Much ink has been spilled on the pros and cons of Stokowski and his long career, so I’m just offering a few notes here as I’ve been re-listening to a few of the handful of his (mostly) later records, particularly ones that show his uncanny ability to make a less-than-masterpiece sound like it was just that. For me, that’s the magician part. He was a showman, much like his friend Walt Disney, always interested in the next new technology to advance the art; this meant early stereo, of course, and the Fantasia Soundtrack is in actual 1939 stereo sound. As much as one hears those pieces, some of them have never really been matched — the menace of Night on Bald Mountain, the Disney-assisted jollity of the Dance of the Hours.
One can’t mention Fantasia, or indeed mention Stokowski at all, without mentioning the Back transcriptions. You love them or you hate them, and if you love them, as I do, he is the master — or at least he taught the Philadelphians how to you take the Bach organ sound and make it work for the symphonic instrument. He recorded the Toccata and Fugue many time, but nothing surpasses the 1927 original (available on a Dell’arte LP):
It’s only arguable that he was surpassed in this piece with the same orchestra, when Ormandy put it down again 50 years later (far superior to his earlier Columbia LP):
But like many showman, one criticism old the Old Magician is he didn’t know when to quit; he just came back with the same bag of tricks. And in a way he did, but it kept working — until the end. He kept going, kept recording, and often re-recording the same pieces. But at the same time, he frequently defied the naysayers. There was the rightfully famous Rhapsodies with RCA Living Stereo, but by and large he wasn’t deemed “serious” enough for Nipper in those heady days. Too Hollywood. Well, OK…he went with it. Capitol thought he was washed up in the 1950s but he turns around gives us a stellar Shostakovich 11th, a famed Carmina Burana and Berlin Firebird — though not really to my taste as a matter of interpretation, but an (edited down) Ilya Murourometz I consider one of those less-than masterpieces than come off sounding like one; my copy is a UK Capitol, which can be highly unreliable in their sound because of where the actual masters were kept; I had a Planets on UK Capitol that sounded like it was being played through a tin can compared to the US version. But when you get a good, clean Capitol from those golden years of ’58 and ’59 the sonic results are just stellar, and the players knew they had a living legend standing in front of them. And then there was a bunch of French repertoire, the wonderful Debussy record of which is my favorite. And plenty of others, though maybe a little less memorable.
And then comes along the upstart Everest label, not as fancy or well-funded as Mercury, and he does it again. The Shostakovich 5 that knocks your socks off. The Francesca da Rimini and Hamlet that again make second-rate compositions come off like masterpieces. He never lost the magic. And this was all in the 1950s. The Everests were all issued on CD in the early ’90s and are harder to come by than the vinyl in some cases.
And the energizer bunny kept going into the 1960s. And then his Indian summer in London gave us a bevy of Phase 4’s, finely recorded and including the best Scheherezade since possibly his own 1927 rendition, miraculously restored Stokowski.org transfers from the 78s, as well some more unknown masterpieces including — of all things — a Khachaturian 11th (the only one ever recorded?) that is positively stellar. 15 trumpets, yes. And that wasn’t a Stoki embellishment! A Mahler Second that is on par with Bernstein’s final NYPO record in its vastness of scope, grandiosity, and revelatory power. Both are available on CD, although you have to either find an old issue or spring for a newer box set, or in the (deserved) case of the Mahler, an SACD.
And sure, some weird stuff, too — he has a Brahms 4th from this period that seriously leaves one wondering if he was off his meds. The tempi are bonkers. After all, he was getting really, really old.
But until his dying day, he literally kept at it. His last record for CBS, from 1976 (at age 94!), is a delight. The Bizet Symphony is on par with Ansermet for sheer joie de vivre.
Fair warning — this is mostly going to be lost on you unless you are one or both of the following: A Gen Xer and a Seinfeld junkie. So this actually happened:
My 4 1/2 year old sons are, of course, being force-fed a diet of classical music (with occasional ragtime, sometimes played live by yours truly or on record by my old friend and mentor, that late great Johnny Maddox)
and both are taking to it to a surprising extent. To predict, we’ve got one budding conductor — who can actually beat time very accurately with my old baton — and the other who expresses himself more physically through dance and what way more than toddler wiggles but genuinely looks like spontaneous choreography.
Mr. Conductor, who generally likes to be in charge of things (fitting the Maestro type) also actually likes opera. That took me a very long time; I too was force-fed the classics, but didn’t get into opera until my college years. But not so this young man. We started out with Pavarotti, who he can now identify not only by sight but by voice, and can distinguish him from other tenors, particularly the other I’ve chosen to play the most, of course, Domingo (a/k/a “Bingo.”) The favorite based on YouTube options and my own collection, is Rigoletto, where our boy can actually follow the plot (The Duke, “the lady,” and the “Bad man with the puppett.”)
In trying to get video of Questo of Quella, I was led by YouTube to relent to the Thee Tenors (a complete opera is there, and we’ve made it through almost the whole thing a few times, with him insisting on being read the subititles, which I condense into age-appropriate equivalents) — but (cringe) the only solo version that pops up has him there with Zubin, Bingo, and Jose Carreras. Here’s where Seinfeld comes in.
Both boys are experimenting with playing our piano themselves — no lessons yet — and Mr. Conductor not only tinkles along but also composes. His pieces also have titles, which he always announces, and sometimes correspond to his favorite storybooks. A repeat favorite is “The Goodnight Moon Song.” Picking up on this I struggled through The Moonlight Sonata for them, which they thought was slow and boring until I relented and attempted the third movement. Way too rusty, so I put on the Gilels record, because the cover actually has a moon. Mr. Future Nureyev enjoyed that one.
Picking up on this, my wife suggest I try some other moon-themes pieces, and so we tried “Moon River,” which worked on YouTube in the original Breakfast at Tiffany’s clip, which is both short, simple, and features Audrey Hepburn on guitar — another ambition of Mr. Conductor.
What I wasn’t ready for was his immediate request to find Pavarotti or Domingo singing this song, which, YouTube unfortunately revealed, they did, in (yes) The Three Tenors. All three of them, in horrid accents, with ridiculous accompaniment. But of course, while Luciano and Placido were immediate identified, Mr. Conductor turned to me and — cue the Seinfeld, season 7, — asked with genuine confusion about poor Carreras sandwiched between them, “Who’s the other guy”? (skip to 4:15)
I nearly lost it, and if you remember anything about the who Maestro subplot (to the extent that show ever had plots — maybe we should just say sub-theme) there was that episode that revolved around the Three Tenors, which at the time was selling like hotcakes. I had to endure it personally as a then-employee of Tower Records, where customers would actually come in and unwittingly give us examples of life imitating art, asking for that CD of Pavarotti, Domingo and “the other guy.” I have to imagine that Seinfeld heard this himself and this led to writing that episode. But it still rings true, even with four year olds 25 years later. Poor Carreras! As much as I love Pavarotti, and many of the weightier roles (pun intended) Carreras actually was the better singer. (e.g. Aida).
Anyway, jump to 1:40 for proof this actually was on the air. Unfortunately we don’t entirely live in the Truman Show, so I don’t have video of my son actually saying this to me!
And now for something entirely un-esoteric, and which I don’t have the library or expertise to offer a comprehensive discourse upon — Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. (For those purposes, consult Norman Lebrecht’s somewhat more extensive but occasionally very differently inclined Slipped Disc Kerutzer.) Both he and I do agree on the bottom line, and that is at least among modern interpretations, no one matches Perlman and Ashkenazy on London/Decca. The sound is front-row center and the performance bristles with energy and vigor throughout, and is subtle and even beautiful at moments of respite (not only in the slow movement); but in total this captures the work as a statement of passion, not a model of composition. What I find unnerving about so many versions of this work that, by Lebrecht’s count, has been recorded more than 100 times, is that too many soloist treat it as just another in the cycle, which to be sure is full of other inspired works and moments of Beethovenian inspiration — but this one stands alone just as the Fifth Symphony is of a different order than the other eight.
For me, urgency and tempo are a simple and basic part of this, for both the violin and accompanist. Maybe I’m influenced here by a teacher of mine who, in hindsight, put me through a somewhat ridiculously old-school method of measuring my abilities at “musical memory” not as in sight reading or playing by ear, but in terms of recall ability and score memorization: He had the group of us quizzed methodically on our ability to identify a 30 second segment, at random of course, of any of the Haydn symphonies (ALL, yes all, of them); the Beethoven piano and violin sonatas, and any section at all of The Magic Flute. He had us try different methods of recall, one of which was what today we’d call visualization — in the case of the Kreutzer he suggested imagining a horse drawn carriage stuck in the mud with Beethoven inside railing at the driver as an image befitting the first movement. It’s stuck, all these years later, and unless I see that in my mind’s eye the performance fails for me. Perlman passes this test with flying colors, or muddy ones, if you want to extend the imagery.
The other stereo version I find truly compelling in its overall structure as this sense of urgency is Schneiderhan, one of his final records. This was after his Concerto with Jochum had established itself as the sine qua non, which for many of us it remains, and here he extends his mastery of Beethoven’s persona and style into the more intimate format. The one interpretative edge he has over Perlman, and it’s slight but it’s there, is that he is able to convey real reflection even in a single phrase or couple of bars, and the transition back to the main melody, in a way that eludes Perlman somewhat more, as well as Ashkenazy. It’s a pity we didn’t get a complete cycle from him we did in the early 1950s, when he partnered with Kempff, although the results there are comparably lackluster. Something must have transformed him as an artist after that Jochum concerto, and it extends into this Kreutzer. There are various European-only reissues, but the violin sound is far richer on the original Alle hersteller pressing.
One has to mention Szeryng or course, and indeed his Living Stereo record with Rubinstein is in this league for me, but still lacks the inspired phasing and drama that both Perlman and Schneiderhan (and their accompanists) have on display from start to finish. His re-recording with Haebler from 1980 on Philips is decidedly less engaged, though apparently more valued by collectors. The late analogue sound is superb, as is Haebler’s contribution. Oistrakh had also recorded the cycle with Philips (initially pressed by Mercury) in stereo, a performance which also fetches big bucks from collectors but has always struck me as being dull as dishwater, heresy though it may be to say such a thing. Phoning it in perhaps, if that metaphor works for recording. (The same could be said, in my humble estimation, of Kogan’s single attempt at the work, also Melodiya, issued in the US on MGM for some reason.) My evidence for the harshness of my judgement on the later Oistrakh is comparison to his earlier, scratchy old 1953 Melodiya recording — issued on Vanguard in 1957 in a passable pressing, but if one can allow for the sonic limitations the reading itself is more in Perlman and Schneiderhan’s league, with its distinctly more robust and somewhat less refined style in general as was typical of the artist…except when it wasn’t, as was the case for whatever reason in the stereo cycle, where he and old Oborin just sound bored and playing the notes to get the cash. The Vanguard (“Music Appreciation Records”) record also includes Lecair’s Sonata in D, a short Baroque showpiece that Oistrakh must have like as he recorded it several times,
including a later version for RCA that is available in both stereo and mono; but again neither matches this early old Melodiya. It’s unusually slow for the artist and for the work; by comparison Grumiaux is no less inspired in this little gem which really has nothing at all in common with the
Kreutzer other than containing some of the most infectious, memorable tunes ever put down on paper. The Leclair is a sparkling little gem, while the Kreutzer is a monument, of course. A live recording with Frida Bauer, from the same period:
And the Grumiaux, a truly delectable confection:
A last Kreutzerpick for me is an interesting way to feed off of this comparison, in that the playing of the soloists — Francescatti and Casadesus — is decidedly more Italianate or Gallic (if one wants to be geographical about such things). Francescatti’s thinner and more delicate style isn’t necessarily the most natural fit for the piece, especially consider what it means for me and the interpreters I otherwise favor, but he digs deep here and does produce more drama than is customary for him — this is certainly that same person who is a master of Mendelssohn’s concerto, or Casadesus in Ravel, for example — but together they must have set their sights on achieving something very different than their norm, and they did. It took me a while to find a truly clean playing copy, but the mono sound is rich and full, and does the work ample justice. A 1970 live broadcast here, shows the two artists kept the same spirit and personal view of the work over the decades. If anything, time aged its intensity even more for both men than they set down on disc in their youth:
Gerald Finzi is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic, and to the extent he is, it’s probably because of the semi-accurate film Hillary and Jackie which attempted to chronicle the complex relations (let’s leave it that) between him, the du Pré sisters, and Daniel Barenboim. Be that as it may, the man himself was brilliant a composer whose life, and thus his output, was cut tragically short by incurable illness (parallels to the cellist du Pré sister are inevitable and if nothing else, a strange twist of fate).
Foremost among his works, which run the gamut and include a fair amount of choral and vocal works which don’t interest me at all is his cello concerto, Yo-Yo Ma’s premiere recording (with Lyrita in 1979) — a version that certainly still holds up but really doesn’t give us much in terms of the mature artist Ma would become, or the fullness of expression this relatively short but enormously expressive work contains. With Handley at the helm, a master of the British style, this does come off a bit too low-key for my taste, sounding at times like it was a Vaughan Williams concerto (let’s leave the cow rolling in the hay out of it) rather than having more of the vim and vigor we get from Raphael Wallfisch, whose Chandos record recorded seven years later with the same man conducting, shows what can happen when a more mature soloist puts his stamps of a work, and a conductor allows him or her to drive the performance. Here we have infinitely more energy, literally from start to finish, and in this work there’s really not a wasted bar. It’s entirely more alive than the Ma version, and the Chandos sound is brighter and fuller than the Lyrita. It’s a pity Ma has never returned to the work; one wonders what the mature cellist would produce rom this score today, with its full range of mood and emotion, presenting so much room for expression, not just from the ensemble but in from the solo passages themselves.
In that regard, it’s actually a much more recent CD version, recorded by Tim Hugh — Jackie du Pré’s pupil no less — on Naxos in 2001 with Howard Griffiths and the Northern Sinfonia, which totally surpasses both Ma and Wallfisch. It’s slightly quicker overall, and by far the most energetic of the three versions, full of life and leaving one feeling uplifted, despite the melancholy that is undeniably there. Again, one has to wonder how much of this feeling for the work came via du Pré, who to my knowledge never performed the work, though she certainly could have; it was written and published years before her years of performance were forced to conclude.
The Naxos CD also features versions of two of Finzi’s single-movement piano concertante works that are similarly superb, the Ecologue (a short and mostly inward-looking, sad piece; and the more expansive Grand Fantasia and Toccata). The former is probably my favorite of the two, which were both originally intended as a larger concerto but the composer himself decided to split them and complete them as separate works; the Ecologue has a more consistent tone, not just because of its brevity but also because the longer piece seems to be a bit of a stylistic mashup which at times feels like its evoking Constant Lambert, Rachmaninoff, and/or Bach, let alone the singular voice of the actual composer. That shorter piece has two competitors on vinyl: Peter Katin with Handley again on Lyrita (1977) who lends it a distinctive and direct feeling, but more notable Howard Shelley with Richard Hickox (1987) on EMI — of course, because Finzi is another one of those composers who for whatever reason apparently only British labels have any interest in. Shelley’s version is far preferable, but it’s really just a filler at the end of an LP mainly dedicated to the Piano Concerto and choral Amore langueo by Howard Ferguson. Next to Ferguson, Peter Donohoe is equally as eloquent, if even perhaps a bit more so; this pianist seems to have a knack for taking works like this, underperformed and underrecognized, and raising them to the next level, very much leaving one wondering why they aren’t staples of the genre. (Donohoe accomplished this same feat in his justly famous recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, which most critics, and artists, write off as a totally uninteresting sequel to the great First.) What benefits Donohoe in the Finzi — as with Hugh in the Cello Concerto — is the much more involved, integrated, and dynamic playing of the ensemble, who are not just accompanists, but partners is the performance. If one partakes of CDs, or online streamers like idagio, this disc is the one to get; on vinyl there are equivalents, but this is really a desert island CD for me, and I don’t have many!
Not to be unfair to Shelley, here is a live performance with the London Mozart Players in which his overall more tranquil vision of the piece is a bit more vivis than the EMI record:
Speaking of which, it’s also interesting that some of Finzi’s shorter symphonic works, notably the orchestral suite after Love’s Labours Lost has no full competitor on vinyl; Boult, again on Lyrita, recorded three of the numbers from the suite, but not (inexplicably) the most memorable piece, the first one. Here there is absolutely not competitor to William Boughton and the English String Orchestra on Nimbus. The performance and acoustic are phenomenal; unfortunately for us vinyl lovers, this recording, still available on CD, was made right after the label had done away with vinyl; his earlier records of English works (Elgar and Vaughan Williams) are very much worth having. It does seem one has to go to idagio for the Love’s Labours, it’s not to be found on YouTube; the same seems to be the case for Alan Hacker’s Clarinet Concerto. You do have to register, but it’s free and very much worth it, there is no comparable curated archive of classical recordings anywhere else on the web, period. The Clarinet Concerto on that disc is also without peer; the Lyrita, coupled with the Ecologue mentioned above, is totally lackluster in comparison. And Finzi knew how to write for the instrument, which long ago I used to play; among his jauntier and less weighty works are the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, best heard on Chandos disc with de Peyer (who else) available on late vinyl or CD as part of an enjoyable anthology of English clarinet works.
But enough about that. Here I thought I’d offer some lighter material, but also concerning a composer whose temperament, by all accounts, didn’t really match the tenor of his works, which range of course. From the weighty and powerful, but also to the downright jolly and delightful, which is where I’d like to focus for a little. With Saint-Saëns you have to acknowledge the biggies, of course, mostly the monumental Organ Symphony, which deserves all its accolades for being both a bravura showpiece and just a good fun listen. I’ve got a few favorites (this is a piece where it’s really hard to talk about a “definitive” recording — but for me the Paray and the Pretre, both pretty early recordings with astounding sonics, which this piece almost demands, especially given the whopper finale where the organ pipes in (sorry). Karajan’s digital record is also pretty fantastic, especially for its final quickening at the very end — and despite that the Organ used, which was the Notre Dame — was recorded separately and edited in (it sounds fine to me, and it’s a little curmudgeonly to bemoan such things, but oh well). It really should be a burst of joy, not a misplaced Also Sprach opening, and ironically I really do think it’s HvK who gets this right for all the claptrap about him and his one-size-fits-all approach (a total canard, obvious to anyone who takes the time to actually listen to his records.
This symphony, with all its sonic boom, made for a natural choice for the quadraphonic format, and it was RCA that put it down in 4 channel, using Ormandy and the Phildelphians (a natural choice) with good old E. Power Biggs on organ. I’ve got in on 8 track, where the channel separation and the overall impact are great fun. (And you have to love the wacky circus cover art.) Ormandy returned again to the piece in one of his last records for Telarc, which is another audiophile favorite, though it doesn’t stand up for me as a performance. If you want audiophile for this work, and you want boring old stereo, go with Paray. That one, from decades earlier (1958!) holds up and sounds just as fantastic on my original FR1. Martinon also recorded a quad version an disc for EMI, which is perfectly good, and plays great, although the separation — as ironically is almost always the case — is better on 8 track, disastrous design aside!
The piano concertos include both a similarly weighty popular work, the Second, which is not alone in the cycle in having some delightfully airy movements. Here I favor Dutoit and Rogé, and I have a German Decca box that sounds great. In the Second we get this side of the composer’s style in the second movement, but it’s found throughout the other concertos all over the place. Rubinstein recorded the Second (only) for RCA, and I’ve also got that on quad 8 track, in one of the odd examples of how these early Living Stereo records were recorded in multichannel before the
engineers actually understood how stereo would work, and so years later we actually got those recordings in true multichannel. The recording above, though, is from an interesting live performance he gave of the work at almost the same time as the RCA studio one, and is even a bit more spontaneous.
And speaking of piano works, of course there’s the Carnival of the Animals, which (case in point) despite probably being the composer’s most well known piece, was suppressed by him, ostensibly because it was written only to be performed by his friends — but also probably because he deemed it insufficiently serious for his persona (which grew ever more grumpy as he aged and his contemporaries abandoned the classical forms he preferred). My favorite here is an unusual choice, the Peter Katin and Philip Fowke version on EMI/Classics for Pleasure, still available on CD apparently. It beats any of the big name recordings, including Previn and Argerich and all the rest, for its sheer delight and joy. The dinosaurs never sounded to jolly, nor the aquarium so shimmering and other-worldly. The finale is an outburst of joy from players, channeling something from this composer who otherwise seemed almost afraid to let us know he had this in him. (I’ll leave the who closeted-sexual orientation business out of it.)
Another example of how Saint-Saëns let his guard down and just wrote good old fashioned happy music is on one of his most prized discs among audiophiles, the 1980 Dutoit Danse Macabre on Decca/London, which totally deserves its reputation for amazing pre-digital (barely) sound and acoustics, but also a completely seamless ensemble performance throughout and flawless direction in east of the pieces. My pick isn’t the Danse, though, and not because it’s recorded so often, but the first track, Phaeton, which has only been put down on disc (vinyl or CD) a handful of times. I haven’t bothered with any of the others because Dutoit’s is such a joy, real joie de vivre material if ever there was. And since I mentioned the Danse, I should mention my favorite there, which is a classic early
stereo, on a Martinon Decca/London compilation of French works. Mine’s a UK Treasury reissue but sounds great.
Lastly an almost completely unknown, and almost completely unrecorded piece, also a pure delight, the old grump’s Piano Trio No. 1. He wrote two, but the first it more coherent and just a better piece overall. The first movement in particular captures the same spirit in the Carnival and in some of those piano concerto allegros and prestos. I’m pretty sure there only one (!) version on disc, a totally
disappointing and clearly underrehearsed recording on Vox. But this one on Naxos shows what the work can be, and why it deserves to be heard more often.
Mighty Five aside, not much at all exists in the catalogue for poor old Borodin, especially on vinyl. Of course the perennial favorite for pops purposes is Prince Igor, and The Steppes of Central Asiawhich is tuneful enough but really exhausts all it has to say in about four bars (although Ravel made that work). I’m sure there an no end of acceptable versions of it out there, but my own, by coincidence, really, is Solti’s from his audiophile favorite “Romantic Russia” which has gotten every remastered/reissue treatment in the book. I’ve never actually heard the SXL or even any of the Deccas, but for years was entirely happy with the London 1ED, which I mainly had for the rousing and really unparalleled Russlan and Ludmilla — say what you will about Reiner’s, but he always strikes me as cold and uninteresting. I’ve head “Festival” in a 1S and it doesn’t change a thing. The orchestra and direction are just antiseptic, period. Solti’s not a favorite of mine either — he’s always racing! — but it certainly works in Russlan (though Plentev does a great version on CD, the RNO’s debut album from 1994). Can’t find it on YouTube, which is odd, perhaps Putin’s trolls got ride of his stuff because he’s not a lackey like Gergiev. But that’s another story. One of the very few MFSLs I own is Romantic Russia, and the Steppes on there is fine, with sound truly as clear as day and not the standard CD-pressed-onto-vinyl that I get my grumpy ears detect with most so-called audiophile reissues.
As for Borodin’s Symphonies, the Second is the one of any real note, and has for ages been the victim of critical dismissal, hence a dearth of recordings. On vinyl there are just a couple of serious artists recorded besides Ansermet (who did it in both mono and stereo) with the OSR, and the stereo version is on all kinds of lists, and deservedly so, so I’ll start with that. My copy is a 1ED blueback, not perfect but pretty close, and indeed it does have some real dynamic impact. But somewhat to my surprise the first movement lacks some of the read attaca oomph one might have expected from this conductor. All in all it’s a bit tame (?) — but here I’m definitely biased by the version I learned the piece on, as well as my dark horse (see below) — but for stereo versions my top pick is by far Ashkenazy’s CD with the RPO from the early ’90s, which takes the opening chords with as much intensity as he did — at the same time and with the same orchestra — as the final chords in the closing of the first movement of Walton’s First, also a superb record. There’s a real parallel in the way the Borodin First mvt. starts and the Walton First mvt. ends. Ashkenazy nails them both.
Ansermet doesn’t quite pack the punch Ashkenazy does in both places (the key chords in the Walton finale of Mvt. I are at 13:30). The rest of the piece is great, especially the scherzo, though even there I still prefer Ashkenazy. The Prince Igor Overture is fine too, though here again I might even like Pletnev better, also on that 1994 CD. But Ansermet is at his finest here, to be sure — elegant and dramatic, polished and purposeful. And at least he spares us the Danes, Stranger in Paradise, etc. etc., let’s leave that to Tony Bennett.
The dark horse with the Borodin Second is a very early (1953) Columbia with Mitropoulos and the NYPO (performing as the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York) paired with Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 1. My copy is a 1ED blue label and plays perfectly without any noise at all — a rarity. I actually prefer this interpretation to Ansermet, in terms of energy and vigor, who all too often blurs the edges in the interest of his trademark glorious noise. His first movement is perhaps a bit erratic, with the prestoattacas, which Ashkenazy nails, contrasted a bit too much with the second subject. But this is a wild ride of a performance, from start to finish. It’s edge of your seat stuff, as was often the case with this underrated (and underrecorded) conductor. I do feel his reputation with the
audiophile set suffers because what little he did record was in mono. But he’s really unparalleled here, as he is in some Shostakovich. There’s a completeness to the work in terms of sheer urgency that Ansermet certainly does not capture, and Ashkenazy does to an extent — but it’s almost hard to compare these two because the difference in sonic impact is so dramatically different.
As for the Borodin Third, I guess there’s a reason he never completed it and Glazunov at least figured it worth orchestrating. Nothing to see here, move along. And there are a couple of Firsts out there, including Ashkenazy’s valiant effort, but it’s never held my interest. As someone once said to me of Bax, a little goes a long way — longer with Borodin than Bax, to be sure, but not too far! The Ashkenazy disc is the one to get if you still have a CD player, and the Ansermet LP is a classic for a reason. But Mitropoulos has him beat, in my book, and on vinyl you can get this a lot cheaped, though finding a copy in really good shape is easier said than done.
After a long hiatus I’ve decided to take up the blog again, in part because the pandemic has me on leave from teaching and among the silver linings (such as they are) is more time to listen to music. So I’m going to give it a crack here again for my friends and everyone else out there who might find my observations and amateur criticisms interesting or even helpful. Feel free as always to offer your comments. My record samplings come from my own collection, friends, and occasionally a performance I know from CD or more recent material — but mostly classic vinyl. My first post here is fitting in a way, as in my last one a few years ago I mentioned how this recording was one of the last my mom was still able to not only recognize but air-conduct even when she’d basically lost virtually all cognitive abilities. We’re still unlocking how Alzheimer’s works, but it’s certainly been noted in lots of places that music retains a place in the mind that often survives the ravages of the disease, and it did for her, with this piece in particular.
The clear choice — it always has been for me, is Rostropovich and Karajan. Hardly controversial of course, not just because of the soloist, who remains unmatched in every respect, but because this was Berlin at the height of its power, and power is what is conveyed. This is a performance of strength and intensity, and Rostropovich’s uniquely rich and deep sound is a perfect fit. As the three fillers go, this one is the clear winner, and also a classic in its own right, probably unmatched in the catalogue, before or since. My copy is a promo, NOS, 1ED, the first couple line label, which does actually have a minimal impact of sonic richness.
Readily available on CD as part of the first issue of the DG “Originals.”
The audiophile favorite of course is Starker and Dorati. The sound lives up to its legendary status, here on a promo RFR2/3 that is pretty well close to perfect. If Berlin is sheer power, the LSO here are rhythmic and even light at times, with quicker tempi and a undeniable lilt that just wasn’t in Karajan’s vocabulary but works here, if you prefer this piece to sound more like the Slavonic Dances, fitting the composer’s style as a whole — if with a bit less gravitas in the piece for my taste. The Mercury sound does capture individual soloists as though they’re front and center, in the typical way for the classic era of these recordings. Starker himself has always struck me as a bit thin, particularly in the lower registers, but that’s only because my standard is Rostropovich’s solid baritone. The soloists and orchestra and direction are perfectly matched, for sure, with rhythm and momentum building seamlessly from start to finish. It’s a glorious performance, just different in overall impact from Slava and HvK. This is purely a matter of taste, and mine’s always been clear.
Lastly we have to consider Jackie Du Pre, who was has her own special way with the instrument. The overall sound is a bit less impactful than either the Karajan or Dorati, probably due to venue and engineering; and the orchestral accompaniment also a little lacking in personality — nothing against Barenboim, but this strikes one as a performance in the service of the soloist, not a complete work. Tempi are also more erratic at times and can come off as less balanced. Du Pre is a wizard, there can be no doubt, and she is just flying around with this piece, less attentive to overall direction and melodic line that Rostropovich and Karajan (a strength for Karajan in general — he always has a great feel for a work’s gestalt). This is a recording is a showcase, less a sum of its parts than three separate happy and joyful exposes of the brilliance of the instrument in this woman’s hands. The tone, for me, is a lot closer to Slava than Starker, but still has an airiness to it that allows it to take flight at times, but still stay grounded when it needs to
The clear comparison for Du Pre is her Elgar, where the difference is all in the conducting and, much like Karajan, a far better (in this case, masterful) conception of the work as a whole. Her theatrics are in the service of the work as a whole here, and the LSO is with her step for step, both in mood and in overall carriage of the journey from start to finish, so vital with this composer even more than Dvorak — and perhaps one reason good Elgar conductors (and thus performances) are so hard to find. I don’t know if Sir John ever led her in the Dvorak — perhaps there’s a live version out there somewhere — but he certainly did enjoy the composer, and it’s a shame they never set the work down in the studio alongside this masterpiece. My copy here is the ED2, but honestly I’ve heard the first half moon issue and have never been able to tell the difference!
My mother, Harriet Sue Fox Riehl, passed away last week. Our family’s full remembrance is here. I’m writing here as a special tribute to my mom’s musical legacy which she left to me and my siblings — music was so much a part of her life, from beginning to end, and I wanted to document this as best I could and to share
Yes, it was the ’80s. And maybe they had a sale on the glassses.
with friends who may have picked up on one or another aspect of my mom’s musical tastes — but perhaps not everyone understood the full spectrum or its origins, and also so much of what I inherited from her (and her mother).
My mom taught us many things, but highest among them was having fun with music, not just as background party noise but also as a way to connect with spiritual feelings others found in doctrinal religion, which we were not raised in. And by this I don’t just mean piano lessons (although those happened, and I’m grateful they
Grandmom Fox and my Mom
did.) For me, a lot of my mom’s musical legacy was with the Classical form, which she inherited in large part from her mother, Helen Fox. Maybe because I was the first of three, I caught on to this aspect of the legacy the most, and maybe also because Grandmom had a lot to do with my upbringing.
As with all legacies, the question is where did it start? Harriet wasn’t a prodigy, but she picked up her taste and passions for music along the way from family and from the circumstances that her colorful life exposed her to over the decades. Like her mother, she soaked in the new cultures and sounds she was exposed to, made them her own, and passed them on to us kids.
Her mom, Helen Fox, was a child of immigrants whose few forms of escape in a very tough upbringing in the Depression years was listening to Sunday opera broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera from New York. There were long programs, coming over the scratchy wireless, with Toscanini conducing Wagner and Beethoven and Puccini and Bellini. As a grandson she told me about these afternoons in detail, naming soloists and conductors she’d heard — less prone to mention the conditions her family lived in. Music was an escape for her. When Grandmom Fox was herself suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, she was adamant in asking me to bring her recordings of her favorite works, including Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with Karl Böhm conducting (always very specific, she was).
And Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde with Karajan and Berlin — all four hours of it.
I was exposed to a lot of this in utero, and who knows what that had to do with how things turned out! Mozart makes babies smarter, or so the cliché goes — but I don’t honestly know how much Mozart I was exposed to! We are doing the best with our twin babies now. In quadraphonic!
Decades later it was me dealing with the frustrations Gramdmom had in regulating the volume on these CDs I’d bought her, in her apartment — everything was either too loud or too quiet, something that frequently comes along with ALZ symptoms. As a uterine symphonic audience member I hardly had such control, but I suspect when Helen and my mom had the volume control it was LOUD, as was their predilection, and my wife can attest this may well have been inherited. Suffice it to say I frequently cause our windows to rattle. And of course hastening my own hearing loss!
My mom inherited the love of Classical music from her mom, and it grew further from my dad’s involvement with the arts while they were in Costa Rica and he served in the Ministry of Culture. She came to love works by Dvorák, especially the Cello Concerto,
which she heard with Leonard Rose in San José, and later adopted Rostropovich and
Outrunning the Secret Service
Karajan’s version as her favorite. A funny anecdote bears mentioning from my early years as a concertgoer. We were invited to hear the Costa Rica Youth Symphony perform on the lawn of the White House in 1978, with president Carter presiding, and I was naturally in attendance with Mom and Dad given their background with the arts in Costa Rica.
Baby Geoffrey was my audience of one, on the piano my parents rescued from Symphony Hall in Philadelphia, and may have have been used by Rachmaninov as he warmed up for performances with the Orchestra
As the story goes, I bolted up at some point and took off at breakneck toddler speed straight for the huge fountain at the base of the South Lawn. We only have one photo of the incident, taken before the Secret Service had to wrestle me under control and return me to my seat. Needless to say, my behavior at performances has become much more proper in years since. And yes, I went on to be a runner; apparently able to outpace the Secret Service even in my younger years.
But back to Dvorak: we had a family friend in Virginia who had in fact defected with Slava on a fateful New York City metro ride in New York in the late 1970s. Mom always loved hearing Mr. Lezhnev practice when Geoff was over at their house with their son. Fellow Russian composers joined her favorites, notably Rachmaninov with his Piano Concertos and Vladimir Ashkenazy as a favorite interpreter.
The Tchaikovsky 1st was also a permanent favorite, with Cliburn, or course.
Helen, her mom, meanwhile, in retirement, served as an usher with the Delaware Symphony in Wilmington, near where my parents settled post-Costa Rica. There she came to know the Music Director Stephen Gunzenhauser, who became a family friend. Stephen was a champion of Dvorák’s works and also of Camille Saint-Saëns, whose 3rd Symphony — the Organ Symphony — would be one of my mom’s anthems, which we heard Stephen conduct in Washington at the Kennedy Center with its magnificent organ. The recording here is Stephen’s early CD version — he was a pioneer with the Naxos label and was sure to include the Saint-Sëans as one of the first releases aside Tchaikovsky and other masters.
Mom could air-conduct the piece into her final years, even when language had left her as a means of communication. She could direct the Dvorák Cello Concerto measure for measure as well, to an extent that was always amazing to witness.
Saint-Saëns was always her true favorite though. Harriet would no doubt have been delighted that it became the theme for a little pig whose films led James Cromwell to jump in the air dancing a jig — in fact, I can’t think of a more fitting memorial. She would have jumped for joy as well…
Less so than her mom, Harriet enjoyed opera — mostly arias rather than entire works — her favorite was always Pavarotti. She loved the Puccini showpieces most of all, from Boheme to Turandot. Nessun Dorma consistently brought her to tears, in her younger years and still into the time of Alzheimer’s’ onset.
After a Pavarotti concert in 1981
But the brighter side of Pavarotti’s verismo arias lit her up (and still get me jumping) from Rigoletto to the Neapolitan folk songs. In my obit of Pavarotti I wrote about his magnificent voice as being “as big as a house,” and with my family’s sound system that included speakers in nearly every room, that was hardly an exaggeration (especially when dad wasn’t home and mom had the remote control.) That tradition has continued, and it’s been fortunate we’ve mostly had classical musicians as out basement tenants, who raise no objections and have occasionally even played along with my high-volume in-hone concerts.
Dad found his typical churlish ways to educate me in Classical knowledge; when the Water Music or Royal Fireworks came on, he would quiz me on the composer with hints by way of jiggling the old handles on our farmhouse door. What’s this? Who’s this? (“Handle…HANDEL!”) My mom was more emotive and performative, always putting my up on a pedelstal when Karajan’s Beethoven cycle came on to conduct, and I was learning the measure-for-measure of the full cycle of 9 from a young age, air-conducting with her assistance to make sure I got every down beat (my analyses are in a few placeselsewhere on this blog, thanks mom!) Years later I actually studied conducting with one of von Karajan’s pupils, Ruben Vartanyan, and some of this intuition did indeed come back. (It was a family friend, mentioned earlier, conductor Stephen Gunzenhauser, who pled with me to pursue any career besides conservatory and conducting, as the market was and is so bleak.)
While my mom and dad both emphasized the Classical repertoire, mom in particular also loved music theater and Broadway, and this too was a part of how we were brought up — the classics, of course, notably The Music Man (“Ya Got Trouble, Right here in River City” was a family catchphrase growing up)
I could, and still can, recite Harold Hill’s monologues with a somewhat disturbing accuracy all these years later. “Do you wish to acknowledge the presence of a poool table here in your community?” And of course who can escape the coincidence that I am now married to a librarian (My Marian) “what can I say, in here, to make you hear, I love you madly, madly, Madam librarian?”
And then were other classics like Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof, whose “Tradition” summed up my mom’s views on religion an family. She was half Jewish, on her father’s side, so maybe it makes sense after all — it was “in the genes” as she’d say. And in its shorthanded way the song tilted toward her spiritual sense that perhaps came through from her Jewish grandmother — how tradition and religion are really the same thing translated by an unknowable god.
The heart wrencher she always sang to us as children — Sunrise, Sunset — if she’d been herself, I’ve not doubt this was song she wanted us to play at our weddings. In hindsight, in hindsight, in hindisght….it was a mistake to not include this in our ceremony. Maybe we’ll keep that promise years from now, in her memory.
Mom filled our lives with music, and for me it was the Classical stuff that stuck, but she had a much wider taste than that, broadening out from musical theater. I can’t remember a road trip that wasn’t filled over and over with cassette tapes of Motown and fifties rockers — the ones that stick in my mind are “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford,
“Dancing in the Streets” from Martha and the Vandellas,
and “Keep a-Knockin'” from Little Richard.
And too many more to name.
Mom’s love of all things French affected her musical taste as well, and one of my mom and dad’s first dates in Washington was a concert by Charles Aznavour, who she responded to even after Alzheimer’s hit.
And lest we forget Jacques Brel, whose anthem she shared with my dad all the more in the final stages of their ability to cope with her condition. It always seemed to hit my father harder than my mom, for pretty obvious reasons, as you read the translation.
It was only after ALZ that the infamous Harriet-Elvis period emerged…although Mom was a rock and roller, it wasn’t until these later years that she became so enamored of The King. Everything Elvis. I wonder if somehow it was striking a chord that was missed, or denied, from her youth — because Elvis was never among the singers we listened to growing up. All of a sudden, though, from Hound Dog
to Can’t Stop Loving You and Can’t Help Falling In Love With You
to In the Ghetto, which always made her tear up.
she loved him above all others. The “big sound” made sense with love of the Russian romantics and other classical composers; Elvis’s majestic entrance to Also Sprach Zarathustra was much of the same tenor. The Big Elvis Sound was all the more enjoyed in the restored quadraphonic system I paid for to have installed in my parent’s Cape May house, and the library of quad 8 tracks kept her in glorious supersonic 70s surround sound by the King and his band. Just like my dad had installed speakers in every room in Falls Church, mom now had Elvis blasting from all corners of the Benton Avenue in his ’70s glory.
To the end it gave her almost uncontrollable enthusiasm and joy. In her nursing home finale, Elvis was the be-all and end-all. The staff always knew the easiest way to affect her mood — put on Elvis! (Which we had had programmed into her iPod.) Her last letter, which was dictated to me, went out to Priscilla Presley in 2008; to our surprise she wrote back, thanking mom in a touching tribute.
She also loved big-sound pop artists ABBA — the album Super Trouper was a permanent soundtrack to my early years. I confess I still listen to it, and in fact own every ABBA album, and even created a ABBA resurgence among my high school friends long before Mama Mia and Abba Gold.
I never much got into pop music of our generation with my mom, though I think my brother and sister did; I know she made some effort to encounter Stone Temple Pilots and music of that era, though I wasn’t really around to witness that. With me, she revisited some classic rock when I began playing music by Billy Joel and particularly Elton John, whose Bennie and the Jets was one her favorites (although it’s pretty hard to carry off as a solo act! Tiny Dancer more so, and mom loved them both.) My mom and Dad and I had the chance to see Elton live in the late ’90s on the lawn at Wolf Trap, and I’m pretty sure she was standing and dancing the whole time.
I do remember sharing with her one of my favorite (relatively) new pop songs, The Killers’ “Human” during the last year I spent with her and my dad in Cape May in 2009, walking her through the lyrics word by word and having to fight back tears.
I also know she went to a Madonna concert with my Dad in Atlantic City in her last years there, and loved the theatrical bombast of it all, and also as a feminist, admired Madonna for the star she had become. I also remember a Tony Bennett concert we attended in A.C., a totally different vibe — but mom was up dancing in her seat when Tony started singing Sinatra songs.
She found a spirituality in music as well, not just in the fun and happiness and camaraderie of rock and roll, but also explicitly religious works. Beethoven’s Pastoral was a kind of hymn to her connection with nature: Here in the finale, a storm rains down and then a glorious clearing emerges.
As a college student she also performed Handel’s Messiah
with Hood’s choir and she passed on her love of the work to me and my siblings. No Christmas passed with its constant sounds, along with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, which we paid yearly homage to at the Washington Ballet and which my wife and I still see annually at the Kennedy Center.
Overall, it was as much how she listened to music as what the music was that mattered to her, and was what she passed on to me — be it Beethoven or Elvis.
In the classical music sense, I wrote about Grandmom Fox in her passing as having her epitome in Mussorgsky’s Grand Gate of Kiev, a big, dramatic finale to a colorful life. I intentionally include Stokowski’s re-orchestration of Ravel’s version here because she favored it — an even bigger sound than than the original orchestration.
For my mom, the finale has to be Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, no less dramatic and outsized, but so much happier and full of joy. This is the Telarc recording I grew up with, Ormandy leading the Philadelphians.
Even when Alzheimer’s started to interfere with her ability to speak clearly, it was uncanny that her ability to follow complex symphonic music never dissipated. I’d often put on the Organ Symphony or Beethoven or Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the nursing home, and she’d conduct measure for measure. The only documentation I think I have of this is a quick video of her spontaneously giving her best Stokowski impression when the credits started rolling at the end of Star Wars. I remember at the time scrambling for my phone and thinking, this has to be saved…which I’m glad it was, and it makes a fitting grand finale.
My wife recently surprised me with a copy of the TAS favorite Everest 3004, Goosens’ LSO Roman Festivals. I’d been looking for a copy for years, as they seldom come available on eBay or otherwise in decent condition and in first pressings. I first got to know the piece on its CD issue back when I was a part time clerk at Tower Records, and indeed the transfer is superb. The performance is astounding, and the sonics on vinyl are among the best I’ve ever heard – surpassing many of the TAS Mercury and Telarc and Living Stereo issues. The dynamic range is unsurpassed, and silences are pin-drop silent, as in the plucking of the October Festival sequence.
By way of comparison, TAS also favors the 1975 Maazel/Cleveland record, which I have on a famed MFSL issue, also available on CD transfer. On vinyl the Mobile Fidelity sound is crystalline but, compared to Everest in 1958, rather clinical. There is less sense of space, and a quasi-digital precision detracts from the ambience. Maazel’s is a rip-roaring account, no doubt, but doesn’t have the reach-out-and-touchability of the Everest. I have an 8-track cartridge of the work, which I almost prefer to the MFSL as it provides more room for the rambunctious sonics. Undertones and reverb are almost eliminated on the MFSL, in comparison to the Everest – and these are vital factors in Respighi. The MFSL record sounds like an IMAX soundtrack; Goosens in the original 1958 sound live.
Partially this may be due to the pressings. The Everest is generously spaced over two sides on much heavier vinyl. Of the two LP set, the remaining are taken up with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. (Later issues of the Everest condensed the space and eliminated the Rach.) The Maazel London/MFSL is on one side, the other being the Pines of Rome. Everest as a label started out luxuriously with pressings like this, and then quickly faded. The two other first generation Everests I have in my collection, Stokowski’s Don Juan/Till Eulenspiegel and Prokofiev’s Cinderella, are also testament to this commitment to quality. Both Everest and Mercury used 35mm tape, but to my ears Mercury came off sounding more crowded. I wonder how much of this had to do with Mercury using multi-channel recording; SACDs with third channels have since been issued replicating the original sound, and I had a system that allowed for that but found it was ultimately inferior to original two-channel.
Regarding the pairing of Goosens’ Feste, the Rach. Dances, I recently picked up another TAS favorite, the Vox/Dallas Symphony record (34145) and then promptly sold it off. The sound on this record was great, but the performance completely lackluster. It does not compare, by any standard, either with Goosens or with more modern editions such as Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw. (On vinyl or CD.)
The Vox/Rachmaninoff Dances LP made me consider the TAS list in general, and to recall a quotation from Barenboim about preferring “Furtwängler with his scratches to Karajan with his lasers.” I disagree with the specifics, as Furtwängler with his erratic tempi gives me carsickness, and I generally favor Karajan, but the point remains: super sonics are not a reason to favor a record. If Telarc had been on hand to record me tootling on my clarinet in high school band as we struggled through the Holst Suites, the sound might have been amazing but I wouldn’t have wanted anyone other than parents to have to suffer through it and list it alongside Frederick Fennell.
For comparison here, primarily he Left-Hand concerto but also considering the G major concerto as it shows up on so many recorded pairings.
Interesting, as a start, that women recorded this work long before it was considered “acceptable” to their gender as soloists in the concert hall (or as performers at all). Marguerite Long was one of the first, in an outstanding 1929 record. How is sound gendered? But the record on EMI, in my EMI/HMV French press (COLC 319) hardly belies the age. It is crisp and fresh as this work was intended; the early sonics are a limitation of course, and can’t compare with luxuriousness of later records.
Decades later another female soloist won accolades with her rendition with Paul Paray and the ONF — Monique Haas. It is a sharp and admirable performance and in crisp sound on this early DGG stereo record (138-988), available on CD as one of the “Originals” series. Of the same vintage is Robert Casadesus’s definitive account on CBS, with Ormandy and the Philadelphians:
Both subtle and powerful, with his trademark elegance captured wonderfully in the heyday of Columbia stereo, on a nice 6-eye copy I have (MS-6274), available in excellent transfers on CD. An outlier is Julius Katchen, paired with his weird fast-time rendition of Rhapsody in Blue, on Decca (SXL-6411). The Katchen business is all too fast, snappy, and not a Dvorak Overture (as much as Maestro Kertesz excelled at that).
Some later versions worth noting are Ciccolini’s record with Martinon, from his complete quadraphonic Ravel cycle of the 1970s with the ORTF. The sound is voluptuous and 4-channel in its finest, but the performance is a bit on the vapid side, more melodrama than drama. There’s a bit too much pounding of the bass notes, even though they come through brilliantly in the sonics. In that regard no one can really match Rogé and Dutoit for modern records, in their 1983 Montreal performance. He combines the quiet pianism of Long and Haas with the strength of Casadesus. And as far as the recording goes, there’s no hint of digital edginess — though it should be noted that the super brightness on CD was not there on the vinyl, which has a very warm acoustic that fits the work perfectly.