It seems like only yesterday that Andrew Litton was the National Symphony Orchestra's associate conductor -- taking care of the unglamorous assignments now being handled by Randall Craig Fleischer. But in recent years, Litton has become one of the hottest young conductors in Europe, particularly in England where he is the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and closely associated with the Royal Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the English Chamber Orchestra. New recordings conducted by Litton (or occasionally with him at the piano) seem to be made every hour or two, mostly by the energetic and enterprising Virgin label.
He has started a Tchaikovsky cycle with the Bournemouth Symphony, and in its recordings of the Third and Fourth symphonies, the Capriccio Italien and the Serenade for Strings (Virgin VC 7 90761-2 and 90789-2), this orchestra has the right kind of bright, transparent sound plus plenty of well-controlled energy. The same qualities are exactly right for the combination of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F and Ravel's Gershwinesque Piano Concerto in G, in which Litton conducts the Bournemouth Symphony from the keyboard. He has said more than once that he plans to give up the piano and focus on conducting, but that would be a serious loss. His piano technique is good, but where he really stands out is in the subtle art of phrasing -- making the piano sometimes take on the qualities of a singing voice. He also gets a good jazzy flavor in the orchestra.
In contrast, the Royal Philharmonic's sumptuous, aristocratic sound gives a feeling of great depth to the lush textures in a cycle of Rachmaninoff's orchestral music: all three symphonies, plus "The Isle of the Dead," the Vocalise and the Symphonic Dances (VC 7 90830-2, 90831-2 and 90832-2). There can be no one "best" in music as often-recorded as this, but Litton's deep devotion to this repertoire, linked with high technical skill, has a strong appeal. Washington and Music Except in specialties such as military band music and free chamber music, where it is something of a pacesetter, Washington has little hope of becoming a musical capital on the level of New York, Chicago or even Los Angeles. The economics and demographics just aren't right. But the musical life of this city has escalated enormously in the past two decades, in quality and abundance, and that life is increasingly reflected on records. Like Litton, James de Preist, former associate conductor of the National Symphony, made an international reputation after leaving Washington, particularly with some brilliant recordings on the Delos label. Those who remember his work here and want to keep in touch with his strong musical personality should hear him with the Oregon Symphony playing Tchaikovsky (Delos DCD 3081); Rachmaninoff (DCD 3071) and Strauss, Lutoslawski and Respighi (DCD 3070). He is also impressive with the Helsinki Philharmonic in Shostakovich's 11th Symphony (DCD 3080), but the Oregon Symphony is his orchestra. He has shaped it into a virtuoso ensemble, and if he is showing off a bit in this high-voltage repertoire, the results richly justify the attitude.
The late Antal Dorati was internationally famous before he became the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra (1970-77), and some of the Mercury recordings that helped to win him that fame in the late 1950s and early '60s have now been reissued on compact discs. The quality of the sound belies the age of these recordings, made with the London Symphony, the Minneapolis Symphony and the Philharmonia Hungarica. They can compete with digital recordings made last week -- a tribute to the Mercury "Living Presence" recording philosophy and technique, which have now been adopted by other companies such as Telarc. Dorati's vigorous, cleanly shaped conducting is particularly idiomatic in the music of fellow Hungarians Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok (Mercury 432 005-2), but he also has high impact in a selection of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg (432 006-2) and a Respighi program (432 007-2).
Also outstanding in this series of reissues are a disc of Janos Starker playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto and shorter works by Max Bruch and Tchaikovsky (432 001-2), Frederick Fennell conducting British and American band music (432 009-2) and Howard Hanson conducting his own music (432 008-2). These are classics of the recording art, and as one who reviewed them when they were new and has preserved them tenderly ever since, I am glad to see them sparkling and fresh in a format unimagined when they were recorded.
John Mauceri, now the music director of the Scottish Opera, formerly held that title with the Washington Opera and still does with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. By any title, he is one of the most successful musical theater conductors in the world, with engagements at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, La Scala and Covent Garden, not to mention Broadway and the Kennedy Center. On records, he has been working on a Kurt Weill cycle for London/Decca (with Ute Lemper), including the best-conducted "Threepenny Opera" I have heard (London 430075).
Now, with Elektra/Nonesuch, Mauceri has launched a major project: a complete recording of the musical theater works of George and Ira Gershwin that will carefully reconstruct the original productions. Tommy Krasker, the producer of the series, is a leading scholar of American musical theater and a specialist in the Gershwin archives, which are now kept at the Library of Congress. The series has been launched with "Girl Crazy" (9 79250-2, with booklet), in a performance that exemplifies the high standards always associated with Mauceri's work. This recording would be worth having just for its superb performances of such familiar numbers as "Bidin' My Time," "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not for Me." But it is also the first recording of the complete score and the first to use the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. Fans of vintage musical theater will be delighted not only by the big hits but by such novelty numbers as "The Lonesome Cowboy," "Could You Use Me," "Barbary Coast," "Sam and Delilah," "Treat Me Rough" and "Cactus Time in Arizona," prime material rich in the flavor of the early 1930s and imbued with the special Gershwin sparkle.
Also associated with the Library of Congress -- in fact, recorded by Koch International Classics in the acoustically superb Coolidge Auditorium -- are two CDs by the American Chamber Players, who present the Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival there each year under the direction of violist Miles Hoffman, formerly of the National Symphony.
A disc with very broad appeal enhanced by world-class performances has Mozart's familiar Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, K. 498, and Bruch's unfamiliar but utterly delicious Eight Pieces, Op. 83, for the same instruments. Hoffman is joined by clarinetist Loren Kitt and pianist Lambert Orkis in sensitive, well-molded performances (Koch 3-7029-2). John Harbison and George Rochberg are leaders in the revival of romantic values in new music, but they still appeal to a relatively specialized audience. The American Chamber Players' performances of Rochberg's Piano Quartet and Harbison's "Twilight Music" for horn, violin and piano and Variations for clarinet, violin and piano (Koch 3-7027-2) bring out all of the music's eloquence persuasively.
The first Washington-born composer to win international recognition is one of the most often recorded composers of all time, John Philip Sousa. "The Original All-American Sousa!" (Denon DE 3102) features Sousa scholar Keith Brion and his New Sousa Band, specialists in reviving the famous Sousa concerts right down to details of uniforms, stage decorations and conducting style. They play a good selection in fine style, including quite a few relatively unfamiliar marches and two recorded for the first time -- one that was found among Sousa's posthumous papers and not performed in public until last year. But the disc also includes all of the commercial recordings ever made by Sousa conducting his band -- six of them, lasting a bit more than 20 minutes and sounding remarkably good considering the primitive recording conditions of 1917-1923 when they were recorded.
"Sousa for Orchestra" (Ess.A.Y CD 1003) is a curiously mixed bag, containing two of his orchestral suites (in a sense, tiny tone poems): "The Dwellers in the Western World" and "Three Quotations," as well as songs from the musical "Teddy and Alice," which tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt and his daughter, the formidable Alice Roosevelt Longworth. This is not one of the many musical shows Sousa composed; it is a 1988 confection that fitted some of his tunes to a modern book and lyrics. It died on Broadway, but it works quite well on the CD -- possibly because only the best 20 minutes are included (with a few hints of an undistinguished plot), certainly because Meg Bussert and Gordon Stanley sing very well, and most of all because Sousa's sturdy tunes adapt effectively to vocal treatment. Richard Kapp conducts the Philharmonia Virtuosi adeptly.