The Classic Records Reissues – Part 4

[Readers may find the introductory paragraphs to the first part of this continuing survey useful – Ed.]

LSC 1806 – Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. Producer: John Pfeiffer. Engineer: Leslie Chase. Recorded in Symphony Hall, Chicago.

Considered by many to be the ultimate in high fidelity, this justly famous recording of Strauss’ enigmatic score glows on the Classic Records reissue. Based on the Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, Richard Strauss pulls out all of his tricks of orchestration to provide the listener with a musical journey of superhuman proportions. This giant struggle is guided carefully by the equally extraordinary efforts of Fritz Reiner and his Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

If not guided with a careful hand, the many sections of Zarathustra can so easily come apart at the seams. Therefore, it is much to our benefit that Reiner knows the score inside out and ensures that each episode maintains musical interest. As such, the orchestra travels from Dawn to the bitonality and ambiguity of Night with relative ease.

Recorded with just two Neumann M-50 microphones, Producer Pfeiffer and Engineer Chase made history with this early stereo session (there is some information suggesting a 77-DX mic was used as a “wind helper” in addition to the two Neumanns, and judging from the up-front sound of Adolf Herseth’s supercharged trumpet, I suspect the rumor is correct). The sound is transparent, highlighting wonderful instrumental timbre and boasting solid bass impact when the score requires. Orchestra Hall’s shallow, demi-lune stage is complete in its metaphysical state, captured in near-photographic form. No wonder this record is the measure by which the sounds of many LPs are judged.

LSC 1901 – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux. Producer: John Pfeiffer. Engineer: Leslie Chase. Recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston.

Pierre Monteux’s vision of the Pathétique lacks the indulgence and melancholy favored by others. His straightforward approach, executed superbly by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, allows the music to unfold naturally with no hindrance of bombast or histrionics. Some, however, like their Tchaikovsky served up straight with a chaser, amplifying the ever-present near-death experience. Monteux, like Reiner (in his equally fine Pathétique LSC 2216 – my RCA Sixth of choice), prefers each section to build gradually, layering emotion upon emotion, giving the listener a different route to the quiet and sad close.

The stage is set to give the greatest effect to Tchaikovsky’s antiphonal string writing. The fleet and powerful third movement highlights the effect perfectly: listen to the violins darting about as they question and answer each other in the natural acoustic of Symphony Hall. In addition, the violin tone is some of the finest I have heard on the Classic Records reissues. Indeed, the strings of the Boston Symphony steal the show. Although not quite the string sections’ equal, the winds are also very fine (the clarinet solos are done to perfection). I should mention the solo trumpet and first and second trombones – their vibrato-laden tone is often ugly, spoiling an otherwise outstanding ensemble.

The recording is first rate. The strings sound luscious and, when called upon, translucent. The bass is ample (good bass drum impact), with double basses clear enough that their many rapid scales keep up with those in the winds and upper strings. This feat is heard rarely on many LPs. LSC 1901 is worth owning for the pure pleasure the brilliant string ensemble provides and for Monteux’s deeply moving interpretation.

LSC 2077 – Strauss Till Eulenspiegel Death and Transfiguration Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. Producer: John Culshaw. Engineer: James Brown. Recorded in the Sofiensal, Vienna.

Not all the Fritz Reiner gems were recorded in Chicago. From London, there is the magnificent RPO Brahms Fourth Symphony (Reiner’s personal favorite), and from Vienna, this superb recording of two of Strauss’ greatest tone poems. Reiner was linked inextricably with the great works of Strauss, helped in no small way by his amazing Chicago recordings of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben. As expected, his exacting standard of orchestral execution continues in the City of Music. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is dazzling and they present the scores with the utmost conviction and luminosity. The opening of Death and Transfiguration tells that tale. Divided into many parts, the diaphanous sound of the string section captures the yearnings of an old man close to death. I have heard most recordings of this very spiritual work, and few achieve Reiner’s feel for the old man’s sense of longing. The final ascent to heaven is equally beautiful.

Reiner’s Till is a very happy affair. The orchestra’s virtuosity in this brilliant score is remarkable for its clarity and awesome power. All of the instrumental parts are wickedly difficult, and Reiner adds to this difficulty by setting some very fast tempos. As an interpretation, it captures the essence of human emotions: love, hate, revenge, forgiveness and redemption. Turn the lights down and the volume up, and be prepared for a knockout musical punch.

The Classic Records reissue has served the memory of its original very well. In fact, the Decca-sourced recording displays the Vienna Philharmonic in a clinical light. Initially, I thought the recording to be slightly bright, the blame placed squarely at the feet of the pressing. Not in this case, though. Simply, the Vienna Philharmonic’s tradition of tuning the orchestra to A=448 (much higher than American orchestras’ A=440 or 442) was heard clearly as a continuing sparkle, affecting piccolo to double bass. One has to admire recorded accuracy such as this.

LSC 2285 – Walton Façade Lecocq Mamzelle Angot Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden conducted by Anatole Fistoulari. Producer: Michael Williamson. Engineer: Ken Cross. Recorded in Walthamstow Town Hall.

Both of these orchestral works were arrangements for London’s Royal Ballet – Façade, by Walton, from his original “Entertainment for spoken voice and chamber group” and Lecocq’s Mamzelle Angot operetta arranged by reliable English pedagogue, Gordon Jacobs. Both pieces are just what the doctor ordered and are served sparkling and frothy, with style and grace. The ebullient scores offer a glimpse of what comedic ballet evenings at the Garden are like.

The Royal Opera Orchestra knows their way around these scores, this amply demonstrated by the group’s secure ensemble and superb soloists. Conductor Anatole Fistoulari allows the music to unfold naturally and gives the vaudevillian-inspired scores their head. Here you will find music making of the utmost happiness.

I have played Walton’s original version of Façade many times and admit my preference for it. The mix of whimsy and the odd metre of Edith Sitwell’s verses, combined with brilliant writing for six players, are somewhat lost in his large orchestral arrangement. The music sounds charming enough, but without Sitwell’s spoken word, the heart of the work is missing (try the EMI recording of Marriner/St Martins with Fenella Fielding and Michael Flanders for a superb version of Walton’s original thoughts).

However, the recording is a British Decca beauty. Upper woodwinds are glorious and mid to lower strings sound rich. The violins can sound a little wiry at times; this could be attributed to any number of things, and is not bothersome in any way. Conversely, we are treated to exceedingly low and accurate bass. Audiophiles will delight in the sound of airy flutes, plangent oboes and dynamic brass. If not looking for music to plumb the depths of your soul, basing your choice purely on entertainment value, LSC-2285 is just the ticket.

LSC 2418 – Elgar Enigma Variations Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux. Producer: James Walker. Engineer: Kenneth Wilkinson. Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London.

The Variation form lends itself to glorious arrays of orchestral color, and the two masterpieces recorded here are no exceptions. The performances are famous for both the flawless executions of the orchestra and Pierre Monteux’s interpretations. Recorded when Monteux was in his mid-eighties, both works shine under his guidance, a quality he instilled into so many scores during the Indian summer of his musical life. The octogenarian certainly had clarity of thought and absolute control over his forces. On LSC 2418, the LSO is at the height of its power. They play both works with great precision and verve, portraying solo passages with distinction and character.

The recording from Kingsway varies in quality. It does retain all the benefits of a fine LP – presence, accurate tonal qualities and a transparent soundstage. However, the strings sound diffuse, lacking just the smidgen of warmth we have come to expect from many of these reissues. To be fair to this particular pressing, I have the same misgiving about every incarnation I have heard, including an English Decca and a London STS. This caveat should not deter you from acquiring this magnificent testimonial to Monteux and his charges.

To be continued…