Feature Review: From ICA Classics – BBC Legends box sets and Guido Cantelli, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer

Written by: Colin Anderson

Two different brands, but the stables are adjacent and have a connecting door, linked through the release of archive recordings preserving the work of distinguished musicians no longer with us.

BBC Legends Volume 2

The second volume of BBC Legends, now courtesy of ICA, reissues a further twenty discs. You will search in vain for a booklet, although artists and repertoire, and dates and locations, and other credits, are informed on the individual sleeves. A snapshot follows in disc order.

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto features dedicatee David Oistrakh (Philharmonia/Rozhdestvensky, Edinburgh 1962) in an intense, handsome-sounding performance, followed by father and son (Igor) in some Ysaÿe, the rather attractive and darkly romantic Amitié, Sargent conducting (1961). As bonus tracks, another stellar violinist, Nathan Milstein, is heard, playing Paganini, Falla and Nováček (1957) – very fine – and where a pianist is needed, it’s Ernest Lush. Next Thomas Beecham’s Royal Festival Hall accounts of Sibelius 2 (BBCSO, 1954) and Dvořák 8 (RPO, 1959), the performances exciting, expressive and atmospheric, even explosive; and also RFH, 1961, Sviatoslav Richter mesmerising in piano music by Haydn and Prokofiev, including the latter’s Eighth Sonata. Another legendary pianist follows, Arthur (here Artur) Rubinstein in Concertos by Saint-Saëns (No.2, Rudolf Schwarz) and Mozart (K488, Colin Davis) and short pieces by Brahms, Chopin, Schubert and Villa-Lobos – much to relish in recordings made between 1957 and 1962. By contrast Claudio Arrau offers a heavyweight programme compiled from appearances at BBC Studios in 1959 and 1960 – Beethoven (Opus 27/1, the quasi una fantasia Sonata that is not the ‘Moonlight’), Schumann (Fantasy in C) and Schoenberg (Three Pieces, Opus 11) – deeply considered readings.

Discs Six to Ten include Arturo Toscanini conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935, in London’s Queen’s Hall, a venue destroyed a few years later by Nazi bombing in World War Two. Included are Cherubini’s Anacreon Overture, a hit-and-miss Mozart ‘Haffner’ Symphony and – something Toscanini did very well – Beethoven 7, not least with regard to the tempo-relationships between Scherzo and Trio, the latter kept on the move. Myra Hess’s contributions contain some gems, including an affecting Schumann Piano Concerto (1958, Sargent at the helm), followed by some Bach, including the A-major English Suite, and Mozart: priceless performances. I wouldn’t count the guitar as a favourite instrument, but there is no mistaking the artistry of Andrés Segovia, from the 1955 Edinburgh Festival, his richly expressive and beautiful-sounding playing illuminating suites and short pieces (including Bach, Schubert and Villa-Lobos), twenty-five tracks in all. Later you will read that I am less than enamoured with Cantelli’s Brahms 1. How different my response to Carlo Maria Giulini’s majestic conducting of it – what depth, insight and sacred identification he shows, and how magnificent the 1962 Philharmonia is, shining in Paul’s Baily’s classy re-mastering. There is also a thrilling Verdi Force of Destiny Overture (passions aflame, but again ‘from within’) and Giulini is heard talking with John Amis. Disc Ten features Kirsten Flagstad in Grieg and Wagner (1953/57, including her Farewell Concert), Sargent conducting throughout.

Eleven to Fifteen. Géza Anda is heard from 1955 in Edinburgh, impressive – lyrical and ardent – in Beethoven (Opus 10/3), Schumann (Symphonic Studies), Bartók and Brahms (Paganini Variations), and further evidence of the outstanding pianists this volume possesses. Next, Stravinsky conducting his Agon, Apollo, and Symphony in Three Movements (BBCSO, 1958). Whatever his abilities as a maestro, accounts vary about this (maybe Robert Craft assisted the preparations), these are generally satisfactory if not necessarily definitive performances, and the sound is amazingly vivid. The Russian connection continues with the Borodin Quartet, its members as in 1962, attending Edinburgh and playing Shostakovich (No.8), Borodin (No.2) and Ravel. Benjamin Britten had his Russian confreres (including Richter, Rostropovich and Shostakovich) and on Disc Fourteen he stylishly conducts Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.4 (Mozartiana, ECO, 1962) and Mahler 4 (LSO, 1961, with Joan Carlyle), the latter lively and classical, and benefitting from another Baily re-mastering. From Edinburgh 1957, Victoria de los Angeles brings a box of vocal delights from numerous composers, Gerald Moore discreet yet characterful at the piano, and then three songs from Les Nuits d’été (‘Vilanelle’ just about perfect), Rudolf Schwarz conducting – a shame not to have the whole cycle, but maybe that was all she sung of the Berlioz (in April 1957, London) yet perhaps she included something else, if not included, although there is room.

Discs Sixteen to Twenty. Britten features once more, this time as pianist, partnering Yehudi Menuhin in Sonatas by Debussy, Haydn and Schubert, as well as the latter’s extended Fantasy in C (D934). At the Aldeburgh Festivals of 1957 and 1959, although one could express some doubts regarding Menuhin’s tone and intonation, these were meetings of great minds, especially evident in the Debussy, and both musicians are afforded plenty of well-balanced presence, especially in 1959, which is most of these selections save D934 in which the piano is a little distant. There’s another Beethoven 7, an impressive one, from Eduard van Beinum, impetus and trenchancy hand-in-hand, a real ear-opener as to the energy this music can impart and – in the Allegretto – grandeur. On 10 November 1958, this Philharmonia/RFH concert also included Beethoven 2, and it received a weighty and keen outing, spacious and serene in the Larghetto. Then Pierre Monteux leads Ravel, Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms, a bit sluggish) and Brahms 3 (rugged) with three orchestras (BBCSO, BBC Northern and LSO, the latter in a slice of Falla) during 1961 and 1962. If composers conducting their own music is not always the ultimate, as Stravinsky above, then William Walton leading his great First Symphony in a fervent performance, with Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic (Edinburgh, 1959), is much recommended; yes, a few things are a little scrambled, but the RPO is on top of the score’s many challenges, and the sound doesn’t compromise a vivid experience. From the same concert, Walton’s then recent Cello Concerto (for Piatigorsky) finds Pierre Fournier intensely involved, if far too closely balanced, and the composer pushing things forward – the Moderato first movement is upgraded to a tight Allegretto – as if he was embarrassed by the music’s capacity to seduce, and if the Finale is less discursive than it can seem it doesn’t compensate for the loss of characteristic turns of phrase. Finally another renowned pianist, Walter Gieseking, from BBC sessions in 1953 and 1956, sensitive and enquiring of Debussy (including ‘Clair de lune’ from a complete Suite bergamasque), Ravel and Schumann’s Kreisleriana – the latter fantastical and poetic – the whole recital very engaging.
[ICA Classics ICAB 5141, 20 CDs, approx 24 hours, ★★★★]

Volume One of BBC Legends, issued in 2013, remains available and includes Janet Baker, Beecham, Curzon, Annie Fischer, Gilels, Giulini, Horenstein (Mahler 8), Kempff, Michelangeli, Mravinsky (Shostakovich 8), Richter and Toscanini (Missa solemnis).
[ICA Classics ICAB 5113, 20 CDs, approx 25 hours, ★★★★]

As a postscript, I am surprised that Sir Adrian Boult is not represented in either box even though there is, for example, a sovereign Proms performance of Schubert 9. Should a third Legends box be planned it would be good to find this 1969 account included; meanwhile there are several fine Boult examples on ICA Classics (including Brahms and Elgar), my cue for…

The ICA Classics triptych – featuring Guido Cantelli, Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer, mostly with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London – all carry the advice that these concert and studio performances are a “first CD release” (their preservation owing to home-recording enthusiast Richard Itter, of Lyrita fame, with present-day thanks to Daniel Chapchal) although not necessarily meaning that the repertoire is new to the respective conductors’ discographies.

Cantelli, who died tragically young (1920-56), the victim of a plane crash, is heard from a Royal Albert Hall programme given on 11 May 1953, one of his twenty-eight Philharmonia appearances. Rossini’s Semiramide Overture, for all the deft playing and balletic poise, also has some stinging attacks, cheap and noisy to my mind, if perhaps emphasised in this cavernous acoustic. Schumann 4 (1851 revision) suits the “volatile” Cantelli to some extent but his penchant for overloaded fortissimos, brass edgily prominent, is less favourable, if countered by a passionate singing line, although his inserted long gap between the first two movements is ruinous to Schumann’s intended continuity. It’s good though to have a complete concert made available, and if the concluding Brahms 1 (Cantelli conducted this Symphony more than any other, reveals Keith Bennett in the booklet essay) is an uneasy mix of stressed loudness (fuelled by cannon-shot timpani) and affecting lyricism (bel canto if you will) there is no doubt that the emotional force of it all easily transcends the decades, but it left me cold, and the closing bars (with added timpani, just like his mentor Toscanini, unfortunate), are whipped up to be no more than bombastic, although the Philharmonia gives its all.
[ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5143, 80 minutes, ★★★]

The Karajan twofer, from various Royal Festival Hall dates in 1955 and 1956, when Karajan was on the cusp of being appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic, includes a Tchaikovsky 4 that is quite remarkable, the Philharmonia brass really blazes with great import at the opening – fateful indeed – and the rest of the Symphony leaps off the page, played superbly and intensely (when you think that neither conductor nor orchestra can give any more, they do) and the slow movement is eloquent and beautifully dovetailed although, despite exact execution, the Scherzo is on the stodgy side. The sound has clarity and is testimony enough to what must have been a thrilling experience on the night, maybe overwhelming – it is certainly compelling decades later. Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole follows (a different concert) – refined, languorous, diaphanous – the faster movements the epitome of painstaking preparation to match the composer’s watchmaker precision. The second Karajan disc is of Mozart, stately ‘big band’ accounts of the ‘Haffner’ and ‘Jupiter’ Symphonies, in which expression and detailing take precedence over haste, and the better for it; that said the Finale of the ‘Haffner’ goes at the marked Presto, the Philharmonia infallible, so too the corresponding movement of the ‘Jupiter’ while remaining contrapuntally clinical; and, by contrast, the Andante cantabile is a lusciously romantic adagio. There is also the A-major Piano Concerto (K488) with Clara Haskil. “It was an unlikely pairing: the urbane and worldly Karajan […] and the saintly Haskil…”, writes Richard Osborne in his booklet note. Her playing is indeed divine, radiating something confidential, especially in the slow movement, Karajan tailoring an appropriately intimate accompaniment, woodwinds winsome, chamber music writ large.
[ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5142, 2 CDs, 2 hours 9 minutes, ★★★★]

Klemperer gets the ‘biggie’ release, four discs shared equally between the Philharmonia (Royal Festival Hall) and BBC Symphony Orchestra (studio). Philharmonia Mozart is again featured, from 24 January 1956, expansive accounts of Symphonies 29 and 40, beguiling music-making (the slow movement of K201 is straight from the Elysian Fields), with a greater bass response and more repeats than Karajan, and Klemperer’s severity with the G-minor work is appropriate. In the A-major Violin Concerto (K219) the soloist is Polish-born Bronislav Gimpel (1911-79, younger brother of pianist Jakob) who had been the LA Phil’s concertmaster during Klemperer’s time there; he is a little uningratiating in timbre, but there is a lot that is likeable. The other Philharmonia disc includes the remaining Mozart from the aforementioned concert, the ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ Serenade, a charming and light-footed outing played with beauty and agility (if your knowledge of Klemperer is his ‘late’ lethargic tempos, this will surprise). The rest is Brahms, from 12 November 1956, a Tragic Overture as fiery and incisive as it is introspective and luminous, and a superb Second Symphony, flexible to lyricism and with impassioned impetus when required – Klemperer with a gateway to Brahms’s innermost thoughts: the slow movement is sublime and the Finale a runaway success.

With an enthused BBCSO, Klemperer, captured over several audience-free days in December 1955, challenges his Philharmonia versions of Beethoven, Bruckner and Schumann. An imposing account of Beethoven 2 – including a particularly roomy and meaningful Larghetto and a measured Finale, the latter’s rhythmic profile and emphases not unlike Celibidache in Munich (a treasured rendition alongside Kubelík in Amsterdam) – is followed by an equally striking, articulate and wholesome Schumann 4 (as revised) in which Klemperer outmanoeuvres Cantelli by observing the important first-movement repeat and continuing into the ‘Romanze’ with judicious timing. The penultimate work is Bruckner 7 (Nowak’s edition), which comes with a warning about the sound quality “in places” (yet there is little to trouble the listener), a flowing, unsentimental and well-proportioned account, all over in fifty-seven minutes – swift by the clock but, as is the preserve of the greatest musicians, wonderfully convincing, especially in the slow movement, solemn and special. For Klemperer the inclusion of ‘Fêtes’ from Debussy’s Nocturnes might seem a bit left-field, but as a younger man he was on top of music contemporary to him, and he was “delighted” to include the Frenchman’s music for the BBC; if the performance is a little unidiomatic and somewhat unsubtle, it is also an intriguing appendix.
[ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5145, 4 CDs, 4 hours 30 minutes, ★★★★]

A final word regarding the ICA label new releases, for restoration engineer Paul Baily, who has done a marvellous job with the source material, avoiding over-processing and with it the nasty discolouration of timbres that usually occurs when hiss and crackle removal is thought more important than preserving the music with fidelity; throughout the timbres are open and natural and as good as they are going to get, and very listenable. It’s also Baily who is often responsible for the excellent reproduction on the Legends issues and which can be enjoyed without the distraction of zealous and unmusical audio intervention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content