Feature Review: Speakers Corner LPs [Sibelius/Flagstad … Bizet/Ansermet … Mozart/Haskil/Fricsay … Richard Strauss/Karajan … Messiaen/Quartet for the End of Time/Barenboim]

Written by: Rob Pennock

Om Kvällen, Op.17/6 [orch. Jussi Jalas]; Var det en dröm, Op.37/4 [orch. Jalas]; Höstkväll, Op.38/1; 
Demanten pa Marssnon, Op.36/6; 
Flickan kom ifrån sin alsklings mote, Op.37/5 [orch. Ernest Pingoud]; 
Arioso, Op.3; Varen flyktar hastigt, Op.13/4; 
Se’n har jag ej fragat mera, Op.17/1; 
Men min Fågel märks dock icke, Op. 36/2 [orch. Pingoud]; Pa Verandan vid Havet, Op.38/2; 
Den Forsta Kyssen, Op.37/11 [orch. Nils-Eric Fougstedt]; Svarta Rosor, Op.36/1 [orch. Pingoud]; Säf, säf, susa, Op.36/4 [orch. Ivar Hellmann]; Kom nu hit, Dödl, Op.60/1
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Øivin Fjeldstad
Recorded February 1958 at Kingsway Hall, London
Alan Reeve & Gordon Parry – Engineers
John Culshaw – Producer
Remastered at Air Studios, London by Tony Hawkins & Ray Staff
Speakers Corner LP SXL 2030

Carmen – Suite No.2 [adapted by Ernest Guiraud]
L’Arlésienne – Suite
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Ernest Ansermet
Recorded in April & May 1958 at Victoria Hall, Geneva
Roy Wallace – Engineer
James Walker – Producer
Remastered at Air Studios, London, by Tony Hawkins & Ray Staff
Speakers Corner LP Decca SXL 2037

Piano Concerto in F, K459
Piano Concerto in B flat, K595
Clara Haskil (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra [K459]
Bavarian State Orchestra
Ferenc Fricsay
Recorded in September 1955 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, by Harald Baudis, and May 1957 at Herkules-Saal, Munich by Werner Wolf

Wolfgang Lohse & Otto Gerdes – Producers
Remastered at Emil Berliner Studios
Speakers Corner LP DGM 18383

Richard Strauss
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan
Recorded in January & March 1973 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, by Günter Hermanns

Dr. Hans Hirsch – Producer
Remastered at Emil Berliner Studios
Speakers Corner LP, DGG 2530 402

Quatuor pour la fin du temps
Luben Yordanoff (violin), Albert Tétard (cello), Claude Desurmont (clarinet) & Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Recorded April 1978 in Masion de la Mutualité, Paris, by Klaus Scheibe

Günther Breest – Producer
Remastered at Emil Berliner Studios
Speakers Corner LP, DGG 2531 093

Kirsten Flagstad was over 60 when this Sibelius LP was recorded, and there are some ugly sounds to be heard, where she is either flat or sharp, the tone opaque and severely worn; although there are still occasions when the voice expands gloriously. It would be nice to say that artistry, and a life-time’s experience, help to make up for these shortcomings, but neither are much in evidence. In ‘Men ein Fågel marks dock icke’ there is no light and shade, and hence little or no intimation of the girl’s longing. ‘Säv, säv, susa’ features sighing rushes, beating waves and a drowning girl, but you have to listen to the orchestra to get any idea of this. Time and again one longs for dynamic and tonal variation, only to find broad brush strokes. The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra and the conducting of Øivin Fjeldstad are however in a different class. The string tone is rich and vibrant, and the woodwinds have enormous character. Fjeldstad understands Sibelius’s bleak tonal language and orchestral soundscape, and almost convinces the listener that the orchestrations by other hands are as good as those by the Finnish master. But in the final analysis, a sense of faded grandeur – and misplaced optimism on the part of Decca – permeate this disc. Buyers should also be aware that the original came without texts, and Speakers Corner never provide anything inauthentic, which seems rather penny-pinching, given its price, although an original pressing will cost about £90.

The Ansermet vinyl is something of a rarity, with recent auction prices averaging around £150. Price and quality do not always go together, and this is fair-to-middling, without being worth (artistically) that amount of money. In the Carmen Suite Ansermet adopts flowing, but never hurried tempos, springs the rhythms, and carefully delineates line and texture. ‘Danse bohème’ responds well to this non-interventionist approach, and its cocky nature comes over beautifully. However, in the introduction to the ‘Aragonaise’, the dead weight that Toscanini so memorably imparts to the bass chords (dell’Arte LP) is absent, and the weak Suisse Romande strings are totally outplayed by their NBCSO counterparts. L’Arlésienne features four numbers from Suite No.1 and two from the second. Again Ansermet favours a no-nonsense approach. At the start of the ‘Prelude’ the string fanfares are arresting, and the piece has real swagger. Unfortunately, in ‘Carillon’ the quieter second section has a moment where an oboe fluffs a note and the ensemble comes apart. Ansermet does however impart a real sense of swing to the concluding ‘Farandole’, and the final accelerando is superb. But turn again to Toscanini and the NBCSO (Franklin Mint LP) and you find power, rhythmic panache and lyricism in perfect equilibrium.

Turning now to the sound. When Speakers Corner issued Crespin’s disc of Berlioz and Ravel (SXL 6030) the sound was an improvement on the original, the singer’s voice reproduced with startling realism, and much the same can be said of this remastering. There is no added gloss, just Flagstad’s big voice perfectly captured, warts and all. Its sheer vibrancy and presence puts to shame even the very finest high resolution digital downloads. The orchestra is not so well defined. At the beginning of side 2 the woodwinds and gong are very imposing, but the string tone – while rich – needs more edge. Part of the problem is the balance, which very much favours the singer (it was only with Solti’s Das Rheingold that Decca really learnt how to balance voice and orchestra in stereo). Rather strangely it becomes more natural on the last three tracks where the strings and harp are more audible. The overall balance is well-nigh perfect, with the sound emanating from the rear of the speakers, and the sense of width, depth and height is exemplary. Those modern-day producers who are obsessed with creating aircraft-hangar-like acoustics, might care to note that the venue’s ambience and reverberation time are perfectly captured.

The Ansermet was also recorded in 1958. Both the original and this remastering are bass-light, and the reasons for this are not difficult to detect. Decca used half-speed mastering, but even with this, the Westrex cutting heads would have had problems with a tape carrying very deep bass. There is also the suspicion that some recording teams did not realise exactly what stereo sound could do, and unnecessarily cut the bass-response. Knowing that the Air remastering engineers strive to reproduce faithfully what is on the master-tapes, one can assume that the problem lies therein. Different teams also produced different sound, and all of the 1950s’ Geneva recordings are brighter than those made in London or Vienna. There is also on the middle tracks of side 2 some wow and flutter, which may indicate that the tape was compromised. The sound does however have clarity, depth, width and excellent focus, the brass is powerfully incisive, the strings have bite, the woodwind are – given their quality – all too present!

Deutsche Grammophon LPs (Gesellschaft was dropped in late 1971 after the creation of Polygram) were not noted for their sound quality, and its catalogue did not feature many collectible artists, but Kai Seamen of Speakers Corner told me that they are very popular with far-east collectors, So it seemed sensible to look, in brief, at a comparative rarity, the Haskil disc, and a seventies’ disc from that ubiquitous, èminence grise, Herbert von Karajan. To DG’s credit, they also championed contemporary, and, at the time, little-recorded music; hence the inclusion of the Messiaen.

The Romanian pianist Clara Haskil (1895-1960) was a distinguished Mozartean, who made recordings of eleven of the piano concertos for various labels. This DGG LP features beautifully moulded, classically proportioned playing that never sounds twee or effete. Haskil is not afraid to take her time in both slow movements, use exquisite rubato, and minimal ornamentation; while her playing of both finales is urbane and unforced. Ferenc Fricsay was also a great Mozartean, and he works hand-in-glove with the soloist. There are other ways of doing Mozart, but this is immensely civilised music-making.

Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is best known for its tremendous opening, but the rest is a bit of a let-down. Karajan loved this composer’s music. On this LP you have all of the conductor’s hallmarks; smooth, glossy sound and an almost complete lack of genuine emotion. The performance does, however, have sweep and power, and Karajan is able to make even the longeurs sound passably interesting. Both of Fritz Reiner’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra versions (RCA) have more individuality and command, but Karajan is amongst the-best-of-the-rest.

Messiaen’s haunting Quartet for the End of Time was premiered in 1941 in a German prisoner-of-war camp, but had to wait until 1968 for its first recording. Unsurprisingly, given that it is written for piano trio with B flat clarinet, and lasts about 50 minutes, it still does not receive many performances, and it has only been relatively recently that multiple versions have become available. There is nothing much wrong with this version, but compared to Michel Beroff on the 1968 HMV version, Barenboim sounds unidiomatic, Claude Desurmont’s clarinet-playing does not quite equal Gervase de Peyer’s inspirational account on the HMV and there are occasions when the rhythms and phrasing are foursquare. So, despite having the composer’s imprimatur, this is an interesting – as opposed to definitive – account of the work.

The re-pressed LPs have been compared with early German pressings. Unfortunately the sound on the Haskil is decidedly drab on both. The dynamic range is very limited (the orchestra sounds about twenty-strong, and the piano is too prominent. The only slight difference is that the later pressing has a slight halo of reverberation around the piano, which is probably just a product of the equipment used, as opposed to being intentional.

The beginning of Zarathustra presents huge problems for any recording team. It has to capture the organ, double bassoon and the double basses’ bottom C, massed wind and percussion, and a long crescendo, without swamping the strings and harps. On the Speakers Corner disc, the organ has slightly more body than the original, the thwack of the sticks on the timpani is vividly caught, the crescendo leads to a huge climax without any sense of strain, and you can just about hear the strings; in essence the sound is slightly weighty. However the timpani on the original have even greater impact, and the cymbal clashes are crisper. The same traits run through the entire work, one is fuller, the other has more clarity. Compared to the dull sound DGG produced in the 1950s and 1960s, this is pretty good.

On the Messiaen, the clarinet has lost some of the original’s mellowness, the whole image is more defined, and whether this a good or bad thing, is debatable. Depending on mood, sometimes one sounded better, sometimes the other. However, both are preferable, having greater presence, fullness and flow, to the CD transfer, and it almost goes without saying, that one can say the same about all of these LPs.

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