from other music critics, so my personal taste may be the odd man out here, and you might find this work thoroughly enjoyable too.
The recording lives up to the very high standards that Keith Johnson has set for himself with his many other recordings. Argento's richly varied orchestral colors, especially in the second and third works, come shining through, and are wonderful as test and demonstration material, as well as being musically rewarding.
This is yet another outstanding Reference Recordings release, adventurously bringing you new and unfamiliar music, in a superb recording that is both musically and sonically rewarding, and well worth getting. I suggest that, for your first listen, you start with the third work (track 9), and prepare to be enthralled and powerfully moved. Then you can explore the rest of the album. If you enjoy this album, you should also try Reference Recordings' other album of Argento music, RR-91CD (not yet reviewed by us). And, if there are yet more among Argento's other compositions that have the stature of In Praise of Music, we hope that Reference Recordings can bring them to us in another future album.
DVD: Buddy Rich, The Lost West Side Story Tapes
This is dynamite. It's a must have DVD for all of you who like big band, or jazz drumming - and for all of you who want an audiophile showoff DVD that will have your friends bowled over and raving about your system.
The DVD documents the last set performed by Buddy Rich and His Band, live before a studio audience, just a year before his death in 1986. The sense of live audience ambience is electric, the sound of a big band in full cry is spectacular, and Buddy Rich's performances are riveting.
Most artists who continue to perform in their autumn years can at best evoke nostalgia for their artistry and capabilities in their younger years. Not here. Buddy Rich's dazzling athleticism and nuanced musicianship in this set could put to shame any other living, younger drummer.
When the young Buddy Rich joined Artie Shaw's band in the late 1930s, he immediately infused Shaw's band with a new kind of jumping swing. His propulsive beat urged the band forward, as if he were always urging them toward faster tempos. Rich energized this band's swing, and made it light on its feet (especially in live broadcasts, as shown by the Hindsight releases) - in contrast to studio recordings by most bands which often had a more lazy and/or plodding swing. But Rich's contribution to the Shaw band didn't violate the basic tenet of swing, which was to start a phrase after the beat rather than on the beat. Indeed, precisely because Rich was propulsively urging the music forward, the late entry of the reeds after the beat (for their turns at antiphonal phrases) seemed even later than usual, so they swung even more than usual thanks to Rich.
Ever since those long ago days, Rich for the rest of his career continued to urge the music forward, always finding new ways to innovate. He always had at his command a dazzling technical capability, and could rattle off rapid fire pyrotechnics faster than any other drummer, and with more variety than any other drummer, so that a drum kit in his hands becomes a full symphony orchestra. And he also modulated these pyrotechnics with insightful musicianship, so that each jazz piece becomes an essay, a novel, a symphony in Rich's own sonata form. During some of his extended solos on this DVD, Rich takes us on a rich odyssey, ranging from meditative introspection to richly varied exuberance.
All these talents of Rich are still on display in their full glory on this final recording, as if he had never aged. What a tribute to the man and to his career! What a thrill for us!
The sound on this DVD was recorded on what was state of the art professional equipment in 1985, and it stands up surprisingly well today, much better than most other recordings of that decade. CBS Labs' SQ encoder was used to record the surround sound, including the audience ambience.
The real sonic thrill comes from the sound of a big band in full cry, and of course from the intimately revealed impact and nuance of Rich's full drum kit.
I've attended countless concerts, and there are two sonic thrills I've heard from live music which tower above all others. One was listening up close to Berlioz' Reqiuem, with the orchestra and chorus up front, and trumpets in back, all blazing away at full throttle. The other was listening up close to a big band in full cry, in this case Lionel Hampton's big band. No mikes or amplifiers or speakers were used, nor could they have been relevant. Even PA sound reinforcement speakers could not have matched the incredible impact of multiple trumpets and trombones and reeds en masse gunning me down at two paces. Our parents, who witnessed the big band era live, experienced an unbelievable sonic treat. This DVD captures that same thrill very well, reproducing Buddy Rich's Band with blazing sonic impact.
This DVD was put together by caring people as a heroic labor of love, who restored master tapes that were originally thought to be lost. The original session itself was a major production. All told, a lot of people put a lot of effort into creating this DVD. And their effort will be rewarded, because they have created a document and tribute to the one man who actually put the most work of all into this DVD, Buddy Rich himself.
Buddy Rich's work, his amazingly untiring commitment and effort, his joy, shine throughout his performances on this DVD. The music on this DVD is great, the sound is great, but the greatest thrill of all is watching Rich's utter involvement and unbelievable sustained energy with his music. You can't believe what your eyes are seeing from this man, and you can't believe what your ears are hearing from this man. He's not someone in the autumn of his life. He could still be that young drummer with ceaseless energy who propelled Artie Shaw's band. He is timeless. And, thanks to this DVD, Buddy Rich still lives, so you too can share in all the commitment and energy he devoted to his music throughout his life.
This DVD is distributed by Hudson Music, and is also available from Widescreen Review (whose editor, Gary Reber, produced the original recording sessions back in 1985), for $39.95 plus $6.95 s&h (for USA). On the web, go to www.widescreenreview.com/articles/buddy.htm.
CD: Danielpour, An American Requiem; Reference Recordings RR-97CD
This new composition is a musical masterpiece, a powerful and moving work.
A requiem allows (indeed encourages) a composer to musically express the entire gamut of emotion, from grand power, awe, wrath, and majesty to fear, pity, sorrow, and longing. The greatest requiems have explored the limits of all these emotions, and have simultaneously explored the limits of musical expression for their time. I personally regard Berlioz' requiem as the most advanced piece of music ever written (even more so than Stravinsky's Le Sacre in its time). Beethoven was scarcely in his grave in the early part of the nineteenth century, and here the young Berlioz writes a piece that seems to come from the full blown romanticism of the late nineteenth century.
The great wars of the twentieth century brought a new dimension to requiems. The horrors of war reached a scale where they were a scourge leveling us as surely as the judgment day horrors of earlier requiems. And our horror of war is further magnified when we feel the self revulsion and guilt from realizing that this horror is brought upon us entirely by ourselves, not by the wrath of the heavens above. Thus it is fitting that we have from the twentieth century some great war requiems, such as Britten's and now Danielpour's.
Danielpour's requiem explores the traditional pages of the Catholic requiem mass with its Latin text, which deal with human reactions to the power of the Almighty and death, that great leveler of our petty lives. And then, intermingled with the traditional Latin text, this requiem also explores various human reactions to the power of that further, self inflicted leveler of our lives, war. Thus, Danielpour's requiem takes on an extra dimension beyond the usual requiem. When we humans face death, our own or that of a loved one, the cause might be the power of the Almighty's plan and judgment, or the cause might be our self inflicted scourge of war. Traditional requiems address only the former, while Danielpour's requiem addresses both. For human reactions to the "judgment days" caused by war, Danielpour utilizes English texts, culled from sources as diverse as Walt Whitman and a Negro spiritual.
Danielpour's music for his requiem might be new, but it is not modern, and therefore is easily accessible and enjoyable to most listeners. In fact, its many staccato outbursts are very like Walton's music, and its lyrical passages are similar to those in Walton's and Elgar's oratorios. So the music sits squarely in the familiar Anglo traditions of the early twentieth century.
For the audiophile, Danielpour's music has orchestral and choral tuttis aplenty, with a rich variety of musical colors (e.g. the bells and chimes at the beginning of track 4, Sanctus), which will challenge your audio system and reveal its glories. Keith Johnson has once again done a spectacular job of capturing complex musical forces, so you can enjoy the richness and subtlety of Danielpour's work, from its powerful outcries to its sorrowful lyricism and its final quiet repose.
This is the premiere recording of this work, and for the time being we can accept it as a definitive performance, done by the very same orchestra that commissioned the work. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra and conductor Carl St. Clair certainly do justice to Danielpour's composition, balancing precision with passion. Our only quibble about performance concerns the quality of the mezzo-soprano's voice, which we find a bit astringent for this work and for the text assigned to her, but this is merely a matter of taste.
Danielpour's An American Requiem is such a masterpiece that we will surely hear other interpretations of it in the future. This recording may be joined by others sometime in the future, but it will never be supplanted as the premiere. And the revealing fidelity with which Keith Johnson's recording captures this magnificent and spectacular music will surely not be equaled in the near future. Furthermore, when a recording as sonically spectacular as this combines with music as great as this, you want to get it now, so you can begin enjoying it right away.
If your local record store perchance does not carry this recording (Reference Recordings RR-97CD), you can contact Reference Recordings directly at: referencerecordings.com.
What a surprise - and what a pleasant surprise! Reference Recordings is of course famous for their sonic spectaculars, and their recent series of recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra have been a gold mine of music with superb sonics for testing your system, as well as for musical enjoyment. Now along here comes a surprisingly different kind of album from RR: an orchestral disc with quiet music. Fine for music listening enjoyment, but where are the spectacular sonics for testing and showing off your system? Well, the pleasant surprise is that this album too contains some sonics that will prove and show off the true mettle of your system.
First off, the stereo imaging is superb, with spectacular depth and hall ambience (the two aspects of stereo imaging that are hardest to get right). And you don't even need to wait until a sharp transient comes along to hear the rich depth and ambience. Even on the rounded sounds of woodwind instruments, you can hear their center rear location being way back, and framed by a rich halo of surrounding ambience from the shell and hall walls. In fact, the very quietness of the music on this album actually helps you to better hear and appreciate all these stereo imaging subtleties, which often get lost amidst the constant crash bang sounds of louder music. Also, loud music (even when heard live) naturally tends to push itself forward at you, especially in a lively acoustic hall environment like Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall, so in RR's louder music albums there's often less apparent depth to most of the music most of the time.
Second, on an album like this with quiet music, often only one instrument of the orchestra is playing, or only a few. This helps you to check for colorations in your system on a variety of musical instruments heard one at a time, or a few at a time. If you know what a clarinet or flute should sound like, this album makes it easier for you to check up on how well your system reproduces this sound. When many orchestral instruments are playing simultaneously with louder music, it's harder to single out individual instruments to check for colorations. Likewise, Reveries contains some beautifully recorded instruments with a richness of subtle inner detail (e.g. the silvery breathiness of a flute), and so this album is also a good test of how well your system reveals music's subtler details.
Third, Reveries is beautifully clean and pure in its sonics. On earlier RR recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra, we could occasionally hear some slight juicy overload distortion on the loudest peaks, especially those rich in high frequency spectral content (e.g. cymbal crashes). From the compressive juicy nature of this occasional distortion, we would guess that some of Professor Johnson's analog input electronics were overloading on the loudest peaks. But here on the quiet music of this Reveries album, Johnson's recording chain shines in its full glory, being beautifully clean and pure, as well as outstandingly transparent as usual.
In sum, there are ample sonic reasons to buy this beautifully recorded album (RR-99CD). What about the music itself? It is relaxing and restful, including both Pavanes, by Faure and Ravel, the Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (not about Bambi), two of Satie's Gymnopedies, etc. Eiji Oue's conducting serves this music well, though his reveries don't achieve the magical trancelike suspension of time as Munch could with such music.
Reference Recordings showed courage in departing from their previous formula of showoff albums with the Minnesota Orchestra, and the results can bring you new sonic insights into your system, as well as evenings of relaxing musical enjoyment. As to those previous sonic spectacular RR albums with the Minnesota Orchestra, there are now 14 of them, and frankly we strongly recommend that you get every one. Every one of them has many special spectacular moments of music, captured in sonics that commercial classical labels can't even come close to. You'll discover a trumpet note here, a triangle ting there, etc. that are incredibly revealing, and closer to the experience of hearing an orchestra live than you can find anywhere else outside of a personal visit to a concert hall. Come to think of it, I hear even better orchestral sonics from these RR orchestral recordings than I do from some live orchestras in some halls, e.g. the NY Phil in Avery Fisher hall. You should also visit RR at their website to keep in touch with their latest achievements.
CDs: First Impression Music
FIM, founded and run by dedicated audiophile Winston Ma, specializes in searching out the best recordings from around the world, and then re-cutting and re-pressing them to higher perfectionist standards, thereby producing digital pressings that are superior to the original commercial releases. Elsewhere in this IAR issue we discuss in depth why one CD can sound better than another of the same music, why a copy can sound better than the original, and why cutting and pressing the pits of a CD with higher precision can yield important sonic improvements.
Because Winston's musical knowledge is so sophisticated and so broad, some of the music on FIM albums might not be to everyone's taste. Also, some of the original master recordings are of higher quality than others, which makes some FIM re-cuttings and re-pressings superior to others. For example, some of the FIM CDs, even recent releases, have glary bright trebles that sound artificial and also block or clog music's natural subtle inner detail texture and timbre, and we infer that the master recording contains these flaws (probably due to IC chips in the studio console), since we know independently that Winston's perfectionist CD cutting and pressing techniques cannot be faulted, and indeed fully reveal everything (for better or worse) that the master recording contains.
Here is a brief summary of the FIM albums and tracks that we find most impressive.
Chinese musical instruments have stunning attack transients and incredible inner detail in their after resonances. FIM has two Chinese music albums, and they are available in a variety of digital optical disc formats (Sony SACD, JVC XRCD, and HDCD - the latter two being compatible with ordinary CD players). Our comparative evaluations found the most transparent inner detail and the most natural sound on the XRCD format, and the sonically best tracks on the Favorite Chinese Instrumentals album (better than the other, more recent Chinese music album, entitled River of Sorrow). Curiously, the SACD version was markedly inferior sonically, and in ways we would not have expected: it was less naturally warm, with a midrangy coloration, and there was actually less of the music's inner detail and instrumental texture revealed by the SACD version than by the superior XRCD version. So the FIM album to get here is XRCD 019.
The Three Blind Mice (TBM) label in Japan has made some stunning jazz recordings, with unbelievably transparent and dynamic revelation of music's inner voices. This has been accomplished by using a first class recording chain, and also by placing the mikes very close up (so don't expect much ambience or true stage imaging here). The sonic perspective of these recordings puts the musical instruments and vocalists right in your listening room, and the sonics are so spectacular that they fully support the believability of that intimacy. The FIM album entitled Audiophile Reference III (XRCD 018, another XRCD format winner) contains an assortment of TBM tracks, including an excellent Georgia on my Mind. Speaking of TBM, we must mention another superb TBM track, Midnight Sugar, which contains stunningly recorded double bass, drum set cymbals, and transparently textured piano notes with dynamics like you've never heard elsewhere. This is available on the TBM album entitled Midnight Sugar, but it sounds even better on a gold CD sampler of TBM tracks that is worth hunting down.
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