Sep 30, 2010

Ives: Variations on 'America' (CD review)

Also, Old Home Days; The Alcotts. Colonel Timothy W. Foley, United States Marine Band. Naxos 8.570559.

With the big exceptions of "The Unanswered Question" and "Central Park in the Dark," some of the music by Charles Ives (1874-1954) can be more than a bit clamorous and dissonant, turning off a few listeners. But it seems to me that it would be hard for anyone not to like this collection of Ives's early band music, superbly rendered in modern concert-band arrangements by "The President's Own" United States Marine Band.

The booklet note tells us that Ives grew up like his elder contemporary, John Philip Sousa, enjoying and later composing band music, and the works of Ives on this disc, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, show us the influence it had on the young man.

Most of the pieces, which range from marches ("Country Band March") to waltzes ("Waltz") to fictitious college anthems ("Omega Lambda chi") to legitimate college tunes ("A Son of a Gambolier") to miniature tone poems ("Runaway Horse on Main Street") to full-blown suites ("Old Home Days"), are absolutely charming, touching, and moving by turns, only occasionally erupting into the cacophonous discord we sometimes associate with the composer. Of course, whereas Sousa remained devoted to band music all his life and seldom strayed too far from the martial style, Ives soon developed a taste for wider interests, as his symphonies, songs, and chamber music attest.  Still, Ives remained, as did Sousa, dedicated to pure Americana, and one can hear in this band music the many nationalistic themes to come.

The audio, which Naxos recorded in 2003, is pleasantly smooth for a band recording, with plenty of depth and bloom, though not a lot of air around the instruments. The miking sounds moderately distanced, yet the sonics still carry a nice impact, and, most of all, everything is highly listenable.

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


Sep 28, 2010

Autumn in the Park (CD review)

Various classical and jazz selections by various artists. EMI 50999 9 09305 2 2.

Every record company has its collections discs. Sometimes they're "Best of" albums, sometimes they're selections by a single composer or artist, and sometimes, as here, they're theme programs. You can't fault companies for wanting to market their product in every possible manner; it's their job to sell us stuff. The music they choose to fit the themes occasionally challenges the imagination, however.

Take the case of this new EMI album, Autumn in the Park. Obviously, the theme is autumn, but what exactly is the music of autumn? The jacket blurb talks of music recalling "pumpkins, homemade pies, raking leaves, crackling fires and steamy hot cider," a season of "magic, joy and love." As the folks at EMI say, they intended this album to "transport you to a relaxed state and let you enjoy Autumn in the Park."  Fair enough, whatever it means.

Things begin with the opening movement, Moderato, from Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, with Antonio Pappano and the Berlin Philharmonic. The particular selection seems a stretch to fit into autumn, but the music remains pleasant. It's just that there isn't enough of it without the following two movements.

Next is "The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, played by Hugh Bean, violin, with Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The piece has never received a better treatment than this, and it is clearly the best thing on the entire disc, the violin taking flight as gracefully as the bird of the title as it soars upward on the currents.

Joseph Canteloube's "Bailero" from Chants de Auvergne is a terrific follow-up to the "Lark" not because it has much to do with autumn but because soprano Lesley Garrett's voice floats above the London Session Orchestra in the same way the lark gently drifts through the heavens.

At least there's no mistaking the obvious connection between the album's theme and Vivaldi's "Autumn" from The Four Seasons. Sarah Chang, violin, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra take us through the paces, although I am not overly keen on the mechanics of the presentation or the close-up sound.

After that we get the first of three jazz pieces on the program, this time "One for My Baby" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, performed by the Bill Carlap Trio. They do a fine job, even if they don't erase memories of Sinatra's famous version.

Two piano solos follow, Felix Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words: No. 1 with Daniel Adni, and Franz Schubert's Impromptu No. 3 with Aldo Ciccolini. Along with "The Lark Ascending," they are the most beautiful works on the disc.

Gareth Morris on flute, with support by Sir David Willcocks and the New Philharmonia handle Gabriel Faure's Pavane with delicacy; and then Chet Baker and company perform Joe Young and Bernice Petkere's "Lullaby of the Leaves." Both works convey that "relaxed state" EMI mentions, although I'm not sure if it reminds one of autumn or leaves despite the title of the latter piece.

Claude Debussy's "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum" from Children's Corner, with Jean-Bernard Pommier, piano, actually comes closer to suggesting the rustling and swirling of autumn leaves than anything before it.

The program ends with Rachmaninov again, this time his Vocalise, adapted for cello and orchestra and performed by Han-Na Chang, with help from Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia Orchestra, an appropriate penultimate piece; and the Johnny Mercer/Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prevert song "Autumn Leaves" by Stan Getz and others. 'Nuff said.

EMI England, EMI France, and Blue Note recorded the selections between 1967-2007. Thanks to the miracles of modern disc mastering, the engineers get them all to sound pretty much alike: a little soft, veiled, misty, casual, easygoing, always soothing, and ready to comfort.

If you like your music in bits and pieces, presented in sections lasting from two to ten minutes each, you might find this disc of value. I had mixed feelings. I loved every work on the disc, but I longed afterward to hear more complete selections or more similar items by the same composers. This album doesn't seem to me the kind of thing one just sits down and listens to but rather plays as a sort of background music. I don't much care for background music.


Sep 27, 2010

Brahms: Horn Trio (CD review)

Also, Mozart: Horn Quintet (adapted for horn, violin, piano). Jeff Nelsen, horn; Ik-Hwan Bae, violin; Naomi Kudo, piano. Opening Day ODR 7384.

The three musicians who assembled for this recording are outstanding artists in their own right. Horn player Jeff Nelsen is a member of the famed Canadian Brass; prizewinning violinist Ik-Hwan Bae is Professor of Violin and Chamber Music at Indiana University; and fellow prizewinner, pianist Naomi Kudo, performs extensively throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States. Together, they form a well-knit ensemble that sounds as though they've been playing together much longer than they have.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 40, in 1865, the year his mother died, his only other composition at that time being the German Requiem. There is a pervasive solemnity that hangs over the entire Trio. In fact, Brahms derived one of the themes in the last two movements from an old folk song his mother sang to him in his childhood.

The melancholy begins with the somber opening Andante, the mellowness of Nelsen's horn sounding a mournful note against the sorrowfulness of Bae's violin and Kudo's accompanying piano. The Scherzo that comes up next lightens the mood considerably, and the players add a delightfully zesty flavor to the proceedings without entirely disrupting the still-serious tone.

Brahms apparently intended the third-movement Adagio as a kind of funeral dirge. It certainly comes across that way, the violin, especially, practically weeping, the horn grieving in sympathy. Then, the Finale wraps everything up in lively fashion with an affirmation and commemoration of life. At least that's the way the players here present it, and it makes a fitting segue into the Mozart work that follows it.

The Mozart Horn Quintet in E-flat major, K.407 (K.386c), adapted for horn, violin, and piano by Tony Rickard, is an entire change of pace from the Brahms piece. Mozart's work is not only witty, virtuosic, sensitive, and thoroughly charming, we can see in it the composer's waggish nature, Mozart seeming to relish in the fact that the participants tease one another with their instruments. If you're familiar with his Horn Concertos, you'll hear a lot similarities here, too.

Recorded in March, 2010, in Christ Church Deer Park, the sound appears moderately distanced, just enough to provide both detail and bloom. We get the impression of being at a live occasion, with a somewhat warm, resonant acoustic, the three instruments blending smoothly, if losing a little something in ultimate transparency. Yet the recording is close enough to supply a pleasantly realistic impact.


Sep 26, 2010

Higdon: The Singing Rooms (CD review)

Also, Singleton: PraiseMaker; Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy. Jennifer Koh, violin; Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc TEL-32630.

"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."

Composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) must feel as though it's her wedding day. In the past month she has had world-première recordings of her works debuted on two major record labels, DG and Telarc. Since we're dealing with the Telarc album at the moment, here's the lineup: Alexander Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy is the "old"; Higdon's The Singing Rooms is the "new"; Alvin Singleton's PraiseMaker is the "borrowed"; and the album cover is mainly the "blue." Or close enough.

The program begins with Jennifer Higdon's The Singing Rooms, which the reader should not confuse with Jim Morrison's The Singing Doors. Violinist Jennifer Koh originally requested Higdon write The Singing Rooms, a concerto for violin, chorus, and orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra subsequently commissioned it, premiering it in 2008. Telarc here offer the first recording of it, with, appropriately, Ms. Koh as the soloist.

A lonely violin opens and closes the Higdon music, the chorus entering for its often quietly melancholy statements. Unlike so many late twentieth-century composers, Ms. Higdon believes in writing real tunes, melodies, rather than simply inventing new soundscapes. In The Singing Rooms she uses seven of the poems of a colleague, Jeanne Minahan. Higdon arranged the poems in a dramatic sequence "like rooms in a house," each with its own emotional response. The music has a lightly lilting, semisweet quality about it, creating lingering wisps of sweetly pensive contemplation. Jennifer Koh's violin playing conveys the varying atmospheric moods of the music, with the chorus and orchestra under Robert Spano continuously furnishing a cushy reassurance that all is well, even though the actual words of the poetry may escape the listener. Is any of it memorable or of lasting importance? Who knows. Only time will tell. Certainly, it is enchanting for the moment.

Alvin Singleton (b. 1940) wrote PraiseMaker for chorus and orchestra in the late Nineties, getting a live première in 1998, with this Telarc rendering its first recording. He sets his work to an original text by poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker Susan Konguell. It is music of mostly restrained rejoicing, and its many contrasts, with occasional outbursts, make it an apt companion to the Higdon work, especially as it also begins and ends in a lonely, somewhat melancholy place. Neither the Higdon nor the Singleton piece is music you'll probably find yourself humming around the house afterwards, however. Most of it seems like a series of hushed, lyrical tone exercises, with the Singleton work sneaking up on you in progressively unexpected ways.

Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) debuted his well-known Poem of Ecstasy for orchestra in 1908. Maestro Spano's reading is colorful, sensual, and downright sexy. Spano draws comparisons to the music of Debussy in its lush textures, expansive themes, and long expressive lines. Hedonistic old Romantic that I am, I enjoyed it more than I did the Higdon or Singleton pieces, but that's just me.

The sound, which Telarc recorded in March of 2009, is fairly soft and distant, and while that may fit most of the music on the disc, it doesn't always provide the best acoustic for one's understanding of the words of the chorus. The midrange loses a good deal of transparency, as though one were listening from the back of an auditorium. Still, it's soothing enough, even if it sounds misty or cloudy at times. In the Higdon and Singleton music, there are few opportunities for the famous Telarc bass drum to make itself known, and, again due to the nature of the music, not a lot of chance for displaying a wide dynamic range or impact. Nevertheless, the Singleton piece in particular does have fine parts for brass and percussion, which stand out, and then in the Scriabin, with its greater orchestral range, the sound is better in most areas, if still a bit too soft and distant for my liking.


Sep 24, 2010

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Judith Raskin, soprano; George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra. HDTT HDCD158.

HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is the company that gives us CD recordings and downloads taken from older, commercially available tapes. In the case of the several HDTT discs I've reviewed so far, they all sounded extremely good, but I had never had an equivalent CD with which to compare them. Until now. With the George Szell recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 4, I had the latest copy of it on Sony compact disc and compared it side by side with the HDTT version in separate machines. I'll comment on the results a few paragraphs below. But first, the music.

In the opening movement of the Fourth, which Mahler marks as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," or "moderately, not rushed," Szell adopts a deliberately neutral tempo, just as the composer requested, not too fast, not too slow. Bruno Walter, the conductor who probably helped popularize Mahler as much as anybody, wrote of the Fourth Symphony that Mahler "assures himself and us of a sheltered security in the sublime and serene dream of a heavenly life." Szell does exactly that, only in addition to a sweet, affectionate interpretation, we get probably the most-precise treatment of the text ever heard. Szell clarifies every note, and, thanks to the new remastering, you can actually hear every note.

The second movement, a kind of bittersweet Scherzo, introduces us to Death, with a faintly sinister violin theme. It's never really threatening; it's more playful than ominous, but it sounds appropriately spooky and eerie. Again, the exactness of Szell's phrasing is like clockwork, yet it never disturbs the atmosphere by being too cold or distant. Indeed, by clarifying the music, Szell makes it all the more disturbing.

It is only in the slow, third-movement Adagio, marked "peacefully, somewhat slowly," that Szell's carefully prepared, calculated approach sounds a touch too mechanical. This section should be a moment of repose after the singularly odd second movement, and it still is. Szell doesn't actually spoil the serenity of the mood; he just doesn't quite reach into the heart of the music as deeply as some other conductors do.

However, in the finale--Mahler's vision of heaven as exemplified by the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler so favored--Szell is back in form. Mahler insisted this movement sound so unaffected he marked the soprano's part as "child-like bright expression, always without parody" and taken "very comfortably." With Szell it features the angelic voice of Judith Raskin, which seems ideally suited to the innocence of the music at this point. Although Szell's tempo may be a tad on the slow side, the whole last movement comes off as beautifully and delicately as one could imagine.

Now, about the sound. HDTT transferred the music from a Columbia 4-track tape, which they say comes from "circa 1963." My copy of the Sony/Columbia CD says Columbia recorded it in October, 1965. Whatever. In comparing the two CD's, one in a Sony ES player, the other in a Philips player, the easiest way to describe the differences is to say that when switching to the Sony/Columbia disc, it is like throwing a blanket over the speakers. The Sony/Columbia disc doesn't sound all that bad, mind you, if listened to in isolation. It's when you put it up against the more-transparent HDTT rendering that it suddenly doesn't seem so great. The HDTT transfer sounds cleaner, clearer, and more dynamic, displaying more stage depth along the way.

Of course, some listeners will prefer the warmer, mellower but distinctly more veiled sound of the Sony/Columbia product, finding the newer HDTT transfer a little too bright or forward. Indeed, the Wife-O-Meter found just such a concern, saying the Sony disc sounded more soothing to her. But I had no such issue. I thought the HDTT transfer open, airy, lucid, and highly satisfying, which should make it a delight for music lovers and audiophiles alike.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at


Sep 23, 2010

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (SACD review)

Sir Colin Davis, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. PentaTone PTC 5186 184.

It's now been well over three decades, and Sir Colin Davis's 1974 Philips recording of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is still the one to beat. I first owned it on LP, and this SACD is, I believe, the third time it's appeared on disc.  You understand, however, it has never been my absolute favorite, as good as it is; for an absolute favorite, I have long enjoyed Sir Thomas Beecham's more colorful, more idiomatic (and much older) stereo account on EMI.

Still, it is Davis who remains the safest choice. Some listeners may even find him too safe, too conservative, but I believe Davis captures most of the dreamy, bizarre, surreal, even frightening aspects of Berlioz's self-proclaimed musical drama. (Berlioz would go so far as to describe the work as "a hallucination in the midst of an opium dream," as Franz Steiger comments in the booklet note.) If Davis's interpretation of the music is a bit more literal than Beecham's (or Martinon's or Bernstein's or Gardiner's), so be it. Davis is still mighty persuasive, the waltz appropriately lilting, the slow movement gripping, the final two segments intense, odd, funny, atmospheric, and stirring.

The folks at Philips themselves reissued the recording in their "Originals" series a few years before this PentaTone release, transferring it from a 96kHz/24-bit master that sounded quite good. Now it's PentaTone's turn to bring out the recording, this time in one of their hybrid SACDs, and they've made a good thing even better. You get not only the regular stereo version that you can play on any standard CD player, but you get a four-channel version in SACD, taken from the original four-channel Philips master tape.

The first thing I did was compare the PentaTone stereo version with the Philips stereo version side-by-side in separate, standard CD players.  After adjusting for output variables, I confess I could hear little difference between them that I couldn't attribute to the almost indistinguishable differences in the two players. Then I compared the PentaTone SACD layer (in two-channel only and using a Sony SACD player) with the Philips stereo version and found the PentaTone slightly clearer and more robust. I suspect that the real advantage of the SACD layer, however, was one I couldn't access--the two rear channels--but if you have the facility for using them, it could not but improve matters.

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


Sep 21, 2010

Higdon & Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 028947787778.

For readers who missed my early review of this disc, I thought it best to repost it.

When somebody writes a piece of serious music just for you, you'd do well to show your appreciation. In the case of violinist Hilary Hahn, one of her old music professors, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, wrote and dedicated a violin concerto especially for her, and Ms. Hahn returned the favor in this world-première recording of it.

Ms. Hahn pairs the Higdon Violin Concerto with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in part to do something she's done before--compare and contrast music from two different eras--and, no doubt, to hedge her bets by giving potential buyers a popular warhorse to help sell the album. In any case, the two works make fascinating listening.

The program begins with Higdon's Violin Concerto, for which the composer won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Ms. Higdon titled the first movement "1726," which seems pretty mystifying until you understand that she gave it that title because it's the street address of the Curtis Institute of Music, where she first met Ms. Hahn. Fair enough. The movement begins with a hauntingly lithe, almost spooky, little introduction that leads to a lusher, almost Romantic melody, which in turn gives way to a lively, vibrant tune, accompanied by a good deal of percussion. That's quite a lot to cram into a single movement, but in the end the movement is more or less a traditional Allegro with modern trimmings, arresting at least in part and ending the way it came in.

The composer patterned the slow second movement, which she titled "Chaconni," after the Baroque chaconne, a musical form based on continuous variations in a series of chords. It's a pleasant moment of repose, reminiscent of the music of English composer Frederick Delius in its sweetly flowing rhythms.

The final movement, titled "Fly Forward," is the easiest to figure out. Ms. Higdon is urging her former pupil to even greater heights of musical interpretation and exploration. It's the most-ambitious part of the Concerto, and Ms. Hahn handles it with her usual virtuosity.

I wasn't entirely sure how Ms. Hahn would handle the rather brawny, muscular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, however. Not that I should have worried, as she is fully capable of meeting any challenge, the Tchaikovsky being no different from any other. While her reading is a tad disappointing in overall bravura, it is a thoughtful one. For instance, you might find her performance more sensitive than that of some of her rivals. Indeed, in the familiar opening movement she and maestro Vasily Petrenko seem determined not to leave an audience breathless with excitement but, instead, captivated by flavor and atmosphere. Then they evoke an appropriate degree of Russian melancholy in the Andante and close the show with a big, spirited Finale, as though they were saving all their energy for the last rounds. All's well that ends well.

DG's sound is warm and full, not always as transparent as it could be during full orchestral segments but serving the soloist and individual instruments well enough. The engineers at DG always do up wide dynamics well, too, and this is no exception. Still, the overall focus is slightly soft and one dimensional, with the bass somewhat light. Fortunately, the abundance of delicate, tinkly sounds in the Hidgon piece come through nicely, and they are perhaps the highlight of the disc's sonics.


Sep 20, 2010

The Very Best of Ravi Shankar (CD review)

Ravi Shankar, sitar; Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Paul Horn, flute; Anoushka Shankar, sitar; and others. EMI 50999 6 29455 2 (2-disc set).

When I first started college, I remember the name of Indian composer and sitarist Ravi Shankar (b. 1920) being very big in campus circles. Despite the prevalence of rock-and-roll at the time, Shankar's music was among the "in" things, and you heard it everywhere. That was nearly fifty years ago, and to my knowledge he's still going strong at ninety.

Now, I also admit to knowing next to nothing about sitar music. The nice thing is, you don't have to.  It's a plucked stringed instrument used in Hindustani classical music, where it has been popular for many hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Shankar is the artist probably most responsible for bringing it to the attention of the Western world, his having begun touring with the instrument in the early 1930's. On this two-disc set, EMI offer selections from five of Shankar's albums, all of them quite well recorded and helping one to get to know the music that much better.

The first five tracks come from the Grammy Award-winning album West Meets East, which Shankar recorded between 1966 and 1976 with violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin. The two artists, accompanied by Alla Rakha on tabla and Prodyot Sen on tanpura, fuse Eastern and Western music in most charming and accessible ways, even for people like me who have no background in the subject. The rhythms and cadences are at once familiar yet different, and they are highly infectious. The melancholy "Raga Piloo" is of particular interest for the poignancy of its themes and "Twilight Mood" for its Eastern echoes of American blues.

Two selections from the album Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000 end disc one, with Shankar playing duets with his daughter Anoushka Shankar in fairly lengthy works before a live audience.

Disc two opens with India's Master Musician, 1963, the earliest recording in the set. It may actually be the best place to start, too, as it offers some of the most fundamental pieces in the collection.

In Portrait of Genius, 1964, flute player Paul Horn joins Shankar for five brief selections. These seem to me the easiest of the music to digest. The tunes are like Eastern pop songs, and you can almost imagine them on the flip sides of old 45's.

The last four tracks come from the album Sound of the Sitar, 1965, and feature Sharkar's friend and collaborator Alla Rakha on tabla in the final two items. They are the most rambunctious of the lot but tend to lose a little of the music's charm in the process.

For a person like me, a little sitar music goes a long way because, as I said, I don't know enough about it to sit and pay attention for sustained periods. But I did listen straight through these two discs and enjoyed what I heard. There is enough variety in the music and enough virtuosity in the music-making to keep one involved.

Recorded between 1963 and 2000, the sound is generally clean, vivid, and transparent, with an excellent transient response. That is, the notes begin and end quickly and precisely, with little or no overhang to cloud the acoustic. This is especially important in an album like this one, filled as it is largely with percussive sounds--plucked, strummed, gently struck, or strongly pounded as the case may be. The live concert performance at the end of disc one is a bit closer than the others, but it, too, carries a fine impact.


Sep 19, 2010

Nico Muhly: A Good Understanding (CD review)

Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale.  Decca B0014741-02.

The back-cover blurb describes the pieces on this disc as "contemporary choral classics."  Now, I hate to begin on a negative note, and I mean no disrespect to the musical selections on the album, which are lovely in every regard; but to call them "classics" seems premature. The very term "contemporary classics" seems contradictory to me, a typical stretch of PR hype. Let's wait, say, fifty years and see if people are still listening to and recording this music. Then we'll know if they're "classics" or not. For the present, I'd rather refer to them simply as highly agreeable choral compositions and leave it at that.

The back cover also describes Nico Muhly as "America's leading young composer." Not one of America's leading young composers, but apparently the leading young composer, period. Again, no disrespect to Mr. Muhly, who is surely an excellent composer, but not having heard the work of every other young American composer out there, I couldn't possibly agree that Muhly was the very best of the lot. In any case, he is, as I say, very good, his having started as a boy chorister in the Eighties and going on to pursue music at Columbia University and the Julliard School, studying composition with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse. Today, he's developed into quite a multitalented composer, working not only in classical music but in pop, rock, and opera.  In the current album, he works with choral settings of mainly spiritual texts.

The program begins with Bright Mass with Canons, a four-section choral work sung in Latin.  It sounds at once familiar, as it should, yet new and fresh and remarkably refreshing for what most listeners will deem "church" music.  I mean, it is a mass, after all.

The next piece, the ambiguously titled First Service, is in two canticles--"Magnifcat" and Nunc dimittis"--and sung in English. It aims to place four-hundred-year-old texts in a modern setting. Just don't expect a modernization to sound like something a rock singer or avant-garde innovator would write. These are still pretty conventional arrangements that do no disservice to the sacred words.

Senex puerum portabat ("The old man bore the child in his arms") is a Christmas anthem, again set to an old text, which begins sweetly enough and then bursts out in jubilation toward the end, finally floating down into gentle repose. It's one of the most-affecting pieces on the program.

The penultimate work, A Good Understanding, which lends its name to the album, is the most boisterous, outgoing work on the disc, with percussion in the forefront and organ and voices taking up the rhythms as the piece proceeds.  It's kind of fun, given the nature of the music.

The program concludes with Muhly's only secular work in the collection, Expecting the Main Things from You. Here, we get the words of American poet Walt Whitman set to music in three parts. It's the longest piece in the set, and, again, while it's probably not as memorable as Whitman's words alone, it does no harm to them, either. Outstanding moments:  wood blocks, Morse code, and the entire third movement.

The performances by conductor Grant Gershon and the world-famous Los Angeles Master Chorale do complete justice to Muhly's music. The purity of tone and intonation, the clarity of line, and the fusion of voices makes a joyful noise, indeed.  In the various selections on the disc, the Chorale is joined by a diversity of solo singers and instrumentalists, including Tamara Bevard and Karen Hogle Brown, sopranos; Tracy Van Fleet, mezzo-soprano; Kimo Smith, organ; David Washburn, Marissa Benedict, and Andrew Ulyate, trumpets; Kristy Morrell, horn; Michael Hoffman, Alvin Veeh, and Terry Cravens, trombones; Fred Greene, tuba; Claire Fedoruk, soprano; Drea Pressley, mezzo-soprano; Ralph Morrison and Steve Scharf, violins; Michael Englander, Aaron Smith, and Joseph Mitchell, percussion; and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus.

Decca recorded the album in June, 2010, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the audio engineers providing exemplary sound. For the most part, the recording balances the voices well against the organ background, the vocals clear without being too bright or edgy. The organ is deep and solid, and the stereo spread displays plenty of center fill, delivering a room-filling choral/organ/instrumental sound, with vividly articulated percussion and a pleasant ambient bloom to the whole affair.


Sep 17, 2010

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Antal Dorati, New Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HDCD114.

When I first started collecting classical music seriously in the mid Sixties, I had two favorite LP's of Anton Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World: one with Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony and another with Antal Dorati and the New Philharmonia, both on London (Decca) Records. The performances and the recordings couldn't have been more different, Kertesz smooth, mature, and polished, Dorati more robust and volatile, with sound qualities to match each interpretation.

Anyway, when the CD era arrived in the early Eighties, London-Decca started issuing the Kertesz recording again and again, but the Dorati recording seemed to disappear. Or, if London-Decca did issue it on CD, it escaped me at the time (although I believe they finally did release it on CD in the mid Nineties, and it may still be available, at least used). So it was with great pleasure that I welcomed the release of Dorati's NPO recording of the New World Symphony from HDTT, the company that transfers older classical performances from commercially available tapes to compact disc.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Symphony From the New World in 1893, a short while after the Czech composer and his family arrived in New York for a visit of several years. When he premiered the work, American audiences praised it for incorporating elements of African American and Native American cultures, characteristics making it to them purely "American" in nature. As it turns out, however, Dvorak said he tried mainly to write music of the "common man" and used primarily Slavic folk tunes vaguely familiar to his homeland. No matter, people will forever think of it as his "American" piece.

In Dorati's performance of the New World Symphony, he is not afraid of wearing his heart on his sleeve. In the first movement, he plays up the contrasts as much as anyone between the serene introduction and the wild bursts of enthusiasm that follow. Dorati seems intent on letting us know that Dvorak favored African American spirituals (a part of the Allegro section reminds some listeners of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"), whether the composer meant to or not. Dorati keeps the beautiful Largo, with its famous English horn theme, moving forward in a fluid motion, like a gently flowing stream. (Dvorak later said he intended the melody to suggest the awakening of animals on the prairie.) The Scherzo, with its sprightly dance-like beats, scoots along in appropriately zippy fashion, with some wonderfully infectious Bohemian accents, again with Dorati emphasizing the tempo contrasts above all. Still, I think it's the finale that comes off best under the conductor's direction. It has tremendous presence and carries out Dvorak's aim to be impassioned to the letter without ever getting carried away in bombast, ending in an outburst of exultation.

Now, about HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers): You'll perhaps remember they are the folks who provide CD and download copies of older classical recordings. How can they do this, legally? Here is the way they explain it at their Web site: "All of the recordings we use for our transfers are in the public domain, which means that the public is free by law to openly use and distribute them, and have all been thoroughly researched by Government Liaison Services, Inc.  ( ). There are two criteria that these recordings must meet in order for us to offer them as HDTT releases: (1) the compositions must have been published before 1924 (this is why most of our transfers are from the classical genre), and (2) the recordings must have been made prior to 1972. Before 1972 the original masters were eligible for protection, but the commercial releases were not. In addition, many copyrighted works published between 1923 and 1964 would have had to have their copyrights renewed at the end of their normal 28-year terms; however, if the copyright owners failed to renew these copyrights, the works by law automatically revert to the public domain. By some estimates, as many as 95% of all copyright owners for works during this period did not renew their copyrights for one reason or another, and so these recordings are now also in the public domain."

In the case of the New World Symphony, HDTT transferred the sound from a London Phase Four 4-track tape, recorded in 1966. Due to the nature of the Phase Four process, the sonics appear fairly compartmentalized, yet they are wonderfully open, moderately close, and well detailed. The dynamic range is wide and the overall response quite smooth. The higher registers can be a tad aggressive at times, but it is never harsh, and one may notice some slight background noise during quieter passages, a normal circumstance of older recordings. Also, because of the multi-miking used, there is more information to the left and right than in the center; still, it never creates a hole-in-the-middle effect.

Would this newly reissued Dorati recording now displace my favored Kertesz? No, even though Dorati's reading, in its greater abandon, does remind me of Kertesz's own, earlier recording of the Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic. Nevertheless, while the sound of this remastered Dorati disc is not quite as transparent as some other HDTT transfers I've heard, it is remarkably good and easily competes with any new recording on the market. In fact, this Dorati recording makes both Kertesz recordings (VPO and LSO) sound a trifle muffled by comparison. More important, it's a delight to have this Dorati performance available again in so fine a form.

For further information on HDTT products, you can check out their Web site at


Sep 16, 2010

Verdi: Aida (CD review)

Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa, Piero Cappucilli; Herbert von Karajan, Choir of the Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 81877 2 1 (3-disc set).

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? Interestingly, both Decca and EMI chose to reissue their recordings at about the same time a few years ago, 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 listeners will argue the point. The Decca is also quite fine, and has a marginally better cast. The knock against this EMI version is that Jose Carreras doesn't have a big enough voice for the part of Radames, but it's hard to make that statement after listening to it. In any case, the music dwarfs the singers, and certainly one cannot fault Mirella Freni as the doomed princess Aida or any of the other cast members.

And you can hardly fault the EMI sound, either. It may be a trifle bright (sometimes almost glaring) in the upper registers during big climaxes, which are many, but it is also spectacular in the extreme. Those horns, which sound good in the Decca version as well, sound even more splendid here, their placement in the balconies giving them an extra-resonant dimension.

What did disappoint me, however, is that EMI did not bother to remaster the recording for this latest release. It's the same 1986 digital rendering they've used for three successive CD sets: first at full price and now in a second mid-price box. I would love to have heard what their Abbey Road Technology could have done to smooth out the rough patches.

Another minor annoyance is that EMI chose to repackage the set in a cardboard box, with separate paper sleeves for the three discs, rather than use a double jewel box. I really dislike having to pry discs out of those little sleeves and worry about fingerprints.

A further annoyance is that EMI no longer offer a libretto, just a scene summary. It seems a little chintzy of them. And a last annoyance is that the EMI folks appear to want to advertise the fact that this is a mid-price set by giving it some inexpensive-looking cover art. Inside the set's booklet we find a picture of the original cover art for the LP set, and it is quite rich and striking in appearance. Why not have used that artwork instead of what looks like a cheap pen-and-ink drawing on the current cover? But do they ever ask?

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


Sep 14, 2010

Garofalo: Romantic Symphony (CD review)

Also, Violin Concerto. Sergei Standler, violin; Joel Spiegelman, New Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.570877.

People didn't just neglect the music of Italian organist and composer Carlo Giorgio Garofalo (1886-1962) in his own lifetime, practically nobody knows him even today. He wrote a ton of sacred compositions, heard in churches and cathedrals throughout Italy in his time but hardly anywhere outside the country and hardly anywhere, period, since. He also wrote quite a lot of secular works as well, like the two pieces on this album, most of them never getting performed, let alone recorded. The present disc aims to help rectify that situation.

Garofalo's Violin Concerto sounds like something written in the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century. It's a throwback to Mendelssohn and Brahms, but without quite the melodic sweep. There is no wonder that either the composer or his publishers probably didn't think the public wanted more of the same when most other composers were pursuing new directions in music. Still, there is a power and grandeur about the Concerto's first movement, and a gypsy feel at times as well. However, while it is charming, to be sure, it's nothing you can fully pin down or grab onto, kind of like elusive wisps of semi-familiar tunes. The same might be said of the serene Andante and the bouncy, up-tempo finale. You'd swear you've heard it all before, and then the thought, like the music, quickly fades from memory. Nevertheless, violinist Sergei Standler, maestro Joel Spiegelman, and the New Moscow Symphony Orchestra (an ensemble brought together in 1999 by the Modern Times Group of Sweden to enhance and support the Scandinavian broadcast company) try their best to do the music justice.

More important, perhaps, is Garofalo's Romantic Symphony, which Spiegelman resurrected and saved from oblivion in 1994 with only its second complete public performance. The first public performance had been almost eighty years earlier. On this disc we find the première recordings of both the Romantic Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

Anyway, the Symphony didn't get its "Romantic" title for nothing. It could well be something by Brahms or Bruckner, although unlike the work of those classic composers, Garofalo's piece is entertaining without being in any way profound or even particularly affecting, despite its vaguely nostalgic tone.

Previous to Spiegelman's championing of the Romantic Symphony, conductors would sometimes play only the Andante and Scherzo from the work. One can understand why. These movements are at the heart of the music, containing some of its most-memorable melodies. The Andante can be especially enchanting in a lush, spacious, highly emotional way. Indeed, the Andante is really the best part of the Symphony: lovely yet dramatic, never too light yet never taking itself too seriously, either (at least not under Spiegelman's direction). It has a haunting quality that makes a listener want to return to it again.

Furthermore, one can understand from listening to the Scherzo why his rival, Ottorino Respighi, may have tried to repress Garofalo's music. There are certain similar, descriptive, tone-poem characteristics to it that may have worried the more-famous composer. The Romantic Symphony ends by allowing every instrument of the orchestra to have its day in a rather melodramatic but gripping fashion, finishing up as it began, in the loftiest possible manner. This is big-scale music that isn't afraid to let it be known.

Originally recorded by MTG in 1999 and released on the Marco Polo label, the music now comes to us on a newly reissued, low-priced Naxos CD. The sound is squarely in the Naxos tradition, too, being perfectly serviceable, moderately distanced, with a somewhat soft overall response. Not that there is anything wrong with the dynamics, impact, or clarity; there's just nothing about the sonics that cries out as good enough to be audiophile material or bad enough not to be satisfying. In the Romantic Symphony in particular the acoustic setting is deeper and the sound more realistically spread out than in the Violin Concerto, although both works are pleasantly listenable.


Sep 13, 2010

Tyberg: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Piano Trio. JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572236.

If you've never heard of Austrian conductor, pianist, and composer Marcel Tyberg (1893-1944) or his music, don't feel bad. You're not alone. Tyberg wrote three symphonies, several masses, a number of chamber pieces, and a flock of lieder, yet he apparently chose to labor in relative obscurity.

Tyberg seems to have completed his Symphony No. 3 either in the late Thirties or early Forties, yet he never heard it performed in his lifetime, his dying (presumably) in a Nazi concentration camp (he was partly Jewish). The fact is, scholars know relatively little about his life, his music, or his death. What is clear is that before the Nazis sent him away, he entrusted his original scores to a friend, Dr. Milan Mihich and subsequently to Mihich's son, Enrico.  Many years after moving to America and trying to get the music played, the younger Mihich eventually persuaded maestro JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic to look at it. Ms. Falletta conducted the world première of the Third Symphony and records it here.

The Symphony No. 3 begins with a lengthy, sprawling, rhapsodic Andante maestoso, which alternates melodies that might have been at home in a work of Brahms or Schumann. Tyberg was clearly a poetic composer but one who wasn't quite sure of his direction, so we get a lovely set of tunes in the opening movement that seem wholly unrelated to one another. Think of the beginning of the Bruckner Fourth, followed by bits and pieces of Mahler. It's fascinating in a disjointed sort of way.

The second-movement Scherzo is bright and zippy, scooting along in a mock-heroic style. And that's followed by a charming Andante that reminds us that Tyberg began composing at the very end of the Romantic period, and the modernists of the twentieth century had evidently not won him over.

The Symphony ends with a fairly brief and sprightly Rondo, playfully executed. One can see why Ms. Falletta chose to unearth this music, as much of it can be delightful, if remarkably lightweight.

Accompanying the Symphony No. 3 on the program we find the composer's Piano Trio in F major (1936), played by Michael Ludwig, violin, Roman Mekinulov, cello, and Ya-Fei Chuang, piano. Here again we experience Tyberg's love of the nineteenth-century classics with which he undoubtedly grew up, because there are echoes everywhere in the three movements of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and again Brahms and Schumann. The soloists bestow on the work their utmost affection, and it comes off with an appealingly graceful lilt. The fact that the music seems more of a single piece helps, too, in persuading a listener of the composer's worth.

The sound, recorded by Naxos in 2008-09, is big and close in both works, providing a very dramatic presentation, with plenty of impact. It's a trifle soft, though, and in the Symphony, especially, it doesn't always provide the greatest transparency. Still, it suits the changeable needs of the music well enough.

While it is a shame people didn't know Tyberg better in his lifetime, we can be grateful to Ms. Falletta for shedding new light on his musical gifts.


Sep 12, 2010

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Karl Bohm, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Originals 475 8403.

In his booklet note, musician and writer Andrew Huth takes Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) to task for labeling his Fourth Symphony "Romantic," preferring that the composer had allowed it to stand on its own rather than impose any kind of program on it. I'm just the opposite; I enjoy listening to the music with visions of knights, castles, hunts, and merrymaking dancing in my head. In any case, maestro Karl Bohm's 1973 recording of the work is among the best, and most complete, renderings of the Fourth on disc, and Decca apparently thought the public liked it so well that they reissued it in their "Originals" series of well-known, well-received classic recordings.

Bohm's interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic ranks high on my list of all-time favorite Bruckner Fourths. I still consider Klemperer's performance (EMI) foremost for its greater majesty and stronger symphonic weight, and maybe Jochum's older recording (DG) next in line for its greater mystery and atmosphere in the opening movement, but there is no denying Bohm's complete mastery of the score. The whole thing moves implacably forward with strength, grace, and style. In fact, the second movement Andante is perhaps more beautiful under Bohm than under any other conductor.  Bohm was greatly underrated, often thought of as merely a conservative "kapplemeister." Maybe he was sometimes, but not always. Here, there are no fussy heroics, true, just a simple presentation of the music. The work unfolds at its own pace and is all the more eloquent for it.

For their "Originals" reissue, Decca used the same 24-bit/96k Hz master they used for their "Legends" release of half a dozen years earlier. So, if you already have that one, there is no need for this later edition. But if you don't own the recording and you like Bohm's Bruckner, you might consider this later issue. The sound is big, full, rich, detailed, and dynamic. However, there remains a metallic edge, a slight upper-midrange glassiness, that the processing has not completely eliminated. I'd say, don't worry about it.

I enjoy this recording every time I listen to it, and I know it will continue to provide me hours of pleasurable listening. Incidentally, Decca have given the disc a new appearance, too. As with other titles in their "Originals" series, the Bruckner disc looks like a miniature LP, and they have replicated the original cover art on the booklet insert. It's quite distinctive.


Sep 10, 2010

Steiner: The Charge of the Light Brigade (CD review)

William Stromberg, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Tribute Film Classics TFC-1005 (2-disc set).

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."

It was Alfred, Lord Tennyson's unfortunate assignment as England's poet laureate to play down one of the worst blunders in military history, the British defeat at Balaklava in 1854, and glorify the event in the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." That he did so to such lasting applause is a testament to his ability as a wordsmith of prodigious spin. None of which had much to do with the 1936 motion picture of the same name, its having little to do with Tennyson and even less to do with history. But, oh, what a grand piece of filmmaking it was, and as a pure adventure yarn, it's still hard to beat.  Thank three people in particular for the movie's success: Star Errol Flynn, director Michael Curtiz, and composer Max Steiner.

Executive producer and music preparer Anna Bonn explains in a booklet note that she, restorer John Morgan, and conductor William Stromberg had to reconstruct over half the score for the film using materials from the Warner Bros. catalogues and from some of Steiner's own original sketches, now housed at the Brigham Young University Film Archive. The result for this recording is the entire musical score for the film. It's almost too much of a good thing: The movie itself lasts 115 minutes; the music on this recording lasts over 100 minutes, comprising thirty-six tracks and covering two discs. You want completeness? You got completeness.

People often regard Max Steiner (1888-1971) as the "father of film music," his coming to Hollywood in 1929 and registering his first big hit with King Kong (1933), which is among the very first films to use an extensive, original, scene-specific musical score. After that, Steiner went on to do practically every big picture the Warner Bros. studio made in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, finally winding down his career in the early Sixties. His score for The Charge of the Light Brigade is among his finest achievements.

The music varies from the heroic to the purely descriptive, some of it Romantic, most of it underlining the action of key scenes. It begins with reflections of "Rule, Britannia!" and later shades of Tchaikovsky and others. A lovely waltz before the protagonists go off to battle is particularly touching. And so on. Needless to say, the longest segment comes near the end, where we get to the actual charge and its echoes of the 1812 Overture.

Maestro William Stromberg and his Moscow Orchestra play with a kind of demonic fury at times. From their actions, I suppose we can deduce they had a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. They and the music develop to a fevered pitch when the score builds to its final, fateful charge, the rhythms becoming increasingly faster and more intense as the doomed cavalry ride into the "jaws of death." It's a thrilling ride, to say the least.

If there is any drawback to all of this, it's that the music comes in small chunks, so many bits and pieces, that without careful attention it can all appear to merge unceremoniously into a sort of background noise. Is all of the music, in its minute completeness, really necessary?  Well, is anything really necessary for any reason? The album is a labor of love by and for people who enjoy the movie and its music, as well as simply for fans of motion pictures and the way Hollywood used to score them in the old days.

The sound, which Tribute Film Classics recorded in Moscow in 2008, is appropriately spectacular, given the scope of the movie. It's room-filling sound, with a wide stereo spread, good inner definition, and strong transient response, if a tad one-dimensional in terms of stage depth. Bass and treble are well extended, too, with a few healthy low-end wallops and a slew of sparkling highs along the way.

The presentation wraps up with a gorgeously illustrated and thoroughly documented and annotated booklet insert. I can't remember a CD package with more meticulous attention to detail. Even the two CD's are beautifully silk screened with pictures from the movie. Heck, it makes a person want to own the set just as a work of visual art, as well as a work of musical art.

Readers can find out more about Tribute Film Classics at their Web site:

Readers can find out more about the 1936 movie The Charge of the Light Brigade from my full review of the film at


Sep 9, 2010

Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Poulenc: Organ Concerto*. Peter Hurford, organ; Charles Dutoit, Orchestre symphonique de Montreal; *Philharmonia Orchestra. Decca Originals 475 7728.

It seemed to me that Charles Dutoit had recorded the Symphony No. 3 "Organ" by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) just a few years ago, yet he did it in 1982, going on thirty years back. Amazing. Nevertheless, this remastering in the Decca "Original" series didn't impress me any more on my most-recent listening than it did all those many years ago. That's not to say I disliked it; only that I like several other recordings better.

Dutoit conducts in an urbane, cultured musical style, with everything neatly and effortlessly in place.  He's not one to take many chances, and his manner meshes well with some kinds of music--Ravel, for instance, Debussy, and the French impressionists. In a big, loud, sometimes boisterous piece like the Organ Symphony, however, he seems too confined, too suave, too polished; everything sounds too well ordered, too perfect, if you will. And it doesn't help the situation that the Decca recording is ultrasmooth as well, with not quite enough deep organ bass to pull it off really successfully.

I found the accompanying Poulenc Organ Concerto a tad fresher, recorded a decade later in 1992, and with the Philharmonia Orchestra rather than with Dutoit's usual Montreal Symphony. The Poulenc performance has a little more life to it, and the recording is a bit closer and more dynamic.

Still, it's the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony that most people will probably want, and here one might do better with Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on a mid-priced EMI compact disc or Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony on an RCA SACD (or an expensive but worthwhile JVC XRCD). Both Fremaux and Munch are more exciting, more electrifying than Dutoit, and even though the quality of their recordings may not be as refined as Decca's, they are better in other ways, like deep bass and transparency.

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


Sep 7, 2010

Ravel: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, Stravinsky: Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F. Ian Parker, piano; Michael Francis, London Symphony Orchestra. ATMA Classique ACD2 2656.

I don't envy any pianist recording Ravel's Piano Concerto these days, having to compete against an acknowledged classic in Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's magical, 1957 performance, available on an EMI "Great Recordings of the Century" remaster. Nevertheless, young Canadian pianist Ian Parker tries his hand at it (both, actually, and his fingers, too), coming out not the worse for wear and probably the better for the experience.

French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote his Piano Concerto in G major in 1931, the clear result of George Gershwin having swayed his decision to inject some American jazz into his music. Parker makes this connection early on, showing us the direct relationships among the three works on the disc, providing first the results the Gershwin influence and then the influence itself. But, as expected, Ravel adds his own suggestions of dreamy, Romantic expressionism to the mix. Parker gives us a generally light, airy interpretation of the Ravel concerto, the Adagio especially affecting in its gentle grace, poignancy, and composure. The finale is dazzling, of course, with the pianist and orchestra in virtuosic form.

The Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929) by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is both similar to and different from Ravel's piano concerto. Although both of the works are bright and cheerful, Stravinsky's is altogether darker in places and more exhilarating overall. Stravinsky being Stravinsky, the slow Andante Rapsodico is more than a bit stranger than anything Ravel ever wrote, the movement looking backward and forward at the same time. The closing segment finds Parker again at his best in an almost nonstop drive of rhythmic enchantment. And it is here that we most distinctly notice the impact of Stravinsky's hero, Tchaikovsky, in the music, as well as Stravinsky's own ballets.

The album concludes with one of the works that most greatly must have steered both Ravel and Stravinsky toward the jazz idiom, the Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin (1898-1937), which Gershwin premiered in 1925. Interestingly, it is only here that Parker and company tend to wander a tad. The music never seems to come alive in the jazzy, bluesy manner of, say, Wild, Previn, or Siegel. It remains pleasant, mind you, and expertly played and presented; it just never appears entirely attuned to the vernacular of jazz, except in the second-movement Adagio, where it reflects the mood of an early Porgy and Bess. The ending is appropriately energetic if still not quite completely persuasive.

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 2009, the sound is fairly warm yet natural, with plenty of bass impact and a delicate but clean piano response. While the orchestral accompaniment could have been a touch more open and airy, the midrange more transparent, and the bass better damped, these are relatively minor qualms in an otherwise agreeable acoustic.


Sep 6, 2010

Brahms: Serenades 1 & 2 (SACD review)

Kurt Masur, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 188.

By now, most classical music lovers know that because of Beethoven's intimidating shadow, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had a hard time writing the first of his symphonies, and critics suppose he rather sneaked up on the subject via the two Serenades of the late 1850's. To my ear, his Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11 (1858), in particular, is still the match for any orchestral material the man produced, and it predated the première of his symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

The Serenade No. 1 is by turns warm, gentle, lyric, and cheerful. And it is fairly long work of its kind, around forty-five minutes, but never less than delightful, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies. The Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16 (1860), is shorter, about half the length of No. 1, and slightly less outgoing, but it, too, has its appeals, not the least of which is its chamber-music quality.

Maestro Kurt Masur's performances come from a Philips set he recorded in 1981, just a few years after Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw had done the Serenades for the same record company, so at the time, comparisons were inevitable, usually in Haitink's favor. Listening to them today, one can hear that Haitink is bit lighter and Masur a bit darker, but that takes nothing away from the Masur interpretations. Masur imparts a warm autumnal glow to the pieces and helps one see them as perhaps more serious than people sometimes view them.

Interestingly, Philips recorded these works (as they recorded many things in the Seventies and early Eighties) for possible playback in multichannel sound, and PentaTone have remastered the original Philips four-channel tapes on Super Audio Compact Disc or SA-CD. (Note that PentaTone calls the process SA-CD, with a hyphen in the middle; I don't know why.) Although SACD's have the capability to carry up to 5.1 channels, PentaTone chose to release these recordings in the four-channel format of the original tapes.

I listened to alternate movements first in my regular Sony ES player and then in my Sony SACD player to hear how the two formats on this hybrid disc sounded. I faced two handicaps, however:  (1) I have only two speakers in my living room music system, and (2) I did not have a regular two-channel stereo CD with which to make instant comparisons. Indeed, I am not even sure Philips ever issued a CD of these performances, and if they did, I've never heard it. So, I did the next best thing, listening to one movement one way and the next movement another way, but with a moment's gap between the two. I could well be mistaken, but it appeared that the extra headroom and bit rates of the SACD provided a tad more clarity and dynamics to the proceedings. However, I'm sure I would never be able to duplicate my findings in a blind test as the "golden ears" for other magazines claim they are able to do, so let's just say that in both instances, the sound is quite nice.

The PentaTone recording is not as open or as transparent as the Haitink recording, which I did have opportunity to A-B, but that is no fault of the PentaTone transfer, which I'm sure is as close to the sound of the master tapes as possible. It's just that the Gewandhaus Orchestra always sounds--to my ears, anyway--darker and richer than most other orchestras, and this is never more apparent than in the first movement of the Serenade No. 1. Nevertheless, the sound of the orchestra and the naturalness of PentaTone's mastering complement one another quite well, and the result is highly listenable.

Did I mention I love this music?  Yes.

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


Sep 5, 2010

Sibelius: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, The Bard, The Wood Nymph. Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin; John Storgards, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Ondine ODE 1147-2.

The problem facing most new recordings of basic-repertoire items comes from the existing pool of rival recordings. Any new offering has to be an extraordinarily good performance or be extraordinarily well recorded to stand a chance against established classics. Either that, or the new recording must feature a star performer or a star orchestra with an enormous following of fans who will buy everything they produce.

In the case of this new Sibelius Violin Concerto, violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann is up against recordings from Heifetz (RCA), Lin (Sony), Perlman (EMI), Chung (Decca), and others, even a recent one from Vilde Frang (EMI). As good as Zimmermann is and as good a recording as Ondine produce, it's not quite up their measure.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Violin Concerto in 1903, premiered it in 1904, then revised it in 1905; it's been among everyone's favorites ever since. Heifetz in his celebrated stereo recording produced a somewhat cold, thrusting, hard-edged, yet incisive performance, which, nonetheless, probably turns off some listeners. Vilde Frang's recording of the Concerto, which I heard a few months ago, caresses and finesses the music lovingly enough possibly to win over the anti-Heifetz crowd. Which brings us to Zimmermann's interpretation.

The Concerto's first movement is its coldest and most distant, at least in part, and that's exactly the way Zimmermann, maestro John Storgards, and the Helsinki Philharmonic play it, with the soloist taking a kind of middle-of-the-road approach between the white heat of Heifetz and the more sentimental view of Frang. Frankly, I prefer the extremes for a more-memorable reading, but certainly this new interpretation may attract a larger, if more conservative, audience.

The slow second-movement Adagio is as Romantic as anything Sibelius wrote. Here, Zimmermann is quite persuasive, caressing the notes with a delicate, if subdued passion. The violin's plaintive cries intermingle nicely with the orchestra's sympathetic support.

The final movement has always been a touch controversial, the composer finding most early recordings too slow. The music commentator Donald Tovey once wrote that it possessed "...the spirit of a polar explorer. [The finale] evidently a polonaise for polar bears...." It's a cute line, and maybe it explains, at least partially, why Sibelius asked his publisher to change the tempo marking. Zimmermann, trying to take Sibelius at his word, plays this final movement more quickly than most, while still not as fast as Heifetz. Again, the result is a compromise, which rather sums up the whole performance.

Sibelius premiered The Bard in 1913, revising it and conducting it again in 1916. He described it as "a narrative ancient Scandinavian or Viking ballad," which is evident from the lovely introduction on harp. It's a relatively brief piece, and Storgards treats it gently and affectionately.

The early tone poem The Wood Nymph (1895) does not benefit from the conciseness of Sibelius's later work, and it is a bit of a sprawling tale. The booklet note tells us that this Helsinki performance uses the latest critical edition, and maybe that helps. The musical program concerns a Nordic hero who loses his heart to a wood nymph. You know how that is. The music is fun in its way, quite different from the other pieces on the disc. It's more colorful, more Technicolor, actually, highly animated, and full of wild abandon and erotic charge, which Storgards keeps from getting too far out of hand.

Ondine recorded the music in Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, in 2008 (Violin Concerto) and 2010 (The Bard, The Wood Nymph), using a 24-bit DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition) process. The sound is suitably dynamic when necessary, with good impact and fairly precise definition. Yet it is also warm and smooth, about what one would hear in a concert hall from a seat maybe halfway back. In general, it complements the performances.


Sep 3, 2010

Herrmann: Fahrenheit 451 (CD review)

Also "Walking Distance" from The Twilight Zone. William Stromberg, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Tribute Film Classics TFC-1002.

For the most part, I find the term "instant classic" pure hyperbole, usually invented by press agents somewhere to promote their products. But in the case of several books by Ray Bradbury, the term seems to fit. Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451 in the mid twentieth century, some sixty years ago, yet from the very beginning it seemed clear they transcended the fantasy or sci-fi genres. They were strongly thematic stories, cautionary tales that proved remarkably prescient and that people today read as genuine classics. For instance, I daresay there has never been a novel more important on the subjects of censorship, government propaganda, the drugging effect of television and other mass media, and the significance of literacy and independent thought than Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) brought Fahrenheit 451 to the screen in 1966 with an original musical score by renowned composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Jane Eyre, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, North by Northwest, Psycho, Taxi Driver, and many more). In Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut created a vision of an icy, distant, reserved society, the results as he and Bradbury saw them of the mind-numbing effects of government and media control of individuals through the aforementioned media. Today, I suppose we could add video games and the Internet to the equation, making a large segment of society appear to be a breed of plugged-in automatons. Certainly, Bradbury was prophetic in his warning about television, and whether you take to Truffaut's chilly, aloof version of the story or not, it's hard to argue that Herrmann's musical score didn't complement it perfectly.

The problem is that we haven't really had all of the film's music available on disc before. What we have gotten heretofore have been suites, Herrmann himself recording a selection of items with the National Philharmonic for the album "The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann" (London-Decca Phase-4). As good as that recorded suite was, thank heaven for John Morgan, Anna Bonn, and William Stromberg for their restoration and preparation of the complete score, and for showing us what more this music has to offer.

John Morgan, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is the composer responsible for reconstructing so many previous film scores for the Marco Polo and Naxos labels. Starting with the CD of Fahrenheit 451 and a companion disc of Herrmann's music for Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, Morgan struck out on his own with his own record label, Tribute Film Classics; but he utilized the same conductor and orchestra with whom he'd worked for years, William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony, and the same co-restorer and preparer, Anna Bonn. Why mess with a good thing?

Morgan has gone back to original sources to put Herrmann's score back into what it was like when it first appeared in 1966. We get well over an hour of music from the movie on forty-seven separate tracks, from the opening Prelude to the closing Finale and every melodic phrase, variation, and cue in between, including music cut from the film. Herrmann used a variety of percussion instruments in the music, including xylophone, marimbas, vibraphone, glockenspiel, etc., to produce some dreamy, spacey, eerie moods and effects, culminating in a hauntingly beautiful conclusion. It's music that comes across as modern, contemporary, and traditional at the same time, while expressing the tone of a future culture without much overt emotion. Yet Herrmann fills the music itself with plenty of emotion, simple and direct:  it's suspenseful, tense, mysterious, expectant, and occasionally poignant.

Maestro Stromberg and his Moscow players are, if anything, more energetic and enthusiastic in their approach to the music than Herrmann was in his recording or in the movie itself. Stromberg executes the most-delicate nuances as well as the more daring, outwardly thrilling moments of the score with equal aplomb and produces a most-rewarding listening experience.

Accompanying Fahrenheit 451 and filling out a well-stocked seventy-seven-minute CD is Herrmann's music for "Walking Distance," an episode from Rod Serling's Twilight Zone television series. Although Herrmann wrote the music in 1959, a full half dozen years before he began work on Fahrenheit 451, one can see certain similarities in the quiet tensions he establishes almost everywhere. And, in the segment titled "The Park," especially, we can see the influence of Herrmann's mentor, Charlies Ives, in its nostalgic allusions to past tunes. Serling always struck me as having been greatly influenced by Bradbury, so the coupling on the disc is doubly apt.

The sound, which Tribute recorded in Moscow in 2007, is delightfully open, with an extended high end evident from the opening notes, a wide stereo spread, good midrange transparency, and more than adequate bass. The sound intentionally appears to remind one of Herrmann's Phase-4 recordings in that it sounds multi-miked somewhat closely. It not only reaches for the past, it provides a dramatic sense of being in the studio, and it seems entirely appropriate to film music in general.

I should also mention the package contains some of the most-extensive booklet notes I've ever seen with a CD. These notes cover everything from the personal reminiscences of John Morgan, Ray Bradbury, and others connected with the project to comments on each of the movements of the score, along with copious color stills and posters from the movie. It's maybe more than you ever wanted to know about the film and its music, but you can always pick and choose what you want to read or ignore the text completely and enjoy the photographs.

In any case, the sound makes an impressive adjunct to Herrmann's impressive score and this complete recording of it. Music lovers and film buffs, take notice.


Sep 2, 2010

Schubert: Symphonies 5 & 8 (CD review)

Symphony No. 8 completed by Brian Newbould; Rosamunde Ballet Music No. 2. Sir Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Virgin Classics 50999 628605 2 9.

The two most-salient features of this reissued coupling are (1) that Sir Charles Mackerras conducts both the Fifth Symphony and Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) using a period-instruments band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and (2) he conducts the completed version of the Eighth using an educated reconstruction by Brian Newbould. Those considerations and the fact that Virgin now offer the album at a budget price make it something worth looking into.

Schubert never saw the Symphony No. 5 (1816) played in his lifetime, the work not getting a performance until 1846, many years after his death. It's odd mainly because the Symphony No. 5 is one of the composer's most-delicate and delightful creations. With Mackerras's direction the opening Allegro floats lightly along, followed by a cultured if somewhat regimented Andante, a most-refined Minuetto, and a very lively if slightly matter-of-fact finale. OK, this is not quite in Sir Thomas Beecham's league, who with his  EMI stereo recording practically owns the rights to this music, but Mackerras is charming enough in his own right.

Purists beware: The version of Schubert's "Unfinished" Eighth Symphony (begun in 1822) Mackerras chose to record is one completed by composer, conductor, lecturer, pianist, critic, and Schubert scholar Brian Newbould. It uses a reconstructed third movement and the Entr'acte Music No. 1 from Schubert's Rosamunde for the concluding Allegro.

Does it work? Well, under Mackerras's baton the music is gracefully fluid and flowing, with the added material not seeming entirely out of place in the scheme of things. However, I don't really see the necessity of it except as a novelty. The completion is, after all, mere guesswork on Newbould's part. Besides, no matter how much Mackerras tries to make it all hang together, the final two movements just don't seem like real Schubert to me, even if the composer did write much of it himself. Maybe it's just a matter of expectations and what one has become used to, I don't know. It never feels right.

What does feel right, though, is Schubert's Ballet Music No. 2 from Rosamunde, which wraps up the program. Mackerras executes precisely the right touch in bringing out the music's inherently bucolic bounce and rhythm.

Released in 1992, just a few years after Mackerras's success with Schubert's Symphony No. 9 with the same orchestra and now reissued on this budget disc in 2010, the recording is at once warm, smooth, and mildly resonant, without these qualities hampering too much the music's inner detail or midrange clarity. You get none of the hard or edgy qualities sometimes associated with recordings of period-instruments ensembles. While it is not sparkling audiophile sound in terms of dynamic range, impact, or extended bass or treble, it is pleasant and easy on the ear, with a fine stage depth.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa