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.

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.

The Dodecaphonists

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Berg: Lyric Suite / Webern: 5 Pieces & 6 Bagatelles

Julliard String Quartet

RCA Victor Red Seal LSC-2531


I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community.

-Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective


Arnold Schoenberg started a musical revolution with his 12-tone system just before the outbreak of WWI. His approach was to throw a wrench into “classical” composition by reordering the musical scale along deterministic lines. Each of the keys are given equal importance in his schematic, favoring “rows” to classify the various pitches, where rhythm, melody, development are forsaken for mathematical symmetry.

And the music of the Second Viennese School, as Schoenberg and his disciples are sometimes called, is like listening to a scientific theorem, or a bad dream about one–not exactly pleasant on the ears, but with a dynamic precision whose beauty is in the method more than the medium.

Two of Schoenberg’s closest adherents to serialism are coupled on this Columbia recording. Alban Berg was a soft-core 12-toner, but his Lyric Suite is very much a step-child of Schoenberg’s system. The work is in the sonata form, but bears little resemblance to any sonata you’ve ever heard, where no one theme is developed and yet, in the first movement, as Rene Leibowitz said, “everything is developmental” without reaching synthesis. Technically, it’s all hexachords, secondary sets, tretrachordal passages, cycles of fifths, etcetera, that would take an expert musicologist to explain adequately. (Theodor Adorno, just such a critic, called it “a latent opera”.) Inversions and sets-within-sets, mirrorings that recapitulate and transform earlier bars–it’s like Kurt Godel turning to music.

Later, Berg transcribed the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movements for string orchestra, as did Anton Webern, for his more accessible works for quartet. Atonalism is certainly the gist of the Pieces and Bagatelles, but imbued with snippets of harmony and exceptionally haunting sounds from the cello.

The Julliard, with a background in Schubert and Beethoven, dampens down the harsher elements, situating the composers in their historical milieu as both extensions of and heresiarchs to classical forms, especially in the Webern. Still, in their hands, the quartets retain an abrasiveness that still sounds uncomfortably new.

Sarcastic Darkness

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Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 / Piano Sonata No. 3

Gary Graffman, piano / George Szell / The Cleveland Orchestra

Columbia MS 6925

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a Prokofiev freak. The Piano Concerto No. 2 reaches levels of virtuosity, poetry and lyricism that can’t be surpassed. And when you add in the Piano Sonatas, the 6th Symphony, Visions Fugitives, the string quartets and the violin concertos and the cello sonatas and the operas, you’ve got a body of work that touches on everything from romanticism to atonality with complete originality.

Of all the concertos, the 3rd (1921) is the most performed. As with so many of his works, Prokofiev offsets striking lyricism with sarcastic dissonances and little inside jokes, like some postmodern standup riffing on his own material. A sweet clarinet intro leads into an orchestral crescendo, which is augmented by bursts from the piano, turning quickly into a somewhat manic fantasia.

Later, lines and lines of octaves in triplicated rhythm force the pianists hands to practically play on top of each other. The opening is recapped in variously structured ways, which leads to a coda of triads and glissandi and incredibly nimble 16th-note arpeggios before ending with open C octaves that gives the piece that meta feel. And that’s just the first movement. Next up, the Andantino is basically a set of variations, while in the last movement, Prokofiev said, a fight breaks out between pianist and orchestra. Here and in the 1st Concerto, which also appears on this album, Prokofiev is a one man history of classical music, blending and bending classicism, neoclassicism, serialism and romanticism into a single intricate package.

Several excellent recordings of the 3rd have made their way onto vinyl, with Argerich/Abbado on DG from the 1960s near the top, along with performances by Gutierrez, Kissin and Bronfman more recently. For me, Graffman/Szell is the gold standard. The pianist digs in with a clarity and ferocity you wouldn’t believe possible considering the hyper-virtuosity needed to pull of these concertos.

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?

Lisztmania

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Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Sviatoslav Richter, piano / Kyril Kondrashin / London Symphony Orchestra

Philips 835 474 LY

One might well believe that Liszt wrote his piano concertos with Richter in mind.

-Donald Mitchell


If you like your Liszt concertos with extra brio and muscularity, this Philips record, with Richter at the piano and Kondrashin on the podium can’t be beat. To call it heroic and fiery is an understatement. Richter could be as subtle as anyone, but his Liszt concertos, recorded in London for his first performance in Western Europe, are unfettered trailblazers.

Liszt’s debut concerto (hell, all of his solo piano works) are made for protean technique. Just listen to the Don Juan Paraphrase for pure insanity, and even the more meditative pieces require a dash of charismatic power. The E-flat opening of the 1st Concerto is spine-tinglingly brash, and the rest of the work is simply ferocious. Hardboiled and played in a mad dash, this could be one of Richter’s finest recordings, and Kondrashin meets his gung-ho take with an accompaniment that’s just as bold, adding a sharpness that may out-Toscanini Toscanini’s incisive Brancusi-like angularity.

The 1st Concerto was completed in spurts between 1830 and 1849, and starts with a booming intro that leads right into a 4-octave passage from the piano, and concludes with a chromatic downward sweep in octaves played at breakneck speed and marked fff. It was premiered with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting (oh to be a fly on that concert hall wall!).

Coming in at a brisk 20 or so minutes, it’s about 5 minutes shorter than than 2nd Piano Concerto. Very different in scope, the 2nd was intended as a single movement, and despite Liszt’s repute as a virtuoso and showman, the piano part is toned down to sound, at times, like just another ensemble instrument. While it’s given flights of incredible agility for the fingers, the 2nd doesn’t quite share its predecessor’s extracurricular devices.

Even with the performers miked very close by contemporary standards, the legendary Philips sound-engineering is beyond peerless here. For sheer grit, there’s not a better recording out there, and it’s been reissued countless times on vinyl and CD. I’m almost sure this is the closest we’ll get to actually hear Liszt perform the concertos himself.

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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Haydn’s Razor

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Haydn: Quartet Op. 64 No. 5 “Lark” / Quartet Op. 55 No. 2 “Razor

The Salomon String Quartet

L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca 414 712-1

Franz Joseph Haydn pretty much invented the string quartet as a serious chamber ensemble. He did one better by composing 68 of them (a few with spurious provenances), more than most composers combined. Many are familiar with his Op. 76 quartets, but this L’Oiseau-Lyre album, with collaborations from Decca and even The Folio Society, presents his “Lark” and somewhat ominous “Razor” string quartets.

In the “Lark”, so called for the high-registered opening of the violin, Haydn was thinking expressly of his violinist friend Joseph Tost, who was playing at the time in Haydn’s private Esterhaza orchestra. And really, it’s a showpiece for Tost more than anything, with a final vivace that’s a fast-forwarded flurry of virtuosity from the violinist.

The title of the first quartet on the Salomons’ recording, however, comes from an apocryphal incident. Apparently, Haydn was frustrated by his inability to find a suitable implement to shave his face while at the Esterhaza palace in Hungary and, in 1790, he traded the score of the quartet to the passing-through music publisher John Bland for a couple of much needed straight-edges, and these were duly supplied.

But the “Razor”, despite it’s jocular background, is more tempestuous than is typical of Haydn, with quite odd transitions. F minor and F major battle it out through the 4-movement work, leading to a back and forth where lengthy silences begin in one key. and the music resumes in the other. Finally, in the Presto that concludes the quartet, F major comes out on top with a spunky little dance.

Polytones

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Milhaud: Piano Music

William Bolcom, piano

Nonesuch H-71316

Don’t ever be discomfited by a melody.

-Darius Milhaud to Burt Bacharach


Similar to his contemporary Francois Poulenc, Darius Milhaud had an eclectic range of styles that could be cheeky, kitschy or cutting-edge. Sometimes all at once. Unlike the dodecaphonists, who criticized him for not being into seriousness, Milhaud was unafraid of a hummable tune. His most famous work, The Creation of the World (1923) is notable as an early classical piece to utilize popular music (it contains a gigantic jazz fugue), while Milhaud’s staging of Aeschylus’s trilogy from around the same period is orchestrated with whips and hammers.

Milhaud’s early works are marked by his use of polytonality–music that’s played in multiple keys at once. The Saudades do Brasil (1920-1921) is perhaps his most popular piece for the piano. Based on the rhythms of South America, it’s a series of simple melodic dances set against polytonal chords. The suites range from lightening fast bars, as in Copacabana to the topsy-turvy dissonance in a piece like Ipanema, with its cluster chords spawning a web of ninths, to Tijuca, which is like some surreal exhibition of polytonality.

Besides being an undeservedly obscure composer, Milhaud is known, if at all, as the teacher of a surprisingly diverse panoply of singers and musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Bacharach and the composer William Bolcom, the pianist on this recording.

Going Fourth

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Beethoven: Symphony No.4 & “Grosse Fuge”

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field / Neville Marriner

Philips 9500 033

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, coming on the heels of the heroic 3rd and before the insanely popular and dramatic 5th, has always been overshadowed. Similar to the 8th Symphony with its overly classical appearance, the 4th sounds a bit like Beethoven getting back to his roots before dynamiting and revamping the whole of classical music with his subsequent symphonies, quartets and sonatas.

The 4th is notable, too, for having one of Beethoven’s longest intros–32 bars, with a flute sustaining B-flat. In comparison to the monumental symphonies to come, the symphony is small-scale. The mood throughout is conspicuously upbeat, sounding like a late, previously lost work by Haydn than as an example of early Romanticism.

It premiered alongside the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1807. Since then it has gained the distinction of being the least performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, although today it’s starting to be performed on its own merits and not for the sake of a box set for completists. Neville Marriner and his period instrumentalists in the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field give a spirited and impeccable rendition.

Much of the B-side of this release is taken up with an uncredited arrangement of the contrapuntally ferocious “Grosse Fuge” (Furtwangler and Klemperer did separate orchestral transcriptions, while Liszt put out a version for 4-hands piano before them). Pairing it with the 4th is a strange choice, yet it serves somehow as an appropriate counter-example to Beethoven’s very Classical symphony.