“Leningrad” Reloaded

Evgeny Mravinsky — the iconic Russian conductor born to a family of Petrograd aristocrats — fared far better than most of his high-born peers during the Soviet era, rising to prominence as arguably that nation’s greatest maestro. Mravinsky was the preferred orchestral interpreter of composer Dmitri Shostakovich — until the two had an acrimonious falling out over Mravinsky’s refusal to conduct Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony (“Babi Yar“), a work which included poems by dissident Soviet writer Evgeny Yevtushenko.

Mravinsky’s recorded legacy is fascinating for several reasons beyond the documentation of art music during the Soviet era. Mravinsky’s first sessions were committed to 78 sides in 1939, but he stopped making studio recordings in the early 1960s in a sort of “reverse Glenn Gould” decision; his legacy on record and CD is not unlike that of Sviatoslav Richter, who himself generally disliked the studio and rarely engaged in such sessions after the mid-1960s. Mravinsky’s post-studio discography, mostly with “his” Leningrad Philharmonic, is a legacy of consistently impactful performances that combine taut structural control with evocative and colorful spontaneity. Yet these same characteristics can be heard in his studio sessions which, judging from careful listening, were committed to tape in very long takes, yielding nothing in dramatic power to his live performances.

Several of Mravinsky’s recordings have (quite rightfully in this writer’s not-so-humble opinion) achieved cult status, including his studio recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon (recently reissued by Alto), his 1982 live recording of the Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, first issued on Philips (also reissued recently in an improved remastering by Alto), and a searing live performance from 1980 of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, originally issued by Melodiya.

One Mravinsky recording that has been a particular favorite of mine has proven elusive over the years. In many ways it is among Mravinsky’s most important recordings – that of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, “Leningrad.”

The work, composed on a Bruckner-Mahler scale, depicts Leningrad (and the world) under siege by the Nazi Reich. It garnered notable broadcast performances during the war conducted by Samuil Samsoud, Arturo Toscanini, Karl Eliasberg, and Sir Henry Wood among others, and is arguably the most performed artistic “political statement” of World War II. Mravinsky made his sole recording of the work in studio with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1953 — less than two years after William Steinberg’s recording of the Seventh with the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra on Musicraft, the work’s first commercially released recording.

The release history of these Mravinsky sessions is confounding. It was first issued in the then-new LP format as a two-disc set in the Soviet Union on the Aprelevsky label — a precursor to Melodiya — in 1953. Four years later, it was issued for the first (and only) time on LP in the West by Vanguard Records (yes, that’s the original cover) — the result of a deal Seymour Solomon had made with Soviet authorities to release LPs by great Soviet artists of the period including Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, and David Oistrakh. At around the same time, Japanese licensee Shinsekai made the first of several limited-edition issues of the recording for the Asian market.

All of these LP releases were short-lived, with some remaining frustratingly elusive on the collector’s market.

During there CD era, Mravinsky’s “Leningrad” was briefly available two decades ago, for a short period, in CD format on Vanguard spin-off label Omega, Melodiya (via partnership with BMG), and an awful-sounding “pirate” Urania release.

All of the legitimate releases had audio issues, many to do with the quality of source material copies used for commercial release despite having been recorded to tape — which Soviet engineers had been using nearly half a decade before Western record labels (the Red Army had “liberated” Magnetophon tape recorders and a substantial library of broadcast tapes from Germany during the last months of World War II). While the audio is good for the era by Soviet standards, the overall quality was not state-of-the-art.

Just over a year ago, a fellow Mravinsky fan (who has requested and been granted anonymity) who shares my enthusiasm for this recording provided me with a copy in a “high definition” 24-bit transfer. The sound quality was a bit better than the various CD recordings I had heard, but sonic issues remained: overload during the loudest passages, conspicuous volume changes, intermittent pitch instability, an abundance of thunks. low-frequency noises, clicks, lighting and mains hum, and a couple of jaw-droopingly bad edits (including one that omitted half a beat of a transitional passage). All of these issues were abated or eliminated — with almost no use of broadband noise reduction save for a few segments lasting several seconds at most. My source for this recording enthusiastically endorsed releasing it commercially, and my colleagues at Entertainment One (who own the Vanguard Classics catalogue), Alto Distribution, Amped Distribution, and Musical Concepts are releasing this restored version.

Some of you may be asking why there is any reason for a recording that does not sound like something out of, say, the Mercury Living Presence catalogue to be issued in “HD” format. I can only reply by pointing out that the Berlin Philharmonic recently issued a 22-SACD collection of the legendary maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler’s wartime broadcast recordings with that orchestra in sensational and often revelatory (even though slightly sterilized) restored transfers.

Serious listeners want iconic recordings from the pre-stereo era in the best sound possible.

Preserving and restoring the legacy of recorded 20th century art music does not seem to be a priority among the major labels unless a mega-seller artist such as Heifetz or Toscanini is involved — and even then, there is often room for improvement. Independent labels and distributors with an understanding of both the importance of these significant aural documents along with the dynamics and economics of the market are proud to serve this small but intensely curious and loyal market. With the rapid technological advancement  of  the digital infrastructure and the growth in high-definition online sellers and lossless/HD streaming, we are just getting started.

Evgeny Mravinsky’s recording of the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich is now available for HD download and streaming here, here, and here,  It will be issued in CD format by Vanguard Classics during June. Accept no substitutes!

In search of the “authentic” Mahler style…

A century ago, Ludwig van Beethoven was by near-universal consensus the most admired composer among lovers and performers of classical music; at the time, little if any consideration was given to the issue of “authentic” performance practice. Keyboard instruments of Beethoven’s era had for the most part been discarded in favor of what we know as the modern piano; orchestral wind, brass, and percussion instruments were similarly superseded by more evolved models. Conductors of the era, including Gustav Mahler, were prone to adjust orchestration to compensate for forces larger and quite different in sound than those of Beethoven’s era.

Today, there is a strong argument that Mahler occupies the pedestal that had been held by Beethoven during an era when his great champions included names such as von Bulow, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Weingartner, Toscanini — and, of course, Mahler himself.

The fact that a small but artistically signifiant number of recordings of Mahler’s music were made during the acoustic and “shellac” (electrical pre-LP) recording eras — including several by artists who worked closely with Mahler — gives modern listeners the opportunity to hear these works as they had been sung and played during an era when, contrary to earlier assumptions, their reputation and popularity were on the rise until political and social upheaval – and war – swept Europe in the 1930s.

These early studio recordings, naturally, have given rise to speculation about whether or not it is possible to determine an “authentic” performance style for Mahler.

Several years ago, when I produced “The Music of Gustav Mahler; Issued 78s, 1903-1940” — the first comprehensive anthology of every commercially-issued Mahler 78s released between 1903 and 1940 and listed in Peter Fülöp’s exhausive Mahler discography — my intent was not only to present these recordings in the context of the era in which they were issued in the best sound possible, but to also offer informed insight into historical, technical, and artistic facts surrounding these recordings in the form of thorough liner notes authored by Sybille Werner.

The set and the accompanying notes were not conceived to answer questions about “authentic” Mahler performance practice — nor for that matter do I believe an answer to the question exists, though one can discern that there were significant artistic and interpretive characteristics unique to the era, particularly in instrumental playing.   Additionally, one cannot ignore overall differences among authoritative studio recordings made by Mahler’s conducting colleagues and protégés: Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Oskar Fried. Likewise, the voices of Leopold Demuth, Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, and Sara Charles-Cahier, three singers who had sung under Mahler’s direction, shed light not only to the composer’s music but the vocal style and tradition of Mahler’s world, along with the many other singers represented in the set.

I have in recent months received several inquiries about the future availability of the set. I have completed most of the technical work on a follow-up set that will include the remaining 78s and several important recordings issued during the early LP era, but good quality copies of two discs have proven elusive. I expect this situation to be resolved in the next few months, and am speaking with my strategic partners about a short run of the original set once the second volume is completed. 

The original run of “The Music of Gustav Mahler; Issued 78s, 1903-1940” — 1000 copies — was warmly received by the press, and my distributors sold out of the set within less than two months of its release date. Used copies that turn up on eBay and Amazon command insanely high prices.

Releasing the set as a digital item through online retailers has proven problematic, despite the dogged efforts of my worldwide distributor, Alto Distribution, and my outstanding digital aggregator, Entertainment One.

Some of the major players in digital music for direct sale and download, most notably iTunes, have introduced logistical obstacles that make it next to impossible to make sets with a large number of tracks available for download or streaming.

As a result, I have decided to make the entire set available through a small-scale strategic partner for purchase in lossless download formats: Apple Lossless for iTunes users and flac for most other listeners. The original English-language liner notes and all German texts with English translations are included in .pdf format.

You can download it here.

I will leave any conclusions concerning Mahler’s “authentic” style to you, the listener.

My favorite recordings of 2017

For once in a long while, my picks are in sync with the dreaded critical consensus.

BEST REISSUE: Glenn Gould – The Goldberg Variations: The Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions June 1955 (Sony 88843014882)

This particular release is admittedly not for everybody, but is highly recommended to fans of Gould, musicians (particularly those who make recordings), and lovers of recorded music — for the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and hear how the metaphorical sausage is made. Perfectionist Glenn Gould found an ideal producer in John McClure, whose subtle ability to act as coach, psychologist, and cheerleader was a major factor in the success of this recording. This was Gould’s first commercial recording, with practically all of his previous studio work having been recorded direct to acetate discs by the CBC. It should therefore come as no surprise that most of the variations chosen for the final master recording were full takes with no edits, but at a few moments you can hear the wheels turning in Gould’s head concerning the possibilities opened by tape editing.

The set includes a vinyl LP replicating the original artwork in significantly better sound than the original, and is accompanied by a beautifully-printed book of several hundred pages packed not only with enormously informative multilingual text but photographs and documentation, including information on the final edit that listeners to the entire sequence of sessions will find enormously helpful.

BEST NEW RELEASE: “Crazy Girl Crazy” (alpha 293)
Berio: Sequenza III for woman’s voice
Berg: Lulu-Suite, five symphonic pieces) for soprano and orchestra
Gershwin (arr. Bill Elliott and Barbara Hannigan): Girl Crazy Suite
BONUS DVD: “Music is Music” — a film directed by Mathieu Amalric
Barbara Hannigan (soprano and conductor), Ludwig Orchestra

Barbara Hannigan is a musical “triple threat”: brilliant new music singer, compelling opera star, and conductor — one of the less-than-half-dozen best women to grace the podium in my not so humble opinion (the others being Susanna Mälkki, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Sybille Werner — sorry, Mirga, you’re terrific but not quite there [yet]).

So it is no surprise that a bit of all three facets of Hannigan’s music-making can be found in this adventurous and thoroughly satisfying recording from one of the best indie labels in the world, Alpha. I won’t go into too much analytical detail other than to say this recording grabs you from the first note and doesn’t let go until the last note of Gershwin fades to silence, leaving you hungry for more (which will, according to one of my French spies, be a collaboration with Reinbert de Leeuw slated for 2018 release). The Ludwig Orchestra plays with idiomatic character, and the sound quality is detailed, excellently balanced, and “up front.” It eclipses everything else new I’ve heard this year. Just get it. But get the physical edition – the download, sadly, does not include the must-see video bonus.

Sviatoslav Richter – A 1950s Retrospective

Two decades ago, Leslie Gerber’s enterprising New-York-based label Parnassus began issuing a series showcasing previously unreleased and rare recordings from Sviatoslav Richter made throughout the Soviet Union and its satellites in the 1950s – the decade before the explosive 1960 debut American tour that elevated him to a legendary status that never wore off. Over a period of several years, thirteen discs were issued in seven volumes. They were easily obtained at the big-city Tower Records stores in the USA,  but were often difficult to find abroad, and a bit expensive where they could be found.

Parnassus is now distributed by Musical Concepts, my friend Todd Landor’s label/distribution unit/production company. Late last year, after Todd had acquired the Colorado Quartet’s Beethoven recordings from Parnassus, I suggested that we compile a Richter 1950s retrospective  for digital-only release.

A little over four hours of music was selected from the near sixteen hours of music on the original discs for Sviatoslav Richter – The Early Years: Rise of a Virtuoso Legend. The choices were difficult, as the set is so consistently excellent from an artistic standpoint, but several major works for which Richter had an affinity were obvious choices, particularly Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (a very different interpretation than the well-known Sofia recital from 1959 issued by Philips back in the day),

The original Parnassus masters were generally good, but most benefitted from pitch stabilization to remove flutter from analog tape sources. A few were re-equalized and in several cases obtrusive lighting and electrical hum were abated; in a couple of instances, very slight noise reduction was applied.

And now, it is available from Amazon – for now, it is priced at under $9 in the USA and 8 quid in the UK.

American customers can find it here, and UK listeners can find it at this Amazon link.

More Praise for Cuckson, Burns, and Nono

Miranda Cuckson and Christopher Burns | Luigi NonoThe Examiner‘s Stephen Smoliar relates his experience listening to the my label Urlicht AudioVisual’s recording of Luigi Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura with violinist Miranda Cuckson and electronica master Richard Burns some years after having heard a live performance by Gidon Kremer:

An impressive effort to document Miranda Cuckson’s performance of Luigi Nono

… A recent release of [La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura] by Urlicht has taken a rather unique approach to capturing that sense of journey. Violinist Miranda Cuckson and “projectionist” Christopher Burns made a recording after having given a performance in New York. This was a multi-track recording for playback on a 5.1 Surround Sound system, and it was released as a Blu-ray audio disc. For those who lacked the necessary technology, that disc was packaged with a more conventional stereophonic CD. As one who lacks that “necessary technology,” my own listening experience involved playing the CD with full knowledge of my previous spatial experience.

With that disclaimer I have to say that there is much to be gained from the CD in spite of its limitations. Without the spatial effects one is more inclined to attend to Nono’s motivic vocabulary. While this may make the journey less “physical,” one can still appreciate that sense of peregrination through the six sections of the piece (conveniently marked as separate tracks on the CD). Furthermore, those who understand the semantics of “madrigal” in its Renaissance context will probably be more likely to appreciate why Nono chose this noun to categorize this particular composition.

Nevertheless, the other significant disclaimer I must make is that I had the advantage of listening to this recording with the benefit of past experience. There is no doubt that this is complex music, the result of scrupulous attention to both the notations encountered on the music stands and the sounds on the recorded tracks. It is probably more than most listeners will be able to manage on first contact. Nevertheless, it does not take many exposures for mind to encounter familiarities as the performance peregrinates. The listener willing to let this music work its magic on its own terms is likely to be well rewarded.

Luigi Nono: La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (1988-89) Miranda Cuckson, violin / Christopher Burns, electronics

Produced by Christopher Burns and Richard Warp Recording engineer: Richard Warp Recorded at A Bloody Good Record Inc, Long Island City NY Mixing engineer (stereo CD): Richard Warp Mixing engineers (DTS 5.1 surround mix): Paul Special and Richard Warp Assistant mixing engineer (DTS 5.1 surround mix): Dillon Pajunas DTS 5.1 surround mix produced at Sonic Arts Center, CCNY, NYC Produced for New Spectrum Recordings, NYC Executive producer: Glenn Cornett

Urlicht AudioVisual UAD-5992 CD plus Blu-Ray Audio for home theater systems — available at Amazon.com. CD plus DTS-CD for home theater systems — available here.

Patricia Leonard’s “Strangely Close, Yet Distant” Nominated for American Prize in Composition

Songs for Mahler in the Absence of WordsComposer Patricia Leonard informs my label, Urlicvht AudioVisual, that Strangely Close, Yet Distant, her trio for viola, cello, and piano included in the New York Piano Quartet’s Songs for Mahler in the Absence of Words, has been nominated for the American Prize for Composition. Congratulations to Patricia along with the members of the New York Piano Quartet along with recording engineer John Baker and his team!

Strictly commercial footnote: download the hi-def .flac edition here. Download the CD-quality .flac edition here. Download the hi-quality mp3 edition here. Buy the CD edition here.

Gene Gaudette on classical music, cultural politics, political culture, media, and his record labels.