BIZET: Carmen / Grace Bumbry, mezzo-soprano (Carmen); Mirella Freni, soprano (Micaela); Jon Vickers, tenor (Don José); Kostas Paskalis, baritone (Escamillo); Eliane Lublin, soprano (Frasquita); Viorica Cortez, mezzo (Mercedes); Thêátre National de l’Opéra Orchestra & Chorus; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor / EMI Classics 85505 (also available for free streaming on YouTube in several small individual tracks)
BIZET: Carmen / Teresa Berganza, mezzo-soprano (Carmen); Leona Mitchell, soprano (Micaela); Placido Domingo, tenor (Don José); Tom Krause, bass-baritone (Escamillo); Nan Christie, soprano (Frasquita); Alicia Nafé, mezzo (Mercedes); London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Claudio Abbado, conductor / House of Opera CD624 available here or (live: Edinburgh, August 28, 1977)
Two different recordings, one with a five-fish rating and the other with a six. So why list the first one at all? Because Jon Vickers is the most intense and psychologically interesting Don José of all time, and Mirella Freni sings Micaela better than anyone else who ever walked the earth. In addition, Kostas Paskalis is a great, underrated Escamillo and Frühbeck de Burgos conducts a flexible yet driving performance. So why only five fish? Partly because Grace Bumbry’s Carmen evolves into a more kittenish character and less of a strong sexual woman that I think fits the character (and I’m not the only one who feels that way), and partly because this was the last era in which actors who didn’t sound anything like the singers were hired to speak the dialogue, and they don’t match the sound of the singers. Still, it’s a riveting performance if you can overlook Bumbry’s flippant characterization in the last two acts.
The 1977 Edinburgh performance was so sensational that Deutche Grammophon gathered Berganza, Domingo and Abbado in the studio three years later—with Ruggero Raimondi as Escamillo instead of Tom Krause—to record it commercially. But the commercial recording doesn’t come up to the intensity level of the live version, and Domingo (in my view a highly overrated tenor anyway) doesn’t sing nearly as well on the studio recording. In the live version, Berganza is an absolutely riveting Carmen, Domingo not only sings better but is more engaged in the character (though he doesn’t sing the high B-flat in the “flower song” softly, as Vickers does), and wonder of wonders, Leona Mitchell almost equals Freni’s achievement as Micaela. Abbado also conducts with more fire in the live performance. This one is a real gem.
BIZET: Les Pêcheurs de Perles / Julie Fuchs, soprano (Léïla); Cyrille Dubois, tenor (Nadir); Florian Sempey, baritone (Zurga); Luc Bertin-Hugualt, bass (Nourabad); Les Cris de Paris; Orchestre National de Lille; Alexandre Bloch, conductor / Pentatone Classics 5186 685 or available for free streaming on YouTube
Bizet’s popular but oft-maligned earlier opera was admired by musicians as diverse as Berlioz and Verdi, yet when performed or recorded it is invariably in a corrupted version that emphasizes the more tuneful elements and ignores the original score. This is, in part, because the omnipresent “Pearl Fishers Duet,” “Au fond du temple saint,” has been a favorite in the concert hall and on records since 1907, and the original score interrupts it before its “glorious” conclusion to go off in a more dramatic direction. In fact, the entire original score is far more dramatic than the somewhat threadbare libretto, acknowledged to be weak, but this recording of the authentic version really cooks, and all the singers are outstanding. I would give this one six fish if the libretto was half as good as the music.
BIZET: Symphony in C / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BIZET: Symphony in C / l’Orchestre Radio Symphonique de Paris; René Leibowitz, conductor / currently unavailable
The Bizet Symphony isn’t technically difficult to conduct, but it is emotionally difficult. Too many conductors just see the notes and nothing else, and their performances sound it. Here are my two favorite performances, both of which get under the skin of the music better than any others I’ve ever heard.
BLACKWOOD: Symphony No. 1 / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / Çedille 16 (with Symphony No. 5 conducted by James DePreist)
As Mick Jagger once sang, in the very early years of the Rolling Stones’ career, “It’s the singer, not the song”—or, in this case, it’s the conductor, not the music. Easley Blackwood is far from being a well-known or well-liked American composer, but in the late 1950s his First Symphony was briefly celebrated for its innovation and creativity. Even some Charles Munch fans are unaware that he made a recording of this work, and it is surprising not for its passion—that was a Munch trademark—so much as for its technical polish and fastidious playing. It remains, for me, one of the least-recognized great recordings of the 20th century. The Fifth Symphony on this same CD is, to my ears, good but not as great, although this impression may very well be due to the routine, lackluster conducting of James DePreist. Thus my original comment.
BLOCH: In Memoriam. 3 Jewish Poems. Macbeth: Two Symphonic Interludes. Symphony in E-flat / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Dalia Atlas, conductor / Naxos 8.573290
It’s almost a shame that Ernest Bloch is mostly remembered as a one-work composer, to wit, that of Schelomo for cello and orchestra, because these works show a strong musical personality who had his own voice. These performances by Dalia Atlas are, perhaps, not the strongest imaginable, but strong enough to make a very persuasive case for this music.
BLOCH: Schelomo / Emanuel Feuermann, cellist; Philadelphia Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Everyone has their favorite version(s) of Schelomo. This is mine, largely because of Feuermann’s burnished tone and wonderfully taut phrasing, playing it with feeling but with no sense of pathos or bathos. Stokowski’s conducting is also wonderful.
BLOW: Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell / Russell Oberlin, countertenor; Charles Bressler, tenor; New York Pro Musica; Noah Greenberg, conductor / VAI 1258, available for purchase here (also see Purcell: songs)
One of the most underrated compositions of the Baroque era, John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell is utterly brilliant and fascinating from first note to last. This is the only truly great recording of that work, despite being 1950s mono. There is a defective “electronic stereo” version of this floating around; do not waste your money on it. The VAI release has the best sound.
BOÏTO: Mefistofele / Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Margherita; Lucia Danieli, mezzo (Marta); Mario del Monaco, tenor (Faust); Cesare Siepi, bass (Mefistofele); Floriana Cavalli, mezzo (Helen); Academy of St. Cecilia Chorus & Orchestra; Tullio Serafin, conductor / Urania WS 121.374-2
I still maintain that this opera is flawed, not just texturally but also musically, yet it does contain some outstanding and impressive scenes and arias, thus I recommend it. This performance sticks us with Mario del Monaco as Faust, who is too loud in some spots (particularly “Dai campi, dai prati”), but at least he gets through the music without embarrassing himself and both Tebaldi and Siepi are stupendous.
BOÏTO: Nerone / Bruno Prevedi, tenor (Nerone); Agostino Ferrin, bass (Simon Mago); Alessandro Cassis, baritone (Fanuel); Ilva Ligabue, soprano (Asteria); Ruza Baldani, mezzo-soprano (Rubria); Antonio Zerbini, bass (Tigellino); Giampaolo Corradi, tenor (Gobrias); RAI Turin Chorus & Orchestra; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / Bongiovanni GB2388/89, also available for free streaming on YouTube
This is Boïto’ operatic masterpiece, a dramatically stunning, musically innovative work of great psychological penetration…but it doesn’t have arias and the duets are conversational, nut tuneful. It was left unfinished at the time of his death, complete through Act IV. Arturo Toscanini tidied up the score somewhat and gave its world premiere at La Scala a few years later with Aureliano Pertile as Nerone and Marcel Journet as Tigellino. There is a valuable recording of excerpts, staged at La Scala in 1948, with Toscanini conducting, but the sound is a bit dim and not representative of the wonderful color in this score. This live recording, made in stereo, is a stunner and thus is my highly recommended choice.
BORODIN: Prince Igor excerpts
It’s not good enough of an opera to get complete, but it has some marvelous moments that have been recorded separately. To wit: the Overture and Act III Polovtsian March conducted by Albert Coates; the Polovtsian Dances by Leopold Stokowski and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Prince Galitzky’s song, Khan Kontchak’s aria and Igor’s aria “No sleep, no rest” as sung by Feodor Chaliapin; and Prince Igor’s aria as sung by Ildar Abdrazakov. All are rated between four and five fish.
It isn’t often that music critics rally around Arturo Toscanini on almost anything—so many of them hate his recordings for reason both understandable and bizarre—but in this case there is little or no carping. His performance of the Borodin Second Symphony is a masterpiece, fully bringing out the remarkable qualities of this outstanding score. The cramped mono sound requires me to only give it four fish, but the interpretation is one for the ages.
The extraordinarily gifted younger sister of world-famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger was without question one of the most original and visionary composers who ever lived. Despite dying from Crohn’s Disease at the pathetically early age of 24, she left a body of work that only became appreciated in the post-Schoenberg and Stravinsky world of the 1950s and ‘60s.
BOULANGER: Cantata, “Faust et Hélène”/ Lynn Dawson, soprano; Bonaventura Bottone, tenor; Jason Howard, baritone; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Lili Boulanger was the first woman composer to win the coveted Prix de Rome, in 1913, and this is the work that did it for her. It was also the only composition of hers to receive multiple performances during her lifetime. Tenor Bottone glots a bit too much for my taste, but the only alternate performance I’ve ever heard, from Oslo in 2013, has a really pathetic tenor and a wobbly bass, so this one is the decidedly better version. Lynn Dawson is tremendous as Hélène and Tortelier’s conducting is exciting and taut, just what the work demands.
Boulanger’s beautiful cycle of 13 songs based on the poetry of Francis Jammes is one of the most ethereal of all time, a rival to Debussy’s songs in a similar vein. Soprano Amy Matlock has the perfect voice for this music, bright, high-placed and crystalline, the only drawback being the over-reverberant hall sound. Still, this is a spectacular performance to hear for free.
BOULANGER: Deux Morceaux pour Violin et Piano / Ekaterina Frolova, violinist; Mari Soto, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
This is one of the most painfully beautiful violin-piano works ever composed, and it is played to perfection here. Incidentally, there is also a wonderful historic recording by violinist Yvonne Astruc with Lili’s sister, Nadia Boulanger, at the piano—also available on YouTube for free.
BOULANGER: D’un Matin du Printemps / BBC Symphony Orchestra; Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor / available for free on YouTube
A piece also written for violin and piano, but I prefer the richly orchestrated version heard here.
BOULANGER: D’un Soir Triste / BBC Symphony Orchestra; Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor / available for free on YouTube
With each piece you hear by Boulanger, the music seems to get deeper and deeper. This is one of her true masterworks.
BOULANGER: Pie Jesu. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Psalm 130. Vielle Prière Bouddique / Raymond Amade, tenor; Oralia Dominguez, mezzo-soprano; Elisabeth Brasseur Chorale; Concerts Lamoreaux Orchestre; Igor Markevitch, conductor / Everest 9034; also available on YouTube by clicking on the selection titles above.
This is Lili Boulanger’s most radical and stunning music, particularly the Psalms and the Vielle Prière Bouddique, and conductor Igor Markevitch, himself a great and vastly underrated composer, does them full justice in this early stereo recording. These performances have never been equalled, let alone surpassed, in all the years since. Six fish is scarcely enough for them.
BOURGEOIS: Cantatas: Borée; Hippomène; Psiché; Les Sirènes; Zéphire et Flore / Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Anne-Catherine Bucher, harpsichordist; Le Concert Lorrain / Carus 83.374
The music of Bourgeois (1676-1750) is scarcely as well known as that of his contemporaries Bach, Handel or Vivaldi, but his music was delightful and contained some surprising turns. Nonetheless, it is as much the delivery of the magnificent soprano Carolyn Sampson as the music itself that makes this disc so precious a listening experience.
Edwin York Bowen is a perfect example of a great composer who was initially lauded, then marginalized, during his lifetime who has come in for a splendid revival of his work posthumously. Born in 1884, he was a wunderkind who was admitted to the Royal College of Music at age 14. In addition to the piano, his main instrument, he also played the organ, viola and French horn. In the years before World War I, he was considered one of the most talented composers in the world, but after the War the growing acceptance of the more modern music of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Prokofiev marginalized him as a Romantic writer who refused to expand his musical vocabulary.
The irony was that Bowen didn’t have to expand his musical vocabulary because his music was great as it was. In the early years of the 21st century, when tonality once again became acceptable in music, his solo piano and chamber works have been revived to great effect.
BOWEN: 4 Bagatelles. Ballade No. 2. Evening Calm. Fantasia. 2 Intermezzi. Nocturne. 3 Novelettes. Partita. Piano Sonatas Nos. 5 & 6. Ripples. Short Sonata. Sonatina. Suite Mignonne. 3 Miniatures. 3 Pieces. 3 Preludes. 24 Preludes. 2 Preludes. 3 Serious Dances. Siciliano and Toccatina. 3 Sketches. 3 Songs Without Words. Third Suite. Toccata, Op. 155. A Whim / Joop Celis, pianist / Chandos 10774
A fairly comprehensive boxed set of Bowen’s lesser-known works, many of them miniatures, yet they show the extreme care he took to create even the smallest gesture. Not all are masterpieces, but enough of them are so good that you wouldn’t want to be without them.
BOWEN: Clarinet Sonata. Phantasy Quintet, Op. 93. Piano Trios: in D min., unfinished; in E min., Op. 118 / Robert Plane, cl/bs-cl; Lucy Gould, Mia Cooper, violinists; David Adams, violist; Benjamin Frith, pianist / Chandos 10805
The Phantasy Quintet is one of Bowen’s undisputed masterpieces, and the Clarinet Sonata and both Piano Trios on this disc are also high watermarks in Bowen’s career. All of the performances are splendid and committed.
BOWEN: String Quartets: No. 2 in D min.; No. 3 in G. Phantasy Quintet / Timothy Lines, bass clarinetist; Archaeus Quartet / Naxos 8.571366
Here is another fine performance of the Phantasy Quintet along with excellent performances of his Second and Third String Quartets.
BOWEN: Viola Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Matthew Jones, violist; Michael Hampton, pianist / Naxos 8.572580
Two outstanding works for two of the four instruments that Bowen could play…I wonder if he took turns swapping out the viola and piano parts when they were played in public?
It took me a long time to warm up to Brahms because I found his music less rhythmic than Beethoven’s and the development sections a bit too long and too formal—i.e., he didn’t take nearly as many risks as Beethoven or Schumann. But eventually I came to realize that his aesthetic, though more sedate, had its own inner logic. That being said, interpreters need to come to Brahms with a sense of adventure and a desire to “life up” his sometimes turgid phraseology. Playing him “straight,” i.e. just the notes on the page, doesn’t cut it for me.
BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture / London Philharmonic Orchestra; Felix Weingartner, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
London Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor / Brilliant Classics 95073 (also see: Serenades) or free streaming on YouTube
Sedate, calm-looking Felix Weingartner is still a major figure among collectors of vintage conductors but not to the general public, yet his Brahms recordings should never be underestimated. Like Toscanini, he kicked butt in Brahms, phrasing and pacing the music almost as if it were Beethoven (which he was also very good at). The 1940 sound of this recording is a little dated but not nearly as boxy as his late 1920s-through-mid-1930s recordings, and thus is my top pick for historical recording.
Frühbeck de Burgos takes a slightly slower pace for this overture but still manages to infuse some real drama into it; plus, it’s on a 2-CD set with the two Serenades, so you get it as a bonus.
BRAHMS: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Song transcriptions / Zuill Bailey, cellist; Awadagin Pratt, pianist / Telarc 32664
Most critics like the Steven Isserlis/Stephen Hough recordings of the Brahms Sonatas best, but although Isserlis is also one of my favorite living cellists, I have to give the nod here to Zuill Bailey, who plays his heart out on these as well as on the otherwise uninteresting song transcriptions. Leonard Rose’s live 1973 performance wins hands down for best historic recording of the first Sonata, particularly because of the equally superb playing of the piano part by Nadia Reisenberg.
For whatever reason—possibly because it is a reflective piece and not a flashy one—this recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata No. 2, Benny Goodman’s most successful classical recording, has remained elusive over the years and has had much less circulation than his stiff-sounding Mozart Clarinet Quintet with the Budapest String Quartet. I’m convinced that pianist Nadia Reisenberg, one of the greatest of all Russian pianists to play in this country, had much to do with this. She could recognize that Goodman was very serious about wanting to play classical music but had a phobia about it when he performed in public (and sometimes on records), thus she “loosened him up” a bit, and it worked. In her masterful hands, the sonata flowed like ripples on a stream, and Goodman, for once, had a musical partner who worked with him instead of against him (both the Budapest Quartet members and pianist-composer Bela Bartók looked down their nose at the wannabe “jazznik” clarinetist.) This one is a gem for the ages, the only drawback being the surprisingly boxy sound (Columbia normally recorded in Liederkranz Hall on East 87th Street in New York, but this sounds like the product of their dead-sounding studio.)
BRAHMS: Ein Deutsches Requiem (in English) / Vivian Della Chiesa, soprano; Herbert Janssen, baritone; Westminster Choir; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini / Guild GHCD2290 or Pristine Classical PACO050 (live: New York, January 24, 1943)
I’ll tell you flat out that I am not a big fan of the Deutsches Requiem, which I normally find turgid and depressing, but this magical performance brings out so much in the way of inner color and feeling that it very nearly cancels out the music’s negative connotations. It has been issued by a few different labels, but I find the Guild and Pristine issues the most satisfying sonically. The Guild is presented in a straight mono sound, roomy and warm but lacking some resonance, while Pristine adds some reverb to juice up the sound a little, which I personally prefer. The choice, however, is entirely yours. Both Della Chiesa and Janssen sing with great feeling. I’m sure that Toscanini performed it in English to bring the music’s meaning closer to home for American audiences—this was, after all, given in the darkest days of World War II—and although some listeners may gripe about this it doesn’t bother me at all.
BRAHMS: Double Concerto in A min., Op. 102 / Jascha Heifetz, violinist; Emanuel Feuermann, cellist; Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor / available for free on YouTube: 1st mvmt; 2nd mvmt; 3rd mvmt
Mischa Mischakoff, violinist; Frank Miller, cellist; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Pristine Classical PASC283 (live: October 21, 1938)
Mark Kaplan, violinist; David Geringas, cellist; SWR Sinfonieorkester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / part of SWR Music 19022CD (see Symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 1, Haydn Variations)
Three quite different “takes” on the Brahms Double Concerto, all of them superb in their own way. The first listed, a 1940 studio recording, focuses on the superb playing of the two soloists in the context of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s lush sound, despite the somewhat close studio sonics. The second is the first of Toscanini’s two broadcasts of the Double Concerto, the second coming in 1948 on a TV broadcast and available on DVD. I like both very much, but the approach is similar in both recordings, that of a sinfonia concertante in which the violin and cello emerge from and fall back into the orchestra rather than taking center stage as they so often do.
The Gielen recording is my favorite stereo/digital performance for much the same reasons, although neither Mark Kaplan nor David Geringas are miked as closely as I would have liked. Nonetheless, I like the ensemble spirit of the performance, and Kaplan (as usual) plays his heart out. Still, in my mind it is only the Toscanini performance(s) that merit a six-star rating because everything about his approach works miracles on this score.
BRAHMS: Four Quartets, Op. 92. Ballade in D, Op. 10 No. 2. Intermezzo in A, Op. 118 No. 2 (arr. Grafilo) / BEETHOVEN: Elegiac Song, Op. 118 / CHIHARA: Clair de Lune / GANDOLFI: Winter Light / KRAUSAS: language of the birds / LEEK: Hollow Stone / San Francisco Choral Artists; Magen Solomon, director; Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics 2006
A bit of a potpourri album, and featuring several transcriptions to boot, but so highly imaginative in both its concept and execution that you simply can’t pass it up.
BRAHMS: Gesang der Parzen / Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free on YouTube (live: November 27, 1948)
You simply will not believe how great this performance is; it will blow you away. If Brahms had been alive at the time, it would probably have blown him away. And the sound quality is surprisingly good for a Toscanini broadcast, so six fish it is.
BRAHMS: Horn Trio in E-Flat, Op. 40. Violin Sonatas:No. 1 in G, Op. 78; No. 3 in D min., Op. 108 / Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar, violinist; Wolfgang Vladar, hornist; Magda Amara, pianist / Paladino Music PMR-0078
The two greatest performances of the Brahms Horn Trio, they really move and do not wallow in bathos. The Brain-Busch-Serkin version has been a classic since it first appeared in 1934 (it was recorded in December 1933), but the Kouzmanova-Vladar-Amara recording, issued in early 2017, is absolutely the finest in digital stereo (and Kouzmanova-Vladar’s performances of the Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3 are also the best stereo recordings ever).
BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances
There are so many recordings of the various Brahms Hungarian Dances. My favorites include the Antal Dorati-London Symphony recordings for Mercury, Bronislaw Huberman’s recordings of Nos. 1 & 7 and Fritz Kreisler’s version of No. 5, all of which get between four and five fish.
BRAHMS: Liebeslieder Waltzes / ROSSINI: Songs and Dances from “Les Soirées Musicales” / TCHAIKOVSKY: Dawn. Evening. In the Garden by the River. Tears / Heather Harper, soprano; Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; Thomas Hemsley, baritone; Benjamin Britten, Claudio Arrau, pianists / BBC 8001 – Liebeslieder Waltzes also available for free streaming on YouTube
BRAHMS: Liebeslieder Waltzes / Chorus dir. by Walter Preston; Artur Balsam, Joseph Kahn, pianists; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / various issues on CD and DVD
Two different takes on the Liebeslieder Waltzes, which Brahms’ staunch supporter Edouard Hanslick detested…he thought they were cheap music. The first is part of an utterly delightful BBC issue on which Heather Harper, Janet Baker and Britten schmooze their way gracefully through Rossini’s Soirées Musicales and Tchaikovsky songs in addition to a quartet version of the Waltzes with Britten and Claudio Arrau as the pianists. The second is Toscanini’s only NBC performance of these works, without the NBC Symphony, and dozens of Toscanini-haters have been utterly charmed by this performance.
BRAHMS: Lieder: Liebestreu. Meine Leider. An eine Äolsharfe. Auf dem Kirchhofe. Über die Heide. Im Garten am Seegestade. Verzagen. Es hing der Reif. Regenlied. O kühler Wald. Wehe, so Willst du Mich Wieder. Gestillte Sehnsucht. Geistliches Wiegenlied. Mädchenlied. Die Mainacht. Ständchen. In Stiller Nacht. Von Ewige liebe / Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; Irwin Gage, pianist / Acanta 233493
BRAHMS: An die Nachtigall. Auf dem Kirchhofe. Blinde Kuh. En Sonett. Erinnerung. Feldensamkeit. 4 Serious Songs. Immer Leiser Wird Mein Schlummer. Die Mainacht. O Wüsst ich Doch den Weg Zurück. Sapphische Ode. Sonntag. Ständchen. Vergebliches Ständchen. Verrat. Von Ewige Liebe / Alexander Kipnis, bass; Gerald Moore, pianist / Music & Arts 661 (with songs of Schubert & Schumann)
BRAHMS: Abenddämmerung. Botschaft. Dein Blaues Auge Halt. Eine Gute, Gute Nacht. Es Träumte Mir. Heimkehr. Mondenschein. Sommerabend. Ein Sonett. Ständchen. Wiegenlied / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Hertha Klust, pianist / Audite 95.601 (with songs of Beethoven)
BRAHMS: An die Äolscharfe. Bitteres zu Sagen Denkst Du. Blinde Kuh. Deutsches Volkslieder: Da unten im Tale; Erlaube Mir, Fein’s Mädchen; Mein Mädel Hat Eine Rosenmund; Schwesterlein; In Stiller Nacht; Och Mod’r, ich Well en Dingt Han! Immer Leiser Wird mein Schlummer. Der Jager. Das Mädchen Spricht. Der Mond Steht Über d3em Berge. Nachtigall. Sandmännchen. Die Schöne Magelone: Ruhe, Süssliebchen. Der Tod, Das ist die Kühle Nacht. Vergebliches Ständchen. Wiegenlied. Wie komm’ ich denn zur Tür herein? / Elisabeth Schumann, soprano; Leo Rosenek, George Reeves, pianists / Romophone 81018 (with songs of Mendelssohn & Schubert)
Many great and not-so-great singers have recorded songs by Brahms. The above four albums are among my very favorites. Other outstanding performances have been recorded on various recitals by contralto Christa Ludwig, sopranos Elfride Trötschel, Lucia Popp and Ayelet Amots-Avramson, and tenor Daniel Behle (see Die Schöne Magelone below).
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Arthur Rubinstein, pianist; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, conductor / RCA Red Seal 5688, aqlso available for free streaming on YouTube: 1st mvmt 1; 1st mvmt 2; 2nd mvmt 1; 2nd mvmt 2; 3rd mvmt 1; 3rd mvmt 2
Surprise! Just one recommendation this time, but why would you want any other performance? This one is perfection and has been since it was recorded in 1954. Good stereo separation for its time, too.
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Vladimir Horowitz, pianist; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free on YouTube (live: October 23, 1948)
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2: I. Allegro non troppo; II. Allegro appassionato; III. Andante; IV. Allegro grazioso / Van Cliburn, pianist; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, conductor / available for free on YouTube by clicking on movement titles above
Two recordings of this outstanding concerto, both masterpieces. The 1948 Horowitz-Toscanini concert performance is more relaxed and less jittery or rushed than the 1940 studio recording or the 1945 Carnegie Hall benefit concert performance. Everything is in equipoise here, and the NBC Symphony was rarely captured in such full, rich sound.
The Cliburn-Reiner recording, once quite famous, is probably not well know to most people unless they spend some time trolling on YouTube, but once I ran across it I knew that it was the best stereo or digital version I had ever heard, although there are partisans for the 1968 recording by old-age Wilhelm Backhaus with conductor Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic (a very good performance but a shade slow for my taste). Honorable mention also goes to the 1929 Rubinstein recording with Albert Coates conducting, though the miking is a bit distant (available for free streaming here).
BRAHMS: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 & 3 /Arthur Rubinstein, pianist; Guarnieri Quartet / RCA Red Seal 5677, also available for free streaming on YouTube
As in the case of the Rubinstein-Reiner Piano Concerto No. 1, these 1960s recordings are sheer perfection that simply cannot be improved upon. I’d give them seven fish if I dared. For the Schoenberg orchestration of this quartet, see below: Symphonies, Michael Gielen.
BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F min., Op. 34. / SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 ‘ Alexander String Quartet; Joyce Yang, pianist / Foghorn Classics 2014
BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F min., Op. 34; String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Belcea Quartet; Till Fellner, pianist / Alpha 248
Two absolutely outstanding versions of the oft-overlooked Piano Quintet. I slightly prefer the Alexander Quartet version because I like Joyce Yang’s incisive pianism a bit better than Fellner, but neither will disappoint. The former disc also has the best performance available of the Schumann Piano Quintet, while the latter has scintillating versions of Brahms’ three String Quartets. Both deserve six fish!
BRAHMS: Piano Trio No. 1 in B. Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Joseph Szigeti, violinist; Pierre Fournier, cellist; Artur Schnabel, pianist / Arbiter 121, available here
BRAHMS: Piano Trio No. 1 in B / Jascha Heifetz, violinist; Emanuel Feuermann, cellist; Arthur Rubinstein, pianist / available for free streaming or download at Internet Archive
Two outstanding mono recordings that have never been surpassed, and I mean never. The Szigeti-Fournier-Schnabel version is taut and exciting, with Schnabel driving the trio from the keyboard; the Heifetz-Feuermann-rubinstein recording is almost as intense, but driven more by the violinist and cellist. Of course the sound quality is mono, but the restorations of each have been done with loving care, so four and half fish is what I gave them.
BRAHMS: Serenades Nos. 1 & 2. Tragic Overture. Variations on a Theme by Haydn / Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra; Heinz Bongartz, conductor (Serenades); Berlin Symphony Orchestra; Günter Herbig, conductor (Overture, Variations) / Brilliant Classics 95073 (also see Academic Festival Overture above)
I won’t pretend that these are the greatest recording of the Tragic Overture or the Haydn Variations—for those, you need to go to Toscanini and Michael Gielen—but they are the most charming and lively verisons of the two Serenades I’ve ever heard, and the cost is inexpensive.
BRAHMS: String Quintets Nos. 1 & 2. String Sextets Nos. 1 & 2 / Toby Appel, violist; David Requiro, cellist; Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics 2012
These performances of the String Quintets and Sextets will absolutely blow you away: exciting drive plus great detail and stupendous phrasing.
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 / NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free on YouTube
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3. Variations on a Theme by Haydn / Philharmonia Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming or download at Internet Archive
BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Tragic Overture. Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Double Concerto in A min. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D min. Piano Quartet No. 1 (orch. Schoenberg). Schicksalslied / Mark Kaplan, violinist; David Geringas, cellist; Gerhard Oppitz, pianist; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; SWR Sinfonieorkester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19022CD
Surprise! I’ll bet you thought I’d select Toscanini for the four symphonies, right? Well, despite sometimes poor miking, as in the first symphony where the tympani is a bit too distant from the mic, I find Weingartner’s performances tauter and more thrilling with better phrasing, as a rule, than Toscanini’s. Of course, I also like the Philharmonic Brahms set with Toscanini, but the trombones crack badly in the last movement of Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 2 isn’t as exciting as his NBC Symphony recording, and in the last movement of No. 4 some idiot set off a string of loud fireworks in the hall which are all too audible on the recording. Yet his Philharmonia performance of Symphony No. 3 is the greatest I’ve ever heard, and this performance of the Haydn Variations is just as good as the one he gave with the New York Philharmonic back in 1936.
Michael Gielen’s digital stereo set is absolutely fabulous save for a somewhat disappointing reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 (a bit too slack for my taste). In fact, his recording of the Haydn Variations is taken at an even quicker pace than Toscanini’s recordings of it. Also see above for my comments on his Double Concerto.
BRAHMS: Tragic Overture / Philharmonia Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BRAHMS: Tragic Overture / SWR Sinfonieorkester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19022CD (see above under Symphonies)
The first of these is absolutely the most dynamic and thrilling performances of this great piece ever recorded, in my etimation. This pressing of the Toscanini-Philharmonia version is a bit too dull on the treble end; I recommend boosting it with an audio editor by 4-5 db. The Gielen recording, in digital stereo, will also blow you away. No one else—not even the great Klaus Tennstedt—comes close to these.
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 / Bronislaw Huberman, violinist; Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York; Artur Rodzinski, conductor / Music & Arts 1122 (with the Tchaikovsky Concerto) also available for free streaming on YouTube
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 / Ginette Neveu, violinist; North German Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Unless Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg re-records this concerto with a conductor worthy of her (the one with Edo de Waart is too slow, flat-footed and clumsy-sounding in the orchestral part), we probably won’t hear another version of it as great as the two listed above. Both are from live performances, the Hubereman from 1944 and the Neveu from 1948. I prefer the Huberman-Rodzinski becaue of the incendiary conducting, but Schmidt-Isserstedt really isn’t bad and Neveu is absolutely stunning. Both are “desert island” discs, in my opinion.
BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3 / Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar, violinist; Magda Amara, pianist / Paladino Music PMR-0078
Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar will absolutely mesmerize you in these fabulous, spellbinding recordings of the first and third violin sonatas. Also see Horn Trio for the other work on this album.
Certainly one of the most unusual stories in all of classical music, Havergal Brian lived to be 96 years old and did the bulk of his composing—27 of his 32 symphonies—after the age of 61. He also completely shifted his style from such huge, effulgent Romantic works as the two-hour-long “Gothic” Symphony (1924-27) to a lean, modernistic style fully in tune with evolving musical style. This despite the fact that the world lost interest in him after his Fifth Symphony in 1937, thus most of these late symphonies were not premiered during his lifetime.
The problem I have with Brian is not his imagination or his ingenuity, but the fact that much of his music is cerebral and really doesn’t connect with me on an emotional level. Nevertheless, the following CD will give you a good idea of Brian’s astonishing creativity into advanced old age.
BRIAN: Symphonies Nos. 22 (“Sinfinia brevis”)-24. English Suite No. 1, Op. 12 / New Russia State Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Walker, conductor / Naxos 8.572833
These are splendid performances by a British conductor with a Russian orchestra, which might explain the extra zing they give to Brian’s music. The English Suite is in his early style, the three symphonies in his late, mature style. Those curious to hear his tightly compact last symphony (No. 32) may want to hear the version by conductor Adrian Leaper and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.
BRICKLE: Ab nou cor. The Creation, a Towneley Mystery Play.* Denk es, O Seele / Haleh Abghan, soprano; William Anderson, theorbro/mandolin; *Cygnus Ensemble / Farai un vers. Merlin I / Elisabeth Farnum, soprano; Susannah Chapman, cellist; Anderson, guitarist / Genius Loci / Anderson, mandolinist; Oren Fader, guitarist / In Media Res / Joan Forsyth, Daniela Brochi, pianists / Midnight Round / Bodies Electric (guitrists) / Furious Artisans 6809
Frank Brickle is a composer who has walked a backwards path from the convoluted modern style he learned from Milton Babbitt to a much more accessible but no less interesting tonal style. All of these performers are committed to his music and thus give superb examples of his scores.
Frank Bridge is probably much better known for being Benjamin Britten’s composition teacher than for being an outstanding composer in his own right, but we must remember that it was a performance of Bridge’s The Sea that so inflamed young Ben that he decided then and there that he wanted to write music for a living. Here are, for me, some of his very best pieces, although some of the songs are scattered on various CDs that have other composers on them.
BRIDGE: Enter Spring. The Sea / New Philharmonia Orchestra; Benjamin Britten, conductor / BBC 8007
Great performances, in good stereo sound, from BBC broadcasts of the 1960s featuring Britten conducting Bridge. This performance of The Sea is my favorite by far.
BRIDGE: Gargoyle. Hidden Fires. The Hourglass. In Autumn. Piano Sonata. 3 Lyrics. 3 Poems / Pascal Sigrist, pianist / Talent 2911113
An outstanding album of piano works by Bridge, played with zest and style by the little-known pianist Sigrist.
BRIDGE: Songs: E’en as a Lovely Flower. Goldenhair. Go Not, Happy Day. Journey’s End. The Last Invocation. Love Went a-Riding. O That It Were So. So Perverse. ‘Tis But a Week. When You Are Old / Maggie Teyte, Felicity Lott, sopranos; Peter Pears, tenor; Thomas Hampson, Leonard Warren, baritones; Rosalind Plowright, mezzo-soprano; various accompanists
All of the above rate between 4 and 5 fish.
Bridge’s songs are among his finest yet least-known works. Of the above group, Maggie Teyte sings E’en as a Lovely Flower, Hampson sings The Last Invocation; both Lott and Leonard Warren sing O That it Were So; both Plowright and Peter Pears sing Love Went a-Riding; while Pears, always with Benjamin Britten on piano, sings the others. Look for them.They’re all worth seeking out.
BRIDGE: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 4 / Maggini Quartet / Naxos 8.557283
The string quartet was one form that Britten himself did nothing much in, but Bridge’s quartets are well-crafted and deeply expressive. The Maggini Quartet plays them with passion.
To the British, Benjamin Britten was one of the three or four greatest composers of the 20th century. To the rest of the world he was just a very skilled composer who had his hits and misses. He is primarily known for his vocal music like the early song cycles Les Illuminations, Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo, Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings and Holy Sonnets of John Donne, his “canticles” Abraham and Isaac and Still Falls the Rain, his church parable Curlew River, his arrangements of British folk songs, the great War Requiem and his operas. For many people—again, particularly British—all of these operas are great masterpieces, but to my ears most of them have wonderful plots but music that is just a dull parlando style. Thus you will not find Albert Herring, The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd or Owen Wingrave in my recommended list below, but you will find Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Death in Venice. You will also find some vocal works not often performed but superbly written as well as his Cello Suites, the Violin Concerto and some other choral and instrumental pieces that I really enjoy.
BRITTEN: Canticle II, “Abraham, and Isaac” / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; Graham Johnson, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Britten’s commercial recording of this work used boy alto John Hahessy as Isaac, and it was a pretty good performance, but Janet Baker’s voice just adds so much more dimension to the music. In Britten’s conception, the two of them singing together replicate the voice of God. None of the music is technically challenging, yet it is deeply affecting in its simplicity. Peter Pears is even better in this live performance than he was on the studio recording.
BRITTEN: Canticle III, “Still Falls the Rain” / Peter Pears, tenor; Alan Civil, horn; Graham Johnson, pianist / look for it
This canticle, based on Edith Sitwell’s poem subtitled “The Raids 1940,” is one of Britten’s most poignant and touching pieces, and this live 1977 performance, once available on the same Columbia LP set with Abraham and Isaac, is now sadly hard to find. Perhaps I’ll upload it myself.
BRITTEN: Cello Suites (complete) / Jamie Walton, cellist / Signum Classics 336 or available for free streaming on YouTube (beginning at 19:14 in video)
Britten’s cello suites are haunting, lyrical, almost desolate in feeling—in short, among his greatest works. A shame they’re not better known. Cellist Jamie Walton plays them with both reverence and deep-in-the-gut emotion.
BRITTEN: Choral Works: Advanced Democracy. Antiphon. Hymn to St. Cecilia. A Hymn to the Virgin. Jubilate Deo. Missa Brevis. Rejoice in the Lamb. The Sycamore Tree. Te Deum in C / Truro Cathedral Choir; Christopher Gray, director; Luke Bond, organist / Regent 349
In my view, Britten’s choral works that are not part of his church parables or other pieces are among his most interesting and beautiful music, particularly the Antiphon, Hymn to St. Cecilia, Hymn to the Virgin, Jubilate Deo and Missa Brevis. Here the Truro Cathedral Choir give excellent performances of all of them.
BRITTEN: Curlew River / Peter Pears, tenor (Madwoman); John Shirley-Quirk, baritone (Ferryman); Harold Blackburn, baritone (Abbot); English Opera Group; Benjamin Britten, conductor / Decca 421858 or available in small bits for streaming on YouTube
Of Britten’s church parables, Curlew River is the one that has had the best track record in performance, and small wonder: it contain some of Britten’ most evocative and interesting music, far better than anything he wrote for Billy Budd or Owen Wingrave. You can find the whole performance—broken up into small bit—on YouTube, but you might want to buy or download the complete CD.
BRITTEN: Death in Venice / Philip Langridge, tenor (Aschenbach); Alan Opie, baritone (Traveler/Fop/Barber/Hotel Clerk); Michel Chance, countertenor (Voice of Apollo); BBC Singers; City of London Sinfonietta; Richard Hickox, conductor / Chandos 10280
I was fortunate enough to see one of the original Metropolitan Opera performances of Death in Venice with Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk, conducted by Steuart Bedford. The live performance was splendid, but somehow when they got to the recording studio they left half of their performance energy behind. Thus this Chandos recording is the preferred version. Not only are Langridge and Opie splendid in their roles, but Richard Hickox managed to convey a real feeling of mood missing from the Bedford version. One of the most fascinating aspects of the opera in person was its use of multi-media screens and projected images, which of course you can’t see here, but thanks to some fancy audio work the Voice of Apollo sounds just as eerie as it did in person.
BRITTEN: Folk Song Arrangements. Peter Grimes: Selected scenes. The Rape of Lucretia: Selected scenes / Peter Pears, tenor; Sophie Wyss, Joan Cross, sopranos; Nancy Evans, contralto; Benjamin Britten, pianist; English Opera Group Chamber Ensemble; Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus; Reginald Goodall, conductor / EMI 64727, available from Arkivmusic
This is one of those truly indispensable Britten collections: all mono recordings, made between 1939 and 1948, of his vocal music sung by the artists for whom he wrote it. This means that some of the folk song arrangements are sung by Sophie Wyss, who was his muse before he met Peter Pears, although Pears sings many of them as well (including his classic, The Foggy, Foggy Dew). We also get to hear a good selection of scenes from the original cast of Peter Grimes featuring a young, fresh-voiced Pears in the title role and soprano Joan Cross as Ellen Orford, as well as an abridged performance of The Rape of Lucretia with Cross and Pears as the Female and Male Choruses and Nancy Evans as Lucretia. Both operas are conducted by Reginald Goodall, who at the time of Grimes’ premiere thought that Britten was a great genius. He didn’t care that much for Lucretia and so severed his ties with the composer after that. One wonders why EMI let him go to Decca-London, however; he was still a hot ticket and recordings of his music were selling pretty good, but let him go they did. The mono sound is listenable if a little cramped.
BRITTEN: Les Illuminations. Nocturne. Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings / Jerry Hadley, tenor; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor / Nimbus 882545
BRITTEN: Les Illuminations. HENZE: Being Beauteous. SCHOENBERG: Herzgewächse, Op. 20. CASTIGLIONI: Terzina. SZYMANOWSKI: Słopiewnie (The Cherry Trees) / Anu Komsi, soprano; Uusinta Chamber Ensemble; Sakari Orano, conductor / Alba 331
Britten originally wrote Les Illuminations for soprano Sophie Wyss, who never recorded it, before he met Peter Pears, but once he met Pears he decided that no woman should sing it again. A pity, because the writing is so wonderfully suited to the soprano voice. As for historic recordings, there is a superb reading by the legendary soprano Maggie Teyte on VAI 1063, although only with piano accompaniment, and a very fine live performance by Suzanne Danco with Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Cascavelle 3125.
I personally never cared much for any of Pears’ recordings of Illuminations, and his voice was just a bit too wobbly for the Nocturne, but on this Nimbus CD the late Jerry Hadley gives the performance of his life. I never heard his voice sound so controlled and beautiful as it does on this disc, and his interpretations of all three works on this disc are among my favorites—in the case of the Nocturne, my absolute favorite (it’s not a work I like very much, to be honest). Anu Komsi’s reading of Les Illuminations, paired with the scintillating conducting of her husband, Sakari Orano, is the absolute best I’ve ever heard, and most of the other works on this disc are excellent as both pieces and performances.
BRITTEN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Brian Asawa, countertenor (Oberon); Sylvia McNair, soprano (Titania); Brian Bannatyne Scott, baritone (Theseus); Hilary Summers, mezzo-soprano (Hippolyte); John Mark Ainsley, tenor (Lysander); Paul Whelan, baritone (Demetrius); Ruby Philogene, mezzo-soprano (Hermia); Robert Lloyd, bass (Bottom); Ian Botridge, tenor (Flute/Thibe); New London Children’s Choir; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / Philips 454122
Just as Britten had a stubborn streak regarding roles and song cycles he insisted that only Pears should sing, he likewise had a thing for Alfred Deller’s small, hooty countertenor voice. Deller’s voice was quite lovely in the late 1940s and early ’50, but by the 1960 it had dried out into a shriveled caricature of itself. For this reason Georg Solti, wanting to mount a production of this opera at Covent Garden, went out ofhis way to hire the far superior American countertenor Russell Oberlin to sing Oberon. Oberlin agreed, not knowing about the behind-the-scenes politics: Britten was so angry about not having his choice, Deller, in the cast that he tried to withhold the performance to no avail. And poor Oberlin took the rap for nothing.
Thus Britten’s own recording, though very atmospheric and featuring the wonderful Bottom of Owen Brannigan, is a decidedly second or third choice. This later incarnation, conducted a bit more leisurely but no less lovingly by Colin Davis, is the one to acquire. Brian Asawa’s voice is a bit weird-sounding but not nearly as strange as mid-1960s Deller, and the other singers are absolutely superb, particularly McNair as Titania, Ainsley as Lysander and Bostridge as Flute and Thisbe. The sound quality is also quite stupendous.
BRITTEN: Peter Grimes / Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor (Grimes); Vivian Tierney, soprano (Ellen Orford); Steven Page, baritone (Balstrode); Susan Gorton, mezzo (Auntie); John Graham-Hall, tenor (Bob Boles); Stafford Dean, bass (Swallow); Christopher Maltman, bar. (Ned Keene); Hilary Summers, mezzo (Mrs. Sedley); Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Mark Wigglesworth, conductor / Glyndebourne 8
BRITTEN: Peter Grimes / Jon Vickers, tenor (Grimes); Heather Harper, soprano (Ellen Orford); Jonathan Summers, baritone (Balstrode); Elizabeth Bainbridge, mezzo (Auntie); John Dobson, tenor (Bob Boles); Forbes Robinson, bass (Swallow); Thomas Allen, baritone (Ned Keene); Patricia Payne, mezzo (Mrs. Sedley); Teresa Cahill, soprano (First Niece); Anne Pashley, soprano (Second Niece); John Lanigan, tenor (Rev. Horace Adams); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orch. & Chorus; Colin Davis, conductor / Philips 462847
The roles of Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford were specifically tailored for the voices of Peter Pears and Joan Cross as they were singing in the 1940s, and that is captured beautifully on the extended excerpts reissued on the EMU set listed above (see: Folksong Arrangements). By the time Britten’s own complete recording was made in 1959, Pears’ voice had started to sound a bit hollow at times, though he still gave a good performance. Overall, the Britten recording is still a good choice if you want it, but by that time his preferred Ellen Orford was soprano Heather Harper, a close friend, who sings that role in the Jon Vickers recording.
Yet once again personal prejudices on the part of Britten came to the fore. He didn’t like Vickers’ brash, overly-masculine interpretation of Grimes at all, even though this fit the original Crabbe poem, The Borough, which inspired the opera. Incidentally, Pears himself loved Vickers’ performance, saying to friends that he wished he had those kinds of vocal resources himself. This put him at odds with the composer who was also his live-in companion and lover. In addition, Vickers and conductor Colin Davis used the original Boosey & Hawkes edition of the score which contained a few errors in orchestration. Vickers liked this orchestration better than the revised version and so they kept it. This, too, ticked Britten off.
Yet Vickers’ Grimes was one of the great wonders of the operatic world, a performance so intense and so riveting that it literally dwarfed anyone else who attempted it, and his 1978 studio recording was hailed as a massterpiece from the time of its first issue. It still holds up very, very well. On the other hand, the live Glyndebourne performance with Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role combines the visceral impact of Vickers with the more suave phrasing of Pears; he is both elegnt and frightful, giving the performance of his life, and the vastly underrated conductor Mark Wigglesworth pulls the opera together in such a way that you feel the tension from first note to last (not entirely the case with Colin Davis, good though he was). Thus, for these and other reasons (a more emotionally involved Ellen from Vivian Tierney, for instance), I give the Glydebourne set 6 fish and the Vickers recording only 5, but both are indispensable.
In closing, I might add that if you already have, or wish to acquire, the composer’s own 1959 recording with Pears, Claire Watson and Owen Brannigan, you will not necessarily be disappointed. Pears was in quite good voice for this recording session and the overall performance is full of life and exudes drama. It’s just not quite as good as the two recordings listed above.
BRITTEN: Phaedra / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; English Chamber Orchestra; Steuart Bedford, conductor / available for free streming on YouTube
BRITTEN: Phaedra / Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Phaedra was Britten’s last great composition, written as a gift for mezzo Janet Baker who was one of his circle of favorites and confidantes. Steuart Bedford conducted the world premiere performance and recording because of Britten’s severe illness and subsequent death, and it’s still one of the best performances available.
However, I think this live 2003 performance by the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson is even better, one of the most intense and scintillating performances of any Britten work available. Whether due to superior sonics or just better playing by the BBC Symphony, the orchestral score fairly leaps out of your speakers, the way Britten should sound, and Hunt-Lieberson’s rich, lovely voice is a perfect match for the music. Thus Baker gets 5 fish while Hunt-Lieberson gets 6.
BRITTEN: The Rape of Lucretia / Ian Bostridge, tenor (Male Chorus); Susan Gritton, soprano (Female Chorus); Christopher Purves, bass (Collatinus); Benjamin Russell, baritone (Junius); Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Tarquinius); Angelika Kirchschlager, alto (Lucretia); Hilary Summers, mezzo (Bianca); Claire Booth, soprano (Lucia); Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble; Oliver Knussen, conductor / Virgin Classics 267221, or available for streaming on YouTube in individual scenes
Yet another example where a remake turned out better than the original recording…well, at least the Britten-conducted original recording. The excerpts conducted by Reginald Goodall in 1947 were much better and more alive than the Britten studio recording. I attribute much of the energy in this performance to conductor Oliver Knussen, composer of the well-known opera Where the Wild Things Are, who happens to be a real human dynamo on the podium. This one is just a terrific performance from start to finish.
BRITTEN: The Rescue of Penelope / Alison Hagley, soprano (Athene); Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo (Artemis); John Mark Ainsley, tenor (Hermes); William Dazeley, bass (Apollo); Janet Baker, narrator; Hallé Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor / BRITTEN: Phaedra / Lorraine Hnt-Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Hallé Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor / Erato 12713, or Rescue of Penelope available for streaming on YouTube in three sections: part 1, part 2, part 3
Many of Britten’s wartime compositions aren’t as good as post-nortem assessments make out, but this superb radio drama with music from 1943 is one of the overlooked gems of his oeuvre. The performance is excellent, too, particularly thanks to the dramatic narration of Janet Baker and the scintillating conducting of Kent Nagano. This performance of Phaedra is pretty good, but not quite as exciting as the live performance from 2003 (see above).
BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings. Winter Words* / Peter Pears, tenor; Dennis Brain, hornist; Boyd Neel String Orchestra; Benjamin Britten, conductor/*pianist / Decca 425996 or available for free streaming on YouTube
As great as the Jerry Hadley recording is (see Les Illuminations, above), no one has ever really topped the 1945 original recording for depth of feeling and a certain “something” in both Pears’ voice (the music constantly hovers around the tenor voice’s break, which oddly enough was the best part of Pears’ range) and the playing of Brain. Pears later recorded it with Barry Tuckwell in stereo, but the magic was gone.
BRITTEN: Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo / Peter Pears, tenor; Benjamin Britten, pianist (1940 recording) / EMI 54605
BRITTEN: Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo (along with Italian arias & other pieces) / Francesco Meli, tenor; Matteo Pais, pianist / Opus Arte 9019
As with the Serenade, Pears recorded the Seven Sonnets a few times, but his voice was never freshere than in this early 1940 recording—sounding, in fact, almost like Tito Schipa, with more brightness in the high range than he displayed in later years.
The Francesco Meli recording is extraordinarily beautiful and my favorite of all stereo or digital recordings of this brief song cycle.
BRITTEN: Simple Symphony. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Lachrymae / Rivka Golani, violist; I Musici de Montreal; Yuri Turovsky, conductor / Chandos 8817
An absolute gem of a disc featuring three of Britten’s finest early (pre-1940) works, conducted brilliantly by the little-known Turovsky.
BRITTEN: Violin Concerto. MONIUSZKO: Straszny Dwór: Mazurka / Wanda Wilkomirska, violinist; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; Witold Rowicki, conductor / Orchestral Concerto 12
Britten’s extraordinary violin concerto is scarcely as well known as the ones by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartók, but this mind-blowing performance makes a great case for it.
BRITTEN: War Requiem / Heather Harper, soprano; Peter Pears, soprano; Thomas Helmsley, baritone; Pro Arte Chorus; Orchestre de la Suisse Romance; Ernest Ansermet, conductor / BERG: Sieben Frühe Lieder / Chloé Owen, soprano; Orchestre de la Suisse Romance; Ernest Ansermet, conductor / Cascavelle 3125
BRITTEN: War Requiem / Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Highgate School Choir, Melos Ensemble; London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Benjamin Britten, conductor / Decca 414383 or available for free streaming on YouTube
With the sole exception of B.H. Haggin, who for some reason found this music contrived and not among Britten’s best works, ciritical opinion is otherwise unanimous that this is Britten’s masterpiece. His own studio recording used several audio tricks with the help of engineer-producer John Culshaw, such as the muffled entrance of the choir in the beginning and some other spatial relationships to give the performance the “atmosphere” Britten wanted, and for that reason alone it is the reference recording. That being said, the live performance by Ansermet vry nearly eclipses it in terms of feeling and drama, and for me, personally, Heather Harper—one of the most underrated sopranos of the 20th century—delivers a stunning performance, equal to Vishnevskaya in intensity but better in terms of vocal control. These are the only two recordings of this work you will ever need.
BRITTEN: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations on a Theme of Purcell) / Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra; Felix Slatkin, conductor / available for free streaming or downloat at the Internet Archive
Everyone has their favorite recording of this chestnut, not necessarily the best piece Britten ever wrote but certainly the most popular. This is mine, a surprising gem of a performance by Felix Slatkin, father of Leonard and long-time Hollywood Bowl conductor, from a 1956 Capitol 2-channel stereo recording.
BROENING: like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment. Dark Wood. Traces (I). Trembling Air. Novturne/Doubles. Traces (II). Arioso/Doubles. Changing Light / eighth blackbird / Bridge 9384 or free streaming at YouTube (click on each individual title to listen)
Benjamin Broening’s music has that rarest of combined qualities for a modern composer, emotional impact with intelligent development. Despite its dissonance, Broening also has a lyrical side, which is evident in nearly every piece on this remarkable album. For those who have yet to discover the outstanding chamber group eighth blackbird, I envy your first hearing of them and Broening.
BROWN: Seahorse. Arcana. Piranesi. Three Arias from “A Bookmobile for Dreamers.” Atlantis. Mirage. Shinshōfūkei, or An Imaginary Landscape / Elizabeth Brown, flute/Theremin with recorded sound; Momenta Quartet; Dean Drummond, guitarist; Jared Soldiviero, harmonic canon 1; David Broom, chromolodeonist; Bill Ruyle, diamond marimbist; Joe Bergen, bass marimbist; Joe Fee, zoomoozophone/juststrokerods; Pro Musica Nipponia; Yasushi Inada, conductor / New World Records 80751 or free streaming at YouTube (click on each individual title to listen)
Flautist and Theremin player Elizabeth Brown creates her own unusual soundscapes mixing Asian and Western classical forms with oddly mixed rhythms and meters. The result is a form of music that moves around in the mind as she plays with the various facets of her sound constructions. You simply have to hear this music to believe, and appreciate it.
BRUCH: Kol Nidre
Emanuel Feuermann, cellist; Berlin State Opera Orchestra; Frieder Weissmann, conductor / West Hill 6042 (see Collections: Feuermann) or listen for free on YouTube
Jacqueline du Pré, cellist; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim, conductor / listen for free on YouTube
This is the kind of piece that is popular more for its emotional connection to Jewish liturgy and the depth of sadness of the melody than for its intrinsic worth, but it is a lovely piece anyway. Between Feuermann and de Pré you really can’t go wrong, although of course the latter is in good stereo sound.
BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor / Guila Bustabo, violinist; Concertgebouw Orchestra; Willem Mengelberg, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
The Bruch Violin Concerto is perhaps not as well known as either his own Kol Nidre or other violin concertos, but it’s actually a very fine piece. But what really makes this a five-fish recording is the unbelievably intense playing of Guila Bustabo, unquestionably the most ill-fated great violinist, or American violinist, who ever lived. Trained by Louis Persinger, she was a classmate of young Yehudi Menuhin, who greatly admired her, but her mother—who wanted to push her daughter in the great cultural centers of Europe regardless of negative politics—insisted that she play in all of the Fascist and Nazi-controlled countries. This branded Bustabo as someone who “played ball” with the Axis when in fact she had no control of her career. As she complained to Menuhin after the war, “You were lucky…you got away from your parents. I never could.” Her name still remains under this stigma despite the fact that the truth has come out, but holy mother of Jesus, could she play the violin. And then some. If your mind isn’t blown by this performance, you have no heart for music.
BUSONI: Orchestral Suite No. 2. Berceuse Élégiaque. Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra.* 2 Sketches from Doktor Faust: Sarabande & Cortège. Tanzwalzer. Lustspiel Overture. Indianische Fantasie.+ Gesang vom Reigen der Geister. Die Brautwahl Suite / *John Bradbury, clarinetist; +Nelson Goerner, pianist; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos CHAN 241-57
BUSONI: Rondo Arlecchinesco / Samuel Gallu, tenor; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BUSONI: Rondo Arlecchinesco / Robert Worle, tenor; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Gerd Albrecht, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
BUSONI: Fantasia Contrappuntistica / Egon Petri, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
BUSONI: Two Sketches from “Doktor Faust” / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Jascha Horenstein, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
I’m not a huge fan of Busoni’s Piano Concerto or Doktor Faust, which I find cold and pretentious, but these pieces are definitely superb music, particularly the Orchestral Set No. 2 and the suite from Die Brautwahl. One fascinating tidbit: Samuel Gallu, who sings the offstage tenor lines in Toscanini’s performance of the Rondo Arlecchinesco, later became a prominent playwright and independent film and TV producer. He wrote the plays “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” and “Churchill: A Man Alone.” No other conductors I have heard can match Toscanini, Horenstein and Järvi for the tremendous atmosphere and energy they bring to this music.
A critic whose name I don’t recall once described Buxtehude as “Bach in the raw.” It’s an apt description, and one that old Johann Sebastian would not have disagreed with: as a young man he once traveled a great distance at his own expense to meet and discuss music and organ playing with the older Dutch composer. I personally love Buxtehude even a bit more than J.S. Bach; I put him in the same category as Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. So call me a Philistine!
BUXTEHUDE: Aperite mihi portas justitiae / Aksel Schiøtz, tenor; Elsa Sigfuss, contralto; Holger Norgaard, bass; Else Marie Bruun, Julius Koppel, violinists; Torben Anton Svendsen, cellist; Mogens Wöldike, harpsichordist / Danacord 455 or available for free streaming on YouTube
BUXTEHUDE: Arias. Canzonette. Courantes. Partida: Auf meinen lieben Gott in e min., BuxWV 179. Suites. Toccata in G, BuxWV 165 / Simone Stella, harpsichordist / Brilliant Classics 94312
BUXTEHUDE: Canzonetta in G, BuxWV 171. Chorales. Ciaconas (2). Fuga in C, BuxWV 174. Magnificat Primi Toni. Passacaglia in D min., BuxWV 161. Praeludia (8). Te Deum Laudamus. Toccatas in D min. & F / Marie-Claire Alain, organist / Apex 256465179
BUXTEHUDE: Sonatas in C, D, F, G, A min., B-flat / John Holloway, Ursula Weiss, violinists; Jaap ter Linden, Mogens Rasmussen, viola da gambists; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichordist/organ / Naxos 8.557250
BUXTEHUDE: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BuxWV 220 & 221 / Masaaki Suzuki, organist / Bis 1809
BUXTEHUDE: Wachet auf, ruft und die Stimme, BuxWV 100 / Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Hanne Munch, contralto; Hermann Wiedermann, bass; Horst Neumann, Bertha Krimm, violinists. Alfred Gemeinhardt, cellist; Friedrich Engert, bassist; Manfred Hug, harpsichordist / available for free streaming on YouTube
These recordings will give you a good idea of the breadth and range of Buxtehude’s talent. He could take a theme and stretch it out into the most fantastic realms—for his time, of course—and thus lead the listener on a fascinating head trip through his music. In listening, you will also note that his keyboard works, even moreso than Bach’s, require a certain amount of rhetorical phrasing and judicious application of tempo rubato, which gives his music even greater expansion and dimension. The Aksel Schiøtz performance of Aperite mihi portas justitiae should not be underestimated despite the fact that it dates from the 1930s: harpsichordist-director Mogens Wöldike was one of the pioneers of authentic early music performance in his time. Indeed, if anything the Wunderlich performance of Wachet auf is a little more “retro” in style, but the singing of the small gorup has so much heart in it that it’s difficult to pass up.
Marie-Claire Alain, who died in 2013, was one of the great organists of the 20th century; indeed, in my view she was one of only a handful who could always make the music she played come alive in a way that makes it immediate to the listener, thus her recordings of Buxtehude’s organ works are without peer. On the other hand, Simone Stella is not terribly well known, but her harpsichord playing here is simply wonderful, fully in tune with Buxtehude’s quirky style.