1997 Records To Die For Page 7

Robert Harley

MOZART: Piano Concertos 21 & 24, K.467 & K.491
Eugene Istomin, piano; Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Reference Recordings RR-68CD (CD only). 1996. Adam Stern, J. Tamblyn Henderson Jr., prods; Keith O. Johnson, eng. DDD.TT: 59:34

This is one of those rare recordings of the highest musical and sonic integrity. Pianist Istomin's bold interpretation of these two colossal works infuses the music with a wonderful expressive quality. The Seattle Symphony is also in top form, developing a rapport with Istomin that brings life and vibrancy to the pieces.

If there's one recording that demonstrates the awesome sonic quality of the High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD) process, this is it. When played back through an HDCD-equipped CD player or processor, the piano is focused, in perfect proportion, and completely free from glassy edge. The strings and woodwinds have a reality of timbre that I didn't think possible from the CD format. In fact, this is the finest orchestral recording I've ever heard. What a treat that music of this quality has been given such a transparent sonic canvas on which to express itself. (XIX-5)


RONNIE EARL: Eye to Eye
Ronnie Earl, guitar; Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, piano; Calvin "Fuzz" Jones, bass; Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, drums; Bruce Katz, Hammond B3 organ.
AudioQuest Music AQ-CD1043 (CD only). 1996. Joe Harley, Ronnie Earl, prods; Michael C. Ross, eng. AAD. TT: 68:26

A true craftsman at work exudes an unhurried ease, understated confidence, and a relaxed---yet totally focused---air. With no need for braggadocio or flourishes, the master craftsman simply gets down to business. Getting down to the business of the blues is exactly what guitarist Ronnie Earl's Eye to Eye is all about. Although billed as a Ronnie Earl release, Eye to Eye belongs as much to blues legends Pinetop Perkins, Calvin Jones, and Willie Smith, who comprised Muddy Waters' rhythm section from 1974 to 1980 (and played individually with Waters on and off since the '50s).

Listening to Eye to Eye is like watching master craftsmen at work. The music has a relaxed, almost loping ease that makes it seem to hang behind the beat. The players have a total mastery of their art, both individually in solos and the way they lock together rhythmically. Earl's spare and expressive style fits the mood perfectly. Although getting on in years (Pinetop is 84), these musicians are as sharp as tacks. Listen, for example, to Smith's crisp fills on the driving Willie Dixon tune "Shake for Me." Eye to Eye's sound quality is an audiophile's dream---clean, dynamic, and free from glare. Ronnie Earl's fabulous guitar sound is particularly well-served, with a sense of ambient air around his amplifier. Best of all, the sound gets out of the music's way, leaving you to revel in this modern blues gem.

Robert Hesson


RAMIREZ: Misa Criolla
José Carreras, tenor; Coral Salve de Laredo; Sociedad Coral de Bilbao, Jose Luis Ocejo
Philips 420 955-2 (CD only). 1988. Job Maarse, prod.; John Newton, eng. DDD. TT: 43:34

After six years of seeking recordings that mate the ultimate in sound quality with the ultimate in performance, the pickin's are gettin' slim---there just aren't that many ultimates out there. But this vixen of a recording is tie-me-to-the-mast seductive, and needs no apologies for having been around the audiophile block before I finally selected it for R2D4. The music is ecumenically sultry, if you'll pardon the contradiction, and the performance is impassioned. As for the sound, an immense soundstage and startlingly natural timbres are an audiophile's virtual reality. (XIV-1)
PROCOL HARUM: A Salty Dog
A&M SP4179 (LP). 1969. Matthew Fisher, prod.; Ken Scott, Ian Stuart, engs. AAA. TT: 39:55

I don't listen to much popular music, but this bit of nostalgia has a lot more than memories of younger days going for it. A warmly recorded "concept" album about seafaring, A Salty Dog is one of the greatest rock recordings ever. The music is crusty with sea salt, thanks to tone colors like the marimba and bosun's whistle, and to Keith Reid's alternately hackneyed and ephemeral lyrics. It's got symphonic rock without pretentiousness, and it's got hard-driving blues. Most of all, it's got a hold on the human heart: "In starting out, I thought to go exploring / And set my foot upon the nearest road. / In vain I looked to find the promised journey / But only saw how far I was from home."

J. Gordon Holt

STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring, Les Noces
Eric Kujawsky, Redwood Symphony, Oakland Symphony Chorus
Clarity CCD-1005 (CD only). 1993. Ed Woods, prod.; Bob Porter, eng. DDD. TT: 59:45

This ugly, barbaric, atavistic Rite has the dubious distinction of being the loudest in the ballet repertoire. It also has the ability to arouse the most primitive emotions underlying our veneer of genteel civilization. Few listeners, hearing it at home, can refrain from pacing back and forth and furiously beating time like madmen, driven by a savage urge to do something really violent as long as nothing gets broken. That's how it should be, but it's not the way it usually is.

Hobbled for 40 years by a cultural climate that demanded that a performance illuminate the music's structure rather than its emotional content, the work has not been properly recorded since Muti and the Philadelphians' electrifying reading on EMI---and even that was hampered by a mediocre recording with restricted dynamic range.

Now there's one that does Rite full justice. Don't be put off by the unfamiliar performers; what matters is how familiar they are with the music, and they know it inside out. This is a stunning Rite, and the recording will blow your socks off. The average volume is low to make room for the loud parts, so don't crank it up until you know how loud it's gonna get. The bass drum could trash your woofers!

Les Noces, a little gem for four pianos, percussion, and chorus, is equally well performed and recorded, and a perfect way to unwind after the Rite's emotional battering. (XIX-2)


HEROLD/LANCHBERY: La Fille Mal Gardee
John Lanchbery, Covent Garden Orchestra
London/Classic CSCD-6252 (CD only). 1996. AAD. TT: 50:47

A long-time collector's LP because of its melodic score, delightful performance, and outstanding sound, this is a welcome addition to Classic Records' CD catalog.

La Fille Mal Gardee is a frothy little ballet about what happens when widowed farm-owner mama, who has arranged to marry her daughter to the son of a wealthy vineyard owner, fails to keep her foxy daughter under lock and key. Badly guarded, she falls in love with a common farmer. It all ends well, but of course!

The CD sounds very much like the LP, except that it's quieter, cleaner, has deeper and more solid bass, and more dynamic range. And with all that sand who would take an LP to a desert island? (XV-2)

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