Monthly Archives: March 2013

Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis

I’ve always favored the theme-and-variations format as a way for composers to showcase their virtuosity and creativity, from Brahms (in the Haydn Variations) to Britten (in his Variations on Frank Bridge). The Hindemith “Metamorphosis” on Weber is another great example of how the interpretive mind can work with a melody and turn it around.

Hindemith’s 1943 composition is infrequently performed and recorded, but is a glorious thing, in full romantic splendor. I Hindemithrecently acquired a wonderful copy of the composer’s own 1950’s Berlin Philharmonic recording, which is — like Stravinsky’s recordings of his own works — rather modest and workmanlike. The romantic impact is downplayed in favor of neoclassical tidyness. Say what one may about composer’s intent.

Georg Szell with Cleveland plays it up a bit more, and the stereo sound packs more of a punch. Szell is precise as always, punching home the finale with memorable panache. I am using a fist pressing SzellColumbia 2-eye; the sound on the CD is a bit dry.

My favorite readings come from Philadelphia, where Ormandy in particular championed the work, recording it multiple times from the early LP era into the digital age and his final years. The Columbia 2-eye (MS 6562) is a favorite of the TAS list for its superb sonics, though I actually prefer his 1979 EMI photo-4record (37536). It is fantastic, bristling with energy and verve. The CD transfer loses some of the warmth, as is expected for this era. It’s a pity MFSL never transferred these masters as they did with his recording from the same year of the Sibelius Suites.

Sawallisch, Ormandy’s successor in Philadelphia, has the benefit of outstanding modern sound and a Sawallischgenuinely inspired performance in his 1995 EMI CD (55230). The drama of the final variation is unmatched here and the digital sound as good as it gets. Sawallisch is known as a master of Schumann’s rich textures, and in the fourth Weber variation there are echoes of the Schumann Rhenish Symphony, in its dramatic pauses, soaring and voluptuous crescendos. It is a far different rendition from the composer’s own sparse rendering. And one to treasure!

There are a few other noteworthy records, including a recent issue of a Jochum BBC Live CD with the LSO (1977) which delivers great impact, if lacking the full fervor of the Ormandy or Sawallisch. You can hear the performance

on YouTube here. Tortelier also recorded the work with superb sound for Chandos on CD, as part of his cycle, as did Blomstedt, though neither is that memorable.


Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Piano Concerto

After my post on Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Richter, I brought out my recordings of the Second — a lesser known work that deserves far more attention than it has ever received. The piece has not been recorded often and is performed even less. Of the handful of recordings available on vinyl and CD, my top four are listed here.

On DGG, Shura Cherkassky the Concerto with Richard Kraus and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1956 (Heliodor 2548-023, original photo-4mono), with the unfortunately abridged Siloti score which cuts the violin/cello solo parts from the second movement. The recording is available on CD in a recent DGG remaster. For some reason Cherkassky favored this cut score, again in his 1981 Vox recording with Susskind (5139). The DGG performance has other problems, including ominously slow tempi in the first movement. But the sound is rich and warm — more so in this Heliodor reissue than original issues I have heard — and the drama builds methodically in the final movement.

Much more livelier, rhythmic performances come from Sylvia Kersenbaum and Jean Martinon in 1972, on EMI Quadraphonic photo-2(063-12-124) and the much later on CD, 1991, Mikhail Pletnev with Fedoseyev (Virgin 518, also Philips Great Pianists Vol. 77). The verve of both performances is similar, with Kersenbaum sounding every bit as  Russian as Pletnev. CD is available here, though I can’t vouch for the conversion from four channel to stereo. The four channel sound on my German quadrophonie pressing is superb, and amplifies the excitement of the first movement as well as the intimate duo of the slow movement. Pletnev is more snappy in his touch than Kersenbaum, and the range of this recording is as much as can be expected from early 1990’s CD.

A favorite among audiophiles is the 1987 EMI recording with Peter Donohoe and Barshai leading the Bournemouth Symphony (27-0603), which sounds better on vinyl than CD. The performance is balanced and fresh, though rather one-dimensional. It photo-3does boast particularly memorable contributions from Nigel Kennedy and Steven Isserlis in the second movement. The digital Pletnev on CD is a more rewarding experience, though without that glowing second movement duo. Neither boasts the wrap-around movie-theater drama of the Kersenbaum quadraphonic.

In any event, this is an underexplored work worth looking up, on vinyl or CD.


Tchaikovsky and Richter

HvKSviatoslav Richter was among the great pianists of the 20th Century, no critic would doubt that. I’m a selective admirer of his work, but always held his Tchaikovsky 1st with von Karajan up as the finest in the catalogue. The 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recording (138-822) with the Vienna Symphony is a controversial one, with the Penguin critics (Layton et al.) divided on the verdict. The push-and-pull between the soloist and the orchestra are dramatic. For admirers of the performance, it is a hugely successful culmination of Romantic art; others see it as a lack of coordination.

I recently acquired Richter’s two earlier studio recordings of the work, the first with Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic from 1954 (Supraphon photo-2242) and Mravinsky in 1958 (Melodiya 5469). The evolution of the performances is clear, and belies the criticisms of the Karajan recording. With Ancerl, Richter is every bit as proficient, but notably more playing the role of just one instrument among many. The soloist is smoothly in line with the overall picture, rolling along smoothly even in the more dramatic passages. I am using a first generation Supraphon pressing on 180 gram vinyl, with wide mono range.

Four years later we hear a more independent voice emerging. Mravinsky is a more robust sculptor of sound, and Richter puts himself in front ofit. But the Soviet lockstep is still present. Tempi are concise and regulated. The sound on the first pressing Melodiya I am using is far from ideal, photo-4though the ear easily tunes out the ticks and pops.

It may be reading too much into the performances by way of armchair psychology, but by the time Richter was outside of the Soviet system and free to record with other directors, I think I too would have wanted to push-and-pull with my role as soloist. The Karajan recording is free of bounds, and the culminating passages in the first and third movements are rapturous in their repartee between the pianist’s mighty tone and the orchestra’s come-back. Set in the context of these other records, the Karajan makes sense as a performance, and flows with a freedom it appears the soloist may not have had. The energy of the dynamic is unforgettable; I always note occasions when an artist decides to stop recording a work they know well. Richter never recorded the Concerto after the Karajan.

HvK did record the work again, with Lazar Berman and a young Evgeny Kissin. Both received strong reviews from critics. But the Richter is the one to hear.

A footnote: the only outside comparison I used here was the late Van Cliburn, whose 1958 barnburner comes close to the sheer strength Richter exudes. I am using a photoquadraphonic tape, which provides a totally different listening environment but as for performance — matches Richter in many ways. There is symbiosis with Kondrashin and the young Texan. But again, none of the dynamism that drives the Karajan performance.


Brahms’ Violin Concerto

The Brahms Violin Cocnerto has always been a favorite, though I’d never dug too deeply into the catalog. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s 100_75141982 recording with von Karajan and the Berliners was my early favorite, and it remains so. Mutter is both emphatic and delicate, a violinist of great dynamic range who even at the young age recorded the Brahms on DGG (2532-032) showed sophistication on par with artists like Heifetz and Szigeti who recorded and performed it over and over again.

I was reawakened to the piece recently after salvaging a copy of Michele Auclair’s 1958 performance with Otterloo and the unfashionable, but underestimated, Vienna Symphony. (Originally on Philips, my copy is a 100_7517French Fontana reissue 0554-031.) I’d not previously known much about Auclair, but this performance was a stunner. Vivid and energetic, her tone is similar to Mutter in its range and intensity, and its rhythmic variation. While standard setters like Heifetz are reliably true to the score and its required virtuosity, Auclair is a artisan who makes the work her own, seemingly without effort. I don’t find it available on CD.

Effortless has to also be the word to describe Nathan Milstein’s stunning 1954 Capitol recording with Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony (8271). Dazzling in his articulation, his chords are less stern than Heifetz or Mutter, but his melodies flow like streams of poetry straight from the composer’s mind. The mono sound on early Capitol is sometimes unreliable, but with a mint copy and the luck of a good pressing, it is almost indistinguishable from stereo. 100_7518Pittsburgh has always had a strong band, and while it cannot match the force of Berlin under Karajan, the impact here is fantastic. For $10 you can pick up a vinyl copy on eBay. Available on CD here.

This is a great example of how collecting sometimes rewards scarcity over quality; Milstein’s second 100_75191960 stereo Capitol record (8560), which is only nominally more vivid in its sound and markedly more sedate in its tenor. As with Szigeti, Milstein went on to re-record the Brahms into old age, on DGG, a rendition I didn’t make it more than a few minutes 100_7526into.

Some of the records that command highest value are from female soloists. I’m rather unimpressed by the two top performers, Ida Haendel and Johanna Martzy. Martzy’s 1954 record, with Kletzki and the Philharmonia on Columbia, is bright and clean on the Toshiba reissue I’m listening to (1012), but doesn’t move me. It is technically pure but the tone is square, uncreative. The 100_7524orchestral accompaniment is generic, with the band not seemingly engaged. This isn’t their repertoire; their Brahms of this era, including the Karajan recordings, is similarly uninspired.

Another let down is Ida Haendel, whose 1955 HMV recording with Celibidache and the LSO fetches high prices. I am working with the American RCA Bluebird pressing (1051), which produces dry mono sound – contrast with the 100_7520Milstein on Capitol from the same era – and is workmanlike at best in its coloring. Celibidache is predictably slow in his tempi and the whole production drags. My father never cared for Brahms, and I recall as a child being told he didn’t care to listen to “funeral dirges” for pleasure. This is why.

Despite their virtuosity, much the same could be said of Szigeti and Szeryng’s records. I focused on the young Szigeti with Ormandy (Columbia 4015) and Szeryng on Mercury with Dorati (90308). Szigeti is unmoving and intellectual 100_7529– a criticism he lived with from his earliest years; Ormandy and Philadelphia , who I usually admire, lack energy or momentum.  Of the old school there is also Otto Spalding, on 1952 mono Remington (199-145). A fine performance, but nothing notable. Intellectual and clean, as with Szigeti, but 100_7528unromantic and rather lacking grace or drama.

For sheer vinyl sonics, the 1961 Oistrakh/Klemperer on HMV (using a first SAX pressing, 2411) is pretty astounding. While the old man’s tempi have slowed, we’re not quite at funeral dirge pacing, and the depth of tones produced from the French National Orchestra is something to behold. I only have a few of these SAXs to compare, but in this case 100_7516I agree with the collecting world’s placing such value on these albums. As for the performance, Oistrakh is efficient and dramatic, if a bit cold. The one record I did not survey here is the Kogan – the crown jewel among record collectors for this work – but I don’t entirely regret it as he’s always struck me as cold and technical in other works. The Russian school of this era was known for that. (My favorite Oistrakh performance is appropriately baroque, Leclair’s Sonata in D. His modern performances, from Shotakovich to Debussy are also superb; somehow the Romantic escaped him.)

I was hoping for some sonic excitement from the Capitol stereo record (7173) with Menuhin and Kempe leading the BPO, given my admiration for the power of Berlin in Brahms. I first put on an HMV mono copy (ALP 1568), then was able to compare to the Capitol stereo. Alas, another disappointment in sound, with almost no difference between the mono and stereo. Menuhin turns in an entirely acceptable performance, but it is clearly not his best fit – and Kempe seems like he just is going through motions. Such a stark contrast, for example, from his stunning 3rd Symphony from 1960 (ASD 406).

Footnote: As a quadraphonic enthusiast, I rather suggest the 1978 EMI Perlman recording with Giulini and Chicago (37286). 100_7513The four channel sound is fantastic, placing one right in the center of the orchestra with a brightly lit, rich violin solo. Perlman is a showman, but a great one. His coloration lacks Milstein’s aristocratic verve and Szigeti’s intellect, but he makes this concerto great fun – hardly the dirge it can become for some. It is available on CD in high remastered form, though the conversion from 4 to 2-channel format causes a good deal of loss in the sound.