Recording of the Month

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Robert Baird Posted: May 29, 2012 2 comments
Krzysztof Penderecki/Jonny Greenwood
Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, Polymorphia, 48 Responses to Polymorphia
Aukso Orchestra, Penderecki, Marek Mos, conductors
Nonesuch 530223-2 (CD) Filip Berkowicz, Michal Merczynski, prods. Barbara Orzechowska, associate prod. Ewa Guziotek-Tubelewicz, Pitor Witkowski, engs. Performance ***** Sonics *****

For the past two decades, the "C" word in classical music— crossover—has been a bone of both hope and contention. Lured by the supposed riches that lurk amongst classical fans who want to slum it and popular music fans with upscale intellectual curiosities, artists from Caruso to Domingo to Joshua Bell have given in this concept in search of a success to mostly disappointing results. And then of course there's humble Gordon Sumner (aka Feyd Rautha Harkonnen) who blithely smeared his meager powers onto the work of poor John Dowland in Songs From the Labyrinth—an apt title if ever there was. In 2010 the great Renee Fleming, no stranger to taking risks and a jazz singer during her college years, dipped her toes, fairly disastrously it turns out, into the classical/rock crossover pool with Dark Hope, a record whose title again seems to carry a less than promising message.

Thomas Conrad Posted: May 01, 2012 0 comments
Ryan Truesdell: Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Ryan Truesdell, conductor; 35 musicians including those mentioned in text, plus: Scott Robinson, Charles Pillow, reeds; Greg Gisbert, trumpet; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Romero Lubambo, guitar; Lewis Nash, drums
ArtistShare AS0114 (CD). 2012. Ryan Truesdell, prod.; James Farber, eng. DAD. TT: 74:18
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

It is dreamlike when the opening track, "Punjab," begins so softly, with the tapping of a tabla. Exotic woodwinds, perhaps English horn and bassoon, murmur in the left channel, whisper in the right. It is dreamlike because Gil Evans died in 1988, yet this unfamiliar music sounds like him, and when suddenly that deep, solemn brass figure looms out of the right channel, it could only be him. More instruments enter, and more motifs, with brighter colors from alto saxophone and flute. Like all the greatest Gil Evans music, "Punjab" creates its own world of high drama and mysterious allusion. It belongs in the exalted company of such Evans masterpieces as Out of the Cool and Sketches of Spain. And it is new.

Richard Lehnert Posted: Apr 04, 2012 0 comments
Tord Gustavsen Quartet: The Well
Tord Gustavsen, piano; Tore Brunborg, tenor saxophone; Mats Eilertsen, bass; Jarle Vespestad, drums
ECM 2237 (CD). 2012. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Jan Erik Kongshaug, eng. DDD. TT: 53:19
Performance *****
Sonics *****

The first time I heard J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier, I heard an endless sameness, lovely but undifferentiated. Only over many hearings did each pairing of prelude and fugue begin to emerge from the background, as what Bach did in each iteration of the same received form began to be revealed as an inexhaustible richness of difference. Gradually, I was learning Bach's musical language; only then did I begin to get an idea of what he might be saying.

Robert Baird Posted: Mar 01, 2012 0 comments
Anthony Wilson: Seasons Anthony Wilson, Steve Cardenas, Julian Lage, Chico Pinheiro, guitars
Goat Hill Recordings 003 (CD/DVD). 2011. Anthony Wilson, prod.; Todd Whitelock, eng.; Damon Whittemore, asst. eng.; Kevin Gray, mastering; George Petit, live sound assistance; Steve Becker, Chris Scarafile, cameras. AAD? TT: 63:35
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Halfway into the interview in his management company's offices, as Steve Earle literally squirmed in his seat, I got the distinct impression that he had somewhere else to go, something more important to do. Turned out he was anxious to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the exhibition Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. Suddenly, instead of talking about his career, he was rhapsodizing about the jazz-guitar luthiers—John D'Angelico and James D'Aquisto—whose work was being exhibited, and a display that featured one of the four guitars known to have been made by Antonio Stradivari.

Robert Baird Posted: Feb 03, 2012 1 comments
Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis
Atlantic/Analogue Productions APP 8214-45 (two 45rpm LPs). 1969/2011. Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, prods.; Ed Kollis, eng.; Kevin Gray, 45rpm mastering. AAA. TT: 76:40
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Coaxing a singer to "stretch" always sounds like a good idea—that is, until the singer is standing in the same recording booth used by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, and suddenly her confidence, never brimming to start with, drops through the floor and she can't or won't sing a note. Add to this that Dusty Springfield was already a sticky perfectionist who'd self-produced most of her records and wasn't happy with the songs to be recorded—despite the fact that most of them were straight out of the Brill Building—and you have the recipe for an all-time classic record, right?

Robert Baird Posted: Dec 29, 2011 Published: Jan 01, 2012 2 comments
Tom Waits Bad As Me
Anti- 87151-1 (LP). 2011. Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, prods.; Julianne Deery, prod. coord.; Karl Derfler, eng.; Zack Summer, asst. eng. ADA? TT: 44:37
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

They only come out at night. Or when recession, wars, and gridlock rule. On Bad As Me, Tom Waits's first record of new material since 2004's Real Gone, things having gone bad all over gives his uniquely American narratives a fresh resonance: "Well we bailed out all the millionaires / they got the fruit, we got the rind / and everybody's talking at the same time / everybody's talking at the same time." ("Talking at the Same Time"). But lest anyone get the idea it's all politics and no licentiousness, the next track, "Get Lost," dives deep into loopy rockabilly slap beats as two of the three stellar guitarists who dominate this album, Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), conjure a twitchily convincing froth over which Waits revels in the simpler pleasures of Wolfman Jack and "real tight sweaters."

Robert Baird Posted: Dec 01, 2011 1 comments
Bill Frisell All We Are Saying . . .
Bill Frisell, guitar; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Greg Leisz, pedal steel guitar; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums
Savoy Jazz SVY17836 (CD). 2011. Lee Townsend, prod.; Adam Blombert, prod. asst.; Adam Munoz, eng.; Greg Calbi, mastering. AAD? TT: 68:12
Performance ****
Sonics *****

How do you escape the pressures that come with making a record of well-known John Lennon tunes, many of them from archetypal Beatles songs? Convene a quartet of longtime bandmates, each a skilled instrumentalist with whom you've played this material before—albeit not in a while—and just hang loose, let the ideas flow, and jam up beautifully recorded, feel-no-heat-from-the-classic-originals versions whose rough charms somehow seem exactly right. Oh yeah, and bring in pedal-steel wizard Greg Leisz to put an evocative, legato tang on the whole thing.

Richard Lehnert Posted: Oct 31, 2011 Published: Nov 01, 2011 1 comments
1111rotm.jpgBruckner Symphonies 4, 7, 9
(Finale of 9 completed by Carragan, ed. 2010)
Gerd Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva
Profil PH11028 (4 CDs). 2008/2009/2011. Ememkut Zaotschnyj (4, 7), Lutz Wildner (9), prods.; Sandro Binetti (4, 7), Herbert Fr ühbauer (9), engs. DDD. TTs: 65:43 (4), 64:52 (7), 83:41 (9)
Performance *****
Sonics ***** (4, 7), ****½ (9)

These performances were recorded at the Ebrach Festival, held annually in the small town of Ebrach, Germany (an hour's drive north from Nuremberg or west from Bayreuth), in the former Abbey Church of Ebrach, which comprised a Cistercian monastery (now a prison) and a vast gothic cathedral built in the 13th century which now serves as the parish church. Many hear the phrases "festival orchestra" and "live recording" and expect the worst: flawed documents of underrehearsed performances by hastily convened pickup orchestras in venues not designed for good sound, and plagued by coughs, sneezes, scraped chair legs, the inadvertent rustlings of hundreds of attendees, and a level of applause that might not conform to the response of the listener at home.

Robert Baird Posted: Oct 06, 2011 0 comments
1011rotm.jpgTom Harrell: The Time of the Sun
Tom Harrell, trumpet, flugelhorn; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano, Fender Rhodes; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums
High Note HCD7222 (CD). 2011. Tom Harrell, Wayne Escoffery, Angela Harrell, prods.; Joe Fields, exec. prod.; Mike Marciano, eng. AAD? TT: 62:12
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Trumpeters use their horns to search for truth. At least that's the folk tale. Somehow, that pure, ringing tone that most strive for at some point in their career—think Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis—suggests a quest for deeper knowledge, something closer to the heart. In effect, trumpeters play a knife—a blade that can cut through nerve, bone, and sinew to that heart; to realizations, we'd like to think, that force them to be honest.

Robert Baird Posted: Sep 01, 2011 0 comments
John Adams Son of Chamber Symphony, String Quartet
John Adams, International Contemporary Ensemble; St. Lawrence String Quartet
Nonesuch 523014-2 (CD). 2011. Judith Sherman, prod.; John Kilgore, John D.S. Adams, engs.; Chris Allen, Tom Gloady, Nathan Chandler, asst. engs. DDD? TT: 54:00
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

When John Adams was working on his Chamber Symphony (1992), he became aware that his son Sam was in the next room watching old American cartoons, presumably those by Warner Bros. that used music by the great Raymond Scott. Hyperkinetic borrowings from Scott's witty scores made their way into that earlier work, and now into its successor, a fact hinted at by its humorous title: Son of Chamber Symphony. There's even a moment early on in this new work when the distinctive rhythmic rumble of Scott's masterpiece, "Powerhouse," can be fleetingly heard in what is, overall, a short but very sweet triumph.

Robert Baird Posted: Aug 03, 2011 0 comments
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Jagjaguwar 52135 (CD). 2011. Justin Vernon, prod., eng.; Brian Joseph, eng.; Nate Vernon, Andy Immerman, asst. engs.; Greg Calbi, mastering. AAD. TT: 39:28
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Many, though certainly not all, musicians of most genres dream of composing, crafting, birthing a hit record—one they will forever be known for, and that will make them enough money that they'll never have to sleep on another hard floor or friend's stained couch as long as they live. Very few fulfill this dream, and those who do often don't know why or just how it happened.

Robert Baird Posted: Jul 06, 2011 2 comments
Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What
Hear Music HRM-32814 (CD; the LP comes with a voucher for hi-rez downloads). 2011. Paul Simon, Phil Ramone, prods.; Andy Smith, eng. AAD? TT: 38:15
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

"Love & Blessings"? "Questions for the Angels"? It seems that Paul Simon, who will turn 70 in October, has begun to ask life's Big Questions in preparation for his own exit. Yet in this case, seeming is not reality, and at 69, Simon has returned to his polyglot musical influences (that he may or may not have heisted...but that's an argument for another day) to fashion a startlingly powerful collection of songs that successfully mix the jaunty near-danceability of his world-music adventures with serious lyrics about impending death, the vagaries of love, and, especially, the many unknowables contained in the word God.

Robert Baird Posted: Jun 08, 2011 0 comments
Jordi Savall: Dinastía Borja
Music by Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Des Prez, Lluis del Mila and others Jordi Savall, viola da gamba, director; Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya
Alia Vox AVSA 9874A/C (3 SACD/CDs). 2010. Jordi Savall, prod.; Toni Figueras, recording coordinator; Aline Blondiau, Nicolas de Beco, Dominique de Spoolberg, Olivier de Spoolberg, recording assistants. AAD? TT: 3:43:19
Performance *****
Sonics *****

As is usually the case, a recent performance at New York's Lincoln Center by Jordi Savall, his instrumental ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, and his choir, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, was a triumph—his impeccably researched and realized early music had the crowd on their feet. In lesser hands, such exotica as old-world Spanish music influenced by indigenous forms from Mexico would have trouble drawing a paying crowd, let alone filling Alice Tully Hall; but Savall's unique vision has rescued and revitalized obscure musical forms aplenty, from the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods. Along the way he's also managed to record notable versions of more popular works of the standard classical repertoire, such as the Mozart Requiem, and J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

Robert Baird Posted: May 06, 2011 1 comments
The Twilight Singers: Dynamite Steps
Sub Pop SPCD 844 (CD). 2011. Greg Dulli, prod.; Brenndan McGuire, Ben Mumphrey, Steve Nalepa, Mike Napolitano, others, engs. AAD? TT: 43:03
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Unleash "Retarded," the unforgettable first track of Up In It (1990), the Afghan Whigs' first Sub Pop album—the one with the eerie stitched-up hand on the cover—and immediately the madness seeps out. No one has ever done the angry leer and tormented spat quite like AW singer/songwriter Greg Dulli. As the charismatic leader of one of the nastiest, hardest-edged live acts ever to prowl a 1990s indie-rock stage, he and the Whigs were one of the Yo MTV 120 Minute generation's most striking acts—one that combined buzzy guitar thunder with odd but welcome leanings toward classic R&B that persist to this day in the Twilight Singers. The assault of the Cincinnati-based Whigs was led by Dulli, a seemingly normal Ohio boy whose unhinged wailing, self-flagellating lyrics, and shrieking, Cobra-like stage persona made him a rock star: dangerous candy for the girls, unhinged fury for the fellas.

Robert Levine Posted: Apr 08, 2011 1 comments
MOZART: Piano Concertos 22 & 25
David Fray, piano; Jaap van Zweden, Philharmonia Orchestra
Virgin 5099964196404 (CD). 2010. Etienne Collard, prod.; René Möller, eng. DDD. TT: 66:04
Performance *****
Sonics *****

From 1782 to the end of 1785 were successful, fertile years in Vienna for Mozart. He was sought by the aristocracy and the upper classes as a pianist, teacher, and composer. Throughout this period—and the following year, during which he ran out of money—he composed piano sonatas, songs, marches, wind serenades, a horn quintet, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, arias, quartets, works for violin and/or viola, horn concertos, the C-minor Mass, symphonies 35, 36, and 38 (37 was written by Michael Haydn), piano concertos 14–25, Le Nozze di Figaro, and dozens of other works.

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