Tag Archives: Quadraphonic

Saint-Saëns: A Grump Who Wrote Some Perfectly Delightful Music

One of the mysteries of all art is often the disconnect between the artist and their works (or conductors and theirs), a discussion that will never end and isn’t my focus here — except to say that sometimes it’s not all super serious conversations like Wagner and his antisemitism, or Ansermet and his, or people like the lately departed James Levine, who despite being a pretty well confirmed chronic sexual criminal, was inexplicable lauded in obits by people like Tim Page (whose editor, Marty Baron, should have spiked this piece, which aside from the headline, and a couple of sentences, whitewashed Levine’s horrid lifetime of pretty well substantiated criminal abuse).

But enough about that. Here I thought I’d offer some lighter material, but also concerning a composer whose temperament, by all accounts, didn’t really match the tenor of his works, which range of course. From the weighty 8B6F80DB-423A-40C6-BBF5-139476D4E6C1_1_201_aand powerful, but also to the downright jolly and delightful, which is where I’d like to focus for a little. With Saint-Saëns you have to acknowledge the biggies, of course, mostly the monumental Organ Symphony, which deserves all its accolades for being both a bravura showpiece and just a good fun listen. I’ve got a few favorites (this is a piece where it’s really hard to talk about a “definitive” recording — but forE8C9FB9E-55E5-437F-A22E-4E7FA44A0BC7_1_201_a me the Paray and the Pretre, both pretty early recordings with astounding sonics, which this piece almost demands, especially given the whopper finale where the organ pipes in (sorry). Karajan’s digital record is also pretty fantastic, especially for its final 3C5F512D-8C95-4B3B-B255-42CAF3F6B01A_1_201_aquickening at the very end — and despite that the Organ used, which was the Notre Dame — was recorded separately and edited in (it sounds fine to me, and it’s a little curmudgeonly to bemoan such things, but oh well). It really should be a burst of joy, not a misplaced Also Sprach opening, and ironically I really do think it’s HvK who gets this right for all the claptrap about him and his one-size-fits-all approach (a total canard, obvious to anyone who takes the time to actually listen to his records.

This symphony, with all its sonic boom, made for a natural choice for the quadraphonic format, and it was RCA that387A2C95-3012-434C-AAA7-3D1630512796 put it down in 4 channel, using Ormandy and the Phildelphians (a natural choice) with good old E. Power Biggs on organ. I’ve got in on 8 track, where the channel separation and the overall impact are great fun. (And you have to love the wacky circus cover art.) Ormandy returned again to the piece in one of his last records for Telarc, which is another audiophile favorite, though it doesn’t stand up for me as a performance. If you want audiophile for this work, and you want boring old stereo, go with Paray. That one, from decades earlier (1958!) holds up and sounds just as fantastic on my original FR1. 22A81361-936A-4A41-A8D5-ACD951D4F18E_1_201_aMartinon also recorded a quad version an disc for EMI, which is perfectly good, and plays great, although the separation — as ironically is almost always the case — is better on 8 track, disastrous design aside!

The piano concertos include both a similarly weighty popular work, the Second, which is not alone in the cycle in 0EBFFC68-6A21-4EE8-BB0C-C46A8A8C9C81_1_201_ahaving some delightfully airy movements. Here I favor Dutoit and Rogé, and I have a German Decca box that sounds great. In the Second we get this side of the composer’s style in the second movement, but it’s found throughout the other concertos all over the place. Rubinstein recorded the9C6C21C0-D5E8-474F-A4C9-19B21711BFBE Second (only) for RCA, and I’ve also got that on quad 8 track, in one of the odd examples of how these early Living Stereo records were recorded in multichannel before the

engineers actually understood how stereo would work, and so years later we actually got those recordings in true multichannel. The recording above, though, is from an interesting live performance he gave of the work at almost the same time as the RCA studio one, and is even a bit more spontaneous.

And speaking of piano works, of course there’s the Carnival of the Animals, which (case in point) despite probably being the composer’s most well known piece, was suppressed by him, ostensibly because it was written only to be performed by his friends — but also probably because he deemed it insufficiently serious for his persona (which E0580D85-47CB-4994-AE08-8FD507C8D2E1_1_201_agrew ever more grumpy as he aged and his contemporaries abandoned the classical forms he preferred). My favorite here is an unusual choice, the Peter Katin and Philip Fowke version on EMI/Classics for Pleasure, still available on CD apparently. It beats any of the big name recordings, including Previn and Argerich and all the rest, for its sheer delight and joy. The dinosaurs never sounded to jolly, nor the aquarium so shimmering and other-worldly. The finale is an outburst of joy from players, channeling something from this composer who otherwise seemed almost afraid to let us know he had this in him. (I’ll leave the who closeted-sexual orientation business out of it.)

Another example of how Saint-Saëns let his guard down and just wrote good old fashioned happy music is on one of his most prized discs among audiophiles, the 1980 Dutoit Danse Macabre on Decca/London, which totally deserves its reputation for amazing pre-digital (barely) sound and acoustics, but also a completely seamless ensemble8206F797-4873-444D-9E3A-14D43FC6B511_1_201_a performance throughout and flawless direction in east of the pieces. My pick isn’t the Danse, though, and not because it’s recorded so often, but the first track, Phaeton, which has only been put down on disc (vinyl or CD) a handful of times. I haven’t bothered with any of the others because Dutoit’s is such a joy, real joie de vivre material if ever there was. And since I mentioned the Danse, I should mention my favorite there, which is a classic early

stereo, on a Martinon Decca/London 6ABA3348-5787-4AF6-BFD6-9E6EE02A5AD5_1_201_acompilation of French works. Mine’s a UK Treasury reissue but sounds great.

Lastly an almost completely unknown, and almost completely unrecorded piece, also a pure delight, the old grump’s Piano Trio No. 1. He wrote two, but the first it more coherent and just a better piece overall. The first movement in particular captures the same spirit in the Carnival and in some of those piano concerto allegros and prestos. I’m pretty sure there only one (!) version on disc, a totally

disappointing and clearly underrehearsed recording on Vox. But this one on Naxos shows what the work can be, and why it deserves to be heard more often.


Tchaikovsky and Richter

HvKSviatoslav Richter was among the great pianists of the 20th Century, no critic would doubt that. I’m a selective admirer of his work, but always held his Tchaikovsky 1st with von Karajan up as the finest in the catalogue. The 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recording (138-822) with the Vienna Symphony is a controversial one, with the Penguin critics (Layton et al.) divided on the verdict. The push-and-pull between the soloist and the orchestra are dramatic. For admirers of the performance, it is a hugely successful culmination of Romantic art; others see it as a lack of coordination.

I recently acquired Richter’s two earlier studio recordings of the work, the first with Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic from 1954 (Supraphon photo-2242) and Mravinsky in 1958 (Melodiya 5469). The evolution of the performances is clear, and belies the criticisms of the Karajan recording. With Ancerl, Richter is every bit as proficient, but notably more playing the role of just one instrument among many. The soloist is smoothly in line with the overall picture, rolling along smoothly even in the more dramatic passages. I am using a first generation Supraphon pressing on 180 gram vinyl, with wide mono range.

Four years later we hear a more independent voice emerging. Mravinsky is a more robust sculptor of sound, and Richter puts himself in front ofit. But the Soviet lockstep is still present. Tempi are concise and regulated. The sound on the first pressing Melodiya I am using is far from ideal, photo-4though the ear easily tunes out the ticks and pops.

It may be reading too much into the performances by way of armchair psychology, but by the time Richter was outside of the Soviet system and free to record with other directors, I think I too would have wanted to push-and-pull with my role as soloist. The Karajan recording is free of bounds, and the culminating passages in the first and third movements are rapturous in their repartee between the pianist’s mighty tone and the orchestra’s come-back. Set in the context of these other records, the Karajan makes sense as a performance, and flows with a freedom it appears the soloist may not have had. The energy of the dynamic is unforgettable; I always note occasions when an artist decides to stop recording a work they know well. Richter never recorded the Concerto after the Karajan.

HvK did record the work again, with Lazar Berman and a young Evgeny Kissin. Both received strong reviews from critics. But the Richter is the one to hear.

A footnote: the only outside comparison I used here was the late Van Cliburn, whose 1958 barnburner comes close to the sheer strength Richter exudes. I am using a photoquadraphonic tape, which provides a totally different listening environment but as for performance — matches Richter in many ways. There is symbiosis with Kondrashin and the young Texan. But again, none of the dynamism that drives the Karajan performance.

Britten’s Sea Interludes

I was introduced to the Britten Peter Grimes Interludes by my uncle, a classical LP collector who unfortunately tossed his entire collection of early stereo LPs when going through a divorce years ago. I can’t remember, for the life of me, the performance he first sent me on cassette tape. I wound up learning to love the four-movement suite, despite an inability to ever connect with Britten overall, in his operatic works or otherwise. In this short ensemble however he grabs you and holds on tight.

I was sparked to revisit my preferences in this piece recently when uncovering a Van Beinum Concertgebouw mono LP, LL-917, the old red/gold FFRR label. Available on CD here, thought I can’t vouch for its sound quality. After a round on the VPI, I was shocked at the vivid sound and subtle performance of my old, round piece of plastic. I’d though one would only get this kind of trascendent performance from an English countrymen in such a work as this. But depsite the ticks and pops this is one remarkable reading. The orchestral depth is clear and arresting in both the attaca segments, and in the gentler ones.

The contenders I compared it with are Previn, on EMI/HMV 37142, unparalleled for sound in four-channel quadraphonic. Indeed this is one of the finest of all SQ quad records I’ve encountered — not ping-pong sonics with tubas coming from back left, but a full, rich sense of being in the middle of the orchestra. And when then full richness of “Moonlight” sinks over you, there is no other way to experience it. Van Beinum is skittish and edgy, vigorous, but even through the fog of years and technological development, cannot parallel Previn’s voluptuousness.

And in the modern digital class I still recognize Handley, on Chandos 1184. Whatever my uncle sent me on tape, this was my first CD of the piece, and it has not grown old. Compared to Previn (rich, measured, and voluptuous) and Van Beinum (edgy and energetic) Handley seems almost restrained, with that gorgeous Chandos sound, its vague reverb and even rhythms. How English! The opening bars are sprite-like, cascading and evoking an almost fantasy-like experience (nowhere more so than in those last few uneasy bars of the fourth movement). In this the Handley version is unique and delivers something entirely different from either Previn or Van Beinum.

There is a secret in these bars, and white maybe the most direct of these three interpreters, Handley’s hands manage the secret in most sensitive terms. Previn wraps us up in the secret, envelops us in it unabashedly. Van Beinum makes it a challenge to us. But Handley eases us in to the mystery. All three interpretations are revealing.

Together the trio present a full range of how these “Interludes” can be presented, painted in the most vivid and differentiated orchestral colors. Truly different interpretations of an underappreciated work.

P.S. Maybe Sir Simon will program this with Berlin. I would love to hear it, and I’m probably not alone.

Debussy’s Jeux, etc.

Jeux is known as a puzzle, and there are very few recordings of the work — or performances attempted. I just acquired a copy of Ansermet with the OSR on London’s Treasury Series, 15022. The recordings in my collection otherwise are Martinon from his ORTF cycle, in quadraphonic sound, EMI 37066, and de Sabata on CD with the Accademia de Santa Cecilia, an early RAI mono recording which is absolutely stunning — particularly in the coupled work, the Nocturnes.

Sabata is dramatic and precise, and the mono sound gives the Jeux an appropriately mysterious sound. Sabata is always interesting and I was glad to discover this on the EMI/Testament label some years ago; I have had no luck finding whether it exists on vinyl or even 78. His tempi are relatively quick, which I think is more attuned to the tenor of the piece. The CD sound is exemplary for the era.

For richness, though, Martinon’s 4-channel recording (1974) is unmatched. It is pure sorcery. Slower tempi, but the sounds resonate through each eerie phrase and snap of percussion. I have a virgin vinyl copy, sealed and played only a couple of times. The sense of depth and resonance is among the best stereo, or quadraphonic, discs in my collection. Jeux wanders about a bit as a work, but it is a splendid wandering. Not as abstract as, say, Arnold Bax in his woods and gardens of Fand, but less directional than Debussy in the Nocturnes or Prelude. Here he is letting himself go. Martinon has the measure of this work and simply lets it flow, whereas Sabata tries to pin it down. Martinon is available in various CD iterations.

Ansermet is my latest addition, and as I listen to it now I have the mixed reaction I typically do to his recordings — so valued by audiophiles and collectors. It seems to me a superficial reading, and the sound is opulent…but lacking depth. Not lacking sonic range, to be sure, but depth. It is a flowing rendition, smooth and well directed. But lacking the drama of Sabata or the magic of Martinon. The sound on the orange label STS disc is superb as is to be expected from this series, ever sometimes surpassing their original Blueback first pressings. It’s available on up-to-date CD remaster.

The reason I’ll be keeping this disc is not the Jeux, but it’s pairing, Dukas’s La Peri. I’ve always admired this dramatic work, so rarely performed or recorded. My prior copy is Pierre Boulez, in quadraphonic, on CBS 32401. It is a good recording with excellent quad sound — but here, ironically, it is Ansermet’s opulence which provides the contrast. This is showpiece music, not a musical puzzle like Jeux. Ansermet’s style works for me here.

P.S. I don’t have it in my collection any longer, but Simon Rattle’s version Jeux also receives much critical praise. I recall it falling more into the Ansermet category, without the gusto or careful presentation to make a difficult work succeed. Maybe I should give him a second go; or wait for it with the Berliners, which would be amazing.

Alexander Nevsky, Warhol, Ormandy, et al.

I recently discovered a thrift shop gem, a first generation 1949 Columbia LP of Ormandy leading the Philadelphians in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. I almost didn’t buy it because these early mono LPs are often beat up beyond reclamation and sound awful — and they don’t sell among collectors. But the vinyl here looked exceptionally good, and I saw it was a blue label, clearly copyright dated 1949, the first year of the LP.

What I did not know was who the artist was who had sketched the small battle scene present on the front cover. The sketch is not signed and there is no notation on the back cover. I listed the LP on eBay for $4, after cleaning it and hearing some minor surface noise. One of my friends/colleagues in the world of eBay Classical music emailed me a few days later. “You know that’s a Warhol cover, right? It’s worth some money!”

I told Gus I had no idea. It doesn’t look like the Warhol I know, but sure enough, this was Andy Warhol’s second published piece of artwork. From what my research shows, his first paying gig was indeed with Columbia records, where he produced three small pieces of album art before moving to RCA Records, where he did much more. This French website lists the album covers in sequence; the Nevsky displayed is a second pressing with a pink cover, rather than the original blue which my copy reflects. Wikipedia has it wrong, stating that his first gig was with RCA. The three 1949 Columbia covers, including Nevsky, pre-date them.

The 1949 Nevsky is bright and airy, more rhythmic than Ormandy’s shock-and-awe 1975 remake. Unfortunately, it appears that the recording has never been issued on CD.This version is probably my favorite, though the more contemporary Järvi SNO is also stunning in its impact and richness. Still, Philadelphia’s sound from the mid-’70s was something special, and suited to the drama of a film score with battles on ice and choral odes to Mother Russia.

I have the 1975 Ormandy in two interesting incarnations, a stereo LP and a quadraphonic 8-track. I believe the LP was also issued in CD-4 quadraphonic, but this is equipment I don’t have. The difference between the LP and the quad 8-track are very interesting musically, and illustrate what quad sound was (or was trying to be) in clear form. The LP is brilliantly recorded, rich, direct, with a huge dynamic range that does every credit to Prokofiev’s dramatic, dynamic score. The quadraphonic sound — even on my new-old-stock tape which was opened by and has only been played a handful of times, by me — is less precise and more rounded. But the separation of orchestral sections among the four speakers, especially the choral segments, is astounding. The LP puts you in a front row seat. The quadraphonic version puts you in the center of the orchestra.

Järvi is often criticized for fast tempos and lack of dramatic/emotional weight. One can see some of that on dispilay in his 1987 Nevsky, as passages seem pumped along — no lack of energy, to be sure — but a sense at moments of just trying to get to the next movement. The Chandos sound is amazing, with its typical reverberation and sense of depth. But it lacks the richness of the Philadelphia LP. But we are deep into apples and oranges here; Chandos digital produces a completely different effect from either the stereo or quadraphonic Ormandy on RCA in 1975. Recorded performance always exists in two dimensions, the interpretation itself and then the technology that allows us to re-hear it.

One final note on the choral contributions. The 1949 Ormandy uses a rather trite English translation (popular at the time); the 1975 is in the original Russian, with a local Philadelphia choir. Järvi has another non-native choir, from Scotland. But for whatever reason, he gets his voices to bellow with noticeably more fervor. It makes a big difference in the big choral passages. Ormandy, one might say, was treating this as a Cantata, which technically it is — Järvi was playing it as the film score, which it also is.

Who knew if Andy Warhol even listened to the piece, or saw the film? I might guess he did.

Karajan and Boult’s Quadraphonic Wagner on EMI

As an enthusiast of quadraphonic sound, the 1970’s on EMI/HMV were the golden age. By far the best SQ quad sound I’ve heard comes from their records of this era, particularly those engineered by Christopher Palmer and Christopher Bishop (for example, the Elgar Coronation Ode). But the BPO was in on the act under HvK as well, and many of his 1970’s EMI records provide excellent examples of four channel sound — not to mention the Berliners being at the top of their game.

HvK recorded the Wagner preludes and overtures many times, including two volumes with EMI in quadraphonic in 1974/75. The engineers were unfortunately not the two Christophers, but rather HvK’s usual EMI team of Glotz and Gülich. The performances themselves are stunning, Wagnerian richness in all its opulence, and with the unmatched power of the BPO driving the drama home.

The sonics are interesting to a further degree. I am comparing a U.S. quadraphonic Golden Clouds label 37097, with a Japanese Toshiba EAC-80149, straight stereo. The U.S. quad pressing is roomier, with more of sense of space as the big choruses open up, particularly in the unparalleled reading of the Tannhäuser Overture and Bacchanale. The sound is bass-heavy, as HvK wanted it to be, but the opulence of the strings and horns warm into a genuinely enveloping sound that represents the best of what quadraphonic was — though in contrast to the Toshiba pressing, there is a lack of clean delineation in sound, a homogeneity that HvK’s critics always harped on. Switching between the true SQ decoder on my Sansui 7001 and the “synthesizer surround” function, the brightness perks up, but the three-dimensionality evaporates. And the treble boosts in an uncomfortable way.

Switch to the Toshiba pressing. Gliding silence in the opening of Tannhäuser, but fast-forward to the castanets in the Bacchanale and some of the warmth is gone; in comparison this is almost too clinical, and not without depth — this record is certainly more vivid in the instrumental sectional separation. I have no idea how the master tapes were manipulated in these different pressings but the results are distinctly different in their effect. How the engineers moved between the four channel masters and two channel issues was surely a puzzle (including how they were converted to CD, where many of these recordings come up sounding completely flat). It also seems clear in this case, as with other Toshibas, that the vinyl is simply of superior grade and the surface noise approaches a very impressive zero. It is a rare case where I genuinely can’t choose between the two pressings, and regard them almost as different performances because of the way the reproduce, in four channel or in stereo.

Of the U.K. HMV pressings of these Karajan recordings I have only the Vol. 2 to compare, unfortunately, so can’t directly speak to the dramatic contrasts of Tannhäuser. But in general it is noteworthy that the quadraphonic effect is superior to the U.S. EMI/Angel, in a sense a melding of the stereo Toshiba’s clarity and the EMI quad’s warmth. This is a first pressing, color dog-in-stamp label, and in Meistersinger, for example, the much maligned homogeneity is nowhere to be heard; the melodic line flows seamlessly but not without clarity and distinctness with the emphases on each dramatic turn. (Though that U.S. press has something of a “boom” to it that isn’t here either.) I’ve been actively searching for a Vol. 1 pressing of this same U.K. quad label, to compare that stunning Bacchanale to the two others I describe above.

By way of comparison I turn to Boult, who also recorded the Wagner preludes on EMI/HMV during this same era. His different style is immediately apparent, more straightforward, more even in string phrasing; less emotive than HvK’s soaring crescendos, booming timpani, and heart-wrenching descrescendos, as in the finale to the Meistersinger Overture here. In contrast Boult is noble but decidedly un-Germanic. As I’ve written about his interpretations of other German romantics including Brahms in the Haydn Variations, he feels almost to be channeling Elgar: broad, deep, but ultimately restrained and at key moments, understated.

The pressing I’m listening to here illustrates the best quadraphonic sound of all examples I’ve discussed, which is something of a surprise given that it is a German EMI “Quadraphonie” pressing, 063-02-274. In my experience these German quad pressings do not typically manifest the best of four-channel sound. But as all of this goes to show, the various iterations of this era’s recordings, in and out of four or two-channel, and with varying qualities of vinyl, produced markedly different results. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. The sound genuinely surrounds, and the sense of space is in a completely different category than traditional two-speaker listening. The performances do not match Karajan for drama or excitement, but they inhabit their own distinct, memorable world and are delivered with unparalleled sonics.

A last mention. Backtracking from the quadraphonic era to the early days of stereo, I pulled out my DGG Kubelik record of the Siegfried Idyll (best there is, by the way) which also features some of the shared works on the HvK EMI discs and Boult’s. (The details: DGG 136-228, 1963 recording). I searched long and hard to find a first Hersteller pressing, and one with no noise at all. It could be said that comparing the depth and richness of these early 180 gram pressings to quadraphonic magic is unfair. Listening to this Meistersinger is a very different experience, but the clarity and richness of the BPO is every bid as opulent and redolent as in the 1975 version under their future director. Kubelik finds a blend of Boult’s directness and HvK’s romanticism, which was of course not so much his as it was his orchestra’s, the legacy of Furtwängler and everyone who came before. Culture matters, and just as no orchestra will ever play Johann Strauss as the Vienna Philharmonic, no orchestra will ever play Wagner like Berlin. It is in their musical DNA, their interpretive culture, and the recordings let us share in that genetic, interpretive process.