Apr 15, 2014

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3 Songs: “Obscure Classical Snobs Club” Edition

I am famously—okay, no, I’m not famous for anything except in very small corners of the internet pertaining to comedy and fundraising. Scratch that. Anyhow, the point is this: I love classical music, and in an exceptionally visceral way; my likes and dislikes are dictated by the sheer gravitational tug of the music itself. I think it’s a shame that some people dismiss classical as being just for snobby rich people, because in truth it’s some of the most emotionally rich art on the planet, capable of imparting serious Stendhal Syndrome with nothing but a piano and a few string instruments.

Classical music in the West often falls into an aural dead zone, so to speak, populated solely by the most outrageously famous composers—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and the like. Even if you’ve never called yourself a classical music fan, I will bet you ten dollars that you’ve heard at least one piece from each of those composers in your lifetime; they’re used in everything from kids’ cartoons to beer commercials. But classical music composition hasn’t stopped, and there are some breathtakingly gorgeous pieces that just aren’t as well-known as the Moonlight Sonata or the Queen of the Night aria. So let’s talk about some slightly less well-known classical pieces that I love with every fibre of my being.

Andre Mathieu – Concerto No. 4

This guy was Canada’s Mozart, a child prodigy who composed his first work at the age of three and performed abroad while still in the single digits. His fourth piano concerto is outstanding, going to some wonderfully high and low places and building to a wonderfully gratifying conclusion. I actually saw this performed live by Alain Lefévre, the pianist responsible for bringing Mathieu back into the spotlight, and oh man. Listen through to the very end, especially the last movement, and you’ll realize just how goddamn good you need to be to pull this piece off without just breaking the piano into pieces.

Note: The only way I’ve been able to find this piece is in separate parts on YouTube, so make sure to listen through all five videos to get the entire thing.

 

Carl Nielsen – Symphony No 5

I feel like I’m cheating a little here, because Nielsen’s fifth symphony is probably his most famous amongst those who know who the hell he is. But every time I’ve mentioned his name, people haven’t had a clue. Nielsen is one of Denmark’s most beloved composers, for a very good reason. Symphony No. 5 was written in the aftermath of Nielsen’s experiences during the First World War, and it was startlingly weird for its time. For one, it only has two movements, rather than the usual three; for another, he has a snare drummer essentially pick a fight with the rest of the orchestra. The piece is all about darkness and light, contrast and opposition—and while Nielsen denied that it was directly inspired by the war, the excuse is pretty thin when you listen to it. The piece plays with opposing forces, clashing them together and then restoring them to order, and the result is an epic, direct piece that always leaves me reeling. Plus, seriously, he was repeatedly photographed rocking an epic cape-coat and hat. The man was cooler than any of us will ever be.

 

Dmitri Shostakovitch – Concerto No. 2, II: Andante

It’s highly likely that you know of the first part of this piano concerto; it was used as the backing for the Steadfast Tin Soldier short in Fantasia 2000, and to great effect. It’s a lively piece that’s incredibly demanding on the pianist, and I love it. But the middle section of the concerto slows everything down, and creates a new mood altogether—one of romance and pain and great, arresting beauty. There’s a part at about 4:35 in the linked video that always, always makes me stop in my tracks. Without knowledge of this second portion (and the zippy finale), Concerto No. 2 is a fun little romp with quick-fingered Russians; with the full context, it’s a genuine and heartfelt journey.

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