You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 10
october/november 2003

An Xmas Handful
by Max Dudious


What comes next are a screed of reviews of CDs that arrived mysteriously, UPS, USPS, by Santa’s helpers, over the transom, and down the chimney, for me to hear and to tout you onto my favorites. To remind you, I try not to do negative reviews. I try to winnow through the vast numbers and come up with those CDs that have captured my fancy, either because of sonics or performance, or both, and pass them on to you as I would tell my buddies about them. So these represent a handful that I feel would make good Xmas presents. I hope I have saved you from listening to what I consider to be the losers in my personal sweepstakes.

romeo.jpg (20611 bytes)

Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet

In the Third Edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1935), one writer had this to say about Prokofiev:

Prokofiev might well be described as a cubist in music. His thematic material is generally square-cut and clearly defined, his idiom hard and dry, his texture free from half-tones and haziness, and his forms are angular and symmetrical. The continuous, unflagging rhythmic motion of many of his movements gives an impression of physical energy and sureness of purpose... The best of Prokofiev’s works ... produce a kind of physical exhilaration the bracing effect of which few can resist.

As a kid in college, about the time stereo LPs first arrived, I couldn’t afford the newer, more expensive (natch) stereo LPs, nor had I a stereo playback rig, so I looked in the cutout bins for music I liked. It was there I found the mono (1957) version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, under Leopold Stokowski (LM-2117). Boy, was I in hog heaven with that stuff. I was just the right age to appreciate it. My significant other in those days was an aspiring ballerina who exposed me to the beauty of "the dance" and its music. Romeo & Juliet had upon us a bracing effect, indeed.

Later, with my first job selling stereo gear (natch), I put together my first stereo system, two Altec 604Ds in home-brewed Carlson cabinets (I built them with my dad from Popular Electronics drawings.), two Dynakit 50W mono-blocks, a Dynakit PAS stereo pre-amp (all built by myself), a Garrard record-changer (that I was constantly tearing down and rebuilding), and a Shure cartridge (cheap). I’m not sure, but I don’t think that system would embarrass anyone these days. That muscular dog could hunt, and was a just-right match for Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. My college sweetie and I used it as "our song," with the Garrard set in repeat mode, sometimes listening to it all night.

Soon after, I found the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 1962 reading of Romeo & Juliet suites (now available as Mercury CD 432 004-2). Boy was that something! I know of more than a few people who felt that was the definitive recording for a long while, and I still hear it on my car’s FM stations. Definitive for about ten years it was, or until Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra came out with their 1972 reading of the complete ballet (London, LP# CSA-2312). Maazel’s was a rapturous reading, highly acclaimed, with excellent audio engineering. And no sooner had I settled in with "Skrovie," and Maazel when in 1978 Erich Leinsdorf and the L.A. Phil came out with a direct-to-disc recording (Sheffield Lab’s LAB-8) that pushed the sonic envelope of LPs further. Not only did it have a new definition of "inner detail," it also had a pretty good bass drum. If "Skrovie’s" sound was rich and mellow, and Maazel’s was emotional as one could imagine, Leinsdorf’s sound was more analytical. Each had its special appeal, to the head, the heart, and the body.

And now, who should come along but our old pal Paavo Järvi, the Cincinnati Kid. In his recent Telarc recording (SACD 60597), with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (all three orchestral suites, 75 minutes), Paavo fills an inside straight and hits the jackpot. That is to say, this is the recording to have if you’d know Prokofiev in his mature mastery, if you’d know the Cincinnati as an orchestra on the brink of greatness, and if you’d know the risk-taking Järvi as a gambler who knows the odds against reaching the head, heart, and body in one reading, but still goes for it.

On this recording there are orchestral textures and timbres I’ve not quite heard before. For example, the new SACD multi-channel format does such a good job that the bass drum becomes more than just a keeper of the beat, or the maker of exclamation points: it creates moods, and changes them. It rolls like thunder, pounds out the inevitable force of destiny, and plays piano as if to raise questions about what might happen next in the music, and in the ballet. You don’t quite notice that it has only one note. It might be the pedal tones of an organ rumbling down there in the basement of the orchestra. In this 1936 Prokofiev work the concert bass drum—the whole percussion section, actually—has a presence that is very changeable, suggesting here playfulness of young lovers, there the inexorable destiny that everyone who knows the story of Romeo and Juliet is already anticipating; the death of Mercutio, Romeo’s vengeful slaying of Tybalt, and the lovers’ suicides, first Romeo’s, then Juliet’s. "A curse on both your houses." The SACD medium picks up on each detail of the percussion section, making it somehow more than merely a part of the orchestra, but a running commentary on the action of the ballet.

That is not to say the ballet is a concert-schtoeck for concert bass drum and percussion. It is not. But there are passages where the percussion section energizes all the molecules of air in my listening room, coupling to the floor and my chair, spreading the sound laterally, apparently widening the sound stage, the way it sometimes sounds in my local symphony hall, stressing the irreversibility of the impending tragedy. There are other passages where the percussion suggests only innuendo, as if commenting slyly on the manners of the dancers, the feigned delicacy of the ruffians in the "Arrival of the Guests" section, for but one example.

In the context of the ballet, the percussion sets the tone by creating suspense, by suggesting the presence of fate, and by delivering the fourteen hammer-blows of destiny that mark the death of Tybalt. I’m not sure the previous great conductors were unaware of the new (Well, not so new: Verdi and Wagner used some similar drum techniques.) and expanded role the percussion was to play in this orchestral arrangement, but in pre-SACD recordings the force of the bass drum, and all the score, was lessened.

You might recall some early LPs that tried to expand the low frequencies and dynamic range, where the grooves were widely spaced to give tonearms and cartridges a better chance of tracking them without jumping out. Some engineers just cut back the gain on the deep bass knowing in advance the odds weren’t with them. The Telarc engineers are able to get the precise moment of mallet striking drumhead, the initial bloom of the note, and the slow, textured decay. They capture this if loud or soft, and with what (if memory serves) is a striking similarity to live performance. I’m not sure if Paavo Järvi recognized what the marriage of SACD technology and this ballet music might bring about, but it seems he’s reached a new dimension of interpretive performance that melds the technology and the music in a way I’ve not heard before. I think emphasis on percussion in this way must have been a gamble, a well-considered risk, that this time he pulls off.

Recently I was fortunate in being able to see a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky, accompanied by Prokofiev’s score played and sung by massed choirs, a contralto soloist, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (with an augmented percussion section), all under the baton of Maestro Yuri Temirkanov. Toward the end of the mighty "Battle On The Ice," when the ice cracks and many Germans are drowned, there is a passage where the augmented percussion section plays what amounts to a three or four minute suite simulating the cracking of the ice. It lasts only a short while, but it demonstrates that Prokofiev was concerned with writing "new" music for percussion. The Alexander Nevsky score dates to 1937-38, which might lend some small credence to the assertion that his use of percussion in Romeo & Juliet (1936) was new for him.

Prokofiev and Edgard Varèse were in Paris in 1931, when Varèse debuted his Ionisation, a five and a half minute suite for an augmented percussion section (13 players on 37 different instruments including two sirens, one high, one low in pitch; two tam-tams, ditto; gong; crash cymbals; three different sizes of bass drums; bongos; snare drums; Guiros {a dessicated Cuban gourd, serrated on the surface to be scratched with a wooden stick}; slap-sticks; Chinese blocks in three registers; Cuban claves; triangle; maracas {Cuban rattles, gourds with ammunition inside}; sleigh bells; castanets; tambourine; anvils in two registers; chimes; celesta; and piano). I do not charge Prokofiev with plagiarism (I didn’t count, but it seemed to me his augmented percussion section was not nearly as large as Varèse’s.), but merely with noting the new interest in percussion and using it for his purposes.

I am not a historian of music, nor is this a dissertation, so this is really just a semi-educated guess. During the "Battle On The Ice" in Alexander Nevsky, the hunters’ shooting in Peter And The Wolf, and in particular the "Death Of Tybalt" scene in Romeo & Juliet, Prokofiev makes good use of new percussion techniques. The SACD recording system picks them up with stunning clarity in this new Romeo & Juliet recording from Telarc.

The SACD (Multi-channel) recording technology is on display here to its best advantage. The music often rises to incredible loudness and dissonance. With the older recording technologies, even in all but the very best of the standard CDs (due to lesser dynamic range) the music would thicken as the playing rose in volume and complexity. Details would be lost (due to lower sampling rate). The distinct elements of a chord, say, would be lost to a combination of tones, like the elements of a complex wine’s effect on the pallette blurring together with too-spicy food, blending flavors that should remain separate. With the new SACD medium, and Telarc’s surehanded use of it, though the music gains in volume, the details remain distinct. You can follow the ascending first violins along with the descending cellos. You can hear the bassoon brrmmping away. And though the chords Prokofiev so dissonantly raises at the beginning of the 2nd suite, the section titled "Montagues and Capulets," rise into one gigantic, nerve-jangling "BLAATT!!," on this recording I can hear into the sound and discern the component parts of that great, loud, subtly changing chord. That is a startling insight that should convince anyone who still doubts that SACDs can resolve way better than standard CDs. As such it may serve as a great test or demo disc.

The three-dimensionality illusion is also coaxed to a new level of articulation. Often, when faced with setting up my system in my listening room, because of the various odd angles of stair-wells, asymmetrical doorways, and not quite regular room shape, I took lightly the precision with which the speakers were to be spaced. "Close enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll," I figured. But with this music, in its lateral spread and front-to-back depth, I toe the line with greater meticulousness. And it pays off!! Big time. This performance of Romeo and Juliet (or is it in the recording venue?) seems expansive beyond what I’ve been used to. This is a revelation that demonstrates how SACD Multi-Channel goes beyond standard CDs in handling spatiality, and actually corrects for compromised rooms that most of us must endure as our listening venues. It does this by controlling the early reflections and playing them through the surround speakers, rather than leaving those reflections to the variable boundaries described by the size and shape of each listening room.

My hat is off to Paavo Järvi, The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Bob Woods, and the Telarc engineers on this one. Great job, guys. This recording breaks new ground, both in its wonderful recording engineering and in its musical interpretation. If it were up to me, I’d nominate it as a candidate for Max Dudious’s "Classical Recording Of The Year;" but, alas, there is no such award. Still, I’ll be watching for the Grammy and Grand Prix Du Disc awards announcements this year. Hell, I’ll go on record and say, "This recording of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been awarded Max Dudious’s vote for the first annual Max Dudious’s Classical Record of the Year."

For readers who are intrigued by classical music, but haven’t developed a taste for it yet, this is the kind of recording that gives birth to new classical music lovers. For established classical music fans, this is a "must-have" recording that pushes the envelope of what to expect of classical recordings, and if you already have a copy of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, the better to compare. For gear-heads, this is a demo disc that will test the mettle of your system, and make your pals receive a visit from the green-eyed dragon of envy and jealousy. And, it might serve as a wife-pleaser at Christmas time. What woman doesn’t know the story of Romeo & Juliet? If you are a member of any of the aforementioned groups (classical newbie, classical veteran, gear-head, or husband), keep an eye out for the CD due in stores soon, maybe just after X-mas.

stravinsky.jpg (25316 bytes)

Stravinsky: The Firebird, Petrouchka.

Again, it’s The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Paavo Järvi (my Cincinnati Kid) offering yet another ear-opening performance of some of the standard repertory’s signal works: Telarc (SACD-60587). I know it’s been said a lot, but I must repeat it: Paavo Järvi is one of the brightest conductors of the current generation. I can’t help myself but agree. That’s the way I see it. And the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a band on its way up. With this disc, they show us why many people think so. Let me try to explain.

About ten years ago my wife, the esteemed Mrs. Dudious (La Dudeen) and I happened to be in Gothenburg, Sweden for a conference at their university. I got a copy of the local newspaper, and managed to find the "Entertainment" section where it said the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was in town and was going to play Stravinsky’s Firebird in the next few days (I’m translating from the Swedish here, so forgive me. Please note that my last name, Dudious ends in "us," like many Swedish names, such as Delius, and Sibelius.), {;-), among other things, under the baton of Neeme Järvi, Paavo’s dad. We went. As last minute ticket purchasers, we were able to get tickets in the second row, just a little closer than I generally like. We sat through the undercard patiently. The pianist played a concerto by the Swedish composer, Stenhammar (a contemporary and competitor of Grieg’s), and beat up on the piano with great ferocity. The Czechoslovakian judge called it a draw.

And suddenly, after an intermission where we wondered at the amount of light still available though it was now past nine in the evening, the time for The Firebird was at hand. The firebird leapt and swirled, swept and pounced under the interpretive hand of Järvi, the elder. I found it a most electrifying performance. The dour Swedes in the audience were moved to gushing applause. Even my reserved La Dudeen was swept away. It was the first time I’d heard Neeme Järvi conduct, and I would pay attention to his recorded performances after that. He didn’t let me down. But that’s another story.

So it was with some interest that I auditioned the Berlioz and Sibelius recordings of Paavo Järvi that Telarc released earlier this year. And readers of Positive Feedback Online will recall how I was thrilled to review them. Now, with this Stravinsky disc, the pendulum has swung full cycle and I see how the younger Järvi will be following the lead of his esteemed father, and I hear there is a brother who is quite an excellent conductor in his own right. Such is the inevitability of the generations. My daughter, La Dudette, whom I taught to play gin-rummy as a kid, now regularly "schneiders" me. It’s a bitter-sweet transition.

But, back to the music. Fans of Stravinsky’s might say of his music that it is characterized by many of the things that characterize Prokofiev’s music. That might be necessary, but not sufficient. For but one example, Prokofiev’s music is said to have a regular, march-like rhythm, while much of Stravinsky’s music moves the rhythmic time signature around, and develops cross-rhythms where parts of the orchestra wind up playing rhythms of different, often opposing, time signatures as other parts of the orchestra. It is as if he wants to keep the right and left hemispheres of the audience’s collective brain in tension. Like the first section of Petrouchka, "The Shrove Tide Fair," which builds in cross-rhythmic intensity until it drops everything and goes of into a kind of woodland fantasy, "The Magic Trick." It stays there a while until it gets going into another spirited dance of cross-rhythms, and then it moves on.

Another thing that separates Stravinsky from Prokofiev is their differing use of irregular or innovative harmonies. While Prokofiev used dissonance in a novel way in his l’enfant terrible period, such as in his Scythian Suite (1916), and in a grisly way in Romeo & Juliet, Stravinsky uses unconventional harmonies in Petrouchka (and afterward in his career), though not necessarily all that dissonant. Jonathan D. Kramer writes in the album notes: "It may seem amazing today that such a tuneful work as Petrouchka was once thought fearfully dissonant. The most famous dissonance is the ‘Petrouchka chord,’ a combination of C major and F-sharp major triads first heard in the clarinets just after the opening of the second scene." He goes on to point out that some of the singable melodies in Petrouchka are Austrian waltzes, a French music hall song, and at least five Russian folk melodies. Tuneful indeed. Which makes it one of the most popular works of the 20th century. But, again, Stravinsky is putting our collective brain hemispheres in tension with that F-sharp minor over C major "Petrouchka chord." With tension usually comes the release of tension, a trick old Franz Schubert used with expert touch, and one that Stravinsky turns to his own purposes.

Paavo Järvi’s reading of Petrouchka is a highly spirited one that seems to grasp all of the complexity of the work. As the son of a conductor, it seems he has grown up on works like Petrouchka, much as kids in advanced music schools grow up on Charlie Parker these days. And with this familiarity comes a relaxed yet terrifically nuanced reading. This is a keeper. Highly spirited when called on, and subtle too. Another of those works in the canon that the younger Järvi seems to own.

Much as he owns Petrouchka (1910), so does he own The Firebird Suite (1909). It is clear from the outset that Paavo loves this music, much as his father does. It was written early in Stravinsky’s career when he was still under the influence of his orchestration teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. You can hear some of the playfulness of Scheherazade early in the work. But of course Stravinsky will take the enterprise off in his own direction. Again, following Jonathan D. Kramer’s album notes, "How could [Stravinsky] musically differentiate the natural (Ivan, the Princess, the finale’s hymn of rejoicing) from the magical (the Firebird, Katschei)? His idea, derived from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel, was to represent the natural characters and scenes in a diatonic style, while the supernatural was interpreted with chromatic music." Again, he pits our hemispheres against each other, this time using diatonic vs. chromatic modes. The result is a score with spectacular orchestration, the likes of which had yet to be seen in the history of ballet by 1909. This recording is of the revision known as the 1919 version.

This Firebird is a super-duper reading. It is wonderfully true to my idea of the work, which is tempered by many versions of the score on CD (4 recordings) and LP (6 more) too lengthy and embarrassing to name, but I must include the Firebird that Stravinsky himself conducts. The concert bass drum plays an influential part in the orchestration, and the SACD multi-channel technology seems to get everything quite right. The sound is excellent, the details are plenty, the dynamic range is extraordinary, the sound-staging is, as I experience it, a seductive facsimile of the concert hall. If you’d like to know what’s what with Stravinsky, why he is considered a great composer (It is often said that Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg form the three pillars of 20th century classical music.) this CD is a great place to start. If you already have something of a handle on Stravinsky, this CD will broaden your vision. If you don’t give the lint in your navel’s worth of care to classical music, or Stravinsky, this is another Telarc demo disc of clarity and dynamic range that will show off your system. This is the real deal.

Now that the Russians are our friends again, go and learn about Russian music! Go out and get this recording of Stravinsky’s two most famous early ballets. Run, do not walk, to your music shop. You won’t be sorry.

alan.jpg (28361 bytes)

Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountains

There are some works that just seem to seek wider audiences than those classical music lovers who would never let a Muddy Waters recording touch their virginally pure systems. One piece that has developed a following that has crossed-over the lines that divide recorded music into various categories is Pachelbel’s Canon. The Canon has captured the feeling of certain early music, the plainsong simple harmonies, the predictable melody, the repetition that sears itself into your memory. Another is Prokofiev’s delightful children’s piece, Peter And The Wolf. Walt Disney’s animated version of that wonderful score has begat so many recordings, in so many languages, that its universal appeal demands we consider it a "classic." People who don’t grow up on classical music are converted by each of these works.

A third such work is Mysterious Mountains, actually Symphony No. 2 by Alan Hovhaness. It is a work that has its grounding in liturgical music of earlier times. It also calls to mind the special sacred points, at which (according to Rumanian anthropologist Mercea Eliade) many societies believe the Sacred can touch the Profane. It is at this moment, at certain places, following specified religious rites, when we mortals have access to the immortal, and that Hovhaness celebrates on his latest Telarc release, Mysterious Mountains, The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerard Schwartz, conducting (Telarc SACD-60604). This music celebrates mountains, symbolic as well as actual, as some of the places where mysterious things happen. In addition to the Mysterious Mountain, other works included on this disc are: Hymn to Glacier Peak, Mount St. Helens, and Storm on Mount Wildcat, played by The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz, conducting (Terlarc SACD-60604).

The music is similar, yet varied. It is eerie and suggestive of the spiritual without being in the common vernacular of well known hymns. It can be very vigorous and dissonant, as in the Storm on Mount Wildcat, or it can be formal as the Prelude and Fugue movement of Hymn to Glacier Peak. In any of its idiomatic turns the music never loses its power which makes it a good show piece for your big rig. And it never loses its reverence; as Hovhaness himself writes, "Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual world." Like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, this music has had its own following for a generation. If you are a spiritual person, and you’ve wondered what classical music lovers mean when they talk about the spiritual glory of Bach or Mozart, but you’ve never connected with those guys, listen to this Hovhaness album. I’m almost certain you’ll be touched. Some friends of mine reported having "the mystical experience" listening to this album, but that was in the ‘60s, when mystical experiences were easier to be had.

An Anthology of Sexy Jazz

The Chesky Records label has had its own history of trailblazing in good, clean recording engineering. Their latest are no exceptions. They get great performances here on Sexy Jazz from albums by artists in their stable. The tunes, followed by the artists, are: "Baby Talk," by Dave’s True Story; "The Man I Love," by Eddie Daniels; "The Touch Of Your Lips," by John Pizzarelli; "Naima," by Jon Faddis; "Insensatez," by Rosa Passos & Ron Carter; "Green and Golden," by Oregon; "Body And Soul," by Christy Baron; "I Fall In Love Too Easily," The Fred Hersch Trio; " ‘Round Midnight," by Kenny Rankin; "La vie En Rose," by Chuck Mangione; "Remind Me," by Peggy Lee, and "My Funny Valentine," by The John Basile Quartet.

I particularly liked "Insensatez," by Rosa Passos and the late Ron Carter, on which you hear why each of them became a fixture in jazz, she with her relaxed Bossa Nova singing style, and he with his just right accompaniment, all the time, with every note. I fell in love too easily with Christy Baron and Fred Hersch: if you are intrigued enough to want to know why, you’ll listen to their cuts. Kenny Rankin knocked me out with his version of the Monk anthem. And Peggy Lee, well what can I say except, it seems I’ve loved her all my life, and her phrasing is still as impeccable as mine isn’t.

This is an album whose title promises it is the kind of music lovers used to save for Sunday morning, when others were in church, or the kids were off to Sunday School. Well, if not Sunday School, then slept over at their cousin’s. The kind of album that makes you feel the cool of the sheets when you listen to it in the den. The kind of album you and your old lady used to delight in, in that special way that old lovers and best friends understand. And it lives up to its promise. Each of the cuts is at least very good. You can play it over and over.

persuasions.jpg (29032 bytes)

The Persuasions: A Cappella Dreams

This one is the latest in the long list of albums offered by The Persuasions since the ‘60s, for those of you who don’t know them, the longest running a cappella do-wop group in the history of records. There are two kinds of people in the music world: those who adore The Persuasions, and those who haven’t heard of them, yet. Well, that’s not exactly correct; but those who like them have a passionate and never ending song for them. In addition to their early do-wops albums, they have earned their following with albums for kids (On The Good Ship Lollipop), a gospel collection (Sunday Morning Soul), and hômages to Frank Zappa (Frankly A Capella), the Grateful Dead (Might As Well...), and the Beatles (... Sing The Beatles). This time it is an album of covers of their favorites, songs they might sing driving to a gig.

The guys are Jim Hayes, Jerry Lawson, Joe Russell, Ray Sanders, and Jayotis Washington, and they have mellowed like a great wine. There are some who say, "You just can’t re-arrange any old song and put it into the a cappella do-wop format." To which I say, "And Ray Charles just doesn’t cross over to Country and Western." By which I guess I mean, in the hands of greatly talented performers, the genre doesn’t matter. Before Ray Charles became RAY CHARLES, he was a great jazz pianist, and once, when he didn’t think he was getting what he wanted from his lady backup group, the Raeletts, on "I Believe To My Soul" Ray sang each of their parts in falsetto and overdubbed them onto his lead vocal. By the time he decided he wanted to rework a Hank Snow (The Singin’ Ranger) tune, "I’m Movin’ On," who would stop him? I believe the Persuasions have transcended their original incarnation as an a cappella do-wop group by virtue of their talent (as Ray Charles transcended his original incarnation as a Nat King Cole wanna be), that they have earned the right to show us what is interesting about the songs they choose to sing, and how their style and technique bring fresh insight and interpretation to all their material, especially the songs in this album.

The tunes are: "I Have A Dream," based on a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King; "There’s A Train," written by Sherman Holmes, recorded by various artists; "In The Ghetto," written by Mac Davis and recorded by Elvis Presley; "She’s A Lady," written by Paul Anka and recorded by Tom Jones; "Don’t," written by Leiber & Stoller and recorded by Elvis Presley; "Good Luck Charm," written by Schroeder & Gold, and recorded by Elvis; "Ain’t No Sunshine," written by Bill Withers, recorded by Al Green; "Dock Of The Bay," written by Reading & Cropper, recorded by Otis Reading; "The Clock," written by Alexander & Mattis, recorded by Johnny Ace; "Steal Away," by Jimmy Hughes, recorded by various artists; "When She Was My Girl," written by Blatte & Gottlieb, recorded by Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops; "Rainy Night In Georgia," written by Tony Joe White, recorded by Brook Benton; "Please Send Me Someone To Love," written and recorded by Percy Mayfield; "Peace In The Valley," written by Thomas A. Dorsey, recorded by various artists; and, "When The Saints Go Marching In," traditional, recorded by various artists.

When asked who were their greatest influences? Joe Russell would say The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Soul Stirrers, and all those gospel greats. Jimmy Hayes would say, Jimmy Rix & Melvin Franklin. Jay Washington would say Louis Jordan. Ray Sanders would say The Temptations. And Jerry Lawson would say, Brook Benton and Elvis Presley. I’d add The Fairfield Four, if this reading of "When the Saints Go Marching In" reveals an influence. If you don’t know any of these names, but might like to find out what is going on in this vibrant tradition of a cappella singing, you might pick up this record. If these names are familiar to you, or (better yet) old favorites of yours you must pick up this record. If you are a Persuasions fan already, then you’re going to add this one to your collection no matter what I say.

Chesky has released these two CDs in standard red-book format. If you’d like to get these in SACD or in Multi-Channel SACD hybrid, check the Chesky website. They are often releasing some of their new material in various formats, but not simultaneously due to schedules of CD plants. These are excellent sounding for standard CDs. The Chesky sound is pretty consistent from one artist to the next because they use the same venue, St. Peter’s Church in NYC, and same recording set up, and same recording engineer (Barry Wolifson). Their Sexy Jazz, though an anthology of different artists was likely done the same way as A Cappella Dreams. Which is to say, Chesky has an in-house tradition of recording a particular song over and over until the musicians and engineers are happy with the take, rather than stopping at the sixth bar and picking it up for the next twelve bars to be spliced together in post-production. In other words, there are a minimum of interruptions so the artists can focus on the performance as if in live concert. The results are self-evident. So if boudoir jazz is of interest to you, or if you like a cappella singing, you might get happy with either, or both, of Chesky’s new releases.

Hahn - Bach cover.jpg (202557 bytes)

Hilary Hahn plays Bach

The young Hilary Hahn has been judged one of the great violinists of her generation since she was a teenager, and I’ve been lucky to hear her perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during her formative years. Hilary grew up in and around Baltimore, and studied at the with Peabody Conservatory faculty beginning at age five, before moving on to The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at age ten. Now in her early twenties, Ms. Hahn is living up to her advance billing. Her playing is typified by a full, sweet tone and fleetness of fingers. Her technique early on showed few limits as she played some of the repertoire’s most difficult concerti in performance (as opposed to studio recordings). But what surprised everyone who commented about her playing was her musical maturity so in advance of her years. She was, as those who believe in re-incarnation might say, an "old soul." It was as if she had lived before as a violinist and had all the expressiveness of the violin in her blood when she began playing as a child, just shy of her fourth birthday. Perhaps she had lived in another country, or in another culture. Now it was only up to her to learn the current repertoire of this culture and she would express her old soul in her new venue, Western classical music.

Where better to begin than with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concertos. Deutsche Grammophon label has taken upon itself to sign some of the classical world’s premier young artists to contracts, such as Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, and Ms. Hahn. This, I believe, confers upon them the status of "World Class." As befits an organization with the clout of DG, they have arranged to have Hilary record the Bach violin concertos with the Los Angles Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane ( DG 289 474 639-2).

The four works on this album are Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo in E major, BWV 1042; Concerto for 2 violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor, BWV 1043; Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo in A minor, BWV 1041; and Concerto for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Continuo in C minor, BWV 1060. These are some of the best works in the literature with which to demonstrate the style and performance technique of violin playing in Bach’s time, and these Hilary Hahn performs with great aplomb—as she has similarly recorded the concerti of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Stravinsky, Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Schostakovich, Barber, Meyer, and the Bernstein "Serenade," demonstrating her ease with various periods of violin playing. In her liner notes, Ms. Hahn repeatedly makes reference to the culture transmissions of one generation to the next in musical style and performance. Perhaps it is her "old soul" letting itself be known.

This music is a great introduction to the playing of Hilary Hahn and the music of J.S. Bach, himself a violinist as well as an organist and harpsichordist. With second violinist Margaret Batjer (in BWV1043) and oboist Allan Vogel (in BWV 1060), Hilary demonstrates her sensitivity as an ensemble artist, playing off each of them with great restraint and taste. In the other two concertos, where she can strut her stuff, she does so in service to the music. It is hard to say which I like better, when she is playing as soloist, or with others in duet. She herself comments, "All of Bach’s music is chamber music, whether it’s written for a solo instrument or a large ensemble. In solo works the performer creates chamber music on one instrument, by balancing and phrasing many different lines at once. On the other hand, when more musicians are involved, the chamber-music structure is more standardized, and interpretations are formed through interaction with the other instrumentalists." Hilary Hahn is equally adept at either. Be not misled by her little girl looks. This is a mature performer at the top of her game. The recordings feature very good sound, too. In SACD in particular, you can follow all the lines of Bach’s wonderful writing.

If you’re interested in Bach; or in the current generation’s best violinist’s take on Bach; or if you’re interested in what the future of Bach interpretation is likely to sound like, you ought to get an earful of this one. Highly recommended.

anna.jpg (25691 bytes)

Opera Arias by Anna Netrebko

When asked to describe Anna Netrebko one wag said, "Imagine Audrey Hepburn singing with her own beautiful voice." When I first held the CD jewelbox in my hand, and looked upon the face of this latest of DG "world class" divas, I thought to myself, "How lovely. They must be recruiting by looks nowadays." Not to be taken in by Anna’s photogenic qualities, I listened to the album with a very critical ear. Every label would like to have the next Renée Fleming in their queue. Though I approached her DG debut album skeptically she surprisingly knocked me out. Here was a beauty who could really sing. And to demonstrate it to the world, DG coupled her with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Staatsoper Choir, under the conductor Gianandrea Noseda; and recorded the album in the Vienna Grosser Musikverein, with its sublime acoustic (DG 289 474 640-2). This acoustic is wonderfully captured in this recording by the DG engineers use of SACD recording technology. This is an improvement upon their first few SACD releases, which I thought lacked focus. This is a beautifully engineered album. I hope DG will keep it up.

Anna Netrebko can run scales, trill, jump octaves, reach up and hit the high notes (and hold them), with the best of them. What I find particularly appealing is an honest and vulnerable tone to her voice. It is as if she is singing with a world-weariness, singing sadly for someone to love her. And this emotional quality underlies all of her range and power, all of her technical excellence. Some jazz critic once wrote of Stan Getz that his appeal to the ladies was in his tone. His wheedling, pleading tone conveyed to them that he wanted someone to love, to love him, that night. And he spoke as a surrogate for all the men. I feel the same reaction in my jaded self when listening to Anna. I can understand how she speaks for all the women (and directly to the men) in her audience. I understand how she already has armies of dedicated fans in Europe. Her art is a kind of façade, or a scrim that covers the raw emotional power of her marvelous instrument, her voice.

In my hubris I imagine it was that pleading quality that the Kirov Opera’s Valery Gergiev felt when he discovered Anna as a 20-year-old student charwoman scrubbing floors in the Mariinsky Theater singing to herself. It is that quality that reaches behind the defenses we all try to sustain, I imagine, that the DG A&R people heard when they decided to load up her debut album with songs of love, of lost love, of how to make one’s self more desirable, the briefness of youth, the wild throbbing of first love, etc. etc., all sung in a flawless coloratura haloed by dark timbres that reach into us and touch us deeply.

Apparently Anna knocked everyone out with her role as Violetta in La Traviata at the Vienna State Opera in April of 2003. La Dudeen and I were lucky enough to see a performance of La Traviata a few years back in Vienna, and the Viennese take their La Traviata seriously. When Violetta is visited by her would-be father in law, who admonishes her to break with his son for the good of their entire family, and she responds that she is ill, she knows she will die soon, and that his request, which she will honor, means she will die alone, with no one to care for her (everyone’s silent fear), there isn’t a dry eye in the house. I don’t mean polite sniffles into hankies: I mean wracking sobs and moans. Since this aria is not included on this anthology, I can only imagine what Anna’s voice would bring to this role, this aria. With this in mind, I could only agree with the critic from Die Presse who wrote: "The word ‘miracle’ doesn’t seem too extravagant... a great singing actress ... completely present at every moment in her intelligently conceived, deeply moving characterization ... flawless technique, perfect coloratura, a substantial soprano voice in every register, with a timbre of dark-hued luminosity." (Quoted from the album’s liner notes.)

If you’re interested in exactly what the latest soprano, the next great diva, has going for her. If you’re curious as to what the fuss is all about. If you can walk with kings yet retain the common touch. Then you ought to get a copy of Anna Netrebko’s Opera Arias. You won’t be sorry. I think her version of "Musetta’s Waltz" from Puccini’s La Boheme might be worth the price of the album if you’re a sucker for women singing of lost love. I hate to admit it, but I’m one too.

There you have it. Xmas presents for a variety of tastes. From do-wops to opera. From Bach to Stravinsky to Prokofiev. From boudoir jazz to sacred music inspired by mysterious mountains. Hope you like some of these. I do. Dig you later.