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The Mono Maven Begins
A Survey Of Significant
Early Westminster LPs

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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Westminster "Natural Balance,"
Mono LPs, Part One

I like to think of Westminster 1950’s and early sixties mono (and stereo) LPs as the Lyrita of their day. "Natural Balance" is an apt description, for even though venues, producers and engineers vary, the end product is more often than not right on target with correct — or at least appropriate — balances and perspectives.

Westminster drew from critically acclaimed, cost-effective European and American resources (and one soon-to-become Australian celebrity). Some Westminster artists, such as harpsichordist Fernando Valenti and Sir Adrian Boult, cemented an already growing reputation in the U.S. via Westminster.  Others went on to superstardom, such as guitarists Julian Bream and John Williams. There's Antonio Janigro, a fine cellist and conductor, whose recordings for Westminster are only just lately receiving overdue recognition. Hermann Scherchen has something of a cult following; Erica Morini's stereo recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is an audiophile collector's item; while the likes of The Curtis String Quartet and Edith Farnadi still await their renaissance.

The Westminster catalogue is huge, concentrating on 18th, 19th and early 20th-century music — well known and less well known.  It includes a few interesting compendiums, such as Valenti's survey of the Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas and Farnadi's recordings of the piano music of Franz Liszt. This is the first of several planned articles reviewing some of Westminster's more interesting offerings in mono.

 

Red And Blue Labels

Westminster recordings usually originated in Europe or New York.  Some can be found on native labels, such as English Nixa.  The earliest U.S. catalogue numbers to look for would have the prefix "WL;" while the later "XWN" are still very desirable.  These stand in much the same relationship as the Mercury MF and RFR monos: the Westminster Red Label WL series exude a somewhat more robust sound than their XWN counterparts, but often have more compromised vinyl.  In most cases, however, the blue label is the original. The following titles shouldn’t be too hard to find:

 

Dvorak: "New World" Symphony (No. 5 in E minor, Op. 95). Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London, Artur Rodzinski, conductor. Westminster WL 5370 (or XWN 18295).

You can tell something about the vintage of this recording by the numbering of the symphony.  This was back in the days when the New World Symphony was known as No. 5." A decade or so later, Dvorak's symphonies were re-numbered in keeping with their actual order of composition, so the E-Minor Symphony became, transitionally, the "No. 5 (No. 9)", and finally, simply No 9.   Continuing the trend in nomenclature: what was on this record the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London we now know as The London Philharmonic (just as the New York Philharmonic was called the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York prior to Leonard Bernstein.)  Artur Rodzinski, aka "Artur Rodzinski," went on to record the entire Dvorak symphonic cycle, with its new numbers and in stereo, for Philips.

WL 5370 was recorded in London in 1954. You might well ask if I'm serious about recommending a major symphonic work in early mono.  You bet.  To be sure, the left/right space isn’t there, but depth is.  The natural timbres of the winds and strings, especially in the Largo, are lovely; the weight and power of the ff attacks of the low strings and tympani in the opening Allegro molto just might push your chair back a pace.

Rodzinski's inspired performance is just idiosyncratic enough to keep you on your toes.  The movements that surround his eloquent reading of the Largo form one of the more vigorous, spirited New Worlds on record. It is as if Rodzinski feels that the elegiac second movement, like the eye of a hurricane, is the heart and soul of the entire work, and that the outer movements serve to protect it with all the spirit and authority they can muster. The WL red label is preferred, but the blue label (XWN-18295) is quite acceptable.

 

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Debussy: Violin Sonata; Cello Sonata; Sonata for Flute Viola, and Harp. Ginette Doyen, piano; Jean Fournier, violin; Antonio Janigro, cello; Camille Wanausek, flute; Erich Weiss, viola; Hans Jellinek, harp. XWN-18511.

These are unusually dynamic readings, particularly in the sonatas for two players. Nothing laid back or wishy-washy here. Debussy's writing is so inventive, and the cellist so busy, you might think at first that you are listening to three players. But this is probably only an unintended result of the Trio's following immediately on the heels of the Violin Sonata: you might get so lost in the music that you feel you are still listening to the same piece. The recorded sound is first rate. The Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp is vivid beyond hopes.

 

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Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies 16-19, Rhapsodie Espagnole, Six Consolations. Edith Farnadi, piano. WL 5339 (or XWN 18338).

To my reckoning, Edith Farnadi recorded the first comprehensive collection of Liszt's piano music for LP.  These included the 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Six Consolations, the three Liebestraume, Soirees de Vienne, the Paganini and Concert Etudes, the First Piano Concerto and the Todtentanz, and a few other bits--not Liszt's complete oeuvre by a long way, but surely the most important works.  No self-respecting collector should be without these records, particularly the Rhapsodies.

Edith Farnadi was born in Budapest in 1921.  She studied piano there and eventually taught at the Budapest Franz Liszt Academy. Something of a prodigy, she played Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto at the age of twelve.

More like the Dionysian frenzy of Sviatoslav Richter than the Apollonian cool of Claudio Arrau, Farnadi really digs into these pieces, revealing both their gypsy folk origins and their compositional brilliance. Farnadi is technically assured, though not always absolutely flawless — a fact that tends to humanize her performances.  One could never accuse her of detachment.

And while we're on the subject of humanity, let's get sexist for a moment.  What, even by today's standards, might surprise many listeners is the power of her left hand.  In her day (way back in middle ages of the 20th century) it wasn't all that common for a woman on the concert circuit to be so unabashedly heroic in her performance. Gieseking must have winced when he heard her.  I can't think of another woman of her time (and very few today) who delivered the goods on eastern European composers as she did.

Liszt requires both halves of the psyche to be present and accounted for, and Farnadi doesn't disappoint.   She conjures appropriate levels of mystery and beauty whenever called for — not just in the Consolations, which in her hands are exquisite, but also in the many reflective moments of the Rhapsodies.

We should be thankful that Westminster captured Farnadi's piano sound on these records, for they are truly of demonstration quality: fairly close, with brilliant upper registers and powerful, authoritative bass.

 

 

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Guitar Music of Villa Lobos & Torroba. Julian Bream, guitar. XWN 18137

The familiar Villa-Lobos Five Preludes are to the guitar what Mendelssohn's E-Minor Concerto is to violin: a necessary staple and proving ground for the practicing artist. The Preludes are more introverted, more refined than the Torroba pieces (with the exception of the Burgalesca), and more difficult to convey emotionally than technically. I find Bream a little less at home in the Villa-Lobos than in the more purely Spanish music of Torroba, De Falla and Turina from his earlier album, XWN 18135. Brazilian rhythmic nuance is subtler than the precision and fire of the Spanish.  I don't know any guitarist that gets it quite the way I hear it in my head; most don't seem to find anything specifically Brazilian about Villa-Lobos. What Bream does, however, he does beautifully, even if not exactly idiomatically. Nor does he call attention to his prodigious technique. Bream's Torroba is closer to the mark; for a non-Latin, he conveys [his version of] the idiom convincingly.  Look for the standard blue label Westminster, though the ABC Paramount black label reissue isn't an embarrassment.

 

 

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J.S. Bach: French Suites. Fernando Valenti, harpsichord.  SWN-18157/158.

The complete six French Suites are recorded on two separate LPs. The Valenti performances make for ready comparison to Thurston Dart's clavichord recording for L'Oiseau Lyre SOL-60039, where all six suites come on a single record. There are two reasons why Decca manages the complete collection on one record, where Westminster requires two. The first and most obvious is that Valenti takes all the repeats, whereas Dart takes none. The second is that the cutting level is much lower and the groove spacing narrower on the Decca, since the clavichord is a considerably more delicate instrument and requires less of either when played back at realistic levels. Valenti and Dart treat these suites as differently from each other as their respective instruments require. Valenti is robust and masculine, Dart refined and feminine. The effect of Valenti's taking all the repeats is hypnotic, just as it is in those few recordings of the Goldberg Variations that so honor the composer's markings. On the other hand, I feel that moving along promptly to the next dance in the program permits a sense of variety that better suits the more restrained clavichord.  One could have both recordings without experiencing the slightest sense of redundancy.

 

 

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Mahler: Symphony #7 in B minor. Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen, conductor.  WAL-211 or XWN-2221 (2 LPs).

Hermann Scherchen is one of the more neglected conducting genii of his time: never pedestrian, always able to get committed performances in riveting, fascinating interpretations, even from second-tier orchestras. He tackled much of the more obscure literature, including the complete score of Gličre's Ilya Mourometz  (XWN-2212).  Here Scherchen presents what was then and remains (along with his Sixth) the most ambiguous and intriguing of Mahler's symphonies. The recording is an excellent test case for the ability of mono to resolve and convince the listener, for it must deal with some of Mahler's most complex textures and dynamic excursions: from delicate cowbells and Alma's exquisite love theme to boisterous tutti and some of the strangest sounds, stops and starts imaginable for a work that calls itself a symphony. Can mono bring it off? Or do we really need stereo's ability to separate everything out in order to keep the disparate elements from running into each other? The pudding, as it were, is a bit of a revelation: Westminster's engineers capture and retain the orchestra's pure instrumental timbres, permitting us to listen deep into Mahler's imaginative textures. Scherchen is a wonder here in what may have been the first LP recording of this masterpiece. Look for either the oversize gatefold red label (WAL-211) or the standard box blue label (XWN-2221).

 

 

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