Jul 30, 2010

Ravel: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Jean Martinon, Orchestre de Paris. EMI 50999 5 00892 2 (3-disc set).

Jean Martinon made these EMI analogue recordings of the music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1974, and I remember critics received them well. However, they were rather quickly eclipsed a few years later by the first of Charles Dutoit's Decca digital releases. Dutoit and his Montreal orchestra were certainly very good, but the popularity of their recordings might have had as much to do with their then-new digital processing as anything else. So, not to take anything away from Dutoit, but I'd say Martinon got a bit shortchanged on the deal. Anyway, it's good to have Martinon's set of Ravel orchestral works back in the catalogue at so reasonable a price. You can hardly fault the performances or the sound.

Indeed, when you listen to these performances and then compare them side by side with Dutoit's, you notice that Dutoit is often the more matter-of-fact conductor. Martinon's interpretations are frequently the more voluptuous, the more emotional, the more sweetly romantic. You can hear this from the outset with Bolero, that fifteen-minute sustained pulse of a work. It has never sounded more sensuous than under Martinon. Then there is the Rapsodie espagnole, never more colorful; La Valse, never more graceful or menacing; Ma mere l'Oye, never more beautiful or unassuming; La Tombeau de Couperin, never more charming or more memorable; and the Valses nobles et sentimentales, never more invigorating or more strangely melancholy. And so on. About the only piece I found slightly wanting was Martinon's version of the complete Daphnis et Chloe ballet, which sounds a bit underpowered to my ears, at least compared to Dutoit (Decca) or Monteux (Decca).

Yes, the Dutoit digital recordings are a touch clearer, better defined, than the Martinon analogue ones, and yet the faintly rounder, warmer sounds of the Orchestre de Paris seem a perfect fit for Ravel's generally impressionistic music. I liked the stereo spread of the EMI recordings and their attractive sense of ambience and depth in the orchestra. Then, too, taken away from the direct comparison with the Dutoit offerings, the Martinon discs sound totally scrumptious, so what's not to like? EMI was in a golden era of recording in the 1970s, and this set from Martinon is near the top of their class.

Dare I say it? This may be the best Ravel set currently before the public, even after all these years.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 29, 2010

Brahms: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Also, Scherzo in E flat, Op. 4; Ballades, Op. 10; Klavierstucke, Op. 76. Stephen Kovacevich, piano; Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802010 (2-disc set).

Sometimes we find fortune conspiring to produce an ideal confluence of performers in certain works.  When it happens once, we feel lucky. When it happens over and over again, as it did with pianist Stephen Kovacevich, conductor Colin Davis, and the London Symphony Orchestra, it's probably more like fate than luck. Think about it: During a period of about ten years several decades ago, Kovacevich, Davis, and the LSO gave us some of the best Beethoven Piano Concertos ever, some of the best Mozart Piano Concertos, probably THE best Bartok, Grieg, and Schumann Piano Concertos, and these two Brahms Piano Concertos. It's gratifying to have the Philips recordings of the Brahms Piano Concertos now reissued in this Newton Classics set.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 when he was only in his mid twenties. The work is all craggy and monumental in scope and full of the boundless energy of youth, yet Kovacevich's playing is so fluid and assured, he makes it sound positively poetic. The opening movement, which can often appear downright dark and gloomy, Kovacevich here renders as flowing, even lilting, while still maintaining its grand dimensions.

Kovacevich makes the second movement properly elegiac, a tribute to Brahms's late mentor, Robert Schumann; and the finale is appropriately tempestuous. There's nothing inflated or overstated here, just a sensitive, self-confident account of the music, with Davis and the orchestra lending perfectly attentive and responsive support.

I've always liked Brahms's Second Piano Concerto (1881) better than the First Concerto because it sounds more obviously mature to me, more lyrical, and more tuneful. Written quite a few years after the First Concerto, the Second Concerto is unusual in its four-movement structure; Brahms included an extra movement, a Scherzo, because he thought the opening movement too simple, too plain. It is the slow Andante, however, where both Brahms and Kovacevich shine. It is absolutely heaven-sent and heavenly in its execution. Then, the final movement is light and airy, a sign perhaps that with age Brahms had grown confident enough as a composer not to have to impress audiences and critics with a continual storm of grandiose notes.

Filling out disc one, we get Kovacevich playing Brahms's Scherzo in E flat, Op. 4, and the four Ballades, Op. 4. On disc two the fill-ups are the eight short solo pieces that eventually comprised the Klavierstucke, Op. 76. As in the rest of the program, Kovacevich plays with power, grace, playfulness, authority, and intimacy, as the occasion demands.

Philips recorded the two Piano Concertos in 1979, with the Second Concerto initially sounding better than the First. Remastered on this 2010 Newton Classics set, however, I hear little of the bass overhang in the First that I noticed years ago fogging over the midrange. The only thing is that in both works, the piano is a little more forward than I like, the instrument seeming a tad bigger than the accompanying orchestra. Philips recorded the solo works digitally in 1983, and the piano sounds a trifle clearer and cleaner than in the analogue Concertos; it's not necessarily more lifelike, though, because the sound of the piano in the Concertos, while softer, displays a pleasingly realistic warmth.


Jul 27, 2010

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 (CD review)

Also, vocal music from Lucio Silla, ballet music from Idomeneo, and four Contredanses. Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire. Avie AV2159.

Harpsichordist Jeanette Sorrell formed the period-instruments group Apollo's Fire in 1992, gathering some of the finest players to perform baroque and classical music in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Since then, she and her ensemble have reached far beyond the enthusiastic and appreciative boundaries of Cleveland, producing over a dozen CD's and performing all over the world. One can understand why they enjoy such respect after hearing this disc of Mozart music.

As with other performances I've heard from this conductor and orchestra, they provide well-judged tempos, never too fast (as is the usual practice with other period-instruments' bands) or too slow. Moreover, their playing sounds so cultured and refined, it's hard to tell this is even a period realization. Then, too, the Avie Records engineers capture the instruments with such a warm, ambient glow, even they tend to sound modern. Add in that Mozart's forward-looking Symphony No. 40, with its Romantic overtones sounds like something a century beyond its time, and you get an opening number on the album that belies its eighteenth-century origins.

Apollo's Fire is a relatively small ensemble, of course, around thirty players or so, which lends an intimacy to their interpretations. The second-movement Andante of the Symphony No. 40 is particularly magnetic, complementing a most-gentle and affectionate reading. While Ms. Sorrell's rendition perhaps loses a little something in the conflict department, it more than makes up for it with its quietly assured attitude.

In the disc's accompanying pieces, soprano Amanda Forsythe performs a recitativo, "In un istante," and an aria, "Parto, m'affretto," from Mozart's opera Lucio Silla, which are quite moving and quite dexterous in their execution; and then the orchestra alone do up Mozart's ballet music from Idomeneo, the program concluding with four brief Mozart Contredanses.

The ballet music comes across most infectiously and for me the five ballet selections were the highlights of the album. There is a genuine dramatic flair in these performances that is maybe not so evident in the Symphony because of our overfamiliarity with the music and with so many other recordings of its available. But the ballet music displays a zesty bounce, fluidity, grace, style, and precision that is hard to resist.

The sound, most of which Avie recorded at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in April of 2008, is, as I've said, warmly ambient, while also being smooth and detailed. Even if it may not convey all the transparency an audiophile desires, it is highly realistic, and a listener could not ask for anything easier on the ears.


Jul 26, 2010

Wagner: Preludes, Overtures & Lieder (CD review)

Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; Franz Welser-Most, the Cleveland Orchestra. DG 477 8773.

I'm not overly fond of most record albums comprised of bits and pieces of things, but given the length of most of Wagner's operas, it's sometimes the most-convenient way to present his music. Here, we have a program of Wagner preludes, overtures, and lieder taken from a live concert performed by maestro Franz Welser-Most, soprano Measha Brueggergosman, and the Cleveland Orchestra, which audiences apparently welcomed enthusiastically.

Things get off to an exhilarating start with the Overture to Rienzi, all bouncy spectacle and grandiose gestures. Welser-Most and his Cleveland players seem to delight in the music's martial pomp, marches, prancing steeds, and all.

Next, we move into an entirely different musical world with the Act I Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Although I prefer Otto Klemperer's more-heroic approach (EMI), George Szell's more-searing performance (Sony), Bernard Haitink's more-levelheaded rendition (Philips), and even Herbert von Karajan's more-glamorized readings (DG and EMI), there is an effectively romantic-erotic air about Welser-Most's interpretation, with a good deal of pathos thrown in. However, the conductor, to his credit, never exaggerates or sentimentalizes the music.

After the Tristan und Isolde music we get the Preludes to Acts I and III of Lohengrin. It's another change-up in mood, from the eloquent love themes of Tristan to the more-rambunctious, fairy-tale atmosphere of Lohengrin, with all its shifting colors and moods. In this music, Welser-Most seems in something of a hurry to create excitement rather than let it develop on its own, but they are still enchanting realizations.

Then soprano Measha Brueggergosman steps in to the sing the five Wesendonck Lieder. According to her, "the most beauteous asset" of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder is "their perfectly luxurious simplicity." The songs are lovely, to be sure, and Ms. Brueggergosman sings them with a fluid, cultured grace, the closing song, "Traume" ("Dreams"), most tranquil yet most melancholy.

The program concludes with two rousers: the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkure. In both pieces, Welser-Most appears more concerned with the intellectual qualities of the music than with the purely theatrical melodrama of the action. I would have preferred the latter, but it's a matter of taste.

DG made their recording live in Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, in February, 2010. It seems to be all the big labels are doing lately is recording live, what with the costs of recording full orchestras so high. Of course, the companies would say they record live to capture the energy and spontaneity of the moment. Whatever. The sound here is fairly warm and soft, with a wide dynamic range but only modest impact.  Inner detailing is a bit subdued, stage depth somewhat wanting, the bass end shy, and the high-end lacking sparkle. In its favor, the sound is easy on the ear for music than can easily tend toward the bombastic, and it's room filling and immersive, too. Finally, we can be grateful the audience remains quiet, at least until the very end of the concert when they erupt into applause.


Jul 25, 2010

Naxos to Distribute Compass Records

July 21, 2010, Nashville, TN and Franklin, TN: Beginning September 1, 2010, Naxos begins distribution of the Nashville-based roots music company, Compass Records Group.

The Compass Records Group was formed in 1994 by musicians Alison Brown and Garry West. Compass Records, the group's initial imprint, is considered by many to be the best of the new breed of roots-music labels: eclectic, sophisticated, and artist-friendly. With a catalog of over 250 releases, Compass Records has been described by Billboard Magazine as "one of the greatest independent labels to emerge in the last decade." The label's diverse catalog includes releases from Colin Hay, Solas, The Waifs, Altan, Catie Curtis, Victor Wooten, Kate Rusby, Alison Brown, Old Blind Dogs, Richard Julian, Dale Ann Bradley, and the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band.

In 2006, the Compass Records Group acquired the rights to the Green Linnet catalog. Founded over 30 years ago, Green Linnet has been the home to many Celtic artists worldwide and boasts over 200 recordings from many of the best known artists of the genre, including Niamh Parsons, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Altan, Eileen Ivers, Cherish The Ladies, Lunasa, Kevin Burke, Old Blind Dogs, Patrick Street, and Tannahill Weavers. Green Linnet's world music imprint Xenophile includes several seminal world music artists such as Tarika, Inti-Illimani, Ad Vielle Que Pourra, and Samite.

In 2008, the Compass Records Group acquired Dublin, Ireland-based legacy Irish music label Mulligan Records, home of cornerstone releases from The Bothy Band, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, and Matt Molloy; with that acquisition, the Compass Records Group became the largest catalog of Celtic music in the world.

Garry West, Compass's co-founder, commented, "We are tremendously excited by our new relationship with Naxos of America. It's a new day at record retail, and specialization--whether through the artist/fan relationship or the distributor/retailer relationship--is the way forward. Naxos's deep and varied account base coupled with their knowledge, service, efficiency, and infrastructure, makes them particularly well-suited to deal with the changing marketplace, and a perfect fit for the Compass Records Group of labels and artists."

Naxos CEO, Jim Selby, added, "Naxos of America is delighted to embark upon this new relationship with Compass Records Group. Compass's intelligent and refined approach to recording, promoting, and exploring the heritage of roots music makes them leaders in their field. We believe that the partnership between our two vibrant companies will forge new ground in the world of independent music promotion and distribution."

Paula Mlyn, Naxos of America

Jul 23, 2010

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream (CD review)

Complete incidental music, with spoken text and melodramas in English. Jenny Wollerman and Pepe Becker, sopranos; Varsity Voices, Nota Bene; James Judd, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.570794.

Whether you will like this new budget-priced Naxos disc by maestro James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra may depend on several things: How happy you are with the recording you already own, how curious or adventurous you are about buying new recordings of music you already have, and how you feel about hearing some of Shakespeare's text spoken along with the music.

As you no doubt know, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) began work on his music for Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was still in his teens, composing the overture in 1826 when he was only seventeen. Mendelssohn completed the work sixteen years later, in 1841, while in the employ of the Prussian court. The King suggested he compose complete incidental music for a new production of the play, and Mendelssohn complied.

Judd's approach to the music is pretty straightforward, not at all objectionable but losing some of the airy, mercurial magic we find in performances by Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Andre Previn (EMI). The music, of course, is highly programmatic, following at least a few of Shakespeare's plot ideas and characters, most notably Puck, Bottom, the Duke, and the fairies. Judd judiciously chooses his tempo changes to reflect the state of the story and characters, if sometimes slowing things to a crawl. It is not an altogether inappropriate or unpleasant interpretation, just a bit more matter-of-fact than I've heard.

The Scherzo, for example, is bright and cheery, and rolls merrily along. The song "Ye Spotted Snakes" comes off wonderfully, too, helped by sopranos Jenny Wollerman and Pepe Becker, who sing delightfully. No, there is nothing wrong with the performance; Judd may occasionally exaggerate the music's flow, but he always does so for maximum dramatic effect.

My only quibbles are few: I found the spoken Shakespeare excerpts intrusive, inserted as they are between and during the main segments of music. Not that the actors aren't fine in their speaking roles, but I'd rather have just heard the traditional selections played without interruption. Or maybe that's just what I'm used to. In addition, I thought the "Wedding March" could have used more pizzazz and the "Dance of the Clowns" more jollity. That said, it's certainly pleasing to find all of the composer's incidental music in one place, and many listeners may welcome the spoken text as well.

The Naxos sound, recorded between 2003 and 2009 (the music recorded first, then the vocals, and finally the speech), is good without being in any way outstanding. It is somewhat two-dimensional, without much depth; lacks ultimate dynamics, sparkle, and transparency; and presents the voices too close up. Yet the sound does its job warmly, smoothly, and efficiently; while it may not wow the audiophile, it is hardly a cause for concern. What's more, because this is a prestige product from Naxos, they enclose the jewel box in an attractive cardboard slipcover.


Jul 22, 2010

Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (SACD review)

Also, Ravel: Mother Goose; Koechlin: Les Bandar-log. Marc Albrecht, Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 336.

Many people are no doubt more familiar with L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) through Disney's 1940 animated feature Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse in the lead, than from the concert hall or record albums. But  Paul Dukas (1865-1935) wrote the piece in 1897, long before Disney used it. He wrote it as a cautionary tale about a young apprentice magician who gets into trouble trying to use too much wizardry he doesn't know how to handle. In the present recording, maestro Marc Albrecht and his Strasbourg players work up a good head of steam by the time they finish this highly programmatic music.

The centerpiece of the album, though, is Ma mere l'oye (Mother Goose) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel began Mother Goose in 1910 as a collection of five solo piano pieces, but when impresario Sergei Diaghilev asked him to write a new ballet, Ravel jumped at the chance of orchestrating his piano pieces and adding some connecting material, by the next year turning it into the ballet we know and love.

By the time Ravel completed Mother Goose, he had written seven major parts, each involving a beloved fairy tale: "Prelude," "The Dance of the Spinning Wheel," "The Pavane of Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," "Beauty and the Beast," "Tom Thumb," "Laideronett, Empress of the Pagodas," and "The Enchanted Garden." Although there are a number of good recordings of the ballet, including my favorites from Jean Martinon (EMI), Charles Dutoit (Decca), and Geoffrey Simon (Cala), Albrecht's rendition is most welcome, if only because Pentatone did such a good job recording it. But beyond the good sound, Albrecht does a fine job provocatively introducing and creatively developing each section, adding charm and excitement where necessary in a mostly dreamy, pastel-tinted performance. He handles the two concluding segments particularly well: "The Empress of the Pagodas" and "The Enchanted Garden," which he positively drenches in color and atmosphere.

The final work on the disc is Les Bandar-log, a portion of The Jungle Book by Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), inspired by Rudyard Kipling's celebrated novel. Here, we get the part where Mowgli has an adventure with a group of rascally monkeys ("bandar-log" is Hindi for monkey, and Kipling sets The Jungle Book in India where they speak Hindi). Although Albrecht takes his time with the introductory elements of the piece, he builds the music slowly, smoothly, and deliberately, providing a suitable mood for the later hijinks, with plenty of dramatic pauses, the silences themselves almost as effective as the sounds of the music. What's more the PentaTone audio engineers deliver some impressive bass support. Taking a cue from Prokofiev in Peter and the Wolf, Koechlin uses different instruments of the orchestra to represent different animals, and like Dukas's piece that opens the album, Les Bandar-log is playful and happy, bringing great delight to anyone listening.

PentaTone recorded the music on this 2010 release in late 2008 and present it on a hybrid Super Analogue Compact Disc that a person can play back in multichannel or stereo on an SACD player or in stereo only on a regular CD player. I played back the stereo layers on both a regular and an SACD player but not in multichannel. I noticed a slightly brighter sound from the SACD player, but that may have more a result of the player than the disc transfer. In any case, the sound is quite good, with wide dynamics; quick transients; strong, taut percussive effects; and more than adequate stage depth. The engineers did mike the proceedings fairly closely, with a degree of multi-miking evident, but it results in a clean, clear midrange transparency. In all, the music is fun, the performances colorful, and the sound topflight.


Jul 20, 2010

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Decca Originals 475 8230.

At the moment, my favorite Mahler First Symphony is still Sir Charles Mackerras's rendition on EMI Eminence, but certainly this remastered 1984 Decca "Originals" recording from another "Sir," Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony, can't be far behind. It has all the control, symphonic structure, intensity, and atmosphere of the very best versions, including Mackerras, Horenstein, Haitink, Kubelik, Bernstein, and Solti himself in an earlier recording with the London Symphony.

When CDs first became popular in the early Eighties, it was Mahler whose symphonies were most quickly represented in the catalogue. In spite of a late start (but thank you maestros Walter and Bernstein), Mahler has become the darling of the classical music-loving set. His works combine good, old-fashioned nineteenth-century Romantic melodies along with bizarre, often chaotic, experimental twentieth-century modernism. These characteristics are no better displayed than in the composer's Symphony No. 1, where the opening movement begins with a mysterious "Awakening of Day" or Spring or whatever, followed by fanfares and then several lush and rhapsodic, if rustic, melodies, leading to a Funeral March that only Mahler would have dared, part parody, part wistful musing, and entirely peculiar. The Finale starts with a thunderous series of orchestral crescendos, followed by bits and pieces of the first movement's themes, settling into rich romance, and ending in strong, solid affirmative concluding outbursts, tying up all the disparate elements of the Symphony as a whole.

Solti handles all of this easily. He does not project the opening mists as eerily as he did in his LSO account (also on Decca), true, but I'm not sure it isn't because that earlier recording had a touch more background noise adding to the atmosphere. Solti had Mahler in his blood, so it's not surprising that he controls everything so well, the conductor never overstepping the bounds into melodrama or sentimentality as Bernstein sometimes did in his last, DG account. While it is Horenstein (Unicorn) who always seemed to me to suggest the broad symphonic picture of the symphony better than anyone else, finding links among the varied movements rather than just playing them as separate and entities, Solti is again close behind. Solti always judges the tempos well, too, never overly fast or breathless. And, of course, Solti is as exciting as anyone in the big moments.

The 1984 sound in this 2007 "Originals" reissue, which Decca appear to have taken directly from their 2001 "Legends" remaster, is fairly robust, although it hasn't as pronounced a bass output as Tennstedt's LSO recording has (EMI); otherwise, the response is quite nicely balanced. However, this was an early digital release, and there is some slight brightness in the upper midrange. Still, it is offset by the clarity and brilliance of the overall sound picture.

Bernard Haitink once remarked that he believed Mahler should be played straight and the dramatics would take care of themselves. Solti, sometimes known for overemphasizing matters, observes this dictum in the First Symphony, and proves that the music of Mahler can be just as powerful on its own, without any added histrionics from the conductor. Remastered in Decca's "Originals" series, this Solti CSO recording makes a welcome addition to any Mahler library.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 19, 2010

Cherubini: Symphony in D major (CD review)

Also, Medee, Faniska, Lodoiska overtures. Piero Bellugi, Orchestre Sinfonica di Sanremo. Naxos 8.557908.

If you are like me, you may think of Luigi Cherubini as an eighteenth-century Italian composer, whose major works were a Requiem, several masses, and a few operas, but who most folks know today mainly from the opera overtures. I found myself only half right: I got the music but not the date. In fact, Cherubini lived from 1760-1842, a contemporary not only of Mozart and Haydn but of Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, and Schumann. Unlike these other gentlemen, however, Cherubini did not write four symphonies or nine symphonies or forty-one or a hundred-and-four. He wrote one: the Symphony in D major contained on this disc.

I mean, you'd think that if he were going to write only one symphony, he'd make it a lasting one, but, alas, it probably deserves the neglect it gets. Despite Cherubini having written his one-and-only symphony in 1816, long after Beethoven had revolutionized the nature of the symphony and the symphony orchestra and just a year before Beethoven premiered his Ninth Symphony, Cherubini's little Symphony in D major seems like a throwback to the middle of the previous century.

Its four movements show little spark, novelty, or invention, and even less material that one can remember. After a brief Largo section, conductor Piero Bellugi and the Orchestre Sinfonica de Sanremo help the opening Allegro appear cheerful and bouncy enough. Following that are two middle movements, a Larghetto and a Minuetto, of mediocre quality that probably no one could help. And then things conclude with the best segment, the Allegro assai, which finally injects a little life into the proceedings.

Nevertheless, the most striking characteristic of the whole work is that its movements get progressively shorter as the piece wears on. The first movement is twice as long as the second movement. The second movement is twice as long as the third movement. And the final movement is, well, almost the same length as the third movement but shorter by a few seconds, at least as performed by Maestro Bellugi and his players. The timings are 13:09, 7:31, 4:44, and 4:37 minutes respectively.

The best parts of the disc are, as we might expect, the three opera overtures from Medee, Faniska, and Lodoiska. They display all the brilliance, fervor, menace, and excitement that are missing from the Symphony.

Naxos's sound appears rather dull and flat until you turn up the sound to a goodly volume level, and then it takes on a little glitter of its own. Just don't expect a lot of transparency here, nor much orchestral depth or breadth.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 18, 2010

More People Attending Concerts

Birmingham, England. More people than ever are turning to the delights of classical music according to England's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which has once again seen a record-breaking season.

The increase in concertgoers--to 114,474--is the fourth rise in consecutive years and illustrates a 3.5% increase in the average attendance at Symphony Hall, where the CBSO is resident. Having been at the heart of the Midlands' cultural life for almost ninety years, this sustained growth and passion for the Orchestra comes at a time of challenge for the arts when the need to provide artistic excellence and vision along with investment in communities and the future of musical education is coupled with tighter budgets and uncertainty.

Stephen Maddock, CBSO chief executive, said: "It can be tough for the arts because when money is tight, it's sometimes the first thing that people feel they have to lose from their lives. But this seems to not be the case in Birmingham, where the demand for our main concert season has once again exceeded expectations. Not only is it great for the CBSO but also for the local economy and for people's overall quality of life during a difficult period."

With Music Director Andris Nelsons at the helm, one of the brightest talents on the world conducting stage, the CBSO is about to celebrate its ninetieth year in style with a busy forthcoming season of concerts looking to a future of innovative and inspiring music. The season will also pay homage to its celebrated past that features such great names as Elgar, Oramo, and Rattle, all of whom have made a significant contribution to the success of the Orchestra and celebrating the name of Birmingham on the international stage.

Maddock continued: "As an ambassador for the city and for the UK as a whole, through our significant worldwide reputation and touring programme, we're always striving to ensure that we are at the forefront of new music and of shaping the future for symphony orchestras in the twenty-first century. We are firmly committed to the future of music, as demonstrated by our choral and educational programme, the largest of any orchestra in the country".

For details on next season's CBSO concerts, visit www.cbso.co.uk.

Ruth Green
Communications Manager
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


Jul 16, 2010

Beethoven: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, "Kreutzer" Sonata. Vadim Repin, violin; Martha Argerich, piano; Riccardo Muti, Vienna Philharmonic. DG B0009663-02 (2-Disc set).

Elevate this Beethoven Violin Concerto to at least near the top of the pile. Its impeccable combination of performance and sound, with the addition of an equally appealing "Kreutzer" Sonata, make formidable competition for any other front-runners.

Russian-born Vadim Repin says that he waited until he was in his mid-thirties to record the Violin Concerto because "If I had recorded it earlier in my career, I would now need to do it again." Well, I suppose you could say that of any performer and any work; a recording is a document of how the performer feels about the music at a given time. Still, I suppose Repin means he has now matured enough to do the music justice.

In any case, he does the Concerto justice, indeed, although, to be fair, the interpretation doesn't sound significantly different from any other good Romantic reading. Repin says Menuhin was his inspiration, but his big virtuosic treatment of the piece sounds more like my own favored Szeryng (Philips) or maybe even Heifetz (RCA) recordings, although it hasn't quite the dark overtones found in the Perlman record (EMI). Repin is helped immensely by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic, accompanying with bravura gusto and utmost sensitivity by turns. Repin's is a broad, sweeping performance, filled with excitement, passion, and joy, lasting almost forty-six minutes, and worth every minute.

Repin also says he wasn't sure what appropriate coupling might accompany the Violin Concerto and finally chose the "Kreutzer" Sonata. He plays it brilliantly on the violin, with celebrated pianist Martha Argerich accompanying him, but because it's a long work, too, it requires a second disc. Fortunately, the folks at DG are not asking double the price, so it's like getting a second disc for the cost of a single full-priced one. Who could complain about getting any performance from Ms. Argerich for free?

DG recorded the two pieces in February and June of 2007, and, miracle of miracles, they appear to have recorded it minus a live audience. I looked in vain for any indication on the packaging of "live performance" or "recorded in concert," but found no such reference. You may know by now that I have not found most live recordings sounding very good, so I was delighted before I ever started listening, and I was not disappointed. The sound is the best I have heard in either work. In the Violin Concerto, especially, there is an enormous dynamic range, dead-quiet backgrounds, and a realistically ambient setting in the Vienna Musikverein. What we hear is clear, well-focused sound, with a natural acoustic bloom. The set made me a believer.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 15, 2010

Great Strauss Scenes (CD review)

Christine Brewer, soprano; Eric Owens, bass-baritone. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc TEL-31755-02.

Richard Strauss, that is.

I love the orchestral music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), but I'm not a big fan of his operas, so I'm obviously not the best person to review a program made up largely of big chunks of the composer's vocal numbers. Nor am I a fan of excerpts albums, as this one is. I can tell you, however, that soprano Christine Brewer sings beautifully, as does bass-baritone Eric Owens, that the Atlanta Symphony play wonderfully, and that conductor Donald Runnicles offers everyone the finest support in the world. That said, I didn't care much for the album, which contains five selections, three of them vocal and two of them purely orchestral. Oddly, though, the disc includes nothing from Strauss's most-famous opera, Der Rosenkavalier. Oh, well....

Things begin with the "Recognition Scene" from Elektra (1908), a segment lasting a little over twenty minutes and featuring both Ms. Brewer and Mr. Owens. Ms. Brewer's voice soars, and she conveys much emotion in single notes. Owens pretty much just has to keep up, and Runnicles, an old pro at opera, accompanies them with a sure hand, the orchestra swelling in and out of the voices and throbbing sympathetically with them.

Next, we get the "Moonlight Interlude" from Capriccio (1941), about three minutes, and its title says it all, this orchestral pause a calm, tranquil respite.

Third, we have the "Imprisonment Scene" from Die Frau Ohne Schatten (1917), about ten minutes long, again with Ms. Brewer, and Owens in support. It is dramatic, to say the least, melodramatic in fact.  It is also a bore to me no matter who's singing it. Ms. Brewer, with Owens joining in later in the selection, does it whatever justice it deserves.

In the next-to-last position, we hear what is probably the most-popular piece of music on the disc, the wholly orchestral "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome (1905), lasting about nine minutes under Runnicles' direction. He injects it with appropriate life and fire, yet there is an abundance of exotic color as well. I enjoyed this selection most of all not only because it is engaging music but because it points up all the more how tedious Strauss's vocal material can be.

The program ends with the "Final Scene" from Salome, about sixteen minutes in length, and for soprano alone and orchestra. As with the excerpt from Die Frau Ohne Schatten, this conclusion is mightily dramatic, indeed histrionic. It seems as though in Strauss operas it's only the story that counts rather than the music, although here we detect hints of Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony from the orchestra between loud, anguished outbursts of song.

Telarc recorded this 2010 release in February of 2009 in Atlanta Symphony Hall. The sound favors the singers, with the orchestra sometimes receding into the background. I suppose that is as it should be, but it gives the impression of the singers being well out in front of the accompaniment, which is a bit unusual in the concert hall. While the audio engineers do a good job capturing Owens's bass-baritone, there are occasions when Brewer's soprano voice gets a tad shrill. The engineers reproduce the orchestra itself in a relatively soft, warm, slightly distant acoustic, with, nevertheless, a wide dynamic range. There is not a lot of transparency involved, but one cannot avoid the celebrated Telarc bass drum.


Jul 13, 2010

Albeniz: Suite Espanola (XRCD review)

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, New Philharmonia Orchestra. First Impression Music FIM XR24 068.

I have not hidden my admiration over the years for JVC's XRCD remasterings of classic RCA and Decca material. Their meticulous care and attention to detail cost a mint and probably don't represent the best value for the dollar, but for the audiophile looking to find the best possible sonic quality in compact discs, the XRCDs can hardly be beat. Unless you look to First Impression Music, which for many of its releases also utilizes the XRCD process.

To quote Winston Ma, head of First Impression Music: "FIM produces its own XRCD albums, manufactured by JVC, Japan. FIM distributes its own software catalog, including its own XRCD albums to more than thirty countries in the world and will continue to do so for years to come. There are three major companies producing XRCDs, namely JVC, TBM, and FIM. With the closure of JVC Disc America, JVC only distributes its own products in Japan and SE Asia. The other two labels continue doing their distribution as before."

Among FIM's very first XRCD releases was the XRCD/24 disc of the Suite Espanola by Spanish pianist and composer Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909). Recorded by Decca in 1967, it is one of the first things I considered an audiophile recording back in the old days when I was just getting started in the stereo field. Up until that time, I had loved and collected classical music, but I had not yet acquired a playback system worthy of exploiting the full potential of an audiophile disc. The Suite Espanola changed all that (along with my first good system of separate audio components in the late Sixties).

Albeniz first wrote the pieces we now call the Suite between 1906 and 1908 as parts of two piano cycles. Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos chose seven of the eight pieces of one cycle to do up in the orchestral transcriptions we have here, choosing to leave out a selection, "Cuba," that did not derive from his own country and substituting another Albeniz piano piece. The resultant orchestral set is light, frothy, folk-inflected, and totally delightful, suggesting the atmosphere of various places in Spain: Castilla, Asturias, Aragon, Cadiz, Sevilla, Granada, Cataluna, and Cordoba. More important to the audiophile, perhaps, the music contains an abundance of sonic effects to dazzle the ear, and it remains one of Decca's very best, most-realistic recordings.

Anyway, I first owned the performance on vinyl, then on regular CD, then on Decca's Classic CD label, and now on FIM's XRCD/24. But what is XRCD/24? Let me quote from the disc booklet: "What makes the XRCD-24 bit Super Analog so impressive: XRCD is a standard 'Red Book' CD and can be enjoyed on any CD player. For the first time ever a 24-bit digital signal is used as an essential part of the CD manufacturing process. A high-precision DVD K2 laser and K2 Rubidium Clock are used together to greatly improve CD glass mastering. Quality control from mastering through manufcturing ensures the original audio brilliance is maintained in the final XRCD." Yes, the CD is still a 16-bit transfer on disc, but it's done from a 24-bit signal, obtained from original master tapes, and put through an exacting process that would do any recording proud.

What's more, FIM does up the disc in the most elaborate packaging I think I've ever seen for a single disc, more impressive even than JVC's product. The outside of the case is clothbound, with a cutout center that reveals the first page of the enclosed booklet and the original album art. The pages of the interior booklet are thin, flexible plastic, not paper, and the disc itself is encased in a pocket reminiscent of an old-time 78-rpm record album, further enclosed in a static-proof sleeve. Sure, the FIM XRCDs cost a mint, but at least they look like they're worth it.

Nevertheless, looking expensive and sounding good are two different things, and one can only ascertain the actual worth of any disc by listening to it. All the bells and whistles in the world are not worth the price if the record doesn't sound appreciably better than the lower-cost product. And at over twice the price of Decca's own release, this one needed to come off sounding mighty good. Fortunately, it does, but the degree of difference may not be apparent to everyone, so the buyer must make up his own mind if the variances are worth the money.

In a side-by-side comparison of the FIM against the Decca, the FIM is a shade cleaner overall, with crisper, more-extended highs, a clearer midrange, greater fullness, and a tad stronger dynamics. More important, the FIM sound is better imaged across the speakers. The Decca often seems confined to the left, right, or center stage, whereas the FIM presents a wider, more-realistic orchestral spread. Put another way, the Decca, while still sounding good, appears a mite dull, lopsided, and constricted by comparison to the FIM.

Again, is the FIM worth the price, further considering that it contains only Albeniz's Suite Espanola, where the Decca also contains Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo and Enrique Granados's Intermezzo, a timing difference of thirty-seven vs. sixty-eight minutes? In those terms, you could say the FIM is four times more expensive than the Decca (double the price and half the content). The answer can only come from your own ears and pocketbook. If you don't consider your playback system of audiophile or near-audiophile quality and you don't have the money to spend extravagantly, don't even consider the FIM product. Heck, a person with an inexpensive or overbright system might actually prefer the softer, less-focused sound of the Decca disc.

On the other hand, if you want the very best, you pay for it. The differences in imaging alone would be reason enough for me to want the FIM.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 12, 2010

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Beethoven: Symphony No. 1. Gunter Wand, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Profil PHO6044.

In his golden years, conductor Gunter Wand seemed to record the works of the same few composers over and over again, particularly Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Schubert. Practice makes perfect, I suppose, and in the 1980's and 90's, Wand certainly got enough practice. Of course, he had been perfecting his performances over a lifetime, the man passing in 2002 when he was about ninety years old. The performances contained on this disc he recorded in 1994 and 1997 in live concerts.

The Brahms First Symphony (1876) is the big gun of the duo, and Wand conducts a commendably mature, restrained, and highly cultured version of it. Not that there is anything sedate or "old" sounding about the interpretation. It has plenty of zip when it's needed, and the finale, especially, is quite exhilarating. The two inner movements are lovely as well, the third movement, usually reserved for a quick-moving Scherzo replaced by a gentle Allegretto, a shepherd's tune that segues nicely into the final movement, with its big, familiar central melody. Not that I'm overly fond of the Brahms First, but this interpretation comes off as well as one could want. However, this is not a fiery, throbbing, soaring performance of the sort that Christian Thielemann recorded with the same orchestra years later for DG, nor is it the kind of grand architectural gem that Klemperer put forth for EMI; it's a more of a reasoned, refined, old-line approach.

But it's really the Beethoven First Symphony (1800) I enjoyed most. Here, Wand let himself go a bit more, the earlier composer's music sounding more joyous and spontaneous. The coupling is particularly apt as Brahms was always afraid his symphonies would never measure up to Beethoven's. Although he was right, the fellow came close.

As I mentioned, Wand made the recordings live, but, fortunately, they do not have the typically recessed sonics of a live recording. The sound is pleasant without being in any way remarkable or spectacular. The audio is slightly soft and warm, miked reasonably close up, well spread out across the speakers, and nicely balanced. Played too loudly, you'll hear a small degree of strain and harshness in the upper strings, but it's hardly anything worth bothering about. And there is no noise from the audience until the unfortunate outburst of applause at the end of each selection.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 11, 2010

Liszt: Etudes d'execution transcendante (CD review)

Alice Sara Ott, piano. DG 000289 477 8362 6

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote his Etudes d'execution transcendante in 1826, revising them in 1838 and again in 1851. They are a set of short solo works daunting for even the most-experienced pianist, so why Alice Sara Ott at age nineteen chose to record such demanding music is anybody's guess. She says "I am, after all, a lion born in the year of the dragon!" She is certainly an accomplished virtuoso; maybe she wanted the challenge. Or maybe it was youthful exuberance, and she was just showing off.  In any case, she succeeds beyond her years.

Liszt's Etudes are pretty much the antithesis of his popular Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano. The Rhapsodies are easily accessible, hummable, vibrant, down-to-earth in their gypsy flair. The Etudes are more like concert studies written for other seasoned pianists to appreciate. The fact that very few other pianists have recorded all twelve of them is testament to record companies being leery of their selling. But Ms. Ott persuaded DG to let her try.

Etude No. 1 is brief and noisy, together with the equally loud No. 2 forming a kind of overture or curtain raiser for the set. These first two pieces are hardly subtle, but they demonstrate Ms. Ott's technical fluency.

A slow movement follows with the descriptive title "Landscapes," in which Ms. Ott takes her time to caress each note one by one. Here, in some of the most poetic passages in the set, she is at her best.

After the relative calm of the "Landscapes" comes "Mazzepa," a barnstorming section that must vex even the most-talented pianists, yet Ms. Ott copes with it handily.

No. 5, "Will-of-the-Wisp," is light and airy, with a hint of slightly sinister nighttime goings on. Liszt knew he needed these soothing, sometimes playful, interludes to offset the more hell-raising movements. Again, Ms. Ott seems to be enjoying herself.

"Vision" is the set's grandest segment, although it displays some degree of pomposity, too. Following that is "Eroica," a combination of the elegant, the sublime, and the simply tedious. Take your pick. It's no wonder that many pianists who have recorded the Etudes have chosen to do only a select few of them, their own favorite choices, rather than attempt all twelve at once.

No. 8, the "Wild Hunt," is the most overtly programmatic of the Etudes. I'm not sure just what they're huntin--wild boar, perhaps. The piece becomes almost jaunty toward the middle.

"Remembrances" is dreamily sentimental, but, fortunately, Ms. Ott keeps it from getting downright maudlin, maintaining a lovely, graceful pace. This and the "Landscapes" are among the highlights of the set.

The tenth movement is a sort of transitional passage, which exhibits Ms. Ott's pianistic dexterity to the utmost. It's followed by the two final sections, "Evening Harmonies," very homey, getting progressively more ambitious, and then "Snow Whirls," appropriately named and possibly influencing Debussy down the line.

Recorded by DG in June, 2008, the reproduction captures the piano quite close up, producing a detailed yet never bright, hard, or edgy sound. Indeed, there is a warm, natural glow to the notes, and while the piano looms fairly large, it does not stretch across the entire front of one's listening room.

My guess is that Liszt's Etudes appeal largely to piano enthusiasts rather than to the general classical-minded public. Some of the selections are highly pleasing, others more than a bit tiring. I suppose by offering all twelve of them, Ms. Ott gives the listener a chance to pick and choice which ones to enjoy.


Jul 10, 2010

National Philharmonic Fosters Young Musicians

North Bethesda, MD, July 8, 2010:  From July 19 to August 13, 2010, the National Philharmonic will engage some of the area's most promising young musicians through its Summer Strings and Choral Institutes.

The Institutes, for middle and high school string players and high school vocal performers, nurture young talent and teach musical skills and techniques while preparing the participants for a performance. "Nurturing the next generation of audiences and performers is at the heart of our mission in the community," said National Philharmonic's Music Director and Conductor Piotr Gajewski.

The Summer Choral Institute (July 19-23, 2010) offers young singers an intensive, weeklong immersion in voice building, musical interpretation, and performance techniques. The Institute, produced through a partnership between the National Philharmonic and Montgomery College Institute, is led by Dr. Stan Engebretson, Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Chorale, and Dr. Molly Donnelly, Professor of Music at Montgomery College. The week culminates in a free public concert at Richard Montgomery High School, 250 Richard Montgomery Drive, Rockville, MD on Friday, July 23, 2010, at 7:30 pm.

The Summer String Institutes (High School String Institute August 2-6; Middle School String Institute August 9-13) immerse talented and aspiring middle school and high school string musicians in an intensive week of mentoring, chamber music coaching, individual lessons, and rehearsals led by Maestro Piotr Gajewski, National Philharmonic Assistant Conductor, and String Institutes Director Victoria Gau, musicians of the Philharmonic, and other recognized music pedagogues. Gau is also the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Capital City Symphony (DC) and is an opera coach/conductor at George Mason University. She is a familiar face in the Washington area, having conducted such groups as the Washington Savoyards, the IN-Series, the Other Opera Company (which she co-founded), and the Friday Morning Music Club Orchestra. She holds degrees in Viola Performance and Conducting from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she received the Phi Kappa Lambda Prize for Musicianship.

This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the High School String Institute and the twelfth year of the Middle School String Institute. The High School String Institute will culminate in a free public performance at the Bethesda Presbyterian Church, 7611 Clarendon Rd, Bethesda, MD, on Friday, August 6, at 7:30 pm and on Friday, August 13, at 7:30 pm for the middle school session. For more information on the Summer String and Choral Institutes, visit nationalphilharmonic.org.

Deborah Birnbaum, Marketing Manager

Jul 9, 2010

Verdi: Aida (CD review)

Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Giulietta Simionato, Cornell MacNeil; Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Originals 289 475 824-03 (2-disc set).

It wasn't long ago that I wrote in the $ensible Sound magazine, "Was there ever a grander grand opera than Verdi's Aida, and have there ever been any grander recordings of it than Karajan's two stereo performances on Decca and EMI? Coincidentally, both Decca and EMI chose to reissue their recordings at about the same time, in 2007, and while the earlier Decca interpretation may in some ways be the grander of the two, it's the later, 1979 EMI recording that has the slight sonic advantage."

Some people may wish to argue the point. The Decca is very fine, and it has a marginally better cast, the knock against the EMI version being that Jose Carreras didn't have a big enough voice for the part of Radames, even though it's hard to make that statement after listening to it.

Anyway, I had fully intended to listen straight through this 1959 Decca recording, but it wasn't ten minutes in that I could not resist putting on the '79 EMI recording for comparison. From that point on, I would play a section of one, pause, and then play the same section on the other disc. I had never actually done this before, and the results were enlightening.

For one thing, I hadn't remembered how slowly and deliberately Karajan conducted the earlier Decca performance. While the singers are splendid and the chorus is even more intelligible than on the later EMI recording, Karajan's odd, calculated tempos and sometimes hesitant direction tend to stand out.  Twenty years on, he had lightened up, and the EMI reading sounds more spontaneous.

Interestingly, it's also good they could fit the opera onto two discs rather than three.

Sonically, there is much to like about the Decca recording. The audio engineers remastered it on this "Originals" set from the 96kHz/24-bit Super Digital mastering the company did in 1999 for their "Legends" series. It is clean and taut, with noise reduction making it almost as quiet as the EMI set. What you get with the EMI, sonically, is a little more air, more ambience, more bloom, more impact, and more bass. But for that matter, the Decca produces an enormous dynamic range.

So, I'll still take the EMI recording overall, although I wish they had remastered it using their Abbey Road Technology and released it in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series instead of just reusing their old 1986 digital master. Oh, well....

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 8, 2010

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; Julia Hamari, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Burrows, tenor; Robert Holl, bass. Eugen Jochum, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. EMI Studio CDM 7 69030 2.

After reviewing Eugen Jochum's complete Beethoven Symphony set with the Concertgebouw on Philips, an excellent set he recorded in the late Sixties, I realized I had not heard all of his later Beethoven recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI from the late Seventies. Why he decided to record them all over again just ten years later, I have no idea, especially since the earlier Philips set was so good, and since the EMI set was actually his third complete set in stereo, the first on DG in the Fifties with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian RSO. Maybe he figured he could get even better sound from EMI, or maybe he thought he had something more to say about the music. He was conductor laureate of the LSO at the time, so maybe that had something to do with it. Who knows.

In any case, I had only heard his Beethoven Third and Sixth Symphonies from the LSO set, so I decided to track down a copy of his Ninth, as that was not only Beethoven's crowning jewel but the best thing in Jochum's Concertgebouw set as well. When I found it, the EMI rendition did not disappoint me.

Jochum's approach to the Ninth remained basically the same, perhaps with a further touch of elegance in addition to the sheer dynamism of a grandly imposing reading. Jochum was an extraordinary musician; rather than slowing down and producing broader, more-spacious interpretations as he got older, a process we see in most other conductors and call "maturing," Jochum seemed to get more animated, more energetic, more vital and compelling in his performances the older he got. He was in his late seventies when he recorded this Ninth, but you would never guess it from the vitality of the music making.

The first movement, which can sometimes drag under other conductors, Jochum takes from its humble beginnings through its building momentum into a fiery conclusion. Appropriately, the second movement scherzo, marked Molto vivace, bounces along gleefully, yet ominously, with Jochum never allowing the rhythmic tension to ease up for a moment, despite Beethoven's odd pauses and even odder hints of the finale.

Jochum's handling of the Adagio feels relaxed, comfortable, a welcome respite from the fury of the previous two movements. The Adagio operates, even sounds, much the same as Beethoven's "Scene at the Brook" in his Sixth Symphony, and Jochum treats it as such, with good-natured grace.

Then, about two-thirds of the way through the Symphony, we hear what is essentially the beginning of the long, tumultuous, tempestuous, resplendent final movement, itself divided into over a dozen separate segments with their own tempo markings, culminating in the glorious "Ode to Joy" with soloists and chorus. Here, Jochum is truly in his element because he appears to relish the music ever more the bigger and more intense it gets.

Yes, there are many other recordings one has to choose from in the Ninth Symphony, and among the top dozen or so, one can hardly go wrong: Solti (Decca), Bohm (1972, DG), Zinman (Arte Nova), Mackerras (EMI), Wand (RCA), Gardiner (DG Archiv), Szell (Sony), Karajan (DG), Kubelik (DG), Stokowski (Decca), Schmidt-Isserstedt (Decca), Monteux (Decca), Abbado (Sony), Haitink (LSO Live), Norrington (EMI), Bernstein (DG), and others. But, for me, topping them all are the two recordings by Eugen Jochum on Philips and here on EMI. They are as electrifying as any you'll find.

EMI's sound, recorded by the two Christophers--producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Christopher Parker--is among the best the Symphony has ever received. Not perfect, because massed voices are notoriously hard to reproduce, but close. Foremost, the EMI sound is fuller and warmer than the Philips sound Jochum enjoyed earlier, with a weightier bass response. Yet the EMI sound is never soft or unfocused. Indeed, it is quite clear most of the time, with only a hint of bass overhang that could be more dependent on your speakers than on the recording. Impact is strong; bass is never overwhelming but realistically rendered; and drum strokes are solid, taut. There is moderately good depth to the sound field, solo voices are smooth and lifelike, and only in massed soprano voices do we hear a touch of bright forwardness. Still, it is never quite as piercing as we hear on so many other recordings. Otherwise, the sound is natural and pleasing.

Heaven only knows what Beethoven might have written to top his Ninth Symphony, premiered in 1824, had he lived long enough in good health and good hearing to have done so. Thank goodness he went out swinging and that people such as Eugen Jochum can today do him justice.

Of course, EMI haven't pressed a copy of Jochum's LSO performance in twenty years, so if you don't already have it and you're interested in it, you'll have to hunt down a used copy. You should have no trouble.


Jul 6, 2010

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (SACD review)

Also, Le Roi Lear overture. Marek Janowski, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 338.

One of the problems any conductor faces when he or she records a stardard-repertoire item like the Symphonie fantastique is having to compete with the many classic recordings that have gone before it. In the case of the Symphonie fantastique, Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony are up against people like Sir Thomas Beecham and the French National Radio Orchestra (EMI), Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips or remastered on PentaTone SACD), John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (Philips), Leonard Bernstein and the French National Orchestra (EMI), or Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (Virgin), to name but a few. Formidable competition, indeed.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote his celebrated Symphonie fantastique in 1830, and it became one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. Combining the programmatic elements of forebears ranging from Vivaldi's Four Seasons to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and utilizing an enormous orchestral arrangement for well over a hundred players (Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result was extraordinary for its period. I suspect if he'd had a wind machine, electronic instruments, and a light show available to him, Berlioz would have used them, too. Yet the music remains extraordinary for our own times as well, even though people have repeated and imitated it at length.

In the work's five movements, the young Berlioz (in his mid twenties at the time) wrote autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, prompting the young man into a drug-induced vision, which the composer describes in the music. The woman reappears throughout the Symphonie in the form of an idée fixe, a "fixed idea" that will not let the young man go.

The title of the first movement, "Reveries - Passions," should be self-explanatory enough, and under Janowski's baton the dreams are rather languorous, while he expands the ensuing passions into some serious melodrama. Maybe the ebb and flow of the music becomes a bit static; certainly, it has enough red-blooded emotions involved.

The waltz at "The Ball" comes next, Janowski taking it at a quick, flighty pace, losing some of the dance number's initial grace and agility while gaining our attention with its fluid, ongoing momentum.

In the "Scene in the Fields" the dreamer hears a pastoral song, heightening his feeling for the woman, only to let his paranoia about her possible infidelity consume and deflate him. If I think Janowski appears to take this slow movement somewhat perfunctorily, it may simply be that I have never cared much for the music in the first place and would be unimpressed by anybody's interpretation.

The hero imagines in the fourth movement that the courts have convicted him of murdering his loved one, and they are leading him to the scaffold for punishment. It is grim satire to be sure, and it is best if the music be played straight, even ominously, for Berlioz's effect to work. Janowski takes a cautiously middle-of-the-road approach, neither too sinister nor too jaunty. Still, echoes of Beecham's menacing interpretation ring clearly here, and the echoes are hard to dispel.

In the finale, the "Witches' Sabbath," the fates seem to have consigned the young lover to some kind of hell for his crime of passion, there only to see his beloved among the witches. Janowski lets out all the stops here.  Although the results are not as scary as, say, the thrills Bernstein produced, they bring the performance to a respectable close.

PentaTone recorded the music live in 2009 and present it in both two-channel stereo and multichannel surround on a hybrid SACD that sounds smooth and well balanced. In regular stereo (played back in my system on a Sony SACD player), we get wide dynamics and strong impact, if not a lot of stage depth or inner detailing. There is a sort of soft, velvety sheen over the sonics that never quite lets them develop or sparkle as fully as they might. Nor is the front-channel stereo spread all that wide. The bass response and frequency range are fine, however, and one hardly notices the occasional audience noise in the background.


Jul 5, 2010

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, Romeo and Juliet Overture. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80681.

The booklet note reminds us that Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, now a staple of the basic repertoire, did not succeed at its première. It confused audiences; they misunderstood it. It wasn't until the composer died, which came shortly thereafter, that people took another look at the work and saw its greatness, even saw in it a possible foreshadowing of the composer's death. Today, we might see the Sixth simply as innovative.

However, it's not hard to grasp why late nineteenth-century listeners might have been surprised by Tchaikovsky's final symphony. The long opening movement begins, unexpectedly, with a quiet Adagio and never reveals its main themes until well into the music. Then it gives us a waltz that isn't quite a waltz but does a wonderful job playing with waltz-like clues. That's followed by a Scherzo in the form of a march that erupts out of nowhere in a tone wholly unanticipated and builds to a frenzied climax. Finally, the last movement brings us back to Earth, prompting us to remember that the symphony's title (whether Tchaikovsky liked it or not) is "Pathetique," as the final deep notes fade off softly, gloomily, into silence.

What Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony do is provide us plenty of pathos. In Jarvi's hands, this is music of yearning, of heartache, of sorrow. And he never lets us forget it. But what I missed was the energy and passion that several other conductors also offer. Jarvi never seems to want to just let go, choosing, instead, to keep the work's more volatile emotions always in rein. By comparison, I had on hand Ashkenazy (Decca), Pletnev (Virgin), and Haitink (Philips), all of whom work up a bigger head of steam than Jarvi in the Symphony's biggest, loudest moments. The same can be said of the Symphony's companion piece, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

What none of the others have, though, is Telarc's patented bass drum or Telarc's broad dynamic range. Maybe the Telarc recording (made in Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, in January, 2007) lacks a little something in overall transparency, but it more than makes up for it in impact. While Jarvi's rendering is not quite in the top echelon of Sixth Symphony interpretations, it deserves to reach a wide market of fans looking for decent sound and performance.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 4, 2010

Shchedrin: Carmen Suite (CD review)

Also, Concertos for Orchestra Nos. 1 & 2. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. DG 289 471 136-2.

Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) mostly weathered the storms of Soviet musical repression in the Fifties and Sixties, only to find favor in the latter stages of the Communist regime and, of course, today hailed as one of Russia's leading composers. The Soviet government initially banned Shchedrin's 1967 Carmen Suite from on the grounds that it was "an insult to Bizet's masterpiece and for its sexual treatment of the character of Carmen."  Thanks to the intervention of Shchedrin's friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, it became accepted.

The Carmen Suite, in thirteen short movements, as you know owes its melodies and inspiration to Bizet, largely from the operas Carmen and La Jolie Fille de Perth and from Arlesienne. The big switch is that Shchedrin arranged the Suite for a small string orchestra, timpani, and four groups of percussion. The result is vibrant and rousing, jazzy in its way, yet intimate, too.

Conductor Mikhail Pletnev, members of the Russian National Orchestra, and the DG engineers manage to convey the piece in a clean, articulate, showstopping manner, with clean, vivid sound. The percussion, especially, ring out loud and clear. Although the sound is not quite in the demonstration class for absolute depth or transparency, it's close and should not displease the music lover or audiophile.

The two accompanying works, the Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, subtitled "Naughty Limericks" and "The Chimes," couldn't be more different from one another. "Naughty Limericks," 1963, is a purely orchestral version of a folk tune, which when sung with assorted lyrics could be highly biting and satiric. The music is playful and immediately enjoyable.

"The Chimes," 1968, on the other hand, is arranged for a huge percussion section featuring eighteen tubular bells, five "Russian" bells, and various sleighbells. Yet it's not what you might expect, instead sounding like typically modern, mid-to-late twentieth century experimental music. In this case, the booklet note tells us the percussion "forms the core of various layers of sound, which move across one another in part according to the chance rhythms of aleatory principles, and whose scalic material partly derives from Slavonic liturgical chant and partly from serial note-row procedures." It's the kind of stuff that delights composers and music critics and is generally ignored by the public. "The Chimes" does, at the very least, make a fascinating contrast to the rest of the more traditional music on the disc.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 2, 2010

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Romance in F for viola and orchestra. Janine Jansen, violin; Riccardo Chailly, Gewandhausorchester. Decca B0007260-2.

It's hard to argue with success, especially when the successful person is a world-famous, attractive, virtuoso violinist like Janine Jansen. However, it's hard to tell just which of these qualities Decca is selling here, given that Ms. Jansen is featured seven times on the CD cover and in the booklet insert. Indeed, the sixteen-page booklet devotes nine of its pages to pictures of the artist, several of them two-page spreads. Well, you can't blame the company, I suppose. Selling classical albums is like selling anything else. Which in this case is some very well-played music.

Ms. Jansen approaches the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor in a traditional manner, with her dexterity and poetic touch well in evidence, the Concerto giving her ample opportunity to show her skills since it begins by introducing the violin from the outset. She says that for her it is not the familiar, grand opening movement or even the rousing finale but the slow second movement Andante that is at the heart of the work; so, naturally, it is here that she concentrates her efforts, bringing it off quite fluently and tenderly. Then after that moment of repose, she dazzles us with her brilliant technique in the closing Allegro.

She chose two accompanying pieces, one familiar, the other not. The familiar is Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, a work that in many ways imitates, or at least pays tribute, to the Mendelssohn, and, as expected, Ms. Jansen brings it off well, too. But of more importance, perhaps, since most of us already have the Mendelssohn and Bruch Concertos in favorite performances, is her viola playing in the Bruch Romance. It is only about eight minutes long, but it is quite haunting.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is one of the oldest orchestras in the world, depending on how you measure such things, and it is the orchestra that premiered the Mendelssohn Concerto, so you could say the players have the music in their blood. The Decca engineers caught their relatively new chief conductor at the time, Riccardo Chailly, and the group in a live performance, although you would never guess it unless you read the fine print on the last page of the disc booklet. They miked the orchestra fairly close up, so you don't get any of that vague, distant, dullish sound that you do with many live recordings, with audience noises and applause at the end. Instead, you get what appears to be a good studio recording, with plenty of robust frequency range and dynamics coming from a dead-quite background, the applause apparently edited out. It's a good proposition all the way around.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


Jul 1, 2010

Cimarosa: Overtures (CD review)

Alessandro Amoretti, Nicholaus Esterhazy Sinfonia. Naxos 8.570508.

This collection of Cimarosa overtures, recorded in 2000, was first released on the full-price Marco Polo label in 2002, and then the company made it available on their low-cost Naxos label. I suppose if you wait long enough, all things come to pass.

The Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) was among the most prolific and popular composers of the late eighteenth century, probably as popular as Haydn and more popular than Mozart. Life is sometimes unfair, but time has a way of making up for things. Mozart may have died penniless, but today it's obviously his music, not Cimarosa's, that most people prefer. And for good reason. Meanwhile, with the possible exception of his opera Il matrimonio segeteo, Cimarosa is relegated to the ranks of relative obscurity for many listeners.

Anyway, as an introduction to the kind of stuff Cimarosa was turning out, the Naxos collection contains twelve of the man's overtures. Frankly, I couldn't tell you which was which. I mean, you have to remember that these pieces were not meant to stand on their own and be played in succession. Cimarosa wrote them as curtain raisers. That isn't to say the music isn't often engaging and even delightful, only that there isn't a lot of variety to it.

Included on the disc are overtures from the operas Voldomireo; La baronessa Stramba; Le stravaganze del conte; his most long-lasting, the aforementioned Il matrimonio segreto ("The Secret Marriage"); and eight others. Conductor Alessandro Amoretti and the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia perform them with great vigor, the ensemble itself created especially by the Naxos organization to further their recordings of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century music.

The sound is clean and wide, with moderate depth. It is a pleasant, easy-listening sound of a kind that might be heard from a reasonably close distance in a medium-sized concert hall. It also has good body and vigorous dynamics. The collection might have been overpriced on the Marco Polo label, but it is certainly a strong consideration on this budget-conscious Naxos reissue. I just wish there was more variety to the music.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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