Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Friday, July 1, 2011

Desert Island Albums

I'm a kid from the tail end of the Baby Boomer Age, and I think it's safe to say that most people from my generation don't list classical albums among their favorites, even though many of them are just as passionate about music as I am. Many of my writer buddies on facebook post clips from their favorite albums, everything from jazz, to rock, to easy-listening/lounge, to experimental – but never classical. Okay, granted, you don't see classical music videos very often (if at all). Unless you count footage of orchestras playing. Movie scores are often classical, but most of the people who watch movies are only vaguely aware of the music (which is a good indication that it's doing its job).

I'm a lot more than vaguely aware of the music. I've always loved classical music, even when it doesn't have a movie attached to it. When I was a kid, I eventually learned not to play my favorite albums for friends – unless I wanted to watch them take a nap. And that's when I realized that for many people, listening to classical music is just too much work. Plus there usually aren't any words. And when there are, they're in Italian.

Still, I believe that many people could learn to like classical music. There's a wide variety of it – it's not just Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. I believe there's classical music to please just about anyone. And once you find something you like, you may be inclined to explore some more. I'm not saying you should. But if you're curious, I've got a list of faves that you may feel inclined to explore. Just for fun. Honest.

Rachmaninoff, Suites For Two Pianos

The first few notes of this album play, and a door opens into a magical world. That's how it always happens to me. I play Suite No 1 and hear "The Barcarolle," and then "La Nuit," and then "Les Larmes," and "Paques," -- and I see a lost world, the sort of place the Russian upper class used to live and love. Sample it, you'll hear what I mean.

Suite 2 is more rousing, an adventure, rather than a romance. A carriage ride through busy streets, a climb on a hillside with babbling brooks. Watching a parade of soldiers in their best uniforms, knowing that they won't be going off to war anytime soon. All of these pieces were new to me when I first heard this album. I was well aware of Rachmaninov's piano concertos, and of "Isle Of The Dead." But what really amazed me was this double-piano version of his wonderful "Symphonic Dances." I prefer it to the orchestral versions I have, even though they are marvelous. This is just that much better.

Yolanda Kondonassis, Debussy's Harp

I had never heard Debussy performed on harp before I listened to "Debussy's Harp," and it was a delightful discovery. I am particularly impressed with Kondonassis' rendition of "The Sunken Cathedral." Previously, my favorite version of this was on Tomita's famous album, Snowflakes Are Dancing. But Yolanda's harp captures the magnificence of that magic cathedral better than any other instrument or collection of instruments I've ever heard.

Pay what you need to pay to get this album. It's worth it.

Claude Debussy, Orchestral Works, Vol 2, Geoffrey Simon

This may be heresy, but I have to confess, "Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun" and "La Mer" are not my favorite pieces by Debussy. My favorites are on this album, performed beautifully by Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia. In fact, this is the Debussy album I love the best, the one I'd want to have with me if I were stranded (with lots of batteries and a good stereo system) on a desert island. All of the pieces are orchestral versions, beautifully arranged. "Nocturnes" and "L'isle Joyeuse" are my favorites, but every single piece on this album is an absolute delight, and you may find that you have your own favorites when you listen to it (again and again, as it deserves).

This is a wonderful album to take on a road trip if you're planning to drive through fantastic landscapes. The first few bars will usher you into another world, a place of magic and mystery.

Harps Of The Ancient Temples

King David was reputed to love harps, and the first piece on this album pays homage to that history. Listening to it, you can imagine yourself in David's court, being serenaded by the finest musicians in the land. This is one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded, and this CD edition has marvelous sound clarity, even better than the LP edition I still have. I would classify it as classical rather than new age – the pieces are based on real, ancient music, and sound just the way you would expect them to if you could climb into a time machine and visit each of these civilizations. Perfect! And finally back in print! Hooray!

Mahavishnu, Apocalypse

If I could only keep 10 albums, Apocalypse would be one of them. I first heard it in LP form, when I was 14 years old, one hot summer in Phoenix, Arizona. It has always reminded me of the more dramatic parts of the Arizona landscape, not to mention the spectacular monsoon storms we have. At first, I played side one the most. I love the beautiful, contemplative piano piece that starts the album, "Power Of Love." And "Vision Is A Naked Sword" would make a perfect soundtrack for the super-charged lightning storms I've witnessed in Arizona. But eventually, "Wings Of Karma" and "Hymn to Him" also grew on me.

Recently my husband and I went on a second honeymoon, a driving trip through Arizona. It was January, and we passed a power plant in the middle of a desolate flood plain. A giant plume of steam hung over the plant, held in place by the super-cold air. "Vision Is A Naked Sword" was playing on our car stereo – it was one of those moments you remember the rest of your life.

People who review music sometimes have a tendency to be overly intellectual. When you listen to Apocalypse, rely on your gut. Don't compare it to other albums, let it stand on its own merits. I own 2 copies – I just bought a 3rd to give my brother. I hope it NEVER goes out of print (or at least, not in my lifetime). I'll always love it.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, London Symphony, John Barbirolli

It's high time that I write a review for my all-time favorite performance of Vaughan William's 2nd (London) Symphony. I love the John Ireland piece too – Barbirolli's interpretation of the material on this album is masterful – but what really makes it stand head and shoulders above every other performance I've ever heard is his tempo for the third movement of RVW's 2nd symphony. Other conductors have had a tendency to rush through it – Barbirolli nails it perfectly. Every time I hear it, my spirit soars, and if my knees weren't so creaky I would probably break into a jig.

One of the DJs on our local classical station used to excerpt the third movement on this recording to introduce his show every day, long before I knew who RVW was, and I always stopped to listen. Now I own about 20 recordings of RVW's work, including performances conducted by Adrian Boult, Andre Previn, Bryden Thomson, and Yehudi Mehuhin, but John Barbirolli is the master of the 2nd. If you're going to own just one performance of this symphony, this is the one.

Tomita, Snowflakes Are Dancing

This album came out in the early 70s, when I was a teenager, and I remember it generated both praise and scorn. The scorn was due to the fact that it was electronic music, produced on synthesizers. The group Yes had produced an amazing album titled Close To The Edge that used synthesizers to fine effect, and many artists across Europe were doing the same. But no one had attempted to do an entire classical album with synthesizers until Tomita came along.

I loved it the moment I first head it. If it weren't for Vaughan Williams, Debussy would be my favorite composer. Tomita doesn't just go through the motions and produce a generic electronic sound for this music, he interprets it as if his synthesizers were an orchestra. My favorites on the album are “Reverie” and “The Sunken Cathedral.”

This is another great road trip album. I own three copies . . .

Gustav Holst, The Perfect Fool

I love Gustav Holst, and I'm not trying to knock "The Planets." It's a beautiful, marvelously imaginative suite, and I think it ranks among the greatest compositions of all time. But it's a shame that music lovers often don't realize Holst wrote other orchestral works, and they are wonderful too. My favorite is "Egdon Heath," which is performed on this high quality EMI recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.

This album is actually a compilation of earlier EMI recordings, all of which are very high quality. The vocal offerings are directed by Holst's daughter, Imogen. I have always preferred orchestral works over vocal, but these selections are an exception, some of the most moving I've ever heard.

Think of this album as a Holst sampler, and one well worth having.

Anatoli Liadov, Orchestral Works

Westerners who like Russian composers usually know the giants, like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, and the Grand Master, Tchaikovsky. But Liadov was a giant too, he just wasn't as prolific as the more famous fellows. His music evokes essential Russian characters like Baba Yaga, the grandmother witch. When you listen to "The Enchanted Lake," you will see that magical place, and his "Eight Russian Folk Songs" will transport you to the Age of Fairy Tales.

Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky

I don't own the enhanced version of this CD, but I'm very happy with the regular version. The music paints the images of this story extremely well. I first heard this recording on a listening station at Borders, the year it was released, and I was sold within a few notes. I had seen the movie on PBS many years before, when I was a teenager. I tuned in during "The Battle On The Ice" scene. The music captured my interest first, but I have to confess I noticed something else that isn't really relevant to this review (but I can't help commenting about it). The actors were wearing fantastical helmets that looked familiar to me. I stared at the screen for several minutes before I figured out where I had seen them before. I used to read the comic book THOR, and I'm pretty sure I saw those helmets on the gods of Valhalla. Jack Kirby may have been the artist. So the Eisenstein movie has had a profound influence on a lot of people over the years.

I love this recording from beginning to end, but I have some favorite parts: The opening of "The 13th Century" sounds wonderfully Medieval. "Arise People Of Russia" is a profoundly moving choral piece, and so is "The Field Of The Dead." You can't help but think about the invasion of Stalingrad that occurred a few years after the movie was made. "Nevsky's Camp" captures the mood of a band of soldiers who expect to die in the morning. "April 5, 1242" is dramatic and ominous. A sound effect is included that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck at the beginning of track 10, the charge of two armies who clash in the middle and begin to fight with metal weapons. "Pskov: Procession of the Fallen and Judgement of the Prisoners," includes church bells and is utterly grand. And "Final Chorus" will knock your socks off.

Prokofiev is among my top 5 favorite composers, I love him without reservation. The emotions he expresses are both dark and light, harmonious and dissonant. ALEXANDER NEVSKY stands on its own, but is also a superb film score. Listen to the CD, then rent the movie if you've never seen it. It's worth your time.

Respighi, Pines And Fountains Of Rome, Eugene Ormandy

This is, hands down, my favorite recording of "The Pines Of Rome" and "The Fountains Of Rome." It's also the best of the recorded performances Ormandy did of these pieces, so beautiful it still brings tears to my eyes when I listen to it (and I've heard it at least 100 times). If I were still playing the LP version of this album, it would have been worn to the nub years ago. If I could only listen to 10 albums for the rest of my life, this would be one of them. It haunts my heart and stimulates my imagination.

I hope this album will be made available as a high-quality download, it would be a shame if it slipped into obscurity. Buy it while you can, it's an investment you won't regret. I own two – I don't want to risk losing it!

The Orthodox Singers, Basso Profondo From Old Russia

Back when the Borders where I worked had a music section, we received a demo of this album, and it piqued my curiosity. When I listened to the first track, I thought, "Oh well, interesting, but not something I'll want to take home with me." But when the second track began to play, I was hooked for life.

I tend to prefer orchestral music over choral or opera, but there are some notable exceptions. I find that Sacred Choral music from England and Russia is extremely moving. These are two very different musical traditions, but they share a spirituality that inspires me. I don't need to understand the words to get the message, the tones express it perfectly. Though there is one word just about anyone will recognize in track 5 of this beautiful album: "Hallelujah." It's my favorite track.

Russian singers are the best bass singers in the world, maybe because they love that range (though the singers in the higher ranges in this album are equally passionate, and their voices are gorgeous). I think it might be fair to say no one sings that "Old Time Religion" better than the Russians. During my Music Section Expert days, I sold many copies of BASSO PROFONDO FROM OLD RUSSIA to customers simply by playing it. Unfortunately the sample tracks on Amazon are selfish little snippets that don't do the album justice. So here's a thought – buy a high-quality download of track five, "Blessed is the man who seeks no council among the impious." I bought one from the iMusic site for $1. Once you listen to it, you'll know everything you need to know about this album.

Blessed is the music fan who takes this counsel!

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