A Few of My Favorite Recordings
By Don Kaplan
I have close to 3,000 CDs and LPs — a modest amount according to some people, an extravagant amount according to others. I used to have a large number of open reel tapes too, recorded from LPs with the help of my trusty Tandberg open reel deck and not so trusty Revox recorder (it was almost always in the repair shop). I tossed the reels not too long ago after my recorder broke, tore the tape that was playing, and flung pieces of it in every direction.
Having all that wonderful music to choose from makes me feel good. But the truth is I only play a fraction of those discs and LPs on a regular basis. So to celebrate 2021 here’s an annotated list of 21 of those recordings…a few of my favorite things that might become some of your favorites, too.
[Some selections, indicated in italics, are available on YouTube.]
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Columbia Masterworks LP reissued by Sony Classical) This early recording with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic is a fierce performance that, according to the album notes, “perfectly captures the raw power and rhythmic intensity of what many consider the finest recording of one of the most influential compositions of the twentieth century.” I agree. Bernstein brings out elements of the score you won’t hear from other conductors. The 1958 sound is spectacular — especially in comparison to later Columbia recordings that had too much treble and not enough bass.
Bernstein: Symphony №3/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Columbia Masterworks LP) This is another sizzling performance led by Lenny. The symphony, dedicated “To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy,” is one of my favorite pieces. Felicia Montealegre (Mrs. Bernstein) is almost too dramatic as the speaker but the approach is in keeping with the rest of this first recording: raucous, emotional, gripping, eclectic, and often calming. Listen to the original 1963 score and avoid recordings that use revisions Bernstein made later on: The piece races to its conclusion without the pause found in the original version and isn’t as satisfying. And after hearing Montealegre, other speakers can sound too restrained and uninvolved.
Jobim and Bonfá: Black Orpheus/The Original Soundtrack (Verve CD) Black Orpheus was one of the first foreign films I saw as a kid and has been special to me ever since. The selection “Manhã de Carnaval” became a jazz standard but the entire 1959 score wasn’t promoted as much. The recording was made from diverse sources and varies in quality but if you’ve seen the film, or even if you haven’t, you won’t mind. This CD brings the entire carnival into your home, both the beautiful and creepy parts.
Fanshawe: African Sanctus/David Fanshawe, cond. (Philips LP) David Fanshawe’s composition includes a choir and shouter, African and rock drummers, percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and Hammond organ. African Sanctus also incorporates music recorded in Africa that Fanshawe describes as fascinating, weird, wonderful, and rapidly vanishing…an attempt “to fuse different peoples and their music into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise.” This piece grabs me immediately, draws me into its layers of sound, and makes me want to dance — or at least move my feet without having to leave my chair.
Puccini: Madama Butterfly/Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. (Deutsche Grammophon CD) Panned by several critics for being too slow (Sinopoli was famous for conducting pieces at a slower pace than usual) there are sections here where I start to think, “let’s get on with it!” But this happens in only a couple of places. I listen to this album because of the third act performance: a genuine tear jerker that never fails to move me.
Baroque Reflections/Alessio Bax, piano (Warner CD) My guilty pleasure disc. Bax’s approach is more rhapsodic than authentic. At times he plays Baroque music without restraint but who doesn’t like to get passionate every now and then? I enjoy this disc even if I’m not supposed to. Just don’t tell the neighbors.
Debussy, Fauré, Ravel: Piano Trios/Florestan Trio (Hyperion CD) When I first started listening to classical music I only played orchestral music: The larger the forces, the better. Many years later I started concentrating on chamber music and now listen mostly to music performed on a small scale. French chamber music can be elegant and graceful: these are very appealing examples that show off those qualities.
Poulenc: Chamber Music/Pentaèdre (ATMA CD) I bought this disc when I owned speakers from the French company Triangle and it was a perfect match. The disc, played through those sweet-sounding speakers, was captivating. It still sounds wonderful played through my current hyper-detailed Audio Physic speakers warmed up by a hybrid Pathos amplifier and Marantz CD/SACD player (in case you were wondering). My opinion of this wonderful music hasn’t changed a bit.
Suk: Piano Quartet and Quintet/Nash Ensemble (Hyperion CD) Josef Suk was Dvorak’s son in law. Better known for his orchestral works, Suk’s Romantic chamber music is a melodic and attractive discovery. Who knew?
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios 1 & 2/Florestan Trio (Hyperion CD) Like Suk, Saint-Saëns was better known for his orchestral works. He also wrote chamber music that’s lyrical and a pleasure to hear no matter how many times I listen to it.
Grieg, Hindemith, Poulenc, Martinu: The Beauty of Two/Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Dorian CD) These duos by Grieg (of Peer Gynt fame) and three 20th century neoclassic composers are consistently enjoyable. When I need to relax I play this disc along with two or three of the French chamber music CDs — et voilá!
Miren el nostre ma/Ferran Savall, voice, piano and guitar (AliaVox CD) Ferran Savall (performing with a small group of other musicians) is the son of Jordi Savall, a world-renowned early music performer, scholar and conductor whose primary instrument is the Baroque viola da gamba. Ferran’s entire family consists of talented musicians and their dozens of early music recordings on the AliaVox label are outstanding. This recording combines new compositions, South American pieces, traditional songs and old Catalan melodies that, according to Savall, have been “reawakened by infusing them with the musical and multicultural influences of our own time.” It’s tuneful with a folk music flavor, and a nice addition to the Savall family’s other recordings.
Shirley Horne With Strings: Here’s to Life/Shirley Horne, vocals and piano (Verve Gitanes CD) I generally don’t care for solo vocals with band or orchestra but this disc is an exception. There’s nothing melodramatic or jarring here…just quietly expressive music making. It puts me in a better mood whenever I play it.
Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests Volume 2 (Chesky CD) This is an equipment test disc that includes selections from various Chesky Jazz CDs. I’ve purchased several albums based on these samples and never been disappointed. As for the rest of the disc, the “General Image and Resolution Test” (band №47 to be exact) is amazing. The test creates the illusion of a line of musicians walking from the far right corner of the room toward the listener, continuing around the listener, and finally back along the left side of the room and exiting…if, of course, your equipment is set up properly. It’s the closest one can get to hearing a binaural recording without using headphones.
Nyman: The Piano Concerto/Michael Nyman, cond. (Argo CD) Nyman, a minimalist composer, wrote a piano concerto based on his soundtrack for Jane Campion’s 1992 film The Piano. It’s moody, catchy music that invites me to listen again and again. The runner up to The Piano piano concerto in my “adapted soundtrack category” is John Corigliano’s memorable Violin Concerto (BIS or Sony CD) based on his music for the film The Red Violin. Both composers have written “earworms” that take root and stay in my mind for several days after being possessed by them.
Gershwin: Piano Concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, Cuban Overture/Jeff Tyzik, cond. (Harmonia Mundi CD) There are many recordings of the Piano Concerto and Rhapsody but not as many of the Overture. It’s a musical impression of what Gershwin heard while on vacation in Havana — maracas, claves, bongos, gourds and all. I always imagine a line of Carmen Miranda impersonators (even though “The Brazilian Bombshell” wasn’t Cuban) dancing in front of me when I listen to this. In Gershwin’s own words he combined Cuban rhythms with his own thematic material: “The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.” It’s a riotous treat recorded in excellent sound like the rest of the disc.
Milhaud: La Création du monde & Suite Provençale/Charles Munch, cond. (RCA Victor Living Stereo Soria Series LP) The Soria series consisted of beautifully slip-cased records accompanied by equally beautiful LP-sized booklets produced by the famous Swiss art book publisher Skira. This is one of my favorites in the series: the pieces are lively and jazzy, and listening to the music while looking through the artsy booklet is always fun.
Nina’s Choice /Nina Simone, voice and piano (Colpix LP) This is an LP I discovered in the cut out section of a record store, and my introduction to the great Nina Simone. From “Trouble in Mind” to “Memphis in June,” every selection is outstanding. I now own several Simone albums, but this is my “go to” choice.
Ella in Hollywood/Ella Fitzgerald, vocals (Verve LP) Another wonderful LP found in a cut out section. Everything about the production, recorded live in a Los Angeles club, is impressive. It has everything: Ella scatting and interacting with the audience, a great selection of standards, smooth sequencing of songs, and lively performances. It sounds like the audience and Ella are having a great time and whenever I listen I have one, too. Now that’s entertainment!
Tippett: A Child of Our Time/Colin Davis, cond. (Philips LP) The oratorio A Child of Our Time was inspired by the circumstances in Europe before World War II and is Tippett’s protest against persecution and tyranny. Absorbing and lyrical with spirituals interwoven throughout, A Child was written before Tippett started composing in a more atonal style. Most Philips LPs produced around the mid-1970s had terrific sound: opulent and warm, tonally a bit to the right of center (more tube-like) rather than left (more detailed/clinical).
Potions: From the 50s/Lyn Stanley, vocals (A.T. Music LLC CD) I enjoy vocal jazz performed in an intimate manner. Stanley released her first CD in 2013 and she’s the real thing, not an opera singer struggling to sound jazzy. I have several of her discs and it doesn’t matter which recording I pull off the shelf: they all fit the bill. I especially like her second album Potions because all of the songs are familiar, comfortable and satisfying to listen to. Stanley’s discs are audiophile recordings as well, making the listening even more pleasurable.
Don Kaplan is the author of several books including See With Your Ears: The Creative Music Book. He has contributed to Early Music America, San Francisco Classical Voice, Strings magazine, Copper magazine (Music, Audio, & the Good Stuff), Music Educators Journal, Learning and Teacher magazines, The Monthly, The New York Times and other publications. He has taught at a number of colleges including the Bank Street College of Education, New York University and New School for Social Research, and been a visiting artist at several Bay area and New York City schools.
This article originally appeared in Copper magazine.