Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also Ruckert-Lieder. Christine Schafer, soprano; Christoph Eschenbach, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Capriccio 5026.

The First and Fourth Symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) are his shortest and most-accessible symphonies; moreover, they are today among the most-popular pieces of music ever written. Thus, we would expect a good deal of competition in the marketplace for recordings of them. And such is the case, given the dozens of alternative discs available. I mean, you know it's going to be tough sledding for any newcomer, like this 2010 Capriccio release of the Symphony No. 1 from conductor Christoph Eschenbach, even at its low, budget price.

How well, then, does the Eschenbach entry stack up against budget issues from Barbirolli, Bernstein, Bohm, Davis, de Waart, Judd, Kubelik, Leaper, Maazel, Mehta, Muti, Rattle, Slatkin, Solti, Szell, Wit, Zinman, and a host of others, all of them priced at or below the cost of this Capriccio disc? I'm happy to report it more than holds its own. And it benefits from a new digital recording that is robust, with dead-silent backgrounds.

Under Eschenbach, the symphony's opening moments--all mists and clouds before the sunrise--doesn't carry quite the mystery that, say, Georg Solti's LSO performance does, but Eschenbach never rushes it, and it unfolds pretty well. Here, Nature bursts forth in Her own good time as the sun eventually rises and shines on hill and dale. Mahler said he never intended his symphony to be another pictorial tone poem like those of his contemporary, Richard Strauss, yet comparisons are inevitable, and people have always liked their own literal explanations for the work.

The second movement has a wonderfully bucolic flavor to it, well projected by Eschenbach. In fact, the conductor probably overdoes the country atmosphere, making it too pronounced, too exaggerated. Still, it comes off pleasantly enough.

Mahler's third movement is one of his more bizarre creations, beginning with the familiar "Frere Jacques" tune but proceeding more slowly than usual in keeping with the mood Eschenbach has established for the rest of the performance. Then, the whole orchestra takes up the tune in overlapping style. I always think of this part of the music as representing a rustic Jewish wedding, but afterwards Mahler follows it with a dirgelike funeral march, representative perhaps a huntsman's burial. Even though it's all a bit weird, it's indicative of the kind of parody Mahler would repeat over and again in later symphonies.

The finale has the unenviable job of bringing all the symphony's divergent parts together, which it does with commendable drama and energy. Eschenbach manages to produce an altogether relaxed reading, comforting and joyous, yet heroic in the end. Combined with the five little Ruckert Songs, pleasingly sung by soprano Christine Schafer, the album makes a worthy contribution to a crowded field.

In terms of sound, the Capriccio  audio engineers captured some good orchestral depth in this 2008 recording, with fairly good definition and detail. There are clear, if slightly hard, highs; deep, authoritative lows; strong impact; and quick transients. There is also a small degree of veiling in the midrange but no more than a person might hear during a live concert.

While Eschenbach's Capriccio disc may not have quite the animation nor quite the transparency of some rival recordings, it displays a good deal of charm and provides an appropriate introduction to the Mahler symphonies to come. Not a bad price, either.

JJP

Anna Netrebko: In the Still of Night (CD review)

Anna Netrebko, soprano; Daniel Barenboim, piano.  DG 477 8867.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is one of today's reigning stars of the opera world. She certainly must be doing something right because this current album of largely Russian songs, In the Still of Night, marks something like the twentieth-plus compact disc the folks at DG have released of her singing. Not only that, she has celebrated pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim accompanying her.

What's even more, DG have given the album a most royal treatment. The single disc comes housed not in an ordinary jewel box but in a special, superdeluxe CD book, with a fifty-odd page insert bound between hard covers, the disc itself sliding into a stiff cardboard sleeve attached near the rear of the case. The package is the size and thickness of a regular CD jewel box but is much more elaborate. And more costly.

In the recital, Ms. Netrebko sings primarily songs by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1900) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), twenty of them altogether. Then, to conclude the program, she sings two encores, Antonin Dvorak's Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55, No. 4, and Richard Strauss's Cacilie, Op. 27, No. 2. The complete album lasts well over an hour.

As always, Ms. Netrebko sings radiantly, elegantly, investing each song with an appropriate degree of intensity, drama, and passion. Yet there is an extra poignancy, too, in the songs themselves. They have a bittersweet character about them, Ms. Netrebko explaining that they represent the Russian soul, which knows melancholy. Certainly, Daniel Barenboim accompanies her most eloquently on piano, the two of them making a fine team effort of the works. This is music of high Romanticism, and the performers' attitudes and performances reflect the generally high quality of the pieces.

DG recorded the recital live at the Salzburg Festival in August, 2009, where by all accounts Netrebko and Barenboim were smash hits. The audio engineers place the piano and voice somewhat to the left of center, which may help replicate the live experience but seems a little disconcerting for home listening. The voice rings true, with little or no edge or hardness, while the piano exhibits a pleasantly resonant bloom, also representative of a live performance. The audience, in the meantime, behaves itself, remaining fairly quiet during the songs (indeed, seemingly giving the performers their rapt attention), although their applause after every piece becomes a bit disruptive and annoying after a while.

The extensive booklet, by the way, contains black-and-white and color pictures of the Salzburg event and its participants, several essays on the music and composers involved, an interview with Ms. Netrebko, and the full text of each of the songs. As I say, it's an extraordinarily fancy affair.

JJP

Who's Conducting Which Orchestra?

A guide to who is currently conducting some of the world's leading orchestras.

Like me, you probably have a hard time keeping track of who is conducting what orchestra. So, here is a list of some of the world's leading orchestras and their current conductors. If you hear of a change, please forward it to me (pucciojj@gmail.com) to help keep the list updated.

Also, my apologies if I did not include your favorite orchestra. For simple housekeeping reasons, I tried to keep the list as concise as possible. However, I'm sure I overlooked somebody important, and I am open to suggestions.

Last updated: January 5, 2014.

Academy of Ancient Music - Richard Egarr
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Joshua Bell
Albany Symphony Orchestra - David Alan Miller
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - Robert Spano
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - Marin Alsop
Bamberg Symphony - Jonathan Nott
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - Maris Jansons
Bavarian State Orchestra - Kirill Petrenko
BBC Symphony Orchestra - Sakari Oramo
Berlin Philharmonic - Sir Simon Rattle
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra - Marek Janowski
Boston Baroque - Martin Pearlman
Boston Pops Orchestra - Keith Lockhart
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - Kirill Karabits
Budapest Festival Orchestra - Iván Fischer
Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra - Rico Saccani
Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Guest conductors only
Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Riccardo Muti
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra - John Morris Russell
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra - Louis Langree
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - Andris Nelsons
Cleveland Orchestra - Franz Welser-Möst
Concentus Musicus Wien - Nicholas Harnoncourt
Czech Philharmonic - Jiri Belohlavek
Dallas Symphony Orchestra - Jaap van Zweden
Detroit Symphony Orchestra - Leonard Slatkin
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Tugan Sokhiev
Dresden Staatskapelle - Christian Thielemann
English Chamber Orchestra - Paul Watkins
English Concert - Harry Bicket
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (hr-Sinfonieorchester) - Paavo Jarvi
Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne - Markus Stenz
Halle Orchestra - Sir Mark Elder
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra - John Storgards
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra - Thomas Wilkins
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra - Jaap van Zweden
Houston Symphony - Andres Orozco-Estrada
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra - Zoltan Kocsis
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra - Zubin Mehta
Kansas City Symphony - Michael Stern
Konzerthausorchester Berlin - Ivan Fischer
Lahti Symphony Orchestra - Okko Kamu
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra - Riccardo Chailly
London Philharmonic Orchestra - Vladimir Jurowski
London Symphony Orchestra - Valery Gergiev
Los Angeles Philharmonic - Gustavo Dudamel
Madrid Symphony Orchestra - Jesús López Cobos
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (Kirov Orchestra) - Valery Gergiev
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra - Fabio Luisi
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra - Edo de Waart
Minnesota Orchestra - No current music director
Montreal Symphony Orchestra - Kent Nagano
Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra - Gianluigi Gelmetti
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra - Lorin Maazel
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra - Yuri Simonov
National Symphony Orchestra, México - Carlos Miguel Prieto
National Symphony Orchestra, United States - Christoph Eschenbach
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra Hamburg - Thomas Hengelbrock
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra - Markus Stenz
New Century Chamber Orchestra - Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
New York Philharmonic - Alan Gilbert
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra - Pietari Inkinen
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande - Neeme Jarvi
Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Antonio Pappano
Orchestre de Paris - Paavo Jarvi
Orchestra La Monnaie Brussels - Ludovic Morlot
Orchestre National de France - Daniele Gatti
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - Rotating leadership
Oslo Philharmonic - Vasily Petrenko
Philadelphia Orchestra - Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Philharmonia Baroque - Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia Orchestra - Esa-Pekka Salonen
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Manfred Honeck
Prague Chamber Orchestra - Guest conductors only
Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra - Arild Remmereit
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra - Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Mariss Jansons
Royal Danish Orchestra - Michael Boder
Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra - Edo de Waart
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra - Vasily Petrenko
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Charles Dutoit
Royal Scottish National Orchestra - Peter Oundjian
Russian National Orchestra - Mikhail Pletnev
Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra - Yuri Temirkanov
San Francisco Symphony - Michael Tilson Thomas
Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Robin Ticciati
Seattle Symphony - Ludovic Morlot
Singapore Symphony Orchestra - Lan Shui
Staatskapelle Weimar - Stefan Solyom
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra - David Robertson
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra - Stephane Deneve
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra - Daniel Harding
Sydney Symphony Orchestra - David Robertson
Teatro alla Scala Orchestra - Daniel Barenboim
Tonhalle Orchester Zurich - Lionel Bringuier
Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra - Yoichiro Omachi
Utah Symphony Orchestra - Thierry Fischer
Vienna Philharmonic - Guest conductors only
Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra - Jacek Kaspszyk
WDR Symphony Orchestra - Jukka Pekka Saraste

JJP

Cedille Records Offers CD-Quality Downloads

Cedille Records, Chicago's Grammy Award-winning independent classical record label, has begun selling CD-quality digital downloads of its albums as of April 20 via its Web site, http://www.cedillerecords.org.

The downloads, utilizing the FLAC audio format, are priced at $10 or less per album.

The FLAC format, which stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, yields compressed sound files with all of the data--and audio fidelity--of the original compact disc, compared to "lossy" compression methods such as MP3.

According to the FLAC Web site (http://flac.sourceforge.net), "this is similar to how Zip works, except with FLAC you will get much better compression because it is designed specifically for audio."

Cedille's new CD-quality downloads are 16-bit, 44.1 kHz FLAC files.

FLAC files can be imported and played directly on a variety of hardware and software media players, such as Winamp for Windows or VLC for Mac. Some players, such as Windows Media Player and Apple's iTunes, require plug-ins to play FLAC files. But FLAC files can always be converted back into original uncompressed .wav files, using free and widely available transcoding software, and played in any media player.

In addition to the new FLAC downloads, Cedille continues to offer all albums in its catalog as unusually high-quality MP3 downloads at twice the bit rate of those sold on most other download sites--256 kbps (kilobits per second) versus the industry standard 128 kbps.

Visitors to Cedille's Web site don't have to download an album at all to get the accompanying CD booklet. They can download a free PDF of the booklet via the CD's Web page before deciding whether to buy the recording.

Cedille (pronounced say-DEE), which embarked on its 20th anniversary season in November, has been selling MP3 album downloads directly to the public from its Web site since May 2008.

Cedille features world-class musicians in and from the Chicago area. The label's catalog has 116 principal CD titles ranging from solo keyboard works to complete symphonies and operas. These include world-premiere recordings and CD premieres of important compositions, plus the commercial recording debuts of some celebrated artists.

The label's newest release is the recording debut of Baroque Band, Chicago's new and highly acclaimed period-instrument ensemble, in works by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Arriving later this month is The Balkan Project, the label's second album with the Cavatina Duo (flutist Eugenia Moliner and guitarist Denis Azabagic). May will bring the world-premiere recording of Beethoven's recently discovered Piano Trio in E-flat, Hess 47, with the Beethoven Project Trio, which gave the world-premiere performance last year in Chicago.

Nathan J. Silverman PR
JJP

Mendelssohn: Octet (CD review)

Also, Boccherini:  Quintet in C major for Cello and Strings, Op. 37, No. 7. Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Decca Originals 475 7716.

Most often the reissues from major studios are self-recommending, especially when they appear in series like EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" or DG and Decca's "Originals." Such is the case here with the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings, Op. 20, played by members of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

The very fact that Decca-Argo recorded it in 1968 and originally released it on the Argo label should be enough to induce music fans to buy it. It was a golden age and a golden label for great recordings.

One of the remarkable things about the Octet is that Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote it in 1825, when he was only sixteen years old, yet it is still one of his most-popular compositions.  Not that this should surprise anybody; while in his teens he wrote a slew of sonatas, quartets, songs, and such, including the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream the year after the Octet, and the Overture, too, remains among the most-popular pieces of music in the world.

Hugh Maguire, Neville Marriner, Iona Brown, and Trevor Connah on violins, Stephen Shingles and Kenneth Essex on violas, and Kenneth Heath and Denis Vigay on cellos perform the Octet. They play immaculately, yet they play with such affection for the music, you'd think they were born to it. There is nothing stodgy here; the performance is light, graceful, spirited, and invigorating by turns. Like its companion piece on the disc, the Boccherini Quintet in C major, it is a total delight.

One listen and you would probably agree with me that there is little difference between the sound of this analogue recording and the sound of any above-average digital recording made today. Indeed, the 1968 sound, somewhat closely miked, is better than most new digital recordings--smooth, clean, quiet, and detailed.

It's hard not to love this album.

JJP

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Maureen McKay, soprano; Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Artek AR-0052-2.

The Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is today probably the composer's most-popular symphony, and, thanks to a revival of the composer's work in the Fifties and Sixties, one of the world's most-popular pieces of classical music. One can understand why: Along with the First, it's the shortest of the symphonies Mahler wrote (even though it's about an hour long); it's scored lightly, making for a most-transparent sound; and it features some lovely, lilting melodies envisioning Man's glimpses of heaven. How can it miss?

Under Maestro Gerard Schwarz, the first movement is sweet and lyrical, with a pleasantly flowing gait, even though the conductor tends to speed up and slow down more suddenly than he needs to. This more-than-flexible rubato, combined with Schwarz creating some pronounced dynamic contrasts, adds a degree of admitted excitement to the proceedings, but one could argue that the music doesn't really need it. Mahler's markings indicate "deliberate and leisurely," and the movement should convey a feeling of simplicity, which Schwarz misses to some small degree.

In the second movement, also marked with "leisurely motion," Schwarz takes Mahler more at his word. It's not a particularly big change of tempo from the preceding movement, but the tone changes considerably. It's now more shrill, introducing us to death and the devil. Mahler never meant the music to be scary, just a little odd, and it's here that Schwarz is at his best, molding a slightly sinister yet reassuring mood.

The third movement Adagio, marked "peacefully," is among Mahler's most heartfelt, yet Schwarz draws it out perhaps more than necessary, overly relying on the sentimentality of the piece.

Then, we come to the fourth and final movement, a vision of heaven as expressed in one of Mahler's favorite folk poems from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Child's Wonderful Horn," or cornucopia of plenty). Soprano Maureen McKay sings the youth's part most affectively, with, in the composer's words, "childlike, serene expression, always without parody"; and Schwarz brings the symphony to a joyous conclusion. My only quibble here is that the recurring sleigh bells, returning from the first movement, burst forth rather vigorously and tend to distract from the serenity of the music.

Artek recorded the sound live at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, and although I have never been too keen on live recordings, this one is quite good, with an especially nice sense of orchestral depth. Be aware, however, that the engineers miked the orchestra at a moderate distance, a little more distant than they would have miked the group in a studio, resulting in an occasionally recessed sound.

Thankfully, there is very little audience noise involved, with the exception of a few strange thumps and bumps in the background. The recording also displays a wide stereo spread and fairly clean delineation. A final quibble, though: The orchestra tends at times almost to swamp the soloist in the final movement.

For me Schwarz fills his performance of the Mahler Fourth with a few too many flourishes and overstatements. While the reading is certainly lively and vital, it does not persuade me that this is how Mahler intended his symphony to sound. I prefer the more straightforward approaches of Bernard Haitink in his second, analogue Concertgebouw recording (Philips) and George Szell in his Cleveland rendition (Sony).

JJP

Passionato: Download Site Launches

April 19, 2010, marked the launch of Passionato, a new destination for classical music connoisseurs on the Web, with an unprecedented catalogue of CD-quality downloads from major and independent labels. Visit Passionato at www.passionato.com.

Passionato is the Web's latest classical-music download site, its aim to thoroughly replicate a "corner record store" experience with a reach far beyond the corner. According to their press release, Passionato offers classical music lovers the largest available collection of CD-quality, DRM-free classical music downloads on the Web. With no subscription, no membership requirements, and nothing to sign-up for, Passionato provides a wide-ranging collection of recordings from major labels (including Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Virgin, and EMI Classics) along with numerous independent labels (such as Naxos, Chandos, Telarc, and BIS).

Designed for classical music lovers, Passionato caters to the entire classical music enthusiast community by offering recordings in digital download form, free of digital rights management (DRM) software, transferable to any portable device, and burnable to CD. Downloads will be offered both as high quality 320kbps DRM-free MP3 files and in the CD-quality lossless FLAC format. The Passionato store will also offer an unprecedented level of recording information made up of original editorial content as well as reviews, profiles, and recording information provided by All Music Guide, Oxford University Press, Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, the Penguin Guide, and Fanfare.  Of course, vitally important to making sure consumers find the artist and repertoire they are looking for from the vast number of recordings now available, Passionato offers the ability to search their extensive catalogue of recordings using multiple fields and intuitive search functionality.

Though the site offers music  in high quality 320-mbps MP3 format, the Passionato store is dedicated to offering customers the easiest and most effective way to experience lossless CD-quality FLAC files from the largest library of such files anywhere, in any genre of music. With unsurpassed sound quality, gapless play, and backwards compatibility (a FLAC file can be used to create an MP3 of any quality for any player), FLAC is the most versatile music format available. Passionato is supporting FLAC because it has become the most widely supported lossless audio codec. Passionato also believes that audiophiles can depend on FLAC for archival-quality digital storage because it is the only open-standards, lossless format unencumbered by patents, and FLAC has been implemented in a wide spectrum of open-source projects.

Opened in a soft-launch phase in February of this year, Passionato has found that FLAC has indeed proven to be the most popular format on the site, representing nearly two-thirds of total sales.  Passionato also offers a free player that can play MP3 and FLAC files. Created for Passionato by MediaMonkey, the Passionato Player can play files and arrange a library as well as sync up to devices like iPods and all mobile phones. All MP3 tracks purchased on the Passionato service can also be played and stored on popular music players such as iTunes (and iPod), Windows Media, and Real Player. FLAC files can be played on a variety of players, including the Passionato Player by MediaMonkey. For Mac users, Passionato has asked MacWorld writer Kirk McElhern to create a guide for downloading and converting FLAC files into the Apple Lossless format that can then be played on iTunes and transferred to Apple's music-playing devices, like iPods, iPhones, and iPads.

"Passionato is a classical boutique founded and run by the very audience it aims to serve," says Passionato founder James Glicker. "I wanted to have a place where I could access, search and organize CD-quality downloads of virtually any classical recording available, now about 40,000 and counting, in a way that provides complete information, a comprehensive catalogue, and intuitive search--basically everything the classical collector needs. I believe we have done just that. No other site can offer what Passionato can."

Passionato Partners with Gramophone
Passionato launches with a partnership with Gramophone magazine, one of the preeminent classical music brands. Passionato will be the sole downloading partner for Gramophone. This relationship includes Gramophone and Passionato linking to new and archival reviews on Gramophone.net, as well as reviews found in Gramophone magazine.  "Since our first edition in 1923, Gramophone has embraced every technological development that has brought classical music enthusiasts closer to the greatest performances," says Gramophone's Martin Cullingford. "The Internet is the natural extension of that – both through downloading, which offers more music than you could listen to in a lifetime at the click of a button, or by allowing Gramophone to reach an ever-wider audience through news, features, our forum and our digital archive. It's the music itself of course --the artists, the composers, the recordings--that always remains our central focus. Passionato.com--with more than 300,000 classical music tracks from the world's leading labels--draws all this together in a download shop designed for, and by, classical music enthusiasts, which is why we're very happy to be partnering with them." Visit Passionato at www.passionato.com

The People at Passionato
Passionato was founded by James Glicker, an American music industry legend who has worked in all aspects of the business in such  diverse posts as first President/CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (where, among other accomplishments, he appointed Marin Alsop as Music Director); President of MusicNow (now part of Napster); and head of worldwide marketing at BMG Classics (now part of Sony Classics).

Rebecca Davis Public Relations
JJP

Bryn Terfel: Bad Boys (CD review)

Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone; Paul Daniel, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. DG B0014107-02.

One look at Terfel's mug on the cover and you understand the title of the album, Bad Boys. Sylvester Stallone could have recruited him for The Expendables, and he'd have been right at home with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny Trejo, and the rest.

Most music lovers recognize and love the Welsh bass-baritone Bryon Terfel for his many stage roles and dozens of recordings over the past several decades. Since he often sings the parts of tough guys or villains, it must have been a natural for him to record this album of nefarious opera characters, with conductor Paul Daniel and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in April of 2009. I imagine it must have been fun for him, too.

The disc begins with Terfel as Satan himself in Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele. Later in the program Terfel shows up again as Mephistopheles in Charles Gounod's Faust. So you can't say he shies away from the most diabolical characters in musical literature.

Also in the set, we hear from Giacomo Puccini's Scarpia in Tosca, Gaetano Donizetti's Dulcamara in L'elisir d'amore, Giuseppe Verdi's Iago in Otello, Carl Maria von Weber's Kaspar in Der Freischutz, Amilcare Ponchielli's Barnaba in La gioconda, Gioachino Rossini's Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Ludwig van Beethoven's Pizarro in Fidelio, and, closing the show in a tour-de-force manner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni, Il Commendatore, and Leporello in Don Giovanni, all three roles sung in different voice characterizations.

Augmenting the more-traditional opera parts, Terfel takes on several additional musical villains like the ghost Roderic in Gilbert and Sullivan's Rudigore, the relentless policemen Javert in Claude-Michel Schonberg's Les Miserables, and the murderous Mack the Knife in Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenper. If any one of the characters comes up a little less persuasively, it's Terfel's Sportin' Life from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, but the singer more than makes up for it with an outstanding Sweeney Todd from Stephen Sondheim's musical of the same name (featuring a cameo by Anne Sofie von Otter).

Terfel hasn't just a good voice, he's a good dramatic actor as well, and he seems to relish these roles as heavies, investing them with some seriously venomous evil. Indeed, he is equally at home in Mozart or Rossini as in Sullivan or Sondheim. Listening to him in a complete opera might be more appealing in the long run, but these bits and pieces are enjoyable enough.

The DG audio engineers place Terfel center stage (except in a few notable instances), with the orchestra well spread out behind and around him. The voice, while clear and clean, is never too big, hard, or edgy but perfectly smooth and natural. The orchestral sound comes through with admirable but never overpowering dynamics, a reasonable degree of clarity, and a few solid bass wallops.

JJP

Chopin: Nocturnes (CD review)

Complete Nocturnes Nos. 1-18; 19-21 (posth.). Yundi, piano. EMI 50999 6 08391 1.

Pianist Yundi is a Chinese musical prodigy, who in 2000 became the youngest person ever to win the International Frederic Chopin Competition. After making several recordings with DG, this is his first release with EMI, the complete Chopin Nocturnes, including the three posthumous titles.

A few questions, though, before we begin: How is it that China produces so many talented young musicians? They surely must put a lot more stock in serious music than America does. And the musicians are always such attractive people, making for handsome album covers; it can't hurt sales. Second, why do so many artists insist on using only a single name?  It seems a pretentious affectation to me: Liberace, Cher, and the like. At least violinist Nigel Kennedy has seen the light and gone back to using his full name, all the better for it. OK, maybe Yundi is now using only the one name on the advice of his publicist or his new record company. Li Yundi (or Yundi Li) still sounds better to me, it's just as distinctive, and it's just as easy to remember. Finally, on the disc cover is it really necessary for a record company to place the performer's name above the composer's in letters three times as big? I dunno.

Anyway, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) wrote his twenty-one Nocturnes over a period of some twenty years, and while he didn't invent the form, he certainly popularized it. Since Chopin's day, audiences tend to associate the composer's name with the genre probably more than anyone else's. And since the Nocturnes have such a prestigious reputation, it must have been something of a daunting decision for a young man in his twenties to attempt recording all of them. The question, then, is whether Yundi's interpretations measure up to the recorded work of older, more-established artists like Arthur Rubinstein, Ivan Moravec, Claudio Arrau, Earl Wild, Tamas Vasary, Daniel Barenboim, Maria-Joao Pires, or, more recently, Maurizio Pollini. To put it definitively, yes. And no. Well, maybe.

Yundi exhibits dazzling skill, with a light touch when needed (which is frequently) and a sure hand always. Moreover, his speeds are consistently relaxed, which helps to reinforce the music's dreamy, melancholy, elegiac moods. However, foremost in the Nocturnes the pianist needs to communicate heart, and it is here that a comparison to Pollini's DG set finds Yundi coming up a bit short. While I admired Yundi's virtuosity, the playing did not always move me as Pollini's so often does. Still, this is a highly subjective reaction, and another listener might find Yundi's renditions even more compassionate, meditative, and soulful for their deliberate pacing and frequently sentimental nuances. Certainly, there are more than a few truly heartfelt moments in these realizations, as in the case of Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp (Op. 15, No. 2) or No. 8 in D flat (Op. 27, No. 2).

So, OK, he not yet a Pollini. But I cannot imagine anyone not appreciating the beauty of these readings just the same. I could live with them very easily.

Complementing the performances, EMI's sound displays a slight glow or aura around each note, making them seem all the more nocturnal. It's quite pleasant, actually, and adds to one's enjoyment of the music without ever impairing but, rather, enhancing the clarity of the playing.

In closing, if I had to pick just one favorite Yundi interpretation on this disc, it would be Nocturne No. 10 in A flat (Op. 32, No. 2). In it, the pianist provides everything Chopin requires: concentration, sympathy, dynamism, and, yes, heart. It's a lovely album.

JJP

Debussy: Images (CD review)

Also, Pour le piano: Sarabande, Danse, Marche ecossaise sur un theme populaire, La plus que lente.  Jun Markl, Orchestre National de Lyon. Naxos 8.572296.

I must admit I didn't care all that much for maestro Jun Markl's previous album of Debussy orchestral works, which included La Mer and Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (Naxos 8.570759). Perhaps it was because he had so much competition in that repertoire, it was hard for me to find a foothold for him. I don't know. However, I enjoyed this third Debussy volume slightly more than I liked that first one (I missed the second disc of Nocturnes), and certainly at its budget price the potential buyer must consider it at least a contender in this repertoire.

Listening to Volume 3 in Markl's Debussy series also makes me wonder how much a person's mood affects his or her appreciation for music when listening to it. I mean, if you're in a happy, grumpy, or sad state of mind, it can't help but influence your disposition toward any piece of music. That said, I'd hate to think I did Markl any disservice when I listened to his first Debussy disc; I don't think I did, because I still never felt this third set fully lit up the room for me, and I was feeling pretty good when I listened to it.

In any case, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a master impressionist, creating musical tone poems that never fail to evoke colorful musical paintings in the mind. The central selection here is the composer's Images for Orchestra (1909-12), most of which he initially intended as another solo piano piece, as the Images I and II had been. We hear in the five movements of the Images for Orchestra suggestions of English, Spanish, and French influences. The opening Gigues are English in character, the three-part Iberia Spanish, and the final Rondes de printemps a picture of France. The suite demonstrates a definitely international flair, and Markl does his best to bring out these nationalistic tendencies. He is at his best, though, in the delicate Les parfums de la nuit, where one can almost smell the scents of the night air.

Markl and his Orchestre National de Lyon play the other short pieces on the album--originally piano works, later orchestrated--in an equally nuanced fashion. Nevertheless, these are solid, serviceable interpretations rather than particularly distinguished or inspired ones such as those of, say, Jean Martinon (EMI), Geoffrey Simon (Cala), Bernard Haitink (Philips), or, best of all in the Images, Ataulfo Argenta (Decca). Where Markl scores is in the poetic segments, as the more lyrical interludes in the music demonstrate, especially the program's closing number, La plus que lente, an odd, parodic little waltz.

The Naxos sound, recorded in 2008, is somewhat soft and lightweight, yet it is clear enough, replicating a fairly realistic performance heard from a moderate listening position. You won't find the kind of concert-hall bloom here so pleasing in Haitink's Concertgebouw Debussy recordings (available in a Philips Duo at mid price), nor a lot of depth to the orchestral stage, nor much ultimate definition or transparency. However, the recording's clarity and wide stereo spread help make up for any minor deficiencies.

JJP

Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-3 (CD review)

Philip Ledger, English Chamber Orchestra. Virgin Classics 7243 4 82118 2.

Philip Ledger is an exacting conductor, and the English Chamber Orchestra is a meticulous ensemble, so you would expect anything they did to be pretty good. These Bach Orchestral Suites are, indeed, fairly good, but they don't really soar the way they should. They don't have the high spirits or lively inflections we hear from the very best performances on record.

I don't suppose we have much right to expect a truly classic interpretation from a re-rereleased, budget-priced issue originally recorded in 1991, but I was still mildly disappointed in what I heard. Every note seems to be in place, every instrument is in precise accompaniment with every other instrument, every tempo and every phrase seems calculated for maximum correctness.

Which is perhaps the problem: Ledger has squeezed the life out of the pieces, leaving them sounding more than a bit dull and ordinary. It's more of an academic run-through than a joyous event. Moreover, we get only three of the four suites Bach wrote, not unusual since most sets spread the works over two discs, but here there is no second disc.

Finally, there is the sound, which is also more than a bit lifeless. It is largely devoid of strong dynamics, bass, or internal definition, appearing instead as bright and lean and not a little leaden. Compare this to Neville Marriner's renditions of all four suites on a single, mid-priced Decca disc, and you see in Marriner a more sparkling manner, a more robust sound, and a far better proposition all the way around.

And speaking of attractive alternative recordings in these works, one might also consider Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations on Astree, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque Orchestra on Telarc, Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra on Philips, and Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, among others.

JJP

Tchaikovsky: Andersen Fairy Tales (CD review)

Also, Four Preludes, The Swineherd, and Galoshes of Fortune. Kirill Ershov, Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.572400.

No, not that Tchaikovsky. This is Moscow-born composer Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996), no direct relation to his more-famous namesake. Boris Tchaikovsky came to prominence in the 1950's, just after the death of Stalin but still under the rigid constraints of Communist musical censorship. This album of some of the composer's lighter music shows us his most charming qualities.

When I say "lighter" music I do not mean that to imply any disparagement. Tchaikovsky never intended for the music represented here to be entirely weighty or profound, just simple, straightforward, engaging, and relaxing. It succeeds admirably in these regards.

The program begins with the most substantial of the music, his Four Preludes for Chamber Orchestra (1984). The Preludes began life in 1965 as vocal settings for texts by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, whom the U.S.S.R. eventually expelled in 1972. As a result of the government's condemnation of Brodsky, the songs never saw the light of day, the Soviet government banning them before anyone could perform them. So Tchaikovsky took an alternative approach; he scored them for chamber orchestra alone, taking pride in not changing a single note. They are fine examples of modern tone painting.

The other items on the program are three suites of fairy-tale music Tchaikovsky wrote for radio shows in the 1950's. Both the composer and the world regrettably forgot them, and it was only through the efforts of the Boris Tchaikovsky Society that they were recovered in 2003, after the composer's death. They are receiving their world-première recordings on this disc, so it's beneficial that we find them so well performed and well recorded.

The Swineherd (1954), Andersen Fairy Tales (1955-56), and Galoshes of Fortune (1958) are collections of brief tone poems every bit as descriptive as their names suggest. They are sweet, clever, delightful, lyrical, sparkling, delicate, comical, fanciful, and familiar. They remind one of Prokofiev's music for Peter and the Wolf or the music accompanying Disney's old Silly Symphonies cartoons, with a little Offenbach thrown in for spice.

I have never heard much of Boris Tchaikovsky's music before (although this is the fourth Naxos recording of his work), and I've heard none of the pieces on this disc, so I have nothing with which to compare them. However, I certainly have no objection to the way conductor Kirill Ershov and Moscow's Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra play them. They exhibit an abundance of vigor, enthusiasm, and obvious affection for the tunes, and they aren't afraid to play them as serious music, never condescendingly.

If there is a snag to any part of the program, it's that each piece of music is quite short, the suites segmented with four or nine or fourteen movements each and nothing lasting more than a few minutes, often less. As soon as something begins, it ends. Alas, that is the nature of stage, film, and radio work, I suppose.

No snags with the Naxos sonics, though, unless you don't care for recordings miked close up. The Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra are a very small ensemble, the accompanying booklet noting about a dozen players, so their sound would be quite transparent in any case. Nevertheless, recorded fairly close up, the result provides some pinpoint accuracy. This is decidedly not a concert-hall performance but a superclean studio production. You get front-row seats to the proceedings, with plenty of dynamic impact and a wide frequency range. In particular, the disc's extreme clarity makes for an impressive reproduction of percussives. In sum, we get entertaining music and entertaining sound. Nice package.

JJP

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Sarah Chang; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 94431 2.

Maybe it's a woman's touch. These Four Seasons are among the sweetest, most gracious, most sensitive I've heard. That doesn't make them the best I've heard or my personal favorites by any means, but it makes them different in a most pleasant way.

Especially after hearing so many period-instruments groups galumphing through the Seasons at breakneck speeds, it's nice to hear Ms. Chang taking her time and smelling the flowers along the way. Not that there is anything slow or lugubrious about the interpretations, either; they are full, vigorous readings. The performances, accompanied by members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, always a plus, just tend to put things into perspective better than some other competing versions, Ms. Chang going out of her way to portray each little tone painting--each bird flutter, each horse whinny, each dog yelp, each raindrop--as vividly as possible.

The results may not be as imaginative as the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble on BIS, as exciting as the English Concert on DG Archiv or La Petite Bande on Sony, as pleasingly surreal as the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Decca, as straight ahead as I Solisti Italiani on Denon, or as familiar as any of a dozen other top contenders. Yet Chang and company have their own charms, and grace and refinement are but two of them.

EMI's sound also helps win the day. While it is slightly thin, the delicacy of the reproduction tends to reinforce the cordial friendliness of Ms. Chang's renderings, and the recording's smooth reproduction helps as well.  In all, a recording most easy to live with.

JJP

Golijov: St. Mark Passion (CD/DVD review)

CD 1 and 2: Feature music with soloists and chorus, Orquesta La Pasion, Members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Maria Guinand, conductor.
DVD: Feature music filmed live at the Holland Festival, 2008, Royal Carre Theatre, Amsterdam, Robert Spano, conductor. DG B0014008-00.

DG went all-out on this home release, not only spreading the music out over two CD's but providing a DVD of a live production as well, both recordings under different conductors. There is everything here but a 3-D Blu-ray presentation. I guess you could say DG think the music is worth the effort, although only listeners can determine that for themselves. Certainly, the music is lively, exciting, sometimes profound, and decidedly different.

So, who is Osvaldo Golijov and what's the music all about? Golijov is a Grammy-winning, Argentinean-born composer and professor of music who, in 2000, was one of four composers the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart commissioned to write new scores for the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They asked each composer to write music for a different one of the Gospels in the spirit of J.S. Bach, asking Golijov to do St. Mark. Thus, we have La Pasion segun San Marcos, the St. Mark Passion, which I understand audiences received with wild enthusiasm at its première. DG recorded both the studio version and the live production in 2008, presenting them both in this three-disc CD/DVD set.

The entire piece lasts about ninety minutes, and it covers Christ's life from His "vision" through His death, with the emphasis on His last days. Golijov evokes the "spirit" of Bach, but barely; he is mainly his own man in this music, and you'll find much warmth, joy, excitement, distress, and imagination involved, along with moments of outright eccentricity, Golijov setting the story in the streets of an unnamed Latin-American country, Brazil or Cuba. While the composer may have based the story and music on Mark's writing, it is not particularly "religious" as such but far more earthy and accessible. Indeed, to say the music is not of a conventional religious bent would be a monumental understatement. The work is assuredly not a preachy museum piece, far from it, nor should it offend either believers or nonbelievers in Christianity, expressing as it does a universal theme of eternal peace.

Compact Discs one and two contain the studio performance, with conductor Maria Guinand leading a team of soloists (Biella Da Costa, alto; Jessica Rivera, soprano; Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez, Gioconda Cabrera, Manolo Mairena, and Alex Alvear, vocals), the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, the Orquesta La Pasion, and members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestre of Venezuela.

The predominant sounds are those of Latin percussives, something Bach might have appreciated if he had had a chance to hear them. The whole work is highly rhythmic, especially at the beginning where it is continuously pulsating with life. Frankly, it can be a little tiring, too, the Wife-O-Meter finding it a tad grating.

After a somewhat lengthy, sometimes raucous street scene, the tone changes, settling into a more pastoral, contemplative mood. From here, the music exhibits a wide variety of influences, with Jewish, Aramaic, and Latin-American elements interspersed with traditional Catholic liturgical underpinnings. The "Aria of Peter's Tears" in the final third of the music is particularly affecting.

The third disc is a DVD of the work in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. In this production, filmed at the 2008 Holland Festival, conductor Robert Spano leads soloists Biella Da Costa, Jessica Rivera, Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez, and Deraldo Ferreira, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, and the Orquesta La Pasion. On DVD the piece makes a more spectacular stage offering than the CD does merely listening to it, and I admit I enjoyed it a tad more being able to see it performed. Nevertheless, I found the whole affair rather overlong by a good thirty minutes, whether on CD or DVD, although the length may have been a condition of the original commission.

The compact discs exhibit a wide stereo spread but not much orchestral or choral depth. Voices seem too sharply etched at times and a bit too bright, while the accompanying instruments vary in sound from clear and natural to slightly muted. As befitting an album with an abundance of percussion, the transient response favors quick, well-defined impacts. By contrast, the DVD displays a greater depth of field and a more-realistic feeling of you-are-there ambience.

DG offer the set in a fancy, foldout Digipak edition with a Picasso painting on the cover ("Crucifixion," 1930), the package containing the three discs and a booklet insert.

JJP

Maurizio Pollini: Chopin (CD review)

Maurizio Pollini, piano. DG B0014190-02.

I mean, who would you rather listen to playing the music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) than Maurizio Pollini? He made his EMI recording of the First Piano Concerto over half a century ago, and the disc is still the best value for performance and sound you can buy. In the 1970's, he began recording for DG, and now they have compiled a program of some of his best Chopin, dating from 1972 to 2008.

Things begin with three Etudes, Nos. 10, 11, and 12, from Op. 25, recorded in 1972.  No. 10 has a rather noisy opening section before settling in to a sweet little central theme. No. 11 reminds one of a winter storm, and, appropriately, silent-movie houses often used it as such. No. 12 is largely melodramatic and repetitious, but it has a wonderfully grandiose quality to it. Pollini, of course, is dazzling throughout, whether he's on a rampaging tear or taking the most serene and leisurely stroll.

Next, recorded in 2008, we find three Waltzes, Nos. 1-3, op 34, which is where Chopin was sublime, and Pollini is positively sparkling. Age has obviously not dampened Pollini's virtuosity, his high good spirits, or his affection for Chopin's music. These three waltzes are basically of a fast, slow, fast nature, the trio of them working structurally well as a whole.

After the Waltzes is the Ballade No. 4, recorded in 1999, beginning gently, questioningly, until its increasing dynamism culminates in a ferocious climax. Following that are three Polonaises, recorded in 1975, including my favorite, the stately and imaginative Polonaise in A flat major, op. 53. When I was a youngster I almost asked my parents to get me piano lessons just so I could play it. Never happened. Shortly after my initial enthusiasm, I heard Van Cliburn play it, and I knew I could never compete. Pollini is almost as good as Cliburn in the work, maybe better depending on your point of view.

The recital ends with the Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, op. 31, which Pollini recorded in 1990. It's seriously playful, exciting, lyrical, poetic, and graceful by turns, with the pianist never missing a nuance.

There is a surprising uniformity of sound among the various pieces, despite their recording dates. The latest recordings display perhaps a touch more clarity, solidity, and impact, but for that matter they all come across fine. The piano is resonant and full, with a pleasant ambient bloom surrounding the instrument. Moreover, the piano itself never appears too wide or too distant but always pretty much in the room with the listener. It's hard to knock any part of this collection.

JJP

Schoenberg and Sibelius: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. DG B0010858-02.

Is there anything Hilary Hahn can't handle with confidence? The Schoenberg Violin Concerto (1935) seemed so formidable when the composer wrote it that no less an artist than Jascha Heifetz initially refused to attempt it, saying a person would have to grow a sixth finger to play it. Indeed, the piece has never really caught on, and you'll find very few recordings of it. So, give Ms. Hahn credit for including the work along with Sibelius's far more-popular violin concerto.

The Schoenberg Concerto is at once modern, with harmonies and melodies going all over the place in rough juxtaposition, yet firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition in its customary three-movement configuration. Still, in Ms. Hahn's thoroughly doting and understanding hands, it comes off as quite accessible and, remarkably, as a concentrated whole rather than as a series of awkward gimmicks.

Ms. Hahn's handling of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (1905), too, is quite accomplished, although in this case so many other performers have recorded Sibelius's youthful work, with its dark, brooding opening, its meditative slow movement, and its vigorous finale, that Hahn's interpretation seems like just another contender. While it is a persuasive contender, to be sure, she has a lot of competition here, so it's probably not a first choice.

Deutsche Grammophon's audio is much as we have come to expect from this source. The DG engineers always seem to capture the sound of a solo instrument with great precision, and the violin has a strikingly vivid presence. Moreover, the dynamic range and impact are equally strong. Yet the overall orchestral accompaniment seems a bit too big and woolly by comparison and tends to stand out as slightly incongruous.

JJP

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral" (SACD review)

Christiane Oelze, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, mezzo soprano; Christoph Strehl, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone; Collegium Vocale Gent; Academia Chigiana Siena. Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 317.

For many years one of my favorite recordings of this work has been Eugen Jochum's Concertgebouw rendering (Philips/Belart) from the late Sixties. Full of spark and enthusiasm for the music, Jochum didn't so much play the piece as attack it in a spacious yet dynamic performance. I mention this because Philippe Herreweghe's new interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony shares some of that energy, at least in the first three-quarters of the work. Had he maintained this gait through to the finish, he might have displaced Jochum among my preferred Ninths rather than becoming simply another good interpretation on my shelf.

At the time Beethoven premiered the symphony in 1824, his fans apparently felt some anxiety about it. After all, everyone knew the composer had gone completely deaf by then; he hadn't produced a symphony in some ten years; and there was that unusual business of the soloists and chorus hanging about in the background. The audience was understandably on edge, but the symphony was, of course, a resounding success, as it has been ever since, its excitement and politics making it the crown jewel among the composer's output.

In the opening Allegro Herreweghe provides a wonderfully animated pace, setting the tone for what's to come and maintaining an appropriately steady, incremental buildup to the drama on hand. The Scherzo that follows shows a similar liveliness, although it doesn't quite catch fire as it might. Instead, Herreweghe displays a graceful lyricism despite the quick speeds that modern conductors now feel were Beethoven's intention.

The slow third-movement Adagio provides a breather, a respite from the tensions of the preceding segments. Yet, to be fair, under Herreweghe it isn't the sudden calm it sometimes is but a well-coordinated part of the music's organic whole, flowing naturally from the quicker tempos of the Molto vivace before it. Yes, there is much method in Herreweghe's direction.

Then we reach the movement we've been waiting for, the big, lengthy, glorious Finale, which Herreweghe plays with unexpected reserve. He still manages to achieve a somewhat grand effect, yet it isn't quite the grandiose upshot we were anticipating. As before, the conductor chooses to take most of the brisk tempos Beethoven indicates but without appearing hurried or hectic. The result is a decidedly heroic yet relaxed Ninth, more elegant than it is athletic. Frankly, though, I was hoping for the latter because Herreweghe's reading never moved me the way Jochum's always has. So maybe this whole business of music making has more black magic in it than we like to believe.

The PentaTone audio engineers capture the sonics on a hybrid SACD, with a regular stereo layer for playback on an ordinary CD player and a multichannel layer for stereo or multichannel Super Analogue playback.  Listening in stereo, the 2009 recording sounded fine, with a reasonably good depth of field, well-integrated vocals, and ultrasmooth yet lifelike reproduction. While the sound hasn't the deepest bass, it does have a solid foundation, with realistic imaging and a superb timpani attack. There are no traces of hardness here, edginess, brightness, forwardness, or other such distractions. Miked at a moderate distance the disc provides a warm, truthful presentation, even if, like the performance, it doesn't exactly set the blood to racing.

JJP

Poulenc: Concerto for 2 Pianos (CD review)

Also, Piano Concerto; Aubade. Francois-Rene Duchable, piano; Jean-Philippe Collard, piano; James Conlon, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics Apex 2564 62552-2.

Apex is a bargain line from Warner Classics, and you'll find a few gems among their releases, mostly culled from the Erato label. This one, for example, originally recorded in 1984, is well worth pursuing: three piano concertos from French composer and pianist Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

For me, the highlight of the disc is the first item, the Concerto for 2 Pianos in D minor (1932). It is an entirely lightweight, festive affair, totally entertaining from start to finish. The first movement is wonderfully robust and sparkling; the slow second movement is a graceful tribute to Mozart, reminiscent of the "Romance" from his Piano Concerto No. 20; and the third movement is full of playful good cheer.

The simple Concerto for Piano (1949) follows, and it, too, is full of joy, meant only to entertain and to do so in robust style. It is only the Aubade (1929), a piano "concerto choregraphique," a piano concerto set to ballet, that gets in the least bit serious. Yet even here, the story of Diana, virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt, is hardly grave. It is scored for an accompaniment of eighteen players, mostly winds, and presents a largely delightful vision of mythology.

But as I say, I enjoyed the Concerto for 2 Pianos most of all, with its delightful interplay of piano parts beautifully executed by Francois-Rene Duchable and one of my favorite pianists, Jean-Philippe Collard, ably supported by James Conlon and the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

The recording is somewhat dry, but it has an excellent dynamic impact, good orchestral depth, and a fine, wide soundstage. Yes, the disc is worth pursuing for its excellent performances and its acceptable sound.

JJP

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, The Rock. Gianandrea Noseda, BBC Philharmonic. Chandos CHAN 10589.

Time was, conductors routinely cut Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, finding it too unwieldy, too rambling, too lengthy for audiences to sit through, or too extended to fit comfortably on 78 rpm records. Even the composer's friend, conductor Eugene Ormandy, who championed the work, sometimes failed to take all the repeats.

But we are long past those days. Today, music lovers prize truthfulness, with period instruments, authentic playing styles, and fidelity to the source a united goal. Thus it is with this new Chandos recording of the Second Symphony conducted by Gianandrea Noseda and his BBC Philharmonic. He plays it complete, at over an hour in length, and the music is the better for it.

The opening segment of the Symphony is one long, languorous slow movement, establishing the Romantic nature of the work. Noseda takes the big themes broadly, playing up their luxuriant textures but never over-sentimentalizing them. The music is dark, to be sure, yet under Noseda's guidance it unfolds charmingly, beautifully, too. Still, even he has a hard time sustaining our attention for so prolonged a period.

The second-movement Scherzo finds Noseda and his forces properly animated, a wake-up call after the unhurried first movement. Here, Noseda becomes most persuasive in the central motif, lush and sensuous without being too melodramatic.

By the third movement Adagio Rachmaninov is in his element, with Noseda ensuring that the big love theme that launches it is not too flowery or mushy, mitigating some of the composer's emotional excesses. Then, the Finale wraps things up nicely in a rambunctious manner before settling back into the Symphony's darker moods. It is here, actually, that Noseda is at his best, his most involved, closing the show in high spirits.

Although Noseda's may not be quite as passionately intense an interpretation of the Second Symphony as those of Previn (EMI), Pletnev (DG), and others, it is a warmly intelligent, clearheaded reading that tends to meet one on common ground.

The Rock, which begins the program, is an early, drawn-out tone poem Rachmaninov based on several possible sources that may no longer matter. I continue to find it rather vague and lugubrious, no matter who's conducting it.

The Chandos sound is pleasant: very clear, very clean, very robust. While orchestral depth is only moderate and sometimes downright two-dimensional, there is a sweet ambient bloom around the music, a wide stereo spread, and a vivid though never forward sense of presence. The strings are particularly natural sounding, and the orchestra has appropriate heft, with several notably solid bass whacks.

JJP

Mozart: Mass in C minor (CD review)

Also, Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477.  Natalie Dessay, soprano; Veronique Gens, soprano; Topi Lehtipuu, tenor; Luca Pisaroni, bass; Louis Langree, Le Concert d'Astree. Virgin Classics 00946 359309 2 4.

The Mass in C minor is another liturgical work that Mozart didn't finish. You can understand his not finishing the Requiem; he died. But it is unclear why in the Mass in C, written some eight years before his death, he only completed the "Kyrie," the "Gloria," and parts of the "Credo," "Sanctus," and "Benedictus."

In any case, conductor Louis Langree says that of the many editions of the Mass completed by other people, he was satisfied with none, so he did his own completion, which we have here. I'm sure it is as good as any. Langree's orchestra is relatively small, around forty players, probably about the size that would have performed in Mozart's day, and his soloists and choir are top notch.

Mozart's Mass in C minor is more operatic than we might expect from a church piece, and it lends itself nicely to repeat listening, grand and imposing on the one hand, intimate and touching on the other. However, Langree does take many segments of the work at a rather fast pace, diminishing somewhat the overall drama of the music and substituting for it a more fleeting kind of excitement. His interpretation certainly has its thrilling moments, but with alternative readings by Gardiner (Philips), Herrewighe (Harmonia Mundi), and others, I'm not sure I would want it as my only account.

The 2006 Virgin recording, made in Paris, is warm and smooth but with little or no sense of presence. A quick comparison to Philippe Herrewighe's 1992 French recording reveals the Herrewighe rendering sounding more detailed, more dimensional, more natural, and more realistic, although a touch edgier at the high end. While I doubt that anyone would object to the Virgin sonics on the Langree recording, I prefer a better sense of occasion.

JJP

Echo: Glory of Gabrieli (CD review)

Music of Gabrieli, Monteverdi, and Scheidt. The Canadian Brass, Echo Brass. Opening Day Entertainment Group ODR 7380.

Precision, refinement, elegance, joyousness, you name it, the Canadian Brass have it in aces. They aren't one of the world's leading brass ensembles, maybe THE world's leading brass ensemble, for nothing. Founded in 1970, this small group been playing beautiful music together for as long as I can remember, recording over eighty albums as of this writing. Add one more to the win column.

The theme of this particular program is the presentation of antiphonal music by several Renaissance and Baroque composers: Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554-1612), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), and Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). To quote from Joseph S. Szurly's liner notes, Gabrieli "was one of the first to compose works specifically for brass and brass choirs." Composing music largely for the Basilica San Marco di Venezia, or Saint Mark's, Gabrieli found "the architectural peculiarities of the imposing Basilica created a sound delay caused by the distance between opposing choirs and Gabrieli took advantage of that as a useful special effect. Since it was difficult to get widely separated choirs to sing the same music simultaneously, Gabrieli and other composers solved the problem by writing antiphonal music where opposing choirs would play successive, often contrasting phrases of music. This 'echo' effect proved to be immensely popular and became a standard of music performance at Saint Mark's--a rare case of a single building influencing the history of music!"

Although a brief work called "Echo" by Scheidt opens the album as a demonstration of the echo technique, accompanied by more short pieces by Gabrieli, it is the twenty-two-minute suite from Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo that is the centerpiece of the program. The Canadian Brass play the eleven movements with a polished grace and enthusiasm that leave one wanting more.

But the group also know how to close a show, following the Monteverdi suite with five Gabrieli canons of a musically ceremonial nature in performances of impeccable virtuosity. On these pieces and in the Scheidt the five members of the Canadian Brass are augmented by three members of Echo Brass, and on several other works by organist Eric Robertson. Together, they make an irreproachable team.

For those who don't know the current lineup of players, the Canadian Brass comprise Brandon Ridenour, trumpet; Joe Burgstaller, trumpet; Jeff Nelsen, horn; Zachary Bond, trombone; and the group's cofounder, Charles Daellenbach, baritone horn and tuba. Echo Brass comprise Chris Coletti, trumpet; Manon Lafrance, trumpet; and Austin Hitchcock, horn.

Recorded in Christ Church Deer Park, Toronto, in June, 2009, the sound is moderately reverberant, making the relatively few players appear like a much larger group. Still, there is good clarity involved and a fine sense of depth to the ensemble. This is especially useful in demonstrating the "echo" effect so necessary to the music. Yet, not only is the cleanness of the sonics impressive, the sound is warm, full, and mellow to boot. It makes a good thing even better.

JJP

Mozert: Piano Sonato (CD review)

Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivien Barnstable IV, OPE, MOP, DDS, LS-MFT; Fargo-Idado Wind, Percussion and Toasting Consortium; Harvard Boys' Choir. Nawtee Records 331/3RPM.

Little is known of the music of Carlo Benitto Leonardi von Heineken Mozert before his birth in 1758, but even less is known of his life. What we do know is that the young Mozert composed over 800 works for rattle and tin drum before he was three years of age and that the Piano Sonato No. 712, Op. 4932, AKA3102 presented here is among his few surviving opuses. Its probable origins date from the latter part of 1763, shortly before his untimely death at the hands of perturbed neighbors in 1764, an account based largely on the research of his older brother, the scholar Heinrich Duplitch von Schlitzenbeer Mozert, who assures us in a manuscript dated 1756 that AKA3102 was, indeed, a cause for concern in young Carlo's province of Quimberly-on-the-Hines, Austria. Or Australia; the manuscript is vague on the subject.

In any case, Lord Ceddy Barnstable directs a neat, straight-up account of the music, transcribed here for flugelhorn and din whistle, with full instrumental accompaniment by the University of Southern California marching band and flugel corps. Dedicated fans of the music will note that Sir Ceddy takes all the stops at full pitch, with the pianist pitching in, never hesitating to crochet at the minims or give quarter at the quarter notes. Which helps the concertmaster immensely, as any indecision on the conductor's part could mean his being trampled underfoot by members of the brass section.

What's more, there is never any indication during any part of the three-and-a-half minute production of the winds getting winded, the flutes getting flutey, the horns getting horny, or the strings getting strung up. It's a remarkable achievement, actually, one made all the more arresting by the flautists getting arrested for flouting. Intentional or not, Sir Noel retains all the work's semibreves, maintaining full tempo at the three-quarter staff to produce an almost perfect half-mast. Which undoubtedly would have pleased Mozert no end, had he lived long enough to hear his music played so proficiently, so passionately, so longingly, and with such scrupulous attention to his chin clef.

Needless to say, the timpani perform on authentic period strings, imbuing the music with a kind of dusky dawn that draws out its inner glow. Together with the close-to-nearly-perfect pitch of at least one member of the 200-strong Yale Teachers' Chorus, the Sonato makes an ideal Christmas gift for the Mozert lover in all of us.

Finally, in keeping with the high quality of the performance, the audio engineers at Nawtee Records have recorded a recording of record recordedness. Using six-inch M&M microphones at each instrument, a Sturdi mixing console, and Monster-Price cables, they have achieved almost the impossible, producing a sound more real than real. Indeed, played on any high-quality turntable with variable electronic current induction and antimagnetic moving-coil cartridge, this compact disc will outshine even the orchestra and choir that performed it.

For anyone in the market for yet another, alternative interpretation of this time-honored Mozert classic, Lord Barnstable's account makes an attractive proposition. And come to think of it, Ms. Darling, the first violinist makes an attraction proposition. But I leave that story to another day.

JJP

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

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