Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter Fine Art Print

I haven’t been here for a while, and I realized it was because I was committing myself to long pieces when I already have several of those assigned to me a month on Soundstage’s web-sites. I decided that some short things here might give me an outlet to say some things I can’t cover in a review, or to call your attention to some music I didn’t get to on Soundstage Hi Fi, et.al.

I had intended to expand a bit on the sound of the Black Keys’ new disc. I liked the music very much, but I did not like the sound at all. I’ll get to that another time.

As I was thinking about that piece, I read that Johnny Winter died at age 70 while on tour in Europe. Winter was an iconic guitarist of the 60s, as admired as Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, but he was a purer blues player. When I heard his debut album on Columbia in 1969, I didn’t know what to think. I had heard Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton play the blues, but this was edgier and, to my young ears, less refined. I realized later, when I heard real blues players, that what I reacted to was Winter’s genuine feel for the blues, and his commitment to it. He didn’t filter it through rock in the way the British players had and he didn’t bury it in late 60s production effects.

He achieved fame and airplay in the 70s with Still Alive and Well but by then he had already established himself as a blues and rock and roll guitarist of formidable talent. The two albums with Johnny Winter And, the band he started with Rick Derringer, are classic 70s rock—real rock and roll with a fierce sound and a blues undercurrent. Their live album is fast and powerful. I saw Winter once, in 1973, and he was a gripping performer with a stage presence that reached out to you even in a large arena.

Winter produced four albums for Muddy Waters in the late 70s and early 80s and they returned Waters to the forefront of the blues, which was just beginning to enjoy a revival. All four albums received good reviews and awards. Winter himself continued to record for various labels, some of the results great, some only so-so, but even the least of them showed his characteristic flair for the blues and his love for it.

I’m sad that Winter is gone, but there are worse ways for a musician to go than while on tour playing the music he or she loves.

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Early Winter

Count_Me_In

Paul Winter grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a small city in the central West part of the state, but he ended up in Chicago in 1957 to study at Northwestern University. He had been playing jazz since he was 13 and was attracted to Chicago because he thought it would be a good place to continue playing the music he loved. While he was at Northwestern, he met Dick Whitsell, a trumpet player who knew other jazz musicians in the area. He helped Winter get acquainted with the jazz scene in Chicago and the two musicians began playing regularly.

In 1960, they began putting together what would become the Paul Winter Sextet. Their first, audacious move was to drive to Philadelphia to ask Jimmy Heath to write arrangements for them, which he graciously agreed to. By 1962, the sextet had signed to Columbia Records after winning a competition at the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival in Washington, DC.  The Paul Winter Sextet recorded 5 LPs in 1962 and 1963, and toured Latin America in 1962 as part of the State Department’s Cultural Exchange Program. Shortly after the group completed that six month tour, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited it to play at the White House.  Songs from that performance, along with a generous helping of tracks the group recorded for Columbia, comprise Count Me In, a two disc anthology.

Winter and Whitsell established the sextet based on their admiration for the Jazztet co-led by Bennie Golson and Art Farmer, as well as the Miles Davis group that had recorded Kind of Blue. By the time the sextet recorded its eponymous first album, the lineup was Winter, Whitsall, Warren Bernhardt on piano, Les Rout on baritone sax, Morris Jennings on drums, and Richard Evans on bass.  The album was never released in the US, and the anthology picks things up with the group’s second LP, Jazz Meets Bosa Nova. Disc one of the anthology takes several tracks from that LP and the one that followed, Jazz Premier: Washington.

Heath’s influence is clear in the ensemble’s close harmony behind the soloists and its balance of control and emotion.  Evans and Jones give the band a relaxed swing, with Jones’s ride cymbal driving things along with subtlety and wit. Whitsell and Rout are very solid players, and Whitsell hits a number of good solos, but seems a little tentative on the early recordings. Winter is a consistently powerful and compelling improviser, full of wit and ideas, quick and nimble on alto. Bernhardt is also an engaging soloist and a sophisticated accompanist. The group’s versatility is evident in its choice of material, from blues (“Them Nasty Hurtin’ Blues”) to the bosa nova songs it picked up on its tour of Latin America.   

The sextet that played the White House in late 1962 had six months touring, with more than 160 gigs under its belt. It’s a tougher, harder hitting ensemble than it was on its first two recordings, and Whitsell in particular had developed into a muscular, consistent soloist without losing the lyrical feel that made his playing on the early sessions enjoyable. Rout is also much more at ease than he was in the studio. Jones and Evans were solid pros already, but Jones hits harder on this recording, and the result is a more swinging sound overall. A comparison of the live version of “Casa Camara” from this performance with the studio recording from earlier in the year shows a more confident band, one much more at ease with Latin rhythms.  Even Winter seems to have improved, bringing a bit more spontaneity to his soloing.

When Winter, Whitsell, and Bernhardt began a tour in late 1962 and into 1963, Chuck Israels took over on bass, Ben Riley was in the drum seat, and Jay Cameron was the baritone player. Most of the tracks on disc two are live, from the band’s college appearances during the tour. The music on these tracks is closer to hard bop than the West Coast feel of the first disc, with Dixon moving things along briskly in a manner reminiscent of Art Blakey.  Cameron is a more fleet baritone player than Rout, less edgy. By the end of his run with this group, Rout was developing into a distinctive player, but Cameron is a facile and energetic soloist. The players as an ensemble are as adept on a ballad like “With Malice Toward None” as they are on the harder numbers, such as “All Members.”

The last four cuts on the set are from Jazz Meets the Folk Song, with Cecil McBee on bass and Freddie Waits on drums. “Lass from the Low Countrie” and “We Shall Overcome” are contemplative, while “Repeat” and “Down by the Greenwood Side” move along,  with the band playing energetically. Winter, Whitsell, and Bernhardt had developed an almost telepathic level of communication between them and their work as a unit has an easy but precise quality. By the time of the band’s late ’62 tour, Bernhardt was a sympathetic, responsive accompanist and a distinctive soloist who combined a sense of romantic lyricism with a strong blues base. He continued to grow during his time with Winter.

The Paul Winter Sextet introduced Winter, Whitsell, Rout, and Bernhardt to the jazz world. Whitsell would leave jazz to become a doctor after recording Jazz Meets the Folk Song . Les Rout got a doctorate in Latin American history and enjoyed a distinguished career in academia. Bernhardt is still active in jazz and is well regarded by peers and by jazz critics.  The other musicians who toured and played with the band were already well established and would continue their careers in music. It’s a tribute to the raw talent of Winter, Whitsell and the others that they were able to attract seasoned musicians to join them, and one of the pleasures of Count Me In is to hear how the core group members developed.

I’m disappointed that Whitsell and Rout didn’t continue to play, and hearing this music makes me wish Winter had continued as a jazz musician. Whitsell in particular is a great loss. By the time the sextet played the White House he was a player of intelligence and passion, with a fine sense of melody and a natural feel for the blues. I’m glad Count Me In introduced me to him, and to a group about which I knew little, but whose music I will return to often.

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Welcome Back, Lou

9087There’s a Goodwill store about a mile from where I work, and for a number of years I stopped there on the way home to go through the record bins. I started going there regularly in 1995—sometimes three times a week—and only stopped in the early 2000s, when the number of good records began to thin out. Apparently, it took that long for people to figure out they could sell their old LPs on e Bay. At a dollar each, I could even afford to buy records for my friends, too.

I found a lot of great stuff there. I have a terrific mono copy of Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds, a really nice mono Blonde on Blonde marred only by the previous owner’s name on the cover in magic marker, quite a few jazz LPs, tons of Sinatra…the list could go on. Sometimes I found things I didn’t want but knew were rare and sold them on e Bay for good money. I sold two albums by the Holy Modal Rounders, a folk group, to a guy in Japan. I ended up sending the money back to him a few months later when I found Japanese versions of two Grant Green CDs that were then unavailable in the US. He very kindly picked them up for me and mailed them.

One of my best finds at Goodwill was a copy of Sunny Side Up, a 1960 recording by Lou Donaldson with a solid lineup that included Horace Parlan on piano, Bill Hardman on trumpet, Laymon Jackson and Sam Jones on bass, and Al Harewood on drums. The LP was an original pressing in mono, sounded great, and was in a cover that was still in good condition. Most people who own Blue Notes don’t get rid of them at Goodwills or yard sales because they know how valuable they are. I kept it for at least 15 years, enjoyed it every time I listened to it, and was glad I found it.

Last fall, in a routine check of the LP listings on E Bay, I saw that a copy of Sunny Side Up went for close to 200 bucks. I did a search of completed sales, and copies were averaging $150.00. I have a copy of the recording in stereo as part of a Mosaic CD set, I think I may have needed some money for a new bike part, and it just seemed to be the right time to sell the LP because I have a big collection. I posted it on e Bay, with a careful description of the condition of the record and the cover (both had some minor flaws), and sold it for $100.00 to a collector in Thailand. I paid a dollar for it, so I made out in the deal.

Of course, I immediately regretted selling it. It was a cool thing to own, and relatively rare. I’ve found a number of later Blue Note pressings, including a couple by Donaldson, but Blue Notes from 1960 and earlier are difficult to find in good shape. Owning a vintage Blue Note has some collector cred that, say, an old Verve pressing doesn’t seem to have. More than that, it was a record I enjoyed listening to, the pressing was first rate, and it sounded lifelike and immediate, even in mono, in a way the stereo CD version doesn’t.

A few weeks ago I was on the web-site for Acoustic Sounds, one of several online music retailers I go to in order to find audiophile LPs, CDs, and SACDs. They had an all-analogue mono reissue of Sunny Side Up that the now defunct Classic Records pressed about five years ago. It was on sale for $25.00, and Classic mastered and cut it using their all tube mono cutting system and cutter head. I had been itching to replace my copy, and this was an affordable way to do it—after all, I’d still be $75.00 ahead on my previous sale.

Obviously, I can’t do a side by side comparison with the copy I sold, but this is a wonderful pressing and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it sounds better than the original. Bernie Grundman mastered and cut it and I’ve never heard a CD, SACD, or LP he’s worked on that I didn’t like. This LP certainly has a presence and power the CD lacks. Harewood’s cymbals ring out and stay in the air longer than on the CD, the bass from both players is full and resonant, all horns are three dimensional and out into the room (yes, in spite of it being mono) and Horace Parlan’s piano rings true throughout. The cover is a glossy reproduction of the original in heavy cardboard, and the LP, pressed in 200 gram vinyl, is a first-rate example of how records should be made (it was probably done by RTI in Los Angeles).

Does it fill the hole left by selling the original? Yes, and more. In fact, as I listened to it a couple of days ago, I realized that what I missed was the sound of that LP, not its collectability. Only other collectors would care about that anyway. I’ve bought a few rare records over the years, and they’re nice to have. There’s a kind of insider aura to having a cool record that is an exciting part of collecting. But it still has to come down to putting a platter on a turntable and enjoying the sound that pours forth from the speakers.

So, a guy in Thailand now owns a more than 50 year old Blue Note pressing that I found at Goodwill and I own a newer pressing that is a pleasure to hear. Balance is restored.

By the way, I have a copy of Roll Call a 1960 recording by Hank Mobley that my brother in law Mark found at a yard sale about ten years ago for a quarter. I won’t be selling it.

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Beatles Vinyl 2012

My friend Jeff Sherrick brought the new Beatles vinyl box set over yesterday. Rumors began circulating about the release of newly remastered versions of all the Beatles LPs soon after the 2009 CD reissues hit the market. At least one retailer told me his sources at Capitol Records, who distribute EMI/Apple here in the US, said the new LPs would be sourced from 96K/24 bit, high resolution digital files, as opposed to the 16 bit files that were the final basis for the CDs. Michael Fremer posted a news item on his blog, Analog Planet, in October reporting that the LPs would be in the higher resolution, but later found out from Sean Magee, who mastered the LPs for EMI/ Apple, that the files were 44.1k/24 bit.

I get lost in these technical details, but higher resolution is better and commenters on Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet and Steve Hoffman’s forum expressed disappointment . However, any questions about the mastering were soon drowned out by complaints about the quality of the pressings, the box the LPs and accompanying book were housed in, and the covers. Hoffman’s site was flooded with tales of woe, although a few posters said they didn’t encounter any problems.

After Jeff and I read about the bad experiences so many people were having, we were apprehensive. I’m happy to report that we didn’t encounter any problems with the package, which was easy to open, or the pressings. We didn’t find any incidents of non-fill or other groove anomalies. I did note, however that the edges on the LPs were sharp (I actually cut my finger on one when I was cleaning it) and there were some visual irregularities, such as unevenness on the outer edge of some of the records. The lead in grooves on Abbey Road and Rubber Soul were a bit noisier than the other LPs, but not enough to be distracting. The vinyl on all the records we played was quiet.

Just as a point of reference I’ll note that I cleaned the records using a Spin Clean and a KAB vacuum cleaner. I played them on a Denon DP59L with an Audio Technica 440MLa cartridge. My amp is a Scott 299a integrated tube amp, and I have Paradigm Reference Studio 20 speakers.

We played Abbey Road first because so many people reported problems with bad pressings. Except for some noise on the lead in, noted above, the vinyl was quiet. The mastering is solid. The high hat and drums on “Come Together” sounded resonant and clear and Lennon’s voice was solidly out front. I did notice that this and all the LPs were somewhat low in output and required a bit of a bump in volume.

We compared the first three tracks on side two with the same tracks on a mid-70s UK pressing and some details, such as the hand claps and keyboards on “Here Comes the Sun,” and the vocals on “Because,” are better defined on the new master. I felt the acoustic guitar on “Here Comes the Sun” sounded more natural on the older LP, but the synthesizers on the first two songs on the new pressing sounded cleaner and more textured. I also played the 1987, digitally sourced LP, and I still stand by my opinion that the 1987 LP series mastered by Wally Traugott in the US are good records. The new master, by Sean McKee, sounded somewhat smoother, but Jeff and I didn’t find its sound to be markedly better than the old pressing.

I didn’t do a comparison with my Japanese pressing of Abbey Road, but I did do a side by side of a Japanese pressing of Please Please Me from the same series (with the EAS pre-fix) and the new pressing. This new master of the Beatles’ debut was far better. The Japanese LP emphasized the high end, but Magee’s mastering of this new one was dead-on. The instruments were better balanced, the vocals had more nuance, and small details, such as the reverb on John Lennon’s voice on “Ask Me Why,” were more striking and natural. In fact, the first three LPs—this one, With the Beatles, and A Hard Day’s Night—are exemplary.

Jeff and I found we preferred my late 70’s pressing of Beatles for Sale to the new one. There was nothing jarring about the new master, but the older one was livelier and pulled you into the music. The acoustic guitars on “No Reply” had more shimmer and fullness and the vocals were more cleanly separated. George’s solo on “Baby’s in Black” had a little more edge to it on the earlier pressing, and so on.

Rubber Soul has been controversial in any release since 1987, when George Martin remixed it for CD. Jeff and I didn’t notice anything amiss in our listen and some things, such as the 12 string guitar obbligato during the second verse of “Girl,” were more clearly etched. I didn’t do a comparison with the late 70s Parolophone I have (one of many copies of this LP that I own), but this record is the finest thing ever committed to vinyl and should always be heard in UK stereo or mono analogue, no compromises. With that caveat in mind, a perfectly listenable pressing, but the differences in the mix might be vexing over time to anyone familiar with the original.

Since we only had a few hours, we skipped Help, Magical Mystery Tour, and Yellow Submarine. We listened to tracks from Revolver and I heard some differences between it and my early Parlophone pressing that might merit a closer listen. In the end, though, I found that the older LP edged out the new one slightly. The drums on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounded more open and rang out longer, the vocals sounded more natural to me, and overall the elements of the recording blended together better. On the other hand, the vocal and tape effects, such as the backwards guitar solo, were more focused on the new LP.

Michael Fremer heard significant differences between the new Sgt. Pepper’s and some earlier pressings. Jeff and I heard a few things, such as sibilance in the vocals and more clarity in the instruments, but I’d want to give a careful, full listen before rendering a final opinion. My gut level reaction is that I preferred the late 70s Parlophone pressing that I used as a reference. Paul’s bass on “With a Little Help From My Friends” had more snap and the guitars on the title track were less pronounced. I also found the keys on the opening of “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” to be a little too forward on the new LP. Still, this and Revolver sound different enough to suggest significant differences in mastering choices that made me want to hear them again.

We compared side one of a UK Apple pressing of the The Beatles—the White Album—from the mid-70s with the new version and the old one was just vastly better. The acoustic guitars on “Dear Prudence,” had more life and ring to them, the drums snapped harder, and Paul’s bass had more authority—it’s such an important part of the recording it seemed odd this version would under-emphasize it. The guitar solo on “Back In the USSR” lacked excitement and the sound of a jumbo jet that opens the track, zipping between the speakers, was bland. So far, the least compelling LP in the box.

I don’t have Past Masters on vinyl, so we didn’t do a comparison, but we listed to “Yes It Is” and “Day Tripper” and they sounded fine. The rhythm guitars on the latter track sounded especially good, a little clearer than I remembered hearing them in the past.

The LP covers in the box are the thin cardboard that has been standard since the late 70s. The color and photo reproduction, however, are much better than the ’87 or ’95 US reissues. Colors are less washed out and the photos are clearer. The finish is also a bit glossier than on previous US copies. Two of the covers in Jeff’s box had some pinching on the edges and, as I noted earlier, the vinyl on all the LPs wasn’t finished well.

The set includes a very nice hardbound book, on heavy glossy paper. My guess is that it is the same book, on a larger scale, that came with the CD box. It’s beautifully printed, but I think most collectors would have gone without it in lieu of better quality pressings from RTI or Pallas at the same price for the box.

I can’t imagine anyone who owns these recordings in stereo in good pressings would want the set except for collectibility, but individual LPs might be of interest. I don’t have stereo copies of Please Please Me or With the Beatles, and I will probably pick them up in this reissue. If I didn’t already have multiple copies of Revolver and Pepper in both mono and stereo, I’d be tempted to pick them up for further investigation.

Like many of you, I’ve listened to the music in this boxed set many times in the last 30 to 40 years. It still amazes in its variety and creative drive. The Beatles recorded for 8 years, and we can speak of an early, middle, and late period in their recordings. There are times when the early albums, with their sense of surprise and discovery, are all I want to hear, other times when Help! , Rubber Soul, and Revolver seem to me high points of Western culture (actually, that never varies). I no longer think, as I once did, that the last four LPs, from Pepper on, were the best the band did, but when I actually play them I’m still amazed. If you don’t have these records, buy this set and spend the rest of your life enjoying it and hearing new things with each listen.

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Sixto Rodriguez

Sixto Rodriquez recorded two albums for a major label in the early seventies that went nowhere. Or, at least, that’s what he and his American record company thought. On the other side of the world, however, Rodriguez became a star with a complex mythology. In Australia, New Zealand, and, especially, South Africa, Rodriguez was an inspiration. Afrikaners who opposed apartheid latched onto his dark evocations of inner city life and they made his first album, Cold Fact (1970), a best seller. His second record, Coming From Reality (1971), also sold well, and presses in Australia and South Africa kept his recordings in print.

Rodriguez had no idea that to some fans he was a voice as important as Bob Dylan. Since his records outside the US were bootlegged, he never got royalties. He also never got any press. As his popularity in South Africa grew (aided by a ban on his music), rumors circulated that he had committed suicide. One story had him setting fire to himself onstage. In 1998, some fans in South Africa tracked Rodriguez down in Dearborn, Michigan and asked him to come to their country to play. On his first trip there, he was met at the airport by a limousine, which he was sure was meant for someone else. When he stepped onstage at a 5,000 seat auditorium, he was greeted with a ten minute ovation. He’s returned several more times to play, but still hasn’t received the financial reward he deserves.

Swedish documentary film maker Malik Bendjelloul caught wind of Rodriguez’s story and thought it would make an interesting film. Searching for Sugar Man debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, got almost uniformly positive reviews, and brought Rodriguez, now 70 and still living in Detroit, to the attention of his own countrymen. He appeared on David Letterman’s show in August and 60 Minutes aired a segment on him in October. Best of all, his recordings are back in print and he may finally see some money from them.

The soundtrack to Searching for Sugar Man comprises 14 tracks, six from Cold Fact, four from Coming From Reality, and three from a session that wasn’t released in the US, but might have shown up on releases in South Africa. “Sugar Man” opens the disc, and it shows its 70s vintage with its strange Theramin sound effects and slick horn arrangement (where did those bassoons come from?). The narrator of the song is singing to his drug connection and the tone is both urgent and longing. The song ends with Rodriguez’s voice fading into a strange echo that phases unsettlingly between channels.

Rodriguez’s imagery is vivid and sometimes shows the influence of the Catholicism of his youth:

Were you tortured by your own thirst
In those pleasures that you seek
That made you Tom the curious
That makes you James the weak?

(“Crucify Your Mind”)

The best songs capture the frustration of being poor in the inner city:

Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them
So overdued I went to the company store
and the clerk there said that they had just been invaded
So I set sail in a teardrop and escaped beneath the doorsill

(“Cause”)

An occasional Dylan influence creeps in, but Rodriguez has a strong enough style and voice to be more than an imitator:

The mayor hides the crime rate
Council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining
Everyone’s protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
You’re not like all of the rest

(“This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues”)

The music on Rodriguez’s albums was a product of its time and nothing shook up the squares more than drugs, sexuality, and the coming revolution (“This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune”). Still, we can turn to any number of records from the early 70s for an injection of that spirit. Why then, should we bother with this music, however stirring the story grew out of it? Because his songs are as good as, and often better than, those of his better known contemporaries. Dennis Coffey, the Motown session guitarist who had a few hits of his own in the 70s, co-produced Cold Fact with Mike Theodore, as well as Rodriguez’s third session. Coffey probably absorbed some of the Hit Factory’s ideas and, as a consequence he had a sophisticated ear for arranging and recording pop songs.

He had good material to work with. Rodriguez wrote melodies that stay with you, and he sang them with unforced conviction. His acoustic guitar is the foundation for all the tracks, and Coffey and Mike Theodore wrote arrangements for many of them that gave them just the right amount of Baroque sweetness they needed. Many of the songs from Cold Fact are reminiscent of the delicate, strange records made by Love, the great LA band that featured Arthur Lee and Bryan McLean. Coffey and Theodore also knew when to stay out of the way and keep things simple. “I Wonder” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues” have more basic accompaniment that let the songs do the work.

I should probably point out that there’s some tape hiss on the original recordings, and it’s especially audible on the tunes from Coming From Reality. For me, that’s the reassuring sound of analogue, but there’s obviously been some deterioration of the master tapes.

It’s tempting at this distance to wonder why Rodriguez didn’t catch on in the US in 1970. But, then as now, record companies threw a lot of music out into the world and some of it got lost. His label, Sussex Records, was also home to Bill Withers and Dennis Coffey, both of whom had hits. A story in Rolling Stone, a feature review there and in a few other magazines and things could have turned out differently for Rodriguez. Then again, maybe not. It’s enough that Rodriguez’s music crossed the Atlantic and changed the lives of a lot of people in South Africa and that it probably moved them to make some fundamental changes to their country. His recordings travel well more than 40 years later, with some period charm that makes them seem a little exotic, and enough real songwriting talent to
make them still worth your time.

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Trondheim Solistene on Vinyl

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The Norwegian chamber orchestra Trondheim Solistene has ten recordings to its credit, although on about half of those the ensemble is playing in support of star classical soloists, such as Anne-Sophie Mutter.  It’s newest recording, Souvenir, is available from the Norwegian label 2L in high resolution download formats, MP3, Blu-Ray audio, and LP. I received a copy on LP, pressed on two 180 gram records housed in separate covers (Souvenir Part 1—2L-090A-LP and Souvenir Part II–2L-090C-LP).    

 

The producer, Morten Linberg, recorded Trondheim Solistene in Selbu Church in Mebonden, Norway. He arranged the musicians in circle, rather than in the traditional rows and sections of a chamber orchestra. The musicians were all the same distance from the microphones, which were placed in the center of the room. The recording places you in the middle of the orchestra, even in two channel sound, and the music envelops you.

 

Both LPs include one work each by Tchaikovsky and by Danish composer Carl Neilsen. The first record comprises Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C (Op. 48) and Neilsen’s Suite for String Orchestra (Op. 1).  The second record includes Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Floence and Nielsen’s brief  “Ved en Un Kunstners Baare”  (“At the Bier of a Young Artist”).

 

I’m a little out of my element with classical music, but I think I can describe the things I like about these performances, and this pressing in particular. Neilsen’s Suite for String Orchestra, in three movements, is romantic and dramatic, with great dynamic range that shows the orchestra’s capabilities, as well as the excellence of the recording. It’s easy to hear each section and instrument of the orchestra during the louder, more intense passages, as well as the texture of the strings when they are plucked during the quieter sections.

 

Tchaikovsky wrote the Serenade for Strings in 1880 and it is one of his most popular compositions. After finishing it he wrote to his publisher, “I am violently in love with this work and cannot wait for it to be played.” He wrote it in homage to Mozart, drawing on classical forms while expressing deep emotion typical of the Romantic era. The piece is harmonically rich and this recording captures the complexity and subtlety of the interactions of the string sections.

 

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence  takesup most of the second LP of Souvenir. The composer originally meant it to be performed by a string sextet, although it has often been arranged for a string orchestra. The first movement is highly animated, building in intensity, but creating tension through contrasting quieter sections. The second movement contemplative, with the higher register strings carrying the melody and the lower register creating the harmonic foundation on plucked strings. The third movement is emphatic and up-tempo, and the closing movement is rhythmic and exciting, bringing the piece to a stirring close.  

 

Neilsen wrote “Ved en Un Kunstners Baare”  in 1910 in honor of the Danish painter Oluf Hartmann. He originally composed the work for a string quartet to perform at the painter’s funeral, then adapted it for a larger orchestra two years later.  At just  over four minutes, it is the shortest track on the second LP. The composition is an elegy, but it also evokes the pastoral qualities of some of Harmann’s paintings.  Its mood mirrors the second movement of the Tchaikovsky piece on the LP.

 

Pallas in Germany pressed the two 180 gram LPs with its usual high quality standards. The vinyl is very quiet, although my copies, which were shipped from Norway, benefited from a good cleaning to reduce some static that gave the recording a bit of a bright edge. The LPs were direct metal mastered from DXD (352.8kHz/24bit) files. The original recording used five microphones for surround, but according to NL’s web-site, “For the vinyl we decided to go the other way around and build the mix from the center microphone, left and right just adding width.” (http://www.2l.no/epost/news2012february.html)

 

The output on the LPs is higher than I expected given the running times for each side, but dropping the volume brought the music into focus. The recording puts you into the center of the orchestra, where you can hear the players interacting. You also get a sense of the dimensions of the room where the music was recorded and the acoustic interaction of the instruments and recording space. I compared the recordings on this LP with other recordings of the same compositions, and this one pulls you deeper into the music. The pressing of both LPs is first class, the records are nicely packaged, and the music is sublime. Souvenir gives you an intimate understanding of this music, and pressing it on vinyl was a brave move.

 

 

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Friday we went to Norris Hot Springs, Water of the Gods, about a half hour from where we were staying in Big Sky. Linda, Ben and Erin, and their cousins Katie and Ellie enjoyed the time soaking in a small pool of warm water that flows from artesian wells at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The surrounding mountains add to the beauty of the experience.

We drove to Bozeman, home of Montana State University—Bozemen. Great college town with some cool book shops, bike shops, and so on. I stopped at a record store that had a good vinyl selection, but I didn’t want to carry an LP or two in a hot van that was already stuffed. We enjoyed walking through Bozemen, and stopped at a coffee shop, the Leaf and Bean (I think) that was relaxing and carried my new favorite, huckleberry ice cream, which is all over Montana.

On Saturday we drove down through Montana and into Wyoming on our way to Rawlins, where we stayed overnight. Some beautiful sites along the way.

Rawlins is a ranching town that has a big oil refinery at the edge of town. We got in late and had some excitement overnight as the wedding party at the hotel got into some altercation or other at about 2 AM. The next morning we took in a bit of the Rawlins Fair, which was just beginning. The first event featured some girls about Erin’s age who were walking their horses through their paces in the who area of the fairgrounds.  Linda’s favorite moments of the trip might have been hearing the fathers encourage their daughters: “You show that horse! You show it!” “You didn’t make it trot. Make it trot!”

On Sunday, we stopped in Cheyanne, Wyoming, where Linda and I had dinner more than twenty years ago on a drive from Berkley CA to Colorado Springs. Alas, the restaurant was closed, but we walked around a bit to check out a large western apparel store and a few other sites.

We arrived in Colorado Springs about 9 and I got up the next morning to ride around and meet Linda and the kids later in Manitou Springs.  Some tough climbs, and I saw a beautiful mule dear with a big rack, but in the bright sun I had a hard time getting a photo, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Some sights along the way:


We are at a camp near Estes Park, CO, probably 45 monutes north of Denver at the Lenhert Family Reunion.

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