An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (Walt Disney 60986)
Walt Disney's "Fantasia" was always the most high-minded of animated films. The original 1940 feature wasn't just a visual and aural tour de force; it was also a sly lesson in music appreciation, bringing the classics to audiences who otherwise might never have heard Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" or Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours."
Naturally, there's an element of edification in "Fantasia 2000" as well. From the opening semaphore of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, conductor James Levine -- assuming the role Leopold Stokowski held in the original -- does his best to make classical music seem as entertaining and exciting as a John Williams "Star Wars" score.
As did the original film, "Fantasia 2000" balances works familiar to anyone (such as Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1," which has paraded innumerable graduates across commencement-day stages) with less well-known modern fare (such as Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2). In other words, it means to educate but doesn't want to make the learning curve too steep.
But to be honest, the soundtrack to "Fantasia 2000" does to the symphonic repertoire what the old "Classics Illustrated" comics did to literature -- condenses and oversimplifies great works.
Five of the film's eight selections have been "edited" for the movie, an effort ranging from minor tightening to full-scale rearrangement of the music. For instance, instead of giving us the first movement from Beethoven's Fifth, Levine and the Chicago Orchestra perform only the most familiar fragment of the work, condensing Beethoven's score into a snappy two minutes, 51 seconds. (The rest, presumably, was left on the cutting-room floor.)
That's nothing, however, compared to the liberties taken with Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" marches. Not only has Peter Schickele edited all four marches until the whole is only slightly longer than March No. 1, but he lards the ending with an unnecessarily bombastic choral arrangement featuring soprano Kathleen Battle. It's as if someone decided that the music itself needed a big, Hollywood ending if it was to go over with today's audiences.
To his credit, conductor Levine does a reasonable job with these truncated scores, offering spirited (if overly conventional) readings that make much of the music's orchestral color. Moreover, pianists Yefim Bronfman (in the Shostakovich) and Ralph Grierson (in the Gershwin) are both wonderful, performing with admirable clarity and lyricism.
Still, this Disney-fication of the classics rankles. Just as Disney's "Jungle Book" distorted Kipling's classic in the name of entertainment, "Fantasia 2000" ends up compromising the very music it means to celebrate. And no amount of visual spectacle can excuse that. **
Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam 314 546 822)
After the astonishing success of rapper Jay-Z's last album, expectations for his follow-up effort have been extraordinarily high. He knows it, too, and that's part of the problem with "Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter." Meant as a sonic biography, the album finds Jay-Z juggling hip-hop fame with the pressures he faces out of the limelight as Shawn Carter. There are moments when his take on the price of fame is wonderfully illuminating, as on the self-mocking "Snoopy Track" or the edgy, paranoid "Come and Get Me." Too often, though, he seems caught up in his own drama, needlessly defending his success with the likes of "Dope Man." If only more of the album were given to real-life raps like the catchy "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)" or the slinky, sexy "Things That U Do." ***
Goodbye 20th Century (SYR 4)
They may have made their name in the alt-rock underground, but Sonic Youth actually started out in the classical avant garde, performing the clangorous compositions of Glenn Branca and others. "Goodbye 20th Century" is, in that sense, a return to roots, in which the quartet (along with selected guest musicians) performs compositions by John Cage, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Nicolas Slonimsky and others. It's not rock music by any means, offering none of the music's rhythmic drive or melodic focus. Even so, these abstract soundscapes do share turf with Sonic Youth's own well-tempered dissonances, from the drone-and-squeak of Reich's "Pendulum Music" to detuned clunk of Slonimsky's "Piece Enfantine." (Mail order: P.O.B. 6179, Hoboken, N.J. 07030). ***
McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster (Telarc 83488)
Given pianist McCoy Tyner's ability to play off the energy of his rhythm section, teaming him with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Al Foster ought to guarantee a display of musical fireworks. Yet "McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster" only sputters and fizzles, as the three trade instrumental ferocity for an almost gentle sense of swing. While that lends a certain lyricism to selections like "Once Upon a Time" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," the fleet-fingered virtuosity of Tyner and Clarke doesn't always serve the midtempo material. Worse, the trio's attempts to groove, as on the tropical "Carriba" or the electric bass-driven "I Want To Tell You 'Bout That," are distressingly stiff. Apparently, some jazz trios add up to less than the sum of their parts. **