Beaux Art

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Important as he was as a composer, Felix Mendelssohn was just as crucial for saving Johann Sebastian from oblivion and for championing contemporary works. He and Robert Schumann, to me, are the fraternal twins of classical composition, and Mendelssohn’s piano trios reflect that bent.

The opus 49 is the more recognizable of the two trios, and is firmly rooted in a classical structure. A full-bodied cello introduces the piece with a nervy piano underlying it. Following that is a sweet lyrical 2nd movement, while the 3rd and 4th movements are, in the vein of classicism, fast and faster.

Mendelssohn was the best lyricist who never wrote lyrics, and melodies abound in these trios with a sweeping loveliness. Performing them here for Philips is the Beaux Arts Trio, and there’s no other musical triumvirate that’s more dependable with the chamber music repertoire. Their Mendelssohn, like their Schumann for the same label, is completely assured and mellifluous, as it should be.

Bach in the Rainforest

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A fierce desire that laughs and cries.

-Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

As the title suggests, Heitor Villa-Lobos’s 9 suites for a variety of instruments and voices, marries the baroque master’s counterpoint with traditional Brazilian folk songs. No. 5 of the Brasileiras is the composer’s most famous of the series, and is almost unbearably exquisite, for soprano and 8 cellos. Villa-Lobos conducts his “Orchestra” with the soprano Bidu Sayao. Unquestionably, it’s the best performance available.

Another notable feature of this 7″, 2-eye label release is the cover design. With its textured pink background and almost sketch-like drawings, I have a feeling it might be one of Andy Warhol’s designs, which appeared on a handful of Columbia’s 7-inchers in the 1950s. But it’s difficult to tell because it looks nothing like a banana.

Dark Harmonies

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Of all the oddball personalities in classical music, Scriabin may be the strangest. His dozen piano sonatas (the first two are unnumbered), dating from 1886 to 1913, run the gamut of his eccentricity.

A hardcore mystic and egomaniac, he claimed that “the whole world is inundated with my waves of being”. He had a physicist build an apparatus that showered audiences with a spectrum of lights during his concerts. Scriabin’s last, unfinished work, the Mysterium, involved a monumental assortment of orchestras and choruses to perform at the base of the Himalayas. It would herald the end of the world and lead humanity, he believed, into a prelapsarian wonderland.

Put briefly, Scriabin fancied himself both Christ and Antichrist, and Nietzschean overman to boot.

His music is as compelling and as it is ethereal. Sonatas 1-4 are more youthful works, with a romantic gloss. But all that changes around the time of the 5th Sonata (from then on, all of his sonatas are one-movement works) which is like a mysterious threshold at the bottom of the sea.  Esoteric chords play against softly demonic trills. Upheavals arise out of whispered melodies in totally innovative shadings and unnameable hues. The 7th and 9th are called, respectively, “White Mass” and “Black Mass”, and could be what you might hear in the White and Black Lodges from Twin Peaks.

In the 5th Sonata, his direction to the pianist could be a signpost to all of his works: “With fantastic intoxication”. If Chopin, Madame Blavatsky, Satie and Alban Berg suddenly merged into one person, that individual would be Scriabin.

Vox issued this triple album of Michael Ponti’s accessible recordings. Gustave Klimt’s artwork is certainly evocative of the experience of listening to these sonatas.

 

 

Wanda Landowska vs. the Bombs

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Wanda Landowska was the harpsichord connoisseur’s harpsichord connoisseur. Born in Poland in 1879, she was a trailblazer of the instrument. She was the first to record the Goldberg Variations, and the first to perform it live in front of an audience. Manuel De Falla and Francis Poulenc were so enthralled that they both composed works for the harpsichord expressly for Landowska.

Her Scarlatti is absolutely peerless. Lightness and incomparable technique inform every sonata. Landowska’s playing is always studious and witty. And these recordings, done in a Paris studio in 1939-40 also contain one of the most indelible moments in classical music recordings. Midway through the airy D major Sonata, K. 490, at 2:01, you can hear the German bombs falling on the city that began the occupation.

It’s an instance of stark brutality and dread heard in between the airy notes of an Italian baroque sonata. And without a pause, Landowska continues to play.

The Master Plucker

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“The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth.”

-Andres Segovia

The Andalusian guitarist Andres Segovia was the Django Reinhardt of classical music, transforming the looked-down on instrument into a mini orchestra. His repertoire was not huge, but his depth of intellectual feeling certainly was. He was, shockingly, self-taught. Segovia is known for playing his own transcriptions, especially Bach (Segovia’s sublime reworking of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 will destroy you in a good way), Scarlatti and other baroque masters. He’s something of the godfather of classical guitar, numbering among those he directly or indirectly influenced John Williams (not that John Williams), Christopher Parkening and Julian Bream.

In this Decca Gold Label recording, the six-string maestro plays works by Sors, Handel, Villa-Lobos and others. Erik Nitsche designed the color-wheel design comprised of regal, operatic silhouettes.

Fellow Travelers

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“Let the devil himself play this piece!”

-Franz Schubert, trying to play his Wanderer Fantasy


Strangely, this is the only pairing I’ve seen of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt’s concerto-like transcription of the same. Issued by Vox with an interesting medieval village landscape (the Wanderer’s destination?), the recording has Alfred Brendel tackling both iterations.

Schubert’s “Der Wanderer” lied is the basis of the piece, with the adagio opening with practically note for note with the song. The remaining three movements start out as “variants of diminution”, with each mono-theme becoming more and challenging until the thunderous, fugal finale that recapitulates the preceding movements. And it’s all played without a break, as each movement segues into the next. Pianists agree that it’s a bastard to play; even Schubert struggled to perform it. Displayed in the Wanderer is Schubert’s almost obsessive developing of a musical idea in striking chord changes and subtly devastating mood shifts.

Franz Liszt was a painstaking transcriber and paraphraser of others’ works (Beethoven’s symphonies, Mozart operas, Rossini, and many of Schubert’s songs). He was totally smitten with the Wanderer in particular, and saw in its thunderous drama the components of a symphonic piece. So his version for piano and orchestra is faithful to the original, with the exception of a very Liszt-like cadenza.

Period Showpieces

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Typical Vivaldi-like concerto meets Bach’s trademark fugue in these three concerti, performed by the “period movement” English Concert, with Standage and Wilcock on the violins and Pinnock conducting from the harpsichord.

The Concerto for 2 Violins is especially phenomenal, sounding like the instruments are in a romantic conversation in cantabile form, with each violin whisking the melody off and toying with it in little “episodes” as the sleeve says.

Archiv produced this digital release in the 80s. A painting by Weigel depicts a very baroque violinist humbly modeling his musicianship with utter poker-facedness.

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.

“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.