While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach’s more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, “They all sound alike – how can you tell them apart?” These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way. To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach’s musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach’s cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills. Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson’s definitive field guide. Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends’ remarks about Bach’s vocal works.
A close look at the notes for this 2-disc set will give one some insight into the splendeurs et misères of the contemporary classical recording industry. A grant from Fond for lyd og bilde, the Norwegian arts organization, and Leif Ove Andsnes’ Gilmore Artist Award funded this recording, making it possible for a major commercial label, EMI, to release a recording of comparatively little-known music by a great composer, played by internationally renowned musicians. Mr. Andsnes owns the copyright and has licensed the recording to EMI. Presumably the recording company didn’t think that the famous names sufficed to counterbalance the obscurity and dubious reputation of the music, for unfortunately the trios, especially the second and third, were lumped in with the rest of what the older literature considered “bad Schumann,” commonly disparaged as unmelodic, difficult, and confused. The rediscovery of these fascinating and very beautiful works has been one of the great pleasures of the past twenty years, once musicians learned how to play them and audiences, still slowly and partially, have learned how to listen to them.
There is fascination here—on many levels. “Within these grooves”, I am tempted to say, though one’s gratitude this time is for the cleaning crew. Pristine has already given us some remarkable technical restorations of the Furtwangler discography. Encountering now these listenable and vivid performances by Sir Edward Elgar, recorded into acoustic horns at the near infancy of the art, is to know the best sort of alliance between digital wizardry and artistic judgment.
Earlier in this backward glance, I tried to revive a feeling of what it might have been like to have a phonograph in one’s life. Looking over it, a reader may sense that the 78rpm record was a fragile blessing at best, while perhaps understanding why even today a child would appreciate it. We left off in the early 1960s, where, one might suppose, the advent of the stereo LP solved everything! By then, I had decent quality electronics, and even the admiration of screech resistant female ears.
This isn’t to say I was always so terribly thrilled with the outcomes, myself. The great curse of the phonograph, of course, was its tracking ability, surface noise and distortion. It was one thing to chisel a groove, another for your needle to follow it. Recordings were quite dynamically limited in those days, but even so, the Empire 108 cartridge simply would not track, even at 3 grams pressure, the first tutti in Klemperer’s Philharmonia Schumann Fourth. It wasn’t until 1963 and the Empire 880, that a cartridge could be expected to follow every groove. I was fairly happy with the bass performance of my Lafayette speakers, though. That year Charles Munch’s famous recording of the Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony on RCA was very much a sonic standard, and I was happy to note I could hear the 32cycle organ pedal tones in the slow movement.
“Somewhere around 1950,” Leopold Stokowski once quipped, “recorded sound stopped being a novelty and started sounding like music.”
I was reminded of this the other day, when I received from Netflix the DVD of “A Letter To Three Wives”, which was filmed in 1949 and features Kirk Douglas playing the Brahms B-flat Concerto to friends on an enormous console, probably a Capehart or a Zenith “Cobramatic”. At one point in the movie, he becomes miffed at someone for having broken some shellac, and we see him revealed as an early version of the classic suburban audio peacock, petulant and anxious over any flaws in his equipment.
David Fray’s recent appearances in San Francisco, performing Beethoven’s Second Concerto, revealed him to be a refined, supple colorist. It was less immediately clear how bold or romantic, or indeed “Gouldian” Mr. Fray would turn out to be in music more fully under his own direction. These two new excellent CDs begin to answer this question, and to suggest, moreover, the birth of a fine conductor.
In a recent interview the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, remarked that Igor Stravinsky pulled off the greatest camouflage in the history of music. He was referring to the composer’s lifelong stand that music expresses no emotions, indeed, expresses nothing except sound. Behind this mask, Salonen said, lies a man of deep feeling whose music is often as moving as any ever written. I began to think about Stravinsky and his camouflage, which has always baffled me. How could such glittering creations, each commanding your attention, whether as a shout across the primordial steppes or a murmur like the tick-tock of a mantel clock in the Princesse de Polignac’s salon, be about nothing?
The special sound of the Orchestre de Paris playing in the splendid Salle Pleyel was still fresh in my ears, when the latest crop of releases from Pristine Classical arrived, offering recordings of Pierre Monteux conducting the “Orchestre Symphonique de Paris” in the Salle Pleyel itself. The most important of these extremely rare 78 sets, made between January 1929 and February 1930, is a complete Sacre du Printemps, the earliest of the seven live or studio recordings, which have been released of Monteux performances. This brings us within two decades of the historic 1913 premiere with the Ballets Russes. Monteux’s authority in this score never diminished, and the performances from the end of his life are as vital as this early effort and are still revered today. Like the later ones, this performance is marked by its flow and coherence—a complete grasp of the shape and drama of the great ballet, which give the performance a sense of unity, without compromising its angular rhythms and its vivid, often harsh colors and textures. You will never hear a Sacre more musical than any of Monteux’s recordings.