Stereo London Treasury Series
A little detour from my usual mono survey preoccupations to a budget label not for sneezing: London Stereo Treasury. An appropriate name for a change, released in the United States, but still pressed by Decca in the U.K., this label had longevity enough to spawn its own reissues. Below are several titles not to be missed, assuming you don't already have them in ffss or ffrr editions. The sound of these reissues may lack the brilliance and textural subtlety in the lower instruments that the originals possess, but keep in mind that these records can be found for a child's fistful of dollars, often in lovely shape. This month's review is the first of two parts.
"Ruggiero Ricci Solo Recital" ~ Prokofiev: Sonata for Solo
Violin, Op. 115; Hindemith: Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 31, Nos. 1 & 2;
Bartok: Sonata for Solo Violin; Stravinsky: Elegy.
Even in this reissue of a reissue, this is a killer demo record. It is also Ricci at his stereo best. His technique is so assured that at once we are drawn into the music and his playing — which is more or less the same thing in these pieces. This is especially the case in the Prokofiev, a rarely heard and underappreciated flurry of lyricism. I'm not as crazy about the second of the two Hindemith Sonatas here, but No. 1 spins itself out in endless, mesmerizing melody. Ricci's Bartok is less striking, less angular than I've heard (I have in mind Ivry Gitlis on Dover). His approach is more integrated, more controlled, perhaps a little at the expense of passion. Yet as we stay with it, Ricci's view of the piece begins to make its own kind of sense, perhaps in part because the piece actually does become less complex as it goes along. In this way, it is not unlike typical classical 18th century sonatas, which tend to put their most interesting and challenging ideas in the first couple of movements.
Spohr: Nonet in F Major, Op. 31; Double Quartet in E-Minor, Op. 87.
Members of the Vienna Octet.
Quick now: Name another Double Quartet. If you came up with Mendelssohn's Octet, you'd have been close. Despite the difference in the title and the contrapuntal and antiphonal implications of the Spohr, both are scored for string quartet twice over, though Mendelssohn takes care to integrate the entire band into an octet more often than not. Spohr's Double Quartet is something of a wonder, or at least it begins with lots of promise. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that Spohr wrote four compositions in this form, the E-Minor being the third. It was written in 1833, already eight years after Mendelssohn's justly famous Op.20 (composed when the wunderkind was only 16!) While Spohr's piece never comes up to Mendelssohnian standards (what does?!), the Op. 87 is another one of those underplayed delights that the LP was born to play, since you aren't very likely to hear it live.
As for the Nonet, I have a déja-vu that I've already written about this work in this column, which makes me either absent-minded or something of a proponent. Probably both. I love this relatively little-known masterpiece, and had the joy of first coming upon it much as finding a hidden forest glen. For what forest would have the means to support such a strange combination of strings and winds?
The two performances of the Nonet that should be on your short list are by the Fine Arts Quartet+NY Winds on Concert Disc and this one by "Members of the Vienna Octet" (a description that always evokes a chuckle for me, given the numbers.) The Fine Arts, which may benefit from a more dynamic and full-bodied recording, tends to the dispassionate side. This approach does miss out on the poetry of the slow movement, which the Viennese exude as they also nail perfectly the symphonic aspects of the piece. By the way, the "Octet" that we find coupled with the Nonet on London Enterprise 414 439-4 is not the same piece as the Double Quartet found here, though the Vienna Octet is once again implicated.
Dvorak: Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 22. The Israel
Philharmonic/ Rafael Kubelik, conductor.
Dvorak, for all his popularity, is in my opinion underrated: relentless lyricism should not be taken lightly. In this regard, I would not hesitate to place Dvorak alongside Schubert and Tchaikovsky, perhaps even Mozart, though in no ways does he approach their level of intensity or profundity. Perhaps the best example of Dvorak at his most populist and least Germanic is this Serenade. It reminds us at once of the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings written just five years afterward. [An aside: The composers were born within a year of each other, though the Czech outlived his Russian counterpart by ten years.] I think it's fair to say that the earlier piece has less gravitas--the Tchaikovsky is longer with fewer movements and blurs the line between serenade and symphony — but it should not be thought of as significantly less important. I think you will find the Dvorak Serenade sweeter, almost Grieg-like in its naïveté.
Two conductors we can always count on for Dvorak both recorded for Decca: Istvan Kertesz and Rafael Kubelik. Kubelik would later re-record some of that familiar territory for Deutsche Grammophon, but his work for Decca still stands, even in his early mono days. He recorded the E-minor Serenade for Decca and DGG less than ten years apart. Curiously, for a lightweight work of less than thirty minutes, London spreads it over two sides while DGG (and most others) prefer only one. Indeed, the London is more leisurely, more nuanced; the DGG more direct, incisive, more matter-of-fact. The sound, no surprise, is warmer on the London, but no less textured. On the contrary.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Major, Op. 64; Bruch: Scottish
Fantasia, Op. 46. Campoli, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir
Adrian Boult, conductor.
Ah! The Mendelssohn. What violinist doesn't cut his or her teeth on it — from Jack Benny to Hilary Hahn? This concerto was something of a comeback piece for this short-lived composer, who nearly wrote himself out before he was 25. But then in 1844, at age 35, just three years before his death, he composed one of the most enduring concertos in the entire repertoire, regardless of the instrument. The record catalogue is filed with performances, very few of which are less than satisfactory; still fewer rise to the top of the heap.
I'll let you have another little peak into the labyrinth that passes for my mind: I have a real thing about artists who advertise themselves with only one name. It's one thing for us to refer to "Toscanini" or "Heifetz" or "Horowitz" — but they didn't. When I was in my impressionable youth, there was only one artist who could get away with it: Liberace — and it was perfectly clear to me then who his audience was, and I wasn't it. (Curious how that's changed just a bit fifty years later.)
It wasn't until maybe ten years ago that I allowed myself to listen to this record, or even permit it to register on my radar. Peter Qvortrup, of Audio Note, to whom I owe a considerable debt for expanding my musical tastes, to say nothing of my knowledge of recordings, insisted this was one of the very good Mendelssohns. Warily, I began with side two, the Bruch. "Had I truly ever heard this music before?" I asked a startled me at first. I felt there was serious passion here, yet the piece had hardly gotten off the ground. Perhaps there was a chance for my beloved Felix.
Well, I should say so. This is old-school playing: from the heart, yet vigorous; completely technically assured, yet absent sentimentality. And that tone! "Who is this guy?" I asked the Butch and Sundance who were riding along beside me at the time. "Campoli," Butch replied. "What kind of name is that?" I asked (again). It's Campoli's name, sir," added Sundance. I thought I was falling out of a chapter from Catch-22.
So, run, don't walk to your nearest record outlet to grab a couple copies of this wonderful record. And, by the way, the first name is Alfredo, and he lived from 1906-1991. I'll bet he was a nice man.
Glazunov: The Seasons, Op. 67. L'Orchestra e de la Societe des
Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris / Albert Wolff, conductor.
It once puzzled me that Alexander Glazunov's ballet, first performed in 1900, has not been all that successful, either as a stage work or in the concert hall. The score has the necessary color and panache; it is engaging and tuneful; and it is appropriately kinetic. Nor is it any more episodic than any of the great ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet or Coppélia. So what's the deal here? I think it comes down to its less than engaging scenario, a story that lacks even the remotest substance to support what amounts to a series of classical ballet numbers, sparkling though they may be. Perhaps what's needed is an entirely new and updated storyline. That said, the score hasn't made a place for itself in the concert hall either, probably because it's too long to be played entire, and isn't as excerptable as its betters. Thus, the LP.
The two major recordings of Glazunov's ballet are both on Decca. I prefer this one by Albert Wolff to Ansermet's. To my surprise, for all Ansermet's popularity, so did Speaker's Corner when it selected Wolff. Here again, we have the opportunity for comparison with a reputable audiophile reissue. I think you will find the comparison of the two pairs mentioned in this essay (the Glazunov and the Walton) illuminating regarding the approach of Classic Records vs. Speaker's Corner, even though the consideration is to Decca reissues and not the originals.
Finally, a few notes on the various editions of the London Stereo Treasury. There were two basic cover designs and two basic label designs. The earlier editions were always white for the upper third or so, with title and performance information in bold black letters. The upper left corner had "stereo" in bold, followed by the serial number; the upper right corner had the same information as the later editions, only larger and bolder. The later one placed the record catalog number and the phrase "Imported From England" in the upper left corner of the cover. In the upper right corner we find the familiar London ffrr logo (regardless of whether the original Decca issue was ffss or ffrr), and under that, "London Stereo Treasury." Otherwise, the artwork suffered little consistency from title to title. The record weight was a mite heavier in the earlier editions, as expected. The color of the label was always orange-red, but the hue became more garish in later editions. The sound of the earlier London Treasury LPs is generally less thin, more lush.