Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Rimsky-Korsakov: Quintet in B flat major. Wolf-Quartett; Kammerensemble Classic der Deutsche Oper Berlin.  NCA 60175.

The actual name of this album is Klang Der Welt: Russland (Sounds of the World: Russia), but I thought if I listed it that way, nobody would know what it was about. In any case, the Orchestra of the German Opera Berlin are presenting a series of concerts devoted to the music of various countries of the world, and here we get some of the chamber music of Russia, very well performed and recorded.

First up is the String Quartet No. 2 of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), performed by the Wolf-Quartett, presumably members of the Chamber Orchestra Classic of the German Opera Berlin, but the booklet notes are a little vague on the subject. In any case, the performance is about as perfect technically and sonically as one could ever expect it to be.  In fact, it's downright gorgeous. The Wolf-Quartett play with absolute precision, which the nitpicker might say spoils some of the performance's spirit and spontaniety, its being even a bit strait-laced, but with music this beguiling and this well executed, any complaints, no matter how minor, seem petty and petulant.

The Quartet's first movement flows sweetly, with its abundance of Russian folk melodies. The Scherzo that follows maintains the music's easy flow, without any disruptive rambunctiousness. The third movement Nocturne is undoubtedly the most-famous segment of the work and one of the most-popular pieces of music Borodin ever wrote; indeed, it is so popular that one often hears it played by itself in collections of chamber music. The Wolf-Quartett do it justice in a performance of lilting lyricism. Then we find a little more abandon in the Finale, which the members of the Quartett seem to take great pleasure in presenting.

The second and final item on the disc is the Quintet in B flat major for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).  Like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov was a partner in the "Mighty Five" or "Group of Five" Russian composers intent on maintaining the tradition of purely Russian music separate from undue outside influences. Thus, we again find an wealth of Russian folk tunes involved; however, that does not mean the piece is any way overly rustic or simplistic. The booklet, still vague on these matters, does not specify the performers, but one assumes they are members of the Chamber Orchestra of the German Opera, and they are every bit as precise in their delivery as the Wolf-Quartett.

While Rimsky-Korsakov's Quintet may not be quite as inspired as Borodin's Quartet, it does offer a little something for everyone, especially from the bassoon, which adds familiar and playful touches throughout. There is a lovely, longing quality about the middle movement, nicely felt and judged by the group. Finally, the third movement takes us back to a lighthearted bounce, the bassoon continuing to lend a kind of goofy grace to the proceedings.

The SACD multichannel sound (which I listened to from its regular two-channel stereo layer) is slightly close but not objectionably so, spreading out agreeably between the speakers, making the four and five players sound like a bigger ensemble at times. Be that as it may, it's a warm yet vivid sound, very natural, very smooth, and very listenable, with a somewhat subdued but definitely pleasant acoustic bloom. Fans of chamber music should savor this disc.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa