1991 Records To Die For Page 2
The five favorite? Out of hundreds? Even worse, superb performance and superb recordings, in clear contradiction of Holt's First Law!(Footnote 1) Worse still, no mono records? Why? What an outrage! I decided, in my choices, to modify the criteria somewhat: superb performances where the recording is good enough to not detract from the overall experience. Only one of my choices could serve as a textbook example of excellent recording, but in none will the recording keep you away from the music---which is what matters. After all, if stranded with five records on a desert island, the technical (and, to some extent, artistic) achievement of an excellent recording by itself will thrill for maybe two days; the nourishment of a great performance will continue, even over AM radio, for years---until your ship veritably comes in.
All favorites are LPs, but not for any ideological reason---that just happens to be where the best performances are.
JOAN BAEZ: Joan Baez
Joan Baez, vocal, guitar; Fred Hellerman, guitar
Vanguard VSD-2077 (LP). Maynard Solomon, prod. AAA. TT: 44:28
This is the original, the one better than which she never made (though her second album, Joan Baez, Vol.2, was released only a couple of years later and clearly presents her voice and artistic sensibility in much the same light as Vol.1). The first time is the best time---which gravely disappointed me, as I followed Ms. Baez's career over the years. The amazing thing is that you can still buy this LP (the copy I'm currently listening to was purchased in Central Square, Cambridge at El Cheapo Records, just a few months ago)!
This is a simple record of an exceedingly pure, dramatic voice that's never since sounded quite as amazing and unselfconscious. The songs are mostly ballads, mostly English, in a program right out of the folk revival of the late '50s/early '60s. (My original copy was a birthday present from my sister in 1959 or '60; the record was released right around then.)
Certainly, this choice is influenced by nostalgia, but also by my intense appreciation of the aforementioned folk revival and the idealistic values it represented (which values were a not insignificant contributor to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the '60s). It's also an example of the Nadia Comaneci phenomenon (whose gymnastic performance in the 1976(?) Olympics has yet to be surpassed): you see it early, you can't believe how good it is---and you never see it again (certainly from Comaneci).
The recording, like the performance, is simple and exposed. Whatever acoustic existed in the studio has not been preserved, but the most intimate details of voice and guitars are faithfully captured. Buy it now, before it's out of print and expensive. Unless you hate folk music or the female voice, you won't be disappointed.
BRAHMS: Ein deutsches Requiem
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus
French EMI 167-01295/6 (2 LPs). (Also available on Angel CDC-47238, 2 CDs only). Walter Legge, prod. AAA.
(I have the French EMI; I'm sure it was available on English and other EMIs, as well as Angel---but the EMI is much better than the Angel version.)
The German Requiem is arguably the greatest piece of choral music the world has known; only Bach's Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion are competitors for me (but who cares? You can fall in love with whatever choral music you want!). No piece by Brahms better combines his Dostoyevskian appreciation of tragedy with his inherent hopefulness. In this work, that combination is made explicit in Brahms's own choice of scriptural texts---in that sense, it couldn't be more different from a traditional Roman Catholic Requiem mass.
Klemperer's performance is unbelievably slow (many versions include a filler on side 4, but not this one!), just as you would expect. The effect, as with Klemperer at his best, is extraordinarily powerful. Given the inherent strength of both the music and the scriptural selections, you won't sit through this unmoved. Other conductors have also done well; an early-'60s version by von Karajan on DG has even more vitality than Klemperer. However, no one else has had Klemperer's soloists, and that is what makes this version literally indispensable for someone attached to this music. Not only do Schwarzkopf and Fisher-Dieskau excel (as you would expect, this being the time their voices were at their best), they literally define the roles. I would be happy with another version where one of the soloists matched one from this German pair; I don't expect to ever hear a version where both are even in the same ballpark.
The orchestra and chorus are unexceptionable, the best I've ever heard. The recording is spacious and appropriately reverential, but is marred by serious breakup on high female voices. As this characteristic exists on both American and French versions, I conclude that the mikes or mike preamps overloaded, which is a great pity. The American pressing on Angel, however, combines this flaw with an all-pervasive muddiness; it should be avoided. Overall, the recording barely skins under my criterion announced in my first paragraph; the performances are so excellent, though, and the piece of music so great, that I must include it.
JUNIOR WELLS: Hoodoo Man Blues
Delmark DS-612 (LP). Stu Black, eng.; Robert G. Koester, prod. AAA. TT: 40:40
I've mentioned this in numerous reviews as a favorite, and it is. There are hundreds of great blues records, and, because most of the companies producing them remain undercapitalized, many are still available on LP (though not on CD), including this one (also available on an ADD Delmark CD, DD-612, with two bonus tracks). But this is something special. I just bought three brand-new copies, again at El Cheapo. I haven't noticed any sonic differences other than a lower level of ticks and pops on the new one, but the album has one amusing change: the original had Buddy Guy listed as "Friendly Chap," presumably to avoid some recording-label conflict, but later albums credit him by his real name.
This album defines funk, great harmonica blowing, and spectacular guitar runs by Guy; it's the essence of what you listen to late at night while sipping on some whiskey. Or grieving. What more can you say about the blues after you hear the line "I hugged my pillow where my baby used to lay," as sung by Junior Wells with the greatest feeling?
The recording is surprisingly open and revealing, though a little raw. I make no apologies, however, for Stu Black, of Sound Studios, who recorded this for Delmark: he lets the music through. The ability of a system to draw you in to this (almost) Chicago nightclub atmosphere is most revealing. Even more revealing: everyone who's heard this album loves it. Blues fans drool. If you can find it, you will too.
MAHLER: Symphony 3
Jascha Horenstein, London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers, Wandsworth School Boys Choir
Unicorn UN2-75004X (2 LPs). Bob Auger, eng.; Harold Lawrence, prod. AAA. TT: 98:17
Here, as a complete nonexpert on Mahler's symphonies, I feel on thin ice, particularly when I witness the kind of expertise that goes into our "Building a Library" features. I have auditioned only a couple of other Mahler Thirds, and this Horenstein version is far superior, but that hardly makes my range encyclopaedic. Nevertheless, as I read our reviews I see that Horenstein is a notable Mahler interpreter, frequently one of the best.
Frankly, I bought this album because of the lovely cover (an area where no one questions the LP's superiority); for a reason I don't understand, I've found this an extraordinarily reliable indicator of great recordings! All the records listed above, for instance, have great covers. Maybe it's just that there are lots of great records, and some have great covers. I also bought this because it's a Unicorn; Unicorn has always made recordings with excellent values, at least back when they were analog. (The few digitals I've tried don't live up to this standard; in truth, I never buy digital LPs---it's the worst of both worlds.)
So, what do you get? An inspired, vigorous, yet ethereal recording, where Horenstein appears to be in some kind of distant, yet direct, communication with Mahler; tremendous sonics, with great brass and drums; impeccable playing; an immense, almost cathedral-like, recorded acoustic, which works particularly well with this music, especially the horn solos; a spiritual, satisfying record. Unfortunately, you'll have a difficult time finding the original Unicorn, which was sparsely distributed when new, and the reissues I've heard are a pale version of the real thing. When it comes out on CD, which it should, I'll report back.(Footnote 2)
THOMAS TALLIS: The Lamentations of Jeremiah
WILLIAM BYRD: Motets
The King's Singers
EMI CSD 3779 (LP). Christopher Parker, eng.; Christopher Bishop, prod. AAA.
This is the only concession in this selection to my (occasional) job as reviewer: I never fail to examine a system's soundstage with this record. It provides a wide panorama of the King's Singers, with great specificity and interesting positioning of various voices---when correctly reproduced. It's an EMI by the two Christophers (Bishop and Parker), and superbly done, with most satisfying a capella male voices.
I also love The Lamentations of Jeremiah (the Byrd motets are interesting, but not my favorites; this is pretty much a one-side record). In spite of its status as a reviewing tool, I find myself playing this record even when I'm not being critical (something I'd never say of Sheffield's Drum Record); its spiritual and hopeful acceptance of sadness is both relaxing and enlightening.
I see that I've run out of numbers. Just two brief notes: Rossini Overtures on RCA Living Stereo, with Reiner and the Chicago (LSC-2318) (XIV-1, CD). Never-to-be-equalled performances in an excellent acoustic, though I don't love the sound found on old RCAs as much as some do. Guy Lemcoe found a copy at a garage sale for $1.88, and I saw one at an east-coast audio boutique for $175; Guy's was in better sonic condition, so if you find one in that circumstance, it's definitely worth a try. Also, if you follow others' recommendations in this feature and buy the Philips CD of Misa Criolla, don't cheat yourself out of the definitive performance of this work on the old Philips LP. They're common at garage sales, and make José Carreras, et al, sound like Kiri Te Kanawa singing West Side Story---if you know what I mean!
Footnote 1: "The better the performance, the worse the recording," and vice versa.
Footnote 2: It is out on CD: Unicorn-Kanchana Souvenir Series UKCD-2006/07.---RL
The more I thought about it, the more I felt that Richard Lehnert's instruction, to select just five recordings that represented the best sound and the best performance, was an impossible task. Why, I could easily choose five such recordings in just one recorded music genre, live rock or solo harpsichord, for example. Obviously, a different approach was called for. In true beauty-contest fashion, therefore, I've listed a number of finalists in each of five broad categories, orchestral, chamber/instrumental, vocal/choral, rock, and jazz (for interest's sake I've included the original release date in parentheses), and will announce the winner at the end of each section.
First, classical orchestral music is said by many pundits to be the hardest kind of music for a hi-fi system to resolve/reproduce, which is perhaps why I had the hardest time of all reaching a decision here. I find the excesses of modern engineers and the unnatural perspectives engendered by the thoughtless use of multimiking to be only all too audible with too many records. But there are a few which have survived the test of time to be frequent visitors to my turntable or CD player: Sir Adrian Boult's final recording of Holst's Planets, HMV LP ASD 3649 and CD CDM 7 69045 2 (1979), as well as his album of Elgar works---The Sanguine Fan, Falstaff, and the arrangement of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in c---Mobile Fidelity LP MFSL 200-C1, and EMI CD CDM 7 63133 2 (1974); Jacqueline du Pré's first (1965) recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, EMI LP ASD 2764 (coupled with the Delius concerto) and EMI CD CDC 7 47329 2 (with the Janet Baker recording of Elgar's Sea Pictures); the Sheffield Lab recording of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1986); and Chuck Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra in orchestrations of works by Ravel, Satie, and Fauré, RCA RL 25094 (1978---produced and engineered direct to stereo by Kenneth Wilkinson).
The envelope, please. And the winner is...
STRAVINSKY: The Firebird Suite (1910)
DEBUSSY: L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune
Erich Leinsdorf, Los Angeles Philharmonic
Sheffield Lab LAB-24 (LP), CD-24 (CD). Doug Sax, James Boyk, engs.; Lincoln Mayorga, Doug Sax, prods. A-A/AAD. TT: 39:43
Other recordings may have a more lush string tone, deeper bass, more cavernous acoustics, more "exciting" balances, more vivid imaging. No matter. This simply miked direct-disc recording (a Blumlein pair of Coles/BBC ribbons was used) is simply the most real recorded orchestral sound I have ever experienced. Listen to the clarinet playing with the tune a minute or so into "The Princess's Game"---it is uncannily and exactly how a solo clarinet really sounds positioned in the middle of an orchestra. In fact, all the solo instruments have that sense of verisimilitude, every one in its place, its tonal color true. It is only with the string sound that some listeners may find fault, Sheffield's ex-MGM soundstage Los Angeles studio appearing to have too low a ceiling for the sound to fully bloom. But again, the strings sound real. The CD gets quite close to the LP, particularly in dynamics---the bass drum slaps in the "Infernal Dance" are perhaps the scariest on disc---and as for the performance, it is a little on the polite side, Leinsdorf perhaps forgetting the fact that this is music for the dance, but it is none the less enjoyable for that.
My vocal/choral category overlaps orchestral somewhat, as I have included songs and vocal works with orchestral accompaniment. Again, I want purity of tonal colors and believability of the recorded space to add to what must be definitive performances. Heading off my list of finalists is The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, Fantasy LP F-9489 (1975); followed by the Wilfred Brown performance of Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis, EMI LP HQS 1260 (1964); Rob Wasserman's bass-and-voice Duets album, MCA CD MCACD 42131 (1988) (XII-4); Taj Mahal's Recycling the Blues, Columbia LP 31605 (1975); a Proprius Bach cantata recording released on the English Meridian label, LP E77016 (1979); the Telarc coupling of the Fauré and Duruflé Requiems, Telarc CD-80135 (1987, X-7); and a 1977 collection of unaccompanied English and French partsongs from the vocal group Swingle II. And it is...
SWINGLE II: English and French Songs
by Stanford, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Debussy
RCA RL 25112 (LP only). Steve Taylor, eng.; Ward Swingle, Terry Edwards, prod. AAA. TT: 40:52
...that gets my vote for the best vocal album. Listen to Les Swingles' rendition of Stanford's "The Blue Bird": voices hang in space, intertwining yet remaining separate; the music breathes, lives, punctuated by Catherine Bott's bell-like soprano. I have heard this work "live" a couple of times, yet it has never achieved the evocative fusion between the composer's intentions and the listener's psyche offered by this probably out-of-print, close-miked studio recording. Those who pretend only to listen to "purist"-miked recordings should get this rock recording of classical music to remind them of the absence of accessible absolute standards.
Lumping chamber and instrumental recordings in one category is a writer's trick to get just five overall "winners." And it results in you having to compare apples with kumquats. If I could, therefore, I would nominate every one of the finalists in this category, analog recordings all, for the ultimate accolade. You try to choose from: Arturo Delmoni's solo violin recital, Water Lily LP and CD WLA-WS-07-CD (1989, XII-10); Michael Newman's solo guitar recital, Sheffield Lab LP LAB 10 (1979); David Abel's and Julie Steinberg's Beethoven and Enescu recital, Wilson Audio LP W-8315 (1983); Earl Wild's display of live pianistic virtuosity on The Art of the Transcription, Audiofon LP 2008-2 and CD (1981); James Boyk's premier recording, and I think his best in that it is the most lyrical, of the Beethoven Op.111 piano sonata, Performance Recordings LP PR-1 (1978); the Käbi Laretei Mozart, Chopin, Handel, and Scarlatti piano recital The Film Music of Ingmar Bergman, Proprius LP PROP 7829 (1978); and the only organ recording I have heard that reflects reality in that it is a recording of an acoustic space in which an organ happens to be playing, Ian Tracey plays the Henry Willis III Organ of Liverpool Cathedral, Michael Woodward LP MW931 (1982).
Sorry Richard, I can't choose between them---they all sound about as true to the sound of reality as it is possible to get with current technology!
I am not a big jazz record collector, though I know what I like---Miles Davis. Accordingly, I reached for his Kind of Blue, Columbia LP 62066 (1960), which is the quintessential, perfectly recorded small-group jazz recording. But then shouldn't at least one Andreas Vollenweider recording be included? Caverna Magica from 1983 has the best combination of natural sound quality but an exquisitely produced sense of space. And how about Quincy Jones? Shouldn't some of his immaculately produced, recorded, and played big-band arrangements---the Smackwater Jack album, A&M AMLS 63037 (1971), for example---get a look in? And Weather Report's Heavy Weather, CBS LP 81775 (1977), typifies the best of fusion in that it revivifies jazz's intellectual meat with the power of live electric rock. Ultimately...
ANDREAS VOLLENWEIDER: Caverna Magica
CBS 25265 (LP), MK 37827 (CD). Eric Merz, Roger Bonnot, engs.; Andreas Vollenweider, prod. AAD. TT: 33:20
...gets my nomination by a nose for the sheer elegance of its production values. Some may dismiss the Swiss harpist's musical musings as New Age sewage; others may find the sound too rich, like a piano played with the sustain pedal permanently depressed. But for me, from the opening soundscape as two aural adventurers enter the cave to find dripping water setting up the opening riff, to the album's conclusion as they dive into the pool they find there, I am impressed by the sense of majesty to the soundstage, the music driven along by the restrained, fuzzed purr of the bass strings of Vollenweider's electric harp and accentuated by almost fetishist sonic seasonings. (The height of sensuality, I feel, would be to listen to this album while a musically aware houri brushed your naked arm with a fur glove.) If the "best" music depends on the manner in which the musicians play the spaces between the notes, then Vollenweider's arrangements and performances qualify for that adjective.
Having had an active career in rock music before jumping tracks to become a hi-fi writer, I perhaps have a slightly different perspective from many audiophiles on what makes a rock recording stand out from the crowd. Musically, such recordings must have evidence of the artist having a unique voice---no "me too" music please. Philosophically I have no aversion to signal processing of any kind (though I find sampled and sequenced drums to resemble shaped and textured noise), but I do like unexaggerated vocal textures, with all the dynamics of live rock preserved intact. Personally, my tastes run toward the big sound rather than the intimately balanced---Phil Spector was, not surprisingly, the producer who lured me away from my classical upbringing---which is why, most of all, I want the mind behind a rock record's production to have intelligently, tastefully, and cleverly created a tangible sense of space between, behind, and beyond the loudspeakers, enveloping the listener in sound and feeling.(Footnote 3) Many albums achieve this goal with one or two tracks, but only a few sustain the sense of invention for a whole two sides. After much headscratching, my finalists in this category are: Joan Armatrading's Show Some Emotion, A&M LP AMLH 68433 (1977) and Joan Armatrading, A&M LP AMLH 64588 (1976); the Beach Boys' Surf's Up, Brother Records LP RS 6453 (1971); Clannad's Magical Ring, RCA LP ALP6072 and CD ND71473 (1983); David Crosby's If Only I Could Remember My Name, Atlantic LP SD-7203 (1971); Dire Straits' Love Over Gold, Vertigo UK CD 800 088-2 (1982), and Brothers in Arms, Vertigo UK CD 824 499-2 (1985); Donny Hathaway's Donny Hathaway Live, Atlantic LP K40369 (1971); Pink Floyd's The Wall, EMI Harvest UK LP SHDW 411 (1980), and Wish You Were Here, EMI Harvest UK LP SHVL 814 (1975); and Steely Dan's Aja, MCA LP MCA-1688 and CD MCAD-37214, and Mobile Fidelity LP MFSL 033 (1977) (XII-10), and Gaucho, MCA LP 6102 and CD MCAD-37220 (1980).
And the winner is: None of the above, but...
JIMI HENDRIX: Electric Ladyland
Polydor 2657 012 (UK LP), Reprise 6307-2 (CD). Gary Kellgren, Eddie Kramer, engs.; Jimi Hendrix, prod. AAA. TT: 75:27
What am I thinking of? There was one artist who more than any other defined the tracks down which recorded rock in the '70s and '80s would travel. And with one double album, three sides of which took advantage of multitrack recording in a way no one else had before, changed the world of recorded rock music for all time. No, Virginia, not the Beatles, but a black guitarist/singer/songwriter from Seattle. With his 1968 Electric Ladyland album, 26-year-old James Marshall Hendrix used every aspect of the newly introduced 16-track recorder to create whirling mindscapes of sound that overflowed both the stereo stage and the listener's musical preconceptions.
Though as Chris Welch says in his 1972 biography (Hendrix, Ocean Books), many critics found Electric Ladyland at the time of its release to be "a messy kind of self-indulgence, lacking the compact brilliance and fire of the first two albums," those critics were listening with ears thirsting for anglicized shuffle-rhythm blues riffs. What they heard instead was a mature artist stripping black rock of its white paraphernalia to then synthesize a whole new music tied together with virtuosic handling of a guitar that in the hands of others---the English group The Shadows comes to mind---had come to almost typify white boys' music: a Fender Stratocaster. (Footnote 4) I mean, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, all played the blues on Gibson Les Pauls, and Chuck Berry and B.B. King slim-bodied Gibson 335s and 355s, real men's guitars all of them. Could King's Lucille be a Strat? Not in a 12-million-bar blues---the Stratocaster was more at home in a beach party movie. (Footnote 5)
Yet the black Hendrix made his white Strat masterfully moan---listen to "House Burning Down" on Ladyland, as he uses the guitar's intrinsic low-distortion, heavily strung tone to underpin the tango rhythm while the phased, comb-filtered sound of it overdriving the amplifier soars free. (Only Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler has used the Strat to such goodly diverse effect since then.) And this without the anal sterility that so often typifies '90s multitrack rock, the don't-give-a-damn intros to both "Rainy Day Dream Away" and "Voodoo Chile" casually capturing the innocent power of live rock.
Sonically, the entire album's mix, with its innovative use of panpotting, stereo staging, flanging, phasing, distortion, fuzz and wah-wah pedals, overdubbing, backward tape, reverb, and repeat echo is a primer for the art of imaginative electric guitar recording. And the drum sound, though not particularly spread across the soundstage, is refreshingly natural compared with most modern recorded drums. Check out also the flanged stereo kick drum in "Gypsy Eyes," the trick being that the instrument's inter-channel phasing changes throughout the track, something that I have not heard since. (It must have been a pig to cut on to disc.) There are also some amazing surround-sound effects, the second guitar in "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" floating well to the right of my right speaker, even venturing forward to the listening position at times. Overall, the sound does show its age a little, primarily through the master tape squashing somewhat at climaxes and lacking the ultimate extension at the frequency extremes. But so what? There is an integrity to the sound that allows the music to leap at you from your speakers. The recorded soundstage, however, is split between sides one, three and four and two, much of which is primitive. "Long Hot Summer Night" is basically recorded in triple mono rather than stereo: mono drums on the far left, rhythm guitar on the far right, and the voice and bass in the center. Only three sides qualify for my recommendation, therefore. The NoNoise-processed single-CD release seems to have survived both the years and the processing relatively well, offering more highs than my antique, well-played LP (though it has dropped the nudie cover of the original).
Finally, although singles, of course, aren't eligible for inclusion in this listing, I have to mention one that had a formative effect on my evolution as a hi-fi nerd: It was 1969 and I had just set up the first pair of loudspeakers that I had bought rather than built (Wharfedale Super Lintons); I put on a single that someone, I forget who, had recommended. Eyes and ears open, I heard Pete Townshend-type power chords---a slight variation on "I Can't Explain"---a soaring vocal line, woofer-busting bass, all brought to the boil with flanging À l'excess. The group was The Nazz, the song "Open My Eyes," written by the group's lead guitarist, the young Todd Rundgren, who I don't think has recorded anything since to offer the same level of energy. (Footnote 6) In fact, the only recording to equal "Open My Eyes" in this respect was Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way," the 45rpm 12" single of which has probably the most-dynamic-recorded drum sound ever...But as I could fill the rest of this issue with such instances, I'd better stop now before Richard reaches for his red pencil...
Footnote 3: The first album recording I was ever involved in as a session musician was back in 1972 at EMI Abbey Road Studios in London. (Talk about starting at the top.) Our producer was---how to be polite?---pretty uninspired, and the mixdowns were blandly disappointing. One lunchtime, however, this fresh-faced kid, the tape operator assigned to us, asked if he could have a go at a mix one lunchtime. A few times through the 16-track master and the result was overpowering---a big sound, a big space hanging between the Quad-driven JBLs, we could have been a different band entirely! Upon his return from lunch, the regular producer was not impressed, took back the board, and our blandified album disappeared without trace. That junior tape op, however, became recognized as one of the most talented producers to emerge from the '70s. His name was Alan Parsons.
Footnote 4: Only the Fender Jaguar, the Ventures' Mosrites, and Stephen Stills's and Neil Young's Gretsch White Falcons could be more white.
Footnote 5: Yes, I know that 20 years later Robert Cray plays and Stevie Ray Vaughan played a Stratocaster. Perhaps this wouldn't have been so without the influence of JH.
Footnote 6: Only now available on the Rhino release of the first Nazz album (RNLP 109), which unfortunately emasculates the single's power.