From the Archives: Casals, Furtwängler, and More

Dan Davis

[May 2003.]

Historical performance buffs never had it so good. The sheer variety of reissued recordings and newly issued live performances from the past century can sometimes seem overwhelming. But such ventures into the past shouldn’t be the exclusive reserve of antiquarians; they offer opportunities to hear great artists whose performances are, at best, superior to what we hear these days, and at worst, interesting explorations of past performance practices.

Music & Arts is probably the premiere source for decently transferred live concert recordings of past greats. One of their recent issues also qualifies as the bargain of the year — a neat, space-saving 13-disc set of chamber music from the Casals Festivals at Prades between 1953 and 1960, priced at six midprice discs. Performers include not only Casals but such luminaries as Rudolf Serkin, Joseph Szigeti, Arthur Grumiaux, William Kapell, the Végh Quartet, and other eminent musicians. Repertory includes the three “B’s,” Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. The first eight discs in the set were once available in two Music & Arts full-priced boxes; discs 9-13 are new issues freshly transferred by Maggi Payne, one of the best restoration engineers extant.

A set of such huge scope is virtually unreviewable; it’s crammed with so many important performances that I’m tempted to write “Buy it” and let it go at that. Instead, I’ll just point out a handful of the many highlights, such as disc seven, one of the most satisfying of the set. Casals is present only as conductor of “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” from Mozart’s Idomeneo meltingly sung by the irresistible Victoria de los Angeles at the height of her powers. The disc begins with deeply felt 1956 readings of four Preludes and Fugues from Book Two of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by Mieczslaw Horszowski, and continues with a buoyant Beethoven violin / piano sonata from 1953 with the stimulating combination of the elegant Arthur Grumiaux and the fiery young American pianist, William Kapell. The pair strike sparks here; Kapell dazzling at the keyboard, Grumiaux more spirited than in his later studio recording for Philips. Finally, there’s a ravishing Mozart Oboe Quartet with fabled oboist Marcel Tabuteau’s marvelous phrasing and tonal shadings. Also compelling is the final disc, all-Schumann, featuring the great Végh Quartet in one of the warmest recorded versions of the A minor String Quartet and an equally warm, intense version of the Op. 44 Piano Quintet with Rudolf Serkin.

And so it goes, with many sterling performances interspersed with surprisingly few that are not as compelling. Attention, of course, centers on Casals’ role. He’s heard in numerous chamber ensemble pieces with partners on the level of Yehudi Menuhin and Szymon Goldberg, among others. There’s also his rough-hewn unaccompanied Bach and all of Beethoven’s cello sonatas with various pianists, including his prewar partner, Alfred Cortot, in a moving Op. 69 and Serkin in the two Op. 102 sonatas. Always a powerful force, allowances must be made for age. Casals was in his late 70s and early 80s during those years, and while time takes its toll on technique, his experience, energy, and emotion are intact. There’s some fabulous music-making in this box, and while the sound is variable, it’s never less than acceptable and often more than that. Not to be missed.

Another don’t-miss chamber set is a jewel in the crown of DG’s Original Masters series of attractive box sets featuring great performers of the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s a seven-disc collection of the Janácek Quartet’s complete recordings for DG, Decca and Westminster, originally recorded between 1956 and 1963. The Janácek had strong claims as the best of the bevy of great postwar Czech string quartets, and therefore one of the world’s best foursomes. Doubters are referred to the four Haydn quartets in this box, played with technical polish and warmth. The Janáceks wring every last drop of wit and inventiveness from Haydn’s scores. I know of no other version of Op. 76 No. 2 that matches this 1963 Decca recording, and the other Haydns here are equally well done. Sadly, Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59 No.2 is the only work by that composer here, and it whets the appetite for more, thanks to the Janácek’s split-second timing and spot-on phrasing. Their lone Mozart, the K. 387, melds classical style with tonal and emotional warmth in a way few ensembles manage these days.

When it comes to Czech music, they were unbeatable — just about perfect in their thrust and mastery of Leos Janácek’s Quartet No. 2 and in their idiomatic playing and generous phrasing in four Dvorák quartets and Smetana’s Quartet No. 1. In three selections they’re joined by other artists. Best of those is a Mendelssohn Octet with another great Czech ensemble, the Smetana Quartet, a performance full of central European gemütlichkeit. Pianist Eva Bernáthova joins them for the Brahms and Dvorák Piano Quintets, fine readings both, if missing the last bit of involvement we get from the best interpretations. So if I had to grade these seven discs, I’d give those quintets a B+ and everything else either A or A+, a recommendation if ever there was one.

Another don’t-miss entry in the Original Masters series is a six-disc set, Wilhelm Furtwängler: Live Recordings 1944-1953. Furtwängler was usually better in front of an audience than in the studio, where, like many musicians of his generation, he was often uncomfortable. Despite his reputation for “inspirational” leadership, his basic interpretations did not vary much over the years, with the exception of his overwhelmingly intense live wartime concert recordings. There are almost as many Furtwängler recordings in the marketplace as there are Callas recordings, with the inevitable endless duplications, so choosing a Furtwängler set becomes a stroll through a minefield.

I won’t try to unravel the complex web of possible duplications this new set presents, but I should at least touch on some aspects that could sway you one way or another. For example, you may already have Furtwängler’s famous 1938 studio Tchaikovsky Pathetique symphony, in which case you should know that the 1951 live performance from Cairo in this set is remarkably close to it in overall conception and in most details. On the other hand, you may be turned off by the presence of the Franck Symphony here, since his studio version for Decca was a heavy-handed flop. Be assured then that this 1945 Vienna performance tingles with excitement and poetry, making me, at least, understand for the first time why Furtwängler was drawn to the work. There’s a dynamic 1953 Beethoven Seventh, a 1945 Brahms Second brimming with passion, and a 1944 Bruckner Eighth that will make your hair stand at attention, among other wonderful performances. Given the budget price and DG’s “limited-edition” release, even if you have some of these performances, it makes sense to get this box while the getting’s good.

Music & Arts is the prime source for live Furtwängler, and while the conductor’s fans probably own multiple versions of his recordings of the Beethoven nine, their insatiable appetite for more will likely be sated by Music & Arts 1117, a two-disc set of Symphonies 1, 3, and 9. The First comes from a 1954 Vienna Philharmonic concert just two days after their studio recording sessions for EMI, so aside from a bit more warmth than that one, it’s quite close to it. The Eroica was a Furtwängler specialty; this one’s from a 1950 Berlin Philharmonic concert. Not as wildly intense as his 1944 Vienna version, it bears a family resemblance to other Furtwängler Eroicas and it’s as immensely satisfying. The cover claims this as the “first commercial release” of the 1952 Vienna Ninth, and even with a brigade of other Furtwängler Ninths available, it is notable for the orchestra’s individual sound and way with the music, as well as for an Adagio more temperate than his other versions. Maggi Payne’s restorations render dated broadcast material quite listenable.

Perhaps more important, since it adds to Erich Kleiber’s comparatively small discography, is Music & Arts 1112, a four-disc set of the great but undervalued conductor’s 1947-1948 concerts with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. Included are works Kleiber never recorded commercially and some — Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, excerpts from Falla’s La Vida Breve, and a Corelli Concerto Grosso — surprising to find on his programs. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth gets a dynamic performance that nevertheless undercuts some of the composer’s over-the-top rhetoric, and it’s a bit freer than Kleiber’s Paris studio recording. His Beethoven Eroica is familiar from studio recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw, but this NBC reading more than holds its own, although details are obscured and some of the color drained due to poor source material. Claudio Arrau joins in a terrific performance of Weber’s Konzertstück, and the Schubert Fifth, a work Kleiber often performed in this period, combines warmth, grace, and forward momentum. Not to be overlooked, either, are the Johann Strauss items, where he persuades Toscanini’s orchestra to produce a Viennese sound without ever losing its razor-sharp, disciplined attacks. So this is a valuable release for those of us who follow the work of great conductors of the past, and an instructive one for those who think Erich Kleiber’s only claim on fame lies in his fathering today’s reclusive great conductor, Carlos Kleiber.

 

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