The Mozart Year

JOHN M. COMA is a former New York and Washington news paper man, now editor of High Fidelity Magazine. “They Shall Hare Manic” is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.



THE two most prodigious prodigies in musical history, Mozart and Schubert, both died in their thirties. Therein occurred a great loss to us, which certain essayists and biographers have tried to soften with the ingenious notion that it was no mere coincidence, but something ordained: bright flames must burn but briefly.

This particular thesis, I am sure, is nonsense, but I do believe that more than coincidence was involved. I think Mozart and Schubert died of overwork. Despite the shortness of their lives, each of this pair left behind him more completed works than almost any other major composer. Schubert achieved the higher opus numbers, but largely because of some six hundred songs. Mozart bequeathed the greater number of musical man-hours.

Their ways of working were different. Schubert could compose from nine to noon, and again from four to six and from eight to midnight, with complete efficiency, summoning inspiration as the clock struck. Mozart was a deadline-pusher, living busily as a celebrity between incredible ordeals of solitary, forced-draft creation. Both were, in effect, journeymen, perhaps the most gifted that ever lived and among the worst paid.

Last year, however, one of them had a 200th birthday, and by dint of this managed to earn an impressive amount of money, though not, of course, for himself. Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756, and precious few music lovers had much chance to forget this during 1956. There were Mozart festivals from Salzburg to Yokohama; Mozart cycles were concert-season staples everywhere; Mozart records were issued almost at the rate of one a day. It is with the last that we are concerned here.

Two things must be kept in mind. One is that Mozart was a journeyman, albeit a genius-journeyman. He composed upon demand, or in the hope of commissions. He had no such realization of his own importance as had Beethoven, for instance, only a few years later, who wrote very few potboilers, or Brahms, who published none at all, preferring to burn scores which he thought might infract the purity of his musical testament. The result is that the Mozart legacy is uneven. There is a difference in depth between, for instance, the 26th and 27th piano concertos which would be inconceivable in adjacent works by Beethoven or Brahms. There is never a breach of taste or a sign of carelessness to designate which works are unimportant, but some are. For the Mozart collector of musical discernment, it is safe and even wise to be patient and sclective.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the record business, though it stands very high among businesses on the score of conscience, is still a business. The Mozart Year was a temptation. Some records were made which should not have been, and some which should have been made were not.

The total tally, to me, was a little disappointing. Of the year’s hundreds of recordings, there are only five I can think of that have about them any air of great accomplishment. These are:—

London’s The Marriage of Figaro (XLLA-35; four 12”) conducted by the late Erich Kleiber, performed by Lisa della Casa, I Hide Gueden, Suzanne Danco, Alfred Poell, Cesare Siepi, Fernando Corona, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Slaatsoper chorus. Allowing that Figaro is the mosl playable of Mozart operas, this job by Kleiber still exceeds all reasonable expectations; the listener is simply absorbed and forgets to be critical; attention leaps forward from scene to scene; singers and sonics become the unnoticed vehicles of .Mozart’s characterizations, highlights of humanity.

Decca’s The Magic Flute (DX-134; three 12”), conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, performed by Rita Streich, Maria Stader, Ernst Häfliger, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Josel Greindl, RIAS Symphony Orchestra and chamber choir, and Berlin Motet Choir. Some of the immense vivacity here is afforded simply by the inclusion of the spoken dialogue, a very great help, but there is much knowledgeable spirit also in the singing of the parts. The people in the cast really know and love what they are doing. Especially notable is the Papageno of Fischer-Dieskau, whom I, anyway, would have thought a most unlikely candidate for the role (how wrong can one get?). The sound is sumptuous.

Columbia’s “ A Mozart Organ Tour” (K31-231; three 12”), performed by E. Power Biggs on various Austrian and German organs, with Bernhard Paumgartner conducting the Mozart earn Chamber Orchestra. The seventeen organ-and-orchestra sonatas central to this venture were churchly in origin, or so it is said, but their gaiety is resistless and so is their sound. Mr. Biggs earns further glory, too, in his performance of the great F Minor Fantasia. Here is a side of Mozart few of us have heard before, and a very, very delightful one.

RCA Victor’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 5, 9, and 13 with Rondo, K. 511, and Country Dances, K. 006 (LM6044; two 12”), performed by Wanda Landowska. This is a source of rejoicing and distress. Apart from Mine. Landowska’s promulgation of her theories about ornamentation and cadenza-improvisation, her plain (!) and unmistakable comprehension of Mozart’s intent, as written puts her playing on a level of beauty above that of any other pianist, I have heard. Yet there is almost no likelihood that, at her time of life, she will undertake to record (as did Gieseking and Lili Kraus) the whole Mozart keyboard repertoire, or even any substantial part of it. So here is another deprivation to which we must reconcile ourselves — with gratitude for what we have received. RCA Victor’s recording crew have shown appreciation of their high duty by rendering the piano’s sound exactly as it should be.

Vanguard’s Divertimentos Nos. 1, 2, 3, and Serenade No. 6 (482; 12”), performed by the Solisti di Zagreb, conducted by Antonio Janigro. I hesitated at first to include this, but repeated listenings make it; mandatory. Mozart’s gaiety and poignancy sometimes alternate, sometimes mingle; it is hard to call either less important, than the other. Here we have the gaiety, shaped with all the sophistication that a youthful genius-artistcourtier could apply, and delivered with caressing tonal loveliness lit to bring on a swoon. The Zagreb players must get the credit; even Vanguard’s superb engineers could not fabricate this sound. Other fiddles may scrape; these generate pure moonlight. Janigro’s taste is everywhere apparent, but especially in the subtleties of Serenade No. 6, the Serenafa Notturna, a whispering marvel.

There are other records which could be included, barring technicalities — and this brings us into the field of the symphonies. Sir Thomas Beeeham contributed, just before 1956 began, a No. 35, “Haffner,” and a No. 36, “Linz,” which I do not think will be soon surpassed (Columbia ML-5001; 12”). The same temporal qualification applies to Bruno Waller’s Columbia album “Birth of a Performance” (DSL-224; two 12”), wherein we hear both rehearsal — again of the “Linz” Symphony — and final performance. Walter also gave us, near the year’s end, playings of Nos. 39 and 41, “Jupiter” (ML 5014; 12”), that interpretatively outclass any current competition. However, the New York PhilharmonicSymphony sounds a little rougher in the recording than perhaps he would like it to sound, and some listeners might prefer Erich Leinsdorfs “Jupiter” on Westminster’s Laboratory Series 7022, presenting what seems to be the London Philharmonic under a pseudonym in a sober performance and silken sound.

Leinsdorf, by the time this is printed, will have come forth with almost half the Mozart symphonies in Westminster recordings, and I have yet to hear him do one badly. His commission, to record all forty-one, almost invalidates another such effort completed this year: Concert Hall’s issue of the symphonies in their entirety under various conductors. The most commendable portion of this comprises the early symphonies, Nos. 1 to 25, played by the Netherlands Philharmonic under Otto Ackermann: solid and sonically acceptable, but probably not so good as Leinsdorf’s versions will be, if Westminster finishes what it has begun.

Nothing is likely to disqualify Karl Münchinger’s beautifully engineered rendition of No. 33 with the Vienna Philharmonic for London (LL-1285; 12”), which is coupled with a No. 40 about as good as there is (Beecham seems indisposed to make a new G Minor, a tragedy truly apparent when one listens to his old one on Columbia ML-4674). It is a sad fact, that

Beecham and Walter, the one reluctant, the other saddled with a reluctant orchestra, still can make younger conductors of Mozart symphonies sound immature.

In the realm of opera, outside of what has been noted above, there was more effort than success. Three Don

Giovannis came out, conducted by Krips for London, by Max Rudolf for Cetra-Capitol, and by Rudolf Moralt for Epic. The London was the best, its chief handicap being the obvious inability of Suzanne Danco to sing Donna Anna intrepidly. Even had she been able to do so, however, this would not have been a topnotch performance; something is missing, as there is also in the alternate versions. Come to think of it, I never have heard a satisfactory Don Giovanni. Another good Così Fan Tutte appeared, however, produced by London (XLLA-32; three 12”), featuring Lisa della Casa and Anton Dermota, among others, and conducted by Karl Böhm in what could be called effective operatic style. It does not eclipse the Von Karajan effort for Angel (3522-C; three 12”), though I think I prefer it.

Lastly, Decca proffered (DL-9860; 12”) a new version of Mozart’s first opera, Bastien and Bastienne (written at age twelve), with Rita Streich and very high fidelity, also considerable charm.

Three new recordings of Masses appeared to head their respective lists, mostly by virtue of new sound. For Vox (DL-270; 12”) Jascha Horenstein led the Vienna Singverein and the Pro Musica Orchestra in the Requiem, K. 626, and for Epic (SC6009; two 12”) Rudolf Moralt conducted the C Minor “Unfinished,” with the Vienna Symphony and chamber choir. Decca’s entry was Igor Markevitch in the “Coronation" Mass, with the St. Hedwig Choir and the Berlin Philharmonic (DL-9805; 12", with Symphony No. 38 as a bonus).

Songs, so far as I am concerned, were not Mozart’s strong point. Even when performed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with Walter Gieseking at the piano (Angel 35270; 12”) or by Anny Felbermayer and Erik Werba — less renowned, less finished, but by no means negligible on Vanguard 481 — they display a certain sameness after the first few. As offbeat Mozart repertoire, I prefer novelies that I think also interested Mozart more. There is, for instance, a DeccaDeutsche-Grammophon Archive record, which I have heard only in radio broadcast, of music for tuned glasses (they squeak) that is somewhat excruciating but fun.

Many piano concertos were issued on disks during the Mozart Year, but there continue to be rather few that could be called definitive. For Angel (35215; 12”) Walter Gieseking, Hans Rosbaud, and the Philharmonia Orchestra made Nos. 20 and 25 with a kind of rich delicacy that may never be contrived again, though the big one of the pair, No. 20, is less dramatic than it could be. For Decca (DL9631; 12”), Carl Scemann with Fritz Lehmann and the Berlin Philharmonic rehabilitated Concerto No. 26, the so-called “Coronation,” Ion# thought of as pompous and shallow, very fetching when addressed on its own terms. Its great neighbor, No. 27 in B-flat, receives the best sonic treatment ever given it on records in London LL-1282, with Wilhelm Backhaus, Karl Bbhm, and the Vienna Philharmonic. A good Sonata No. II (ills out the record. Either piece could have used a little more vigor.

On (he other hand, a little more polish could have been applied with advantage to the performances for Epic (LC-3230; 12”) of the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 7, by Arthur Grumiaux with the Vienna Symphony, Bernhard Paumgartner conducting, which is not to say that they are not very good — especially the soloist. And the four Horn Concertos as played for Boston (401; 12”) by James Stagliano and the Zimbler Sinfonietta lack neither finish nor vigor, their only handicap being that they were preceded by an Angel recording (33092; 12”) featuring Dennis Brain, of equal (great) merit.

In chamber music, it seems to me, Mozart has not thus far been well served. Both the Barylli Quartet for Westminster and the Bardlets for Vox have proceeded well into the task of recording all the string quartets. They are conscientious and have been well recorded, but to perceive what, they (and their other scattered competitors) lack, listen to the Last Four Quartets (Nos. 20-23) by the Budapest Quartet on Columbia (SL228; two 12”), which perhaps I should have included among the “greats,” since I guess it belongs there. The recording, as well as the playing, is something of a revelation. The same group’s earlier album of the Quartets Dedicated to Haydn, Nos. 14-19, is almost equally distinguished (Columbia SL-187; three 12”).

As it happens, Westminster has employed the Barylli to best effect in an entrancing performance of the “Posthorn” Serenade (18033; 12”), wherein they arc assisted by a wind group from the Vienna Philharmonic — not deep music, but beautifully nostalgic.

Also from Westminster (18164: 12”) comes a convincingly zestful and handsomely recorded “Haffner” Serenade, by the American Chamber Orchestra under Robert Scholz, while Angel has yielded up a Piano and Wind Quintet with Giescking and Philharmonia windmen (35303; 12”) which matches the famous Columbia Serkin-Philadelphia version on ML4834 (though the latter are better in the Beethoven quintet, the overside offering in both). From RCA Victor (LM-2001; 12”) has come a re-mastering of Toscanini’s most successful Mozart recording, the Divertimento No. 15, short one movement but very beautiful. It is backed by a Symphony No. 39 much inferior in sound and oddly rushed in pace, but with some notable Toscaninian touches.

In Mozart piano music, this listener prefers Landowska to all comers, but the Landowska supply is limited. The Giescking (Angel) and Kraus (Haydn Society) supply is unlimited Both recorded the solo piano works entire, and the latter has done most of the concertos as well. I have not heard all of either series; what I have heard I have not liked overmuch. Giescking is restrained almost to the point of losing my attention; Lili Kraus seems mannered. I prefer Bndura-Skoda, who appears (on Westminster 18028) to excellent advantage in the Sonatas Nos. 11 and 14 and the Fantasia in C Minor, but it seems that the company plans a complete piano works series by Heine Gianoli instead. She is not bad, but I think Badura-Skoda would have been better. One cannot have everything, can one?

There are now more than seven hundred long-playing disks containing music by Mozart, so it would be preposterous for anyone confined to a column like this to claim that in one attempt he had covered all the good — or oven good recent — Mozart recordings. As a matter of cold fact, it has been impossible to listen carefully to all the Mozart records put forth in the last twelve months. And the flood has not ceased. The only possible relevant summary suggestion is: buy what you can be sure of. For the rest, wait patiently. They will be forthcoming.

Record Reviews

Burtök: Piano Music (Bela Bartök, piano; Bartok BR-903: 12”). This is designated Volume I, presumably of a series titled “Béla Bartok at the Piano.” He was a good pianist, as he shows here playing four Scarlatti sonatas, Liszt’s Sursum Corda (from Années de Pèlerinage), and fourteen short works, mostly early, of his own. The Liszt especially surprises with its pleasant pomposity. Of the Bartök pieces the most impressive is the Allegro Barbaro, and it is enlightening to get this germinal work right from the boss. Most of the recordings seem to be early electricals, sonically thin but not unpleasant. There is, as lagniappe, a little snatch of Bartök talking, mostly about how he came to write Mikrokosmos.

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto; Symphony No. 39 (Bernard Walton, clarinet; Herbert Von Karajan conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; Angel 35323: 12”). Messrs. Walton and Karajan present herewith one of the most attractive readings of the beautiful Clarinet Concerto to come to us by microgroove — neatly articulated, delicate-hued, alive. But there are other very fine recorded performances of this, and on the overside is a Symphony No. 39 which, although highly respectable, is utterly outclassed by the Bruno Walter interpretation for Columbia. So, a half bargain.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (Eduard Van Beinum conducting Concertgebouw Orchestra; Epic LC-3300; 12”). Word of Van Beinum’s Scheherazade has been exciting musical circles for some time. The recorded realization is impressive, but not impressive enough for me when I can have Steinberg’s marvelous feat for Capitol, which made me hear again a work to which I thought I had become forever deaf. Enough said, I guess.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, “Littie Russian" (two versions: Georg Solti conducting Paris Conservatory Concerts Orchestra; London LL-1507: 12"; Arthur Winograd conducting Hamburg Philharmonia Orchestra; MGME-3433:12”). Either of these Tchaikovsky Seconds outpoints all predecessors (even the Beecham version). They are not very different, though Solti uses his superior orchestra to achieve subtleties Winograd eschews. On the other hand, MGM includes as bonus a rather good Mussorgsky Night on Baid Mountain, which evens the score. Both disks are handsomely recorded.

Wagner: Der Fliegentde Hollander (Joseph Keilberth conducting Hermann Uhde, Astrid Varnay, Ludwig Weber, other soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival; London XLLA-42: three 12”). London’s engineers pieced this from actual performances at Bayreuth in 1955. The atmosphere is brought across very well, and is exciting. (You get the summoning fanfare, the audience chatter, the orchestra tuning up.) Both as performance and as recording, this probably is the best Dutchman around, though not by far: the Fricsay version for Decca was very good, and the old Urania (withdrawn) had an unmatched Dutchman in Hans Hotter. This one, however, will certainly satisfy.

Richard Dyer-Bennet 2 (Richard Dyer-Bennet, tenor, with guitar: Dyer-Bennet Records 2:12”). Sounds like a lot of Dyer-Bennet, but this is a one-man record company with a one-man artist roster. The record happens to have been made in my living room, in six sessions, so all I need say, I suppose, is that I still can listen to it with delight, except, perhaps, for “The Garden Where the Praties Grow,” which began to pall after the thirtieth hearing. As for the rest of the folk-become-art songs: marvelous — the work of a true twentieth-century troubador. I shall never tire of them and neither will you.