The Fifth Element #54

Back when there were bricks-and-mortar retail record stores to speak of in tenses other than past, I used to participate in new-release conferences. Retail-store buyers—the people who decided whether consumers would see your CDs as they browsed in the stores—would gather at a nice destination, such as Lake George, New York. The various labels would then make presentations about their upcoming new releases.

At one such conference, a classical buyer for Tower Records (remember them?) made a point of telling me that, when he'd received a copy I'd mailed him of violinist Arturo Delmoni's debut recording of short pieces and encores, Songs My Mother Taught Me (CD, John Marks JMR 1), he'd scanned the track list, rolled his eyes, and said to himself, "My customers need another Meditation from Thaïs like they need holes in their heads."

Fortunately for Arturo and for me, the buyer had played the CD through his store's PA system and gone about his day. A few tracks later, and he'd become aware that Delmoni was a fiddler to reckon with. And by the time the good ol', heard-it-a-million-times, why-do-they-keep-recording-it Meditation had finished, he couldn't wait to tell his customers about it.

A lesson in humility for us all, I hope. It's easy to adopt a pose of jaded connoisseurship. I know I'm tempted to rest, lazily secure, in my fetishistic belief that there will never be a recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto more poetic than the one made by David Oistrakh and George Szell, a Scheherazade to match Dutoit's, etc. But perhaps that jaded pose is more about posing than about genuine connoisseurship.

Nonetheless, even I, Bach worshipper that I am, must confess that when I zipped open the padded envelope from Harmonia Mundi and saw within Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music's new two-SACD set of the Brandenburg Concertos (HMU 807461.62), I indeed rolled my eyes and muttered that my readers needed to hear about a new set of Brandenburgs like they needed holes in their heads. Then I listened to it.

One bit of advice I give anyone who asks for help in putting together a demo recording or in programming a recording for commercial release is that, unlike a live performance, where the audience has already manifested some degree of commitment by buying a ticket or at least showing up (and remember, for a little while they're pretty much a captive audience), a person who sends out a demo or a new release has about 10 seconds to make the sale. Ten seconds.

Imagine being the classical buyer for a retail record store. The classical departments of stores like Boston's Tower Records, which once could say, with a straight face, "If it's in print, we stock it," no longer exist. Today, if you stock SACD A, you can't afford to stock SACD B. Or how about radio programmers? Back in the heyday of the classical CD business, the largest classical stations would get as many as 500 new releases a month. If they played nothing but new releases, there would hardly be time to read the weather and traffic reports.

So for a record store or radio station to separate wheat from chaff, someone sits at a desk stacked high with CDs and puts them into a computer, CD player, or boom box. In the time it takes for the machine to load the disc, read its table-of-contents file, and start playing, that person's mind is already elsewhere—and whether that elsewhere is Aruba or the most recent episode of Dollhouse ultimately will make little difference to you. When your CD starts playing, you have only about 10 seconds before he compares it to his knowledge base and says either "Hmmm..." or "This really blows."

Well, I'm here to tell you that the new Egarr-AAM Brandenburgs really blow. In a good way. They blow centuries of library dust off these pieces, and they blow fantastic horn and trumpet lines. Egarr & Co. are in it to win it. Whew. The first disc had hardly played 10 seconds when I was grabbing for the remote control to play again the most amazing horn parts I have ever heard—wild, outdoorsy, jazzy, almost bebop horn parts. As the six concertos unfolded, there was no sense of letdown, just continuing pleasant surprises, such as the ad-lib Baroque guitar (guitar?!?) part reinforcing the harpsichord in Concerto 5.

In addition to its claims to being pure-DSD, CD-compatible, and including multichannel as well as stereo programs, Egarr's SACDs have two "unique selling propositions" that are not part of some sales schtick, but the results of serious and insightful scholarship. First, the forces are one player per part, as distinct from having string sections. This not only highlights the "ensemble" aspect of the concertos, it avoids the balance problem of one solo instrument vs massed strings, thereby allowing the music to develop in a more conversational manner.

Second, Egarr decided to have the players tune to the low "French Baroque" pitch of A=392Hz, which is a half step below "standard" Baroque pitch of A=415Hz, and a full step below the modern concert pitch of A=440Hz. Egarr charmingly remarks that the effect is like giving the music a big glass of red wine. (Although Egarr specified Bordeaux, I, in deference to the music's aristocratic aspirations, would have plumped for Ch‚teauneuf-du-Pape. Whatever.) Yes, the effect is to mellow things out wonderfully, not just in overall timbre, but also by allowing the solo trumpet to play in a more comfortable range. As one would expect from Harmonia Mundi, the recording is of top quality, both in CD and SACD modes (I listened to only the two-channel tracks), and is accompanied by thought-provoking liner notes and excellent packaging.

So, yes, a very strong recommendation from me—regardless of whether you don't yet own a set of Brandenburgs, or have half a dozen. The Brandenburgs are right up there with Bach's Goldberg Variations and his solo works for violin and cello in terms of being necessary for cultural literacy. Fortunately, Harmonia Mundi has reduced to zero the cost of getting your feet wet by posting two video clips: a live performance of the entire first movement of Concerto 5, and a fascinating video interview with Richard Egarr that's chock-full of musical examples (footnote 1)

While we are a-Brandenburging, don't forget what for me is the most successful Brandenburg crossover: the lightheartedly swinging version of Concerto 3 on jazz flutist Hubert Laws' The Rite of Spring, produced by Creed Taylor (CD, CTI 6012). For some reason, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has not seen fit to remaster this album for release on SACD, which is a pity. If you like Jim Hall's Concierto (SACD, CTI/Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2012), you should like The Rite of Spring, available new on POCD from for about seven bucks, and used from under three bucks. Don't miss it.

Very Weird but Quite Wonderful
My next recommendation is from so far out in left field that I fear that you'll be checking the cover date to see if this is an April Fools' Day prank. French vocal ensemble Accentus has reissued, in a deluxe, hardbound set titled Transcriptions, their 2001 and 2006 albums of instrumental music transcribed for voices a cappella and accompanied (2 CDs, Naïve V 5151). For me, the unquestioned highlight is "Kein deutscher Himmel," Gérard Pesson's haunting transcription for unaccompanied chorus of the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony 5.

Martin Kaltenecker assembled a collage of fragments from the Venetian Sonnets and 1824 diary of German poet August von Platen (1796–1835). It was von Platen who was the inspiration for Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice. Visconti's 1971 film version, Morte a Venezia, changed the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, from poet to composer, and since then, Mahler, Venice, death, and—by implication, at least—von Platen's words have been linked in the public mind.

The movement opens with distant cries for a gondola ("Gondel!"), then layers arrestingly Impressionistic words and phrases over what is actually a rock-solid traversal for voices of the original orchestral score:

Ich steig ans Land,öd ist der Hafen.
Kein deutscher Himmel, Marmorhaüser
geputzte Puppen.

I set foot on land, the port is deserted.
No German sky, houses of marble
Dressed-up dolls.

Even if you know hardly any Mahler at all, the opening should raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The alto solo is amazing. All the singing is amazing. The level of choral discipline is nearly incomprehensible to me. Perhaps director Laurence Equilbey should be tapped to run General Motors—she must be one heck of a motivator. One of the pieces that follow "Kein deutscher Himmel" is "Immortal Bach," Knut Nystedt's paraphrase of Bach's "Komm, süsser Tod." Just to give you an idea of the seriousness of the undertaking.

Footnote 1: The microsite's design is very elegant, but its navigation might not be intuitive. After the page loads, click the "Videos" tabs at the left. Then, above the tabs on the left, click the video-still thumbnail marked "Interview."