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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-4 Andras Schiff, piano (ECM 1940/41 B0005071-02)

A few years ago I caused considerable consternation in the mind of estimable audio critic Peter Aczel when I opined in these pages that Mahler was a greater composer of symphonies than Beethoven. I still believe that, but when the question is instead, "who is the greater composer?" there is no doubt that Beethoven comes out on top. Symphonies, concerti, sonatas, quartets--it is simply astounding that one human being could write so many towering masterpieces in so many different musical forms.

What we have here is the first in what is projected to be an eight-volume release of the complete Piano Sonatas performed by Andras Schiff. These volumes will present the sonatas in temporal order, and based on the virtues of this first release, I am really looking forward to auditioning each new set as it comes out.

These early works are entertaining and fulfilling, and Schiff presents them with both lyricism and power. Sound quality is excellent; you can close your eyes and imagine yourself at a wonderful recital. This is truly an exciting release, both for what it is and for what it heralds.

Bill Frisell: east/west (Nonesuch 79863-2)

Frisell's latest effort is a two-disc live set that sells for the price of one (at least where I bought it). The first disc is the west set, with Frisell on guitar backed by Viktor Krauss on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. It is an amazing live set, just incredible, and if you are any kind of Frisell fan, you've got to hear it

The opening cut starts with some what at first seems to be some vague noodling, then slowly segues into the recognizable melody of "I Heard It through the Grapevine," a song most of us associate with the late Marvin Gaye (one of the saddest stories ever--the beautiful man who helped many of us get through the war years becomes a cokehead and is shot to death by his father, a minister), although Marvin did not write it. Great stuff. We then get some blues, and then comes the high point of the whole two-disc set, "Shenandoah." Frisell cut this song in the studio previously to great effect, but this new live version is simply transcendent. What joy! What beauty! What love!

Nothing else in the set reaches quite those heights, and the east segment (Tony Scherr replaces Krauss on bass for this set) sounds a bit ordinary, a bit more standard jazz-guitarish compared to the innovativeness of the west set, but still, the whole enterprise is admirable and entertaining. Frisell is a wonderful musician--if you have not yet heard what he can do, this new release would make a great way to make his acquaintance.

Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade (ECM 1894 B0005060-2)

Veteran bassist Marc Johnson has assembled an interesting and talented group here: Joe Lovano on tenor sax, John Scofield on guitar, Eliane Elias on piano, Joey Baron on drums, and Alain Mallet on organ. Most of the music was written by Johnson and Elias; it features tight ensemble playing with plenty of percussive punctuation from the energetic Mr. Baron.

A special highlight is Ms. Elias's composition "Apareceu," which features some tender tenor from Mr. Lovano; it's one of those haunting cuts that you just keep wanting to come back to. The title cut, "Shades of Jade," is also haunting. When you get right down to it, there's not a weak cut on the whole CD, and the whole CD is one that you will just keep wanting to come back to.

Marc Johnson is not a big name in jazz circles, but he has been involved in a number of wonderful recordings, both as leader and sideman. If you see his name associated with a recording, it is well worth an audition. This one certainly is.

Stephen Jones: at the exactest point Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (Tantara Records JC061)

Stephen Jones, a professor of music at Brigham Young University, wrote the exactest point under a commission for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their world premiere performance under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis was recorded, and has now been released on a beautifully packaged CD (featuring a striking Wulf Barsch painting on the cover) on the Tantara Records label (

The music is colorful and energetic. It is neither so offputting that it will immediately turn you off nor so melodic that it will leaving you humming any tunes. However, if you have something of an ear for more modern forms of symphonic music, this is a piece well worth an audition. My own experience is that on first listen, I did not get much from it, but on further listening, I have begun to enjoy it, and I look forward to listening to it more to try to figure out how it is put together.

Sound quality is pretty good for a live concert recording, with the boisterous Chicago brass section being caught in full glory by the microphones. There are some interesting things to read in the booklet packaged with the CD, but you may well wind up coming away with the feeling that the producers are trying just a little bit too hard to sell this composition, as when they present a negative review and then exert themselves to try and refute it. Back off a little, guys!

What may be the biggest stumbling block keeping many curious music lovers from purchasing this CD is its length--just over 18 minutes. The CD is available at a reduced price, around $11, and it really is packaged nicely, so I hope that you will not let the brief length of the program keep you from listening to this stimulating composition. Meanwhile, we can only hope that Dr. Jones will present us with some longer works in the future.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" Jennie Litster, soprano/Francesca Forsyth, contralto/BYU Philharmonic Orchestra and Combined Choirs/ Kory Katseanes (Tantara Records JD004 [DVD Video])

It's not quite the cast needed for a full-blown performance of the "Symphony of a Thousand," but to watch 535 college students assembled on stage to present a creditable performance of Mahler's mighty "Resurrection" Symphony is to behold quite an inspiring sight indeed. The DVD begins with a brief background on the composition of the symphony, then presents the concert performance. The young musicians acquit themselves well. They might not have the precise attack and intonation of one of the world's top-rank professional orchestras, but they have every reason to be proud of their achievement in presenting a dramatic and effective performance of this vast, inspiring work.

When I watched the DVD on my television, the sound quality seemed quite good within the obvious limits of the medium. Just for curiosity, I tried playing the audio soundtrack through my stereo system, and found that the presentation seemed compressed. This performance is also available on a CD; I would hope that the sound quality is better, but I have not auditioned that version.

I have several fine versions of the Mahler Second in my CD collection, which is one of the reasons I decided to purchase the DVD rather than the CD. This is a piece of music I love more than almost any other, and I welcomed the opportunity to watch a live performance in the comfort of my home. To see the enthusiasm of these young musicians as they perform this music is truly an inspiration. For those who love the music of Mahler, I recommend this DVD without reservation. (Again, Tantara Records can be found at and their phone number is 800/879-1555.)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" Kathleen Battle, soprano/Maureen Forrester, contralto/Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Leonard Slatkin (Telarc 2 SACD-60081)

I can still remember thinking back in the early '80s that what the world really needed was for Telarc to record the Mahler Second. The label had produced some really fine-sounding recordings, and the thought of having this magnificent piece of music available in Telarc-quality sound was enough to make me drool. When this recording was released on vinyl, I was extremely excited, and could hardly wait to bring it home from the record store so that I could fire it up on my stereo.

Man, was I disappointed. The recording seemed just too blurry and distant. I could tell that the performance was a good one, but the sound left plenty to be desired.

Many years later, Telarc has released a remastered version, and even on the CD layer of this SACD release (now that my CD player has died, I will be getting something that will play SACDs, but I do not yet have it in my system), the sound is better that I remember it. It may still be a bit on the warm, soft side, but it certainly sounds much better than it did in its original vinyl incarnation.

So we now have a fine performance in excellent sound, and I have only one quibble with the production: Mahler instructed that the first movement should be followed by a significant pause. The most natural way to follow his wishes in a two-CD recording would be to put the first movement on one disc and the rest of the symphony on the other, but Telarc does not do this. Oh, well, you can't have everything ...

Part: Da Pacem Domine; Lamentate The Hilliard Ensemble/Alexei Lubimov, piano/SWB Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrey Boreyko, conductor (ECM New Series 1930 B0005056-02)

This is Part like we have not heard him before: bold and expressive, yet still thoughtful and meditative. As long as I have been listening to his music, as familiar as I thought I was with his style, I simply was not prepared for this recording, which is stunningly impressive.

Things start off in familiar form, with the Hilliard Ensemble intoning Da Pacem Domine, which sounds like you might expect for a vocal piece by Aarvo Part. Very nice stuff.

Then, bam! Lamentate blasts forth from your speakers, and you find your breath taken away by the power of PaWs musical vision. With pounding percussion and blazing brass, this is no exercise in quiet minimalism. Pianist Alexei Lubimov plays expressively, even tenderaly in places, and there are moments of quiet introspection; still, Lamentate is a powerful piece, the most powerful piece that Part has ever penned. This new release is a must-audition for lovers of contemporary classical music.

Bobo Stenson/Anders Jormin/Paul Motian: Goodbye (ECM 1904 B0005058-2)

A new recording from pianist Bobo Stenson is always a welcome occasion; the new wrinkle in this release is the presence of veteran drummer Paul Motian. Long-time fans of Stenson know that this pianist is always lyrical in his approach, but always willing to explore new musical avenues within the framework of the trio setting.

A case in point is the opening cut, the new/old standard "Send in the Clowns." At once this piece sounds completely familiar yet completely different from how you have ever heard it played before. Amazing! The rest of the program is quite varied, with compositions by the band members and other composers, including Henry Purcell and Ornette Coleman (and hey, how often do you encounter those two gentlemen in the same sentence or same recording?!)

With three expressive players running through an eclectic list of compositions, you can anticipate a wide range of musical expression, and that is what you get here, although I hasten to add that the music never sounds strained or forced. Indeed, even in the more intense passages, the emphasis is on lyricism and beauty, not merely on color. This is a wonderful recording of deep beauty.
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Title Annotation:THE MUSIC; Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-4; Bill Frisell: east/west; Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade; Stephen Jones: At the Exactest Point; Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"; Part: Da Pacem Domine, Lamentate; Bobo Stenson/Anders Jormin/Paul Motian: Goodbye
Author:Nehring, Karl W.
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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