Monthly Archives: March 2021

Saint-Saëns: A Grump Who Wrote Some Perfectly Delightful Music

One of the mysteries of all art is often the disconnect between the artist and their works (or conductors and theirs), a discussion that will never end and isn’t my focus here — except to say that sometimes it’s not all super serious conversations like Wagner and his antisemitism, or Ansermet and his, or people like the lately departed James Levine, who despite being a pretty well confirmed chronic sexual criminal, was inexplicable lauded in obits by people like Tim Page (whose editor, Marty Baron, should have spiked this piece, which aside from the headline, and a couple of sentences, whitewashed Levine’s horrid lifetime of pretty well substantiated criminal abuse).

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 8B6F80DB-423A-40C6-BBF5-139476D4E6C1_1_201_aand 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 forE8C9FB9E-55E5-437F-A22E-4E7FA44A0BC7_1_201_a 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 3C5F512D-8C95-4B3B-B255-42CAF3F6B01A_1_201_aquickening 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 that387A2C95-3012-434C-AAA7-3D1630512796 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. 22A81361-936A-4A41-A8D5-ACD951D4F18E_1_201_aMartinon 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 0EBFFC68-6A21-4EE8-BB0C-C46A8A8C9C81_1_201_ahaving 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 the9C6C21C0-D5E8-474F-A4C9-19B21711BFBE 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 E0580D85-47CB-4994-AE08-8FD507C8D2E1_1_201_agrew 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 ensemble8206F797-4873-444D-9E3A-14D43FC6B511_1_201_a 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 6ABA3348-5787-4AF6-BFD6-9E6EE02A5AD5_1_201_acompilation 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.


A Little Bit of Borodin Goes a Long Way

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, C8B3B5B8-9314-4DF7-AC92-943528D2D45B_1_201_aby 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 mePletnev 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 A6547238-10CF-4D36-B2CD-8FA0C29620B5_1_201_adeservedly 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 asAshkenazy 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, whichWalton 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 0413E51E-9CCC-4BA5-9ED7-21AF4206BD47_1_201_aAnsermet, 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 presto attacas, 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.


Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

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.

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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.”

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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 a4beb2460-41c4-41b2-9a56-10aa9ce855b8_1_201_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 1d95e582-5b18-4df2-becd-db249493bac9_1_201_a-3finish, 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!

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