Feature Review: Speakers Corner and Tacet LPs – Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (Serkin/Laredo/Parnas) … Bizet’s Carmen (Marilyn Horne/James McCracken/Leonard Bernstein) … Mozart’s Gran Partita (Stuttgart Winds) … Schumann/Horowitz

Written by: Rob Pennock

Serenade in B flat, K361 (Gran Partita)
Stuttgart Winds
Recorded October 2012
Andreas Spreer – Producer & Recording engineer
Tacet 180gm vinyl: TACET L209

Concerto in C for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op.56
Rudolf Serkin (piano), Jamie Laredo (violin), Leslie Parnas (cello)
Marlboro Festival Orchestra
Alexander Schneider
Recorded May 1962 at Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York
Thomas Frost – Producer
Ed Michalski & John Johnson – Recording engineers
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: MS 6564

Carmen – opéra comique in four Acts to a libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée [sung in French]
Carmen – Marilyn Horne
Don José – James McCracken
Escamillo – Tom Krause
The Manhattan Opera Chorus
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus
Leonard Bernstein
Recorded 22 September to 13 October 1972 at the Manhattan Centre, New York
Douglas W. Mowrey – Producer
Günter Hermanns – Engineer
Speakers Corner: 180gm, 3 LPs: DG 2709 043

Kreisleriana, Op.16
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.14 – III: Quasi Variazioni [Andantino de Clara Wieck]
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
Recorded 5 & 14 February and 1 December 1969 at CBS 30th Street Studio, New York
Richard Kullough – Producer
Ray Moore & Fred Pluat – Engineers
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: Columbia MS 7264

Until now these vinyl features have usually concentrated on re-mastering derived from master-tapes supplied by Decca, Deutsche Grammophon et al. However, the German company Tacet produces new 180-gram recordings using valve/tube technology, which are also released on DVD audio, SACD and Blu-ray, the latest of which is Mozart’s Grand Partita, which fits very nicely onto an LP, even with all the repeats observed, as here. The use of valve microphones, cutting-head amplifiers and the like is certainly interesting and presumably dictated by the liking many audiophiles have for recordings produced up until 1969 using such technology (as to whether they are better than solid-state, or a combination of the two, is an entirely different matter).

The scoring is for four horns and pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, basset-horns and a double bass, but there is some confusion about the number of horns used here; an album photograph shows three players, but the sleeve lists four, while one’s ears say there are two, and one presumes Stuttgart Winds follows the score. Nevertheless, this account is sophisticated and urbane; the musicians produce a weighty, elegant timbre, often create a seamless legato, and avoid extreme tempos. They are not afraid to take their time in the opening Largo; the Molto allegro has bounce and wit, and the ensuing large-scale Minuet’s two contrasting Trios are integrated into the whole, and there is a quiet sense of refined elegance. Today you will rarely hear the opening of the Adagio played with such Romantic breadth of phrasing. Indeed, each of the seven movements is full of such felicities. There is no perfect performance of this work and that of Stuttgart Winds is as good as any.

The recorded sound is fascinating. The lacquers were cut using half-speed mastering (which is said to improve the accuracy and quality of the groove profile). There is an excellent sense of depth that appears to mirror the album photo. However, the liner note say the musicians were sat in a closed circle, and, being analogue, one can hear the acoustic space around the performers. Definition and clarity are exemplary (although the double bass sounds slightly tubby) and every instrument can be clearly heard – internal balance is perfect. Analogue sound does have a weakness in that the dynamic range has to be reduced to stop the cutting head mis-tracking, or being damaged, and the range does seem a little too constricted. Nonetheless, if you want this work in analogue sound – and who wouldn’t – this is the version to go for, and one can only hope Stuttgart Winds will turn to Gounod and Dvořák.

If one were to glance at the Beethoven Triple Concerto sleeve one could be forgiven for thinking that it was an LP of Piano Trios, as the name of the conductor and orchestra are relegated to very small print. Rudolf Serkin merits the biggest billing. You could also ask why one of the world’s great pianists appeared with two musicians who have not gone on to become household names. The answer to which appears to be twofold. First, Jamie Laredo was making his way as a soloist and the slightly older Leslie Parnas was similarly trying to forge a career. Second, this was very much a matter of Serkin using his position as Director of the Marlboro Festival to promote their careers and the Festival itself, hence the choice of orchestra and conductor (Alexander Schneider was a talented violinist and conductor and staunch supporter of the Festival).

The performance is very interesting. Schneider ensures that the orchestral introduction is suitably terse and incisive, the tempo a true Allegro, and yet when one remembers the stunning accompaniment (partnership is a more appropriate word) that Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic provided for Serkin in the ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, you know that it could be done better. Laredo and Parnas are eloquent in the first subject. Throughout the movement one is constantly drawn to Serkin. Effectively, if you have one of the great Beethoven pianists on the platform you need musicians with bigger personalities to match. That said Parnas does sing the start of the sublime Largo very beautifully, as does Laredo when he takes the theme over, and the movement flows serenely by. The finale’s main subject is in Polonaise rhythm, here the two string-players really seem to catch fire, the movement has real bounce and panache, and despite the misgivings, this is a reading I will return to.

As two previous Speakers Corner re-masterings of 1950s’ CBS LPs – featuring Gershwin and Prokofiev, conducted respectively by Bernstein and Mitropoulos – demonstrated, CBS did not always (as thought by most audiophiles) produce bad sound, but this Beethoven disc is far from ideal. The introduction has little definition, clarity, or sense of depth, and the violins seem to have lost – when compared to a first-label US pressing – their upper register and sparkle. The treble on the Speakers Corner re-mastering of Serkin and Ormandy in Mendelssohn’s two Piano Concertos had the same problem. It is as though the top has been filtered and/or the master-tapes were compromised (one can only hope that the engineers do not suffer from that terrible modern disease, the totally unnecessary desire to eliminate background hiss).

Whichever recording of the Triple Concerto you listen to there is a problem in balancing what is in effect a piano trio with the orchestra. CBS’s solution was to let the soloists fill the entire foreground with the orchestra somewhere in the background. On the positive side, the overall balance is excellent, the new pressing has greater weight and presence, and once again if you want perfect copies that are readily available then Speakers Corner has to be the first port-of-call.

Bernstein’s Carmen was based on the 1972 Metropolitan Opera production, and – quite rightly – used spoken dialogue, not recitative. The performance is dominated by Marilyn Horne’s gypsy who treats men as disposable play-things. As probably the greatest coloratura mezzo of all-time, every note is perfectly in-place. There are no aspirates, the voice is even throughout its huge range, the vocal and dynamic shading are exemplary, and while some might not like her aggressiveness and in-your-face sexuality, for others (this listener included) she is the best Carmen. James McCracken is suitably torn and anguished as Don José, and frighteningly intense in the final scene, but in his laudable desire to sing the rise to the B-flat in the ‘Flower Song’ pianissimo – as marked – he lapses into falsetto, and some of his note-values are approximate.

Tom Krause is a powerful Escamillo, Adriana Maliponte’s Micaëla is beautifully sung and characterised, and the smaller roles are all well taken, with the choral singing (the children are wonderful) and orchestral playing being magnificent. Some of Bernstein’s tempos are slow, and very fluid, but far more importantly, he is not afraid to spring and drive home the rhythms (the dead-weight of the forte chords is exceptional), beguilingly – and when necessary, searingly. Only Carlos Kleiber has brought such dramatic sweep and power to the score.

In terms of sound, this set is the only Deutsche Grammophon recording featured in the celebrated Harry Pearson, The Absolute Sound (TAS) list. The overall balance is middle-distance, there is tremendous depth, and despite the resonant acoustic, the sound does not boom. Every instrument is beautifully captured and the strings have real body, with the double basses in excellent definition. The woodwinds have projection and character (there is however a degree of spotlighting.

Unsurprisingly, given the above, soloists and chorus have exceptional presence. It really is a pleasure to hear all the individual timbres so faithfully presented, and exactly the same can be said of the chorus, which has rarely been captured with such body and clarity in this opera. The children’s choir is vividly captured, although as the urchins exit the resonant acoustic and distancing effect sound unnatural.

When compared with a first-label German pressing, the new set has more weight and attack, although the upper-strings have lost a little of their brilliance. Nevertheless, despite the cost, this is the one to go for. With regard to presentation: why doesn’t Speakers Corner use inner-sleeves with a window? At this price, it shouldn’t be necessary for buyers to take the LPs out of, or mark the sleeves, to see which is which.

Vladimir Horowitz recorded the Schumann in December 1969, when he was 66, and the playing belongs to the gods. The Andantino from the Third Sonata opens with crushed velvet, with legato phrasing at the first forte, and there is no sense of effort or harshness, the sound simply expands gloriously, the rubato is exquisite. The tempo variations belong – alas – to a world that is long gone (as does the use of antiphonal hands) and in the more agitated passages the sense of conversation between those hands is palpable (indeed you could be forgiven for thinking the time-signatures are different).

Kreisleriana is theoretically in eight movements, but Schumann’s mercurial genius makes it sound like a free fantasy on a series of themes that no-one else could possibly have written. Horowitz revelled in this diversity. In the section marked Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch, the theme is sung at a flowing tempo, with deep innigkeit. In the more violent interludes the range of dynamics is startling – the piano really does seem to explode – and yet the control is absolute. Gorgeous melody is moulded with a kaleidoscopic palette of pianissimo tonal and dynamic shading. Horowitz ignores the Schnell marking in the finale, which enables him to spring the ideas in the most delightfully cheeky, elfin fashion,. This is a Schumann masterclass that it has been a privilege to listen to.

The LP was not released until 1972, and given the marvellous sound quality, it is difficult to believe that at more-or-less the same time CBS could produce such emaciated rubbish for Glenn Gould; although there is a huge difference in the quality of the piano-playing. For comparative purposes a first-label US pressing has been used. Both have a fairly forward balance, the instrument fills the entire space between the speakers, and being analogue there is a tangible, vivid sense of space around the instrument. Horowitz’s dynamic range was huge and at both ends of the spectrum much of this has been captured without any sense of overloading. Every register is full and perfectly balanced, which means that the pianist’s sense of balance and exceptional tonal palette are never compromised, and clarity and definition are exemplary.

All of these qualities can be heard on the original, but the new transfer brings added weight and power, and an even greater sense of presence. Indeed this is the finest piano sound I have heard from a CBS tape. It is also – one suspects – the finest example of the Horowitz sound available, and puts the Sony Classical Horowitz Edition to shame.

Leave a Reply

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

Skip to content