Finally! It’s there! (what took them so long?)

Finally! At last! Alleluia! I’m done hoping (and hoping less and less) and I can hop and gambol… DG has reissued William Steinberg’s complete Beethoven Symphonies with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.



Here is why this is important (and the discographic story behind that publication):

These recordings had been made between 1962 and 1966 for the label Command Classics.  Command is somewhat forgotten, except by hyper-specialized fans of those things, and largely because, unlike, say, the labels Everest (see my discography of its CD- and other Hi-Fi reissues), Mercury or Vanguard, its classical catalog was badly let down by the CD labels. Why? One could only surmise (and rue) that the mastertapes were lost.

Which would have been (or would be) a huge loss. Because those mastertapes were no usual mastertapes; they were recorded by famous sound engineer and “father” of the Mercury Living Presence sound, C. Robert Fine.

The story is that, when things started to turn financially bad for Everest, only a few years after the launching of the label in 1958, they sold (in March 1961) their recording equipment and their famed 35mm three-track magnetic film to Fine, who had his own recording studio in New York and was then working principally with Mercury. Fine then put it to good use for Mercury (but Mercury’s Halcyon years were nearing to an end then) and Command, the label established in 1959 by Enoch Light (see a presentation and discography here).

Now, in the quasi-thesis I wrote on “Mercury Living Presence” and posted on Amazon some years ago (I really need to transfer it over here), in view of the fact that the label had also published, especially in its later years, recordings originally made by Philips, I explored the question: what is it that makes an authentic “Mercury Living Presence” recording?

And the answer to that was: C. Robert Fine (or his close assistants) and his remarkable use of a one-microphone pickup during the mono era, and three in the stereo era.

Now, the implication of that was that, if it was the presence of Fine or his close assistants and mic techniques that defined the “Mercury Living Presence” sound, then, by all means and intents, the recordings he made using the same mics and techniques for Command or any other label should be included in the canon of Mercury Living Presence recordings.

So here we are, back to Steinberg. Think what you will of the interpretations (I haven’t even started to listen to the set), but their importance is that they add an entry to the discography of Mercury.

And that’s why their absence on CD was intolerable. Where were those fine mastertapes (pun intended)? Who had them? Were they lost? Damaged beyond recognition?

One thing seems sure: not all of them were lost in 1988. That’s when MCA Classics, then the owner of the rights to those recordings, published on CD Steinberg’s Beethoven symphonies Nos. 2, 4 and 7 (and Leonore Overture No. 3), two separate CDs but part of the same set (as was MCA’s custom in that series), MCAD2-9810 A & B, barcode  076732981023. And the backcovers of those two discs stated explicitly (except for Symphony No. 2): “remixed and transferred to digital directly from original master 35mm magnetic film”.

MCA chose to release the other symphonies in the performances of Hermann Scherchen (1, 3, 6, 8), Pierre Monteux (9) and Artur Rodzinski (5), from the Westminster label (to which they also owned the rights), and I can’t complain, because I love those performances, particularly those of Scherchen. But that left opened the question of the 35mm film for the other Steinberg symphonies.

And I waited for the rest to show up, and the years piled, then the decades.

A ray of hope appeared in 2011: a Canadian label called XXI published the complete symphonies, XXI-CD 2 1750, barcode 722056175029. At last! I plunged on the set like the survivalist after a two-week trek in the Sahara desert without a bottle. Cruel disappointment: despite the imprimatur of apparent legitimacy represented by the reproduction of the Universal logo at the back of the set, it was all dubbed from LP (I see now that the transfers were done by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose own label, YSL, regularly earns accolades for its transfers of old recordings or live concerts). No! We don’t want those recordings dubbed for LPs that, if we are so desparate to hear them, we can always buy on the marketplace, we want transfers from the mastertapes, no surface noise, Fine’s original sound! And as one Amazon reviewer commented, “none of this is told or explained on the covers of this box set.”



So, at last, more than 30 years after the release of those two MCA CDs, we have them (I read at the back of CD 5: “Unfortunately, the original tapes for the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony could not be found. Therefore for the master a vinyl pressing had to be used”). What took them so long? Where were the tapes? No idea, I need to inquire.

Good liner notes to the DG set (there were none in the XXI reissue, just the label numbers of the original LP releases), on Steinberg, Command Classics and C. Robert Fine. But DG could have given Fine more typo prominence: other than in the liner notes, he is credited nowhere (he was in the XXI reissue).

I did a quick check on the sonics of the DG reissue in comparison to the earlier MCA release. Other than in the Second Symphony, where a certain harshness in the MCA sound has disappeared, and the Leonore 3 Overture, which benefits from more brightness in the new release, I don’t hear any significant difference. Review will come later.

Mahler in France

Following my blog post of yesterday, I went ahead and wrote a review of the 1988 publication of Théâtre du Châtelet on Mahler and France, from which I had drawn my anecdotes about Mahler and Marie-Georges Picquart. The publication is a valuable resource for the Mahlerite – of interest obviously limited to French-reading audiences. The volume is long out-of-print, but copies can be found on and eBay.

When “Dreyfusisme” leads to Mahlerism

This probably will be of interest only to those well-versed in France’s history at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, or those who saw Roman Polanski’s latest film from 2019 on what is known in France as the “Dreyfus Affair”, An Officer and a spy (in French: “J’Accuse”, after the title of the famous article by Emile Zola – link to Wikipedia article), but re-reading an issue of the magazine Musical, published in the December 1988 by Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on “Mahler et la France” (link will open new tab to my review), I discovered that one of the first French Mahlerites, and as early as 1900, had been the now famous Capitaine (later Général) Picquart, impersonated in the film by Jean Dujardin. I hadn’t realized, or didn’t remember, from the Polanski film that Picquart was born in Strasburg, which was a French city when he was born in 1852 (with an Alsatian-speaking population, a German-derived dialect)  but turned German in 1870, and not only did he speak fluent German, byt he must have spoken French with a more heavy alsatian accent than pictured by Jean Dujardin in the film. Anyway, Picquart, himself a keen amateur pianist and who had befriended Mahler upon the latter’s first visit to Paris in 1900 with the Vienna Philharmonic (programs included Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Bruckner – Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony -, Wagner, and even Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, but no Mahler), even illegally sneaked out of France without authorization from his superiors in May 1905 to go to Strasburg and attend a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony conducted by the composer.

Even more touching, a common friend, the Viennese Berta Zuckerkandl, wrote this in her autobiography : “Picquart told us how, when he was imprisoned, dishonored, molested, he thought only of one thing: if one day he came back to life, he would do a pilgrimage of sorts in all the places where his god Beethoven had lived. And his second dearest wish: to hear Tristan conducted by Mahler. The first was accomplished et, on the same evening, the second will be: to the bliss of Picquart, Mahler programmed Tristan and will be conducting it himself. Picquart is elated as a child. He is so impatient that he rushes to the Opera an hour before the performance. As I didn’t leave with him, we agreed to meet on the grand staircase. My sister (…) and Picquart had just left, when a telegram was delivered, from Georges Clemenceau, then France’s Prime Minister, that said: “please announce to General Picquart that I have appointed him War Minister. He must leave at once”. Undescribable scene on the staircase of the Opera, where Picquart was waiting for us. When he read the telegram, he blenched, not with joy but with furore. And, losing his self-control, he threw to me with anger: ‘that telegram, you had a duty to set it aside. Tomorrow morning first thing would have been soon enough’.”

Incidentally, that Berta Zuckerhandl may be a mere footnote in the biography of Mahler, but she had an important role in his life: it is at a dinner party at her house that Mahler fist met the young Alma Schindler, in 1901. With all that, you’d think it was through his acquaintance with Mahler that Picquart got to meet and befriend Mrs Zuckerhandl; it is, in fact, the other way around: the small circle of French admirers that Mahler met in Paris in 1900 included Paul Clemenceau, the brother of Georges; Paul’s wife, Sophie, was Berta’s sister (and both were the daughters of a famous progressive journalist, founder of the Wiener Tagblatt and then Neues Wiener Tagblatt, Moritz Szeps); she asked Mahler to give her hello to her sister when he returned to Vienna; which he did, and that’s how he got included in the progressive socialite circle of the Zuckerhandls.

Picquart’s admiration for Mahler was apparently reciprocated, too, and Mahler is said to have appreciated Picquart’s “strong personality, purity, exceptional class”. And Alma! She pined. In one of her books on Mahler, she writes: “Picquart exuded wisdom and strength of character. [Mahler’s French admirers] undoubtedly composed to the most cultivated circle of Europe. Picquart could barely be called a man. He looked like an angelic creature, with eyes like a mountain spring, blue and clear, he talked seldom, but with wisdom…. When, the first time, I looked him in the eyes, I knew Dreyfuls had been wrongfully indicted… Picquart spoke fluent German, knew all the literature, knew the music of Mahler which he had become familiar with by playing it four-hands with [his friend, member of “the circle” and passionate amateur musician, General Guillaume de] Lallemand. Seeing him, you could believe in all possible metaphysics, but you wouldn’t have fancied him as a great warrior”.

Polanski should have used the music of Mahler in his film.

…and one more reason to hate Amazon (as if we didn’t have enough as it is)

As I was looking at and transfering those old reviews of Mahler’s 9th Symphony (see my previous post), I discovered that Amazon had suppressed one more of those features that, early on it the website’s existence, made it more than just a commercial website: a community experience and spirit. It had always been possible to comment on the reviews posted by other people. It was a great way to engage in conversations among music-lovers, and I had precious exchanges in the comments under my reviews, or the reviews of others. Admittedly, some of those were heated, and sometimes even on the wrong side of civility, but they still were that: conversations and exchanges between people sharing the same passion for music. I my case, I also used the comments to extend my reviews, and provide information – links to other reviews, more comments, discographies – that wouldn’t fit in the reviews, for reasons of length or limited number of links allowed.

Well – gone, void, annihilated. All of a sudden Amazon decided that the comments were useless – not just new comments, mind you, but ALL of them.

Okay, I understand that, on some controversial products, and especially, I suppose, political books, some of the comments could be close to harassment and the trolls became unmanageable. But Amazon’s response to that (if it was indeed a response to that) is another case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and punishing everybody, accross the board and indiscriminately, for the actions of very few.

The loss is irretrievable. The discographic information I myself provided in the comments, I can probably either reconstruct or, hopefully, find in the drafts of the reviews that I keep on my computer (in case something like that happens). The quasi-doctorate thesis I wrote on the label Mercury, I’m not sure, and I shiver at the thought of looking in my own files and discovering that I haven’t kept it (I think – I hope – I have). But the exchanges? The contributions of others? All the controversies and anecdotes under the reviews of Bernstein’s live Mahler 9th in Berlin in 1979, with the trombones missing their entry at the climax of  the Finale, and the post by the guy called “corno” something who claimed to have participated in that concert and that the trombones had been distracted by the commotion of someone in the audience suffering a heart attack (what a great way to go: at the climax of Mahler’s 9th), and a next post claiming that he was making this up – all these exchanges that I would have loved to repost here: gone, suppressed, annihilated. Jeff Bezos is obviously no more interested in developing any “community spirit” at Amazon, but just in making it the vehicle to compete against Elon Musk as the wealthiest man in the universe.

So be it, and I keep using Amazon when I find the cheapest prices there (only for CDs; for books I go to my local bookstore, and for food to my local grocery store). But all this confirms that I need to spend the time required to quickly transfer all my reviews over here, because one day, sooner than I think, Jeff will find it expedient to send them to oblivion.

For more reasons to hate Amazon, see here , here, here, here – and it is not limitative. But don’t bother, really.

I’m back ! (I hope)

Long period of inactivity on, due to external circumstances, not lost interest for music and records. And now, I’m back, and for long I hope. Circumstances led me to need to consult some of my old reviews of Mahler’s 9th Symphony posted on Amazon ten years ago – can it be that long ago !? Seems like yesterday… – , so it prompted me to transfer them over here… and, in the process, to resume what I had interrupted back in 2011 (there was a “stray” review in 2014 as well): listening to and reviewing recordings of Mahler’s 9th.

So, here they are: the reposts:

Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic, 1938 on EMI (link will open new tab to the review)

Hermann Scherchen live with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, 19 June 1950 on Orfeo

Jascha Horenstein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, June 1952, Vox

Leopold Ludwig with the London Symphony Orchestra, November 1959, on Everest, first version in stereo

Bruno Walter 1961 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, CBS-Sony

John Barbirolli with the Berlin Philharmonic, January 1964, EMI

Kirill Kondrashin, Moscow Symphony Orchestra, May 1964, Melodiya

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, December 1965, CBS-Sony

Karel Ancerl, Czech Philharmonic, April 1966, Supraphon

Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia, February 1967, EMI (in fact I had already reposted that one some while ago, when I sold the copy I had of another edition than the one I am keeping in my collection)

Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra, April-May 1967, Decca

Maurice Abravanel, Utah Symphony Orchestra, April 1969, Vanguard

Carlo Maria Giulini, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, April 1976, DG

And, a new review (first in a long series I hope) ! Rafael Kubelik with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, February-March 1967, DG


Tranfering reviews from Amazon to involves much more than just copy and paste. One thing I can do on my website is to conflate the reviews of all the successive CD-editions of a recording, where on Amazon I had to post a review under each. But then I  have to do a lot of online research to find suitable cover photos online of editions I don’t have and all the associated product information, e.g. label number and barcode. For those Mahler reposts I’ve also done a lot of research on Japanese editions. I also have to update all the weblinks contained in the review, or replace them with barcode of the referenced CD (I try to avoid giving links to Amazon here, or any commercial website)…. and I’ve listened again to those recordings, in part or total… and occasionally slightly amended the reviews…

All this takes time (I started those reposts on April 1) but it makes (I hope) each of the reviews posted or reposted on an entry to an ever-growing CD-encyclopedia; in fact, I’m not aware of any other website that provides not just detailed review, but complete info on the CD-editions. But, okay, I’m starting with ten, I need to go to 10,000…

In fact it’s the plan. For Mahler’s 9th, I’ve pretty well covered the studio versions up to the 1960s (reviews of Neumann with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in 1967, and Haitink with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1969, are pending, as well as Paul Kletzki’s cut version with the Israel Philharmonic  from 1954, originally on EMI), but I still have a number of live versions to review (they’re on my shelves: Rosbaud, Mitropoulos with New York and Vienna, Barbirolli with New York, Horenstein with the LSO, Szell in 1969, Bruno Maderna and Boulez with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s, another one by Maderna with the Radio Orchestra of Turin in 1972). And that, save one or two, covers all the versions listed up until then by the great Mahler discographer Peter Fülöp. And then I can “do” the 1970s and early 1980s, studio and live, and complete the pre-digital era. Then digital, from then to today. The great thing with masterpieces of the magnitude of the 9th Symphony, is that one never grows tired of listening.

I’ve also reposted here my reviews of the two successive editions, 1995 and 2010, of Fülöp’s magisterial Mahler Discography, not only because I referenced it is some of the reviews, but also because it is an indispensable purchase for the serious Mahlerite. I’ve updated the reviews with recent exchanges of correspondences with Fülöp.

P.S. Oh, and – yeah. Speaking (in passing) of Amazon: one more reason to hate them, read this.