Service to Two Titans
JOHN M. CONLY
ONE of the most enthralling record sides issued in 1959 could be identified prosaically as A-4414-8. It is better described, however, as the last half of the last scene of Othello; twenty-odd minutes of some of the best Shakespeare ever read onto discs, fit to chill the blood and mist the eyes. The players are the Marlowe Society of Cambridge University and sundry professional stars, some of them famous alumni, but not named or credited by reason of tradition. I cite the Othello bit because it specially impressed me. More impressive is the fact that it is a small sampling of a towering project: to put all published Shakespeare on long-play records, with no care spared. The start, at least, is marvelous in the main ways — taste, drama, and comprehensibility. It is astonishing. One should, but doesn’t, read Shakespeare. But listening to him is something you almost cannot stop once you start.
So far I have heard Julius Caesar, Othello, and most of Coriolanus and Richard II. The first pair are more gripping, as plays, than the latter, but the standard of performance does not vary. The delivery is ideal — a clean, classically eloquent style whereby the color of the words gives to our mind’s eye something to see and, at the same time, yields a musical relish to the ears. At hand, but not yet heard, are the Sonnets, King John, Measure for Measure, and The Merchant of Venice. There will be finally forty albums of three or four LPs apiece. Those made since 1957 will be available in stereo.
This bounty was launched, apparently, by Mrs. John Denison, director of the recorded sound division of the British Council. One summer’s day in 1956 she walked into the London office of Harley J. Usill, managing director for Argo Records, Ltd., and asked him how he would like to record the Bard’s works, in toto, under the auspices of the Council. Argo was a very small company, mostly devoted to offbeat poetry recordings, and Usill was struck breathless. “I may add,” he says, “that after three years the full impact of what we have undertaken is still being felt.”
The third man in the developing project was George Rylands, producer for the Marlowe Society, probably best known in America as compiler of “The Seven Ages of Man,” the Shakespeare soliloquy series lately staged on tour by Sir John Gielgud. Usill first approached professional repertory companies. None of them seemed to want the trouble of learning King John or Two Gentlemen of Verona. Thence he applied to Rylands, who was delighted at the whole idea. The Marlowe Society could furnish the bulk of the players, and also the studio (which is the Amateur Dramatic Club Theatre at Cambridge). However, the two men decided they had best hire some professional lead players, so that Portia, Desdemona, and Lady Macbeth would not all sound exactly the same. In 1957 Argo became a subsidiary of London-Decca, whereafter funds were not a pressing problem. This change also afforded them Alan Reeve as recording chief and Thurston Dart, the famous harpsichordist, as musical director.
Among the professional lead players, the only ones likely to be known to American theatergoers are Irene Worth, Peter Woodthorpe, and Miles Malleson, but even at these you will have to guess; casts are not listed. The stars usually tape their scenes all at once during their vacations, mostly in July. The student players fill in the rest of the action at their leisure. Everybody gets paid.
One of the main hazards has been an RAF training field near Cambridge. Dunsinane doesn’t sound right with jets overhead. The Air Ministry has given attention to this. Another is the merriment arising from the return visits of alumni turned professional. The night before Romeo and Juliet, the Romeo went balcony climbing with undergraduate companions and fell into a cucumber frame. He showed up heavily bandaged, but the session was a success. You can’t keep a good Shakespearean down.
Beethoven’s Orchestra, Alive Again
On September 15, Bruno Walter gave himself an eighty-third-birthday present. It was a complete set of the nine Beethoven symphonies, newly recorded in stereo for Columbia by Bruno Walter. With this token, Dr. Walter also made himself the first conductor ever to have two recorded versions of every Beethoven symphony in the catalogues at the same time, but his distinction in this matter is much greater than that.
In merit, his Second Symphony is challenged by Beecham and Jochum; his Third by Klemperer; his Fifth by Ansermet; his Sixth by Monteux, This leaves him only five Beethoven symphonies wherein — to my cars — he holds indisputable primacy on records today, which is a little like saying of a pitcher that he only achieved three no-hitters in a World Series. It is a fantastic accomplishment. And even this is not an adequate description.
The entire Beethoven symphonic canon has been performed greatly for posterity twice before, by Weingartner and by Toscanini. The former’s recordings now are ancient; the latter’s are aging and never were truly complete, since the Fifth was a flawed broadcast transcription. Quite apart from the fact of new sound — and Walter’s new sound is very good — I don’t think either Weingartner or Toscanini played the Fourth or the Eighth as well as Walter does (the finale of his Eighth is really hair-raising), and neither surpassed him in the highest test, which is the Ninth.
Only three Ninths on records have struck me as great — all, be it noted, by old men — Weingartner’s, Toscanini’s, and now Walter’s. Toscanini’s was the most exciting, Walter’s is the most majestic; Weingartner’s came between, dividing these qualities. Their tempos have differed, but they have maintained proportions, especially dynamic proportions, very much the same.
Walter’s first and final movements have not the fierce rush of Toscanini’s. They go like a Mosaic march, with a high faith and firmness, through chaos quite fearsome enough, and out of it again into a joy soberer than the great Italian’s. We are embattled by this, as we should be, but the process is sermonic; more Joshua than King Harry. Yet it is full of thrills — and of skill. Walter, recording all the Nine in Los Angeles, reduced his orchestral forces to match those Beethoven used. The strings and woods get slimmer and more individual, the brasses burlier. The singing soloists in the Ninth (William Wilderman, bass; Emelia Cundari, soprano; Nell Rankin, mezzo; Albert Da Costa, tenor) attempt no virtuosity but achieve a musicianly accuracy and insight worth our gratitude. Walter brought the orchestra, a specially assembled outfit‚ East for the finale of the Ninth, to join with the Westminster Choir, but there is no clue to this change of locale in the recorded sound. The sound, as befits the reduced orchestra, is intimate, whereby the trumpets are made to sound as if Gabriel were blowing one of them. It is a tremendous thing to hear in your living room.
The symphonies are being sold both separately and packaged together by Columbia. The gift’s the thing, though. One cannot help applauding the valor and taste of a man who produced a birthday present so splendid for an octogenarian named Bruno Walter.
Listen as Children
My wife, during the late 1940s, helped keep the wolf from our suburban door by introducing music to children in a Washington private school. Thus I came to be acquainted with a series of records called “Music Masters.” These were then albums of three ten-inch 78rpm discs apiece. There were thirteen of them, and they bore such titles as Mozart: His Story and His Music, Schubert: His Story and His Music, and so on. I knew them best in a sort of secondhand way. Whenever I played a new review copy of the Unfinished, for instance, my helpmeet would automatically intone: “Schubert was growing older. . . .“
This may sound distasteful, but the fact is that the records were very tastefully made indeed. The narratives were well written, by various people, and beautifully read, mainly by a young actor named José Ferrer. The musical examples were low-fi but shrewdly selected.
The idea for the series had been that of George Mendelssohn, president of the newly launched Vox company, who has a remote familial connection with the great Hamburg Mendelssohns and a crusading interest in the spread of good music. Many thousands of the sets were bought promptly after they came out in 1944, some by schools, some by parents. When the LP development began, Mendelssohn had the albums remade as ten-inch single vinyls. They continued to sell, but at a slowing pace.
In the meantime Vox, as a classical LP company, had vastly increased its recorded repertoire. This put a lot more illustrative music at the disposal of Music Masters, should the series be remade. Accordingly‚ it has been. Now it is out again, this time on twelve-inch LPs, running nearly an hour each.
All the old Music Master scripts had to be rewritten to fit with the new musical material. Most have been done by Marianne Kuranda, though a couple are by the versatile Vox vice president, Ward Botsford. As narrator, José Ferrer was now beyond the company’s means, but they found a good substitute in the actor Arthur Hannes, who reads his words as children like them, with all due seriousness and no trace of coyness. The musical interpolations are of uneven sonic merit, drawn as they are from ten years of Vox tapings, but this isn’t of great consequence. There are fifteen records now: Bach‚ Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Chopin, Foster and Sousa, Grieg and Schumann, Handel, Haydn, Liszt and Paganini, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Johann Strauss, and Tchaikovsky — their stories and their music. By the way, it would not do some grownups any harm to listen to these.
So Stereo Costs A Dollar Extra . . .
It is a pleasure to lose an argument to Wilma Cozart, a tall, winsome Texan who is Mercury Records’ classical vice president and surely the prettiest recording director in the world. What we were arguing about, recently, was something other disc buyers have puzzled over suspiciously: why should stereo discs cost a dollar more than monophonics? My objections to this disparity were all valid, I think. Stereo and monophonic recordings are made simultaneously. Their packagings, for sale, are nearly identical. The half-inch-wide stereo tape, granted, costs a little more than the narrower monophonic, but this is a small factor. The editing on the stereo may be somewhat the harder, but not enormously, now that the techniques have become familiar. This same qualification applies to paid time for musicians. Tests for microphone placement take a little longer when both stereo and monophonic tapes must be made. And technicians’ paid time for disc cutting from the tapes is, admittedly, more than doubled.
Once the master discs are cut, however, production costs for stamping out the finished discs are the same, and this is where the bulk of labor expense comes in.
Miss Cozart smiled and nodded most graciously each time I made a point and then hit me with what boxing experts call a combination — left, right. In the first place (left!), a record makes money according to the number of copies sold; the initial recording costs are the same. Of the same recording, the monophonic version may sell 20,000, the stereophonic only 3000. And furthermore (right!), the high cost of stereo cannot be absorbed by monophonic sales. The reason it cannot is one which does much credit to Miss Cozart’s whole industry. The LP phonograph record is perhaps the only manufactured product on the American market whose price, in terms of content (in this case: minutes of music), has remained stable and even gone down in the last ten years. There simply is not any marginal profit to be used for stereo promotion unless monophonic LP prices go up. At least, this is so among small and middle-sized companies.
Not only is the record business fiercely competitive, but the industry has a certain institutional pride in holding the price line. The manufacturers would be loath to crack the standard $4.98 top limit for monophonics if they do not absolutely have to. For the time being, as they see it, stereophiles will have to pay a premium to satisfy their enthusiasm.
Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos
Szymon Goldberg conducting soloists and Netherlands Chamber Orchestra; Epic BC-1043/4 (stereo) and LC-3604/5: two records, as a set or separately Later and at greater length I want to write more about this production and its people. Meanwhile, let me voice an opinion which must be personal because it is rash. I think this is the most beautiful and most engrossing performance of the Brandenburgs I have ever heard, on records or off. It is not a matter of technical proficiency, although that is present, but of a seeming flow of musical spirit or joy; I do not know quite how to describe it. The recorded sound is lovely, too.
Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Jennifer Vyuyan, Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers, Giorgio Tozzi; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus; RCA Victor LDS6409 (stereo) and LDM-6409: four records
This gala production by Dario and Doric Soria for Victor is gorgeous to behold, but as a musical endeavor it must have its appeal mainly to the following of Sir Thomas, who appears to consider himself less as Handel’s servant than as his collaborator. The work has been Beechamized; it comes out‚ no one can deny, with a glow like a thousand-dollar Persian rug, and bless me if I know whether Handel would have liked it or not. It is rich, intricate, luminous, and mostly slow. The male soloists are fine; the women are dull. The orchestra makes sounds as bright and ponderous as mint gold. The cautionary word here has to be that in the offing is a Huddersfield version by Sir Malcolm Sargent, who can muster more grand and honest churchly piety than anyone else. And also in the lists is Dr. Hermann Scherchen, to deliver us either a miracle or a mess. Last time it was a miracle, and heart-rending, but Dr. Scherchen is a man of alternate extremes. Probably the thing to do is be patient. Everyone should have a Messiah at hand, but they are expensive.
Liszt: Concertos No, 1 and No. 2
Philippe Entremont, piano; Eugene Ormandy conducting Philadelphia Orchestra; Columbia MS-6071 (stereo) and ML,-5289
Heretofore my favorite reading of these thunderous confections was that of Kempff for London, which had a nice regal touch about it, but that has vanished. I think Entremont now heads the field, by reason of wonderfully Meet lingers, but also because of the magnificent Philadelphia sound, a great asset to Liszt. Mr. Ormandy governs it with exemplary taste, too.
Mozart : Flute Concertos No. 1 and No. 2
Elaine Shaffer, flute; Efrem Kurtz conducting Philharmonia Orchestra: Capitol SG-7135 (stereo) and G-7135
Mozart abominated the flute, a fact no one would suspect, hearing these two gaily tremulous adventures which he dashed off for a rich Dutch planter who owned a flute. It would be folly to seek any significance in them, but Mozart could make beauty’s own logic sufficient. The performances show a happy skill, and the sound is clear as moonlight.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Vladimir Horowitz, piano; RCA Victor LM-2357
This disc was made from a taping at a concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 1951, which there was probably no thought then of publishing. The piano, microphoned too closely, sounds a little stringy. Just the same, the recording is quite good enough to transmit the enormous verve and rightness of the performance, which I have never heard surpassed or even approached.
Tehaikovsky: Suite from The Swan Lake
Efrem Kurtz conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; Capitol SG-7188 (stereo) and G-7188
This is not the complete ballet, but it is more nearly complete than most of the concert-suite arrangements, containing at least three sections usually left out. It has another notable asset, too: in the most ethereally romantic passages, where a solo violin guides the dance, the violin is played by no less a fiddler than Mr. Yehudi Menuhin, who will melt you. In fact, everyone is very good indeed, including HMV-Capitol’s fine engineers, who love proving that the Philharmonia is the world’s highest -fi orchestra.
Erich Leinsdorf conducting Leonard Warren, Leonie Rysanek, Jerome Hines, other singers; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; RCA Victor LSC-6147 (stereo) and LM-6147: three discs
Because of Otello and Falstaff, we commonly think of Verdi as having become a Shakespearian musicdramatist in his old age. It isn’t so. He wrote Macbeth in his early thirties. It is very faithful to Shakespeare in its text and, I think, considering the limitations of opera, in its handling. I thought the witches in Italian would be funny, but they are far from it. And there are no beautifully irrelevant showpiece arias. Verdi could write an authentic hit tune at will, of course, but he also could restrain the impulse to do so if it would be an insult to good poetry he was working with. Accordingly, Macbeth is strictly a vehicle for singers with brains as well as voices, and these are what Victor has given us here. Leonard Warren is especially skillful as Macbeth, but Rysanek is icily effective as his lady, and the other people adapt to their parts with patent understanding. Leinsdorf’s pacing seems exactly right — this is an opera you listen to straight through — and the stereo dispersion is beyond complaint.