Amid the hiss, pops and scratches -- genius

Great music and drama shine in newly released, remastered albums.

Classical Music

September 16, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The past is like a foreign country," novelist L.P. Hartley wrote. "They do things differently there."

They make music differently there, too, as any number of vintage recordings can affirm. If there's any silver lining to the clouded state of the classical recording industry these days, when most companies have cut back drastically on fresh products, it's the steady stream of artifacts from the golden olden days.

Such recordings, with their outdated sound quality, tend to appeal only to devoted collectors, but all music lovers ought to be interested in treasures from times gone by, times when the percentage of musical giants was, it could be argued, greater than it is now.

Here's a sampling of recently released aural souvenirs:

Telefunken

The German record company Telefunken emerged in 1929 and quickly demonstrated a knack for getting startling sound quality onto 78 rpm records, quite a bit advanced over the competition. The current owner of the company, Teldec, has been bringing out some gems from its early years in a series called "Telefunken Legacy." And what a legacy it is.

One of the conductors the company recorded was Willem Mengelberg, an extraordinary force on the podium of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam for an incredible 50 years. His richly detailed, warm-hearted accounts of Franck's Symphony in D minor and Dvorak's New World Symphony, recorded in 1940 and '41, unfold with an organic, vibrant sweep (Teldec 8573-83025-2).

Telefunken had among its roster of artists the Paris-based Calvet Quartet, a group much respected for its elegant sound and refined musicality. Such traits are captured tellingly in a 1938 pairing of Beethoven's string quartets -- Op. 18, No. 5; and Op. 59, No. 2 (Teldec 8573-83024-2).

Wagner fans will want to snatch up a two-disc set, "Legendary Wagner Singers of the 1930s" (Teldec 8573-83022-2). To hear Franz Volker sing and Maria Muller in the radiant closing pages of Act 1 of Die Walkure from 1936 is to sense what Wagner wanted in vocalists -- a combination of traditional Italian bel canto technique (evenness in all registers, seamless phrasing) and a heightened degree of dramatic weight.

Another German singer, tenor Peter Anders, gets his own disc (Teldec 8573-83023-2). It's an appealing, wide-ranging, 1930s program representing a versatile artist with a virile tone and keenly expressive style.

Bel Canto Society

Some of the most fascinating opera documents come from the Bel Canto Society, best known for its video products. The company has added CDs, using the latest digital technology to remaster tapes of live performances. The results are generally impressive sonically, but that's really secondary to the artistic triumphs.

Verdi's Ernani could hardly get a more vital, involving, vocally glorious performance than the one from Florence in 1957 with Anita Cerquetti, Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini and Boris Christoff (BCS-5001, two discs). The conducting is every bit as thrilling as the vocalism. Dimitri Mitropoulos molds the score with terrific flair, applying all sorts of exquisite rhythmic subtleties (not a routine oom-pah-pah within earshot), yet maintaining a bristling tautness.

A 1967 Tosca from Parma contains an astonishing example of Franco Corelli's tenor-power -- the luscious, alternately muscular and caressing tone, the open-hearted phrasing (BCS-5013).

In his Act 2 cries of victory, he hangs on to the highest note for about a week, driving the crowd insane. Even more pandemonium breaks out after his performance of "E lucevan le stelle," which provides a sterling example of Corelli's art -- a bit self-indulgent, to be sure, but absolutely divine (you'll be gasping, just like the audience, at the breath control and tender shading of his voice midway through the aria).

The demands for an encore are not met then, but after the curtain calls (the disc over-generously contains more than five minutes of the applause), a piano is rolled onstage and Corelli obliges with a ravishing "Core 'ngrato."

Also well worth a listen: a 1939-Il Trovatore from Covent Garden starring Jussi Bjorling, whose singing in the last two acts is just about ideal (BCS-5000, two discs). Other than ripe-voiced contralto Gertrud Wettergren, the rest of the cast is variable but interesting. Even with the enhancements, though, the scratchy sound is definitely not for the faint of ear.

Allegro

The Allegro company's recently launched, budget-priced "Classica d'oro" series, like its popular "Opera d'oro" series, is reviving some prime performances in decent sound quality. Examples include an aristocratic 1937 account of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto by Jascha Heifetz, with John Barbirolli conducting (CDO 2001); and Herbert von Karajan leading equally authoritative accounts of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 and Strauss' Don Juan with the Concertgebouw, recorded in 1943 in occupied Holland (CDO1009).

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