Classical Crossover

Barbra Streisand, “Classical Barbra” (Sony Masterworks). When this album was first released in 1976, Leonard Bernstein rather predictably provided cheerleading for the classical world. Bernstein, after all, was a loyal employee of Columbia records at the time and not given to corporate fractiousness (and besides, let’s remember the hilarious theatricality of Bernstein at a Grammy Awards presentation pronouncing a category winner to be Tina Turner, with astonishing enthusiasm that he clearly didn’t begin to feel). Of far more mysterious enthusiasm was their label-mate Glenn Gould, not always given to proclaiming endorsements for those who bored him. In truth, Streisand didn’t disgrace herself at all singing this classical program with an orchestra conducted by Claus Ogerman. Back then, Streisand was giving the world a sample of the kind of cult allegiance we’d soon see blossom crazily with Oprah Winfrey. She doesn’t pretend to be anything but Streisand, but it’s a very pretty record if it doesn’t live up to the beauty of so many of the works themselves. There are more beautiful pieces from Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne” than the “Brezairola” which Streisand sings. And to understand how very much more could be had from it, listen to the all-time classic version by the great soprano Vittoria De Los Angeles. But no one needs to run away from Streisand either. The same is true of songs by Debussy, Handel, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Gabriel Faure and Carl Orff. There are low notes here she’s clearly not used to (even though Sarah Vaughan could have laughed them off). But she’s mostly letter-perfect, if not inspired. For the new reissue version of it, you’ll hear her perform two lieder by Schubert never heard before – “An Sylvia D.891” and “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” D.774. Her accompaniment on the newly heard Schubert songs isn’t Claus Ogerman leading a symphony orchestra but rather just Ogerman at the piano. It completes the portrait of her dedication to the project, even if it doesn’t all that much to its strength. 3 stars (Jeff Simon)


The Dann Zinn 4, “Grace’s Song” (Z Music). Without listening to it, you might assume the chief attraction of this young saxophonist’s quartet was 28-year-old pianist Taylor Eigsti, a former jazz prodigy who has grown up to be every bit as formidable a pianist as we always suspected. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong but there’s no question that Zinn’s quartet is a good one and the tenor saxophonist leader is completely worthy of a pianist as exceptional as Eigsti. Listen to their version of Sting’s “King of Pain” to hear a very fine jazz version of a song that should have had far more currency with jazz musicians than it has (among early Police hits, it’s the one most influenced by Sting’s past as a jazz bass player). 3 stars (J.S.)


Keith Jarrett, Hymns and Spheres performed by Keith Jarrett on the Trinity Organ of Benedictine Organ of Ottoeuren Abbey in German (ECM, two discs). It’s not really jazz. Although it’s not NOT jazz either. This reissue from 1976, in fact, is, probably the strangest record Keith Jarrett ever made, as well as one of the most ambitious. In retrospect, it probably says far less about Jarrett’s gifts as a spontaneous composer and a performer to be playing a classical church organ from the 18th century than it does about the magnificent freedom and encouragement Manfred Eicher and his ECM records provided for musicians for whom he had the highest regard. Few recording labels in the world of music have ever encouraged as much musical ambition and independence as Eicher’s ECM. Jarrett’s oddity here is eternal testament to that. 3 stars (J.S.)


Frederic Rzewski, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” performed by pianist Ole Kiilerich (Bridge). In April 1977 I listened raptly to composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski (ZHEF-ski) playing his 1975 “The People United Will Never be Defeated” in the Univeristy at Buffalo’s old Baird Recital Hall. I was both thunderstruck by the work’s overwhelmingly expressive power and dumbstruck at the simplicity of the elements from which the music is drawn. It was written in 1975 in response to the oppressive Pinochet government in Chile, and consists of 36 variations on a folk song of the resistance that is disarmingly simple but so captivating that you just can’t get it out of your head. Unlike most sets of variations, Rzewski’s theme does not disappear in the complexity of its transformations. It may not always be audible, but it seems omnipresent in fragments or in spirit, lurking around for an opportunity to assert itself. Even though the pianist must have a formidable technique to negotiate this work, it is not the fortissimo climaxes or the occasional odd sounds and “extended techniques” that give the music its unique memorability. It is the staying power of that simple theme, which seems to speak less of revolution than of the kind of dedication, commitment and persistence implied by the word “United” in the title. Kiilerich is a Danish pianist with the technical prowess to bring this work off magnificently. He lets the music thunder where necessary, but his approach is rather more introspective than most, and the lingering memory is of the persistent, overbearing optimism Rzewski’s music implies. This is one of the cornerstones of 20th century piano literature, worthy to stand alongside such other monumental sets of variations as Bach’s “Goldberg” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli.” Kiilerich’s recording should convince any sensitive listener of that. It is also music whose extraordinary range of intensity gives the live performance a certain theatricality, so take note that on April 13, pianist Ran Dank will play “People United” in UB’s Lippes Concert Hall on the Slee/Visiting Artist Series. 3½ stars (Herman Trotter)


New Year’s Concert performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Most, conductor (Sony Classical). The wild popularity of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert in the glittering Musikverein can be seen in the speed with which the recordings are hustled into release. As early as Jan. 4, the most recent New Year’s Eve concert was available for digital download and on CD, through Amazon’s CreateSpace Disc on Demand service. Now the CD has been released nationally, and so have been a DVD and Blu-ray. It includes some premieres – that is, music that has not been played at the party before. In honor of the Wagner year, that includes the splashy Prelude to Act 3 of “Lohengrin,” and in honor of the Verdi year, the musicians play ballet music from “Don Carlo.” I like the idea of mixing up the repertoire a little bit more. I don’t think the Strauss dynasty would mind. Welser-Most is as good as anyone to waltz the Vienna Philharmonic through this festive, anachronistic annual romp. 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)


Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, “Texas Flood” (Epic/Legacy, two discs). One of the greatest discs – the first, in fact – of one of the greatest rock and blues guitarists of the past 50 years reissued with a never-before-released mind-boggling hourlong Philadelphia concert recording from the tour that introduced him to an ecstatic America. Here, from Oct. 20, 1983, is what Stevie Ray sounded like live in his absolute prime, when all he wanted to do was let the world in on what a monster guitarist Jimmy Vaughan’s younger brother was. A truly great Stevie Ray live performance never released on disc before. Stupendous. Really. 4 stars (J.S.)