Monthly Archives: November 2014

A Perfect “Hansel and Gretel”

This 1999 production of Hansel and Gretel from the Zurich Opera House has everything going for it. Frank Corsaro aces the stage direction, Maurice Sendak designed the costumes and amazing sets, and Franz Welser-Most conducts the Zurich Opera House Orchestra and Children’s Chorus.  The entire cast of singing actors is marvelous with special kudos going to Alfred Muff’s sonorous father and Liliana Nikiteanu’s boyish Hansel. You might remember the plot. The family is dirt poor so Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest to pick berries. They are protected at night by 14 angels but by day fall into the hands of the Nibble Witch, who lures children into her clutches by letting them nibble on her gingerbread house.  Boy do the tables get turned on her and get a happy ending. Very happy. This production abounds in joyous feelings.

Hansel and Gretel

The Zurich production is the best I’ve ever seen. Sendak, as always, adds some visual delights that could only be his. There are two cat dancers, who turn into ballet dancers and henchmen as needed. The witch’s house has a malevolent clown face with eerie eyes that follow the children. Corsaro’s direction couldn’t be better. I’ve never seen an opera production where gestures and acting were so integrated with the music. The new Arthaus Music  Blu-ray disc offers a clean and clear picture with lots of color and the audio (PCM stereo) is rich and warm. The chorale with four French horns that opens the opera will caress your ears most wonderfully.  A-Plus for this one all the way. Easy to read subtitles.

Savage “Snowpiercer”

I missed this in the theaters and you probably did, too. It didn’t seem to play the burbs. But now it’s on Netflix streaming in HD and surround sound, so you’ll have a better chance of seeing it.  And by all means do! In a cinematic world where everyone seems determined to do the same old thing over and over again, albeit with variations, Snowpiercer stands out as thrilling and original. Here’s the plot – An experiment to cure global warning backfires and the earth is turned into ice.

snowpiercer-poster-international

The last remaining humans are on board a lengthy train that circles the earth once a year.  The well to do are up front, where they have restaurants, an aquarium – in sum, just about all they need. They comprise about 2 percent of the train’s population. The rest are crowded in the back cars, dirty and disheveled, their children taken from them at will. They subsist on black protein bars. Since you’ve all seen Soylent Green, you know what that means. A movement to take over the train hatches and the main body of the film is spent on a revolutionary group’s passage from  the rear to  the front. Excellent performances from Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt; and nonstop action and thrills, with very exciting digital special effects. In sum – not to be missed and reason enough to subscribe to Netflix.

Joe Williams & Count Basie Swing Standards

Joe Williams came up through the ranks as a big band singer, finally arriving at stardom when he was hired for Count Basie’s band. He sang with Basie’s band from 1954 to 1962, by that time he had enough exposure to be able to write his own ticket. With Basie in 1956 he made Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings quickly followed up the same year by this album –The Greaterst!!  Count Basie Swings-Joe Williams Sings Standards.  On this album Williams and Basie took pop songs of the day and made them into swing classics.

Count_Basie_Joe_Williams

Williams baritone voice rings out with authority, joy, and finesse. He makes singing these songs sound as natural and easy as breathing, resulting in near definitive versions of “A Fine Romance,” “Love is Here to Stay,” “S’Wonderful.” “Singing in the Rain,” and “Our Love is Here to Stay.” High Definition Tape Transfers has discovered a Verve 4-track tape to use as a master, offering discs and several types of downloads. I chose the 24 bit/96 kHz dowload and it sounds splendid and clean and clear as can be. The stereo uses Verve’s preferred set up for this band – rhythm (piano, bass, drums) on the left channel, horns on the right, vocals in the middle. These songs have been sung by many great artists but only a few of them get the style right quite like Williams. Take a listen and see what you think.

Jubilant Janacek

When Leos Janacek decided to write a mass, he threw out the traditional Catholic text in favor of Old Church Slavonic. His structure was also novel, including  instrumental opening and closing movements with five choral movements in the middle that omit the “Dona Nobis Pacem” but otherwise correspond to the Catholic Ordinary of the Mass. An extensive organ solo is inserted between the last choral section and the instrumental closing. It was called the Glagolitic Mass and is often refereed to as simply the Slavonic Mass. It has been hailed as a 20th century masterpiece and recorded by many top notch conductors and orchestras.

Janacek_Glagolitic_Mass_Taras_Bulba

Several years ago, a new edition was made, which included some of the composer’s earlier thoughts, but  most performers still use the original published score, from 1927. Of all the great recorded performances, I like best the 1964 recording by Rafael Kubeik and his Bavarian Radio Orchestra & Chorus.  He had a stellar group of soloists (Evelyn Lear, Hilde Roessl-Majdan, Ernst Haefliger, Franz Crass) and fully conveyed both the savage and lyrical nature of the piece. The new High Definition Tape Transfers release, using the four-track DG commercial tape as a master, is the best I’ve ever heard, far superior to the CD versions. At HDTT you can download at different sampling rates, or have a disc made. I downloaded the 24 bit/96 kHz FLAC format and was amazed at how wonderful everything sounded. Brass and tympani had singular  focus and presence and the unsettling, demonic organ solo turned out to be a demonstration track to treasure.  As a bonus, there’s an equally fine performance of the three-movement dramatic suite, Taras Bulba.

 

Magnificent Mussorgsky

I have 39  recordings of orchestral versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition plus eight or so of the original piano version. 34 of the orchestral ones utilize the brilliant Ravel orchestration but I also have the remarkable, very Russian sounding one by Sir Henry Wood on the Lyrita label and several others.  Regarding the Ravel orchestration -until now I’ve held up Ernest Ansermet (Decca), Fritz Reiner (RCA), and Rene Leibowitz (also RCA) as the best, the benchmarks against which the others are to be measured. But now I have to add the recently released recording with Igor Markevitch conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Mussorgsky Markevitch

This was the Ukrainian born maestro’s third recording of the work, made in the 1970s; the piece was one of his “calling cards.” They say the third time is a charm and that’s true here, for this recording, re-issued now on the Brilliant label, must be mentioned in the same breath as the three aforementioned ones. At every juncture, Markevitich seems to find s new detail and makes us aware of it without destroying the flow of the music.  Night on Bald Mountain is the filler piece and Markevitch’s edgy, dramatic reading has quickly become my favorite of the Rimsky-Korskov edited version. The recorded sound is marvelous, detailed as can be yet also warm and sonorous. As a bonus, a second dies contains the piano version in a spot on performance by Alexander Warenberg with Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons thrown in as a lengthy encore.