Recording of the Month

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Richard Lehnert Posted: Sep 26, 2014 Published: Oct 01, 2014 4 comments
Bruckner: Symphony 9
Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 479 3441 (CD, 48/24 download from HDTracks). 2014. Georg Obermayer, prod., ed.; Urs Dürr, Toine Mertens, engs. DDD. TT: 63:09
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

This performance of Bruckner's last, all-but-finished composition was recorded at the last concert conducted by Claudio Abbado. It is a fitting final statement by an interpreter of unparalleled sensitivity, intelligence, and taste.

The Ninth is no serene work, and Abbado's earlier recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is a darker, more intensely driven vision of Bruckner's fight to live long enough to complete his most profound, most ambitious composition. The difficulties of that double struggle are evident throughout the three movements Bruckner completed (Abbado never conducted a completion of the nearly finished Finale), and in 1996 in Vienna, those struggles seemed the story Abbado wanted to tell.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Sep 10, 2014 Published: Nov 01, 1983 4 comments
1183rotm.250.jpgRimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner conducting.
RCA ".5 Series" ARP1-W27 (LP).

In case you didn't already know, ".5" is RCA's name for their half-speed-–mastered line of audiophile LPs, whose releases to date have included many recordings, as well as some real gems, from their archive of older stereo recordings.

Their choice of old recordings is interesting to say the least, as it shows a side of RCA's classical division that we thought had atrophied and blown away many years ago: musical judgment. Instead of going for their most sonically spectacular tapes from yesteryear, the choices here were clearly made on the basis of musical performance first, with sound as a secondary consideration.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Sep 03, 2014 Published: Jan 01, 1984 2 comments
rotm184.pjil.jpgDebussy: Three Nocturnes; Jeux
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Bernard Haitink conducting.
Philips ACD 400-023-2 (CD).

This is the first classical CD I have heard that was originally mastered on analog tape, and the sound is quite different from what I'm accustomed to hearing from the silver discs.

I had read so many critics' complaints about excessive background (tape) hiss from analog-mastered CDs that I was fully prepared to be appalled. I wasn't. Perhaps my speakers (Watkins WE-1s as of now) are smoother than what some other critics listen to, perhaps I prefer a more subdued high end than some, but I did not find hiss to be a problem with this Philips disc. Yes, it is audible at high listening levels, but it is not a ssss, it is a hhhh, like the sound of a very gentle rain far off in the background. I have heard worse hiss from microphone preamps.

Robert Baird Posted: Aug 21, 2014 Published: Sep 01, 2014 0 comments
Amy LaVere: Runaway's Diary
Archer ARR 319611/2 (LP/CD). 2014. Luther Dickinson, prod.; Kevin Houston, eng., Daniel Lyon, asst. eng. ADA/ADD. TT: 38:27.

"It's not your average gal that drinks bourbon neat, walks around with a pocket atlas and drives a big white gear van. I thought she was charming and awfully funny."

Talent and humor has never been a problem for Amy LaVere. Not long after high school she led Last Minute, a Detroit punk band. When we next hear of her, she's in Nashville as part of a husband-and-wife folk/country duo, The Gabe and Amy Show, who released a single, "Blankets of Love," b/w Johnny Cash's "Big River."

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Aug 13, 2014 Published: Jun 01, 1984 4 comments
684rotm.250.jpgBeethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 "The Emperor"
Rudolph Serkin, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond.
Telarc CD-80065 (CD). Robert Woods, prod., Jack Renner, eng.

Vivaldi: "The Four Seasons"
Joseph Silverstein, violin; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond.
Telarc CD-80070 (CD). Robert Woods, prod., Jack Renner, eng.

I have never been a fan of Seiji Ozawa, feeling that his interpretive approach is too often cold and attached. That's not true of this performance of the "Emperor" Concerto. In fact, my only criticism is that the performance seems at time a little too broadly Romantic, where somewhat tighter phrasing would have been in order. Ozawa and Serkin have turned in one of the most satisfying performances in Telarc's catalog, which contains a remarkable number of lackluster performances.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Aug 04, 2014 Published: Aug 01, 1984 6 comments
884rotm.ssph.jpgSaint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals
Ravel: Mother Goose Suite

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, cond.
Philips CD 400-016 2 (CD).

The whimsical Carnival, with its nose-thumbing at Saint-Saëns' contemporaries (eg a lugubrious "Can-Can" and a stately cello rendition of Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs, from The Damnation of Faust), is given a delightful treatment here, and put on one of the best-sounding CDs I've heard to date from a major record company.

Philips has been less up-front about the roots of its CDs than most other record manufacturers, If fact, they have been downright sneaky about it. This release—billed prominently on the CD jacket as a "Digital Recording"—sounds very much as if it was analog-mastered. The is certainly nothing Philips should ashamed of, because this is a better-sounding recording than most digitally mastered ones.

Robert Baird Posted: Jul 21, 2014 Published: Aug 01, 2014 0 comments
The Black Keys: Turn Blue
Nonesuch 7559795555 (LP/CD/HDtracks download). 2014. Black Keys, Danger Mouse, prods.; Kennie Takahashi, eng.; Collin Dupuis, Geoff Neal, Bill Skibbe, asst. engs.; Tchad Blake, mix. TT: 45:09
Performance ****
Sonics ****

There was a time when calling the Black Keys "sexy" would have been thought perversely stunted, given that they were a two-man, raw-as-hell, blow-me-down, frat-rock grinder that jammed and pounded and convinced everyone that their version of Tony Joe White's groove was something new and revolutionary.

Margaret Graham Posted: Jul 16, 2014 1 comments
Bach-Malloch: The Art of Fuguing
The Sheffield Ensemble and California Boy's Choir, Lukas Foss, cond., recorded live at First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood.
Town Hall Records S-20 & S-21 (each 2 LPs, 1979), Sheffield Lab 10047-2-G (CD, 1995). Lincoln Mayorga, prod., Ron Hitchcock, eng., Lincoln Mayorga Doug Sax, CD mastering eng. AAA (LP), AAD (CD).

These 2-disc albums are of unusual interest for several reasons. First, although both are of exactly the same program material, there were recorded with completely different microphone techniques. One was done with the usual (for commercial recordings) multi-microphone set-up and mixdown (S-20). The other (S-21) was done with a single stereo mike—the technique preferred by most audio perfectionists. [This is the version on the 1995 CD reissue—Ed.]

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jul 08, 2014 Published: Oct 01, 1984 3 comments
1084rotmjgh.jpgSaint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No.2
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Bella Davidovich (pno), Concertgebouw Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi, cond.
Philips CD 410-052 2 (CD), 6514-164 (LP).

At last we're starting to realize some of the promise of CD from a major record company. This is the best CD recording I've heard yet from Philips. Both of these are virtuoso romantic works requiring a big piano sound and the stamina to produce it for 6–10 minutes at a stretch, which is probably why few lady pianists will tackle them. Bella Davidovich pulls these off with great aplomb.

To me, the Saint-Saëns is the better of the two, and is one of the truly great performances of this work. I grudgingly rate it as equal to my long-time favorite, the Rubinstein/Reiner performance on a 1958 RCA LP (LSC-2234), although I would have liked a little more TLC from Ms. Davidovich in the first movement. She seems a little rushed where an occasional lingering caress is indicated, but that is quibbling with what is a really rousing performance.

Robert Baird Posted: Jun 23, 2014 Published: Jul 01, 2014 8 comments
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Texas Hurricane
Epic/Legacy/Analogue Productions AAPB SRV33-BOX (6 LPs, 331?3rpm). 1983–1991/2014. John Hammond Sr., orig. exec. prod.; Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Hammond Jr., Richard Mullen, others, orig. prods.; Richard Mullen, James Geddes, Lincoln Clapp, others, orig. engs.; Chad Kassem, reissue exec. prod.; Ryan Smith, remastering. AAA. TT: 3:55:20
Performance *****
Sonics *****

He was the shining star the blues world had always dreamed of: the rare performer who could break through to the musical mainstream. Yet alas, he flashed across the musical heavens and was gone far too soon, dying in a helicopter crash in August 1990, at the age of 35. That Stevie Ray Vaughan's reign as blues-guitar hero was brief but incendiary is driven home yet again by this spectacular new boxed set from Epic/Legacy and Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions label.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jun 17, 2014 Published: Dec 01, 1984 3 comments
1284rotm.promo.jpgBeethoven: Symphony 9 in d, Op.125 ("Choral")
Berlin Staatskapelle and Rundfunkchor, Otmar Suitner, cond.; Dietrich Knothe, chorus master; Magdaléna Hajóssyová, soprano; Uta Priew, contralto; Eberhard Büchner, tenor; Manfred Schenk, bass.
Denon CD383C7-7021 (CD).

This is a positively stunning performance, abetted by one of the best-sounding orchestral recordings on CD to date.

I have long felt that the best reading of Beethoven's Ninth ever committed to records was an antique Columbia 78 set with the Vienna Philharmonic and Felix Weingartner (later released on an abominable-sounding LP: SL-165). I almost hate to day it, because the oldest idols die the hardest, but Suitner's is better! This is a monumental, consummately joyous Ninth that leaves the listener with a wonderful feeling of elation. If the orchestral playing is at times a little less than world-class and a couple of the soloists not quite up to star level, so what? This may well be the definitive Ninth on CD, both interpretively and sonically.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jun 09, 2014 Published: Jan 01, 1985 1 comments
Performance Recordings is the closest thing to a one-man label. James Boyk is president, A&R director, musical director, recording engineer, production manager, jacket notes author, and the star performer. He is also Artist in Residence and lecturer in music and engineering (specifically sound recording and reproduction) at Cal Tech. And he happens to be one of digital's most ardent detractors, having conducted, and widely publicized, several controlled listening tests that proved to his satisfaction that digital recordings are destructive to musical sound. (I will not question his methodology or conclusions here; suffice it to say that James is as stalwartly pro-analog and anti-digital as it is possible to be.)
Robert Baird Posted: May 22, 2014 Published: Jun 01, 2014 0 comments
The link between jazz and the works of Igor Stravinsky is well known. In Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, his landmark 1959 collaboration with Robert Craft, the composer mentions jazz artists like Art Tatum and Charlie Christian. The fact that Stravinsky was captivated by the improvisational freedom of jazz and its insistent, inventive rhythms makes all his work, especially Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), a natural for jazz players to play and quote from, and over the years they have more than obliged.
Steven W. Watkinson Posted: May 07, 2014 Published: Jul 01, 1985 4 comments
Anyone who thinks the ultra-chic New York progressive music scene lacks a sense of humor hasn't heard Laurie Anderson. Her last album, Mister Heartbreak, proved to be the most listenable and entertaining example of the genre on years. It also provided a sound quality that put most "audiophile" discs to shame.
Robert Baird Posted: Apr 22, 2014 Published: May 01, 2014 1 comments
WANTED: Jazz Hero. Must be willing and able to bring stunning new creative energies to a musical genre in danger of becoming stale and repetitive. Must be comfortable with a Marsalis level of celebrity. Saxophone or trumpet players preferred. Old men need not apply.

In 2011, jazz prayers were answered with the release of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a brilliantly inventive mainstream jazz album led by Ambrose Akinmusire, a photogenic, 28-year-old trumpeter from Oakland, California. The young man had lots of fresh ideas, speed and dexterity to burn, and a unique tone, the combination of which brought back a flood of memories: Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Pops.

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