Ho, ho, ho. It's that time of year again to love your neighbor, spread good cheer, and buy another Christmas album. I've never understood the latter concept. Each and every Christmas, every record company on earth releases one or more new albums of seasonal music, and all of it seems to sell. Do people go out and buy Christmas music to play once or twice during the holiday season and then lose or throw away that they have to go out and buy even more such discs the next year? I mean, over time people must collect hundreds of Christmas albums, which they tuck away somewhere around the house, never to play again. Seems a waste, particularly if it's music you know people are only going to listen to at certain times of the year.
Anyway, if you must have a new Christmas album, it might as well be one you can hang onto year after year, playing again and again. Or one you can enjoy all year 'round. My wife, for instance, is partial to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which she plays just about any time. With this in mind, you could do worse than A String Quartet Christmas, a three-CD set that producer John Marks originally released on his own label as three separate albums in the late Nineties.
The quartet of the title varies in instrumentation, with two violins, viola, and cello on the first volume, and violins, viola, cello, harp, and organ rotating in and out on the second and third volumes. The idea is to remind listeners of the old, largely nineteenth-century tradition of friends and family gathering together and playing Christmas tunes on whatever instruments they had at hand, with everyone joining in on the vocals. Well, there are no vocals here, but there's nothing stopping you from singing along.
Violinist Arturo Delmoni leads the players in a well-rounded collection of favorite Christmas music: popular, secular, spiritual, and classical. Volume one contains twenty-four selections, mostly of the popular variety--"Joy to the World," "The First Noel," "Deck the Halls," that kind of thing; volume two, with twenty-two selections, is more esoteric and classical--"The Shepherd's Farewell," "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Cherry Tree Carol"; and volume three, with twenty-two selections, is more ecclesiastical--"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," "Angels' Carol," "Sleep of the Infant Jesus." The performers include Delmoni on violin; Alexander Romanul, violin; Nina Bodnar, violin; Danielle Maddon, violin; Katherine Murdock, viola; Natasha Lipkina, viola; Ellen DePasquale, viola; Nathaniel Rosen, cello; Rafael Figueroa, cello; Emily Mitchell, harp; and Timothy Smith, organ.
Delmoni's playing style is lively yet warm. In the slower melodies, like "The First Noel" and "Away in a Manger," the performers display an affectionate sensitivity for the music, which seldom strays too far into sentimentality. The additions of a harp in some selections in volumes two and three and an organ in volume three bring an added note of harmony and fullness to the proceedings. Then, too, an unaccompanied harp in six selections on volume three is most affecting.
The sound is fairly close and favors the violin in the first volume especially. The rest of the instruments spread out nicely across the speakers, and the sonics project a broad, smooth response. Although the sound is a tad too soft and plush for my taste, it's well suited to this type of music and probably exactly what most listeners want. The third volume seems to me the best recorded, with an extra dash of transparency to the sound.
You remember Midori, the young teenage violinist whose exceptional skills made such a name for her. Yeah, well, that was over two decades ago. Amazing how time flies by. Now, Newton Classics has re-released one of the recordings that made her famous, from 1987 the Paganini Violin Concerto, and we can marvel once again at her command of the instrument. Of course, in the past twenty years about 800 other child prodigies have come and gone, and, indeed, one may wonder what's become of Midori Goto. Fortunately, her Web site (http://www.gotomidori.com) indicates she is alive and well and continues to perform up a storm all over the world.
Anyway, what we've got here is a work that matches her talents. Italian violinist, guitarist, and composer Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 6, between 1815 and 1818 (the exact date remains unclear), largely as a showpiece for his own virtuosic prowess, so it's filled with a wealth of showy details that have dazzled audiences over the years. There has been some question about the principal tonality of the piece as well as the instrumentation, the composer having apparently written the solo and orchestral parts in different keys, with varying orchestral support, resulting in what appeared to listeners of his day as musical legerdemain. Midori plays the more-commonly accepted arrangement of the work.
Leonard Slatkin and the London Symphony adopt a quick-paced gait for the introduction, all the better, perhaps, to highlight Midori's often blazing technique. Yet for all her sparkling fluency, she is a sensitive interpreter, and it is the lighter, more-lilting sections of the score that she illuminates best. OK, so the cadenza seems to go on forever; it's a minor quibble. There is a subtle and appropriate melancholy that underlines Midori's playing of the Adagio, and the concluding Rondo has almost all the bouncy good cheer it demands.
Of the accompanying works, the booklet notes remind us that although Tchaikovsky only concerned himself with solo violin music for a short time during the 1870's, he left us with several fine examples of the genre. He wrote the Serenade melancolique in 1875 for the violinist Leopold Auer. It's a brief, slow piece that Midori plays with a passionate longing. The final work on the disc is the Valse-Scherzo, as much a showpiece as the Paganini, again demonstrating what Midori can do with a violin.
Recorded by Philips in May of 1987, the sound is nicely open and full, with a splendid ambient bloom on all the instruments. The recording tends slightly to emphasize the left and right sections of the orchestra, it's true, yet it's not enough to distract one's attention. When the violin enters, it appears properly centered, and we tend to understand why the audio engineers decided to divide the orchestra somewhat behind her. The violin itself is well balanced with the sound of the other instruments and displays a brilliant, natural shimmer. While the engineers could have captured a little more dynamic range and a deeper bass, the sound is realistic enough to please most listeners.
I have to admit I still enjoy the Paganini recordings of Michael Rabin (EMI), Itzhak Perlman (EMI), and Hilary Hahn (DG) best for their greater dash and sparkle, but there is certainly a place for this reissue of Midori's account in any fan's collection.
If German conductor Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966) isn't as familiar a name to American audiences nowadays as so many other European musicians are, it's possibly because he didn't do a lot of recordings for major record companies, most of his output coming in the later part of his life for the Westminster label (such as this Beethoven disc). However, there can be no doubt he was an influential conductor of the twentieth century, his having championed a number of now-celebrated composers, like Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Max Reger, Richard Strauss, Edgard Varese, Anton Webern, and others. He apparently had quite a wide range of music in his repertoire, too, from the classics to the modernists, so it's good to have a few of his performances represented in the CD catalogue in such good sound as this one.
Beethoven originally wrote his Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the composer greatly admired. However, just before Beethoven premiered the piece in 1805, he learned that Bonaparte had declared himself "Emperor," corrupting the ideals of the French Revolution, and he removed the man's name from the manuscript, inscribing it, instead, "to celebrate the memory of a great man." Whatever, the Third marked a turning point in Beethoven's artistic output, and to an extent in the world's symphonic output, with its daring length, range, and emotional commitment.
Scherchen's realization of the symphony is one of the more controversial in the catalogue. He surely isn't afraid to emphasize the symphony's passions. Indeed, he begins by taking Beethoven at his word, the opening movement proceeding in maybe the quickest tempo ever recorded, making it not only more energetic than most of the competition but more stimulating as well. It's all the more remarkable for Scherchen's having recorded it in 1958, at a time when most conductors were following long-held traditions of slow, measured beats. Scherchen's tempos are more along the lines of Roger Norrington's in his period-instruments recording and possibly in keeping with Beethoven's own tempo markings (which some critics still question). You'll find no sentimentalizing here; Scherchen is all business, more intent on drumming up "Heroic" excitement than in romanticizing the piece in any way. Thus, the opening Allegro really does come "with brio," with vigor and vivacity as Beethoven indicates, and plenty of it, like Napoleon charging through Europe (or a bull in a china shop).
After the rhythmic thrust of the first movement comes the slow section, the funeral march, which in some conductors' hands can be deadly dull and bring the whole affair to a standstill. Not here. Although Scherchen maintains the steady forward pace of a funeral procession, it comes with none of the solemn overtones of a dirge. In fact, it becomes more highly dramatic and invigorating as it goes along, again drumming up controversy in the process.
Beethoven's Scherzo is brief and to the point, and so is Scherchen. The music bursts forth, and I mean that literally, with abandon and creates quite a joyous celebration. Then, the Finale sweeps in triumphantly, capping off a most-exhilarating interpretation. OK, so the orchestra sometimes has trouble keeping up with the zesty speeds the conductor adopts, but it's a good ensemble and manages well enough.
Admittedly, some listeners will find Scherchen's approach to this music too rushed or too rigid (at least one critic called the interpretation "mad"), but it makes a fine contrast to other notable and more conventional recordings. For comparison, try Klemperer (EM), Barbirolli (EMI), Bohm (DG), Bernstein (Sony), Karajan (DG), Zinman (Arte Nova), Herreweghe (PentaTone), Walter (Sony), and the like.
As far as the sound goes, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) took this performance from a Westminster LP recorded in Vienna in 1958. The sonics display excellent clarity, body, and definition, with a wide stereo spread and ample dynamics. Indeed, the sound belies the recording's age by surpassing almost anything produced today. While the orchestral depth may not be quite as pronounced as I would have liked, the overall transparency and transient impact more than make up for it. Thanks to some judicious noise reduction, there is just the faintest degree of background hiss noticeable, hardly objectionable in any way.
No, I wouldn't suggest Scherchen's reading of the Third Symphony as a first choice in this material. It's a wonderful, wacky, wild ride, to be sure, but it's too problematic and too frenetic for easy listening. Still, no Beethoven fan should miss it, if only because it might just be closer than most other renditions to what Beethoven really had in mind.
For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.
No, not THAT Engelbert Humperdinck.
Not the pop singer who filched the name. This one is the German composer (1854-1921) who is most famous for his children's opera Hansel und Gretel, loosely based, of course, on the popular fairy tale by the brothers Grimm. Humperdinck premiered the work on December 23, 1893, and it has been a favorite, especially around Christmas time, ever since. And how could it miss? It is one of the sweetest, gentlest, most tuneful, yet exciting pieces of music ever written for children or adults, with all the qualities of a great folk story.
The plot, well known to all, involves a brother and sister who live on the edge of a forest. A witch haunts the forest, and she delights in baking little children into gingerbread. Nice. Hansel and Gretel's family is very poor, and one day while picking berries, the brother and sister get lost and captured by the witch. But the resourceful children turn the tables on the witch, shoving her into the oven, instead. The story is simple enough for kids to follow, as well as non opera buffs to enjoy. With its abundance of cheerful, enthralling, atmospheric, and sometimes spooky melodies, it's a sure crowd pleaser.
Of all the recordings of the work, it is Karajan's that is most magical. EMI have reissued it numerous times on LP and CD, this being at least the third time it's appeared on compact disc. Sure, it's in monaural, but it's good monaural, and it's worth the minor bother of not being completely up to audiophile standards.
I've always liked Karajan's Romantic opera recordings more than his purely orchestral performances, probably because most operas of the nineteenth century benefit from the kind of lush, luxuriant, idealistic, glamorized, and slightly sentimental treatment the conductor provides them. Certainly, Hansel und Gretel profits from this approach. It also helps that he has a terrific cast of singers. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf plays Gretel in a most delightful, spontaneous, and purely innocent manner. Elisabeth Grummer is her brother Hansel, greatly pleasing as the boy who pretends not to be afraid but who is as petrified as his sister is of the events in the forest.
As the mother, Maria von Ilosvay's vocals might have been a tad lower to differentiate her voice from that of the children's, but the added maturity in her tone nicely compensates. Josef Metternich as the father, and the only adult male in the cast, is appropriately masculine and domineering. And Anny Felbermayer as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy couldn't be more charming.
Still, for me, and I daresay for a lot of other listeners, the real star of the show is the witch. I mean, the villains are usually always the most-interesting characters in any melodrama, no? Else Schurhoff plays the witch, who finally shows up in Act III. After her character's ingratiating pleasantries, she becomes plenty scary, with a fine witch's cackle. Her prominent songs "Hokuspokus" and "Hurr Hopp Hopp Hopp" become downright frightening and always fun in their diabolical way.
For Karajan's part, he handles the accompaniment and pacing with grace and style and sheer sorcery. The purely orchestral parts, like the opening Prelude, the "Witch's Ride," and the "Dream Pantomime" are engaging, ominous, and beguiling respectively. He ends the play with a joyous celebration that all of the performers pull off in thrilling fashion.
The CD set, now issued in EMI's "Home of the Opera" series, comes as before on two discs, with a third, bonus disc containing a scene synopsis and libretto with translation, which you can access or print out as a PDF file from any computer with a CD-ROM drive and Adobe Acrobat.
EMI recorded the mono performance in June of 1953 at London's Kingsway Hall, just a year or two short of the introduction of stereo into home use. Nevertheless, it hardly matters. There is a slight bit of background noise, not at all objectionable. A wide dynamic range, a fairly wide frequency response, a decent bass, and some remarkably clear, realistic tonal reproduction make for exciting listening. Yes, it would have been nice to have had the recording in stereo, but once the singing starts, one forgets about it. Voices sound excellent, very clear and natural, and one hardly notices that the orchestra doesn't really spread out across the speakers. The sonics open up with a fine bloom behind the singers, which is good enough.
If you must have a stereo version of Hansel und Gretel, there are several good ones to choose among. My own favorite is from Jeffrey Tate, also on EMI, but even it is not as enchanting as Karajan's and company. For other possibilities, consult "The Basic Classical Collection" (http://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2009/09/basic-classical-collection-on-compact.html) on the left of the page.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up this disc was that it included only the four Mozart Horn Concertos and nothing else. This amounts to only a little over fifty minutes of music, while most competing labels include another concerto or two. I also thought, well, if you could buy the Naxos disc for around five bucks, it would still be worth the money, and then I remembered that "budget-priced" Naxos discs are now retailing at about nine or ten dollars, nearly the cost of most remastered mid-price material. So, the album is not the bargain it might have been a few years ago.
The performances are pleasant enough, if not extraordinary in any way. I mean, how can you knock a musician whose name is Muzyk, anyway? He plays a good horn, although he's also rather foursquare in his interpretations. Occasionally, I felt that the slow sections might have been a little too languid, but they are brief interludes, and things pick up in the outer movements.
The Naxos sound for Muzyk and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio is fairly close, yet with plenty of resonant bloom. Although the engineers capture the horn in the center position, it is a tad more recessed than usual, and the orchestral spread seems to favor the left side of the sound stage a tad too much.
Although this disc makes a safe bet, a relatively new digital recording, do note that one might obtain greater value with several of the mid-priced reissues of recordings that have stood the test of time, things like Dennis Brain with Herbert von Karajan (EMI, mono), Alan Civil with Rudolf Kempe (EMI), Lowell Greer with Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi), or Barry Tuckwell with Neville Marriner (EMI). It's an open field.
After the success of his Second Piano Concerto, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) felt more confident in his musical abilities and secured a permanent place in the annals of great Russian composers. As for the remarkable Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, he also seems to have established a permanent place for himself in the hearts and minds of music lovers everywhere. Following up his album of Rachmaninov's first two piano concertos, this latest album of the composer's third and fourth concertos shows him at his absolute best.
In the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909), Andsnes, as always, plays with a fine sensitivity, all the more striking given the brawny, bravura nature of the piece, especially the concerto's opening Allegro. The pianist takes the broad, sweeping, lyrical passages with a sure Romantic hand, yet he never lets any obvious sentimentality swamp the work. As we might expect, Andsnes proves adept at managing the transitions between power and delicacy the movement demands. He plays commandingly, with an ultrasmooth, effortless style.
The mercurial Intermezzo couldn't be lovelier or more stirring, rising to an appropriately impassioned pitch as it goes along. Here, Pappano and the LSO provide a close-knit support, all the players rising to a fevered crescendo as the music enters seamlessly into the Finale. One can understand after hearing so masterful a performance as this one why the Third Concerto is not for the pianist who is faint of heart. Indeed, the virtuoso pianist Josef Hofmann, himself daunted by the work, once famously remarked of Rachmaninov that in order to play it, the composer must have had "fingers of steel and a heart of gold." Andsnes has both.
The Piano Concerto No. 4 (premiered in 1927 and revised in 1941, the revised version played here) was a change of pace for Rachmaninov. It reflects a new, more-modern conciseness of form for the composer and includes traces of blues and jazz (thank you, Mr. Gershwin). It's only a little over half the length of the mighty Third Concerto, and it hasn't as much luxuriant Russian flair or as many grand, flowing melodies as its bigger brother. As is his wont, Andsnes performs it with grace, refinement, and strength, overall conjuring up a rousing statement of the piece.
As an aside, the booklet contains two pictures of Mr. Andsnes, one on the front and another on the back, both of them showing a grim and determined countenance. He looks like one of those surly fashion models who never smiles. I'm not sure what idea the album's producers were trying to convey: that Andsnes is a serious, contemplative guy and taking this material in deadly earnest? If so, it's in direct contrast to the sheer pleasure and excitement he brings to this music.
Anyway, unlike Andsnes's most-recent account of the Second Concerto, which EMI recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic several years earlier, or his Third Concerto recorded live with the Oslo Philharmonic a number of years before that, EMI recorded these latest, 2009-2010 performances of the Third and Fourth Concertos in their No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, where they have made so many celebrated recordings over the decades. The engineers balance the piano and orchestra exceptionally well and capture a crisp, clean piano sound in the process. The orchestral accompaniment, well spread out behind the soloist, could be a bit more transparent, yet the warm, full acoustic nicely complements the overt Romanticism of the proceedings. While the orchestral depth is also only moderate, it's the piano that counts, and it shines radiantly in the foreground. Oh, and I should add that the wide dynamic range and huge impact help greatly, too, in conveying the authority of both concertos.
Needless to say, this album impressed me markedly, and one must now consider it alongside several other fine recordings as among the best of the breed: Argerich/Chailly (Philips), Horowitz/Ormandy (RCA), Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca), and Janis/Dorati (Mercury) in No. 3 and Michelangeli/Gracis (EMI) in No. 4. That's pretty rarefied atmosphere, indeed.
Even today when his name is one of the cornerstones of classical music, Sergei Rachmaninov gets slammed by his detractors for being too old-fashioned, too romantic, too overtly bombastic. Fortunately, the negative criticism has abated quite a lot since Rachmaninov's early days, and recordings like this one from Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes continue to help the composer achieve musical respectability.
I confess the First Piano Concerto has always left me rather in the negative camp myself, filled as it is with an overabundance of youthful enthusiasm and outright pomposity. Be that as it may, Andsnes doesn't grandstand it, and the piece comes off more eloquently than usual. EMI's sound here is clearly focused and extremely dynamic, the piano appearing a touch bright at times but never distracting, and the stereo image favoring the left side of the stage just a tad.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 came into being as the result of Rachmaninov's consultations with a pioneer in the field of autosuggestion, hypnotism, after the initial failure of his First Symphony. The hypnotist told the composer again and again that he would succeed, and succeed he did. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was an instant hit, with the composer himself as soloist in the work's official première. Because each of the three movements contains an ardent, warmhearted, and memorable tune, it still bewitches audiences today. The music's emotional appeal is undeniable, and Andsnes plays it in a full-throated yet sensitive manner that is sure to win it even more friends, the melodies rising higher as the piece goes on.
Although EMI recorded the First Concerto in 2005 without an audience, they chose to record the Second Concerto live in Berlin's Philharmonie, an awkward decision that works against it. Usually, I complain about live recordings being too distantly miked; this one EMI miked too closely. The result is a bigger piano than necessary and an orchestra that sometimes drowns out the solo instrument. I also found occasional audience and orchestral player noises intrusive, especially between movements, and I could have done without the closing applause.
By comparison to other great recordings, Andsnes's rendition of the First Concerto stands up well, sounding almost as good as Byron Janis on Mercury and without the background hiss. But in the Second Concerto, I prefer Van Cliburn on RCA in a performance of refined grandeur and a recording of depth, breadth, and clarity that puts it into a different musical and sonic dimension altogether.
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was to marches what the Strausses were to waltzes. He produced a ton of them, people loved them, and they all remain popular. The American conductor and composer, often called "The March King" (or "The American March King" to differentiate him from other well-known march composers of the time, now, ironically, almost forgotten), led several bands, including "The President's Own" Marine Band and the Sousa Band. During this time, he wrote some 136 marches, many of which people can still whistle or hum from memory, as well as a flock of operettas.
OK, I hear you ask, but who actually listens to marches anymore? Well, I daresay there are more marching bands, brass bands, and concert bands in the country today than there are bands or orchestras of any other kind. Think about it: Almost every junior high, high school, and college in the land has one or more bands, and they play in classrooms, auditoriums, and athletic games practically every day of the week. Then count in the number of city, community, and fraternal bands there are across the nation, who play in park bandstands and celebratory parades every week, and the number becomes staggering. I'd be willing to bet that most symphony orchestra trombonists and rock group drummers got their start in a school band somewhere. So, Sousa, we have not forgotten you.
Maybe that's why, too, the world's record companies keep producing albums of Sousa's marches, just this week my having received two such collections from two different labels. The one under consideration here is a two-disc compilation from Naxos featuring thirty-four of the composer's best-loved tunes, played by as serious a band as you'll find, the Royal Artillery Band of the Royal Artillery regiment in Woolwich, SE London. The Royal Artillery Band are an ensemble first formed in 1557, and which, according to the booklet notes, appears on any given day as "a symphonic wind band (one of the largest in the British army), a marching unit, or a full symphony orchestra (England's oldest established symphony orchestra)." It's a remarkable group.
Sousa's Greatest Marches begins with "Hands Across the Sea" (1899), maybe not Sousa's most-familiar piece but certainly a stirring curtain raiser. It also demonstrates the type of playing we can expect from the rest of the program: enthusiastic, energetic, yet refined, and warmly recorded. Never mind that the tempo is a tad too quick actually to march to; it's the spirit the counts. Next is "Semper Fidelis" (1888), which the Marine Corps later adopted as their official theme song, and which does come off in genuine march time.
Among other marches of particular standing are "Saber and Spurs" (1918), with its horses and hoofbeats in military gait; the danceable melodies of "King Cotton" (1895); a fairly sedate "Liberty Bell" (1893) that enjoyed a resurgence of fame with the Monty Python players; the courtly "Black Horse Troop" (1924), with even more hoofbeats; and the zesty "Fairest of the Fair" (1908).
Disc one concludes with what are possibly Sousa's most-celebrated creations: "The Thunderer" (1889), "The Washington Post" (1889), and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896), sure winners no matter how people play them, here done up quite stylishly.
Disc two contains marches only slightly less well known than those on disc one. Among the highlights are "Wisconsin Forward and Forever" (1917); the picturesque "Invincible Eagle" (1901); one of Sousa's personal favorites, "The Diplomat" (1904); the jaunty "Jack Tar" (1903); the baseball-inspired "National Game" (1925), with its batted balls and crowd noises; and the rousing "Naval Reserve March" (1917).
What Maestro Brion lacks in adrenaline, he more than makes up for in nuance and color. There's a reserved pluck about these performances that is hard to resist.
The recordings, made between 1999 and 2005 and selected from several previously released Naxos discs, I said earlier sound warm and inviting. There is a fine sense of air and space around the instruments, despite a degree of thickness to the sonics in some tracks, with enough distance from the listener to provide a depth and bloom to the ensemble. Dynamics are good, too, although the bass drum whacks could have been more gut thumping. Yet it's the delicate segments that are most appealing, the highs, the triangles, the cymbals, and such. It is a generous and affectionate presentation of the music.
Hungarian pianist, conductor, and composer Erno Dohnanyi (or Ernst von Dohnanyi, 1877-1960) was another of those twentieth-century throwbacks to the Romantic Age who continued to produce lush, melodic opuses long after they had gone out of style. Probably his most-famous work is Variations on a Nursery Tune, 1914, and we hear that piece on record from time to time. Still, his style of music seems to be returning to fashion these days, so maybe we'll see a big Dohnanyi comeback sometime soon.
In any case, the major work represented on this Naxos disc is his Konzertstuck for Cello and Orchestra, 1904, a pleasant, songful, rhapsodic piece that lingers long enough in memory for momentary enjoyment and then recedes into oblivion. It's about thirty minutes of relaxing, contemplative escapism. Following it is a more energetic piece, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, 1899, again about a half hour's duration but divided into four contrasting moods, the finale a set of attractive variations. The program concludes with a short tone picture called "Ruralia Hungarica," 1924, the title of which is pretty much self explanatory.
The sound the Naxos engineers provide is typical of the label: Warm, sweet, and ultra smooth. The cello is placed a bit too forward for my taste, yet it is a little too soft for absolute realism. Nevertheless, it fits the tenor of the music. For the price, as always, the disc represents good value and good exploration for the inquisitive listener.
Although Fritz Reiner's stereo years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1954-1962, produced any number of outstanding recordings in RCA's "Living Stereo" line, his Beethoven could be problematical. His reading of the Sixth Symphony, for instance, is one of the best ever made, a classic of the catalogue, yet his Fifth Symphony, with its galloping tempos, can drive some listeners to distraction. I'm a fan of Reiner, but the only time I heard even a portion of his Beethoven Ninth was at a friend's house some thirty years ago. And I'm afraid the fancy art-book packaging impressed me more than the music did. Having never heard the RCA compact disc, I was glad to listen to the recording in its entirety as remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).
Reiner's rendering of the opening Allegro is remarkably dynamic, as though he were still in Symphony No. 5 mode, with plenty of forward drive, tension, and release. Still it seems both relaxed and rushed at the same time, never quite achieving the exhilarating start it should.
The second-movement Scherzo, Molto vivace, seems more successful to me, although here, too, Reiner appears intent on barreling forward at an unnecessarily fast pace and then backing off at unexpected moments. The result is sometimes intoxicating, sometimes breathless.
Then, Reiner plays the Adagio as sweetly as anybody, the mood reminding one of his genial rendition of the "Pastoral" Symphony. However, during quieter passages an abrasive, wiry edge tends to accompany the high strings, and it diminishes one's full appreciation of the tone the conductor is trying to convey.
Of course, all that comes before the mighty finale is mere prelude, anyway, a finale Beethoven based on the poem "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller. Indeed, it is this concluding choral movement that crowned Beethoven's whole symphonic output and paved the way for future composers to use voices in their symphonies. As with almost everything Beethoven did, the finale was revolutionary in its day. Moreover, it was the crowning jewel in Reiner's case for the work, too, and it is as triumphant as any you'll hear. In this section Reiner never seems hurried at all, yet he conveys a great sense of jubilation and exultation, the vocals ringing out clearly and joyously. So, while Reiner's Beethoven Ninth overall may not be a performance for the ages, it contains a finale worthy of one's attention.
Transferred to disc by HDTT from an RCA four-track tape originally recorded at Chicago Symphony Hall in 1961, the sound is quite wide and very well defined. Nevertheless, I noticed several odd thumps along the way, as well as a little more background noise than usual from this company. The sound is also a bit hard at times and a tad leaner than I would have anticipated. We should expect this of a tape made almost fifty years ago, yet I still found these imperfections somewhat troublesome. The acoustic provides good inner detail at the expense of some ambient bloom; the percussion comes through best; the strings not as well, with a generally rough aspect to them. Solo voices, though, sound resplendent, possibly the best on record.
For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.
I can see playing this three-disc, fifty-selection set as a sort of parlor game: Name that movie. Of course, it isn't all that easy because the discs don't actually contain most of the great theme music of cinema through the ages. Instead, the discs contain mainly music from films of the past four decades. Still, many listeners may find themselves stumped about what music goes with what film.
Here's the thing: Well over half the selections are standard classical repertoire items--warhorses mostly--that filmmakers have used in their pictures, while the rest of the selections are from composers who wrote them directly for the screen. So you get Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" used in Apocalypse Now next to Howard Shore's main theme from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The producers have divided the fifty selections into three categories: "The Great Blockbusters" on disc one; "Favourite Movies" on disc two; and "Baroque Goes to the Cinema" on disc three.
EMI culled the collection from among their many recordings of the past forty-odd years, the performances dating between 1962 and 2005. Naturally, the recordings derive from a number of different soloists, conductors, and orchestras. Let me just mention some of the famous names involved: Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Colin Davis (and that's not all the "Sir's"; be patient), James Galway, Lesley Garrett, Andrei Gavrilov, Nicolai Gedda, Richard Hickox, Mariss Jansons, Herbert von Karajan, the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Sir Neville Marriner, Wayne Marshall, Yehudi Menuhin, Sabine Meyer, Riccardo Muti, Andre Previn, Sir Simon Rattle, Jordi Savall, and Barry Tuckwell, with the orchestras just as numerous.
Naturally, with any collection as large as this one, made up of many bits and pieces, everyone will have favorite tracks. Since I don't want to bore you trying to cover everything, let me just mention a few of my own favorites from the set, either for their musical value or for their sound, sometimes both. The opening track, "Sunrise," from Also Sprach Zarathustra, used famously by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, comes off quite effectively under Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic. Geoff Love and his orchestra do up the main theme from John Williams's Star Wars in exciting fashion. Plucked from the complete opera comes the "Intermezzo" from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, conducted by Riccardo Muti, Francis Coppola having used it in The Godfather III. Then throughout the three discs you'll find Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, used in Tom Shadyac's Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, of all pictures, as well as in the Farrelly brothers' There's Something about Mary.
From the movie Sideways comes Tarrenga's "Memories of Alhambra," warmly and affectionately played by Christopher Parkening; from Lorenzo's Oil we find Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," again from Riccardo Muti, this time leading the Berlin Philharmonic; from Carrington comes the Adagio from Schubert's String Quartet in C with the Hungarian Quartet; from Elizabeth is "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations, with Sir Adrian Boult and the LSO; from Billy Elliot is Scene II, Act 10 from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, with Andre Previn and the LSO; from Someone to Watch Over Me comes Vivaldi's "Gloria in excelsis Deo," with Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Choir and Players; from Gallipoli we hear Albinoni/Giazotto's Adagio in C minor, with Marriner and the Academy again; from Silence of the Lambs comes the "Aria" from Bach's Goldberg Variations, beautifully played by Maria Tipo; from Barry Lyndon is Handel's "Sarabande" from the Keyboard Suite in D minor, with Andrei Gavrilov at the piano; and then from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider there's the Largo from Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 5, again with Gavrilov. And so on.
Clearly, the EMI audio engineers had their hands full trying to choose recordings made in different locations with different artists at different times, the recordings themselves spanning over four decades, and have them sound somewhat alike. Although I found some of it a little bright and forward, I'd say the engineers did a pretty good job. There are wide dynamic ranges present in most of the selections and excellent clarity and definition. Orchestral depth suffers on some tracks, though, and deepest bass is occasionally lacking. When they are present, however, as in the Star Wars selection and almost anything by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, they are splendid.
Pianist Lara Downes has done several of these theme albums over the past few years, with titles like Invitation to the Dance, American Ballads, and Dream of Me. This latest collection, Nocturnes for Night Owls, she describes as "Classical treasures for sweet dreams." I think you can guess the kind of music it involves.
The program of sixteen short pieces begins with Prokofiev's "Evening," slightly odd in mood and character but appropriate to the occasion. Debussy's "Reverie" and Chopin's Nocturne No. 1 follow, both of them wonderfully soothing. Then we get "Hebrew Lullaby Nos. 1 and 2" by Lazare Saminsky, performer-conductor-composer of Jewish music, both works comfortably realized.
Poulenc's Nocturne in C is perhaps the most challenging piece on the disc, though this is not to say it isn't as restful as the other music. Among the additional items on the program, I enjoyed Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 3," Prokofiev's "The Moon Over the Meadows," and, of course, Beethoven's Adagio from his Moonlight Sonata.
Apparently, Ms. Downes intended the album for children as well as adults, as the rather precious album title and cover art indicate. The performances are certainly ultrasmooth, soothing, and gentle. In a liner-note poem about the music she writes, "Listen quietly, listen well, Let this music weave its spell; Let these lovely lullabies Help to close your owlish eyes; Tuck your wings and burrow deep To peaceful dreams and quiet sleep." Music to put you to sleep? Sounds like.
I've listened to this album twice now, the first time during dinner. We had guests over, and my wife put the music on because the disc happened to be sitting on the stereo cabinet waiting for someone to play it. It impressed me during dinner where it provided a perfect backdrop for our casual conversation. The next day I sat down and listened more seriously, finding it not quite as affecting but still charming.
Ms. Downes plays the material in a manner fitting the album's theme, so don't expect anything particularly revelatory, penetrating, or innovative. If you're looking for those qualities, try Rubinstein, Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Kovacevich, Kissin, and the like. Ms. Downes performs the music lightly, delicately, dreamily rather than in any grand style.
The recording itself, made in 2010 at the Sherman & Clay Recital Hall, Roseville, California, is somewhat narrow in stage width, almost monaural, and soft in tone. Yet it suits the nature of the music just fine, even if it won't please every audiophile. While the warmth of the piano nicely complements the sweetness of the playing, it doesn't really clarify the notes especially well. Who cares. It beats New Age elevator music by a country mile.
Although I continue slightly to favor Sir Charles Mackerras's rendition of Mahler's First Symphony (EMI Eminence) above other versions, there are certainly a number of other conductors who aren't far behind. Among them are Jascha Horenstein, Bernard Haitink, Rafael Kubelik, Leonard Bernstein, Klaus Tennstedt, and Sir Georg Solti. New recordings seem to come out every month, though, like this Super Analogue CD from Maestro Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on the Japanese import label Exton.
Mahler has been the darling of the music-loving set for decades now, thanks to some of the aforementioned gentlemen. Maybe it's also because Mahler's music, especially his symphonies, combines good, old-fashioned nineteenth-century Romanticism with bizarre, often chaotic, experimental twentieth-century modernism. Mahler displays these diverse characteristics in his Symphony No. 1 "Titan," first performed in 1889, which the composer described as a "symphonic poem in two parts." The opening movement begins with a mysterious "Awakening of Day" or "Awakening of Spring after the Rigors of Winter," or whatever you want to call it since Mahler himself later erased his initial descriptions, followed by fanfares and then several lush and rhapsodic melodies, leading to a rustic 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 outbursts, tying up all the disparate elements of the symphony as a whole.
In his LSO account (Decca) Solti projected the opening mists as eerily as any other conductor, so it's to his account that I compared the first movement of Oramo's version. Maestro Oramo never oversteps his bounds or falls into the melodrama and sentimentality that Bernstein sometimes did in his last, DG account. And while it is Horenstein (Unicorn) who always seemed to me to suggest the broad symphonic picture of the symphony best, finding links among the varied movements rather than just playing them as separate entities, Oramo is close. The conductor meticulously follows Mahler's markings for "slow, dragging, like a sound of nature...always very leisurely," the opening section moving along smoothly and refreshingly, if without some of the excitement Solti brought to the occasion. Nevertheless, by the end of the movement Oramo brings a good deal of energy to bear, and it finishes with an appropriate fury.
The second movement is a landler, an early German-Austrian folk dance, which Mahler marked as "vigorous but not too fast" in the beginning and then "very leisurely" as it concludes. Again, Oramo follows the markings to the letter. Indeed, the contrast between the two divisions is almost too severe. Still, it works well enough and conveys a fine rustic charm.
Mahler identified the third, slow movement, a huntsman's funeral procession, as "solemn and measured, without dragging." It appears to be a parody of a village funeral march. Here, Oram seems most at home, with a genuinely amused attitude noticeable in the music.
The finale Mahler characterized as "tempestuous" and "energetic." Under Oramo, and thanks to Exton's HQ-SACD sound, this movement practically brings down the house. Oramo attacks the music with a vigor and enthusiasm that would surely have pleased the composer. There is a yearning middle segment here, too, well set off from the eruption of the initial moments and the jubilation of the ending.
Conductor Bernard Haitink once said that if he played Mahler straight, the dramatics would take care of themselves. Oramo appears to follow Haitink's dictum. The performance grew on me; the more I listened, the more I liked it. By the final movement, it totally drew me in. Whether for me Oramo's rendition will join the ranks of the conductors I mentioned at the outset or not, only further listening will reveal. In the meantime, Mahler fans may want to investigate it.
Exton recorded the symphony in September, 2009, at the Stockholm Concert Hall, and according to the booklet notes they recorded at least parts of it live. (The notes say "Session & Live," whatever that means.) In any case, there is a natural concert-hall ambiance about the sound, with plenty of bloom, depth, dynamic range, bass, and impact. As this is a hybrid HQ-SACD, I assume it may be in multichannel; however, the booklet notes never mention anywhere (in English) what the two layers contain. I listened to the regular stereo layer and to the SACD layer in two channels, and both sounded fine. If there is any small snag to the concert-hall acoustic, it's that it tends on occasion to envelop the midrange somewhat, getting a little thick and heavy. Even so, at other times there is a pleasing openness about the sound that is hard to resist.
If you have trouble finding the Japanese Exton label, it's imported by the Allegro Media Group (http://www.allegro-music.com).
French violinist, teacher, conductor, and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) obviously favored the violin, having written nineteen violin concertos, mainly for himself to play. Not that he didn't compose in other genres, as his thirty-nine operas and forty-two études ou caprices for solo violin attest. Beethoven thought so much of Kreutzer as a violin virtuoso he dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major to him. But fame is fleeting; today, one hardly hears about poor old Kreutzer, with only a handful of discs devoted to his music. The folks at Naxos, however, appear ready to rectify that situation, with these final three of Kreutzer's violin concertos apparently only the beginning of a complete cycle of the man's violin works. We'll see. It's a start.
All three concertos are fairly brief affairs, with No. 17 in G major (premiered in 1806) a mere seventeen minutes long. It begins with a rather regal introduction, followed almost immediately by an impressive turn from the violin. One can tell from the outset that Kreutzer was going to favor the soloist, the modest ensemble work merely serving as a background, almost as an afterthought, for the violin. Whatever, violinist Axel Strauss handles it fluently, with consummate ease, and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra provide sympathetic support. In the second movement we again get a dramatic opening statement from the players, succeeded by what is practically a violin solo, this time of hushed intensity and quite lovely. The Rondo finale has a pleasant rhythmic thrust and brings the piece to a satisfying close.
Concerto No. 18 in E minor begins more energetically than No. 17, and it allows the orchestra a bit more time to itself before the violin's entry. Then, when the violin does appear, it's in a relatively quiet, slightly plaintive mood. Nevertheless, it picks up intensity as it goes along, and Strauss appears to be enjoying himself in the music, playing it with great enthusiasm as well as showmanship. The slow movement speaks with an impassioned tenderness and the finale in a surprisingly impish yet gentle manner, perhaps foreshadowing Paganini's First Violin Concerto a few years later.
The Violin Concerto No. 19 in D minor strikes one as the most mature of the three concertos on the program, with Mozartian overtones and shades of Don Giovanni. It is both ambitious and stately, with some fine solo passages, as we might expect. It is also the best of the three concertos at integrating the violin into the orchestral framework. So, it rewards on several counts. Again, the work utilizes a mellow slow movement and a sprightly closing section, which Strauss and company exploit to good advantage.
There is nothing about these three Kreutzer concertos that jumps out at one and proclaims them as great music. Still, one can hear artistry in them, and when performed as well as they are here they make for entertaining diversions.
The sound, recorded at the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, San Francisco, California, in January and February of 2009, understandably favors the violin, which is front and center, yet without totally dominating the sonic landscape. The instrument sounds robust and clean, the highest string notes not at all abrasive but vibrantly realistic. The orchestra, spread out behind the soloist, only occasionally comes into their own, yet when they do, the effect is splendid--clear, smooth, dynamic, and well balanced. While the audio is not exactly of audiophile quality, it is quite agreeable to the ear and among Naxos's best.
Seattle, WA – The Seattle Symphony Board of Directors has named orchestra and recording industry executive Simon Woods as its new Executive Director. Woods joins the organization at a key time as Seattle Symphony celebrates the leadership of its Music Director of 26 years, Gerard Schwarz, and prepares to welcome Music Director Designate, Ludovic Morlot, who will become Music Director in the 2011– 2012 season. Woods will begin working with Seattle Symphony immediately on key institutional decisions, and will take up his new role full-time in May 2011.
Woods comes to Seattle from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, one of the United Kingdom's leading symphony orchestras, where he is Chief Executive. He has achieved considerable success there in the areas of artistic leadership, fund raising, marketing, public relations, and education and community engagement. Prior to this, Woods worked in the United States as President and CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and as Vice President, Artistic Planning and Operations, at The Philadelphia Orchestra. Earlier, he worked in London as a record producer with EMI Classics, where he initiated and produced recordings with many of the world's foremost classical artists and ensembles.
"Simon Woods is a proven leader in our field, and we are excited he will become our organization's next Executive Director," Board of Directors Chair Leslie Jackson Chihuly stated. "His passion for symphonic music and creating enthusiasm for the art form in the community is inspiring, and his experience in the executive role is key to fulfilling the objectives in our strategic plan. He is well suited to ensure a smooth transition for all of our constituents as we move from artistic leadership under our esteemed Music Director, Gerard Schwarz, to the new leadership of Maestro Ludovic Morlot."
"The Seattle Symphony is a great orchestra, based in one of the finest modern concert halls in the world, in a vibrant and beautiful city," commented Woods. "The organization is highly energized right now as it celebrates the incredible legacy of Gerard Schwarz and prepares for a new era under its much-admired new music director. It's a privilege to join the team at this tremendous moment. In particular, I look forward to being part of the special relationship that Seattle Symphony has with the people of this great city, and finding new ways to inspire as many people as possible, from all ages and all backgrounds, with the Symphony's world-class music-making."
"I've worked with Simon both in Philadelphia and New Jersey and found him to be an outstanding leader with an infectious passion for orchestras," commented Schwarz. "He has very deep knowledge of music and, most importantly, he is a man of impeccable taste and integrity."
Music Director Designate Ludovic Morlot stated, "I am thrilled to welcome Simon Woods as the new Executive Director of the Seattle Symphony. I look forward to our creative partnership with great anticipation. Simon is simply brilliant and this appointment is a vital step as the Orchestra continues to build a beautiful future for itself."
"The musicians enthusiastically welcome Simon Woods," said Timothy Hale, Violist, Chair of the Players' Organization, and member of the Executive Director Search Committee. "He has demonstrated wisdom, vision and strong leadership while serving in the administrations of other major orchestras. Most importantly, he understands the pursuit of artistic excellence. He will be a dynamic partner with the musicians and Maestro Morlot as we move forward together."
As Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) since August 2005, Woods has led the orchestra through a period that is considered to be among the most successful in its recent history, with the introduction of new concert series, significant increase in the orchestra's commitment to young people, innovative community engagement programs, the expansion of international touring, and an increased presence on radio and recordings. He also launched a major fund-raising initiative that generated significant new annual fund donations, and more than doubled the number of subscribers.
From 1997 to 2005, Woods worked in the United States. From 2004–2005, he was President and CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, leading the orchestra through a period of major and positive change as it experienced institutional upheaval. From 1997 to 2004, Woods was Artistic Administrator, and later, Vice President, Artistic Planning and Operations at The Philadelphia Orchestra, working closely with Music Directors Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, overseeing touring, operations, recordings, broadcasting, education and community partnerships, and the orchestra's operational relationship with the Kimmel Center.
From 1988 to 1997, Woods worked in London as a record producer with EMI Classics where he initiated, planned, budgeted, produced and edited recordings with many of the world's foremost classical artists and ensembles. Earlier, he managed corporate sponsorships for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He holds a music degree from the University of Cambridge, England, and a postgraduate diploma in conducting from the Guildhall School of Music in London.
Woods, who is British, is a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of British Orchestras. From 1999 to 2002 he was a member of the Board of Directors of the American Composers Forum. During his time in the United States he was an active participant in the League of American Orchestras' professional development programs, and has led seminars on concert programming and artistic administration.
Woods and his wife, Karin Brookes, will relocate to Seattle along with their 12-year-old son, Barnaby, and 9-year-old daughter, Isabel.
Seattle Symphony PR
Recorded in 1974, this performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra remains one of my favorites. EMI reissued it at mid price in their "Great Recordings of the Century" line in 1998, and in 2010 it's back in their "Masters" series, as good as ever.
There are two advantages to this disc over EMI's very first CD mastering: Superior sonics and a cheaper price. The 1997 audio quality is very slightly smoother and a touch fuller than the transfer before it. Being over three-and-a-half decades old, it is an analogue recording, of course, but the Abbey Road Technology remastering removed some of the edge one may have noticed in the earlier full-priced CD; not all of it, but enough. None of the added warmth detracts from the earthiness of Previn's interpretation, though. It is still full of love and lust and other sensual delights.
For those few of you who may not be familiar with the work, Carl Orff published Carmina Burana in 1935 and based it on the collected songs and poems of thirteenth-century minstrels. There are several dozen short vocal pieces in the assemblage plus orchestral accompaniment, grouped together in four sections. The music is vivid and vibrant, especially in Previn's hands, and it speaks mainly of the yearnings and pleasures of the flesh. For example, "Sweet, rosey-hued mouth, Come and make me well"; "Love flies everywhere, He is seized by desire. Young men, young girls, Are rightly coupled together"; "The girl without a lover, Does without any pleasure"; "If a boy with a girl Tarries in a little room, Happy their mating." And so on in its earthy way; I think you get the idea. Ably supported by a boys' choir, the soloists have a field day with lyrics like these.
If you already own EMI's first, full-price CD, this new release may be enough of a sonic improvement to warrant a change; but if you own the "Great Recordings" remastering, you already have the identical copy of this one. The thing is, if you don't already own the recording in any form, you might consider now as good a time as any to invest in it. The only other recordings I can think of that compare with Previn's are Blomstedt's with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Ormandy's with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), and Jochum's with the German Opera Orchestra (DG). Yet Previn has the edge in sound.
Listeners have always enjoyed short orchestral suites and serenades, and such pieces are especially felicitous when they come from composers like Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Mozart. This disc presents three of their most-popular short works from one of the world's great orchestras in audiophile-quality sound. Seems like a sure thing.
The album begins with Peter Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings (1880), a four-movement piece that Maestro Yuri Simonov offers up in the most-romantic terms. He draws out the lush textures of the work, his players seeming to relish the rich cadences and well-upholstered phrases. The melodies, which never appear to end, flow along in balletic fashion and sound quite fresh from such a large ensemble. Some critics may consider this "light" music, but it surely takes on a weighty quality under Simonov--weighty yet delicate at the same time.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite (1884) celebrated the bicentennial of writer and historian Ludvig Holberg, born in Norway in 1684. The Suite is kind of an old-fashioned set of dances based on Barque models, and Grieg was never too happy with it. The Royal Philharmonic seem a bit pared down for it, and Simonov treats it perhaps more reverentially than he could. Nevertheless, it also comes off well, again with a sweet rhythmic pulse right up to the swirling rustic finish.
Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787) has featured in so many movies and TV shows, it must be among the most-recognizable music in the world. My only concern here is the RPO sound too big by half for "a little night music," which might have benefited from a smaller group of players. Despite this, Simonov conducts it with elegance and grace. While I am not sure it's entirely what Mozart had in mind, it's certainly a cushy, comfortable reading.
Recorded in 2007 and released in 2010, the sonics are big, wide, and warm, miked at a moderate distance for a full concert-house effect. Although you don't get some of the ultimate transparency of a more closely miked recording, you do get the compensating factors of naturalness, realism, and sense of place. The frequency response is fairly wide and well balanced, and stage depth is more than adequate. The jewel box tells us that this is a "20 bit digital recording, edited and mastered via 32 bit digital sound processing, recorded in high definition and playable on all CD players," but I'd forget all that and simply enjoy the music.
Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) was born into a wealthy family, his grandfather having invented Beecham's Pills. As a young man, Thomas wanted to pursue music, but his father insisted the boy go to Oxford, which the son hated. Beecham the younger would have his way, though, studying music privately and then essentially buying his own orchestra. Fellow conductors seemed forever split in their opinions of Beecham, some of them early on calling him a mere dilettante. However, he proved them wrong through his pure love of music and his conductorial and organizational skills. Beecham championed new music; formed several orchestras that are well and alive today (the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic, for instance); preferred recording in the studio to performing before live audiences, thus producing a multitude of phonograph records; and generally earned the devotion and respect of an adoring public.
Like a limited few great conductors of his generation, Beecham lived long enough to record a good number of performances in stereo during the last half dozen or so years of his life; Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Otto Klemperer, and a couple of others were in a like situation. And because Beecham remained at his best into his last years, he left us a wonderful legacy of fine-sounding albums, among which is this disc of French Ballet Music (and although there are a couple of items in mono, they are still sound fine).
People often speak of the "Beecham magic." The fact is, his music making never failed to charm listeners with its light but firm touch. He wasn't a conductor to attack scores with fury or offer up lightning-fast or gravitas-laden productions. Instead, he seemed genuinely to love every note he wrung from an orchestra; you could feel the man's delight in the music he made, and you couldn't help but share in his joy. Moreover, he had a special affinity for the music of France, making this album a particular pleasure.
The disc includes fourteen selections from six French composers: seven excerpts from Leo Delibes's Le Roi s'amuse; Claude Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and the "Cortege et air de danse" from L'Enfant prodigue; Camille Saint-Saens's "Danse des pretresses de Dagon" and "Bacchanale" from Samson et Dalila; Hector Berlioz's "Danse des sylphes" and "Menuet des follets" from La Damnation de Faust; Jules Massenet's "Valse" from Cendrillon; and Charles Gounod's "Ballet Music" from Faust, all performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The opening suite from Delibes, a collection of seven dances and scenes from Le Roi s'amuse, is largely sweet and light, with Beecham presenting them up in the most delicate possible manner. The highlight of the set, though, is Debussy's Faun, music as sexy and seductive as any you'll find. You can almost feel the sensual atmosphere of the piece dripping from the speakers. The rest of the works follow suit, each of them a little cream puff (or bonbon?) of charm, with the "Bacchanale" from Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila exhibiting plenty of exotic verve, while Berlioz's sylphes practically float before our eyes (or ears).
Recorded between 1957 and 1959 in London and Paris, the stereo sound is beautifully clean and open, with a splendidly airy high end. Although the bass is thin, it isn't really a presence in most of the music, anyway. The strings glisten, the midrange shows excellent detail, and the upper bass provides a pleasant warmth. A good degree of stage depth complements the naturalness of the acoustic. In the stereo numbers, there is a wide spread, and even the few monaural items come off with a fair amount of bloom. Most of the music has little or no background noise, while a couple of others display a soft but noticeable hiss.
BERLIN, November 2, 2010--Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Classics are delighted to announce the signing of a wide-ranging recording agreement with conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Music director of Berlin's Staatsoper and Staatskapelle and Maestro Scaligero at Milan's Teatro alla Scala, with projects including a new Ring production at both houses, Barenboim has been called by The Times (London) "one of the few musicians in the world today who could accurately be described as legendary."
Among the many important releases in extensive plans stretching beyond 2012 – when the artist celebrates his 70th birthday--are Barenboim's first-ever recordings of the Chopin and Liszt piano concertos, a new Beethoven symphony cycle with his inspiring West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and a new Bruckner recording with the Staatskapelle, as well as several solo piano recordings. Many of these recordings are co-produced by Daniel Barenboim's long-term partner UNITEL.
The first releases on Deutsche Grammophon--early in 2011, to mark the 60th (!) anniversary of Barenboim's performing debut--will be devoted to Chopin: a solo recital recorded in Warsaw as well as the two concertos with Barenboim accompanied by the Berlin Staatskapelle under Andris Nelsons. Later in the year, a new recording with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will appear on Decca Classics to coincide with their annual tour: Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony and Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra.
2011 is also the Liszt bicentenary year, and Deutsche Grammophon will release Barenboim's first recording of the two concertos, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle, together with solo piano works, some of them debut recordings for Maestro Barenboim.
"I am very happy and grateful to be beginning a strong partnership with these two great recording companies, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca", says Daniel Barenboim. "I made my very first recording in the 1950s for Philips, so in a way, this marks a homecoming for me.What makes me particularly happy is that this unique collaboration allows me to prioritise my work with the Staatskapelle and the West-Eastern Divan in equal measure. The Staatskapelle has played an extremely important role in the formation of the Divan and in this new partnership with Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, our musical community is represented beautifully. I am looking forward to our future together, and to many exciting recordings."
Max Hole, Chief Operating Officer, Universal Music Group International, comments: "We are honoured that Daniel Barenboim has decided to make Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Classics the homes for his new recordings and new projects, to add to his already extraordinary body of work. We fully appreciate and share his vision of the future of classical music, to reinvigorate and strengthen it, and to reach for new audiences. Daniel is one of the world's most inspiring individuals. There is no better ambassador for music."
Michael Lang, President, Deutsche Grammophon, and Paul Moseley, General Manager, Decca Classics, will lead their respective labels' association with Barenboim, preparing initially for the release of the first recordings under the agreement. Deutsche Grammophon renews a collaboration with the artist which previously yielded landmark recordings of solo music by Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn, and of orchestral works by Bruckner, Debussy and Ravel. For Decca Classics, this brand new collaboration with Maestro Barenboim marks an exciting chapter in its programme of expansion as a world-class core classical label.
Olga Makrias, Decca Label Group
The Claremont Trio, comprised of Donna Kwong, piano, and twin sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin on violin and cello respectively, formed in 1999 and have received wide acclaim ever since. Listening to this album of Beethoven and Ravel piano trios, one can understand why.
The interpretations are gentle and sensitive, but by no means do they lack impact, as the final movements of both the Beethoven and Ravel attest. The three women have performed together for over a decade since their Juilliard debut, and their playing has merged into one voice, sonorous, delicate, nuanced, and powerful.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 in 1795, and it is the more traditional of the two pieces on the disc, a large-scale piano trio in four movements. One of Beethoven's teachers, Joseph Haydn, advised him not to publish it because he felt it was too complex for the public to understand. That's how far ahead of its time the work was. Beethoven ignored him, and today, as I say, it sounds fairly conventional, though still brilliant.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote his Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in 1914 before setting off for World War II. Although it is also in four movements, it is more lithe, more sensuous, and more exotic than the Beethoven piece, with beautifully lyrical rhythms and sinuous melodic lines. The Claremont Trio play both works with grace, refinement, feeling, and character, to be sure, but also with an assured virtuosity. They are a pleasure.
Recorded in May, 2010, by producer and engineer Adam Abeshouse, the sound is close enough to provide a reasonable degree of detail and definition and distanced enough to offer a compensating warmth and bloom. The result is a natural, realistic response and perspective, making for highly comfortable and satisfying listening.
Meet the Staff
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.