October 08, 2009


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4; Gluck: Overture to “Iphigenie in Aulis.” Leon Fleisher, piano; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Hans Rosbaud (Concerto No. 2) and Otto Klemperer (Concerto No. 4; Gluck). Medici Arts. $16.99.

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote; Also Sprach Zarathustra. Alwin Bauer, cello; Paul Schroer, viola; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Medici Arts. $16.99.

Ireland: A London Overture; Piano Concerto; The Forgotten Rite—Prelude; These Things Shall Be. Eileen Joyce, piano; Redvers Llewellyn, baritone; Luton Choral Society and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. LPO. $16.99.

     There are many archival recordings now being released in CD form, and fans of particular performers – or particular performances – will be delighted to have them in a modern format. But, for the most part, only such committed fans will be strongly attracted to CDs such as these two, because as good as the remastering and production are, monophonic recordings from 50 to 60 years ago are simply not what most listeners today expect to (or will be pleased to) hear.

     For those who are familiar with Leon Fleisher’s performances before his decades-long absence from the concert stage in works for both hands (because of focal dystonia in his right hand), any recording of Fleisher performing Beethoven or Brahms piano concertos is cause for celebration: he was particularly well known for these works, and always approached them with grace, finesse and extraordinary understanding. Fleisher’s recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are classics in every sense, near-perfect meldings of pianistic and orchestral sound and style. Next to them, the Medici Arts CD featuring the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (now known as WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln) are a touch on the pale side. In No. 2, recorded in 1957, Fleisher is as light and Mozartean as can be, with Hans Rosbaud conducting in workmanlike fashion that supports the pianist but does not seem in full partnership with him. Otto Klemperer’s conducting in No. 4 and the Gluck overture – these performances date to 1956 – is more supple and effective. Later Klemperer recordings often suffered from heavy-handedness and overly slow tempos, but here the accompaniment is finely proportioned and the orchestra really takes part in a dialogue with the soloist (especially important in the give and take of the concerto’s second movement). These are solid if not spectacular performances, well recorded for their time, and certainly worth having for fans of Fleisher in his younger days: he was not yet 30 when these recordings were made.

     Equally solid and equally intriguing are Dimitri Mitropoulos’ Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester performances of two Richard Strauss tone poems, recorded in 1959 – the year before the conductor’s death. Mitropoulos was an early champion of the works of Gustav Mahler, but it was left to his protégé Leonard Bernstein (who took over the New York Philharmonic from Mitropoulos in 1957) to begin the great surge in Mahler’s popularity that has persisted to the present. The Strauss recordings show a conductor fully at home with the same sort of large orchestral forces and complex structures that Mahler championed. These are finely crafted performances that treat the works’ individual sections (13 in Don Quixote, 11 in Also Sprach Zarathustra) as independent but interrelated segments, while also providing the works with dramatic unity through well-chosen tempos and sensitive orchestral balance. That balance does not always come off as well as it might in the recording, though, and the very lush sound that makes Strauss so effective is missing here. The solo cello and viola in Don Quixote do stand out well, but neither of these works has the fullness of the Strauss sound at its most opulent. Still, these are very worthy performances that will be a treat for fans of Mitropoulos, who was a thoughtful and highly skilled conductor.

     The new LPO disc of music by John Ireland dates back even further than the two Medici Arts CDs, to 1949, and it wears its sonic age only moderately well. This is a live recording of a 70th-birthday concert for Ireland (1879-1962), including his only piano concerto – indeed, his only concerto of any type – as well as his sole work for chorus and orchestra, These Things Shall Be. The concerto, written in 1930, was first recorded by Eileen Joyce in 1942 with the Hallé Orchestra under Leslie Heward. Joyce’s celebratory 1949 performance became her second recording of the work, which she plays with understanding and sensitivity. In fact, she makes a good case for more-frequent hearings of this often-jazzy concerto, with its hints of Prokofiev and Gershwin. These Things Shall Be, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, whose première was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult in 1937, is performed with enthusiasm but seems rather overblown. A London Overture – a 1936 expansion of Ireland’s 1934 A Comedy Overture for brass band – is an effective curtain-raiser; and The Forgotten Rite, a “prelude for orchestra” completed in 1918, is pleasantly atmospheric if not especially distinguished. Ireland’s sensibilities were essentially Impressionist, and much of his music tends to sound dated today, but certainly Boult gave it his all in celebrating the composer’s birthday. The art of live recording was not as advanced as that of studio recording in the 1940s, and the works as heard here seem rather flattened and constricted. The CD is an interesting historical document and will be worthwhile for those with an existing interest in Ireland’s music, but it is scarcely the most effective gateway to this composer’s works for those who are not already familiar with them.

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