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Listening Post/ Brief reviews of select releases


Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (3 CD/2 CD/3 CD 3 LP/3 LP/2 LP/Digital Download; Atlantic/Rhino). Trying to declare a single Led Zeppelin album to be the ultimate one is as tough as declaring a favorite Beatles collection, or offering a definitive argument as to why “Sticky Fingers” is a stronger Rolling Stones album than “Exile On Main St.” Everyone’s got their opinion. That said, it’s tough to deny that 1975’s “Physical Graffiti” is the Zeppelin release that most ably displays the broad capabilities of this, the greatest rock band of the 70s, or quite possibly, of any decade. It helps that it’s the only Zeppelin studio album that was granted four sides of vinyl across which to weave its spell. “Graffiti” didn’t waste any of that space – there are no songs here that are less than awesome. Zeppelin is so often mislabeled a “heavy metal” band, which is absurd, and this album should be the one that is employed to deflate such nonsensical assertions. Here, we’ve got heavy progressive blues, (“Custard Pie,” “In My Time of Dying”) multilayered slabs of post-blues heaviness, (“The Rover,” “Ten Years Gone”) and music that simply defies any sort of off-hand description, a la the world music strut of “Kashmir,” the dreamy, hypnotic progressive rock of “In the Light,” and the pure majestic sleaze of “The Wanton Song.” Zeppelin did what Zeppelin pleased, and connected its eclecticism to cohesion through the strength of the performances – from all four members, each of whom could be pulled aside and celebrated as an absolute lord of their own realm, but each just as adept at being a team player. And all with the forward-looking genius of Jimmy Page’s production. Page handled the remastering and remixing of this glorious new “Deluxe Edition” – the original album in its definitive presentation, plus seven tracks of bonus material featuring some torrid working versions and early mixes of “Graffiti” classics – as he’s been doing for the past few years as he works his way through the entire Zeppelin oeuvre. There is no better person for the job – all four band members were necessary for the creation of the considerable magic, but the sonic vision for the group belonged to Page, and he is the only man worthy to tackle the job of protecting this recorded legacy. “Graffiti” is certainly one of the 25 most significant recordings in the history of rock music. Thanks to Page, we now have the definitive edition of this masterwork.  (Jeff Miers)


Nielsen, Symphonies 1-6 performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Daivs (LSO, three discs). Credit must always be extended to Lennie – Leonard Bernstein – when the subject is Carl Nielsen. Nielsen was almost exclusively the property of the Danes until Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in an atom-smashing recording of the Danish composer’s Fifth Symphony. Here was music, like the Shostakovich Fifth, that was simultaneously exciting, modern and enormously expressive in communicating with modern ears. When Michael Tilson Thomas once conducted it with the Buffalo Philharmonic, he had to reassure the orchestra in rehearsals that the music, however rudimentary it sometimes is, was always enormously affecting with today’s classical audiences. None of the rest of Nielsen’s symphonies has quite the same effect on audiences as the fifth symphony, but a few of them – the fourth “Inextinguishable,” second “The Four Temperaments” and sixth “Sinfonia Semplice” – have achieved prominence in programs throughout the Western world that they never had before Bernstein’s record of the Fifth engendered so many sudden Carl Nielsen partisans. It stands to reason that Sir Colin Davis – acknowledged as his time’s great Berlioz conductor – would be a first-rate conductor of Carl Nielsen and he is. There are, to be sure, more visceral interpretations of this music (Bernstein’s, of course) but in a surprisingly hefty number of complete recordings of the Nielsen symphonies, this holds its own more than nicely.  (Jeff Simon)


Liszt, Piano Sonata and other works for solo piano performed by Angela Hewitt (Hyperion). Not only are there no bad Angela Hewitt records, there are no merely mediocre ones. Nevertheless, if you were to speculate that she is far from an optimal Liszt pianist – simply on the basis of her history with Bach and Beethoven, among others – you wouldn’t be wrong here. Her essays accompanying her discs are as much a reason to treasure them as most of her performances of the music. When, here, she begins by saying that “no young pianist eager to make his or her mark should totally ignore the works of Franz Liszt” you know already that she is talking about a composer that didn’t immediately speak to her. She admits as much freely but also says that she learned and now says “throughout my career I’ve brought the Sonata in B-Minor out of the cupboard at regular intervals and always dreamed of recording it...[It] is quite simply one of the greatest works ever written for solo piano by any composer. I am as moved performing it as I am playing Bach’s Goldberg variations – although of course in a different way. Both works leave me feeling that our everyday worries are so trivial and unimportant.” Her disc is filled out with exceptional performances of the Sonetto 47 del Petrarca, Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, Sonetto 123 del Petrarca and “Apres une lecture du Dante– Fantasia quasi Sonata.” They are, writes Hewitt, from “Liszt’s earlier years when his fame as a virtuoso was at its peak.” She is a fine Liszt pianist, however temperamentally out of perfect sync with the Lisztian universe (not always a fatality for a pianist. Louis Lortie was by no means temperamentally perfect to play Liszt on disc but his Liszt recording is magnificent.) ½ (Jeff Simon)


Ascendit Deus, Music for Ascensiontide and Pentecost, The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, The Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross, director. (Harmonia Mundi USA). These 14 choral pieces, Catholic and Protestant, in honor of Ascension and Pentecost, mix old and new music. The disc opens with a luminous “Ascendit Deus” by the Renaissance composer Peter Philips that is like a burst of light. A simple and serene Pentecost hymn is excerpted from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt.” Gerald Finzi’s “God is Gone Up” is an ethereal a cappella creation. Finzi succeeds in trying to make the music sound airborne. Elgar’s “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me” starts out with a subdued sound but goes on to thrilling moments. Elgar understood drama. Jonathan Harvey’s “Come, Holy Ghost” was inspired by the “Veni Creator Spiritus,” the beautiful, ancient chant that inspired Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The Credo from a 1920 Mass by Swiss composer Frank Martin was an interesting mix of old and new. Ross’ own “Ascendo ad Patrem Meum,” speaking of fusion, mixes Thomas Tallis with soprano saxophone. As you can guess by that, whether you like a lot of this will be determined by your taste. The dissonances and fanfares of the newer pieces got were too much for me. The modern composers seem to have put cleverness over soul – trying, say, to suggest the rising of Christ into the sky with various instruments and effects without considering whether the resulting music is actually any good. But I love the idea of this disc, and I loved the hidden treasures. The performances, as expected, are top notch.  (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Sol Gabetta, Prayer, With the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thompson, the Orchestre National de Lyon, Leonard Slatkin. (Sony Classical). A few weeks ago at Kleinhans Music Hall the Israeli cellist Amit Peled played an encore so lovely that people kept wanting to know what it was. It was “Prayer,” the opening movement from Ernest Bloch’s “From Jewish Life.” That suite of five pieces begins this beautiful CD by cellist Sol Gabetta. Gabetta really gets that Jewish klezmer sound. You hear it especially in “Jewish Song,” but she enjoys giving free reign to it throughout the disc. You hear it also in Bloch’s “Schelomo” and in the four pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry.” The Shostakovich pieces marvelously capture the spirit of Jewish culture in czarist Russia, at least I imagine they do. “A Warning” is a kind of dance, with the rhythm of “If I Were a Rich Man” (actually that is a rhythm you hear often throughout the disc). Gabetta closes the disc with “The Song of the Birds,” which her hero, Pablo Casals, wrote based on a Catalan Christmas carol and used to play as an encore. – ½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Zhenya Strigalev’s Smiling Organizm, “Robin Goodie,” (Whirlwind). No one can say that America hasn’t extended maximum hospitality to Russian alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev, who was born in St. Petersburg and spent time in London before coming to New York and recording this, his second disc. Just looking at the personnel of the group that comprises Strigalev’s “Smiling Organizm,” you expect so much more than the disc ultimately offers: trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassists Larry Grenadier and Tim Lefebvre (Lefebvre on bass guitar) and Charles Lloyd’s extraordinary drummer Eric Harland. That’s a spectacular aggregate by almost any 21st century jazz standard. If only the music on the disc were as friendly to the listener as American jazz has been to Strigalev in offering him its best young musicians to perform his music. Strigalev’s very explanation for the disc sounds as if it’s meant to be cheeky and avant and fails: “a mixture of Robin Hood and boogie woogie.” (The next step in progress after Beowulf Mixed with Ragtime, I suppose.) The tunes are the alto saxophonist and composer’s and they’re in an abstract bebop mode that, frankly, offers precious few rewards even the second and third times you listen to the disc. The ensemble voicings of Strigalev with Akinmusire on trumpet are particularly off-putting. There are, to be sure, a few good solos on the music, especially by pianist Talor Eigsti. And there is no jazz disc possible that doesn’t benefit considerably from Eric Harland on drums. But the now-cliched phrase “listener friendly” was invented for a reason. And that reason was, sadly, not to describe the music on this disc, however ambitious. ½ (Jeff Simon)

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