BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7. String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17. String Quartet No. 3. String Quartet No. 4. String Quartet No. 5. String Quartet No. 6
Végh Quartet
MUSIC & ARTS 1169 (2 CDS) TT: 75:43

WAGNER: The Flying Dutchman Overture. Prelude to Act I of Tristan and Isolde. Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung. Siegfried Idyll. Prelude to Tannhäuser. Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger
Berlin State Opera Orch/Karl Muck, cond.
SYMPOSIUM 1345 (ADD) TT: 76:48

WEBER: Oberon Overture. HUMPERDINCK-FRIED: Fantasy on Hänsel und Gretel. WAGNER: A Faust Overture. STRAUSS: Eine Alpensifonie, Op. 64.
Berlin Philharmonic Orch (Humperdinck); Berlin State Opera Orch/Oskar Fried, cond.
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1167 (F) (ADD) TT: 78:03

BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26. BACH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (ORTF/Dorati, Sept. 24, 1961). BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77. (ORTF/Kertesz, Sept. 23, 1963). BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orch/Eugene Ormandy, Oct. 5, 1959). LALO: Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21 (ORTF/Cluytens, July 1955).
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1168 (2 CDs) (F) TT: 76:13 & 66:37

If you wait (or manage to live) long enough, the past can—sometimes—return on digitally remastered CDs with a degree of pleasure that transcends their original revelation. Such is the best of three reissues from Music & Arts, and a fourth from the British firm of Symposium less rare but nonetheless welcome for its enterprise and technical expertise. For me, the cream of the crop are Bartók’s six string quartets in the 1954 mono version by the Vegh String Quartet, originally issued on three French Columbia Lps and stateside in an Angel album. Already available were complete mono versions by the New Hungarian String Quartet (of which Sándor Vegh was a founder in 1935), and the first on American Columbia (later CBS, ultimately Sony) by the Juilliard SQ. Both the Vegh and Juilliard remade all six Bartóks in stereo—the Vegh with the same personnel in 1972 for French Astrée, the Juilliard in more violent versions than before (or so I felt). The 1954 Vegh was my belated introduction to these works, and the impression made is astonishingly recapitulated on M-&-A’s “digitally refurbished” issue by Maggi Payne, who deserves to join the ranks of Mark Obert-Thorn, Ward Marston, and EMI’s Paul Baily (Re: Sound). The Vegh represented a gentler side of Bartók without softening or otherwise diluting his strengths than the Juilliard and their latter-day disciples (most notably the Emerson SQ in 1988). The Vegh also allowed Bartók his humor, which the Juilliard always seemed to begrudge (and their clones not even to acknowledge). Which means in my own case that the Emerson and a previous Tokyo version it replaced on DG can be retired without guilt or regret. It is surprising how class-A mono can, in certain chamber music works, surpass even the latest wonders of stereo realism, and the amazing thing here is that the Vegh version of ‘54 was made in France, hardly a paragon of sonic expertise during that era (or, truth to tell, several eras). Rejoice, and by all means invest. The recent Vermeers on Naxos [REVIEW] are cheaper, as they should be. Bravo, Music & Arts, and thanks for the memories.

From French Radio sources over an eight-year period (1955-63) M-&-A has obtained monaural concerto performances by Nathan Milstein, four out of five with the Orchestre Radio et Television de France (ORTF) orchestra. The Bruch and Bach listed in the headnote were conducted by Ántal Doráti, the Brahms by István Kertesz, and Lalo by André Cluytens. The fifth and best, albeit a less vividly recorded performance in 1959 from Montreux, is the Beethoven with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Bruch begins with a wash of portamento, typical of Milstein’s commercial performances – a tradition of playing he tended usually to eschew. But the Bach is an altogether superior statement as befits his reverence for the solo Sonatas and Partitas—one of which almost invariably appeared on those innumerable Sunday afternoon recitals I heard him play in Chicago over a 21-year period. (These were usually preceded by a Baroque concerto—Tartini or Vivadi—and later on featured one of the Beethoven or Brahms sonatas, then a showpiece like Ravel’s Tzigane, and at least three encores, but seldom more.) He was a patrician artist with plebian roots, a tone that could be magical (if never quite or consistently in Heifetz’s class, musical suitability apart), and first-class musicianship with the right partner. Here Doráti is efficient, the orchestra less than world-class, whereas Kertesz is brusque without compensatory vigor in the opening movement of Brahms, while Cluytens is pedestrian but no handicap—Milstein made the Lalo (with the usual third movement subtraction) virtually his own no matter who was waving a stick. But his playing of Beethoven’s slow movement, in particular, with an inspired Ormandy, is without parallel in my years of listening (usually with the feeling that it was too long). Here it is incomparably sinuous, yet with a depth of expression that will stay on the shelf after this is written and filed. “Remastering by Aaron Z. Synder (2005)” is commendable, but not an egregiously academic, self-preening program note in praise of Milstein, periodically incoherent for most lay-readers. Ignore it. If the price is not off-putting, give yourself the spiritual baptism of Beethoven, his second and final movements in particular.

The third M-&-A disc, just one although it contains the first recording ever of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, is devoted to Oskar Fried (1871-1941), “Ein vergessener Dirigent / A Forgotten Conductor.” Well, not entirely. Naxos has already given us his 1923 Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony (the disc premiere), while French Lys issued at least four CD volumes of his recordings (withdrawn, sad to say), listed in toto in a program book almost entirely in German (only pages 6 and 7 out of 20 are in English). Evidently M-&-A earmarked this disc for the German market, but it is nonetheless fascinating. The Weber Oberon Overture and Strauss are 1924 and 1925 acoustic recordings, respectively, with a limited number of players from the Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra (“unter den Linden”), while the Humperdinck fantasy Fried arranged from Hänsel und Gretel and Wagner’s “Faust Overture” are 1928 electricals, amazingly vivid given their age. (So, which follow, are Karl Muck’s 1927-29 Berlin recordings.) A friend provided me with Lys’ remastering of a 1937 Soviet recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, created for Fried, who fled east (rather then west) in 1934 when the Nazis began their anti-Jewish pogrom. In its different way it is as exciting as Charles Munch’s variable performances of that music, coupled with a 1929 Berlin version of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre. Musically, everything on the M-&-A disc is vivid, although one can’t pretend that the subtly edited orchestration of Strauss’ Alpine is more than a ghost from the past — yet a fascinating ghost that clocks in at 41 minutes, compared to the composer’s own 46- and 49-minute versions. The Humperdinck is charming indeed, and the Wagner as gripping as Toscanini found it on his best days. Add an antiquated but animated Oberon and you have some profile of a conductor unjustly vergessen, considering he was one of Mahler’s earliest disciples along with Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Keep in mind, too, that in 1929 he recorded Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony and “Nutcracker” Suite along with Delibes’ “Sylvia” Suite in England, as well as other pre-and post-electric performances with the crack Berlin Staatsoper and Philharmoniker orchestras. Perhaps M-&-A will give us these, too: a 1924 Eroica, 1928 Rimsky Shéherazade, Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite, Liszt Les Préludes, among others listed in their program book.

The Muck (rhymes with “look”) disc is generous, but it duplicates the contents of previous collections from Centaur, Preiser, Opal, Pearl, and especially Naxos, which is missing only the “Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung included here (because it ran too long). Like the contents of an Appian CD that I reviewed a few years back, the sound here is a little “toppy” but that, I suspect, was irremediably inherent in the Berlin Staatsoper originals from 1927-29. (However, I haven’t heard these equivalents in Mark Obert-Thorn’s Naxos transfers and cannot say with any certainty). But the mono sound, given its age, is stunning — German engineers during the pre-Hitler Weimar Republic were world-leaders, and from their efforts Stokowski took his cue to RCA Victor. This compilation does not include the Lohengrin Act 3 Prelude that EMI refused ever to issue but which can be heard on one of the Naxos discs (including everything of Parsifal recorded under Muck’s direction at Bayreuth in 1927 and 1929). What charmed me most on Symposium’s disc was Muck’s 1929 Siegfried Idyll with his home orchestra “under den Linden.” I’ve never been partial to the piece heretofore, but Muck put me under a spell, and for that alone I’ll keep the disc, produced using an “Authentic Transfer Process.” There is, however, an anomoly — indeed a dichotomy – over the spelling of Muck’s first name which was “Karl.” Yet on the front page of the booklet, on the back cover, and on the jewel-case spine the spelling is “Carl.” Only inside the program book does he become “Karl,” and in a credit line on the back cover: “Mitglider des Orchesters der Staastoper, BerlinDirigient [sic]: Dr. Karl Muck.” Ah, those Brits, who spell Rachmaninov “Rakh....” and Scriabin “Skryabin” for example. Phonetics, phonetics. As for the Appian issue, it has disappeared from all the lists online. In the nature of a footnote, Muck did not just record in Germany in the late 1920s; he made a series of short works with the Boston Symphony in 1917 for RCA Victor that were included in the “BSO Early Years” volume of 1995 that also included Koussevitzky’s first recordings in 1924 — a collection alas no longer available (except in prosperously enlightened libraries).

R.D. (October 2005)