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Best Recordings of 2011 (#7)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2011. My lists for the previous years: 2010, 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 7 - New Release

J. Friedman, Quartets, Chiara String Quartet & Matmos, New Amsterdam Records NWAM-030

available at Amazon
J.Friedman, Quartets,
Chiara SQ4t / Matmos
New Amsterdam Records

From reading the nearly non-existent liner notes, or glancing at the cover, you really don’t know what you are getting into: “Jefferson Friedman Quartets” – presumably string quartets, given the involvement of the Chiara String Quartet. With both those ingredients being unknown quantities to me, I just plopped the CD, which came recommended to me by a friend in the music-PR business whose unfailing instinct and honesty I know better than to resist, into the player and let exploration and surprise take its course.

I listened with intrigue to the 1999 Quartet no.2, which despite its three movements being suspiciously titled “I - = 120, II - Free = ca.60, and III - ♪ - 180” is a work with a strong lyrical and beauty-embracing bent... and (later) Shostakovichean drive. Modern, discernibly, but with the immediate appeal that a healthy amount of consonance brings about. Allan Kozinn calls them “neo-romantic” in his enthusing New York Times review, which is an apt, if liberal description.

As I listened, still under the fairly recent impression of Mojca Erdmann’s Yellow Lounge disaster in Salzburg (a ghastly failure of the otherwise well-intentioned experiment in forcing classical music to be hip), I thought during the propelling first and archaic-romantic slow movement, that this might actually be suited very well for a playback in a club, subtly underscored by a repetitive beat of my own imagining.

Lo and behold: the fourth track does just that. Turns out that the “Matmos” timidly emblazoned on the cover, which I therefore overlooked or ignored, is a Baltimore-based (!) two-man band that likes to amplify crayfish nerve tissue, modify the succulent sounds of liposuction surgery, and rattle rat cages. Go look, it’s all true. Friends with the young (south-of-40) Friedman, they took their re-mixing approach (fairly conventional in this case, I’d say) to the two quartets on this disc which results in two electronically re-imagined distillations (five and ten minutes, respectively) of the music one has just heard. I can imagine many listeners that are (or think themselves) allergic to that kind of treatment, which so blurs the sacred boundaries between “serious” and “entertainment” music. Well, all the power to Matmos, all the same. Both, the originals and the re-mixes on this disc make for terrific music (Gabriel Prokofiev comes to mind, although I find Jeffereson/Matmos catchier stuff) and help erode the remnants of artificial borders that wish to divide categories that need not be divided.

The long, 17 minute slow movement “Act” of the 2005 String Quartet is like a modern meditation on Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” – with an ethereal but never perfumed or esoteric quality that ends on slippery and sliding business which provides the contrast to the serene concluding “Epilogue/Lullaby”. Then comes the remix… in this case not something that would get you dirty on the dance floor, but with space-industrial qualities that make the ears perk. A refreshing, smartly entertaining release from New Amsterdam Records

# 7 – Reissue

N. Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Valery Gergiev, Kirov (Mariinsky) Theater Orchestra & Chorus, Decca 1615802

available at AmazonN.Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh,
V.Gergiev / Kirov O&C

“Kitezh”, or if you are into full names “The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya” is the most important Russian opera you don’t know about. And if you already know about it, it’s still the most important Russian opera you haven’t heard. And if you’ve actually heard it, then you most likely already have this seminal (live) recording with of Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest and (in the best sense) strangest opera. Or maybe you were so lucky to be at one of the two New York performances in 1995 and 2003, also with Gergiev. If you haven't, read Alex Ross’ article in the New Yorker about the latter performance here, and his 1998 Kitezh-themed Gergiev article.

If this is a seminal recording, it’s not because it somehow beats the competition to smithereens; there is no competition. But it’s also not just seminal because it’s the lone plausible recording, which might abuse its monopoly position with a lazy reading or shoddy performance. No, this is one of the early-ish examples on Philips (now rescued into the Decca catalog) of how Gergiev came to be the omnipresent maestro… It combines all his musical and persuasive strengths; his gruffness and his sweetness in music that is gorgeous and mystical, a Парсифаль—a Russian Parsifal—of sorts, a work that shows off why Rimsky was the undisputed master of orchestration, not just among Russian composers.

Story: The Prince Vsevolod , defender of legendary Kitezh, wishes, against family opposition, to marry the ‘common’ maiden Fevroniya, the very model of virtue. The latter endures mudslinging, then kidnapping, then the battle-field death of her betrothed. Tartars attack, but are foiled by the titular invisibility of Kitezh. Vsevolod (revived) and Fevroniya get to enjoy life-eternal within the city and the bad lead Tartar is forgiven. It’s not the worst, as far as opera story-boards go, but if you don’t understand Russian, your enjoyment-loss for this opera is minimal and the libretto very optional.

-> Best Recordings of 2011 #1-10

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