Bach, Hande, Haydn

COMPOSERS: Bach,Hande,Haydn
LABELS: Biddulph
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Wanda Landowska Plays Harpsichord Concertos
WORKS: Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052; Italian Concerto; Concerto in B flat, Op. 4/6; Suite No. 15 in B flat: Air and Variations; Concerto in D, Hob. XVIII:11; Sonata in C sharp minor, Hob. XVI: 36: Minuet; German Dance No. 5
PERFORMER: Biddulph
CATALOGUE NO: LHW 032 ADD mono
Avid AMSC 587 ADD enhanced mono 71:31 mins £ £

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Now that Naxos has set about systematically issuing various Toscanini broadcast performances from the Thirties and Forties, it might seem plain silly for anyone even to consider releasing a Toscanini double-pack at full-price. And yet in the case of ‘Arturo Toscanini conducts the Orchestra of La Scala, Milan’, a previously unissued BEETHOVENChoral as relayed live from the opera house on 24 June 1946 more than justifies the enterprise. OK, the sound is scrawny, the playing imperfect and a missing chunk of the finale has been replaced by an identically paced Toscanini live performance from seven years earlier; but the sweep, surge and dramatic impulse of the maestro’s vision remain as vital as ever – more so, in fact, than on his later commercial recording. Odd to relate, however, that because of the aforementioned ‘missing link’, two-thirds of the finale are sung in Italian, and one third in German. The first disc opens to a weighty Beethoven Egmont Overture, then calms for a genial Beethoven First Symphony and ends with a virile sequence of Wagner orchestral excerpts. Everything bar the Choral emanates from a Lucerne Festival concert given during early June 1946.

Ten years earlier, Toscanini had presented that fine Italian soprano Augusta Oltrabella at the same Festival, as Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff. Oltrabella is one of FOUR FAMOUS ITALIAN SOPRANOS, her agile, somewhat strident voice sharing disc-space with Mafalda Favero (a noted exponent of new opera), Pia Tassinari (wife of tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini) and the aristocratic Magda Olivero, who all tackle standard operatic fare. Preiser’s transfers are no less admirable on an alternative programme, FOUR FAMOUS SOPRANOS OF THE PAST, where Frida Leider employs her silvery ‘Heldensoprano’ in Gluck, Beethoven and Mozart (there’s not a finer Donna Anna on disc), and fellow sopranos Barbara Kemp, Delia Reinhardt and Göta Ljungberg share key German, Italian and French repertoire between them. Reinhardt’s records were, for me, something of a revelation; her matchlessly sensitive 1929 recording of ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’ (Weber’s Der Freischütz) had me reaching for the replay button, though Ljungberg’s Salome also takes some beating.

FRANZ LEHÁR will doubtless have heard most of these artists in the theatre; but then he had himself collaborated with some of the greatest singers of the period, most notably Richard Tauber, whose memory he honoured with a special concert in 1948. A year earlier, Lehár had been busy recording orchestral extracts from his operettas with the Zürich Tonhalle, an orchestra which, although hardly as polished as it has since become under David Zinman, plays with warmth and commitment – especially in a benchmark account of Gold and Silver. There’s also music from The Count of Luxembourg, Gipsy Love, Eva, The Land of Smiles and The Merry Widow, plus an Overture, Wiener Frauen, which, from 6:37 mins, transforms into a sort of kitsch rhapsody for piano and orchestra, though the excellent soloist isn’t named.

One who definitely is treats us to a generous selection of GRIEG’s Lyric Pieces, intimate music played by Walter Gieseking with all the fantasy, charm and restrained feeling that any aficionado could reasonably wish for. Most were recorded in 1956, the same year – indeed within the same three days – that Gieseking taped an appealing though interpretatively less consistent programme of MENDELSSOHN Songs without Words, some of which sound as if they’re being sight-read.

Happily, no such constraints inhibit WANDA LANDOWSKA’s white-hot 1938 recording of Bach’s D minor keyboard concerto, a wild-eyed, Gothic affair, with melodramatic conducting to match. Landowska’s lavishly sonorous reading of the Italian Concerto is another bonus, though some might prefer her elegantly tailored accounts of Handel’s Op. 4/6 and Haydn’s D major Concertos. A handful of encores includes the Handel ‘Air and Variations’, the basis for Brahms’s epic Handel Variations for piano solo.

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Brahms was surely a crucial inspiration for ELGAR’s Violin Concerto, though to hear Henry Wood drive headlong through the opening tutti more recalls the hectic world of pre-war newsreel footage. Wood conducts for the violinist who some would say was the Concerto’s finest exponent on record, though I still prefer the young Yehudi Menuhin, if only by a stone’s throw. Nothing could be further from Albert Sammons’s gentlemanly understatement than the playing of Pablo Casals, whose highly controversial 1945 recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto serves as the Violin Concerto’s disc-mate. Say what you will, Casals is in a class of his own, whether in the gruff gesturing of the Concerto’s opening page or the aching backward glances that dominate its finale. Boult and his players stoke the fire with conviction and dignity, and the sound remains young for its years.