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Styx Shtick
By B.A. Nilsson

Stephen Sondheim
The Frogs (PS Classics)

The latest Sondheim recording—whatever it may be—seems to gypsy from label to label, but this latest has landed in the hands of the best, with Tommy Krasker producing and Tom Lazarus as recording engineer. The Frogs played briefly at Lincoln Center, a full-length, much-enhanced revival of something that premiered at Yale decades ago.

And it was inspired by an earlier recording, this one fairly recent, in which Nathan Lane headlined what was then essentially a sequence of four songs. Lane, who starred in a Broadway revival of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum nine years ago, expanded the book, and Sondheim fleshed out the score with several new songs.

That guarantees a niche with the songwriter’s fervent admirers, but anyone who digs musical theater will enjoy this. It’s Sondheim in an even more lighthearted mood than in Bounce, his most recent (but Broadway-thwarted) show. “I Love to Travel” is one of those tuneful, happy numbers that puts skeptical theatergoers at their ease, and “Dress Big” rewards them with trademark Sondheim wit, as the god Herakles (Burke Moses) advises Dionysos (Lane) on what to wear for a visit to hell: “You gotta wear everything you’ve killed/Which oughta help cover up your build/Just let ’em see this, boy, they’ll be chilled/Not to say thrilled.”

Dionysus, despairing at the current state of the world, is off to Hades to fetch the playwright Shaw to help fix things; the trip across the Styx gives us “All Aboard” sung by the hilarious John Byner as Charon. I lament that the recording couldn’t include the scene’s dialogue, which is among the show’s funniest moments.

Lane is refreshingly restrained in the recording—moreso than in the show itself—which allows us easier access to the lyrics. He has a stunning moment, delivered wholly without scene-chewing, in the wistful ballad “Ariadne,” one of Sondheim’s best new songs.

And it’s refreshing to hear the updated “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” which has taken on a life of its own as a revue number over the years. Except for a deadly cell-phone gag, it’s more sprightly than ever.

Sound is excellent. The orchestra, under the baton of longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani, is faultless in this brass-heavy piece. Given the brief run of this show, it’s a joy to have this souvenir.

Munch Conducts Berlioz

Requiem (RCA)

Between 1949 and 1962, conduc- tor Charles Munch, while music director of the Boston Symphony, led that orchestra in an impressive number of concerts and recordings featuring the music of Hector Berlioz. Berlioz’s music, suffused with pre-Mahler hugeness, glories in a large, skilled ensemble, and Munch added to that a vernacular quality possibly traceable to the conductor’s Alsatian background or perhaps just a meeting of kindred spirits. Whatever the case, Munch’s recordings helped put Berlioz back on the map in the mid-20th century, and an exclusive recording contract with RCA Victor kept those recordings more or less in the same place.

It was a time of great sonic experimentation. The Living Stereo series showcased an approach to miking and mastering that still, well into the digital age, holds its own, and the recent reissue of the Munch-conducted Requiem by Berlioz as a Super Audio CD only affirms how deft those long-ago engineers were in capturing sound. Because it originated as a three-channel master, that’s what’s offered on this two-CD set (at 84 minutes, the recording resists a single-CD issue. Seiji Ozawa was able to shoehorn the BSO into recording a shorter version, but the performance pales in comparison).

Reproduced on the cover is a detail from the 15th- century Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden, a reminder of the original LP issue of this 1959 recording. It was part of RCA’s prestigious Soria Series, which featured premium-priced packaging worth every cent of the expense.

The Requiem package features an LP-sized booklet sporting tipped-in reproductions of appropriate paintings by the likes of Bosch, Lochner and van der Goes. The texts have traveled to the CD intact, but the layout and artwork are gone. I’m sure that current economics discourage such packaging, but in these days of Web sites and enhanced CDs, there’s no reason they can’t at least be made digitally available.

The Requiem also is once again available as part of a “Munch Conducts Berlioz” set, lately inflated from eight to ten CDs but with a lowered price. The original set also contained the 1953 Romeo and Juliet, The Damnation of Faust, L’enfance du Christ, the 1954 Symphonie Fantatique, Harold in Italy (with William Primrose as viola soloist) and several shorter works. The new set adds the 1961 Romeo and Juliet, the 1962 Symphonie Fantastique and another Béatrice and Bénédict overture. But it cuts the 172-page booklet back to 36 weenie pages.

Filling out the second Requiem disc with the Symphonie Fantastique—as has been the case with every CD issue except the SACD—makes more economic than artistic sense. The finale of the Requiem is one of the most gorgeously peaceful moments in music; you need time afterward to assimilate the work. So use your CD player’s programming function, or just acquire the SACD release in addition to the 10-disc set. As a Berlioz fan, you definitely need both.

—B.A. Nilsson

Serena Ryder

Unlikely Emergency (Isadora)

This debut by Canadian singer-songwriter Serena Ryder, who is barely into her 20s, shows her to be a powerfully soulful performer. She has an impressive vocal range and is not shy about projecting. The lyrics deal with the range of matters most closely associated with those still settling into their adult endeavors: love, longing, and existential quandaries. She manages to hone these themes down to concisely poetic vignettes that allude to stories without depending on any overt narrative. She is best presented on songs that match the band’s wallop to her own, such as on the funky swagger of “Every Single Day” or the bright shiny pop of “Again by You.” Apparently a showstopper live, the disc’s only cover is the closing “At Last,” and this a capella rendition depends too much on vocal prowess, with the heart of it buried under histrionics. It is her ensemble sensibilities that put her in the best stead. While there is no shortage of ear-catching songwriters floating across the continents, only a small percentage understand the subtle dynamics of true combo interplay. Playing guitar and fronting a supple quartet, Ryder gets it.

—David Greenberger

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