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)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rafael Kubelík's First Recording

Rafael Kubelík, 1937
The great Czech maestro Rafael Kubelík (1914-1996) made no less than three commercial studio recordings of Smetana's cycle of symphonic poems, Má Vlast in its complete form: the first for Mercury in 1951, with the Chicago Symphony; the second for Decca/London in 1958, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the third for Deutsche Grammophon in 1971, with the Boston Symphony. There have also been commercial releases of live performances. Obviously Kubelík had a passionate identification with the work, and so it's fitting that his first-ever recording, made at the age of 23 while the Czech Philharmonic was on tour in London in 1937, should have been of two of the cycle's most popular segments:

Smetana: The Moldau (Vltava) and
From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests (Z českých luhův a hájův)
(Nos. 2 and 4 from the symphonic cycle "Má Vlast")
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelík
Recorded October 30, 1937
RCA Victor set DM-523, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files. 69.33 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 44.79 MB)

The Czech Philharmonic came to London three times during the late 1930s to concertize and make recordings. The 1937 visit also produced a recording of Dvořák's "New World" Symphony conducted by George Szell. For the other tours, in 1935 and 1938, the conductor was the orchestra's music director, Václav Talich, who between the two visits produced priceless recordings of Dvořák's Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and complete Slavonic Dances, plus Josef Suk's Serenade for Strings.  Talich stayed home for the 1937 tour, however, so Szell and Kubelík deputized.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Philharmonic Piano Quartet

The Philharmonic Piano Quartet
(L to R: Max Walmer, Ada Kopetz, John Scales, Bertha Melnik)
The great popularity, during the 1940s, of the First Piano Quartet doubtless caused many imitators to be spawned. One that was good enough to get promoted and recorded (by Columbia, in direct competition with the FPQ which was on Victor) was the Philharmonic Piano Quartet, formed by four young Juilliard alumni. Unlike the FPQ's players, which were cloaked in anonymity on the labels, the Philharmonic's were identified as Ada Kopetz, Bertha Melnik, Max Walmer and John Scales (a great name for a pianist, no?), but there's nothing in the album to enable one to match names to faces! (My thanks to a reader for providing another photo that identifies the players by name - see the comments below.) The group made two albums for Columbia, of which this was the first:

"Music For Four Pianos" (arrangements by Moritz Bomhard):
Lecuona: Andalucía
Traditional: Cradle Song
Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf - "Procession"
Strauss: Du und Du ("Fledermaus Waltzes")
Morganstern: Toccata Guatemala
The Philharmonic Piano Quartet
Recorded April 2, 1949
Columbia Masterworks set MM-852, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 54.40 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 37.57 MB)

Can anybody out there identify the melody of the "Cradle Song?" It sounds vaguely familiar but I can't place it for the life of me. The "Peter and the Wolf" excerpt is identified as "Procession", which would lead one to believe the final section will be heard - as indeed it is, but not until after the themes of Peter and the hunters in their original forms are, as well as a bit of the music heard while the bird is taunting the wolf! Sam Morganstern, the composer of the last item, was best known not for his composing but for his musical reference works; I grew up with a dog-eared copy of his "Dictionary of Musical Themes" which he co-authored with conductor Howard Barlow.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mozart: Symphony No. 39 (Szell)

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
(restored by Peter Joelson)
Growing up in the 70s, I would hear the term "Big Five" bandied about as it applied to American orchestras - those of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland.  Thirty years prior, the number was the "Big Three" - neither the Chicago nor the Cleveland orchestras reached that exalted status until Fritz Reiner took over the one, and George Szell (1897-1970) the other.  Szell assumed the directorship in Cleveland in 1946, and held the post until his death, transforming the orchestra in the process.  Among the first of their many recordings is the following:

Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E Flat Major, K. 543
Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell
Recorded April 22, 1947
Columbia Masterworks set MM-801, three 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 66.44 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 43.76 MB)

This wasn't Szell's first recording of the Mozart E Flat Symphony.  One of his earliest recordings featured it, an acoustical version for German Odeon with the orchestra of the Berlin Staatsoper in 1924.  Of great rarity, I should imagine - I've never encountered it.

The Cleveland Orchestra was already a fine one when Szell took it over, as many recordings with it by Nikolai Sokoloff, Artur Rodzinski and Erich Leinsdorf prove.  One of the first I ever owned is this one by Rodzinski of an old warhorse:

Tchaikovsky: Marche Slave, Op. 31
Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski
Recorded December 14, 1940
Columbia 11567-D, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 22.00 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 13.59 MB)

This is one of the reclaimed records that I talk about in this post; I bought it new from Clark Music in Decatur, Ga., in 1974, when I was 11, and I have been, so far, the only owner of this copy.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tristan Love Duet (Traubel-Ralf, 1947)

Helen Traubel and Torsten Ralf
(as pictured in the liner notes for the present set)
For the end of 2014, a little Wagnerian treat featuring that great exponent of the master's soprano roles, St. Louis-born Helen Traubel (1899-1972), along with the Swedish tenor Torsten Ralf (1901-1954), whose birthday, incidentally, is next Friday (Jan. 2).  This is the duet from Act II, Scene 2 of "Tristan und Isolde" - actually a trio, because it's interrupted at two points by Brangäne, Isolde's maid, offstage, but her music is often either omitted from concert performances of the duet, or sung by the soprano taking Isolde's role (as Kirsten Flagstad did in her 1939 studio recording with Lauritz Melchior).  This recording appears to be the only one made during the 78-rpm era with a third singer taking her rightful lines - the Vienna-born Herta Glaz (1910-2006):

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Love Duet
Helen Traubel, soprano (Isolde)
Torsten Ralf, tenor (Tristan)
Herta Glaz, contralto (Brangäne)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Fritz Busch
Recorded March 16, 1947, in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Columbia Masterworks MX-286, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 49.90 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 33.00 MB)

My thanks to Adam Schweigert for sending me this set and several others as a result of discussions originating in the comments section to this post.  And my thanks to Peter Joelson for his restoration work on the cover image, another beautiful Steinweiss design:


My best wishes to everyone for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2015!