After Mozart After Bach

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Oft-heard string trios from Mozart, based on various works by J.S. Bach, and one from his son W.F. Baron van Swieten, one of the most important patrons of his day (Beethoven, Haydn, as well as Wolfgang would pass through his salons) introduced the composer to Bach’s scores. “Every Sunday at twelve o’clock I go to Baron van Swieten’s,” Mozart corresponded to his father on April 10, 1782, “And nothing is played there but Bach and Handel.” The discovery of these, musicologist Alfred Einstein argues, was the turning-point in Mozart’s style. Mainly borrowed from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Mozart’s trios transpose Bach’s “far out” keys (he hated too many flats and sharps), and offered his own intro to each. Yoko Mitsahushi did this galant art for Nonesuch, portraying three musicians balanced precariously on a balustrade. A bat is swooping down on lefthand side. Not sure what the owls are doing there — maybe they are not what they seem.

Riots of Spring

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Whenever “classical music” and “riot” are mentioned together it’s usually in reference to the premiere, in 1913, of Stravinsky’s pagan ballet. Design-wise, this cover (from a painting by Henri Rousseau) evokes a definite a Garden of Eden vibe, but with the added bonus of a snake-wrapped shadow-person playing the flute. Pierre Monteux, who conducted that first notorious performance, returns for this 1950s recording.

Bring Out the Bubbly

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It’s a real party on this RCA Victor release from the 1950s. Arthur Rubinstein plays Robert Schumann’s 21 vignettes, composed in 1834-35, which musicalizes himself, his friends and various stock characters during the pre-Lent festivities of Carnaval. Cesar Franck’s far more obscure work has an air of the sacred, as the middle-movement Chorale suggests. Both are performed with the pianist’s typical elegancy.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Scotland

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Four overtures from Mendelssohn in a London recording from the 1950s. Fingal’s Cave, the most recognizable of them, is an actual island called Staffa in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, known for its unearthly acoustical effects and black basalt columns. The composer visited the cave, or at least sailed by it, in 1829 and finished his standalone concert overture one year later, along with his Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) around the same time. An Anglo-Saxon warrior stands on the sleeve, wearing a pelt and a leonine face. He’s the kind of figure who might have resided in the cave, or maybe he’s the namesake of the Giant’s Causeway on the Irish coast, which geologists believe to have reached all the way to the Hebrides at some point.

Gershwin’s Cityscape

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Paired with just about every NYC skyline caught in film, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has become crowd-pleasing orchestra fare. It was originally composed for piano and jazz band, premiering with the Palais Royal Orchestra under Paul Whiteman, inĀ  1924. Noted French sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque play their transcription for 2 pianos — hailed by none other than George’s brother Ira — with Riccardo Chailly and the Cleveland Orchestra. “Rhapsody”, in its classical sense, is usually a one-movement work combining disparate episodes into an integrated whole. Appropriate here, in music that’s like walking unhurriedly from scene to scene along roaring-twenties Broadway.

Black Sabbath

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A stormy depiction of Modest Mussorgsky’s witchy classic. Leopold Stokowski conducts his own orchestration of the piece, and the one made famous in the Disney filmĀ Fantasia. Essentially a musical rendition of pagan practices from Slavic legends, by way of Gogol, Bare Mountain is a soundscape of savage woodland parties, fertility rites and general wildness. Needless to say, Mussorgsky couldn’t get it performed when he finished the piece in 1867 (coincidentally or not, on St. John’s Eve, when all the gruesome festivities take place). With its percussive opening and demoniac climax, it’s become a Halloween standard.

Haydn Seek

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Most composers complete around 9 or 10 symphonies. Mozart has an astounding 41. So it’s pretty remarkable that Joseph Haydn’s symphonies number 104 in total. For this record, Crossroads comes through with another silly design to match “The Chase”, the subtitle of Haydn’s Symphony No. 73. Three horseman are jumping a hedge, while the fourth sits hidden and picnicking with the fox they’re apparently pursuing. Both symphonies on the album are characteristically light, with spots of humor, and tightly structured. Put another way: very Haydn-esque.