Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Little Mozart 4 U

It was something of a revelation to me, six months after moving from an inner-city DC neighborhood to quiet little Medford, that I could listen to music while walking the dogs at night. That might not seem like much of a revelation, but as a music lover and audiophile with an eight-year-old running around the house, there isn't a whole lot of time for extended listening in a quiet place. The problem in the city, of course, is that you sort of want to stay alert to what's going on around you. Our old neighborhood, while very pleasant and convenient, wasn't immune to the occasional mugging or car-jacking. Walking around at night with earbuds inserted, oblivious to one's surroundings, wasn't exactly advisable. It took me a while to realize that in Medford I don't need to be looking over my shoulder all the time. This has freed me to get some quality listening done while strolling through our peaceful suburban enclave, gazing at the stars.

While I often listen to new acquisitions, I also poke through my CD library to revisit old favorites I haven't heard in a long time. Thus it was the other night that I heard again one of the most thrilling classical recordings in my collection, and I thought I'd share it with you. Lots of people enjoy Mozart, especially the piano concertos, but many are not familiar with some of the great historical recordings in this genre.

Walter Gieseking was one of the most extraordinary pianists of the previous century. German by birth, he made a name for himself as one of the foremost proponents of French piano music--notably the works of Debussy and Ravel. What distinguished Gieseking's recordings was his refusal to indulge in excessive pedaling, relying instead on an extremely subtle sense of touch and fingering to convey the delicate, impressionistic sounds wrought by these composers. The effects he achieved were magical--instead of drowning in a wash of sound, the music emerges with crystalline clarity and precision.

Though noted mainly for his recordings of the great impressionists, he also excelled at Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and others. His recordings of Grieg, Mendelssohn and Schumann are still considered by many to be without peer.

Gieseking was a fascinating character. His staggering technical prowess came so naturally to him that he disliked practicing and preferred to devote his energies to reading, composing and collecting butterflies (he was a noted lepidopterist and discovered several species which were named after him). He had a photographic memory and could memorize an entire concerto during the train ride to a concert and play it flawlessly that same night. This casual approach sometimes betrayed him and, depending on his mood or health, resulted in the occasional sloppy or indifferent performance. It was sometimes suggested (supposedly by jealous colleagues) that he sight-read during his recordings, an accusation that friends and students hotly denied. His refusal to leave Germany during World War II damned him in the eyes of the international music community, and for many years after the war he was persona non grata in much of Europe and America. By the early 1950's however, enough time had passed that he was able to resume playing outside of Germany.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more contrasting personality than that of Guido Cantelli. This highly-strung, fiery-tempered conductor emerged from post-war Italy to become a protege of Arturo Toscanini and a frequent guest conductor of both the NBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Strikingly handsome and charismatic, he was also a notorious perfectionist, and rehearsals were often exhausting affairs that left tempers frayed on both sides of the podium. But the results were well worth the trouble. Under his baton the most complex works took on a rich, glowing transparency and beauty. His phrasing was impeccable, his tempos were perfectly judged and faithful to the composer's intentions, and the sound he drew from the orchestra was both precise and jocosely robust. He maintained a constant rhythmic drive and urgency that kept listeners on the edges of their seats.

In March of 1955, these two geniuses were thrust together for what must have been an unforgettable evening at Carnegie Hall. With Cantelli leading the New York Philharmonic, Gieseking was the featured soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, the famous "Elvira Madigan" concerto. The performance was recorded by radio engineers and has come down to us in pretty decent shape, along with dozens of other wonderful concerts from that era. I was introduced to it, oh, probably 20 years ago by a fellow collector and it has become one of my favorite recordings. I'm not alone in considering it one of the greatest Mozart recordings in existence. If you love Mozart but have never heard this famous performance, you owe it yourself to give it a listen.

It's apparent from the the opening bars that something special is going on. If you prefer your Mozart in dainty little nibbles, you'd better stop here. The orchestral introduction rumbles and chortles, then explodes with ferocious glee. After wringing every ounce out of the main theme, Cantelli subsides for a moment and Gieseking makes his entrance with a coy little improvised run that teases the listener into momentary complacence. He states the main theme without fuss, then gradually builds the intensity and force of his playing. The orchestra comes back into play and now commences the best example of an "argument" between soloist and accompaniment that you are ever likely to hear. Each side eggs on the other, echoing themes and introducing new ones in a contest of wit and will. Gieseking's tone dances and sparkles, while the orchestra growls and shouts. It's a fascinating collaboration. The cadenza is Gieseking's own and introduces some shocking harmonics--his personal tastes in composition ran toward twelve-tone techniques--but it's also tender and childlike in its treatment of the thematic material.

Cantelli begins the second movement with a brisk, singing rendition of the tune made famous by it's prominent use in the 1967 movie Elvira Madigan. It's beautifully judged, but Gieseking isn't content to let it go at that, for immediately upon entering he pushes the tempo ahead, forcing the orchestra to scramble to catch up. He seems to find even Cantelli's unsentimental take on the music too "drippy" and opts for a more driven approach. The result is a taut, sustained tension that emphasizes the eternally aching, yearning quality of Mozart's gorgeous theme.

The third movement is taken at a death-defying pace, and after "shaking things out" in the opening passages, Gieseking and Cantelli dash breathlessly to the finish in a virtuosic whirl. The audience responds with a shattering roar of approval.

The performance is available on a number of CD issues, most of them currently out of print. It's easiest to obtain on iTunes by searching for "gieseking cantelli." In addition you get a contemporaneous performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Cantelli and the great Jascha Heifetz. It's an excellent companion to the Mozart.

Sadly, neither Gieseking nor Cantelli were to live long after this momentous event. They died within a month of each other in late 1956--Gieseking at age 61 from medical complications following a car accident, Cantelli at only 36 in a plane crash. While Gieseking was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career, there's little doubt that Cantelli would have developed into one of the most famous conductors of the modern era.