Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

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Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Tabloid Concerto

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Richard Addinsell: Warsaw Concert

with encores by Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven

David Haines, piano / Paris Theatre Orchestra

Somerset P-2100

Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto was originally composed for the film Dangerous Moonlight about the Nazi occupation of Poland. The producers of the film wanted to use Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for the score, but for whatever reason decided to hire Addinsell to recreate Rach’s most soaringly Hollywood Romanticism. (He’d done soundtracks for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the UK version of Gaslight.) The result is one of the earliest of the so-called “tabloid concertos” that would make their way onto many a turntable in the 1950s. Addinsell’s program music is less a “concerto” and more of a background of piecemeal Rachmaninov-isms scattered throughout the movie.

Still, it was one of the most popular film-to-concert hall works ever composed. It can be heard in a slew of love songs from the period, was transcribed for 2 pianos by Percy Grainger, became a staple of Liberace’s repertoire, has been sampled by the rapper DMX on one of his first albums, and serves as frequent accompaniment to Japanese figure-skating championships. Whatever your opinion of the piece, its multi-use versatility can’t be disputed.

David Haines performs the concerto, along with a few favorite encores on this 1958 Somerset recording. The sleeve art is stark: a grasping hand holds a flag while a squad of fighter planes roars overhead in the dusky sky. Cinematic is definitely one quality it shares with the music.

 

 

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.