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Craig's Music Club
Music Reviews

Classical music reviewed with a discerning ear.

Chatham Baroque (performers); Henry Purcell (composer); Sonatas and Theatre Music

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Before Sonatas and Theatre Music, my only exposure to Henry Purcell was through his opera, Dido and Aeneas, which, while not considered one of the great operas, is in English and thus easy for a newcomer to understand and use to begin to appreciate this form of storytelling.

Chatham Baroque (Julie Andrijeski: violin; Emily Davidson: violin; Patricia Halverson: viola de gamba; and Scott Pauley: theorbo, baroque guitar, and archlute; with guest Scott Metcalfe: viola and violin) have compiled an hour's worth of Purcell's chamber music, consisting of five sonatas, two sets of incidental music written to accompany a couple of obscure plays, and a dance piece previously unpublished. Chatham Baroque's obvious love of the period -- and their dedication to reproducing the early-music sounds -- shines through in this recording. This is especially remarkable as the album was recorded in the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Pauley's extensive liner notes make this a real treat for the burgeoning fan as he goes into the history surrounding the works and fits them in the Purcell timeline. In addition, as Purcell has a singular style inherent in his work, the pieces can be appreciated separately or they blend together well enough to make a complete, uninterrupted listening experience.

On listening to Sonatas and Theatre Music, I began to wonder why Henry Purcell is not more well-known among the general populace. There is nothing particularly hard to grasp in his music, in fact, it seems to be written for just that audience. One can only hope that Chatham Baroque's album will do its part in remedying this.

Kevin Ferguson (guitar); Various Composers; Strad to Strat

Guitar virtuoso and world music aficionado Kevin Ferguson is almost entirely self-taught. When his parents offered to upgrade the piano he was playing to a better model, he asked for an electric guitar instead. The result was he had to pay for the guitar himself--a 1974 Fender Stratocaster that he still uses, at least on this album.

The inspiration for Strad to Strat came during Ferguson's early learning period. Looking to become a better sight reader, he pursued readily-available classical sheet music, which he then noticed sounded particularly interesting when he played, on electric guitar, tunes originally written for the violin. Had other versions on guitar been available for him to hear, he would not have had to play them himself, and the rest is history.

An album like this finds a niche market at best, which led Ferguson to produce and promote Strad to Strat entirely independently. Recorded live with a synthesizer "orchestra," the CD consists of these performances with only the audience sound removed. No other editing was done. (It's pretty evident where the applause was removed as odd pauses permeate the disc, often right after an especially virtuosic segment.)

Once the listener gets over the initial prejudice, Strad to Strat is really pretty good. If Ferguson has the chops to pull off a stunt like covering Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," everything else is pie. The guitar sound is rather crunchy--and sometimes very reminiscent of Brian May of Queen--but eventually, I forgot I was listening to what is inherently a novelty and began enjoying the ferocious arrangements. What results is a quality album of classical music with a punk mentality (see Christopher O'Riley's True Love Waits or Lara St. John's re: Bach for examples). Pure enjoyment.

Christopher O'Riley (performer); Radiohead (composers);
 True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

On True Love Waits, pianist Christopher O'Riley has taken fifteen songs off of Radiohead's acclaimed albums Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac (the title cut comes from the live I Might Be Wrong) and adapted them for solo piano -- just the perfect thing for those curious about the band's complex melodies, but turned off by the wailing (some say whiny) voice of lead vocalist Thom Yorke. Though originally presented with the help of a computer, O'Riley plays them completely bare, without accompaniment, completely organic.

And in what ways, you may ask, does this album differ from the instrumental adaptation of pop songs (and pop culture pariah) that goes by the name of Muzak? O'Riley chose these specifically because they would sound good on a piano; he wants the music adapted properly, not simply re-recorded by a nameless orchestra and piped into your local Safeway. True Love Waits is meant to be listened to actively in order to appreciate the nuances of the music, not to passively wash over you while you search for the cheapest brand of creamed corn.

Christopher O'Riley is a stunning pianist. I kept checking the liner notes to make sure that there was only one person playing the music, especially in the busier parts for which Radiohead have become famous. Only being somewhat familiar with the band's music before listening to this album, I was not quite sure what to expect, although I had heard a combined performance and interview with O'Riley on NPR which gave me an inkling, and I have most of the albums necessary for a basic appreciation. However, as I didn't have the key disc from which the bulk of True Love Waits was taken, I borrowed it from a friend who is a fan and who was eager to be of assistance.

Radiohead are no strangers to adaptations of their music. A search on Amazon.com found no less than four albums devoted to Radiohead covers; two by The String Quartet (one entirely of OK Computer and one mixed), one of other bands doing the songs, and one electronica selection. But what makes O'Riley's album the classic of the bunch is the heart behind it. Since he is a fan, he does his best to retain the dignity of the music and its original feel, even incorporating singer Yorke's sometimes strange vocal sounds into the melody. The songs remain remarkably similar to their origins, easily identifiable to the familiar ear. We end up with the same meal, just on a different plate; something to which fans of the band with an appreciation of the complexity of the music will surely gravitate.

Lara St. John (soloist); Johann Sebastian Bach (composer); re: Bach

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Sex sells, and I suppose it was time that someone in the classical music industry figured that out. Female violinists generally get the focus of this attention, so it should have been no surprise when Lara St. John appeared wearing only her violin on the cover of her debut album Bach: Works for Violin Solo.

Ever since, she has been the Vargas girl of unconventional violin work, a reputation she has worked to nurture with each successive disc (and cover photo--she looks positively orgasmic on Bach: The Concerto Album). Never has Bach been so well-represented by pulchritude, and the six-foot, self-proclaimed "Junoesque" violinist is unabashed in her defense of it.

But while her appearance may sell an album or two, her talent is what will get it played continually, and Lara St. John is certainly proficient in that department. She also seems to be specializing in one composer--not a common practice--as three of her four albums (including this one) focus on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, with the previous two consisting of energetic, if pretty straightforward, interpretations.

Now St. John has teamed up with producer Magnus Fiennes for her third foray into the work of J.S. (he and I are like this, so I can call him "J.S.") with re: Bach, which, as the e-themed title implies, attempts to bring Baroque into the modern age. First, and I think most interesting, is that most of the tracks were not composed for the violin, instantly bringing a new sound to old works. In addition, the sounds St. John, Fiennes, and arranger Brian Gascoigne come up with circle the globe--pulling from jazz, pop, and world music to produce something that sheds new light on music that, perhaps, has become too familiar and needs a kick. Particularly when it comes to bringing Bach to the attention of a younger generation whose familiarity with the master is likely to have peaked with hearing "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" blaring from their cell phones.

"Largo" starts the experience out gently and you barely notice the low synthesizer sound underlying St. John's violin melody. It's not really until the electronic bass line that you realize that you're in another dimension entirely. And just when you get settled into your "electronic classical" mode, on comes "Tocceilidh," transporting you into Celtic territory. "Goldberg2" takes one of the Variations that made Glenn Gould famous and turns it into South African kwaito.

"Duetto" is much more traditional in comparison, with only the double violin sound bringing it out of what would normally be expected. But with "Echo" we're back into familiar territory (for this album) with the tribal percussion and the wurlitzer making this unlike anything Bach could have imagined.

"The Sicilian" enters Pure Moods territory with its haunting melodies and its running time peppered with whispers and voices straight out of Guy de Maupassant's gothic works. "Was it a vision? Or a waking dream?" the voice says and, well, I can't answer him. But if you're in the right mood, it works. "Bombay Minor" is relatively stripped down, with only Trilok Gurtu's tabla providing a rhythm base for St. John's melody.

Phil Spector would be proud as every possible aural space in "Recit" is filled with sound. The instruments used here include electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, vocal effects, pedal steel guitar, alto flute, and marimba. It's one of the most ambitious tracks on re: Bach and also the longest, running over five minutes.

The 47-second "Aria," on the other hand, with only a simple cello accompaniment, is palate-cleansing, like a mild sorbet between courses. "Double" is a personal favorite with Phil Todd soloing on flute and John Themis offering both a Mexican sound on his guitar and the "wakka wakka" sound so familiar from 1970s exploitation movie soundtracks. "Gigue" has a Middle Eastern flavor and "Ten Fifty Two" adds international percussion to the main line, preparing us--if such can be said--for the final tune.

"BADinerie" would be entirely at home on a club dance floor with its electronic multilayered backbeats, sound effects, and rhythmic keyboard play. It's my favorite track (I wish it were longer) and is an excellent final touch to an album that does its best to surprise.

Purists may be offended by re: Bach but I thoroughly enjoyed having my mind opened to a new way of appreciating the works of Johann Sebastian Bach--especially those with which I was already familiar--both by filtering them through Gascoigne's arrangement for St. John's considerable violin skills and through Fiennes' modern/international sensibility. I think the composer himself would have approved, and possibly gawked a little as well.

(But don't just take my word for it. Listen to Lara St. John's phenomenal new album online!)

Herbert von Karajan (conductor); Gustav Holst (composer); The Planets, Opus 32

This recording of Gustav Holst's most famous work, The Planets, Opus 32, is an excellent version for those just beginning to appreciate the work of the master composer. Herbert von Karajan's interpretation with the Berlin Philharmonic is the definitive one in my opinion (as can be said with innumerable works by von Karajan, one reason he is a legend in the classical music world). "Mars" is a particular favorite, with "Jupiter" coming in a close second--due to the immense passion that is palpable in this recording of those pieces--but I feel comfortable recommending any of these unreservedly.

I am not musically trained and so am coming at this from purely a listening standpoint, but I feel nothing but pleasure every time I revisit this wonderful orchestration. The mix of tones is literally a trip through the musical solar system. An ambitious work, to say the least, it has never been duplicated.

Do yourself a favor and get introduced to Gustav Holst, one of the most underappreciated composers, and his masterwork, The Planets.

  • ...more to come...