2005 Records To Die For Page 6


DANIEL CATÁN: Florencia en el Amazonas
Mark S. Doss, Patricia Schuman, Ana Maria Martinez, Suzanna Guzmán, Hector Vasquez, Oren Gradus, Chad Shelton; Houston Grand Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Patrick Summers
Troy 531/32 (2 CDs). 2002. No eng. or prod. listed. DDD. TT: 98:52
Mexican composer Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas was first performed in Houston in 1996; from there it traveled to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Bogatá before returning, to great popular and critical acclaim, to Houston in 2001, where and when this recording was taped. Catán and his librettist, Marcela Fuentes-Barain, acknowledging a debt to the great Colombian writer Gábriel García Márquez, have fashioned an opera out of what is called "magical realism." Call it what you will; this story of a small group of people on a steamboat sailing down the Amazon in the early 1900s to hear a legendary opera singer—who, unbeknownst to them, is also on the ship and is trying to "rediscover" her real self and her butterfly-hunter lover, who has disappeared—somehow manages to make perfect sense. There is something so postromantically lush about this composition, so evocative of its time and place, that you buy into the whole thing. You can practically feel the humidity and breezes, hear the birds and smell the vegetation. The surge of the sea is omnipresent; the rhythm of the samba occasionally interrupts. Puccini, Ravel, Debussy, epic film music—it's all here, flowing seamlessly, beautifully sung and inexorably led by Patrick Summers, in vivid, Technicolor sound. If you don't resist this work's abundance, you'll be caught from the first notes, and on an incredible journey. (XXVI-6)

HANDEL: La Lucrezia; Arias from Theodora, Serse
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Harry Bicket
Avie 0030 (CD). 2004. Nicholas Parker, prod.; Everett Porter, eng. DDD. TT: 67:01
Mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gets better and better. Her quiet intensity and beautiful, warmly colored voice demand attention, and listening to her sing is always an emotional experience on one hand and a study of the beauty of singing on the other. Just try, to begin, the end of this CD: "Ombra mai fù" (aka "Handel's Largo") has been heard so often, in so many different arrangements sung by so many different voices, that you might think you can no longer be moved, interested, or surprised by it. Think again—the even tone and intimate approach Hunt Lieberson brings to this odd love song to a tree will catch you up and make you once again appreciate the lovely melody and pure, unadorned sentiment, sung here in long-breathed phrases. Conversely, as the violated Lucrezia, Hunt Lieberson alternately rages against the man who raped her and turns her grief inward; the former is terrifying in its intensity, the latter makes us almost feel as if we're eavesdropping. The five arias for Irene, Theodora's friend and confidante and the upholder of Christian beliefs, are all magical prayers or statements of faith; from Hunt Lieberson they become real, each word honestly conveyed and colored. The voice itself is unfailingly beautiful, the sincerity never in doubt. She is backed ideally by Handel genius Harry Bicket. The sound is warm and as utterly unaffected as the performances. (XXVII-11)


BRAHMS: Intermezzi
Intermezzi, Op.117 No.2 in b-flat and Op.118 No.2 in A; other pieces by Mozart, Beethoven
Ivan Moravec, piano
CD VAI 1096 (CD). 1964–1970/1995. E. Alan Silver, prod.; David B. Jones (elsewhere identified as Mario Mizzaro), eng. ADD. TT: 66:24
The young Johannes Brahms began his musical career as a piano soloist and composer of pieces for solo piano. At the very end of his life, he returned to composing for solo piano. Brahms' late piano pieces are among the most poignant utterances for any instrument, but there is architectural exactitude beneath the autumnal emotion. Op.118 No.2 is particularly demanding in that, after a wistful and lilting opening, the middle section of the work (from 2:18 on) plays 3/4 meter in one hand against 4/4 in the other. Most pianists, even some very fine ones, tend to get a little metronomic in this section. Moravec, in contrast, manages to achieve a plasticity of pulse that allows the two meters to ebb and flow independently of each other (and not just speed up or slow down together). This, plus wonderfully shaded dynamics, in turn allows an otherwise-obscured tendril of melody clearly to be heard. Nearly unique in its introspective tenderness, this is the single most inspired piano performance I know of. Excellent sound, by the way, from the original Connoisseur Society analog master tapes.

DAVID STANHOPE: David Stanhope Plays...
Piano music by Bach-Busoni, Chopin, Godowsky, Liszt
David Stanhope, piano
Tall Poppies TP135 CD (1999). David Stanhope, prod.; Belinda Webster, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 76:43
The entire program is very impressive, but the two absolute standout pieces are the Bach-Busoni Prelude and Fugue in E-flat and the Godowsky Passacaglia. Godowsky's Passacaglia uses the opening bars of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony as a base for 44 variations, a cadenza, and a fugue. These two works are among the most legendary finger-busters to come down from the late-19th-century school of devilishly difficult transcriptions and variations.

The recorded sound is excellent; the piano sound (a Stuart & Sons concert grand; see last month's "The Fifth Element") is rather stunning; and the playing is truly extraordinary. Stanhope plays with the same exhilarating, devil-may-care attitude that Boris Goldovsky used to exhibit. This is not note-perfect playing—I can hear one or two minor lapses—but the scope and sweep of the performances mean that you really get the feeling that you're hearing a performance.


NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS: The Lyre of Orpheus
Mute CDStumm233 0724386467201 (CD). 2004. Nick Launay, prod.; Guillaume Dujardin, Laurent Binder, asst. prods.; Ian Cooper, eng. AAD. TT: 39:27
The Lyre of Orpheus—the quieter, somehow more intense and urgent side of Nick Cave's new double album—is a tribute to Love: the idea, the powerful sustainer. The first half of the pair, Abattoir Blues, while also excellent, lacks a bit of Lyre's over-the-top mystery and wonder, not to mention its "little white clouds and gamboling lambs." Take, for instance, "Babe, You Turn Me On." With its spoken-word verses riding gently against brushed-snare rolls, soulful wah-guitar, and plinking piano notes falling like a rainbow of fruit flavor, Cave breathes, "Babe, you turn me on / Like an idea / Like an atom bomb... Boom!" I'm not kidding; "Boom!" isn't actually written on the lyrics sheet, but it's in there. The rest of the album only gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

SONIC YOUTH: Sonic Nurse
DGC B0002549-12 (CD). 2004. Sonic Youth, prods.; Aaron Mullan, Jim O'Rourke, John Golden, engs.; Juan Garcia, asst. eng. AAD. TT: 60:22
Sonic Youth has never struck me as a shiny, happy band. Chaos and violence are inherent aspects of their music. And while their latest album certainly isn't swinging slowly on anyone's front porch—the fat, dirty, hypnotic dueling guitars in the abrupt free-jam of "Stones" make Led Zep seem like a boy band—there is an unmistakable peacefulness and strange happiness to Sonic Nurse.

More than that, or maybe because of that, this album seems to be alive in a way that no other SY album has ever been. With the exception of "Unmade Bed," which comes in at 3:53, every song on Sonic Nurse is at least five minutes long; "Dripping Dream" tops out at 7:46. Yet no song is tiresome. These are broad, spaced-out, rocking, grooving strokes, and the band sounds very much in the moment, in love with what they're presently creating. It's not Daydream Nation, but it's exactly what I need from Sonic Youth right now, which is to say: We've grown together.


ENJOY EVERY SANDWICH: The Songs of Warren Zevon
Various artists: Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, others
Artemis RCD-17304 (CD). 2004. Jorge Calderon, Jordan Zevon, prods.; various engs. AAD? TT: 57:39
"Various artists" compilations are rarely satisfying, though this tribute to the memory of Warren Zevon is one of the exceptions that test that rule. Zevon was an outstanding talent, both as singer and songwriter, and his 1978 album, Excitable Boy, has a permanent place in my personal Top 50. Lacking Zevon's own unique vocal delivery, this collection of many of his best songs, performed by a galaxy of colleagues and admirers in a bewildering variety of styles, emphasizes how effectively the songs stand alone. This, in turn, brings a perspective to the songwriting that no "Best of" collection can match. The recording quality is patchy but mostly adequate.

Antilles 533 799-2 (CD). 1996. The band, Mari Boine, Geir Ostensjo, prods.; Malcolm Devenish, Gunnar Dahl, engs. ADD. TT: 70:16
Mari Boine is a member of the Sami tribe (aka the Laps), which spreads across the top of Scandinavia and has nomadic roots in reindeer herding. I guess four months of continuous darkness per year helps explain the extraordinarily high standard of musicianship on display here—a standard echoed in the equally brilliant recording quality of this live CD. You won't understand a word of what she sings, but that doesn't matter a jot—her voice and the other instruments communicate effortlessly, emotionally, and spiritually with uncommon purity and subtlety. Though ultimately rooted in folk culture, the music defies labels, pulling in eclectic and global cultural and instrumental influences to create a wondrously homogenous whole.


Warner Bros. 45634-2 (CD). 1994. Saint Etienne, prods.; Ian Catt, eng. ADD? TT: 58:49
Those late to the Saint Etienne buffet can check out the recent Travel Edition 1990–2005 retrospective for evidence of the UK trio's long-reaching grasp of classic pop styles. Tiger Bay, however, was an early peak, its melding of Brill Building and Phil Spector–esque girl-group, '70s disco, and '90s techno every bit the equal of anything Madonna had done by that point (or is doing now). On "Hug My Soul," luscious chanteuse Sarah Cracknell sounds like a chorus of Dusty Springfields as Saint Etienne's two sound sculptors, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, wrap things up in a jazzy, dance-floor–friendly cocoon so warming the tune literally does hug the listener's soul.

ROTARY CONNECTION: Rotary Connection
Chess CHD-9365 (CD). 1967/1996. Marshall Chess, Charles Stepney, prods.; Doug Brand, eng.; Andy McKaie, reissue prod.; Mark Omann, remastering. AAD. TT: 36:30
When Marshall Chess told iconoclastic producer Charles Stepney to bring the venerable blues label into the present with a psychedelic "epic," he got more than he'd envisioned. Rotary Connection's debut (originally on the Cadet Concept imprint) boasted far-out reworkings of Dylan, the Stones, Isaac Hayes, and the Lovin' Spoonful, plus Stepney's "Amen," a rousing, stomping, sitar-flecked slice of hippie gospel-rock. It also was dotted by Stepney-composed interludes that to this day sound outré, snatches of grand orchestrations more Broadway than 2120 South Michigan Avenue, and swipes of musique concrète that positively induce vertigo. Trainspotter alert: one of the multiracial group's members—all hand-picked by Chess—was a young vocalist named Minnie Ripperton.