Back in the old days which gave birth to the LP. there were very few big sets. Perhaps the thinking was that now that the industry could get a Brahms symphony on one LP instead of 6 or so 78 rpm records, why go back to multiple discs? In those days you collected the works of a composer one at a time, which means you might end up with recordings of the nine Beethoven symphonies by nine different conductors. But along came Vox Records and the Vox Box, which offered complete works-complete Beethoven string quartets, for instance. These were usually performed by lesser known, though quite worthy, artists and offered at an attractive, low price. Later on, companies would release complete collections by a better known artist. More recently the focus has shifted from composer to performer. With a conductor like Lorin Maazel, who passed away in Virginia last year after more than a 50 year career, it is possible to get very specific; there’s already been a Decca release of Maazel’s complete recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the many ensembles associated with the conductor as music director.
The latest Maazel box consists of recordings made in in the late 50s and early 60s, the dawn of stereo, all on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Most are with the Berlin Philharmonic, arguably the best orchestra in the world at that time, the Berlin Radio Symphony, and the Orchestre National de la R.T.F. The 18 CDs are laid out just like the original LPs, which makes them all run about 45 minutes each. The discs are housed in cardboard sleeves adorned with the original LP cover art. There are some real treasures here: Maazel’s Schubert symphony recordings and his disc of Mendelssohn’s fourth and fifth symphonies have perhaps been equaled but never bettered. The fourth symphony of Tchaikovsky and the third of Brahms receive vigorous performances full of youthful passion and precision, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite are most exciting. There’s not a bad performance in the box, those are just the highlights. The recorded sound gets the full and luxurious bass of the originals right, but I believe that they might be brighter on the top end than the LPs were. You can get the full contents here and also find a bargain price.
Giuseppe Verdi wrote Don Carlos as a five-act opera to be premiered in France but it was quickly translated into Italian and sheared its first act so as to be more manageable. Even at that, it comes in close to over three hours and a half. This length would be untenable were it not that the opera contains some of Verdi’s best music. This Teatro Regio Torino production uses the four-act version and is released on the Opus Arte label. The story is that of King Philip of Spain (Ildar Abdrazakov), whose son Don Carlo (Ramon Vargas) adores Elisabeth of Valois (Svetlana Kasyan) who is married to Philip for political reasons. The four-act version starts after Carlo first sees Elisabeth and after she is married to Philip so becomes more about the friendship of Carlo and Rodrigo (Loudovic Tezier) than about romance. Carlo can’t keep his mind of his new step-mother, is found out, and Philip sentences him to prison. The opera shrewdly displays how much power the church had over the state in the mid 1500’s. The Grand Inquisitor (Marco Spotti) is feared by all.
The singers are all quite good and the friendship between Carlo and Rodrigo is especially strong in this production, almost to the point of bromance. for indeed they are brothers. Tezier’s Rodrigo is sonorous and warm, Vargas seems a little small-voiced at times, but is always on pitch and phrasing beautifully. The ladies are both quit successful in their individual arias and in ensembles, but it is Abdrazakov as Philip II that seems really at the top of his game. As good as all the singers are, it is really the production that wins the day. A revival of a highly successful 2006 production, it features massive sets (check out the size of the statue compared to he singers on the cover photo), and opulent costumes that exhibit magnificent color and detail. Sets and costumes are caught in sharply focused HD video. Gianandrea Noseda leads a solid performance, though I expected more fire from hearing his outstanding recordings of Liszt and Rachmaninoff with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos downloads, via Linn Records. The recorded sound here is offered in two flavors, PCM stereo and dts-HD Master Audio 5.1. Both are excellent with good detail and appealing warmth.
1961’s 101 Dalmatians, based on the children’s novel by Dodie Smith, is one of Walt Disney’s most appealing and enduring animated films. The movie practically saved the studio which was having difficulty paying the cost of hand painted animation cells. A new Xerox process was developed, whereby the artists’ drawings could be copied straight to a transparent cell. The artists liked it because their work was not subjected to any possible degradation and the studio liked it because of the money saved, though Walt Disney himself was not fond of the process as an artistic advancement. The movie was one of Disney’s first modern efforts. The dogs watched their hero on TV, and there were contemporary automobiles. The story focuses on two Dalmatians who have 15 puppies which are stolen. They investigate only to find that 99 puppies have been stolen by the movie’s villain, Cruella De Vil. The race is on to save them all, but Cruella is ruthless in her pursuit.
What a villain Cruella is, one of the greatest in all film, live or animated. Not only does she want to make a series of coats out of the hides of Dalmatians in 1961, she’s even more evil than ever in 2015 as she blows clouds of toxic green smoke from the pink cigarettes in her cigaret holder. One of the chapters on this Diamond Edition Blu-ray-DVD-Digital HD makes an anti smoking statement. Enjoying this movie again after 50 plus years, I also noted it is not just for dog lovers as one of its bravest heroes is a cat, Sgt. Tibbs. Disney could often treat cats as villains, but Tibbs is an unquestionable hero. There are a lot of neat extras with this set, including statements from the animators on what fun they had making the movie. There’s also a music video of Cruella’s theme song and a lot more. If you have children, you can give them a wonderful experience with this movie and remember it fondly yourself. the Blu-ray reveals all the details of its magnificent animation, and the soundtrack has been tweaked to play in 5.1 with even a few off-screen surround effects. A must for any animation collection or household with children or young at heart adults. It’s rated G.
In case you’ve only experienced American animation -Disney, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks – this is an invitation to explore the wonderful world of Japanese animation through the films from Studio Ghibli, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney. Some years ago Studio Ghibli formed an alliance with Disney to release its films in versions dubbed in English by well-known actors like Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, and Willem Dafoe. Most of these have made it to DVD and many to Blu-ray. The latter format is the way you want to see Studio Ghibli films so you can enjoy every wonderful detail. For February, 2015, Disney has released some lesser Studio Ghibli films on Blu-ray: Tales From Earthsea [PG-13], Pom Poko [PG], and Porco Rosso[PG]. All contain both a
Blu-ray disc and a DVD. Tales from Earthsea is based loosely on Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels and tells the story of a mythical land of magic that has become unbalanced. Crops wither, dragons reappear and an evil sorcerer is to blame. Heroes are needed. Pom Poko tells the story of a band of tanuki, small bodied Japanese dogs that are masked and thus resemble raccoons, who are trying to save their forest outside Tokyo from development. They learn to transform into almost anything, including humans. Some of the best Studio Ghibli visuals ever are included in this movie, but beware, its environmental message is a bit preachy, even for a tree huger like me. There’s a lot of narration; I found that this was the one release that worked better in English. For the others I preferred the original Japanese with English subtitles.
Porco Rosso is a stirring adventure about an aviation hero who is under a curse that causes him to have a pig’s face. In thrilling sequences, he battles sky pirates to get the girl and maintain his honor. Directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, this is the best of the three releases. The most interesting supplement I found is almost hidden. It’s on Tales from Earthsea and is called “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack.” At first you might think it is short, but let it run past what initially looks like an ending and it’s an hour long documentary on film composer Tamiya Terashima and his quest to find the right medieval and baroque instruments to play the score when contrasted with a full symphony orchestra. There are some really neat sounds from all the instruments considered. In closing, parents note that Studio Ghibli films are not always G rated. I’ve put the ratings alongside the titles above. As an introduction to Studio Ghibli I urge you to start out with the best: Spirited Away [PG] and Howl’s Moving Castle [PG]. Then you will want to see them all!
There are several good recordings of the complete Bach cantatas, works he wrote for performance at church services throughout the year. The cycles of Helmuth Rilling and Masaaki Suzuki come quickly to mind. Naxos Records is now offering yet another set, one that has some special qualities attached to it. The performances come from St. Gallen, Switzerland via the Bach-Stiftung, an organization set up to perform and record all of Bach’s vocal works, which includes over 200 cantatas as well as the passions and masses. The cantatas are being performed one per month in a unique manner. The cantata is performed, then a master class and discussion occurs, and after that the cantata is performed again. For the CD releases, the discussions are left out (though they may be experienced via European DVD releases) and three cantatas are portioned out per disc.
I found the performances in the first five volumes to be utterly convincing and thoroughly enjoyable. The conductor/organist is Rudolf Lutz, who has very firm feelings that each cantata should be approached as a separate work. That makes sense as the structure and scoring of each is quite unique. Lutz also shakes up the personnel. For some cantatas he uses just soloists and a string quartet or quintet, possibly with a wind instrument. For others he utilizes a small chorus and a slightly larger instrumental ensemble on up to including trumpets and drums, in sum whatever he feels is needed for the particular cantata. I find this approach very sensible and appealing; the ensemble seems perfectly tailored to the music. I don’t think Lutz has made one misstep in his approach. The singers and instrumentalists are all excellent and the recorded sound exemplary, rich and warm yet transparent and clear. The annotation for each CD is very thorough, presented in German and English. Volumes 1 – 12 are now available, the rest will be released over approximately the next 25 years. By the way, though the performances are live, the audience is exceptionally quiet and applause has been edited out, so these performances sound very like studio recordings, but with that extra spark that only live recording can supply.