The Albums That Changed My Life: #9, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning by Michael Praetorius

by Rick Krueger

By the mid-1990s, more classical music was being recorded and released worldwide than ever before.  Sony’s purchase of CBS Records had triggered a spending frenzy, both by the new Sony Classical and its competitors Polygram, EMI, RCA and Warner.  Occasional crossover chart smashes like The Three Tenors, Henryk Gorecki’s meditative Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, or the odd compilation of Gregorian chant had a glut of major and minor orchestras, choirs and ensembles chasing the next fluke hit — usually with A&R men breathing down their necks to justify the expense.

It was a mind-boggling time to be a classical collector.  Bookstores like Barnes & Noble and appliance shops like Best Buy opened in smaller and smaller towns, with deeper and deeper stocks of CDs.  Mall chains like Discount Records followed suit, and free-standing superstores like Tower Records went even deeper.  Detroit’s local chain Harmony House had a dedicated all-classical store; nearby Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, had at least two or three at any given time.  Whether hitting 28th Street on my day off in Grand Rapids, or driving east to visit family, I knew there would be something great to find no matter where I went — I just didn’t know what.

 

Continue reading “The Albums That Changed My Life: #9, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning by Michael Praetorius”

The Albums that Changed My Life: #7, O Come All Ye Faithful by The Choir of King’s College Cambridge

by Rick Krueger

Hearing this album was what really confirmed me — a fourth-generation American of German ancestry and Lutheran upbringing — as a lifelong, diehard Anglophile.  As a unlooked-for bonus, it reopened a vocational path I had taken for granted, if not outright abandoned, as I trained to become a musician.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you say to the first point, “every single album you’ve written about so far is by a British artist or composer!”  Point taken.  Throw in my love for the work of Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien and Shakespeare (as well as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes), and you might consider my opening sentence an overstatement.  But hear me out.

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #7, O Come All Ye Faithful by The Choir of King’s College Cambridge”

The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Rick Krueger

In our casually audiophile age of 96 kHz/24 bit BluRays and 180-gram virgin vinyl, it may be hard to comprehend what a difference digital recording made when it came of age in the late 1970s.   I remember cueing up Keith Jarrett’s Concerts: Bregenz, München and being blown away as much by the background silence, the clarity and depth of the piano sound, and the extended dynamic range as by Jarrett’s freewheeling improvisations.  The compact disc was still in the future — but at that point, after suffering through muddy, distorted mass-produced pressings of way too many albums, it seemed like that future was all upside.

Classical record companies were the most fervent backers of digital recording from the beginning; the prospect of “perfect sound forever” made both corporate executives and their target demographic (single men with money or credit to burn — surprise!) salivate in anticipated ecstasy.  Certainly, as I built a classical collection during graduate school, the word “Digital” on the front cover of a record always counted in its favor.

That’s one reason I picked up the album pictured above.  Another reason: I’d already heard some fine Mahler recordings by the young conductor Simon Rattle, precociously helming the scrappy City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  And there was one more burning question: was Benjamin Britten right about Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams”

The Albums that Changed My Life: #5, War Requiem by Benjamin Britten

by Rick Krueger

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The Poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.” — Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

I took an orchestration class in early 1982.  The final project sounded simple: listen to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and write a report.  While I knew of Britten, and had heard his music — The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was still standard music appreciation class material  — this piece was new to me.  I figured I’d borrow the record (conducted by the composer) from the college library, hear it once, and have what I needed to bang out an analysis.  Then I dropped the needle:

This piece demanded full attention — ears, head, heart and guts.  90 minutes later, I sat in my dorm room, drained and amazed.  35 years (and one long lost paper) later, I’m still completely engaged every time I hear the War Requiem, and singing it with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus in 2008 was a highlight of my life in performance.  It’s always commanded my wholehearted admiration, and it set me off on a deeper exploration of classical music (and 20th century music in particular) that’s endured to this day.  Why?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #5, War Requiem by Benjamin Britten”

soundstreamsunday: “Cowboy” by Randy Newman

randynewman1.jpegRandy Newman makes diamonds.  You can feel the pressure and time and heat that go into his songs, creating the effect of lush spaciousness in tunes typically clocking in under three minutes.  His eagerness towards satire is a product of his style, immersive first-person character sketches delivering broad social commentary and comedy in lines simply phrased, acidic, and wrought with compassion.  His skill at delivering his own songs is often eclipsed by his influence as a songwriter and his work as a hired gun — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his 1968 self-titled debut has been covered something like 75 times, and his scores and songs for films are in themselves a major achievement — and yet his unmistakable voice, coupled with arrangements measured to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths, carry such weight that as a performer of his own music he’s peerless.

“Cowboy” is from the ’68 debut, and in its brief stay conjures Dvorak and Copland, the film music of Newman’s uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil, and a particularly nuanced form of American songwriting that was then just taking shape and was particular to Los Angeles.  It leans heavily on cinematic structure and the idea of music as a vehicle for a script’s emotional power.  Consider the slightness of the lyrics:

Cold gray buildings where a hill should be
Steel and concrete closing in on me
City faces haunt the places
I used to roam
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try
Wind that once blew free
Now scatters dust to the sky
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try

In contrast to much of Newman’s work, “Cowboy” doesn’t contain the erudite wordplay and swing he shared with Mose Allison and it doesn’t betray his deep roots in New Orleans.  It’s instead a kind of beautiful dirge of disillusion, a Brave New World Symphony where the fantasy of open spaces bumps up hard against the darker angels of human nature.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Vier Stücke für Xylophon” by Gunild Keetman

kettmann_trommelOn Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen rode the violent edge of Americanness that coursed through rock and roll, consciously plugging into Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the legacy of Charlie Starkweather’s and Caril Fugate’s 1958 killing spree across the midwest.  Springsteen was inspired towards Misfit-style murder ballad by Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, a thinly-veiled fiction of the Starkweather/Fugate rampage, and went so far as to write a song called “Badlands” for Darkness on the Edge of Town before going all in with the spare Nebraska.  As a source of influence on Springsteen’s work and, by association, those of Springsteen’s acolytes, Malick’s film is profound, and yet it achieves its own dark power partly through a music almost entirely unrelated to its subject matter.

Music für Kinder.  Music for children.  Given the youth of Starkweather and Fugate, this may have been the connecting tissue Malick was looking for when he used the work of Gunild Keetman in his film.  Keetman and her collaborator Carl Orff created volume upon volume of educational texts and compositions from the 1930s into the 1960s under the name “Schulwerk” and “Music für Kinder.”  While Orff, as the composer of “Carmina Burana,” was the high-profile name attached to the project, Keetman did the heavy lifting.  At times interpretations — as in the first of the four pieces presented here, “Gassenhauer” (which Malick used throughout Badlands), composed by Hans Neusidler in 1536 and recast by Keetman in 1952 — the work tends towards the percussive and rhythmic, with simple starts building progressively in complexity.  The results are lovely, spritely even, but, as in this performance by the Karl Peinkofer Percussion Ensemble in 1995, maintain a meditative quality lending a potential for darkness, not of childhood but of perhaps lost childhood.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Let me bring you strings from the crypt

JT1

Jethro Tull: The String Quartets

 

No stranger to classical arrangements and the fuller sound that an orchestra or string quartet can bring to his music, former Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson and long term collaborator John O’Hara having seen the Carducci Quartet decided to get together with them and rearrange a selection of classic Tull songs for string quartet, with Ian Andersons instantly recognisable flute weaving through some of the tracks, and John O’Hara playing piano on a couple of them, Ian even adds his distinctive vocals to a few of the tracks as well.

JT2With the striking artwork this splendid addition to the canon is released on 24th March.

Some of you out there might think that releasing an album of old material slightly rearranged is a holding exercise (or a cynical exploitation exercise), after all Ian’s last album Homo Erraticus was released in 2014, and whilst he’s taken his Ian Anderson/ Jethro Tull live show on the road, there’s been no new material since then.

Continue reading “Let me bring you strings from the crypt”