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.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mozart: Piano Concerto, K. 491 (Casadesus)

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
I grew up on Robert Casadesus' recordings of the Mozart piano concertos, in his incomparable collaborations with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra from the 1950s and 1960s.  These were my introduction to these magical works, when I was a teenager, and ever since, this has seemed to me the right way to play Mozart.  So I was delighted to find recently the very first Mozart concerto recording made by the great French pianist (and although the pressing is not ideal, perhaps, being a postwar one, it does at least boast a Steinweiss album cover I hadn't encountered before):

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491
Robert Casadesus, pianist
Orchestre Symphonique de Paris conducted by Eugène Bigot
Recorded December 20 and 21, 1937


Mozart: Rondo in D Major, K. 485
Robert Casadesus, pianist
Recorded December 8, 1937

Columbia Masterworks set MM-356, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 86.04 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 58.56 MB)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Buxtehude: Sonata in C Major (Mogens Wöldike)

Dietrich Buxtehude in his only authenticated portrait
My exploration into Danish music continues with a magnificent piece of chamber music by Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707). Actually, Buxtehude spent most of his career in what is now Germany - in the town of Lübeck, where, towards the end of his life, the 20-year-old J. S. Bach walked 250 miles from Arnstadt in order to be able to learn from him. So his music is squarely in the German Baroque tradition, but the Danes have always claimed him as their own, and rightfully so, for all of his training was in Denmark. And in the dark early days of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, four Danish musicians committed to disc this sonata by their compatriot, one of 22 that survive:

Buxtehude: Sonata in C Major, BuxWV 266
Else Marie Bruun and Julius Koppel, violins;
Alberto Medici, cello; Mogens Wöldike, harpsichord
Recorded November 19, 1940
HMV DB 5249, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 26.47 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 14.81 MB)

Wöldike is by far the best-known of these musicians, and I'm sure his was the guiding spirit behind this performance, with his well-known qualities as a Baroque scholar. Koppel and Bruun were husband and wife, and Medici, despite his Italian-sounding name, appears to have spent his entire career in Denmark; he was principal cellist for the Danish Radio Orchestra for several decades. (Satyr has another recording featuring Elsa Marie Bruun, with Wöldike conducting - the Bach Concerto for violin and oboe.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Peer Gynt and L'Arlesienne Suites (Ormandy)

Cover photo by Adrian Siegal
Another one by Ormandy and his "Fabulous Philadelphians" is the offering this week, and it doesn't feature offbeat repertoire or even anything particularly exciting, perhaps - just enjoyable music superbly played. Except for the first Peer Gynt Suite, which he had recorded in 1947, these recordings represent Ormandy's first of these works, which make an odd but satisfying coupling:

Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2
Bizet: L'Arlesienne Suites Nos. 1 and 2
Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy
Recorded May 14, 1955
Columbia ML-5035, one LP record
Link (FLAC files, 144.59 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 96.47 MB)

On a personal note, this was my introduction to Bizet's L'Arlesienne music; when I was 11, I obtained the EP version of this recording of Suite No. 1, which, incidentally, had the same cover photo. I haven't had that 45 for at least thirty years, but I remember that the turnover occurred in the middle of the Minuetto - even though neither the cover nor labels for A-2038 bothered to identify the movements!

This was another of Columbia's 1950s LPs to be reissued with a different cover; around 1958-59 this nature scene replaced Ormandy's visage above (photo borrowed from

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Boris Tishchenko

About a year ago, when Berkshire Record Outlet put on sale a number of Albany Records CDs on sale at ridiculously low prices ($0.99-1.99 per disc) I bought a handful of them. Among these were three discs of piano sonatas by Boris Tishchenko (1939-2010) performed by Sedmara Zakarian Rutstein. I knew of Tishchenko as a composition pupil of Shostakovich, whom the master thought very highly of, but I had never heard his music before. Well, Shosty was right - I was blown away by the quality of the music I heard. It is bold, direct, displays a firm grip of musical architecture, and enough variety to sustain interest over works lasting nearly an hour. I was moved to obtain the scores of the sonatas represented on the Albany CDs (Nos. 5, 7 and 9), and to seek out the composer's own performance of No. 7 on a Melodiya LP made shortly after the work was written:

Tishchenko: Piano Sonata No. 7 (with bells), Op. 85 (1982)
Boris Tishchenko, piano
Alexander Mikhailov, bells
Recorded in 1983
Melodiya C10 20091 004, one stereo LP record
Link (FLAC files, 155.12 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 66.90 MB)

The bells, which are of a different type in each of the sonata's three movements, are not heard continuously, but appear at strategic points - in the slow movement's climax, for example, and at the opening and closing of the first movement.

Berkshire, when last I checked, still has their Tishchenko CDs in stock, and if this music has intrigued you I would urge you to acquire them. And the scores, published by Compozitor Publishing House in St. Petersburg, can be obtained outside Russia via the Ruslania website.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Suk: Serenade (Boyd Neel)

Cover restored by Peter Joelsen
Perhaps no musician in the 20th century was more responsible for generating interest in the vast repertoire of music for chamber orchestra than London-born Boyd Neel (1905-1981). Trained as a doctor, he yearned to conduct, and to this end formed the Boyd Neel String Orchestra in 1933 by recruiting seventeen string players - 11 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and 2 basses - from various London music schools. From 1934 the orchestra recorded copiously for English Decca, including the complete Handel Op. 6 concerti grossi, and gave a boost to young Benjamin Britten's career by commissioning (and recording) his first recognized masterpiece, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The war years curtailed their activities a bit, but not completely. One of their first recordings after Decca's introduction of the "ffrr" recording technique was this charming 1892 Serenade by the eighteen-year-old Josef Suk, composed under the influence of his mentor Dvořák:

Suk: Serenade in E-Flat, Op. 6
Boyd Neel String Orchestra conducted by Boyd Neel
Recorded July 6 and September 25, 1944
Decca set EDA-66 (AK 1209 through AK 1211), three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 60.30 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 41.40 MB)

This is one of about 120 sets imported into the USA and issued in an album series (the records made in England, the albums manufactured in America) between early 1947 and mid-1949 by American Decca, Late in 1947, British Decca began importing its popular series directly to the USA on the London label, then by May of 1948 was importing semi-classical (Léhar, Eric Coates, and the like) 12-inch issues here on London even as American Decca was importing the heavier classics! A May 1, 1948, article in Billboard magazine states that "according to a London spokesman, the [new semi-classical] series will in no way conflict with the deal between London's parent firm (English Decca) and American Decca for the latter to distribute English Decca classical wax here exclusively." But American Decca must have seen the handwriting on the wall, for the beautifully designed covers they had been using for the EDA series (samples of which can be seen here and here) soon gave way to more generic ones like the one pictured above. By the summer of 1949 London Gramophone Corp. (as it was then called) was importing all English Decca product, including the new LPs.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Copland by the Dorian String Quartet

Aaron Copland wrote precious little chamber music, but what he did write is of high quality, and this extends back to works he wrote as a young man in the 1920s. For string quartet there are only three extant pieces, all dating from the 20s, a Movement written while he was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (between 1921 and 1924), which was shelved and forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1980s, a Rondino from the same period, and a Lento molto from 1928. The latter two pieces (in reverse order) form a satisfying slow-fast grouping, and Copland decided to publish them that way. This is the pair's first recording:

Copland: Two Pieces for String Quartet (1923-28)
Dorian String Quartet
Recorded February 8, 1940
Columbia 70092-D, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 19.69 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 13.63 MB)

I can't find out much about the Dorian String Quartet, other than that they seem to have been active between about 1939 and 1942, and their membership consisted of Alexander Cores and Harry Friedman, violins; David Mankovitz, viola, and a very young Bernard Greenhouse, who went on to later fame with the Beaux Arts Trio, as cellist. They made only a handful of recordings: the Piston String Quartet No. 1 in 1939, and Arthur Foote's Night Piece with flutist John Wummer, made on the same day as the Copland pieces. Cores and Greenhouse went on to make sets of violin and cello literature, respectively, for Columbia's educational series.

I got this Copland record from an eBay seller, and in the same package was John Kirkpatrick's pioneering set of Ives' "Concord" Sonata on five Columbia 78s. It was only after I ordered it that I realized that Buster had given us this same recording as transferred from its LP reissue, which is the preferable way to hear it, because the quality of Columbia's shellac from this time (1948) was simply awful. The "Concord", however, takes nine sides, making a filler necessary, and this - a part of the second movement of Ives' First Piano Sonata, recorded the same day as the larger work - didn't make it onto the LP. So I offer it here, as a sort of appendix to Buster's upload:

Ives: "In the Inn" (from Piano Sonata No. 1)
John Kirkpatrick, piano
Recorded April 9, 1945
Side 10 of Columbia set MM-749, five 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 14.05 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 10.33 MB)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nielsen: Early Chamber Music Recordings

The Royal Danish Orchestra Wind Quintet:
Gilbert Jespersen, Aage Oxenvad, Hans Sørensen,
Knud Lassen, Svend Christian Felumb
The year 1922 saw the composition of two towering masterpieces of the wind quintet genre, utterly dissimilar from each other: Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik, and Carl Nielsen's Quintet, Op. 43, written for four of the five players pictured above. The exception, Gilbert Jespersen, didn't join the group until 1929; in the meantime, Nielsen had written his Flute Concerto for him. Nielsen actually intended to write a concerto for each wind instrument, but only the ones for flute and clarinet had been written before he died in 1931 - surely one of the most tantalizing projects in music history, along with Debussy's set of six sonatas for diverse instruments, to be cut short by its composer's death. To return to the Quintet, however, this recording of it by the work's dedicatees became the major vehicle for Nielsen's fame outside Denmark, long before his symphonies were known:

Nielsen: Quintet for winds, Op. 43
The Royal Danish Orchestra Wind Quintet
Recorded January 24, 1936
Nielsen: Taagen letter (The Fog is Lifting)
(from the incidental music for "Moderen", Op. 41)
Gilbert Jespersen (flute) & Mrs. Valborg Paulsen (harp)
Recorded January 31, 1936
HMV DB 5200 through DB 5203, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 75.51 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 45.33 MB)

This recording was the first entry in HMV's Scandinavian Red Label series; the next was another Nielsen recording, featuring three of the same players, of this amusing piece depicting a group of strolling musicians who, after two fruitless attempts to serenade a lady, give it up as a lost cause:

Nielsen: Serenata in Vano (1914)
Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Knud Lassen (bassoon), Hans Sørensen (horn),
Louis Jensen (cello), Louis Hegner (bass)
Recorded February 2, 1937
HMV DB 5204, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 22.23 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 13.59 MB)