Stuff That Stocking

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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:

Symphonies

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.

Piano Sonatas

Much tougher to make one choice here. Kempff is the ideal first choice, and his first, mono recordings are the finest set available. But his stereo versions are also excellent and cheaper.

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.

 

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String Quartets

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.

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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.

52 Pick-Up: Best NewMusic 2016

52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.

I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.

(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)

Ambient/Drone

Classical

Electronic

Improvisation

Jazz/Blues

New Classical

Popular Styles

Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.

Hedgehog, Not Fox

 

My internet friends (though I have shaken Andy Lee’s hand) at the Irritable Hedgehog label are discounting most of the catalogue for the next month. If you’re not familiar with this (essentially two-man) operation, they specialize—but are not exclusive to—in lesser-known musical minimal and post-minimal composers, and have issued a number of top-notch recordings.

The markdowns are on CDs, which are now the same cost as digital downloads (and the advantage of buying through Bandcamp is that you get an immediate digital download while you wait for your CDs to come). The only thing not on sale is the majestic boxed set recording of Dennis Johnson’s November, but that leaves plenty of terrific music. My personal recommendations are:

Adrian Knight: Obsessions

 

Jürg Frey: Piano Music

 

Dave Seidel: ~60 Hz

 

William Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes

 

While you’re checking out their list, grab a free download of recording of a recent concert by the Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes. Just go to this link:

http://recordings.irritablehedgehog.com/yum

and use the code: a3n7–5usz

Just order by January 1. Enjoy.

The God Box

Richard Taruskin had the honor and privilege of writing booklet notes for not one, but two important collections of Stravinsky’s music that were released last year. In Deutsche Grammaphon’s Stravinsky: Complete Edition, he summed up the composer’s rare stature with the following anecdote and analysis. Tarsukin writes that Vladmimir Ussachevsky told him:

‘…after crossing [himself] and rising from [his] knees in front of Arnold Schoenberg’s death mask in [Schoenberg’s] working room, [Stravinsky] turned to Mrs. Schoenberg and said “Now I am alone.” Who, you, who can say that now?’

It was a haunting question. There were still composers one admired, even revered. But Carter, Berio and Boulez were honored in one camp. Copland, Shostakovich and Britten were honored in another. Stravinsky was honored in both: his music was indispensably a part of the academic canon and the performing repertoire alike. People both praised it in the classroom and paid good money to hear it. No textbook or music history course could omit him, and neither could any concert or opera (or ballet!) season. And that was what made him unique among the living while he lived. Stravinsky seemed uniquely to exemplify, among contemporary composers, the appeal that Mozart had exerted in his day…. The same compositions that the professionals have analyzed to death have been recorded dozens of times for the delectation of non-matriculated music-lovers. Is there any other modern master of whom that can be said?

Is there? Perhaps Steve Reich is approaching that status, but his academic acceptance, while growing, is not yet fully settled. Stravinsky was one of the rare Titans, and even rarer was the accident of his birth that brought him together with the advent of audio recording technology.

I’ve said it before and will say it again, because it bears infinite repeating: we have lost something valuable with the demise of the big old record labels. Like the Hollywood studio system, they weren’t usually the best places for artists but like the movie studios, they could bring together amazing amounts of talent to produce enduring and enviably well-made classics.

For records, the outstanding example is Columbia in the 1960s. The studio had under contract Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky, five of the most important musicians of the 20th century. They each had essentially carte blanche to record what they wanted.

Stravinsky is a special case and especially important. His accomplishments were a culmination of the history of classical music that came before him and have been immeasurably and continuously influential. In the timeline of Western art music, there are certain composers who have determined the course of music after them, and Stravinsky is one. And, as Taruskin implied, he was a composer, rather than a musician, and a contemporary one at that—record labels signed musicians, but composers?

Fortunately for us, Columbia did so, and the important became the wonderfully unusual. For the music of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, et al, we can hear how musicians think about their music; interpretation. With Stravinsky, we can hear his own thoughts, as straight from his mind to our ears as possible.

His recordings are musically exceptional. They have been available off and on since the late 1920s, and had been collected in the 1990s as the Recorded Legacy box set. At the time, that was essential for the musically literate listener, just as having Joyce, Hemingway, and Borges was fundamental for someone who valued literature. Last year, that set was superseded by Igor Stravinsky: The Complete Columbia Album Collection. It is both vastly different and better by orders of magnitude.

The difference is clear in both size and organization. Where the Recorded Legacy was 22 CDs, the Album Collection is 56, plus a DVD. The earlier set collected previous recordings in categories like ballets, chamber music, etc. The new box contains CD reproductions of the original albums, arranged chronologically.

Because they are the original albums, there is music from other composers that was paired with Stravinsky on certain releases; those include Bach, Bernstein, Copland, Arensky,Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Their contributions only make up a small portion of the additional 34 CDs, but they allow the chance to hear classic LPs, like 1962’s Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Madrigalists: Tributes to his Astonishing Life and Music—organized by Robert Craft, it has Madrigals from Gesualdo and Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. This was a teeth-rattler when first issued, and the culmination of Stravinsky, guided by Craft, rediscovering music of the Italian Renaissance.

Another reason for the difference in CDs is that, as reproductions of original LPs, the CDs each don’t hold as much music as on the Recorded Legacy. And another is that Stravinsky made a considerable number of recordings before the most well-known ones in this box. Beginning in the summer of 1928 and concluding with a performance of Mozart and his own piano music in 1938, Stravinsky laid down a series of LPs for British Colombia (later to become part of EMI). These are all in the new box and they are all terrific.

Also, Stravinsky began making mono LPs for Columbia in the 1940s, then re-recorded his body of work in stereo starting again in the 1950s (it is the stereo recordings that are in the Recorded Legacy). All of this is in the Album Collection. Some of the performances are a little rough, like the Divertimento from the Baiser de la fée played by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico (this was new music in Stravinsky’s era, and musicians were learning his idiom and adapting themselves to his considerable technical challenges). And as much as Stravinsky complained about conductors, his own conducting technique was mediocre and he could not manage what he felt were the ideal tempos of works like the Rite of Spring.

But the composer was unsurpassed at conveying his unique style, either on the podium or though his assistant and amanuensis, Craft. The sound throughout is the classic objective surface, which can be warm or cool depending on the moment, and rhythms that can be felt in the body. That these are Stravinsky’s own recordings is immeasurably important. As Taruskin writes in the Album Collection booklet (yes, he got both gigs), “Comparing the risk a new composition runs when performed for the first time with the security of a classic, say by Beethoven, [Stravinsky] complained late in life that ‘what is wrong with the Beethoven performance is evident and cannot damage the work, but what is wrong in the performance of the unfamiliar work is not at all evident, and the line between sense and nonsense in it may, and often does, depend upon its performance.’” Stravinsky used the recording studio as a place to create and disseminate his own idiom.

The results include unsurpassed versions of the three early ballets, of Oedipus Rex, Orpheus, and Agon, and unequalled renditions of Symphony in Three Movements and The Rake’s Progress. These are all collected in the Albums box, but with the inclusion of the early recordings, and the first mono renditions, you also get two versions of Apollon musagète, the original and revised versions of the Piano Concerto, multiple versions of the Rite, and of the Petrushka and Firebird suites, two complete Fairy’s Kiss (and two complete Divertimentos), two Soldier’s Tales, two of each of the major Symphonies, four (!) recordings of Les Noces in all versions, two of Orpheus, Oedipus Rex, and The Rake’s Progress, two different takes of the rarely recorded Persephone, multiple recordings of various songs, and both the exceptional Benny Goodman performance of the Ebony Concerto and that of Woody Herman and his orchestra, the original commissioner.

All of this is in excellent sound, remastered primarily by Andreas K. Meyer/Jeanne Montalvo, and Martin Kistner. There is more space and bloom all around than on the Recorded Legacy, which has solid sound, and the mono is smooth. With a beautiful hard-bound booklet, it is in every way fabulous.

The DG set in any other circumstance would stand out as essential, but in comparison it is a worthy also-ran, like all those teams that lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA Finals. It collects performances from their own substantial catalogue. The major interpreters within are Boulez, Bernstein, and Claudio Abbado, and while there might be some subjective quibbles (I prefer Chailly to Abbado, for example), these are all contenders for leading versions. Along with the composer’s body of work, it has some wonderful historical recordings; the Violin Concerto in D played by Samuel Dushkin—who commissioned it—with Stravinsky conducting, and Jean Cocteau narrating the Soldier’s Tale conducted by Igor Markevitch. DG has also included Ernest Ansermet’s Petrushka from 1947, and Monteux’s 1956 Le Sacre (Monteux was Stravinsky’s favorite conductor, but the composer had reservations about this recording). And there is a bonus disc of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim playing Le Sacre for two pianos.

The DG set goes for (currently) about $100, while the Album Collection is $139. Price per disc is actually higher with DG, at $3.33 versus $2.43, which shows that in pure dollar terms the Columbia box is a superior bargain. Aesthetically, the choice is between excellent professional interpretations and a more technically variable but musically and philosophically superior ur-text. But why choose? Get both.

Absolutely, Totally, Mozart

This might be something like the experience of buying a multi-volume encyclopedia in days of yore: you didn’t know you needed it until you saw and coveted it, then there it sat on your bookshelf, admired by visitors yet rarely visited by yourself.

This is something different though: Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition (200 CD Box Set). This is something you will actually open up and play and enjoy through the years.

Yes, it’s expensive, and cost alone is an issue. So is it a value?

  • 200 discs for $410 = $2.05/disc, which is only slightly more than the per track cost of the latest pop hit.
  • Actual cost can be lower than $410, which is the Amazon price as of this writing. Presto Classical has it for $344, but shipping costs are high. Amazon UK has this for the best price (again as of this writing); with shipping included the price in USD is around $350. That’s $1.75/disc.
  • That per disc value only matters if the contents are, well, valuable to the consumer. And if you want a complete Mozart box, the Brilliant Classics one is $169 and it’s quite good, full of solid recordings. Is this box 1.5 – 2 times better?81os0jbut3l-_sl1500_

In my critical opinion—as long as you wish to have recordings of all of Mozart’s works—it is:

I have not heard the whole set (and am certain no one will be sending me a promo), but I am familiar with a substantial number of the recordings collected—there is a PDF of the CD contents here.

The first thing to note is that there is a heavy emphasis on period performance. The box collects Symphonies from the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Baroque Soloists, and a handful of others, all excellent ensembles (the bulk comes from Trevor Pinnock’s excellent English Concert recordings). There are also the fortepiano Piano Concerto recordings with Malcolm Bilson and Robert Levin, which are full of improvisation and are absolutely essential.

There are also some period performance recordings of the operas, but not exclusively so, and here is where the virtues of the box are most clearly represented. This is a Decca release,  but Decca is currently under the ownership of UMG, which also owns Deutsche Grammaphon, Archiv, etc, which means that they have a superior, rich catalogue to choose from. Here are some of the opera recordings included:

  • La finta giardiniera, Mozarteum-Orchester Salzburg, Leopold Hager
  • Zaide, Staatskapelle Berlin, Bernhard Klee
  • Idomeneo, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood
  • Le nozze di Figaro, Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra, Arnold Östman
  • Don Giovanni, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séquin
  • Così fan tutte, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Georg Solti
  • Die Zauberflöte, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado

These are the best versions in the company’s archives, no matter the philosophy, mixing period and modern performances.

There are also many CDs with what are labeled “Classic” and “Historical” performances, so the piano works from Uchida and Brendel are augmented by Gulda and Haskil and Horowitz, the Symphonies are duplicated through a handful of Karl Böhm’s recordings, which at their best are fabulous. And these just scratch the surface of material that is supplemental to the core purpose, but generous and essential for delivering insight into the legacy of recording Mozart; there are 7 CDs of classic aria performances, there is the complete Erich Kleiber Figaro, which may be no longer essential but is incredibly musical. There are 3 CDs of music meant for private performance, 21 CDs of fragments, music that Mozart arranged (his own and others), and incomplete works finished by others, and a further 7 of what are labeled “Doubtful Works.” (Five hours of the music included has been recorded new just for the set.)

So yes, this is the one, complete not only in that it presents all of Mozart that is in common practice, but complete in that it is every work that the man produced, and with multiple views of some of the most notable ones. Documentation includes of a new Kochel guide.

This is a lifetime supply of the greatest musical art. Available October 28.

P.S. In the spirit of less perhaps being more, I also strongly recommend the upcoming release of Teodor Currentzis’ latest Mozart opera recordingDon Giovanni. Currentzis is the only conductor who is as interesting as René Jacobs in Mozart, and his style and ideas are dramatically different and equally rewarding.

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Glass Totems

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Along with Steve Reich, another major American composer is turning 80 this year: Philip Glass. There are no ongoing celebrations of his life and work, though that’s nothing to regret.

Glass has always had a rare, extensive appeal into popular culture, and his career was buttressed by last year’s memoir, Words Without Music, which is full of fascinating insights into his ideas, his work, and the general task of living in modern America as a (once) avant-garde artist. (Of the latter, the book usefully outlines how his best earliest audiences were theater, dance, and visual artists, not musicians and music lovers, and that foundation helped advance his profile.)

He’s also had a prolific at sometime unfocussed career. His sound is both familiar and inimitable, except by himself, and there’s sufficient music in his catalog that sounds enough like other of his works that one can feel a comfortable but soporific response to his music. At the same time, his style and ideas have developed and changed through the years, especially this century.

All this is exceedingly well documented, especially now that his own imprint, Orange Mountain Music, has been releasing previously obscure recordings from early in his career when his music had an exhilaratingly relentless focus on one thing, when it was truly avant-garde, taking classical ideas of counterpoint and voice leading to their ultimate extremes.

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Along with the early music, Orange Mountain has put out an affordable collection of his 10 symphonies. I heard all these works gradually as they were issued, and my attention waned in proportion to the increasing numbers, but having them together brings this body of work into greater prominence. While I still feel his chugging rhythms don’t translate well to an orchestra (they don’t always work with his ensembles), there is a lot of good music here, tightly made despite the seeming sprawl. While I’m still on the fence about the programmatic symphonies, this convinces me that Glass is the natural musical descendent of Bruckner.

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His recordings on Nonesuch are necessary, but the previous 10 disc retrospective Glass Box is currently out of print and at aftermarket markups (and the set of his film scores has disappeared, presumably bought up by Orange Mountain). There’s a new, different box coming out October 28, The Complete Sony Recordings, and while this has some looseness appropriate to his career, it also has some of his most important music: the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten (the finest recording of the first and the sole recordings of the others), Glassworks, and other important theater works, it’s essentially the core of his theatrical work, and recommended if you don’t already have these in your library. (Importcds has the best pre-order price as of this writing.)

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And there’s still more, especially the great early works (which outside the operas are my favorites): a new release with the European ensemble Cluster playing Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Similar Motion, and Music in Changing Parts, and the third version of the Glass Ensemble’s own performances of Music in 12 Parts.

Sorry About Your Budget

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Available November 11; 36 CDs of live recordings from the 1966 tour with The Band. Currently $150 pre-order at Amazon (available nowhere else as of this posting), a bit more than $4/CD, and that comes with pre-order guarantee, so that you are charged lowest price that appears anytime before release date.

Yeah, it’s still a chunk of change, but since the odds that we’re all going to hell after January 21 of 2017 appear to be decent, enjoy what’s left of your life.

via Bob Dylan Set to Release Massive Box Set of 1966 Live Recordings