The Monteux Era by Thomas Simone
Mercury Living Presence Opera Discography by Ron Penndorf
Tape Editing by Harold Lawrence
Yehudi Menuhin on Record by Thomas Simone
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan by Ron Penndorf and Andrew Willford
The Unforgettable Encounter with Khansahib by W. D.
Jackie McLean by Richard Brown
In the world of classical music, the conductor holds center stage. Perhaps the most famous example was the romantic Toscanini and RCA's promotion of his image. In more recent times von Karajan has been cast as hero-conductor, and Leonard Bernstein held passionate sway over audiences around the world. Even to this day, Furtwängler's visionary and tragic career has commanded fierce loyalty, or strong denunciations.
The place of the conductor has recently been discussed in an intriguing yet suspect book by Norman Lebrecht, called The Maestro Myth (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991). Its thesis is that, most famous conductors are in a struggle for power and control. The book presents itself as an exposé.
Significantly, Pierre Monteux is scarcely mentioned in this attack on power-seeking conductors. It is understandable that in such a world, Pierre Monteux, a man of supreme musical gifts, wit, sensitivity, and humility would not appear to be a great or an important conductor.
Yet many knowledgeable listeners have ascribed the highest rank to Monteux's performances and recordings. One French critic showed remarkable insight in 1965 immediately after Monteux's death.
Do you remember Debussy's perceptive remark: "Where are our good old harpsichordists? They possessed the secret of that profound grace, free of fits[épilepsie], which we ungrateful children have forgotten. . . ." This remark often comes to mind when I hear a recording of Pierre Monteux. He possessed the secret of that profound musicality which we so often lack. Monteux was music itself, and his disqs are such that they will be sought after as one seeks for those of Toscanini and Furtwängler. Besides, he benefited from considerable technical advantages.
This writer, identified only as "M. H." in the Journal musical français, was prophetic.
In his work Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Norton, 1968), William Austin honored the remarkable level of Monteux's achievements: "The recordings of Petrouchka by Pierre Monteux, who conducted the premiere and then performed the work with orchestras around the world, are among the supreme performances of the twentieth century."
And Stravinsky himself, one of the most critical of all modern musicians, added his recognition and thanks to Monteux:
Monteux is practically the only orchestra leader who has never depreciated the Rite of Spring by seeking his own glory in it; throughout his life he has continued to perform it with absolute faithfulness.
Monteux's popular fame rests on his work as the conductor for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in France from 1912 to 1914. There he conducted the premieres of Stravinsky's Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. Monteux's path-breaking work with Diaghilev included many other significant premieres such as Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe in 1912 and Debussy's Jeux in 1913. Jeux premiered just two weeks before the first performance of The Rite of Spring.
Monteux's dedication to these early modern scores can be seen in an anecdote he told about his return to the Ballets Russes in 1924 after a short term as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Monteux's assignment was to conduct Stravinsky's Les Noces in its ballet version. Stravinsky, then a novice conductor led the first performance, which was riddled with musical mistakes. Monteux, surely with a wry gleam in his eye, requested more rehearsals from Diaghilev:
That evening I met Diaghilev in one of the foyers and asked him when I could have a rehearsal of Les Noces. He looked cross, and literally yelled at me, "Rehearsal, what? Mais mon cher Monteux, the composer just conducted it!" I answered, "The composer can do what he wants with his work but I have to play what is written."
This claim to the primacy of the written score might seem to be like Toscanini's tyranny of the note over the spirit, but Monteux's openness and flexibility offer a completely different kind of reading than we find in Toscanini.
A humane dedication to the worthy score is always a hallmark of a Monteux performance.
As Stravinsky knew, Pierre Monteux was never a part of the conductor-as-hero movement. Monteux's ego was clearly a healthy one but was not obsessive, and he maintained a sense of balance and good humor throughout his long career. The rehearsal documentary on side four of his recording of the Beethoven Ninth (Westminster, WST 234, two disqs) gives detailed insight into his conducting methods and his attitude toward the score. In a section of the Scherzo, he advises the horns that their passage is not fortissimo: "You are used to Mr. Weingartner here. He added a number of horns in this passage. You were playing Weingartner, not Beethoven." In another take we hear a scrappy bit of playing, and Monteux comments softly, with a chuckle: "Gentlemen, we are not ensemble."
Monteux's comments are seldom extra-musical. He concentrates on rhythm, orchestral balance, and instrumental voicing. His transporting performances are based on astute attention to detail. Surely he knew the old saying: "God is in the details."
Perhaps Monteux's attention to detail rests in his 19th Century backround, for Monteux was schooled in the traditions of the last quarter of that century. He was an accomplished violist and violinist, and he studied for eleven years at the Paris Conservatory, winning prizes for his playing and conducting.
He also learned a great deal about music, life, and love from his two year stint as a member of the pit orchestra at the Folies Bergère in his mid-teens.
Monteux's recording career extended from 1929, when he was 53, to 1964. Recordings from his very last sessions reveal astonishing vitality and new musical insights, all the more remarkable from a man of 89 years. While he was not as intensively recorded as Toscanini or Ansermet, the quality and range of his legacy is immense. The core of Monteux's achievement can be found in his recordings of the LP era from 1949 to 1963 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and the London Symphony, and some recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestras.
Unlike the more renowned Toscanini and Furtwängler, Monteux's conducting career extended into the era of early stereo, and he benefited from some of the most important record producers and engineers of the time. Richard Mohr and John Culshaw both produced records with Monteux, and Leslie Chase, Lewis Layton, John Crawford, and Kenneth Wilkinson all did the engineering on many of his recordings. Thus, while Monteux's artistic achievements have not received the popular acclaim of such conductors as Reiner or even Dorati, much of his greatest work in the studio received the finest technical support. Consequently, a remarkable number of Monteux's best recorded performances are in splendid sound. Monteux can be heard on more 'great records' than any other conductor of his stature. The stereophonic recordings of Monteux with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony are among the glories of recorded music.
Monteux's conducting style is less overtly dramatic than those of Toscanini or Bernstein, yet if you listen to a number of his records, you will soon discover salient characteristics. Monteux strives to sound the full score from leading line, to lines of counterpoint, to inner textures. In any Monteux performance you will hear the beauty and balance of the score's 'inner voices'. Where Furtwängler builds the orchestra from the double-basses and violoncellos up, as in the 1954 Vienna Beethoven Fifth, Monteux presents the score radiating from inner voices of violas and woodwinds.
Some critics have considered that Monteux's voicing of the orchestra comes from a Gallic concept of orchestral sound, and indeed we can hear a luminous clarity of string sound from any Monteux performance. However, the rich voicing of a performance like the Sibelius Second Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra causes doubts about the theory of the Gallic orchestra.
I find that Monteux's early dedication to the viola and quartet playing informs his understanding of sound and performance. Even in the boldest scores, Monteux secures a rapt and responsive playing that is based on the give and take of chamber music.
Monteux's sense of music as a collaborative effort can be seen in his desire to train a new generation of conductors. He had a School for Conductors in Paris in the late twenties and early thirties, and he continued it at his American home in Hancock, Maine. Among his students were Neville Marriner and David Zinnman. Monteux's "Rules for Young Conductors", printed in Doris Monteux's memoir, It's All in the Music, show the directness and high standards of his conducting. These maxims apply quite well to Monteux's own work. Here are just a few.
the "EIGHT 'MUSTS'"
2. Never bend down, even for a pianissimo. The effect is too obvious from behind.
4. Always conduct with a baton, so that players far from you can see the beat.
5. Know your score perfectly.
6. Never conduct for the audience.
the "TWELVE 'DON'TS'"
2. Don't fail to make music; don't allow music to stagnate. Don't neglect any phrase or overlook its integral part in the complete score.
3. Don't adhere pedantically to metronomic time-vary the tempo according to the subject or phrase and give each its own character.
6. Don't conduct solo instruments in solo passages; don't worry or annoy sections or players by looking intently at them in "ticklish passages".
8. Don't come before an orchestra if you have not mastered the score; don't practice or learn the score "on the orchestra".
10. Don't stop for obvious accidental wrong notes.
12. Don't be disrespectful to your players (no swearing); don't forget individuals' rights as persons; don't undervalue the members of the orchestra simply because the are "cogs" in the "wheels".
This combination of knowledge of the score, ensemble conception, and the respect for the players can be heard in virtually every important recorded Monteux performance.
In the Boston Symphony Tchaikovsky Sixth, for instance, Monteux secures a rich, dynamic, and melodic performance during which, it would seem that every line can be heard (RCA LSC 1901). In the dance-like second movement, accompanying lines are not drowned out by the main melody, small woodwind figures animate the flowing melodies, and the soft rhythmic timpani strokes act as a pulse throughout. We hear a beautiful, sensuous reading within which players have enough freedom to add their own sense of the music.
For Monteux, all musical lines are alive and part of the performance, and no note or line is incidental to the musical fabric.
In our best published view of him at work, the rehearsal record to the Westminster Beethoven Ninth, Monteux patiently strives to bring out the second bassoon in the Scherzo, not to take first place, but to be present in the musical line. In the opening section of the slow movement, he strives to find a complete balance between the oboe and clarinet. Again and again, Monteux reminds his players that "we must hear" the music. Monteux must hear, the audience must hear, and most of all the musicians must hear, the music. That emphasis on hearing, and a response in the musicians' playing, is central to Monteux's conception of performance. His sense of balance and his respect for the individual player work toward that wonderful feeling of orchestral commitment that we find in so many Monteux records.
Of the major conductors from the first half of this century, Monteux seems to have understood the recording process more completely and succeeded more effectively than his peers. Toscanini and Furtwängler were both notably uneasy in the recording studio, although we have many examples of their success there. Monteux, in temperamental contrast, seems to possess a profoundly professional and knowledgeable approach, not overly fazed by the mechanical aspects of recording. From his studio recordings of the 1930 Symphonie fantastique in Paris, to his last sessions in 1964, Monteux's performances show remarkable integrity, beauty and conviction.
While his monaural recordings are completely convincing, Monteux's idea of orchestral performance works magnificently in stereo. Monteux has an architectural idea of orchestral layout and musical composition. The most apparent arrangement of Monteux's orchestra for stereo is his placement of the violin sections left and right.
In most early photographs of symphony orchestras we see this splitting of the violins, which seems to have generally disappeared by the stereo era. In Monteux's stereo recordings we hear the dialogue between the two violin sections that is so important in the classical repertory. We also hear the placing of the violoncellos more toward the center of the orchestra with, usually, the violas next to the first violins on the left.
In the Boston Symphony series of stereophonic recordings, we find this kind of orchestral arrangement, and Monteux's architectural vision in all of these performances produces a sound-world that can be breathtaking. Listen to the sweep of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Fifth with its wonderful balance of strings, winds, and brass, the full grandeur of the piece without any sense of heaviness, and the sheer élan of the coda that leaves the listener exalted, not exhausted (RCA LSC 2239). Or turn to the dichotomy of brooding and extrovert energy in the opening movement of the Fourth Symphony (LSC 2369). While we can hear superb performances of these works by conductors like Mravinsky, the Monteux Tchaikovsky symphonies are true classics, that combine wise, beautiful, powerful performances with remarkably fine sound.
The Monteux Boston Symphony Petrouchka, though, is quintessential (LSC 2376).
William Austin's judgment that this is "among the supreme performances of the twentieth century" is indeed borne out by the recording. Here we have Petrouchka as one of the mythic works of modern consciousness, revealed in its full human drama, musical range, and flight of imagination. More than any other conductor, including Stravinsky, Monteux recreates the life and meaning of Petrouchka. As in so many ballet scores, and here with a special originality, Monteux presents the full narrative significance of the score.
Monteux's understanding of a score like Petrouchka rests on his special experience. He conducted the premiere in 1912. He comments on his link of the score to its legendary first performances:
I never conducted it, or in fact any of the ballets I conducted for the Ballets Russes, without my mind's eye being completely aware of the dancers. Lovely Karsavina, pale, sublime Pavlova, Nijinsky, Adolf Bolm and many others, including the staunch and magnificent corps de ballet, are all there before me.
And so it is for the listener; the whole imaginary company is there before us. Monteux's imagination and memory give his performances a resiliency and engaging power equaled by few conductors. The Monteux recording of Petrouchka is one of the classics.
Although Monteux's Boston Symphony stereo records give us a full sense of the recorded symphonic repertory, we also need to hear some of the fine monaural recordings from the Boston and San Francisco orchestras. The Boston Symphony Rite of Spring (LM 1149), Debussy's La Mer (LM 1939), and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy (LM 1775) are important performances.
Perhaps the most amazing of these recordings are the excerpts from Delibes' Coppélia and Sylvia (LM 1913). Monteux recreates a world of wonder and ecstatic dance that are unforgettable. And the monaural sound is stunning.
The period of Monteux's long tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra finds memorable expression in a series of monaural recordings from the early forties to the early fifties, and the single stereophonic recording from 1960 makes a fine complement. Monteux recorded a great deal of his French and Russian repertory with the San Francisco orchestra, as well as works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. Sadly, little of this has been reissued. The most compelling of these recordings are the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique (LM 1131) and the Debussy Images for Orchestra (LM 1197).
While there are many fine versions of the Symphonie fantastique, including those by Beecham and Colin Davis as well as the Vienna Philharmonic version by Monteux, the San Francisco performance of the Symphonie fantastique is the most engrossing and exhilarating one. Recorded on February 27, 1950 in the War Memorial Opera House, this performance shows Monteux in full flight with the San Francisco Symphony in top form. The record rightly won the Grand prix du disque. This 1950 recording is the most hallucinatory and continuously unfolding version I have ever heard.
According to Doris Monteux in her memoirs, Monteux preferred the San Francisco recording over the one done in Vienna in 1958 (LSC 2362). He was also very fond of the 1930 version on 78s with the Paris Symphony Orchestra.
Monteux's 1941 recording of The Rite of Spring with the San Francisco orchestra is an important one and is fascinating to hear. It was reissued on Camden LP CAL-110 with the orchestral pseudonym, the "World Wide Symphony Orchestra". Also valuable is Monteux's recording of the Franck Symphony in D Minor from 1950 (LM 1065). This 1950 performance is quicker and more inflected than the Living Stereo version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (LSC 2514).
I remember a mid-eighties interview with Adolph Herseth, first trumpet of the Chicago Symphony. The interview was a pursuit of the myth of Fritz Reiner and the famous Layton records. Herseth gave the usual patronizing responses. But then suddenly he remembered Monteux's visit to Chicago in 1960 and Monteux's recording of the Franck D Minor Symphony with the Chicago Orchestra. He got carried away with his memory of the performance and exclaimed, here I paraphrase, "But that Monteux and the Franck symphony, what a conception!"
We might well agree with Herseth on any number of Monteux recordings; the first Monteux Schéhérazade for instance. It is performed with the San Francisco Symphony and became available on LP as LM 1002. The LP was carefully reissued from the 78 masters. This record presents the fabled Monteux imagination with a cover to match. It shows an Ali Baba character riding not a magic carpet, but a magic phonograph record.
The Monteux recordings from San Francisco also reveal his capacity as the builder of orchestras. When Monteux took over the orchestra in 1936 he began to carefully reshape it. These recordings show that he succeeded. They give us a responsive and professional orchestra, that plays beautifully. The deliriously wonderful recording of the three Debussy Images is potent proof of the level of orchestral playing Monteux secured in San Francisco.
The final San Francisco recordings by Monteux, and the only ones in stereo, came from his guest conducting the orchestra in 1960. The performances of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Strauss's Death and Transfiguration show Monteux's mastery in unexpected repertory (Victrola VICS 1457). The Wagner is the most intimate and moving of all the versions I know, and the Strauss manages to present a convincing vision of the struggle of life and death without a trace of sentimentality or banality. This is a wonderful record that shows Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony in fine form.
While Monteux had a fruitful relationship with many different orchestras throughout his career, his work with the London Symphony at the end of his life has yielded some of his finest recorded work. From the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties the London Symphony had some of the best players in England, and the orchestra reached impressive heights of execution. Monteux's London orchestra was truly a virtuosic ensemble.
According to Doris Monteux's memoirs, Monteux was particularly fond of his Paris Symphony Orchestra from the early thirties, but late in his life he pronounced that the "London Symphony for the moment is comparable".
I remember a review in The Gramophone some time ago ago. The reviewer commented on the ecstatic playing in a Furtwängler performance. He noted that it seems orchestras played ecstatically for Furtwängler as they did for no other conductor, except Monteux. This capacity for truly transporting musical experience is central to any understanding of Monteux's achievement. We find this kind of playing in almost all of the Monteux London Symphony recordings.
Three of the essential Monteux recordings from London are the Sibelius Second Symphony (LSC 2342), the Dvorák Seventh Symphony (LSC 2489), and the Elgar Enigma Variations (LSC 2418). Significantly, these are the only recordings of these composers by Monteux. His grasp of the sound, structure, and impact is overwhelming. These are surely some of the finest recordings in the finest sound ever.
The Sibelius possesses a richness of sound and a power that are almost unimaginable. Here we have brooding Sibelius, nobly rendered from the opening measures. The blend of lyric impulse and heroic striving are potently rendered. And the long, building finale sweeps to some of the most engulfing and ecstatic orchestral playing on record.
The Dvorák Seventh (referred to as symphony number 'two' on the first issues) is equally involving and satisfying, but with a different sound. Like many of the other Monteux London records, this is a Wilkinson recording with a rich and spacious performing setting, but with a performance perspective that is slightly more distant than the Sibelius. The rapt playing is remarkable even among Monteux performances. Listen to the line, the flow, and the glorious climaxes of the slow movement, or to the fierce conclusion of the opening movement as the sound fades away into the brooding comments of 'cellos, basses, and low winds. For this recording I find the early English RCA pressing by Decca (SB 2155) to be the best, but the Stereo Treasury issue is also fine (STS 15157).
Monteux's performance of the Elgar Enigma Variations is one of his most masterful and compelling. Here he is able to characterize each of the portrait variations as if it were self-contained, and yet he weaves the fourteen episodes into an exhilarating and moving whole. Particularly amazing is the balance of the extrovert, virtuoso sections with the intimate and inward ones. The concluding comic-heroic self portrait of Elgar comes off with a panache and sincerity. The playing of the London Symphony here is breathtaking, and the sound from Kingsway Hall is rich, detailed, and engaging. This is one of the supreme Monteux records, and is inescapably one of the 'great recordings'.
Monteux's performance of Ravel's masterpiece, Daphnis and Chloe is legendary. Monteux studied the score with Ravel and conducted the première of the ballet in 1912. John Culshaw produced the recording in 1959 for Decca with a sense of special occasion, and the recorded performance in very fine sound by Alan Reeve shows a common artistic purpose (London CS 6147/Decca SXL 2164). Partly because of the need to place the entire score on a single disq, the recording is cut at a slightly low volume. Also the performance setting is larger and more reverberant than is usual for Decca. This perspective, however, works wonderfully with Monteux's vision of Ravel's mythic world of Mediterranean shepherds, shepherdesses, and pirates. Monteux's characteristics show brilliantly in his instrumental balance and sense of delicacy, his mastery of the work's shape, and his narrative understanding of the ballet. Most important and moving of all is Monteux's love of the music. We have few performances on record sound that offer the beauty, insight, and joy of Monteux's sublime Daphnis and Chloe.
Monteux's other disq of French music for Decca, while less well known than the recording of Daphnis and Chloe, is equally fine (CS 6248/SXL 2312). Monteux offers a subtle and perfumed reading of the Rhapsodie espagnole that is sensuous and erotic. The whole performance has both a slow, insinuating swagger and a quicksilver response that become paradoxically seamless. The London Symphony plays with astonishing virtuosity. The Debussy Afternoon of a Faun is languorous and provocative, inspired undoubtedly by Monteux's memories of Nijinsky. Wilkinson's engineering is equal to the nuance and depth of Monteux's conceptions. While there are more than a dozen Monteux recordings in superb sound, this Ravel/Debussy disq is one of the finest.
Late in life Monteux, finally, was able to record a cycle of Beethoven symphonies with both the London Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras. Monteux is a classicist in his view of Beethoven. Perhaps the finest performance in this series is the wonderful Fourth Symphony from London, first available in the United States on Victrola VICS 1102, coupled with the San Francisco Symphony's performance of Siegfried Idyll. Monteux's architectural and spatial sense help to shape a marvelous performance. The benefits of stereo are important in this recording. We hear the violins left and right and there is a real depth to the performance perspective.
The Vienna performances
in Monteux's Beethoven cycle, the First, Third, Sixth, and Eighth
Symphonies achieve a similar level. In particular Monteux's Pastorale
is a fine performance that is an exhilarating celebration of this
symphony and this orchestra (LSC 2316). The Eighth is nearly as
good in a serious, yet good humored, performance (LSC 2491). In
these recordings the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is beautifully
captured, revealing a rich, burnished tone. Monteux seems to revel
in the 'Viennese' sound of the winds, brass, strings, and even
the timpani with their goatskin drum heads.
Within the mainstream symphonic repertory, Monteux's Haydn and Brahms from Vienna are well worth hearing. The Brahms Second Symphony is particularly fine, and the Vienna Philharmonic is in wonderful form (VICS 1055).
The Philips recordings of Monteux with the early sixties London Symphony complete the core of Monteux's recorded legacy. The stereo version of Debussy's Images is wonderful in its color, drama and texture (Philips PHS 900-058). It is second only to the San Francisco Symphony version.
Perhaps the essential Monteux disq from Philips is the Ravel program (PHS 900-059). Monteux's Bolero turns on the insinuating and sensuous nature of the music, avoiding the banal. He secures an almost jazz-like feeling from the orchestra, with inflected phrases playing against the insistent drum beats. Monteux conceives of La Valse as a neurotic, not a psychotic reworking of the Viennese Waltz. We find in the music, genuine beauty and dizzying moves that beguile as well as trouble.
But the great piece and the sublime performance on this record are found in the Mother Goose ballet. Monteux captures the child-like naïveté of the work through the exquisitely shaded playing from the London Symphony. This reading of Mother Goose transports us to a fairy tale kingdom of rapture and poetic beauty. Monteux's musical imagination and the orchestral execution on this disq are astonishing.
The recording of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake should also not be missed (PHS 900-089). Again, Monteux's sense of dance rhythms and narrative are incomparable.
Evidently, the Philips engineers took advice from the Mercury recording team. While the Mercury team did not actually record any of these Monteux performances, we can hear some Mercury influence.
The Monteux recorded
legacy is a cornucopia that we are only beginning to discover.
The prospects are exhilarating.
For now a comment from another voice must suffice.
When Monteux conducted the Ballets Russes in Boston in 1915, he was on the podium for one of his favorite scores, Rimsky-Korsakov's Schéhérazade. The great Karl Muck had also programmed the work at Symphony Hall that same week. Here is part of the review of Philip Hale of the Boston Herald:
If you want to hear Schéhérazade played to perfection, exactly on time, every nuance calculated, by a magnificent orchestra, then go to Symphony Hall and hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Karl Muck. On the other hand, if it is your desire to hear the same work fairly breathing in each note played, the gorgeous color and panache of the Orient, excitingly sensuous and exuberant with licentious revelry, then buy a ticket for the Russian Ballet and listen to Pierre Monteux conduct this fantastical score of Rimsky-Korsakov.
Since in 2002 we can neither go the Symphony Hall to hear Dr. Muck nor, alas, go to see the Russian Ballet with Monteux conducting, I suggest an alternative made possible through records. You can get a copy of the famous Reiner Schéhérazade with its sense of power and orchestral execution and truly impressive sound (LSC 2446) or, you can enter into the sound-world of the fantastical Orient with all the licentious revelry, exuberance, and imagination that Monteux and the London Symphony provide (LSC 2208).
Beethoven, First Symphony and Eighth Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, RCA LSC 2491, c1961.
Beethoven, Fourth Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, and Wagner, Siegfried Idyll, San Francisco Symphony, RCA Victrola VICS 1102, c1965.
Beethoven, Ninth Symphony, Elizabeth Soederstoem (soprano), Regina Resnik (contralto), Jon Vickers (tenor), David Ward (bass), London Symphony Orchestra and London Bach Choir, Westminster WST-234 (two disqs, rehearsal excerpts on side 4). R. Karl List (producer), Adolf Enz and Raymond Füglistaler (engineers) (rec. 1962).
Beethoven, Sixth Symphony, "Pastoral", Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, RCA LSC 2316, c1959.
Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, RCA LM 1131 (mono only) (rec. February 7, 1950), c1950, reissued with Berlioz, Overture to Benvenuto Cellini on French RCA GM 43359.
Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, RCA LSC 2362, c1960.
Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet, Regina Resnik (contralto), Andre Turp (tenor), David Ward (bass), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Westminster WST-233 (two disqs). R. Karl List (producer), Adolf Enz and Raymond Füglistaler (engineers) (rec. 1962).
Brahms, Second Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, RCA Victrola VICS 1055, c1963.
Debussy, La Mer and Nocturnes, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Chorus (in Nocturnes), RCA LM 1939 (La Mer mono only; Nocturnes first stereo issue on RCA Victrola VICS 1027, c1963 ), c1956.
Debussy, Images for Orchestra and The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (excerpts), London Symphony Orchestra, Philips PHS 900-058, c1964.
Debussy, Images for Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, RCA LM 1197 (mono only), c1952.
Debussy, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune , Nuages and Fêtes from Nocturnes, Ravel, Rhapsodie espagnole and Pavane pour une infante défunte, London Symphony Orchestra, London CS 6248/Decca SXL 2312. Kenneth Wilkinson (engineer), c1962.
Delibes, Coppélia (excerpts) and Sylvia (excerpts), Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LM 1913 (mono only), c1955.
Dvorák, Second [new numbering Seventh ] Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2489, English RCA SB 2155, London STS 15157, c1960.
Elgar, Enigma Variations and Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, London Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2418, c1960.
Franck, Symphony in D Minor, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2514. Richard Mohr (producer), Lewis Layton (engineer), c1961.
Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe (complete ballet), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, London CS 6147/Decca SXL 2164. John Culshaw (producer), Allan Reeve (engineer), (rec. April 27, 1959).
Ravel, Mother Goose (complete ballet), Bolero, and La Valse, London Symphony Orchestra, Philips PHS 900-059, c1964.
Rimsky-Korsakov, Schéhérazade, London Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2208, c1958.
Rimsky-Korsakov, Schéhérazade , San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, RCA LM 1002, (mono only) (from 78 masters), c1950.
Scriabin, Poem of Ecstasy and Liszt, Les Préludes, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LM 1775 (mono only), c1958.
Sibelius, Second Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2342, c1959.
Stravinsky, Petrouchka (complete ballet, original version), Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2376. John Pfeiffer (producer), John Crawford (engineer), c1960.
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (complete ballet), World Wide Symphony Orchestra (alias for San Francisco Symphony Orchestra), RCA Camden CAL-110 (rec. 1941).
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (complete ballet), Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LM 1149, c1951, reissued on French RCA GM 43274 (mono only) (rec. January 28, 1951).
Tchaikovsky, Fourth Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2369. John Pfeiffer (producer), John Crawford (engineer), c1960.
Tchaikovsky, Fifth Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 2239. Richard Mohr (producer), Lewis Layton (engineer), c1958.
Tchaikovsky, Sixth Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, RCA LSC 1901, c1958.
Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake (excerpts), London Symphony Orchestra, Philips 900-089, c1965.
Wagner, Siegfried Idyll and Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, RCA Victrola VICS 1457 (rec. 1960).
I have listed here all of the major records conducted by Monteux that I discuss in this article. Dates of first issue are listed where possible. When recording dates are known to me I have so indicated. All performances listed here are conducted by Pierre Monteux.
copyright 2002 Thomas Simone, RECOLLECTIONS
Bartók, Bela. Bluebeard's Castle, Op 11 (1911). Bluebeard; Mihaly Szekely, bass. Judith; Olga Szonyi, soprano. London Symphony. Antal Dorati, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R. Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. George Piros, tape to disc transfer. Mercury Living Presence SR 90311 and MG 50311 (1963). Recorded at Watford Town Hall on July 21, 1962.
Cherubini, Luigi. Medea (1797). Medea; Maria Callas, soprano. Jason; Mirto Picchi, tenor. Glauce; Renata Scotto, soprano. Creon; Giuseppi Modesti, bass. Neris; Miriam Pirazzini, mezzo-soprano. First Maidservant; Lidia Marimpietri, soprano. Second Maidservant; Elvira Galassi, soprano. Captain of the Guard; Alfredo Giacommotti, baritone. La Scala Chorus and Orchestra. Norberto Mola, director. Tullio Serafin, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R. Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. George Piros, tape to disc transfer. Mercury Living Presence SR 3-9000 and OL 3-104 (1958). Recorded at Teatro alla Scala, Milan on September 3 and 14-19, 1957.
Donizetti, Gaetano. Lucia di Lammermoor (1836). Lucia; Renata Scotto, soprano. Edgardo di Ravenswood; Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor. Enrico Ashton; Ettore Bastianini, baritone. La Scala Chorus and Orchestra. Nino Sanzogno, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R. Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. Mercury Living Presence SR 2-9008 and OL 2-108 (1960). Recorded at Teatro alla Scala, Milan on August 25-September 1, 1959.
Paisiello, Giovanni. The Barber of Seville (1782). Rosina; Graziella Sciutti, soprano. Count of Almaviva; Nicola Monti. Figaro (the Barber of Seville); Rolando Panerai, baritone. Dr. Bartolo; Renato Capecchi, bass. Basilo; Mario Petri, bass. Youthful; Florindo Andreolli, tenor. Brightboy; Leonardo Monreale, bass. A Notary; Leonardo Monreale, bass. An Alcalde; Florindo Andreoli, tenor. I Virtuosi di Roma. Renato Fasano, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R. Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. George Piros, tape to disc transfer. Mercury Living Presence SR 2-9010 and OL 2-110 (1960). Recorded at Teatro alla Scala, Milan on August 7-14, 1959.
Giovanni Battista. La Serva Padrona (1732). Serpina; Renata Scotto,
soprano. Uberto; Sesto Bruscantini, bass. I Virtuosi di Roma.
Renato Fasano, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R.
Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. George
Piros, tape to disc transfer. Mercury Living Presence SR 90240
and MG 50240 (1960). Recorded at Teatro Grande, Brescia on July
27 and 28, 1959.
Rossini, Gioacchino. La Cambiale di Matrimonio (1809). Fanny; Renata Scotto, soprano. Tobia Mill; Rolando Panerai, bass. Slook; Renato Capecchi, bass. Edoardo Milfort; Nicola Monti, tenor. Norton; Mario Petri, bass. Clarina; Giovanna Fioroni, mezzo-soprano.I Virtuosi di Roma. Renato Fasano, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R. Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. George Piros, tape to disc transfer. Mercury Living Presence SR 2-9009 and OL 2-109 (1961). Recorded at Teatro Grande, Brescia on July 25 and 26, 1959.
Verdi, Giuseppe. Rigoletto (1851). Duke of Mantua; Alfredo Kraus, tenor. Rigoletto; Ettore Bastianini, baritone. Gilda; Renata Scotto, soprano. Sparafucile; Ivo Vinco, bass. Maddalena; Fiorenza Cossotto, contralto. Chorus and Orchestra of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Andrea Morosini, director. Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor. Wilma Cozart, recording director. C.R. Fine, recording engineer. Harold Lawrence, music supervisor. George Piros, tape to disc transfer. Mercury Living Presence SR 3-9012 and OL 3-112 (1960). Recorded at Teatro della Pergola, Florence on July 2-7 and 9-10, 1960.
copyright 2001 by Ron Penndorf, RECOLLECTIONS
It's been decades since the first digital recordings appeared in the United States (in LP form, of course), followed in the early 'eighties by the compact disc. These developments have spawned an astonishing array of technological products, at professional and consumer levels. Behind the scenes, post-production and pressing facilities have undergone a face change: CD manufacturing plants, for example, resemble nothing less than nuclear research labs, with white-coated, masked workers inspecting parts under microscope and giant vacuums banishing dust particles from this controlled environment.
In the new hands-off world of editing, analog tape machines and cutting lacquers have been phased out while computer chips take the place of razor blade, scissors and splicing tape.
The tape editor came into being when magnetic tape replaced wax over fifty years ago. In the 78 RPM era, recording artists had to gear themselves to perform musical works which corresponded to the duration of a record side. Ten-inch and 12-inch shellac records could only contain between two and four and a half minutes of material. It was the job of the recording director to produce at least one inspired, relatively blemish-free performance per side. The wax discs were sent off immediately to be processed, test pressings stamped out, and the best overall take selected.
There was no tape editor or fancy post-production work. Everything that could be done was done at the session.
Some people regard this method of recording as ideal. Not the wax medium, of course, but the concept of uninterrupted takes. Nimbus, for example, takes pride in producing records free of elaborate editing. But even the Nimbus people will have to admit that some of the finest achievements in classical recording have been made by producers who make full use of the musical and technical possibilities inherent in editing.
My debut as a tape editor occurred in 1956 in the studios of Mercury Records in New York City. I had just been appointed music director. Wilma Cozart (Mercury's vice president in charge of the classical division) had returned from the label's first overseas recording trip, bearing cartons of tapes recorded in England with the London Symphony and the Hallé Orchestra. My first assignment was to edit the half-inch, 3-track stereo tapes.
As a trained musician, I could read orchestral scores. I knew, too, how to operate a tape machine. But laying razor blade to tape at first was an intimidating experience. I was keenly aware of the monies that were invested in these costly sessions and I was mindful that the conductor of the first musical work I was about to dismember and put together again, was Antal Dorati-a demanding musician with a personality packed with paprika. The piece was the orchestra suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or. As it turned out, Dorati approved my edits and we hit it off splendidly. For the next ten years I enjoyed the privilege of working with him as musical supervisor and tape editor in hundreds of sessions in America and abroad.
From the start, I found tape editing one of the most exciting and creative activities of my professional life. Apart from the satisfaction of "building" a cohesive performance assembled with loving care from recording session takes, the technical aspects of the work fascinated me.
But first, a bit of history. Strictly speaking, editing preceded the development of magnetic tape. It was possible to perform edits in the days of wire recording. The technology (if you can call it that) was crude and primitive compared to magnetic tape editing. After cutting the wire at the intended splice points, the two takes were joined together with a square knot, which was then held close to or in a flame hot enough to soften the wire. The tape editing expert, Joel Tall, reported that wire editors often used a lighted cigarette or a small spotwelder to perform the splice. But we're not done yet. The loose ends protruding from the knot were then trimmed off so that it could be smooth enough to pass through the head assembly. Even with the greatest care, wire splices still produced clicks and thumps. In Techniques of Magnetic Recording, Joel Tall concluded in his scholarly, understated manner that "because of this, wire [was] rarely used as an editing medium".
Editing with magnetic tape was a dramatic step forward. But in the days before the introduction of the splicing block, it was still a time-consuming, tricky procedure. After marking the precise location of the intended edit point, the two tapes, representing different takes, were placed on top of each other. Using scissors, the editor cut through both tapes at roughly a 45-degree angle. The ends were then joined with adhesive tape, after which the excess was trimmed off.
The development of the EdiTall tape-splicing block, with its concave, "shelved" groove, finally made it possible for editors to perform their joins more efficiently and rapidly than ever.
During the past 52 years, the tape editor's tools of the trade have hardly changed. Basically, only four items are needed-a single-edged razor blade, a roll of splicing tape, a splicing block, and a grease pencil (yellow or white will do). And if you use the Technics 1500US tape deck, you won't even need the grease pencil to mark the tape at the cutting point; the tape can be "marked" merely by pushing it against a plastic marker with your finger.
Locating the cutting point can be the most challenging aspect of tape editing. To find the right spot, the editor must rock the tape back and forth over the playback heads. Other words for this procedure are "jogging", or "scrubbing". Practice will enable the editor to identify sounds at different speeds. Even at ultra-slow speeds, he can spot a trumpet attack, an oboe entrance, timpani stroke, or almost any other instrumental or vocal sound, despite the fact that what is emerging from the loudspeakers sounds more like a growl, rush, click or hiss.
I say "almost" because it's sometimes virtually impossible to find a 'cello entrance, for instance, when it is buried in the orchestral fabric of a lyrical, slow-moving piece. This is why composers like Delius and Wagner can often be an editor's nightmare. Stravinsky and Mozart, on the other hand, pose few such problems.
How does the tape editor handle a Delian problem? By taking out insurance, of course. He may dub the problematic passage on to a work tape, make the cut, then splice either end on to leader, or blank tape. The playback will reveal whether the cutting point is on target, or whether the attack, say, has been "clipped". In this case, the editor will be forced to reinstate part of the attack and try again.
Perhaps the best way to describe analog tape editing is to review some of the common defects you might encounter in faulty splicing.
splices are either good or bad. If they're good they're inaudible,
and they don't interrupt the flow of the music. If bad, they draw
attention to themselves, which is exactly what a perfect splice
Drop-Out. The editor here has joined takes of different levels of intensity. This is a common splice fault and easy to detect. We are in the midst of a loud passage culminating in a series of powerful tutti attacks. Suddenly, the volume dips noticeably, for no musical reason. For an instant, we feel sonically weightless, as if we were in an elevator which had taken a fast plunge. Drop-outs of a more elusive nature can result from shifts in musical balance. This is more difficult to spot when the presence of a solo instrument remains uniform while an underlying segment of the orchestra, say, the French horns, is reduced in level.
Pitch. Unless the "A" is sounded at frequent intervals during a recording session, the overall intonation of even the finest ensembles will begin to sag. It's the responsibility of the recording director to see to it that the pitch is always "up there" by calling for a tuning. Otherwise, the tape editor may find himself unable to match takes.
Rhythm. The pianist is executing a difficult run, flawless except for one sixteenth-note. Later, the editor removes the blemish and splices in a clean note from another take. In performing this bit of cosmetic surgery, however, he has cut out a fraction of an inch more than he has replaced, producing what is called the "time out of joint" effect.
Tempo. Back in the 'tßhirties, Arturo Toscanini recorded Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Some dozen years later, he re-recorded the same work with the NBC Symphony. The timings of both are only seconds apart. Few conductors possess such an uncanny sense of tempo consistency. Yet this quality is essential in the recording hall, where a tempo variation can turn an otherwise first-rate performance into a flawed effort. Capricious changes of pace are present in too many recordings.
Acoustics. Weather can play an important role in the acoustical integrity of a recording. On sharp, clear days, instruments sound brighter than on muggy, low-barometer days. With this in mind, record producers try to complete a work (or a major section of a work) on the same day so as to avoid running into radically different weather situations on a following day.
Silence. Most record companies have been guilty of splicing blank tape at the conclusion of a movement, or even when there is a lengthy pause in the music, on the mistaken assumption that silence is absolute. Silence in a recording hall-or in any other real-life environment-is colored by the the natural ambience of every hall except possibly an anechoic chamber. This is why record producers always record "room tone", and why sensitive tape editors never insert blank tape into a master tape.
In the jargon of the recording world, the patches of white (or blue) splicing tape on a master reel are called "flags". Tape editors pride themselves on turning out a recording in which not a single splice point can be detected. Each flag represents an achievement to them-the elimination of a horn blooper, improvement of a tutti ensemble, smoothing out of a scale passage, replacement of a cracked high note with a perfect, ringing tone. In this digital audio age, where edits are performed electronically, however, tape editors can no longer watch the flags go by. Which is probably a good thing. Or is it?
copyright 2002 by Harold Lawrence, RECOLLECTIONS
The life of Yehudi Menuhin was intertwined with almost all of modern music and almost all of modern recorded sound. Menuhin, a most remarkable child prodigy, first recorded at the age of twelve in 1928 and continued to record as a soloist until the early 'eighties. He also performed and recorded as a conductor since the mid-'fifties. Menuhin commissioned one of Bartók's last works, the Sonata for Solo Violin (1944), as well as works by Ernst Bloch and Frank Martin among others. His influence on the broad world of music included his direction of the music festivals at Gstaad, Switzerland, in the 'fifties and at Bath, England, in the 'sixties. Menuhin also founded a school in Surrey, England, for young musicians to provide a balance of musical training and broad cultural education.
As an individual, Menuhin remained a committed humanitarian in his journeys around the world and especially in India. He championed Indian music and culture in the West since the 'forties. He played extensively for the troops in World War II with two or three performances per day at times, and was the first musician to return to Europe after the war, playing in Paris, Belgium, and Germany and at the recently liberated camps in 1945. He was also the first Western musician invited to visit the USSR after the war.
The span and variety of Menuhin's recorded legacy is staggering, from the Bach solo Sonatas and Partitas, to all the major virtuoso concerti, to a wonderful range of chamber music, to duets with Ravi Shankar and with Stephane Grapelli. With the long time span of his career Menuhin recorded some works on 78s in the 'thirties, on LP in the 'fifties, and again in stereo in the 'sixties.
My own experience of Menuhin has been based on a number of memorable concerts that I attended. In 1966 I heard Menuhin perform the Bartók Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under a young and still responsive Zubin Mehta. I remember a pre-concert announcement that the concert was being recorded for broadcast to India. Menuhin was known to me then mainly as a proponent for Indian music. As I later learned, Menuhin was a great practicer of yoga and meditation with a strong affinity for India and Indian culture.
From the back rows of the Dorothy Chandler Music Pavilion, Menuhin's playing of the Bartók concerto seemed to me one of the two most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. (The other was Leontyne Price in Aïda in 1963.) His playing was rich and full but markedly inward. I recall particularly the trance-like quality of the opening of the concerto and the main part of the slow movement. I was completely transported into another world. I heard Menuhin play the Bartók again in London in 1979 but without the same magical effect.
I have never forgotten the 1966 performance of the Bartók. There is a place in memory and reflection that can be permanently affected by sound, and my whole sensibility for music was changed by the tone, raptness, and incredible beauty of the music as Menuhin played it. I now know that Bartók was tremendously important to Menuhin. The performance I heard was informed by a beauty and understanding and by a sense of commitment that are rare indeed.
In his recorded legacy, at least as I have been able to know of it over the years, Menuhin occasionally captures something of the magic and the tonal and spiritual conviction that I experienced at that concert. Part of Menuhin's quality as a musician is surely the unexplained power, grace, and spontaneity of his childhood genius, which still informs the mature musician. It is well known that Menuhin has never been a great technical master of the violin. As he acknowledges in his memoirs, Unfinished Journey (Knopf, 1977), he was always seeking the passion and understanding of music, and he shunned the technical benefits of a set method. A kind of trust and innocence concerning music and communication informs Menuhin's playing as well as a sense of the importance of the present moment as captured in music making.
In the mid-'forties, Menuhin had a kind of musical breakdown, and he had to try to reconstruct a conceptual understanding of his playing, which had been based on a profound instinctual achievement. On and off in his later career Menuhin exhibited periods of pitch insecurity. Because of this, his musical achievements have at times been undervalued by the critical press.
Menuhin's astonishing proficiency as a child prodigy impressed even the most skeptical major musicians in the world. One major instance suffices. On April 12, 1929, a few days short of his thirteenth birthday, Menuhin performed his Berlin debut with Bruno Walter and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a program of a Bach concerto, the Beethoven concerto, and the Brahms concerto, on the same program! That incredible concert was attended by Fritz Kreisler, Carl Flesch, and Claudio Arrau, among others. Forty years later Arrau remembered the sense of spontaneity in Menuhin's playing: "The music simply seemed to flow from him." After the concert Albert Einstein rushed backstage. Menuhin remembers Einstein "hugging me, with an exclamation of astronomically disproportionate immensity: 'Now I know there is a God in heaven!'"
We can hear the young Menuhin in a number of useful LP issues of his recording from the 'thirties including a number of concert encores as well as concertos by Bach, Paganini, and Lalo. When I was first listening to Menuhin records in the mid-'sixties, there were not a great many of the early recordings available. The first that I had access to was a 1972 Orion (ORS 7271) of virtuoso pieces from 1931, when he was fifteen, to 1939. Such virtuoso pieces as Bazzini's Ronde des Lutins and pyrotechnical arrangements like the Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dance, No. 1 are not in favor these days, but they offer a popular and exciting way to enjoy the range of classical instruments.
In his performance of the Hungarian Dance, No.1, from 1936, Menuhin shows a Gypsy temperament with rich tone and breath-taking pyrotechnics. It is truly amazing to hear such pieces, not tossed off, but relished by the young violinist. And we can hear not just virtuosity but the soul in his playing. Some of these pieces are available on the Pathé Marconi Référence series as fillers to the reissues of the Paganini First Violin Concerto with Monteux (2C 051-43322) and the Lalo Symphonie espagnole with Enesco (2908431 PM 322). You can hear a fearless joy of playing in these recordings. While Menuhin was vigilantly protected by his family-it is said that he never crossed the street alone until his was eighteen-he found an exhilarating freedom in his playing.
In his teens, Menuhin made an impressive series of concerto recordings.; the Paganini First with Monteux and also the Bach Double Violin Concerto with again Monteux, and Enesco in 1934. Perhaps the most important of these young efforts was the 1932 recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto with the composer conducting.
The Double Concerto shows an early point in Menuhin's lifelong meditation on the beauty and meaning of Bach. He partners with his teacher, the Rumanian violinist and composer, Georges Enesco, in a performance conducted in Paris by Pierre Monteux (ca. 1935, 78 originals reissued on RCA LCT 1120 in the early 'fifties). The interplay of Menuhin and Enesco is finely detailed and sensitive, with the slow movement providing a complete equality and balance of the two. The Bach Double Violin Concerto can scarcely have had another performance so full of song. The affection and respect of Menuhin and Enesco for each other come across beautifully. Monteux's conducting is firm but discreet, providing an effective context for the two soloists.
Between the other Paris concerto recordings at my disposal, the Paganini First and the Lalo Symphonie espagnole, I find the Lalo with Enesco conducting to be the more successful and enjoyable. Young Menuhin certainly shows his virtuoso self in the Paganini, but the lyricism of the Lalo seems more congenial.
To me, the most moving and revelatory of these early concerto recordings is the Elgar concerto. Menuhin often told the story of his first meeting with Elgar. He had studied the score of the concerto on his own and with his beloved teacher Enesco before appearing in London for the recording at the request of Fred Gaisberg, the famous HMV producer. After hearing Menuhin play through the first page of the concerto, the 75-year-old Elgar interrupted and said he had "no qualms about the performance and that he was sure the recording would be excellent-and as for him-he was off to the races". To the young violinist's credit, after a few moments of consultation, he decided to join the grandfatherly composer for his own first visit to the race track.
The 1932 Elgar recording with Menuhin, Elgar, and the London Symphony Orchestra has been issued at least twice on LP by EMI, once in 1957 (ALP 1456) and again in 1972 (HLM 7107), as remastered by A. C. Griffiths. I have the 1972 version, which presents a reasonable orchestral picture with a clear, somewhat forward perspective on the violin. Griffiths is more wary of filtering out 78 surface noise than his younger colleague Keith Hardwick. Consequently, in my experience, a truer tonality of the original performance comes through on the LP transfer than if stronger noise reduction systems were used.
Elgar's Violin Concerto has a curious blend of romantic breadth and inward brooding and melancholy. Even in 1910, when he finished the work, Elgar must have been aware of the limits of his country's place in the world. A twentieth-century sensibility informs the outer gestures of the late-nineteenth-century in the work. The 1932 performance has a tremendous power and beauty to it. Elgar is altogether more vigorous and detailed in his conducting than one would expect, and clearly Menuhin gives his complete concentration and artistry to the performance. The exuberance and commitment of youth meets with an emotional depth from age in this recording. Menuhin's astonishing capacity for inwardness is particularly moving throughout the performance, and most notably in the Andante and in the famous long accompanied Cadenza at the end of the last movement. As Edward Greenfield commented in 1966, the 1932 version of the Elgar Violin Concerto was "one of the most magical performances ever recorded".
Menuhin re-recorded the Elgar in 1966 with Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI ASD 2259, reissued as SXLP 2900001 in 1984). The 1966 recording is excellent, though without the particular wonder of the 1932 version.
The height of Menuhin's achievement as a concerto violinist comes in his famous series of recordings with Wilhelm Furtwängler from 1947 to 1953. We have two studio versions of the Beethoven concerto, one of the Brahms, one of the Bartók, and one of the Mendelssohn.
Menuhin was the first major artist to come to the support of Furtwängler after World War II. When American musicians opposed Furtwängler's visit to the United States, Menuhin was his major advocate. As soon as Furtwängler was allowed to perform publicly, Menuhin joined him for concerts in Lucerne and Berlin in 1947. As a Jew, Menuhin's decision to perform with Furtwängler was both courageous and startling. Both men shared, as Menuhin suggests, a naïveté about the power of music in the face of passionate political divisions. "Furtwängler's fault, like my own perhaps, was to overestimate the power of music."
Menuhin's own inwardness and sense of spirituality made him a perfect soloist for the questing, visionary Furtwängler. As Menuhin puts it in his autobiography, reflecting on his 1947 concerts with Furtwängler: "to play the greatest German music with the greatest of German conductors was an experience of almost religious intensity." This special intensity and spiritual aura can be found in all the Menuhin/Furtwängler recordings.
Menuhin recorded the Beethoven concerto with Furtwängler twice, once in 1947 in conjunction with his first performances with Furtwängler and again in London in 1953. The 1953 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra has been in circulation almost continuously since its first issue in 1954 (HMV ALP 1100, LHMV 1061). I first knew this performance on the 1970 Seraphim edition (60135). This is a beautiful, rapt performance with Menuhin playing in his most poetic and transported manner. Furtwängler offers a heroic orchestral reading with sufficient flexibility and responsiveness to allow for Menuhin's poetic and spiritual flights. The performance is notable for the quality of listening it reveals, how Menuhin listens to Furtwängler, how Furtwängler responds to Menuhin's playing, how the orchestra listens to the soloist and to its own members. The sense of communion in the performance is deeply moving. This 1953 recording seems to me to be a plea for understanding and peace in the face of the experiences of the war and even the threats of the cold war.
The HMV recording, done in Kingsway Hall, is luminous and open on LHMV 1061. Like many of the other studio HMV recordings of Furtwängler in the early 'fifties, the sound and ambiance of the performance are captured with great beauty and power. But the performance survives even mediocre transfers like the one on Seraphim, as happens in so many Furtwängler recordings.
The 1947 recording, produced by Walter Legge with Douglas Larter as engineer, was the first official recording by Furtwängler after the war. Because of the 1953 LP version, this recording had a relatively short life on 78s and was first issued on LP only in 1970 in Japan. The most available LP version of the 1947 performance has been Pathé Marconi 2C 051-01570 in the Référence series. The 1947 version is both more intimate and more incisive than the wonderful 1953 performance. The range of expression is greater and more varied. While the overall tempos are quicker than in 1953, the inward moments as in the slow movement are slower and more contemplative. The last movement is more dance-like than the 1953. As happens so often in a Furtwängler performance, the music is an immense journey and Menuhin is the ideal pilgrim.
One other document survives from 1947, a broadcast recording of Menuhin and Furtwängler from their first Berlin concert on September 30 (Fonit-Cetra FE 1 ). In spite of a few intonational slips by Menuhin, the Berlin performance is a grand one, more passionate and heroic than the Lucerne recording. This performance is not as balanced and complete as the Lucerne version, but it is a worthy performance.
At least one of these three performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Menuhin and Furtwängler should be in every music lover's collection.
The Brahms Violin Concerto was recorded in October of 1949, again with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Furtwängler conducts one of his immense Brahms performances, and Menuhin offers a rich and moving presentation of the solo part, albeit with some technical weaknesses. Nonetheless, the concerto emerges as a powerful work beyond the scope of any other version known to me. The violin concerto, first issued on 78s, has been available sporadically on RCA LM 1142 (1951), HMV HLM 7015 (1973), and Pathé Marconi 2C 053-01239 (1980).
The only recording
Menuhin made with Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic
in the studio was the beautiful version of the Mendelssohn Violin
Concerto from 1952 (LM 1720 ). Clearly, Menuhin identifies
with Mendelssohn's Jewishness and projects a passionate, vibrant
performance that is matched by Furtwängler's powerful, nuanced
conducting. The tone of Menuhin's violin is exceptionally warm
and soulful in this recording. For sheer beauty of violin playing
the Mendelssohn is the finest of Menuhin's work with Furtwängler.
The tone of the playing and the intensity of feeling are tremendous
here. The French Dictionnaire des Disques reviews this
recording in its Da Capo reissue (C 047-00907) this way:
It is not alone by the beauty of the sonority that Menuhin impresses, but above all by a searing presence, a human grandeur. His recording . . . is a moving document, a testimony to the encounter of two of the most irreplaceable interpreters that the Western world has known.
This Menuhin/Furtwängler version of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is a supreme performance.
The sound of the original LP issue on LM 1720 has a satisfying focus and richness of tone plus a sense of presence that is haunting. The recording was engineered by Robert Beckett, who did the wonderful Furtwängler Beethoven series in Vienna in November of the same year. Other issues I have heard (Pathé Marconi Référence 2C 051-03612 , for instance) present a forward sound that is somewhat opaque and flat. The overall performance comes through but without the full tonal beauty of LM 1720.
Menuhin's final concerto recording with Furtwängler was their magical 1953 performance of the Bartók Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra, supposedly done at Menuhin's suggestion. I have written before about this beautiful and passionate performance ( "Living Mono", Recollections Quarterly). As I said then, "The performance is full of a fire and lyrical intensity that seem to me incomparable." On LHMV 3 the Menuhin/Furtwängler performance of the Bartók is one of the great recordings. I have not heard the HMV first issue (ALP 1121), but that should also be a fine embodiment of this superb performance.
In the 'fifties and 'sixties Menuhin re-recorded the basic concerto repertory with good results, but seldom with the magic of his performances with Furtwängler. The well known 1957 Mercury stereo version of the Bartók concerto with Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra is a case in point (SR 90003). Menuhin has expressed appreciation for Dorati and his championing of Bartók, and their 1957 version of the Violin Concerto is a very good one with successful, but not spectacular Mercury sound. Dorati takes an angular, modernist approach to the concerto, which is not completely congenial to Menuhin's spiritual and romantic nature. I actually prefer the 1966 Dorati/Mehuhin version (Angel S-36360), which is a slower account. Neither of these versions, though, comes close to the fire and poetry of the Menuhin/Furtwängler version.
Clearly the young Menuhin had an aura that informed most of his recordings, and the mature Menuhin was truly inspired in his collaborations with Furtwängler. The later big concerto recordings, Beethoven with Klemperer or Brahms with Kempe, are very good, but lack the energy and spontaneity of Menuhin's earlier work. Perhaps the many years of concertizing took a toll. After all, Menuhin first performed the Beethoven concerto in New York, in 1927, at the age of eleven. By 1970, at the age of 54, he had already been before the public for forty-three years!
One special case of the later recordings might well be the fine version of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante he played and conducted with Rudolf Barshai on viola and the Bath Festival orchestra in 1964. Here Menuhin's life as music maker and music ambassador blend beautifully into a transporting performance (Angel S 36190). The performance has an entrancing balance of vitality, richness, and warmth. In addition to an exhilarating performance, the sound is excellent, far better than one would suppose from the reputation of maligned Angels.
Other important Menuhin recordings from the 'sixties and 'seventies include his exploration of modern repertory avoided by most concert violinists. There is a notable 1968 recording of the Berg Violin Concerto with Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Pathé Marconi 2C 069-01855). Menuhin's performance is tremendously emotional and lyrical. The recording of the Frank Martin Polyptyque, Concerto for Violin and Two String Orchestras (EMI ASD 3185 (1976)), with Edmound de Stoutz and the Menuhin Festival Orchestra and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, is lovely. Another fine disq is the performance of Malcolm Williamson's Violin Concerto with Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI SLS 5085 (1978)). This last is, by the way, a Parker/Bishop recording. The Martin and the Williamson were written particularly for Menuhin.
Often a Menuhin recording will recreate a compelling sense of immediacy of performance and musical creation as well as an atmosphere of complete involvement. The 1932 Elgar recording, the 1952 Mendelssohn and the 1953 Bartók present the listener with an unexplainable sense of musical and emotional plenitude.
In his memoirs
Menuhin recounts hearing, while on an ocean liner between New
York and Southampton, a recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
He comments on the way he views recorded performances:
Occasionally-very occasionally-[an artist's] performance surpasses his memory of it. Once on a transatlantic liner's public address system I heard the Beethoven concerto played as I would dearly love to have played it, only to discover that the recording was one I had made with Furtwängler in 1947.
One of the truly memorable moments in Menuhin's life was his final lesson in 1927 with Georges Enesco. After a number of lessons with him in Paris, Enesco invited Menuhin and his father to his home, Villa Luminish, in Rumania. At the end of the visit, a remarkable event happened. As a terrific storm broke over the villa, Enesco asked the eleven year old boy to play the Chaconne from Bach's D minor Partita. Enesco asked Menuhin to play this greatest of all movements for solo violin, lasting nearly fifteen minutes, not once, not twice, but three times.
What did Enesco
intend in this extraordinary request, which the young Menuhin
filled with naive immediacy? Did Enesco want to test the boy's
stamina, as Menuhin suggests in his memoirs? Or did Enesco hear
something so haunting and beautiful in Menuhin's playing of that
incomparable piece that he feared it was only his own fantasy?
Did Enesco ask for the second and third playing of the Chaconne
to reassure himself that such beauty was human?
Years later Enesco gave his explanation to Menuhin's first biographer, Roger Magidoff:
That was the strangest and the most exalted experience in my entire life as a musician. The Chaconne is one of man's truly sublime monuments, a veritable cathedral, the amazing architecture of which obscures for most violinists the emotional life seething within its walls. Whoever penetrates its tragedy and faith has won the battle for Bach and, through him, for the understanding of the human soul. It is incomprehensible, but at the age of eleven Yehudi seemed to have understood it. It was as if he had lifted the enormous weight of human tears and hopes and, unbruised, carried it through that thunderstorm.
One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was a 1973 recital by Menuhin in Burlington, Vermont. Menuhin had been scheduled to bring his chamber orchestra, but a snow storm prevented the arrival of the musicians. As compensation, Menuhin scheduled a recital for a later date. On his program Menuhin performed one of the Beethoven Op. 30 sonatas and the Bach Second Partita before intermission. A variety of virtuoso pieces followed intermission.
The performance of the Second Partita was perhaps the most complete and transporting music I ever heard. The Chaconne was a universe of sound and meaning. It was as if the frail beauty of the wood and strings of Menuhin's violin was a lens on the whole cosmos.
After the concert I had the temerity to go back stage and shake Menuhin's hand, effusing over the Bach. Effusion to a man who had played Bach's Chaconne for Enesco in the storm, in the Aleutian Islands in World War II, at the four corners of the globe, a hundred times over, and probably new at every re-creation. He replied in a small, quiet voice, knowing that he had given all that could be expressed through his playing, "Yes, it is a wonderful piece, isn't it?"
Menuhin's identification with Bach's works for solo violin has been profound. He included the Chaconne in his first solo recital in Carnegie Hall, and he has included the Sonatas and Partitas on programs throughout his career. Clearly the combination of austerity and spiritual meditation inherent in these works compels a complete dedication from Menuhin. For him these are not abstract constructions but essential documents of human nature, full of sorrow and exaltation.
Menuhin has recorded all six of these works together three times, in 1934-36, in 1957, and in 1975. Each set is a testament to the beauty and power of these great works, and each set shows Menuhin giving his complete emotional and technical commitment to serve the works that he loves so much. Naturally, these recordings provide a kind of spiritual and musical biography of Menuhin. After all, Menuhin strives to instill each performance of these works with the full significance of his own life and ability to perform.
While he included the Sonata, No. 2 in C Major in his first extended recording session in 1929 and various single movements including the Chaconne in the early 'thirties, Menuhin's first complete set of the Bach solo works dates from the period of 1934-36. These 78 sets were never, to my knowledge, issued on LP, but in 1989 they did appear on CD in EMI's Great Performances series as re-mastered digitally by Keith Hardwick. The 1957 and 1975 recordings appeared in LP format shortly after they were taped.
In the broadest terms, each of these three sets shows the musical and personal achievement of Menuhin. The first series was done on four days: May 19 and 25, 1934 (Partita, No. 2, and Sonata,No. 3 ); December 19, 1935 (Partita, No. 1 and Sonata, No. 1 ); and February 3, 1936 (Sonata, No. 2, and Partita, No. 3 ). Menuhin was 18 years old for the first two sessions, and 19 for the second two. This set shows, generally, the magical beauty of tone he could produce and the almost dream-like flow of music he could communicate. In many ways, his intuitive genius can be heard most clearly in these recordings. The young Menuhin is sensitive to the dance-like qualities of the partita movements, and he expresses the spiritual beauty of many of these works with disarming directness. We can hear the great Chaconne performed in 1934 with something of the transcendent beauty that moved Enesco so profoundly.
Just over twenty years later, Menuhin recorded the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas again in 1957 for EMI/HMV LP issue. This second set shows a more intense and expressive Menuhin. The phrasing is much more dramatic now, with strong contrasts of tempo and emphasis. This is the most "personal" version, with Menuhin impressing his artistic choices and interpretive stance quite strongly on the music. Attacks are sharper, tempos are often faster, the playing weightier and more virtuosic than in 'thirties set.
Menuhin's final recording of the Bach solo works was done in 1975, now forty years after his first complete version. Here we have something like his last thoughts on these works. Generally, Menuhin has a more emotionally and structurally controlled conception here than in 1957. The playing is very fine indeed. He seems to be striving for a complete expression of these works with a combination of emotional richness and artistic balance as well as a sense of the cyclical connection of the six works. I was personally surprised in rehearing all of these three sets to find the last version to be so compelling and moving.
The Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin have a status something like the late Beethoven piano sonatas. They represent a special world of immense musical significance through the resources of a single performer. The musical command of Bach in casting six major works for solo violin is an extraordinary achievement and challenge to both performer and listener. It has been a particular privilege to be able to listen to all of Menuhin's three recorded interpretations of these works for this essay.
If I were limited to one set, I would probably choose the last one from 1975 (Angel SC-3817, 3 disqs). But each set has such remarkable achievements that I would hope all three could be accessible.
The early set shows an innocence and joy of playing that is unequalled in the later versions of the Bach or in any other Menuhin recordings I know of, save the 1932 Elgar concerto. The slow movements of the three sonatas, the first and third movements, have an inwardness and spiritual aura that are unequalled elsewhere. The young Menuhin has a tremendous capacity for serenity and meditative calm that must be heard. I would recommend here the Sonata, No.2, in A minor for auditioning. Furthermore, young Menuhin has an instinctive sense of dance rhythms of the partita movements and a purity of tone that completely disarms the listener.
I am thinking here of the Partita, No. 1, in B minor. Each of the four dance movements is followed by a variation on the dance called a double. The dance-like rhythms are united in a fine sense of flow and interconnectedness in the 1935 performance. The 78 recordings were a direct to disq mode with long enough sides to ask for the beginning of the double on the same side as the preceding movement. A twelve inch 78 side could run up to five minutes. This direct to disq mode allows for an awe inspiring performance-like fluidity and freedom here in the playing. The last two movements, the slow Sarabanda and the lively Bourée and their doubles, are almost miraculous in Menuhin's freedom and joy of expression.
The most popular of these works, the Partita, No. 3, in E major, brings out the sheer joy of playing in young Menuhin. We hear dancing and singing throughout a wonderful performance. The 1934 Chaconne from the second Partita must be heard, of course, for its spiritual purity and mysterious grandeur.
The CD transfers by Keith Hardwick are acceptable although he has applied somewhat more filtering than I think is needed (EMI compact disqs CHS 7 63035 2, 2 CDs; USA number CDHB-63035 ). Contrast a Hardwick "judicious" filtering remastering with the less filtered versions by Anthony Griffith as in the 1932 Elgar concerto on EMI HLM 7107. I find the Griffith remasterings to be more musical. The CD effect is a bit hard to judge without a clear analog comparison, but I find a dynamic limiting here and constant reminders of a technological envelope that particularly mutes attacks and nuances of bowing and vibrato. I suspect that the 78 originals have considerably more life than the CD format allows. The performances, however, can be heard and, with some imagination, enjoyed.
The 1957 version has the best sonic recording of these three sets with clear, focussed monaural sound (EMI HMV 1512, 1531, 1532). The microphone is just slightly back from Menuhin so that some studio ambiance comes through. Menuhin's playing is captured in luminous sound. We hear a tremendous range of bowing attacks, changes in bow pressure, the character of each of the strings of the violin, a world of details that can be so elusive in the recording process. The impression is of hearing Menuhin in a small recital hall from, say, the fifth row.
Menuhin at 41 takes the most aggressive and dramatic approach in his recordings of these works. In comparison to the intuitive versions of the 34-36 set, here Menuhin pulls at the seams of these works sometimes giving an impression of disjointedness, as if he were struggling to liberate their inner meaning. The first Partita, for instance, receives the least complete performance of his three versions. Where Menuhin rises to heights in 1957 is in the largest and most emotionally and intellectually challenging material. The great fugue movements of the sonatas receive especially powerful performances in 1957. The Sonata, No. 2, in A minor, for instance, receives a heroic performance. Menuhin grapples with the fugue, revealing a tragic human drama in the work. Likewise, the great Partita, No. 2, in D minor, with the Chaconne, emerges with full heroic drama and power. Where the 34-36 versions are slightly other-worldly, in 1957 Menuhin shows the awesome human struggle of the music. While the 1957 set is a bit varied in success, the finest performances are overwhelming.
In his 1975 recordings Menuhin seems to be striving for a combination of the tonal beauty and directness of the 34-36 version and the more emotionally and intellectually complex understanding of 1957. In large measure he is successful.
Menuhin recorded this last set in a church, and even with close microphone placement you can hear the ambiance of large spaces. The recorded tone is rich and Menuhin's playing is secure. Menuhin also projects an integral sense of each of the six works here, presenting them as a kind of cycle. This becomes clear when the last work, Partita, No. 3, appears as a postlude to the sequence. (The order of the works is confirmed by the three early complete manuscripts, including one in Anna Magdelena Bach's hand.)
At the age of
59 Menuhin reveals his sense of the cumulative effect not just
of individual works but of the whole sequence. Consequently, his
performance of the final sonata and the final partita are
particularly important. This version of the Sonata, No. 3,
in C major is one of Menuhin's finest performances. While
the second Partita ends with the great Chaconne,
the third sonata has the most complex and involving fugue in the
set, lasting about eleven minutes. Menuhin unfolds an organic
presentation of the sonata with the fugue at the center, richly
played with a remarkable tonal range and mastery of form. The
opening Adagio is improvisational in mood, followed by
the fugue. The third movement is a meditative Largo, and
the final Allegro assai a life affirming dance. In his
memoirs Menuhin comments on this recording:
I have lately recorded this biggest of Bach's sonatas and fugues for the third time-for only the first time, however, to my satisfaction.
In this instance, he is right. The 1975 recording of the third sonata is a masterpiece.
Menuhin presents the final partita not as a virtuoso piece, which he did in 1957, but as an intimate postlude. The 1975 performance of the Partita, No. 3, is almost conversational in mood, Menuhin reflecting on his experience of these works and sharing his reflections with the listener. The climax of the series, of course falls on the Chaconne and the C major fugue, but the intimate significance of these works is the concern of the last partita. Menuhin's experience with the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, as preserved in these three sets of recordings, is a precious part of the recorded history of the interpretation and understanding of music.
One direct consequence of Menuhin's commitment to the Bach solo violin works was his desire to commission Bartók to write a violin sonata. The result was the Sonata for Solo Violin, one of the most important of Bartók's last works. Menuhin played the sonata for Bartók in private, and in public in 1944.
Menuhin has recorded the Bartók Violin Sonata three times, as he has the six Bach solo works. He first recorded the Bartók in 1947 (LP issue RCA LM 1087), again in 1958, and yet again in 1975. Unfortunately, I have not been able to hear the first two recordings, but the 1975 version shares major characteristics with the third Bach set. My copy is a French EMI from 1976 (VSM 2 C 069-02874).
The Bartók sonata is in many ways a twentieth century adaptation of the Bach works with an opening movement that reinterprets the Chaconne (Tempo di ciaccona) and a second movement fugue. The last two movements are an Adagio and a Presto. Menuhin makes the link back to Bach perfectly clear without shirking the evocation of the modern in his performance. This is majestic and powerful music making.
Radiating from Menuhin's 1957 Bach solo set is a large range of chamber music based on his Bath Festival performances as soloist and conductor. In a way, the 1957 Bach set presents Menuhin as heroic soloist, and the Bath Festival recordings show Menuhin as a communal music maker. One of the most magical of these recordings is the 1962 set of the six Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (Angel S 3629 B, 2 disqs) with George Malcolm at the harpsichord and Ambrose Gauntlett on viola da gamba in three of the works. In contrast to the dramatic mood of the 1957 solo works, here Menuhin is in a relaxed, meditative state of mind. Perhaps the ensemble work offered a more congenial and supportive atmosphere than the solitary responsibilities and expectations of the great solo pieces. The 1962 accompanied sonata set is a treasure with a lovely open sound and rapt performances.
There are, of course, earlier versions of these accompanied sonatas. The 1944 version of the third sonata in E major is a curious one (paired with the Enesco/Monteux Double Concerto on RCA LCT 1120). Landowska plays a metronomic and insistent performance on her huge sounding Pleyel harpsichord, and Menuhin offers a dutiful but not inspired version of the violin part. Much finer is the early 'fifties version with Louis Kentner at the piano (RCA LHMV 1016). Here Menuhin has much greater freedom and expression than in 1944, and he attains a raptness that has much in common with the 1962 set.
It was at this time in the late 'fifties and early 'sixties that Menuhin began his work as violinist/conductor. I find the set of the Brandenburg Concertos (Capitol S GBR 7217, 2 disqs () to be quite satisfying, a blend of mid-twentieth century playing with chamber sized forces. The atmosphere of communal music making is very much in evidence here. Of similar caliber is Menuhin's conducting of the Handel, Water Music (Angel S 36173), also with the Bath Festival Orchestra. There are also fine records of the Bach Violin Concertos from this time (Capitol S 7210), the Bach Orchestral Suites (Capitol S GBR 7252 ), and the Bach keyboard concertos with George Malcolm (EMI ASD 2647 and ASD 2713).
My favorite performance among these Bath Festival performances is of Bach's Musical Offering (Angel S 35731, EMI ASD 414 ). The Musical Offering is one of those late, theoretical works by Bach that can seem rather dry in performance. Frederick II of Prussia set a theme for Bach during the old man's visit to the palace in 1747. As a gift, Bach presented the work to Frederick in the form of two fugues, ten puzzle canons, and a trio sonata, all more or less based on the "royal theme". The "puzzle canons" were printed in shortened form as problems to be worked out to derive the complete score. Menuhin and his colleagues perform Neville Boyling's edition, which sets out the work as follows: an opening three part fugue on the harpsichord; five solved canons for strings and winds; the trio sonata for violin, flute, and continuo; five further canons; and a concluding six part fugue for strings.
The performance gives substance and body to the theoretical frame of the work, conveying a wonderful combination of the chaste and the sensual in the music. The work seems like an unfolding vision with a full culmination in the string sextet of the concluding fugue. The recorded sound gives immediacy and fullness to the instruments, and the mood of the whole captures that communal spirit that is so typical of Menuhin's recorded Bath Festival performances of this time.
While the Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord offer a particularly complete expression of his chamber playing, Menuhin has, of course, performed and recorded a vast range of the violin chamber repertory. His complete versions of the Brahms and Beethoven are important recordings.
In the 'fifties Menuhin recorded a great number of performances with his brother-in-law Louis Kentner for EMI. The Brahms sonatas, recorded in the late 'fifties, are particularly notable. Here we find a passionate, gypsy-like Menuhin with a responsive and supportive Kentner. The sound on this set is very fine indeed, another example of splendid EMI monaural recording. I do not have the EMI originals, but the US issue on Capitol is quite successful (GBR 7142, 2 disqs ), and my German Electrola edition has tremendous presence and fullness (E 80563, E 80564). On good tube amplification, the effect of Menuhin's playing and presence in these recordings is almost overwhelming.
This is no academic Brahms, but Brahms at his most emotionally charged, both lyric and powerful. The opening movement of the first sonata begins with soulful introspection, but Menuhin surges to passionate lyricism that is thrilling. Even the pizzicato sections, which suggest the subtitle "Rain," are beautifully played and fully integrated into the lyric pulse. Kentner keeps pace and accompanies effectively, but this is certainly Menuhin's performance. The third sonata is finely balanced and connected through the intense yet subtle playing. This is probably Menuhin at his most romantic, and wonderful it is.
In addition to a varied series of individual Beethoven sonatas, Menuhin's complete set of Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Wilhelm Kempff is a fine example of his mature work (DGG 2720 018, Beethoven Edition, Vol. 7, 8 disqs ). Three of the eight disqs are devoted to the 'cello and piano works with Pierre Fournier ('cello) and Kempff.
The Menuhin/Kempff Beethoven set is quite engaging. In contrast to the romantic and passionate playing in the Brahms sonatas, here we find a relaxed and intimate approach, always alert and responsive but not generally heroic. The famous "Kreutzer" Sonata receives an appropriately big performance, but the most successful performances here are the Op. 12 and Op. 30 trilogies, the "Spring" Sonata, Op. 24, and the final sonata, Op. 96. The Beethoven set provides a surprisingly natural pairing.
Menuhin has commented on the ease of his work with Kempff, noting how they required almost no rehearsal for concerts or the Beethoven recordings:
Kempff and I hardly rehearsed on that occasion [a concert]. We just skimmed through the program, discovering straightaway that we understood one another. This pattern was to be maintained: When he and I recorded all the Beethoven sonatas, we played without rehearsal, often choosing the first 'take' of any particular movement.
This spontaneous approach finds fine expression in many of the sonatas in the Beethoven set. I often return to the "Spring" Sonata, Op. 24, and the Op. 30 sonatas as well as the final sonata in the set. One surprise here is the humor that informs many of the sonatas. The high spirits and enjoyment of these performances make this set memorable. The Deutsche Grammophon sound, also, is quite satisfying here with clear and focussed tone and agreeable studio ambiance.
Any extended comment on Menuhin's recording career must touch on examples of his work with major musicians outside "classical music". Menuhin has long been a champion of Indian classical music, and his series with Ravi Shankar called "West Meets East" had a notable success in the 'sixties and 'seventies. The first recital is on Angel (S) 36418 (1966). Here Menuhin does Indian style improvisation to a Ravi Sahankar raga, and Menuhin and Shankar perform a brief evening raga with the lovely tabla accompaniment of Alla Rakha. On the second side of the disq Menuhin and his sister Hephzibah play Enecso's Third Sonata for Violin in "the popular Rumanian style." As the violinist points out in his notes, Enesco had heard Shankar and his brother rehearsing in the thirties and had also taken the young Yehudi to hear an Indonesian gamelan orchestra at the Colonial Exhibition at Paris at the same period. The scales and tonalities of the Enesco sonata sound remarkably similar to the Indian music on the record.
Of all of Menuhin's "non-classical" records, my favorite is his first disq of 'thirties American popular songs with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. The record called Jalousie: Music of the Thirties (Angel SFO-36968 ) is a real gem. Menuhin and Grappelli play duets to a jazz trio back up with verve, enjoyment, and lilt. Menuhin is not a jazz violinist, of course, but he enjoys the tunes and the style and the exhilaration of playing with Grappelli. This is infectious music and winning playing. On a radio show many years ago, I would often play a selection from this record as a kind of bonbon. I believe that every time I played the record the phone lit up with a listener asking for more information about the record and the performers.
I have offered a cross-section of Menuhin's recorded career. Inevitably, I have omitted many performances I have heard as well as records not known to me, and I have not really addressed Menuhin's increasing work as a conductor. I hope that my discussion will lead some readers to reconsider Menuhin's role as a central interpreter of the 20th century. In a world of the shiny surfaces of post-modernism Menuhin remains a musician of depth and variety like few others. He is one of the very few musicians who can provide us with a link to the eras earlier in our century when music was central to the meaning of existence.
What gives Menuhin's playing such depth and capacity to move the human spirit? Enesco, Menuhin's own master, has the final word:
you describe the mystery of creation? Can anyone? I certainly
cannot, and I believe no mortal can. One senses the creative force
and stands in awe, but one cannot explain or describe it. There
are, of course, rules to the writing of music and to its performance,
but the miracle of music happens independently of the rules. Genius
is a miracle about which one can say: I know not the whys and
the wherefores of it, but it could not have been otherwise.
It would be futile to ask Yehudi about this, because he will not know how to speak about it. All he can do is perform the miracle again from time to time, and that is more than is given to most mortals.
Bach, J. S., Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (recorded May 19 and 25, 1934, December 19, 1935, February 3, 1936). Reissued on compact disqs EMI, Great Recordings of the Century, CHS 7 63035 2, 2 CDs; USA number CDHB-63035 (1989), Keith Hardwick (remastering engineer).
Bach, J. S., Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (recorded 1957). EMI HMV 1512, 1531, 1532 (1957).
Bach, J. S., Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (recorded 1975). Suvi Raj Grubb (producer), Neville Boyling and Robert Gooch (engineers). Angel SC-3817, 3 disqs (1976).
Bach, J. S., Sonata for Violin and Keyboard, No. 3, in E major with Wanda Landowska (recorded December 28, 1944). RCA LCT 1120 (circa 1952).
Bach, J. S., Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard, No. 1 in B minor, No. 2 in A, No. 3 in E with Louis Kentner (piano). RCA LHMV 1016 (circa 1954).
Bach, J. S., Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord with George Malcolm (harpsichord) and Ambrose Gauntlett (viola da gamba). Angel (S) 3629 B, 2 disqs (1962).
Bach, J. S., Double Concerto in D minor with Georges Enesco (violin) and Pierre Monteux (conductor) and theOrchestre Symphonique de Paris (recorded June 4, 1932). Reissued on RCA LCT 1120 (circa 1952).
Bach, J. S., Double Concerto in D minor with Christian Ferras (violin) and the Festival Chamber Orchestra; Violin Concertos in A minor and E major, with the Robert Masters Chamber Orchestra. Capitol (S) 7210(1960).
Bach, J. S., Keyboard Concertos with George Malcolm and the Menuhin Festival Orchestra. EMI ASD 2647 and ASD 2713 (1971).
Bach, J. S., Brandenburg Concertos with the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra (recorded 1960). Peter Andry (producer). Capitol (S) GBR 7217, 2 disqs (1960).
Bach, J. S., Four Orchestral Suites with the Bath Festival Orchestra (recorded 1960). Peter Andry and Ronald Kinloch Anderson (producers), Neville Boyling (engineer). Capitol (S) GBR 7252, 2 disqs (1961).
Bach, J. S., The Musical Offering with Robert Masters (violin), Patrick Ireland (viola), Nannie Jamieson (viola), Elaine Shaffer (flute), Archie Camden (bassoon), and Ronald Kinloch Anderson (harpsichord). Angel (S) 35731, EMI ASD 414 (1961).
Bartók, Sonata for Solo Violin (recorded June 2, 1947). RCA LM 1087.
Bartók, Sonata for Solo Violin (recorded 1974). John Mordler (producer), Neville Boyling and Robert Gooch (engineers). Pathé Marconi VSM 2 C 069-02874 (1977).
Bartók, Violin Concerto, No. 2 with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Philharmonia Orchestra (recorded September 12 and 13, 1953). RCA LHMV 3, EMI/HMV ALP 1121 (1954).
Bartók, Violin Concerto, No. 2, with Antal Dorati (conductor) and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (recorded February 18, 1957). Wilma Cozart (recording director), Harold Lawrence (artistic director), C. R. Fine (engineer). Mercury SR 90003 (1959).
Bartók, Violin Concerto, No. 2, with Antal Dorati (conductor) and the Philharmonia Orchestra (recorded 1966). Angel S-36360 (1966).
Beethoven, Ten Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Wilhelm Kempff (piano). DGG 2720 018, Beethoven Edition, Vol. 7, 8 disqs (1970) (includes the 'cello and piano works with Pierre Fournier 'cello and Kempff).
Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (recorded August, 28 and 29, 1947). Walter Legge (producer), Douglas E. Larter (engineer). Reissued on Pathé Marconi Référence 2C 051-01570.
Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded in concert, September 30, 1947). Fonit-Cetra FE 1 (1980).
Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Philharmonia Orchestra (recorded April 8, 1953). RCA LHMV 1061 and HMV 1100 (1954), reissued on Seraphim 60135 (1970).
Brahms, Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano and Schubert, Fantasie for Violin and Piano with Louis Kentner (piano). Capitol GBR 7142, 2 disqs (1959), Electrola E 80563, E 80564 (1959).
Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (recorded October 7, 1949). RCA LM 1142 (1951), HMV HLM 7015 (1973), and Pathé Marconi Référence 2C 053-01239 (1980).
Brahms, Third Symphony with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded December 18, 1949). Electrola E 90994 (1959), Unicorn WFS 4 (1972). (No soloist.)
Elgar, Violin Concerto, Op. 61 with Sir Edward Elgar (conductor) and the London Symphony Orchestra (recorded July 15 and 16, 1932). Reissued on EMI ALP 1456 (1957) and on HMV HLM 7107 (remastered by A. C. Griffith) (1972).
Elgar, Violin Concerto, Op. 61 with Sir Adrian Boult (conductor) and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI ASD (1966), reissued on EMI SXLP 2900001 (1984).
Handel, Water Music with the Bath Festival Orchestra. Angel (S) 36173 (1966).
Lalo, Symphonie espagnole with Enesco (conductor) andthe Orchestra Symphonique de Paris (recorded June 20, 1933). Reissued on Pathé Marconi Référence 2908431.
Martin, Frank, Polyptique for Solo Violin and Two String Orchestras and Ballade for Viola, Wind Orchestra, and Percussion with Edouard Stoutz (conductor in Polyptique) with Yehudi Menuhin (violin and viola) and the Menuhin Festival Orchestra and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. John Mordler (producer), Neville Boyling (engineer). EMI ASD 3185 (1976).
Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto with Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded May 25 and 26, 1952). Robert Beckett (engineer). RCA LM 1720 (1952), reissued on Pathé Marconi Référence C 051-03612 (1979).
Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 with Rudolf Barshai (viola) and the Bath Festival Orchestra (recorded 1964). Angel S 36190 (1964).
Paganini, First Violin Concerto with Monteux and the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris (recorded May 18, 1934). Reissued on Pathé Marconi Référence 2C 051-43322.
Williamson, Malcolm, Violin Concerto, with Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Christopher Bishop (producer), Christopher Parker (engineer). EMI SLS 5085 (1978).
Jalousie: Music of the Thirties with Stephane Grappelli (violin) and jazz trio. Ronald Kinlock Anderson (producer), Tony Clark (engineer). Angel SFO-36968 (1973).
Vintage Menuhin: the Legendary Early Recordings with various accompanists (recorded 1931-38). Orion ORS 7271 (1972).
West Meets East with Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Alla Rakha (tabla), includes Enesco, Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 3 with Hephzibah Menuhin (piano). Angel (S) 36418 (1966).
All entries include
Menuhin as violin soloist or conductor unless otherwise noted.
Where possible I have indicated the date of the recording and
the date of the record issue.
Robin Daniels, Conversations with Menuhin (New York: St. Martin's, 1980).
Robert Magidoff, Yehudi Menuhin: The Man and the Musician (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1955).
Unfinished Journey (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
I would like to thank Dr. Jack Anderson, Phillippe Carrard, Bill Dunlop, and Ronald Penndorf for the generous loan of records for this essay.
copyright 2001 Thomas Simone, RECOLLECTIONS
Yehudi Menuhin photo, John Reeves
RCA Victor LHMV 3 Bartók Violin Concerto insert, Vincent van Gogh
The sarod of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, evokes many moods. Khansahib's rich and passionate playing can transport the listener to another time, place, or state of mind. The sounds might evoke the Indian landscape, with its many temples, mosques, and open vistas. Or, perhaps, the melodies and complicated rhythmic structures will set a meditative mood, a genuinely transcendent one. And like all truly great music, Ali Akbar Khan's is passionate, at times fiery, and always spiritually inspired. Fortunately, many of his great performances are available on record. It is to these treasures that this critical appreciation is devoted.
Ali Akbar Khan, along with Ravi Shankar, was generally responsible for popularizing classical north Indian music in the United States and western Europe during the late 1950s and '60s. Through a series of concert tours and the release of high-quality LP recordings Ali Akbar Khan, helped introduce this music, creating for the first time, a large audience in the West for this art form. This audience, in turn, generated a demand for Indian music among Western record companies.
The demand in
the West was by no means limited to music. Later, Indian art and
religion also became very popular and were integrated into Western
culture. However, music played a paramount role in the awakening
of interest, and records of Indian music produced during this
era were a very important part of this process. The opening of
a market for India's artistic heritage in the West may have helped
strengthen this musical tradition in India as well.
It is easy to underestimate the impact that Ali Akbar Khan's work has had in opening this new chapter in the history of Indian music. Through his concerts, teaching, and recordings, he has been one of the most important figures to emerge in Indian classical music in the latter-half of the twentieth century.
Ali Akbar Khan's records must be considered musical productions in their own right, productions in which performance and recording are inextricably linked. These records are important musical events in themselves and have had a great impact.
Ali Akbar Khan was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) on April 14, 1922. He was born into a musical lineage which trace its ancestry back to the legendary master, Tan Sen. His father, Baba Allaudin Khan, is considered by many to be the greatest figure in north Indian music in this century.
At the age of three, Ali Akbar Khan began to study music with his father. As is often the custom with the study of Indian music, he began with vocals and drums. His father trained him on various instruments before deciding that he should concentrate on the sarod. It is said that for twenty years he practiced at least eighteen hours a day in order to master the fundamentals of Indian classical music. At the age of thirteen, he gave his first public performance and, by his early twenties, was appointed 'court musician' to the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
As his artistry matured he was given, while still a young man, the rare title 'Ustad,' or master musician.
Yehudi Menuhin brought Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to the U.S. in 1955 and introduced him to America at the Asia Society in New York City. During this period he gave a series of unprecedented concerts and made an appearance on television-the first by an Indian musician. Also at this time he made the first LP of Indian music produced in the West. (Angel 35283 was released in the U.S. in 1956.)
Khansahib, as he is affectionately called, founded the first Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, India, in 1956, yet he continued to record and concertize in India, Europe, and the U.S. As his efforts towards popularizing Indian classical music in the West became successful, interest arose among many Westerners wanting to become his musical disciples. In response to this interest, Khansahib founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Berkeley, California in 1968. Later, in 1977, the College moved to its present location in San Rafael, California. Ali Akbar Khan has taught continuously at the College while at the same time recording prolifically and making an annual concert tour. The College is the most important institution for the propagation of this artistic tradition in the United States.
To appreciate the records of Ali Akbar Khan it is helpful to understand something about Indian music.
"One of the world's most ancient and distinguished musical cultures is that of the Indian subcontinent . . . Indian music is divided into two main traditions, Hindustani of north India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Karnatic of south India . . . North Indian music has been heavily influenced by central Asian and Persian forms introduced to the Moghul courts, and many of the famous hereditary performers are Muslims. Despite the many differences between the two great traditions, the fundamental concepts of composition and performance are shared."1
"Most Indian classical music has three main components, a solo melody line, usually highly embellished, a rhythmic accompaniment and a drone. Vocal music is predominant; instrumental styles . . . though better known in the West through famous performers such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, are based on vocal models."2
The Indian scale, the material of this music's rich melody, has twenty-two intervals. The scale is known as the sargum. Fundamental to it are the tonic, the fifth, and the third, which are among the seven pure tones-the shudda swaras. Between these seven tones (swaras) are semitones, and between the tones and the semitones are shrutis, or microtones. It is said that only the trained ear can hear the shrutis. These intervals are arranged to make seventy-two parent scales.
Ragas-a concept basic to Indian music-use these scales.
Indian classical music, it is helpful to understand the raga.
"A raga is a highly sophisticated system of melody form or
melody structure with which a musician improvises."3 Every raga has its own
defining characteristics. "Each raga has an ascending and
descending form (which may differ), prescribed ornaments, characteristic
melodic phrases, a specified time . . . for performance, a predominant
mood (rasa) and two primary notes, a main melodic note
and a secondary one."4 The
use of microtones, glissandi and other embellishments brings life
to the raga-gives it a rasa. These final techniques are
learned by the student from the master (guru) through an
oral tradition, and they are perfected after years of study.
Some of the principal moods (rasa) basic to Indian art forms are: Erotic, Comic, Pathosfilled, Furious, Heroic, Terrible (frightful), Disgusting, Wonderfilled, and Tranquil (devotional).
A raga unfolds in a traditional manner. "The first movement of the raga is the alap. It is a slow, serene movement acting as an invocation without rhythm and emphasizing each note with simple variations on the notes themselves. It exhaustively explores the chosen raga."5 The jor is the continuation of the alap. Here the element of rhythm is introduced and numerous melodic patterns are interwoven, with the movement gradually increasing in tempo. "It is in an even, rhythmic style but is without drums, since the tala has not yet been stated."6 The final movement of the raga is the jhala. It is played in a very fast tempo and eventually brings the raga to its climax.
The emphasis now shifts to a rhythm composition, the beginning of which is marked, roughly, by the entrance of the tabla player. "It is a fixed composition and can be in any tala . . ."7 The tala is "a rhythmic cycle with a fixed number of beats. Basically, the tala . . . is known not only by the number of beats but also by the division of beats and accents in the cycle."8 This rhythm composition "is spread over from two to sixteen of its rhythmic cycles in any tempo: slow, medium or fast."9
A common rhythm composition is the gat. "Gats have their own development and variations where musicians again have plenty of scope for improvisation. The gat generally ends with a crescendo played very fast."10
Within the raga
structure "the musicians improvise in any manner or length
are characteristic patterns of improvisation: one is sawal-jawab.
"This is a question-and-answer section in which the melodic
instrument sets the pattern first and is followed by the tabla."12 Another is upaj-larhant.
This is an "impromptu duel in which both instruments improvise
at the same time."13
"Indian instruments reflect the main requirements of the musical system-flexibility of pitch to perform the many ragas and their microtonal ornaments, rhythmic complexity and the ever - present drone. " 14
The instruments typically used on Ali Akbar Khan's recordings are the sarod, tabla, and tamboura. A member of the lute family, the sarod is a plucked, but not fretted, string instrument. "The sarod's body is of teak, the belly is covered with skin and the fingerboard is metal. The latter feature allows the use of subtle glissandi and powerful double slurs which typify sarod playing. The sarod has twenty-five metal strings, ten of which are played with a plectrum made from coconut shell. Four strings carry melody, two serve to accentuate the percussive rhythms and four others are tuned to the dominant notes of the chosen raga. The remaining fifteen are sympathetic strings. A metal gourd increases the resonance."15 The sarod has a very sweet tone with a rapid decay. The tabla drums provide the rhythmic accompaniment. The drum on the left is usually made of copper while the one on the right is made of wood. The right-hand drum is tuned to the tonic, dominant, or subdominant of the raga played. The left-hand drum acts as the bass and is capable of many tones which can be varied by the degree of pressure from the base of the left palm. In the hands of a master, the tabla produce an amazing range of color and timbre. Finally, the tamboura provides the drone effect. It is a four or five-stringed instrument which is plucked open-stringed and provides a subdued, steady tone. It is tuned to the raga's tonic and the fourth or fifth from it. A raga is more recognizable because of the tamboura.
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's very first records were 78s.
1. Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, (New York, 1991), 360.
3. Bhargav Mistry, Unpublished Manuscript, 2.
4. Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, (New York, 1991), 360.
5. Richard Oliver, Anthology of Indian Music. Vol. 1. (New York, 1967), 16.
7. Richard Oliver, Anthology of Indian Music. Vol. 1. (New York, 1967), 16.
11. Bhargav Mistry, Unpublished Manu script, 2.
12. Richard Oliver, Anthology of Indian Music. Vol. 1. (New York, 1967), 16.
14. Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, (New York, 1991), 360.
15. Richard Oliver, Anthology of Indian Music. Vol. 1. (New York, 1967), 15.
Khan, Ali Akbar, ed. Introduction to the Classical Music of North India. Vol. 1. St. Louis, 1991.
Mistry, Bhargav. Unpublished Manuscript.
Oliver, Richard. Anthology of Indian Music. Vol. 1. New York, 1967. Booklet included with three-record set Anthology of Indian Music. Vol. 1. World Pacific Records WDS-26200 (1967).
Sadie, Stanley, ed. Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. New York, 1991.
2001 Andrew Willford, RECOLLECTIONS
The first, unforgettable encounter with Khansahib, thirty years ago, deep in Beatletime, came as something of a shock. A little knowledge, gained from the kind of callow record listening one indulged in then, very definitely did not go a long way. I remember the hair-raising way the tuning of the instruments metamorphosed into music as the alap began, and the amusement of the three musicians as the noisy crowd, seemingly all at once, felt the random sounds coalesce into raga, fell silent, settling in for the ride, all attention and wonderment. We had come ready to catch a few of those slinky shrutis, to hear the cool, clangy sounds we knew from records, to feel the beat, to let our heads wander off for a while to yogiland. Instead we were carried off on a trip to the other side. Just like Beethoven.
An hour or so later, after the first evening raga, we stood outside in the Seattle mist, unable to light our cigarettes for trembling hands.
Now, after many years and many more encounters just as powerful and moving as that first one, we return to consider the records, which in due course have acquired a deepened significance of their own.
Listening again to Khansahib's great series on Connoisseur Society is to marvel at the sheer beauty of the playing and of the recordings themselves. Surely these are among the best examples of artist and recording coming together in such accord, with so much personal force and genius caught in the sound, that disbelief suspends itself without a protest. This was the series that culminated in the fabulous "Forty-minute Raga" and "Eighty-minute Raga" disqs which purported to give the listener the fullest experience of Khansahib's art available on records. And so they did, not just in the sense of a fully-developed musical exposition, but also of a sense of a full revelation of a real-time performance much like the ones we heard in those fortunate concert halls, where it was possible to partake in the feeling of intense, abiding mutuality and empathy that seemed to flow from the musicians to the audience.
But this is not to dismiss the wonderful raga records of shorter duration, where what we are given to hear is not the same as the arguably 'real' performances, and not just in the dimension of duration. Typically, these records seem to distill the alap to a length that only allows for a kind of schematic representation of the raga, with virtually none of the extended meditative, rasa-setting exposition and exploration we would expect in a full performance.
Likewise the gat sections seem less elaborated, less grandly constructed, than what concerts have taught us is possible. But listening again, these twenty-minute ragas are still sublimely beautiful, like Rembrandt sketches.
And every one of them brings to mind the extraordinary aura we experienced in those concerts, the absolute conviction that the carpet was hovering three feet above the stage . . .
2001 W. D. RECOLLECTIONS
First-suddenly-there's his alto's sound: the tone is raw, angular, almost harsh and piercing. The attack is confident, assertive, sometimes strident. There's marked imprecision in the pitch, imparting obliqueness to the sonority. Full, round notes are abjured for bite and occasional dissonance. He swings and surges effortlessly, then often suspends the bluesy or "funky" syncopations.
Jackie McLean's urgent attack, with the dry, sardonic inflection-the vagaries of pitch, acerbic tone, and unfaltering rhythmic control-produces a style of affecting immediacy and emotional complexity. While not pretty (in the usual sense) nor particularly warm, there is a visceral beauty in the stew of passionate attack, searing tone, bluesy swing; stylistic grace in the dialectic of tension and release. He can put these characteristics to the service of exultant swing (he has called jazz "party music") or bittersweet poignancy. His playing has stylistic and ideational elements reminiscent of Brecht/Weill theater music in its irony, expressionism, detachment, and ability to weld disparate emotions. McLean's is music of experience, the hip, gifted, black bopsters' experience, forged out of the difficulties, frustrations, and triumphs of his milieu.
Born in New York City in 1931, McLean's life is a prototype of the post-war urban black hipster jazz man. As a teenager in high school he was already hanging out and playing with the bopsters. He became a protegé of Charlie Parker, and took music lessons with Bud Powell. He sat in with Miles and Monk, and was a schoolmate and friend of Sonny Rollins. This hothouse of jazz fostered his art, but the scene also revolved around short money, hard drugs, and the alienated "hip" lifestyle. The artistic blessing was a social curse: the scene, and his addiction eventually resulted in the revocation of the all important cabaret card, denying him all New York City playing venues. His emerging alto sound was heard only in the recording studio, or, terribly infrequently, in out-of-town appearances.
But develop he
did. His first appearance on a jazz record was at the behest of
Miles Davis, and the resultant LP (Dig, Prestige 7012,
1950) is a classic, and also the first session geared for the
LP format, with extended solos and performances. McLean made two
other recordings with Miles, and contributed three neo-bop compositions
of enduring worth; "Donna","Minor March",
and "Dr. Jackie". His first recording as a leader took
place in 1955 ( The New Tradition; Ad-lib 6601), but in
1956 he really started hitting stride in the recording studio.
He started his association with Prestige Records with three distinctive
releases, the most notable being Lights Out ( Prestige
7035) . Also in that year he worked with Charles Mingus, on the
seminal Pithecanthropus Erectus ; (Atlantic 1237). The
Prestige dates, although essentially bluesy or "blowing sessions",
reveal arching lines and tonal leanness which impart a tart, haunting
quality. The work with Mingus is fierce, overt, and passionate.
One need only compare the "Foggy Day" cut on Lights
Out with the version on the Mingus album to hear the capabilities
of his playing -modulated starkness on the former, biting intensity
on the latter.
In the late fifties, besides the bluesy Prestige dates, McLean tenured a while with Blakey's Jazz Messengers for some swingy hard bop, notably that heard on Night in Tunisia ( Vik 1115, 1957-reissued RCA 2654). During the 50s, various aspects of his style were mainly showcased in the service of others' music, and it is only in signing with Blue Note Records in the 1959 that he steps forward consistently as a leader and composer.
During a long and fruitful association with Blue Note, which resulted in over twenty albums, McLean's playing matured and his ideas diversified. Although he could not play live in his home town, he got before the public: in 1962 he took a quintet with Kenny Dorham to California; in 1959-61 he appears in New York City and London via the stage door, in the Living Theatre's off-Broadway production of The Connection. This improvisatory play-with-music examined the jazz-junkie lifestyle, and appositely McLean appeared as musician and actor. The music, released under Freddie Redd's name, (Blue Note 84027, 1960) is an anguished and mocking correlate to the "cool" jazz world. McLean's playing is acerbic, ironic, and jaunty. It is, appropriately, a microcosm of his experience, told in music; again, the emotional antecedent is Weill's cabaret music of wit and poignancy.
As the Blue Note dates progress through the sixties, McLean moves from the bluesier post-bop style of an album like New Soil ( Blue Note 4013, 1959) or the hard-bop A Fickle Sonance (Blue Note 84089, 1961) into the realm of the "new thing".
Starting with Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note 84016, 1962), McLean begins to eschew hard-bop and funk, and moves into the polyrhythms, modalities, and extended forms introduced by Coltrane, Mingus, Coleman, Taylor, and others. He starts surrounding himself with younger, fresher, new-thinking players like Tony Williams, Grachan Moncour, Charles Tolliver, and even Ornette. As his playing and composing embraces new directions, his sound becomes more dense, ebullient, harmonically complex, and dissonant; still yet, his sound remains open, charged with personality and "soul".
His recorded output and live appearances dwindle perceptibly in the 1970s and 1980s, part of this is due to his teaching commitments, both to ghetto youth and universities. But Jackie McLean's continuing odyssey through, and mastery of, the basic idioms of jazz-from bop through free jazz-remains a synthesis of high art and street culture.
Craft is technique. Art is technique harnessed for self-expression, and enduring art is self-expression enlarged to encompass a commonality of beauty and truth.
Jackie McLean has captured, and in some ways personally embodied, the turbulence, abrasiveness, and ironies of post-war urban America. He tempers this with a sense of humor, pathos, and exultation. An expansive and coherent cadence emerge out of the disparate elements of his style and thought-his fickle sonance.
1. Miles Davis: Dig ; Prestige 7012, 1951. Miles Davis, trumpet; Sonny Rollins,tenor; Walter Bishop Jr., piano; Tommy Potter, bass; Art Blakey, drums.
2. Lights Out: Prestige 7035, 1956. Elmo Hope, piano; Donald Byrd, trumpet; Doug Watkins, bass; Art Taylor, drums.
3. Charles Mingus: Pithecanthropus Erectus; Atlantic 1237, 1956. Charles Mingus, bass; J.R. Monterose, tenor sax; Mal Waldron, piano; Willie Jones, drums.
4. Art Blakey: Night in Tunisia; VIK 1115 (reissued RCA 2654), 1957. Art Blakey, drums; Bill Hardman, trumpet; Johnny Griffin, tenor sax; Sam Docery, piano; Spanky DeBrest, bass.
5. New Soil : Blue Note 4013, 1959. Donald Byrd, trumpet; Walter Davis, Jr., bass; Peter LaRoca, drums.
6. Freddie Redd: The Music from "The Connection"; Blue Note 4027/ 84027, 1960. Freddie Redd, piano; Michael Mattos, bass; Larrie Ritchie, drums.
7. Bluesnik : Blue Note 4067/84067, 1961. Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Kenny Drew, piano; Doug Watkins, bass; Pete LaRoca, drums.
8. Fickle Sonance: Blue Note 4089/84089, 1961. Tommy Turrentine, trumpet; Sonny Clark, piano; Butch Warren, bass; Billy Higgins, drums.
9. Let Freedom Ring : Blue Note 4106/84106, 1962. Walter Davis, piano; Herbie Lewis, bass; Billy Higgins, drums.
10. Kenny Dorham & Jackie McLean: Inta Sometin' ; Pacific Jazz 41, 1962. Kenny Dorham, trumpet; Walter Bishop Jr., piano; LeRoy Vinnegar, bass; Art Taylor, drums.
11. It's Time: Blue Note 4179/84179, 1965. Charles Tolliver, trumpet; Herbie Hancock, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Roy Haynes, drums.
12. Right Now ! : Blue Note 4215/84215, 1965. Larry Willis, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Clifford Jarvis, drums.
2001 Richard Brown, RECOLLECTIONS
Much of this material originally appeared in "RECOLLECTIONS Journal of Recorded Music." Back issues of the journal are available for US$15.00 at RECOLLECTIONS-by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
can also be found and browsed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive
of the New York Public Library, the Stanford Archive of Recorded
Sound and the Music Department of theChicago Public Library.