Schubert, Brahms, Grieg, Verdi

COMPOSERS: Brahms,Grieg,Schubert,Verdi
LABELS: Testament
ALBUM TITLE: Elisabeth Grámmer
WORKS: Music by Schubert, Brahms, Grieg, Verdi
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 1086 ADD stereo/mono

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The Times called her ‘one of the greatest musicians of our time’; Osbert Sitwell claimed that she rid ‘ancient instruments’ of preciosity, and contemporary reviewers placed her musicianship on a par with Casals, Tertis and Segovia. Harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse certainly had her admirers (her ‘life and loves’ make for fascinating reading in Jessica Douglas-Home’s new biography). But what about her records?

Pearl has released a generous selection, ranging from acoustically recorded Farnaby to electrically recorded Haydn and ending with music from Bach’s ‘48’. Granted that the sound is a touch flimsy and 78s surfaces tend to intrude, but the actual playing is flexible, capricious and spontaneous.

Another old-world legend whose name is nowadays but a vague memory is the Czech violinist Vása Príhoda. A dazzling prodigy, Príhoda played in cafés, married the daughter of Arnold Rosé, recorded Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in wartime Germany and was branded a Nazi collaborator. He was a truly fabulous player whose sweet tone, dramatic inflections and lightning left-hand pizzicatos make their maximum impact in the music of Paganini. Biddulph’s new Príhoda CD includes a stunning version of Paganini’s Le streghe, though whether acoustically recorded Paganini, Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski concertos will appeal beyond a coterie of specialist collectors is open to question.

A more ‘regular’ experience arrives courtesy of Bridge and recalls a specific event when, on 13 March 1953 at the American Library of Congress, Nathan Milstein and Artur Balsam played Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, Bach’s D minor Partita and Brahms’s Third Sonata. Nothing could be further removed from Príhoda’s irascible flights of fancy than Milstein’s suave tone and judiciously modulated phrasing. It’s wonderful in its way, if just a tad predictable.

The sound is serviceable, though nowhere near as good as on Appian’s revelatory Louis Kentner CD where distinguished pre-war and wartime recordings of rare Liszt are framed by two Hungarian Rhapsodies. The principal attraction here is the intense level of thought that went into each interpretation; nothing is vulgarised or over-projected and yet the sum effect of Kentner’s playing is extraordinarily exciting.

Parallel insights greet a trio of Mozart symphony performances by the Vienna SO under Jascha Horenstein, even though tempi are generally slower than the current norm and the 1955 recordings are somewhat papery. Listen to how Horenstein draws the bass-line of the 39th Symphony’s introduction (the reading as a whole is unusually sombre), or the lightness of No. 41’s first movement. Nothing is predictable, although the routinely performed stereo couplings – Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Vesperae solennes de confessore – are unlikely to set the world alight.

Nor, I have to say, will Otto Klemperer’s Gershwin. Archiphon has located a clod-hopping performance of the Second Piano Prelude in an orchestral arrangement by one David Broekman. The date is 1937, that’s a year after Klemperer conducted two of Schoenberg’s orchestral ‘transcriptions’ – an irredeemably clumsy ‘Quartet Concerto’ based on Handel’s Op. 6/7 and a wonderfully accomplished arrangement of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet. Both performances are documented here, the Brahms (a remarkably secure world premiere) in reasonable vintage sound, the Handel – which features the Kolisch Quartet as ‘soloists’ – through a deafening volley of surface noise. Add poorly played Verdi (Sicilian Vespers Overture), imperious Wagner (Meistersinger Overture) and a resilient Beethoven’s Fifth and you have a rather moreish curate’s egg.

Indeed, it was something of a relief to switch from the glassy scratch of worn acetates to the mellifluous effusion of a great soprano captured in well-produced sound. Elisabeth Grümmer was as well-known for her Eva (in Rudolf Kempe’s EMI Meistersinger) as for her deeply pondered readings of oratorio and lieder. Testament’s anthology features a priceless gem in Schubert’s ‘Vor meiner Wiege’, a haunting meditation on motherly love. Equally adorable is the first volume of Danacord’s ‘The Complete Recordings of Aksel Schiøtz’, which includes bench-mark recordings of Messiah’s ‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Every valley’ in a programme that also offers us Bach, Buxtehude, Dowland, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. There’s a novel ‘extra’, too, where Schiøtz tries out a couple of arias from Handel’s Solomon and Acis and Galatea. This ‘first release’ was recorded during a 1945 rehearsal and although less than perfect (the voice occasionally stretches beyond its natural limits) gives us an invaluable insight into how a seraphic tenor limbered up.

Documentation, transfers and presentation are all first-rate, much as they are for the last of this month’s choices, which recalls that most dashing of pre-war baritones Lawrence Tibbett in repertoire ‘from Broadway to Hollywood’.

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Top of the bill is a 1935 sequence of highlights from Porgy and Bess, conducted by Alexander Smallens and supervised by Gershwin himself. The rest of the programme centres on the film The Rogue Song, plus various ballads, etc, all of it given with the sort of manly swagger that made the ladies go weak at the knees.