Satie & Picasso

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Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1

Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel 36459

My work is completely phonometrical.

-Erik Satie


As far as classical music eccentrics go, Eric Alfred Leslie (nee Erik) Satie is the weirdos weirdo. A dapper gentleman who inhabited a filthy apartment in Paris on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, he was a one man Theatre of the Absurd. If you wanted to compile a list of his many oddities, it might start like this: 1. Founded his own religion. 2. Would eat nothing that wasn’t white. 3. Brought a hammer with him wherever he went. 4. Owned an impressive collection of over 100 umbrellas. And that’s just the beginning.

Today, his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes are his most popular works (the Gymnopedie No. 1 must be up there with Fur Elise as one of the most played pop classical pieces). Instead of choosing a particular tempo he’d poeticize his piano music with tempo indications like “Don’t be proud”, “Corpulent” or “Don’t stop”. His piano music, especially performed on this album by the best Satie interpreter ever, Aldo Ciccolini, is filled with an innocence that does never diverts the music’s mysterious core. He’s also considered the midwife of minimalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in his 1893 “Vexations”– a simple bass-line and chords to be repeated 840 times in exactly the same way.

Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie first collaborated on Parade (1917), a ballet with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and danced by the Ballet Russes. Its jarring cardboard costumes, which were nearly impossible to move in, and Cubists sets (both done by Picasso) involves a troupe of carnival performers trying to get people to watch their show. Parade so riled up audiences with its purposefully aggravating inaction that one viewer slapped Satie in the face after a performance. The ensuing riot, by most accounts, was more of a melee than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had been 4 years earlier. The poet Apollonaire coined the term “surrealism” in his program notes for the ballet.

In comparison to that extravaganza, of course, Satie’s solo works are marked by a calmness encroaching on ennui, but always with that same undercurrent of disquietude. The portrait on this Angel sleeve gets to the essence of Satie. In Picasso’s line drawing, the composer sits in a typical pose, jacket a bit slouchy around the contours of the chair. But his eyes look restless, and his hands are two oversized unruly beasts resting in his lap. The image is an apt visual metonymy of the tranquil bizarreness that so characterizes Satie’s musical style.

Flamenco Dancing in Ancient Rome

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De Falla: Quatro Piezas Espanolas / Fantasia Baetica / Three Dances from El Sombrero de Tres Picos / Suite from El Amor Brujo

Alicia de Larrocha, piano

London CS6881

Along with a handful of others, Manuel De Falla, born in 1876, was one of Spain’s greatest composers. And Alicia de Larrocha, born in 1923, was one of Spain’s greatest musicians. It should be no shocker that putting the two together produced an album of unusually high standards.

De Larrocha’s Mozart recordings for Decca are just one of her claims to fame. She is also notable for perhaps being the shortest concert pianist ever–a few inches under five feet, but with a hand span stretching well over an octave. With De Fall’s classical, sultry compositions, her polished approach is incomparable.

All the tracks on this London re-issue are situated squarely in the composer’s flavorful Andalusian period. Folk dances and popular nationalist melodies step in and out of extremely tight classical structures. Yet it’s the Fantasia Baetica, from 1919, that stands out above the rest. From the Roman name for Southern Spain, it draws on flamenco and ancient history, and was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein.

Pianist Paul Jacobs said that its chords are based on “guitar tuning” and has a “harsh percussive quality reminiscent of castanets and heel stompings”. The Baetica is epic in scale, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to perform. It sounds a bit like a mix between Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Bizet’s Variations chromatiques de concert (also rarely played, but featured on a terrific Columbia recording by Glenn Gould). In the wrong hands, the Fantasia Baetica can be more of a tactile rather a musical experience. Performed by de Larrocha, however, it’s a ravishing dance and a totally essential recording.

Hummel Pie

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Hummel: Piano Sonatas Nos 1, 3 & 6

Ian Hobson, piano

Arabesque ABQ6564

Johann Nepomuk Hummel is not a name you come across every day, if ever. In his day, the early 1880s, Hummel was triply famed as a child prodigy, Mozart’s best student and the successor to Haydn, starting in 1804, as the Esterhazy’s private concertmaster. And no, he’s not also the creator of those zaftig porcelain figurines ornamenting you in-laws living room. Today, Hummel is known mainly for his concertos and piano sonatas.

Three of the latter appear here. Unsurprisingly, the sonatas are Mozart-Lite: the 1st sonata sounds like a sketch for any number of Mozart’s middle-period sonatas. There a few moments of the brooding romanticism then beginning to trend in the era: the opening of the Sonata No. 3 is actually quite dark, before tinkling off to more familiar terrain, only hinting at it’s bleak introduction in the next two movements.

In the Sonata No. 6, Hummel returns for the most part to his roots. Yet there’s a flash in the 2nd movement (oddly named Un Scherzo all’antico) where the composer spins out music that could be mistaken for late Beethoven, before again skirting back to Mozartian classicism.

This 1980s digital recording from Arabesque has a very capable pianist in Ian Hobson, though Stephen Hough’s 2003 performance on Hyperion (he includes 3 other sonatas recently authenticated as Hummel’s) is perhaps even better. A painted engraving of a stormy boat race in Hummel’s day decks out the sleeve, and you can practically feel the spray coming off the waves.

Lisztmania

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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.

Polytones

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Milhaud: Piano Music

William Bolcom, piano

Nonesuch H-71316

Don’t ever be discomfited by a melody.

-Darius Milhaud to Burt Bacharach


Similar to his contemporary Francois Poulenc, Darius Milhaud had an eclectic range of styles that could be cheeky, kitschy or cutting-edge. Sometimes all at once. Unlike the dodecaphonists, who criticized him for not being into seriousness, Milhaud was unafraid of a hummable tune. His most famous work, The Creation of the World (1923) is notable as an early classical piece to utilize popular music (it contains a gigantic jazz fugue), while Milhaud’s staging of Aeschylus’s trilogy from around the same period is orchestrated with whips and hammers.

Milhaud’s early works are marked by his use of polytonality–music that’s played in multiple keys at once. The Saudades do Brasil (1920-1921) is perhaps his most popular piece for the piano. Based on the rhythms of South America, it’s a series of simple melodic dances set against polytonal chords. The suites range from lightening fast bars, as in Copacabana to the topsy-turvy dissonance in a piece like Ipanema, with its cluster chords spawning a web of ninths, to Tijuca, which is like some surreal exhibition of polytonality.

Besides being an undeservedly obscure composer, Milhaud is known, if at all, as the teacher of a surprisingly diverse panoply of singers and musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Bacharach and the composer William Bolcom, the pianist on this recording.

Neon Pianist

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 “Apassionata” & Op. 2, No. 3

Arthur Rubinstein, piano

RCA Victor LSC-2812

I have always thought of myself as a musical instrument.

-Arthur Rubinstein


Artur Rubinstein swept his tux tails onto the scene as though he’d popped into existence direct from the dream of some classical music-biz adman. Talented, princely, a seducer, the pianist cavorted with socialites, royals and Hollywood celebs. He played the fragile Romantics with the most sensitive touch of any pianist of his era, and probably could only be equaled today by the likes of Krystian Zimerman.

His specialty was Chopin, going so far as to claim that the composer’s Barcarolle was the best aphrodisiac to instigate one of his many scandalous trysts, and his recordings of Chopin do indeed charm the pants off any listener. He took Chopin out of the hands of the Bombastics, paring the composer’s solo piano works down to their most delicate essence. He was prickly with other musicians, and quite the voluptuary, as Bernard Gavoty sums him up:

…nothing but dinner, bedroom scenes, travels, lobsters, caviar, champagne’, before ‘an unpardonable frying of all your colleagues in a spicy sauce. Be their names Schnabel, Hofmann, Gieseking, HeifetzHorowitz – each one is described as having small virtues, entirely unequal to yours! This is fully-fledged megalomania.

In his day, though, he was a household name, probably recognized everywhere he went, and known as much for his lush playing as for his aristocratic demeanor. Both away from and at the piano he was an unrepentant dandy.

It’s telling that he believed Beethoven’s early and middle works were meant for public performance, while the later ones, with all their intensities and angst, should be played in private. That musical sensibility is nowhere as apparent as in this RCA Victor recording of two very different Beethoven sonatas.

 

Rubinstein’s Appassionata, a piece of with about as much turbulence as the sonata form allows sounds over-polished, and lacks the piece’s jagged explosiveness, especially in the final bits of the allegro ma non troppo. But in the op. 2, his velvety playing teases out little insights, notably in the 2nd movement’s long theme and variations. Finesse is Rubinstein’s game, and he totally inhabits the beautiful, almost Schumann-esque tunefulness with great precociousness.

All of which is to say: if any pianist should be silhouetted in neon on a 1970 album sleeve, it probably shouldn’t be someone named Artur Rubinstein.

A Quiet Descent

img_1628Schubert: Piano Sonatas D.959 & D.279

Wilhelm Kempff, piano

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 327

Everything Franz Schubert ever did often sounds like different sets of themes and variations–for quartets, orchestras, and soloists alike. But listening to Franz Schubert’s late piano works bears out that theory. Each one is like overhearing the composer plan, rework and deconstruct his music. The sonatas D.958-D.960 (nos. 19-21) are hallmarks of the form, thematically tight and near minimalist in their reiterative structure. In the D.959 sonata and elsewhere, a simple theme is laid out, evolved subtly or in startling shifts and transpositions; troubling tonal conflicts intrude, with flats and sharps thrown in like minefields scattered in the score. As with the other sonatas in the cycle, it’s a metamorphic experience.

Finished in 1828, the D.959 sonata has the distinction of containing one of the most intensely unsettled movements in the canon. You know something is off with the Andantino second movement by its key signature, F major, when the other four movements are in A major. It’s a creeping surreal nightmare in between moments of the uneasiest calm.

Any preference for a particular performer, for me, is based on the Andantino, as it encapsulates so much of what Schubert was all about. Valery Afanassiev’s ECM rendition is my go-to: meditative, agonizingly measured, almost all-holds-barred, and sounds a little like Andrei Tarkovsky switched from filmmaking to pianism. Rudolf Serkin’s vinyl recording from Columbia is an edge-of-your-seat performances, while Krystian Zimerman’s recent release (destined to be compared to the greats, and kindly pressed for audiophiles) is totally uncluttered and the probably the least ostentatious version I’ve ever heard yet.

Here, Wilhelm Kempff takes a middle-of-the-road approach that seems spot-on and sticks close to the original. Dramatic where it should be; delicate in the lyrical moments. My one complaint is his cutting some of the repeats in the Allegro, which comes in at about 4-5 minutes shorter than other recordings. The D.959 is accompanied with the early D.279, a precocious, unfinished-seeming piece that merely hints at later volatilities.

The Notorious 2nd

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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2

Jorge Bolet, piano / Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Thor Johnson

with Piano Concerto No. 5

Alfred Brendel, piano / Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Jonathan Sternberg

Vox/Turnabout


To the devil with all this futurist music!

-An audience member at the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Of Prokofiev’s five piano concerti, Gary Graffman and George Szell own nos. 1 & 3, and Richter’s 5 is a touchstone. The 4th, composed for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, isn’t performed all that much. But the 2nd Piano Concerto in G minor is a rampaging beast that was rarely performed at all until fairly recently. On vinyl, you can choose between a handful, with those by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet standing out. Here’s a big difference between them: Ashkenazy plays the concerto competently and with some panache in the thornier parts. Bolet, on the other hand, tears through the untamable beast like a possessed man.

And you kind of have to be in order to bring off the work. Virtuosic, mercurial, explosive, uninhibited, complex, with violently shifting moods, it’s epic and epically tricky to perform. The 1st movement cadenza, lasting over 5 minutes, is considered the most difficult in classical music (edging out Rachmaninov’s cadenza from the 3rd Piano Concerto). Romantic, classical and atonal sounds mingle, descending like a nightmare into ferocious clashing runs and distressing cadences as it becomes more and more technically demanding. It sounds like a musical deconstruction of music, and maybe even of the world itself.

The 2nd premiered in 1913, with Prokofiev at the piano. Here it’s partnered with a 5th Piano Concerto, played by Alfred Brendel (at his best, I think, when performing Mozart and Haydn, and not so much with modern fare). As far as the performance is concerned, which originally appeared on the Remington label, it might be the first ever recorded version, and it’s definitely a protean showstopper. The pianist snipped out a couple measures in the cadenza, but the entire concerto is played with superhuman dexterity, brawn and, when called for, astounding sensitivity. Bolet was a powerhouse, shirking classical composers and going straight for Liszt and the high Romantics, and so is a natural choice for this most brassbound of concertos.

And it should be reiterated that the conductor’s name is Thor.

Snow-Globes & Onion Domes

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Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Edith Farnadi, piano / Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Hermann Scherchen

Westminster

The Hungarian pianist Edith Farnadi is one of those great “undiscovered” musicians overdue for a revival. Her no-frills, confident recordings of Liszt are some of the best out there (just listen to the Paganini Etudes, if you can find them). On vinyl, Farnadi appeared on the Westminster label, and here she tackles the overplayed Tchaikovsky 1, as well as the underplayed Tchaikovsky 2.

Far lighter than its predecessor, the 2nd concerto comes with some fine melodies. A violin and a cello join the piano for many bars of the andante non troppo, turning the work briefly into a triple concerto. Orchestra and soloist are divorced for a good deal of the playing time; Tchaikovsky came to despise the sound of piano and symphony together. It’s a foursquare performance from Farnadi and Scherchen, skimping on the composer’s more Romantic garnitures.

Westminster has some terrific sleeve designs from the 1950s. This one is no exception, with its midcentury color scheme and clean lines bearing a snow-globe in the shape of a very Russian-looking onion dome.

The Prodigy

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Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, opus 7 / Scherzos / 4 Fugitive Pieces / Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann

Michael Ponti, piano / Berlin Symphony Orchestra / Voelker Schmidt-Gertenbach

Candide

Clara Wieck’s 1835 Piano Concerto is a sparkling work somewhat in the mold of her teacher, Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere in 1838.

One of her father’s own music students was Robert Schumann, and they courted and wed fast, against her father’s wishes. Like her friend and fellow-composer Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister), Clara shattered at least one glass ceiling by performing in public at a time when musical women could hope to become singers at best. She was a first-class soloist, whom many critics believed would one day rival Franz Liszt, the demigod of the instrument. She continued to travel as a concert pianist even after giving birth to 8 (!) children, and caring for Robert during his spells of suicidal depression–a domestic workload that’s simply ridiculous.

Along with a Piano Trio and a set of Polonaises, the Piano Concerto in A minor is considered among her finest works. Ponti gives a precocious interpretation; in the first movement, ascending octaves, a la Chopin, are interrupted by the orchestra before the piano wrests away the main theme. Back-and-forth playful rhythms between cello and piano open the exquisite Romance, which then leads almost without pause from timpani to trumpets in the virtuosic final movement.

Steeped from childhood in the repertoire, it’s a prototypically classical concerto: Lightly dramatic, it calls for virtuosity and gracefulness in equal measure.

Oh, the composer was 13 years old when she began composing it.