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No. 61 - April, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Anat Fort

A Long Story

ECM 1994

 

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The three years we've had to wait for the release of jazz pianist Anat Fort's ECM debut were worth it. Her long musical journey, which mirrors her worldly migration from classical music studies in her native Israel to a decade playing jazz in New York City, is characterized by profound introspection. The recording is seamless, held together by three variations on "Just Now," a unifying leitmotif written just two days before the recording session. While the other musicians – Perry Robinson (clarinet, ocarina), Ed Schuller (double-bass), and legendary pioneer Paul Motian (drums) – had worked with and around each other for years, the recording session marked the first time they all made music together with Fort. Motian, in fact, was so impressed with Fort's music when he first heard it years ago that he introduced it to ECM's visionary, multi-award winning producer Manfred Eicher, who then signed Fort up.

All four musicians are brilliant, their high-flying excursions having as much in common with easy listening fare as my Jewish mother had in common with the Pope. (Both share a common propensity to guilt trip, but that's another story). Tracks range from Fort's gentle "Lullaby," written in her student years, to "As Two/Something ‘Bout Camels," a reflection on the escalation of Palestinian-Israeli hostilities that is as far from the sound of gunshots as one can possibly imagine. I urge you to check out this simultaneously mystical, modern, refined, and mellow album.

 

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Henryk Górecki:

String Quartet No. 3: …songs are sung

Kronos Quartet

Nonesuch 104380-2

 

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With the mournful sounds of a funeral dirge, sometimes resigned, sometimes prescient with dread, Henryk Górecki's third string quartet, …songs are sung, finally reaches us. Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1992, not long after the irrepressibly adventurous San Francisco foursome had commissioned, premiered, and recorded the composer's first two string quartets, the work was first delivered in spring 2005, over ten years after its completion. Górecki cannot explain why he held back so long from releasing it to the world.

Perhaps the work's inescapable dread, which to these ears presages the current resurgence of fascism that parallels the scourge that engulfed the composer's native Poland during World War II, proved too frightening to the composer. A similar dread and pain can also be heard in Górecki's haunting Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") of 1976. That early, riveting response to fascist brutality brought the composer international attention in the early 1990s after Nonesuch released a recording by the London Sinfonietta and soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Not that …songs are sung is without beauty or consolation. Beauty in fact abounds, sometimes when violins double, sometimes in soft, heart-touching repetitions that may induce a trance-like state of reverie. Even the opening dirge has a rocking component that, as keys modulate, sometimes morphs into a consoling lullaby.

Soon after the third string quartet's New York premiere in March, 2006, Kronos founder David Harrington wrote to Górecki: "Without any question, …songs are sung, for me, is one of the most lyrical, poignant and far-reaching works ever written for string quartet that I am aware of… It is music so personal that in its performances one feels the audience listening in to one's very own soul and life. For me, ...songs are sung is the very sound of my own personal grief and yet acts as a balm for this grief. I carry your melodies inside me for weeks after each performance." That says it all.

 

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Vusi Mahlasela

Guiding Star (Naledi Ya Tsela)

ATO0032

 

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Renowned South African singer-songwriter-poet-activist Vusi Mahlasela's second album is filled with one beautiful song after another. Singing in English and Zulu, his throaty, soulful Afro-pop delivery lends itself to a wide variety of styles. Most outstanding are the retro-ballad "Everytime" (with Jem and the Hlanganani Brothers) and the profound "Sower of Words," a lament for a famed promoter of Black Consciousness, late poet and writer Ingoapele Madingoane (featuring fabulous vocals by ATO label honcho Dave Matthews).

Mahlasela has a mellowness about him that enables him to sing about struggle and freedom with an unforced clarity that eschews preachiness. His praise for female freedom fighters in "Song for Thandi" and "Thula Mama" is balanced by his get-down, spirited delivery of a party song made famous by Miriam Makeba, "Pata Pata." Guest artists, in addition to Matthews and Jem, include Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks, Australian didgeridoo player Xavier Rudd, South Africa's "Black Moses" Ngwenya of the Soul Brothers, and several South African choirs. Their joyful participation shows respect for a freedom fighter who performed at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994 and currently serves as an ambassador to Mandela's 46664 Foundation, raising global awareness about HIV/AIDS. Don't miss this wonderful, soul-touching album.

 

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Deuter

Koyasan

New Earth Records NE 2703

 

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Koyasan, a sacred mountain in Japan whose eight points are believed to represent the eight petals of the lotus, is home to over 100 Buddhist temples and shrines. It also serves as inspiration for this sacred album of "Reiki Sound Healing." Created by serene New Age master (and Reiki practitioner) Deuter, the album was recorded on shakuhachi, koto, flutes, and electronic keyboards in Santa Fe, near Deuter's home in the nearby mountains. I have already praised so many of Deuter's albums that someone unfamiliar with his music might think I'm in his employ. Rather, I find myself grateful for the elevation I experience when I play his music. Spiritual music takes many forms, from the Gregorian chants of the Middle Ages to African drumming and Tibetan throat singing. Among New Age musicians, Deuter's continually affirms his role as a supreme channel for spiritual energies by unfailingly creating expansive and healing music.

 

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Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective

Wátina

Cumbancha CMB-CD-3

 

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Andy Palacio is a rare breed – one of the relatively few 250,000 Garifuna ("Black Caribs") worldwide who speaks his native language. A descendent of shipwrecked West African slaves who in 1635 found a new home amongst the native Indians of what is now St. Vincent Island in the Caribbeans, Palacio was raised in the Garifuna stronghold of Barranco, Belize. Surrounded by Garifuna music and traditions since birth, he had no idea that his culture was threatened until, at age 18, he met an elderly Garifuna in Nicaragua who was astounded to discover that someone so young could still speak the Garifuna language. Ever since, Andy has dedicated himself to preserving Garifuna culture and fostering pride in Garifuna young, making music while sometime holding various posts in the Belizean Ministry of Culture.

Wátina is the end result of a meeting between Palacio, who started out performing a commercial form of Garifuna music, and Ivan Duran, founder of Stonetree Records. Duran convinced Palacio to produce a more authentic music by embracing the soul and roots of Garifuna culture. Together they created Wátina, whose memorable, upbeat title track – paradoxically about the suffering of the poor – paves the way for 11 other irresistibly tuneful songs. Recorded in a thatch-roofed cabin by the sea in Belize, with four months spent honing arrangements, the album represents a union between authentic inspiration and modern sensibility. Unique Garifuna drums and rhythms, and lyrics about struggle and survival further distinguish a disc graced by Palacios' gritty, soulful voice and acoustic guitar. This one is for real.

 

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Beverly Sills: Made in America

Deutsche Grammophon DVD B0007999-09

 

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Brooklyn Diva Beverly Sills (née Belle Miriam Silverman) began her radio career at age 3. Four years later, she appeared in her first movie (singing Luigi Arditi's soprano coloratura vehicle, "Il Bacio"). Nicknamed "Bubbles" after she sang in a Brillo soap commercial at an early age, she steadfastly progressed from memorizing every note of the same scratchy ‘78s by soprano Amelita Galli-Curci that first helped introduce me to opera to triumphing in New York and La Scala.

This DVD, superbly written and produced by John Walker, intersperses priceless interviews on vintage TV talk shows (Tonight, Merv Griffin, and Dick Cavett) with footage of Sills in all phases of her operatic career. There are even black and white cameos of Sills singing Verdi in 1955, when she was only 26 years old. The production is such a joy that it can serve, not only as an introduction to opera, but as testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. It took Sills nine auditions to be accepted by New York City Opera in 1955. In the end, it wasn't the high notes that got her in – it was the by any means possible, cut-to-the-navel gown. Even after making an indelible impression in the 1958 premiere of Douglas Moore's opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe – the black and white clip of her 1962 TV appearance with Moore, voicing one of the most phenomenally free high Ds you will ever hear in "Willow, where we meet together," is worth its weight in tears – it took until age 37, when she overwhelmed in the role of Cleopatra in the New York City Opera Company's production of Handel's Julius Caesar, for the world to take notice.

From then on, Sills went from one triumph to another. Although her voice peaked shortly after her catapult to fame – I recall a 1972 San Francisco Opera performance in Lucia when she cracked on a high E flat – she retained much of her disembodied, floated high tones until soon before she retired from opera in 1980. Beyond the cheerful personality lay a remarkable vocal radiance that spoke simultaneously of joy and pain; the shimmering beauty of her iridescent head tones invariably split one's heart in two. Far more than an operatic travelogue, this compelling program, complete with some classic hairstyles that variously inspire wonder and disbelief, is a must for anyone – ANYONE – who cares an iota about the communicative mysteries of the human voice.

 

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Fritz Wunderlich: Life and Legend

Deutsche Grammophon DVD B0007476-09

 

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In 1966, lyric tenor Fritz Wunderlich was at the height of his fame when, after a day relaxing with friends at a hunting lodge, he fell down the stairs and died. In nine more days, he would have been 36, and immersed in preparations for one of the most momentous debuts of his short career.

Born into a musical family in Germany, Fritz lost his father at an early age. The surviving Wunderlichs made it through the Nazi era by traveling from village to village as peripatetic musicians. The experience seems to have imbued young Fritz with an indefatigable drive to succeed. From such hardship perhaps derived the fearless purity of tone and seemingly unstoppable strength of vocal ascent that continue to serve as ideals for virtually every aspiring lyric tenor.

The unique qualities of Wunderlich's voice – a powerful, effortlessly soaring stream of sound whose gleaming timbre almost mystically radiated the vibrations of love – are amply in evidence in this video portrait. So are the devotion and admiration he inspired in colleagues, critics, extended family, and vocal connoisseurs. As long as you can abide a German soundtrack with English subtitles, the combination of professional video and endearing home footage makes for compelling viewing. Interviews with such current and retired singers as Christa Ludwig, Anneliese Rothenberg, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Brigitte Fassbinder, Herman Prey, Thomas Hampson, and Rolando Villazón add to the value, as do assessments from a wide range of discerning critics and music professionals.

Most revelatory is the DVD's chapter on lieder, which shows Wunderlich initially stumbling, then succeeding in mastering the intimate art of song. His last recording, of his final lieder recital (available on Myto), reveals a singer so transported by passion that errors in intonation pass for nought. Wunderlich was preparing for his Met debut in Don Giovanni– perhaps a bit reluctantly, as both the story line and one of the invaluable bonus interviews suggest – when his tumble cut him down in his prime. Postulating why he went so soon or how much more he could have accomplished seems beyond the point, given the enduring beauty of what he left behind.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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