EMIs recently introduced Gemini series is derived from the labels back catalog and based on the idea of a two-disc set priced as a single mid-price CD. The series so far includes opera as well as instrumental music. The recordings that have come my way are all stereophonic, but none has been given the "Abbey Road Technology" remastering which EMI has used to such good advantage in its "Great Recordings of the Century" reissues. The four orchestral (or mostly orchestral) items under review here, from as far back as the late 1950s to as recent a year as 1994, are intriguing beyond the obvious appeal of the low price. Two of them provide economical coverage of music beyond the so-called basic repertory. In the two others, which happen to be the oldest and most recent of the recordings involved, we find Sir Thomas Beecham doing his thing -- Haydns final set of six symphonies for London -- and Wolfgang Sawallisch doing something nobody would have regarded as his thing: a complete Swan Lake.
Beecham was without question the most interesting and admired British conductor of the first half of the 20th century. He was colorful in every respect, he was almost alone in performing Mozart symphonies beyond the familiar half-dozen of the composers last years, and he added to the abundance of Londons orchestras by creating two of them himself. Not at all unexpectedly for a conductor who gave so much attention to Mozart, he also focused frequently on Haydn, and his performances of Haydn symphonies were unfailingly charming. Beecham, however, showed not the slightest interest in the great swell of Haydn research that followed World War II: he simply kept on using his old corrupt scores. An associate remarked, in fact, on his dismay when Sir Thomas called for his Haydn scores around 1960, the year before his death, not to make corrections but simply to revise the bowings. Other conductors had by then converted eagerly to H.C. Robbins Landons critical editions, and listeners found that the authentic Haydn was a far more stimulating, more original, more substantial, and even more witty and charming composer than the image of "Papa Haydn" based on those adulterated scores.
To be sure, Beecham drew elegant performances from his Royal Philharmonic (beautiful wind playing everywhere), and for Beecham loyalists this set will be self-recommending. For those accustomed to the meatier realizations by the likes of Hermann Scherchen, George Szell, Eugen Jochum, Leonard Bernstein, Antal Doráti and Ádám Fischer, however, Beechams recordings can only be a sort of souvenir of "inauthenticity" delivered with stylish but no longer persuasive commitment -- rather like the old practice of performing Bruckner symphonies in which that composers well-intentioned disciples had smoothed away the rough spots and supposed "errors" that were the very core of that his individual style.
Sawallischs recording of the earliest of Tchaikovskys great ballet scores, completed ten years ago with what was then his Philadelphia Orchestra, was totally unexpected. Here is a conductor identified with the great Viennese/Central European repertory -- Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, Schumann, Dvorák, Hindemith, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner -- and a Tchaikovsky symphony or concerto now and then, but not ballet music, and certainly not a "full-evening" ballet in its entirety. One can only imagine that it was this general perception on the publics part that led to this Swan Lakes having a fairly brief period in the active catalogue, but it is good that it is given a second chance now. Sawallisch apparently made no attempt to achieve a danceable performance, but seems to have gone at this score as an extended symphonic poem, basing his approach on what works for the ear instead of attempting to evoke visual images of stage action.
This is of course an eminently valid option for a concert performance or a recording, and, as the Philadelphians were at or near the top of their legendary form and the digital recording is quite good, more than a few listeners should find this an excellent buy. Only occasionally, in such numbers as the Danse des coupes in Act I and the Mazurka in Act III, is there a lack of animation or exuberance. Both of the supplementary numbers in Act III are included, and the only cuts are two clearly expendable repeats early in the same act. Not much in the way of annotation, but the detailed tracking is very helpful. First choice for Swan Lake is still the ingratiating full-price set with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal SO at on Decca, but this is an intriguing one for the overall symphonic concept and continuity as well as the obvious economy. At the price, the Gemini set might also be considered by collectors who like to have more than a single version of such works.
The Gemini price might also attract listeners who have yet to acquaint themselves with the music of Karol Szymanowski. Attractive performances of several major works, recorded by the composers compatriots between 1974 and 1981 and reissued earlier on separate CDs, have been effectively remastered here: Jacek Kaspszyk conducts the Polish Radio National SO in the Concert Overture and Symphony No. 2. Jerzy Semkow conducts the same orchestra in the Third Symphony ("Song of the Night," with the tenor Wiéslaw Ochman and the Cracow Radio chorus) and the Fourth (Sinfonia concertante, with the pianist Piotr Paleczny). Antoni Wit conducts the complete ballet score Harnasie, and the well remembered pianist Felicja Blumental performs three solo pieces: two mazurkas and the Op. 3 Variations. This is tuneful, colorful music with a very distinctive character, in performances that are unreservedly engaging. Wits striking one of Harnasie rivals the famous LP version under Witold Rowicki, and benefits from better sound and the convenience of having the works eleven sections on individual tracks. This set is a low-risk investment offering substantial dividends in listening pleasure.
Finally, the Bartók set with Yehudi Menuhin ranks high in the recorded legacy of the American violinist who was made a knight and then a lord before he died in England. In his late 20s Menuhin commissioned the Sonata for unaccompanied violin, the last work Bartók completed, and he made the premiere recordings of that work and the great Concerto No. 2. His final one of the Sonata, offered here, is at a bit of a disadvantage because of the overripe acoustic, but it is a knowing and persuasive performance. The last of his four recordings of the big Concerto (three of them with Antal Doráti, who conducts the New Philharmonia here) is an eloquent one, if stronger on elegance than on earthy abandon. (Menuhin chose the original ending rather than the virtuosic alternative Bartók provided for Zoltán Székely, who gave the premiere.) The two rhapsodies, with the BBC SO under Pierre Boulez, are beautifully realized -- the fast concluding section of No. 1 calling to mind the Shaker tune Aaron Copland used in Appalachian Spring. The violinist is at his very best in the earlier Concerto, which came to light only after Bartóks death, the Viola Concerto, which had to be assembled by Tibor Serly from unsorted sketches, and the six well chosen numbers from the set of 44 Duos for two violins, in which his very able partner is Nell Gotkovsky.
There are smoother-sounding recordings of all these works, but all of these are more than serviceable and the set is quite a document in the history of 20th-century music, and at this price duplicating the big Concerto, if it comes to that, can hardly be regarded as painful.
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