Some people at Sony have used their ears and eyes wisely to come up with Masterworks Heritage, a mid-price reissue series drawing on treasures from the Columbia/CBS/Epic vaults and packaging them not in the usual fragile, space-consuming jewel boxes, but in slim, sturdy cardboard folders that suggest the sleeves of old. Furthermore, the funky charming cover illustrations and disc label art of the original 78s and/or LPs is reproduced as well.
Sony has chosen interpretations not previously available on CD, most from monophonic recordings of the 1940s and '50s with some early stereo releases thrown in. In addition, there are a couple of scratchy souvenirs of the acoustical era: the complete recordings (1912-1919) of the iconic Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye and, from 1903, the first opera recordings (Schumann-Heink, Scotti, Edouard de Reszke, et al.) made in America. I'll pass on both.
Of the initial 10 Masterworks Heritage releases, four are essential listening. First, there's a stunningly vital Shostakovich Sixth Symphony from Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony, recorded in 1945 in such a manner--close up, invasive, acerbically clear--as to present the composer's brilliantly brittle scoring with a degree of clarity and sheer gut impact unequaled, if even approached, in the symphony's subsequent half-century recorded history.
It's part of a treasurable Reiner-Pittsburgh program (62343) that also includes music by Bartok, Kodaly and their nearly forgotten Hungarian contemporary Leo Weiner; Kabalevsky and Glinka.
Violinist Zino Francescatti (1902-1991) has until now been represented on CD only by recordings from the 1960s, by which time his once silvery tone had turned wiry, his rock-steady bow arm somewhat tremulous.
For the present compilation (62339, two CDs) the bright folks at Sony have chosen prime, '50s Francescatti: aristocratic, elegant, rhythmically alert, superbly recorded (in mono) performances of familiar concertos by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bruch (No. 1), Saint-Saens (No. 3) and Prokofiev (No. 2). The accompaniments by the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra under, respectively, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Eugene Ormandy, are models of their kind, at once supportive of the soloist and strong individual statements.
The late Brazilian soprano Bidu Say~ao graced the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera house from the mid-'30s to 1952, bringing her silvery soprano and appealingly delicate physical presence to the Mozart soubrette roles and the light-lyric heroines of French opera. The present recital (62355), a 1945-1950 compilation, includes opera arias, French songs and, of particular charm and interest, music by her compatriots Heitor Villa-Lobos--her still-unequaled performance of the exquisite "Bachiana Brasileira" No. 5--and Ernani Braga's fetching arrangements of Brazilian folk songs.
The four Schumann symphonies from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra were among the most highly praised standard repertory recordings of the early stereo era. They have weathered the years and the competition exceedingly well. To wit, the present two-disc Heritage set (62349) which also includes the composer's brooding "Manfred" Overture.
Szell doesn't linger over the music. He imparts a feeling of bounding energy and, where required, tension that is never at odds with the music. And words can hardly do justice to the hair-trigger responsiveness of the vintage 1959 Cleveland Orchestra, Szell's band.
The remainder of the initial Masterworks Heritage release comprises a recital by the American soprano Eleanor Steber (62365), with as its centerpiece a Berlioz "Nuits d'ete" that is rather rushed (blame conductor Mitropoulos) and quavery (Steber's responsibility); Claudio Arrau's glittering, long-admired Liszt E-flat Piano Concerto and Hungarian Rhapsodies from 1953 (62338); some kinky Bach and transcribed-by-Stokowski Bach with Stokowski and Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (62345); and a deafening dollop of retro-Baroque fun in the form of one of those egregious "Sound Spectaculars" popular in the age of Ping-pong stereo: antiphonal canzonas, most by Giovanni Gabrieli, sumptuously played by the massed brasses of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago orchestras.