All the Mountain King’s Men

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Grieg: Peer Gynt (Incidental Music)

Oiven Fjeldstad / London Symphony Orchestra

London CS6049

Slay him! The Christian man’s son has seduced
the fairest maid of the Mountain King!
Slay him! Slay him!

May I hack him on the fingers?
May I tug him by the hair?
Hu, hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
Shall he be boiled into broth and bree to me

Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
Ice to your blood, friends!

-Lyrics to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”


Everybody has heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King” somewhere or another. The whole Suite was riffed by Duke Ellington in 1960. Nero & The Gladiators charted at number 48 with their version of the Mountain King. Nineteen sixty-seven brought a new version by The Who (“A Who-freakout arrangement” said one reviewer), which was followed by Electric Light Orchestra’s 1973 rendition; various metal bands have also jumped on the Mountain King bandwagon. Cinematically, it’s been used in Birth of Nation and Fritz Lang’s atmospheric M, along with such disparate places as The Social Network (the rowing scene with the Winklevoss twins), and even in Trolls. Even Mad Men has used the piece. Alton Towers, a British theme park, has Mountain King in their promotional videos.

Along with several other suites from Peer Gynt, In the Hall of the Mountain King permeates pop culture perhaps even more than the big hits of Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner. Grieg was commissioned to do the music for Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. The play follows that well-known commoner-abducts-a-bride-on-her-wedding-night-and-abandons-her-so-he-can-travel-the-world trope, and because of the sordidness of the work, Grieg was at first reluctant to set it to music.

He finished the incidental music in 1875 while vacationing in Italy. The play was staged in 1876 in Oslo; it was an opulent production, with Grieg himself conducting the local orchestra. He then re-orchestrated the music again in 1885, and the play had a revival in 1902. In a final version from 1908 based on new material, Grieg once more retrofitted the work: now it comprised 23 individual pieces and lasted for about an hour and a half, replete with soloists and a chorus.

Because of its length, that version is rarely performed in its entirety, and instead the work was arranged into 2 suites, with the most popular pieces among them. And how popular they are. Not one to short-shrift his audience on ear-worm melodies without a ton of depth (he’s like Saint-Saens in a colder climate), Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites are like metonymies of classical music itself to a lot of people who don’t otherwise listen to classical music.  There’s “Anitra’s Dance” for strings, and “Morning” which, by my count, has appeared at the beginning of every Loony Tunes short out there.

And finally the big number: “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, referred to above in its many contemporary iterations. Basically, it’s a brief, simple theme in F major repeated faster and faster, in ever increasing volume, a la Bolero, until it reaches it’s ear-splitting, rambunctious zenith.

An early London reissue, this Stereophonic release has an unabashedly campy sleeve design. The anti-hero sits lounging in what appears to be the getup of some Swiss yodeler. Standing on a pedestal facing him, a blond Salome-type bombshell is attempting to charm him with her whiles, or so it would seem.

Surprise!

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Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 94 “Surprise” & 101 “Clock”

Pierre Monteux / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA LSC-2394

Strange as it sounds today, Franz Joseph Haydn was a celebrity in late 18th century England, on par with someone like Bruce Springsteen or Bjork in Iceland. He was recognized in the streets, and huge crowds turned out for the premieres of his many, many symphonies. Being the most famous composer of his day, he could get away with a joke on the audience when he felt like it. Haydn had just finished his stint as the Esterhazy’s personal music director when he arrived in London and conducted his Symphony No. 94 in 1792, the second of the 12 London symphonies. As usual, a throng showed up to hear it.

The Andante second movement starts off placid enough, but as the pianissimo main theme comes to a close, hardly a minute in, an incredibly loud fortissimo chord taken up by the whole orchestra erupts from nowhere. According to anecdotal testimony, the chord was a spur-of-the-moment decision of Haydn’s (he was conducting) to rouse an audience member in the front row who’d gone to sleep. The sleeper was of course brought immediately to his senses, and stood bolt upright to tremendous embarrassment. The episode, as great as it sounds, probably isn’t quite true. One of Haydn’s biographers asked him if the chord was meant as a prank, and the composer responded that no, he’d just wanted to introduce a totally unexpected element into his symphony. Which he certainly did.

What’s more shocking than the “surprise”, perhaps, is the fact that it’s not repeated when the theme returns. This leads to a palpable sense of playful dread that’s a little like re-winding a jack-in-the-box and not have it spring out after it’s scared the bejesus out of you the first time. (Hence the sleeve art.) The rest of the symphony follows a strongly Haydnesque framework, with a Minuet and Trio leading to a fast-paced Allegro molto, which culminates with a timpani coda.

In this and the Symphony No. 104 Monteux brings his understated polish and drama. Haydn isn’t often lauded for his humor, but in this symphony it’s on full display.


	

Future Music

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(Essay originally appeared in Entropy)

When George Antheil was three-years-old, he wanted a piano for his birthday. Instead of a normal-sized one, his parents gifted him a toy version instead. He brought the imposture down to the basement, he said, and smashed it to pieces with a small hatchet.

That violent episode, he recalled years later in a taped interview, was an indication of where his theories of music composition would turn.

With the premiere of his Ballet mecaniqueat the fashionable Theatre de Champs-Elysees on July 19, 1926, the effect was comparable to his demolishing a piano onstage. Parallels were drawn instantly between the performance and the 1913 debut of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which had been met with an equally riotous backlash. However, there was something different about Antheil’s kinetic music. The ballet is a 19-minute glimpse into the latter part of the 20th century. It’s an outrageous stomping titan, with inklings of what the future might sound like: mechanical, sarcastic, hyperactive—simultaneously a warning and a glorifying of technologies to come.

More here

Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

Odyssey Y35923

Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Whipper-Snapper

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great  virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.

Satie & Picasso

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Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1

Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel 36459

My work is completely phonometrical.

-Erik Satie


As far as classical music eccentrics go, Eric Alfred Leslie (nee Erik) Satie is the weirdos weirdo. A dapper gentleman who inhabited a filthy apartment in Paris on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, he was a one man Theatre of the Absurd. If you wanted to compile a list of his many oddities, it might start like this: 1. Founded his own religion. 2. Would eat nothing that wasn’t white. 3. Brought a hammer with him wherever he went. 4. Owned an impressive collection of over 100 umbrellas. And that’s just the beginning.

Today, his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes are his most popular works (the Gymnopedie No. 1 must be up there with Fur Elise as one of the most played pop classical pieces). Instead of choosing a particular tempo he’d poeticize his piano music with tempo indications like “Don’t be proud”, “Corpulent” or “Don’t stop”. His piano music, especially performed on this album by the best Satie interpreter ever, Aldo Ciccolini, is filled with an innocence that does never diverts the music’s mysterious core. He’s also considered the midwife of minimalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in his 1893 “Vexations”– a simple bass-line and chords to be repeated 840 times in exactly the same way.

Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie first collaborated on Parade (1917), a ballet with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and danced by the Ballet Russes. Its jarring cardboard costumes, which were nearly impossible to move in, and Cubists sets (both done by Picasso) involves a troupe of carnival performers trying to get people to watch their show. Parade so riled up audiences with its purposefully aggravating inaction that one viewer slapped Satie in the face after a performance. The ensuing riot, by most accounts, was more of a melee than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had been 4 years earlier. The poet Apollonaire coined the term “surrealism” in his program notes for the ballet.

In comparison to that extravaganza, of course, Satie’s solo works are marked by a calmness encroaching on ennui, but always with that same undercurrent of disquietude. The portrait on this Angel sleeve gets to the essence of Satie. In Picasso’s line drawing, the composer sits in a typical pose, jacket a bit slouchy around the contours of the chair. But his eyes look restless, and his hands are two oversized unruly beasts resting in his lap. The image is an apt visual metonymy of the tranquil bizarreness that so characterizes Satie’s musical style.

Guitar Men

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Works for Two Guitars by Diabelli, Giuliani, Carulli

Pepe & Celedeonio Romero, guitars

Philips 9500 352

Say classical guitar to anyone and, in order of appearance, you’ll come up with Andres Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, Pepe Romero and some nameless Renaissance madrigals. As far as individual pieces go, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concert (it’s been recorded a lot) has always been a popular go-to, trailed by solo pieces by Villa-Lobos and some Bach transcriptions. What’s less well known are the guitar works by Haydn (a delightful trio), Paganini, von Weber, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich (electric guitars, in this instance) and even Rorem and Takemitsu, among a crowd of others.

On this Philips release, the focus is on works for 2 guitars instead of one, played by the great guitarists Pepe and Celedonio Romero. The album presents duos by Diabelli, Giuliani and Carulli (which sounds like a tailors’ you might stumble on in Sicily). Giuliani’s op. 130 Variations for Two Guitars is a pleasant traversal, while Anton Diabelli’s op. 63 Serenade is as much of a charmer. But it’s the Carulli that stands really stands out.

Not a lot is known about Carulli, except that he moved from Italy to Vienna, and on to Paris in 1808, where he came out with a guitar method that’s still hugely influential. His Serenade, op. 96, begins with an overture that’s spectacularly operatic, in 6/8 time, and continues on in a polished dialog between the two guitars. An impassioned Allegro segues into a Larghetto, and the whole closes with a dance-like movement that sounds a little like a waltz. The two Romeros’ playing is nothing short of awesome: they’re so synched as to be practically indistinguishable from each other.

Butterfly Effect

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Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5

Karl Munchinger / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

London CM 9378

Schubert got closer to the full metaphysical revelation than any other composer.

-John Harbison


Franz Schubert, according to his drinking and eating buddies, composed maniacally–on tablecloths, on menus, on anything that was handy in whatever tavern he happened to be in. At the piano, he’d sit, as one friend said, and would so totally subsume himself in the music that he’d become nearly unrecognizable.

Yet very little of his output, until relatively recently, was part of the standard repertoire. Sergei Rachmaninov, in the 1920s, wasn’t even aware that Schubert had even composed piano sonatas, which seems a tad apocryphal.

Of the 9 symphonies, or 8, since No. 9 is sometimes called the 7th–not mentioning the outlines of the 10th, which would be another unfinished symphony, and so would be considered the 9th (on that matter, Luciano Berio has an interesting piece called “Renderings” that mixes those sketches with reworkings of his own). Regardless, the “Unfinished” and the 9th (7th) are obviously the most played, and contain some of the greatest movements in the symphonic repertoire.

Compared to those, Schubert’s previous symphonies are very much in the Haydn/Mozart mold, so much so that they seem to be from different eras, as though Beethoven had gone from an early piano sonata to the op. 132 Quartet. Listen to the 6th and then the 8th and it’s like flipping from classical to full-fledged Romantic. Unbelievably, the 2 symphonies conducted by Munchinger here, the 4th and the 5th, were both finished in the same year, 1816, and though they share a classical pedigree, the 5th is certainly the lighter of the two.

A spirited symphony, it begins with an Allegro and proceeds in B-flat minor in a search for the introductory theme, then offers a surprise by previewing the melodies of the middle sections. Schubert dispenses with the usual instrumentation, doing away with clarinets, trumpets and timpani, either out of necessity for what was available to him, or to pay homage to Mozart, who left out those same sections in his 40th Symphony. Music historians have pointed out the similarities between that symphony, and also the 5th’s resemblance to Mozart’s Violin Sonata in F major.

These symphonies owe a lot to Schubert’s fore-bearers, and contain only a seed of the emotional intensity that would burst forth like the two butterflies on the front of this recording in his latter symphonies.

Flamenco Dancing in Ancient Rome

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De Falla: Quatro Piezas Espanolas / Fantasia Baetica / Three Dances from El Sombrero de Tres Picos / Suite from El Amor Brujo

Alicia de Larrocha, piano

London CS6881

Along with a handful of others, Manuel De Falla, born in 1876, was one of Spain’s greatest composers. And Alicia de Larrocha, born in 1923, was one of Spain’s greatest musicians. It should be no shocker that putting the two together produced an album of unusually high standards.

De Larrocha’s Mozart recordings for Decca are just one of her claims to fame. She is also notable for perhaps being the shortest concert pianist ever–a few inches under five feet, but with a hand span stretching well over an octave. With De Fall’s classical, sultry compositions, her polished approach is incomparable.

All the tracks on this London re-issue are situated squarely in the composer’s flavorful Andalusian period. Folk dances and popular nationalist melodies step in and out of extremely tight classical structures. Yet it’s the Fantasia Baetica, from 1919, that stands out above the rest. From the Roman name for Southern Spain, it draws on flamenco and ancient history, and was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein.

Pianist Paul Jacobs said that its chords are based on “guitar tuning” and has a “harsh percussive quality reminiscent of castanets and heel stompings”. The Baetica is epic in scale, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to perform. It sounds a bit like a mix between Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Bizet’s Variations chromatiques de concert (also rarely played, but featured on a terrific Columbia recording by Glenn Gould). In the wrong hands, the Fantasia Baetica can be more of a tactile rather a musical experience. Performed by de Larrocha, however, it’s a ravishing dance and a totally essential recording.