2010 Records To Die For Page 5


J.S. BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2
Angela Hewitt, piano
Hyperion CDA67301/2 & CDA67303/4 (4 CDs). 1998, 1999. Ludger Böckenhoff, prod.; no eng. listed. DDD. TT: 4:24:11

Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works have inspired illustrious disciples. Rosalyn Tureck spent most of her 88 years exploring their contrapuntal intricacies, and in 1955 Glenn Gould all but set fire to Columbia's 30th Street studio while blazing through the Goldberg Variations, for which he was lionized. Now we have Angela Hewitt, who, in 11 years ending in 2005, recorded all of Bach's major keyboard works for Hyperion Records. Then, after a 14-month world tour largely devoted to performances of The Well-Tempered Clavier, she re-recorded that masterpiece for the same label. I don't know which of these artists comes closest to playing Bach as the eminent 20th-century harpsichordist Wanda Landowska claimed she did—"his way"—or which recorded version of a specific work by any one of them should be considered a benchmark, but I love the way Hewitt plumbs these preludes and fugues for joy. The Chairman of the Baroque dances under her spell. (XX-12)

Fantasy Original Blues Classics OBCCD-565-2 (CD). 1953/1993. Peggy Tolk-Watkins, prod.; C.L. Stevens, eng. AAD. TT: 50:32

The rank and file of folk fans thinned considerably after the 1960s, but Odetta soldiered on. Until shortly before her death, in December 2008, at age 77, she was meeting the demands of a travel and performance schedule that would have derailed others afflicted by her health problems. This CD is a flashback to the singer in her early 20s. Convinced that prejudice would make an operatic career impossible, she had turned to folk music and was working at The Tin Angel, a San Francisco saloon that recorded most of its performers. There's no gratuitous producer-added padding here, just a collaborator, Larry Mohr, playing a banjo, and the sturdy young star-to-be with a guitar and her voluminous contralto. That voice proved as mighty as the trumpet of a biblical priest. Odetta, a point woman for civil rights, used it to make her troops shout; when they did, walls tumbled.


BRUCKNER: Symphonies 3–9, Mass 3 in f, Te Deum
Sergiu Celibidache, Münchner Philharmoniker. With (in Mass 3 & Te Deum): Margaret Price, soprano; Doris Soffel, alto; Christel Borchers, contralto; Peter Straka, Claes H. Ahnsjö, tenor; Karl Helm, Matthias Hölle, bass; Philharmonischer Chor München, Members of Münchener Bach-Chor; Josef Schmidhuber, chorus master; Elmar Schloter, organ.
EMI 5 56688 2 (12 CDs). 1982–1995/1998. Marcus Herzog, prod., remastering; Hilmar Kerp, Hartwig Paulsen, remastering. ADD/DDD. TT: 11:53:59

Sergiu Celibidache felt that while, in the music of most composers, time is something that happens after the beginning, in Bruckner time is something that happens after the end. He did not make studio recordings, believing that any music is a unique concatenation of score, musicians, hearers, time, and place—and these live recordings made in the last decade or so of his life have just such a sense of palpable occasion. He takes the symphonies extremely slowly—Nos. 4 and 8 last 80 and 105 minutes, respectively—and this, in combination with his meticulous attention to every detail of each score and the heroic playing of the Münchner Philharmoniker, creates the effect of hearing the works as if through an auditory microscope. But while viewing a Vermeer from 3" away destroys proportion, shape, and any illusion of verisimilitude, in listening to these recordings I find myself transported from aural maps into the very territories of Bruckner's work, landscapes now revealed as so vast as to seem infinite; even as, again and again, I discover that familiar paths now lead to hitherto unseen vistas. Eventually, I realize that these works, indeed, are infinite. Visit me in 20 years, when I am pushing 80, and you may find my erstwhile wall of CDs bare, reduced to these dozen discs, whose depths I will, even then, have yet to fully plumb.

KEITH JARRETT: Testament: Paris/London
Keith Jarrett, piano
ECM 2130–32 (3 CDs). 2009. Keith Jarrett, prod.; Martin Pearson, eng. DDD. TT: 2:42:33

Keith Jarrett continues to explore the shorter improvisations on solo piano that have replaced his long-form concerts of past decades. I recommend here the two discs recorded in London in late 2008 (the Paris concert, recorded five days earlier, seems in comparison mere warmup). The variety and capacity of Jarrett's powers of musical invention seem as undiluted by age (he's in his mid-60s) as does his phenomenal technique. By turns, the 12 improvisations of the London concert comprise austere meditation; a thorny syncopation seemingly unplayable by a mere two hands; languid gospel; relentless modulation; a winsome lullaby; the next chapter in Jarrett's continuing search for the deep, churning ur-vamp of the blues; a seeming folk ballad in settings that vary from the pellucid to the florid; polytonal and densely polyrhythmic, adamantine bop; every Great American Songbook ballad ever written turning slowly in a kaleidoscope of bittersweet chromaticism; and hard gospel so richly chorded in the left hand it's hard to believe Jarrett wasn't also playing organ. As in his long-form improvs, Jarrett is heard here inventing entire musical games and establishing their rules, even as he bends and breaks those rules to create new ones, all the while playing—in every sense of that word—as if the life of his heart depended on it. It did then, and now, differently, it does yet.


SIBELIUS: Kullervo
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano; Peter Mattei, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Colin Davis
LSO Live LSO074 (CD). 2006. James Mallinson, prod., Jonathan Stokes, eng. DDD. TT: 72:00

A tale of incest, murder, and suicide, Sibelius's Kullervo symphony has such anguish and darkness at its heart that it must be treated with care. It's a tale of fate and, as such, attains a higher goal; Kullervo himself is a sacrifice. Davis has recorded it before, but this performance, taped live at two concerts at London's Barbican, is much the finer. The opening sets up the work's grand heroic scope, and the second movement tells us all we need about Kullervo's loneliness; the entry of the chorus and soloists for Kullervo and his Sister has spectacular drive, tension, and, finally, lamentation. The Battle is grand, and Kullervo's death and funeral march are stunning—myth come to life. The singers are superb, the LSO brass sound huge, and the final movement's violins sound ghostly. The sound is warm and forward in two-channel; one can only assume it's even more so on the multichannel SACD (LSO Live LSO0574). A special work in a remarkable performance.

HAYDN: The Seasons
Marlis Petersen, soprano; Werner Güra, tenor; Dietrich Henschel, baritone; RIAS Kammerchor Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi 901829.30 (2 CDs). 2004. Alan Blyth, prod.; Martin Sauer, eng. DDD. TT: 2:05:00

As music descriptive of nature, Haydn's Die Jahrzeiten has probably never been bettered (sorry, Vivaldi): we get sunrises, storms, birds, bees, the grim approach of winter, and the hunt, complete with horns that make you want to get on your horse and race after a fox. Scored for the usual strings as well as double winds, a double-bassoon, four horns, piccolo, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, tambourine, and fortepiano continuo, the colors are brilliant. And this, Jacobs' first recording of the work (and not to be confused with his more recent recording), has top-drawer playing and singing: the latter simple storytelling rather than operatic turns. It's a positively exhilarating experience, gorgeously recorded, with ideal balances. It's like a walk in the countryside. (XXVIII-4)


THE KLF: Chill Out
TVT 7155 (CD). 1990. Jimmy Cauty, Bill Drummond, prods. DAD? TT: 44:21

The KLF's classic ambient album, Chill Out, implies an all-night drive through the Deep South. Propelled by coffee, nicotine, and a rusted Ford Galaxie, sounds emerge and recede as the radio dial searches for signals and the traveler's mind drifts and dreams. Half-mad evangelists, traffic-accident reports, Tuvan throat singing, and endless samples ranging from Pink Floyd to Elvis are set against a backdrop of sustained synths and soulful steel guitar. Without ever playing a proper song, the album motors down lonely, late-night highways as a unified whole. Chill Out's journey implies much about America and the open road. To me, it is a masterpiece of sound.

Music by J.S. Bach, Heitor Villa-Lobos
Aldo Parisot, The Yale Cellos; Arleen Augér, soprano
Delos DE 3041 (CD). 1988. Thomas Frost prod.; Eugene Kimball, eng. DDD. TT: 72:10

As a young singer and cellist, no album spoke to me as clearly as did this one, of the Yale Cellos of Aldo Parisot playing with soprano Arleen Augér. When I bought this album as a high school sophomore, I had no idea I was getting the definitive reading of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No.5. The performance is at turns luminous and earthy, ethereal and lusty. In a program rounded out with transcriptions of Bach works for cello choir, the Yale Cellos play with fire and freedom under Aldo Parisot's sage baton. Augér's singing is without peer.


DEBUSSY, FAURÉ, RAVEL: String Quartets
Quatour Ebène: Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Mathieu Herzog, viola; Raphaâl Merlin, cello
Virgin Classics 519045 2 (CD). 2008. Etienne Collard, prod.; Michel Pierre, Victor Laugier, engs. DDD. TT: 80:24

The string quartets of Ravel and Debussy are the Cav and Pag of the chamber-music world—one is seldom recorded without the other. They are tremendously if not uniquely accessible—in places, actually jazzy—so if you want to get your feet wet in string quartets, Rav and Deb are the way to go. Unlike many "accessible" works that lose their charm on repeated hearings (Ravel's own Boléro comes to mind), the quartets of Ravel and Debussy have real staying power, and have always been very well served on disc. Into this crowded marketplace leaps Quatour Ebène. This is not teacup-with-lifted-pinkie playing. Recorded in Limousin, in a magnificent former granary a century old, this is a close-in, ultravivid document of intense performances that turn on dix centimes from propulsive rhythms to stock-still harmonies that hang in mid-air. Yes, you can hear the players breathing, but that's because they're blowing the dust off these works. The bonus Fauré quartet pushes the total time past 80 minutes, making this offering competitive with even budget reissues.

BURGON: Brideshead Revisited: Music from the Original Soundtrack
Geoffrey Burgon, uncredited orchestra
Chrysalis CPCD 1367 (CD). 1981/1987. David Japp, exec. prod.; The First Composers Company Ltd., prods.; Alan Snelling, eng. AAD. TT: 44:51

My two desert-island video picks would be Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner and the 1981 Granada TV dramatization of Evelyn Waugh's WWII "Catholic" novel, Brideshead Revisited. (I'd have three desert-island video picks, but NBC's extraordinary 1970s adaptations of John O'Hara's Gibbsville, PA stories never made it to home video.) For my money, Granada's Brideshead Revisited is the greatest dramatic series achievement in television history. A good measure of that credit belongs to Geoffrey Burgon, whose chameleonic score (Haydn one moment, Britten the next) captures the essence of doomed love in a world bent on destroying itself. There's an old Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab edition on gold CD that I haven't heard, as it goes for money between crazy and insane.

John Atkinson's picture
Interesting thread on our website forum in response to this year's feature: http://www.stereophile.com/content/records-die-2

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

soulful.terrain's picture

Excellent to see the Complete Columbia Album Collection on this list.

xenomanic's picture

Hey Jon or anyone. I can't find the 20/20 album anywhere. I would settle for even AAC 256 files. There should be a place you can download it. Any ideas?

Olliecat70's picture

I live in Pinehurst, NC and I'm hving difficulty locating a store where I can purchase classical CD's.  Any suggestions?