Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4 (Dennis Brain)

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
Today I present one of the earliest solo recordings by the tragically short-lived horn virtuoso Dennis Brain (1921-1957), which may not be particularly rare, perhaps (most of his recordings have been widely reissued over the years), but it is wonderful, and putting it on this blog is an excuse to put another delightful Steinweiss album cover into the public eye! This is, for all intents and purposes, the recording that introduced Dennis Brain to the American record-buying public (as a soloist, that is - the Léner Quartet's version of a Mozart divertimento, in which he and his father Aubrey had augmented the ensemble by two horns, had been issued here in 1940). It was the first to be made available as domestically-pressed discs obtainable through regular channels, some four years after it was released in England:

Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-Flat, K. 495
Dennis Brain, with the Hallé Orchestra
conducted by Malcolm Sargent and Laurence Turner
Recorded June 21, 1943
Columbia Masterworks set MX-285, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 51.45 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 32.16 MB)

The double conductor attribution requires some explanation. The story is that Sargent was late for the recording session, so Turner, the orchestra's first violinist, took over and conducted the recording while waiting for him to arrive. English Columbia solved the problem of wording the record labels in a most frustrating manner for record collectors, by leaving off the conductor's name(s) entirely. At least they were honest, I suppose. Victor, when issuing Stokowski's 1939 recording of Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" with the Philadelphia Orchestra, credited everything to Stoki, even though one of the sides was a retake conducted by Saul Caston.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

William Boyce: 8 Symphonies (Max Goberman)

Max Goberman
The Philadelphia-born violinist and conductor Max Goberman (1911-1962) was a true recording pioneer. He will probably always best be remembered for being the first to attempt to record all the Haydn symphonies, a project cut short less than halfway through by his untimely death from a heart attack, a month shy of his 52nd birthday. (My first-ever exposure to the Toy Symphony that we used to believe was by Haydn was through Goberman's recording of the piece for Young Peoples Records, a company for which he made important contributions in the late 1940s.) Goberman's first major recording project was undertaken with a chamber orchestra he helped found, the New York Simfonietta, and comprised the first-ever recording of the eight symphonies by William Boyce:

William Boyce: The Eight Symphonies
(edited by Constant Lambert)
The New York Simfonietta conducted by Max Goberman
Recorded c. 1937
Timely set 1-K, nine 10-inch 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 156.17 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 94.87 MB)

Max Goberman was the musical director for Timely Records, a small New York-based company founded around 1935 and originally specializing in political material, which in 1937 was sold to an insurance executive named Leo Waldman. Waldman changed the focus of the label to esoteric classical material, and this Boyce set was the first issue under his aegis. Within two or three years the label was defunct, its assets sold to General Records' owner Hazard Reeves, the famed sound engineer.

The Boyce symphonies were available in those days only in an error-ridden edition by Constant Lambert, who himself would record extracts from them in 1940 as part of a ballet, "The Prospect Before Us." At the time of his death, Goberman was working on a new edition of the symphonies, which has since become the standard.

Incidentally, the 52nd birthday that Max Goberman didn't get to celebrate is a landmark I expect to reach this May. Furthermore, Goberman died a mere five months before I was born. Eerie, isn't it, that Fate should place these records in my hands at this time of my life!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Two More by the Coolidge Quartet

Robert McBride
I recently acquired two more recordings by the Coolidge Quartet (William Kroll and Nicolai Berezowsky, violins; Nicholas Moldavan, viola; Victor Gottlieb, cello), and with them, I am about halfway to having a complete collection of the issued commercial recordings of this unjustly neglected ensemble. For the first one, which is the only single-record issue in the Coolidges' discography that I can trace, they are joined by Arizona-born composer-oboist Robert McBride (1911-2007), who gained some fame as a young man for writing pieces with catchy, evocative titles such as "Jingle Jangle", "Swing Stuff", etc. Arthur Fiedler promoted him on records with the Boston Pops before discovering Leroy Anderson (Youtube has his recording of "Fugato on a Well-Known Theme" here). His Oboe Quintet, despite its academic title, inhabits the same lighthearted world; it's in a single jazzy movement marked With kick:

Robert McBride: Quintet for Oboe and Strings (1937)
Robert McBride, oboist, with the Coolidge Quartet
Recorded October 27, 1939
Victor 2159, one 10-inch 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 13.52 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 8.70 MB)

The other Coolidge item here is more self-explanatory; it's the third installment of their ill-fated Beethoven quartet cycle:

Beethoven: Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3
The Coolidge Quartet
Recorded October 27, 1939
Victor Musical Masterpiece set M-650, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 45.64 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 30.68 MB)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Brahms: Symphony No. 2 (Barbirolli)

John Barbirolli, c. 1940
Surely one of the hardest acts to follow in the history of orchestras and their conductors was Toscanini and his ten years as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1926-36). 37-year-old John Barbirolli was chosen for the job, and achieved fine results in the seven years he was there. When he arrived, the orchestra still had a recording contract with Victor, but the company seems to have done little to promote the Philharmonic - perhaps understandably, when they also had Boston, Philadelphia and Toscanini's new orchestra at NBC on the books. When the contract lapsed in 1940 Columbia eagerly signed the orchestra and its young music director, no doubt with an eye to recording it with other conductors in their stable, especially Stravinsky and Bruno Walter. But to Barbirolli, rightfully, went the honor of conducting the Philharmonic's first recording for Columbia, and here it is:

Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
conducted by John Barbirolli
Recorded March 27, 1940
Columbia Masterworks set MM-412, five 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 93.74 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 63.90 MB)

At just over 33 minutes long, this may well be the fastest Brahms Second on record, yet it never sounds rushed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 (Mitropoulos)

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
This weekend - March 1 - marks the 119th birth anniversary of the great Greek maestro, Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960), principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1937 to 1949. From 1939 to 1946 the orchestra and its conductor recorded exclusively for Columbia, afterwards signing on with RCA Victor. From their last series of Columbia sessions came this exciting version of Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony:

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 ("Little Russian")
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Recorded March 10 and 11, 1946
Columbia Masterworks set MM-673, five 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 85.70 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 58.08 MB)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Happy Birthday, George Frederick Handel!

The 330th anniversary of the birth of George Frederick Handel is Monday, February 23, and to celebrate, I'm revisiting the reclaimed record pile, which had a number of single 78s of Handel's music.  Here are a couple of the most interesting ones:

Handel: Nel dolce dell'oblio - Cantata, HWV 134
Ethel Luening, soprano; Otto Luening, flute;
Sterling Hunkins, cello; Ernst Victor Wolff, harpsichord
Recorded c. 1936
Musicraft 1010, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 25.30 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 13.53 MB)

Handel: Chaconne in G Major (with 21 variations), HWV 435
Yella Pessl, harpsichord
Recorded June 3, 1936
Columbia 68599-D, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 27.95 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 15.58 MB)

The Musicraft record was one of that company's very first releases.  It features Otto Luening (1900-1996), later to gain fame as an electronic music pioneer, and his then-wife, Ethel (neé Cobb).  The record by Yella (Gabriella) Pessl (1906-1991) is one of about eighteen issued by Columbia in 1936 and 1937; she then defected to Victor, where she concentrated on recording chamber music, while Ernst Victor Wolff (1889-1960), a mainstay of the early Musicraft catalog, replaced her as Columbia's resident harpsichordist.  Both Pessl and Wolff, incidentally, used a Maendler-Schramm harpsichord (a German make in production between 1906 and about 1960), and the recording careers of both seem to have petered out after about 1940.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Isaac Stern in Music from "Humoresque"

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
With another Academy Awards ceremony looming (the 87th!), it seems a fitting time to share this album of music from the 1946 Warner Brothers romantic melodrama, "Humoresque." This story about an aspiring young violinist's doomed affair with a wealthy socialite, played by Joan Crawford, has long been admired by Crawford's fans as one of her finest performances on film. I can see why, but for me, the film only works because of its glorious music, played on the soundtrack by Issac Stern and Oscar Levant, who also plays the part of best friend to the on-screen violinist (played by John Garfield). My problem with the picture is that neither of the lead characters seems particularly likable; in fact Levant's character is the most sympathetic in the film, unusually for him! Nor did I care for the underlying message, which seems to be: "don't get involved with a musician; they're all crazy and will drive you to suicide if you're so unfortunate as to fall in love with one!" When I watched the movie for the first time, it felt like I was sitting through endless periods of bickering dialogue while waiting for the all-too-brief musical interludes.  I'm sure that my little review probably tells more about me than about the film, but having said that, the best part of it, for me, is right here:

"Humoresque" - Selections from the film:
Dvořák: Humoresque
Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Fantasie (arr. Waxman)*
Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen
Bizet: Carmen - Fantasy (arr. Waxman)
Isaac Stern, violin; *Oscar Levant, piano;
Orchestra conducted by Franz Waxman
Recorded August 14, 1946 (except the Wagner)
Columbia Masterworks set MM-657, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 87.39 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 55.99 MB)

The Wagner fantasie is the only work played uninterruptedly in the picture (as its climax, in fact), so it was dubbed from the soundtrack; the other pieces were studio recordings.

The story goes that Warner Brothers originally wanted Jascha Heifetz for the job of playing the violin on the soundtrack, but he demanded more money than Jack Warner was willing to pay, So "J.L." said "we'll get a talented kid to do it," went to San Francisco to hear Stern in a recital, and hired him on the spot. It was undoubtedly a big boost to Stern's career. He was all of 25 years old, and had just begun recording for Columbia.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Brahms: Tragic Overture (Frederick Stock)

Frederick Stock
In his 37 years as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock (1872-1942) molded the organization into one of America's top orchestras. Originally hired by the orchestra's founder, Theodore Thomas, as a violist, Stock ended up succeeding Thomas as chief conductor after the older man's death in 1905. In 1916, Stock's Chicago Symphony became the first major American orchestra to make recordings, preceding Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra and Karl Muck's Boston Symphony by over a year. Stock's recorded legacy is sizable - some 200 issued 78-rpm sides - but not as extensive as someone of his stature would warrant. It fell into four distinct periods: a handful of acoustics for Columbia in 1916-17; a group of early electric Victors in 1925-30; another batch for Columbia in 1939-41 (which included concerto recordings with Nathan Milstein and Gregor Piatigorsky), and a final group for Victor in 1941-42 (including two Beethoven concertos with Artur Schnabel). From his last Columbia session in 1941 (the same session that also produced this recording of Toch's Pinocchio Overture) came this crackling, dynamic account of Brahms' Tragic Overture:

Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op. 81 and
Brahms: Minuet (from Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock
Recorded April 26, 1941
Columbia Masterworks set MX-214, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 42.50 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 27.72 MB)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Alessandro Scarlatti: Two Concerti Grossi

Two more gems from the reclaimed record pile, ones which I had originally obtained in 1980 from my early record-collecting mentor Bill Brooks. Together they represent the only two recordings made before the advent of LP of examples from the set of six "concerti grossi" by Alessandro Scarlatti (which he himself had called "sonate a quattro") published in London in 1740 by Benjamin Cooke, fifteen years after the composer's death. The recordings also share the common denominator of having been recorded during the Second World War in countries which were the primary European Axis Powers during that conflict (Germany and Italy), but they represent greatly differing approaches to performing this music. Not surprisingly, the German approach is more scholarly and sedate, played by solo strings with a mostly inaudible harpsichord supporting them; the Italians (performing in Naples, where Scarlatti actually worked) are more enthusiastic, sometimes to the point of suspect intonation by the strings of the small chamber orchestra used, with an all-too-audible piano being used for the continuo. Both records are most enjoyable, nevertheless:

Alessandro Scarlatti: Concerto Grosso No. 1 in F minor
Wiesbaden Collegium Musicum directed by Edmund Weyns
Recorded August 29, 1941
Capitol-Telefunken 89-80059, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 24.43 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 13.86 MB)

Alessandro Scarlatti: Concerto Grosso No. 3 in F major
Naples Conservatory Chamber Orchestra directed by Adriano Lualdi
Recorded late in 1942 or early in 1943
La Voce del Padrone DB 05352, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 24.50 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 14.43 MB)