Naughty but nice

What are your musical equivalents of chocolate cake? - the performances you know you really shouldn't be enjoying, but do. Here is my menu of 'naughty but nice' music dishes:

Uri Caine's Wagner E Venezia - yes, I know it is a serious taste crime to admit to enjoying the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg played in the Piazza San Marco by an ensemble that includes accordion, piano and acoustic bass. But I do. Quite appropriately the recording was made live at the Gran Caffé Quadri, Piazza San Marco, Venice, and is complete with authentic background café sounds which provide a splendid counterpoint to the Tristan Liebestod. If you've never sampled this lovingly crafted, and packaged, chocolate torte from Uri Caine (photo above) I warmly recommend ordering a portion.

Karl Münchinger's Art of Fugue and Musical Offering with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester reminds us of how Bach used to be performed before musical scholarship moved on. As one reviewer said: "This lush performance of Bach's complex Art of Fugue is as emotional as Barber's Adagio for Strings." But these 1976 recordings still blow me away. Stunning playing recorded in classic Decca sound in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart by the legendary team of producers Ray Minshull and James Mallinson, and recording engineers James Lock and Martin Fouqué.

Wagner makes his second appearance on my ultimate 'naughty but nice' disc. This is Glenn Gould playing his own transcriptions of Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey and the Prelude to Die Meistersinger. This reissue is worth the price for these two transcriptions alone. The disc also includes Gould conducting members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a painfully slow Siegfried Idyll, which at almost twenty-five minutes outstays even Knappertsbusch's interpretation by several minutes. This conducting debut was the last thing Gould recorded before he went on tour with Bach, and it leaves us thankful that he didn't give up the day job. (Photo above shows a young Gould with one of his first teachers).

Bach sung in English may well be considered 'naughty.' But not only is my next nomination 'nice', but it is high up in my list of the greatest recordings ever made. Benjamin Britten set down his account of Bach's St John Passion in April 1971. With performers including Peter Pears, Gwynne Howell, John Shirley-Quirk, HeatherHarper, Alfreda Hodgson, Robert Tear, and the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir you know this is going to be something special. The English Chamber Orchestra reads like a Who's Who of instrumentalists. Kenneth Sillitoe is leader, Richard Adeney (flute), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Adrian Beers (double bass). Philip Ledger plays the harpsichord continuo originally prepared by Britten and Imogen Holst. And the 'naughty' English translation is made by none other than Peter Pears and Imogen Holst.

This recording of the St John Passion was made by Decca in Snape Maltings. It has to be said that if there is a weakness it is the engineering which falls somewhat short of Decca's signature Snape sound. Also watch out for the intrusive low frequency 'thumps' in the opening chorus which producer David Harvey really should have covered from alternative takes. But one factor places this performance in that stellar group of the greatest ever made - Britten's interpretation. Some of the tempi are surprisingly brisk, but this is one of those rare performances where musicality and humanity meet as equal partners. Naughty, but simply sublime.

Purists will consider any Bach transcription 'naughty but nice.' But my third Bach nomination comes just about as close to the spirit of the original as it is possible to get with a transcription. Paolo Pandolfo (right) was a founder member of early music group La Stravaganza, and is recognised as one of the leading exponents of the viola de gamba. His transcription of Bach's six Cello Suites (BWV 1007-12) on the enterprising Spanish Glossa label is really more of a re-interpretaion that a transcription. Four of the six keys are transposed, the well known G major Suite No. 1 is played in C major, the C minor Suite No. 5 is played in D minor, and so on. But this is done simply to make the most of the range of the viola de gamba, and it works beautifully allowing the warm tone of the gamba to really ring out. These are personal interpretations, and Pandolfo's reshaping of some of the lines will not be to everyone's taste, but this is wonderful music making.

To conclude with a 'naughty but nice' piece that I always find inexplicably moving - the finale to Bernstein's Candide, 'Make Our Garden Grow'. This is classic Lenny, over the top, superbly written, and absolutely heart on sleeve. One reviewer wrote of "its soaring sentimentality". I find it absolutely irresistible - just like chocolate cake. And if you want the recipe for the example seen in my header photo here it is.

Now read about my first classical record
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Anonymous said…
Well, since I have 5 of the recordings you mention, I guess I'm allowed to have an opinion.

I'd add HvK's Creation (Wunderlich, Janowitz, Ludwig, F-D, Berry). Also all of the lute song recordings with Pears and Bream. And Kempff playing Bach.

"Authenticity" be damned, there are great things going on with these recordings.
Pliable said…
Well posted Scott, the Wilhelm Kempff Bach transcriptions are wonderful, as is his Gluck - see this link.

Shouldn't we also add Dinu Lipatti's Bach? - particularly him playing Myra Hess' transcription of Jesu bleibet meine Freude, -see this link.

And Scott, you say you have five of my six naughty recordings. Forgive me for asking, but which is the odd man out?

The Lipatti plays as I write. Thank you for reminding me of it.
Hucbald said…
One of my very favorite recordings of all time - wrong on too many levels to even begin a census of - is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic... OK, just the strings of the mighty Philharmonic, in a performance of Beethoven's Op. 131 string quartet (DG 419 439-2).

Sadly, my only complaint about this travesty is that the Grosse Fugue wasn't played as the finale, as B. originally intended.

I should probably be shot.
Pliable said…
Right with you on that one Hucbald. I have both the original vinyl LP of Op. 131 and the DG CD re-issue which couples it with Lenny's version of the Op. 135 quartet.

Incidentally Hucbald, I think you wrote your lovely comment after one of your late-night guitar gigs. The Grosse Fugue was written as the finale of the Op. 130 quartet, not Op. 131.
Hucbald said…
pliable wrote:

"Incidentally Hucbald, I think you wrote your lovely comment after one of your late-night guitar gigs. The Grosse Fugue was written as the finale of the Op. 130 quartet, not Op. 131."

Actually, I had a couple of Bombay and Tonics before that post. That should explain everything. LOL!

OF COURSE the Grosse Fugue goes with Op. 130. We all knew that. ;^)
Pliable said…
OK Hucbald, my article links to a
recipe for chocolate cake.

Your contribution is the recipe for a Bombay and Tonic.
Anonymous said…
pliable: have five of my six naughty recordings. Forgive me for asking, but which is the odd man out?

Tha Pandolfo Bach ...
Pliable said…
Scott thanks - I had you down for either Candide or Pandolfo's Bach.

There are many good things on the Glossa label that recorded the Pandolfo, their releases are well worth seeking out.
Anonymous said…
I realize this post has been made quite a while ago, but still I want to say thank you for the great post, and for stumbling me upon the Britten-version of St. John's Passion. I need to listen to this!

In my opinion, all of those transcriptions and adaptions got one essential thing right: Music is supposed to live, and it does with those artists.
Philip Amos said…
I have the Kempff and the Lipatti. Indispensable. I have Britten's St. John, and also the Brandenburgs and Purcell's Fairy Queen, among others. I wish he had conducted on record more, both for his own mastery and the magnificent soloists he chose. One never heard his name mentioned very much, but I have everything I've found of William Bennett's recordings -- with Leppard, Marriner, Malcolm, et all. I think him unequalled re variation of tone. A wonderful sound and identifiable a mile off. It is largely listening to those soloists that often makes the slower tempi more than acceptable to me. It gives me time to savour. Among singers, this is also true of John Shirley-Quirk. May I say that anyone who hasn't heard him perform Grainger's arrangement of Shallow Brown might well go to YT, for it is on there, and again conducted by Britten. That, for me, belongs on any list of great recordings.

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