Episodes from a Symphony

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Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra

& Hindemith: Symphony “Mathis der Maler”

Paul Kletzki / L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande

London CS 6665

My episodic symbiosis with folk music.

Witold Lutoslawski

After Chopin, Lutoslawski was possibly the most famous Polish composer, and certainly one of the titans of twentieth century music. Like Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra, Lutoslawski’s, from 1950-’54, shows the elasticity of orchestral forms, with individual sections given solos. It’s scoring is similar, but the Concerto makes use of a wider variety of instruments, including a piano and a bell.

While Bartok parodied Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony in his Concerto, Lutoslawski celebrates his fellow Social Realist by inserting the “DSCH” monogram in musical language in the score. The 1st movement is a monumental symphonic spree of big climaxes and ear-splitting brass. Folk songs influence the following Capriccio Notturno E Arioso, with its forbidding calm, only to let loose in a trumpet fanfare before culminating in an introspective ppp marking (the quietest notation played even quieter).

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Diminishing and thundering intermittently, the final movement starts with a passacaglia, and then increases in fierceness for the toccata. A soft chorale follows close on its heels before turning extroverted with a gigue-like ending that sounds like a collaboration between Penderecki and Handel.

Notably, Lutoslawski has signed the back of this copy, which appears on the London label. It’s a strong performance by Kletzki and the Suisse Romande. Included on the album is Paul Hindemith’s symphonic drama about the role of the artist in a totalitarian regime. Auspiciously, it premiered in Germany under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwangler, as a sort of teaser for his opera of the same name.

The Moonless Sonata

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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.

Et Tu, Decca?

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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.

Symphony Fantastic

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Bernard Haitink / Concertgebouw-Orchester, Amsterdam

Philips / 2xLP box set

Anton Bruckner could have been a pseudonym for Richard Wagner. His symphonies, starting with Symphony No. 0 and concluding with his unfinished 9th (a few conductors have finished it for him) are ear-throbbing, transcendent, huge-scale, depressing, uplifting, mercurial and quite simply orgasmic listening experiences. Jochum, Bohm, Celibidache, Barenboim have all championed his music. Pick any symphony and you’ll hear why.

The 5th Symphony, however, opens not with a huge shuddering roar, but with cellos and basses plucked in the softest possible pianissimo. Robert Simpson, in his monograph on the composer, says that “no symphony has has ever opened like this”. For those used to Bruckner’s colossal symphonies, which sound like a thousand orchestras in tandem, it’s a shockingly subdued intro.

Throughout the work, themes emerge and disperse, only to come to gradual realization in the chorale of the final bars of the Allegro moderato. As Michael Steinberg points out, the preceding movements come across as overtures to the “dialectic” of the ultimate fugal unfurling. Bruckner is known for his colossal finales of completely deranged counterpoint (just listen to the 7th, or the 4th, or the 8th, or any of them, actually).

Bruckner’s lengthy symphonies are big oceanic forces of nature. Different in many ways, the 5th partakes in that same ferociousness. But it’s at times tempered in equal parts by an expansive quietude that’s no less intense for its ethereal subtlety.

Bernard Haitink, another Bruckner enthusiast who at one point or another performed Bruckner’s entire symphonic output, gives a measured performances that perhaps reins in a little too much Bruckner’s explosive outpourings. (Compare it to Solti’s unbridled Romantic splurge of noise.) Hopefully, someone will press Celibidache’s live recordings of the symphonies for EMI–performances that reach such a level of quasi-mystical heights you might want to listen to it in segments (a few times when an especially tense climax builds and breaks into resolution you can actually Celibidache give a shout of what sounds like relief). And after that hypothetical label presses those hypothetical recordings, maybe they could, hypothetically, continue with the rest of his discography?

Until then, Jochum on DG is a true impresario with the symphonies.

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.