Johannes Brahms; Arnold Schoenberg
String Quartet no. 3, op. 67; Verklärte Nacht, op. 4
Ysaÿe Records (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Most of us would probably not automatically think of pairing a work by Brahms (the avatar of late Romanticism) with one by Schoenberg (the dominant figure of twelve-tone serialism). But what connects these two works is both conceptual and aural: each looks back to the period immediately preceding its composer’s efflorescence (the classical period for Brahms; the Romantic for Schoenberg), and each communicates an intensity of emotion that at times borders on the excruciating. The Ysaÿes (augmented on the Schoenberg by violist Isabel Charisius and cellist Valentin Erben) give these works all the heat and intensity they require, while the rather dry sonorities of the recording space keep things from getting out of hand.
Sonata in B-flat Major, D960; Drei Klavierstücke, D 946 (2 discs)
Genuin Select (dist. Naxos)
First of all, come on: Badura-Skoda playing Schubert? That is all ye know and all ye need to know. But actually, there’s more: on this very unusual 2-disc set, he plays two keyboard works on three very different instruments: a Conrad Graf fortepiano built shortly before the composer’s death, a modern Steinway grand piano, and a Bösendorfer grand piano from 1923. On the first disc, he plays both pieces on the fortepiano; on the second, he plays the B-flat sonata twice more, on each of the two modern pianos. He believes that each of the three instruments reveals a different set of musical facets in the piece–and he’s right. This is an essential purchase for any library supporting keyboard pedagogy.
The Queenes Good Night: English Renaissance Music for Harp & Lute (reissue)
Marie Nishiyama; Rafael Bonavita
Christophorus (dist. Qualiton)
You wouldn’t think that lute and harp would make for a wonderful duo: their timbres are too similar to provide interesting contrasts, but not alike enough to blend seamlessly. Nevertheless, judging both from artwork of the period and by the range of composers both famous (Dowland) and less so (Allison, Robinson) represented on this program, this instrumentation was well-loved in the Tudor court. And this album makes a powerful argument for it: the pieces are delicately beautiful and actually sound quite wonderful played on harp and lute. Who knew?
Solosonaten und Trios von Leopold Mozart (2 discs)
Christine Schornsheim; Sebastian Hess; Rüdiger Lotter
Oehms Classics (dist. Naxos)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father was a composer as well as a violinist and pedagogue. And like so many composers of the classical period (only more so), he is doomed forever to be compared to his son, and inevitably, found wanting. Crueler still, it must be said that his work stands up far less sturdily to that comparison than does that of many others: Leopold’s pieces have plenty of charm and are easy on the ear, but at times they sound close to juvenile. This two-disc set brings together the only three piano sonatas he ever published, along with three trios for piano, violin, and viola. All are charmingly played and well recorded on period instruments, and can be recommended to comprehensive classical collections.
Johann Philipp Krieger; Johann Christian Schieferdecker
Music for Hautbois Band
Toutes Suites / Marianne Richert Pfau
Genuin (dist. Naxos)
In early 18th-century Germany, wind bands featuring the newfangled French instrument known as an hautbois (which migrated into English as “oboe”) were all the rage. Oboes were even popular on the battlefield as military instruments. The program on this disc is split between “field music” composed by J. Ph. Krieger and concert music for hautbois band by J. Ph. Schieferdecker, and is both lovely and fascinating to listen to. The playing (on period instruments) is superb.
Easter Chants from the Russian Orthodox Church (reissue)
Benedictine Monks from the Union / Dom Frank Zanitti
Newton Classics (dist. Naxos)
Recorded and originally issued in 1970, this deeply moving album consists of hymns and chants sung during Russian Orthodox church services leading up to Easter, the high point of the liturgical year. The monks who were recorded for this release are clearly not professionals–their blend is rough, their phrasing a bit ragged. The recording itself also leaves something to be desired, as it has a tendency to saturate a bit during the louder moments. But the music is gorgeous and the performances suffused with devotional power. This would make a fine addition to any collection with a hole where Orthodox liturgical music ought to be.
Symphony; Clarinet Concerto; Double Concerto
Sebastian Manz; Albrecht Holder; Symphonieorchester Osnabrück / Hermann Bäumer
CPO (dist. Naxos)
As best I can determine, these are world-premiere recordings of three major works by the little-known German composer Christian Westerhoff: a symphony, a clarinet concerto, and a double concerto for clarinet and bassoon. Although not a clarinetist himself, Westerhoff wrote beautifully for the instrument, and the young soloist Sebastian Manz is wonderful throughout the program, as is the orchestra (all of whom play on modern instruments). This disc is an endlessly enjoyable example of high-classical musical art at its best. Here’s hoping for more recordings of music by this composer.
Ensemble Musica Nova / Lucien Kandel
Agogique (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Of all the great composers of the Franco-Flemish school, none (except perhaps Guillaume Dufay and his student Josquin des Prez) surpassed Johannes Ockeghem in skill and influence. Unlike most of his Masses, the Missa Prolationum is based not on a Gregorian chant or a motet, but rather on a rhythmic principle (hence its title) and fits into the genre of “speculative music.” The notes include technical analysis of this unusual piece, but for most listeners its appeal will be based purely on the liquid beauty of the part writing and the simple clarity of its vocal textures. The mixed-voice Ensemble Musica Nova sounds spectacular here, and the recording is a joy in every way. Highly recommended to all early music collections.
Bassist and composer Eberhard Weber has been making solo albums for 40 years now, though his output slowed significantly following the brilliant 1993 album Pendulum. Résumé comes five years after his last outing, and consists of live recordings of his solo bass performances while touring as a member of the Jan Garbarek Group between 1990 and 2007 (when he suffered a stroke and was left unable to play). As always, Weber’s music is both deeply personal and completely accessible, filled with delightful melodic surprises and textural innovations: he makes extensive use of delays and loops, and is sometimes joined by Garbarek’s saxophone and by percussionist Michael DiPasqua.
Rava on the Dance Floor
Working with the Parco della Musica Jazz Lab orchestra, trumpeter Enrico Rava has created a strange and fascinating record here. It consists entirely of arrangements (written by the brilliant Mauro Ottolini) of songs by Michael Jackson: “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” etc. Some of them swing, some are blisteringly funky, others turn the music almost inside-out–and the live setting gives everything a little bit of extra oomph. Very nice.
Benny Goodman Orchestra
Benny Goodman in Moscow
Vocalion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Because I’m not generally interested in historical recordings, the Vocalion label has never been prominent on my musical radar. But when I learned that it had released a 2-disc package documenting the first-ever concert by an American jazz ensemble in the Soviet Union, and that the sound quality was supposed to be good, I sat right up–and when I actually heard it, I was delighted. The sound is indeed excellent, and Goodman’s orchestra is in rare form, swinging powerfully and joyfully through favorite tunes like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let’s Dance,” occasionally shrinking down to octet and quintet configurations for more intimate numbers. No jazz collection can afford to pass this one up.
Heather Masse and Dick Hyman
Lock My Heart
RHR CD 258
It’s hard to express how wonderful this album is. It brings together legendary swing pianist Dick Hyman and young vocalist Heather Masse on a program of standards, most of them either ballads or performed that way: lush romantic numbers like “Lost in the Stars” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” alongside a lovely Masse original entitled “If I Called You.” The bop classic “Lullaby of Birdland” swings firmly but gently, and only their take on “Love for Sale” truly builds a powerful groove. For the most part this is candlelight-dinner music, except that these two masterful musicians’ choices, gestures, and subtle inventions are so quietly perfect that you find yourself wanting to pay close attention to every note they perform. Utterly, utterly beautiful.
Robert Musso is something of a legend on the downtown New York jazz scene, a guitarist and producer who has worked with some of the biggest names in avant-jazz, skronk, and free improv since the 1980s (most notably bassist Bill Laswell, who appears on one track of this album). On Axiomatic he leads a trio that also includes bassist Dave Dreiwitz and drummer Claude Coleman; the tunes are based on predetermined themes that were then freely reworked in the studio and vary in sound from atmospheric (“For the Sky to Clear”) to rockish (“Nightside”). All of it is quite good, and the album will be of particular interest to guitarists.
New Zion Trio
Fight Against Babylon
And now for something completely different. With an album title like Fight Against Babylon and tunes called “Hear I Jah” and “Ishense,” what you naturally expect from this album is reggae, or something very much like reggae. What you get instead is quiet piano-trio jazz that draws only very subtly on reggae influences: a one-drop beat from the drummer here, a loping and melodic bass ostinato there. Jamie Saft’s piano playing is more Bill Evans than Jackie Mittoo, employing lots of lush chord voicings and octave runs, and the whole thing is quite wonderful and more than a little weird. Recommended.
Michael Gallant Trio
If you like jazz-rock fusion but prefer it to be tighter and crunchier rather than wankier and more discursive, then consider this new album from pianist/composer Michael Gallant, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Chris Infusino. Most of the tunes are originals, and they run the gamut from funky soul-jazz to strutting tango, but there’s also an interesting cover version of Pearl Jam’s “Go.” Gallant’s piano style is adventurous but steeped in the verities, and he has a sharp compositional ear.
Steafán Hanvey is one of those singer-songwriters who will probably continue being classified as a “folk rock” artist long after he’s left any significant element of traditional music behind. (This is the price you pay for playing an acoustic guitar.) On Nuclear Family, he rocks out in a variety of styles, from the crunchy and compressed bombast of “Darling Please” and “Show Me the Woman” to the more Beatlesque “Back to You,” but there’s also plenty of what can reasonably be called folk rock. Hanvey has a nice, subtle way with a hook and a pleasantly plainspoken singing style. (No official artwork yet; the album drops on February 23 but can be preordered from the link above.)
Up Like the Clouds
[no cat. no.]
It’s always easy to roll your eyes when a fresh batch of young urban hipsters rediscovers American folk music — it’s been happening like clockwork since the 1950s. But it would be a mistake to let eye-rolling get in the way of enjoyment when those young hipsters hit genuine artistic paydirt, and Brooklyn folkies Dubl Handi have done just that. On their debut album, banjoist/singer Hilary Hawke and her percussionist husband Brian Geltner perform a set of standard trad songs and tunes (“chestnuts” might be a better term than “standards”: selections include “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Little Birdie”), and they do so in a consistently winning way. Neither slavishly authentic nor self-consciously newfangled, the arrangements are tremendously enjoyable and Hawke’s voice is a delight. Recommended.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Ar Uair Bhig an Lae (The Small Hours)
[no cat. no.]
There are some Irish folksingers whom you listen to for the pure pleasure of hearing their voices, and others you seek out for their skill and finding and arranging songs you would otherwise have never encountered. Some singers offer the whole package, and Muireann Nic Amhloaibh is one of them. This album of Irish folksongs both new and old, sung mostly in Irish but occasionally in English, is perhaps the best thing I’ve heard so far this year in any genre. Her voice is lovely and her singing style is clean and straightforward; the arrangements are elegant but unfussy. A must for any folk collection.
Iarla Ó Lionáird
Pans of pan-ethnic fusion music may recognize Iarla Ó Lionáird as the lead singer for Afro Celt Sound System. But his solo albums have been, frankly, better than those of the Afro Celts. He comes from the unaccompanied sean nos singing tradition, one into which he was born and in which he was nurtured throughout his childhood. To say that he has updated that style would be inaccurate; instead, I’d say that he has extended it into the present and created a sketch of its future possibilities. On Foxlight, he is accompanied by artists from a variety of traditions on songs both traditional and original, all of them delivered in a hushed and contemplative style. His voice remains a thing of wonder.
Folk-pop simply doesn’t get any better than that made by Kelley Ryan, whose gently hooky songs and crystal-clear voice are a marriage made in heaven. Her latest album finds her teamed up again with Don Dixon and Marti Jones (another heavenly combination) along with several other collaborators; every song is a small gem of musical craftsmanship, precisely-rendered observation, and pitch-perfect emotional expression. Start with this album and then start working your way back through her catalog.
I don’t bedgrudge him a single one of his recent experiments–the millenial pop-song retrospective, the twinned electric/acoustic album, multimedia projects, etc., all of which have been wonderful–but holy cow, it’s great to hear Richard Thompson, OBE, settling back into the stripped-down and powerful rock-folk for which he’s world-famous. His voice is still a no-frills instrument but he wields it more effectively than ever, and his guitar solos get deeper and weirder every year. And his songs continue, of course, to be world-class ballads of wry amusement and bitter regret. Essential.
Luxury Liners is the name Carter Tanton (The War on Drugs, Lower Dens) has given his new solo project, and They’re Flowers is its debut album. It’s a strange and rather wonderful recording: at first it sounds like standard-issue synth-pop, but then the structural irregularities take you by surprise and you start wondering if there will be any hooks. There will be, and they’ll creep up on you from behind. Hand-sell this one to your hipper undergrads–they’ll thank you for it. (I just learned that this one doesn’t come out in physical format until April, but you can preorder at the link above.)
My True Story
It’s no secret that the great New Orleans soul singer Aaron Neville was deeply influenced by 1950s doo-wop. But on this album he acknowledges the debt explicitly, delivering a twelve-song set of doo-wop classics, accompanied by such luminaries as keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Tony Scherr, and guitarist Greg Leisz–all of whom wisely stand back and keep the focus on Neville’s miraculous falsetto. Every one of these songs is a certified potboiler: “Money Honey,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “This Magic Moment,” etc. But every one is given new life by one of the century’s finest singers.
!K7 (dist. Redeye)
The cassette tape may be a thing of the past, but the mixtape concept continues to enjoy rude good health. Those of us of a certain age will remember how the mixtape worked: you found a bunch of songs in your record collection that said things you were unable or afraid to say to someone you liked; you put those songs onto a cassette tape, and gave it to the object of your affections. These days, the mixtape concept is more often used to give artists a chance to outline their tastes and influences; hence the Tapes series on the !K7 label. This installment features selection by the English band Foals, and includes tracks by everyone from Blood Orange and Jr Seaton to Sepalcure and the Congolese KoNoNo ensemble. Uneven? You bet; that’s kind of the point. It’s an interesting document in terms of both form and content.
Lady from Shanghai
Fire (dist. Redeye)
Here’s what Pere Ubu headmaster David Thomas (may he never die) has to say: “Smash the hegemony of dance. Stand still. The dancer is puppet to the dance. It’s past time somebody puts an end to this abomination. Lady from Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed.” And so it is: though it is, in parts, arguably somewhat funky, and though it is inarguably electro-influenced, it is funky and electro in ways that defy you rather than invite you to dance. And Thomas (bless him) still sings like a throttled penguin. It’s a Rick’s Pick because no matter what they do, Pere Ubu will never stop being my favorite band. (My HotList, my rules.)
The Blue Nile
Hats (reissue, 2 discs))
Say what you like about Paul Buchanan’s singing voice (and he did have an annoying tendency to make approximate swipes at the high notes rather than actually hitting them), the Blue Nile had a completely unique and really very attractive sound, and their first two albums changed the face of British post-new wave pop music. Those albums have now been remastered and reissued in deluxe two-disc packages with bonus material, and while both are very good, Hats gets the nod as the richer and more fully-realized of the two. Subdued but complex, sometimes downcast but never morose, the Blue Nile’s music has dated surprisingly well. One quibble: in both cases, all of the music would have fit easily on a single disc.
The Day After
Psychonavigation (dist. Darla)
Patrick Bossink (aka Arpatle) is a musician based in the Dutch city of Utrecht. He has mastered the dicey art of making electronic music that sounds pleasant and mostly functions well for ambient relaxation, but is also interesting enough to pay attention to. On this, his second album, you’ll hear Eno-esque invocations of deep space, dubwise echoes and dropouts, and even the occasional jaunty, swinging beat. Very cool, and sure to be a hit with the bedroom-and-laptop composers amongst your library’s constituency.
Monologues: A Bouquet of Indian Melodies
Vandana Vishwas’s debut album (Meera–The Lover) consisted of musical interpretations of poems by 16th-century mystic Meera Bai. For her sophomore effort, the singer has expanded her range both musically and lyrically to include works by Mirza Ghalib and Jigar Muradabadi, as well as specially-commissioned lyrics by her husband, Vishwas Thoke. Her musical palette now includes elements of jazz and pop music as well, though her singing style remains deeply rooted in Indian tradition. The result is less tightly focused than her debut, but also more colorful and at times surprising. And her voice is a joy to hear on every track.
At Peace is the perfect title for the latest album from Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko, whose previous release (a collaboration with French cellist Vincent Segal) was an award-winning hit in Europe. Segal is back as producer and occasional accompanist on this album, which also features guitarists Aboubacar and Moussa Diabaté, and balafon player Fassery Diabaté. The title is so apt because the music is so peaceful–often quite harmonically static, with cascading melodies from the kora and gentle interlocking parts in the acoustic guitars. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a book on a rainy afternoon.
I Grade Records is a label dedicated to documenting the thriving reggae scene of the Virgin Islands. But this album marks a departure for I Grade: a release by an African group. The Nazarenes are led by brothers Noah and Medhana Tewolde of Ethiopia (the spiritual homeland of Rastafarians everywhere), but their brand of conscious roots reggae sounds like it came straight out of Kingston circa 1984 or so. A beautiful vocal blend, rock-solid rhythms and gently hooky tunes make this one of the best reggae releases of 2012.
Network (dist. Naxos)
You don’t have to know about Urna’s amazing personal story to enjoy her music, but it doesn’t hurt: the biographical essay included in the CD booklet is long but worth it. While you’re reading, listen to her graceful and nimble voice and notice how seamlessly the acoustic (and unobtrusively pancultural) accompaniments complement it. Most of the material on this disc has been previously released, so it’s useful primarily as an introductory overview.
Oulainen Youth Choir / Tapani Tirilä
Virsïa: Finnish Lutheran Hymns
Alba (dist. Albany)
I’ve always been a sucker for hymn tunes, and this album is unusually attractive. It consists of selections from the Finnish Lutheran Hymnbook sung by the female Oulainen Youth Choir–sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, sometimes with arrestingly elegant accompaniment by a small string or recorder ensemble. At times the harmonies are slightly astringent, with an almost Balkan flavor; at others, the sound is simple and pure. The album as a whole is both musically interesting and deeply uplifting.
Reggae Anthology: Sweet Reggae Music, 1979-84 (2 discs)
17 North Parade
Of all the reggae singers who were popular during the music’s transition from a roots-and-culture focus to the harder (and more secular) dancehall style, the one who can most strongly claim to have been that period’s voice is probably Barrington Levy, the teenage singer behind massive hits like “Prison Oval Rock,” “Money Move,” and “Ah Yah We Deh.” Having hooked up with producer Junjo Lawes and the mighty Roots Radics studio band, Levy churned out track after track during the five years documented on this collection, and their consistently high quality is stunning. This release should be considered essential to any reggae collection.