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December 2003 Music Review

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DECEMBER 23, 2003

As a stone devotee of classical music from age eight, I’ve found a reaction to recordings I’d play for the occasional visitor amusing and disconcerting. Generally, if the piece was composed anywhere from the latter part of the nineteenth to about mid-twentieth-century and was in any way emotional or however vaguely programmatic – Mahler would be the perfect example – the guest would say, “It sounds like movie music.”

The poor, benighted fellow has it exactly backwards. It’s movie music that sounds like classical – bad to insipid classical, mostly: an aural event that, absent entourage, in its emperor’s clothes, runs blushing from the room. Life in the sweet spot is one thing, elsewhere, another. Things I wouldn’t play at home sound engaging on my car’s radio, which is to say, when the eye takes in the passing scene. The observation is likewise relevant to movie music. At home, via one’s audio system and its rather more static surroundings, the stuff often falls well short of the orchestral music on which it is modeled. Indeed, it’s unfair to judge movie music as other than an aspect of a film. Jerry Goldsmith is by any measure a good, solid craftsman. His Star Trek scores rank with Hollywood’s best. However, absent its film, this surround-sound score (I’m listening to in its two-channel, CD reduction) fails to grab one’s head and heart for all its drama-fraught, low-volume moments, bric-a-brac-rattling athleticism and general-purpose pizzazz. The writing is conventional, indeed old fashioned, by present-day symphonic standards. The disc is best understood as, first, a profit generator, and second, as a perfectly fine souvenir for stone Trekkies. In two-channel CD, this hybrid SACD sounds OK. It’s easy to imagine how the thing must play as intended. Again, Goldsmith’s a fine craftsman – so fine, in fact, that the imagination provides the all-enveloping cocoon in which the listener with a good home-theater system must surely luxuriate.

The CD entitled Music from the Motion Picture Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World is a somewhat different affair. The film is set in the Napoleonic era. The master of the title, the captain of a British ship of the line, and the ship’s surgeon meet in the captain’s quarters to play duets, the doctor on the cello, the captain on the violin, as among the film’s more touching moments. A couple of death scenes (I wasn’t keeping count in the movie house) are accompanied by music I know but could not then identify. My wife and I stood at the exit waiting for the very long credit scroll to get to information I needed. And there it was, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Of course! Stupid of me to forget this favorite among Vaughn Williams’ works. The music is there on the CD in its full-feathered, unedited loveliness, nicely performed by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth conducting. Movements from a Mozart violin concerto, a Corelli concerto grosso, a Bach suite for unaccompanied cello, and a Boccherini medley, all modified to meet the film’s needs, are interspersed with music composed by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti, including their arrangements of British folk tunes.

As the subject is war, the listener can expect tracks entitled The Far Side of the World, The Battle, etc., to shake up his innards with the kind of percussion and deep-bass growling for which one is glad he acquired subwoofers. Lots of nice mood music too, e.g., The Doldrums, depicting the scene where the warship is becalmed. My enthusiasm for the CD rests largely on its instructive value. The listener with scant knowledge of our culture’s vast classical treasury will be introduced to some especially toothsome examples. That most of these borrowings bear a marginal resemblance to the real deal is of no consequence. The melodies are there, and that’s what matters. No one’s going to take this trio of composer-arrangers to task for inauthenticity. Altogether an attractive release.

Mike Silverton, Editor,

STAR TREK / NEMESIS. Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith, with orchestrations by Mark McKenzie and Conrad Pope, performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony. Produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Music editor, Ken Hall. Computer programming, Nick Vidar. Recorded and mixed by Bruce Botnick. Varèse Sarabande Surround SACD 302 066 430 2.

MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE MASTER AND COMMANDER, THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD. Original music composed and produced by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. Digital, synthesizer and sample programming by Iva Davies. Score orchestrated and conducted by Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander, with Simon Leadley, Bobby Fernandez and John Richards. Decca Records B0001574-02.

DECEMBER 8, 2003

For mood and flavor, there’s nothing in the world quite like French keyboard music before the pianoforte’s advent. Call it the harpsichord, clavicembalo, clavecin or épinette, its courtly, largely Parisian demeanor portrays the aesthetic temper of those long-gone times. And we have Eminem.

The excellent David Pollock’s program ranges from about the middle to 17th century, when the harpsichord was approaching its Gallic apogee, to about the middle of the 18th, when the instrument was in its steep decline. By the time of Pancrace Royer’s death in 1755 (see headnote), the piano, with its superior volume and dynamic abilities, had already begun its assault. The harpsichord’s twentieth-century renaissance owes much to Wanda Landowska’s advocacy. As early as 1912, Pleyel, the French piano manufacturer, constructed a harpsichord at her request. Among the lady’s accomplishments on the instrument’s behalf, Madam Landowska commissioned two strikingly handsome harpsichord concertos, Manuel de Falla’s of 1926 and Francis Poulenc’s Concert champètre of 1929, both widely recorded. Indeed, it’s largely owing to recording and the original-instrument movement that the sound of the harpsichord is so familiar, even to the casual listener.

When hi-fi and I were young, Fernando Valenti recorded a large number of Domenico Scarlatti’s Spanish-inflected harpsichord sonatas. They were and remain superb performances. The music itself needs no recommendation. However, with respect to what mere civilians played their recordings on, a mono hi-fi system’s abilities in the decibel department encouraged the hobbyist to play Valenti’s LPs at a level at which the frail-voiced harpsichord sounded like a band of virtuosi trolls having at I-beams with five-pound mauls. I mention this fond memory – I have to admit, it was an interesting sound – only because Mr. Pollock’s performances need to be played with the volume set low. If, that is, you’re after verisimilitude. Adam Fuest’s nicely detailed recording puts the listener at just the right distance from the instrument. Chamber music doesn’t get a whole lot cozier than this.

I’ve already mentioned Pancrace Royer. His La Marche des Scythes is quite the perfect choice for the harpsichord’s last gasp. Scholarship and legend have long portrayed the ancient world’s Scythians as fierce and strange; Royer’s appropriately eccentric variations do the stories yeoman service. (Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite is one of the Russian’s more brutalistic scores.) Chambonnière, the two Couperins, Louis and the illustrious François, D’Angelbert, and Le Roux could not possibly be taken for other than French. The music’s wistfulness, its distinctive ornamentation, its meticulous structure, its delicate sense of fun bear a familial stamp. In attempting to translate the title of the Chambonnière piece Pavane L’Entretien des Dieux, I come up with Maintenance of the Gods’ Pavane, which cannot possibly be right. Enough that it’s a beauty, as is D’Anglebert’s homage to the master, Tombeau de. M. de Chambonnière. This is, altogether, a rewarding program that Pollock performs with tasteful restraint. I could have wished for a slower, slightly fruitier performance of François Couperin’s Les Baricades Misterieuses, one of the three selections from his Sixtième Ordre. No matter. The French Harpsichord is a rewarding release. For information,


On then to the present. “Blue” Gene Tyranny has been a significant fixture of the avant-garde’s Downtown branch for as long as I’ve known anything about this scene. I’ve no idea whether this is an original or assumed surname. Having met him several years ago, I can only say that Tyranny impressed me as the least tyrannical of men. His demeanor is as gentle as his music. Gentleness of course suggests accessibility, and yes, BGT’s keyboard work is accessible if we take the term to signify (in the present instance) other than boring-bland. The contents of this disc are perhaps best characterized as supperclub music for a clientele consisting largely of otherworldly metaphysicians, mildly intoxicated aestheticians and a scattering of contemplative angels. The headnote reveals electronic additives applied with a subtle hand altogether magically. Tom Hamilton’s work is up to its usual high standard. This is, as it should be, an intimate recording. For information, /

Mike Silverton, Editor,

THE FRENCH HARPSICHORD. Louis COUPERIN: Suite in F. Jean-Henry D’ANGLEBERT: Tombeau de M. de Chambonnière. Gaspard LE ROUX: Suite in F. François COUPERIN: Three movements from Sixtième Ordre in B flat. Pancrace ROYCE: La Marche des Scythes. David POLLOCK, harpsichord. Adam Fuest, production, engineering and editing. London Independent Records LIR006.

“Blue” Gene TYRANNY: Take Your Time. “Blue” Gene Tyranny, piano, electromagnetically stimulated piano, computer-edited harmonics and piano. Tom Hamilton, production, recording and editing. Lovely Music LCD 1066.

DECEMBER 1, 2003

What follows is a skewed report. I propose to discuss how the compact disc’s (perhaps) successor, the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), sounds not at its full-fledged best but rather in terms of its compatibility via a two-channel, CD-only system. If the reader finds himself in a similar bind, which is to say, proscribed by circumstance to CD-only play (vinyl being beyond our concerns), he’ll probably want to read on. The rest of you can water the house plants.

First, your reporter’s two-channel system: Wilson WATT / Puppy 6 speakers; Mark Levinson No. 390S CD player, upgraded from a No. 39; Mark Levinson No. 33H mono amplifiers, one pair; Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 Line Stabilizer with two Harmonix Studio Master power cords; RS Audio Pure Palladium balanced interconnects; Nordost Valhalla speaker cables; Silent Running Audio acoustic isolation platforms under the electronics; and finally, at the WATTs’ binding posts, two Walker Audio Ultimate High Definition Links. The ML 390S has its own good volume control, therefore no preamp. For reviews of some of the above, see my comments at

Let’s begin with a disappointment. The Philips’s tray card tells us that “SACD Surround-Sound requires [a] multi-channel SACD player and compatible surround-sound system. SACD stereo requires [an] SACD player. CD audio can be played on standard CD players. A 6-channel DSD recording.” (I added three hyphens and the bracketed articles.) This is a Super Audio CD in Surround, recorded in Direct Stream Digital, DSD.

Dvorak’s eighth and ninth symphonies have been done on recording to a fare-thee-well, the “New World” especially. The competition notwithstanding – much of it great – Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra turn in perfectly fine and spirited performances, which, I regret to say, I cannot listen to with anything resembling happiness. The “CD Audio,” two-channel iteration has nothing to recommend it. Sweet, richly textured, lifelike strings remain the touchstone of a symphonic production, as does a convincingly dimensioned soundstage within which we perceive the various instrumental groups as firmly arrayed. I’ve heard the Budapest Festival Orchestra on other recordings and can report that the present release’s harsh, steely sound and its soundstage’s rather shallow depth is perhaps the fault of the CD mix-down (or whatever) and not that of this fine band and its good conductor. How the disc plays as a six-channel SACD is for another reviewer to say. My fellow Neanderthals are advised to seek elsewhere. (I’ve rendered Dvorak without accent marks. With apologies to purists, the hachek – the inverted chevron capping the r – doesn’t travel well over the Internet.)

On, then, to better news. The CD-compatibility of Mobil Fidelity Sound Lab’s two-channel SACD, Patricia Barber / Modern Cool, is a pleasure of its kind. This is an assigned disc, not the kind of thing I would normally listen to. But an outsider’s perspective can be useful. That at least is my lame excuse. It’s clear that Patricia Barber is a consummate musician: an accomplished, hugely stylish vocalist, fine pianist and composer. Eight of the program’s thirteen numbers are hers. With respect to “table knives on strings” (see headnote), I remain mute, having nothing to compare. The ensemble is likewise first rate. If smooth and sultry, meticulously executed takes on classic pop (You and the Night and the Music, The Fool on the Hill, Light My Fire, She’s a Lady, etc.) along with Barber’s own engaging numbers are your musical meat and potatoes, you’re well advised to make your move, even if, again like me, you’ve an obsolescent player.

Am I being entirely straightforward with respect to obsolescence? I haven’t the courage to say. One wants not to be the guy people quote at some point in the future as the perfect example of a knee-jerk reactionary. On the other hand, on listening to this MFSL CD-only “compromise,” one wonders how much better the SACD version can be. Well, let’s say it is. You’ll be even more impressed by the disc’s opening moments as Michael Arnopol’s bass pins you to your armchair. And that brings me back to “a pleasure of its kind.” Jim Anderson, the recording engineer, is good at what he does. The insert includes Anderson’s remarks about a microphone wonderfully suited to Barber’s voice. In acknowledging Anderson’s expertise – and this is in all respects an exemplary production – I’m also bound to observe that his craftsmanship is of style I don’t especially like or often listen to. Let’s call it the gilded-lily school of recording.

Barber is often in the listener’s face. It’s as if you can smell the lady’s breath, which I’ve little doubt is also alluring. Elsewhere, the acoustic shifts to a more resonant space, though the sessions took place in one, not several – electronic legerdemain! Were Barber in general a tad removed, her sibilants would be less pronounced. Similarly, the ensemble is beyond luscious, as in Arnopol’s abovementioned bass. I’ve heard productions truer to life, and yet I’ m in no way convinced that a strict verisimilitude is what the vocalist and her team sought. Now I do understand that the qualities I remark in mildly critical terms are pleasing to certain thoroughly discriminating audiophiles, and who’s to say them nay? Recording traffics in flavors. Because I prefer vanilla should in no way turn you off to an attractive release. Further and to repeat, I’m commenting on an SACD’s CD-compatible version, which is in and of itself unfair.

Mike Silverton, Editor,

Antonin DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95, “From the New World.” Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer conducting. Clive Bennett, executive producer. Hein Dekker, producer and balance engineer; Roger de Schot, recording engineer. Philips SACD 470 617-2.

Patricia BARBER / Modern Cool: Patricia Barber, piano, vocals, table knives on strings; Michael Arnopol, bass; John McLean, guitar; Mark Walker, drums, percussion, prepared kit, tin can-o-phone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Jeff Stitely, udu; Choral Thunder Vocal Choir. Michael Friedman, executive producer; Patricia Barber, producer; Jim Anderson, recording and mixing. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2003.

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