Monthly Archives: November 2012

Call me unadventurous.  Call me a traditionalist.  Call me a BOF.  Whatever.  But my favourite opera is, without a moment’s hesitation, Tosca.

http://shop.vendio.com/blackivory28/item/2064133056/index.html

For me, there is no single audio recording of Tosca that does it justice.  I mean, would you ever buy an audio CD of a famous stage play?  So why is it that Opera recordings remain so popular in audio-only media?  For me, you really need to see the performance.  It is surely hard to fully appreciate it otherwise.  That is why I am here recommending a DVD (also available on Blu-ray). And why this one?  Well, actually, I have just finished watching a broadcast of this performance on the “HI-FI” cable channel in glorious HD on my Home Theatre.  Karita Mattila and Jonas Kaufman headline the cast under the baton of Fabio Luisi and the Bavarian State Opera.  And personally, I really enjoyed Juha Uusilato’s romp as Scarpia.

Scarpia is the ultimate villain.  A good Scarpia all but twirls his moustache and ties Tosca to the railway tracks, and the part is a superbly written vehicle for the Bass voice.  It is a role for the operatic Basso to both ham it up and strut his chops.  And, despite your protests to the contrary, Tosca really is an Opera demanding an over-the-top melodramatic performance.

If you want an audio-only version, what would I recommend?  My personal choice is the Decca recording featuring Pavarotti, Freni, and Milnes, with Nicola Rescigno conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra back in 1972, before Pavarotti rose to prominence as an international superstar.  There are many worthy others.

But do yourself a favour and watch a high-quality performance, such as the one I’ve recommended here.  And if you’re clever, you can even track down snippets of most of it on YouTube.

Call me unadventurous.  Call me a traditionalist.  Call me a BOF.  Whatever.  But my favourite opera is, without a moment’s hesitation, Tosca.

http://shop.vendio.com/blackivory28/item/2064133056/index.html

For me, there is no single audio recording of Tosca that does it justice.  I mean, would you ever buy an audio CD of a famous stage play?  So why is it that Opera recordings remain so popular in audio-only media?  For me, you really need to see the performance.  It is surely hard to fully appreciate it otherwise.  That is why I am here recommending a DVD (also available on Blu-ray). And why this one?  Well, actually, I have just finished watching a broadcast of this performance on the “HI-FI” cable channel in glorious HD on my Home Theatre.  Karita Mattila and Jonas Kaufman headline the cast under the baton of Fabio Luisi and the Bavarian State Opera.  And personally, I really enjoyed Juha Uusilato’s romp as Scarpia.

Scarpia is the ultimate villain.  A good Scarpia all but twirls his moustache and ties Tosca to the railway tracks, and the part is a superbly written vehicle for the Bass voice.  It is a role for the operatic Basso to both ham it up and strut his chops.  And, despite your protests to the contrary, Tosca really is an Opera demanding an over-the-top melodramatic performance.

If you want an audio-only version, what would I recommend?  My personal choice is the Decca recording featuring Pavarotti, Freni, and Milnes, with Nicola Rescigno conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra back in 1972, before Pavarotti rose to prominence as an international superstar.  There are many worthy others.

But do yourself a favour and watch a high-quality performance, such as the one I’ve recommended here.  And if you’re clever, you can even track down snippets of most of it on YouTube.

“If Genesis were Phil Collins’ wife, Brand X is his mistress.”

http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/40177/Brand-X-Unorthodox-Behaviour/

The Jazz-Fusion movement of the 70’s is best known for the giants – Mahavishnu, Colloseum, Chick Corea, Weather Report, extending, towards its boundaries, to include the likes of Jeff Beck and Miles Davis.  Apparently lost in the euphoria was Brand X, perhaps because it was seen – very unfairly – as Phil Collins’ side-project.  Here Phil teams up with bassist Percy Jones, Guitarist John Goodsall, and Keyboardist Robin Lumley, and together they lay down what is surely one of the core oevres of the Jazz-Fusion movement, “Unorthodox Behaviour“.

At first listen, what comes across is perhaps that unfair assessment that this is a Phil Collins pet project.  Phil’s drumming never fails to underpin and propel the music with his familiar cymbal-driven style.  But what emerges after a while is that Collins drumming is truly at the service of the music, punctuating it, propelling it, clarifying it, anchoring it.

The second thing that emerges is “Ooooh, that Bass!“.  Percy Jones’ fretless meanderings are thoughtful, original, provocative, and oh so tasty.  Also, if your system has really, really, REALLY accurate and deep bass, he plays with a quite extraordinary presence (Bose Wave radio owners need not apply).

Where Collins and Jones provide a kitchen sink with an essentially funk and rhythm oriented core, the third thing that emerges are all the tunes, the melodic structures, and the weird harmonic progressions that seem somehow so natural.  Guitarist Goodsall and keyboardist Lumley counterpoint the rhythmic foundation with melody, fine tonal textures, and no small amount of virtuosity, while avoiding the excesses of self-indulgence that often mar (or sanctify – according to your preference) Jazz-Fusion.

At the end of the day, Unorthodox Behaviour is nobody’s vanity project.  It is a fundamentally collaborative affair.  This line-up played at Ronnie Scott’s club in London just before Unorthodox Behaviour was released, and I was there.  I bought the album on the day of its release.  To this day, it remains a staple of my collection.  It is playing as I write this.  Percy Jones’ opening statement on Nuclear Burn is just an absolute classic … if you can play this, you’ve got bass chops!

If you have never heard Unorthodox Behaviour, do yourself a favour – try to find yourself a copy.

 

“If Genesis were Phil Collins’ wife, Brand X is his mistress.”

http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/40177/Brand-X-Unorthodox-Behaviour/

The Jazz-Fusion movement of the 70’s is best known for the giants – Mahavishnu, Colloseum, Chick Corea, Weather Report, extending, towards its boundaries, to include the likes of Jeff Beck and Miles Davis.  Apparently lost in the euphoria was Brand X, perhaps because it was seen – very unfairly – as Phil Collins’ side-project.  Here Phil teams up with bassist Percy Jones, Guitarist John Goodsall, and Keyboardist Robin Lumley, and together they lay down what is surely one of the core oevres of the Jazz-Fusion movement, “Unorthodox Behaviour“.

At first listen, what comes across is perhaps that unfair assessment that this is a Phil Collins pet project.  Phil’s drumming never fails to underpin and propel the music with his familiar cymbal-driven style.  But what emerges after a while is that Collins drumming is truly at the service of the music, punctuating it, propelling it, clarifying it, anchoring it.

The second thing that emerges is “Ooooh, that Bass!“.  Percy Jones’ fretless meanderings are thoughtful, original, provocative, and oh so tasty.  Also, if your system has really, really, REALLY accurate and deep bass, he plays with a quite extraordinary presence (Bose Wave radio owners need not apply).

Where Collins and Jones provide a kitchen sink with an essentially funk and rhythm oriented core, the third thing that emerges are all the tunes, the melodic structures, and the weird harmonic progressions that seem somehow so natural.  Guitarist Goodsall and keyboardist Lumley counterpoint the rhythmic foundation with melody, fine tonal textures, and no small amount of virtuosity, while avoiding the excesses of self-indulgence that often mar (or sanctify – according to your preference) Jazz-Fusion.

At the end of the day, Unorthodox Behaviour is nobody’s vanity project.  It is a fundamentally collaborative affair.  This line-up played at Ronnie Scott’s club in London just before Unorthodox Behaviour was released, and I was there.  I bought the album on the day of its release.  To this day, it remains a staple of my collection.  It is playing as I write this.  Percy Jones’ opening statement on Nuclear Burn is just an absolute classic … if you can play this, you’ve got bass chops!

If you have never heard Unorthodox Behaviour, do yourself a favour – try to find yourself a copy.

 

Let me state it up-front right away.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, is my favorite piece of classical music, bar none.  It is also, without peer, the single most influential piece of music ever composed.  By anyone.  Ever.  Here is a nice little primer, a YouTube video featuring interviews with members of the London Symphony Orchestra:

Stravinsky takes the organized concept of composed orchestral music as understood at the turn of the 20th Century and throws it out the window.  He asks instruments to play outside of their normal register.  He features unexpected instruments in prominent roles.  Melodies are strained and atonal.  Likewise the harmonies – in fact tonal dissonance is core to the piece.  There is no tonal key.  Pre-conceived ideas of rhythm are chewed up and spat out.   Hardly a bar goes by without a syncopated element.  The time signatures vary wildly – at times changing every single bar.  Odd-beat meters abound – there is even one bar with eleven pounding beats to it (you won’t miss it!).

The Rite calls out to be played with a primal ferocity for which nothing written previously could have prepared the first performers.  It is anarchic music, yet it absolutely demands the greatest skill from the conductor to keep the marshaled forces in place.  He must conduct like a lion tamer, in a cage with a hungry, bad-tempered lion.  The best performances teeter on the edge.  Virtuoso-level skill is demanded across the entire orchestra (well, maybe not from the triangle player … I can say this, having played triangle once in a performance of the Rite).  Individual players are called upon to produce outburst after outburst with confidence and total commitment.  Anything less will sound disjointed, timid, and unconvincing.  Famously, at its 1913 premiere in Paris, a riot broke out!

The Rite of Spring is probably the single most frequently-played and widely-recorded piece of orchestral music in existence.  I have totally lost track of how many recordings there are.  I have many of them in my collection, but there are well over 100 that I have never even heard.  You could spend your entire life doing nothing but tracking down recorded performances of The Rite.  How, then, to pick a recommended recording?

All I can offer is my own opinion.  An opinion that could conceivably have changed by the time you read this!  Regrettably, it is an opinion that does not lend itself to the world of Computer Audio.  Your mileage may vary, but here we go anyway:  The best recording of The Rite of Spring was made by Leonard Bernstein, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958.  Stravinsky himself is reliably reported to have exclaimed “Wow!” upon hearing it.  Trouble is, it is not available on CD.  And the LP is long out of print.  My own LP was bought for me as a birthday gift by my son who found it on E-Bay, part of a boxed set issued by Time Life back in the 1970’s (The 100 Greatest Recordings of All Time).  Also, if you know what you are doing, it is possible to track down a well-recorded vinyl rip which can be downloaded from the nether regions of the internet in 24/96 format.  It sounds great on my high-end system.

For those of you intrigued enough to want to learn more, here is an absolutely top-drawer performance on YouTube, featuring the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performing live in the famous Concertgebouw concert hall:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UJOaGIhG7A&hd=1
This is a dynamic and precise rendition, captured in 720p with some very fine videography (the focus on the long shots excepted).  Despite appearing to have escaped from Orwell’s 1984, and despite spending long periods of time with his head buried deep in the score, conductor Jaap van Zweden extracts a disciplined yet ferocious performance from his mostly young players.  Really, there is not much to complain about here.  Quite spectacular!

Doing a quick Google search, there appears to be a hybrid SACD released by Exton featuring this orchestra/conductor combo, although I suspect it is a studio recording.  I will try to see if I can get hold of it.

http://www.allmusic.com/album/release/stravinsky-the-rite-of-spring-apollon-musag%C3%A8te-mr0002941631

Everybody needs a copy of The Rite in their record collection.  Let us know which is your favourite.

Let me state it up-front right away.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, is my favorite piece of classical music, bar none.  It is also, without peer, the single most influential piece of music ever composed.  By anyone.  Ever.  Here is a nice little primer, a YouTube video featuring interviews with members of the London Symphony Orchestra:

Stravinsky takes the organized concept of composed orchestral music as understood at the turn of the 20th Century and throws it out the window.  He asks instruments to play outside of their normal register.  He features unexpected instruments in prominent roles.  Melodies are strained and atonal.  Likewise the harmonies – in fact tonal dissonance is core to the piece.  There is no tonal key.  Pre-conceived ideas of rhythm are chewed up and spat out.   Hardly a bar goes by without a syncopated element.  The time signatures vary wildly – at times changing every single bar.  Odd-beat meters abound – there is even one bar with eleven pounding beats to it (you won’t miss it!).

The Rite calls out to be played with a primal ferocity for which nothing written previously could have prepared the first performers.  It is anarchic music, yet it absolutely demands the greatest skill from the conductor to keep the marshaled forces in place.  He must conduct like a lion tamer, in a cage with a hungry, bad-tempered lion.  The best performances teeter on the edge.  Virtuoso-level skill is demanded across the entire orchestra (well, maybe not from the triangle player … I can say this, having played triangle once in a performance of the Rite).  Individual players are called upon to produce outburst after outburst with confidence and total commitment.  Anything less will sound disjointed, timid, and unconvincing.  Famously, at its 1913 premiere in Paris, a riot broke out!

The Rite of Spring is probably the single most frequently-played and widely-recorded piece of orchestral music in existence.  I have totally lost track of how many recordings there are.  I have many of them in my collection, but there are well over 100 that I have never even heard.  You could spend your entire life doing nothing but tracking down recorded performances of The Rite.  How, then, to pick a recommended recording?

All I can offer is my own opinion.  An opinion that could conceivably have changed by the time you read this!  Regrettably, it is an opinion that does not lend itself to the world of Computer Audio.  Your mileage may vary, but here we go anyway:  The best recording of The Rite of Spring was made by Leonard Bernstein, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958.  Stravinsky himself is reliably reported to have exclaimed “Wow!” upon hearing it.  Trouble is, it is not available on CD.  And the LP is long out of print.  My own LP was bought for me as a birthday gift by my son who found it on E-Bay, part of a boxed set issued by Time Life back in the 1970’s (The 100 Greatest Recordings of All Time).  Also, if you know what you are doing, it is possible to track down a well-recorded vinyl rip which can be downloaded from the nether regions of the internet in 24/96 format.  It sounds great on my high-end system.

For those of you intrigued enough to want to learn more, here is an absolutely top-drawer performance on YouTube, featuring the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra performing live in the famous Concertgebouw concert hall:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UJOaGIhG7A&hd=1
This is a dynamic and precise rendition, captured in 720p with some very fine videography (the focus on the long shots excepted).  Despite appearing to have escaped from Orwell’s 1984, and despite spending long periods of time with his head buried deep in the score, conductor Jaap van Zweden extracts a disciplined yet ferocious performance from his mostly young players.  Really, there is not much to complain about here.  Quite spectacular!

Doing a quick Google search, there appears to be a hybrid SACD released by Exton featuring this orchestra/conductor combo, although I suspect it is a studio recording.  I will try to see if I can get hold of it.

http://www.allmusic.com/album/release/stravinsky-the-rite-of-spring-apollon-musag%C3%A8te-mr0002941631

Everybody needs a copy of The Rite in their record collection.  Let us know which is your favourite.

In the world of classical music, you typically need to die before your music gets taken too seriously.  Kind of a bummer from a reputation-building perspective.  I guess once you’re dead, your oevre is sort of set in stone, and you can’t go about upsetting the pronouncements of the ‘experts’ by releasing a confounding new work.

http://www.johncorigliano.com/

Having said that, one very much living composer, whose work does gain a grudging degree of respect, is the American composer John Corigliano.  I am a huge fan of his Symphony No 1, written in the late eighties in response to the then-emerging AIDS crisis which was striking down many of his musician friends.  At the time, Corigliano was composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and such was the reception afforded it that the CSO recorded the work under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.  It has also been recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, coupled with the slightly more popular work “Of Rage and Remembrance”, but the CSO version is the one to own.

Symphony No 1 swings seamlessly between passages of rage, serenity, helplessness, and nostalgia as it weaves a musical AIDS quilt in remembrance of three particular musician friends around whom the work is structured.  One particularly effective device is an off-stage piano playing a transcription of Albeniz’ Tango in D which in the CSO recording emerges ghost-like behind a curtain of shimmering strings.  Unusually, for a major work of the last century, Corigliano manages to express both modernity and originality without being derivative of the Rite Of Spring which towers so massively over the compositional landscape of the 20th Century.  The composition has received numerous awards and accolades.  I am hoping that I will one day be able to catch a live performance, which is not an unreasonable ambition as the piece does get performed quite widely.

In the meantime, the CSO/Barenboim recording on Erato is finely done.  Barenboim conducts with passion and precision – the latter is always his calling card – and the off-stage piano is gorgeously captured.  It was recognized at the 1991 Grammys with the award for Best Classical Recording. What a pity there is no hi-res version available for download (as far as I know).

Try and find this recording, it is a piece which I am sure will eventually find its way onto the standard repertoire – I hope you enjoy it.

In the world of classical music, you typically need to die before your music gets taken too seriously.  Kind of a bummer from a reputation-building perspective.  I guess once you’re dead, your oevre is sort of set in stone, and you can’t go about upsetting the pronouncements of the ‘experts’ by releasing a confounding new work.

http://www.johncorigliano.com/

Having said that, one very much living composer, whose work does gain a grudging degree of respect, is the American composer John Corigliano.  I am a huge fan of his Symphony No 1, written in the late eighties in response to the then-emerging AIDS crisis which was striking down many of his musician friends.  At the time, Corigliano was composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and such was the reception afforded it that the CSO recorded the work under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.  It has also been recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, coupled with the slightly more popular work “Of Rage and Remembrance”, but the CSO version is the one to own.

Symphony No 1 swings seamlessly between passages of rage, serenity, helplessness, and nostalgia as it weaves a musical AIDS quilt in remembrance of three particular musician friends around whom the work is structured.  One particularly effective device is an off-stage piano playing a transcription of Albeniz’ Tango in D which in the CSO recording emerges ghost-like behind a curtain of shimmering strings.  Unusually, for a major work of the last century, Corigliano manages to express both modernity and originality without being derivative of the Rite Of Spring which towers so massively over the compositional landscape of the 20th Century.  The composition has received numerous awards and accolades.  I am hoping that I will one day be able to catch a live performance, which is not an unreasonable ambition as the piece does get performed quite widely.

In the meantime, the CSO/Barenboim recording on Erato is finely done.  Barenboim conducts with passion and precision – the latter is always his calling card – and the off-stage piano is gorgeously captured.  It was recognized at the 1991 Grammys with the award for Best Classical Recording. What a pity there is no hi-res version available for download (as far as I know).

Try and find this recording, it is a piece which I am sure will eventually find its way onto the standard repertoire – I hope you enjoy it.