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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What's a guy got to do to find a good pair of speakers?
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.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.