New Label, Old Treasures

Dan Davis

[June 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:2.]

There are few certainties in life, but one of them is the assurance that when Ward Marston’s name is on the back of a historical CD reissue as the transfer engineer, the results will be first-rate. Anyone who’s heard his restorations of Golden Age vocals on the British Romophone label will be familiar with the astonishing way he can tease good sound from dim pre-electrics. This is no mere technical achievement, for it forces a re-evaluation of many singers, especially sopranos whose voices always sounded thin and piercing on lesser LP and CD transfers. It wasn’t until I heard Marston’s 2-disc compilation of Lucrezia Bori’s Victor recordings on Romophone 81016, that I understood why she was so revered in her day — what always sounded like an emaciated “white” instrument turned out to be a marvelously rich, multi-colored voice whose timbre could melt a stone.

Now Marston’s miracle-making has a new outlet — his own reissue label, Marston Records. Most of its releases qualify as knee-jerk buys, and some that may engender a puzzled “who’s that” turn out to be eminently desirable. A prime example is Marston 52007, a slimline 2-disc set of recordings by a pianist unknown to all but a handful of piano aficionados with encyclopedic knowledge of obscure pianists. The set’s titled “Ernst Levy: Forgotten Genius,” and he handily lives up to the billing.

Levy (1895-1981) was a pianist, conductor, teacher and composer. Born in Basle, Switzerland, he worked extensively in Paris and wisely emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s, where he held professorships at several universities, composed extensively, and gave occasional recitals. He made few records, but they were remarkable accomplishments, as we can hear on these two well-filled discs. An appreciation (warning?) on the back of the CD says: “His performances are not for the faint of heart,” and if you’re a stickler for strict observance of every score marking, these performances will either drive you into a rage or change your mind. For Levy is a true keyboard Romantic, adhering to the principle that the performer is the composer’s partner, charged with realizing the inner meaning of the composer’s intentions, a charge requiring departures from the published score. For such an approach to succeed, the performer must have a sympathetic identification with the composer, the piece, and the inner workings of the music, for interpretive freedom carries with it extraordinary interpretive responsibilities.

Levy’s interpretations, for those who can accept them, are intellectually penetrating and emotionally moving. In his hands, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata is a highly charged drama, with a headlong opening paragraph, convincing, if often surprising, tempo shifts, and a passionate Adagio sostenuto movement. It’s one of the best “Hammerklavier” recordings extant as, to a slightly lesser degree, is it’s disc companion, the Opus 111 Sonata. Part of what makes these recordings so great is Levy’s rich tonal palette; coloring phrases in ways that lend emotional power.

His superb technique and visionary insights also make his Liszt B Minor Sonata one of the best ever recorded. Its opening may shock the unwary, for instead of the usual clipped, pecking away at the opening notes, Levy sustains them and incorporates a melting legato, replacing the obvious drama with something much more ominous. There are places in the Liszt where dynamics and tempos are far from what we’ve heard from other pianists, but Levy’s choices always make sense within the context of his conception of the piece. So what we get is much more than a series of idiosyncratic passages; Levy’s Liszt is a unified, structurally solid Sonata that sheds new light on an old warhorse. And while technically accomplished, it’s concerned with the spiritual and philosophical ideas buried in the notes, not with using those notes for virtuostic display.

Despite this important Levy release and Marston 52004, the final volume of The Complete Josef Hofmann series whose first four volumes were released earlier on the VAI label, Marston’s primary emphasis is on vocal reissues. These include such seams of gold as a two-disc set of Johanna Gadski’s 1903-1909 Victor recordings (Marston 52002). Gadski was a dramatic soprano whose powerful, yet flexible, voice made her one of the dominant singers of the early part of the century. The Wagner arias on these discs may have been equaled by others, but never bettered; the Italian arias are thrilling, and the ample selection of lieder, intense and moving. In short, a great singer captured at the height of her powers and sounding better than ever in these excellent transfers. Best of all, the set is labeled Volume One, which means there’s more Gadski on the way. Another highlight of the Marston releases is 52003, the first complete recording of Massenet’s opera, Manon, made in 1923 by Pathe with the forces of Paris’ Opera-Comique.

Opera via acoustic recordings can try one’s patience and this one’s not immune from the shortcomings of the process, but the transfers are quite listenable and anyone amenable to Massenet’s charms will want to have this souvenir of the days before French singing went into a tailspin and the one-size-fits-all international style removed the “Frenchness” from French opera. This Manon is conducted by Henri Busser, whose dimly recorded orchestra features the pungent wind tonalities typical of French orchestras of the pre-World War II era. Fanny Heldy, one of France’s top sopranos in the interwar period, is the Manon. She brings to the rôle a sharp intelligence and dramatic flair, impeccable diction, and a typically Gallic light, focused sound that can occasionally veer into sharpness. The tenor, Jean Marny, is even better; he presents a fully-rounded portrait of des Grieux, sung in a mellifluous tenor. This set offers a glimpse of a vanished style; it explains why Massenet and his compatriots were such great favorites a century ago and why French opera has fallen into decline with the loss of this distinctive performing style.

Three of Marston’s most recent releases are as desirable. One is Three Edison Tenors (Marston 51002), featuring Giuseppe Anselmi, Alessandro Bonci, and Jose Mojica. The excellent notes explain Thomas Edison’s venture into recordings and his attempt to do battle with the major labels of the period by signing big name tenors. He had abysmal musical tastes, but managed to get some great singers to record for his label, whose strong points included a recording technique that vividly captured voices. All three tenors sound wonderful on this CD whose 78+ minutes include such gems as Anselmi’s Cielo e mar, Mojica’s Pearlfishers aria, and everything by Bonci, one of the greatest of the pre-World War I tenors. Marston promises more Edisons, and since the label featured some incredible singers, including Muzio, Urlus and Destinn, this should be a series not to be missed.

Neither should Marston 52008, a two-CD set of Tito Schipa’s complete 1913-1921 European recordings, and 52009, a 2-CD compilation of 1909-1933 recordings made for the Gramophone Company by bass Marcel Journet.

The Schipa set gives us one of the most meltingly beautiful tenor voices of the century caught at the beginning of his long career. These selections may be early but Schipa was no neophyte. By 1919 he was an established international star, and we can easily hear why on these discs. The voice itself is beyond praise — a sensuous high lyric tenor with a melting middle. There’s interpretive elegance, an aristocratic demeanor not often given to tenors that increases its appeal, whether in verisimo, Verdi, or French repertory, or in songs like Santa Lucia, to which he lends a freshness that’s irresistible.

Journet, too, was a major figure among the century’s singers. His solid bass actually improved as he got older, and the set’s recordings made when he was in the vicinity of 60 or so are as compelling as those made in his younger days; the slight dryness that crept into the older voice offset by a more extended top. Like the Manon set, the Journet gives us the opportunity to hear the older French style again, as compelling when practiced by deep voices as high ones. For me, the most interesting items were the Wagner arias, sung in clearly articulated French that removes some of the heaviness from the music without harming its essence. Journet’s Sachs’ Monologue and Wotan’s Farewell are beautifully rendered versions of the music, but most will savor the French selections and the vanished style so faithfully preserved in these outstanding transfers.

Every Marston release to date has featured superb transfers (always given the innate limitations of the ancient recording medium), generous playing time, excellent notes and pictures, and outstanding singers, a combination hard to match. They’re required purchases for historic recordings buffs, vocal enthusiasts, and music lovers curious about artists of the Golden Age.