BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15. Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83.
Nelson Freire, pianist; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch/Riccardo Chailly, cond.
DECCA B0006588-02 TT: 46:36 & 48:53

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WAGNER: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. Forest Murmurs from Siegfried. Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung. Overture and Bacchanale from Tannhäuser. Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger.
NBC Symphony Orch/Arturo Toscanini, cond.
MUSIC AND ARTS CD 3008 TT: 64:10

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BACH-STOKOWSKI: Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3. Sheep may safely graze. "Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578. Kommer süsser Tod. Chorale from the Easter Cantata. Es ist vollbracht! Wir glauben all'an einen Gott. Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland. Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. STOKOWSKI: Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies. HANDEL-STOKOWSKI: Pastoral Symphony from Messiah. PURCELL-STOKOWSKI: Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas.
Bournemouth Symphony Orch/José Serebrier, cond.
NAXOS 8.557883 TT: 67:51

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TCHAIKOVSKY: Excerpts from Swan Lake Ballet. JOHANN STRAUSS, JR: On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Tales from the Vienna Woods. BEETHOVEN: Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113. MOZART-STOKOWSKI: Turkish March from Piano Sonata No. 11 in A,K. 331.
NBC Symphony Orch/Leopold Stokowski, cond.
CALA CACD0543 TT: 75:49
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MARTHINSEN: Monster Symphony. Panorama for Orchestra. The Confessional.
Aarhus Symphony Orch/Michel Tabachnik, cond.
DA CAPO 8.226510 TT: 62:54
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Here are four fascinating—and important—CD releases. Decca's new set of the two Brahms piano concertos was recorded in Leipzig during live performances Nov. 22-26, 2005 (No. 2) and Feb. 13-18, 2006. (No. l). No applause is included, fortunately, although doubtless it was voluminous). I had heard a magnificent broadcast performance of Concerto No. 2 with Freire, Chailly and the RCOA from Jan. 1903 (as well as other sterling Chailly Brahms performances of the era including the Double Concerto (Repin/Maisky) and the Violin Concerto with both Repin and Zimmermann). Among today's conductors, Chailly is the ideal Brahms interpreter, with Freire at his finest with seemingly unlimited power and technique combined with utmost sensitivity. These are among the finest recordings of both concertos, right at the top of the recommended list, along with Fleisher/Cleveland/Szell, and Gilels/Berlin/Jochum. Recorded sound is superb, with an ideal balance between soloist and orchestra, although some listeners might prefer a slightly more brilliant piano sound. Judging on these performances, Chailly fits in perfectly at his new home in Leipzig. There are no fillers, but the two CDs sell for the price of mid-price disks.

Music & Arts here reissues Arturo Toscanini's final NBC Wagner broadcast April 4, 1954 in Carnegie Hall, a tragic event in some ways. The Maestro was 87 at the time, unsettled at the prospect of having to end his career. During this broadcast he had a memory lapse during the Tannhäuser Bacchanale that caused producer/commentator Ben Grauer to cut away briefly from the live broadcast until things got back together.Apparently producers of this CD have edited things together to provide a complete performance, rocky though at times it is. This is the conductor's only concert recorded in stereo, with sonics superior to what is heard on most Toscanini broadcasts, but still edgy lacking in bass. For Toscanini collectors, this is essential.

The two Stokowski CDs also are major releases. It seems rather odd that José Serebrier, who often worked with Stokowski, chose to omit the most popular of the Maestro's Bach transcriptions, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. On Naxos' CD we have the full orchestral sound associated with the conductor only in the finales of the Fugues in G and C minor.The remainder are soft, contemplative works exploring string sonorities. Also we have transcriptions of works by Handel and Purcell, along with Stokowski's setting of Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies, which begins and ends with soft bells which also separate the two. Serebrier's sensitive performances are beautifully captured by Naxos. Stokowski recorded all of this music himself, much of it several times, and you can hear many of these in a fine Pearl 2-CD set of transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn (Pearl 9098).

Thanks to the enterprising Cala label, Stokowski's excerpts from Swan Lake here make their first CD appearance. Surprisingly, the conductor previously had only recorded two short dances from the ballet, with his studio pickup orchestra, in 1950. This extended suite was recorded over an extended period of time: Oct. 20-21, Nov. 11, 1954, Jan. 13 and Feb. 10, 1955. It seems odd that the 24 excerpts include the composer's Espiègle, one of his piano pieces, Op. 72 orchestrated by Drigo, a short (1:25) work included in the 1865 premiere—and not the dramatic final scene, which would have been a natural for Stokowki's vivid conducting. The two Strauss waltzes were favorites of the conductor; he recorded Danube six times, the first in 1919; and Vienna Woods five times, the first in 1926. What is heard here are the "extended versions" made in 1955—a shorter version was made for 45 rpm disks. The Beethoven and Mozart marches are given vivid typically Stokowskian readings, the conductor's only recordings of the works, listed in Oliver Daniel's fine biography as performed by "Symphony Orchestra," although doubtess the ensemble consisted of members of the NBC SO. As usual with Cala, transfers and audio quality are superb. Highly recommended!

So far, four winners, but out luck has disappeared. The fifth release in this group is an abomination called Monster Symphony featuring music of Niels Marthinsen (b. 1963) who apparently has a major career in his native Denmark. Monster Symphony is identified as "First Symphony Remix (1995-2004)" and has three sections: Monster's Mating Call, Baby Monster's Lullaby, and Real Monsters. Seems intriguing, but it's a vapid score punctuated by loud tam-tam smashes, bombastic clap-trap. Panorama, commissioned by the Copenhagen Philharmonic in 1993, is a 22-minute musical "landscape" that goes nowhere. Four orchestral interludes from Marthinsen's 2006 opera The Confessional complete the CD. The composer calls this a "bel canto opera," but one would never suspect this from what is heard here—some of the most banal, boring music I've heard. Performances seem to do what can be done for this "music," Recorded sound is harsh and rather unpleasant...or is it just the music? Don't be tempted by the intriguing title of this CD. The only plus is the budget price.

R.E.B. (June 2006)