Martha Argerich, The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (Deutsche Grammophon, 48 discs). It is universally agreed that there is no greater living pianist than Martha Argerich. On this mammoth and beautifully presented 48-disc box set – a monarch among classical box sets for gift giving season – you’ll hear the music that convinced the modern classical world of the 71-year old pianist’s supremacy beginning in the ’60s. These are not just her recordings for DGG but for Phillips too. “A living legend” is what box notater Gregor Willmes justly calls her and does his best to tell us why – how, for instance, when Argerich was 7 years old “she performed Mozart’s D-major concerto, Beethoven’s C-major concerto and Bach’s Fifth French Suite, all on the same evening, producing what her French biographer, Oliver Bellamy, has described as a ‘veritable frenzy’ in her audience.” “Even as a girl” said her (brief) teacher Frederich Gulda, “she really could do anything.” And that is what she does pretty much on these 48 discs with a frequent magnificence – and nothing less than proficiency – that couldn’t help but be the stuff of legend. She began in 1960 showing the world that she could perform an LP of Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel and Prokofiev all together. That, she staked out from the beginning, as her territory – classic era masterworks, romantic masterworks and modern masterworks, all liable to be given inspired treatment. Her 1977 recording of Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” with Leonard Bernstein and 1981 recording of Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra with Nelson Freire and David Zinman are as Olympian as her performances of Beethoven and Brahms. Nothing seems to daunt her – Janacek, Lutowslawski, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, all by the same pianist so exceptional in Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. “Her recording of Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata continues to set the bar for others” says Willmes. She’s been as dedicated to chamber music as solo and duo performance. She has survived her bouts with cancer and, become in our 21st century world, the pianist who prevails, in many views, over all others. In this gigantic box set, anyone who can understand why that is. ŒŒŒŒ (Jeff Simon)
Bach, Unaccompanied Cello Suites performed by Inbal Segev (Vox, two discs), Cello Suites According to Anna Magdelena performed by Matt Haimovitz (Pentatone, two discs). Here are two cellists of an age – mid-40s – both using the same versions of Bach’s glorious music for unaccompanied cello. It’s an irony in our era that when episodic television wants to show us murderers who listen to classical music, they love to break out Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, some of the least violent music ever written. They are ubiquitous for cellists now and have been for more than 60 years (when their great exponents were Janos Starker, Paul Tortelier and Pablo Casals who found them, as Matt Haimovitz says “at a secondhand music store in his native Barcelona in 1890.”) With almost every modern cellist of note since Casals giving their latest thoughts on Bach, there are so many extant versions that there are many greater than these two. Both are interesting nevertheless. The better played, by far, is by Israeli cellist Segev who admits “it takes a bit of chutzpah to do it, and naivete as well.” Her performances are warm, strong and fluid. Haimovitz is nothing if not a musician of notable chutzpah (he likes performing in nightclubs, for instance, and playing jazz.) But his Bach cello suites somehow seem lacking in both the fluidity and virtuoso joy found by the greatest exponents of these very great works. Ratings: ŒŒŒ for Segev, ŒŒ½ for Haimovitz. (Jeff Simon)
Nessun Dorma, The Puccini Album, Jonas Kaufmann, tenor, Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Antonio Pappano, conductor (Sony). My dad used to say that the line separating Puccini and Broadway was faint, and listening to this disc I remembered his opinion and agreed with it. I cannot imagine anyone who loves “The Phantom of the Opera” not thrilling to the love duet from “La Boheme.” This recording is especially enticing. Kaufmann puts a lot of himself into the music, bringing a fresh emotion even to music you may have heard 100 times. His singing is extremely masculine, projecting resonance and depth rather than delicacy. And somehow the whole approach works to bring back the idea of opera as popular entertainment. In real life, too, Kaufmann harks back attractively to the days when opera stars were real celebrities, figures of gossip and speculation. Rakishly handsome and tousled, he had to deny rumors earlier this year that he was having an affair with Madonna (who has reportedly expressed a desire to work with him). He and the assembled musical forces on this disc approach everything on all cylinders, from Cavaradossi’s passionate “Recondita Armonia” (“Tosca”) to “Addio, Fiorito Asil” from “Madame Butterfly.” There is also a torrid excerpt from the seamy “Il Tabarro,” which Nickel City Opera performed two hot nights on the USS Sullivans, remember? The fevered heat of this music could turn anyone into an opera fan. By the way, if you are a newcomer, the booklet has nice notes, texts and translations. ŒŒŒŒ (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Francesco DiFiore, Pianosequenza: Piano Music in Film – Nyman, Glass, DiFiore, Tiersen, Susman performed by pianist Francesco DiFiore (Zefir). A very cool idea for a record, well-played. “Pianosequenza” is an Italian term for “a film procedure coinciding with an entire sequence which then develops in a single frame.” What you have here is music composed for certain films which, says the performing pianist is “a video concert” with music. So a lot of great music for piano in recent movies is here, originally performed by DiFiore in concert with video imagery – Michael Nyman’s wonderful music for “The Piano,” and Peter Greenaway’s “A Zed and Two Naughts,” Philip Glass’ music for “The Hours” and “The Truman Show” along with Yann Tiersen’s lesser -known music for “Amelie” and DiFiore’s own music for Giuseppe Gigliorosso’s “At Precisely Six O’Clock.” Glass’ “Hours” music and DiFiore’s music are inaccurately transposed in the disc contents, but it’s all very much of a musical ilk. It’s a splendid piano anthology of minimalist piano music for movies, nevertheless, that proves the obvious point that a lot of wonderful piano music of minimalist character in our era has been composed to accompany movies. ŒŒŒ½ (Jeff Simon)
Patrick Williams, Home Suite Home (BFM Jazz). You’ve been hearing the music of Patrick Williams your entire life and almost certainly never known it. He is almost ubiquitous as a film and TV composer but his name is virtually unknown outside of jazz during those periods when he takes one heck of a busman’s holiday and turns out some jazz records. Let’s admit the more sniffish jazz listeners will take a look at the list trumpeted on the cover of this disc and get very suspicious: Patti Austin, Frank Sinatra Jr., Dave Grusin, Tom Scott and Arturo Sandoval. Two names that might indicate how beautiful his disc “Home Suite Home” is can allay a lot of fears: Tierney Sutton and Peter Erskine. Singer Sutton is too good to appear in pop jazz junk of any kind. And drummer Peter Erskine makes almost everyone sound better just by being there. What you’ve got here, then, is one of the great veteran coastal composer/arrangers getting personal and working with a big roster of players who have, literally, been with him for many decades – Grusin, Scott, Erskine, bassist Churck Berghoffer, saxophonist Dan Higgins. Williams has spent the past half-century as an indefatigable composer/arranger for film and TV – the one who wasn’t Quincy Jones or Henry Mancini or Mike Post or Oliver Nelson. He’s written music for such films as “Breaking Away,” and “Casey’s Shadow” and such TV shows as “Columbo,” “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” “Lou Grant,” and “The Streets of San Francisco.” He’s a major reason why jazz is the sound of crime and smart alecky on television. Whenever possible, he makes jazz records to make himself happy. Which is what he no doubt is with this one where this master of his trade gets personal. He wrote pieces in honor of his wife and kids and also, along with it, honored and long-gone friends like composer/arranger Neil Hefti and drummer/holy terror Buddy Rich. Are you ready for a duet with Frank Sinatra Jr. and Tierney Sutton? If not, don’t worry. They are. His musicians are as good as they currently are on the West Coast. The sound of this band is so clean that it’s pristine. So is the record engineering. His compositions don’t begin to have the ambition of great jazz composer/arrangers like Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Oliver Nelson and Maria Schneider. When they’re played and recorded this well, they don’t really have to.
It’s the distillation of quintessential, high-gloss coastal jazz. ŒŒŒ (Jeff Simon)
Ochion Jewell with Lionel Loueke, Volk (self-produced). There is a harrowing tale behind “Volk.” In 2011, tenor saxophonist from Kentucky Ochion (pronounced “Ocean”) Jewell was walking home in Brooklyn when he was beset by men in street clothes who attacked him, called him by a different name and asked bewildering questions he couldn’t answer. He realized he wasn’t being mugged when he awoke later in handcuffs. When police realized their mistake they found a vial which had once contained cocaine and kept him in jail for 27 hours. A judge dismissed the charges and Jewell subsequently sued the NYPD. “I wanted justice,” Jewell says. “My goal was to get these guys’ badges taken away. But the lawyer just laughed and said ‘that never happens. If you want justice in New York, go for money.’ ”So he did and won and created for his quartet this work he’d never have been able to create without the wherewithal that came from the settlement. His group consists of a Moroccan-born pianist, a Persian-American bassist and a Pakistani-American drummer. The music here derives from the folk music of Andalusia, Finland, Ireland, Scotland, North Africa (the Gnawa people whose music was adapted before by Randy Weston) and his own Appalachian roots – “Oh Shenandoah,” and “Black is the Color.”How strange a beginning for a disc that is both ambitious and accomplished. ŒŒŒ (Jeff Simon)