Picks of the Year: 2000

by Walter Simmons



During the past year I have been less thorough in keeping abreast of new releases (and, as some may have noticed, less prolific in writing reviews), because of a large-scale project that has been occupying me. It is my hope that when it is finished, the project will prove to be worth the wait. Partly because of my relative isolation from the stream of new releases, I have decided to include on this year’s Want List two recent discs brought to my attention by friends, which I found to be enormously pleasing, although they represent a musical genre that I ordinarily do not follow closely. Painted from Memory is a CD featuring popular songs written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, and sung by the latter, accompanied by various instrumental groupings. While noting that Costello’s sense of pitch is more precarious than I am comfortable with, I must report in all sincerity that most of the songs display the sort of harmonic complexity, wide-ranging melodies, and rhythmic asymmetry that appeal to me in contemporary “art-songs.” Those who have even a passing acquaintance with Bacharach’s work over the past few decades know that these are qualities that have long characterized his output. But I have never found them used to such deeply expressive effect before. I don’t know how Fanfarecolleagues and readers would react to this release, but I would be dishonest if I did not name it as one of my most satisfying discoveries of the past year.

Back during the late 1960s I was one of those who argued that the later music of the Beatles warranted consideration as “serious” art. I also believed that much of what raised their work so far above the usual level of its genre were attributable to their producer, George Martin. Nothing has ever dispelled that impression for me. Almost as if to prove the point in a slyly oblique way, (now Sir) George Martin decided, as a sort of discographic valediction, to invite “some of my friends and heroes, people I had always liked and admired,” to recreate some of the most notable entries in the Beatles canon. Drawing together some rather unlikely characters, the resulting potpourri is irresistibly compelling and great fun. Some selections are true recreations of the original concepts, while others are complete reinterpretations. In the former category falls the most stunning rendition of all, a performance of “I am the Walrus” featuring none other than comedian Jim Carrey, whose consistent, flexibly nuanced vocal intensity, manic wildness, and musical accuracy leave—forgive the blasphemy—John Lennon far behind. Almost as impressive is Robin Williams’s reading of “Come Together,” with an amazingly agile vocal accompaniment provided by Bobby McFerrin. In the latter category falls “A Hard Day’s Night,” presented as a steamy torch song by Goldie Hawn. The concept works marvelously, yet there is nothing in the original version of the song to suggest that it held the potential for such a complete reinterpretation. I mention these examples because they are perhaps the most striking, but hardly any of the others fail to delight. Among the songs included are “A Day in the Life” as a guitar solo by Jeff Beck, “Here, There, and Everywhere” sung by Celine Dion, “Here Comes the Sun” as a guitar solo by John Williams, and the extraordinary “Golden Slumbers” sequence from Abbey Road, sung by Phil Collins. Listening to this collection of inspired performances in toto compels one not just to acknowledge Sir George’s brilliance in identifying the peculiar aesthetic potential of this remarkable musical material, but also to remember with poignancy a brief period when it was “cool” for popular music to strive for the artistic sophistication that is usually the province of un-popular (otherwise known as “classical”) music.

My remaining choices are presented with more brevity, as they have already been discussed at length in these pages. The Bloch release (reviewed in 23:5) gives fascinating and rewarding evidence of the composer’s degree of maturity and mastery during the scantily documented period prior to his move to the United States in 1916. It is essential for Bloch enthusiasts. The Boulanger disc is offered (with apologies) on the heels of a very similar release (on Timpani) that appeared on my 1999 Want List. This Chandos disc (reviewed in 23:4) is a must, however, because not only are its performances superior, but it offers the first modern, representative rendition of the quasi-operatic scene Faust et Hélène, which earned for the composer the Prix de Rome and whichWalter Damrosch proclaimed, “one of the masterpieces of modern music.” Naxos’s wildly prodigious American Classics series scored a triumph with its release (reviewed in 23:6) of the first three of Paul Creston’s six symphonies. Winning two major awards, the Symphony No. 1 launched the composer’s reputation almost overnight, yet has had to wait 60 years for its first recording. The three works are all presented in fine performances, making readily available (and at a budget price) three accessible and highly personal American symphonic masterpieces from the 1940s.

BACHARACH/COSTELLO Painted from Memory – Costello et al. Ÿ MERCURY 314 538 002-2

BEATLES et al. In My Life– George Martin (prod) et al. – ECHO/MCA 11841-2

BLOCH Psalms 22, 114, 137. Poems of Autumn. Winter-Spring – Soloists/Shallon/Luxembourg PO – TIMPANI 1C1052

BOULANGER Psalms 24, 130. Faust and Helen et al. – Soloists/Tortelier/Birmingham Sym Ch/BBC PO – CHANDOS CHAN 9745

CRESTON Symphonies: 1-3 – Kuchar/Ukraine Natl. SO – NAXOS 8.559034