- Written by Richard Freed Richard Freed
- Category: Richard Freed's "Keepers" Richard Freed's "Keepers"
- Created: 01 May 2014 01 May 2014
After EMI Records’ sudden dissolution, various parts of its huge catalog of recordings went to different new owners. It was Warner Classics that picked up the classical section, and has given heartening assurance of its seriousness in preserving that legacy on a fairly grand scale, not only keeping in circulation the bulk of what EMI itself had circulated on CD, but adding material recorded early enough to be regarded now as “historical,” and addressing everything with care for the sound quality and documentation on a level commensurate with the content.
One of the most striking examples is the attention given to recordings made by the great English conductor Sir Adrian Boult, spanning a period from 78s in the 1930s to the last of his five recordings of Holst’s suite The Planets, made in 1978 for release on the conductor’s 90th birthday the following year. Boult made some of his finest recordings for Decca, from early in the 1950s (about the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation) until well into the stereophonic era. He also made some recordings for such enterprises as the American companies Westminster, Everest, Vanguard, Miller International and Reader’s Digest, but his efforts in the recording studio were bookended by what he did for EMI’s HMV (“His Master’s Voice”).
With the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boult, its first conductor, recorded a broad repertory in the pre-war years, including a number of premiere recordings of major works by British composers. At about the time LP came in, he retired from the BBC and began conducting the London Philharmonic, with which orchestra he began his connection with Decca, again with attention to the international repertory, but, attuned to the enthronement of a new monarch, with a fiercely productive and significant emphasis on British music. One of the most conspicuous undertakings was the first-ever complete cycle of the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams. There were also fascinating pieces by the likes of Butterworth and Bax, most of which Boult subsequently remade in stereo.
The Westminster recordings, all with the LPO masquerading under the pseudonym Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra of London, were all significant, and have generally been well preserved. A series of 1953 monophonic sessions produced, among other gems, the finest of Boult’s five recorded performances of The Planets, some fascinating Vaughan Williams stage music, and a fiery performance of Walton’s early choral masterwork Belshazzar’s Feast that has yet to be matched, let alone surpassed, by the composer himself or by any other conductor. (The 1953 Westminster Planets is available now on Heritage HTGCD 233, erroneously attributed to 1954, actually the year of its release, and together now with two contemporaneous monophonic recordings from Decca: the Ballet Music from Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool and Arnold Bax’s tone poem Tintagel.)
Further Westminster sessions, in 1956, showed what early stereophonic recording could achieve, with Boult’s coverage of all the Berlioz overtures, all the Schumann symphonies, his first and only recordings of works of Benjamin Britten, and a superb Elgar Second Symphony: these stereophonic gems have been stunningly remastered on the little-known but definitely admirable First Hand label (distributed here by Hamonia Mundi).
For Everest, Boult recorded Vaughan Williams’s Job (“a masque for dancing”) and made the premiere recording of the same composer’s final symphony (No.9); also works of Mahler, Hindemith and Shostakovich. For Vanguard, he did not record English music, but gave us Beethoven symphonies and Sibelius tone poems. He eventually made two recordings of all the Brahms symphonies: the later one (EMI, 1972) ranks among the finest of his valedictory efforts, as does a 1977 batch of other Brahms works, including the two serenades.
For Decca, Boult recorded quite a few concertos, with splendid soloists, and some first-class Russian material with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite for orchestra, suites from Prokofiev stage and film scores). He remade many of these titles for EMI when he returned to that company, including the Tchaikovsky suite, and added a lot more Russian music, and another complete Vaughan Williams cycle, fleshed out with concertos, suites and other works in addition to the symphonies. His first stereo Planets, made with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra for Westminster, was not in the same league as his monophonic one for the same label, but he had two more goes at that work with EMI.
Boult conducted the first performance of The Planets, in September 1918: he received the composer’s enthusiastic blessing then, and remained the definitive authority on the work for decades, but he did not record it until January 1945; it was one of his last recordings with the BBC SO. This, and his two last ones of this work (one with the New Philharmonia, the other with the LPO), are in a remarkable ten-disc box which Warner has labeled “Sir Adrian Boult: The Complete Conductor (from Tchaikovsky to Gershwin)” (50999 0 19270 2 3).
Didn’t know Boult conducted Gershwin? The Cuban Overture, with the London Philharmonic, vintage 1967, is in that same box (with the bongos apparently right out front beside the conductor, as Gershwin specified), as are the two pieces from operas by Dame Ethel Smyth (two Interlinked French Folk Melodies, from Entente cordiale; Minuet from Fête galante) which Boult recorded on a 78 in March 1939, and perhaps the most effective of his recordings of Eric Coates’s march The Dam Busters. There are two other Big Boxes of Boult, and more than 30 other Boult reissues of varying dimensions. The complete list may be found at www.warnerclassics.com/sir-adrian-boult/releases.
In general, Warner has done a good job of preserving this material. Documentation is as detailed as anyone might wish, the packaging is tasteful, and the sound has been treated with respect. Personally, I’m so pleased to have those Ethel Smyth pieces so handsomely restored that I wouldn’t think of doing without this set -- but I have to concede that the few comparisons I’ve made with the respective CD reissues from EMI itself showed at least a small edge in EMI’s favor. Take Boult’s final recording of The Planets, for starters, the 90th-birthday one with the LPO: Quite apart from the question of why Boult decided to distend the four-note fanfare introducing the penultimate movement “Uranus, the Magician,” in his last two recordings of the work, the EMI transfer of the final one (CDM 7 69045 2) has a bit more warmth and all-round naturalness than the Warner transfer, which tends to seem just a tad pinched in comparison -- and the same sort of difference, to the same degree, is noticed between EMI’s own edition of the Procession of the Nobles, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada (CDM 7 63123 2) and its treatment on disc 9 of the new box.
Without these direct comparisons, however, everything in the box is definitely enjoyable, and on disc 6 Boult’s premiere recording, in 1937, of the march Crown Imperial, which William Walton had just composed for the coronation of King George VI, is definitely impressive, even when heard just after the stereophonic recording made 40 years later, which opens the same disc.
And Boult, of course, is not the only EMI artist whose recordings Warner has undertaken to renew and preserve. There was quite an array of star performers on the old Angel LPs and subsequent EMI CDs, and Warner is not neglecting them. (Herbert von Karajan, for one, is prominent among recent Warner restorations.) All things considered, this is a very encouraging sign, and it calls for appreciation and support.
A quite different source of reissues, wider in scope (drawn from various catalogs) but limited to recordings recent enough to be stereophonic, and in many instances of “sonic showcase” demonstration quality, includes the Boult recording, for Decca, which actually gave rise to this “Keepers” series: his stereophonic remake, with the LPO, of the Ballet Music from The Perfect Fool, which originally shared a Decca LP with two of Holst’s less familiar works: the choral Hymn of Jesus, and the Hardy-inspired tone poem Egdon Heath. While the two longer works are powerful demonstrations of Holst’s depth and imaginativeness, The Perfect Fool is without question one of the most brilliant and ingratiating orchestral pieces by any master of the modern orchestra, and Boult’s 1961 recording of it remains not only one of the most spectacularly complete identifications between any performer and his chosen repertory, but also one of the most terrific audio showpieces ever. Boult simply “owned” this piece, and Decca was able to make this excitingly and delightfully clear.
The music itself might be described as a miniature concerto for orchestra, for within its brief performing time (10 minutes 40 seconds here) virtually every instrument and choir in the orchestra gets to strut its stuff, and the recording itself shows Decca, in 1961, at its formidable best. It remained very impressive in Decca’s various CD reissues, but not quite as striking as the original LP: a closer match came in the form of a more recent CD transfer of the entire contents of that LP from High Definition Tape Transfers (HDCD215).
To be sure, there were shortcomings in the labeling and the documentation. The curious annotation, which refers to the composer repeatedly as “Gustav,” rather than Holst, mentions the year in which The Hymn of Jesus was performed, but tell us nothing about the work, and the text is not provided. There is no reference at all to either of the other works on the CD -- which means, of course, that the three dances in The Perfect Fool are not identified. The tray card carries the usual statement that the material was “Transferred from . . . analog reel-to-reel tape,” but also states that the source for this transfer was the original Decca LP, and there is still more. But, while this sort of thing is not exactly unusual for HDTT, it is not unusual, either, for HDTT to surpass the sound quality of its source material, as has been the case in many of its transfers.
One example that springs to mind is its handling of Peter Maag’s early-stereo recording, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, of Léo Delibes’s music for the composite ballet Naïla (the other music for which, totally without interest or appeal, was composed by Ludwig Minkus). The original Decca and London LPs were OK, but not exactly knockouts, and Universal’s own CD reissue, in its Australian Eloquence series, is hardly dazzling, either -- but the HDTT issue definitely is. It is alive with sparkle and spaciousness, and makes the strongest case for this lightweight score. Even the track separations seem to be more accurate than those on the Eloquence CD.
Two very recent additions to HDTT’s steadily broadening catalog come with similar aural enticements. The first of these is the one many listeners regard as the definitive recording of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. This piece, a sort of tone poem in the form of a piano concerto, ought to be in every pianist’s repertory and ought to be heard frequently in our concert halls, but it just isn’t. Perhaps it really depends on a soloist who is able to inhabit Falla’s own imagination -- who can live and breathe this music in a special, proprietary way. This is not a reference to a mere common nationality (such pianists as Arthur Rubinstein and Clifford Curzon performed this work with enthusiasm and authority), but the Spanish pianist Gonzalo Soriano was surely just such an artist, as his compatriots well understood, even if his name never became very familiar elsewhere. Here was another matter of a musician “owning” a work.
It was Soriano’s monophonic recording of it, with Ataúlfo Argenta conducting the Madrid Chamber Orchestra, on the London International label, ca. 1955, that first brought him to attention in the US -- and did the same for its companion work on that LP, Juaquín Rodrigo’s now very famous Concierto de Aranjuez, with the then young guitarist Narciso Yepes as Argenta’s soloist. When Decca began recording for Spanish Columbia, with rights to the results for its own label in the US and UK, one of the first stereophonic releases was a remake of that coupling, with the same soloists and conductor, but with the Orquesta Nacional de España instead of the chamber orchestra.
The remake had some technical trouble, but not enough to keep it from circulating far more widely than the original monophonic recording. In any event, Argenta died before the remake was released, and Decca’s rights to it expired before CD came into the picture. Yepes eventually undertook at least one remake of the Rodrigo, as did Soriano with the Falla, but the sparks of their collaboration with Argenta simply could not be reproduced.
About a year ago, HDTT brought out the Yepes/Argenta remake of the Concierto de Aranjuez, but frustratingly paired it with -- not the Falla with Soriano, but with a lesser-known Rodrigo work, from a different label: the Concierto serenata, a harp concerto, played by Nicanor Zabaleta with the Berlin Radio SO under Ernst Maerzendorfer, from a Deutsche Grammophon recording. (Maerzendorfer is remembered now as the first conductor to record all the Haydn symphonies, for the Musical Heritage Society.) Why, one wondered, that coupling instead of Decca’s original one? Or, better yet, why not both the harp concerto and the Falla? There was surely enough space on the disc for all three works.
Well, that classic recording of Nights in the Gardens of Spain has been brought out now by HDTT, and it is downright splendid. Robert Witrak, HDTT’s proprietor, has done a fantastic job with the remastering, effectively eliminating the distortion that was present on the Decca LP, and what he has achieved is all the more remarkable in that he again did not have a tape as his source, but took this recording from a Spanish LP. Now there is simply nothing to get in the way of the fullest enjoyment of this classic performance.
Except perhaps the coupling. HDTT pairs the Falla recording with Argenta’s famous package of Spanish and pseudo-Spanish works with the London SO (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol; Chabrier’s España; Granados’s Spanish Dance Andaluza; Moszkowski’s five Spanish Dances, Op.12, in the Scharwenka orchestrations) and has given that Decca collection’s heading -- “España” -- to this whole package. It is not a great coupling, for various reasons.
One is its layout. Neither the Capriccio espagnol nor the Moszkowski dances has the component sections on separate tracks. This is particularly worrisome in case of the Moszkowski, because his dances are not merely sections of a single work, but each an entity in its own right -- and what is more worrisome still is that the first of the five dances is missing. And this gets curiouser and curiouser: while the Rimsky and the Moszkowski are both given the single-track treatment, the Falla is divided into three tracks, even though its second and third movements are played without pause.
It happens that Decca itself brought out the Argenta “España” intact on at least three different CDs, and the one in its “Legends” series (466 378-2) is itself in the “sonic showcase” class, with a more fitting discmate in Argenta’s recording of Debussy’s complete Images pour orchestre with l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
But there is a fine solution: You needn’t buy this entire package. You can download and pay for the Falla alone, and then, if you also download the HDTT Concierto de Aranjuez, you can burn your own CD-R of the original Argenta/Yepes/Soriano coupling, and choose whether to include the Zabaleta/Maerzendorfer. Whatever you decide, these are recordings no one ought to think of doing without, and there can be no denying the persuasiveness of HDTT’s treatment of them.
Shortly after issuing this curious Argenta package, HDTT released something with absolutely no downside: Deutsche Grammophon’s 1961 recording of Dvořák’s famous Cello Concerto in B Minor with Pierre Fournier and the Berlin Philharmonic under George Szell. DG’s own two CD reissues of this renowned recording came out pretty well, but the HDTT edition gives the solo cello more presence, more body, with greater definition of the instrument’s low end. It is also smoother and more glistening at the top, and the orchestra, too, seems to benefit from greater all-'round definition, with the two elements securely and judiciously balanced to make the most of the sense of spontaneity and give-and-take. No matter how many recordings of this work you may have, this is one I would regard as indispensable, and it has simply never sounded this good before. Thirty-eight minutes is not terribly generous for an entire CD, but the download is reasonably priced, and I can’t imagine anyone with working ears quibbling over this issue, or that of duplication.
On the subject of duplication, HDTT also has in its catalog the 1967 recording of the Dvořák Concerto by Maurice Gendron, with the London Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink. This Philips recording does come with additional works, and it too is a very persuasive performance -- both elegant and dramatic. Unfortunately, Gendron just never had a really big name in the US, but if you really love the work you may find that you actually need both of these fine recordings. The HDTT treatment certainly suggests both of them as keepers.
. . . Richard Freed