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.

Satie & Picasso

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Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1

Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel 36459

My work is completely phonometrical.

-Erik Satie


As far as classical music eccentrics go, Eric Alfred Leslie (nee Erik) Satie is the weirdos weirdo. A dapper gentleman who inhabited a filthy apartment in Paris on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, he was a one man Theatre of the Absurd. If you wanted to compile a list of his many oddities, it might start like this: 1. Founded his own religion. 2. Would eat nothing that wasn’t white. 3. Brought a hammer with him wherever he went. 4. Owned an impressive collection of over 100 umbrellas. And that’s just the beginning.

Today, his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes are his most popular works (the Gymnopedie No. 1 must be up there with Fur Elise as one of the most played pop classical pieces). Instead of choosing a particular tempo he’d poeticize his piano music with tempo indications like “Don’t be proud”, “Corpulent” or “Don’t stop”. His piano music, especially performed on this album by the best Satie interpreter ever, Aldo Ciccolini, is filled with an innocence that does never diverts the music’s mysterious core. He’s also considered the midwife of minimalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in his 1893 “Vexations”– a simple bass-line and chords to be repeated 840 times in exactly the same way.

Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie first collaborated on Parade (1917), a ballet with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and danced by the Ballet Russes. Its jarring cardboard costumes, which were nearly impossible to move in, and Cubists sets (both done by Picasso) involves a troupe of carnival performers trying to get people to watch their show. Parade so riled up audiences with its purposefully aggravating inaction that one viewer slapped Satie in the face after a performance. The ensuing riot, by most accounts, was more of a melee than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had been 4 years earlier. The poet Apollonaire coined the term “surrealism” in his program notes for the ballet.

In comparison to that extravaganza, of course, Satie’s solo works are marked by a calmness encroaching on ennui, but always with that same undercurrent of disquietude. The portrait on this Angel sleeve gets to the essence of Satie. In Picasso’s line drawing, the composer sits in a typical pose, jacket a bit slouchy around the contours of the chair. But his eyes look restless, and his hands are two oversized unruly beasts resting in his lap. The image is an apt visual metonymy of the tranquil bizarreness that so characterizes Satie’s musical style.

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.

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.

Feral Cats & Serenades

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Mozart: Serenades Nos. 11 & 12

Newell Jenkins, conductor / The Everest Woodwind Octet

Everest LPBR 6042

Mozart was a wind man. Some of his most delightful melodies come in his works for clarinet, horns and oboes. The Serenades are especially charming. No. 13 (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) is one of those tunes that’s sort of a metonymy for the whole of classical music, and one that anybody can whistle without knowing what it’s called.

No. 12, from circa 1782, was later transcribed by the composer into his String Quintet K. 406/415b. Both Serenades pressed here are for an octet of wind instruments. No. 11 is a lighter piece, while the next contains some pre-Romantic heaviness, but is nonetheless pretty typical of a serenading mood.

This Everest sleeve has an ostensible composer in the period of Mozart showing off a score to his wife or mistress or sister. He looks proud, though she seems to be nodding at him in an “Uh huh” kind of way. What draws the eye is the sharp-toothed feline that looks quite feral, perhaps even demonic, and is dressed in what appears to be silky robe. By all appearances, it may have been trained by its owner to attack on command, and the budding composer just might be its next victim. Three vividly colored clarinets offset the somewhat domestically-fraught scene.

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.

Mussorgsky’s Tone Paintings

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Pomp and folklore intermingle in these series of ten impressions by Modest Mussorgsky, done in 1874, and originally for solo piano. Each piece depicts one of Victor Hartmann’s paintings from an actual exhibit, with interludes called “Promenades” tracing the composer’s autobiographical jaunt through the museum. In 1922, Maurice Ravel orchestrated the piece, but today it’s often heard in the showstopper piano version for the most ambitious of pianists.

Mussorgsky’s hair-raising soundtrack to Baba-Yaga (is there anything scarier than Russian fairy tales?) in the 9th scene is a classic; the tenth, “The Great Gate of Kiev” is a big magisterial closer.

On this 1950s RCA Victor recording, with Fritz Reiner and the CSO, yet another painting shows an orchestra getting ready to perform.

Atonal Folklore

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The Concerto for Orchestra, Bela Bartok’s last completed work, is a towering monument of 20th century music. Composed in 1943, it gives each individual section its own solo, much in the way of a Baroque concertante, so that every instrument is in dialogue with another. Unlike his complex, atonal string quartets and piano and violin concertos, the Concerto for Orchestra is recognized as his most accessible piece.

The piece is a crash course in styles, from the folk songs Bartok recorded in the field (he’s sometimes called the father of ethnomusicology) to serialism and a smattering of jazzy chords. And there’s even a brutal parody of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) thrown in, which Bartok considered pure orotundity.

Leopold Stokowski gives a solid performance leading the HSO, with moments of sheer exhilaration in the string section, and again in the finale. Peculiar cover art, too, from the Everest label.

Everybody has their favorite performance of the piece on vinyl (and there’s a horde to choose from). Some prefer Bernstein’s muscleman approach, while others go for Reiner’s straightforward conducting of the Chicago Symphony. But Solti and the LSO, in my opinion, outpaces them all in their immersive powerful recording for Decca.

A Trio of Rimskys

 

Known for his ridiculously popular Flight of the Bumblebee and Scheherazade, Rimsy-Korsakov was part of The Five, which sounds like the title of a Netflix crime show, but was actually a collective of Russian composers that included Borodin and Mussorgsky. (It’s also the title of a Netflix crime show). Here’s three colorful albums of obscure orchestral works from the composer. The two Mercury sleeves are as Russian as it gets, while the London cover is all about Persian appropriation in the gaudiest way.

And if you need more R-K in your life, visit Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, a classical music-themed coffee and desert establishment in Portland, Oregon.