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Do You Hear What They Hear : The Classic Holiday Gift

Holiday shopping time. Gift-giving time. Making lists time. The best of this and the best of that. Tedious, skip it, bourgeois nonsense, I always say to myself--and then start making lists.

It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that there was a unifying theme to these dozen compact disc releases and re-releases of the past year. Why, I asked, did this gift list materialize in its present form? Because of some specific connection with the season? Hardly.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 18, 1988 Double-Checking the Gift List
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 18, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 77 Calendar Desk 7 inches; 216 words Type of Material: List; Recording Review; Correction
In last Sunday’s Calendar, Herbert Glass’ list of recommended recordings for Christmas gifts was deleted in the editing process. His recommendations:
Albeniz: “Iberia,” “Suite espanola,” “Navarra.” Alicia de Larrocha, piano (London).
Beethoven: Symphonies 1 & 6. Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players (Angel).
Berlioz: “Nuits d’ete”; Ravel: “Sheherazade”; Poulenc: Songs. Regine Crespin, soprano; Ernest Ansermet conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; John Wustman, piano (London).
Copland: Suites: “The Tender Land,” “Appalachian Spring,” etc. Aaron Copland conducting the Boston Symphony (RCA).
Handel: “Water Musick.” Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi).
Mahler: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, etc. (Deutsche Grammophon).
Mozart: “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Arnold Ostman conducting soloists and the Drottningholm Court Orchestra (Oiseau-Lyre).
Schickele: String Quartet No. 1, “American Dreams.” The Audubon Quartet (RCA).
Schubert: Mass in E flat. Armin Jordan conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, etc. (Erato).
J. Strauss, Jr.: “Wiener Blut.” Otto Ackermann conducting soloists and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Angel).
Stravinsky: “L’Histoire du Soldat.” Kent Nagano conducting soloists and the London Sinfonietta (Pangaea).
Vaughan Williams: “Serenade to Music”; “The Lark Ascending”; etc. Sir Adrian Boult conducting soloists, various orchestras (Angel).

When the definitive answer came it was sublimely obvious: These CDs were, like Hillary’s Everest, simply there --not on Everest, but within reach, in my studio, long after the reviews had been written.

Some arguably overexposed standards are included among the dozen gift CDs, but in fresh, vivifying guises. For instance, the Beethoven “Pastorale” Symphony, in which Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players not only perform on instruments of the composer’s time, but in accordance with what we know of his original tempos and dynamics. What emerges is less sweet-toned, more urgent and aggressive than the voluptuous misrepresentations to which Romantically inclined conductors have accustomed us. Also included on this Angel CD is a comparably invigorating Beethoven First Symphony.

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In the same vein--superfamiliar, but brand-new--is the Harmonia Mundi version of Handel’s “Water Musick,” that final k being authentically 18th Century, as is the dashing, fiercely joyous performance by those period-instrument wizards from San Francisco, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

Complete-change-of-pace time: Mahler’s grandiose, hyper-romantic Second Symphony is the bona fide thriller--musically, interpretively, sonically--among these entries, the one intended to knock your (and your giftee’s) socks off, not to show off your (or my) good taste. Taste has its place, as do Mahler and Leonard Bernstein.

Continuing on the subject of emotionalism, but of a less flagrant sort: instead of a wallow with Brahms or Tchaikovsky this season, invite your loved ones to slosh around in the orchestral suite from Copland’s 1954 opera “The Tender Land,” a stirring hunk of American Romanticism that readily projects itself into the heart, and refuses to leave. RCA’s budget CD revives the 1956 recording and also includes Copland’s best-known ballet scores, “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid.” A terrific bargain.

The eclecticism of another serious and accessible native-born composer, Peter Schickele, whose manic alter ego is the noted prankster P.D.Q. Bach, makes the head swim--with pleasure. Schickele’s “American Dreams” is a scintillating hodgepodge of jazz, country fiddling, hymnody, Navajo chant, birdcalls and just about any other imaginable ingredient of a tasty American Musical Stew. It also marks the recorded debut of the hugely gifted, Virginia-based Audubon Quartet for whom “Dreams” was written four years ago.

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Sticking momentarily with the 20th Century: I can imagine no more effective introduction to the wonders of Stravinsky than the feisty, funny-dark music-theatre piece “L’Histoire du soldat” (The Soldier’s Story), a down-home variant of the Faust legend scored for a brash, piquant little instrumental ensemble and three juicy speaking parts. The role of Stravinsky’s soldier is here assigned to super-rocker Sting, who plays it with appealingly vigorous simplicity, holding his own with colleagues of such lofty theatrical accomplishment as Ian McKellen, the Narrator, and, in another bit of cheeky casting, the quicksilver Devil of Vanessa Redgrave.

Johann Strauss’ operetta “Wiener Blut” is fun of a sunnier sort--a dizzy farce incorporating some of the Waltz King’s most familiar tunes, performed in this handsome-sounding reissue (nearly 80 minutes on a single CD, by the way) from the mid-'50s by such dazzlers as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Erich Kunz. Try it as a New Year’s treat, in place of the overworked “Fledermaus.”

“Le Nozze di Figaro” was one of Johann Strauss’s favorite operas. It is unlikely, however, that the version he saw staged in Vienna a century ago was anything like Ostman’s lean, stingingly sharp edition, employing instruments and performing practices of Mozart’s time and a lively, brainy cast headed by youngish veterans Hakan Hagegard and Arleen Auger as the lecherous Count and his Countess, and luminaries-in-the-making Barbara Bonney, a pert, worldly Susanna, and bass Petteri Salomaa, her agile Figaro.

Lists such as this traditionally include one entry honoring an authenticated living legend. OK, but Vladimir Horowitz isn’t the one to represent me. My living legend of the piano is a tiny, 65-year-old lady from Spain named Alicia de Larrocha--absolute ruler of the keyboard when allied to the fierily poetic works of her compatriot Isaac Albeniz. Enough said.

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Total performer-repertory identification also distinguishes a recording I have been buying on all sorts of gift-giving occasions--on LP, cassette, and now CD--for a quarter-century: Berlioz’s sentimental, soulful “Nuits d’ete” and the sinuous “Sheherazade"songs of Ravel, projected with exquisitely cool sexiness by Regine Crespin, the French soprano of the postwar era and Ernest Ansermet, one of the century’s formidable conductors. The substantial encores, which were not included in the LP and cassette versions, are alone worth the price of admission: Debussy’s erotic “Chansons de Bilitis” and seven brief, pungent melodies by Poulenc.

Forget about the “Messiah” this season. No, don’t abandon all hope for salvation; just skip Handel’s oratorio as a gift. Instead, treat others (and yourself) to a discovery, Schubert’s not particularly well-known Mass in E flat, which contains some of the most benign, hopeful and soothing music ever written.

And if that doesn’t work, consider the ultimate gift of peace: Angel’s Vaughan Williams program featuring the “Serenade to Music” and the “Lark Ascending,” a dreamy violin rhapsody. Spiritual ammunition with which to face the end of the world--or rush hour on the Ventura Freeway.


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