Monday, March 10, 2008

Fifty Years Of Vox Recordings

This weekend Joshua and I helped my mother and father begin to get things ready for Easter, when my brothers and my older brother’s family will be home.

Josh and I will spend Easter in Oklahoma with Josh’s family, as Josh has already written.

Josh and I went over to my parents’ house early Saturday morning, and we took my Dad out to breakfast. When we returned to my parents’ house, we spent the rest of the morning working on my mother’s kitchen floor, stripping old wax and applying a new coat.

We spent Saturday afternoon doing some cleaning around the house, and we spent Saturday night polishing silver and cleaning my mother’s kitchen cabinets.

Sunday, after church, we washed and cleaned the cars, inside and out, and we cleaned the downstairs family room from top to bottom. On Sunday night, we cleaned my father’s downstairs den and library.

During much of the weekend we listened to music. We listened to a set of discs Josh and I had borrowed from my father about a month ago and have been listening to ever since, “Fifty Years Of Vox Recordings”, a three-disc set containing four hours of music. The set celebrates the first half-century of the Vox label.

This is a fascinating set of discs, containing excerpts from Vox recordings issued from shortly after World War II until the mid-1990’s. There are 39 tracks in the set, covering repertory from Bach through Hindemith.

A few of the performances are exceptional. The set contains the finest recording ever made of Carlos Chavez’s Symphony No. 2 (“Sinfonia India”), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Eduardo Mata. The set also contains the finest recording ever made of Hugo Alfven’s Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (“A Midsummer Vigil”), performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Sergiu Comissiona.

The latter performance is one of many, many recordings Vox made with American orchestras in the 1970’s, when Vox virtually cornered the market in recording America’s second-tier ensembles. Orchestras in Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Minneapolis, Rochester, Saint Louis and Salt Lake City all recorded for the Vox label in that decade. With a handful of exceptions, all of these recordings have long since been deleted from the active catalog.

Some artists built their recording careers during those American Vox years, the two most conspicuous examples being conductors Erich Kunzel and Leonard Slatkin. Some artists had already lost their allures for the major labels by that time, leaving Vox as their only available recording outlet, the prime examples in this category being conductors Thomas Schippers (dumped by Columbia and EMI) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (abandoned by Mercury).

The Minnesota Orchestra under Skrowaczewski did a great deal of recording for Vox during the 1970’s. The Minnesota Orchestra recorded the complete Overtures and Incidental Music of Beethoven during the decade, as well as the complete orchestral works of Ravel. The Minnesota Orchestra also recorded Bartok, Handel, Mozart and Prokofiev for the label.

It is the Overture to Handel’s Water Music that makes an appearance in the Vox anniversary set, a peculiar choice to represent the Minnesota Orchestra’s work for Vox. It is a dull, slow, heavy performance, shortly to be overtaken by the original-instruments movement that was to transform the performance of Baroque music.

Some of the recorded selections on the set are indescribably bad. The first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, recorded in 1954 by the Vienna Symphony under Jonel Perlea, is awful. A performance of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, recorded in 1950 by Isidor Philipp and the Pro Musica Orchestra (whatever that is) under Jean-Baptiste Mari (the noted conductor of ballet scores), has to be heard to be believed. The first movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 4, recorded in 1951 by the Lamoureux Concerts Association Orchestra under Otto Klemperer, is the worst thing I have ever heard from that conductor (I blame the orchestra).

Most of the artists who spent entire careers recording for Vox are represented. Ingrid Haebler, Grant Johannesen, Anthony Newman, Guiomar Novaes, Michael Ponti, Ruggiero Ricci, Aaron Rosand and Abbey Simon all make appearances, although only Newman and Novaes are represented by more than one selection. Novaes, fittingly, is awarded two tracks; Newman, unaccountably, is awarded three. Few of the selections represent any of these artists at their best. One is left to ask, over and over, why a particular selection was chosen for inclusion in the set. A defensible answer seldom comes to mind.

Basically, this set of discs is a dog’s breakfast of musical items, seemingly programmed at random, with no thought given to a coherent listening program. It is akin to a radio station’s rush-hour listening schedule: a little of this and a little of that, with nothing too lengthy thrown into the mix. Bach is programmed after Villa-Lobos. Ives is programmed alongside Grieg. Handel is sandwiched between Debussy and Sousa. A Ruggles piece is followed by Wieniawski. It is a peculiar shuffle. I loved it.

The set is accompanied by a lavish and lengthy illustrated booklet setting forth the history of Vox. The text was written by noted program annotator Richard Freed. All in all, the set is a fascinating document of a recording label that is now, for practical purposes, defunct.

This week we will go to Saint Paul to hear Lang Lang in recital. The following evening we will go to Bloomington, where the State Ballet Of Georgia, from Tbilisi, will be in town to perform “Giselle”. Nina Ananiashvili will dance the title role.


  1. Hey, Andrew.

    Glad you had a productive weekend!

    I had one, too. But it's of a different kind.

    Wishes for a good week are all I have for you.


  2. I'm pleased you had a productive weekend, J.R., and all best wishes for a good week as well.