Aug 30, 2011

Smetana: Ma Vlast (CD review)

Also, Dvorak: In Nature's Realm. Antal Dorati, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802073 (2-disc set).

Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), an intense nationalist, wrote the six symphonic poems known collectively as Ma Vlast (My Country or My Fatherland) between 1874 and 1879, ironically, following his having a nervous breakdown and going deaf. He dedicated the cycle of works to the city of Prague, the first two movements dealing with the sights and sounds of the city.

With Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Newton Classics' current reissued Philips recording, we get spirited, red-blooded accounts of all six episodes of the score, with plenty of color and characterization. The performances perhaps lack something of the subtlety and stylishness of several rival versions, like those from Neumann (Berlin Classics), Kubelik (Supraphon), Berglund (EMI), Pesek (Virgin), and Wit (Naxos), but Dorati's energy, vivaciousness, animation, and warmth more than make up for any minor concerns.

The cycle begins with Vysehrad (1874), named after the venerable castle of Bohemian kings in Prague. Under Dorati, the music sounds beautifully smooth, lyrical, and Romantic yet well sprung, too, with finely articulated tensions and releases. Dorati perfectly judges the tempos throughout this segment, even if they are a tad faster than we usually hear. Still, the conductor works up a passionate response in the process.

Next up we hear Vltava (1874), which describes the river called in German the Moldau, and uses an old Czech folk tune as its principal theme. Smetana's original program notes tell us that the music traces the countryside the river runs through: meadows, forests, even conjuring up water nymphs along the way. This is the most-famous section of the work, and conductors often play it by itself; thus, you'll find quite a few more separate recordings of Vltava (or The Moldau) than of the complete Ma Vlast, my own favorite Moldau being one recorded long ago by Leopold Stokowski, available in an RCA collection of rhapsodies. In any case, here Dorati again seems brisker than other conductors, yet his timing is actually slower than four other recordings I had on hand for comparison. It's a trick Dorati employs, seeming to be quickening the tempo when he is really slowing it.

After that we get Sarka (1875), which refers to a female warrior in Czech legend who exacts a bloody revenge on the male sex. This portion of Ma Vlast ties in with the final two sections in describing Bohemia's fierce struggle for independence. Dorati succeeds in capturing its excitement and mystery.

From Bohemia's Woods and Fields (1875) is pretty much self-explanatory. In this segment we're back to the pastoral pleasures of the countryside. Dorati is properly lilting and melodic, the music's lively ebbs and flows harking back to the conductor's handling of the Vltava section.

The second disc opens with the two concluding symphonic poems: Tabor (1878), which introduces us to a Hussite war tune (the Hussites were followers of John Huss, who initiated a nationalistic movement in Bohemia in the late fourteenth century); and Blanik (1879), the mountain where the Hussites retreated before their ultimate fight for liberation. I always think of these final portions of the cycle as the battle sequences. Like other people, I'm sure, though, I have never found these pieces as satisfying as Smetana's preceding music; it's a little long and more than a little repetitious. Nevertheless, Dorati plays up the drama for all it's worth and makes one sit up and take notice as much as or more than other interpreters have done. Perhaps only in the concluding section, Blanik, does Dorati seem a touch hesitant or tardy, but without a direct comparison to other recordings, he seems right on. Besides which, the more relaxed pace lends a greater weight and dignity to the final chapter.

The companion filler piece, the symphonic poem In Nature's Realm by Smetana's countryman, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), makes an appropriate choice. Dvorak wrote it as the first in a trio of independent overtures connected by a related musical theme. Dvorak's idea was to show Man in the face of Nature and how nature can affect one in a positive way if we let it into our lives. Dorati conducts it delicately yet powerfully and allows us to take pleasure in the music's sweet harmonies.

Originally recorded by Philips in 1986 and issued by them on a single CD, the 2011 reissued Newton Classics edition spreads Ma Vlast over two discs to good effect. As we might expect from a Philips recording of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, it's quite realistic, capturing the spacious hall acoustic without sacrificing too much detail or definition. The sound is wide, deep, and expansive, with fine dynamics, adequate bass and highs, and a midrange well balanced with the extremes. While the sound is not completely transparent, with a slightly reverberant overall effect, it is quite natural and welcome.


Aug 29, 2011

Stravinsky: L'Histoire du Soldat (HQCD review)

Also, Respighi: Rossiniana. Robert Mandell, Ars Nova (Stravinsky); Robert Zeller, Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Respighi). HDTT.

First, a word: If you are a music listener who appreciates the sound of a recording as well as the performance, or if you are an audiophile who appreciates the sound above all, you might want to audition this disc. Indeed, if you are an audiophile by virtue of the megabucks you've spent on your playback system, you'll need to get this disc, if you don't already own it. Not to have it in your collection is reason enough to turn in your audiophile badge and go back to music listening on earbuds. Sonically, this is one of the handful of best recordings I've ever heard on CD. More on the sound in a moment.

Let's talk music.  Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote the music for C.F. Ramuz's parable L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) in 1918. The composer meant for the theatrical work "to be read, played or danced" by a small company of performers, but it actually works best as conductor Robert Mandell and the Ars Nova ensemble play it, instrumentally without dance or dialogue. The story it tells concerns a soldier trading his fiddle to the devil for a book that can predict the future and provide him his fortune. If you know the Faust legends, you can guess where that gets him.

Stravinsky scored the work for seven players, and here the Ars Nova septet features Stanley Drucker, clarinet; Cyrus Degal, bassoon; David Jandorf, trumpet; James Thompson, trombone; Morris Lanz, percussion; Herbert Sorkin, violin; and Reuben James, double bass. The music itself is more than a tad on the jazzy, raucous, Raggedy Annie side, typical of so many "modern" compositions of the early twentieth century. However, there is an infectious forward pulse to the music and some scintillating rhythms that the Ars Nova group are quick to exploit with their own slightly raucous, Raggedy Annie jazz style.

In addition to the Stravinsky piece, which lasts a little under half an hour, we get Rossiniana by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). As the title suggests, Rossiniana is an orchestral adaptation of works by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Respighi basing his four-movement suite on a number of fairly obscure Rossini piano pieces. The lushly Romantic compilation for orchestra is in stark contrast to the jazzy, small-scale Stravinsky piece. Although Rossiniana is not great music, and despite its being occasionally dark and somber, it can also be quite radiant and easy to digest; and with Robert Zeller and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the performance sounds smoothly polished and richly rendered.

Now, about the sound, particularly in L'Histoire du Soldat. When you listen to music recorded as well as this is, you probably don't figure its engineers recorded it over half a century ago. But HDTT transferred the music to HQCD from a 2-track Westminster Sonotape originally made in 1956. Yes, 1956. It makes a person wonder if there have been any significant advances in sound reproduction in the last fifty years, digital 5.1 this or lossless 7.1 that notwithstanding. But back in 1956 the home-stereo industry was in its infancy, and audio engineers were doing their best to capture everything the new medium had to offer. As things went on, record companies would begin cutting corners, using far more microphones, limiting the dynamic range and frequency extremes, and editing the final sound of their recordings after the fact on mixing consoles. What a joy to go back to a sound that actually approximates a live occasion in every way.

What we get in the Stravinsky piece is excellent in every way, particularly in the localization of instruments. Is it fair, though, to compare a recording of only seven instruments to one of a complete orchestra? Maybe not, but that doesn't discount the fact that the recording provides a reach-out-and-touch-it realism that is hard to resist. Every instrument is well defined, the highs extended, the bass going through the floor, the midrange as revealing as possible, with no sign of edge, distortion, or strain anywhere. However, it's the transient response that handily wins the day, and if your speakers can reproduce the notes without too much overhang, you'll hear some of the most crisply articulated sound from any disc around. All the instruments have such a sense of lifelike accuracy about them, you'll be hard pressed to tell them from the real thing. The violin tone, the trumpet, and the percussion are especially thrilling.

The Respighi/Rossini music, recorded in 1964 and transferred to disc from a Westminster 4-track tape, is likewise good, the orchestral sound refined and expansive, among the best of its kind, if not quite so drop-dead gorgeous as the Stravinsky. Defects or drawbacks in either transfer? One might notice an occasional small pop here or there and a touch of momentary pre-echo, yet they are so minor as to be practically inconsequential. The Stravinsky and the Respighi tracks reflect audio quality of the highest order, a disc for all seasons...or all listeners as the case may be.

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


Aug 26, 2011

Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

Choir of New College Oxford; Edward Higginbottom, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Novum NCR1383.

The key word here is "authentic."  As the program notes are quick to point out, this recording of Mozart's Requiem is unique in several ways: It uses "soloists drawn from the chorus, as in Mozart's day, including young male singers for the soprano and alto solos" (the New College Choir made up of youngsters twelve to twenty-two), and it uses a period ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The result is a performance on the scale of those in Mozart's day. Although, of course, Mozart would never have heard his own Requiem, given that he left it uncompleted at his death. The version we get here is the customary one completed by Franz Xavier Sussmayr, Mozart's assistant and copyist.

Despite the use of period instruments and the determination of correct size and makeup of the choir and ensemble, Maestro Edward Higginbottom's new realization of the Requiem may or may not be entirely "authentic," since no one can go back through the centuries to hear what the earliest performances sounded like. In the instance of Higginbottom, his performance may follow all the earmarks of authentic performance practice, phrasing and tuning, but that doesn't mean that traditionalists should dismiss it. Overall, I like this new interpretation very much.

It is in the beginning of the piece, the Introitus, that Higginbottom seems most conventional and respectful. In effect, he doesn't tip his hand to the excitement to come until the succeeding segments.

Then, in the Squenz, the Dies irae is properly fiery, powerful, and wrathful, a foreshadowing of more good things to follow. Then, in the Tuba mirum, Recordare, and later Benedictus sections, where we hear the solo quartet of voices sung by children in the soprano and alto parts, the performance becomes particularly effective, the young male voices, crisply articulated, quite affecting in their innocence. Here, Higginbottom moves along a little more briskly than many other conductors in the work. Indeed, as the performance proceeds, it actually appears to pick up energy and distinguish itself from its seemingly more timid rivals.

The Offertorium movements are spirited yet always gracious and graceful, the conductor and his forces doing their utmost to present the music in a new light. Still, new light or no, the music seems fresher and more illuminating than ever. It's a revelatory new version of an old warhorse. Although it may not tickle the fancy of every Mozart fan the way it did me, I look forward to hearing it many times over.

Novum recorded the music at the Church of St. Michel and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, England, in July of 2010. It exhibits a good sense of depth in instrumentation and voices, with a reasonably well balanced response. While there is a slightly forward quality to the upper midrange that makes voices a little brighter than I'd like, it is hardly a concern, and it may, in fact, help to clarify the vocals. All around, the sound is clear and clean, with enough ambient hall bloom to ensure realism and an appropriate perception of acoustic space.

As a footnote, I should add that Higgenbottom's extensive booklet notes on the composition of the Requiem make a fascinating and enlightening read. If you buy the disc, don't miss them. I even like the cover design.


Aug 25, 2011

Essential Liszt (CD review)

Various works performed by various artists. EMI 50999 0 27175 2 4 (2-disc set).

The folks at EMI continue their series of compilations with this two-disc set of works by Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). However, you won't find any of Liszt's longer works here, no complete piano concertos or sonatas or Faust or Dante symphonies. Instead, what we get are smaller pieces, tone poems and rhapsodies, and movements from lengthier works. The set's value is twofold: For the novice collector of classical music it provides an introduction to the composer, a place to start; for the experienced collector it provides a way to sample quite a few recordings one might not have heard before and which one might want to explore further. Either way we get high-class performances from big-name artists in typically good EMI sound.

Oddly, EMI say on the cover that the set contains "over 2 hours of Romantic Masterpieces." Actually, there are over two-and-a-half hours of music on the two discs. You'd think they'd want to brag about that a little more.

I won't attempt to cover everything on the two discs since there are twenty-five separate items involved. Instead, I'll just highlight a few of the best or most-important things the discs contain. First up on disc one we get the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C minor, arranged for orchestra by Karl Muller-Berghaus and performed by Willi Boskovsky and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1978. Just in case the listener is somehow unfamiliar with the music, EMI provide a hint in the form of a parenthesis with the name of a famous movie that featured the music, in this case Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Remember the dueling pianos? People may forever remember Boskovsky for his recordings of Johann Strauss, but he was also one of the best conductors in the orchestral arrangements of the Rhapsodies, so I found his interpretation most welcome, an exhilarating way to open the show in excellent, dynamic sound.

Speaking of piano solos, as Liszt was, after all, a pianist and wrote much of his material for himself as soloist. Accordingly, we find here La campanella with Cecile Ousset, piano, from 1985. It's lovely, if a tad distant in sound. Un sospiro with Francois-Rene Duchable, from 1996, is longing and wistful. The Transcendental Etudes No. 5, Feux follets, with Dimitris Sgouros (1985) and No. 4, Mazeppa, with Vladimir Ovchinikov (1989) also sound good; as do about ten minutes from the Piano Sonata in B minor with Cecile Ousset again (1985).

Needless to say, there are a few shorter orchestral works here as well, like Les Preludes played by Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 1983, that closes disc one. Oddly, with movie names everywhere in the booklet, EMI make no mention of Les Preludes featuring prominently in the old Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. Anyway, Muti whips up a storm, although the sound is a bit softer than I'd like.

Disc two begins with the opening movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1 and later we get the closing movements of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Michel Beroff, piano, and Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1980. They are very big and very grand, with a clean, clear, if slightly up-close piano sound and excellent accompaniment from the one of the oldest ensembles in the world. The same team also do the Mephisto Waltz No. 1, recorded in 1981, and the Totentanz or "Dance Macabre," recorded in 1980. The latter is among the best interpretations you'll find anywhere, the Dies Irae variations downright scary.

On disc two you'll also find the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 with Andrea Lucchesini, piano, recorded in 1984, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 with Georges Sziffra, piano, recorded in 1968, Sziffra's rendition one of the best available.

In all, the performances do justice to the music, although in many cases I would have personal favorites beyond the ones included here. You can reference my "Basic Classical Collection on Compact Disc" for further recommendations. Still, you could not really ask for better versions than these in interpretation or sound.


Aug 23, 2011

Faure: Requiem (CD review)

Also, Cantique de Jean Racine; Tu es Petrus; Tantum ergo. Rolf Beck, Schleswig-Holstein Festival Chor Lubek; Ensemble orchestral de Paris. Hanssler Classic CD 98.628.

People probably know the influential French organist, pianist, teacher, and composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) best for his Pavane in F-sharp minor, Op. 50 (1887) for orchestra and optional chorus, and his Requiem, Op. 48 (1887, revised 1893-1900) for choir, soloists, and orchestra. This is not to suggest that his many nocturnes and songs or his orchestral music for Pelléas et Mélisande aren't important or popular; they just tend to take a backseat to the Pavane and Requiem. The present disc gives us yet another performance of the Requiem, along with several other choral numbers.

People have, of course, been writing Requiem Masses--musical services, hymns, or dirges celebrating the repose of souls of the dead--for many years, and they have, understandably, been mostly somber, weighty, solemn affairs. Not so with Faure's version. As Faure himself remarked of it, "It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death, and someone has called it a lullaby of death.  But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. My Requiem was composed...for pleasure." For this reason, Faure's Requiem has become one of the most celebrated settings of the mass, perhaps almost as famous as Mozart's. So we should welcome any new interpretation of the work, like this one from Rolf Beck and his Schleswig-Holstein Festival Choir of Lubek, supported by the Ensemble orchestral de Paris.

After writing the work for chamber orchestra and choir, Faure had second thoughts and revamped it in 1898-1900 for full orchestra and apparently was happy with that arrangement for the rest of his days. So that's the way folks played it until the 1980's, when British composer, conductor, editor, arranger, and all-around musicologist John Rutter found Faure's original manuscript for chamber orchestra, which Beck follows here. It's a little more intimate a setting, and it allows the chorus more room to shine.  (You can find Rutter's own, very fine performance, incidentally, on a Collegium CD.)

Anyway, Beck and his singers and players are serene and tranquil in the opening Intuit et Kyrie, and then they continue the mood with a sweet and leisurely Offertoire. Under Beck, the Sanctus displays a Schubertian grace, followed by soprano soloist Chiyuki Okamura floating her voice above the notes in the Pie Jesus segment. The Agnus Dei is a dramatic high point in the piece; and after that, baritone David Wilson gets his turn in the sun with Libera me. Beck closes the work with an appropriately innocent and heavenly In Paradisum, which may be the best part of the show.

Of the three additional couplings on the disc, the lovely Cantique de Jean Racine stands out. Although Faure wrote it as a student presentation when he was nineteen, there is nothing immature about it at all. The two other, brief sacred pieces, Tu es Petrus and Tantum egro, seem more ordinary by comparison, but Beck's singers perform the Tantum ergo so beautifully, it doesn't matter.

Hanssler Classics recorded the performances live at Christkirche zu Rendsburg (Requiem) and Dom zu Meldorf in July and August of 2010. There is a slight edge on the massed voices, not much, nothing of any real concern. Otherwise, the sound is not quite as lucid as my favorite recording with David Willcocks (EMI), but it's nicely expansive, perhaps owing to the live acoustic. The three accompanying pieces sound a bit bigger and more spacious, with greater depth to the chorus and a fuller bloom on the instrumentation. For that matter, however, nothing about the recordings sound live, and if the back of the jewel box hadn't said so, I wouldn't have guessed. So, despite my general disdain for live recordings, this one at least doesn't call attention to the fact.


Aug 22, 2011

Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (CD review)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Warner Classics 2564 67391-0.

For a lot of classical music fans, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not exactly the first name that would spring to mind when thinking of the music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47). Harnoncourt may seem more entrenched in the Baroque and Classical periods and a little too straightlaced tackling the lighter, Romantic charms of Mendelssohn. Not so, as this 2011 Warner Classics reissue of a 1991 Teldec recording demonstrates. Leading the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Harnoncourt turns in spruce and tidy performances of Mendelssohn's two most-popular symphonies.

The disc begins with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, "Scottish," 1842, the last of five symphonies Mendelssohn wrote, despite the numbering. He called it his "Scottish" symphony because he started writing it over a dozen years earlier after a visit to Scotland. It doesn't actually sound all that Scottish, though; it's more like a brief, musical impression the composer got of the country, an impression he expanded over the years.

Anyway, Harnoncourt takes his time in the first movement, creating tension without hurrying the music. Counting the repeat, this is one of the longer renditions of the opening segment I've heard.  Nevertheless, it's among of the more delightful. Then, in the Scherzo, the conductor zips along quicker than I can remember anyone doing and offers up a zesty bit of highland festivity. In the Adagio, unfortunately, Harnoncourt misses some of the work's radiant beauty, never quite moving one the way several other conductors do. He seems a little too fussy and precise. Happily, he makes up for it with a brilliantly intense finale, where he shows a good deal of passion for the music, closing the show in high style.

Now, here's the "however." While Harnoncourt's performance is genial and efficient, it does not displace my own personal favorites:  Peter Maag (Decca), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Andre Previn (EMI), and Herbert Blomstedt (Decca).

It was in 1831, when Mendelssohn was just twenty-one, that he visited Italy and became so enthusiastic about it he began to compose his Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, "Italian," which he completed several years later. However, he never did get around to publishing his revised version of the score, which didn't see a performance until two years after his death. Yet it comes down to us as one of his most endearing and enduring works.

In the Fourth Symphony Maestro Harnoncourt goes full-bore in the beginning, generating a good deal of excitement, yet with a lovely lilt. The rest of the reading seems a bit more mundane by comparison, yet it remains impressive, especially the Presto conclusion. Still, there's always a "however," and here it's that I don't consider it superior in any way to Otto Klemperer's sunnier, more agreeable realization (EMI) or Abbado's (Decca or DG), Blomstedt's (Decca), Previn's (EMI), Charles Munch's (RCA), George Szell's (Sony), or Giuseppe Sinopoli's (DG).

Teldec recorded the performances in October of 1991 at the eighteenth-century opera house Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, Italy. The recording comes up sounding smooth and well balanced, if not too spectacular in a given department. That is, everything is neatly in its place without being outstanding in any one area. The midrange is fluid but not particularly transparent. The bass is adequate, if a touch thin and not really too deep. The highs are fine but not too sparkling or extended. The dynamic range and transient attack are OK but won't set an audiophile's heart to racing. The overall sonic impression one comes away with is that of pleasant competence at the expense of much daring.


Aug 19, 2011

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Music for strings, percussion and Celesta; Viola Concerto; Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra; Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Katia and Marielle Labeque, pianos; Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra; David Shallon, Symphonie Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. EMI 50999 0 94627 2 4 (2-disc set).

If you are a fan of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and you don't already have the performances in this two-disc EMI set, this might be the easiest and cheapest way to get them. Or, if you are largely unfamiliar with Bartok's work, this might also be the easiest and cheapest way to sample some of his more-popular of pieces. In either case, you'll get fine readings in good sound, a solid bargain all the way around.

The first disc opens with what is probably Bartok's most celebrated music, the Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116, his last completed orchestral work, written just a year before his death. It's a little ironic that after a lifetime of composition, his final piece of music might be his most-lasting contribution to the classical repertoire. Bartok noted in his program for the piece that the "concerto" of the title referred to the work's "tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner." As an overview, the composer suggested the work makes a transition from the stark grimness of the opening movements to the "death song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one."

One could not want a better interpretation of the piece than Sir Simon Rattle's with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's graceful when he needs to be graceful, as in the second movement; he's mysterious when he needs to be, as in the third movement; he's eccentrically romantic when he needs to be, as in the fourth movement; and he's exciting when he needs to be, as in the Finale.

If I still have a preference for Fritz Reiner's performance (RCA) or either of Georg Solti's (Decca), it's not by a wide margin and only because I think RCA and Decca more vividly recorded them. EMI made Rattle's disc live in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England, in 1992, and it sounds a bit too close-up yet soft to my ears. In addition to which we have to live with a final, attention-breaking applause.

The second item on disc one is Bartok's Music for strings, percussion and Celesta, Sz106, from 1936, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. OK, admittedly, this performance doesn't have quite as much fire in its belly as Solti's, but I've always enjoyed it and thought it was by far the best recorded of the bunch. Like most of Bartok's music, this one is also in concertante form, that is, with orchestral support for extended solo parts, although we really don't hear the solo instruments until the second of the four movements. With Ormandy, the emphasis is on the fluidity of the instrumentation and the smoothness and eloquence of the rhythms. He makes what can sometimes be a rather noisy series of unrelated segments into a beautifully unified (and beautifully performed) whole, with an especially zesty final movement. The sound, recorded by EMI at the Old Met, Philadelphia, in 1978, is just as close as it is in the Rattle performance that precedes it, yet it has greater depth and clarity, and it comes without an audience and its attendant applause.

Disc two provides three works. The first is the Viola Concerto, Sz120, with Tabea Zimmermann playing the viola and David Shallon leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Bartok left the work unfinished at his death, and a pupil, Tibor Sirly, completed it. I've never cared much for it, but certainly Zimmermann plays it as well as anybody, and EMI's recording from 1989 is as clear and natural as one could want.

Finally, we get Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion, Sz110, 1937, and the Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, Sz115, 1941, the latter a rewrite of the former with added orchestral accompaniment. In the first two movements, you would probably not even notice the presence or absence of the orchestra, and it's only in the final movement that the orchestra comes into its own in the Concerto. Yet, even here you have to ask yourself if it's necessary. In any case, the playing by the Labeques, with Rattle and the CBSO in the Concerto, and the recording, made in 1985, are all exemplary.


Aug 18, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Sakari Oramo, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 62055-2.

What is with this sudden proliferation of live recordings over the past decade or two? It seems as though every other classical album I audition from a record company was recorded live. Is it just that all the conductors in the world suddenly feel they can only do their best work in long, live takes, their spontaneity only ignited by the presence of a live audience? Or is it a financial thing? Are live recordings so much less expensive to produce than those in studios or empty concert halls that it's all companies can afford to do anymore? Are audiences in effect subsidizing the cost of producing records?

In any case, with Sakari Oramo and his City of Birmingham players doing the Mahler Fifth in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 2004, the sound is typically "live," meaning it has plenty of air but doesn't have the definition or focus one would normally hear in a good studio production. Indeed, here the sound is slightly "off," appearing at times harsh, at times murky, at times strident, but never seeming absolutely right. Then, there's the audience, who are very quiet yet whose presence is always felt through subtle wheezes and paper rattlings. And, really, when any music ends, I like to take a breath and relax and think about it for a moment; I do not need 800 people clapping in my ears. It reminds me of the canned laughter in a television sitcom.

Insofar as the interpretation is concerned, Mahler's scores are so diverse and often so bizarre, they admit practically any reading. So Oramo's performance is no better and no worse than most of those I've heard, although it is perhaps a little less cohesive than some others. The conductor, displaying a youthful freshness and bounce, comes into his own in the big, central Scherzo, and he follows it with a traditionally sweet-toned if long-winded Adagietto. But then he's back to a more divergent playing style in the Finale. Oh, well....

In this last analysis, this is not a recording I would recommend as a first choice in the repertoire, not with conductors like Barbirolli, Haitink, Solti, Rattle, Karajan, Abbado, Bernstein, and Mackerras so readily available on disc.


Aug 16, 2011

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (SACD review)

Also Capriccio italien. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 386.

When I saw a while back that Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev was re-recording the Tchaikovsky symphonies, I said to myself, "Huh?" I mean, he had already recorded them twice since forming the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, the Sixth for Virgin and whole cycle for DG. Now he was doing them all over again for PentaTone? Was it a matter if at first you don't succeed...? I don't think so, as his earlier performances are still among the finest, most-intense you can buy. Was it a matter of his wanting to record them all in the best-possible sound with some of the latest audio technology, Super Audio CD? Perhaps, although his earlier discs already sounded pretty good, and the market for SACD's is pretty slim. Anyway, here we have another Tchaikovsky entry from the man, his third recording of the Sixth Symphony.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) premiered his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, in 1893, only a few years after his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, ended their odd personal and financial association and the very year the composer died of cholera. Compounding the enigma, the composer spoke of the work as a "programme symphony; however, its programme is to remain a mystery to all... It is drenched with my innermost essence; while composing it in my mind, I was constantly shedding bitter tears." Tchaikovsky's allusions to fate and his brother's suggestion that he subtitle the piece "Pathetique" (evoking sadness, sorrow, pity, or touching the emotions in general) only add to the tragic mystery.

Anyway, compared to Pletnev's 1991 Virgin recording, which I had on hand, the conductor takes the great, sweeping Adagio that opens the work at a slightly less brisk gait than he did before. This time, it has a more regal demeanor, with a more rhapsodic central theme than ever. Then Pletnev makes up in melancholy what he loses in intensity.

In the ensuing Allegro con grazia, there is little difference in how Pletnev approaches the waltz, once more demonstrating a lively and flowing pace, with only the Trio section providing a momentary contrast to the mood.

Following that, we get the Scherzo, the Allegro molto vivace, where Pletnev rouses us with his lead-in to the big march tune, becoming more vigorous and thrilling as it goes along, although, again, perhaps not exactly to the same extent of his 1991 account.

Lastly, rather than wow us with a huge, splashy, Technicolor finish, Tchaikovsky ends with a lament, an Adagio lamentosa, which begins in despair and concludes in recognition and a final calm. As he did in the first movement, Pletnev slows down his reading somewhat from before, taking more time with the tragedy and resignation and closing more peacefully. While I can't say I liked Pletnev's new interpretation any better or any worse than his first recorded performance, it definitely shows differences, and the first one did move me a tad more, which counts for a lot.

The coupling is Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, Op. 45, from 1880, a far lighter, more festive piece of music. Pletnev doesn't generate as much outright excitement or the set the blood to racing as several other conductors do (Kondrashin, for instance), but Polyhymnia certainly records him well.

The sound, which Polyhymnia recorded for PentaTone at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in June of 2010, comes in conventional stereo and multichannel on a hybrid SACD. If you have the playback capability for the SACD format, you can listen that way; if you have only a regular CD player, you can play it back in regular stereo. I listened in two channels to both the standard CD and SACD renderings, noting that the SACD version has small but clearly distinct advantages in frequency response, dynamic range, and impact.

The midrange is warm and smooth, with good definition. The bass is strong, with a decent wallop from time to time. The treble appears well extended, seldom being edgy or forward. There is a solid punch all the way around, especially at the low end; a wide stereo spread; good instrument separation; and satisfactory orchestral depth. Like other installments in this Pletnev/Tchaikovsky PentaTone cycle, the sound is of near-audiophile quality, acquitting itself nicely and never failing to rise to the occasion when the music calls for grand, clear, undistorted crescendos.

Compared to the sonics of the earlier Virgin release, by the way, this new SACD sounds a touch fuller, weightier, and sometimes brighter, but for that matter neither recording will disappoint.


Aug 15, 2011

Krenek: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, Concerto grosso No. 2. Alun Francis, NDR Radiophilharmonie. CPO 777 210-2.

Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) was an Austrian-born American composer who may have been more famous for his short-lived marriage to the daughter of Gustav Mahler than for anything he ever wrote. He earned a living largely by teaching, lecturing, and completing the unfinished material of other composers, despite his producing over 240 of his own works in his lifetime. Throughout his career, he adopted a variety of compositional forms, from late-Romantic to atonality, from neoclassicism to experimental jazz, and from modal counterpoint to twelve-tone writing, serial techniques, and electronic music, making him truly a man for all seasons. However, I wonder if he had settled down to one particular style, if his music would have been more popular today? Who knows.

The new CPO album under review begins with a world-première recording of Krenek's Symphony No. 4, Op. 113, from 1949. It's a three-movement symphony that starts out with a tranquil Andante and goes in all directions from there. The booklet note tells us that Krenek composed the piece in "free atonality with some tone elements in design." The music appears fairly complex, with alternating themes and rhythms, yet it's reasonably accessible, too, at least under Maestro Alun Francis and the NDR Radiophilharmonie (North German Radio Broadcasting Philharmonic), who seem to know their way around the score.

Perhaps it's the constant variations of tone and mood that keep one involved. Things get a little hectic toward the end of the opening movement, leading to a quiet Adagio and then on to a moderately intense Allegro pesante (fast and lively, but with weight). This concluding segment clearly shows the influence of Stravinsky on Krenek's music making, and for a moment you'd think the composer had strayed off into The Rite of Spring. We hear primarily percussion and strings from that point on, fascinating to be sure, but not exactly earthshaking. Still, it surprises me that no one has recorded the work before now; it has enough going on in it to qualify for multiple interpretations.

The coupling is Krenek's Concerto Grosso No. 2, Op. 25, a five-movement piece completed in 1924.  The term "concerto grosso" ("big concerto") refers to a musical form that originated in the Baroque period in which the full orchestra and a small group of soloists play contrasting sections. Needless to say, Krenek embroiders the format in his own unique way, combining elements of the Baroque, neoclassicism, and German expressionism, supplemented by healthy doses of Stravinsky again as well as Bach. There is an especially engaging Allegro at the center of it all containing slightly melancholic dance passages that Francis brings out with admirable color and panache. Although I can't say I was quite as taken by the dark fourth-movement Andante as I was with the minuets, things close out with a buoyant Allegro encompassing some abrupt changes in temper.

CPO recorded the album in 2006 at the Grosser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus Niedersachen with pleasing results. A wide dynamic range comes into play, with strong impact from the timpani and bass. While the strings get a tad edgy on a few occasions, the sonics probably come pretty close to what the NDR Radiophilharmonie actually sounds like and what Krenek had in mind. There is also a welcome sense of orchestral depth and a natural acoustic bloom to provide a realistic setting for the music. In all, it's a performance and sound worth investigating.


Aug 12, 2011

Gilbert and Sullivan: HMS Pinafore (CD review)

Also, Trial by Jury. George Baker, John Cameron, Richard Lewis, Elsie Morison, Marjorie Thomas, Monica Sinclair. Sir Malcolm Sargent, Pro Arte Orchestra and Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. EMI 50999 0 95087 2 9 (2-disc set).

When you're one of the oldest record companies in the world, you ought to trot out some of your best material for rerelease from time to time. People expect it, especially people who haven't heard of it before or couldn't afford it the first time(s) around. Such is the case with this 2011 two-disc reissue from EMI of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore and Trial by Jury, originally recorded in 1958 and 1960 respectively. They've been around on LP, tape, and CD before, and I suspect we still haven't heard the last of them.

The show horse, naturally, is HMS Pinafore, the comic opera that librettist Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) premiered in 1878. It is, of course, the satiric tale of a poor seaman who falls in love with a sea captain's daughter, but they cannot marry because he is low born and she is of the upper classes. The plot allowed the composers to poke fun at the British aristocratic caste system of the late nineteenth century as well as lampoon various character types. Tenor Richard Lewis sings the part of the fresh-faced able seaman Ralph Rackstraw; baritone George Baker is the pompous Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (First Lord of the Admiralty); bass Owen Brannigan is the nefarious able seaman Dick Deadeye; baritone John Cameron is the commander of the Pinafore, Captain Corcoran; and soprano Elsie Morison is the captain's daughter, Josephine. They and the rest of the cast are a pleasure as well.

Sir Malcolm Sargent's EMI recording came around at about the same time as Decca's stereo recording with conductor Isidore Godfrey, the New Symphony Orchestra of London, and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which, with its zest and enthusiasm, tended to overshadow Sargent's version. Alongside Godfrey's reading, Sargent's interpretation does take the music a tad more seriously, yet it manages to convey most of the humorous, deadpan liveliness the music requires, too. Not that Sargent presents the tunes in any high-handed or weighty style, you understand; he simply presents them as genuinely thoughtful, entertaining melodies, not just lightweight music-hall ditties. In fact, the knock I've heard against Sargent's presentation of the work has sometimes been that he offers it in too operatic, too somber, a manner. Maybe so, at least measured against Godfrey's more rollicking, freewheeling presentation. Nevertheless, while Sargent's reading may not project all the vitality of Godfrey's performance, his rendering still bubbles over with joy and enthusiasm.

The coupling on disc two is Gilbert's and Sullivan's first major success, Trial by Jury, from 1875.  It's a brief, tidy piece spoofing the British legal system. Here, Sargent uses essentially the same singers, with the addition of baritone Bernard Turgeon as the foreman of the jury. George Baker is a delight as a wholly corrupt judge, and the entire cast seem to be having a good time. If you've never heard it before, just don't expect another Pinafore. It's good, but it's not that good.

The sound in both operettas, recorded over fifty years ago, defies its age, appearing every bit as good as almost anything recorded today. It has an excellent sense of presence, with a realistic acoustic of moderate breadth and superior depth. The frequency response remains well balanced, the high end sparkling and the bass at least sufficient. The transient response is quick and vital, impact is modest, and voices are perfectly natural. One can understand every word of the soloists and chorus, without their being too bright or too forward. Compared to Decca's Godfrey recording of the same vintage, EMI's sound is a tad more veiled; still, if you didn't directly compare them, you wouldn't notice.

The two EMI discs come housed in a Digipak container, with downloadable synopses and librettos in a PDF format on disc two.


Aug 11, 2011

Vivaldi: Flute Concertos (CD review)

Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Richard Tognetti, Australian Chamber Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 47212 2.

Emmanuel Pahud proves his worth as a world-class flautist in these flute concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). As always, the composer wrote too many such pieces for a single album to cover, so this disc contains just the six concertos in Op. 10 and two more miscellaneous ones, RV440 and RV429.

If some of the music seems familiar even though you have never heard the flute concertos, remember that Vivaldi notoriously borrowed from his own earlier material. In any case, Pahud presents the concertos in a most sprightly, animated style, with a good number of trills and flourishes. It makes for a pleasant, enlivening experience, but it may also leave the listener a bit exhausted if taken all at once. Each three-movement concerto lasts from six to nine minutes, so picking and choosing a favorite or two makes for the easiest listening.

Now, the "howevers." I said that Pahud adopts a lively manner in his presentation, and to these ears the tempos can sometimes be too quick. I prefer the more relaxed approach taken by Janet See and the period-instruments group Philharmonia Baroque, lead by Nicholas McGegan. Maybe it's because I can listen to more of the music without tiring of the pace so quickly. A second matter is EMI's sound, which is on the slightly bright, light, hard side. It tends to add to the fatigue factor when attending to such spirited performances.

Finally, I noticed two possible discrepancies in the program booklet. The note writer, Michael Talbot, tells us that the "last track on this CD is the slow movement of the D major concerto RV 226, originally written for violin. The lyrical character of its slow movement, however, with pizzicato accompaniment, makes it particularly effective on the flute." All well and good and something to look forward to, except that I couldn't find it on the disc. The album seems to end with the third and final movement of the Concerto in D, RV 429, and there isn't any more. Maybe I just wasn't looking or listening hard enough, or perhaps Mr. Talbot got his information wrong, but I wonder why EMI left it in the notes. Moreover, the booklet tells us that "This is the ACO's first disc for EMI." Well, as I recall, Stephen Kovacevich did the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on EMI Eminence back in 1995. OK, maybe the mid-price Eminence label somehow doesn't count, but it's still EMI. Oh, well....  I quibble about nothing.


Aug 9, 2011

Ferrara: Fantasia tragica (CD review)

Also, Notte di tempesta; Burlesca; Preludio. Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.572410.

Italian conductor, composer, lecturer, and teacher Franco Ferrara (1911-1985) maintained a conservative attitude toward music-making at a time when most other composers were venturing out into more modern waters. Not to worry. Ferrara did his best to keep up with the times, working in cinema a good deal of his later life and counting among his over 600 students the likes of Roberto Abbado, Eduardo Alvarez, Maurizio Arena, Gürer Aykal, Riccardo Chailly, Myung-whun Chung, Franco Collura, Sir Andrew Davis, Gianluigi Gelmetti, Mario Lamberto, Francesco Lentini, Antoine Mitchell, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Oren, and Reinhard Schwarz.

The Naxos album begins with Preludio, a brief piece as the title would indicate. It starts out slowly in an almost meandering manner most of the way and then proceeds into a full-blown rhapsody before it's over. Maestro Francesco La Vecchia caresses it delicately and provides a sweet reading, which because of its rather traditional nature makes a suitable introduction to the rest of the music on the disc.

Next, we get the more-substantive work on the program, the Fantasia tragica, a homage to Dimitri Shostakovich, a piece Ferrara based on the third movement of his Russian colleague's Symphony No. 11. It opens with a slow, enigmatic introduction, builds through a series of conflicts and crescendos, and evolves into a tragic climax. The music is not particularly memorable, nor does La Vecchia try to make it into anything more than it is. It sounds a lot like the background score for a movie, not surprising given Ferrara's long association with the cinema.

After Fantasia comes Notte di tempesta ("Stormy Night"), the longest piece on the disc at almost fifteen minutes. Here we find another moderate, relatively traditional score, although it is one filled with heightened emotional passages that vary from one moment to the next. The music reminded me of English composer Arnold Bax's tone poems, actually, with colorful, pictorial writing abounding in every line. La Vecchia seems to be enjoying this one best, a kind of dramatic romp for him, ending again in a fairly exultant cinematic fashion.

The program concludes with Ferrara's most playful music of all, the youthful Burlesca from 1932. With this one, both Ferrara and La Vecchia are having fun. It provides a joyful end to an album that began on a far more serious note. The music has all the lightness of a popular song and might be describing a sunny stroll around the streets, fountains, and parks of Rome.

Recorded at the OSR Studios and the Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome, in 2008, the sound is round, soft, and ultrasmooth, with an adequate but not distinguished breadth, depth, and dynamic range. In fact, it sounds like much of the work the Naxos folks do, always agreeable but seldom quite in the audiophile class. While I cannot imagine many listeners being disappointed, I can't imagine too many audiophiles jumping for joy and using it as demo material. Let's just say it suits the mood of the music.


Aug 8, 2011

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto (CD review)

Also, Clarinet Quintet. Sharon Kam, basset clarinet. Osterreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie. Berlin Classics 0016672BC.

If Classical Candor gave out awards for Best Recordings of the Year, this release of late-Mozart clarinet works would surely be high on the list of contenders. It is an almost perfect realization of the composer's music in equally felicitous recorded sound. I haven't listened to anything so charming in quite some time.

In the first number on the disc, Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K622, virtuoso clarinetist Sharon Kam plays the solo part and leads the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic. Written in 1791, the year Mozart died, the Clarinet Concerto was probably his last completed work. Needless to say, it is a mature composition, displaying all of the man's talents for melody, harmony, versatility, meditation, merriment, and delight. An advantage to Ms. Kam's realization, besides being one of the most well-thought-out and appealing versions available, is that she plays it on a basset clarinet, the instrument for which Mozart wrote the piece. At the time Mozart composed the work, the clarinet was just coming into its own, a relatively new instrument in the orchestra, and the basset clarinet was an early example of same. It is a period instrument capable of a lower register than the modern clarinet, and Ms. Kam demonstrates its rich, mellow sonority to the fullest. As the Clarinet Concerto contains any number of plush, fluid passages, the basset clarinet pays them due respect.

With Ms. Kam the Clarinet Concerto sings. From the rhapsodic tranquility of the first movement through the sweet, wistful, melancholic flow of the second movement to the energetic playfulness of the finale, Ms. Kam and the Haydn Philharmonic are in complete accord with the material, producing a warm, elegant, refined, and moving interpretation. This performance is in every way the equal of several other notable recordings, like the classic one from Jack Brymer (EMI) or more-recent ones on basset clarinet from Richard Hosford (ASV), Thea King (Hyperion), and Michael Collins (DG). Yes, Ms. Kam more than holds her own.

In the accompanying work, the Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Violoncello in A major, KV581 (1789), four other distinguished players join Ms. Kam: Isabelle van Keulen, violin; Ulrike-Anima Mathe, violin; Volker Jackobsen, viola; and Gustav Rivinius, violoncello. Their execution is wonderfully lyrical and relaxed and their playing ideal, with the resonant sound of the basset clarinet lending an agreeably vibrant sonority to the proceedings. Like everything else in the performance, the final variations are a joy.

The two recordings, made in 2009 and 2010, and thankfully done without the distractions of a live audience, could hardly sound better. We get sonics of a smooth, melted-butter variety that entirely befit the kind of music presented, the clarinet well integrated into the two ensembles rather than standing apart. While we do not find the clarity or presence of some audiophile recordings, we do hear the natural reproduction of the instruments in a pleasantly ambient acoustic. The clarinet, especially, radiates a mellifluous tone that is never at odds with the other players, a calming, reassuring tone that complements Ms. Kam's virtuosic yet wholly warmhearted performances. This is a welcome album from start to finish, among the best I've heard this year.


Aug 5, 2011

Elgar: Enigma Variations (CD review)

Also, In the South; Introduction and Allegro. Roger Norrington, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Hanssler Classics CD 93.191.

A lot of Americans will probably forever know English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) as that guy who wrote the graduation march. He definitely got the most from his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, but it may have been at the expense of people neglecting his main body of work, like his other Pomp and Circumstance marches, his two symphonies, his violin concerto, his cello concerto, and the three pieces of music on the present disc. Certainly, British conductor Sir Roger Norrington isn't about to let people forget him, though.

The concert overture In the South (Allasio), Op. 50, which Elgar premiered in 1904, makes a suitable opening number with its big, bold statements along the lines of Richard Strauss's Don Juan from a decade or so earlier. Nevertheless, Elgar claimed the music represented a holiday he spent in Italy. That may be so, but it sounds more heroic than it does balmy, sunny, or Italian. At any rate, Norrington and his Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra play up the Strauss angle pretty thoroughly, which in this case is not a bad thing to do.

Next, we get Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra, Op. 47, premiered in 1905. The intriguing thing here is the interaction between the quartet and the orchestra, with Norrington taking his time with it and letting it play out in a leisurely yet cogent manner. It is interesting that Norrington made a splash some years ago with his London Classical Players, a period-instruments group that would often move along at quite zippy speeds. However, in the Introduction and Allegro, as I say, Norrington seems entirely relaxed and easygoing. It's an enjoyable approach.

Of the works on the disc, the Enigma Variations are no doubt the most well known. Premiered in 1899, it was Elgar's first really big success. These fourteen Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, began life as an improvisation that Elgar continued to toy with, bringing in all sorts of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Norrington seems less interested in the esoteric significance of the movements as he does simply in making each one of them as charming as possible. Here, he succeeds well, making this Enigma set one of the most comfortable, picturesque, colorful, and entertaining you'll find. Perhaps they're not in the same exalted league as the classic accounts by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) or Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), but at least they come close.

Hanssler Classics recorded two of the works in live performances in Liederhalle Stuttgart, 2007 and 2010, and the other one (Introduction and Allegro) in Funkstudio des SWR in 2010. There is no question the live performances sound live: They appear moderately miked, slightly veiled, and very spacious. They also have an unfortunate eruption of applause at the end of each of them, disturbing one's final appreciation. Those concerns aside, the sound is fine, with plenty of dynamic punch in addition to the ambient bloom of the acoustic. Although ultimate transparency suffers, to be sure, in favor of a more natural sonic environment, the compromise seems reasonable. Of the three recordings, the Enigma Variations come up best, with the cleanest textures and some especially realistic timpani whacks.


Aug 4, 2011

Handel: Water Music (SACD review)

Also, Music for the Royal Fireworks. Kevin Mallon, Aradia Ensemble. Naxos SACD 6.110115.

There was a time you couldn't find Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks on a single disc. In the old vinyl LP days the two works wouldn't fit on one record, and even in our CD age there are record companies that believe the two pieces of music are far too popular to couple together; there's more money in releasing them separately. For instance, DG is still issuing Trevor Pinnock's excellent recordings of the two works on separate albums. But times are changing, and there are any number of fine couplings of these two pieces, not the least of them this low-cost entry from Naxos, available on a standard CD or the SACD reviewed here.

Conductor Kevin Mallon's Canadian players, the Aradia Ensemble, perform on period instruments, and the Fireworks Music boasts the first-time inclusion of a transverse flute in "La Paix," a detail noted in the original manuscript but overlooked by most conductors. I doubt that anyone would notice the difference, but every new recording has to have a gimmick, something to differentiate it from the pack, and this one is more than a mere gimmick in that it works pretty effectively. (What doesn't sound too good to me is an oddball tambourine shaking away on occasion. What's that about?)

What really sets Mallon's recording apart, though, is that it's not only played on period instruments, it's fairly well recorded, it's on a Super Audio CD (and a regular CD depending on which one you want to buy), it combines both the Water Music and the Fireworks Music on the same disc, it's relatively cheap, and it's a lively interpretation. I would not, however, count it above Telarc's issue of both works with Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque, which Pearlman and company play marginally better and which Telarc recorded more warmly and richly. I mention this because it's also available on an SACD and for only a few dollars more.

The differences between the CD and SACD layers on this Naxos disc are discernable but not night-and-day, unless you play it in multichannel surround. Comparing the two-channel stereo layers on separate players reveals a small degree more ambient bloom around the instruments in SACD and without a doubt a slightly greater dynamic range and impact. In both cases, I found the sound a bit lean at the low end and occasionally a tad bright in the treble, while midrange accuracy was more than adequate. I'd say if you have a multichannel surround system or a superdeluxe two-channel setup and want the very best sound you can get, the Super Audio CD is probably the disc of choice; otherwise, if you have but a modest two-channel setup, the cheaper stereo-only CD would probably suffice.

Just don't forget the other great performances of one or the other of these Handel works, if you don't already own them, some paired on single discs and some on two discs, from Pinnock (DG), Pearlman (Telarc), McGegan (Harmonia Mundi), Gardiner (Philips), Mackerras (Telarc), Savall (Astree), Norrington (Virgin), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), and many more. Still, if it's SACD you're after....


Aug 2, 2011

Verdi: Choruses (XRCD24 review)

Carlo Franci, Chorus and Orchestra of L'Accademia di Santa Cecilia Rome. LIM XR24 018.

Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote mostly operas, some of the most well-known operas ever penned. Those operas contained their fair share of choruses, and record companies and conductors over the years have been quick to put collections of them down on shellac, vinyl, and silver disc. The collection of choruses under review here derives from a 1964 Decca recording, brought up to today's audiophile standards by the folks at LIM (Lasting Impression Music).

Maestro Carlo Franci and the Orchestra and Chorus of L'Accademia di Santa Cecilia Rome, do their best to make the nine choruses on the disc come to life on their own, apart from their native contexts. While choruses in general do not necessarily offer the best material for extended listening at a single sitting, they make downright thrilling listening for those brief periods of time when a person just wants a quick sonic lift-me-up or when trying to impress friends and neighbors.

The program begins where we might expect it to begin, with the biggest chorus of them all, the "Grand March and Ballet Music" from Aida. Franci never rushes it, yet never lets it become lax, either; instead, he captures all the grandeur and august splendor of the music on the largest possible scale. If you enjoy rival versions from the likes of Karajan on Decca, DG, or EMI, Franci's performances are on that kind of plane, resplendent in every way.

After that, we get "Vedi! le forche" from Il Trovatore, which also will not disappoint. The opening bars seem a trifle more hurried than I'd like, but there is no denying the excitement Franci generates with his tempos whisking away.

The next two selections come from Nabucco: "Gli arredi Festivi" and "Va pensiero," although printing errors reverse their order on the packaging. Franci affords both of them a proper solemnity, and they come across with a touching sincerity.

Next, we return to Il Trovatore with "Squilli echeggi," followed by "O Signore dal tetto natio" from I Lombardi, "Giuriam d'Italia" from La Battaglia di Legnono, the Prelude and Introduction from Attila, and "Fuoco di gioia" from Otello. These are distinctive, polished, freshly appealing interpretations, traditional to be sure, yet radiating a good deal of tension and beauty. They are as good as you'll find, matching Claudio Abbado's equally refreshing accounts for DG and recorded even better.

LIM producer Winston Ma says in a booklet note that he considers the Verdi recording "to be one of the most challenging discs to any sound system and acoustic environment due to its gigantic soundstage and the complexity of music: huge choral groups and layers of orchestral passages and human voices, all taxing the system and the listening room to the furthest extremes, not only of the sound spectrum but also of micro and macro dynamics and transient contrasts." He goes on to say that "the recording requires top-notch engineering to ensure premium production. Whether it is the nuance of a single violin or piano, or the huge soundstage and immense complexity of the orchestration and human voices, these recordings demand competent reproduction from a system with high resolution capability and a balanced acoustic room environment. Any deficiency in these qualities will render the music not involving and subject to sound to smearing."

Aside from Winston's not-so-subtle hint that if his recording doesn't sound good to you, it's the fault of your playback system, not his record, what he says is pretty much what every audiophile believes. For a good recording to sound really good, you do need a good stereo system to reproduce it. That said, I found most of what I heard very good, indeed, through my VMPS RM40's, though perhaps not to the extent that Winston suggests. There is a dash of brightness in the upper midrange-lower treble during loudest passages that could bother some listeners. That aside, there is nothing but good I can say about the sound.

We hear a pleasant ambient bloom everywhere, the acoustic lending to the epic atmosphere of the recording. The chorus, slightly bright as I say, never sounds smeared, and, in fact, the forward quality of the sonics lends an extra degree of clarity to the affair. Besides, one does not notice the added edge in softer moments, which are just as numerous as the bigger ones.

The brasses ring out gloriously. There is pinpoint accuracy in the stereo spread, imagery, and depth that helps the overall verisimilitude of the proceedings. Extended highs ring out clearly and sweetly, while bass is more than adequate to hold its own. Transparency is outstanding; dynamics are wide; impact is strong; transient response is quick; and it is only those fleeting moments of upper-frequency edge that may cause a minor distraction (although to be fair to LIM, I remember the original LP having the same forward edge, the LIM release simply retaining, as it should, what was already there). Otherwise, this LIM remaster provides beautifully full, well played, realistically recorded accounts of Verdi's music.


Aug 1, 2011

Debussy: Piano Works (CD review)

Ronan O'Hora, piano. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks Audiophile Collection RPM 29040.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French impressionist composer, whether he liked the term "impressionist" or not. The impressionists sought to create moods, feelings, perceptions, and sensations: the painters using bright, juxtaposed colors representing the effect of light on objects; the sculptors creating surfaces unevenly textured to reflect light inconsistently; the writers emphasizing the outward characteristics of actions without much attention to detail; and the music composers like Debussy, Albeniz, Delius, Satie, Granados, Roussel, Scriabin, and Ravel producing luxuriant harmonies, delicate rhythms, and novel tonal colors.

Debussy famously denounced critics as "imbeciles" who called him an "impressionist" composer, preferring people to consider him a symbolist, a composer trying "to do something different," as he put it. But if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and talks like a duck.... Debussy's music is probably the best argument for his impressionistic tendencies. He writes in flowing harmonies that evoke mental images without quite pinning them down with the specificity of the tone painters.

On the present disc, British pianist Ronan O'Hora performs fourteen pieces Debussy wrote for piano, at least half of which I'd guess that anyone, classical enthusiast or not, would recognize. The tracks include the Arabesques Nos. 1 and 2, Clair de Lune, Passepied, Reverie, Hommage a Rameau, Voiles, Les sons et les parfums tourent dans l'air du soir, Le fille aux cheveux de lin, La cathedrale engloutie, Minstrels, The Little Shepard, Golliwogg's Cakewalk, and L'Isle joyeuse.

Now, here's the thing about Debussy performances: Because the music can often be so nebulous in so many ways, it opens it up to numerous variations of interpretation. O'Hora appears to prefer a highly emotional, sometimes sentimental, romanticized approach to many of the pieces, highlighting the lighter, airier qualities of the music over anything more distinct. This is not a criticism on my part, you understand, just an observation. O'Hora is without question a skilled pianist of charm and distinction, and if you lean toward his particular style with Debussy, you'll no doubt cherish the album. I found some it a little too dewy-eyed for my taste, but that's just me.

O'Hora is best in things like the opening Arabesque No. 1, where he captures all the exotic color of the piece, or Golliwogg's Cakewalk, where his obvious delight in the music is infectious. He's at his most easygoing in Clair de Lune, where his pacing and phrasing seem so laid back I wondered if he wasn't about to nod off at the piano. For comparison purposes, I looked at O'Hora's timings for each track on the disc and found them in every case slower than those on several rival recordings I had in my collection.

Still, when O'Hora is on target, which is, to be fair, most of the time, as with the aforementioned Arabesque or La fille aux cheveux de lin, his music making can be quite fetching. Indeed, all of his performances, even the ones I found a bit indulgent, are moving in their own way. Let's say they're different and they're characterful, just as I'd imagine Debussy intended. So you'll get no serious complaints from me.

The folks at Royal Philharmonic Masterworks do not indicate when or where they or someone else recorded these performances, but they do say that Sheridan Square Entertainment first produced them in 2007, and that the recording is in 20 bit, mastered via 32 bit, and presented in high definition. Well, that may be; however, I wouldn't exactly call the sound of audiophile quality unless you enjoy a good deal of resonance in your acoustic. Certainly, the degree of room reflection present in the sonics adds to the dreamy quality of Debussy's music and of O'Hora's playing; still, when comparing the recording to either of several other Debussy piano discs I had on hand--from Aldo Ciccolini (EMI) and Pascal Roge (Decca)--it seemed as though O'Hora's engineers had recorded it too reverberantly. Both the EMI and Decca recordings are firmer, clearer, and better defined while also providing a natural, realistic ambience to the sound. Nevertheless, if you take to O'Hara's highly nuanced readings of these Debussy works, you're likely also to appreciate the airy aural setting the recording affords him.


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