1991 Records To Die For Page 9

Robert Levine

BARTÓK: Bluebeard's Castle
Walter Berry, Bluebeard; Christa Ludwig, Judith; London Symphony Orchestra, Istvan Kertész
London 414 167-2 (CD only). Erik Smith, prod. ADD. TT: 59:30

This fills the bill. The recording has such depth that it actually scares the listener---there are groans and sighs which come from somewhere evil, and the terrifying and majestic C-major pull-out-the-stops chord with organ at the opening of the fifth door will blow you away. The singing by the two leads is unparalleled; I doubt whether they've ever sounded better. Ludwig's Judith has everything---power, bite, ultimate fear---and Berry makes us cry for Bluebeard. Kertész is a whiz with the strange subtleties and not-so-subtleties of this wonderful score.
MAHLER: Symphony 8
Soloists, Tiffin School Boys' Choir. London Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt
Angel CDCB-47625 (2 CDs only). John Kurlander, Tony Faulkner, engs.; James Mallinson, prod. DDD. TT: 82:39

If it is possible at all to capture this work on discs, EMI's engineers have done so. Tennstedt leads the best all-around reading of this mammoth work available, bringing out every nuance, from the hushed, otherworldly opening of the second part to the gorgeous hymn which closes the work. The overall approach is grand and sweeping rather than pointed and intense (like Solti's---a close second, by the way, except when it comes to the recording itself), but this helps to bring out the work's more lyrical pages. The choirs have to be heard to be believed---they'll knock your socks off. Too often one is merely overwhelmed by the power of Mahler's 8th; here one is overwhelmed by its beauty as well. (XI-1)
MASCAGNI: L'Amico Fritz
Mirella Freni, Suzel; Luciano Pavarotti, Fritz; Vincenzo Sardinero, David; others; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Gianandrea Gavazzeni
EMI CDS 7 47905 8 (2 CDs only). Christopher Bishop, prod.; Christopher Parker, eng. ADD. TT: 92:43

I realize that this is a rather lightweight choice, what with all those Flying Dutchmans (I'd pick Klemperer's), La Bohèmes (I'd pick von Karajan's with Pavarotti and Freni), Beethoven Ninths (Böhm's, probably), and Monteverdi Vespers (Herreweghe's or Parrott's) out there, but here it is. I'll count it as a half, to make up for the one I'm missing in the Ring evaluation below. This is Mascagni's only lovely opera; it catches Freni and Pavarotti in the first bloom of their stardom, and leaves the listener with a really good feeling. I've tried, but I can never find anything wrong with either the performance or its aural presentation---it's analog, with great presence. And basking in the sunshine of the voices of the two leads is a real delight.
The Hilliard Ensemble; Paul Hillier
ECM 1370 (CD only). Manfred Eicher, prod.; Peter Laenger, Stephan Schellmann, engs. DDD. TT: 70:52

This is a staggeringly beautiful and reverential work---stark, rich, sensitive, brutal, simple, and complicated. Its sound is both ancient and modern---timeless. Pärt's writing, unlike any of the other so-called minimalists, is handcrafted and never loses the personal element. Passio is a perfect matching of form and content, and ECM has given it a recording that is ample and intimate at once, with a bass resonance which touches the soul. The 71 minutes have no index or cueing points; the recording becomes part of the fabric of the piece. This is a backrub for the spirit---not to be missed. (XII-2)
WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London, Regine Crespin, James King, Gottlob Frick, Kirsten Flagstad, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerhard Stolze; many others; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti
London 414 100-2 (15 CDs only). Gordon Parry, eng.; John Culshaw, prod. ADD. TT: 14:37:42
Also available individually: Das Rheingold, 414 101-2; Die Walküre, 414 105-2; Siegfried, 414 110-2; Götterdämmerung, 414 115-2.

I'm going to beg the question and count this as one-and-a-half of the five all-time best recordings, only because it wouldn't be fair to count it as one and if I count it, correctly, as four, I would lose a turn and go directly to jail. This ground-breaking project remains epic in scope, execution, and quality. It is, by the way, the loudest Ring on discs, which alone will please many, but this is not to say that it's longer on bombast than on understanding, nuance, or integral complexity. Waves of orchestral sound occasionally threaten to (and even more occasionally, do) overwhelm the singers, but it's a perfect opera-house balance of a really big performance and I can not argue with it.

The casting is the strongest on discs, with Nilsson and Windgassen the best in their roles; ditto Neidlinger as Alberich and Hotter and London as Wotan. The weakest of the three is the Walküre (James King's Siegmund sounds a bit matter-of-fact; he drags Regine Crespin down with him), but it's still splendid, even if it doesn't make it to Böhm's Philips level, let alone the level Solti sets for the rest of the cycle. But the other three are tops in a tough competition: The Rheingold has never been bettered, either sonically or dramatically (the forging of the rainbow bridge and entry of the gods used to have quite an effect in college when we were "in the mood," and it's held up, in the mood or not, since then). Siegfried comes across as a great yarn filled with many multifaceted folk, and sounds beautiful, too. And the Götterdämmerung remains one of the great opera-on-disc experiences, with Nilsson and Windgassen on fire (literally) and Gottlob Frick's Hagen so evil he makes you want to run and hide. In general, this Ring is so rich, and the recording is so brilliant, that I sometimes forget that I've only heard it, never seen it. The Böhm is a close second, but its intensity is very personal; this, the Solti/Culshaw Ring, is the Ring for life.

Lewis Lipnick

BAX: Symphony 3, Dance of Wild Irravel, Paean
Bryden Thomson, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Chandos ABRD 1165 (LP), CHAN 8454 (CD*). Ralph Couzens, eng.; Brian Couzens, prod. DDD. TT: 58:32*

You'll either love or hate this music of Arnold Bax; I happen to fall into the former category. Bax's music is very English, leaning in a direction between Elgar and Delius, but with a definite orchestral sound of Richard Strauss (with whom Bax studied). Although the two short pieces (Dance of Wild Irravel and Paean) are interesting, the real meat here is Symphony 3 (he wrote seven, and numerous orchestral tonepoems). Thomson's performance is superb, with obvious attention to detail (a careful reading of the full score shows that this over-orchestrated piece could easily fall into a murky morass of sonic slop without an excellent ear for balance). Sonically, the recording suffers a bit from an overbright sense of acoustic, but with excellent soundstage, ambience, and without any uninvited editorializing on the part of the recording team.
FAURÉ: Requiem
DURUFLÉ: Requiem

Judith Blegen, soprano; James Morris, bass; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Robert Shaw
Telarc CD-80135 (CD only). Jack Renner, eng.; Robert Woods, prod. DDD. TT: 74:23

If there is one musician alive who exemplifies the total mastery of choral performance, it would have to be Robert Shaw. These performances of two great requiem masses have yet, in my opinion, to be equaled on recording. Both works are presented with extraordinary attention to the composers' written intentions, with the less-well-known Duruflé enjoying about the finest interpretation this musician has ever heard. Although the Atlanta Symphony plays with a high level of competence (with a few intonation problems in the woodwinds and brass), the real jewel is the choral performance, due, no doubt, to Mr. Shaw's remarkable ability to draw the best from massed voices. Sonics are excellent, with natural depth and width, and no highlighting (as with all Telarc releases). On a phase-coherent system, the chorus is clearly set behind the orchestra, and the layering of instruments and voices is stunning. (X-7)
RACHMANINOFF: Symphonies 1-3
Andrew Litton, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony 1, Isle of the Dead
Virgin Classics VC 7 90830-2. TT: 66:54
Symphony 2, Vocalise
Virgin Classics VC 7 90831-2. TT: 70:05
Symphony 3, Symphonic Dances
Virgin Classics VC 7 90832-2. TT: 77:44
All three: CD only. Mark Vigars, Mike Hatch, Simon Rhodes, engs.; Andrew Keener, prod. DDD.

With these performances, Andrew Litton has established himself as "the" interpreter of Sergei Rachmaninoff's orchestral music. I've performed Symphony 2, Symphonic Dances, and Vocalise under this conductor, and can categorically state that this is the first time since Eugene Ormandy that these pieces have come to life. The level of performance on all three discs is remarkably high, especially considering that few English orchestras have the ability to create that special dark, woody tonal quality so necessary to effectively present Rachmaninoff's orchestral works. While other excellent performances of these pieces are available from Vladimir Ashkenazy on London/Decca, Litton's intuitive sense of musical flow, as well as his ability to draw the most exquisite emotional playing from an orchestra, make the competition pale in comparison. The sonics are excellent, with all but the Symphonic Dances (recorded in Walthamstow Assembly Hall) produced in Abbey Road Studio 1. These three discs are a must for anyone serious about orchestral music.
RAMIREZ: Misa Criolla, Navidad en Verano, Navidad Nuestra
José Carreras, tenor; Coral Salvé de Laredo & Sociedad Coral de Bilbao choruses; José Luis Ocejo, Damian Sanchez, conductors
Philips 420 955-2 (CD only). John Newton, eng.; Job Maarse, prod. DDD. TT: 40:17

I know nothing of composer Ariel Ramirez other than that he creates beautiful music. I first heard this recording in Jason Bloom's Apogee suite in Chicago at CES, and have been hooked ever since. Apparently this is not the first recording of the Creole Mass, the first (recommended by Larry Archibald) being produced in Buenos Aires in 1964. This July 1987 performance, recorded in the Santuario de la Bien Aparecida, Cantabria, Spain, has got to stand as one of the outstanding artistic and sonic achievements of the past ten years. José Carreras is a truly great musician, and sings here as if he were creating the music, not merely interpreting the written note. The chorus and band of Latin-American folk instruments are excellent, except for a few intonation problems with the chorus (but this helps give the performance its charm). Sonically, this recording is a knockout, especially if you're a soundstage freak, and the recreation of ambience within the recording venue is about as good as I've ever heard.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Job (A Masque for Dancing)
Vernon Handley, London Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI Eminence CD-EMX 9506 (CD only). Mr. Bear, eng.; Martin Compton, prod. DDD. TT: 47:41

It's a pity this piece is seldom performed nowadays. I remember playing Job as a student and marveling at the composer's uncanny ability to create music both harmonically complex and easy for the listener to assimilate. Originally composed for accompaniment to a ballet, based on William Blake's illustrations to the Book of Job, this work received its first staged performance in London in 1931. Job offers an ideal look into Vaughan Williams's mastery of orchestration, requiring a rather large orchestra, with the addition of bass flute, solo tenor saxophone, and organ (noted as ad lib in the score). This is undeniably a programmatic piece, with a similar sonic palette to the same composer's Symphonia Antartica, is a work gleaned from the score for the film Scott of the Antarctic. If you like Vaughan Williams's symphonies, you'll love Job. Handley's performance is a significant improvement, both musically and sonically, over Sir Adrian Boult's earlier recording. Although Boult was (and is still considered by many) the ultimate interpreter of Vaughan Williams's orchestral works, his rather light and reticent overview of Job is shattered by Handley's more robust, better-paced (Boult is much too slow), and colorful rendition. The engineering by Mr. Bear (aka Michael Clements) is remarkable, with natural soundstaging and awesome dynamic range, without any unnatural spotlighting of instruments. This piece requires the transparency of an English orchestra, and the London Philharmonic doesn't disappoint. Once you've heard this performance, you'll probably wonder why no one ever plays the piece. Damn good question. (XI-3)

Peter W. Mitchell
What a procrustean task this is! On one hand, I must forgo most of my favorite system-busters because they feature trivial music or mediocre performances. On the other hand, I can't include most of my favorite desert-island treasures because they were recorded badly or too long ago. Ah well, one of the most interesting challenges in life is to find a really good compromise, something that satisfies in every way. Here goes:
ELGAR: Cello Concerto, Sea Pictures
Jacqueline du Pré, cello; Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli
EMI CDC 7 47329-2 (CD only). Christopher Parker, eng.; Ronald Kinloch Anderson, prod. AAD. TT: 54:04

Elgar wrote the greatest of all cello concertos, and this performance is one of the most life-affirming musical events ever committed to disc, thanks to a pairing of the old master Barbirolli with the sparkling young du Pré in her prime. Even the LSO seems energized by the occasion, exchanging phrases with the soloist in chamber-music fashion and moving from youthful heart-on-sleeves ardor to deeply somber introspection. Crossed-pair Blumlein miking delivers a seamless soundstage with the solo cello obviously in front of the orchestra, nearer the mikes. The loudest passages saturated the pre-Dolby 1965 master tape, producing moments of congestion; otherwise the sound is fine. Solo cello encores in the original LP were replaced in the 1986 CD release by splendid performances of five sea-related songs.
HANDEL: Water Music
Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert
Archiv 410 525-2 (CD only). Hans-Peter Schweigmann, eng.; Dr. Andreas Holschneider, Charlotte Kriesch, prods. DDD. TT: 54:15

Of the two dozen competing recordings of the Water Music suites, several have considerable music or sonic merit (McGegan on Harmonia Mundi, for example). What's so satisfying about Pinnock's early-instruments group is this: they play with such freshness, variety, and toe-tapping rhythmic swing that every time I put on this disc I feel I am hearing this wonderful music for the first time. The sound is crisp, clear, full-bodied, spacious, and (happily) does not suffer from the hardness that afflicts many other Archiv digitals.
LISZT: Nojima Plays Liszt
Sonata in b, Mephisto Waltz No.1, La Campanella, Harmonies de Soir, Feux Follets
Minoru Nojima, piano
Reference Recordings RR-25 (LP), RR-25CD (CD). Keith O. Johnson, eng.; J. Tamblyn Henderson Jr., prod. AAA/DDD. TT: 59:18

Nojima won the Van Cliburn competition fully two decades ago; yet this triumphant 1986 recording was his debut for most American listeners. While his flying fingers admirably execute Liszt's pyrotechnics, he also brings out structural logic and emotional content that are often overlooked. The Sonata, a masterpiece dedicated to Schumann, becomes a titanic struggle among multiple personalities (perhaps prefiguring Schumann's own insanity). The recording blends close and distant miking, combining a frame of ambience with a detailed perspective in which the piano spans the full width between the speakers. Some low-frequency rumble can be heard on a wide-range system. (XI-4)
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition
STRAVINSKY: Three Dances from Petrouchka

Jean Guillou, pipe organ.
Dorian DOR-90117 (CD only). Craig D. Dory, Brian C. Peters, engs.; Randall Fostvedt, prod. DDD. TT: 53:03

Of these popular orchestral showpieces, the first was composed originally for solo piano while the composer of the second also created a widely played piano version. So a transcription for the tonal resources of a huge pipe organ, while unorthodox, is as legitimate a way to hear these pieces as any---especially since in Dorian's spectacularly wide-range recording they are even more challenging to reproduce than the familiar orchestral arrangements. Clear and spacious highs, shuddering infrabass that goes lower than most subwoofers, and spirited performances add up to a recording that is far more than a stunt. (XIII-3)
PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky, Lieutenant Kije
Christine Cairns, mezzo-soprano; Los Angeles Master Chorale; Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, André Previn
Telarc CD-80143 (CD only). Jack Renner, eng.; Robert Woods, prod. DDD. TT: 61:17

Previn can be dull in mainstream repertoire, but his sobriety serves as a wonderful clarifier when the music is as complex and exotic as it is here. Prokofiev's marvelously varied sonic palette, with pseudo-oriental combinations of bass drum, tam-tam, tuba, cymbals, bells, tambourines, and large chorus, will give your system a real workout. Telarc's recording is superbly clear and naturally balanced, has a huge dynamic range, and produces a soundstage both wide and deep, thanks in part to the Colossus digital processor and the fine acoustics of UCLA's Royce Hall. (XI-4)