Macabre music for Halloween

Selections: Works by Mendelssohn, Mozart and others can help evoke the holiday's eerie spirit.

October 28, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As we enter the season when cuddling up with witches, poltergeists and ghouls seems the thing to do, there's nothing like classical music to make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention and get you in the mood.

Perhaps the most Halloween-friendly masterwork of them all is Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," an opium-induced musical nightmare depicting obsessive love, whirling masked balls, murder, a rousing "March to the Scaffold" and a nasty "Witches' Sabbath" positively made for the 31st of October.

Classic performances include those of Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (a new $8 bargain on EMI's Seraphim label), Eugene Ormandy with that same great orchestra a generation earlier (Sony) and Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony on Mercury. The Ormandy recording comes with Paul Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice," the famous musical tale of a reckless assistant who mutters incantations best left to full-fledged sorcerers and gets himself very wet for his trouble.

The most devilishly delicious scene in all of opera takes place at the end of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," when the rakish Don is carried off to hell by a come-to-life statue of the man he killed in a duel in Act II. No one makes this ghoulish comeuppance come alive with more authority than Carlo Maria Giulini did in that incredible EMI recording session in 1959.

Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is always good for a shudder, and has anyone ever played it with greater abandon than Virgil Fox?

An exciting reissue of Mussorgsky's nail-biting "Night on Bald Mountain" (of Disney's "Fantasia" fame) has just come out on Sir Georg Solti's Russian anthology on the Decca Legends series.

The waltzing skeletons in Camille Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" are always a seasonal treat, but beware of the teeth-in-the-glass account offered by RCA on its recent Eugene Ormandy/Fabulous Philadelphians anthology. It's frightfully anemic. Charles Dutoit, Daniel Barenboim or James De Preist are all much better.

If you fancy a gentler, more elfin approach to All Hallow's Eve, head straight for Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music to Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I know the season is wrong, but any excuse to hear Mendelssohn evoke young love, Puck, Bottom the Weaver and the entire fairy kingdom works for me.

Actor Kenneth Branagh will even read Shakespeare to you between the musical interludes provided by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (Sony). Lovely narrations also come on a budget RCA account by Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony.

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