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Kaleidoscope - An Orchestral Extravaganza
London Symphony Orchestra, London Proms Symphony Orchestra (Grieg, Sibelius)/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall and Wembley Town Hall
ELOQUENCE 482 9360 [2 CDs: 73:38 + 66:18]

To anyone too young to recall the 1950s and 1960s, it may seem rather odd that there was once a very large market for such collections of mixed orchestral lollipops as this one. Today, after all, you’d be somewhat surprised to encounter a similarly random compilation from the likes of, say, Christian Thielemann, Sir Simon Rattle or Valery Gergiev. Sixty or more years ago, however, it was quite routine to find such high-profile conductors as Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner or – most famously - Sir Thomas Beecham conducting and recording programmes of such popular classics. How times change…

Beecham’s collections remain distinguished by the obvious affection that he lavished on the – not necessarily always worthy – material. Where musical individuality is concerned, however, his much-loved accounts remain the exception rather than the rule, for quite honestly there’s not much that most conductors can do to come up with distinctive accounts of such familiar and often not particularly challenging scores. Nevertheless, it’s good to have an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with these very enjoyable performances from Sir Charles Mackerras.

Mackerras’s name has long been associated with outstanding accounts of Czech repertoire, so it comes as no surprise to find that some of the standout performances on this well-filled twofer are of music composed within the extensive borders of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire. An attractively bouncy Radetzky-Marsch puts a smile on the face before we hear a well-sprung account of the overture to Der Zigeunerbaron. Idiomatic performances of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (No 20 is delivered particularly successfully) are in turn followed by a rollicking Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride.
As, however, recording producers had appreciated from the outset of Mackerras’s recording career, he was a conductor characterised by remarkable versatility. Thus, Peter Quantrill’s usefully informative booklet essay appropriately reminds us of John Amis’s perceptive query: “Who else is allowed by the public, managers, radio stations and the like to be a symphonic conductor, an operatic conductor, a ballet conductor, a light music conductor, a specialist in Janáček operas and a specialist in baroque music?”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the tracks on these discs do not limit themselves to pieces composed in the Czech or other Habsburg lands. Ambroise Thomas’s overture to Mignon - a piece rarely encountered these days, though, like many others here, one that used to appear quite often in those long-gone orchestral potpourris - is delivered with delectably delicate precision, while the same characteristic is also well to the fore in Mackerras’s accounts of both Berlioz’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Glinka’s Jota aragonesa.

Four tracks into the second disc, there is a notable change of mood as Mackerras’s early recordings of the music of Grieg and, more especially, Sibelius usher in a rather more introverted and sometimes austere atmosphere. The conductor clearly appreciates and relishes these pieces too and winningly conveys their many moods, from the aching poignancy of Heart-wounds, via the intensely moving Elegy from the King Christian suite, to the rustic vigour of the Cowkeeper’s tune and country dance. It is, in fact, the more extrovert and less subtle scores that, to my own ears, come off best. I especially enjoyed Gottfried Huppertz’s orchestration of Grieg’s Wedding day at Troldhaugen – and while its ultimate bombast suggests that the happy couple are tying the knot at a particularly grand venue, its brisk tempo might also allow us to speculate fancifully that they’re doing so at the barrels of father’s (gold-plated) shotgun. Meanwhile, Mackerras’s account of Finlandia really plays up its gruff, threatening character to remind us usefully that, at its core, it’s a robust, no-nonsense assertion of determined political defiance. While, by the way, the nine Scandinavian tracks are officially attributed to the “London Proms Symphony Orchestra”, in reality the latter is likely to have been the London Symphony Orchestra temporarily adopting a pseudonymous identity for contractual reasons. In any case, whoever is actually playing is rather beside the point. Far more important is that they are doing so at the very high standard that’s consistently in evidence throughout this well recorded and highly enjoyable pair of discs.

Rob Maynard

Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)
Radetzky-Marsch, Op 228 (1848) [2:52]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus (1874) - Overture [8:18]
Der Zigeunerbaron (1885) - Overture [8:17]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian dance No 1 in G minor (1879) [3:01]
Hungarian dance No 20 in E minor (1879) [2:02]
Hungarian dance No 21 in E minor (1879) [1:18]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Orphée aux enfers (1858) - Overture [7:25]
Orphée aux enfers (1858) - Can-can [2:00]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Mazeppa (1884) - Cossack Dance [4:16]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride (1870) - Dance of the Comedians [5:49]
Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849) - Overture [8:37]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Abu Hassan (1811) - Overture [3:25]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
Mignon (1866) - Overture [8:05]
Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
The Jolly Robbers (1867) - Overture [7:07]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Invitation to the Dance (1819, orch. Berlioz 1841) [10:06]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Le prophète (1849) - Coronation March [3:34]
Mikhail Ivanovich GLINKA (1804-1857)
Jota aragonesa (1845) [9:17]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Elegiac Melody No 1 Heart-wounds (1880) [2:51]
Elegiac Melody No 2 The last spring (1880) [4:34]
Nordic Melody No 2 Cowkeeper’s tune and country dance (1895) [5:17]
Lyric piece No 6 Wedding day at Troldhaugen (1896, arr. Huppertz) [5:41]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Kuolema, Op 44 (1903) - valse triste [4:55]
King Christian Suite, Op 27 (1898) No 1 Elegy [5:21]
King Christian Suite, Op 27 (1898) No 2 Musette [2:14]
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op 46 (1905) No 7 Entr’acte [2:24]
Finlandia, Op 26 (1900) [8:55]

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