Classical Check-Up – 1956

1956 was a landmark year for music. Rock & roll took the world by storm. Modernist jazz was in full effect. And even classical made significant strides. In the realm of the avant-garde, both Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen premiered their signature compositions. Meanwhile, a young pianist named Glenn Gould breathed new life into a 215-year-old classic.

The Goldberg Variations

Artist: Glenn Gould

Genre: Baroque

Grade: A

32 songs in 38 minutes. #BringBackBach, etc. Glenn Gould, the prodigious pianist from Canada, was 23 at the time of recording this breakthrough LP—a prestigious and polished solo interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” which were originally published for harpsichord back in 1741.

Each variation ranges in speed from uptempo to blindingly quick—most of the tunes are extremely fast and dexterous, while a select few languish in Baroque Era contemplation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to distinguish, or even isolate, from track to track. The songs keep coming and the flow never ceases, turning this 1956 LP into a new classical standard in itself. This isn’t just a rendition; this is a reimagining—inventing something new by giving careful consideration to something old.

Gould’s technical abilities are so fast and precise that you have to wonder if his skill is aided by overdubs or sped-up recordings. Is this really only two hands, one piano? By the end, you’re left with two takeaways: Gould is probably the most talented classical musician of the 20th century…and Bach the greatest composer of all time.

Il Canto Sospeso

Artist: Luigi Nono

Genre: Serialism

Grade: A

Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono accomplished a very impressive feat with Il Canto Sospeso. This is serialism with soul, a real rarity. The orchestra plays loud, and the solo-choir mix emanates otherworldliness, giving the cantata a level of depth and emotion not commonly seen in the genre’s catalogue. I hope Pierre Boulez was taking notes.

Gesang der Junglinge premiere
A photograph from the premiere of “Gesang Der Jünglinge” in Cologne, Germany.

Gesang der Jünglinge

Artist: Karlheinz Stockhausen

Genre: Experimental Classical

Grade: A

Stockhausen’s ode to anti-music, this extreme avant-garde work isn’t just noteworthy for kickstarting the genre of electronic music, but also for its impressive usage of spatial dynamics. Unlistenable? Maybe. Impossible to shake? Definitely. Give it a listen when you’re by yourself, and make sure you sit through the entire 13 minutes. You’ll come around eventually.

Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra

Artist: Heitor Villa-Lobos

Genre: Neoclassical

Grade: A-

This short guitar concerto from Brazil’s finest composer consistently keeps things interesting. The virtuosic passages — of which there are plenty — possess a jazzy flair, while the small orchestral ensemble always remains in perfect step. Some sections even sound a little like Steve Howe, which certainly makes my mood for a day. But that’s probably because the prog-rocker was inspired by Andrés Segovia, the legendary classical guitarist whom this Concerto was originally written for.

Symphony No. 8 in D Minor

Artist: Ralph Vaughan Williams

Genre: Romantic

Grade: A-

Containing a multitude of percussion instruments — from vibraphones to glockenspiels — Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony is perhaps his most rhythmic and maybe his most dynamic. Typical of Vaughan Williams to be pastoral, but so too is his propensity for melody. Once again, Britain’s national composer delivers the goods.

Tone Poems of Color.jpg
Frank Sinatra made a couple classical albums. Who knew?

Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color

Artist: Frank Sinatra

Genre: Classical

Grade: B

Frank Sinatra wants you to know he’s more than just a great singer, the grand interpreter of American song — he’s also a conductor from time to time. This all-instrumental LP features compositions written by several popular Hollywood composers, including Nelson Riddle, Elmer Bernstein and André Previn.

There’s no fault in the conducting that I can detect; Sinatra is pretty good with the baton. Rather, the “tone poems” themselves are bland. Only thing that could liven them up is — you guessed it — Frank’s voice.

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