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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: October-November 2006

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Last month I mentioned the Pristine audio website (link 1) and the facility therein, for a modest subscription, to access their whole catalogue and play it directly off the internet, preferably through a hi-fi system. They specialise in restoring historical recordings which are out of copyright (i.e. pre-1956) and I have been continuing to explore what is offered. Pride of place amongst the rich pickings goes equally to Sir Adrian Boult’s 1949 recording of Elgar’s 1st symphony with the London Philharmonic and Thomas Jensen’s 1952 Danish Radio orchestra take on Nielsen’s Sixth. Either of these is a plausible first choice in the repertoire and few allowances need to be made for the sound. Other orchestral recordings I found to be of particular interest are Anthony Collins and the LSO in a Delius anthology made in 1953 and the famous live in the Concertgebouw Mengelberg Mahler 4 from 1939. No one could, I suspect, convincingly argue the latter is a first choice but everyone should hear it!

There is quite a lot of Mozart on the site, of which Sammons and Tertis playing the K364 Sinfonia concertante in 1935 under Harty is another “must hear”. Reginald Kell in the Clarinet Quintet (1945) and Schnabel playing the K459 piano concerto under Sargent (1937) are further examples of recordings that grab and hold one’s attention. There is not a great deal of opera here but the famous and splendid 1935 Glyndebourne Figaro conducted by Busch is coming down the telephone line and out of the speakers as I write. Bach is well represented too with Edwin Fischer’s 48 from the 1930’s and Hermann Scherchen’s 1950 B minor Mass. Here the sound is initially disappointing but it gets considerably better quite quickly and the performance is tremendous. The difficulties the restorers had with the beginning of this recording are explained in the notes – another feature of the Pristine site is excellent documentation.

Lovers of the keyboard will also find much else to interest them. Despite an interest in Scarlatti I had not heard of harpsichordist Fernando Valenti before. There are, so far 11 discs of this combination from the early 1950s available. The complete oeuvre (555 sonatas in total) was not recorded until the mid-80s (by Scott Ross) but Valenti’s pioneering records clearly made quite a big dent and deserve to be unearthed. Alongside them is Wanda Landowska’s famous record of 20 sonatas from 1934 and Kathleen Long playing an interesting Scarlatti selection on the piano. Pick of the piano discs I have heard so far is the first of two Liszt recording made by Peter Katin in 1954 which includes the Dante sonata and Consolations.

I also ought to mention some more chamber music – notable here are the Italian Quartet’s 1954 take on Beethoven’s first Razumovsky quartet and Schubert’s B flat Piano Trio. There are two recordings of the latter with Casals (1926) and Fournier (1953) as the cellists. I haven’t yet heard the former (although the beauty of this arrangement is I could listen to it whenever I want to with just a couple of clicks of the mouse) but the latter is pretty exceptional – Janigro and Badura-Skoda are the other artists. Whilst on the subject of Schubert, I must also get around to listening to the first ever recordings of his song cycles made in the 1930s by Hüsch and Müller – these have been reviewed in detail by Anne Ozorio (link 2). Of course, not everything is going to completely hit the spot, the 1940s Bruckner String Quintet by the augmented Strub Quartet is basically a curiosity and has the slow movement placed second (and here you can’t just reprogram the order of tracks) but disappointments have been very few so far. Congratulations are due to Pristine for an amazing achievement.

Much of the historical stuff mentioned above makes Wilhelm Kempff’s 1950s complete Beethoven sonata recordings seem relatively modern. This set was issued about ten years ago, has a Penguin guide rosette and has recently been on offer at a very low price. Relative to prior high expectations, though, I found it slightly disappointing. There is a variable amount of tape hiss and a few pre-echos but the sound is generally very good for the period and much better than for Solomon’s incomplete series made around the same time. The playing is, of course, wonderful in many respects but Kempff is not invariably convincing, particularly in some of the early sonatas. These are studio recordings but there are quite a few uncorrected fluffs and the dates indicate that he was often recording several works in a single day. Most of the recordings were made in September and December 1951 and then some gaps were filled as late as 1956. Kempff started with the later works and seemed to be on better form generally in September than in December 1951. However, the Hammerklavier is quite lacking in grandeur and taken quickly (a mere 38 minutes on the clock). There is beauty in the slow movement but the Fugue doesn’t really hang together. Despite inferior sound, Solomon is much more convincing in this great work. Kempff eschews repeats and generally does not linger (the slow tempo in the opening of the first sonata is an exception and sounds quirky), either in terms of tempi or on individual notes – final chords often sound clipped. As a whole, no doubt this is one of the great cycles but somehow it didn’t quite match my expectations. John Quinn has just reviewed Craig Sheppard’s recent live cycle (link 3) and, perhaps I should have gone for that although the prospect of jewel cases for a nine disc set would count against it in my book.

Two recent musical outings could hardly have been more different. First, I was off to Covent Garden on a Monday night to see the revival of their production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (link 4). This was a fabulous evening’s entertainment with a plot which makes Shakespeare seem quite tame. Stars of the show were Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina and John Tomlinson as the father-in-law whom she murders with rat poison. The orchestra was impressive too with Antonio Pappano doing a great job in the pit. The piano music of Elgar in a school in Oxfordshire proved also to be entertaining, as delivered in words and on the keyboard by David Owen Norris (link 5) - part of the English Music Festival. Ashley Wass’s recent Elgar disc found its way into my reviewing pile (link 6) and it was interesting to hear the Enigma variations in this form.

Another disc I have reviewed recently was of chamber music of Ryba (link 7), a little known Czech composer whose flute quartets are a logical place to go next if you like Mozart’s well-known and delightful compositions in the genre. Another name unfamiliar to me was the Japanese composer Hayasaka (link 8) whose piano concerto is more influenced by Rachmaninov than by national idioms. Mention piano concerto and it is hard not to think of the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series. Disc 41 continues to delight with two works by Kalkbrenner, another unfamiliar but interesting composer (link 9). Howard Shelley is again on great form with his Tasmanian forces.

A disc of English cello sonatas by Foulds, Walker and Bowen also found its way into my player and proved worthwhile (link 10). I thought the Foulds to be the finest of the three but all are well worth hearing.

Patrick C Waller



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