Stealin' The Classics?
Desperadoes Steel Orchestra's From The Hills Of Laventille - Steel In The Classics was released in 1999 on the Rituals Music label. It was produced by one of EMI Abbey Road Studios' leading producers, Jonathan Allen, and the post edit was undertaken at Abbey Road Studios in London. And all of this shows. Steel In The Classics is the finest quality steel pan recording yet, regardless of musical genre, and has to be the lofty standard by which steel pan recordings will be judged henceforth. The quality of the recording, editing, mixing and mastering is quite simply breathtaking and marks a milestone in the recording of steel pan music. The levels from track to track are absolutely consistent, so there is no need to hurriedly reach for the remote to turn the volume up or down. The dynamic range has been captured to as near to perfection as it is possible to get, with the subtlest, softest pianissimos clearly audible and even the loudest fortissimo not clipping or distorting any high notes. The sheer technical quality alone of this recording makes Steel In The Classics a kind of heaven for any true steel pan connoisseur.
Add to this technical excellence the exquisite smooth, mellow sound and playing of the incomparable Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, aka Despers, and the likewise exquisite arrangements of conductor Trevor "Inch High" Valentine, and you are left in total awe of the greatest steel pan recording to date.
With their Steel In The Classics album, the awesome Despers, led by their captain Curtis Edwards, prove once again why they are the incontrovertibly finest steelband in the world with a performance that is just out of this world. Whether you particularly like steelbands performing popular classical music or not becomes irrelevant in the face of such brilliance. Personally, I could hardly care less what kind of music is played by a steelband - in the end, there is only good music and bad. That aside, I happen to think that steel pan is eminently suited to the performance of classical music, and vice versa, and I also adore the seeming incongruity of familiar classical pieces being given a thoroughly different treatment with what still remains the newest form of orchestral instruments.
The selection of music on Desperadoes Steel Orchestra's Steel In The Classics is a wonderfully eclectic one, though perhaps wisely restricted to mostly better-known light and popular classics to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The album kicks off with an excerpt from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus In The Underworld, including the well-known Galop Infernal often erroneously called the Can-can. The subtlest of passages are rendered with Despers' characteristic perfection, and the exuberance of the Galop Infernal is as infectious as any rendition ever and then some. Amilcare Ponchielli's equally popular Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda (perhaps best known to general audiences from Walt Disney's 1940 Fantasia) follows and continues the utter delight and exuberance. Both the darker and lighter aspects of Jean Sibelius' brief symphonic poem Finlandia are given equally expressive yet subtle treatments that lose nothing in their transformation from a conventional symphonic orchestra to the steel orchestra, but really you would not expect anything less from Despers. The evergreen Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is given a beautifully understated interpretation. Close your eyes, and you could believe you are at the opera. The lively paso doble El Relicario by Oliveros / Castellví / Padilla could have been written for steel pan and is indeed one of the most widely performed light classical pieces in the steelband world. Given that certain Despers touch, it becomes sheer magic in all its joyousness and exuberance. Paso dobles are a popular part of the general steelband repertoire, and here, Despers show how they should be done.
A wonderful choice also is the 4th movement of the Symphony in C by Georges Bizet, written originally as a student assignment when he was seventeen. The colourful palette of sounds presented here by Desperadoes Steel Orchestra has to be heard to be appreciated, or indeed to be believed. I would defy any conventional symphonic performance to surpass Despers' interpretation. Johann Sebastian Bach's original Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, was later arranged for violin and piano by the late nineteenth century violinist August Wilhelmj who changed the key to G and re-named the piece Air on a G String, by which name it is now universally known. You could not possibly ask for a more delicate and subtle performance than this. Amazing Grace, a Christian hymn by John Newton, now widely associated with Scottish Highland bagpipes renditions, acquires an almost ethereal, magical charm and a truly amazing gracefulness in the hands of the great Despers. The most famous of all piano rags, Scott Joplin's The Entertainer, could also almost have been written for the steel pan and sparkles here as never before. Alas, the closer of Desperadoes Steel Orchestra's Steel In The Classics arrives all too soon in the form of the Hallelujah Chorus from George Frederick Handel's Messiah. Despers somehow manage to sound like a whole symphony orchestra and chorus and a steel orchestra all rolled into one in this exuberant performance.
The one and only Despers are "stealin' the classics" and making them all their own with their triumphant album From the Hills of Laventille - Steel In The Classics. That ol' Despers magic has come up with something that's that little bit extra special even by the exalted standards that Desperadoes Steel Orchestra has always set (and many have tried to achieve but few have come anywhere near). Just when it may seem within reach, the mighty Despers shift the goalpost again by raising the standard to a whole new level. Brilliance such as this is not only awesome, it is also awe inspiring.
Irrespective of whether you come at this album from a steel pan, classical, or general world music angle, Desperadoes Steel Orchestra's Steel In The Classics is a classic in its own right that must be beyond essential in any good music collection.
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