Bax: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, Into the Twilight; Summer Music. David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.557144.

Where would we be without Chandos and Naxos? Well, we wouldn't have much of Sir Arnold Bax, that's for sure. The British composer (1883-1953) was at one time well represented in the catalogue by EMI and Lyrita, but today it's almost entirely Chandos and Naxos. While the former label may offer slightly better sound, it's the Naxos label that provides the bargains.

Naxos set out some years ago to record all seven of Bax's symphonies and as many of his short works as possible, most or all of them with conductor David Lloyd-Jones. So far as I can tell, Lloyd-Jones has done all of the symphonies now, and I believe he's done most of the tone poems as well.

Lloyd-Jones performs the Symphony No. 6 (1935) with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and they do it at least as well as what we heard in previous Naxos editions, meaning with plenty of Celtic atmosphere. That is what Bax is all about, of course--Celtic atmosphere. With No. 6 we get it in spades, from the mercurial opening movement with its tempestuous mood swings to the lilting slow movement and the stormy finale, which finally fades gently, tranquilly away. Bax himself claimed that the Sixth was his favorite of all the symphonies, and critics have generally agreed. What's more, while Bax shows us that he's clearly a Romantic at heart, there is yet a good deal of the modern twentieth century in there as well. There's even some Scottish folk music, a bit of jazz, and a pair of marches thrown around for good measure, so the music offers a little something for everyone. Lloyd-Jones and his Royal Scottish players capture not only the atmosphere but its many contrasts as well, the conductor always sensitive to the nuances of the music.

Personally, however, being the Philistine that I am, I prefer Bax's briefer tone poems to his longer symphonies because I think he conveys a more concentrated feeling for his subject matter in the shorter pieces. Frankly, I long ago began to tire of Bax's symphonies, as they began sounding too much alike for my taste, even though the composer seemed to shake things up well enough with No. 6 to keep my attention. Understand, I don't really dislike Bax's symphonies; it's just that I find his tone poems, such as the two contained on this disc, get more quickly to the heart of matters and, therefore, keep me more interested and intrigued. I suppose it's all a question of personal taste, and Bax may be an acquired one. Besides, to me the symphonies tend to sound like a series of tone poems strung together, anyway, not always with as much cohesion as I'd prefer. For example, although Bax breaks the Sixth Symphony into three official movements, he further divides the final movement into what are actually four distinct segments.

Whatever, the accompanying works, "Into the Twilight" and "Summer Music," are both delightfully descriptive and evocative, and Lloyd-Jones does them as well as anybody. The conductor and orchestra have an obvious affinity for Bax's music, and it's always a pleasure hearing them.

Naxos released the present disc in 2003, and their sound seems to me even better than in their previous Bax recordings. As before, it's big, bold, warm sound, the bass never actually reaching the lowest octaves but probably not needing to. There is a rich lower midrange that maybe obscures a little of what could have been greater depth and transparency, but the result makes for easy, comfortable, concert hall-style listening.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (HQCD review)

Also, Fidelio Overture. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD374.

Quite a while ago--in the Seventies, actually--I compiled a magazine article on the favorite recordings of audiophile friends and acquaintances. I asked each of several dozen music critics, hi-fi store owners, and audiophiles to send me their lists of five-to-ten favorite LP's, and it somewhat surprised me that the final list I put together contained several references to Fritz Reiner's Beethoven Sixth for RCA. It surprised me because although I had always admired the performance, I had never thought the recording was very good. Some years later, things changed.

The first time I heard Reiner's recording of the Sixth, it was on RCA's first LP. It didn't sound good. A few years later RCA reissued it on a lower-priced LP, and it sounded even worse, this time with surface noise. Around 1990 or so, RCA released the recording on CD, and I had high hopes. Well, at least the noise had disappeared, but as I remember it still sounded rather thin and vague to me. By the late Nineties I had high hopes that RCA would remaster the recording in their "Living Stereo" CD series, but that didn't happen (or if it did, it escaped my attention). Then came JVC to the rescue in 2002 with an XRCD audiophile remaster. Finally, I could hear the performance in good, high-quality sound. The only problem was the price of the disc: very costly and out of the reach of a lot of listeners.

Now, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) has come out with their remaster, sounding almost as good as the JVC but at half or less the cost. HDTT offer a full range of physical product and digital downloads in a variety of formats from the HQCD I reviewed to FLAC, DSD 64 and 128, DXD 24 bit/352.8 kHz, 24bit/192kHz, 24bit/96kHz, CD's, DVD's, you name it. Phew! Something for everybody, and still at prices lower than the hard-to-get JVC product.

Anyway, let's look at the performance, which Reiner led in 1961. Critics often accused Reiner of being too strict with his tempos (he was certainly a strict disciplinarian when it came to leading an orchestra), but here we see no signs of that. While he keeps things moving along at a healthy clip, it's true, there's also a good deal of flexibility in his control. The first-movement Allegro, for instance, is quick and taut but unhurried, too ("ma non troppo," as Beethoven indicates). These are "cheerful impressions upon arriving in the countryside," after all, and that's the way Reiner carries it off--cheerfully.

Under Reiner the second-movement "Scene by the Brook" is properly bucolic and serene, a lovely day in the peace and quiet of rural fields, woods, and streams. When the peasants carry on their merrymaking in the third movement, they do so with a minimum of riotous rambunctiousness. This is no drunken orgy but a group of friends and neighbors enjoying one another's company in gaiety and dance. As such, Reiner holds a fairly tight rein on the rhythms, allowing them to develop and open up smoothly and naturally.

Finally, we come to the storm that briefly opens up in the afternoon and the "Shepherd's Hymn of Thanksgiving" that follows the outburst. Again, Reiner handles both extremes with elegance, power, and restraint. The storm is aptly explosive, and the hymn is pleasantly optimistic, though not exactly inspirational. Indeed, it is only in this final section that I find Reiner just a little too rigid, but his ending is nevertheless in full accordance with everything that's gone before.

For me, there have long been only three top choices in the "Pastoral Symphony": Karl Bohm's genial performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG; Bruno Walter's happily assertive rendering with the Columbia Symphony, now on Sony; and Reiner's under review. For secondary alternatives to these, one might consider the more leisurely views of Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia or Eugen Jochum and the London Symphony, both on EMI. But, really, Reiner's is as good as or better than any of them.

For a bonus (not found on the JVC disc), we get Reiner's interpretation of Beethoven's Fidelio Overture. It's a straightforward, almost austere, but surely authoritative reading. It reminds me of Reiner's handling of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: an ardent, no-holds-barred account; an old-fashioned locomotive blazing down the tracks at full steam, yet always under perfect management.

The talented RCA team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the music in April 1961 at Chicago Symphony Hall, and HDTT transferred it to the HQCD I reviewed from an RCA 4-track tape in 2014. First I listened to the entire symphony on my primary Sony CD player. Afterwards, I put the JVC XRCD I mentioned earlier into my Yamaha machine, adjusted the two discs for the same gain, and compared the HDTT and JVC products side-by-side.

At first during the comparison, I'd swear I couldn't hear any differences. Then, as my ears became more attuned to the sound of the two discs I began hearing subtle distinctions. The HDTT seemed very slightly softer, warmer, more rounded; the JVC marginally clearer, cleaner, better focused. Further along I began to wonder if the JVC wasn't producing a wider dynamic range; it did sound a tad louder to me at certain points. So, I took a decibel meter and measured the variance between the softest and loudest passages on both discs; sure enough, the JVC did show a decibel or two more range. But these differences were so small that unless I had had the two discs playing next to one another, I would never have guessed that they weren't identical.

Again, I want to emphasize the price differential of the two albums: If you can find the JVC product, it will set you back anywhere from $50 to $150. The HDTT will cost you anywhere from $8 to $36, depending on the format you choose. That is a real difference, and the HDTT disc will sound big, full, natural, detailed, transparent, and dynamic. Sounds like a deal to me for a practically unbeatable performance. Nice cover picture, too.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

La Valse (CD review)

Piano music of Ravel and Scriabin. Sean Chen, piano. Steinway & Sons 30029.

When musicians do solo albums they often try to tie things together with some kind of unifying theme for the subject matter. Sometimes it's as all-encompassing as a simple recital of favorite tunes, and at other times, such as here, it's narrower, more specific. In this case, pianist Sean Chen has chosen to concentrate on the period of 1900-1914 and composers Aleksandr Scriabin and Maurice Ravel. Why 1900-1914? As historian Philipp Blom notes: It was a "period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves." It was also obviously a time of transition in the classical-music world, from the late-Romantic era to the early modern age, and the music of both Scriabin and Ravel reflect this major shift.

Anyway, the star of the show is American pianist Sean Chen (b. 1988), winner of the American Pianists Association's DeHaan Classical Fellowship, one of the most lucrative and significant prizes available to an American pianist; Third Prize at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first American to reach the finals since 1997; and numerous other prizes and awards. The album under review, La Valse, marks Chen's second appearance as a soloist on CD, and a very fine appearance it is.

Things begin with the Valse in A flat major, Op. 38, by the Russian composer and pianist Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915). Now, understand, not all of the music on the program may be to everyone's taste (these are not traditional Strauss-type waltzes, after all), but each piece is appealing and significant in its own way. Above all, one notices Chen's gentle, sensitive, yet persuasive touch with them. This first item is a good example, starting off very tenderly, full of grace and poise, then accelerating into grand passions before gradually fading back into misty silences. It's a convenient summing up of the Romantic tradition gradually shifting into the twentieth century, though resisting changes along the way.

Next, we turn to the Menuet antique by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The "antique minuet" is an intentional misnomer, of course, wherein Ravel uses the older musical form to compose something actually quite new. Chen captures the composer's swirling modern harmonies beautifully, again with a light enough touch and fluid enough refinement to accentuate the contrasts and enough full-throated energy and all-out vivacity to point up the more-exciting parts. Delightful.

And so it goes through six more selections: Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30, and Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; and Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn, Prelude, and La Valse. Of these, it's La Valse I'd like to single out most particularly. As you probably know, Ravel originally published the work for orchestra, where it received a successful Paris premiere in 1920. At the same time the composer prepared versions of it for solo piano and two pianos, but the arrangement Chen has chosen to perform is his own, made from several of Ravel's different scores. A very good one it is, too.

La valse is, in fact, an ideal summing up of the album's theme of change. The music begins with its feet clearly in the nineteenth century, elegant and romantic, and then slowly transforms into a demonic "dance macabre." Some critics have suggested that this change in the music's tone alludes to the destruction of societal values and civility that resulted from the horrors of World War I. In any case, Chen's arrangement and playing of the piece clarifies this purpose, and if Ravel did intend the score to exemplify a breakdown in Western society, Chen skillfully carries out this function as he transitions effortlessly from one mood to another. As he does with all of the selections on the album, he plays it extraordinarily well, with grace and virtuosity.

Producer Dan Mercurio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in September 2013. As usual with a production made at Sono Luminus, the sound is excellent. The Steinway D piano comes through with a fine transparency and solid definition, while maintaining a fairly resonant bloom. Transient response and dynamic impact are especially impressive, and while the instrument itself is just a tad close for my personal taste, one cannot deny its realistic presence.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.