An occasional series by Christopher Howell
1. Henry Swoboda (1897-1990): an updating
A couple of updatings to my recent article on Henry Swoboda.
Stephen Sutton of Divine Art has drawn my attention to the fact that the entire contents of Swoboda’s Westminster LP dedicated to Milhaud (WL 5051) is included on their CD of historic Milhaud performances (Divine Art 27807), still readily available. More usefully still, he has kindly provided a copy for review.
This LP contained the Serenade op.62, the 5 Studies for piano and orchestra op.63, the Suite extracted from the opera “Maximilien” op.110b and the 3 Rag Caprices op.78. It was recorded in 1950 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The pianist in the 5 Studies was Paul Badura-Skoda.
It would be interesting to know if Milhaud was invited to attend these sessions - entire LPs of his music were not exactly two-a-penny in 1950. The question is not merely academic when we look at these timings for the Serenade, the only piece here of which I have comparative versions:
  I II III Total
Celibidache, Naples 1968 02.54 05:41 04:41 13:16
Cluytens Naples 1962 02:36 03:32 04:14 10:12
Swoboda 02:53 06:24 04:40 13:57

Logically, Paris-based André Cluytens was the most likely of the three to have discussed the work with the composer at some stage, or even to have heard him conduct it himself. And his second movement is nearly double the tempo of Swoboda’s! Unfortunately, my off-the-air recording of the Cluytens performance is severely overloaded so it is difficult to judge whether his faster speeds produce the racy Gallic verve he obviously intends, with a coolly mobile central movement, or whether the raucous concatenation of all the contrapuntal lines creates the effect of peppery, stung-by-a-wasp bluster that Milhaud’s music all too often does create.
Swoboda’s solution to the contrapuntal sardine-tin is to give it more space. Less Gallic verve, but a considerable sense of relaxed enjoyment. To be slower in a slow movement than Celibidache is quite something, but the central piece - marked “tranquillo” - emerges as gently expressive and does not outstay its welcome.
Celibidache, we know, was something of an alchemist, and no doubt he was allowed more rehearsal time than the other two put together. Instead of letting the different instruments play at more or less equal strength, he decides, on a phrase-by-phrase basis, which line to bring forward, so we hear a kaleidoscope of changing balances. Gilding the lily, perhaps, but very nice.
The same sort of relaxed enjoyment informs the remaining items. I wondered if the “3 Rag Pieces” weren’t a tad slow, but we clearly have an important glimpse at the early performing history of Milhaud’s works. The more so when the disc also contains the Suite for violin, clarinet and piano, op.157b, played by Jacques Parrenin, Ulysse Delécluse and Annette Haas-Hamburger (c.1952), the Little Chamber Symphony no.3 op.71 with Walter Goehr conducting a crack group consisting of Jean Pougnet (violin), Anthony Pini (cello), Paul Draper (bassoon) and George Eskdale (trumpet) (1936), and the Symphonic Suite no.2 “Protée” op.57 in Pierre Monteux’s San Francisco SO recording (1945). The transfers are by Andrew Rose. He has extracted a remarkably clean, clear and pleasing sound-picture from these old recordings with only an occasional trace of the huskiness that can emerge when too much denoising is applied.
I have also discovered that Swoboda’s coupling of Haydn’s Symphonies 64 and 91, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Westminster WL 5023), can be found nestling inside a large folder otherwise dedicated to Hermann Scherchen in a blog called How others think. This LP was listed for the first time in the third supplement of WERM, which had a cut-off date of December 1956. WERM lists no earlier recording of no.64.
Swoboda seems to me to be especially successful here with first and second movements. In both first movements he adopts a pace that allows plenty of vitality while being at the same time sufficiently spacious to give all Haydn’s unexpected twists and turns the time they need to register. He also interprets well the heartfelt songfulness of the second movement of no.64 and the droll humour of that in no.91. His minuets will seem rather stately, even portly, to modern ears. I wonder why, when he gave that of no.94 with such infectious bounce. His finales follow the pattern of his first movements. Only, finales are finales and these, while not without vitality, seem to lack that touch of Beechamesque verve that would bring the house down. Nice performances all the same.
Christopher Howell