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Unmasked: The Platinum Collection
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Audio CD, March 16, 2018
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Andrew Lloyd Webber: Unmasked (The Platinum Collection) are the all-time greatest hits from one of the most successful composers of our era. The 4CD set collects the finest of his cherished works from the past five decades. Featuring newly-recorded versions of songs by Lana Del Rey, Gregory Porter, Nicole Scherzinger. Plus, a 40 page booklet including an introduction by Andrew Lloyd Webber and new testimonies from artists including Barbra Streisand, Glenn Close, Michael Crawford and Tim Rice.
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Despite the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of my favorite composers, I resisted purchasing any of the previous "birthday boxes" released in 2001 and 2008, but I caved for this one due to the inclusion of previously-unreleased and new tracks, the companion book, and the interesting selection of both original recordings and covers by both new and familiar artists curated by Lloyd Webber himself. For anyone familiar with the "60 at 60" set, you'll notice a lot of repeats, but as so many of the shared tracks are definitive recordings, such as Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford's spine-tingling "Phantom of the Opera" or Paul Nicholas' "Mr. Mistoffeles," why shouldn't they be on both? While a few songs are lost in order to make room for tracks from newer Webber shows like "Love Never Dies," "Stephen Ward," and "School of Rock,""Unmasked" is superior in many ways, though, as not only is it much more concise of an overview, with only a single version of a given song, many of the covers are an improvement on those released in 2008. I particularly liked Webber's decision to include Michael Crawford's electrifying interpretation of "Tell Me On A Sunday," which is somehow even more moving than when sung by the many female artists who have recorded it.
While I won't say that I love every song or every singer included here, to listen to such a wide variety of Webber's music all in one place makes his talent for composing gorgeous, memorable melodies and lush, complex orchestrations in virtually any musical style even more apparent then when listening to the show albums individually. Excluding "The Phantom of the Opera," no one production is given precedence, so you get a great cross-section of his body of work, both the hits and the (commercial) flops, though musically no piece disappoints. No matter which show is your favorite, you'll find something here to enjoy, though it is a bit of a let-down that neither "Half A Moment" nor "Those Canaan Days" made the cut. I know Webber is a stickler for sound quality, and to my ear it seems that every track has been remastered, as even the oldest tracks sound crisp, which makes this set worth getting, even if you already own most of them already.
There are a dozen "new and exclusive tracks", though, strictly speaking, four aren't really new at all, but rather orchestral suites pieced together from the original albums of "Love Never Dies," "Sunset Boulevard," "Variations," and "Phantom," the latter being an edit of the Overture, Entr'acte, and Act 1 Finale into a single track. Though it would have been nice to have some brand-new arrangements, as far as nostalgia, you can't beat the original recordings. The rest are covers from the last decade, including Nicole Scherzinger's "Memory," "The Light At The End Of The Tunnel" by Gregory Porter, "You Must Love Me" by Lana Del Ray, "I Am The Starlight" by Mica Paris and George Ure, "Heaven On Their Minds" by Tim Minchin, as well as the premiere releases of Beyonce singing "Learn To Be Lonely" live at the 2005 Oscars with Lloyd Webber on piano, "Where Did the Rock Go?" by Florence Andrews from the London cast of "School of Rock," and "The Beauty Underneath" by Ben Lewis from the Australian Cast album of "Love Never Dies." I won't go so far as to say they're all as good as the originals (I personally would have liked to have some cuts from the original albums of "Starlight Express"), but it's nice to see that Webber's music is being recognized by the current generation of singers.
The companion book is a fun feature, and while it would have been nice to have the song lyrics as well, it does include the full track list, with brief liner notes on each song, as well as reminisces from artists like Elaine Paige, Michael Crawford, and Tim Rice, among others, about Webber's music, and good wishes for his 70th birthday.
While there is no question that the 4-disc set is a must-buy over the 2-disc version, my only caveat is the terrible packaging. The discs are stacked lightly atop each other in circular plastic slots on the interior flaps of the box, with not even a central spindle to keep them in place. When they arrived, two had already fallen out, and while fortunately they weren't scratched, I can't foresee wanting to store them this way for the long-term.
Nonetheless, for long-time ALW fans or those just discovering him, I can't think of a better way to celebrate his 70th birthday and his distinguished career than by savoring this thoroughly enjoyable box set.
The 60 collection does not seem to mention a remastering being done with that release. Worth the purchase for the remastering job alone. Enjoy.