2000 Records to Die For Page 7

Jon Iverson

JOHN LENNON: Anthology
Capitol C2 8 30614 2 (4 CDs). 1998. Yoko Ono, prod.; Rob Stevens, prod., eng.; Mike Rew, Chris Habeck, Mike Anzelowitz, asst. engs. AAD. TT: 4:27:40
There's no way a music lover can pick only two albums each year for the annual "R2D4," so I thought a four-CD boxed set might be a way of sneaking some extra notes under RB's radar. This monumental set appeared late in '98, but nothing I heard in '99 could dislodge it from the top spot. This is as much a sentimental choice as anything else, and by now most folks know whether they like John Lennon or not. I was just old enough when the first of these originals came out to catch the various points Lennon was making, and assumed that his brutal honesty was the typical songwriter's standard. I had no idea how wrong that would turn out to be. Hearing these alternate takes and almost-released tracks reminds me how far away from truth most songwriting has strayed. It's no wonder that millions were devastated when he died 20 years ago—these songs work right into you, with such sincerity and simple logic that Lennon becomes virtually a close, trusted friend. Some of the takes are as lo-fi as you can get, but there are a couple of dozen tracks that were recorded clean as a whistle in 2", 16-track analog glory. The intimate perspective of much of these early-'70s recordings (before gobs of digital reverb was available to drench vocalists) puts you right in the studio watching as the sessions unfold. "He tried to face reality," it says on the cover. Priceless.

Sami Wimme Saari, vocals; Tapani Rinne, woodwinds, keyboards, percussion; Jari Kokkonen, keyboards, programming; Matti Wallenius, ukelele, mandolin; Pauli, keyboards, programming; Kajasto, keyboards
Northside NSD6023 (CD). 1999. Tapani Rinne, prod.; Pauli, Pekka Lappi, Niko Paukkunainen, engs. ADD? TT: 55:57

Out of the cold Nordic reaches of Finland comes one of the most successful meldings of ancient and modern musical forms to date. This is Sami Wimme Saari's second album, and features his stellar use of an ancient vocal technique known as yoik. Couple this shamanistic chant style with a wide instrumental dynamic ranging from pounding drums and electronic bass to frosty ambient stretches of acoustic sound, and you've got a solid set of tunes that grab you by the ears and keep you locked in place. I've been doing an alternate-musics radio program for the last 20 years at the local National Public Radio affiliate here in San Luis Obispo (shameless plug: Tuesdays, 10pm-1am, KCBX, 90.1 FM, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties), and this disc never fails to light up the phones. In fact, I tried it last night, and it still works: "What is that?" came the chorus. So if your tastes run a little to the outside but you want to try something solid that will push your audio system a tad, here it is. But don't ask me to explain what that is on the cover.

Hyperion Knight

BENNO MOISEIWITSCH: Great Pianists of the 20th Century
Piano music of Chopin, Kabalevsky, Liszt, Medtner, Mendelssohn/Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff
Benno Moiseiwitsch, piano; conductor/orchestra in Rach. Concerto 2
Philips 456 907-2 (2 CDs). 1999. Tom Deacon, prod.; Alfred Kaine, Oliver Rogalla, Mark Buecker, engs. ADD. TT: 2:21:23.

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF: A Window in TimePiano music of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven/Rubinstein, Gluck/Sgambati, Henselt, Mendelssohn, Paderewski, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ampico piano rolls
Telarc CD-80491 (CD). 1999. Wayne Stahnke, Robert Woods, prods.; Da-Hong Seetoo, eng. DDD. TT: 62:12

Two highly ambitious projects of piano reissues were realized in 1999. First, Philips completed its behemoth 200-CD Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, almost inevitably sparking resounding controversy regarding its choice of pianists, selection of repertoire, and quality of remastering. While many of Philips' decisions made during this project may have been dubious, a number of volumes were successful on all counts, in particular the set devoted to Benno Moiseiwitch (1890-1963).

Due, perhaps, to his great humility, Moiseiwitch never sought or achieved the fame of peers like Rachmaninoff and Horowitz. But judging by his elegant, individual, and technically stunning recordings, many collectors today rank him among the top dozen pianists of the century. Shrewdly catering to both seasoned collectors and the uninitiated, Philips has included rare Chopin recordings from the late 1950s, showcasing Moisiewitch's grand romantic style in good sound reminiscent of Rubinstein in its melting loveliness, but with the added spice of 19th-century musical insight and freedom.

Of equally great importance is producer Wayne Stahnke's second volume of restored piano rolls by Rachmaninoff on Telarc. While Ampico piano rolls (a vastly superior "player"-piano technology on which most of the great turn-of-the-century pianists recorded) have been known to collectors for decades, the mechanical, often jarring effect of the original reproducing pianos left unfulfilled the dream of hearing a living, breathing ghost from the past. Until now. By transferring the rolls electronically for use by the Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano, Stahnke has made it possible to feel Rachmaninoff's presence—or at least a very close facsimile—in one's own living room. This is truly a breakthrough for musical necromancers. I hope that Telarc will continue this series by resuscitating all of the great pianists of the past!

Richard Lehnert

BRAHMS: Piano Concertos 1 & 2, With: Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24; Waltzes, Op.39
Leon Fleisher, piano; George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra
Sony Classical Masterworks Heritage MH2K 63225 (2 CDs). 1956-62/1997. Opp. 24 & 39 in mono. Howard H. Scott, Thomas Frost, orig. prods.; Louise de la Fuente, reissue prod.; Kevin P. Boutote, Dawn Frank, reissue engs. ADD. TT: 2:17:42

Finally reissued after 15 years in limbo, Leon Fleisher's recordings of Brahms' Piano Concertos 1 (from 1958) and 2 (1962) strike, for me, the best balance between passion and austerity, freshness and maturity. Fleisher's rich tone, flawless technique, and sepia-tinted Romanticism are perfectly counterpoised not only by conductor George Szell's rhythmic rigor and bracing verve, but also by the Cleveland Orchestra's tightly astringent ensemble playing, remarkable even by today's standards. In earlier releases, the sound was typical of Columbia's wretched early-'60s engineering style, but the remastering sounds like real music: a convincing sense of venue, an amazing absence of harshness, and, wonder of wonders, believable bass. This generous, sumptuous package also contains mono recordings from 1956 of Fleisher performing the Waltzes Op.39 and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel—both in fleet, sprightly, idiomatic readings—as well as Fleisher's recollections of the sessions, and reproductions of the original Epic LP covers and inner sleeves. A terrific set. (XXI-5)

FRIFOT: Frifot
Per Gudmundson, fiddle, octave fiddle, Swedish bagpipes, vocal; Ale Möller, mandola, natural flutes, hammered dulcimer, folk harp, shawm, vocal; Lena Willemark, vocal, fiddle, octave fiddle, wooden flute
ECM 1690 (CD). 1999. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Jan Erik Kongshaug, eng. DDD. TT: 65:19

I couldn't bully RB into making this "Recording of the Month," so an "R2D4" badge will have to do. Even if you're among the few who know Swedish folk music, I doubt you've heard anything like Frifot, a trio of Swedish musicians from various disciplines (jazz, folk, Greek blues) who have returned to their roots and seem to have dug deeper than anyone knew was possible. This dark, elementally northern music comforts even as it harrows. It's played and sung with genre-defying, world-class musicianship, and was recorded in sound of a resonance sumptuous even by ECM's own lofty standard, however genetically engineered. See this month's "Record Reviews" for my full report. (XXIII-2)