2004 Records To Die For Page 5


THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival
Epic/Legacy E2K 86909 (2 CDs). 2003. Ray Colcard, Harry Zerler, orig. recordists; Norbert Ward, Tim Geelan, Russ Payne, orig. engs.; Jerry Rappaport, prod. TT: 79:55/74:40
Call me crazy, but I think this double CD betters the acknowledged Allmans classic At Fillmore East, recorded eight months later. Whatever they did at Sony, the sound is better than I'd ever expect of a live festival recording from 1970, while the performances—the Allmans on home turf!—remind you what a devastating loss blues'n'boogie fans suffered with Duane Allman's and Berry Oakley's deaths. It sounds in places like a warmup for Fillmore, but there's a certain vibe that makes it somehow more vivid. The bonus of Johnny Winter in "Mountain Jam" is icing on a very rich cake.

Decca Phase 4 Stereo PFS 34011 (LP). 1962. No production credits. AAA.
Sorry to send you to eBay, but this little masterpiece turned up in a batch of used test LPs (the collecting of which is my guilty pleasure) and shocked me senseless. Decca Phase 4s were always good, if melodramatic; this one makes most "Shaded Dogs" sound like, well, dogs. It's orchestral corn with percussion to the fore, but it simply dazzles. I took it to the home of the most fastidious listener alive, SME's Alastair Robertson-Aikman, and even he chuckled with delight. The bonus? The sort of detailed recording info (except for technical crew) that qualifies as audio porn. Beyond question, the most breathtaking transients I've ever heard, and now my definitive system workout.


Marian Anderson, contralto; Franz Rupp, piano
RCA Victor Red Seal 63575-2 (CD). 2000. Harold Hagopian, remastering prod.; Hsi-Ling Chang, remastering eng. AAD. TT: 75:34

Remarks about sound are irrelevant here; this disc showcases a voice the like of which Toscanini said turns up once in a hundred years. Two Schubert selections are simply devastating, and the artist's opulent contralto is only part of the explanation. On "Ave Maria," the humble, deeply religious Anderson, who closed her eyes when she sang, seems truly blind to all but the Blessed Virgin. Don't close your eyes as her voice moves in step with the funeral march played by her accompanist, Franz Rupp, during "Death and the Maiden." If you do, when she intones the antagonist's seductive promise—"You shall gently in my arms sleep"—dropping her pitch dramatically on the second syllable of the final word, "schlafen," and singing from the very depth of her being, you might be sufficiently overcome to embrace him.

Marian Anderson, contralto
RCA Victor Red Seal 63306-2 (CD). 1936-52/1999. Harold Hagopian, remastering prod.; Hsi-Ling Chang, remastering eng. AAD. TT: 75:19

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner advocated "reminding [man] of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." Marian Anderson did precisely that when performing spirituals, her voice ringing out like her native Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. This disc comprises 30 selections recorded between 1936 and 1952, and illuminates a key facet of the great classical singer's repertory. Mining her African-American background, Anderson made spirituals an integral part of her recitals, and they thrilled listeners worldwide, including those who couldn't understand English. After she concluded a 1936 performance in Leningrad, a throng stormed forward and began hammering on the stage with insistent fists, shouting "Deep River" and "Heaven, Heaven," the titles of two she had just sung. The contralto graciously treated them to several encores. Hallelujah!


Tord Gustavsen, piano; Harald Johnsen, double bass; Jarle Vespestad, drums
ECM 1834 (CD). 2003. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Jan Erik Kongshaug, eng. DDD. TT: 66:01

Changing Places hypnotizes with the seeming inevitability of its every note, from first to last. Pianist Tord Gustavsen's original ballads are as haunting as the most careworn standards, and he so reveres silence that he sometimes seems barely able to bear his own touch on the keys. One hears the notes he omits as clearly as the notes he plays, and those he plays are invariably the right ones at the right time (to paraphrase J.S. Bach). Gustavsen is alternately supported and left to stand alone by bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad, whose taste and restraint are as exquisite as their leader's. Together, the three can make even Bill Evans' classic sessions sound overbearing by comparison. The sound is rich and resonant, with that spacious intimacy that only ECM seems capable of capturing. One of the quietest, most profound piano-trio recordings ever released. (XXVI-6)

WAGNER: Scenes from The Ring
Siegfried: "Nothung! Nothung!," "Dass der mein Vater nicht ist," "In der Höhle hier lieg' auf dem Hort!" Götterdämmerung: Dawn, "Zu neuen Taten," Siegfried's Rhine Journey, "Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!," Funeral March
Plácido Domingo, Siegfried; David Cangelosi, Mime; Violeta Urmana, Brünnhilde; Natalie Dessay, Forest Bird; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Antonio Pappano
EMI Classics 5 57242 2 (CD). 2002. David Groves, prod.; Simon Rhodes, Jonathan Allen, engs. DDD. TT: 69:55

This disc and its companion from 2000, Wagner: Love Duets, are probably as close as we will ever come to hearing Plácido Domingo sing a complete Siegfried. It is a loss. Domingo sounds here better than ever, and while his German diction could use some coaching, his Germanic style at this point is more echt deutsch than one could hope for from a Spaniard in his seventh decade. There's real Teutonic steel in the voice—Domingo's sheer power, accuracy, focus, and passion here make him the male equivalent of Birgit Nilsson. Then there's the conducting of Antonio Pappano, the current musical director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, who marries the breadth, sweep, and stately inevitability of Furtw;dangler and Goodall to a precision of tempo and ensemble that, respectively, neither of those giants could ever quite attain. The programming of scenes alternating with orchestral passages is brilliant, and the sound is gorgeous: the orchestra is Wagner's mythic world in all its shapes and colors, on a soundstage of immense depth and breadth. Even with Natalie Dessay (!) making a complete mess of the Forest Bird, this is the best all-around Wagner I've heard in years.


VIVALDI: La verita in cimento
Gemma Bertagnolli, soprano; Guillemette Laurens, mezzo-soprano; Sara Mingardo, Nathalie Stutzmann, contraltos; Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi
Opus 111 OP30365 (2 CDs). 2003. Jean-Pierre Loisil, prod.; Pierre-Antoine Signoret, eng. DDD. TT: 2:38:10

VIVALDI: La Stravaganza
Rachel Podger, violin; Arte dei Suonatori
Channel Classics CCS 19598 (2 CDs). 2003. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, prod.; C. Jared Sacks, eng. DDD. TT: 102:59

I hadn't meant to turn this into a Vivaldi love-fest, but with these two releases, the negation of a consensus that has been happily fading for some time is complete, that being that Vivaldi was an entertaining craftsman who wrote hundreds of pretty good, easy-to-take concertos (or one concerto 500 times, as naysayers say) and a couple of masterpieces (The Four Seasons and the Gloria). It may be the maturing of the Historically Informed Performance practice that has shed fair, radiant light on dozens more of Vivaldi's works, but it doesn't matter: As these two works—an opera and a set of 12 violin concertos—demonstrate, Vivaldi was a great composer: Perhaps the mundane works were the exception and not the rule?

La verita in cimento is an opera in which a sultan wishes to set the truth straight: the son who has been raised as his rightful heir and the son who was raised as the bastard were switched at birth, and by unraveling the lie, the court, the mothers, the succession, and a prospective marriage for the son(s) are thrown into turmoil. The feelings expressed in the 24 arias (all da capo, all relatively brief)—jealousy, rage, sarcasm, love, disappointment—are vivid, bordering on ferocious, and intensely express the characters' strong personalities. The scoring is varied, the playing and singing are theatrical and bright, and all involved embellish their lines to great effect: the music leaps from the speakers and the performances are brilliant. A knockout of a surprise.

La Stravaganza has been recorded before, but never like this. Granted, Vivaldi violin concertos tend to sound like Vivaldi violin concertos, but Rachel Podger and a conductorless Polish band called Arte dei Suonatori play this music as if it were written to impress—which, in fact, it was. With a continuo section made up of archlute, guitar, theorbo, harpsichord, and organ, even the omnipresent string tone is varied and colorful. From dainty to daring to heartbreaking to weirdly unexpected, Podger's ability to find an odd rhythm or odd dissonance and her fearless riffing and improvising make this gorgeously recorded set another Vivaldi recording to die for. (XXVI-7)


MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Quasthoff, bass; Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 459 646 (CD). 1999. Christopher Adler, prod.; Ulrich Bette (balance), Reinhard Lagemann (recording), engs. DDD. TT: 57:04

The last track on this recording is Mahler's orchestral song "Urlicht," which means "primal light." Although the lyrics are hopeful, and the song was later included as a movement in Mahler's Symphony 2, "Resurrection," there is an underlying poignancy, a realization that the end of this life is the inescapable precondition of gaining primal light and resurrection. It seems to me that in Mahler's extraordinarily clear and evocative brass writing in this song, on behalf of us all he bids farewell to the 500 years of Western musical tradition between Gabrieli and himself. Von Otter's rapturous interpretation, for me at least, eclipses Schwarzkopf's.

R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs
Lucia Popp, soprano; London Philharmonic, Klaus Tennstedt
EMI 7 47013 2 (CD). 1982. John Willan, prod.; Neville Boyling, eng. DDD. TT: 49:38

There are many fine recordings of the Four Last Songs, but for me this one stands above the rest. There is a slight but perceptible undercurrent of effortfulness to Lucia Popp's totally engaged singing. She actually does use her voice as an instrument; this is one of the few times that that cliché rings true. In comparison, another performance one at first might be tempted to praise as "effortless" might, on repeated listenings, turn out to feel disembodied or lacking conviction. Klaus Tennstedt's sensitive, collegial conducting of these thick, complex scores is all one could ask for. His flexible, generally relaxed tempos and careful attention to dynamic shading make it easier to appreciate Strauss's genius for orchestration and formal compositional technique. The early digital sound is not bad at all.


TOM WAITS: Rain Dogs
Island 422 826 382-2 (CD). 1985. Tom Waits, prod.; Robert Musso, Howie Weinberg, engs.; Dennis Ferrante, Tom Gonzales, Jeff Lippay, asst. engs. AAD. TT: 53:46

CHRIS LEE: Cool Rock
Misra MSR018 (CD). 2003. Matt Verta-Ray, Nicholas Marantz, Mark Nevers, Jim Demain, engs. AAD? TT: 31:23

My band broke up on the same day that my new apartment was broken into. Among other, more easily replaceable things, my guitar was stolen. It was a bad, bad day. For several days after, music did nothing but upset me. I didn't want to hear or play a single note. When I did turn to music for comfort, there was only one album that I found bearable: Tom Waits' Rain Dogs.

It seems like a strange choice even to me, but I think it has something to do with the way the album vacillates between odd and playful songs, such as "Singapore" and "Cemetery Polka," and heart-wrenching blues like my absolute favorite, "Hang Down Your Head." Rain Dogs lets you get lost but doesn't let you go too far away. It's about being insane and catching a train and finding that home is everywhere. It was just what I needed.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I should go out and buy a dozen more copies of Rain Dogs to pass out to all my friends who were so supportive, who offered me places to stay and guitars to play. Because what I learned from all this is that nothing much matters as long as I've got my friends.

It's also particularly nice when one of your friends records his own beautiful albums. Chris Lee's Cool Rock is the final installment in a series he calls Love Songs in C Major. This third album continues where the second one left off, but goes further, featuring longtime collaborators Steve Shelley and Jeremy Wilms on drums and bass, respectively, while introducing jazzy vibraphones courtesy of Yusuke Yamamoto and horns from the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. When I finally felt ready to listen to something besides Rain Dogs, it was Cool Rock. I hadn't put the CD in the player for months, but all the words to these eight simple, delicate, and undeniably honest pop songs came right back to me. I found myself singing along, and that, of course, was just what I needed. Only problem was, I couldn't reach the high notes. I reckon there's no skinny white guy with as much sass and soul as Chris.