courtesy of Naxos of America
In 1998 ICA Classics launched its BBC Legends series of recordings taken from the BBC archives. In October of 2013, twenty of these CDs were collected in a box set released under the title BBC Legends. When that collection came my way, I felt like a kid in a candy store and wrote enthusiastically about the package on my Examiner.com site in January of the following year. This past October lightning struck again with the release of a second volume, another box of twenty CDs. As might be guessed, my enthusiasm for this project had not abated.
Many of the recordings in the second volume offer further performances by artists featured in the first volume, including pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist David Oistrakh, and the conductors Thomas Beecham, Arturo Toscanini, and Pierre Monteux. However, there were also some interesting shifts in the programming. Where the first volume featured only one vocalist, a CD consisting entirely of songs by Franz Schubert sung by mezzo Janet Baker, the second volume has two such CDs, each for a different vocalist. One presents soprano Kirsten Flagstad with Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a program of songs by Grieg and Wagner. The other presents soprano Victoria de la Ángeles accompanied by pianist Gerald Moore in an engagingly broad repertoire from the art song repertoire. (That CD concludes with three of the songs from Hector Berlioz’ Les nuits d’été with Rudolf Schwarz conducting the BBC Symphony.)
Far more fascinating, however, is that the second volume pays more attention to performing composers. Thus, both Igor Stravinsky and William Walton are given their own CDs on which they conduct their own works. I particularly want to draw attention to the Stravinsky disc in this regard. As most of us know, Columbia Records tried to turn Stravinsky into its own cottage industry, engaging him to conduct and/or supervise as many performances of his music as they could squeeze out of him. Sadly, these are all “recording products,” often involving pickup ensembles identified only as the “Columbia such-and-so” and meticulous editing for the sake of precise fidelity to the composer’s mark’s on paper. In contrast, it is most likely that Stravinsky’s recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra were taken from broadcasts. There is a clear sense of immediacy in these recordings that presents Stravinsky in a light far more favorable than any Columbia release ever provided.
The real surprise in the collection, however, is Benjamin Britten. Another delight from my Examiner.com days involved writing about Decca’s 27-CD box set Britten: The Performer, which included recordings of Britten serving as pianist in chamber music and conducting the music of composers other than himself. Both of these talents are included in this new ICS Classics release. His role of accompanist is fulfilled in a recital recording made with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, which, for me, reinforces Britten’s love of Schubert that was so evident in Britten: The Performer.
However, the real jewel in the crown comes with Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony in G major (with soprano Joan Carlyle in the final movement). It had never occurred to me to associate Britten with Mahler; but, within the first few measures of the opening movement, I was hooked on how well he understood this music and could endow it with his own personal stamp. Indeed, the deepest impression comes at the very beginning. Mahler marked the tempo as Bedächtig, nicht eilen (moderately, not rushed); but it is clear that Britten decided to push the tempo slightly faster than most other conductors. Thus, without making the movement frantic, he manages to elicit the sorts of unsettling qualities that finally overtake the entire ensemble just before the return to the recapitulation. Those unsettling qualities then continue in the second movement, in which the detuning of “Death’s violin” is more evident than in most other performances, making the movement more sinister than most listeners would expect.
Once the first BBC volume became part of my collection, I found I would consult it frequently; I anticipate that this second volume will receive just as much attention as I continue to wrestle with the nature of performance and the problem of writing about it in meaningful ways.