Strauss: Ein Straussfest (UltraHD review)

Music of Johann Strauss Sr., Johann Strauss Jr., Eduard Strauss, and Josef Strauss. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. LIM UHD 064.

Maestro Erich Kunzel may have made more recordings than almost any conductor in history, but when it came to the music of the Strauss family, he didn’t quite project the delight of a Willi Boskovsky, the glamor of a Herbert von Karajan, the energy of an Antal Dorati, the elegance of a Josef Krips, the warmth of a Eugene Ormandy, the high spirits of a Lorin Maazel, or the Viennese charm of a Fritz Reiner or Zubin Mehta or Jascha Horenstein. Instead, Kunzel’s readings are more exhilarating than illuminating. That said, when the sound comes across as impressively as it does here in this LIM audiophile remaster of a 1985 Telarc release, it probably doesn’t matter. The sonics rather overwhelm the notes and carry us along, making us marvel anew at the creative genius of the Strauss family.

The program begins with a bang, with a real explosion at the start of the Explosions Polka. Then, we get three more quick-paced polkas and galops, again with sound effects such as, literally, various bells and whistles, popping corks, pistol shots, and thunderclaps in the Im Krapfenwald’l Polka, the Champagne Polka, and the Banditen Galop. Some purists may feel Telarc indulged in too many such aural effects, but one should keep in mind that when the Strausses wrote this music, audiences enjoyed and expected a degree of extravagance.

The first big waltz comes with On the Beautiful Blue Danube, in which Kunzel seems at first a little earthbound and mundane; however he soon warms up to the piece, even if he never quite gets the full measure of the waltz rhythms involved. Likewise, his handling of Tales from the Vienna Woods never exactly catches fire until well underway. It’s as though the conductor were holding something back for as long as he could and then still wasn’t entirely sure how to cope with the pulses of a waltz. There follow the Radetzky March, the Feuerfest Polka, the Auf der Jagd Polka, the Bahn Frei Polka, the Pizzicato Polka, and the Unter Donner und Blitz Polka, numbers that come off best.

If I have any reservations about the album, they include the short playing time (48:10) and the preponderance of fast tunes on the program, with only two waltzes (The Blue Danube and the Tales from the Vienna Woods). So it’s more of showpiece than I’d like. Still, with the inclusion of an outstanding Radetzky March, it’s hard not to enjoy the selections.

Although there is a certain lack of subtlety in Kunzel’s conducting and although the Cincinnati Pops lack the plush precision of a Vienna Philharmonic, the conductor and orchestra are clearly having a good time, and their enthusiasm shows.

Telarc recorded the album in 1984 at Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, releasing it the following year, and LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a division of FIM, First Impression Music) remastered it in 2012 in their UltraHD 32-bit mastering process. Engineer Michael Bishop, who helped with the original recording, supervised the remastering, and the meticulous UltraHD system did the rest. The sound is very dynamic, with a slightly improved transient impact over the original Telarc product. Yet we also hear a very smooth, warm, lifelike response, without a trace of brightness or edge, which is probably the best quality of the remastering. Music Hall imparts a pleasant resonant glow around the sonics that some audiophiles may think detracts from the disc’s midrange transparency and others may feel adds to the album’s overall realism. Adding further to the natural-sounding effect of the acoustic is a good measure of depth to the orchestra; it’s easy to listen “into” the players and distinguish their relative distances from one another. Thus, imaging, always a hallmark of Telarc, is better than ever. Finally, you’ll of course find the big Telarc bass drum in evidence throughout. This remastering is all about big, room-filling sound, which you get in spades.

As always, LIM dress up the disc with an attractive, high-gloss foldout container, the disc itself enclosed in an inner paper sleeve and a static-free liner. It’s a handsome package.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic. Philips B0004113-2.

Following up on his highly acclaimed account of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, released in 1999, came his rendition of the Fourth Symphony, recorded in 2002 but unaccountably waiting until 2005 to see the light of day. Anyway, if you are familiar with Gergiev’s way with Tchaikovsky, that is, no holds barred, you will surely like his interpretation of the Fourth.

The lengthy first movement is practically a mini symphony in itself, most of it bluster, and Gergiev plays it that way, with plenty of gusto and excitement by the close. The second, slow movement has never struck me as memorable, and not even Gergiev can do much with it except hope to get it out of the way, although he does so with a graceful hand. Gergiev could have taken the pizzicato Scherzo more playfully, but it comes through fine, especially with the Vienna Philharmonic playing with such finesse. The Finale, one of Tchaikovsky’s biggest showstoppers, gets the full-bore, hell-for-leather treatment, starting strong and ending in an appropriately thrilling ride.

The thing that undermines the performance, however, is Philips’s sound, which the company recorded live, with all its attendant problems. No matter how loud the music gets, it always seems reticent, held back, distanced, and muted. Thus, much of the animation Gergiev attempts to generate rather evaporates within the softly shrouded sonics. The recording is also available on a hybrid SACD in multichannel surround, however, and for those of you with the appropriate playback equipment it may effect an improvement in the sound.

By comparison, the studio recordings of Szell (Decca), Jansons (Chandos), and Haitink (Philips) sound better and more open, while Monteux (JVC) may be best of all. In fact, a side-by-side comparison of Gergiev and Monteux was such a night-and-day difference sonically as to take my breath away. Considering that the Monteux recording is over four decades older than Gergiev’s, that’s quite an accomplishment, even if you have to pay double for the JVC audiophile edition to get it. And, incidentally, I like Monteux’s performance better as well.

JJP

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Michael Halasz, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Failoni Orchestra. Naxos 8.572939.

There was a time in the old vinyl era when record companies would barely fit Schubert’s Ninth Symphony on a single LP. Now, it’s commonplace to find not only the Ninth but an accompanying Schubert symphony on the same disc, in the case of this Naxos reissue, the Unfinished Symphony. Admittedly, the companion piece is only two movements long, but that’s not the point. It’s just an amazing world we take for granted these days.

Anyway, Hungarian conductor Michael Halasz gets the album started with the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 “Unfinished,” which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) began writing around 1822 but never finished before moving along to other things. Halasz leads the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in a sympathetic performance.

I especially liked what Maestro Halasz does with the opening of the Eighth, beginning with a more than usually dark opening and moving on to a sweetly casual lilt, turning as it should into alternately light and heavy sections. Halasz maintains an exceptionally airy tone in the more lyrical passages, particularly in the second-movement Andante, that is most pleasant.

The history of Schubert’s last numbered symphony, the Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, the “Great,” is somewhat odd because while the composer dated it 1828, the year of his death, he probably didn’t actually write it in 1828. In fact, it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than 1828, maybe 1826, which makes little difference since, as with the rest of Schubert’s orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The public didn’t hear the Ninth until 1839, eleven years after the composer died. Anymore, audiences consider it one of the staples of the classical music world.

Here, Maestro Halasz leads the Failoni Chamber Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera in a reading that impressed me less than his Eighth. With a relatively small group, around a third the size of the Slovak Philharmonic, Halasz exhibits less power than I would have liked in this work and less dynamic punch. I can understand using a small period-instruments band for historical reasons and perhaps a small ensemble for greater transparency, but the Ninth is a big work that usually benefits from a bigger orchestra. With the Failoni Orchestra it sounds rather lightweight.

Halasz’s leisurely pace doesn’t do a lot to drum up much enthusiasm, either. Instead, the piece just seems to drift aimlessly along, without much spirit. Even the conductor’s sudden tempo shifts do little to generate much excitement. A steady but rigid Andante march and a fleet-footed but cheerless Scherzo hardly help the situation. The fact is, the whole performance appears more than a tad bland. Fortunately, it ends in a reasonably joyful Finale, although it’s probably a matter of too little too late.

Naxos recorded the Symphony No. 8 at the Moyzes Hall, Bratislava, in 1988 and the Symphony No. 9 at the Italian Institute in Budapest in 1994. The company initially released the two recordings separately, with different couplings, and then together in this 2012 rerelease. In the Eighth, we hear very good sonics with more than adequate body and size. Dynamics are fine, too, and the midrange sounds warm and smooth. While the stereo spread seems slightly constricted, there is a realistic sense of depth involved. In the Ninth the smaller orchestra does, indeed, afford a greater clarity throughout, although the hall imparts a bit too much reflective resonance, nullifying some of the benefits of the smaller ensemble. I preferred the more natural acoustic of the Eighth to the inordinately reverberant setting of the Ninth. Still, both recordings make for comfortable, easy, if somewhat dull, listening.

Here’s the thing, though: Unless you’re a dedicated collector of everything ever recorded or just a die-hard Schubert fan, you may find better recordings of the Eighth from Otto Klemperer (EMI), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Eugen Jochum (DG), Charles Munch (RCA), or Charles Mackerras (Virgin) and of the Ninth from Josef Krips (Decca/HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Charles Mackerras again (Virgin or Telarc), Georg Solti (Decca), George Szell (Sony), or Gunther Wand (RCA).

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

Advent at Ephesus (CD review)

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca B0017837-02.

Because recorded liturgical music like chant has largely been the province of monks over the years, record companies have given rather short shrift to their female counterparts. The folks at De Montfort Music, Decca Records, and the Sisters at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus (the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a monastic community located in rural Missouri) hope the present disc may help rectify that situation.

The Sisters’ voices are sweet and pure. There are no outstanding virtuosos among them, perhaps, yet as a group they sing like angels, their voices harmonizing with a celestial precision.

The Sisters sing sixteen selections that celebrate various Feasts, Meditations, Offices, Masses, and Holy Days of the Church. With these selections, we find some songs in Latin, some in English, some Gregorian chant, some traditional, some anonymous, some dating as far back as the Fifth Century, most from Medieval and Renaissance times.

Among the hymns you’ll hear are “Come thou Redeemer of the Earth,” “Angelus Ad Virginem,” “Gabriel’s Message,” “Hayl Mary,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Benedixisti Domine,” “Maria Walks Among the Thorn,” “O Come Divine Messiah,” “Vox Clara,” “Like the Dawning,” and other such numbers.

It’s a wide and surprisingly diverse collection of devotional psalms and anthems the Sisters sing, with one thing in common: a single purpose in praising the Lord. Although the individual tracks are relatively brief (two-to-three minutes apiece) and the disc’s total playing time of just over forty-eight minutes may seem short measure, the songs do tend to have a similar spirit and feeling throughout, despite their variety, so maybe the album’s length is just about right for optimum listening pleasure.

The main thing is that the Sisters maintain a high musical standard, and the performances are the very ideal of serene contemplation. It’s all quite beautiful; you might even say heavenly.

According to the accompanying booklet, Decca and De Montfort Music recorded the disc at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in October of 2012, which seems remarkable given that I received the product in November, the very next month. The acoustic is appropriately reverberant for a liturgical setting, so expect the room reflections to amplify and smooth out the voices somewhat. Given the dozen or so persons involved, the stereo spread sounds a bit constricted left to right, affording them plenty of distance from the listener yet without sacrificing much in the way of clarity. The distancing tends, instead, to add to the resonant nature of the presentation, increasing the realism.

And to hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, November 24, 2012

Jazz and Classical Nutcrackers Duke It Out December 8

Music Institute Welcomes Families for Music/Dance Concert and Instrument Petting Zoo.

The Music Institute of Chicago welcomes families for “Duke It Out,” a concert showcasing both traditional and jazz-inflected versions of The Nutcracker Suite, preceded by an open house on Saturday, December 8 at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

“Duke it Out” pairs the classical (Tchaikovsky) and jazz (Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, transcription by James Stephenson) versions of the holiday favorite, performed by Music Institute Ensembles-in-Residence Axiom Brass and Quintet Attacca. Providing a visual illustration of the two musical versions are dance students, ages eight to 18, from Foster Dance Company, as well as Foster Dance Studios tap teacher Phil Brooks and Chicago-area professional dancers, totaling approximately 50 dancers. Choreography is by Ronn Stewart, Sarah Goldstone and Phil Brooks.

This morning of music for families, which is sponsored by First Bank & Trust, begins at 9 a.m. with an open house in the Nichols Concert Hall lobby. Kids can enjoy playing a variety of instruments at the Music Institute Instrument Petting Zoo, parents can talk with faculty and staff, and everyone can take advantage of special discounts on lessons and classes.

Foster Dance Studio/Dance Company:
Foster Dance Studios opened in Evanston in September 2011, founded by four partners with a unique vision: to create a dance studio where students receive exceptional instruction in a nurturing environment. The goal is to offer an outstanding dance education, train healthy dancers, and encourage students to achieve their personal dance goals. The sought-after teachers are known for their ability to nurture, inspire and respect the dancer within. Whether the goal is a future in professional dance or simply to learn and embrace the joy of movement, the classes are designed to provide a creative, physical and enjoyable outlet for children and adults. Foster Dance Company is the student performance ensemble at Foster Dance Studios.
Foster Dance Artistic Director Ronn Stewart has been a professional dancer and teacher for 20 years and is an award-winning choreographer. He is artistic director emeritus of Moving People Dance in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Santa Fe Dance Festival and resident teacher at Joffrey Ballet Academy of Dance in Chicago. Stewart created his own dance technique called MoPeD, or More People Dancing: improvisational movement to guided imagery that creates a foundation for each dancer to open up to all the possibilities of movement. The other partners at Foster Dance Studios are Assistant Artistic Director Sarah Goldstone, a graduate of The Juilliard School; Executive Director Sally H. Turner; and Studio Manager Kathryn Ebert.

Axiom Brass:
Axiom Brass, in residence at the Music Institute, is the only brass quintet in 27 years to win the prestigious Chamber Music Yellow Springs Competition (2012), Axiom was also named winner of the 2008 International Chamber Brass Competition and prize winner of the 2010 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, the Preis der Europa-Stadt Passau, the Plowman Chamber Music Competition, and the Jeju City International Brass Quintet Competition in South Korea. The Axiom Brass is dedicated to enhancing the musical life of communities across the globe and educating the next generation of musicians. Axiom’s commitment to education and blend of virtuosic performances and dynamic teaching have inspired young audiences around the nation, earning the ensemble the 2011 Fischoff Educator Award. Internationally recognized for its groundbreaking programming, Axiom performs repertoire ranging from jazz and Latin music to string quartet transcriptions, as well as original compositions for brass quintet.

Quintet Attacca:
Founded in 1999, Quintet Attacca is one of Chicago’s most dynamic chamber music ensembles, dedicated to bringing the unique sound of the wind quintet to all types of audiences. Grand Prize Winner of the 2002 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the quintet has spent the past four years in residence as the Outreach Ensemble for the Chicago Chamber Musicians, in addition to being in residence at the Music Institute. Quintet Attacca is one of only two wind quintets in the 35-year history of the Fischoff Competition to receive the Grand Prize. In that same year, the quintet was invited to be a finalist for Chamber Music Society Two at Lincoln Center. Quintet Attacca delights in bringing music education to all ages and abilities and prides itself on its imaginative and engaging outreach programs.

Music Institute of Chicago:
The Music Institute of Chicago believes that music has the power to sustain and nourish the human spirit; therefore, our mission is to provide the foundation for lifelong engagement with music. As one of the three largest and most respected community music schools in the nation, the Music Institute offers musical excellence built on the strength of its distinguished faculty, commitment to quality, and breadth of programs and services. Founded in 1931 and one of the oldest community music schools in Illinois, the Music Institute is a member of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts and accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. Each year, the Music Institute’s world-class music teachers and arts therapists provide the highest quality arts education, reaching more than 10,000 students of all ability levels, from birth to 102 years of age, at campuses in Evanston, Highland Park, Lake Forest, Lincolnshire, Winnetka, and Downers Grove and through its longstanding partnership with the Chicago Public Schools. The Music Institute also offers lessons and programs at the Steinway of Chicago store in Northbrook and early childhood and community engagement programs throughout the Chicago area and the North Shore. The Music Institute offers lessons, classes, and programs through four distinct areas: Community School, The Academy, Creative Arts Therapy (Institute for Therapy through the Arts), and Nichols Concert Hall.

The Music Institute of Chicago’s family open house (9 a.m.) and Duke It Out (10 a.m.) take place Saturday, December 8 at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. Tickets are $10 per family (up to six family members), available online or 847.905.1500 ext. 108. In addition, the Music Institute is accepting donations of new toys, clothing and gift cards (no gift wrap please) for Connections for the Homeless and Operation Homeland's families of U.S. Veterans of War.  For more information visit musicinst.org.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Cleveland Orchestra Music Director, Franz Welser Most, To Lead the Vienna Philharmonic for the 2013 New Year’s Day Concert
This is his second time since the success of his debut in 2011. Welser-Most has also been a guest conductor for all of the leading orchestras in Europe and the US including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.

The program for the New Year’s Day Concert traditionally revolves around waltzes and polkas by the Strauss family. Welser-Most has a personal connection with this music as his grandmother was an owner of Vienna’s old established Café Dommayer, where many works by the Strauss dynasty and Josef Lanner were premiered. This year, the program for the New Year’s Day Concert will feature more premieres than ever before, and Sony will release the recording of the concert in early January.

--Elisa Peimer, Sony Classical

National Philharmonic Singers Present Free Holiday Concert
The National Philharmonic Singers, under the direction of conductors Stan Engebretson and Victoria Gau, will present a free holiday concert on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 8 pm at Christ Episcopal Church, 107 South Washington Street, Rockville, Maryland.

The concert will feature famous carols, including the Hallelujah Chorus; Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols with harp; John Rutter’s Three Carols for Choir and Harp; and The Blessed Son of God from Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Other highlights include music from various periods, with a special audience sing along.

The National Philharmonic Singers, led by Stan Engebretson and Victoria Gau, is a chamber choir and one of several performing ensembles of the National Philharmonic. The group promotes works suited for smaller ensembles, whether with accompaniment or a cappella. Its repertoire ranges from 15th to 21st centuries, and it often premieres new compositions by local composers.

The December 15 holiday concert at the Christ Episcopal Church in Rockville is free but donations in support of the Community Ministries of Rockville will be gratefully accepted. Christ Episcopal Church is located at 107 South Washington Street in Rockville, MD.  Directions to the church may be found at christchurchrockville.org or by calling the church at 301-762-2191, ext. 3. For more information, please visit nationalphilharmonic.org  for call 301-493-9283, ext. 116.

--Deborah Birnbaum, National Philharmonic

Washington Symphonic Brass Presents Holiday Concert at the Music Center at Strathmore
National Philharmonic Associate Conductor Victoria Gau will lead the Washington Symphonic Brass (WSB) and National Philharmonic Chorale in a holiday concert at the Music Center at Strathmore on Tuesday, December 18 at 7:30 pm.

The critically acclaimed 17-member brass and percussion ensemble will ring in the holidays with arrangements of holiday favorites, including a medley by WSB Director Phil Snedecor called Christmas Memories; an arrangement by Tony DiLorenzo of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas; and an exuberant version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy with the National Philharmonic Chorale. In addition, the group will present holiday music from France, Norway, Britain, Russia, Finland and Poland.

About the Washington Symphonic Brass:
The Washington Symphonic Brass is composed of professional musicians in the Washington/Baltimore area who have assembled to play some of the great literature
written for large brass ensemble and percussion.  Members of the WSB have performed
with many of the nation's best orchestras, such as the National Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, among others.  The group performs throughout the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan area and its repertoire covers five centuries.

About the Conductor:
Lauded by critics for her “strong sense of style and drama” and her “enthusiastic and perceptive conducting,” National Philharmonic Associate Conductor Victoria Gau is Artistic Director and Conductor of the Capital City Symphony and former Conductor and Music Director of the Richmond Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gau is a familiar face in the Washington area, having conducted such groups as The Other Opera Company (which she co-founded), The Washington Savoyards, the IN-Series, and the Friday Morning Music Club Orchestra. Other guest conducting engagements include the Akron (OH) Symphony and the Kennedy Center Messiah Sing-Along. She is in demand as a conductor and string educator at youth orchestra festivals and workshops and has been conductor of the Young Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra of the DC Youth Orchestra Program, the Akron Youth Symphony and Assistant Conductor of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra.

Ms. Gau has served on the opera faculty at George Mason University and worked as a pianist for the Cleveland, Baltimore, Annapolis, and Washington Opera Companies. She holds degrees in Viola Performance and Conducting from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she won the Phi Kappa Lambda Prize for Musicianship.

To purchase tickets to the Washington Symphonic Brass concert on December 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm at the Music Center at Strathmore, please visit nationalphilharmonic.org or call the Strathmore box office at (301) 581-5100. Tickets are $28-$48; kids 7-17 are FREE through the ALL KIDS, ALL FREE, ALL THE TIME program (sponsored by The Gazette).  ALL KIDS tickets must be purchased in person or by phone.

--Deborah Birnbaum, National Philharmonic

Music Institute of Chicago Presents December Music Programs
Name of Presenter: Music Institute of Chicago
Event: Adult Student Recital
Day/Date/Time: Saturday, December 1, 2012, 2 p.m.
Location: Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Admission: FREE; “meet and greet” reception follows performance
Information: 847-905-1500; musicinst.org

A musical potpourri featuring students from the Music Institute’s Adult Studies Program.
The Music Institute of Chicago’s Adult Studies Program welcomes anyone older than 18 and offers a wide selection of opportunities including private instruction, chamber music, group classes, musicianship, music appreciation, bands, and orchestras. The faculty excels in adult education and provides a supportive environment. Beginners, returning students, and lifelong learners are welcome.

Name of Presenter: Music Institute of Chicago
Event: Community Symphony Concert
Day/Date/Time: Wednesday, December 12, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Admission: FREE; “meet and greet” reception follows performance
Information: 847-905-1500; musicinst.org
Featuring conductor Lawrence Eckerling, violin soloist Stephen Boe, and host John Piepgras, the concert features Strauss’s Emperor Waltz, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor, and Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations.

Name of Presenter: Music Institute of Chicago
Event: New Horizons Band Concert
Day/Date/Time: Thursday, December 13, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Admission: FREE; “meet and greet” reception follows performance
Information: 847-905-1500; musicinst.org

Featuring conductor Carolyn Merva Robblee, the concert features Russian Sailor’s Dance by Reinhold Gliere, Mystery on Mena Mountain by Julie Giroux-West, and holiday favorites.

Name of Presenter: Music Institute of Chicago
Event: Music Institute of Chicago Chorale Concert
Day/Date/Time: Sunday, December 16, 3 p.m.
Location: Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Admission: $15 adults, $10 seniors, $7 students; “meet and greet” reception follows performance
Information: 847-905-1500; musicinst.org

Featuring conductor Daniel Wallenberg, this “Bon Appétit” concert is a multi-sensory choral celebration of food and drink, featuring works by Lasso, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Paul Carey, and Jean Belmont. Special guests include host Matthew Owens, members of the Music Institute’s recorder ensemble, and guest instrumentalists and dancers.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (XRCD24 review)

Also, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Benjamin Britten; London Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra. JVC XRCD 0226-2.

While upgrading to new and better hardware is always fun and most often rewarding, if one can afford it, the struggle to find suitable software--like audiophile LPs, tapes, CDs, or DVDs--to do the new equipment justice has long haunted the audiophile. Open-reel master tapes would seem to be the ideal answer but obviously impractical. Direct-to-disc and half-speed remastered LP recordings took up some of the slack in the old vinyl days, with gold discs taking their place early on in the compact-disc era. But now that the gold disc has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, one has fewer choices. 

Understand, during all the time I reviewed gold discs from Mobile Fidelity, Sheffield Labs, DCC, Chesky, Compact Classics, and the like, I often found improvements in the sound of the gold over their silver counterparts; but as I said time and again, they never convinced me it was actually the gold-foil that contributed to the sound’s betterment so much as it was their superior transfer engineering. The gold, I always figured, might have just added to the discs’ allure and justified their high price. Careful, expert, and time-consuming engineering of the tape to disc is where I considered the improvements to have come. This is where JVC, the Victor Corporation of Japan, entered the scene some years ago, followed by other companies like FIM/LIM and Hi-Q. The folks at JVC have eschewed the gold-plating route and gone with the best possible transference to silver disc, first remastering some of RCA’s best “Living Stereo” recordings and then doing some of Decca’s older product, such as here in their XRCD24 processing system.

Most of JVC’s choices have been consensus classics, and in the comparisons I’ve made with dozens of discs, I have found improvements--some slight, to be sure--in JVC’s product over the conventional equivalent. The folks at JVC have also packaged the product handsomely in Digipak-type foldout albums. Unfortunately, JVC have not eschewed the gold-disc price. They have been issuing exactly the same content as on the original LPs--no more, no less--and at a price almost double the cost of the conventional compact disc. Worth it? Not for most people, and, in fact, not for me if I didn’t already own the things I’ve gotten so far and didn’t already love each and every one of them. Let me just say I have not been entirely disappointed. The sonic improvements have ranged from barely audible, maybe not audible at all and only imagined, to clearly audible and extremely worthwhile. In most cases, the improvements have usually been in all-around smoothness, often in definition, and sometimes in dynamic impact, bass extension, and general tautness.

Yet it’s here that we run into the old audiophile vs. sceptic argument: The audiophile will argue that if you cannot hear the differences, it is because your equipment is not good enough to reveal them. Conversely, the sceptic will argue that if you hear differences, it’s because you want to hear the differences, especially if you’ve just laid out a chunk of cash for the new product.

My advice: Try one of these audiophile discs for yourself. Compare it to your old disc. If you hear no difference, take it back and never buy another one. It’s that simple. Here are a few JVC remasterings in which I have personally found some sonic improvement: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn (JMXR24004); Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (JVCXR-0225-2); Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (JVCXR-0224-2); and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade (JMCXR-0015), Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (JMCXR-0020), Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (JMCXR-0007), Respighi’s Pines of Rome (JMCXR-0008), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (JMCXR-0016), all with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Now to the subject at hand, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra:

Benjamin Britten wrote what he initially called The Instruments of the Orchestra for a school children’s film in 1946, basing his music on a hornpipe theme by Henry Purcell. The idea was to highlight and showcase each family of instruments in the symphony orchestra. It may seem overly simple to some listeners and perhaps even clumsily constructed, but it hit a chord with the public and continues to make for delightful listening, especially when presented so felicitously by the composer himself and the London Symphony Orchestra in this 1964 recording. Britten conducts the piece at a rather quick but enlivening pace, and it’s done without narration so you can better enjoy the music. Also on the disc we find Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Bridge being his mentor), played by the English Chamber Orchestra and recorded in 1968. The Decca disc’s inclusion of the Simple Symphony was not a part of the original Decca LP and is, therefore, absent on this JVC edition.

So how is JVC’s remastering of these Britten chestnuts? First, although I’d had the Decca disc for a very long  time, I had never really thought of it as an audiophile favorite before. It was always a good-sounding disc but nothing especially transparent or realistic in any audiophile way. Anyhow, when listening to an A-B comparison of the Decca with the JVC, the most noticeable differences showed up during the Young Person’s Guide in terms of the JVC’s very slightly greater smoothness. Whereas the original Decca disc sounded a tad glassy, steely, and hard, the JVC remastering seemed a touch softer, the edges delicately smoother, rounder, and easier on the ear. Other differences sounded more subtle, with the JVC remastering being perhaps a touch more dynamic overall and firmer in the bass.

Here’s the thing, though: My listening did not settle the matter of which disc was “best”; that is, which disc sounded more like the master tape. Usually, one can tell when a difference in sound is an improvement; it usually manifests itself, as I’ve said, in an increased clarity, resolution, dynamic contrast, bass tautness, etc., often along with increased smoothness. But without access to the master tape and direct A-B testing of the remastered product, one can never be sure. It is always possible, for instance, that in this case the JVC engineers simply softened the sound, either by intent or by accident, making it appear smoother and easier on the ear; or that they may have gotten it exactly right, duplicating the actual sound of the master tape. As I say, without my having access to the master tape, I can never know for sure. Therefore, “best” in this instance becomes a matter of which disc appears to a listener as preferable according to taste, not which one is more accurate, and for me that was the JVC by a slim margin.

The accompanying Frank Bridge Variations, however, reveal much less of a difference, indeed, practically none at all, and I daresay in a blind test I wouldn’t be able to tell the JVC remaster from the Decca original. Sonically, then, the disc’s coupling becomes moot.

So, would I recommend the JVC disc to anyone? No; it’s still too much an open question for me, the differences being too small on which to build a case. Besides, the disc is costly; it excludes the Simple Symphony found on the Decca disc; and the small, admittedly controversial sonic improvements I heard show up only in the Young Person’s Guide. Yes, I did enjoy the smoother sound of the JVC, but perhaps not enough to recommend one’s paying double the Decca disc’s price for it.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

Drama Queens (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Alan Curtis, Il Complesso Barocco. Virgin Classics 5099960265425.

I have to admit I know next to nothing about opera, notwithstanding my having heard a ton of it live and on record over the years. For my taste, most operas are too long, too slow, too melodramatic. That said, it’s hard not to like the best of them and doubly hard to resist a good operatic singer. Which brings me to the disc at hand. Young tenors and sopranos come along by the dozens it seems, each one the next big thing. Most of them disappear from view before long, leaving only a select few to survive. American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of the survivors, a woman who has proved her worth over the past decade or so, becoming one of the world’s truly great singers. Gramophone magazine awarded her “Artist of the Year” status in 2010, and one can understand why after listening to her latest album, Drama Queens.

Ms. DiDonato specializes in vocal music of the Baroque period, and accordingly the album comprises thirteen arias from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Maestro Alan Curtis and the European Baroque ensemble Il Complesso Barocco in accompaniment. The selections are as follows:

1. “Da torbida procella” from Berenice by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760)
2. “Madre diletta” from Ifigenia in Aulide by Giovanni Porta (c. 1675-1755)
3. “Ma quando tornerai” from Alcina by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
4. “Lasciami piangere” from Fredegunda by Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739)
5. “Morte, col fiero aspetto” from Antonio e Cleopatra by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783)
6. “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Handel
7. “Intorno all'idol mio” from Orontea by Antonio Cesti (1623-1669)
8. “Brilla nell'alma” from Alessandro by Handel
9. “Geloso, sospetto” from Octavia by Keiser
10. “Disprezzata regina” from L'incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
11. “Sposa, son disprezzata” from Merope by Geminiano Giacomelli (c. 1692-1740)
12. “Col versar, barbaro, il sangue” from Berenice by Orlandini
13. “Vedi, se t'amo... Odio, furor, dispetto” from Armida by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Ms. DiDonato writes, “Why do we adore these queens of the drama? The answer, for me, lies at the heart of why we have opera: we yearn to open hidden doors to the richest, most complex, utterly human and profoundly moving emotions that we may not be able to access when left to our own devices. The crazy plots and extreme circumstances of the operatic universe give us permission to unleash our often too-idle imaginations.” Fair enough. And certainly the queens, princesses, empresses, and sorceresses of the album’s music provide Ms. DiDonato ample opportunity to exercise her own imaginative vocal skills.

The orchestra delivers a lively complement to Ms. DiDonato’s vocals, creating energetic, enthusiastic performances. In the biggest, most melodramatic numbers, Ms. DiDonato lets go with a commendable dynamism. She isn’t afraid to let her emotions show in these most-emotional of Baroque showpieces. There is nothing of the stuffy scholar here but, rather, full-blown theatrical interpretations.

Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust soprano voice, with a good deal of flexibility, which she demonstrates as the occasion arises. Whether the situation demands a display of love, pain, joy, anger, or sorrow, Ms. DiDonato is ready with the appropriate vocal gesture in a tone so pure, it kept even this non-opera fan in rapt attention. In short, she is able to do anything with her voice, exhibiting a remarkably wide vocal and emotional range.

Virgin Classics recorded the music at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, in 2012. The acoustic is lightly, pleasantly, reverberant, flattering Ms. DiDonato’s voice nicely. The overall sound, however, is a trifle bright and sharp, giving the instruments and vocals a slight edge. There is a modest air and depth to the sound, though, with a good integration of vocals and orchestral support. It’s certainly a clear, clean sonic presentation, given a modest nod in the direction of a natural, realistic atmosphere. While played too loudly it can get a bit severe, played at a comfortable level it can be quite enjoyable.

JJP

Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 1 (CD review)

Christian Benda, Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.570933.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote a slew of popular operas, but today most people probably know him best for his overtures. The present disc from Christian Benda and the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra (of which Benda is the Chief Conductor) and the Prague Philharmonic Choir is the first of four volumes of the composer’s overtures from Maestro Benda.

Choice is good, and Benda gives us yet another good choice. Yet before considering any new Rossini release, you should remember that there are already quite a few excellent discs out there, not the least of which is Neville Marriner’s complete, three-disc set from Philips, a long-gone label but one still available new and used for a reasonable (sometimes absurdly low) price. And if it’s only a single disc of the most-popular overtures you’re interested in, you can find excellent bargains on-line from the likes of, again, Marriner (Philips, PentaTone, or EMI), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), Piero Gamba (Decca or JVC), Peter Maag (HDTT), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Sir Roger Norrington (EMI), and others.

Yes, there is a lot of Rossini out there. Nevertheless, if you’ve sampled all of the above or simply want to hear everything that’s available, certainly you’ll want to check out this first volume of overtures from Benda because they’re really quite good.

The program begins with three of Rossini’s most well-known overtures. The first is La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”), which Benda infuses with a stately elegance, going on to develop a reasonable amount of tension and excitement. What’s more, Benda handles the more lyrical interludes with a quick-paced grace.

Next, we find Semiramide, in which Benda exploits both the urgency and the serenity nicely. Then, we get Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (“Elizabeth, Queen of England”), about which you are probably saying, “Huh?  I’ve never heard of that.” No, but Rossini reused the same overture later for the far more-famous opera Il barbierre de Siviglia (“The Barber of Seville”). Anyway, Benda’s fleet-footed performance serves it well.

After those items, Benda serves up four more overtures that are only slightly less popular. Here, we find Otello, Rossini’s recounting of Shakespeare’s play, the music typical of the composer’s work.  Benda gives it a lively, dramatic reading. Following that is Le Siege de Cornithe (“The Siege of Corinth”), a story “of love and duty.” Benda and his players treat it with appropriate attention to the duty part perhaps more than to the love element. Regardless, it moves along at a healthy clip. Moving on, there’s the odd little Sinfonia in D “al Conventello” Overture, in which you’ll recognize the first theme from Signor Bushino. Rossini was not above borrowing from himself. Again, Benda puts all his energy into it.

The album closes with Ermione (“Hermione”), from one of Rossini’s less-successful operas. The overture is of little consequence except for a few sections taken by a chorus. I had only heard it once before and have to admit that Benda’s rendition impressed me more than before.

Naxos recorded the music at the Kulturni Dum Barikadniku, Prague, Czech Republic, in 2011, and it’s one of the label’s best efforts of late. It displays a commendable dynamic range and impact, with a fairly clean, clear midrange and more-than-adequate bass and treble extension. The sound is not quite in the Orpheus (DG) or Maag (HDTT) league, but it’s good and on a par with most of the best. The smaller forces of the Prague Sinfonia help to produce more lucid sonics than we might get from an ensemble twice its size, and the Naxos engineers do their part to ensure a wide stereo spread and a decent sense of depth and air.

JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, November 18, 2012

An Array of Genres Showcased in Winter Programming for the MasterCard Performance Series In Sonoma State University’s Weill Hall

November and December concerts feature renowned mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Joyce DiDonato, Afro-Cuban musician Chucho Valdés, jazz-infused flamenco artist Buika, Renaissance polyphony with the Tallis Scholars, and Handel’s Messiah with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

Located on the picturesque campus of Sonoma State University in the heart of California’s wine region, Weill Hall at the Green Music Center continues its 2012-13 inaugural season of the MasterCard Performance Series with November and December concerts by world-renowned artists including acclaimed mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Joyce DiDonato, Afro-Cuban musician Chucho Valdés, jazz-infused flamenco artist Buika, Renaissance vocalists the Tallis Scholars, and Philharmonia Baroque with Handel’s Messiah.

Renowned mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe brings her highly praised program, “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith” Saturday, November 10 at 8 p.m. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe asserts that Blythe “was in some ways an even better Kate Smith than Kate Smith. Guiding listeners through anecdotes alternately hilarious and moving, and accompanied subtly and stylishly on the piano by Craig Terry, she infused this sometimes frustratingly stable material with nuance and sophistication, filament-thin pianissimos and formidable walls of sound, which excavated fresh emotion in songs that she lovingly called ‘musical comfort food, mac-and-cheese music.’”

Hailed by The New York Times as "the dean of Latin jazz" and "one of the world's great virtuosic pianists," Afro-Cuban musician Chucho Valdés and his quintet perform in Weill Hall on Sunday, November 11 at 7 p.m. Their sound is a unique blend of African, South American, Cuban, and Spanish music traditions, with the dexterous Valdés leading from the piano and combing sheer power with rhythmic sensibility, steeped in the intricacies of Afro-Cuban culture. Valdés has a forty-year track record of blazing new trails – as a visionary musician unwilling to bend to his government’s aesthetic structures, and as a composer, musician, arranger, and bandleader.

The New York Times describes singer Buika’s unique blend of flamenco, jazz, soul and blues as "luminous...magnificent...superb!” Daughter of political refugees from Equatorial Guinea, the “Flamenco Queen” was raised in a gypsy neighborhood on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Her soulful, passionate and powerful vocals have been described as a mixture of Tina Turner, Lora Flores, and Sarah Vaughan – but her musical style is one all her own. Her performance takes place Thursday, November 15 at 8 p.m.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is beloved by audiences and critics alike, receiving international honors including the 2010 Gramophone Artist of the Year award. Proclaimed by the New York Times to be “the perfect 21st-century diva --an effortless combination of glamour, charisma, intelligence, grace, and remarkable talent,” DiDonato performs at Weill Hall on Tuesday, November 20 at 8 p.m., one of only three recitals in the United States this season. Fresh off of her hugely successful performance as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi with the San Francisco Opera, mezzo-soprano DiDonato’s recital, “Drama Queens,” focuses on music from the Italian Baroque period.

The superbly blended voices of The Tallis Scholars, led by Peter Phillips, are renowned for their absolute clarity and purity of sound in Renaissance polyphony with The New York Times calling them “the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music” and asserting that the group has “proved themselves equally adept in the idiom of the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.” Their program, “Love is Better Than Wine,” will demonstrate that range when they mix works by Tallis, Praetorius, Lassus, Vivanco and Pärt on Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m.

Famed Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki, founder and Music Director of the Bach Collegium Japan, leads the internationally renowned Philharmonia Baroque on Sunday, December 9 at 3 p.m. in a performance of Handel’s beloved Messiah. Recently proclaimed by Joshua Kosman in Gramophone as “a leader in the field of historically informed performances, both in the U.S. and internationally,” the Bay Area-based early music ensemble will be joined by Philharmonia Chorale led by director Bruce Lamott, and soloists Sherezade Panthaki, Fabiana González, Dann Coakwell and Dashon Burton.

MasterCard Worldwide is the series presenting sponsor for Weill Hall at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center, providing generous supports for the annual MasterCard Performance Series, as well as a future outdoor pavilion for music and dance. Programming support is also provided by the Edward and Carolyn Stolman Fund, inaugural season lead underwriter; and Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, vocal series underwriters.

Tickets range from $20 - $90 and are available through the Green Music Center Box Office at 1-866-955-6040 or online at gmc.sonoma.edu.  For further information, please visit gmc.sonoma.edu or email greenmusiccenter@sonoma.edu.

--Karen Ames Communications

National Philharmonic Chorale to Perform Handel’s Messiah at the Music Center at Strathmore
In celebration of the holidays, National Philharmonic Chorale Artistic Director Stan Engebretson will conduct the National Philharmonic in Handel’s Messiah on Saturday, December 8 at 8 pm, Saturday, December 22 at 8 pm and Sunday, December 23 at 3 pm at the Music Center at Strathmore. The concert will feature the National Philharmonic’s nearly 200 voice all-volunteer Chorale, as well as soloists Danielle Talamantes (soprano); Magdalena Wór  (mezzo-soprano); Matthew Smith (tenor); and Kevin Deas (bass).

Handel’s Messiah, among the most popular works in Western choral literature, was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The composer’s most famous work is divided into three parts that address specific events in the life of Christ. Part one is primarily concerned with the Advent and Christmas stories; part two chronicles Christ's passion, resurrection, ascension and commitment to spreading the Christian message; and part three is based primarily upon the events chronicled in the Revelation of St. John. The National Philharmonic and Chorale, in addition to a stellar cast of soloists, will perform the complete work, which includes such favorites as “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” “And the Glory of the Lord,” and, of course, the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.”

About the Soloists    
DC’s Danielle Talamantes is one the region’s most sought after soloists. Appearing before sold out houses, Ms. Talamantes continues to garner the attention of a number of classical music organizations, symphonies, and opera companies. She recently debuted as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata with Fremont Opera to the tune of rave reviews. She was also thrilled to fulfill her debut contract in the Spring of 2011 with the Metropolitan Opera covering the role of Najade in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Recent concert performances featured Ms. Talamantes as soprano soloist with the Nashville Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Choralis, and the Oratorio Society of VA. She looks forward to making her debut with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society in May, 2012 in Mendelssohn’s Elijah and is delighted to return to perform with the New Dominion Chorale in an October 2012 production of Orff’s Carmina Burana as well as the National Philharmonic Chorale & Orchestra in a December, 2012 performance of Handel’s Messiah, and a February, 2013 performance of Poulenc’s Gloria. This summer, Ms. Talamantes, will be soprano in residence at the 2012 Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór is the first place Winner of the Heinz Rehfuss Vocal Competition (2005), a Metropolitan Opera Competition National Finalist (2002), a winner of the Mozart Society of Atlanta Competition, an alumna of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Summer Opera Program and Chautauqua Music Institution’s Marlena Malas Voice Program and St. Louis Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist Program. Ms. Wór was a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at the Washington National Opera from 2006-2008. She has recently appeared with the Metropolita Opera, National Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony and New Trinity Baroque. A polish native, Wór has lived in the United States since 1991. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in vocal performance from Georgia State University.

Tenor Matthew Smith is an accomplished tenor, having performed with many prestigious ensembles including the Washington Bach Consort, Cathedral Choral Society, Washington Concert Opera, Niagara Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra, and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. His operetta and operatic roles have included Frederic in Pirates of Penzance, Baron Zsupàn in Countess Maritza, the Prologue in The Turn of the Screw, Kaspar in Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Mayor in Albert Herring, and Torquemada in L’heure Espagnol. Smith received the Carmel Bach Festival’s Adams Fellowship in 2008. He studied voice with Beverley Rinaldi and Christine Anderson while earning his BM in Voice at the Cleveland Institute of Music and a MM in Opera from Temple University. Matthew currently serves with the Air Force Singing Sergeants in Washington, DC.

American bass Kevin Deas is especially celebrated for his riveting portrayal of the title role in Porgy and Bess with the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco, Atlanta, San Diego, Utah, Houston, Baltimore and Montreal Symphonies and at the Ravinia and Saratoga Festivals.  His recent recordings include Die Meistersinger with the Chicago Symphony under the late Sir Georg Solti and Varèse’s Ecuatorial with the ASKO Ensemble under Ricardo Chailly, both on Decca/London. Other releases include Bach’s B minor Mass and Handel’s Acis & Galatea on Vox Classics and Dave Brubeck’s To Hope! with the Cathedral Choral Society on the Telarc label.

About the Conductor
In demand throughout the United States and Europe, Dr. Stan Engebretson has led choirs in Venice’s Cathedral of St. Mark and taught in Cologne, Trier, St. Moritz, and Barcelona. He has studied with the great masters of choral music, including Robert Shaw, Gregg Smith, Richard Westenburg, Roger Wagner and Eric Ericson. After attending the University of North Dakota and earning his Doctorate from Stanford University, Engebretson taught at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota. He also was the Artistic Director of the Midland-Odessa Symphony Chorale and the Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Chorale. In Washington since 1990, Engebretson is Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at George Mason University and is the Director of Music at the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. From 1993-2003, he was the Artistic Director of
the predecessor to the National Philharmonic Chorale, the Masterworks Chorus and the semi-professional National Chamber Singers. Engebretson remains active in other areas, performing as a professional chorister and lecturer, and leading the Smithsonian Institution’s Study Journeys
at the Spoleto-USA Festival of the Arts.

--Deborah Birnbaum, National Philharmonic

Joana Carneiro and Berkeley Symphony Present a World-Premiere by Dylan Mattingly, with Shai Wosner as Soloist in Ligeti’s Piano Concerto December 6
Music Director Joana Carneiro and Berkeley Symphony continue their 2012-13 Season on Thursday, December 6 at 8 PM in Zellerbach Hall with the world premiere of Invisible Skyline by Berkeley native Dylan Mattingly. Berkeley Symphony also welcomes acclaimed pianist Shai Wosner. Praised by NPR’s “All Things Considered” for his “keen musical mind and deep musical soul,” Wosner will perform as soloist in Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Robert Schumann’s Symphony No.2 in C Major, Op.61 also features on the program. Berkeley Symphony dedicates the concert to the memory of Alan Farley, who hosted the KALW broadcast of the orchestra’s Zellerbach Hall performances until his passing in October.

Dylan Mattingly’s music has been performed around the world by such performers as Berkeley Symphony, the Del Sol String Quartet, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Soovin Kim, Sarah Cahill, Mary Rowell and Geoffrey Burleson. A multi-talented performer and improviser on cello, bass, piano, guitar and percussion, Mattingly is influenced by the music by Thomas Ades, John Adas, Olivier Messiaen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and the old American blues and folk field recordings of the Lomaxes. For two years he was the co-director of “Formerly Known as Classical,” a Bay Area new-music ensemble whose young members only play music written in their lifetimes, and is now the co-artistic director and co-founder of Contemporaneous, a New York-based ensemble of young musicians dedicated to performing the most exciting music of the present moment. Contemporaneous has just released an album on INNOVA Records entitled “Stream of Stars--Music of Dylan Mattingly.” Mattingly is a graduate of Berkeley Symphony’s “Under Construction Composers Program” which offers the opportunity for emerging composers to further develop their skills and gain practical experience in writing for a professional orchestra.

In demand as a soloist, chamber musician and recording artist, Israeli pianist Shai Wosner has attracted international recognition for his exceptional artistry, musical integrity and creative insight. The New York Times wrote of his Onyx debut recording of works by Brahms and Schoenberg as “inventively conceived and impressive.” A versatile performer of all musical genres, Shai Wosner will demonstrate his contemporary artistry with Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Throughout Ligeti’s life, he continually sought out new musical styles and remained open to fresh influence. It was perhaps his endurance of two totalitarian regimes--Nazi and Stalinist--that provoked his rejection of compositional systems and sparked exploration of ideas such as African polyphony and mathematically inspired principles of fractals and chaos theory. The same influences informed his Piano Concerto.

Conducted by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig, the premiere of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major in 1846 received a lukewarm reception from the audience. But after the composer made numerous edits creating a much sleeker version, it soon became the most highly esteemed of his symphonies. Despite suffering from mental illness throughout most of his adult life, Schumann overcame these afflictions through his dedication and application to music. He studied Bach counterpoint with his wife Clara, each writing a series of fugues including a set on the name B-A-C-H. The exercise was to leave its mark on the C Major Symphony.

--Karen Ames Communications

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Returns with Handel’s Messiah at First Congregational Church, Saturday, December 8, at 7:00 p.m.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, led by guest conductor Masaaki Suzuki, with “a subtle ear for color, a keen sense of harmonic direction, and an ability to make phrases breathe and rhythms live” (The New York Times), returns to Cal Performances with George Frederic Handel’s class oratorio Messiah on Saturday, December 8 at 7:00 p.m. at First Congregational Church. This performance will feature the Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, and soloists from Suzuki’s ensemble at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music: Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Fabiana González, alto, Dann Coakwell, tenor and Dashon Burton, bass-baritone. Speaking on a recent Handel performance, San Francisco Classical Voice applauded the “irresistible combination of rhythmic verve and sheer delight” of the ensemble.

Handel (1685–1759) completed Messiah in 1742. While it was originally intended for performance during Lent and Easter, Messiah—subtitled “A Sacred Oratorio”—has in modern times become an Advent and Christmas-season mainstay. The work combines Old and New Testament texts concerning prophecies of a savior, the Messiah.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has presented historically informed Baroque, Classical and early-Romantic music on original instruments since its founding in 1981 by Laurette Goldberg. Nicholas McGegan has been its artistic director since 1985. The group has garnered an impressive reputation including Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year in 2004. Based in the Bay Area, the ensemble has toured nationally and internationally performing in prominent locations such as BBC Proms, Tanglewood, Concertgebouw and Disney Hall.  The Philharmonia Chorale was created in 1995 to provide voices for works that the orchestra performs. This group is composed of 24 singers that have distinguished solo and ensemble experience with San Francisco Symphony, American Bach Soloists, Carmel Bach Festival and others.  The chorale has been led by Bruce Lamott since 1997.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has collaborated with Cal Performances on a number of occasions. Most recently in the 2011-2012 season the ensemble performed in Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas with Stephanie Blythe singing the role of Dido and with Morris conducting.

Masaaki Suzuki is currently the director of Bach Collegium Japan and a visiting professor at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.  A leading voice in early music, Suzuki has conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Melbourne Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and others.  He has recently won the German Record Critic’s Award in 2010 and a BBC Music Magazine Award with his recording of Bach motets with Bach Collegium Japan. Suzuki last appeared with Bach Collegium Japan at Cal Performances in March 2006.

Soprano Sherezade Panthaki is known as a talent in the field of early-music and has worked with many of the world’s leading early music interpreters including Nicholas McGegan, Simon Carrington and Willim Christie. She sang Handel’s Messiah previously with the Nashville Symphony. Born in India, Panthaki recently graduated with an Artist Diploma from Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music where she won multiple awards such as the prestigious Phyllis Curtin Career Entry Prize. Alto Fabiana González, a Puerto Rican native, recently completed her Masters in Early Music Performance at Yale School of Music, and has since become a rising star in the United States. In addition to solo performances, she has worked with various national and international festivals including the International Baroque Institute at the Longy School of Music, the Norfolk Festival and the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers. Tenor Dann Coakwell is equally well versed in early and lyric opera. He debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2010 as Audrey in Prokofiev’s Dalyekie Morya (Distant Seas) and has worked with such conductors as Suzuki and Helmuth Rilling. He has appeared as a tenor soloist with the five time Grammy-nominated group Conspirare both in performance and in their 2009 CD, Conspirare: A Company of Voices. Coakwell holds his Artist Diploma in Vocal Performance from Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton has recently collaborated with Suzuki, Pierre Boulez and Steven Smith. He sang and recorded with Cantus, an elite nine piece vocal ensemble that travels across the country and collaborates with artists and groups such as the Boston Pops, James Sewell Ballet and Bobby McFerrin. He is a founding member of Roomful of Teeth, a vocal group committed to exploring the full range of possible vocal techniques.

--Joe Yang, Philharmonia Baroque

American Bach Soloists Present Handel’s Messiah in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, December 20-22, 2012
There will be three performances only of Northern California's beloved holiday tradition and perenially sold-out event.

American Bach Soloists (ABS) have been thrilling audiences with holiday presentations of Handel’s Messiah in the breathtaking setting of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral since 1998. To mark the opening of ABS’s 24th season—and the 14th of this beloved tradition—music director Jeffrey Thomas will lead three performances from December 20-22, 2012, of the immortal masterwork with the period-instrument specialists of ABS, “some of the greatest period-instrument players in the world” (San Francisco Classical Voice), a superb quartet of vocal soloists, and the American Bach Choir, which “sets the standard in choral singing” (SFCV). Building upon the usual one or two performances of past seasons, 2012 marks the first time that the opportunity to experience this event will be extended through a Saturday presentation. These are always sold-out affairs, year after year, so even with an added performance seats are filling rapidly.

Having already presented the myriad versions of the work that Handel prepared during his lifetime, ABS will perform a version with voice assignments and sequences of parts that communicate the humanity and brilliance of Messiah with the greatest immediacy. Utilizing period instruments, these performances feature valve-less trumpets, the warm tone of gut strings, and expressive singing according to the performance practices of the composer’s time. With Maestro Thomas at the helm leading the extraordinary forces of ABS, these performances will continue to be among the finest anywhere. From the opening strains of the overture to the final “Amen,” the powerful score resonating throughout the awe-inspiring interior of Grace Cathedral makes this the perfect holiday treat to inspire wonder and joy.

Performance Schedule:
Thursday, December 20, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street (at Taylor Street), San Francisco

Friday, December 21, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street (at Taylor Street), San Francisco

Saturday, December 22, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street (at Taylor Street), San Francisco

Single tickets $20--$94. For more information, visit americanbach.org or call 415-621-7900.

--Christopher D. Lewis, Development and Communications Director

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Helmuth Rilling, Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra. Hanssler Classic CD94.615.

With so many praiseworthy sets of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos on the market from people like Pinnock (Avie and Archiv), Marriner (Philips), Lamon (Tafelmusik or Sony), Leppard (Philips), Savall (Astree), Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre), Apollo’s Fire (Avie), and Leonhardt (Sony), is there any reason to sample yet another one? Obviously, while people can only determine that question for themselves, there is no question that a mid-priced set such as this reissue from Helmuth Rilling on Hanssler Classic has a special appeal to budget-conscious buyers.

I wasn’t very familiar with Maestro Rilling’s work, so I found this note about him in the disc’s accompanying booklet: “Helmuth Rilling, born in 1933, has for decades been intimately involved in musical life, as founder of the ‘Gachinger Kontorel’ (a famous choir) and of the ‘International Bachakademie Stuttgart.’ In addition to his complete recording of J.S. Bach’s cantatas, issued in 1985, and the CD edition of all Bach’s works, of which he was the director, he has behind him an immense discography in a wide repertoire.” Fair enough; I guess I just don’t get around enough. In 1970 he organized the Oregon Bach Festival, which in 2013 takes place in Eugene, Ashland, Astoria, Bend, Corvallis, Lincoln City, and Portland. The Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra comprises members from American and European ensembles and from the music faculty of the University of Oregon.

OK, now, you’ll recall that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a cohesive group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a couple of years later was a collection of six works for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that the composer had probably written at various times for various other occasions.

Maestro Rilling leads an ensemble of players on modern instruments in generally straightforward, non-affected performances. Although it’s a somewhat middle-of-the-road offering, it’s affable and entertaining enough.

The Concerto No. 1 is one of the longest of the concertos and arranged for the biggest ensemble. It is also my least favorite, no matter who’s performing it. Be that as it may, Rilling’s interpretation sounds very relaxed and easygoing, without its losing much in the way of spirit or vitality. Unlike so many of today’s period-instrument bands and modern groups trying to emulate period styles, the Oregon Bach players don’t rush headlong through things. Rilling takes the outer movements at a moderately slow pace and the slower, inner movements a tad quicker than usual. It works fine.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the pieces and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the major part of the playing time. Here, Rilling’s tempos are lively and the atmosphere invigorating.

Listeners probably know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so; thus, it’s important not to upset their expectations. The conductor communicates a refined dignity above all, the music moving along at a healthy pace yet projecting a stately grace, too.

Concerto No. 4 is Bach’s most playful piece, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure. It always reminds me of children’s music for some reason, Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony or something like that, and Rilling does nothing to dispel the feeling, offering up a sweet and charming rendition, if a trifle fast in the opening movement for my taste.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my personal favorites, highlighting solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Because it requires a minimal ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound. For me, this was the best of Maestro Rilling’s work. There’s a smooth, flowing rhythm here, with some excellent harpsichord contributions. Very enjoyable.

While Concerto No. 6 sounds to me the least distinctive music in the set and uses the smallest ensemble, it never actually feels small. In fact, its only real deficiency is its similarity to Concerto No. 3, if a little slower. In it, Rilling goes out very stylishly, an elegant conclusion to the set, taken at an elegant pace.

Hanssler recorded the concertos in 1994 at Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene, Oregon.  They obtained a pleasing sound, with a reasonably wide stereo spread; a warm, natural response; and a fairly decent degree of depth and air. I suppose the recording could have better defined the instrumental sound, yet the whole thing is easy on the ear. For listeners who sometimes find Baroque music a bit hard or bright (a good friend always called it “that tinkly-tinkly stuff”), the recording’s sonics should satisfy them. While I would have liked to have heard a better separation of instruments, greater midrange transparency, and more extended highs in the larger concertos, what we get can be quite soothing.

Note, too, that the folks at Hanssler Classics have re-released this set several times now on disc, and one can find used copies of previous editions often for less than the cost of shipping. So, for any listeners wanting to sample the wares, new or used, they’ll find a lot of choice available.

JJP

Debussy: Prelude a l’Apres-midi (CD review)

Also, Nocturnes; La Mer; Berceuse heroique. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80617.

Under most other circumstances I would have to say Telarc’s sound on this recording is too ultrasmooth, but considering that it is serving the master impressionist Claude Debussy, it probably complements the music properly. For those listeners who fancy their impressionism mild and dreamy, this may be the best way to go.

My only concern with Paavo Jarvi’s interpretations of the Prelude a l'Apres-midi, Nocturnes, La Mer, and Berceuse heroique is that they seem more than a mite complacent. Next to classic recordings by Previn (EMI), Reiner (RCA), Karajan (DG), and Stokowski (London), Jarvi appears to lack some of their passion. Surely, in so serene a piece as the Prelude, this approach works perfectly well; but in something like the closing moments of La Mer, where the sea swells up and dances a literal storm, one senses little of the dramatic tension, the excitement and fervor, of the moment. There is, instead, a continued stream of soft, languorous relaxation.

Let me put it another way:  These readings may be easy on the ear, and they may make for pleasant listening while driving along a busy interstate, but they aren’t the most compelling performances for first-choice listening in the home.

Telarc’s sound is, as I say, ultrasmooth and somewhat soft, but it’s very broad and deep across and through the stereo sound stage, with excellent dimensionality and a solid bass line. In short, this is a pleasing but hardly earth-shattering release.

JJP

Orff: Carmina Burana (XRCD24 review)

Sheila Armstrong, Gerald English, Thomas Allen; Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra and St. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys’ Choir. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD8.

I’m not a big fan of Orff's music, but audiences seem to love it and you hear it used in movies all the time. Recorded in 1974, this performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra remains one of the best. EMI reissued it at mid price in their “Great Recordings of the Century” line in 1998, then in their “Masters” series in 2010, and now Hi-Q Records give us a JVC XRCD24 K2 audiophile remaster in 2012.

For those few of you who may not be familiar with the work, Carl Orff (1895-1982) based Carmina Burana on the collected songs and poems of medieval minstrels. A booklet note tells us “Carmina Burana --‘Songs of Benedikbeuern’--was the title given to a thirteenth-century manuscript collection of songs (mostly in Latin) found in a monastery at Benedikbeuern in southern Bavaria in the 19th century, by J.A. Schmeller, when he published it in 1847. Orff came across the collection in 1935, and was immediately struck by it, particularly by the illumination of the Wheel of Fortune reproduced as a frontispiece, and conceived the idea of setting the songs to music.”

The assemblage of tunes contains several dozen short vocal pieces, plus orchestral accompaniment, grouped together in four sections. The music is vivid and vibrant, especially in Previn’s hands, and it speaks mainly of the yearnings and pleasures of the flesh. For example, “Sweet, rosey-hued mouth, Come and make me well.” Or “Love flies everywhere, He is seized by desire. Young men, young girls, Are rightly coupled together.” Or “The girl without a lover, Does without any pleasure.” Or “If a boy with a girl Tarries in a little room, Happy their mating.” And so on in its earthy way; I think you get the idea. Ably supported by a boys’ choir, the soloists have a field day with lyrics like these. Previn brings out the rustic joy of the music with an obvious love for it, almost reveling in the vulgarity.

There were two advantages of the 1998 and 2010 EMI discs over the company’s very first CD mastering: Superior sonics and a cheaper price. The 1998 audio quality (the same mastering repeated for the 2010 disc) was very slightly smoother and a touch fuller than the first CD transfer. Being over three-and-a-half decades old, the recording was analogue, of course, but the Abbey Road Technology (ART) remastering from 1998 removed some of the edge one may have noticed in the earlier full-priced CD; not all of it, but enough. Now, the sound is even better in Hi-Q’s audiophile remastering, and it makes Previn’s interpretation, full of love and lust and other sensual delights, an even greater delight.

EMI recorded the music in Kingsway Hall, London, in December of 1974, and the sonic quality was well up to EMI’s customary high standards of the day. Hi-Q use the JVC XRCD K2 disc processing system and had JVC remastered and manufacture the disc in Japan. The XRCD K2 system is a meticulous technique that begins with the analogue signal digitized directly into K2 24-bit, sent to JVC for playback via Digital K2 to eliminate jitter and distortion, converted using K2 Super Coding to 16 bit, and encoded using a DVD K2 laser with JVC’s Extended Pit Cutting Technology, the operation controlled by a K2 Rubidium Clock supposedly over 10,000 times more accurate than a conventional crystal clock. What all this means is that the process is about as precise and accurate as you can get in transferring an analogue tape signal to compact disc.

As usual, I put the Hi-Q disc into one CD player and the latest EMI issue into another, changing them out from time to time during my comparison to ensure I was listening to the discs and not the players. What I heard did not surprise me, although it was not a night-and-day difference, just a subtle improvement in the sound of the Hi-Q product. The EMI appeared a tad forward and bright, especially during the predominately vocal sections, while being a touch veiled, too. The Hi-Q was just that much clearer and more dynamic. Remember, the differences I heard were not the kind you might even notice except on direct A-B comparison. Impact, transients, and bass were also tauter on the Hi-Q, and highs sounded better extended.

This is not to suggest that because the Hi-Q disc further clarifies the sound that it makes it any less forward or bright; it’s just makes it a bit more open and transparent. Surprisingly, perhaps, the biggest improvements I noticed were in the quieter moments of the music, the wider dynamic range and greater lucidity of the Hi-Q product effecting a better low-level response.

If you already own one of the EMI Previn discs and like it well enough to think it warrants an upgrade in sonics, the Hi-Q release may be just the thing you’re looking for. Moreover, if you don’t already own the recording in any form, you might consider Hi-Q if you have a really super playback system and very deep pockets because the Hi-Q doesn’t come cheap.

The only other recordings I can think of that compare favorably with Previn’s are Blomstedt’s with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Ormandy’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), and Jochum’s with the German Opera Orchestra (DG). Yet Previn has the definite advantage in sound if you go all the way with the Hi-Q remaster. Besides, Hi-Q Records package the disc in a very substantial and beautifully illustrated Digipak, with note pages fastened book-like inside. As always, it’s a first-class presentation.

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

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.