Lotte Lehmann: The Victor Recordings (1935-40)

LABELS: Preiser
PERFORMER: Various accompanists
CATALOGUE NO: 89996 AAD mono


Take the two lovers of an 18th-century Spanish señora, conceal them in a clock cabinet, set the whole comical fiasco to music of unprecedented delicacy; then record it under the auspices of the composer with a characterful line-up of performers, and you have the basis of a truly historic recording – funny, eloquent and atmospheric.

The composer is of course Ravel, the work, his one-act opera L’heure espagnole and the conductor is Georges Truc. Oscar Levant’s Piano Concerto sounds like a hectic synthesis of Gershwin and Schoenberg and reflects – according to its composer – ‘an arrogance and pretentiousness based on an economic and emotional insecurity [of the late Thirties]’. Levant goes on to add, somewhat quizzically perhaps, that ‘these are days we now look back on as happy’. And you can hear why, on Oscar Levant plays Levant and Gershwin, although the sound itself tends to crumble at climaxes.

Happiness has a rather clearer voice, however, on Lotte Lehmann: The Victor Recordings, where this greatest of lieder interpreters brings a wealth of charm and emotion to no fewer than 64 songs. This is truly ‘Desert Island’ stuff, and Romophone’s unimpeachable presentation (both audio and literary) is a joy to encounter. Lehmann’s voice was, and still is, relatively familiar; but what about Petrograd-born Kyra Vayne, a fine but virtually unknown soprano who has lived in London since 1924? She broadcast here during the war and her vibrant, well-focused and above all feminine voice has great appeal.

Postwar, pianist Walter Gieseking was most closely associated, at least in Britain, with Debussy, but a German wartime Emperor Concerto (recorded in genuine stereo) combines poise and athleticism, albeit pitted by anti-aircraft fire during the cadenza. Some years earlier, Willem Mengelberg had encouraged a collaboration between the New York Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras. Selected fruits of that auspicious merger are thrillingly audible on Biddulph’s generous album; they are central to Mengelberg’s much-underrated RCA legacy, whereas Serge Koussevitzky’s (with the Boston Symphony) has earned greater acclaim.

A tireless champion of modern music, Koussevitzky made the first recording of Prokofiev’s Fifth – and some would say finest – Symphony, a fiery interpretation, although the real highlight of RCA’s CD is a stunning performance of the final dance from the ballet Chout. Pearl’s well-transferred anthology highlights two major aspects of Pablo Casals’s musicianship (a third, as composer, is displayed in other collections), where heart-rending morceaux sit comfortably next to characterful orchestral performances with the LSO.


That was in 1928-30, some twenty years before the formation of the Hollywood String Quartet and a recording of Walton’s Quartet that moved the composer himself to write: ‘I hope no one ever records my Quartet again, because you captured so exactly what I wanted…’ No doubt Ralph Vaughan Williams would have been equally thrilled with Adrian Boult’s inspired first recording of his Ninth Symphony – had he lived to hear it. In fact, RVW actually agreed to attend the sessions, but died just hours before they began. Sir Adrian himself makes a short but poignant speech on what is yet another truly historical document; one which is superbly recorded.