Collections of classical music appropriate to Halloween have been spotty over the past few years. First recommendations would be the classic collections conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson and Eiji Oue, both still sonic adventures and artistic wonders. This year Decca has added Danse Macabre, a collection by Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. This is the same ensemble with which Decca made so many memorable recordings conducted by Charles Dutoit. Nagano is now music director and Decca apparently intends to keep recording. In addition to the usual fare – Danse Macabre, Night on Bald Mountain, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it includes three rarities – Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch, Balakirev’s Tamara, and Ives’ Halloween. The latter is merely a curiosity,
mostly of interest to aficionados, but the other two are major compositions worthy of interest. The Dvorak is a chilling musical tale of a mother who calls forth a demon to quiet her noisy child only to have her gruesome wish come true. The Balakirev tells the story of a malevolent spirit who lures men to her castle only to dispatch them in horrible ways. Nagano’s performances are ultra smooth but a bit bloodless at times; the French horns seem to be recessed a bit in the mix and that possibly has a lot to do with the polite attitude. Still, the disc does have the two unusual repertory choices and the playing is refined and of virtuoso caliber. The Gibson and Oue discs also have singular works on them (Arnold and Franck, respectively) so you really must have all three releases for a fairly complete classical Halloween, not to mention some larger works by Berlioz, Boito, and Gounod, etc. Maybe I will get around to those next year. Happy haunting.
Since CD, SACD, and Blu-ray offer longer playing times than vinyl, we’ve come to expect “filler” pieces or tracks to make a longer disc. But what if one of those fillers becomes the reason to buy the disc. That very thing has happened with Naxos’ new release of the Saint-Saens “Organ Symphony” with Leonard Slatkin conducting Orchestre National de Lyon. It’s a well recorded but dutifully dull reading. Paul Paray and Charles Munch are still the best. But the filler is another story, Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, a favorite Halloween title, as arranged by early 19th century organ whiz Edwin H. Lemare, further arranged by Vincent Warnier.
Warnier is the organist (as he is in the symphony) and manages the huge Caville-Coll/Gonzalez/Aubertin organ with ease, displaying its many colors so well that one scarcely misses the usual orchestration. A most enjoyable musical romp, with superb surround sound. It’s also available on CD, minus the surround.
Concidence? Along comes, in the same shipment, a new volume in the Britannic Organ series on Oehms Classics with Lemare himself playing the same piece in rousing stereo ! How can this be, since Lemare passed away in 1934. It’s an organ roll made for by Lemare for the Welte mechanical organ. Only one of these instruments survives in Switzerland where one can cue up Mr. Lemare, or another outstanding soloist, and record the results with current technology. Lemare uses many clever effects in his original version of Danse Macabre, including bells, chimes and xylophone. The two-disc set includes many other Lemare performances as well as recordings by Clarence Eddy, Lynwood Farnam and other prominent organists of the period. Excellent sound with lots of presence.
I started this blog just two weeks before Halloween and have spent most of the time reviewing Halloween films. I wanted to write about the holiday’s music, but soon the Halloween will be a memory. Count on it next year. But in the mean time I can share this one tidbit with you. Perhaps the most popular classical piece of music for the holiday is Modeste Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald (or Bare) Mountain. The music is famous outside normal circles for its use in Walt Disney’s Fantasia and as the theme song of radio’s Escape.
Mussorgsky, by all reports, was a genius but also a raging alcoholic who died young, leaving many of his manuscripts in disarray. Rimsky-Korsakov rearranged A Night on Bald Mountain, virtually recomposing it and smoothing out its harmonies. This is the version usually heard. But Mussorgsky’s wilder and woollier original has been recorded. You can get both versions on the same disc, in dynamic performances from Theodore Kuchar and the National Symphony of the Ukraine on a bargain priced Naxos disc, with a sterling performance of Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel orchestration) and some shorter pieces thrown in. If you’re really lucky, you can find the discontinued SACD surround sound version. Its rarity has made it costly, but I it’s worth the price.