Bach Redux

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Play Bach, Vol. 1

Jacques Loussier / Christian Garros / Pierre Michelot

Waxtime 771802 / 180g (reissued from Decca 40.500)

Real music exists beyond the page.

-J.S. Bach, in response to a friend who’d asked why he was improvising


Before crossover albums were not hip in any way whatsoever, Jacques Loussier’s jazz-infused Bach inventions were so cool they should have come with their own wayfarer sunglasses. Louissier was classically trained and has a stupendous technique. Instead of going into concert pianism, I for one am glad he decided to jazz up classical.

His riffs on Bach, accompanied with drums and bass (his group would come to be known as the Play Bach Trio, and they would come out with 5 more all Bach records) reveals more about the composer than a lot of recordings I’ve heard that keep it staid. They weren’t the first to make Bach swing (that would be Django Reinhardt), but they’re definitely the most persuasive.

In Bach’s day, improvising on another’s theme was a great compliment, and on this record, nothing could be closer to the truth. In the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier that opens Play Bach, Loussier actually plays through the entire piece before he and the accompanists add their spice. While in the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor that opens the B side, the instrumentalists’ skills at transcription and execution should only be talked about in superlative terms.

Purists are probably loathe to praise the trio, but no one can deny the sheer magnetism of the playing. With different accompanists Loussier would go on to put out albums that explored the jazzy side of Beethoven, Vivaldi and Satie, and a fantastic solo crack at Chopin’s Nocturnes. Louissier is something of a celebrity in the populating world of classical jazz, even conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard for a swinging version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

Still, this first recording by Louissier and his trio might be the most indispensable.

International Harvesters

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Kronos Quartet

Music of Sculthorpe, Glass, Conlon, Nancarrow & Jimi Hendrix

Nonesuch Digital 979111-1

With the possible exception of Glassworks and a John Adams compilation featuring “Short Ride in a Fast Car”, the Kronos Quartet was my intro into contemporary and obscure classical music. I owned their Philip Glass String Quartets on CD and Early Music, and when streaming came about, Different Trains and works by Steve Reich were mainstays. Unlike most chamber musicians, they don’t play Beethoven or Dvorak (although I’d sign up for either of those), but focus mainly on modern works, generally after 1940 or so. (They should be famous simply for their curatorial skills; i.e. Black Angels, one of the most harrowing albums I’ve ever heard, opening with George Crumb’s terrifying Vietnam soundscape and culminating with Shostakovich’s equally brutal WWII String Quartet No. 8)

Needless to say, the Kronos is versatile. They worked with Clint Mansell on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, covered Bill Evans, folk music, African music, Harry Partch and Thelonius Monk, for starters. Named for the Titan representing the harvest, the Kronos Quartet certainly harvests from nearly every musical style in the world.

This self-titled record from 1986 kicked off their international renown, and is an ideal place to start to get a sense of their multifaceted approach. Philip Glass’s “Company”Quartet (No. 2, and done for an adaptation of a Samuel Beckett piece) is vintage early Glass, with a pulsating, though pacific tempo. The Nancarrow, on the other hand, is filled with rambunctious atonality, and with the rest of the works, it’s almost like an anti-concept album if the concept is a cohesive mood.

It’s a diverse sampling from a group espousing the most diverse sounds. And of course there’s a transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s most famous song.

The “48”

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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Anthony Newman, harpsichord

Columbia 2xLP M2 32500

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, known to many pianists as simply “the 48”, is the Little Black Dress of classical music: elemental, revolutionary, essential. Or the Citizen Kane. Or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the invention of cheese, fiber-optics, the Big Bang. Really, the “48” isn’t just an epic set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys (it’s that too). But it is also a foundational event in music and cultural history.

The “48” as Bach composed them in 2 sections (from the 1720s and 1740s, respectively) were meant for any keyboard instrument, except for the piano, which hadn’t made its way to Germany from Italy, where it had just been invented. On the surface these are ostensibly exercises for practicing chords, scales and arpeggios in equal temperament–dividing the keys into 12 semitones.

But of course, the “48” are so much more than that, and in the right hands become something transcendently epic. Edwin Fischer was the first to record the entirety of the Well-Tempered Clavier, between 1933 and 1936, and his rapturous approach (still possibly the finest performance) was followed by a harpsichord version by Wanda Landowska. Since then it’s been recorded over 150 times.

Interpretations are across the board. There’s the romantic (Barenboim, Hewitt, Schiff), the unembellished (Pollini), the mysterious (Nikolayeva), the historically appropriate (Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Helmut Walcha) and the wildly eccentric (Gould, Gould and Gould). This recording by Anthony Newman, the first of two on the harpsichord and one on the piano, falls somewhere between the latter categories. Newman has been attacked by musicologists for his speedy tempos and cavalier adornments. And the 3rd Prelude, in C-sharp minor, is an excellent example: insensibly fast and flourish-y, and that pretty much sets the pace for this 1973 double-LP from Columbia, with its very 70s cover photograph of the harpsichordist mid-meditation on some kind of Druid-looking aqua-duct or something.

His Bach also happens to be truly exciting, and by today’s standards not all that heterodox. Other performers might be focused on structure, others on clarity, while a third sort might be inclined to bring out the inner dynamism of Bach’s music. Somehow, Newman combines all of them. There’s an improvisatory flair to his playing that nonetheless stays faithful to the soul of Bach. Before the period instrument boom went viral in the 1980s, Anthony Newman was there already, with a vitality and an authenticity comparable to anyone’s.

In and Out of Beethoven’s Shadow

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Brahms: Symphony No. 1

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Westminster WGS 8166

Any ass can see that.

-Johannes Brahms replying to a comment that his First Symphony sounded too much like Beethoven


Hans von Bulow, the Romantic conductor and composer, said that Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 could just as well be called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10, and there is excellent reason for his quip.

Brahms was forty-three when he completed it, in 1876, on one of the Baltic Islands (one can imagine him, trademark mocha on the table in front of him, taking his usual afternoon nap on a lounge chair). His Piano Concerto No. 1 was begun as his first symphony, and it is basically a symphony with an extensive piano part. The problem for Brahms and the symphony undertaking was essentially Beethoven, from whose shadow he’d had been trying to get out of for some time. Being a Beethoven-phile like any self-respecting composer of the day, he knew he would have to surmount the master in order to attain his own orchestral voice. And like all struggles against a father-idol, it was a neurotic one. The anxiety of influence indeed. His First Symphony, therefore, is a coming-to-terms with Beethoven’s monolithic hold, a Freudian act of overcoming.

To quote Michael Steinberg in his Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, the symphony is a “dense thicket” of sounds in more or less “contrary motion”. There’s always a certain hardness to Brahms’s music, a rigid adherence to form, which he was well aware of, and wished at times that he had Dvorak’s ear for melodies. But the First Symphony is Brahms at his most elegiac.

The Big Theme of the work comes in the Allegro, and here Brahms finally tackles the shadow of Beethoven in a huge way, and you can practically hear his personal, agonized bout with LvB at every measure. (There’s a hair-raising moment in Celibidache’s recording for EMI in which the conductor lets out a startling guttural shout, and I always think of this as him channeling Brahms).

In many ways, the Big Theme is a distorted mirror-image of the Ode to Joy, and it’s introduced with one of the great pauses in classical music, like a breath being inhaled before Brahms makes the plunge to paraphrase Beethoven and then to strike out on his own. The theme itself is a crystalline, undecorated hymn. Then, without dallying, the music hurtles forward, propelled by the final note of the theme, which is not to be heard again in its pure form.

The finale is a coruscating, accelerating, halting iteration of the theme going through stupendous, thrilling transfigurations. With an enormity that seems to come from an abyss of pent-up emotion, Brahms unleashes the full orchestra in a torrent of string tremolos and recapitulations of what’s been heard from beginning to end, before finding its own ferocious autonomy. This is Brahms moving away from Beethoven’s supersonic orbit and hurtling along to his own trajectory, even if the gravitational pull of Planet Beethoven is a constant.

What an apple on a scale has to do with the symphony, as this Westminster design has it, is anyone’s guess.

Cosmic Romanticism

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Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”

Gaston Litaize, organ / Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 619

There goes the French Beethoven.

-Charles Gounod, after hearing Saint-Saens’s 3rd Symphony


I’ve always considered Saint-Saens a gateway to more “classical” classical music. His 5 piano concertos are entertaining melody machines, with few pretensions and a very big Romanticism. If you equated classical composers of the period to directors of blockbusters today, Brahms would be Spielberg, Wagner is Michael Bay, Bruckner might be Christopher Nolan, Dvorak is Tarantino (obviously!) and Saint-Saens would have to be Paul Feig, or some other helmsman of crowd-pleasing rom-coms with moments of seriousness and real sentiment. Saint-Saens is universally known for his Carnival of the Animals; probably it’s the first symphonic work marketed exclusively to children and parents. The same year it came out, 1886, marked the appearance of his grandest work.

And grandeur is a good descriptor of the 3rd Symphony. Tom Service, in the Guardian, makes a compelling case that the 3rd is one of the period’s greatest orchestral works, and that it should not deter listeners that the main theme from the finale has been used in the film Babe and as the national anthem for Atlantium, a micronation founded by three teenagers and located in Australia (and which sounds like some Borgesian jest).

For all it’s quotable melodies and larger-than-life symphonism, the 3rd is structurally experimental, employing, along with a huge symphony, a part for piano (it takes four hands to pull of the blazing figurations) and, famously, an organ. It’s also arranged in two parts instead of the obligatory four. Like a Liszt tone-poem, the 3rd is bursting with color and episode, and is arguably the best work Saint-Saens would compose. The monumental finale, even by the standards of late 19th century finales, is truly universe-rattling, with an organ outro that’s so deep and alien in the symphonic domain that it sounds like vibrations from a distant planet interfering with the sound-waves of the recording.

The Birth of the Virtuoso

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Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (Complete)

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra / Karl Munchinger

London, 2xLP box set, LL 1457/8

Bach’s Brandenburg’s have at least one thing in common with New Orleans jazz (besides being awesome): they are essentially ensembles wherein each solo instrument has its 5 minutes of fame to play with and against the rest of the group. It’s like a republic of sound, or a democratic socialism, if you like, where every one is given a voice to riff with, but no one veers too far from the overarching structure.

Bach was more esteemed as a performer than a composer in his day, mainly because, as Joshua Rifkin says, his “genius shot so far above the capabilities of ordinary musicians that his greatness was veiled in silence”. For that reason, it’s doubtful whether the complete Brandenburg Concertos were ever performed in his day. Initially composed in 1711-20 for the Margrave of Brandenburg, they later sold off for about twenty bucks. The 1st Brandenburg goes beyond the bounds of the typical concerto grossi, with a size nearly equal to a chamber symphony, which was a big turn-off to 18th century music-makers (it was too large for Brandenburg’s personal ensemble), and so the rest of the Brandenburgs, including the gorgeous first movement of the 2nd (it would, however, find its way as the opening piece on one of the Voyager albums) fell along the wayside of musical history.

The 5th Brandeburg Concerto, as far as anyone knows, was the only one to be contemporaneously performed. Bach supposedly composed the concerto to show off his brand spanking new Cothen harpsichord, and it’s the 5th that stands out today, historically and stylistically. It’s the first ever work to showcase the keyboard in more than continuo fashion, elevating the harpsichord to a major solo player.

Hitherto unheard virtuosity leads to a 1st movement cadenza that is truly dazzling. Nikolaus Harnoncourt says that it fulfills the “technical and tonal possibilities” of the instrument, adding that it “becomes at the same time the beginning and the climax of its category”. A run of 16th-, triple-16th- and 32nd-notes configure one of the most suspenseful 65 measures of any music ever performed. (Give a listen to Mozart’s cadenzas and the entirety of Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto to see where Bach’s innovation would lead.) And throughout the 2nd and 3rd movements, the harpsichord keeps emerging with colorful pirouettes and trills. To echo Harnoncourt, the instrument sounds fully formed at birth.

Lots of recordings of the entire Brandenburg Concertos have appeared since they were discovered in an archive in 1849. Adolf Busch was the first to record all six concertos, and that was quickly followed by a complete set by Alfred Cortot. In many cases, the Brandenburgs are like big musical Rorschach blots, illuminating the whims of conductors and players more than the intention of J.S. Bach. Furtwangler’s and Klemperer’s versions are pretty bleak, sounding more like incidental music to Lohengrin than anything from the late Baroque period. Toscanini’s Brandenburg No. 2 is excessively classical and metronymic, while Casals and Stokowski both conjure a Romantic Bach. Not until Harnoncourt in 1964 did anyone attempt historically apt performances on period instruments, which was followed by a slew of similar recordings.

Karl Munchinger’s performance, reissued here on an early London ffrr double LP from a Decca pressing, is a capable perusal of the Brandenburgs in a more or less Romantically-inclined gradient.

The Dodecaphonists

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Berg: Lyric Suite / Webern: 5 Pieces & 6 Bagatelles

Julliard String Quartet

RCA Victor Red Seal LSC-2531


I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community.

-Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective


Arnold Schoenberg started a musical revolution with his 12-tone system just before the outbreak of WWI. His approach was to throw a wrench into “classical” composition by reordering the musical scale along deterministic lines. Each of the keys are given equal importance in his schematic, favoring “rows” to classify the various pitches, where rhythm, melody, development are forsaken for mathematical symmetry.

And the music of the Second Viennese School, as Schoenberg and his disciples are sometimes called, is like listening to a scientific theorem, or a bad dream about one–not exactly pleasant on the ears, but with a dynamic precision whose beauty is in the method more than the medium.

Two of Schoenberg’s closest adherents to serialism are coupled on this Columbia recording. Alban Berg was a soft-core 12-toner, but his Lyric Suite is very much a step-child of Schoenberg’s system. The work is in the sonata form, but bears little resemblance to any sonata you’ve ever heard, where no one theme is developed and yet, in the first movement, as Rene Leibowitz said, “everything is developmental” without reaching synthesis. Technically, it’s all hexachords, secondary sets, tretrachordal passages, cycles of fifths, etcetera, that would take an expert musicologist to explain adequately. (Theodor Adorno, just such a critic, called it “a latent opera”.) Inversions and sets-within-sets, mirrorings that recapitulate and transform earlier bars–it’s like Kurt Godel turning to music.

Later, Berg transcribed the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movements for string orchestra, as did Anton Webern, for his more accessible works for quartet. Atonalism is certainly the gist of the Pieces and Bagatelles, but imbued with snippets of harmony and exceptionally haunting sounds from the cello.

The Julliard, with a background in Schubert and Beethoven, dampens down the harsher elements, situating the composers in their historical milieu as both extensions of and heresiarchs to classical forms, especially in the Webern. Still, in their hands, the quartets retain an abrasiveness that still sounds uncomfortably new.

Sarcastic Darkness

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Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 / Piano Sonata No. 3

Gary Graffman, piano / George Szell / The Cleveland Orchestra

Columbia MS 6925

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a Prokofiev freak. The Piano Concerto No. 2 reaches levels of virtuosity, poetry and lyricism that can’t be surpassed. And when you add in the Piano Sonatas, the 6th Symphony, Visions Fugitives, the string quartets and the violin concertos and the cello sonatas and the operas, you’ve got a body of work that touches on everything from romanticism to atonality with complete originality.

Of all the concertos, the 3rd (1921) is the most performed. As with so many of his works, Prokofiev offsets striking lyricism with sarcastic dissonances and little inside jokes, like some postmodern standup riffing on his own material. A sweet clarinet intro leads into an orchestral crescendo, which is augmented by bursts from the piano, turning quickly into a somewhat manic fantasia.

Later, lines and lines of octaves in triplicated rhythm force the pianists hands to practically play on top of each other. The opening is recapped in variously structured ways, which leads to a coda of triads and glissandi and incredibly nimble 16th-note arpeggios before ending with open C octaves that gives the piece that meta feel. And that’s just the first movement. Next up, the Andantino is basically a set of variations, while in the last movement, Prokofiev said, a fight breaks out between pianist and orchestra. Here and in the 1st Concerto, which also appears on this album, Prokofiev is a one man history of classical music, blending and bending classicism, neoclassicism, serialism and romanticism into a single intricate package.

Several excellent recordings of the 3rd have made their way onto vinyl, with Argerich/Abbado on DG from the 1960s near the top, along with performances by Gutierrez, Kissin and Bronfman more recently. For me, Graffman/Szell is the gold standard. The pianist digs in with a clarity and ferocity you wouldn’t believe possible considering the hyper-virtuosity needed to pull of these concertos.

Rach-y Road

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Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Command Classics (35mm) CC 11006 SD

Any music of Rachmaninov (or Rachmaninoff, depending on who you’re asking) without a piano is like Karl Marx without a beard–it just doesn’t work. I’ve never been a fan of his his 2nd Symphony; somehow they come off as somehow listless, at least the recordings that I’ve heard.

Rachmaninov’s symphony, in the classical 4-movement structure, was his attempt to overcome the truly hostile criticism of his First at the end of the 1890s, which had caused him no end of self-doubt and even led him to seek hypnosis. And it’s certainly is one damned brooding symphony.

As David Gutman, in Gramophone, exhaustively chronicles, that could be the result of many bad recordings, which don’t quite capture the cinematic drama of the work, but come off as sentimental sludge. His go-to recording is, surprisingly, Andre Previn’s, and this William Steinberg album gets little more than barely a nod.  But this recording, using 35mm technology, is extremely well engineered, with symphonic layers coming through wonderfully. The album art, too, is engaging, and ripe for interpretation: Is it an expressionist rendering of the symphony itself, or could be a mouse hole in a quirkily painted bohemian cafe?

Lisztmania

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Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Sviatoslav Richter, piano / Kyril Kondrashin / London Symphony Orchestra

Philips 835 474 LY

One might well believe that Liszt wrote his piano concertos with Richter in mind.

-Donald Mitchell


If you like your Liszt concertos with extra brio and muscularity, this Philips record, with Richter at the piano and Kondrashin on the podium can’t be beat. To call it heroic and fiery is an understatement. Richter could be as subtle as anyone, but his Liszt concertos, recorded in London for his first performance in Western Europe, are unfettered trailblazers.

Liszt’s debut concerto (hell, all of his solo piano works) are made for protean technique. Just listen to the Don Juan Paraphrase for pure insanity, and even the more meditative pieces require a dash of charismatic power. The E-flat opening of the 1st Concerto is spine-tinglingly brash, and the rest of the work is simply ferocious. Hardboiled and played in a mad dash, this could be one of Richter’s finest recordings, and Kondrashin meets his gung-ho take with an accompaniment that’s just as bold, adding a sharpness that may out-Toscanini Toscanini’s incisive Brancusi-like angularity.

The 1st Concerto was completed in spurts between 1830 and 1849, and starts with a booming intro that leads right into a 4-octave passage from the piano, and concludes with a chromatic downward sweep in octaves played at breakneck speed and marked fff. It was premiered with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting (oh to be a fly on that concert hall wall!).

Coming in at a brisk 20 or so minutes, it’s about 5 minutes shorter than than 2nd Piano Concerto. Very different in scope, the 2nd was intended as a single movement, and despite Liszt’s repute as a virtuoso and showman, the piano part is toned down to sound, at times, like just another ensemble instrument. While it’s given flights of incredible agility for the fingers, the 2nd doesn’t quite share its predecessor’s extracurricular devices.

Even with the performers miked very close by contemporary standards, the legendary Philips sound-engineering is beyond peerless here. For sheer grit, there’s not a better recording out there, and it’s been reissued countless times on vinyl and CD. I’m almost sure this is the closest we’ll get to actually hear Liszt perform the concertos himself.