Discoveries From the Past
Fifteen winters ago, on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, William Schwann began publication of a bimonthly catalogue “listing all 331/3 r.p.m. microgroove records.” In the years since, the Schwann catalogue, which soon became a monthly, has faithfully reflected the tremendous expansion and vast changes in the record industry. To commemorate his fifteenth anniversary, Mr. Schwann has reprinted souvenir issues of his Vol. 1, No. 1, dated October, 1949, which contained twenty-eight pages and listed 674 recordings on eleven labels. By contrast, the current Schwann runs to some three hundred pages and lists 30,000 records on 750 different labels. Contemplating his bulky, voluminous monthly publication, Mr. Schwann might, if he were so inclined, echo Mr. Tony Weller’s satisfied remark to his son Samuel: “Vidth and visdom, Sammy, always grows together.”
But size alone does not tell the story of the transformations that the record catalogue has undergone in the last fifteen years. The thin 1949 Schwann catalogue, which came out before the industry as a whole had accepted the 331/3 LP as the standard phonograph record, really is a less interesting and revelatory archaeological specimen than a Schwann of, let us say, 1955 or 1956 vintage. For it was eight or ten years ago that the LP tide was at its crest, if not in numbers of records, then in their variety, originality, and sheer newness. This was the era when great composers like Vivaldi suddenly emerged alive and whole from the library files and manuscript cases to which they had been confined for centuries. It became possible for the first time to hear — actually to hear, not study or read about — operas such as Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Gounod’s Mireille, and Verdi’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata. In the Schwann catalogue for March, 1956, one company alone could note that its new releases included such repertory as Couperin’s Motet de Sainte-Suzanne, Handel’s Semele and Sosarme, Mozart’s Litaniae de Venerabili Altaris Sacramento, and two flute sonatas by Karl Stamitz — none of which, it is safe to say, musical audiences in this country had ever encountered before.
This First Age of Discovery gradually subsided, as ages of discovery always do. Among the causes of its decline were the increasing economic pressures on the smaller and more adventurous companies and, particularly, the sudden onset of stereo. Not that Bach cantatas and Vivaldi concertos and early Verdi operas sounded any the worse in stereo — quite the contrary — but emphasis began to be placed, by manufacturers and consumers alike, on sound for sound’s sake. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture replaced Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art as the showpiece of the collector who was au courant. Besides, perhaps the audience for the obscure, the unusual, and the unfamiliar had become satisfied for the time being; many of the more esoteric releases sold by the hundreds rather than the thousands, and their manufacturers found they could no longer hold their place in what was becoming a mass market. In any event, with the advent of stereo many worthy monaural recordings disappeared, never to be replaced, and it is a fortunate opera lover indeed who today can come upon a copy of the likes of La Clemenza di Tito, Mireille, or I Lombardi.
But now, at last, signs of a shift back in the opposite direction are beginning to appear. Nothing, apparently, can stanch the flow of repeat recordings of familiar masterpieces, especially those written for a large orchestra. But along with the ceaseless Emperor concertos and Pathétique symphonies, certain curious names and obscure works are beginning to creep back almost timorously into Mr. Schwann’s pages. Some of them, in fact, are names which many of us have never heard before.
It is hard to think, for example, of a more unassailably incontrovertible pronouncement than that which begins the jacket notes for a new release issued by Cambridge Records. “Relatively little is known,” says the opening sentence succinctly, “about the life of Johann Dismas Zelenka.”
Who, indeed, will quarrel with this statement, or should one say understatement? Some musical dictionaries know nothing at all about the life of Johann Dismas Zelenka, and even those larger compendiums that do mention him have difficulty scraping together more than a scant paragraph recounting his birth in Launowicz, Bohemia, in 1679, and his death in Dresden in 1745. Most of his creative life he spent as a court kapellmeister in Dresden.
Cambridge has devoted an entire record to Zelenka, filling it with three Sonatas for Two Oboes, Bassoon and Continue. They are played by Ray Toubman and Wilfred Burkle, oboists, John Miller, bassoonist, and a continuo group consisting of Daniel Pinkham, harpsichordist, David Carroll, bassoonist, and Olivia Toubman, cellist (CRS1814, stereo; CRM-814, monaural). Cambridge indulges in some goodnatured byplay over the circumstances of Zelenka’s return to general circulation. Says a section of the jacket notes printed, with mock solemnity, in Gothic type: “One day, while recording the Biber Mystery Sonatas, one of our continuo players (bassoonist John Miller) said that if these pieces fascinated us (and they did), we should hear a zelenkasonata. After we finally inquired what a zelenka was, John was invited to arrange an audition, so he recruited his friends Toubman and Burkle. The whole crew was then turned over to Dan Pinkham. . . . Somewhat curiously, we went off to the audition — and were demolished by the deceptive cadences, hemiolas and all that jazz. Zelenka’s Sonata V was taped along with some Boismortier and Handel but a little time and a little cogitating convinced us that Z. was worth a record all his own. . . .”
Some of the other information provided by Cambridge is almost equally fascinating. Zelenka, it appears, composed prolifically, his output including twenty-one masses, three requiems, two Te Deums, 108 psalms, and various other works, none of which has ever been published, since “according to legend, his music could not be copied or printed, by decree of King Friedrich August I.” Why this monarch, who ruled as King of Poland as well as Elector of Saxony, and was sometimes known as Augustus the Strong, kept Zelenka out of print is nowhere disclosed; but Cambridge has fortunately disregarded the royal ban just as intrepidly as the archaeologists have pooh-poohed the curse of King Tut.
Most important of all, the music of Johann Dismas Zelenka turns out to be well worth the trouble of resuscitation and recovery. These oboe-bassoon concertos may not fill a major gap in music history, but they represent skilled and cultivated wind compositions that are never less than agreeable and sometimes attain a surprising emotional intensity. The first sonata on the record begins with a kind of melancholy fanfare played in unison which arrests one’s attention immediately, and the music which follows abounds in unexpected turns, including sudden chromatic runs and cadences that never quite close, so that the intertwining melodic strands build a musical structure of generous proportions.
Messrs. Miller, Toubman, Burkle, Pinkham, and their associates play the three sonatas with the skill, zest, and enthusiasm of musicians who have made a valuable discovery and are eager to share it. The Zelenka sonatas, like most of the instrumental music of their day, profit from rhythmic crispness, dynamic incisiveness, and cleanly melodic playing, and all these qualities are provided in abundance by the Cambridge instrumentalists.
One Zelenka doesn’t make an avalanche, any more than one swallow makes a summer. But it is striking that a small independent label considers it worthwhile to invest its resources in this music, as well as to take a flier on Heinrich von Biber (1644—1704) and Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1691-1765), neither of whom has ever been regarded as money in the bank by prudent record entrepreneurs.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the news that the large companies are beginning to look toward unfamiliar pastures. A stereophonic I Lombardi or La Battaglia di Legnano may not yet be on the horizon, but RCA Victor has scheduled a recording of Verdi’s almost equally obscure Luisa Miller.
Much of the revival of interest in unfamiliar and unhackneyed music is reflected in the growing import trade. Capitol has for more than a year been distributing in this country European releases of the various companies of the EMI combine, with a regular monthly schedule.
London Records has now undertaken to import into the United States a new Telefunken line from Germany, a series of well-made, well-played recordings devoted largely to the Baroque and Renaissance periods, and gathered under the general heading Das Alte Werke. The first releases in the series include a particularly fine collection of old Christmas songs by the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg, conducted by Jürgen Jürgens (SAWT-9419-B, stereo; AWT-1419-C, monaural). The Alte Werke series is unfortunately marred by particularly unattractive and uninformative packaging. A short English text is given, but most of the labeling and annotation is in German, and titles and contents are listed in a confusing manner. A perfectly charming record (SAWT9415-B, stereo; AWT-9415-C, monaural) of music for string orchestra by four cheerful Italians, Sammartini, Bonporti, Pergolesi, and Nardini, is presented under the discouraging title of Italienische Meister zwischen Barock und Klassik. With a little less sternness in its packaging, Das Alte Werke should make a welcome addition to the record scene.
Somewhat similar is a line of European-made recordings being offered here on a new label called Nonesuch, a subsidiary of Elektra Records, hitherto folk-song specialists. The quality of the Nonesuch releases is rather variable, but several choice items are offered, including a collection of three early symphonists of the Mannheim school, Karl Stamitz, Johann Baptist Wanhal, and Peter von Winter (H-71014, stereo; H-1014, monaural). Wanhal was a friend of Mozart’s who used to play string quartets with him, and his Symphony in A Minor turns out to be a brief but thoroughly expressive and delightful work. Moreover, the performance by Karl Ristenpart and the Chamber Orchestra of the Saar is excellent. Many of the Nonesuch releases were recorded originally by the Club Français du Disque of Paris. They are brightly packaged, well annotated, and priced at a modest $2.50. Wanhal, like Zelenka, is making his first appearance in Mr. Schwann’s catalogue. For both of them, it is high time.
pictorial study of Goethe’s three characters Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, with a mystic chorus tacked on at the end. It also is a Lisztian exercise in orchestral mastery, abounding in startling harmonies, unexpected melodic turns, and imaginative orchestration. In all these aspects it finds an ideal interpreter in Leonard Bernstein, who strides into the music with boldness and exuberance. The final Mephistopheles section, with its sardonic twisting of the earlier Faust themes and its diabolic buzzing and swooping, reaches a fine orchestral fury before it is done. Has the work as much substance as it seems to possess in this powerful performance? Perhaps not, but Mr. Bernstein scarcely gives one time to wonder.
Wilhelm Furtwängler in Memoriam (Contents — Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D; Haydn: Symphony No. 88 in G; Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat; Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D; Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor; Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor)
Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, violinist; Deutsche Grammophon KL-27/31 (monaural only): five records
Wilhelm Furtwängler (Contents — Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”; Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; Symphony No. 9 in D Minor; Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eflat, “Emperor”; Violin Concerto in D)Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Vienna Philharmonic, Philharmonia, and Bayreuth Festival Orchestras, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Elisabeth Höngen, contralto; Hans Hopf, tenor; Otto Edelmann, bass; and Yehudi Menuhin,
■ violinist; Odeon EBE-600 0000/1-6 (monaural only): six records The tenth anniversary of Furtwängler’s death at the age of sixty-eight on November 30, 1954, is commemorated eloquently in these two large albums. Furtwangler stood in the great line of German Dirigenten; his romantic inclinations were compatible with a classical discipline; he could adopt unconventional tempos (usually slow ones) and make them seem surpassingly right. These albums offer some of his finest achievements: the Schubert C Major and the Schumann Fourth in the DGG I collection, the Beethoven Ninth in the Odeon. Of the two Beethoven violin concertos, Menuhin’s has far more life and buoyancy than Schneiderhan’s. Furtwängler found American doors closed to him as a result of his musical activities in Nazi Germany; a proposed trip here in 1955 with the Berlin Philharmonic was prevented by his death. Individually, these two sets offer new insights into familiar works; together they constitute an imposing and, one must believe, enduring tribute to a masterful conductor.
Anonymous: The Play of Herod
Noah Greenberg conducting New York Pro Musica, with vocal and instrumental soloists and Boys’ Choir of the Church of the Transfiguration; Decca DXSA-7187 (stereo) and DXA-187: two records “When Herod and the other persons are ready, an Angel shall appear with a multitude of the heavenly host.” Thus begin the “stage directions” for The Play of Herod, as found in a twelfth-century manuscript in the monastery of Fleury in the Loire Valley of France. The Play of Herod is a musical drama about the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, and was enacted within the walls of an ancient church for the instruction of a now-vanished audience; no one today can be certain of the actual instruments used or the precise musical structure. Any modern performance must be a work of imaginative reconstruction, not to say recreation, and this is what has been accorded the play by Noah Greenberg of the New York Pro Musica, together with Dr. William L. Smoldon, a British authority on medieval church drama. Herod&$39;s initial modern performance, probably its first in 700 years, took place a year ago in New York’s uniquely beautiful medieval museum, the Cloisters, and since then the work has been performed in religious surroundings elsewhere. Undoubtedly, a setting like that of the Spanish apse of the Cloisters adds a dimension to Herod that no recording can provide. Nevertheless, this is a noble and moving work to hear; a nativity play at once naïve and profound, spiritual and human. The chimes, gongs, and percussion instruments that underline the action, and the weaving patterns of the vocal chants, combine to make the ancient story seem vivid and immediate. The work is sung in Latin, with the accompanying brochure including an English translation, the history of the work, and a set of photographs of the Cloisters production. No Christmas album this year is likely to be more original or eloquent.
Music for Voices and Viols in the Time of Shakespeare
Elizabethan Consort of Viols and Golden Age Singers, with Roger Pugh, harpsichordist, and Hermann Leeb, lutenist; Westminster WST-17076 (stereo) and XWN-19076
One would like to think that Shakespeare actually heard music as lovely as this, and as skillfully performed, in his own day. This record begins with a brief but beautiful account of “Greensleeves” played by a group of viols, and proceeds through madrigals, lute pieces, folk tunes, and songs from plays. The longest selection is devoted to a set of London street cries, in which cabinetmakers, fishmongers, pie vendors, and chimney sweeps all hawk their wares and their services. Like most of the selections on the record, “The Cryes of London” admirably conveys the mood and atmosphere of the time — although the Golden Age Singers surely make for some of the most cultivated-sounding street hawkers who have ever lifted their voices on behalf of a basket of eels and sprats.
Sing Nowell — Carols for Christmas and Other Festivals
Louis Halsey conducting the Elizabethan Singers, with Simon Preston, organist; London OS-25809 (stereo) and 5809
The announcement that these carols constitute “a collection which is representative of contemporary British composers, particularly of the younger generation” seems a bit startling at first. However, it turns out that “the younger generation” of British composers has merely, for the most part, transcribed or arranged such noble seasonal songs as “God rest you merry, gentlemen,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Away in a manger,” “The holly and the ivy,” and others. Several newly composed carols, mostly to ancient texts, are also included; among the composers listed are Edmund Rubbra, Peter Racine Fricker, John Gardner, Arthur Oldham, and Peter Naylor. The Elizabethan Singers perform with taste and spirit, and the result is a Christmas record with just enough of an unfamiliar twist to lend it added freshness and interest.