Snow-Globes & Onion Domes

IMG_6532

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Edith Farnadi, piano / Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Hermann Scherchen

Westminster

The Hungarian pianist Edith Farnadi is one of those great “undiscovered” musicians overdue for a revival. Her no-frills, confident recordings of Liszt are some of the best out there (just listen to the Paganini Etudes, if you can find them). On vinyl, Farnadi appeared on the Westminster label, and here she tackles the overplayed Tchaikovsky 1, as well as the underplayed Tchaikovsky 2.

Far lighter than its predecessor, the 2nd concerto comes with some fine melodies. A violin and a cello join the piano for many bars of the andante non troppo, turning the work briefly into a triple concerto. Orchestra and soloist are divorced for a good deal of the playing time; Tchaikovsky came to despise the sound of piano and symphony together. It’s a foursquare performance from Farnadi and Scherchen, skimping on the composer’s more Romantic garnitures.

Westminster has some terrific sleeve designs from the 1950s. This one is no exception, with its midcentury color scheme and clean lines bearing a snow-globe in the shape of a very Russian-looking onion dome.

The Prodigy

IMG_6529

Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, opus 7 / Scherzos / 4 Fugitive Pieces / Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann

Michael Ponti, piano / Berlin Symphony Orchestra / Voelker Schmidt-Gertenbach

Candide

Clara Wieck’s 1835 Piano Concerto is a sparkling work somewhat in the mold of her teacher, Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere in 1838.

One of her father’s own music students was Robert Schumann, and they courted and wed fast, against her father’s wishes. Like her friend and fellow-composer Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister), Clara shattered at least one glass ceiling by performing in public at a time when musical women could hope to become singers at best. She was a first-class soloist, whom many critics believed would one day rival Franz Liszt, the demigod of the instrument. She continued to travel as a concert pianist even after giving birth to 8 (!) children, and caring for Robert during his spells of suicidal depression–a domestic workload that’s simply ridiculous.

Along with a Piano Trio and a set of Polonaises, the Piano Concerto in A minor is considered among her finest works. Ponti gives a precocious interpretation; in the first movement, ascending octaves, a la Chopin, are interrupted by the orchestra before the piano wrests away the main theme. Back-and-forth playful rhythms between cello and piano open the exquisite Romance, which then leads almost without pause from timpani to trumpets in the virtuosic final movement.

Steeped from childhood in the repertoire, it’s a prototypically classical concerto: Lightly dramatic, it calls for virtuosity and gracefulness in equal measure.

Oh, the composer was 13 years old when she began composing it.

Glasswerke

IMG_6526

The same qualities people love about Philip Glass are the same things others hate, the broken chords and the broody ambiences among them. Every film in which one of his scores is heard seems less like a soundtrack than a music video (The Truman Show, Watchmen, Notes on a Scandal are but a few). Put Glass’s work to any moving picture and it’ll instantly become that much more dramatic.

The Violin Concerto (1987), his first work using a traditional 3-movement structure, reimagines the concerto form. Instead of a soloist’s showcase, it’s basically a symphony with an extra violin teasing out the trickier passages. It opens with throbbing strings that give way to the violin’s arpeggios, in music that sculpts rather than demarcates time–“sequences and cadences” as Glass calls his densely packed style. An unhurried, lush second movement has the soloist cascading in and out of orchestral coruscations, while the third movement is an almost jolly dance, with the violin practically flipping out with minimalist fiddling.

All of which is to say that this is prime Philip Glass, and one of the great modern concertos for any instrument. On this 180g reissue (the album dropped in 1993) Gidon Kremer’s expansive, crisp playing is completely suited for the concerto in every way.

Dvorak’s Sublime Folksong

IMG_6470

Everybody has heard Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, most have listened to his bittersweet Cello Concerto, some know of his Violin Concerto and a handful are aware of his bizarrely obscure Piano Concerto (probably by way of Richter and Kleiber on EMI). In all these larger-scale pieces, Dvorak is a melodist’s melodist, layering gorgeous harmony on gorgeous harmony with a contrapuntal precision that can’t be topped.

But in his chamber music, he’s a melody machine. The “American” Quartet, the Dumka Trio,  the piano quartets–each is ravishing in its own way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Piano Quintet, opus 81, which is a stunning amalgamation of the composer’s synthesis of Romanticism, classical structure and Slavic tunes.

Themes are explored, transformed, revitalized, diminished and intensified, culminating in a fugato that gathers all the motifs up into a bang-up coda. Dvorak was an alchemist of fusing all the disparate themes from a given work for his grand finales, and it’s no different in this Piano Quintet.

For obvious reasons, five varicolored Eastern European eggs adorn the sleeve. The once much-heralded Fine Arts Quartet (“A study in depth” said one critic after a performance of theirs) pairs with pianist Frank Glazer for a spirited recording on the Concert-Disc label.

Pastoralia

IMG_6462

After his 5th Symphony, Beethoven tried something quite different with his next work. The 6th Symphony is miles away from the brash Germanic drama of his “heroic period”, and instead paints a sound-picture filled with woods, streams and valleys. Completed in 1808, it’s a nature lover’s paean to idyllic settings. The “Pastoral” Symphony is a jaunt among rustic folkways. From “Arrival in the Country” to the harrowing strains of “Thunder Storm” it ends with a simple “Shepherd’s Song”. Beethoven even identifies the individual birdcalls played by the woodwinds in the second movement.

These two albums are not the finest recordings out there; they do share, however, fitting Breughel-esque scenes of peasants toiling in one design, and in revelry after the wheat has been harvested in the other. Szell’s version with the CO is a little too straightforward, offering zero playfulness, while Klemperer and the VSO, though more textured, is similarly an austere take.

The Sheffield Sound

IMG_6461

Variations on another’s themes are like great chats between composers who’ve usually never met. The form has provided some of the most spectacular works. There’s the canonical Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabellis, Rachmaninov’s rousing Paganini Variations, to name three of the more popular.

Lincoln Mayorga here plays another mainstay of the genre, Johannes Brahms’s oft-recorded Variations on a Theme of Handel, along with the original, and a Chopin Mazurka. About as notable as the piece itself is the Sheffield Lab label, which Moyorga co-founded. An audiophile’s wet dream, Sheffield mixes the gorgeous timbre of early 78s without the scratchiness with cutting-edge digital equipment. Since it began (this is their fourth album), it’s become the standard for vinyl sound-quality. The effect, at least here, is a little like curling up in the belly of the piano as the pianist plays.

IMG_6458

Something Wicked

IMG_6335

Petruchka is a jester-like puppet from Russian folklore. In Stravinsky’s ballet, he’s underscored with a grating theme that’s come to be called the Petruchka Chord (triads of C major and F sharp major played together). Stravinsky’s version debuted in 1911; its atmosphere is subtly threatening, mixed in with the Punch-and-Judy world of carnival that moves from frenetic rumpus to quiet ostinato.

A sorcerer and a prince vie for a princess in the Firebird Suite (1910). Commissioned for the debut of the Ballet Russes, it was Stravinsky’s first successful work. The title comes from the avian symbol for beauty and guardianship, and as with Petruchka, folk motifs, visually and musically, recur.

Pierre Monteux is an excellent guide to all things Stravinsky, especially in the composer’s earlier, difficult ballets, before his about-face to neo-classicism. Marc Chagall’s cover art, “The Blue Circus”, is especially appropriate.

The Romantics

IMG_6331

Certain performers seem perennially linked to a given composer, so thoroughly do they inhabit and animate that composer’s work. Gould/Bach, Michelangeli/Ravel, Uchida/Mozart, Kempff/Schubert, Landowska/Scarlatti and on and on.

Frederic Chopin’s psychological doppelganger was definitely the great Romanian pianist, and student of Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti. The two should always have an ampersand between them. Listening to Lipatti gliding through a Barcarolle, a Mazurka and the emotional range of the Nocturne No. 6, it’s as though Chopin composed knowing that his music would one day be recorded by this performer.

The lightness of touch, ripe melodies and sensitive articulations–Lipatti’s Chopin sings. Glissandos somersault and Chopin’s ornaments, like his almost trademarked mordants, are played as though in a swoon. His playing maybe occasionally forsakes drama for fluidity, but it’s always like an act of seduction that’s constantly on the verge of being consummated.

A standout on this Columbia recording from the 1950s is the Piano Sonata No. 3. Under Lipatti’s hands, the 3rd movement Largo, in particular, is as achingly tuneful as anything you’ll ever hear.

Beaux Art

IMG_6327

Important as he was as a composer, Felix Mendelssohn was just as crucial for saving Johann Sebastian from oblivion and for championing contemporary works. He and Robert Schumann, to me, are the fraternal twins of classical composition, and Mendelssohn’s piano trios reflect that bent.

The opus 49 is the more recognizable of the two trios, and is firmly rooted in a classical structure. A full-bodied cello introduces the piece with a nervy piano underlying it. Following that is a sweet lyrical 2nd movement, while the 3rd and 4th movements are, in the vein of classicism, fast and faster.

Mendelssohn was the best lyricist who never wrote lyrics, and melodies abound in these trios with a sweeping loveliness. Performing them here for Philips is the Beaux Arts Trio, and there’s no other musical triumvirate that’s more dependable with the chamber music repertoire. Their Mendelssohn, like their Schumann for the same label, is completely assured and mellifluous, as it should be.

Bach in the Rainforest

IMG_6227

A fierce desire that laughs and cries.

-Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

As the title suggests, Heitor Villa-Lobos’s 9 suites for a variety of instruments and voices, marries the baroque master’s counterpoint with traditional Brazilian folk songs. No. 5 of the Brasileiras is the composer’s most famous of the series, and is almost unbearably exquisite, for soprano and 8 cellos. Villa-Lobos conducts his “Orchestra” with the soprano Bidu Sayao. Unquestionably, it’s the best performance available.

Another notable feature of this 7″, 2-eye label release is the cover design. With its textured pink background and almost sketch-like drawings, I have a feeling it might be one of Andy Warhol’s designs, which appeared on a handful of Columbia’s 7-inchers in the 1950s. But it’s difficult to tell because it looks nothing like a banana.