Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica: Astor Piazzolla, “Oblivion” from “Henry IV”

I think that the assertion that the Nobel Prize in Literature is essentially silly (and therefore, we are fools for taking it seriously) has something to be said for it. (Those happen to be the positions of the British novelist and translator Tim Parks.)

Not one of: James Joyce, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Henry James, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Mark Twain, Nabokov and Chekhov made the cut. But strange omissions compete with strange awardings—John Steinbeck “got the gong” (a slang term for a large medallion), yet James Joyce did not? Furthermore, the requirement that a candidate must be alive to receive the prize meant that late-blooming (or posthumously published) authors such as Kafka, Proust, Calvino, and Mandelstam could not even be considered.

Still and all, there are a few unimpeachable selections (Bob Dylan, in my opinion, is most definitely not among them).

In my opinion, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Solzhenitsyn, Faulkner, and Hermann Hesse all deserved the money and the medal. I even think that Sigrid Undset (who?) was a deserving recipient. Undset’s massive (1400 pages) Medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter should be much better known. I am tempted to say that if you loved The Lord of the Rings, you should try Kristin Lavransdatter. (In the period when she was “working up to” Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset had published a Norwegian translation of the Arthurian legends.)

For what all this has to do with Gidon Kremer and Astor Piazzolla, please click on the jump link. Continue Reading →

In Memory of David A. Wilson II, 1944-2018

David Wilson, assembling a WAMM loudspeaker, 1986. Courtesy of Wilson Audio.

In Chicago in 1972, Peter McGrath was holding down a part-time job in a stereo store, while he pursued his graduate studies in fine art.

For those who were not alive and aware at the time, the early 1970s witnessed the dawning of the second Golden Age of Hi-Fi. The first Golden Age encompassed the late 1940s through early 1960s. Pioneering companies included Fisher, McIntosh Laboratory, and Marantz (electronics); Klipsch (horn loudspeakers); QUAD (electrostatic loudspeakers, and electronics); and Acoustic Research (acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, and turntables). The great hi-fi companies of the 1950s established the component stereo system (consisting of a turntable and sometimes a tuner or reel-to-reel tape deck, vacuum-tube amplification, and loudspeakers) as a vital part of what was understood to be “the good life.”

I think it is tremendously important to point out that although hi-fi started out as a hands-on hobby for technically-inclined males, by the late 1950s, high-quality music playback in the home via stereo components was almost universally regarded as something to aspire to—even if in many cases, people had to settle for suitcase stereos or the massive pieces of furniture called console stereos. Going back and reading general-circulation magazines of the 1950s (as well as male-oriented magazines such as Esquire and Playboy), one is struck by the prevalence of advertisements for hi-fi components and loudspeakers, as well as for “culturally improving” book and record clubs.

More context, backstory, and appreciations of David A. Wilson, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

Bricasti Design M15 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier

 

I just had a rather arresting (in the sense of, one has to stop doing anything else, and just listen) listening experience. I want to share it with you. The music I was listening to is from an underappreciated (really, almost unknown) classic-era jazz recording; but I have heard it many times.

However, I had never heard it like this—it was a real “Holy Poop!” moment. (The truth is, I did exclaim rather loudly, 19 seconds into my favorite track.)

The recording is Guitar Forms, guitarist Kenny Burrell’s 1965 orchestral collaboration with arranger and conductor Gil Evans, the same Gil Evans of Miles Davis Sketches of Spain fame. (Guitar Forms remastering, Verve 314 521 403-2; imported CD from Amazon; also available streaming from Tidal.)

Creed Taylor (later of CTI, the crossover label that so many loved to hate) produced, while Rudy van Gelder was the engineer. Session players included Lee Konitz, Bill Barber (both of whom played on the Birth of the Cool recorded live performances, as well as the recording sessions), Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones. How can you beat that? Guitar Forms is a wonderful recording, so even if you are not in the market for a new power amp, you owe it to yourself to read on. A generous sound sample and more audio commentary are to be found after the jump. Continue Reading →

Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie: “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)

 

The infosphere is fairly crackling with the news that the current incarnation of the musical ensemble Fairport Convention Fleetwood Mac has notified one of its elderly members that his services will not be required for their upcoming world tour. More than 40 years later, Fleetwood Mac Drama still grabs headlines.

My favorite story about Fleetwood Mac is that during the Narcissistically tumultuous (my words, not theirs) recording of their 1977 mega-album Rumours, the two remaining founding members of the band (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) repaired to the recording studio’s parking lot to get a breath of fresh air. One of these two gentlemen, not at all at peace with the way things were then developing (at the time, the tattered remnants of the original band were being either re-energized or supplanted by a pair of newcomers), said (or perhaps it is more accurate to write, “whined”) to the other,

“You know, we used to be a blues band.”

To which the other replied, “Yeah. But now, we’re rich.”

(That riposte refers to the fact that while the group was recording Rumours, their most-recently-released recording Fleetwood Mac, which was the first album with newcomers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was topping the charts and already throwing off so much cash that the previously hardscrabble members of the band were buying houses in Los Angeles. But: A blues record, Fleetwood Mac was not.)

That exchange says a lot about the endgame of British popular music’s fascination with American blues music.

Intriguing history, and sound bytes, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

Stile Antico: De Victoria, Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week

Stile Antico:
Tomás Luis de Victoria, Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week
CD Harmonia Mundi HMM 902272
Downloads (24-bit/88kHz AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV stereo) available from HDTracks.
Streaming available from Tidal and Apple Music.

Recorded at All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak (North London) England, February 13-17, 2017. Robina G. Young, producer; Brad Michel, engineer.

The British early-music group that calls itself “Stile Antico” once again proves that they are, without doubt, one of the most impressive vocal ensembles before the public today. I Imagine that their group name just might be a bit of an insider’s joke—stile antico is a musical term used (from the early 1600s on) to characterize the continued creation of new but historically-conscious “old style” music.

The composers of stile antico music declined to embrace the emerging Baroque stylistic trends of increasingly elaborate ornamentation and more complex (and freer) counterpoint. Stile antico composers regarded the works of older composers (especially Palestrina) as ideals that could not be surpassed—a position that was still being put forward (believe it or not) even as late as the 1870s (at least in the realm of sacred music)… .

The group Stile Antico’s “Unique Selling Proposition” is that they work without a conductor or music director, in this regard being more like a chamber-music instrumental ensemble than an orchestra. While this might seem a very daunting prospect, I think that with so much of the repertory being four-part scores (two high voices and two low voices), hashing things out should be no more difficult than, say, when a string quartet’s members decide among themselves how a movement (such as the slow movement of Beethoven’s op. 127) should be played. (Irony alert.)

I was rather agog at Stile Antico’s 2006 début SACD Music for Compline when I wrote about it for Stereophile magazine, and they have continued at that high level for more than 10 years. Their articulation, phrasing, and ensemble work are among the best; but what really sets them apart is the lush richness of their vocal sound. Arkivmusic.com has Stile Antico’s Music for Compline on offer at $9.99, which I gather is a 10th-anniversary non-SACD CD reissue. That one’s a no-brainer. Just buy it. The o.o.p. SACD version is available from third-party sellers on Amazon, at prices ranging from market-correct to delusional. (But I did tell Stereophile‘s readers to just buy that, more than 10 years ago.)

After the jump: a making-of video of Stile Antico’s Tenebrae Responsories, some background and commentary, and a few sound bytes. Continue Reading →

A Classical-Music Record Producer Remembers…

(The copyright date is 1995, despite the release date having been late 1994.)

Last week marked Arturo Delmoni’s 70th birthday. We met in 1980 through mutual friends, during the summer music festival at Rhode Island College. At the time, I was both a budding audiophile (the term was not much in use back then) and also, since my junior-high-school days, an audio-video nerd. Years before, an uncle had given me an open-reel tape recorder he was no longer using. I recorded my junior-high-school chorus in lamentable stuff such as, “If We Could Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Doolittle. (That was a 1967 film that Rex Harrison most likely did not have to live very long after, in order to regret muchly. Sigh.)

Customers of my parents’ delicatessen-café included the couple who ran the independent record label SQN (or Sine Qua Non). I chatted them up about their possibly releasing a recording to be funded and owned by Arturo Delmoni and licensed to them. The one good thing that SQN did for me (well, over and above giving me an “education” in how the music business really works) was to introduce me to engineer David Hancock.

The SQN folks recommended David Hancock because he had not yet invested in the latest digital-recording technology, and therefore his rates were lower than those of the top guys. David had invested, however, in a spanking-new Studer A80 analog tape machine, set up to use half-inch two-track analog tape running at 30 inches per second. Whew.

Now, class, a “thought experiment.”

How many people today would pay over $300 for a sealed-copy LP of Songs My Mother Taught Me, if it had been recorded using early-generation digital technology??? (It is said, that to state some propositions is to refute them.) David Hancock was also a fan of Charles Fisher’s C35 Cambridge microphones, which were, in essence, improved RCA model 44 ribbon microphones with an active proximity-effect-compensation circuit. Those were the microphones David had used on his legendary 1967 recording of Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

Continue Reading →

Dawn on the Mississippi River (New Orleans, March 5, 2018)

Photograph © 2018 John Marks

I don’t have a “Bucket List.”

That said, if I did, watching the sun rise over the Mississippi River in New Orleans would be a good thing to add to such a list. For some reason, the view made me think of Mussorgsky’s “Dawn on the Moskva River,” from his rarely-performed opera Khovanshchina.

(The link is to a very evocative YouTube slideshow over a USSR Symphony Orchestra performance with Evgeny Svetlanov, conductor.)

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Vox Luminis: “Mille regretz” (attr. Josquin des Prez, c. 1450/1455 – 1521)

If humans were like amoebas—and multiplied by dividing—nobody (with the potential exception of Sarah McLachlan) would write songs about lost love. The song sub-genre “Baby, This Makes Me So Blue” predates the 1950s… by about 500 years. The chanson “Mille regretz” (“A Thousand Regrets”) is usually attributed to Josquin des Prez, who flourished in the late 1400s and early 1500s–the High Renaissance. Josquin was his name, and polyphony was his game.

“Mille regretz” was reputedly the favorite song of King Charles I of Spain, who in due course became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles’ consolidated holdings stretched from Peru to Bohemia, totaling about 1.5 million square miles. His was the first empire about which it was said, the sun never set upon it. But even he got the blues; and when he did, he turned to music. Continue Reading →

Hyperion Knight at the Alexander Piano

What is it about Australians, New Zealanders and Tasmanians and grand pianos??? At the ripe age of 15 years, Adrian Mann asked his piano teacher how long a piano bass string would have to be, not to require a copper wire over-wrap (to add mass, and thereby lower the resonant frequency). Her answer was, “Very long.” Over the next several years, young Adrian taught himself to build a piano almost entirely from scratch; the result is nearly 19 feet long. He is now doing business under the name Alexander Piano. Hyperion Knight was on tour in that part of the world, and so he stopped in, with the above result. There are two other Hyperion K. videos on Alexander Piano’s YouTube page.

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Glenn Gould: Richard Strauss, “Morgen” op. 27, no. 4 (solo-piano excerpt)

In terms of cultural impact in the broadest sense, Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.

Susan Sontag once quipped that every analogy is a lie, so: you have been warned. I think that Glenn Gould’s place in classical music in the mid-twentieth century is analogous to Miles Davis’ place in jazz during that same era. If people owned only one real jazz LP, it likely was Kind of Blue; and if people owned only one real classical LP, it likely was Gould’s J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations. Gould, more than any other pianist, is associated with the Goldberg Variations, to the extent that the opening measures of the “Aria” are carved on his gravestone.

Unlike most classical pianists of the time, Gould largely ignored the 19th-c. Romantic piano repertory exemplified by Chopin and Liszt, concentrating instead on Renaissance and Baroque music. Gould brought early music before the general public at a time when it was almost exclusively the province of academic specialists, or performers on period-correct instruments. In 1956, Gould’s intuitive understanding of Bach’s style of counterpoint, and his unprecedented clarity of articulation on the grand piano fell like a thunderclap, upon critics and the listening public alike. (Gould’s first Goldbergs album was recorded in 1955, but released in 1956.) Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs remain one of the best-selling non-crossover classical recordings of all time.

What Gould revered in Bach was his sense of sonic architecture. I think that the heart of Bach’s art was that Bach created ordered musical structures to reflect the nature of a God who had created an ordered cosmos that was (largely) comprehensible by the use of reason. (Yes; I know. I am painting with a brush so broad that it can’t fit into a one-gallon paint can.) Therefore, it might not come as a total surprise that in this video clip from a television interview, Gould takes Richard Strauss to task for his Romantic self-indulgence. Or, does he really?

More wild guessing from John, and sound bytes from different performances of Richard Strauss’ early song “Morgen,” after the jump. Continue Reading →