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Assorted Testament Reissues

by Ray Chowkwanyun
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  The good news:  EMI recordings on vinyl. Mastering is being done at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. The bad news: quality control is wildly variable. Some records are near perfect. Others have damaged covers, random pops, and worst of all, skips. All have center holes that are too small. It warms the heart to see the traditions of Angel and Seraphim being kept up. (For inexplicable reasons the British record companies felt compelled to market their wares to their American cousins under a different name: EMI used Angel and Seraphim, Decca used London).


Some I Liked

Brahms: Double Concerto
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 1
Christian Ferras, Violin
Paul Tortellier, Cello
Paul Kletzki, Conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra 
ASD 549

The real find of these re-issues is the great French violinist, Christian Ferras, whose career was cut short by ill health. With a technique the equal of a Heifetz or Oistrakh and a distinctive musical personality (the lush romanticism of Oistrakh, but with Gallic dash and flair).

This is a well-nigh perfect execution of the Brahms Double recorded in beautiful spacious sound. The only thing lacking is the deep bass, a problem endemic to this entire re-issue series. 

Ferras and Tortelier turn in a committed, passionate performance with able backing from Kletzki and the Philharmonia. Both soloists toss off their parts with the necessary elan and abandon. I. is by turns sweet and savage, but always playful with the feeling that the musicians are having the time of their lives. Ferras really rips into his solos with a tremendous slashing attack. In II., the sweet element comes to the fore with splendid renditions of the bittersweet themes. III. is given a rollicking performance in keeping with its folk song themes.

Ensemble is excellent with soloists and orchestra sounding like one very large chamber group. Oftentimes, cello and violin entwine to give the impression of a single instrument. Tempos are flexible, if not quite as fluid as a Furtwaengler performance. Slight variations in tempi mold the music to give it a sense of expressiveness and improvisational freedom, all contained within an over-arching sense of the whole piece, with all the sections fitting together tightly and seamlessly. Brahms stood by the classical forms abandoned by his Romantic contemporaries and these performers underline the strong sense of structure in this piece. At the same time, Brahms was a true Romantic and these performers succeed equally in lighting up the classical structure so that everywhere the watchword is excitement and passion.

American Record Guide's Brahms Overview opines that the Oistrakh/Rostropovitch/Szell performance is the top of the heap where Brahms Doubles are concerned. Mainly, I would think, on the strength of the performance of the two soloists. In comparison to Ferras/Tortelier, the Oistrakh/Rostropovitch sounds hard and harsh in both British and American pressings. Some of this is due to the poor sound (hopefully EMI will re-issue this recording also), but much of the blame has to be laid at Szell's door. Where Kletski is a model partner working hand in glove with the soloists, Szell is unforgivably crude. The big orchestral accents, in particular, sound terribly clunky. The two soloists have to fight their way out from under this morass of an orchestral accompaniment. 

The overachieving Ferras matches the usually incomparable Oistrakh, but Tortelier cannot match Rostropovitch's tone. Nevertheless he still turns in a respectably chunky sound. While the two Frenchmen are overmatched man to man, as a team they work better than their distinguished Russian counterparts. Let me therefore declare a new king of the hill for the Brahms Doubles sweepstakes. (Such hyperbole is dangerous, but at Enjoy the Music.com, we go where other critics fear to tread. And I needn't tell you what we frequently find ourselves treading in.)

It is axiomatic, of course, that if you dig back far enough into the catalog you will find something better. In American Record Guide there is a glowing review of a Cortot/Casals performance of the Brahms Double that is classed as definitive. However, the sound is pre-war so it will be a very different kind of sonics from the EMI which is definitely Golden Age quality. The recording is very forward so that you are definitely towards the front of the concert hall, but still preserving a good balance between the soloists and the orchestra. The cello is ably recorded with almost all of its harmonic richness intact. The only drawback, as I mentioned, is a lack of deep bass.

I find it impossible to review classical recordings without comparing recordings. It is only human nature upon hearing one performance, to recall what are, after all, performances of (more or less) the same piece of music. It's not that we're trying to turn music into a sporting contest. Rather, it's a search for new insights into the same music. Sometimes though, as in the Brahms Double, you do come across a case where one recording is just hands down better than another.

After the high emotionalism of the Brahms, the Beethoven is strictly filler, sounding like an exercise. Too bad they didn't include one of Brahms own violin sonatas.


Beethoven Violin Concerto
David Oistrakh, Violin
Andre Cluytens, Conductor
French National Orchestra
SAX 2315

Here is a chance to hear the artistry of David Oistrakh in good sound. This record has long been a favorite of mine. I have it in a commercial LP re-issue (English pressing). The Testament re-issue works wonders for the orchestral accompaniment, transforming it from rather bright and unpleasant to warm and atmospheric.

The wonder of Oistrakh's playing is his huge, golden tone. The notes truly pour off his violin like honey. More importantly he devoted his abundant technical skills to musical expression rather than to mere showmanship. This concerto is, of course, conceived to showcase the violinist and Oistrakh certainly brings off that aspect of the piece. However, he also turns in a committed, passionate performance of great expression. There is wonderful phrasing and intonation throughout.


Beethoven Symphony No. 7
Guido Cantelli, Conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra
ASD 278

I have a goodly number of Beethoven 7's in my collection. Difficult to find that one definitive interpretation. It's all too easy to fall into a rut in I. with its repeated figures for the violin so it ends up sounding like chunka, chunka, chunka. Cantelli neatly sidesteps these problems. His I. is made expressive with careful phrasing and well-chosen dynamics. He is particularly good at bringing a phrase to a close and moving seamlessly to the next phrase. II. is appropriately funereal. The weak point of this performance is III. Too slow for my taste. It needs to be faster in the manner of Steinberg and the Pittsburghers to maintain its forward momentum. Cantelli recovers his tempi towards the end of IV., delivering a finale full of vim and vigor.

So I'm still looking for a great Beethoven 7th, but I think there is enough great playing here that you can overlook the slow spots, especially in light of the gorgeous sound.

Some I Didn't Like

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto 

Christian Ferras, Violin
Constantin Silvestri, Conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra
ASD 278

Another Romantic warhorse. And why not? There is a reason for the perennial popularity of these pieces: they are exciting and emotional. Ferras' tone is thicker than on the Brahms Double but still not of Oistrakian dimensions. Interpretively, he is somewhere between Heifetz and Oistrakh. More expressive than Heifetz, faster and more attacking than Oistrakh. Or to put it negatively, slower than Heifetz, thinner-toned than Oistrakh. 

While excellent, this performance is not the definitive performance that the Brahms Double is. It is a little too controlled and restrained for my taste. I need the unbridled romanticism of Oistrakh in this music. As good as Ferras is, you will be astonished to hear Oistrakh's tone. Ferras is blessed with excellent accompaniment, again from the Philharmonia. Would that Oistrakh had the same. Also, the Oistrakh is in mono, if that makes a difference (Everest 3375).

The Mendelssohn has its moments, but in general I
found it to be under whelming.


Prokofieff Violin Concerto No. 2
Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3

David Oistrakh, Violin
Alceo Galliera, Conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra
SAX 2304

Given that Prokofieff wrote several pieces specifically for Oistrakh, the violinist turns in a surprisingly leaden performance of the Violin Concerto No. 2. The trademark Oistrakh intensity and passion is simply missing. Far better is Kyung-Wha Chung in gorgeously dark Decca sound (SXL 6773).

The Mozart I find to be lightweight music. It's not that it's bad. After all, this is Mozart. But put it beside his better works and it feels slight. It just doesn't compare with the later piano concertos or the great operas:

Figaro, Cosi, Don Giovanni
Mozart Violin Concerto No 3 in G
Bach Violin Concerto in E

Gioconda de Vito, Violin
Rafael Kubelik, Conductor
London Symphony & Royal Philharmonic
ASD 429

Well, you know what I think of the Mozart. Some will prefer La Gioconda's lighter touch to Oistrakh's full-bloodied romanticism. I have similar feelings about the Bach as the Mozart: a lesser work of a giant. Look to the
Brandenburg Concertos for some great music. In summary, a pleasant, inoffensive album in good sound, but there are bigger fish to fry.


Grumble & Gripe

I have to believe that an LP re-issue done on 180 gram
vinyl and carrying a premium price has to be aimed at the
audiophile market. Why then the lack of recording information? Would it have been too much to include an insert indicating such incidentals as the hall, the recording date, names of producers and engineers, and I suppose as long as I'm composing a wish list, the mic'ing pattern?

-- Ray












































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