Beaux Art

IMG_6327

Important as he was as a composer, Felix Mendelssohn was just as crucial for saving Johann Sebastian from oblivion and for championing contemporary works. He and Robert Schumann, to me, are the fraternal twins of classical composition, and Mendelssohn’s piano trios reflect that bent.

The opus 49 is the more recognizable of the two trios, and is firmly rooted in a classical structure. A full-bodied cello introduces the piece with a nervy piano underlying it. Following that is a sweet lyrical 2nd movement, while the 3rd and 4th movements are, in the vein of classicism, fast and faster.

Mendelssohn was the best lyricist who never wrote lyrics, and melodies abound in these trios with a sweeping loveliness. Performing them here for Philips is the Beaux Arts Trio, and there’s no other musical triumvirate that’s more dependable with the chamber music repertoire. Their Mendelssohn, like their Schumann for the same label, is completely assured and mellifluous, as it should be.

Shostakovich Is Sorry/Not Sorry

IMG_6114

Nobody captured the katzenjammer of interior and external conflict like Dmitri Shostakovich. His milieu was incendiary: WWI, Stalinist purges, WWII, more Stalinist purges. Duality was hoisted on him: on the one side constrained by the Soviet Union’s artistic repression (if you weren’t into social realism you were blacklisted or worse), and on the other his pursuit of modernist forms of expression.

After the debut of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned in 1936, he was publicly denounced, and he slept for days in the stairwell outside his apartment waiting to be taken by Soviet authorities for his dissident music-making.

The 5th Symphony was his apology for sidestepping Stalin’s favor, though with some  very subtle acts of subversion thrown in. It worked and he was installed as the de facto propagandist, with his 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) becoming something of a rallying cry during WWII.

Yet everywhere in Shostakovich’s music there’s the purgatorial rage of a man stuck between his innate sense of cultural identity and what his country demanded of him. During the Col War, his music was a surprisingly huge draw in the US. When he finally arrived in America it was with a contingent of KGB operatives tailing him everywhere to make sure he wouldn’t defect to the enemy.

Vladimir Golschmann, a great champion of avant-garde composers, recorded this 5th for Capital Records, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It’s a sweeping performance that skimps on some of the more overt patriotic bombast.

Quualudes and Fugues

Glenn Gould was an oddball’s oddball. He’d show up at the studio layered in heavy winter garb, even in summer, carrying his piano stool — a plain chair — with him. Before every performance he could be seen dipping his arms up to the elbows in a bucket of hot water. Gesturing wildly, he seemed to be conducting his own playing, singing, muttering and groaning along to the music.

IMG_4588

For all his eccentricities, no one doubts that Gould was incomparable. His Bach is iconic, his Mozart utterly bizarre. Beethoven, in Gould’s recordings, often sounds like someone had erased pedal markings and tempo indications. Everything Gould touched, from the obscure Orlando Gibbons to Arnold Schoenberg, was stamped with his own refreshing precocity. And he played with the abandon and delight of someone in their own solar system.

But his recording of Georg Frideric Handel’s Suites 1-4, which originally appeared in 1720, reach a whole new level of strangeness that borders on perversity.

The four Baroque pieces, under Gould’s fingers, become something like high camp, right down to portraying the pianist in a gaudy silver frame on the sleeve, above an equally gaudy embellished gold pedestal. This would be Gould’s first recording on the harpsichord, and the instrument sounds alternately like a 68-string zither, a prepared guitar, and here and there like a piece of carpentry not meant to produce music at all.

IMG_4589

Handel’s period was rife with extemporization, taking liberties with themes in the way of jazz, and Gould doesn’t skimp on the riffing. It’s probably the strangest Handel we’re likely to hear: one moment the pianist cascades through like he’s recording the roll for a player-piano, the next he’s teasing the keys harp-like. With this recording, Gould’s idiosyncrasies are as pronounced as they’d ever be.

From the Suite 1 Prelude Gould deconstructs Handel’s keyboard works rather than just performing them, adding trills and little runs around the simple theme in Bachian fashion. The Gigue that closes out the Suite is a manic dance that comes off like a synthesized take.

IMG_4591

Likewise, the Adagio that opens the Suite 2 is played painfully slow, as Gould fragments the harmony into tiny pieces of modality. Following that, his Allegro flat-out bolts to another Adagio before going heafirst into the Fuga. Gould was most assured with Bach and counterpoint, so it’s not surprising that the playing here sounds most natural.

But it’s the Air, Variations and Presto of the 3rd Suite that, in a nutshell, characterizes the whole performance, running practically an entire half of the B-side. Here, Gould lets his freak flag fly, going from languorous and halting (and resembling nothing so much as a Renaissance-era song) to a full on high-speed lunge in the Presto. Vintage Gould — circumspect, obsessive, constantly unexpected.

Which is to say the album is cracked-out Baroque. Filled with equal parts lassitude and frenzy, Gould’s Handel is ultimately a bit of high-flying kitsch. Also, it’s completely addictive and impossible not to spin over and over again. Gould and Handel, two very different people, seem to be sharing an inside joke the rest of us aren’t in on, but which we can play along with as though we are anyway.

Maybe the weirdest thing I can say about this record is that it sounds exactly like Glenn Gould playing Handel on a harpsichord.

Toscanini’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Antonin Dvorak was reticent about the New World.

Already a well-known composer in Europe when he took over the directorship of the American National Conservatory of Music, Dvorak tsailed from Prague and disembarked in Hoboken, New Jersey on September 27, 1892. Initially, he was awed by the sprawling rush of urban life–his arrival coincided with the festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s New World docking. “Great and magnificent” was how he described his new city. In a quiet neighborhood on East 17th St., Dvorak began sketching his last symphony.

Antonin Dvorak

Once completed, it was billed in advertisements as evoking “wide open spaces”–an ironic phrase since Dvorak was horrified of them. The Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”) premiered on December 16, 1893. Audiences were enthralled. The composer was hailed as creating a distinctively American sound.

His experience with indigenous Americans, however, was pretty much restricted to watching some traveling Iroquois put on an exhibition in Prague some 20 years earlier. Another influence, strange as it sounds, was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. As was Longfellow’s 1855 The Song of Hiawathawhich Dvorak wanted to make into a symphonic poem but never finished. Like most white visitors, Dvorak’s view of America was largely expropriatory.

Harry Burleigh, one of his African American students–and later a composer in his own right–introduced the composer to spirituals, leading the latter to contend that African American folk songs would be the basis for a national musical heritage, proving apposite when jazz came along. Notwithstanding his soaking up of second-hand Americana, “From the New World” is very much a product of late-Romantic music theory.

The mood of America, though, pieces the international melodies into an adventitious American composition. An opening minor-key horn solo gives way to an expansive theme that recurs with differing modalities, and its something like listening to a European’s impression of America from a train-car. As it happens, Dvorak was obsessed with railroads, keeping fastidious timetables.

Discovery and longing are twin atmospheres in the symphony. In the Largo‘s intensely tender, almost painfully homesick English horn motif the feeling is tangible, with the first movement’s themes brought into a gently sad harmony.

After an initial burst of Jaws-like strings in the final movement, the preceding melodies are brought into synchrony with inventive variations. Here, the haunting notes of the Largo return in a slower, almost wary lead-up to the hurtling major-key finale. Fittingly enough, the bittersweet horn rounds out the last note of the symphony.

It’s an ambivalent vision of America, and at certain points a bleak one even. Innocence, expectation, transformation, yearning–the 9th is a Brahmsian traversal, with touches of Brucknerian brass, of the New World and Dvorak’s pining for Bohemia. A more modern, Americanized sense of dread roils just out of reach.

There are dozens of fine recordings of Dvorak’s autobiographical paean to America. Rafael Kubelik and the Berliner Philharmoniker ranks among the best and is probably the most faithful to Dvorak’s score.

A quieter performance comes from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Karel Ancerl.

Istvan Kertesz’s lively conducting of the 9th, included in a 1960s symphonic cycle for Decca, is considered a classic.

But for sheer propulsive power, none equal Arturo Toscanini’s 1953 studio recording. Definitely not the most sensitive or naturalistic, his direction is a headlong dive into the velocities of Dvorak’s New World.

Toscanini, by all accounts, was a difficult man. He was known for pushing his players to their limits with endless rehearsals. A perfectionist par excellence, he was a maniac on the podium, flailing wildly and muttering to himself under an Old World tailored mustache, resembling something like a hybrid of Charlie Chaplin from Monsieur Verdoux and Daniel-Day Lewis.

He was classical music’s first superstar conductor,  with a flair for the dramatic, whose performances on radio and television were viewed and listened to by thousands. His was literally the face of conducting: few people outside of an orchestra had ever seen a conductor’s expressions mid- performance. And what expressions they were.

Toscanini’s anti-Mussolini views made Italy a dangerous place to remain, so he emigrated, just like Dvorak, to NYC. Toscanini’s reputation preceded him; on arrival in 1937 he was supplied with his own hand-picked orchestra and a private studio. Soon, the hyper-charged conductor rampaged through the classical repertoire, rattling off Beethoven cycles, staging Wagner and Verdi, and generally, if you happened to be one of his musicians, being nearly insufferable.

Whether he was a great conductor or not has been a matter of debate, but what’s not in question is that his Dvorak Ninth is pretty exhilarating. Recorded at the NBC studio and subsequently re-issued many times, it displays Toscanini’s ridiculously keen sense of rhythm and tempo, notably in the 4th movement. His approach is practically staccato, an unapologetically brash interpretation that maximizes the symphony’s raw edges and conflicted feelings about the New World. Every bar is as chiseled as Mount Rushmore, with a momentum that channels Dvorak’s love of locomotives. It’s a view of America through the prism of two immigrants navigating its sometimes sweet, often furious noise.