Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

Bach Redux


Play Bach, Vol. 1

Jacques Loussier / Christian Garros / Pierre Michelot

Waxtime 771802 / 180g (reissued from Decca 40.500)

Real music exists beyond the page.

-J.S. Bach, in response to a friend who’d asked why he was improvising

Before crossover albums were not hip in any way whatsoever, Jacques Loussier’s jazz-infused Bach inventions were so cool they should have come with their own wayfarer sunglasses. Louissier was classically trained and has a stupendous technique. Instead of going into concert pianism, I for one am glad he decided to jazz up classical.

His riffs on Bach, accompanied with drums and bass (his group would come to be known as the Play Bach Trio, and they would come out with 5 more all Bach records) reveals more about the composer than a lot of recordings I’ve heard that keep it staid. They weren’t the first to make Bach swing (that would be Django Reinhardt), but they’re definitely the most persuasive.

In Bach’s day, improvising on another’s theme was a great compliment, and on this record, nothing could be closer to the truth. In the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier that opens Play Bach, Loussier actually plays through the entire piece before he and the accompanists add their spice. While in the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor that opens the B side, the instrumentalists’ skills at transcription and execution should only be talked about in superlative terms.

Purists are probably loathe to praise the trio, but no one can deny the sheer magnetism of the playing. With different accompanists Loussier would go on to put out albums that explored the jazzy side of Beethoven, Vivaldi and Satie, and a fantastic solo crack at Chopin’s Nocturnes. Louissier is something of a celebrity in the populating world of classical jazz, even conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard for a swinging version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

Still, this first recording by Louissier and his trio might be the most indispensable.