The story of Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man, from an early 70s LP. The narrator is actor Morgan Freeman, then a regular performer on TV’s Electric Company (appearing as Easy Reader, Vincent the Vegetable Vampire and DJ Mel Mounds). Many of Marvel’s comic book characters appeared on LPs, including the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk.

Peter Parker was one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations. Like other Marvel heroes, he became a reluctant superhero, and he often faced everyday problems. Lee passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-five, just over a year after he lost his beloved wife.

Lee left behind an extraordinary legacy. Obituaries rightfully describe him as the architect of the modern comic book. In recent years as his characters appeared in blockbuster films, Lee could be counted on to make a cameo. His trademark tinted glasses and white mustache will be missed by comic book fans around the world.

 

This week we discussed with a friend what his son’s musical taste was likely to become, growing up in a home with two musicians and others often visiting for band practice in the basement. It reminded us of Paul Witgenstein, who was destined to become a pianist, and whose determination to play led to the commission of a whole new subgenre in music for the left hand.

Witgenstein grew up in one of the wealthiest households in the world. His home in Vienna was of often visited by famous musicians, including Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, and as a boy he played duets with Richard Strauss. What’s more is that his grandmother was the woman who had adopted Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and friend of Brahms, and arranged for him to study piano with Felix Mendelssohn.

In December of 1913, Paul Witgenstein made his debut in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal and received good reviews. The following summer, of course, came “the guns of August,” and at twenty-seven he was conscripted to serve in the Austrian army alongside his philosopher brother, Ludwig. In battle on the Eastern front, he was shot and lost consciousness. When he awoke as a prisoner of war, he found his right arm had been amputated.

While a prisoner in Siberia, Witgenstein “practiced” on a wooden crate with his left hand, and began to dream of ways to play his favorite music of Chopin without a right hand. He was returned to Austria by the Russians in a prisoner exchange in 1915, in part because they felt a one-armed man was not useful for forced labor.

After the War, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous wealth to commission works from an extraordinary list of great composers, creating a collection of concerti similar to the book of variations created by Anton Diabelli which we featured in a post last month. This collection came to include works by Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, to name just a few.

Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has a lot to say about Witgenstein and the music he commissioned, because he himself was born without a right arm. “The most poignant thing must have been to have lost his hand after such a long struggle to become a pianist,” he wrote. “Because he came from such a high society family, being an ‘entertainer’ was looked down upon.”

Wittgenstein had a bit of an attitude himself, and was even critical of several of the works he commissioned. He did not initially approve of Maurice Ravel’s employment of jazz motifs in his Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, and to the consternation of the composer chose to perform it with his own revisions. This is a shame because the single movement concerto is one of the most interesting of Ravel’s explorations of American music, while also incorporating clever ideas from Saint Saen’s 6 Etudes por la main gauche seule.

More remarkably, Wittgenstein chose not to perform the concerto composed by Sergei Prokofiev altogether.

We are passionate fans of Prokofiev’s works, and can’t imagine simply sitting on something so lively and inventive. Wittgenstein did not, as is sometimes written, refuse to play the Piano Concerto No 4 in B-flat major, he said he would perform it when he understood it, and this just never happened. This sounds to us a lot like the notorious “Minnesota no,” which is when the booker doesn’t get back to you about your band after repeated entreaties because he doesn’t want to tell you that you suck.

Unlike Ravel, Prokofiev remained friendly with Wittgenstein. He considered adapting it as a two-hand concerto, but never found the time. Sadly, it went unperformed until Wittgenstein passed away in the early sixties. This is because he retained exclusive performance rights for the works he commissioned during his lifetime. “You don’t build a house so that someone else can live in it,” he famously explained.

For this reason many of the works Wittgenstein commissioned are not familiar, even to fans of the composers. For instance, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote a characteristically bombastic concerto for in 1922 which has elements of his exciting film scores as well as a Wagnerian sense of tonality. It is, in many ways, our favorite of the left handed repertoire.

Wittgenstein’s exclusivity caused one of the lefty concertos to nearly go unheard. This was the concerto written by German composer Paul Hindesmith, which Wittgenstein apparently so disliked he did not keep the autograph (or original) copy. After his widows’ passing his papers became available to researches and in 2004 a copy of Hindesmith’s Opus 29 was discovered. Although it contained errors, Hindesmith’s enthusiasts were able to reconstruct his Concerto for the Left Hand from sketches and it received its long-overdue debut in Berlin.

Paul Wittgenstein lived out his late years teaching in the United States, where he’d become a citizen in 1946. In spite of his complicated relationship with some of the composers, his commissioned works and their story inspire pianists whether they have the use of one or two hands.

Another remarkable story began in 1964, when concert pianist Leon Fleisher developed a nerve condition called focal distonial, which cost him the use of his right hand in the middle of a successful career distinguished by his interpretations of Mozart and Brahms. For years he performed the left handed repertoire, until his condition was improved with the experimental use of botox. In 2004, the same year he performed the debut of the nearly-lost Hindesmith concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fleisher released his first album since his recovery. He titled it Two Hands.

This new LP by Ryan Holweger hits a sweet spot here at Hymies. The album is filled with raucous country rock gems, but what really sticks to the ribs are the Uncle Tupelo-ish ballads like “After the Oil Rush.” There’s really timeless moments on this album and Holweger’s record release show at Mortimer’s tonight promises to be a great live set filled with exactly those sort of things. Adding to the appeal is opener Martin Devaney, who will be releasing his first album in years this December. Fans of swoony country-rock be warned: the multi-talented Ryan Holweger is going to be on your radar this winter.

Are cats awesome, or just an enormous pain in our butts? In our family, the merits of our own Momar the Cat are the subject of household debate. Dave dotes on him but the little black and white trouble maker only makes rare visits to the record store, usually ending in disaster.

Whether Mo Cat enjoys the music we play or not is hard to tell. It seems he’s much more interested in the songs of the birds — maybe he would prefer we more often listen to Oliver Messiaen.

Anyway, here are a few songs we chose for the ten pound terror…

Henry Mancini’s “Song for Cat” is a mambo masterpiece, magically melding lush swing with soulful latin strut. The song was composed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but like so many of the maestro’s best moments has a life of its own.

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The highlight of the 1957 album New Jazz Lp The Cats is a trio performance led by pianist Tommy Flanagan, but the record swings solidly in its opening track “Minor Mishap.” This song features John Coltrane, Idrees Sulieman and Kenny Burrell as soloists — one of the last Coltrane performances before his epic early Atlantic recordings.

Flanagan’s ponderous “How Long Has This Been Going On?” (with the rhythm section of Doug Watkins and Louis Hayes) is the sort of evocative make-out jazz our friend Mo Cat enjoys interrupting. Flanagan is underrated among pianists of his era, heard here at his best.

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Our last selection of songs for swinging cats comes from Quincy Jones’ appropriately slinky album, Quincy Plays for Pussycats. His take on “What’s New Pussycat?” is fun, but the best thing on this record is “Blues for Trumpet and Koto,” written by the reliably inventive Marvin Hamlisch (whose name is mis-spelled on the album’s credits). As with most of the great Quincy Jones Orchestra recordings on Mercury, the performers are not credited, so we don’t know who are the soloists in this big band based duet. We think its a perfect soundtrack for the afternoons when our Mo Cat wrestles with the clumsy mutt we adopted two years ago.

Friends have advised us that record stores entice their social media followers with pictures and videos of recent arrivals. Apparently posting pictures of the dog doesn’t have the same effect.

So here’s a hefty haul of the classics we brought back from long ago and far, far away. Irene approves.

This video features trumpeter Roy Hargrove performing “I Remember Clifford” with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band at the 2007 Burghausen International Jazz Week in Germany. Hargrove passed away yesterday at the age of forty-nine.

Benny Golson wrote the song in memory of Clifford Brown, who was killed in a car accident at twenty-five. Many, ourselves included, consider Clifford Brown one of the greatest trumpeters of all time.

Hargrove came out of the “Young Lions” movement of neo-bop in the late 80s and early 90s, but he quickly settled into a more innovative role, notably recording with R&B acts through the Soulquarians, a musical collective that met at Manhattan’s Electric Lady Studios. Hargrove’s smoldering overdubs warmed neo-soul classics by D’Angelo and Erykah Badu.

The earliest appearance of Hargrove we could find in our own jazz collection was as a sideman on a great Ricky Ford album released in 1989. The album is one of our favorites by Ford, because it marked his shift from being the youngest musician on the record to the one who is supporting the next generation of performers. Although his career quickly shifted away from the neo-bop movement, including a Grammy-winning Cuban collaboration and his hip hop heavy outfit the RH Factor, he was always great in traditional jazz settings. Hargrove’s second Grammy came for an acoustic album with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker.

The loss of Roy Hargrove at such a young age is a tragedy for jazz, because he won’t have the opportunity to serve as an elder statesman of the art form and continue to help younger musicians.

This probably would have made a better post just before Halloween!

The Spider’s Banquet is the first and the most ingenious of Albert Roussel’s three ballets. It is brief and seeped in the impressionistic style of Debussy and Ravel, although unique in its simplicity of melody. Roussel completed the ballet in a few months in 1912 for the Teatre des Arts in Paris, where it was debuted by conductor Gabriel Grovlez.

The story

In the beginning, the Spider is interrupted by a group of ants, who attempt to carry a rose petal. In order the worms and the butterfly appear, the latter quickly caught by the spider. While the spider celebrates his catch with a lively dance, the ants battle a cadre of praying mantises over a slice of apple. The spider snares the praying mantises in his web, and the next appearance is of a waltzing may fly who is captured with ease.

Having assembled his feast, the spider chooses to eat the butterfly first, only to find a praying mantis has beat him to the tasty snack. The other insects escape and prepare a funeral for the may fly, one by one leaving the scene.

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The premiere of The Spider’s Banquet preceded the famously controversial premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by only a few months. Both would achieve widespread fame for the ballets, although for very different reasons. Roussel was seen by critics as an exemplar of the French tradition, while Stravinsky became known as an iconoclast, pushing boundaries until he, like Roussel, embraced neoclassicism.

Roussel’s two additional ballets were of far greater scale, taking for their subject stories from classical mythology. The second of these, Aeneas, was one of his last works, completed in 1935. For Aeneas, Roussel augmented the orchestra with a large choir, much as Ravel had done with Daphis and Chloe. although he retained the compunctual time-keeping and functional tonality that distinguishes him in the French tradition. Roussel would never become as famous as Debussy and Ravel, and his later works are today performed and recorded far less often than The Spider’s Banquet.

The notes to a 1971 recording on France’s Erato Records report that Roussel was hesitant to take the commission to compose the ballet for the Teatre des Arts, and did so only at the urging of his wife, Blanche. Jacques Rouche, the Theatre’s director, had been inspired by the popular work of Jean Henri Fabre, today considered the father of modern entomology — which, of course, is the study of insects.

It often bothered the composer that the popularity of The Spider’s Banquet eclipsed that of his symphonies in the neoclassical style, but it did not prevent him from conducting a performance of the ballet for record, the only recording he would make, in 1928.


The Spider’s Banquet by Albert Roussel, performed by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and conducted by Ernest Ansermet.

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