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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Serj Tankian, "Elect the Dead" (Reprise). The erstwhile System of a Down singer ventures out on his own for what is a solo album in the truest sense -- Serj Tankian handles vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, programming, melodica and percussion on "Elect the Dead," a consistently inventive slab of progressive rock married to a socio-political manifesto. Nothing about the record is easygoing. Tankian is on fire, and he's got a boulder on his shoulder about the Bush administration, which should surprise no one who's been conscious for the past several years. He's also intent on deepening the blend of alternative, metal, progressive rock and hardcore hi-jinks System of a Down has traded in from the beginning. Throughout "Elect," Tankian clings to a persistence of vision, a confidence in the wonderful idiosyncrasies of his music. It's indeed jarring, for example, when "Money" moves rapidly between bits of folk rock, hardcore and opera within its first two minutes, but Tankian is sure-handed, and makes all of this madness seem both natural and seamlessly connected. Fans of Mike Patton and System of a Down, line up -- this one's got your name written all over it. Review: 3 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)



Shostakovich, Piano Concerto No. 1 in C-minor with trumpet and strings, Concertino for Two Pianos and Quintet for Piano and Strings in G-minor performed by pianist Martha Argerich with pianist Lilya Zilberstein, the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, violinist Renaud Capucon, cellist Mischa Maisky and others (EMI). All new discs from Martha Argerich are awaited major events in the tribe of classical pianophiles. This all-Shostakovich live disc from the 2006 Lugano Festival is that times three. The brash volatility of Shostakovich's masterly early (1933) Concerto No. 1 is ideal for Argerich, what with its romanticism and prestissimo nuttiness. But it's when a Parnassus of European virtuosos joins one of the world's most admired pianists (and why wouldn't they?) that this disc becomes extraordinary. The neo-classic 1940 Quintet came after the Stalinist musical bureaucrats got on his case and earned him the sneers of his fellow sufferer Prokofiev ("what astonishes me in this quintet is that so young a composer at the height of his powers . . . should so carefully calculate every note. He never takes a single risk"). A great work nevertheless and with Argerich joined by the likes of violinist Renaud Capucon and cellist Mischa Maisky, you're in towering disc territory. The two-piano concertino from 1953 has a sternness and dash of its own. Review: 4 stars (Jeff Simon)


Chopin, Complete Preludes, performed by pianist Jean-Francois Latour (ATMA Classique). The young Canadian pianist Jean-Francois Latour, who lives in Montreal, was something of a prodigy and, at 26, is making a name for himself. His playing has beauty and promise. Listening to these Chopin preludes, I was struck by the Spanish flair of No. 12, and the thunder of the last prelude. But Latour's immaturity shows in the way he doesn't do simple well. The opening prelude, in C, has a distracting jerkiness of tempo, and the beautiful B major prelude isn't allowed to, well, just be. You don't have to come out of the gate running, determined to reinvent the wheel. Review: 2 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Christmas Break: A Relaxing Classical Mix (Telarc). This is pretty relaxing. The key is, it's not predominantly classical. You get New Age piano (Michael Cherlock), and the no-stress harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. There are several excellent performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale, including a stark, stunning "In the Bleak Midwinter," though I think the producers should get coal in their stockings for including just one stingy verse of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." The violinist Joseph Silverstein gives the Largo from Vivaldi's "Winter" with the grace of a Romantic concerto, and the Empire Brass, so enchanting on last year's Ramsi P. Tick series, contributes a creative, unusual Coventry Carol, with singer Laurie Monahan. Just like a good Christmas, the good stuff outweighs the junk. Review: 3 stars (M.K.G.)


Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2 in G-Minor, Op. 16 and Ravel Piano Concerto in G performed by pianist Yundi Li and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Seiji Ozawa (Deutsche Grammophon). Prokofiev's Second is by no means a pianist's commonplace -- especially not among young piano virtuosi still on their first wave of heady international adulation. (The Third is another story entirely.) "Unjustly neglected," Li calls it. "Technically, speaking, one of the hardest works in the whole piano repertoire," says his conductor and mentor Seiji Ozawa. Li's performance of it here is so spectacular -- so tender and poetic one moment and gymnastic and dazzling the next -- that whatever neglect the music has suffered over the years seems ridiculous. So brilliant is Li's performance of it, in fact, that it renders his performance of the more familiar Ravel Concerto in G almost an anti-climax. Magnificent. Review: 4 stars (J.S.)



Alice Smith, "For Lovers, Dreamers & Me" (Epic). I guess modern R&B isn't dead after all. Alice Smith rocks the boat considerably with her debut effort, a record that employs as its basis classic R&B, but ultimately offers so much more than that. Weird, adventurous, humorous and soul-searing in equal parts, "For Lovers, Dreamers & Me" is an album that grows deeper with each listen. Though Smith offers her share of Gladys Knight-styled virtuosity, she's all over the map, arrangement-wise. There are elements of Nellie McKay's Broadway-the-hard-way esoterica, Rufus Wainwright's baroque drama, and the "old is the new new" '60s girl group meets hip-hop grooves Amy Winehouse excels at. But Smith inhabits a house of her own design here. She has so throughly manipulated the raw materials of her influences that "For Lovers" comes close to launching its own idiom. If you love R&B but have blanched of late at its shallow redundancy, Smith has your cure. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.M.)

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