Westminster "Natural Balance,"
Catalog Numbers: WL 5106, 5116, 5139 & 5186 or XWN 18328-31
The harpsichord is perhaps the ideal chamber instrument. Though it lacks the flexible dynamic expression of the modern (or, for that matter, the eighteenth-century) piano, the harpsichord (or "cembalo" or "clavecin" depending on which language you are reading) has unexpected textural capabilities. Experienced in nothing bigger than a large living room from about ten feet, a harpsichord in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing can really knock one's proverbial socks off. It can produce textural nuance to spare, from whisper-quiet levels to a noise that can quicken the pulse. We audiophiles think of the harpsichord as a relatively demure instrument; let me assure you that Valenti will erase that conception forever. He plays one of the more formidable variants of this instrument, and Westminster captures it magnificently.
About twenty years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Valenti in just such an environment at just such a distance — up close and personal. Now that I think of it, I recorded the evening for the producer. I was encouraged to employ PZM microphones, which were reputed to have the advantage of picking up a reasonable balance off-axis, such as is required in some settings where the microphones need to be completely out of the line of sight of the audience. Much to my dismay, the recording sucked, lacking significant high-frequency information. But the all-Scarlatti program was magical. After hearing my recording I tossed it, so that it could never disturb future recollection.
Volumes 1-4 of the Westminster sessions were recorded in New York from 1951-1953. Arguably these are the best performances on record of these miniature masterpieces, in demonstration sound of a dynamic-as-all-hell harpsichord. If you like these offerings, you’ll be pleased to learn that Westminster recorded about two dozen LP’s worth of these relentlessly entertaining gems by the one composer of his time who had, in his own way, as much to say about the keyboard as Mozart -- perhaps more. Any grouping of them for performance is entirely in the hands of the recitalist, resulting in quite a varied succession of evenings — or records. Scarlatti wrote hundreds of such sonatas, most of them fairly late in life.
Domenico Scarlatti was an almost exact contemporary of both J.S. Bach and Handel; in fact, he was born in the same year, 1685. The son of perhaps the most famous Italian composer of his time, Alessandro, Domenico was raised first in Naples, then Florence. While his illustrious father specialized in vocal music, the son focused on instrumental music.
The keyboard sonatas for which he is best known today perhaps most closely resemble Bach's French and English Suites, though they are far less effete (with apologies to Liepzig). Domenico spent many years in Spain, and his music reflects this in a number of ways, not least of which are imitations of certain characteristic guitar flourishes. This is particularly evident among the sonatas collected on Westminster's Vol. 12.
Westminster recorded these sonatas with Valenti over several years, and therefore the later volumes were available in both stereo and mono. To my ear the mono recordings, especially the earlier ones, are much to be preferred. They have a combination of nuance and power that the stereo records only hint at. Since those characteristics to a great extent set Scarlatti apart from his contemporaries, I strongly favor the mono records. The first volumes from the early fifties lack only the most exquisite extension of the high frequencies. When I play these records for my audiophile friends, they never complain about absent highs; I imagine because the music and performances are so seductive.
By about 1956 with the XWN series, Westminster announced the intention to record the complete Scarlatti sonatas with Valenti. Only about half were done before the company apparently ran out of money. There are several cover art editions of these recordings, and three labels to confuse and confound you. The best-sounding, as usual, are the red or blue labels, though the black label Westminster/ABC Paramount issues are quite acceptable. Catalog numbers for the monos are prefixed by either WL or XWN. There are also WN releases, which differ only in being gatefold presentations. WNs are rarer and thus more collectible, though I haven't noticed that retail stores have made much of this distinction.
One final comment: Scarlatti is, to my ear and sensibilities, readily translatable to the piano. On that instrument the sonatas are indeed translations, with the usual benefits and shortcomings. Horowitz was a champion of this music and often programmed Scarlatti. I mention this because some may find the harpsichord too remote for their taste, even in the hands of a Valenti. In which case, I urge you to seek out the two-volume set of "23 Sonatas" on Connoisseur Society CS-2044. These performances by Anthony di Bonaventura are among the best piano recordings on stereo LP. Period. Absolute desert island records. And they might just serve as an unapologetic introduction to Scarlatti for those not yet tuned into the eighteenth century.
John Williams, guitar
Catalog Number: XWN 19039
Early John Williams this. Though the actual recording date is not specified, I surmise from the liner notes that it might have been about 1959-60. Williams made his mark in 1958 when he was only 17, with concerts in Siena and London. Already his musicianship and sense of idiom were as assured as his technique, which was bloody amazing.
Fernando Sor is arguably the first great composer for the guitar. He lived from 1778-1839, trailing Beethoven by roughly a decade. Enough of his life is known — and not known — to inspire an intriguing movie. For instance, though he was born and grew up in Spain, Sor became a Bonapartist and even joined his army. When Napoleon was defeated in the Spanish campaign, Sor had to leave his homeland. He eventually settled in Paris and took up with the composer Cherubini, who urged Sor into a then novel career as a concert guitarist.
While a few of the pieces on this record are justly famous, such as the delicate and mournful No. 5 and the lyrical No. 17, none of them possesses the dazzle of a typical Scarlatti sonata, the fire of an Albeniz tone poem, nor — despite their title — the technical demands of a Chopin etude. Sor's Studies for the Guitar are self-effacing, disarmingly friendly bits.
Phiilharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London, Artur Rodzinski, conductor
Catalog Number: XWN 18295
Rodzinski’s is not only the best No. 5 in mono, it continues to hold its own through the present day. Rodzinski takes the introductory Andante in a tempo so slow that it feels in peril of falling apart. In the ensuing Allegro con anima, with the accent on "con anima," he quickens the pace. This establishes his basic approach to the symphony as a whole. By the finale, Rodzinski builds to a glorious, imperious apotheosis, rarely equaled in other performances.
The justly famous second movement, Andante cantabile, is done sweetly, but without sentimentality. Tchaikovsky adds a further instruction to the tempo: con alcuna licenza (with some license), which encourages flexibility of tempo and mood. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a consistent pulse in this movement. This is where a responsive orchestra comes in handy. The LPO is up to the task, breathing with the conductor without hesitation or misstep.
I particularly like how the third movement Waltz begins: quietly, gently, as if apologizing for interrupting the mood of what came before. Perhaps Rodzinski is a bit too respectful here, for he holds back the tempo to the point that it takes a while to fly. But it gets there, and fly it does. Rodzinski remains just this side of ecstasy throughout the symphony until the finale, where he evokes all the fire and nobility he was working toward all along.
Ernst von Dohnanyi
Curtis String Quartet; Vladimir Sokoloff, piano
Catalog Number: WL 5301
Ernst von Dohnányi was one of those comfortable reactionaries who persisted in writing in a late-nineteenth-century style well into the 1920s and 30s. Dohnányi had played music from Mozart to Brahms in his formative years as a pianist; and Brahms himself championed his early efforts in composition. By the age of twenty, Dohnányi was considered a world-class composer and pianist. Bartok was a childhood friend and fellow student at the Budapest Academy, but Dohnányi did not follow his more famous colleague into the study of folk music, nor did he incorporate such influences into his concert pieces. He remained immersed in more traditional forms as a performer, composer and teacher.
Dohnányi served on the faculty of the Berlin Hochschule as professor of piano through most of WWI. Unfortunately, during the next war, Dohnányi allied himself with the Nazis occupying his native Hungary, a decision that made it difficult to re-enter his former life after WWII. After the war, he retired to Florida (by way of Argentina, alas) until his death in 1960. By then he was known for little else than his delightful Variations on a Nursery Song.
Dohnányi's luxurious Second String Quartet dates from 1907. Echoes of Brahmsian textures, Dvorakian melody and early Schoenbergian harmonic thinking can be heard throughout this three-movement work. Though of typical length, it moves along so easily that the Quartet seems to be over before you know it. The Quintet, from 1924, is more remote and does not give up its secrets so readily. It gives the impression of constantly inventing itself on its recurring two-note motif, yet we do not feel lost. On the contrary, listening to the E-Flat Major Quintet is not unlike coming upon an unexpected primeval forest in the midst of a barren landscape — familiar perhaps only in our dreams. While its appearance is sudden, it fades away in a mist.
The recording dates from 1954. Sonically, the Quartet is sweet and textured; it are comes off a bit better than the Quintet. The Quartet is less constrained; the individual players easily discerned, yet breathe as one. Still, the recorded sound of the Quintet is nothing to sneeze at. The performances in both cases are first-rate. Lyrical and elegant are words that come to mind. They amply describe both music and performance.
It is always a wonder to me that a guest artist can join an established ensemble with equal unanimity, but Vladimir Sokoloff is such a one. This is less surprising when we learn that these gentlemen were all on the staff of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music for years, and doubtless had ample opportunities to play together. The Curtis group at their best think as one, with or without a guest.
Sound Quality: (Quartet) (Quintet)