Listening #34 Page 2

Temirkanov's Mahler is epic, and completely unlike any other that I've heard (footnote 1). The first movement's funeral march is gentler and considerably slower than most, and that alone gives the orchestra's nearly klezmeresque outbursts a contrast starker than usual. (Nowhere in the entire piece does the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic sound more Russian.) But it's in the third movement—the real center of the Fifth in every sense—that Temirkanov and his players catch fire and raise the level of concentration to a point where nothing is predictable, and where the symphony seems almost to compose itself as it goes along. That tension is maintained even through the famous Adagietto, played here without schmaltz, and the Philharmonic hurtles toward a very satisfying finale. I could complain that the funeral march is so deliberate that there's effectively no room for a dramatic slowing at the very end of the movement—which is true—but superficial tempo griping is too often the sole province of the armchair conductor, so I'll just say that this is one of the few Mahler Fifths that really, consistently works for me.

The sound is outstanding. It's the least compressed orchestral recording I know of, and the overall level seems to have been set unusually low at the mastering stage. So in order to get the full effect of the symphony's wide dynamic swings, as well as to catch all the subtle details (the col legno strings at the end of the first movement, for example, are less than vivid here), you'll want to goose up the volume somewhat. You'll be rewarded with a very real sense of a large orchestra playing on an unusually wide stage. My only complaint regarding the engineering is that I wish the audience's applause at the end hadn't been faded out so soon.

As hinted above, the SACD release is in true DSD sound, which I admire for its superior, analoglike sense of momentum and flow—digital's real stumbling block, as opposed to such ephemera as sound that is bright or flat or both. It also has a multichannel layer, which seems a bit odd, given that the recording was made with only two microphones. But, as Kavi Alexander explains, those two channels were teased into a multichannel architecture at the mastering stage using a mathematical model developed by Robert Greene, a UCLA professor who also writes for The Abso!ute Sound. I didn't audition that layer, not only because my system does "only" two-channel (and mono!), but because I'm not really interested in multichannel. [Kalman Rubinson writes about the multichannel versions in his September 2005 "Music in the Round" column.—Ed.]

Alexander seems to share at least some of my ambivalence: "I think most of these multitrack SACDs are bogus: You have this loud orchestra in front of you, and this slightly less loud orchestra behind you, and it sounds ridiculous. Where in the world do you have a cello behind you? That might impress the people who are entertained by the sounds of jet planes going over their head in the movies, but . . . "

Incidentally, their Russian provenance isn't the only remarkable thing about the three new albums: These are also the first all-solid-state, all-digital recordings from Water Lily Acoustics. Take that, you purists!—but take heart, too, in the knowledge that Kavi Alexander also recorded the Saint Petersburg concerts in analog, on his Stellavox, simultaneous with the DSD masters. LP versions will be released in the foreseeable future.

Petty gripes
A couple of years ago, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put on a concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, which is where I lived at the time. I went with my friend Leigh Gibson, who scored some very good seats, and the show was wonderful: a near-perfect blend of musicianship, visual effects, showmanship, and great songs. Just two or three songs into the set, Petty debuted the first of many tunes from his then-new album, The Last DJ: the subtle "Have Love, Will Travel." I decided then and there to buy the CD the next day.

Which is how those things are supposed to work, I guess. I'd already heard the new album's title song—a wistfully edgy broadside against the septic tank that the broadcast industry has evolved into (I suppose I should say "has changed slowly into over time," to appease the people who do control most of the airwaves)—and I'd also read somewhere that The Last DJ was something of a concept album, with many of the songs plowing a similar furrow. I was as presold as a man can be. But I didn't just buy the CD: I decided to spend a few extra bucks on the package that contained the CD and the bonus DVD, The Last DJ Sessions.

I've just now finished watching the DVD for the first time—I'm on a gentle video curve up here—and it was one of the most appalling things I've seen on a television screen since Queen for a Day, or maybe that awful show about disfigured people who get free plastic surgery and then "present" themselves at some stupid wedding-mill lobby. I mean, here's this really good album, with a theme running through it about how the music industry has become even more shallow and phony than it ever was . . . and the companion DVD is made up of lip-syncing, pick-syncing, grievously bad drumstick-syncing, and some contrived scenes of Petty pretending to go over the string charts, or to "compose" one of his songs on the spot at the piano. At another point, he says to the camera, "Yeah, we'll shoot the rehearsal," before launching into "Have Love, Will Travel" with a lineup of musicians who, according to the liner notes, did not play on the song—yet what we hear is obviously the finished album version. What utter bullshit.

I enjoyed The Last DJ a hell of a lot more before I watched the DVD. I thought Petty was cool. I admired his candor and his lack of pretense. Now I can't hear those songs without picturing the posing and the somnambulant lip-syncing. And as for the Heartbreakers, it's depressing to see so many fiftysomething guys with dye jobs—the kind where their hair gets that black-plus-magenta look that wouldn't fool Doc Watson. (Charles Dutoit has that magenta thing going, too, but at least he's in his 70s.)

If this is the sort of element that video is supposed to add to audio, you can keep it.

I still respect Tom Petty, who consistently writes and sings wonderful songs, and I wouldn't bother making these criticisms if his music didn't mean something to me. But projecting an equally sincere and committed persona on the small screen is apparently not his forte, notwithstanding a few early, great videos in MTV's salad days. He or his management should have shown the door to whoever it was who proposed The Last DJ Sessions.

Side 2
A pop quiz: What do the songs "Within You Without You" (Beatles), "This Time Tomorrow" (Kinks), "She Sells" (Roxy Music), "Queen Jane Approximately" (Bob Dylan), "The World Turns All Around Her" (Byrds), "Here Comes the Sun" (Beatles again), "California" (Joni Mitchell), "Oh, Lonesome Me" (Neil Young's cover of Don Gibson's song), and even "The Old Revolution" (Leonard Cohen) have in common?

Each is identifiably side 2 opening song—a song selected for being just the right thing to hear after finishing side 1 and flipping the record over. A side 2 opener has to be strong, if not quite as strong as a side 2 closer (let alone a side 1 opener), but a side 2 opener also tends to be lighter in subject matter than the rest of the material on the album—and sometimes downright humorous. Side 2 openers make good singles, although on an album that has more than one of those, the first place of pride is, or was, often given to the second song on side 1.

A collection of songs on a CD can be thought of as an album: I have no trouble with that. But my concept of the pop-music album at its best was forged when the LP was the medium of choice. And the best artists of the day—and even a few of the worst—knew that an album had an Act I and an Act II, and they worked it out accordingly: There's a certain kind of song that works best at the end of side 1, or in second place on side 2, or just before the album closer, or whatever. The Kinks and the Beatles were best at it, but, hell, this is something even Simon and Garfunkel figured out after a while. ("Fakin' It," though a mildly awful song, fared better for beginning Bookends' second side.)

Which brings me to my newest old whine. I hesitate to mention it, because I don't want to discourage any of the good work that's being done these days, but when vinyl reissue specialists sit down to reissue vinyl, I wish they'd resist the temptation to alter the songs' running order. The most bothersome example I've encountered lately is Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's otherwise fine vinyl remastering of John Lennon's "first" solo album, Plastic Ono Band. As a lad, when a friend first introduced me to that album, it scarcely left my turntable for months on end: Rock music got no better, I thought, and God bless Phil Spector for keeping it simple. Later, in my 30s, I rejected the album completely for the unintentional silliness of Lennon's simpleminded edicts, and because the stripped-down arrangements began to strike me as calculated. Now, three and a half decades after its release, I've found charm in its sillinesses and made peace with its pretenses. I'm back to thinking it's a wonderful album.

But I want to hear side 1 end with "Isolation," side 2 begin with "Remember," and the album close with "My Mummy's Dead." Unfortunately, MoFi glued "Remember" onto the end of side 1, and tacked on two more songs at the end of side 2: "Power to the People" and "Do the Oz."

If it were up to me, I wouldn't have bothered with either of the bonus cuts, anyway: "Power to the People" is a forgettable ditty whose overcooked arrangement stands out like a sore thumb amid such spare fare as "Mother" and "Love"; "Do the Oz," cowritten and performed with Yoko Ono, would stink in any setting. But in the noble effort to satisfy completists who do want those tracks on vinyl, a separate 7" single might have been the answer.

Mobile Fidelity's Plastic Ono Band is nonetheless good enough to deserve a place in your collection, and I continue to enjoy it—although I find myself lifting the needle out of the groove one track before the end of side 1 and pausing a good couple of minutes before lowering it again to play "Remember." More silliness, I know—but wasn't Gustav Mahler barking up the same tree when he asked conductors to leave a silence of five minutes between the first and second movements of his Symphony 2?

Footnote 1: The other Mahler 5s in my collection are, in no particular order, those recorded with Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, Riccardo Chailly, Rafael Kubelik, John Barbirolli, Wyn Morris, and Georg Solti, plus Mahler's own "piano roll" first movement and Gilbert Kaplan's Adagietto, both included in the 1996 release of Kaplan's Mahler 2.