Cooling classics, steamy summer

These chilly works can shave off the degrees

July 22, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The power of great music to focus the intellect and renew the soul is well-known. But as thermometers remain stuck in the high 90s and the humidity continues to oppress, it seems fair to ask whether the classics can also help cool us off.

The answer, dear overheated reader, is yes. So without further ado, here are some musical suggestions for beating the heat in the oppressive summer of 1999.

As its title suggests, one of the frostiest works in the classical canon is the "Sinfonia Antartica" of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams took much of the piece from the score he had already written for the film "Scott of the Antarctic," a tribute to brave British Capt. Robert Scott's unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole.

The symphony is full of musical evocations of ice, fog and the stark desolation of the Antarctic landscape. How realistic is it? Well, to the usual list of orchestral instruments, you can add a wind machine.

An excellent "Sinfonia Antartica" will cost you very little. Indeed, for just a bit more than the price of an iced double latte (about $6), you can own an excellent pairing of "Antartica" and Vaughan Williams' 8th Symphony from Great Britain's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on the Naxos label, #550737. Brr!

Music's most famous pilgrimage to the water occurs in Claude Debussy's "La Mer" (The Sea).

From the impression of a calm ocean surface crafted in Part I, to the undulating "Play of the Waves" and volatile "Dialogue of Wind and Sea" in movements II and III, Debussy's exquisite mood pieces provide a cooling respite for the soul in any season.

Eugene Ormandy and his "Fabulous Philadelphians" never made a better record than Sony #53256, which groups "La Mer" with Debussy's languid "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and his airy "Nocturnes."

Another marvelous "La Mer" comes from Leopold Stokowski, the 20th century's greatest colorist of the podium.

Stokowski's London #455152 also comes with "The Faun." Plumbing the aquatic depths even further, there is the conductor's own orchestral realization of Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral" (La Cathedrale Englouti) Piano Pre-lude.

The jagged seascapes and stiff breezes of Scotland inspired Felix Mendelssohn to complete his "Scottish" Symphony in 1842, and what a jaunty, bracing piece it is. Be sure to find the symphony coupled with the "Hebrides" Overture (aka "Fingal's Cave"), which Mendelssohn was inspired to write after his first voyage to Scotland in 1829.

Both works are captured in exemplary fashion by Peter Magg and the London Symphony on London #443578.

Whenever I listen to the 21 "Nocturnes" of Frederic Chopin, I feel like I've been bathed in a gentle spring rain. There's more than a touch of melancholy in these miraculous piano pieces, but their ruminative, pensive essence can cancel out an oppressive background at the pianist's first touch.

When that touch emanates from the romantic Ivan Moravec (Nonesuch #79233) or the more objectified Artur Rubinstein (RCA #5613), so much the better.

It goes without saying that the "Spring," "Autumn" and "Winter" concertos from Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" might take our minds off the sweltering summer.

Consider also that north winds blow formidably in the works of Finland's Jean Sibelius. (Try the "Legends" with the sad, regal "Swan of Tuonela" on Ondine #852 with Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic.)

But know going in that you might have to contribute some energy of your own for this musical "cool down" to work. For as Sir Francis Bacon observed, "Generally music feedeth that disposition of the spirits which it findeth."

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