The Year in Classical Vinyl
This is my second year into vinyl after 20 years of the CD. No regrets
whatsoever and-having recently heard my first CD in as much as a year
and a half-I've still no regrets, but more on that later. First off,
the two most profound listening experiences of the year: the first mono
Juilliard Bartok String Quartet cycle, and Furtwangler's mono Wagner
Tristan with Flagstad and Suthaus. "New" performance discoveries for
me and who would have thought-these firsts IMHO have never topped by
anything I've heard since.
Bartok String Quartets, Juilliard Columbia ML 4278, 4279, 4280.
These were recorded in the '50's and are available on '78's, Columbia
blue label and finally the 6-eye. The original members in these first
recordings, Mann, Koff, Villyer and Winograd play with such rhythmic,
dynamic and stylistic cohesiveness that I often shake my head in disbelief
when listening. The Juilliard re-performed these quartets in the stereo
era with some different staff, most notably the more suave, but soft-edged
and more contrived playing of a the new cellist, Claus Adam. These '60's
stereo performances have been justly celebrated, but they don't hold a
candle to what came before.
One of the only charges leveled against the later stereo Juilliard
performances is that-while supremely virtuosic-the players didn't plumb
the depths of poetry and concentration in Bartok's more reflective
passages. Thankfully this is not so in their earlier mono recording
in which the players' insight and sensitivity even out-do the Vegh.
One gets the best of everything.
A few examples: in the slow, opening mov't of the 1st quartet the
Juilliards make time stand still, letting Bartok's melody unfold with
infinite tenderness, shading and color, and the climactic outburst at
the center of the mov't is heart-wrenching. No one does it better. Try
the 2nd mov't of the 5th with its static and gorgeous chords built on
harmonics-none glow like these, not to mention Winograd's cello lines,
which sound the most improvised and haunting of all.
Finally, listen to the final pages of the last mov't of the 6th quartet-in
no other performance have I heard such a combination of tremulous anxiety,
sadness and-in the final, naive and awkward plucks of the cello that
earlier introduced the "whistling tune"-such a touching glance back at
innocence and youth.
The fast and virtuosic mov'ts make one's head spin. The quartet's
precision in matters of phrasing make Bartok's music leap and bounce
along as if it were ballet. Bartok's signature accelerating and
decelerating moto-rhythms are delivered with a delightfully mischievous
wink of an eye, not to mention that all those passages played with the
wooden part of the bow sound more sinister than any other performance I
know. For examples of the Juilliard's absolutely vertiginous, white-heat
virtuosity, try the last mov't of the 5th or the slow-burn finale of the
3rd, which finally erupts with all those downward slides. Columbia's
early mono sound is thankfully fulsome and detailed. These wonderful
performances are available now on CD as well, but the records yield the
most timbral delicacy, which the Juilliard cultivated with to the n'th
Furtwangler's Wagner Tristan with Flagstad and Suthaus:
There has been so much ink spilt regarding this performance that I'll
keep it brief. Among mainstream recordings, Suthaus has a warm honeyed
tenor that for me has only been equaled by Domingo. Flagstad is gorgeous:
all the power of Nillson, but she can soften and sound erotic as well.
Furtwangler isn't afraid to let "time stand still" so to speak in the
extended love music and whenever the "yearning theme" appears. Only
Bernstein comes close. I love the piquant oboe playing throughout. In
the music that leads up to the coitus interruptus, Furtwangler and his
singers manage the impossible, by increasing the abandon and inexorable
frenzy that leads to the appearance of King Marke without sounding hectic
or unnevering. The mono sound is full-bodied and natural from top to
bottom. A miraculous achievement all around, surpassing all other
Tristans I've heard. In every way.
Pressings, labels-2nd year observations and lessons:
I'm increasingly losing my fear of "budget labels." If a recording was
good to begin with, I'm finding that later "budget" pressings can be
just as good as the vaunted first pressing that everyone pines for; and
sometimes the latter pressing can even be better. Two stunning examples
are the Schipper's Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky, and the TAS-listed Varese
orchestral works, including the "Poem Electronique." When comparing the
"6-eyes" to later Odyssey or "Masterworks Editions," the later pressings
yielded music that emerged from blacker backgrounds, the soundstage was
larger, and bass that was deeper and more in focus-dramatically so in
Varese's "Poem," and the Prokofiev's Battle on the Ice.
I'm still loving my London Treasuries. I have both a London Blueback
and a London Treasury of Argenta's Berlioz Symphony Fantastique. The
Treasury has wider, deeper grooves and correspondingly deeper bass and
wider dynamic range. Pay all you want for the SXL's, but I would never
walk out of a store without some of these UK-pressed Treasuries, if
they're in good shape, just because they're a budget label.
Some other highlights of the year:
Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, Levine/DG: Kathleen Battle's voice is glorious,
and very sensitively accompanied by Levine.
Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Francescatti/Walter/Columbia. I like this
performance very much. Lyrical and warm, I've ended up preferring it
to the more famous Heifitz/Munch.
Mahler's Symphony #7 Levine/Chicago RCA Teldec pressing: Levine's is the
most persuasive and listenable of all the Mahler 7th I've heard. The
1st and 5th mov'ts hold together wonderfully through Levine's attention
to light and shade and the big paragraphs.
Prokofiev's Symphony #6 Jarvi/SNO/Chandos. Absolutely scintillating,
much better performed than the TAS-listed Weller.
Shostakovich's Violin Concerto Oistrahk/Mitropoulos/Columbia mono. Don't
let the mono scare you, it's a great recording and dark performance.
Puccini's Madama Butterfly/Sinopoli/DG. I was thrilled that this late
digital made it to Lp. Sinopoli's ebb and flow couple with the gorgeous
voices of Freni and Carreras makes me prefer it to all others.
My first CD in a great while:
I picked up Wit's Mahler Symphony #8 on Naxos, regarded by many as a
great performance and a great recording. It was interesting inserting
a CD in the player after so long. The recording was aptly spacious,
deep bass, good front-to-back imaging-I was moved, but the sound-2005
mind you-was still not as good or involving as Lp. What was missing--and
I'll make this as objective as possible-was an overall sense of "exertion."
For instance, if the Celli have a quick upward and downward passage with
a corresponding increase and decrease in volume, on Lp, I can hear and
feel the exertion; the exertion of the wood and strings, and that of the
player's. On CD I can perceive such things, but I can't feel them in
my chest, as Lp allows me to do.
Wit's performance is a marvel: what a gift we have in the Polish musicians
that put this together. The opening choral work can be described with
one word: bounce. The singers, especially the soprani, are ravishing
in the way that they float the high notes. The final pages are indeed
cataclysmic and I would love to know what kind of gong they used. In
most performances the gong is loud but very sharp, but Wit's on Naxos
is truly deep and unusually shattering. It gave me chills.