Friday, February 28, 2014

Bill Gale - Let's Polka!

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
"Who can resist the twinkling two-four tempo of the Polka?" So begin the liner notes for this album. Who indeed, especially when they are as well-played as here? More's the pity, that I can find out so little about the artist who presents these specimens of the dance. All I can establish with certainty is that his real name was Wasyl Gula, of Ukrainian ethnicity (that beleaguered country of late), that he fronted a number of different polka bands throughout his career, both under his birth name and under his Americanized name as Bill Gale, and that he also composed quite a number of polkas (including two in this album). The band here contains not only the expected accordions and clarinets, but also some surprising instruments like slide whistle and xylophone (quite startling it is to hear the latter instrument break into a virtuoso riff in the middle of Smetana's "Bartered Bride" Polka!). Irresistible, too, is the inspired silliness of the "Laugh Polka," and the nautical overtones of the "Goofy Gob" Polka (one of Mr. Gale's own). Here are the particulars of the set:

Let's Polka
Bill Gale and his Music Makers
1. Clarinet Polka
2. Smetana: Bartered Bride - Polka
3. Bell Polka
4. Laugh Polka
5. Helena Polka
6. Goofy Gob Polka
7. Beer Barrel Polka ("Roll Out the Barrel")
8. Gypsy Polka
Recorded March 25, 1941
Columbia set C-56, four 10-inch 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 71.31 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 39.46 MB)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (Ormandy)

Cover design by Stanley Harris
More music from Scandinavia, but of much more mainstream repertoire than in my last post! This fine recording of two Sibelius symphonies was issued in commemoration of the composer's 90th birthday, and it remained in the catalog for over 20 years - it's still listed in the Schwann 2 Fall and Winter 1975-76 edition, albeit as a Columbia Special Products release.  It's Ormandy's first recording of both works; he would re-record them for RCA in the 1970s.  (Ormandy had a special relationship with Sibelius; a touching reminiscence by the conductor can be read here.)

Sibelius: Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63 and
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 82
Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy
Recorded November 28 and December 19, 1954
Columbia Masterworks ML-5045, one LP record
Link (FLAC files, 153.28 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 97.97 MB)

The cover pictured above is the original one for ML-5045, and was also used for the Philips release in Europe.  Two or three years later, the LP was reissued with this rather innocuous cover, for reasons that are unclear to me (image borrowed from

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Niels Viggo Bentzon: Chamber Concerto

Niels Viggo Bentzon, 1986
Sometimes called "the wild man of Danish music," Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000) was certainly wildly prolific - 664 opus numbers!  Of these, I've heard about one percent, and have found this Chamber Concerto of 1948 to be particularly vital.  Essentially a triple piano concerto with chamber accompaniment (the scoring, besides the pianos, is for clarinet, bassoon, two trumpets, double bass, timpani, snare drum and triangle), it features two fast movements filled with Hindemithian neo-Baroque bustle flanking a long slow movement which may owe more to Bartók with its arabesques and arpeggios; however, with its steady, procession-like tread I'm reminded more of Falla's harpsichord concerto.  Maybe the overall structure of the concerto and its chamber scoring reinforces this impression.  In any case, the piece is great fun, and it's played here by the composer with two pianistic colleagues, and the group to whom it was dedicated:

Bentzon: Chamber Concerto for 11 Instruments, Op. 52
Niels Viggo Bentzon, Georg Vásárhelyi and Herman D. Koppel, pianos
Copenhagen Collegium Musicum conducted by Lavard Friisholm
Recorded February 16, 1951
HMV Z 7036 and 7037, two 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 41.27 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 27.32 MB)

A word about Bentzon's two fellow pianists on this recording: Georg Vásárhelyi (1912-2002) was a Hungarian who studied with Bartók and Edwin Fischer before settling in Denmark, where he taught generations of piano students, including Bentzon.  Herman D. Koppel (1908-1998) was a Copenhagen-born pianist and composer, who, as a young man, had performed Carl Nielsen's piano music in the presence of the composer.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Chopin: Rondo, Op. 73 (Bartlett and Robertson)

Of the 32 issued sides recorded for American Columbia by duo-pianists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson between 1940 and 1945, the two comprising this disc may well be the rarest, for they are the only two such sides by the duo not listed in the 1949 Columbia Catalog, nor does there appear to have been any other issue of them.  The piece thus honored, if you can call it that, is this charming Rondo by Chopin, one of five free-standing works he was to write in this form, and his only work for two pianos to be graced with an opus number (posthumously given, as it is early, dating from 1828):

Chopin: Rondo in C Major for Two Pianos, Op. 73
Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, pianos
Recorded January 29, 1941
Columbia 71190-D, one 78-rpm record
Link (FLAC file, 17.72 MB)
Link (MP3 file, 13.62 MB)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (Rodzinski)

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
It's been quite a while since I have offered anything by Shostakovich.  Well, here is his most famous work, conducted by the man who gave it its American première (with the NBC Symphony in April, 1938) - Artur Rodzinski.  By the time this recording - the work's third, following ones by Mravinsky and Stokowski - was made, the United States had entered the Second World War as an ally of the Soviet Union, which perhaps explains the militant-looking cover art depicted above!  Moreover, between the time of the recording (in February, 1942) and its release (around October the same year), Shostakovich had appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine in his fireman's helmet in connection with the American première of his Seventh Symphony conducted by Toscanini, so he was very much the "man of the hour" among musicians in the public mind.  So Columbia must have figured they had a sure winner in this recording, and indeed it appears to have sold quite well for a contemporary symphony.  It usually turns up in terrible pressings made during the war from recycled shellac, but I was fortunate enough to find a copy made in the immediate postwar period:

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski
Recorded February 22, 1942
Columbia Masterworks set MM-520, five 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 96.98 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 69.31 MB)