Berky’s Bruckner Archive

Among the most dazzling discographies in existence is John F. Berky’s Bruckner site ABRUCKNER.COM (the discography specifically is at where every known recording of a work by Bruckner – ‘live’ or ‘studio’ – including every edition of every symphony, is listed in detail, whether or not readily available. My first reaction when visiting the site (specifically to check out Sergiu Celibidache’s Bruckner recordings, of which there are dozens) was ‘I give up’. Surveying this territory thoroughly would take more than a single lifetime and that would mean banishing the presence of a thousand or more great musical works that lay outside the Bruckner remit. So I now use it only to check facts ….. and for that it’s an invaluable resource.

Enter Gerd Schaller with the 1874 Fourth Symphony

With the composer’s 200th birthday due to fall in 2024 more than one conductor is rising to the challenge of recording all the symphonies in all the versions including intermediate variants. One such braveheart is Gerd Schaller, who studied music at the Würzburg College of Music and medicine at the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and whose Bruckner project is well on the way to completion (an intermediary 20-cd set is out on Hänssler Profil cPH22007, £57.50) but the latest single CD highlights the 1874 version of the Fourth Symphony, a world very different to the ones we’ve known under the likes of Böhm, Karajan, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Wand and so forth.

Imagine spending your life at a favourite outdoor haunt, seduced by familiar flora and fauna, by the width of the sky space, the local sounds and smells and the people you love best. You nod off then wake up and to your amazement everything has changed, the flowers have been transplanted, so have the trees, faces are only vaguely familiar, voices too and the blue skies are now threatened by distant storm clouds.

You rub your eyes but it’s no good, this new version of reality is here to stay. Musically, this means a plethora of details have also changed, including added counterpoint and countersubjects, revised orchestration, and fresh themes sprouting among the thickets. It’s a weird but wonderful new terrain, especially the third movement scherzo which trades the familiar bumpety-tump of the 1878/1880 version with its hunting calls for a lone, shofar-like horn that seems to be in league with those clouds, summoning inclement weather from the far distance. Interestingly it fits the finale far more appropriately than does the rewrite and the finale itself is also significantly different.

I much prefer this edition and Schaller’s version gives is to you straight, with no frills, no longueurs or attempts to temper the landscape, no AstroTurf to make the ground more comfortable; this is not a comfortable place to be in. The Philharmonie Festiva (which Schaller founded), recorded live (with considerable realism), offers a dedicated, well played,  unselfconscious performance without mannerism, a reading that suits Bruckner’s musical honesty ‘to a T’.  (Bruckner Symphony No. 4 [1874 version], Philharmonie Festiva, Gerd Schaller, Hänssler Profil PH22010, c£13.50).

The Fifth Symphony from the organ loft

Schaller is also a first-rate organist and his organ arrangements of Bruckner’s Ninth and Fifth Symphonies suggest a new listening location, less a cathedral than sunny grasses outside while the Cathedral doors are flung open, the organ is playing full blast and mountain ranges dominate the distant skyline. Not being an organist myself I can’t say quite how Schaller achieves the immense range of colour and dynamics on offer here, but I’d advise the curious to beam up 7:09 into the massive finale (23:06) where one of the Fifth Symphony’s principal themes thunders out as if Zeus himself had visited the human fold. Beyond that, and especially in the closing pages, the music inhabits elevated realms and although, inevitably, the loss of subtler orchestral textures will register with those who know the orchestral original especially well, tempi are never sluggish and the overall impression is mightily impressive (Bruckner Symphony No. 5 arranged for organ – world première recording – Gerd Schaller playing the organ at former Cistercian Abbey, Ebrach, Franconia, Germany. Hänssler Profil PH23014, rec. 2022, c£21.00)


Klemperer: The Warner Classics Remastered Edition, 95 cds (Warner Classics 5419725704, c£175.00, released June 2nd)

Ernest Ansermet: The Stereo Years (Decca 4851583, 88 cds, c£199.00)


If you were raised towards maturity in the late nineteen fifties/early sixties and you loved ‘classical’ music, the miracle of stereo sound was intoxicating. Aside from spectacularly cinematic lp series such as Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo there were skilfully if rather less system-flattering productions by Decca (specifically from Geneva) and Columbia (at the Kingsway Hall in London) focusing on the artistry of two significant and hugely experienced conductors, Ernest Ansermet and Otto Klemperer. Both are currently being celebrated with sizeable boxed sets (details quoted above), in the main using state-of-the-art digital transfers, EMI employing the skills of Art and Son Studio, Annecy, for what appear to be complete sonic overhauls since their last CD incarnations. In the case of Ansermet, I’d imagine that Decca have called on (excellent) transfers already issued by Australian Decca.  


Concerning these vintage titans, how might we speak of disparities and similarities? Early on in his career Klemperer had converted from Judaism to Catholicism.  He remained a practising Roman Catholic until 1967, when he left the faith and returned ‘home’ so to speak. Religious issues aside, his intellectual and philosophical remit was substantial. Wieland Wagner once summed Klemperer up with the words ‘Classical Greece, Jewish tradition, medieval Christendom, German Romanticism, the realism of our own time, make Klemperer the conductor a unique artistic phenomenon.’ He was also stoical in the face of mental and physical hardships and as a way of escaping these and other impediments was an habitual repertoire adventurer.

In his pre-War years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, despite box-office constraints, Klemperer successfully introduced his public to rarely heard works by Mahler, Bruckner and Stravinsky. He also programmed music from the tripartite oratorio Gurrelieder by his neighbour Arnold Schoenberg, who complained that he did not perform his works more often. Schoenberg good-naturedly brushed off this rejection and, as Klemperer always aspired to compose as well as to conduct, gave him composition lessons.

The fiercely anti-atonalist mathematics professor and founder of the Suisse Romande Orchestra Ernest Ansermet (who also composed) wouldn’t have been too enamoured with the idea that Klemperer was being tutored by Schoenberg, even though the various Klemperer works included in Warner’s box have a securely tonal base (try the lovely Brucknerian opening moments of the adagio from his Fourth Symphony on Warners’ bonus disc). As far as Ansermet was concerned employing twelve-tone techniques was a ‘Jewish’ idea (as espoused in his book, Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (1961)), a notion that calls in part on the phenomenologist philosopher Husserl (who, incidentally, was born a Jew) for support. ‘…. [The] Jew ‘suffers from thoughts doubly misformed [sic],’ writes Ansermet, ‘ ….thus making him ‘suitable for the handling of money’, and sums up with the damnable statement that the ‘historic creation of Western music’ would have developed just as well ‘without the Jew’. Mahler-lovers please note.

Racist ideas worthy of Wagner? Yes and no, ‘no’ ultimately you might say, considering Ansermet conducted and recorded such Jewish composers as Mendelssohn, Dukas, Bloch and Offenbach, had at least two Jewish concertmasters (Lorand Fenyvès and Michel Schwalbé) and collaborated with numerous Jewish soloists (Stern, Menuhin [playing Berg’s Violin Concerto, please note], Ellen Ballon, Arthur Rubinstein, Julius Katchen, George London, Zara Nelsova and so forth). Still, given the current climate I think it’s important to face these idiocies and their inherent contradictions whenever they arise, just to prove how little they mean. What worries me most is that Ansermet expressed them so late in life and at a time when the world was still reeling from revelations brought about by the liberated Concentration Camps. Shameful really.


Still, for our purposes the music is the thing. How did these two very different characters stack up in musical terms, and were they similar in any ways? To the latter question the answer is a very positive yes. Neither conductor tended to hurry or had any truck with cosmeticizing music, polishing surfaces a-la-Herbert von Karajan and occasionally Carlo Maria Giulini. They were honest brokers, Ansermet in terms of balancing his less-than-pristine Suisse Romande forces, Klemperer in the way he organised the orchestral choirs of his vastly superior Philharmonia (later New Philharmonia) Orchestra, especially the spatially divided violin desks, which indulge in banter from left to right and back again. This stereo information benefits a work like Mahler’s Ninth – which Klemperer conducts with sovereign command – like night time spotlights on a football pitch. Producer Suvi Raj Grubb oversees an unusually rich sound frame, especially strong at the bass end of the spectrum.

The more interventionist Walter Legge could occasionally tiptoe one – maybe even two – steps too far, as he often did with Herbert von Karajan whose Philharmonia/Legge recordings so often resemble a perfectly kept saloon car with a faceless driver (the tail wagging the dog? A lamentably ‘molto legato’ Sibelius 2 for example). But with Klemperer the producer is always at the conductor’s service; for instance, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony where in the closing saltarello the spirited playing is also exquisitely detailed, those violins darting to and fro like sylphs at dead of night. Legge has his place – and his skills – yes, but Klemperer is most definitely in charge.

Key Stravinsky works turn up in both sets. Pétrouchka emerges as his pathetic though occasionally manic self under Ansermet whereas on Warners it’s Klemperer who sounds – and please forgive me for writing this, but it’s true – who sounds ‘pathetic’ with playing that is lugubrious and slack. The two Pulcinella Suites offer significant differences in mood and colour, Ansermet’s the more overtly balletic of the two, Klemperer’s more classical rendition deliciously pointed and rhythmically firm. In the Symphony in Three Movements Ansermet sounds as if he could have benefitted from an extra rehearsal or two. Klemperer is better, especially towards the end of the first movement.

Both sets include Bach Suites, Nos. 2 and 3 with Ansermet (who also recorded five cantatas) but with Klemperer all four Suites were recorded twice, the 1954 mono set remarkable for its liveliness, precision and rhythmic attack. I’m reminded of an earlier Warners set of the same works, recorded pre-war by the Adolf Busch Chamber Players. The stereo set is also very good, but not as good. And there are the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms. Both conductors turn in impressive Chorals, Klemperer most especially ‘live’ at the Royal Festival Hall, a two-mic back-up in case he was unable to complete the studio recording, which he did though the live recording is the more impressive performance by far. Both sets include alternative versions of individual symphonies, Ansermet in Nos. 1 & 8, Klemperer in Nos. 3, 5 and 7.

Klemperer also offers us an exciting pre-war Berlin set of Brahms 1 (one of a handful of featured recordings from the period) but his Philharmonia recordings still hold sway; aside from the sound, they’re so much better played. Bruckner is represented by Symphonies Nos. 4-9, the Fifth and Sixth holding their ground to this day. And if you want to experience a wry Klemperer half-smile, try his cockeyed Merry Waltz (Johann Strauss meets Charlie Chaplin) or the drily cynical world of Weil’s Threepenny Opera Suite.

Ansermet’s Debussy and Ravel recordings are mostly magical, his Schumann Second one of the best to be had (Klemperer recorded his version just a little too late in the day) his Delibes, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov ballets, very much the work of an experienced theatre conductor. They have charm, style and irresistible panache. Both conductors offer us finely detailed accounts of various Wagner orchestral excerpts (Klemperer is more generous in his selections than Ansermet and those dialoguing violin desks are especially effective in Tristan und Isolde’s ‘Prelude und Liebestod’). And that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer.


Just so that you know the excellent vintage recordings commentator Jon Tolansky offers well-prepared sound documentaries and notes for both sets. If you want to peruse a complete list of each box’s contents consult Presto Classical’s website at One or two faults on the Ansermet set that surfaced early on are I’m told being put right. Just so that you know the faults are as follows: instead of including versions of Debussy’s La mer from 1957 and 1964, as promised, we’re offered the 1957 version twice. For some purchasers Disc 37 will therefore need replacing. Also, there is a certain amount of unacceptable distortion towards the close of Brahms’s German Requiem which means a replacement copy of disc 20 too.  The address to email for replacement copies is (for UK customers only – all international customers should go back to their point of contact and request a copy through them). My only gripe so far regarding the Klemperer set is that the version of Handel’s Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 4 is the original, not, as stated, ‘arr. Schoenberg’ which in case you’re interested is Op. 6 No. 7 (a ‘live’ Klemperer recording of this [for me] grotesque ‘Schoenberg Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra after Handel’, is available as a download on Archiphon ARC-WU180-81).

As a final sign-off I’d say that although both collections feature memorably rich ingredients, and both are certainly well worth owning, viewed as a whole Klemperer’s achievement is set at a higher artistic level. In most cases, back in the day, although Ansermet provided us with musically rewarding first ports of call, better versions were yet to come later (except maybe in the cases of some Stravinsky and the major Romantic ballets). There’s nothing in his discography that quite compares with Klemperer’s Mahler 9, ‘live’ Beethoven 9 or those magisterial early recordings of the great Mozart symphonies. Buy both if you can, but if you can’t, I’d opt for Klemperer first.

Czech orchestral star-gazing

The deadly calm that opens Miloslav Kabeláč’s 25-minute passacaglia-like Mystery of Time (Supraphon SU 4312-2, c£14.50) does not bode well, the constant heartbeat at the start of the piece soon quickening, Kabeláč’s instrumentation like a concerto for orchestra that follows on the heals of Honegger, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski and (especially) Hartmann – possibly the nearest points of reference for this magnificent music – time’s mystery anything but consoling.

The tension mounts layer on layer until towards the end the bass drum punctuates musical sentences and the work retreats to a soulful whimper, albeit in an ambiguous major key.  Kabeláč ‘s intention was to escape the grip of an authoritarian regime by looking up to the star-studded sky (he was fascinated by space and the cosmos generally). Like so many Czechs of the period (his dates are 1908-1979) he had known the evils of authoritarianism from both the right and the left, his Jewish pianist wife presenting him with an impossible quandary during the Nazi era: either divorce her or face expulsion from his job at Prague Radio. Needless to say, being a man of principle, he chose the latter option. And yes, his music was banned.

Marko Ivanovic conducts the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra with some distinction as part of an all-Kabeláč programme that also includes Hamlet Improvisations (marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth), Reflections and Metamorphoses II, composed just a few weeks before Kabeláč’s death. If you want an immediate sampling of Mystery of Time you can watch Jacub Hrusa conduct the piece on

I cannot recommend this Supraphon CD highly enough, but I should also point you in the direction of the same artists performing Kabelác’s highly impressive cycle of eight symphonies (SU 4202 2, 4 cds, c£33.75), the Fifth of which, ‘Drammatica’ – a large-scale wordless vocalise for soprano (here Pavla Vykopalová) and orchestra – music that Kabeláč viewed as the opposite to his Mystery of Time, looking into her/his heart rather than up among the stars. There are parts of this 1960 score that anticipate a now-popular masterpiece composed sixteen years hence, Górecki’s Third Symphony. I’d suggest you sample either the third or fourth movements.

The 7th Symphony, using texts from the Gospel of St John and The book of Revelation employs a reciter (here Lukás Hlavica) alongside the orchestra whereas the last symphony of all (words again taken from the Bible) is scored for soprano, mixed choir, percussion and organ. Britten is a possible prompt this time but maybe the best place to sample in the first place, symphonies-wise, is the ostinato-style finale of the First, music that heats then cools, always thinking while driving (though always with eyes on the road). I’d definitely call this the greatest Czech symphony cycle after Martinu and a must-have acquisition for anyone interested in 20th century orchestral music.


Following Kristallnacht the German-born pianist Menahem Pressler and his immediate family, who were Jewish, fled Nazi Germany, initially to Italy, and then to Palestine. Pressler’s grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all died in concentration camps. And yet in spite of that unspeakable tragedy I think it’s fair to say that remembering people who have passed prompts a special flush of warmth if you can remember them with humour. In the case of Pressler, who has died at the age of 99, the event was a luncheon in honour of the Beaux Arts Trio, which was founded on 1955. Those present included violinist Isidore Cohen, the cellists Bernard Greenhouse and Peter Wiley (who had just taken over from Greenhouse) and Menahem himself. We were chatting about advertising and I quoted the current HMV retail add that promoted a picture of Beethoven wearing a set of headphones, the top of the page bearing the fabled (apocryphal) Beethoven quote ‘In Heaven I shall Hear ….’ (Beethoven speaking to Goethe in 1812 apparently). At the bottom of the page, the somewhat glib but funny punchline ran ‘ …. But you don’t have to wait that long – visit HMV!’ I shall never forget Menahem’s reaction (he ROARED). Some years later I spent a wonderful afternoon with him and his delightful manager, the equally wonderful Annabelle Weidenfeld. Anecdotes were plentiful including the occasion when Menahem sought advice from the legendary pianist Artur Schnabel. ‘What do you want to play?’ Schnabel asked. ‘Debussy,’ replied Pressler. ‘Debussy?’ waved Schnabel as if the music was hardly worth bothering about. Although a formidable solo pianist early on (his LPs for MGM are highly rated and many, many years later he made a CD of Debussy’s music), it’s as the Beaux Arts’ musical bedrock that he will be most fondly remembered. Those records (reissued some years ago as 60 cds in a box) are true benchmarks, much as the contemporaneous recordings by the Amadeus Quartet. How lucky we are to have them as reference points, with Menahem Pressler as a guiding light for the Trio. God rest him.


Ondine’s most recent release featuring pianist Peter Jablonski also happens to be the best possible calling card for the highly gifted Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) (it’s on ODE 1427-2, £11.50). The opening Overture (1943) is an exact contemporary of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (which Bacewicz wouldn’t yet have heard because the Bartók wasn’t actually premièred until the following year) and starts very much in the manner of the Concerto’s thrilling finale. The highly personably Piano Concerto (1949) should be far better known, its finale reminiscent of Martinu and Schmitt’s electrifying Tragédie de Salomé (‘Danse des éclairs’) whereas in the first movement Poulenc seems a credible point of reference.

Bacewicz really comes into her own with her Concerto for two pianos and orchestra of 1966 (this is its first digital recording, the excellent pianist Elisabeth Brauß being Jablonski’s duo partner for the occasion), with its darting clusters. Form is another a priority with her, delicacy too; she knows how to structure a piece, follow her intuition without being swamped by disparate ideas. But it’s her sound world that most seduces, brightly coloured busyness that brooks no compromise, and is never pushed off course.

The very idea of a Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958) suggests echoes of Bartók and Frank Martin but although reminiscent of a style of writing dating back to the 1930s and 40s it casts its own spell. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Collon offer the soloists support that is both highly dramatic and, where needs be, sensitive to even the subtlest nuances (which are plentiful throughout all four works).

The recordings are superb, and the disc is also very well annotated. An earlier Jablonski disc of solo piano music by Bacewicz is out on ODE1399-2, c£12.75, and that too is to be much recommended. 

A sense of play is an uppermost priority in Lukás Vondrácek’s set of Rachmaninoff piano concertos + the Paganini Rhapsody with the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Tomás Brauner (Supraphon SU43232, 2 cds, c£18.50). Always a good point to wade in is the First Concerto’s last movement with its constant shifts from frenetic activity to poetic reflection, where Vondrácek, Brauner and the Prague players achieve excitement without breathlessness, and sentiment without sentimentality. As to the Fourth Concerto Vondrácek confesses (in the context of an excellent booklet interview) that for him ‘it does have a few empty, almost meaningless passages, yet they suddenly give way to beauty, unexpected, out of the blue.’ His approach certainly chimes with this ‘burst of sunlight’ idea. The finale suggests an accompanied Etude Tableau and again, Vondrácek’s playing (of the revised version), swift, motor-driven but never brickly. In the Paganini Rhapsody Vondrácek and Brauner play catch-up, one anticipating or jumping ahead of the other, which is very much the nature of the piece, but only really works if the players are up to it. Here they are.

The Second Concerto opens broadly, Vondrácek ushering in the orchestra with maximum grandeur before firing off in anticipation of the second subject, which he plays most poetically. The Third wafts in with cool assurance, then bubbles excitedly as if bound for wider waters (which of course it is), Vondrácek coaxing a maximum of expressive charm from the slower music though nothing we hear quite anticipates the breadth and drama of the big cadenza (an option not often taken, not even nowadays). In Vondrácek’s hands the confessional Adagio ‘Intermezzo’ asks as many questions as it answers. It’s as if you’re sitting in on the recreative process, your mind fast wired to that of the pianist. Once past most of the virtuoso acrobatics, the finale gradually takes on a level of melancholy that suggests that Vondrácek is living the music from the inside. How wonderful the sudden envoi at 9:15, just a few simple slow chords that just about say it all, an unforgettably poignant moment.

Thirty-six is still very young. Give him another thirty years and Lukás Vondrácek will probe even deeper into scores that he loves and that we should love more than we do. He inspires not only our admiration but our respect, and I’d place his playing of these mighty works alongside performances by Giltburg, Pletnev and others. The excellent recordings have plenty of presence.  


If there’s one thing you can always expect with Haydn, it’s the unexpected. No matter how many times you hear one of the major quartets, trios, piano sonatas or symphonies, the thrill of the new always lies in wait. Of course, nothing will quite work if the interpreters fail either to pull their weight or lose it (depending on the work in question) which is part of what makes Paavo Järvi’s Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen ‘London’ Symphony cycle such an enticing prospect. First up are the ‘Clock’ and ‘Drumroll’ symphonies (Sony Music/RCA  19658 80741 2), the ‘Creation’-like adagio that opens the former – time passing, perhaps? – falling away for the breeziest of allegros. Timps with hard sticks, spatially separated violin desks and gossamer textures keep the music airborne but come the Andante and time starts to race ahead of itself. Not without reason, mind: at 2:25 the clock’s movement leaps tellingly to life, Järvi and his Bremen players illuminating every busy strand of counterpoint (the woodwinds make a particularly impressive showing). At 4:35 a brief rest signals a darkening of tone, again marked by Järvi as meaningful. But what’s most impressive here is the trio, already striking because as written the flute and accompaniment aren’t on speaking terms – the strings refuse to budge harmony-wise, another unexpected twist – but here Järvi, aside from cueing a gentle easing of the pulse, has his flautist trace a subtle accelerando across the theme. Also note the lightly brushed strings and the duet between flute and bassoon.  From 6:57 into its Andante ‘The Drum Roll’’s celebratory tone marks a striking contrast with the movement’s sombre opening: the closing minute or so is pure genius and Järvi makes a beeline for the music’s inherent drama. Try also the curlicuing clarinet-led trio to the Menuet (at 2:05), so elegant, and much aided by refined playing. Järvi is an honest broker who in pursuit of the musical truth doesn’t take leave of his imagination. I’m already itching for the next disc in the series. Very strongly recommended.


Well, actually, it is. When I was young 75 seemed ancient and now, today, that I’ve reached this minor milestone, I can happily claim that although I still feel 19 ‘in my head’ (as the saying goes) the knowledge that I’m well and truly into senior citizenship offers me a weirdly comforting perspective. Yes, I’ve had my blind spots, misunderstood and been misunderstood, squandered love unwisely and been reckless, but I have also hit a few bullseyes. The first and most important is my wife Georgie, a diamond by my side for well over 51 years, always loving, caring, supportive, stimulating, mentally adventurous – as much on my behalf as on her own – and good fun. And my daughters Cessy and Vicky, now in their forties, but truly lovely people who I can always rely on for mutual companionship. And my gorgeous granddaughter Elizabeth, now in her first year at school. The joy I feel whenever I think of her – not to mention whenever I see her – is beyond the reach of words.

There are my brothers of course, Jonny and Jez, warmly considerate and full of humour, their daughters too, not forgetting my dear youngest brother Andrew who died a couple of years ago at the age of 59. Although occasionally troubled by demons we had some wonderful times together. Then there are various aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews and my son-in-law Iain.  And friends? Plenty. Tully, Karen, Lana, Mike, Nigel, Jon, Eric, Trevor and Charles Beldom (both deceased) and many more. And there are of course my constant numinous companions, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Ruskin, Whitman, Sontag, Buber, Emily Dickinson, Blake, Joseph Roth, Wallace Stevens, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Bartók, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Delius, Elgar, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and countless others.

And lastly there are my much-valued readers and, until a few years ago, listeners, who invariably keep (or kept) in touch, sharing opinions on music and other topics, mostly with affection and intense interest. I owe you all a debt of gratitude and hope that I’ll be around a little while longer to share more of what’s worth sharing.



UKRAINE’S FINEST – and a way to support a worthy cause

Being the grandson of Ukrainian immigrants myself I can well understand Parnassus’s cover notice for their album ‘Great Musicians of Ukraine – Special Charity Album’ (PACD96087, £8.75) regarding “musicians largely forgotten outside Ukraine, and musicians very well-known – but not properly remembered as Ukrainian.” In fact, it wasn’t until after I’d made three trips to Russia, and the finer facts of Vladimir Putin’s intentions became clear, that I thought of myself as a maternal grandson of Ukrainians (Kyiv and Odessa) rather than a proud inheritor of Russian culture and all it entails, especially regarding music. But you live and learn, and this marvellous disc of historic recordings – please note that the income after costs will all go to the Ukrainian people’s charity: – celebrates one of the greatest musical traditions in existence. Alto are the distributors, and as the release date is May 5th you can always order in advance from

Contents-wise the 25-track programme closes with soprano Klavdya (Claudia) Novikova singing ‘I can’t refrain from laughing’ which sounds for all the world like it could be called ‘The Laughing Policewoman’. I don’t think I’ve laughed out loud more heartily in response to a song for years, and I didn’t understand a word of what she was singing about. Other vocal tracks include the area’s greatest bass after Chaliapin, Mark Reizen, singing the powerful aria ‘When I am weakened by the years’ from Taras Bulba by the Romantic Ukrainian composer, pianist, conductor and ethnomusicologist Mykola Lysenko (not to be confused with Trofim Lysenko whose ideas and practices contributed to the famines that killed millions of Soviet people). To open the programme Lysenko’s granddaughter Ryda plays a very Scriabinesque Intermezzo.

Other pianists include the Felix Blumenfeld-pupil Simon Barère who shows miraculous dexterity in Scriabin’s Etude for piano left hand while Benno Moiseiwitsch rows sombrely in time with Anton Rubinstein’s Barcarolle, sombrely that is until the arrival of a jaunty middle section. Prokofiev selections are played by the composer himself (Suggestion diabolique, a stunning performance), Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky demonstrates his characteristically vibrant tone in ‘Masques’ from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet ballet and I’d never realised what a seductive player Boris Kroyt (later of the Budapest Quartet) was in his relative youth. We hear him in 1922 playing a Chopin Nocturne with piano. Other Ukrainian violinists represented are David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein.

So much more to relish, many of the tracks vocal, the most memorable being a duet from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette featuring one of the last century’s most haunting voices, the tenor Ivan Kozlovsky heard in duet with the sweet-tone soprano Antonina Nezhdanova accompanied in 1939 by her husband the well-known composer-conductor-pianist Nikolai Golovanov.  

Other duets and solos focusing on more rarely heard singers are hardly less appealing but I must mention the disc’s single stereo item, a Ukrainian song (sung in Ukrainian) ‘Chernoe more moe’ featuring the father of the pianist Vladimir Feltsman, Oscar, touching and oh! so musical. And to close that classic Twenties’ musical depiction of whirring machines by Mossolov, Iron Foundry, built on pounding ostinati working in tandem to create the sound of a factory. The recording we hear – surely the work’s first – is a real thriller, very well transferred and featuring Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under Julius Ehrlich (of the State Opera, Leningrad).

So all in all a remarkable collection, essential listening for anyone interested in significant performances from the last century.


Rarely has a set of variations absorbed the spirit of its prompting theme as thoroughly as does Brahms’s Schumann Variations Op. 9 which borrows from the older composer’s Bunter Blätter (‘Colourful Leaves’) in the service of music that inhabits a world as private, equivocal, even as tragic as Schumann’s own. Take the poco adagio 10th Variation on Sarah Beth Briggs’ exceptional CD of Variations on Avie AV2569, c£13.75, which could as easily be a lonely stray captured from one of Schumann’s piano suites. It’s a beautiful work, as are its well-chosen disc companions. Beethoven’s Variations on God Save the King were written to show us Brits what a treasure we have in our (nowadays) much-maligned anthem – and in case anyone should suspect a commercial subtext to the recording, it was made during last August, a good month before Queen Elizabeth II died. Beethoven’s Variations on an original Theme WoO 79 thrives on a kaleidoscopic range of keys (each variation appears in a key a third below the previous one) and Briggs’s patient performance releases its shock value without overstating the case. She’s a strong though sensitive player, which is just what’s needed for Mendelssohn’s piano masterpiece, a Beethoven tribute in fact, his Variations sérieuses. Compare the fourth of Beethoven’s WoO 79 Variations with the twelfth of Mendelssohn’s and you can hardly fail to spot the similarity. The programme opens with one of Mozart’s most substantial sets of variations (it plays for 15’30”), the sequence he wrote on a Minuet by Jean-Pierre Duport. With excellent sound and authoritative notes by Daniel Jaffé this is a most rewarding release.

It seems hardly possible to utter the words ‘Variations’ and ‘Bach’ in a breath without ‘Goldbergs’ following on straight afterwards. But then there’s the Aria Variata BWV989, a theme and ten virtuoso variations dating from around 1709, each of them in two sections, both repeated. They appear brilliantly played as part of a musically substantial, super-bargain 3-cd set of miscellaneous pieces for harpsichord performed by Pieter-Jan Belder, on Brilliant Classics 96065, 3 cds, c10:60. The collection’s contents also features the teenage Bach’s poignant Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, ‘departed’ as going on a journey that is, where in musical terms the brother tries to persuade his sibling not to leave, warning of dangers that may well be laying in wait, before the music turns joyous and a postillion arrives (Belder here really ups the tempo). The work concludes with an ebullient fugue, one of Bach’s earliest, and most effective. Add various sonatas, suites, fantasies, fugues and preludes and you have the basis of a veritable Bach-fest.


Come May this year Australian Eloquence are releasing a 29-cd first volume of ‘Antál Doráti Mercury Masters’ (484 4064) featuring the Minneapolis and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, which will include numerous first releases on CD. Subsequent to Doráti’s Mercury Mono Masters will be a set of the Stereo Masters, but prior to either Decca have brought out an 18-cd collection of Doráti’s sessions with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (485 3114, c£86.00, with spined wallets, original jackets and excellent new notes by Decca Classics’ Label Director Dominic Fyfe). In a Gramophone Collector article for May 2014 David Patrick Stearns revealed that Doráti’s 1979 Detroit recording for Decca of Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena caught Gwyneth Jones in a state of vocal distress but as I can’t imagine that in the wider context many potential punters will count Dame Gwyneth’s vocal improprieties as a stumbling block. Besides, Barbara Hendricks is in excellent voice while Doráti and his orchestra are on fine form. Still, best maybe to concentrate on the rest of the set which is mostly orchestral.

Bartók and Stravinsky were always writ large among Doráti’s Mercury recordings and it is interesting to compare these Detroit discs of the three big Diaghilev/Stravinsky ballets with their Minneapolis and London predecessors. How do they stack up? In the case of The Rite of Spring although well recorded Doráti in Detroit lacks the tautness and drive that made his Minneapolis recordings for Mercury so memorable. The (complete) Firebird ballet gains in atmosphere and sonic splendour what it loses in bite (on the LSO version, again for Mercury) but in the case of Petrushka this Detroit option delivers levels of colour, humour and pathos that its Minneapolis predecessors lack. Apollon musagète features some extremely fine (though uncredited) solo fiddle playing but is rather heavy in texture overall. Then again the post-Rimsky, pre-Firebird Symphony in E flat is played with conviction and makes for a happy encounter as does its fill-up, the frothy, better-known Scherzo Fantasque.  

Turning to Bartok, Doráti’s name was so synonymous with the Miraculous Mandarin ballet that during his sojourn with the BBC Symphony he was known as ‘Mr. Mandarin’, or something very similar. His superbly played Chicago recording of the Suite (a mono Mercury) captures the music’s sophistication, seediness, sense of seduction and compassion like no recorded performance since. A BBC SO version of the complete ballet (Mercury stereo) was relatively dry-sounding and this Detroit successor can be a bit unsteady on its feet (try 1:04 into track 2), though the organ in the opening scene makes a Gothic din and the chase is exciting rather than manic. A word of warning though. If you’re playing this disc on a system that recognizes all twelve tracks (ie, on a computer) you won’t be wrong-footed but both the booklet and the disc jacket listing suggests that there are fifteen tracks rather than twelve, that the Mandarin concludes on track 11 rather than on track 8. Just to clarify, The Mandarin occupies tracks 1-8, whereas tracks 9-12 feature a good performance of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. There my own preference would be for an earlier Doráti recording on Philips with Philharmonia Hungarica.

Another Bartók disc pairs the youthful, bright-and-bushy-tailed First Orchestral Suite (Doráti recorded the Second Suite for Mercury) with the Two Pictures, the first like a scenic off-cut from Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the second, a village dance that at 7:15 takes slow, gigantic strides before disappearing light-footedly into the distance, a passage that Doráti negotiates with enormous skill. An all-Tchaikovsky disc includes a work that years ago topped the Mercury sales charts, the 1812 Overture, but thankfully this Detroit remake doesn’t suffer the ear-grazing pitch discrepancy between bells and orchestra that rather spoils both Mercury versions (mono and stereo), exciting though they are. Equally enjoyable is a coupling of Grofé’s Grand cinematic, spectacularly well-recorded Grand Canyon Suite and Robert Russell Bennett’s piecemeal Porgy and Bess ‘Symphonic Picture’ which starts off well enough but just before the end seems to take stock as if to check that no hit numbers are missing. But – shock horror! – ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ isn’t there, so Bennett dutifully tacks it on. It’s a well-played performance though, very idiomatic.

Other Americana includes Copland’s Dance Symphony, Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring Suite, Rodeo ‘Four Dance Episodes’ and El Salon Mexico, the last three less rhythmically pungent but more genial than their Mercury counterparts. There are miscellaneous rhapsodies and Strauss tone poems including a particularly impressive Also sprach Zarathustra that opens to a perfectly judged ‘sunrise’, and Karol Szymanowski’s symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, the first Western commercial record of either work that was warmly received when it first appeared back in July 1981.

But were I to single out a disc that illustrates Doráti’s journey from being a keen-edged disciplinarian who took no prisoners (the man we encounter in those unforgettable Mercury years) to the warmer, more flexible, more accommodating musician we encounter in the late 1970s to the early 1980s it would be an all-Dvorák programme that includes the Czech Suite and various shorter works including the beautiful Nocturne Op. 40. Beam up 3:47 when the trance-like music starts to gently dance to a pulse among the basses and note, aside from the Detroit strings’ rapt playing, Doráti’s masterful use of rubato. Pure magic I’d say and evidence beyond doubt that although those Mercury recordings are still essential listening the journey to Detroit proved more than worthwhile.