A Trio of Rimskys


Known for his ridiculously popular Flight of the Bumblebee and Scheherazade, Rimsy-Korsakov was part of The Five, which sounds like the title of a Netflix crime show, but was actually a collective of Russian composers that included Borodin and Mussorgsky. (It’s also the title of a Netflix crime show). Here’s three colorful albums of obscure orchestral works from the composer. The two Mercury sleeves are as Russian as it gets, while the London cover is all about Persian appropriation in the gaudiest way.

And if you need more R-K in your life, visit Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, a classical music-themed coffee and desert establishment in Portland, Oregon.

Classical Music 101 / Part Two: The Goldberg Variations

Now there is music from which a man can learn something.

-W.A. Mozart on J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are an exquisite labyrinth. Any Bach beginner’s guide might choose the Brandeburg Concertos, in particular No. 5 with its crazy keyboard solo. Or the Cello Suites. Or the Halloween standard Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Or the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. But the Goldbergs, the Notorious BWV, published in 1741 (apocryphally done so to calm an insomniac Count) exhibit a range and intimacy perhaps never before encountered in Western music. From the opening Aria, the variations sing and dance and sigh, with moments of finger-tangling counterpoint balanced against the quietest polyphonies.

The Goldbergs are a set of 32 variations, with the main theme comprised of 32 bars. Every third variation is a canon, and these are interspersed with gigues, fugues, overtures and sarabandes. “Binary symmetry” is how recent interpreter Jeremy Denk describes the entwining, Escher-like pieces, and listening closely to the Goldbergs is like overhearing geometry sing.

Mostly unplayed until the mid-20th century, The Goldberg Variations have always made for a daring performance, demanding intense focus from musicians for its 80-plus minutes of continuous play, and incessant attention from listeners. Rudolf Serkin recorded the Goldbergs on Welte piano rolls (1928). Wanda Landowska was the first to offer a harpsichord pressing, in 1933, with a commanding interpretation.


Until Glenn Gould’s storied 1955 recording burst on the scene, the Goldbergs were all but nonexistent in the public realm. His unconventional studio recording is a benchmark, separating the Goldberg Variations into the BG and AG eras–before Gould and after. The Columbia release, with its 32 small photographs of the Canadian pianist is one of the most most iconic in recording history. It’s the Citizen Kane of classical music: much revered and imitated, groundbreaking, visionary, edgy. Gould cuts out Bach’s suggested repeats, making the act of listening to an hour and a half of G major a whole lot more palatable.


Rosalyn Tureck’s 1947 recording, nowadays maligned for its ponderousness, is at the other end of the spectrum. If you want to get lost in Bach’s looping pursuit of some intangible aural truth, this is a recommended place to start. On the harpsichord, Anthony Newman and Trevor Pinnock each gave spirited performances.

Andras Schiff has recorded the Goldbergs twice (the first on vinyl for Decca), and his playing is consistently refined (he includes all the repeats), taking a broad macro view of the score. Wilhelm Kempff gave a very strange, pointilist performance for DG, and if quantity is your thing, Tatiana Nikolayeva might be the best choice with her quintet of recordings.

The popularity of the Goldberg Variations has only increased, with transcriptions ranging from accordion to chamber orchestra. Regardless of the iterations, it is a rite of passage for both musicians and listeners alike.


Soviet Retro Pop


Milan Horvat conducts the Zagreb Philharmonic in two “light” Shostakovich symphonies, nos. 1 & 9. The 9th, from 1945, is a striking departure from the composer’s 7th and 8th Symphonies, with their brash wartime marches and aura of annihilation and oblivion. On the sleeve, the playful 9th is described as a “chamber orchestration”. You don’t think “jovial” when talking about Russian music of the twentieth century, and one critic lambasted Shostakovich for “failing to reflect the true spirit of the Soviet people”. A hallucinogenic sleeve has Shosta mouthing a multi-colored cloud of birds, workers and very Russian spires. It’s almost too retro. Almost.



Utterly whimsical sleeve by Sandy Hoffman for Crossroads, a classical label known for its whimsical sleeves. It portrays the three members of the Suk Trio, with the namesake Josef Suk ready to catch the cellist, who is sliding down the piano. The record contains some fine performances of Beethoven’s early Op. 1, No. 3 Trio, along with the more mature Op. 70 Trio, nicknamed the “Ghost” for its eerie, dirge-like second movement in the dark key of D minor. And yet the artwork is the very essence of silliness.

Classical Vinyl 101 / Part One: The Four Seasons

Vivaldi is greatly overrated

-Igor Stravinsky

Lately, a few people have asked me what LPs they need to start a “best of” classical music collection. Navigating the interminable realm of classical recordings is daunting at best, so here’s a list of the most popular, need-to-own, works, in chronological order. I’ve also included two or three (totally subjective) standout performances on vinyl.

The Four Seasons (1723) / Antonio Vivaldi

Generally what people think when you mention the term Baroque. Vivaldi completed these 4 concerti for violin to convey, it’s believed, the countryside around Mantua.  Probably the most (over)recorded piece ever composed, with ensembles doing everything they can to distinguish themselves from the staggering quantity of different versions, like changing tempi and instrumentation, it remains a staple of the repertoire.


Neville Marriner leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in a performance on period instruments. Long considered the gold standard of the work, it’s probably the closest thing to hearing The Four Seasons as Vivaldi himself may have heard it.


A more modern, extremely fresh, version from Pinchas Zukerman and the English Chamber Orchestra.


Max Richter’s 2012 minimalist tweaking of the The Four Seasons provides a meditative, gorgeous listening experience. Besides being a deeply felt update of Vivaldi, it’s one of the best-sounding contemporary vinyl pressings out there.

As a postscript, it’s best to stay clear of big orchestra renditions, such as Herbert van Karajan’s peculiarly large-scale recording, with Ann-Sophie Mutter as violin soloist. And really anything with the name Nigel Kennedy attached to it.

A Wagner for All Seasons


A compilation of Wagner from various operas, performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of near-ubiquitous Eugene Ormandy. Thanks in part to the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, “Ride of the Valkyries” is one of the most recognizable pieces in the canon, in addition to being the most German thing ever. Less known are its cameos in two dozen or so other films, including 8 1/2, Rebel Without A Cause, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and even Blues Brothers. Along with Carmina Burana and Holst’s The Planets, Wagner’s sound is about as cinematic as it comes.

Quualudes and Fugues

Glenn Gould was an oddball’s oddball. He’d show up at the studio layered in heavy winter garb, even in summer, carrying his piano stool — a plain chair — with him. Before every performance he could be seen dipping his arms up to the elbows in a bucket of hot water. Gesturing wildly, he seemed to be conducting his own playing, singing, muttering and groaning along to the music.


For all his eccentricities, no one doubts that Gould was incomparable. His Bach is iconic, his Mozart utterly bizarre. Beethoven, in Gould’s recordings, often sounds like someone had erased pedal markings and tempo indications. Everything Gould touched, from the obscure Orlando Gibbons to Arnold Schoenberg, was stamped with his own refreshing precocity. And he played with the abandon and delight of someone in their own solar system.

But his recording of Georg Frideric Handel’s Suites 1-4, which originally appeared in 1720, reach a whole new level of strangeness that borders on perversity.

The four Baroque pieces, under Gould’s fingers, become something like high camp, right down to portraying the pianist in a gaudy silver frame on the sleeve, above an equally gaudy embellished gold pedestal. This would be Gould’s first recording on the harpsichord, and the instrument sounds alternately like a 68-string zither, a prepared guitar, and here and there like a piece of carpentry not meant to produce music at all.


Handel’s period was rife with extemporization, taking liberties with themes in the way of jazz, and Gould doesn’t skimp on the riffing. It’s probably the strangest Handel we’re likely to hear: one moment the pianist cascades through like he’s recording the roll for a player-piano, the next he’s teasing the keys harp-like. With this recording, Gould’s idiosyncrasies are as pronounced as they’d ever be.

From the Suite 1 Prelude Gould deconstructs Handel’s keyboard works rather than just performing them, adding trills and little runs around the simple theme in Bachian fashion. The Gigue that closes out the Suite is a manic dance that comes off like a synthesized take.


Likewise, the Adagio that opens the Suite 2 is played painfully slow, as Gould fragments the harmony into tiny pieces of modality. Following that, his Allegro flat-out bolts to another Adagio before going heafirst into the Fuga. Gould was most assured with Bach and counterpoint, so it’s not surprising that the playing here sounds most natural.

But it’s the Air, Variations and Presto of the 3rd Suite that, in a nutshell, characterizes the whole performance, running practically an entire half of the B-side. Here, Gould lets his freak flag fly, going from languorous and halting (and resembling nothing so much as a Renaissance-era song) to a full on high-speed lunge in the Presto. Vintage Gould — circumspect, obsessive, constantly unexpected.

Which is to say the album is cracked-out Baroque. Filled with equal parts lassitude and frenzy, Gould’s Handel is ultimately a bit of high-flying kitsch. Also, it’s completely addictive and impossible not to spin over and over again. Gould and Handel, two very different people, seem to be sharing an inside joke the rest of us aren’t in on, but which we can play along with as though we are anyway.

Maybe the weirdest thing I can say about this record is that it sounds exactly like Glenn Gould playing Handel on a harpsichord.