“Jacques Loussier Plays Bach”, (1992) Telarc label streamed losslessly on Qobuz
So for you lovers of jazz and classical, this disc highlights the 30 years of improv by a jazz trio playing Bach melodies. Bach translates so well into other mediums that as you listen, you wonder if all styles might actually lead back to the Baroque master. Most of the melodies are played forthright and then the pianist leads us into jazz variations on the original theme. Many of the variations really swing, so if you think Bach is a bit stodgy, you are in for quite a surprise.
The playing and sound quality are demo worthy as the Telarc engineers have done a marvelous job recording the piano, double bass, and drums. This collection is a delight to the ears and a jump starter to a happy mood for the day.
“Firebird” Electronically created by Isao Tomita, Multichannel SACD made from the original Quadraphonic recording from 1976, Vocalion Records, England.
I played this LP to death in college and have been looking for this recording for ages. Its been out of print on the RCA label for years and I was afraid it was lost forever. Enter Michael J. Dutton from Vocalion. He has remixed the original quad tapes to produce this wonderful recording of Stravinsky’s masterpiece as well as Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain.
All of these works are done on Tomita’s custom-built synthesizers and the sounds he makes are remarkable. Chorale voices, bottomless bass notes, and swirling sounds combine to bring to life the original classical scores. In college, I had a pair of Koss Pro-4AA headphones that transported me to another dimension for hours on end. One of my favorite sections in Firebird is the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, a frenzied, swirling dance that has sounds coming out of all of your speakers while the subwoofer hops about the room. The sound quality is super clean without any evidence of analog tape hiss. This disc is better than I remember from my youth and holds up well with music from today. Give it try. Tomita is who I credit for getting me into classical music. Other synthesizer groups from this period also got me hooked on the classics, like Emerson Lake and Palmer. But that’s another review…
Herrmann “String Quartet Echoes and Clarinet Quintet Souvenirs De Voyage”, Tippett String Quartet and Julian Bliss clarinet, Producer/Engineer – Michael Ponder, Signum Classics, Catalog # SIGCD234
An alternative for the Clarinet Quintet
“Chamber Music Northwest CD titled American Chamber Music, Delos, Catalog # 3088”
Bernard Herrmann wrote concert music before he became consumed with his work in films and moved to Hollywood in 1951.
He did work on a huge three and half hour opera, Wuthering Heights from 1943 – 1948 when he was already scoring films starting with Citizen Kane in 1939 but he held onto his primary job at CBS as a composer of incidental music to radio productions and conductor of the CBS orchestra which gave radio broadcasts. The CBS orchestra was the answer to the NBC Symphony which was under Toscanini. Wuthering Heights was never performed during his lifetime. He would not allow any cuts to the score which is so strange since a film composer expects his music to be sliced, diced, and sometimes mutilated as needed to fit the movie. An orchestra suite extracted from Wuthering Heights would expose much great music. It is strange somebody has not done it.
Herrmann, who recorded the work in the 1960s, felt it was the greatest thing he had written and he trapped people into listening to the whole three-and-a-half-hour set of LPs. He had chances to see it produced if cut, but he was unmovable on the issue. Past the opera, Herrmann wrote only two works not associated with film.
The two chamber works are contrasting with the first, a string quartet, reflecting his mood in 1965 after his marriage had ended and work dried up. Large orchestral film scores were not in fashion. Producers wanted pop-inspired soundtracks and Herrmann was unemployed.
It is best to start with the Clarinet Quintet of 1967 written by a much happier composer. He was working again with a major director and had met the woman who would become his 3rd wife. This is a sunny work which is easy to get to know on first hearing and impossible to forget. It is empathically not film music although that is the inevitable put down by the critics. It is not just Herrmann that gets this treatment. Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s absolute music also sends critics looking for cinematic references that do not exist. All three moments of the clarinet quintet begin with lyric themes without complex development. It is easy to fall in love with this work just as Herrmann was for his new girlfriend.
The clarinet quintet will make you want to listen to more absolute music by Herrmann. We turn back to 1965 for the work subtitled Echoes. No composer puts pen to paper and writes a string quartet without wanting to make a major musical statement. Here Herrmann is unconventional with 10 interconnected movements. The composer says they are “a series of nostalgic emotional reembraces”. Herrmann is writing deeper, more complex, yet still more tonal music than his 1967 work. Each movement is about 2 minutes long and they are not thematically connected so this requires multiple hearings to get to know. Sections of the first movement appear between the highly contrasted inner movements to connect the work. No room for a detailed analysis here not that I could find one, unfortunately. Critics recognize this is a finely crafted work but they keep searching for the non-existent film score. If the critics did not know who wrote this they would have produced a ton of formal analysis of this work given the many innovations it brings to the 20th-century string quartet.
Both of these works have had several recordings. The 2011 CD I have listed is the first by a major full-time quartet. The Tippet quartet specializes in performing quartets of lesser-known English composers and has a large discography with Naxos. 2011 was the centenary of Hermann’s birth and the Tippet Quartet gave presentations of these works as part of concerts in England to celebrate the event. As an aside, TCM presented every movie which had a Herrmann score over the weekend of the centenary. The CD has a 9-minute reduction of Psycho for 8 strings written for the festival. The Tippett dubbed it. It has no reason to exist, it is the 2nd time this has been attempted, but it is the sales point of the CD as can be seen on the cover. Anything that gets somebody to purchase it is fine by me. The new owner will quickly find they have not purchased a CD of film music and will be introduced to these extraordinary concert works.
Herrmann was influenced by a number of British composers and spent a good deal of time in England often conducting. The Tippett Quartet is at home in his music and this is the performance to own although I have never heard a bad performance of the works on CD and exposure to different interpretations will deepen your understanding of any work. This is where a classical streaming app comes in handy but you never know when a CD will be discontinued and disappear from streaming. Of all the available CDs of this work that I would want to own the Tippett Quartet’s CD is the best. For an alternative of the Clarinet Quintet, Chamber Music Northwest produced a recording for Delos including the major artists, violinist Pamela Frank and violist Walter Trampler and clarinetist David Shiffrin. They provide a less romantic view of the quintet. I listed the details of the CD above.
Samuel Barber, “Violin concerto-Isaac Stern violin-Leonard Bernstein conductor”, The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Adagio For Strings, Sony Classical, SK 90390
Among the American classical composers of the last century, Barber is the most popular member of the group after Copland. Only Barber and Copland made a living by composing. Most of the others held academic posts, often at very high levels. This greatly reduced the time they could compose often, after a long day at the university.
Bernstein could have made a living at composition but got hooked by conducting and the quantity of his works, and many say the quality of his compositions declined. This decline of quality can be seen in some other American’s as they moved from full-time fellowships when young to the top admissive post. William Schuman for example headed a project to construct the Lincoln Center, moving from being head of Julliard. As just discussed, Bernard Herrmann’s output dropped to zero with his film music day job. Even Copland made his way to Hollywood recycling film material into concert suites.
Barber’s success was the ability to compose in a language that the listener could easily understand and, once heard, the listeners wanted to hear it again. With this sort of visibility, the atonal composers denounced his works. They succeeded with getting the performances of his works, new and old, dropped from the concert halls in the 1960s and he found few new commissions. Once the tyranny of the “who cares if you listen” mafia had ended, Barber’s music returned to the concert hall more popular then ever and it remains so today. Barber passed in 1981 and did not live to see his return to fame. Other Americans were not so lucky, with a brief rediscovery in the late 1980s to the beginning of the new century, only to disappear again in the concert hall. The CDs of the works from the 1980s and 1990s are also disappearing. As discussed last month with Randell Thompson, only 69 CDs are left, according to the CD vendor Arkiv Music, with 31 of those containing just the short Alleluia. Other American Classical composers of the last century CDs have also shriveled such as Howard Hanson with 69 current CDs, Roy Harris 46, Walter Piston 65, and William Shuman at 78. Barber on the other hand has 550 CDs in print although some of those are the same performance in different reissues. Copland has about the same number of active CDs at 576 as does Bernstein the composer at 611.
Barber is best known for his Adagio for string orchestra which was originally the second movement of his string quartet. It has been used in many films so you know it even if you cannot put a name to it. The violin concerto has the same lyric style in the first two movements. As a result, the work has not been taken seriously by academics but even they have changed. In an article in the New York Times called “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Violin”, which appeared over Labor Day, Anthony Tommasini, Times chief classical music critic, picked the first movement of Samuel Barber’s 1939 Violin Concert. Such a lofty man of letters would not have mentioned this work positively 10 years ago. Tommasini picked the performance I will recommend to you with Isaac Stern playing with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein presented many American composers work over the decades he was active but the Barber compositional style was not his thing. Recordings of Barber’s works with the Philharmonic during the 1960s were done by other conductors but Stern’s idiomatic performance drew an inspired accompaniment by Bernstein.
It is the centenary of Stern’s birth but for some reason, he has fallen under the radar screen compared to other violinists of his generation. It may have been his popularity among the public for activities outside the violin. He saved Carnegie hall from destruction and popularized classical music, often performing benefit concerts with Jack Benny.
While the Stern comes up most often as the recommended recording, the work has 23 different violinists with in print CDs with Gil Shaham having done it twice.
The Barber was commissioned by Samuel Fels who founded a soap company. The violinist chosen for the premier found the first two movements too simple and not showy enough. Barber responded with a difficult to play final. The violinist then declared the final movement unplayable and asked for the commission fee back. Barber arranged a performance of the 3rd movement by a young violinist who was given only two hours to learn it. He was told to play the movement very fast. He played for a small audience at the Curtis Institute without problems and Barber got his full commission. Much more detail is found here.
The first two movements are ideal for Music in the Time of COVID. The first starts directly with an unforgettable theme from the violin. A 2nd theme is introduced by the woodwinds before moving to the development section. The orchestra gets a big statement of the theme followed by the cadenza before the movement dissolves, setting the mode for the 2span style=”font-size:12px;”>nd movement. Barber has another unforgettable theme waiting. It is first stated by the oboe, one of Barber’s favorite orchestral instruments, before handing off the violin with what Barber called a “contrasting and rhapsodic theme”.
The 3rd movement is marked perpetual-motion. It is more aggressive in style compared to the first two movements. The discontinuity may be that Barber wrote the work’s first two movements in Switzerland in the summer of 1939 moving to the start of the 3rd movement in the Fall. At that time the Nazis were about to invade Poland and Americans rushed to find ships to get back home. This experience may be reflected in the change of style of the 3rd movement.
Carlo says I am out of room. Trust me you will love it at first hearing. It is no accident that I have the Barber concerto coupled with the Herrmann clarinet quintet. One has achieved well and has entered into the classical canon while the other, totally different, yet more focused on making friends with the listener, is virtually unknown.
“Vivaldi Bassoon Concertos”, Tamas Benkocs and the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, 5 Volumes, Naxos, CD
I’m always looking for new musical inspiration when I perform. And since current events have completely shut down performances of live classical music, I am relegated to the practice room. I spend at least an hour or two every day practicing etudes to keep my playing chops in shape. Playing the bassoon, like any acoustical instrument, is an athletic pursuit; one must keep at it or proficiency is lost.
Every bassoonist knows about the concerti of Antonio Vivaldi. He’s best known for the four violin concerti that make up The Four Seasons but he is far from a one-hit-wonder. Vivaldi wrote over 500 concerti for every instrument that existed during his lifetime (1678-1741). And what is most amazing is that after the violin, for which he wrote 230 works, he is responsible for no fewer than 37 bassoon concerti; 39 if you count the unfinished ones.
I have played a couple of them during my career but when I found a publication that contained all of them, I set out to find recordings. Luckily, Hungarian bassoonist Tamas Benkocs has released a complete set of all 37 works performed with the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia.
As baroque works go, there is a lot of latitude for the soloist to add their own ornamentation and style, and Mr. Benkocs has done this beautifully. There are right and wrong ways to embellish a baroque solo work and he has obviously studied and followed proper performance practice. His use of terraced dynamics, filled arpeggios and even the occasional cadenza are true to the style of the baroque era. He also uses the modern bassoon to its best advantage. Too many baroque recordings played on original instruments lack the soul and passion that current instrument technology can provide. Benkocs plays with an ideal tone that captures the composer’s intent without distorting the baroque feel.
With five volumes available, the listener can pick and choose if they don’t wish to invest in the entire set as I did. If I were to buy just one disc, it would be Volume 2 which contains the crown jewel, Concerto in Bb Major, RV 501 “La Notte”. This work is no less wondrous than any of the Four Seasons and will surely appeal to any fan of baroque music. Lest potential listeners fear that all these works will sound the same, let me assure you that they do not. Each has its own distinct character. Vivaldi works wonders with rhythm and tempo to break free of the confines of baroque music. Though it is firmly rooted in that era, there is an individual personality to each and every concerto. This five-volume set is highly recommended and can be purchased on CD or from the iTunes Store.
“Doris Day and André Previn with The André Previn Trio, Duet.” Columbia Records CL1752 (mono) and CS8552 (stereo), 1962.
You may think that all of the music Doris Day made was saccharine pop music for the square mom-and-pop set. Who hasn’t heard “Que Sera, Sera” a million times or so? Or any of the songs she recorded for her numerous movies, such as “Pillow Talk” or “Roly Poly,” which sound almost like novelty rock and roll songs? Many people know her only for that kind of music.
However, Ms. Day’s body of work is very wide and accomplished. She made several albums for Columbia in the 1950s with some of the great arrangers covering the great American songbook, much like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and others did. Those albums, usually Columbia “6-Eyes” with the red and black label, sound fantastic. It’s not too hard to find her LPs in record shops, and if you’re lucky, you can find one in good shape for pennies on the dollar. So on a good analog playback system, you’ll hear orchestras recorded acoustically in huge soundstages, all accompanied by Doris Day’s amazing voice.
In 1961 Ms. Day recorded an album with American composer, conductor, and pianist André Previn and his band. “One square making music with another square. Big whoop!” you might be saying to yourself. Well, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Together with a rather hot jazz rhythm section (Red Mitchell on bass and Frank Capp on drums) this four tear through a series of standards in a manner which is sure to surprise many people.
It’s a very jazzy and jumpin’ session. The first cut, “Close Your Eyes,” swings so hard you’ll be afraid your house might fall down. It starts with the bass fiddle playing a leisurely stroll, and then Doris comes in, and her voice is deep and gorgeous and intimate. And Previn’s piano solo is, well, it just had to be heard to be believed. It’s so deep in the pocket he may as well be playing lint. Day’s voice is in top form and very well recorded. You can hear her effortless and amazing inflections very clearly. And when she’s accompanied only by Previn’s playing, it is absolute magic. Previn’s playing is articulate and very well reinforces the mood of the lyric Day is communicating. In the finest jazz tradition, the two musicians were communicating through their instruments and you can almost hear what they were thinking.
Other than a recent deluxe reissue of her Latin For Lovers album and one or two difficult-to-find Japanese CD reissues, Day’s catalog is not getting the reissue attention I believe it deserves. The Duet album is available on most of the streaming services in standard 16-bit/44 kHz resolution and a few run-of-the-mill CD pressings. But if you want to really hear it best (and you’re set up to play mono LPs), find one of the Columbia LPs, give it a good cleaning, pour yourself a Martini, and be amazed.
Brian Eno and Roger Eno, “Mixing Colours”, Deutsche Grammophon 483 7772, 2020.
In these trying times, I find myself looking for peaceful, non-referential music. Music that helps me center myself to meditate and enjoy a safe space for a little while. And I was happily surprised to discover that Brian Eno and Roger Eno released this new album, Mixing Colours, in 2020.
Many people are familiar with Brian Eno’s ambient music. Popular examples of that music are Ambient 1 (Music For Airports) from 1978 or Apollo – Atmospheres & Soundtracks from 1983.
But what many people may not realize is that Brian Eno is often accompanied by his brother Roger Eno on these albums.
Roger Eno’s body of work is deep and varied, ranging from calm ambient to English chamber ensembles to scores for movies and television. I’d recommend his albums Between Tides and a collaboration with Laraaji, Islands, for examples of those styles.
For this new collaboration album, Roger Eno played gentle and slow classical-styled pieces, then sent them to Brian Eno, who put his own ambient effects on the pieces and gave each one a name based on a color.
This is slow, easy music. It is as comfortable as a well-worn cardigan. It places no demands upon your consciousness and no challenges to your comfort. Whether you are listening through headphones or playing it out loud in the background, it creates its own comfortable space, weaving in and out of your consciousness like leaves caught in a chilly breeze that you see in the corner of your eye. At points, it is a fuzzy wash of swirling tones, and at other points, it is achingly delicate and beautiful, like the song “Celest.” And yet the music is also somehow hopeful, radiating a warm promise that things can still be beautiful, and gentle, and good.
I prefer to listen to music like this through headphones via streaming services; that way I don’t have to worry about flipping albums or pressing buttons on preamplifiers and CD players. And this music sounds very good streaming at 24-bit/44.1 kHz on Quboz. But it’s also available in several formats other than streaming. Deutsche Grammophon has released this as a two-LP set, on CD (in Japan, it’s an SHM-CD), and as high-resolution FLAC files. I’m sure they all sound lovely.
War Inside EP, “Kingdom Collapse”, Single: Suffer, 2018, Alternative Rock
Kingdom Collapse is quite new to the music scene since their single “Suffer” was released back in July 2018. Based out of San Antonio, Texas, they have a similar sound to bands like Cold and Red. Hitting nearly 2,000,000 views on Youtube, the lead singer really speaks for himself. It’s one of those songs that I can’t stop listening to. A great beat mixed with an awesome singer!
If you like their sound, they just released a new album a few months ago called Uprise, I have not had the chance to listen to all of it, but they do hold true to the original sound that made them where they are now.
Jonny Craig, “Find Your Home”, Single: D.R.E.A.M., SBG, 2020, R&B and Soul
Jonny Craig is a well-known singer and frontman from the bands, Dance Gavin Dance, Emarosa, and Slaves. His solo work is what I find to be the most impressive as his soul-based singing is a marvel. D.R.E.A.M. rides the line between hip hop, rock, and soul and is unlike anything else I’ve heard before. He made some amazing tracks with the band Slaves, however, he was removed from the band in early 2019.
Unfortunately, he is currently battling drug addiction and not much else is known about his future in music, I wish him well and hope to hear what he has for us next.
Don Grusin, “Out Of Thin Air”, Octave Records, 2020, Multi-Channel SACD
Out Of Thin Air is the first release from fledgling label Octave Records. A label that was created, and is operated, by audio manufacturer PS Audio. According to their press release “To support musicians, Octave Records covers 100% of all studio, mixing, mastering, production, distribution, and marketing expenses so that artists may directly share in retail sales revenues – while retaining ownership of their music.” A most noble intent.
This, of course, has the side benefit of creating a potentially outstanding sounding body of music for PS Audio to use in marketing their fine gear. Placing motives and ulterior motives aside, I love piano music, whether solo or as part of an ensemble (I also own and recommend Jim Milton’s Jacques Loussier selection above). This SACD has both stereo and multichannel mixes of solo piano performances by Grammy-winning composer, producer, and keyboardist Don Grusin. A second disc is included which has stereo DSD and .wav files for computer and streaming playback.
Since it is an “audiophile recording” it has the complete breakdown of exactly what equipment was used at each stage, who did the mastering, and yadda, yadda, yadda. This also means it comes with the requisite expectations/baggage that the classification brings. Well, for the most part, it meets expectations as the stereo tracks sound perfectly lovely if maybe a touch too dry for my liking. Grusin’s playing is just so smooth and easy to like and get lost in. The captured sound of his Yamaha piano is clean with a beautiful sustain and ring to the notes. And when we get to the lower octaves the weight and depth to those notes are substantial. Where this recording completely comes into its own and surpasses expectations is when I listened to the multi-channel SACD in my home theater. Using the Dolby upmixer to expand the sound to fit my 5.2.4 system it just made this recording sound positively outstanding. Don and his piano were in the room, the additional reverb and immersion that I was after came forth and the music just bloomed to life. I whiled away the full 70 minutes enjoying the beautiful, rich sound coming from all around me. If you like relaxing to the sound of an expertly played piano then this multi-channel SACD is simply sublime.