Too Much Tchaikovsky

So Far, So Good

That’s a punch line! It belongs to the joke about a guy who falls off a ten-story building. As he passes the sixth floor, someone calls out to him from a window: “How’s it going?”

But I digress. Our topic today is pleasure, simple pleasure. In 2018 so far, which recordings have really floated your boat? Here’s my own list of boat-floaters; feel free to add yours.

BF1: Claude Debussy: Piano Music. Stephen Hough, piano. Hyperion CDA68139. It’s a Debussy centenary year. The master Impressionist (a label he despised) died in 1918, so brace yourself for another eight months in which you’ll be assaulted by dozens of memorials to someone whose music is already inescapable.

Choose your poison! (Considering Hough’s album art, maybe that should be choose your poisson.) Stephen Hough, my choice, is a master pianist in a number of repertoires, and this is a beautifully recorded, well-chosen sampler. Try a taste of Cloches à travers les feuilles (“Bells [heard] through the leaves”):

Debussy did have his own dry sense of humor, something Hough acknowledges by programming the marvelously childlike-but-never-childish Children’s Corner, including this little number, “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum”:

For some of us, Steps to Parnassus may call to mind to Fux’s infamously thorough treatise on counterpoint, but Debussy had in mind three volumes of piano exercises by Muzio Clementi (just practice these faithfully and someday you, too, will dwell among the gods!). To judge from Debussy’s music, Parnassus is a realm of innocent wonder and absolute perfection. Or, as the composer told his publisher Durand:

Dr. G. ad P. is a kind of progressive, hygienic gymnastics. It should be played every morning on an empty stomach, beginning moderato and ending up animé. I hope you will be impressed by the clarity of my explanation.

We are impressed—with your music, at least. Happy Anniversary, Claude.

BF2: Black is the Colour (Berio, Ravel, De Falla). Anna Stéphany, mezzo-soprano, Labyrinth Ensemble. Alpha Classics 5837. I was still in high school when I discovered Cathy Berberian, feisty American mezzo who premiered some great avant-garde vocal music in her day. She made it fun! About the time Spider-Man got his career underway, she was creating Stripsody (1966), her own zany take on all sorts of comic-book comedy. Luciano Berio also composed for her. His “soundtrack for a play never written” is called Visage; check it out below. There are no words. Literally.

 

In 1964, the last year of their marriage, Berio made Cathy an attractive assortment of Folk Songs from many lands. They’re far tamer than Visage, but they offer far more lasting pleasures. Now Anna Stéphany has taken them up, accompanied by top-notch Zurich chamber group Labyrinth. Here’s a sample:

 

YouTube also offers a miscellany of Labyrinth/Stéphany rehearsal and performance videos dating back to 2015. Beware: these do not exemplify the warmth, polish, and superb sonics of the new Alpha Classics set. Besides the Berio Folk Songs, it includes two works by Ravel: Histoires Naturelles, on witty and erudite poetry by Jules Renard, and the Introduction et Allegro with harpist Julie Palloc. If Berio’s songs suggest a tasting menu, exquisite but miniaturized, don’t fret: Ravel’s six-course meal will satisfy entirely. (And for dessert, De Falla!)

BF3: Four Composers – Four Pieces – Four Pianos. Alexander Melnikov, piano(s). Harmonia Mundi HMM 902299. Mr. Melnikov collects pianos. I’d love to see what his living room looks like. (Maybe he keeps half a dozen tiny apartments, each housing a single heirloom instrument.) In any case Four Composers presents an intriguing argument for his obsession. We get to hear Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie on a Graff (Vienna, c. 1828–35) with something called a “bassoon register”; Chopin’s Études op. 10 on an Érard (Paris, 1837), with Érard patent “repetition action”; Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan on a Bösendorfer (Vienna, c.1875); and finally Stravinsky’s Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka on a 2014 Steinway D. Yes, you can hear the differences. No, they’re not that subtle. Yes, it does make a difference to the music. Here’s one such moment in the Schubert:

Chopin may sound slightly more Chopinesque on an Érard, too.

The instrument that comes through least well is the Bösendorfer, possibly because Liszt—whose last piano was in fact an Érard—never met a piano he couldn’t slay in mortal combat. (On a previous recording of this piano, I actually enjoyed hearing Melnikov play Brahms, who was never bent on besting Bösendorfers.) Listen to this bit from the Réminiscences:

Sadly, Liszt never encountered a Steinway D. Its advantages seem obvious. In audiophile terms, they amount to headroom: if this piano were a power amp, it would run cool at 600 wpc and put out effortlessly consistent, rich sound from high to low, soft to very loud. The Stravinsky work was well-chosen for its role here, by the way. Commissioned by Arthur Rubinstein as a display piece, it’s absolutely “demonstration level.”

I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be playing this record. It’s interesting rather than compelling. Melnikov usually plays sensitively, so maybe it’s the engineering. The instruments sound closely mic’ed in a studio (Teldex, Berlin) that’s oddly reverberant. This is probably not the sound Chopin and his devotees heard in Parisian salons, with their oriental carpets, heavy velvet drapes, and overstuffed furniture. Melnikov’s engineers let you hear every noise the old actions make, every variation in timbral response and the attendant problems of voicing and balancing. Was my boat floated? Mainly by Melnikov at the Steinway, if I’m going to be honest.

BF4: Which brings us to a terrific recorded performance I will mention only briefly because, in a just world, that would suffice: Le Sacre du printemps and other Stravinsky works in arrangements for two pianos, the benches of which are occupied by Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes (Hyperion CDA 68189). Wow. Whatever is lost in orchestral colorings is made up for with textural clarity and astonishing rhythmic drive. These two know how to phrase, how to shape a statement, how to layer as they reveal. You will hear things you’ve never heard.

Stravinsky and his pal Debussy first played this Sacre arrangement for their colleagues in 1913, before the ballet itself was premiered. They couldn’t have done much better than Hamelin and Andsnes, though. This is not just interesting, it’s compelling.

BF5: Likewise Deux (Alpha Classics 387), featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Polina Leschenko in works by Poulenc, Bartók, Ravel, Dohnányi. Fizzy, gutsy performances from two of classical music’s current “mavericks.” If you want some sense of why Kopatchinskaja is considered such a rebel, check out these telling moments from the finale of Poulenc’s Violin Sonata:

Here and elsewhere she is not afraid to use her instrument in ugly ways—scratching, moaning, whispering, coaxing the blues (okay, microtones) from woozy long notes. Galamian would not have approved. But it’s real and true, as by 1943 that crazy old flâneur Poulenc knew only too well. Kopatchinskaja and Leschenko make an ideal team for this desperate music. Highly recommended.

BF6-7: Finally, two symphonic albums, one devoted to a composer you’ve never heard of, the other devoted to someone who, like Debussy, you can’t avoid this year. We’re speaking of Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), whose centenary is being celebrated worldwide. Not least by record labels, including BIS, who have just issued On the Waterfront from The Royal Liverpool PO and trombonist-turned-conductor Christian Lindberg (BIS-2278). It features the symphonic suite from Elia Kazan’s film and a bunch of other familiar orchestral fare (see the hyperlink for full listing). Is it as breezily idiomatic as Bernstein’s own recordings? Probably not. Nevertheless it’s full of all appropriate energy, played by a band that’s arguably in better shape these days than the NY Phil. And it’s extremely well-recorded. I couldn’t help myself: it definitely floated my boat.

 

The composer you’ve never heard of is Norwegian Finn Mortensen (1922–83). His Symphony op. 5 (Stavanger SO 3917-9; all formats!) is well worth hearing. Jim Anderson, known for his enlightened engineering of Jane Ira Bloom and others, was kind enough to send me a copy. Mortensen’s Symphony is a youthful work, equal parts Bruckner, Nielsen, and middle-of-the-road Neoclassicism.

 

Even though young Mortensen was still finding his way, this is enormously assured music. It just sounds right. I do wish the SSO gave us more than the 37-minute Symphony (another recent recording offers op. 5 plus opp. 12, 23, and 30). But the Stavangers’ musical conviction is apparent in every note they play, and it is stunningly recorded.