5 Records You Should Own: Classical

By Paul Bolin

Vaughan Williams: Works for String Orchestra Neville Marriner/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Iona Brown, violin soloist (British LP, Argo ZRG 696)

  williams If I remember correctly the first time I heard the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams was as the soundtrack to Scott of the Antarctic starring John Mills, on some long-ago Late Late Show on the local PBS station.  I was sufficiently taken with that music that I wrote down the name of the composer.  Every time I heard a VW piece on Minnesota Public Radio’s overnight classical music program I jotted down its name.  Many years later, and some twenty years ago, this was the first recording of VW’s music I purchased (for three bucks in a long-gone record store) because it was on Argo, and according to the The Abso!ute Sound, Argos were generally good sounding records.

That I have acquired so much more of his music through the years probably summarizes my reaction to this wonderful LP.  Marriner’s affinity for the music was probably exceeded only by Sirs John Barbirolli and Adrian Boult, who were longtime personal friends of the composer.  He wrings every last drop of pathos out of the heart-wrenching final recapitulation of the theme in “Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus” (many will recognize it as the Irish ballad, “The Star of the County Down”) and the performance of the exquisite “The Lark Ascending” is the best I know.  Marriner’s interpretation of the “Fantasia on A Theme of Thomas Tallis” may not match the gravitas and solemn majesty of Barbirolli’s, but then nothing does.  Still, this record was my gateway to the composer who has come to mean as much to me as any who ever lived.

Sound is very good, as is in fact typical of Argo, which was a (British) Decca label with which it shared production teams, though not the very toppermost-of-the-poppermost.  Soundstage breadth and depth are excellent, but there’s a touch of treble harshness on some of the loudest peaks – not a lot, just enough to be heard on a really good system.  However, with music and performances of this quality, such quibbles seem mean-spirited and petty.

I must admit Vaughan Williams is my favorite orchestral composer; he wrote something for every mood and humour.  His music was nearly always elegant, intelligent, melodic, accessible and beautifully thought through while remaining substantial and rewarding upon repeated listenings.  The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is for me a marvelous tonic for all ails and you should hear it soon and often if you haven’t already.  Trust me.

Wagner: Klemperer Conducts Wagner  Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra (2 LPs, red label Angel box set  S 3610 B)

wagner2A short while ago I stopped in to my favorite downtown Minneapolis record store, the name of which I cannot in good conscience reveal, for the first time in dog years.  Within five minutes I found this amazing box set in pristine (as in it looked like it had never been played) condition.  Wagner’s orchestral music stirs my (mostly) German soul as few composers do and when I popped this beauty on my SOTA Cosmos I was floored. 

Klemperer’s approach to Wagner is quite different than that of Bruno Walter, the other major old school (i.e., born in the 19th century; both men were conducting protégés of none other than Gustav Mahler) conductor who recorded a lot of Wagner in the heyday of early stereo.  Walter took a warmer, more gemütlich approach, stressing Wagner’s abundant melodies and their interplay.  Klemperer (the father of actor Werner Klemperer, best known for playing Colonel Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes”!) focused squarely on the grandeur and majesty of Wagner’s magnificent music.  His conception of Wagner (and of Beethoven, for that matter) was one of carefully balanced but granitically solid structures that swept gracefully across the landscape in a stately and unhurried manner, with carefully enunciated inner voices.  I wouldn’t be without either conductor’s interpretations, but there are times when only the imperious Klemperer will do.

Angel LPs have a well-deserved reputation for spottiness in sonic quality, but all audiophiles who enjoy classical music would be well-advised to not ignore the very early Angels.  Anything with a red label (especially if there is a gold leaf “Stereo” stamped on the cover) is deserving of a hearing, and these records are proof.  They were recorded during February and March of 1960 by the best producers and engineers on whom British EMI could call and the sound of these records, if not the equal of the British versions, is spectacularly good with a rich and vibrant hall acoustic and profound bass.  Given that finding those British originals on this side of the pond is much like searching for penguins in the Mojave desert, this Angel set is not a second-best, but a worthy and wonderful first choice.  Glorious stuff!

Schumann: Piano Concerto Byron Janis, piano, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski/Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (LP, Mercury Living Presence SR90303)

SchumannI fell in love with Robert Schumann’s piano concerto the first time I heard it.  Later on I read the history, and learned that Schumann had written the piece for his beloved wife Clara, a pianist of no mean skills herself,  which was only fitting.  This is possibly the most Romantic composition of the most purely Romantic of composers.

Janis’  pianism, which is controlled but bravura when required, is the principal attraction here, but do not neglect for a minute Skrowaczewski’s completely simpatico accompaniment.  The Abbey Simon/Leonard Slatkin version on Vox, recorded by Marc Aubort, is also a worthy contender in the Schumann sweepstakes, but a good Mercury is a good Mercury, ‘nuff said.

The recording  venue was the MO’s longtime home, Northrop Auditorium on the Minneapolis campus of my alma mater, the University of Minnesota.  Northrop, which still exists untouched, is a  shade to the dark side of neutral, but Wilma Cozart and Bob Fine worked their indisputable magic and this is a lively and vibrant recording.  It still stands with the great recordings of the Golden Age, if not at the absolute forefront.  Records like this are why the High End came to be.

Brahms: Fourth Symphony, Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony Orchestra (LP, Classic Records reissue of Columbia MS 6113; SACD, Columbia MS 6113)

brahmsThis is another longtime favorite for both performance and sonics.  Walter’s gentle yet disciplined approach to this autumnal music brings out the joy and the sorrows of this last of Johannes Brahms’ symphonies.  Columbia LPs of the 1960s, of which the original is one, tended to be bright and thin-sounding, leading generations of audiophiles to curse Columbia producer John McClure in highly creative and colorful ways.  This LP, one of the handful of early Columbia stereo recordings that Classic reissued many years ago, proves that whatever was wrong with those records had nothing to do with McClure’s sonic tastes, but everything to do with those of the mastering engineers.  The sound has exemplary clarity with just the right bit of warmth, and all of the details of the score come through, underpinned by a solid and clean bass.  The muted conversation between the violins and cellos that open the first movement have an especial rightness, as does the exuberant third movement.

For my money, no one ever conducted this music any better than Bruno Walter, though Klemperer (again), von Karajan and Solti all have interesting things to say about Brahms’ last major work, as does the very underrated Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt on an ancient and distant-sounding Vox LP.  This record, however, is a real beauty, if you can find it.  The SACD is also very good.