Albeniz: Iberia

Iberia. Nelson Goerner. Alpha Classics 829

Although Isaac Albeniz was from Spain and is thought of as a “Spanish” composer, during much of his composing career he lived in Paris and was strongly influenced by impressionism. It’s hardly surprising, then, that his masterwork, Iberia, although often using Spanish-sounding themes, sounds more like something by Debussy than anything by de Falla, Granados, or other typically Spanish composers.

Any review of Iberia must start with Alicia de Larrocha, widely acknowledged as the queen of this music, and of Spanish piano music in general. (This view is not mere Spanish provincialism, as there is no doubt about her command of the repertoire.) So far as I can tell, she recorded Iberia three times, but each of these versions has appeared in multiple re-releases, so keeping track of what's what can be quite the challenge. In any case, her readings are thoughtful, extremely well played, and evocative; we might think of them as forming a baseline for comparison for all others.

Generally, de Larrocha’s interpretation stayed reasonably constant, although I find that her 1961 take was, by a slight margin, the most spirited of the three, more dynamic and a shade quicker than her last recording. Subsequent versions seem to emphasize the dreamy aspect: tempos are slow-ish and free, and dynamics are wide. At the same time, the playing seems precise if anything, almost tight at times.

But all of these earlier recordings suffer from less than wonderful sound. The first version just sounds dated, with a boxy, mid-range heavy tone lacking in high-end. The last version is sonically acceptable, but nothing to write home about, at least in comparison to newer recordings, with the piano presented a bit distantly in a reverberant space that truly sounds like an empty hall, the upper registers a bit clangy in louder passages, and the bottom registers lacking weight.

Well, there are plenty of other choices. In just one well-regarded example, Jean-Francois Heisser gets through the work more quickly than de Larrocha, but still with much of that dreamlike quality, in a recording that seems to have been the same as the one attributed to Joyce Hotto[1]. But here again, the recorded sound feels dated, more close up and less reverberant than the de Larrocha, but sharing the same restrictions in range and the same tendency toward unpleasant clanginess in the louder passages.

Nelson Goerner
We finally reach the album under review. Aside from the recorded sound, which I'll get to shortly, the first thing I noticed about Goerner's performance was a feeling of freedom, of playfulness, an almost casual (in a good sense) approach to playing. I certainly don't mean superficial, but rather a sense of love for the music, of interacting with joyously with the composition as with an old friend. You can hear this, for instance not only in the very first section of Book 1: Evocation, but in many other sections, such as in the third of Book 2, Triana.

An interesting aspect of this sense of freedom is that some dissonances at first sound like mistakes, but no, the dissonances are what Albeniz wrote. Take for example the third section of Book 3, Lavaples. De Larrocha plays it straight, and sounds as though she's trying to hold things together in spite of a certain insanity in the music. Goerner doesn't shy away, but seems to embrace the craziness, if not emphasizing it. Both approaches are valid, and it's wonderful to hear the contrasting interpretations.

Goerner also employs a huge dynamic range, not only pounding it out when the music calls for that, but playing in an almost whispering way when that's appropriate.  The technical ability to play this music, difficult as it is, is obvious. Technical chops are not rare these days, but still it's reassuring to hear everything coming out right.

Which is a nice segue to talking about the sound of the recording. In less well-done recordings, those extremely soft passages might be lost and noise or muddled in reverberation. Not so here. The piano is recorded more closely than in some older recordings, including de Larrocha’s, not dry but without obvious reverberation, an approach that suits Albeniz’ densely packed scoring quite well. With some earlier recordings, sadly including de Larrocha’s, one must listen through the vagaries of the recorded sound; with the fine job done by the engineers at Alpha, one engages easily with the sound that seemingly is brought into one's own room. By the way, the extensive liner notes, which include an informative discussion of the composition, indicate that this is a live recording from July of 2021. How Alpha managed a live recording during the pandemic – with an utterly silent audience – is a mystery. But with these results, who cares?

So is this CD the one, the only, the best, the replacement for de Larrocha’s (or anyone else's)? There’s never really a “one and only” version of anything, and if you're new to the music I certainly urge you to hear at least one of de Larrocha's recordings. But Goerner’s is a version that definitely stands on its own merits, a very worthwhile take on the infinite possibilities in Albeniz' masterpiece.

[1] An interesting if squalid story of apparent fraud in the classical music world.


Recent Releases No. 42 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Beethoven for Three. Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale” (arr. for piano trio by Shai Wosner); Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op 1, No. 3. Emanuel Ax, piano; Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Yo-Yo Ma, cello. Sony Classics 19658739372

 

We previously encountered these three all-star musicians in a Beethoven for Three recording of Beethoven’s energetic Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5, a review that can be read here. Now we have this new recording that features their rendition of the colorful “Pastoral” Symphony, which I must confess is perhaps my least favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies. What?! KN says he does not like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6?! No, that’s not what I said. I like it. I like it quite a bit, in fact.  At one time, it was one of my favorites of his symphonies, perhaps the favorite for a time. But over the years, most of the other Beethoven symphonies have elbowed their way past it in the race for my affection. However, hearing what these three musicians have accomplished with only three instruments has really given me a burning desire to go back and listen again to some full orchestral recordings, so expect more anon. As I noted in my previous review, it was fairly common back in Beethoven’s time for arrangements for small chamber ensembles, or even solo piano, of orchestral scores. For example, the trio arrangement of the Beethoven Symphony No. 2 on that previous recording was done by Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven’s disciples. 


Meanwhile, back to the present release, which is a sheer delight. The Pastoral Symphony is nothing if not tuneful, and having these tunes distributed among just three instruments brings remarkable clarity and energy to the score. From the very first measures, these three maestro amigos grab your attention and draw you into the music. The first time or two I listened I found myself wondering just how the piano was being used, or the cello – but after those first couple of times I listened to this reduced arrangment, I forgot about trying to compare the trio version to the original orchestral version and instead simply enjoyed the trio version on its own delightful sonic terms. The liner notes – well, there are no liner notes to speak of aside from thank-yous from the musicians along with the standard production credits. Sadly enough, there is nary a peep have about the arrangement (other than a thank-you), a discussion of which would have been fascinating to read. Oh well. Sonically, piano sounds overly wide, but not overly prominent, but this is not at all bothersome, at least to these charitable ears. Other than that, there are no audio nits worth picking. The trio that fills out then program is fun, full of drama, making this a highly recommendable release.

 

Haydn: String Quartets Op. 42, 77, & 103. Takács Quartet. Hyperion CDA68364

 

The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is a hugely influential figure in Western classical music who somehow manages often to be underestimated, underappreciated, or even worse, overlooked. Classical music lovers revere the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven; well, Haydn pretty much is the father of the form. Likewise, the string quartet – although he did not create it out of whole cloth, “Papa” Haydn was also the father of the modern version of the form that many feel Beethoven later polished to perfection in his late string quartets. Speaking of those late Beethoven quartets, by the way, many critics have judged the recording by the Takács Quartet to be one of the finest sets available, an opinion with which I concur. So here we have the Takács Quartet playing three string quartets from among the 67 that Haydn from among Haydn completed during his lifetime (Op. 42 [1785], which is quartet 35; Op. 77 Op, Nos. 1 and 2 [1799], which are 66 and 67, plus the two movements Haydn completed of Op. 103 [1803], which is 68. The end result here is a disc filled with more than 72 minutes of thoroughly delightful, engaging, vigorous, and entertaining music. My goodness, Haydn just has a knack for blending the sound of the four instruments that sounds utterly effortless. Listening to these string quartets of his, you can just sit back and enjoy what seems to be nothing less than pure. sweet, glorious music. The melodies are easy enough to follow, whether slow or quick, but they are never so simple as to become obvious or boring. As a bonus with this release, the playing is so precise and the engineering so adept that the sound coming from your speakers (assuming you have a reasonably good system that you have set up with some care in terms of speaker placement and seating position) will come across as perfectly balanced and lifelike. As usual with Hyperion, the liner notes and cover art are first-rate, making this a highly desirable release in every respect. Please note: If you are relatively new to classical music and have never really listened to string quartet music before, this release would be a great place to start. Try it, you might like it!

Maidan. Silvestrov: Maidan 2014 (Cycle of Cycles) – Cycle I | Cycle II | Cycle III | Cycle IVFour SongsDiptychTriptych.  Kyiv Chamber Choir, Mykola Hobdych, conductor. ECM New Series 2359

 

The Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov was born in Kyiv in 1937. In March of 2022, at the age of 84, he left his home city with his daughter, granddaughter, and a suitcase full of manuscripts to make a difficult three-day journey to Berlin. He found himself and his family refugees, victims of the brutal attack on their home country ordered by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. As the liner notes point out, however, the disaster had begun years earlier, in 2014, the year of the “Euromaidan” or “Revolution of Dignity,” a Ukrainian “protest against the surprising failure, by the Russophile government of the time, to sign the association agreement with then European Union.” Silvestrov’s composition Maidan 2014 was his response to these events, his witness of this Revolution. Although the work was originally performed only in Ukraine, the invasion of Ukraine has brought attention to this and other works by Silvestrov, which have been performed more often in more countries around the world. The music has a haunting yet powerful quality. Recorded in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv (in 2017, well before the invasion), the voices resonate powerfully within that large space. The harmonies are relatively simple, as you might expect from music intended to communicate settings of the Ukrainian anthem combined with liturgical intonations. Also included on the CD are three smaller song cycles that have a similar sonic and musical profile. The liner booklet helpfully provides texts in both Ukrainian and English; some of the poetry is quite moving, especially in light of current events. This is a powerful recording – sonically, musically, and emotionally.

 

 

 

Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 7; Flute Concerto No. 1 (CD Review)

By Karl Nehring

Symphonies Nos. 3 & 7Flute Concerto No. 1. Kirill Gerstein, harpsichord; Marie-Christine Zupancic, flute; Mirga Gražinytè-Tyla, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Berlin (Symphony No. 7). Deutsche Grammophon DG 486 2402 (CD review)

 

Long-time followers of Classical Candor might possibly recall our previous encounter with symphonies penned by the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish Jew who fled Warsaw in 1939 and in the 1940s found himself living in Moscow and becoming friends with Shostakovich (see review here). Like Shostakovich, Weinberg and his music became targets of Stalin’s ire. Of the Symphony No. 3 included on this release, for example, the liner notes relate that “it appears from the manuscript score that the original version of the Third Symphony was submitted to the censor and accepted for performance and publication. And yet it seems that critical voices in the Union of Soviet Composers protested against its release since Weinberg declared after a run-through that the work contained “errors” that required his attention. The implication is that the symphony had been heavily criticized. But it was only much later that Weinberg made these alterations. It required the changed political climate of the Kruschev Thaw for Weinberg to resume work on his Third Symphony and finally to complete it in 1959.” 

 

We shall return to Symphony No. 3 below, but first let us consider Symphony No. 7 (1964), for that is the work with which the disc opens. The work is specified as being for string orchestra and harpsichord; unusually enough, the opening measures are played by then harpsichord alone. It is in five movements, which alternate between slow and more sprightly in tempo. Although the mood is never quite tragic, neither is it what most listeners would find to be happy or optimistic. Instead, the music sounds guarded, nervous, perhaps even frightened at times. Despite that – or possibly because of it – it is captivating, drawing the listener in. The sound of the harpsichord provides moments of musical punctuation and seasoning. The overall impression is of a large work for small forces.

 

Sandwiched between the two symphonies is the Flute Concerto No. 1. Composed in 1961, it icast in the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast. The opening movement, marked Allegro molto, gallops right along, sounding like something Shostakovich could have written. That is not meant as a putdown, but as praise; the movement has an infectious, almost nervous energy that demands attention. The following Largo movement slows things down, but does not really calm things down. There is a nervous undercurrent lurking beneath the calm surface that breaks through in the third movement, marked Allegro commodo, which whirls and swirls with nervous energy.

 

Closing this generously filled disc is Symphony No. 3, which is scored for large orchestra. Hearing it now, even in its revised version, listeners can still get an inkling of why the original version may have rankled the Soviet thought police back in the 1940s. It’s a big, bold work, opening with some compelling sounds from woodwinds in the opening, to be joined later by the brass as the music grows more and more agitated. My guess is that the original version had more agitation, perhaps abetted by some dissonance here and there that was smoothed out in Weinberg’s revision of the score. Of special note is the third movement, marked Adagio, which is searchingly, sorrowfully sublime. You can feel Weinberg’s soul striving for something it knows it cannot quite reach, yet the quest must continue, even with head bowed. It is a magnificent nine minutes of music. The finale, as you might expect, is energetic – Allegro vivace – but as with the finale of the Shostakovich Fifth, there is some ambiguity as to whether the ending should be understood as signifying triumph or something more troubling. In the final few bars, the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytè-Tyla (b. 1986) seems to hold back just enough to suggest that in the case of this symphony by Weinberg, she leans toward the latter interpretation. It is a convincing performance of a remarkable symphony, a work that surely deserves wider exposure.

 

Captured in convincing stereo sound quality, this program builds from the quiet notes of a harpsichord at the opening to the full blast of a large orchestra in the final minutes. The soloists, conductor, and musicians of both orchestras all combine to present the music of this still largely overlooked composer in the best possible light. Let’s hope that there are more recordings of Weinberg symphonies forthcoming from these forces in the future.  

 

 

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

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. --John J. Puccio
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information (classicalcandor@gmail.com) toward the bottom of each page.

Contact Information

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa