CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Maniaci, Monteux, Szell, Stokowski and d’Albert

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring Michael Maniaci, Pierre Monteux, George Szell, Leopold Stokowski and Eugen d’Albert.

A RECENT OPERATIC SENSATION
Mozart: Arias for Male Soprano (from Idomeneo, Lucio Silla and La Clemenza di Tito); Motet, Exsultate, Jubilate, K. 165.  Michael Maniaci, soprano; with Boston Baroque directed by Martin Pearlman. Telarc TEL-31827-02.

Simply sensational is a succinct summation of this disc.  Michael Maniaci is not a castrato (Alessandro Moreschi of the Sistine Chapel Choir was the last one of those, and neither his repertoire nor his technique approaches Mr. Maniaci’s).  Maniaci has already enjoyed wide success on the concert platfrom and operatic stage, here and abroad; it is hoped that this is a recording début, not a one-time-only offering of his very considerable talent and musicality.  All of the operatic arias were written for castrati, and we have become conditioned to hearing them sung by women at least for the last hundred seventy years.  Maniaci sounds like a contralto who sings in the soprano range.  There is no fakery about this artist, as there have been legendary countertenors (including Alfred Deller) who were actually baritones who sang falsetto.  Maniaci says he is most comfortable in the soprano range.

The 34-year-old singer’s characterization of Idamante in Idomeneo is well-documented here, even if by one recitative and aria; and his work in the late Tito opera (to and old Metastasio libretto) is moving beyond words.  The early motet Exsultate, jubilate, for me, was the high point.  Mr. Maniaci’s dynamic control and his ease with the most challenging 16th-note runs are breathtaking.  The quality of his voice is peculiar to him—it is masculine (I referred earlier to what struck me as its contralto-like shading) but it is different.  To find out what is meant here by different, you simply have to listen to this disc.  Michael Maniaci is a great artist and a phenomenon.  There are a few other male sopranos around today, but none seems to have made the impact that Mr. Maniaci has made. 

A pleasant surprise in this recording is the enticing sound of Boston Baroque.  The blend of horns and winds would do any conductor grounded in the Austro-German tradition proud; there are none of the intonation anomalies I tend to associate with period-instrument groups.  Martin Pearlman, who also contributed the informative liner notes, has built a remarkable ensemble.  His part of the collaboration certainly conveys a love and deep feeling for the music of Mozart, which he shares with this wonderful vocal discovery.  This album is highly recommended.

 

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Pierre Monteux: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1956-1964. Works of Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Sibelius, Elgar and Stravinsky; with the London Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Paris Conservatoire and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras.  Decca 4757798 (7 CDs).

Pierre Monteux: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1956-1964Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), renowned as a conductor of concerts, opera and ballet as well as a teacher of his craft, is nobly enshrined in this collection, one of a series from Decca (formerly known in the USA as London Records, which now has apparently absorbed the Philips label).  His expansive 1959 reading of the Brahms second symphony, with the Vienna Philharmonic, in which he takes the first movement repeat, is a welcome re-addition to the catalogue; he also recorded the same work, in essentially the same conception, with the London Symphony for Philips shortly afterward.  The Two Brahms Overtures, opp. 80 and 81, recorded for Philips with the LSO, are also included here, as are the Haydn Variations (with the LSO, for Decca in 1958 and released on RCA in this country).  Monteux gave us one of the best recordings of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, with the LSO; that, too, is part of this illustrious company.  Released for the first time are collaborations with his son, flutist Claude Monteux, recorded in London in 1963: the Bach second orchestral suite, with a full string section and no keyboard continuo, but Monteux makes it work: the sound is very textured and he proves why he was a favorite concerto accompanist.  A typically unforced and fresh reading of the Mozart K. 314 Flute Concerto (the same piece as the Oboe Concerto) and Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice complete this unique father-son collaboration.

Monteux, in 1913, led the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), and had recorded it twice (including a superb late-mono version with the Boston Symphony) before essaying a stereophonic recording with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1956.  This recording, with jacket notes by Monteux himself, was scheduled to be released at the time of the composer’s 75th birthday.  During the same sessions, Monteux and the Parisian musicians recorded the 1919 L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird) suite and a complete Pétrouchka, the latter with pianist Julius Katchen playing the demanding piano part.  Those, too, are generously included.  So are the Sibelius Second Symphony and works of Debussy and Ravel, with the LSO. 

Monteux’ 1957 recording (with the LSO) of about fifty-plus minutes’ worth of music from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty was released on LP under both the Decca and RCA labels.  The RCA issues (LM-2177 and LSC-2177, mono and stereo respectively) omitted several items from Act III which were listed on the record jacket as being on the record itself.  For some strange reason, the editing on the RCA monaural disc differed from that of the stereo version.  The present CD reissue corrects those omissions, and offers a clearer glimpse of Monteux’ way with this music and, indeed, of his way with an orchestra than I can remember the LP versions revealing.  The recording, engineered by Decca’s Kenneth Wilkinson in the long-since-razed Kingsway Hall, captures the orchestra from a fixed perspective.  Monteux offers a generous selection from the Prologue and Act I, only two brief numbers from the second act and an even more generous selection from the third, making judicious cuts to keep the music in motion.  The chamber music-like quality of this performance is striking, and the string articulation is breathtaking—especially in the Farandole from Act II.  There is ensemble precision par excellence in this playing, but precision is never an end in itself with Monteux.  It is a wonderful give-and-take between orchestra and conductor.  Neville (later Sir Neville) Marriner was the leader of the second violin section of the London Symphony at the time of the recording, and was getting private conducting lessons and valuable professional advice from Monteux.

The collection also raises questions about omissions.  Monteux’ 1959 version of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 (The Clock) with the Vienna Philharmonic is in this collection, but not No. 94 (Surprise) from the same Sofiensaal sessions.  His superb but unconventional interpretation of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, is not here.  Nor is his recording of the Brahms second piano concerto with Julius Katchen and the London Symphony, or the Dvorák seventh symphony (all of these for Decca).  Nor is one of his last recordings, slightly less than an hour’s worth of music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, with the London Symphony for Philips. Dedicated collectors who are not averse to the turntable would do well to pursue these items: good copies are floating around, though they are not always easy to find.  In any case, kudos to Decca for reviving the memory of a penetrating and sensitive artist who not only left his stamp on the orchestras with which he worked, but who was actually loved by them. 

 

George Szell: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1951-1969. Works of Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák and Brahms; with the Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras. Decca 4756780 (5 CDs).

George Szell: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1951-1969George Szell was in many ways the antithesis of Monteux.  Born twenty-two years later in Budapest and growing up in Vienna, he was a prodigy pianist and composer who later gravitated toward conducting, renowned for his ability to extract perfectly articulated sound from any orchestra.  For almost a quarter-century, he molded the Cleveland Orchestra in his own image; nearly forty years after his death, his influence is still felt in that orchestra — despite the fact that almost no one who played in that ensemble during his reign is still there.  His method was total control, learning theories of instrumental technique and meticulously marking string bowings and fingerings himself and attending to many other seemingly minute details to secure truly artistic results.  A 1930 biographical sketch describes Szell as an accomplished horn player as well as a pianist, but he himself stated that he was strictly a keyboard man who applied principles of musical common sense to orchestral instruments.  His bowings and fingerings, he often said, were worked out not in terms of convenience but in terms of securing musical results.

One of his last European recordings, Beethoven’s incidental music to Goethe’s verse drama Egmont (late 1969), is included here.  The Vienna Philharmonic play to perfection, with stellar string playing and superb playing from then-first oboist Walter Lehmayer as standouts; the late Spanish-born soprano Pilar Lorengar (whose adopted surname was a contraction of the name given her at birth, Lorenza Garcia) sings the two songs.  Klausjürgen Wussow reads Franz Grillparzer’s condensation of the Goethe play and takes the part of the doomed Dutch nobleman at the end.  It is one of those recordings that should never be out of the catalogue.  An exemplary Mozart Symphony No. 34 in C (K. 338), one of a handful of late Mozart symphonies without a minuet, with the Concertgebouw (1966), is also included.

Long absent from the catalogue are Szell’s recordings of Handel with the London Symphony, selections from Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks in Sir Hamilton Harty’s arrangements with emendations by Szell himself.  These are complemented with Sir Thomas Beecham’s arrangement of the Menuet from Il pastor fido and an uncredited arrangement (with strings and harp) of the all-too-well-known Ombra mai fu from Serse.  Szell does not sneer at these arrangements, but strives for getting the most out of them and leaves nothing to chance.  This is music, especially in its “transmogrified” (one of Leonard Bernstein’s favorite words) form, generally not associated with Szell.  It is good to have these items back in the catalogue after an absence of more than thirty years.

The two monaural recordings, both with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and both from 1951 (of the Dvorák eighth and Brahms third symphonies, both of which he was to record in stereo with his own Cleveland ensemble—the Dvorák twice), are of interest.  While the sound is dated, they offer valuable glimpses into the then-54-year-old conductor’s way of handling an orchestra. 

The collection also includes a 1961 recording of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony with the London Symphony, which Szell refused to approve for release but which Decca released posthumously in 1978 (Szell himself had said, “this will be released over my dead body”); a superb 1966 Beethoven fifth. music from Schubert’s Rosamunde and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second symphony of Sibelius—all with the Concertgebouw.

 

Leopold Stokowski: Decca Recordings, 1965-1972.  Works of Bach, various Baroque and Renaissance composers, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Elgar, Franck, Berlioz, Ravel, Messiaen, Persichetti, Debussy and Stravinsky, with the Czech Philharmonic, London Symphony, New Philharmonia and Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestras. Decca 475145 (5 CDs).

Leopold Stokowski: The Maverick Conductor.  Works of Bach, various Renaissance and Baroque composers, Bartók, Ibert, Harold Farberman, Debussy, Shostakovich, Barber, Holst, Glière, Stravinsky, Charles Martin Loeffler, Dukas, Tchaikovsky, Orff and Respighi; with the London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and French National Radio Orchestras and the Symphony of the Air and a New York ad hoc orchestra.  EMI 50999 6 98555-2 (10 CDs).

Leopold Stokowski: Decca Recordings, 1965-1972Leopold Antony Stokowski—to give his full name, as given him at birth—was born in London in 1882 and died in his native country a little more than 95 years later.  He was still active to the very end, although in the last four years of his life his activity was restricted to the recording studio.  His colleague Maurice Abravanel, who himself lived to a ripe old age, said of Stokowski in his last years, “When he was all there, he conducted brilliantly.  When he wasn’t all there, you got the feeling he didn’t know where he was.” 

Stokowski began as an organist, studying at the Royal Academy of Music at London where his teachers included Sir Henry Walford Davies and Sir Hubert Parry.  He made a big impression as organist and director of music at St. James’ Church, Piccadilly; it was Parry who recommended him, at the age of 23, for the post of organist and choirmaster at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City.  He stayed there for three years; his one published essay in extended Anglican chant, a setting in English of Benidicite opera omnia Domini, dates from that period and was still in print as of thirty years ago.  Stokowski’s post at St. Bartholomew’s afforded him summers off; he is said to have spent much of that free time in Germany, sitting in on master classes given by Arthur Nikisch, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.  It was about this time that he met and married his first of three wives, the pianist Olga Samaroff (who had been born Lucie Hickenlooper in Texas), who was instrumental in securing his conducting début in Paris in 1908.  In the audience were one or two trustees of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which was looking for a music director.  There, they found their man.

Stokowski’s first season in Cincinnati showed a young conductor who had prepared himself well.  One critic of the period noted that his rehearsals were punctuated with succinct explanations “in clear and precise Oxford English”.  This was soon displaced by the strange international accent which became a Stokowski trademark.  When he forgot himself and was hastily supplying oral instructions to the orchestra, his accent sounded almost like a “flat” American accent.  The international accent — amusingly discussed by his friend and admirer Oliver Daniel in Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View, perhaps the definitive Stokowski biography (in a chapter titled “Total En-Slav-Ment”).  Stokowski dropped definite articles and applied idiosyncratic pronunciations to certain English words.  Examples: a physician specializing in matters of the mind was a “see-KEE-ah-treest”; an electrical device for picking up sound impulses was a “MEEK-ro-phone”.  When he single-handedly blew the dust off of Charles Ives’ fourth symphony in 1965, providing oral program notes for the Carnegie Hall audience, he noted, “At thees point in da mooseec, Ives uses da trumpet call that they use in the Ah-mee to vake you up in tha mahnink—how you say, ruh-VAY-yuh?”  Someone in the orchestra loudly corrected him. “Vat?” he glowered, and then, smiling: “Ooooh! Please escoose my meez-pro-noun-see-AY-shun of that French vord.”

As late as 1971, a record jacket vita said of him, “He is the son of Boleslaw Kopernik Stokowski of Lublin, Poland.”  Read that “of London, England.”  For years, he gave his year of birth as 1887.  His mother’s maiden name was Annie Marion Moore; he didn’t want you to know that.  He once told Abram Chasins that, when he was a little boy, his Polish grandfather took him to a pub where inebriated Polish exiles sang folk songs and “cried into their beards” and one of them played the violin, “my favorite instrument, always, and my first instrument”.  Stokowski’s Polish-born paternal grandfather, also named Leopold, died more than a decade before his namesake was born.

A conductor of English-speaking, non-continental European origins was suspect in the first years of the twentieth century in the United States.  Stokowski came to Philadelphia in 1912, at the age of thirty, to face an orchestra with which he would spend close to thirty years and with which he would build an international reputation.  He found an inept ensemble, inadequate rehearsal conditions and bizarre traditions such as rehearsing in German—because his immediate predecessor, Karl Pohlig, was insecure about his English.  He rehearsed in German the first few times, but the practical side of Stokowski rejected this.  The practical side is just as significant as the “en-Slav-ment” side, for it led him to adopt even more seemingly bizarre practices.  Stokowski did not believe in uniform bowing, except in certain modern works where a tension was required (as in his interpretation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, included in the EMI collection, where he alternated between uniform and free bowing).  He insisted that everyone play on the beat and in tune.  He experimented with unorthodox seatings, often placing the winds toward the front — in approximately the same place where the first violins are in most conventional arrangements.  He deployed the double basses in a straight line across the rear of the stage, on risers—but this arrangement was also used by Klemperer and Toscanini, for greater focus of lower string tone.  He often sat all the string players who played Stradivaris and Guarneris in the same rows for greater homogeneity of timbre.  The seating was generally dictated by the acoustics of the hall. 

Both of these collections are devoted to stereophonic recordings mostly made during the 1950s and ’60s, showing a mature maestro who had learned from trials, errors and vicissitudes.  Both collections offer a generous selection of his Bach transcriptions, as well as his lesser-known arrangements of pieces like Henri Duparc’s song Extase (with the London Symphony, for Decca, treating it as a miniature horn concerto) and works of Frescobaldi, Palestrina and an aria of Marc’Antonio Cesti—the latter subjected to full-blown, lush, Stokowskian romanticism.  And, of course, the exquisite staggered releases that come from both thorough planning and the use of free bowing.  His thoroughly sympathetic Decca recording of Debussy’s La Mer, with the London Symphony, is in the Decca box, as well as his probing realization of the French composer’s piano prelude The Engulfed Cathedral

EMI documents his Capitol recordings with the Houston Symphony (“Hooston” in Stokowski-ese), most of which have already appeared at least once on compact disc.  His 1950s version of Carl Orff’s scenic cantata Carmina Burana, the heavily-edited and shortened version of Reinhold Glière’s Ilya Murometz symphony and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 are all here; the Shostakovich eleventh really illustrates in a graphic way how far Stokowski had brought the Houston Symphony in his brief tenure (1955-61), and it is still considered one of the finest orchestral recordings of any kind ever made.  His recordings with the New York-based Symphony of the Air (formed from the nucleus of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony), including the United Artists recordings of the Khachaturian second symphony and the Shostakovich first, are represented here as well.  Novelties are Harold Farberman’s Evolution and a march from Vincent Persichetti’s Suite for Band. His only recording of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, made with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a movie soundstage, is a welcome revival.

 

A FORGOTTEN “GERMAN” COMPOSER 

Eugen d’Albert:  Seejungfräulein (The Little Mermaid), op. 15. a setting of James Grun’s free versification of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, for soprano and orchestra.  Symphony in F, op. 4Hermann Bäumer conducting the Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra with Anna Kasyan, soprano (in op. 15 only). CPO 777264.

Eugen d'Albert: Seejungfraulein (The Little Mermaid), op. 15Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932) is remembered mainly as a pianist and was one of the last pupils of Liszt, who called the diminutive, bemoustached young virtuoso “Albertus Magnus”.  He was born in Glasgow (as Eugene Francis Charles), the son of a British mother and a German-born father of French and Italian descent and who claimed to be a descendant of the composers Giuseppe Matteo and Domenico Alberti.  While still a student, and in his mid-teens, he had already acquired a reputation as a brilliant virtuoso pianist.  His early study was at the National Training School, where his teachers included Ernst Pauer (piano), Sir Arthur Sullivan and Ebenezer Prout (composition and theory).  In his late teens, he spent much time in Germany and Austria and began studying with Liszt.  D’Albert’s father’s having been fifty-five years old at the time of his birth and his over-sheltered home life probably contributed toward his growing negative feelings about England, and he considered himself a German.  Even though, at age twenty, he had been installed as court pianist to the Grand Duke of Weimar, he retained his British citizenship until World War I, when he became a Swiss citizen. He did, and in no uncertain terms, dismiss his English training as worthless.  He died in 1932, at 57, in Riga, Latvia, of a heart attack; he had gone to Riga to finalize the divorce from his sixth wife.  He is buried in Morcote, near Lugano, Switzerland.

Arthur Rubinstein fondly remembered d’Albert’s performance of the Beethoven fourth concerto as a gold standard.  He was embraced by German conductor Hans Richter, who premiered his own now-lost Piano Concerto in a minor with the 17-year-old composer as soloist. It was Richter who brought him to Vienna, where he was also hailed by Hans von Bülow as well as by Liszt.  D’Albert became just as prolific a composer as he was on the concert stage, but only his 1903 opera Tiefland (The Lowlands) held a place in the repertoire.  Another of his operas, Die Toten Augen (The Dead Eyes, 1913), has been revived in recent years: it concerns a woman, blind from birth, who was healed by Jesus.  She finds the world of sight uncomfortable, as everything is not as she mentally visualized it; she gazes into the sun for hours on end and returns to the familiar world of the dark. 

The two works on this disc date from d’Albert’s early years. The large and very impressive F-major symphony is the earliest (1884).  Hans von Bülow conducted it both in Berlin and in Hamburg in 1892, firmly believing that the young man’s greatest strength was as a composer.  D’Albert at age twenty already has a secure command of the orchestra, and his style is aggressively contrapuntal.  There is always a wealth of ideas and a keen melodic instinct, and Hermann Bäumer and the Osnabrück orchestra do a much-neglected composer proud by giving a performance just as committed as is the superb writing.  He never fails to hold the listener’s attention.  This symphony should not be dismissed as juvenilia.  It is a work large in scope, lasting fifty minutes and essentially classical in scope—much like Brahms, who was his model; but it doesn’t sound like Brahms.  It is totally original and compelling from beginning to end.  There is no cyclic form in which certain themes are common to all or most of the movements: each of the four movements is a complete and satisfying piece in itself,  yet at the same time each is a part of an integrated whole.  Particularly noteworthy is an intricate fugue in the middle of the finale.

Seejungfräulein dates from 1898, when d’Albert’s career as a pianist was at its zenith.  The same melodic invention is mightily at work here. Anna Kasyan, a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia and now a resident of Paris, is both lyric and dramatic in her portrayal of a young woman contemplating her own imminent death.  Ms. Kasyan has built her reputation on lyric and coloratura roles since her operatic début almost three years ago, and her sound is that of a lyric soprano.  I would call Seejungfräulein a monodrama more than anything else.  Miraculously, d’Albert completed this score within the space of a few days.  The piece was a therapeutic “breather” from the intensive work on the opera Der Improvisator

This disc is more than worth your time.  These are not novelties but undeservedly neglected works of a very major talent.  Hermann Bäumer, music director at Osnabrück since 2004, has already gained a secure foothold in Germany’s concert and operatic life.  He is a former trombonist with the Berlin Philharmonic and is a man committed to new music as well as forgotten music.  Not quite three years ago, Bäumer took his Osnabrück orchestra to Tehran, marking the first time a Western orchestra had been heard in Iran since 1979.  He is currently involved in a project to record all of the symphonies of the Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster.  His service to d’Albert’s music is of inestimable value.

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