Emanuel Feuerman: Unexpected Discoveries. HAYDN: Concerto in D -- Adagio & Allegro. CHOPIN: Nocturne in E-flat, op. 9/2. SARASATE-FEUERMANN: Zigeunerweisen. SCHUMANN: Träumerei. Abendlied. BACH: Orchestral Suite in D -- Adagio. BACH-GOUNOD: Ave Maria. DVORÁK: Rondo, op. 94. Concerto, op. 104 (complete and excerpted movements). Silent Woods. ANON.: Alt-italiensches Liebeslied. CUI: Cantabile, op. 36/2. POPPER: Serenade, op. 54. Hungarian Rhapsody, op. 68. BLOCH: Schelomo. D'ALBERT: Concerto, op. 20. J. REICHA: Concerto in A, op. 4/1. BEETHOVEN: Sonata in D, op. 102/2 (excerpts). FALLA: Jota. STRAUSS: Don Quixote, Op. 35.
Members of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann, Michael Taube; Max Saal (harp); Frieder Weissmann (piano); Carl Stabernack (Mustel organ); Fritz Ohrmann (Dominator harmonium & harmonium); Albert Hirsch (piano); Theodore Saidenberg (piano); Mischa Mischakoff (violin); Carlton Cooley (viola); Members of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann, Michael Taube; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Hans Lange; National Orchestral Association/Leon Barzin; Members of the Berlin Philharmonic/Paul Kletzki; NBC Symphony Orchestra/Frank Black, Arturo Toscanini.
West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6042 TT: 297:00 (4 CDs, for the price of 3).

Elegant. B. H. Haggin, the influential American music critic, was, to say the least, supremely confident in his opinions. He once challenged a friend: "What's so great about Pablo Casals anyway?"
The friend asked, "Who would you put in his place?"
"Feuermann," Haggin answered.
Certainly Feuermann had better technique and tone than Casals, but such things don't guarantee a greater cellist. Actually, I don't have a dog in this fight, since of that era, I prefer Pierre Fournier to both.

Feuermann recorded often, from the acoustic era to his death in 1942, not quite making it to his 40th birthday. I'm normally not a huge fan of "historic" recordings (generally, recordings made before 1950). It's too hard to pull the performance out of the schmutz of snaps, crackles, pops, wow, flutter, and "dead rooms." However, the digital era has given rise to sound restoration to levels previously unknown. You probably don't get the latest electronic Valhalla as a result, but you do get a noticeably cleaner sound. Indeed, the technology has improved so much that restorers sometimes run into ethical issues. How much should you clean up or improve the ambience or even the performance? Should you correct the pitch the violinist didn't quite make? Furthermore, technology alone doesn't guarantee a good recording. You still need a human engineer with a great ear. Two of my favorites over the years have been Andrew Rose and Lani Spahr. Spahr, an oboist who happily also became interested in digital editing, has restored the recordings here.

Successful results vary, depending on the quality of the base recording. Acoustic recording had players playing into a gigantic horn, the closer to the horn, the better. Even the largest horn couldn't accommodate the standard symphony orchestra. Furthermore, certain instruments didn't record especially accurately. Dynamic range was often severely curtailed, especially at the softer end. Consequently, producers submitted orchestra works to severely chopped-down arrangements, often adding a small organ or large harmonium to fill out the sound. All of these things often contributed to stiff, monotonous performances.

Feuermann stands as an exception. Even though, early in his recording career, kitsch attracted him (e.g., Träumerei arranged for cello, harp, and organ), his own pristine, classically cool performance took the curse off. Furthermore, at least in Spahr's restorations, you get at least some of the subtleties of Feuermann's playing -- his mastery of dynamics, for one thing. Never in doubt is his virtuosity. Just listen to him rip through the fiendishly difficult Popper pieces. The orchestral music, like the Dvorák excerpts, are for me a total loss. The orchestra playing sounds scrappy, and coordination between soloist and conductor is sometimes iffy. That acoustic horn put off many performers from going near it.

For me, the set picks up interest with the recordings from radio broadcasts. We at least have arrived in the microphone era. The set gives us two complete performances of the Dvorák cello concerto, with an additional broadcast of the slow movement only. They convince me that a star soloist alone doesn't make a performance. He must have strong, sympathetic support from the conductor. The three conductors and their orchestras are Hans Lange (Chicago Symphony), Léon Barzin (National Orchestral Association), and in the excerpt Frank Black (NBC Symphony). The National Orchestral Association ran a training orchestra (which, I believe, still exists). Barzin did immense good with that orchestra. It was open to Black musicians and to women. The only requirement was how well an applicant played. Furthermore, he performed not only the classics, but contemporary American scores, and he had a national radio audience. Top soloists appeared with the group, Feuermann obviously one of them (several times). The reading is businesslike and crisp, but that's not really what I want in Dvorák. Frank Black's performance is so bad, I couldn't believe he was conducting Toscanini's orchestra. It reminded me of a substitute teacher in front of a bunch of students, indifferent once the teacher was away. On the other hand, Hans Lange and the Chicago give warm, dynamic, and sensitive support to Feuermann, and the recording takes off.

A favorite work, Ernest Bloch's Schelomo also drew my attention. Again the reading by Barzin and Feuermann is businesslike and careful. It should have been passionate, almost to the point of over-the-top. Feuermann himself admitted that he never could get the score into his head. The same problem afflicts Toscanini's reading of Don Quixote by Richard Strauss -- to my mind, his greatest instrumental work. Toscanini does okay but fails to make magic, especially in the reflective parts of the score (e.g., the death of Quixote), unlike his soloists -- Feuermann, Cooley, and Mischakoff. Feuermann gets the nobility as well as the frustration of Quixote.

The stuff I hadn't heard before -- the Eugène d'Albert and Josef Reicha concerti -- intrigued me, but I doubt I'll listen to them again anytime soon. I liked the d'Albert better than the Reicha. Despite all that, Feuermann and Barzin do both of them up proud.

The most entertaining radio broadcasts for me come from Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall. In addition to the expected pop of the day, Crosby also had on great classical musicians. The format usually consisted of scripted banter with the host, either der Bingle or Bob "The Arkansas Traveler" Burns, followed by the music. Burns was the compère to Feuermann in this set. Feuermann got the biggest laugh when he departed from the canned (and pretty corny) script. Burns announced the "jata by Feela." "That's HOta by FAya," Feuermann shot back.
For those of you worried about sound quality, I have to say, given the base material, it's quite fine. You're in Lani Spahr's very talented hands.

NOTE: For some reason I don't know, this release is not available in the United States. What's up? The Yankee dollar not good enough?

S.G.S. (August 2014)