In addition to the recordings I included in the first part of “A Few of My Favorite Things” (Issue 129) there are many other recordings I enjoy having in my collection. If for some reason my first group of LPs and CDs spontaneously combusted, the following selections would do nicely as desert island picks. (YouTube references are provided.)
Various: Ninna Nanna ca. 1500-2002/Montserrat Figueras, vocals (AliaVox SACD) An unusual album of lullabies from a variety of sources and time periods performed by early music vocalist Montserrat Figueras accompanied by period instrument ensemble Hesperion XI. The first track draws me into the program not only because of the attractive music but the way it shows off Figueras’ lovely, clear voice. The album is (appropriately) a family affair: it includes Figueras’ husband Jordi Savall playing viola da gamba (“leg viol” – a precursor of the modern cello) and daughter Arianna Savall playing the triple harp (a Baroque harp with three rows of strings) as well as singing.
“Whether sacred or profane in their theme, whether flowing from the living tradition of diverse peoples and cultures or from the pens of great composers, lullabies continue to this day to hold a universal fascination for us all. While they form part of our everyday lives, they nevertheless often plumb unfathomable depths; they are ancient and yet continue to live through the ages, are astonishingly simple and yet endowed with an intensity of expression which strikes the most secret chords of our hearts and minds, perhaps because we recognize in them a glimmer of our own individual beginnings.” (Liner notes.)
And in Figuerras’ own words: “From ancient times, the lullaby has been one of the most intrinsic musical forms, present among all human communities, without exception. Its characteristic emotion and sensitivity make it the oldest expression of affection and tenderness known to music.”
Excellent production as usual from this group of musicians, with notes provided in several languages.
“José embala o menino” (“Joseph Rocks the Infant,” anon., Portugal):
Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas and Trio/Martin Fröst, clarinet (BIS SACD) While almost anything composed by Brahms is worth listening to, the pieces on this disc are especially noteworthy: The music features a clarinet which is much less common in Romantic chamber music than the usual strings. The second movement from the second sonata is superb: energetic, rhythmic and melodic – one of those “earworms” that sticks in your mind long after the piece has ended.
Sonata No. 2, Second Movement:
Various: Fred Hersch at Jordan Hall: Let Yourself Go/Fred Hersch, piano (Nonesuch CD) Years ago one of my English teachers told the class we should never describe something as “beautiful” because the word is too vague. It can mean so many things it’s basically meaningless.
I’m not so sure about that. Jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s performance of the traditional “Black is the Color” combined with Alex North’s love theme from the film Spartacus is, quite simply, “beautiful” however you want to interpret the word. The music builds nicely and is so moving I have my CD remote handy so I can hit replay as soon as the final note has finished sounding. This was Hersch’s first full evening solo concert (a faculty recital at the New England Conservatory of Music that was never planned as a release) after a hiatus of more than six months and represents what he cares about most: playing songs he loves and letting himself go.
“Black Is The Color — Love Theme From ‘Spartacus'”:
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 6 Op.80/ Quatuor Èbène (Virgin Classics/EMI CD) Unlike the composer’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this is angry and anguished music composed after Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny died. The siblings had an extraordinarily close relationship and Mendelssohn referred to this quartet as his “Requiem for Fanny.” There’s nothing gentle about the second movement of his sixth quartet. Some ensembles play it in a more measured manner but the Quatuor Èbène performs it with energy and heavily accented, syncopated rhythms…just what the music needs.
String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80, Second Movement:
Various: Orquesta Nova/Orquesta Nova chamber ensemble (Chesky CD) Some time ago producer David Chesky of audiophile label Chesky Records became interested in recording classics of Latin American popular music performed by a classical chamber ensemble. Orquesta Nova was the first of these efforts. The disc presents a variety of music originally carried out in dance halls, brothels and silent-movie houses, played here on instruments including the usual suspects (violin, viola, cello, bass) along with flute, saxophone, clarinet, guitar and harp. The entire disc is striking but the syncopated and rhythmically driven “Wapango” (a Mexican folk dance) is my favorite.
“Wapango” (Paquito D’Rivera):
Various: Entre Amigos/ Rosa Passos, vocals/guitar and Ron Carter, bass (Chesky SACD) In addition to being rhythmically driven, Latin American music can be soothing and understated with flexible rhythms that create an ebb and flow…a style typified by the Brazilian bossa nova popular in the 1960s. The bossa nova may be out of fashion but Entre Amigos presents a different approach to this genre. Of course “The Girl From Ipanema” makes an appearance and the popular “Desafinado” is on the program along with lesser known Brazilian songs – all performed with simplicity and grace rather than glitz. For example, the tall and tan and lovely “Girl from Ipanema” walks at a slower pace here than in the famous Getz/Byrd version which is suave and more pop-styled; “Desafinado” is gentler than Getz/Gilberto’s outgoing, more heavily rhythmic take.
Passos’ phrasing and timing along with Carter’s accompaniments make me feel like I’m in a cafe listening to quiet jazz rather than preparing to samba. The performances are more intimate than what we heard during the bossa nova wave, and just what I’m looking for when I’m in the mood to relax.
“Desafinado” (Antônio Carlos Jobim ):
Partch: Delusion of the Fury/Harry Partch, cond. (Columbia LP) Harry Partch was famous for inventing his own unique instruments and integrating his musical compositions with art, drama and dance. He has been described as an eccentric ex-hobo, a pioneer, a philosophic renegade and a ground-breaking instrument builder. His instruments are works of art tuned to a micro-tonal scale of 43 notes per octave instead of the standard 12 notes. Partch used these extra notes to create unusual sounds and express subtle feelings and emotions.
Delusion of the Fury is a stage work based on a Japanese Noh drama and an Ethiopian folk tale concerning the reconciliation of life and death. The original 3-LP album is a treat: It includes a complete performance of Delusion…, an extra LP describing the instruments and the sounds they make, and a large-format booklet showing the instruments.
In addition to the musical selection indicated below, a demonstration of some of Partch’s instruments (“The Harry Partch Instrumentarium”) can be found on YouTube at this link.
Act 1, Chorus of Shadows:
Various: Music from the Morning of the World – The Balinese Gamelan (Nonesuch LP) The bargain-priced Nonesuch label produced many albums that reflected their low price but also excellent recordings like those in their Explorer Series. The highlight of this LP is the Balinese monkey dance (ketjak) with its polyrhythms and yes…monkey-like chatter created by chanting the word ketjak (pronounced “yak”) quickly.
“As dusk falls, 200 men gather at the village meeting place, squatting close together in a circle on the ground. Silence falls, and then suddenly they begin the thrilling chant of ketjak, or monkey dance – a re-enactment of the Ramayana episode in which the monkey king Hanuman and his subjects helped the noble King Rama defeat the evil King Ravana.” (Liner notes.)
The cross rhythms and accents are so complex I hear something new every time I play the chant – complexities that would challenge Western musicians but come easily to many people in non-Western cultures.
“Ketjak Dance” (excerpt):
Sara K.: Closer than they appear/Sara K., vocals (Chesky CD) I came across Sara K. when I was listening to the Chesky jazz sampler/audio test album I described in my previous “Favorite Things.” Sara K. caught my attention because of her distinctive, angular sound: a combination of folk, blues and pop with abrupt shifts, fragmented rhythms and odd phrasing. I enjoyed the selection so much I bought the entire album and have played this track many times while both checking sound quality and listening for pleasure. The rest of the songs on the CD, all written by Sara K., are just as interesting and entertaining.
“Miles Away” (Sara K.):
Various: Divertissements: Fantasies and Impromptus/Lavinia Meijer, harp (Channel Classics SACD) Got harp music for depicting angels in heaven? For performing Pachelbel’s “Canon” at weddings? That’s almost all I thought harp solos were for until I discovered Divertissements. I was suspicious at first (20th century classical music written specifically for the harp?) but this is impressive. The superb resonance and remarkable flexibility of the instrument are qualities I wasn’t aware of before. And the compositions are as satisfying as music written for any other instrument. This is a great disc!
Trois Morceaux: Variations sur un thème dans le style ancien (Carlos Salzedo)
Glass: Metamorphosis/Lavinia Meijer, harp (Channel Classics SACD) Same artist as above performing transcribed music by minimalist composer Philip Glass in a selection that’s haunting and somewhat mysterious…far from heavenly but other worldly nevertheless.
Metamorphosis Five, Moderate:
Jenkins: The Armed Man – A Mass For Peace/ Karl Jenkins, cond. (Virgin Records CD) Here’s another of those guilty pleasures I shouldn’t enjoy but do. It isn’t very challenging or complex. Some of it sounds like the score for a biblical movie or Battle of the Titans – a popular music element not surprising because Jenkins used to be a jazz instrumentalist (playing oboe) and belonged to a rock band. But The Armed Man is also melodic, tonal and catchy when Jenkins hasn’t gone overboard. Most critics thought the piece was derivative and eclectic but admitted they liked it anyway. “Good” or “bad” music aside, whenever I listen to it I’m glad I did.
Nino Rota, others: Fellini Jazz/Enrico Pieranunzi Quintet (CAM CD) Nino Rota composed the scores for several well-known movies including Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and two of The Godfather films. He also wrote the scores for almost every film directed by Federico Fellini. Here, in Fellini Jazz, Pieranunzi leads his group in relaxing interpretations of music from a handful of Fellini films including some of my favorites (like the theme from La Strada) but missing some others (like the theme from 8 ½). Rota also wrote orchestral and chamber music but I don’t find the pieces I’ve heard as memorable as his film scores, which are always distinctive.
“Amarcord” (Nino Rota, from the film of the same name):
Various: Dancing in the Isles/Musica Pacifica (SOLIMAR CD) Not the Olympic airways ad from the 1960s where passengers listening to Greek music were told “please, no dancing in the aisles.” These selections of Baroque and traditional music from England, Scotland and Ireland are performed on period instruments by the early music group Musica Pacifica, a terrific ensemble I’ve heard many times at the Berkeley (CA) Early Music Festival – one of the largest early music festivals in the world. Every track on this recording is appealing so do clear the aisles…just remember to dance six feet apart.
“English Country Dances – Newcastle” (traditional):