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Mono Maven
Continuing With My Series On Decca/London Mono Recordings, Here Are Six More - From The Justly Famous To The Unfairly Neglected.

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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Sibelius: Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43. London Symphony Orchestra / Anthony Collins, conductor.
London LL 822 [ARL-1680/1681]

This was the first orchestral mono recording I heard on modern equipment that foretold to me the forgotten potential of mono. This was over ten years ago.  Rarely had I heard a stereo recording with more orchestral power, especially in the timpani and bass. The size of the orchestral is bigger and more lush than many stereos, and the degree of air is totally unexpected. But it was and remains Anthony Collins' incisive interpretation that bowled me over. Crisp, controlled (some would say, more than enough, thank you) readings with plenty of bite. No gushing sentiment or self-indulgence here. We've gotten used to the performances of Colin Davis and the more recent Finns and, fine as they are, I can promise you will rediscover the Sibelius symphonies in the capable hands of Anthony Collins.

 

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Britten: “Four Sea Interludes,” Op. 33a; “Passacaglia,” Op. 33b (from Peter Grimes); Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34. Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, Eduard Van Beinum, conductor.
London LL-917 [ARL 1864/1865]

Decca's wiry sound supports the frantic, eerie mood, very much counter to the usual romantic plush readings of the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes by Previn and his like. Van Beinum finds treachery in this dawn and peal of bells. This is no sleepy village awakening; it is evil clocking in. Its first movements, "Dawn" and "Sunday Morning," are followed by the apparent calm of "Moonlight" in which impending tragedy leaks out from behind the clouds, and unleashes itself in the finale, "Storm."

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, subtitled "Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Purcell," is served well on a number of modern recordings--one of my special favorites, being the one conducted by the composer (London CS 6398) and coupled with his Serenade for Tenor, French Horn, and Strings, which you ought to have on general principles. The Op. 34 would seem a candidate to prove the locational prowess of stereo, and so it is; on the other hand, the mono's timbral purity will certainly tell you how well your playback system is working. Van Beinum's reading gives up little to Britten's own; in fact, it is singularly more of a single piece than a series of variations. (Britten was one hell of a conductor in his own right, as made apparent by his Decca recordings of late Mozart symphonies and the Bach Brandenburgs for modern chamber orchestra.)

 

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Beethoven: Trio No. 4 in D Major ("Ghost"), Op. 70, No. 1.
Mozart: Trio No. 4 in E Major, K. 542.  Trio di Trieste.
London LL-1177 [ARL-2401/2402]

This record came as something of a surprise to me.  I bought it a number of years ago when I was snapping up just about everything on Decca/London in sight.  I remembered the Trio di Trieste from their recordings of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and others on DGG.  My recollection was that they were better than your average bear — not routine, but not inspired either.  Well, maybe my memory or my critical sense was in need of repair — or perhaps I just happened onto their merely decent offerings with the DGG stereos.

The Trio di Trieste had been around for some while--since 1934 with only one change of personnel over the next fifty years.  Like the Janacek Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano, these gentlemen--a violin, cello and piano--play from memory, which assures a sense of spontaneity and flexibility in their performances.  [By the way, DG offers their complete recordings with the Trio di Trieste from 1952-69 on a 5-CD set, 477030-2.]

I had always thought the combination of violin and piano to be unfair in favor of the latter, though this would have been less true in the Eighteenth century, when the piano wasn't constructed to play to the third balcony. The addition of a cello fills things out, and the Decca engineers capture the balance nicely.  They make a beautiful sound.

I have always preferred Mozart’s B-flat Major Trio, K. 502 for its profound inspiration.  But the E major, written only a few weeks before the Jupiter symphony, is certainly substantial, if something so deliciously sweet as the K. 542 Trio can properly be called substantial.  Only twenty years separate the two pieces on this record, which was enough for Beethoven to find a way to achieve a more democratic equilibrium among the musical forces (Mozart tending to favor the piano).  While we might expect the Mozart Trio to fit right in with the Italians’ genial temperament, we are delighted to see they find plenty of energy in reserve for the exuberant Beethoven, lightening up only a shade in the Finale.  Highly recommended.

 

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Roussel: Symphony No. 3 in G Minor, Op.42; Symphony #4 in A Major, Op. 53. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Ernest Ansermet, conductor.
London LL-1495 [ARL-3130/3131]

Now here's a composer you don't meet every day: Albert Roussel, a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, but whose music seems more modern than either. Like Hindemith and Nielsen, Roussel's music is both unique and something of a dead end, stylistically speaking. There are other Twentieth-century composers about whom this could be said: Messiaen, Cowell, and Hovhaness, for example. The music of such composers finds a place in the public's heart more or less like fashion — too idiosyncratic to become part of the classics, but they do have serious fans. I happen to be one of Roussel's. The Third Symphony is the work to have here, chugging along with such great energy, full of elusive influences, yet all of a piece. The symphony is in the traditional four movements with a calming Adagio separating the hubbub. Demonstration sound.

 

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"A Paganini Recital" Ruggiero Ricci, violin;  Louis Persinger, piano.  
London LL-1005 (or) CM-9099 [ARL 2039/2040]

Ruggiero Ricci is Decca's house virtuoso.  You'll remember his brilliant stereo recordings of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole and Ravel Tzigane with Ansermet and the Bizet Carmen Fantaisie, Sarasate Zigeunerweisen, and Saint-Saëns Havanaise with Gamba.  The present program consists of relatively scaled down, more intimate compositions, but this only lets us get closer to the violin and its master.

Among the morsels in this program are the virtuosic, yet classical Le Streghe (here in an arrangement by Kreisler), the amusing Variations on "God Save the Queen," a heartfelt Fantasia on the G String (after Rossini), the facile Moto Perpetuo, and the justly popular La Campanella from the composer's second violin concerto.  There is much to choose from here, but my favorites on today's listening are the vigorous extended cadenza, the Variations on Paisiello's "Nel cor piu mi sento," and the Sonata No. 12 in E Minor, which dances around joyfully like a gypsy.

As you might expect from Paganini, the piano part is relegated to support in much the same way as the orchestra does in his concertos.  So perhaps it doesn't matter so much that the piano sound is less than robust.  But the violin tone is good — though I won't say it's the best I've heard from Decca.

Both LL-1005 and CM-9099 are "R" editions and therefore not originals, but they are still very fine, I can assure you.  Curiously, I prefer the somewhat later CM to the LL, which leads me to speculate that the latter is cut 45/45 stereo and therefore sounds more agreeable via my stereo pickup.

 

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William Walton: Portsmouth Point Overture; Siesta; Scapino Overture; The Wise Virgins (ballet on themes of Bach).  London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, conductor.
London LL 1165 [ARL-2377/2378]

Let's end this issue's compilation with a bang.  We can always count on Sir William for exuberant music, and the present program, varied though it is, is no exception.  So let's begin with the flip side, Walton's arrangement for ballet of music by J.S. Bach titled The Wise Virgins.  The piece was commissioned by Sadler's Wells for a performance in 1939, with choreography by Frederick Ashton.  It was then titled, The Wise and Foolish Virgins. The score is in six distinct movements, each taken from a cantata or chorale. Some of this music is utterly exquisite, such as "See what His love can do" from the Cantata No. 85 and the justly famous "Sheep may safely graze."  Other parts storm the heavens, such as "Ah! How ephemeral," from the Cantata No. 26.

And now for the bang: the three pieces on the first side. The Portsmouth Point Overture is one of those virile pieces that the English reveled in. (Think of Holst's Suites for Band or Vaughan Williams' Incidental Music for The Wasps.) Even so, there is something curiously jazzy about Portsmouth Point, like the music of Copland and Bernstein that was to come later. 

Between Portsmouth Point and the energetic Scapino Overture is Siesta — curiously named, since it seems to be more about what isn't asleep, or what is about to be, than what is. Scapino comes on like the title music to film noirs like The Naked City. I keep expecting the cops to roll in, guns ready.  I'm sure it's just me.

LL 1165 is another example of demonstration sound that fully supports the music — whether big or small, hectic or soothing. In Sir Adrian's hands, these are solid and jubilant performances.

 

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