Sunday, 1 November 2015

Not waving but WAVing – and DAWing

Columbia 33CX 1244 front [Vuescan, reduced]

Brahms String Quartet in B flat Op.67
Quartetto Italiano:
Paolo Borciani & Elisa Pegreffi (violins),
Piero Farulli (viola), Franco Rossi (cello)
Columbia 33CX 1244
(rec. July 1954 or January 1955?, Milan)

Sorry, I’ve had this blasted record almost ready to go for weeks… Unfortunately, entropy is wreaking havoc in the Cave. Some of my old audio kit is finally breaking, but I’m too mean to throw it out and buy replacements. So I rummage around at the back of the Cave for older kit to press back into service – which my aging brain can only half-remember how to connect and operate. And then I’m too lazy to face the resulting cumbersome workarounds anyway.

So what happened is this: I started digitally cleaning up a transfer of this really lovely LP which I’d made quite some time ago. It seemed to be going swimmingly – until the second movement, which turned out to be riddled with nasties. The third was little better – and then, to add insult to injury, I found two minute but audible drop-outs. (Until a few months ago, I dubbed all LPs onto CDRWs in a semi-pro CD recorder, which has finally died. It did very occasionally leave drop-outs, as did ripping the CDRWs to my newer PC.) Blast – I’d have to fire up my ancient SCSI-based SADiE DAW (‘digital audio workstation’), on an almost equally ancient, incredibly noisy XP PC, with barely less noisy external SCSI enclosures, and see if I could remember how to do the fine editing that was second nature to me for so many years!

Well, today I finally did it, and here’s the result. The drop-outs have gone, though I suspect I’d have done a better job in my younger days. The pops, clicks and thumps are gone too, though there’s still quite a lot of surface noise – well worth it, if you ask me: this is a wonderful performance of one of my favourite string quartets. I surprised someone just last week (now, who was it?…) with the fervency of my love for the Brahms quartets, which only increases the more recordings I hear (I can’t remember the last time I heard one in concert). And of the three, Op.67 is closest to my heart, with its the perfect Brahmsian combo of gruff bonhomie, sometimes anguished lyricism, cross-rhythms, moments of stillness, and always the long but comforting shadows of the past… The Quartetto Italiano plays it beautifully, emphasizing the lyrical side, taking plenty of time over the reflective bits, but with plenty of thigh-slapping gusto in those ‘hunting’ passages that also remind me of a Tyrolean Plattler.

This is a reproach to EMI (now Warner) for allowing so much of the Quartetto Italiano’s superb legacy of Columbia LPs to slumber unheard for so long. Universal has a lot to answer for, too: yes, the Quartetto’s  later Brahms appeared on mid-priced CDs, but not its Schumann, coupled with the Brahms on the original Philips LPs. (That was issued on CD only in Japan – as usual…) Universal is at last making good, its big box of the Quartetto Italiano’s supposedly ‘Complete Decca, Philips & DG recordings’ (including the Duriums, I hope?) due out any day. But no sign of the like from Warner…

Columbia 33CX 1244 back Vuescan, reduced]

Sorry if these sleeve scans seem a funny colour – my monitor shows everything too pink, so I don’t know what to believe (I wish I wasn’t too stupid and lazy to learn colour calibration). There’s also disagreement about the recording date. One rather good Quartetto Italiano website says January 1955, but the selfless and highly respected discographer Michael H. Gray says July 1954.

Download the 4 mono, fully-tagged FLACs, in a .rar file here.

I’ll now have to record LPs (and 78s, I hope, soon) either onto my newer PC, which is fab – but I won’t feel happy working while I’m dubbing, as even the best machine is prone to glitches if it has to do two tricky things at once – or onto my old SADiE, which means cables trailing under my feet. And it puts the occasional digital splat across the audio, and I don’t like the sound of the A-D converter I’m now using, as much as the one in my Sony DAT recorder, through which I used to feed the signal into my CDR. Nope, I’m just going to have to get some new kit…

Saturday, 5 September 2015

A disc of two halves

HMV CLP 1737 front 5DII [auto]

Dvořák Piano Trio in e Op.90 ‘Dumky’; Trio in g Op.26
Jean Fournier (violin),
Antonio Janigro (cello),
Paul Badura-Skoda (piano)
rec. mid-(?) and late 1950s
first issued 1958(?), on Westminster XWN 18398
issued in Britain on HMV CLP 1737 (above)

I’ve recently managed to expel a good many boxes of LPs from the Cave, to the delight of La Grumpy. I sold 4 or 5, and gave away another 8. Before we took the latter to the charity / thrift / op shop, I had a last flip through – thank goodness, as I’d overlooked this lovely disc. My antennae told me it hasn’t been issued on CD (from the master tapes), which turned out to be correct – and a pity, as I really like it. Or, at least, the first half – the ‘Dumky’ Trio, which I’ve recently fallen in love with.

There’s something mysterious about this coupling. In the American journal Notes, Kurtz Myers used to publish a quarterly ‘Index of Record Reviews: With Symbols Indicating Opinions of Reviewers’ (later gathered into a series of books entitled Record Ratings). Most discs of mainstream repertoire such as this garnered a healthy crop of notices in several of the two dozen or so magazines surveyed by Myers. But in the December 1958 ‘Index’, Westminster XWN 18398 has the bare note, ‘No reviews’. Does anyone know why?

Another oddity is the noticeable difference in quality between the two sides. The first side, containing ‘Dumky’, sounds like a state of the art late mono recording, although it’s longer, so there’s more end-of-side distortion; and on my copy of this British H.M.V. pressing, it’s in less good condition – I suspect because the owner preferred ‘Dumky’, as I do, and so played it more often, with his heavy pick-up. The second side sounds earlier: congested, almost saturated in places – the signature, to my ears, of less refined equipment rather than poor microphone placement, as the balance itself is not bad. This leads me to suspect that Op.26 was recorded some time before Op.90, and/or in a different venue – again, does anyone know? Any clarification gratefully received.

‘Dumky’ – sorry to go on about it - is a much better piece than Op.26, don’t you think? The highlight of the g minor work, for me, is the charming, disarmingly ingénu trio, with its nothing tune, and those dotted ’cello kicks giving its relaxed dance rhythm a propulsive momentum which is unmistakably Czech. But, oh dear, the finale – another dance, interrupted by some academic note-spinning and muddy harmonies. A world away from the free-wheeling, rhapsodic, unpredictable, innovative ‘Dumky’. I’m looking forward to getting to know other classic recordings of the piece, some of which are pretty hard to find.

I gather ‘Dumky’ is in six sections, but the Simrock score I downloaded has five, so I went with that – sorry. If you prefer the canonical six sections, just divide the first of my files at 4:18 (fig. D, Poco adagio). The nine fully tagged, mono FLACs, plus my photos of the front and back of the HMV sleeve, including the extensive sleeve-note by Irving Kolodin, are in a .rar file which can be downloaded from here.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

La grotte engloutie

Edison Bell VF 674 [X 1576] label 5DII   125, 12-Jul-15

Debussy Préludes, Book 1 - (x) La Cathédrale engloutie
Chopin Etude in e minor Op.25 No.5
Marie Novello (piano)
(rec. c. May 1926, issued July 1926)
Edison Bell VF 674

(My wonky framing of the label, above, is so you can see the matrix number.)

I bought this record back in January – but, as usual, I’ve had to rely on the kindness of others to enable me to share it with you. Generous and patient as ever, Jolyon has sprinkled some of his legendary Fairy Fluff on these two sides, giving me several versions to choose from. Although they’re acoustic recordings, and although the piano wasn’t too well in tune, I think they sound good – I’ve not tired of listening to them, repeatedly, as I took out some recalcitrant noises.

The estimated recording date is courtesy of the eminent British discographer William Dean-Myatt, author of the fascinating Beltona: a label listing and history (2007) and the monumental A Scottish vernacular discography, 1888-1960 (2013), which can be consulted on the website of the National Library of Scotland. Mr Dean-Myatt is currently preparing a discography of Edison Bell, a difficult task which he says will take him many years yet. It promises to be another invaluable work of reference.

My prompts for sharing this disc are twofold: guilt at not posting more often, mixed with shame at the constant streams of treasures from Shellackophile, Satyr, Buster and (not quite so constant, as he himself admits) Jolyon; and some good news which I’ve long been hoping for. The enterprising Japanese specialist label Sakuraphon has announced that it will issue a complete transfer of Marie Novello’s disc recordings, including the uncommon VF of Tausig’s transcription of  Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d BWV 565.

The Bach-Tausig will be offered as a ‘bonus track’: Sakuraphon bought the very copy of the original disc which I’d been eyeing on >ahem< ‘an internet auction site’. It was clearly being sold by a total tyro, and it reached Japan broken in two. I’m sorry for Sakuraphon, but glad that I trusted my instinct (and my meanness, baulking at the price plus postage, which were too high), and that someone more expert than me is picking up the pieces.

Sakuraphon, in case you’re not familiar with the label, is the successor to DIW Classics, which explored audio and piano-roll recordings by overlooked, underrated pianists, and issued such wonderful CDs as ‘Hounds of Ecstasy’ – two volumes of rare historical recordings of music by Scriabin; two of Chopin titled ‘Spoonful of Chopin’s Secrets’; a disc of Beethoven sonatas recorded for French H.M.V. by Aline van Barentzen; and another of Fauré played by French women pianists.

DIW Classics DICL-1001 booklet front

Hounds of Ecstasy vol.1
DIW Classics DCL-1001 (p.2007)

Sakuraphon is continuing this exploration, in CD and CDR compilations which you can see here. I don’t know when the Novello disc is due – I’ll try to keep you posted.

As for Novello herself, she was born Marie Williams in the land of my forefathers, and took her professional surname from her teacher, mother of Ivor Novello. She also studied with Theodor Leschetizky, apparently, although that can’t have been for long, since he died when Marie was 17. Anyway, you’ll find a decent biography and discography on Wikipedia, which also relates the sad story of her early death from cancer, aged around 30 (depending on when exactly in 1898 she was born).

Someone whose expertise and taste I respect – and who actually plays the piano, unlike me, and very well – doesn’t rate this disc very highly. Fair enough; I’m not ashamed to admit I know nothing about piano technique. Both Novello’s technique and her interpretation drew criticism in the September 1926 issue of The Gramophone:

La Cathédrale Engloutie will not stand being played at this pace; its magic atmosphere evaporates and nothing remains but a stark, empty shell. […] The delightful Chopin Etude (from Op.25) is rather better, but here again I should have liked more delicacy and a less percussive effect.

(The reviewer, Peter Latham, liked her Bach-Tausig rather more.) Well, call me cloth-eared, but I really enjoy Novello’s way with both pieces: her refusal to linger over details in the Debussy (though they’re all there), which instead she dashes off like a water-colourist painting en plein air; and, on the contrary, her unhurried, almost parlando phrasing in the Chopin, which sounds really improvised, especially in the middle bit - a quality modern pianists aspire to but rarely achieve. As for La Cathédrale, I just listened to an extremely famous pianist’s 1978 recording and found it catatonically slow, dully grey and almost totally devoid of atmosphere.

Last night I played Jolyon’s transfers to a friend who, again, is much more musical than me, and she likened the Debussy to a ‘charcoal drawing’, exactly the simile I’d thought of using above, instead of the water-colour. She did find the Chopin a bit lumpy. All right, but I think that’s on purpose: Novello lends the outer section an almost Bartókian grotesquery – or should that be Chaplinesque?

Two mono FLAC files, fully tagged, in a .rar file here.

Thanks again to Jolyon and William Dean-Myatt!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Dept. of Unabashed Pluggery

Mirare MIR 213 front 19-Jul-15

Variations on a Theme by Scarlatti
Matan Porat (piano)
(recorded 28 to 30 January 2013)
Mirare MIR 213

Some time ago I was given the above CD, which is very, very fine. I haven’t met the pianist, who’s also a composer, and was born in Tel Aviv in 1982, but I know his father (who kindly gave me the CD). Porat’s programme is brilliantly inventive, a 69-minute segue from Scarlatti to Boulez (and Porat himself) and back again, and it’s superbly played. Trust me. Or go to the CD’s listing on Amazon and read my review. (I’m gratified to see that Porat’s disc has received two more, just as positive, since I wrote mine.)

So I was very happy, the other day, to learn that Porat is giving a solo recital a week from now, on Sunday 26 July at 7:30 p.m., in one of London’s smaller but most cherished venues: the Wigmore Hall. And what a programme – it’s as if he’d consulted me before choosing it (as if…). To start, Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, followed by most of a suite from Rameau’s Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin (played on the piano), the one in a minor which ends with the famous Gavotte avec six doubles. And in the second half, one of my favourite sonatas by Schubert, the great A major D.959.

Normally, I have dinner with my mother on Sunday – but we’re taking her to the opera tomorrow, and this concert promises to be too good to miss! Sorry, Ma. You can buy tickets via the concert’s listing on the Wigmore Hall’s website.

For once, nothing to be grumpy about.

Oh, and on the subject of Rameau, and while I’m plugging, here’s another, for that incomparable blogger Shellackophile. Ten days ago he kindly posted his transfer of a 1926 Brunswick disc which I’d requested, of the American harpsichordist Lewis Roberts playing pieces by, >ahem< ‘Rameau’ and ‘Ayrlton’. It comes at the end of a fascinating post about an all-but forgotten American ‘ancient music’ ensemble of the same period. They turn out to be related. Do read and enjoy Shellackophile’s post here.

UPDATE: Read David Nice’s excellent review of Matan Porat’s concert for The Arts Desk here.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Albert Sammons plays Fauré REMOVED

Staircase, Denée, 5DII   Ultron 40mm SL, 14-Aug-13

Over the last year I’ve received a few requests for access to the transfer of  Fauré’s Violin Sonata Op.13, recorded privately by Albert Sammons in 1937, which I shared and wrote about in October 2010.

I’m very sorry not to grant these requests. As I explained in an addendum to my post a few weeks later, the owner of the original discs of the Fauré, who had kindly given me the transfer to post, then gave it to Pristine Audio for further treatment and sale via the Pristine Classical website. I try not to compete with the few bone fide producers of commercial transfers of 78s who are able to stay in business in these very difficult times, so I withdrew my upload.

Pristine Classical certainly is a bona fide producer, and deserves all our support. For instance, a few months ago, during one of my periodic Stravinsky phases, I found to my joy that Pristine has transferred one of Stravinsky’s few commercial recordings which has never been reissued, his 1957 Columbia LP of Perséphone, narrated by Vera Zorina, an interesting artist with a long and varied career in ballet, film and the theatre. Perséphone is a fine and original piece, unfairly overlooked in Stravinsky’s output – so kudos to Pristine for letting us hear the composer’s first recording, which I prefer to his 1966 remake (also with Zorina). There’s an earlier, even better recording, narrated by French actress Claude Nollier and conducted by André Cluytens, especially notable for the wonderful singing of Nicolai Gedda: I keep hoping it’ll be reissued, if possible from master tapes - one for Testament, whose catalogue includes Cluytens’s exactly contemporary recording of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol?

Pristine’s version of Sammons’ Fauré is coupled with his 1926 Columbia recording of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata Op.47, in an album of ‘Rare and Unissued Violin Sonatas’ – and it’s priced extremely reasonably, so if you want to hear the Fauré, please support Pristine by buying it!

Thank you and, again, apologies.

Friday, 15 May 2015

“Buxtehude, Headmaster!”

Archiv ARC 3096 front 02 

Herr, nun läßt du deinen Diener BuxWV 37
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus, ciaccona BuxWV 92
*Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BuxWV 71
Helmut Krebs (tenor),
instrumental ensemble / *Berlin Bach Orchestra strings,
Carl Gorvin (organ / *conductor)
Archiv Produktion ARC 3096 [APM 14088 / 14529]
(rec. 29-30 October 1956, *25 October 1957,
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem)

Apologies: I started this post in September 2013, and almost immediately abandoned it. A couple of things, which I’ll come to later, have prompted me to revive it.

When I first saw Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If, a satire on British boys’ boarding schools and their traditional cruelty, I was still attending one myself, I think. I’d already gone potty for classical music and I’d probably come across the great Dane, played on one of our school’s fine organs – but back then, it was Messiaen’s L’Ascension and La nativité which really blew me away. I missed it at the time but much later, a friend reminded me of a pithy line, spoken by If’s fictional chaplain, after being asked what music the organ was playing as the boys exited Chapel:

‘Padre, that was a super voluntary you gave us this morning. What was it, 18th century?’ ‘Buxtehude, Headmaster!

Actually, it was the Toccata from Widor’s Symphony No.5. What does this mean?, asks a perplexed punter on IMDb. It could mean any number of things; to me, it’s a brief but dense joke at the expense of that system of education. The raison d’être of British ‘public’ schools, supposedly, was the fostering in boys of  something which still sends shivers down my spine: ‘team spirit’. Now, a team needs a captain; in If’s joke, as I read it, he is the headmaster. To lead, the captain needs to know what’s going on. So he asks his subordinate – here, the chaplain – who obliges with the kind of misinformation which led to mass slaughter in the trenches etc., magnificently sent up in the final shoot-out of Anderson’s film. (I suspect there’s a also a dig at a certain strand of British musical philistinism: of course, nobody can be expected to know everything – but Widor’s Toccata, for goodness’ sake…)

Down With Skool front [corrected]

Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
down with skool!
London: Max Parrish & Co. Ltd., 1958
1968 Armada paperback, originally my friend Stephen’s
(did I nick it or did he give it to me?…)

At the same time, the padre’s Buxtehude joke celebrates genuine strengths of British public schools: eccentricity, contrarianism, subversion, delight in the arcane. These are celebrated traits of wider British culture, obviously: but the schools’ contradictory totalitarianism (the sole advantage of right-wing tyrannies) – ‘team spirit’ and muscular Christianity versus unworldly academicism and dubious ancient poems – creates convenient corners for them to sprout in. Any boarding-school survivor watching If would have known masters and fellow-pupils with unusual tastes and obsessive interests. Unlike the conformist rebels who made a predictable song and dance of their rebellion, these resisted silently, with jokes and sabotage comprehensible to almost no one. Hence: ‘Buxtehude, Headmaster.’

At school, I was apparently the only friend of a kindly loner who introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft and who, a year or so later, shot himself during the holidays (which, my housemaster seemed to imply as he reported my friend’s suicide to me one evening, was my fault…). Another friend, to our matron’s disgust, spent his time publishing papers on subatomic particle physics, instead of washing; he’s now one of the world’s leading computer scientists. Others formed a consort of viols: hearing them play sparked a hunger for early music which I still feed almost every day.

Talking of which, back to Buxtehude. What has prompted me to revisit this post is a) guilt at neglecting Grumpy’s groupies, b) buying this box a couple of weeks ago, and c) listening to all of it for the first time, finishing just a few hours ago:

Buxtehude Opera Omnia 01, A7II   Color-Heliar 75, 12-May-15

Buxtehude Opera Omnia
Bruhns Complete Organ Works
Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra,
Ton Koopman (organ / harpsichord / conductor)
(recorded September 2005 – June 2013)
Challenge Classics CC772261 (29 CDs, 1 DVD, 6 booklets)

If, like me, you’re a Buxtehude bore, you’ll probably have to have this box. It’s expensive in Britain (much more so than in Europe), but I was lucky and happened to check the price on a day when it was discounted by 40%. There’s probably too much vocal music in the box for all but us Lübeck loonies, and the best pieces are well distributed across the vocal CDs, making it difficult to recommend one. So my quick picks are the very first volume, 2 CDs of harpsichord music including the monumental variations on ‘La Capricciosa’, any of the organ CDs – OK, start with the cracking Volume VIII / Organ Works 3 – and eight wonderful unpublished sonatas, in Volume XII / Chamber Music 1.

Nor will I compare the recordings on the Archiv LP, made nearly sixty years ago, with those in this box – but the earlier ones have nothing to fear from any comparison. Helmut Krebs was in his prime, and his voice, fresh and light, would surely be the envy of any ‘HIP’ tenor today. The instrumental ensemble is no bigger than the ones employed by Koopman:

Archiv ARC 3096 listing

[NOTE: the other two works on the LP, Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron BuxWV 45, and Ich suchte des Nachts BuxWV 50, are equally if not more beautiful. But I haven’t transferred them, as they were reissued in 2000, on a CD in DG’s Fischer-Dieskau 75 Edition, coupled with Bach’s two most famous cantatas for low male voice, BWV 56 and 82. A self-recommending disc, it’s deleted but not too hard to find:

DG 463 517-2 booklet front

Bach, Buxtehude Sacred vocal music
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Helmut Krebs,
Karl Richter, Carl Gorvin
DG 463 517-2]

Three of these recordings were premieres: BuxWV 92 and 71 (with Krebs only) and BuxWV 50 (with Fischer-Dieskau and Krebs). The Swiss tenor Max Meili had recorded BuxWV 37 in about 1950 for Concert Hall (E-5); and the bass Bruno Müller, with Hans Grischkat on Vox (PL 7620), beat Fischer-Dieskau to BuxWV 45 by about 5 years. (I’ve never seen either LP – they don’t seem common.) Given that, one marvels at the fluency, assurance and ‘rightness’ of the performances on the Archiv LP.

You can download the three mono, fully tagged FLACs, in a .rar file, from here.

Koopman’s Opera Omnia box includes a touching written tribute to Bruno Grusnick (1900-1992), the German musicologist who studied, edited, published and championed Buxtehude’s vocal music, discovering many unique manuscripts in the Düben Collection in Uppsala. (I’ve always coveted Grusnick’s beautiful Buxtehude editions as published by Ugrino. They don’t seem at all common.) Grusnick wrote a very good note for the Archiv LP, and I think I forgot to include sung texts in the .rar file, so I’ve uploaded a text file with both (only the bits relevant to the works I’ve transferred), here.

I’m sorry if this upload seems a bit stingy. I had also intended to offer another Buxtehude LP recorded by Archiv in 1956, of four substantial sacred vocal pieces, charmingly sung by the Norddeutscher Singkreis conducted by Gottfried Wolters – but that has been transferred for the Bibliothèque nationale’s BnF Collection series of downloads, in very acceptable sound, and as I write it is for sale on Qobuz in lossless format and high resolution, priced at next to nothing. I’m not sure why Krebs’s LP hasn’t also been transferred – maybe it will – but I urge you to support the BnF Collection, both for its own sake and because I’m hoping the Bibliothèque nationale will make enough money from it to transfer and market their 78s.

Transept organ, St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, A7II, 5-Apr-15

Not Lübeck but somewhere very like it:
Transept organ (Bis & Destré, 1653),
St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium,
6 April 2015

You’re probably bored of waiting for me to get my act together and post more stuff. Once again, I’m sorry. I keep inventing time- (and money-)wasting things to do, instead of decluttering the Cave, publishing my thesis, finding funding for my academic research and setting up a 78 transfer chain. But the last will happen, I promise – I just don’t know when. I have bought so much interesting stuff which I simply must share, including lots of historic Buxtehude. Thank you for your patience.