Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Robert and Gaby Casadesus

Debussy: Petite Suite, En blanc et noir; *Faure: Dolly Suite; R. Casadesus: Three Mediterranean Dances; Satie: Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear
Robert and Gaby Casadesus (pianos)
Columbia Masterworks Portrait MPK 52527 | Stereo, *Mono ADD

An outstanding album of some four hand and two piano repertoire played by two of France's greatest pianists. Robert and Gaby Casadesus both knew men like Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and others as friends and colleagues and their playing radiates joy born out of a secure sense of how this music must sound. Robert, in fact, had been Ravel's "ghost pianist" on all the piano rolls attributed to the composer. He also performed in the composer's place at many concerts during Ravel's 1927 American tour.

There is nothing much to add here except that for lovers of French piano music, listening to this recording is a must. Robert Casadesus' own composition wears out its welcome a little bit, but it passes quickly enough. Sonics are clear if a bit dry. Good, focused warm mono sound for the Faure.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bizet's L'Arlesienne and Symphony in C (CSO/Martinon)

Bizet: L'Arlesienne Suites Nos.1 and 2, Symphony in C; Ravel: Alborada del gracioso; Massenet: Meditation from Thais
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Jean Martinon
Tower Records RCA Precious Selection 1000, No.8 TWCL 1008 | Stereo ADD

On the eve before his own recording of Bizet's L'Arlesienne suites and Symphony, Daniel Barenboim and Peter Andry, Barenboim's producer, listened to the old RPO/Beecham recording of the same works. After the last chord of the Farandole had died away, Baremboim turned to Andry and only half jokingly told him, "maybe we ought to pack our bags and go home." Beecham's classic account is still after all these years a top recommendation and is still the yardstick by which all subsequent recordings are measured. But there a few other wonderful recordings of Bizet's suites and Symphony that deserve a place next to Beecham. Martinon's recording is one of them and has been hard to find in the CD era having been reissued on a special series only available through Tower Records Japan.

As is well known, Martinon's tenure in Chicago was a stormy one. Nothing new here. After Frederick Stock's death, Chicago chewed through a stellar roster of conductors: Desire Defauw, Artur Rodzinski, and Rafael Kubelik. Wilhelm Furtwängler was to have succeeded Rodzinski, but a nasty campaign organized to keep "Nazi" musicians out of America ended any possibility of pursuing a career in America. Even Fritz Reiner, today synonymous with the CSO, wasn't let off the hook. Though he lasted short of a decade--the longest tenure yet post-Stock and pre-Solti--his Chicago days ended bitterly with much acromoniousness between him, the orchestra, and the orchestra's board of directors. "We ran the son-of-a-bitch outta town without even giving him a good-bye," proudly crowed one director. In the wake of the Reiner debacle, the CSO quickly began the search for a successor. Karl Böhm was Reiner's choice, but Chicago had no interest in Reiner's wishes. Georg Solti was asked, but he was afraid to step into Reiner's shadow. Eventually the choice was an unexpected one--the fifty one year old director of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Jean Martinon. Unusual because the CSO was perhaps the most German of all American orchestras. German was the lingua franca in rehearsals well even into the 1950's. But Martinon seemed like a fine choice. He had mastered a very wide repertoire and, to the pleasure of some Chicago critics who felt that Reiner's programming was too pedestrian, he was an avid champion of modern music. The stage was set for another CSO golden age. Which is exactly what didn't happen.

For a variety of reasons that don't seem to make sense today, Martinon became despised by Chicago critics. The loudest of them was the redoubtable Claudia Cassidy, the acerbic arts critic for the Chicago Tribune, who after torpedoing Kubelik and Reiner was hungry for another target. If you listen to airchecks and recordings from this era, though, you hear something quite different. Some powerful and glorious music was being made in Chicago those days. Whatever these critics hated about Martinon is impossible to hear. Upset and tired with the Chicago grind, Martinon resigned from the orchestra in 1968 and went on to lead the Paris Orchestra where he made some exquisite recordings of Ravel and Debussy. In the mid-1970's he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and he died in Paris at the age of 66.

Martinon's Chicago discography includes some of the very best work any American orchestra has ever made including a blazing Nielsen Inextinguishable that still remains the one to beat. The recording I'm posting today, Martinon's last with the orchestra, is an outstanding tribute to a great orchestra and an unjustly maligned conductor. Martinon's L'Arlesienne and Symphony in C are handsomely played with elegant polish and burnished sound. Martinon was able to rein in the Chicago brass, but when he lets them off the leash like in the Pastorale or Farandole their sound can blow your roof off. A lithe Symphony in C follows and makes for a dapper discmate. Ravel's Alborada del gracioso is next and is given a more ornate performance in comparison to Reiner's own recording of the work with the same orchestra. Reiner looks at the big picture so to speak and revels in the sound of the orchestra as a whole; Martinon finds the beauty of the individual instruments and groups. Massenet's deathless Meditation from Thais serves as a touching souvenir of this partnership. The violin solo is finely shaped and played with great warmth.

The sound, while not an audiophile's dream come true a la Living Stereo is pretty good, though keep in mind this was originally made for those horrible Dyna-Groove records. Some print through is audible in the Bizet items, but they're faint enough not to be a distraction. Don't hold your breath for Sony/BMG to make this available stateside (or in Europe, for that matter).

Grieg: Lyric Pieces (selection) played by Hideyo Harada

Grieg: Lyric Pieces (selections)
Hideyo Harada (piano)
Audite 92.555 | Stereo DDD (SACD)

Not again! Yup, I have here yet another clutch of those evergreen Lyric Pieces played winningly by Hideyo Harada on this superb Audite release. Grieg has long been one of my very favorite composers and his Lyric Pieces were my introduction to his world long ago when as a 14 year old I bought Gilels' recording via the BMG Classical Music service. Some people seem to turn their noses up at Grieg's music though I can't see why. His music is direct, clear, and unabashedly beautiful. "Beethoven and Bach created temples for worship on mountaintops. I only want to build homes for men to live in", said Grieg humbly.

Harada plays a generous sampling of Grieg's Lyric Pieces totalling some 75 minutes in all. If her touch seems a bit hard or stiff after Gilels, Gieseking, and Hansen, she still comes pretty close to equalling this trio. Only Wedding Day at Troldhaugen disappoints a little bit, feeling too heavy and lumpen. Just listen to Gieseking's recordings to hear how this piece ought to be played!

Audite's sound has plenty of depth and warmth. If you have room in your portable music player for another Grieg recital, by all means listen to this.

Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto, Serenata in vano, and the Wind Quintet (premiere recordings)

Nielsen: (1) Clarinet Concerto, (2) Serenata in vano, (3) Wind Quintet
(1) Louis Cahuzac (clarinet); Royal Danish Orchestra/John Frandsen
(2) Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Knud Larsson (bassoon), Hans Sorensen (horn), Louis Jensen (violoncello), Ludwig Higner (contra-bass)
(3) Royal Danish Wind Quintet: Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Holger Gilbert Jesperssen (flute), Svend Christian Felumb (oboe), Knud Larsson (bassoon), Hans Sorensen (horn)
Clarinet Classics CC 0002 | Mono AAD

One of the best recordings to have come out of Berlin in recent years is an album of Nielsen's wind concertos and Quintet, with the Clarinet Concerto given a perky yet elegantly cool performance by Sabine Meyer. What would Aage Oxenvad have said? After all, this was the man who, aside from inspiring Nielsen's valedictory concerto and being the dean of Danish clarinettists, also viewed the clarinet as being a masculine instrument that women had no business playing. Indeed he likened the clarinet to a woman, by turns wild and passionate, gentle and somber, that needed to be dominated by a man. While Oxenvad's remarks would not win any awards today from the NOW, it was this curmudgeonly personality that inspired Nielsen, as much as the man's instrument, to write one of his greatest works and one of the finest for the clarinet. Svend Christian Felumb, Oxenvad's chamber partner, said of the work that " [it] was not only a concerto for clarinet, it was a concerto for Aage Oxenvad. [...] [O]ne may safely say that Carl Nielsen would never have written this work if he had not heard Oxenvad. [...] It tells everything about Aage and his clarinet."

Nielsen and Oxenvad were fast friends that shared much in common. Not the least of these was their shared pride of their humble roots--Nielsen the son of a house painter, Oxenvad from a sharecropper family. Both were proud that they had worked hard to acheive their fame and reknown in Copenhagen, but at the same time disdained the cosmopolitan nature of the big city. To the chagrin of Copenhagen's high society, both men retained their country accents and dialects, from Funen and Jutland respectively. Nielsen and Oxenvad also both shared a deep disdain and suspicion of virtuosity for its own sake and this is important in the concerto as much of the effect of this music is lost when it is made to sound so effortless. When greeting Nielsen after playing the concerto's private premiere, Oxenvad put his arm around his friend and told him "You must be quite a good clarinettist. How else did you find all the hardest notes to play?" Nielsen's music which is often so much about combat and conflict (think of the dueling timpanis in the Inextinguishable or the raucous snare drum in the Fifth Symphony) requires the sound of "dirt under the fingernails"; of being in control yet seemingly near the edge of losing it. If contemporary reports are to be trusted, Oxenvad had these qualities in spades ("He has made a pact with trolls", one reviewer exclaimed) so it is a tragedy that the man died before being able to record this concerto which captured his soul and the soul of his instrument so knowingly.

It was left to Frenchman Louis Cahuzac to play the work's recorded premiere, though thankfully Oxenvad was able to record some of his friend's music. They give us a tantalizing hint as to what an Oxenvad performance of the concerto must have sounded like. This is what we find here on a release from the Clarinet Classics label from earleir this decade, a very welcome album for all Nielsen enthusiasts. Cahuzac's recording has been released again on Dutton coupled with Emil Telmanyi's recording of his father-in-law's Violin Concerto, but the other two pieces are, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable elsewhere.

Oxenvad admired Cahuzac's artistry though he warned his own students against emulating his Gallic peer's style. I can't help but think of that as I listen to this recording because as handsome and sparkling as Cahuzac's playing is, his sound is out of step for what this work requires. Cahuzac is far too well manicured and cool to do justice to the concerto, though it is technically a very fine performance. John Frandsen's orchestral accompaniment with the Royal Danish Orchestra is excellent and further serves to highlight how mismatched Cahuzac is for this work. The orchestra and conductor play up the work's rustic humor while Cahuzac seems to sit in the background, a little confused as to where to go. No doubt Cahuzac should be thanked for recording the work at all and playing it as well as he did. But to hear what Nielsen really was looking for here try hearing the recordings of Ib Ericksson, Hakan Rosengren, and Kjell-Inge Stevensson available on Dutton, Sony, and EMI respectively. For a modern update on the Cahuzac approach, the aforementioned Sabine Meyer is superb and there are also excellent recordings with John Bruce Yeh and Richard Stoltzman. Others have praised Stanley Drucker's recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting, but that recording always leaves me feeling cold sounding like they both just phoned it in.

The Serenata in vano is Nielsen in a more relaxed mood. The work, explained the composer, was meant to depict a group of musicians serenading at the window of a beautiful young woman. The clarinet coos out its melancholy song attempting to woo the girl out. But she refuses to greet them. Still they try once more. Nothing. Finally, as if to say "to hell with this", they trot away from this reluctant lass to the strains of a cheeky march, thumbing their noses all they way. Thus your serenade in vain. Playing here are members of the Royal Danish Orchestra, Denmark's oldest musical ensemble and also one of Europe's oldest. Playing the part of the jilted serenader is none other than Aage Oxenvad himself and what a dark, sensual tone he coaxes from his instrument. A splendid recording of this winsome little work.

Nielsen's Wind Quintet has long been lauded as one of the 20th century's greatest works for winds. He was inspired to compose the work when speaking with Oxenvad over the phone one day and hearing the Royal Danish Wind Quintet rehearsing Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in the background. Right there and then he began composing the work. Despite being a violinist, Nielsen had a great love for the sound of wind instruments as is evinced not only by his attempt to write a concerto for each of the Royal Danish Quintet members, but also by the prominent use of the winds and brass in his symphonies, very often favoring them over the strings. He once said in respect to the gestation and composition of the Quintet that he had attempted to "climb inside the instruments" and bare the unique souls of each one of them to the listener. He also enjoyed what he felt were the more "human" sound of the winds. As is to be expected, this is a near definitive recording of this glorious music, played with great love and knowledge by an ensemble that not only knew the man's music well, but counted the composer among their closest friends. There are other recordings of this great music to be heard, but this one is very special and still ranks as one of the best.

Nielsen wasn't as lucky as Sibelius in the 78 RPM era--no Beechams or Koussevitzkys championed his music. But his countrymen did their best to carry the name of their nation's greatest composer across the world. These recordings, especially the pre-war Serenata and Quintet are like peering through a window into another, forgotten world.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Nordic piano music played by Nanna Hansen

Grieg: Lyric Pieces (selections); Sibelius: Piano pieces (selections); Nielsen: Humoresque-Bagatelles, Five Piano Pieces
Nanna Hansen, piano
EMI Classics CDC 74 9033 2 | Stereo DDD

Has this CD been reissued at all? Probably not. What a shame then. This is a very attractive program played with great warmth and charm by a pianist that had an all too brief recording career for EMI's Scandinavian branch. Early digital recordings tended to sound too bright, but the engineering on this disc has none of that. Very warm digital sound.

I couldn't find much on Nanna Hansen online. She seems to be a professor of piano at some university in Europe, but this information came from a link that, oddly enough, turned out to be a porn site. No kidding--try typing "Nanna Hansen" into Google and click on the first link. She also was awarded a scholarship from the Leonie Sonning Institute and went on to study with Monique Haas. Why she didn't become better known is hard to say when listening to this recital. She has a soft, supple touch and great legato when needed. Her runs sound lovely; very pearly toned.

Her recording of a handful of Grieg's Lyric Pieces is simply lovely. One of the best I have ever heard and it makes a wonderful companion to Gilels' and Gieseking's more complete traversals. Tempi are slower than either pianist's. Not a bad thing--this is music that is meant to be savored and enjoyed. No need to rush here.

Sibelius' piano music isn't often heard and with good cause. It simply isn't very good. Compared to Grieg's or Nielsen's works for the instrument, Sibelius' sound curiously amateurish and lacking a distinctive voice. Even compared to the salon music of the time it sounds inferior. Fortunately, Ms. Hansen only plays seven of these pieces. They're all very short and, save for the closing Arabesque, all forgettable.

Unidiomatic is the complaint you usually hear against Carl Nielsen's piano music. True, Nielsen was a brass player and violinist whose piano technique was modest at best. He approached the piano with a degree of freedom unfettered by what was considered "pianistic" and wrote some very original and powerful works for the instrument. What we have here, however, are some delightful chips from the master's work bench. Nielsen's Humoresque-Bagatelles were premiered by the composer and were written as pieces for young pianists to play. Don't let this fool you--no dry pedantry here. These works are a delight for the ear. They're also teeming with Nielsen's personality and some like Jumping Jack look forward to the world of the Sinfonia semplice. The third piece, a gently beguiling waltz (A Little Slow Waltz), is a gem that ought to make for a splendid encore for pianists on the hunt for novel repertoire. The spirit of Grieg hovers over the recital closer, the Five Piano Pieces. J.P.E. Hartmann, Gade, and Svendsen also rub shoulders here--this is a more conservative work than the Humoresque-Bagatelles but no less enjoyable. A sly wink and raising of the eybrows can be heard in the Humoreske and Arabeske, pointing the way to the more familar Nielsen we know. The haunting and evocative Mignon is followed by the gruff high spirits of the Elves' Dance, a troll-like piece that was later used again by the composer in his incidental music for the play Sir Olaf, He Rides.

Admirers of Scandinavian music and late romantic piano should look no further. Nanna Hansen was a formidable pianist with a sense of poetry that is a rare find these days. Our loss that she has been forgotten. If I ever see another Hansen disc, you can bet I'll snap it up in a heartbeat.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.1 and 15 (Gergiev)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos.1 and 15
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0502 | Stereo DDD (SACD)

They used to say that James Brown was “the hardest working man in show business”, but I think that title can now easily be awarded to conductor Valery Gergiev. Hopping from New York, to St. Petersburg, to London, to Berlin, and beyond--the man is everywhere nowadays! And unlike most of today’s jet-set conductors, Gergiev shows no evidence of jet lag on the podium. A Gergiev concert is no ordinary pedestrian run-through. I can personally attest to the thrill he can inspire in the concert listener. His concerts in Los Angeles a few years ago, where he conducted Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and excerpts from Wagner’s Ring, are some of my most cherished memories. But Gergiev on record has been somewhat erratic. His Prokofieff cycle would have been one of the best had it not been scuttled by the poor acoustics of London’s Barbican Center. His LSO Mahler cycle has also blown hot and cold and is similarly marred by those atrocious acoustics. His Philips’ set of Shostakovich’s “war symphonies” is emblematic of his success on records. What should have been a home run was anything but. A knock-out recording of the Sixth Symphony, a decent Ninth, somewhat muddy Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth, and a positively bland Fourth Symphony. So I wasn’t expecting too much from this CD when I bought it. Indeed, I braced myself for another “close, but no cigar” moment. Not this time!

It makes sense to pair these works, the alpha and omega of Shostakovich’s symphonic oeuvre, and I can only wonder why it hasn’t been done more often. I can only think of three other albums that pair these symphonies: Charles Dutoit on Decca, Vladimir Fedoseyev on Pony Canyon, and Oleg Caetani on Arts. It may seem strange to pair these works--one a masterly work of a precocious youth; the other a work of a composer embittered and jaded, fretting over the future of Russian music and, possibly, western music in general.

This Shostakovich First is easily one of the best I’ve ever heard. True, Gergiev’s interpretation is refracted through the lens of the later Shostakovich, so the symphony seems more serious and even brooding than it normally does. Some people may prefer a more youthful and chipper approach such as the recordings by Bernstein, Ancerl, Ashkenazy, Ormandy, and Rodzinski, among others, offer. Both approaches work fine by me. I’ll be coming back often to this recording.

Even better than the First is Gergiev’s recording of the Fifteenth. This strange work has eluded the grasp of many a conductor and though one can find enough recordings of it available, finding a good recording is not so easy. Best of the lot are Maxim Shostakovich’s recordings (his Melodiya recording can be found here at Maready’s The High Pony Tail Blog), Ormandy’s, Kitaenko’s, Lopez Cobos’, and Sanderling’s. This new Gergiev easily ranks alongside with them and can even safely be recommended as a benchmark. Gergiev is able to find just the right tone of voice for this symphony; by turns jaunty, mournful, eerie, and hauntingly beautiful. His recording is similar in conception to Kurt Sanderling’s recordings, but with more snap in the rhythms of the first and third movements. The brass are a joy to hear and sound warm and full in the second movement’s funeral chorale. The Fifteenth Symphony (and the Fourth) are particular favorites of mine and I have the dubious distinction of having heard every recording ever made (as well as owning nearly all of them). This is truly a great recording of Shostakovich’s symphonic farewell. It was so good I had to play it three more times all the way through.

Sonics are excellent throughout. Very wide spectrum of sound with plenty of depth. None of Philips’ muddiness is to be found here.

From what I’ve been hearing, Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra will be recording all of the Shostakovich symphonies starting with the ones omitted from the Philips cycle. If this recording is anything to go by, this new cycle promises to be one of the very best. I can’t wait to hear more from this team.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Just as a reminder, I have reuploaded the first track of the Ormandy recording of the Symphonie Fantastique. You will find the link here. You will also find the link in the comment box for that particular post. Sorry for the inconvenience!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich

Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich: Russian Live Recordings from the Sixties
Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich); *Shostakovich: Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok; ^Satires (Pictures of the Past); ^Prokofieff: Five Poems by Anna Akhmatova
Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Gorki State Philharmonic Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich; *David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Moisei Vainberg; ^Mstislav Rostropovich, piano
BMG Melodiya 74321 53247 2 | Stereo ADD

I wasn’t able to find this recording in time to post along with my previous post of recordings of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Believe me, I tore up my house looking for them. But just when I wasn’t looking for it, there it was in front of my nose. Oh, well!

The 1990’s were a good time to be a Shostakovich fan. Le Chant du Monde, Russian Revelation, Russian Disc, and Melodiya (under the auspices of BMG) were showering us with all sorts of gems. I still remember with teary-eyed nostalgia the aisles at the Tower Classical store in Hollywood swelling with these discs. Sadly this surfeit of Russian treasures proved to be short lived and by 2000 had all become hard to find collector’s items. Some of these recordings have been reissued by other labels since, but never again have we had labels devoted entirely to mining the Soviet radio archives. Our loss.

In my earlier post, I had lamented that EMI’s recording of the Songs and Dances of Death found the great Russian diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, a bit past her prime. No such problem here. This recording from 1962 contains a broadcast of the world premiere of Shostakovich’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s song cycle. Vishnevskaya’s voice gleams in top form here. It is supple and rich; her Slavic vibrato under better control. She also conveys even more dramatic fire and nuance here than on her EMI studio effort. Her ability to switch back and forth on a turn of the dime from the mother’s terrified query to death’s icy, calm response in the Lullaby is breathtaking. How she manages to swing from one emotional extreme to another and sound totally convincing is beyond me. She sounds ardent as the seducer in the Serenade and her cry of triumph at the end is truly chilling. What a fearsome specter she is in the Trepak. Vishnevskaya finds just the right tone of cloying sweetness to the siren song that Death sings to the drunken peasant. Her most fearsome singing comes in The Field Marshal. Vishnevskaya’s Death crows with delight as she surveys the mounds of corpses left on the battlefield. I’m pinned to my seat when she launches into the closing roll call of death with the line Konchana bitva! Ya vsekh pomirila! (Cease your fighting! Victory is mine!). One would think this work to be the sole domain of men like Chaliapin or Christoff, but Vishnevskaya’s singing is here is every bit the equal in terms of vocal quality, and may even surpass them in dramatic insight. Rostropovich’s Gorki Philharmonic play with more fire than with accuracy. Numerous gaffes and lapses are enough to show that this orchestra was hardly even a second or third tier ensemble. But the sense of occasion and Vishnevskaya’s powerful interpretation makes this a recording to cherish. It is interesting to note that this concert also included Shostakovich’s debut and farewell in the role of conductor. The opening part of the program on this concert included the Festival Overture and the Cello Concerto No.1 with Rostropovich. Shostakovich had received some instruction in the art from Fritz Stiedry and Vaclav Talich in his youth, but was never able to overcome his stage fright. For this concert he was coached by Rostropovich and Kondrashin and, judging from the reviews, he did OK. It would be fascinating to hear if that portion of the broadcast had been preserved.

The remainder of this disc comes from a recital in 1967 that included the world premiere of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok. Her all-star backing trio is David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and the composer Moisei Vainberg filling in for an indisposed Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich had written the piano part with his own abilities in mind, but had fallen ill before the concert. Simply put, you will not find a better recording of these elusive, haunting songs. Vishnevskaya sings with great poise and delicateness and her trio is, needless to say, outstanding. Incidentally, during Oistrakh’s duet with Vishnevskaya in We Were Together, he was playing through very violent chest pains that seized him shortly before the song had begun. Not wanting to cause a scene and distress the composer, Oistrakh played through his part without anyone else realizing what was going on. The pain had abated by the end of the song cycle, but he quickly checked himself into a hospital as soon as the concert ended.

Shostakovich’s playful song cycle Satires has been earning some more attention these past few years. Several good recordings have been made; one in an orchestral realization by Shostakovich student Boris Tishchenko. This breezy work seems to recall the playful, carefree Shostakovich of the early 1930’s. Only the central song, Descendants, sounds more in tune with the mournful tone of his works from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Vishnevskaya sings with sparkling wit and charm and Rostropovich’s accompaniment is equally fine. These miniatures pop and fizzle like a freshly uncorked bottle of champagne.

Prokofieff brings us to a close here in the rarefied sound world of his Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Their hot house lyricism and harmonies, redolent of Scriabin and Debussy, makes for a nice tonic to the Shostakovich works. Why haven’t more singers recorded Prokofieff's wonderful songs?

Sound is decent in the Mussorgsky and very good in the remainder. Vishnevskaya in her prime was, as they say, something else. Listen to this CD and hear why Shostakovich was so inspired by this voice.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Harty conducts Berlioz

Sir Hamilton Harty conducts Berlioz
*Overture to Beatrice and Benedict; Romeo et Juiliette (excerpts): *Romeo seul - Tristesse - Concert et bal - Grand fete chez Capulet, Queen Mab Scherzo; Roman Carnival Overture; Les Troyens (excerpts): Royal Hunt and Storm, *March; ^Overture to Le Corsaire; Funeral March from Hamlet; Damnation of Faust (excerpts): Dance of the Sylphys, Rackoczy March
Halle Orchestra; *London Philharmonic Orchestra; ^London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Hamilton Harty
Pearl GEMM CD 9485 | Mono AAD

(IMPORTANT! Some of my Pearl CD's are beginning to succumb to CD rot and other afflictions that unfortunately demonstrate how "permanent" CD's really are. This is one such CD. This CD plays fine until the closing Hungarian March which is plagued with the "skips" and "bumps" of CD rot. The performance is still listenable, but just has more background noise, though it may not be immediately noticeable to most listeners. So important is this CD, however, that I have decided to post it warts and all. I hope you enjoy it and I apologize for any sonic inconveniences.)

Some people may recognize the name of Sir Hamilton Harty as the composer of the very wonderful Irish Symphony. A beautiful work; Harty was a very talented composer. Even more may recognize him as the arranger for modern symphony orchestra of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. These were once popular concert and recording staples, but it seems the "Authentick" performance police have banned these from the concert hall. But many forget now that he was also a very well regarded conductor in his day. The recordings that have been reissued resound with the musicality of a man who knew how to get warm, full playing from his orchestra, with a superb sense of pacing, and great flair. He was also a formidable Berliozian and did much to popularize the composer's works in Britain. Here on this Pearl CD we have ample proof of his credentials as one of the last century's great conductors.

As I said in an earlier post, Berlioz offers so many opportunities for the conductor and orchestra to let it rip, but few take him up on them. Harty is one of the few that does. He knows how to thrill the listener, but he doesn't sacrifice tonal beauty to do this. The old Halle, LSO, and LPO play with great beauty, warmth, and fire. The Halle especially sounds very fine. Not one whit inferior to the London orchestras.

Musical history has an odd way of forgetting the accomplishments of the great. Pearl's CD proves that Harty deserves to be more than a mere footnote in this history.