Songs of the Night

A-ARCH-Songs of the NightWhen New Dances Needed a New Band

As the invaluable program notes for the Archeophone release, “Songs of the Night,” tell us, the first decade of the last century saw a change in dance music. Gone were the “innocent” dances of the late 19th century and in their place were the animal steps (fox trot, turkey trot, bear), the one- and two-step, and so on, of the new generation of pleasure seekers.

But this meant that new kinds of bands were needed to play these new sounds. Big brass bands and smaller banjo ensembles lacked the intimacy needed for dance floors—and for recordings. So it was the Victor Talking Machine Company that found at the Plaza Hotel Joseph C. Smith and his ensemble as a possible solution. He was. And the history of dance music took a double turn: a new kind of music and a new kind of band to play it.

The important things to note is that people could dance to these new recordings at home or venues other than dance halls. And we know with the advantage of hindsight that the jukebox was not far in the future!

downloadWith their usual diligence, the Archeophone people have gathered 47 of Smith’s recordings onto two CDs. They are taken from discs made from 1916 to 1925 and the sound is extraordinarily good. Among the familiar titles (well, familiar to those who remember or still play the music of those times) are “Poor butterfly,” “Missouri waltz,” “Smiles,” “Love nest” (theme music for the Burns and Allen shows), “Alice blue gown,” “Three o’clock in the morning,” “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” and “It ain’t gonna rain no mo!”

Some of the lesser known songs are “Songs of the night,” “Money blues,” “Rose room,” “That naughty waltz,” and “Driftwood.” The Archeophone website has the entire list of this set’s contents. Several have vocalists to add to the interest.

The 32-page booklet, as is usual with Archeophone products, gives copious notes about the times, the band, and each selection, along with plenty of photographs.

For those of us who remember the change in the big bands in the 1940s, it is sad to think how much of the swing of that era was played not to accompany the dancers (who could dance to the frenzied beat of that music?) but to show off before the crowds who went up to the podium merely to listen. I wonder what Smith would have thought.

Oh, yes. This set is a Grabbit for those who like the music and/or are interested in the history of popular music.

 

 

Great Comedy Overtures

A-Great Comedy OverturesGREAT COMEDY OVERTURES   How tired some librarians or reviewers must get at  being asked, “What’s a good book for me?” or “What recording has enjoyable music?” or inane questions like that. But in answer to that “enjoyable music,” I have many recommendations, one of which is a brand new Naxos CD titled “Great Comedy Overtures.”

Of the countless operas and operettas that enjoyed glorious  reputations and are done no more, many of them have left their overtures to be played at “pops” concerts and as fillers for LP and then CD collections, such as this one. With few exceptions, none of the 11 works on this disc are revived at all outside of their countries. But each one is a gem of tuneful delights.

The overtures in this program are from “Zampa” (Herold), “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (Nicolai), “Il segreto di Susanna” (Wolf-Ferrari), “Mignon” (Thomas), “Donna Diana” (Reznicek), “Martha” (Flowtow), “Fra Diavolo” (Auber), “Zar und Zimmerman” (Lortzing), “Il matrimonio segreto” (Cimarosa), “Si j’etais roi” (Adam), and “Der Barbier von Bagdad” (Cornelius).

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The famous overture with the opera attached

Yes, people of a certain age or a collector of old-time radio broadcasts on CDs will recognize the “Donna Diana” overture as the open theme music of “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” The fact that the “Zampa” overture was played at my Junior High School graduation is neither here nor there.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is led by Lance Friedel. Have fun.

Mercury Living Presence Recordings are Now All on CDs!

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Mercury Living Presence Recordings are Now All on CDs!

In the glory days of the long playing record, certain labels with catch phrases shone bright: London FFRR, RCA Living Stereo, and Mercury Living Presence are three that graced my collection. From the 150 or so of the Mercury LPs, almost all were reintroduced on single CDs. And now that the third volume of the “Mercury Living Presence, The Collector’s Edition” is out (as the press release puts it), “almost every single album ever made and released under the Mercury Living Presence label is now available.”

For starters, there are 53 discs in this cubic boxed set (some are albums of two CDs), each in its own cardboard sleeve with the original artwork on the front and the tracking list on the back. A 130-page booklet gives the complete timings and technical information about each recording. I have counted only four discs that are in mono; and they are part of the 10 MLP vinyls that appear on CD for the first time here.

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Antal Dorati

The major conductors represented are Antal Dorati, Frederick Fennell, Howard Hanson, Charles Mackerras, and Paul Paray. Among the symphonies are those of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn. To balance the “warhorses” of the symphonic genre are selections by Hindemith and Stravinsky.

61useXV274L._AA160_Among the more rarely heard orchestral pieces are the four Suites by Tchaikovsky and Ernest Bloch’s “Concerto Grosso 1, 2.” Although it is in mono, the “1812 Overture,” with original scoring, brass band, bronze cannon, and Yale University bells, will blow your socks off

The lighter side, pop music if you will, is found on programs devoted to the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Victor Herbert (in 1960s arrangements that might or might not please all). There are the “best of” type discs with shorter works by the same composer: Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss, and Richard Wagner.

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Original LP cover for the Respighi disc

And there are “genre” collections such as “Kaleidoscope” (fast paced music), “Wienerwalzer” (waltzes from Vienna), and “World of Flamenco.” Among my favorite tone poems are those of Ottorino Respighi; and two of them, “Church Windows” and “Roman Festivals,” are found in this collection, the exact recording I heard so many times on my LP player!

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When sound boards were still primitive…at least, smaller

But what was the fuss all about when these recordings were first released? Some critic, hearing the vinyl discs, used the expression “living presence”; and the Mercury publicists were not slow in picking it up. The microphones and tapes used are discussed in the program notes for those interested. But I remember how good they sounded, even with my not-quite-state-of-the-art equipment.

And if you want an incredible introduction for someone to classical music, it would be hard to beat this as a very generous gift.

“Decca Sound, the Mono Years” in Giant CD Collection

A-Decca Mono Years“Decca Sound, the Mono Years” in Giant CD Collection 

 What with the purchase of CDs falling in favor of downloading, companies are releasing budget sets of previously issued CDs. Now one has done the same with those old Decca ffrr (full frequency range recordings) classical recordings in a box of 53 CDs, each in a cardboard sleeve with the original artwork on the front and the contents on the back. A far more detailed listing is found in a 186-page booklet that also gives the technical facts about each disc and a history of the Decca LPs at the back. It is called “Decca Sound, Mono Years (ffrr), 1944-1956.”

Note: These LPs were called London ffrr’s when sold over here, and that is how most of us remember them. Many of the discs have extra pieces that were not on the original vinyls.

There is also a helpful list of which composers are featured on which CD, so one can find all the Mozart (say) without having to flip sleeves to do so.

The program notes tell how the first test recording with new equipment was conducted on June 8, 1944. The philosophy of the endeavor was that “once agreement with the conductor was reached regarding proper levels of loud and soft musical passages, the session was under musical control only, and Decca engineers left their mixing controls alone.”

Some company warned its sound people “Don’t disturb the bridge players.” In short, keep everything at the same sonic level. This could not have been at Decca Records.

Some of the conductors represented in this set are Ernest Ansermet, Clemens Krauss, Adrian Boult, Anthony Collins, Josef Krips, Georg Solti, Anatole Fistoulari, Erich Kleber, Jean Martinon, and Hans Knappertsbusch.

Among the pianists are Clifford Curzon, Julius Katchen, Jean Francaix, and Friedrich Gulda. Among the violinists are Alfredo Campoli, Mischa Elman, and Christian Ferras. Among the chamber ensembles are the Amadeus Quartet, Griller Quartet, Quartetto Italiano, and Koppel Quartet.

Since several of the discs have more than one selection, I can only refer my reader to a complete listing that appears on an Amazon.com review of this set. But you can find the familiar: 14 pieces by Beethoven, 7 by Brahms, 5 by Haydn, 10 by Mozart, and 4 by Tchaikovsky.

Among the less familiar would be Arthur Bliss’ “A Color Symphony,” Paul Dukas’ “La Peri,” Andre-Ernest-Modesto Gretry’s “A Ballet Suite,” and other delights that might or might not exist on other recordings.

Just about every CD holds more than the original LP, and so “bonus” tracks are added from other Decca discs, the covers of which are shown on the back of the sleeve. So it’s in mono! It is the performances that count. And there are plenty of great ones in this legendary collection.

 

Telemann Gets a Super CD Collection of His Works

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Telemann Gets a Super CD Collection of His Works

A Baroque Master Gets a Super Set of CDs  Decades ago, I got to like the music of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) through a single work, a suite titled “Ebb und Fluth,” one movement of which emulated the ebb and flow of the tide. Since then, I have gathered several recordings of his music—and now my journey has ended!

Brilliant Classics has issued a 50-CD “Telemann Edition,” selling at a bargain price. The first 31 discs are devoted to his instrumental music, subdivided into Musique de table, overtures (really suites), concertos, a quartet, sonatas, and fantasies. Discs 32-39 have keyboard music, while the remaining CDs contain choral, vocal, and dramatic music, including one opera.

There are nine pages of program notes and the back of each sleeve gives the contents and timings. But this is a budget set and further details must be found on the Brilliant Classics website (www.brilliantclassics.com). It is a little tricky finding this information, but worth the effort. (The download comes to 63 pages and includes the names of the players and even the German text of the vocal selections.)

I will not say—indeed, I cannot say–that any of these performances by many different ensembles, would be a first choice among all the Telemann recordings available elsewhere. But they are all (I assume all) here as more than just an introduction to a Baroque composer whose surviving works were once immensely popular, then neglected, and now are coming back into their own.

Bernstein’s Concerts for the Young on DVD

A-Bernstein ConcertsBernstein’s Concerts for the Young  on DVD

 From January 18, 1958 at Carnegie Hall to March 29, 1970 at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, television history was made when Leonard Bernstein conducted and presented his Young People’s Concerts. For some time, these events were available on several VHS tapes and much treasured not only by those who attended or saw them on television but by children and adults who are interested enough in classical music to want to learn more about it.

Now I am delighted to report that Kultur has two sets of these milestones in educational broadcasting. In the first set, 25 of those telecasts comprise a splendid collector’s edition of 9 DVDs  with the title “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.” With each episode running about 50 minutes, you can see what a wealth of material is contained herein.

Now I really doubt that parents and teachers brought into the concert halls all those youngsters for a mere 50-minute event. Therefore, unless otherwise informed, I can assume that not every minute of those concerts has been kept on the film. I do know that one concert had to be repeated since “technical difficulties” prevented the first talk’s being telecast.

At any rate, the subject matter of the concerts can be sorted into types. There are those dealing with general questions: What does music mean? What is American Music? What is Orchestration? What is Classical music (in both senses of the word “classical”)? There are those dealing with somewhat technical matters: the concerto, Impressionism, melody, sonata form, intervals, modes. There are those about less technical topics: humor in music, folk music and jazz in the concert hall, Latin American music, the sound of an orchestra. (This is my favorite one, in which Bernstein plays Haydn all wrong in his discussion about sytle.)

Some talks are devoted to a single composer and often to just one of his works: Mahler, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Berlioz. There is one about two “bird” ballets, in which the music of “Swan Lake” and “Firebird” are contrasted, a salute to Vienna and its 3/4-time music, and a study of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” One is even devoted to a quiz about spotting things about music.

Bernstein’s explanations are always very clear, but I fear much of it was over the heads of the really tiny tots picked up by the camera looking puzzled, fascinated, and in one case yawning politely into the back of a hand. But in general, the audiences—young and old—seem not only to understand but greatly enjoy the presentations, especially carefully spaced references to the music of the Beatles—just to show that grownups can appreciate “popular” music too.

I was particularly impressed by how well behaved the youngsters were, with the single exception of a wail from an upper balcony in one of the talks. In many cases, I think, the musical examples are far too long to make whatever may be the specific point. For example, as wonderful as it was, perhaps having Walter Berry and his wife Christa Ludwig sing three songs in 3/4 time and in German might have been a little too much for that audience—although viewers of this video will probably play this sequence several times. And you don’t bring such superstars in for only one short number anyway!

The video and sound are as good as they were at the times of the original broadcasts; and the sudden change to color halfway through is thrilling. A booklet is provided with a complete outline of all the track listings and a short synopsis for each of the 25 concerts.

The second volume with 27 concerts given from 1960 to 1970—and I am sure there are still some not yet released.

My only real objection to Bernstein’s approach is that he is far too often talking way over the heads of the youngsters in the audience. Indeed, the camera is merciless in picking up those in the audience playing with their programs, sitting in a daze or in a semi-sleep, and in general wishing they were somewhere else. Actually, I blame the parents for bringing children too young to understand what is going on.

Bernstein is further at fault for choosing musical illustrations that are either too long, too complex, or both, for even the older youth to take in. And when he utters statements like “I am sure that when you think of melody, you think of Brahms,” I wonder if he thinks he is speaking to a group of professional musicians. In fact, he is “sure” of many things that any second thoughts should have dissuaded him from claiming.

That said, this set is, like the earlier one, a super product for us grownups!  His analyses of works like “The Planets,” “Pictures at an Exhibition” (first the piano version, then the Ravel orchestration), and Strauss’ “Don Quixote” are quite good. Among the most interesting is “Bach Transmogrified,” in which one of that composer’s works is played in the original version, followed by an orchestrated one (arranged and conducted by Leopold Stokowski), and then on the Moog Synthesizer. More radical treatments of other Bach works end with a Rock and Roll version. Fascinating.

Of little interest to the younger audience are the nine “Young Performers” concerts in which upcoming conductors (one of whom is Seiji Ozawa) and musicians are invited to perform. Where he can, Bernstein does some explanation of what the piece is about. Better are his talks in which he explains the acoustics of Philharmonic Hall and “The Anatomy of a Symphony Orchestra,” the latter of which uses the four short movements of “The Pines of Rome” to illustrate his topic.

A good point about purchasing any video, especially a relatively expensive one like this, is that it cries out for repeated viewings over the years, especially for educational purposes. Music teachers MUST have this set and show carefully chosen short selections to their classes. Concerned parents would do very well to watch this themselves and encourage their youngsters to watch with them. Any lover of classical music should definitely view both volumes. What the really young in the original audiences might have missed will be most welcome by viewers today.

 

Sokolov and Pollini

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Two Great Pianists Are Featured on CDs

Deutsche Grammophon has issued two CD sets that will be of great interest to those who follow the careers of the top pianists.

“Sokolov, The Salzburg Recital” captures on two discs Grigory Sokolov’s performance (or whatever part of it was retained) at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. He begins with two Mozart piano sonatas, K. 280 and K. 332, both in F major. The second part, on the second disc, consists of the 24 Chopin “Preludes.” The program ends with six encores by Scriabin, Chopin, Rameau, and J.S. Bach.

The program notes have much to say about Sokolov’s career and technique, all of which will be of great interest to both teachers and students of the classical keyboard.

A-PolliniOf greater interest is Beethoven’s “Complete Piano Sonatas,” as played by Italian virtuoso Maurizio Pollini. While the program notes are concerned only with the composer’s works, it is well known that Pollini began to record the cycle in 1975 and completed it in time for that CD to appear as a single at the same time this 8-CD boxed set was issued. So this might hold some sort of record—40 years—to complete a project such as this one!

Now, I have studiously avoided making any comments about the quality of playing of either artist in this report. Chopin’s notes are there on the page with as many dynamic markings as the composer chose to include. The same for Beethoven’s. Pollini’s “Moonlight Sonata” is not Schnabel’s or Richter’s or (for all we know) Beethoven’s.

But I read reviews of his recordings of these works, as they appeared over the years, in old editions of “The Penguin Guide”; and they are uniformly highly praised. So I would give careful consideration to this new set.