This past year an unusually large number of fascinating and rarely performed operas have been released, mostly for the first time ever, on CD.
With the holiday season in view, BMInt has asked me to share some of my delighted discoveries from this flood of new arrivals, as well as my (rather lengthy and detailed!) reviews of two contrasting operas that seem to me particularly worthy of discovery:
- Vincenzo Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini (1824), with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniele Rustioni
- John Joubert’s Jane Eyre (1987-97, revised 2016), with the English Symphony Orchestra
I’d like to start by commenting on 14 forgotten operas that have now become easy to get to know, and end with those two extended reviews. Trigger warning- this is a very long feature.
The most exciting recent development in recorded opera, for me, is Opéra français, a series of CD recordings of little-known late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French-language operas, mostly (though not all) by French-born composers. Opéra Français is a product of the Center for French Romantic Music, which is located in the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Naples (Italy). The Center has, in previous years, brought forth first-rate recordings of operas by well-known composers (e.g., Johann Christian Bach, Gounod, and two works by Massenet) and by near-forgotten ones (Victorin Joncières). Perhaps the most unexpected success in the series was the superb recording of Herculanum (1859), a grand opera by Félicien David that held the Paris stage for a decade, then vanished until the Opéra français series recorded it in 2014 and released it a year later, to widespread acclaim. (I wrote a long review of it myself, including in it some links to online excerpts.) A well-cast and imaginatively directed stage production quickly followed, in Fall 2016, at Wexford (Ireland) Festival Opera. (I was asked to provide a program-book essay for the Wexford performances; one can read it by clicking HERE.)
This year, the Center has matched its Herculanum highpoint and perhaps surpassed it with four releases: La Jacquerie, by Edouard Lalo and Arthur Coquard (1895; Lalo completed only the stirring Act 1 before his death), Hérold’s superb opéra-comique Le pré aux clercs (1832; once a favorite of French and German audiences), Étienne-Nicholas Méhul’s Uthal (1806; based on famous poems that were supposedly written in ancient Gaelic by Ossian, Son of Fingal), and Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine (1887; a stylistically alert evocation of shenanigans among the wealthy during the Italian Renaissance). The recordings are all made in the studio or recorded at an “in concert” performance and feature such major performers as soprano Véronique Gens and tenor Michael Spyres. Each recording comes with a small book packed with essays, primary documents, and a libretto, all in French and English. The recordings are issued directly by the Palazzetto, but are often described in the press and on commercial websites (confusingly) as coming from Ediciones Singulares, which is simply the firm that prints up the accompanying book. In any case, once one knows the name of composer and work, one can usually locate the item easily online, thanks to Boolean searching.
Other venues and organizations have brought us some Italian operas that are equally vital and, again, are ones that most of us wouldn’t have known otherwise. The Valle d’Itria Festival (in Martina Franca, Italy) mounted Medea in Corinto by Donizetti’s main composition teacher, G. S. Mayr (1813), plus two superb comic operas: Giovanni Paisiello’s La grotta di Trofonio (1785) and Nicola de Giosa’s Don Checco (1850). The De Giosa work uses spoken dialogue rather than recitatives, a very unusual feature in Italy that makes the work feel instantly familiar to lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan or Broadway musicals. (All three operas are on the Dynamic label.)
The Rossini Festival in Wildbad (Germany) mounted productions of two spiffy serious operas from Rossini’s most productive and inventive years: Adelaide di Borgogna (1817) and Sigismondo (1814), and both got released on the Naxos label, as did a studio recording of an opera by G. S. Mayr that is much earlier his Medea and therefore more Haydnesque in basic style: Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797).
The opera company in Graz (Austria), in conjunction with the Oehms CD firm, brought us a long-awaited second recording (the first one had its problems) of the first version of Bohuslav Martinů’s The Greek Passion (1954-57), a colorful and dramatic work based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, author of the famous book from which the film Zorba the Greek derived. The Greek Passion deals with profound and still-timely questions about refugees and the lands that reject them. It was commissioned in the 1950s for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but was then, to the composer’s dismay, rejected. Martinů reworked The Greek Passion substantially, and the second version has been ably recorded (under Charles Mackerras), but the original version (for London) is more vital and inventive, as the new recording reveals.
Europe’s radio-station vaults continue to reveal their treasures. One of these is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love, based—like Verdi’s Falstaff—on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. There have been two studio recordings in fine stereophonic sound, but both are, in some ways, put in the shade by a monophonic but well-miked radio broadcast from the BBC studios in 1956, featuring the baritone Roderick Jones in the title role (which he had sung in the first professional production, ten years earlier). April Cantelo, with her voice alone, makes Anne Page sound savvy and much sexier than Nanetta, the equivalent character in Falstaff.
Another vault-treasure—this one from the Czech Radio studios in Communist-controlled Prague, 1954—is an alternately amusing and philosophical fairy-tale opera by the noted composer-conductor Otakar Ostrčil: Honzovo království (Jack’s Kingdom), about the Devil’s attempt at creating havoc on earth by striking a deal with three brothers, one of whom (the Jack—or Johnny—of the title) turns out not to be the malleable dolt that the Devil thought.
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And now to two other fascinating and little-known operas, in more detail: one by a composer of works that millions of opera lovers adore, Vincenzo Bellini; the other by John Joubert, a composer from South Africa who made his long and successful career in England, where he still lives. Joubert is best known for his church music. But this recording may put him on the map of opera-house directors in English-speaking lands and beyond.
Bellini: Adelson e Salvini (1824)
Simone Alberghini (Lord Adelson), Nelly (Daniela Barcellona), Enea Scala (Salvini), Maurizio Muraro (Bonifacio), Rodion Pogossov (Colonel Struley), David Soar (Geronio), Kathryn Rudge (Fanny), Leah-Marion Jones (Madama Rivers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniele Rustioni, Opera Rara ORC56 [2 CDs] 154 minutes
There were two big discoveries in this CD recording of Bellini’s first opera, at least for me: the opera itself (here receiving its first fully adequate recording), and Enea Scala, a splendid, heroic high tenor who can perform the extensive coloratura fluently.
Adelson e Salvini is surely one of the best operas written by a composer who was a mere 23 years old. (Mozart was slightly older, 24, when he wrote the amazing Idomeneo and all of 26 for Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Handel got an even earlier start than either Mozart or Bellini: he was 20 when his Almira held audiences enchanted at multiple performances in Hamburg.)
Bellini composed Adelson e Salvini while finishing his studies at the Naples Conservatory. The work was first performed there in the Conservatory’s teatrino in 1825 as that year’s “graduation opera.” Yet it did not receive a professional staging until 1985 (in Bellini’s hometown, Catania). A piano-vocal score appeared in 1854 and another in 1903, but both scores were based on a version that had been greatly altered by other hands (and that turned the spoken dialogue into recitative). The present recording is the first to make use of the forthcoming critical edition of Bellini’s original version, whose main features are described in a booklet-essay by Bellini authority Fabrizio Della Seta.
The musical style of this 1825 work is, not surprisingly, similar to that of the leading Italian composer at the time, Gioachino Rossini. There are the familiar patter-songs, crescendo passages over a dominant pedal-tone, propulsive cabalettas, and of course a second-act ensemble where time seems to stop and the characters comment on their confusion and distress. But to all these Bellini adds passages whose sweet-sad lyricism points to moments in one or another of the nine operas that he was to write over the next ten years. (He would die in 1835 at age 34.) Opera lovers have some sense of this from a few excerpts that occasionally get recorded on recital discs: here, for example, is the tenor’s “Ecco, signor, la sposa,” sung meltingly by a youngish José Carreras (from an aria collection recorded ca. 1975) [HERE].
The operatic conventions of the day are chosen and adapted with keen dramatic sensitivity. For example, the Act 1 duet between Salvini and his servant Bonifacio (who sings and speaks throughout the work in Neapolitan dialect) is set primarily as an aria for the tenor, against which the comic bass offers wiseacre commentary, which Salvini is too self-obsessed to hear [HERE]. Perhaps the librettist and composer had in mind the quasi-trio “Ah, chi mi dice mai” in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which Donna Elvira sings a similarly agitated soliloquy about her unrequited love while others unseen by her—Giovanni and Leporello—make light of her woes.
Adelson e Salvini has spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, something that rarely occurs in operas in Italian, except certain ones composed for (or adapted for) Naples. Spoken dialogue had of course long been the norm in French comic operas (e.g., in the aforementioned Uthal, by Méhul, and Le pré aux clercs, by Hérold) and even in some French serious operas, such as Cherubini’s Médée. And Naples had been under French control during the years 1806-15. Naples would continue to mount spoken-dialogue operas well after Bellini’s day. (The last important such spoken-dialogue opera in Naples was probably Nicola De Giosa’s marvelous Don Checco, which I mentioned earlier as another of the wonderful surprises brought by this year’s flood of opera CDs.)
For this graduation opera, Bellini was assigned a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola that had been performed in Naples in 1816 (in a setting by Valentino Fioravanti). Tottola, rather forgotten today, contributed effective libretti to important serious operas by Rossini and Donizetti. The booklet essay by Benjamin Walton explains in rich detail the genesis and resonances of the work’s libretto and music. So does, more briefly, in a review a of a concert performance given by the same performers heard here. (In a separate post, Seymour offers a perceptive review of the present CD recording.)
Previous recordings of Adelson e Salvini were made during staged performances (1985, 1992). The 1992 performance has also has appeared as a DVD. I did not know the opera before listening to the new recording, and I now love it, from start to finish. Bellini must have been fond of the work as well: he subsequently revised some of the numbers and started to enrich the orchestration, all with an eye toward a professional production in a normal-sized theater. Alas, he never brought the revision to completion. (The so-called second version, with recitatives, includes whatever Bellini managed to complete, plus changes that others had made, in part based on instructions he had given to his friend Florimo.) Instead, the composer ended up lifting various sections of the score, adjusting them somewhat, and placing them in new operas. For example, most of the overture got re-used in the one to Il pirata (1827, only two years after Adelson). And the heroine Nelly’s aria “Dopo l’oscura nembo” (in Act 1) was tightened, transposed upward for soprano, and given a new text, to become Juliet’s “O quante volte,” in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830). “O quante volte” is one of the most popular arias from any of Bellini’s operas, and indeed among the most quintessentially “Bellinian” in style—and here we find it, somewhat different in shape yet instantly recognizable and dramatically apt, in his very first opera.
In addition to the use of spoken dialogue, the work has at least three highly unusual features:
1) Because it was written for students at the all-male Conservatory to perform, the female roles were written in contralto range and were presumably sung by young males who went into falsetto for any notes above their comfort zone. (Nelly was sung by a fourteen-year-old who would go on to a significant career as a tenor.) In the present recording, the female roles are taken by mezzos and altos.
The fact that the opera’s eight roles include three in the alto range, one tenor, and four baritones/basses produces some unusual couplings, most notably a friendship duet for tenor and baritone that may remind listeners of friendship duets for two female voices in Rossini’s Semiramide (a recent hit, 1823) and Bellini’s own Norma (1831). (Of course, one of the two female voices in Semiramide is a “pants role”: the warrior Arsace.) The men’s duet of mutual affection and sympathy is filled with dramatic tension because we know something that they do not know (yet): they both love the same woman, Nelly.
2) The work is an example of Italian-language opera semiseria. A semiseria work generally involves everyday characters (rather than, say, ancient military heroes), entangles them in misunderstandings and menacing situations, and then resolves matters happily (at least for the characters who have been presented as sympathetic). The mixed tone of an Italian semiseria opera can be hard for modern audiences to accept. Only a few such works have managed to survive on modern stages, notably Bellini’s La sonnambula and, lagging a good distance behind (except for its beloved overture), Rossini’s La gazza ladra. Somehow operagoers more readily accept a similar mixture in works from the German Singspiel tradition: Entführung, Zauberflöte, Fidelio, and Freischütz.
3) The tenor—Salvini, a painter and painting-teacher from Italy—is far from heroic. Indeed, he is self-centered and unstable. In one crucial scene, Nelly faints at a false report concerning her fellow Briton Lord Adelson, whom she loves (and who has long been Salvini’s closest friend). Salvini takes her fainting as an opportunity to embrace her. She regains consciousness, frees herself from his grasp, and calls him a wicked man who has betrayed Adelson’s trust in him, and he, momentarily undaunted, replies that his love for her is too strong for him to resist. Soon after, he tries to commit suicide, but is prevented by Adelson, and the two then join in the friendship duet mentioned above. The tenor also, on one occasion, compromised Nelly by moaning aloud about his unrequited love for her, oblivious to the fact that he might be overheard (as indeed happened at that very moment). Later, and worse still, Salvini, attempting to kill the villainous Colonel Struley—who is in the midst of abducting Nelly under cover of darkness—accidentally turns his dagger on Nelly instead. When Salvini hears Struley cry out (maliciously) that Nelly is dead, he realizes what his rashness has led to. He now begs Adelson to kill him. But it is revealed that Nelly is perfectly alive: Salvini’s dagger got tangled in the cloak that the evil Struley had wrapped around her. As the opera ends, Nelly sensibly pairs up with her beloved baritone Adelson instead of with the hotheaded tenor Salvini. As for the latter, he gets instructed by Adelson to return to his native Italy to live out “una vita tranquilla,” presumably in lonely regret. There is a hint that Salvini may, after a year’s delay, marry Fanny, an art student of his who—as she revealed in a lovely aria at the beginning of the opera—loves him desperately.
I have not mentioned all the plot complications (for example, two startling letters are read, one of them forged), but I invite you to discover and enjoy them for yourself. Because enjoy them you will, if you have any taste for early nineteenth-century opera and for the somewhat melodramatic culture that gave birth to it. (Salvini feels like a younger brother of Goethe’s Werther.) And of course if you like Bellini’s other works, or indeed Rossini’s, this one is definitely for you.
Salvini is sung by Enea Scala. I first encountered, with pleasure, his clean and intense singing in the recent recording (mentioned earlier) of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, as Egeo, the shorter and lighter of that opera’s two tenor roles. The role of Salvini is stratospheric, going up to high C multiple times. Most tenors today would be advised to take the highest notes in falsetto as tenors regularly did in the worlds of French and Italian opera until the 1840s. Scala sings the whole role in full voice, and thrillingly: he here jumps into the class of Juan-Diego Florez and Lawrence Brownlee [HERE]. (The tenor on the 1992 recording was, according to critics who have heard it, brave but inadequate.) The wily servant Bonifacio—this is the only comic character in any Bellini opera—is embodied to perfection by Maurizio Muraro, whose rendering of Dr. Bartolo, in Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s recent recording of Le nozze di Figaro, has been much admired [HERE].
The rest of the singers were new to me. Daniela Barcellona (an Italian from Trieste, despite what her last name may lead some to suspect) is a gratifying and reliable presence; her coloratura is liquid, and she makes each melismatic passage feel appropriate to Nelly’s emotional state at that moment: from sad to fearful to joyous. [listen HERE] I did notice some incipient wobble on sustained notes (as often happens with singers in their late 40s). Kathryn Rudge sings with beautiful, steady tone in the smaller role of the besotted Fanny [HERE]. Simone Alberghini sings the Lord Adelson role vividly when it goes into high, sustained notes; his coloratura is huffy. Baritone Rodion Pogossov (from Russia, but now a regular at the Met and other major houses) sings with splendid firmness and edge, conveying Colonel Struley’s nastiness without going overboard [HERE]. The role of his servant Geronio is taken by a young bass-baritone, David Soar, whose solid voice has been heard as Masetto and Colline at New York’s Metropolitan Opera [HERE]. Leah-Marian Jones does all that is needed as the housekeeper Madama Rivers. (She has sung such roles as Dvořák’s Ježibaba at British opera houses.) The spoken dialogue is handled superbly by the native Italian speakers and more than capably by the non-Italians. The choral singing, from the men of the Opera Rara Chorus, is spirited if sometimes a little amateurish-sounding.
The BBC orchestra plays wonderfully: I loved how the pizzicato strings conveyed the needed sneakiness in the duettino for Struley and Geronimo that opens Act 2, and how various solo wind players relished their moment in the sun (e.g., clarinet, horn, and—in an extended and dramatic passage—English horn). Bellini scored the work without brass, presumably concerned not to overpower the young singers who were available to him at the Conservatory. An appendix to the second CD contains four substantial passages that Bellini fully revised for the ill-fated second version. Several of these appendix numbers include entirely new music, and we now get to hear Bellini’s fuller orchestration (i.e., trumpets, trombones, timpani, and extra woodwind lines). Bellini also adds a chorus of male retainers to the Act 2 duettino, in which Struley announces his evil plan to his hesitant henchman Geronimo, and this makes the number even more menacing than it was originally.
The numerous color photos in the booklet show the singers interacting, often with evident amusement. I share their delight. This is surely one of the best opera recordings of the year. And, if you are ever not in the mood to hear a lot of Italian spoken dialogue (no matter how well performed and how crucial for understanding the characters’ motivations and machinations), you can always skip to the next track.
The booklet essays are in English only. The plot summary is in English, French, German, and Italian. The libretto is in Italian and in a largely skillful English translation by Emanuela Gustella and Sue Rose. But the translators misunderstand one passage (p. 77): Nelly is not saying that her heart is doubtful but that Adelson’s words of assurance have restored calm to her formerly doubtful heart. Biographies for most but not all of singers are given at OperaRara.com.
Adelson e Salvini was given three staged performances in November 2017 in Ancona (Italy), under the auspices of the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini. The role of Colonel Struley was played by Rodion Pogossov, as on this recording. I wish I could have been there! This opera deserves to become much better known.
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April Frederick (Jane Eyre), Mark Milhofer (St. John Rivers), David Stout (Edward Rochester), Gwion Thomas (Brocklehurst), English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods, SOMM263 [2 CDs] 125 minutes (opera alone: 107 minutes)
I had never heard a note by John Joubert (1927- ) before. Critics have often praised his works for organ and for chorus. Several of his hymns and carols are widely known. Joubert, I have now learned, was born in South Africa but received his training in England and has made his long and continuing career there, mainly in Birmingham. (His last name comes from a French Huguenot ancestor.)
One thing I can say for sure, after hearing Jane Eyre: Joubert possesses a keen sense for character, situation, and dramatic arc. John Allison, in a review (in the Telegraph) of the concert performance [preserved HERE], agrees: Joubert’s music in this opera “sometimes suggests what a less chilly-hearted Britten might have sounded like. A natural opera composer, Joubert writes for a busy orchestra that drives the action along and illuminates it, without overwhelming the singers.” Joubert’s musico-dramatic insights are evident in his booklet-essay and in the 17-minute interview that ends the second CD.
Joubert has written four short operas, plus three full-length ones. The other two full ones are Silas Marner (1961, after the George Eliot novel) and Under Western Eyes (1968, after the Joseph Conrad novel). Jane Eyre was composed and revised over the years 1987-97. Joubert willingly cut 45 minutes out of it in preparation for the world-premiere performance recorded here; he considers this the definitive version. (The five orchestral interludes that he removed became the main material for his Symphony No. 3.)
The result is a taut work, to a libretto savvily carved by Kenneth Birkin out of the beloved Charlotte Brontë novel, as the soprano who sings the title role has explained in a video interview.
Some earlier or omitted episodes from the novel are referred to briefly in passages of soliloquy or in discussions between the characters. (Birkin is the author of two highly regarded books from Cambridge University Press: one on Richard Strauss’s opera Arabella, the other on the great conductor Hans von Bülow.)
The opera’s plot omits Jane’s painful childhood, beginning instead at the point where she is leaving her teaching position at Lowood school to become governess at the Thornfield Hall estate. Scene 2 jumps to the moment where Jane saves Lord Rochester from burning to death. In scene 3, Jane and Rochester confess their love. Scene 4, in the local church, consists of their wedding ceremony, which is interrupted by the revelation that Rochester has a previous wife: Bertha Mason, a madwoman, whom Rochester has long confined to the attic [listen HERE]. Scene 5 shows us Jane at Reverend St. John Rivers’s home, resisting his urgent pleas to become his wife and travel with him to India. Scene 6 [HERE] presents Rochester alone in a moving soliloquy, then rejoined by Jane, who learns that Bertha has recently died (in another blaze of her own setting; this time Rochester was maimed and blinded trying to save her). The opera ends with Jane and Rochester expressing their mutual devotion, tinged with sorrowful understanding of the travails that each has undergone. (Readers interested in further discussion of the relationship between the novel and the opera are urged to read Claire Seymour’s enthusiastic and insightful review of this same recording, at OperaToday.)
Joubert’s style here is accessible and largely tonal: similar in some ways to that of Britten’s Peter Grimes or Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Another critic (Andrew Clement) plausibly compared the work’s style and approach to Debussy’s Pelléas and the operas of Janáček. The vocal lines, at least in this well-miked concert performance before an enthusiastic audience, come through clearly, as does the extensive orchestral commentary. I hardly needed to look at the libretto. Joubert has cannily used a smallish orchestra: 35 players, including one each of the usual woodwinds and brass. (The chamber forces can be seen rehearsing, in this short video.)
The woodwind players all double on a second instrument (e.g., clarinetist on bass clarinet). This allows for coloristic combinations, e.g., flute and English horn. There are also numerous recurring themes that get transformed for dramatic and musico-structural purposes, as the conductor, Kenneth Wood, explains in a rich booklet-essay.
The single most powerful scene is, almost inevitably, the interrupted wedding. But I can imagine Scene 3—the avowal-of-love scene—being performed separately in concert, since it involves only two singers and has a nice shape on its own, with the characters ending in a mood of bliss that is gently questioned by the insightful orchestra.
My one objection to the opera is that, very often, a character’s vocal phrase is repeated immediately after by instruments in the orchestra. The scoring of each “echo” (solo horn, full string section, etc.) varies according to the situation, and the echo itself is often interestingly elaborated in ways that reveal the given character’s feelings. Still, the basic pattern of vocal statement, then instrumental mirroring, becomes distractingly predictable at times.
The vocalists are all more than capable. The role of the sneering Brocklehurst (director of Lowood school) could have used a singer with a fuller sound to his low notes. The Jane is superb, her voice pure and shimmering except for a bit of wobble on some high, intense notes. (If I were in Jane’s shoes, I would wobble, too!) The Rochester is first-rate. Reverend Rivers, the main tenor role, is vividly sung, in a scene that gives the work its only glints of (harsh) humor
On this recording, the tenor who sings the reverend also sings the smaller role of Richard Mason (Bertha’s brother), and no less vividly. The smaller roles are well handled, including the reverend’s sisters Diana and Mary, all aflutter at his plan to leave them and earn his “glorious future in Heaven” by bringing “the Word of the Lord” to the heathen in India.
The orchestra is splendid throughout, as in the opera’s brief prelude [HERE]. (We can, under the circumstances of a live recording of a single performance, easily excuse an occasional moment of sour tuning in the winds.) I had not realized until now that there is an English Symphony Orchestra, based in Birmingham. The ESO is an expanded version of the well-known English String Orchestra, which was founded in 1978 and has made many recordings under William Boughton. The two orchestras now co-exist and share many players. (The ESO has recently released recordings of music by Elgar—orchestrated by Donald Fraser—and by Ernst Křenek.)
I hope Joubert’s Jane Eyre gets snapped up by major opera houses and summer festivals—or indeed performed “in concert,” as on this recording. The whole recording has been made available on YouTube, carved up into shortish units, thus making it easy for curious listeners to get to know [HERE].
I wonder: when might we be able to hear and assess Joubert’s six other operas?
And I also wonder: what wonderful surprises may 2018 hold in store for lovers of unusual recorded opera?
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). The two books are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.
The Bellini and Joubert reviews above first appeared, in slightly different form, in American Record Guide and appear here by that magazine’s kind permission.