Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Neville Marriner: The Argo Years

Decca 478 6883 (28-disc set) (2014)
Neville Marriner: The Argo Years

This sturdy, handsomely packaged, nostalgically stimulating 28-disc box set from Decca is a fitting tribute not only to one of the most notable conductors and recording artists of the last fifty years, but to one of the great record labels of the mid-20th century as well. Sir Neville Marriner, who celebrated his 90th birthday on April 15, 2014, is certainly one of the most prolific recording artists of all time with more than 600 recordings to his credit. Well over 400 of those were made with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (ASMF) the ensemble he founded in 1959, and first recorded with in 1962 for the L’Oiseau-Lyre label.

The ASMF (which never recorded in the London church for which it is named) would also subsequently make many notable albums for the Argo label beginning in 1963-64 and into the early 1980s, as well as for Philips from about 1970, with Marriner appearing as conductor, leader, or ensemble member. As the founding music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) in 1969, Marriner also forged a fruitful association with EMI in the mid to late 1970s.

The choice of whether or not to buy this set may ultimately come down to how much of this material one already owns. Some overlap is always inevitable, after all, and most of these recordings have been available on CD before through various budget or mid-price re-issues including the London/Decca Double-Decca series, Universal-Australia's Eloquence compilations, and the London Weekend, and Jubilee budget series. Five of the albums in this present set were also included in Decca’s 2011 box, Marriner & the Academy: 20th-Century Classics (TCC) (Decca 478 2759) consisting of albums originally recorded between 1968 and 1979, presented with their original contents without (as in this present set) any additional filler material. Twenty-four of the discs in this new set originated in whole or in part from albums issued on the Argo label between 1964 and 1981, while three represent albums originally recorded in digital sound for Argo, which were ultimately released on the ASV label in 1982. A twenty-eighth “bonus” disc includes material from the original 1962-’63 L’Oiseau-Lyre albums, A Recital by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and A Second Recital (re-issued together on a 2-disc Eloquence set, Neville Marriner: The First Recordings in 2011). 

The heavy cardboard slipcase contains sturdy miniature reproductions of the original LP jacket fronts, though, unfortunately, no original liner notes on the backs, only the barest minimum of track and timing information. (Discs in the double albums have a tendency to fit too tightly in their sleeves—always annoying when trying to remove them without fingerprints or scratches.) The accompanying booklet includes more specific movement-by-movement breakdowns, individual track times and composer dates, as well as information about contributing artists, session venues, and recording dates, along with a short essay by Tully Potter about Marriner’s time with Argo. 

And what a time it was! You could hardly get through an hour of FM classical programming in the ‘70s without hearing something from Marriner and the ASMF. The opening Sinfonia movement of the ensemble’s ravishingly beautiful 1968 Argo recording of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite was the theme music for the popular Matinée program on public radio, and every classical DJ from New York to San Francisco seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of air time waxing pompously authoritative (mostly quoting liner notes) about the Rossini string sonatas, the Boyce symphonies, the Telemann Don Quichotte Suite, or the Corelli Concerti Grossi Opus 6, or filling up the last five minutes of their shows with Henry Cowell’s lovely Hymn and Fuging Tune Nr. 10 or Paul Creston’s rollickingly sardonic masterpiece, A Rumor, both from the 1976 Argo album of 20th-century American music.  Indeed, by the latter half of the decade Marriner and the Academy had become such a staple of classical radio that a cartoon appeared in “Stereo Review” magazine; a man sits in his living room listening to the radio with his pet parrot. The announcer begins “That was the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields . . .” to which the parrot squawks “Neville Marriner conducting!”

So what was it about these recordings that made, and still makes them, so special, so desirable? First, Argo’s sound engineering was state-of-the-art in its day, and these transfers sound no less magnificent, capturing a range of detail and depth not always common in many contemporaneous recordings. (No documentation concerning re-masterings is included with this set, Decca being notoriously cagey about such things.) Beyond Argo’s legendary sound quality, every aspect of production, pressing and presentation was almost always first-rate, from the heftier vinyl used for the pressings, with the tastefully understated silver-on-green labels in the center, to the lovely glossy jackets with their ever-apropos artwork and simple, elegant designs. Right up there with the slickest high-end Deutsche Gramophone and Philips imports, just handling an Argo album made you feel sophisticated and refined!

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Marriner was an unstinting perfectionist with acute attention to detail and unfailing musical instincts. Where the notorious fastidiousness of many of the older generation of “tyrant” conductors manifested itself all-too-often in heavy, stiff or stultified playing, Marriner’s interpretations are invariably vibrant, animated with a lyrical buoyancy and lightness of texture, transparent ensemble revealing rich inner detail, agility of articulation, subtlety of ornamentation, shimmering strings, colorful, beautifully blended winds, and overall, an infectious, sparkling sense of élan. These qualities are equally evident in Marriner’s performances of 20th-century masterpieces by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok as in his readings of Baroque works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, and Boyce, or Romantic music by Bizet and Wagner.  

Listen, for instance, to the 1970 rendition of the ultimate Baroque warhorse, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Disc 6). Usually, a little Vivaldi goes an awful long way with me, but this is utterly unlike so many of the exaggerated, gimmicky, over-bearing, yawn-inspiring readings of the past forty-odd years (especially some of the near-cacophonic period-instrument performances). Marriner’s Seasons is always lyrical and light, technical brilliance never trumping musicality. Nor does the conductor seem possessed of any great egotistical need to show off or stand out in so heavily overcrowded a field. Along with the Felix Ayo/I Solisti Zagreb reading (originally for Philips), this is perhaps the most musically satisfying “Seasons” one is likely to hear whether on modern or period instruments. And, the filler material, antiphonal pieces by Giovanni Gabrielli and works by the obscure (but entertaining) 17th-century Czech composer, Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky played with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble is downright delightful!

Highlights of the set for me include Disc 2 with the jaunty, insouciant Rossini string sonatas, Disc 4 with colorful, captivating music of Stravinsky, Disc 7 with Mendelssohn’s delightful piano concerti, Disc 9, J.S. Bach’s evergreen Orchestral Suites in one of their finest-ever “modern instruments” renditions,  Disc 10, marvelous readings of early symphonies by Mozart, Disc 11, the gloriously blithe performance of Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C, Disc 17, an eye and ear-opening program of 20th-century American music, Disc 18, the stately, lyrical, unapologetically Handel-derivative symphonies of William Boyce; Disc 22, a very fine, passionate performance of the Mozart Requiem (though I have yet to decide whether I like this better than the 1991 reading for Philips (432-087)), and Disc 24 with the hauntingly beautiful orchestral music of Gabriel Fauré. I also thoroughly enjoyed the marvelous performances of works by Handel, Corelli, Telemann, and Tchaikovsky.

I might quibble some over the weird-sounding “experimental” use of vocal ornament in the Messiah, which seems not so much to enhance the music as twist it out of melodic shape. But so-called “period-practice” was all the rage in the 1970s following close upon the advent of the original-instruments movement. Marriner and the ASMF, most notably along with Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra staked out what, at the time, seemed a sane middle ground between the old-fashioned excesses of modern full orchestras (such as in some of Karl Richter’s earlier efforts with the Bach cantatas on DG Archiv), and the sometimes horrendously sour-sounding efforts of the “authenticity mavens” (Harnoncourt’s disastrous reading for Telefunken of Bach’s Brandenberg Concerti comes immediately to mind.)

Another complaint is the lack of coloristic variety in Vivaldi’s Opus 4 concerti, but that is as much a compositional issue as an interpretive one. The recording and performance make as good a case for these works as possibly imaginable.

I also wish that the producers of this collection had mined more of Marriner’s late-analog Argo discography as opposed to the early digital ASV material. I would dearly love to have Marriner’s hauntingly beautiful recording of J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in D (originally on Argo ZRG 854 (1977)) and more of his 20th-century English music, especially the Vaughan Williams (Argo ZRG 696 (1977)), Tippet (Argo ZRG 680 (1976)) Britten, and Butterworth (Argo ZRG 860 (1976)) though the latter composers are represented on Disc 9 of the TCC box set.  

The Argo Years is recommended for its treasures and for its revelations, if not for its oversights and redundancies. Those who don’t already have these marvelous, historically significant recordings shouldn’t hesitate. Many who already do own a good share of this material will want this set, too, if only for the nostalgia factor.

Here is a detailed discographical breakdown of the set’s contents.

G.F. Handel: 6 Concerti Grossi Op. 3
(from Argo 5400 (1964))
Alcina Incidental Music
Ariodante Ballet Music
(from Argo ZRG 688 (1972))

Gioachino Rossini: Six String Sonatas
(from Argo S-506 (1967) (Sonatas 1, 3, 5, 6), and Argo ZRG 604 (1969) (Sonatas 1 & 4))

Felix Mendelssohn: Octet Op. 20
Luigi Boccherini: Cello Quintet Op. 37 #7
Argo ZRG 569 (1968)

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite: Appolon Musagete Ballet
(from Argo ZRG 575 (1968)) (TCC Disc 1)
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra
(from Argo ZRG 674 (1972)) (the Capriccio was originally coupled with the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #1. The original album is reproduced with no additional filler material in the TCC set (Disc 4))

Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings
Richard Wagner: Siegfried-Idyll
Heinrich Baermann: Adagio for Clarinet and Strings (formerly attributed to Wagner)
(Argo ZRG 604 (1969) (TCC Disc 2)
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht
(from Argo ZRG 763 (1974)) (The original album (complete on Disc 7 of the TCC set) was coupled with string music by Hindemith and Webern.) 

Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons Op. 8
(Argo ZRG 654 (1970))
Giovanni Gabrielli: Sacrae Sinfoniae
Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky
5 instrumental works
with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
(from Argo ZRG 644 (1970))

Felix Mendelssohn: Concerto in E for two pianos and orchestra
Concerto in a minor for piano and strings
(Argo ZRG 605 (1970))
String Symphony #12 in g minor
(from Argo 5467 (1966)) (The original LP also included Symphonies 9 and 10.)

Antonin Dvorak: Serenade for Strings in E Major Op. 22
Edvard Grieg: Holberg Suite (for string orchestra) Op. 40
(Argo ZRG 670 (1970)) (The Holberg Suite also appeared on the original issue of ZRG 877 Scandinavian Music (1980), which was re-issued as part of the TCC set (Disc 10), and is also included in this present collection (Disc 21), but now with the Grieg Elegaic Melodies.)
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C Major Op. 48
(Argo ZRG 584 (1969)) (Later coupled with the Dvorak on ZRG 848 (1976))

J.S. Bach: Four Orchestral Suites
(Argo ZRG 687/8 (1971). Subsequent re-issue on London Jubilee CD 430-378-2 (1991))

W.A. Mozart Symphonies
Symphony #25 in G K 183
Symphony #26 in E-flat K 184
Symphony #27 in G K 199
Symphony #29 in A K 186a (K 201)
Symphony #32 in G K 318
(Argo ZRG 653 (1970) Symphonies 23, 24, 26, 27)
(Argo 706 (1972) Symphonies 25 & 29)
(Argo ZRG 679 (1971) Symphony 32: Serenade K 525; Sinfonia Conertante)

Georges Bizet: Symphony in C
Serge Prokofiev: Symphony #1 in D Op. 25 “Classical”
(Argo ZRG 719 (1973) (TCC Disc 6) (These were also re-issued along with the Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite on London Jubilee 417-734-2 (1987))
Prokofiev: Visions fugitives Op. 22 (arr. for strings by Rudolf Barshai)
(Argo ZRG 711 (1973) (TCC Disc 5) (Originally coupled with the Walton Sonata for Strings.)

DISCs 12 and 13
Archangelo Corelli: 12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6
(Argo ZRG 773/5 (1974)) (Concerti  6, 7, 8 and 12 were also issued on a single LP (Argo ZRG 828 (1975)) (CD re-issue London 430-560-2 (1993?) as part of the Double Decca series.)

DISCs 14 and 15
Vivaldi: 12 Violin Concerti Op. 4 La Stravaganza
(Argo ZRG 800/1 (1975))
(also issued on Argo D101D10 (1978?), a ten-LP box set including the 1970 Four Seasons, Violin Concerti Op. 3 & Op. 9, and diverse concerti for winds.) (CD: London 430-566-2 (1993) as part of the Double Decca series.)

G.P. Telemann:
Suite in G 'Don Quichotte'
Viola Concerto in G
Overture in D
(Argo ZRG 836 (1976))
Overture in C
(from Argo ZRG 837 (1977))

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings
Charles Ives: Symphony #3
Aaron Copland: Quiet City
Henry Cowell: Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10
Paul Creston: A Rumor
(Argo ZRG 845 (1976)) (TCC Disc 8)
(Original CD issue, 410-818-2 (1987))

William Boyce: 8 Symphonies
(Argo ZRG 874 (1978))

DISCs 19 and 20
Handel: The Messiah
(Argo D18D-3 (1976)) (Two albums of highlights were subsequently issued:
Argo ZRG 872 (1978) “Messiah Choruses” and Argo ZRG 879 (1979) “Messiah Arias and Choruses”) (Complete recording re-issued 1994 (London 421-234-2) as part of  the Double-Deckers series.)

Edvard Grieg: Elegiac Melodies Op. 34
Jean Sibelius: Valse triste Op. 44; “Rakastava” Op. 14
Carl Nielsen: Little Suite Op. 1
Dag Wiren: Serenade Op. 11
(Argo ZRG 877 Scandinavian Music (1980) (TCC Disc 10))

Mozart: Requiem K 626
(Argo ZRG 876 (1977))

Mendelssohn: Symphony #3 'Scottish'; 
Symphony #4 'Italian'
(Argo (?) (1981))

Gabriel Fauré: Pelleas et Melisande Suite Op. 80; 
Pavane Op. 50; 
Masques et Bergamasques Suite Op. 112
(Argo ZRDL 1003 (digital LP); 410-552-2 (CD) (1982))
Tchaikovsky: Sextet 'Souvenir de Florence' Op. 70
(Argo ZRG 584 (1969))

Carl Maria von Weber: Symphonies 1 and 2
(ASV (digital) (1982))

The English Connection
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis
Elgar: Serenade in e minor for strings Op. 20
Michael Tippet: Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli
(ASV (digital) (1982)) (Note: These are not to be confused with earlier analog recordings: Argo ZRG 680 (1976?) Tippet String Music and Argo ZRG 696 (1977?) Vaughan Williams Fantasias)

The French Connection
Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Claude Debussy: Danse sacrée et profane
Gabriel Fauré: Dolly Suite Op. 56
Jacques Ibert: Divertissement
(ASV (digital) (1982))

 DISC 28
Corelli: Concerto Grosso Op. 6 #7
Torelli: Concerto Grosso Op. 6 #10
Locatelli: Concerto Grosso Op. 1 #9
Albicastro: Concerto a 4 Op. 7 #6
Handel: Concerto Grosso Op. 6 #6
(L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60045 (1962) A Recital by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields)
Avison: Concerto Grosso Op. 9 #11
Manfredini: Concerto Grosso Op. 3 #10
(L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL 264 (1963) A Second Recital by the ASMF
(Both early L’Oiseau-Lyre albums were re-issued by Universal-Australian (Eloquence) in 2011.)
Geminiani: Concerto Grosso Op. 3 #3
(recorded (Argo) 1965)


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