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.

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.

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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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.