1991 Records To Die For Page 6

Robert Harley

CHICK COREA: Akoustic Band
Chick Corea, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Dave Weckl, drums
GRP 838 396-2 (CD only). Chick Corea, prod.; Bernie Kirsh, eng. ADD. TT: 61:10

Long an innovator in jazz fusion, pianist and composer Chick Corea returns to acoustic instruments and jazz standards for this outing with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl. The trio works out on such standards as Cole Porter's "So in Love," Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," and Corea's own "Spain," now itself a standard. These classic tunes are infused with new life and vitality by the sensitive interpretation and technical virtuosity of these outstanding musicians. Dave Weckl, with his fusion background and youth, brings a fresh rhythmic perspective to these works yet remains true to their intent, while Corea and Patitucci display their considerable improvisational skills.

The sound quality is exceptional. The piano isn't overly bright, and has a full bottom end (I suspect very little EQ). The acoustic bass is presented with space around it, and more toward the back of the soundstage than is typical for trio recordings. The recording's rhythmic intensity is heightened by the drums' razor-sharp transients and tight, punchy bass drum. Overall, the presentation is involving and complements the music.

DIXIE DREGS: Dregs of the Earth
Steve Morse, acoustic & electric guitars, banjo, pedal steel; Andy West, fretted & fretless bass; Alan Sloan (Sloanov), acoustic & electric violin, viola; Rod Morgenstein, drums & percussion; T. Lavitz, acoustic & electric piano, organ, synthesizer, clavinet
Arista AL 9528 (LP), ARCD 8116 (CD). Steve Morse, prod.; George Pappas, eng. AAA/AAD. TT: 36:39

Dregs of the Earth is a showcase for this relatively unknown band's unique amalgam of rock, country, jazz, and classical influences, and is easily the best engineered of their six LPs and two EPs. The instrumental compositions range from the driving rock "Road Expense" to the renaissance-inspired acoustic guitar and violin duet "Old World." Between those first and last tunes in this eight-piece collection, the Dregs explore an astonishing array of musical styles, exemplified by the playful bluegrass permutation "Pride of the Farm." The album's high point, however, is "Hereafter," a bittersweet piece featuring some beautiful and evocative violin work and climaxing with one of my favorite recorded guitar solos.

Although I wouldn't characterize the album's sound as audiophile-grade, it does have a tight, punchy bottom end, well-recorded drums, and enough transparency to hear subtleties in the arrangements.

HANDEL: Water Music
Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907010 (CD only). Robina G. Young, prod.; Peter McGrath, eng. AAD. TT: 56:38

This performance and recording convey the essence of Handel's Water Music: a lively, festive feeling, with a rhythmic flow that suggests the dances that in part inspired it. Moreover, it is perhaps the truest to Handel's intentions, both in arrangement and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's use of period instruments.

What really makes this particular version stand out (apart from the wonderful performance) is the gorgeous recording. Engineered by Peter McGrath, this recording captures the subtle textures and feel of the period instruments. The violins are smooth and delicate, without the bright, steely edge one hears from many recordings. The soundstage is spacious, but with a less-than-robust center image. This Harmonia Mundi recording is the definitive Water Music. (XII-7)

Scott Kreitzer, tenor sax; Dave Samuels, vibes; Marc Cohen, piano; Harvie S., bass; Bill Stewart, drums
Cexton Records CR11264 (CD only). Scott Kreitzer, Peter DeMarco, prods.; Dave Baker, Jim Anderson, engs. D-D. TT: 50:06

This debut album by 23-year-old composer and tenor player Scott Kreitzer is a tour de force of spontaneous, free-flowing, straight-ahead jazz. Despite his youth, Kreitzer plays with a maturity and conviction that evoke shades of the great tenor men, notably Dexter Gordon.

Recorded live to two-track with no overdubs, Kick'n Off bristles with an enthusiasm and energy rarely heard from multi-tracked recordings. This band really stretches out, both in supporting the lyrical compositions and during the ample improvised solos. The album is beautifully recorded, with excellent instrumental balance (not easy when mixing on the fly), a nice sense of air and space around the instruments, and smooth textures.

Flora Purim, vocal; Airto Moreira, drums, percussion; Joe Farrell, sax; Kei Akagi, piano; José Neto, guitar; Mark Egan, bass; Randy Tico, acoustic fretless bass guitar
Reference Recordings RR-24LP (LP), RR-24CD (CD). J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr., Airto Moreira, prods.; Keith O. Johnson, eng. A-A/D-D. TT: 52:54

This stunning recording captures perfectly the unique and beautiful performances of these musicians. Three-Way Mirror is a paradigm of how a recording can serve the music's intent. Engineer Keith Johnson has created an aural landscape of lush textures and a feeling of spatial envelopment that bring the listener closer to the music.

The Brazilian-jazz compositions range from the sensitive "S;tao Francisco River," which features Flora's ethereal vocals, to the high-energy "Plane to the Trane," with cooking percussion and Joe Farrell's inspired flute and sax work. Three-Way Mirror's beautiful compositions, unusual blend of acoustic instrumentation, and expressive performances combine synergistically with the remarkable recording quality to create a thoroughly involving musical experience. (XII-2)

Robert Hesson

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No.14 in C#, Op.131
Vlach Quartet
Parliament PLPS 625 (LP only). AAA.

This is the music of the spheres played as if by the gods. The performance brings to mind John Barth's idea that no one is more free than he who most fully assimilates the rules. The Vlach Quartet gives a literal reading but injects it with a sincerity and resignation to the beauty of the score that are breathtaking. The recording was probably made 20 or more years ago and is fairly close-up, which I do not find at all detrimental to chamber music. The sound is exceptional by today's standards.
COPLAND: Appalachian Spring
Complete ballet for 13 instruments
Aaron Copland, Columbia Chamber Orchestra
Columbia/CBS M32736 (Columbia LP), MK-42431 (CBS CD). Stan Tonkel, Ray Moore, Milton Cherin, engs.; Andrew Kazdin, prod. AAA/ADD. TT: 68:53

Once you hear the honest simplicity and rough-hewn textures of this original version of Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments, you will never accept the orchestral suite as representative of the enormous beauty and power of this music. This is one of the most powerfully moving musical performances I have ever heard. The 1973 sound is closely miked and leans toward the bright side, but it has exceptional detail and clarity that add to the immediacy of the performance. The remixed CD version is duller and less involving all around than the LP.
DVORÁK: Symphony 9, "From the New World"
Jascha Horenstein, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Chesky CD 31 (CD only). Bob Katz, remastering eng.; David & Norman Chesky, executive prods. (Original 1962 recording: K. E. Wilkinson, eng.; Charles Gerhardt, prod.) ADD. TT: 67:30

You will hear few performances of any work that are as passionate as this one. The quality of lamentation in the second movement has never been more yearningly bittersweet. Throughout are searing emotions that simply put this interpretation in a category by itself. This is also the best modern-instrument orchestral recording I have heard, and I don't know of many that really come close. Besides an immense soundstage, the intensely accurate rendering of instrumental tone colors is remarkable. This is a rich and, often, thrilling experience. (XIII-4)
HANDEL: Water Music
Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Harmonia Mundi, HMU 7010 (LP), HMU 907010 (CD). Peter McGrath, eng.; Robina G. Young, prod. AAA/AAD. TT: 56:38

Nicholas McGegan and Peter McGrath are two of the most exciting people in recorded music today. McGegan's Water Music is alive with spirit. Totally absent is the often dull, scholarly cast of the original-instrument movement. The players here are superb---and obviously thrilled to be playing the music. McGrath presents all this in a lively acoustic that captures all the brilliance of the period-style violins with none of the piercing shrillness so often served up. It is perhaps the most natural-sounding recording I have heard and is absolutely stunning in every respect. (XII-7)
STRAVINSKY: L'Histoire du Soldat
John Gielgud, Narrator; Tom Courtenay, Soldier; Ron Moody, Devil; Boston Symphony Chamber Players (dramatic supervision by Douglas Cleverdon)
DG 2530 609 (LP only). Günter Hermanns, eng.; Thomas W. Mowery, Franz-Cristian Wulff, prods. AAA.

This recording far exceeds even the lofty pre-'70s reputations of DG and engineer Günter Hermanns. The performances by both actors and musicians are superb. If you want to know what the Devil really sounds like, listen to Ron Moody, with his craggy vocal athleticism. Gielgud and Courtenay are also excellent. The musicians give the score all the playfulness and poignancy that are reflected in the story, and the instruments are recorded with astonishing realism. That this recording hasn't yet made it to CD is shameful.

J. Gordon Holt
My selections were based on three criteria: First, that the music illustrate the gorgeous (and system-challenging) sounds that can be created by a full symphony orchestra; second, that the performance be one that I have not heard bettered on records; and third, that the recording be good enough that it doesn't get in the way of the music.

Except in very rare cases, I do not believe a composer is the best interpreter of his own work. He may know better than anyone else what he had in mind, but a conductor will nearly always do a better job of getting those intentions across to an audience. I also feel that it is safe to say that, if any symphonic recording is available in both a domestic and a European LP release, the latter will always be better. This is not a matter of reverse patriotism, but of simple truth: European record companies have always taken "serious" music more seriously than have American firms.

Third, I admit shamelessly that I prefer CDs to analog discs, because the digital medium better reproduces, without irksome ticks and pops, the dynamic range and power of the kind of music I enjoy most, and because recent CDs of old recordings are less gimmicked than any LP releases of those performances, American or European. I will put up with the limitations of analog only if the CD is either not available or is a dreadful botch.

I should also add that, about 40 years ago, I committed myself to a listening rule that I have never since violated: Never to play any recording more than twice in one month. Repetition takes the joy out of anything, and experience had shown me that there is nothing like playing a new record 16 times consecutively to earn it a high place on one's shitlist. I realize that this listening habit of mine smacks of self-discipline, which ranks in the minds of most people with root-canal work and being seen in the wrong brand of sneaker, but what the Hell, I'm old-fashioned.

Herewith, and with relatively little more ado, are my top 10:

BEETHOVEN: Symphony 6 ("Pastorale")
Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony
CBS MYK 36720 (CD only, previously released as LP MS 6012, LP Y 33924). John McClure, prod. AAD. TT 40:53

"Columbia Symphony orchestra" was the name Columbia Records used for any pickup orchestra assembled for the purpose of making a recording and disbanded immediately afterwards. Because ColSym was not a bankable Name, like the Philadelphia or New York ensembles, the record company brass didn't much care what its recordings sounded like, so it would be assigned a no-name recording engineer who did not see himself as a towering creative genius. He tended just to put up a few microphones, adjust their balances, then sit back and relax while the orchestra played. The result was the best symphonic recordings Columbia ever released, then or since. Bruno Walter, too, was more of a musician's conductor than a recording star, and the reasons are obvious from this completely captivating performance. There is less of a feeling of "interpretation" in this reading than in any other recorded "Pastorale"; the music speaks for itself. If you think you're fed up with hearing this symphony, give this recording a try.
BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique
Sir Thomas Beecham, Orchestre Radio-Diffusion Fran;kcais EMI LP or Angel CD

One of the symphonic "blockbusters" of our time, this is usually played as loudly as possible and much too fast. Beecham's way with it is much slower than we are accustomed to, but it creates an atmosphere of dreamlike fantasy and nightmarish dread that none of the other recorded performances has ever matched. The recording is no Telarc, but it's more than adequate for doing justice to the performance.
CHADWICK: Symphonic Sketches
Howard Hanson, Eastman Rochester Orchestra
Mercury Living Presence LP

This is unabashed symphonic trivia, written to exploit the variety of color that a large orchestra is capable of. It's fun, and the recording is justifiably legendary. If the already-released Living Presence CDs are typical, the CD of this will be better than any of the LPs ever were, because all the cutterheads in those days had a fierce HF peak right where the mikes did.
MAHLER: Symphony 1
Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra
CBS MK 42031 (CD only). AAD. TT 52:05

Everything I said about the Beethoven Symphony 6 applies to this. Both belong in every record collection.
RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
DOHNÁNYI: Variations on a Nursery Tune

Julius Katchen, piano; Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Decca/London LP, or London CD. (Not the Treasury LP re-release)

An unlikely pairing of titles, but a perfect one. Messrs Katchen and Boult and the orchestra members are so obviously having a rollicking good time with these very different works that the performances carry you along like a raft in the rapids. Heard both at one sitting, with the Dohnányi first, the effect is like having attended a triumphant concert. The recording, multi-miked of course, is excellent nonetheless, with a bass drum that may bottom-out the woofers on some very good systems.

A hint: The Dohnányi is supposed to be funny, so you don't have to suppress your mirth. The intro is a great test for how seriously your friends take "serious" music. If they don't crack a smile when the main theme first appears, they're phonys. (Insist that they listen to at least one Vanguard P.D.Q. Bach record.)

RESPIGHI: Ancient Airs and Dances
Antal Dorati, Philharmonia Hungarica
Mercury Living Presence LP.

What, another Respighi in my top 10? Yep, and deservedly so. These are charming works, played to a delightful fillip and recorded so well that you're hardly aware that they're canned. Again, the CD has better sound than the LP, and it has two LPs' worth of material on it. Incidentally, if you're one of those who worship the old Mercury LP sound, you ought to try to find a copy of a white-jacket demo disc called, if memory serves me, The Sound of Bose. All the cuts were culled from Mercury Living Presence masters, with no attempt to brighten-up the highs (as was apparently done with the Golden Treasury reissues). But the cutting was done on a later and obviously much smoother cutterhead. That was the best LP sound ever achieved from Mercury's tapes.
RESPIGHI: The Pines and Fountains of Rome
Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Chesky RC-5 (AAA LP only). RCA RCD1-5407 (AAD CD only).

There are nuances in these performances that I do not hear in any others, and if they tend to make Respighi's bombastic music sound more "significant" than many critics claim it to be, who cares? These are great performances, with some of the best sound RCA ever captured from an orchestra. Sonically, the Chesky is the best of the bunch; the RCA is dynamically compressed (unless you're fortunate enough to find a very early "overcut" pressing), and the CD sounds a bit steely. (XI-1)
Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI SXLP 30253 (LP), Angel CDC-47717 (CD). Robert Beckett, eng.; Victor Olof, Lawrance Collingwood, prods. AAA/AAD.

Although no one has ever equaled the sensuousness and atmosphere of Stokowsky's mono performances of this, Beecham's only stereo recording comes the closest. The sound is hardly demo caliber, but it is good enough that it never gets between the listener and the music.
SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Concerto 4
Artur Rubinstein, piano

Not exactly a towering musical work, but this is a recording I have found myself dragging out every six months so ever since I bought it, which was at least 15 years ago. Even though it was obviously done at recording sessions, the performance has the buoyancy and spontaneity of a live event, conveying much of the excitement of a memorable concert even without benefit of final applause.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony 2 ("London")
Sir Adrian Boult, LPO
Angel CDC-47213 (CD only).

It is probable that no other conductor will ever understand the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as did Sir Adrian Boult. A contemporary and close personal friend of the composer, Boult made three recordings of VW's most popular and accessible symphony, spanning the history of analog recording: one on 78rpm discs, one on mono LP, and one in stereo. As a performance, I somewhat favor the middle one, which was released recently on a London CD, but the stereo EMI, on LP or CD, is a close second. (I do not care for the Previn.) The discreetly multi-miked recording is very, very good, but hardly superb.