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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Polytones

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Milhaud: Piano Music

William Bolcom, piano

Nonesuch H-71316

Don’t ever be discomfited by a melody.

-Darius Milhaud to Burt Bacharach


Similar to his contemporary Francois Poulenc, Darius Milhaud had an eclectic range of styles that could be cheeky, kitschy or cutting-edge. Sometimes all at once. Unlike the dodecaphonists, who criticized him for not being into seriousness, Milhaud was unafraid of a hummable tune. His most famous work, The Creation of the World (1923) is notable as an early classical piece to utilize popular music (it contains a gigantic jazz fugue), while Milhaud’s staging of Aeschylus’s trilogy from around the same period is orchestrated with whips and hammers.

Milhaud’s early works are marked by his use of polytonality–music that’s played in multiple keys at once. The Saudades do Brasil (1920-1921) is perhaps his most popular piece for the piano. Based on the rhythms of South America, it’s a series of simple melodic dances set against polytonal chords. The suites range from lightening fast bars, as in Copacabana to the topsy-turvy dissonance in a piece like Ipanema, with its cluster chords spawning a web of ninths, to Tijuca, which is like some surreal exhibition of polytonality.

Besides being an undeservedly obscure composer, Milhaud is known, if at all, as the teacher of a surprisingly diverse panoply of singers and musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Bacharach and the composer William Bolcom, the pianist on this recording.

Going Fourth

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Beethoven: Symphony No.4 & “Grosse Fuge”

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field / Neville Marriner

Philips 9500 033

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, coming on the heels of the heroic 3rd and before the insanely popular and dramatic 5th, has always been overshadowed. Similar to the 8th Symphony with its overly classical appearance, the 4th sounds a bit like Beethoven getting back to his roots before dynamiting and revamping the whole of classical music with his subsequent symphonies, quartets and sonatas.

The 4th is notable, too, for having one of Beethoven’s longest intros–32 bars, with a flute sustaining B-flat. In comparison to the monumental symphonies to come, the symphony is small-scale. The mood throughout is conspicuously upbeat, sounding like a late, previously lost work by Haydn than as an example of early Romanticism.

It premiered alongside the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1807. Since then it has gained the distinction of being the least performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, although today it’s starting to be performed on its own merits and not for the sake of a box set for completists. Neville Marriner and his period instrumentalists in the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field give a spirited and impeccable rendition.

Much of the B-side of this release is taken up with an uncredited arrangement of the contrapuntally ferocious “Grosse Fuge” (Furtwangler and Klemperer did separate orchestral transcriptions, while Liszt put out a version for 4-hands piano before them). Pairing it with the 4th is a strange choice, yet it serves somehow as an appropriate counter-example to Beethoven’s very Classical symphony.

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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Soviet Grotesque

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1

Eugene List, piano / Berlin Opera Orchestra / Fritz Wesenigk, solo trumpet / Georg Ludwig Jochum, conductor

Piano Concerto No. 2

Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Victor Desarzens, conductor

Westminster WST-14141

The two piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich could be examples of what might be called Soviet Grotesque. Each veers from familiarly Shostakovichean brutality to near lullaby to drunken rondos, with undercurrents of the carnivalesque everywhere.

Composed in 1933 and 1957, respectively, there’s an obvious tonal shift between them for all the concertos’s similarities. The 1st bears some traces of the Soviet workshopping so disruptive to Shostakovich’s process, especially hearable in the overtly patriotic 5th and 7th Symphonies, with a trumpet soloist included, somewhat bizarrely. (At times much of Soviet music sounds like the cobbling together of ideological power symphonies by drab apparatchiks in sterile rooms). But in the 2nd Piano Concerto Shostakovich, freed from the more extreme censorship he’d been leashed with, channels a classical exuberance that had already crept out in works like the 9th Symphony.

And who better to play these concertos than Eugene List, who played the 1st Piano Concerto not once, not twice, but 173 times before this recording. That’s not a typo. List debuted the work and went on to solo with a pantheon of notable conductors: Stowkowski a couple of times, Bernstein, Klemperer, and on and on, in countries around the world.

His playing is simply topnotch and completely assured on this album from Westminster. As far as the the sleeve design goes — piano keys in slight disarray –it’s a fitting graphic to these chromatically rambunctious concertos.

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.