2015 Records to Die For Page 5


Molly Drake: Molly Drake
Squirrel Thing ST-4 (mono CD). 2012. Recorded by Rodney Drake; John Wood, Cally, prods.; Simon Heyworth, mastering. A–D. TT: 37:31

In my small town is a shop, less an antique shop than a compendium of ephemera—things not valued in their own time, or ever intended to be kept or cherished. The shopkeeper sometimes binds together similar items—postcards, concert programs, tickets—in small albums of plastic sleeves. I once opened one of these tiny volumes to find a series of strips of thin, colored pasteboard, each the size and shape of a small bookmark, some edged with an embossed floral pattern. On each was a column of horizontal lines, on some of which were written masculine names: a first name followed by an initial. It was a collection of the dance cards of one young girl's débutante season, from a century ago. Some cards were full; others bore only a few names. I wondered who this girl had been. What had those evenings been like? Had she married one of these boys? How long she had lived? Who had she become?

My fingers began to shake. I closed the album carefully, as if it were made of moths' wings. I felt I had violated a privacy, seen something I had no right to see. I was tempted to buy the thing, if only to take it home and burn it, bury it—let this poor dead girl and her lost world rest in peace. Instead, I replaced it on a table full of such revenants.

This collection of the songs of Molly Drake (1915–1993) evokes that sense of intimacies almost too fragile and tender to survive their revelation. A member of the upper class and a daughter of the British Raj, Mary (Molly) Lloyd was born in Burma, where she returned after schooling in England. She married Rodney Drake in Rangoon, and they resettled in England, for good, in 1952. Molly wrote these 19 songs in the 1940s and '50s, and these performances of her singing them and playing piano were recorded in the '50s by Rodney in their living room, first on lacquers and then on a primitive tape recorder. She never performed them in public. The sound quality is poor, if sometimes surprisingly good for their age and source. It's amazing they exist at all.

The songs themselves are mood pieces, sometimes of surprisingly unpredictable structure, by a woman with a fine-tuned sensibility and, apparently, a rich inner life. The musical language is that of songs of the 1930s and early '40s mixed with Edwardian parlor pastorales, hints of Scots folk songs, Anglican hymns, tiny drops of tango, and the blues as filtered through Noâl Coward. Some, mere fragments, break off in mid-verse; others ("Love Isn't a Right") are naãvely earnest, artless in the best sense. Many speak of or hint at darker experience, of bright hopes dimmed by disappointment and grief, of the futility of trying to hold on to happiness ("Happiness"). The words may be upbeat or wondering, or put a brave face on small things that loom large in the heart—as in "I Remember," about how even the most precious memories, treasured because shared with a loved one, can turn out not to be shared at all: "Now we can be grateful / for the gifts of memories / for I remember having fun / two happy hearts that beat as one / when I had thought that we were one / but we were you and me."

Listening through the hiss and crackle, it is the sadness and deep loneliness in Drake's voice that I find almost unbearable. Even "Breakfast at Bradenham Woods," on the face of it a glowing recollection of a happy outing, becomes an elegy for the last good time enjoyed by someone who can now expect no more, someone who knows she "could never go back without breaking the spell." The songs are almost whispered, as if sung to herself. Drake may sound over-elocuted, even prim, to a modern ear, but she would not have sounded so to her own era and class. Professional singers work all their lives to sing so expressively with so little apparent effort. The intimacies revealed are not shocking or surprising; what makes them powerful is how deeply and unaffectedly felt they were by the woman who wrote and sang them, who seems never to have been interested in having anyone else hear them. Each time I hear these songs, I am not sure I should have, and am so glad I have.

In 1974, a more lasting sadness came for Molly Drake, when her only son killed himself. That son was Nick Drake, of whose music I have yet to hear a single note. Whether that has best or worst prepared me to write this, only Nick and Molly will ever know—but I thought at least one appreciation of this woman and her songs might be written by someone whose hearing of the mother is neither expanded nor shrunk by having heard the son.

Wagner: Parsifal
Jonas Kaufmann, Parsifal; Katarina Dalayman, Kundry; Peter Mattei, Amfortas; René Pape, Gurnemanz; Evgeny Nikitin, Klingsor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Daniele Gatti
Sony Classical 88883725589 (2 DVDs: LPCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround). 2013/2014. Jay David Saks, Louisa Briccetti, Victoria Warivonchik, prods. DDD. TT: 4:20:42

Productions of Richard Wagner's barely stageable final work, Parsifal, seem to take one of two equally unsatisfactory paths: to follow Wagner's stage directions as literally as possible in telling a medieval, incense-infused romance of the Grail; or to ignore those directions to pursue other ends, sociopolitical or intellectual, in pointed opposition to such interpretations. But for this Metropolitan Opera production of 2013, producer François Girard found a direct way in to what seems to me to be the heart and soul of a deeply spiritual work usually mistaken for a religious one. Michael Levine's set design has been called "post-apocalyptic"; if so, it is an outer manifestation of the inner ruin created when any psyche is set at war with itself: the soul tyrannized by the ego, the masculine and feminine principles present in all of us fighting a war each can only lose—apocalypse enough for anyone. As such, it is the story of Everyman and Everywoman, in a mystery play for the 12th, the 19th, or the 21st century, in which each character and object and place, theme and chord and word, is an aspect of a single soul—Parsifal's or Wagner's, yours or mine. Parsifal is Jung before Jung: a variant of the one great human story. That understanding of the work seems to have been where Girard began, and this is the best production of any opera by any composer I have ever seen.

Sometimes, everything comes together. This Parsifal is sung by perhaps the finest cast ever assembled. Jonas Kaufmann, our reigning heldentenor, powerfully and committedly acts and voices Parsifal, a character confused, perplexed, almost entirely ignorant of himself. Kaufmann's dark-toned voice never falters, and neither does that of René Pape, whose Gurnemanz is one for the ages: troubled, rock solid, precisely intelligent, deeply compassionate. Katarina Dalayman's Kundry is a brave performance by a fine, intelligent singer with a warm, expressive voice. Most moving—agonizing, really—is Peter Mattei as the Grail King, Amfortas, who suffers a mortal wound that will not grant his deepest desire, for death. The opera is as much his story as Parsifal's, and never more than in this staging. The role has never been sung this well. Carolyn Choa has given the Met chorus incisive, dramatically pointed choreography that singers can actually dance, especially in the astonishing Flower Maidens scenes of Act II.

The conducting of Daniele Gatti often seems not like conducting at all; the music is simply presented, as if emerging from a place where it has always been and is always going on. Of course, Gatti has "interpreted" the score, but the result—by turns glowing, stately, overpowering, bleak, loving, impersonal, light, dark, diaphanous, thick, transparent, delicate—sounds inevitable. Which is how the best interpretations of the greatest music always sound. And the sound is gorgeous. I have several other recordings of Parsifal that I sometimes think I prefer—but never when listening to this one.


Britten: Peter Grimes
Jon Vickers, Peter Grimes; Heather Harper, Ellen Orford; Jonathan Summers, Captain Balstrode; Patricia Payne, Mrs. Sedley; others; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis
Philips 462 847 (2 CDs). 1978. No prod., eng. credit. ADD. TT: 2:26:18

A great performance of a great opera. When Peter Grimes premiered in 1945, it was arguably the first great English opera since Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Peter Pears sang Grimes in the premiere and owned the role for many years thereafter. Then came Wagnerian tenor Jon Vickers with a new take: His Grimes was no longer merely a misfit/dreamer (the homosexual undertone so important to Pears and Britten was of little interest to Vickers), but angry, brutal, and eventually unhinged, invariably attempting to keep his rage in check. His performance is almost visual, his mad scene both terrifying and pathetic. Heather Harper sings Ellen Orford with beauty of tone, and a strong will not quite strong enough for Grimes's madness. Jonathan Summers's Balstrode is both tough and understanding. Sir Colin Davis's leadership can be amazingly tender and nuanced, but he contrasts those traits with the unforgivable nastiness and cruelty of the chorus of villagers. The Sea Interludes have rarely been better played. A huge and terrifying performance, superbly recorded.

Pärt: Für Anna Maria: Complete Piano Music
Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen, pianos
Brilliant Classics 94775 (2 CDs). Jeroen van Veen, prod.; Pianomania, eng. DDD. TT: 1:59:22

This exquisite, gentle two hours of music hit me like a ton of bricks. Wrong image, perhaps, but this set of Arvo Pärt's piano music—some from his pre-tintinnabular days (the 1950s), most from after he became the "holy minimalist" we now know—are, quite simply, to die for. The early works—four easy pieces for children's dance theater, and two sonatinas and a partita that are more "modern" and challengingly busy—are fascinating in and of themselves. But most of these two CDs are taken up with Pärt's later music: quiet, almost hypnotically repetitive, and boring only if you're not listening. If you don't know what to expect, think Satie's Gymnopédies but with depth and subtext: not exercises, but experiences. Jeroen van Veen plays four versions of Für Alina, two short and two long—while sticking to the two-page score, he plays the notes in different registers of the piano. A two-piano arrangement of Pärt's most famous work, Fratres (it exists in at least a dozen arrangements), is deep, dark, and meditative. A little waltz is adorable. The tiny Für Anna Maria is played twice, one performance slightly faster than the other. In a world going by all too quickly, Pärt makes us slow down. This set is for listening, contemplating, adoring—you'll want to ingest it.


L'Oiseau-Lyre Records: The Baroque Era
Music from Monteverdi (1641) to C.P.E. Bach (1773)
Catherine Bott, Libby Crabtree, Michael George, Christopher Hogwood, Emma Kirkby, Philip Pickett, Joshua Rifkin, Christophe Rousset, many others; Academy of Ancient Music, New London Consort Orchestra, Westminster Abbey School Choristers Choir, others
L'Oiseau-Lyre/Decca 002072902 (50 CDs). 1973–2009. Various orig. prods, engs. ADD/DDD. TT: 48:07:59

I recommended this set in the Holiday Gift Guide included in my December 2014 column. Between the writing of that column and its appearance in print, Christopher Hogwood died. That more than half of these 50 CDs feature him makes this set an even more compelling release.

There are contrasts between this set and one of my R2D4s of last year, DG's Arkiv Produktion 1947–2012 (55 CDs). At the risk of overemphasizing subtleties, I'm tempted to say that the Arkiv set is a bit more musicologically oriented, while the L'Oiseau-Lyre box tends slightly more toward entertainment. DG's sound is a little crisper, Decca's a bit warmer. If you liked that one, you should love this one. At about $150, a genuine bargain. (XXXVII-12)

David Leisner: Favorites
Music of J.S. Bach, Britten, Ivanov-Kramskoi, Leisner, Paganini
David Leisner, guitar
Azica ACD-71268 (CD). 2011. David Leisner, Alan Bise, prods.; Bruce Egre, eng. DDD. TT: 66:32

I fear that the title Favorites fails to do justice to the gravitas of this rather astonishing solo-guitar recital. However, that might be because I've seen too many albums of violin encores whose titles include "Favorites." In that context, the word is almost certain to guarantee "thoroughly innocuous Kreislerian exercises in charm-laden circularity."

The two granitic foundation stones of this CD are Britten's dark, mysterious Nocturnal and, in Leisner's own guitaristic and respectful transcription, the somber and multifaceted Ciaccone of J.S. Bach's Sonata 3 for Unaccompanied Violin. Piped-in classical-guitar music at your local brass-rail-and-fern bar these are not. A weighty and entirely musical CD. Miss it at your peril.

dalethorn's picture

Some nifty selections here - Molly Drake no less! And some new ones to look up.

Edit: I buy almost any kind of music, if I get a hot tip on something good that I can sample first. Most of what I buy based on Stereophile features is classical. I have a lot of jazz genre recordings, but rarely buy anything based on a Stereophile review. Jimmy Scott was featured just after he died at the age of 88. Many times people say that it's the music that matters - not so much the sound quality. But when the recording people put out a remastered album like Jimmy Scott's with attention to getting the best possible sound from it, that's where it really counts.

volvic's picture

- Sam described the Schubert "as one of the finest performances ever released of the Sonata for Arpeggione," - Really? Even better than the Rostropovich/Britten recordings from 1968? Will have to take you up on that and purchase the Meneses/Pires CD.

Great selection, concur on the Peter Grimes a great recording, thought the Britten/Pears was the standard but loved this recording with Sir Colin Davis after recently finding it......I miss Sir Colin Davis.

JDDisantis's picture

Its not that I have a problem with it but I am a little suprised that nothing really out there was listed, like Flying Lotus's You're Dead! Its a very good mix of fusion jazz, electronic, and rap and I thought it was to die for, not just because the album is titled You're Dead. I would've liked to see some more out there stuff, some fresh new "hip" stuff for the younger audience, even Aphex Twin. Just my opinion.

Jon Iverson's picture
Do my Shpongle or Entheogenic picks count?
JDDisantis's picture

Haven't heard of them but i will definitley give them a try

michaelavorgna's picture

I enjoy the Flying Lotus album and if I had heard it in time, I would have included D'Angelo's "Black Messiah".

JDDisantis's picture

Heard of Thundercat? If you like vocals that have R&B elements and such but also enjoy fantastic bass playing and an occaisional trip in a beat production from Flying Lotus, give Stephen Bruner (Thundercat) a listen. His Apocolypse album is one of my all time favorites and his last song "A Message For Austin//Praise The Lord//Enter The Void" is an amazing live peice set made to memorialize the passing of one of his best friends, Austin Peralta.

michaelavorgna's picture

But I will check him out, thanks.

Alan Tomlinson's picture

Who Are You(which is a damn fine album) was the last Who album with Keith Moon drumming, not Who By Numbers.


Alan Tomlinson

Littlefire 1974's picture

Hey Alan, thank you, I stand corrected, sort of. Keith passed away 9/7/1978 and Who Are You debuted on the Billboard LPs chart dated 9/9/78 (two days later). But it was released on August 18, so in fact Who By Numbers wasn't the last to be released before Keith's death. But I didn't mean to imply that WBN was the last album with Keith drumming. The great Mr. Moon is obviously all over Who Are You.

carlosgallardo's picture

In the internet era, why you don't put a sample of the records to listen to ?
I really trust your words, but I trust my ears more.

John Atkinson's picture
carlosgallardo wrote:
In the internet era, why you don't put a sample of the records to listen to ?

Copyright issues make hosting samples problematic. We have thought of providing Spotify or Tidal links. Maybe next time.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

John Atkinson's picture
If you go to the Stereophile Facebook Page - www.facebook.com/stereophilemag - David Solomon of Tidal has listed Tidal links to all the recordings we recommend.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Anon2's picture

Thanks for the insightful recommendations. A recent Stereophile review of new recordings led to a very rewarding SACD purchase a couple of months ago.

I can vouch for the CSO Scheherazade recording. It is among the very best recordings of this work. For those who are CD/SACD purchasers, you can get this recording of Scheherazade along with the fascinating and rare recording of the Song of the Nightingale by Stravinsky.

Other great recordings of Scheherazade include the 1990 recording on Telarc with Sir Charles Mackerras. The 1960s BPO recording on DG with Herbert von Karajan has the most riveting first 2 minutes of the 3rd movement I have heard. If you can find it (either on LP or CD) there is a superb Scheherazade with Leopold Stokowski directing the RPO, also on RCA.

DG, on its Virtuoso series, re-released a very strong rendering of this work with the Orchestre de l'Opera Bastille, directed by Myung-Whun Chung. This issue has an excellent Firebird Suite to round out the CD.

This article's recommended recording of Scheherazade is a stand-out. It is among the best recordings of the work. It is also among the best recordings and performances we have from the grand epoch of RCA Living Stereo, Fritz Reiner and the CSO.

It is unfortunate, despite its very worthy CSO Resound series of recordings, that we no longer have the voluminous output of recordings from the CSO that this great ensemble churned out during the eras of such great conductors as Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Rafael Kubelick, Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and Pierre Boulez.

Nonetheless, Bernard Haitink has produced some recent recordings on the CSO Resound series that will stand among the other monumental achievements of this ensemble's vast recorded legacy.

volvic's picture

Can't argue with those recommendations. Try also if you can find the Kondrashin on Philips as well as the MSO with Dutoit from the early 80's. I also have the Stokowski with the LSO which is also a fine performance and a few months ago editor Atkinson said he loved the Beecham version which I also have and forgot how lovely that performance is. Guess I have way too many versions. Great performances all.

Anon2's picture

Perhaps it's not on the official best-of-Scheherazade lists, but a surprise discovery was the recording made with the NYPO directed by Yuri Temirkanov. This is an early 1990s recording on RCA Red Seal.

While we are on the subject of Yuri Temirkanov, we should also mention the very excellent recording he made, also on RCA Red Seal, of the Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (recorded in Henry Wood Hall).

From the same early 1990s time frame, there was an equally excellent recording of Tchaikovsky's complete Nutcracker, directed by Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic. Again, the recording is was made by RCA Red Seal. This recording may only be available in the used market on amazon.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

So much retread, except ... Hal, by Yasmine Hamdan, on Ya Nass, is like sun breaking thru a wall of stale predictability.

RCA Scheherazade, Maiden Voyage and Best of Spencer Davis, really? How old are you people, 103? I never ever buy music based on a review, having been burned umpteen times -- reviewers are such constipated bugs. But, believe me, Ya Nass is new and original. The tune Hal is outstanding.

Hal by Yasmine Hamdan was the ONLY bright spot in Jim Jarmusch's latest, Only Lovers Left Alive (not recommended). She appeared on BBC's Later with Jools Holland (also not recommended -- what can one expect from Squeeze's keyboardist but pop pap?). Nevertheless, some people are noticing -- she's broken thru the wall of noise.

Have long ago moved away from "world music." But this is different. This is soul music, which, btw, is no longer made in the US, blacks having sold out and gotten rich, e.g., Nicki Manaj and Kanye West.

Some heartbreak here.

damir's picture

I am sorry to say this but you guys listen to some of the most boring, simpleton and pompous music I have ever listened to.

Thanks to Spotify I was able to listen to most of your recommended music. It was cringe worthy. Things you write about some of it... Are you guys all high when you do your reviews?

The music you listen to plain sucks and most of it would sound ok even on lowest quality HiFi equipment.

Leonard Cohen, Coldplay, Neil Young... and that's it. Then again, Coldplay?!

Everything else was... godawful.

People, do you even know there is so much more to music than those plain and boring old recordings?!

You need new blood, ASAP!

Those were not records to die for, those were records one would die of.

John Atkinson's picture
damir wrote:
Thanks to Spotify I was able to listen to most of your recommended music. It was cringe worthy. Things you write about some of it... Are you guys all high when you do your reviews?...The music you listen to plain sucks...

Perhaps your self-awareness needs tweaking, damir. Your taste in music is your taste, period, It is neither better nor worse than anyone else's.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

I don't often find something to purchase from the pop music reviews, or even jazz reviews in spite of my growing jazz collection. But the old mostly-forgotten reviews of interesting and lesser-known classical recordings have been a treasure trove. I'd bet there are others who've found the same, in those other genres as well.

damir's picture

I'm not talking abut music tastes.

I am talking about:

1. Quality of the production
2. Quality of musicianship
3. Literary merit
4. Level of induced emotional response
5. Level of induced rational response

Most of those songs have abysmal production quality, lyrics you could laugh at, provoke zero emotional response and for sure offer nothing that would make you think.

They are useless to evaluate HiFi equipment.

Comments like "Oh yes, this song sounds wonderfully layered" while listening to a recording of a pop song from 60's remind me of 10.000 USD network cable snake oil talk "Oh yes, those bits and bytes flow much nicer now, my music is wonderful!"

You really should get some new blood. There is real, wonderful music out there, produced in 2015 that offers all you would need to really evaluate HiFi equipment. At the same time, you would connect with the potential customers that don't live in the past.

Spotify offers your customers to listen to the same songs your reviewers were using while evaluating equipment. I am not the only one that said "What in a world is he talking about? This song is rubbish, there is no production or art value in it to be able to discern anything meaningful."

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Go for it, damir. These crusty old snobs need a bit of shaking up. They prattle, for instance, about the wonderfulness of "old" music. Gee, how deep. I know the music of Thomas Luis de Victoria, Ellington of all eras, etc. I probably know more JS Bach than most here. Most reviewers and posters have nothing to teach me, or anyone else. They're smug and dull. Like I said, I never buy music on the basis of reviews, having been burned umpteen times. Instead, I look at lists like these merely out of curiosity and to learn about music which I'm not familiar with. Of course, pseudohip bugs always list obscure, worthless music, just so they can be one up over everyone else.

One thing I cannot stand are jazz snobs or classical snobs. I can''t stand snobs who put down George Jones or Patsy Cline.

Mindless pop drones outnumber all other forms of life on the planet, even cockroaches: Jackson Brown, really? Do we need to hear STILL more about the Who, possibly the most overexposed pop group, after the Beatles?

And why is there so little depth here in the blues (the real blues, not Keb Mo), the motherload of American music?

Personally, I don't give a flying rat's a$$ about sound quality. It's the music that matters, above all else. It's a mere incidental bonus if the sound is good. For instance, my favorite version of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is the one recorded by Tureck for Decca in the '60s, which has loud tape hiss. Schnabel's Beethoven Sonatas, recorded in the mid 1930s, is desert island music for me. By comparison, the highly lauded RCA's and Mercury's are mostly dreary pop classical.

Taste and discernment matter. Just watched the Grammys (DVR), to see what's up with commercial pop. You couldn't ask for a more blatant example of music in which taste and discernment DON'T matter.

PS. Don't see how you could sample all the music on Spotify, as you claim. Arvo Part, Fur Anna Maria, for example, is not available there.

PondWatcher's picture

Editors!!! Rejoice in the irony!!!!

Anon2's picture

Stereophile recently gave a review of a superb 21 year old pianist. There was also a review of a very youthful European guitarist. Another story featured a young manufacturer of string instruments.

There is no anti-youth bias in the greater body of Stereophile's music industry assessments and reports. There is equal weight given to the up-and-coming and to the established in its pages.

These young performers are but two examples of young performers--more youthful, I'd bet, than a couple of our "youth-oriented" commenters on this discussion thread--to be found if one would bother to delve deeper into Stereophile's website and magazine.

If these performers are playing 100-200 year old music, then that's simply a testament of the success of the genres and composers of the music that they perform. A perusal of the wider music industry press and recordings would demonstrate no shortage of young people devoting themselves to "old music." Asia, a youthful and up-and-coming continent writ-large, exemplifies these trends in music (Western and Eastern).

Meanwhile, I'll look for the fountain of youth, and keep reading Stereophile's superb assessments of MANY types of recordings. It's good that some of us are paying attention to Stereophile's overall track record, and not throwing some rhetorical bombs towards one review of very context-specific recordings.

Stereophile, keep up the good work with your music review. We'll take the "signal to noise ratio" in its appropriate measure on some of the less-enlightened comments found underneath your reports.

PredatorZ's picture

Arg, count me out if you think coldplay is worthy of recommendation, pure pop drivel, the writer lost all credibility for me at that point. To each his own obviously, and I am sure the boys in coldplay have some fans, but not me, no not ever. Almost worthy of my subscription cancellation, why support a magazine with views so opposite of my tastes. I only have a few bands I truly hate, and these gents are at the top of the dung heap for me. Give me some Patricia Barber or Lamb of God, Ill throw extra ducats they're way before I would torture myself with trifle pop. Sorry, had to vent.... a paying customer !