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Dim Future, Bright Past

Clouds of gloom thicken around the classical-music landscape, and around classical recording most of all. The major labels have so cut back their activities in this area that the few important releases in recent months -- Simon Rattle’s Gurrelieder on EMI, say, or Martha Argerich‘s Schumann (of which more later) or the Emersons’ set of the Shostakovich quartets on DG -- seem more like lucky accidents than evidence of an ongoing caring about the serious repertory. Only the smaller labels -- ECM, Nonesuch, Bridge, New Albion -- operate as if such caring were still possible; I note with pleasure that none of those labels include in their catalogs such redundancies as yet another Beethoven Nine.

The future is bleak, but the past survives gloriously. The remarkable Naxos label, which began life as a purveyor of standard repertory in bargain-basement performances at bargain-basement prices, now devotes a fair portion of its monthly releases to reissues of old repertory, some from the very dawn of electrical recording. The basic Naxos price has moved up a couple of notches -- to $7.99 from an initial $5.99 -- but the stuff available in its ”historical“ catalog is truly remarkable. Recent releases include several concertos by the legendary (and much revered) British pianist who went under the single name of Solomon: the Tchaikovsky First, the Beethoven Third, a not-all-that-dreary effort by Sir Arthur Bliss, along with Solomon‘s performance of the F-minor Fantasy that may be my all-time favorite recorded Chopin. On Naxos, too, there is a garland of lighter stuff: two whole discs of Britain’s beloved belter Gracie Fields, a disc of the real Ivor Novello to fill you in on the character in Gosford Park, and, best of all, a disc by the Comedian Harmonists, the mythic German vocal group disbanded by Hitler. Until you‘ve heard the Harmonists in their all-vocal rendition of the Barber of Seville Overture, your musical education is not yet complete.

On Naxos, too, there are operas: the first generation of complete electrical recordings turned out in Italian recording studios around 1930 under the workmanlike leadership of the likes of Lorenzo Molajoli and Carlo Sabajno, remarkably restored by another of music’s authentic heroes, the blind American tonmeister Ward Marston, whose program notes describing his ”rescues“ of ancient sounds imprisoned on scratchy old 78-rpm discs read like tales of high adventure.

I spent an evening recently with two sets of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore: the new Sony release from La Scala, apparently rushed out because its tenor, Salvatore Licitra, is the ”hot“ new guy who stood in for Pavarotti at the Met a few weeks ago; and the Naxos set from La Scala in 1930 whose tenor, Francesco Merli, had a solid if unremarkable career in several houses here and abroad. The two performances, recorded quality aside, sound like two completely different operas. Here is Merli battering his way through ”Di quella pira,“ holding onto the high notes like there’s no tomorrow (but transposing the aria down to B from the written C), the voice a thing of sweat and gristle and even, for all anyone can tell, a few spurts of blood; Molajoli‘s orchestra stumbling and wheezing, with the chorus off in, perhaps, Sardinia.

This is the old, traditional Verdi of the people’s theater, and maybe anyone who tried that style today would be booed off the stage. What we have instead is the admirably correct young Licitra, in C major as written, joined by Riccardo Muti‘s orchestra in all the notes that Verdi wrote and none that he didn’t. The new performance sounds good and probably is good, but there is something that pours off that ancient Naxos set -- and the Ballo in Maschera with Beniamino Gigli, and the Forza del Destino with nobody in particular -- that may deny us the dimension of digital stereo recording but adds another unwritten dimension that, I contend, belongs to Verdi‘s music along with all those correct notes. And this, I remind you, at eight bucks a shot.

For quite a few dollars more, there is Andante.com and its growing ”boutique“ of reissues -- a serendipitous assemblage of bygone recordings and radio broadcasts -- nicely packaged in three- or four-disc albums at $18 per disc, available through the Internet. Again, as with Naxos’ Verdi, some of the interest here is the preservation of bygone performance attitudes: depressingly bloated Bach performances under Willem Mengelberg, Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitzky, framed by performances under Adolf Busch (with Rudolf Serkin at the piano) that represent early stirrings of the move toward historically informed musicianship. Another set, of performances by the mercurial Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, is a trove of ecstatic overstatement -- the greatest Les Preludes ever, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra‘s 1929 brass section storming the heavens; the Tchaikovsky Fifth with blatant cuts in the finale that actually improve that sprawling movement. Ernest Bloch’s music, teetering these days on the brink of obscurity, is handsomely remembered in two separate sets: the Violin Concerto in a collection of Joseph Szigeti performances and the Piano Quintet in an album celebrating the legendary Pro Arte String Quartet, with the great Alfredo Casella as pianist in this one work.

Some of the choices are, let‘s say, strange; a Stravinsky-led set includes the wobbly, watery Paris recordings (Les Noces, Pulcinella, the Octet) that he would redo in better sound later on. A set from the Vienna Philharmonic wastes two discs on a 1957 Herbert von Karajan Bruckner Eighth to join his three performances already available. A ”Schubert Chamber Music“ set doesn’t contain a single string quartet. Most curious is a Schumann miscellany that includes two oddly mannered performances of Carnaval (Serge Rachmaninoff and Leopold Godowsky), Alfred Cortot‘s immensely poetic Papillons, and a preponderance of the playing of lesser Schumanniacs Claudio Arrau and Yves Nat.

Better than any of the above is a wonderful Schumann program on a new EMI disc preserving a concert that took place in Nijmigen, the Netherlands, in 1994, involving Martha Argerich and several instrumentalists in a heart-to-heart program. It includes the Piano Quintet, the B-flat Variations and other chamber works. Argerich is, of course, the enkindling spirit, and it burns bright on this occasion. The peculiar mix of fantasy and benevolent discipline, which shines forth in the Piano Quintet above all of Schumann’s instrumental music, is exactly mirrored in the Argerich sensibility -- here, and in her other recorded Schumann. As with those old opera singers transfigured by Verdi, Argerich and Schumann come together in an annealing fire.


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