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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 6 April 1998

Disques du mois / Discs of the month

Paul Robeson: The Legendary Moscow Concert
Paul Robeson, baritone
Alexander Yeroklin, piano
(Russian Revelation RV 70004 / Pelleas)

This fascinating release comes just in time for the centenary of Robeson’s birth on April 8, 1998. The tape of this historic and controversial June 14, 1949 Moscow recital, one of the most politically significant artistic events of our time, has only recently come to light. On the eve of this recital Paul Robeson met with the Jewish poet Itzik Feffer, who had been parolled from Lubyanka prison for the occasion. Feffer secretly told Robeson that their mutual friend the actor-director Solomon Mikhoels had been brutally murdered on Stalin’s orders on Jan. 13, 1948, and that Feffer was in danger. Robeson decided to try to protect Feffer by mentioning him at the end of his concert. Before the terrified audience Robeson spoke of the friendship between American and Soviet Jews, of the tragic death of Mikhoels and of his good friend Feffer. There was a certain amount of brave applause and then Robeson sang the Song of the Warsaw Getto Rebellion which he had learned in Poland just a month earlier. On this compact disc you won’t hear Robeson’s pro-Jewish speech, just the "snip" of Stalin’s censors. (Feffer was shot 3 years later). The rest of the program consists of Robeson favourites like "Oh, No John No", "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Ol’ Man River", charmingly introduced by a Soviet compère. Robeson acts out "Water Boy" with terrifying gasps of exertion; the Soviet audience encores both it and the labour anthem "Joe Hill". Robeson sang all these songs a decade earlier with a fresher voice but he never sang them with such bitterweet commitment. Truly a revelation.

Songs Of Travel: Vaughan Williams, Holman, Britten
Gerald Finley, baritone. Stephen Ralls, piano.
(CBC MVCD 1115)

Gerald Finley’s debut album confirms him as one of Canada’s greatest singers. The talented 38-year old baritone who recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Papageno is here revealed as a consummate interpreter of English art song - not surprising since he has pursued his career in England for the last decade. Finley’s smooth rich lyric baritone is straight and clean with a warm timbre that touches the heart. He brings an intimate domesticity to Vaughan Williams’ pastoral songs, though he could have unbuttoned a bit more in Britten’s Folksong arrangements. The obligatory Canadian content is Derek Holman’s song cycle The Centered Passion (1986), a bleak excursion through Tennyson’s In Memoriam. I would rather have heard Finley sing Schubert, Schumann, Fauré or Duparc. Ralls’ discreet and tasteful accompaniment crowns this charming album.

Joseph Marx: Romantic Piano Concerto
Erich Korngold: Piano Concerto For the Left Hand
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Osmo Vänskä / BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
(Hyperion CDA 66990 / SRI)

Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto Series serves up two fabulous keyboard confections. Marx’s Concerto (1918) was apparently popular in the German-speaking world during the ‘20s then faded from the repertoire. The outer movements are spread over acres of lush creamy Straussian orchestration, a rainbow of harmonies, jazzy and fulgurous chords reminiscent of Rachmaninov. The inner movement is a blatantly Tchaikovskian pastorale peppered with Scriabinisms. Korngold’s Left Hand Concerto was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein in1922 when Korngold was Germany’s most performed composer after Richard Strauss. This concerto is a meandering symphonic poem full of balletic pictorial effects that anticipate Korngold’s later movie music. The dramatic elements which led Gary Graffman to call the concerto a "keyboard Salomé" veer between Wagnerian schmaltz and bittersweet Wozzeckian angst. Marc-André Hamelin is master of these decadent and eccentric scores which, unlike many previous concertos in Hyperion’s series, beg to be listened to again and again. The orchestral playing, conducting and recorded sound are superb.

(c) La Scena Musicale