Naxos’s ‘Complete Symphonies, Suites and Rhapsodies of Hugo Alfvén’ (Naxos 8.507015, 7 cds, c£31.00) features music that defines the bracing Norwegian landscape more often than not with echoes of Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen in tow. Niklas Willén has the music well and truly under his belt (including five sizeable symphonies, the Second and Fifth exceeding the 50-minute mark), the capable Orchestras in his charge, the RSNO, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. My advice would be to head in the first instance for two little-known, single movement masterpieces, A Legend of the Skerries and ‘Andante Religioso’, the latter an ideal candidate for radio producers or presenters (whether in London or Salford) in search of a winning ‘quiet moment’. Alfvén wrote three Swedish Rhapsodies, the most popular by far being the First, or ‘Midsummer Vigil’. Fear not if you comb the set’s contents and at a first glance can’t find it: turn to the seventh ‘bonus’ disc or ‘Swedish Orchestral Favourites’, and there it is, safe and well, concluding the programme which also includes works by Söderman, Stenhammar, Larsson, Peterson-Berger, and Wirén. For this particular programme Okko Kamu conducts the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. It’s delightful music that fits the season like a warming glove
Mahler as arranged or as an arranger turns up on a pair of enterprising Naxos CDs. Aside from the opening of Schumann’s Spring Symphony (altered pitch) most of Mahler’s Schumann symphony emendations (initially in Schumann Symphonies No. 1 & 2 ‘re-orchestrated’ by Gustav Mahler, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Naxos 8.574429, c£8.00) are relatively subtle, or as my dear late mother might have put it, ‘the hard of hearing would have appreciated noticing them’. But I can’t blame folk for using the popular Mahler label as a sales tool, Schumann nowadays not being considered the sexiest of symphonists, although I’d take issue with my colleague Norman Lebrecht (in The Critic, 9th October 2022) who claims that ‘the main impediment is the lack of a big tune that folks could hum on their way home …’. Er, really? Like the second movement of The Rhenish, or of the Second (music that’s as sensual as Wagner) or the Fourth’s Scherzo? Sorry Norman, I’m not with you there. The truth is that Mahler’s minor changes (forget ‘re-orchestrations’), or ‘models of tasteful modification’ for the larger orchestras of today, as they’ve been called (by annotator Rodney Smith), are nothing in comparison with the major and often revealing differences between performances of ‘Schumann symphonies pure and simple’ under Barenboim, Bernstein, Haitink, Holliger, Kubelík, Masur, Muti, Sawallisch and many others. The principal virtue of Alsop’s disc is in the transparency and musical good sense of her own performances. Those who ‘redeem’ orchestral Schumann for recorded performance tend to do so from the notes as originally written, maybe with a little help from a good technical team. It’s that simple and Alsop obliges.
With Mahler himself however there are one or two lingering issues. Mahler’s uncompleted Tenth Symphony (Hong Kong Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, Naxos 8.574372, c£8.00) has for many always proved a bone of contention. Years ago I spoke with Anthony Payne about his own pleasing if controversial ‘performing version’ of Elgar’s Third Symphony. Inevitably the issue of Mahler Ten cropped up and I was relieved to note Payne’s doubts even in the face of heroic work undertaken by Deryck Cooke and others, which I – and he – held in high regard. I quote him here, in sense rather than verbatim: ‘I always get the feeling that if Mahler had lived, he would have added to the work – things would have happened that in the event remained unrealised’, meaning elements of rage and drama, much as you hear in the Ninth Symphony. Imagine my excitement at discovering the new Naxos recording quoted above of the Adagio and Purgatorio movements which Alma Mahler sent to the composer Ernst Krenek to prepare a fair copy from, and which was subsequently forwarded to Mahler’s great friend and greatest interpreter Willem Mengelberg who made his own version, adding some very ‘late-Mahlerian’ contrapuntal detail, a roaring tam-tam and in the midst of the Adagio’s terrifying scream, thudding bass drum strokes. One shivers to think what Mengelberg might have achieved had he received the whole score, maybe approaching the high drama of Payne’s Mahlerian vision.
If you’re into Mahler you simply have to hear this CD; it’ll likely change your view of the piece, or at least your view of what it might have become had Mahler himself lived to complete it. There’s a coupling too, Shostakovich’s Tenth, a very good performance but with the Mahler still ringing in your ears, somewhat surplus to requirements.
I leap straight in this year with the great Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire whose colour-coded, fantastical playing lifts even the most familiar music into undreamt realms of the imagination. Decca’s collection of Freire ‘Memories’ (‘The Unreleased Recordings, 1970-2019’, 4853136, 2 cds, c£14.00) is pure magic from start to finish. Even the pianist himself, not exactly the most boastful of players, rated his 1977 Frankfurt Radio SO reading of Brahms’s B flat Concerto under the much-underappreciated Host Stein as “quite special”. His excellent Gewandhaus recording of the work conducted by Riccardo Chailly (also for Decca), memorable as it is, isn’t quite on this level. And it’s not all down to Freire. Take the fiery second movement, where the soloist bounds in appassionato. On most recordings the sportive orchestral response somehow wants for impact, but under Stein every sinew punches and burns. This is powerhouse stuff whereas the Andante becomes a protracted, heavenly nocturne and the finale swings hither and thither with joyful abandon. Then there’s Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto from Stuttgart under Uri Segal (1972). Again, the conductor is pivotal: in the long tutti after the soloist’s solo opening, note how Segal subtly eases the pulse at 1:36, making you aware that we’re in for an evenly balanced dialogue where both parties are able to have their say. And so it proves throughout the set; in Richard Strauss’s commedia-dell’arte style Burleske (a concerto for Till Eulenspiegel?) under Zoltan Pesko (Baden-Baden, 1985), where poetry and playfulness happily coexist, and Bartók’s First Piano Concerto where Freire and Michael Gielen (Frankfurt, 1970) revisit this remarkable score’s eternal sense of newness, the gyrating, clock-like second movement especially. There are solo pieces too, all of them hauntingly memorable, and all treated to the same brand of flawless pianism.
Close your eyes and imagine a music that emerged as if out of nowhere prior to the written or spoken word, a music that predates confusion-bearing babble that prompts more questions than answers but instead provides a teeming stream of musical invention that sings more than it could ever say, where rhythm is invariably paramount and texture a vital attribute. The music of Meredith Monk is a unique phenomenon in the post-War world, a sort of back-to-basics that while occasionally taking on board the influences of Bartók, Stravinsky and Steve Reich forges its own path and invites us in, as if laying down a blanket in a darkened back room where we can rest, listen, contemplate and soak up a whole host of ideas that are as unique as they are absorbing, ‘works that reveal a kind of underground civilization, one that sings, dances, and meditates on timeless forces,’ to quote Alex Ross of the New York Times. Such is the potent spiritual environment provided by Meredith Monk: the Recordings, ECM New Series 2750, 13 cds, c£91.00, recordings made between 1981 and 2015.
A few examples might give you some idea of what to expect. Monk herself describes Book of Days (disc IV) as ‘a film for the ears’ and indeed the third track ‘Dawn’ is a vivid tone picture for voices with a sombre instrumental underlay. The keyboard parts here are taken either by Monk herself or Nurit Tilles (well known for her work with Steve Reich’s Ensemble) whereas Wayne Hankin sings or plays instruments such bass recorder and hurdy gurdy. The solemn drone of ‘Fields/Clouds’ sounds as if taped during the dawn of time while ‘Madwoman’s Vision’ incorporates Monk’s signature monkey-like exclamations (which leap out at us at various points throughout the set). By contrast the folk-like finale is a ‘Cave Song’. In ‘Facing North’ (Disc V) on the other hand the fourth and eighth tracks (‘Keeping Warm’ and ‘Hocket’) wear a definite Reichian brogue (think of Reich’s ‘Violin Phase’, also out on ECM).
For the opera ‘Atlas’ Monk also wrote the libretto and choreographed the dances. It is scored for 18 voices and a small chamber orchestra which includes a shawm and a glass harmonica. The story is based very loosely on the life and writings of the explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, opera singer and writer Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), who is best known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, when it was forbidden to foreigners (for more on this fascinating historical character access https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandra_David-Néel). Perhaps the best place to start here is Part One, ‘Future Quest’ (VI, Disc 1, track 4). ‘Piano Songs’ (Disc IX), is a hypnotic journey that features pianists Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker and sometimes recalls the folkish magic of Bartók’s 153-piece teaching collection Mikrokosmos, a work that Monk loves (try ‘Urban March’ on track 4). And there’s the last CD (XII), ‘On behalf of nature’, it’s closing track ‘Spider Web anthem’, so lovely, which opens to a tightly-knit duet for women’s voices.
Above all ‘Meredith Monk: the Recordings’ is extremely listenable, its contents both the product of a singular and strong personality and representative of the times in which it was written. Although the overriding voice throughout this marvellous set is, in the broadest sense, Monk’s own, things may have turned out quite differently had the producer been anyone other than ECM’s founding audio magician Manfred Eicher, whose aim is always to allow an artist/composer total authenticity rather than tightening the thumbscrews of his own musical preferences. ‘Be who you are, let nothing block your path’ seems to be Eicher’s credo, unlike some producers and editors (recording or radio) who have a foregone agenda that has to be followed, and no matter what.
I’ll never forget the time I visited Eicher’s Munich offices some thirty years ago, arriving late morning and tired from a last-minute flight, ready for a coffee which was brought to me in Eicher’s office. There was a bookcase nearby which I casually glanced at expecting to see the usual row of reference books, directories and management manuals. To my utter delight instead there were volumes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke, Heine, Hölderlin and so forth, an extended vade mecum for the intellectual guidance and nourishment of a man who in my view is the most imaginative and innovative living recording producer of modern music. This Monk collection is typical of his work at its best and comes handsomely packaged in a sturdy white box with a richly illustrated 304-page CD-size book. It’s a limited edition so don’t let it vanish from view before you’ve acquired a copy.
Another self-contained world, or galaxy I should perhaps say, emerges via Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Complete Lieder Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon 00289 486 2073, 107cds, c£230. Leonard Bernstein once called Fischer-Dieskau “the most important singer of the 20th century” and Fischer-Dieskau returned the compliment (as related to me at least) by naming Bernstein Wilhelm Furtwängler’s natural successor. Both were after all conductor-composers who thought of themselves primarily as composer-conductors (more justified with Bernstein than with Furtwängler, admittedly). As for Fischer-Dieskau his principle claim to fame was being the first solo singer to attempt single-handedly to survey, via recordings, the entire (mostly though not uniquely German) male-voice art song spectrum which in the context of this neatly presented DG collection means Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Britten, Debussy, Dvorák, Ives, Liszt, Loewe, Mahler, Nietszche, Reger, Pfitzner, Ravel, Schoeck, von Einem, Schoenberg, Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Webern, Wolf, Zemlinsky and others. The only previous venture that anticipated Fischer-Dieskau’s mammoth undertaking was pianist Michael Raucheisen’s complete catalogue of German language songs on record, launched in 1933 and for which Raucheisen became head of the department of Song and Chamber-music at the Berlin Radio for the organization of the studios there. But Raucheisen’s ‘catalogue’ involved numerous singers (all accompanied by Raucheisen himself, and fitfully available on CD) whereas Fischer-Dieskau, whose coverage of repertoire ranged far beyond Raucheisen’s, went it alone, excepting for pieces where multiple vocal ensembles are involved.
It’s all too easy with an artist as ubiquitous as Fischer-Dieskau has been for the last seventy years or so to underrate the sheer quality of his achievement. As the eminent American baritone Thomas Hampson wrote in Gramophone magazine in May 2012 ‘Whenever we bask in the beauty of his tone, revere the probing, questioning power of his intellect, or simply wonder at the astonishing physical abilities throughout all that he has achieved in his long recording career, we must also pause and say THANK YOU to this great artist, whose legacy, like a great and bright star lighting the way for those who follow in his passion for singing, is exemplary in every way.’
But what of the recordings themselves, which are in the main shared between Deutsche Grammophon and Warner Classics (or EMI, as was)? And the repertory duplication? In this context alone we have, for example, four recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise (with Jörg Demus, Gerald Moore, Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel), as well as multiple versions of Die schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs and various other works. And the differences between performances are often significant. Take one of my own favourite Schubert Songs, Vor meiner Wieger (In front of my cradle, a song about the cradle, mother and death), twice represented, first in 1966 with Demus at the piano (Disc 58) then with Gerald Moore in 1969 (Disc 48). Just three years apart, but listen to the earlier performance, to the opening line of the last stanza ‘O Mutter, lieb Mutter, bleib lange noch hier, …’ (Oh mother! Dear mother, remain here…) and compare how Fischer-Dieskau sings the mother reference in both, beautifully but at a relative distance in ’69 whereas on the ‘66 recording there’s a sense of infinite sadness. The entire performance in fact is touched by a degree of eloquence that is rare on any lieder recording; even the tenor Karl Erb’s classic pre-War version doesn’t quite match up. Then there’s Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, twice represented from Vienna, first from the Musikverein in 1964, a rather crumbly mono broadcast recording with tenor Fritz Wunderlich on fighting form (such heroic singing) and the Wiener Simphoniker under Josef Krips, one of the conductor’s most urgent recorded interpretations. Then there’s Leonard Bernstein’s well known 1966 stereo Decca recording taped at the Sofiensaal with a more mellifluous Philharmoniker, a spectacular John Culshaw production where the tenor James King, good as he is, is no match for Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau’s more refined interpretation hasn’t the sweep or gemütlich connection that it had under Krips. It’s a subtle but cumulatively significant difference which makes the Krips version well worth owning.
And so it goes on. Hugo Wolf, always a Fischer-Dieskau speciality, is handsomely represented. Der Feuereiter, the terror-driven Fire-rider, can be heard live with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano in October 1973 and in the studio with Barenboim during June of the same year. The mill behind the hill is on fire and the distant bell peals on and on; the Devil is grinning from the rafters amid the flames of hell. As to the two performances, ‘live’ with Richter Fischer-Dieskau offers frantic reportage. You imagine his smoky hair tousled with soot, his eyes ablaze, his voice filled with panic, then turn to the Barenboim version and the story becomes a memory, still told with dramatic inflections, but more a sung performance than the ‘shouty’ fire-stricken Richter option. Barenboim too is on this occasion the more orderly pianist.
I have to tell you at this point that for all its rich ingredients – riches beyond compare I’d say – the set lacks one important listening aid, texts or translations. Even the song titles are not translated, a pity because they would at least offer a hint of a song’s meaning. Then again, most of the songs are in fact available online and there’s the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder (Limelight Editions, New York, 1984) which you can buy from Amazon and elsewhere reasonably inexpensively. But even that isn’t wholly representative of what is included here. For example, my beloved Vor meine Wiege isn’t included (though you can beam it up online at https://www.schubertsong.uk/text/vor-meiner-wiege/). There’s so much I haven’t mentioned not least such larger-scale pieces as Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (where you hear Fischer-Dieskau with his wife Julia Varady), Frank Martin’s Sechs Monologe aus Hugo von Hofmannsthals ‘Jedermann’, Schoeck’s Lebendig begraben, monologues (including Strauss’s Enoch Arden with Demus) and significant recorded interview material in English and German. There’s a 240-page richly illustrated book that features essential discographical information while the discs themselves are packed into four sturdy containers.
So the ultimate question has to be, is this huge collection worth the substantial asking price? Well for a start 107cds at just over £200 or thereabouts, even £300 (ie approximately £3 a disc) isn’t expensive. Much of the music is top-flight and Fischer-Dieskau’s singing ranges from brushed velvet, often softened to a near-inaudible pianissimo, to a declamatory fortissimo. For Fischer-Dieskau each song, whether in German, French, English, Italian or Russian (he sings in all these languages) is a world in itself. Yes, he can occasionally ‘bark’ but even then, the one thing you’re always aware of is the text and its meaning for him which makes listening even without translations compelling. As a record of human experience, whether spiritual, amorous, dramatic, humorous, folkish, warming or fear-inducing, these songs and larger works invariably cast a spell and to have them interpreted by a single mind of such magnitude is a privilege that we can only ignore to our loss. So I’d call it a volume worthy to be placed beside Manfred Eicher’s collected volumes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke, Heine, and Hölderlin.
Writing on the subject of ‘Why I play Debussy’ the great German pianist Walter Gieseking (about whom much more later) made the valid point that ‘music knows no borders; it is a universal language understood by people of all nations.’ Perhaps the most pertinent example of interpretative cross-pollination in recent times is a recording from last April of Dvorák’s piano masterpiece, his thirteen Poetic Tone Pictures, composed in the spring weeks of 1889. The pianist here, Leif Ove Andsnes (Sony Classical 19439912092, c£13.50, due for release on 28th October) whose teacher was Czech, melds a seemingly limitless command of keyboard colours with a deep understanding of this immediately appealing repertory. For the duration of each piece Andsnes could as well be Czech himself. As to the playing, sudden switches from piano to forte suggest both a keen imagination and active emotional engagement with the music, in the case of the first piece ‘Twilight Way’ then firing off on a rustic ramble. ‘Toying’ brings to mind an inevitable affinity with Smetana whose Czech Dances Andsnes should make his next recording project, whereas it hardly takes Andsnes to reference Dvorák’s contemporary Grieg in the ninth piece ‘Serenade’, though I suppose being Norwegian helps. Ditto the next piece a ‘Bachannalia’ could easily pass as a Grieg ‘Elflin Dance’ whereas the cascading notes at the centre of the same piece recall Chopin’s Third ‘Scherzo’.
Here is a player whose arsenal of technical strategems elevates him way above the norm, his seemingly effortless virtuosity, his sense of timing, his varied tonal palette, mastery of rubato (never overdone but always distinctive) and his appreciation – and ability to project – the music’s dance elements. Much as I value first-rate recordings of these pieces by distinguished Czechs such as Kvapil and others, Andsnes – whose playing is beautifully recorded – must now take pride of place, certainly in the digital field. A potential award-winner, I’d say.
According to that master twentieth-century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski ‘[Frederic] Chopin was an eternal example of what Polish music was capable of achieving – a symbol of Europeanised Poland’. The quote is borrowed from the useful booklet for Volume One of the complete Chopin Mazurkas by that fine Swedish-born pianist Peter Jablonski on Ondine (ODE 1412-2, c£12.75). These are cleanly articulated performances, polished in detail, generous with repeats, always thoughtful and appreciative of the mood and harmonic structure of each piece. In general Jablonski is best in the slower Mazurkas, such as the beautiful A minor Op. 17 No. 4 (which provides the harmonic base for the last movement of Gorécki’s Third Symphony) though perhaps the Frenchman Samson Francois is marginally more fluid in the brief albeit less-familiar masterpiece Op.33 No. 1, and even more so in the larger-scale masterpiece Op. 33 No. 4 where Jablonski sounds, at least initially, just a trifle dour. Although happy to have encountered these performances – and I’m looking forward to the appearance of the later pieces in Volume Two – for the most part this music needs to dance a just little more which in terms of ‘complete’ sets means Rubinstein (any of three sets though preferably pre-war, Warner Classics), Garrick Ohlsson (Hyperion Helios, recorded 1998), and Francois in the 1950s. Beyond those there’s a plethora of single disc selections featuring notable pianists, some recent though most of them Old School, whose love for individual Mazurkas shines through some unforgettable recordings, not least the quite magical Pavel Kolesnikov (Hyperion, recorded 2015). Best to start at the very top with Horowitz (Sony/Warner Classics), Rosenthal (APR) or, best of all, Ignacy Friedman pre-War on Naxos.
Having written recently at length on this site about Glenn Gould’s second Sony recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations I hesitated whether to feature the same work again so soon afterwards, but the appearance of no less than four new (very different) sets of the work posed a challenge that I just couldn’t resist. First up is the Turkish composer-pianist Fazil Say (Warner Classics 5054197233968, c£12.75 released 25th November) whose Gouldian attributes start with one that few will want, a tendency to hum while playing. Otherwise Fay’s Goldbergs are nimble (try the lightning-quick 5th Variation on track 6), rhythmically alert and awash with colour. In terms of poetry there’s plenty to savour in that respect too, not least the contrapuntal 9th Variation (track 10), which ranges from ethereal hush to boldness, and, best of all, the celebrated ‘Black Pearl’ of the set, No. 25 (track 26) which Say treats to an emotional flight where breathing is virtually suspended and which, in terms of the music, borders on sounding like Chopin. If there’s one track to play to friends who claim to have an allergy to Bach, then this is it. Beyond the ‘Black Pearl’ there’s the (up-and-out-to-the-pub-lads-and-ladies) variation 30 (track 31), a merry quodlibet that welcomes one and all before the return of the exquisite aria. Definitely one for the ‘Goldbergs’ wants list, this, with all repeats intact, as they are on the three versions briefly discussed below.
The German pianist Burkhard Schliessmann (Divine Art 5-channel Super Audio DDC 25754, 2 cds, c£12.49 – £22.49) offers another thoughtful performance (I was at times reminded of Rosalyn Tureck) but there are shortcomings, the most conspicuous being a tendency to sound laboured and effortful, as in Variation 5 (disc 1, track 6) and the ‘Ouverture’ or Variation 16 on the first track of disc 2 whereas the Quodlibet is just plain dull. One for the ‘Goldbergs completist’ I’d say, the Bach collector who wants to savour each point that a given interpreter makes, and Schliessmann does have points to make.
Reviewing the Hungarian pianist Klára Würtz’s Goldberg Variations (Piano Classics PCL10230, c£16.00) in great detail for Gramophone in May I wrote ‘I’ve heard a handful of Goldbergs that are as good as this (Beatrice Rana, for one – Warner Classics) but none that are better’ and I’d stick by that assessment. Repeats occasionally add extra emphases (Variation 4, track 5). There are Gouldian points of style too (the rhythmic precision of Variation 8, on track 9). Dialogue is closely knit, trills are immaculate, rubato relatively subtle while the ‘Black Pearl’ Variation dons, as I wrote in Gramophone, ‘Beethovenian depth but without the least suggestion of pretention.’ I also wrote, while flying on the wings of genuine enthusiasm, that this is great piano playing that forges a direct route to the soul with no tiresome diversions along the way. Worth every penny I’d say, and the sound quality is excellent.
Which leaves the young Chinese pianist Tianqi Du (naïve V 7566, 2 cds, c£13.50, due for release 4thNovember), something of a recreative genius who also adopts distant Gouldian vocalisations, and who in effect offers us two Goldbergs, one with the first statement of each variation, then another via the repeats, which are always quite different. Those differences are achieved through Du’s embellishments, use of ornaments, varied use of the pedal, stressed inner voices, altered emphases, switching from moderately struck chords to a bullish staccato (variation 8, disc 1, track 9). Like Würtz Du plies immaculate trills, reversing the trend from dynamic moderation to powerhouse projection in Variation 10 (track 11). This superbly engineered set of the Goldbergs held my attention for the duration, even through a ‘Black Pearl’ that plays for near-on eleven minutes (Würtz stretches merely to eight, Say to six), a chaste, desolate, almost disembodied reading, a solitary midnight tryst quite unlike anyone else’s. With Du even the Aria’s final return is quite different to its initial statements at the start of the work. So if perchance anyone is still asking the question ‘is there life to the Goldberg Variations on piano after Glenn Gould?’ the answer is a definite, unequivocal ‘yes’! Some of the best proof is here. Pressed to choose priorities I’d go for Würtz and Du with Say as a good third choice, if you can stretch to him.
And so the to a master if yore, Walter Gieseking, a giant both physically and as a musician, whose Complete Graphophone Recordings (The Complete Warner Classics Edition), 0190296245595, 48cds, will be available as from 11th November [no price is available at the time of writing] and his Debussy The First Columbia recordings, APR 6040, 2 cds, c£13.48 are available now. More miraculous pianism awaits the as yet uninitiated, especially when it comes to the solo piano music of Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms. But before that a clarifying note about Gieseking’s activities in wartime. Warner’s mostly excellent annotator Laurent Muraro tells us that after the Second World War Gieseking ‘had to face charges of having collaborated with the Nazis’. But hold on, was he acquitted, or wasn’t he? We’re not really told, only that there are some recorded gems from the period (including the Schumann Concerto under Karl Böhm and Bach’s Italian Concerto, both included in the Warners set). But to clarify, Artur Rubinstein once revealed Gieseking’s confession, and here I quote, that “I am a committed Nazi. Hitler is saving our country.” Also, he performed in front of Nazi cultural organizations such as the NS Kulturgemeinde and “expressed a desire to play for the Führer”. On the other hand, it was that same Walter Gieseking who after the war taught the Polish Jewish pianist Marian Filar (who had survived as a worker on the German railroad) for five years without payment. ‘You have already paid enough’ was his compassionate rationale. Along with a number of other German artists, although he was blacklisted during the initial post-war period, by January 1947 he had been cleared by the U.S. military government, enabling him to resume his international career.
And that career included making numerous recordings, mostly for the company previously known as Columbia Records and is now known as Warner Classics. The Graphophone was the name and trademark of an improved version of the phonograph and I’m not sure why it is used here, as the vast majority of Gieseking’s records – whether shellac 78s (10” and 12”), or 7” vinyl 45s and LPs (10” and 12”) – appeared principally under the Columbia imprint, both here in the UK and in America. But no matter, it’s nice to see the quaint old word being used again.
Gieseking’s sizeable discography, which in terms of Warner Classics starts in the ‘horn gramophone’ era of 1923 and ends with the dawning of stereo in 1955, is dominated by the music of Debussy, Beethoven and Mozart. A comprehensive survey would be impossible given the dictates of space and time, but of particular value is Gieseking’s 1951 set of Debussy’s complete Préludes (both books), never before released on CD. He was always a majestic exponent of the tenth Prélude, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, (The Engulfed Cahedral), hidden in sea water and the mystery of rumour until it majestically rises from amidst the waves. Many have told the tale, and told it beautifully, including Michelangeli, Cortot and Krystian Zimerman, but that humbling sense of awe is uniquely Gieseking’s province. ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ (What the west wind saw) is easily as wind-swept as the stormy finale of La Mer, whichever recording you choose (there are three, one pre-war, and two post-war) and how lovely to be confronted with the warming spectre of ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) straight afterwards, both extremes of mood handled by Gieseking with his usual mastery of touch and tone.
Gieseking only ever recorded the Second book of Préludes twice for UK Columbia, whereas in 1939 he cut the music for American Columbia, bringing the total of three each for both books. The APR CD set fills in where Warners for copyright reasons couldn’t oblige. Comparing the 1939 version of ‘Feux d’artifice’ (Fireworks) with the well-known taping that closes the 1954 set witnesses a lighter touch pre-war but to be honest there isn’t much in it. APR also offer us contemporaneous versions of the two Arabesques and the Réverie, all in fine transfers. The excellent booklet note by Frank. R. Latino prints the quote used by me at the head of this review, for which many thanks.
While Gieseking covered virtually all of Mozart’s and Debussy’s piano music he fell somewhat short of completing his projected complete Beethoven sonata cycle but what we do have is mostly marvellous, with uplifting versions of Nos. 30 and 31 and a version of Op. 31 No. 3 ‘The Hunt’ that sounds like the work of a much younger man, especially the cantering finale. Beethoven concertos also come off well, gaining in flexibility with the passing years, especially the ‘Emperor’, three times represented, the earliest under Bruno Walter in 1934, then under Karajan in 1951 and lastly under Alceo Galliera in 1955 (in stereo), the slow movement coming off best in ’55, especially the exquisite opening which Gieseking phrases with poetic flexibility. The finest of the Mozart concerto recordings are under Hans Rosbaud, a dramatic force that Gieseking seems to chime with, especially No. 9 in E flat ‘Jeunehomme’ (such a wonderful slow movement) and the great 20th Concerto in D minor. The concertos with Karajan while excellent pianistically are rather soft-soaped in terms of the Philharmonia’s contribution. Mozart’s solo works include countless shorter pieces as well as the usual run of sonatas and there are superb performance of Brahms’s solo pieces and, especially, Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ which have no credible rivals save perhaps for Emil Gilels. The way Gieseking plays the ‘Melody’ Op. 47 No. 3 will break your heart. By contrast I sense that his overcast performances of selected Mendelssohn ‘Songs without Words’ were a well-meaning gesture of good will, covering music that he was forbidden to play for so many years. For much of the time he sounds as if he’s sight-reading, with one or two exceptions.
So much more besides. Listening to this set has certainly revitalised my interest in pianist whose recordings so often failed to hold my interest. My fault entirely I’d say: I wasn’t attentive enough, but now I will be. The transfers are in the main uniformly excellent.
I write these words on Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday (he was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire on October 12th 1872), on my desk a disc that in terms of both content and technology would have been unimaginable when I first encountered the composer’s music around 65 years ago. ‘Vaughan Williams Live Volume 2’ [SOMM Ariadne 5018], c£10.50 has as its centrepiece a concert performance of ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ that predates the conductor’s four commercial recordings and features an Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, that three years later was to play RVW’s Sixth Symphony under the Orchestra’s principal conductor, the great Serge Koussevitzky (a revealing rehearsal for that performance is available at https://pastdaily.com/2018/08/19/serge-koussevitzky-and-the-boston-symphony-rehearse-vaughan-williams-1949-past-daily-weekend-gramophone/). Boult’s Boston ‘Job’ has the players perched on the edges of their seats, or so it seems, their reactions lightning quick (‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’, track 8), fervently responsive (Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty …’, the violin soloist presumably the Orchestra’s concertmaster at the time, Richard Burgin, a pupil of Joachim and Auer), or dramatic (the start of ‘Galliard of. the Sons of the Morning …’, track 10). Certainly Boult appears to convey the music’s profound essence, both to the Orchestra and to an appreciative audience, much as he did for other English scores with the NBC Symphony, the Concertgebouw, the Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna State Opera and other orchestras. But what registers above all else is the intensity of feeling generated, the idea that this is a musically overwhelming work, which it is.
But there’s more, two performances featuring Boult with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the first, recorded in the BBC’s studios on 5th November 1944 as the Allied armies were being held up in Belgium. The work grew from plans for a musical celebration marking Hitler’s defeat. Victory in Europe Day was delayed until 8thMay 1945 and RVW’s ‘Thanksgiving for Victory’ (renamed ‘A Song of Thanksgiving’ in 1952) was broadcast five days later. A proudly outstretched sense of gratitude rides high on the words of Shakespeare, Kipling and the Bible, the music celebratory in the extreme (so touchingly significant given that we’ve experienced a period national mourning so recently), the participating performers, all of them warmly dedicated, the soprano Elsie Suddaby, Valentine Dyall, narrator, George Thalben-Ball and the Choir of the Children of the Thomas Coram Schools. The sound for the entire CD has been miraculously restored by Lani Spahr.
I thank Edward Johnson for altering me to a 40-minutes radio programme on RVW’s “Serenade to Music” (to words by Shakespeare) that has made its appearance on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ6yZWSo8Ck&t=696s), especially as the ‘Serenade’ is the third work on this priceless collection, part of a concert of English music given by the BBC forces under Boult on 29th September 1946 on the opening night of the BBC Third Programme (later to be renamed BBC Radio 3). The incomparable soloists are soprano Isobel Baille, the contralto Astra Desmond, the tenor Beveridge White and the baritone Harold Williams. The original version is for sixteen distinguished soloists, here reduced to four with chorus and orchestra, and that this gorgeous work – which opens like a cross between RVW’s ‘Lark Ascending’ and Brahms’s ‘Song of Destiny’ – should have appeared in that particular radio context proves beyond question that whatever the value of worthy Reithian principles, when it comes to broadcasting music to the people nothing works better than unsullied beauty. The disc’s excellent annotations are by Simon Heffer.
A PERSONAL PRELUDE
Among my most valued formative musical experiences from the late 1960s was the year I spent working for what had recently been called the BBC Third Programme but was by then Radio 3. The department I was assigned to, Concerts Management, dealt with the Proms and among the senior staff working there was Frieda Grove, a tall, bright, kindly lady with a keen sense of humour and a willingness to lend guidance to greenhorn fledglings such as me.
I made it known to Frieda that I had ambitions to conduct and so she unexpectedly arranged for me to meet Sir Adrian Boult at his offices in Central London’s Wigmore Street. I was extremely excited at the prospect of our meeting though, inevitably, I was also very nervous.
When the day eventually arrived, I took a tube to London, made my way to Wigmore Street and, once at the right address, was escorted upstairs to an office where Sir Adrian sat behind his desk. His gently expressive blue eyes instantly put me at my ease, as did an outstretched hand that seemed eager to shake mine. He made me a hot cup of Horlicks (a sweet malted milk drink) which, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed. Goodness knows what impression I made on him, but he talked me through some fundamental conducting issues, such as dealing with the finale of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which alternates between 6/4 and 3/2, a tricky one to get right. He picked up his long baton and I heard in my mind’s ear what I saw, certainly, but had absolutely no idea how he arrived at the airborne patterns he was making. Sir Adrian advised me to find a choral group as a training tool, shook my hand again, wished me good luck – and that was the last time I saw him.
Alas, no choral group was to hand and the conductor in me remained an unfulfilled dream. But the experience of that meeting with Sir Adrian still takes pride of place in my musical memory bank.
Boult was, relatively speaking, the ‘straight guy’ in the great British conducting ‘all-Bs’ triumvirate that also included Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli. Decca Eloquence’s important three-volume retrospective Sir Adrian Boult: The Decca Legacy both confirms and contradicts that familiar rather conservative reputation. What we have here are collections of British Music (Volume 1), Baroque and Sacred Music (Volume 2) and 19thand 20th Century Music (Volume 3).
Starting with Volume 3 (4842284, 16 cds, c£75.00) accompanying violinist Mischa Elman’s highly emotive but strong-willed way with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto would prove a challenge for even the most competent maestro but Boult keeps his cool, much as Barbirolli did in the same work with the same soloist pre-War (Warner Classics). Even as early as Elman’s first entry, there’s a very brief pause, a sort of ‘am I on yet?’ though his intonation is always true and even when climbing hills and sliding down dales he manages to cope, just. And that ‘sob’ to the tone, quite inimitable. Elman, Boult and the LPO also offer us the Bruch First and Wieniawski Second Concertos. My only quibble with Ruggiero Ricci’s 1952 recording of the Beethoven Concerto (with Kreisler’s first movement cadenza) is a very occasional tendency to evade the note’s centre but otherwise Ricci and Boult offer a broadly paced, noble reading of this great work, ‘old school’ it’s true but well worth the occasional visit.
Other sympathetically conducted concertos include Alfredo Campoli playing the Mendelssohn E minor and the Bruch ‘Scottish Fantasy’, the latter impossible to dissociate from Heifetz, for us, and on the evidence presented here, for Campoli too, whose playing betrays Heifetz’s influence. It’s a lovely disc as is a coupling featuring Zara Nelsova of Cello Concertos by Saint-Saëns (his First) and Lalo, the latter for me quite spoiled by sforzando chords in the first movement that sound like a barking dog trapped in a nearby back yard. Take note that that’s my personal reaction to the music, whereas the performance could hardly be bettered.
Another personal beef concerns Dohnányi’s ‘Variations on a Nursery Song’ for piano and orchestra, presented here twice (in mono and stereo) which opens to a portentously Wagnerian orchestral Introduction (as proof of Boult’s consistency it plays for exactly 3:43 on both versions) then switches to the solo pianist playing silly beggars with ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. The ‘joke’ works once, maybe twice, even three times, though nowadays I go straight to the nursery song, follow the course of Dohnanyi’s warming set of Variations and enjoy Julius Katchen’s superb playing. The coupling on both discs are brilliant, fleet-fingered accounts of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody where Boult, the LPO and Katchen achieve watertight ensemble playing.
Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto is entrusted to Clifford Curzon whose rapport with Boult and the LPO is palpable. This is a grand, luxuriant performance, virtuosic where needs be and coupled with equally pleasing (stereo) accounts of Litolff’s ‘Scherzo’ and Franck’s ‘Symphonic Variations’.
Rachmaninov’s First Concerto enjoys heartfelt and forthright advocacy from Peter Katin and the welcome coupling is Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard, and fairly sizeable, ‘Concert Fantasia’ which, again, is given a technically assured and emotionally engaging performance, Boult and his players fully supportive of their soloist in both works, while the stereo sound is excellent. Chopin’s First Piano Concerto is presented in an interesting version prepared by Balakirev and allows the young Friedrich Gulda to exhibit the full range of his musical and pianistic intelligence.
As to purely orchestral works, a mono LPO coupling of Tchaikovsky’s Overtures ‘Hamlet’ and ‘1812’ finds Boult on thrilling form in the former while leaving the latter dead in the water. The ‘Polish’, or Third, Symphony is extraordinarily exciting, especially the first movement, while the ‘Andante elegiaco’ slow movement is played with considerable reserves of feeling, especially by the LPO strings. The primitive stereo sound is best at the top end, leaving the bottom end of the spectrum rather fuzzy.
Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Symphonies, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter, although well enough performed, are similarly afflicted, sound-wise. Best of all is Tchaikovsky’s Third orchestral Suite with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, in credible stereo this time, a performance that to my mind is a considerable improvement on Boult’s EMI re-make with the LPO, even though there violinist Erich Gruenberg was on hand to perform his big solo in the last movement. Here it’s Pierre Nerini, a sweetly individual player very much in the tradition of the French violin school while Boult’s handling of the work’s witty scherzo – especially its perky ‘Jack in the Box’ trio – is infinitely more incisive than on the later London version. Also from Paris, a lively and vividly drawn ‘Lt. Kijé’ Suite (in stereo, with one of the best ‘Troikas’ I’ve ever heard), one half of an all-Prokofev CD that also includes ‘The Love of Three Oranges’ Suite in mono, the LPO on good form but no real match for ‘Kijé’. And lastly in this set, Mahler, whose music Boult conducted on numerous occasions, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kirsten Flagstad in ‘Kindertotenlieder’ and ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’, stereophonically recorded performances notable above all for their sincerity and conceptual simplicity. The orchestra too plays beautifully.
Turning to Volume 2 (13 cds, 4842302, c£70.00), the Baroque and Sacred selections are dominated by two recordings of Handel’s ‘Messiah’, one in mono, the other in stereo, but Flagstad is again represented, this time by a disc of Bach and Handel arias and one of ‘Great Sacred Songs’ (‘Jerusalem’, ‘O Come All ye Faithful’ and the like). The voice is both distinctive and much loved and those considerations are likely to prove decisive, rather than Boult’s heavy-handed LPO accompaniments. I have a particular liking for the singing of the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar, whose way with lighter fare made him exceedingly popular in years gone by, but hear his ‘Handel Songs and Arias’ album and the voice sits just as happily in ‘Ombra mai fu’ or ‘Silent Worship’, though if you are addicted to say Andreas Scholl in the former then McKellar’s full-throated lyricism is likely to prompt a show of red mist. The same CD also adds bonuses including Benjamin Britten conducting the LSO and LSO Chorus in his own arrangement of the National Anthem, once out on a 7” ‘extended play’ vinyl record.
Kathleen Ferrier’s ‘Bach-Handel Recital’, her final studio recording, appears twice, first as originally taped in mono in 1952 then a ‘stereo’ version with ‘new’ accompaniments recorded in 1960 (Ferrier died from cancer in 1953). Where singing isn’t involved, there’s no problem: Boult and the team simply redid the tutti for stereo and that was that. But when Ferrier enters, the centralised voice sometimes remains bonded to surrounding instruments, especially if you’re listening on cans. Musically, I was interested to note from Peter Quantrill’s supplementary essay that Ferrier’s collaborating mentor in Mahler, Bruno Walter, felt that her special ‘spiritual’ qualities were especially suited to the religious music of Bach and Handel. A telling remark, that, especially as all we read of Walter on Ferrier tends to be about her singing of Mahler. But for me the solemn, even sombre combination of Boult and Ferrier in say ‘All is fulfilled’ from Bach’s ‘St John Passion’ has something ‘holier than thou’, even discomfortingly phantasmal about it, though I know that others will feel differently. The voice is certainly very beautiful, and Ferrier’s enunciation is impeccable.
The bigger works are excellent in their different ways. Handel’s delightful pastoral opera ‘Acis and Galatea’ stars Joan Sutherland, Peter Pears, David Galliver and Owen Brannigan, vocal stalwarts of the 1960s who perform well while Boult’s conducting of the St. Anthony Singers and the Philomusica of London keeps all concerned alert and on the ball. Of the two Messiahs (both use an edition by Julian Herbage) the principal difference is with the two orchestras, a tonally subdued but intensely communicative LPO in 1954 while for the 1961 remake Boult and his team switch to a keener-edged, better recorded LSO, the Orchestra known for its dynamic performances and recordings under the likes of Pierre Monteux and Antál Doráti. Compare the two versions of ‘For unto us’ and the difference is quite striking. As to the soloists, the superb ’54 line-up of Jennifer Vyvyan, Norma Procter, George Maran and Owen Brannigan is perhaps the more reverential-sounding of the two, whereas for the 1961 stereo remake Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, McKellar and David Ward lean more towards a bel canto style of delivery, Sutherland especially. I have to admit a marked preference for the more immediate 1961 version.
When it comes to Boult’s coverage of British music in Volume 1 (16 cds, 4842204, c£75.00), further comparisons are suggested by the set’s centrepiece, the first-ever complete recorded cycle of Ralph Vaughan-Williams’s nine symphonies, invariably with both the composer and his wife Ursula attending the sessions. The one main exception was the Ninth, recorded in stereo on the eve of the composer’s death (the conductor/producer John Carewe stepped in as supervisor) by the Everest company and issued by Decca under license from the label’s successors. Considering how recent the work was the performance is remarkably assured, both as playing and as representative of the Symphony’s powerful sense of foreboding.
Pitting Boult on Decca (mostly in mono, the entertaining Eighth being the sole exception) against his subsequent remakes for Warner Classics is tantamount to playing swings and roundabouts though for me the extra levels of concentration achieved in the 1950s invariably win the day.
Best of all are Symphonies Nos. 2, or ‘London’, 3, or ‘Pastoral’, 4 and 6, the 2nd combining a misty evocation of Big Ben’s chimes with fast traffic chaos, cockney-style ebullience and a good measure of mystery. Boult balances these elements to perfection. In the Third’s first movement only André Previn with the LSO come close to Boult’s sense of rapture while under Boult the offstage presence of Margaret Ritchie’s soprano leaves a disquieting impression in the closing ‘Lento’.
For years I’d unfairly daubed the dramatic Fourth as ‘Dad’s Army drama’, a failed effort to match the big guns of Mahler, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but acquainting myself with RVW’s own pre-War recording, a real firecracker, and this iron-fisted Boult performance, where the work’s Beethovenian roots are laid bare, put me straight. The Sixth is another apparent harbinger of trouble, specifically in the anguished first movement. Boult premiered the original version in 1948 and within a year it had achieved some 100 performances, prompted no doubt by imagined associations with the tragic close of war, which the composer tended to wave away as so much piffle.
‘Sinfonia Antartica’ draws on incidental music that RVW had written for the 1948 film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. It’s a huge score calling for all manner of effects, including a wind machine, assorted percussion and, in the first and last movements, a soprano solo (Margaret Ritchie here) and a three-part women’s chorus. The score also includes a brief literary quotation at the start of each movement, spoken on this recording by Sir John Gielgud. Boult’s compelling performance is well captured by producers John Culshaw and James Walker though it’s worth mentioning at this juncture that if you don’t fancy the ‘black and white’ of mono sound then Pristine Audio offer a more colourful, widened spectrum (‘Sinfonia Antartica’ is on PASC 668, available from www.pristineclassical.com) that works especially well in the third ‘landscape’ movement though at the start of the ’Alla marcia’ Epilogue Decca’s ‘straight’ transfer has the greater impact. And there’s the ‘Sea Symphony’, a favourite with choral societies though not perhaps among the greatest of the symphonies, a first-ever recording that must have burst upon the listening public of the day like a holy declamation, the performance much lauded on its first release and that still stands the test of time.
RVW’s friend Holst reckoned ‘Job, a Masque for Dancing’ to be the composer’s masterpiece, an understandable assessment widely echoed by RVW aficionados and while (to these ears) the weather-worn ‘Introduction and Sarabande of the sons of God’ suggests the ruggedly attired composer sitting in a tumbledown country shack, bible in hand, the subsequent movements more suggest the tortured complexities of Job’s tribulations and his continued devotion to God. It’s wonderful music and deserves wider circulation in concert than it has so far received. This is surely Boult’s consummate performance of the score on disc, though a forthcoming release from SOMM of a Boston Symphony broadcast looks fascinating. Other featured RVW works include the ballet ‘Old King Cole’ (the familiar nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole was a Merry Old Soul’ is slammed out for all its worth at the beginning) and the Aristophanic Suite ‘The Wasps’.
As to the rest, I’d imagine that Boult and Campoli bring us fairly close to what Kreisler and Elgar would have sounded like in Elgar’s Violin Concerto, the warmth of it, the geniality too, and, where necessary, the brilliance. There are Elgar’s ‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Chanson de Nuit’, both charmingly done, his ‘Bavarian Dances’ and eight immensely likeable ‘English Dances’ by Sir Malcolm Arnold as well as distinguished performances of works by Butterworth (‘A Shropshire Lad’ and ‘The Banks of Green Willow’) and Bax (‘Tintagel’), Walton (his suite of Bach arrangements, ‘The Wise Virgins’, for one, though I don’t think ‘Portsmouth Point’ was quite Boult’s thing) and Holst including the wonderful ‘Hymn of Jesus’, ‘Egdon Heath’, two recordings of ‘The Perfect Fool’ and a quartet of first releases, ‘A Somerset Rhapsody’, ‘Scherzo from Unfinished Symphony’ (which sounds like a discarded off-cut from ‘The Planets’), ‘Marching Song’ and a stereo release of ‘Country Song’.
Humphrey Searle’s First Symphony is the set’s toughest nut, but Boult and his players don’t seem in the least bit phased by it. The set closes with two interesting pieces by Matyás Seiber that don’t involve Boult but were on the same lp as the Searle.
A PERSONAL POSTLUDE
Summing up I must pay tribute to Eloquence’s Executive Producer Cyrus Meher-Homji OAM, Transfer Engineer Chris Bernauer, and the scholar and writer Nigel Simeone whose comprehensive annotations are not only invaluable but a joy to read, especially when it comes to Boult and Vaughan Williams. Simeone’s detailed 330-page study ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult’ is available from Boydell Press, ISBN. 9781783277292, price £32.50 (an offer from Pristine Audio at www.pristineclassical.com; the official RRP is £50.00).
If working on a budget and forced to choose just one set, I’d opt for Volume One, principally because Boult knew so many of the featured composers and the artistic bond with Vaughan Williams was so strong. Beyond that, Volume Three includes the biggest ratio of interpretative surprises and some star soloists and if Volume Two offers what one might nowadays term ‘Philharmonic’ Baroque, there are some great featured singers and the 1961 ‘Messiah’ is rather special.
At the head of this review I referred to Boult as the ‘straight guy’ in the great British conducting ‘all-Bs’ triumvirate that also included Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli. How did these three masters differ? Barbirolli and Beecham both excelled in opera, which generally speaking was not really Boult’s bag; Beecham was a magician who could seduce with Delius or raise a storm with Wagner, Barbirolli a warm-hearted exponent of music with an emotional core, Puccini and Mahler especially. Boult was a cooler customer than either, but he could on occasion surprise his listeners with volatile Tchaikovsky or impassioned Elgar. Like his idol Toscanini, his heart was securely in his chest, not on his sleeve, but the pulse of his performances was nearly always strong which is why he so often confounded expectations. That ability to occasionally suspend belief is abundantly apparent throughout all three of these marvellous sets.
… or ‘Schubert 7’ if that’s your preferred reference point. But, boy, Jordi Savall and his period-instrument Le Concert Des Nations (Alia Vox AVSA9950, 2cds, c£13) give this masterpiece the outing of its life, with Toscanini-style timps firing from the turrets in big tutti passages and a cunning acceleration from Andante to Allegro ma non troppo to set the work on its way. No wonder the album is called ‘Transfiguration’. Note too the rustic phrasing of the first movement’s second subject (3:46), birdsong from the eaves you might say, and when the repeat arrives (which it does at 5:43) you’re grateful that – hey! – you can enjoy it all over again.
This is the most physical Schubert 9 I’ve ever heard; it gate-crashes Beethoven’s ballpark like no other even though Herbert Blomstedt (most recently), Michael Gielen, Abbado, Furtwängler and Walter offer viably satisfying (and quite different) takes on the same piece. Then there’s the Andante con moto second movement, it’s sombre tread ideally paced, its bassline stressed but never exaggerated, its dramatic interjections always well balanced, whereas the warring brass at 8:21 never upstage the strings. At this point on so many HIP recordings of the ‘Great’ C Major the strings get a raw deal.
Like Abbado (with Orchestra Mozart, DG) Savall takes the rarely-heard repeat in the finale but while Savall drives the Scherzo into a state of abject rage – the magnificent recording leaves no detail obscured – there’s a great deal to be said for Abbado’s warmer, more lilting approach. I’m happy to alternate them. And then there’s the ‘Unfinished’ (on disc 2) with its emphatically drawn opening, powerful brass and timps and an emphatic pulse. Lyrical, yes, (again the repeat is played) but otherwise not for the faint-hearted. Savall never pulls his punches and come the Andante con moto second movement, you move into a world that’s altogether brighter, even in spite of some thunderous sudden outbursts. It’s a contrast that convinces us – for however long is anyone’s guess – that whatever this work is, it certainly isn’t unfinished. If you love these works as much as I do you simply have to hear this magnificent CD.
I’ve always thought that there are two basic ways of interpreting early music. One takes a scholarly imperative as sacrosanct, banning vibrato while often upping the tempo, inflecting the line, brightening textures and adopting whichever ornaments are deemed appropriate for the period. The other way is more emotionally direct, where musicians play or sing their hearts out, oblivious to the fads and fashions of ‘period style’, except in cases where the music benefits by employing them. Such was the preference of Michel Corboz, a baker’s son brought up in a Catholic family in the Swiss canton of Fribourg who was lost to us last year at the age of 87. The 74-cd set Michael Corboz: The Complete Erato Recordings – Baroque and Renaissance Eras, 9029621746, c£165.00 might seem like a costly enterprise but if you’re as yet unfamiliar with its contents then it’s cheap at the price, please believe me. In short, Corboz and his collaborators find a magical method of edging from one musical episode to the next with a sense of wonder, often a hushed sigh that recalls such Old-World conductors as Furtwängler, Jochum and Walter. To hear playing and singing of this quality and expressive power in Beethoven Brahms, Bruckner or Mahler is one thing, but in Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 17th century Mass for All Soul’s Day ‘Messe pour les trépassés’ (performed complete), something else entirely. The ‘Kyrie’ opens with a solemn orchestral prelude, which then switches unexpectedly to quiet voices that suggest the veiled intensity of top-flight chamber musicians before the female chorus lets out a voluminous cry that if it weren’t so beautiful would be shocking. A powerfully angular ‘Dies irae’ follows, which soon starts to dance, the soloists led by the delightfully fresh-voiced Jennifer Smith, a frequent presence throughout the set.
Among the many Vivaldi inclusions is the Magnificat RV 610 in a 1975 recording, one of the many new re-masterings included (all are superbly realised by the way), the music the ideal corrective for those who accuse Vivaldi of stylistic sameness. Just try ‘Et misericordia’, a heart-stopping meditation that modulates with profound meaning, the performance dark-hued, the chorus deeply reverential though the closing chord lets the light in and the ‘Fecit potentiam’ sequence that follows allows for dramatic contrasts in tone and tempo.
Monteverdi is very generously represented with two versions of the ‘Vespro della Beata Vergine’, the earlier of the two – and a welcome first cd release – featuring the highly distinctive tenors Eric Tappy and, most famously, Hugues Cuénod, the later set, a more engaging performance overall, again featuring Jennifer Smith. The other Monteverdi inclusions, not least ‘The Most Beautiful Madrigals’ and six volumes of ‘Selva Morale’ are, in both musical and performance terms, quite simply glorious, the sort of music that were you to have it playing when non-musical guests visit would have them stop, listen (even if only for a brief moment) and enquire as to what they were hearing. Mozart’s fleshed out version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ would no sooner replace the original than would Mendelssohn’s take on Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ would, but it’s interesting to hear and the performance is full of vitality. Of the Bach Passions themselves Corboz is marginally more compelling in the ‘St.John’ – where his sense of theatre holds sway – than in the ‘St.Matthew’, though Kurt Equiluz is a supremely convincing Evangelist in both. There are three versions of the B minor Mass, all of them crowned by performances of the ‘Sanctus’ that sound is if the choruses can hardly contain their sense of zeal. Furthermore, Corboz makes sure that the music’s all-important descending bass-line is properly audible. There are pleasing first CD releases of ‘Le Chanson et La Danse’ (‘Paris vers 1540’) and a rather more modern, sometimes traditional programme ‘La Chanson de Lausanne’.
So what else is on offer? J.C. and more J. S. Bach, Bassano, Bellavere, Carissimi (especially memorable), Cavalli (‘Ercole amate’ with Felicity Palmer and Yvonne Minton), D’Incerto, De Lalande, Donato, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Goudimel, Guami, Ingegneri, Marcello, Merulo Da Correggio, Padovano, Parabosco, Purcell (‘Dido and Aeneas’ with Teresa Berganza), Alessandro Scarlatti, Vecchi, and Veggio. The way Corboz has his voices and instruments blend, his method of shaping phrases and varying dynamics all bear the mark of a true artist. He understood what the term ‘right style’ meant yet you’re never aware that ‘style’ itself is his objective, more the significance of the musical message, setting it in an ideal sound frame. Here I must pay tribute to his producer Michel Garcin, one of the last Century’s finest in my view, someone who, alongside some expert balance engineers, had the ability to combine pinpoint stereophonic clarity with overall warmth. And in case you’re wondering about Corboz’s Erato recordings of later repertoire (and there’s plenty of it), fear not, they should be with us before too long.
… are what Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg did on their wedding night.’ The amusing quip landed a celebrated BBC Radio 3 presenter in trouble with his bosses, though his humour was well placed: at the end of the work, before the return of the iconic opening ‘Aria’, Bach rounds off his sublime 30-strong variation sequence with a folksy, tuneful ‘quodlibet’ which, as Bach’s biographer Forkel explains, invokes a custom observed at Bach family reunions. ‘This kind of improvised harmonizing [meant] that they not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.’ A joke then, and, more often than not, a pretty saucy one. This enriching variation is repeated numerous times – with its first half repeated – as played in 1981 by Glenn Gould for the sessions of the second of his two Sony recordings of the complete work. His first, made in Manhattan in 1955, was reported to have sold 40,000 copies by 1960, and had sold more than 100,000 by the time of Gould’s death in 1982.
Over the years Gould’s earlier Goldbergs have been in and out of my collection like a yo-yo. Sometimes the shock alternation of deep rumination and dazzling finger work at speed has me hooked, sometimes not. By 1981 Gould had forged a more even path from variation to variation and while his pianism is no less brilliant than it was in 1955, his mind seems more settled – and of course the digital sound is vastly superior to its analogue predecessor. But whichever way you look at it, Gould’s Goldberg’s did as much to bring Bach to a wider public as did Stokowski’s orchestration of the organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 and Dame Myra Hess’s piano transcription of the chorale ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.
In April and May 1981, while often recording late into the night, Gould and the CBS
Masterworks studio team, headed by producer Sam Carter, were joined by the French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, who was making a documentary series about Gould; Monsaingeon can also frequently be heard in the recordings.
This is Gould’s 90th anniversary year and it’s also 40 years since the second Goldberg’s first release, which makes Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations – The Complete Unreleased 1981 Recording Sessions (Sony Classical 194399774229, c£110.00, a similar collection devoted to the 1955 recording has already appeared) a uniquely detailed window onto the creation of this classic recording. Spread across 11 CDs, the set includes the double GRAMMY-winning final release as well as everything recorded during the 1981 sessions, restored from the original ¼-inch analogue tapes and mastered using 24 bit / 96 kHz technology. In addition to the takes themselves, the session recordings include Gould and the producers’ often mirthful conversations, all of which are transcribed in a hard-cover coffee-table book which also contains an annotated score.
What we have is Gould performing each variation, then tailing what he plays with the first bar or two of the next variation so that he can pick up where he left off. His pleas about having played a wrong note or missed a note at the close of a phrase are lost on me, such is the level of his perfectionism. But one thing’s for sure, once you’ve travelled the course of this amazing performance you’ll know the Goldberg Variations more thoroughly than your musical friends – unless they’ve bought the set for themselves (do try to encourage them, in musical terms it’s a fabulous investment).
Gould was just 22 when he taped his first set of the Goldbergs. I wonder what the 23-years-old Japanese pianist Mao Fujita will think of his first complete recorded set of Mozart’s sonatas in say ten years’ time? There’s bound to be a second, maybe even a third, but as with Gould’s two Sony Goldbergs there’ll also likely be a marked curve of interpretative development between them. This ‘first’ Mozart set (Sony Classical 196587 10762, 5 cds, c£52.00, due for release 7th October) recorded a couple of years ago in Berlin, is brilliant, imaginative but singularly unpredictable.
Take the opening of the so-called Dürnitz Sonata K.284, motoric and bracing, then switch to the ‘Rondeau en Polonaise’ second movement and the ‘theme and variations’ finale where tempo shifts abound, and Mozart the Classicist anticipates his Romantic future self. Even more so the great A minor Sonata K.310 when in the dramatic first movement, taken at a fairly broad tempo, because of the way chords are weighted, Fujita’s left hand releases a wealth of harmonic colour (Peter Donohoe on SOMM is similarly effective). The late Lars Vogt (Ondine) has the main theme protest more loudly and in the second movement is less intent on seduction whereas for the movement’s great central episode Gould (Sony again) effects a noble arch that’s more striking than his quoted rivals, even though their chosen tempi are far slower. Then again Elisabeth Leonskaja (Warner Classics, my No. 1 digital choice in these works) nails the work’s tragic spirit with unique authority.
In the Andante of the F major K.533/494 Fujita’s sensitive but relatively straightforward approach doesn’t quite equal Mitsuko Uchida’s fastidious expressiveness (Philips/Decca). But to subject this excellent young pianist to such close comparative scrutiny seems a mite unfair. Mao Fujita is gifted almost to excess and everything he plays makes us wonder, what might he do next? It’s a question prompted in particular by hearing him play the Sonata No. 18 in D major K. 576. The bouncy opening Allegro suggests the hunt but come the Adagio second movement and we could as well be listening to a sketch for an aria for The Magic Flute. The idea had never occurred to me before I heard this memorable recording by Mao Fujita.