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Hermann Scherchen – Le Concert Imaginaire
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Ma Vlast (1879) – Vltava [15:48]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand (1929-30) [18:09]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 Op.36 (1877) [40:24]
Robert Casadesus (piano)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (Ravel), Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera (Smetana, Tchaikovsky)/Hermann Scherchen
rec.  July 1951 (Tchaikovsky); May 1957 (Smetana); March 1957 (Ravel)
TAHRA TAH651 [75:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The disc’s title says it all. Scherchen never conducted this particular programme but Tahra has willed it so in presenting these three performances. Overture (or in this case, being Vltava, not really), concerto and symphony is the standard trio and it makes for fruitful stylistic listening.
That said and with all due respect to the shade of Scherchen this is the most bizarre performance of Vltava I have ever heard and can confidently state ever shall – unless Roger Norrington gets ever more eccentric in his old age. Forget the fact that’s it must be the slowest example on record but more to the point it really does show Scherchen’s amazing, wilful, rhythmic impositions. The result is a petrified forest of a performance – amazing, remarkable, once heard and never forgotten. The weary tributary rises with exceptional lethargy. The riverside village celebrations are shod in aluminium shoes, the languorously romantic section are etiolated beyond mere bar lines. Add to this the acidic sound of the Vienna strings and you have an example of Scherchen’s imperishable penchant for tempo extremes taken to grandiose extremes. For those of us with Czech blood in our veins it’s a monstrous river we meet!
The concerto is Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand. The soloist is the man who was much associated with it and whose 1947 recording with Ormandy has long stood the test of time; Robert Casadesus. This is the only live recording in the disc (made a decade after the pianist’s commercial recording) with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. The recording is pretty good and once past the rather untidy opening things begin to burgeon nicely. Scherchen was no stranger to the work; he had conducted it for the dedicatee, the argumentative Paul Wittgenstein, in April 1934, and again in 1958 in Buenos Aires and in 1959 with Monique Haas and the Berlin Philharmonic. Now trenchant, now brassy, colourful and sinewy this is a powerful reading with the two men seemingly in fine accord. The “brassy” first trumpet makes his presence felt and the jazz-influenced pages are accomplished with rhythmic assurance. Casadesus is a nuanced and characterful soloist and more extrovert than his compatriot Jacque Février whose 1942 recording with Charles Münch, though tonally constricted, offers similar musical rewards.
The symphonic statement is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth.  Scherchen had first conducted it in 1932 and more performances soon followed in far-flung arenas – Montevideo and Mexico included – and culminated in this Vienna recording made in July 1951. The tempi are not consistently, or even exceptionally, extreme. The Andantino is certainly brisker than contemporaries such as Thomas Beecham and Erich Kleiber took it and both these conductors took the Scherzo at a distinctly faster lick than did Scherchen. But allowing for these inner two movements the symphonic proportions as a whole are broadly stable. It’s a pity the Vienna strings sound shrill and thin and that the woodwind principals lack the glamour and personality that others have brought to their solos. Nevertheless Scherchen’s often rather cool and analytical direction lends the work dignity and slightly unusual proportions.
So this is the concert Scherchen didn’t conduct. Now, on disc, in a sense, he does. Thoughtful notes ensure we have the background of the conductor’s association with the individual woks and composers.
Jonathan Woolf    


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