WITH AN unusually intense promotional effort, Pickwick, whose QuinW tessence line has been one of the most attractive and justly successful of low-priced reissues, last March launched a new full-price label called Pro Arte. In the advertisements, the phrase "the Unexpected, the Unusual, the Unexplored" was juxtaposed rather amusingly with a list of such familiar titles as the Brandenburg Concertos, Vivaldi and Mozart flute concertos, Haydn symphonies and Beethoven piano sonatas.
Pro Arte's summer release, however, brought some really unfamiliar material, such as piano concertos by Bohuslav Martinu and the new recording of Dvorak's opera "The Jacobin" with the Brno State Opera under Jiri Pinkas. Pro Arte had the opera out on discs and cassettes almost as soon as the first copies of the Czech pressings arrived in this country.
So far Pickwick seems to have been more successful than any other American company that has tried to maintain a relationship with Supraphon. On Quintessence, and now on Pro Arte, we are getting some really treasured Czech recordings that had been in and out of Schwann on as many as four different labels before, along with such new material as "The Jacobin," and the continuity of supply seems assured.
The other sources of Pro Arte's material are German Harmonia Mundi, Seon (both of whose productions have also come and gone with some frequency on domestic labels) and Wolf Erichson's new Munich-based Pro Arte, whose name was borrowed for this line. A Harmonia Mundi item I don't recall seeing here before is an "Eroica" played by the Collegium Aureum -- with period instruments and a string complement of only 18 (the number of first violins alone in a modern orchestra), approximating conditions when Beethoven introduced the work in 1805.
Since the first-movement exposition repeat is taken, the disc (PAL-1029; cassette PAC-1029) is laid out with that movement occupying all of Side 1 and the last three movements on Side 2, as on Otmar Suitner's Denon disc, with no movement broken for turnover. It is a well-paced performance, one in which many details usually obscured in big-orchestra performances are revealed clearly and in which the sounds of the instruments themselves -- particularly the horns -- add a good deal of intriguing color.
Concertmaster Franzjosef Maier provides leadership from his seat, and the ensemble is in splendid shape, but there are more than a few points at which there is a need for a conductor unencumbered by the additional responsibilities of an instrumentalist. Recent performances of the "Eroica" under Michael Gielen in Cincinnati and Erich Leinsdorf here in Washington (both very briskly paced without the repeat) have shown how much inner detail can come through in a conventional performance when enough attention is given matters of balance.
Still, this is an interesting and unusual account of the great work. I only wish the pressing had been as successful as the engineering (surfaces on my copy are objectionably crunchy). I can't help feeling that this recording, whose appeal will be mostly in the nature of an alternative version rather than a "basic" one, would have been more attractive at a lower price than the $9.98 shown in Schwann for Pro Arte.
The final movement of the "Eroica" is based on a little dance tune Beethoven had used in three earlier compositions, beginning with a set of Contredanses written about 1800. Mozart wrote dozens of such dances for various occasions in Vienna, and four sets of his German Dances -- K.509, K. 586, K. 600 and K. 605 -- are performed superbly by the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra on Musical Heritage Society MHS 4289. Paillard had recorded two of these sets before, but no one, including Paillard and Willi Boskovsky, has ever made them quite as enticing as they are this time around. The trumpets might have been a bit more forward in the penultimate number in K. 509, but it's a small matter. "The Sleighride" in K. 605 comes off brilliantly, and the recorded sound is gorgeous.