Surprise!

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Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 94 “Surprise” & 101 “Clock”

Pierre Monteux / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

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Strange as it sounds today, Franz Joseph Haydn was a celebrity in late 18th century England, on par with someone like Bruce Springsteen or Bjork in Iceland. He was recognized in the streets, and huge crowds turned out for the premieres of his many, many symphonies. Being the most famous composer of his day, he could get away with a joke on the audience when he felt like it. Haydn had just finished his stint as the Esterhazy’s personal music director when he arrived in London and conducted his Symphony No. 94 in 1792, the second of the 12 London symphonies. As usual, a throng showed up to hear it.

The Andante second movement starts off placid enough, but as the pianissimo main theme comes to a close, hardly a minute in, an incredibly loud fortissimo chord taken up by the whole orchestra erupts from nowhere. According to anecdotal testimony, the chord was a spur-of-the-moment decision of Haydn’s (he was conducting) to rouse an audience member in the front row who’d gone to sleep. The sleeper was of course brought immediately to his senses, and stood bolt upright to tremendous embarrassment. The episode, as great as it sounds, probably isn’t quite true. One of Haydn’s biographers asked him if the chord was meant as a prank, and the composer responded that no, he’d just wanted to introduce a totally unexpected element into his symphony. Which he certainly did.

What’s more shocking than the “surprise”, perhaps, is the fact that it’s not repeated when the theme returns. This leads to a palpable sense of playful dread that’s a little like re-winding a jack-in-the-box and not have it spring out after it’s scared the bejesus out of you the first time. (Hence the sleeve art.) The rest of the symphony follows a strongly Haydnesque framework, with a Minuet and Trio leading to a fast-paced Allegro molto, which culminates with a timpani coda.

In this and the Symphony No. 104 Monteux brings his understated polish and drama. Haydn isn’t often lauded for his humor, but in this symphony it’s on full display.


	

Neon Pianist

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

Arthur Rubinstein, piano

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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.

The Devil Went Down to Germany

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Gounod: Faust (Highlights)

De Los Angeles / Gedda / Christoff

Orchestra and Chorus of the Theatre National de L’Opera / Andre Cluytens

RCA Victor

“Mozart should have composed for Faust”

-Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

In music, Goethe’s Faust is everywhere. Beethoven based on a song on it (even after the two men fell out when Beethoven remarked that the playwright was too chummy with aristocrats). Berlioz wrote an opera on the drama. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn musicalized the devil’s apprentice, and Franz Liszt composed not one but two Faust-centric works: a Faust Symphony and the Mephisto Waltz. Mussorgsky, Mahler and even the Soviet modernist Alfred Schnittke worked in material from the play (Faust Cantata in the the latter’s case. And that’s not even mentioning all the Fausts that show up in the songs of Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and Tenacious D.

The Faust legend (reaching into anecdote with Robert Johnson’s crossroads encounter with the devil) is well suited to musicians and composers seeking mastery in exchange for their souls. Who wouldn’t? Thomas Mann was aware of that connection, updating Faust into pianist/composer in his Dr. Faustus (1947). Although Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus was the first mainstream version, some scholars believe that the origins lay with the medieval magician Simon Magus. But it wasn’t until Goethe’s 1789 Faust that the popular tone was set, and author was adamant that no one other than Mozart, who was already dead, should set it to music.

Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera is loosely based on that version. Taking place over 5 acts (sometimes shortened to 4), it dispenses with Goethe’s sprawling philosophical epic and instead focuses on the love angle between Faust and Marguerite. After the premiere, Gounod’s name fame was assured.

Castellon’s vivid depiction on this RCA Victor release from the 1950s has the devil looking like a Venetian nobleman, ogling the face-sucking couple in the background. He has untrimmed fingernails and a pervert’s leer, as the prince of evil should. Ideally attired in blood-red finery, he is portrayed at the moment when he’s about to do some soul-searching and romance-thwarting.

Something Wicked

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Petruchka is a jester-like puppet from Russian folklore. In Stravinsky’s ballet, he’s underscored with a grating theme that’s come to be called the Petruchka Chord (triads of C major and F sharp major played together). Stravinsky’s version debuted in 1911; its atmosphere is subtly threatening, mixed in with the Punch-and-Judy world of carnival that moves from frenetic rumpus to quiet ostinato.

A sorcerer and a prince vie for a princess in the Firebird Suite (1910). Commissioned for the debut of the Ballet Russes, it was Stravinsky’s first successful work. The title comes from the avian symbol for beauty and guardianship, and as with Petruchka, folk motifs, visually and musically, recur.

Pierre Monteux is an excellent guide to all things Stravinsky, especially in the composer’s earlier, difficult ballets, before his about-face to neo-classicism. Marc Chagall’s cover art, “The Blue Circus”, is especially appropriate.

Dark and Stormy Nights

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Moodiness and the sublime duke it out in these Beethoven sonatas. The Appassionata was begun around 1804, and its roiling turbulence crescendoes into emotional fury. Similarly, the Op. 13 “Pathetique”, with a languorous Andante cantabile (used to great effect in the Cohn Brothers’ under-appreciated noir The Man Who Wasn’t There), conjures big “R” Romantic volatility. A storm-tossed cover gets the point across.

Bring Out the Bubbly

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It’s a real party on this RCA Victor release from the 1950s. Arthur Rubinstein plays Robert Schumann’s 21 vignettes, composed in 1834-35, which musicalizes himself, his friends and various stock characters during the pre-Lent festivities of Carnaval. Cesar Franck’s far more obscure work has an air of the sacred, as the middle-movement Chorale suggests. Both are performed with the pianist’s typical elegancy.