Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The First American Recording of an Unabridged Symphony

For Leopold Stokowski's birthday this year (April 18, 1882), I present what is not only his first recording of an unabridged symphony, but the first such recording anywhere in the USA, in fact the only American recording of an unabridged symphony made during the acoustical era.  (I say "unabridged" instead of "complete" because some may consider Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony not to qualify as a complete work.  I don't agree with that assessment myself; I have always suspected that Schubert didn't finish it because he knew that it is perfect as it stands, and that to add the obligatory scherzo and finale to create a finished symphony would be akin to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa!)  The first five sides were waxed on Stoki's 42nd birthday (after apparently unsuccessful attempts the previous December and January), ninety years ago:

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor ("Unfinished")
Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski
Recorded April 18 and 19, 1924
Victor 6459 through 6461, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 64.29 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 39.38 MB)

This set was Victor's first entry in a series of albums they called the "Music Arts Library of Victor Records" - issued in tandem with an abridged recording of the Schumann Piano Quintet as a five-record package.  Alas, I don't have the album or the Schumann, but I did find online a newspaper ad (from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated October 9, 1924) announcing the series, and here is a cross-section:

Victor's subsequent issues in this series included a number of Blue Label sets, among them Sir Landon Ronald's 1922 version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  The series continued into the early electrical era before being supplanted by the much more famous "Victor Musical Masterpiece" sets in 1927.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 (Mitropoulos)

"Hold your Hat!" - These were the words inscribed inside the album cover for the first copy I owned of Vaughan Williams conducting his Symphony in F Minor by the 78 set's original owner. An apt description of the work's anger and violence, and also of the composer's 1937 performance, which has never been equaled. The only one I've ever heard that even comes close is the one presented here. This was, I believe, the only Vaughan Williams symphony in Mitropoulos' repertoire, and he had conducted the New York Philharmonic in at least sixteen performances of it, since 1945, at the time this recording was made:

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor
New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Recorded January 9, 1956
Columbia Masterworks ML-5158, one LP record
Link (FLAC files, 81.06 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 52.73 MB)

Vaughan Williams liked to say that the dissonant opening motto of the Fourth Symphony was "cribbed" from the opening of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. If that is so, the overall form of the symphony was surely cribbed from that of Beethoven's Fifth, with its motto recurring at strategic points, the similar dimensions of its movements, and even its Scherzo being linked to its Finale by a similar crescendo.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Schumann: "Spring" Symphony (Leinsdorf)

Erich Leinsdorf
Spring is finally here, and after such a winter as we have had in the USA - one of the coldest I can remember - it's doubly welcome. And so here is Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, conducted by a young Erich Leinsdorf (1912-1993) in what appears to be his only commercial recording of the work. This was made during his first appointment conducting a major symphony orchestra, that of Cleveland, a position Leinsdorf would later characterize as "the bridge between the regimes" of Rodzinski and Szell. He was there for only three years, and all of his recordings with the orchestra were made over a period of three days in February, 1946. These include first American recordings of Dvořák's Sixth Symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Antar" Symphony, and a suite from Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" - the latter two sets released belatedly, after five Cleveland sets conducted by Szell had hit the market. The first of Leinsdorf's Cleveland recordings to be issued was the Schumann:

Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 38 ("Spring") and
Brahms: Chorale-Prelude "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" (orch. Leinsdorf)
The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded February 24 and 25, 1946
Columbia Masterworks set MM-617, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 79.06 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 55.08 MB)

Curiously, neither the cover nor the record labels indicate the symphony's familiar nickname, even though it originated from the composer himself - as discussed in Paul Affelder's liner notes. The Steinweiss cover does, however, graphically portray the transition from winter to spring.

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
(restored by Peter Joelson)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nielsen: Quartet No. 3 (Erling Bloch Quartet)

Carl Nielsen wrote four string quartets, the last one dating from 1906.  This means that all of them are relatively early works, for he lived another twenty-five years.  It has been regretted by many (including the composer's daughter, who is said to have encouraged him, to no avail) that he made no contributions to the genre in his musical maturity, especially as Nielsen was a violinist himself and might be expected to have a special understanding of writing for stringed instruments.  But he wasn't interested, and on the basis of the direction his music took in the last fifteen years, I can understand why: his later works glory in contrasts between instruments, and the homogeneous sound of the string quartet wouldn't offer much scope for that kind of writing.  Be that as it may, there is much to enjoy in the Nielsen quartets, and the present one is, for me, the best of them:

Nielsen: Quartet No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 14
The Erling Bloch String Quartet
Recorded September 22-23, 1946
HMV DB 20100 through DB 20103, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 83.07 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 48.10 MB)

The distinguished Danish violinist Erling Bloch (1904-1992) founded the quartet bearing his name in 1933; its other members were Lavard Friisholm, second violin (who later directed the Copenhagen Collegium Musicum, whose recording of Bentzon's Chamber Concerto I uploaded recently), Hans Kassow, viola, and Torben Svendsen, cello.  With Svendsen, Bloch later founded the Danish Quartet, an ensemble consisting of flute (played by Gilbert Jespersen, the dedicatee of Nielsen's Flute Concerto), violin, cello and piano.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Massenet: Le Cid - Ballet (Fiedler)

Cover design by Herschel Levit
Vive l'Espagne! It seems as though, prior to the arrival on the international music scene of native Spanish composers like Albeniz, Granados and Manuel de Falla, the French had a monopoly on musical representations of their southern neighbor.  This point was driven home by Andrew Kazdin and Thomas Z. Shepard in the liner notes for their 1971 album "Everything You Always Wanted to Hear on the Moog" (which featured "semi-conducted" versions of Chabrier's España, Lecuona's Malagueña, a suite from Bizet's Carmen and Ravel's Bolero), which stated with irony that "the consistency of our Spanish program is marred only by the fact that Lecuona was not a French composer."  Well, here's some more zestful Spanish music by a Frenchman, zestfully performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops:

Massenet: Le Cid - Ballet Suite
Arthur Fiedler and the Boston "Pops" Orchestra
Recorded July 10-11, 1945
RCA Victor set DM-1058, three 10-inch 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 47.18 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 32.25 MB)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Bach from Copenhagen

Frederiksberg Church, Copenhagen
This week, two organ pieces by J. S. Bach, played by an organist about whom I can find out absolutely nothing online - indeed, there's more information available about the organ itself!  Presumably, Georg Krarup was a staff organist at the Frederiksberg Church in Copenhagen, built in 1734 on land donated by King Frederick IV; the organ used in this recording is the church's third, built in 1947 by the firm of Marcussen & Son, and is an instrument with a light, pleasing, Baroque-style sound:

Bach: Trio Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, BWV 528 and
Bach: "Little" Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in F Major, BWV 556
Georg Krarup at the organ of Frederiksberg Church, Copenhagen
Recorded c. 1951-52
HMV Z 7046 and Z 7047, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 40.59 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 22.59 MB)

This recording has the distinction of being the last release that I can trace in HMV's Danish plum label automatic-sequence series, which featured some very interesting repertoire, as can be seen from this list (the orchestra is always that of the Danish State Radio, unless otherwise indicated):

Z 7000/3 Nielsen: Symphony No. 2 (Thomas Jensen)
Z 7004/7  Brahms: Symphony No. 2 (Fritz Busch)
Z 7008/12 Dvorak: "New World" Symphony (Nikolai Malko)
Z 7013/5  Niels Viggo Bentzon: Partita for piano, Op. 38 (Composer)
Z 7016/8  Haydn: Symphony No. 91 (Mogens Wöldike)
Z 7019/21 Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini (Issay Dobrowen)
Z 7022/6  Nielsen: Symphony No. 5 (Erik Tuxen)
Z 7027/9  Bach: Cantata No. 82 (Bernhard Sonnerstedt, Wöldike)
Z 7030/1  Bentzon: Piano Sonata No. 3 (Composer)
Z 7032/3  Beethoven: Gellert-Lieder, Op. 48 (Børg Lowenfalk, Lund Christiansen)
Z 7034/5  Bach: Orgelbuchlein - 12 selections (Georg Krarup)
Z 7036/7  Bentzon: Chamber Concerto, Op. 52 (Copenhagen Collegium Musicum)
Z 7038/40 Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (with Danish narration) (Markevitch, Philharmonia)
Z 7041/3  Jørgen Jersild: Alice i Eventyrland (Wöldike, Danish Madrigal Cho.)
Z 7044/5  Bach: Orgelbuchlein - 9 selections (Krarup)
Z 7046/7  Bach: Trio Sonata No. 4 (Krarup)

The Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky sets also turned up in the regular English plum label C series.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Bill Gale - Let's Polka!

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
"Who can resist the twinkling two-four tempo of the Polka?" So begin the liner notes for this album. Who indeed, especially when they are as well-played as here? More's the pity, that I can find out so little about the artist who presents these specimens of the dance. All I can establish with certainty is that his real name was Wasyl Gula, of Ukrainian ethnicity (that beleaguered country of late), that he fronted a number of different polka bands throughout his career, both under his birth name and under his Americanized name as Bill Gale, and that he also composed quite a number of polkas (including two in this album). The band here contains not only the expected accordions and clarinets, but also some surprising instruments like slide whistle and xylophone (quite startling it is to hear the latter instrument break into a virtuoso riff in the middle of Smetana's "Bartered Bride" Polka!). Irresistible, too, is the inspired silliness of the "Laugh Polka," and the nautical overtones of the "Goofy Gob" Polka (one of Mr. Gale's own). Here are the particulars of the set:

Let's Polka
Bill Gale and his Music Makers
1. Clarinet Polka
2. Smetana: Bartered Bride - Polka
3. Bell Polka
4. Laugh Polka
5. Helena Polka
6. Goofy Gob Polka
7. Beer Barrel Polka ("Roll Out the Barrel")
8. Gypsy Polka
Recorded March 25, 1941
Columbia set C-56, four 10-inch 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 71.31 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 39.46 MB)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (Ormandy)

Cover design by Stanley Harris
More music from Scandinavia, but of much more mainstream repertoire than in my last post! This fine recording of two Sibelius symphonies was issued in commemoration of the composer's 90th birthday, and it remained in the catalog for over 20 years - it's still listed in the Schwann 2 Fall and Winter 1975-76 edition, albeit as a Columbia Special Products release.  It's Ormandy's first recording of both works; he would re-record them for RCA in the 1970s.  (Ormandy had a special relationship with Sibelius; a touching reminiscence by the conductor can be read here.)

Sibelius: Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63 and
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 82
Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy
Recorded November 28 and December 19, 1954
Columbia Masterworks ML-5045, one LP record
Link (FLAC files, 153.28 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 97.97 MB)

The cover pictured above is the original one for ML-5045, and was also used for the Philips release in Europe.  Two or three years later, the LP was reissued with this rather innocuous cover, for reasons that are unclear to me (image borrowed from

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Niels Viggo Bentzon: Chamber Concerto

Niels Viggo Bentzon, 1986
Sometimes called "the wild man of Danish music," Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000) was certainly wildly prolific - 664 opus numbers!  Of these, I've heard about one percent, and have found this Chamber Concerto of 1948 to be particularly vital.  Essentially a triple piano concerto with chamber accompaniment (the scoring, besides the pianos, is for clarinet, bassoon, two trumpets, double bass, timpani, snare drum and triangle), it features two fast movements filled with Hindemithian neo-Baroque bustle flanking a long slow movement which may owe more to Bartók with its arabesques and arpeggios; however, with its steady, procession-like tread I'm reminded more of Falla's harpsichord concerto.  Maybe the overall structure of the concerto and its chamber scoring reinforces this impression.  In any case, the piece is great fun, and it's played here by the composer with two pianistic colleagues, and the group to whom it was dedicated:

Bentzon: Chamber Concerto for 11 Instruments, Op. 52
Niels Viggo Bentzon, Georg Vásárhelyi and Herman D. Koppel, pianos
Copenhagen Collegium Musicum conducted by Lavard Friisholm
Recorded February 16, 1951
HMV Z 7036 and 7037, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 41.27 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 27.32 MB)

A word about Bentzon's two fellow pianists on this recording: Georg Vásárhelyi (1912-2002) was a Hungarian who studied with Bartók and Edwin Fischer before settling in Denmark, where he taught generations of piano students, including Bentzon.  Herman D. Koppel (1908-1998) was a Copenhagen-born pianist and composer, who, as a young man, had performed Carl Nielsen's piano music in the presence of the composer.