Steve Reich is Calling, by Seth Kranzler
This is a soundtrack to being on the right side of history: the Spring 2017 compilation from the excellent metal label Southern Lord. It’s available for name-your-own price, but I encourage you to toss them at least a fiver, because all proceeds go to the ACLU.
In the course of a year, I listen to more jazz on record and hear more classical music in the concert hall. That’s a matter of circumstances; I would prefer that were reversed, but there are few opportunities for me to write about live jazz, and jazz venues are generally unwelcoming to the those without prestige credentials.. The New York Classical Review, or the other hand, gives me the opportunity to cover classical music performances, and before I started writing there, classical music venues were always been open to me as an independent critic.
This is the context for my relationship with recordings. While I’d prefer to get more of my jazz live, recordings are necessary to hear new musicians, and hear what players who aren’t getting gigs are doing.
For classical music, recordings can be puzzling. For new music, recordings are a logical and necessary means to document expansion of the tradition—likewise recordings of obscure but worthwhile music (there is still a lot of stuff like that from the Renaissance and Baroque eras). But for the standard repertoire, it’s often unclear why recordings are made. Do we need more recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, more Chopin Preludes, more Vivaldi Concertos? No, we do it. But we get them anyway.
This is the staple of the last vestiges of the big record labels, like Deutsche Gramophone sign a new a star performer and put them through the cycle of recording all the appropriate standard works. It makes sense for unique talents like Daniil Trifonov, who has many new ideas about older pieces. It makes less sense for even spectacular talents like Yuja Wang, who gives music unbelievable life in concert, but is it not rethinking anything. For solid but unsurprising musicians like Yannick Nézet-Séquin, it makes no sense.
This is because classical music, despite common perceptions, is a living art. Like plays from the past, the art needs to be performed and experienced in the moment. The sense of occasion, community, and time in the concert hall is entirely different than in the living room, and music is also made an entirely different way in the recording studio. Nézet-Séquin, at his best, leads performances that are exemplary renditions of what’s on the page. At his best, this makes for another fine recording. but the classical music discography general is clogged with fine recordings, and reissues are the best recordings from the past are plentiful and cheap.
So again, why make these, and why listen to them? Because Trifonov appears to be a musician of historical greatness, and it is exciting to witness him discovering his own thoughts about the tradition. Same is true for Murray Perahia’s CD of Bach’s French Suites-not only is his playing superb but his thinking is fresh (this recording was made for Sony as part of Perahia’s exploration of Bach, but the label dropped him without release it, and DG picked it up).
But even with exciting musicians like Trifonov and Igor Levitt, most of what comes from the big labels is exactly what you expect: more Brahms, more collections of arias, more cross-overs. Classical music is where the independent labels are more interesting, and more important, than in any other genre. Here are my continuing favorites with their best releases from 2016 and early 2017.
Harmonia Mundi is the home for some of the finest musicians in classical music and well-chosen repertory. This is where you’ll find recordings of Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s operas and Bach’s Passions, led by René Jacobs, that are among the finest and most important ever made and that should be part of your music library. The label is also where you’ll hear the fresh intelligence of musicians like fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, baritone Matthias Goerne, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Jerusalem String Quartet, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. They put out a substantial number of period performance practice recordings, and also the beautiful contemporary choral music of Craig Hella Johnson. Here are some of the finest recent releases:
- Sophie Karthäuser and Eugene Asti, Wolf: Kennst du das Land
- Alexander Melnikov, Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 6, 8
- Isabelle Faust, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini, Mozart: Violin Concertos
- Sebastián Doucé, Ensemble Correspondances, Charpentier: Pastorale de Noël
- Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, Brahms: Vier ernste Gefsänge
- Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Bien que l’amour… air sérieux et à boire.
- Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding, Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Rameau: Suite de Hippolyte et Aricie
- René Jacobs, RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Bach: St. John Passion
- Andreas Staeir and Alexander Melnikov, Schubert: Fantasie in F minor and Other Piano Duets
- Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth, Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé
Bridge, founded by guitarist David Starobin, maintains a catalogue of under-represented common practice period composers, and specialized in comprehensive series from modern and contemporary composers. The most important of these is their recordings of music by Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe’s music comes out of early 20th century European modernism, but is really unclassifiable. He could write atonally, he could use popular music, theatrical elements, pretty much anything. His work is imaginative, expressive, made with refined, strong structures, and full of surprises. He was one of the finest composers of the 20th century, and had an important influence as a teacher once he emigrated to America. Other recommended series and 2016 releases:
- George Crumb Edition
- Elliott Carter Edition
- Aleck Karis, Poulenc: Music for Piano
- Marc Ponthus, Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano
- Alan R. Kay, Jon Klibonoff, Reger: Music for Clarinet and Piano
- Stefan Wolpe Edition
ECM, while not originally a classical label, has now pioneered a new music style that is predominantly tonal, and mixes pre-baroque, minimalism, and improvisation, either as a collection or as a synthesis. And through contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Pärt, they’ve used their New Series to explore both modern and common practice period repertory. While the results have been inconsistent—there’s some recordings of 19th and early 20th century music that are surprisingly poor, while Andras Schiff’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas cycle is full of fascinating thinking and draws one back again and again, and Gidon Kremer’s two collections of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg have made an extraordinarily strong case for the composer—the label has completely filled the classical music niche that Nonesuch used to fill, and continues to expand in both the standard repertory and such extra-classical composed music as by Anouar Brahem and Tigran Mansurayn.
- Danish String Quartet, Adès/Norgard/Abrahamsen
- Miranda Cuckson, Blair McMillen, Bartók/Schnittke/Lutoslawski
- Kim Kashkashian, Steve Schick, et al, Rothko Chapel—Feldman/Satie/Cage
- Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica, et al, Music of Miecczyslaw Weinberg, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
- Anouar Brahem, Souvenance: Music for Oud, Quartet, and String Orchestra
- Tigran Hamasyan, Atmospheres
- Andras Schiff, Beethoven: The 32 Sonatas
Winter & Winter is an addendum, but worth noting. Their classical releases are few but extremely well-chosen. They’ve produced interesting, but non-essential, recordings of modern and avant-garde music played by accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, but of late have become the home for two major artists, Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahamsen. Their two Abrahamsen releases, Schnee and let me tell you, and Hannigan’s recording of Satie’s Socrate are must-haves.
The paucity of recent posting has been to due an exhausting January of freelance writing. Here’s one of the fruits and one of the most enjoyable, my interview with the great electronic musician Steve Roach, for Bandcamp.
Steve Roach, 1982
Space music: the term implies an evocation of the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos, the slow synchronized movement of stars in the night sky, the incredible shapes and colors of nebulae. But look in the opposite direction, and space music becomes an exploration of the equally infinite and vastly more mysterious and complex world of the inner self. That is the space that electronic musician Steve Roach has been exploring since the late 1970s. Through seemingly disparate styles, like the tectonic pulse and crystalline shapes of the classic Structures from Silence, the ambient soundscapes of Quiet Music, and the sequenced bleeps and bloops of Skeleton Keys, Roach has been using music as a way to hold time at bay, and to weave a connection between the individual and the universal.
Working entirely outside of changing fashions in electronic music, Roach has made dozens…
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Tonight, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin bring the first performance cycle in American history to Carnegie Hall (I’ll be reviewing tonight’s concert, and Symphony Nos. 5 and 9 for the New York Classical Review).
Bruckner is a major symphonic composer, and in the eyes of some the greatest symphonist. That may see a bizarre claim, but that’s because there has been so little exposure to his music here. He has a reputation for being simplistic and dull. I thought that myself, but discovered that had more to do with the interpretations than the composing.
Given the chance to hear knowledgable, committed interpretations, Bruckner’s extraordinary virtues come through: the gorgeous forms that are like great Gothic cathedrals; the enthralling Adagios; the physical vitality of his Scherzos; the superb counterpoint and skill at modulation; the fantastically long melodies; and the transparent and sublime connection to the wonder and terror of his Catholic faith.
But there are aspects of his art that trouble people. Though he was composing in the mid-19th century, he mostly eschews the ideology of the era, development. Bruckner forms his symphonies out of beautifully shaped and intensely dramatic moments, connected by interludes. Then repeat. There’s some nod to sonata form, and he will use the old menuet-trio model, but his sense of form and especially time seems out of place with his tonal language. That is what I love about Bruckner. Coming to him in the late 20th century, he is more like Philip Glass than anyone else (Bruckner was important to Glass), and the last two symphonies are still New Music.
For a way experience the music, look to European musicians and orchestras, who have been playing this music for a century and a half, from the mighty Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics to myriad, regional orchestras. Bruckner is in their ears and hearts.
- Barenboim has the rare distinction of having recorded three different, complete Bruckner cycles, all of which are at the top level of the Bruckner discography and all of which are worth owning. The pronounced differences come from the three different orchestras; the Chicago Symphony on Deutsche Grammaphon, the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner Classics, and the Staatskapelle on Barenboim’s own Perla label (2016 digital releases) or DG for the CD pressing (which from Amazon gives you a free download). The Chicago recordings are brass to the max, the orchestra’s famous section making a glorious sound throughout; Berlin plays with a much darker sound; and the Staatskapelle has a lithe, earthy sound. Interpretatively, the earliest set is full of thrills, the second cycle is closer in spirit to Fürtwangler, and the latest one has the most natural feeling, as if all the musicians are back in the 19th century, and the music is both new and part of their overall daily culture.
- Eugene Jochum’s recordings are at the foundation of the Bruckner discography, but I confess here to not enjoying them. They are energetic and sincere, but to me they are superficial and the tempos are always a bit off. With that though, his recordings of the Masses 1 – 3 on Deutsche Grammaphon are marvelous; fluid, earthy, and touching on the mystical. They were formative to my interest in Bruckner, and I consider them an essential part of a good classical music library..
- Günter Wand was a less well known contemporary of Jochum’s with masterful knowledge of Bruckner, and I prefer his recordings. He produced multiple statements, scattered across several labels, and if you don’t want to search, this bargain reissue is an excellent first choice. Wand’s Bruckner is measured and sane, with a solid large scale form. There is a partial cycle he recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic later in life, and if is tremendous; the orchestra is superior, of course, and there is a palpable feeling of excitement, with the music building to climaxes that are glorious. Listen to that one loud. It is missing Symphonies 1–3 and 6, but everything else is as fine as you’ll ever hear.
- Bruno Walter is single-handedly responsible for my love for Bruckner. His Columbia recording of Symphony No. 9 was the first Bruckner I listened to, and the profound beauty and metaphysical depths of it convinced me that the composer was worth exploring. It still stands up, from the intensely misterioso e poetico atmosphere of the opening, through the physical might of the Scherzo and the lush internal world of the Adagio. All of Walter’s Bruckner is great—as much as I love his Brahms, and as important as is his Mahler, he sounds most at home with Bruckner. He didn’t record the complete works, but every serious classical music listener should have this collection of his Bruckner and Mahler releases on Columbia.
- Georg Tintner’s cycle is essential if you find yourself a Bruckner fan. His various orchestras—from Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand, for example—give the music their all, though of course they are not the finest ensembles. But Tintner directs the music with great pace, shape, and sense of meaning, and most importantly he not only includes all the symphonies (including the Study Symphony and the Die Nulte), but also Bruckner’s first complete editions, before the meddling of others. And Bruckner’s first thoughts were wonderful, especially in the 4th and 8th Symphonies.
- Simone Young/Marek Janowski: two new cycles I picked up last year. Janowski is an old hand at this music, while Young has been making waves with her releases. I have not listened all the way through either of these, but my impressions are that Janowski is very well played and very straight, ideal if you’re not familiar with the work, but perhaps less of interest if you have several sets already. The Young I would recommend unreservedly, it is moving to the very top of the cycles I have heard. I love her pace, which is deliberate in the sense that she has things to say and she’s going to take the time she needs to say them; the tempos are objectively on the slow side but the music making is deep with emotional meaning and is very exciting to hear. Both have superb SACD sound, both clear and glowing. Everyone should get the Young set, wether you’ve heard 1 or 100 before.
Bruckner has been a part of European classical culture since the premieres of his symphonies. One measure of how deep he’s embedded is in how many orchestras that you have never heard of produce terrific Bruckner recordings. Many of these were trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades, lost to Western ears, but they kept playing, and conductors in the East and West made careers out of traveling around Central Europe and leading a repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner.
- Cristian Mandeal: His cycle with the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic is available through Abruckner.com, and there he has also made and excellent recording of Symphony No. 9 with the Hallé
- Heinz Rögner: He contributes the bulk of recordings (along with Vávlav Neumann, Franz Konwitschny, and Kurt Sanderling) to a fine cycle on the Brilliant Classics budget label from the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin.
- Volkmar Andreae: An excellent, historic cycle with the Vienna Symphony, taped off radio broadcasts made in Soviet occupied Vienna. Andreae had by 1911 performed all of the Bruckner symphonies, so this is old-school in the best way.
- Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: A fiery, powerful set, one of the best available with one of the best 9ths put on record, with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern.
If you are interested in sampling individual recordings, there are some fantastic ones, profound and gripping:
We critics have spoken, and here’s The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll : The Record : NPR.
I am happily surprised to see Henry Threadgill hit the top of the poll—it is generally slightly more forward looking than the Downbeat polls, but still skews to the mainstream. While his disc was not my absolute favorite for the year, it’s superb and represents not only his achievements as a unique and formidable composer of modern music (Henry’s idiom goes well beyond jazz) but also as a mark of his stature. He has been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, but the Pulitzer win seems to have impressed a lot of people, and if he’s become the recipient of some default votes, he more than deserves that.
I’m also happy to see that Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks turned up. This was not on my list because I have not had the chance to give it the concentrated listening it deserves, but his recent compositions have been hugely ambitious and successful, and his playing is ridiculously strong—again, this is a mark of his stature and he deserves every bit of attention.
Also nice to see Resonance earn so much attention for their excellent run of reissues.
Listening proceeds apace, and before the year came to a close I got to considerably more jazz (thanks to the lull in classical concertizing). My Top 10 list remains the same, but I also want to add these recordings to the list of worthwhile 11s:
- Florian Hoefner Group, Luminosity
- Jordan Young, Jazz Jukebox
- Dave Douglas and Frank Woeste, Dada People
- Stephen Crump, Rhombal
- Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, In Movement
- Updated: John Raymond, John Raymond & Real Feels
- Noah Preminger, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
You can’t go wrong with anything on my lists, or the one at NPR.
Things will not be great in 2017 if you are an ordinary person, especially if you’re not a man and not white. Things will be great for certain people, those who have the right balance of melanin and money. For example, things will be good for non-punk rock musician/Weimar-ignoramus/privileged emigrant Amanda Palmer. But not everyone can be Amanda Palmer, most of us could never measure up to her level of self-regard and selfishness.
Predicting what will happen in the arts is foolish. For every idea inspired by anger—and there will be many—there will be the corresponding obstacles of lack of money and increased social corrosion. But certainly artists will persist, the first step in resisting the swamping backwash of history. Musicians, ones who emphasize substance over social media skill, are already putting out some invigorating protest music:
Noah Preminger, an excellent jazz musician with a deep, personal commitment to expressing his values through his music, is putting out a new record on January 20 (you know what day that is), Meditations on Freedom. Check out this excellent sample track, and order the album at his website.
Beethoven always makes a great gift, more reliable than anything else. And as the greatest artist of the human spirit, there’s no time like now to give Beethoven. Here’s some suggestions that are superb musically and real values money-wise:
This cycle from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the very best, and the price makes it the best value of all the symphony cycles in print.
Those are analog recordings. If you want digital (and well-recorded), Paul Lewis’ set is very good, beautiful played and sane all the way through, though not as deep or dramatic as some others. The price gives it high value.
The final leg of the essential Beethoven tripod (itself fundamental to the Western art music tradition). Like the Piano Sonatas, there’s no clear single choice in terms of musical quality and low cost. This is compounded in that many of the best cycles seem to constantly go in and out of print, leaving the consumer at the mercy of the secondary market.
The early Tokyo String Quartet cycle is a bargain, and is fine, but not in the top rank of recordings. Their later one is superior, one of the best, but the prices are all over the place on the secondary market. The Quartet Italiano cycle is superb, one of the very best, and available at a moderate price.
As for the rest, there are a lot of good ones that are expensive, and a lot of inexpensive ones that aren’t as good. Caveat emptor.
I’ve been reading through apocalyptic fiction since summer 2015, inspired in no small part by the stream of reissued material from the great experimental collective Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. If the 2016 political year has got you feeling like you need an inoculation against dread, you can’t do better than to read A Canticle for Leibowitz.
As a companion and a link between this remarkable novel and the remarkable sounds from FAMP, read my article “Sounds of Futures’ Past” at NewMusicBox; a contemplation on what our future sonic archeology might be, and exactly what of civilization we might leave behind to be pieced together by a future Order of St. Leibowitz.
The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.
The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.
(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)
(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)
For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:
- This set of the Haydn symphonies in period performances is fantastic, easily on the level of the Dorati and Fischer cycles, and the price is more than reasonable, one of the great bargains of the year.
- Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings. If you don’t have this already, you need it.
- Philip Glass: The Complete Sony Recordings. Not as much of a bargain now as when it was available for pre-order, this is still indispensable if you do not already have Einstein and Glassworks. The box of his Symphonies is a good companion or alternative.
There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.
- Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
- The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
- Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
- UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this): Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
- Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition/Lenox Avenue Breakdown/Illusions/Blythe Spirit. Four albums on two CDs, for $20. Lenox and Illusions are two of the greatest albums of the post-fusion era, testaments to the beautifully creative and vital music made on the Loft Jazz scene.
- Searching for You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (1958–1974). On Resonance, Zev Feldman produced two important archival releases this year, covering Larry Young and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had his hand in this one too, and there’s little this year I enjoyed as much.
- Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
- Machine Gun: Jimi Hendrix: The Filmore East First Show 12/31/1969. The complete first set of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. An amazing performance and unintended culmination of Jimi’s musical world: blues, soul, funk, and rock.
- Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
- Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.