Boo, boo

A couple years ago I posted a Halloween playlist focusing on eccentric music most people have never heard. This year I’m trying something a little different. Here’s some seasonally-appropriate piano music, some of which you may know and some of which may be strange to you.

Charles-Valentin Alkan was allegedly the only pianist of their generation whom Liszt found intimidating. A reclusive eccentric, he wrote uncompromisingly difficult music that only in recent years has begun to enter the repertoire. Here’s Marc-André Hamelin with the finale to Alkan’s “Symphony” for solo piano, which has been characterized as a “ride through Hell.”

Raymond Lewenthal, who kick-started the Alkan revival fifty-odd years ago with his Alkan recordings, plays the entire symphony here. It includes a funeral march followed by a macabre minuet. A couple more pieces: “Les diablotins,” featuring tone clusters long before Henry Cowell was born; “Scherzetto.”

Liszt’s various “Mephisto” waltzes are too obvious to mention. Instead, here’s his set of variations on “Dies Irae,” “Totentanz.”

Bonus: from Liszt’s late, experimental works, the “Czardas Macabre.”

Possibly the finest Halloween music ever composed is Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit.” Here’s Martha Argerich. (When Argerich was a student, her teacher at one point thought she had been slacking off and therefore assigned her “Gaspard.” Argerich didn’t know that it was nearly impossible and learned it in a week.)

(This brings back non-treasured memories. Early one morning many years ago, the jackass in the apartment next to mine set the building on fire in a bungled suicide attempt. Fortunately, I was awake and the fire alarm worked, and everyone got out of the building safely. The firemen had the blaze under control before the flames reached my place, and I was able to retrieve most of my possessions later. However, there was much smoke and water damage (I boasted that I had the largest collection of dirty books in town, none of which were pornography). One of the casualties was Argerich’s early Ravel record, including “Gaspard,” which had been on the turntable when the fire started.)

So you don’t like piano music, but you want to hear something beyond “Monster Mash”? Lee Hartsfeld has you covered. He’s recorded and restored ancient 78 rpm records of Halloweenish music and made them available to download here and here. And here. The selection is amazing — the first batch includes Leopold Godowsky playing Edward MacDowell and Zez Confrey playing Zez Confrey. There’s Cole Porter and Paul Whiteman, jazz and ragtime and novelty tunes and much more, some terrific, some ridiculous. It’s worth a download or three.

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