REVIEW POTPOURRI – Bizet: Carmen excerpts

A couple of Remington Records colorful album jackets

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Georges Bizet

Bizet

Carmen excerpts
Remington RLP-199-15, mono LP, recorded in 1950.

Remington records was started in 1950 and stayed in business until 1957. The records themselves often had noisy surfaces; they also had very beautiful and colorful album covers, which makes them often collectible and also very expensive on different Internet sites. Finally, they had a catalog featuring both standard and unusual repertoire, artists familiar to classical record connoisseurs, and its share of pseudonyms or phony names.

The opera excerpts are beautifully sung, so many of the melodies – examples such as the Toreador Song, Habanera, etc. – appearing in everything from TV shows to ads. The names of the singers and conductor are unfortunately nowhere to be found, even on the Sound Fountain website, which otherwise contains so much fascinating info on the label and lots of photos of its album covers, including this release. Just type in the following on Google: Remington records, Jean Allain – Bizet Carmen and/or soundfountain.com, which is listed under Remington records on the Google site!

Musically, every Remington record on my shelves has something interesting, despite its faults otherwise.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: The World’s Greatest Cellists

Janos Starker

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

The World’s Greatest Cellists

Sine Qua Non-SQN-112X, three LPs, released 1973.

Pablo Casals

The set contains an assortment of truly great masterworks performed by three of the greatest practitioners of the cello. Each individual and his offering(s) will be considered:

Pablo Casals (1876-1973) did more than any previous player to expand appreciation of the cello and its musical depths. A live performance of Beethoven’s very beautiful Archduke Trio, with his very dear friends and phenomenal players in their own right- pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) and violinist Sandor Vegh (1912-1997), is moderately paced but phrased with some of the most soulful detail I have ever heard!

Pierre Fournier

Cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) developed a more suave, elegant style that became his endearing trademark for more than 40 years, as opposed to Casals’ soulful depths. The 1955 record of the Brahms’ 2 Cello Sonatas, with pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), captures the wonderful wide-ranging beauty of dignity, passion, joy and reserve in both works.

At an early performance of the 1st Sonata, Brahms played so loud that the cellist , himself an amateur, complained about not hearing his own instrument. “Lucky for you, too,” roared Brahms as he pounded away at the keyboard.

I met Janos Starker (1924-2014) in 1983 when he performed the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Houston Symphony under Sir Alexander Gibson. He exuded a most compelling aura of confidence and performed the work with ease and eloquence. Afterwards in the green room, he was the embodiment of cordiality and good humor when sharing a story of his days as principal cellist in the Chicago Symphony under the legendary Fritz Reiner.

His playing was characterized by a slashing, biting intensity that threw one into the heart of the music. Thus, his recordings of the charming 18th century Concerto in B-flat Major of Luigi Boccherini and the very exciting 1915 Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello further enrich this week’s set of historic recordings, all of which are posted from YouTube on my own Facebook page!

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Singer: Sarah Vaughan

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Sarah Vaughan

Sings the Mancini Songbook
Mercury, 61009, stereo LP, recorded 1965.

Sarah Vaughan

Billy Eckstine

This very fine album, a bringing together of one of the finest singers and composers in American music history, was a collaboration that never got the attention it truly deserved. Singer Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) brought thorough professionalism, exquisite taste, and vibrant heart and soul to her vocal art; if she made a bad record, I don’t know of it. Her early jazz sides during the mid-forties, some Columbia singles with arranger Percy Faith released after 1950, the mid-’50s Roulette LPs and ten years of Mercury vinyl beginning in 1957 that had duets with Billy Eckstine, and other entries too numerous to mention add up to a priceless legacy. After 1980, two personal favorites were the South Pacific CBS CD with Kiri Te Kanawa and Mandy Patinkin and the extraordinary Mystery of Man, a song cycle recorded in Germany and based on the poetry of a young man who later became Pope John Paul II.

Percy Faith

Henry Mancini

Henry Mancini produced a large, largely superb body of work noted for its own special beauties – soundtracks for Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, the Pink Panther, Romeo and Juliet, Charades, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, etc. forever; jazz and mood music arrangements; and the songs – Moon River, Dear Heart, Days of Wine and Roses, just three of the dozen songs on this week’s album, one most highly recommended.

Several selections can be heard on YouTube!

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Part 2

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

(Read part one here.)

Zito Francescatti

Zino Francescatti had a style of playing that was elegant, vibrantly alive and communicative and recorded an early ‘50s Columbia mono LP with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic in which this style truly shined. A late ‘50s second recording of the firebrand Jascha Heifetz paired him and Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony, a performance that was slightly tamer than the earlier Beecham but an excellent example of the RCA Victor Living Stereo process during the mid and late fifties into the early sixties.

Dimitri Mitropoulos

Jumping ahead to the early ‘80s of digital sound, violinist Uto Ughi and the very underrated Georges Pretre conducting the London Symphony recorded a larger than life, grandly romantic performance for RCA that was so communicative I listened to it several times in a week. Jean Jacques Kantarow recorded a Denon cd in the early 2000s, featuring a smaller scaled, reserved approach, perhaps more suitable for Bach and Vivaldi but delectable in its musical charm; Emmanuel Krivine and the Nether­lands Chamber Orchestra provided superb accompaniment.

Jascha Heifretz

Due to limited time and space and an overwhelming multitude of violinsts and their contributions to the catalogs, I could not cover very worthwhile interpretations by Milstein, Stern, Oistrakh, Martzy, Perleman, etc., but I recommend that those who love this music follow their own instincts in picking violinists, scrolling through numerous YouTubes as a start.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Composer: Felix Mendelssohn, Part 1

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Felix Mendelssohn

This week I am focusing on the recordings of the Violin Concerto of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), conceived in 1838 and completed and first performed by the composer’s concertmaster, Ferdinand David, of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where Mendelssohn was music director from 1835 to 1847. David also proved invaluable with his advice on many as­pects of scoring.

The Concerto has been performed and recorded innumerable times. This week, I would like to briefly comment on recordings that have given much pleasure over the decades and particularly emphasize the work’s rich catalog of different individual violinists who have their own styles, yet have conveyed the beauties of the Concerto itself.

Ferdinand David

Several historic recordings are worth searching out. Fritz Kreisler recorded a Victor 78 set back in the ‘30s, with the very competent Sir Landon Ronald, that was warmly expressive in its aristocratic framework. During the same decade, Joseph Szigeti gave a reading with the most exquisite bowing and phrasing, with Sir Thomas Beecham’s elegant, vibrant conducting of his own carefully formed and meticulously rehearsed London Philharmonic, then at its peak as possibly the finest recording orchestra in the world and creating a catalog of pristine Columbia

Fritz Kreisler

Mischa Elman did an RCA Victor album in the mid-’40s with the Chicago Symphony, under the Belgian conductor, Desire Defauw, in a style best described as that of tasteful reserve and nicely matching Defauw’s own interpretive worldview . Within a couple of years, Beecham’s elegant, vibrant conducting, provided for Szigeti more than ten years earlier, would rev up his recording with the then newly-formed Royal Philharmonic into a riveting collaboration with the dashing Jascha Heifetz, also an RCA Victor release.

To be continued next week!

(Read part 2 here.)

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Book: The Fifties by David Halberstam

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

David Halberstam

The Fifties
Villard Press, 1993, 733 pages

A maxim that underscored journalist David Halberstam’s work ethic was that being a professional meant doing the work one loved on the days one didn’t feel like doing it; this combination of passion and painstaking self-discipline resulted in roughly 22 books and countless articles.

David Halberstam

Born on April 10, 1934, in New York City and raised in Connecticut, he was a classmate of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. In 1955, he graduated from Harvard in the bottom third of his class and was hired as a reporter by newspapers in Mississippi and Tennessee, being the only one to cover the Nashville sit-ins. On a lighter note, I remember reading his liner notes for an LP of country pianist Floyd Cramer.

Beginning in the early ‘60s, Halberstam’s books on Vietnam, the media, big business and sports occupied him for over four decades. His gifts for story telling characterized the 1979 The Powers That Be, a riveting study of Time magazine’s Henry Luce, CBS’s William Paley and the Washington Post’s Phil Graham. The Post chapters contained one very good account of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s news investigation leading to the Watergate trial.

The Fifties is a massive-sized narrative panorama of a continually fascinating decade. Halberstam’s mastery of the character sketch shines in his portraits of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower; Red-baiting Wisconsin Democratic Senator Joseph McCarthy,”shrewd, insecure and defensive,” as tellingly and understatedly described by the author; mystery writer Mickey Spillane, creator of the vigilante lone detective Mike Hammer who went after Communists instead of gangsters and the politicians; the McDonald brothers, whose hamburger stand was transformed by Ray Kroc into a multi-billion dollar empire; Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar, who brought low-brow slapstick comedy to the mass television audiences, who clamored for more; nuclear scientist Edward Teller and his hydrogen bomb; Elvis Presley; sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and publisher Hugh Hefner, with their launching of the insidious sexual revolution; and a huge range of other personalities in as many spheres of influence who contributed so much to the decade’s perpetual interest. For me, the quiet seamstress Rosa Parks is arguably the central figure of monumental interest – her refusal to move to the back of the bus was a significant contribution to spurring the long-needed and awaited Civil Rights movement.

David Halberstam was killed in an automobile crash near San Francisco en route to interview football legend Y.A. Tittle for one of two books he had in preparation. He was 73 years old.

REVIEW POTPOURRI: Beethoven’s 5 Piano Concertos

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Something a little different this week:

Beethoven’s 5 Piano Concertos were a very significant body of work because they both consolidated the best of what the composer learned from his predecessors — Haydn, Mozart etc. – and broke new ground on the expansion of the piano’s technical possibilities and musical depths. These two considerations, as edifying as they are, cannot be explored more, due to limited space. What will be done instead is to touch briefly on the merits of each Concerto and to offer one recording that is quite special in and of itself from the shelves of duplicates in my possession.

Ludwig von Beethoven

Ludwig von Beethoven

Concerto no. 1 has a jubilant yet graceful beauty in its assertive rhythms and rich melodic writing. A performance of exceptional quality is the mid-’50s, nicely transferred radio broadcast featuring Sviatoslav Richter, with the gifted but very unknown Bratislav Bakala on the podium, one not to be confused with later Richter releases conducted by Karel Ancerl and Charles Munch. The pianist’s often larger than life virtuosity found a captivating vehicle in this work while Bakala’s astute care for every note matched Richter’s own. A CD is available through Berkshire Record Outlet with the pair’s Beethoven 3rd.

Concerto no. 2, actually composed before the 1st but published after it, is very headstrong in its feisty exhuberance. Rudolf Serkin made three recordings; the first one, from the early ‘50s for Columbia and with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, is my favorite of them. Serkin gave a headstrong performance and a very exciting one, both rhythmically and musically. It is available on a Sony CD through Amazon.

Concerto no. 3 is on a grander scale and one beautiful, powerful creation. The 1949 recording with the relatively unknown Eduard Erdmann and conductor Helmut Muller-Kray shows an especially eloquent, deeply moving understanding of its content. It is part of an inexpensive two-CD set on the historical Tahra label, also containing one of the Schubert Sonatas, and can be found via the above-mentioned Berkshire.

Concerto no. 4 is a masterpiece of sublime introspection. The 1962 collaboration between Van Cliburn and Fritz Reiner leading the Chicago Symphony was the result of several months worth of the most detailed preparation between the pianist and conductor and shows in the gripping performance available on a nicely remastered BMG CD, again available through Amazon.

Concerto no. 5, better known as the “Emperor,” was conceived on a heroic scale never before experienced in the piano repertoire. In addition, it may be the most frequently played of the five works in concert hall and recording studio, due to its very appealing musical scoring. One highly recommendable live performance from 1995 showcases the then 17-year-old Mihaela Ursuleasa, winner of first prize at the Clara Haskil competition in Switzerland, whose much too early 2012 death remains one inexplicable tragedy. Her rendition, with the late conductor, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, has a quality of newly-minted freshness and is a formidably distinctive entry among a large number of distinctive entries. The Claves CD contains a very engaging Mozart 9th Piano Concerto as its discmate and can be bought through Amazon.

Pianist Wilhelm Kempff considered these five Concertos inexhaustibly rewarding for both performer and listener!

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Jazz musician: Count Basie; Composer: Ravel

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Count Basie

Prime Time
Pablo, CD, recorded January 18-20, 1977.

Count Basie

Jazz pianist/bandleader Count Basie (1904 -1984) appeared in the 1943 film, Stage Door Canteen, performing with singer Ethel Waters and his orchestra and doing a captivating solo turn. I say captivating because, whenever his short , stubby fingers touched a key, he drew out a most delectable note while sustaining the happiest smile. This enjoyment quickly spread to band members and audiences alike.

His best qualities, ones that were sustained in a huge legacy of recordings and concerts throughout a more than 60-year career, were an infectious rhythmic beat, an enthusiastic team spirit and a long list of talented, inspired singers and instrumentalists- vocalists Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Joe Williams, Helen Humes, and Thelma Carpenter; saxist Lester Young; guitarist Freddie Green; and Buck Clayton and Harry Sweets Edison on trumpet.

The above CD, a typically good one, contains eight selections, including such staples as Sweet Georgia Brown and Ja-Da.

In 1970, Basie collaborated with Frank Sinatra at a pair of benefit concerts. The singer would later comment: “I have a funny feeling that those two nights could have been my finest hour, really. It went so well; it was so thrilling and exciting.”

The pianist was honored at the 1981 Kennedy Center Awards program.

Count Basie succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1984 at the age of 79.

Ravel

Orchestral Works
Andre Cluytens conducting the Paris Conservatory Orchestra; French Columbia, 2 LP set, recorded 1962-63.

Maurice Ravel

André Cluytens

As much as I cherish other gifted interpreters of Debussy and Ravel – examples being Monteux, Munch, Ansermet, Boulez, Abbado etc., – I return to Andre Cluytens (1905 -1967) most often. He conducted both composers with consistent elegance, power, beauty, clarity. And his meticulously prepared interpretations weren’t just bestowed on the French school. The Berlin Philharmonic Beethoven 9 Symphonies are now routinely considered among the top three or four sets, his collaboration with David Oistrakh in the same composer’s Violin Concerto is quite splendid and a set of Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with Christoff is a justified cornerstone among great recordings of Russian opera. Two personal, less mentioned favorites are a live Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto with Rubinstein and an exquisitely shaped Schumann Rhenish Symphony.

The above collection consists of the Mother Goose ballet, Valse Nobles et Sentimentales, Tombeau de Couperin, Menuet Antique, Alborada del Gracioso, Barque sue L’Ocean, and Pavane for a Dead Princess. Each piece is an inexhaustible masterwork, masterfully performed. And these recordings are available via several different CD editions.

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Music: Gershwin, Bruckner; Movie: Cold Turkey

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Gershwin

Music
Zubin Mehta, New York Philharmonic with soloists. Teldec cassette.

George Gershwin

Zubin Mehta, now in his 82nd year, has achieved fame via his directorships of the Los Angeles, New York and Israel Philharmonics, Bavarian State Opera, etc., and a truckload of recordings. The above is a decently performed program of the great Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess selections, sung with feeling by Roberta Alexander and Gregg Baker; and the ever captivating American in Paris and Cuban Overture. His recordings have been a mixture of great, good, average and poor but his best ones have a very exciting, inspired and exactingly precise musicality that wears well.

Along with this album, I recommend his Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with Ashkenazy and Brahms 1st Symphony, both with the Vienna Philharmonic; the L.A. Beethoven 7th Symphony; and Puccini Turandot and both Toscas.

Bruckner

7th Symphony
Francesco d’Avalos, Philharmonia Orchestra; ASV CD.

Anton Bruckner

Francesco d’Avalos

Anton Bruckner, 1824-1896, composed music as his means of worshiping and praising God – only that! The Sympho­nies, Masses, etc., could be lengthy but their spans of uplifting, heavenly beauty seal his deserved status of greatness.

The 7th Sym­phony moved the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr., to declare it one of the finest musical experiences of his own lifetime. The above recording of Francesco d’Avalos can be easily added to a sizable but distinguished catalog that includes Karajan, Haitink, Chailly, Ormandy Giulini and others.

Cold Turkey

starring Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, etc.; 1971, two hours.

Dick Van Dyke

Bob Newhart

A comedy about what happens when a midwest village of the worst chain smokers agree to quit smoking for a month in order to win $25 million. I fell off the couch!

REVIEW POTPOURRI – Album: Scandinavia; Group: The Rays; Opera: Verdi

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Scandinavia

Laserlight, 79 675, cassette, released 1991.

Jean Sibelius

The Laserlight label began releasing very inexpensive cassettes and CDs during the late ‘80s and focusing mainly on classical music.

Scandina­via, a musical grab bag centered on Norway, Sweden and Fin­land, contains the 2nd Peer Gynt Suite and two Elegiac Melodies of Norway’s Edvard Grieg and the Swan of Tuonela and Finlandia of Finland’s Jean Sibelius, along with three shorter pieces. The performers include the very gifted conductors, Janos Sandor, Yuri Ahronovitch, Herbert Kegel, Geoffrey Simon and Rouslan Raichev; pianist, Jeno Jando; and, for orchestras, the Hungarian State, Budapest Strings, Vienna Symphony, Philharmonia and Dresden and Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Philharmonics – all first class ensembles. A nice cassette for classical beginners.

Amazon prices begin at one cent for CDs while the cassette is not available for now.

The Rays

Silhouettes; Daddy Cool
Cameo 117, 45, recorded 1957.

The Rays

The Rays were formed in 1955 and scored a #3 hit on the charts with the doo wop classic, Silhouettes, which sold 3 million copies. It has sustained its status as a captivating song and been covered by other artists. The side B is a throwaway.

Verdi

Otello
Sixten Ehrling conducting choir and orchestra with tenor Set Svanholm, soprano Aase Nordmo-Lovberg and baritone Sigurd Bjorling, etc.; Preiser 90754, three CDs, 1953-54 Stockholm Opera production, with extra cd of Verdi’s Don Carlo excerpts, with same forces from 1956.

Sixten Ehrling

Set Svanholm

This set will appeal to a surprisingly sizable number of those who collect historic opera broadcasts. The performance has a sterling cast with Svan­holm’s jealous Otello, Nordmo’s doomed Desdem­ona, and Bjor­ling’s treacherous Iago, while Verdi’s setting of the original Shake­speare play has made for one of the finest opera experiences in the genre’s history. Sixten Ehrling had a very unpleasant personality by most accounts but his conducting of most everything I have heard was very exciting, as was the case with the Don Carlo excerpts.