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In the days even before they embarked on their extensive series of annual editions of Penguin Guides, the distinguished authors – then Edward Greenfield, Ivan March, Robert Layton and Denis Stevens – proclaimed the virtues of Anthony Collins in the very first 1962 edition of their Guide to Bargain Records. “In the early days of LP,” they stated, “the Decca artists’ department was not as successful as it is now in ‘building up’ a British artist; perhaps, if they tried again now with Anthony Collins, they might find themselves with another conductor of international reputation on their books.”
In the event the encomium of the authors came somewhat belatedly. Already in 1957 Collins had left Britain to take up a conducting post in South Africa, and in 1963 he died at his home in Hollywood where he was already well established as a film composer. His conducting career on records had lasted for a mere dozen years from 1945 to 1956, although it had already attracted widespread approbation. And the booklet notes by Peter Quantrill for this compendium of his studio work make large claims for him to be considered as a rival to Bernstein, who was already at this time beginning to pursue a double career as a concert conductor and a composer of film and popular music, as well as having more serious ambitions as a symphonist. But where Bernstein effectively launched his world-wide trajectory with the advent of stereo in the early 1960s, Collins had already effectively retired from the scene and all the recordings in this box (with one dubious exception) are strictly mono, even when Decca had already been experimenting with stereo in the studio from 1953 onwards. One indeed almost gets the impression that Collins was regarded by the company as a reliable house conductor who could be depended upon to provide suitable fill-ups for other artists’ LPs; several of the performances here were originally issued as couplings for prestige recordings by prominent European conductors such as Eduard van Beinum, or virtuoso soloists like Friedrich Gulda, Ruggiero Ricci, Peter Katin or Moura Lympany.
Indeed the central plank of Collins’s recorded testimony lies almost exclusively with his traversal of the Sibelius symphonies, the first-ever complete cycle on record (once it had become clear that the long-awaited Eighth was never going to appear), issued on disc during the years 1952-55. For many years, indeed, they stood unchallenged as the major complete set, and were early candidates for reissue on Decca’s mid-price Ace of Clubs label although I had already encountered his Second Symphony, extravagantly spread over two full LP sides, in the late 1950s. There are still elements in that performance that enthral me, in particular his exquisite handling of the opening of the mysterious slow movement where his sepulchral approach seems to me much more involving than any attempt by a more interventionist conductor to provide light and shade. And this despite Sibelius’s deliberately vague instructions to performers: “Tempo Andante, ma rubato” and no metronome mark. It is interesting to learn from Peter Quantrill that Collins sought guidance from Sibelius regarding some ambiguities in his score markings, only to receive the decidedly unhelpful response “metronome markings difficult to follow strictly stop conductor must have liberty to get performance living” which gives no recognition to the problem whatsoever.
But a rather rude shock awaited me as I resumed my acquaintance with the recording of the Sibelius Second. My memory of the LP sound encompassed a deep and rich resonance which seemed to perfectly match the music; but on CD what emerges is an extremely monophonic sound, confined to a single one-dimensional source and almost totally lacking in the warm bass that I so vividly remembered. Passages of distinctive contrapuntal lines are merged into closely worked patterns, and the sound of the timpani in particular is boxy in the extreme. I do not think that the differences which I observed can be accounted for purely by the fact that my modern equipment is more critical than my parents’ old mono radiogram on which I first experienced the recording; and initially I was at a loss, until a clue was provided by the same Guide to Bargain Records to which I referred in the opening paragraph of this review.
When the time came to prepare their old masters for reissue at mid-price in the early 1960s, Decca had undertaken a programme of remastering of their original tapes designed to bring them up to contemporary record industry standards, a process which involved lifting the treble frequencies and reducing the bass amplitude of the recordings. This had been largely undertaken on a wholesale basis, with little reference to the characteristics of the music itself or of the original balances attained by the engineers. This leads me to wonder what the source of the material used for these CDs actually was. Have the Eloquence engineers been working with the original LXT mono tapes (if they still existed), or with the later remasterings used for the Ace of Clubs and later Eclipse reissues (the latter further remastered to add artificial stereo)? Earlier Eloquence issues of these recordings are described as having been taken from the “original mono tapes” (without specifying the date of origin of those tapes); but this might perhaps serve to explain the width of the distinction between my recollection of the sound and its modern representation here.
There also remain some points of concern regarding the other symphonies included in this cycle, most particularly the extraordinarily speedy traversal of the Third and Collins’s alteration of the composer’s actual text in the third movement where he omits some thematically important violin figurations and then four whole bars of music in what sounds like a badly misjudged edit. The reviewers of the original issue in the 1955 Record Guide suspected that this might have been a deliberate amendation of his score by Sibelius; but no later recordings make these omissions, which indeed make little or no sense in the context. On the other hand, there are some really marvellous performances here: not only a thrillingly dark Fourth and a purposeful Seventh but also a Fifth where the finale really seems to build from its whispered beginnings to a glorious peroration that seems inevitable and is managed without any of the sudden outbursts that so many other conductors clearly and mistakenly regard as dramatic. Perhaps the engineers at Pristine should look at a further remastering of these recordings; their recent reissues of the Vaughan Williams symphonies under Boult have shown what superlative results can be achieved with these old Decca masters.
Together with the symphonies Collins also recorded some additional Sibelius to provide fillers for the original LP releases: the tone-poems Pohjola’s Daughter and Night Ride and Sunrise as well as five numbers from the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande which most oddly exclude the best-known number At the castle gate – which serves to remind us that these recordings were made before that prelude established its popularity with the advent of the Space Age where it served (and continues to serve) as the introductory music to the BBC’s The sky at night. Even so, the choice of the two symphonic poems seems odd: no En saga, no Tapiola, and none of the other Sibelius favourites such as The swan of Tuonela. The ending of Night Ride and Sunrise is rather well managed, more than just the perfunctory big conclusion that we find in some less considered performances. But one would wish that perhaps Decca had pushed out their boat a little further.
Mind you, they did let Collins loose on some British repertory, in particular two LPs of Delius who at that time was regarded almost exclusively as the personal territory of Sir Thomas Beecham. Collins had played as an orchestral violist under Beecham in the period before the Second World War, and had clearly absorbed from the charismatic elder conductor the same passion for the freely rhapsodic style which tended to elude other conductors of the same generation such as Boult. It is interesting however to find him challenging the latter on his home turf with Elgar – not only the two principal works for strings but also with the symphonic study Falstaff – and the Vaughan Williams Fantasias, all of which tended fairly quickly to be overshadowed with the appearance of stereo versions of the scores conducted by Barbirolli which rapidly assumed legendary status. Listening now to these mono recordings (even the VW Tallis Fantasia with its elaborate spatial dispositions of the strings) makes one realise how very good the Decca engineering could be even in the earlier part of the 1950s, and how great a disservice was done to the quality of the original recordings by stereo remastering for later mid-price issues. It comes as no great surprise to note the presence of John Culshaw as producer for Delius’s Paris or Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, just as Decca’s then principal producer Victor Olof assumes responsibility not only for the Sibelius cycle but also for the remainder of the Delius items and the suites by Bizet and Falla.
Collins’s approach to Mozart, whether in his earlier 78 rpm recordings with the London Mozart Players or his later LP issues with the London Symphony Orchestra, are unashamedly big-band Mozart and none the worse for that. At the time the authors of the 1955 Record Guide were highly scornful of the performances of the clarinet and bassoon concertos (the former with the young Gervase de Peyer, no less) but they seem entirely acceptable to my ears. And the recorded sound too suffers less from mono constriction than with the more fully scored romantic repertoire, while Friedrich Gulda is a restrained and classical exponent of the three piano concertos here – a far cry from his platform and lifestyle eccentricities of his later career. Gulda also puts in an appearance with the Richard Strauss Burleske, sparkling with wit and good humour. It is hard to see why this performance and recording did not do more to establish this quasi-concerto in the repertoire; its twinkling repartee between solo piano and timpani is every bit as enjoyable as anything in (for example) the Saint-Saëns canon. Equally charming are the recordings of the two Paganini concertos (at the time of recording, the only two known of the composer’s total of six) and Ruggiero Ricci is less strident and forthright than he could sometimes be.
The recordings of the Mendelssohn piano concertos with Peter Katin as soloist are very much the odd man out in this compendium. In the first place, although they were recorded in 1956, they were not actually released for fifteen years when they emerged on the Decca Eclipse label which was usually reserved for stereo transcriptions of original mono masters. In this box they are described as original stereo recordings, which would make them unique in the Collins catalogue; but this is also confirmed by the 1972 Stereo Record Guide which describes them as “very early, but real stereo.” Which then leaves one to wonder why on 9-10 February 1956 exactly the same team of Decca engineers in exactly the same location were able to record the Mendelssohn in stereo, while on 17-18 January they were confined to mono for Tchaikovsky. Nor is it clear why, if these were indeed stereo recordings, they would not have been released before 1971. It seems to me rather more likely that, like the most of the rest of the Eclipse reissues, the recording was artificially remastered for stereo at the time of its initial release; but even so it remains hard to understand.
In more central repertory, Moura Lympany established a high reputation for her performances of Rachmaninov in the 1950s and her delivery of the Third Piano Concerto here goes far to justify that, even though we have encountered more sheerly virtuosic recordings elsewhere (she takes the simplified version of the cadenza). But this again is music that really does demand stereo for its proper impact.
The recordings of Bizet’s Carmen suite (with some additional numbers added to the usual tally) and excerpts from Falla’s El amor brujo (with the vocal numbers omitted) both suffer from brash and forward recordings, and some excessively excitable speeds. Similarly, the Tchaikovsky Capriccio italien has a rather vulgar approach and the hellish whirlwinds of Francesca da Rimini rather overshadow the more lyrical passages describing the passions of the lovers. None of this music seems designed to play to Collins’s interpretative strengths. The last two seems to have been his last recordings for Decca before he departed for South Africa and left the European stage, with what Peter Quantrill’s booklet notes admit are performances “at a lower level of interpretative intensity.”
Those notes make no mention whatever of Collins’s famous recording of the complete Walton Façade although the booklet does furnish us with photographs of both the soloists in the shape of Dame Edith Sitwell and Sir Peter Pears, both dressed in the weirdest costumes. Sitwell herself takes the bulk of the declamation duties, not always with the crispest delivery; and Pears is startling in his machine-gun delivery of the infamously tricky cadenza “Thetis wrote a treatise” – I can’t hear if he actually manages to get all the words in, but the result is amazing and knocks a good few seconds off that delivery of Michael Flanders (himself no slouch) on what remains my favourite version of this ‘entertainment’. The balance between voices and instruments, always tricky to manage, is far from ideal with both reciters on occasion reduced to inaudibility behind the witty orchestration, but that is hardly the fault of the conductor.
The final disc of the set contains a selection of brief items. The Strauss and Humperdinck, recorded in 1950, suffer somewhat from restricted recorded sound despite the acoustic of Kingsway Hall; these are scores which need richer sound. But the light music by Sullivan, Balfour Gardiner and Grainger is delightfully done, with the Kingsway Hall acoustic now providing plenty of bloom – despite the need for microphones to be carefully positioned to minimise the sound of passing trains on the London Underground! And the two final items give us a brief taste of Collins himself as a composer: his well-known Vanity Fair and the hardly-ever-encountered With Emma to town. These were recorded for a single 78 rpm release in 1954, and despite the cachet of the composer’s own presence at the podium sound very threadbare by comparison with modern recordings. What is particularly interesting is the discovery from the booklet notes that Collins also composed two symphonies and a violin concerto, the latter performed by Louis Kaufman in 1949, who compared the work favourably with the nowadays well-established concertos by fellow film composers Korngold and Rózsa. Might perhaps the innovative John Wilson be interested in investigating these?
As it is, much of this valuable collection leaves an impression not so much of achievement – although there is plenty of that to be found – as of what might have been. Collins was not allowed by Decca to explore any of the repertoire to which his clear affinity for Sibelius and Delius might well have fitted him; nor to expand his evident sympathy with the classical style as evinced by his Mozart into the field of Beethoven. Even so there is enough here to justify a celebratory box of fully 14 CDs. The layout of the works between CDs is excellently considered, with some of the individual discs running to over 80 minutes.
There is no real information on any of the music included here (and no texts for the Walton, which are really needed for full enjoyment – no matter how good the diction, one needs to read Sitwell’s verses to get their proper impact); but Peter Quantrill’s eight-page survey of Collins’s life and career contains much useful and enjoyable information, and the many photographs including copies of the original LP covers are quite fun, if only because many of Decca’s sleeve designs of the period were so hilariously ugly. Some of them are also reproduced on the individual cardboard CD sleeves within the box, with the cheap-Christmas-card-like cartoon for Falstaff particularly awful. This is a nevertheless a most handsome production, and a comprehensive tribute to a conductor whose performances and recordings still demonstrate considerable merits.
Contents CDs 1-2 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)
Symphony No 33, KV 319: Divertimento in D, KV 334 [London Mozart Orchestra] rec. 1945
Clarinet Concerto in A, KV 622 [Gervase de Peyer]: Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, KV 191 [Henri Helaerts] [Londpn Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954
Piano Concerto No 14 in E-flat, KV 449 [Friedrich Gulda, London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954
Piano Concertos No 25 in C, KV 503: No 26 in D, KV 537 Coronation [Friedrich Gulda, New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1955 CD 3 Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47)
Piano Concertos No 1 in G minor, Op 20: No 2 in D minor, Op 40 [Peter Katin, London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1956 CD 4 Sergei Rachmaninov (1973-1943)
Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op 30 [Moura Lympany, New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1952 Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Burleske [Friedrich Gulda, London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954 CD 5 Niccolo Paganini (1784-1840)
Violin Concertos Nos 1 in D, Op 6: No 2 in B minor, Op 7 [Ruggiero Ricci, London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1955 CD 6 Georges Bizet (1838-75) Carmen: Suite [London Philharmonic Orchestra] rec. 1950 Manuel da Falla (1876-1949) El amor brujo: Suite [London Philharmonic Orchestra] rec. 1950 Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) Capriccio italien, Op 45: Francesca da Rimini, Op 32 [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1956 CD 7-10 Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphonies Nos 1 in E minor, Op 39: No 7 in C, Op 105 [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1952, 1954
Symphonies Nos 2 in D, Op 43: No 3 in C, Op 52 [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1953, 1954
Symphonies Nos 4 in A minor, Op 63: No 5 in E flat, Op 82 [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954, 1955
Symphony No 6 in D minor, Op 104: Karelia Overture, Op 10: Pohjola’s Daughter, Op 49: Pelléas et Mélisande, Op 46 [excerpts]: Nightride and Sunrise, Op 55 [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1955, 1952, 1954 CD 11 Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1926) Falstaff, Op 68 [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954
Introduction and Allegro, Op 47: Serenade in E minor, Op 20 [New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1952 Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis: Fantasia on Greensleeves [New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1952 CD 12-13 Frederick Delius (1862-1934) The walk to the Paradise Garden: A song of summer: Brigg Fair: On hearing the first cuckoo in spring: Paris: In a summer garden: Summer night on the river [London Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1953, 1954 Sir William Walton (1902-83) Façade [Dame Edith Sitwell, Sir Peter Pears, English Opera Group Ensemble] rec. 1954
CD 14 Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Der Rosenkavalier: First Suite of Waltzes [London Philharmonic Orchestra] rec. 1951 Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) Hänsel und Gretel: Dream Pantomime [London Philharmonic Orchestra] rec. 1951 Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) Overture di Ballo [New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954 Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) Shepherd Fennel’s Dance [New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954 Percy Grainger (1882-1961) Shepherd’s Hey [New Symphony Orchestra] rec. 1954 Anthony Collins (1893-1963) Vanity Fair: With Emma to Town [London Promenade Orchestra] rec. 1954
all recordings in mono except CD 3