I have not seen Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and I am not likely to. But the phrase cultural learnings of America is a good jumping-off point for an important topic: cultural literacy.
US composer Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the 20th century. John Atkinson has recorded the male vocal group Cantus's performances of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium (on Comfort and Joy: Volume One, Cantus CTS-1204) and Ave Maria Dulcissima (on Cantus, Cantus CTS-1207). (And great recordings they are—one engineer chum thinks JA's Cantus recording of OMM is the single best-engineered choral recording he's ever heard.)
Back when there were bricks-and-mortar retail record stores to speak of in tenses other than past, I used to participate in new-release conferences. Retail-store buyersthe people who decided whether consumers would see your CDs as they browsed in the storeswould gather at a nice destination, such as Lake George, New York. The various labels would then make presentations about their upcoming new releases.
There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust meit's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compellinga revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.
The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.
Don't waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Fantasy Symphony Season competition, announced in this column in February, has been a smashing successas far as I'm concerned, it's the most worthwhile write-in competition yet. The 13 winning entries and one hors-concours laureate are posted in the follow-up to February's column on Stereophile's website. The update lists the compositions in each winning Fantasy Symphony Season entry. I created a spreadsheet to determine the most popular composers and works in the winning entries.
I don't know who originated the idea of "desert island" recordings. I do know that for many years there was a BBC radio program in the UK that asked celebrities to list their choices. While reading quite a few of those lists, I had the sneaking suspicion that the respondents either hadn't entered fully into the spirit of the task, or were tailoring their choices with a view to what the radio or reading audience would think. (Interior monologue: "I am an anorak-wearing viola da gamba player. Hmmm. Birth of the Cool had better be on my list. London Calling, too, just to be safe.")
I sometimes do crazy things to experience live music. In my late teens I met a woman—a friend of a friend of my girlfriend—who was a flautist attending the Mannes School of Music in New York City. She was a classic New Yorker, from a classic New York family. Though apparently demure and retiring, she had fearlessly ridden the city subways since childhood, taking the Broadway line at any hour of day or night (her stop was Dyckman Street, above 200th). All of her parents' money and energy, such as it was, had gone into their daughter's musical career, and I was so inspired by this level of focus and devotion that I hitchhiked from Boston to New York and back in order to attend her first concert, a performance of the two Mozart flute concerti. My presence was remarked upon as the act of a true friend, but I was the beneficiary: It was a great concert, and a good start to a life of experiencing the "call" of live music.
For a while, I've been hearing rumors that the record-club editions of popular compact discs differ from the original versions produced by the record companies. I've met listeners who claim their club versions are compressed in dynamics, and some have reduced bass. Perhaps the clubs, in their infinite wisdom, think the typical member has a lower-class stereo system (in fact, the opposite may be true). Maybe these lower classes could benefit from some judicious dynamic compression, equalization, and digital remastering.
Two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind—both of them working side by side, so determined, locked in heated battle for the cure that is the prize. It's so dangerous, but they're driven—theirs is to win, if it kills them. They're just human, with wives and children.
If any single voice was synonymous with the flowering of the LP era, it was that of German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The great artist's death at his home in Bavaria on Friday, May 18, 10 days short of his 87th birthday, sets the final seal on an age in which art song, oratorio, and opera received equal respect from record companies and the listening public.
Equally adept at all three disciplines, Fischer-Dieskau became perhaps the most recorded baritone in history. There was a period in which nary a month went by without another LP from Fischer-Dieskau on which he sang either solo or in ensemble. Even today, when so many recordings have gone out of print, and large number of LPs have never been remastered for CD, arkivmusic.com lists no less than 490 titles that include Fischer-Dieskau's voice. The most recent release, a four-SACD remastered compilation of some of the monaural Schubert lieder (art song) recordings he made with pianists Gerald Moore and Karl Engel early in his career, became available on the website on May 8. Its 39 performances are but a fraction of the Schubert recordings he made in his five decades before the microphone.
The Incredible String Band
Hannibal HNCD 4437 (CD only). TT: 45:15 The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion
Hannibal HNCD 4438 (CD only). TT: 50:06 The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
Hannibal HNCD 4421 (CD only). TT: 50:12 Wee Tam & the Big Huge
Hannibal HNCD 4802 (2 CDs only). TT: 87:49 Changing Horses
Hannibal HNCD 4439 (CD only). TT: 50:24 I Looked Up
Hannibal HNCD 4440 (CD only). TT: 41:30 All above: Joe Boyd, prod.; John Wood, eng. AAD.
As January 1, 2000 approaches, and the MP3 whirlpool continues to swirl, one simple fact has made me feel as if I'm stuck at the starting line of the entire download controversy: The sound quality of MP3 has yet to improve above that of the average radio broadcast. Until that changes, I'm merely curious—as opposed to being in the I-want-to-know-it-all-now frenzy that is my usual m.o. when to comes to anything that promises music you can't get anywhere else.
Ask most professional symphony musicians for their views concerning recording sessions, and you might be greeted with seemingly nonchalant and cavalier responses. You will probably be told that although recording can be quite lucrative, it is almost always an exercise in futility. If you press further, and inquire as to why these "artists" display such negative attitudes, they would treat you to both a lecture concerning the shortcomings and gross musical distortions usually involved in the recording process, and to a tirade on the incompetence and arrogance of many recording engineers and producers. And once you have opened this can of worms, you will undoubtedly be told about the frustrations of having to deal with inaccurate and distorted representations of their art at the hands of the musically inept.