Recordings give snowbound music lovers an out

Classical works mirror, counter recent weather

February 20, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With my two main sources of amusement -- our school system and the local arts scene -- pretty much shut down by the Presidents Day weekend storm, I take pen in hand, secure in the knowledge that even 2 feet of snow can't stop the well-stocked music lover from his appointed rounds.

So while Mother Nature may have kept theaters dark and forced the rescheduling of a concert or two, the cause of great music has gone hand in hand with ice and snow. The music, in fact, may have enhanced the experience.

For starters, I dialed up the wonderfully atmospheric First Symphony of Tchaikovsky, appropriately subtitled Winter Dreams.

The composer was especially fond of this work, which he once called "a sin of my sweet youth." And with movements like "Daydreams on a Wintry Road" and "O Land of Gloom, O Land of Mist," the latter a melancholy evocation of Russian winter, his symphony provided quite an accompaniment to the white, suddenly quiet landscape.

A recording of these Winter Dreams haunt to maximum effect when interpreted by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon 463615).

As its title suggests, another frosty work is the Sinfonia Antartica by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams fashioned this wintry symphony from a score he had written for the film, Scott of the Antarctic, a tribute to Capt. Robert Scott's unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole. The music speaks of ice, fog and desolation in highly evocative terms, with a wind machine brought into the instrumental mix to provide heightened authenticity in the really chilly sequences.

You might be warmed by the knowledge that a very good reading of the symphony -- Vaughan Williams' seventh -- by conductor Kees Bakels and the Bournemouth Symphony is available (Naxos 550737).

More comforting than the frozen vistas of the South Pole is "Winter" from Antonio Vivaldi's perennially popular quartet of concertos for solo violin and strings, The Four Seasons.

"Winter," while expressive of howling winds and foot-stomping cold, also gives us a warm, sweet "Largo" that plops us next to the fire for a calm respite.

Just about every violinist you can think of has made a beeline to the studio to record Vivaldi's greatest hit, so there are many, many options from which to choose. The offerings by Alan Loveday (Decca 466232) and Itzhak Perlman (EMI 74761) are two of the best performed on modern instruments, while those of Nils-Erik Sparf (BIS 275) and Giuliano Carmignola (Sony 51352) on antiques are quite bracing.

Of course, if reveling in winter is the last thing you feel like doing, The Four Seasons is also a dandy place to turn for birds chirping in springtime and warm summer showers.

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony also depicts sunny pastoral settings, with one of music's great thunderstorms brought on to nurture the Earth and inspire a concluding "Song of Thanksgiving" from the peasantry. Recordings by Bruno Walter (Sony) and Karl Bohm (Deutsche Grammophon) will melt the snow with more stylish warmth than others.

Remember also that Robert Schumann and Benjamin Britten offer us "Spring" Symphonies, while Tchaikovsky (Capriccio Italien), Edouard Lalo (Symphonie Espagnole) and Maurice Ravel (Rapsodie Espagnole, Bolero) are on constant standby to whisk us off to sultry southern Europe at a moment's notice.

For this musical warming to work, some of the energy will have to be your own. For as Sir Francis Bacon put it, "Generally music feedeth that disposition of the spirits which it findeth."

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