Classical Music Reviews by Mark Corske

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In this thread, I am going to post four classical record reviews written in 1973 and 1974 by Mark Corske for Books for Libertarians. I recently contacted Mark to obtain permission to post these reviews, and he graciously consented, asking only that I post this caveat/announcement:

Since the mid 1970s, Mark Corske has strongly disagreed with many fundamental tenets of objectivism and libertarianism. Nonetheless, he fondly remembers the years when he wrote these reviews.

That said, I invite OL readers to enjoy these heartfelt reviews of some truly great music.

Best to all,


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The Four Brahms Symphonies

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Bruno Walter, Conductor

Reviewed by Mark Corske

It was a short sixty-nine years from the first performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony to the original release of Bruno Walter’s recording (with the New York Philharmonic) of all four Brahms symphonies (1954). It has been a long nineteen years since then, but if you seek a music and a performance worth kneeling before, yet which may also impel you to your feet with excitement, then you should own the Odyssey re-release of these performances, a three record set. For those not acquainted with the Brahms symphonies, this record set may be recommended as romantic music and performance at its best.

The symphonies are a varied music and they jointly span more than two hours; each includes passages more subtle, the musicality, sense and effect of which can only be found with effort—an effort, however, which Brahms will amply repay. The symphonies also vary from joyous to tragic encompassing battle and celebration.

What do the Brahms symphonies offer? Lovers of melody will find that in abundance. Lovers of harmony can relish the variety, drama, and fitness of Brahms’ unique style. Lovers of counterpoint will find that the masterful voice-leading leaves few passages devoid of polyphonic interest, and achievements of genius. Simplicity: there are times of childlike directness. Complexity: thematic and formal development, transformations, derivations, and interrelations that may take years to discover, rhythm that can arouse puzzle and then delight, orchestration that can sometimes be fully penetrated only with the help of a score—these can satisfy the most demanding musical intelligence.

More important, though, Brahms was a romantic in that he wielded such technicalities toward “transcendent,” extra-musical, esthetic and dramatic emotional effects. (His personal commitment to “classicism” is irrelevant; he is said to have called himself “the best Wagnerian.”) This esthetic integrity, the far from obvious but continuous relevance of each musical event to the esthetic effect which is the point of the music, is what the Brahms symphonies offer as art, beyond what they are as music.

Concerning the recordings: they are monaural, and, although of good fidelity, they scarcely meet contemporary standards. The set will not serve as a showpiece for sound reproduction equipment.

As for the performance, Walter’s recording is among the few available which are true to the tradition of music-making which were alive in the time of Brahms. Such performances are not ashamed to be fierce, wild, rendingly tender, whispering, thundering, aching or triumphant. They seek far more than an “accurate reading” of the score. They shun the slick, the clever, the garish, the bleak, which seem to be contemporary ideals (actually diseases) of modern “objective” conducing. In Walter’s tradition, each note, each phrase, each instrumental part, ensemble, passage, movement, and the work as a whole, is meticulously sculptured and balanced into something which lives.

This Brahms set is part of an Odyssey series called “Legendary Performances.” It is this reviewer’s opinion that, indeed, such performances are becoming legendary, not merely because Walter, Furtwangler, Weingartner, Nikish, and musicians of their kind are dead, but because of an esthetic trend so headlong that the few years since Walter’s performances are far longer than the many since Brahms'. A modern conductor might protest that the "meticulous sculpturing and balancing” mentioned above is no less his concern than Walter’s. But, with honorable exceptions, what is dying today is Walter’s kind of passion: passion for music (which Walter considered holy) and for the universe of esthetic ideals it can evoke; passionate concern for accurate and inspired performance; passionate and deadly serious reverence for the great men who wrote such music, and confidence in a listening world great and passionate enough to care. If this is now legend, it may soon be myth. The purpose of a record set such as this—if beautiful music beautifully played is not purpose enough—is not to retreat into Brahms’ and Walter’s world, but to keep its greatness alive in ours.

[This review was originally published in Books for Libertarians, June 1973, Vol. II, No. 6.]

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Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

Paul Kletzki, Conductor

L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande

Reviewed by Mark Corske

Most of what is wonderful about Rachmaninov’s music, and little of what is deficient about it, can be found in his mighty E minor Symphony (No. 2, Op. 27).

The wonders are drama, passion, excitement, melody, ingenious orchestration, and rich texture. The deficiencies are the stereotyped phrases and rhythmic/ formal stylisms which haunted Rachmaninov’s music and toward the end entirely constituted it (not without artistic effect, but still to its detriment). The Second Symphony, however, dates from 1908, when the composer was but thirty-five and the stylisms were still fresh and living marks of his style.

The thematic unity of the symphony is stunning: practically everything grows from material announced in the first eight measures. Over fifty minutes long, the symphony is a panorama of emotion, truly romantic in a way exquisitely between Brahms’ “classicism” and Strauss’ “program music.” The darkly storming first movement, the grim and fretful second, the yearning and amorous third, and the wide expanse of the festive but serious fourth, make a romantic legend in themselves, without program, yet largely adhering to the classical form of the symphony. This reviewer cannot doubt that the symphony’s legend is of struggle, love and triumph. What, or whom, is being fought for and won, can be decided by each listener. A hard-nosed reviewer nowadays is not supposed to say such things as: “This symphony is music to fall in love with, for it speaks directly to the heart,” or “The symphony addresses the strivings of greatness and is itself great.” But it is hard to put more bluntly what is really important about Rachmaninov’s Second.

Usually considered too lengthy, and cut by as much as ten minutes for both live performances and recordings, the symphony may be found intact and eloquently alive in a London recoding of Paul Kletzki conducing L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The orchestra, as always, is excellent, and Kletzki’s reading, though a bit cool, is moving, profound, and accurate. Especially to recommend this recording, besides it being the only uncut one of which I know, is the fine transparency of the orchestra, which reveals many important and captivating details of the densely contrapuntal texture. In “thicker” recordings, although the sound is more luscious, many of these details are simply indistinguishable. The lucidity of Kletzki’s recording is partly engineering, partly the character of the Suisse Romande orchestra, and partly Kletzki’s own intention. Rachmaninov should not be played like Wagner; Kletzki (himself a composer) understands this, and his reading is thus superior to more sensational ones (e.g. Previn’s or Ormandy’s). Even the individual who already owns one or more recordings of this symphony can gain significantly by buying this one. It will surprise those who know the symphony from elsewhere or be a head-start for those who do not.

[This review was originally published in Books for Libertarians, July 1973, Vol. II, No. 7.]

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Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 in C Minor

Ernest Ansermet, Conductor/L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande

Bruno Walter’s Brahms

Bruno Walter, Conductor; Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Reviewed by Mark Corske

Two records of very different compositions may be reviewed together, for they bear a common virtue: they are older performances by unfashionable conductors, and thus are “bargain” records; this tells against fashion, not the records, for the performances are unsurpassed.

The Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (with organ) of Saint-Saens is performed by Ernest Ansermet conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. His reading is subtle, making the most of this charming symphony; though full of loveliness and studded with a few great moments, it is by no means the musical achievement that a symphony was once expected to be. For this reason, Ansermet’s attention to ensemble, color and variation of tempo and dynamics is unusually important. The organ and piano parts are not spectacularized; in this and other ways the symphony’s loose structure and sometimes rough texture does not dim the music’s marvelous and affirmative mood. This reading is even superior to Charles Munch’s—and that says a great deal.

Bruno Walter’s Brahms offers three of these popular orchestral works. Walter’s readings of the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” the “Academic Festival Overture,” and the “Tragic Overture” are simply perfect. The “variations” are taken at a leisurely tempo, bringing forth the character of each variation with Walter’s supreme expressiveness and exquisite shaping of detail. The exuberant “Academic Festival, undoubtedly Brahms’ most immediately exciting and joyous orchestral piece, is rendered with great rigor and clarity. The “Tragic Overture,” even though musically and esthetically the least significant of the three, is played with such insight that one can almost hear the steps of doom.

Both of these stereophonic records are of good quality, though the Saint-Saens is a little dull, and the Brahms a little harsh. But this reviewer would listen to these performances on a $10 transistor radio in preference to lesser performances perfectly reproduced. As usual, as “bargain” records these are an excellent way to make the acquaintance of unfamiliar music. The Saint-Saens may be enjoyed as a grandiose confection—the Brahms as sturdier fare. Both records belong on the shelves of anyone with supple musical preferences and an ear for joy.

[This review was originally published in Books for Libertarians, September 1973, Vol. II, No. 9.]

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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8

Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra;

Vienna State Opera Chorus

Reviewed by Mark Corske

Veni, Creator Spiritus! Come, Creator Spirit! shouts the chorus, beginning Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. So magnificent is the demand that, if the Creator Spirit heard, it would surely obey. Lines from the symphony’s text describe its character: “Visit our souls, fill them with grace…Kindle our senses with light, pour Thy love into our hearts…Give us joy…”

To call his symphony “ecstatic” is scarcely to hint at the beside-oneself joy and celebration maintained throughout the opening movement. I know nothing like it in music. Soloists, chorus and an enormous orchestra surge forward in miracle after contrapuntal miracle, finally reaching a coda that leaves one gaping. The second and concluding movement, a setting of text from Goethe’s Faust, is twice the length of the opening movement. It comprises a series of pictorial and dramatic events which settle the question why Mahler wrote no operas: he did, but they are concealed in his symphonies. Vivid tone painting first sets a mysterious stony scene and then eloquently shapes and punctuates the passionate utterances of various characters. After frequent returns, joy and celebration as in the first movement take a new form, stunning the listener with a perpetuum mobile of soprano and alto solos. Joy is then surpassed by awe and reverence, first hushed, then thunderous: Komm Komm! Blicket auf…Come! Look up…After nearly ninety minutes, the symphony ends with a fully convincing representation of Sublimity, a grandeur truly climactic.

The perilously dense and complicated score of the Eighth requires massive performing forces and perfect conducting. Sir Georg Solti, with faultless performers and engineering, offers a recording that marries clarity, order and great dramatic power. This reviewer’s study of the score failed to suggest any way in which Solti’s performance could be significantly bettered.

Mahler, notorious as composer of grim, gnarled emotional torment and battle, is well met in the Eighth as lyricist, optimist, romantic and giver of joy. Nonetheless, like much of his music, the Eighth is probably an all-or-nothing matter: one despises it or falls in love with it. Those who love it love a symphony uniquely concerned with perfection, joy, rightness. Those who understand that music can offer practice in responses which the world at large might never engender, yet which may themselves transform the world, can find in Mahler’s Eighth challenge, adventure and hope.

[This review was originally published in Books for Libertarians, February, 1974, Vol. III, No. 2.]

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