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.

Dvorak’s Sublime Folksong

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Everybody has heard Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, most have listened to his bittersweet Cello Concerto, some know of his Violin Concerto and a handful are aware of his bizarrely obscure Piano Concerto (probably by way of Richter and Kleiber on EMI). In all these larger-scale pieces, Dvorak is a melodist’s melodist, layering gorgeous harmony on gorgeous harmony with a contrapuntal precision that can’t be topped.

But in his chamber music, he’s a melody machine. The “American” Quartet, the Dumka Trio,  the piano quartets–each is ravishing in its own way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Piano Quintet, opus 81, which is a stunning amalgamation of the composer’s synthesis of Romanticism, classical structure and Slavic tunes.

Themes are explored, transformed, revitalized, diminished and intensified, culminating in a fugato that gathers all the motifs up into a bang-up coda. Dvorak was an alchemist of fusing all the disparate themes from a given work for his grand finales, and it’s no different in this Piano Quintet.

For obvious reasons, five varicolored Eastern European eggs adorn the sleeve. The once much-heralded Fine Arts Quartet (“A study in depth” said one critic after a performance of theirs) pairs with pianist Frank Glazer for a spirited recording on the Concert-Disc label.

Pastoralia

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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.

The Sheffield Sound

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Variations on another’s themes are like great chats between composers who’ve usually never met. The form has provided some of the most spectacular works. There’s the canonical Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabellis, Rachmaninov’s rousing Paganini Variations, to name three of the more popular.

Lincoln Mayorga here plays another mainstay of the genre, Johannes Brahms’s oft-recorded Variations on a Theme of Handel, along with the original, and a Chopin Mazurka. About as notable as the piece itself is the Sheffield Lab label, which Moyorga co-founded. An audiophile’s wet dream, Sheffield mixes the gorgeous timbre of early 78s without the scratchiness with cutting-edge digital equipment. Since it began (this is their fourth album), it’s become the standard for vinyl sound-quality. The effect, at least here, is a little like curling up in the belly of the piano as the pianist plays.

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The Romantics

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Certain performers seem perennially linked to a given composer, so thoroughly do they inhabit and animate that composer’s work. Gould/Bach, Michelangeli/Ravel, Uchida/Mozart, Kempff/Schubert, Landowska/Scarlatti and on and on.

Frederic Chopin’s psychological doppelganger was definitely the great Romanian pianist, and student of Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti. The two should always have an ampersand between them. Listening to Lipatti gliding through a Barcarolle, a Mazurka and the emotional range of the Nocturne No. 6, it’s as though Chopin composed knowing that his music would one day be recorded by this performer.

The lightness of touch, ripe melodies and sensitive articulations–Lipatti’s Chopin sings. Glissandos somersault and Chopin’s ornaments, like his almost trademarked mordants, are played as though in a swoon. His playing maybe occasionally forsakes drama for fluidity, but it’s always like an act of seduction that’s constantly on the verge of being consummated.

A standout on this Columbia recording from the 1950s is the Piano Sonata No. 3. Under Lipatti’s hands, the 3rd movement Largo, in particular, is as achingly tuneful as anything you’ll ever hear.

Beaux Art

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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.

Dark Harmonies

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Of all the oddball personalities in classical music, Scriabin may be the strangest. His dozen piano sonatas (the first two are unnumbered), dating from 1886 to 1913, run the gamut of his eccentricity.

A hardcore mystic and egomaniac, he claimed that “the whole world is inundated with my waves of being”. He had a physicist build an apparatus that showered audiences with a spectrum of lights during his concerts. Scriabin’s last, unfinished work, the Mysterium, involved a monumental assortment of orchestras and choruses to perform at the base of the Himalayas. It would herald the end of the world and lead humanity, he believed, into a prelapsarian wonderland.

Put briefly, Scriabin fancied himself both Christ and Antichrist, and Nietzschean overman to boot.

His music is as compelling and as it is ethereal. Sonatas 1-4 are more youthful works, with a romantic gloss. But all that changes around the time of the 5th Sonata (from then on, all of his sonatas are one-movement works) which is like a mysterious threshold at the bottom of the sea.  Esoteric chords play against softly demonic trills. Upheavals arise out of whispered melodies in totally innovative shadings and unnameable hues. The 7th and 9th are called, respectively, “White Mass” and “Black Mass”, and could be what you might hear in the White and Black Lodges from Twin Peaks.

In the 5th Sonata, his direction to the pianist could be a signpost to all of his works: “With fantastic intoxication”. If Chopin, Madame Blavatsky, Satie and Alban Berg suddenly merged into one person, that individual would be Scriabin.

Vox issued this triple album of Michael Ponti’s accessible recordings. Gustave Klimt’s artwork is certainly evocative of the experience of listening to these sonatas.

 

 

Wanda Landowska vs. the Bombs

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Wanda Landowska was the harpsichord connoisseur’s harpsichord connoisseur. Born in Poland in 1879, she was a trailblazer of the instrument. She was the first to record the Goldberg Variations, and the first to perform it live in front of an audience. Manuel De Falla and Francis Poulenc were so enthralled that they both composed works for the harpsichord expressly for Landowska.

Her Scarlatti is absolutely peerless. Lightness and incomparable technique inform every sonata. Landowska’s playing is always studious and witty. And these recordings, done in a Paris studio in 1939-40 also contain one of the most indelible moments in classical music recordings. Midway through the airy D major Sonata, K. 490, at 2:01, you can hear the German bombs falling on the city that began the occupation.

It’s an instance of stark brutality and dread heard in between the airy notes of an Italian baroque sonata. And without a pause, Landowska continues to play.

Shostakovich Is Sorry/Not Sorry

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Nobody captured the katzenjammer of interior and external conflict like Dmitri Shostakovich. His milieu was incendiary: WWI, Stalinist purges, WWII, more Stalinist purges. Duality was hoisted on him: on the one side constrained by the Soviet Union’s artistic repression (if you weren’t into social realism you were blacklisted or worse), and on the other his pursuit of modernist forms of expression.

After the debut of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned in 1936, he was publicly denounced, and he slept for days in the stairwell outside his apartment waiting to be taken by Soviet authorities for his dissident music-making.

The 5th Symphony was his apology for sidestepping Stalin’s favor, though with some  very subtle acts of subversion thrown in. It worked and he was installed as the de facto propagandist, with his 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) becoming something of a rallying cry during WWII.

Yet everywhere in Shostakovich’s music there’s the purgatorial rage of a man stuck between his innate sense of cultural identity and what his country demanded of him. During the Col War, his music was a surprisingly huge draw in the US. When he finally arrived in America it was with a contingent of KGB operatives tailing him everywhere to make sure he wouldn’t defect to the enemy.

Vladimir Golschmann, a great champion of avant-garde composers, recorded this 5th for Capital Records, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It’s a sweeping performance that skimps on some of the more overt patriotic bombast.

The Master Plucker

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“The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth.”

-Andres Segovia

The Andalusian guitarist Andres Segovia was the Django Reinhardt of classical music, transforming the looked-down on instrument into a mini orchestra. His repertoire was not huge, but his depth of intellectual feeling certainly was. He was, shockingly, self-taught. Segovia is known for playing his own transcriptions, especially Bach (Segovia’s sublime reworking of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 will destroy you in a good way), Scarlatti and other baroque masters. He’s something of the godfather of classical guitar, numbering among those he directly or indirectly influenced John Williams (not that John Williams), Christopher Parkening and Julian Bream.

In this Decca Gold Label recording, the six-string maestro plays works by Sors, Handel, Villa-Lobos and others. Erik Nitsche designed the color-wheel design comprised of regal, operatic silhouettes.