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.

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.