ALAIN LOMBARD and his Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra have been making some impressive recordings for Erato over the last few years. Several of them have come out in our country on the Musical Heritage Society label, and some have been brought in as direct imports by RCA.
The two latest ones from the Musical Heritage Society--music of Berlioz and Stravinsky--are perhaps the most impressive and enjoyable so far; both well up to the highest international standards.
The Berlioz disc (MHS 4689H) is a collection of four overtures, and it's a "must" item for the stunning presentation of "Les Francs-Juges" alone, in which the Strasbourg brass and superb recording combine to evoke the atmosphere of dark menace that is just what Berlioz had in mind, while the low pizzicati with the sunny theme later are simply luscious.
Lombard's feeling for all these pieces is superb; his performances of the more familiar "Benvenuto Cellini," "Roman Carnival" and "Corsaire" easily hold their own with the most distinguished versions of the past. While Andre Previn offers good performances of the same four titles plus "Beatrice and Benedict" on Angel S-37170, I would not hesitate to choose Lombard--and I would hope he'd get round to the rest of the Berlioz overtures on a second disc before long. There is no current recording of the little-known "Rob Roy," and no acceptable stereo version of either "Waverley" or "King Lear."
In the meantime, Lombard's other new MHS release is nothing less than Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and it is a surprisingly competitive version of this much-recorded work (MHS 4650). The fine recording, which could so easily show up technical deficiencies on the part of the orchestra, here only illuminates the reliable and expert response of the Strasbourg players. Here, as in the Berlioz, Lombard succeeds because he is as concerned with atmosphere as with orchestral virtuosity. There are several excellent recordings of this work, of course, but in this price range this one stands alone.
In addition to giving numerous recordings from Erato and other European sources their first release in the United States, MHS has been reissuing some valuable material that had circulated earlier on other labels. Lately the emphasis has been on EMI recordings formerly available here on Angel or Capitol. Among these reissues are several Melodiya items from the U.S.S.R., and of these, the two-disc set of Prokofiev's music for the ballet "Cinderella," with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Moscow Radio Orchestra, is especially welcome (MHS 824651).
We don't get to hear this music very often, even in the short suites the composer extracted from the score. It is certainly worth getting to know, and many listeners may be surprised to discover the more or less direct connections between portions of it and the Fifth Symphony, which Prokofiev composed while still at work on "Cinderella."
Angel withdrew this recording some time ago, together with a single LP of excerpts from it. MHS has done a superior job of processing the Soviet tapes, and has made the package still more appealing by putting the two discs in a space-saving gatefold container instead of a box. The only flaw is the labeling of "Cinderella" as Op. 67 (which belongs to "Peter and the Wolf" in Prokofiev's catalogue of works) instead of Op. 87, but this, of course, does not lessen the listening pleasure at all, and there is a comprehensive set of notes by Peter J. Rabinowitz.
Among the other Melodiya/Angel cutouts by the same conductor and orchestra available now on MHS, by the way, are the splendid three-disc "Swan Lake" (MHS 833662) and a fine Sibelius collection ("Pelleas and Me'lisande," "Belshazzar's Feast," etc., MHS 4676), as well as all the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev symphonies. From EMI itself, MHS now has Barbirolli's disc of Delius' "Appalachia" and "Brigg Fair" (MHS 4566), Sir Charles Groves' recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan's "Irish" Symphony (not issued domestically till now, MHS 4595), and a good deal more--including for the first time Sir Thomas Beecham, conducting his Royal Philharmonic in Schubert's Symphonies No. 3 in D and No. 5 in B-flat (MHS 4661H).
No one who has Karl Bo hm's recordings of the Schubert symphonies is likely to be unhappy with them, but Beecham also had a very special way with these works, and it is good to have his only stereo recordings of them preserved. No. 5, of which he made a classic recording with the then young London Philharmonic on 78s, is especially fetching here.