The Mahler in the Woods


Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Erich Leinsdorf, conductor / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

London SPC21068

What exactly is going on in this London Phase 4 Stereo release sleeve of Mahler’s 1st Symphony? Hard to say, but it sure appears to have nothing to do with Mahler’s 1st Symphony. A group of gypsies from the 1970s, along with a face-painted extra from Cabin in the Woods (or is it the daughter from Fiend Without a Face?) are gathered for some kind of pagan rite in the woods, along with a guy who looks an awful lot like the basis of Slenderman, and a fur-clad couple.

Graphic designers unleashed their ids on this first of Mahler’s orchestral works for various labels. I could understand it with the 7th Symphony. But the 1st is his most traditional and accessible symphony, at least by Mahlerian standards, and doesn’t really call for anything remotely bizarre.

On second glance, the wraparound gatefold sleeve looks just like a still from some obscure, horrific Black Forest indie opera. Nightmares optional.

Dueting Pianos


Mozart: Complete Music for Two Pianos

Alfred Brendel & Walter Klien / Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper / Paul Angerer, conductor

Turnabout TV 34064S

Together with the puzzle, Mozart gives you the solution.

-Ferruccio Busoni

Programming, performers, sleeve art–it doesn’t get much more fantastic than this. Brendel and Klien sound like one person with four hands on every track, ranging from the delightful Piano Concerto for Two Pianos to the dark Bachian depths of the K.426 Fugue.

You can pick from a slew of great duo performers on vinyl, from Richter/Britten performing Schubert’s Fantasy, to Argerich/Freire doing Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations on Philips. But I would take Brendel/Klien’s Mozart to a desert island over them all.

In the Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448 (1781), their playing is especially unsurpassed. Mozart sounds purer than ever before, with drama and humor in equal measure, which is just how he should be performed. It opens with some D major trills, which expands into a jovial theme you can’t help but hum along with. The understated Andante is one of the loveliest bits of Mozart, with notes falling like warm drops of rain on a sunny day, and with just a wink of melancholy. But that wistfulness is completely dispelled with the molto allegro and a whole medley of jaunty themes that seems to be always on the verge of turning into a full-on march ala turca, but then resolves itself before that can occur.

This is the piece that was used in the “Mozart Effect” studies, and it’s not difficult to see why. Other than being a completely satisfying experience for the listener, the sonata, along with the Clarinet Quintet, K.581 and the Piano Concerto No. 21, is one of the tightest, most polished examples ever of the classical style.

And the art here–a sort of rococo/retro mashup–features two period pianists, whose instruments are decorated with a mermaid, a castle, guitar-strumming cherubs and a scaly ocean. Both pianists, and a serious cat, stare nonchalantly at the onlooker, as though daring him or her to interrupt them.

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Mystic Chords


Scriabin: Prometheus – The Poem of Fire & Piano Concerto in F sharp minor

Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano / Lorin Maazel / London Philharmonic Orchestra / Ambrosian Singers

London C56732

His first major work for orchestra, Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto bears passing resemblance to his later theosophical initiations in sound. Flowing, near Chopin-esque refinement is the mark of the concerto. F sharp minor was a key the composer associated with a vivid blue.

The 1st movement is filled with a sweeping lyricism, culminating with a coda comprised of 5 heavy F sharp minor chords. In the Andante, a set of variations plays out around the initial theme, and the finale, with its dotted triplets echoes back the 1st movement. The only thing shocking about this concerto is just how classical it is, structurally and rhythmically. There’s an emotional, almost yearning gracefulness about the whole that comes to a satiating climax that ends on four more F sharp minor chords, played fortissimo.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, whose traversal of the complete sonatas is a hallmark, and helped bring the composer into the light of day, is an astute interpreter here. In his hands, the final movement sounds like Rachmaninov practicing a concerto he didn’t finish, and his flourishes and Romantic turbulence are on full display.

The A side of this record is something else entirely. By the time Prometheus was composed, in 1910, Scriabin was well on his way to becoming an esoteric, and truly innovative, madman. Scored for a gargantuan orchestra, it was to be his last orchestral work, and he would die shortly afterward at the age of 43. Often called The Poem of Fire, it contains all the occult trappings so prevalent in his solo works. Besides a piano soloist and chorus dressed in white robes with sing with closed lips, it’s synced with Scriabin’s theories of mystical lights that accompany each note. A huge orgasmic shudder closes out the piece, at the very close of which he called for a “painful” white light to be directed into the audience.

Prometheus also includes music for a clavier a lumieres. But don’t rush out to you nearest music shop. Unsurprisingly, it’s a thoroughly nonexistent instrument.

This reissue from Decca, on the London ffrr label, displays a painting of Scriabin, with flaming fingertips setting his head aflame, with some kind of odd Nevadan desert and blue night sky in the background. Audi did the design and, like his subject, it’s weird, alienating, surreal and mysterious all at once.

Stockhausen Syndrome


Stockhausen: Momente for soprano, 4 choral groups & 13 instrumentalists (1965 version)

Soloists / Chorus and Members of the Symphony Orchestra of Radio Cologne / Karlheinz Stockhausen, conductor

Nonesuch H-71157

The first thing you hear in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s first major work is several rounds of applause from the performers. Early audiences were indignant, believing, perhaps rightly, that they were being mocked, and so Momente became a minor sensation even by the avant-garde standards of the early 1960s.

Momente’s sounds occur in seemingly random sequences of vocal and instrumental noise–conversational monologues from the soprano, quick jabs from the organs, silences. It blurs the line between theater and concert, like some indie score to an underground NYC “happening”. Nothing about Momente smacks of classical music or, really, music in general.

Four small choruses, subdivided almost scientifically and lettered to represent various tonal ideas, it presents 30 sections of individuated sound–what the composer called “categories of sensation” in the philosophically-sounding method of “modular transposability”. Needless to stay, it’s certainly one of the most abstract listening experiences available on vinyl. It’s not necessarily pleasant, yet it is absolutely compelling.

And if that isn’t experimental enough for you, a later composition of Stockhausen’s calls for a quartet of helicopters.

Revised by Stockhausen in 1965, this pressing has the composer himself conducting. When other labels were shying away from avant-garde works, you could always trust Nonesuch to produce the most modernist recordings.

The Moonless Sonata


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 8, No. 23  & Op. 27, No. 2

Walter Klien, piano

Vox STPL 512.530

Everybody is talking about the C sharp minor sonata.

-Beethoven, complaining about the lavish attention heaped on his Op. 27, No. 2 Sonata

With the exception of his “Pastoral” Symphony, Beethoven didn’t name any of his works. Not the Eroica, the Pathetique, the Appassionata, and especially not the Moonlight sonata. The latter three, like the Graces that adorn this sleeve, are inseparable on vinyl and CD, despite not having a lot in common other than the composer and the instrument on which they’re performed.

The Op. 27, No. 2 shares with the No.1 of the duo the description Sonata quasi una fantasia (“in the manner of a fantasy”). Composed for Countess Giulietta Guicciardi in 1801, it had nothing to do with the moon until a fan in 1832 thought the 1st movement was evocative of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. The subtitle stuck in a big way, and rumors about Beethoven’s unrequited love for the Countess only reinforced that romantic opinion.

In actuality, as anyone who listens to the sonata can tell you, that 1st movement sounds like a Bachian prelude, which is exactly what Beethoven intended. The movement that follows is an almost buoyant allegretto typical of the day. Or, as Franz Liszt has it, “A flower between chasms”. The final movement is marked presto agitato, and it’s certainly that. Seriously daunting arpeggios and the use of sforzando notes makes it a storm of unbridled emotion. Beethoven was a subtle experimenter with the order of his movements, placing the most important one last, for instance, and that seems to be the case here.

Walter Klien is a bit of an obscure pianist nowadays, but he was known especially for his strict playing of Mozart and Beethoven, mainly on the Turnabout/Vox label. I’m not a huge fan of his solo recordings, but his concerto work is excellent, and the 4-hands piano duos with Alfred Brendel are minor classics in their own right. There’s nothing off-the-wall about his performance, and these are dependable, if fairly orthodox recordings.

Interplanetary Kitsch


Holst: The Planets

Sir Adrian Boult / The Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Academy Chorus

Westminster WGS-8126

Pure kitsch is the premise of this 1970 Westminster sleeve. Capitalizing on the hokiest sci-fi epics of the period, it features two supermodel astronauts in skimpy outfits, ray guns and absurd footwear battle-ready for a Martian onslaught.

Holst’s astrological suite, completed in 1914-1916 is one of the most influential and oft-heard classical works (it’s been said that every film soundtrack is based on one or another of the 7 movements). Mars is considered by some to be the most powerful piece ever composed, while Venus, that “bringer of peace”, counterbalances the super-sized furiousness the red planet evokes.

But with a sleeve design like this, that’s all pretty much beside the point.

Tabloid Concerto


Richard Addinsell: Warsaw Concert

with encores by Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven

David Haines, piano / Paris Theatre Orchestra

Somerset P-2100

Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto was originally composed for the film Dangerous Moonlight about the Nazi occupation of Poland. The producers of the film wanted to use Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for the score, but for whatever reason decided to hire Addinsell to recreate Rach’s most soaringly Hollywood Romanticism. (He’d done soundtracks for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the UK version of Gaslight.) The result is one of the earliest of the so-called “tabloid concertos” that would make their way onto many a turntable in the 1950s. Addinsell’s program music is less a “concerto” and more of a background of piecemeal Rachmaninov-isms scattered throughout the movie.

Still, it was one of the most popular film-to-concert hall works ever composed. It can be heard in a slew of love songs from the period, was transcribed for 2 pianos by Percy Grainger, became a staple of Liberace’s repertoire, has been sampled by the rapper DMX on one of his first albums, and serves as frequent accompaniment to Japanese figure-skating championships. Whatever your opinion of the piece, its multi-use versatility can’t be disputed.

David Haines performs the concerto, along with a few favorite encores on this 1958 Somerset recording. The sleeve art is stark: a grasping hand holds a flag while a squad of fighter planes roars overhead in the dusky sky. Cinematic is definitely one quality it shares with the music.



Et Tu, Decca?


Handel: Arias from Julius Caesar

Joan Sutherland / Soloists / Richard Bonynge, conductor / New Symphony Orchestra of London

Decca SXL 6116

The great soprano Joan Sutherland headlines these excerpts from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Nice sleeve art from the art department at Decca, bearing a facsimile of the edition from 1724.

Loosely based on the Roman Civil War (49-45 BCE), and especially on the love affair between JC and Cleopatra (the whole romantic/political power relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra, and later Marc Antony and the queen, with all the wives and illegitimate children in the mix sounds like a bad political soap opera, which usually makes for grand opera seria).

The earliest performances of Handel’s work featured a castrato in a couple roles, including that of Caesar himself. It’s remained one of the most staged operas from the Baroque period. Gottingen in the 1920s had a major revival of Handel, and in true Weimar Republic fashion, the opera opened with expressionist sets and silent film imagery.

Feral Cats & Serenades


Mozart: Serenades Nos. 11 & 12

Newell Jenkins, conductor / The Everest Woodwind Octet

Everest LPBR 6042

Mozart was a wind man. Some of his most delightful melodies come in his works for clarinet, horns and oboes. The Serenades are especially charming. No. 13 (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) is one of those tunes that’s sort of a metonymy for the whole of classical music, and one that anybody can whistle without knowing what it’s called.

No. 12, from circa 1782, was later transcribed by the composer into his String Quintet K. 406/415b. Both Serenades pressed here are for an octet of wind instruments. No. 11 is a lighter piece, while the next contains some pre-Romantic heaviness, but is nonetheless pretty typical of a serenading mood.

This Everest sleeve has an ostensible composer in the period of Mozart showing off a score to his wife or mistress or sister. He looks proud, though she seems to be nodding at him in an “Uh huh” kind of way. What draws the eye is the sharp-toothed feline that looks quite feral, perhaps even demonic, and is dressed in what appears to be silky robe. By all appearances, it may have been trained by its owner to attack on command, and the budding composer just might be its next victim. Three vividly colored clarinets offset the somewhat domestically-fraught scene.

A Quiet Descent

img_1628Schubert: Piano Sonatas D.959 & D.279

Wilhelm Kempff, piano

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 327

Everything Franz Schubert ever did often sounds like different sets of themes and variations–for quartets, orchestras, and soloists alike. But listening to Franz Schubert’s late piano works bears out that theory. Each one is like overhearing the composer plan, rework and deconstruct his music. The sonatas D.958-D.960 (nos. 19-21) are hallmarks of the form, thematically tight and near minimalist in their reiterative structure. In the D.959 sonata and elsewhere, a simple theme is laid out, evolved subtly or in startling shifts and transpositions; troubling tonal conflicts intrude, with flats and sharps thrown in like minefields scattered in the score. As with the other sonatas in the cycle, it’s a metamorphic experience.

Finished in 1828, the D.959 sonata has the distinction of containing one of the most intensely unsettled movements in the canon. You know something is off with the Andantino second movement by its key signature, F major, when the other four movements are in A major. It’s a creeping surreal nightmare in between moments of the uneasiest calm.

Any preference for a particular performer, for me, is based on the Andantino, as it encapsulates so much of what Schubert was all about. Valery Afanassiev’s ECM rendition is my go-to: meditative, agonizingly measured, almost all-holds-barred, and sounds a little like Andrei Tarkovsky switched from filmmaking to pianism. Rudolf Serkin’s vinyl recording from Columbia is an edge-of-your-seat performances, while Krystian Zimerman’s recent release (destined to be compared to the greats, and kindly pressed for audiophiles) is totally uncluttered and the probably the least ostentatious version I’ve ever heard yet.

Here, Wilhelm Kempff takes a middle-of-the-road approach that seems spot-on and sticks close to the original. Dramatic where it should be; delicate in the lyrical moments. My one complaint is his cutting some of the repeats in the Allegro, which comes in at about 4-5 minutes shorter than other recordings. The D.959 is accompanied with the early D.279, a precocious, unfinished-seeming piece that merely hints at later volatilities.