You get a lot to like in music from Marlboro. Washingtonians have known this for years, thanks to the brilliant series of chamber music programs presented here under that name -- originally at the Smithsonian and in recent years at the Library of Congress.
The concert series, emanating from Rudolf Serkin's annual festival at his summer home in Vermont, has introduced many fine young musicians to the American public and has played a significant role in the chamber music renaissance currently sweeping the United States. In the 35 years since Serkin began the festival, the "Music From Marlboro" name has become an emblem of quality and dedication in performance, imagination in the choice of repertoire.
Less well known than the festival or the concert tours is the work of the Marlboro Recording Society. So far there are 16 records in the Marlboro catalogue, with repertoire ranging across the classical spectrum from Bach to Schoenberg. The performers include some of the most respected names in chamber music -- not only Serkin but Pablo Casals, Pina Carmirelli, Isidore Cohen, Jaime Laredo, Paula Robison and Samuel Rhodes, to name a few. Joining with young, relatively unknown musicians, they have produced some outstanding performances.
The spirit of the whole enterprise is neatly embodied on one of the society's recent records (MRS 14), in which Serkin is the piano partner for two splendid young musicians, violinist Yuzuko Horigome and cellist Peter Wiley, in Beethoven's youthful, sometimes rather flippant and unduly neglected Variations in G, Op. 121a. Side 2 offers the even more neglected Divertimento, Op. 30, of Adolf Busch -- a lively, graceful and well-crafted work in a charmingly conservative style. Busch is still remembered fondly as a violinist, but (on the evidence of this music) should not be forgotten as a composer. He was Rudolf Serkin's father-in-law, and the record's family flavor is further accented by the presence in the ensemble of Serkin's son-in-law, Rudolf Vrbsky, the excellent principal oboist of the National Symphony. The music and the performance are a constant delight.
The flavor is homogeneously modern-but-not-too-modern on another recent recording (MRS 15). Hindemith's neo-Baroque Octet and Barber's often dreamily romantic "Summer Music" sound completely compatible in the excellent Marlboro performances. In contrast, MRS 16 offers a kind of eclecticism frequently found in Marlboro programs. Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, is coupled with Boccherini's Quintet in A, G. 308, and Ravel's "Me'lodies populaires grecques." Whether the music is from the 18th century or the 20th, the performers are precisely attuned to the style. The program booklets enclosed with these performances restore an almost-forgotten standard in the art of record annotation.
Beverly Sills, still very much in the limelight though no longer as a singer, had (or rather, is having) one of the longest careers in the history of music. It began in the early 1930s when she was a child performer (actress as well as singer), and entered a new phase in 1979 when she left the stage and became the general director of the New York City Opera. It was and still is a brilliant career, but it reached its peak at La Scala (1969) and the Met (1975) much later than it should have. By then, Sills was still a great singer and an unusually intelligent dramatic interpreter, but her voice was beginning to lose some of the freshness, the agility and the perfect tonal security in its top register.
This late, international phase is, for better or worse, the period of her career most lavishly documented on records, and a major part of that documentation, digitally remastered, has just been reissued by Angel in its reduced-price "Angel Voices" series. I have heard four operas and four recital programs in the new packaging. All have some exquisite moments and the general quality is fairly high. But those who heard Sills singing in 1960 must feel a certain sadness at the thought that these records would have been much better if they had been made 10 years earlier.
Three of the operas are conducted by Julius Rudel, who collaborated with Sills so creatively for so many years: Massenet's "Manon" (Angel 4AVC-34010), Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" (AVC-34011) and Bellini's "I Puritani" (4AVC-34013). Two of these ("Puritani" and "Manon") have Nicolai Gedda in the cast. The fourth is Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," with Carlo Bergonzi as Edgardo and Thomas Schippers conducting (4AVC-34012).
Of the four, the two French operas are probably given the best overall performances, and the "Hoffman's" British and American cast is outstanding. Norman Treigle is velvet of voice and theatrically sinister in the villains' roles, Stuart Burrows is an appealing Hoffmann and Susan Marsee an impressive Niklausse. Despite the budget price (reflected in the flimsy cardboard packaging for each set of three cassettes with libretto), great care has clearly gone into the production. But no amount of care could turn back the clock.
Care is also evident in the single cassettes: a Verdi program (Angel 4AV-34017), a selection of Mozart and Richard Strauss (4AV-34014), a series of bel canto mad scenes (4AV-34016) and portrayals of three Renaissance-era English queens as set to music by Donizetti in "Anna Bolena," "Maria Stuarda" and "Roberto Devereux" (4AV-34015).
Familiar and unfamiliar material is neatly blended in all these recitals; the concepts underlying the albums are inventive, and the voice is sometimes (but not always dependably) exquisite. I will replay these tapes often, making allowances where they are needed -- particularly the "Hoffmann," which calls for relatively few allowances. Meanwhile, let's hope that someone reissues the pre-stereo recording of Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," made when Sills was already a great interpreter and her voice was as fresh and luminous as a spring morning.