[This was the first installment of a column I wrote for Fanfare magazine for several years. It hardly paid enough to be worth doing, but I did enjoy getting all those historical CDs!]

The Historical Record

By Leslie Gerber

I’ve never been able to figure out why my interest in historical recordings has always been so strong. I have nothing against contemporary musicians or music, both of which I frequently enjoy. But somehow, the appeal of something out of the past has always seemed more magical to me than a recording of someone I have a chance of hearing next week in the concert hall. Thus this new column, which will attempt brief coverage of as many worthwhile reissues as possible.

I am not one of those people, though, who likes to listen to old records. I don’t find that surface noise or limited frequency response add anything to a musical experience; rather, they detract. Thirty years ago, reissue producers frequently eliminated surface noise by filtering high frequencies, doing violence to the original recorded sound qualities. This didn’t make the music any easier to listen to. My ideal for historical reissues, then, is a transfer which preserves the qualities of the original, or even enhances them, while eliminating as much extraneous material as possible. Modern technology makes such reissues possible, and anyone who fails to take advantage of it is going to be dealt with harshly here.

In 1964, the 85-year-old Rudolf Friml, already a living anachronism, made a visit to Prague for a concert appearance. While he was there, he recorded an album of piano solos. Although he’s best remembered for his operettas, Friml was an elegant pianist who made recordings from the early electrical era onward. The complete Supraphon LP is now reissued on CD (Supraphon SU 3267-2), coupled with an early song cycle (Op. 1), in Czech, in which Friml accompanies the Czech tenor Ivo Židek. Friml’s improvisations tend to meander, and his playing occasionally shows signs of his age (but only occasionally). But his operetta medleys and his compositions are truly charming. This is for special tastes only, but to those with such tastes it will be a delicious discovery.

Igor Stravinsky’s prewar recordings have been widely ignored, perhaps partially in the belief that they are too poorly played to be worth reviving. I’m told that EMI once issued a two-disc Stravinsky set in the “Composers in Person” series, but I have yet to see a copy. Biddulph has helped fill in the gap with a collection of prewar Stravinskyana (WHL 037). The L’Histoire du Soldat Suite, despite some tasty French playing, is indeed rather scrappy, not even close to a match for Stravinsky’s two LP recordings (especially the tasty stereo edition). The brief Pulcinella excerpts don’t amount to much either. But dedicatee Samuel Dushkin plays the Violin Concerto with great flair and comprehension. And the prewar Jeu de Cartes with–of all orchestras!–the Berlin Philharmonic has a giddy humor that I found irresistible. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are splendid, hardly showing the age of the recordings.

The duo of Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin was one of the great violin-piano combinations of all time. Their recordings have frequently been reissued, but Appian APR 5543 (“The European Busch-Serkin Duo Recordings, Vol. 3”) has three previously unpublished Bach movements (one a violin solo), along with other Baroque music by Bach, Vivaldi, and Geminiani. More importantly, it contains the duo’s exquisite performances of Mozart’s K. 377 and, especially, the Schubert Fantasie in C, D. 934. Bryan Crimp has transfered these 1928-37 recordings with almost noise-free backgrounds and vivid sound.

A real “blast from the past” arrives unheralded in “Ernestine Schumann-Heink: The 1934 Broadcasts” (Bel Age BLA 103.006). The main material here is several broadcast transcriptions from 1934 (edited together seamlessly, but I think three separate programs are involved), complete with extremely corny spoken material by the singer and an announcer, and even the original Gerber Baby Food commercials. The small orchestra also performs a few items on its own, not to any great effect. And the singer certainly sounds matronly (the announcer refers to her as “Mother Schumann-Heink”), although not bad for a singer of 73. The musical interest of all this isn’t very great, but the sound is tolerable for its age and the whole presentation has the historical interest of preserving the sound of an early broadcast. Just to show what she sounded like at her best (and to fill up the disc), Bel Age adds half a dozen items from Schumann-Heink’s early acoustics, badly dubbed in muffled sound.

For a couple of decades the Crystal label has been the outstanding purveyor of brass and wind music on LP and CD. The company has even done some investigation of the recorded past on LP. In two promising new issues on CD, though, Crystal has really outdone itself. Cornetist Herbert L. Clarke and trombonist Arthur Pryor were important soloists in Sousa’s Band, but they haven’t been well represented on reissues. Crystal has resurrected full CDs (CD 450 and CD 451 respectively) of both artists, with amazingly fine sound for recordings that go back as far as 1901! No, they’re not hi-fi, but I doubt you’d ever guess their age. Most of the material they play is of negligible musical interest, but both men were amazing virtuosi and really grip my ears with the bravado of their playing.

A somewhat similar item is Clarinet Classics’ “Rudy Wiedoft: Kreisler of the Saxophone” (CC 0018). Actually, Wiedoft’s ostentatious virtuosity isn’t much reminiscent of Kreisler, and his sometimes exaggerated articulation–amazing as it is–can become tiring over the course of a long CD. But the period flavor of these salon pieces does come through well, and some of Wiedoft’s own novelty numbers (most of them accompanied by Oscar Levant) are amusing. This disc’s appeal is probably restricted to those who’ll want it, if you know what I mean. Sound quality is decidedly uneven, probably dependent on the condition of the originals (late acoustics and early electrics), but the best items are very good.

A new label with the unusual name of SanCtuS, apparently emanating from Australia, has put out an unusual collection of three 78 rpm vocal albums (SCSH 004). Of them, I most enjoyed Elsie Houston’s “Brazilian Folk Songs” (once on RCA Victor LP LCT-1143, now a great rarity). These are concert arrangements but very effective ones. Maria Kurenko’s collection of Tchaikovsky songs is also very worthwhile, beautifully sung and beautifully accompanied by Serge Tarnowsky (whose late LP, “Vignettes of Old Russia” on Genesis, deserves reissue). I did not think much of Marguerite Castellanos-Taggart’s Bayou Ballads of the Louisiana Plantations, which, despite the appealing title, is much too tame to be entertaining. SanCtuS’s transfers are very clear and preserve every pop and click from the original 78s. In other words, the label has done no noise reduction at all. This is bizarre, and maddening, and for me automatically disqualifies it for a recommendation.

I agree with great enthusiasm that Victor de Sabata belongs on anyone’s list of “Great Italian Conductors,” as he is on Iron Needle’s (Vol. 3 of the “Great Italian Conductors” series, IN 1390). However, the way to discover this conductor’s genius is decidedly not through his unstylishly operatic 1939 Mozart Requiem, especially not in this unbearably shrill transfer. His Verdi Requiem, however….

David Oistrakh’s earliest recording of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, with Alexander Gauk conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, hasn’t been available since the early 1950’s. (It was Mercury’s first 12″ LP, MG10000.) I’ve always preferred it to Oistrakh’s later remakes, with the composer conducting, which are too refined for this brash, vulgar music. Perhaps the composer’s presence made Oistrakh more (inappropriately) respectful of the music. Oistrakh’s only recording of the Miaskovsky Violin Concerto, with the same conductor and orchestra, is even scarcer; it was issued as an early Period LP, then pirated by Colosseum. Pearl has coupled these recordings, adding a Khachaturian Dance (GEMM CD 9295), and given us a real treasure. The performances hold up splendidly, and David Lennick’s transfers sound amazingly vivid for Soviet recordings from 1944 and 1938. This release gets my highest recommendation on all accounts, even the contrast of the brassy Khachaturian with the mournful Miaskovsky.

Over the past decade, Ward Marston’s 78 transfers have been among the most highly acclaimed. Now he has produced his own label (Marston, of course), and is producing an impressive collection of rarities and treasures. I can deal with only a few of them in this column, but I’m saving some of the early releases for next issue.

I’ve always had trouble with the artistic personality of the pianist Josef Hofmann, a superb executant whose interpretations frequently strike me as wayward if not downright perverse. So a collection of relatively late Hofmann material from broadcasts and private recordings didn’t excite me very much in advance, especially since this period coincides with Hofmann’s descent into severe alcoholism. Yet there is much to treasure in this two-disc collection, Vol. 5 of a series begun on the VAI Audio label (Marston 52004-2). For example, who would have imagined Hofmann would play such an appropriately stinging version of Prokofiev’s March, op. 12, No. 1? Hofmann’s Chopin, and the sound quality, are both highly variable. But most of these originals are unique, previously unpublished, and therefore quite literally priceless.

The legendary Olimpia Boronat, a soprano who was one of the glories of pre-Revolutionary Russia, has been represented occasionally on LP, but never before, I think, by her complete recordings, which fit comfortably on a single CD (Marston 51001-2). These originals may not be quite unique, but I’m sure the 1904-1908 originals would cost thousands of dollars to assemble, especially such fine copies. Frankly, I find Boronat to be a cold, uninteresting artist, despite her amazing technique. But Marston has provided a very inexpensive and gratifyingly good-sounding way to make such judgments for yourself.

I have a special interest in the Swiss pianist and composer Ernst Levy, who was one of my teachers at Brooklyn College. At the time, all I knew about him was that he was a funny old guy with a German accent who had interesting things to say about our class subject, music of the classical period. More recently I’ve heard some recordings of his music, which seems to me like solid, worthwhile material.

Marston’s two-disc Levy collection (52007-2) includes two complete Levy LPs, part of another, an early 78, an unpublished concert performance of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody (No. 12), and an unpublished studio recording of Levy playing five of his own piano pieces (recorded for Columbia but never issued). Levy’s playing can be hard to take at first. Although his technique is powerful, he glosses over passages in the Liszt Sonata in a way that can be disturbing. And he often deviates from the rhythmic patters you expect to hear, although never arbitrarily. But his large scale conception of the music, and his incredibly large tone, are mesmerising in Liszt and in two late Beethoven Sonatas, including one of the few convincing performances of the “Hammerklavier” on records. Levy’s pieces, although relatively small, are good examples of his work, especially the final fugue.

This is one of my favorite recent historical issues, and I recommend it enthusiastically to all pianophiles, with two warnings. One is that Levy’s interpretations are decidedly unconventional. They’re worth getting used to. The second is that the CDs are mislabelled; CD 1 is actually Liszt and Levy, CD 2 Beethoven. I hope against hope that this set sells well enough to justify sequels.

The well-known Manhattan rare record shop A Classical Record formed its own CD label for historical reissues about a year ago. These discs are now in general distribution and contain many interesting items.

“The Art of the Conductor, Vol. 2: Charles Munch” (ACR 42/3) is a second collection of the conductor’s 78s, recorded from 1938 to 1944, including a number of major rarities. With tenor Pierre Bernac, Munch turns out surprisingly stylish “Bach,” the Cantata No. 189 (apparently now attributed to G.H. Hoffmann). His prewar Haydn Sinfonia Concertante is likewise lean and expressive.

Not even the presence of the great violinist Henri Merckel can keep up my interest in two pieces by Marcel Delannoy, and I likewise nodded out over a brief orchestral poem by Gustave Samazeuilh. But the set would be well worth owning just for two performances by the great Marguerite Long, a splendid Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto and Ernesto Halffter’s Rapsodia
, the latter never transfered before. Jean Doyen and Munch finish the set with Mozart’s Concerto No. 20, a fine performance although not exactly immortal. Seth Winner’s transfers in this set are exemplary.

“The Art of the Violin, Vol. 3: Albert Spalding” (ACR 42, perhaps a numbering error) includes one of my all-time favorite recordings, the Franck Violin Sonata from 1934. Neither Spalding nor Benoist plays with the kind of uninhibited power we’ve heard from Oistrakh and Richter. But the langourous style, with frequent use of portamento, seems somehow authentic to me, and quite moving as well. The same artists’ version of the Brahms Second Sonata, while it’s a good performance, doesn’t seem to offer anything as special as the Franck. But they collaborate effectively in sonatas by Handel and Tartini (yes, the “Devil’s Trill”), both relatively free of romantic mannerisms.

I’m not quite as happy with the transfers here, since some surface noise creeps in from what should have been very quiet pressings. And there’s a strange electronic beep at 1:03 of band 5 (Tartini), which I can’t remember from hearing the 78s many years ago. But the disc is certainly listenable enough to satisfy anyone who wants to investigate Spalding’s playing–which is, incidentally, greatly superior to what one hears from his post-retirement Remington LPs of nearly two decades later.

No doubt someone will be going into detail somewhere in this magazine about Sony’s Masterworks Heritage reissue of Sir Thomas Beecham’s American Columbia recordings (MH2K 63366). I hope that person will be enough of a Sibelian (as I am not) to offer some explanation of why Beecham refused to approve his recording of the Seventh Symphony. Meanwhile, I must express my delight in having available again Beecham’s sparkling versions of the Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien (two versions!) and Bizet Carmen Suite, the complete contents of one of my all-time favorite LPs. Most of the additional material is similarly excellent, although the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony is hampered a bit by muffled sound. Overall, though, this set is a lot of fun.

–Leslie Gerber

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