The Sorrows of Young Berlioz

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

L’Orchestre National / Andre Vandernoot

Command Classics CC 33-11009


Hector Berlioz’s diabolical symphony is essentially a psychological self-portrait in sound. And it may not have come about if it weren’t for a particular woman whom he became infatuated with. Berlioz had always been a mercurial boy with some serious teenage angst. Later, his unbridled sensitivity would find a romantic, though unrequited, outlet in the form of Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. It would turn out to be one of the most self-destructuve, albeit productive crushes in history.

Berlioz was born in 1803. Early on he was disowned by his mother for his theatrical proclivities. From the beginning of his musical career, Beethoven was his idol; he was especially struck by the Beethoven’s symphonies, which came to push at the boundaries of classical music with their wild emotions and Romantic grandeur. Using that Beethovian sublimation of the self in his own music, Berlioz finished his Symphonie Fantastique in the late 1820s, and it premiered in 1830. It was both an attempt to impress Harriet and to dramatize his raging feelings about her and his art all at once, sewing all his emotions on his sleeve. Harriet didn’t show up, putting a ribbon on his torment.

The Symphonie Fantasique is an emotionally tenuous tone poem. Its first movement opens with a lovely violin/flute combo while the orchestra roils miserably beneath it, symbolizing the Artist’s pent-up agitation about his beloved, i.e. Harriet Smithson. Following that is a waltzy Ball, where, ostensibly, she fails to appear. Afterwards, Berlioz channels his pastoral boyhood with a cowherd’s melody. He spies the woman of his dreams walking with someone else, and the orchestra mirrors his rage in a fit of convulsive blasts that completely shatters the tranquility of the setting.

Things turn dark from there. March to the Scaffolds presents the antagonist on his way to the gallows, having murdered his beloved, accompanied by the cheap sounds of a marching band. The theme he gave Harriet plays briefly, before cut short by the sudden swipe of the guillotine. The crowd applauds. A drumbeat is heard. Yet, in horror movie fashion, it turns out all to be a troubled dream.

In the last movement, the dream veers into a witches’ Sabbath, where sorcerers and creatures convene for a demoniac ritual. A church bell summons everyone to a nightmarish dance. It took Berlioz several years to master the fugue, and, tellingly, it’s a fugue that provides his final soundtrack to hell. Then the music goes haywire. His beloved actually does not snub him this time; she shows up to gloat over his circumstances. It’s a frightening extravaganza in imagery and sound, reveling orgiastically in its hero’s undoing and annihilation. Audiences had never heard anything like it.

But it wasn’t until the second premiere, with finally taking up his offer to attend, that some real drama manifested itself outside of the symphony. After the performance, Harriet realized that the work was a thinly veiled portrait of how Berlioz felt about her, and she agreed to meet with him. At the assignation, one of the weirdest wedding proposals ever would occur.

During a subsequent date, Berlioz took from his pocket a huge amount of opium, more than enough to kill the composer, and then he swallowed it without further ado. Right then, he asked her to marry him. Completely frazzled, she said yes. Berlioz calmly took a second vial out of a different pocket, which happened to be an antidote, which he took. They married in 1833, and it’s not shocking, considering Berlioz’s temperament, that the marriage didn’t take, and they separated not long afterwards.

Among the plethora of good and bad performances, this stereo version on the Command Classics 35MM label, is a solid, if obscure, recording, but with the bonus of neat abstract expressionist designs.

Surprise!

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Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 94 “Surprise” & 101 “Clock”

Pierre Monteux / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA LSC-2394

Strange as it sounds today, Franz Joseph Haydn was a celebrity in late 18th century England, on par with someone like Bruce Springsteen or Bjork in Iceland. He was recognized in the streets, and huge crowds turned out for the premieres of his many, many symphonies. Being the most famous composer of his day, he could get away with a joke on the audience when he felt like it. Haydn had just finished his stint as the Esterhazy’s personal music director when he arrived in London and conducted his Symphony No. 94 in 1792, the second of the 12 London symphonies. As usual, a throng showed up to hear it.

The Andante second movement starts off placid enough, but as the pianissimo main theme comes to a close, hardly a minute in, an incredibly loud fortissimo chord taken up by the whole orchestra erupts from nowhere. According to anecdotal testimony, the chord was a spur-of-the-moment decision of Haydn’s (he was conducting) to rouse an audience member in the front row who’d gone to sleep. The sleeper was of course brought immediately to his senses, and stood bolt upright to tremendous embarrassment. The episode, as great as it sounds, probably isn’t quite true. One of Haydn’s biographers asked him if the chord was meant as a prank, and the composer responded that no, he’d just wanted to introduce a totally unexpected element into his symphony. Which he certainly did.

What’s more shocking than the “surprise”, perhaps, is the fact that it’s not repeated when the theme returns. This leads to a palpable sense of playful dread that’s a little like re-winding a jack-in-the-box and not have it spring out after it’s scared the bejesus out of you the first time. (Hence the sleeve art.) The rest of the symphony follows a strongly Haydnesque framework, with a Minuet and Trio leading to a fast-paced Allegro molto, which culminates with a timpani coda.

In this and the Symphony No. 104 Monteux brings his understated polish and drama. Haydn isn’t often lauded for his humor, but in this symphony it’s on full display.


	

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?

Soviet Grotesque

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1

Eugene List, piano / Berlin Opera Orchestra / Fritz Wesenigk, solo trumpet / Georg Ludwig Jochum, conductor

Piano Concerto No. 2

Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Victor Desarzens, conductor

Westminster WST-14141

The two piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich could be examples of what might be called Soviet Grotesque. Each veers from familiarly Shostakovichean brutality to near lullaby to drunken rondos, with undercurrents of the carnivalesque everywhere.

Composed in 1933 and 1957, respectively, there’s an obvious tonal shift between them for all the concertos’s similarities. The 1st bears some traces of the Soviet workshopping so disruptive to Shostakovich’s process, especially hearable in the overtly patriotic 5th and 7th Symphonies, with a trumpet soloist included, somewhat bizarrely. (At times much of Soviet music sounds like the cobbling together of ideological power symphonies by drab apparatchiks in sterile rooms). But in the 2nd Piano Concerto Shostakovich, freed from the more extreme censorship he’d been leashed with, channels a classical exuberance that had already crept out in works like the 9th Symphony.

And who better to play these concertos than Eugene List, who played the 1st Piano Concerto not once, not twice, but 173 times before this recording. That’s not a typo. List debuted the work and went on to solo with a pantheon of notable conductors: Stowkowski a couple of times, Bernstein, Klemperer, and on and on, in countries around the world.

His playing is simply topnotch and completely assured on this album from Westminster. As far as the the sleeve design goes — piano keys in slight disarray –it’s a fitting graphic to these chromatically rambunctious concertos.

Neon Pianist

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 “Apassionata” & Op. 2, No. 3

Arthur Rubinstein, piano

RCA Victor LSC-2812

I have always thought of myself as a musical instrument.

-Arthur Rubinstein


Artur Rubinstein swept his tux tails onto the scene as though he’d popped into existence direct from the dream of some classical music-biz adman. Talented, princely, a seducer, the pianist cavorted with socialites, royals and Hollywood celebs. He played the fragile Romantics with the most sensitive touch of any pianist of his era, and probably could only be equaled today by the likes of Krystian Zimerman.

His specialty was Chopin, going so far as to claim that the composer’s Barcarolle was the best aphrodisiac to instigate one of his many scandalous trysts, and his recordings of Chopin do indeed charm the pants off any listener. He took Chopin out of the hands of the Bombastics, paring the composer’s solo piano works down to their most delicate essence. He was prickly with other musicians, and quite the voluptuary, as Bernard Gavoty sums him up:

…nothing but dinner, bedroom scenes, travels, lobsters, caviar, champagne’, before ‘an unpardonable frying of all your colleagues in a spicy sauce. Be their names Schnabel, Hofmann, Gieseking, HeifetzHorowitz – each one is described as having small virtues, entirely unequal to yours! This is fully-fledged megalomania.

In his day, though, he was a household name, probably recognized everywhere he went, and known as much for his lush playing as for his aristocratic demeanor. Both away from and at the piano he was an unrepentant dandy.

It’s telling that he believed Beethoven’s early and middle works were meant for public performance, while the later ones, with all their intensities and angst, should be played in private. That musical sensibility is nowhere as apparent as in this RCA Victor recording of two very different Beethoven sonatas.

 

Rubinstein’s Appassionata, a piece of with about as much turbulence as the sonata form allows sounds over-polished, and lacks the piece’s jagged explosiveness, especially in the final bits of the allegro ma non troppo. But in the op. 2, his velvety playing teases out little insights, notably in the 2nd movement’s long theme and variations. Finesse is Rubinstein’s game, and he totally inhabits the beautiful, almost Schumann-esque tunefulness with great precociousness.

All of which is to say: if any pianist should be silhouetted in neon on a 1970 album sleeve, it probably shouldn’t be someone named Artur Rubinstein.

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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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.

Tabloid Concerto

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Richard Addinsell: Warsaw Concert

with encores by Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven

David Haines, piano / Paris Theatre Orchestra

Somerset P-2100

Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto was originally composed for the film Dangerous Moonlight about the Nazi occupation of Poland. The producers of the film wanted to use Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for the score, but for whatever reason decided to hire Addinsell to recreate Rach’s most soaringly Hollywood Romanticism. (He’d done soundtracks for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the UK version of Gaslight.) The result is one of the earliest of the so-called “tabloid concertos” that would make their way onto many a turntable in the 1950s. Addinsell’s program music is less a “concerto” and more of a background of piecemeal Rachmaninov-isms scattered throughout the movie.

Still, it was one of the most popular film-to-concert hall works ever composed. It can be heard in a slew of love songs from the period, was transcribed for 2 pianos by Percy Grainger, became a staple of Liberace’s repertoire, has been sampled by the rapper DMX on one of his first albums, and serves as frequent accompaniment to Japanese figure-skating championships. Whatever your opinion of the piece, its multi-use versatility can’t be disputed.

David Haines performs the concerto, along with a few favorite encores on this 1958 Somerset recording. The sleeve art is stark: a grasping hand holds a flag while a squad of fighter planes roars overhead in the dusky sky. Cinematic is definitely one quality it shares with the music.