2 stars (out of 4)
2.5 stars (out of 4)
The march of the bland continues with two new efforts from the "American Idol" pop star fantasy camp corporation. Taylor Hicks took last year's competition. Chris Daughtry didn't. Hicks came across on the show like your karaokesinging Uncle Bob, who loves to crank his Bob Seger albums and knock back a few Budweisers come the weekend. Daughtry appeared as the earnest rock guy, the tortured soul with a Creed and Nickelback fixation.
There is no way either of these guys would have record deals if they hadn't appeared on "Idol." Neither is a particularly brilliant singer, though both have some talent in that area. Nor do Hicks and Daughtry have much to say on the songwriting front. Both are lowest common denominator versions of the modern pop star, test marketed by eager Americans via the televised game show, and neatly slotted for their particular niche - Hicks as the meatand- potatoes everyman rocker, Daughtry as the mildly alternative arena- rocker.
Not surprisingly, both have delivered mediocre albums. Hicks would love to be Joe Cocker and Seeger, but lacks the vocal chops and musicianship of both. Overproduced by Matt Serletic, "Taylor Hicks" is a soggy noodle of a record, from the opening mall-rock of "The Runaround," through middle-of-the-road ballad "Heaven Knows," and most apparently when the singer attempts to tackle Marvin Gaye's "Wherever I Lay My Hat." It should be noted that Hicks, if he joined a band with some like-minded rockers - one of whom, hopefully, could write songs - might turn out to be not half bad. He sings with passion and conviction, but whatever talent he possesses is lost in the gauze of cliches that is his debut. It's a tired, generic affair.
Daughtry fares a bit better on his self-titled debut, which surprised everyone by selling briskly straight out of the gate. He does an adequate job of fitting the alt-rock singer bill throughout, and if he indulges in every Creed-based cliche there is, well, that's what he was groomed to do. At least he seems convinced of his path, investing some serious passion in well-worn metal bits like "What I Want," or churning out arena-rock fare such as "There and Back Again." Not surprisingly, like his heroes Scott Stapp and Chad Kroeger, Daughtry's downfall comes courtesy of a series of ridiculously overblown "Hold your cell phones in the air, people!" power-ballads. It's tough to forgive dreck like "Over You" and "Gone," though both are ready-made radio hits.
No surprises from Hicks or Daughtry. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
- Jeff Miers
George Szell Plays and Conducts Mozart
George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra, and assorted soloists
3 stars (out of 4)
George Szell, the longtime conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, gave the music all he had. The liner notes to this 10- CD Mozart collection tell how someone said to him, "You act as if this were life or death." Szell replied: "It is life or death."
The magical combination of a great conductor and a great orchestra shines in the lightness and grace of the underplayed 33rd Symphony, the strength and athleticism of the "Haffner." You hear it in the robust woodwinds in the finale of the 39th Symphony, and in the trumpets, boldly emphasized in the recording, that blast in that pioneering, astounding finale to the "Jupiter."
These are uncompromising, full-bodied performances. They include not only Symphonies 28, 33, 39, 40 and 41 but both piano quartets, the almost painfully exquisite Clarinet Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, the "Posthorn" Serenade, two divertimenti and more. As a bonus, you get extra monaural recordings.
The performances, which date from 1941 to 1971, only occasionally sound a bit dated. (An excessive cadenza in "Exsultate, Jubilate" made me giggle.) But the music almost never sounds fussy, as modern recordings can. Though it's correct and not excessive, it has a finely crafted, romantic intensity. The strings in the Andante of the "Jupiter" have a Wagnerian sensuality. Four sublime piano/violin sonatas, played by Szell and his concertmaster, Rafael Druian, make you marvel at what smoldering music this is.
The packaging's not perfect. Trumpeting the set as "The Original Jacket Collection," Sony reproduces, faithfully, the 18th century landscapes, German castles and dour photos of Szell that adorned the original album covers. But the notes on the back covers - they can't just shoot them down to size and expect anyone to be able to read them comfortably. You'd be better off scouring Goodwill for the original vinyl.
But back to Mozart: You could live your life listening to only his music and you wouldn't be shortchanged. There's always something new in it, something you'd swear wasn't there before. How fortunate that this collection reminds us of that, right at the close of the Mozart year. As the priest sometimes says at the end of Mass, our celebration is just beginning.
- Mary Kunz Goldman
Various artists and Composers
American Symphonies Collection
3 stars (out of 4)
Let's assume that, like Don Vito Corleone, you prefer to get bad news immediately. The notes to this astounding 25-disc - yes, 25-disc - set of recordings in Naxos' justly acclaimed American music series are negligible- to-nonexistent. Nor are all the individual choices the very best. Gerard Schwarz's recent recording of William Schuman's Third and Fifth symphonies is better than those heard here (which pairs Schuman's 7th and 10th and 4th and 9th symphonies). Why Howard Hanson's "Nordic" Symphony No. 1 and not his gorgeously melodic "Romantic" Symphony No. 2? And, as long as we're quibbling, where is a new recording of Walter Piston's expansive third symphony? And, yes, Charles Ives' unfinished fourth symphony presents a mountain of problems to anyone foolhardy enough to undertake it but its absence is, nevertheless, deeply felt by some of us here.
Blah, blah, blah. Those (and more of the same) are just the morsels of bad news inside this utterly whopping bit of seasonal glad tidings - a truly huge, budget-priced set of America's greatest symphonies from George Antheil's Fourth and Sixth to - are you ready? - the first and second symphonies of Meredith Willson, better known for "The Music Man."
What a mother lode of distinguished and too-often-overlooked music is here, from four symphonies by Roy Harris, Walter Piston and Schuman to three by Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem and David Diamond (along with his violin concerto) to total obscurities like the second of George Templeton Strong and Mrs. Amy Beach's "Gaelic" Symphony.
It used to be a half-century ago that if a major orchestra (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago) didn't deign to be interested in our native symphonic repertoire, recordings of it were likely to be horrifically under-rehearsed, acoustically clumsy and generally awful. Naxos has changed all that. Their roster of second-tier orchestras (including our own, though not here) has performed mightily for them. Listen - just for one example - to what James Judd and his New Zealand Symphony bring to Aaron Copland's Third Symphony which is, arguably, the great masterpiece of his career.
However weak this set is in amenities and luxe, it's a godsend of the basics in our native concert tradition.
- Jeff Simon