Recordings

The best, and sometimes the worst, in recorded music.

Grooves in the Mist – A Vinyl Memoir, Part II

Earlier in this backward glance, I tried to revive a feeling of what it might have been like to have a phonograph in one’s life. Looking over it, a reader may sense that the 78rpm record was a fragile blessing at best, while perhaps understanding why even today a child would appreciate it. We left off in the early 1960s, where, one might suppose, the advent of the stereo LP solved everything! By then, I had decent quality electronics, and even the admiration of screech resistant female ears.
This isn’t to say I was always so terribly thrilled with the outcomes, myself. The great curse of the phonograph, of course, was its tracking ability, surface noise and distortion. It was one thing to chisel a groove, another for your needle to follow it. Recordings were quite dynamically limited in those days, but even so, the Empire 108 cartridge simply would not track, even at 3 grams pressure, the first tutti in Klemperer’s Philharmonia Schumann Fourth. It wasn’t until 1963 and the Empire 880, that a cartridge could be expected to follow every groove. I was fairly happy with the bass performance of my Lafayette speakers, though. That year Charles Munch’s famous recording of the Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony on RCA was very much a sonic standard, and I was happy to note I could hear the 32cycle organ pedal tones in the slow movement.

Grooves in the Mist — a Vinyl Memoir: Part I

“Somewhere around 1950,” Leopold Stokowski once quipped, “recorded sound stopped being a novelty and started sounding like music.”

I was reminded of this the other day, when I received from Netflix the DVD of “A Letter To Three Wives”, which was filmed in 1949 and features Kirk Douglas playing the Brahms B-flat Concerto to friends on an enormous console, probably a Capehart or a Zenith “Cobramatic”. At one point in the movie, he becomes miffed at someone for having broken some shellac, and we see him revealed as an early version of the classic suburban audio peacock, petulant and anxious over any flaws in his equipment.

The young French pianist David Fray plays Bach keyboard concerti and Schubert solo works on disc.

David Fray’s recent appearances in San Francisco, performing Beethoven’s Second Concerto, revealed him to be a refined, supple colorist. It was less immediately clear how bold or romantic, or indeed “Gouldian” Mr. Fray would turn out to be in music more fully under his own direction. These two new excellent CDs begin to answer this question, and to suggest, moreover, the birth of a fine conductor.

The One and Only Igor: Gergiev conducts Les Noces and Oedipus Rex

In a recent interview the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, remarked that Igor Stravinsky pulled off the greatest camouflage in the history of music. He was referring to the composer’s lifelong stand that music expresses no emotions, indeed, expresses nothing except sound. Behind this mask, Salonen said, lies a man of deep feeling whose music is often as moving as any ever written. I began to think about Stravinsky and his camouflage, which has always baffled me. How could such glittering creations, each commanding your attention, whether as a shout across the primordial steppes or a murmur like the tick-tock of a mantel clock in the Princesse de Polignac’s salon, be about nothing?

Pristine Audio brings back the Salle Pleyel of 1929/30: Pierre Monteux Conducts Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, Ravel, etc.

The special sound of the Orchestre de Paris playing in the splendid Salle Pleyel was still fresh in my ears, when the latest crop of releases from Pristine Classical arrived, offering recordings of Pierre Monteux conducting the “Orchestre Symphonique de Paris” in the Salle Pleyel itself. The most important of these extremely rare 78 sets, made between January 1929 and February 1930, is a complete Sacre du Printemps, the earliest of the seven live or studio recordings, which have been released of Monteux performances. This brings us within two decades of the historic 1913 premiere with the Ballets Russes. Monteux’s authority in this score never diminished, and the performances from the end of his life are as vital as this early effort and are still revered today. Like the later ones, this performance is marked by its flow and coherence—a complete grasp of the shape and drama of the great ballet, which give the performance a sense of unity, without compromising its angular rhythms and its vivid, often harsh colors and textures. You will never hear a Sacre more musical than any of Monteux’s recordings.

Now available: “Celebrating Carter’s Century,” music by Elliott Carter from the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood

An especially exciting bit of news was tucked away in the middle of the release: the BSO’s own recording label, will release as a download Celebrating Carter’s Century, music by Elliott Carter from the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. We can only hope that the documentation of this great event will be as complete as possible.

Gil Rose talks to Michael Miller about contemporary music, BMOP, and the Opera Boston premiere of Madame White Snake

Gil Rose is best known for his leadership of two high-profile Boston organizations, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), one of the major supporters of contemporary music in America, and Opera Boston, which specializes in musically outstanding performances of operatic masterpieces which have been neglected by the mainstream houses. I know I’ll be eternally grateful to him and Opera Boston for my first opportunity to see Weber’s Die Freischütz, universally regarded as a seminal work in the history of opera and a great one, but rarely performed today. Just last year there were Shostakovich’s The Nose, and Rossini’s Tancredi, and now Opera Boston’s first commission of a new opera, Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake.

Beethoven at 8,000 Feet: David Finckel and Wu Han’s ArtistLed Recording of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas and Variations

With David Finckel and Wu Han’s program of Beethoven Cello Sonatas at Union College coming up, I thought it a good idea to take a look at their recording of Beethoven’s complete Cello works, which I’d never heard before. I was even surprised to learn that it dates back to 1997, making it one of the earliest recordings they made on their pioneering label, ArtistLed. Like today, they functioned as the producers of the recording, and Da-Hong Seetoo, the extraordinary sound engineer, who works with personally modified hardware and software, made the recording. They purposely chose Harris Hall at Aspen, Colorado as the venue, because they were struck that its particular acoustics were ideal for recording Beethoven. “Built from wood, with a high ceiling, it has a resonance which is warm, clear and brilliant.