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Past Perfection

Thanks to the separate efforts of the record company called Naxos and the Web site–cum–magazine known as Andante-dot-com, recorded music’s past appears in better shape than its present — and probably its future as well. I wrote last week about Naxos and its superb reissues at bargain prices of gone but unforgotten repertory. Since there hasn’t been all that much live music-making around here lately, let me now tell you more about Andante, whose discs sell for almost twice the price of eight-buck Naxos but whose packaging is a lot fancier, with virtually a whole tome of printed information — including Tim Page’s eloquent invocations — before you even get to the music.

Andante’s recorded repertory stretches serendipity to new heights. Some of it is from the heyday of the 78-rpm disc; some comes from broadcast tapes found in European archives. Out of the latter comes a marvelous Marriage of Figaro from the 1937 Salzburg Festival, conducted by Bruno Walter in an outpouring of energy nothing like the work of his mellow late years. Ezio Pinza’s Figaro in those days was one of the world’s authentic wonders; Jarmila Novotná’s Cherubino wasn’t far behind.

Somebody at Andante must harbor an irrational affection for the rampages of the mercurial Leopold Stokowski in his golden ascendancy; the Andante catalog is a rich trove of his escapades: the “symphonic syntheses” he concocted out of the Wagner music dramas (with, of all people, the musical and Hit Parade star Lawrence Tibbett as Wotan), the vast Technicolor fantasies he drew from Bach’s organ works. There’s a three-disc collection of Willem Mengelberg leading his Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, dating back to the early days of electrical recording. His 1929 performance of Liszt’s Les Preludes, with his white-hot brass echoing through Amsterdam’s great hall, will curl your hair; I can only hope that Disney Hall will sound that good.

But the Andante album that I most want placed in my pyramid is a four-disc set of chamber music by Franz Schubert, with performances dating from 1926 to 1944: both piano trios, the “Trout” Quintet, the C-major Quintet for strings, the Octet, the two big works for violin and piano plus one of the lesser sonatas. Every one of these works has been recorded many times over; I cannot abandon these pristine renditions, nor could I the Emersons’ recording of the C-major Quintet (with Rostropovich as the extra cellist) or the Melos Ensemble’s Octet. My amazement at the elegance and passion of Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninoff at work on the A-major Violin Sonata is stronger than the appeal any later performance of that music could extend.

These are the recordings that won me to Schubert’s music in the first place, and hearing them again — nicely cleaned to extract the last overtone from those ancient grooves — is like renewing a whole string of old romances. The loving is in the performances themselves. Take the incredible rendition of the Octet, in a recording dating from 1928. The strings are the Léner Quartet from Budapest. They are real Hungarians, and Hungarian is the way they play — above all in the melting slides to give Schubert’s seductive tunes their ultimate impact. The wind players are all Brits, including the legendary hornist Aubrey Brain. The blend of musical languages is complete; there is an impulse in this performance, clearly audible under 75 years of dust, that makes you believe that all eight of those splendid gentlemen could not possibly have wanted to be anywhere else but in that London studio on that day in March 1928.

 

The C-major String Quintet is performed, in 1935, by another renowned ensemble, the Pro Arte Quartet of Brussels, with Anthony Pini as the second cellist. There are 32 performances of this sovereign work in my latest Schwann, and many, I must admit, are extraordinary. (How, for that matter, could anyone become involved in this music and not rise high?) The Pro Arte Quartet, formed in 1912, was busy in the recording studios right up to WWII, after which some of the members immigrated to the United States. Their manner tended toward the suave and unruffled; I love the way they mesh with Artur Schnabel’s twinkling piano in the “Trout” Quintet on the first disc of this album. Even so, I don’t know another recording that so compellingly conveys the breathtaking beauty of that endless slow melody that begins the slow movement of Schubert’s C-major Quintet, the shattering change midway to a drastically different key, and then the melody’s return under the persistent echoes of that interruption. Listen to that music, and try to tell me — as many writers have — that Schubert knew nothing about musical form. (One flaw in Andante’s Schubert album is the error-ridden essay by Paul Turok, who claims, for example, that the first movement of this quintet has no development section. What else, friend Paul, do you call the seething drama in bars 155–266 of that beautifully formed movement?)

The B-flat Piano Trio, played by the Jacques Thibaud–Pablo Casals–Alfred Cortot trio, whose Beethoven “Archduke” Trio I wrote about last week, is duplicated on Naxos and the Andante album. This is, to my taste, the finest of all that “celebrity” trio’s performances, the one that allows violinist Thibaud to sing at the top of his lung power and cellist Casals to demonstrate the superhuman legato of his bowing arm. The E-flat Trio is performed by Adolph Busch, Hermann Busch and Rudolf Serkin, a bit stolidly. The two trios were composed only a few weeks apart; they are unalike in ways that should further confirm anyone’s estimate of Schubert’s strengths as a composer of instrumental music. The B-flat Trio rides along on an endless flow of melody — tunes, actually; coming in 1827, a year before its composer’s death, it can count as Schubert’s last totally happy work. The E-flat Trio, from a few weeks later, is sterner stuff, fascinating in its sudden shifts from “bright” keys — E flat, certainly — to the somber regions of B minor, and including as its slow movement something that could pass as a funeral march.

The restrictions of the original 78-rpm recording, with individual sides running four and a half minutes at most, are evident in these performances. Even in music as broadly conceived as these enchantingly garrulous, discursive works, observing Schubert’s specified repeats would have made them seem shorter. Every note is precious.


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