Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

Odyssey Y35923

Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Whipper-Snapper

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great  virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.

Satie & Picasso

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Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1

Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel 36459

My work is completely phonometrical.

-Erik Satie


As far as classical music eccentrics go, Eric Alfred Leslie (nee Erik) Satie is the weirdos weirdo. A dapper gentleman who inhabited a filthy apartment in Paris on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, he was a one man Theatre of the Absurd. If you wanted to compile a list of his many oddities, it might start like this: 1. Founded his own religion. 2. Would eat nothing that wasn’t white. 3. Brought a hammer with him wherever he went. 4. Owned an impressive collection of over 100 umbrellas. And that’s just the beginning.

Today, his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes are his most popular works (the Gymnopedie No. 1 must be up there with Fur Elise as one of the most played pop classical pieces). Instead of choosing a particular tempo he’d poeticize his piano music with tempo indications like “Don’t be proud”, “Corpulent” or “Don’t stop”. His piano music, especially performed on this album by the best Satie interpreter ever, Aldo Ciccolini, is filled with an innocence that does never diverts the music’s mysterious core. He’s also considered the midwife of minimalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in his 1893 “Vexations”– a simple bass-line and chords to be repeated 840 times in exactly the same way.

Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie first collaborated on Parade (1917), a ballet with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and danced by the Ballet Russes. Its jarring cardboard costumes, which were nearly impossible to move in, and Cubists sets (both done by Picasso) involves a troupe of carnival performers trying to get people to watch their show. Parade so riled up audiences with its purposefully aggravating inaction that one viewer slapped Satie in the face after a performance. The ensuing riot, by most accounts, was more of a melee than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had been 4 years earlier. The poet Apollonaire coined the term “surrealism” in his program notes for the ballet.

In comparison to that extravaganza, of course, Satie’s solo works are marked by a calmness encroaching on ennui, but always with that same undercurrent of disquietude. The portrait on this Angel sleeve gets to the essence of Satie. In Picasso’s line drawing, the composer sits in a typical pose, jacket a bit slouchy around the contours of the chair. But his eyes look restless, and his hands are two oversized unruly beasts resting in his lap. The image is an apt visual metonymy of the tranquil bizarreness that so characterizes Satie’s musical style.

Guitar Men

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Works for Two Guitars by Diabelli, Giuliani, Carulli

Pepe & Celedeonio Romero, guitars

Philips 9500 352

Say classical guitar to anyone and, in order of appearance, you’ll come up with Andres Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, Pepe Romero and some nameless Renaissance madrigals. As far as individual pieces go, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concert (it’s been recorded a lot) has always been a popular go-to, trailed by solo pieces by Villa-Lobos and some Bach transcriptions. What’s less well known are the guitar works by Haydn (a delightful trio), Paganini, von Weber, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich (electric guitars, in this instance) and even Rorem and Takemitsu, among a crowd of others.

On this Philips release, the focus is on works for 2 guitars instead of one, played by the great guitarists Pepe and Celedonio Romero. The album presents duos by Diabelli, Giuliani and Carulli (which sounds like a tailors’ you might stumble on in Sicily). Giuliani’s op. 130 Variations for Two Guitars is a pleasant traversal, while Anton Diabelli’s op. 63 Serenade is as much of a charmer. But it’s the Carulli that stands really stands out.

Not a lot is known about Carulli, except that he moved from Italy to Vienna, and on to Paris in 1808, where he came out with a guitar method that’s still hugely influential. His Serenade, op. 96, begins with an overture that’s spectacularly operatic, in 6/8 time, and continues on in a polished dialog between the two guitars. An impassioned Allegro segues into a Larghetto, and the whole closes with a dance-like movement that sounds a little like a waltz. The two Romeros’ playing is nothing short of awesome: they’re so synched as to be practically indistinguishable from each other.

Flamenco Dancing in Ancient Rome

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De Falla: Quatro Piezas Espanolas / Fantasia Baetica / Three Dances from El Sombrero de Tres Picos / Suite from El Amor Brujo

Alicia de Larrocha, piano

London CS6881

Along with a handful of others, Manuel De Falla, born in 1876, was one of Spain’s greatest composers. And Alicia de Larrocha, born in 1923, was one of Spain’s greatest musicians. It should be no shocker that putting the two together produced an album of unusually high standards.

De Larrocha’s Mozart recordings for Decca are just one of her claims to fame. She is also notable for perhaps being the shortest concert pianist ever–a few inches under five feet, but with a hand span stretching well over an octave. With De Fall’s classical, sultry compositions, her polished approach is incomparable.

All the tracks on this London re-issue are situated squarely in the composer’s flavorful Andalusian period. Folk dances and popular nationalist melodies step in and out of extremely tight classical structures. Yet it’s the Fantasia Baetica, from 1919, that stands out above the rest. From the Roman name for Southern Spain, it draws on flamenco and ancient history, and was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein.

Pianist Paul Jacobs said that its chords are based on “guitar tuning” and has a “harsh percussive quality reminiscent of castanets and heel stompings”. The Baetica is epic in scale, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to perform. It sounds a bit like a mix between Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Bizet’s Variations chromatiques de concert (also rarely played, but featured on a terrific Columbia recording by Glenn Gould). In the wrong hands, the Fantasia Baetica can be more of a tactile rather a musical experience. Performed by de Larrocha, however, it’s a ravishing dance and a totally essential recording.

The “48”

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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Anthony Newman, harpsichord

Columbia 2xLP M2 32500

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, known to many pianists as simply “the 48”, is the Little Black Dress of classical music: elemental, revolutionary, essential. Or the Citizen Kane. Or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the invention of cheese, fiber-optics, the Big Bang. Really, the “48” isn’t just an epic set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys (it’s that too). But it is also a foundational event in music and cultural history.

The “48” as Bach composed them in 2 sections (from the 1720s and 1740s, respectively) were meant for any keyboard instrument, except for the piano, which hadn’t made its way to Germany from Italy, where it had just been invented. On the surface these are ostensibly exercises for practicing chords, scales and arpeggios in equal temperament–dividing the keys into 12 semitones.

But of course, the “48” are so much more than that, and in the right hands become something transcendently epic. Edwin Fischer was the first to record the entirety of the Well-Tempered Clavier, between 1933 and 1936, and his rapturous approach (still possibly the finest performance) was followed by a harpsichord version by Wanda Landowska. Since then it’s been recorded over 150 times.

Interpretations are across the board. There’s the romantic (Barenboim, Hewitt, Schiff), the unembellished (Pollini), the mysterious (Nikolayeva), the historically appropriate (Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Helmut Walcha) and the wildly eccentric (Gould, Gould and Gould). This recording by Anthony Newman, the first of two on the harpsichord and one on the piano, falls somewhere between the latter categories. Newman has been attacked by musicologists for his speedy tempos and cavalier adornments. And the 3rd Prelude, in C-sharp minor, is an excellent example: insensibly fast and flourish-y, and that pretty much sets the pace for this 1973 double-LP from Columbia, with its very 70s cover photograph of the harpsichordist mid-meditation on some kind of Druid-looking aqua-duct or something.

His Bach also happens to be truly exciting, and by today’s standards not all that heterodox. Other performers might be focused on structure, others on clarity, while a third sort might be inclined to bring out the inner dynamism of Bach’s music. Somehow, Newman combines all of them. There’s an improvisatory flair to his playing that nonetheless stays faithful to the soul of Bach. Before the period instrument boom went viral in the 1980s, Anthony Newman was there already, with a vitality and an authenticity comparable to anyone’s.

Sarcastic Darkness

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Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 / Piano Sonata No. 3

Gary Graffman, piano / George Szell / The Cleveland Orchestra

Columbia MS 6925

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a Prokofiev freak. The Piano Concerto No. 2 reaches levels of virtuosity, poetry and lyricism that can’t be surpassed. And when you add in the Piano Sonatas, the 6th Symphony, Visions Fugitives, the string quartets and the violin concertos and the cello sonatas and the operas, you’ve got a body of work that touches on everything from romanticism to atonality with complete originality.

Of all the concertos, the 3rd (1921) is the most performed. As with so many of his works, Prokofiev offsets striking lyricism with sarcastic dissonances and little inside jokes, like some postmodern standup riffing on his own material. A sweet clarinet intro leads into an orchestral crescendo, which is augmented by bursts from the piano, turning quickly into a somewhat manic fantasia.

Later, lines and lines of octaves in triplicated rhythm force the pianists hands to practically play on top of each other. The opening is recapped in variously structured ways, which leads to a coda of triads and glissandi and incredibly nimble 16th-note arpeggios before ending with open C octaves that gives the piece that meta feel. And that’s just the first movement. Next up, the Andantino is basically a set of variations, while in the last movement, Prokofiev said, a fight breaks out between pianist and orchestra. Here and in the 1st Concerto, which also appears on this album, Prokofiev is a one man history of classical music, blending and bending classicism, neoclassicism, serialism and romanticism into a single intricate package.

Several excellent recordings of the 3rd have made their way onto vinyl, with Argerich/Abbado on DG from the 1960s near the top, along with performances by Gutierrez, Kissin and Bronfman more recently. For me, Graffman/Szell is the gold standard. The pianist digs in with a clarity and ferocity you wouldn’t believe possible considering the hyper-virtuosity needed to pull of these concertos.

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.

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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