Our Favorite Things: Recordings.

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1999 Update

A year ago I asked all our contributors to go through their music collections and submit a list or article covering their all-time favorite recordings. Most of the contributors sent something in, and our first "Recordings Issue" (Issue 72) was something that most readers seemed to enjoy thoroughly (although there were a few complaints from hard-core equipment junkies about the relative lack of equipment reviews). This year, I have asked the contributors to submit another list, with the basic idea of listing recordings that they have picked up over the last year that they would like to add to their list of favorite recordings. Once again, most contributors have responded, and the end result has exceeded my most optimistic expectations. Enjoy ...

Steven G. Baird (SGB)

Categories for my contribution to this year's recommended recordings will be a little different, but as usual for this contributor, nearly all of them will be reissues. Not all are reissues this time, though. The categories are, Classical, Jazz, Blues/Oldies/Rock, and Collectibles.

Except for those among you who view these small pieces of plastic and aluminum (or gold) as more than mere objects to hear, the last of these categories needs some explanation. Some readers also enjoy them for their artwork, or what may distinguish them from other releases of the same title. They become our own little treasures that we can discuss with other collectors. Often these collectibles become collectible shortly after they were deleted from the publisher's catalog. The value of some of these recordings rises as quickly as the stock market, while others will not. Time might be on your side for some CDs listed in this section, as inventory might still be available as of this writing. Or you just might be lucky enough to find one that collectors overlooked. I am listing these to advise some readers that they will likely have to pay large prices from dealers who still have them and know what they are worth. For others who are lucky enough to own some of them, their mention should serve as an indicator that you should not trade them to your local used CD store on his typical 4 for 1 basis (unless it is you who is getting 4 for 1). For each category, I will arrange the listings alphabetically by artist, and so, to begin.

Classical: David Zinman's Beethoven Symphony cycle, available as a boxed set, or in five individual CDs from Arte Nova/BMG (see KWN's comments in Issue 76 for a complete list of catalog numbers). Please pardon the length of this section, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Since it would be impossible to show you a picture of the performances on these CDs, and I think they are so extraordinary, I find it equally impossible to pare down many details in what I had written so long ago. This section will be almost as long as my first draft intended for a full review.

Having just recently left his post as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony, David Zinman here leads the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich. While this may be an orchestra that is not all that familiar to most classical music listeners on this side of the Atlantic, we learn very quickly that the musicianship heard on these recordings is certainly first class.

Each of the CDs is a pure digital recording. All of the Symphonies were recorded in the Tonhalle Zurich between March of '97 and December of '98, and they all exhibit similar sound qualities. Since the catalog numbers of the CDs correspond to the chronological order in which they were recorded we can hear a slight improvement in sound from the first through the last. I venture this demonstrates Simon Eadon's (the recording engineer) growing familiarity with the recording location. The first CD projects a wee bit smaller soundstage than the others, but all four are very dynamic and about as natural sounding as I have heard on recent recordings of Beethoven. Microphone placement is just a little on the close side, but the orchestral perspective never seems to suffer from this, nor is it ever very obvious that there has been much spotlighting. As a whole, these are probably among the best sounding recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies available to date, but if you're still not convinced, there's more.

The Zinman recordings are the first to present the new Barenreiter Urtext editions of the Beethoven Symphonies; each of them edited by Jonathan Del Mar. Del Mar himself contributes a few pages in the accompanying booklets to discuss the extensive research that results in these new performing editions. These editions, he writes, "have been compiled with scholarly rigour, in accordance with strict musicological techniques and processes." His work has taken him back to the most primary of sources -- manuscripts, books, and personal letters -- with corrections to the scores "sometimes found in the composer's hand." The Barenreiter editions bring us to places in all of the Symphonies where the new performances "will sound materially different; eyebrows will be raised and some passages ... may even need to be reevaluated ... for their psychological effect." Del Mar makes note of at least one of the more apparent revisions in all nine of the Symphonies here, but I don't think any ardent Beethoven fans will have any difficulty finding them on their own.

So what we have here are performances that reflect the actual intent of the composer more accurately, according to Del Mar, than has been available in the past. Comparing this new Fifth to Carlos Kleiber's on DGG, I found Zinman's tempo to be even quicker from the start, and conveying a deeper sense of urgency. He races through three of the four movements in 2:15 less time; in the third movement, he takes 2:10 longer. Here the pace maintains itself in keeping with the other movements, but Zinman repeats the opening statement once more than Kleiber. The quivering of the double basses is more boldly stated than I am accustomed to hearing, but the effect is quite striking. By the time we reach the dialog between the strings and woodwinds announcing the final movement we have been captivated by a series of statements depicting the utter sense of triumph Beethoven intended for this symphony. Another notable sense one derives upon listening to this Fifth for a third or fourth time is that of the musical heritage that Beethoven has acquired from the great composers that preceded him. This performance has a distinctly Mozartean feel to it -- far more so than any other recorded performance with which I am familiar. This quality may have more to do with Zinman's fresh approach to the Barenreiter editions, of which there are no others to make a comparison, but I think it is as much Zinman's own understanding of this great work.

Such is the description I would apply to each of the other six Symphonies that are mentioned here (I do not have Symphonies 1 & 2). Of these, I think the Eighth is my favorite, especially in its third movement. It is elevated to one of my most favorite passages in all of Beethoven, thanks be to this cycle. What an absolutely joyous set of recordings! Thank you, Maestro Zinman, for such awe-inspiring interpretations, and you, Ludwig Van Beethoven, for sharing your God-given talents with all of mankind. Positively, completely, and unreservedly superb!

Jazz: Duke Ellington Three Suites, Columbia CK 46825. Judging from the many attempts to rearrange classical music into jazz that were dismal failures -- Airto's Also Sprach Zarathustra and Hubert Laws' Rite of Spring come to mind -- Ellington's work here shows him to deserve all the accolades that critics and music lovers bestowed on him while he was alive. He was one of the best at what he did, and what he did was to compose and perform as few others could. The present CD collects what CBS originally released on two separate LPs; two of the three suites here are from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, and Grieg's Peer Gynt. The third is an Ellington/Strayhorn composition titled Suite Thursday. In fact, all three suites are Ellington/ Strayhorn collaborations. The classical arrangements are interesting and tastefully done, with Ellington's big band "swing" signature apparent throughout. Suite Thursday thoroughly cooks, and is, for me, worth the price of the album by itself. If it's the sound you want to know about, this one ranks right up there with the best that Columbia has released from the period. I would rate it an 8 on a scale of 10 among all the jazz CDs I own.

Kenny Garrett: Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane, Warner Brothers 46206. Downbeat readers voted this one of THE best jazz albums of 1998 during the magazine's annual readers' poll. As the article in that magazine mentioned, it's amazing what happens when you add "arrett" to the end of another popular sax player's name with the same initials. Is Kenny Garrett "the Trane" reincarnate? Perhaps not just yet, but you have to hear this guy if you haven't already: major chops. This Kenny G. does justice to all the Coltrane compositions on the CD. Start with track 2, "Equinox," to adjust yourself to his deliberate phrasing and tone; then go back and start the CD over from the beginning and just let it play. By the time you've reached the title track (8), you too will be a believer. That wonderful guitar playing is provided by none other than the great Pat Metheny, who's equally at home playing Coltrane as he is his own compositions. Sound is a bit disappointing, maybe a 6 or 7, but hey, this one's so good you just won't care.

Blues/Rock/Oldies: The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds, Capitol 21241. The Beach Boys were one of the greatest American vocal groups of the '60s, if not of all time; Pet Sounds is their masterpiece with fans and critics alike proclaiming this one of the greatest concept albums ever released. Brian Wilson supposedly got his idea for this album from the Beatles' very popular Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The new rerelease of this...

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