1999 Records To Die For Page 6

Robert Deutsch

COMPANY: Original Broadway Cast
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Harold Hastings, cond.
Columbia Masterworks SK 65283 (CD). 1970/1998. Thomas Z. Shepard, orig. & reissue prod.; Fred Plaut, Robert Waller, Ted Brosnan, John Guerriere, orig. engs.; Darcy M. Proper, remix, mastering. ADD? TT: 62:06

This will earn me no points with the Sondheim-is-God folks, but I seldom listen to recordings of shows for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. It's not that I don't respect or admire his scores—I just don't particularly enjoy them. The one exception is Company.

Company I love! The score is sophisticated without being self-consciously avant-garde, borrows from established traditions without being mere pastiche, and always remains tuneful—a description that I would not apply to most of Sondheim's later works. For several years now I've thought of including the original cast recording as one of my R2D4s, but felt that the sound quality of the CD didn't quite justify it. I'm glad I held off. The new CD—part of a series that includes West Side Story, Camelot, and My Fair Lady—has been remixed and remastered to great effect, and is a spectacular-sounding recording by almost any standard.

CHRISTIANE NOLL: A Broadway Love Story
Todd Elison, cond.; David Siegel, orchestrations; Bruce Kimmel, Todd Elison, arr.
Varèse Sarabande VSD-5956 (CD). 1998. Bruce Kimmel, prod.; Vincent Cirilli, eng. DDD. HDCD. TT: 62:06

The sound quality is not really to die for—bright and forward, in typical Varèse Sarabande fashion—but since I received A Broadway Love Story a couple of months ago, I've played it more than all the audiophile super-discs in my collection. Christiane Noll (currently on Broadway in Jekyll and Hyde) has a great musical theater voice: clear, fresh, expressive, immensely appealing, and she moves easily from a powerful belt to a light soprano, never sounding mannered or artificial. She also has what no amount of technique can provide: the ability to touch the listener's heart. The songs are from classic and contemporary musicals, chosen to illustrate the ups and downs of relationships, and the result is a surprisingly coherent whole. Clever arrangements/orchestrations, too, making occasional tongue-in-cheek musical comments on the lyrics (loved the Twilight Zone and "I Remember" quotes).

Shannon Dickson

Gershwin: Works for Orchestra and for Piano & Orchestra
Jeffrey Siegel, piano; Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony
Vox/Turnabout/Classic DAD-1018 (2 DVDs). 1998. No prod. listed. Mark J. Aubort, Joanna Nickrenz, engs. AAD TT: 113:40

While I've always enjoyed Gershwin's more popular music, I've never been a fan of his orchestral works—until now. Classic Records' first two-disc set of 24-bit/96kHz Digital Audio Discs (DADs) has given me a new appreciation for the rich tapestry and wide variety of tonal colors and character changes throughout the Concerto in F. It's all here, from the Concerto and Catfish Row to An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, and others—and with a vibrancy I've rarely heard before. These discs certainly demonstrate the profound impact hi-rez encoding and playback can have on classical music.

DAVE'S TRUE STORY: Sex Without Bodies
Chesky CHDVD174 (DVD). 1998. Richard Julian, David Chesky, prods.; Norman Chesky, exec. prod.; Barry Wolifson, eng. AAD. TT: 48:22
Yet more proof that 24-bit/96kHz DVD-based recording is the way to go. The sonics are spectacular, but Dave's True Story's Sex Without Bodies is much more fun than mere audiophile WOW music. This is a bluesy, jazzy mix of great lyrics and engaging rhythms with a bit of a Bohemian flair. Kelly Flint's voice is wonderfully clear, often sultry, and infuses many of these songs with irresistible swing and passion.

All tunes, except for a cool cover of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," were composed by fellow vocalist and DTS member David Canter, and all were recorded live at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in New York City. One interesting artifact is a bit of RFI in the form of a NYC radio station, which David Chesky told me was due to unexpected rectification in one of the players' Fender amp. It sounds like faint tape hiss on the CD version of the album, but on the hi-rez AAD DVD you can actually make out the song. Since it's heard only during a few quiet passages, it doesn't detract from this otherwise marvelous recording, but illustrates that 24-bit/96kHz encoding demands heroic efforts to stamp out noise and artifacts throughout the recording chain.

Daniel Durchholz

JOHNNY CASH: At Folsom Prison and San Quentin
Columbia/Legacy CGK 33639 (CD). 1968-69/1975. TT: 75:05
They're rowdy, out of control, and sound terrible, but I love every minute of Johnny Cash's famous pair of prison albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. They were recorded in 1968 and 1969, respectively, and the passing of three decades has done nothing to diminish the honesty, compassion, and humor with which Cash performs before the very definition of a captive audience.

Despite legends to the contrary, Cash himself never spent a night in prison. But here he's as nasty as he wants to be. Everyone remembers his familiar boast that he "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," from "Folsom Prison Blues," but there's also the equally grim "Cocaine Blues," a jaunty little memoir of mayhem and murder that winds up with the charming "I can't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down." The fact that, while trying to deliver the song, Cash's voice is shot and his speed-freak dry throat adds a certain something to the proceedings.

Perhaps the thing that is most poignant about the albums is how direct Cash is with his audience. Many of the songs speak directly to the prison experience ("The Wall," "25 Minutes to Go," "San Quentin"), or offer hope for salvation in the next world as an alternative to the misery that this one has become ("Greystone Chapel"). Cash never tries to fool his audience, and you can hear how much they appreciate it.

The other thing that still resonates about these albums is the joyous—some would say fatalistic—attitude of Cash's performance. At the time of these concerts, he was on the verge of becoming one of the biggest mainstream stars in the world, but you'd never know it from listening to these recordings' flubs and bleeped curse words—everything stays in, and Cash just keeps going in a fashion that is breathtaking and very punk rock. Hank Williams gets a lot of credit—and certainly deserves it—for being alt-country's long-gone daddy. But for me, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin are where it all began.

Motown 374 630 319-2 (CD). 1972/1991. Stevie Wonder, prod.; Robert Margouleff, Malcolm Cecil, assoc. prod.; Joan De Cola, Austin Godsey, engs. AAD? TT: 43:27
Except perhaps for the Beatles, no contemporary artist or group has made five albums in a row that operated at as consistently high a level as Stevie Wonder did with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life. At the time, Wonder was in the process of wresting his artistic destiny from Motown's Berry Gordy, yet even when he succeeded, he remained steadfastly loyal to the man and the company that, years before, had exposed his genius to the world.

Talking Book finds the adult Wonder coming into full possession of his powers as a writer, producer, player, and progressive thinker, with material ranging from the unabashedly romantic "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" to the searching "Blame It on the Sun," the politically astute "Big Brother," and the devastating societal wake-up call "Superstition." Ranging from stunningly rich, sophisticated pop to acoustic balladry and deep funk—on "Maybe Your Baby" you can practically envision the artist not then known as Prince springing fully formed from Wonder's head—Talking Book was also one of the first albums that introduced the masses to the Moog and ARP synthesizers, and presaged the timeless greatness of Wonder's masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. Talking Book is pretty timeless its ownself.