Ravel: Bolero (UltraHD review)

Also, Loussier: Nympheas. Jacques Loussier Trio. FIM LIM UHD 079 LE.

Quick: Is it classical jazz or jazzy classical?

That's the question listeners have been asking of the Jacques Loussier Trio for the past fifty-odd years. Loussier and his jazzmen have been bringing us their renditions of popular classical tunes for a long time. Combining classical and jazz in really good recordings, they have also long been an audiophile's delight. The jazz ensemble has done Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Handel, Mozart, Ravel, Satie, Vivaldi, Schumann, you name it, and they've sold a ton of albums over the years. If you like what they do, this is another album that will please their fans, the disc sounding better than ever in its new remastering.

Pianist Jacques Loussier has worked with several different trio partners in his time. The present album lists the lineup here as Loussier on piano, Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac on bass, and Andre Arpino on drums. Loussier made the Bolero album for Telarc in 1999, and FIM (First Impression Music) and LIM (Lasting Impression Music) remastered it to audiophile standards in 2014 using their UltraHD and PureFlection technologies. With a warhorse like Bolero and a coupling of Loussier's own creation, though, this one may be toss-up for many listeners. But, then, there's the sound, about which there is little question: Audiophiles may want it for demo purposes alone.

Anyway, the program begins with a jazzy take on Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). After initially writing a part of it for piano, the composer asked a friend asked to listen to it, saying "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." Most recordings of it last between twelve and eighteen minutes, the score indicating a Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"), and the composer preferred it taken fairly slow and steady. In a 1931 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ravel went so far as to say the piece lasts seventeen minutes. He would even criticize conductors (like Toscanini) who took it too fast or conductors who sped up toward the end. I mention this because Loussier and his pals take it at just a few seconds over seventeen minutes.

Not that Loussier's rendition actually sounds a lot like the orchestral version Ravel envisioned or even the solo or two-piano arrangements of it. Still, that's OK; Bolero apparently has more uses in it than a Swiss Army Knife. Loussier's arrangement maintains Ravel's rhythms while seemingly improvising on the melody in new and, well, jazzy ways. So, yes, you still get the full flavor of Ravel's familiar number, and you get an all-new jazz rendering of it thrown in, with the cymbal and later the snare drum leading the way. It's like two for the price of one: Buy one, get one free. Remarkably, it's all highly musical and eminently listenable as well, thanks to the expert musicianship of the players.

Jacques Loussier
Coupled with Bolero is a seven-movement piece called Nympheas ("Water Lilies"), composed by Loussier himself. Loussier based the music on paintings by the French impressionist Claude Monet depicting Monet's flower garden at Giverny. It's important that the colors of the music at least somewhat remind us of the colors and nuances of the impressionistic paintings.

I found Loussier's Nympheas even the more compelling than his Bolero, perhaps because as good as Loussier's Bolero is, I've already heard it done enough different times in enough different ways to last a lifetime. With Nympheas we get a rich assortment of graceful lines, gentle beauty, and refreshing energy. The movements alternate a contemplative tranquility with a lively power, producing some fascinating and wholly engrossing results.

As usual for FIM/LIM, the disc comes packaged in a glossy, hard-cardboard fold-over case, the disc itself housed in a static-proof inner jacket, further enclosed in a bound paper sleeve, along with a twelve-page set of notes, text, and pictures.

Jacques Loussier and his ensemble originally recorded the album in 1998 for Telarc Records at Studio Grande Armee, Palais des Congre's, Paris. FIM/LIM producer Winston Ma and Five/Four Productions engineer Robert Friedrich remastered the album in 32-bit Ultra High Definition and PureFlection replication processing.

The clarity and definition on this disc are a joy to hear. Highs sound extremely well extended, clear and vibrant. Lows are appropriately robust. And midrange transparency is exemplary. Moreover, transient response is quick, the dynamic impact is solid, and the ambient hall resonance is lifelike. In essence, you have three musicians in the room with you, piano center, percussion right, bass very slightly left. Yet the stereo spread is not so great as to exaggerate the players' positions. They appear, in fact, well clustered between the speakers. As far as concerns FIM/LIM's remastering, the sound is clearer and more dynamic than ever, the aforementioned transparency all the more evident.

JJP

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

Copland: Appalachian Spring (CD review)

Also, Clarinet Concerto; Quiet City; Three Latin-American Sketches. Laura Arden, clarinet; Paul Gambill, Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.559069.

It must be something in the air in Nashville. A month or so before reviewing this disc about a decade ago, I sat down and listened to one of the most lively and sparkling renditions of West Side Story I'd ever heard, done by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Then I listened to the present Nashville recording, one of the best compilations of music by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) around, this time done by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. I don't know what's going on in Nashville, but I hope Naxos continues to record there for a while.

Maestro Paul Gambill's collection of Copland material with the Nashville ensemble focuses on the more contemplative side of the composer, although it opens with three short Latin-American Sketches (1972) that are quite colorful and done up in lively style. The main things, though, start with the Clarinet Concerto (1950), written expressly for Benny Goodman, who subsequently admitted he was afraid to play it, fearing he wasn't up to doing it justice; but he did play and record it, frequently. The piece takes up first in a surprisingly but beautifully melancholy, romantic mood and then lightens up, becomes playful and jazzy, and finally turns slightly Latin in mood. Gambill has the measure of it, and clarinetist Laura Arden is a charmer.

Copland wrote Quiet City (1940) for a play that never opened, but the composer salvaged a suite from it that in this recording sounds deeply felt, reflective of silent streets and hushed nighttimes in the city, apparently a period of day about which Copland had strong ties. Gambill and his players capture the mood nicely.

Paul Gambill
Then, the album ends with the composer's suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring (1944), where Copland's own notion of Americana meets the old Quaker tune "Simple Gifts." Interestingly, the booklet note says that it was Appalachian Spring "that made Copland the first American composer to win global recognition and popularity." I guess Gershwin didn't count, or Gottschalk or Joplin or Coleridge-Taylor or Chadwick or Sousa or MacDowell or Beach or Herbert or Ives or.... Whatever, Maestro Gambill handles the piece with an appropriate sweetness and repose.

The Nashville Chamber Orchestra plays all of this with faultless skill, if perhaps not doing it quite as deftly as Copland himself or Bernstein did in their Sony (Columbia) recordings or Tilson Thomas on RCA. Certainly, however, the Nashville ensemble plays with just as much sensitivity and enthusiasm, and that counts for a lot.

The recording, which Naxos released in 2002, sounds superbly balanced, the frequency range understandably not reaching down too far as these are essentially chamber pieces, after all. The clarity, left-to-right imaging, and overall tone of the sound, however, appear on a par with the best recordings the folks at Naxos have ever provided us. With over an hour of genuinely classic and classy music presented by a classy orchestra in classy sonics, the disc seems inspired.

JJP

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


Greene: Overtures (CD review)

Garry Clarke, Baroque Band. Cedille Records CDR 90000 152.

Maurice Greene. Maurice who? Maurice Greene. Oh.

Some of you may recognize the name of the English composer and organist Dr. Maurice Greene (1696-1755). I did not. I had to dig into the disc's booklet notes to find out more about him. Turns out, according to conductor Garry Clarke who wrote the notes, "he was one of the most important figures in English musical history in the 18th century. Yet he is little known today and his instrumental pieces are rarely performed." Indeed, I can attest to that.

Greene became organist at the Chapel Royal in 1727 and Professor of Music at Cambridge University in 1730. Then, in 1735 the Crown appointed him Master of the King's Musick. So, yes, he was an important guy back when.

Mostly, Greene composed choral music, verse anthems, oratorios, operas, and some keyboard music. Here, we get some of instrumental music, his Six Overtures in Seven Parts, written originally in 1745 in an arrangement "for harpsichord or spinet" and first published in 1750. Clarke tells us that they display a quintessential Englishness while recognizing the 'new' Italian style being imported" at the time. He further tells us "the overtures are charming and delightful, with whistleable melodies, easy harmony, and inventive counterpoint. They conjure up the charm of the English countryside and the frivolity of the English 18th century."

Certainly, Maestro Clarke and his ensemble, the Baroque Band, which he founded in 2007, do their best to conjure up delights. And they do so in a most elegant fashion. This is no Raggedy-Annie period orchestra but a rich, polished, finely tuned group of performers. In fact, if anything, they may appear too polished compared to some of the historically informed groups we've gotten used to over the last half century or so. Still, they are a joy to hear, and they do bring the music to life with liveliness and gusto.

The overtures, of course, are not really "overtures" as we think of them today; that is, they are not introductions to something else, as in opera overtures. Instead, these are Baroque overtures: miniature suites alternating fast and slow movements (in this case, three or four movements each). However, one could view the little opening movements as opera overtures in themselves, and they contain a good deal of buoyant charm.

Garry Clarke
Probably the most important aspect of Clarke's performances with Baroque Band, besides the enthusiastically elegant playing I alluded to earlier, is their ability to keep one listening. OK, much of this latter quality we have to attribute to the composer and his music, but you also know that Baroque music can sometimes become a bit wearying if there's too much of it repeated at the same time. I mean, no one is sure about just how the composer intended people to listen to his overtures: all at once or one or two at a time. I worried that I might find listening to all six at the same time something of a chore, my not being a dedicated Baroque fan. Nevertheless, every overture is significantly different from the others, some sounding like Bach, some like Handel or Vivaldi, but mostly sounding like Greene. So listening to them all at once (with only a brief break toward the middle for a quick snack) proved more fun, at least the way Clarke and company present them, than I anticipated.

In addition to the overtures, there are five more, very brief items: Pieces in C minor, A minor, and G minor from Lessons for the Harpsichord, and overtures to Phoebe and St. Cecilia. They are all lovely in their own way, with my own delight going out for the harpsichord.

Producer Jim Ginsburg and ace engineer Bill Maylone recorded the overtures in 2010-2014 at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois; at College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; and at Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio at 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, Illinois. To my ears, the sound is a trifle bright in the upper midrange, but it's extremely clear and well detailed. And for all I know, this slight forwardness may be exactly what the ensemble sounded like in the particular recording venues represented. In any case, played back at a realistic level, there is a wide stereo spread to the sound, good depth and dimensionality, a quick transient response, and pretty good frequency extension. A modest hall resonance adds a further degree of realism to the presentation.

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.