All the Mountain King’s Men

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Grieg: Peer Gynt (Incidental Music)

Oiven Fjeldstad / London Symphony Orchestra

London CS6049

Slay him! The Christian man’s son has seduced
the fairest maid of the Mountain King!
Slay him! Slay him!

May I hack him on the fingers?
May I tug him by the hair?
Hu, hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
Shall he be boiled into broth and bree to me

Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
Ice to your blood, friends!

-Lyrics to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”


Everybody has heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King” somewhere or another. The whole Suite was riffed by Duke Ellington in 1960. Nero & The Gladiators charted at number 48 with their version of the Mountain King. Nineteen sixty-seven brought a new version by The Who (“A Who-freakout arrangement” said one reviewer), which was followed by Electric Light Orchestra’s 1973 rendition; various metal bands have also jumped on the Mountain King bandwagon. Cinematically, it’s been used in Birth of Nation and Fritz Lang’s atmospheric M, along with such disparate places as The Social Network (the rowing scene with the Winklevoss twins), and even in Trolls. Even Mad Men has used the piece. Alton Towers, a British theme park, has Mountain King in their promotional videos.

Along with several other suites from Peer Gynt, In the Hall of the Mountain King permeates pop culture perhaps even more than the big hits of Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner. Grieg was commissioned to do the music for Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. The play follows that well-known commoner-abducts-a-bride-on-her-wedding-night-and-abandons-her-so-he-can-travel-the-world trope, and because of the sordidness of the work, Grieg was at first reluctant to set it to music.

He finished the incidental music in 1875 while vacationing in Italy. The play was staged in 1876 in Oslo; it was an opulent production, with Grieg himself conducting the local orchestra. He then re-orchestrated the music again in 1885, and the play had a revival in 1902. In a final version from 1908 based on new material, Grieg once more retrofitted the work: now it comprised 23 individual pieces and lasted for about an hour and a half, replete with soloists and a chorus.

Because of its length, that version is rarely performed in its entirety, and instead the work was arranged into 2 suites, with the most popular pieces among them. And how popular they are. Not one to short-shrift his audience on ear-worm melodies without a ton of depth (he’s like Saint-Saens in a colder climate), Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites are like metonymies of classical music itself to a lot of people who don’t otherwise listen to classical music.  There’s “Anitra’s Dance” for strings, and “Morning” which, by my count, has appeared at the beginning of every Loony Tunes short out there.

And finally the big number: “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, referred to above in its many contemporary iterations. Basically, it’s a brief, simple theme in F major repeated faster and faster, in ever increasing volume, a la Bolero, until it reaches it’s ear-splitting, rambunctious zenith.

An early London reissue, this Stereophonic release has an unabashedly campy sleeve design. The anti-hero sits lounging in what appears to be the getup of some Swiss yodeler. Standing on a pedestal facing him, a blond Salome-type bombshell is attempting to charm him with her whiles, or so it would seem.

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.