The One Hundred Records which Changed my Life

[Not really a hundred, not at least in a single swallow. As you will soon discover, our judicious New York editor has the good sense to break up the list. Ed.]

Steve Koenig

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]

Last issue, I began a series devoted to records which changed my life, musically and otherwise. We continue with the letter B.

BACH, J.S.: Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Pau Casals, cello. Recorded 1936-1938. Pathé Marconi/La Voix du son Maître/ EMI Références 1008923. [3-LP box, France.]

This is the one I bought; the one I heard was part of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, in cloth-bound sleeves. I had heard of the piece, and someone had made fun of me for not knowing any Bach. “But I know the Brandenburgs,” I exclaimed, from the Britten performance, and loved them. I hummed them in the street. My friend was not impressed.

One day, as I was shopping in Gryphon, this was on the turntable. I stopped craning my neck to look at LP spines. I no longer cared what unknown twentieth-century gem I was going to discover: here was one. Now. The sound of this instrument, the soul of this performance. I had to have it, but there was only one of the discs and you know I was going to have it all. I encountered this import, and when it’s love, no one has to tell you, and sometimes even the price doesn’t matter. I wonder now what I paid for this sealed French import. CD prices what they are, it must have been ridiculously low. I see now in tiny print the name of the now-famous transfer engineer Keith Hardwick.

I bought more and more performances to get to know this piece better, and the next two were my next flings: Henri Honegger on Telefunken/Valois [6.35345EX, 1973] and the soon-to-be-famous Anner Bylsma on an appalling U.S. pressing on Pro Arte/Seon [3PAL-3001, 1979]. Those two still are special performances for me, the Bylsma being my intro to the historical instrument debate and showing me that soul matters everywhere, and he had it.

What makes the Casals special is Catalan soul. His name is Pau, not Pablo, or Paul. His performance is rather speedy, or so it seems. He makes love to the instrument via these suites. Or is it the suites which are being made love to. It must be mutual. I have over a dozen more silver ones, performed by interesting but usually slower and more intellectual lovers, but Casals is my first, and true foursome: Bach, cello, these love dances, and me.

BARBER, SAMUEL: Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Eleanor Steber, soprano; Greater Trenton Symphony, Nicholas Harsanyi, conductor. ST/AND SLS 7420. [LP, 1962.]

I first heard this on the radio. What was it? Could it possibly be song-texts in English that made sense? I could understand the words, and the music highlighted and counterpointed, rather than showed up, the text. Fortunately, this time the announcer gave all the information and the search was on: ST/AND Records, some composer named Samuel Barber in a piece called Knoxville something, sung by Eleanor Steber and the Trenton (!) Symphony. A friend had raved about Steber’s Berlioz, but I hadn’t yet heard much classical song, lieder or chansons. This performance was just the ticket. A ten buck ticket; mighty steep for the time, but when I played it in the store, yes indeed, this was the piece, and I had the same visceral and intellectual reaction I had when I first heard it on the radio. Next time someone tells you they don’t like English texts in song or opera, lay this piece on them.

Steber recorded this earlier for Columbia with William Strickland and the Dumbarton Oaks Orchestra in 1950. I have it on Odyssey Legendary Performances 32 12 0230, labelled as stereo, but re-channelled. There’s also an excellent Leontyne Price recorded 1954, one of the few vinyls I’ve replaced with silver [Sony Masterworks Portrait MPK 46727, including Price’s “Hermit Songs,” and DF-D’s excellent performance of “Dover Beach”]. I haven’t heard most newer performances, but find Upshaw’s to be just like her Górecki’s Third: note-perfect and sterile. The ST/AND performance was recorded in performance in 1962. It’s sloppier and more moving than the stuido recording. There’s no audience noise, and thank engineers, no applause. It ends, and you’re left in its magical soundworld. The text by James Agee evokes small-town Americana, but it and the music is strikingly modern: streetcars in the text and in the music, but not redundant.

BART, LIONEL: Oliver. Original Broadway Cast Recording. RCA Victor LSOD-2004; [gatefold LP, 1962; reissued on RCA Victor 4113-2-RG, CD.]

My first Broadway show. I learned Broadway through my parents’ records. My cousin Suanne and I would put on little Olivers and La Manchas, later Cabarets and Hairs. We saved my allowance and Oliver was the first live Broadway musical I ever saw and I was in love at seven years old: the story, the music, the urchins. When my family ate in a restaurant, Fagin’s boys were at a table eating across from us and I couldn’t believe those British boys and their pre-Beatle Beatle haircuts and their accents and that kids my age were performing.

I went through the black Nipper vinyl, another, another, a yellow modern RCA label, and finally, their short-lived grey label. I gave in at CD time and discovered magic: The pre-echo which plagued all the vinyl issues was gone, and some of the tracks which, unknown to me, had been edited, were restored and remixed. “Oom Pah Pah,” the wonderful dancehall number, is now available in all its glory with the exciting, previously cut introduction. “It’s A Fine Life” indeed. To those who nay-say the idea of a happy tragedy such as Oliver Twist set to music, I say just stay away from all opera and leave the rest of us to sing and laugh and cry. (Despite that, I have yet to hear anything by Lloyd-Webber which hasn’t made me ill. Trash is fine; cheating and theft is not.)

BEATLES, THE: “Ticket To Ride”/”Yes It Is.” [Capitol single ,1965.]

My first record purchase. We were visiting cousin Kevin and his family in D.C. and daddy took us all to a record shop and let us each choose one single. I didn’t know much pop music then, just that I hated the Beatles because in summer camp they had a “play” where four boys got to be Beatles and sing the then-hit “She Loves You,” while the rest of us had to wear wigs and lipstick. Rough enough being a non-baseball kinda boy in camp without that.

I got over it. I liked the song, even though I had no idea what a ticket to ride meant. It came in a picture sleeve with nifty Beatle photos on it, though, and so I chose it. I loved watching that Capitol orange and yellow swirl as the record went ’round. I still do. So does my cat.

This disc was important to me for another reason: the B side. I remember playing “Yes It Is” often. It was a sad tune, and I found it strange that I never heard it on the radio. It wasn’t on the album either, i don’t think. There’s music all around that people ignore or can’t find and this was my first awareness of the commercial connection between music and product, as well as the idea of seeking out your own music as opposed to what others are listening to. I wish I knew what cousin Kevin bought. He’s dead now, but seven-inch singles live on.

BEATLES, THE: The Beatles. Apple SWBO 101. [2 LP, 1968. Reissues I own, all two discs, include British Apple EMI Parlophone PCS 7067-68 on white vinyl (after all, it’s known as “The White Album); US Parlophone CDP 7 46444-2; Italian bootleg CD of the Capitol mono versions on Beat 012-2; a cheap bootleg of the Beat bootleg on Red Robin ROB-1026, lacking the deluxe packaging, sound, and two songs of the Beat version; British Apple EMI 4 96885-2, the “30th Anniversary Limited Edition” which is a CD-sized gatefold replica with the tops of the gatefold open, containing all the original inserts but thimble-sized, plus picture sleeves for the discs and a plastic slipcover for the whole, slim package.]

One day daddy brought home the new Beatles record, and gave it to me and my brother Don to share. It was a two LP set, in a white cover with a serial number embossed on it. Other than a few classical LPs he had given us, it was the first adult, non-kiddy LP I had, and it was neat; there were four color portraits of the Beatles (we never called them the Fab Four) and a giant fold-out poster with lyrics on one side and a collage of Beatle photos on the other, including one with Paul naked, his thing hidden behind a pole. Mommy bought the sheet music to “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” and we’d all sing around the piano. In my room, alone, I’d listen to the mysterious lyrics of “Savoy Truffle” and “Cry Baby Cry.” In the street, with my friends, we’d sing the naughty “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.” Not one track on four sides of this record skipped or was skipped over. I was obsessed with the hunter-green Apple label, watching the green apple, and the cut apple label on the reverse, spin ’round on our little rectangular box of a phonograph, with its plastic arm, penny taped atop.

What I listened to most, the rare times I wouldn’t play four sides in a row, was “Revolution #9,” a hypnotic collage, the first tape piece I’d ever heard. No electronic, noise, or avant-garde piece of any kind has touched me as much or as often. Stockhausen’s Gesange de Jünglinge is just a bit of kids chattering next to this richly-textured piece encompassing British voices of many accents, static, hiss, random radio reception, Shakespeare, football cheers, Yoko’s voice, snippets of tape from the BBC and EMI Abbey Road studios. Alternate takes of “Revolution #9″ have been hard to come by on bootleg, other than the U.S. mono mix which presents a different topography of the same, now-mythic terrain.

The standard CD reissue, as almost all original EMI Beatle reissues on CD, especially the George Harrisons and Plastic Ono Band, has too much of the top lopped off along with the tape hiss.

BECKETT, SAMUEL: Waiting for Godot. Kurt Kasznar, Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall. Columbia Masterworks O2L-238. [2 LP, slipcase, notes by William Saroyan, 1956.]

One of the great recorded legacies not yet reissued on silver is Columbia’s series of spoken word and drama. My senior year in Stuyvesant High School, I chose to read this play, egged on by my teacher, Sonia Baron, who also encouraged me to read Stein and Wilde, who were quick sells and permanent loves. This Beckett; difficult stuff. At sixteen, I tried but couldn’t really make sense of it on my own. I encountered these record at the 42nd Street Library, and wham: I understood. I was able to hear beyond the voice of the Cowardly Lion. Lahr really couldn’t step out of character, but he was able to apply his schtick to the character of Gogo. After all, this play is, for all its modernity, comedia dell’arte. Many people see Beckett as a proponent of hopelessness, of life as a wasteland. On the contrary; he is affirming of life in the midst of the wasteland, a condensed, surreal reality. Is there a recording of his “Happy Days”?

BEE GEES: “Stayin’ Alive” RSO 45.

The record that made disco an unavoidable fact of life, thanks to incessant radio play, and I hate it with a passion. I remember the beat affecting my heart rate; the physical correlative to a jingle that won’t leave your head. Despicable to this day.

BEEFHEART, CAPTAIN: Trout Mask Replica. Straight/Warner STS 1053. [2 LP, 1969.]

I’ve decided to do this next issue, under “Captain.” Look for Grow Fins, the just-issued, five-CD unreleased Beefheart folio, engineered at Gravelvoice, released by Revenant on CD and by Table of the Elements on vinyl in three double-albums.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony 9. René Leibowitz, conductor. Chesky/Reader’s Digest CD 66. [CD, recorded 1961.]

Like everyone else, I was exposed to the ninth by osmosis, but I never cared for the choral part of the thing. My first and first-favorite was the Schmidt-Isserstedt on a London Jubilee LP. Then I heard a fast “period instruments” version which received such pans that when I saw it in the Brooklyn Public Library I just had to give it a try, and discovered Hogwood/AAM waswas fast but excellent. Even the singers were a joy, and to date, my favorites. [L’Oiseaux Lyre 425 517-2].

I am an obsessive shopper, as you have gleaned, and found a copy of the Chesky cheap. These Reader’s Digest performances have amazing audiophile reputations, so I gave it the old two-buck try. I played it once, went, “Ho-hum,” and put it on the discard pile. I have a foible which irritates me; it is hard for me to part with anything. Discs on the discard pile are played repeatedly to be sure I really want to give them up, often to the detriment of getting to hear the discs I know I love. This time I won big: on the second round, I must have been really listening rather than auditing.

Some folks might complain this performance is over-analytical, sees the trees rather than the orchard, but “No,” I say: this, this amazing performance made me hear something in Beethoven I had never heard before. This Beethoven is a twentieth-century composer! In Leibowitz’ performance there are sonorities, textures, and something I’d never heard before in this piece: cleverness and outright humor (everything missing from Lenny’s much-praised, stolid, Berlin Wall spectacle on DG). This is a fab piece! Who would’ve known? Leibowitz, I guess; a French champion of contemporary music. Please give this a listen. Even if it’s not your taste, you’ll never hear the Ninth the same way again.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas # 1, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 (partial), 17, 18, 19, 20. Walter Gieseking, piano. [Various Angel LPs, some reissued on CD.]

When you’re a kid listening to adults who know classical music, you hear about the exquisite Beethoven piano sonatas. They were nice enough, but then I got my hands on some old vinyl by Gieseking, who was known for his Debussy and Ravel. Those bore me silly, and still do. Mine is the minority view, as it is for his Beethoven. There is something miraculous in these performances. You hear the notes, and you hear the line, yet something magical takes place; floating in the air above you, you hear the music. I don’t understand it; I can’t explain it, but there it is: a rainbow, an aurora borealis of incredible flow and these pointillistic notes suddenly make sense and have a beauty like no other.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas #21, “Appassionata.” Daniel Barenboim, piano. Angel [2LP anthology; also reissued on various EMI CDs and complete set.]

This one grabs you by the ears and takes you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions you will not forget. If you want to convert a novice to Beethoven, forget that tired fifth symphony; use this. Forget the others; this is the one. Okay, also try Aleksei Sultanov on Teldec 246 102-2, the 1989 Van Cliburn award winners recorded live.

BERLIOZ, HECTOR: Symphonie Fantastique. Orchestra du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris, Pierre Michel Le Conte. Chefs-d’oeuvre Classiques HC 8023, France. [LP, no date.]

This was the first tone poem I discovered on my own. What passion, what magic, what a performance. Seventy-nine cents in Sam Goody’s cut-out bin alongside Stockhausen’s Grüppen/Carré on DGG, which I also got, for $1.99. Decades later, I heard my first live Fantastique, at Manhattan School of Music, conducted by the amazing Glen Cortese, who always makes me hear familiar things anew. One section seemed to be written by Phillip Glass: listen to the repetitive figure of slashing strings and tell me when the cells of minimalism began. [I know, Scardanelli; Ars Nova.]

BERNSTEIN, LEONARD: Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Texts from the Roman Catholic Mass with addditions by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein. Columbia Masterworks M2 31008 [2-LP box plus thirty-page LP-size photo book with libretto. Many CBS/Sony CD re-editions.] and cassette of the second Kennedy Center performance broadcast.

I first heard this much-heralded and much-denigrated piece on television at its première at Kennedy Center. I thought it dull and bombastic. Many years later, I got into pre-Renaissance music, learned something of the structure of the traditional mass as set to music, about heartache and reaching out, and knew jazz and rock’n’roll inside out. Bernstein is one of my very few heros; qualifications being that you are really messed up, learn by trial and error, and survive. This piece might be a pattern for heroism and, for me, has strengthened over time. Some of the lyrics are dated and what used to be slightly embarrasssing is now merely quaint. What many saw as an ill combination of materials and musics now is prescient. Typically Jewish, this Catholic Mass, which received the imprimatur of said Church, questions God, questions life, and demands the listener reacts to these questions. It starts with a Kyrie by four singers on quadrophonic tape. The Celebrant interrupts the tape, singing, “Sing God a simple song, lauda laudé/ Make it up as you go along,” and in English and Latin, eventually questions the communion with the Trinity and he has an emotional breakdown. The various participants each have their own story and reaction to this world, from the personal (“I don’t know why every time I find I new love I wind up destroying it/ I don’t know why I’m so freaky-minded, I keep on kind of enjoying it”) to the socio-political (“Half the people are stoned and the others are waiting for the next election/They call it Glorious Living”), the latter a guest lyric from Paul Simon. Mass comes to a resolution of faith in believing, because of the necessity of believing. In something. Amen.

BIZET, GEORGES: Carmen. Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Bernstein, Metropolitan Opera. DGG 2709 043. [3-LP box with 70 page photo and essay book and libretto, 1973.]

I first encountered the gypsy in high school French, senior year, when instead of our usual Racine, we read along to the Price/Solti discs. I remember those bright red DynaWarp labels. I hated it. Why were we supposed to think this tawdy Harlequin romance was literature. And Carmen was so obviously a user and Don Jose a stupid sap. The country girl’s vocal retention of virginity made me snicker. One day with nothing to do, I read the original story by Prosper Mérimée. Trashy yeah, but riveting. What a great psychological study. Then I went back to the opera, which I found cut-out at Goody’s, and what I found insufferably sappy was now miraculously melodic. I was able to listen to the opera all the way through and it became a guilty pleasure. It still is, though I lost the guilt years ago. I sing it on the subways.

BLEY, CARLA: 3/4. Jazz Composers Orchestra. Watt/3. [LP, 23:45 + 22:00, 1975.]

From the first two notes, for it starts with piano diads, I was hooked. This incredible twenty-four minute waltz cum pino concerto for large jazz orchestra starts where Ravel’s “La Valse” left off. Whereas the latter is ethereally mysterious and impressionistic (none are so good as Previn’s on Philips, coupled with “Pictures”); 3/4 for Piano and Orchestra is rock solid, and adds more and more intrumentals, swirling and swirling into a mad Fellini ballet. Things calm down and the diad is still there, keeping this wild flow as the orchestra improvises over the figure, and the piano goes wild over the orchestra, and you cannot sit still in your chair; you must get up and join this whirlwind. Twenty-five years after the first listening, I still am astounded by the piece and dance with it, against in, and for it. The bonus is the flip side, another concerto, this one for piano with two jazz orchestras, composed by Michael Mantler, another excellent composer. I believe it’s still on an ECM/Watt CD. The LP’s spine lists Mantler first.

BONET, MARIA DEL MAR: Jardi Tancat. Ariola-Eurodisc 1-203 170. [gatefold LP, text booklet, Spain,1981.]

While the Spanish and Catalans in Barcelona are vitriolic about whether one should say buenas noches or bona nit, one thing they agree on is the voice of Maria Del Mar, family name Bonet. Yes, Mary of the Sea, a singer from Mallorca, singing texts of Mallorcan poets she selected. The strings are tasteful, her emotion comes through and “Canço de Na Ruixa Mantells” makes me cry every time I hear it, even before I understood the story of an old woman gone mad from a lost love. Alan Stivell guests on Celtic harp. “La Reliquia” has a tradition Arab-Andalousian sound, and is riveting. The LP comes with bilingual Mallorcan/Spanish notes, and texts in mallorquina. Her earlier records were so-so folky things, she kept improving, and here hit her stride. These two songs I play for anyone who’ll listen, when I feel wicked; they get livid finding there’s no readily available CD unless someone goes to Spain. And those don’t come with lyric sheets. These songs have become a part of my life, as has the sound of the language, with lots of glottals, a bit like Russian meets Meditarranean. You don’t need to understand the texts to be moved.

Next installment: More killer Bs and the first sighting of the high Cs. Bowie to Busoni and beyond. Alice Cooper, anyone?