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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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.

Ring Lieder

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Wagner: Orchestral Music from Der Ring Des Nibelungen

New York Philharmonic / Zubin Mehta

CBS Masterworks 1P 7628

Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.

-Mark Twain


Also called, for simplicity’s sake, The Ring, Wagner’s monumental, excessive opera is a cycle of four thematically-linked operas centered around Norse myth.

At the start of the opera, the titular ring is purloined from a dwarf named Alberich by Wotan. But a pair of giants then steal it from Wotan (not smart: Wotan’s title is, after all, King of the Gods) and his grandson Siegfried sets out on a hero’s journey to locate the jewelry. Romance appears in the coupling of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, a “Rhinemaiden”. Many other mythic people and creatures, distinguished by their own leitmotif, are encountered on Siegfried’s peregrinations.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the gist of The Lord of the Rings, which is based somewhat less Germanic-ly on Wagner’s work. And if you thought the film trilogy was long, an average performance of Wagner’s Ring takes about 15 hours, give or take five ten minutes. So if you want to hear versions of “Ride of the Valkyries” in slightly differing registers and transpositions in the time it takes to take a train almost halfway across the US, then this is the opera you must attend. The cycle premiered in 1876 and has tormented anyone taking a casual trip to Bayreuth ever since.

As for this recording, all Wagner performances sound more or less the same to me. But I can say that the album artwork by Henrietta Condak (whom I’ve mentioned before as possibly one of the best graphic designers ever) is amazing. Wagner holds a knife in one hand, while a gold ring and a horned helmet hover just above him. Pop art, Soviet propaganda posters, Art Deco and Nordic fairy tale illustrations meld into a highly stylized amalgamation.

Note: Vikings have been misrepresented, at least in regards to their choice of headwear, for a long time. It’s pretty well established now that they never wore the horned helmets that have become so inextricable from their warlike, large-statured image in contemporary culture. Carl Emil Doepler, a costume designer, is responsible for integrating the horned helmet into the fashions of Norsemen and -women. He introduced his fearsome headwear in 1876, not too surprisingly, for the premiere of Wagner’s Ring cycle. 

 

Neon Pianist

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 “Apassionata” & Op. 2, No. 3

Arthur Rubinstein, piano

RCA Victor LSC-2812

I have always thought of myself as a musical instrument.

-Arthur Rubinstein


Artur Rubinstein swept his tux tails onto the scene as though he’d popped into existence direct from the dream of some classical music-biz adman. Talented, princely, a seducer, the pianist cavorted with socialites, royals and Hollywood celebs. He played the fragile Romantics with the most sensitive touch of any pianist of his era, and probably could only be equaled today by the likes of Krystian Zimerman.

His specialty was Chopin, going so far as to claim that the composer’s Barcarolle was the best aphrodisiac to instigate one of his many scandalous trysts, and his recordings of Chopin do indeed charm the pants off any listener. He took Chopin out of the hands of the Bombastics, paring the composer’s solo piano works down to their most delicate essence. He was prickly with other musicians, and quite the voluptuary, as Bernard Gavoty sums him up:

…nothing but dinner, bedroom scenes, travels, lobsters, caviar, champagne’, before ‘an unpardonable frying of all your colleagues in a spicy sauce. Be their names Schnabel, Hofmann, Gieseking, HeifetzHorowitz – each one is described as having small virtues, entirely unequal to yours! This is fully-fledged megalomania.

In his day, though, he was a household name, probably recognized everywhere he went, and known as much for his lush playing as for his aristocratic demeanor. Both away from and at the piano he was an unrepentant dandy.

It’s telling that he believed Beethoven’s early and middle works were meant for public performance, while the later ones, with all their intensities and angst, should be played in private. That musical sensibility is nowhere as apparent as in this RCA Victor recording of two very different Beethoven sonatas.

 

Rubinstein’s Appassionata, a piece of with about as much turbulence as the sonata form allows sounds over-polished, and lacks the piece’s jagged explosiveness, especially in the final bits of the allegro ma non troppo. But in the op. 2, his velvety playing teases out little insights, notably in the 2nd movement’s long theme and variations. Finesse is Rubinstein’s game, and he totally inhabits the beautiful, almost Schumann-esque tunefulness with great precociousness.

All of which is to say: if any pianist should be silhouetted in neon on a 1970 album sleeve, it probably shouldn’t be someone named Artur Rubinstein.

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

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Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Columbia S2X 32923

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 scathing critique of Leibniz’s dictum that this is “the best of all possible” worlds, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta was first staged in 1956 on Broadway. While the music was a hit on par with Gershwin, the actual show was a flop. In its revised version of 1974, which is presented here with the original cast, Candide stuck closer to the source material, and was majorly popular when it debuted at the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn.

Candide has a ridiculously impressive roster of behind-the-scenes talent: Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman were involved in the 1956 adaptation. The great poet Richard Wilbur and soon-to-be-famous Stephen Sondheim provided additional material to the updated work, and was directed by Harold Prince.

This 2xLP gatefold sleeve by Doug Johnson features the Quixote-like hero traipsing on a ball composed of all the depravity and cruelty he encounters on his perambulations. Voltaire would be proud.

The Mahler in the Woods

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Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Erich Leinsdorf, conductor / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

London SPC21068

What exactly is going on in this London Phase 4 Stereo release sleeve of Mahler’s 1st Symphony? Hard to say, but it sure appears to have nothing to do with Mahler’s 1st Symphony. A group of gypsies from the 1970s, along with a face-painted extra from Cabin in the Woods (or is it the daughter from Fiend Without a Face?) are gathered for some kind of pagan rite in the woods, along with a guy who looks an awful lot like the basis of Slenderman, and a fur-clad couple.

Graphic designers unleashed their ids on this first of Mahler’s orchestral works for various labels. I could understand it with the 7th Symphony. But the 1st is his most traditional and accessible symphony, at least by Mahlerian standards, and doesn’t really call for anything remotely bizarre.

On second glance, the wraparound gatefold sleeve looks just like a still from some obscure, horrific Black Forest indie opera. Nightmares optional.

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.

Interplanetary Kitsch

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Holst: The Planets

Sir Adrian Boult / The Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Academy Chorus

Westminster WGS-8126

Pure kitsch is the premise of this 1970 Westminster sleeve. Capitalizing on the hokiest sci-fi epics of the period, it features two supermodel astronauts in skimpy outfits, ray guns and absurd footwear battle-ready for a Martian onslaught.

Holst’s astrological suite, completed in 1914-1916 is one of the most influential and oft-heard classical works (it’s been said that every film soundtrack is based on one or another of the 7 movements). Mars is considered by some to be the most powerful piece ever composed, while Venus, that “bringer of peace”, counterbalances the super-sized furiousness the red planet evokes.

But with a sleeve design like this, that’s all pretty much beside the point.

Tabloid Concerto

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Richard Addinsell: Warsaw Concert

with encores by Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven

David Haines, piano / Paris Theatre Orchestra

Somerset P-2100

Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto was originally composed for the film Dangerous Moonlight about the Nazi occupation of Poland. The producers of the film wanted to use Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for the score, but for whatever reason decided to hire Addinsell to recreate Rach’s most soaringly Hollywood Romanticism. (He’d done soundtracks for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the UK version of Gaslight.) The result is one of the earliest of the so-called “tabloid concertos” that would make their way onto many a turntable in the 1950s. Addinsell’s program music is less a “concerto” and more of a background of piecemeal Rachmaninov-isms scattered throughout the movie.

Still, it was one of the most popular film-to-concert hall works ever composed. It can be heard in a slew of love songs from the period, was transcribed for 2 pianos by Percy Grainger, became a staple of Liberace’s repertoire, has been sampled by the rapper DMX on one of his first albums, and serves as frequent accompaniment to Japanese figure-skating championships. Whatever your opinion of the piece, its multi-use versatility can’t be disputed.

David Haines performs the concerto, along with a few favorite encores on this 1958 Somerset recording. The sleeve art is stark: a grasping hand holds a flag while a squad of fighter planes roars overhead in the dusky sky. Cinematic is definitely one quality it shares with the music.