Feature Review: Speakers Corner LPs [Liszt Piano Concertos/Richter … Tchaikovsky/Markevitch … Parsifal from Bayreuth/Knappertsbusch]

Written by: Rob Pennock

Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Piano Concerto No.2 in A

Sviatoslav Richter (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Kyril Kondrashin

Recorded 19-21 July 1961 at Walthamstow Town Hall, London
C. R. Fine – Recording Engineer
Harold Lawrence – Producer

Philips PHS 900-000 (1 LP)

Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

London Symphony Orchestra
Igor Markevitch

Recorded 19-21 October 1963 at Wembley Town Hall, London

Philips 835249 AY (1 LP)

Parsifal – Bühnenweihfestspiel in three acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in German

Parsifal – Jess Thomas
Gurnemanz – Hans Hotter
Amfortas – George London
Klingsor – Gustav Neidlinger
Titurel – Martti Talvela

Kundry – Irene Dallas
First Grail Knight – Niels Möller
Second Grail Knight – Gerd Nienstedt
First Squire – Sona Cervena
Second Squire – Ursula Boesa
Third Squire – Gerhardt Stolze
Fourth Squire – Georg Faskuda
First Flower Maiden, Group One – Gundula Janowitz
Second Flower Maiden, Group One – Anja Silja
Third Flower Maiden, Group One – Else-Margrete Gardelli
First Flower Maiden, Group Two – Dorothea Siebert
Second Flower Maiden, Group Two – Rita Bartos
Third Flower Maiden, Group Two – Sona Cervena
Contralto solo – Ursula Boese

Chorus & Orchestra of Bayreuth Festival
Hans Knappertsbusch

Recorded 27 July to 21 August 1962 at Bayreuth Festival,
Volker Strauss – Sound Engineer

Philips 835220/24 AY (5 LPs)

Remastered at the Emil-Berliner-Studios, Hanover

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97)

Here the artists take the score as a starting-point, not some holy writ that must be adhered to at all-times, and mould performances of immense power and conviction. Sviatoslav Richter and Kyril Kondrashin treat Liszt’s Piano Concertos very seriously, where virtuosity is never used for anything other than expressive purposes. The first movement of the E flat Concerto is a genuine Allegro maestoso, with the lyrical episodes played very slowly and expressively. Kondrashin makes the start of the slow movement into an elegy, with marvellous string phrasing. Richter matches him in poetry and produces some breathtakingly soft and subtle trilling, while the finale is taken at a spacious tempo – it is marked Allegro moderato – with tremendous weight and attack; qualities that are magnified in the faster coda.

Kyril Kondrashin (1914-81)

The introduction to the first movement of the Second Concerto is marked by beautiful legato phrasing from the woodwind and the soloist, and the stark sforzando string chords have huge weight, as Richter explores the bass sonorities of the piano. Every change of tempo is seamlessly integrated. In what might be called the slow movement, the solo cellist produces wonderful tone (and unlike modern players, joins the notes seamlessly). Richter produces a dazzling array of scales, arpeggios and arabesques. The last movement is conceived on the grandest possible scale, with a huge range of dynamics and gorgeous rubato. Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel and Krystian Zimermann have made equally compelling recordings, but Richter and Kondrashin still merit classic status.

Igor Markevitch recorded all of Tchaikovsky symphonies (including Manfred) for Philips between 1962 and 1966. The Fourth dates from October 1963, and what a performance it is! In the first movement the opening fate motif is not too slow, and the group of themes that follow are very clearly differentiated, with numerous variations of tempo (most of which are unmarked) and a plasticity of phrasing that avoids self-indulgence. Markevitch also gets the LSO to play with immense weight, subtlety, feeling – the woodwind sound positively Russian – and conviction. Tchaikovsky marks the second movement Andantino in modo di canzone, it stays in 2/4 time all the way through, and the only marked tempo change is that for the move to the major in the central Più mosso section. Unusually, Markevitch largely follows the score, only making slight adjustments to the speed to emphasise expressive points. There is a lightness of touch in the pizzicato scherzo that is exhilarating, without being breathless. Markevitch takes note of the meno mosso marking for the trio and introduces a wonderfully playful, unexpected, sudden ritartando to the bass before the upper-string pizzicatos resume. There is tremendous propulsion at the start of the finale: one will rarely hear the individual strands of the second subject so clearly delineated and delivered with such lilt, and when the theme reappears it is weighed down with melancholy. The rhythmic spring at the start of the coda is exceptional, rolling forward to a doom-laden final chord. Vladimir Ashkenazy, Evgeny Mravinsky (various), Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (live with the Leningrad Philharmonic at the Proms) and Evgeny Svetlanov have all made great recordings of the Fourth, and this Markevitch version is another classic.

Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965)

As is Hans Knappertsbusch’s Parsifal from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival. There are two ‘official’ recorded Festival performances by the tall, gaunt German maestro, who has acquired god-like status for some ardent Wagnerians. The earlier (1951) performance was issued on six Decca Bayreuth Festival label LPs, and is 20 minutes longer. With regard to the singers 1951 – all of which are in a different class to their modern-day counterparts – Ludwig Weber was a deeply reflective, sonorous (if occasionally woolly-toned) Gurnemanz, but Hans Hotter is better. Approaching the end of his career in major roles, Hotter brings added strength and focus to the part, sings (like all great Wagnerians) with Lieder-like expressiveness, and a superb unbroken, almost Italianate, line. Hermann Ühde invests Klingsor with ringing, incisive tone and real malevolence in 1951, although Gustav Neidlinger perhaps makes the character more human and has an equally fine voice. The Amfortas of George London is common to both sets and is suitably torn and anguished, has few peers on later recordings and the voice is magnificent. Neither Kundry is ideal, however. Martha Mödl on the earlier set is not as camp or vamp-like as Irene Dallas, and is less cavalier about note-values, and does not take notes from below. In 1962 Jess Thomas’s Parsifal uses his clear, weighty Heldentenor voice with intelligence and some subtlety, and yet Wolfgang Windgassen (like Hans Hotter) sings the text as though it is song, uses a greater range of dynamic and tonal shading, and better captures the character’s youthful, naïve innocence. As Titurel, Martti Talvela is magnificently sonorous, although Arnold von Mill is very good in 1951. The supporting cast in 1962 included Gerd Nienstedt, Gerhardt Stolze, Gundula Janowitz and Anja Silja, but their earlier counterparts are almost as good. In both years the Men’s Chorus has marvellous projection and virile tone, but later the women are sometimes off-key and thin-in-tone. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is made-up of invited players and both ensembles are marvellous.

Knappertsbusch’s conducting in both performances has immense sweep and grandeur, but the slower, earlier one does have a greater sense of cumulative power, concentration and occasion. By any standards though, this 1962 performance is a classic.

In terms of sound, the Liszt was recorded by the celebrated Mercury team of C. R. Fine and Harold Lawrence. At its finest, Mercury sound had presence, attack, depth and real excitement, but sometimes it was rather in-your-face and two-dimensional, and there are elements of this in this Liszt recording. The balance is very forward, the piano completely dominates, the brass is too prominent and the bass lacks control. There is, nevertheless, a certain immediacy that can be sometimes quite startling and unlike so many Philips discs the sound is never bland. All of which is very similar to the first Dutch pressings (the Speakers Corner catalogue number and sleeve relate to the first American label, which, since these were pressed from a copy of the production master, should, in theory, be of no sonic relevance, but needless-to-say, pressing plants in different countries produced different results) and vastly superior to the emaciated CD transfers that have appeared. With regard to price, the earliest Dutch LPs fetch over £100.00, later SAL Hi-Fi Stereo and US discs about £25, and all are rare.

The Tchaikovsky is very much like the original Dutch Hi-Stereo pressing, although the Speakers Corner LP has slightly greater definition, and the brass rasps and snarls more. Unlike the Liszt there is depth, a realistic balance between the sections of the orchestra, and the strings have tangible body, all of which makes the CD transfers sound sadly inadequate. The original pressings are not easy to find, although there were three different re-issues and box-sets of the symphonies (alone, or coupled with Antal Dorati’s versions of the Orchestral Suites) where the sound decreased in quality with each issue. So, if one wants the best sound, it has to be this Speakers Corner disc.

Exactly the same can be said of Parsifal. Here the balance is forward without any sense of stridency. The singers are clearly behind and above the orchestra (Bayreuth has a sunken orchestra pit) and there is a clear sense of acoustic and space. All of the soloists have presence and body, and the chorus is exceptionally full-toned, while the orchestra has both fullness and definition, and the sound expands superbly at climaxes. It is doubtful if any other performance at the Festspielhaus has been so well captured, and the Speakers Corner transfers are fully the equal of the originals; with perhaps better orchestral definition and clarity. With regard to the originals they are – it almost goes without saying – rare and the price for perfect copies in the last year has averaged around £200.00. While some of the later solid-state remasterings are very good, they all lack the weight and power of the earlier ones. There is little point in comparing these Speakers Corner discs with CD transfers, as digital sound is completely incapable of capturing the acoustic and ambience of any venue – let alone one so distinctive as Bayreuth – or the natural timbre of the human voice. Those who do not speak German should be warned: the 16-page booklet contains (as with the original LPs) no translations.

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