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April 2005
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Surveying RCA Mono LPs
Part 2

Review By Leonard Norwitz

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35.
Jascha Heifetz, violin. The Philharmonia Orchestra, Walter Susskind, conductor.

Sinding: Suite in A Minor, Op. 10. Ravel: Tzigane
Jascha Heifetz, violin. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Alfred Wallenstein conductor
RCA LM-1832 (also on CD, BMG 61738)

 

  I've never been one of those who genuflect before Jascha Heifetz' 1957 Living Stereo recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (LSC-2129). I find the stereo sound a mite woolly and the orchestra lacking dynamic impact, especially when compared to the opening movement of the mono. In the later recording, Heifetz plays with less subtle articulation and nuance than in his earlier effort, which dates from 1950.  (Heifetz also recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto with Barbirolli in the late 1930s — available on CD, BMG 61749.)

There is a certain irresistible gypsy quality to this music that some violinists mine for all it's worth, as if in a permanent state of cadenza. Not that the music won't work if you dazzle and expand. But Heifetz, in all three of his recordings, prefers to let the cultural roots of the music lie just below the surface, avoiding the maximum espressivo of every possibility, making us work just a little — which is part of why I like the 1950 version so much. Heifetz balances the folk and virtuosic elements most satisfyingly. Again, compared to the stereo, RCA captures the violin with better focus (perhaps to a fault as compared to the orchestral sound). In the mono, Heifetz plays with warmer affect and a lovelier tone, nailing my emotional connection to both music and performance.

Reiner may have better orchestral command than Susskind, but Tchaikovsky doesn't demand so much from them that we miss the difference all that much. The exception is the finale, where the CSO/Reiner wins on points, especially in the opening measures, which in Susskind's hands are relatively lethargic. Heifetz, of course, is anything but. So if you find Heifetz a bit too fast to express the necessary nuance and emotion of this concerto, and some do, you should try the Kogan with Constantin Silvestri and the Paris Conservatoire on EMI CD, or for megabucks on stereo LP.

LM-1832 has a bonus or two, first in the form of Christian Sinding's rarely performed Suite for Violin and Orchestra. Inadvertently, the Norwegian-born composer might well have written himself into that no man's land of singular kitsch by virtue of his once fashionably popular "Rustle of Spring," a piano piece destined to show off the newly established technique of intermediate pianists. The Suite, on the other hand, is actually real music, and was a concert favorite of Heifetz.

The second bonus is the justly popular and technically dazzling Tzigane, a work of pure gypsy-cum-classical inspiration. No one but Ravel could have conceived it, except perhaps Liszt, who didn't write all that much for the violin. With the Tzigane, Heifetz casts his lot with Rabin, Handl, Milstein and just about every other major violinist who has needed to make his or her mark. Though I prefer Ida Handl, Heifetz acquits himself bloody well, accompanied here by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Alfred Wallenstein.

The sound in this mono is no great shakes, but it more than adequately supports the clarity and melodic invention of soloist and conductor. Even though the works on the LP were recorded at different times and venues, the violin tone is always nicely captured — more sweetly than with the stereo Beethoven. The instruments of the orchestra are properly presented, especially on side 2. Both the dark red or bright red shaded dogs are worth having, but the dark red is the keeper. There is an earlier edition of the Tchaikovsky by itself (LM-1111 Red Seal), which would seem like a good thing except that, to my ear, it may not be EQ'd in RIAA.

Give a fresh listen to the big tuttis in the first movement and ask yourself if you've heard this music somewhere else. If you think maybe, then you probably have. Bill Conti stole it for his score for Phil Kaufman's 1983 film “The Right Stuff.” As Handel once said, "If you're going to steal, steal from the best."

 

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Toscanini Conducts Wagner
NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini
RCA LM-6020 (2 LPs)

 

  Toscanini combines a seemingly inexhaustible intensity with an exquisite lyricism to this compilation of well-known bits derived (less the singing) from Wagner operas. The selections eschew the usual bombast: there are no Valkyries riding, no entering into Valhalla, no flying Dutchman.  Instead, these four sides, with the exception of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin and perhaps the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, contain Wagner's most intimate moments: The Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the Prologue, Siegfried's Rhine Journey & Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung, the Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin, and the Prelude & Good Friday Music from Parsifal, as well as Wagner's birthday present to his wife — that soft-spoken yet glorious tone poem derived from Der Ring des Nibelungen — the nostalgic and elegiac Siegfried Idyll.

As a program, LM-6020 can't be beat with a baton, even if you're inclined to listen to the entire set in one session. Each piece flows from the one before as if by design — this despite the fact that many years separated their composition, to say nothing of the differences in dramatic content.

For those of you who think of Toscanini as a control freak, you might be in for something of a surprise. As James Stewart is to George Bailey, Toscanini seems to have been born to conduct Wagner. It's a perfect complement of temperaments. At first blush, Wagner may seem a natural for an expansive conductor like Solti, and in much of Wagner's music such an approach works to popular satisfaction, as Decca was to discover with Solti's widely acclaimed Ring cycle recordings. But Toscanini's attitude, at least for the music on this program, is more personal. He is willing to be imperial, yet he is always approachable; infinite, yet knowable. It is not the size of the sound that we respond to, but in a way, the product of the very control he is known for. The NBC Symphony had become by this time the extension of the conductor's will; and by demanding and attaining such a degree of fine control, and thereby flexibility, Toscanini could wring the heart.

In Toscanini's recordings for RCA of the Beethoven symphonies, there is a certain detachment that permits the listener to see into the intentions of the composer. In those recordings, however, we might experience that objectivity as coolness — as intellectual rather than emotional. The Wagner pieces on this set, in contrast to the Beethoven, already verge on structural disintegration, at least in "classical" Eighteenth-century terms. Toscanini reins in Wagner just enough for his music to soar. The result is the sort of passion that comes only from discipline.

I shall sidestep laboring over the individual pieces on the program, except to say that there isn't a weak moment in the set. When I try to single out my personal favorites, I find myself preferring whatever I'm listening to, which is how it should be.

The only weakness in LM-6020 is the sound; while not bad, it is a bit too thin and constrained to do the scores proper justice. The music seems to remain "in the box." This is not uncommon for RCA mono recordings of the period (ca. 1954), unlike those from the likes of Decca, Mercury and Columbia. While I haven't listened to those records in a true mono configuration for decades, my memory is that the sound could be more unrestrained. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has a proper mono cartridge and has made comparisons.

That said, this is a curiously neglected set. I'm at a loss to explain it.  Perhaps it is the lack of warhorse material (accent on "war"). Perhaps it represents too much heart for those with a casual familiarity with Wagner; and those who love the operas might rather have the music with the vocals (though most of the music on this program didn't originally accompany singing). Whatever it is, do yourself a favor and try to find one of these. Don't be surprised if it's been played more than once already. Look for the dark red dogs.

 

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