Saturday, July 21, 2012

Brahms by the Léner Quartet

The Léner String Quartet

The Léner String Quartet of Budapest were famed, in the 1920s, for being the first string quartet to record the complete quartets of Beethoven.  A less ambitious undertaking, perhaps, but no less noteworthy, was their being the first to record the complete quartets of Brahms, in marvelously idiomatic performances, of which this is a sample:

Brahms: Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2
The Léner String Quartet
Recorded August 11 and 13, 1931
Columbia Masterworks Set No. 173, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 81.16 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 36.62 MB)

They actually recorded this particular quartet twice, the above recording replacing an acoustical version of 1925.  It was my intention to bring you this earlier recording when I purchased this set, which was advertised in a mail order catalogue as Columbia Set 35 (the last acoustical set issued in the USA by Columbia).  When I received the package, the album cover was indeed that for Set No. 35, but imagine my consternation upon unwrapping the actual records, to discover Royal Blue shellac pressings with "Electrical Process" on the labels!

My guess is that the store which sold this set in the 1930s had stocked Set No. 35 for years without selling it, then when Set No. 173 was released as its replacement, the distributor offered the new discs in exchange for the old ones, without the store's having to return the album as well, and therefore the new discs were sold housed in the old album.  This is something that could have happened with a number of Léner Quartet sets, so I suppose the lesson to be learned here is that I shouldn't buy any more of their purported "acoustic" sets based on the set number only, that I should instead insist on being quoted the actual disc numbers; if they are indeed acoustical they will be below 67200-D.  I guess I shouldn't gripe too much, because this is a beautiful performance of a great quartet, but I doubt that I would have paid $50 for it, particularly as it, unlike the acoustical version, has been reissued before, long out-of-print though it may be....

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Two by Eric Coates

Eric Coates
Fred over at Random Classics recently gave us the London Suite by the "uncrowned king of British light music" (to use Peter Dempsey's phrase from a Naxos reissue), Eric Coates (1886-1957), as conducted by a veteran of American light music, Morton Gould.  I answer with its sequel, conducted, as were many recordings of his music during his lifetime, by the composer himself:

Eric Coates: London Again - Suite (1936) and By the Tamarisk (Intermezzo)
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Coates
Recorded April 30 and May 1, 1936
Columbia Masterworks set MX-102, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 43.57 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 22.59 MB)

American Columbia had quite a few recordings by Eric Coates on its catalogue, as he was then very popular over here, but only two of them made it into the Masterworks album set series (the other was the "Cinderella" Fantasy).  When I was a boy of eleven, I owned (but alas, no longer own) an American Columbia coupling of Coates conducting his magnificent London Bridge and Knightsbridge marches (the latter being a movement from the original London Suite), and I have loved his music, with its sense of everything being right in the world, ever since.

During the 1940s, Coates switched his recording allegiance from EMI to Decca, and one of his first productions for that label was a recording of his 1944 suite, The Three Elizabeths, which boasts another wonderful march that honors the then-18-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the current Queen:

Eric Coates: The Three Elizabeths - Suite (1944)
National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Coates
Recorded November 15, 1944
English Decca AK 1109 and AK 1110, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC file, 46.36 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 24.77 MB)

This, by the way, is not the same recording as one that Fred offered last year, on a London LP coupled with Coates' Four Centuries Suite.  That recording is a remake, dating from the early 1950s.  This set was among the first English Decca "ffrr" records imported into the US after the war, and sold in special (US-made) albums, in this case with a catalogue number of EDA-8:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shostakovich: Tenth Symphony (Mitropoulos)

Cover photograph by Howard Zieff
Today I present the first recording made in the West of one of Shostakovich's greatest symphonies, the Tenth, by the great Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960).  And it remains one of the most searingly intense, with the fastest second movement on record.  Mitropoulos would, of course, have had no way of knowing that this movement was Shostakovich's musical portrait of Stalin (as the composer admitted in his memoirs), and more's the wonder, for the performance blazes with rage like no other I've heard.  The third movement, which has always seemed to me like Shostakovich's own self-portrait (that D-S-C-H motto!), is also on the brisk side, and gains a special urgency thereby.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of N.Y. conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Recorded October 18, 1954
Columbia Masterworks ML-4959, one 12-inch LP record
Link (FLAC files, 132.27 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 63.92)

I can't pass up the opportunity to comment on the rather startling cover for this LP (pictured above).  Charles Burr, in his liner note for ML-4959 (which is for the most part a long essay about the relationship of the Soviet composer to the Soviet government), says of the conclusion of the symphony that "there is an escape from tragedy back into the happiness of childhood, for it is only childhood that permits the dwelling once again in personal, non-political emotions." And yet the cover photograph displays a kid who doesn't look very happy to me! while behind him a faceless figure - obviously one of authority - stands in a displeased pose with arms crossed.  If this isn't a metaphor for the relationship of the composer to the state, I don't know what is.  This photograph was taken by Howard Zieff, later to become a film director, whose credits in that arena include "My Girl" and "Private Benjamin."