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Ten Albums That Changed My Life
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | DECEMBER 29, 2021
Last year, in the middle of lockdown, several readers asked me to do the popular “Ten Albums in Ten Days” challenge on social media. I am nowhere near organized enough to do that, but those messages planted a seed. So, in between major reports, I put together this list, with some context, written in the same vein as my article Ten Wines That Changed My Life from a few years ago. Every now and then writing about something other than wine is cathartic. I hope this article might provide something different to read over the holidays.
I was fortunate to grow up in a house with a lot of music, even though neither of my parents and none of my relatives are musicians, with the exception of my sister. Growing up in Venezuela, I was exposed to a pretty wide range of music, from the Latin American folk performers that were on television, to the more pop Latin American artists my parents liked and the steady diet of Air Supply, Bee Gees and other pop/disco music our housekeeper played on the radio. My dad also had a large collection of recordings of Neapolitan and Sicilian folk songs that he liked to play and also sing for fun. Later, I realized that was probably the bridge to opera. Moving to the US in 1981 was quite a shock. The airways were jam-packed with Southern rock. At school, the jocks were into Led Zeppelin, REO Speedwagon and AC/DC, while the quieter, more introspective kids liked The Cure and Kate Bush. It was all new to me. Later I discovered jazz and fusion, which took me to Berklee where I was exposed to all kinds of music that influenced me greatly.
1. AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)
Back in Black is the first record I can remember hearing after moving to the US. One of my friends brought it over to the house. The sound alone was just mesmerizing. There was a clarity that was immediately evident, even at high volume. I loved the sheer power of the music. It was addictive. AC/DC sounded like the lightning bolt in their logo: electric. Angus Young became a huge influence. Not just for his guitar playing but for his raw energy and total commitment. Angus is all in, all the time.
Released in 1980, Back in Black was the first album featuring new vocalist Brian Johnson and the second AC/DC album produced by legendary producer “Mutt” Lange. It was dedicated to Bon Scott, the band’s former vocalist, who has passed a few months earlier in an accident stemming from alcohol poisoning. Back in Black was recorded over just a few weeks in what must have been magical sessions, as the band is in tremendous form. Forty years after its release, Back in Black remains one of the top selling albums of all time. The others in its company include Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the Eagles’ Greatest Hits and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, a testament to the album’s brilliance and the way it was able to cross over into a more mainstream audience.
AC/DC sounds simple and repetitive. In a way it is. And yet, the music is nearly impossible to replicate. That’s why cover bands always sound horrible when they try to play these songs. AC/DC is all about the intangibles, things that are very hard to describe, much less notate on paper or teach. It’s all about a feeling, a goove. “Shoot to Thrill” is a great example of Malcolm Young’s percussive rhythm guitar, Cliff Williams’ pounding bass and Phil Rudd’s huge pocket on the drums. Angus is on fire all over this record. “Hells Bells,” “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” are all great examples of his Chuck Berry on steroids vibe.
Many years later, on a Saturday afternoon, I drove into the parking lot in my parents’ food and wine shop. I spotted a flashy Mercedes convertible with the top rolled down and a rock and roll vanity plate, not exactly the sort of thing one sees every day in Sarasota, FL. I walked into the store and saw a man dressed all in black wearing newsboy cap. “D’ya have anythin’ cheap ‘n’ cheerful?” he asked me in a thick working class, northern British accent I could barely understand. I sold him a few bottles of Mas de Gourgonnier. “Thanks. Say hi to your mum for me, will ya?” Brian Johnson said as he walked out the door.
Back in Black still sounds amazing today. One of the measures of success for any band is the ability to create a multi-generational audience. My son, now 15, heard this music in the Iron Man movies and now he wants to learn how to play these songs too!
2. Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)
I remember the first time my best friend at school played Rush for me. It was 2112, a futuristic album of highly progressive music, Ayn Rand-inspired lyrics and sounds unlike anything I had never heard before. The band were photographed on the back cover wearing kimonos, which must have been quite a radical look in 1976, to say the least! “Temples of Syrinx” was a blistering song, but I was not ready for Rush. Then, a few years later, Moving Pictures arrived. It is another benchmark recording from the early 1980s, where everything comes together. Each song works, the playing is phenomenal and sonically, the album is glorious.
I loved the complexity of this music and the challenge of trying to learn the songs. Back then, MTV played music, and the videos for this album showed the band in way that so new. From the first notes of “Tom Sawyer” Moving Pictures is absolutely compelling. “Red Barchetta” unfolds like a story, with numerous sections that flow effortlessly while avoiding the standard verse-bridge-chorus structure. “Limelight” is another masterpiece that features changing time signatures and all sorts of different textures throughout.
I think what makes Rush work is the unique combination of three people with complementary strengths. Neil Peart’s drumming is extremely complex and perfect for this music, but really tailored to Rush. The same could be said for Geddy Lee’s lyrical, moving bass lines. On top of it all is Alex Lifeson’s guitar, which is more textural in style. He rarely plays fast scales, preferring instead a mixture of open, ringing chords, harmonics, rhythmic passages and the occasional linear phrase. While Peart and Lee’s playing is distinguished by metronomic precision, Lifeson has a more flexible, open-knit approach to time. Lee’s searing voice cuts through it all with ease. It’s a combination that is pure magic. Peart, Lee and Lifeson were perfect together, a whole rather than a sum of parts, so much so that they rarely, if ever, performed with other musicians.
Rush was an enormously innovative band. In addition to being one of the most widely admired drummers of his era, Peart was also the band's lyricist. His writing focused on futuristic, philosophical and human themes that really stood apart from most rock music of the day. Rush pioneered the use of synthesizers and showed what was possible with these new instruments. Although many arrangements are incredibly complex and make extensive use of bass pedals, synthesizers and other electronic instruments, Rush insisted on being able to replicate those arrangements live, with just the three of them, and they did. I remember going to see Rush live many years ago. We got there very early and heard some of the soundcheck, which was just unreal. The playing was at such an elite level.
3. Ozzy Osbourne – Diary of a Madman (1982)
From the first measures of “Over the Mountain” Diary of a Madman makes a statement. Diary is Ozzy Osbourne’s second solo album. It remains, in my view, one of the most epic rock records of all time. The songs are magnificently nuanced and complex. Sonically, Diary is an impressive achievement for its era, a time when studios were far less technologically advanced than they are today. Diary features the brilliant playing of guitarist Randy Rhoads, bassist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake. From the time I first heard Diary I was completely captivated by Randy Rhoads and the way he incorporated strong classical musical influences in a totally unique style that would shape the playing of so many guitar players in the years and decades that followed.
Randy Rhoads grew up in a musical family. His mother, Dolores, operated the Musonia music school in North Hollywood. A brilliant musician herself, Mrs. Rhoads played 15 instruments and was a music educator her entire adult life. She studied under a number of luminaries at UCLA, including Arnold Schoenberg, and was the first woman to hold a first-chair position in a UCLA orchestra, which had previously not been allowed. Randy was teaching at his mother’s school and playing in Quiet Riot when Ozzy Osbourne plucked him out of obscurity.
Diary of a Madman is full of the classical music influences that are such a signature Randy’s style. “Over the Mountain” and “Flying High Again” are brilliant compositions full of complex rhythm playing and guitar pyrotechnics. The title track is a rich tapestry of modal harmonies, odd time signatures, march-like rhythms and huge vocal overdubs that recall orchestral music.
On most of the songs the guitars are tuned down a half-step, a common technique in blues, rock and metal genres used to move songs from the ‘sharp’ guitar keys, to ‘flat’ keys, which yields a darker, more powerful sound. Tuning down is also often used to make songs more comfortable for vocalists. Many of the guitar parts are double and triple tracked, which results in a spacious, expansive sound because of the small imperfections from the various takes when they are panned left/right or stacked on top of each other. For example, in “Over the Mountain” the guitar solo starts double tracked, panned left and right, then transitions to a single guitar panned center before going back to the verse, again panned left and right.
But what impressed me most about Randy was that he was always a student. Even as a rock star in a quickly emerging band who was winning all sorts of accolades for his work, Randy was famous for seeking out the local guitar teacher for a lesson while on tour. Can you imagine the look of some of these teachers when Randy Rhoads showed up for his lesson! During the last part of his life, Randy turned to classical guitar for inspiration. Sadly, that would turn out to be a very short time, as Randy passed away at just 25 in a freak airplane accident. His death made a very deep impression on me back then, and it still does to this day. In just a very few short years, Randy made huge contributions to his field and influenced countless guitar players. His induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year was long overdue. When I was a kid, my bedroom walls were completely covered with photos of musicians. Only one person had an entire wall. That was Randy Rhoads. A name that belongs up there with Hendrix, Page, Beck, Van Halen and the greats among greats.
4. Mike Stern – Upside Downside (1986)
Mike Stern has been one of the most influential guitar players in the world since the 1980s. Mike got his first big break with Blood, Sweat & Tears, then joined Miles Davis’ band in the mid 1980s. Upside Downside is Mike’s second studio album. It features a stellar cast of musicians, including Jaco Pastorius, Dave Weckl, David Sanborn and Bob Berg, among others. Upside Downside was produced by the late Hiram Bullock, another legendary musician who influenced greatly me during this time. (Hiram was the original guitarist for David Letterman’s band. His solo on Sting’s recording of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Little Wing” from the Nothing Like the Sun record is a great example of his playing.)
From the minute I heard Upside Downside I was hooked. I listened to it day and night, from start to finish, on my way to school in the morning, during the day and then at night, nonstop, for months on end. I had never heard anyone play heavy chromatic, bepop-influenced lines with a huge, 1980s electric guitar sound like that before. I was completely mesmerized. “Mood Swings” is probably my favorite track. It shows all the Stern signatures found in so many of his compositions and his playing: strong rhythmic, chromatically-driven melodies and saxophone-inspired, vertical lines that go well outside the typical guitar idiom, all backed by seriously deep grooves. Mike’s rhythm playing and open, piano-like voicings can be heard towards the end of the tune, but they are even more in evidence in the ballad “Goodbye Again.” The title track and “Little Shoes” are also highlights, but this whole recording truly swings.
Fast forward to the present. If you had told me when I was a teenager I would one day take lessons with Mike Stern in New York City, I would have told you you were out of your mind. Yet, that is exactly what happened in early 2019, when I had a chance to study with him just before COVID shut everything down. As great as Mike is a musician, he is an even nicer person. I was blown away by his depth of knowledge, his willingness to share it and his incredibly enthusiastic personality. Lessons were peppered with colorful stories that inevitably started with “When I was with Miles…” Jams would always end with “that sounds great, bro!” Mike Stern is a class act. Upside Downside changed my life back when I was in high school and is still one of my favorite recordings. This show from 1996 with Dave Weckl and Jeff Andrews shows Mike in his element, which means live.
5. Pat Metheny Group – Travels (1983)
“Try to be the worst player in every band you are in, because if you are around good musicians, that makes you better,” Pat Metheny said in an interview many years ago. That resonated, and I am glad it did. From that day on, I resolved to always surround myself with the best people possible and to be the weakest player in any group I was part of because I knew I would have the most upside in those situations. It’s how I approached building my ensembles at Berklee and how I think about our team at Vinous today.
Travels is a live recording taken from a handful of Pat Metheny Group shows in 1982. A profoundly beautiful double album, Travels captures the magic of the Group, but especially the kinetic musical relationship Metheny enjoyed with longtime collaborator Lyle Mays. Jazz is, of course, an improvisational art. The dialogue between players is such a critical element of what makes the music special, which is why so many jazz recordings are essentially live, but in the studio. Concert recordings add the energy of the audience, which is every bit as important. Travels also features Metheny’s groundbreaking work with the guitar synthesizer, of which he was one of the earliest and most visible exponents.
I discovered Travels through “Phase Dance.” which my high school guitar teacher Nick Simmons assigned me. Nick was a brilliant musician and artist. My first guitar teacher, Mr. Gould, taught me jazz rhythm playing, chord voicings and how to comp in a big band. He also got me my first gig, playing in the Sarasota High School Admirals, a Count Basie style-big band that performed constantly, for which I will forever be grateful. But he was my grandfather’s age. Nick was tall and young, with flowing long hair and a super-friendly Midwestern demeanor. He made lessons fun. He also turned me on to Metheny, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Miles Davis and a whole slew of music none of my friends knew anything about. Nick had studied with Metheny and in his later years became known as a celebrated watercolorist before taking his life a few years ago. He made a huge impact on me. Like all great teachers, Nick instilled confidence.
“Are You Going with Me?” is a classic, the first solo handled by Mays, the second by Metheny, both on synthesizers, which were very new innovations at the time. Metheny just soars on this track. The guitar synthesizer features again heavily on “Extradition.” “The Fields the Sky” is a great example of Metheny’s style with the Group. One of the themes is the use of chords over a pedal tone in the bass, a device found in many Metheny compositions. The playing is full of slurs, slides and other phrasing idiosyncrasies that give Metheny’s playing such a vocal quality. Metheny’s playing on “Farmer’s Trust,” “Travels” and “Goin' Ahead/As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls" is so melodic, so exquisitely tasteful. All along the way Lyle Mays is just brilliant, his keyboard solos building with ebbs and flows into stunning climaxes of lyricism as heard in tracks like “San Lorenzo.” The audience reaction is rapturous, as it should be. Steve Rodby on bass, Dan Gottlieb on drums and Nana Vasconcelos on vocals and percussion paint stunning backdrops for the genius of Metheny and Mays. Travels is a monumental recording. This is a fine example of “Phase Dance” from the early 1980s.
6. Eric Johnson – Ah Via Musicom (1990)
Eric Johnson is one of the greatest and most influential guitar players of the last several decades. He belongs up there with Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and a few select others in term of his stature and the degree to which has influenced generations of guitar players. More than anything else, Eric Johnson is a total original.
Released in 1990, Ah Via Musicom remains Johnson’s seminal recording. “Cliffs of Dover” has sent countless guitar players to the practice room in search of unlocking some of the secrets of his style. Cascading pentatonic runs, often played in odd groupings and with dizzying speed, are one of Johnson's most recognizable signatures. This live version, taken from an epic 1988 performance at Austin City Limits also showcases Johnson’s chordal approach based on open voicings that derive from his early training as a pianist. It is a tour-de-force in six minutes.
“High Landrons,” with its heavily flanged tone, soaring introduction and solos, is another magnificent track. “Righteous” sizzles with energy. In “East Wes” Johnson plays tribute to the great Wes Montgomery. The track features Johnson’s striking chordal work interspersed with a melody played in octaves, in the Wes style, and bluesy accents that lead to a solo showcasing Johnson’s crystalline solo-tone that is often referred to as “violin-like.” That’s as good a descriptor as any.
A few tracks feature Johnson on vocals as well. The voice is bright and focused. Songs like “Desert Rose,” “Nothing Can Keep Me From You” and “High Landrons” are undoubtedly gorgeous in every way, but maybe have made it harder for the broader public to put this music into a box, which is pretty much required for broad commercial success. Eric Johnson is all the boxes.
This is very complex music. One of the things Johnson does is alternate rhythm with lead playing, often switching between sounds and registers quickly, which gives the illusion of more than one musician playing. It’s a masterful effect. I have seen him live more than enough times to know that is not studio trickery, but just part of a style of playing that exemplifies a complete and total mastery of the instrument.
Ah Via Musicom was a massively influential recording for me. It inspired me to write and perform my own music and to search for my own style in both.
7. Danny Gatton – 88 Elmira Street (1991)
I became interested in country music while a student at Berklee. I wasn’t good enough to audition for the top two ensembles at school (at the time students were rated across four areas of instrumental proficiency and my scores were…not good), so I looked down the list. Country Music was next. I knew nothing about country music, but I went to talk to the teacher anyway. “We are pretty full,” she said. "But we could use someone to play a little electric guitar, a little acoustic and some mandolin, whatever the song needs," she added, perhaps sensing my initial disappointment. “I’m your person,” I replied. And that was that. I went down to the music store, bought a cheap mandolin, put a pickup on it and strung it like a guitar, a common studio player’s trick to get around the mandolin’s tuning, which is the same as a violin. Voila, all of the sudden I could play mandolin. I ended up spending two years in that band, and loved every minute of it. The live shows were so much fun.
They called Danny Gatton “The Humbler,” said he could play like anyone, but no one could play like him. That pretty much sums it up. Gatton was a legend on the Baltimore/Washington DC club circuit at a time when musicians’ reputations were forged over many years of playing in dingy nightclubs. There was no internet, no YouTube and no Instagram. A self-taught musician who spent just as much time on his hot rods as playing guitar, Gatton combined rockabilly, country, jazz and western swing influences and then melded them into something totally unique. Those genres may seem unrelated, but in fact they are linked by a common thread and that is harmony is always outlined in improvisation. That’s a key difference with blues and rock idioms that tend to feature the more ambiguous pentatonic scale. Gatton’s technical proficiency was off the charts. His playing then led me to discover and full appreciate a whole set of guitarists who were new to me, including Brian Setzer, Albert Lee, Jerry Donahue, James Burton, Roy Nichols, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, and then some of the younger generation such as Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, Johnny Hiland and Andy Wood.
“Funky Mama,” an up-tempo blues shuffle, kicks things off in style “Elmira St. Boogie” shows Gatton’s rockabilly chops off to great effect. “Muthaship” adds horns to spice things up. It’s rockabilly with the volume dialed up, all over a tight, funky groove, with some chromatic lines that are a jazzy touch. Gatton’s more lyrical, bluesier side shines on “Blues Newburg.” It’s classic Danny Gatton. The playing is inspired and virtuosic throughout.
I saw Gatton live once, in a hole in the wall in Somerville’s Davis Square, long before that area became fashionable. I sat right in the front. He literally blew the roof off the place. I had never seen anything like it. Still haven’t. His physical presence alone was intimidating. 88 Elmira Street was Gatton’s first major-label release. It should have catapulted him to the next level of prominence, but for some reason, it never did. Sadly, Gatton took his life in 1994. Those who knew him or saw him perform live knew he was the real deal, the genuine item, the sort of musician who comes along only very rarely.
8. Miles Davis – Amandla (1989)
“What are America’s contributions to culture?’ Andy Beckstoffer asked me, as we sat in his office and pored over vineyard maps. “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and jazz” he answered a few seconds later, before I could reply, wasting not a moment’s time. Typical Beckstoffer. Obviously, America’s contributions to culture include much more than wine and music, but Beckstoffer was making a point about Napa Valley more than anything else.
Miles Davis led a remarkable life that saw him participate in, and ultimately shape, many of the evolutions of jazz music. Jazz, of course, has its origins in ragtime, blues and other related genres. Louis Armstrong is an early star of the style of jazz popular in the 1920s. The mid-1930s see the birth of big bands led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey and others. During this era, jazz is popular music, the dance music of the time. A major development takes place around the mid-1940s, when jazz starts to transition from a genre of popular music to a more improvisational art. In the post-World War II era, jazz moves to a focus on smaller ensembles and an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity and improvisation, some of that led by the harsh economic realities of the time that made it hard for larger ensembles to survive. This is the era of bebop, led by such visionaries as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who gave Miles his first big professional break.
Bebop represents the beginning of the deconstruction of jazz. Whereas the big band era featured structured songs and scored arrangements, bebop consists of a melody, known as the head, a series of solos, then the head again. Harmony is still mostly diatonic, but improvisations are now highly chromatic, often over a set of substituted chords that are superimposed on the underlying harmonic structure. The feeling of time starts to loosen as well. Bebop is like a Picasso painting. It is an art of suggestion and implied rather than overtly made statements. The musicians are virtuosos.
In the late 1940s Miles begins experimenting with a range of compositional and improvisation concepts that would result in a series of seminal recordings culminating with Kind of Blue. Recorded in 1959, Kind of Blue remains one of the most iconic jazz recordings ever made. It signals the full arrival of cool jazz, a style where compositions break away from classic chord progressions to modal compositions and long, extended improvisations. Miles then leads a move into electronic music and fusion genres with a number of benchmark recordings, most notably Bitches Brew in 1970.
Given all of that context, most observers would say Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew are the most influential Miles Davis albums, as they represent the pinnacles of achievement for cool jazz and electronic jazz/fusion respectively. And that makes sense. But Amandla was the first Miles Davis album I heard upon release, the first Miles record I heard that was created in my lifetime, not a previous era. It also appeared during a time of big transition for me personally.
Adjusting to Berklee was not easy. One day, you are the most talented kid in your small town, and then the next you are in a big city, surrounded by profoundly talented musicians. You are nothing. There is something incredibly shocking about seeing that kind of virtuosity up close. The intensity of it and the startling realization that you don’t have that kind of talent and probably never will. Today, there is a lot more awareness about mental health, the dangers of constant comparisons and the potentially devastating effects of too much pressure. But at 18, at that time, I just wasn’t prepared for it.
I thought I might never achieve my goal of playing with the top musicians at school. My roommate at the time, Jay Weik, advised me to study composition. He said if I wrote original music, that would attract top players, because no one was really doing that. He turned out to be 100% correct.
I was looking for role models. I found one in Miles Davis. At some point, it dawned on me that Miles was not a virtuoso trumpet player, but that his skills lay elsewhere, more in the realm of creating ecosystems of sound and music. Of writing and putting together musicians who could execute on a vision. I wanted to be Miles Davis. I read everything I could about him. In the end, I led five recitals of my own compositions, all of them with different bands, and performed my own music in other concerts at school.
Amandla is the third and final recording from Miles Davis and bassist/producer Marcus Miller. I was immediately captivated by the huge grooves on this album. Kenny Garrett’s saxophone was mesmerizing. The supporting cast includes drummer Omar Hakim, guitarist Michael Landau and Foley, who plays what he calls ‘lead bass,” a bass tuned higher that straddles the line between bass and guitar. I saw the band play at the Boston Opera House on the supporting tour. It was a life-changing experience. Miles’ presence on the bandstand was unreal. He owned the stage. This clip from David Sanborn’s show Night Music captures Miles during this era, not just his music, but his total persona.
I learned so much from Miles. The most important of these lessons was the art of constant reinvention. Most musicians live off their greatest hits. This is, after all, the music fans want to hear, and the music most performers deliver. Not Miles. Every band represented a new phase of his artistry. He never played the music of a former era, never looked backwards. He always looked ahead, always pushed the boundaries as hard as he could. Then he pushed some more. Miles was an amazing visionary and leader. Someone with very clear ideas who surrounded himself with the best people, often younger musicians he discovered and featured.
9. Gustav Mahler – 5th Symphony (Kubelik) (1971)
I greatly enjoyed the composition classes I took at Berklee. It was a complete immersion in everything from jazz to classical music. This was where I discovered Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In my Conducting class, I studied Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Stravinisky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, among other pieces.
One day, my professor played an orchestral excerpt for us. I thought it was the most lyrical and moving music I had ever heard. I was simply floored. The links to Bruckner, Brahms and other Romantic composers were there, but there was something more exciting about this piece. The dynamics, the long, dramatic passages, the recurring themes…I was totally mesmerized. It was the Adagietto from Mahler’s “5th Symphony,” his most famous and well-known work.
Gustav Mahler was active during the late Romantic period, an era that bridges the late 1800s and early 1900s, in other words the transition from the Romanticism of Beethoven to the Modernism led by composers such as Berg, Schoenberg and Webern. As jazz does later, classical music follows a trajectory from the highly structured works of composers like Mozart, where tempo, dynamics and structure are very clearly defined and not varied within sections, through a progression into the Romantic period, where tempo becomes more elastic within orchestral movements. Dynamics are modulated for expression while conventional boundaries of structure and harmony are loosened. Orchestras get larger, sometimes adding vocal soloists or a chorus, which, in turn, gives birth to the figure of the modern conductor.
Curiously, Mahler was mostly known as an operatic conductor during his lifetime. He held numerous prestigious posts and conducted the leading works of the day. His compositions were generally not well-received, probably a combination of the adventurousness of the music, and an anti-Semitic bias that was so strong that Mahler’s music was banned in parts of Europe under Nazi rule. It would not be until the 1960s, fifty years after Mahler’s death, that his orchestral works were finally given their due.
There are many important recordings of the Mahler symphonies. I will not proclaim to be an expert on this repertoire or the many recordings that are out there. But I have always admired Rafael Kubelik’s readings. The discussion with these sorts of recordings is always a conversation about how much is the composer’s intent versus the conductor’s interpretation. Of course, these are unanswerable questions, as most of the time the composers have long since passed. When I listen to Kubelik conduct Mahler I get the feeling there is very little of his own ego, which is a harder statement to make about some of his more famous contemporaries and colleagues. This recording of the Mahler 5th, which is part of a complete set Kubelik recorded with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra between the late 1960s and early 1970s, has long been a reference point, as far as I am concerned.
10. Giacomo Puccini – Tosca (De Sabata) – (1953)
At some point after Berklee I discovered opera. For a time, I thought I might want to become a conductor. My voice teacher, Sharon Daniels, recommended me for a job at the Boston Lyric Opera. The title was assistant to the conductor, or something like that, but what I actually did was run the supertitles, the translations that appear above the stage. We did gorgeous productions of L’Elisir d’Amore, Werther and Tosca, among others. I went to every rehearsal and totally immersed myself in the music.
The 1953 Callas Tosca is easily one of the seminal recordings in opera. It captures three superstar singers at their absolute peaks in a breathtaking reading of Puccini’s opus by Conductor Victor de Sabata leading the La Scala orchestra and chorus in a set that sounds absolutely amazing even today. It was recorded at a time before opera singers became jet setting global superstars. In the 1950s singers were specialized, they sang relatively narrow repertoires that suited them. That all changed around the 1970s when the recording business started to take off and opera singers became celebrities. That fame pushed many singers to perform roles they were not suited to. There is something special about listening to musicians play music they have grown up with their entire lives, that they have in their blood. I felt the same way when I attended a performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Berlin Staatsoper (State Opera) a few years prior.
This recording features tenor Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi and baritone Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, both cast perfectly. In my opinion, few, if any, tenors have ever been given a more beautiful natural voice than Giuseppe di Stefano. The timbre, range and intonation of the instrument had no equal. Unfortunately, di Stefano was not a disciplined singer or musician. He can be heard pushing, even in this early recording, a sign of trouble that would come later. But here youth compensates for some of those shortcomings. His “Recondita armonia” and “Qual occhio al mondo può star di paro…” in the first act are magical, as are the “Oh, dolci baci, o languide carezze” and the famous aria “E lucevan le stelle,” both in the third act.
Tito Gobbi was one of the most renowned Italian baritones of the post-World War II era. His thunderous entrance at the end of the first act with his “Un tal baccano in chiesa…” is all you need to know. The menace, the power, the darkness of the voice, is all there in his interpretation of the purely evil villain Scarpia. At the end of the third act, Scarpia turns more seductive as he sets a trap for Tosca. The voice is so vivid here. The second act is a tour de force.
And then there is Callas. She is magnificent. At the time, many observers did not appreciate Callas’ voice, which was often described in unflattering terms, and far from the model of a more classic, creamier voice of sopranos like Renata Tebaldi, another superstar of this era. But Callas was a different animal. She was an actor first, a musician second and a singer third. Obviously. She does not portray Tosca in this recording, she is Tosca. Callas is at times sweet, then raging with jealousy when she feels she is being cheated on, vulnerable and then vicious when she kills Scarpia, and finally utterly destroyed when she learns that Scarpia has betrayed her and that Cavaradossi is dead.
Callas’ musical talents are the thing of legend. This is, after all, the woman who sight-read the second act of Richard Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde at an audition for conductor Tullio Serafin. For readers who are unfamiliar with opera, Wagner is considered to be among the most challenging of all repertoire because it is complex and requires extraordinary stamina. The idea of someone singing this music from sight, for an audition, is frankly inconceivable.
Callas is especially superb in the second act. She soars in Tosca’s famous aria “Vissi d’arte.” Scarpia closes in for the conquest, only to be stabbed by Tosca as she utters some of most famous lines in opera while he dies…Ti soffoca il sangue? (Are you choking on your blood?)…Guardami! Sono Tosca! Oh, Scarpia! (Look at me! I am Tosca! Oh, Scarpia!)…È morto! Or gli perdono! (He’s dead! Now I forgive him!)…Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma (And before him all Rome trembled).
The 1953 Callas Tosca is a must-have recording that has endured for all these years and is just as relevant today as it was back then.
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