Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mozart’s Piano Cto. 21

100_9365Mozart’s most famous piano concerto was his No. 21, catapulted into modern international fame with its use in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. The version used by the filmmakers there was Géza Anda’s DGG recording with the Salzburg Mozarteum, 100_9371from his complete DGG cycle of the complete concertos.


Originally issued in 1964, the recording boomed in sales and the cover art most collectors know features a shot from the film. I have played mint copies of both the original issue and the 1967 reissue with the famous “Elvira Madigan” cover (also “Made In Germany” tulips label) here. I feel the Anda interpretation is the strongest on record, deeply felt and beautifully phrased, with just enough lilt from the Salzburgers. (A totally deserving Grand Prix du Disque winner, before the huge sales that came with the film soundtrack.) It’s worth noting that the only other performance of the work that I consider to 100_9363be in the same league as Anda is Andras Schiff from four decades later and with the same Mozarteum band; there really is something to the idea that culture matters, and Salzburg was and still is very much Mozart’s home. The DGG catalog is 138-783, regardless of the incarnation (the US market featured different cover art on one of those oversized heavy carboard jackets, thought the LPs were still German pressings with the original “Alle hersteller” label.” The performance is available in DGG’s “Originals” CD series (though with more the famous though not-original cover art), and the complete Anda cycle is now available in a budget package.

Compared to Anda most other performances seem lackluster. Casadesus, whom I usually admire, sounds as though he is just going through the motions with Szell and Cleveland, both soloist and 100_9354orchestra precise as always, but a bit unfeeling with inflexible tempi. NB this is not Rameau. The sound on the 2-eye copy of MS-6695 I used here is acceptable but rather clinical, nowhere near as rich as the DGG for Anda. Apparently the only version on CD is an ancient (and probably sonically awful) issue from Sony.

Similarly, Artur Rubinstein, so poetic in Chopin and almost everything else, 100_9358seems bored with the piece in his popular 1962 RCA recording (LSC-2634). The accompaniment from the in-house RCA band under Wallenstein is undistinguished and one may safely presume not much rehearsal time went into this production. The sound is superior to the Casadesus, but still rather flat and one-dimensional — but then again I swim against the tide in my assessment of the prized LSC “shaded dogs.” (My wife commented that it sounded “neutered.”)

I included for comparison a couple of earlier mono recordings, Dinu Lipatti with Karajan (live, 1950) 100_9359and Moura Lympany (1954) with Menges and Karajan’s Philharmonia. The Lipatti is drawn from his final performance, with HvK leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, so Walter Legge’s magic aside, the poor sonics can be forgiven. I sampled both a first US pressing (Angel 35931) and the UK reissue (box set RLS-749), rather improved. Can’t speak to the CD, on EMI’s Great Recordings series paired with Lipatti’s outstanding Grieg Concerto with HvK. As a performance, Lipatti falls into perhaps the same Mozart-is-all-to-quaint trap as Casadesus. There is precision (like Casadesus) and lyricism (more than Casadesus) but little feeling. The zippy third movement rather makes up for the average musicality of the first two, but this is not a memorable performance. 100_9377Lympany is moderately more interesting, though slow tempi rather detract from matters. I’m using US/RCA 1067, from the HMV masters, with predictably shallow sound. I can’t vouch for what the folks at Dutton Labs were able to do in their CD transfer.


Lastly is the one current artist whose version of this work is truly superb, and that is Decca’s CD of András Schiff with Sandor Végh and the Mozarteum. The performance is lively and spirited, kind and tender in the slow movement without a hint of schmalzt. The paired Concerto No. 20 is also one of the finest ever put down on record. The sound is as alive as is possible as anything the digital-only world can offer.


Paul Dukas’s La Peri, De Falla and so on…

Paul Dukas is most known, better or worse, for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice and it’s cultural iconification thanks to Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski; to be clear, I love Fantasia and have no time for anyone’s nose-thumbing it. I thought I’d listen to some Dukas after writing about his pupil Joaquín Rodrigo and the piece Lliri Blau which came out in 1934 while the two were pupil and student. Clearly, there was an influence here: Dukas’s 1897 piece was based on a poem by Goethe, while Rodrigo’s 1934 piece was from a Valencian poetic legend.

When I think of Dukas, though, the piece I’ve found rewards the most isn’t the cliched Sorcerer (with or without mouse ears) but his 1912 ballet La Peri. Pupil Rodrigo must have studied up as well on La Peri; the thematic material in Lliri Blau (a legend about a blue lily’s magical power) and the central Orientalist story of the search for a flower of immortality in Iran can hardly be coincidence. To my surprise, the ballet merited no mention in Edward Said’s classic on the genre, Orientalism.

Peri is a one-act ballet, and the opening fanfare is probably the most well known/performed selection. The piece as a whole found a non-surprising champion in Ansermet, who recorded it twice on London/Decca. It is a rich and harmonic score, bridging the periods of French Romanticism and Impressionism. (Should Dukas be considered conservative or m odern? Compared to what — apologies to Les McCann — when we have Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel, all swirling in the musical atmosphere before Dukas died one year after his pupil’s Lliri Blau debuted in 1934.)

Ansermet’s first recording dates from 1954, London LL-1155 (Decca LXT-5003). I’m using data here from the Ansermet discography at Brenno Bolla. The UK pressed London copy I’m using is NM and no IMG_1720excuses need be made for the range of mono sound. The performance is rather lackluster though — I say this as an admitted Ansermet skeptic. His mono Sombrero de Tres Picos is a bore, if you ask me, though when stereo came along his performance in the studio seemed to get a boost. (I don’t think the mono record is even available on CD.) The same goes for my opinion of La Peri from the 1954 mono version to the early 1958 stereo, also London/Decca. It’s as if the thing suddenly sprang to life. Perhaps this had something to do with the cultural connotations of recording in the early days of the LP? Less realism, with no audience there to applaud?

In the event, the 1958 version, Decca SXL-2027, is an immense improvement, not just due to the stereo sound, but the overall drama. Also, the 1954 version oddly omits the fanfare. Can’t find an IMG_1722IMG_1723explanation as to why this would have been the case. The vinyl I’m using here is unfortunately not an original but a Speaker’s Corner reissue which is — have to say — a reason to stay away from reissues. Way too brightly lit, high frequencies punched, depth depressed despite the 180g weight. The London blueback pressing I’m comparing (CS-6043), is a nice copy wide band/ffss grooved, with far superior sonics and overall warmth.

The last record I mention here is an outlier, in that it’s more modern and I know from prior conversations with vinyl friends draws disdain: Pierre Boulez with the New York Phil, 1976. Recorded in SQ Quadraphonic, and reproduced using my old restored Sansui, the IMG_1724sonic effect is astounding. Yoiu can buy it on CD, to be sure. Boulez is worlds apart from Ansermet, and I wish I could accurately recall the disdainful line from one audiophile friend who said something about Ansermet having dreamed in more colors than Boulez ever saw in the world. That may be so, but in this case the precision and edginess of the score accentuates its drama for me as a listener, as opposed to the blatant (and very much enjoyable) lushness of the Suisse Romande under Ansermet. Boulez is making a point. It’s very much a modernist Stravinskian reading of a Orientalist romantic fantasy; and all the more interesting for it. Ansermet makes this score easy; Boulez makes it rather more hard to digest. One wonders what the composer might have thought, with his clear delight in storytelling and exoticism, whether of magical sorcerers or Iranian immortality.

A perfectly acceptable contemporary account of the complete Peri, similar to Boulez in overall approach, is from Slatkin and the Orchestre de Paris on RCA (1999 recording). You can sample the fanfare here:

And compare Ansermet’s more lush stylings:

Postscript I: Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To my surprise, I checked my collection and only had one record of this piece, Dutoit with Montréal on Decca 421-527, a late 1989 pressing which I had to hunt around IMG_1725for. I recall the CD sound as being perfectly fine, but the late digital vinyl is super. (Again, apologies to my pals who won’t conscience anything on vinyl past 1965.) By comparison, Ansermet’s 1963 OSR version is slower, more lush, and yes — in this case I’ll give in — has orchestral color light years beyond Dutoit, IMG_1726whom I greatly admire. Leave Boulez out of it on this one! Here using a UK Decca first pressing, SXL-6065, ffss, grooved. Going back to my earlier post, wondering why Rodrigo’s Lliri Blau didn’t make it on to one of these compilation records. You can find the Ansermet Sorcerer on CD here. Can’t vouch for the sound.

Postscript II: Three Cornered Hat. Here again is Ansermet, champion of this era. I don’t have the mono version to compare in real time, but have been unimpressed when hearing it in the past; the stereo on London ffss wide band pressing (CS-6224) is, however, wide ranging, dramatic, and a full tilt up toward the final moments. IIMG_1727 also have the Speakers Corner reissue to compare as above, and in this case think the engineers did a IMG_1729much better job. I am partial to Dutiot and Montréal in this on vinyl, though, heresy though it may seem (also looks like this is out of print on CD). And then again there is the Boulez, CBS 33970, also Quadraphonic, and I can’t defend the IMG_1728sound as much in this case. Here his approach loses too much of the romance of the piece. But its precision is remarkable, and cinematic in its drama. A counterpoint to the Dukas and other pieces discussed imagesabove.

The Dutoit finale, on vinyl or on CD, arguably packs even more of a punch than Ansermnet. Sample here:


Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Per la Flor del Lliri Blau”

Rodrigo, probably the most famous of Spanish composers after Manuel de Falla, had a lot more to say than Concierto Aranjuez, his famed guitar concerto written in 1939 — he kept writing into the 1990s. The piece most commonly coupled with Aranjuez, Concierto para un Gentilhombre dates from 1954, sure proof that he was a long-term figure upon the musical stage. His A la busca del más allá (In Search of Things Beyond) — included on some of the recordings I cite later in this post — was actually commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1976 in the spirit of space exploration.

But back to Lliri Blau, a tone poem hearkening to a totally different era, based on a medieval Valencian Spanish legend of a king and his avenging sons. The sonics are cinematic in an early Hollywood sense, befitting a score written in 1934. The piece won Rodrigo one of his earliest recognitions as a composer and set the stage for his guitar concertante works which would establish him as a unique figure in Classical composition. At the time Lliri Blau was composed he was under the tutelage of Paul Dukas, who in his own way bridged the French traditions of Romantic and Impressionist. Lliri Blau could perhaps be thought of as a Spanish translation of Debussy and Ravel, but also predicting the neoclassical romanticism of Stravinsky, say, in The Fairy’s Kiss. 

There are very few recordings of Lliri Blau, which is a shame; but as is often the case when a single work comes to dominate the public reputation of an artist (as much as I love Aranjuez) the performed and recorded repertoire suffers. 51meqhNYRKL._SS280Naxos has contributed a superb version in Vol. 6 of its complete Rodrigo edition, with the Castile and Leon Symphony Orchestra led by Max Bragado-Darman. (Bragado-Darman founded the orchestra in 1991 and now is M.D. in Monterrey, California; he also spent time in Louisville, and from the Monterrey programming continues to focus on 20th Century works.) The 2003 sound is rich and full, the reading dramatic and cinematic — but think Korngold and Erroll Flynn more than John rodrigo6Williams and Indiana Jones. The other version available on CD is Vol. 1 (interesting) from Sony’s 1997 European-only Rodrigo Edition, this time with the Valencia Orchestra and Manuel Galduf, more of an academic, who studied under Markevitch. The digital sound is comparable to Naxos, but the playing is notably more aggressive both in tone and tempi — clocking in a full two minutes under the Castilians. Despite the Valencian connection to Lliri Blau’s source material, the Castilians on Naxos make a clear choice.

As far as I can tell, the only version on vinyl is a 1983 EMI/Angel record from Enrique Bátiz and the London Symphony, available on CD today in a compilation. It is a let down in just about every way. IMG_1718Usually I’m fairly sypathetic to digital recordings on vinyl, but this one fits all the stereotypes my audiophile friends always rattle off: “dry,” no “space” around the sound, no “warmth” and so on. These qualities are absolutely essential for Lliri Blau, especially in its haunting primary motif. For all of the LSO’s cinematic reputation, it sure sounds like they were phoning it in on this record. (It’s also the slowest of all versions, dragging on in a probable lame attempt at romanticism.) The Gramophone devoted but a single expository sentence to the piece in its review at the time, and one can understand why.

It’s a real shame that no record exists of this piece from the legendary conductors of the music of its era: Ansermet in particular, must have programmed this at some point; Paray? Martinon?

Digging around on the Web it wasn’t entirely surprising that on YouTube the one standout performance of the piece comes from Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar orchestra, unfortunately in this case not conducted by Dudamel — I wonder whether he ever led them in it, or if he’ll try it with the LAPO; it would make a perfect fit.  The performance here is dated 2013, and the conductor uncredited; among the two lonely comments one asks in Spanish who he is. The performance is very strong, and as always it is informative to see how the story unfolds in performance. While the quality of sound and skill is an obvious tick or three below the two Spanish orchestras on CD, the sense of musical line, of flow, which I consider one of Dudamel’s strongest suits — connecting the phrases in a way that makes paragraphs out of sentences — is perhaps better here, something he inculcated into this most remarkable of student orchestra. N.B. on YouTube one also sees a few wind orchestra performances of the piece. The composer did create a winds-only score, as this was apparently popular among Spanish community bands of the era.