Dec 30, 2011

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Der Voyevoda. Frank Shipway, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks RPM 29220.

As usual with Tchaikovsky, he felt dissatisfied with his Fifth Symphony when he finished it. He considered it a failure; but, well, he wasn't too keen on The Nutcracker or the 1812, either. What did he know.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, in 1888, and he conducted its première the same year. He used a theme that reappears in various guises in all four movements of the work, describing it at first as "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." But it's not all that dark and things pick up. Before long, we hear the character of the main theme become more positive as it progresses through the symphony, as though Tchaikovsky were voicing his increased optimism with regard to fate, the symphony becoming ever more affirmative and upbeat as it goes along.

On the present recording, Maestro Frank Shipway conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Candidly, when I first received the disc I was only vaguely familiar with the name Shipway, and even then I was probably thinking of Thomas Schippers. Nevertheless, Shipway is a prominent British conductor of international repute, mainly through his work with the Italian National Symphony Orchestra of the RAI. He studied conducting with Sir John Barbirolli and to a lesser degree with Herbert von Karajan and Lorin Maazel. In addition, he has judged conducting competitions and given master classes in music. Apparently, too, his recording of the Mahler Fifth with the RPO has garnered much critical acclaim. Fair enough. He certainly acquits himself well on this Tchaikovsky recording.

Shipway starts Tchaikovsky's Fifth very slowly, in hushed terms, building in intensity from humble beginnings. It's an indiction of how the conductor will proceed throughout the symphony: very carefully, very methodically, his rhythms and tempos a tad regimented yet carrying a decent Romantic spark, too, and eventually lighting up the room with their strength and authority. A few minutes in and the movement is as animated as Tchaikovsky directs: "Allegro con anima." Then the recurring main theme opens up beautifully.

The symphony continues in this manner, with the conductor shaping the music thoughtfully, and the orchestra responding with passion and precision. The Andante cantabile, for instance, sounds exceptionally relaxed yet still provides ample emotion.

The third movement waltz moves dancingly along, if without quite the life and lilt we hear from Jansons (Chandos), Muti (EMI), or Haitink (Philips). Still, it has plenty of vitality and offers a charming interlude before the music's fiery conclusion.

Tchaikovsky pulled out all the stops in his finale, the main theme now sounding quite triumphant and Shipway making the most of it by executing some really forceful crescendos of tremendous power.  Initially, Tchaikovsky's audiences didn't know what to make of this movement, many of them finding it too reckless and explosive. Today, we accept it as simply exciting and exhilarating. Shipway helps us out.

As a coupling, the disc gives us Tchaikovsky's little tone poem Der Voyevoda, which he wrote in 1890 and based on a poem by Adam Mickiewicz. As usual, Tchaikovsky didn't like it, dismissing it as "rubbish." Nonetheless, it makes a suitable companion to the Fifth Symphony because like the Fifth it is not rubbish but quite varied, impassioned, and ultimately fascinating, if a little bombastic. Again, Shipway gives it careful attention.

Royal Philharmonic Masterworks, Sheridan Square Entertainment, and Allegro Corporation, the makers and distributors of the disc, provide no information on the recording, no date or location. The producers do tell us, however, that it is a part of their "Audiophile Collection," a "20 bit digital recording, edited and mastered via 32 bit digital sound processing, recorded in high definition and playable on all CD players." Since to my knowledge there is no absolute, objective meaning of the phrase "high definition" in regard to music recording, I suppose they mean it sounds pretty good. And it does.

The recording displays good orchestral depth, fairly good sonic delineation and detailing, and a very wide dynamic range and impact. The sound stage is big, big, big, with a good separation of instruments without appearing either excessively close or too multi-miked. The strings are smooth and the bass is solid, with a touch of soft, overall warmth and a bit of upper bass resonance thrown in. While it may not be what everyone thinks of "audiophile" sound, it's surely a pleasing aural experience.


Dec 29, 2011

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" (CD review)

Also, Martinu: Symphony No. 2.  Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80616.

The idea behind this coupling was for Maestro Paavo Jarvi to bring together works by two celebrated Czech composers, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) from the nineteenth century and Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) from the twentieth. Jarvi intended for us to see how the two pieces, while separated by time, found connections of national heritage. Fair enough. The only minor reservation I would have is that except for the representative works coming from Czech composers who wrote them in America, they are really not all that much alike except in their overall positive, melodic character.

Of greater concern, I can't say I found Jarvi's interpretation of the "New World" particularly compelling. Maybe I've listened to too many recordings of the piece over the years for a middle-of-the-pack contender like Jarvi's to affect me much. His reading is certainly not bad by any means, and for the listener who doesn't have the work (is there such a listener?), Telarc recorded this one pretty well, so it's probably as good as most. It has a high energy quotient, an imaginative attack, and an appropriate zest. Moreover, Jaarvi's Cincinnati Symphony plays as lustrously, as glowingly, and as precisely as any ensemble you could find.

Nevertheless, it's really the companion piece, Martinu's Second Symphony, that stands out here. Martinu rejected what he deemed the discordant components of modern music and preferred a more relaxed, old-fashioned style, though one often marked by modern jazz influences as well as idiomatic folk elements. The composer wrote that his "Second Symphony is calm and lyric. It seems to me that we have no need of a professional and technical expression of torture; rather do we need orderly thought, expressed calmly." Thus do we get a brief, twenty-three-minute symphony in the conventional four movements that includes any number of dance rhythms and jazz inflections. Jarvi seems to be having fun with the music, and he easily communicates in it the calm and order as well as the sheer exhilaration the work requires.

Telarc's sound is, as is sometimes the case, a tad on the warm, thick side, with a wonderfully dynamic bass line and reasonably good stereo imaging. The highs ring out clearly and realistically in the "New World," especially. While I'm not sure the disc is worth full price for essentially the Martinu alone, I am glad I got to hear both pieces on the disc side by side.


Dec 28, 2011

A French Soiree (CD review)

Trio Settecento:  Rachel Barton Pine, violin; John Mark Rozendaal, viola da gamba; David Schrader, harpsichord. Cedille CDR 900000 129.

I always enjoy any new recording from the Chicago-based Cedille label. Their artists invariably perform the music well, and their engineers record the music superbly, especially those discs made by their chief audio expert, Bill Maylone. This latest entry from Trio Settecento (Rachel Barton Pine, violin; John Mark Rozendaal, viola da gamba; David Schrader, harpsichord), called A French Soiree, is no exception.

My Random House Dictionary defines a "soiree" as "an evening party or social gathering, esp. one held for a particular purpose; e.g., a musical soiree." A French Soiree follows Trio Settecento's previous successes with Cedille, An Italian Sojourn and A German Bouquet ( in providing more light Baroque music from across the globe. In coming releases as the Trio proceed through more European and perhaps world music, they may begin having trouble coming up with clever album titles, but it's a risk I'm willing to endure. Their playing is first-rate, and their discs sound superb.

As the title suggests, what we get here is a collection of short, light French works by seventeenth and early eighteenth-century composers like Lully, Couperin, Marais, Rebel, Rameau, and Leclair. Performed on period instruments in the most-elegant possible manner, the music close to irresistible.

The program begins with a series of divertissements, a suite of little chamber pieces featuring the music of three French composers: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Francois Couperin (1668-1733), and Marin Marais (1656-1728). The suite is just over twenty-nine minutes long and contains eleven tracks, all of them elegant and refined, both the music and the playing. Of course, the music is also fairly rich and flowery, so the Trio's use of instruments suited to the period helps in bringing out the vibrant, resonant tone of the pieces.

Next, we get Couperin's Troisieme Concert, six brief dance movements. The Trio handle them imaginatively, presenting them in lively yet courtly fashion.

Following the Couperin is the Sonate Huitieme en Re mineur by Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747), probably the least known composer on the program. However, it is his piece that stands out as the most unique of the bunch for its combination of ruggedness, grace, and lilting melodies.

The program ends with the Quatrieme Concert by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1783-1764) and the Sonata en Sol majeur by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764). Like the other works on the disc, the music impresses one with its civility and urbaneness, the performances with their culture and polish.

If I have any reservation at all, it's that I don't find the music of the French Baroque composers as varied or as tuneful as that of their Italian and German counterparts. Thus, I probably didn't appreciate this album as much as I liked the Trio Settecento's previous releases. No fault of theirs.

Cedille recorded the program in Nichols Concert Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, in August of 2010. They obtained typically audiophile results, although the sonics seem a bit closer than usual. Not many record companies are producing this kind of high-fidelity response anymore, Cedille, certainly, and Reference Recordings, but precious few others.

Anyway, here we get truthful presentations of all three instruments, with extraordinary definition and detail, the instruments themselves meshing nicely and providing a satisfyingly unified sound. Be sure to experiment for a moment to get the volume just right, though, for optimum realism. Too soft and it will appear a bit dull; too loud and it will appear a tad bright. At its prime output, however, it should sound as lifelike as you'll likely hear anywhere outside a concert stage.


Dec 24, 2011

Handel: Messiah (UltraHD CD review)

Yvone Kenny, soprano; Paul Esswood, countertenor; Martyn Hill, tenor; Magnus Linden, bass; Anders Ohrwall, members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Stockholm Bach Choir. First Impression Music LIM UHD 029 (2-disc set).

"For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, call'd the MESSIAH, in which the Gent Lemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handel."

Of all the recordings of Mr. Handel's Messiah I've heard over the years, this FIM remastering of a 1982 Proprius disc is quite simply the best-performed and finest-sounding account of the lot. Indeed, it may be the finest-sounding choral-orchestral recording I've ever heard.

When George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote his Messiah in 1741, he probably had no idea that by the twenty-first century it would have become as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. But here it is, the Messiah performed by orchestras and choirs and even audiences all over the world, beloved by all. Not bad for a composition Handel wrote in just a little over three weeks. Remarkable.

Anyway, the first thing one notices about this FIM remastering is the remarkable depth of field involved. The listener can actually hear well into the small ensemble and hear them standing and sitting in front of one another. The space and air around the instruments enhance the dimensionality, making it one of those reach-out-and-touch-it experiences.

Then, because the opening movement is an orchestral Sinfonia, one notices the extreme clarity and naturalness of the sound. Every instrument stands in perfect relief, delineated in a wholly realistic, truthful manner, yet without any trace of brightness or edge. We know from the outset this recording is going to be a singular musical and aural treat.

Next, one notices the stereo spread, the soloists on risers to the left, the Stockholm Bach Choir spread out left to right, and the pared down Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in support. How wide is the production? When the organ enters, one would swear it was coming from a point well off stage to the far right of the right-hand speaker. It's uncanny.

Finally, in the second movement one notices the sound of the chorus and soloists. Every word is crystal clear, yet again without a trace of brightness or edge. This is, in fact, the most notable aspect of the recording because it's so unusual. In almost every other choral recording--because of the microphone placement or the type of microphones used or the intentional manipulation by the engineer--voices are brightened up, perhaps to make them more intelligible. That doesn't happen here. The voices are so lifelike, you would swear they belong to real people in a concert venue with you.

Still, no recording, no matter how good, would be worth much if it did not support a good performance, and a good performance is exactly what Maestro Anders Ohrwall and his forces produce for us. His interpretation is lively, invigorating, without in any way disturbing the solemnity or majesty of the music. Using a small number of members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a relatively small choir with superb soloists, Ohrwall combines period musical practices with confident, levelheaded judgments, his tempos, contrasts, rubato et al as stimulating yet well considered as one could want. It is as thoroughly involving a rendition as you'll hear anywhere.

Proprius recorded the music in Adolf Fredrik Church, Stockholm, Sweden, in February of 1982, and FIM (First Impression Music) remastered it in 2011 in their Ultra HD 32-bit mastering format. The results of both the original recording setup and the subsequent remastering are impressive in the extreme. As noted above, everything about the sound is better than anything you're ever liable to hear on a disc.

Now, the surprise: It's a live recording. That's right: made before a live audience. Why the surprise? Over the years, live recordings have almost never impressed me. They are usually too close-up or too distant, too forward or too soft, too noisy or too distracting. In the case of the Proprius/LIM set, none of the preceding applies. The audience remains exceptionally quiet during the performance, with only the very occasional slight cough or wheeze to remind one of their presence, and at the end there is no disruptive applause.

Finally, a word about the packaging: The folks at FIM use a hardbound approach, the two discs fitting into their own static-free sleeves, further housed in a pair of light-cardboard inner sleeves. Between the disc sleeves are twenty-eight pages of text providing extensive details about the music, the composer, the recording, and the remastering process. It's a deluxe package for a deluxe recording. Expect to pay for it.


Dec 21, 2011

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Also, Le Corsaire overture; Trojan March; Royal Hunt and Storm. Sir Thomas Beecham, French National Radio Broadcasting Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 50999 9 18709 2 6.

It's always pleasant when something good gets better. So it pleases me when a company like EMI re-releases a disc as superior as Sir Thomas Beecham's 1959 recording of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique at a lower price than ever.

The fact is, I am sometimes hesitant to recommend anything as the absolute best of its kind, largely because few things are, indeed, the absolute best of anything; yet Beecham's interpretation of Berlioz is without a doubt the best I've ever heard. It is in every sense the absolute finest reading the Symphonie fantastique has ever had and is one of my Desert Island Favorite recordings.

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

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

The title of the first movement, "Reveries - Passions," is self-explanatory, and Beecham treats the music as wispy snippets of passion. "The Ball" comes next, a waltz that Beecham makes both lilting and swaggering, too. In the "Scene in the Fields" the young dreamer hears a pastoral song, heightening his feeling for the woman, only to let his paranoia about her possible infidelity consume him and lower his spirits. Even in this usually tepid segment, Beecham provides a loving and uplifting quality in a leisurely yet dynamic presentation.

It's the fourth and fifth movements, however, that warm the hearts of audiophiles everywhere. They are tours de force of imagination and orchestral exuberance. The hero envisions in the fourth movement that the court has convicted him of murdering his loved one, and his jailors are leading him to the scaffold for hanging. It is grim satire to be sure, and it is best if the music is performed a little ominously, but not jauntily, for Berlioz's effect to work. Here, Beecham is at his most colorful and his most mischievous, making the music sinister and menacing while still being fun. This "March" is no jaunty walk but a genuinely grim, if sardonic, trudge to the execution block.

In the finale, the "Witches' Sabbath," the fates seem to have committed the young lover to some kind of purgatory or hell for his crime of passion, where he sees his beloved among the witches. This is where most conductors, including Beecham, pull out all the stops. Beecham's witches are actually quite scary in these concluding revels.

Other conductors (Colin Davis, especially) may capture the spirit of these large-scale orchestral poems pretty well, too, but no other conductor captures the essence quite so thrillingly, so longingly, so individualistically, so magically as Beecham. The conductor provides each of the five movements its special flavor that flawlessly expresses its themes and content.

The French National Radio Broadcasting Orchestra sparkles in the Symphonie, with excellent imaging properties and only the strings a tad thin and bright. Beecham's own Royal Philharmonic, however, in recordings made a year or two earlier actually sounds somewhat warmer, richer, and fuller in the accompanying Berlioz works, "Le Corsaire," the "Trojan March," and the "Royal Hunt and Storm."  The choral parts in the "Royal Hunt" are a bit forward, but otherwise they sound splendid. They make top-notch companions to the Symphonie and are the equals if not betters of any rival performances. EMI remastered these 1957-1959 recordings in 2003, taming some of the earlier CD's hard high end. Reissued in 2011 at a budget price, the album is irresistible.


Dec 20, 2011

Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, La Boite a joujoux; Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; Three Preludes. Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 58045-2.

You'd think by the number of recordings Sir Simon Rattle makes for EMI that he was the only artist they had under contract. I exaggerate, but if you had to have only one conductor right now, you could do worse than Rattle. In the present disc, the maestro and his imposing Berlin Philharmonic give us an album of Debussy music--a couple of warhorses and a couple of less well-known items.

The warhorses are La Mer and Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Practically every conductor on the planet has recorded them at one time or another, so there's plenty of competition. In both works, Rattle opts for a light, radiant, dreamy, ethereal, almost surreal impressionist effect, with the EMI audio engineers contributing with a relatively soft, slightly distant, although extremely dynamic live sound. This delicate, airy approach is at the expense of as much excitement as some of Rattle's rivals conjure up in the music, yet it works reasonably well in the Prelude, though leaving La Mer somewhat wanting for passion. A quick comparison of Rattle's La Mer to those of Jean Martinon (EMI), Leopold Stokowski (Decca), Andre Previn (EMI), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Herbert von Karajan (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), and Geoffrey Simon (Cala) reveals greater degrees of color and animation from those gentlemen, plus more vibrant recordings. Not that there is anything wrong with Rattle's performances or the recording, incidentally; they are quite beautiful in their way, just not as lively or as vivid as some others.

The highlight of the Rattle disc, however, is La Boite a joujoux, a series of tone poems based on children's stories that Debussy left unfinished at his death in 1918 and completed by a friend, Andre Caplet. They are delightful, Rattle's interpretations of them are charming, and the recording at this point seems a tad more forward and animated. The disc concludes with three of Debussy's piano Preludes orchestrated by Colin Matthews, which are also quite appealing.

So, it's hard to fault Rattle on any specific count. He interprets the works as voluptuously as any Debussy fan could want, and he builds suitably atmospheric, emotional moods in each piece. It's just that it's equally hard to pick absolute winners in music so well covered by current recordings.

One final note: Because of the wide dynamic range on the disc, listeners may find themselves tempted to increase the gain, like during the opening moments of Prelude a l'apree-midi d'un faune, a decision the listener may soon regret, as the volume will quickly overpower the music. Although a wide dynamic range is perhaps an unfortunate by-product of getting too much high fidelity in today's compact discs, it's a concern with which one can easily live.


Dec 19, 2011

Bach: Keyboard Concertos (CD review)

Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra, BWV 974, 1052, 1054, 1056, 1058, 1065. Alexandre Tharaud, piano; Bernard Labadie, Les Violon du Roy. Virgin Classics 50999 070913 2 2.

Whenever I hear the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) played on a piano rather than a harpsichord, I tend to forget it's Bach. I'm not sure if this is good or bad; it's just not Bach to me. However, in this case, it works well enough. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud uses a modern piano for these performances, accompanied by Les Violon du Roy playing on modern instruments with Baroque bows. The result is a modern interpretation of eighteenth-century works using near period-performance practices, making it a hybrid concoction that nevertheless delivers an enjoyable listening experience.

Les Violon du Roy consist of about fourteen performers on violins, violas, cellos, and double bass. They provide excellent support for Tharaud's smooth, suave, polished, yet lively readings. His playing is often spectacularly virtuosic as he approaches the fast outer movements nimbly and vigorously, all the while producing suitably serene, relaxed central slow movements. Indeed, because the modern piano he plays sounds so rich and sonorous, these Adagios and such appear quite Romantic rather than Baroque. So, as I say, we get a little of everything in these Bach pieces, which no doubt would have delighted Bach no end.

The album's core works are the Concertos for Keyboard and Orchestra BWV 1052, 1054, 1056, and 1058, written between 1720 and 1730. Although Bach intended them for harpsichord, he transcribed them from previous violin concertos. Reworking his older material into new pieces was nothing new for Bach or for most Baroque composers who knew a good thing when they heard it, even if it was their own. So, what we have here are compositions that started life as violin concertos, which Bach then turned into harpsichord concertos, and which Tharaud here plays on the piano. "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," wrote Mr. Keats. He might have had Bach in mind.

Incidentally, BWV 1054 may remind you of Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto, the composer again knowing a good thing when he heard it; and the Adagio of BWV 1056 is as sweet and delicate as anything Bach ever wrote. Just saying.

In addition to the four keyboard concertos, Tharaud includes the Adagio to the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974, which Bach fashioned after an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. It's lovely and haunting and makes a splendid centerpiece for the program. Then Tharaud concludes the album with the Concerto for four Keyboards and Orchestra in A minor, BWV 1065, which Bach transcribed for harpsichord from a concerto for four violins by Vivaldi. Here, through the magic of multitrack recording, Tharaud plays all four parts himself, the piano positioned on different areas of the stage to simulate their being played simultaneously with the band. Anyway, it makes for a fascinating piece of music, and Tharaud pulls it off effectively enough, the piano parts thoroughly and seamlessly integrated into the ensemble.

Virgin recorded the album at Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Moncalm, Quebec, Canada in October of 2010. For most of the pieces, Tharaud asked that the piano be placed to the rear of the other players so that it would appear as a part of the group rather than a standout solo instrument in the front of the ensemble as we normally hear it. Not only does this offer an attractive musical configuration, it seems remarkably humble and unpretentious of Mr. Tharaud to suggest such an arrangement. Most soloists would want to be front and center. Whatever, the piano displays a warm, mellow, resonant sound, with the violins, violas, and cellos decidedly brighter, as they should be. The setting is lightly, pleasantly reverberant, giving the music a welcome ambient glow. It's all very clean and clear in a highly listenable manner.


Dec 16, 2011

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Rococo Variations. Tzimon Barto, piano; Dimitri Maslennikov, cello; Christoph Eschenbach, German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin. Capriccio C5065.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) never seemed quite satisfied with a good many of his works, and that included his popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. He completed it in 1874-75, revised it in 1879, and then revised it yet again in 1888. It may have been that the composer was simply thin-skinned and could not bear the criticism that came before and after the concerto's première, or maybe he didn't care for the way the first performers played them. In any case, on this disc pianist Tzimon Barto plays the Concerto accompanied by Christoph Eschenbach and the German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin.

The Concerto's opening theme, one of the most famous in all of music, is towering, monumental in nature, often played in a heroic style befitting its scope. Here, Barto approaches it more ruggedly than many other pianists of note. OK, this may be unfair, as the other pianists I have listened to over the past forty or fifty years have been towering figures themselves and attacked the score with a more vigorous elegance than Barto. Compare Cliburn (RCA), Argerich (DG or Philips), Giles (RCA), or Wild (Chesky), and you'll see what I mean. Barto prefers to emphasize exaggerated dynamic contrasts, pregnant pauses, and considerable variants of tempo. Although later in the movement he proceeds at a more conventional pace, he takes a good two to three minutes longer to get through the Allegro than almost anybody else. I suppose you could say that Barto is brawnier in his reading than most others; but, really, it's one thing to bring a noble robustness to a score and another thing to be overindulgent, even in so excessive a score as this one is. Thus, listeners not used to Barto's burly manner may find it a distraction in this interpretation, even an affectation; Barto's fans, however, will undoubtedly love it.

Anyway, I found Barto more successful in the slow second movement, where he doesn't appear to feel so compelled to be lofty at the expense of intensity. Still, even here he applies a good deal of dramatic license to the music so that we sometimes pay more attention to the player than to what he's playing.

In the finale, Barto is lyrical and flowing, with the hints of the opening motif nicely tying the work together. It's a showy piece of music, and Barto is certainly a showman. His performance will either wow an audience, or them shaking their heads.

Tchaikovsky premiered his Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33, in 1877; however, his theme isn't really an eighteenth-century Rococo type but one Tchaikovsky devised himself in the Rococo style. The music, a theme and seven variations, has a classical-period feel to it, at the same time retaining a thoroughly Romantic mood. While cellist Dimitri Maslennikov handles it nicely, making it appropriately sweet and light, again we get a somewhat heightened rubato, the tempos and accents varying considerably within each section. This makes me wonder if the decision to do so wasn't as much the conductor's as that of the two different soloists in the album's two works.

Capriccio made the recording in Berlin in 2010, the sound as big as the performances. In the concerto the piano is very close, the orchestra spread out behind it in a dazzling accompaniment meant undoubtedly to knock the listener's socks off with its wide stereo spread and huge impact. The piano is, indeed, strong, with excellent clarity and punch; and the orchestral sonics showcase a well-detailed, if somewhat heavy midrange, with a ton of bass energy. If anything, there may be too much upper bass energy, as it tends slightly to veil the lower mids. The cello piece is more transparent, the cello not quite so out in front. In short, this is a kind of superspectacular, blockbuster sound, albeit without too much emphasis on multi-miking.


Dec 15, 2011

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar" (CD review)

Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Sergei Aleksashkin, soloist. EMI 7243 5 57902-2.

Basing his 1962 Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor"Babi Yar" on a series of poems published by Yevgeny Yevtushenko the year before, Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) designed the five movements of the work mainly to deplore Russia's anti-Semitism. He recalls everything from the massacre of several tens of thousands of minorities in Bielostok in 1905 to the killing of untold numbers of Jews, Russians, and Ukrainians by Nazis and Russian collaborators in the valley of Babi Yar during the Second World War (considered the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust).

In addition to the subject of the Jewish issue in the USSR, the poems also reflect the question of how Russia was dealing in 1962 with past crimes against all of its own people. Shostakovich presents these tragedies to the listener in huge, almost overwhelmingly somber tones, and any conductor's approach to them must be straightforward and dead serious. The words and sound are enough to convey the spirit and intent of the piece.

Maestro Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus communicate well the sorrow and anguish of the work, as does the soloist, Sergei Aleksashkin. Just don't expect a conventional symphony if you haven't heard it before. Three of the work's five movements are Adagios, meaning that most of the music is slow and in this case appropriately gloomy, with only a hint of light in the final movement. Nor does the work hold up as a conventional symphony in structure, as the composer based each movement on a separate poem, supported by soloist and chorus. So the work is really a series of choral-vocal-orchestral tone poems closely enough connected for one to call it a symphony. But call it what you may, it is undeniably a powerful piece of music and a powerful political statement.

EMI engineers provide the work with a suitably dark yet detailed sonic atmosphere that appears a little narrow to my ears and a tad thick and soft. Other than that, the soloist sounds quite natural, and the mid bass is especially dynamic. The only "however" in the affair is that EMI also offer an alternative recording of the work in a mid-priced two-pack along with the Tenth Symphony, made about twenty years earlier by Andre Previn and the LSO in a slightly wider, more open, and more clearly defined acoustic. To my mind, the Previn is the better bargain, but I cannot say I disapprove of this Jansons entry, either.


Dec 13, 2011

Guitar Passions (CD review)

Sharon Isbin, guitar, and friends. Sony Classical 88697 84219 2.

American guitarist Sharon Isbin has obviously been playing classical guitar a lot longer than I thought. Maybe she just looks younger than she is. In any case, Ms. Isbin was a student of such distinguished mentors as Alirio Díaz, Oscar Ghiglia, Aldo Minella, Andrés Segovia, and Rosalyn Tureck; she received her Master of Music degree from the Yale School of Music; she has been a successful recording artist since the 1980's; she has appeared with a multitude of orchestras around the world; she has received numerous awards; and she founded the Guitar Department at the Juilliard School. Phew! No wonder she makes good albums.

In the case of 2011's Guitar Passions with Sharon Isbin & Friends, the "friends" are Steve Vai, guitar; Stanley Jordon, guitar; Nancy Wilson, guitar and vocals; Steve Morse, guitar; Romero Lumambo, guitar; Paul Winter, soprano saxophone; Gaudencio Thiago de Mello, organic percussion; and Rosa Passos, vocals. The friends accompany Ms. Isbin in varied numbers on select pieces.

Some of the disc's twelve tracks will be familiar to any fan of the guitar--works by Rodrigo, Albeniz, etc.--while others may be less well known, with several of them getting world-première recordings. On all but three of the selections Ms. Isbin's friends join her in duets, trios, and more, making all of the music seem a little different. It's light, enjoyable fare.

Ms. Isbin begins with a "joyous dance" called "Porro" by Gentil Montana. In this version for two guitars, Isbin plays both parts. Oddly, the music fades off at the end as though done electronically. Then, American jazz-fusion guitarist Stanley Jordan joins Isbin for a première recording of Quique Sinesi's "Sonidos de aquel dia," a lively, up-tempo number. Next, American guitarist and composer Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs and Brazilian jazz guitar player Romero Lubambo accompany Isbin in the Adagio to Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, done very gently, elegantly, and persuasively.

After those pieces, Ms. Isbin takes it alone through Isaac Albeniz's "Asturias," very colorful, very emotional, very tuneful. Between the Rodrigo and Albeniz works, we get some of the high points of all twentieth-century guitar music.

And so it goes, with a world-première recording of "Dreamboat Annie," the vocals by Heart's Nancy Wilson, and then a moving solo from Isbin by Ariel Ramirez called "Alfonsina y el mar." Moving on, we find more première recordings: Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Chovendo non rosiera" from Isbin and Lubambo; and Alfredo Vianna's "Carinhoso" from Isbin and most of the friends mentioned above.

The album draws near the end with the rain-forest evocations of Gaudencio Thiago de Mello's "O Presidente," which de Mello dedicated to Ms. Isbin on this première recording with de Mello on organic percussion. And things conclude with two movements from Agustin Barrios Mangore's "La Catedral," done by Isbin alone.

If I have any concern about the disc, it's minor; namely, that there is less than an hour of music involved. The program is over before you know it, making you wish for more.

Recorded by Sony in 2010 and 2011 at Kaufman Studios, New York City, and Threshold Sound, Santa Monica, California, the sonics are very close-up in the manner of a typical pop album. This produces a rich, warm, lush, and vibrant response, one that puts the listener pretty much at the feet of the performers. Had I been one of the audio engineers, I would have opted for a bit more space to simulate a more-realistic concert-like setting, but that was not what the engineers were after. They apparently wanted a big, clearly etched, strongly defined sound, and they got it. I doubt that it will disappoint anyone.


Dec 12, 2011

Hovhaness: American Mystic (CD review)

Music of Alan Hovhaness: Centennial Collection. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Keith Brion, Ohio State University Concert Band; Shanghai Quartet. Delos DE 3421.

If Alan Hovhaness had been born in the nineteenth century, people would have called him a Romantic (or a Romanticist). But he was born and lived in the twentieth century (1911-2000), surrounded by "modern" composers experimenting with impressionism, expressionism, twelve-tone techniques, microtones, aleatoric music, indeterminacy, stochastic music, intuitive music, neoclassicism, free improvisation, process music, atonal ideas, and the like. Hovhaness's more "spiritual" music, dwelling as it did on harmonies and melodies and moods of wonder, reflection, and meditation, must have seemed downright old-fashioned. Thus, his label as a "mystic."

Delos recorded quite a lot of Hovhaness's music in 80's and 90's, a dozen or more albums, and on the present disc they have collected together some of the composer's most-representative pieces, culled from their back catalogue and featuring several outstanding ensembles. The CD makes a good introduction to Hovhaness's vast output (the man wrote some sixty-seven symphonies alone) and for those listeners not familiar with the composer, it may whet the appetite for more intensive collecting of his material.

The relatively lengthy and diverse program begins with the little Prayer of St. Gregory, Op. 62b, with Gerard Schwarz leading the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Charles Butler on trumpet. Delos recorded it beautifully--it sounds rich, resonant, and detailed--and the performance is heartfelt and serene.

Next is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, Op. 308, again with Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, featuring Michael York as the narrator and Diane Schmidt on accordion. It is atmospheric, romantic, and effective.

Following those items are 4 Bagatelles, Op. 30, done by the Shanghai Quartet. The group seems somewhat big-sounding for the occasion, but they play beautifully.

Then it's on to the centerpiece of the collection, the Symphony No. 2 "Mysterious Mountain," Op. 132. Although Hovhaness had been composing professionally for twenty-odd years before Leopold Stokowski premiered the Second Symphony in 1955, it was the work that made the composer famous, and it remains today probably his most well-known piece of music. Under Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, it is certainly evocative and mystical in tone, although I have a slight preference for the much-older performance by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA). Oddly, too, the Seattle midrange sonics are a tad steely, yet without in any way sounding edgy and having a fine, extended high end.

The Shanghai Quartet return for the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 147, "Gamelan in Sosi Style" and "Spirit Murmur," two movements that are direct and sorrowful, with obvious Asian and South Pacific influences.

The most-surprising music on the program is The Flowering Peach, Op. 125, performed by the Ohio State University Concert Band under director Keith Brion. It sounds nothing like band music but is chamber-like in its approach, using saxophone, clarinet, harp, and various percussion instruments. Also surprising, it is incidental music Hovhaness wrote in 1954 for a Broadway play by Clifford Odets, and it includes a whole passel of different cultural idioms. As with most of the recordings on the album, it sounds wonderful in its laid-back, leisurely style.

The program concludes with a personal favorite of mine, And God Created Great Whales, Op. 229, again with Schwarz and his Seattle Orchestra. It is probably the most environmentally correct music ever written, incorporating as it does the actual songs of whales within the score. Hovhaness composed it in 1970, and I remember first hearing it during a presentation on whales at a local natural museum show. A delightfully soft, relaxed recording helps make the piece a fascinating and totaling engrossing work.

I might add that Delos provide over seventy-five minutes of selections on the disc, a generous offering that only just touches the surface of the composer's prodigious output.


Dec 9, 2011

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 "Romantic" (SACD review)

Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra. LSO Live SACD LS00716.

Maybe because I've been collecting recordings by Maestro Bernard Haitink for nearly fifty years, ever since his appointment as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the early Sixties, to find the man still conducting, now in his eighties, is fascinating and reassuring. It's nice to know some things don't change. More important, I've always found Haitink's performances models of decorum, propriety, insight, and intelligence. They wear well.

In this 2011 SACD recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, Haitink tackles the Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, "Romantic," by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). The fact that Haitink has recorded the Fourth Symphony at least twice before--in the 1960's with the Concertgebouw and in the mid 80's with the Vienna Philharmonic--only whetted my appetite for more of the same. The newest performance did not entirely disappoint me, although I have to admit that the conductor's approach has mellowed with age. It's no less thoughtful or intense; it just sounds slower.

Anyway, the Fourth Symphony was Bruckner's first really successful big-scale work, and it didn't come easy. The public greeted his first three symphonies with a lukewarm response, and it took the composer over half a dozen years to write and revise the Fourth. Fortunately, when he did finally premiere it 1881, the public loved it, as listeners have loved it ever since. Bruckner himself nicknamed it "Romantic," and it became Bruckner's only program symphony. His final revision came in 1886, the Nowak edition, which Haitink plays here. The composer tells us what each movement represents, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a hunt, complete with horn calls, finally culminating in a brilliant summation. The symphony easily communicates a grandeur and nobility of spirit, as Bruckner was, above all, a profoundly spiritual man, his music clearly illustrating his piety.

Haitink opens this Fourth more quietly than usual, even for him, the morning haze finally opening up and letting the horn calls of the knights burst forth. However, Haitink eschews much glamor or theatrics here, preferring a more unhurried approach; yet I'm not really sure I like the "Romantic" Symphony without all of the romance. Don't expect as much robust vigor in Haitink's approach as in the readings of many of his rivals. Nevertheless, Haitink handles the softer, gentler passages with great care, making them seem more otherworldly than ever.

The LSO play with their customary precision and refinement, which goes a long way in music that can often be so ethereal and uplifting as Bruckner's. And when the orchestra get a chance to come into full bloom in the biggest crescendos and fortissimos, they sound wonderful, especially with Haitink guiding them so evenhandedly.

Indeed, Haitink walks a fine line here between offering up simple programmatic themes and darker, more introspective reflections, with the conductor often taking the latter course. In the tradition of Beethoven, Bruckner makes his slow movement almost a funeral march, yet Haitink doesn't exactly see it that way, creating instead a more-elegant flow to the music.

Again, we hear the hunting calls of the horns in the Scherzo, and Haitink seems to enjoy the playfulness as well as the seriousness of their strains. Then, typical of a Bruckner symphony, the finale is monumental, climaxing and surpassing everything that went before it. Needless to say, Haitink lets what little hair down he has left and presents a radiantly exciting conclusion.

In all, this is an agreeable Fourth, even if it's not for me quite on the level emotionally as the recordings of Jochum (DG), Klemperer (EMI), Bohm (Decca), Blomstedt (Denon), Wand (RCA), Walter (Sony), or Haitink's own earlier efforts. However, this newer performance should not disappoint fans of Haitink or the LSO.

Recorded live in June, 2011 at the Barbican, London, the output of the SACD seemed relatively low at first, requiring some adjustment of the volume higher than usual. But, then, there is a very wide dynamic range involved, starting with an especially soft opening passage, and when the loudest notes come through, they do so with authority. And there are blasts that may force one to turn the volume back down. A modest disappointment is that the midrange is not as transparent as it might be, with some upper-bass resonance to contend with. The upper strings can also be a tad steely at times. Still, the sonics make for a thrilling experience, the orchestra sounding big, warm, full, and basically resplendent.

About the only other minor issue I noticed was that the stage depth seemed slightly limited in the two-channel format to which I listened. If you have the SACD playback equipment for multichannel, which I don't, this hybrid SACD would probably provide more depth in the surround mode. Besides, I don't want to overemphasize this trivial lack of dimensionality at times because it's really no different from most other modern recordings. Moreover, the recording's strong dynamic impact and taut bass go a long way toward dispelling any misgivings one may have about small imaging concerns.

Finally, I'm happy to report that despite this being a live recording, the engineers have apparently filtered out most audience noise and thankfully edited out any closing applause.


Dec 8, 2011

Nielsen: Aladdin Suite (CD review)

Also, Pan and Syrinx and other orchestral works. Niklas Willen, South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.557164.

One is not apt to think much beyond the symphonies of Danish composer Carl August Nielsen (1865-1931) when considering the man's output, and it hasn't helped that so few record companies have recorded his shorter orchestral works. I recall an old EMI Greensleeve LP with Herbert Blomstedt that I used to own, and I believe there is currently a DG recording with Neeme Jarvi, and several others; but it isn't much, so this budget-priced Naxos disc from Niklas Willen and the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra fills a much-needed hole in the repertoire.

There are six separate selections on the album, all of them essentially brief tone poems. Things begin with the Aladdin Suite, seven movements the composer took from his incidental theater music. Don't expect anything so remarkable as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, but do expect these pieces to entertain you with their lavish orchestrations, their inventive dances, and in one composition, "The Marketplace in Ispahan," their uniqueness as the composer tries to imitate the varied sounds of a bazaar, the sounds coming from all directions. I couldn't help wondering while I was listening to this music how it might have sounded in a surround format.

Next are Cupid and the Poet, Saga-Dream, the Helios Overture, and two segments from the opera Maskarade, the Overture and the Prelude to Act II. These pieces amply demonstrate Nielsen's ability to evoke atmosphere and mood, which Willen nicely amplifies. The most intriguing of all the little works, though, is the concluding one, Pan and Syrinx. It's a pastoral piece, mostly sweet and relaxed, at least under Willen, becoming more vivacious as it goes along, then fading off into silence. It's quite affecting, really.

Evaluating a disc's sound can always be problematic. My initial reaction upon hearing the disc's opening "Festival March" from Aladdin was that the sonics were too thick and heavy. But I had just finished listening to over an hour of a Karajan recording from the Fifties that was rather thin and bright. After an hour with the Nielsen disc, its sound seemed just right to me, very realistic (if still a touch clouded). The Pan and Syrinx music appeared especially felicitous, with an excellent sense of orchestral depth. For the few bucks one might expend on the disc, one can afford to experiment with the sound and music.


Dec 6, 2011

Rossini: Sonate a quattro (UltraHD CD review)

Salvatore Accardo, violin; Sylvie Gazeau, violin; Alain Meunier, cello; Franco Petracchi, double bass. First Impression Music LIM UHD 049.

This remastered Philips album from FIM is notable for several reasons: First, it provides five of the six sonatas that Rossini wrote when he was only twelve years old. Second, it presents them in their original arrangements for string quartet rather than for a larger string ensemble as we sometimes hear them. Third, violinist Salvatore Accardo and his friends give them most-elegant interpretations. And, fourth, the folks at FIM (First Impression Music) have afforded the recording the most-beautiful audiophile sound one could imagine. Let me touch further upon each of these items.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote his six Sonatas for two violins, cello and double-bass in 1804, and scholars only discovered them in the Library of Congress after World War II. Most often, we hear them in their transcriptions for small string orchestra, but it's especially nice to hear them as the original scores arrange them, for string quartet. Almost as remarkable as the young prodigy composing these works at so early an age is that after Rossini wrote thirty-eight operas by the age of thirty-eight, he pretty much retired, writing only a few occasional pieces of music during the next thirty-odd years. Apparently, he spent much of his time in retirement as a gourmet, portraits of his girth in later years attesting to the fact.

In any case, his youthful Sonatas all follow the same basic pattern: They start with relatively long opening Allegros, followed by brief central slow movements, and concluding with moderately quick-paced finales of modest duration. My favorite among them, for what it's worth, is No. 5 because it sums up everything good about the music; it's both delicately enchanting and playfully witty by turns.

The performances by Salvatore Accardo, first violin, Sylvie Gazeau, second violin, Alain Meunier, cello, and Franco Petracchi, double bass is as sweet, melodious, refined, exacting, and flexible as a listener will find anywhere. This is virtuosic playing that is completely at the service of the music: graceful, lilting, and lyrical, yet jaunty and lively when necessary. I have heard the Sonatas played by a number of different performers and groups over the years, but none surpass Accardo and his colleagues.

To remaster this 1978 Philips recording, FIM used their newest replication format, a process they call UltraHD. According to them, "Ultra High Definition 32-bit mastering is a proprietary ultra-high quality mastering system, jointly developed by two companies: Five Four Productions and First Impression Music. With this leading-edge system, our aspiration is to achieve unprecedented sonority and musicality reproducing as closely as possible the sound of the original master tape."

By the sound of this disc, I'd say they succeeded beyond expectation. The sonics are ultra smooth, with no sign of strain, edge, or harshness.  Imaging across the soundstage is excellent, with enough air around the instruments to feel their placement with precision. Dynamic contrasts sound taut yet subtle, and typical of Philips the acoustic is warmly rich and lightly resonant. It's one of the most-agreeable listening experiences a person could imagine.

FIM's packaging continues to impress me as well. They use a hardbound album approach, opening like a book, with about thirty pages of information inside, followed by a fastened black-paper sleeve into which fits a static-free inner envelope holding the disc. Moreover, the glossy hardcover front and back are beautifully illustrated. It's a class act all the way around, but I would caution it's one for which the buyer will pay a deserved premium price.


Dec 5, 2011

Vivaldi: Il Progetto Vivaldi 2 (CD review)

Cello concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. Also, cello works by Leonardo Leo and Giovanni Platti. Sol Gabetta, cello; Cappella Gabetta. Sony Classical 88697932302.

After the success of her first album of Vivaldi cello concertos in 2007, Argentinian-born cellist Sol Gabetta here provides a follow-up collection of cello works by Vivaldi and others, which she calls Il Progetto Vivaldi 2 ("The Vivaldi Project 2"). Considering that Vivaldi wrote some thirty cello concertos and a multitude of cello sonatas, if Ms. Gabetta plans to make the project complete she may be a hundred years old by the time she's finished. In any case, she's a fine cellist, and for anyone interested in Baroque music, her present album of Baroque music by Italian composers makes pleasurable listening.

By way of introduction, Ms. Gabetta, born in 1981, studied piano and cello in Buenos Aires, won her first cello competition at the age of twelve, moved to Spain, then France, and currently lives and teaches in Switzerland. She has won numerous awards over the years, founded a chamber-music festival, recorded eight albums, formed her own ensemble--Cappella Gabetta--and worked with many of the world's leading orchestras and conductors. Not bad for a woman as young as she is.

The program begins with three cello concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), RV 423, 416, and 420, in each of which she is supported by the Cappella Gabetta, a thirteen-member group headed by Ms. Gabetta's brother on first violin. Ms. Gabetta plays a 1759 G. B. Guadagnini cello, by the way, and adheres as closely as possible to period-instrument practices, so be prepared for some interesting Vivaldi. To say she performs with vigor and enthusiasm would be an understatement, dexterous in her approach yet powerful when necessary. While the outer movements show plenty of life and move along at an uncommonly brisk pace, they are lyrical as well. The slow movements are often just as virtuosic for their sweet emotional appeal.

Next comes Vivaldi's Cello Sonata in G minor, RV 42, a surprisingly moving piece of music, a booklet note suggesting relationships between it and Bach's second cello suite. One can certainly see similarities, although if anything, under Ms. Gabetta's guidance the Vivaldi piece has a more plaintive, mournful feeling to it, at least until the closing movement.

Next up is the Cello Concerto in D major by Leonardo Leo (1694-1744). Leo was the headmaster and director of music at a school in Naples, and he produced over 500 composition, most of them today pretty obscure. The D Major Concerto is in five movements, with a beautiful, songlike Larghetto at its center, and Ms. Gabetta is not shy about exploiting its belle canto elements.

The final work Ms. Gabetta and her ensemble play is the Cello Concerto in D minor by Giovanni Benedetto Platti (1697?-1763). If you've never heard of Platti, join the club. Ms. Gabetta gives the work a première recording. Even though it may not seem like anything special, it is quite appealing, and under Ms. Gabetta's direction its slow movement has a particularly lilting, haunting quality. It's worth a listen.

Sony recorded Ms. Gabetta and her group to good effect at Salle de musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland in January of 2011. The cello itself is pleasingly warm, rich, and resonant, with a realistic string tone and a strong, immediate impact. The ensemble around her sometimes appears a tad bunched up, without a lot of space around the instruments, but they sound clear and smooth, which is the main thing, and stereo depth and breadth are more than adequate.


Dec 2, 2011

Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (SACD review)

Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra. LSO Live SACD LS00689.

During the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, an era I like to think of as a golden age of hi-fi and music before the advent of computers, home theaters, iPods, iPads, and earbuds, each of the major record labels had its own stars: DG had Herbert von Karajan, Decca had Sir Georg Solti, EMI had Otto Klemperer and later Andre Previn, and Philips had Bernard Haitink. Haitink's Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra remain among my favorites, not only because of the wonderful sound Philips provided but because Haitink's interpretations wear so well. He has always let the music speak for itself, without, for instance, the Karajan glamor or the Solti theatrics. It was a pleasure to listen to his Philips Concertgebouw recording of An Alpine Symphony a while back, re-released by Newton Classics. Now comes this newer recording of the Alpine with the London Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra's own "LSO Live" label.

It wasn't long after German conductor and composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) premiered his Alpine Symphony in 1915 that critics began reproaching it as frivolous cotton-candy: picture-postcard music unworthy of the great man's talents. That always seemed an unfair assessment. It seemed that people couldn't help comparing the newer work to Strauss's previous tone poems like Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which combined a degree of philosophical insight with their purely pictorial portraits. These critics felt the Alpine Symphony didn't live up to the other works because it merely told a story. I wonder if they thought of lodging the same complaint against Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

Interestingly, An Alpine Symphony started out as something else entirely and sort of evolved into what it finally became. Early on, Strauss wrote "I will call my Alpine Symphony the Antichrist, because in it there is moral purification by means of one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of glorious, eternal nature." Later, he said it was simply the musical reflection of a childhood mountain-climbing expedition. Whatever, whether you consider the Alpine Symphony in a literal or metaphorical sense is beside the point; just enjoying it is the goal. It wasn't until the latter part of the twentieth century that the Alpine Symphony got its proper due as more conductors took up the baton in its defense, and today we take the work for granted a basic-repertoire item.

Of course, the Alpine Symphony is not really a symphony at all, at least not a symphony in the conventional sense. It's a series of twenty-two interconnected passages, or movements, that tell the story of an alpine climb, with chapter titles conveying the composer's intentions, things like "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss describes each of these events in music, and although there may be a few too many climaxes along the way, it is all quite graphic and imposing. Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, over 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, elaborate, often majestic, and not a little bombastic.

Haitink's interpretation has not changed all that much since his 1985 recording. It still has weight, authority, and grandeur, yet this time, if anything, he adds more contemplation and continuity. He makes it more than just pictorial, never glamorizing the work or sentimentalizing it. Haitink again plays the score straightforwardly and lets the music take care of itself. Moreover, the conductor never approaches the work as a series of disconnected scenes but as a unified, structural whole. As a result, he brings each scene vividly to life and allows the music to shine majestically. This is another excellent performance of a sometimes underestimated work.

More specifically, Haitink starts with a very atmospheric opening and builds it to a resplendent "Sunrise." As usual with Haitink, there is no sensationalizing of the music, the conductor presenting it in a thoughtful, yet dramatic, fashion. Nevertheless, as the program unfolded, I found myself beginning to wish Haitink was emphasizing the contrasts a bit more because after about ten or fifteen minutes I thought it was beginning to sound a little static. I was wrong. As the work progresses, the performance rather grows on you in its unpretentious, unassuming, contemplative way. By the time it's finished, you realize this has been a more cerebral interpretation than most, and one that, like most of Haitink's work, should wear well over time.

Would I prefer listening to this new Haitink recording over any of my other favorites? No, I'd not prefer it, but I'd set it alongside the likes of Kempe (EMI), Previn (Telarc), Blomstedt (Decca), Thielemann (DG), or Haitink (Philips or Newton Classics) himself.

Recorded live in concert at the Barbican, London, in June of 2008, the SACD includes a two-channel stereo track and a 5.1 multichannel mix. In the stereo mode that I played back on a Sony SACD machine, the sound was quite pleasing, big and full, if slightly one-dimensional. I'm sure the surround version, had I been able to hear it, would have improved this condition, but my main listening system is two-channel only. In any case, a wide left-to-right stereo spread, good dynamics, and a strong impact help to make up for any minor lack of depth. The overall sonic impression is one of extreme smoothness, sometimes a little soft perhaps but very easy on the ear, a big sound picture to match the big musical picture Strauss paints.

Even though the miking doesn't appear to be excessively close, there is practically no noise from the audience, no coughing, wheezing, or shuffling of feet. Just as important, the recording engineers wisely chose to forgo any final applause, which would have marred the orchestra's final quiet notes fading into nightfall.


Dec 1, 2011

Film Spectacular! Volume II (XRCD24 review)

Stanley Black, the London Festival Orchestra. FIM XR24 070.

If you're of a certain age, you may remember the big to-do caused when Decca released its first "Phase 4" recordings during the early years of stereo in the late 1950's. While competitors RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence were miking their projects as simply as possible, usually using three-mike arrangements that still sound more realistic than anything made today, Decca decided to hang literally dozens of microphones all over the place, practically a mike for every instrument of an orchestra, and then mix them all down to two channels. The resultant sound was nothing like a person would hear in a concert hall, but it sure could impress the ear with its clinical accuracy.

I mention all this because the folks at First Impression Music have remastered one of these stereo extravaganzas, Film Spectacular! Volume II from 1963, using the state-of-the-art audiophile XRCD process pioneered by JVC. Although the new record is just as unrealistic in its presentation, it is even more stunning in its precision, focus, and dynamics than I recalled from the old days. However, according to FIM's producer, Winston Ma, in a refreshingly candid booklet note, it took a little cleaning up to get it to sound the way Winston remembered it. Let me quote what he has to say about the first time he listened to the original master tape Decca sent him: "...the sound was just awful!  What we heard were two concentrated beams of sound energy directed from the centers of the cone drivers of the two speakers. There was nothing in the center fill or ambiance spread of the soundstage. The strings were a cluster of razors and the brass ear-piercing." Apparently, the Decca audio engineers back then had mixed down forty-eight channels to two and then brightened it all up to sound good on early, non-audiophile speakers. But with the help of engineer Paul Stubblebine, Winston used an electronic converter to fill in the center, re-record it, and then fine-tune the sound to modern standards.

To say they succeeded in their efforts would be an understatement. Even though the miking highlights every instrument and the overall sound picture is a bit forward for my taste, one cannot deny that there are few other recordings that match this one for absolute clarity. Forget a realistic setting or a natural tonal balance or anything like a normal stereo spread; this thing puts every instrument front and center in a kind of reach-out-and-touch-it approach. Absolute music purists may not like it, but anyone with a good stereo system will have a ball with it.

Like the album's sound, the contents are a tad iffy, too. Stanley Black plays eight selections of Academy Award-winning music in what may often seem overly romanticized, overly sentimental arrangements that take some of the bite out of the tunes. The main theme from Gone With the Wind and selections from My Fair Lady, for example, suffer the most, using a humming chorus almost too corny for any modern conductor to consider. But Lawrence of Arabia comes up pretty well and The Magnificent Seven is downright...magnificent. Indeed, The Magnificent Seven makes excellent demo material for anyone wanting to show off an audio system. Other tracks include On the Waterfront, Spellbound, Anthony & Cleopatra, and the drippy A Summer Place.

As always, the XRCD processing is impeccable, ensuring a clean, wide frequency and dynamic ranges; and the elaborate packaging in a clothbound case, with plastic booklet pages, and a static-free inner sleeve are attractive. In fairness, though, I prefer a simple Digipak; the business of the inner sleeve is tedious to deal with, and there is always the possibility of getting fingerprints on the disc trying to remove it from and replace it in its liner. In any case, remember that you pay a premium price for such luxuries, and the folks at FIM don't mean their discs for everyone.


Nov 29, 2011

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 (SACD review)

Jan Willem de Vriend, The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Challenge Classics SACD CC72500.

Although we get quite a few recordings of the Beethoven Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, often coupled together, we don't get too many recorded in SACD multichannel stereo. Therefore, for fans of the SACD medium, as well as for fans of Beethoven, we can welcome this Challenge Classics disc with the Netherland Symphony Orchestra.

Interestingly, it was just a few years ago that we got the same coupling from conductor Bertrand de Billy and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra on an OehmsClassics SACD. Maybe that SACD recording succeeded well enough to prompt this one, I don't know.

In any case, the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra uses select period instruments, and Jan Willem de Vriend, its chief conductor since 2006, follows period-music practices to help make eighteenth and nineteenth-century works seem as close as possible to how they may have originally sounded. The results are not quite like those of a full-on period-instruments ensemble, but they're close enough.

Things begin with the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, which Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote in 1812 and has since become one of his most-popular pieces. De Vriend opens the symphony with as vigorous and dashing a delivery as anybody could want, with kudos here to the percussion section who hammer this one home in high style. In the ensuing Allegretto, interpreted either as a funeral march or a procession through the catacombs, the conductor again provides a highly rhythmic beat, moving a little faster than we may be accustomed to hearing and emphasizing the dynamic contrasts more than ever. It makes an imposing statement.

In the Presto, De Vriend is again fleet-footed, apparently taking Beethoven's tempo markings at face value and working up a healthy head of steam. The final movement is justifiably one of the great triumphs of jubilant merrymaking in music, and De Vriend produces a considerable amount of ebullient energy. This Seventh is among the finest I've heard in some time, and while it breaks no new ground, it surely conjures up wonderfully high spirits.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, in the summer of 1812, finishing it just shortly after he completed the Symphony No. 7. You'd think by its cheerful tone that the composer was in the best, happiest years of his life when he wrote this pair of symphonies when, in fact, both physical and emotional strains were troubling him. Whatever, the Eighth has always taken something of a backseat to the two great symphonies that sandwich it front and back. Still, it's remarkably bubbly and exuberant.

Under De Vriend, the Eighth is amiable and festive, its forward thrust always pointed and right, its mood always buoyant, if not always as sweet as it might be. The second-movement ticking of the metronome (legend has it that Beethoven was paying tribute here to the inventor of the instrument) moving at a brisk but somewhat perfunctory gait. The third movement is appropriately stately and the finale joyous. Nevertheless, this performance of the Eighth seems more like one to admire rather than to love.

In terms of sound, the Challenge Classics engineers recorded the performances at Muziekcentrum Enschede, Netherlands, in 2008 (No. 8) and 2010 (No. 7). In both works, the company provide nicely balanced SACD sonics, which the listener may play either in two-channel stereo as I did or in multichannel if you have the appropriate playback equipment. In two-channel stereo, the sound is excellent: vibrant, detailed, and dynamic. The stereo spread is quite wide, and the sonics make a strong impact, with decent bass, extended highs, and a clean midrange. Moreover, a sense of stage depth adds to the realism. The sound may be big, yet it's not overwhelming; it's just the right size and breadth to allow listeners to feel as though they are at the performance. A good separation of instruments without sounding compartmentalized, a feeling of air, and a mild hall resonance continue the illusion.


Nov 28, 2011

Liszt: My Piano Hero (CD review)

Piano Concerto No. 1; various solo pieces. Lang Lang, piano; Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88697891402 (with bonus DVD).

In the past twenty-odd years Chinese pianist Lang Lang has become something of a phenomenon, an international superstar beloved of millions of classical and nonclassical fans alike. In the booklet note to the 2011 album reviewed here, Liszt: My Piano Hero, he says his greatest inspiration as a pianist was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Lang goes on to say, "Liszt is my hero! He changed classical music completely. As a performer he revolutionised piano playing, and as a composer he opened the door to modern music. As a teacher he was influential well into the 20th century, because many great artists were pupils of his pupils, or their pupils in a third generation." Fair enough, and Lang proves his admiration for the composer by devoting the album to an almost all-Liszt program of solo and concerto works.

The disc begins with a series of short solo numbers by the subject of the album, Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Lang Lang alternates slow and fast pieces, soft and loud, playing them delicately, brilliantly, or showily as the occasion dictates, with all the passion and feeling we figure on from him, though never overdone. The opening Romance in E minor, for instance, is sweetly evocative. La Campanella in G-sharp minor is sprightly and strong. The Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major is aptly melancholy and moody. Then the Grand Galop chromatique in E-flat major does just that: gallop across the sound stage in high spirits.

And so it goes, with the celebrated Lieberstraum No. 3 in A-flat major as dreamy as ever and Lang adding just the right amount of gravity and weight to it to make it seem more than just light filler. After a couple of rousing Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano (Nos. 6 and 15), Lang briefly forsakes Liszt for Schubert (Ave Maria) and returns for Liszt's piano transcription of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

The CD ends with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, which under Lang is every bit as heroic and triumphant as we expect it to be. Here, we find Lang Lang supported by Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world's genuinely great orchestras. The result is taut and romantic, with perfectly judged tempos and emotionally charged phrases. It's a moving, stirring, engaging interpretation, including a wonderfully lyrical and flowing central movement and a chipper finale.

So how does the relatively young (as of this writing, he had not yet turned thirty) Lang Lang stack up against some of his more-illustrious older colleagues: Argerich, Ashkenazy, Brendel, Kovacevich, Pollini, and the like (or even those closer to his age like Kissin, Grimaud, Pletnev, and the rest)? Well, Lang is surely more flamboyant than most, even in so toned down an album as this one of Liszt. It remains for us to see how well Lang's rock-star celebrity status will hold up in the long run, say in another thirty years.

Anyway, in addition to the compact disc, the Digipak set includes a bonus DVD titled A Day with My Piano Hero, about eleven-and-a-half minutes, which follows the pianist as he practices, plays, and fusses about the album he's making. This one is for dedicated Lang Lang fans only.

The sound of the piano solos, recorded in April, 2011, at Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, is excellent, the piano appearing firm and glowing yet with good detail, clarity, and impact. It's an exceptionally realistic recording, miked at a moderate distance that doesn't stretch the instrument across one's listening area, while easily filling the room with a pleasantly ambient acoustic. Note, however, that because the music displays a wide dynamic range, you may find yourself having to readjust the volume on occasion. It's a small price to pay for the realism of the presentation.

Sony recorded the Piano Concerto in concert in June, 2011, at the Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, and here things are not quite as good as the studio solos. In order to minimize audience noise, the audio engineers recorded the Concerto rather closely, so the whole thing is kind of in our lap. Still, the miking provides a clean, fairly transparent sound without being hard, bright, or edgy. The sonics do, however, seem somewhat constricted in climaxes, the dynamics not expanding as we might hope. Nor are the frequency extremes, bass and treble, as extended as they might have been. Thankfully, the folks at Sony did not include any distracting audience noise or any final applause.


Nov 25, 2011

The Golden Age of Hollywood (CD review)

Here Come the Classics, Volume Seventeen. Roderick Elms, piano; Jose Serebrier, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RPO 017 CD.

I didn't know this: The Royal Philharmonic's own RPO label has a series it's doing called "Here Come the Classics," and they're up to number seventeen, the current volume called "The Golden Age of Hollywood" and devoted, obviously, to the musical scores of classic movies. Conductor Jose Serebrier seems to be having a grand old time with the music, too, treating it as seriously as if it were Beethoven or Stravinsky and providing it with all the color and pizzazz it needs.

The album contains fifteen tracks covering excerpts or suites from eleven films, all of them done up in fine fashion. As for the music, take your pick of favorite scores; here are a few of mine, starting with a nine-minute highlights suite from Max Steiner's Casablanca, with an emphasis on a piano fantasia based on "As Time Goes By," with pianist Roderick Elms.

Another favorite of mine is a four-movement suite from Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho. The disc provides four separate tracks for various themes--the Prelude, "The Stairs," "The Murder," and the finish. It all sounds quite effective, with Serebrier maintaining a vivid forward thrust.  Eeek! Eeeek! Eeeeek!

Next, Miklos Rozsa's "Parade of the Charioteers" from Ben-Hur is appropriately gaudy and grand. But probably the most-influential music in the set is Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for the Errol Flynn film The Sea Hawk. The swashbuckling opening theme is so memorable, I doubt that we'd have half the music of John Williams without it.

Then it's on to the movie hardly anyone remembers, Dangerous Moonlight, with the music almost everyone knows, Richard Addinsell's faux-romantic "Warsaw Concerto." Pianist Elms and Maestro Serebrier play it as though Liszt or Rachmaninov had written it, and again it impresses one with its melodic invention.

The program ends with "Tara's Theme" from Max Steiner's score for Gone with the Wind and then Elmer Bernstein's Overture for The Magnificent Seven. In between these items, you'll also hear music from The Big Country, Spellbound, The Guns of Navarone, and Taxi Driver. Serebrier may be aging but he hasn't slowed down, his interpretations as vigorous as the movies' original soundtracks.

The sound, recorded at Waterford Colosseum, London, in 2005 is very big and very wide to match the scope of the movies involved. There's a solid bottom end, if not too deep or strong; a slightly thick upper bass; a smooth midrange; and an extended if somewhat tizzy high end. The latter trait is an odd distraction in an otherwise fine sonic picture, and it left my ears ringing a little by the end of my listening session. The acoustic offers a reasonable sense of depth for the orchestra and a wide dynamic range, too, making a respectable showing on the audio side if you tone down the treble a bit. The catch came when I compared the RPO sound to a similarly themed album I had on hand, Film Spectacular! Vol. 2, a Decca Phase-4 recording from 1963. The older recording, although done up in a much more-expensive remastering from FIM, sounded clearer, cleaner, more dimensional, more dynamic, you name it. And it didn't leave my ears ringing. Maybe if you want the best, you pay for it.

Finally, the RPO disc boasts a terrific set of booklet notes on each of the films and composers represented, which alone may be worth the price of the album.


Nov 23, 2011

Bach & Sons: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Music of Johann Sebastian, Carl Philippe Emanuel, and Johann Christian Bach. Sebastian Knauer, piano; Sir Roger Norrington, Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Berlin Classics 0300270BC.

The concept behind the album Bach & Sons is to present similar music from two generations of Bachs, Johann Sebastian the father and Carl Philippe Emanuel and Johann Christian, two of his sons. The idea is not only to entertain with wonderful music but to point up the differences in musical styles from the late Baroque to early Classical periods. German pianist Sebastian Knauer, English conductor Sir Roger Norrington, and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra are more than happy to demonstrate these musical changes in four works by the family of composers. It doesn't hurt, either, that the disc shows off Maestro Norrington's credentials as the new principal conductor of the Zurich ensemble, bringing with him a firm grasp of period style and performance.

The program starts with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a work that began life as a violin concerto, which Bach then turned into a harpsichord concerto, and which Knauer here plays on piano. Knauer and Norringotn are clearly of a single mind about the interpretation, producing a recording of great vitality and increasing joy.  Knauer's virtuosity is always on display (did Bach himself play as well, one wonders), yet it never overpowers the music.

Next up comes the Piano Concerto in E major, Wq. 14 (1744), a work by Carl Philippe Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), J.S.'s son. A generation had passed and we see the music has grown and matured considerably, specifically in the use of a slightly larger ensemble, more dynamic contrasts, and more-sophisticated phrasing. C.P.E. Bach's piece simply sounds more modern, the piano exhibiting greater subtlety in its solo passages, and the whole work evoking a smoother, more harmonic tone than that of the father.

Then, perhaps to point up these differences further, Knauer and company go back to Bach the elder for J.S.'s Piano Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1053. This time Bach reused one of his organ concertos to remodel into the harpsichord concerto we get here on the piano. Of course, Bach added a good deal more elaboration to the solo piano part, which Knauer seems pleased to demonstrate.

The program concludes with the Piano Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 7, No. 5 (1770) by the youngest Bach son, Johann Christian (1735-1782). Here we find a greater rapport between soloist and orchestra and fewer interludes between solo and orchestral parts than in the back-and-forth arrangements we hear from the father. There is also a greater dependence on thematic development within each movement, so with J.C. we're moving closer to Haydn and Mozart territory. Again, Knauer and Norrington show their affinity for the music and the style and offer up a silky smooth yet sparkling reading, the final movement particularly intoxicating.

Recorded in 2011 in Zurich, ZKO-Haus, the sound is clean and well balanced, with the piano up front and personal. The relatively small group of players appears not too widely spread out behind the soloist, so it's not an especially spectacular recording, just a fairly natural one. Clarity is fine and definition solid, an appropriately proportioned resonance giving the music a lifelike feeling. It's all quite beautiful, actually, the recording and the music.

That's one grim-looking picture of Mr. Knauer on the cover, though.


Nov 22, 2011

Dvorak: Tone Poems (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 58019-2 (2-disc set).

There hasn't been a really good set in quite some time of Dvorak's four tone poems of 1896. The best ones appeared ages ago from Kertesz and the LSO (Decca), Kubelik the Bavarian RSO (DG), and Harnoncout and the Concertgebouw O. (Warner Classics). So it's good to have so refined and polished as set as this one from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic from 2005.

The tone poems I'm referring to are The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wood Dove, The Noonday Witch, and The Water Goblin. Dvorak wrote them toward the end of his career, after he'd made his mark with the nine symphonies and the Cello Concerto and what have you. He wanted to do something uniquely Czech, returning to Prague to compose these orchestral ballads based on folk songs collected by Prague archivist Karel Jaromir Erben. They are typical folk stories, very lurid and grisly as so many folk stories are. They mostly have to do with monsters eating people--young heroines and children--or in the case of The Wood Dove, a bird driving a woman to suicide. Yes, they're rather merciless, but think even of a child's fairy tale like "Hansel and Gretel" and you get the idea. No need for political correctness here nor any apologies.

Rattle and his players handle the pieces in exemplary fashion, with plenty of color and atmosphere. If anything, though, his treatments may be a too sophisticated, too cultured, to capture fully the horrifying aspects of these tales. A quick listen to Kertesz, for example, reveals interpretations less subtle, less delicate, but more boisterous and more robust. This is to take nothing away from Rattle; his just seems to take a more urbane approach to such folky tunes.

The real advantage of the new EMI set is the sound. What a pleasure it is to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic without an audience coughing, wheezing, and shuffling in the background. For most of the tenures of Claudio Abbado and Rattle they and their record companies have insisted upon recording almost everything with the BPO live, perhaps providing more spontaneous performances but compromising the sound. This time out, the orchestra was less distant and a whole lot fuller sounding. By comparison, the old Kertesz-Decca recordings, while still good, are brighter, harder, and more forward, with less mid bass response. The Rattle-EMI recordings are smoother overall, perhaps a touch too soft, and much better balanced tonally, with a sturdy if sometimes overly prominent mid bass.

The only serious complaint I would make is that the two discs in the Rattle set contain a total of about eighty-three minutes of music: forty-eight minutes on disc one and about thirty-five minutes on disc two. It is short measure, hardly more than one finds on a single disc these days.  Oh, well....


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa