Masques et Bergamasques: A Brief Comparison

A short post here about a short and little known miniature masterpiece from Fauré, the Suite from his Masques and Bergamasques. I learned the piece in a selection from Orpheus on a DGG CD that holds up in every way against the older 51E5ZG4S8VLanalog classics, a performance that is light an ethereal in its sonics and mood. I’ve not always been a fan of their directorless format, but it works here, in a Fin-de-Cyclé mode (in fairness, the work was premiered 1924).

The classic vinyl performance, as with so much of this French repertoire, comes from Ansermet 100_0548and the OSR (1962). my copy is a London blueback CS-6627. The fuller orchestral sound is just as delicate but richer and more dramatic. The chamber version is more intimate, but Ansermet is at his best here is making a big band sound small — for me, he did what Beecham’s acolytes always proclaimed in Schubert, for example, but to much more effect. Still, the Orpheus version has more joie de vivre. In the final movement the larger scoring does begin to weigh and feel a bit ponderous. (On CD here.)

Audio of Ansermet here in the Overture:

Compare the Orpheus version:


As a curiosity I acquired a 45rpm version of the same recording (Masques only, without the LP’s Debussy pairing) SEC-5526. The sound is lighter and airier, and while the depth of sound is predictably lesser, the sound bounces more happily as with the later Orpheus CD. 45rpm pressings of classical records, especially vintage ones, are always tricky, often trading sonic depth for clarity. This is an interesting case study.

Of later records, the Plasson/Toulouse record struck me as routine and I didn’t keep it (on CD here) — one of those complete works projects that seemed just that, a complete-100_0543works-project. Unfortunately Ozawa did not include Masques on his superb 1986 Boston record (DGG 423-089), which features Pelleas et Melisande, Dolly, etc. The Boston Symphony Hall sound here is glorious, as should be expected, and one can only imagine how the melodies would have unfolded. (Here on CD.)


Beethoven’s 4th

Probably the least performed and well-known of Beethoven’s symphonies, the 4th: What to do with this odd bridge 100_0504between the towering heights of the Eroica and the 5th, as if dual shadows are cast on its place in the sequence? For that reason I’ve always liked the original album art from Karajan’s 1970s cycle, which shows a backlit number 4 illuminated by nighttime stars. I have three of Karajan’s four recordings of the 4th in my collection, all except the 1950s Philharmonia version. Beginning with the famous 1964 record Karajan treats the work with a breadth of phrase that evokes the 3rd but self-consciously points toward the rhythmic obsession of the 5th. (My copy of 138-803 is a first issue hersteller label, and lives up to the reputation for its sound.) This kind of linear, historicized view of Beethoven’s 100_0501symphonic development was a part of Karajan’s broader musical view and is hard to miss; the 1977 album art on 2531-104 adds the visual component as well as could be rendered. This second Berlin record is, to employ an overused term, more “streamlined” in its sound and approach; timings are marginally faster in 1964 but somehow “feel” faster because of the overall approach. A fellow Karajan enthusiast once described the 1977 cycle as having a “Hollywood” feel to it, and I don’t disagree: And why not? This is big, bold music, and Berlin at its apogee under the Maestro could pack a punch like no other band ever has. But in the 4th, along with the 1st and 2nd, don’t 100_0509really benefit from the soundstage approach. Likewise, Karajan’s final 1983 record (415-121) involves an almost identical interpretation — tempi are stunningly identical — and is sonically interesting mostly because on vinyl the early digital is not at all as horrible as the first iterations of these performances on CD; I read recently that new mastering has cleaned up the sound so that the current issue of this final Karajan/Unitel cycle more approximates what it sounds like on vinyl. Of the three Karajans here, the 1964 version is the winner, for sound as well as performance. Vinyl never sounded better than in these Beethoven records. Though I hasten to add that the capstone, the 9th, was indeed exceeded in the 1977 cycle. And 7 and 8 were quite particularly outstanding in HvK’s last recording. As a postscript, Karajan pupil Christian Thieleman has a rendition with the Vienna Phil. that could be interestingly described as a hybrid of his mentor and Jochum (more below). At times listening to Thielemann one could sample in the 1983 Karajan record and not hear the difference, except for odd moments when he slows the tempi too noticeably.

My two non-Karajan comparisons of the 4th involve yet another Berlin DGG record, Jochum’s 1961 (138-964). Karajan hadn’t completely put his imprint onto the band yet, and there is still something Furwangler-ish lingering in the rubatos here, though only at the margins. Overall the interpretation is most intriguing for the great Brucknerian’s sense of 100_0512melodic line, the more varied tempi do not sound affected at all. In this approach he corresponds to Karajan but is more intimate and particular. The orchestra can’t have been any different in size and composition than it was for Karajan three years later, but it positively sounds smaller. Jochum had that gift, though, an uncanny ability to make massive sound feel intimate. On CD it’s apparently only currently available as a larger box set with his mono Brahms cycle (superb) and the landmark Bruckner.

The last-but-certainly-not-least mention is Mravinsky, a conductor I hardly knew anything of beyond my dad’s box set of the Tchaikovsky 4/5/6 until RCA was able to get some of his Melodiya recordings marketed on a more mainstream scale. I recently 100_0514picked up his 1973 Beethoven 4th, with Leningrad of course, which is the version included on CD on the Mravinsky edition along with a stellar Tchaikovsky 5th from the same period. The original Melodiya LP (18171), issued in 1983, is of surprising quality — the Soviets weren’t known for their vinyl — and the performance is a sine qua non. Tempi are fast and furious, probably not to the liking of all, but give the piece a totally different feel, more of the Angry Young Man anticipating the 5th here than contemplative artistic development as Karajan would suggest. Phrases are shaped in a way 180 degrees apart from either Karajan or Jochum, in a completely stereotype-defying manner at that: There is warth and passion here, not cold Soviet realism. By the time we get to the finale things are nearly out of control, running away with themselves — a different kind of foreshadowing struck me in Schiller’s verse “Laufet Brüder” from the 9th.  Listen here.

Elgar In the South

Elgar penned a number of “Concert Overtures,” in the mode of Brahms, including, in some order of prominence, the popular Cocakaigne and Froissart; In the South (Alassio) would probably finish third, and hasn’t been recorded often. It’s a superb 100_0498piece, full of verve and dynamic melody, but very much requiring the special Elgarian touch which breathes life into his melodies, and inept hands render dull or bombastic. Boult recorded In the South twice, in 1955 and again in 1972 with the LPO on HMV. The earlier is my clear favorite, and I was lucky to recently pick up a pristine copy of the original issue, ALP-1359, which belies its mono sound, with whooping horns gloriously calling out the theme. (On CD here.) I learned the piece with Slatkin conducting the same band, 19 years later on an RCA CD. The companion Symphony No. 1 61iYj+5+ekL._SL500_leaves much to be desired, but the Overture never sounded more glorious. It’s not as nuanced a reading as Sir Adrian in ’55 when there was probably a good cohort in the orchestra yet who had played under the composer.

The Gramophone favored the Boult and later a Bournemouth record from Constantin Silvestri, 1968 vintage, which truly turns the piece into something new: I’m reminded with this record of Stokowski’s knack of taking underappreciated, underperformed works and by seeming sheer force of will making them sound like masterpieces (my favorite examples are his 1958 Everest recording of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture and much later RCA Khachaturian Sym. No. 3, if you don’t know the work, go buy a copy on CD). Silvestri at this time was recording a lot of “showpieces” with HMV, 100_0500including some in quadraphonic that made it onto the 8-track “TWO” imprint; doesn’t appear that the Elgar made the cut, a pity. The sound on the vinyl (ASD 2370) is the absolute height of HMV’s 1960s analogue wizardry: both immediate and lush, totally realistic and also dramatic in its sonic spacing. Available on CD in a number of iterations, though I can’t vouch for the sound. The performance is without equal, rising in its finlale that is positively stunning. And once again, I lament the fact that apparently only English orchestras, over decades, are interested in performing Elgar.

La Mer

One of the most famous Impressionist works, Debussy’s La Mer has been recorded countless ties by a plethora of artists; I’m surveying a few of the many that I have in my collection — some much well known than others. First on many critics’ lists is 100_0364the 1964 RCA record from Munch and the Bostonians, one of the most highly sought after Living Stereo issues. I’ve heard several copies, and my usual skepticism about the LSC sound has proved true again; still can’t see what all the fuss is about. Hence my surprise when I found a clean copy of the reissue on the Victrola label, the first plum label, heavy vinyl with groove. I don’t know if they did anything to clean up the mix inbetween the initial LSC issue and this one (VICS-1041) but it sure sounds better to my ears. The strings are are crisp and clear, but lacking the lush sweep of Karajan and the Berliners, in their recording from almost the same exact time (1963). Munch’s pacing is superb, rubatos subtle enough so as to be hardly to be noticeable. The sonic range is outstanding, and the quiet moments, so elemental to this work, are delicate and clear. The acoustic, though amazingly clear and unclouded, still fails to deliver the voluptuousness of the Berliners. This deserves its status as a reference performance, with nothing really to fault; yet it is still somewhat clinical. There’s not as much personality here as I like in works of this period; it’s almost too perfect.

The VICS issue has less glamourous cover art, but as I said, better sonics to my mind. There have been other reissues and incarnations on CD including multichannel SuperAudio, which I experimented with for a while, but found I not only preferred straight vinyl, but the surround effect on (gasp) 8 track tape. Many of the early Living stereos were indeed recorded on multichannel tape — this was when they were truly figuring out how stereo was going to work — and many of the LSC’s were issued in the 1970s as quads. I don’t think La Mer ever was, so no comparison to be made. There are quad versions of La Mer, a couple of which I have in my collection and discuss below.

As Munch moves through the three movements, not much changes in terms of the pacing, it’s sure and steady, but the finale third movement is more workmanlike than exultory, not anything close to the mystical voyage we get from Karajan (who is known to have been somewhat obsessed with the work and recorded it at least four times I know of (Philharmonia, and thrice with the BPO). I had the Philharmonia on CD years ago, and regrettably didn’t save it on my iTunes when I ditched CDs for good, and am looking for a vinyl copy.

Karajan’s 1964 version is also critically acclaimed, even among his detractors, both for the interpretation and the stunning sonics, which result from the Jesus-Christus Kirche in Berlin — the effect is wholly different from Boston’s famed acoustics, 100_0365which are indeed nothing short of astounding. But the open resonance of the church setting produces a completely different textual feel for this work (and the many others the BPO recorded here before the Philharmonie was finished and became the venue of choice). From the very first bars the ebb and flow of the strings is far more homogenous — that notorious word that HvK’s foes toss around constantly — but when trying for the desired effect of a seascape it is not only appropriate but stunningly evocative. The rising and falling crescendos truly make one “feel” the oceanic currents. I’m paraphrasing from something I’m quite sure I read in one of Robert Layton’s books on Karajan that this work was not “about the sea,” but “was the sea.” I’m lucky to have found — after much trial and error — a pristine first issue of the vinyl with no surface noise at all, hersteller label etc. (138-923) which can easily be found in various iterations on CD.

Unlike Munch, Karajan fluctuates tempi noticeably and intentionally, forcing the listener to almost feel seasick (or undertow, at least) by the third movement, the lower and upper registers undulating in turn, constantly driving to the tumultuous finale. To paraphrase Layton again (can’t say exactly where), this recording shows that every now and again Karajan still felt comfortable unleashing the old Furtwängler-esque frenzy the band was used to and capable of — the comparison I’m making with Layton is how he described the final bars of the 1978 Beethoven 9th, which is, like the end of La Mer here, totally unforgettable in its urgency and ecstasy (youtube clip below of the third movement.)

Almost 15 years later Karajan returned to the work after the advent of quadraphonic sound, and produced a second rendition of the work which similarly meets with almost universal critical acclaim. The sonics here, now in the Philharmonie, are no less effective, though the 4-channel effect renders something different yet again. MFSL has this one on their list, though in 2-channel only. I don’t have a copy, but it’s on my list. I’m using the standard 1977 EMI/Angel issue (37438), and unfortunately when EMI put out its limited run of 45rpms from this era, they included the Bolero from this album but not La Mer. On CD one finds innumerable versions, again including SACD which I can’t speak to.

The pacing of the 1977 record is noticeably slower than of the rocky waters heard in the classic version, but the effect no less evocative; if I were to get metaphorical we’re taking a swim and drifting now rather than navigating through the waves. The 100_0369four channel effect is very effective; I don’t know how the DGG tonmeisters set things up, but one hears the violins and winds quite clearly apart from the deeper strings and percussion sections in the back, creating the unique quad effect of sitting discretely in the middle of things rather than just having them envelop you overall as is the result of the synthesized effect (which is impressive) that my old Sansui receiver can produce with some stereo records, including the 1963 La Mer. The homogenized “Karajan Sound” is now more evolved in this later record; though not to the deleterious effect of maestro’s final 1985 rendition which was primarily recorded for his Unitel video concerts, now available from Sony. One noticeable effect on the quad record, even more so than in 1963, is the truly stunning piannisimos achieved by the Orchestra for sustained passages, particularly in the third movement. The sonic range is nothing short of stunning and the crescendos the score affords produce a truly cinematic effect that is wholly different from either the earlier Karajan record or, certainly, the straight-ahead Munch version.

The second quad record I have is from Martinon’s complete survey with the French National Radio Orchestra, this being Album 4 (370670) on Angel. I’ve heard the German pressed versions, from the full box set, and find the four channel effect far 100_0372more effective on the American version. Martinon is, characteristically, more lyrical in his overall approach, not as precise as Munch or as controlling as Karajan. The result is a looser feel, more flowing. Tempi vary constantly, but in an entirely comfortable way, with the overall effect being a delight of sound rather than a particular evocation as with a traditional tone-poem. There is a glowing happiness to the music making that distinguishes this reading, and Martinon’s style in general, in his conducting of French works in particular. Here, where Karajan’s undertows can be genuinely menacing, Martinon’s tides are glistening splendidly in the Mediterranean sun (which was, after all, where the composer sat while writing these lines).

I conclude with some lesser known records in my collection, first with a very early stereo record (1957) from Manuel Rosenthal and the Orchestre du Theatre National de L’Opera on Vega (10.137). The performance is something of a blend of Munch’s straight delineation and Martinon’s shimmering, warm, and bright (to borrow a phrase). There are magical moments 100_0374in this performance rather than overall effects — not surprising from a band used to performing opera accompaniments. In this sense the work is presented more as a poem, with certain phrases and lines consciously lifter out, standing apart and on their own, pauses emphasized more, and separations allowed to linger with a delicacy I’ve not heard in any other rendering. A very memorable performance for some very different reasons than any of the more famous records discussed above. On CD, apparently, most or all of Rosenthal’s early stereo Debussy has been remastered on SACD by the small Praga label. It’s worth noting that La Mer on vinyl was often paired with the Nocturnes (the Martinon does this but Karajan does not, in either case — he never recorded the work). For what it’s worth, Rosenthal’s flip side has one of the most beguiling versions of Nuages I’ve ever encountered, and I hunted this record down initially for that reason after hearing the recording in the superb (contemporary) French film Red Lights. One wonders if it was purely by accident — or by plan — that the sound producers chose this 1957 recording for the soundtrack in a film made 47 years later. Goodness knows they had other options!

Also with Rosenthal’s reading one can’t help but sense an air of discovery, as with many of these first generation stereo records, in which one can’t help but feel the musicians had to feel they were playing these popular works for the first time.

Of theater digital versions available on vinyl, only one is on my shelf, and it’s a fairly obscure (and hard to find) performance 100_0376from Geoffrey Simon (Cala 1001), which more than anything else is notable for its kaleidoscopic color. The conducting is, like Munch, fairly straight-ahead, but what lingers is a magical richness. Again here it was the Nocturnes that drew me to these performances (Cala 1002) but Simon’s abbreviated Debussy survey is a spectral delight. I initially had these on CD, still available. Tempi are quicker, and this version is more of a showpiece per se. What one might imagine as a modern-day Stokowski. (A Stokowski in his prime, to be clear — his later Phase 4/London LSO dates from his Indian Summer where much of the old magic was gone.)

There are others — Previn’s LSO and Haitink’s Concertgebouw, for example — neither of which make much of impression, and on CD we find them not surprisingly on budget discs only.

Lastly is my one idiosyncratic favorite, where I stand very much alone against the critics, who by all accounts have panned Victor de Sabata’s 1948 Debussy recordings with the Santa Cecilia (Rome) Orchestra, of which La Mer went unpublished until EMI’s Testament CD label, video below. Listen for yourself. Critics pretty much universally view the Nocturnes (on the same disc) as erratic and disorganized, but for me it is a totally unique juggernaut of the senses. Like father, like son, the Kleibers have a way of making music we all know entirely their own.

Fauré’s Violin Sonatas

Fauré was not the most prolific of composers but his music is of the highest caliber, particular the intimate chamber works; delicate and sensual in the iconic Gallic style of the time, with both memorable shorter melodies (the Romances sans Paroles are under appreciated pianistic gems on par with anything from Brahms or even Schubert); Dolly and the Masques et Bergamasques are pure joy; on the other handthe Requiem is an angelic sine qua non, an antidote to the gloom foretold in many others of the genre, most infamously in the words of a contemporary British critic who disdained the pieces for being a “lullaby of death.” As a student of Saint-Saëns and precursor to Ravel and the Impressionists, Fauré bridged styles and generations in the most interesting and rewarding ways — conservative in form, to some sensibilities, yet very free and modern stylistically.

Here I consider four of the handful of records of his two Violin Sonatas, which present both exemplars of these 100_9973characteristics and variety in their performances ranging from the earlier versions by Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus (Columbia 5049, rec. 1953, available on CD from Sony). On my 6-eye copy the mono sound is resilient and pristine, with the violinist’s distinctive precision gliding along with little romantic dramatism. The tunefulness dominates rather than the musicians’ personalities, and the effect is pure delight in the first Sonata, written by a young man (aged 31) still under the sway of his mentor Saint-Saëns, who very much approved. The Sonata No. 2, written 40 years later, still possesses the melodic qualities of the first but is less of a token of the flourishes of the Parisian Belle Epoque than of more equivocal cultural, chaotic environment of 1917; “autumnal” to borrow a rather overused musicological term. Casadesus is an equal in these performances, driving the music as much as the soloist he accompanies. Both men were proficient in a wide range of repertoire, and often performed together; this record is in a sense their perfect collaboration.

It’s no surprise (and also somewhat regrettable) that Fauré’s music is mostly favored by his countrymen. The first record was made by Thibaud and Cortot in 1932. Similarities in pacing and style are very evident, and the partnership dynamic with Cortot is noticeable, Francescatti’s leaner, more crystalline tone deliver a different feel overall, however — despite the obviously expanded dynamic range. One can find the vinyl on the old HMV/COLH LP series and on CD from EMI. A presumably 78rpm transfer of the first Cortot 1st movement from the Sonata No. 1 is on YouTube here:

Probably the record held in highest esteem is that from Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley on Philips (9500-534, rec. 1978), Grumiauxwhich features the unmatchable technique and drama of Grumiaux’s instrumentalism in both Sonatas, with unmatched sonics from the height of the late analogue era. (The YouTube clip below concludes with his recording of the Franck sonata with Sebok as accompanist.)

A fuller tone and a more Romantic style (do I detect occasional double-stops?) position Grumiaux into revealing counterpoint with Francescatti, detracting nothing from either. Crossly is also more of an accompanist here than an equal partner in the performance. Available on CD in two versions, this first from Philips and a second from London — clearly some kind of cross-liscence from Polygram, here, though I can’t vouch for the sound on either.

A later rendition comes from the accomplished French violinist Pascal Amoyal with Anne Queffélec on Erato (71195, rec. 1979). The tone here is overall more subdued, more Brahmsian — not dark, to be sure — but less ebullient. An illuminating contrast

worth considering alongside the above mentioned discs. Amoyal recorded the works again with another master of French pianism, Pascal Rogé for London/Decca in the 1990s (Rogé’s solo Fauré album is a must-have). Likewise, Amoyal’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi CD of the Brahms Sonatas, with Pascal Devoyon, is among the finest on record, adapting the French sensibility to Brahms rather than the other way round. The Erato Amoyal has not been reissued on CD.

Lastly I mention the only more modern, CD-version of the Sonatas I favor on par with these vinyl records, from the Korean Dong-Suk Kang also accompanied by Pascal DevoyonKim on Naxos. From the same CD, below is a clip of Kang performing Fauré’s Romance for Violin and Piano, a good example of the tone/style I’m referring to (can’t seem to find the Sonatas for free on the web).

Kang has won recognition for recordings of works by Elgar, Sibelius, and Grieg and his approach reminds me most of the Elgar Violin Sonata in its most robust performances from Nigel Kennedy (Chandos ABRD-1099, and CD) and as well as Maxim Vengerov on Teldec.

By way of comparison, here is the first movement from Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Sonata.

Kang’s Naxos acoustics are the most open and spatial of all the recordings sampled here, and there is nothing to apologize for with the digital sonics. Kang is perhaps the robust of all soloists here, and Devoyon is more animated than he was with Amoyal; he too is a highly accomplished in the French repertoire of this era with many fine records (the Fauré cello sonatas with Isserlis, as well as the Saint-Saëns violin sonatas, and chamber works by Chabrier).

I’m by no means trying to be comprehensive here, just covering what I’ve got on vinyl, and the Kang, from about the time I generally stopped buying CDs.There are a few Fauré Sonata records I’m omitting, including the early Ferras/Barbizet on HMV (can’t abide his vibrato) and Bobesco on vinyl, Mintz on CD, and a very few others who have ventured here.

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.


Grieg’s Norwegian Dances

Edvard Grieg is best known for his Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt Suites, but also composed a number of other orchestral suites that are wonderful examples of late Romantic coloratura, every bit as rich as Ravel and Debussy. The Norwegian Dances, Symphonic Dances, and Lyric Suite are among these rarely recorded and even more rarely recorded works. Here are some of the standouts.

100_8637Järvi has done a fine job in covering almost everything Grieg produced, and his record of the three works above, with the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony, is hard to match. One can find it on DGG vinyl, 1986 pressing (419-431), and the sound and performances are something to relish. These are tunes that stick in your head, folk melodies, full of drama and tuneful sympathy. The Gothenburg acoustics are first rate, more impressive on LP than on CD, but not worth missing if you don’t own a turntable.

For reasons unknown to me, the Philharmonia has a tradition of performing and recording these works as well. In 1970 with Morton Gould, Copland disciple, (Symphonic Dances and Norwegian Dances, RCA 3158), and then100_8643 again with Raymond Leppard — better known for his Bach conducting — on Philips digital 6514-203. 100_8641But Leppard whips up emotion on par with anything a Copland Rodeo could configure. The tone is less aggressive, more Anglican in the sense of Elgarian undertones versus gnomes waiting under the bridge. The sonics on both records is superb, exemplifying pinnacle analogue as well as digital soundscapes. It’s an interesting exercise to hear the same orchestra mete out these songs in different recording mediums, with directors who came to the podium with particular perspectives.

Lastly Sir John Barbirolli, whose Elgarian credentials go without saying, delivers something that is in another category. Glorious John recorded these Grieg work several times, but I’m going off the Mercury record here (90164), the Symphonic 100_8644Dances and Elegiac Melodies. More than the later interpreters, these recordings produce sound that is both massive and intimate, as with his other records of contemporaries such as Mahler. The modern artists bring spectacle; Barbirolli brings familiarity. As he does with Elgar, these great melodies become family. You can find it on CD in this ‘90s reissue I recall from working at Tower Records as a high schooler, when I first discovered JB.

Franck’s Violin Sonata

After a long hiatus, I’m back, at the urging of an old friend (yes, Patrick). I’ve got a couple of pieces up for review, the first of which is Franck’s late Romantic Violin Sonata. It tracks classical form, but is a kind of bridge work with the coming French impressionists. Readings tend to emphasize the past or the future of its timing.

Erica Morini, on American Decca (DL 10038), is a prized soloist among collectors, but her 1961 rendition leaves me somewhat cold. Tempi are predictable and there’s not much emotion here. Little vibrato in the tone — and the limitations are not due to the 100_8560mono sound. Straightforward, straightforward, straightforward. Firkusny as accompanist is, to my ears, uninteresting. One more reason why big-name collectable artists fetch far more than they might deserve on auction sites. The recording is unavailable on CD in the USA, but can be found in a DGG box set from Korea.

Contrast this, about 180 degrees, with the Polish academic virtuoso Kaja Danczowska, who recorded infrequently but was on record with fellow Pole Krysian Zimerman in a 1981 DGG record (2531-330) 100_8561that is simply phenomenal. The richness of tone, technique, and dynamism of storytelling top Morini by far. In my opinion anyway. Oddly enough, the comparison makes Morini sound “academic.” Available on CD from Polydor’s “Originals.”

And for another contrast there is Perlman, in his 1969 Decca/London record with Ashkenazy, far more 100_8562aggressive in accompaniment than any of the others yet, turning the sonata into a duet. Perlman also pushes further, too much so for some, no doubt, beyond Morini’s classical restraint. This is a concerto in chamber form. The sonics are superb, with a deep echo. Melodramatic for some, no doubt, as with the violin technique, digging deep on the opening tones. Also available on CD in the “Originals” series.

A contrast again: David Oistrakh, Russian trained and not anywhere near the romantic tones we hear 100_8563from Perlman. But no less intense. Two versions, the EMI with Yampolski (1954) and Melodiya with Richter (1968, released in the US on EMI). This is disciplined playing, with the emotion held out for the downbeats, not the melodies. Technique governs here, not phrasing. Oistrakh was better cut out for Beethoven and his Kreutzer-wrenching gut-phrases than the emotional subtleties of the Franck. The opening bars of the final movement are as organized as a Russian troop movement, worlds away from how this sounds under Danczowska or Perlman. The music is marshalled. Intense yes, but not free. Available on CD with EMI’s Testament series (import).

100_8564The mono sound is excellent, and doesn’t encumber. Years later with Richter he seems to have opened up (a political metaphor, as with his colleague Rostropovich?) and the range expands. Speeds are slower, and there is more space to breathe. But still the feeling seems lacking. There seems to be a pacing about the room, not the exploration and joy we feel with Danczowska and Ashkenazy — as if there are all things new. In part, Richter’s piano accompaniment is plodding, and the footsteps keep us down, as a guide who is too slow through the historic house. The Melodiya version has been on CD in a number of iterations due to licensing confusion, including a remarkable Vox 2CD set from the ’90s.100_8565

Last  but not least, Jascha Heifetz in a venerable 1937 recording, here on EMI Serphim. The sound is rich and warm. Perhaps overly rhythmic , the interpretation has most in common with Danczowska. It is “sympathetic” in the best sense. Not making emotional statements, but rather provoking questions. The drama of the ’37 sonics goes further than than stereo issues, if you have the opportunity to her it on vinyl. Available on CD as part of the Heifetz Collection.