Will the Real Shostakovich Please Stand Up?

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

National Philharmonic Orchestra / Dmitri Shostakovich, conductor

with Kabelevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture

Coliseum CRLP 173

I can’t be reproached for avoiding that ugly phenomenon of our reality.

-D. Shostakovich

Perhaps no other composer’s music is so autobiographical as Shostakovich’s. (His era, covering the Russian Revolution, WWI, WWII and the Stalin nightmare, gave him a lot of fodder). And among his 15 symphonies, the Tenth might be his most personal.

Often, critics overlook Shosta’s modernist leanings, and instead claim that his works are just notated digs at Stalin, thus reducing him to the status of a political composer. The Tenth does bear some of this politicization, but it’s more of a picaresque symphony documenting the composer’s travails and transfigurations. Shosta inserts his initials, using the German transliteration, as a recurring theme in the work, at first haltingly and transposed, in the uncertain 1st movement.

The symphony changes tack for the Allegro, which is one of the most brutal things you’re ever likely to hear. (The composer’s friend and chronicler, Volkov, says that this movement is a portrait of Stalin’s reign). Stalin had just died before Shostakovich began the symphony, in 1953, and perhaps he felt he had some wiggle room to shy away from social realism and to approach his materials more metaphorically.

As the music continues through a slow third movement and into the Andante-Allegro, Shosta’s initials keep popping up, more and more directly, until they’re stated boldly and without a moment’s hesitation. At the dawn of a freer world, the composer is finally allowed some measure of the self-expression he had to conceal from the totalitarian regime.

Once again, Shosta shows why he was the USSR’s updated Franz Joseph Haydn, with intricate, tight orchestration (paraphrasing not a little from Gustave Mahler) and an almost classical finale that would surely have been condemned by the state. Haydn, yes, but with a lot more drums, dissonances and savagery.

Originally recorded in Europe in 1954, this re-issue presents a rarity: Shostakovich conducting one of his very own symphonies.

Symphony Fantastic

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Bernard Haitink / Concertgebouw-Orchester, Amsterdam

Philips / 2xLP box set

Anton Bruckner could have been a pseudonym for Richard Wagner. His symphonies, starting with Symphony No. 0 and concluding with his unfinished 9th (a few conductors have finished it for him) are ear-throbbing, transcendent, huge-scale, depressing, uplifting, mercurial and quite simply orgasmic listening experiences. Jochum, Bohm, Celibidache, Barenboim have all championed his music. Pick any symphony and you’ll hear why.

The 5th Symphony, however, opens not with a huge shuddering roar, but with cellos and basses plucked in the softest possible pianissimo. Robert Simpson, in his monograph on the composer, says that “no symphony has has ever opened like this”. For those used to Bruckner’s colossal symphonies, which sound like a thousand orchestras in tandem, it’s a shockingly subdued intro.

Throughout the work, themes emerge and disperse, only to come to gradual realization in the chorale of the final bars of the Allegro moderato. As Michael Steinberg points out, the preceding movements come across as overtures to the “dialectic” of the ultimate fugal unfurling. Bruckner is known for his colossal finales of completely deranged counterpoint (just listen to the 7th, or the 4th, or the 8th, or any of them, actually).

Bruckner’s lengthy symphonies are big oceanic forces of nature. Different in many ways, the 5th partakes in that same ferociousness. But it’s at times tempered in equal parts by an expansive quietude that’s no less intense for its ethereal subtlety.

Bernard Haitink, another Bruckner enthusiast who at one point or another performed Bruckner’s entire symphonic output, gives a measured performances that perhaps reins in a little too much Bruckner’s explosive outpourings. (Compare it to Solti’s unbridled Romantic splurge of noise.) Hopefully, someone will press Celibidache’s live recordings of the symphonies for EMI–performances that reach such a level of quasi-mystical heights you might want to listen to it in segments (a few times when an especially tense climax builds and breaks into resolution you can actually Celibidache give a shout of what sounds like relief). And after that hypothetical label presses those hypothetical recordings, maybe they could, hypothetically, continue with the rest of his discography?

Until then, Jochum on DG is a true impresario with the symphonies.

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.

The Notorious 2nd

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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2

Jorge Bolet, piano / Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Thor Johnson

with Piano Concerto No. 5

Alfred Brendel, piano / Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Jonathan Sternberg

Vox/Turnabout


To the devil with all this futurist music!

-An audience member at the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Of Prokofiev’s five piano concerti, Gary Graffman and George Szell own nos. 1 & 3, and Richter’s 5 is a touchstone. The 4th, composed for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, isn’t performed all that much. But the 2nd Piano Concerto in G minor is a rampaging beast that was rarely performed at all until fairly recently. On vinyl, you can choose between a handful, with those by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet standing out. Here’s a big difference between them: Ashkenazy plays the concerto competently and with some panache in the thornier parts. Bolet, on the other hand, tears through the untamable beast like a possessed man.

And you kind of have to be in order to bring off the work. Virtuosic, mercurial, explosive, uninhibited, complex, with violently shifting moods, it’s epic and epically tricky to perform. The 1st movement cadenza, lasting over 5 minutes, is considered the most difficult in classical music (edging out Rachmaninov’s cadenza from the 3rd Piano Concerto). Romantic, classical and atonal sounds mingle, descending like a nightmare into ferocious clashing runs and distressing cadences as it becomes more and more technically demanding. It sounds like a musical deconstruction of music, and maybe even of the world itself.

The 2nd premiered in 1913, with Prokofiev at the piano. Here it’s partnered with a 5th Piano Concerto, played by Alfred Brendel (at his best, I think, when performing Mozart and Haydn, and not so much with modern fare). As far as the performance is concerned, which originally appeared on the Remington label, it might be the first ever recorded version, and it’s definitely a protean showstopper. The pianist snipped out a couple measures in the cadenza, but the entire concerto is played with superhuman dexterity, brawn and, when called for, astounding sensitivity. Bolet was a powerhouse, shirking classical composers and going straight for Liszt and the high Romantics, and so is a natural choice for this most brassbound of concertos.

And it should be reiterated that the conductor’s name is Thor.

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.

The Prodigy

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Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, opus 7 / Scherzos / 4 Fugitive Pieces / Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann

Michael Ponti, piano / Berlin Symphony Orchestra / Voelker Schmidt-Gertenbach

Candide

Clara Wieck’s 1835 Piano Concerto is a sparkling work somewhat in the mold of her teacher, Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere in 1838.

One of her father’s own music students was Robert Schumann, and they courted and wed fast, against her father’s wishes. Like her friend and fellow-composer Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister), Clara shattered at least one glass ceiling by performing in public at a time when musical women could hope to become singers at best. She was a first-class soloist, whom many critics believed would one day rival Franz Liszt, the demigod of the instrument. She continued to travel as a concert pianist even after giving birth to 8 (!) children, and caring for Robert during his spells of suicidal depression–a domestic workload that’s simply ridiculous.

Along with a Piano Trio and a set of Polonaises, the Piano Concerto in A minor is considered among her finest works. Ponti gives a precocious interpretation; in the first movement, ascending octaves, a la Chopin, are interrupted by the orchestra before the piano wrests away the main theme. Back-and-forth playful rhythms between cello and piano open the exquisite Romance, which then leads almost without pause from timpani to trumpets in the virtuosic final movement.

Steeped from childhood in the repertoire, it’s a prototypically classical concerto: Lightly dramatic, it calls for virtuosity and gracefulness in equal measure.

Oh, the composer was 13 years old when she began composing it.

Glasswerke

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The same qualities people love about Philip Glass are the same things others hate, the broken chords and the broody ambiences among them. Every film in which one of his scores is heard seems less like a soundtrack than a music video (The Truman Show, Watchmen, Notes on a Scandal are but a few). Put Glass’s work to any moving picture and it’ll instantly become that much more dramatic.

The Violin Concerto (1987), his first work using a traditional 3-movement structure, reimagines the concerto form. Instead of a soloist’s showcase, it’s basically a symphony with an extra violin teasing out the trickier passages. It opens with throbbing strings that give way to the violin’s arpeggios, in music that sculpts rather than demarcates time–“sequences and cadences” as Glass calls his densely packed style. An unhurried, lush second movement has the soloist cascading in and out of orchestral coruscations, while the third movement is an almost jolly dance, with the violin practically flipping out with minimalist fiddling.

All of which is to say that this is prime Philip Glass, and one of the great modern concertos for any instrument. On this 180g reissue (the album dropped in 1993) Gidon Kremer’s expansive, crisp playing is completely suited for the concerto in every way.

Dvorak’s Sublime Folksong

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Everybody has heard Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, most have listened to his bittersweet Cello Concerto, some know of his Violin Concerto and a handful are aware of his bizarrely obscure Piano Concerto (probably by way of Richter and Kleiber on EMI). In all these larger-scale pieces, Dvorak is a melodist’s melodist, layering gorgeous harmony on gorgeous harmony with a contrapuntal precision that can’t be topped.

But in his chamber music, he’s a melody machine. The “American” Quartet, the Dumka Trio,  the piano quartets–each is ravishing in its own way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Piano Quintet, opus 81, which is a stunning amalgamation of the composer’s synthesis of Romanticism, classical structure and Slavic tunes.

Themes are explored, transformed, revitalized, diminished and intensified, culminating in a fugato that gathers all the motifs up into a bang-up coda. Dvorak was an alchemist of fusing all the disparate themes from a given work for his grand finales, and it’s no different in this Piano Quintet.

For obvious reasons, five varicolored Eastern European eggs adorn the sleeve. The once much-heralded Fine Arts Quartet (“A study in depth” said one critic after a performance of theirs) pairs with pianist Frank Glazer for a spirited recording on the Concert-Disc label.

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.