Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sir Thomas' Only Issued Commercial Bach Recording

The great Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) was renowned for his interpretations of older music, especially his unique Handel arrangements, but he seems to have had a blind spot when it came to Bach. It's unclear why. Maybe the heaviness with which Bach was usually interpreted in those days turned him off; maybe it was rivalry with Sir Henry Wood, who was famous for his renditions of the Brandenburg Concertos. Whatever the reason, the fact that he could, when he was so moved, turn out a perfect gem of a Bach performance is amply demonstrated by this record, which also contains one of his inimitable Handel transcriptions:

Bach: Christmas Oratorio - Sinfonia
and
Handel-Beecham: Il Pastor Fido - Gavotte
Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded May 12, 1947
RCA Victor 12-0583, one 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 22.45 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 14.76 MB)

This record was only issued in the USA, never by HMV in Europe.

As I may have mentioned here before, in my heyday as a 78 collector I had a collection of over 8,000 discs, which I was forced to sell in 2003-04 for financial reasons. Some of these I had had since childhood. Among them were several by the First Piano Quartet, and when in my recent post devoted to this ensemble, a commenter mentioned a recording of the Paganini Variations, I thought to myself, ruefully, "yes, I used to have that record, and wish I still did."

Well, a few days later, I was at my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner, and my mother mentioned that there were still several boxes of my records in the basement. This was news to me; I had thought they threw out all the unsold stuff years ago. I went to investigate and found lots of junk, of course - many sets with broken or missing records which I had never tried to sell, but also several dozen single records, some of which I was genuinely surprised to see hadn't sold. Among the latter was this Beecham Bach record. And yes, I did get my First Piano Quartet records back - it was like an early Christmas present! The reclaimed records were somewhat the worse for having been stored in a damp basement for 10 years, perhaps, but still quite playable, and now I share the first of these with you all.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Roll Over "Holly Jolly Christmas"!

Burl Ives, c. 1949
The commercialization of Christmas that has taken place over the last hundred years or so gave rise, during the 1940s through the 1960s, to a cottage industry in secular Christmas songs to supplement the traditional carols of yore.  These have ranged from inspired ("Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" - especially as sung by Judy Garland in "Meet Me In St. Louis") to great fun ("All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth") to insipid drivel ("Have a Holly Jolly Christmas").  For me, it is one of the tragedies of the age that Burl Ives (1909-1995), with all his talents as a folk singer and actor, seems destined to be remembered by younger generations only for his hammy rendition of that stupid song, a rendition that has always sounded to me like he hated it, too.  With this week's offering I attempt to redress the balance, by presenting the second Columbia album featuring his inimitable and beautifully sung stylings of folk-song material:

The Return of the Wayfaring Stranger:
1. On Sourwood Mountain
2. Little Mohee
3. Troubadour Song
4. Lord Randall
5. Bonnie Wee Lassie
6. Colorado Trail
7. Roving Gambler
8. John Hardy
9. The Divil and the Farmer
Burl Ives, vocal with own guitar accompaniment
Recorded February, 1949
Columbia set C-186, four 10-inch 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 60.43 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 39.79 MB)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (Ormandy)

The Extended Play (EP) record, a 45-rpm record capable of carrying up to eight minutes per side of music, was introduced by RCA Victor in 1952, and other companies quickly jumped on the bandwagon, reissuing material in the new format.  Among these, strangely enough, was Columbia, who initially showed antipathy to the 45-rpm record - perhaps not surprisingly, since the company began marketing a 7-inch 33-rpm record for single issues at the same time as it put LPs on the market, and only began replacing these with 45s at the end of 1950.  Columbia's first EPs were all single-record issues of pops and short classical works, but during 1953 the company quietly reissued several dozen sets of the most popular symphonic, concerto and operatic recordings in its back catalogue on EP, including this one:

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra
Recorded November 5, 1950
Columbia Masterworks A-1089, three 45-rpm Extended Play records
Link (FLAC files, 113.01 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 77.32 MB)

This was the first of three recordings that Ormandy and his Philadelphians were to make of this symphony; both of the others were also for Columbia, and in stereo.  This EP set may not be the optimal way to hear it - Columbia's 45-rpm records were manufactured from polystyrene rather than vinyl for almost their entire existence - and it didn't last long in the catalogue, but these classical EP sets are fun, and I've included the inner leaves of the triple gatefold cover, containing 4 pages of Columbia's EP advertising, as JPG files.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Encores - The First Piano Quartet

Founded in 1941 as a radio ensemble, the First Piano Quartet, consisting of four pianists - Vladimir Padwa, Frank Mittler, Adam Garner and Edward Edson - enjoyed great popularity during its first decade or so of existence. It's easy to understand why. Their arrangements, made by the players themselves, were great fun, were usually quite brilliant and were performed with a tightness of ensemble that made the four pianos sound almost like one super-piano. The music chosen, popular classics and semi-classics, made few demands on listeners' ears; the pieces never exceeded two 78-rpm record sides in length. When the "FPQ" began recording for Victor in 1946, the company initially didn't consider them Red Seal material, putting their first three single releases and their first album (a set of Lecuona favorites) in the black-label 46-0000 "Double Feature" series. By 1948 these had all been reissued with red labels, and all their subsequent releases appeared as Red Seals, including this, their third album:

First Piano Quartet Encores:
Liszt: Liebestraum No. 3
Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain King
Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee
Mendelssohn: Scherzo in E minor
Villa-Lobos: Polichinelle
Brahms: Lullaby
Rachmaninoff: Italian Polka
Schubert: Moment Musicale No. 3
Liadov: The Music Box
Shostakovich: Polka (from "The Golden Age")
Virgil Thomson: Ragtime Bass
Recorded c. 1947
RCA Victor WMO-1263, three 45-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 57.85 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 42.70 MB)

The group's last RCA release was 1952's "FPQ on the Air" (LM-1227/WDM-1624), by which time Padwa had been replaced with Glauco d'Attili - the first of numerous personnel changes to the ensemble. A few EP reissues followed, but their recordings had all but vanished from the Schwann catalog by 1959, though the group continued to exist until 1972.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 (Adolf Busch)

Adolf Busch
This recording represents my first-ever exposure to the music-making of the great German violinist and quartet leader, Adolf Busch (1891-1952). I was thirteen when I obtained my first copy of this set at Clark Music in Decatur, Ga. (It wasn't part of the inventory when I discovered the store three years before, but as I gradually depleted the supply of classical 78 sets kept in the back of the store, Mrs. Clark would replace them with other goodies she had been keeping in her "warehouse," and this was one of those items.) I had heard of Busch and his Busch Chamber Players from old Columbia ads for their famous set of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, but this was my first opportunity to actually hear them (it happened to be my introduction to this wonderful concerto as well), and I was hooked:

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219
and
Tartini: Adagio ("Air") from Violin Sonata in G, Op. 2, No. 12
Adolf Busch (violin) with the Busch Chamber Players
Recorded April 30, 1945 (Mozart) and May 3, 1945 (Tartini)
Columbia Masterworks set MM-609, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 77.62 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 55.76 MB)

Tully Potter, who has written the definitive work on Adolf Busch (published in 2010 by Toccata Press), tells us that this recording followed the Busch Chamber Players' first American tour in the spring of 1945, which took them to 54 towns in 20 states (and Ontario). Many of the towns were out West, and many had never heard a live orchestra before. The orchestra numbered 27 players (including the 19-year-old Eugene Istomin as pianist in several concertos and for continuo work), of which 14 were women, including both horn players. The touring repertoire included this Mozart concerto as well as the following works which the orchestra subsequently recorded: the Bach Double Concerto (which Busch played with Frances Magnes as second fiddle), the Bach D minor clavier concerto (with Istomin), Dvořák's Notturno for strings, Busch's own arrangements of several African-American spirituals, Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" and the 3rd Concert by Rameau. The last two works were, alas, never issued.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Schumann: Second Symphony (Mitropoulos)

The Second Symphony of Robert Schumann has always been my favorite of his four, as it was, apparently, for Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein's "passionate identification" with the work (the quote is from Richard Burton's 1994 biography of Lenny) dated from the time he was an 18-year old student at Harvard, where, in January, 1937, he was part of a reception welcoming Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was in town to conduct two concerts with the Boston Symphony. Mitropoulos would became Bernstein's first mentor, in fact the first person to encourage him to become a conductor. The Greek maestro straightaway invited the young undergraduate to attend not only his concerts but all rehearsals as well, which Bernstein did, despite imminent mid-term exams. The second of these 1937 Boston programs featured a Mitropoulos specialty, Schumann's Second Symphony:

Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Recorded December 3, 1940
Columbia Masterworks set M-503, five 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 90.88 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 64.19 MB)

Mitropoulos' recording of this symphony was only the second to be made in America, and only the fourth worldwide - after acoustic and electric versions by Hans Pfitzner (both for Polydor), and this 1936 version by Ormandy (for Victor) which was its chief competitor during the 1940s.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge!

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (center) surrounded by the members of the Coolidge Quartet:
(L to R) Victor Gottlieb, Nicolai Berezowsky, Nicholas Moldavan, William Kroll
Thursday, October 30, will see the 150th anniversary of the birth of that great patron of 20th-century music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953). Her influence on music was incalculable. Her commissions include a number of works that became mainstream repertory, such as Bartók's Fifth String Quartet, Copland's Appalachian Spring, and Poulenc's Flute Sonata, as well as such important works as the first string quartets by Britten and Prokofiev, the last two by Schoenberg, and Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète. Less well-remembered is the fact that she was a pianist and composer in her own right. Her String Quartet in E minor, performed by the group that bears her name, is evidence of her gifts in the latter capacity:

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: Quartet in E minor
The Coolidge Quartet (Kroll-Berezowsky-Moldavan-Gottlieb)
Recorded c. January 1940
Victor Musical Masterpiece set M-719, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 70.75 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 46.42 MB)

I don't believe this piece has ever been recorded otherwise, nor does it seem to have been published. I don't even know when it was written; Victor's booklet of program notes (included as a PDF file, and from which the picture above is lifted) omit that seemingly important bit of information. The piece may not be an earth-shattering masterpiece, but it is well-crafted and pleasing to the ear, in a solidly post-romantic idiom. There are three movements: a sonata allegro, a "Funeral Lament" as a slow movement, and a finale called "Divertimenti" - variations and a fugue on the Quartet's opening melody.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Worst Gilbert & Sullivan Record Ever Made?

In his amazing online Gilbert & Sullivan Discography, Marc Shepherd makes available his and others' reviews of just about every recording of the Savoy operas ever made. Marc didn't review this one himself, but one of his readers did, and indignantly called it "the worst G & S recording ever" and that it "must be heard to be believed!" Well, here's your chance:

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado (abridged)
Frank Luther with the "Broadway Players"
Issued in 1963
United Artists UAC-11027, one mono LP record
Link (FLAC file, 82.69 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 39.26 MB)

About the only part of Gilbert & Sullivan's original conception that survives in this treatment is the story itself, which is mostly intact. Sullivan's tunes are rewritten (in two cases almost completely) and his orchestra replaced with a jazz combo of Hammond organ, guitar, bass and drums with xylophone, and Gilbert's song lyrics are almost all dumbed down, one imagines in an attempt to make them more comprehensible to the children at which this record was aimed. One imagines that, but, on the other hand, some of the rewritten dialogue contains jokes that were surely over the heads of kids in the 60s. Here's an example:

Nanki-Poo: "I'm a poor musician, my lord."
Ko-Ko: "A poor musician? You're a terrible musician! How'd you ever get in the union?"

Rather adult humor, if you ask me. Then again, Frank Luther (1899-1980) was at one time the most respected purveyor of children's records in the English-speaking world, even serving as a Decca executive in charge of their children's department during the 1940s and 1950s. So this "Mikado" probably represents a sincere attempt to introduce the glories of Gilbert & Sullivan to children, but it falls a bit flat on that score simply because there's so little of Gilbert or Sullivan left in the end product. And yet, it has its endearing qualities, too, if you approach it in the right spirit and don't expect too much. I'm strongly reminded of the Rankin/Bass holiday TV specials - it has the same cartoonish kind of energy.

I should say a word or two about the series in which this recording was issued, since it's obvious that the reviewer I referenced above assumed that the United Artists "Tale Spinners for Children" was a junk series. Hardly! They were cheaply made (I remember them being sold at Kresge's department store for 99 cents per LP) but the material was of high quality. Most of them originated from England as "Atlas Tale-Spinners." They told familiar children's stories against a background of classical music, probably culled from existing recordings, and there were even stories of composers added into the mix. To this day I have battered copies of "The Story of Beethoven," "The Story of Chopin," and "The Story of Mozart" that I had as a lad of five. Many of these can be heard online; see under my list of "Some Favorite Record Links" at the right for a Tale Spinners site that features these.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Kodály: Dances from Galanta (Fiedler, Boston Pops)

Zoltán Kodály
If the most popular work by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) is the Suite from the opera "Háry János", then perhaps the second most popular is his brilliant answer to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Dances from Galanta, written, as the Victor labels for its first American recording proclaim, "for the 80th Anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, 1934". Here is that recording:

Kodály: Dances from Galanta (1934)
Boston "Pops" Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler
Recorded June 28, 1939
Victor Musical Masterpiece set DM-834, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 36.15 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 26.29 MB)

Fiedler's excellent recording missed being the very first of this work by less than three months; Victor de Sabata beat him to the punch by recording it for Polydor with the Berlin Philharmonic in April, 1939. For all practical purposes, Fiedler's set would be the only way Americans would be able to experience this piece on record during the 1940s. (Fritz Reiner recorded it for Columbia in Pittsburgh in 1945, but that version was unreleased until Sony tapped it for a Masterworks Heritage CD in 1996.)

The first side of my copy is a bit noisy, I'm sorry to say - especially at the beginning and end of the side. It was a wartime pressing, after all.