Whipper-Snapper

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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.

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.