Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov And Koussevitzky

COMPOSERS: Prokofiev,Rachmaninov And Koussevitzky,Shostakovich
LABELS: Biddulph
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Serge Koussevitzky Conducts Russian Music
WORKS: Works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Koussevitzky
PERFORMER: Bernard Zighera (piano), Boston SO/ Serge Koussevitzky (double-bass)
CATALOGUE NO: WHL 045 ADD mono
Who could doubt that had Serge Koussevitzky completed his 1945 recording of Shostakovich’s shell-shocked Eighth Symphony, other conductors of the time would have been quicker to take a key 20th-century masterpiece into their repertoires? But it wasn’t to be, and the Eighth managed to avoid British high-street record stores until well into the Sixties. As it is, Koussevitzky’s fiercely uncompromising account of the opening Adagio – a first commercial release – gives us some hint of what might have been, and never mind that Shostakovich was unhappy with aspects of the same conductor’s broadcast performance from the previous year. Biddulph’s couplings include lavishly expressive accounts of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and Vocalise, a well-groomed Suite No. 2 from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and a pair of hoarse-sounding Koussevitzky double-bass solos.

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Leonard Bernstein was a Koussevitzky protégé who, on 14 November 1943, made history when he replaced the indisposed Bruno Walter for a New York Philharmonic concert. The Philharmonic itself has just issued this auspicious debut on a very well-annotated though rather scratchy-sounding CD. Listen hard, and you’ll spot a whole host of Bernstein interpretative hallmarks – headstrong excitement in Schumann’s Manfred Overture, earnest virtuosity in Rózsa’s Theme, Variations and Finale (film-style music dressed in shirt and tails) and native intelligence in an account of Strauss’s Don Quixote that has all the warmth, brilliance and fallibility of Bernstein himself. Schuster’s exquisite cello playing is almost a match for the great Feuermann (as heard under Ormandy and Toscanini).

A very different manner of string playing graces a compelling two-CD set of the Capet Quartet in recordings made in 1927 and 1928. Disc surfaces are heavy and the Quartet’s pooled sonority has an abrasive edge that nowadays is more readily associated with period instruments, but the musicianship invariably holds you breathless. There’s a galvanising Schubert Death and the Maiden Quartet (the Scherzo sounds like a vigorous workout on a bed of nails), tender Schumann, forceful Franck, animated Ravel and an especially beautiful recording of Debussy’s Quartet. If you have ever questioned the expressive potential of string portamento, then put on the latter half of Debussy’s slow movement: the notes will curl around your heart. It’s as if the Capets actually sing their parts, an effect that was widely characteristic of string playing from that era.

In fact, fledgeling fiddlers can often learn more from listening to ‘Golden Age’ singers than from eavesdropping on other instrumentalists. And as this is Schubert’s bicentenary, there’s ample opportunity to listen creatively to a whole flood of valuable reissues featuring legendary singers in some of the loveliest songs ever written. Baritone Heinrich Schlusnus’s voice is like a prize viola seamlessly bowed, most particularly in such melodious gems as ‘Ständchen’ and ‘Die Taubenpost’(both from Schwanengesang). These and twenty more songs are programmed as part of a judicious Nimbus Schlusnus Schubert collection, cleanly transferred from smooth originals and aired with a hint of (simulated) concert-hall ambience.

Schlusnus’s mellifluous singing is appropriate for most Lieder, but some songs require rather more in the way of active characterisation. EMI’s two ‘Schubert Lieder on Record’ albums deliver on both counts, though it’s the second volume that includes the richer trawl. Furthermore, the sound quality is remarkably good and there are many ‘old favourites’ – Gerhard Hüsch, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Peter Pears, Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kirsten Flagstad, etc. But for me, the greatest prizes are also the rarest: baritone Herbert Janssen and, above all, mezzo-soprano Susan Metcalfe-Casals (one-time wife of cellist Pablo) whose dramatically inflected account of ‘Nachtstück’ invades my memory with alarming frequency.

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One notable singer who isn’t represented by EMI is Richard Crooks, the first tenor to record Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin complete (save for the odd skipped verse). It’s a bold, candid performance, sweet in tone, vividly animated, fairly well accompanied and very well recorded. Crooks was best-known in lighter repertory, the sort that Richard Tauber-sound-alike Herbert Ernst Groh and Birmingham-born Webster Booth made their own. Groh’s warm, liquid tenor can be heard in a variety of fine operatic recordings set down between 1931 and 1940, whereas Booth employs his light, personable voice for music from Faust, Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly as well as such ‘cross-over’ perennials as The Rose of Tralee and Macushla. The recordings date from the Thirties and Forties and have been expertly transferred to CD by Michael Dutton. But if you would prefer to hear Macushla as heard on American soil in 1917, played by a cornettist, composer, conductor and teacher whose influence on the brass-playing world was inestimable, then it has to be the recording by Herbert L Clarke. Crystal’s Clarke anthology chronicles a dazzling talent with technically primitive though musically astonishing 78s, comprehensive documentation and a mass of potboilers, tear-jerkers and virtuoso showpieces.