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November 2005 - Excerpts from our latest SACD, DVD-A, and xrcd Reviews
A true rock classic now even more nostalgic and exciting with three more channels plus hi-res!
Derek and the Dominos - Layla and other assorted love songs (Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle) - Polydor Multichannel SACD B0003640-36, 77:07 ****:
This 1970 session produced and engineered by the great late Tom Dowd (recently documentarized on film) is one of the few rock super classic albums for sure - right up there with Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon, Highway 61 Revisited and their ilk. The 14 tunes—nearly all by Clapton himself—were supposedly stimulated by a huge crush the guitar-crusher had on George Harrison's wife. He worked thru his hangup by bringing together in short order these wonderful, deeply felt rock love songs. The seven-minute title tune is highly original in starting out hard and driving but then halfway thru morphing into a gorgeous sensuous instrumental featuring the piano - almost like a movement of a rock piano concerto. Some authorities feel it is the greatest rock ballad ever written. In my youth it was often playing in a hippie/cultish/commune environment I occasionally spent time in, and it brings back some enjoyable memories. Jimi Hendrix' Little Wing treatment reminded me of The Band. Every track is just great—there's no losers. Plus, every bit of the original double-LP packaging is here on this jam-packed SACD, only a couple minutes shy of the maximum you can cram on 'em!
The lyrics are moving and often desparate-sounding. They are not reprinted in the booklet but the added intelligibility of the surround mix (by Simon Climie) makes it fairly easy to understand them IF YOU TURN IT UP LOUD. And this is surely one album for doing that with. The spreading-out-and- around of the stereo original makes this much more of a participatory listening session. For example, the bongos behind you on I Am Yours have such a presence you want to turn around to see the musician. The standard CD layer is pretty good except that it clogs up during big climaxes and neither SACD mixes do that. Of course just about everyone thinks Clapton is god of the guitar. (I was surprised he wasn't included for his terrific blues playing on the new 100 Years of Jazz Guitar compilation.) Never mind there's no fuzzy snapshots of Clapton and the band in a video component or some boring interviews, as you often get on DVD-As and DualDiscs—this is an aural trip, a nostalgia trip, a heartbroke can't-get-no-satisfaction trip, not a videos presentation.
Tracks: I Look
Nine never-before-issued video performances by Nina highlight this survey of the queen of hauteur
The Soul of Nina Simone - CD compilation + same tracks on DVD in PCM stereo plus nine video performances - RCA/Legacy DualDisc 82876 71973 2 **** (released Oct. 11):
Now this is more like it for the DualDisc format! Nine actual videos of the performer on the DVD side, rather than the blurry still photos and perhaps an interview with the artists found on most DualDisc thus far. The CD side of the thick disc was rejected by my older CD player as well as both of my computer CD players, but the DVD side played fine on my iMac. The complete 14-track audio compilation heard on the CD is repeated on the DVD side in 48K PCM stereo, which does sound marginally better than the 44.1 CD side. (The notes refer to "enhanced audio" on this side of the disc.)
This is a terrific introduction to a magnificent performer who passed away a couple years ago. Nina Simone was known as a defiant and outspoken black woman of conscience and the 1960s were her prime decade. Her bitterness is thought to have stemmed from the struggles of her early upbringing but specifically because after completing a year's scholarship at Juilliard (she had hoped to be the first female black concert pianist) the Curtis Institute turned her away because she was black. She called her mix of jazz, African rhythms, folk tunes and classical touches "Black classical music."
The nine Nina videos are compelling viewing, and had been previously unreleased commercially. The first is her initial national appearance, on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1960, when he gave her a surprising eight minutes at the piano. She does a quite amazing Bachian piano intro to Love Me or Leave Me, then launches into a searing, touching interpretation of I Loves You Porgy. Next are two live numbers videotaped at New York's Bitter End in l968. Finally, there are four tracks from the 1969 Harlem Festival, dubbed The Black Woodstock. Simone was at the peak of her intense hell-raising self, doin' her thing for her people. Four Women is a musical anthem for the civil rights movement—picturing a gallery of black archetypes who share similar scars of racial prejudice. I Got Life from "Hair" gets her special treatment, and the set ends with the proud To Be Young, Gifted and Black. This footage is in color.
The CD compilation includes two tracks from Porgy and Bess: My Man's Gone Now, and a concluding extended medley from the opera, which she transforms into a searing autobiographical number. The occasion was the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. A real surprise is her version of The Look of Love—a stark contrast to the Dusty Springfield track on that over-acclaimed soundtrack to Casino Royale. In this one Simone shows some humor and lightness that disappears from her later work but her version still sounds skeptical and questioning. Bob Dylan's Tom Thumb's Blues comes across completely differently from its author's version. The compilation gives a more varied cross-section of Simone's achievements than any of her previous albums and for its bonus videos is highly recommended. (Don't count on being able to play the CD side in your car player however.) John Henry
1985 live club recording shines in its best sonics yet
The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio - (Ray Brown, bass; Gene Harris, piano; Mickey Roker, drums) - Concord Jazz/Groove Note Stereo-only SACD GRV1028-3 ****:
Since they first came out on vinyl the Concord Jazz albums have found favor with audiophiles for their natural acoustics and all-around high fidelity. There was actually nothing that special about the approach of Concord's engineers; some felt that the improvement over many jazz releases was simply due to a lack of gimmickry and post-processing usually carried out in the record industry. Some of the label's masters have been picked up by more specifically audiophile small labels and reissued as perfectionist vinyl, DVD-Audio or SACD.
Here's another, but it's not run-of-the-mill by any means. Ying Tan's small Singapore-based label seems to be able to squeeze even better fidelity out of the Concord masters than Concord's own SACD reissues. And that is even taking into account that Concord remixed all their SACDs for multichannel, and the Groove Note is stereo only. Let's face it, just having a state-of-the-art format doesn't mean all the discs produced in that format are going to sound worlds better than the old CD format. The sad fact is that some of them don't. This disc was mastered at Airshow Mastering, which might be part of the success equation. There's a wonderful presence and slam in the sonics which often reminded me of the better direct discs of yore. The wide frequency response and low noise are also factors—of course one doesn't want to minimize in any way those subwoofer-tickling frequencies put out by master bassist Brown! This was a live session taped at NYC's Blue Note in l985, and it has that you-are-there feeling that only the best recordings of live sessions seem to be able to convey. It really epitomizes the disc's title of being Red Hot. If you want to feel even more a part of the crowd at the Blue Note, just engage your Dolby Pro Logic II circuitry, and with the super-clean two-channel Groove Note source you'll be right in the middle of it with just as good a surround effect as most multichannel discs.
Ray Brown played on the very first recording ever put out by Concord, when they were founded in Concord, California. He accompanied guitarists Joe Pass and Herb Ellis. Pianist Harris had been retired in Idaho but longtime associate Brown collared him for the Blue Note and recording session gig. Their well-practiced affinity makes the session a delight from start to finish. I especially dug his Erroll Garner style on How Could You Do a Thing Like This to Me, and the eight tracks are wrapped up with an original blues from Ray.
Tracks: Have You Met Miss Jones?, Meditation, Street of Dreams, Lady Be Good, That's All, Love Me Tender, How Could You Do a Thing Like This to Me?, Captain Bill. John Henry
Joshua Bell seems to be one of those performers who actually live up to their overblown publicity
TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; Meditation, Op. 42, No. 1; Danse russe from Swan Lake, Act III - Joshua Bell, violin/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Michael Tilson-Thomas - Sony Classical Multichannel SACD SH 94832 51:26 *** 1/2:
Joshua Bell and Michael Tilson-Thomas collaborate (January 27-31, 2005) for a kinder, gentler Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in live performance, with Bell's exquisitely lingering at the ruminative and lyrical passages with a heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity in the Mischa Elman tradition. Eschewing the usual editorial cuts in the last movement, Bell takes all the repeats in order to preserve Tchaikovsky's harmonic structure. The liner pictures include one of Bell and flute virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud in conference at the recording session, so we must assume his principal supplies the lovely interweavings for the Canzonetta.
The Meditation, albeit orchestrated by Glazounov, was Tchaikovsky's original intention for the Concerto's second movement, now the first section of a suite called Souvenir of a Beloved Place. Why Bell and Tilson-Thomas could not accommodate the entire Op. 42 onto this disc baffles me. Instead, they opt for a peppy Russian Dance from the ballet Swan Lake, where too Tchaikovsky supplied at least one brilliant duo with viola that might have found its way to the Bell discography. Bell's tonal and dynamic control, admittedly, is superb; he may pack the most disciplined diminuendo and rallentando of any active fiddler. Tilson-Thomas and the Berlin Philharmonic keep the music lively but restrained, appropriate to the singing style of this rendition. But I remember how, during the LP era, I hated to shell out top dollar for a total of twenty-five or thirty minutes of Heifetz. With a format that permits another 30 minutes of music, I would think Bell and Sony could have produced more Tchaikovsky. Gary Lemco
New working version of Mozart's unfinished Requiem to conform more closely to musical practice of the period
MOZART: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 (Robert D. Levin Edition) - Christine Brewer, soprano/ Ruxandra Donose, mezzo-soprano/ John Tessier, tenor/ Eric Owens, bass/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/ Donald Runnicles - Telarc MultiChannel SACD 60636, 46:51 ***:
Musicologist Robert D. Levin made his own working version of Mozart's incomplete Requiem Mass in 1993, retaining those additions made by Mozart's friend Suessmayr which conform to idiomatic Mozart practice, but at several places reducing the orchestration in order to permit better access to the vocal parts, even dropping the instruments entirely at some cadences. The fugal sections receive considerable adjustment, as in the extension of the Hosanna fugues, placing the second fugue in a related key. Levin provides a large fugue at "Amen" after the Lacrimosa, utilizing an original Mozart sketch which Suessmayr had ignored. Where Suessmayr employed two stark chords, Levin gives us a fairly audacious fugue; now, we have five extended liturgical sections, each of which ends in a fugue, which is more in keeping with Austrian church practice of Mozart's time.
Recorded January 29-30, 2005 in the Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, the Telarc Requiem purports to be a more transparent, stylistic Mozart than we have been accustomed to for the past two hundred years. The surround sound audio format contributes to our appreciation of the more open, delineated instrumental and voice parts, with the separation of trombone and bass for the portentous Tuba mirum and the striking dissonances and motet ambiance of the Confutatis. This movement does, in fact, convey a mysterious, almost dreadful intimacy, as does the mournful affecting Lacrymosa which leads to a newly-scored Amen. The ensuing Offertory opens with a brisk, almost galloping Domine Jesu, the quartet's heartily intoning St. Michael's delivering the faithful from darkness and into the holy light. Some may find Levin's scoring of the Hostias a bit Brahmsian, but the devotional atmosphere is authentic enough, ushering in the virtuoso coloratura vocal writing of the Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei—Communion portions of the mass. All very exalted, exquisitely intelligent and tasteful; but, at barely 47 minutes of music, I cannot fathom why Telarc and these same, gifted forces could not indulge us with Mozart's Exsultate and assorted liturgical works to fill out this otherwise lovely disc. Gary Lemco
Masterpieces of the concerto grosso form
CORELLI: 12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 - Musica Amphion/Directed from the harpsichord by Pieter-Jan Belder - Brilliant Classics Multichannel SACD (2) 92610, 66:11 & 64:15, ****:
These masterpieces of the concerto grosso form are considered the last major works from the composer and were actually published a year after his death, but some of the various concertos originated much earlier. Corelli was not the originator of the concerto grosso form, in which a small concertino of solo instruments (a quartet in this case) is pitted against the larger orchestra. But he certainly brought the form to a high level of perfection in this collection. His entire output was extremely slim compared to Bach and Vivaldi, so musical posterity is fortunate to have these great works at least.
Observers at the time were surprised at the large size of Corelli's main orchestra—as many as 40 musicians, expanded for special ceremonial occasions to even 70 or 80, similar to a modern symphony orchestra. The concertino section for this performance consists of two violins, cello and archlute. Most of the concertos have five movements of contrasting tempi. The best known of the dozen is of course the Christmas Concerto No. 8 in G Minor, one of the loveliest examples of instrumental music of the holiday season.
Comparing with my previous favorite recorded version of the concerti, I brought out the Harmonia mundi double-CD set by Ensemble 415. I was struck by how great the standard CDs sounded in relation to the multichannel SACDs, but they did lack the wide soundstage and more precise spatial location of the concertino instruments. Adding Pro Logic II to the CDs aided the soundstage but began to show up the more transparent reproduction of the SACDs. The subtle hall ambience in the surround channels doesn't let on it is there, but muting it dumps the sound to a rather flat frontal image. Moreover, the Amsterdam-based Musica Amphion struck more active tempos in most of the movements, and sounded like a larger ensemble than Ensemble 415. I think I would put my money on the Brilliant version even it wasn't in hi-res surround. John Sunier
Swiss soprano Borkh brings these Strauss heroines to incredible life
R. STRAUSS: Scenes from Salome and Elektra – Inge Borkh, soprano, with Paul Schoeffler, baritone, and Francis Yeend, soprano – Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the Chicago Lyric Theater Chorus, Fritz Reiner, Conductor – RCA Living Stereo 82876-67900-2 – Stereo-Only SACD, 67 min. ****:
Fritz Reiner always had a special connection to the music of Richard Strauss; they were personal friends, and enjoyed an artistic collaboration that lasted 35 years, with Reiner conducting many notable Strauss premieres. During Reiner's tenure with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he frequently programmed works by Strauss, and recorded many of them. For this recording session, he recruited Swiss soprano and noted Strauss specialist Inge Borkh, resulting in what is probably the finest offering on disc of arias by Strauss heroines. Both Elektra and Salome were quite scandalous at the time of their premieres; the archbishop of Vienna caused the premiere of Salome to be delayed by almost ten years in that city! Fortunately, both operas were seen in a different light as the years passed, and are now part of the standard repertory.
This stereo SACD is, in a nutshell, magnificent; whereas the previous incarnations of these works on Red Book CDs were quite good, this disc takes all aspects of the recorded sound to a higher level. The stereo image and spread offers a much more palpable presentation of the performance, and the dynamics are just incredible—you'll want to play this one loudly! Inge Borkh's performance here is definitive—you'd be hard pressed to find another performance that brings the characters to life as in this splendid disc. Highly recommended. Tom Gibbs
Reviews reprinted with permission from Audiophile Audition