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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases


Snoop Dogg, “Bush” (Columbia). What’s not to love? For album number 13, Snoop Dogg drops his reggae-fried Snoop Lion persona, calls a bunch of his friends, throws a party, and records the results. There’s nothing groundbreaking happening on “Bush,” but the lack of challenging material leaves plenty of room for something that has been missing from hip-hop recently, as the form goes through yet another metamorphosis, led by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus – unstudied and easygoing fun. Working with producer Pharrell, and calling on A-listers like Lamar, Stevie Wonder and Charlie Wilson, Snoop reacquaints himself with the funk that fortified his earliest efforts, and does his lazy, mumbling, blissfully stoned thing while Pharrell summons the sounds of the ’70s to keep the boss in his happy state. Clock “California Roll,” an easygoing stroll of a tune pushed along by Wonder’s inimitable harmonica, and a slow, gooey chord progression. That languorous glow continues throughout the album, as Pharrell celebrates Funkadelic (“Peaches N Cream”) and Chic (“This City”) with a complete lack of self-consciousness – we’re all in on the joke, and it’s a good one. The funk here never gets too in your face – the Rick James influence is apparent, but it’s Rick James on downers, not pumped full of jet fuel. It ain’t deep, but then, enough other people are doing deep very well of late. 3 stars (Jeff Miers)


Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Cello Concertos performed by Steven Isserlis with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Jarvi (Hyperion); Shostakovich, Symphony No. 9 and Violin Concerto No. 1 performed by violinist Kavakos, the Marinsky Orchestra and conductor Valery Gergiev (Marinsky). It’s one of the more sinister ironies of culture and politics that if classical music were to be considered a battleground in the 20th century, the Russians and their former satellites have resoundingly won in the 21st century. While performances of 20th century American and French and English music fade in frequency, the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev is a constant as are the living Baltic Sea composers of former Soviet satellite nations (Estonia, Poland; move away from the Baltic Sea and add Hungary too.) What is incontestably true is that totalitarianism was good for maintaining orchestras and composers too, no matter how humiliating the battles of Prokofiev and, especially, Shostakovich were with Stalin and his cultural minions and thugs. Here are two discs of concertos by the great 20th century Russian composers who remained there, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. It is Isserlis and particularly his performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto which distinguishes these two superb discs. The Prokofiev Concerto isn’t nearly as well known as his Symphony-Concerto even though it was composed at about the same time as the ballet and film scores that are among Prokofiev’s most popular works of all – “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Alexander Nevsky.” The Shostakovich Cello Concerto, on the other hand, is one of the great masterpieces for the instrument and is always heard that way. Isserlis’ performances are predictably fine. It was during some of Shostakovich’s worst battles with cultural Stalinism that he wrote his violin concerto. Its premiere performance with David Oistrakh in Leningrad went unannounced. It is no wonder that when it is dark, it is very dark. And when it is suffused with Shostakovich’s famous “sherzo-ness,” it is slashing, mocking and raucous. Kavakos’ performance is capable but nowhere close in virtuosic level to Isserlis’ performance of Shostokovich’s Cello Concerto. Kavakos’ disc opens with Valery Gergiev conducting Shostakovich’s originally disappointing ninth symphony. Its reputation will never approximate the reputation of Shostakovich’s First, Fifth or even his embattled Fourth but in the face of his life struggles with his country’s vicious cultural politicians, its neo-classicism can’t help but appeal and impress. 3 1/2 stars for Isserlis cello concertos; three stars for Shostakovich Symphony and Violin Concerto. (Jeff Simon)


Riley, “Zofo Plays Terry Riley” (Sono Luminus, disc plus Blue Ray). Terry Riley will be 80 at the end of June. Though Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Nyman and early John Adams are what the classical music public usually thinks of as “minimalism” in music, it is, perhaps, Terry Riley, more than anyone who was the precursor of them all with his ’60s music along with La Monte Young. And it is, among the least-known triumphs of Buffalo musical life, that Buffalo figured crucially in Riley’s most influential work. On Dec. 19, 1967, Buffalo Creative Associates played Riley’s “In C” in Carnegie Hall and recorded it subsequently for Columbia. It is that record which had a huge influence on Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” and on the Who in, for instance, “Baba O’Riley.” Here all these years later is one of the finest Riley discs in a very long time – the 20-fingered single piano duo Zofo playing a truly gorgeous program of Riley’s music. “Zofo” we’re told is “shorthand for 20-finger orchestra” – in other words pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi playing duets on a single piano keyboard. While Riley’s influence remains immense, recordings of his vast catalogue of music are only recently getting to a point closer to its reputation. This is beautiful music and very different from both “In C” and the more familiar monomanias of Reich’s and Glass’ music. Zimmermann claims that Riley’s “music talks to me in away that I only have experienced with Schubert and Brahms or Brent Sorensen, the Danish composer. I feel a deep connection to his music. Preparing for this album, these pieces became the soundtrack of my life.” An 80th birtday present for Riley and the rest of us. 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)


Piotr Beczala, “The French Collection,” Opera arias by Bizet, Berlioz, Massenet, Gounod and Verdi, (Deutsche Grammophon). Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, at 48, is at the top of his game. Starting with his debut at Covent Garden in 2004, singing the flowery “Italian Tenor Aria” in “Der Rosenkavalier,” he has gloried in what the tenor voice can do. That joy shines in this collection, which has him singing arias from “Carmen,” “Werther,” “Don Carlos” and other operas more off the beaten track, such as Massenet’s “Le Cid”; Donizetti’s “Dom Sebastian”; and Berlioz’s “Beatrice et Benedict.” His voice has an urbanity and also a freedom, which I understand is kind of a nod to the liberties taken by singers of the past. He sounds spontaneous, not easy in music as demanding as this. And his high notes can have an exquisite quietude, always something to admire. Soprano Diana Damrau joins him in the tumultuous “Toi! Vous! – Oui, c’est moi.” from Massenet’s “Manon,” a duet he has also sung famously with Anna Netrebko. This collection serves as a good introduction to a terrific tenor. Beczala, by the way, studied with the great soprano Sena Jurinac, who made historic recordings with former Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director Josef Krips. 4 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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