They Shall Have Music
One of the odd and endearing distinctions of Homo sapiens, the thinking beast, is that he considers other animals his fellow creatures. Nowhere is this more marked than in his fiction, and especially in stories for the young. There is Aesop’s mouse, and Froggy who would a-wooing go, and Thornton Burgess’ farmside community, and the fuzzy nursery menagerie of A. A. Milne: brave Pooh and his coterie. And I will not leave out Pogo. But never, I think, has so charmed a circle of animal friends been created as the one brought to our imagination by a Bank of England clerk named Kenneth Grahame in his book The Wind in the Willows, written in 1908.
The Wind in the Willows was not read to me; I had to find it for myself when I was, I suppose, about eight—almost too late. However, I had the sense to set aside Tom Swift until I had read about little Portly, the otter’s child, who met the great god Pan in the riverside glade, and was enchanted and lost until Rat and Mole, rowing and roving by day and night, found him and saved him from his tragical, magical fate. I never knew exactly how to feel about that, happy or sad.
What I do know now, though, is that this and things like it should have been read to me when I was five or six years old. Accordingly, I am very pleased to report upon a new small record company called Pathways of Sound, which is devoted altogether to the interests of intelligent and imaginative children, and which has begun its delightful endeavor with two irresistible discs of The Wind in the Willows. One record is read by Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, the other by a young student-actor-teacher named Robert Brooks, of the Poets’ Theatre, who stands up handsomely against his famous competition.
The entrepreneurs of Pathways of Sound call themselves a group, and I cannot fasten a better word on them. The focus of their grouping seems to have been Harvard, M.I.T., and their Cambridge environs. The producer (these are unofficial terms), Dwight Batteau, taught mechanical engineering at Harvard before going into industrial research. Joe Berk, the artist and repertoire director, studied economics there. Ronald Steelman, the corporation’s organizer, took his law degree there. Albert Van Rennes, the technical director, Netherlands-born, pursued his doctorate at M.I.T. The president of the company is Blanca Batteau, who also handles promotion. The child psychologist is Mae Van Rennes. They just happened, by matrimony, to live in Cambridge. And so, off and on, between spells in Italy and elsewhere, does young, black-bearded Eric von Schmidt, the designer and artist for the company.
What really has bound them all together is an extraordinary interest in reading aloud for children, or, more generally, in arousing children’s imaginations. Batteau always wanted to be a toy maker. Berk, as a young insurance man, used to go into the Common or the Public Garden in Boston to hobnob with the youngsters there and tell them stories. He says it took his mind off claims. He himself was drawn originally to this art by his Hungarian grandmother, the best reader, he says, that he ever heard. She was reared in the English tongue from childhood and loved it, and it was she who acquainted him with Kenneth Grahame. Von Schmidt, son of a famous magazine artist, spent much of his youth drawing pictures to illustrate, for his own pleasure, the stories of which he was especially fond. He was a Melville reader as a boy, and I hope he has not lost all the drawings.
It is Kenneth Grahame, however, who really caused the beginning of the enterprise. When Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy came to Boston in Five Finger Exercise, Berk simply telephoned them at their hotel, and Miss Tandy said delightedly, of course she would read about Mr. Toad and his motorcar, as if she had been long awaiting the chance. Later Mr. Cronyn called, made it clear that he wanted to share in the antics too but that their agent was sure to demand a document for his files. Mr. Steelman provided this. The session went beautifully, and the result provides a blend of mirth and poignancy which actually seems to restore childhood. It is a moot question whether Grahame really was writing for children or for their elders. I think he had both in mind. My own parents seem not to have known The Wind in the Willows, but if I recall accurately, they always sounded a little more comfortable with Kipling or Carroll or Stevenson than with the adventures of the Bobbsey Twins, perhaps simply because they disliked being bored. It is plain on the records that the Cronyns are not bored with Mr. Toad and the Open Road. They love it.
Necessity defies convention. It is unconventional to put business addresses in a commentary column, but sometimes it seems necessary, if only out of charity for postmen. Here are some small record company addresses: The Droll Yankees may be reached through Box 2355, Providence 6, Rhode Island. The producer of Heirloom Records is Mr. William Bonyun, Brookhaven, New York. Pathways of Sound has headquarters at 102 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Further, let me recall to the reader’s attention the collectors’ dealer portrayed in “A Guide Through Microgrooves” (November, 1959, Atlantic), J. F. Indcox of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who stocks all the minor labels.
Both buyers and sellers of records are plagued today by two perplexities. They are stereo and record clubs. I call these perplexities because both are blessings of a kind, but of a decidedly mixed kind. It happens that one record company has hit upon a happy interim solution, but let us state the problems first.
To start with, there is stereo, not a new topic here. It faces the music lover with a dilemma not unlike that of 1948, when microgroove made its initial appearance. Who wants to buy — at four dollars apiece — records that will be obsolete in a year or two? But who wants to rush into equipment conversion, an expensive proposition, before standards have been set and prices trimmed? And who wants to pay for musical performances hastily made to capture the new stereo market? These are the questions facing the listener.
The dealer has even greater problems, because he must double much of his inventory, duplicating monophonic with stereophonic recordings, or else run the chance of finding himself out of business. And indeed this may happen anyway; one dealer told me lately, and wryly, that he seemed to have a free choice — between two ways of going broke.
The disc manufacturers cannot be blamed (though dealers do blame them) for these developments. They could not stay out of stereo, on pain of losing the future to tape. Neither could they have ventured into it ten years ago, thus saving us all some obsolescence money, because the processes were not ready. Some of the companies have been absorbing losses steadily for two years, at least in the classical area, where their firmest customers used to be.
One expedient several manufacturers have tried against the sales slump has been the maker-to-consumer record subscription club, offering economies and convenience. Dealers abominate these, but I think reasonlessly. Of course, I am suspect in so saying, since one of the clubs employs me as publicist part of the time, but I really think the clubs do less harm than good. They initiate an interest in listening, and yet they cannot entirely satisfy it. Bruno Walter plays Mahler best of anyone, but this may evoke an appetite for Schubert, involving Josef Krips, or for Berlioz, which brings in Munch, and you cannot get all three men on the same label. In the long run the record clubs will prove to be, just as book clubs have proved to be, a way for dealers to benefit by very expensive institutional advertising. provided that they can survive the transition. That is cold comfort, but technological changes cannot be thwarted.
Their effect can be blunted, however, and London Records since 1958 has been praiseworthily trying to do this. The company began then what it called, in England, Ace of Clubs, and in America, Richmond. (Richmond is a peripheral London borough; Purcell once wrote a song about a lady who walked there.) Richmond records are, in the main, outstanding London LPs of the decade before stereo. As London drops from its catalogue a monophonic Brahms Academic Festival by Van Beinum, in favor of a stereo version, it reissues the monophonic version on the Richmond label. Further, it makes the disc available at $1.98. However monophonic, the Ricci-Boult Beethoven Violin Concerto at $1.98 is something well worth a trip downtown. So is the Backhaus-Clemens-Krauss Emperor. So is Krauss’s delightful 1957 New Year’s concert with the Vienna Philharmonic. And there are bonuses. The late Miss Kathleen Ferrier, sweetest contralto of our time, has been most lovingly transferred to microgroove, from a 1947 shellac set, in the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. This is in English, three records for $6.00, Dr. Reginald Jacques conducting, and not available on any label other than Richmond. I would buy it merely to hear that gentle, lustrous voice singing “Grief and Pain.”
Leo Hofberg, manager of London’s Richmond division in New York, describes sales as gratifying. They must be, or the program would not continue. More than sixty classical discs have been released. Pricing seems no problem. .Most of the recordings already have paid their way in the original versions. To make the Richmond sales tab so low, metal stamper-discs are flown here from England, and the pressings are made in New York. (London records are pressed in London.) The recorded sound, from my samplings, is rather good. And the recorded music — to be repetitious - is in some cases unique. Nobody is going to play the Sibelius Fifth and Karelia again quite the way Erik Tuxen and Thomas Jensen did in the late 1940s, and to be offered both for two cents less than two dollars seems to me to merit a little quiet gratitude.
Haydn: Sonatas in E Flat, E Minor, C, and D Major; Andante and Variations in F .Minor
Wanda Landowska, harpsichord and piano; RCA Victor LM-6073: two records
I met the late Wanda Landowska only once, but to meet her once was to love her, and I did. Further, I loved her before I met her, for her Bach and for her Mozart. Hence, it is a little sadly that I must say her Haydn seems to me subtly and in some parts wrong. Her slow movements are irresistibly beautiful. Her fast movements are wonderfully executed, but they don’t dance. This is strange, from the great and lively lady that gave us the most motile Goldberg Variations ever made, and the airiest Mozart sonatas. Sometimes there is a sort of severity that comes with the dignity of old age. Of course, I could be in error, though I don’t think so. Haydn was the best fisherman and huntsman of the great swamp that was the Esterházy preserve. He liked a good time. His solemnity he saved mostly for his church music, which is sublime, though not quiet. Still, Landowska’s sonatas are the best you will find (except for one side of Backhaus), and there is no disputing their loveliness. All I miss is the jollity.
Mozart: Don Giovanni (Two versions)
Carlo Maria Giulini conducting fiber hard Wächter, Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Luigi Alva, Gottlob Frick, Giuseppe Taddei, Piero Cappuccilli, GraZiella Sciutti; Philhamonia Orchestra and Chorus; Angel S-3605-D/L (stereo) and 3605-D/L: four records Erich Leinsdorf conducting Cesare Siepi, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Cesare Valletti, Fernando Corena, Eugenia Ratti, Heinz Blankenburg, Arnold van Mill; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Staatsoper Chorus; RCA Victor LSC-6410 (stereo) and LM-6410: four records I have listed all the named parts in these sets because in Don Giovanni there is no distinction between stars and underlings; every singer has a star part — and a very hard one at that. Most curiosity will focus on Nilsson and Sutherland, the two brightest new sopranos on the opera scene, as Donna Anna. I have to declare a draw. Sutherland displays the slightly more luscious voice, Nilsson, slightly better vocal acting. My own favorite star in either set is Leontyne Price, who really makes Elvira a sympathetic personality. It is the men’s department that gives Victor the victory, for Giulini’s Giovanni. Leporello, and Ottavio simply are not believable in their parts, whereas Leinsdorf’s are at least competent and at best convincing. It will be noted that Leinsdorf’s cast is almost straight Metropolitan. Victor’s recording, made in Vienna, is also the more skillful in providing stage illusion. Until a perfect Don comes along, this one should do.
Strauss: Die Fledermaus
Herbert von Karajan conducting Hilde Gueden, Regina Resnik, Waldemar Kmentt, Walter Berry, Erich Kunz. other singers; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra andStaatsoper Chorus; London OSA-1319 (stereo) and A-4347: three records.
The Bat—owing to satiation—is something I can take or leave, but this is the one I would take. It is the best performance I have ever heard (meaning the merriest), and it has a stroke of London humor in the middle that is hilarious. Into Prince Orlovsky’s party — sent by the Emperor, ‘tis said — come Renata Tebaldi. Fernando Corena, Birgit Nilsson, Mario del Monaco, Teresa Berganza, Joan Sutherland, Jussi Bjoerling, Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Ettore Bastianini, and Ljuba Welitch, all to sing songs of their own choice, some serious, but most not. The tone of the proceedings probably can be best indicated by the fact that Nilsson elects to sing I Could Have Danced All Night; Simionato and Bastianini join in Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better; and Price offers Summertime, first apologizing because George Gershwin hasn’t been born yet. The recorded sound is a joy.
Vaughan Williams: Fantasy on Greensleeves; English Folk Song Suite; Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Sir Adrian Boult conducting Vienna Volksoper Orchestra; Westminster 14111 (stereo) and 18928
Boult was always Vaughan Williams’ choice to perform his works, and surely no one can play these two melodic and transparent fantasies, and the vigorous suite, so well as he.
I wish he had had an English orchestra., but the Viennese oblige him, and Westminster has given the strings an absolutely dreamlike texture.
The Organ in America
E. Power Biggs, organist; Columbia MIS-6161 stereo) and ML-5496 The peripatetic Mr. Biggs, who once filled a whole LP with performances of Bach’s D-Minor i’occata, demonstrating a dozen of Europe’s ancient organs, now has turned his attention to America. Apparently he has had enough of the Bach Toccata, which is rather a relief, for here he uses American music, very fittingly. The organs he found in his rambles (all down the East Coast, naturally, from Vermont to South Carolina) are not quite so old as his beloved German Schnitgers, but some have a kindred purity of sound, and none incorporate Biggs’s pet abomination, nicked pipes. The recording is admirable, and so is the choice of music, i would have liked more William Billings, but am happy to settle for James Hewitt’s 1797 Battle of Trenton and Charles Ives’s most irreverently funny variations (1891) on America, which even members of the DAR may secretly enjoy.