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.

Ring Lieder

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Wagner: Orchestral Music from Der Ring Des Nibelungen

New York Philharmonic / Zubin Mehta

CBS Masterworks 1P 7628

Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.

-Mark Twain


Also called, for simplicity’s sake, The Ring, Wagner’s monumental, excessive opera is a cycle of four thematically-linked operas centered around Norse myth.

At the start of the opera, the titular ring is purloined from a dwarf named Alberich by Wotan. But a pair of giants then steal it from Wotan (not smart: Wotan’s title is, after all, King of the Gods) and his grandson Siegfried sets out on a hero’s journey to locate the jewelry. Romance appears in the coupling of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, a “Rhinemaiden”. Many other mythic people and creatures, distinguished by their own leitmotif, are encountered on Siegfried’s peregrinations.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the gist of The Lord of the Rings, which is based somewhat less Germanic-ly on Wagner’s work. And if you thought the film trilogy was long, an average performance of Wagner’s Ring takes about 15 hours, give or take five ten minutes. So if you want to hear versions of “Ride of the Valkyries” in slightly differing registers and transpositions in the time it takes to take a train almost halfway across the US, then this is the opera you must attend. The cycle premiered in 1876 and has tormented anyone taking a casual trip to Bayreuth ever since.

As for this recording, all Wagner performances sound more or less the same to me. But I can say that the album artwork by Henrietta Condak (whom I’ve mentioned before as possibly one of the best graphic designers ever) is amazing. Wagner holds a knife in one hand, while a gold ring and a horned helmet hover just above him. Pop art, Soviet propaganda posters, Art Deco and Nordic fairy tale illustrations meld into a highly stylized amalgamation.

Note: Vikings have been misrepresented, at least in regards to their choice of headwear, for a long time. It’s pretty well established now that they never wore the horned helmets that have become so inextricable from their warlike, large-statured image in contemporary culture. Carl Emil Doepler, a costume designer, is responsible for integrating the horned helmet into the fashions of Norsemen and -women. He introduced his fearsome headwear in 1876, not too surprisingly, for the premiere of Wagner’s Ring cycle. 

 

Lenny and Gustave

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Symphonically, no one does it like Gustave Mahler. Leonard Bernstein, an early advocate of Mahler’s difficult scores, was one of the first conductors, along with Bruno Walter in Europe, to record the complete symphonies, and bring the composer out of near neglect and into the concert hall. Probably his most accessible work after the 1st Symphony, the Fifth’s polyphonous orchestration is astounding, with each instrument given a distinctive part. To paraphrase gossipy musicologist Norman Lebrecht, Mahler was the greatest composer of operas who never composed operas. The Adagietto, occasionally (and perversely) performed without the surrounding movements, is an achingly ponderous elegy and one of the most sublime things ever to come out of Western civilization. For this double LP from Lenny and the NYP, Barbara Hatch did a collagist cover that’s as hypnotic as it is indecipherable.