Roots

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Dvorak: Symphony No. 4 (8)

(with Scherzo Capriccioso)

Istvan Kertesz / The London Symphony Orchestra

London CS6358

Breughel and Antonin Dvorak go together like lager and pretzels. There’s a shared boisterousness about them, a sense of carnival goings-on and village revelries and that particular melancholy felt in summer fields at dusk. Dvorak was raised about 20 miles outside of Prague in what, for all intents and purposes, might as well have been a Breughel painting. Early on he got his license to be a butcher (now known to be a forgery!), and played violin for various communal events.

His 8th Symphony bursts with folk melodies and surprising key shifts. Within its first movement a cornucopia of alternating themes bustle along tidily. This is definitely one symphony that deserves the appellation of “pastoral, with barreling good nature in the allegretto grazioso and plangent strains in the adagio, which is loosely modeled on Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

Close in structure to his forthcoming “New World” Symphony, the 8th is full of warmth and nostalgia, until the propulsive final bars that are pure joviality. Announced with a galloping trumpet fanfare that slides down the scale–an invitation to dance rather a Germanic call to arms, as Rafael Kubelik described it–for the huge onrushing climax.

It’s arguably one of the tightest, most listenable symphonies in existence. And under Kertesz’s direction, the LSO gives a colorful, gregarious and overall exceptional performance.

OneEleven

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Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111

(with Galuppi: Sonata No. 5 / Scarlatti: 3 Sonatas)

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano

Decca SXL 21109-B

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111 in C minor (1821-1822) has led to more poeticizing and speculation than just about any other piece of art, barring the Mona Lisa, Ulysses and Fellini’s 8 1/2. The sonata, like the later Grosse Fuge op. 133, is a microcosm of past and future musical styles. Fugue, counterpoint, dissonance, minimalism, boogie-woogie, ragtime–the 111 is like some non-chronological trip wending through the history and philosophy of music.

First thing you’ll notice is the absence of a third movement (Beethoven did this before, in the op. 54, 78 & 90) but here the long sweeping set of 4 variations of the Arietta ends not with a heroic bang but with a meditative whimper. Beethoven himself, when asked why there wasn’t a cleaning-up allegretto or presto, replied that he didn’t have the time. But of course there’s so much more to it than that. That third movement is like the missing link between classical/romantic music and modernism. In Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann speculates that the op. 111 Arietta is the only true culmination not just of the piece itself, but of the sonata form in general.

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Diminished 7th chords mark the 1st movement’s plunge into tumult and infernal darkness, with quick shifts of tempo and trills that compound the agonized nature. (The beginning of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is a throwback to the op. 111). It’s like some amped-up subterranean heroism, the composer struggling against corporeality.

But the Arietta quickly dispels any sense of harshness, like some tranquil starship journey to the reaches of an inner cosmos. In a series of 4 variations on a 16-bar theme in 9/16 time, Beethoven seeks the center of a center-less labyrinth located in the manifolds of the self. The 3rd variation has often been analyzed for its passages of 64 notes in heavily syncopated beats which, as Igor Stravinsky said, is remarkably close jazz. Many others, including Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff have pointed out the boogie-woogie rhythms, while Jeremy Denk calls the sonata “proto-jazz”. Without a doubt, the Arietta is one of the single most haunting and ineffable pieces in the canon–a “mystical experience close at hand”, as Alfred Brendel says.

Understandably, pianists interpret the 2nd movement to far extremes, from Glenn Gould’s rambunctious playing time of around 15 minutes to Daniel Barenboim’s attention-stretching 27-plus minutes, with Pollini, Brendel and Uchida coming in at about 20 minutes each. Personally, I like Pogorelich’s performance on DG and Arrau’s on Philips.

And this German pressing of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Decca recording is another exceptional version. Michelangeli tended to stick to select pieces, with a very small repertoire in comparison to most concert pianists. His Debussy Preludes sparkle and his Ravel Concerto and Rachmaninov 4 on EMI are absolutely peerless. Outside his Haydn concertos and some other wayward releases, he owned every piece he sat down to play. Exquisite phrasing was his specialty, and in the op. 111, that’s what we get. The first movement is performed with drama and ferocity, as you’d expect. His Arietta, clocking in at a bit less than 20 minutes, is plangent and lyrical, with an astounding control of the sonata’s sprawling intimacies.

 

 

Episodes from a Symphony

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Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra

& Hindemith: Symphony “Mathis der Maler”

Paul Kletzki / L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande

London CS 6665

My episodic symbiosis with folk music.

Witold Lutoslawski

After Chopin, Lutoslawski was possibly the most famous Polish composer, and certainly one of the titans of twentieth century music. Like Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra, Lutoslawski’s, from 1950-’54, shows the elasticity of orchestral forms, with individual sections given solos. It’s scoring is similar, but the Concerto makes use of a wider variety of instruments, including a piano and a bell.

While Bartok parodied Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony in his Concerto, Lutoslawski celebrates his fellow Social Realist by inserting the “DSCH” monogram in musical language in the score. The 1st movement is a monumental symphonic spree of big climaxes and ear-splitting brass. Folk songs influence the following Capriccio Notturno E Arioso, with its forbidding calm, only to let loose in a trumpet fanfare before culminating in an introspective ppp marking (the quietest notation played even quieter).

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Diminishing and thundering intermittently, the final movement starts with a passacaglia, and then increases in fierceness for the toccata. A soft chorale follows close on its heels before turning extroverted with a gigue-like ending that sounds like a collaboration between Penderecki and Handel.

Notably, Lutoslawski has signed the back of this copy, which appears on the London label. It’s a strong performance by Kletzki and the Suisse Romande. Included on the album is Paul Hindemith’s symphonic drama about the role of the artist in a totalitarian regime. Auspiciously, it premiered in Germany under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwangler, as a sort of teaser for his opera of the same name.

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

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Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Columbia S2X 32923

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 scathing critique of Leibniz’s dictum that this is “the best of all possible” worlds, Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta was first staged in 1956 on Broadway. While the music was a hit on par with Gershwin, the actual show was a flop. In its revised version of 1974, which is presented here with the original cast, Candide stuck closer to the source material, and was majorly popular when it debuted at the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn.

Candide has a ridiculously impressive roster of behind-the-scenes talent: Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman were involved in the 1956 adaptation. The great poet Richard Wilbur and soon-to-be-famous Stephen Sondheim provided additional material to the updated work, and was directed by Harold Prince.

This 2xLP gatefold sleeve by Doug Johnson features the Quixote-like hero traipsing on a ball composed of all the depravity and cruelty he encounters on his perambulations. Voltaire would be proud.

The Mahler in the Woods

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Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Erich Leinsdorf, conductor / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

London SPC21068

What exactly is going on in this London Phase 4 Stereo release sleeve of Mahler’s 1st Symphony? Hard to say, but it sure appears to have nothing to do with Mahler’s 1st Symphony. A group of gypsies from the 1970s, along with a face-painted extra from Cabin in the Woods (or is it the daughter from Fiend Without a Face?) are gathered for some kind of pagan rite in the woods, along with a guy who looks an awful lot like the basis of Slenderman, and a fur-clad couple.

Graphic designers unleashed their ids on this first of Mahler’s orchestral works for various labels. I could understand it with the 7th Symphony. But the 1st is his most traditional and accessible symphony, at least by Mahlerian standards, and doesn’t really call for anything remotely bizarre.

On second glance, the wraparound gatefold sleeve looks just like a still from some obscure, horrific Black Forest indie opera. Nightmares optional.

Dueting Pianos

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Mozart: Complete Music for Two Pianos

Alfred Brendel & Walter Klien / Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper / Paul Angerer, conductor

Turnabout TV 34064S

Together with the puzzle, Mozart gives you the solution.

-Ferruccio Busoni

Programming, performers, sleeve art–it doesn’t get much more fantastic than this. Brendel and Klien sound like one person with four hands on every track, ranging from the delightful Piano Concerto for Two Pianos to the dark Bachian depths of the K.426 Fugue.

You can pick from a slew of great duo performers on vinyl, from Richter/Britten performing Schubert’s Fantasy, to Argerich/Freire doing Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations on Philips. But I would take Brendel/Klien’s Mozart to a desert island over them all.

In the Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448 (1781), their playing is especially unsurpassed. Mozart sounds purer than ever before, with drama and humor in equal measure, which is just how he should be performed. It opens with some D major trills, which expands into a jovial theme you can’t help but hum along with. The understated Andante is one of the loveliest bits of Mozart, with notes falling like warm drops of rain on a sunny day, and with just a wink of melancholy. But that wistfulness is completely dispelled with the molto allegro and a whole medley of jaunty themes that seems to be always on the verge of turning into a full-on march ala turca, but then resolves itself before that can occur.

This is the piece that was used in the “Mozart Effect” studies, and it’s not difficult to see why. Other than being a completely satisfying experience for the listener, the sonata, along with the Clarinet Quintet, K.581 and the Piano Concerto No. 21, is one of the tightest, most polished examples ever of the classical style.

And the art here–a sort of rococo/retro mashup–features two period pianists, whose instruments are decorated with a mermaid, a castle, guitar-strumming cherubs and a scaly ocean. Both pianists, and a serious cat, stare nonchalantly at the onlooker, as though daring him or her to interrupt them.

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Mystic Chords

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Scriabin: Prometheus – The Poem of Fire & Piano Concerto in F sharp minor

Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano / Lorin Maazel / London Philharmonic Orchestra / Ambrosian Singers

London C56732

His first major work for orchestra, Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto bears passing resemblance to his later theosophical initiations in sound. Flowing, near Chopin-esque refinement is the mark of the concerto. F sharp minor was a key the composer associated with a vivid blue.

The 1st movement is filled with a sweeping lyricism, culminating with a coda comprised of 5 heavy F sharp minor chords. In the Andante, a set of variations plays out around the initial theme, and the finale, with its dotted triplets echoes back the 1st movement. The only thing shocking about this concerto is just how classical it is, structurally and rhythmically. There’s an emotional, almost yearning gracefulness about the whole that comes to a satiating climax that ends on four more F sharp minor chords, played fortissimo.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, whose traversal of the complete sonatas is a hallmark, and helped bring the composer into the light of day, is an astute interpreter here. In his hands, the final movement sounds like Rachmaninov practicing a concerto he didn’t finish, and his flourishes and Romantic turbulence are on full display.

The A side of this record is something else entirely. By the time Prometheus was composed, in 1910, Scriabin was well on his way to becoming an esoteric, and truly innovative, madman. Scored for a gargantuan orchestra, it was to be his last orchestral work, and he would die shortly afterward at the age of 43. Often called The Poem of Fire, it contains all the occult trappings so prevalent in his solo works. Besides a piano soloist and chorus dressed in white robes with sing with closed lips, it’s synced with Scriabin’s theories of mystical lights that accompany each note. A huge orgasmic shudder closes out the piece, at the very close of which he called for a “painful” white light to be directed into the audience.

Prometheus also includes music for a clavier a lumieres. But don’t rush out to you nearest music shop. Unsurprisingly, it’s a thoroughly nonexistent instrument.

This reissue from Decca, on the London ffrr label, displays a painting of Scriabin, with flaming fingertips setting his head aflame, with some kind of odd Nevadan desert and blue night sky in the background. Audi did the design and, like his subject, it’s weird, alienating, surreal and mysterious all at once.

Stockhausen Syndrome

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Stockhausen: Momente for soprano, 4 choral groups & 13 instrumentalists (1965 version)

Soloists / Chorus and Members of the Symphony Orchestra of Radio Cologne / Karlheinz Stockhausen, conductor

Nonesuch H-71157

The first thing you hear in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s first major work is several rounds of applause from the performers. Early audiences were indignant, believing, perhaps rightly, that they were being mocked, and so Momente became a minor sensation even by the avant-garde standards of the early 1960s.

Momente’s sounds occur in seemingly random sequences of vocal and instrumental noise–conversational monologues from the soprano, quick jabs from the organs, silences. It blurs the line between theater and concert, like some indie score to an underground NYC “happening”. Nothing about Momente smacks of classical music or, really, music in general.

Four small choruses, subdivided almost scientifically and lettered to represent various tonal ideas, it presents 30 sections of individuated sound–what the composer called “categories of sensation” in the philosophically-sounding method of “modular transposability”. Needless to stay, it’s certainly one of the most abstract listening experiences available on vinyl. It’s not necessarily pleasant, yet it is absolutely compelling.

And if that isn’t experimental enough for you, a later composition of Stockhausen’s calls for a quartet of helicopters.

Revised by Stockhausen in 1965, this pressing has the composer himself conducting. When other labels were shying away from avant-garde works, you could always trust Nonesuch to produce the most modernist recordings.

The Moonless Sonata

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 8, No. 23  & Op. 27, No. 2

Walter Klien, piano

Vox STPL 512.530

Everybody is talking about the C sharp minor sonata.

-Beethoven, complaining about the lavish attention heaped on his Op. 27, No. 2 Sonata


With the exception of his “Pastoral” Symphony, Beethoven didn’t name any of his works. Not the Eroica, the Pathetique, the Appassionata, and especially not the Moonlight sonata. The latter three, like the Graces that adorn this sleeve, are inseparable on vinyl and CD, despite not having a lot in common other than the composer and the instrument on which they’re performed.

The Op. 27, No. 2 shares with the No.1 of the duo the description Sonata quasi una fantasia (“in the manner of a fantasy”). Composed for Countess Giulietta Guicciardi in 1801, it had nothing to do with the moon until a fan in 1832 thought the 1st movement was evocative of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. The subtitle stuck in a big way, and rumors about Beethoven’s unrequited love for the Countess only reinforced that romantic opinion.

In actuality, as anyone who listens to the sonata can tell you, that 1st movement sounds like a Bachian prelude, which is exactly what Beethoven intended. The movement that follows is an almost buoyant allegretto typical of the day. Or, as Franz Liszt has it, “A flower between chasms”. The final movement is marked presto agitato, and it’s certainly that. Seriously daunting arpeggios and the use of sforzando notes makes it a storm of unbridled emotion. Beethoven was a subtle experimenter with the order of his movements, placing the most important one last, for instance, and that seems to be the case here.

Walter Klien is a bit of an obscure pianist nowadays, but he was known especially for his strict playing of Mozart and Beethoven, mainly on the Turnabout/Vox label. I’m not a huge fan of his solo recordings, but his concerto work is excellent, and the 4-hands piano duos with Alfred Brendel are minor classics in their own right. There’s nothing off-the-wall about his performance, and these are dependable, if fairly orthodox recordings.

Interplanetary Kitsch

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Holst: The Planets

Sir Adrian Boult / The Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Academy Chorus

Westminster WGS-8126

Pure kitsch is the premise of this 1970 Westminster sleeve. Capitalizing on the hokiest sci-fi epics of the period, it features two supermodel astronauts in skimpy outfits, ray guns and absurd footwear battle-ready for a Martian onslaught.

Holst’s astrological suite, completed in 1914-1916 is one of the most influential and oft-heard classical works (it’s been said that every film soundtrack is based on one or another of the 7 movements). Mars is considered by some to be the most powerful piece ever composed, while Venus, that “bringer of peace”, counterbalances the super-sized furiousness the red planet evokes.

But with a sleeve design like this, that’s all pretty much beside the point.