PICK OF THE MONTH
Georg Philipp Telemann
Telemann Edition (50 discs)
Brilliant Classics (dist. Naxos)
Here’s another wonderful super-budget box set from the Brilliant Classics label. This time it’s not a complete-works edition (like the Mozart and Bach boxes that came before it) but it’s still a heavyweight champ of a collection that includes the complete Tafelmusik, the Paris quartets, tons of concertos, overtures, and keyboard works, and also a very healthy collection of cantatats and oratorios–a very important inclusion, given the degree to which Telemann’s vocal music has been historically overlooked. One of the things that will make this set especially interesting to collections supporting music curricula is the fact that there is a nice mix of modern- and period-instrument ensembles represented here: the Tafelmusik pieces are played on period instruments by Musica Amphion, but many of the concertos are by the modern-instrument ensemble Collegium Instrumentale Brugense. Downsides? Maybe a few: some of the vocal recordings are almost 50 years old, and the liner notes and sung texts are provided online rather than in the box, which is always something of an annoyance, but the combination of generally excellent performances and a list price of under $100 makes it an exceptionally attractive purchase anyway. (N.B. — This set should not be confused with the 29-disc version that was released under the same title by the same label in 2011.)
Music for 18 Musicians
Ensemble Signal / Brad Lubman
I fell in love with the music of Steve Reich when I first encountered this seminal piece of second-wave minimalism around 1980. The version I heard was by Reich and his ensemble and was recorded in 1978 for the ECM label, and it’s still in print and still wonderful to hear. This new version by Ensemble Signal is, if anything, even better: the tempos a bit brisker, the recorded sound maybe a bit more high-resolution, and the sense of joy thrillingly palpable. If you’ve ever let yourself believe that “minimal” means “simple,” disabuse yourself of that notion immediately with this fantastic album.
Jacquet of Mantua
Missa Surge Petre & Motets
Brabant Ensemble / Stephen Rice
Hyperion (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
Here again, like clockwork, is another world-class release by the Brabant Ensemble, currently running neck-and-neck (alongside Stile Antico) for the title of My Favorite Oxbridge Choral Ensemble. And this time, we get not only the warm and luxurious vocal sound we’ve come to expect from this group, but also the excitement of newly-available music from a criminally unknown composer. Jacquet was born in Brittany but spent most of his career in Italy, where he benefited from the patronage of the Gonzaga court and wrote sumptuous choral music for performance in the cathedral at Mantua. Some of it is performed here, and the central work on this program — the “Arise, Peter” Mass — appears to be a world-première recording. Everything about this album is spectacular.
String Quintet D. 956
Kuijken Quartet; Michel Boulanger
Challenge Classics (dist. Allegro)
What makes this recording particularly interesting for library purposes is less the music itself–Schubert’s posthumous string quintet has been recorded multiple times–than the fact that it was recorded by a family group consisting of two generations of Kuijkens, and the fact that this family is recording here on modern instruments rather than period ones, despite the fact that their name is practically synonymous with period-instrument performance. (The second cello is played by Michel Boulanger; I’d hoped to be able to report that he’s a grandson of Nadia Boulanger, but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.) Of course, while this curious twist makes the disc particularly interesting to library collections, it’s irrelevant to the question of what makes the album a delight to listen to, and that’s the quality of the playing, which is top-shelf. Recommended to all library collections.
New Music for Old Instruments
No cat. no.
From an album of early-19th-century music played on modern instruments we move to one of 21st-century music performed on 18th-century instruments. Composer Nissim Schaul has had a decade-long working relationship with the baroque ensemble Flying Forms, and on the straightforwardly-titled New Music for Old Instruments the ensemble presents music that Schaul has written for them and that is designed to “(radiate) newness while respecting, in unconventional but deep ways, tradition.” The result is strange and genuinely engaging and sure to be of interest to library collections supporting the study of music both new and old. I promise you’ve never heard a baroque violin and harpsichord sound quite like this.
Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki
Conductus funebris; Litaniae de Providentia Divina; etc.
The Sixteen / Eamonn Dougan
Coro (dist. Allegro)
This is the third release in an ongoing series by the great English choir The Sixteen, examining music of the baroque period in Poland. Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki has been called “the last great talent of the Polish baroque era,” and certainly the quality of his vocal music seems to justify that characterization; usefully, you will hear on this disc examples of his work both in the stile antico and the stile moderno. Chances are very good that your library collection currently holds nothing from this very fine composer, and the performances by The Sixteen are well up to the group’s usual high standard, so all collections should consider acquiring this release.
Dreams & Prayers
A Far Cry; David Krakauer
A Far Cry is a Boston-based contemporary music ensemble that, for this recording, has gathered together four pieces that together “(explore) music as a passageway between Heaven and Earth as expressed through the mystical branches of three faith traditions and 1,000 years of history.” Thus, an arrangement for strings of a sequence by Hildegard von Bingen; a klezmer-inflected suite (featuring clarinetist David Krakauer) based on mystical Jewish themes by Osvaldo Golijov; a piece written for A Far Cry by Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, based on Turkish Sufi themes; and the group’s own arrangement of the Heiliger Dankgesang movement of Beethoven’s string quartet op. 132. This is exceptionally moving music, gorgeously played.
Jean-Baptiste Lully; Jean-Féry Rebel; Marin Marais
Comédie et tragédie, Vol. 1: Orchestral Music for the Theatre
Tempesta di Mare / Gwyn Roberts, Richard Stone
Chaconne (dist. Naxos)
Why, you might well ask, do we need another collection of orchestral works for the stage by these three familiar French baroque composers? Especially when the three pieces in question (suites from Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Rebel’s Les Eléments, and Marais’ Alcyone) are pretty familiar fare in and of themselves? The answer, in this case, is gusto. The Philadelphia-based Tempesta di Mare ensemble plays these pieces with such infectious glee that even the most jaded hardcore baroquephile will feel as if he or she is hearing them for the first time. And this disc is billed as the first volume in a series, which promises more of the same later on. Goody.
Guitarist David Torn approaches solo improvisation as (in his words) “a kind of self-hypnosis or, to put it another way, a sort of sonic, secular meditation.” With that in mind, you might expect this solo album to be highly personal in tone and fairly abstract in execution, and you’d be pretty much right. The program opens with a multilayered ambient wash of loops, then suddenly veers into Bill Frisell territory with the pastoral-then-noisy “Spoke with Folks.” Elsewhere Torn gets bluesy, skronky, and sometimes kind of weird, but never boring. Recommended.
Sigurdur Flosason; Kjeld Lauritsen
Storyville (dist. Allegro)
Lately I’ve found myself tending to pass over organ-combo recordings–not because I don’t love the sound of the Hammond B3 (I do), but because as I get older I get more and more tired of the jazzman’s idea of “funkiness,” and organ combos seem constitutionally drawn to the funk, or at least to the jazzman’s understanding of it. But the quartet led by organist Kjeld Lauritsen and saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason is not funky; it’s swinging, and not only that, but it has a marked preference for ballads over bop. The result: an album of beautiful, beautiful ballads and liltingly, trippingly lovely mid-tempo numbers that will make you feel warm and happy inside every time you hear it. As an introverted Scandinavian descended from a long line of introverted Scandinavians, I confess that this bouncing friendliness took me by surprise. This is the best jazz album I’ve heard so far this year.
Storyville (dist. Allegro)
Speaking of Scandinavians who swing, here is a marvelous discovery: a long-lost live recording from 1985 by Sven Asmussen, then 70 years old and arguably the greatest living exponent of traditional jazz violin. What’s astonishing about this album is that Asmussen recorded it without rehearsal and alongside a trio of musicians with whom he’d never before played. Listen to the complex arrangement of “Singin’ in the Rain” that opens the set, and then consider the fact that, as Asmussen says in the liner notes, he “had a few things scribbled down but I don’t think anyone looked at them. They just played.” Asmussen, now 99 years old, thinks this is “the best music I’ve ever recorded,” and he may well be right.
Burnt Friedman; Hayden Chisholm
Nonplace Soundtracks: Scenes 01-25
For this quietly strange but also oddly gentle and even comforting album, composer and multi-instrumentalist Burnt Friedman has teamed up with wind player Hayden Chisholm and a rotating array of guest musicians to create a series of 25 musical accompaniments to scenes from an imaginary movie. One is immediately reminded of Brian Eno’s first Music for Films album, but because Friedman is involved the music is a bit more challenging than Eno’s was: the rhythms less regular, the textures more varied. But although the music is consistently interesting, it is also consistently approachable and sometimes even restful. There’s humor here, too, if you listen for it. Recommended.
Pirouet (dist. Naxos)
Interestingly, at the same time the Burnt Friedman/Hayden Chisholm collaboration reviewed above was released, Chisholm himself was also coming out with a more conventional (though not exactly straight-ahead) jazz album of his own. On Breve he sticks to alto saxophone throughout and is joined by pianist John Taylor and bassist Matt Penman. The trio plays a set of originals that is sometimes contemplative and sometimes energetic, sometimes lyrical and sometimes harmonically jagged, but always deeply felt and somehow always very soft in texture. This is another one of those albums that reveals more depth the more (and the harder) you listen to it. Very, very nice.
Let’s be clear about this: Claire Ritter is a musical genius. And as rare as genius is, she’s that rarer thing still: a genius who is less interested in making sure you understand what a genius she is than in giving you musical pleasure. This means that on her second solo album, as with all her previous albums, she’s more likely to take you by the hand than to pummel you over the head. On Soho Solo you’ll hear poignant ballads, gently rocking stride excursions, a Cuban groove or two, and even hints of genuine boogie-woogie rubbing elbows with Monkish harmonic displacements. All of it is infused with an understated impressionism that frequently brings to mind the playing of Bill Evans at his peak. This is a very special album, one that can be confidently recommended to all library collections.
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
Django and Jimmie
Just seeing those two names together is enough to make any fan of outlaw country music go into heart palpitations. Whenever the dean of Texas country goes into the studio with the living embodiment of the Bakerfield Sound, you know something special is going to happen, and it does this time just as it has before. Despite a couple of slightly silly novelty numbers (“It’s All Going to Pot,” “Alice in Hulaland”), it’s just a thrill to hear these two masters working together, especially when the songs are up to the same standard as the singers (“Live This Long,” the blues-based kiss-off song “It’s Only Money,” a strangely breezy version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”). No country music collection can pass this one up.
Big Country Bluegrass
Nothing here but straight-up, old-fashioned, high and lonely bluegrass music–and if that’s what you need, then there’s hardly a better exponent of that sound than Big Country Bluegrass. As for the songs, all the usual suspects are here: modern compositions by Dixie and Tom T. Hall; old-school originals by current band members; bluegrass classics by the likes of Jimmy Martin and Bobby Osborne; a dog song; an Elvis Presley cover. The playing is, inevitably, virtuosic; the singing is tight and heartfelt.
Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys
No cat. no.
When I started writing CD reviews 25 years ago, one of the first albums I received in the mail for review was the self-titled debut album by this band, on the Rounder label. I’d been a fan of Cajun music for years, but there was something different about the Mamou Playboys, something I couldn’t entirely put my finger on (which was frustrating, since putting my finger on it was kind of my job). On this, their 12th album, I can put my finger on it quite readily: simply put, this band rocks out. Not in a particularly untraditional way, and not by using any crazy instrumentation, but simply by virtue of their attitude and energy. Riley and his band are probably the most exciting Cajun band currently working, and this album would make a great addition to any library collection.
12 South (dist. Red)
This husband-and-wife duo’s debut album was written around themes related to the Mississippi River, and their second is similarly constructed on the theme of 19th-century railway travel. As before, Alyssa Graham’s powerfully smoky voice is the centerpiece of their sound, while husband Doug contributes equally sturdy tenor harmonies. Their sound ranges from honky-tonk to cinematic, and will sometimes make you wonder what Richard and Linda Thompson would have sounded like if Richard were American and Linda were Maria McKee. Recommended.
Sunshine of Your Youth
Bright Antenna (dist. ADA)
So imagine that Cheap Trick and My Bloody Valentine had a baby. Now further imagine that their baby picked up a crappy Silvertone guitar and went into the studio with The Apples in Stereo producing. Intrigued? Yes, you most certainly are. Cheerleader’s debut has all the fuzzy lo-fi tunefulness of the Apples without the self-consciously twee singing, all the hooks of Cheap Trick, and a torn-velvet-curtain ambience similar to that of the Valentines; they create a sound that is simultaneously blissfully summery and subversively messy. Seriously, I can’t stop listening to it.
Drug for the Modern Age
You’ve probably heard Kopecky before, though you may not know it: their songs have been featured on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Vampire Diaries, and Parenthood. If you noticed their songs in that context, then you may have also noticed how beautifully crafted they are. Like fellow cello-enhanced popsters Jump Little Children did, Kopecky has a tendency to sound more alt than they really are, using slightly unconventional production and instrumental elements to disguise Lennon-and-McCartney levels of songwriting professionalism. And I’m a sucker for boy-girl vocals, so they kind of won my heart early on. Strongly recommended.
Metallic Taste of Blood
Doctoring the Dead
Question: When is prog rock not teeth-grindingly annoying? Answer: When it’s structurally disciplined. In other words, give me fewer side-long suites and more tight beats and phased structures, and you can get as creative as you want. That’s what we get with the latest from Metallic Taste of Blood, which is led by the duo of Eraldo Bernocchi (guitar) and Colin Edwin (bass). Also featuring former Killing Joke and Godflesh drummer Ted Parsons and keyboardist Roy Powell, MToB delivers plenty of rockish bombast here but keeps it under control by means of funky grooves and complex but controlled tune construction. Yes, there are solos; no, none of them is oppressively long. All of it is both interesting and tasteful–a balance struck all too rarely, frankly, in rock music of any kind.
Touch (dist. Forced Exposure)
Both Biosphere (a.k.a. Geir Jenssen) and Deathprod (a.k.a. Helge Sten) have had long careers producing weird and sometimes unsettling ambient music, and this is the second time they’ve teamed up for a split album release. It’s a match made in heaven, really–or maybe a match made in an abandoned military electronics lab buried beneath the echoing Arctic waste–as the two artists’ approaches to postapocalyptic ambient music are deeply complementary: both make ample use of washes, glitches, throbs, and unidentified floating musical objects. Think of this music as dub for grumpy cyborgs. I think it’s pretty dang cool.
Eye’m All Mixed Up
The Contemporary Christian Music scene has matured dramatically over the past couple of decades, and those who think of Christian pop as uniformly saccharine or simplistic (perhaps a fairer assessment in the 1970s and 1980s) might be surprised by the scene’s diversity these days, and by the quality of musicianship you’ll find there. A case in point is TobyMac, long a CCM mainstay and still the purveyor of top-notch dance-oriented pop music with a wholly unapologetic Christian message. This collection of remixes is the companion to his 2012 album Eye On It, and finds him operating in techno, EDM, and dubstep modes. None of the music is stylistically groundbreaking, but all of it is expert and enjoyable.
Black Swan Sounds
Adham Shaikh is one of the pioneers of the sound now known as “global bass”–a fusion of electronic dance music (often heavily inflected by dub and dubstep elements) and panethnic (often South Asian) traditions. Basswalla finds him bringing together new compositions and new mixes and arrangements of his previous work, creating a palette of sounds that shifts between hip-hop, Indian, dubstep, and reggae moods while keeping everything grounded with heavyweight bass pressure. You’ll even hear a Latin beat or two. Collections that are seeking to keep-up-to-date with current flavors of world music should seriously consider picking this one up.
Another group working the Euro-South-Asian fusion territory is the duo of Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj, who have been recording together as Midival Punditz since the early days of what was then called the Asian Underground movement. On their latest album they have begun moving in a somewhat more rockish direction: lots of big electric guitars, lots of big and blocky beats. But there’s also plenty of melismatic subtlety among the vocalists here and some gorgeous bansuri playing, and the overall feel is more like a stylistic continuation than a departure. Recommended.
Fatoumata Diawara & Roberto Fonseca
At Home: Live in Marciac
Jazz Village (dist. Harmonia Mundi)
What happens when a Cuban jazz pianist meets a Malian singer and they get along well, both personally and musically? You’re likely to end up with a slightly surreal album like this one, on which wassalou singing and lots of ullulations are supported by Latin rhythms and alternate with long pianistic excursions. This recording was made live in concert as part of the Jazz in Marciac festival in southern France, and the audience is clearly captivated–your patrons will be, too.
Master Tsar, the Art of the Qin (2 discs)
VDE-Gallo (dist. Albany)
The qin is a Chinese stringed instrument structurally similar to the Japanese koto: it sits on a table and is played by plucking and then manipulating the strings. Tsar Teh-yun was a celebrated master and teacher of the instrument, and her students often tape-recorded their lessons with her, resulting in a rich archive of home recordings, some of which are gathered on this compilation. Master Tsar’s subtlety of attack and the delicate virtuosity of her approach to ornamentation are a wonder to hear, and this album would make a fine addition to any world music collection.
I’ll be honest here: based on previous experience with hardanger fiddle music, I was expecting this album to be a lot more… well… fun. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it to be wonderful and engaging–on the contrary, this trio project by cellist Sigrun Eng, fiddler Anne Hytta, and vibraphonist/glass harmonist Amund Sjølie Sveen is deeply and richly beautiful. But it’s also very dark, quiet, and at times somewhat eerie, its melodies sometimes diffuse almost to the point of imperceptibility and its component parts often defining large amounts of sonic empty space. It would make a wonderful addition to any collection of contemporary world music.