Great Pianists of the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1967)

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COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: VAI DVD
WORKS: Rhapsody in Blue
PERFORMER: Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet, John Browning, Van Cliburn, etc (piano); Bell Telephone Orchestra/Donald Voorhees, Paul Whiteman (TV broadcasts)
CATALOGUE NO: 4216 (distr. Kingdom)

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What was The Bell Telephone Hour? Is there a Bell Telephone Hour archive, or are these performances from private sources? Piano- and fiddlephiles will perhaps not be unduly concerned because the contents of these two DVDs are as riveting as they are unexpected, but it’s a shame that VAI’s accompanying documentation is so minimal. Though the clips look like second- or sometimes third-generation copies, the picture and sound quality are quite remarkably good for (colour) TV of the period. The concerto movements are staged with the soloist placed well in the foreground and conductor Donald Voorhees electing to wave his ungainly baton some distance away.

Communication between the two parties seems to hinge on luck and telepathy. But what treasures to savour! Highlights are the two Oistrakhs in their peerless Bach Double, the short-lived Michael Rabin, detached but electrifying in the final movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto – Ruggiero Ricci later plays the same movement – and the elderly Mischa Elman in Wieniawski’s Second, one of his signature works. Here is Paul Whiteman conducting Rhapsody in Blue 37 years after giving its premiere (and pulling the big tune about to an unconscionable degree) with Jorge Bolet as soloist in a work he never recorded commercially.

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Philippe Entremont and the forgotten prodigy Lorin Hollander (here aged 15) both thrill in Saint-Saëns, but the piano disc is alone worth buying to see/hear Byron Janis in Rachmaninov (despite a clunking cut) and Prokofiev – a truly wonderful display of nonchalant bravura.