Two separate recordings of Wagner operas "Parsifal" and Tristan und Isolde" shine, Norful's gospel album "Life Changing" celebrates the good news, Vince Gill proves that sometimes more is more with a stellar 4-CD set of new songs, and Bentley's third CD "Long Trip Home" shows continued artistic growth.
Various Artists, "Parsifal" (Metropolitan Opera Historic Broadcast)
Various Artists – "Parsifal" and "Tristan & Isolde"
Smokie Norful, "Life Changing"
Vince Gill, "These Days"
Dierks Bentley, "Long Trip Alone"
Various Artists, "Tristan und Isolde" (Warner Classics)
The CDs "Parsifal" and "Tristan und Isolde," recorded nearly 20 years apart in live performances, offer both a nostalgic glimpse of the recent past and a hopeful look at the current state of Wagnerian singing.
The "Parsifal," from a live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast on April 20, 1985, documents the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in one of his greatest roles. It was the last time Vickers was to sing the part of the "holy fool" at the Met, and though he was nearly 60 and the wear of years is evident, so is his eloquence and a sense of urgency that speaks from the heart. As the temptress Kundry, soprano Leonie Rysanek shines in the upper register that never seemed to desert her even late in her career. Bass Kurt Moll is a mellifluous narrator as Gurnemanz, and baritone Simon Estes makes a strong impression as Amfortas, the tormented knight who succumbed to Kundry's embraces. Conductor James Levine keeps the tempos slow and the tension high.
The "Tristan" set was recorded during three separate concert performances, one act at a time, at the Barbican Hall in London in 2002-2003. The main attraction here is Christine Brewer, the American singer who has emerged in recent years as one of the world's leading dramatic sopranos. Brewer, who sings her first fully staged Isoldes in San Francisco this month, puts her stamp on the role with a gorgeous performance that shows off her lustrous, amply cushioned voice. There's no sign of strain in the dramatic moments like Isolde's narrative and curse, and a lot of beautiful phrasing, especially in the opening moments of Act II and the "Liebestod" that ends the opera.
Tenor John Treleavan has his moments as Tristan, but he's not quite on Brewer's level and his voice lacks the heroic heft of a Ben Heppner. The rest of the cast is fine, as is the spirited conducting of Donald Runnicles, leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra. (Mike Silverman)
Smokie Norful, "Life Changing" (EMI Gospel)
After experiencing a number of personal and public successes, Smokie Norful's "Life Changing" celebrates his good news with an uplifting mix of urban gospel tunes and worship ballads.
The spectrum of worship on Norful's latest album ranges from the mood of a joyful block party to the intimacy of a prayer closet. Squealing live horns and pounding bass drums drive the funky crowd-pleaser "Put Your Hands Together," which tempts listeners to shake off their blues and "let the Spirit move you/and this rhythm groove you."
Norful is just as powerful at conveying the passion of his faith through the acoustic-piano driven "More Than Anything." The simple refrain builds from an intimate call-and-response worship song to a dramatic full-band crescendo full of zeal for God. Norful also reinterprets "Run to You," made famous by Whitney Houston, but the desperation in the lyrics doesn't quite fit with the album's overall theme of praise and victory.
Pastoring, fatherhood and the music industry have been very good to Norful since he burst onto the gospel scene in 2002 with the CD "I Need You Now." You can feel it in every note he sings. (Aimee Maude Sims)
Vince Gill, "These Days" (MCA Nashville)
Vince Gill's four-album set of 43 — yes, 43! — new songs either represents the last mighty gasp of the CD era or points toward a future when an artist's output isn't limited by how much music can fit on one or two discs.
Whatever it means, the veteran country star's massive undertaking is unprecedented — so much so that some will mistake the collection, "These Days," for a career compilation. It's not. "These Days" encompasses four CDs of original, previously unreleased music, all of it written or co-written by Gill and all of it recently recorded. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald, Gretchen Wilson and his wife Amy Grant, among others. But the spotlight clearly belongs to Gill.
The Oklahoma native breaks down the CDs into musical themes that generously sample his favored musical styles: There's a disk of roots-rocking guitar workouts, one of traditional honky-tonk tunes, one of contemporary ballads and spirituals, and one of acoustic songs, many of them drawing on his early days as a bluegrass musician. The songs are consistently strong, with several highlights ("Almost Home," "The Reason Why") and only a couple of noticeable weak spots, such as "Faint of Heart," a jazz duet with pianist Diana Krall that's more Perry Como than Tony Bennett.
Some critics may suggest the collection could've made for a potent one- or two-CD set. But that's missing the point. Gill hit upon a particularly fruitful creative period, and he's sharing the results. Popular music, currently bogged down in a period ruled by marketing and packaging, would benefit from more of this kind of out-of-the-box thinking. (Michael McCall)
Dierks Bentley, "Long Trip Alone" (Capitol)
Dierks Bentley spent his first two albums stamping his freewheeling personality onto a variety of country music styles, from traditional honky tonk to spirited bluegrass to contemporary country. With his third CD, he focuses more intently on a distinct form of modern country-rock that emphasizes complex instrumental arrangements and personal storytelling.
Bentley's use of acoustic instruments over a hard-charging, sophisticated rhythm section isn't new. In his own way, he furthers a sound developed by the Dixie Chicks, Keith Urban and others. But he rocks harder than those artists, and lyrically he moves beyond Nashville's usual politeness toward a more honest reckoning of what it's like to be a young, attractive, successful guy in modern America.
His best songs — "That Don't Make It Easy Lovin' Me," "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" — are autobiographical tunes about a hard-traveling fellow who enjoys a good time, struggles with responsibility yet wants a good relationship, too.
He also deals with his religious convictions in a bold way for a Nashville artist. In "The Heaven I'm Headed To," he envisions a Christianity that's more tolerant and inclusive than the way it's currently preached by Baptist fundamentalists.
Altogether, Bentley continues to forge a fresh, cliche-free sound that marks him as one of country music's most interesting new voices-and a worthy successor to the Nashville outlaws he considers his mentors. (Michael McCall)
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