Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Memorable Recordings in 2018

This was a good year for listening to recorded music. As I observed at the beginning of this month, the annual GRAMMY award nominations seemed to align more with recordings I had discussed on this site than it had in previous years. Mind you, this is not an endorsement for the overall GRAMMY policy, which, whether we like it or not, is guided more by commercial value than by any aesthetic criteria. Indeed, while the overlap may have been greater, there were really only two albums on the list that really got my juices flowing.

One of those was the May release by Palmetto Records of its album of jazz pianist Fred Hersch, entitled simply Live in Europe. This is a trio album that has Hersch playing with John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums; and it documents a single date in Belgium at Flagey Studio 4, formerly the home for the National Institute for Radio Broadcasting in Brussels. However, I cannot acknowledge this album without also recognizing Palmetto’s second Hersch release at the beginning of this month (probably too late to come to GRAMMY attention for this year). As I wrote just prior to the release, this is a “historically significant” addition to the Hersch discography, since it documents the first time that Hersch performed as a leader at the Village Vanguard in a series of concerts that took place in July of 1997.

The second significant GRAMMY nomination was the one that acknowledged A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant. This is an eight-CD anthology that covers all of the recordings that Levant made for Columbia Records, many of which were first distributed as 78 RPM albums. This collection was significant enough that it was the first time that I wrote about it by devoting almost (with only one exception) every article to a single CD. To be fair, there is more than a little unevenness in the merits of the selections across the entire collection; but there is no doubting the historical significance of the tracks on the very first CD, Oscar Levant Plays Gershwin, since Levant is, without a doubt, the only pianist to record the “concert” side of the Gershwin repertoire with personal knowledge of how Gershwin would have wanted it.

Thinking back on the experience of listening to this collection, I realize that most of my most memorable listening experiences of the year involved working my way through other collections, all of which were historically significant. One of these even involved a present-day jazz combo, the quartet led by pianist Frank Kimbrough, which included multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson as leading voice, along with Rufus Reid on bass and Billy Drummond on drums for rhythm. Kimbrough’s objective, however, could not have been more “historical.” It resulted in a six-CD set entitled Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk, whose title tells you all you need to know. Since the semantics of “complete” can be a bit fuzzy were jazz is involved, Kimbrough’s release sent me to Robin D. G. Kelley’s book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original to do a “sanity check” on that adjective; and I came away as satisfied with the wording of the album’s title as I was with every track on each of the six CDs.

On the classical side the better part of the year was spent recovering from the release of Maria Callas Live: Remastered Live Recordings 1949–1964 by Warner Classics. In writing about this collection, I made it a point to begin by “coming clean” on the fact that “I am not now nor have even been one of those rabid enthusiastic fans of all things Callas.” Fortunately, Sony Classical (which had been responsible for the Levant collection) came to my rescue with Birgit Nilsson: The Great Live Recordings, which was far shorter than the Callas collection but one hell of a lot more gratifying! Clearly, these two sopranos ruled over entirely different domains, to which they brought entirely different vocal qualities; but I know for sure that more future listening hours will be devoted to Nilsson than to Callas.

Nilsson also figured significantly in the Deutsche Grammophon box set, Karl Böhm: The Operas, which also provided me with many pleasurable listening hours. This collection could easily be divided into four categories: the First Viennese School, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and everything else. To be fair, the first of those categories included two selections that were not operas, Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/3 oratorio The Seasons and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 626 setting of the Requiem text. However, the opera selections are clearly the “draw” for this collection, particularly when one appreciates the value in the “everything else” category of including both of the operas by Alban Berg. (Sadly, the Lulu recording was made before the publication of the opera’s third act.)

Finally, there was the collection that turned out to anticipate one of the major cultural decisions made here in San Francisco. Between May and July I was occupied with another significant Sony Classical collection, a 61-CD box set of all of its recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Then, at the beginning of this month, the San Francisco Symphony leadership announced that Salonen would succeed Michael Tilson Thomas as the orchestra’s Music Director, beginning in September of 2020; and, as local readers probably know by now, we shall get our first exposure to Salonen in his new status in a little less than a month’s time. To be fair, when it came to personal appeal, I found more variability in the Salonen collection than in those for Nilsson and Böhm; but much of that has to do with Salonen’s sympathy for a broader range of tastes than I have! Nevertheless, I feel as if Sony did me a great favor in allowing me the ability to appreciate the extent of Salonen’s repertoire, thus preparing me for regular concert-going at Davies Symphony Hall once his tenure begins.

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