Oct 31, 2009

Sibelius: Symphony No. 7, etc. (CD review)

Also Pelleas et Melisande, Tapiola, and the Oceanides.  Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  EMI 50999 5 09693 2 6.

I'm willing to bet that if you listened to it, you couldn't tell this recording was well over a half a century old.  Recorded in 1955 (1955, imagine that!) the stereo sound comes up like new in this EMI "Great Performances of the Century" remastering.  Sure, in quiet passages you can hear a bit of background noise, but during most of the music it disappears to the ear, and you never notice it.  What you do hear is a solid, if not particularly deep, bass; a clear, natural midrange; some sparkling highs; and a fine sense of depth and spread to the orchestra.  Remarkable, considering that this is one of the earliest stereo recordings EMI ever released for the home.

Anyway, it's the music that counts, and this is one of those albums that has stood the test of time to become a legitimate classic.  Beecham came to Sibelius relatively late in his career, but once he found the music, he championed it evermore.  The composer himself was later to say that he considered Beecham one of only two conductors he preferred doing his work (the other being Koussevitzky).  These recordings explain why.

The disc lists the little Symphony No. 7 first on the album cover, and while it is quite fine, it's really the incidental music from Pelleas et Melisande that stands out.  One hears delicacy, refinement, nuance, sweetness, and light throughout the piece as Beecham lovingly caresses each phrase.  Following the eight movements of Pelleas (Beecham chose to leave out one movement) is the tone poem Oceanides, which the conductor frankly described as "that strange composition--very strange indeed."  Yet I found it far from strange, at least in Beecham's hands, a beautiful evocation of the sea.  After the little twenty-minute Seventh Symphony, things conclude with Sibelius's popular Tapiola, again among the best interpretations you'll find, delightfully, charmingly performed as only Beecham could manage it.

I might add in closing that if you own EMI's previous CD transfer, you might find this one slightly better balanced left to right, slightly fuller, and slightly smoother overall.  At mid price, it's surely a must-buy.


Oct 30, 2009

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 (CD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Christian Gansch, Russian National Orchestra.  DG 477 6415.

Nice.  Very, very nice.

Late in 2006 pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev embarked on an ambitious project:  To record all five of Beethoven's piano concertos and all nine of the symphonies over a period of several years.  This recording of the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 is the first entry in the series.

Pletnev may look like a pretty somber guy from his photographs, but his playing is anything but dismal or gloomy.  In both concertos, the man shows spark and zest in the outer movements, creating excitement and generally happy spirits galore, while displaying great sensitivity in the slow movements, where he is probably even better.  Actually, those outer movements can sometimes seem a tad too fast in places, whereas he takes the Largos at a more conventional pace, yet with much feeling.  The pianist's virtuosity is never in question, and Christian Gansch's conducting of the Russian National Orchestra is always sympathetic.  I would have to place these performances in the top ranks of currently available renditions, right up there with Kovacevich (Philips), Perahia (Sony), Ashkenazy (Decca), Kempff (DG), and other such notables.

DG made the recordings during live performances in September, 2006, and you would hardly know they were live.  Occasionally, during quiet passages, you can hear some minor wheezing or shuffling of feet, and at the conclusion of the program the audience erupts into an unfortunate applause (edited out of the first piece).  Otherwise, the sound is quiet, fairly close, warm, natural, and wide spread, with a realistic piano appearing not too big or too small in relation to the orchestra.  The sonics may not have quite the clarity of a studio recording, but they are comfortable and pleasant.


Oct 29, 2009

Mozart Meets Marriner: Serenades (CD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.  Philips B0007075-02.

I'm going to make a guess here and say that Mozart's Serenade in G, K.525, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," may be the most familiar music in the world.  OK, I'll grant you "Happy Birthday" and "Jingle Bells" are popular, too.  Certainly, the "Little Night Music" Serenade is one of Mozart's most familiar tunes.  Meaning it's been recorded by everyone everywhere, and you can find it done up by full modern orchestras, period bands, chamber ensembles, and probably singing reindeer.  But you won't find it done up any better than by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on this reissued Philips recording.

Marriner was never an extremist, so you'll find this performance pretty much middle-of-the-road, which is probably the way most of us want it.  There is always room for a new, invigorating reading by a new gung-ho group, but for a first choice in this repertoire, it's best to play it safe.  That would be Marriner, Boskovsky, and maybe I Musici.  Yes, Marriner and the Academy did the piece for EMI in an even more refined manner, but here he is as relaxed and joyful as he can be.  And accompanying the "Nachtmusik" are the Serenade in D, K.239, "Serenata notturna," and the Serenade in D, K.320, "Posthorn."  They are equally well played and well presented.

Given that this is a budget-priced collection, the sound is remarkably good.  The "Nachtmusik" has a tad more ambient bloom to it than the other two works, but it never distracts from the music.  If you are looking for ultimate sound reproduction, FIM has remastered the "Serenata notturna" in XRCD processing, and there you will find it even smoother, more transparent, and more dynamic.  But you'll also pay four times the price for it.  This Philips set is hard to beat, dollar for dollar.

The only minor cavil I would have is the Philips labeling.  First, on the back of the jewel box, they mark the four-movement "Nachtmusik" as 1-3, taking up with 5-7 for the "Serenata notturna."  What happened to #4?  Then, on the back of the booklet insert, they claim a production date of 1987 for the "Nachtmusik" and "Serenata," when clearly the "Serenata," at least, came from a 1967 Argo release.  Oh, well, it's the music that matters, not the fine print.


Oct 28, 2009

Handel: Fireworks Music, Water Music, Coronation Anthems (CD review)

Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Philip Ledger, Sir David Willcocks; London Symphony Orchestra, Prague Chamber Orchestra, Choir of King's College, Cambridge.  EMI 50999 2 64338 2 (2-disc set).

Because it's been the common practice these past twenty-odd years to record Handel's Fireworks and Water Music using period instruments, it came as a change of pace to hear these works using modern instruments in 1970s and early 80s performances.  Sir Charles Mackerras starts things off in this budget-priced, two-disc set with the Fireworks Music, utilizing what sounds like the entire London Symphony Orchestra.  Not that Handel didn't intend his music for a large ensemble; there is evidence to support the contention that over a hundred players were initially involved.  We just don't hear it that way much anymore.  Be that as it may, the LSO sound fine, and the music does take on a grandeur sometimes missing in smaller performances.  Indeed, when you play a period-instruments group for comparison, the latter might sound positively puny to you.  No complaints about the Fireworks Music, which comes off quite well (after a somewhat lugubrious start), with Mackerras adding plenty of zip and sparkle to the proceedings.

In the case of the Water Music, though, Mackerras tones things down a bit with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.  The ensemble doesn't have the sheer numbers of the LSO recording and it may not be on period instruments, either, but it does show a nod toward period interpretation.  The knock, perhaps, is that the performances are a shade on the cool, heavy, even conventional side, especially compared to the lively Fireworks Music that precedes it.  Interestingly, Mackerras would record this music some years later with the Orchestra of St. Luke's for Telarc in a much quicker-paced production.

On the second disc we find Handel's Coronation Anthems, with Sir Philip Ledger leading the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and the English Chamber Orchestra; followed by Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109), lead by Sir David Willcocks and the same forces, plus soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara, mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, countertenor Martin Lane, tenor Robert Tear, and baritone John Shirley-Quirk.  These are exquisitely refined readings that show the composer and the performers at the top of their form.

As we have four different recordings here from four different years (1976, 1978, 1982, and 1965 respectively), we get different sound from each.  I found the Fireworks Music and the Dixit Dominus a trifle bright in the highs and light in the bass.  The Water Music seemed to fare best, but, then, it has the least in the way of frequency extremes and dynamics to deal with.  And while the vocal numbers appeared a little pinched and edgy to me, there is certainly no lack of clarity involved.


Oct 27, 2009

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Vol. 1 (CD review)

Tianwa Yang, violin; Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, Orquesta Sinfonia de Navarra.  Naxos 8.572191.

Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908) was a virtuosic Spanish violinist who was also a noted composer (or vice versa).  On this disc we get seven of his short violin works for orchestral accompaniment, played by violinist Tianwa Yang, who previously recorded several highly regarded Naxos albums of Sarasate's music for violin and piano.  The addition of the orchestra only makes a good thing better.

The album begins with Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), one of the most famous pieces of "gypsy" music in existence, coming to life and showing its stuff in the second half after a lengthy introduction.  It's the kind of work that puts a violinist's full range of abilities on display, and Ms. Yang comes though unscathed.  Both she and the Orquesta Sinfonia de Navarra shine, lighting up the room with their electricity.  One hardly notices the orchestra, though, what with Ms. Yang putting on such an exhibition of technical prowess.

The Airs espagnols that follows is, for me, an even better piece of music than Zigeunerweisen, although it never attained the popularity.  The Airs espagnols perfectly captures the spirit of the Spanish countryside in a series of delightful folk tunes and original melodies.  For this brief, ten-minute, work alone the disc is worth its budget price.

The other music falls in line, with the Peteneras: Capriccio espagnol among the most multifaceted and lively, and the Nocturnes-serenade acting as a sort of calming rest stop in the procession of pyrotechnics on display in the rest of the music.

The sound that Naxos engineers capture is close and highly impressive, suiting the sweep of the music-making.  Although it does not exhibit a lot of orchestral depth, it does produce a clear, sharply defined presence, with excellent dynamics.  Fortunately, there are no traces of edginess, brightness, or glassiness to the sonics, so despite the closeness of the recording, things remain fairly smooth and warm throughout.

Trivia note:  Sarasate himself founded the Navarra Symphony Orchestra in 1879, making it the oldest active ensemble in Spain and, therefore, wholly appropriate to playing the man's music.


Oct 26, 2009

Arnold: Ballet Music (CD review)

Suite from "Homage to the Queen"; Rinaldo and Armida; Concert Suite from "Sweeney Todd"; Electra.  Rumon Gamba, BBC Philharmonic.  Chandos CHAN 10550.

Although many of us think of Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) as a composer of orchestral music--symphonies, concertos, overtures, and the like--this album reminds us that he composed a few ballets as well.  It's mostly brief stuff we get here, and perhaps it doesn't amount to much, but it's good to have it collected together in chronological order and performed so well.

The first piece in the set is a twenty-minute suite from Homage to the Queen, Arnold's first ballet, composed in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  It begins in a typically bombastic Arnold manner, but it's followed by some delightful short movements that are light, airy, and lithe, as well as more typically flamboyant Arnold, concluding on a wholly regal tone.

Rinaldo and Armida is a dance-drama in one act from 1955.  The composer based the ballet on a sixteenth-century poem about a deadly enchantress meeting her doom.  Thus, it's spooky, melancholy, and histrionically dramatic by turns and is probably the best work in the set in terms of pure musicality.

Next, we get Arnold's 1959 score to the famous story of Sweeney Todd, the barber who kills his clients and chops them up into meat pies.  Like Sondheim's later music, Arnold's music contrasts the purely comical with the grotesque.  On this disc, we get a concert suite arranged by David Ellis in 1984 in consultation with the composer.  The tunes are varied and in some sections more than a touch weird, but they are always witty and entertaining.  In terms of pure enjoyment, Sweeney Todd is the most mainstream of the lot.

The disc concludes with Electra, 1963, in a première recording.  It's another short ballet in one act, about fifteen minutes.  Based loosely on the play by Sophocles, this is the darkest piece in the album and probably the least accessible, although the extensive percussion should keep most listeners awake.

Matching the ballet form, Ruman Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic are lyrical and sweet when necessary, light on their feet, yet seriously thrusting and forceful when the occasions demand.  Gamba keeps the music flowing at a theatrical pace, and the Chandos audio engineers do their magic with sound that is warmly atmospheric, yet clean and reasonably transparent.  The recording could have used a bit more deep bass, but, otherwise, it offers good orchestral depth and breadth, with some sounds extending well beyond the boundaries of the speakers.


Oct 24, 2009

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

James DePreist, London Symphony Orchestra.  Naxos 8.557990.

A friend of mine was commenting recently on how the cost of the formerly budget-priced Naxos releases has inched to within a few dollars of what we normally regard as the mid-price range.  It's true; as of this writing Naxos discs were selling at a list price of $8.99, which means their competition is a lot tougher.

In fairness, Naxos have been attracting some big names of late.  This Mahler disc, for example, boasts one of America's finest conductors, James DePreist, and one of the world's finest orchestras, the London Symphony.  Still, while it's a good performance and a good recording, you have to consider that for just a few dollars more, $11.98, you can buy an acknowledged classic like Sir John Barbirolli's 1970 account from EMI in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series.  It makes you stop and think for a moment.

Anyway, DePreist's recording is a decent alternative at any price.  Given that Mahler symphonies, and especially the Fifth, provide enough varied material--from grave and gloomy to joyful and triumphant, from lush and lovely to grand and imposing--for any conductor to make his mark, it's a wonder there is any consensus at all about who might be "best."

DePreist takes a kind of middle-of-the-road approach.  The performance does not carry the weight of a Solti, the exuberance of a Rattle, or the intense personal emotion of a Barbirolli, but it does have a little of each of these elements.  The Scherzo, which is at the heart of this big, purely orchestral work, is appropriately zippy and happy after the relatively dark (albeit sometimes resounding) opening movement, followed by the famous Adagietto (the composer's so-called love letter to his wife-to-be), taken slowly and comfortably.  After that, I'm not sure it was even necessary for Mahler to write a Finale, but it brings the work to a delicious close, although DePreist seems a little hesitant about it.

The Naxos sound is better than average (recorded in Abbey Road Studios in 2005), being highly dimensional and very dynamic.  Bass is impressive on occasion, and a few glistening highs ring out as well.  The midrange, however, is not as transparent as on Barbirolli's older recording, another reason for giving the EMI disc a second thought.


Oct 23, 2009

Cantate Domino (CD review)

Torsten Nilsson, conductor; Alf Linder, organ; Marianne Melnas, soprano; Oscar's Motet Choir.  LIM K2HD 025.

Audiophiles will undoubtedly have one version or another of this 1976 Proprius album sitting on their shelves.  The music is beautifully sung and beautifully recorded, and the disc has deserved its reputation through the years.  It's a collection of mostly sacred Christmas hymns, with a couple of traditional Christmas tunes thrown in for good measure (and sounding oddly out of place).  After sublime renditions of "Silent Night," "Hosianna Davids Son," "Christmas Song," and the like, the concluding "Zither Song" and "White Christmas" strike an odd note.  In fact, the performance of "White Christmas" with its jazzy organ accompaniment has always reminded me of a skating rink.

However, it's not the interpretations one talks about in a review of a new mastering of Cantate Domino.  It's all about the sound.  Producer Winston Ma says in the booklet note, "I know you have a Proprius copy, and most likely other versions as well.  I urge you to compare those recordings with this one; I think you will be pleased that you have the final and ultimate edition...."  Fair enough.  I did just that, placing the LIM and Proprius discs in separate CD players, adjusting the gain for identical outputs, and making the comparisons.  As always, though, straightforward comparisons don't always tell the full story because without a master tape in the room, one never knows for sure which version is closest to the original, only which version one likes best.

I seem to recall years ago being slightly disappointed with Proprius's CD transfer because it appeared to lose some bass compared to the LP.  Not so with LIM's K2HD remastering.  The bass is the most noticeable thing about the new disc.  If you want to make a comparison for yourself, try starting with "Maria Wiegenlied."  Behind the vocals it's got a big organ that sweeps over the listener like a wave.  Yet with the more prominent bass, the LIM reveals more low-end noise, too.  Oh, well....

The second most noticeable difference is in overall smoothness.  The LIM tends to sound slightly more natural, refining hard edges that seem a tad "digital" on the Proprius disc.  Yet with the increased smoothness, you lose the tiniest degree of perceived transparency, too.  I say "perceived" because, again, you don't know what the original master tape sounds like.  Likewise, the LIM transfer seems fuller in the mid and upper bass, making it sound bigger and mellower than the Proprius.  But which is right?

Winston would undoubtedly tell you that his K2HD remaster (engineered by Paul Stubblebine and Takeshi "Hakkaman" Hakamata) neither adds nor subtracts anything from the original tape, and we'd have to take his word for it.  Still, there is no way of telling for sure without actually hearing the LIM disc next to the original tape.  All I can say is that this new LIM remaster is a bit more pleasing to my ears than Proprius's own CD.  Whether the LIM is better than the Proprius CD I'll leave to the golden ears of other reviewers.  Frankly, after some thirty-five years of comparing LPs and CDs, the whole thing remains a mystery to me.


Oct 22, 2009

Schubert: Symphonies No. 4 "Tragic" & No. 5 (SACD review)

Gordan Nikolic, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra.  PentaTone Classics SACD PTC 5186 340.

Did Franz Schubert (1797-1828) ever compose anything that wasn't totally engaging, most often delightful?  Yet in his lifetime he was forever in Beethoven's symphonic shadow, and while his chamber works were often in demand, hardly anyone performed his bigger-scale works.  Indeed, his crowning gem, the Symphony No. 9, didn't even get a performance until more than a decade after his death.

On this PentaTone disc we hear two of Schubert's most opposite symphonies, Nos. 4 and 5, with No. 4, which he called the "Tragic" symphony, all gloom and doom, and No. 5 among the most sprightly things he ever wrote.  They are sort of like Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in their opposing moods, even though in the hands of Gordan Nikolic and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, both of the Schubert pieces come off rather darkly.

Things begin with the Symphony No. 4, which Schubert described in part as "death, the grave, decomposition, judgement, and eternal rest."  Nikolic takes the composer at his word and produces a wholly dramatic statement of the work, the opening movement whipping up a storm of theatrical energy and everything following in close order.  Things are a little uncertain and off-kilter about the symphony, culminating in an ambiguous final movement that can't quite make up its mind if it wants to be exciting or somber.  Maybe it's excitingly somber.

The concern I have with Nikolic's interpretation of the Symphony No. 5 is that it should be, in contrast to No. 4, all bubbly and effervescent but isn't.  It's almost as slow and earnest as the Fourth.  Nikolic takes a very formal and serious approach to the music as compared with conductors like Beecham (EMI), Klemperer (EMI), Goodman (Nimbus), and Abbado (DG), who are far more lighthearted.  Maybe Nikolic wants us to see the more-staid connections between Nos. 4 and 5, but the connections seem nebulous to me.  With Nikolic, the opening movement of the Fifth seems too slow, overly relaxed, even slack; the Andante works better, liquid and sweet; the Minuetto oddly slows down again and could have had more bounce; and the final movement Allegro vivace, while livening up the proceedings a bit, remains pretty heavy.

No reservations about PentaTone's 2008 recorded sound, though.  It's mostly smooth and solid, the chamber orchestra sounding intimate, yet weighty when necessary.  The sonics are balanced slightly on the dusky side, not exactly thick but not quite as transparent as I'd like.  There's a strong lower-midrange response for foundation, if not much in the way of deep bass.  Overall, in regular stereo the sound is fairly clear and warmly realistic.   In SACD stereo it seems marginally brighter and more dynamic, but not by much.

If the coupling here suits you, the disc works.  Personally, I'd rather listen to any of the conductors I mentioned earlier in the Symphony No. 5, although Nikolic and his players are fine in No. 4.  Of course, if you're looking for multichannel sound, this hybrid SACD (or SA-CD as PentaTone are now calling the process) may be just right for you.


Oct 21, 2009

Franck: Symphony in D minor; Chausson: Symphony in B-flat (SACD review)

Marek Janowski, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.  PentaTone Classics SACD 5186 078.

Until PentaTone released this disc, my reference standards for the Franck Symphony were Monteux's and Beecham's early recordings (RCA Living Stereo and EMI), and Dutoit's later digital effort (Decca).  Now, I'm not so sure, even if I still have a slight preference for Monteux.

It's good to hear the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande again, lead by their newest conductor, Marek Janowski.  The two works by Franck and Chausson couldn't suit the orchestra better, considering how well their most-famous conductor, Ernst Ansermet, used to love the French repertoire.  By comparison to Monteux's interpretation of the Franck piece, Janowski's account is almost as magical, if perhaps a bit more lax.  Dutoit, whose performance is also very good, seems more matter of fact, more suavely elegant, but a tad more mundane.  Monteux is the more reposed and more insightful of the conductors cited, whilst retaining plenty of excitement.  Janowski's music making is dramatic, to be sure, swinging from moody to energetic, but Monteux remains that much more ravishing in the central Allegretto, with its prominent English horn solo, and in the playfulness of the slender scherzo-like theme that follows.

If the Chausson Symphony sounds quite a lot like the Franck Symphony, it's no mere coincidence.  The younger Chausson was a member of Franck's group at the Paris Conservatoire, and he looked up to his mentor, patterning his Symphony on the same three-movement format as Franck's, with the final movement not exactly repeating but reminiscent of the material in the first movement.  If Chausson's Symphony doesn't have quite the charm of Franck's, it isn't for a lack of trying.  And Janowski plays both pieces in a similarly evocative, impressionist style.

As far as sound goes, Dutoit's newer digital recording is probably the most detailed, but this newer, 2006 Janowski recording, also digital and made in Geneva, is pretty good, too.  The disc is a hybrid containing three different audio formats--the first ordinary two-channel stereo, the second SACD two-channel stereo, and third SACD multichannel.  I played the disc in both stereo versions and found little to complain about, except that the overall sound field seemed a little murky at times and somewhat bass-shy, though very smooth throughout.

If you're looking for the best possible interpretation of the Franck, I'd have to say Monteux still reigns supreme.  If it's the best possible stereo sound you're after, Dutoit is your man.  And if it's the best possible multichannel sonics you're looking for, then Janowski rules the day.


Oct 20, 2009

Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Beethoven: Egmont Overture (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.  DG 477 6404.

Beethoven pretty much intimidated everybody, and after his death composers were more than a bit reluctant to continue in the symphonic field.  Many of them felt that Beethoven had already said it all, and they were content to deal with concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and the like.  Brahms himself spent in excess of a dozen years mulling over the ideas for a symphony, finally revealing his Symphony No. 1 in 1876.  The public and critics hailed it a success, and it has more or less remained in the basic repertoire ever since.

So, the Brahms First Symphony is something of a historical precedent, which does not in my book necessarily make it a great piece of music.  I have always found the opening movement too messy, the Andante too overtly, lushly Romantic, and the third movement too boring, with only the Finale at all interesting, where Brahms saves up his big theme.  So shoot me; I'm not a purist.

Maestro Christian Thielemann does his best to inject some life into the piece, but he still manages only to drum up any serious fervor in the final chapter.  The keep case quotes a review of his live performances of the work saying they are "fiery," "menacing," "throbbing," "soaring," and "blistering."  I'm not sure those are the adjectives I would want to apply to any interpretation of Brahms.  Yet, I suppose you could say Thielemann does, indeed, work up a good head of steam in the opening and closing.  Unfortunately, I thought his steam escaped at the same pace and the same temperature throughout the four movements, so I would have liked a little more contact with the music itself and less emphasis on emotional melodrama.

Then there's the matter of the sound.  DG recorded Thielemann's Brahms First and the accompanying Beethoven Egmont Overture live in 2005.  As a comparison, I put on two old EMI recordings of the First, from Otto Klemperer (1956) and Adrian Boult (1973), and the sound I heard was like removing a couple of woolen blankets from the front of my speakers.  The DG audio is muffled and dull; it's dynamic, to be sure, but it's sorely lacking in high-end response, midrange transparency, and deepest bass.  The only saving grace of the live sound is the absence of applause at the end.


Oct 19, 2009

40 Most Beautiful Love Themes (CD review)

Various artists.  Warner Classics 2564 69987-0 (2-disc set).

In the mid Fifties, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, I remember buying a LP box set of excerpts from famous classical masterpieces.  It was quite a revelation to me at the time because my parents didn't care much for classical music, and I had only heard classical pieces on the Big John and Sparky Saturday morning radio show and occasionally in Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons.  The set of excerpts was, therefore, something of an introduction to the classics for me, no matter how truncated the music.

That was a long time ago, but the same thing happens here with 40 Most Beautiful Love Themes.  On two discs, Warner Classics offer up forty excerpts of classical music representing some of the most romantic tunes ever written, things like Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, Saint-Saens' "The Swan," Borodin's String Quartet No. 2, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Satie's Gymnopedes No. 1, Liszt's Liebestraum No. 3,  Massenet's "Meditation" from Thais, Ravel's Bolero, and so on.  You name the tune, it's here.  Of course, the pieces are not often in their entirety, between three and seven minutes each, often fading out just as they're getting started, but you'll get enough of the music to count.

The idea is for classical-music lovers to listen to it in the car, maybe, or as background music, and for nonclassical music listeners to learn a little more about the subject.  The music is well played by top-name artists, so there's nothing to fear in terms of mediocrity:  Kurt Masur, Lawrence Foster, Hugh Wolff, Andrew Davis, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano, Jean-Francois Paillard, Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Lorin Maazel, Eliahu Inbal, and many other first-rate conductors contribute.

Warners chose the material from their catalogues of Erato, Teldec, and Warner Classics, the recordings spanning the years 1964-2004.  Yes, there is some small variation in the sound characteristics, with none of it audiophile quality, yet it's all quite acceptable for casual listening.  It makes a pleasant diversion that doesn't require one's full attention.


Oct 17, 2009

Beethoven & Britten Violin Concertos (CD review)

Janine Jansen, violin; Paavo Jarvi, Die Deutsche Kammerphilarmonie Bremen and London Symphony Orchestra.  Decca B0013281-02.

It's hard to go wrong with any recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, it's such a mainstay of the classical repertoire, especially when the recording has such an engaging performer as violinist Janine Jansen in it.  Ms. Jansen remains poised and virtuosic throughout the performance, adapting the piece confidently to her own unique approach.

The thing is, though, Ms. Jansen plays the Beethoven in so brisk yet so grand and Romantic a manner, with Fritz Kreisler cadenzas and all, that it's somewhat at odds with the more astringent style of the Deutsche Kammerphilarmonie Bremen who accompany her.  The orchestra and conductor, Paavo Jarvi, tend to be a little more austere and reserved.  Nevertheless, all the performers combine to create an up-tempo performance that gets the adrenaline racing, producing a good deal of excitement at the minor expense of some of the work's poetic elements.  In Ms. Jansen's hands, the work's best movement is the last, the Rondo, with Jansen making it more intensely playful than usual.

The coupling, Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto from 1940, played with the London Symphony Orchestra, would not seem to have much in common with the Beethoven, but, in fact, the opening moments of both works use timpani in much the same way, and, if anything, the Britten is just as lyrical and perhaps even more passionate than the Beethoven.  Ms. Jansen plays up the alternating tensions of the piece quite well, representing as they do Britten's anguish over the Second World War, and she works up a demonic frenzy with the second movement Vivace marking.  All the same and despite her enthusiasm in the earlier segments, it is in the closing variations of the Passacaglia that Jansen really makes the work her own, leaving the listener on a heart-wrenchingly emotional high, the violin almost literally crying out in pain.

The 2009 Decca recordings appear to be throwbacks to the company's sound of a few decades earlier, whether it's in the Beethoven (recorded in Hamburg-Harburg) with the German orchestra or the Britten (recorded in London) with the British group.  Namely, the sound is slightly bright and close, with excellent clarity and dynamic impact, if lacking in natural warmth.  Although the sound is a tad hard and glossy (or perhaps because of it), it generates a fine illusion of depth.  Certainly, it does the timpani justice in both concertos.

Overall, in the Beethoven I continue to like the recordings of Perlman (EMI), Szeryng (Philips), Heifetz (RCA), Kremer (Teldec), Grumiaux (PentaTone), and Barton Pine (Cedille) over this new one by Jansen.  In the Britten, however, I'd have to say Ms. Jansen has few peers.


Oct 16, 2009

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1; Spohr: Violin Concerto No. 8 (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Oiji Oue, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.  DG B0007188-2.

Ms. Hahn makes much of the fact that the Paganini and Spohr Violin Concertos have qualities of bel canto in them--fine singing, beautiful voice--as well she should.  The Paganini, especially, has always been noted for its soaring lyrical elements, and Ms. Hahn makes the most of them, as advertised.  This is as sweet, as lyrical, as songlike, as expressive a Paganini Violin Concerto as one could imagine.

After the work's lengthy introduction, Ms. Hahn enters the Allegro with appropriate bravura, contrasted with a lovely, flowing second subject, taken at a tempo that emphasizes its poetic nature in opposition to the more flamboyant parts of the movement.  The middle Adagio is a poignant time-out, a reflective interlude before the zippy Rondo conclusion.  It is in this final section that Ms. Hahn's dramatic, lively, yet wholly engaging style holds one's attention most securely.  And it is here that she is able to demonstrate her most virtuosic technique.

Coupled with the Paganini is the Violin Concerto No. 8 by Paganini's direct contemporary, Louis Spohr, only two years Paganini's junior.  His Concerto, too, is one of song, but there could not be a greater contrast in showmanship.  The Paganini is all color and contrasts, glamour and high spirits; the Spohr is more sedate, more conventional, but equally attractive.

Although I still prefer Michael Rabin's 1960 and Perlman's 1971 realizations of the Paganini for their greater sparkle, there is no denying this new rendering by Hilary Hahn is one to consider.  Chalk up the excellent recording quality afforded her by DG engineers, too.  The sound is very dynamic and very well balanced, with a reasonably solid bass and decent stage depth.  Together, performance and sound make this an outstanding album.


Oct 15, 2009

Debussy: La Mer; Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Jeux; Children's Corner (CD review)

Jun Markl, Orchestre National de Lyon.  Naxos 8.570759.

Maybe it's the conducting of maestro Jun Markl, or maybe it's the recording by producer and engineer Tim Handley, I don't know.  But the performances of the two lead pieces, La Mer and Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, seem rather flat.

La Mer and the Prelude are among the most evocative tone poems ever written.  You can almost feel the sea breeze on your face listening to La Mer, and you can sense the warm afternoon sun and the faun's yearnings in the Prelude.  At least, you should be able to.  But here, everything seems fairly perfunctory, a run-through without a lot of creativity or emotion.  Part of this, as I say, may be the recording, which sounds soft and restrictive.  Except in the very last work, the sound never seems to become very dynamic or open up.  Instead, it simply appears distant and dull.

Fortunately, things perk up with the little dance number Jeux, as well as with the Children's Corner suite, the latter originally written for piano and orchestrated by Andre Caplet.  This second half is far more animated than the first two works on the program and for many listeners may save the day.

Be aware, however, that DG have now remastered Herbert von Karajan's 1964 recording of Le Mar and the Prelude and offer them along with Ravel's Bolero and the Daphnes et Chloe Suite No. 2 for just a few dollars more than this Naxos issue, the Karajan superior in every way.  What's more, you can buy multi-disc sets from Martinon (EMI) and Haitink (Philips) containing most of Debussy's most-popular music for a mid price that's hard to beat.


Oct 14, 2009

A German Bouquet (CD review)

Trio Settecento.  Cedille CDR 90000 114.

My appreciation and admiration for violinist Rachel Barton Pine grows with each new recording she releases.  Here she is joined by John Mark Rozendaal on viola da gamba and 'cello and David Schrader on harpsichord and positiv organ as the original-instruments group Trio Settecento in an album of German Baroque chamber music.  Combine the Trio's eloquent playing with Cedille's unparalleled audio reproduction, and you get yet another of Ms. Pine's exquisite recordings.

The album consists of short works by eight German composers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  Although the works are brief, the disc contains over seventy-eight minutes of material.  The composers in question are Johann Schop (d. 1167), Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680), Georg Muffat (1653-1704), Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714), and Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755).

OK, I know that unless you are a hard-core classical music fan, most of the names except Bach may be unfamiliar to you.  But, understand, these were among the most-popular composers in Europe at the time.  That much of their work goes unrecognized or even unknown is sign of changing times and attitudes.  I can assure you that even though much of the music may seem repetitious, if you enjoy Baroque music at all, you will enjoy these pieces, most of them two-to-six movement sonatas, especially as they are played by so capable a trio of performers as we have here.  The Trio Settecento have been performing together on period instruments since 1996 and have entertained audiences the world over, live and on disc.  They cannot be faulted in realizations that are lively, poignant, and exciting by turns.  The performances are festive, imaginative, intense, and simply a joy to listen to.

Of course, it also helps that Cedille's chief engineer, Bill Maylone, again provides us with a first-rate audiophile recording.  Made in 2008, it's yet another one of those reach-out-and-touch-it affairs where you feel you are there with the performers in Nicholas Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago.  Whether it's the sonority of Ms. Pine's violin, the crispness of Mr. Schrader's harpsichord or the mellow resonance of the organ, or the glow of Mr. Rozendaal's 'cello or the warmth of his viola da gamba, the sound is as realistic as one could hope for, with no veiling, no undue resonance, no deviations from anything that doesn't sound entirely natural.  It's quite the lovely disc all the way around.


Oct 12, 2009

Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Suite; Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc SACD-60683.

Maybe I'm just getting used to Maestro Paavo Jarvi. When I first heard his music making, he seemed a bit too buttoned-up for me, too conservative, too ordinary. But in the last few years, he seems to be loosening up and allowing himself more individual expression. Either that or I'm just adjusting to his style. I dunno. His Prokofiev album is one of the best things to date from him, and in particular one of the most invigorating performances of Lieutenant Kije I've heard.

Things begin, though, with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, a work the composer wrote while living in the U.S.S.R. in 1944. Although it was toward the end of World War II, the symphony is not a "War" piece as such. In fact, it is relatively lightweight, no Shostakovich here. It's so modest, lyrical, and accessible, in fact, that it was one of the few works of the time the Soviet government never condemned as dissonant or corrupt. Jarvi is rather leisurely in the first movement, but he warms up to the Scherzo and handles the slow Adagio with charm and sophistication. It may not be the absolute best reading of the Symphony available, but it's close enough.

However, it's the in the Lieutenant Kije Suite that Jarvi shines. The composer wrote it after returning to his homeland from Paris in the early 1930s. Kije is a comic satire, written for a movie and poking good-natured fun at a nineteenth-century Czar whom everyone is eager to please. Apparently, the music was populist enough that the Soviet censors could get behind it, and, indeed, it has lasted as one of Prokofiev's most endearing works. Jarvi makes the most of its colorful rhythms and jaunty escapades to keep one entertained for the duration. It may not have all the charm or easygoing smoothness of Previn's accounts, but it more than makes up for it in vitality. Yet don't expect the performance to be overly fast or nerve-wracking. It isn't. Some of it even seems a mite sluggish. Just don't despair; it's all a part of Jarvi's overall plan for the Suite, and, as I say, it works.

Telarc's sound works, too. They have issued the music on two separate discs, a straight stereo CD version and an SACD hybrid that contains the regular two-channel stereo version, an SACD stereo version, and an SACD multichannel version on different layers. Of course, you will need an SACD player to access the SACD layers, and for multichannel fanciers it may be worth it. Telarc sent me both discs, so I listened to and compared the regular and SACD stereo formats side by side in two players. I confess I could hear little difference, perhaps a shade more dynamic range and clarity from the SACD. But this is of small importance because they both sound good--excellent depth, excellent stage spread, excellent impact, excellent frequency extension, and excellent bass. Perhaps the midrange wants a little something in ultimate transparency, but that's about it. The sonics round out a fine set of interpretations.


Oct 10, 2009

Mozart: Violin Concertos 2 & 4; Sinfonia concertante (CD review)

Maxim Vengerov, violin; Lawrence Power, viola. UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 78374 2 9.

Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't find much joy in this release. Certainly, the participants are first-rate: Maxim Vengerov has produced a number of fine violin recordings; the youthful UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra is well disciplined; and EMI is among the best record companies in the business. Why, then, did I find the performances so listless?

Perhaps Vengerov was trying to get things back to a more traditional style after all the zippy period-instruments playing of the past two decades; I don't know. What we have, though, are rather slow, sometimes ponderous interpretations with little life and little charm. Vengerov appears to be going back to a lusher, more-Romantic style than we hear nowadays. A quick comparison to my favored Anne-Sophie Mutter recordings shows Ms. Mutter more dynamic and more zestful, without being all that much quicker. Vengerov's brand of Romanticism can perhaps be taken too far.

EMI's sound is a bit thin, too, especially in the string tone, which doesn't help much. The midrange is fairly well presented, but there is not much extension in the treble or bass, nor is there much orchestral depth, transparency, ambience, or air. I suppose the most positive thing one could say of these 2006 recordings, made in Henry Wood Hall, London, is that they are calm and relaxed. They just don't strike me as being very stimulating.


Oct 9, 2009

Herold-Lanchbery: La Fille Mal Gardee (XRCD review)

John Lanchbery, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. LIM XR24 013.

La Fille Mal Gardee is a rustic ballet originally produced around the end of the eighteen century (1789), based on a number of folk tunes and subsequently arranged in any number of different versions. The one we have here was put together around 1960 by John Lanchbery, based on an 1828 arrangement by Ferdinand Herold (of Zampa fame). The music tells the story of a comically difficult romance between a farmer's daughter and her lover, complicated by the appearance of a young dunce favored by the girl's mother. The music is lively, earthy, sometimes unpolished, but always entertaining. Lanchbery's direction of the Covent Garden Orchestra is equally lively, never unpolished, and certainly entertaining. In fact, I can't imagine hearing the music played any other way.

This 1962 Decca release, remastered by LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a part of producer Winston Ma's FIM, First Impression Music group) in JVC's 24-bit XRCD super-analogue process, is the fifth incarnation of the recording I've owned over the years. I started with a London LP, moved up to a Decca LP when I was able to obtain it, then the regular CD from Decca, followed by a gold CD from Classic Compact Discs, and now this LIM edition. With each succeeding release, I have heard very minor but distinct improvements in sound.

For this review I first listened straight through the new remaster and found it impressive, indeed. Then I A/B compared it to the gold edition, and I was further impressed. The music has a very wide stereo spread and fairly good orchestral depth in both versions, but the LIM is noticeably fuller, smoother, more dynamic, and better focused. By contrast, the gold CD is a tiny bit harder and leaner. The LIM gives the impression of a bigger, more dramatic, more realistic recording. But if I had to single out any one area of improvement in the LIM, it would be focus. It is as though you were looking through the viewfinder of a camera and adjusting it just so in order to obtain a marginally clearer picture. It's not a night-and-day difference, mind you--nothing is--but you'll hear it, especially in the massed strings and percussion. Depending upon your playback equipment, you may even be bowled over by it. For a recording made in 1962, La Fille Mal Gardee sounds better than 99% of the classical albums being made today.

Of course, you pay a price for improvement, and the price may not be commensurate with the small differences you'll hear. I'd like to say you can get the FIM, LIM, or JVC XRCDs at a budget price, but you can't. They are premium-priced products for the discriminating audiophile. For ultraprecise XRCD/24 processing and the like, you pay through the nose, usually twice the cost of a full-priced CD, and in return you get subtle but often discernible improvements in sound. In the case of this LIM remastering, you also get a clothbound album cover, plastic insert pages, and a static-resistant disc sleeve. If none of this interests you, you can always buy the regular Decca CD release (because the gold edition is no longer available and would cost as much as the XRCD in any case).


Oct 8, 2009

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; La mort de Cleopatre (CD review)

Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Susan Graham. EMI 50999 2 16224 0 3.

For the past few years I've been buying as many Japanese EMI-Toshiba classical remasters as I can find on-line because I think they sound better--clearer and more dynamic--than most of the English parent company's releases. I mention this because even though Simon Rattle's new disc of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is thankfully not done live, it still doesn't have the clarity of many of the old Klemperer, Beecham, and Previn recordings of the late Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies.

I have the feeling that ever since the introduction of digital recording some three decades ago, record companies have been going out of their way not to produce a hard, metallic, so-called "digital" sound. The trouble is, they sometimes go to the extreme and produce soft, mushy affairs. This one with the Berlin Philharmonic is not at all soft or mushy, but it does not particularly impress one with the transparency of its sound, either. It simply displays ordinary, somewhat undistinguished audio. Which is something of a shame in the case of the Symphonie fantastique because it's a work that can provide a lot of sonic wow in its final two movements. Here, the sonics come off as rather commonplace.

Nor does maestro Rattle's interpretation do much to set the adrenaline flowing. His performance is a fairly straightforward affair, with nothing really coming to life: Not the "Reveries," which lack romantic fervor; not "The Ball," which is rather cool; not "The Scene in the Country," which is too relaxed; not the "March to the Scaffold," which is just plain mundane; not even the "Witches' Sabbath," which you'd think would be hard to hold down, but Rattle manages it.

No, I'd say if you want a no-nonsense performance, you'd do best to stick with Colin Davis Concertgebouw Orchestra recording (Philips). Or maybe Thomas Beecham's more flamboyant realization (EMI) or Leonard Bernstein's more demonic one (also EMI). They tend to make Rattle's reading sound like just that: a simple "reading" that never catches fire.

Well, at least the coupling comes off a little better, but it's hardly worth buying the whole album for it.


Oct 7, 2009

Wendy Warner Plays Popper & Piatigorsky (CD review)

Popper: Suite for Cello and Piano, Three Pieces, and Im Walde; Piatigorsky: Variations on a Paganini Theme. Wendy Warner, cello; Eileen Buck, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 111.

This is one of those discs where even if you're not a classical music fan, you can still enjoy the sonic experience. It's another beautifully recorded album by Cedille's chief engineer, Bill Maylone, that makes the performers sound as though they're in the same room with you. Granted, these are duet pieces, and perhaps it's easier to capture the sound of only two instruments easier than it is to record an entire orchestra. Still, you can take nothing away from the audio, the cello and piano appearing in proper size and perspective, with appropriate air around each and a dynamic impact that places them clearly on stage before you. Very impressive.

Of course, no matter how good a disc sounds, it would be of no value if the music and performances weren't up to speed, and in both cases this album passes the test. The music comes from two composers who were primarily known for their cello playing, David Popper (1843-1913) and Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976). Popper was a mainstay of the cello world in the late nineteenth century, Piatigorsky a mainstay in the twentieth century, yet they had time to compose works for their instruments as well. Companies don't record either composer much nowadays, but maybe they should.

Popper is represented by three works: The highly romantic Suite for Cello and Piano in four movements, the collection of brief pieces called Im Walde, and three short compositions that Popper probably played together or separately as encores. Of the various Popper works on the disc, it's Im Walde that stands out. Its title means "In the Forest," and its six movements evoke forest settings and moods. Popper originally arranged it for cello and orchestra, and here we have it for cello and piano, which makes it even more intimate in its portraiture. The movements range from rhapsodic to lyrical to intense to nostalgic and just about everything in between.

Piatigorsky is represented by his Variations on a Paganini Theme, which he wrote in 1946 as a series of whimsical takes on his musical friends. He wrote and arranged each of the work's fifteen Paganini theme variations in the style of one of the world's great musicians of the time: Pablo Casals, Paul Hindemith, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, etc., even himself. Although the variations themselves tend to become more than a little repetitious, the idea behind them is certainly imaginative.

Needless to say, cellist Wendy Warner and pianist Eileen Buck play all the music with loving enthusiasm and expert articulation. Even though Popper and Piatigorsky intended this music to highlight the cello, the way Warner and Buck play them, it's not exactly one instrument accompanying the other as much as two instruments almost equally sharing the spotlight. Warner and Buck make an excellent team, and Cedille engineer Maylone captures them in perfect unity. It's a lovely recording all the way around.


Oct 6, 2009

Bax: Tone Poems, Vol. 2 (CD review)

Vernon Handley, BBC Philharmonic. Chandos CHAN 10446.

English composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953) wrote in 1943, "I was until quite recently about as instinctive (an) artist as could be found. I passed unperturbed during the last war, turning out my romantic stuff in an unending stream, and it was only very gradually that I realized that I was marooned upon a lonely rock with scarcely a companion...."

Bax wrote many of his most famous tone poems and symphonies before and just after the First World War, the War being a great turning point in the outlook of many other artists, bringing with it an end to Romanticism as we know it and a beginning of a harder, more-cynical age. But Bax carried on with his "Nature poems for orchestra," as he called them, almost until his death. More is the blessing for us.

I admit to being a fan of the man's work. He was doing in England the kind of thing that Sibelius was doing in Finland, although on a less imposing (and probably less financially rewarding) scale. Bax was describing the English landscape, as the titles of the short works in this second volume of tone poems indicate: "Three Northern Ballads" (1931-34), full of wind and rocks and forests; "Nympholept" (1912), full of capering wood nymphs (despite what the title may suggest to you); "Red Autumn" (1912), less outright descriptive and more impressionistic than the others; "The Happy Forest" (1922), full of pastoral inspiration; and "Into the Twilight" (1908), after a poem of the same name by W.B. Yeats, full of Celtic atmosphere.

Vernon Handley is an old hand at this sort of music and performs it with ease. He and the BBC Philharmonic convey all of the works' character and feeling--the cool winds, stormy coasts, and enchanted woods coming through with honest affection. The Chandos sound could be a little stronger in the deep bass and perhaps a tad smoother in the treble, but there is a depth and breadth to the orchestral field that makes up for it. It's a lovely album.


Oct 5, 2009

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 "Eroica" (SACD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 313.

It's doubtful that too many people will be buying this album exclusively to hear Beethoven's First Symphony. But if they do, they'll be getting one of the best performances of the work I've ever heard committed to disc. Philippe Herreweghe is no stranger to period interpretations, and he applies his knowledge of and experience with those practices to this modern-instruments version with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. The First Symphony performance is vigorous and joyous, with only the second movement Andante cantabile taken at a pace that might seem a tad too zippy for the rest of the piece.

No, it's the Beethoven Third, the "Eroica," that most people will probably be interested in, and here, too, Herreweghe's reading will not disappoint. It's one of the most satisfying versions around, filling a void between the slower, grander, more traditional approaches of Klemperer, Bohm, Barbirolli, Jochum, and other old-timers and the brisker renditions of people like Norrington and Zinman. Herreweghe makes sure you know this is a groundbreaking piece of music, while at the same time invests it with a playful enthusiasm that will have your blood racing and your toes tapping. Even the usually staid Funeral March comes off with a charming pizzazz, the Scherzo with verve, and the Finale variations with a delightful vivacity.

PentaTone's sound for this 2007 recording is spacious and dynamic, not unusual given that they made it in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, home to so many wonderfully airy, ambient recordings of the past. You won't find any ultimate transparency here, but you will find the sound of a real orchestra heard from a moderate distance, with plenty of breadth, depth, and resonant bloom. What's more, it's a hybrid SACD, so if you have the ability to play it back in multichannel, that will undoubtedly be a plus as well. I played it in regular two-channel stereo and in SACD stereo and found little sonic difference between the two. Both are excellent.


Oct 3, 2009

Strauss: Don Juan; Death and Transfiguration (CD review)

Plus, Dance of the Seven Veils and the Rosenkavalier Suite. Lorin Maazel, New York Philharmonic. DG B0007890-02.

Apparently, Deutsche Grammophon saw the writing on the wall several years ago. This disc was among the first of their downloadable concert series. The idea is that throughout the year, DG makes available on-line recordings of select live concerts for listeners to buy and download.  You can find their downloads at the following location:

Then listeners can, presumably, listen to the music on their little plastic computer speakers or burn it to a CD or DVD and listen to it on a proper hi-fi system. The company also makes a few of these concerts, like the one under discussion here, available for sale via disc.

DG recorded this program of Richard Strauss material between March and October of 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York. The NY Philharmonic's Music Director at the time, Lorin Maazel, conducts with his usual competent style and enthusiasm, if not with the greatest degree of subtlety. The performances are capable, to be sure, but nothing actually grips one enough to want to listen to much of it again.

Don Juan (1889), one of the composer's earliest tone poems, is appropriately energetic in its first half, more contemplative in the middle, and acceptably dramatic at the close. Death and Transfiguration (1889) is more serious, of course, so Maazel becomes more grave and subdued. Unfortunately, audience noise intrudes upon the quieter moments, sometimes to the point of annoyance. I might add that we also get to hear applause at the end of each selection, for me the equivalent of a commercial interrupting a movie. Maazel takes the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome (1905) more frenetically than sensually, but it makes for an exciting and arresting interpretation. Finally, in the Rosenkavalier Suite the conductor seems more at home than anywhere else, bringing a sweet charm to the waltzes.

As I say, DG recorded the sound live, and it is rather forward and bright, without a lot of mid-bass warmth or deep bass. The tonal balance places the listener fairly close to the orchestra. While the highs are excellent, there is a touch of harshness to the upper mids. The best thing about the sound is the stage depth, which comes across quite well, very realistically, very lively. Accompanying the disc we find extensive booklet commentaries, most of them coming from the concerts' original program notes.


Oct 1, 2009

VMPS RM40 Loudspeaker Review

What's a guy got to do to find a good pair of speakers?

By John J. Puccio

Here are a few observations about the VMPS RM40 (Ribbon Monitor) loudspeakers I've been using for the past few years. This won't be a lab test of the speakers, merely an owner's personal listening impressions, highly subjective, and not a little biased. Readers looking to find numbers, graphs, charts, and statistics will be disappointed and may safely turn to another article before I take up too much of their time.

To begin, I had been using FMI (Fulton Musical Industries) Model J's for a very long time before buying the VMPS RM40s. The fact was, I simply couldn't find anything affordable that I liked better.  J. Gordon Holt had recommended Bob Fulton's J's way back in the early Seventies as the finest loudspeakers in the world.  I had bought a pair used, a few months old in perfect condition, and they continued to play well until the day I sold them. So, why did I sell them? Frankly, I just thought it was about time. Yes, I know, my wife had the same reaction as you: If you liked them and they still worked, why sell them? Especially when I knew that anything that would sound as good would have to cost me an arm and a leg in this day and age. Be that as it may, I had my mind set.

Understand, I am but a poor and humble retired school teacher, and I couldn't afford an arm and a leg. So I set myself a limit of $5,000. That is a price that probably 99.9% of all Americans--the normal, average, sane ones--would consider outrageously high for a couple of loudspeakers, and that the other .1%, the lunatic audiophile fringe, would consider pocket change, about enough to cover the cost of speaker wire. With high-end loudspeakers costing upwards of $50,000, $75,000, $150,000 a pair, five grand doesn't sound like much. But it was a princely sum to me.

The problems I encountered looking for new speakers you can already guess. Bob Fulton had died years before, so FMI was no longer in business. Everything I listened to that sounded better than my old J's cost considerably more than $5,000. And everything I listened to that cost less than $5,000 sounded awful. Two things became clear: I didn't need the mid-fi gear hawked by the likes of Best Buy, Circuit City, or Fry's Electronics; and I couldn't afford the products from Wilson, Avalon, and others. What was a guy to do?

That's when I remembered Brian Cheney. Until his death in 2012, Brian had been making VMPS loudspeakers for almost as long as I had owned my Fultons, and Brian lived not twenty minutes from my house. Why I had not thought of him before, I couldn't guess. Well, Brian kept a low profile, even though everybody who knew anything about loudspeakers knew him and his company. I had met him years before and hoped he'd remember me. In fact, he was most gracious and welcomed me into his private listening room.

He introduced me to the RM40s, which coincidentally and without my telling him in advance were not too much more price-wise than the $5,000 I had in mind to spend (although the price subsequently went up). What I heard from the speakers was a revelation; they were not bright or dull or hard or soft or boomy. I heard only music from them, and I spent the better part of a Saturday morning auditioning them.

Brian explained that finding the ideal listening position meant not only angling the RM40s toward the listener but having them cross-fire about a foot in front of one's ears. That was exactly where I had positioned myself to hear them, and the sound sold me. We negotiated for some better capacitors and an oak finish to match the rest of my living room furniture, and Brian was good enough to deliver them and set them up himself.  What more could I ask for? Well, Brian's mentioning that they had won a "Best of CES" award in the high-end audio category didn't hurt.

It took a few days for Brian to build them to my specifications, after which he and a couple of his assistants drove the speakers to my house in a van. A good thing he had two big, strong helpers with him, too, because the RM40s are about five-and-a-half feet tall and weigh in the neighborhood of 240 pounds each.

Brian then spent the next two hours setting them up. Two hours? What in the heck could he have been doing for two hours? Let me tell you. As I mentioned above, you have to angle them correctly. And you have to place them at the proper distance from the listening position.  This is not as easy as it sounds, involving trial-and-error experimentation.  Following that, he proceeded to twiddle with each speaker's midrange and treble control. Once he had those in balance, he needed to adjust the bass damping. How do you do that? With a small piece of clay or putty he uses in the center of each speaker's downward-firing passive subwoofer. He got on his hands and knees, reached under the speakers, and picked off bits of this resonance-dampening material no bigger than the end of a fingernail each time, first from one, then from the other, listening to its effect on the music, and picking off some more until at last he was satisfied. Would I have been confident doing this myself, as most users must do? I dunno. He made it look like an ordeal, and he knew exactly what he was doing. When he was finished, I have to admit the bass sounded strong, tight, dynamic, and well-integrated into the rest of the soundscape. Then he left, and I was on my own.

Before I continue, I should tell you what these devices look like. I've said they're tall and heavy, standing 66" high, 12" wide, and 18" deep. My wife says they look like space-alien coffins, but she also admits they look beautiful, especially in the polished oak finish we chose, with black grille cloth. Brian calls the speakers RM40s because they each contain a forty-inch vertical array of four midrange ribbon drivers, with a tweeter in the middle (two ribbons above the tweeter and two below it). Then, on the top and at the bottom of the tower are ten-inch woofers. It's the first time I had ever seen such an arrangement, a woofer top and bottom, but Brian explained they provided better balance, better integration with the other drivers, and better imaging that way. And facing downward at the bottom is a ten-inch passive radiator, vibrating sympathetically at a very low frequency. Brian claims that the bass has a -3 db point at 24 Hz, the ribbons taking over from 166 Hz, and the tweeter continuing the job above 7k Hz, with a -3 db point at 25K. Oh, and you can bi-amp them, something I took advantage of, having multi-amped my old speakers and having an extra amp left over.

The first thing I did when Brian left was measure the speakers with what meager tools I had on hand: A Radio Shack sound meter, a CD of third-octave sinusoidal test signals, a little spectrum analyzer, a second microphone, a pink-noise generator, and, to double check things, a CD of pink noise. The test-tone and pink-noise readouts, both made from the listening position, gave me approximately the same results. Taking into account my room's normal drop-off in treble at the listening distance and the room's natural bass rise at 60-80 Hz, the measurements showed an almost perfect response from 25-16K Hz. Amazing. I had done these measurement with the old J's many times in several different houses, as well as with a number of friends' speakers, and I had never seen such linear results. With one exception, which I'll get to in a minute, the frequency response was dead flat from 100 Hz to 2K Hz and dropped off gently at about two decibels per octave above that:  Perfect specs for my listening position. A room-dependent bass rise of about 6-8 db below 100 Hz added a touch of warmth to the proceedings. And where Brian had claimed a -3 db fall-off at 24 Hz, I found his number to be almost exactly what both my tests reflected as well. At 25 Hz, the response showed flat; at 20 Hz, the response was down almost six decibels. I'll take Brian's word for it; his honesty in revealing his products' true specifications is legendary.

The deviation I spoke of? In the octave range 500-1000 Hz, I measured a broad, five decibel dip in both speakers, possibly an anomaly of my living room and nothing I would have noticed without the instruments.

OK, positioned properly, midrange and treble adjusted, bass dampened, what did the RM40s sound like in my house? (Heavens, at last, I thought he'd never get around to it.) They sounded great. I love them.

The single most conspicuous positive quality of the RM40s is their cohesiveness, their complete unity of sound. Rather than seeming like eight separate drivers per unit, each RM40 sounds like a single entity, a single big loudspeaker, with no obvious, audible junctures between the sonic characteristics of one element and another. This is no doubt due to the midrange ribbons handling the bulk of the job, as I've said from about 166 Hz to 7K Hz, and probably to the positioning of the top and bottom woofers, which produces a response that appears integrated into the rest of the sound field rather than simply bass energy coming from a specific spot. Thus, we get a unified aural output where separate drivers are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

I should also point out that the width of the sound stage can be dramatically outside the box, so to speak, depending on the recording, which combines with an overall natural tonal balance that culminates in a most-realistic presentation, with imaging side-to-side and front-to-back being as good as a recording allows it to be. Big orchestras are big, big, big; small chamber ensembles are notably smaller without being unduly stretched out; jazz groups are the size we would expect; solo instruments come to our ears as single points, without being elongated (again, given the recording); and rock bands are, well, rock bands, with no real-life counterparts so why am I even mentioning them.

Definition is perhaps not as crisp as with some electrostatics, but it is never hard or metallic, as some electrostatics can be. Nevertheless, definition is clear and well focused, just as we would hear from actual instruments. Most important, though, is transient impact:  It's strong and properly controlled, as likely as not a result of the woofer damping I mentioned earlier that allows the bass line to come across cleanly, without any overshadowing fog. The Sheffield Drum Test on FIM's XRCD demo disc never sounded better. Bass is deep but never boomy, and highs are extended but never tingly, tinkly, or edgy (unless these are properties of the recording itself).

In short, after years of use, I can find nothing to complain about. The VMPS RM40s do everything I expect from a good pair of high-end loudspeakers, and they do it with a minimum of fuss and bother (except, perhaps, in initial setup). For their size they occupy a very small footprint, and regardless of their size they produce a very nice sound. They generate more airiness, more openness, more transparency, more impact, more everything than just about any other speaker I've heard. I spent most of the first year I had them listening anew to all of my favorite recordings. And you know what?  From classical to jazz to folk to rock, the recordings never sounded better. In fact, I found I had not only bought myself a new pair of speakers, I had bought myself a whole new record collection in the process.

Although with Brian's passing, VMPS is no longer in business, one will no doubt be able to find his products on the used market for some time to come. I still recommend them.

On a related note, VMPS also produced an inexpensive add-on ambience tweeter that made the RM40 (or any other speaker for that matter) sound even better. For a full review of the add-ons, click here:  http://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2010/10/vmps-ambience-tweeter-review.html.


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

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa