Symphony Grotesque

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

(with Kabalevsky: Colas Breugnon Suite)

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Golschmann

Columbia ML 5120

Vladimir Golschmann, with his “matinee-idol face” according to one contemporary, was one of the great proponents of modernist music. He conducted world premieres of Honegger, Falla and Milhaud’s Le Creation du Monde, among others, and did some of the finest recordings on record with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. With them on this album he tackles Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony.

Shostakovich was a child prodigy in the classic sense; for a time when he was a boy he played piano for silent films at a local theater in St. Petersburg (he was supposedly let go for laughing too much at Chaplin and Buster Keaton flicks). His 1st Symphony was completed when he was 18, his graduate piece for the Lenin Conservatory.

Mark Wigglesworth points to the work’s tension and sarcastic wit, its ping-ponging between nobility and banality that would be so characteristic of Shostakovich’s subsequent symphonies. The composer himself called it a “symphony grotesque”, which begins, in Stravinsky-inflected carnival-ese (it even includes a piano, just like Petruchka), but veers ever more Mahlerian as it goes along. Or, as Shostakovich put it, “It’s turning out pretty gloomy.” Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky can also be heard as serious influences. But what could be called the “Shostakovich Sound” is distinctive, if nascent, throughout.

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When the symphony premiered in 1926, Shostakovich became something like a living Soviet satellite overnight, and he was basically annexed by Stalin, used for propaganda, praised as the greatest Russian composer, persecuted mercilessly. After that premiere, conductors lined up to give national premieres: Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer all waved their batons at the shy young man’s entrance onto the international stage.

Golschmann’s conducting is spontaneous and vital, drawing out Shostakovich’s modernist impulses. The large, somewhat unnerving portrait of an impassive woman with an electric gaze is a neat depiction of art in the USSR. Notably, Golschmann has signed this recording. Besides the Shostakovich, it includes Kabalevsky’s popular suite, from his opera of the same name.

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Haydn’s Razor

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Haydn: Quartet Op. 64 No. 5 “Lark” / Quartet Op. 55 No. 2 “Razor

The Salomon String Quartet

L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca 414 712-1

Franz Joseph Haydn pretty much invented the string quartet as a serious chamber ensemble. He did one better by composing 68 of them (a few with spurious provenances), more than most composers combined. Many are familiar with his Op. 76 quartets, but this L’Oiseau-Lyre album, with collaborations from Decca and even The Folio Society, presents his “Lark” and somewhat ominous “Razor” string quartets.

In the “Lark”, so called for the high-registered opening of the violin, Haydn was thinking expressly of his violinist friend Joseph Tost, who was playing at the time in Haydn’s private Esterhaza orchestra. And really, it’s a showpiece for Tost more than anything, with a final vivace that’s a fast-forwarded flurry of virtuosity from the violinist.

The title of the first quartet on the Salomons’ recording, however, comes from an apocryphal incident. Apparently, Haydn was frustrated by his inability to find a suitable implement to shave his face while at the Esterhaza palace in Hungary and, in 1790, he traded the score of the quartet to the passing-through music publisher John Bland for a couple of much needed straight-edges, and these were duly supplied.

But the “Razor”, despite it’s jocular background, is more tempestuous than is typical of Haydn, with quite odd transitions. F minor and F major battle it out through the 4-movement work, leading to a back and forth where lengthy silences begin in one key. and the music resumes in the other. Finally, in the Presto that concludes the quartet, F major comes out on top with a spunky little dance.

Polytones

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Milhaud: Piano Music

William Bolcom, piano

Nonesuch H-71316

Don’t ever be discomfited by a melody.

-Darius Milhaud to Burt Bacharach


Similar to his contemporary Francois Poulenc, Darius Milhaud had an eclectic range of styles that could be cheeky, kitschy or cutting-edge. Sometimes all at once. Unlike the dodecaphonists, who criticized him for not being into seriousness, Milhaud was unafraid of a hummable tune. His most famous work, The Creation of the World (1923) is notable as an early classical piece to utilize popular music (it contains a gigantic jazz fugue), while Milhaud’s staging of Aeschylus’s trilogy from around the same period is orchestrated with whips and hammers.

Milhaud’s early works are marked by his use of polytonality–music that’s played in multiple keys at once. The Saudades do Brasil (1920-1921) is perhaps his most popular piece for the piano. Based on the rhythms of South America, it’s a series of simple melodic dances set against polytonal chords. The suites range from lightening fast bars, as in Copacabana to the topsy-turvy dissonance in a piece like Ipanema, with its cluster chords spawning a web of ninths, to Tijuca, which is like some surreal exhibition of polytonality.

Besides being an undeservedly obscure composer, Milhaud is known, if at all, as the teacher of a surprisingly diverse panoply of singers and musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Bacharach and the composer William Bolcom, the pianist on this recording.

Going Fourth

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Beethoven: Symphony No.4 & “Grosse Fuge”

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field / Neville Marriner

Philips 9500 033

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, coming on the heels of the heroic 3rd and before the insanely popular and dramatic 5th, has always been overshadowed. Similar to the 8th Symphony with its overly classical appearance, the 4th sounds a bit like Beethoven getting back to his roots before dynamiting and revamping the whole of classical music with his subsequent symphonies, quartets and sonatas.

The 4th is notable, too, for having one of Beethoven’s longest intros–32 bars, with a flute sustaining B-flat. In comparison to the monumental symphonies to come, the symphony is small-scale. The mood throughout is conspicuously upbeat, sounding like a late, previously lost work by Haydn than as an example of early Romanticism.

It premiered alongside the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1807. Since then it has gained the distinction of being the least performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, although today it’s starting to be performed on its own merits and not for the sake of a box set for completists. Neville Marriner and his period instrumentalists in the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field give a spirited and impeccable rendition.

Much of the B-side of this release is taken up with an uncredited arrangement of the contrapuntally ferocious “Grosse Fuge” (Furtwangler and Klemperer did separate orchestral transcriptions, while Liszt put out a version for 4-hands piano before them). Pairing it with the 4th is a strange choice, yet it serves somehow as an appropriate counter-example to Beethoven’s very Classical symphony.

Across the Harmonic Universe

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 4

Karl Bohm / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Decca 2xLP 6BB 171/2 (2015 pressing)

Maybe this isn’t place, but I’ll confide anyway. I lost my virginity in the backseat of a vintage Mercedes, parked in a dark cornfield, to Anton Bruckner. Or, to specify, whilst listening to a CD of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, the “Romantic” (I know, right?)

Of all Bruckner’s symphonies, there’s probably not a better soundtrack to a first sexual experience. The fourth is a smorgasbord of styles, from Wagnerian excess to Vivaldi-like concerto grossi to classical chorale. Begun and completed in 1847 (it went through numerous revisions), the symphony starts with a soft E-flat major in the horn section, the intent being that you don’t realize the work has started until you find that it has. It creeps up on you like a sunrise.

Bruckner said that the beginning introduces a “medieval city – dawn” with knights, forest murmurs and bird song commingling. Then C-flat takes over, with the strings in E-flat for coloration, much of which is done in 2 plus 3 rhythms, with the various keys conflating and resolving in shades of black and light.

The 2nd movement is a ponderous Andante quasi Allegro, bringing about a dour march of sorts that leads to a jaunty Scherzo played at walking speed. The final movement, snatching anxiously at beautiful new themes as though plucking them from the ether, goes on brilliantly to reiterate gestures from the first movements, but with a far more grayscale mood and an elusive strangeness that backgrounds the entire symphony.

Michael Steinberg calls the conclusion “one of his greatest codas…grandly confident strides across huge territories of the harmonic universe.” As with all of Bruckner’s symphonies, it’s big, imposing and mysterious, and perhaps no other recordings brings out these qualities quite like Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Sublimities

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Mozart: Clarinet Quintet & Oboe Quartet

Arthur Grimiaux, violin / George Peterson, clarinet / Pierre Pierlot, oboe / Koji Toyoda, violin / Max Leseuer, viola / Janos Scholz, cello

Philips 6500 924

The clarinet used to annoy me without fail. It always sounded like a teakettle with a hangover. Then I heard Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet performed by the Emerson, and I changed my tune. In the Adagio second movement, there’s a bracingly gorgeous section where the strings sustain a deep vibrato while the clarinet flits around it. After that, the clarinet became a friend, if an inconstant one. The instrument is especially suited to the ethereal and the mysterious, finding one of its best spots in Olivier Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, and a other works of an Impressionist nature.

But it’s possible that no one has surpassed Mozart in composing for the clarinet. His quintet for the woodwind, along with the later Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K.622, are two of his most profoundly lasting works. And, for me, the 1789 Quintet (perhaps the first to be composed for that particular ensemble) is total sublimity in 4 movements.

Mozart met the famed clarinetist Anton Stadler at a Freemason meeting, who premiered both the aforementioned works. Up to then the clarinet was an orchestral mainstay, but hadn’t yet been recognized for solo potential. Mozart kickstarted the instrument’s solo career with this quintet.

Here, the clarinet is given an operatic voice with a near-tangible stage presence, while the quartet of strings provide a concerto-like accompaniment that becomes delightful intermission music when the clarinet isn’t in the spotlight. Structurally and emotionally, it’s crisper and warmer than almost anything from the period. But it’s the slow Larghetto that gets you. Beginning with an aria from the clarinet that’s sympathetically joined by the violin, it then drops into soulful longing, with the rest of the strings playing softly under the clarinet’s wistful monologue. The Clarinet Quintet is one of those rare bits of music that sounds like it’s  carrying on an intimate conversation with each listener.

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Soviet Grotesque

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1

Eugene List, piano / Berlin Opera Orchestra / Fritz Wesenigk, solo trumpet / Georg Ludwig Jochum, conductor

Piano Concerto No. 2

Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Victor Desarzens, conductor

Westminster WST-14141

The two piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich could be examples of what might be called Soviet Grotesque. Each veers from familiarly Shostakovichean brutality to near lullaby to drunken rondos, with undercurrents of the carnivalesque everywhere.

Composed in 1933 and 1957, respectively, there’s an obvious tonal shift between them for all the concertos’s similarities. The 1st bears some traces of the Soviet workshopping so disruptive to Shostakovich’s process, especially hearable in the overtly patriotic 5th and 7th Symphonies, with a trumpet soloist included, somewhat bizarrely. (At times much of Soviet music sounds like the cobbling together of ideological power symphonies by drab apparatchiks in sterile rooms). But in the 2nd Piano Concerto Shostakovich, freed from the more extreme censorship he’d been leashed with, channels a classical exuberance that had already crept out in works like the 9th Symphony.

And who better to play these concertos than Eugene List, who played the 1st Piano Concerto not once, not twice, but 173 times before this recording. That’s not a typo. List debuted the work and went on to solo with a pantheon of notable conductors: Stowkowski a couple of times, Bernstein, Klemperer, and on and on, in countries around the world.

His playing is simply topnotch and completely assured on this album from Westminster. As far as the the sleeve design goes — piano keys in slight disarray –it’s a fitting graphic to these chromatically rambunctious concertos.

Stern/Ormandy/Tchaikovsky/ Mendelssohn

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Tchaikovsky: Violin Concert

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto

Isaac Stern, violin / Eugene Ormandy, conductor / Philadelphia Orchestra

Columbia MS 6062

At one time or another, Isaac Stern would probably have been the name you thought of when somebody mentioned a violin, while Eugene Ormandy tends to headline, along with Herbert von Karajan, every thrift-store classical record you come across nowadays. (On Discogs, his total discography comes out to 1,097, compared to Karajan’s whopping 1,566 recordings.) Stern and Ormandy played together a lot, as in practically every major concerto for violin and orchestra.

On this Columbia release, they perform two pillars of the violin repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s in D major (1878) and Mendelssohn’s in E minor (completed in 1844). Each is in some way a mirror-image of Romantic and Classical persuasions.

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Funny enough, the Tchaikovsky was proclaimed too modern by its dedicatee. It didn’t really find an audience for several performances. Mendelssohn’s concerto, on the other hand, with its soaring orchestral parts and playful/soulful solos, was a smash hit when it debuted; one of the composer’s friends said it rivaled Hamlet for quotable moments.

Stern’s playing is never stern; instead, it’s intimate, especially in the Mendelssohn, where the pacing and vibrato are expansive. His violin is an inhaling and exhaling thing that makes every bowing glide sing. Ormandy’s PO responds with thoroughly voluptuous orchestral coloring.

Ring Lieder

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Wagner: Orchestral Music from Der Ring Des Nibelungen

New York Philharmonic / Zubin Mehta

CBS Masterworks 1P 7628

Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.

-Mark Twain


Also called, for simplicity’s sake, The Ring, Wagner’s monumental, excessive opera is a cycle of four thematically-linked operas centered around Norse myth.

At the start of the opera, the titular ring is purloined from a dwarf named Alberich by Wotan. But a pair of giants then steal it from Wotan (not smart: Wotan’s title is, after all, King of the Gods) and his grandson Siegfried sets out on a hero’s journey to locate the jewelry. Romance appears in the coupling of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, a “Rhinemaiden”. Many other mythic people and creatures, distinguished by their own leitmotif, are encountered on Siegfried’s peregrinations.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the gist of The Lord of the Rings, which is based somewhat less Germanic-ly on Wagner’s work. And if you thought the film trilogy was long, an average performance of Wagner’s Ring takes about 15 hours, give or take five ten minutes. So if you want to hear versions of “Ride of the Valkyries” in slightly differing registers and transpositions in the time it takes to take a train almost halfway across the US, then this is the opera you must attend. The cycle premiered in 1876 and has tormented anyone taking a casual trip to Bayreuth ever since.

As for this recording, all Wagner performances sound more or less the same to me. But I can say that the album artwork by Henrietta Condak (whom I’ve mentioned before as possibly one of the best graphic designers ever) is amazing. Wagner holds a knife in one hand, while a gold ring and a horned helmet hover just above him. Pop art, Soviet propaganda posters, Art Deco and Nordic fairy tale illustrations meld into a highly stylized amalgamation.

Note: Vikings have been misrepresented, at least in regards to their choice of headwear, for a long time. It’s pretty well established now that they never wore the horned helmets that have become so inextricable from their warlike, large-statured image in contemporary culture. Carl Emil Doepler, a costume designer, is responsible for integrating the horned helmet into the fashions of Norsemen and -women. He introduced his fearsome headwear in 1876, not too surprisingly, for the premiere of Wagner’s Ring cycle. 

 

Neon Pianist

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 “Apassionata” & Op. 2, No. 3

Arthur Rubinstein, piano

RCA Victor LSC-2812

I have always thought of myself as a musical instrument.

-Arthur Rubinstein


Artur Rubinstein swept his tux tails onto the scene as though he’d popped into existence direct from the dream of some classical music-biz adman. Talented, princely, a seducer, the pianist cavorted with socialites, royals and Hollywood celebs. He played the fragile Romantics with the most sensitive touch of any pianist of his era, and probably could only be equaled today by the likes of Krystian Zimerman.

His specialty was Chopin, going so far as to claim that the composer’s Barcarolle was the best aphrodisiac to instigate one of his many scandalous trysts, and his recordings of Chopin do indeed charm the pants off any listener. He took Chopin out of the hands of the Bombastics, paring the composer’s solo piano works down to their most delicate essence. He was prickly with other musicians, and quite the voluptuary, as Bernard Gavoty sums him up:

…nothing but dinner, bedroom scenes, travels, lobsters, caviar, champagne’, before ‘an unpardonable frying of all your colleagues in a spicy sauce. Be their names Schnabel, Hofmann, Gieseking, HeifetzHorowitz – each one is described as having small virtues, entirely unequal to yours! This is fully-fledged megalomania.

In his day, though, he was a household name, probably recognized everywhere he went, and known as much for his lush playing as for his aristocratic demeanor. Both away from and at the piano he was an unrepentant dandy.

It’s telling that he believed Beethoven’s early and middle works were meant for public performance, while the later ones, with all their intensities and angst, should be played in private. That musical sensibility is nowhere as apparent as in this RCA Victor recording of two very different Beethoven sonatas.

 

Rubinstein’s Appassionata, a piece of with about as much turbulence as the sonata form allows sounds over-polished, and lacks the piece’s jagged explosiveness, especially in the final bits of the allegro ma non troppo. But in the op. 2, his velvety playing teases out little insights, notably in the 2nd movement’s long theme and variations. Finesse is Rubinstein’s game, and he totally inhabits the beautiful, almost Schumann-esque tunefulness with great precociousness.

All of which is to say: if any pianist should be silhouetted in neon on a 1970 album sleeve, it probably shouldn’t be someone named Artur Rubinstein.