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Friday, September 11, 2009

The Beatles (and some others) Revisited

This week's re-issue of the entire Beatles catalogue on remastered CDs got me thinking about great recorded legacies. We are fortunate to live in an epoch in which recording technology has allowed us such rich treasures, to be revisited time and time again. In many cases, such recordings were begun as specific projects, to capture for all time the richness of a particular artist, or artists', body of work. Some I believe will stand the test of time, and 100 years from now will still have people marveling over the fact that such people once walked the earth, and made such wonderful music for their own, and for future generations. I'd like to share some that I am most familiar with, that I believe will forever be considered touchtones. We'll begin with the one being celebrated this week:

The Beatles - the Complete EMI/Parlophone Recordings. Although not planned as such, the collected recorded output of the Fab Four is virtually unmatched in the world of pop music. Together only 8 years, they produced 11 or so LPs, and not a dud among them. The first five (Meet the Beatles, With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, The Beatles For Sale, Help!) set the template; the next three (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) represented their creative peak as an ensemble, and the last four (Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles - aka, "The White Album," Let it Be, and Abbey Road) are fascinating collections from a band of four indivuals, gradually going their separate ways. In between there were countless singles, and a partial soundtrack to the animated film, "Yellow Submarine." The songs themselves have become standards, and they've never gone out of style and have never failed to pick up a new generation of fans. There's nothing quite like it in the world of popular music, or any music for that matter.

Pablo Casals/J.S. Bach - the Six Sonatas for Solo Cello. It was a teen-aged Pablo Casals who found these works on a dusty shelf in a music store, neglected for centuries after they were composed. It was Casals who first began performing them in concerts, making a case for them as more than just musical exercises, but works of the highest art. He recorded them in the early 1930's for HMV (or EMI, as we know it today) and interestingly enough, though he lived a long life and could take advantage of better technology, never recorded them again. Perhaps he felt he didn't need to. We can thank Casals that there are hundreds of more contemporary recordings by other cellists on the market, with more coming every year, but his recordings, despite their age, still stand out. If you love Bach and you love these works, you simply must have them in your own library - in addition to your favorite, more sonically vibrant interpretations.

Artur Schnabel/Beethoven - the Complete Piano Sonatas. Hard for us to believe at this remove, but there was a time and an entire generation of musicians that looked at the recording microphone with a shudder, even revulsion. Count Artur Schnabel among them. He came of an age where musicians were performers; there was no such thing as "recording artists." A performance was a real-time event, and interpretations tended to be fluid and highly personal, depending on the occasion. The thought of a microphone picking up not only one way of performing a piece, but all the possible errors and ticks for all time, was anathema to him. Nevertheless he was persuaded by HMV to begin a series of subscription recordings of the complete solo piano music of Beethoven. The 32 Sonatas he laid down on tape are not just a window on the past; there's an immediacy to these performances, a connection to the music, that is unmistakeable. In spite of their age, the tape hiss, over-compression (and yes, the slip-ups too) these recordings are captivating. The fact that they've never gone out of print, and are available from a number of sources and arrangements, and still require a substantial investment of capital, is proof of their staying power.

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. Johnson's story is well known, and makes for compelling drama. When he began his performing career he didn't impress many people; but after he went away for a while and came back, he blew everybody away. There was talk that he allegedly "sold his soul to the devil" to obtain such talent (echoes of Paganini!) and the 29 songs and 12 alternate takes he left us certainly give one that impression - not simply because of his technical skills, which were formidable, but for the lyric content of the songs themselves. Recorded in a couple of hotel rooms in Texas in 1936, with very primitive equipment, these recordings were a calling-card of sorts for what seemed to be a very long and successful career. Alas, it was not to be so - two years later at the age of 27 he was dead, supposedly poisoned by a jealous husband (he did love the ladies.) The impresario John Hammond was looking to book him at his first "Spirituals and Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, only to find he had been dead for several weeks. He was right at the crux of success and fame. But his legacy lives on in his recordings, and among the countless musicians he's influenced in the years since. As for the "devil" rumors? Well, for a truly hair-raising experience, just listen to "Hellhound on My Trail" and decide for yourself.

Louis Armstrong: The Hot Fives and The Hot Sevens. The recordings that sparked jazz as a unique, 20th century art form. Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens were never a performing outfit, and never considered to be so. In fact, it's a case where the bands came together specifically as a recording project. At that time, the age of 78 rpm recordings, there was a limit to the amount of time you could spend on one piece - generally no more than 3 minutes. As a result, you had to keep it compact and burn, from the first bar out, and keep it up until the very last moment. Concentrated musicianship and soloing give these works a power and energy that is irresistible. It's no wonder Louis Armstrong was considered a rock 'n' roll pioneer as well. But it's not only that - the sheer joy of making music, the humor and geniality of "Pops," is infectious in each and every note on every one of these recordings. There is a wonderful moment in Woody Allen's movie, "Manhattan," where he lists all the things worth living for - one of them was "Potato Head Blues" by Louis Armstrong. I couldn't agree more.

Benjamin Britten: The complete Decca Recordings/Igor Stravinky: The Complete Columbia Recordings. Two of the greatest composers of the 20th century; indeed, of any era. Fortunately for us and for them, they were around not only at the dawn of the era of recording technology, but also at a time to take advantage of the rise of stereo and long-player advances happening in the 1950's and '60's. Stravinsky actually began making records in the 1920's, but it was during the 40's, 50's and 60's that, after signing with Columbia Records, he began a project to record all of his works. Some might quibble that a number of the later recordings in the 1960's when Stravinsky was older and more frail, were actually conducted by his protege and friend Robert Craft, but always under the supervision of the master and with his intentions at heart. The complete recordings are available in a box set, and several are available as individual volumes, but those tend to come and go in the catalogue. For Benjamin Britten, it's the same thing - available in several box sets or in individual volumes, so you can pick among your favorites - the vocal works, orchestral, chamber and opera. Britten also had the advantage of working with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, including his life-partner, tenor Peter Pears; Mstislav Rostropovich, The Choir of King's College, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and many more. To me there's an intensity, power, and presence in Britten's own recordings of his works that I've not heard anywhere else.

Johnny Cash: The American Recordings. Johnny Cash was, to me, a singularity - more than just an enigma; there was no one quite like him before, nor has there been anyone since who has even come close. Already a living legend when he met record producer Rick Rubin in the early '90's, the two seemed an unlikely pair. One was a country, gospel and rockabilly performer who hadn't had a hit record in years, and was considered by record companies and the Nashville establishment as well past his sell-by date. Cash himself believed his days as a recording artist were long over. Rubin was the hot-shot producer of rap, hip-hop, and grunge records on his own label, Def American (later shortened to "American.") It was Rubin who approached Cash, and Cash needed a lot of convincing that Rubin's aim was true: he could record anything and everything he wanted to, the way he wanted to, with only some input on song selections by Rubin; otherwise, Cash had final say. What they came up with was a disc called "American Recordings," just that voice-from-God baritone and his guitar, in a selection of songs that ran the gamut of Cash's inspiration: gospel & country ballads from time out of mind, folk and blues numbers reimagined, contemporary folk and rock songs. The power, intensity, and deep sincerity of a man whose tales of hard traveling, sin and redemption leap out of these performances and are as deeply personal as anything ever committed to tape. The disc earned Cash rave reviews, the like of which he hadn't gotten in years, and a Grammy (c) for best Traditional Folk Album. Needless to say, the Nashville music establishment and country radio completely ignored it, to their own discredit. Cash picked up a whole new generation of fans, continued to tour, and made four more CDs with Rubin, some with backing by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, old friend Marty Stuart, members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others. He continued writing and recording right up until his death in 2003.


These are just a few of the recordings that I believe will still be listened to, talked about, and celebrated as long as there are those with ears to hear.

Bill

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