Strictly on the Record

Strictly on the Record
Igor Kipnis
December 1999

Christmas Suggestions

To hear them talk about it, the record companies are having a hard time. That surprises a lot of people, mainly those who are less into today’s record scene or stores, especially the classical part. They might walk into a Tower’s or HMV or Strawberries and take note of just how many CDs there are on display, even in – maybe especially in – classical bins. But then the question arises: is anything selling? Lots of product, certainly. But how many buyers do you see walking around, browsing, picking out the latest releases, or digging into the older ones? And there’s the rub: there is a glut on the market, too much product, with releases pouring in every month from a host of distributor outlets, mainly foreign-made discs and often good ones. Try, however, to count the customers who are picking them up. Perhaps that explains the 3-5% of classical that accounts for discs sold in the past, as opposed to all the rest which are different categories, rock, gospel, country, you name it. Except that the percentage is reputed to be even less at the present time.

So the larger companies in particular are retrenching. Read downsizing. If you’ve been looking at release lists over the last couple of years, as I have, you would have noted that any potential esoterica that might have been offered in the past have given way to safe items, along with safe, visibly viable performers. There night be a few exceptions: The Anonymous Four, Yo-Yo Ma playing unaccompanied cello works, but mostly in the direction of crossover: Argentinian tangos, movie scores (is “Titanic” really classical? Sony says it is).

Not least are reissues, which are relatively inexpensive to package, the initial costs of recording having already been covered. There are, of course, innumerable recouplings available: Adagio music to relax by, noisy music compilations to excite your audio system (and your neighbors), greatest hits of everything from composers to instruments (and I shouldn’t complain since I am on one such harpsichord CD, and it has sold well), music for gays and nongays, lovers, and even Mozart for babies whose exposure to that composer is presumed to make their brains grow.

But on to the Suggestions

For both the bona fide classical buff, as well as the audio enthusiast, though, this lately has become a bonanza time. By far the most interesting releases – at least to my way of thinking – are the vast number of reissues which you might put under the heading of historical, depending on how far back you want your history to go or how recent is recent.

Here are some of the releases that in particular have appealed to me, some of which will make dandy holiday presents for a lucky audio enthusiast of your acquaintance or just plain music lover (yourself?). We know that there are hardly any US orchestras that presently have record contracts, with the result that quite a number of orchestras have been rolling their own with productions that are both mouth watering and as well benefit the orchestra coffers, which so badly need the support. Mind you, not all the performances, almost all from broadcasts, are top audio quality. Some – the older but highly important ones – derive from acetates, scratches and swishes largely eradicated through considerate EQing but often suffering from passages of constriction. Other, more recent 1970s through 1990s broadcasts sound remarkably well, but the most important thing is that, unlike what one so often hears today, these performances are anything but bland. They radiate personality and excitement.

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Can you spare $200? That’s what the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Centennial Collection will set you back for twelve CDs (that’s not quite $17 per disc, pretty close to what some of the imports are asking). What do you get for that? There are five CDs devoted to the orchestra’s past music directors (Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti, and Sawallisch), three of guest conductors (for example, Reiner’s music from Parsifal recorded experimentally for Bell Labs in 1931; Tennstedt, Scherchen‘s hair-raising Mahler 5th, Munch’s volatile Ravel, Kertész completely at home with Bartók, and Toscanini in Berlioz, plus such composers as Kodaly, Stravinsky, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland conducting their own music – hearing Marian Anderson‘s noble narration of the latter’s Lincoln Portrait is almost worth the price of the whole album). And then there are four CDs of guest artists, an astounding array, running from Joan Sutherland singing the Lucia mad Scene under Stokowski, Stokowski conducting Wagner’s Immolation Scene with Birgit Nilsson (incredible!), Stokowski with Heifetz in a previously unissued 1934 commercial recording, Kapell in a super Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto, Jacqueline du Pré with husband Daniel Barenboim in the Saint-Saëns first Cello Concerto, and a sensational 1938 Beethoven Fourth Concerto with Josef Hofmann. And there is so much more. I would suggest accessing for all the information details about this mostly mono package or call 215-893-1900. I wouldn’t miss it.

The New York Philharmonic

A similar album has been issued by the New York Philharmonic, the third in that organization’s series of beautifully produced historical compilations (the earlier ones were the ten-CD Historic Broadcasts 1923 to 1987, going back to the time of such greats as Toscanini, Mengelberg, and the early Klemperer, plus The Mahler Broadcasts 1948-1982, with Barbirolli, Stokowski, Tennstedt, Mehta, and Boulez, mong others). The new one, ten CDs for $185 (call 212-875-5000 or access, is a two-volume American Celebration, with another grand series of performance going back to 1936 and Loeffler’s Memories of My Childhood conducted by Barbirolli and leading up to a 1999 Ellington-derived, Wynton Marsalis executed Harlem. Almost all the major American composers are here: much Copland (including another Lincoln Portrait, this time just as magnificently read by William Warfield with Bernstein conducting in 1976), Gershwin, Barber, Hanson, Virgil Thomson, Harris, Bernard Herrmann, Foss, Carter, Tower, Reich, Glass, Adams, Bolcom, Zwilich, and many others. Conductors include major names: Bernstein, Monteux, Boulez, Masur, Rodzinski, Cantelli, Stokowski, Slatkin, and, at the very end, an extraordinary 1944 Madison Square Garden War Bonds concert finish with the Stars and Stripes Forever played by both the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony conducted at fever pitch by no less than Toscanini. Yes, the latter encore, by modern standards and not really typical of the mostly mono set, has execrable sound, but with this kind of rouser, one can forgo a bit of criticism.

Audio Reissues

Collectors of RCA Victor stereo LPs of the past few decades know that those grooves at times held astonishing sound, such as the old 1950s to early ‘60s “Living Stereo” series. In recent years, those long-deleted original discs could even demand amazingly high prices. Now, to all our good fortunes, BMG has been reissuing l960s and later material as CD compilations with refurbishing that sound even better than the initial pressings. The sampling rate is announced as 96 kilohertz with 24-bit resolution, though, until DVD-audio becomes the standard format, the present discs are actually a conversion to the standard 44.1 kilohertz, 16 bits that are the feature of normal compact discs. Yet, in my recommendations below, they sound remarkably good. LPs of course could only contain so much bass and were apt to emerge thin on the bottom if there was an excess of music on a side. All that has been rectified in this “High Performance,” $12 per disc, series, through a hefty but not unreasonable bass boost, EQing having judiciously been added. Overall, the sound stages have opened up far more realistically.

Orchestras, of course, make the most spectacular noises, nowhere better illustrated than in Rodion Shchedrin’s percussion-heavy orchestration of Bizet as the Carmen Ballet under Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, plus music by Shostakovich and Glazunov (BMG 09026-63308-2). If that late 60s spectacular has speaker rattling potential, so do the Boston Symphony’s 1962 Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and 1964 Kodály Peacock Variations brilliantly conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (BMG 09026-63309-2), a young Seiji Ozawa directing the BSO in 1968/69 in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Chicago Symphony in The Rite of Spring (BMG 09026-63311-2), and Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Bartóks violent Miraculous Mandarin, plus Hindemith and Varèse’s colorful Arcana in 1966/67 (BMG 09026-63315-2). All are guaranteed lease breakers. Add two piano discs for further examples of the fine work MBG has done: Horowitz playing Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov live on November 1, 1981, at Carnegie Hall, sounding much richer and fuller than on the original LPs (BMG 09026-63314-2) and a recital by the flamboyant Raymond Lewenthal of Liszt and the bizarre Chopin contemporary, Charles-Valentin Alkan (BMG 09026-63310-2).


BMG had also done some astonishing refurbishing on somewhat older material, the past Toscanini/NBC Symphony performances, which are vast improvements over what the company has offered in the past. I would say that, based on what I have heard so far, they definitely supersede the anthology of Toscanini’s complete commercial recordings issued in 1990. If a sometimes-blaring brass top remains, distortion is largely minimized and a bass boost has greatly warmed up the overall sonic picture. These classic mono performances are being issued as two-CD package and offered as two for one and include all the Beethoven Symphonies in three volumes (BMG 74321 55835/6/7-2), the four Brahms Symphonies (74321 44838-2), selected symphonies by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Schumann, and Dvorák in two volumes (74321 59480/1-2), a marvelously vivid Wagner collection (74321 59482-2), French orchestral music (74321 66924-2), and orchestral showpieces by Mussorgsky-Ravel (a still wonderful Pictures at an Exhibition), Richard Strauss, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Smetana (74321 59484-2). New recordings by contemporary conductors of all these works naturally are far more state-of-the-art satisfying, but if you want to know what Toscanini was all about, do investigate these remarkable recordings.

Sony Heritage

The Sony Heritage series has also done some very painstakingly prepared processing of its Columbia back catalog, sometimes in selections going even back to earlier this century. There are great gems to be found in this series, but not all, as you would expect, up to state-of-the-art sonics. But scratches, swishes, and distortion are greatly minimized without overkilling ambiance, an irritating past problem on the part of many reissue producers. Important singers from the past (the 1903 Grand Opera Series, or, if I may put a plug in for my father, the bass Aleander Kipnis, his late 20s-early 30s Columbia discs) or the violin recordings of Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) are among the earlier recorded examples. One such refurbishing that, considering its more recent recording dates, sonically sounds especially impressive, is a George Szell-Cleveland Orchestra re-release of the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony (1959) together with the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1965), the latter with a few Szell cuts in the score. Both are exceptional performances, full of drive, clarity, and, even in a few Bartók spots, humor (Sony MHK 63124).

Hopefully this splendid Sony series will continue, rumors having been rife that new issues had been placed on hold (although a reprise seems just to have been put into effect, at least for a little while). Knowing the vagaries of the present classical record business, that should not surprise one. But that’s where we came in, isn’t it?

Internationally known as a performer on the harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, and as a member of the Kipnis-Kushner Duo (one piano, four hands), on the modern piano, IGOR KIPNIS has recorded over 80 albums, 56 of them solo, as well as having received numerous honors, including 6 Grammy nominations, a Deutsche Schallplatten prize, and an honorary doctorate from Illinois Wesleyan University. Keyboard magazine in its readers’ polls three times named him “Best Harpsichordist” and twice “Best Classical Keyboardist.”

A frequent guest on both television and radio (he has had his own program on New York’s WQXR), Kipnis has also edited music anthologies for Oxford University Press, and at present, among several book projects, he is working on a biography of his singer father, the bass Alexander Kipnis, to be published by Amadeus Press. As a performer, he often gives masterclasses devoted to keyboard instruments. He is a faculty member of the Mannes College of Music, where he lectures on historical piano recordings.

He has long been an avid record collector, specializing in piano and historical performances, and his reviews and articles, many of which deal with the piano, have appeared in a great many publications, including The International Piano Quarterly, The International Classical Record Collector, Gramophone Early Music, Goldberg, Early Music America, Audio, Schwann/Opus, FI, Stereophile, Musical America, Opus, Stereo Review, The American Record Guide, Classical, Chamber Music Magazine, Listen, Clavier, The Yale Review, and the internet magazines, Music & Vision and Stereo Times.

His most recent recording is a reissue, just released, of his first solo album, originally made for Golden Crest and now available for the first time on CD by VAI (VAIA 1185). Included are works by Bach, Handel, Soler, and Dussek.

His web site is on:

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