Recordings of March 1996: Copland & Menotti Piano Concertos; Breaking Silence

COPLAND: Piano Concerto
MENOTTI: Piano Concerto in F
Earl Wild, piano; Jorge Mester (Menotti), Aaron Copland (Copland), Symphony of the Air
Analogue Productions APC 029 (LP). Seymour Solomon, prod.; Jack Bryant, Ed Fiedner, engs.; Doug Sax, Gavin Lurssen, Ron Lewter. remastering engs. AAA. TT: 49:23
Also available on a spectacular CD transfer: Vanguard SVC-3.

JANIS IAN: Breaking Silence
Analogue Productions APP 027 (LP), CAPP 027 (Gold CD*). Janis Ian, prod.; Jeff Balding, prod., eng. AAA/AAD.* TTs: 44:34, 48:50*

Each of these releases is an example of the extremely high-quality reissues Analogue Productions has been quietly producing over the last few years. With luxurious packaging, superlative sound quality, 180-gram virgin vinyl pressings—or, for the Janis Ian CD, 24K gold plating—this enterprise has to be reckoned a class act. The two releases chosen for this month's Recordings of the Month also highlight the diversity of AP's selections.

Neither the Copland nor the Menotti has been recorded very frequently—in fact, I'm not positive the Menotti has ever received another recording, although the Copland boasts a satisfying Bernstein/Copland reading. Don't take the paucity of recordings as an indictment of the works; while they may not scale the Olympian heights of the "Emperor," they're charmingly brash and idiomatic. It's hard to imagine them receiving a more sympathetic reading than Wild's—his prodigious technique and easy mastery of the scores' jazz and popular elements reveal how attuned he was to their demands. While he does emphasize their inherent vigor, he never descends into coarseness, playing always with delicacy and precision.

The recording tends to highlight the piano a tad too prominently, a common failing in concerto recordings—many engineers can't resist the compulsion to focus on the soloist as the star, rather than charting the far more interesting conversation between soloist and orchestra. That cavil aside, this disc is a stunner. There is phenomenally deep bass—particularly the bass drum in the Copland—wide soundstaging, and exemplary center-fill chock-full of depth and delicate decay. Kudos to AP for reviving these engaging works in most wondrous performances.

Janis Ian's Breaking Silence consistently shows up on audiophile lists of reference popular recordings. Deservedly so—Ian points out in the liner notes that no synths, limiters, or samples were used during recording. In any case, the sonic purity is clearly audible: Simply recorded drums, guitars, bass, harmonica, and (of course) Ian's voice manifest an intimate setting for these direct, personal songs. Breaking Silence also broke from the mold of Ian's earlier albums; it's not preachy or self-consciously topical. The unguarded nature of the songs is reflected in Ian's vocal delivery, which eschews the broad vibrato that, for me, marred her earlier efforts.

While Breaking Silence has always sounded good, Analogue Productions' CD and LP sound even better. The quiet, supremely flat vinyl offers an even clearer sense of intimate space than did the originals, and the improvements in bottom-end extension are nothing short of mind-boggling. Harmonic overtones, whether from guitar string or cymbal, ring out with greater clarity and an increased sense of their inevitable decay.

Some long-time lovers of Breaking Silence have complained that the LP omits "Guess You Had To Be There" due to timing constraints—which is a pity, for it's a great song. But I'd have a hard time choosing to eliminate any of the other songs from the disc. The CD has them all, and is as close a match for the LP as any I've ever heard.

I suppose my favorite piece here is "What About the Love?"—an indictment of ugly religion, economic Darwinism, and a society that discards those it uses up. As social protest songs go, it runs a fairly consistent course—but it doesn't end there. Looking in the mirror, "I saw my pointing finger / pointing back at me / saying—Who named you accuser? / Who gave you the scales?" It's Ian's honesty, her ability to stare at her own shortcomings and not flinch, that makes Breaking Silence worth shouting about.—Wes Phillips