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Product: Audio CD
Title: Bach: St. Matthew Passion / Rolfe Johnson, Bonney, von Otter, Chance, Crook; Gardiner
Label: Archiv Produktion
Rating: 4/5
Customer rating - 4 out of 5
Emotional Theater

Ah, here's Gardiner at his best. Never one to dig too deep emotionally or spiritually, the conductor matches his intellect with equal measures of sensitivity in this, Bach's magnificent and profound retelling of the last days of Jesus. For many, the St. Matthew Passion is the greatest in all of sacred music. For me, this is simply the greatest composition in the entire classical repertoire. There is nothing to explain the sheer amount of genius in inspiration, invention and melodicism from first measure to last - spanning upon average a performance time of nearly 3 hours. Part oratorio, part opera, part Greek theater and part church service, the challenge in bringing Bach's massive Passion to life is making distinct and finding the emotional truth of each piece of the story while building up to the inevitable pathos in Christ's crucifixion which is the foundation of all Christian faith. No easy task, considering the conducter is given a sizable but limited workforce of 2 orchestras comprised of only winds and strings, an organ, 7-9 soloists and chorus. For his time Bach was being downright Wagnerian in scope, but he does not give himself any brass or percussion for musical texture (unlike, say, in the Christmas Oratorio). It's surprising how many conductors have decided to take on the Mt. Everest of sacred music and how many recordings there are to choose from. While I will always turn first to Herreweghe or Klemperer, depending on whether I'm in a more introspective mood or whether I want my spiritual cleansing performed on a grand scale - one can't go wrong in choosing Gardiner. This is a recording that has stayed in print since it came out in '88 and will probably remain in perpetuity. There are reasons for this. No other conducter has mapped out the drama of the story with such vivid theatricality. The glorious opening chorus grabs you with immediacy and places you in rightful reverence. When he takes us through the epochal events of the familiar story in Part I - notably the Last Supper, Mount of Olives and Gethsemane - it's as if we're witnessing and experiencing the story for the first time. One of several genius-strokes of Bach is to build to a thunderous climax at the end of Part I after Jesus has been arrested where all the musical forces - 2 orchestras, organ, soloists and chorus - come together and collide for the first time. This section is the height of counterpoint invention and Gardiner serves it well to highlight the profundity of the moment. Part II, which reenacts the trials and tribulations of Jesus before ruler, high priests and the crowd and concludes with Christ On The Cross, is where it becomes the stuff of great theater and where Gardiner excels beyond most conductors. Nowhere else in sacred music is it captured so poignantly, sadly and terrifyingly the series of betrayals Jesus endures; and when the Chorus, as The Crowd, turns from greatest supporter into greatest persecutor it serves to remind us of our own human fallacies. Gardiner corrals his forces to communicate all this vividly. It's worth noting that the Chorus - who supplants Jesus as the main character in Part II - is one of the best in all available performances.

Another reason this recording will never go out of print is the quality of the soloists. Put together as an ensemble they are unparalleled. All share in common an open, clear delivery and beauty of tone, and they sing with great tenderness and connection to their words. Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Andreas Schmidt are a supreme Evangelist and Jesus, respectively. They have an uncommon rapport and both are very committed and emotionally connected to their text. This is crucial, considering the sheer number of recitatives. Anne Sofie von Otter takes us through the first great aria ("Buss und Reu," No. 6) and really shines with her earthy sweet mezzo in the aria after Jesus' scourging ("Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen," No. 52). Barbara Bonney is a gorgeous soprano - "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken," (No. 13) with duetting oboes, is a highlight. Countertenor Michael Chance, though no Andreas Scholl, takes us beautifully through one of the greatest moments of all Bach, "Ebarme dich, mein Gott," (No. 39) which contemplates Peter's great denial. Cornelius Hauptmann, bass, is incredible in conveying the mirth and pathos after Jesus'crucifixion ("Mach dich, mein Herze," No. 65), another Bach greatest moment. Howard Crook and Olaf Bar are uniformly excellent.

Alas, the only fault I have with this recording - and it's a big one - is at the very end, at Bach's final Chorus, "Wir setzen uns mit Tranen nieder" (No. 68), which surely is one of the greatest choruses in the whole canon. For my taste, here Gardiner sticks to his mind more than his heart and is too strident in his authenticity performance principle. The chorus is simply too fast and rushed, and doesn't give one room to breathe and pause to reflect back on what has taken place. Perhaps he is ever-mindful of the redemption in Resurrection (which is not a part of the Passion), and this affects his overly optimistic view of the final Chorus. This section is what, for these ears, judges this performance as one that falls short of being complete. Still, a remarkable achievement. ****1/2

Other references: Top recommendation from Rough Guide, NPR Guide and Penguin Guide; High recommendation from Gramophone and Classical Music: Third Ear.

Product: Audio CD
Title: Everything Must Go
Label: Warner Brothers
Artist: Steely Dan
Rating: 4/5
Customer rating - 4 out of 5
Not a classic but better than 2AN

Great record...back to that noise that made us love them all those years ago. A much better album than Two Against Nature in that it doesn't have that stiff feel of much of that album. Can't go wrong with this one...great guitar, great keyboards, great sax...turn it on, light up, lay back and listen!!

Product: Audio CD
Title: Reflections From Broadway
Label: Jay Records
Artist: John Barrowman
Rating: 5/5
Customer rating - 5 out of 5
Reflections from Broadway: An Awesome CD!

It was a great CD; I especially liked the piano accompianment on it, being a pianist myself! A great CD for any Broadway collection!

Product: Audio CD
Title: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (EMI) [ENHANCED CD]
Label: Virgin Records
Artist: David Bowie
Rating: 5/5
Customer rating - 5 out of 5
Essential Bowie.

Although it is considered a concept album of sorts, it doesn't get bogged down in themes or complex stories. It didn't even occur to me that it was a concept album, until someone mentioned it. That's part of the beauty: you can enjoy the songs as songs.

The production is crisp and high-quality, but not overdone. Despite the sci-fi theme, it has a good balance of dirty rock-and-roll crunch, so that it stays down-to-earth, and not too geeky, artsy, or spaced-out ("Suffragette City" is a good example).

If you get this album, it's worth checking out the lyrics online, if they're not included with the cd. Some of them are funny, warped, and surreal, in a good way. I'm not always into lyrics, but Bowie is like the Bob Dylan of glam, and knowing the lyrics has enhanced the listening experience for me.

In terms of listenability, this album is listenable all the way through, with no skips. It is very much an album, not a hits-and-filler collection.

Lots of hooks and grooves. Great to sing along in a British accent.

Songwriting: 9/10
Musicianship: 9/10
Sound Quality: 10/10
Originality: 10/10
Listenability: 10/10