The Prodigy

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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

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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

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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.

Something Wicked

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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

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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.

Bach in the Rainforest

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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.

Dark Harmonies

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Of all the oddball personalities in classical music, Scriabin may be the strangest. His dozen piano sonatas (the first two are unnumbered), dating from 1886 to 1913, run the gamut of his eccentricity.

A hardcore mystic and egomaniac, he claimed that “the whole world is inundated with my waves of being”. He had a physicist build an apparatus that showered audiences with a spectrum of lights during his concerts. Scriabin’s last, unfinished work, the Mysterium, involved a monumental assortment of orchestras and choruses to perform at the base of the Himalayas. It would herald the end of the world and lead humanity, he believed, into a prelapsarian wonderland.

Put briefly, Scriabin fancied himself both Christ and Antichrist, and Nietzschean overman to boot.

His music is as compelling and as it is ethereal. Sonatas 1-4 are more youthful works, with a romantic gloss. But all that changes around the time of the 5th Sonata (from then on, all of his sonatas are one-movement works) which is like a mysterious threshold at the bottom of the sea.  Esoteric chords play against softly demonic trills. Upheavals arise out of whispered melodies in totally innovative shadings and unnameable hues. The 7th and 9th are called, respectively, “White Mass” and “Black Mass”, and could be what you might hear in the White and Black Lodges from Twin Peaks.

In the 5th Sonata, his direction to the pianist could be a signpost to all of his works: “With fantastic intoxication”. If Chopin, Madame Blavatsky, Satie and Alban Berg suddenly merged into one person, that individual would be Scriabin.

Vox issued this triple album of Michael Ponti’s accessible recordings. Gustave Klimt’s artwork is certainly evocative of the experience of listening to these sonatas.

 

 

Wanda Landowska vs. the Bombs

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Wanda Landowska was the harpsichord connoisseur’s harpsichord connoisseur. Born in Poland in 1879, she was a trailblazer of the instrument. She was the first to record the Goldberg Variations, and the first to perform it live in front of an audience. Manuel De Falla and Francis Poulenc were so enthralled that they both composed works for the harpsichord expressly for Landowska.

Her Scarlatti is absolutely peerless. Lightness and incomparable technique inform every sonata. Landowska’s playing is always studious and witty. And these recordings, done in a Paris studio in 1939-40 also contain one of the most indelible moments in classical music recordings. Midway through the airy D major Sonata, K. 490, at 2:01, you can hear the German bombs falling on the city that began the occupation.

It’s an instance of stark brutality and dread heard in between the airy notes of an Italian baroque sonata. And without a pause, Landowska continues to play.

The Master Plucker

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“The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth.”

-Andres Segovia

The Andalusian guitarist Andres Segovia was the Django Reinhardt of classical music, transforming the looked-down on instrument into a mini orchestra. His repertoire was not huge, but his depth of intellectual feeling certainly was. He was, shockingly, self-taught. Segovia is known for playing his own transcriptions, especially Bach (Segovia’s sublime reworking of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 will destroy you in a good way), Scarlatti and other baroque masters. He’s something of the godfather of classical guitar, numbering among those he directly or indirectly influenced John Williams (not that John Williams), Christopher Parkening and Julian Bream.

In this Decca Gold Label recording, the six-string maestro plays works by Sors, Handel, Villa-Lobos and others. Erik Nitsche designed the color-wheel design comprised of regal, operatic silhouettes.

Fellow Travelers

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“Let the devil himself play this piece!”

-Franz Schubert, trying to play his Wanderer Fantasy


Strangely, this is the only pairing I’ve seen of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt’s concerto-like transcription of the same. Issued by Vox with an interesting medieval village landscape (the Wanderer’s destination?), the recording has Alfred Brendel tackling both iterations.

Schubert’s “Der Wanderer” lied is the basis of the piece, with the adagio opening with practically note for note with the song. The remaining three movements start out as “variants of diminution”, with each mono-theme becoming more and challenging until the thunderous, fugal finale that recapitulates the preceding movements. And it’s all played without a break, as each movement segues into the next. Pianists agree that it’s a bastard to play; even Schubert struggled to perform it. Displayed in the Wanderer is Schubert’s almost obsessive developing of a musical idea in striking chord changes and subtly devastating mood shifts.

Franz Liszt was a painstaking transcriber and paraphraser of others’ works (Beethoven’s symphonies, Mozart operas, Rossini, and many of Schubert’s songs). He was totally smitten with the Wanderer in particular, and saw in its thunderous drama the components of a symphonic piece. So his version for piano and orchestra is faithful to the original, with the exception of a very Liszt-like cadenza.