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Capitol FDS
Volume II

Review by Leonard Norwitz
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LP Numbers: Various, see below 

 

  Continuing my survey of some of the more interesting titles in this series I shall briefly summarize my remarks from the first article:

Capitol FDS, along with Mercury, Westminster and Columbia--as well as London (made in the UK by Decca, but released in the US under the "London" label)--were the most dependable names in pre-stereo classical reproduction among mainstream labels.  Some of Capitol's artists, such as Leonard Pennario, William Steinberg and Felix Slatkin, were less well known than those on Columbia (e.g. Glenn Gould, Eugene Ormandy and Dimitri Mitropoulos) or RCA (Vladimir Horowitz, Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Reiner), but now and then scored direct hits.  Wisely, Capitol often released more off-beat titles, such as the previously mentioned Fall River Legend, but they were also willing to step up to the plate with more traditional favorites.  Below are a couple of each, heavy on the Felix. [See my earlier article for a discussion, with examples, of Capitol's labelography.]

 

 

 

Percussion! Milhaud: Concerto for Percussion & Small Orchestra; Chavez; Toccata for Percussion; Bartok: Music for String Instruments, Percussion, & Celesta. The Concert Arts Orchestra, Felix Slatkin, conductor. Capitol P8299

This is a record we would want to have for the cover art alone.  But when we play it we discover gems of all shapes and sizes.  The Bartok is justly famous and has been given its due elsewhere in stereo.  The performance here is quite good, though it sheds no new light on the subject.  Now let's cut to the rubies.  Both the Milhaud and Chavez are as unjustly neglected as the Bartok is celebrated.  They are studies in bodacious contrasts, unlike the Bartok, which by comparison is a study in reserved contrasts.

Darius Milhaud was a staggeringly prolific composer of a remarkably long life span, much of which was spent at Mills College (1940-71). I was once accepted there for graduate study in musical composition, when Milhaud was in his early seventies.  Alas, I chose the relative safety of UC Berkeley. Milhaud's music is often characterized by jazz and Latin American references such as he picked up during a stay in Brazil.  His Concerto for Percussion & Small Orchestra was written in 1930, and is chock full of southern hemispherical paraphernalia.

Carlos Chavez's Toccata is an exceptionally colorful work, which at the time of its composition in 1942 firmly positioned Chavez as the leading musical figure among his contemporaries.  Even prior to the artistic success of Frida Kahlo, Chavez gave Mexico a boost in the eyes of European and American snobbery.  The Toccata is the one piece on this record that regards percussion as a sufficiently complete ensemble to convey concert-size ideas.  Slatkin's rendering tends to be more considered than expressive, but it certainly is sufficiently percussive.

The Capitol engineers have done exceedingly well at picking up the range of delicate nuances and the percussive power, to say nothing of the weight and voluptuousness of the bass drum.  There is an entertaining note on the back of the jacket directed to "High Fidelity Enthusiasts" which expresses their intent.   Long gone are the days when such sweet, unabashed claims were made; so for the sake of nostalgia, I'd like to quote it in full:

"High Fidelity Enthusiasts will find this album unusually rewarding.  Percussive sound, to be reproduced with brilliance and definition, must be recorded with the utmost in technique and finesse.  When percussion instruments constitute the very basis of a fine musical composition, then engineers and producer face a special challenge—one which has been met, in the recording of these three works, with results that are extremely gratifying from musical and technical points of view."

 

Well, that's the whole point, isn't it!  That such understanding and commitment came remotely close to its intended realization fifty years ago in mono is testament indeed.

 

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Poulenc: Sextette for Piano & Winds. Hindemith: Quintet for Winds, Op. 24, No. 2.  Fine Arts Wind Players; Leona Lurie, piano.  Capitol FDS P8258. (early FDS/dark green label)

One of the most vivid recordings in the Capitol FDS catalog.  The feeling of a small group instruments filling up every available air space in the listening room is absolutely palpable: an impression of the live event itself.

There is not a great deal of fabulous music for winds (as compared to music for other chamber ensembles), but this record includes one of the best--the Hindemith.  Some of the most eminent chamber pieces for winds add a piano or strings, as in the Poulenc above and in various works by Mozart and Beethoven--most famously the "Trout" Quintet by Schubert.  Some are like small symphonies, especially Schubert's Octet (on DGG or Concert Disc.)

If you turn out to like wind music, which happens to make for very convincing listening in one’s home hi-fi environment, you should investigate Mozart's Serenade in B-flat "Gran Partita" for 13 Winds, K. 361, with either Jack Brymer and the London Wind Soloists on Decca/London, or Edo de Waart and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble.  When you're ready to move on to more obscure, but surprisingly satisfying music (considering you may never have heard of this chap), you can't miss with Ludwig Spohr's Nonette, Op. 31 for winds and strings by the Vienna Octet on Decca/London or the Fine Arts Quartet plus New York Winds on Concert Disc.  The Mozart and Spohr titles just mentioned are recorded in fabulous stereo.  Another adventure in winds is to compare this Capitol FDS recording with Angel 35079, which in addition to the Hindemith Quintet includes La Cheminée du Roi René and Deux Esquisses of Milhaud and Trois Pieces Breves by Ibert.

Capitol P8258 is rather difficult record to find — so much so that I seem to have misplaced my own copy and, with apologies, cannot offer an image of its cover art for you.

 

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Music of Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Summer Night on the River; Intermezzo & Serenade “Hassan”; Caprice & Elegy for Cello & Orchestra; Prelude “Irmelin.”  The Concert Arts Orchestra, Felix Slatkin, conductor. Capitol FDS P8182 (early FDS/dark green label) (also available on EMI MFP 2065).

Being based in Hollywood, Capitol Records was home to a number of orchestras with more than a few members in common: The Concert Arts Orchestra, The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestras, The Hollywood Bowl Symphony, and the orchestras of several major movie studios.  Don't let the "Hollywood" fool you. These musicians were among the best in the world.  And while much of the music on their records tended to represent the European "tourist trade," they could always be relied on to get right to the emotional heart and deliver the goods with unrivaled technique.

Felix Slatkin was often used by Capitol Records as their crossover conductor — sort of like a transition from Carmen Dragon to Leopold Stokowski.  But Slatkin (besides eventually siring Leonard, who was the principal conductor for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for many years and recorded quite a bit for Telarc), was also the founder and first violinist of the legendary Hollywood String Quartet.  His wife, Eleanor Aller, was the HSQ cellist (and also sister to Victor Aller, the very fine pianist who formed a quintet with the HSQ on occasion).  I mention all this because, while the ensemble playing on this disc is quite good, and their sincerity on the more popular of the Delius pieces not the least bit suspect, the gem of the program is the Elegy, performed by Ms. Aller.  It’s so lusciously sensuous that it’s safest to listen to it only when alone.  As for the "Hassan" Serenade, I prefer Rafael Druian and Louis Lane on Epic BC 1275 to Paul Shure and Slatkin.

 

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Smetana: Quartet No. 1 in E Minor "From My Life"; Glazounov: Five Novelettes, Op. 15.  Hollywood String Quartet. Capitol FDS P8331

I like to think of Bedrich Smetana as a poor man's Dvorak — someone to love if you can't have the one you want.  He has his moments: Ma Vlast, especially “The Moldau,” for all its popularity, and The Bartered Bride, most obvious among them.  The E-Minor String Quartet is handily his most popular chamber piece, and the most like Dvorak.  What Smetana lacks in comparison to his compatriot's polish and lyricism, he makes up for in grit and enthusiasm.

Similarly, Alexander Glazounov rates as a lesser Tchaikovsky [well, duh!].  Among other works, his Seasons is justly admired, and has been given its share of audiophile-quality recordings.  Glazounov wrote his Five Novelettes in 1888.  Given the limits of the medium, you would be hard pressed to find more enchanting, evocative works of the day.  We hear not so much snatches of Scheherazade as its aroma.  Likewise, shades of Borodin (more like, Kismet, I'd say).

The Hollywood String Quartet plays with such unanimity of tone and attack that at times I longed for stereo just to assure me there was more than one instrument playing.  On listening to this record, we see why their name is often preceded by that most overused commendation, "Legendary."

 

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Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, conductor.  Capitol P-8293

Sergei Rachmaninov lived concurrently with Ravel and Bartok.  Like the former, he never embraced twentieth century forms or its melodic or harmonic inventions.  Unlike the latter, he did not resuscitate the music of his cultural roots.  In the minds and hearts of his audience Rachmaninov remained faithful to the Romantic period into which he was born, in contrast to his compatriot Stravinsky, who gradually went off in search of a brand of serial to call his own.  Not so, Rach, whose most beloved pieces stem, like his C-Sharp Minor Prelude, the Second Symphony, and his Second and Third Piano Concertos, from the first decade of the past century.  These are expansive works, with sentiment pouring from every phrase and chord.

The Steinberg was my favorite performance of this piece, until the work was revitalized on record with its cuts restored — most notably by Andre Previn in pretty damn good stereo on EMI. Concert and living room audiences alike were happily oblivious to the notion of this symphony having been edited.  I could sort of understand cutting the piece for the sake of fitting neatly onto two sides of an LP, but such was not the reason.  It all stems from Sergei's nagging lack of confidence.  Hard to believe, isn't it!  After the critically disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 when he was 24, he had a nervous collapse, destroyed the score, and wrote nothing for three years.  Ah, those Russians!

He recovered well enough, for his next piece from 1901 was the immensely popular Second Piano Concerto.  While Rachmaninov was said to have sanctioned cuts for his next symphony (altogether, some twenty minutes if all the original repeats are also observed), he more than likely thought better of it eventually.  A story survives of when Eugene Ormandy invited Rachmaninov to cut the hour-long score for a performance in Philadelphia. The composer returned it to Ormandy with his reluctant consent to cut the symphony as he had marked.  He had crossed out two bars.

Nonetheless, the pre-restored version of the Second Symphony stands well on its own even if the restored version is better — better, that is, if you enjoy even more of Rachmaninov's savory ooze — which I do — and few recorded performances get it any more oozy, yet miraculously in control, than this one on Capitol.

 

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