January 2015 playlists

Gramophone Thu 1st January 2015

The pianist Jean Müller – whose recordings of Chopin and Liszt on the Fondamenta label have been greeted with great enthusiasm in Gramophone– offers an artist’s guide to some key Liszt recordings by some of the greatest players of our time. Gramophone contributor Alexandra Coghlan chooses 10 pieces of music inspired by travel, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes, tragically, with no hope of return. And Gramophone’s Features Editor, and a composer in his own right, James McCarthy guides us to 10 works written in the key of E flat major. 

A Liszt list

Pianist Jean Müller chooses 10 recordings of music by Liszt by some of the leading interpreters of the post-War years

Liszt has inspired generations of composers and pianists, composing both highly effective virtuoso pieces for his instrument as well as supremely original and innovative works for all kind of instruments. The man himself had so many facets to his personality it seems almost impossible to do justice to all of them in a 10-piece playlist. This playlist focuses on his works for piano while trying to capture the unique spirit of Liszt featuring some legendary and some lesser-known gems of the discography. It measures all the way from the supremely subtle and inspired transcription of Schumann’s Widmung in a truly poetic rendition by Arthur Rubinstein to the enigmatic sonorities of Nuages gris (heard here played by Sviatoslav Richter) composed in his last years. It includes the rarely heard Berceuse in a very elegant account by Sir Clifford Curzon, the thunderous Orage in an explosive live version by Lazar Berman. Furthermore we hear the youthful energy of Emil Gilels in the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody, the pianistic wizardry of Martha Argerich, Cziffra and Horowitz in some of Liszt’s pianistic warhorses, as well as the profundity of Claudio Arrau in the very philosophical Vallée d’Obermann. To end this journey, a luminous interpretation of the Sonetto di Petrarca No 104 by the unforgotten Dinu Lipatti.

Planes, trains and automobiles

Alexandra Coghlan takes to the skies, the rails and the road with a traveller’s 10…

In an age of Ryanair, Virgin Trains and inflation-busting fare increases it’s hard to get excited about the romance of travel. Gone are the buffet cars and velvet banquettes, glamorous air hostesses and daring feats of aviation, preserved only in memory and a surprisingly large amount of classical music – giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘motor rhythms’.

You can glide through the skies with Walton’s stirring Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, the bustling counterpoint mirroring the mechanical assembly of the machine itself, and pay homage to the father of the aeroplane in Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine.

Or, if thrill-rides are more your style, what about a ride in John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine? (Though the composer himself might advise against it, summarising the work as the feeling that follows when ‘… someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?’) 20th-century American symphonist Henry Hadley also felt the need for a little less speed in his Scherzo Diabolique – a vivid musical portrait of night-time car journey that gets out of control.

Honegger was a self-confessed trainspotter, loving trains ‘as others love women or horses’, and Pacific 231 is his ode to the power and propulsion of the steam-engine. On the other side of the pond, Villa-Lobos conjures up, with enormous charm, the Little Train of the Caipira. But not all journeys are as happy ones. Britten’s ‘journeying boy’ takes a bleak voyage on the Great Western in his song-cycle Winter Words, while Steve Reich’s Different Trains tells a shockingly emotive tale of travels that can end in tragedy as well as joy.

Rhapsody in E flat

James McCarthy homes in on 10 pieces all written in the same key, E flat major, and asks you to experiment a little…

I’m going to encourage you to try something a little bit different. Rather than listening to all of the tracks from beginning to end, what I would like you to do is just listen to the first five to 10 seconds of each track before skipping on to the next (don’t worry, you can always go back and listen to them in their full glory after we’ve conducted our little experiment). I hope you’ll find it absolutely fascinating to hear how these very different composers get their pieces underway with precisely the same notes to draw from. You’ll never hear the opening of these works the same way again. But can we come to any conclusions about the kind of music that composers tend to write for this key in particular? In short, not really. But there does seem to be a thread of bombast and heroism running through Beethoven’s approach (the Eroica Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Piano Sonata No 4, Op 7) and it is thought that Mozart associated E flat major with Freemasonary (and we can hear the Overture to The Magic Flute– that most masonic of operas – in this playlist). Do write in to let me know what you make of the experience, and what other keys would be worth exploring in a similar way.

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