1994 Records To Die For Page 2

Paul L. Althouse

BRAHMS: Piano Concerto 1; Two Songs, Op.91
Stephen Kovacevich, piano; Ann Murray, contralto; Wolfgang Sawallisch, LPO
EMI CDC 7 54578-2 (CD only). John Fraser, prod.; Mark Vigars, eng. DDD. TT: 59:28

Until this recording came along, it seemed that no performance would ever match up to my old favorites: Curzon/Szell for poetry and Serkin/Szell for a dynamic approach. Kovacevich, one of the rare musicians who makes too few records, has Brahms's full measure in this powerful early work. He sees it more as a profound search than as a vehicle for pianistic virtuosity. The big sections have plenty of fire and strength, but never at the expense of more reflective moments. The slow movement, hushed and deeply expressive, has never sounded better. The "Viola" songs, expertly sung by Ann Murray, are nice filler. (XVI-7)
SCHUBERT: Impromptus, D.899, 935
Andreas Haefliger, piano
Sony SK 53108 (CD only). Wolf Erichson, prod.; Markus Heiland, eng. DD. TT: 62:24

It's wonderful how these eight modest pieces can sum up so much of what's good in life and still make me aware of my inner longings. Young Andreas Haefliger understands Schubert on this level, and communicates it with unfailing sensitivity. Simply put, he knows how to shape a phrase and emphasize a chord or modulation without impeding the directness and flow of Schubert's language. The piano sound is equal to the best I've heard on CD. (XVI-10)
SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C
Alban Berg Quartet; Heinrich Schiff, cello
EMI CDC 7 47018-2 (CD only). Gerd Berg, prod.; Johann Nikolaus Matthes, eng. DDD. TT: 47:21

Of the many recordings I've heard of the Schubert Quintet, none addresses the piece's many different sides better than this one. Some rival groups play it as a big, intense, Beethovenian work suitable for large concert halls; others bring out a sentimentality and get lost in detail. The Berg Quartet plus Heinrich Schiff get it just right: this performance is expressively detailed but never loses a sense of flow. They don't take the first-movement repeat, which is a good idea in a work of this length.
STRAUSS Four Last SongsOrchestral Songs
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; George Szell, LSO, Berlin RSO
EMI CDC 7 47276-2 (CD only). Walter Legge, prod.; Ernst Rothe, Wolfgang Guelich, Robert Gooch, engs. AAD. TT: 63:43

Are there any songs more gorgeous than the four Strauss wrote shortly before his death? Could there ever be a more persuasive interpreter than Schwarzkopf? Earlier versions with Schwarzkopf (Ackermann and a concert Karajan performance) may be more exciting vocally, but they're mono. In this version she has more maturity, good mid-'60s sound (excellent, says JA), and Szell's expert accompaniment. The CD sounds terrific, though my old British LP (ASD 2888) is a touch better.
Felicity Lott, soprano; Jonathan Summers, baritone; Bernard Haitink, LPO, LPO Choir
EMI CDC 7 49911 2 (CD only). John Fraser, prod.; Mike Sheady, eng. DDD. TT: 71:12

Walt Whitman's rugged and idealistic poetry found a perfect match in Vaughan Williams's music. A Sea Symphony may be flawed and inferior to later Williams, but the composer's sincerity and passionate involvement are nonetheless felt. There are other fine recordings of this work, by Boult, Handley, and Previn, but my favorite is this expansive one by Haitink. It's a great sonic blockbuster---beautifully recorded, with several spots tailor-made for breaking-in subwoofers

"Dr. Feelgood"

CHOPIN: Piano Concerto 1
LISZT: Piano Concerto 1

Earl Wild, piano; Sir Malcolm Sargent, RPO
FAURÉ: Ballade for Piano & Orchestra
Earl Wild, piano; Charles Gerhardt, National PO
Chesky CD93 (CD only). Charles Gerhardt, prod.; K.E. Wilkinson, eng. ADD. TT: 72:41

These are absolutely fabulous performances from one of the greatest living pianists, from a period (1962-67) when his touch, timing, and dynamism were astonishing---not that he's any slouch now. The works played were first performed in 1830, 1855, and 1881, and offer a brief overview of the 19th century in terms of romantic works for piano and orchestra.

The production from these different sessions is consistent---the apparent acoustic and orchestral sound varies, but not startlingly so. The piano sound is very good if not perfect, with the delicate scales and trills---the true delights of this CD---captured perfectly. The orchestras are presented with lots of spaciousness, and some extra brightness. The Liszt has blockbuster orchestral sound.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
Atlantic SD8139 (LP), 8139-2 (CD). Jerry Wexler, prod.; Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, engs. AAA/AAD. TT: 33:05

There are less than ten records I've played as much as this one. I can't imagine someone putting this number of profound hits on two sides of vinyl ever again---in just over 33 minutes. If you didn't get what Aretha's all about from her peformance at Clinton's inauguration, try this.

I'm pretty sure the LP is still in print (I haven't heard the CD); but if not, there have to be millions of used ones around. An absolutely first-rate party record---though better for slow dances than fast. Sonic quality, while multi-miked and pan-potted, is just fine. "Takin' care of business is really this man's game..."

John Atkinson

MICHAEL RUFF: Speaking in Melodies
Sheffield Lab CD-35 (CD only). Clair Marlo, prod.; George Massenburg, Nathaniel Kunkel, Gavin Lurssen, Rail Rotgut, engs.; Doug Sax, mastering. DDD. TT: 60:07

"Here's another audiophile recording, all sound and no substance," was how Stereophile's keeper of the musical flame, aka Richard Lehnert, characterized this "live-to-2-track" disc as he handed it to me. Dutifully I took it home and listened. Well, it does sound superb: clean, dynamic, with extended, filigree highs, deep fundamental lows. A positive paradigm. And the drum sound is the best I've heard. In an oversampled age when engineers universally think a snare drum should sound like gated white noise, and toms and kick drums have no business sounding any different from crude, damped sinewave oscillators, Per Lindvall's drums are different---they've been recorded by engineers who care what the real thing sounds like. The 0dBFS snare on this recording makes me jump right out of my skin; the kick drum propels the music along with toe-tapping intensity. And the band, recorded live in Oceanway Studio, cooks like enthusiasm was going out of style. Throw in intelligent arrangements from singer/songwriter/pianist Ruff and producer Clair Marlo, some attractively melodic songs, musicians who know that music lies in the spaces between the notes, a solidly subtle bass guitar, a suitably loose piano, and the inspired use of a trombone, and you have an "audiophile" album that needs no apology.

JOHN TAVENER: Ikon of Light, Funeral Ikos, Carol: The Lamb*
The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips and John Tavener,* with members of the Chilingirian String Quartet
Gimell CDGIM 005 (CD), 1585-05 (LP). Steve C. Smith, Peter Phillips, prods.; Mr. Bear, eng. DDD/DDA. TT: 55:25

The modern composer John Tavener (not to be confused with the 17th-century composer John Taverner, from whom Tavener claims descent) blends Eastern Orthodox influences with a gloriously harmonic approach to chord voicing that's positively fetishistic. This 1984 album blends unaccompanied choral works---the radiant setting of William Blake's The Lamb and the faith-reaffirming Funeral Ikos---with a major work, Ikon of Light. In this last, a double choir is set against a distant string trio, proclaiming God as Light Shining Forth through seven mirror-imaged movements to give, in director Phillips's words, "a majestic impression of luminosity''---or, in those of a Gramophone writer, "a gentle stillness."

The luminous sound, engineered by the redoubtable Mr. Bear, suitably serves the music by setting the singers back within Merton College, Oxford. Some very ambient recordings can sound cold, bleak, uninviting. Yet here, the listener is warmly drawn into the delicious acoustic. This is true virtual reality. Alleluia.