How many harpsichords are too many? For J.S. Bach, the answer is four. His Concerto in A minor for Four Harpsichords and Orchestra (1730-1733) is actually a transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins and String Orchestra. William S. Harvey’s art tenure at Nonesuch continues with a handful of harpsichordists going at it in period garb. The album also contains Bach’s concertos for 2 and 3 harpsichords.
A 1961 recording of two Schubert symphonies, on the RCA Victor Red Seal label. The vintaged photographic sleeve presents a quiet pastoral scene, which is perhaps the last thing you might fathom when considering the composer’s sometimes harrowing “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8. Because nothing says tempestuous orchestral outpouring like a bunch of nesting eggs in a tree.
A mid-1950s re-release of hits from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne and Carmen, which originally appeared on the Decca label. The latter, a comic opera about a Gypsy, a soldier and a bullfighter, is appropriately rendered by the artist known only as Bainbridge. A flamenco dancer appears in one corner, and a guitar with human features in another.
A couple of very dissimilar cover designs for Hector Berlioz’s crowd fave, Symphonie Fantastique. The first is a 1951 Art Deco (nearly Soviet realist) depiction of the composer’s dark epic about art and love and witches, with panels showing the scenes from the 5-movement work, by Frank Decker.
Alongside its straightforward tableaus, Don Ivan’s 1972 trippy cover art for Columbia is bonkers, like some poster to an earlier version of The Shape of Water. In it, a fish-like gent, standing in giant glove, peers through a telescope whose outer lens is another glove proffering a top-hat. There’s a few more gloves in the scenery, a fish, a place-setting and sunflowers.
The performances, from Pierre Monteux and the San Fran Orchestra and Ozawa conducting The Toronto Symphony, are kind of beside the point. As well as being about as different as two sleeves can be while containing the same composition, they’re a peep into the changing tastes of classical music, and how utterly different it was marketed and portrayed in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively.
To portray this recording of J.S. Bach’s 3 Sonatas for Cello and Piano, a bust of Bach sits against an off-white background with a corkscrew jammed in the top. Half of Bach’s face is filled with wine, while the other half has been “poured” into a glass beside the still-life. Because Bach is like fine wine, or should be listened to in moderation, or simply because his head would make a funny novelty wine bottle. Possibly all of the above. As with their Beethoven cover mentioned earlier, the people at Westminster really had a thing for rarified prop jokes dealing with composer’s busts.
Another in Nonesuch’s off-the-wall sleeve designs from the 60s and 70s. Abe Guervin is behind the pastel artwork, which shows a busy soiree straight out of Yellow Submarine. Albert Fuller’s performance of Bach’s Partitas Nos. 2 & 6 is quite solid, but it’s hard to look past the bejeweled harpsichordist and the bikinied woman rising out of the back of the instrument. Nor the mutant felines, the retro vegetation, and miniature flamingo in the corner. If you went to a harpsichord recital after taking mushrooms and LSD, and washing it down with a gallon of absinthe, you might attend a concert like this.
One of the more unsettling sleeves I’ve seen in a while, taken from the Mercury label. This premier recording of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by John Corigliano (famous for his score for The Red Violin, which must have one of the most awkward sex scenes in cinema history), is paired with Richard Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica. The disturbing art by Ernst Fuchs shows a half reptile, half intergalactic space woman as noticed in a funhouse mirror, with a touch of David Lynch and Edvard Munch thrown in. Somehow melancholic and scary at once, it’s a bizarrely apt depiction of Corigliano’s flustered atonal romanticism.