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Mono Maven
Stereo London Treasury Series
Part 2
Concluding now with Part 2 of my brief investigation
of the London Stereo Treasury.

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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"Virtuoso Showpieces" ~ Ruggiero Ricci, violin, Ernest Lush, piano.
London STS-15049 [ZAL-3997/3998]

This album is exactly as advertised, with the bonus of having Ricci's heartfelt performances of these miniature tours de force.  The recorded program is varied, alternating exquisite tenderness (as in Milstein's arrangement of Chopin's Nocturne No. 20) and dazzling fire (Wieniawski's Scherzo-Tarantelle) with technical bravura (Franz von Vecsey's Le Vent.).  Some of the composers' names will be familiar; others probably not: Wieniawski, Elgra, Vecsey, Kroll, Chopin, Smetana, Suk, Achron, Sarasate, Hubay, Moszkowski, Bazzini.  All contributed some of their best to the genre.

Probably the best sounding of the London Stereo Treasury LPs reviewed in the present column: the violin tone is sweet and pungent by turns; every pull of the bow clear, bending our ear to the line of the melody; the piano placed just enough in the background to offer support and harmonic clarification.

By the way, in case you were not aware of it, Ruggiero Ricci is not, as you might have imagined, a native of any European country, but of California.  Born in 1918 in San Bruno, Ricci grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and gave his first important concerts there at the age of ten.  In the 1930s he studied violin in Berlin, but returned to the U.S. where he served in the US Army as an "entertainment specialist." Ricci has had an extraordinary teaching, concert and recording career, the length and breadth of which would be the envy of any artist.  We are the beneficiary of his many recordings, especially for Decca, who captured his artistry with care and reverence.

 

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Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; Rondo in B-Flat Major.  Julius Katchen, piano; The London Symphony Orchestra/ Pierino Gamba, conductor.
London STS-15111 [ZAL-4270/4271]

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 is not a work ordinarily associated with great nuance of interpretation.  It's hard to come up with up a performance that stands out at either end of the spectrum (good or bad), but this one by Katchen and Gamba can't be beat for the price. The LP also offers a delightful little appetizer in the role of the B-Flat Major Rondo (generally considered to have been the original finale for the Piano Concerto No. 2 which, as we all know, was written before the Piano Concerto No. 1.) Katchen is at his most poetical in a reverential second movement.  And, except for a slackening of intensity in the Finale, the outer movements have all the vigor you could want, ably supported by Gamba and the LSO with dynamic spontaneity and give and take, and even an occasional revelation... which reminds me of a basic rule in record collecting: Never hesitate to buy a Pierino Gamba recording. Gamba always invigorates whatever music he is playing, whether it is rollicking Rossini, sparkling Sarasate, or the most ethereal moments in opera.

 

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Walton: Façade Suites. Lecocq-Jacob: Mam'zelle Angot. Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden / Anatole Fistoulari, conductor.
London STS-15191 [ZAL-10336/10337]

If you're half the audiophile I take you for, you recognized these titles right off.  You know these performances in their manifestation as RCA Living Stereos or plum-labeled Victrolas, but how many of you have ever heard the Decca SB edition?  And how would you anticipate these third generation English reissues stack up against the 33.33 Classic Records reissue?  It'll cost you a couple bucks to find out.  A word of caution: play large chunks or an entire side rather than just a few bars.  The differences are unexpected and take some time to be appreciated in context.

Related to this, I thought I might share my thinking about label comparisons, and about RCA vs. Decca in particular.  Long before the word came down to us through various gurus and publications touting the glories of RCA Living Stereo, I had already resolved the question in my mind. So I was rather surprised that people whom I had thought ought to know better wrote about RCA as if they had never even heard of Decca.  And therein lies the rub, for do we not come to our beliefs based in large measure on the size and course of our investment?

That was how I got hooked on DGG and Philips in the sixties.  The next thing I knew I was buying records from these labels simply because I had been buying them all along.  They sounded just fine — and, of course, I was seduced by those whisper quiet surfaces.  At the time, I was too ignorant, too poor and too much in a comfortable rut to expand my interests seriously or to listen with discrimination.  But when I finally got around to it, sometime in the early 70s, I discovered London ffss and, occasionally, their RCA counterparts.  Comparisons in respect to contrast and transparency in nearly every instance favored the Decca/London, often by huge margins.  So imagine my surprise when the rush to Living Stereo caught fire.

Now there's nothing inherently wrong with RCAs - they're pretty terrific, actually - nor do RCA and Decca share a great many titles.  My advice is to check out for yourself what you may have been missing.  If you have original Living Stereos that were also released on Decca, compare them with an open mind.  Try not to let the fact of your investment in your current RCA library (and therefore what it implies for future investments) color your hearing or your thinking.  I'd be interested in what you find.

 

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Rossini-Respighi: La Boutique Fantasque; Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra / Georg Solti, conductor.
London STS 15005 [ZAL-3583/3584]

Every time I hear music of a subtle and nuanced nature played with subtlety and nuance by Georg Solti I am reminded of his many warhorse recordings for Decca/London. After his landmark recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen for Decca in the late fifties and early sixties, Solti acquired quite the reputation for fiery, spectacular recordings, but he isn't much known for successes in music of any delicacy.  One unexpected exception is Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice with Marilyn Horne, Pilar Lorengar and Helen Donath (London OSA 1285).  Another is the present recording, which in the ffss original, is also one of Decca's better demonstration records, especially for full-bodied bass.  A good deal of that richness and contrast is preserved in this Stereo Treasury, one of the first in the series.

La Boutique Fantasque is another one of those remarkable ballets produced by Sergei Diaghilev.  While not in the same league as Firebird and Le Sacre, Boutique has a lot going for it.  The score, except for a brief flirtation with Offenbach about halfway through, is as elegant as can be, as if to be performed on tip-toe. La Boutique Fantasque was originally choreographed by Leonide Massine, generally considered to be the best at his craft for most of the first part of the twentieth century (until Balanchine).  Massine was only 25 when he created Boutique.  Nearly thirty years later, he staged the dancing for, and performed in, the Powell/Pressburger classic, The Red Shoes.  He was still practicing his art into his eighties. Boutique's music is derived from unrelated vocal and piano pieces by Rossini and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, thus the best of both worlds.

The Sorcerer's Apprenticehas more competition among the many recordings, but Solti holds his own here.  Though he has nothing new to say about the music, he treats it with respect.

 

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César Franck: "Organ Works, Vol. 3" ~ Priere, Op. 20; Choral No. 3 in A Minor; Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18; Pastorale, Op. 19; Final, Op. 21.  Jeanne Demessieux at the Organ of the Church of the Madelieine, Paris.
London STS 15105 [ZAL-8796/8797]

Here's another instance of where we are able to enjoy recordings otherwise very difficult to obtain in their Decca originals.  It is interesting that re-sellers of the London Treasury series do not price according to the title or its pedigree, as is the practice with Victrola plum labels. If you find a resource for London Treasury LPs, the likelihood is that any record in the series will be within 50 percent of their average price, often about $3 to $4, which was about what they cost new 20 to 30 years ago.

I have long felt that Olivier Messiaen is the direct successor to César Franck, both having a tendency to ethereal, if perhaps a bit lugubrious, acoustic wallpaper. (Imagine what must be meant by a "Prelude, Fugue & Variation" in such melismatic music!)  In their organ pieces, both composers, more than others I think, understand that the resultant sound is more than registration and pipes, which is why the choice of organ in its specific church space is particularly important in their music.  Any recording must understand this and, to the extent possible, underscore and make manifest the acoustic properties of the composers' vision.  This, I feel, is what Decca has succeeded in doing in this album.

 

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