Guitar Men

img_2370

Works for Two Guitars by Diabelli, Giuliani, Carulli

Pepe & Celedeonio Romero, guitars

Philips 9500 352

Say classical guitar to anyone and, in order of appearance, you’ll come up with Andres Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, Pepe Romero and some nameless Renaissance madrigals. As far as individual pieces go, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concert (it’s been recorded a lot) has always been a popular go-to, trailed by solo pieces by Villa-Lobos and some Bach transcriptions. What’s less well known are the guitar works by Haydn (a delightful trio), Paganini, von Weber, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich (electric guitars, in this instance) and even Rorem and Takemitsu, among a crowd of others.

On this Philips release, the focus is on works for 2 guitars instead of one, played by the great guitarists Pepe and Celedonio Romero. The album presents duos by Diabelli, Giuliani and Carulli (which sounds like a tailors’ you might stumble on in Sicily). Giuliani’s op. 130 Variations for Two Guitars is a pleasant traversal, while Anton Diabelli’s op. 63 Serenade is as much of a charmer. But it’s the Carulli that stands really stands out.

Not a lot is known about Carulli, except that he moved from Italy to Vienna, and on to Paris in 1808, where he came out with a guitar method that’s still hugely influential. His Serenade, op. 96, begins with an overture that’s spectacularly operatic, in 6/8 time, and continues on in a polished dialog between the two guitars. An impassioned Allegro segues into a Larghetto, and the whole closes with a dance-like movement that sounds a little like a waltz. The two Romeros’ playing is nothing short of awesome: they’re so synched as to be practically indistinguishable from each other.

Lisztmania

img_2038

Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Sviatoslav Richter, piano / Kyril Kondrashin / London Symphony Orchestra

Philips 835 474 LY

One might well believe that Liszt wrote his piano concertos with Richter in mind.

-Donald Mitchell


If you like your Liszt concertos with extra brio and muscularity, this Philips record, with Richter at the piano and Kondrashin on the podium can’t be beat. To call it heroic and fiery is an understatement. Richter could be as subtle as anyone, but his Liszt concertos, recorded in London for his first performance in Western Europe, are unfettered trailblazers.

Liszt’s debut concerto (hell, all of his solo piano works) are made for protean technique. Just listen to the Don Juan Paraphrase for pure insanity, and even the more meditative pieces require a dash of charismatic power. The E-flat opening of the 1st Concerto is spine-tinglingly brash, and the rest of the work is simply ferocious. Hardboiled and played in a mad dash, this could be one of Richter’s finest recordings, and Kondrashin meets his gung-ho take with an accompaniment that’s just as bold, adding a sharpness that may out-Toscanini Toscanini’s incisive Brancusi-like angularity.

The 1st Concerto was completed in spurts between 1830 and 1849, and starts with a booming intro that leads right into a 4-octave passage from the piano, and concludes with a chromatic downward sweep in octaves played at breakneck speed and marked fff. It was premiered with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting (oh to be a fly on that concert hall wall!).

Coming in at a brisk 20 or so minutes, it’s about 5 minutes shorter than than 2nd Piano Concerto. Very different in scope, the 2nd was intended as a single movement, and despite Liszt’s repute as a virtuoso and showman, the piano part is toned down to sound, at times, like just another ensemble instrument. While it’s given flights of incredible agility for the fingers, the 2nd doesn’t quite share its predecessor’s extracurricular devices.

Even with the performers miked very close by contemporary standards, the legendary Philips sound-engineering is beyond peerless here. For sheer grit, there’s not a better recording out there, and it’s been reissued countless times on vinyl and CD. I’m almost sure this is the closest we’ll get to actually hear Liszt perform the concertos himself.

Going Fourth

img_1946

Beethoven: Symphony No.4 & “Grosse Fuge”

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field / Neville Marriner

Philips 9500 033

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, coming on the heels of the heroic 3rd and before the insanely popular and dramatic 5th, has always been overshadowed. Similar to the 8th Symphony with its overly classical appearance, the 4th sounds a bit like Beethoven getting back to his roots before dynamiting and revamping the whole of classical music with his subsequent symphonies, quartets and sonatas.

The 4th is notable, too, for having one of Beethoven’s longest intros–32 bars, with a flute sustaining B-flat. In comparison to the monumental symphonies to come, the symphony is small-scale. The mood throughout is conspicuously upbeat, sounding like a late, previously lost work by Haydn than as an example of early Romanticism.

It premiered alongside the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1807. Since then it has gained the distinction of being the least performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, although today it’s starting to be performed on its own merits and not for the sake of a box set for completists. Neville Marriner and his period instrumentalists in the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field give a spirited and impeccable rendition.

Much of the B-side of this release is taken up with an uncredited arrangement of the contrapuntally ferocious “Grosse Fuge” (Furtwangler and Klemperer did separate orchestral transcriptions, while Liszt put out a version for 4-hands piano before them). Pairing it with the 4th is a strange choice, yet it serves somehow as an appropriate counter-example to Beethoven’s very Classical symphony.

Sublimities

img_1933

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet & Oboe Quartet

Arthur Grimiaux, violin / George Peterson, clarinet / Pierre Pierlot, oboe / Koji Toyoda, violin / Max Leseuer, viola / Janos Scholz, cello

Philips 6500 924

The clarinet used to annoy me without fail. It always sounded like a teakettle with a hangover. Then I heard Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet performed by the Emerson, and I changed my tune. In the Adagio second movement, there’s a bracingly gorgeous section where the strings sustain a deep vibrato while the clarinet flits around it. After that, the clarinet became a friend, if an inconstant one. The instrument is especially suited to the ethereal and the mysterious, finding one of its best spots in Olivier Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, and a other works of an Impressionist nature.

But it’s possible that no one has surpassed Mozart in composing for the clarinet. His quintet for the woodwind, along with the later Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K.622, are two of his most profoundly lasting works. And, for me, the 1789 Quintet (perhaps the first to be composed for that particular ensemble) is total sublimity in 4 movements.

Mozart met the famed clarinetist Anton Stadler at a Freemason meeting, who premiered both the aforementioned works. Up to then the clarinet was an orchestral mainstay, but hadn’t yet been recognized for solo potential. Mozart kickstarted the instrument’s solo career with this quintet.

Here, the clarinet is given an operatic voice with a near-tangible stage presence, while the quartet of strings provide a concerto-like accompaniment that becomes delightful intermission music when the clarinet isn’t in the spotlight. Structurally and emotionally, it’s crisper and warmer than almost anything from the period. But it’s the slow Larghetto that gets you. Beginning with an aria from the clarinet that’s sympathetically joined by the violin, it then drops into soulful longing, with the rest of the strings playing softly under the clarinet’s wistful monologue. The Clarinet Quintet is one of those rare bits of music that sounds like it’s  carrying on an intimate conversation with each listener.

img_1934

Symphony Fantastic

img_1624

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Bernard Haitink / Concertgebouw-Orchester, Amsterdam

Philips / 2xLP box set

Anton Bruckner could have been a pseudonym for Richard Wagner. His symphonies, starting with Symphony No. 0 and concluding with his unfinished 9th (a few conductors have finished it for him) are ear-throbbing, transcendent, huge-scale, depressing, uplifting, mercurial and quite simply orgasmic listening experiences. Jochum, Bohm, Celibidache, Barenboim have all championed his music. Pick any symphony and you’ll hear why.

The 5th Symphony, however, opens not with a huge shuddering roar, but with cellos and basses plucked in the softest possible pianissimo. Robert Simpson, in his monograph on the composer, says that “no symphony has has ever opened like this”. For those used to Bruckner’s colossal symphonies, which sound like a thousand orchestras in tandem, it’s a shockingly subdued intro.

Throughout the work, themes emerge and disperse, only to come to gradual realization in the chorale of the final bars of the Allegro moderato. As Michael Steinberg points out, the preceding movements come across as overtures to the “dialectic” of the ultimate fugal unfurling. Bruckner is known for his colossal finales of completely deranged counterpoint (just listen to the 7th, or the 4th, or the 8th, or any of them, actually).

Bruckner’s lengthy symphonies are big oceanic forces of nature. Different in many ways, the 5th partakes in that same ferociousness. But it’s at times tempered in equal parts by an expansive quietude that’s no less intense for its ethereal subtlety.

Bernard Haitink, another Bruckner enthusiast who at one point or another performed Bruckner’s entire symphonic output, gives a measured performances that perhaps reins in a little too much Bruckner’s explosive outpourings. (Compare it to Solti’s unbridled Romantic splurge of noise.) Hopefully, someone will press Celibidache’s live recordings of the symphonies for EMI–performances that reach such a level of quasi-mystical heights you might want to listen to it in segments (a few times when an especially tense climax builds and breaks into resolution you can actually Celibidache give a shout of what sounds like relief). And after that hypothetical label presses those hypothetical recordings, maybe they could, hypothetically, continue with the rest of his discography?

Until then, Jochum on DG is a true impresario with the symphonies.

Beaux Art

IMG_6327

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.