1993 Records To Die For Page 2
ROSTROPOVICH: Return to Russia
Tchaikovsky: Symphony 6. J. Strauss: Vergnügungszug Polka. Grieg: Aase's Death from Peer Gynt. Paganini: Moto perpetuo. Prokofiev: Tybalt's Death from Romeo and Juliet. Gershwin: Walking the Dog from Shall We Dance. Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever
Mstislav Rostropovich, National Symphony
Sony SK 45836 (CD only). Stephan Schellmann, prod.; Andreas Neubronner, eng. DDD. TT: 71:31
Lew Lipnick mentioned Rostropovitch's Return to Russia (Sony SK 45836) in a recent review. This very live recording was done in the Main Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow, with LL's own National Symphony. Hearing this performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6 convinced me that I'd never heard this potboiler before. It is an absolutely electrifying performance! Rostropovitch manages a level of tension rare in any recording, much less in a piece I felt I'd heard all too many times before. The six shorter pieces that follow average only four minutes apiece; the audience is so clearly in love with everything Slava and the NSO are doing that it feels like they'll go on doing these encores until the next morning.
The recorded sound is beyond spectacular: it's cataclysmic. Heard on the B&W 800 loudspeakers, this disc sounded almost like a real symphony orchestra in my living room. I've never come close to that experience before; I can't imagine a classical-music enthusiast not being bowled over by this disc. Be forewarned, though: the sonics of this disc will try all but the most dynamic systems. The excitement of the performance comes through regardless of the system.
MAHLER: Symphony 2 ("Resurrection")
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic; Jennie Tourel, mezzo; Lee Venora, soprano; Collegiate Chorale, Abraham Kaplan, dir.
Columbia M2S 695 (2 LPs). John McClure, prod. AAA. TT: 84:45
I'm told that this early-'60s performance will be part of Sony's Royal Edition (previewed by Richard Schneider in Vol.15 No.11), and will be available in the early part of 1993. I'm far from an expert on Mahler, but this performance makes the other Seconds I've heard sound like mush. Bernstein extracts a miraculous level of tension, power, and dynamism from the NYP. And the notorious Columbia sound? Well, there's a bit of brightness, but it won't drive you out of the room unless your system already tends that way. And if you find yourself paying attention to the sound with this level of music-making---well, you should visit your audiophile chiropractor for an attitude adjustment. The recording is good enough to stay out of the way of a great performance, at least on LP, and I've heard they're doing some equalization with the re-releases, so it might be even better on CD.
HONKERS & BAR WALKERS, Vol.1
Featuring: Paul Bascomb, Teddy Brannon, Jimmy Coe, Cozy Eggleston, Jimmy Forrest, Fred Jackson, Fats Noel, Doc Sausage, Tab Smith, Chris Woods
Delmark DD-438 (CD). Robert G. Koester, prod.; Bill Putnam, eng. AAD. TT: 61:33
Available from Delmark, 4121 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618.
Honkers & Bar Walkers, Vol.1, my second recommendation (the Mahler doesn't count since you can't actually buy it yet), is from Delmark, my favorite Chicago record company. "Honkers" refers to a specific style of playing tenor sax, and "bar walkers" are guys so taken by their sax playing that they have to get up on the bar and parade up and down while blowing their max. The recordings were made between 1949 and 1953 (does that make them mono?---surely not, or the jacket would have said so!), and the sound is phenomenally good. These tunes have a level of energy and fidelity to the output of well-played sax which is most rare. Great record company, great record. Also available on an as-yet-unauditioned LP. (There's a Vol.2 as well, which, unlike most Delmark releases, isn't available on LP.)
RY COODER: Jazz
Ry Cooder, guitars, mandolin, tiple, harp, vocals; David Lindley, mandolin, mandobanjo; Mario Guarneri, Oscar Brashear, cornet; Pat Rizzo, Harvey Pittel, alto sax, clarinet; Willie Schwartz, clarinet; Bill Hood, bass sax; David Sherr, bass clarinet, clarinet; George Bohanon, baritone horn, trombone; Randy Aldcroft, trombone; Red Callendar, tuba; Earl Hines, John Rodby, piano; Barbara Starkey, pump organ; Stuart Brotman, cymbalum; Tom Collier, marimba, vibes; Chuck Domanico, Tom Pedrini, Chuck Berghoffer, bass; Mark Stevens, drums, percussion; Jimmy Adams, Bill Johnson, Simon Pico Payne, Cliff Givens, vocal quartet; Joseph Byrd, music arranger, conductor; Bill Johnson, vocal quartet arranger
Warner Bros. BSK-3197 (LP), K56488 (UK LP). Ry Cooder, Joseph Byrd, prods.; Lee Herschberg, Douglas Decker, engs. AAA. TT: 38:20
While racking my brain to choose just two recordings to mention in this year's R2D4 feature, RL lent me a splendid CD of some classic Jelly Roll Morton 78 transfers dating from 1926-1930 (Bluebird 66103-2). Which reminded me that when I nominated Ry Cooder's Chicken Skin Music for last year's list, I had almost chosen Cooder's 1978 Jazz instead.
For "Jelly Roll on Ry," Cooder went into the backwaters of early 20th-century American popular music and shone his lamp, without a trace of self-consciousness, on some almost forgotten masterpieces. He plays this music with affection and respect; a gentle pastiche almost surpassing the originals. Three salon-type pieces by the jazz cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, "In a Mist," "Flashes," and "Davenport Blues," conjure up Whiteman/Walton '20s decadence; a medley of two Jelly Roll numbers, "The Pearls" and "Tia Juana," is given a multi-tracked Caribbean string-band treatment; while the occasional gospel flavor apparent on earlier Cooder albums raises its head on some odd, syncopated hymn arrangements by Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence that combine tuba bass line, Hungarian cymbalum (hammered dulcimer), harmonium, and a slide guitar lead. The habañera beat of the archetypical, pre-Morton-generation slow drag "The Dream," is intense in the way it is held back, with shades of Scott Joplin's instruction to performers of his rags: "This music must not be played too fast." Probably most universally satisfying, though, are the vocal outings: the Sally Army-style "Big Bad Bill," the swinging minstrel song "Shine," and the 1905 Bert Williams monologue "Nobody," all recorded with a refreshing lack of technical hype, and each with its verse. The latter, plus the fact that it's sung by an Anglo, makes the politically incorrect "Shine" peculiarly appropriate.
Throughout Ry Cooder's work, there have been three constants---his voice (or rasping lack of), his driving, almost pianistic guitar picking and block chording, but perhaps most importantly, the sparseness of the arrangements, no instrument or break being included which doesn't contribute to the overall concept. His rhythm sections are pared down to a harmonic minimum, just enough push to keep everything moving. This discipline is carried on in Jazz. The players, including on piano the venerable Earl Hines---a contemporary of both Beiderbecke and Morton---sound as though they are playing from a classical score. That's not meant to imply that the music is cold and emotionless, just that Cooder realizes the extent to which ego has to be suppressed in order to let the music speak. An album which will hit you intensely, with a sound quality to match. (I haven't heard the CD; to be honest, I feel no need to do so. Does that mean I am a real audiophile?)
DICK HYMAN Plays Duke Ellington
Dick Hyman, Bösendorfer 275SE Reproducing Piano
Reference Recordings RR-50DCD (CD). J. Tamblyn Henderson Jr., prod.; Keith O. Johnson, Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer, engs. D. TT: 61:23
I was originally going to include Dean Peer's stunning outing for solo bass guitar, Ucross (Redstone RR91012, CD, XV-11) in my selections until I plopped this gold-plated CD into the transport. Plowing a similar musical furrow to the Cooder above, this is technologically interesting on two counts: it is one of the first CD releases to be recorded with Pacific Microsonics' HDCD process; (footnote1) it is also the second CD to be made with the output of the A/D converter fed directly to the CD mastering machine (footnote2)---hence the "D" SPARS code. More important, Mr. Hyman both strides though these gems of American popular music with a splendid combination of panache and respect, and is the beneficiary of the finest, most natural recorded solo piano sound that I have yet to hear. The image of the instrument is set appropriately back in just the right amount of surrounding ambience, without suffering from "giant piano in the bathroom" syndrome, while tonally, the recording captures the full weight and growl of the instrument's left-hand registers without a trace of boom. According to Robert Harley, who assisted with the CD mastering, Professor Johnson used a crossed, vertically coincident pair of Coles/BBC 4038 ribbon microphones, positioned about 6' back from the treble bulge of the soundboard and about 6-7' up, as his main pickup, supplemented with a pair of X-Y cardioids in front and to the right of the keyboard. These were mixed in at a low level, however, to provide a little more extension at the frequency extremes.
This superb quality was obtained with the High Definition Compatible Digital decoding inoperative, suitable decoders not yet being available at the time of writing. I auditioned the Ellington disc with a conventional D/A processor (a Meitner IDAT), yet the only idiosyncrasy to be laid at the feet of the processing that I could hear was a slow pumping of the noise floor between cuts. Compatible with the CD standard the HDCD process certainly appears to be. It's hard to hear how this recording could sound any better, yet from my experience last Fall of comparing full HDCD playback processing on another of Reference's recent recordings, Testament (RR-49CD), to standard replay, I would expect the recorded acoustic to open up even more, giving an almost painfully real piano image. I wait in eager expectation.
Footnote 1: See Stereophile, Vol.15 No.11, p.40, and Vol.16 No.1, p.7.
Footnote 2: See Stereophile, Vol.16 No.1, January 1993, p.59.
Carl E. Baugher
ORNETTE COLEMAN: Skies of America
Ornette Coleman, alto sax; David Measham, London Symphony
Columbia KC 31562 (LP only). Anthony Clark, Mike FitzHenry, engs.; Paul Myers, prod. AAA. TT: 41:32
This nearly forgotten masterpiece seamlessly blends symphonic composition and saxophone improvisation. With a shifting atonal landscape that is dynamic and ethereal, the orchestra is a backdrop for Coleman's lyrical alto sax obbligatos. The 1972 recording is from Abbey Road and the strings, voiced very high, have a transparent, glassy sheen. As of late 1992, and despite talk at one time of including it in their Legacy series, Columbia had not reissued this brilliant work on CD. Although Coleman is rightly recognized as one of the true geniuses of jazz, his chamber music and orchestral compositions have yet to receive the attention they deserve.
FRANK ZAPPA: Uncle Meat
Bizarre 2MS 2024 (2 LPs), Rykodisc RCD 10064/65 (2 CDs*). Richard Kunc, Jerry Hansen, Mike in Copenhagen, engs.; Frank Zappa, prod. AAA/ADD. TTs: 75:39, 2:00:49*
Zappa's eclectic aesthetic was never more focused or richly realized than on this 1969 double LP. A combination of studio and live tracks, Uncle Meat was the music for a film that finally appeared in the late '80s. Zappa's blend of virtuoso acoustic guitar, tape manipulation, and crazy-quilt instrumental textures is simply dazzling. The CD was digitally remixed in 1987 and includes 45:10 of extra dialogue from the film. The gatefold LP came with a large, colorful booklet and, while the LP sounds somewhat muted compared to the sharper, digital remix, mint original-label LPs fetch a high price these days. (XI-5) Zappa's eclectic aesthetic was never more focused or richly realized than on this 1969 double LP. A combination of studio and live tracks, Uncle Meat was the music for a film that finally appeared in the late '80s. Zappa's blend of virtuoso acoustic guitar, tape manipulation, and crazy-quilt instrumental textures is simply dazzling. The CD was digitally remixed in 1987 and includes 45:10 of extra dialogue from the film. The gatefold LP came with a large, colorful booklet and, while the LP sounds somewhat muted compared to the sharper, digital remix, mint original-label LPs fetch a high price these days. (XI-5)
THE REVOLUTIONARY ENSEMBLE: The People's Republic
Leroy Jenkins, violin; Sirone, bass; Jerome Cooper, drums A&M Horizon SP-708 (LP only). Baker Bigsby, Geoff Sykes, engs.; Ed Michel, prod. AAA. TT: 40:17
This innovative trio recorded this, their only studio album, in 1975; like most Horizon LPs, the sound quality is wonderful. Sirone's bass and Jenkins's violin sound remarkably natural, and Cooper's drums are mixed to perfection. The music is aggressive and extended, and, though distinctly avant-garde, swings its ass off. The absence of a CD reissue makes the LP that much more valuable. Jenkins has gone on to write opera, chamber music, and electric jazz, but The People's Republic was a definite high point.
IANNIS XENAKIS: Kraanerg
Roger Woodward, Alpha Centauri Ensemble
Etcetera KTC 1075 (CD only). Iannis Xenakis, Allan Maclean, Kathy Naunton, engs.; Ralph Lane, prod. ADD/DDD. TT: 70:49
In the aftermath of great social upheavals in Eastern Europe during the late '60s, Xenakis wrote Kraanerg by combining a 1969 tape with notated music for chamber ensemble. Edgard Varèse's D serts was the obvious precursor, but Kraanerg was more intense and cathartic. Almost defying description, this 1988 performance features Xenakis at his most probing, radical, and intellectual. The surprise is how easily he infuses the music with such emotional power. I am always moved in a different way when I experience this piece, and yes, sometimes it can be downright scary. The recording is open, detailed, and realistic.
ALBAN BERG: Wozzeck
Franz Grundheber, Hildegard Behrens, Aage Haugland, Philip Langridge, Walter Raffeiner, Heinz Zednik; Vienna Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado
DG 423 587-2 (2 CDs). Klaus Heimann, eng.; Günther Breest, prod. DDD. TT: 88:49
Berg's Wozzeck is, for me, the greatest opera of the 20th century. No one else has succeeded in writing a dramatic atonal work with such lyricism and warmth. This tale of madness, murder, and betrayal has all the elements of transcendent grand opera, and Berg's score teems with life. A live recording from 1987, this is the definitive reading of the difficult work, with Grundheber's Wozzeck and Behrens's Marie as oddly heroic as they are tragically flawed. The recording's stunning depth brings the music alive. (XII-8)