CHICAGO PRO MUSICA -- The Medinah Sessions
WEILL: Suite from The Three-Penny Opera. WALTON:  Facade Suite.  STRAUSS-HASENÖRL:  Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.  STRAVINSKY:  The Soldier's Tale -- Suite.  BOWLES:  Music for a Farce.  MARTINU:  La Revue de Cuisine.  SCRIABIN-ELLIOT:  Waltz in A-flat.  NIELSEN:  Serenata in vano.  VARÈSE:  Octandre.  RIMSKY-KORSAKOV-BLACKWOOD:  Capriccio Espagnol.

REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 2102 (2 CDs) (M) TT: 47:19 & 56:47
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The contents of these two CDs were recorded in August 1983 (all of Disc 1, plus a clever but denatured transcription of Rimsky-K's Capriccio espagnol), and June 1988 (the rest of the material on Disc 2). The site was Medinah Temple on Ohio Street, where most of RCA's and London/ Decca's Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings were made following the "renovation" of Orchestra Hall in 1966 that ruined it acoustically for more than a decade, until some of the damage could be remedied. In the late Solti years (1969-91) Sir Georg began to authorize "live" recordings from Orchestra Hall. In the 1990s it was renovated a third time, adjacent property acquired, and the completed project renamed Symphony Center. Again it's being used for recordings, some of which are derived from broadcast tapes produced by WFMT.

The CSO's Medinah recordings were variable, depending on who produced what repertory for which company. For the golden ears at Reference Recordings, however, the wide but shallow Shriner's Auditorium proved ideal for these performances by a CSO players' group that clarinetist John Bruce Yeh organized in 1979."Professor" Keith Johnson recorded everything in analog on his custom-designed equipment. The 1983 sessions were issued two years later on a pair of discs, in both "conventional" stereo-LP and CD formats (the latter still in its infancy), and won a Grammy Award for the Chicago Pro Musica as "Best New Classical Artist," the first such given by NARAS. The 1988 sessions were likewise issued in both formats, having already set an industry standard worldwide for digital sound.

Now, as part of Ref/Rec's 25th anniversary year, the three Pro Musica discs have been reissued on two Compact Discs using HDCD technology, and the simulation of a concert-hall acoustic is simply breathtaking. Were all digital discs to sound as lifelike, the interment of analog would not be cause for periodic mourning, with much wailing, tearing of hair and beating of breasts. Now, about the music and these performances.

Of the 10 works recorded, seven are genre classics. Three bow-wows, comparatively speaking, are Easley Blackwood's Rimsky transcription (in which he gets to play a a lot of piano), a bewildering although moody transcription of Scriabin's A-flat Waltz, Op. 30, by bassoonist Willard Elliott, and Franz Hasen–rl's eight-minute condensation of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel for five instruments - a very German kind of joke written in 1954, after the composer and his widow were both safely dead. Einmal Anders!, by the way, means "another way." This isn't the first time I've heard it, although when and where previously has been lost in mists of yesteryear. But it is the last time I'll listen, which brings up the one unchallengable advantage of CD - you can de-program anything you don't want to hear. Aggregately, these three transcriptions account for just under 29 minutes of playing time, which leaves almost 110 minutes of delight.

Walton's 1922 Facade Suite is the composer's own version if no longer the cause scandale created by his setting of 22 poems written, and read, by Dame Edith Sitwell. The subtraction of her gentrified Dada-verse is in fact a plus, although the music's sauciness has faded with time. But it remains as charming as it once was cheeky, by a composer on the threshold of national (and later international) fame. Nielsen's Serenata in vano is whimsical in a different way. Written in 1914 to be played as a companion piece to Beethoven's Septet by a group of touring players from the Royal Danish Orchestra, it has a "plot" - a funny one, too, printed in its entirety in the program book.

More or less contemporaneously in Switzerland, Stravinsky was creating L'Histoire du soldat, a theater piece for two speakers and chamber ensemble. Being Stravinsky, he made a suite by eliminating the Soldier and the Devil, who tempts the former with a violin. Stravinsky claimed years later that it was influenced by jazz, but the theatrical element is preserved in the CPM's playing. It begins blandly as befits the naive soldier, but when the Devil's influence takes over it becomes altogether scary - more so than any other performance I've heard of this 1918 artifact (which was indeed deliberately artificial).

The second disc begins with the suite from Kurt Weill's (and Bertolt Brecht's) 1928 adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera - renamed Der Dreisgroschenoper (or, as we know it in English, The Three-Penny Opera) for Berlin audiences. It is the most cynical music in this collection, and unforgettable, played straight by the Chicago Pro Musica, which succeeds in adding to its black humor. Paul Bowles' Music for a Farce was composed in 1938 for a projected but unproduced Orson Welles production of Too Much Johnson by William Gillette. But Bowles saved the music, as personable as it is slight, almost a decade before he turned to literature ever more macabre, in North African settings that Bowles called home for the rest of his many years.

Just as slight, perhaps, but even more personable - and funnier than any music in this collection - is the suite La Revue de cuisine by Bohuslav Martinu, composed for a Paris stage production in 1927. Its four movements - Prolog, Tango, Charleston and Finale - are played to a fare-the-well by the Chicago Pro Musica. If Edgard VarĖse's Octandre from 1924 is more serious stuff, it belongs to the period between wars, which leaves only the Rimsky oddment to be skipped at the end. Performances throughout are as thoughtful as they are virtuosic and multifaceted. Add to this the best sound ever recorded in Chicago's Medinah Temple, on par with the best recorded anywhere in Chicago since Frederick Stock and the CSO made their first acoustic 78 for the Victor Company in 1917. And now, while I'm proofing this, I'm going to play Martinu and get happy.

R.D. (Sept. 2001)