After his 5th Symphony, Beethoven tried something quite different with his next work. The 6th Symphony is miles away from the brash Germanic drama of his “heroic period”, and instead paints a sound-picture filled with woods, streams and valleys. Completed in 1808, it’s a nature lover’s paean to idyllic settings. The “Pastoral” Symphony is a jaunt among rustic folkways. From “Arrival in the Country” to the harrowing strains of “Thunder Storm” it ends with a simple “Shepherd’s Song”. Beethoven even identifies the individual birdcalls played by the woodwinds in the second movement.
These two albums are not the finest recordings out there; they do share, however, fitting Breughel-esque scenes of peasants toiling in one design, and in revelry after the wheat has been harvested in the other. Szell’s version with the CO is a little too straightforward, offering zero playfulness, while Klemperer and the VSO, though more textured, is similarly an austere take.
Mauro Giuliani (possibly the only good Giuliani you’ll hear about today) was one of the great guitarists of all time. His social network probably helped: his acquaintances included Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn and Rossini among others.
Oddly, he’s listed as part of the orchestra for the premiere of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony; he probably wasn’t strumming the guitar, although how spectacular would it be to hear a guitar in the mix of Beethoven’s epic work? (Fellow performers Meyerbeer and Hummel played the drums, while Ignaz Moscheles was on the cymbals).
Giuliani brought the guitar from the domain of troubadours into the classical repertoire, and his opus 30 is believed to be the first concerto composed for that instrument. Pairing it with two guitar concertos from Vivaldi (sometimes performed on the mandolin or lute), John Williams plays with polish and lightness, harkening back to the great technique of Andres Segovia.
Nereus Bell executed the artwork for this Columbia release, featuring bits of land floating in the clouds of a blue sky. Several guitarists are posed baroquely, along with a creepy cat’s head. Off on one side, another guy holds a swan as though it, too, is a stringed instrument.
Don’t be fooled by half-assed recordings: this pressing makes it very clear that “real cannons are used in the finale”. Commissioned to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat by the Motherland, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is one big orgasmic burst of patriotism, which is one sure way to get a lot of fans. It’s crammed full of national airs and folk-songs, and even includes a rendition of the Marseillaise before it is quickly blown apart by the fusillade. One Russian composer called it “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit”, and that was the opinion of Tchaikovsky himself. For a symphonist and composer of ballets with Tchaikovsky’s sensibilities, the worldwide popularity of his blustering rah-rah overture must have seemed downright insulting.
Emil Gilels, part of the Russian import of great musicians that included Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrakh, performs Beethoven. Known for his powerfully convincing and convincingly powerful playing, Gilels was ideally suited for Ludwig van’s muscular concerto. Fellow Russian Yakov Zak joins him for Mozart’s spritely Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra, and Kiril Kondrashin conducts both. The Period Records album (c. 1955) has the look of a billboard, with the pianist’s name in huge font looking as if it’s advertising a newfangled appliance called a Gilels, while a piano sits off in the background.
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.
Kubrick’s 1971 film is as much about music as it is about shocking imagery. The director’s genius of knitting classical works with unforgettable scenes is unsurpassed, breaking the rule that a soundtrack should be mere background filler. There’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Penderecki in the Shining, and orchestral version of Handel’s Sarabande as the soundscape of Barry Lyndon (the best most boring movie ever), and Ligeti’s Musica ricercata II in Eyes Wide Shut (the second best most boring movie ever). In A Clockwork Orange, it’s all about Beethoven as retro-fitted for a gang of Victorian/dystopian droogs. Walter (now Wendy) Carlos redid sections of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on the Moog synthesizer, and the effect is pure kitsch and absolutely terrifying. Giant phallic sculptures won’t ever look the same again.
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.
Oft-heard string trios from Mozart, based on various works by J.S. Bach, and one from his son W.F. Baron van Swieten, one of the most important patrons of his day (Beethoven, Haydn, as well as Wolfgang would pass through his salons) introduced the composer to Bach’s scores. “Every Sunday at twelve o’clock I go to Baron van Swieten’s,” Mozart corresponded to his father on April 10, 1782, “And nothing is played there but Bach and Handel.” The discovery of these, musicologist Alfred Einstein argues, was the turning-point in Mozart’s style. Mainly borrowed from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Mozart’s trios transpose Bach’s “far out” keys (he hated too many flats and sharps), and offered his own intro to each. Yoko Mitsahushi did this galant art for Nonesuch, portraying three musicians balanced precariously on a balustrade. A bat is swooping down on lefthand side. Not sure what the owls are doing there — maybe they are not what they seem.
Whenever “classical music” and “riot” are mentioned together it’s usually in reference to the premiere, in 1913, of Stravinsky’s pagan ballet. Design-wise, this cover (from a painting by Henri Rousseau) evokes a definite a Garden of Eden vibe, but with the added bonus of a snake-wrapped shadow-person playing the flute. Pierre Monteux, who conducted that first notorious performance, returns for this 1950s recording.
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.