An Assortment of Recommendations
[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]
Although it is likely that by the time this review appears, the Vernal Equinox will be rapidly approaching, presently, the Winter Solstice has just occurred. Subsequently I find myself temporally in the midst of the so-called Holiday Season. For residents of the San Joaquin Valley, this means that as they look out their windows, they are treated to Mother Nature’s feeble attempt at imitating a blinding snowstorm, i.e., dense “Tule” fog. While my wife, the daughter of a postman, will not be kept from her appointed rounds at the mall by some pseudo-inclement weather, thoughts of possible decruitment by my employer, orthodontics for teens, impending college tuition and the like, have kept my shopping to a minimum. This has also enhanced my family reputation as Mr Scrooge. I have to admit that the appellation stings a bit, since I am always this cranky. It’s just that my normal demeanor seems to diverge more from the sappy behavior exhibited by folks around this time of year. Another misunderstood guy.
Fully comprehending my financial predicament, the editor suggested that instead of reviewing a new acquisition, I write something about CD’s I have known and loved. I agreed to the proposal and hence the list below. I wouldn’t consider it a “Desert Island” list, as I am not able to afford the ticket for a cruise to get me there. Instead, I look at it as a short list of CD’s that I would want to keep if I had to sell everything to prevent my house from being repossessed (“Aw, c’mon, dear, I am not pessimistic”). I should state that they represent only a small percentage of my CD’s that I would never want to part with. After all, our music and books are significant parts of who we are, and most of us would suffer great separation anxiety if they were to be taken away. These just happen to be current favorites, several of which I have owned and enjoyed for years. I could have chosen many more, especially numerous jewels conducted by von Karajan, but Mr Silverton promised to fire me if I mention him more than once. So out of fear for my job, and in the interest of your time and mine, I restricted the inventory to the handful below. They are listed in roughly chronological order of composition
PRAETORIUS: Dances from Terpsichore Philip Pickett conducting the New London Consort L’OISEAU-LYRE D153566 [DDD]; 50:09
Diverse and imaginative use of instruments (e.g., a xylophone), in lively, energetic performances of some of Praetorius’ better known tunes. Sound space is wide, excellent clarity and separation between the instruments, although the recording dynamics seem a tad compressed. Very extensive, informative notes on the music and Praetorius in general by Clifford Bartlett. This joyful CD is a great one for attentive listening, background to a party or as an alternative to the typical three-four minute radio pop tunes heard while driving. I’ve tried it all three ways.
BACH: Six Brandenburg Concertos1. Four Orchestral Suites2
This recording of the Brandenburg Concertos dates from the antediluvian dawn of the digital era. Archiv has re-released it with the Suites, as a three CD set, at bargain price. While most readers likely have a version of their own, as an additional or possible primary set, these are hard to beat for style, execution and recording quality. I have only heard about fifteen versions of the forty or more out there, but of those, this is the set I return to again and again. Maybe someone out there has a better suggestion? (Ditto on the Suites.)
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor
In February 1989, I was fortunately able to attend von Karajan’s penultimate concert in the United States. Ironically, it was with the Vienna, not Berlin, Philharmonic. It was a tremendous (yes, Mr Silverton, tremendous) performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Although recorded several months before, this CD was released soon after the event. While the recording does not (cannot?) capture the golden tone of the Vienna brass in the live performance, it nevertheless is a reasonable approximation to the orchestral sound. The Philharmonic is committed to giving their best and they deliver a profound, authoritative version of what was reputedly, one of von Karajan’s favorite symphonies. Listening to the great Adagio by itself, is worth the price of the set. Finally, it is the Haas version that is used here, for those concerned with those matters.
PUCCINI: La Bohème. Sir Thomas Beecham conducting; Jussi Björling, tenor (Rodolfo); Victoria de los Angeles, soprano (Mimí); Robert Merrill, baritone (Marcello); John Reardon, baritone (Schaunard); Giorgio Tozzi, bass (Colline); Lucine Amara, soprano (Musetta); R.C.A. Victor Chorus and Orchestra. EMI CLASSICS 56236-2 [ADD] (monaural), 107:28
Not much to say here as those who love the opera are most likely familiar with the recording through reading one of the many reviews or actually hearing/owning it. The only major drawback is the mono sound, but it’s more than serviceable, and a small sacrifice to pay for the magical performance. It would be nice though, considering the age, if EMI released this as at a budget price.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C# minor
Yeah, I know. There are better sounding recordings, and certainly more subtle interpretations. But this first Mahler Symphony pairing of Solti with the Chicago Symphony, still has a visceral excitement that remains unmatched. The exuberance and outstanding technical command of the orchestra practically leaps out of the speakers. Just a playback of the final Allegro is breathtaking.
While there are other interpretations that I admire e.g., Abbado, and Bernstein, over the years, I continue to return to this recording, just to relive the experience of it. And if you live in California, you should share the experience too. (I’m sure it sounds just as exciting in other states, so don’t feel left out).
STRAVINSKY: L’oiseau de feu. SCRIABIN: Prométhé, le Poème du feu1 Alexander Toradze, piano1 Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra PHILIPS 289446715-2 [DDD], 71:45
I finally got around to attending a concert with Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra in November. It was in Los Angeles, and they played The Rite of Spring as well as the Poem of Fire with Toradze as soloist. It was a very impressive performance that was unfortunately attended by the smallest audience for this venue- Dorothy Chandler Pavilion- that I have ever seen. The lucky few that were there, heard a conductor and orchestra capable of eliciting great dynamic range, exceptional clarity in orchestral texture, subtle changes in orchestral color and dramatic effect through an occasional exaggeration of tempo. In other words, I liked them a lot.
Based on this concert, I purchased the above CD. Philips’ fine recording captures a great deal of the features noted and the performance of The Firebird is outstanding. The same can be said of the Scriabin, but I must confess that he is not one of my favorite composers. For those who enjoy his music, this CD should be an all around winner. With just The Firebird, there is plenty to admire and enjoy. Trust me.
REICH: Different Trains1, Electric Counterpoint2
This is among the most artistically successful (and hopefully, commercial) albums that this year’s frequently feted foursome, has released. I believe that Different Trains ranks with the more powerful artistic reactions to the horrors of the Holocaust. The inventive use of tape recordings of people, train whistles and sirens combined with the Kronos’ angular playing, immediately grabs the listener’s attention and holds it until the end. After numerous hearings, it is still a draining encounter.
While I always welcome a chance to hear the outstanding guitarist, Pat Metheny, one could question the appropriateness of the choice for the “flip side” of the CD, Electric Counterpoint. It is a much lighter work- emotionally and artistically than Different Trains. A broad connection could be made between the two in the use of tape as a critical component. Sometimes, I find it too jarring of a gear-shift to play right after Different Trains, but other times, I find it to be a welcome relief. So maybe the folks at Nonesuch knew what they were doing after all. Depending on my mood, that is. Notes are slim but valuable, since they are written by the composer.
HORNSBY: Hot House
Forget the generally forgettable lyrics and just sit back and enjoy the virtuoso performances of Bruce Hornsby, The Band, and guests like Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck, Jerry Garcia and Chaka Khan. Looking at the pictures included in the notes to this roaring album, you get the feeling that the musicians not only play like they are having a blast, they were. The recording was made in Hornsby’s, home studio in Virginia, and it is like a waterfall of sound. Lyrics included, but as mentioned, not a key reason to buy this CD. Like the Praetorius mentioned above, suitable for just sitting and listening, or cruising down the highway (not too good for intimate gatherings though).
So that’s about it for my current list. Ask me again in a few weeks and I am positive it would be different. I feel confident however, that many of these would appear again over time. Enough of this though, as the fog has lifted, and since I have to buy some presents, I’m off to search for aluminum cans to bring to the recycling center. Cash is king this time of year.