1999 Records To Die For Page 2
BRAHMS: Double Concerto
BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto
Pinchas Zukerman, violin; Ralph Kirshbaum, cello; John Browning, piano; Christoph Eschenbach, London Symphony Orchestra
RCA 68964-2 (CD). 1998. Philip Traugott, prod.; Simon Rhodes, eng. DDD. TT: 70:54
May I recommend half a disc? The Double Concerto, Brahms' last orchestral work, will never match the appeal of the composer's earlier works because it is too tinged with melancholy and relies more on reflection than on virtuosity. It is, nonetheless, a work of penetrating beauty realized through Brahms' craftsmanship. My benchmark has long been the Oistrakh/Rostropovich recording, conducted by Szell, but this surpasses it, both in the serenity of the slow movement and the spirit of the finale. The other half disc is equally fine, but after being blown away by the Brahms, I find Beethoven's Triple Concerto (not his most profound piece) a little lightweight. The recording is warm, with soloists and orchestra in good balance.
BRUCKNER: Mass No.2 in e, Psalm 150, Te Deum
Pamela Coburn, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, alto; Christian Elsner, tenor; Franz-Josef Selig, bass; Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Helmuth Rilling, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart.
Hänssler CD 98.119 (CD). 1997. Richard Hauck, prod.; Teije van Geest, eng. DDD. TT: 76:44
You can't buy a book (or CD) by the cover. Who would expect a conductor like Rilling, with an orchestra called the Bach-Collegium, to do great Bruckner? But here it is: loud, spacious, and sonically luxuriant. If you like choral-orchestral music and demo discs for your rig, you can't do better than the Te Deum---unless it's Psalm 150, in which the sopranos are asked to sing inhumanly high. But this disc is more than just raw thrills---the blend and intonation in the divisi sections of the Mass are superb, as is the fugue in the Psalm. And this is one of "those" recordings: as it goes along, I'm always nudging the volume up.
JACQUELINE DU PRÉ: Favorite Cello Concertos
Boccherini: Cello Concerto in B-flat, G.482. Dvorák: Cello Concerto. Elgar: Cello Concerto. Haydn: Cello Concertos 1, 2. Monn: Cello Concerto. Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto 1. Schumann: Cello Concerto.
Jacqueline du Pré, cello; Daniel Barenboim, English Chamber Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Jacqueline du Pré, cello; Sir John Barbirolli, London Symphony Orchestra
EMI CMS 7 63283 2 (3 CDs). 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971; compilation, 1989. Peter Andry, Suvi Raj Grubb, Robert K. Anderson, prods.; Allen Stagg, Christopher Parker, Carson Taylor, engs. ADD. TT: 3:41:43
We may be deprived by Jacqueline du Pré's early death, at the age of 42, from multiple sclerosis, but we have a rich record of the passion she put into making music. I happened across this compilation recently at the newly opened Borders store in Santa Fe, and couldn't resist.
My favorites are the Dvorák and Elgar, but the Haydn concertos were lovely, with superb orchestral sound; the Schumann, Saint-Saëns, and Monn were the least inspiring, with the Monn the surprising favorite. Like their collaboration on the Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano (also on EMI), there's an astounding fire between du Pré and Barenboim in the pieces that he conducted. They didn't know that MS would break up their musical and marital partnership, but they play and conduct as if they had just a few moments in which to create music.
The varied times, places, orchestras, conductors, composers, producers, and engineers of these recordings prohibit detailed discussion of each piece---just buy and sample. You can't help but be enthralled. The performances tend obviously toward the romantic. Orchestral balances are excellent, but not especially realistic---du Pré's cello is always spotlighted at unrealistic levels with relation to the orchestra, but that's pretty much par for the course with cello concertos. Given that spotlight, the playing is superb---energetic, vibrant, and lyrically aggressive.
Yo-Yo Ma now plays the same Stradivari cello used in these recordings; you can actually recognize its sound if you hear it live or on his recordings. I once spoke with the assistant conductor of the Phoenix Philharmonic, who got to play that cello when Ma was visiting for a concert. He said that the instrument just sprang to life at the merest touch of the bow.
GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess
Ray Charles, vocals, piano; Cleo Laine, vocals; Ray Parker, electric guitar; Scotty Edwards, Fender bass; Jimmy Smith, drums; orchestra arranged & conducted by Frank De Vol
Ray Charles Enterprises/Rhino/Classic JP1831 (2 LPs). 1976/1998. Norman Granz, prod.; Grover Helsley, eng. AAA. TT: 82:33
Last week I asked Robert Baird whether this release was being reviewed---and, if not, why not? Familiar as all of us are with Porgy and Bess, I feel incompetent to write a complete review myself. What of all the alternate versions---like the one Norman Granz recorded with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald 20 years before this one? What of the Billie Holiday version?
Happily, you don't need to be an expert to appreciate the music-making here. The arrangements fit the voices of Charles and Laine, with Laine an unexpectedly happy surprise, with great range. Ray Charles is simply Ray Charles, with all the relaxed perfectionism he always delivers. Each of the best-known songs is presented first as an instrumental featuring brilliant piano work from Charles, and then in a vocal arrangement. I didn't love every change to the familiar Gershwin tunes, but the ones that succeed do so to a fabulous degree.
The production and sound quality are superb---this release delivers the virtues of LP in a BIG way! Surfaces are dead-quiet, dynamics are amazing, images are spookily convincing, and the voices are right there in the room with you. Excellent!
VICTOR WOOTEN: A Show of Hands
Compass 1196 (CD). 1996. Victor Lemonte Wooten, prod. Mark Mandelbaum, Kurt Storey, engs AAD? TT:44:00.
I've learned a lot about family this year, but Victor Wooten was way ahead of me. "I learned everything in life from my family," he declares. And this, his first solo album, is sprinkled with the voices of his family and friends. The voices of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Wooten mom are heard on "Words of Wisdom."
But my favorite track has to be "More Love." It just gives you love---big old bass-guitar-type love. The timeless echo of the little girls' voices as they share what they're going to be when they grow up. Yeah. Ya just gotta sing along---especially since the words aren't real hard to learn. And the disc is well recorded. The bass guitar sounds as real as when I caught Wooten performing as a Flecktone with Béla Fleck on the Santa Monica pier one hot summer night. The harmonics and distinctness of each of the voices has been captured.
A Show of Hands is Wooten's vehicle to share with us his electric bass guitar, and the embodiment one of his philosophies: "You got to dance like nobody's watching, and love like it's never going to hurt."
SIMON & GARFUNKEL: Bookends
Mobile Fidelity UDCD 732 (CD). 1968/1998. Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, prods.; Roy Halee, prod., eng. AAD? TT: 43:00
I hadn't really listened to Bookends since my student days at Columbia University: the last of the demonstrators chanting at the gate, the final draft numbers drawn, our older brothers coming home---some of them, at least. Still, "America" has been my anthem for 20 years as I've traveled through the airports and train stations of America. "Old Friends" has been my comfort while opening letters from those I've shared years of my life with, but who now live in other time zones.
And every time I'm tempted by a new opportunity, I ask if it's a good thing or merely "plastics"---the soulless opportunity offered Dustin Hoffmann in "Mrs. Robinson." And I reach for Myles' hand to reaffirm my belief in the power of true love, and long for heroes like Joe DiMaggio. In a time when we desperately need gentleness of spirit, Bookends makes you want to do better. It moves and inspires. What more could you ask of a disc?
Why, good sound, of course! There are some trade-offs when compared to the original LP, a loss of some harmonics and precision---the gentle blending of Garfunkel's harmonies with the thin storyteller voice of Simon. But the CD's midrange is fuller, and the voices have been brought forward. The beat of the cymbals and maracas on "Mrs. Robinson" are distinct. And this was accomplished without sacrificing the booming bass on cuts such as "Save the Life of My Child."