Today I came across one of those articles that offered a comparison of the nutritional values of pizzas at national chain restaurants. Take just a moment to ingest that basic premise, if you will…
You’ve seen this kind of thing.
As a serious pizza fanatic I couldn’t resist finding out which fared best (and, of course, worst) – and, on the morbidly curious side – how many of these nefarious bad-boy pies I have personally consumed.
Not that many, it turns out. I admit the discovery leaves me with a mix of gratefulness and some measure of disappointment. For every sodium-laden, fat-drenched unearned calorie saturating the ones that ranked (BAD, very bad. Bad. Right?), I envisioned an equally sumptuous, completely cheesy and delicious piece of pizza perfection (mmmmmm).
I dwelled for a while on the path (artery?) not taken, and ultimately decided my longevity was probably better off for the missed experience. I guess.
Articles like this pop up fairly frequently. Part of the larger nutritional awareness movement underway now, popularized with books like Eat This, Not That! Thousands of Simple Food Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds–or More!
Since I couldn’t spend the next half hour wading in melted pizza bliss I refocused (much more healthful) to consider what my choices would be for a recorded music equivalent: “Hear This, Not That! Simple Sound Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Wasted Hours–or More!”
If you had to choose – I hope you don’t – between the Istvan Kertesz/London Symphony or Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic recordings of the Dvořák 9th symphony – which would you pick? Very difficult to say, or even make a compelling case for recommending one over the other. They’re both benchmark performances of the work.
Same idea with Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, in the 1961 studio version vs. some of the live ones, like the 1963 Newport recording. You have to hear both. In personnel alone, the tune takes on very different colors with the Newport group, where bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Roy Haynes replace Steve Davis and Elvin Jones from the original studio ensemble. Add to that the live dynamic and there’s really no comparison here.
But sometimes these choices are more clear, and that’s the launching point for this edition of Trading Fours. Save yourself the empty calories and wasted time wading through disappointing, unfulfilling listening. Check these out.
#1 – Beethoven’s complete symphony cycle (Herbert Von Karajan) – The infamous, narcissistic, perfectionist, genius – choose your adjective – German conductor Herbert Von Karajan recorded four complete Beethoven cycles in his long career. The first set was recorded from 1953-56 (w/The Philharmonia Orchestra); the next from 1961-2 (with his favorite orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic); a third came along from 1975-77 (Berlin Phil.); and the last was recorded from 1982-85 (yet again with Berlin). Assuming you’ll want to get one of these (only one) and save the rest of your budget for the next three recommendations here – which Beethoven set to pick? You want the second set, released in 1963, for how it so completely embodies one single word: firepower. These recordings reveal a young Von Karajan as a powerful leader capable of getting the very most from his orchestra. There is a rawness and urgency present here that gives each symphony a thrilling edginess. The longer he worked with Berlin the smoother and more synthesized their sound became, until you get to the 1980s (recordings his like two “Adagio” CDs come to mind) and it’s so rich and refined it’s beautiful, but very nearly drained of the personality that makes the 1963 set so special. Don’t be misled by the ‘newer (recent) is better’ perception when it comes to choosing recordings. This outstanding 1960s set is how you want to hear Beethoven.
#2 – “Good News” – 100 Gospel Greats – Need the Word? Sure you do. Every good music collection needs some great gospel. Choosing one recording isn’t easy, there are a lot of artist collections and anthologies available. I’ve chosen Good News for its variety, its depth and range, and – honestly – its disproportionate value for the modest price. Let me back up just a minute: the UK’s Proper Records is a terrific company, the self-described “home for roots music on the net”. A quick A-Z review of their roster reveals everything from Gene Autry and Chet Atkins, to Thelonious Monk and the Mills Brothers to “Zah, Zuh, Zaz: an Introduction to Cab Calloway”. They license music from the artist archives, and reissue it in nicely packaged, highly curated, very affordable collections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of their boxes going for more than $25-30 retail, and even if you don’t find a cheaper used or discount copy, it’s still worth every bit of that. Think of it this way: when you spend $25 for this set, if you follow the iTunes model of .99 cents per tune, you’re getting 100 songs here for roughly .25 cents apiece. Can’t beat it.
Good News is a 4-CD, 100-song set that works its way chronologically from the earliest material (1926: the Birmingham Jubilee Singers) to the most recent on disc 4 (1951: Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) and makes a lot of important stops along the way with artist like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and many earlier groups in the Southern gospel ‘jubilee’ and ‘harmony’ traditions. It’s fun. It rocks. And if it’s the only gospel you have in your collection I’m convinced you’ll be completely happy with it.
#3 – City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music – One of the big labels for New Orleans artists is Rounder Records. Since the very beginning in 1970, their focus has been the sound of America: blues, bluegrass, folk, jazz, Cajun, and various other (African, Caribbean) world genres. Don’t all of those styles, together, also describe the unique confluence that informs the sound of the Big Easy? They sure do. You’ll hear all of those influences in the label’s recent City of Dreams anthology, with favorites like Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Ruth Brown and the Professor Longhair to the deeper cuts that really inform the heart of the collection. Like Eddie Bo’s soulful Hard Times, Bo Dollis’ Shoo-fly, and highlights from New Orleans piano legends James Booker and Tuts Washington, whose touching Do You Know What It Means? closes out the collection as the last track on the last disc. You’ll find that Dreams holds a good sampling of second-line brass band music, Delta blues, r & b, funk, and a whole lotta soul. There’s no way one single anthology – any anthology – could wrap its arms comprehensively around all of the complex cultural influences at play in the music of a city like New Orleans. (Not that there are any other cities like that.) But this collection goes a long way to offer more than the usual superficial “best of” hit parade, it satisfyingly digs deeper to reveal much of the underlying artistry of the N.O. ‘sound’.
#4 – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Rinaldo Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano) – This an interesting one, with some surprisingly divisive opinions to consider and navigate in choosing the recording that’s right for your collection. The most popular music Vivaldi wrote, it’s lovely and lyrical and there’s probably no part of it you wouldn’t recognize, even out of context. That speaks to the music itself. But, for performances of the Seasons, take a look at ArkivMusic where there are more than 200 recordings currently available. Which one of those 200+ is the right one for you? That’s where the controversy enters the picture. Ongoing academic research and discovery in the area of ‘period’ performance practices has led to the divided house that now exists in regard to how this music is actually played. With vibrato (for many years the standard for Western classical music) or without (as it would have been performed and experienced in the pre-Baroque and Baroque eras, when this music was written)? With a big, full-bodied modern orchestra, or with the smaller chamber ensemble that would have been the standard in Vivaldi’s day? Tuned to the “440” pitch standard of the contemporary concert orchestra, or, to the “415-419” of the Baroque era? On modern instruments, or with the actual instruments (and faithful replicas thereof) from the Baroque?
You just wanted a nice recording of the Four Seasons. You didn’t know there would be so many decisions involved to find one. OK, well, before I recommend this one for you I will mention that I tend to prefer the ‘period’ performances, with their lighter touch, transparent textures, and often slightly faster tempi. There are wonderful recordings of the Seasons that find something of a balance, featuring modern instruments and orchestras with a soft ear toward the ‘authentic performance’ sensibilities: recordings with violinists Gil Shaham, Gidon Kremer, Joshua Bell, Julia Fischer are very nice and meet that standard to my ear. There are period ensembles that offer very nice, if not wildly adventurous performances: the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, and the Raglan Baroque Players are of this variety. Then there are “the Italians”; groups that follow the ‘period’ performance path and offer raw, viscerally exciting readings that strip away the accumulated years of varnish and offer the music in a bracing, fresh context. (Which is kind of funny, really, when you consider the ‘fresh’ context is a style hundreds of years old!) Ensembles like Europa Galante, La Stravaganza, Il Giardino Armonico, Accademia Bizantina, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra fall into this second camp. So do Concerto Italiano, with their director Rinaldo Alessandrini.
At the great risk of planting my flag irreversibly in the ‘period’ music camp, it is this last recording I am recommending. Unapologetically. There is much color, nuance, and capacity for a new listening experience, even in pieces like these you’ve already heard many times. It takes the right recording to make that point. I’m offering this one as my choice because it gave me that experience the first time I heard it (and, in repeated listening). I heard – actually heard – Vivaldi anew again in this lively, articulate, passionate recording with the Concerto Italiano. That doesn’t happen very often.
I can’t offer this suggestion as THE definitive, one-and-only Four Seasons recording, because that would presume I had heard them all (not the case). And, there’s so much diversity in the different performance styles among the many groups who have recorded these concertos. But it’s sure a good place to start, and if you like it, and you decide you really only need one Four Seasons in your archive, it would be an equally fine place to stop.
(By the way, for a concise history of tuning practices, take a look at this article.)
That’s it for this edition of Trading Fours. We started with pizza and ended with Vivaldi (so it goes!), and what I hope will be some very satisfying listening experiences for you. Happy Labor Day weekend!
Trading Fours is an occasional series here designed to build your music library and share ideas about favorite recordings, in the long tradition of learning about music from friends. If you have picks to share leave a comment here. Send me your four choices along with a quick explanation of the theme that holds them together. I’ll do the rest and get them posted here to share with everyone else.