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Legends and Curiosities From Philips

With its “Legendary Classics” series, Philips Records becomes the latest of the major labels to offer a mid-priced line of historical reissues on compact disc. The series is oddly assorted, with some of its components obvious “classics,” some unexpected delights and some decided--and debatable--oddities.

A rare treasure heads the release: live performances of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and Bloch’s “Schelomo” recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1940 and 1941 by cellist Emanuel Feuermann, whose playing exhibits a directness of expression and clear, compact tone unusual in an era when the big Romantic thrillers were considered incomplete without an extra helping of performer-supplied syrup. Feuermann’s bold, shapely interpretations are sympathetically seconded by conductor Leon Barzin and the rough-but-enthusiastic National Orchestral Assn. (420 776, mono).

Welcome too are pianist Clara Haskil’s lively, uncluttered 1950s versions of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” “Waldszenen” and “Abegg” Variations. But her Schumann Piano Concerto is rendered ineffectual by Willem van Otterloo’s graceless conducting of the Hague Philharmonic (420 851, mono).

Three outstanding but narrowly circulated stereo recordings of the early 1960s are now given broader exposure: a vital and grand Beethoven “Eroica,” which has Pierre Monteux conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, with the bonus of an enlightening rehearsal session--Monteux instructing his Dutch charges in French--of the Funeral March (420 853); the complete “Histoire du Soldat” of Stravinsky, led with infectious brio by Igor Markevich and numbering among its superb actors Jean Cocteau and Peter Ustinov (420 773), and beguiling broadcast-derived performances by tenor Fritz Wunderlich of songs by Beethoven, Haydn and Richard Strauss (420 852).

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No debating either the worthiness of the celebrated 1958 recital recorded live in Sofia by pianist Sviatoslav Richter, in loftiest poetic-heroic fettle, that includes Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and works by Schubert, Chopin and Liszt (420 774, stereo).

Less comprehensible is the choice of Handel’s “Water Music” and Bach’s Second Suite (420 857, stereo) to represent conductor Eduard van Beinum and his Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. The playing is luminously beautiful, the interpretations Romantically ponderous. This notable 1950s association would better have been commemorated by contemporaneous recordings of, say, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Alto Rhapsody.

The ensemble precision of the Concertgebouw under one of its most frequent guest conductors, George Szell, is affirmed in a pairing of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which takes reasonably well to Szell’s whiplash style, and Sibelius’ Second, whose lyric impulses are stifled by the same approach (429 771, stereo).

A reissue from 1950 has the 70-year-old Jacques Thibaud playing Mozart’s G-major Violin Concerto with vivacity and charm, reasonably reliable intonation and less swooping and sliding than one would expect from an artist whose heyday was the 1920s and ‘30s. The accompanying Chausson “Poeme”, however, presents more of a technical challenge than the septuagenarian violinist can handle (420 859).

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Historical curiosity is satisfied by the 1932 recording of Ravel’s “Bolero” in which the composer leads the Lamoureux Orchestra with the metronomic beat he considered crucial to achieving the piece’s intended effect. Ravel also serves as pianist with soprano Madeleine Gray in the imperishably lovely 1928 recording of his “Chansons madecasses”. But neither history nor art are served by the remaining component of this program: Prokofiev’s second “Romeo and Juliet” suite ponderously conducted (in 1938) by the composer and wretchedly played by the Moscow Philharmonic (420 778, mono).

Nor is there justification for resurrecting the embarrassingly labored playing of octogenarian Pablo Casals in Beethoven’s “Ghost” and “Archduke” Trios (420 855, stereo). His colleagues are pianists Karl Engel and Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who play well, and violinist Sandor Vegh, who does not (420 855, stereo).

The other non-starters in the Philips release are a 1951 coupling of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and “Capriccio Italien” that has Paul van Kempen conducting the Concertgebouw with pedestrian efficiency (420 858, mono) and the Mozart Requiem, lumpily led by Karl Bohm, crudely played and sung by the Vienna Symphony, Vienna State Opera Chorus, etc. (420 772, stereo).

But baritone Gerard Souzay’s singing and Dalton Baldwin’s piano accompaniment make their 1964 stereo edition (420 850) of Schubert’s “Schone Mullerin”, previously noted in this column, pure pleasure. A hearty welcome back too for the stylish 1966 recital by violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Frida Bauer devoted to the sonatas of Debussy and Ravel and works by Prokofiev and Ysaye (420 777, stereo).


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