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84 posts categorized "Classical music"

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

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Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh CollectionMagid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961 by Donald SouthernThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

 For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

24 September 2018

Recording of the week: Toscanini and Beethoven

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Arturo Toscanini was famous for his outbursts of temper on the rostrum and ruled his orchestras with a rod of iron. His style is well suited to heroic music and one of his best interpretations is of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, heard here with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. The dynamism is most evident in the last movement where Toscanini uses driving rhythm to propel the music ever forward.

Symphony no. 7 op. 92 A major

Photograph of Arturo Toscanini

To explore more Classical recordings, including over 400 recordings of Beethoven concertos, string quartets and symphonies, please visit British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_Classical and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

27 August 2018

Recording of the week: the young Leonard Bernstein

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago on 25th August 1918. In 1953 the young Bernstein made a series of LPs for the American Decca label. Already with aspirations as a music educator, Bernstein recorded lectures on the works concerned. In the UK the recordings were issued on the Brunswick label and below you can hear Bernstein conducting Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor. The whole series of recordings have been re-issued by Deutsche Grammophon in their Original Masters series including the talks (BL shelfmark 1CD0304588).

Symphony No. 4, op. 98, E minor

Photograph of Leonard Bernstein in 1971

To explore more Classical recordings please visit British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_Classical and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

21 August 2018

The Bernstein Centenary

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Leonard Bernstein in the 1950sLeonard Bernstein in the 1950s  (Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this month.  During the second half of the twentieth century he was the one figure that brought classical music to the general public in a way never before attempted.  In the early 1950s he used the new medium of television to disseminate his passion for and knowledge of music to the widest possible audience.  Indeed, a whole generation of Americans grew up with a love and understanding of great music thanks to Bernstein.

Between 1954 and 1958 eight live broadcasts introduced by Alistair Cooke encompassed a broad range of music including classical, jazz, musical comedy and the art of conducting posing such questions as ‘What makes opera grand?’  The first programme on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is especially fascinating as Bernstein reveals the composer’s earlier ideas and sketches giving his own explanation for their deletion.  The opening page of the score is printed large on the studio floor with members of the orchestra standing on their appropriate staves.

However, it was Bernstein’s series of 53 televised Young People’s Concerts that opened up the wonders of music to a whole generation.  While the British Library has in the collections his later television appearances which were commercially produced (mainly by his record label at the time, Deutsche Grammophon), over previous years I have made an effort to obtain all of Bernstein’s early television material.

DVD box set of Bernstein Historic Television Specials1DVD0010176 (BL Collections)

In 1959 the US State Department sponsored a tour of the New York Philharmonic which included 50 concerts in 17 countries.  Filmed records of the visits to Moscow, where Bernstein is seen with Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak, and Venice were available on DVD in Japan and can be seen at the British Library.  The tour ended on 10th October 1959 when Bernstein and his orchestra gave a concert at the Festival Hall in London, parts of which were recorded directly to tape from the live radio broadcast in excellent sound by a private individual, Dr. Schuler, whose son donated his collection to the British Library in 1999.  The Times review was headed ‘Like burnished copper – New York orchestra’s fine tone’ and referred to Bernstein as ‘that paragon of brilliance and versatility.’  Here is an excerpt from the Second Essay by Samuel Barber.

 Barber Second Essay 10101959 extract

Bernstein and the New Yorkers returned to London in February 1963 and Dr Schuler recorded the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Dvorak and Elgar’s Cockaigne overture, an extract of which can be heard below.

Elgar Cockaigne 13021963 extract

A selection of Bernstein video materials at the British Library

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts 1DVD0005845

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts Volume 2 1DVD0010018

The Unanswered Question - Six talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein 1DVD0009993

Archive of American Television presents Leonard Bernstein Omnibus 1DVD0009994

The Love of Three Orchestras 1DVD0010180

Historic Television Specials Moscow; Venice; Berlin; The Creative Performer; Rhythm 1DVD0010176

The Joy of Sharing - The last date in Sapporo 1990 1DVD0010178

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

26 July 2018

The elusive Pathé cylinders of Mary Garden

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Garden as Melisande
Page from 1904 Pathé catalogue with Garden as Mélisande (BL collections)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Soprano Mary Garden was born in Aberdeen in 1874.  Her mother was only fourteen years of age when Mary, one of four daughters, was born.  The family went to America when Mary was nine years old, so her formative years were spent there.  Her musical talent was evident at an early age; she studied in Chicago, then Paris where she made her debut with the Opéra-Comique in 1900 in the title role of Louise by Charpentier.  An ambitious and dominant woman, she had an affair with composer André Messager, twenty years her senior, who conducted her performances of Louise.  Garden starred in two world premieres and took on many other roles during these years as well as having a role written specifically for her by Jules Massenet – his opera Chérubin.  Her performance in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Salomé in New York caused a sensation not least by her performing the Dance of the Seven Veils in a body stocking.  Garden’s career was mainly in Paris and the United States, her only appearance at Covent Garden in London taking place in the 1902-1903 season.

Front page
Front page from 1904 Pathé catalogue (BL collections)

It was in 1902 that Claude Debussy selected her to sing the lead in his new opera Pélleas et Mélisande.  Two years later Garden made history by recording four discs for the Gramophone Company in Paris accompanied by Debussy at the piano.  These are the only sound recordings made by the great French composer.  However, during her visit to Britain around June 1903, Garden recorded six cylinders of Scottish songs for the English branch of the French label Pathé.  Two of these also appeared on disc at the time but the four remaining cylinders are of extreme rarity.  I was delighted to find that local collector Richard Copeman recently acquired one of these elusive four from a Scottish collector, as they have never been heard since their release in 1904.  I would be pleased to hear from anyone who knows of the whereabouts of any of the other three cylinders.  Although Mr Copeman had made a transfer of his cylinder, our engineer Rob Cowlin experimented with different sized styli until we got the best sound.  Thanks to Mr Copeman we can all now hear this major rarity.  Garden made three further cylinder recordings for Edison in 1905, discs for Columbia in 1912 and Victor in the late 1920s.  She retired from the opera stage in 1934 eventually returning to Scotland where she died at the age of 92 in 1967.

Robin Adair Mary Garden

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

 

19 July 2018

Classical Podcast No. 2 - Rob Cowan shares his passion for the artistry of violinist Bronislaw Huberman

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Biddulph photo
Bronislaw Huberman (courtesy of Biddulph Records)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Welcome to another in the occasional series of podcasts showcasing treasures from the classical collection of the British Library Sound Archive.

A veteran broadcaster, Rob Cowan currently presents Cowan’s Classics on Classic FM.  From an early age he was exposed to classical music in recordings by the greatest performers of the twentieth century and has spent a lifetime listening to, commenting on and promulgating these vital recordings that enshrine the greatest music interpreted by the greatest artists.

Rob CowanRob Cowan (photo by Jonathan Summers)

Extended recordings used with permisison of Biddulph Records.

Previous Classical podcasts can be heard here.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

22 June 2018

Tracking down Tamás

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By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Tamás Vásáry at the Hotel Gellert restaurant (photo by Jonathan Summers)Tamás Vásáry at the Hotel Gellert restaurant (photo by Jonathan Summers)

Save our Sounds is the British Library’s programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, many collections will be digitised and made available to the public online through the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

One such is the collection of Hungarian pianist Tamás Vásáry who donated his tape archive of private and broadcast recordings to the British Library Sound Archive in 1994.  Internationally renowned as an interpreter of Chopin and Liszt, at that time he lived in London, so when the project needed to clear rights for his donation I wrote to him at the London address I had on file.  Having received no reply and it being twenty-four years since the donation, I checked the internet for an agent or contact details.  Nothing was to be found, so I asked an elderly Hungarian friend if she knew him as she was a contemporary in Budapest (she being born in 1928, he in 1933).  She did not, but thought she may have a friend who did.  The friend did not either, but reported that Vásáry had moved back to Budapest many years ago.

What to do next?  I asked pianist Leslie Howard if he knew Vásáry from the time he was living in London.  No, but he thought pianist Murray McLaclan knew him.  I emailed Mr McLaclan who did not, but he thought that pianist Peter Frankl definitely knew him.  Mr Frankl responded in the affirmative and, because I had not realised that Mr Frankl was living in London, I asked if I could interview him on his long career for the British Library.  Mr Frankl has known Mr Vásáry for more than 50 years and it was at my interview with him that he offered to talk to Mr Vásáry, because he is not on email and still tours a great deal as a conductor.  Mr Frankl visited Budapest in April and met with Mr Vásáry who kindly gave his permission and signed the relevant forms.

Mr Frankl gave me Mr Vásáry’s mobile phone number and I called to ask if I could interview him for the British Library.  He happily accepted and I went to Budapest a few weeks ago and met him.  

JS CorinthiaJonathan Summers in Budapest

As a child my local record shop stocked the best classical records including many on the Deutsche Grammophon label so I grew up listening to most of Chopin’s works played by Mr Vásáry.

DG LP-page-001editVásáry at the height of his career in 1965 (1LP0175910 BL collections)

Jamie Owen, Intellectual Property Rights Co-ordinator writes:

We are very excited indeed to have made contact with Tamás Vásáry. The collection that Mr Vásáry donated to the British Library in 1994 represents the first, under the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to have  been both digitally preserved and to have agreements in place for a number of his recordings to be made publicly accessible once the project's website goes live next spring.

The British Library, in conjunction with ten partner organisations across the UK is aiming, through the Heritage Lottery funded  ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to digitally preserve over half a million of the UK’s most important and at-risk audio recordings. We are hoping to make 100,000 of these recordings available through a website hosted by the British Library. More information on the project can be found here.

Here is an extract from Vásáry’s collection.  It is of his debut at the Proms on 25th July 1961 when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with the London Symphony Orchestra and John Pritchard.  The fourth movement is one of the shortest in the entire piano concerto repertoire at only four minutes.  The London audience was impressed and the applause continued for more than two minutes.

Vasary Liszt Concerto extract (C615/6)

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

23 May 2018

Sounds from beyond the Iron Curtain: Soviet classical recordings at the British Library Sound Archive

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SEOM 20002HMV SEOM 20 (BL Collections 1LP0144447)

Guest blog by British Library Edison Fellow Evgeniya Kondrashina

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear of ‘Soviet music’? Is it the Red Army Choir with their military band songs, or the enigmatic symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich? The British Library holds a large variety of Soviet and Russian music recordings, from different Western record labels as well as the official Soviet (now Russian) state record company, Melodiya.

My PhD research, supported by the Edison Fellowship at the British Library Sound Archive, explores Soviet and Russian classical music recordings in the West during the Cold War. I am investigating Soviet music recordings available in the UK from the 1950s to the 1980s.

From the 1950s, technological advancements in music recording led to a widespread practice of listening to and collecting records. Three key technical innovations triggered accelerated growth in the record industry after the Second World War: the development of magnetic tape recording, the invention of the vinyl long-playing disc and the introduction of stereo sound reproduction.

The LP remained the main format for classical music listening in the home between the 1950s and the early 1980s, when it was gradually overtaken in terms of sales volume by cassettes and then CDs. The establishment of the LP format also led to an important repertoire phenomenon: all major classical music repertoire in the back catalogue of the main record companies was very quickly re-recorded during the 1950s for the LP format. This meant that the record consumer now had access to a huge variety of interpretations of the same music. Hence, by the late 1950s the Western classical music market was saturated with recorded interpretations of works from the traditional Western canon and listeners were hungry for new performers and repertoire.

Finally, the introduction of stereo sound in 1958 dramatically improved the quality of the listening at home experience, which for classical music was a much more significant factor compared to other music genres. The market for high-quality LPs of classical music took off, with music lovers investing in high-quality listening equipment and paying a premium for stereo vinyl releases.

By the mid-1950s, the largest Western markets for records were the USA, UK, France and West Germany. In Europe, the two record companies that were in the best position after the war were EMI and Decca in Britain. At this time, after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union changed its attitude towards the West. An active programme of cultural exchange was established with a crucial role given to Soviet musicians of showcasing the excellence of Soviet and Russian performing arts to the West during their tours. Musicians’ tours could only cover several major cities, while recordings sold in shops and played on the radio reached far and wide across geographical territories. The 1950s saw a medley of Western labels issuing miscellaneously licensed Soviet recordings. A selection has been digitised for British Library Sounds, on a variety of Western labels, all taking advantage of the thaw in Western-Soviet cultural relations and the interest in Soviet classical performers.

A recording of the pianists Emil Gilels and Yakov Zak playing the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the Moscow Radio Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin was issued by Period Records, a respectable US classical label, before going bust in 1957.  Here is an extract.

Mozart K365

Another US label, Concert Hall Records, released some recordings of the violinist David Oistrakh and conductor Alexander Gauk with the State Radio Orchestra of the USSR.  Here is an extract from the slow movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

Beethoven Concerto Oistrakh

Monarch Records also released Oistrakh and the State Radio Orchestra of the USSR with Kondrashin in 1954.  Here is the opening of the last movement of Brahms' Violin Concerto.

Brahms Concerto Oistrakh

In the mid-1960s the Soviet Union decided to concentrate on one exclusive partner in each of the capitalist countries.  These were handled by Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga (MK), the book foreign trade organization of the USSR.  The chosen Western partners were Angel (a Capitol Records label, being a subsidiary of EMI Group) in the USA in 1966, HMV (an EMI Group label) in the UK and Australia in 1967, Ariola-Eurodisc in West Germany in 1965, Chant du Monde in France and Victor in Japan. The Soviets did not want to have one partner for the whole of the capitalist world as this would have been too restrictive.

My research on the Edison Fellowship focuses on the UK partnership agreement between EMI and the USSR from the late 1960s to early 1980s. This exclusive licensing agreement allowed EMI to release over 200 LPs in the UK.  These recordings comprised a vast and varied repertoire of Soviet and Russian music performed by the great Soviet artists of the day as well as some less well known musicians. Melodiya made the recordings in its studios in the USSR and then provided EMI with lists of the recorded master tapes, from which EMI chose the ones it wanted to release in the UK. The recordings from the Melodiya master tapes were then pressed on high-quality vinyl at EMI’s main production facility in Hayes, Middlesex. They were released on the Melodiya/HMV label especially created for this Russian series of music.

Below are photos from the dinner EMI held at ‘The Compleat Angler’ hotel at Marlow on the River Thames in August 1975 for Igor Preferansky of MK who was responsible for licensing Soviet gramophone recordings abroad.  The top picture is of Tony Locantro (EMI business manager responsible for Soviet licensing agreement within EMI) and Lev Ershov (representative of the Soviet Trade Delegation).  The picture below is (from left to right) of David Finch and Ken Butcher (both from the International Sales Division of EMI Records UK) and Igor Preferansky.

Russian Party Marlow005(Courtesy of Tony Locantro)

EMI chose the front cover image and back sleeve notes for the UK-distributed discs, which were different from those chosen by Melodiya, to accompany the same recordings for distribution in the USSR. For instance, many of the Shostakovich recordings were released by Melodiya for its domestic Soviet market with a simple photograph of the composer on the cover. EMI took a much more imaginative approach to its classical covers and interpreted the music of Shostakovich, especially his symphonies, with a variety of illustrations, providing visual cues about the music to the listener.One particular symphony is worthy of further discussion, his Symphony No. 13 or Babi Yar, which is based on the poems by the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko about anti-Semitism and the massacre of Jews during the Second World War in Russia. Shostakovich composed the work in the spring and summer of 1962, just six months after the poems were published. These works were read as condemnation of anti-Semitism that existed in the USSR at the time, thus receiving a divided reaction within the critical circles. Consequently, finding a soloist and conductor for the premier of the symphony was not a straightforward matter: both Shostakovich’s first choices, the bass singer Boris Gmirya and the famous conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered many of the composer’s symphonies until then, refused to take on the roles possibly due to pressure from the authorities. The Ministry of Culture was displeased with the strong Jewish content of the texts but the first performance went ahead on 18 December 1962 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Kirill Kondrashin. After the premiere, the composer and poet were persuaded to change the text to reflect that not only Jews, but Russians and Ukranians died at Babi Yar. The new version was conducted by Kondrashin on 10th and 11th February 1963. Further performances of the work took place in cities across the USSR but it was actively discouraged from public performance until the early 1970s.

Melodiya recorded Symphony No. 13 in 1971 and issued it with a neutral photography of Shostakovich on the cover. There was no reference to any Jewish content in the music whatsoever. EMI, however, releasing the licensed recording in the UK in 1973, chose to make a very vivid and explicit reference to the Jewish content of the Symphony: the cover shows a forlorn field where someone has dug a huge hole with scattered stones and a large Star of David in the background. This produces a much stronger visual impression than the straightforward portrait of the composer, as in the Melodiya case.  Such a difference in approach to cover design is not surprising, if we remember that Melodiya was a state-supported company, while EMI was a private profit-oriented business with a strong marketing acumen.

Melodiya Shostakovich 13Melodiya CM 02905/6

ASD2893001HMV ASD 2893 (BL Collections 1LP0140861)

The Edison Fellowship has been instrumental in giving me access to materials and people who have helped conduct my research. In addition to studying a wide variety of books and periodicals, I have looked at the LPs in the Melodiya/HMV series that were released by EMI in the UK over the 15-year period of the agreement.  I have also studied the images and sleeve notes on those records in order to investigate the perception and presentation of Soviet music in the West. This crucial information helps us understand what kind of vision of Soviet and Russian music EMI, as the key distributor, was creating in the minds of British listeners during the Cold War. I was also able to listen to and compare the HMV/Melodiya recordings with Western recordings of the same repertoire, all held at the Sound Archive. The advice and explanations of the Classical Music Curator, Jonathan Summers, were instrumental in shaping my understanding of the broader classical music industry developments in the West at the time, of which Soviet and Russian recordings were a part. Jonathan also introduced me to important past employees of EMI, who provided information on the relationship with the USSR from the British point of view.

In parallel, I worked on materials of the Soviet Ministry of Culture held in Moscow, Russia, at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) and Russian State Archive (GARF). Bringing the British and Russian sides of the story together allowed me to construct a multifaceted view of events and helped understand the motivation and decision-making process on both sides of the agreement.

The licensing agreement with the USSR was crucial in making EMI a key decision-maker on which Soviet and Russian classical music recordings to bring to the British listener, how to present them through the choice of sleeve image and cover notes, and where to sell them across the country. It presented new repertoire and performers to the British public and, to a large extent, influenced the perception of Russian and Soviet music in this country for at least a generation of listeners.

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