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.

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

and

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 discogs.com):


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.