Stern/Ormandy/Tchaikovsky/ Mendelssohn

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Tchaikovsky: Violin Concert

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto

Isaac Stern, violin / Eugene Ormandy, conductor / Philadelphia Orchestra

Columbia MS 6062

At one time or another, Isaac Stern would probably have been the name you thought of when somebody mentioned a violin, while Eugene Ormandy tends to headline, along with Herbert von Karajan, every thrift-store classical record you come across nowadays. (On Discogs, his total discography comes out to 1,097, compared to Karajan’s whopping 1,566 recordings.) Stern and Ormandy played together a lot, as in practically every major concerto for violin and orchestra.

On this Columbia release, they perform two pillars of the violin repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s in D major (1878) and Mendelssohn’s in E minor (completed in 1844). Each is in some way a mirror-image of Romantic and Classical persuasions.

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Funny enough, the Tchaikovsky was proclaimed too modern by its dedicatee. It didn’t really find an audience for several performances. Mendelssohn’s concerto, on the other hand, with its soaring orchestral parts and playful/soulful solos, was a smash hit when it debuted; one of the composer’s friends said it rivaled Hamlet for quotable moments.

Stern’s playing is never stern; instead, it’s intimate, especially in the Mendelssohn, where the pacing and vibrato are expansive. His violin is an inhaling and exhaling thing that makes every bowing glide sing. Ormandy’s PO responds with thoroughly voluptuous orchestral coloring.

Roots

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Dvorak: Symphony No. 4 (8)

(with Scherzo Capriccioso)

Istvan Kertesz / The London Symphony Orchestra

London CS6358

Breughel and Antonin Dvorak go together like lager and pretzels. There’s a shared boisterousness about them, a sense of carnival goings-on and village revelries and that particular melancholy felt in summer fields at dusk. Dvorak was raised about 20 miles outside of Prague in what, for all intents and purposes, might as well have been a Breughel painting. Early on he got his license to be a butcher (now known to be a forgery!), and played violin for various communal events.

His 8th Symphony bursts with folk melodies and surprising key shifts. Within its first movement a cornucopia of alternating themes bustle along tidily. This is definitely one symphony that deserves the appellation of “pastoral, with barreling good nature in the allegretto grazioso and plangent strains in the adagio, which is loosely modeled on Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

Close in structure to his forthcoming “New World” Symphony, the 8th is full of warmth and nostalgia, until the propulsive final bars that are pure joviality. Announced with a galloping trumpet fanfare that slides down the scale–an invitation to dance rather a Germanic call to arms, as Rafael Kubelik described it–for the huge onrushing climax.

It’s arguably one of the tightest, most listenable symphonies in existence. And under Kertesz’s direction, the LSO gives a colorful, gregarious and overall exceptional performance.

OneEleven

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Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111

(with Galuppi: Sonata No. 5 / Scarlatti: 3 Sonatas)

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano

Decca SXL 21109-B

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111 in C minor (1821-1822) has led to more poeticizing and speculation than just about any other piece of art, barring the Mona Lisa, Ulysses and Fellini’s 8 1/2. The sonata, like the later Grosse Fuge op. 133, is a microcosm of past and future musical styles. Fugue, counterpoint, dissonance, minimalism, boogie-woogie, ragtime–the 111 is like some non-chronological trip wending through the history and philosophy of music.

First thing you’ll notice is the absence of a third movement (Beethoven did this before, in the op. 54, 78 & 90) but here the long sweeping set of 4 variations of the Arietta ends not with a heroic bang but with a meditative whimper. Beethoven himself, when asked why there wasn’t a cleaning-up allegretto or presto, replied that he didn’t have the time. But of course there’s so much more to it than that. That third movement is like the missing link between classical/romantic music and modernism. In Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann speculates that the op. 111 Arietta is the only true culmination not just of the piece itself, but of the sonata form in general.

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Diminished 7th chords mark the 1st movement’s plunge into tumult and infernal darkness, with quick shifts of tempo and trills that compound the agonized nature. (The beginning of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is a throwback to the op. 111). It’s like some amped-up subterranean heroism, the composer struggling against corporeality.

But the Arietta quickly dispels any sense of harshness, like some tranquil starship journey to the reaches of an inner cosmos. In a series of 4 variations on a 16-bar theme in 9/16 time, Beethoven seeks the center of a center-less labyrinth located in the manifolds of the self. The 3rd variation has often been analyzed for its passages of 64 notes in heavily syncopated beats which, as Igor Stravinsky said, is remarkably close jazz. Many others, including Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff have pointed out the boogie-woogie rhythms, while Jeremy Denk calls the sonata “proto-jazz”. Without a doubt, the Arietta is one of the single most haunting and ineffable pieces in the canon–a “mystical experience close at hand”, as Alfred Brendel says.

Understandably, pianists interpret the 2nd movement to far extremes, from Glenn Gould’s rambunctious playing time of around 15 minutes to Daniel Barenboim’s attention-stretching 27-plus minutes, with Pollini, Brendel and Uchida coming in at about 20 minutes each. Personally, I like Pogorelich’s performance on DG and Arrau’s on Philips.

And this German pressing of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Decca recording is another exceptional version. Michelangeli tended to stick to select pieces, with a very small repertoire in comparison to most concert pianists. His Debussy Preludes sparkle and his Ravel Concerto and Rachmaninov 4 on EMI are absolutely peerless. Outside his Haydn concertos and some other wayward releases, he owned every piece he sat down to play. Exquisite phrasing was his specialty, and in the op. 111, that’s what we get. The first movement is performed with drama and ferocity, as you’d expect. His Arietta, clocking in at a bit less than 20 minutes, is plangent and lyrical, with an astounding control of the sonata’s sprawling intimacies.

 

 

Dueting Pianos

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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

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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

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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.

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.

Will the Real Shostakovich Please Stand Up?

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

National Philharmonic Orchestra / Dmitri Shostakovich, conductor

with Kabelevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture

Coliseum CRLP 173

I can’t be reproached for avoiding that ugly phenomenon of our reality.

-D. Shostakovich

Perhaps no other composer’s music is so autobiographical as Shostakovich’s. (His era, covering the Russian Revolution, WWI, WWII and the Stalin nightmare, gave him a lot of fodder). And among his 15 symphonies, the Tenth might be his most personal.

Often, critics overlook Shosta’s modernist leanings, and instead claim that his works are just notated digs at Stalin, thus reducing him to the status of a political composer. The Tenth does bear some of this politicization, but it’s more of a picaresque symphony documenting the composer’s travails and transfigurations. Shosta inserts his initials, using the German transliteration, as a recurring theme in the work, at first haltingly and transposed, in the uncertain 1st movement.

The symphony changes tack for the Allegro, which is one of the most brutal things you’re ever likely to hear. (The composer’s friend and chronicler, Volkov, says that this movement is a portrait of Stalin’s reign). Stalin had just died before Shostakovich began the symphony, in 1953, and perhaps he felt he had some wiggle room to shy away from social realism and to approach his materials more metaphorically.

As the music continues through a slow third movement and into the Andante-Allegro, Shosta’s initials keep popping up, more and more directly, until they’re stated boldly and without a moment’s hesitation. At the dawn of a freer world, the composer is finally allowed some measure of the self-expression he had to conceal from the totalitarian regime.

Once again, Shosta shows why he was the USSR’s updated Franz Joseph Haydn, with intricate, tight orchestration (paraphrasing not a little from Gustave Mahler) and an almost classical finale that would surely have been condemned by the state. Haydn, yes, but with a lot more drums, dissonances and savagery.

Originally recorded in Europe in 1954, this re-issue presents a rarity: Shostakovich conducting one of his very own symphonies.

The Notorious 2nd

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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2

Jorge Bolet, piano / Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Thor Johnson

with Piano Concerto No. 5

Alfred Brendel, piano / Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Jonathan Sternberg

Vox/Turnabout


To the devil with all this futurist music!

-An audience member at the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Of Prokofiev’s five piano concerti, Gary Graffman and George Szell own nos. 1 & 3, and Richter’s 5 is a touchstone. The 4th, composed for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, isn’t performed all that much. But the 2nd Piano Concerto in G minor is a rampaging beast that was rarely performed at all until fairly recently. On vinyl, you can choose between a handful, with those by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet standing out. Here’s a big difference between them: Ashkenazy plays the concerto competently and with some panache in the thornier parts. Bolet, on the other hand, tears through the untamable beast like a possessed man.

And you kind of have to be in order to bring off the work. Virtuosic, mercurial, explosive, uninhibited, complex, with violently shifting moods, it’s epic and epically tricky to perform. The 1st movement cadenza, lasting over 5 minutes, is considered the most difficult in classical music (edging out Rachmaninov’s cadenza from the 3rd Piano Concerto). Romantic, classical and atonal sounds mingle, descending like a nightmare into ferocious clashing runs and distressing cadences as it becomes more and more technically demanding. It sounds like a musical deconstruction of music, and maybe even of the world itself.

The 2nd premiered in 1913, with Prokofiev at the piano. Here it’s partnered with a 5th Piano Concerto, played by Alfred Brendel (at his best, I think, when performing Mozart and Haydn, and not so much with modern fare). As far as the performance is concerned, which originally appeared on the Remington label, it might be the first ever recorded version, and it’s definitely a protean showstopper. The pianist snipped out a couple measures in the cadenza, but the entire concerto is played with superhuman dexterity, brawn and, when called for, astounding sensitivity. Bolet was a powerhouse, shirking classical composers and going straight for Liszt and the high Romantics, and so is a natural choice for this most brassbound of concertos.

And it should be reiterated that the conductor’s name is Thor.

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.