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Mono Maven
Columbia Mono LPs
Part 1

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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  Of all the major LP manufacturers, Columbia probably gets the worst rap. You don't generally hear people speaking glowingly about Columbia's sonic wonders; yet it cannot be argued that they had some of the best artists at their beck and call. The inner sleeve lists the numbers: Columbia is the MGM of recording studios ~ "More stars than there are in the heavens." There's Glenn Gould, Dimitri Mitropoulos, David Oistrakh, Leon Fleischer, Isaac Stern, the Budapest Quartet, Bruno Walter, Eugene Istomin, Eileen Farrell, George Szell, Leonard Bernstein and the great symphony orchestras of Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia, to name just a few that leap off the page. Columbia's pre-stereo efforts are indeed a mixed bag – perhaps more than others; but the artistry cannot be doubted, and a surprising number of recordings sound quite good. Here's the first part in my survey of one of the great mixed bags of the LP era:

 

Glenn Gould, Piano ~ Beethoven: Concerto #2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19; J.S. Bach: Concerto #1 in D Minor for Piano (sic) & Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein conductor
[Columbia ML-5211]

Before there was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt or Nicholas McGegan, there was the piano. Prior to the return of original instruments in the mid-1960s, the piano was used commonly and unapologetically for performances of Baroque period keyboard concertos. This makes a certain sense, given how easily the modern piano cuts through symphonic textures; few thought seriously about the obvious alternative of simply cutting back the size of the band. Even Columbia's title for this music indicates just how forgotten the once redoubtable harpsichord once was. That said, there were some mighty fine interpretations of Bach concertos featuring the piano. Among the best is this one with Glenn Gould.

The D-Minor is the one Bach concerto that I hear easily on the piano — this piece, the first movement of the A Major (whose recording in stereo by Gould with Vladimir Golschmann is excellent) and the largo from the F Minor (whose recording by Gould I'm not all that crazy about.) The piano works in all three movements of the D-Minor. ML-5211 is also my favorite concerto recording by this most introverted of pianists. It possesses all the dynamism and lyricism that Gould could muster. Here he is ably accompanied by Bernstein, where the two were of much the same mind, so to speak, something that was not always to be. There is a glue in the phraseology of the first movement of both piano and orchestra I don't believe I've ever heard anywhere else. The sound blows away Columbia's own reissue compilation, M2 42104 — so much so, it seems that they actually play better.

The Beethoven Second Concerto (composed, as nearly everyone points out, a few years earlier than the First) gets less play than any of his others, but it still has a great deal to say for itself. Gould and Bernstein play up the contrast between the exuberant outer movements and the tranquil lyricism of the Adagio. The music seems to get better, more confident, as it goes along. The last movement bristles with that syncopation that would become Ludwig van's trademark.

 

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Zino Francescatti, violin ~ Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21. Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor. Vieuxtemps: Concerto # 4 in D Minor, Op. 31. The Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy, conductor.
[Columbia ML-5184]

A pretty good Lalo. A satisfying Vieuxtemps. I only wish the violin tone were a little less opaque — something like a well-shampooed head, but without the conditioner. Francescatti's approach to the Symphonie Espagnole is sweeter, more elegant, less idiomatic than some; and it certainly doesn't displace my favorite by Ida Haendel and the Czech Phil led by Karel Ancerl on Supraphon. But the Columbia is more than agreeable once you tumble to its relatively constrained violin tone.

Henri Vieuxtemps, a contemporary of Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Lalo (all of whom outlived him), isn't all that well-known in the U.S. He was a Belgian, like the incomparable violin virtuoso and composer, Eugene Ysaye, who followed a generation later. If you know the Lalo, Vieuxtemp's music is less extrovertish and idiomatic. You might think of it as tasteful virtuosity. Sweet and melodic. Recommended.

 

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Bernstein: Fancy Free; Copland: El Salón México; Milhaud: La Création du Monde. The Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein, conductor.
[Columbia CL 920]

I like to think of this recording, while mono, as the Phase 4 of Columbia pre-stereos. Perhaps it's the "CL" designation that encouraged Columbia's engineers to get close up and personal; but whatever the reason, the outcome is a very exciting recording. That goes double for the performances, especially Fancy Free, which Bernstein recorded twice afterward in stereo. Where the mono is sultry, the stereo version coupled with On The Waterfront and On The Town (a New York triptych) is exuberant and raw. The last one for LP (recorded in demonstration sound by DG), coupled with the conductor's 1944 Serenade, is smooth and confident. By this time, the sailors know just what they're after and how to get it.

Bernstein was a champion of Copland's music, doing what he could to place him seriously before the public, as was to do also for Mahler, each befitting their talents. El Sálon México is one of those popular hi-fi demonstration pieces, with the special advantage of being long enough to be involving and brief enough not to try the patience of your garden variety audiophile. In concert performances El Sálon México never fails to bring the audience to their feet. The mono is not one of the best in respect to either sonics or interpretation, but neither is it trying desperately to impress. Bernstein very much has the measure of both the folk and classical implications, though he hasn't quite got to the point where he is comfortable with experimenting with the pulse, so it feels a wee bit constrained.

The addition of the Milhaud on the program is a perfect complement: La Création is jazzy, folksy and classical. All three pieces have latent or intentional choreographic implications, and could make a terrific ballet program with some aspects of production design and narrative in common. Not surprisingly, Lennie conducts them accordingly. It's all so delightful.

 

 

 

• Sound [4]

• Performance [4.5/4/4.5]

• Enjoyment [5/4/4.5]

• Historical [3]

 

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"Starring Richard Tucker" Richard Tucker, tenor; Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Fausto Cleva, conductor. London Columbia ML-5062.

There is nothing quite like a powerful, ringing voice such as possessed by Richard Tucker, star of the Met from 1945 through the late 50's. Some critics likened his voice to Caruso's, and indeed it does have some of Caruso's incisiveness and ease, though it is also so evidently Moorish. It is a voice, like the Jazz Singer's, destined to become a great hazan (cantor). So it is odd that the only weakness in this collection is the Ingemisco from Verdi's Requiem, which Tucker manages to sing unecstatically. There is little out there so gripping as Tucker's amazing tenor voice reproduced with the power, focus, and immediacy of a good mono recording. This is one of the areas that stereo rarely does as well. The present program includes arias from Verdi's Un Ballo in Machera, Luisa Miller, Il Trovatore, and the Requiem; also Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Giordano's Andrea Chenier, Mascagni's Iris, and the ravishing Ah, fuyez douce image from Massenet's Manon.

 

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Stravinsky: The Fairy's Kiss (Le Baiser de la Fée) Complete Ballet. The Cleveland Orchestra / Igor Stravinsky, conductor.
[Columbia ML-5102]

I've always had a curious fondness for this music — it's not really all that great, but somehow I find it reassuring. Composed in 1928, The Fairy's Kiss shares the same optimistic buoyancy as the composer's Apollon Musagete, written the year before. Despite the music not being deliberately derivative, it occasionally bears a melodic resemblance to Pulcinella (1920). Its economy of texture and rhythm could have influenced Carl Orff, when he isn't trying to impress us. In other spots, we can hear echoes of Tchaikovsky.

In fact, Stravinsky writes that his object for this ballet was to "commemorate the work of Tchaikovsky" with the fairy as an allegorical stand-in for that composer's muse. It's all very metaphorical, and I'm sure if you didn't know the connection to Tchaikovsky you could have lived comfortably for the rest of your life.

Columbia gives this performance a pretty good rendering. The sound is rich while maintaining the transparency of texture required for a large chamber orchestra. Six eyes.

 

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Mozart: Six Quintets for String Quartet and Viola. The Budapest String Quartet, with Walter Trampler, viola.
[Columbia M3L-239 (also available separately on ML-5191, 5192 & 5193)]

Many feel that the quintets, especially the last four, represent the best that Mozart had to offer for string chamber ensembles. And what is the best of the best? I wouldn't want to have to say. Perhaps it is enough that we bring attention to a form many people would otherwise have let slip under their radar. For obvious reasons, there aren't many concert performances of string quartets plus a viola or cello: It isn't all that easy to come by a loose fiddler who's also as good as the sitting members of a Budapest or Italian or a Fitzwilliam Quartet, and who is also available for a tour. So usually we have to satisfy ourselves with recordings. But if you come across a concert program of a Mozart, Schubert or Brahms String Quintet, do not fail to take advantage of the opportunity.

The six string quintets of Mozart span the extent of his post-juvenile career: first the B-Flat Major, K. 174, composed in 1773 when he was 18; then much later, the C-Minor, K. 406 with its gripping opening movement. The K. 406 is, in fact, an altogether unexpected, and very different sounding arrangement of the composer's earlier Serenade for Winds, K. 388 for pairs of horns, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. Then there's the pinnacle of the form represented by the two middle quintets: the ecstatic C Major, K. 515 with an Andante of such longing it will tear your heart out, and the intensely dark G Minor K. 516. Both bear a striking resemblance in tone, mood and form to the great G minor and C Major symphonies, K. 550 and K. 551, except that the progression of darkness to light is reversed in the quintets. Finally, there are the more austere D-Major, K. 593 and the brilliant and busy E-Flat Major, K. 614, a composition that offers not a clue as to his fate that he would be dead before the year was out.

As I'm sure you can tell, I love this music, even the youthful K. 174 and the bizarre and purloined K. 406, and own several sets on LP. Depending on my mood, I might choose the elegance of the Grumiaux on Philips, or the generous Tatrai (very well recorded on Hungaroton/Qualiton), or the dynamic Budapest. But if you must have only one, then it must be the Budapest for their completely assured readings, where each quintet feels like a unique adventure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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