Record Reviews

Beethoven: The Five Piano Concertos

Artur Rubinstein, piano; Josef Krips conducting Symphony of the Air; RCA Victor LM-6702: five 12″

This is labeled “Limited Edition/ Special Price,” and I take it this means a special low price (for a change). The concertos come one to a disc, not in automatic sequence, and certainly will be issued singly later. At a special price, the album is almost a must, as will be seen. First: the sound — important because some worthy competing records are aging. It is strong but a little edgy, best heard in a goodsized room. Probably it represents the blending of the two tracks of a stereo tape. Next: musical generalization. Rubinstein and Krips found each other simpatico (I was there, briefly), and they play the music the way they like it, an asset. Perhaps they are best when it is vigorous and florid.

Their First Concerto is youthful, fiery, and expansive, to me the best in the catalogue. Their Second is very tastefully Mozartian, just as it should be (it was really the first in order of writing), and without any very pressing latter-day competition. In the Third, Beethoven’s most operatic piano concerto, if the term is permissible, they are at their very best; this is a real rouser. In the Fourth they are highly adequate, but they are up against a miracle, meaning the London version by Curzon and Knappertsbusch, an inspired performance, in sound not brandnew but still sweet, strong, and beautifully balanced. The RubinsteinKrips Fifth or “Emperor” is, I guess, without peer though not by far: everyone good has tried this. However, for this pair the work fairly rings with valor; seldom have Rubinstein’s mighty fingers done nobler work. And some credit, lest we forget, should go to London Records for lending Krips to this venture. He was an ideal choice.

Dvořák: Violin Concerto Glazunov: Violin Concerto

Nathan Milstein, violin; William Steinberg conducting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Capitol P-8382: 12″

Here I must be speculative. Milstein says (on the jacket) that he has a special affection for these two concertos. Being a twentieth-century purist, abetted by another of like mind — Steinberg — he tries to dignify the works by playing them in the astringent modernist-classicist style. The engineers lend themselves to the aim; there is no reverberative analgesic. Glazunov is wheeled from the operating theater deader than a doornail. Oddly, Dvořák survives and, after two hearings, regains health. Violinists will delight in the surgical experiment, other listeners may seek elsewhere. Vanguard offers the same combination of concertos with Oistrakh and Kondrashin, in a performance absolutely brimming with Romantic treacle sauce. Of the two violinists, Milstein seems a little the nimbler, Oistrakh a little the subtler. The Capitol recording, however unkind to the music, is much the more realistic.

Gulck: Alceste

Kirsten Flagstad, Raoul Jobin, other soloists; Geraint Jones conducting chorus, orchestra; London XLLA-49; four 12″ Alceste was Gluck’s final effort to recast opera in classical Greek form. It was (and is) less successful than Orfeo, because he picked a more complicated and rather silly legend, which lent itself less well to argument by aria with choral interpolation. However, saying of something that it is not quite up to Orfeo is by no means faint praise. Alceste is a great work, and one graced here by a great singer. It would be untrue to say Flagstad sounds as good as ever. Occasionally she labors, but this will cause you no unease, because she knows so marvelously well, in all ways, what she is doing. Jobin assists her ably in his unappealing part, and Geraint Jones, if he is not yet a second Fritz Busch, is as good a substitute as the times afford. London has recorded the whole thing at close range, with realism faithful to the singers.

Grieg: Music from Peer Gynt

Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Lise Hollweg, soprano, Beecham Choral Society, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Angel 35445: 12″

Of late the whimsical baronet has chosen to lavish his fabled gifts upon the refurbishing of worn staples; he does it again here. The peripatetic Peer (no pun intended) never has had it so good. The music lives, dances, sparkles, and growls just as if it hadn’t been played at a million bad pop concerts. And it has been given fine rich reproduction.

Haydn : Symphonies No. 45, “Farewell,” and No. 55, “Schoolmaster”

Benjamin Britten conducting Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra; London LL-1640: 12″

The trouble with Haydn is that if you do not play his music very well you had best leave it alone entirely, which is not the case with, say, Berlioz or Richard Strauss. A result of this is that we have very few good Haydn conductors. Benjamin Britten is one of them. These records were taped as live performances at Aldeburgh (applause and all), so they are not perfect in finish. However, they are convincing in concept, in their evocation of the composer’s unfailingly bold esprit and surety.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Karl Böhm conducting Paul Schöffler, Sena Jurinac, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, Rita Stretch, other soloists; Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Epic SC-6022: three 12″

Here is a very formidable entry indeed in the lists of Marriages. Over its Mozart-year rivals, the Gui (Glyndebourne) RCA Victor and the Kleiber-London, it has one immediate advantage: although “complete” in the ordinary staging sense, it is on three discs against their four, and I, for one, do not miss the BasilioMarcellina exchanges with which it dispenses. It has probably, by a slight margin, the best sound of the three. In quality of singers it matches the London album (though in orchestral finesse it does not). Böhm keeps things marching along handsomely, too; no fault can be found with his cuing or pacing. Indeed, among presentations of Mozart’s most perfect and endearing opera, there is only one insubstantial reason wherefore I cannot give it first place. This is that I can turn it off quite easily, while once I begin listening to the London, I don’t want to stop, I must hear what comes next. I hope this is not simply an idiosyncrasy of mine, because until now I have attributed the effect, most gratefully, to the late Mr. Kleiber. And I think it belongs there.

Mozart: Symphonies No. 39 and No. 40

Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Columbia ML5194: 12″

The obvious comparison here is with the old Columbia Collectors’ Series LP, ML-4674, offering Beecham and the same two symphonies in reprint from 78 rpm. For years this — itself in antique sound unable to satisfy — has been taking the edge off reaction to other conductors’ attempts. Now come the repeat performances. Number 40, the G Minor, I am truly delighted to say, seems to me very little different from its antecedent: the trio in the third movement is a little slower, and there is a tightening, a little less exposition of separate voices, in the first. Otherwise, it is the same, even if the effect of revelation is not quite the same in this day of twenty recorded G Minors. Of the twenty, this would be my first choice. The overside gives me a little trouble; I finish it with the feeling that Sir Thomas has decided that Number 39 is Mozart’s “Eroica” and has sharpened his punctuation and weighted his accents accordingly, with some sacrifice of grace. Still, very beautiful.

Schubert: Incidental Music to Rosamunde; Overture to The Magic Harp; Serenade, Op. 135; Psalm 23, Op. 132

Fritz Lehmann conducting Diana Eustrati, contralto; Berlin Motet Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Decca DXB-144: two 12″

Two bands of this set start the same, owing to the complex series of rewrites and reapplications the Rosamundde/ Magic Harp/Alfonso and Estrella music went through; actually, however, there is not much repetition. This was not Schubert’s profoundest writing, but it is all very melodious, by turns songful and vivaciously rhythmic and, to me anyway, interesting. Decca deserves thanks for assembling all the portions in one album (some you won’t have heard before), and Lehmann for giving them the loving care he does. The two filler items, the Serenade and the Psalm setting, are from Schubert’s later years and are poignantly lovely, especially the latter. The recording is rich and clear, but very low in volume level.

Schumann: Dichterliebe Brahms: Six Songs

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bass; Jörg Demus, piano; Decca DL-9930: 12″

The Brahms songs (which include Sommerabend, Mondenschein, and Der Tod, das ist die köhle Nacht), like Dichterliebe, are settings of poems by Heine. All told, here is a treasure of song almost impossible to overmatch, presented in a record which I must call the most perfect of the season thus far. Fischer-Dieskau’s utter fitness for the songs, both vocally and temperamentally, is obvious from the start; he seems almost to live them. And Demus is one of the best Schumann players in the world, a boon to Dichterliebe, which has pages of piano alone. The pair are presented in realism which doesn’t startle at all; it simply — and effortlessly — convinces. The sole fault to be found is that the jacket offers only synopses, not texts, of the Schumann songs.

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. II: Partita for Double String Orchestra

Sir Adrian Boult conducting London Philharmonic Orchestra; London LL1642: 12″

Here is the second version of the Eighth, and I prefer it slightly to the first. The work itself is more cordial than searching, and the difference in interpretation between Barbirolli (Mercury) and Boult is slight. However, the London Philharmonic sounds richer than the Hallé Orchestra, and London certainly did a better job of capturing clean sound than Mercury did. Further, the Partita is a more substantial filler than the Bax and Butterworth trifles Mercury offered. It is a little antiquarian in style, like the Bloch concerti grossi, though not in flavor. I do not think it has been recorded before.

The Deutschmeister Band

Julius Hermann conducting Deutschmeister Band: Angel 35493: 12″

The Deutschmeister Band, which had been until 1918 the household band of the Austrian emperor, made its debut on LP for Westminster five years ago, playing Austrian marches. Now it makes its debut for Angel — still playing Austrian marches (probably the only one you’ll recognize is Strauss’s Radetzky March). It has changed. Bandmaster Hermann and the players had decided to let the band die with the deaths of its 1918 membership. Now it has begun recruiting young performers. The old men had a style the new mixture does not, though the change isn’t drastic. For some reason, too, the old Westminster recording had a sort of blaring intimacy the Angel doesn’t. But Deutschmeister fans had best buy the new record; it is good.

Hoffnung Music Festival Concert

Norman del Mar conducting Morley College Orchestra and various strange soloists and instruments; Angel 35500: 12″

Gerard Hoffnung, Punch cartoonist and musical amateur, was given charge of Crazy Night at Royal Festival Hall last year, and this is what happened, as recorded on the spot. It must have been hilarious to watch, and it is reasonably funny to listen to. There is, for instance, a Grand GrandOverture for Orchestra, Organ, Rifles, Three Vacuum Cleaners, and Electric Floor Polisher, a portion of which is irreverently dedicated to exPresident Hoover. There is a Piano Concerto to End All Piano Concertos, wherein the soloist starts playing the Grieg while the orchestra strikes up the Tchaikovsky B-flat. The humor is all very British, and if you deplore British humor you won’t care for it. The audience, as the applause shows, did.

Oboukhova in Song; Oboukhova Sings

Nadezhda Oboukhova, mezzo-soprano; Matvei Sakharov, piano; Westminster XWN-18509, XWN-18510: each 12″

In point of natural endowment and of technique, Nadezhda Oboukhova may be the best mezzo in the world today. She also has brains and taste. Despite this, and although the soundcapture is good, these records do not amount to much musically. One of them (18510 — “Sings”) offers some acceptable Tchaikovsky, Glinka, and Rimsky-Korsakov songs (wherein Mme. Oboukhova demonstrates better than fair French pronunciation). The other is a potpourri of Slavic schmaltz, unspeakably sentimental; obviously concert-tour numbers. It may be that she lacks musical ambition, or that she is willing to repress it in favor of concert fees (today’s Russian listening public seems Victorian in the very worst sense of the word). Or we may hear her again in music more worthy of her.