Piazzolla – buenos aires- carrefour, per arne, glorvigen

Piazzolla: Buenos Aires – Carrefour, Per Arne Glorvigen (NorthWest Classics NWC 205275) (Stereo-only SACD)

Audio system: Sony ES, Placette, Rogue, Meadowlark, Cardas

Availability:

Northwest Classics is based in the Netherlands . At present, they have very limited international distribution and availability. Titles can be ordered directly from their website. The service is quick and professional.

Music/Performance:

Admittedly, I have very little experience upon which to base a judgement of this music or performance. These pieces by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) are orchestrated for marimba quartet (including a variety of non-pitched percussion) and the most "Tango" of instruments, the bandoneon (sounds similar to an accordian). The project of orchestrating Piazzolla's music is explained by Carrefour: "Sonority and melody are Carrefour's primary concerns, and therefore as a marimba ensemble we experience music making more intimately connected to the piano or the human voice than only to percussion instruments. For us every possible rhythmic impulse comprises myriad opportunities to play with the subtle and complex colors encapsulated in a single vibration… These ideas perfectly served the music while at the same time shedding new light on these timeless pieces." As someone who until this recording never gave Tango a second thought, I can say that the results are very engaging. Pieces such as " Buenos Aires hor cero," " Soledad ," and "Anxiety (from 5 Tango Sensations)" are intricate and exciting music that move far beyond the newcomer's obvious expectations of "dance music." The sheer range of sounds, the fluidity with which they are integrated, and the particular sonic characteristics of the marimbas make for a distinctive and memorable performance. One interesting thing to note is that this is the first recording a new musical instrument, the "Grubbophone," which is described as having a "sound color between that of a marimba and a double bass, but with a much lower range."

Sonics:

Sonic curiosity was the reason I ordered this SACD, and I was not disappointed. The "Producer's note" got me excited right away: "…The pieces recorded on this SACD have a wide dynamic range from the whispering and barely audible to the loud and brash." Initial caution is advised when setting the playback volume. Basically, the sonics on this SACD qualify it as a true audiophile reference recording. If you are auditioning audio gear, it is one of three or four SACDs you should have with you. The dynamics are absolutely stunning. They are not big swells of sound like one gets with orchestral music, but rather the kind of exhilarating transient dynamics that I would guess are only possible with expertly recorded pitched percussion. The background is absolutely black. In fact, it is actually spooky. Despite the fact that the mechanical sounds of the bandoneon are retained for authenticity (the bandoneon is featured on about half the tracks), the overall sound has an almost eerie quality of emerging out of, and receding back into, nothingness. That said, the recording achieves a very good sense of depth in the few places where the music is given a context of extra-musical sounds, such as the lead-in to " Buenos Aires hora cero." The different sounds blend and integrate in ways that enhance the musical collaboration, and yet retain their distinctive sonic and spatial characters.

Recommended for Tango fans and general music lovers; highly recommended for curious audiophiles.

© Lyle Crawford

Hans Ruckers – the musical legacy – jos van immerseel

Availability:

Northwest Classics is based in the Netherlands . At present, they have very limited international distribution and availability. Titles can be ordered directly from their website. The service is quick and professional.

Music/Performance:

Who? If you haven't heard the name Hans Ruckers, you're not alone. Ruckers was not a composer, and none of this music was written by him. He was the Antonio Stradivari of the harpsichord, a master builder whose career in Antwerp began around 1570. The recording is arranged in three sections, each showcasing an instrument built in the Ruckers tradition: a reconstructed 1644 (Andreas) Ruckers harpsichord, a 1747 Dulcken harpsichord, and a 1650 Couchet virginal known to be a faithful copy of an original 1570 Ruckers instrument (a virginal is similar to a harpsichord, but smaller, with its strings oriented sideways). It is probably not going too far to say that the instruments are the stars of this show, and the booklet contains many close-up, schematic, and "portrait" photographs of them. Jos van Immerseel plays them with, in his own words, "a feeling of deep respect and admiration." All this said, the music provides a wonderful opportunity to exhibit the qualities of these instruments. Aside from a Fantasy and Fugue by J. S. Bach, the music here is by relatively obscure composers, some anonymous. Each of the three mini-recitals is well formed and very satisfying on its own terms. Immerseel plays with great care, which comes across as being absorbed in the music rather than reserved or pedantic about it. Highlights include a set of variations on the famous "Folia" melody, and a very moving piece, the longest on the disc, by Armand-Louis Couperin (cuisin of the well known Francois "Le Grand").

Sonics:

If you love the sound of a harpsichord or, especially, if you (think you) hate it, you owe it to yourself to hear this SACD. It is, hands down, the best recording of any of these instruments, and for that matter one of the best recordings of anything at all, I have ever heard. Northwest has taken meticulous care to present a sound that is close and very revealing without being aggressive. There is none of the brittleness or edginess many would associate with harpsichord; the sound is warm, natural and complex. Nor is one left with an impression of rickety or antiquated instruments; the mechanical sounds one hears testify to their intricate workmanship. Each instrument emerges in sound with the kind of individual character revealed in the photographs depicting their exquisite painted and carved ornamentation, or the strip of antique parchment Couchet used to strengthen his soundboard. We hear the range of sounds the two harpsichords can produce, including a wonderful buff-stop on the Ruckers (small leather pads press against each string, giving the instrument a sound like that of a lute). The virginal has an extraordinary sound, strikingly different from either of the harpsichords, which almost calls to mind adjectives like "psychedelic." This SACD is a thrilling and fascinating document, achieving a rare intimacy and transparency.

A wonderful and diverse recital, expertly played. Highly recommended to fans of, or those curious about, Early Music; wildly recommended to audiophiles.

© Lyle Crawford

Bjork – Medulla

Review: Medúlla (Polydor 9867591) – Björk

(Stereo/Multichannel SA-CD)

Audio Systems:

Stereo – Sony ES, Art Audio, Reference 3A, Cardas

Multichannel – Denon, Marantz, Bryston, Paradigm Reference (HT system)

Music/Performance (4/5)

Sonics (4.5/5)

Normally I review music/performance and sonics in separate sections, but this doesn't really seem possible with Björk's new album, a strange project even by Björkian standards, but one that I've liked better every time I've listened to it. Consisting entirely of voices and a few sparse electronics (and one piano), Medúlla succeeds with slick production, excellent collaboration with a variety of international artists, real originality, and the force of Björk's famously enigmatic personality.

The Medúlla experience begins when one consults the fold-out booklet/poster, most of which is written in near-inscrutable, vaguely runic typeface – glossy black on slightly-less-glossy black. One then enters a world of the human voice, and I will say right out that the multichannel program is excellent, and I would speculate that Medúlla was probably conceived and created for surround sound, although the stereo program is no disappointment. Björk sings passionately as ever. The subtle engineering presents her flexible voice with a variety of tones and textures, even aside from a few obvious special vocal effects. For instance, her voice has a (mildly irritating) slightly “cracked” quality in the short solo “Show Me Forgiveness” and its expanded continuation “ Vökuró ,” a startling naturalness in “ Öll Birtan,” and a great sheen/reverb-type effect in the infectious “Who Is It.” Sometimes she seems “right there,” and then it's like a curtain you didn't even perceive is dropped and she becomes even more immediate.

The musical content ranges from pop to ballad to vaguely Orthodox medieval to dance, but none of it is really classifiable like this. In the end, it's all Björk. A few superficially radio-ready songs such as “Who Is It,” “Oceania,” and “Mouth's Cradle” use grooves built up out of elements of voice that can only be discerned and appreciated with fairly careful listening. And the overarching “point” of the album seems to be a celebration of the expressive diversity of the human voice, for example in the exaggerated breathing in a song like “Submarine,” the impossibly precise percussion in the beat-driven songs, and the unnerving moans and growls contrasting with the calm of the lone piano in “Ancestors.” Most of these sounds have a disembodied quality to them, floating, shifting, blending, coalescing, and multiplying in a black but benevolent void. The album pivots on the searching, hypnotic “Desired Constellation” and ends with the playful and partially successful “Triumph of a Heart,” which is really the first time that I actually said to myself: “This sounds like people making weird noises.”

As much of a sonic adventure as this album is, especially in multichannel, the overall impression is still one of musical adventure, and of the diverse, even elemental, power of voice. One is reminded of the musical/mimetic traditions of rural Tuva. While succeeding as (broadly speaking) pop music, and only rarely succumbing pretentiousness, Medúlla underscores how fundamentally human it is to make music. Throughout, Björk sustains her characteristic directness and authenticity, perhaps especially in her native Icelandic. A solid recommendation for this genuinely original, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying project.

© Lyle Crawford