Rebirth of Reason


Desert Island Discs #2
by Michael Newberry

Several years ago I made a transworld move from Los Angeles to Rhodes, Greece. My possessions were limited to what I could take with me on the plane. Most of which were art supplies and unfinished paintings (rolled-up), a shopping bag of clothes, and FIVE recordings. So the deserted island scenario was a real experience for me. I love it when speculation and reality meet up!

I wouldn't want to limit myself again, but if I had to do it, even down to one choice, I would, with absolute certainty, pick TURANDOT, 1924(!), by Puccini, Mehta conducting, with Sutherland, Caballe, and Pavarotti as soloists. Sparkling clarity, dramatic pacing, meltingly soft lyricism, and thundering climaxes describe the attributes of this brilliant studio recording of Puccini's epic 20th Century masterpiece. Mehta weaves in and out of the colorful orchestration, pointing out moments of sheer sensuality, drives to huge sound, and intertwining it all with a glorious chorus, and soloists that match him note for note.

Sutherland's voice is shimmering steel. She starts off big with beautiful arched phrasing and simply continues to climb. Caballe's sound is liquid gold. And Pavarotti rings above the orchestra throughout. The supporting roles are delightful. But the amazing thing is that everything, the soloists, the orchestra, the chorus, the conceptions, the climaxes, and the details, to my sensibilities, are perfect

There is an interesting undocumented story about Ayn Rand that was told to me by Michael Berliner. He told me that some friends of his invited Rand to go to the Metropolitan Opera House to see Puccini's La Boheme. The friends were quite anxious that Rand would enjoy herself - she had been known to make audible comments, not necessarily kind, whilst in a theater. Anyway, she loved it, and afterwards, while waltzing on the sidewalk, commented that, "If someone can't feel Puccini's music, he must be dead."

Beethoven: The Complete Violin Sonatas - Kremer, Argerich. If I could have two choices of music to have on my island, which is not deserted :), this would be my second choice. Kremer and Argerich play these Beethoven Violin Sonatas with so much passion, joy, and drive that I am completely dazzled. They convey a brilliant, sparkling, joyfully charged perspective that I have rarely experienced through art.

Bellini: Norma - Serafin conducting, with Callas, Corelli, Ludwig, and Zaccaria as soloists. The conducting is brilliant, sensually intense, and Serafin has an eye/ear for the structure of the whole work. The duets and trios are cataclysmic and the last Act is heart-wrenching. Zaccaria, the bass - what a beautiful big sound, and his legato line is a marvel. Ludwig's voice sounds fresh, warm, and rich, and her acting is tender and dramatic. The young Corelli blazes passionately with a beautiful ringing voice. His sound reminds me of a perfect blend of Pavarotti and Domingo, but he is more exclamatory - Mediterranean bravado personified. And Callas is, in a word, formidable! And I mean as an artist, not only the size of her voice! Beware, Callas does not have a beautiful voice - "animalistic" is a better choice of adjective.

J.S. Bach: Toccata, Partita, and English Suite No. 2 - Martha Argerich, piano. Argerich's playing doesn't sound like a Romantic mannerism, and doesn't sound like a period affectation complete with powered wig. It sounds like I've died and gone to Bach heaven; it seems like she tosses off the complex structure of the pieces with irresistible movement, immaculate timing, and with an affection I would call joy or love. And far from sounding like Argerich, for which she as been criticized, the music sounds like ... Bach. But I have that sense with all the interpretations I have heard from Argerich, that Chopin sounds like Chopin, Ravel sounds like himself, Prokofiev, etc. The greatest recording of any Bach music I have heard.

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 - Ormandy conducting, and Horowitz as soloist. This was recorded live in 1978 at Carnegie Hall with some inserted corrective replays following the concert. Horowitz is moody, elegant, and very passionate in his playing. But what makes this a hit for me is the great conducting by Ormandy with the New York Philharmonic. I think Ormandy is underrated. He keeps the rhythmic structure of the entire piece, swells romantically with lush sound, and in the scherzo parts he really whips the orchestra to play with pinpointed exclamations. This is the only CD I cannot work by; I close the lights, get a pillow for my head, lie prone with the speakers aimed at my ears, and go for one of the greatest rides of passion and beauty I know.

O.K. that's five, but since I actually went through this scenario I think I am entitled to one more. Beethoven: Symphonies 5-8 - Toscanini conducting, NBC Symphony Orchestra. What is there to say about Toscanini, but that he is the greatest conductor I have ever heard? His integration of structure, momentum, and detailed expression is without peer. I don't know how it's possible, but the first chord from each of these Symphonies, seems to set the whole in motion. He creates an overwhelming sense of anticipation, moves through waves of feeling, and then lets loose with cataclysmic precision. And he does something that I have rarely heard - makes every note seem as if it's a human expression. I don't mean that it's as if it was made by the thought or feeling of the composer, but that the orchestra itself is an intensely passionate and intelligent animal whose form of expression is solely by sound. His interpretations never sound like musical abstractions, which is how most conductors' interpretations sound to me. There is something primordial in hearing Toscanini - that feeling makes me recall that someone said that the first musical instrument was the voice.

With real difficulty I stop. But I could easily go on to include the entire discophile of Leontyne Price, everything else that Martha Argerich has touched, and my delightful concession to Jazz, the incomparable, Ella Fitzgerald.
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