Record reviews

The best new record in weeks is Telarc’s compact disk of six orchestral works of P.D.Q. Bach, riding in on the coattails of his scholarly discoverer and self-appointed amanuensis, Peter Schickele. All of the music is new, not previously recorded. All of it further suggests that, 25 years (as of next April) into their interlinked career as master and slave (and don’t ask me which is which), there is still much to be learned about this “last and least of J.S. Bach’s 20-odd offspring,” and that Schickele remains the prime source of that learning.
Making funny but true jokes about music is an ancient process. The sublime Mozart did it brilliantly in his “Musical Joke” Sextet, a work (K-522) whose technique clearly prefigures Schickele’s own: a [ITAL reductio ad absurdum [ENDITAL of the most cliche-ridden practices of the time  by building them into deformed musical structures predestined to topple. Mozart’s village musicians improvise themselves into a corner from which no known harmonic progression can free them. Schickele’s hapless pianist in his “Einstein on the Fritz,” a devastating commentary on the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson stage masterpiece, becomes mired in a knee-deep sludge of arpeggios (cribbed from the first Prelude in Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”) which he, too, cannot escape.
The new record is a trove of similar observations on well-known works: a “Bach Portrait” that rips off the Copland-Lincoln collaboration, with authentic readings from Bach’s letters (Johann Sebastian, this time) full of grumble and fuss about financial woes; a ballet, “The Preachers of Crimetheus (get it?) that would tangle the toe-shoes of a Kirov troupe.
My own favorite is the “1712 Overture,” composed in 1985 for the centenary of the Boston Pops, but played here — like everything else — by the “Greater Hoople Area Off-Season Philharmonic” under the baton of a certain “Walter Bruno.” It’s a marvelous piece on its own, but it also is a touchstone for assessing the ongoing success of Schickele and his entourage.
You know the Tchaikovsky “1812,” of course, how it opens with an old Russian hymn in a lush orchestration for low strings, how that tune does battle with other tunes (including “The Marseillaise”) along the way, and how it soars triumphant at the end, accompanied by cannons and fireworks. The P.D.Q. Bach version follows a similar course, but the duelling tunes here are “Yankee Doodle” and “Pop! Goes the Weasel,” and with bursting balloons at the end instead of Tchaikovsky’s cannons.  If you know the Tchaikovsky backwards and forwards, the wit and accuracy of Schickele’s reworking will amaze you at every turn. If you don’t…there’s still the delight in hearing old familiar folktunes dolled up in this symphonic context. And if that doesn’t get to you, there are always those balloons.
It’s this ability to reach audiences on any level of sophistication, without consciously playing down, and without any need to falsify the original material, that accounts, I think, for Schickele’s amazing success. There are other musical comics around, and there is plenty of material within the realm of serious music for them to turn to their own uses. But Victor Borge operates from the notion that classical music is an arcane, closed world in which the hoariest cliches — the fat lady sopranos in opera, the languid pianist with the long hair — still hold true. The great Anna Russell came closer to the truth in her takeoffs. (“I’m not making this up, you know,” she would scream, at the point in Wagner’s “Ring” when the heroic Siegfried fell in with a succession of sopranos all of them his aunts.) But with Russell, too, you had to do your homework; she spoke most clearly to the musically educated insider.
Schickele has earned the respect of musicologists, by not telling the kind of lies about music that Borge seems to find necessary, but his appeal is also marvelously broad. You really have to work hard to disenjoy one of his live appearances, and it’s also remarkable how much of his essence comes over even on a record. One of the nice things about this new Telarc release is that the performances were done in a studio. Most of the earlier Vanguard stuff was recorded at live concerts, with bursts of laughter and applause that left the mere listener in the dark as to what was going on.
There is, of course, one lavish P.D.Q. Bach visual, the Video Arts International videocassette of his opera “The Abduction of Figaro,” from its 1984 premiere by the Minnesota Opera. As the title suggests, this is a Mozartian takeoff, both text and music a glorious pastiche of the mechanisms behind 18th-century operatic plotting and its music. It’s a full-length opera, and it’s amazing how seldom the inspiration flags. (You know the character of Papageno in “The Magic Flute”? Well, this opera has both a Papa Geno and a Mama Geno.)
Near the end of this “Figaro” there comes a moment that’s pure Schickele. The performance grinds to a halt and  a verbal debate erupts involving the manager of opera company, Schickele on the podium, and a preening singer on stage who feels he’s been short-changed by having too few arias. It’s a hilarious moment on its own, and it also relates to history, to the strutting divas and divos whom Mozart constantly had to placate with extra music.) You can read all the music history books you care to; Peter Schickele and his prolific sidekick make that history come alive, no less hilarious for their obsession with telling the truth.
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Erich Korngold was one of the first of the central-European composers dispatched to the Hollywood studios by Mr. Hitler’s Nazis. He was already an illustrious figure in Europe, thanks largely to his opera “Die Tote Stadt,” which he composed at around the age of 20. The fact that his father was the influential critic Julius Korngold, successor to Hanslick in Vienna, did his career no harm.
In Hollywood Korngold put together the Mendelssohn pastiche for the Max Reinhardt “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and went on to compose a repertory of densely romantic Hollywood epics all of which demanded and consumed lots of music. He wrote the cello concerto that Paul Henreid played in “Deception”; the cantata that Charles Boyer composed in “The Constant Nymph,” and enough “Kings Row” music to make an hour-long symphonic suite on its own. The movie stuff was his best music; even in the European scores before his emigration you hear “Kings Row” and “Deception” music in embryonic form.
But Korngold persisted, wrong-headedly for the most part, in the delusion that he was cut out to be a serious composer, and the new RCA release of his First and Third String Quartets, nicely played by the Chilingirian Quartet, point up the error of his ways. The first was from pre-Hitler Europe, the second was fabricated in postwar Hollywood, both share a depressing lack of direction, a chromatic aimlessness far inferior to what Korngold accomplished in the studies. Alongside this record RCA has also sent along a CD reissue of some of the movie music; the record is called “The Sea Hawk.” By any name, it puts the ambitions of the futile, “serious” Korngold to shame.