Decca's five-CD set Ultimate Beethoven is a respectable beginner's introduction to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven because it presents his greatest masterworks in complete performances by major artists. Where some other collections present only short, thematic excerpts or single movements taken from larger works, obliging the listener to put in additional effort to hear the whole compositions, this set leaves nothing incomplete. Central to Beethoven's output are his symphonies, and the Symphony No. 5 in C minor; the Symphony No. 6 in F major, "Pastoral"; and the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral" have long been regarded as essential works.
Five discs - five conductors - four orchestras - nine composers - 28 works: Decca's collection Ultimate Baroque is as one might imagine a mixed bag. The best of the set is I Musici's sweet and fresh 1996 recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, with Mariana Sirbu as the lighter-than-air and younger-than-springtime soloist and Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields' stately yet sprightly 1971 recording of Bach's four Suites for orchestra, and Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra's robust and rambunctious 1970 and 1972 recordings of Handel's Water Music suites and Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Being that J.S. Bach is arguably the most influential classical composer in history, it's fair to say that his most crucial works ought to form the foundation of every classical-music collection. This 5-CD set (especially at that price) is the place to start, as it brings together Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor; Violin Concerto No. 2 in E; Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor; Goldberg Variations (Andras Schiff); Tocatta and Fuge in D Minor; Suite No. 3 in D: Air on the G String/Fugue in G Minor "The Little"; Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C; Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Strings in D Minor , and more!
Smokey-voiced chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux's third CD is a lovely collection of after-hours ruminations and should confirm her rise to fame. Credit producer Larry Klein for doing a bang-up job with the album's sound: the elegant, pared-down arrangements are all brushed drums, acoustic guitars, and cool organ licks. But of course it's Peyroux's voice that brings it all home–preferably one where the shades are drawn, embers are smoldering in the fireplace, and the white wine is kept dry. Two-thirds of the songs are well-chosen covers, including a duet with k.d. lang on Joni Mitchell's "River"; a relaxed version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," from Midnight Cowboy; a delicately lilting samba take on Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas's title track; Serge Gainsbourg's "La Javanaise," performed in the original French; and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," from Modern Times. The four originals, all coauthored by Peyroux, easily keep up with such august company, especially "I'm All Right"–written with Klein and Walter Becker, it captures the easy sophistication of Becker's regular band, Steely Dan. Fans of Norah Jones (whose collaborator Jesse Harris cowrote three of the songs) should gobble up this album, but Peyroux is no mere imitator: She's her own, very real thing.
Although he only appeared on a pair of albums with Iron Maiden, Paul Di'Anno has carved quite a niche for himself with headbangers worldwide. He'll forever be associated with belting out such New Wave of British Heavy Metal classics as "Prowler," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Wrathchild," but Di'Anno has been issuing solo releases on a somewhat regular basis since the mid-'80s. His 2006 release, The Living Dead, catches Maiden's original vocalist in an extreme metal mood, as the rough, almost punk-esque vocals of his Maiden days are barely detectable. In its place is the album-opening title track, which surprisingly sounds very much like Bruce Dickinson-era Maiden, while "Brothers of the Tomb" features some Rob Halford-esque falsetto vocals, and the Nigel Tufnel-titled "Mad Man in the Attic" is classic thrash metal.
With the proliferation of more and more recording labels and still more ensembles getting the opportunity to record their work, it is obviously increasingly difficult to bring anything truly original when performing works from the standard repertoire. Unfortunately, this fact may lead to some questionable performance decisions in striving for originality. Such seems to be the case with the Leopold String Trio and Marc-André Hamelin and their performance of the Brahms piano quartets.