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Ionisation II: Pioneer Orchestral Recordings 1927-1951
Albert Roussel, Spoken Word, Anton Bruckner
Ionisation II: Pioneer Orchestral Recordings 1927-1951
Genres: Special Interest, Classical


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Rare. Which means "Not necessarily well-done."
Bob Zeidler | Charlton, MA United States | 04/28/2004
(2 out of 5 stars)

"My main interest in acquiring this CD (as well as a companion one on the same Symposium label called, simply, "Ionisation" and including the famed Edgar Varèse work) was to assess the capabilities of Nicolas Slonimsky as a conductor of the music of "moderns," and, most importantly among those moderns, the music of Charles Ives.

Save for an earlier public performance of portions of Ives's Fourth Symphony by Eugene Goossens in the '20s (and, perhaps, in-practice run-throughs of his Second Symphony by Walter Damrosch and his New York Symphony-Orchestra a decade earlier than the documented Goossens performance), the first conductor to champion the orchestral music of Ives was Slonimsky. In the early '30s, Slonimsky formed a group of Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians (and, I would expect, some free-lancers) as the Boston Chamber Orchestra, and, with this group, directed some of the earliest-known performances of the music of Chávez, Cowell, Ives, Riegger, Ruggles, Varèse and other lesser-known Pan-American composers. His performances of this music, most especially Ives's "Three Places in New England," in venues as far apart as Havana, New York, Paris and Berlin, were the stuff of legends. And no one added more to that legend than Slonimsky himself, in his later writings as diarist and musical lexicographer. Famed for his preternatural ability to conduct two different meters with his arms, he seemed a natural for conducting the polyrhythms of much of Ives's music.

It is therefore sad for me to have to say that the two early Ives performances, recorded in May, 1934, captured on this CD border on the abysmal. The "Barn Dance" (from Ives's Holidays Symphony) has serious intonation and ensemble roughness to it, perhaps as a consequence of the Pan American Chamber Orchestra being essentially a pick-up group not having a tradition of performing such rhythmically difficult works. (It was only over time-measured in decades-that performance practices for Ives's technically difficult works were elevated to an acceptable level.) The performance of "In the Night" (from Ives's Set for Theatre Orchestra) fares somewhat better, if hardly at the level of what such current-day Ives specialists as Richard Bernas and James Sinclair routinely achieve these days.

These two early (and brief) Ives performances are included amongst what the Symposium label producer (unattributed) describes as "Pioneer Orchestral Recordings: 1927 - 1951." The dawn of the age of electrical recordings began in 1925, and the earliest recording on this CD dates to 1928 (not 1927), a rather good performance by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra led by Prof. Anton Konrath (a total unknown to me) of the Scherzo from Bruckner's 3rd Symphony. Equally good in performance, and marginally better in sound, are yet three more Bruckner Scherzos, from his Symphonies "0," 1 and 2, with the Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra led by Fritz Zaun (another total unknown).

The CD opens with an extended suite from Albert Roussel's "Le Festin de l'Araignée" ("The Spider's Feast), dating from 1929 and led by the composer. Neither the recorded sound nor the orchestral performance is up to the par of the above-noted earlier Bruckner recording. Interesting as an historical document, but little more.

More interesting, primarily for their rarity, are early recordings of little-heard music by Mark Lothar (two excerpts from "Lord Spleen," with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra directed by Clemens Schmalstich and dating from 1930) and Werner Egk, remembered as the composer of the ballet music for "The Red Shoes" (his "Kleine Abraxas-Suite," with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Berlin directed by Ferenc Fricsay and dating from 1951).

The well-filled (74:47) CD also has a 1945 performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis," with Arturo Toscanini leading his NBC Orchestra in a live performance (complete with audience cough). Undoubtedly recorded in the infamous RCA Studio 8H, the recording of this performance captures all the problems attributed to the venue. Worse yet, Toscanini's interpretation of the work is best described as "rushed, driven, forced, totally unidiomatic," and not all that good from an ensemble perspective either. (The cello pizzicati early in the work are both way too prominent and not at all "together.") Without specifically editorializing on Toscanini interpretations and performances in general, I'll simply note that this is perhaps the worst possible way in which to acquaint oneself with this Vaughan Williams masterpiece.

The CD transfers seem to have been made totally without benefit of any of the well-known technical tricks available for reducing surface noise from the originals (presumably lacquer masters), and this is largely independent of vintage: the later (1945, 1951) recordings don't necessarily show measurable improvement over the earlier ones (1928, 1929) made at the dawn of the electrical recording age. The booklet notes are helpful for background material on the more obscure composers (Egk and Lothar), but little else. In particular, the producer/engineer responsible for the transfers is not identified (and it's probably just as well).

In summary, a mixed-bag curiosity, primarily of interest to those who would like to get some sense of Slonimsky's vaunted expertise with the music of Ives. Regrettably, these Pan American Chamber Orchestra recordings-perhaps the only Slonimsky ones extant-do a disservice to both composer and conductor. If only there existed an air check of the performance Slonimsky led of Ives's "Three Places in New England," conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in March, 1932! Those performances also included Ruggles's "The Sun-treader," Cowell's "Synchrony" and Varèse's "Arcana." To hear (or, more correctly, read) Slonimsky's relating of the concerts, they must have been something special.

Well, maybe one of these days...

Bob Zeidler"