1996 Records To Die For Page 14

Peter Catalano

HANDEL: Giustino
Michael Chance, countertenor; Dorothea R;doschmann, soprano; Dawn Kotoski, alto; Freiburger Barockorchester, Nicholas McGegan
Harmonia Mundi 907130.32 (3 CDs only). Robina Young, prod.; Brad Michel, eng. DDD. TT: 2:53:24

There's probably no more experienced a Handel conductor anywhere in the world than Nicholas McGegan, and Giustino may rank among McGegan's best efforts in this repertoire---it's pure pleasure. The Freiburger Barockorchester plays with the confidence of the Berlin Philharmonic: rhythmically crisp and colorfully. The singers are exceptionally fine, led by Michael Chance in the title role. Chance's countertenor sets standards for richness and improvised-sounding variations at the reprises of his arias. Though Act I is a bit generic, III is unalloyed gold, each aria more riveting than the one before. A real winner.

JAMES MacMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross, Cantos Sagrados
Soloists; London Chamber Orchestra, James MacMillan
Catalyst 68125-2 (CD only). Ralph Mace, prod.; Arne Akselberg, eng. DDD. TT: 67:56

All the languorous mystical stasis coming from Europe these days may be a bit overdone, but Britisher James MacMillan's passionate, hard-edged cantata---based on Christ's utterances from the Cross---can be as overwhelming as any of Bach's Passions. "Woman, Behold thy Son" will shatter the heart of even the hardest agnostic, irregularly blazing the same four words over a desperate, often chaotic instrumental line. "Verily, I say unto thee," with a bursting violin solo, keeps up the emotional tensions that's concluded with a long elegiac instrumental closing in "Father, into Thy Hands I commend my spirit." New music doesn't get better than this.

LUTOSLAWSKI: Symphonies 3 & 4
with Les Espaces du Sommeil
John Shirley Quirk, bass; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen
Sony Classical SK 66280 (CD only). David Mottley, prod.; Bud Graham, Richard King, engs. DDD. TT: 67:50

With so much old music and contemporary religious minimalism occupying today's musical imagination, I'm a bit nostalgic for the diamond-hard purity of late-century modernism. Witold Lutoslawski may not be for everyone, but his 1992 Symphony 3 is a bracing relief from current tastes. This may be among the most listenable of Lutoslawski's scores, one with an internal coherence and logic that guide the ear along the most extraordinary juxtapositions. What's most inspired here is the deft blending of patterns derived by random methods fully integrated with ripe, almost late-Romantic writing. Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a coruscating, brilliant tour-de-force.

Frederica von Stade, mezzo; Martin Katz, piano
RCA 62711-2 (CD only). John Pfeiffer, prod.; Anthony Salvatore, eng. DDD. TT: 70:04

It's hard to imagine any other singer traversing 20th-century French song so convincingly as Frederica von Stade. Some may find her French a bit overdone, but clearly she loves the language and caresses it with the utmost stylistic finesse in each of these 37 selections from, among others, Poulenc, Satie, Debussy, Ravel, rarely performed Honegger ("Petit Cours de morale," his homage to the feminine heart), and Messiaen. Each is genuinely intriguing, but most exquisite to me is "Làbas, Vers l'Eglise," from Ravel's Five Greek Songs. Few pieces of music have ever created such an enchanting spell of time and place in three minutes as this. With the estimable Katz, von Stade will make you feel as if it's never going to end.

ANONYMOUS 4: The Lily and the Lamb
Chant and Polyphony from Medieval England
Harmonia Mundi 907125 (CD only). Paul F. Witt, prod.; Tony Faulkner, eng. DDD. TT: 66:45

No one re-creates the awe and piety of Medieval Music so well as the all-female quartet known as the Anonymous 4. Their previous releases have always been high on the charts, and The Lily and the Lamb, devotional English music to Mary, will undoubtedly find a similar spot. Most of these selections are in Latin, but a few are in very Old English which this scholarly quartet convincingly re-creates. Most impressive is the atmosphere they conjure up---of ancient churches and a liturgy that was woven into the lives of our ancestors. In fact, A4 outdoes the Chanting Monks, hands down, in transporting our imaginations to a world long forgotten. (XVIII-12)

Lonnie Brownell
A quick intro: These are my R2D4. I don't know if or how they might apply to your life, but they've been instrumental in mine. Also, the sound quality of some of these might seem a little sketchy to some of you, but the point is that the recordings are good enough to let the music and its meaning come through, undiluted. That's pretty damned good, don't you think? Now go enjoy your own favorite recordings.
BEACH BOYS: Pet Sounds
Brother/Reprise MS 2197 (LP), Capitol CDP 7 48421 2 (CD*). Brian Wilson, prod. AAA. TTs: 36:00, 43:00*
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher produced the ultimate (maybe only) concept album about the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood for suburban, middle-class white kids. While so doing, Brian laid the groundwork for that other Brian, Eno, to realize that one of the most important instruments for creating music in the last half of the 20th century is the recording studio. A major milestone in pop music. This is a mono recording, but it's easily my No.1 R2D4. The CD has some outtake bonus tracks, and is fine, but I still prefer the LP. (XVIII-12)

X: Los Angeles
Slash SR-104 (LP). Ray Manzarek, prod.; Rick Perrotta, Norm Graichen, engs. AAA. TT: 27:15
X were the Beatles of the LA punk scene, and we all thought they were gonna be the next big thing. Unlike many of that day, they could all play the hell out of their instruments. Exene couldn't really hit the notes so well, but John Doe couldn't sing poorly if he tried---in fact, one of the most amazing things about X is how Doe could wrap his smooth croon around Exene's moan'n'wail so that it actually came off like some kind of demented harmony.

PERE UBU: The Modern Dance
Blank 001 (LP). Pere Ubu, Ken Hamann, prods.; Ken Hamman, Paul Hamman, Mike Bishop, engs. AAA. TT: 36:37
The first LP I ever played at a high-end salon, and still a likely choice. A great-sounding recording, with lots of little noises burbling around in the background (and some rock'n'roll oboe, to boot). One of the bands that showed that the "new wave" might actually be worth paying attention to.

MINUTEMEN: Double Nickels on the Dime
SST 028 (2 LPs). Ethan James, prod., eng. AAA. TT: 79:14
The magnum opus from the three dudes from Pedro. Each short song (45 in all!) a little masterpiece; again, these guys could play the bejeezus out of their respective instruments, and, in fact, jazz bass master Charlie Haden called the Minutemen his fave rock band, and jammed with them on occasion. The song "History Lesson (Part II)" from this album said it for them, and me: "Me and Mike Watt played guitars for years / But punk rock changed our lives." Dissonance, shouting, dynamics, and rare moments of quiet beauty---just like life.

Warner Bros. 2WS 1830 (2 LPs). Grateful Dead, prods., Bob Matthews, Betty Cantor, prods., engs. AAA. TT: 75:07
This is from the days when I thought that, with the right combination of music and/or chemicals, you could open the door and get a glimpse at the secrets of the universe, and that these guys had the inside track on finding that lost chord. Some days, it still seems as if they do (or did). And don't forget, Owsley is given credit as a consulting engineer. These guys had an edginess to 'em back then that was buffed smooth over the years. This'll show you what it was all about.

Les Berkley

MAN OF LA MANCHA: Original Broadway Cast
MCA MCAD-31065 (CD). Michael Kapp, prod. ADD. TT: 45:51
The live performance is the reality; the recording is only the mnenomic. The sonics on this disc are pretty bad, but it still sounds as glorious as I remember it, so it must be perfect. In any case, and for what little it may be worth, this music changed my life. Once in a while, these days, it serves to remind me of who I am. (XIV-1)

HESPERION XX: Cansos de Trobairitz
Montserrat Figueras, soprano; Hesperion XX, Jordi Savall, dir.
EMI 065-30 941 (LP). Gerd Berg, prod.; Johann-Nikolaus Matthes, eng. AAA.

There can be no live reference for this performance, at least not in the truest sense; the women who wrought these songs in the sunlight of Languedoc eight centuries ago will not return to tell us how to perform them. Nevertheless, it is also a perfect mnemonic. A labor of love for all concerned, this has not been bettered by any medieval music performance I have heard in the 20 years since its release. The soundstage is enormous and gorgeously detailed, instruments are absolutely natural, and Figueras sings her heart out. A joy, each of the hundred times I have heard it.