A week ago, when I began writing about the recordings in the second volume of Mercury Living Presence: The Collector’s Edition, I first explained the significance of “Living Presence” in defining the Mercury brand. That branding had more to do with the raw power emanating from a Mercury recording than with the musical values of the performers (or, for that matter, the producers). Nevertheless, Mercury devoted some of its attention to soloists; and, while that attention amounts to only five of the CDs in the second volume, it is worth considering the results as a separate category.
The soloist who receives the most attention is harpsichordist Rafael Puyana. With two exceptions all of his performances are solos; and the other two are duo performances with harpsichordist Genoveva Galvez, one involving two instruments and the other for four hands on a single instrument. Note the phrasing at the end of that last sentence. I did not say “four hands on a single keyboard.” These recordings were made back in the Sixties. This was a time when “historically informed” had not yet entered the working vocabulary and when most record producers did not feel that information about the instrument being used on the recording would be of interest to either customers or reviewers. It was also a time when most music lovers, if asked to name a harpsichordist, would come up with Wanda Landowska, who had died in 1959.
Three of the five discs in the Mercury collection are devoted to Puyana. They include a modest sampling of Johann Sebastian Bach, a disappointingly spare account of the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (back in those days Scarlatti lovers tended to turn to Fernando Valenti), and an abundant number of tracks devoted to unfamiliar names from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the other hand three of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedman, and Johann Christian, are included.
Ultimately, however, the music counts for less than the sonorities. Each track seems to be the product of close microphone placement involving a powerful instrument, probably with two manuals and a variety of controls for selecting and coupling ranks of strings. The result is not that different from Ottorino Respighi’s three suites of his arrangements that he called “ancient airs and dances” (also included in this particular collection). One reacts to the alien qualities of both harmony and dissonance that constitute “the shock of the old;” but these qualities are rendered with both the sonorities and rhetoric that would be appropriate to some lavish Hollywood costume drama set in the seventeenth century or earlier.
In contrast one disc is devoted to Marcel Dupré playing nineteenth-century French organ music on the organ at St. Thomas Church in New York. This is a case in which Dupré is honoring the performance style espoused by the composers (Charles-Marie Widor and César Franck) and playing on an instrument that is entirely appropriate for that style. Furthermore, this recording provides an excellent introduction to Franck’s writing for organ, presenting not only the three chorales composed in 1890 but also the 1878 “Pièce héroïque” in B minor, which is probably his best-known organ piece and the one with the most memorable theme. Widor, on the other hand, is represented by single movements from two of his organ symphonies, neither of which is likely to register with many listeners other than organ enthusiasts.
The final soloist to be featured is cellist János Starker, who died this past April 28, performing with pianist György Sebők, who died in 1999. (Both Starker and Sebők where leading members of the music faculty at Indiana University, and both died in Bloomington.) Starker was recognized with six CDs in the first volume of the Collector’s Edition, two for the Bach solo suites, two for sonatas, and two for concertos.
This gives the impression that the single disc in the second volume is picking up loose ends. However, it includes Frédéric Chopin’s two major cello compositions, his Opus 65 sonata in G minor and the Opus 3 polonaise with an introduction, both performed with the appropriate nineteenth-century rhetoric. The performance of Debussy’s D minor sonata is less convincing; but I still have to confess that I learned about this sonata through this recording on vinyl (which had some excellent liner notes that are absent from the CD version). The real treat, however, comes with the performance of Bohuslav Martinů’s set of variations composed on a popular theme from Gioachino Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon (Moses and Pharaoh) opera. Martinů composed this in New York in 1942; and, for all of the Biblical connotations, his music abounds with wit, none of which has been lost on either of the performers. My only regret is that I have yet to encounter a cellist who shares Starker’s enthusiasm for this piece.