Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 3;

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninov
LABELS: Multisonic/Priory
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 3;
PERFORMER: Pavel Serebryakov, Viktor Merzhanov (piano); Leningrad PO/ Mravinsky, State SO/Ivanov
CATALOGUE NO: 31 0352-2 AAD mono
The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg was among the most charismatic musical personalities in pre-war Europe, but when World War II brought about his downfall he was succeeded at the Concertgebouw by Eduard van Beinum, a more temperate personality who, like his successor Bernard Haitink, is often accused of relative blandness. However, listen to either Haitink or van Beinum conduct Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and both reputations reverse, Haitink giving free rein to morbid imagery (with the VPO on Decca), van Beinum (as reissued here) whipping the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ into a frenzy. And if you’d previously thought of Leopold Stokowski as a sort of musical graffiti artist – daubing the masters with a vast range of tonal shades – then you should try the ‘live’ 1958 Shostakovich Eleventh, a grimly respectful affair filled with menace and breathlessly exciting. Coughs litter the ‘Palace Square’ and the tame applause seems oddly unappreciative (especially as Shostakovich himself was in attendance), but it’s a compelling statement by the man who conducted the work’s American premiere.

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As far as sound is concerned, however, van Beinum wins hands down. His is also the finer orchestra, though the Soviets get their own back with Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic, a formidable body of virtuosos. Even Multisonic’s constricted recording can’t mask the Leningraders’ suave string sound, while Pavel Serebryakov gives a brilliant and often subtle account of Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto. Better still is Viktor Merzhanov’s refreshingly uninhibited Rachmaninov Third. The Intermezzo is especially demonstrative, fully on a par with the late Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s wartime 78s of the Grieg Concerto, although far better recorded. Michelangeli scores with countless points of interpretative detail and a brilliant first movement cadenza. The Schumann concerto is rather more sober, but the solo pieces are high points in this pianist’s slim but treasurable ‘official’ discography.

Michelangeli’s ‘bel canto’ tone had a vocal forebear in the singing of Rosa Ponselle, whose resplendent soprano and faultless sense of line made for the greatest ‘Casta diva’ ever recorded. A star at the Met, Ponselle’s discs are rarely less than great, and Pearl’s new anthology includes a couple of tracks where the sound is so good you might well be listening to a modern recording.

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Of equal importance is a disc devoted to another one-time Met star, Elisabeth Schumann, and Romophone’s transfers are just as effective, sometimes even better. Schumann’s records of Schubert Lieder (EMI) have achieved legendary status, and here her Mozart is fetchingly echt-Viennese while her effervescent operetta recordings (Strauss, Zeller, Ziehrer, Kreisler, Heuberger) are delightful. From the singer who once claimed that she ‘could not live without the songs of Schubert’ to one whose artistry inspired Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’. Coloratura soprano Antonina Nezhdanova made many fine 78s, most of them taken down via the acoustic horn, though Nimbus have located some that were electrically recorded. By then Nezhdanova was in her sixties, as indeed was Maria Kurenko when, in 1950-1, she made a series of recordings for the Rachmaninov Society. Songs such as ‘To her’ and ‘When yesterday we met’ are tended with motherly affection, while mother and son (Vadim Gontzoff) make a heartfelt duet of ‘Two partings: a dialogue’.