1995 Records To Die For Page 9

Guy Lemcoe

NINE INCH NAILS: Downward Spiral
Nothing/TVT/Interscope 92346-2 (CD); PR 5509 (2 LPs, domestic); Island ILPSD 8012/522 126-1 (2 LPs, import). Flood, Trent Reznor, prods.; Alan Moulder, Bill Kennedy, Sean Beavan, Chris Vrenna, Brian Pollack, John Aguto, engs. AAA/AAD? TT: 65:10

Painfully dark, ominous, and menacing, this music gnaws incessantly at your insides like a mutant tapeworm. The rude, vivid lyrics are chilling testimony to a society (or an individual) on the verge of collapse. And don't look to the brief, unsettlingly quiet and melodic interludes for comfort---they only serve to heighten the intensity of the sonic assaults to follow. Compelling this music is, pleasant it is not.

The album is a sonic gem---especially my domestic LP, which makes mincemeat of the CD---and will push any system to the edge. Deep, deep bass and stadium-size soundstaging and dynamics that'll loosen fillings are just a few of the hi-fi kicks awaiting adventuresome listeners.

JOHNNY CASH: American Recordings
American 45520-1/-2 (LP/CD). Rick Rubin, prod.; Jim Scott, eng. AAA/AAD? TT: 41:54

I heard a knock at the door. I opened it, and in front of me stood a tall, heavily weathered man with a black Martin strapped across his back. He said he needed a place to rest, and had been attracted to my apartment by a Hank Williams song wafting through my open bedroom window. I invited him in, and watched and listened as the man in black tuned his guitar and began to sing.

The rhythmic thuck-thuck of the stylus in the lead-out grooves of the first side of American Recordings rudely awakened me. The recording's honesty had lulled me into that rare state of listening where the line between illusion and reality no longer exists. This album is an intimate recital of American popular music performed by one of its greatest, most persistent, and loyal advocates. (XVII-7)

Robert Levine

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra
Piero Cappuccilli, Simon Boccanegra; Mirella Freni, Maria; Nicolai Ghiaurov, Fiesco; José Carreras, Gabriele Adorno; José van Dam, Paolo; Chorus & Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Claudio Abbado
DG 415 692-2 (2 CDs only). Rainer Brock, prod. ADD. TT: 2:16:16

Simon Boccanegra has always been a hard sell, even to lovers of Verdi. Its overpowering darkness, in plot and in vocal and orchestral coloring, may account for its neglect, but one of the things which may have accounted for its popularity is this 1977 recording. Magically, magnificently, Abbado and his La Scala forces catch and communicate its essence, and Rainer Brock and his engineers make it shimmer. The cast is ideal: Cappuccilli in his only thoroughly convincing performance of anything ever, Freni simply lovely, Ghiaurov deep as the sea, Carreras fresh and ardent. A rich, full brew.

BRITTEN: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Alfred Deller, Oberon; Elizabeth Harwood, Tytania; Peter Pears, Lysander; Thomas Helmsley, Demetrius; Josephine Veasey, Hermia; Heather Harper, Helena; Owen Brannigan, Bottom; others; London Symphony, Choirs of Downside and Emanuel Schools; Benjamin Britten
London 425 663-2 (2 CDs only). John Culshaw, prod. ADD. TT: 2:24:12

From the opening glissandos to the final chord, this evocative recording gets to the core of this wonderful, one-of-a-kind opera. Britten gives us nature in MND---the woods keep changing, the sky doesn't always shed enough light to see. Similarly, human nature is changeable, and humans can't always make things out. It's spooky and atmospheric, and the singers and players are devoted to its mysteries. Deller's diaphanous sound sets the other-worldly tone; its direct opposite is Owen Brannigan's deliciously drawn Bottom. All the others are in-between, where they belong, with Puck racing from speaker to speaker just to keep us and the engineers busy. A real dream. (XV-2)

Lewis Lipnick

POULENC: Stabat Mater

Christine Goerke, soprano; Marietta Simpson, mezzo; Victor Ledbetter, baritone; Atlanta Symphony & Chorus, Robert Shaw
Telarc CD-80362 (CD only). Robert Woods, prod.; Michael Bishop, eng. DDD. TT: 58:24

Robert Shaw, the master of choral conducting, has done it again with this magnificent performance of two great masterpieces. The more-often-performed Poulenc receives the best interpretation I've yet heard, with a life and energy that bring out this composer's uniquely angular, harmonically rich choral writing. The real reason to buy this disc, however, is for the Szymanowski, which for some reason has remained undeservedly obscure. This is some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard; it really brings out the humanity and tragedy of the text. Shaw clearly understands the composer's inner feelings, with a serene yet very moving interpretation. All three soloists, chorus and orchestra, and Telarc's sensitive engineering are in top form, collectively creating a musical experience that elevates the listener into another world.

RACHMANINOFF: Symphony 3,Symphonic Dances
David Zinman, Baltimore Symphony
Telarc CD-80331 (CD only). Robert Woods, prod.; Jack Renner, eng. DDD. TT: 73:31

Heaven knows that there are several other good recorded performances of both of these works, but none that I know of offer such rhythmic drive, energy, and richness of tonal palette. I've played both of these pieces ad nauseam with too many lesser conductors; Zinman does the best job since Ormandy of communicating his complete understanding of Rachmaninoff's scores to his musicians. The Baltimore Symphony plays magnificently, with a degree of precision and communal understanding of the music that is rare indeed. Sonically, this recording is a knockout, capturing the excellent acoustics of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, along with every nuance of this superb performance.