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
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.
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.
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.