Before it melts

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

Seismic shifts in major record companies may put many precious CDs in peril. Here are some you may want to grab before they evaporate:

Sviatoslav Richter: THE SOFIA RECITAL 1958 Philips 289 464 734-2 (2001)

Here is the famous recording of Richter’s live concert, still in glorious mono, but in a 96kHz 24-bit Super Digital Transfer with many of the terminal hacking coughs either eliminated or greatly diminished. The 96kHz is something of a scam, since the final CD comes to us as a 16-bit, 44.l kHz regular platter. The wrong notes are still there, as well as some clangy noises from the Bulgarian piano. But the excitement of a live tour-de-force comes through.

For me this was the first taste of recorded Richter, and it prompted me to want a more up-to-date stereo recording quality. And I was never a big fan of the ‘Pictures’ in solo piano original or any of the various orchestrations. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, I never dreamed that the Soviets would allow Richter to perform in the West – or that I would have a contributing part in bringing that about!

ORGELWERKE NORDDEUTSCHER MEISTER. Buxtehude. Lübeck. Bruhns. Böhm. Weckmann. Robert Köbler an der Stellwagen-Orgel der Marienkirche zu Stralsund. Berlin Classics 0092142BC (1966)

Naturally I had to sneak in an organ CD in this rundown. Recorded in analog in 1964, Köbler plays the 1659 Stellwagen organ, mostly original, emphasizing the singing, consort qualities in a space almost as vast as Buxtehude’s Marienkirche in Lübeck. Half the CD contains works by Buxtehude, with one work by each of the other contemporary composers. (This is the organ featured on the cover of the May/June, 2001 issue of Choir & Organ, a very informative Brita publication.)

The instrument case features an effigy King David with his harp, plus assorted angels playing cornets, flutes, trombones and viols. The 32-foot pedal pipes appear to emanate from gargoyle mouths. Despite a natural background of neighboring traffic, Köbler’s performance is sprightly and does full justice to the Stylus Phantasticus flourishes. Even though the recording has been Digitally Remastered using the Sonic Solutions No Noise System, all the delicate highs and thundering lows seem to be in place. A full restoration of the instrument is in the offing, and hopefully we’ll get more recordings on this large survivor from Buxtehude’s era, in an appropriate acoustic.

Monteverdi: Madrigali Monteverdi Chor, Hamburg Leonhardt Consort, Jürgen Jürgens conducting Teldec DAS ALTE WERK 4509-93268-2 (1964)

This is toe-tapping Monteverdi very expressively sung by a largish choir of un-Krautisch sounding singers. Most likely all these madrigals were sung one-to-the-part, as they are in almost all recent recordings. But here you get the full sweep of a really precise mixed-voiced choir. This was one of my favorites in the LP era and I’m delighted to have it back on silver disc. Now, if only we can persuade Universal Music to release Jürgens’ ‘Vespers of 1610,’ originally released on Archiv LPs! Perhaps not the Most Authentik, but a very satisfying, tuneful reading. No bleating counter tenors need apply!

DAS ALTE WERK Gustav Leonhardt Edition English Consort and Keyboard Music Teldec 3984-21760-2 (2 CDs, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1971)

The first CD contains Jacobean consort music by Dowland, Lawes, Coprario, Byrd, Simpson and Lupo. The second CD is entirely virginal and harpsichord music by Byrd, Morley, Dr. John Bull, Randall, Tomkins, Gibbons, Farnaby and Tisdale. And the booklet features a fierce portrait of John Bull in 1580. Leonhardt gives us a majestic rendition of Dr. Bull’s Hexachord Fantasia as well as Thomas Tomkins’ A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times, commemorating the execution of King Charles I. Here’s an expert sampling of early 17th Century consort and keyboard music all in one box, in very serviceable analog stereo! Before it melts …

Il Giardino Armonico: Viaggio Musicale Teldec DAS ALTE WERK 85738 25362 (2000)

Here’s a digital newie from Teldec with Giovanni Antonini, Enrico Onofri and Luca Pianca – plus ringers – doing music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries with all the splash and dash usually missing from performances of this era. It’s how the Stylus Phantasticus should be treated – very much heart-on-sleeve and not a dry seat in the house! Merula, Castello, Uccellini, Fontana and Rossi are all done up with flourish. Don’t miss this one.

Dietrich BUXTEHUDE Organ Music Vol. 1 Volker Ellenberger, Rudolph Janke organ (1997), Evangelical Lutheran City Church of Bückeburg Naxos 8.554543 (1999)

Wolfgang Rübsam is the producer of this new series with one of his students at the console. Alack and alas, Herr Ellenberger plays with the sort of herky-jerky rhetoric advocated by his teacher: a series of spurts and stumbles which almost sound as if the player can’t quite hack it. Actually this is an attempt to play in what is assumed to be the manner of the original performance.

Rhetoric aside, this is one of the most soporific performances of Buxtehude in the catalogue. If this were your sole introduction to the organ music of Buxtehude, you would wonder why anyone would bother. The instrument sports a spectacular case by Esaias Compenius from 1620, but the pipes seem to be pseudo-Baroque, producing an unyielding, steely sound. The church acoustic is fairly non-resonant as well. And, to top it all off, the recording has no room tone between the selections – just a black hole of silence. It has been years since I’ve heard such amateurish editing on a major label. I had high hopes for another complete Buxtehude edition on a budget label. So far, save your $6.98.