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Recordings, Winter 1985

ISSUE:  Winter 1985

The Music Master (1752) is a timeless, witty entertainment about the dictates of art, commerce, and love backstage at the opera house. By tradition, Pergolesi receives composer credit, though he likely wrote only some of the music. In its latest incarnation, conductor Gerard Schwarz’ performing edition (in English) makes maximum sense of the story, and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra players deftly delineate the work’s buffa heart while adhering to the elegance of late-Baroque style. Judith Blegen, David Britton, and John Ostendorf are the soloists (Angel).

The latest installment in the Ravel recordings by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra offers the complete Mother Goose ballet music, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the Valses nobles et sentimentales (London). As with the previous installments, one is immediately taken with the sheer beauty of the playing, an impressive combination of warmth and strength capturing both the inward feeling of the music as well as its dramatic intensity.

It’s unfortunate that young pianist Cecile Licad chose for her recording debut Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, for while there’s no question she can handle this daunting piece on a technical level, her performance adds up to little more than a literal rattling-off of the notes. The vacuity of the result is abetted by Claudio Abbado’s sluggish tempos, sluggishly followed by the players of the Chicago Symphony (CBS).

In terms of sheer keyboard personality, 14-year old pianist Dimitris Sgouros offers quite a contrast. At his tender age he seems uncannily to have lived with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 for the lifetime of a much older performer, his playing always sure-fingered, deftly balancing fire and warmth, ever on the edge of sentimentality yet never crossing the line. There is an excitement to his performance born not only of the pryotechnics but of the intelligence that underlies the interpretation. Yuri Simonov and the Berlin Philharmonic are his able partners (Angel).

Many of those who enjoy the orchestral music of Ralph Vaughan Williams remain unfamiliar with his vocal music, so seldom is it performed or recorded here. Two of his finest, most accessible pieces may be heard on a disc pairing On Wenlock Edge and Songs of Travel, the latter utilizing the composer’s orchestral, rather than piano, accompaniment for the first time on record. Robert Tear and Thomas Allen project the full range of the songs’ emotional sway, while Simon Rattle gets first-rate playing from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Angel).

Morton Gould conducts the American Symphony in two of his recent works: Burchfield Gallery, illuminating the unusual combination of fantasy and reality found in the paintings of American artist Charles Burchfield, and the Apple Waltzes, whimsically named after various strains of the fruit and written for a Balanchine-commissioned ballet on the life of John Audubon. These are handsomely crafted pieces, genial and direct in their appeal (RCA).

Mily Balakirev (1837—1910), one of Russia’s “Mighty Five” composers, has a tiny oeuvre reflecting the slowness with which he wrote. His First Symphony took 32 years to complete and sounds it—calculated and labored. Sir Thomas Beecham, an early champion, found in it pleasures that eluded us and elude us still in a new version by Neeme Järvi and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a bland performance that only emphasizes the work’s shapelessness. Liadov’s forgettable Polonaise in C is the fill-up (Angel).

The latest of Murray Perahia’s recordings of the Mozart piano concerto cycle offers the Coronation Concerto (No. 26, K. 537). While it may not be one of Mozart’s most inspired creations, soloist Perahia finds in it plenty to say, balancing nobility and geniality, while conductor Perahia secures from the English Chamber Orchestra a superbly cultured yet unfussy performance (CBS).

One of Albert Roussel’s most endearing and enduring works, the ballet The Spider’s Feast (1912), stands between two distinct phases of the composer’s output and bears the earmarks of both. At once impressionistic, it foreshadows the darker, bolder rhythmic and harmonic devices that would take hold starting with the opera Padmâvati. Often heard in the form of an orchestral suite, The Spider’s Feast deserves to be heard in its entirety, which is now possible through an imported reissue of the fluent 1971 Jean Martinon reading with the Orchestre National de L’ORTF (Erato Presence/RCA).

Also deserving of more frequent exposure is Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D for Violin, Piano & String Quartet, a work of irresistible emotional power that revels in its melodic sumptuousness. Its latest recording features a formidable array of talent in the Julliard Quartet with soloists Itzhak Perlman and Jorge Bolet, and the result is sensuous pleasure of the highest order (CBS).

Is it possible that EMI’s recording of the waltzes and polkas of Josef Strauss is the only current collection devoted entirely to the works of the Waltz King’s younger brother? Under Willy Boskovsky’s skilled direction the Johann Strauss Orchestra casts a spell in “Village Swallows from Austria,” “Aquarellen,” “Delirien,” and nine others (Angel).

Come to the Fair (Angel) is a collection of folk songs and ballads distinguished by the naturalistic quality of the singing by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and by Douglas Gamley’s arrangements, which balance color and refinement, the harp prominent among players in a small orchestra formed from the National Philharmonic.

Despite the title Legends, there is no extra-musical program to the works Dvorák //querry? wrote as counterparts to the better-known Slavonic Dances. They are as shadow to light: ruminative, colored by minor keys, atmospheric in their illumination of ancient times. They have fared well on disc, most recently in the assured readings by the Rochester Philharmonic under David Zinman (Nonesuch).

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra may not be the best American orchestra, as was claimed not long ago in a national news weekly, but under conductor Leonard Slatkin it’s become a contender. Certainly it’s not difficult to embrace their recording of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony (RCA), an interpretation capturing the music’s restless rhythmic drive as handily as it delineates its inner beauty and confident heartbeat.

Prokofiev is equally well served by Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic in their recording of the Lieutenant Kijé Suite (Angel), Noted for his interpretations of the complex music of Bruckner and Mahler, Tennstedt shows a surprising affinity for this frothy fare, covering the musical landscape—alternately satirical, poignant, martial—with idiomatic authority. Overside, Kodaly’s Háry János Suite receives just as vivid a reading with lots of orchestral coloration and accents.

Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 belongs to the composer’s youth and aspires to a Beethoven-like sense of grandeur, in which it doesn’t entirely succeed. In his new recording of it, Radu Lupu makes the most of the delectable second movement and gives the surrounding movements greater weight and authority than usual. At times the music doesn’t support this, but in the main his approach makes sense and gives the piece a more cohesive sense of architecture (London).

Among the recommended reissues this quarter are several in the popular midprice range. Handel’s Royal Fireworks and Water Music receive the proper balance of pomp and grace in the 1962 performances by the London Symphony under George Szell. The gorgeous largo from Xerxes is one of the fill-ups (London Jubilee). With the same orchestra, André Previn recorded the Ralph Vaughan Williams symphony cycle in the early 1970’s. The Sixth and the Eighth are very different works, yet they make compatible disc-mates in Previn’s vivid accounts (RCA Gold).

Lorin Maazel shows just how fresh Vivaldi’s warhorse The Four Seasons can sound in his new recording with the Orchestre National de France, characterized by tearaway tempos and playing with real bite, body, and presence (CBS).

At their best, Isao Tomita’s synthesizer arrangements of concert standards paradoxically sound totally fresh and at the same time reassuringly familiar. Impressions of an Astronaut (RCA) is a repackaging of previously issued material depicting a routine day in outer space, including matters mundane (Grofé’s “Sunrise”), melancholy (Ravel’s “Pavane”), and philosophical (Ives’ “The Unanswered Question”).

Julian Bream and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranguez seem an indelible pairing, so closely has the guitarist been associated with this concert piece over the years. Familiarity has, in this case, bred eloquence, Bream’s affinity for the rhythms and textures of Spanish music much in evidence in his new collaboration with conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who coaxes a vivacious performance from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (RCA).

Guitar music of a contemporary turn may be heard on a trio of recommended releases. Alex de Grassi’s Southern Exposure and Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries both appear on the Windham Hill label and are similar in outlook. Playing mostly original compositions for solo guitar, de Grassi and Hedges produce delicately impressionistic themes which spin themselves out in a contemplative way that places emphasis more on color and tone than on form or technique. In contrast, there is a more formalized cast to the music of George Cromarty, whose pieces reflect his //querry? classical training and his penchant for collecting folk songs from all over the world. This interesting mixture of musical styles and influences may be heard on The Wind in the Heather (Dancing Cat).

The Pat Metheny Group’s First Circle (ECM) starts off with a musical joke—a processional played as if by a small town junior high marching band—then shifts gears seamlessly into a rocker, followed by an extended jazz piece and a lyrical ballad. And that’s just for openers. While retaining the familiar Metheny Group sound, the disc greatly benefits from the addition of Chicago drummer Paul Wertico, who sets up a brighter, more straight-ahead sound in the uptempo numbers, and Argentine vocalist/percussionist Pedro Aznar, who mirrors Metheny’s affinity for the rhythms, textures, and song stylings of South America.

Founded in 1947, Atlantic Records was the driving force behind the mid-1950’s emergence of rhythm and blues as a mass-appeal musical form. The compilation disc Atlantic’s History of R&B Vocal Groups (Cat/Atlantic) documents the label’s contribution to rock and roll through some of the most popular groups of the period, including the Clovers, the Coasters, and the Drifters. Ranging from the Chords’ 1954 “Sh-Boom” to the Bobbette’s 1957 “Mr. Lee,” the selections include both hits and misses, but true to the liner notes, each is a small gem in the history of black vocal harmony.

An album of unaccompanied, scat-like vocal improvisations may sound like pure torture, but the surprise and delight of the German audience caught live on Bobby McFerrin’s The Voice (Elektra/Musician) were ours as well, McFerrin’s range of sounds, tones, and effects are fully musical and fully sustained over the course of the LP, which ranges from on-the-spot originals, like the aptly named “I’m My Own Walkman,” to the R&B classic “I Feel Good,” in which are captured the essence both of James Brown and his band. Impressive.

Steps Ahead is a solid contemporary jazz band working the same musical territory as groups such as Weather Report, attracting traditional jazz fans as well as a younger, broader audience. Propelled by sax player Michael Brecker and bassist Eddie Gomez, their music on Modern Times (Elektra/Musician) ranges from straight-ahead jazz to urban funk and is basically upbeat, tuneful, and attractive. Drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardist Warren Bernhardt, and Mike Manieri on vibes round out the group.

Indian musician Shankar performs on a unique instrument of his own design: a double-necked, ten-string electric violin. Among the effects it can create are overtones of sound, caused when one of the necks is played alone, setting off sympathetic vibrations in the other. The haunting tapestries of sound he weaves blend in a surprisingly natural way with the playing of saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg on the unusual album Vision (ECM).

Nightnoise (Windham Hill) is an unforgettable album that’s difficult to classify. The performers are Billy Oskay and Micheal O Domhnaill, whose instruments include viola, piano, harmonium, and guitar. The blending of American and eastern European influences gives their music a charmingly homespun quality at the same time as it grips you emotionally. Close your eyes and you could be listening to a band of gypsies playing under the night sky on the open prairie.

If a lot of the music heard on the radio seems to come from the movies, it’s because producers are paying more attention to sound tracks, the fact being that hits generate additional box-office business. Who, after all, could resist catching Ghostbusters after hearing Ray Parker Jr.’s infectious title song, which flooded the airwaves all last summer? The track LP (Arista) also features popular artists Laura Branigan and the Thompson Twins, as well as incidental music of the more traditional type by veteran Elmer Bernstein.

Flashdance set the pace for movies seemingly built around their soundtrack rather than their script, spawning a host of imitators. Last year’s Streets of Fire didn’t do as well as expected at the box office but spun off a big hit in Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You.” Less exposed but just as appealing are the other sound-track cuts, including music from the Blasters (MCA). Last summer’s clutch of break dancing movies relied on dance as well as music to compensate for shortcomings in their stories, and by far the best of the lot was Beat Street, which featured state-of-the-art urban dance music from the System, Afrika Bambaataa, and a number of others (Atlantic).

One of the cuts’ from Beat Street is by Ruben Blades, a Panamanian salsa star whose Buscando America (Elektra) marks his debut on a mainstream American label. Propelled by his band Seis del Solar, musician Blades uses his hot Latin music as a framework for lyricist Blades, who happens also to be a journalist and lawyer.


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