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.

Guitar Men

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Works for Two Guitars by Diabelli, Giuliani, Carulli

Pepe & Celedeonio Romero, guitars

Philips 9500 352

Say classical guitar to anyone and, in order of appearance, you’ll come up with Andres Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, Pepe Romero and some nameless Renaissance madrigals. As far as individual pieces go, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concert (it’s been recorded a lot) has always been a popular go-to, trailed by solo pieces by Villa-Lobos and some Bach transcriptions. What’s less well known are the guitar works by Haydn (a delightful trio), Paganini, von Weber, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich (electric guitars, in this instance) and even Rorem and Takemitsu, among a crowd of others.

On this Philips release, the focus is on works for 2 guitars instead of one, played by the great guitarists Pepe and Celedonio Romero. The album presents duos by Diabelli, Giuliani and Carulli (which sounds like a tailors’ you might stumble on in Sicily). Giuliani’s op. 130 Variations for Two Guitars is a pleasant traversal, while Anton Diabelli’s op. 63 Serenade is as much of a charmer. But it’s the Carulli that stands really stands out.

Not a lot is known about Carulli, except that he moved from Italy to Vienna, and on to Paris in 1808, where he came out with a guitar method that’s still hugely influential. His Serenade, op. 96, begins with an overture that’s spectacularly operatic, in 6/8 time, and continues on in a polished dialog between the two guitars. An impassioned Allegro segues into a Larghetto, and the whole closes with a dance-like movement that sounds a little like a waltz. The two Romeros’ playing is nothing short of awesome: they’re so synched as to be practically indistinguishable from each other.

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.

Flamenco Dancing in Ancient Rome

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De Falla: Quatro Piezas Espanolas / Fantasia Baetica / Three Dances from El Sombrero de Tres Picos / Suite from El Amor Brujo

Alicia de Larrocha, piano

London CS6881

Along with a handful of others, Manuel De Falla, born in 1876, was one of Spain’s greatest composers. And Alicia de Larrocha, born in 1923, was one of Spain’s greatest musicians. It should be no shocker that putting the two together produced an album of unusually high standards.

De Larrocha’s Mozart recordings for Decca are just one of her claims to fame. She is also notable for perhaps being the shortest concert pianist ever–a few inches under five feet, but with a hand span stretching well over an octave. With De Fall’s classical, sultry compositions, her polished approach is incomparable.

All the tracks on this London re-issue are situated squarely in the composer’s flavorful Andalusian period. Folk dances and popular nationalist melodies step in and out of extremely tight classical structures. Yet it’s the Fantasia Baetica, from 1919, that stands out above the rest. From the Roman name for Southern Spain, it draws on flamenco and ancient history, and was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein.

Pianist Paul Jacobs said that its chords are based on “guitar tuning” and has a “harsh percussive quality reminiscent of castanets and heel stompings”. The Baetica is epic in scale, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to perform. It sounds a bit like a mix between Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Bizet’s Variations chromatiques de concert (also rarely played, but featured on a terrific Columbia recording by Glenn Gould). In the wrong hands, the Fantasia Baetica can be more of a tactile rather a musical experience. Performed by de Larrocha, however, it’s a ravishing dance and a totally essential recording.

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.

Bach Redux

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Play Bach, Vol. 1

Jacques Loussier / Christian Garros / Pierre Michelot

Waxtime 771802 / 180g (reissued from Decca 40.500)

Real music exists beyond the page.

-J.S. Bach, in response to a friend who’d asked why he was improvising


Before crossover albums were not hip in any way whatsoever, Jacques Loussier’s jazz-infused Bach inventions were so cool they should have come with their own wayfarer sunglasses. Louissier was classically trained and has a stupendous technique. Instead of going into concert pianism, I for one am glad he decided to jazz up classical.

His riffs on Bach, accompanied with drums and bass (his group would come to be known as the Play Bach Trio, and they would come out with 5 more all Bach records) reveals more about the composer than a lot of recordings I’ve heard that keep it staid. They weren’t the first to make Bach swing (that would be Django Reinhardt), but they’re definitely the most persuasive.

In Bach’s day, improvising on another’s theme was a great compliment, and on this record, nothing could be closer to the truth. In the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier that opens Play Bach, Loussier actually plays through the entire piece before he and the accompanists add their spice. While in the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor that opens the B side, the instrumentalists’ skills at transcription and execution should only be talked about in superlative terms.

Purists are probably loathe to praise the trio, but no one can deny the sheer magnetism of the playing. With different accompanists Loussier would go on to put out albums that explored the jazzy side of Beethoven, Vivaldi and Satie, and a fantastic solo crack at Chopin’s Nocturnes. Louissier is something of a celebrity in the populating world of classical jazz, even conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard for a swinging version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

Still, this first recording by Louissier and his trio might be the most indispensable.

International Harvesters

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Kronos Quartet

Music of Sculthorpe, Glass, Conlon, Nancarrow & Jimi Hendrix

Nonesuch Digital 979111-1

With the possible exception of Glassworks and a John Adams compilation featuring “Short Ride in a Fast Car”, the Kronos Quartet was my intro into contemporary and obscure classical music. I owned their Philip Glass String Quartets on CD and Early Music, and when streaming came about, Different Trains and works by Steve Reich were mainstays. Unlike most chamber musicians, they don’t play Beethoven or Dvorak (although I’d sign up for either of those), but focus mainly on modern works, generally after 1940 or so. (They should be famous simply for their curatorial skills; i.e. Black Angels, one of the most harrowing albums I’ve ever heard, opening with George Crumb’s terrifying Vietnam soundscape and culminating with Shostakovich’s equally brutal WWII String Quartet No. 8)

Needless to say, the Kronos is versatile. They worked with Clint Mansell on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, covered Bill Evans, folk music, African music, Harry Partch and Thelonius Monk, for starters. Named for the Titan representing the harvest, the Kronos Quartet certainly harvests from nearly every musical style in the world.

This self-titled record from 1986 kicked off their international renown, and is an ideal place to start to get a sense of their multifaceted approach. Philip Glass’s “Company”Quartet (No. 2, and done for an adaptation of a Samuel Beckett piece) is vintage early Glass, with a pulsating, though pacific tempo. The Nancarrow, on the other hand, is filled with rambunctious atonality, and with the rest of the works, it’s almost like an anti-concept album if the concept is a cohesive mood.

It’s a diverse sampling from a group espousing the most diverse sounds. And of course there’s a transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s most famous song.

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.

Cosmic Romanticism

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Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”

Gaston Litaize, organ / Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 619

There goes the French Beethoven.

-Charles Gounod, after hearing Saint-Saens’s 3rd Symphony


I’ve always considered Saint-Saens a gateway to more “classical” classical music. His 5 piano concertos are entertaining melody machines, with few pretensions and a very big Romanticism. If you equated classical composers of the period to directors of blockbusters today, Brahms would be Spielberg, Wagner is Michael Bay, Bruckner might be Christopher Nolan, Dvorak is Tarantino (obviously!) and Saint-Saens would have to be Paul Feig, or some other helmsman of crowd-pleasing rom-coms with moments of seriousness and real sentiment. Saint-Saens is universally known for his Carnival of the Animals; probably it’s the first symphonic work marketed exclusively to children and parents. The same year it came out, 1886, marked the appearance of his grandest work.

And grandeur is a good descriptor of the 3rd Symphony. Tom Service, in the Guardian, makes a compelling case that the 3rd is one of the period’s greatest orchestral works, and that it should not deter listeners that the main theme from the finale has been used in the film Babe and as the national anthem for Atlantium, a micronation founded by three teenagers and located in Australia (and which sounds like some Borgesian jest).

For all it’s quotable melodies and larger-than-life symphonism, the 3rd is structurally experimental, employing, along with a huge symphony, a part for piano (it takes four hands to pull of the blazing figurations) and, famously, an organ. It’s also arranged in two parts instead of the obligatory four. Like a Liszt tone-poem, the 3rd is bursting with color and episode, and is arguably the best work Saint-Saens would compose. The monumental finale, even by the standards of late 19th century finales, is truly universe-rattling, with an organ outro that’s so deep and alien in the symphonic domain that it sounds like vibrations from a distant planet interfering with the sound-waves of the recording.