Recently, I’ve had more time to poke around my “record collection,” i.e., anything I didn’t stream, download or mail-order last week. I focused on multichannel music, because I love it and it’s becoming an endangered species, at least in SACD form. So, Hail and Farewell? Not just yet.
What follows isn’t merely a stroll down memory lane—it’s notice given on a handful of discs, some of which may soon pass from the scene. They’re loosely grouped by the issuing record labels.
Rūpa-Khandha. (Music of Eric Guinivan, Sean Heim, Joseph Pereira, and Jeffrey Holmes.) Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. Sono Luminus DSL–92150, 2012. Blu-ray Pure Audio (7.1, 5.1, 2.0 mixes) and CD.
This collection pays tribute to earlier generations of West Coast experimentalists, people like John Cage, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, and Frank Zappa. Like them, it draws upon cultural traditions from the Pacific Rim, offering a rich assortment of instruments and playing techniques.
Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores took full advantage of the music’s immersive-audio potential. The four players are grouped in a circle around the mic array; you will hear djembes, tam tams, Chinese opera gongs, and more coming from all directions—musically, of course! The interplay of rhythms and timbres never stops. Please consume responsibly, a little at a time.
Sono Luminus has offered many other great recordings over the last two decades. They chose interesting projects, emphasizing new music. That helped for two reasons: (1) they weren’t competing with 80 other recordings of, say, the Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony, and (2) living composers and those who play for them are more comfortable incorporating immersive audio—they revel in the possibilities. Their multichannel sounds integral, not gimmicky.
More of the Sono Luminus catalog you should check out:
Sculthorpe: The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu. Del Sol Quartet, Stephen Kent. (DSL–92181). Australian composer + Aboriginal instrument = magic. Also, four landmark collections from younger Icelandic composers: In the Light of Air (DSL–92192, 2015); Aequa (DSL–92227, 2018); Recurrence (DSL–92213, 2017); Concurrence (DSL–92237, 2019). The first two are all-Anna Thorvaldsdottir extravaganzas featuring ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble; the last two offer works by Thorvaldsdottir and six others including Daniel Bjarnason, who conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on both albums. Finally, Ensemble Galilei: From Whence We Came (DSL–92194, 2015), in which a great Celtic/Early-Music/Americana group gets the immersive treatment for their 25th anniversary.
Kodály/Ravel/Schulhoff Duos for violin & violoncello. Liza & Dmitry Ferschtman. Challenge Classics CC72542, 2012. Hybrid SACD (5.1, 2.0 mixes).
A set of string duos might seem unsuited to multichannel treatment. Yet producer-engineer Bert van der Wolf aimed to create nothing less than “a realistic and holographic three-dimensional representation” of the Ferschtmans’ electrifying performances. The recording puts them front-and-center. It doesn’t “surround” us but simply delivers some of the juiciest, most corporeal string sound ever produced. Father and daughter hold nothing back, and yet there’s remarkable unity—intimacy, even—in their approach. Eyeball to eyeball, they never step on each other’s lines. My favorite is the Kodály, but Schulhoff’s 1925 jumble of Schoenberg, gypsy music, and jazz is worth hearing. Here’s a taste of it:
My interest in Challenge Classics came about largely because of my respect for Bert van der Wolf, but they have assembled a wide-ranging catalog, well worth further exploration. To learn more about Bert, click here to revisit my interview with him.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas. SFS Media 821936–0002–2, 2003. Hybrid SACD (5.0, 2.0 mixes).
Thomas became Music Director of the San Francisco SO in 1995 and is now Music Director Laureate. One of his hallmark achievements in San Francisco was a Mahler Project, multiple performances of Mahler’s symphonies and other works; a set of live recordings was released between 2001 and ’09. (Another achievement was the clever use of new media as outreach.) Engineer Andreas Neubronner was joined by David Kawakami and Colin Cigarran of the Sony SACD Project and assisted by Jack Vad, who eventually assumed leadership for all SFSO live recordings; Gus Skinas and Dawn Frank pitched in too. Their collective efforts established a new benchmark for symphonic sound.
Not every symphony in the set is equally successful, but this one ranks among the best. Wide, deep soundstage; enormous dynamic range; and loads of detail support an inspired reading that brings out what’s essential in this early, much-revised work. Thomas paces the lengthy opening and closing movements judiciously, never breaking the narrative thread or overplaying the moment. In his hands the music effortlessly unfolds in a near-perfect realization of Mahler’s world.
The SFSO was not the only orchestra that started its own label and offered multichannel wares over the years. Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project deserves an entire column to themselves, which I’ll get around to giving them soon. In the meantime, remember CSO Resound, which has been bringing the “Chicago sound” to far-flung listeners since 2007. Riccardo Muti led most of those releases, but check out Chicago Symphony Brass Live (CSOR 901 1103, 2011), with music by Walton, Gabrieli, Bach, Grainger, et al—especially if you’ve long since worn out your copy of Music for Organ, Brass and Timpani (Anthony Newman, Graham Ashton and friends; Sonoma SAC–001, 2004).
Crusell: The Three Clarinet Concertos; Introduction et air suédois. Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Michael Collins. Chandos CHSA 5187, 2018. Hybrid SACD (5.0, 2.0 mixes).
Here’s a collection of wind concertos by someone unfamiliar even to classical aficionados, Finnish composer and clarinetist Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775–1838). Crusell’s interest in the clarinet built upon its use by Mozart, who wrote a concerto and chamber music for his friend Anton Stadler, and Carl Maria von Weber, who created a series of clarinet-centric works for his friend Heinrich Baermann. The dawn of the Industrial Age brought new developments in clarinet design—specifically an increasingly sophisticated system of keys and pads—that revolutionized the instrument’s capabilities; Crusell made the most of them.
Although prolific, Crusell was not a Romantic, so his music languished during the century to come. Virtuosos like Collins have revived his reputation; the sparkling works presented here more than justify that effort. Modern clarinets have a range of three-octaves-plus and can generate astonishing cascades of sound, all of it colored by the instrument’s warm (yet distinctly “cool”) timbres. Recorded with three-dimensional, holographic accuracy at the Konserthuset, Örebro, Sweden; produced by Ralph Couzens for Chandos.
Chandos, a family-run label, has survived by emphasizing “local,” i.e., British artists and composers. It helps that they have cultivated exclusive recording arrangements with A-list conductors like Edward Gardner and Sir Andrew Davis. Like other Chandos artists, Gardner and Davis often record abroad and feature a cosmopolitan repertoire as well (e.g., Gardner’s Lutosławski series, Davis’s Ives). Their SACD releases emphasize large-scale music: orchestral works, oratorio, opera. It’s a shrewd long-range strategy.
Russian Violin Concertos. (Music of Khachaturian, Prokofiev, and Glazunov.) Julia Fischer, Yakov Kreizberg, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics 5186 059, 2004. Hybrid SACD (5.0, 2.0 mixes).
Oh, PentaTone! Or Pentatone, as it called itself after rebranding (“Sit back and enjoy”). Launched early in the century by a group of former Philips engineers and producers, it strove to continue a distinguished recording tradition in the face of draconian corporate consolidation. Pentatone and Polyhymnia International, a sibling born of the Philips breakup, underwent further growing pains as the old gang made its way into the 21st century. Julia Fischer’s recordings with the label were a bright spot in its early history, not least because conductor Yakov Kreizberg offered superlative support, especially when the RNO was involved. Later the label began signing “name” artists, for example:
Messiaen: Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Pentatone PTC 5186 670, 2018. Three hybrid SACDs (5.0, 2.0 mixes) plus DVD.
Aimard’s first-ever recording of this monumental work by one of the giants of 20th-century music reflect his long personal association with the composer and his wife Yvonne Loriod. This was also the pianist’s debut album for Pentatone. They created a nice package, including a video disc in which he comments on these birdsong-based compositions. My box set came with a strange little surprise: a couple of feathers. Lovely? Or a bit creepy? I hope the bird didn’t miss ‘em. The recorded piano sound will—of course—knock you out.
Go bravely forward, Pentatone. Find your own, singular way in the marketing nightmare that is 21st-century classical music. I’m glad you nurtured Julia, glad you’re sheltering relatively young talents like Johannes Moser, Arabella Steinbacher, Alisa Weilerstein. And if you could keep bringing out a multichannel disc now and then, that would be wonderful.
(There’s more to come. Stay tuned for Mk II.)