Ravel fares little better on an RCA recording (ARL1—2530) of Ma Mère l’Oye (for piano, four hands), played well, but without real distinction, by Emanuel Ax and his wife, Yoko Nozaki. A Debussy collection, including the Children’s Corner Suite, receives stylistically rough treatment from Hungarian pianist Deszö Ránki (Hungaroton SLPX-11886). Not so with Nonesuch’s recording of all of Debussy’s Piano Preludes, which are played with sympathy and understanding by Paul Jacobs (HB-73031). Even so, those who admire these lovely impressionistic pieces should own the authoritative Alfred Cortot interpretations of Book I. These vintage recordings are imported from Japan, of all places, and are distributed by Capitol Records (Toshiba-EM I GR-2188).

Two new Angel LP’s add to the already extensive recorded legacy of musician-scholar David Munrow, who died in 1975 at age 33.Double-disc album SB-3861 is a survey of music written for recorder, alone and in combination with voice, keyboard, and string instruments. It opens with dances of the 13th and 14th centuries, passes through the concertos of Bach and Vivaldi, and ends on an avant-garde note with something dreadful in which a soloist improvises with pre-recorded accompaniment. Munrow was nothing if not comprehensive. Another type of recording project in which he took delight is typified by S-37524, a splendid collection of ceremonial and occasional pieces by nine Italian composers whose historical neglect was ensured by the overwhelming success of their contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi. As with all of Munrow’s recordings, the performances, by the Early Music Consort of London, are scrupulously authentic.

Champions of Pierre Boulez have been prodding Columbia to release what is claimed to be a tape backlog of the composer-conductor’s work with the New York Philharmonic, and one hopes that their efforts will yield more discs on the order of M-35105, a first-rate Stravinsky collection. From the collector’s viewpoint, the set notably offers the first recording of the original version (1920) of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments— though the version is not substantially different from the composer’s 1947 revision—and a rarely heard, heavily chromatic early piece entitled Sherzo Fantastique. For most, however, the chief attraction here will be the vivid, sharp-edged interpretation of the popular Pulcinella Suite.

An Australian by birth and an American at the time of his death in 1961, Percy Grainger spent much of the early part of the century as a field-hunter of the English folk song, which he captured on wax cylinders and later worked into compositions such as Lincolnshire Posy (1937), a frolic-some wind band piece of which Frederick Fennell’s classic Mercury performance is now back in print (SRI-75093). It was the piano that brought him success, however, both as a concert performer and as a composer. His stirring interpretation of Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor won the approval of Grieg himself, and it is surprising that over the years a studio recording was never secured. What we do have, thanks to the International Piano Archives (Box 303; Ivor, Virginia, 23866), is a disc offering two live recordings. Despite dim sound, both show the flair Grainger had for this piece, and both suggest something of the excitement his performances of it must have engendered. This is particularly apparent in what should have been the least satisfying of the two (1956), in which he is accompanied by an amateur orchestra, misses notes in profusion, and still manages a reading more heartfelt than numerous current performances. A 1908 cylinder recording of the first movement cadenza lends further historical interest to the disc (IPA 508).

Of Grainger’s own compositions, it was “Country Gardens” that caught the public’s fancy and subsequently haunted his concert appearances for the rest of his life. Its folk-flavored melodicism and easy-going manner typify his short piano works, a handful of which are played freshly and simply by Daniel Adni on a disc (EMI/ Capitol HQS-1363) that also offers Grainger’s arrangements for Fauré’s “Nell” and two Gershwin chestnuts, “Love Walked In” and “The Man I Love.”

With only a modicum of fanfare, there appeared, on the occasion of the sesqui-centennial of Schubert’s death, a brilliant new recording of the String Quintet in C (D.956), widely regarded as the premier composition of the chamber music literature. A quick run through Schwann turns up formidable recorded competition, including Budapest/Heifetz (Columbia) and Guarneri/Rose (RCA). Yet, as satisfying as these earlier interpretations are, they are not likely to see as frequent use in our collection as the new issue, played by Mstislav Rostropovich and the Melos Quartet (DG 2530 980). Gorgeous tone, warmth and clarity of expression—the disc elicits the very highest of superlatives.

Less familiar to many is Schubert’s Octet in F (D.803), a commissioned piece completed in little more than a month in 1824, Its scoring calls for three wind and five string instruments, and it has been newly recorded by the Chamber Ensemble of the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (Philips 9500 400). The performance is one of sheer musicality, characterized by a nearly flawless sense of ensemble and a lyrical intensity that is expansive without a trace of self-indulgence. French horn and clarinet soloists Timothy Brown and Antony Pay deserve special recognition, as do the Philips engineers, who have achieved close to perfect technical balancing of the instruments and full but natural sound.

With Maurice Abravanel’s Vox recordings of Grieg’s orchestral works in an apparent stall, the most ambitious current Grieg project is that of Eva Knardahl, who is recording all of Grieg’s piano music for the Swedish Bis label, distributed here by Qualiton. This survey has opened with the 66 Lyric Pieces, encompassing ten books, spread over four discs (Bis LP-104/107). It is astonishing that this utterly charming oeuvre is so sparsely represented in Schwann, Familiar works include the impressionistic Bell-Ringing and the lively Wedding-day at Troldhaugen, with the infrequently heard pieces ranging from odes to butterflies and birds to dances for elves and dwarves. These are hardly technically complex compositions, and so interpretation is all. Miss Knardahl plays them here as if she had been playing them all her life, which she probably has.

One of the mysteries of the recording business is why MCA, which dissolved the venerable Decca catalogue in the early 1970’s, has failed to develop this archival resource into a budget line of discs. They have instead begun to license certain tapes to a California label called Varèse Sarabande, and the first group of revived Gold Seal issues is now available. Among them is an intriguing 1961 performance of the Brahms Serenade No. 1, with Stokowski leading the Symphony of the Air, which was what the NBC Symphony was called at that time. In the intervening years, there have been a number of successful interpretations of this underrated work, notably last year’s Haitink/Concertgebouw outing (Philips 9500 322). Yet one is drawn in equal measure to the Stokowski version, which is fluid yet muscular, brisk of tempo, and very well played (VC 81050).

Charles Mackerras leads the New Philharmonia Orchestra, London, in the first recording by young Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff (DG 2530 793). Though not yet eloquent, Schiff’s playing is focused, expressive, and pure of tone. The works, all products of the late French Romantic, include the familiar Lalo D Minor Concerto and the Concerto No. 1 by Saint-Saëns. On a German News Company import, André Previn and the LSO give sympathetic readings to two 20th-century French works not listed in the domestic catalogues: Jacques Ibert’s Symphonie Concertante, and L’Horloge de flore by Jean Frangaix. Both feature pivotal parts for oboe, and the soloist here is the versitile John de Lancie who, not coincidentally, commissioned the Frangaix work and gave its premiere in 1961 (German RCA GL-42303).

Masterful performances of two American classics are found on Quintessence disc PMC-7062.Howard Hanson’s version of his Romantic Symphony is still on the books and is the definitive interpretation. Nonetheless, the current reading, with Charles Gerhardt leading the National Philharmonic Orchestra, is a commendable one, played with character and vitality, and more refined in string texture than the composer’s recording. Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto is a bravura work perfectly suited to the powerful pianism of Earl Wild, whose performance pulses with energy. Once again the orchestra is the National Philharmonic, this time under Massimo Freccia.

The late Rudolf Kempe’s recordings of Strauss’s orchestral music continue to appear here, and as they are on Angel’s budget Seraphim label, they represent excellent value. The latest issue is Aus Italien (S-60301), a piece inspired by the 22-year-old composer’s travels through Italy in 1886.Like his other works of this period, it is a transitional piece which suggests the strong influence of Brahms and hints at the tone poems which were soon to follow. Its one false note is the inclusion of the melody to Luigi Denza’s ubiquitous “Funiculi, funiculà,” which, so the story goes, Strauss mistook for an Italian folk song.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his jovial Oboe Concerto for famed soloist Leon Goossens, who premiered the piece in 1944.Its long absence from the American lists has been rectified by the release of DG disc 2530 906.Neil Black’s supple performance warrants recommendation, though it is unfortunate that it has appeared simultaneously with an English import by John Williams (EMI ASD-3127), whose performance is in every way superior. Nonetheless, the DG set offers a useful coupling in Pinchas Zukerman’s performance of The Lark Ascending, which is quite well characterized, and the Bass Tuba Concerto, played by Arnold Jacobs. Barenboim leads the ECO and, on the tuba work, the Chicago Symphony players.

Even less well known than the Oboe Concerto are the three Vaughan Williams works found on an English recording acquired by the enterprising Chalfont label of Montgomery, Alabama (C77.005). The three are the lively Overture to the opera The Poison Kiss (1936), The Running Set, inspired by traditional English dance tunes, and two hymn preludes, Eventide and Dominus Regit Me, both scored for relatively small forces. Brief works by Elgar fill out the disc, and the idiomatic performances are by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, under George Hurst.

Chalfont also offers a diverse sampling of light English music with the Bournemouth players under Sir Vivian Dunn (C77.001). The selections range from Greensleeves to Sir Arthur Bliss’s stirring March from the Things to Come Suite. William Walton’s Crown Imperial March, written for the coronation of George VI in 1937, appears in this set as well as in an English march collection in which Sir Adrian Boult leads the LPO (Angel S-37436). Interestingly enough, Boult makes less of it than does Louis Fremaux on EMI (ASD-3348), though it appears on that disc merely as a fill-up for excellent performances of two William Walton vocal works, the solemn Te Deum (1953) and the dramatic Gloria (1961). A Capitol import.

Five years after completing his formidable biblical work, Saul and David, Danish composer Carl Nielsen turned his attention to lighter matters. The result was Maskarade (1906), a splendid Mozartean comic opera based on a Ludvig Holberg satire on 18th-century Copenhagen’s passion for masked balls. The libretto is sheer nonsense, and the score is bouyantly tuneful. Surprisingly, it has rarely been heard outside Scandinavia, though that has changed with the release, through HNH, of a first-rate Danish production (Unicorn UN3—75006) under the skillful direction of John Frandsen. Excellent liner notes, a fine translation, and superior pressings round out one of the outstanding opera releases of the past year.

Recent reissues include the music of Nielsen. The six symphonies, in the classic LSO performances under Ole Schmidt, have been remastered by HNH and are presented in two boxed sets (Unicorn UN3—75018X & UN3—75019X). A 1951 Danish Radio broadcast recording of Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice is notable for Kathleen Ferrier’s outstanding performance, though the support she receives is dismal (EMI-Bovema5C 161—25637—38M). Another Capitol Records import gathers together all of the Vaughan Williams vocal music recordings that have appeared domestically on Angel over the past decade. The EM I boxed set is SLS-5082; the conductors are David Willcocks and Sir Adrian Boult. Electrola is the source for a 1966 issue of C. P. E. Bach’s Magnificat. The choral parts are not handled well, but Elly Ameling’s solo work is impeccable, and Kurt Thomas’s conducting of the Collegium Aureum is right on the mark. It is imported by the German News Company (Harmonia Mundi 1C 065—99624). And Odyssey has revived Gary Graffman’s deft performance of Bartok’s folk-idiom Suite, coupled with the rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 4 (1953) by American composer Benjamin Lees (Y-35203).

Other reissues include recordings of two important American stage works. Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958), though not a work one easily warms to, is distinguished by the quality of its vocal writing and Gian Carlo Menotti’s variegated libretto. Its one and only recording has held up well over the years, with Eleanor Steber in the title role, Rosalind Elias as the resolute Erica, and Nicolai Gedda splendidly ambivalent as the interloper, Anatol. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts in this Metropolitan Opera production (RCA ARL2—2094). Tuneful, poignant, and quintessentially theatrical, The Saint of Bleeker Street earned for its composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, a Pulitzer Prize in 1954.RCA’s composer-supervised recording of that year has long been out of print and is a most welcome revival. The cast is headed by Gabrielle Ruggiero (RCA CBM2—2714).

One of the most affecting discs of the past quarter is Sakura (Columbia M-34568), a collection of traditional Japanese melodies arranged for flute and harp by composer Akio Yashiro, and performed with obvious affinity by Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lily Laskine. These are delicate, imagistic pieces that range over a wide physical and emotional landscape, telling of a mother’s love for her daughter, of the coming of spring, and even of Japanese “cowboys” driving their cattle to market.

RCA recorded Puccini’s Suor Angelica (1918) several years ago and, apparently to avoid simultaneous release with Renata Scotto’s set on Columbia, delayed its issue until this past summer. It was well worth the wait. The central role is taken by Katia Ricciarelli, whose vital performance resourcefully balances the work’s lyric and dramatic elements. Movingly handled where other interpretations, including Scotto’s, are overplayed, it is a performance that tells us more about Angelica’s plight than any previous version, save that of Victoria de Los Angeles (EMI SLS-5066). As the icily aloof Princess, Fiorenza Cossotto is an inspired bit of casting, and Bruno Bartoletti extracts from the Academy of Santa Cecilia players a lean but idiomatic sound that accentuates the pleasing understatement of the entire production (ARL1—2712).

Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion (1937) is an early version of the more familiar Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra.Those who know the latter will find the former equally as persuasive, particularly as performed by Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky (DG 2530 964). Specialists of the 20th-century repertoire, the Kontarskys give a performance of concentrated unity that captures the work’s rhythmic verve as well as the luminous texture of the slow second movement. The percussionists are Christoph Caskel and Heinz König.

A generally reliable reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is that by the London Symphony, under Eugen Jochum (Angel S-37463). Jochum’s tendency to underline a bit too heavily is carried to an extreme in Kaul Böhm’s interpretation, with the Vienna Philharmonic, of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 (DG 2530 992), taken from his complete set of several years ago. Exaggeratedly slow, it is a good deal more ponderous than necessary. Another strange approach to a familiar work is Zubin Mehta’s reading of Stravinsky’s Le Sucre du Printemps, one of the first Columbia recordings marking the conductor’s new association with the New York Philharmonic (M-34557). Stravinsky’s primal score has received bloodless interpretations before, but seldom do we hear it controlled to the point of suffocation, as it is here. Colin Davis and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw players provide a more rhythmic, more extroverted Sacre on Philips (9500 323), though it is the composer’s own version (Columbia) that still sets the standard.

Paul Hindemith’s witty ballet The Four Temperaments was first heard as a concert work in 1940, was given as a theatre piece six years later under Balanchine, and was revived by the New York City Ballet in 1976.A theme and variations for piano and strings, it depicts four personality types: melancholy, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric. It is rarely recorded, and we welcome an exceptional new issue with soloist Carol Rosenberger and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under James de Priest (Delos DEL-25440).

The sea was a primary source of musical inspiration for English composer Sir Arnold Bax. Of his programmatic works, Tintagel, depicting the Atlantic from the cliffs of Cornwall, is probably the most familiar. It is one of four such pieces performed on an HNH disc (4034) by the London Philharmonic, under Sir Adrian Boult. As one would expect, Boult makes the most of these brief works, capturing the surging sea swells of the enchanting The Garden of Fand and the unmistakable Spanish inflections of Mediterranean. The only inland piece is Northern Ballad No. 1, in which the composer offers his fiery impressions of the Scottish highlands. As usual with HNH, fine pressings and outstanding graphics are part of the package.

The past two quarters saw greatly increased interest in the very early works of Mozart, with the appearance of fine new recordings of the early string quartets by the Amadeus Quartet (DG2711 020), and Vittorio Negri’s production of La Betulia Liberata, Mozart’s sacred oratorio on the Judith and Holofernes story (Philips 6703 087). Now comes Mitridate, Re di Ponto (K. 74a), Mozart’s first attempt—he was 14 at the time—at serious opera. Premiered at Milan in 1770, it is a prime example of opera seria, an obsolete form of entertainment characterized by a lack of choral work, static action, and a relentlessly unvaried alternation of aria and secco recitative. It is a work mainly of historical interest, there being no immediate prospect of its storming the performing repertory. A new recording (DG 2711 121) features Ileana Cotrubas, Werner Hollweg, and Arleen Auger, among others, all under the able guidance of Leopold Hager. It is in every way a committed production, though it must be said that it is a very long journey from side one to side eight.

Long a fixture of the European market, Philips and DG mid-priced recordings have begun to appear in America. Festive, the Philips label, offers a varied selection of concert staples performed by familiar artists and orchestras. The two best discs we received in this series are Colin Davis’s confident, quicksilver account of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (6570 087), and a noble Emperor Concerto from Claudio Arrau, with Haitink leading the Amsterdam Concertgebouw players (6570 054). Other successful issues include George Szell’s compelling Sibelius Second Symphony, with the ACO (6570 084); an incisive Schumann Second with Elihu Inbal and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (6570 090); and an affectionate version of The Four Seasons from the English Chamber Orchestra, lead by soloist-conductor Henryk Szeryng (6570 061).


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