Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Suite from the Ballet (XRCD review)

Yehudi Menuhin, solo violin; Efrem Kurtz, Philharmonia Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD49.

Although Russian-born, naturalized-American conductor Efrem Kurtz (1900-1995) lived well into the stereo age, he never became as famous as some of his contemporaries like Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, or Otto Klemperer. Still, he made some excellent stereo recordings, such as this 1958 album of highlights from Swan Lake with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with no less a star than Yehudi Menuhin doing the violin solos. The new XRCD remastering does justice to its still-impressive sound.

The director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) to write the score for the ballet we now know as Swan Lake. Premiered in 1877, it was the first of the composer's big-three ballets, with The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty to follow. Today, we take Swan Lake for granted as one of the greatest ballets of all time, but initially it failed. The dancers complained they couldn't dance to the music, the conductor couldn't properly handle the tunes, and critics generally panned it. It would not be until 1895, several years after the composer's death, that the ballet's popularity began to soar in revival.

The story is that Swan Lake started life as a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans, which Tchaikovsky wrote for his family in 1871. Then, when he received the commission, the composer added Russian and German folk tales as his sources, the general plot based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus. One of the salient points about Tchaikovsky's writing it is that critics now consider it the first ballet composed by a writer who had previously worked almost exclusively in the symphonic field. Thus, if Swan Lake sounds more "symphonic" in structure, composition, and themes than earlier ballets, there is a reason.

In four acts Swan Lake tell the story of a young man, Prince Siegfried, whose mother insists it's about time he found a bride and marry. No sooner said than he chances upon a beautiful young woman, Odette, with whom he falls in love. However, as fate would have it, an evil magician has put her and her attendants under a spell whereby they may be human at night but turn into swans by day. Naturally, it is only a true and unfailing love that can save her.

Efrem Kurtz
Kurtz easily negotiates the ups and downs of a suite of popular items from the ballet, and the Philharmonia, then in its prime, perform flawlessly. Indeed, the performance is sparkling in every way. Yet Kurtz never simply goes for show, glitz, or glitter. The music flows naturally, in a fine onward course. What's more, there is an elegance about the reading that one can hardly ignore. It's not just thrills Kurtz is striving for but a genuine sense of place and time, a handsome story told in frank, handsome terms, with little additional embellishment from the conductor. Still, even though Kurtz keeps things on an even keel, he still manages to inject plenty of excitement into the score.

Then there's the matter of Menuhin's solos. I guess I hadn't realized how many solo violin parts there were in the ballet until noticing them here. Certainly, Menuhin handles them deftly, his playing dexterous, gentle, lush, scintillating, as the case may be. The music's idyll sounds particularly touching, with the strings of the Philharmonia adding a poignant glow.

If I have any minor concerns about the disc, there are two: First, nowhere could I find a list of the disc's tracks or timings. The back of the package itemizes the musical content, but it doesn't do so with corresponding track numbers or track times. (For the record, so to speak, the disc contains nineteen tracks for a total of just over fifty-three minutes.) Second, I had a really hard time getting the disc out of its plastic center ring. I mean, you want it to be tight enough to hold the disc firmly in place, but this was ridiculous. I thought I was going to snap the disc in two trying to loosen it.

Otherwise, the packaging is commendable: a glossy, hard-bound Digipak design, with booklet notes bound inside and the disc itself attached to a plastic center ring in the back.

Producers R. Kinloch Anderson and Peter Andry and engineers Neville Boyling and Robert Gooch recorded the suite at Kingsway Hall, London in March and April of 1958. JVC (Victor Company of Japan) remastered and manufactured the present disc using XRCD24, 24-bit Super Analog K2 technology. Hi-Q Records distributes the product.

I did not have an LP or CD of the performance with which to make comparisons, but I believe I can safely say based on what I heard from this remaster and the comparisons I have made of Hi-Q products in the past that this recording is no doubt an improvement over the original mastering. The clarity is outstanding, with a huge dynamic range, strong impact, and good frequency extremes. The high end sounds especially impressive, with a shimmering treble response. However, I must warn that if one's system already favors the high end, the disc might sound a little bright, and even with noise reduction there is a faint sizzle at the very top. Anyway, the stereo spread is also commendable, as is the orchestral depth. So, what we get are excellent sonics to match an exuberant performance. Never mind the age; it's better than almost anything made today.

You can find Hi-Q products at any number of on-line marketplaces, but you'll find some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Classical Music News of the Week, July 24, 2016

ABS Presents Handel's Parnasso in festa - First Ever Outside Europe

To celebrate the marriage of Princess Anne to Prince William of Orange, Handel composed a new 3-act serenata, Parnasso in festa, and utilized his greatest singers for the work, including the celebrated castrati Giovanni Carestini and Carlo Scalzi, and two of his most illustrious sopranos, Margherita Durastanti and Anna Strada del Pò.

The glorious music of Parnasso in festa was such a popular success at the 1734 Royal Wedding that it was profitably revived during several subsequent opera seasons at London's Covent Garden.

Presented only occasionally in England and Germany since Handel's day, this work of stunning melodies and irresistible charm will receive its long overdue American premiere during the 2016 American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy under the direction of Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. Be there for this exciting premiere event! Tickets start at only $30.

Thursday & Friday, August 11 & 12, 2016 at 8:00 pm
San Francisco Conservatory of Music

ABS Academy Festival Orchestra
American Bach Choir
Soloists from the ABS Academy
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

For tickets and further information, visit http://americanbach.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=2641

--Jeff McMillan, American Bach Soloists

Subscribe to Win - Exclusive Wine Country Prize Pack
Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 2016-17 Season Subscriber Sweepstakes:

Subscribe to a package of five or more performances in the 2016-17 MasterCard Performance Series
by August 2, 2016 and be entered to win one of eight fabulous Wine Country Prize Packs.

Each Winner receives:
Voucher for a dinner for two (2) at Prelude Restaurant
One night stay at the Gables Wine Country Inn
Complimentary wine tasting at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards
Exclusive Green Music Center merchandise

For more information, call  1.866.955.6040 or visit gmc.sonoma.edu

--Green Music Center

"Postcards from The Grand Tour" - Opening Weekend Concert at ABS Festival
The 2016 American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy will feature music from Baroque Italy. The flourishing cities of Florence, Venice, and Rome—the primary destinations of the Grand Tour excursions taken by British nobility and wealthy landed gentry, and the meeting places for the most celebrated composers and performers of the era—offered some of the most glorious art, architecture, and music to be found anywhere during the Baroque era.

The second night of the Festival features a collection of captivating works by Italian composers including Albinoni, Caldara, Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, and others. Each piece, a souvenir from a stop along The Grand Tour of sun-drenched Baroque Italy, will be performed by the ABS Academy Faculty, an outstanding group of artists who are all world-wide leaders of the Early Music movement.

Saturday August 6 2016 at 8:00 pm
St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco

For more information, visit http://americanbach.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=2641

--Jeff McMillan, ABS

Study of New World Symphony WALLCAST Concerts Reveals Younger, Ethnically Diverse Audience
The WALLCAST Concert Experience, a yearlong independent study about the New World Symphony's WALLCAST concerts, is now available to the public. The study reveals that audiences for the format are far more diverse than audiences for traditional classical music concerts. This diversity is reflected across multiple indicators—primarily the age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds of attendees.

WALLCAST concerts are free outdoor simulcasts of live concerts performed on stage inside the New World Center. Live video from the hall is projected onto the Center's 7,000-square-foot eastern façade and viewed from adjacent SoundScape Park, which was designed as an extension of the Center. Audio from the performance is transmitted through the Park's virtual-acoustic sound system by Meyer Sound of Berkeley, California. Noting that other orchestras and presenting organizations across the country are experimenting with similar formats, the study suggests that they may be interested in breaking down barriers related to "cost and negative perceptions of classical music as intimidating and inaccessible."

The study was commissioned by the Miami-based New World Symphony (NWS), America's Orchestral Academy, to assess the impact and role of its WALLCAST concerts in the community.  Funded in part by The Miami Foundation and led by consulting firm WolfBrown, the study investigates the WALLCAST format's effectiveness in attracting and engaging new audiences for classical music, reflecting not just NWS's commitment to audience development, but its mission to educate the next generation of musicians in these new approaches.

The findings of the report confirm the positive impact of the WALLCAST format in furthering NWS's broader effort to bring in new listeners, while also shedding light on the effectiveness of the simulcast format. "Digital programming has an important role to play in building demand, and WALLCAST raises the bar for digital concert experiences," says Alan Brown, who led the study. "For too many years, arts organizations have looked down upon digital programming because it's not live. The WALLCAST experience—which is live, but digital—is both impactful and deeply valued by audiences."

For more information, visit https://www.nws.edu/news/study-of-new-world-symphony-wallcast-concerts-reveals-younger-ethnically-diverse-audience/

--Schumann Associates News

Orion Opens Season in September with Wintle Commission, Mozart, Zemlinsky
To open its 24th season, The Orion Ensemble, winner of the prestigious Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, presents "Collage of Colors," welcoming guest violist Stephen Boe. Performances take place at First Baptist Church of Geneva September 18; the Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston September 25; and the PianoForte Studios in downtown Chicago September 28.

The program:
James Wintle's Pontoon-Bridge Miracle for clarinet, violin and piano, commissioned by Orion in 1996, is a highly programmatic and expertly crafted piece based on a poem about Chicago by American poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931).

Mozart's Duo in B-flat Major for violin and viola, K. 424 was an act of friendship.

The Quartet in E-flat Major for violin, viola, cello and piano, K. 493 features some of Mozart's finest and most elegant writing for piano and strings.

Alexander von Zemlinsky's Trio in D Minor for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 3 so impressed Brahms that he immediately brought it to the attention of his publisher.

Orion's 2016-17 season:
Orion's 2016-17 season, Miniatures and Masterworks, continues with "Serenade by Three: Orion Beginnings" in November, spotlighting Orion's original three members with works by Yadzinski, Granados, Khatchaturian, John Williams and Glick; "Connections" in March, welcoming back Stephen Boe for a program of Kritz, Mahler and Rebecca Clarke; and "Wit and Passion" in May, also featuring Boe for works by Jean Francaix and Brahms. Also during the season, Orion hosts a fall benefit November 19 at 12 noon at Dunham Woods Riding Club in Wayne, Illinois and appears on the broadcast series "Live from WFMT" October 3, 2016 and March 20, 2017 at 8 p.m.

 For tickets or more information, call 630-628-9591 or visit orionensemble.org.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Plus, a second disc with the conductor discussing the work. Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc 2CD-80569 (2-disc set).

No guts, no glory. Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra attack this most passionate of Mahler's big orchestral works with all the extremes of emotion it deserves. Indeed, Zander's performance may come as close to Mahler's intentions as any recording on the market.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1901-02, and it is among his most varied works, beginning in sorrow and solemnity and culminating in joy and happiness. The turning points are the third movement Scherzo, sounding much like Mahler's usual parodies of a traditional Viennese waltz, and the famous Adagietto, really a love letter to the composer's wife, Alma. These lead into the joyous Finale.

Zander takes each movement very slightly quicker than many of his rivals, but never does he lose the lilt or flavor of the more lustrous passages. Interestingly, too, Zander tells us in a booklet note that after he had recorded the piece, he compared his timings for each movement to those of Mahler himself as reported by a listener at a rehearsal of the work, and Zander's timings were no more than a minute different from Mahler's for the entire symphony. Of course, that doesn't prove anything, really, because we don't know for certain what Mahler's tempos were in an actual performance, nor do we know what Mahler's phrasing was like. Nor can we be sure that any composer is the ultimate authority on conducting his own works. Whatever, it makes a fascinating point.

Benjamin Zander
None of this is to suggest that Zander's reading is any better than rival versions, but it surely equals some of the best I've heard. However, I still have a preference for Sir John Barbirolli's rendition (EMI, now Warner Classics) in which Sir John wears his heart more openly on his sleeve, luxuriating ever the more slowly in each movement, especially the Adagietto, which, nonetheless, manages to sound a note of love and beauty rather than being entirely funereal. Getting back to Zander, let's give him an A for effort here and assume his performance is as close to Mahler's designs as any around, a small degree of sentimentality notwithstanding.

In addition to the symphony, the folks at Telarc also include for the cost of the one CD an extra disc, seventy-eight minutes long, of Zander discussing the symphony. He takes us movement by movement through the work, commenting and illustrating points by using not only his own recording but historical recordings as well. It's a welcome bonus disc, even if Zander emerges from it a bit too much the pontifical lecturer in his narration.

The disc's sound is big and bold in the Telarc tradition, a recording exuberant enough to match the interpretation. The dynamic range is wide, and the frequency response reaches the limits of both ends of the sonic spectrum. Yet here's the snag: It doesn't appear to have a lot of presence, and, in fact, when comparing it to Barbirolli's 1969 account, it has less depth and less inner detail. What's more, the Barbirolli disc comes in at mid price, remaining a glorious bargain.

Still and all, this Zander/Telarc disc is one to consider, and for people looking for the least degree of idiosyncrasy in their music, it may top the charts.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. 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.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa