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Listening Post: BPO's recording of Wagner leads off new releases


Wagner, Orchestral Music from "Der Ring des Nibelungen" performed by Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta (Naxos). If you take an historical overview of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra you have to conclude that no BPO conductor has achieved anything close on record with the orchestra to the recording presence that Falletta has. Foss' avant-garde influence on the BPO was profound on the orchestra and the city, but the recordings he produced weren't. Michael Tilson Thomas' decision to use the  BPO to record the complete music of Carl Ruggles was the BPO's most consequential recorded moment, along with its recording of Terry Rley's "In C." But you could argue that the BPO's records for Naxos have been the fulfillment of the orchestra conducted years ago by Steinberg and Krips. It's Naxos' marvelous insistence on using the BPO for "big" works with a "big" orchestral sound are making every new disc a potential wonderment. They aren't all on the level of the BPO's version of Gliere's "Ilya Murometz" Symphony no. 3 (probably the orchestra's most arresting performance on record), but this is a work of immense musical substance performed by the orchestra with the sonic size and authenticity one could hope for. The significance can't be overstated. Wagner's "Ring" cycle requires, from listeners, an investment of time and dedication hard to come by in the digital age. To hear so much of its wonderful music, this one disc Falletta anthology of Wagner's "Ring" sans voices presents a near-perfect distillation for novices of the genius of a composer who was a historical horror in countless ways (racial, personal) but, undeniably one of the most sublime who ever lived along with it. ★ ★ ★ ★

Rachmaninov, "24 Preludes" performed by pianist Nikolai Lugansky (Harmonia Mundi). After being forced by international fans to play his C-Sharp minor prelude constantly, the great composer/piano virtuoso Sergei Rachmaninov took to calling the piece "it" with all the frigidity and consternation that famous musicians usually feel toward their big audience hits. It's a great piece of music deserving of no contempt from the rest of us who, nevertheless, do need to understand a performer's feelings about playing it to death. But what this fine record by a Russian Rachmaninov specialist accomplishes is the placement of "it" where "it" belongs--away from concert applause and among the composer's 24 preludes where it is, in context, stellar but entirely in place. ★ ★ ★ ½


Miles Davis and John Coltrane, "The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series Vol. 6" (Columbia/Legacy four discs). This doesn't merely present jazz history, it makes some. I don't know if there is any better extant collection of performances that encase a  revolutionary moment better than this one. On John Coltrane's final European tour with Miles Davis in 1960, you can hear Coltrane bursting wildly, explosively and gloriously out of the decorous confines of Miles' late-'50s quintet. Coltrane is hereby informing the world that he was already done with his musical "Miles Davis period" in his head and well past his "sheets of sound" (as Ira Gitler called them) into musical adventuring that would transform jazz. Poor Davis, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb were playing impeccable music while their featured saxophonist was blowing the whole house down and, at every step, getting the lion's share of applause when the band was introduced by the tour's producer Norman Granz. Coltrane had already recorded "Giant Steps." Everyone knew by this time that he was onto something different and immense. The cuts that turned into "My Favorite Things" were just months away from the new Coltrane group we now think of as his "classic quartet" (Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and eventually bassist Jimmy Garrison). You have to credit Davis for loving his tenor player so much that he put up with as much as he did. You'll note, if you listen closely, that Coltrane is playing "outside" far more at the beginning of the tour in Paris than he was later in Sweden and Denmark. That uncannily graceful rhythm section just kept on keeping on so that the musical bomb-thrower in their midst had a nice secure place from which to turn jazz upside down. This music's musical twin is, perhaps, the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop just before Eric Dolphy went off on his own to do things no one had ever heard before. Amazing music of an amazing jazz moment. ★ ★ ★ ★

Oscar Peterson, "Plays" Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin etc. (Verve, four discs.) Producer Norman Granz' contribution to jazz performance and recording will always be both monumental and controversial at the same time. Any man who invented the "beauty and beast" pairing of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong deserves the eternal gratitude of American listeners. On the other hand, any man so insensitive to how much he was overworking Fitzgerald and how much he was watering the music down deserves skepticism at the very least. Granz' devotion to what we now call the Great American Songbook was total. Before Fitzgerald recorded the "Song Books" that remain her musical monument, Granz' "discovery" Oscar Peterson recorded that repertoire in a series of records from 1951 to 1954 which included bassist Ray Brown on all and guitarist Barney Kessel eventually giving way to Herb Ellis. The piano trio of Nat "King" Cole was Peterson's main inspiration which means that much of this is all-too-well-behaved lounge jazz. Peterson still gave jazz a new kind of piano star--one who domesticated Tatum's virtuosity into a workmanlike jazz for everyone. Tatum was a musician's virtuoso. Peterson was a people's virtuoso. What we hear now, though, is that when his steel digits and hard-charging rhythmic dynamism were at the top of their proficiency, he was, in his time, one of the jazz wonders of the world. And his taste in sidemen was as good anyone's EVER. ★ ★ ★

Bill Frisell, "Music Is" (Okeh). The last anyone looked, this had somehow become the No. 1 jazz record in the country. If anyone had told Bill Frisell 20 years ago that would happen with his first solo record, he'd have been as flabbergasted as anyone else. Would you believe all of that with originals including tributes to Winslow Homer and Ron Carter? Well you should. Actually, no one should be surprised by Frisell's success playing for himself. If ever there were a jazz guitarist who seems to inhabit his own fully developed musical world, it's Frisell. Worth waiting for and then some. ★ ★ ★ ½

John Hollenback Large Ensemble, "All Can Work" (NWA). Drummer/composer John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble is my favorite jazz orchestra not named after Maria Schneider. Hollenbeck is fascinating proof that away from the centers of musical jazz commerce some of the most inspired large jazz orchestral music since Gil Evans is being made today. The title tune is a tribute to one of Hollenbeck's trumpet players, Laurie Frank, who died in 2013. Nor was she the only Hollenbeck friend who died in a brief period. The record is dedicated, too, to Bob Brookmeyer and Kenny Wheeler. Hollenbeck made a song out of Frank's short, gnomic e-mails--"I had a great time playing music," "Anything cool with me," "My mother didn't like me." Hollenbeck's inspirations here include Ellington and Shakespeare but also Kraftwerk. (Why not?) It reveals something new every time you listen to it which is what the great large jazz orchestras have always done. ★ ★ ★ ½

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