The Sheffield Sound

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Variations on another’s themes are like great chats between composers who’ve usually never met. The form has provided some of the most spectacular works. There’s the canonical Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabellis, Rachmaninov’s rousing Paganini Variations, to name three of the more popular.

Lincoln Mayorga here plays another mainstay of the genre, Johannes Brahms’s oft-recorded Variations on a Theme of Handel, along with the original, and a Chopin Mazurka. About as notable as the piece itself is the Sheffield Lab label, which Moyorga co-founded. An audiophile’s wet dream, Sheffield mixes the gorgeous timbre of early 78s without the scratchiness with cutting-edge digital equipment. Since it began (this is their fourth album), it’s become the standard for vinyl sound-quality. The effect, at least here, is a little like curling up in the belly of the piano as the pianist plays.

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Shostakovich Is Sorry/Not Sorry

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Nobody captured the katzenjammer of interior and external conflict like Dmitri Shostakovich. His milieu was incendiary: WWI, Stalinist purges, WWII, more Stalinist purges. Duality was hoisted on him: on the one side constrained by the Soviet Union’s artistic repression (if you weren’t into social realism you were blacklisted or worse), and on the other his pursuit of modernist forms of expression.

After the debut of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned in 1936, he was publicly denounced, and he slept for days in the stairwell outside his apartment waiting to be taken by Soviet authorities for his dissident music-making.

The 5th Symphony was his apology for sidestepping Stalin’s favor, though with some  very subtle acts of subversion thrown in. It worked and he was installed as the de facto propagandist, with his 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) becoming something of a rallying cry during WWII.

Yet everywhere in Shostakovich’s music there’s the purgatorial rage of a man stuck between his innate sense of cultural identity and what his country demanded of him. During the Col War, his music was a surprisingly huge draw in the US. When he finally arrived in America it was with a contingent of KGB operatives tailing him everywhere to make sure he wouldn’t defect to the enemy.

Vladimir Golschmann, a great champion of avant-garde composers, recorded this 5th for Capital Records, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It’s a sweeping performance that skimps on some of the more overt patriotic bombast.

“Real Cannons Are Used”

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Don’t be fooled by half-assed recordings: this pressing makes it very clear that “real cannons are used in the finale”. Commissioned to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat by the Motherland, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is one big orgasmic burst of patriotism, which is one sure way to get a lot of fans. It’s crammed full of national airs and folk-songs, and even includes a rendition of the Marseillaise before it is quickly blown apart by the fusillade. One Russian composer called it “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit”, and that was the opinion of Tchaikovsky himself. For a symphonist and composer of ballets with Tchaikovsky’s sensibilities, the worldwide popularity of his blustering rah-rah overture must have seemed downright insulting.

Soviet Invasion

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Emil Gilels, part of the Russian import of great musicians that included Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrakh, performs Beethoven. Known for his powerfully convincing and convincingly powerful playing, Gilels was ideally suited for Ludwig van’s muscular concerto. Fellow Russian Yakov Zak joins him for Mozart’s spritely Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra, and Kiril Kondrashin conducts both. The Period Records album (c. 1955) has the look of a billboard, with the pianist’s name in huge font looking as if it’s advertising a newfangled appliance called a Gilels, while a piano sits off in the background.

Moogs and Droogs

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Kubrick’s 1971 film is as much about music as it is about shocking imagery. The director’s genius of knitting classical works with unforgettable scenes is unsurpassed, breaking the rule that a soundtrack should be mere background filler. There’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Penderecki in the Shining, and orchestral version of Handel’s Sarabande as the soundscape of Barry Lyndon (the best most boring movie ever), and Ligeti’s Musica ricercata II in Eyes Wide Shut (the second best most boring movie ever). In A Clockwork Orange, it’s all about Beethoven as retro-fitted for a gang of Victorian/dystopian droogs. Walter (now Wendy) Carlos redid sections of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on the Moog synthesizer, and the effect is pure kitsch and absolutely terrifying. Giant phallic sculptures won’t ever look the same again.

Retro Baroque

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An all Baroque compilation of works by Bach, Handel, Corelli, Vivaldi and more. Quite a busy cover design from Doug Samson: a pinup, a cherub, a baboon’s face, a high-heeled foot coming out of the side of a staircase, in the retro-est pastels. Part of a series that includes “Mahler’s Head” and other classical Heads. To clarify the title and the record label’s name, the back cover reminds us that “The Orphic Egg has cracked many times/Once when it cracked out sprang–The Baroque Head.” Whatever that means.

Robot Beethoven

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Westminster strikes again with a bizarro sleeve for Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the enigmatic Diabelli Variations. The winning entry in Anton Diabelli’s competition to see who could compose the best 32 variations on a simple original theme, Beethoven’s response was a monumental series (it would become an integral part of the solo repertoire) and appeared in 1824 as Op. 120. The composer is made up here to resemble some kind of cake-topper robot monster with an angry face, and there’s nothing not strange about any of it.

Harpsichordiana

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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.