PICK OF THE MONTH
Franz Joseph Haydn
The Complete String Quartets Played on Period Instruments (19 discs)
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
The words “magisterial” and “monumental” come immediately to mind when you encounter this boxed set. “Magisterial” applies to these performances by the acclaimed Festetics Quartet, a Hungarian ensemble whose feeling for Haydn’s string quartets is, in my opinion, unsurpassed by any other group, whether playing on modern or period instruments. Some might find their style a bit restrained; I find it masterful and a model of clarity. Not only do they play with utterly reliable intonation (always a challenge on gut-strung instruments), but they also exhibit a sensitivity to Haydn’s peerless sense of line and phrasing that makes their performances equally valuable for pedagogical and sheer listening purposes. This set is monumental in that it includes all 58 quartets published under the composer’s supervision (leaving out the quartet arrangement of The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross), in performances recorded and originally released between 1994 and 2009. The sound quality is consistently warm, rich, and present, and the music itself–needless to say–is magnificent. I would go so far as to recommend that if your library is in need of shelf space, withdraw all of your individual recordings of Haydn string quartets and replace them with this beautifully and conveniently packaged (and budget-priced) box.
Toru Takemitsu; Claude Debussy; Sofia Gubaidulina
Marina Piccinini; Kim Kashkashian; Sivan Magen
Flutist Marina Piccinini, violist Kim Kashkashian, and harpist Sivan Magen have created an eerily beautiful program here: Debussy’s ethereal and impressionistic sonata for flute, viola, and harp is bracketed by darker and more harmonically abstract single-movement pieces by Toru Takemitsu (And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind) and Sofia Gubaidulina (Garten von Freuden un Traurigkeiten). The result is a uniquely strange and wonderful listening experience, one that never pushes your ear too hard but never lets you completely relax, either. In other words, it’s an ECM New Series release in the classic style. Recommended to all classical collections.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Trio Sonatas; Flute Concertos (3 discs)
Alexis Kossenko; Les Ambassadeurs; Arte dei Suonatori
Alpha (dist. Naxos)
Let’s close out C.P.E. Bach’s tricentennial year with a bang: this three-disc selection of his chamber and concert music for flute. All feature flutist Alexis Kossenko, who also directs the Arte dei Suonatari ensemble on the concertos (all playing on period instruments). The trios are particularly interesting, because they are early works that have been relatively ignored by scholars; although they are rooted in one of the baroque period’s most popular structural forms, the young Bach’s unique personality and future stylistic directions are evident. The concertos are no less enjoyable, though, and the playing is brilliant throughout.
Flute Concertos Nos. 1-4
Patrick Gallois; Swedish Chamber Orchestra
For flute music from another time (the later classical era) and a very different place (France), we have this lovely recording of four flute concertos by François Devienne. Playing on modern instruments (though his flute appears to be a wooden instrument equipped with a Boehm system), François Gallois and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra do a marvelous job of conveying the lightness and the joyful elegance of Devienne’s very French style. The album is a sheer delight from beginning to end.
Ludwig Van Beethoven; Johannes Brahms; Carl Maria von Weber
Trio, op. 11; Trio, op. 114; Grand Duo, op. 48
Jon Manasse; Jon Nakamatsu; Clive Greensmith
Three chamber works for combinations of clarinet, piano, and cello are presented here by world-class performers, and the program could hardly be more perfectly selected: Beethoven, Weber, and Brahms represent a spectrum of perspectives on the Romantic tradition, from Beethoven’s classically-rooted style to Brahms’ more purely emotive approach. All play brilliantly, but clarinetist Jon Manasse’s sweet and plaintive tone is consistently heart-tugging. I’m always on the lookout for good rainy-afternoon music, and in that regard this disc is close to perfect.
Music & Art in the Time of Rembrandt (2 discs)
Warner Classics (dist. Naxos)
When I visit an art museum, I like to have music with me from the same period and region as the art I’m looking at. Maybe you do something similar. If so, then you’ll get a kick out of this set of instrumental and vocal music from the early- to mid-17th century by such composers as Heinrich Biber, Michael Praetorius, Diedrich Buxtehude, and Heinrich Schütz, which is packaged in a small hardbound book with color plates of paintings by Rembrandt from the same time period. The performers include leading lights of the early music movement from the past three decades, and the musical excerpts include selections from Biber’s “Rosary” sonatas, Buxtehude’s cantatas, and Schütz’s setting of the St. Matthew Passion. This would make an excellent selection for more generalist classical collections.
Acis (dist. Albany)
Drawing on the same time period (and many of the same composers) as the program above, this collection of baroque sonatas and canzonas has a very different focus: outlandish virtuosity. The stilus fantasticus emerged at about the same time that the sonata form was coming into its own, and in these pieces you can hear the beginnings of a sort of musical rhetoric, the instruments trading ideas back and forth in a manner both expressive and logical. The Quicksilver ensemble delivers this music with all the panache and thrilling technical flair we’ve come to expect. Highly recommended to all libraries with a collecting interest in early and baroque music.
Missa de Beata Virgine; Motets
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Just in time for the Christmas season comes this sumptuously beautiful recording of four Advent-themed motets and the Mass of the Blessed Virgin by Antoine Brumel, one of the great (but generally neglected) composers of the Franco-Flemish school. The program is full of meltingly lovely passages as well as the occasional weirdness — notice, for instance, the startlingly complex and protracted dissonance that leads to the final resolution at the end of the motet “Nato canunt omnia.” As always, the Brabant Ensemble’s sound is a model of creamy richness. I own everything they’ve recorded and your library should too.
Johann Sebastian Bach
The Six French Suites (2 discs)
Steinway & Sons
This is a particularly lovely account of Bach’s French Suites on modern piano by Sergey Schepkin, who is in the process of recording all of Bach’s keyboard music. (The program also includes the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, and two performances on two different pianos of the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904.) Schepkin’s approach is informed by historic-practice scholarship, but also takes full advantage of the expressive capabilities of the modern piano, making his interpretations of these works unusually compelling. Recommended to all classical collections.
Miles Davis Quintet Featuring John Coltrane
All of You: The Last Tour, 1960 (4 discs)
Acrobeat (dist. MVD)
Last month I recommended a couple of re-reissued box sets, one each of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, both boxes featuring 1950s-era recordings. This four-disc package finds the two together, touring for the last time in a quintet format. The difference between Coltrane’s playing here and in his 1950s recordings with Davis is instructive: in 1960 you can clearly hear him establishing his mature sound and the mystical, discursive tendencies that would characterize his work over the next seven years until his death. The sound quality ranges from acceptable to excellent, the performances essential. No jazz collection should be without this set.
Eric Johnson & Mike Stern
Heads Up International/Concord Music Group
Guitarists Eric Johnson and Mike Stern are titans in very different contexts: Johnson a rocker, Stern a jazz fusioneer. Together they’ve created an album that is more of an emulsion than a solution: soulful rock and funk tunes rub shoulders with swinging modern jazz and with a few tracks that resist categorization. What unites these two players, besides monstrous chops, is a passion for melody and for tone — the former mattering more than the latter, though I know guitarists who might smack me in the head for saying that. Recommended.
Swing n’ Strings
Singer/trumpeter/cornettist Al Basile has a long history as a blues, R&B, and jazz musician in the always-hopping Providence, RI music scene — perhaps most notably as a member of Roomful of Blues, but also as a prolific solo artist. For his latest album he delivers a gently swinging program of standards accompanied only by guitar and bass (with occasional saxophone and his own cornet). His singing really is wonderful, and the mood here is warm and intimate without being soporific. Most jazz collections would benefit from picking this one up.
The Last Southern Gentleman
Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis is the leader on this date, but the album is really something of a summit meeting between him and his father Ellis, patriarch of the Marsalis jazz dynasty. The two of them function as equals here, modestly but expertly supported by bassist John Clayton and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. The program is mostly standards, weighted towards ballads, and the father-and-son interaction is consistently beautiful and touching. Interestingly, the package also includes an essay, several very brief stories, and a poem by Delfeayo, all dealing in various ways with the “Southern gentleman” concept and with issues of race and culture in the American south. This one is an essential purchase.
Classics (dist. Albany)
Ask anyone to name the architects of bebop, and you’ll generally get a predictable list in response: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk. Too often overlooked is drummer Kenny Clarke, who was a pioneer of a new style of drumming adapted to fit the headlong tempos and complex lines of bop. This collection brings together sides he recorded in New York and Paris as both leader and sideman between 1948 and 1950. Apart from the consistently high musical quality here, there are some anomalies that will be interesting to jazz students and scholars–for example, the track titled “Iambic Pentameter” consists mainly of the B section from “A Night in Tunisia” repeated twice with a long drum solo in between, and the one titled “Be a Good Girl” is actually Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” Weird.
No cat. no.
When planning this album, guitarist and composer Daan Kleijn was “drawn to the openness and freedom indigenous to the guitar trio,” and that sensibility is strongly at play here. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that his music is “free jazz” or anything really like it: half the tunes are standards, and his originals are very straight-ahead, as is his general stylistic approach. But within the constraints of straight-ahead jazz he plays in a wonderfully free and floating style, managing to stay within the lines while creating a beautifully multicolored palette of sounds and very nicely balancing tonal and harmonic sweetness with creative exploration. Highly recommended.
Lac La Belle
A Friend Too Long
Maybe you (like me) don’t think of Detroit as a hotbed of rootsy singer-songwriter folkie Americana music. Maybe we’re both right. Nevertheless, when the Detroit-based Lac La Belle (singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Jennie Knagg and Nick Schillace) got snowed in for two weeks during the polar vortex event of January 2014, they came out the other end of that experience with a particularly attractive album of that general description. The sad, quiet songs are the best ones–both Schillace and Knagg are fine singers, but Knagg’s voice is a pure joy, and it’s set like a jewel here. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Hitchhike to Rhome (deluxe reissue; 2 discs)
Remember the 1990s alt-country scene? Of course you do. Remember how much of it was tiresomely mopey and soporific? Me too. Remember what a relief the Old 97’s were, with their sharp-edged energy and their wonderful blend of reverence and disregard of country-music tradition? If not, then refresh your memory with this deluxe reissue of their 1994 debut, which comes with a disc of bonus tracks consisting of demos and unreleased studio tracks from the original sessions. The album still sounds timeless.
14 Tales of Mystery
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/Sony
When early-music ensembles discover folk music — something that happens fairly regularly — they often make at least one of two mistakes: the vocalists sing as if it were pop music, and the instrumentalists play as if it were chamber music. This collection of British Isles songs and tunes, performed by the Quadriga Consort generally avoids both of those problems because the group has been playing folk music from the very beginning. Purist folkies may find Elisabeth Kaplan’s vocals a bit too smooth and the arrangements a little bit decorous, but for the British Isles the line between early music and folk music has always been blurry anyway, so I’d argue that the harpsichord has just as much right to be there as the recorder does to sound like a pennywhistle. Recommended.
The Voice Squad
Concerning of Three Young Men
After a performing and recording hiatus that lasted far too long, the vocal trio of Phil Callery, Fran McPhail, and Gerry Cullen is back with another hair-raisingly beautiful set of traditional songs sung in a rather untraditional style. Irish folk music has no real tradition of harmony singing, and every Voice Squad album makes you wonder why on earth not. As usual, this program includes a mix of traditional, modern, Irish, and American songs, with one Christmas number (the wonderful “Boar’s Head Carol”) thrown in for good measure. The American number is the Sacred Harp hymn “Wondrous Love,” and if any of the hairs on your body are still lying down by the time you get to that track, they’ll all be standing at that point. Buy this and urge it on your patrons.
The New Line
Can’t Hold the Wheel (download only)
No cat. no.
If you want to make a truly unique-sounding American folk album, there’s any number of strategies you can employ. Playing an mbira (or thumb piano) is guaranteed to set you apart from the pack. That’s what Brendan Taaffe does on this collection of folksongs old and newish (there are songs from Bob Dylan and John Prine on the program), and it’s a great tribute to his taste and skill that his mbira never sounds out of place next to the gourd banjo, guitar, and other more traditional American instruments that accompany his singing throughout the album. Instead, it casts a completely unique tonal shadow over the whole proceedings, making this project sound like folk-not-folk, American-not-American, modern-not-modern music all at the same time. Fascinating and hugely enjoyable.
Jukebox the Ghost
Jukebox the Ghost
Yep Roc (dist. Redeye)
They may look like hipsters, with their beards and their retro-dapper haircuts and their high-water pants, but there’s nothing hipstery about Jukebox the Ghost’s music: these are blissful, smooth, straight-up pop songs, delivered with a minimum of quirk and a maximum of angelic singing and swooning hooks. That’s not say that there’s no irony (cf. “Hollywood”) or that there’s anything dumb about these songs. On the contrary, great pop music takes real smarts, and these guys are sharp as they come. But as I keep saying, ultimately it’s the hooks that count. And there’s a veritable five-mile trotline of them here. (Dear Yep Roc, feel free to use that blurb: “CD HotList says ‘Jukebox the Ghost’s new album offers a veritable five-mile trotline of hooks.'”)
Faith in Strangers
Love (dist. Forced Exposure)
Andy Stott (whose Luxury Problems earned a Rick’s Pick last year) is back with another album of weird, wonderful, semi-abstract and occasionally funky electronic music. Once again it features vocalist Alison Skidmore, though (once again) her vocals are often treated as an abstract element rather than a conveyor of propositional content. The atmospheres are simultaneously dreamy and tense, the beats edgy and off-kilter, the overall mood unsettled and fascinating. If your patrons liked Luxury Problems, then expect demand for this one.
Lift a Sail
Razor & Tie
Rock bands with violins aren’t completely unheard of, but bands that rock like this and also include violins are pretty unusual. Yellowcard has been doing it since 1997, starting out as a hardcore punk band, morphing eventually into pop-punk, and now they sound like something else entirely: heavy but intensely melodic and even anthemic rock, with a certain hint of progginess coming with the violin (though on many of the songs the violin is deeply embedded in their sound and not immediately recognizable). Fans who put a premium on loyalty to “The Scene” probably abandoned Yellowcard long ago; anyone who just wants to rock out and sing along, however, has probably become more and more loyal to Yellowcard as the years have passed.
The Sweet Inspirations
The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus (2 discs)
Rhino/Real Gone Music
Remember the Sweet Inspirations? They’re actually still around, but this soul quartet had its heyday in the 1960s. The group included Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) and Lee Warrick (Dionne Warwick’s mother) and had most of its success (including its one Top 40 hit) with cover versions. This collection includes many of those: “To Love Somebody,” “Sweets for My Sweet,” “Unchained Melody,” etc. Apart from the pure musical quality of these renditions, which is consistently high, this album offers lots of great examples of what was once a very common feature of the pop music marketplace: arrangements of hit songs that import them into completely different musical genres. Recommended to all pop collections.
Blaze of Glory (reissue)
Dead Center (reissue)
Game Theory hit the alt-rock scene before the term “alt-rock” had been coined, in 1982. Their debut album, Blaze of Glory, probably registered with most listeners as punk at the time. From a vantage point 30 years later, it sounds more like a blend of The Apples In Stereo, Scritti Politti, and Mission of Burma. Intrigued? You should be — this is a rather obscure but still essential piece of American pop music history, reissued here with a wealth of bonus material. Dead Center came out in 1984, and brought together tracks from two previously-released EPs along with some new material (including a cover of REM’s “Radio Free Europe”). By this point the group’s sound had become a bit more jangly, a bit more poppy, but still with a salutary edge of scrappy weirdness. It’s all great fun and would make a great addition to any comprehensive pop collection.
Massilia Sound System
Manivette/Le Chant du Monde (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
274 2356 – MR 10
There is no band anywhere like Massilia Sound System. Technically, they’re a reggae group; in reality, they’re a Provençal group with dancehall beats. They sing alternately in French and Occitan (the regional language of France’s southern coast) and they delight in humorous and sometimes angry social commentary, often focusing on the repression of local traditional culture. Their latest album displays all the strengths (relentless earworm hooks, brilliant beats, nimble wordplay) and weaknesses (a few too many regional in-jokes) as all of their previous efforts going back to the early 1990s, and that means that this is yet another fantastic party album of the kind that no one else in the world is capable of making.
No cat. no.
So I’m going to be completely honest here: I didn’t enjoy this album that much. But as I’ve often told people, being a music critic doesn’t mean just recommending the stuff you like; it means trying to tell the difference between what’s good and what isn’t, and recommending what’s good. For the purposes of CD HotList, “good” means more than just “enjoyable” or even “of high quality”; it means “what will be useful to the people served by library collections.” This album of Moravian folk songs, set to experimental and sometimes abrasive arrangements that prominently feature prepared and sometimes heavily distorted guitar, is an excellent example of what can happen when folk traditions meet modern experimentation. Vocalist Julia Ulehla (great-granddaughter of the ethnomusicologist who collected these songs) is a marvelous singer, and guitarist Aram Bajakian provides fascinating and challenging arrangements. This disc would make an excellent addition to any ethnomusicology collection.
Dub Dynasty is the sly name for a sort of ad hoc modern reggae supergroup: Christine Woodbridge and John Sprosen, a siblings-in-law team that has been recording as Alpha and Omega since the 1980s, along with Sprosen’s son Ben, who currently produces reggae/dubstep/UK bass under the name Alpha Steppa. The latter’s name reflects this trio’s predilection for “steppers” beats, which (unlike the dreamier “one drop” patterns of 1970s reggae) communicate a powerful forward motion and often accompany lyrics about leaving Babylon and returning to the African homeland. Here those beats underpin mostly instrumental tracks, though there are a couple of excellent songs on this program as well–particularly the brilliant “Evil Fi Bun,” featuring the sweet-voiced singer Prince David. If you want to know what the best in modern dubwise reggae sounds like, this album is a great place to start.