The Hitmaster

Rossini Overtures: William Tell and the Famous Five

Herbert von Karajan / Philharmonia Orchestra

Columbia 33CX 1739


Give me a laundry list, and I will set it to music.

Gioacchino Rossini

An early Columbia mono recording, this sampling of Rossini’s overtures has all the hits, and some obscurer ones, you could ever want in one album. Rossini was the one-man hit factory of early19th century opera. Rousing trumpet fanfares? Yep. Dances you’ll be humming for days? Got em. Huge rampaging finales? For sure. Historically, the overture was used to fluff the audience for the meat of the opera to come, hinting at various themes and melodies that would soon be sung.

Rossini’s operas revitalized the operatic form itself. In his works, beautiful melodies just seem to spill out effortlessly, building to huge climaxes, for which his name has become practically synonymous. Probably his only equal in the realm of the comedic opera is Mozart, and Rossini’s style might be even more distinctive. Outside of William Tell and The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie might be his most characteristic work. It’s like some Ur-overture combining the various devices that make his works so unflinchingly Rossini-esque, and unlike anyone else’s.

Taking the form of a semiseria 2-act opera, The Thieving Magpie is based on an 1817 comedy about a young girl who’s about to be hung for stealing some silver. The girl is saved at the last minute, when it’s discovered that the real thief is a magpie with an appetite for heists. (Coincidentally, magpies are some of the smartest non-mammals in the animal kingdom, with the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, so maybe TTM isn’t as farfetched as we might believe.) The girl is saved and the trickster magpie takes her place.

Rossini finished the opera, so it’s said, a night before the premiere. He was locked in a room, and as he completed parts, he tossed sheet music out the window to a waiting copyist, who then transcribed the individual orchestral parts. The overture begins with a couple of drum-rolls before welling into a militaristic march that then changes pace, introducing a slew of enchanting melodies, including an incredibly popular tune in the woodwinds. That, of course, is followed by the obligatory crescendo announcing the start of the finale. Refrains from earlier are interspersed throughout the orchestra, until overture moves to its rousing climax, which could simply be called a “rossini” for its sheer propulsion.

Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

Odyssey Y35923

Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great  virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.

The “48”

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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Anthony Newman, harpsichord

Columbia 2xLP M2 32500

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, known to many pianists as simply “the 48”, is the Little Black Dress of classical music: elemental, revolutionary, essential. Or the Citizen Kane. Or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the invention of cheese, fiber-optics, the Big Bang. Really, the “48” isn’t just an epic set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys (it’s that too). But it is also a foundational event in music and cultural history.

The “48” as Bach composed them in 2 sections (from the 1720s and 1740s, respectively) were meant for any keyboard instrument, except for the piano, which hadn’t made its way to Germany from Italy, where it had just been invented. On the surface these are ostensibly exercises for practicing chords, scales and arpeggios in equal temperament–dividing the keys into 12 semitones.

But of course, the “48” are so much more than that, and in the right hands become something transcendently epic. Edwin Fischer was the first to record the entirety of the Well-Tempered Clavier, between 1933 and 1936, and his rapturous approach (still possibly the finest performance) was followed by a harpsichord version by Wanda Landowska. Since then it’s been recorded over 150 times.

Interpretations are across the board. There’s the romantic (Barenboim, Hewitt, Schiff), the unembellished (Pollini), the mysterious (Nikolayeva), the historically appropriate (Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Helmut Walcha) and the wildly eccentric (Gould, Gould and Gould). This recording by Anthony Newman, the first of two on the harpsichord and one on the piano, falls somewhere between the latter categories. Newman has been attacked by musicologists for his speedy tempos and cavalier adornments. And the 3rd Prelude, in C-sharp minor, is an excellent example: insensibly fast and flourish-y, and that pretty much sets the pace for this 1973 double-LP from Columbia, with its very 70s cover photograph of the harpsichordist mid-meditation on some kind of Druid-looking aqua-duct or something.

His Bach also happens to be truly exciting, and by today’s standards not all that heterodox. Other performers might be focused on structure, others on clarity, while a third sort might be inclined to bring out the inner dynamism of Bach’s music. Somehow, Newman combines all of them. There’s an improvisatory flair to his playing that nonetheless stays faithful to the soul of Bach. Before the period instrument boom went viral in the 1980s, Anthony Newman was there already, with a vitality and an authenticity comparable to anyone’s.

Symphony Grotesque

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

(with Kabalevsky: Colas Breugnon Suite)

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Golschmann

Columbia ML 5120

Vladimir Golschmann, with his “matinee-idol face” according to one contemporary, was one of the great proponents of modernist music. He conducted world premieres of Honegger, Falla and Milhaud’s Le Creation du Monde, among others, and did some of the finest recordings on record with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. With them on this album he tackles Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony.

Shostakovich was a child prodigy in the classic sense; for a time when he was a boy he played piano for silent films at a local theater in St. Petersburg (he was supposedly let go for laughing too much at Chaplin and Buster Keaton flicks). His 1st Symphony was completed when he was 18, his graduate piece for the Lenin Conservatory.

Mark Wigglesworth points to the work’s tension and sarcastic wit, its ping-ponging between nobility and banality that would be so characteristic of Shostakovich’s subsequent symphonies. The composer himself called it a “symphony grotesque”, which begins, in Stravinsky-inflected carnival-ese (it even includes a piano, just like Petruchka), but veers ever more Mahlerian as it goes along. Or, as Shostakovich put it, “It’s turning out pretty gloomy.” Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky can also be heard as serious influences. But what could be called the “Shostakovich Sound” is distinctive, if nascent, throughout.

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When the symphony premiered in 1926, Shostakovich became something like a living Soviet satellite overnight, and he was basically annexed by Stalin, used for propaganda, praised as the greatest Russian composer, persecuted mercilessly. After that premiere, conductors lined up to give national premieres: Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer all waved their batons at the shy young man’s entrance onto the international stage.

Golschmann’s conducting is spontaneous and vital, drawing out Shostakovich’s modernist impulses. The large, somewhat unnerving portrait of an impassive woman with an electric gaze is a neat depiction of art in the USSR. Notably, Golschmann has signed this recording. Besides the Shostakovich, it includes Kabalevsky’s popular suite, from his opera of the same name.

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The Romantics

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Certain performers seem perennially linked to a given composer, so thoroughly do they inhabit and animate that composer’s work. Gould/Bach, Michelangeli/Ravel, Uchida/Mozart, Kempff/Schubert, Landowska/Scarlatti and on and on.

Frederic Chopin’s psychological doppelganger was definitely the great Romanian pianist, and student of Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti. The two should always have an ampersand between them. Listening to Lipatti gliding through a Barcarolle, a Mazurka and the emotional range of the Nocturne No. 6, it’s as though Chopin composed knowing that his music would one day be recorded by this performer.

The lightness of touch, ripe melodies and sensitive articulations–Lipatti’s Chopin sings. Glissandos somersault and Chopin’s ornaments, like his almost trademarked mordants, are played as though in a swoon. His playing maybe occasionally forsakes drama for fluidity, but it’s always like an act of seduction that’s constantly on the verge of being consummated.

A standout on this Columbia recording from the 1950s is the Piano Sonata No. 3. Under Lipatti’s hands, the 3rd movement Largo, in particular, is as achingly tuneful as anything you’ll ever hear.

Beethoven’s Beef with Napoleon

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“A rascal like all the others.”

-Beethoven on Napoleon

Aptly subtitled, the “Eroica” marks one of the first pieces in Beethoven’s heroic period, and the longest, grandest symphony to be heard up to that point. The E-flat major work is revolutionary in every way, profiling the world of the French Revolution while offering autobiographical insight into the composer’s innermost self.

Initially, Beethoven dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte as the bearer of their supposedly shared Enlightenment ideals. Later, the conqueror dubbed himself “emperor” and Beethoven heard “despot”, scratching out his name from the title-page as vociferously as he could. Listening now, it’s clear that the 3rd is about a lot more than a little dictator with delusions of grandeur.

As with the reactions to his later op. 111 sonata and the Grosse Fuge, conservative critics, raised on Haydn and Mozart, were exasperated by Beethoven’s complexly structured orchestration and epic Romanticism.

Columbia put out this album in 1949, bearing a crown, a nondescript (not Napoleon!) soldier on horseback, and period headgear of some kind. Bruno Walter, conducting the P-SONY is, as usual, the opposite of bombastic with his interpretation.

Glenn Gould and the Russians

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Iconic sleeve from the great Henrietta Condak, showing Gould, Scriabin and Prokofiev in silhouette. Certainly not one of my favorite Gould recordings, but an interesting listen nonetheless. The pianist, a real fugaholic, was at his finest when deconstructing the complexities of Bach, and his playing of Scriabin lacks the ponderous occultism of the composer’s work. His Prokofiev is much more alive, highlighting the piece’s jittery wartime uncertainty and uneasy balance between neoclassicism and atonality. Besides the fact that both composers were from Russia, these sonatas could not be more different.

Quualudes and Fugues

Glenn Gould was an oddball’s oddball. He’d show up at the studio layered in heavy winter garb, even in summer, carrying his piano stool — a plain chair — with him. Before every performance he could be seen dipping his arms up to the elbows in a bucket of hot water. Gesturing wildly, he seemed to be conducting his own playing, singing, muttering and groaning along to the music.

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For all his eccentricities, no one doubts that Gould was incomparable. His Bach is iconic, his Mozart utterly bizarre. Beethoven, in Gould’s recordings, often sounds like someone had erased pedal markings and tempo indications. Everything Gould touched, from the obscure Orlando Gibbons to Arnold Schoenberg, was stamped with his own refreshing precocity. And he played with the abandon and delight of someone in their own solar system.

But his recording of Georg Frideric Handel’s Suites 1-4, which originally appeared in 1720, reach a whole new level of strangeness that borders on perversity.

The four Baroque pieces, under Gould’s fingers, become something like high camp, right down to portraying the pianist in a gaudy silver frame on the sleeve, above an equally gaudy embellished gold pedestal. This would be Gould’s first recording on the harpsichord, and the instrument sounds alternately like a 68-string zither, a prepared guitar, and here and there like a piece of carpentry not meant to produce music at all.

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Handel’s period was rife with extemporization, taking liberties with themes in the way of jazz, and Gould doesn’t skimp on the riffing. It’s probably the strangest Handel we’re likely to hear: one moment the pianist cascades through like he’s recording the roll for a player-piano, the next he’s teasing the keys harp-like. With this recording, Gould’s idiosyncrasies are as pronounced as they’d ever be.

From the Suite 1 Prelude Gould deconstructs Handel’s keyboard works rather than just performing them, adding trills and little runs around the simple theme in Bachian fashion. The Gigue that closes out the Suite is a manic dance that comes off like a synthesized take.

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Likewise, the Adagio that opens the Suite 2 is played painfully slow, as Gould fragments the harmony into tiny pieces of modality. Following that, his Allegro flat-out bolts to another Adagio before going heafirst into the Fuga. Gould was most assured with Bach and counterpoint, so it’s not surprising that the playing here sounds most natural.

But it’s the Air, Variations and Presto of the 3rd Suite that, in a nutshell, characterizes the whole performance, running practically an entire half of the B-side. Here, Gould lets his freak flag fly, going from languorous and halting (and resembling nothing so much as a Renaissance-era song) to a full on high-speed lunge in the Presto. Vintage Gould — circumspect, obsessive, constantly unexpected.

Which is to say the album is cracked-out Baroque. Filled with equal parts lassitude and frenzy, Gould’s Handel is ultimately a bit of high-flying kitsch. Also, it’s completely addictive and impossible not to spin over and over again. Gould and Handel, two very different people, seem to be sharing an inside joke the rest of us aren’t in on, but which we can play along with as though we are anyway.

Maybe the weirdest thing I can say about this record is that it sounds exactly like Glenn Gould playing Handel on a harpsichord.