Music having to do with the supernatural goes way back in history. Much of the inspirational lore has do with the violin being the “instrument of the devil, epitomized in Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” sonata for violin. Niccolo Paganini was rumored to be an associate of the devil because of his severe looks and uncanny ability on the instrument. And Satan himself inspired a number of memorable compositions as did Death itself. Demons pile on in some works, as do ghosts and haunted houses. It’ a bit difficult to reduce recordings to five because of compilations, but I’ve taken a stab at it. So let’s get to it. As undertaker Digby O’Dell always bid farewell on The Life of Riley radio show, I’d better be “shoveling on.”
Witches’ Brew (Arnold: Tam O’Shanter Overture/Mussorgsky: “Gnomus” from Pictures at an Exhibition, orch. Ravel; A Night on Bald Mountain, arr. Rimsky-Korsakov/Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre/Humperdinck: “Witches’ Ride” from Hänsel und Gretel/Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1
New Symphony Orchestra of London; Alexander Gibson, conductor. (RCA stereo LP LSC-2225, Analogue Productions 200g LP & SACD. Decca Eloquence CD)
With its garish cover, sensationalist title, and then virtually unknown artists, This 1957 recording was initially ignored. But a few of us got a good listen and realized it for what it is, a recording for the ages, promoting and extolling it until it has reached, and retained, cult status.
Sir Alexander Gibson was not very well known in the U. S. at the time of this release and the New Symphony Orchestra was regarded as one of London’s lesser ensembles. But put the two together and the results were electric, resulting in dynamic, definitive readings of the Arnold, Saint-Saëns and Liszt, and darned good ones of the rest. The recording was done by Decca with legendary engineer Kenneth Wilkinson working hand in hand with producer Erik Smith and engineer Alan Reeve. They used the Decca microphone “tree” for recording in stereo which resulted in close up sound that was exceptionally rich and detailed. You can hear the buzz from cellos and basses whereas the upper strings are airy. The resounding brass is superb throughout.
New editions seem to be coming out every 10 years or so; the latest, best one is from Analogue Productions. Both that and the Australian Eloquence CD add two Gibson recordings with the Royal Opera House Orchestra from different sessions – Gounod’s Ballet Music from Faust and the Funeral March of a Marionette, made famous as the theme of TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Alternate Takes: Mephisto & Co. (Minnesota Orchestra, Eije Oue, conductor, Reference Recordings LP and CD)
Further Explorations: Chiller (Kunzel) Arnold (Handley), Saint-Saëns (Martinon, Paray), Liszt (Reiner)
National Orchestra of Ukraine; Theodore Kuchar, conductor (Naxos SACD, CD)
Mussorgsky was a brilliant composer, a singular visionary, and a raging alcoholic. The last attribute made his work spotty and furtive. He had many brilliant ideas that would have gone unrealized had it not been for his fellow composers in the Russian group called “The Five.” This group contained, in addition to Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter arranged the original ideas for The Night on Bald Mountain into the version we most often hear today. But Mussorgky’s original orchestration, if a bit scattershot, also has some novel ideas about the use of harmony and of instruments. In the 20th century, others sought to further orchestrate the original by ignoring the Korsakov. Chief among these was Leopold Stokowski, whose near ludicrous version served as the soundtrack to the most frightening episode of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
When Naxos Records first started up they did some recordings with the National Orchestra of Ukraine under the leadership of Theodore Kuchar, an American conductor who has made over 90 recordings for Naxos. The early efforts were interesting as far as performance goes, but sounded very much like they were recorded in an airplane hangar. Naxos finally tamed that acoustic to provide sound that was rich and deep with excellent detail and superb impact in louder passages, absolute clarity in quieter ones. The Mussorgsky disc is from this later period and worth buying because it has both the Korsakov and original versions of A Night on Bald Mountain, and one of the very best of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. Kuchar has his players on their toes and finds all the drama inherent in this music. The SACD is out of print but can still be found by searching. It’s worth the effort.
Alternate Takes: Korsakov Arrangement – Solti (Decca LP, CD), Gibson (RCA LP, CD); Original Orchestration – Lloyd-Jones (Philips LP, CD)
Further Explorations: Night: Stokowski (Decca LP & CD), Leibowitz ( LP & CD) Pictures: Ansermet (Decca LP & CD) Szell (CBS-Sony LP, CD, SACD)
Infernal Violins (Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre/Offenbach: Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld/Tartini: The Devil’s Trill/Dompierre: Les Beautés du diable/Boccherini: Sinfonia – Nella del diavalo; more.
Angèle Dubeau & La Pietá
(Analekta CD, DVD)
The instrument of the devil, in this case, is the “Des Rosiers” violin manufactured in 1733 by Stradivarius. It is ably played by Dubeau, who founded and leads the all-woman ensemble La Pietá, named in reference to Antonio Vivaldi’s famous all-girl ensemble. The ensemble is basically like your regular Baroque chamber orchestra, except that it employs piano instead of harpsichord. They mostly play arrangements of Halloween-themed music that are so skillfully crafted that one delights in their creation rather than lamenting the absence of the original. Danse Macabre and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 are here but along with them some clever, original choices, such as Offenbach’s overture to Orpheus in the Underworld, Falla’s El Amor Brujo, Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, and Tartini’s The Devil’s Trill. There’s even a contemporary nod to The Rolling Stones (Paint It Black/Sympathy for the Devil) and Ennio Morricone.
Dubeau and her orchestra play with wild abandon and electrifying virtuosity and a delirious sense of joy. The latter can be viewed in an accompanying DVD, which has excerpts from Infernal Violins and other repertory. I pull this one out with a sense of devilish glee every October, though sometimes I can’t wait until then.
Alternate Takes: Devil’s Dance (Gil Shaham, DG CD); Instrument of the Devil (Rachel Barton Pine, Cedille CD)
Further Explorations: Tartini (Manze, Szeryng); Paganini (Perlman, Rabin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis
(Philips LP, Pentatone SACD)
The best known work by Hector Berlioz, premiered in 1830 with the composer conducting, is an ideal Halloween companion. It’s a program symphony in five movements that details obsessive love gone to madness and death, all culminating in a witches’ Sabbath. Throughout the composition a theme appears that represents the object of a young man’s affections. At first it is sweet but by the end of the work has become grotesque.
There are lots of good performances but this one is one I return to time and again. Davis brings out all the schizophrenic lyricism and psychedelic terror of the piece in perfect balance and the recording engineers vividly captured the colorful orchestration, which includes a mournful church bell and skittering strings played with the wood part of the bow.
Other recordings deserve a mention. Ataulfo Argenta got great results from the Paris Conservatory Orchestra and first rate early stereo Decca engineering to boot. It’s the most “French” sounding version, audiophile enough that Speakers Corner has created a bang up vinyl edition.
Berlioz wrote an alternate cornet obbligato part for the second movement that I have found, since hearing it the first time, nearly indispensable. Paavo Jarvi and Charles Mackerras both use it.
Alternate Takes: Argenta (Decca & Speakers Corner LP, Decca CD); Mackerras, Royal Philharmonic /Intersound CD; Jarvi, Telarc SACD)
Further Explorations: Overtures (Munch, Boult); Harold in Italy (Primrose, Munch); The Damnation of Faust (Markevitch)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, conductor
(RCA LP, Analogue Productions SACD)
This brooding piece was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s eerie painting, which depicts the oarsman Charon on the river Styx, delivering souls to their final destination. The orchestra depicts the rowing and the lapping waves, crowned with massive climaxes for the brass. The original album was immodestly called The Reiner Sound, but it deserved that title. This was the great maestro and his superb orchestra at their very best, recorded in some of the best sound that RCA Living Stereo ever offered. You’ll also get virtuoso readings of two works by Ravel: Rapsodie Espagnole and the Pavane pour une infant défunte. In fact, this just might be considered one of the greatest recordings ever made, regardless of repertoire.
Alternate Takes: Horenstein (Quintessence LP, Chesky CD); Previn (EMI LP, CD); Noseda (Chandos SACD, HD download
Further Explorations: Variations of a Theme of Paganini (Katchen, Boult), The Bells (Previn, Slatkin)