1998 Records To Die For Page 7

Hyperion Knight

EARL WILD: The Art of the Transcription
Piano transcriptions of works by Bach, Chopin, Gluck, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Rameau, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Rossini, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner
Earl Wild, piano
Audiofon 72008-2 (2 CDs). 1982. Julian H. Kreeger, prod.; Peter McGrath, eng. ADD. TT: 76:54

For my first appearance in R2D4 I decided to be somewhat contrarian and select a couple of live recordings. This Audiofon set was taped at Carnegie Hall, and although we must endure many beautifully recorded coughs and wheezes from the audience, Earl Wild's musical personality comes through much more vibrantly than in many studio recordings. Wild's stupendous technique and great élan make him a natural to record live, but even with a less polished performer, the added immediacy of the event, along with Audiofon's natural, warm sound, would be well worth any imperfections that might arise.
BRAHMS: Symphony 1
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond.; Hamburg Symphony Orchestra
TAHRA Furt 1001 (CD). 1996. Myriam Scherchen, prod.; J.P. Bouquet, eng. ADD. TT: 68:20

This monaural recording, made from a concert in Hamburg in 1951, has no pretensions to audiophile sound. TAHRA was determined, however, to extract the best sonics possible from the original master tapes, and the new mastering is a revelation. Deep, rich bass, and full-bodied, surprisingly detailed sound (for the time) greatly enhance this experience of what may be the greatest conception of a Brahms symphony on record.

As the obituaries for classical music keep rolling in, it's worth pondering anew our modern compulsion for relentless perfection, polish, and conformity. While major American orchestras are losing record contracts almost daily, interest in performances like this, sloppy and eccentric by today's standards, continues to swell.

Richard Lehnert

TERRY EVANS: Puttin' It Down
AudioQuest/JVC XRCD JVCXR-0014-2 (CD). 1993. TT: 53:15
MIGHTY SAM McCLAIN: Give It Up to Love
AudioQuest/JVC XRCD JVCXR-0012-2 (CD). 1995. TT: 54:29
Both: Joe Harley, Akira Taguchi, prods.; Michael C. Ross, eng.; Alan Yoshida, remastering eng. AAD.

Two sets of some of the best blues performances ever recorded, in unbelievably good sound. Both have been Stereophile "Recordings of the Month," and they've become some of my favorite recordings of all time. Originally produced by AudioQuest Music's Joe Harley with all the audiophile trimmings---rather, a distinct audiophile lack of any trimmings at all---both have now been considerably improved by the application of JVC's XRCD magic. The senses of space, limitless bass response, vocal verisimilitude, and of everyone playing in the same room together are unprecedented in recordings of this kind of music. And "presence"? Just make sure your "sweet spot" is wide enough for Sam and Terry to sit down next to you.

So much for audiogeek twaddle. What is "this kind of music"? Some of the most passionate, deeply felt blues singing I've ever heard. Both Evans and McClain have deep, rich voices as big as their XL hearts. The loneliness of Mighty Sam's unaccompanied voice in "Lonesome Road," the mingled passion, pride, and pain in Evans' almost operatic cover of J.B. Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi," are just a few examples you'll find here of what I hope you'll forgive this terminally white man for thinking the blues is all about. And with sidemen (on the Evans) like Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and George Bohanon, it's almost too much of a good thing. (Puttin' It Down, XIX-1, XX-6; Give It Up to Love, XVI-10, XX-6)

Robert Levine

GERSHWIN: Porgy & Bess
Cynthia Haymon, Bess; Willard White, Porgy; Gregg Baker, Crown; Damon Evans, Sportin' Life; Cynthia Clarey, Serena; others; Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle
EMI 56220 2 (3 CDs). 1989. David R. Murray, prod. DDD. TT: 3:09:32

As we've all come to realize, Porgy and Bess is not only true Grand Opera, it's probably the grandest opera America has so far produced. I was surprised by how great this non-American production was when I first heard it (I thought we owned the idiom, apparently). I still am. The singing and playing are consistently ideal, and the recorded sound is a perfect complement, but there's more: Rattle understands the jazz from which much of the music springs, and uses rubato in a manner that manages to be both bluesy and classical at once. And wait 'til you hear Evans as Sportin' Life---wow! (XIII-9)
MOZART: Don Giovanni
Eberhard Waechter, Don Giovanni; Giuseppe Taddei, Leporello; Joan Sutherland, Donna Anna; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Donna Elvira; Luigi Alva, Don Ottavio; Gottlob Frick, Commendatore; others; Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Carlo Maria Giulini
EMI 56232 2 (3 CDs). 1961. Walter Legge, prod. ADD. TT: 2:42:09

Every time I feel despair over the fact that every recording of this great work is seriously flawed in one way or another, this now-36-year-old recording pops into my mind, and I feel better. Giulini's leadership is amazingly supple---he changes mood as quickly and subtly as does Mozart, and no trick, neither of dramma nor of giocoso, is missed. Waechter is both desirable and hateful, Taddei's Leporello is in your face without mugging, Schwarzkopf has never been more interesting, and Sutherland sings Anna better than anyone---period. Alva's Ottavio is as smooth as Frick's Commendatore is angular. The analog sound is big and true. No real competition.

Paul Messenger

Arista A2L 8604 (2 LPs, op), ARPDK-2-1053 (CD). 1981. Betty Cantor-Jackson, prod., eng.; Dan Healy, Jerry Garcia, prods. AAA/AAD. TT: 72:22

The original "Unplugged" album (long before MTV got in on the act with Nirvana, et al), Reckoning was taped live in 1980 and released in 1981, when the band was beginning to settle down into middle age. The Grateful Dead was always a live-performance experience, and many live albums have been released, often of dubious sound quality. Not so this gorgeous-sounding, beautifully transparent acoustic set, which, despite the odd bum note, makes its gentle, lyrical way through the most tuneful of the band's mature repertoire. The absence of electric instruments keeps self-indulgence under control, yet the spine-tingling turbocharger kick-in between "Bird Song" and "Ripple" shows that subtlety and delicacy can be just as effective as raw power.
Freestyle Dust/Virgin 8 42950 1 (2 LPs), 8 42950 2 (CD). 1997. Tom Rowlands, Ed Simons, The Chemical Brothers, prods.; Steve Dub, Tim Holmes, Jon Dee, engs. DDA/DDD. TT: 63:27

Dance Music (under a whole variety of subgenres) dominates today's youth culture, but doesn't easily distill down for home hi-fi consumption. To these middle-aged ears, The Chemical Brothers just shade The Prodigy as the two most interesting acts, and DYOH was the disc of 1997. Its hard-edged, electrosynthetic, block-rockin' beats have nothing to do with pretty, gentle, or soothing. This is rock'n'roll 1997-style, with all those half-remembered riffs cropping up again (check recent UK chart-topper "Setting Sun" against the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows") in a setting of considerable power and energy. Vocals are limited to occasional sound-bite samples, but the music combines exceptional bandwidth with artful dynamic shading and tension, and a mastery of structural ebb, flow, and segue that recalls the Dead at their peak---but on speed.