CD Review: John Adams’ Become Ocean

Unknown.jpegIt’s difficult to review a recording of a new piece of music when it has won the Pulitzer Prize (when did that become important for music, and not just writing?), and when it has been universally acclaimed. It’s also difficult to review said work when it is programmatic; when it is supposed to be about something. As the Pulitzer Committee says, Become Ocean (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”

And, as we reach the end of 2014, this record is on a number of “best of the year lists.” Which puzzles me.

I guess the part about the ocean is obvious from the cover of the CD, and from the fact that, for my first listen, I accidentally put the DVD into my living room optical disc player, just after playing a Blu-Ray disc, and seeing the visuals that accompany the music. (I had thought there was just a CD, and simply hadn’t gotten around to turning off the TV.) As the music plays, there are a series of photos of water; some from above, others below. So, water is clearly something that this music is “about.”

I’d only heard two recordings by this Mr. Adams before (he is not to be confused with the minimalist composer John Adams, or the politician of the same name), one of which, Four Thousand Holes, I reviewed for MusicWeb. I found it sounded like ambient music, by Brian Eno or Harold Budd, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

The difference here is that Mr. Adams has a symphony at his disposal; the full range of instrumentation and dynamic range. Yet it sounds as though he really doesn’t know how to composer for an orchestra; Become Ocean is a 42-minute drone work, with rising and falling waves of volume, and with arpeggios, played by different instruments, arising and fading away.

Nothing about it suggests a “tidal surge,” or “melting polar ice and rising sea levels;” those ideas would never cross my mind, if I hadn’t read what the Pulitzer Committee had to say. Very little happens in this work, other than the dynamics of the music changing as the instruments play louder and more softly. It has little actual melody; it sounds like one massive chord going through subtle changes, as different instrumental groups are heard.

I was quite astounded to see the otherwise circumspect Alex Ross writing in the New Yorker compare this premiere to that of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. Mr. Ross was clearly moved by the work, saying “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history,” which is, of course, quoted on the CD. Mr. Ross’s discussion of the work borders on incomprehensible. He says, for example:

“The majestic sonorities emerge from a musical machine, an inexorable process. (“Inexorable” is, in fact, the indication at the head of the score.) There are six hundred and thirty bars of music, plus a bar of silence. The three main sections of the orchestra play sequences of varying lengths, each of which swells to a climax and then fades, and each of which reverses course at its midpoint, in the manner of a palindrome. The winds have fifteen units of forty-two bars (including rests); the brass nine units of seventy bars; the strings twenty-one units of thirty bars. At three points, the crescendos of the various groups coincide, resulting in those Debussy-like climaxes. The really confounding thing is that at Bar 316 the music begins running in reverse. The work is a gigantic palindrome, ending where it began.”

The way the music was made seems to take precedence over the music itself. Who really cares — other than composers or musicians — about what the above paragraph describes? That tells me nothing about the music, about the feeling of listening to the music. In fact much of Mr. Ross’s review discusses the backstory to the work: what inspired Mr. Adams, how it was written, but not so much about the music itself. (Yes, he does talk about chords and how the music recalls Debussy, Sibelius and Wagner, but not what the music sounds like.) I would sum it up as a series of crescendos and diminuendos (sorry, I used technical words, but ones that most people will understand), than eventually die out at the end. One very important problem here is how to know how loud to play this disc; in concert, the dynamics of the music are important, but there’s no benchmark here to know what the correct volume should be. Is the music very soft, building to mildly loud? Or does it begin fairly loud, reaching even louder crescendos? In the absence of any way to know how to listen to it, does it even make sense to listen to it?

This work isn’t easy to label. One could broadly call it minimalist, since not much happens; but it’s not the kind of repetitive minimalism of Reich or Glass. It’s closer to the kind of dark ambient drone music that is quite popular among aficionados of electronic music, with a bit of Sigur Rós thrown in. But I assume that, for the usual audience that attends concerts of symphony orchestras, it will be a surprise; nothing like Le Sacre de Printemps (sorry Mr. Ross), but a surprise nonetheless. And one that may have them squirming in their seats for 42 minutes.

The package includes a CD and a DVD-audio, the latter of which offers both stereo and surround mixes. There is no information about the work itself, nothing about the different formats in the package (for example, does the DVD-A contain high-resolution audio?), and nothing to even tell you that you get both a CD and DVD. If I hadn’t accidentally pulled out the DVD, I might not have known that there are two discs. There is a quote from the composer, saying: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

I found this to be a fairly bland work, with little originality, and not enough “music” to interest me. I’m a big fan of ambient music, and I can see listening to this in the background, and I can even imagine that it might be quite exciting to hear live. But there’s little on this recording that makes me want to listen to Become Ocean repeatedly. I’m clearly in the minority; as I said at the beginning of the review, this disc is showing up in lists of the best recordings of the year. Go figure.

CD Review: Re-issues of Four Brian Eno Albums from the 1990s

Brian Eno has long been a musical chameleon, since his early days in Roxy Music, through his creation of ambient music, with compositions such as Discreet Music and Music for Airports, and through his “song” albums of the 1970s, such as Another Green World and Before and After Science. Over the years, he has created music for installations, soundtracks, and the ubiquitous “Microsoft Sound,” which was the start-up sound for Windows 95 and later. As each decade has passed, Eno has explored new types of music, constantly changing and defying expectations.

Throughout his career, he has pushed the boundaries of music, both as composer and as producer, working with David Bowie (“Heroes” and others), U2 (The Unforgettable Fire, etc.), Coldplay (Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends), and many others. The 1990s were, for Eno, a period when he produced much more than he recorded. Nevertheless, this decade saw the release of four Brian Eno albums, all very different, which cover the range of his musical creation. All Saints Records has just released expanded editions of these albums, full of extra content.

NervenetI remember when I first heard the 1992 Nerve Net. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I had found the CD in a used record store, back in the pre-internet days when you couldn’t find this type of music easily. I had no awareness of what Eno had been recording since the last records of his I had bought in the early 1980s. Nerve Net is a kick in the head, an aggressive collection of electronic music that begins with the catchy, reverbed beat of Fractal Zoom, and continues through 12 songs that redefine electronic music. There are synthesizers, of course, but these are harsh, metallic, industrial sounds, all bearing, nevertheless, the marks of Eno’s layering and textures. The searing guitar of Robert Fripp comes to the forefront on Wire Shock, and Pierre in Mist features a quirky, jazzy sound that Eno would later use on The Drop. The best track on the album is Web (Lascaux Mix), a dark, droning ambient work with Fripp’s guitar sounding like a demon trying to break out of a rhythmic prison.

At the time, this wasn’t an easy album to listen to. I probably spun it a few times, then put it aside for a decade. But over the years, I’ve listened to it more and more, appreciating how far ahead of its time Nerve Net was; many of the sounds on this album are now common in electronic music.

The bonus disc with Nerve Net is the 1991 album My Squelchy Life, which, after being completed, and after promotional copies circulated, was withdrawn and never released until now. Some of the songs have appeared on various other collections or recordings, such as Eno’s Vocal Box Set, Shutov Assembly, and even Another Day on Earth (Under). It’s a mixture between Eno’s more accessible side and the dark sounds of Nerve Net, and it’s delightful to hear it. (Though it has been widely bootlegged, and isn’t hard to find.)

ShutovThe 1992 The Shutov Assembly (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the alter ego of Nerve Net. Where the latter is dark and metallic, The Shutov Assembly is liquid, smooth and atmospheric, recalling the sounds of Music for Airports or Discreet Music. The lush synthesizers play slow music, that puts you in a different state of mind than Nerve Net. Recorded between 1985 and 1990, this is a collection of works of the same style that were written to accompany installations. As All Saints Records’ description of the album states:

“Reissue of Brian Eno’s 1992 album dedicated to Russian artist and friend Sergei Shutov, and a continuation of the atmospheric ambient work found on records such as On Land and Thursday Afternoon. Eno had discovered that Shutov often painted to his music but was unable to obtain many of his records in then-communist Russia. He resolved to collate a tape of previously unreleased material (recorded between 1985 and 1990) to give to Shutov and upon listening himself discovered a previously unnoticed thread that ran through the pieces, creating an unintentional full length work. Each piece is named after and derived from one of Eno’s audio-visual installations. “

Notable on this album is the 16-minute Ikebukoro, which reminds me of the music from the Myst game. It sounds very much like Discreet Music, in the way that small phrases repeat, but it has a spooky undertone that makes it very moving. Eno said about this album, “”it’s the association with danger that I didn’t use to like, and it’s exactly that, what I do like now …. The Shutov Assembly is sort of the out-of-town version of it, the outside-the-city-limits version of danger”

The bonus disc with The Shutov Assembly features seven tracks that don’t really have the same feel as the original disc; many of them sound more like the types of music Eno would explore on The Drop, and pieces like Storm and Rendition are much more in the vein of Nerve Net. Nevertheless, this disc has 34 minutes of great music and is worth owning.

NeroliThe 1993 Neroli (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 58-minute ambient piece, much in the style of Discreet Music. Titled “Neroli: Thinking Music, Part IV,” this piece features essentially a keyboard playing a series of single melodies, in the Phrygian mode, with just single, soft, rubbery notes echoing for a long time. Short melodic phrases are repeated in a number of variations, then it’s over. As Eno described this album, the music is designed “to reward attention, but not (be) so strict as to demand it.” It’s a beautiful, soft piece of music, with no rough edges; light years away from the 1992 Nerve Net.

This new release comes with a bonus disc, the 61-minute New Space Music. Where Neroli is sparse and tentative, New Space Music is a long drone work, with waves of sound, and slow, gradual melodic change. It’s never quiet; there are no spaces between the notes, as there are in Neroli. It sounds more like Discreet Music with the volume turned up (though, ideally, one should listen to it at a low volume).

DropThe 1997 The Drop (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) has long been one of my favorite Eno albums. It is made up of mostly short pieces, only a few more than three minutes long. After a couple of slow, introductory pieces (Slip, Dip and But If), which sound more like his standard ambient music, the record shifts to a quirky, rhythmic sound that is maintained throughout most of the album. The Drop is a fun record. It sounds strange at first, but then it sounds normal. If you’re used to listening to Brian Eno’s music, you won’t be surprised by this direction.

In an interview with the BBC, Eno said:

“The Drop is the name of the record and Drop is the name of the new type of music invented and explored on this record. It’s as if you had explained jazz to someone from a distant planet without ever playing them any examples of it and they tried to do some on the basis of your rather scant explanation. It’s quite melodic, actually, this record. There are lots of melodies on it, although they move in an angular and slightly irrational fashion, so they are very long and rambling. They remind me a little bit of heat-seeking missiles; they keep changing direction, trying find out where they are going. They don’t have a very strong focus to them. I like this; I like the vagueness to them.”

The highlight, for me, is the final piece on the album, Iced World, one of my favorite Eno works. It’s a subtly rhythmic piece of atmospheric music with a sinewy piano solo playing over a background of drum machines and sonic textures that has a perfect chill-out sound. Two competing rhythms keep the piece moving: a fast, bright sound, like wood blocks and cymbals, and a slower bass sound, somewhat like a heartbeat. A shorter version of this piece is on the Eno/Wobble album Spinner, from 1995; it’s the final, “hidden” track which comes in after a bit of silence following Left Where it Fell. On the original release of The Drop, Iced World ran over 32 minutes; curiously, on the reissue, the track is just under 19 minutes. Comparing the two versions, it seems as though the shorter version is exactly the same as the longer version, and just fades out earlier. So if you like this track, and you have the original version of the album, hold on to it for the long version of Iced World.

The tracks on the bonus disc that comes with The Drop are a strange mixture. Never Stomp sounds like it could be on Nerve Net; System Piano is a slightly different version of Rayonism, from The Drop; Luxor Night Car sounds a lot it would have fit on the Brian Eno and John Cale album Wrong Way Up; Cold is a short version of Iced World; and Little Slicer is a version of Out/Out. The final bonus track is the 19-minute Targa, which is a sort of segue of several different types of music. There’s a mellow soundscape at the beginning, with wind blowing in the background and a synthesized trumpet; it then shifts to a bleeping melody over droning synths; then to a section with slightly chromatic melodies; then to a drone-and-bass drum section; then back to more bleeping, and more drone. This isn’t a good description, but it’s a hard piece to pin down, because it has no character; it’s more of a medley. And it’s musically unrelated to another bonus track, Targa Summer, which is more of a soundscape with a slow 4/4 rhythm, and some a cappella singing.

Taken individually, each of these albums presents a very different aspect of Brian Eno’s music, but when you hear the four of them together, you get a much better idea of what there is in common between very different types of music. The only common thread is Eno himself, and these four albums show how much of a musical polymath he is.

What’s Lost When the Cloud Replaces CDs

“Recently, while moving my CD collection to new shelving, I struggled with feelings of obsolescence and futility. Why bother with space-devouring, planet-harming plastic objects when so much music can be had at the touch of a trackpad–on Spotify, Pandora, Beats Music, and other streaming services that rain sonic data from the virtual entity known as the Cloud? What is the point of having amassed, say, the complete symphonies of the Estonian composer Eduard Tubin (1905-82) when all eleven of them pop up on Spotify, albeit in random order? (When I searched for “Tubin” on the service, I was offered two movements of his Fourth Symphony, with the others appearing far down a list.) The tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding. One is expected to banish all clutter and consume culture in a gleaming, empty room.”

Alex Ross ruminates, at The New Yorker, about what’s lost when we no longer buy physical music. His conclusion:

“But only by buying the albums are you likely to help the label stay in business.”

via What’s Lost When the Cloud Replaces CDs.

Do Vinyl Records Sound Better than CDs? (Spoiler: Nope)

I’ve been discussing a number of audiophile myths here on Kirkville, and today I’d like to address another one: the myth that vinyl sounds better than CDs (or downloads). Vinyl sales are booming, reaching the highest levels in more than ten years. To be fair, this isn’t difficult; as long as sales continue to increase, they’ll be higher than any time since the Great Vinyl Decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

People abandoned vinyl for several reasons: CDs were more convenient, less fragile, and sounded better[1]. Turntables were annoying and fragile, and you had to manually change sides of records; with CDs, you can play an entire album without flipping discs.

I grew up with vinyl, and, while I miss the bigger artwork, and the added room for liner notes, that’s all I miss. I don’t miss the clicks and pops of vinyl, or the way that, if you bumped into the turntable, or whatever shelf it was on, you could scratch a record, damaging it permanently. With older, scratched records, sometimes the only way to listen to them was to place a penny on the cartridge to add weight to it. Also, the quality of the plastic used for vinyl records was often poor, meaning that records wore out quickly. Oh, and you had to deal with dust, records that warped if exposed to heat or were stored flat, static electricity that could perturb things, the spindle hole that might be off-center, and wow and flutter that added noise to playback.

But the biggest problem with vinyl is simply that records wear out. Audiophiles tout the higher frequency response of vinyl over CDs, saying that vinyl can play back those frequencies that we can’t hear.[2] First, this is only true with a pristine record, a perfect stylus, and a high-end stereo system; in most cases, vinyl’s frequency range is lower than that of CDs. Bear in mind that needles used to play records are made of diamonds, a very hard substance, and each play of a record wears it out a bit. This wear results in lower frequency response and lower overall fidelity. Stereo separation is poor on vinyl; there is spillover from one channel to the other, which is an inherent weakness of the playback process. And, because of RIAA equalization[3], the sound on a recording is manipulated, both for pressing, to reduce low frequencies, and for playback, to attempt to restore them.

But there’s another problem with vinyl that most people don’t consider. The first grooves on an LP offer 510 mm of vinyl per second, but as you get to the end of a side, there’s only around 200 mm per second; less than half the resolution. This is similar to the difference in tape speeds dropping from, say, 15 ips (inches per second) to 7.5 ips. Anyone who has worked with tapes knows that this speed difference results in much lower fidelity. Back in the LP days, musicians would argue about who got their songs on the beginnings of sides, and the music you listen to on an LP gets lower in quality as you get closer to the center.

Most people, when discussing vinyl, talk about an “analog sound,” saying that vinyl sounds “warmer” or “richer” than digital. It does; because there is less frequency response (poorer reproduction of high frequencies), and more distortion. Just as tube amps may sound “better” because of the distortion they introduce into playback, the same is true for vinyl. That “warmth” you hear is simply the poor quality of the playback; the distortion caused by the analog chain, and its lack of detail.

“But the other part of it is that the experience of listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”[4]

There’s a fetishism around vinyl, it’s about the process of listening. If you take more time to prepare for something, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy it more. If this is what you want, then by all means, go for it; but the sound of vinyl is actually inferior to that of CDs or digital audio.

So this is yet another myth that’s used to market products to people who don’t know better. You may like the idea of vinyl, but my guess is that, if you grew up with vinyl, you are probably aware of its limitations, and don’t want to go back into the past. I find it interesting that many audiophiles prefer a format that provides audio in a lower quality, and with more distortion.


Let me close with a few tidbits from turntable reviews in hi-fi magazines.

Each instrument and voice sat unambiguously in the soundstage with a largeness and roundness at its edges–the opposite of an analytic and etched sound.

Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine sounded brilliant on the Clearaudio Ovation, which lent just enough warmth and body to the sound to humanize this music while not obscuring its drive and pulse, its stops and starts.

the music was a steady stream of sound that quickly became a river, then just a few drops

produced a big, slightly warm orchestral sound. String tone was rich, with a pleasing golden glow. The piano’s lower register was cleanly rendered and remained well defined against the hall’s reverberant field. The upper keyboard sounded supple, with a rich, woody, yet sparkling bite. Image stability and solidity were never in question, and the system’s dynamic punch announced a turntable that seemed in complete control.

And, I’ll finish with another gem from What Hi-Fi?:

Play an album such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Point 5 delivers an energetic sound that combines fluidity, stability and authority brilliantly.

Where most rivals render a sharply etched sound packed with detail, the Point 5 has a more rounded presentation where the leading and trailing edges of notes aren’t overly emphasised, but the bits in between are defined richly.

The result is an immensely likeable presentation that’s big and muscular without suffering from a lack of agility or finesse.


  1. Yes, many early CDs sounded bad, because mastering engineers initially used masters created for LPs, and it took a while for them to, well, master the process for the digital medium.  ↩
  2. See Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.  ↩
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIAA_equalization  ↩
  4. Pitchfork: Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?  ↩

Re-Ripping CDs with iTunes

You may occasionally want to re-rip one or more CDs that you own. One of the most common reasons for this is to rip CDs at a higher bit rate than you did back when disk space was more limited.

Wen you do this, you may want to ensure that you don’t lose metadata for the existing files. Not just the names of the tracks, albums and artists, but also information like play counts, artwork and ratings. If you do this carefully, you can ensure that when you re-rip CDs, you keep all the metadata.

The first thing you should know is that, if you rip a CD, and you already have the tracks in your iTunes library, iTunes will alert you to this, asking if you want to replace the existing tracks:

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This is, in fact, what you want to do when re-ripping CDs. When iTunes replaces existing tracks, it only replaces the music. It retains all the other metadata, and it keeps the tracks in any playlists you’ve created. (If you re-rip and add the tracks to your iTunes library anew, then delete the old ones, these tracks will no longer be in playlists, though they will be in smart playlists.) But iTunes can only replace existing tracks if all the metadata matches.

So if you want to re-rip a CD, and have iTunes replace the music, you need to ensure that all the tags – the ones you can change – are the same. These are Name, Album, Artist, Genre, Year, Disc Number, Composer, Grouping, Album Artist and Comments. If any of these are different – if there’s even a comma or different capitalization – iTunes will think the track is different.

When you insert the CD, and examine it in iTunes, you can check the tags, comparing them to the existing files. You can correct any differences manually, or you can use Doug Adams’ Copy Tag Info Tracks to Tracks AppleScript. Read the information on Doug’s site to find out how to use this script.

I find it best to rip CDs by dragging their tracks to a “Temp” playlist; this lets me examine the tracks without having to find them in my iTunes library. If you want to re-rip CDs, I recommend making another playlist with their tracks, then checking that playlist after you rip each CD. You should see the tracks have been replaced. So, if you had tracks at 128 kbps, and you’re re-ripping them at 256 kbps, you’ll see the new bit rate in the playlist.

If you follow this procedure when re-ripping CDs, you’ll find that you save a lot of time: not only do you not have to manually update tags, but you also retain all the metadata that you can’t edit.

Grateful Dead to Release Sunshine Daydream, 8/27/72 Film and CD Set

Sunshine day dream bluray 1200 exclusive

Deadheads, get out your credit cards! This September will finally see an official release of 8/27/72 and Sunshine Daydream. After more than 40 years, we’ll finally get a crystal-clear recording of this iconic show, and a DVD or Blu-Ray of the Sunshine Daydream movie, shot that day.

Most Deadheads know that this show, from Veneta, Oregon, is one of the best the band ever played. Performed as a benefit for Ken Kesey’s family creamery, The Field Trip, as it was advertised, was played in a field in front of 20,000 sunburned Deadheads, as temperatures passed 100 degrees, and water was scarce. There was magic in the air, that day, though; or at least good acid. Because the Dead played one of their best, tightest shows, with amazing renditions of Playin’ in the Band, China > Rider, and one of the best versions of Dark Star ever.

You may have seen footage of the Sunshine Daydream movie, filmed by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field, who caught the music and the vibes, but never had the money to get the footage edited correctly. Mediocre quality transfers have circulated for years, but finally, the Dead have restored the film, and the 16-track soundboard tapes, to create what looks and sounds amazing. Here’s a clip:

After the amazing Europe ’72 and May ’77 sets, this amazing show is yet another wonderful release from the Dead. Now, if they can only find a tape of 5/8/77 and release that…

CD Review: Yo-Yo Ma: 30 Years Outside the Box

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

I wasn’t very familiar with Yo-Yo Ma’s work before getting this set, other than having heard his recording of Bach’s cello suites. But I took advantage of a “lightning sale” at Amazon FR to grab this set a few weeks ago at the very low price of €140 (about $190), or less than half the current price on Amazon US (I not that some third-party sellers have it for around $300, but the Amazon US price at the time of this writing is $472). To be honest, the list price for this box is well above what one expects to pay for that many CDs in the big classical box sets we’ve been seeing recently, and this is probably why Amazon FR got a bunch of the sets to put them on sale. It’s worth noting that this is a limited edition, and even though it was released in October, 2009, it has not sold 7,500 copies. (A certificate in the box tells me I have # 6464/7500.)

Like Sony’s other recent big box sets – such as the Murray Periah set and the Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition, the set contains CDs in wallets with original artwork and the backs of original LPs in tiny fonts. There is a hardcover book, very attractive, on glossy paper, over 300 pages, with essays, photos and album notes. Sony has this down pat; while the three sets I mention are all different, with different numbers of discs, and different sized books (to fit in the appropriate boxes), the presentation of all these sets is excellent.

As for the music, Ma covers a wide range of the classical and non-classical repertoire. From chamber music to orchestral music, he gives an overview of the entire range of cello music, but also veers off in other directions, with a disc of Japanese Melodies, a Claude Bolling disc, and his “crossover” recordings, such as Appalachia Waltz, his Silk Road recordings, and some movie soundtracks, such as for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Seven Years in Tibet.

Ma is an excellent cellist, and he is never boring, though many of these works can be found in versions that are better. For example, his Schubert String Quintet lacks the pathos of better versions, and his first Bach cello suite recording is somewhat bland. (His second recording is much better.) Nevertheless, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by so much of this music as I have been listening to the set, and have discovered many works I’m not familiar with.

I wouldn’t recommend paying the full price, unless you’re an unconditional fan of Yo-Yo Ma (in which case you probably already have the set), but if you can get it at a price similar to what I paid, I’d say it’s well worth the investment.

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CD Review: Murray Perahia, The First 40 Years

Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

It’s been a good year for big classical box sets. Whether you’re a fan of Arthur Rubenstein or Glenn Gould, whether you’re interested in old Mercury Living Presence recordings or Karajan’s recordings from the 1960s, on Toscanini’s complete RCA recordings, you’ll find something to fill your shelves and your ears.

I’ve gotten three such sets recently: the 90-CD Yo-Yo Ma: 30 years Outside the Box set; the 42-disc Glenn Gould Complete Bach Collection, and, now, the Murray Perahia, The First 40 Years set. Interestingly, all three of these are from Sony, who is making a big effort lately to re-release back catalog in big boxes at bargain prices. (The Yo-Yo Ma was released in 2009, but the Gould and Perahia are new; in fact, they’re out in Europe at the time of this writing, but not yet in the US.)

All of these boxes are produced in a similar manner. The CDs are in slim wallet sleeves, with original artwork on them, and either the original backs from LPs in miniature or the flip side, or, for those discs originally released on CD, a track list that you can actually read. (The miniature LP notes require a microscope to read.) They’re snuggly fit inside the box, and each of these sets has a hardcover book. The Murray Perahia book is the largest of all, in part because the 5 DVDs in the set are in an actual DVD-sized digipack; in the Glenn Gould set, the 6 DVDs are in the same kind of sleeves as the CDs.

In all of these cases, the books are attractive and informative. They contain essays, photos and information about the discs. The Perahia book, being the largest, has the most notes about the discs, reproducing the original liner notes from each release.

Murray Perahia’s répertoire is fairly standard: There’s a lot of Mozart (all the piano concertos), Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach. There’s a bit of Bartok, Brahms and Mendolssohn,, a disc of Handel and Scarlatti, but that’s about it. Perahia was never an adventurous musician in his recordings, he didn’t stray from well-worn paths. I’m mostly familiar with his work in the Mozart piano concertos, which are wonderful, but when I actually discovered his pianism was when he released a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2000. This followed a period when he had a serious problem with one of his hands, which caused him to stop playing for several years. During this time, he studied Bach closely, and even played the harpsichord (which requires a bit less hand strength), and his Goldberg Variations, played on piano, have a unique sound, no doubt influenced by that period of harpsichord playing. Following this period, he recorded a number of works by Bach – notably the English Suites and Partitas – for the first time.

There’s a lot of music in this set, all of it familiar, but I’m looking forward to discovering this pianist whose approach is never dull and often interesting. One nice bonus is the 5 DVDs included, one of which features Perahia accompanying Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Winterreise, from 1990.

It’s true that this big box sets can be overwhelming, and they take a long time to listen to. But at about $2-3 per disc, they are rich with discoveries, and when the performer is of this quality, there is rarely a dull disc. I’ve been delighted with the Yo-Yo Ma box set. While many of his recordings are far from being the best versions of their works, his repertoire is broad, and his playing is always skilled and interesting. As for Glenn Gould, I have known all of his Bach recordings for a long time, and this new set offers a number of un-released recordings, along with several DVDs. I’m looking forward to box sets of two of my favorite performers: pianist Alfred Brendel, who retired from the stage in 2008, and the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died earlier this year. While I have many recordings by each of them, these comprehensive box sets allow one to fill in the gaps and discover the less well-known recordings that one may have missed.

CD Review: Glenn Gould Complete Bach Edition

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While Glenn Gould was a pianist who performed the works of many composers, his name is inextricably linked to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. More than any other composer, Bach was Gould’s speciality. From his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 to his final recording, again of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, Gould recorded nearly all of Bach’s keyboard music.

This set groups all of Gould’s Bach recordings for around $115; not only those released on LP and CD, but also a number of previously unreleased recordings: outtakes from the 1955 Goldbergs recording session; a stereo mix of the 1955 Goldbergs; some preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, from 1952 and 1954; and two live recordings, from 1957 and 1959, of the Goldbergs (Salzburg Festival, August, 1959) and the Sinfonias (Moscow, May, 1957). There are two discs of interviews with Gould – one with Tim Page, and another with John McClure – and a disc of Gould speaking about Bach in German. There are a total of 38 CDs.

This set also includes DVDs; 6 of them. Three of these are directed by Bruno Monsaigneon, featuring the Goldbergs on one, and two others with a variety of works. And three others are from the CBC, from 1957 to 1970, featuring Gould (and others) playing a variety of Bach’s works. Many Gould fans are familiar with the Monsaigneon films, as they have been widely circulated – especially the Goldberg Variations video, which was my first introduction to seeing Glenn Gould perform. The CBC videos are less common, though they have been released in a 10-DVD set Glenn Gould on Television. What we have in the Bach set is, naturally, the Bach performances taken from that set. If you’re a die-hard Gould fan, you’ll want to get the full DVD set as well.

Together with all these discs is a 192-page hardcover book, with some introductory essays, and with notes for each disc. Unfortunately, the notes are very succinct, and while the disc covers reproduce original LPs, the notes on them are too small to read without a microscope. (Is it that hard to include a CD or DVD with PDFs of these things?)

If you’re a fan of Glenn Gould, you may already have the Complete Original Jacket Collection, on 80 CDs, which contains most of what’s in this set, but you won’t have the outtakes, live recordings and DVDs. This set, at a not-quite-bargain price, is worth getting for these extras alone, if you appreciate Gould. Especially since Bach is what Gould did best.

Nice packaging, a fair price, and a bunch of previously unreleased material makes this a good purchase for any fan of Glenn Gould. If you’re not familiar with his admittedly idiosyncratic recordings of Bach’s keyboard works, this would be a good chance to discover one of the most original of performers. You may love Gould or hate him, but you can’t deny that, when he played Bach, he was channelling something transcendent.