Listening Post

SYMPHONY SCORES: With most of the major record labels releasing far fewer classical recordings than ever before, major orchestras once guaranteed an impressive release schedule are rethinking their positions. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is at the forefront of this movement; it has just released the debut recordings on Arch Media, a record label that's a division of the symphony organization itself.

Under Leonard Slatkin, the symphony released dozens of its recordings on various labels, most prominently RCA Victor's Red Seal imprint. These recordings won Grammys, and Red Seal's distribution system ensured that St. Louis Symphony recordings could be purchased at record stores all over the world. But a major contraction in the classical-recording industry resulted in Red Seal's dropping the symphony from its roster (which is no reflection on the quality of the symphony; most of the major symphonies in the world have also been streamlined out of the industry), forcing it to develop an alternative method of releasing its music.

The debut CDs are both conducted by Hans Vonk: Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") and Symphony No. 8 are coupled on one CD, and Schubert's Symphonies No. 3 and No. 9 are on another. Both were recorded at Powell by the Grammy Award-winning team of producer Joanna Nickrenz and engineer Marc Aubort and are available worldwide through the symphony's Web site, www.slso.org. The company has also formed an online alliance with Music Boulevard (www.musicblvd.com), one of the heavy hitters of Internet music retail. Music Boulevard will be featuring chat sessions with both Vonk and members of the symphony. You can also order them by calling 800-232-1880. (RR)

SPECTOR TRADITION: The common belief is that Christmas songs are just seasonally appropriate -- musical tinsel to hang on the holiday festivities, then discard. After all, how can heartfelt music that's not so much sensitive as time-sensitive make sense after the holidays? Answer: when we're talking about fresh pop songs that hold up better than one of those silver Christmas trees. When they're living, breathing melodies trapped -- and wrapped -- in a short-lived Christmas package, just waiting to be released to work their magic year-round. Giving Santa-capped music as a gift, though, would seem like bequeathing a Christmas tree as a holiday present; the redundancy is almost tangible. But when the music hangs on the pine with ornamental hooks, it survives even as the season withers away.

Take Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You. In this case, Christmas gave Spector a theme -- one in line with his own jingle-jangling obsessions -- to build walls of sound around. Darlene Love celebrates "White Christmas" by turning a song defined by Bing Crosby into first-rate teen pop. An ahead-of-its-time Byrdsy jangle, melodically identical to the refrain of "Here Comes Santa Claus" (covered on the album by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans), lights the way in the Crystals' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; then the sweet-whine jilted-teen-girl vocals come soaring in. Spector's art was in sculpting brilliant singles; albums are not what he's known for. But this collection, a mix of (mainly) standards and perky originals, proves that this eccentric, sparkling visionary was the star atop the tree. A Christmas Gift For You is available at any record store worth its weight in wall-of-sound bricks. It's an obvious choice for a recommendation -- it's considered one of the greatest American recordings, Christmas or otherwise, ever released -- but one that will light up your season with every listen. (JO)

RECENT REISSUES AND COLLECTIONS: Fill the holes in your collection with this spate of perfectly timed CD reissues and collections: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Singles (Virgin). Collects the synth-pop gems of the early '80s, including "Enola Gay," "Joan of Arc" and "Tesla Girls." Steely Dan, Can't Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy (MCA). Meandering, smoky tunes from some of the masters of curious jazz-pop. Miles Davis, The Complete Bitches Brew (Columbia). The record to have from Miles' late-'60s visionary melding of jazz, funk, rock and experimental. The Kinks, A Soap Opera, Misfits, Schoolboys in Disgrace and Sleepwalker (Velvel). The second batch of remastered reissues of '70s-era Kinks, each containing a few overlooked pop gems. Paul Weller, Modern Classics (Island). A collection that traces Weller's post-Jam singles. (RR)

Contributors: Jordan Oakes, Randall Roberts

 
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