JOHN M. CONLY is a former New York and Washington newspaperman, now editor of High Fidelity Magazine. “ They Shall Have Music" is a frequent feature in the Atlantic.
THEY SHALL HAVE MUSIC
by JOHN M. CONLY
IMAGINE yourself at a moment of high contentment. You have dined well. Your fellow guests have proven truly congenial. Your host has just furnished you with some excellent cognac and a fine cigar.
And now he leads you into his living room, which contains, among other things, an impressive high-fidelity system and a sizable collection of records. You relax into an admirably comfortable chair. The prospect of the evening, seen through a beniso n of cognac bouquet and fragrant smoke, is a splendid one.
Then suddenly there is an enormous snarl of organ pipes, and a chorus begins gigantically to roar something in Latin. Your cigar ash falls onto your vest, and you notice your wife frozen silent in mid-quip. You crane to see the album cover, and your grimmest suspicion is confirmed. You are hearing Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. And — unless benign Providence sends a power failure — you are going to keep on hearing it for the next hour and a half. It occupies two whole long-play discs.
In his social dicemanship, your host has (there is no charitable way to put it) goofed.
By this I do not mean to imply that having to hear Mahler’s Eighth is a fate worse than death; indeed I have nothing at all against the symphony, except that it is so invincibly unconvivial. It is long. It is not interruptible. It is loud, and ought to be played that way if at all. It is monumentally serious. In short, it is a piece of music which should be offered to only one special class of guests: people who have been invited to come and hear the Mahler Eighth.
Your host’s offense was not, of course, intentional, though it may subject him to some avoidance in the future. It was simply a symptom of delayed adjustment to the long-play era. Economically, LP has been a great boon to the serious listener, giving him his music at a mere four dollars an hour. However, this has had the side effect of making him an ever more serious listener, which affects his buying and — qualitatively at least — narrows his repertoire. And when you add to this the hypnotic influence of the long-playing record’s prime quality — that it is long-playing, resistant to interruption— you have most of what it takes to turn an otherwise highly considerate person into a phonographic boor.
Of course, this genus was not absolutely unknown even in 78-rpm days—we recall the merciless 1947 host who would stack all eight discs of Act I of Die Walkure on the changer, glaring about fiercely meanwhile to suppress nascent conversations. But collectors then also did much more short-subject shopping, so to speak, and as a rule the host’s latest acquisition, nearest to hand, was likely to be nothing lengthier than a pair of Britten’s Sea Scenes, for instance, or Leopold Stokowski playing the famous Trumpet Voluntary that Purcell probably didn’t write. These strained no one’s attention-span, and the pause between selections could be used most satisfactorily for the renewal of drinks or for a brief run-down on the marital potential of the newest bachelor in the parish.
Now it is not my purpose to arouse nostalgia. I am sure reputations for adroit social dicemanship were more common ten years ago than they are now, but this was because they could be won (as I have shown) accidentally. Today it takes thought, but the achievement, when it occurs, is on a higher level.
My main concern is with evening hours, after dinner, but perhaps cocktail time should get brief attention. Frankly, at cocktail time I don’t think most people want to listen to anything except their own voices. However, they may enjoy hearing something, if it intrudes upon their attention only intermittently, and politely, and with unfailing charm.
To me, the nearly perfect answer to this requirement is George Feyer, a Continental pianist, Gemütlichkeit personified, whom Vox astutely has made available on no fewer than eleven records. All are called Echoes of one place or another — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Hollywood, what you will — and there is not one which will not make you, at some stage of your Martini, stop talking for a moment and dream a little ten-second dream. If, indeed, you do not hum.
On the same high level of taste and cleverness are the songs of a most unusual chanteuse called Liane, who sings (with the Bar Bohème Trio) in at least three languages on a halfdozen Vanguard ten-inch records. She obtrudes a little more than Mr. Feyer, simply because, I suppose, the human voice automatically compels attention. But she is fine cocktail company.
After dinner, people are less vociferous than at cocktail time, but even then they are not anxious for a half hour of enforced shut-mouth. What they will welcome with the liveliest good will is something diverting that is also obviously, from its nature, not going to last. long. Here I will pay homage to a couple of Capitol artists 1 don’t think I ever have mentioned in these pages, since their efforts never have been collected on long-play discs. As gambit material, certain of their 45-rpm records (also available, I believe, at 78 rpm) have served me almost without fail. They are Mr. A. (Deacon Andy) Griffith and Mr. Stan Freberg. Mr. Griffith’s chef-d’oeuvres are quasi-backwoods synopses of Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, of which I can say only that they must be heard to be appreciated. Mr. Freberg, better known, has made some bad records as well as his very good ones, namely St. George and the Drago- net, which mimics a detective program well known to TV viewers, and The Yellow Rose of Texas, which, rather oddly, very accurately burlesques a pop recording session.
I select these two gentlemen’s efforts (from among many worthy humorous records) because they serve so well as initial offerings in program making. Program making is an art as appropriate to phonographic hospitality as it is to orchestra conducting. (It is, of course, possible simply to offer a series of unrelated novelties, leaving off when its very adventitiousness begins to generate boredom, as it will, but there is no point in discussing that.) We will assume that the host wishes to lead his guests, by easy stages of diversion and delectation, finally into hearing something whereby he can pay, through his taste, his respects to theirs. Perhaps I can best explain by illustrating.
Let us start with Mr. Freberg and his Dragonet, which need serve merely to convey us to his Yellow Rose. This is comic, portraying a sonic duel between a Texas soloist and a damnyankee snare drummer, but will take us readily to the source of the revival and popularity of the Yellow Rose, which was Columbia’s album The Confederacy, a cantata written and recorded by Richard Bales, conductor of the National Art Gallery Orchestra. The Confederacy, in toto, might be a little long to play at this juncture, but it incorporates two marvelous national war songs, Dixie and The Bonnie Blue Flag. These give us a wealth of routes to follow, depending on where we wish to get. For instance:
In the Charles Ives Second Sonata, the Barn Dance movement contains a terse but delightful portrait of a GAR fiddler who, no matter what he tries to play, always comes back to another Civil War march, The Battle-Cry of Freedom. And Ives gives us topical access to almost anything else American. In my case, the access would be to more Ives: the slow movement of the Third Symphony, which contains at least a dozen fragments, weirdly and wonderfully interwoven, of traditional hymn tunes. And I think I would move from there to Ives’ Missouri counterpart, Virgil Thomson, whose Cello Concerto or Suite from Mother of Us All I’d be happy to settle for as the pièce de résistance of my evening. The former conjoins, in its finale, Yes, Jesus Loves Me and a theme from an early Beethoven piano sonata (and they go together felicitously). The latter has, like the Ives symphony, a movement which is a treasury of revival themes, treated wittily but kindly, in effect both funny and deeply touching.
Alternatively (we were starting with Dixie, you recall), you can follow the avenue of traditional nationalism back to Rule, Britannia (both began as stage numbers; the one in a minstrel show, the other in a pageant) as sung by Peter Pears, with chorus and orchestra, on London LL-808, which also bears some very fine Purcell pieces. Wherewith, you are off on a British kick which could land you anywhere. I think it would land me first on Eric Coates’ thoroughly enjoyable London Suite (Decca 4039), or at least the rollicking Knightsbridge March therefrom; and then on the collection Mercury calls British Band Masterpieces, which is played by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble and features two Holst suites, very fine, not elsewhere recorded; and two Vaughan Williams pieces equally meritorious, in positively magnificent sound, (This progression is not recommended for apartment dwellers with temperamental neighbors.) But you could as easily end with Dido and Aeneas, or the Vaughan Williams Third (“Pastoral”) Symphony, or Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.
The examples thus far cited illustrate, as they must, my own taste and my own record collection, which naturally differ from yours. What I am trying to put across is the programmatic. process, which is amenable to almost any variation in repertoire. Had you wanted to, you could have switched tracks back at the London Suite, from Britain to, say, Cities.
Vaughan Williams has written a Loudon Symphony. Leonard Bernstein has written something very like a New York Symphony in the Age of Anxiety. Prokofiev (this would have been my alternate goal) has given us in his Fifth what seems to me the first real symphony with a twentiethcentury urban pulse. And (here is always The Saint of Bleecker Street for such as fancy it, from among whom I
should have to ask to be included, as Mr. Goldwyn phrased it, out. There is a far spicier tang of Gotham in that excellent sample of a uniquely American art form, Guys and Dolls. (But half your guests may themselves own the recording: check carefully before turntabling.) In the same vein, Prohibition-time Chicago is brightly and wickedly preserved in Columbia’s Pal Joey. And the best-loved of all cities sings in every note of the recent Epic recording of Charpentier ‘s Louise. Or perhaps you’d prefer to present the piquant mixture of moonlit antiquity and awesome hi-fi embodied in Toscanini’s Pines of Rome, or the rowdy candlelit half-antiquity of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the London dags and Dolls of 1728, now available in two highly lislenable versions RCA Victor and Westminster between which there is little to choose.
It can clearly be seen that the safe conduct of an evening’s phonographic concert, from beginning to end, depends largely on conversational guide lines. I once sat paralyzed with admiration while a man I know launched a soirée with Rosemary Clooney singing Come on-a My House, wherein she was accompanied by Stan Freeman’s harpsichord, then detached the theme, via harpsichord, to a Scarlatti sonata, then reverted to The Spaniard That Blighted Mg Life, sung by I don’t know whom (this move was pure impresarial bravado, but the tune is taken from Scarlatti), then leaped backward into the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto as performed by the London Baroque Ensemble (the tonal personality of ancient instruments serving as connection), and finally pinned us with his major offering, Honegger’s Ring David—’reconstructed primilivism to begin with, a quasi-Bach chorale to end with.
This may sound, in recountal, ill assembled, but with the proper remarks between discs, it went down like five courses at the Restaurant Chambord. (In retrospect, I can regret only that, at the time, London had not yet issued its Panorama of Musique Concrète. since Pierre Henry’s eerie Veil of Orpheus would have followed so handily upon the Witch of Endor scene in King David. I am sure that this has since become part of the continuity.) The tone of the transitional comments, of course, should be not in the least pedagogical, but keyed entirely to enjoyment. No one can coach you in this. The sole criterion is whether or not you yourself enjoy the exploration as it proceeds. If at any point you find that it is beginning to pall, only one resort is open to you. It may seem drastic. Go to the control panel. Find the knob that is marked “Off.” Turn it. Go belowstairs and fetch some more Scotch, Try again another lime.
Aroint this horrid thought now, however. We are coming to the controversial matter of the envoi. Some experts maintain that when your feature presentation has been made, you should knock off, let silence reign, I find ibis doclrine abhorrent. If by almost superhuman tactical suasion I have succeeded in making a roomful of people give heed to the magic of Josef krips’ Brahms Fourth or Jonathan Sternberg’s I laydn Thirly-ninth, I want them at the end sufficiently engrossed so that they cannot lightly break into farewells. They should be eased out with a touch of high graciousness and yet obvious inconsequent ialily (in the diction ary sense of the word: nothing to follow). Never, at this juncture, allow your success to go to your head. If Schubert’s Ninth or The Cocktail Party went over very well, do not attempt to encore it with the Consecration of the House or Mereutio’s death scene. The good night was to be accomplished through E. Power Biggs’ playing one of Bach’s Eight Little Preludes and Fugues, or Haydn’s St. Anthong Divertimento, and these you should stay with, so that the flavor of the evening stays also, happily and easily, with your friends as they go down the driveway and into the night.
Permit a breach in the usual alphabetical ordering of these reviews. Marly in 1957, not long ago as I write, the world lost its most famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini. In March, when he would have been ninety, RCA issued two recordings of extraordinary interest to his admirers. They are the Aïda he broadcast in 1949 (the first major musical event to be televised in America, I believe) and the Beethoven Seventh Symphony he recorded at 78 rpm in 1936. The Aïda (RCA Victor LM-6132: three 12”) also incorporates the last recording he did: shortly after his retirement he held a session to patch and fill out the broadcast transcription.
The Beethoven Seventh Symphony (Camden CAL-352: 12”) was the last recording to receive his signed approval, the fortnight before he died. And well he might approve it; it is an astounding job of renovation. The 78-rpm version had been slightly raucous, at least in American pressings. The Collector’s Treasury reprint on microgroove, in the early days of LP was thin and short of dynamics. The new Camden — beautifully packaged, by the way — was made from the LCT tape, but with 1957 cutting techniques and, I think, a little judicious application of a volume expander. It comes forth full, solid, almost high-fidelity, and historically important.
The Toscanini we had for nearly twenty years with the NBC Symphony — on radio and in the later recordings— was, remember, a man over seventy, and he shaped the NBC according to his latter-year tastes; he gave its sound an astringent quality and tightened its whole action. In the Camden Seventh, we have him with the New York PhilharmonicSymphony, reflecting his earlier taste, and the fullness and solidity of the sound in this estimable reproduction is an exciting revelation. So will be the interpretation, to people who haven’t heard it before — there is much less tension than in later ones, and a richer lyricism.
The Vïda is, of course, the Old Man’s Aïla and, to boot, a radio Aida. Toscanini almost always, it seemed to me, purposely hastened his concertized opera, taking up musically the slack left by the loss of stage action. So this Aïda rushes a little; it cannot be much like the Aïda wherein the nineteen-year-old “bambino Toscanini" made his conducting debut in Rio.
But at the high points it becomes thereby positively thrilling. A sort of purification by terror affects the trumpeters in the Triumphal March, and the singers, none of whom except Richard Tucker amount to much, quite surpass themselves. The sound, considering that it originated in the infamous Studio 8-H, is not at all bad. And the 1955 additions are barely noticeable. No one really interested in either Verdi or Toscanini can do without this recording of Aïda.
Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14, “Moonlight,” and No. 21, “Waldstein” (Vladimir Horowitz, piano; RCA Victor LM-2009: 12”). Mr. Horowitz knows the two sonatas inside and out, and still esteems them. Couple this with his incredible technique and you are assured of marvelous performances. These you get, but unfortunately he and the engineers experimented, making tlie recording in his living room. The piano sound on the record is cramped and unappealing.
Britten: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Sir Adrian Boult conducting Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra; Westminster XWN-18372: 12”). Sir Adrian narrates the Eric Crozier script besides conducting the Britten score, and turns out what I think the best all-round version of the Guide. On the overside is reproduced an informal taping of part of the recording session, which does not, from the evidence, seem to have been a very interesting one. Westminster calls it “Hi Fi in the Making.” I call it a promotional gimmick, and I’m against it.
Dvorák: Cello Concerto with Fauré: Llegie for Cello and Orchestra (Janos Starker, cello; Waller Süsskind conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; Angel 35417: 12”). There is now almost a plethora of good Dvorák Cello Concertos, of which I like this best of all. Starker is a magician, commanding both force and fine-toned grace, and Süsskind gets out of the Philharmonia an irresistible rhythmic vivacity: this is top-notch Dvoraá. The Fauré Elegie makes nice encore material. Highly recommended.
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto;
Clarinet Quintet (Benny Goodman, clarinet; Charles Munch conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra; Boston Symphony String Quartet; RCA Victor LAI-2073: 12”). There is an odd contrast here. Goodman and Munch give us what is certainly one of the two best Clarinet Concertos in the catalogue (the other being the Walton-Karajan-Angel), precise and formal but very much alive. In the Quintet, on the other hand, both Goodman and the BSO string-men sound extremely ill at ease. Perhaps they had not played together enough. Too bad. The sound is fine on both sides.
Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 21 and No. 27 (Rudolf Serkin, piano, Alexander Schneider conducting Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Columbia ML-5013: 12”). Serkin and
Schneider are paired here to a nicety; there could not be a more productive collaboration. 1 understand that they were so pleased with the session that champagne was distributed to all hands, in paper cups. Never were bubbles better earned. This is a truly lovely record.