Marco Polo: The Label of Discovery

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


Twenty-seven years ago I was given the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of starting a new public radio station in the nation's capital. WETA-FM is now a well-established, successful classical-music broadcaster operating from state-of-the-art facilities in the Virginia suburbs. But when I ran it, we were located in a trailer next to a small, cramped transmitter building. My office was in a closet-sized kitchen, right next to the bathroom. When I was on the phone and someone flushed the toilet, I couldn't hear what the person on the other end of the phone line was saying.

What mattered to the audience, of course, was what the station sounded like, not what it looked like or how difficult it was for the seven of us who worked there every day. And we must have sounded pretty good because within two years WETA-FM was the second-most-listened-to public radio station in the country, after WNYC-FM in New York City.

My job was one of the most interesting assignments I ever had. I designed the format, created and named the programs, selected the syndicated material we used, put together the broadcast schedule, hired the announcers, and managed the station. Once in a while I took the time to write, produce and host a special.

At one point I produced a couple of pilots for a series which I called "Bottom of the Barrel." The idea was to present little-known works by major composers and major works by little-known composers. The series never got beyond the pilot stage, but the concept has been with me ever since. In recent years it has emerged in the form of print media and Internet columns with the much-more-positive title "Compact Discoveries."

The columns are written for classical music lovers who are already familiar with the warhorses of the repertoire and are looking to expand their knowledge to worthwhile, but less celebrated, compositions.

Knowing my long-standing passion for the hidden treasures of the classical repertoire, you can appreciate how excited I am about a CD label which is devoted to recording these neglected compositions with state-of-the-art sound and making them readily available in attractive packages with well-researched and interesting program notes. The company is called, most appropriately, Marco Polo, the label of discovery.

Their catalog at this point contains more than 500 CDs ranging from composers as well known as Bartok, Borodin, Debussy, Dvorak and Hindemith, through such less familiar names as Alkan, Arensky, Balakirev, Bax, and Bruch, to a whole host of folks whom even I, with my passionate interest in the obscure, had never heard of before. These include Jan Levoslav Bella, Mihaly Mosonyi, Havergal Brian, Augusta Homes, Alfred Hill, Mikolajus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Arthur Meulemans and Paul Gilson.

Now I would be somewhat less than honest if I told you that every Marco Polo release was a compact discovery worthy of a prominent place in your permanent collection. Sometimes I feel that their main purpose is to help classical music lovers appreciate what really great music is, by giving us the opportunity to listen to the truly mediocre. But there are many real discoveries on this label, and lots of other good listening as well. Here are just a few of my favorites:

The Slovak composer Jan Levoslav Bella (1843-1936) was an ordained priest who quit to become director of music in Mermannstadt, now Sibiu in modern Romania. He wrote melodious, romantic string quartets which the Moyzes Quartet has digitally recorded on Marco Polo (8.223839).

You have certainly heard of Alexander Glazunov, but do you own a recording of "The Seasons" and "Scenes de Ballet, Op. 52"? The CSR Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava, conducted by Ondrej Lenard, has turned in fine performances of this delightful music (8.223136).

Are you familiar with the master of British light music, Eric Coates (1886-1957)? Marco Polo has put out a CD full of his tuneful compositions: "London Suite," "London Again Suite," "Cinderella," "The Dam Busters," "The Merrymakers," "The Selfish Giant," and "Calling All Workers" (8.223445). Performances are by that not-exactly-world-famous, not-exactly British orchestra, the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony of Bratislava. These chaps could use a bit more energy, and the sound isn't as crisp and clear as other Marco Polo releases, but the music is delightful nevertheless.

I'm not crazy about Symphonies Nos. 20 and 25 by the English composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972). But his "Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme" ("Three Blind Mice," as it were) makes a great gift for the person who has everything, musically speaking. These three compositions share Marco Polo CD 8.223731, with Andrew Penny conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine.

For one who does not like to mix composers on a CD, Marco Polo's release of George Enescu's (1881-1955) "Romanian Rhapsodies 1 and 2" along with his "Romanian Poem, Op. 1" is a welcome addition to the catalog. The "Romanian Rhapsodies" are usually available only in combination with works by other composers, making it difficult to find them in your alphabetically-organized collection. Enescu deserves a CD of his own and his own spot in your collection, and Marco Polo CD 8.223146 makes this possible. The Chorus and Orchestra of the Romanian Radio and Television are conducted by Josif Conta in these authoritative interpretations.

Marco Polo is also a chief source of supply for Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) addicts, such as myself. But even I will admit that some Alkan is a lot more worthwhile than others. Amongst the very best is his "Symphony for Piano, Op. 39" performed by Bernard Ringeissen (8.223285). It's brilliant, exciting, dazzling - a true compact discovery! I like the other pieces on this CD, too: "Overture, Op. 39, No. 11," "Comme le vent, Op. 39, No. 1," and "En rhythme molossique, Op. 39, No. 2."

Other favorite Marco Polo CDs include: "Piano Music, Vols. 1-3" by Edward MacDowell, performed by James Barbagallo; Mihaly Mosonyi's "Piano Concerto" with Klara Kormendi; the orchestral works of Augusta Holmes; the "Discovery of Brazil" suites by Heitor Villa-Lobos; more British light music by Richard Addinsell (composer of the "Warsaw Concerto," which, unfortunately is not included on this CD) and Roger Quilter; piano music by Leopold Godowsky; chamber music by Borodin and Korngold; and "Suites for Two Pianos" by Arensky - to name just a few. I can't do more than just introduce this very special label in one column, but you can count on seeing Marco Polo CDs discussed in more detail in the months ahead.

By recording many compositions on CD for the first time, Marco Polo has helped me and many others expand our knowledge of the classical repertoire. I am grateful for their existence and wish them a long and prosperous future. They should succeed. After all, they did things right from the beginning - by not calling their label "Bottom of the Barrel Records."


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