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

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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

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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 rĂ©pertoire 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.

CD Review: sunlight to blue… blue to blackness by The Durutti Column

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been a fan of The Durutti Column, the name used by multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Vini Reilly. I discovered The Return of the Durutti Column, Vini’s first album, back in 1980, shortly after it was released, and was immediately hooked. His combination of catchy melodies, his unique style of guitar playing, and his laconic voice give his music a tone that is his alone. So as, each year or so, a new Durutti Column album comes out, I buy it unhesitatingly.

The latest album, sunlight to blue… blue to blackness, is available from Kooky Records, a small label that has released the last few Durutti albums. (It is actually not released until June 23; I got a pre-release copy of it.)

Vini Reilly can be said to repeat himself; but that’s part of the charm of each Durutti Column album. The first track, a heart-rending acoustic guitar piece called “Glimpse”, is a reworking of a few early Durutti Column melodies, but is played with such delicacy and beauty, that it makes me melt. The first five tracks on this album are instrumentals, several featuring themes and riffs from earlier works, and the sixth track is a rhythm-box version of “Never Known”, a great old song from the 1981 disc LC. I’ve never been a big fan of Vini’s “electronicized” music, such as his Obey the Time album, but the song works well. “Ananda” is a beautiful piano-based track, written and performed by Poppy Morgan, with “intrusive guitar” by Vini. “Head Glue” is a very languid duet sung by Vini and XXXX, and “Demo for Gathering Dust” is, as its title suggests, a version of a song on the Idiots Savants disc released last year, in which Vini shows off his acoustic guitar skills (though it gets a bit vague near the end as he riffs out on chords). “Cup a Soup Romance” is another guitar instrumental, and “Grief” is a solo piano piece.

All in all, another beautiful album from Vini Reilly. In a way, though, the three songs with vocals don’t really fit with the other eight tracks; this album would have been a bit more satisfying as an instrumental-only disc. But there’s not a weak song on it, and I’d recommend it to all, fans of The Durutti Column or newcomers.

Glenn Gould Box Set: Available Now

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As the holiday season approaches, it’s time for plenty of box sets to tempt music fans. This one, a collection of every recording Glenn Gould made, 80 CDs that resemble the original LPs, is a godsend for fans of the Great Gould. I have to admit having a weakness for Glenn, especially for his Bach recordings. While I own all his Bach, and much of his Beethoven, there are many discs I don’t have, and this set is very tempting indeed. Gould was one of those rare performers who lived a life dedicated to music his way. He famously gave up touring to focus on recording in the studio, looking for perfection with technology. This may or may not have been the best choice, but Gould’s recordings are some of the most idiomatic in the history of piano recordings.

Coincidentally, I recently read an interesting biography of Gould entitled Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. So I’m in the perfect mindset to listen to lots of Gould, and I’m looking forward to this set.

The Demise of the Recording Industry

As music fans know, the recording industry is in a shambles. The labels, and the RIAA, like to blame it on file sharing and illegal downloads, but what if the reality were different? What if the recording industry has sown the seeds of its own destruction? Prospect magazine has an interesting article looking at how the industry is killing itself, and how it seems unlikely to pull out of its current slump.

From the article:

“Yet the music industry itself must take some of the blame for the decline of the CD. For the past 15 years, free covermounts [CDs included for free] on magazines and newspapers, licensed or even paid for by record companies, have diluted the perceived value of recorded music in general and CDs in particular.”

Hattogate, or, The Music You Hear is Not What You Think

Fans of classical music know that there are great performers and there are the rest. But those with any experience listening to music also know that a lot of what you hear depends on context: if you think you’re hearing a great performer, you’re likely to appreciate their performance even more.

In addition to my activities writing about Macs and iPods, I also review CDs for MusicWeb, an independent British web site that publishes reviews of classical CDs. So I was quite amused this morning when I read an article on the web site of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, entitled Masterpieces Or Fakes? The Joyce Hatto Scandal.

Joyce Hatto is a late pianist who had recorded a handful of good discs then suffered from cancer, from which she died in June 2006. Somewhere in the past year of her life, recordings started spewing out from a small label, run by her husband, showing this woman to have a surprising range of talents, and Gramophone, along with other publications, began championing these recordings. But some months ago, posters to the rec.music.classical.recordings newsgroup began questioning the possibility that this woman could have played all these works, with styles that sounded so different. One poster said:

“After hearing so much about Joyce Hatto, I started purchasing some of her recordings. While nothing I have heard is bad (in fact, I am glad I bought these CDs), I have noticed something eerie: that the pianist playing the Mozart sonatas cannot be the pianist playing Prokofiev
or the pianist playing Albeniz. I have the distinct feeling of being the victim of some sort of hoax. Does anyone else share these feelings?”

Well, where I come from, you might say, “them’s fightin’ words”, but they incited some people to start looking more closely at this phenomenon. The results seem to be clear (as shown in the Gramophone article linked above): not only was this a hoax, but a purely monetarily-driven one, which simply took copies of some works, fiddled with others, and released them to a world of people who fawn after the latest sensation.All this raises many questions, of course. First, you have to feel bad for the professional critics who, hearing something they liked, not only lauded it, but created the context to fulfill their wishes with each subsequent recording from this pianist. Second, it shows that there are, perhaps, some recordings by lesser-known musicians that had been “pirated” and branded with the Joyce Hatto name which merit further attention. Had these same critics panned the discs that were the actual sources of the Hatto recordings?

Finally, and perhaps more important, it shows the futility of any kind of criticism. Well, you can’t copy books or movies, but for classical music where critics review not so much the music as the interpretation and performance, how much criticism is truly objective? Perhaps it is time for critics to work blindly, getting nothing but blank discs (or digital files) and reviewing these, then, only after the reviews are filed, finding out who the performers are. This would, of course, not be to the liking of the major record labels, for whom marketing is often more important than actual performances. (Granted, this is only really valid for instrumental performances; it is relatively simple to recognize a familiar voice in an opera or other vocal recording.)

There has always been criticism of critics, but nowhere other than the classical music arena does the concept of “great performances” or “reference performances” hold sway. These are the benchmarks against which other performances are measured, and they can be self-fulfilling: the more familiar you are with your benchmark, the more you will like it and reinforce its validity.

I tend to be somewhat obsessive about music, and, for some composers, actively seek out different versions of works I like in order to have a variety of performances, because no one performance can be considered final or perfect. I have never succumbed to unfailing appreciation for a specific artist (though Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is by far my preferred singer of German lieder), and tend to search broadly. It’s a shame for those who do think they found the new musical messiah, and many music publications–including Gramophone, who will have to make a serious mea culpa–will suffer from this type of hoax.

While it’s almost surprising this hasn’t happened before, there are actually a few reasons that make this case different from others. Joyce Hatto had not performed anywhere for a long time, so no one would have been able to compare her performance style with her recordings. Also, this was a very small label, and, while Hatto-mania may have blossomed, it certainly never went far enough to generate large sales. It seems that the greed behind this hoax was limited to a single person, the late pianist’s husband.

But with digital technology so prevalent, such that anyone can copy a CD and release it as their own, no one has time to check all the recordings that are released to make sure they are what they say. (Kudos to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for taking the time to analyze these recordings down to their waveforms; check this link for examples, both audio and visual, proving that the Hatto recordings are not indeed Hatto recordings.) While it is unlikely that there are many unscrupulous record labels who would consider perpetrating such a hoax, the cat’s out of the bag, and this may give ideas to others. Caveat emptor, right?

Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won’t benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.

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