BROWSERS in area record stores' classical CD bins will soon start noticing that the Teldec label is showing up with much greater frequency.
Some may even assume it's a new label, but that's just not so. Briefly, the company's antecedents go back to the 1920s, and for some five decades until the early 1980s it existed as the prestigious German Telefunken label. This company was responsible for such technical advances as the first stereo recordings, the first video disc, and the Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) process still licensed to recording companies worldwide.
About the time CDs swept into the market the name was changed to Teldec. Under this new label the company continued such scholarly projects as recording the complete Bach Cantatas, which Telefunken had started in 1972, with some, but less, attention paid to the more popular standard repertoire.
In 1988 Teldec was purchased by the U.S. firm Warner Communications, which took aim at recording more of the standard repertoire. Now Warner has chosen Elektra International Classics as a distributor to find wider markets for this new Teldec line, called simply Teldec Classics.
Eleven recordings have been announced for the first Teldec/Elektra release, with review copies of three already in hand. I'm pleased to say that the news on these orchestral recordings from the classical and Romantic eras is mostly good.
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K525; Divertimento in D, K251; Ein musicalsiche Spass (A Musical Joke), K522; Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec 244 809). Harnoncourt was one of the leaders in the original instrument movement and he is due a tremendous amount of credit for his scholarly research into so-called authentic performance practice and for his persistence in documenting his views in a vast quantity of recordings. This release represents a gratifying improvement over Harnoncourt's earlier efforts, which struck me as pedantic, though authentic, and often deadly dull. The entire early-music movement seems to have come around to the view that authentic instruments and impeccably correct performance practice lose their point if those performances are not also infused with the kind of vitality and sensitivity of phrasing which sweeps the listener along and leads to a sense of anticipation and excitement. For the most part Harnoncourt's performances here strike sparks of that sort, and the Vienna musicians play impeccably, with some oboe work in the Divertimento that's worth the price of the CD all by itself. But there are also unaccountable moments when a heaviness seems to invade the music, wresting the life from even the most sprightly tempos.
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Symphony No. 5 in D ("Reformation"), Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur (Teldec 2292 44933). The Symphony No. 1 was written at age 15 and was Mendelssohn's first work intended for wide public consumption. It seems infused with the spirit of Mozart but is pure youthful Mendelssohn. Masur and the Ge-wandhaus Orchestra catch this duality with remarkable perception in a performance which has both the patrician gravity of late Mozart and the ebullience of early Mendelssohn. The "Reformation" Symphony came only six years later at age 21, but is already a much richer work sonically and more subtle in line and contour. The responsiveness of the orchestra at the sudden pianissimo entrances of the Dresden Amen and the focus and articulation of the high vs. low strings is quite breathtaking. The dynamic pliancy in the scherzo is equally impressive, and the playing of the Leipzig woodwinds is exquisitely sonorous and richly blended throughout. The finale, with its quotation of the "Ein' feste Burg" chorale and extended fugal section, often seem a non-symphonic appendage at the end, but Masur manages to integrate it into the larger structure with absolute conviction.
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta (Teldec 22292-46152). Teldec seemingly regards the recording arrangement with the New York Philharmonic as a coup in its new marketing thrust. But it's a problematical orchestra with a sort of collective "gig" mentality which produces merely perfunctory performances on most occasions.
Conductor Mehta, too, seems to coast much of the time. But when properly motivated the orchestra can still sound magnificent, and once in a while Mehta really surprises me.
This recording is apparently one of those rare instances when orchestra and conductor truly pull together. They have produced a Mahler Fifth which has a wonderful quality of expansiveness and a rich sonority. Even the tragic and stormy sections make their point tellingly without a lot of flailing and musical breast-beating.
The result is a performance which, at 69 minutes, 48 seconds, is among the faster Mahler Fifths on record, but which because of Mehta's amazingly consistent and unified conception of the piece and the orchestra's brilliant playing never seems rushed or frantic. Teldec's recording is ultra-spacious, particularly in capturing Philip Myers' magnificent third-movement horn solos, yet never loses focus. The vibrant sound of the strings in the Adagietto is exemplary.
If you like Mahler to wail and gnash his teeth, this might not be your Mahler Five. I feel, however, that Mehta's more measured view, which acknowledges the passion and anguish but doesn't wallow in it, will probably wear better with most listeners after several hearings.
Teldec's next eight releases will include another volume of the Bach Cantatas, Stravinsky's complete "The Firebird," Beethoven's Quartets Op. 74 and 95 by the Vermeer Quartet, the first piano-vocal recording of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," the first recording by Cliburn Competition winner Alexei Sultanov in the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and Rachmaninoff's Second, Shostakovich's Quartets Nos. 7 to 9 with the Brodsky Quartet, Trio Fontenay playing Brahms' Trio No. 1 and the Ives Trio, and Cyprien Katsaris playing the Liszt piano transcription of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.
Two more recent arrivals at the review desk feature Buffalo native William Christie and his Renaissance/Baroque ensemble called Les Arts Florissants, which has become the toast of France for its revivals of forgotten early French masterpieces.
The most ambitious of the new recordings, though, finds Christie and his group in a rare excursion into English repertoire. It's Purcell's 1692 opera "The Fairy Queen," after Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Harmonia Mundi 901308 -- 2 CDs). Altogether more ambitious than Purcell's much better-known "Dido and Aeneas," Christie directs the entire performance with an imaginatively flexible approach to that bugaboo authenticity, and conducts with a bracing sense of both tempo and phrase which never lets the music radiate even the slightest aura of an archaic museum piece.
Except for Lynne Dawson and Nancy Argenta, his singers are not well-known this side of the Atlantic, but all sing with an impeccable sense of style and flawless intonation and diction so that the English text is easy to follow.
It's impossible to describe this intriguing performance in detail here. But I'd wager that anyone who could just hear the wonderfully twining, piping flutes a bec in the Act 2 Prelude or the hilarious Act 3 dialogue on kissing between Coridon and Mopsa would instantly be hooked on the work and the performance.
Closer to main line for Christie is Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 1690 Te Deum (Harmonia Mundi 901298), a CD which also includes that composer's Missa "Assumpta Est Maria" and "Litanies de la Vierge," plus an unexplained but fascinating "March for Timpani" by Philidor which serves as a prelude to the Te Deum.
The celebratory nature of the Te Deum text gave Charpentier a chance to display his singular skill at creating festive brass and organ textures. Christie's instrumental forces, chorus and solo voices resound splendidly in this lively recording made in Paris' Eglise Notre Dame de Travail.