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CD Review

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4 Raymond Cohen, violin
1 New Symphony Orchestra of London/René Leibowitz
2 Rome Philharmonic Orchestra/René Leibowitz
3 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/René Leibowitz ReDiscovery RD125 ADD 73:58

Although you wouldn't know it from his surviving discography, Warsaw-born conductor René Leibowitz (1913-1972) was a specialist in music of the Second Viennese School. (In fact, he studied composition with Anton Webern.) However, it is for his recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies that he is most famous. These were released in the United States by Reader's Digest, and have been reissued on CD by Chesky. These, for the most part, are athletic, middle-of-the-road readings that still are impressive, not just for the integrity of the musicianship (Leibowitz used Beethoven's original metronome markings), but also for the splendid engineering.

In high school, our drama teacher told us that there were no such things as bit parts, only bit actors. The same is true with music: why should anyone prepare and perform Dvořák's Humoresque (for example), with less care than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? I confess that I can't hear Waldteufel's Skaters' Waltz without picturing a carousel at the New York State Fair. If anything, it needs more TLC than Beethoven's Ninth, not less.

There's TLC in abundance on this winning CD-R. Right from the start, we know we are in good hands with a Meistersinger Prelude that never dawdles and yet never takes Wagner's glorious music for granted. Other readings might have more majesty, but this one has irrepressible joie de vivre. It is followed (incongruously!) by "the" Boccherini Minuet, and again, the tempo is brisk, but the music-making is polished and loving.

The overture from Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore was quite a surprise coming from a master of the Second Viennese School; can Otto Klemperer's previously unknown complete recording of Die Piraten von Penzance be far behind? Leibowitz conducts it perkily, without condescension. Lighter still is Gade's Jalousie, so deliciously sprung here that even Arthur Fiedler would be jealous.

I'm wondering if Raymond Cohen was the RPO's concertmaster (or, if you prefer, "leader") because his name was not familiar to me, and the only other places I've found references to him are in the context of that orchestra. In any event, his playing in the Saint-Saëns is first-rate, lit up by flashes of gypsy fire.

For me, anyway, Jacques Ibert's Escales (Ports of Call) is a hard sell; it seldom is as exciting as it seems to want to be. Leibowitz gives it a jolt of caffeine, without removing any of its picture-postcard color. This is the first recording in which I heard how Ibert comes very close to quoting Ravel's Rapsodie espagñole in the first movement ("Rome – Palermo").

These recordings sound as fresh as if they had been digitally recorded last week, but of course they are decades old. With David Gideon's remastering, they are sonic showpieces, much as Leibowitz's Beethoven is.

This CD-R is available only from The cost? Only $15, and that includes shipping. While it's still summer, why not enjoy a little of the lighter side?

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle