Satie & Picasso

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Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1

Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel 36459

My work is completely phonometrical.

-Erik Satie


As far as classical music eccentrics go, Eric Alfred Leslie (nee Erik) Satie is the weirdos weirdo. A dapper gentleman who inhabited a filthy apartment in Paris on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, he was a one man Theatre of the Absurd. If you wanted to compile a list of his many oddities, it might start like this: 1. Founded his own religion. 2. Would eat nothing that wasn’t white. 3. Brought a hammer with him wherever he went. 4. Owned an impressive collection of over 100 umbrellas. And that’s just the beginning.

Today, his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes are his most popular works (the Gymnopedie No. 1 must be up there with Fur Elise as one of the most played pop classical pieces). Instead of choosing a particular tempo he’d poeticize his piano music with tempo indications like “Don’t be proud”, “Corpulent” or “Don’t stop”. His piano music, especially performed on this album by the best Satie interpreter ever, Aldo Ciccolini, is filled with an innocence that does never diverts the music’s mysterious core. He’s also considered the midwife of minimalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in his 1893 “Vexations”– a simple bass-line and chords to be repeated 840 times in exactly the same way.

Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie first collaborated on Parade (1917), a ballet with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and danced by the Ballet Russes. Its jarring cardboard costumes, which were nearly impossible to move in, and Cubists sets (both done by Picasso) involves a troupe of carnival performers trying to get people to watch their show. Parade so riled up audiences with its purposefully aggravating inaction that one viewer slapped Satie in the face after a performance. The ensuing riot, by most accounts, was more of a melee than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had been 4 years earlier. The poet Apollonaire coined the term “surrealism” in his program notes for the ballet.

In comparison to that extravaganza, of course, Satie’s solo works are marked by a calmness encroaching on ennui, but always with that same undercurrent of disquietude. The portrait on this Angel sleeve gets to the essence of Satie. In Picasso’s line drawing, the composer sits in a typical pose, jacket a bit slouchy around the contours of the chair. But his eyes look restless, and his hands are two oversized unruly beasts resting in his lap. The image is an apt visual metonymy of the tranquil bizarreness that so characterizes Satie’s musical style.

Butterfly Effect

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Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5

Karl Munchinger / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

London CM 9378

Schubert got closer to the full metaphysical revelation than any other composer.

-John Harbison


Franz Schubert, according to his drinking and eating buddies, composed maniacally–on tablecloths, on menus, on anything that was handy in whatever tavern he happened to be in. At the piano, he’d sit, as one friend said, and would so totally subsume himself in the music that he’d become nearly unrecognizable.

Yet very little of his output, until relatively recently, was part of the standard repertoire. Sergei Rachmaninov, in the 1920s, wasn’t even aware that Schubert had even composed piano sonatas, which seems a tad apocryphal.

Of the 9 symphonies, or 8, since No. 9 is sometimes called the 7th–not mentioning the outlines of the 10th, which would be another unfinished symphony, and so would be considered the 9th (on that matter, Luciano Berio has an interesting piece called “Renderings” that mixes those sketches with reworkings of his own). Regardless, the “Unfinished” and the 9th (7th) are obviously the most played, and contain some of the greatest movements in the symphonic repertoire.

Compared to those, Schubert’s previous symphonies are very much in the Haydn/Mozart mold, so much so that they seem to be from different eras, as though Beethoven had gone from an early piano sonata to the op. 132 Quartet. Listen to the 6th and then the 8th and it’s like flipping from classical to full-fledged Romantic. Unbelievably, the 2 symphonies conducted by Munchinger here, the 4th and the 5th, were both finished in the same year, 1816, and though they share a classical pedigree, the 5th is certainly the lighter of the two.

A spirited symphony, it begins with an Allegro and proceeds in B-flat minor in a search for the introductory theme, then offers a surprise by previewing the melodies of the middle sections. Schubert dispenses with the usual instrumentation, doing away with clarinets, trumpets and timpani, either out of necessity for what was available to him, or to pay homage to Mozart, who left out those same sections in his 40th Symphony. Music historians have pointed out the similarities between that symphony, and also the 5th’s resemblance to Mozart’s Violin Sonata in F major.

These symphonies owe a lot to Schubert’s fore-bearers, and contain only a seed of the emotional intensity that would burst forth like the two butterflies on the front of this recording in his latter symphonies.

Hummel Pie

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Hummel: Piano Sonatas Nos 1, 3 & 6

Ian Hobson, piano

Arabesque ABQ6564

Johann Nepomuk Hummel is not a name you come across every day, if ever. In his day, the early 1880s, Hummel was triply famed as a child prodigy, Mozart’s best student and the successor to Haydn, starting in 1804, as the Esterhazy’s private concertmaster. And no, he’s not also the creator of those zaftig porcelain figurines ornamenting you in-laws living room. Today, Hummel is known mainly for his concertos and piano sonatas.

Three of the latter appear here. Unsurprisingly, the sonatas are Mozart-Lite: the 1st sonata sounds like a sketch for any number of Mozart’s middle-period sonatas. There a few moments of the brooding romanticism then beginning to trend in the era: the opening of the Sonata No. 3 is actually quite dark, before tinkling off to more familiar terrain, only hinting at it’s bleak introduction in the next two movements.

In the Sonata No. 6, Hummel returns for the most part to his roots. Yet there’s a flash in the 2nd movement (oddly named Un Scherzo all’antico) where the composer spins out music that could be mistaken for late Beethoven, before again skirting back to Mozartian classicism.

This 1980s digital recording from Arabesque has a very capable pianist in Ian Hobson, though Stephen Hough’s 2003 performance on Hyperion (he includes 3 other sonatas recently authenticated as Hummel’s) is perhaps even better. A painted engraving of a stormy boat race in Hummel’s day decks out the sleeve, and you can practically feel the spray coming off the waves.

The “48”

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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Anthony Newman, harpsichord

Columbia 2xLP M2 32500

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, known to many pianists as simply “the 48”, is the Little Black Dress of classical music: elemental, revolutionary, essential. Or the Citizen Kane. Or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the invention of cheese, fiber-optics, the Big Bang. Really, the “48” isn’t just an epic set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys (it’s that too). But it is also a foundational event in music and cultural history.

The “48” as Bach composed them in 2 sections (from the 1720s and 1740s, respectively) were meant for any keyboard instrument, except for the piano, which hadn’t made its way to Germany from Italy, where it had just been invented. On the surface these are ostensibly exercises for practicing chords, scales and arpeggios in equal temperament–dividing the keys into 12 semitones.

But of course, the “48” are so much more than that, and in the right hands become something transcendently epic. Edwin Fischer was the first to record the entirety of the Well-Tempered Clavier, between 1933 and 1936, and his rapturous approach (still possibly the finest performance) was followed by a harpsichord version by Wanda Landowska. Since then it’s been recorded over 150 times.

Interpretations are across the board. There’s the romantic (Barenboim, Hewitt, Schiff), the unembellished (Pollini), the mysterious (Nikolayeva), the historically appropriate (Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Helmut Walcha) and the wildly eccentric (Gould, Gould and Gould). This recording by Anthony Newman, the first of two on the harpsichord and one on the piano, falls somewhere between the latter categories. Newman has been attacked by musicologists for his speedy tempos and cavalier adornments. And the 3rd Prelude, in C-sharp minor, is an excellent example: insensibly fast and flourish-y, and that pretty much sets the pace for this 1973 double-LP from Columbia, with its very 70s cover photograph of the harpsichordist mid-meditation on some kind of Druid-looking aqua-duct or something.

His Bach also happens to be truly exciting, and by today’s standards not all that heterodox. Other performers might be focused on structure, others on clarity, while a third sort might be inclined to bring out the inner dynamism of Bach’s music. Somehow, Newman combines all of them. There’s an improvisatory flair to his playing that nonetheless stays faithful to the soul of Bach. Before the period instrument boom went viral in the 1980s, Anthony Newman was there already, with a vitality and an authenticity comparable to anyone’s.

In and Out of Beethoven’s Shadow

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Brahms: Symphony No. 1

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Westminster WGS 8166

Any ass can see that.

-Johannes Brahms replying to a comment that his First Symphony sounded too much like Beethoven


Hans von Bulow, the Romantic conductor and composer, said that Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 could just as well be called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10, and there is excellent reason for his quip.

Brahms was forty-three when he completed it, in 1876, on one of the Baltic Islands (one can imagine him, trademark mocha on the table in front of him, taking his usual afternoon nap on a lounge chair). His Piano Concerto No. 1 was begun as his first symphony, and it is basically a symphony with an extensive piano part. The problem for Brahms and the symphony undertaking was essentially Beethoven, from whose shadow he’d had been trying to get out of for some time. Being a Beethoven-phile like any self-respecting composer of the day, he knew he would have to surmount the master in order to attain his own orchestral voice. And like all struggles against a father-idol, it was a neurotic one. The anxiety of influence indeed. His First Symphony, therefore, is a coming-to-terms with Beethoven’s monolithic hold, a Freudian act of overcoming.

To quote Michael Steinberg in his Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, the symphony is a “dense thicket” of sounds in more or less “contrary motion”. There’s always a certain hardness to Brahms’s music, a rigid adherence to form, which he was well aware of, and wished at times that he had Dvorak’s ear for melodies. But the First Symphony is Brahms at his most elegiac.

The Big Theme of the work comes in the Allegro, and here Brahms finally tackles the shadow of Beethoven in a huge way, and you can practically hear his personal, agonized bout with LvB at every measure. (There’s a hair-raising moment in Celibidache’s recording for EMI in which the conductor lets out a startling guttural shout, and I always think of this as him channeling Brahms).

In many ways, the Big Theme is a distorted mirror-image of the Ode to Joy, and it’s introduced with one of the great pauses in classical music, like a breath being inhaled before Brahms makes the plunge to paraphrase Beethoven and then to strike out on his own. The theme itself is a crystalline, undecorated hymn. Then, without dallying, the music hurtles forward, propelled by the final note of the theme, which is not to be heard again in its pure form.

The finale is a coruscating, accelerating, halting iteration of the theme going through stupendous, thrilling transfigurations. With an enormity that seems to come from an abyss of pent-up emotion, Brahms unleashes the full orchestra in a torrent of string tremolos and recapitulations of what’s been heard from beginning to end, before finding its own ferocious autonomy. This is Brahms moving away from Beethoven’s supersonic orbit and hurtling along to his own trajectory, even if the gravitational pull of Planet Beethoven is a constant.

What an apple on a scale has to do with the symphony, as this Westminster design has it, is anyone’s guess.

The Birth of the Virtuoso

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Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (Complete)

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra / Karl Munchinger

London, 2xLP box set, LL 1457/8

Bach’s Brandenburg’s have at least one thing in common with New Orleans jazz (besides being awesome): they are essentially ensembles wherein each solo instrument has its 5 minutes of fame to play with and against the rest of the group. It’s like a republic of sound, or a democratic socialism, if you like, where every one is given a voice to riff with, but no one veers too far from the overarching structure.

Bach was more esteemed as a performer than a composer in his day, mainly because, as Joshua Rifkin says, his “genius shot so far above the capabilities of ordinary musicians that his greatness was veiled in silence”. For that reason, it’s doubtful whether the complete Brandenburg Concertos were ever performed in his day. Initially composed in 1711-20 for the Margrave of Brandenburg, they later sold off for about twenty bucks. The 1st Brandenburg goes beyond the bounds of the typical concerto grossi, with a size nearly equal to a chamber symphony, which was a big turn-off to 18th century music-makers (it was too large for Brandenburg’s personal ensemble), and so the rest of the Brandenburgs, including the gorgeous first movement of the 2nd (it would, however, find its way as the opening piece on one of the Voyager albums) fell along the wayside of musical history.

The 5th Brandeburg Concerto, as far as anyone knows, was the only one to be contemporaneously performed. Bach supposedly composed the concerto to show off his brand spanking new Cothen harpsichord, and it’s the 5th that stands out today, historically and stylistically. It’s the first ever work to showcase the keyboard in more than continuo fashion, elevating the harpsichord to a major solo player.

Hitherto unheard virtuosity leads to a 1st movement cadenza that is truly dazzling. Nikolaus Harnoncourt says that it fulfills the “technical and tonal possibilities” of the instrument, adding that it “becomes at the same time the beginning and the climax of its category”. A run of 16th-, triple-16th- and 32nd-notes configure one of the most suspenseful 65 measures of any music ever performed. (Give a listen to Mozart’s cadenzas and the entirety of Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto to see where Bach’s innovation would lead.) And throughout the 2nd and 3rd movements, the harpsichord keeps emerging with colorful pirouettes and trills. To echo Harnoncourt, the instrument sounds fully formed at birth.

Lots of recordings of the entire Brandenburg Concertos have appeared since they were discovered in an archive in 1849. Adolf Busch was the first to record all six concertos, and that was quickly followed by a complete set by Alfred Cortot. In many cases, the Brandenburgs are like big musical Rorschach blots, illuminating the whims of conductors and players more than the intention of J.S. Bach. Furtwangler’s and Klemperer’s versions are pretty bleak, sounding more like incidental music to Lohengrin than anything from the late Baroque period. Toscanini’s Brandenburg No. 2 is excessively classical and metronymic, while Casals and Stokowski both conjure a Romantic Bach. Not until Harnoncourt in 1964 did anyone attempt historically apt performances on period instruments, which was followed by a slew of similar recordings.

Karl Munchinger’s performance, reissued here on an early London ffrr double LP from a Decca pressing, is a capable perusal of the Brandenburgs in a more or less Romantically-inclined gradient.

Rach-y Road

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Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Command Classics (35mm) CC 11006 SD

Any music of Rachmaninov (or Rachmaninoff, depending on who you’re asking) without a piano is like Karl Marx without a beard–it just doesn’t work. I’ve never been a fan of his his 2nd Symphony; somehow they come off as somehow listless, at least the recordings that I’ve heard.

Rachmaninov’s symphony, in the classical 4-movement structure, was his attempt to overcome the truly hostile criticism of his First at the end of the 1890s, which had caused him no end of self-doubt and even led him to seek hypnosis. And it’s certainly is one damned brooding symphony.

As David Gutman, in Gramophone, exhaustively chronicles, that could be the result of many bad recordings, which don’t quite capture the cinematic drama of the work, but come off as sentimental sludge. His go-to recording is, surprisingly, Andre Previn’s, and this William Steinberg album gets little more than barely a nod.  But this recording, using 35mm technology, is extremely well engineered, with symphonic layers coming through wonderfully. The album art, too, is engaging, and ripe for interpretation: Is it an expressionist rendering of the symphony itself, or could be a mouse hole in a quirkily painted bohemian cafe?

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.