With the arrival almost simultaneously of the new Deutsche Grammophon "Privilege" series and the corresponding "Festivo" line from Philips, a new element has been introduced into the price-structure of the recording industry in this country the medium-priced record listed at $6.98 - which was, once upon a time, the cost of a premium-priced import record but now looks relatively low. The overall quality, however, is so high that one hardly feels cheated.
Still significantly more expensive than the budget labels such as Nonesuch Odyssey and Seraphim, which list at $3.98, the two new series are $2 below the cost of new classical records from DG and Philips and $1 below classical records on major American labels. For import records (which traditionally benefit from stricter quality-control than the local product) they can be considered a bargain.
Devoted to material that was for the most part recorded in the early years of stereo sound, these discs have been remastered with results that are often sonically superior to the orginal issue. Ferenc Friesay's recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony Privilege 2535-203 for example, was the first recording of that work in stereo, hailed as a sonic revelation on its original appearance and now it sounds better than ever it is still particularly worth acquiring for the solo quartet (Seefried, Forrester, Haefiger and Fischer-Dieskau), for the participation of St. Hedwig's Cathedral Choir, Berlin (a memento of the days when that organization had too been crippled by the building of a wall that shut out a large part of its membership), and for the clarity and vigor of the conductor's vision, though it must now confront some very high-powered competition. This would no longer be a first choice, but for many it may remain a sentimental favorite.
Noted briefly are some of the most outstanding items in the first releases on the two labels - records that in our opinion are frequently comparable or perceptibly superior to any competing version.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 ("Pathetique"). Leningrad Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky (Privilege 2535 235, 2535 236 and 2535 237) Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique"). London Symphony Orchestra, Igor Markevitch (Festivo 6570 047). Perhaps the most conspicuous outpouring of riches from these initial release are the performances of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies. One would have thought that more Tchaikovsky symphonies are the last thing we need. But here are four recordings, long out of print, that would be near the top of most anybody's list of preferences. In these works the greatest interpretive problem is the multiplicity of melodic riches. The first movement of the "Pathetique" alone has at least 12 clearly discernible melodies, several of them among the most famous in the literature of the symphony.
The temptation is to play each of these passionate materials for every last ounce of emotion - with the risk that the movements peak too early and the sections become episodic. All four interpretations here hit a happy medium between form and intensity that is rare in performances of Tchaikovsky. The most episodic of all movements, the Fifth's finale, is played under Mravinsky with a breathtaking tautness that can rarely have been equaled. And even though Markevitch's first movement of the "Pathetique" is rendered with heated intensity, it is so precisely controlled that the momentum never breaks. There are 30 "Pathetique" now listed. But if there are only these two, we would still be in good shape.
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, George Szell (Festivo 6570 084). Lots of interpreters see the seven symphonies of Sibelius as a sort of Northwoods extension of the symphonies of Tchaikovsky - and they conduct them that way. Surging rhetoric is played to the hilt, sometimes at the expense of structural clarity. In, say, Bernstein, the climaxes are smashing, but they come so often that you are worn out before the music ends. There were those who regarded this course as an inevitable pitfall of a work like the famed Second Symphony, until Szell's performance came along in the mid '60s and showed that it's possible to have it both ways - with proportion and eloquence. Even though the sonic scale is reduced in this interpretation, particularly in the agitated first movement, there is no feeling that the work is being understated. That is because Szell has conceived the work in unusually subtle and imaginative sonic gradations, and conducted it with one of the few orchestras that could give him what he wanted. A landmark performance.
Weber: Overtures: Oberon, Abu Hassan, Freischutz, Euryanthe, Preziosa, Jubel, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik (Privilege 2535 136). The best-known of these works is no doubt "Freischutz," which is also the longest and beautifully constructed and orchestrated and fetchingly melodious. Though fairly well represented on records, this music is less popular than it deserves to be, and Kubelik's reading is ideally suited to increase that popularity. The conductor phrases with a delicacy worthy of Mozart (which is what Weber really demands), and he draws from his provincial orchestra playing of international caliber.
Bartok: Piano Concertos 2 and 3. Geza Anda, piano; Berlin Radio Symphony, Ferenc Fricsay (Privilege 2535 262). Since its first appearance in the early '60s, this recording has set the standard for this brightly colored, hard-hitting music. The Hungarian soloist conductor capture the delicacy and power of their compatriot's idioms more precisely than any others, and in this newly mastered format the sound is better than ever.
Mozart: Coronation Mass K. 317. Maria Stader, Oralia Dominguez, Ernst Haefliger, Michel Roux; Brassur Choir and Lamourenx Orchestra, Igor Markevitch. Exsultate, Jubilate, K. 165 Et Incarnatus from K. 427. Maria Stader, Berlin Radio Symphony, Ferenc Fricsay (Privilege 2535 148). In popularity, the "Coronation" Mass is second only to the "Requiem" among Mozart's religious works, though there are many who find the great Mass in C minor (K. 427) even more eloquent. Markevitch's interpretation disarms criticism with the sheer quality of the singing and the vigor of interpretation. There are many other recordings, but none better than this one. On side two, the Exsultate Jubilate (justly celebrated for its "Alleluia" section) is equally well sung.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 ("Romantic"). Berlin Philharmonic, Eugen Jochum (Privilege 2535 111). The Fourth has received by far the best treatment on records of any of Bruckner's symphonies (no doubt because those irresistible hunting horns in the scherzo have made it so popular) and there are a handful of outstanding recordings, including low-cost ones by Kertesz and Walter, full-price ones by Klemperer and Karajan. Each has its particular strengths, but none surpasses Jochum in the quality of the orchestra or the subtlety with which the music's nuances (misty and playful in turn) are explored. The sound is excellent.
Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 23 in A, 24 in C. Wilhelm Kempff, piano; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Ferdinand Leitner (Privilege 2535 204). The last 10 piano concertos are a minimum requirement in any decent Mozart collection, and of these the C minor is the most essential. Of the eight competing versions currently listed, several are excellent (notably those of Brendel, Casadesus and Rubzinstein), but none surpass this interpretation. Kempff phrases the solo with a precision of touch, an emotional finesse that may surprise those who are not well acquainted with this great, underrated artist; but the real surprise of the record is the delicacy with which the conductor and orchestra match his performance.
Several other recordings in these releases should be singled out.
Especially fine is a lyric bucolic version of Schubert's song cycle, "Die Schone Mulleria," with Gerard Souzay at his loveliest - accompained by Dalton Baldwin (Festivo 6570 076). This recording once won the French Grand Prix du Disque.
Then there is a radiant set of Mendelssohn's music to "A Mid-summer Night's Dream" with conductor Bernard Haitink conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra at a level that Washington's audiences came to expert - and admire - during the recent Beethoven festival at the Kennedy Center (Festivo 6570 021).