1995 Records To Die For Page 15
BEETHOVEN: Symphony 9
Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, James King, Martti Talvela, Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
London OSA 1159 (LP only). AAA. TT: 77:55
Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield, John Shirley-Quirk, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Colin Davis
Philips 420 865 (2 CDs only). ADD. TT: 2:23:45
HAYDN: Symphonies 93-104
Eugen Jochum, London Philharmonic Orchestra
DG 437 201-2 (4 CDs only). Gunther Breest, prod.; Klaus Scheibe, eng. ADD. TT: 5:06:19
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony 4
Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
DG 2563 368 (LP only). AAA. TT: 41:24
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony 5, Serenade to Music
Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Angel S-36698 (LP only). AAA. TT: 50:59
How to begin choosing even five "Records To Die For" from some 20-odd years of listening? For this first time around, I've settled on those items which have, over the years, most consistently nourished my psyche.
Schmidt-Isserstedt's Beethoven Ninth is a solid, uneccentric conception, handsomely played by the VPO and richly recorded by the London engineers (a volume boost helps with those long LP sides). It's not a performance of extremes---you won't hear Toscanini's or Szell's single-minded intensity, or Furtwängler's metaphysical grandeur. But look at that lineup of soloists---how often do you hear this music sung so well, with such tonally refulgent and well-matched voices? (Even the usually buried alto part, as sung by Horne, becomes a positive contribution.) Vocally, this will be remembered as a "Golden Age" Ninth.
It was Colin Davis who, performing Handel's original orchestration with a chamber-sized orchestra and chorus, changed the way we listen to Messiah forever. His brisk tempos, lilting, bouncy rhythms, and chamber-music clarity remove the music from the "Crystal Palace" oratorio tradition once and for all. The Christmas choruses are festive and exultant, while the choruses of Part Two are properly devotional. The soloists are committed and vital (Harper's "I know that my Redeemer liveth" remains unmatched even now); and while we've heard more elaborate ornaments elsewhere, they've never felt so supremely right as these choices. The CD adds a welcome edge to the originally rather muted sound.
The comfortable image of "Papa" Haydn gets a swift dose of tonic in Eugen Jochum's survey of the "London" symphonies---exhilirating big-orchestra readings capped by rollicking, bracingly fast Finales. The LPO provides sprightly rhythms, spanking articulations, and clear textures which permit vivid woodwind colors to shine through. The sound is bright and airily transparent.
Yevgeny Mravinsky's readings of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies have well-deserved reputations as classics. For me, 4 is the jewel of the set: refreshingly direct, it stresses the impassioned, "Russian" side of Tchaikovsky's compositional palette. The first movement has a vital surge and sweep; the unsentimental slow movement features a plangent solo oboe; the Scherzo is crisp and clear; and the Finale is stunning, its propulsion and icy brilliance unlike any other I've heard.
The Vaughan Williams disc technically doesn't belong in this august company: a touch of distortion mars the horns in the symphony, though Boult finds a distinctive Nordic drama in the music akin to middle-period Sibelius. But the Serenade! A Shakespeare setting (from The Merchant of Venice) for 16 solo singers and orchestra, it has in Boult's performance an effortless serenity in the outer sections and a sparkling drama in the contrasting episodes, and the soloists seem ideally matched to their respective assignments. If you don't know the Serenade, this is the performance by which to discover it; and if you don't think it's the most sheerly beautiful piece of music ever conceived, you're an old curmudgeon.
JETHRO TULL: Aqualung
Chrysalis F21Z-21044 (CD). John Burns, eng.; David Palmer, orchestral arranger/conductor; Ian Anderson, Terry Ellis, prods. AAD. TT: 42:10
I'm a big fan of hard rock---Rush, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, Soundgarden---and Jethro Tull ranks up there with the best of 'em. I know, I know---I wasn't even born when this album came out. Doesn't matter. I've discovered this album---25 years late.
The first time I listened through it (I've only heard the LP), I was entranced. With each song, I only just begin to settle into a groove when the music knocks me into another, sending chills through my entire body. The music of these talented musicians is complicated and captivating. I know this is old news, but rock flute? Ingenious! Compelling! The sound here probably isn't as clean or dynamic as it is on CD (I'm used to listening to digital). Nevertheless, it's impressively smooth and liquid, and I can hear all the instruments and all the layers in the music.
BAD RELIGION: Generator
Epitaph E-86416 (CD). Eddie Schreyer, mastering; The Legendary Starbolt, Donnell Cameron, Joe Peccerillo, engs. ADD?
Vocalist Greg Graffin is one of the most intelligent lyricists---ever. Who else but a UCLA professor could write multi-syllabic lyrics for a punk song? "Transfixated on the big blue screen / it's your window to the outside / a melancholy dream / a medium upon which you build reality / This episodic currency / that everybody needs" ("Only Entertainment"). Bad Religion's social commentary is provocative, thoughtful, downright disturbing---all tightly combined with enticing harmonies, catchy guitar licks, and driving rhythms. Whenever I listen to any of Bad Religion's albums, I find myself sitting on the edge of my chair, dictionary in hand, one ear leaning toward the speakers, trying to soak up every last drop of Graffin's insight and wisdom.
IRIS DeMENT: My Life
Warner Bros. 45493-2 (CD). Jim Rooney, prod.; Rich Adler, mix., eng. ADD? TT: 42:38
This melancholy follow-up to Infamous Angel, DeMent's wonderful debut album, is a serious undertaking for both performer and listener. The accompanying booklet contains a poignant story about DeMent's father, to whom she dedicates these songs of remembrance, resignation, forgiveness, hope, love, and salvation. DeMent's plaintive voice rings with conviction and truth. Her artlessness stands in stark contrast against the ocean of "product" pouring out of Nashville year after year. Clean, simple recordings of spare arrangements let the music shine. In the music business, real emotional honesty is a rare treasure; My Life is a treasure-chest full. (XVII-11)
BIG DADDY: Cutting Their Own Groove
Rhino R2 70733 (CD). Big Daddy, Harold Bronson, Richard Foos, prods.; Bob Wayne, Damon DeGrignon, Jimmy Street, engs. AAD. TT: 46:42
Musical humor, anyone? Big Daddy skewers 15 pop hits in this collection, which opens with a fully landscaped doo-wop treatment of Whitney Houston's execrable "Greatest Love of All." (Thank you!) Try Paul Simon's "Graceland" as Elvis himself might have sung it, or Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" as a Chuck Berry hit. Such clever lads: Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" becomes a calypso classic, and Springsteen's "Born to Run" weds Rick Nelson's "Traveling Man." Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" in the style of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" alone is worth the price of admission. Big Daddy = Big Fun.