1992 Records To Die For Page 9
CHOPIN: 4 Ballades, 4 Scherzi
Earl Wild, piano
Chesky CD 44 (CD only). Ed Thompson, eng.; Michael Rolland Davis, prod. DDD. TT: 69:19
As a Chopin interpreter, Earl Wild has only one peer that I know of, and that is the late, magnificent Josef Hofmann. If I went on for another thousand words, I could not devise higher praise than that. It seems almost incredible that we could have a pianist of this stature and tradition captured in the finest recorded sound I have ever heard. The task of choosing recordings that meet the highest standards of both performance and recording is made ridiculously simple by this disc.
SCHUBERT: String Quartet 14 in d, "Death and the Maiden"
Hungarian String Quartet
Turnabout TV-S 34472 (LP only). No engineer or producer credited. AAA. TT: 37:22
The art of interpretation is raised to such a high level here by the Hungarian String Quartet that it hardly seems to exist at all. There is just the music, pure, direct, and totally unselfconscious. The ensemble playing is telepathically perfect, the overall musicianship flawless and, to all appearances, effortless. This music simply rises causa sui before you. The sound is that of a hall slightly favoring dark sonorities, but is clean, clear, and complements the music.
DIXIE DREGS: What If
Capricorn CPN-0203 (LP), Polydor 831 836-2 (CD). Ken Scott, eng., prod. AAA/AAD. TT: 40:05
What If remains my favorite record from the obscure, now disbanded Dixie Dregs. This enormously talented band's second album lacks the relatively slick production and better sonics of their later efforts, but its innovative compositions and inspired playing make it their most enduring.
From the opening cut, "Take It Off the Top," there's no doubt about the Dregs' musical roots, compositional brilliance, and technical virtuosity. What follows is an astonishingly diverse amalgam of influences that forges through new musical territory. The addition of strings (Allen Sloan on violin and viola) to standard rock instrumentation---guitar, keyboards, bass, drums---provides a much wider range of expression for guitarist Steve Morse's adventurous compositions. Morse's own playing reflects stunning technique at the service of expression; listen to the contrast between his guitar's evocative wail in the title track and the driving---almost frenzied---solo in the masterpiece "Odyssey."
As great a record as What If is, I had to include it in this list if only for the record's last track, "Night Meets Light." One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, "Night Meets Light" evokes a strange and ineffable mixture of feelings at a depth untouched by any other musical experience.
By the way, the sound is not Audiophile Approved, but conveys the music's values. The drums are big, punchy, and vital, contributing to the record's sense of raw energy. Steve Morse always manages to get just the right amount of edge on his guitar, and Andy West's fretless bass is mixed in perfectly.
I know what you're thinking: a band called "The Dixie Dregs"? "One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written"? I long ago---at age 14---gave up caring that my unusual musical tastes are ridiculed---especially by those who have never even bothered to listen to the object of their scorn. Dismiss the Dixie Dregs and What If to your musical detriment.
RETURN TO FOREVER: Light as a Feather
Polydor 827 148-2 (CD). Hugh Jones, Richard Manwaring, engs; Chick Corea, prod. AAD. TT: 43:08
This record, from an early incarnation (1972) of Return to Forever, is a showcase for the talents of keyboardist Chick Corea, flute and sax man Joe Farrell, vocalist Flora Purim, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Airto Moreira. More important, Light as a Feather is a classic example of musical synergy, the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts. The affinity between these musicians transcends the mere playing of parts; they are clearly making music together. This spontaneous interaction infuses Light as a Feather with much freshness and vitality.
Much of this dynamic interplay is driven by Chick Corea's electric piano comping. Rather than laying back during the other musicians' solos, Corea takes an unprecedented step forward to become a much more active participant. His contribution spurs on the soloists---especially Joe Farrell---to new levels of intensity. Their interactions during Farrell's extended solos on "500 Miles High" and the title track reveal uncanny sensitivity to each other's ever-changing musical directions. Bassist Clarke and drummer Airto are similarly attuned, providing the tonal and rhythmic foundations for the solo excursions. Clarke never fails to surprise and delight with his technical skill and innovative melodic adventurousness.
Considering that Light as a Feather is nearly 20 years old, the sound is superb, if a little tizzy and forward in the treble. It has an excellent sense of space and depth---listen to the halo of air around Farrell's sax in the title track---and contains layers of fine detail, especially in the percussion.
Light as a Feather sounds as original and special as the first time I heard it 12 years ago. I suspect I will listen to it with just as much enthusiasm in another 12 years.
J.S. BACH: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould, piano
CBS Masterworks IM 37779 (LP), MK 37779 (CD). Stan Tonkel, John Johnson, Ray Moore, Martin Greenblatt, engs.; Glenn Gould, Samuel H. Carter, prods. DDD. TT: 51:52
Bach's 1742 collation of "keyboard exercises" have great power; Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist, produced two studio recordings of the work. The 1955 recording, released when Gould was only 23, was sensational, technically brilliant, a kaleidoscope of tonal color, energy, and driving rhythms. Gould's virtuosity was dazzling, and made it possible to ignore his humming, which would have otherwise distracted. Gould continues to hum on this version, made 27 years later, just before he was 50. It is a slower, far more introspective, sensitive, and probing version. His exquisite sense of rhythm and utter precision define each phrase of the music with stunning clarity. Gould's playing recreates Bach's pure, idealized musical forms. The LP is far more involving than the CD, best conveying the richness of Gould's pedal effects, the resonance of the bass, and the silvery tonality of the piano's treble notes. The LP's dynamic range also excels. Listen for the startling and explosive opening of the third variation. This essential recording is the best example of the intimacy, sheer beauty, and emotional power of Bach's keyboard music when recorded by a superb artist in a studio.
RICHARD THOMPSON: Rumor and Sigh
Capitol CDP 95713-2 (CD only). Dave Leonard, Lance Phillips, Tchad Blake, engs.; Mitchell Froom, prod. ADD. TT: 61:25
This album, tops in performance and sonics, stands as the most involving and best recorded popular album I've heard in a long time. I can point to it and say, "This CD is as good a sonic source as any LP I own." I can also say, "This is my favorite popular songwriter/guitarist performance; you must hear it." Allen St. John's interview and review (Vol.14 No.10) cover artist and album in detail for those who want to learn more. Unlike most other popular albums, including Thompson's earlier masterpiece, Shoot Out the Lights, I've taken a long time to listen to and learn about the 14 cuts on Rumor and Sigh. For now, I recommend "I Misunderstood," which deftly catches the uneasy, sinking feeling you have when you want to believe someone you also know is being manipulative. Thompson's voice is superb, his irony light but sharp, and the kickdrum and guitar here have the impact of ground zero. My other favorite is "Why Must I Plead," which weaves textures from Thompson's guitar and mandolin, plus a variety of percussion instruments. If your system is working well, you'll hear the silvery shimmering harmonics on the cymbals, and notice that the soundstage widens at the very end of the song. But it doesn't matter what the depth, soundstage width, or imaging quotient are---the song grabs you and steals you away. Allen St. John loved "1932 Vincent Black Lightning," and I'm slowly finding it mysterious and wonderful too. That leaves at least 11 other studio performances on this album to get to know in the future, and makes Rumor and Sigh a very special CD indeed. (XIV-10)