Earthdrawn Skies (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Hildegard von Bingen: Columba aspexit (arr. Alex Fortes); Eleanor Alberga: String Quartet No. 1; Komitas Vardapet: Armenian Folk Songs (arr. Sergei Aslamazian) - Yergink Ampel A (It’s Cloudy); Haprpan (Festive Song); Shoushigi (For Shoushing); Echmiadzni Bar (Dance from Echmiadznin); Kaqavik (The Partridge); Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor Op. 56, “Voces Intimae.” Aizuri Quartet (Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa violins; Ayane Kozasa, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello). Azica ACD-71359 

Having never heard of the Aizuri Quartet before receiving this disc for review, I was not quite sure what to expect. The program seemed to be a bit unusual, too, what with music from Hildegard, Komitas, and Sibelius – familiar names, but not ones I would have expected to find together on the same program – plus a quartet from a composer whose name was unfamiliar to me, Eleanor Alberga. Opening the booklet that came with the CD, I found these words of explanation from Aizuri’s cellist, Karen Ouzounian: “Earthdrawn Skies explores deep connections between humankind and the natural world through the distinct lenses of four composers forging personal relationships with the soil and the stars. These works by Hildegard von Bingen, Eleanor Alberga, Komitas Vardepet and Jean Sibelius are rooted in a sense of tradition and connection to the land, even as the composers seek something beyond their reach: an understanding of God, the physics of the cosmos, homeland, happiness. The music on this album draws from the earth as it reaches upward and outward. these composers share an impulse to understand the sky, the heavens, the larger things in life. This is music we have kept returning to as a quartet, as it speaks to us in deeply personal ways. We cherish playing this music together, and we hope it resonates as much with you as it does with us.”

The opening piece by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) is an unusual choice for a string quartet in that rather than highlight the interplay among the four members, with the first and second violins swapping melodic lines in the upper registers while engaging in interplay with the darker tones of the viola and cello, weaving in and out of each other’s lines, the four players are bound tightly together. "The four of us have often talked about ‘singing through our instruments’ and how the quartet is one organism," remarks violinist Miho Saegusa. "Alex Fortes's arrangement of Hildegard's Columba aspexit presented us with a unique and challenging question, one we were excited to explore: how can we truly become one voice?" It’s an unusual sonority for a string quartet, but one that draws the listener in. What an effective way to begin an album!

Next on the docket is the three-movement String Quartet No. 1 by Eleanor Alberga (b.1949), a Jamaican-born composer who lives and works in the UK. From the very first measures of the first movement it is clearly a work that in tone and texture stands in contrast from the Bingen that preceded it. The pace is frantic, the mood more abstract. The overall pattern is the familiar fast-slow-fast, the engaging second movement (the highlight of the piece, designated Expressivo, with wonder and yearning) being followed by the more frenetic finale, with its sharper rhythms and pizzicato passages (it is designated Frantically driven yet playful). It sounds like one of those pieces that would be especially rewarding to see performed live, observing the interactions of the four players.

Then comes another shift in pace and mood with the five brief (none over three minutes) folk songs by the Armenian Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), usually known simply as “Komitas,” an Armenian musicologist, composer, music teacher, choir director, priest (thus the “Vardapet,”), whose actual given name was Soghomon Gevorki Soghomonyan. He is considered the father of Armenian classical music. These folk songs are lively and charming, enjoyable to hear as well as to play. "The music of Komitas gave us a sense of our roots, our homes and lands from which we were displaced, the contours and nuances of our language, the warmth and sorrow and ebullience of our families, a link between those who perished and those who are living," writes Ouzounian of the album's link to her Armenian heritage.

The album closes with the “Voces Intimae” quartet by Sibelius. As popular as his symphonies have become, his string quartet has never really caught on to the same degree. Some years back I read a fascinating book that I highly recommend titled Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony by Arnold Steinhardt, who was the first violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet. One of the tales from his account of his career with the group revolves around his repeated attempts to persuade the other members to add the Sibelius to the Guarneri’s repertoire. Surprisingly, it took many years before he was finally successful, as the other quartet members would not come to agreement that the Sibelius quartet was a worthy piece. My goodness! Violist Ayane Kokasa points out that “there are five movements instead of the traditional three or four. Each movement feels like a character piece, with the heart and soul of the work placed in three intimate and hushed chords tucked in the third movement. No matter how many times I listen to this piece, it feels new, like we are on the precipice of discovering something great.” It’s not one of those dramatic quartets that makes a memorable first impression; it’s a quartet that deserves and then rewards repeat listening. 

Azica Records deserves kudos for the liner notes that provide some insight into the music and musicians, the simple but compelling art that graces both cover and booklet, and the attractive sound quality. With Earthdrawn Skies, they have produced a CD that deserves and then rewards repeated listening.

Piano Potpourri No. 11 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Debussy: Études, L 143, Book 1 - Pour les cinq doigts (d'après Monsieur Czerny)Pour les tiercesPour les quartesè;Pour les sixtesPour les octavesPour les huit doigtsBook 2 - Pour les degrés chromatiquesPour les agréments;Pour les notes répétéesPour les sonorités opposéesPour les arpèges composesPour les accordsPour le piano, L 95 - I. PréludeII. SarabandeIII. ToccataLa plus que lente, L128Berceuse héroïque, L140Étude retrouvée. Steven Osborne, piano. Hyperion CDA68409

It was about a year ago that we reviewed a previous Hyperion release of the fine Scottish pianist Steven Osborne devoted to the music of Debussy (you can read that review here). In that previous review, we pointed out that for that release, Osborne had chosen to put together a program different from the usual program we often find in recordings of Debussy’s works for piano. Rather than highlight a major set of his works, such as the Études or Preludes, Osborne instead pulled together a program of pieces from throughout the French master’s career. A year later, we now have Osborne’s take on the Études; as it has been said, good things come to those who wait. Most music fans with more than a passing knowledge of the piano repertoire probably know that an étude is a study piece. The Merriam-Webster website offers two brief definitions: 1) a piece of music for the practice of a point of technique; and 2) a composition built on a technical motive but played for its artistic value. Osborne clearly has technique to burn – he is playing Debussy’s Études for their artistic value, and we the listening public are the beneficiaries. Osborne delivers this music with a beguiling blend of rhythmic energy and tonal shadings. As usual with Hyperion, his piano has been beautifully captured by the microphones and the liner notes are thorough and erudite. This is another first-class release from Hyperion.

Nitai Hershkovits: Call on the Old Wise. Hershkovits: The Old WiseEnough To Say I WillMode AntigonaOf Trust and RemorseIntermezzo No.3Majestic Steps Glow Far; Molly Drake: Dream Your Dreams; Hershkovits: Placid In AfricansqueMode Brilliante; Duke Ellington: Single Petal Of A Rose; Hershkovits: A Rooftop MinuetLate BlossomIntermezzo No.4In SatinThis You Mean To MeOf MentorshipFor SuzanRiver Wash Me. Nitai Hershkovits, piano. ECM 2779 551 5448


The Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovits (b. 1988) is the son of a Moroccan mother and a Polish father. He originally started his musical studies on the clarinet before switching to the piano at age 15. Jazz and improvised music were the focal point of his musical interest throughout his teens, with a particularly strong interest in the music and techniques of jazz great Sonny Rollins, the ”Saxophone Colossus.” During this period, Hershkovits won several jazz competitions in the Tel Aviv area, before his deepened interest in classical music blossomed, leading him to study not only jazz nut also classical piano. you can hear evidence of both musical influences in Call in the Old Wise, his first solo piano recording on the ECM label, having most recently appeared as pianist with Oded Tzúr’s quartet on the ECM recordings Here Be Dragons (2020) and Isabela (2022). Hershkovits says of the album, “It’s like I’m playing with several periods of music at once, but in a sort of augmented-reality-environment. To me the album is like a journey taking you through multiple varying experiences in the blink of an eye. Like jumping through frames holding different pictures or looking through windows to different worlds.”

The music on Call on the Old Wise has for the most part a low-key, almost conversational feel to it. There is no banging on the keys, no breakneck tempi, no dissonant tone clusters. That said, the improvisatory nature of much of the music is always evident, but comes across to the listener more as directed and creative, a balanced combination of preparation and inspiration The album is partially dedicated to Hershkovits’s former piano teacher Suzan Cohen, the mentor to whom the term “wise” in the albums title alludes. The pieces The Old Wise, Of Mentorship, and For Suzan refer directly to her. But Hershkovits also draws from other influences, ranging from his work in jazz contexts and to his background in classical music. From track to track, the music varies, but never loses its listenable, playful, charming, quality. “I don’t want to be confined to any specific key or time signature, but rather leave the freedom to continually re-evaluate things in real-time and see them from a new perspective over and over again,” he explains, “that’s also why I tried to go into the session with as few preconceived ideas as possible.” He goes on to mentions inspirations as seemingly disparate as the late jazz piano jazz legend Chick Corea and Russian composers Rachmaninoff and Scriabin as prominent influences. You can get a brief sample of his low-key but inviting piano style in this brief video, which features an excerpt from the track Mode Brilliante. With no liner notes but beautiful ECM sound, Call on the Old Wise is an unexpected jewel of a piano recording.

Recent Releases No. 67 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Tractus. Arvo Pärt: Littlemore Tractus; Greater Antiphons I-VII; Cantique des degrés; Sequentia; L’abbé Agathon;These Words…; Veni creator; Vater unser. Maria Listra, soprano; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tönu Kaljuste, conductor. ECM New Series 2800 485 9166

Recorded in Tallinn’s Methodist Church last year, Tractus extends the line of Arvo Pärt albums on the ECM label that began with Tabula rasa in 1984, the recording which first brought Pärt’s music to widespread awareness. I was in graduate school back then, working weekends as a security guard at a factory. Late one night as I drove from the main plant to check on an off-site location while listening to classical music on WOSU-FM, they played music from that album, which featured not only classical violinist Gidon Kremer but also jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. I was transfixed by Pårt’s music, becoming an immediate fan. I purchased the CD that very week and went on to acquire dozens more over the next four decades – and have never been disappointed. This latest Pärt album, Tractus, features an emphasis on works for choir and chamber orchestra, although there are also compositions for the orchestra alone as well as one for soprano and orchestra. The texts (all of which are included in the CD booklet) are all based on scriptural, liturgical, or other traditional Christian texts. Although there are passages where the music exhibits some drama, it is for the most part reflective and inward-looking, very much in keeping with the spiritual focus of the texts. The sound quality is warm, spacious, and inviting. This is an album to treasure.

Lise Davidsen: Christmas from Norway. Adolphe Adam: O Helge natt (O Holy Night in Swedish); Humperdinck: Weihnachten; Franz Xaver Gruber/Josef Mohr: Silent Night; Gustaf Nordqvist/Edvard Evers: Jul, jul, strålande julDeilig er Jorden (trad. folk tune, lyrics by Bernhard Severin Ingemann); Mitt Herte Alltid Vanker (trad. folk tune, lyrics by Hans Adolph Brorson); Julvisa (No. 4 from Viisi joululaulua Op. 1 by Sibelius, lyrics by Zachris Topelius); Bach: Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (lyrics by Martin Janus); Reger: Maria Wiegenlied (lyrics by Martin Boelitz); Bach/Gounod: Ave Maria; Hugo Wolf: Schlafendes Jesuskind (lyrics by Eduard Mörike); The First Noël(trad.); John Francis Wade: O Come All Ye Faithful; Adam: O Holy Night. Lise Davidsen, soprano; Norwegian Soloists’ Choir (conductor, Simon Arlasjö); Norwegian National Opera Children’s Choir (conductor, Edle Stray-Pedersen); Norwegian Radio Orchestra; Christian Eggen, conductor. Decca 485 4358


“Christmas is how I got into music,” explains the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen (b. 1987), one of the foremost opera stars of our day, “we listened to all kinds of music: choral music, popular music, and the Norwegian songs I sing on this album.” She remembers Christmas services at her hometown church in Stokke: “I remember getting my first solo there, and when I was older, singing O Holy Night for the first time. I was still singing it there on Christmas Eve in my late twenties, well into my career. They were happy I kept going back but for me it was an essential part of the spirit of Christmas.” She concludes her liner booklet note by remarking, “For Scandinavians, Christmas is the white light we need in the middle of a long winter. Perhaps that’s why we embrace it. And we really do embrace it.” She opens and closes the album with O Holy Night, first in Swedish and then in English – reflecting the special place that song holds in her memory of Christmas. What sets this album apart from many other Christmas albums  -- beyond just the wondrous quality of Davidsen’s voice, that is – is the variety of music. This is not just your typical collection of popular carols. Moreover, the musical settings vary; some with orchestra, some with choir, some with children’s choir. Even if, like me, you already have a number of Christmas albums in your collection, you really ought to give this one serious consideration.

Miracle of Miracles: Music for Hanukkah. Trad., arr. Robert Applebaum: Oh Chanukah/Y'Mei Hachanukah; Trad., arr. Steve Barnett: S’vivon; Trad., arr. Mark Zuckerman: O, ir kleyne likhtelekh; Gerald Cohen: Chanukah Lights: Applebaum: Haneirot Halalu; Trad., arr.  Elliott Z. Levine): Al HaNisim; Trad., arr. Applebaum): Al Hanisim; Joshua Fishbein: Al Hanisim (For the Miracles); Daniel Tunkel: from Hallel Cantata - I. Hal’luyah! (Psalm 113)II. B’tzeit Yisrael (Psalm 114)III. Adonai Z’charanu (Psalm 115, vv. 12-18)VI. Hodu (Psalm 118, vv. 1-4); Trad., arr. Applebaum): Maoz Tzur; Levine: Lo V’Chayil; Vladimir Heyfetz (Arr. Zuckerman): Fayer, fayer; Samuel E. Goldfarb (arr. Applebaum): Funky Dreidl (I Had a Little Dreidl); Mikhl Gelbart (Arr. Zuckerman): I am a Little Dreydl (Ikh bin a kleyner Dreydl); Jonathan M. Miller: Biy’mey Mattityahu; Chaim Parchi (arr. Joshua Jacobson): Aleih Neiri; Stacy Garrop: Lo Yisa Goy. Chicago a cappella. Cedille CDR 9000022


Over the years I have accumulated a number of Christmas recordings – so many, in fact, that a few years ago I felt compelled to cull through them, decide which one I really wanted to keep, and take the rest in for trade. I took quite a few in go the store for trade, but still have more left than I will ever play over the holidays. Some of those Christmas CDs were sent to me for review over the years – but in all my years of being a reviewer (roughly 35, counting my time at both The $ensible Sound and now at Classical Candor), I was never sent one single Hanukkah CD for review until this one recently arrived in my mailbox. Miracle of miracles indeed! But receiving this disc after all that time made me stop and wonder why I had never been sent – or even really noticed, to be honest (of course, the fact that I am not Jewish is obviously a factor) any Hanukkah CDs before. Fortunately, in the liner booklet, Jonathan Miller, Chicago a cappella artistic director emeritus, at least partially answered my question: “Why, you might ask, aren’t there more albums of Hanukkah music like this? Finding the music is a big part of the challenge. It’s hard to locate works that meet all of our criteria: superb musical craftsmanship, a Hanukkah text, and a setting for a cappella mixed choir… Jewish choral music is a recent phenomenon, begun in earnest only about 200 years ago in Berlin, so there’s a simple quantity issue: we have much less repertoire to peruse than in other choral traditions. Given all of this, we are especially grateful for the composers and arrangers whose persistence and skill have given us the works found here.”

So what do we have here? Chicago a cappella is an ensemble of ten singers from among the Chicago area’s most accomplished classically trained choral singers and soloists. The group was originally founded in 1993 and has performed a wide variety of music, ranging from the Renaissance to the 21st century. Miracle of Miracles features a collection of songs from more than 25 years of the ensemble’s performances, arranged into a single program that replays the story of Hanukkah, from celebrations of the holiday itself through to its candles, miracles, religious observances, and traditional food and games. The music and the texts include a mix of both biblical and modern Hebrew, as well as Yiddish elements (and English) intertwined with American jazz and popular styles. The vocal styles and expressions represented on this album aim to capture fully the traditions of Hanukkah across the Diaspora and Jewish history. It’s a fascinating collection. One need not be Jewish to enjoy the skill and enthusiasm that these singers bring to these remarkable songs, such as the three versions of Al Hanisim or the energetic dreydl songs, perhaps the kinds of songs that might be most likely to strike a note of familiarity with some non-Jewish listeners. The liner notes include notes and texts for all of the compositions, and the engineering by Cedille’s audio wizard Bill Maylone is excellent as always, making this a fine production in every aspect, well worth a listen regardless of your faith or lack thereof.

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 for 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 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 occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

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 First Symphony. 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 II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual 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.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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.

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa