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Bookspan: Romance, Religion And Symphonic Repertoire

Lucas Beck

Lucas Beck

The August 2014 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features a famous romantic piano concerto, religious and secular music from the Baroque period, and three works from the “Father of the Symphony.”

Edvard Grieg wrote hundreds of charming, short pieces – miniature gems for the piano, songs and dances.  But Grieg is best remembered for one of the few large-scale works he composed: the famous Piano Concerto in A minor.

Martin Bookspan professes a fondness for Anton Rubinstein’s recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto made in collaboration with conductor Alfred Wallenstein for RCA records. Unfortunately, it only seems to be available as part of a 60 disc collection for around $125, which, if you’re a fan of the RCA back-catalog, comes in at only about 2 bucks per CD.

The only low-price option for that specific Rubinstein version is a download of the performance on MP3.  For a newer recording of the concerto that also includes some of Grieg’s solo works for piano you’ll enjoy the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. And though it dates from the 1970’s, one my favorites is from Radu Lupu with conductor André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, part of Decca’s “Legends” series of great performances.

Second only to Bach as the greatest composer of the Baroque period would be George Frideric Handel. He, like Bach, was a prolific composer with more than 40 operas, 29 oratorios, over 120 cantatas and numerous other works to his credit.  His most recognizable piece, the “Hallelujah” chorus, is drawn from the oratorio “Messiah.”

Bookspan’s favorite “Messiah” recordings include a 1966 Philips release from conductor Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I’m a fan of the lighter approach of conductor Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort and Players. This 1997 Deutsche Grammophon CD is a fine example of the “historically correct” style done with fewer singers, and by a smaller group of musicians playing instruments of vintage or recreated designs like those from Handel’s lifetime.

When Handel was in his late 20s he took a leave of absence from his employment as music master to German Prince George of Hanover and traveled to London. He enjoyed his time in England so much he settled there and stayed for the rest of his life. Only a few years after Handel’s arrival in London his former employer ascended to the English throne as King George I.

The story goes, though there are doubts to the veracity of the tale, that Handel regained favor with King George I through the composition of his tuneful Water Music. If the accounts are true, the Water Music was first performed on the River Thames with a boatload of musicians floating alongside the King’s royal barge.

The Bath Festival Orchestra’s performance led by Yehudi Menuhin is Bookspan’s preferred recording of Handel’s Water Music. ArkivMusic provides a reissue of the original 1963 EMI Classics recording. 

For an outstanding, recent recording made on period instruments I would opt for the 2008 Atma Classique release from Les Violons du Roy (The King’s Violins) with Bernard Labadie in charge of the group.

When writing “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers,” Bookspan certainly faced a difficult task as to which of Joseph Haydn’s compositions to include…there are literally hundreds to choose from!  As you might expect from a composer called the “Father of the Symphony,” Bookspan selected three of Haydn’s symphonic works: Symphonies Number 94, 101 and 104.

Many of Haydn’s symphonies have nicknames, some given by the composer himself and some assigned by other individuals with the intention of pumping up the popularity of the work. Calling his Symphony Number 94 the “Surprise” symphony before it was first performed would have spoiled the fun, and as it turned out the composition’s cognomen was assigned at a later date. 

Though there are dozens of Haydn symphonies with built-in surprises, in this example it is a sudden, loud drum stroke interrupting the quiet serenity of the second movement that delivers an unexpected musical joke to the listener. In Haydn’s Symphony Number 101 it is a rhythmic, ticking pulse that gave rise to its nickname “Clock.” 

However, the nickname of the Symphony Number 104 “London” is not derived from any musical component, but is instead a rather arbitrary name given to the last of Haydn’s so-called “London Symphonies,” that is to say, the group of symphonies Numbers 93 through 104 composed for his two visits to London.

The performances of the Haydn Symphonies 94, 101 and 104 from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Thomas Beecham are among Bookspan’s favorites, and they are now part of a bargain-priced box set containing all 12 of Haydn’s “London Symphonies” plus a fine performance of Haydn’s oratorio “The Seasons.”

For modern versions of the 12 “London Symphonies” I can recommend without reservation either conductor Ádám Fischer’s with his Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra or Sir Georg Solti’s set with the London Philharmonic.


Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor; Rubinstein/Wallenstein/RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra 60-disc set | MP3 only

Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor; Andsnes/Kitayenko/Bergen Philharmonic

Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor; Lupu/Previn/London Philharmonic

Handel: Messiah; Davis/London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Handel: Messiah; McCreesh/Gabrieli Consort and Players

Handel: Water Music; Menuhin/Bath Festival Orchestra

Handel: Water Music; Labadie/Les Violons du Roy

Haydn: London Symphonies 93-104; Beecham/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Haydn: London Symphonies 93-104; Fischer/Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra

Haydn: London Symphonies 93-104; Solti/London Philharmonic Orchestra



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