Lovely Recordings: Hosted by Steven Neil Simon

My taste in music is fairly omnivorous. If there’s a thread running through these selections it’s the sense of place and emotional content conveyed by the performances. By place I don’t mean the acoustics of the recording space or the soundstage. It’s more a sense of the locative and/or temporal space in which the music was performed and the ethos it reflects. Emotional or spiritual content is just that, although what’s inspiring in a spiritual sense to one listener might leave another cold. Compassion is one dimension of this larger quality; I hear it, for example, in the lullaby sung by Carmen McRae. Listening to these albums, however, will be a lot more enlightening than what I have to say about them, so plunge right in.

Carmen McRae with Dave Brubek: Take Five Live Carmen McRae (Columbia, 1961)
OK, so Take Five is on the list for the mellifluous quirkiness of McRae’s vocals intensified by the offbeat tempos of Brubeck’s ensemble. What’s amazing to me is the emotion that underlies her phenomenal technique. A desert island disc if there ever was one. I have it on LP as well as the Japanese import CD. I enjoy both.

Available from PonoMusic

Mary McCaslin: The Best of Mary McCaslin: Things We Said Today ()
Mary McCaslin conveys loss in a way few other singers can do. But somehow she does it without pathos. Her singing and fingerwork are spare, even lean. But the emotional content is deep and rich. This album also contains fine renderings of a couple of Beatles’ songs, especially "Blackbirds", where she captures the mix of whimsy and longing that infuses the song.

Available from PonoMusic

Johann Sebastian Bach: Rosalyn Tureck Plays Bach: Partitas 1,2,6 (Video Artists Int'l, 1995)
There are numerous recordings of the Bach Partitas for keyboard, some of which are outstanding. But Tureck's was the first performance of them I heard and perhaps from that reason it will always be definitive. A wise and spiritual performance.

Available from PonoMusic

Joan Baez, Bill Wood, Ted Alevizos: Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square (Veritas, 1959)
I’m a Joan Baez fan and this 1959 recording from a Cambridge that is now long gone captures her purity of tone and authenticity of belief beautifully. It also captures an American moment that I’d be loathe for us to lose.

Available from PonoMusic

Trio Mediaeval: Folk Songs (ECM, 2007)
If you haven’t heard Trio Mediaeval, you don’t know what you’re missing. Of course you’d have to like early music and better known ensembles like the Anonymous 4. This is truly haunting music both melodically and in terms of the sense of place conjured by the recording and the program material. Makes you feel like you’re in Scandinavia near the Arctic Circle on the Winter Solstice just a few years after the Christianization of that part of Europe. OK, I’m getting carried away, but this is truly haunting.

Available from Qobuz

Al Qantarah: Abbalati abballati! - Songs and sounds in Medieval Sicily ( fonè Records, 2001)
Speaking of a sense of place, Abbalatti! Abbalallati! carries me to the world of medieval Sicily, which was a crossroads of Arab, Norman, Italian and God only knows what other Mediterranean cultures. The acoustics and voices are fantastic, thanks to a first rate SACD recording. (it can be downloaded as a hi-res file too). The singing is lusty but can be be very dark in a way that summons the hard lives lived on the island.

Available from NativeDSD Music

Ensemble Organum: Chant mozarabe Cathédrale de Tolède (XVe siècle) (Harmonia Mundi Fr., 1995)
Chant Mozarabe preserves plainchant from a period when the Muslims still ruled Spain. Forgive me for using this word again, but it is haunting music well served by a fine recording.

Available from Qobuz

Heinrich von Biber: Violin Sonatas (Harmonia Mundi, 1994)
I include the Biber Sonatas because my wife and I used to listen to them a lot at night when we lived overseas. These are deep, deep waters, very moving and, lovely sad melody punctuated by weird dissonances.

Available from Presto Classical

Telemann: Kantaten aus "Der Harmonische Gottesdienst" (Cantate, 1995)
Der Harmonische Gottesdienst is on the list because it somehow manages to evoke both austerity and profound emotion. But the thing that grabbed me when I first heard on WQXR a million years ago, was, yes, a Hallelujah chorus of a single voice — Schlick’s — that conveys piety, purity, and shimmering tone. It’s a knockout if you’re into that kind of thing.

Available from Amazon (CD)

Afif Alvarez Bulos: Classical Arabic Music (Folkways Records, 1976)
Last on the list is Afif Bolus. I had this on a Musical Heritage Society LP which somehow disappeared, but the download is sonically OK. The key thing is the music of course and if you are interested in the urban music of the Levant dating back to the days of the late Ottoman Empire, this is the real deal. You can occasionally still hear it in Beirut and a couple of other places, but its basically the music of a multicultural Middle East that has since been drained of its diversity.

Available from Folkways Records

About me: I like music and playback technology and am a big fan of Michael Lavorgna's. I was a State Department official for a long time working in and around the Middle East and served a couple of tours at the White House helping out on national security issues. I now teach Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College and live in Vermont with my wife, who’s also at Dartmouth, and a dog and cat. My audio systems are a shifting constellation of Harbeth, Magnaplanar and Totem Acoustic speakers, McIntosh and Quicksilver valve amps, an assortment of middle of the road CD players, DACs and a single turntable (RP-8). I’m into streaming and look forward to Michael’s upcoming review of the Aries Mini.

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lestes's picture

Really enjoying Carmen McRae! Thanks for sharing.