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.

 

 

Feral Cats & Serenades

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Mozart: Serenades Nos. 11 & 12

Newell Jenkins, conductor / The Everest Woodwind Octet

Everest LPBR 6042

Mozart was a wind man. Some of his most delightful melodies come in his works for clarinet, horns and oboes. The Serenades are especially charming. No. 13 (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) is one of those tunes that’s sort of a metonymy for the whole of classical music, and one that anybody can whistle without knowing what it’s called.

No. 12, from circa 1782, was later transcribed by the composer into his String Quintet K. 406/415b. Both Serenades pressed here are for an octet of wind instruments. No. 11 is a lighter piece, while the next contains some pre-Romantic heaviness, but is nonetheless pretty typical of a serenading mood.

This Everest sleeve has an ostensible composer in the period of Mozart showing off a score to his wife or mistress or sister. He looks proud, though she seems to be nodding at him in an “Uh huh” kind of way. What draws the eye is the sharp-toothed feline that looks quite feral, perhaps even demonic, and is dressed in what appears to be silky robe. By all appearances, it may have been trained by its owner to attack on command, and the budding composer just might be its next victim. Three vividly colored clarinets offset the somewhat domestically-fraught scene.

Putting on the Handel

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Handel: The Water Music

Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult

Westminster

You wouldn’t associate Handel with a bunch of promenaders in late 19th century garb, nor with a riverboat straight out of Huckleberry Finn replete with a flailing conductor.

But Westminster does.

Handel’s Water Music, in fact, was completed in 1717 at the behest of James I, in preparation for a little cruise he was planning, and it actually premiered on the king’s barge as it sailed along the Thames River. Which sounds like the most aristocratic/British thing ever. The set of suites is taken mainly from national ditties with spritely tunes, comprised of a waltz, a bourree, a gigue and other dances to keep the monarch and his cohort hopping.

The Devil Went Down to Germany

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Gounod: Faust (Highlights)

De Los Angeles / Gedda / Christoff

Orchestra and Chorus of the Theatre National de L’Opera / Andre Cluytens

RCA Victor

“Mozart should have composed for Faust”

-Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

In music, Goethe’s Faust is everywhere. Beethoven based on a song on it (even after the two men fell out when Beethoven remarked that the playwright was too chummy with aristocrats). Berlioz wrote an opera on the drama. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn musicalized the devil’s apprentice, and Franz Liszt composed not one but two Faust-centric works: a Faust Symphony and the Mephisto Waltz. Mussorgsky, Mahler and even the Soviet modernist Alfred Schnittke worked in material from the play (Faust Cantata in the the latter’s case. And that’s not even mentioning all the Fausts that show up in the songs of Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and Tenacious D.

The Faust legend (reaching into anecdote with Robert Johnson’s crossroads encounter with the devil) is well suited to musicians and composers seeking mastery in exchange for their souls. Who wouldn’t? Thomas Mann was aware of that connection, updating Faust into pianist/composer in his Dr. Faustus (1947). Although Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus was the first mainstream version, some scholars believe that the origins lay with the medieval magician Simon Magus. But it wasn’t until Goethe’s 1789 Faust that the popular tone was set, and author was adamant that no one other than Mozart, who was already dead, should set it to music.

Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera is loosely based on that version. Taking place over 5 acts (sometimes shortened to 4), it dispenses with Goethe’s sprawling philosophical epic and instead focuses on the love angle between Faust and Marguerite. After the premiere, Gounod’s name fame was assured.

Castellon’s vivid depiction on this RCA Victor release from the 1950s has the devil looking like a Venetian nobleman, ogling the face-sucking couple in the background. He has untrimmed fingernails and a pervert’s leer, as the prince of evil should. Ideally attired in blood-red finery, he is portrayed at the moment when he’s about to do some soul-searching and romance-thwarting.

Snow-Globes & Onion Domes

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Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Edith Farnadi, piano / Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Hermann Scherchen

Westminster

The Hungarian pianist Edith Farnadi is one of those great “undiscovered” musicians overdue for a revival. Her no-frills, confident recordings of Liszt are some of the best out there (just listen to the Paganini Etudes, if you can find them). On vinyl, Farnadi appeared on the Westminster label, and here she tackles the overplayed Tchaikovsky 1, as well as the underplayed Tchaikovsky 2.

Far lighter than its predecessor, the 2nd concerto comes with some fine melodies. A violin and a cello join the piano for many bars of the andante non troppo, turning the work briefly into a triple concerto. Orchestra and soloist are divorced for a good deal of the playing time; Tchaikovsky came to despise the sound of piano and symphony together. It’s a foursquare performance from Farnadi and Scherchen, skimping on the composer’s more Romantic garnitures.

Westminster has some terrific sleeve designs from the 1950s. This one is no exception, with its midcentury color scheme and clean lines bearing a snow-globe in the shape of a very Russian-looking onion dome.

Pastoralia

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After his 5th Symphony, Beethoven tried something quite different with his next work. The 6th Symphony is miles away from the brash Germanic drama of his “heroic period”, and instead paints a sound-picture filled with woods, streams and valleys. Completed in 1808, it’s a nature lover’s paean to idyllic settings. The “Pastoral” Symphony is a jaunt among rustic folkways. From “Arrival in the Country” to the harrowing strains of “Thunder Storm” it ends with a simple “Shepherd’s Song”. Beethoven even identifies the individual birdcalls played by the woodwinds in the second movement.

These two albums are not the finest recordings out there; they do share, however, fitting Breughel-esque scenes of peasants toiling in one design, and in revelry after the wheat has been harvested in the other. Szell’s version with the CO is a little too straightforward, offering zero playfulness, while Klemperer and the VSO, though more textured, is similarly an austere take.