MCA Records, in a move toward revivifying its classical catalogue, has come out with a new label, MCA West-minster, whose first release is made up entirely of material issued originally on the Westminster and American Decca labels in the '60s.
The list price is $4.98, the quality is exceptional (superb remastering, silent surfaces), and there are two or three real gems among the eight items. The one I'm happiest to see is MCA-1400, on which Frederic Walkdman conducts the Musica Aeterna Orchestra in Dvorak's Czech Suite, Op. 39, and Serenade in D minor for winds and low strings, Op. 44.
A number of worth-while recordings for Decca came out of Waldman's series of concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; to my mind this was probably the finest of all. I do not know a handsomer version of either work -- none in which both the brilliance and the warmth in the music are so fully realized and so tastefully balanced. This is surely the best way to get acquainted with these not exactly overexposed works if you don't know them, or to find still more to love in them if you do. In Larry Boden's new mastering, the sound is simply gorgeous, and even the cover art is something special: an old woodcut of "The Bohemian Rose," with its roots in Vienna and its center in Prague.
Also from Decca are stunning performances of Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 27 and 86, both in D major, by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Max Rudolf (MCA-1405). No. 86, the finest of Haydn's six "Paris" symphonies, is not otherwise available in record shops now except in multi-disc sets, and neither is the lesser-known but splendid No. 57, but that alone is not why this record is so welcome. Rudolf, one of the most valued of the National Symphony's guest conductors in the last few years (he closes the NSO subscription season this month), really has the measure of this music, and the Cincinnati orchestra plays with great style. Again, the sumptuous remastering is an improvement over the somewhat dryish Decca pressings.
Another good bet from the same source is a collection of "Choral Masterpieces of the Baroque," performed by the Amor Artis Chorate and a first-rate instrumental ensemble under Johannes Somary (MCA-1404). All three works here really are masterpieces -- Purcell's "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary," Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater and Bach's Cantata No. 118 "O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht" -- and all three performances do them honor.
It is not Waldman's fault, or Rudolf's, that their other discs in this assortment excite less enthusaism than those already mentioned. On MCA-1403 Waldman conducts stylish performances of Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp and Handel's Harp Concerto in B-flat, with flutist Samuel Baron and harpist Marcel Grandjany as soloists; on MCA-1402 Ruggiero Ricci is Rudolf's soloist in Paganini's Second Violin Concerto (the one that concludes with "La Campanella") and Saint-Saen's First. What's wrong, in both cases, is the dippy side layout.
Since the Handel and Saint-Saens works are so short, the Mozart and Paganini concertos, each of which is usually accommodated on a single side, are gratuitously interrupted for turnover before their respective finales. Most listeners would rather have an 11-minute side then have to interrupt a 25-minute work for turnover, and it's the same amount of music per dollar either way. There are other good records of these works without this irritation.
The old Westminster material is rather less distinguished. Hermann Scherchen's two-disc set of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, with violinist Willi Boskovsky, various other Viennese musicians and harpsichordist George Malcolm (MCA2-9500), has a break for turnover between movements of No. 5, only because of the meaningless insistence of presenting the six concertos in numerical order. I like Scherchen's emphasis of the horn triplets in the first movement of No. 1, but the general stodginess of these performances puts them rather far down the list of current recordings of the Brandenburgs.
Stodgy is the word, too, for Hans Knappertsbusch's recording of Beethoven's Fidelio, with the Bavarian State Opera chorus and orchestra and some very good singers (MCA3-14300). Even with Sena Jurinac as Leonore, Jan Peerce as Florestan and Maria Stader as Marzellina, the word does not really come to life. Gustav Neldlinger is not a very convincing Pizarro, the sound is tubby, and most of all, the piece drags. The labeling, by the way, lists the work as "an opera in two acts; premiere: Theater-an-der-Wien, Vienna, Nov. 20, 1805." That was, of course, the date of the premier of the original three-act-version of the opera, then titled "Leonore"; the two-act Fidelio did not appear until May 1814.