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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 2 (September-October 1950)

Gramophone Notes

page 47

Gramophone Notes

By E. Mervyn Taylor: Black and white wood cut of musical instruments.

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Artur Rubinstein (pianist) with Philharmonia Orchestra con. Walter Susskind. HMV DB 9188–90 (6 sides, 24s).

Rachmaninoff wrote this work about 1934 and gave the first performance of it himself. The theme is the well known one of the 24th Caprice, upon which Brahms wrote his monumental set of variations for piano solo. If the Russian composer's work, which is also basically a set of variations, cannot quite be called ‘monumental’ it is none the less a brilliant, unfailingly attractive piece. The variations traverse every mood, and a touch of devilment lies in the occasional introduction of the old ‘Dies Irae’ theme — quite appropriate, one feels, where Paganini is concerned. There are touches of vulgarity, perhaps, but a healthy vulgarity at times is no great defect in music, and how many works for piano and orchestra written during the last twenty years have lasted as well as this one? There are at least three other recordings, but the only one previously issued here was the composer's own version with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, dating from the time of the premiere. That set will always be precious for the sake of Rachmaninoff's piano playing, but it was harsh recording by modern standards. Rubenstein gives a dazzling account of the score and Susskind has the Philharmonia Orchestra right on their toes. The recording is spacious and well balanced, though sounding rather hard in the more strenuous passages.

Rossini: La Cambiale di Matrimonio (The Promise of Marriage) Overture. Orchestra Stabile Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, cond. Vincenzo Bellezza. Columbia DX 1522 (2 sides 6s).

This piece is of exceptional interest, as it is Rossini's very first operatic overture — that to a one act comedy performed in Venice in 1810. The astonishing thing is how assured and mature it sounds — the composer clearly had his style well formed even in those early days. Opening amusingly enough with three chords similar to those in the Magic Flute overture of Mozart's, it is soon running along in the gayest fashion with some delightful writing for the woodwind and solo horn. All in all, a welcome alternative to The Barber of Seville or Tancrede. The performance under an experienced Italian conductor is quite first class. The recording very good. The orchestra is the official symphonic organization of Rome, attached to the famous St. Cecilia Academy — sometimes it is called the Augusteo orchestra, after a now demolished building in which its concerts used to be given.

Lambert: The Rio Grande. Kyla Greenbaum, piano, Gladys Ripley, contralto, Philharmonia orchestra and chorus cond. Constant Lambert. Columbia DX 1591–2 (4 sides, 12s).

Here we have an intelligent replacement of a valued old recording. The original set, also under the composer's baton, was made in 1930 shortly after the first performance, and it is good to know that this up-to-date version has been put out — at a cheaper price. The Rio Grande is a sort of free fantasia built round a fantastic poem of Sacheverell Sit-well's in which sound dominates sense, and which gives a vague and tantalizing picture of night life in a Spanish-American seaport. Besides a brilliant piano part, the score contains elaborate writing for almost every kind of percussion instrument — here recorded with a clarity undreamed of twenty years ago. All concerned join in a vigorous performance, and Gladys Ripley sings movingly in the long contralto solo which brings the work to a quiet and magical conclusion.

Cilea: Troppo Signori from Adriana Lecouvreur;

Porctielli: Suicidio from La Gioconda. Joan Hammond, soprano, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. (a) Walter Susskind, (b) Warwick Braithwaite. HMV C3901 (6s).

The somewhat absurd practice adopted by this company of labelling operatic excerpts by the first words uttered by the singer, regardless of what they may mean, has resulted in the titling of the Adriane Lecouvreur side as Troppo Signore, or Too much gentlemen! The main part of the side is given over to an expressive aria, Io son I'umile ancella or I am the humble handmaiden, which is one of the highlights of this particular opera. However, as it is not at all familiar to most of us, a few words of explanation might be welcome. The opera was produced in 1902, and so far as is known, its composer is still alive (he was born in 1866). The libretto is laid in early 18th century Paris, and the story concerns a famous actress, Adriana Lecouvreur, whose love affair with a Saxon prince is thwarted by a scheming and jealous princess. The opera commences with a scene backstage at the Comedie Francaise where Adriana is about to play in a Greek tragedy. Her great art calls forth expressions of admiration from her colleagues and the stage manager — she silences them exclaiming, ‘too much, gentlemen’ — and forthwith sings the ravishingly lovely aria in which she declares herself to be but the ‘humble handmaiden’ of the dramatic art. It is to be hoped that this aria (never previously available here on a record) may become as well loved as the best known by Puccini.

On the reverse we have the great soliloquy from the last act of La Gioconda in which the unhappy heroine decides that suicide will bring the only solution to her many woes. It would take more space than we can spare to explain why Gioconda is in such distress — it is enough to say that she has been visited with practically every misfortune that can fall to a soprano in Italian opera. Joan Hammond, with each succeeding record, seems to grow in stature as a singer in the Italian style. She has fire and brilliance, warmth and tenderness, too. Try any of her more recent records, in which she has been singing Italian arias in Italian. Such a command of the right style is quite rare in a British singer, and as one who has heard most of the great Italian sopranos singing in their own opera houses, I cannot emphasize too strongly the pleasure to be got from Miss Hammond's singing of Italian opera.

Britten: Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge. Boyd Neel Orchestra cond. by Boyd Neel. Decca AK 2307–9.

This is the Boyd Neels' second recording of a piece written specially for it. The orchestra surpasses itself — it seems more sensitive, more delicately resilient than it was when it played here — and the recording is first-rate. The music itself has charm, wit, pathos and near-tragedy. Britten's work has the same feeling of hectic adolescent excitement that one finds in the novels of Denton Welch; it, too, is the art of an infinitely knowing, yet innocent boy. The orchestra communicates this febrile feeling precisely and exquisitely. The set is not yet released here. If you don't order it from England, at least put it at the top of your dealer's list.