Brahms on Brass (CD review)

Sixteen Waltzes; Ballade in D minor; Eleven Chorale Preludes. Canadian Brass. Opening Day Entertainment ODR 7415.

I'm only guessing here, but I doubt that trumpets, trombones, and horns would be the first instruments that come to most people's mind when thinking about waltzes, particularly Brahms's very Germanic waltzes. I mean, where's the typically lilting grace of a waltz in all-brass instruments? Yet Canadian Brass, one of the world's premiere brass ensembles, manages to pull it off well enough, as they do almost everything they tackle.

The program begins with Brahm's Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39, originally written in 1865 for piano, four hands, and here adapted for brass quintet by Brandon Ridenour and Chris Coletti. They are concert waltzes at about a minute or so each, so it's not exactly as though anyone were going to try to dance to them. The Canadian Brass play them with a wonderfully refined élan, each piece melodic and rhapsodic. The brass quintet, as expected, sounds fuller than any piano accounts, almost as though being played by an entire body of strings, which may or may not appeal to everyone. The tunes alternate between slow and bouncy, always charming, folksy, swirling, and exciting.

The centerpiece of the album is the Ballade in D minor, Op. 16, No. 1, the first of four ballades for piano Brahms wrote in 1854, and here adapted for brass octet and timpani by Brandon Ridenour. It makes a serious statement and stands in dramatic contrast to the lighter waltzes that open the show. Brahms intended for the Ballade to evoke the mood of a mythological Gaelic tale, which I'm not entirely sure I heard in it. However, it is fun, and the dark tones conveyed by the brass instruments go a long way toward creating a medieval atmosphere.

The disc concludes with Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, written in 1896 and published posthumously several years later, here adapted for brass quintet by Ralph Sauer. They come off best, in part because they are the most-mature works on the disc, and the Canadian Brass give them due respect. Originally, Brahms intended them for organ, and one can easily imagine the organ in the brass ensemble, supplemented by the additional instruments, the team providing a rich tapestry of sound.

Speaking of sound, Opening Day Entertainment recorded the album in 2010 at Christ Church, Deer Park, Toronto, Canada, the sonics coming up both warm and mellow on the one hand and clean and transparent on the other. Or as transparent as a group of brass instruments (trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba) can sound. In other words, we get pretty good clarity without sacrificing easy listening to any brightness or harshness. There is also an ample stereo spread involved and a good sense of instrumental depth.

Finally, a word about the packaging. The single disc comes housed in a Digipak container that folds out to four sections, something like a road map and about as much fun to get back together as refolding a road map. There is no booklet insert, the notes and contents written on the foldout portions of the package. It's a bit clumsy, and I don't really care for the idea of a Digipak, anyway. If you break the center spindle, you can't just buy another jewel box for the disc. It's a minor qualm about an otherwise excellent release.


Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations (CD review)

Also, Rococo Variations; Nocturne; Andante Cantabile; Romances. Alexander Kniazev, cello; Constantine Orbelian, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 62061-2.

Aside from the fact that this is a fairly somber affair, something that comes with the territory when you're listening to cello music, the performances and sound are almost letter perfect.

Russian cellist Alexander Kniazev plays Tchaikovsky's justly celebrated Rococo Variations with passion and intensity, just as he instills a decidedly romantic pathos into the other Tchaikovsky pieces: the Nocturne in D minor, the Andante cantable in d major, and ten of the songs, called Romances, arranged for cello and orchestra by Evgeni Stetsuk.

The cello is, as they say, made for lost love, and in all of these works Kniazev conveys a mournful melancholy. A little of it goes a long way, to be sure, but in small doses it is quite enchanting, and we get interpretations for the Romantic in all of us.

The recording itself works well for the intimacy of the music, and it opens up a good deal of inner detail that any more-distant miking might have obscured. (It also opens up the cellist's occasional groans and wheezes, but that's another story.) The Moscow Chamber Orchestra sounds reasonably clear, with decent width, depth, and bloom. It's a pleasant-sounding recording.

If I have any negative criticism at all, it's about Warner's packaging. The back cover of the jewel box lists the disc's contents but not in sequence. Which means if you want to play anything in particular on the disc and want to know the track numbers, you have to go into the booklet to find it. And I do mean "into" the booklet, because Warners do not list the disc contents sequentially on the back of the insert, either, only inside. Then there's the cover photo of Mr. Kniazev, dressed entirely in black, hair askew, stubble on face, sprawled on a black leather chair next to his instrument, and scowling. I suppose the disc's art director intended Kniazev's expression to mirror the mood of the music, but he doesn't appear so much melancholy or unhappy as he does angry. I may be one of the few people in the world who enjoys looking at a cover picture while listening to the music, so give me a pastoral painting any day.


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Vladimir Lande, St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94243.

Time was, record companies could barely accommodate the Schubert Ninth Symphony on a single disc, especially if it were a really slow reading observing all the repeats, or if the record company were saving other Schubert material for another disc. These days, we often get not only the Ninth but additional works as well, in the case of this Brilliant Classics release the entire Eighth Symphony. OK, the companion work is only two movements, not being called the "Unfinished" for nothing, but that's beside the point. It's always nice to have the two symphonies alongside one another.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 "Unfinished," which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) probably started writing in 1822 but got only halfway through before leaving it for other things.

Maestro Vladimir Lande begins the Eighth with a good, brooding introduction providing plenty of quick forward momentum. Before long things settle in to a more moderate pace, with occasional portions actually slowing down a bit too much. Still, Lande captures Schubert's lyrical grace pretty well whether he's barreling full throttle or following a more-relaxed course. The thing is, we hear more such contrasts throughout the symphony than we normally do, which for some listeners could make it either a unique and satisfying experience or a fairly frustrating one. I tend toward the latter response, even if the second-movement Andante is a little too cautious, lessening the beauty by attempting to draw it out too much.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, the "Great" and final numbered symphony, which the composer dated 1828, has an oddball history because he probably didn't write it in 1828, and it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than the year of his death, which makes little difference since, as with the rest of Schubert's orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The Ninth didn't even see a public performance until 1839, eleven years after the composer's death. Today it is one of the staples of the classical repertoire. Go figure.

Lande opens the Ninth with less power than I would have liked and less rhythmic bite. Then, after a few minutes the continued contrasts come back into play, and the conductor picks up the pace considerably, to the point of almost sounding rushed. It's exciting, to be sure, but I'm not certain he doesn't lose some Schubertian charm in the process.

The second-movement Andante, with its dirgelike march, comes off well enough, Lande reminding us of Beethoven here. The conductor ensures it sounds well elaborated, with just enough variety for it not to become taxing on our patience. After that, Lande gives us a lively yet relaxed Scherzo that lacks only a degree of Schubertian lilt, leading with a vengeance to the finale, which seems to outrace all contenders.

While Lande's readings may be a little unconventional, he does not overdo them. Indeed, one has to applaud him for not following other conductors sheepishly in his approaches to these symphonies. Nevertheless, unless one is a dedicated collector or a die-hard Schubert fan, one might find greater joy in the recordings of Otto Klemperer (EMI), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Eugen Jochum (DG), Charles Munch (RCA), or Charles Mackerras (Virgin) in the Eighth and Josef Krips (Decca/HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Charles Mackerras (Virgin or Telarc), Georg Solti (Decca), George Szell (Sony), or Gunther Wand (RCA) in the Ninth.

Recorded in October, 2010, at Melodiya Studios, St. Petersburg, Russia, the Brilliant Classics sound is typical of what we often hear from Russian and mid-European orchestras. It's very smooth and very well balanced but not exactly transparent enough or extended enough to fall into the audiophile category. It's pleasantly realistic, moderately distanced, with a decent sense of orchestral depth and just enough ambient bloom to simulate the acoustics of a concert hall. Now, if only the midrange had been a trifle clearer, the bass and treble better extended, and the dynamic impact a tad greater, it would have made a good thing even better.

The disc includes a helpful set of notes from music critic Malcolm MacDonald as well as from Maestro Lande, in which the conductor explains why he chose to interpret the two symphonies the way he did. Along with a good-looking cover picture of Beethoven's funeral, it makes an attractive package.


Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone; Robert Nairn, double-bass obbligato. Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus. CORO COR16093.

By now most people are aware of the circumstances surrounding Mozart's composition of his final, unfinished work, the Requiem, K626, of 1791. A mysterious stranger shows up at the composer's door with a commission for a Requiem Mass but refusing to name the person who sent him. Mozart dies before finishing it, and one of his assistants, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, completes it. Did Mozart foresee his own death? Was he knowingly writing his own funeral music? Or did a jealous rival, Antonio Salieri, secretly contract the work and then poison Mozart? And other such imaginative speculations.

Actually, most of the story is pretty straightforward, if far less fun. As the CORO booklet note points out, "The messenger was an envoy from one Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted a Requiem to commemorate the recent death of his young wife Anna; the secrecy was because Walsegg was a keen amateur musician in the habit of commissioning pieces of music, having them performed at his house 50 miles south-west of Vienna, and mischievously passing them off as his own." I suppose he might have gotten away with it had Mozart not died before completing the commission.

Anyway, here we get a spirited account of the Requiem from Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus, which, again from a booklet note, were "founded in 1815...America's oldest continuously performing arts organization....  Its Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus are internationally recognized in the field of Historically Informed Performance, a revelatory style that uses the instruments and techniques of the composer's time."

But before we get to the Requiem, we find a prefatory piece, another late work by Mozart, the Ave verum corpus, ("Hail, the true body"), K618, from 1791. It's very short and very sweet, kind of Mozart in miniature.

Then Maestro Christophers leads the Handel and Haydn ensemble in a lively reading of the Requiem that always displays a strong forward pulse, used to advantageous dramatic effect. Indeed, if anything Christophers drives his players and singers rather hard at times, substituting visceral thrills for spiritual repose.

Happily, he doesn't overdrive the production to distraction. Still, he does take most of the movements at faster tempos than we hear from most other conductors, and he tends to emphasize the dynamic contrasts more forcefully. As a result, we get a more-exciting, more red-blooded presentation than many of us may have heard before, which the listener may or may not appreciate in this particular music. The Lacrimosa acts as a sort of breather in the action, and then it's back to the emphatic gestures of the first half. For better or for worse, if you hear it, prepare yourself for a more-animated Requiem than is usual.

Following the Requiem, the orchestra's bass player, Robert Nairn, introduces the final number, Mozart's aria "Per questa bella mano" ("By this beautiful hand"), K612, also a late work written in the composer's final year, 1791. Eric Owens sings it quite beautifully, with obbligato accompaniment by Mr. Nairn and the orchestra.

CORO recorded the music live in Symphony Hall, Boston, in 2011, the sound quite close up, closer than in most recordings of Mozart's Requiem. As such, it delivers a good, clear response, with a wide stereo spread at the expense of one's sitting in the front row. While there isn't much orchestral depth, there is a compensating dynamic impact that is quite realistic and pleasing. The highest reaches of female voices can be a tad forward; otherwise, there is a fairly natural-sounding, if slightly soft, midrange.

Because it's live, we also hear some inevitable coughs and wheezes on occasion; it's never too disruptive, but it does remind us we're not in a studio. Only at the end of the entire program does the audience erupt into an unfortunate applause.


Classical Music News of the Week: Sept. 25, 2011

Hélène Grimaud to Release Mozart Piano Concertos 19 and 23 on November 8, 2011

New York, NY -- Pianist Hélène Grimaud will release a new album of Mozart concertos and a Mozart concert aria on November 8, 2011 for Deutsche Grammophon. In her 23-year career, Grimaud has recorded works by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Brahms, Gershwin, Beethoven, and Bach, but this CD marks her first full-length foray into Mozart and her only recording of Mozart besides her fiery 2010 interpretation of Sonata No. 8 on her most recent disc, Resonances. Of Grimaud's interpretation of the Mozart sonata in live performance, The New York Times wrote, "Staccato passages were forbiddingly crisp, and shifts from ornamental passages back to the melody strongly emphasized." Known for her poetic sensibility and fiercely personal performances, Grimaud has been drawn to Mozart in recent years by the kinship she feels they share. She writes in the liner notes to this upcoming album, "This element of passion which gives sense to our existence is always there with him." The Mozart concertos disc was recorded live with the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra in May, with an additional studio recording of the concert aria with soprano Mojca Erdmann.

After the successful release of Resonances, which featured music by Mozart, Liszt, Berg, and Bartok, in 2010, and the subsequent tour supporting the album, Grimaud will keep up another busy season during 2011-2012. She appeared with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra across Europe playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 on a tour that included an engagement at the famed BBC Proms. After recitals in Germany, Grimaud will perform Brahm's First Piano Concerto with the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  She will also have the honor of playing one of her favorite composers, Bach, in her home country in November. On the heels of engagements in England playing Schumann come appearances throughout Europe performing the Resonances recital program. In November, she appears in recital in Santa Barbara, California, and in April, she will perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. She will play this piece again with the New World Symphony in Florida.

Hélène Grimaud is a French pianist of international renown. Grimaud appears regularly with the most important conductors and orchestras in the world, in addition to her chamber and solos recitals in prestigious festivals and venues. Performing and recording since her teens, she has made appearances at MIDEM in Cannes, and performed at the piano festival La Roque d'Anthéron at the age of 17. The New York Times described her playing thus: "The slow passages were intensely eloquent, building carefully to the crashing climaxes, and Ms. Grimaud brought rapt concentration to the piece's hushed ending." Grimaud is also known for her efforts to aid wolf preservation in America and is the author of two books. She records exclusively with Deutsche Grammophon.

--Amanda Ameer, First Chair Promotion

Ludovic Morlot Debuts with Seattle Symphony with Charisma and Substance
Seattle Symphony opened its new season with the traditional gala evening Saturday and welcomed new music director Ludovic Morlot. Morlot led the orchestra (and played, too) in Ravel's Bolero; also on the program was a Gulda work played by former SSO cellist Joshua Roman, plus works by Beethoven and Gershwin.

Saturday evening was Ludovic Morlot's first Benaroya Hall appearance as the Seattle Symphony's new music director. The gala occasion may have been more about charisma than about substance, but there was certainly plenty of the former in evidence, along with a refreshing absence of high-art stuffiness.

The young maestro opened the proceedings with words of thanks--in notably fluent English--to everyone he could think of, including the often-unheralded stage crew.

At the other end of the program, a fine performance of Ravel's Bolero sported a telling touch of showmanship. Here, for a few go-rounds of that hypnotic tune, Morlot exchanged the podium for a spell at one of the violin desks, before stepping up again to take charge of the final volcanic catharsis-- and the unwavering way the players, with Michael Werner starring on snare drum, held the pace on their own was indicative of the Seattle Symphony's excellent orchestral discipline. In this gala setting, he impressed hugely.

--Bernard Jacobson, special to the Seattle Times

Guitarist David Russell to Release New Recording of Baroque Music for Telarc
Following up on his successful "David Russell Plays Bach" recording, the master guitarist returns to baroque music on his upcoming Feb 2012 Telarc release.

In addition, the Steinway & Sons label continues to expand its roster of great talent with a new recording by the young Juilliard grads, the piano duo Anderson & Roe. The CD is entitled "When Words Fade…." and will feature their own arrangements of popular and classical songs including the Carmen Fantasy, The Erlking, and Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. The record is coming out on November 15 and will include four compelling music videos on a separate disc.

--Amanda Sweet, Bucklesweet Media

Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra Open 2011-2012 Season
Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra open their 2011-2012 20th Anniversary Season September 22-25 with concerts featuring the music of Bloch, Mendelssohn and Shchedrin. Ms Salerno-Sonnenberg has renewed her contract for an additional two years, with a third year option.

Since she joined as Music Director, ticket sales have hit all time highs with a 76% renewal rate, also an all time high. Total ticket sales have increased 67% and, coincidentally, the number of donors has increased by the exact same percentage. Total contributed income has increased by 114%. Other milestones include the release of two acclaimed recordings and the completion of one very successful tour with the booking complete for the second, which will take place this November.

Nadja has invited founding Music Director Stuart Canin returns to celebrate this important milestone in the orchestra's history with performances of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D Minor. The season also includes the return of Krista Bennion Feeney.

Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1, first performed by the orchestra during Stuart Canin's final season, replaces Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch, who led the San Francisco Conservatory of Music 1925-30, often included various Jewish themes and subjects in his music. These Jewish influences can be heard in this work for string orchestra and piano obbligato, including a set of Swiss dances from the composer's childhood.

Shchedrin's Carmen Suite completes the program. This work was originally banned after its premiere in his native Soviet Union for being "insulting to Bizet's masterpiece." However, it has since become an American audience favorite, featuring all of the great melodies from the famous opera with imaginative writing for large percussion section.

The first program of the year will be given on four different evenings in four different locations around the Bay Area:  Thursday, September 22 at 8 p.m., First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Friday, September 23 at 8 p.m., First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, Saturday, September 24 at 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, and Sunday, September 25 at 5pm, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. New Century offers an Open Rehearsal at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 20 in the Herbst Theater for a price of only $8.00. (Picture Right: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg)

Single tickets range in price from $29 to $59 and are available through City Box Office: or (415) 392-4400. Discounted single tickets are available for patrons under 35. Open rehearsal tickets are priced at $8.

--Karen Ames, Karen Ames Communications

Anne-Sophie Mutter, ASM35: The Complete Musician, Highlights (CD review)

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; various artists, conductors, and orchestras. DG 477 9730 (2-disc set).

This CD set shows my age. I continue to think of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter as a young, new musician, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw the title of this new collection, Anne-Sophie Mutter, ASM35: The Complete Musician.  "ASM 35"? The set celebrates Ms. Mutter's thirty-fifth year as a performing musician, making her stage debut with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1976, her debut at the Salzburg Festival and the English Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim in 1977, and her recording debut with Karajan on DG in 1978. Remarkable how time flies.

The present two-disc set is actually a highlights collection drawn from a huge forty-disc limited-edition box set of Ms. Mutter's DG recordings. Playing with a variety of accompanists, conductors, and orchestras, the set spans her career more-or-less chronologically from 1974 to 2008. Of course, most of the pieces are merely segments of larger works, in many cases single movements of longer concertos. Still, it gives you an idea of her accomplishments, her artistry, her style, her virtuosity, and both her passionate and poetic moods. Let me mention a couple of things that stand out for me.

The first notable item on disc one (after a brief Prokofiev solo from 1974) is the Allegro from Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic from 1978, Ms. Mutter's first big hit recording (and one I still have in my own record library). There is not a hint of immaturity about her playing, and Karajan's support is brilliantly sympathetic. Indeed, this is still my favorite Mutter recording of all. Next, she does the Andante from Brahms's Double Concerto with cellist Antonio Meneses, conductor Karajan, and the BPO, from 1983. She makes a perfect partner for Meneses, and the two young performers build the tensions beautifully, if a little slowly, sedately. After that is the finale from Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, also with Karajan and the BPO, this one from 1980.  Here, we find Mutter at her most Romantic, even though there is little sentimentalizing of the music, which displays a lovely bounce and lilt. Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, with James Levine and the Vienna Philharmonic from 1992 comes filled with swagger. Finally, on disc one is a live recording of the third-movement Allegro from Brahms's Violin Concerto, with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic from 1997, which hasn't quite the sweet, lyrical feel of her earlier recording with Karajan but still expresses much joy and satisfaction.

Disc two opens with a live recording from Copenhagen of the "Winter" concerto from The Four Seasons, recorded in 1999. Again, we get a rather soft, Romantic approach to the score, yet it is quite heartfelt, the accompaniment a bit foursquare, and the sound fairly bright and forward. A highlight of the second disc is a sensuously played Gershwin number, "It Ain't Necessarily So," with Ms. Mutter accompanied by Andre Previn on piano. Another live recording comes from Mutter, Masur, and the NY Phil in 2002, this time the Rondo from Beethoven's Violin Concerto. It was, I believe, her second recording of the Beethoven, this one just as lyrically played, if marginally more intensely; too bad about the live sound, though.

The rest of disc two offers mostly live recordings from the 2000's, live apparently being the only way for big companies and big orchestras to record economically anymore. None of it sounds as good as the studio material on the first disc. Anyway, I enjoyed the Allegretto from Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto pretty well, recorded in 2008 with Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It's typically smooth, balmy, and quiet, maybe a little lightweight but certainly lustrous enough.

The earlier studio recordings are, as I've said, for the most part better done than the later live recordings--cleaner, often more realistic in their tonal balance, if not always in their orchestral depth. The later live recordings are closer and brighter, with the faint but unmistakable sense of a hall presence and an audience. Fortunately, there is no applause involved.

There is quite a lot of other material on the two discs as well, too much to go into. Let it suffice to say that if you enjoy Ms. Mutter's usually delicate yet virtuosic approach to music making, you'll like this collection of excerpts. Maybe it will even prompt you to buy one of her discs of complete works, which I suspect is one of the main points of the set.


Beethoven: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Romances 1 & 2.  Maxim Vengerov, violin; Mstislav Rostropovich, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 36403 2.

This is one sweet recording, from Vengerov's violin playing to Rostropovich's conducting and the LSO's accompaniment to the sound the EMI engineers capture at their famed Abbey Road Studio No. 1. This isn't to say the disc will please all listeners, but it may at least be interesting for its somewhat unusual approach.

Vengerov and company take a very Romantic view of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, an interpretation that is quite a bit slower and more sentimental than some of us have lived with for so long. The opening Allegro ma non troppo, for instance, is mostly gentle and laid back; it has less bite than Szeryng and Haitink (Philips) provide, less drama than Perlman and Giulini (EMI), and less show than Heifetz and Munch (RCA). Instead, Vengerov and Rostropovich provide a haunting, lyrical vision of the piece, steeped in emotion and punctuated by tremendously dynamic outbursts from the orchestra. Is it what we're used to? No. Is it what most listeners want? Probably not. Is it worth hearing? Sure thing, if only for the novelty.

It's in the second movement Larghetto, though, where Vengerov comes into his own, the slow, languorous variations sounding more mournful than ever. However, I have to admit that this approach loses a lot of weight in the Rondo finale, where much of Beethoven's intended exuberance and joy is rather sucked out of the music. So, it's kind of a toss-up whether audiences will find it a worthy alternative to the best recordings available.

If anything, it's the Romances Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Orchestra that come up best, sounding a little better suited to Vengerov's approach. Are they enough to sell the disc? I don't know.

The EMI sound engineers do their part as well to provide the rather soft, slow, cushy performance with a soft, cushy, yet fairly close recording. It's maybe a little too well upholstered for ultimate midrange definition, but except for some areas of violin-orchestra imbalance it suits Vengerov's leisurely reading and makes for easy listening.


Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos RV375, RV277, and RV271. Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-03.

Celebrating their thirtieth anniversary in 2011, the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is among the oldest and finest period-instruments ensembles in the world. This makes it all the more extraordinary that in dozens of recordings for Harmonia Mundi, Reference Recordings, BMG, and their own Philharmonia Baroque Productions, they had never before recorded Vivaldi's ubiquitous Four Seasons. For that matter, they have never recorded Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, but maybe with a recording as good as this one, it's better late than never.

Nicholas McGegan, the orchestra's principal conductor since 1985, chose to use musical scores based on original manuscripts provided by permission of the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino and Osterreichische Nationalbibiothek. The results they obtain by adhering to these scores, along with decisions no doubt entirely the responsibility of Maestro McGegan, may not please everyone, especially those listeners used to more-romanticized or more-breakneck readings. Instead, McGegan seems single-mindedly intent on producing as authentic yet as stimulating a realization of the music as possible. Not a bad decision if you ask me.

As most listeners know, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, yet people will probably always remember him best for his Four Seasons violin concertos, the little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they comprise the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). People hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set.

I have to tell you, these Vivaldi Four Seasons interpretations sound more colorful and more imaginative than most I've heard. Indeed, they are some of the most vital, most vigorous, most forceful, most driving, most engaging renderings of the four concertos one could ask for. They are quite special.

So, just what makes McGegan's realizations any different from the 800 other versions you'll find on disc? Well, to begin with, as I say, these are not cushy, comfortable renditions, nor are they hell-bent-for-leather speed demons. In fact, McGegan generates fairly conventional tempos and sticks with the correct number of players indicated by the scores. No, the things that make McGegan's Vivaldi performances different and better than most others lie in his phrasing, his emphases, his attack, and his choice of dynamic contrasts. These are not timid readings but enthusiastically thrustful ones. If your idea of a great Four Seasons interpretation lies in its ability to make the listener actually hear and visualize the various times of the year, with all their attendant features, then McGegan's renditions with the Philharmonia Baroque are among the best-characterized ones currently before the public. You'll hear the yelping dogs, you'll feel the icy rain, and you'll be thoroughly entertained. If you're merely looking for another piece of Baroque background music to play at your next dinner party, forgetaboutit.

With all the talk about the works' graphic representations of the changes of the year, we tend sometimes to overlook the fact that each of The Four Seasons concertos is a three-movement piece for solo violin with orchestral accompaniment. In this regard, the various works not only set a pioneering standard for program music but for instrumental concertos as well. And each concerto provides Baroque violin soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock an opportunity to display her virtuosic technique. The whole set is a remarkable achievement on all counts.

Accompanying The Four Seasons we find three more Vivaldi concertos: the Concerto in B-flat major RV375; the Concerto in E minor, "Il Favorito" RV277; and the Concerto in E major, "L'amoroso" RV271. As McGegan does with their more-celebrated brethren, he handles them with characteristic ardor and élan, and I was especially taken by the lyrical bounce in RV271. Critics often joke that Vivaldi wrote the same music over and over again, but when you hear what McGegan does with these works, you're apt to change your mind. Despite some obvious similarities with The Four Seasons, each of these other concertos comes off with a distinct voice, tone, and style of its own. After you hear them, you may find yourself with a new respect for the composer's output.

Anyway, no matter what you think of McGegan's Vivaldi performances, as good as they are, there can be no question about the sound. These are simply among the best-sounding Vivaldi Four Seasons now before the public. OK, let me temper that somewhat, because with so many available recordings I admit I have not heard absolutely all of them. So let me assure you that out of the many dozens of Vivaldi Four Seasons I have auditioned over the past forty years or more, this one by Philharmonia Baroque is probably the best I've heard.

Audio engineer and producer David v.R. Bowles made the recording at the Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California, in December 2010. The resultant sound is extraordinarily vigorous, fairly close, with huge impact, as though the listener were in the studio with the orchestra. The midrange is as transparent as one could want, without a trace of harshness, brightness, forwardness, or edge. The bass and treble are well extended, with a strong, taut low end and glowingly natural highs. Moreover, one can hear into the orchestra, through the several lines of players, with an exceptionally fine separation of instruments. The string tone from the violins to the bass is beautifully, realistically captured, vibrant in every sense of the word.

I had about half a dozen recordings of The Four Seasons on hand for comparison, all of them well recorded. Yet in head-to-head competition, they all sounded glassier, softer, rougher, or less clear as the case may be than the Philharmonia Baroque recording, which outshone them all.

Finally, the disc comes housed in a handsome Digipak container with an attached, thirty-two-page booklet insert. Understand, I am not usually in favor of Digipaks because if you accidentally break the center spindle, it's over for you. You cannot replace a Digipak the way you can easily replace a standard jewel box. Nevertheless, in this instance the packaging is so attractive, I can overlook any possible inconvenience.


Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (CD review)

Also, Tsar Saltan, suite.  Samuel Magad, violin; Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics Apex 2564 67429-0.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote his symphonic suite Scheherazade, Op. 35, in 1888, loosely basing it on the mood of tales from the Arabian Nights, saying "All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements." Certainly, it would become the most-popular thing the man ever wrote and one of the most widely played and widely loved pieces of music in the classical repertoire.

The composer titled the first movement The Sea and Sinbad's Ship. In Maestro Daniel Barenboim's reading, compared to conductors like Beecham (EMI), Reiner (RCA), Haitink (Philips), Kondrashin (Philips), and Mackerras (Telarc), things seem a little under-characterized. However, in its favor there is no exaggeration, no glamorizing of the score. Then, too, the conductor loses a bit of something in his pointing of dynamic contrasts, the phrasing being a touch limp at times. These are quibbles, of course, in an otherwise fine rendering, with Samuel Magad's violin providing a sensuous narration and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra responding resplendently. Following that, The Story of the Kalandar Prince comes across beautifully in its poetic sections, even if the more-exciting parts appear a bit flat.

In The Young Prince and Princess Barenboim conveys a lovely lyrical mood as the romance unfolds. And then in the big finale that follows, Festival in Baghdad; The Sea; Shipwreck, Barenboim continues the romantic spirit, if failing to generate as many outright thrills as his rivals. So, overall, what we get is a fairly ordinary performance, with some good points and some mediocre ones.

The disc program ends with the Suite from Tsar Saltan, which includes The Tsar's Farewell and Departure, The Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea, and The Three Wonders. Here, I thought Barenboim brought out more color in the score than he did in Scheherazade. He seems to be having more fun with the music, too, and it comes across in a bouncier, more-playful style. I wonder if he wasn't taking Scheherazade too seriously. I dunno.

Originally, it was Erato who made the recording at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in 1993, re-released by Warner Classic in 2011. The sound is very clean and clear, with plenty of transparent midrange texture, orchestral depth, hall ambience, and dynamic range. Although the extension of bass and treble is only moderate, not extraordinary, the upper strings display a realistic, perhaps compensating, sheen. So whether you like the performance or not, at least the sound is pretty good.


Classical Music News of the Week: Sept. 18, 2011

Steinway & Sons Debuts Etude 2.0 iPad App for Learning and Playing Piano Interactive Platform for Learning, Reading and Buying Sheet Music from Diverse Catalog

New York, NY. September 15, 2011--Steinway & Sons, a subsidiary of Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. (NYSE: LVB), debuted Version 2.0 of its breakthrough Etude app for learning, reading, and buying sheet music on the Apple iPad. This latest version of Etude adds a growing commercial sheet music store, new ways to display and read music, and a refined interface.

Etude represents a leap forward in digital sheet music, offering an interactive experience that makes musical notes come alive on screen, helping users learn and play the music they love. The app offers seamless in-app purchasing and downloading of sheet music and affords the user a variety of options to hear how the music should sound and how it is played. All of these features are included in a powerful package that sits elegantly atop the user's piano or keyboard.

"Steinway & Sons enjoys a long history of innovation and dedication to music education," said Dana Messina, CEO of Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. "With Etude, we continue to set a standard for excellence in discovering, learning and playing music while growing ever closer to our family of teachers, students, musicians and future Steinway & Sons customers."

The latest version of Etude features
Interactive sheet music: Specially engraved for the iPad, with cues for finger placement, multiple view modes, and the ability to hear playback with varying tempos

Piano roll mode: Familiar view for players of music-based video games helps beginners learn to play by rolling color over the appropriate keys during playback

Built-in sheet music store: Download free and premium sheet music from an expanding catalog, spanning classical works to the latest radio hits

Personal library: Access and manage downloaded sheet music from a personal in-app library that displays cover art for all owned works

In 2010, Steinway & Sons acquired Etude from creator Dan Grover, who continued its development as Steinway's Director of Music Technology. "Etude transforms how any level of piano player can use digital sheet music for practice, learning and fun," said Grover.

 Etude is available today for free in the Apple App Store® and is compatible with iPads running iOS® 4.3 or higher. To learn more, visit Etude users who own an earlier version of the app and have questions about how to upgrade can visit for more information.

--Amanda Sweet, Bucklesweet Media

"Liszt 200 Chicago" Participants Compete at Nichols Concert Hall, Oct. 20-23
International Duo Piano Competition to Award $16,000 in Prizes.  Additional day of preliminary competition added due to demand.

The Music Institute of Chicago, the oldest community music school in Illinois and one of the three oldest in the nation, and the Chicago Duo Piano Festival, founded by Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem, present the "Liszt 200 Chicago" International Duo Piano Competition, in celebration of Franz Liszt's 200th birthday. This international competition takes place on Liszt's 200th birthday weekend, October 20–23, 2011, at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston.

The approximately 25 competing piano duos range from 20 to 35 years old and come from around the world, including China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, Russia, Italy, Germany, Canada, and throughout the U.S., from California to New York City. Prizes include the Grand Prize "Liszt 200 Chicago" ($8,000), second prize ($4,000), third prize ($2,000), and the "Norman Pellegrini Schubert Prize" for the best performance of a work by Schubert ($2,000). Each duo will play a work by Mozart and a piano duo by Franz Liszt; more than half the competitors have elected to play a work by Schubert to compete for the Pellegrini Prize.

The judges are Jeffrey Swann (U.S.), jury chair, concert pianist; professor, New York University and Arizona State University; Yong Hi Moon (Korea/U.S.), member of Moon-Lee Piano Duo; professor, The Peabody Institute; Edward and Ann Turgeon (Canada), concert piano duo; professors, Florida State University; and Theodore Edel (U.S.), noted Chicago-based pianist; professor emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The four days of competition are open to the public: preliminary rounds take place October 20, 21, and 22 at 10 a.m., with the final round and prize presentation Sunday, October 23 at 1 p.m. All three rounds take place at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. Tickets to the preliminary rounds are free; admission to the final round is $25, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students. More information is available at 847-905-1500 ext. 108 or

Called a "duo piano mecca" by Pioneer Press, the Chicago Duo Piano Festival was founded in 1988 by Music Institute of Chicago faculty members Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem. Its mission is to foster a deeper interest in the repertoire, performance, and teaching of music for piano, four hands and two pianos, in a fun and supportive atmosphere.

"Spanish Flair" Opens Orion Ensemble's 2011-12 Season
Chicago--The Orion Ensemble, Chicago's nationally recognized and critically acclaimed chamber music ensemble, opens its 19th season of concerts, Chamber Treasures Meet Chicago Jazz, with a program entitled "Spanish Flair," featuring works by Cassadó, Granados, Khachaturian and Stravinsky. Performances take place September 25 at Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, October 5 at Roosevelt University's Ganz Memorial Hall in Chicago, and October 9 at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva.

"Spanish Flair" features piano trios by two Catalan composers--Trio in C Major for Violin, Cello and Piano (1926) by Gaspar Cassadó and Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 50 (1910) by Enrique Granados--and two additional early 20th century works: Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1932) by Aram Khachaturian and Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo (1920) by Igor Stravinsky.

Orion's 2011-12 season continues in November with "Classical Romance," including works by Beethoven and Schubert; in March, "Celebrating Women Composers," with works by Stacy Garrop, Louise Farrenc, Phyllis Tate and Fanny Mendelsshon; and, in May, with "All That Jazz!" featuring special guest pianist Miguel de la Cerna, who contributes a work commissioned for Orion on a program that also includes a Fauré quartet and Dokshitser's arrangement of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for clarinet and piano.

In addition to its annual four-concert series in three areas, the Orion Ensemble will appear on the broadcast series "Live from WFMT" December 5, 2011 and March 12, 2012 and in the Chicago Cultural Center's Lunchbreak Series "Classical Mondays" October 31 and November 21, 2011. Orion also tours, performing in chamber music series across the country. Their most recent CD is Twilight of the Romantics.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Halle: English Spring (CD review)

Music of Bax, Delius, and Bridge. Sir Mark Elder, Halle Orchestra. Halle Concerts Society CD HLL 7528.

The Halle is the U.K.'s oldest orchestra (and fourth-oldest in the world), founded in 1857 and making its home in Manchester, England. Its current Music Director, Sir Mark Elder, has chosen for this album a program of pastoral music from early-twentieth-century English composers Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, and Frank Bridge, the guys who specialized in such things.

The disc begins with Spring Fire, a suite of five impressionist tone poems by Arnold Bax (1883-1953). In it, Bax says he attempted to describe "the first uprush and impulse of Spring in the woods," and it comes complete with mythological woodland creatures. The first movement, In the Forest before Dawn, depicts a primeval forest in the hour before daybreak, a persistent drip from a recent shower providing the background. It's lovely and evocative, the best part of the score, and Elder and the Halle play it with an appropriate observation of still, quiet mystery.

The next movement, Daybreak and Sunrise, builds a lighter tone and leads to the sun's coming up in a sort of minor fanfare. Here, Bax's notes on the subject indicate the awakening of all sorts of legendary forest folk: nymphs, fauns, satyrs, and such rising with the glitter of the sun. Fair enough, although despite Elder's best efforts I didn't quite hear them.

Full Day comes crashing in with a sudden outburst of orchestral flurry. Then, once the clamor of daylight winds down, we hear Woodland Love. Bax marked the movement "romantic and glowing," and "drowsily." It sounds a lot like something his colleague Frederick Delius might have written--sinuous and meandering and, under Elder, a touch melancholy.

The work ends with Maenads, a boisterous chase through the woods as a band of merrymakers led by Bacchus and Pan fly after a group of maidens. It ends the day on a note of high-spirited fun and enjoyment. Spring has sprung.

Next up we find two pieces by Frederick Delius (1862-1934), an early one, Idylle de Printemps (Spring Idyll, 1889), and a later one, North Country Sketches: The March of Spring (1913-14). Both are folksy and serene, with the second piece setting a better focused, more-purposeful mood.

The program concludes with my favorite music, Enter Spring: A Rhapsody for Orchestra, by Frank Bridge (1879-1941). Bridge wrote it in 1927 as more than a subjective, impressionistic piece; it paints a fairly rousing picture of the emerging season. Elder seems to take the greatest joy in this music, too, giving it all the vitality and life it needs. At about twenty minutes, it is also the longest and most-complex number on the disc. I've long cherished an EMI recording of Bridge's work by Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to which this performance by Maestro Elder compares most favorably.

The Halle Concerts Society recorded tracks 1-6 live in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, in 2010, the sound somewhat soft, moderately distanced, warm, and sweet. An unfortunate applause interrupts one's pleasure after the Bax suite. Tracks 7 and 8 they recorded in BBC Studio 7, also in 2010, to much better effect. While the midrange is still more warm than transparent, the sound displays greater body and clarity, a stronger dynamic impact, and more-extended bass and treble response. It makes me wish the Halle had recorded the entire program in the studio.


Brahms: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Hungarian Dances. Marin Alsop, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557429.

You know it must be an important disc when a low-cost label such as Naxos provides the jewel box with its own slipcover. You also know something's up when you get half a dozen press releases on the subject. Thus, it was with raised expectations that I sat down to listen to conductor Marin Alsop's rendering of Brahms's Symphony No. 2.

I'm not sure I should have gotten my hopes up quite so high because the performance turns out to be strongly Romantic but not spectacular. While I have never been an avid Brahmsian, I have always rather enjoyed his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73, with its pastoral moods and generally cheerful outlook. It provides a pleasant contrast to the darker, grander tones of the First Symphony. Not that the Second Symphony is all sweetness and light, as it does have its momentary elements of gloom, but it mostly begins and ends on a light, lyrical note, which Alsop conveys nicely in her interpretation.

Indeed, Alsop's reading is a very tight, cozy, safe-sounding one that should play well over the years, radiant and amiable, with plenty of lyrical sentiment expressed throughout. If I still think that past masters like Otto Klemperer (EMI), Adrian Boult (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), George Szell (Sony), and Bruno Walter (Sony) offer more in the way of idiosyncratic voice and expression, it doesn't mean I wouldn't want Alsop around for comfort, especially at so modest a price. Coupled with eight of Brahms's Hungarian Dances, comparably well performed, the disc is, in its own way, almost irresistible.

The sound is quite as comfortable as the performances, too, being warm and plush and cushy. However, in overall transparency the Naxos sonics don't match those on the Klemperer or Boult discs, recordings that are some thirty and forty years older than the 2005 Alsop disc. Oh, well, the Naxos record has a breadth of sound and a depth of image that make up for any minor lack of detail.


Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3, 4 & 5 (CD review)

Also, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Liszt:  Les Preludes; Franck: Le Chasseur maudit. Riccardo Muti, New Philharmonia Orchestra; Philadelphia Orchestra. EMI 50999 0 97972 2 2 (2-disc set).

I've always admired the conducting of Riccardo Muti; he seems so passionate yet so precise about his music making. However, I've not always liked the sound EMI provided for him with the New Philharmonia or, especially, the Philadelphia Orchestra. The former could sometimes appear too light or thin, the latter too rough or edgy. In the present, 2011 re-release set, Muti conducts three Mendelssohn symphonies with the New Philharmonia, which the EMI engineers afford a slightly more-refined sound than with the Philadelphia, so all is well. As far as concerns the performances, they're a hit-and-miss lot. Muti's lean, fiery exactitude isn't always ideally suited to the sunny moods of Mendelssohn, yet when he's on, the music involves the listener as well as that of any conductor.

The two-disc set begins with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor "Scottish," which despite the numbering was in fact the last of the composer's five symphonies, written in 1842. Muti, usually a red-blooded conductor, actually takes the first movement at a fairly slow pace; yet he keeps it nicely taut and together, accenting the lyrical flow of the music well. Thereafter, the conductor picks up more steam, and the rest of the symphony zips along more conventionally.

The Scherzo displays plenty of infectious good cheer and charm; the Adagio has an abundance of lilting grace; and the finale is as vivacious as one could want. Would I say Muti's interpretation displaces those of Peter Maag (Decca), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Claudio Abbado (Decca or DG), or Herbert Blomstedt (Decca)? No, I wouldn't. But Muti's approach is a reasonable alternative, and at the low price of this two-disc set, given its content, it's hard to pass by.

The second item on disc one is the Symphony No. 5 "Reformation," which Mendelssohn wrote in 1830 (in reality, the second of his five symphonies). Like his first two numbered symphonies, the "Reformation" never lives up to Nos. 3 or 4, now mainstays of the classical repertoire. The composer intended the "Reformation" to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the central statement of the Lutheran faith, Mendelssohn himself a devout Lutheran. Although he meant it to be obviously a solemn affair, the two middle movements are comparatively sweet and light, Muti playing the whole thing with the utmost respect and gravity.

Disc two begins with the Symphony No. 4 "Italian," premiered by Mendelssohn in 1833 after a trip to Italy but never published in his lifetime. Here, Muti is most in his element. The first movement Allegro is probably the best-recognized of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies, and Muti handles it with a fittingly sunny dash and spring, without rushing it in the least. Music scholars think the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired the Andante, to which Muti adds a little bounce. Then, there's a delicate minuet, treated most gracefully. And the symphony concludes with a whirlwind of music reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Muti seems totally and delightedly at home.

EMI fill out the second disc with Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, and Cesar Franck's Le Chasseur maudit, the latter two pieces done in Philadelphia. Characteristic of this conductor, the performances are heartfelt and committed, with Les Preludes standing out for its combination of fervor and repose.

EMI made the recordings between 1975 and 1989, the symphonies earliest in Kingsway Hall and Abbey Road Studio No. 1, the shorter works by Liszt and Franck in the Old Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia.

The sound of the Philharmonia is ultrasmooth and a touch soft, with a healthy dynamic range. However, the midrange clarity is only average, and there is not a lot of bass or treble extension.  Orchestral imaging and depth are, too, only modest. Nevertheless, the results are quite agreeable and make for easy, nondemanding listening. While the Philadelphia sound in the final two selections is a touch brighter and not so smooth, it does provide a tad more stage depth, stereo spread, and overall transparency.


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Karelia Suite; Finlandia. Sir Charles Mackerras, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Philharmonic Masterworks Audiophile Collection. Sheridan Square/Allegro RPM 28920.

Even though fans of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) will already have multiple copies of the music on this disc, Sir Charles Mackerras's unadorned performances may be refreshing enough to warrant another version of them. Then again, because the three pieces represented--the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, the Karelia Suite, and the tone poem Finlandia--are so popular, the disc might also make a good starter set for listeners just setting out on a Sibelius collection. In any case, the interpretations and the sound are worthy of consideration.

The main work on the album is the Second Symphony, which Sibelius premiered in 1902. In it, the composer strove both to describe the sounds of nature and to evoke a patriotic message of independence, rather a lot for one composer to manage in one composition. But manage he does, and audiences have loved the music for over a century.

Sibelius opens the symphony with a light Allegretto, pastoral in mood, with Mackerras bringing out its bucolic qualities without over sentimentalizing it at all. In fact, he plays up the rhythmic beat and holds back a little in the slower sections, creating a tension-filled few minutes. You won't find any glamorizing or glorifying here, only a straightforward account of the score.

The Andante that follows continues this straightforward approach, beginning with plucked basses and cellos, the bassoon playing an enigmatic tune over them and Mackerras using the occasion to paint a typically Sibelius landscape of barren northern climes. Then, as he proceeds, the conductor whips up a good little flurry, perhaps a Lapland storm of some sort, with echoes of Finlandia throughout.

The Scherzo, marked "Vivacissimo," is certainly that--lively and vivacious--although Mackerras never gets carried away into any kind of frenzy. That sensible, pragmatic wont of his prevents him from ever getting fully wound up. However, after the lovely middle section that momentarily interrupts the excitement, Mackerras does return with a renewed fervor, and the ending sets up the finale nicely.

The last movement may be the most-famous and most-popular segment of any of Sibelius's seven symphonies. It's weighty and memorable, and here the conductor captures not only the grandeur of the music but its lyrical beauty as well. He ensures the symphony ends in a blaze of glory for independence and self-rule.

In the end, Mackerras's account of the symphony may not be the absolute best on record, not with more-passionate or more-characterful versions available from Barbirolli (EMI and Chesky), Karajan (EMI), Davis (Philips and RCA), Ashkenazy (Decca), Szell (Philips), Bernstein (Sony), Ormandy (RCA), Vanska (BIS), and others. Nevertheless, Mackerras's clearheaded vision, well-judged tempos, and poetic rhythms are sure to please even critics of Sibelius's music.

The Allegro Corporation fill out the disc with two other favorite Sibelius pieces: the Karelia Suite and Finlandia, both works as well liked as the symphony. I especially enjoyed the bounce in "Ala Marcia." Mackerras was always a somewhat reserved conductor, as I've said, a bit like Bernard Haitink, who never added much of his own personal emotion to an interpretation, preferring to let the music speak for itself. So you will find more-exciting performances from other conductors. Mackerras is never foursquare, you understand, just balanced, which in the music of Sibelius may be just the right tack.

For reasons unknown, the folks at Allegro never seem to indicate on their RPO packaging the time or place of the recording, nor do they usually indicate a live recording. The booklet note does state, though, that Sheridan Square published the present recording in 2007 and that Allegro Corporation released it in 2011. The actual recording date? I don't know. And is it live, as many other Royal Philharmonic Masterworks recordings are? I don't think so. There is not a hint of audience noise or applause. Rather, it sounds like a good studio production, which I'm guessing it is.

Addendum:  A kind reader informed me after I posted this review that Mackerras made the recording for Tring in 1994.  So there you are.

The orchestral sound displays weight and body, yet it retains a fine midrange clarity, with very little veiling. The dynamic range is wide, although impact is only modest, as are the bass and treble extension and stage depth. The drum rolls in Finlandia are thrilling, even if the sound in the rest of the music is more moderate. Let's just say the sonic presentation is natural and lifelike without being in any way spectacular or overwhelming. It's comfortable, well-balanced sound, a lot like Mackerras's interpretations.


Classical Music News of the Week: Sept. 11, 2011

Piatigorsky International Cello Festival
Friday, March 9 - Sunday, March 18, 2012
Ralph Kirshbaum, Artistic Director

The USC Thornton School of Music and the L.A. Philharmonic in partnership with The Colburn School and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra bring together masters of the cello and young cellists from around the world for the inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, a unique celebration of the cello, its music and its musicians. Twenty-two outstanding artists, representing twelve countries, converge on Los Angeles for ten days, March 9 through 18, 2012, to share their artistry and teaching experience through orchestral concerts, chamber music performances, master classes and interactive events. The Festival is led by Artistic Director and USC Thornton School of Music Piatigorsky Chair, Ralph Kirshbaum, in honor of Gregor Piatigorsky , one of the legends of the cello whose tenure at USC heralded a period of incredible vibrancy in the cultural life of Los Angeles.

The opening concert features the American premiere of Thomas Demenga's Double Concerto performed by the composer and his brother Patrick, and the appearance of 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medalist Narek Hakhnazaryan performing Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Festival Orchestra. In addition to the American premiere of Demenga's Double Concerto, the Festival presents the American premiere of Miklós Perényi's Scherzo with Introduction, continuing the tradition of great cellist/composers exemplified by Piatigorsky. Other highlights include the unique opportunity to hear the six solo suites of Bach performed consecutively by six different cellists, and an evening of film and discussion celebrating the life and career of Gregor Piatigorsky enlivened by a panel that includes his grandson, Evan Drachman, and six of Piatigorsky's esteemed former students. Master Recital programs highlight an exciting diversity of works ranging from contemporary compositions to seldom performed masterpieces. Three of the Festival's concluding concerts, a Los Angeles Philharmonic subscription series conducted by Neeme Jä rvi, showcase outstanding soloists performing Dvorák, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. The Festival's finale features over 100 cellists on the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall for the West Coast premiere of Rapturedux by Christopher Rouse.

This ten day gathering of diverse musical values and points of view will strive to provide an inspirational showcase that will resonate throughout the world. The rich and varied kaleidoscope of master classes, recitals and concerts given by some of the greatest cellists of our time provides a unique opportunity to bring together the leading musical institutions of Los Angeles with representatives of the broader international music community.

Cellists will include Patrick Demenga, Thomas Demenga, Evan Drachman, Narek Hakhnazaryan,
Frans Helmerson, Gary Hoffman, Steven Isserlis, Terry King, Ralph Kirshbaum, Ronald Leonard, Laurence Lesser, Antonio Lysy, Mischa Maisky, Miklós Perényi, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Nathaniel Rosen, Andrew Shulman, Jeffrey Solow, Peter Stumpf, Raphael Wallfisch, Jian Wang, Alisa Weilerstein, and members of the L.A. Cello Society.

Pianists will include Ayke Agus, Bernadene Blaha, Rina Dokshitsky, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Jeffrey Kahane, Antoinette Perry, and Connie Shih.  The narrator will be John Rubinstein, and the conductors
Neeme Järvi, Courtney Lewis, and Hugh Wolff.

--Nate Bachhuber, Kirshbaum Demler & Associates

Strathmore Announces Musicians in 2011-2012 Artists in Residence
AIR program expands with acceptance of first electronica, Gypsy jazz, R&B
North Bethesda, MD: Strathmore's burgeoning Artist in Residence (AIR) program continues to grow in its seventh season with the induction of its first electronica, Gypsy jazz and R&B musicians. Since its inception in 2005, Strathmore's AIR program has helped to support the local music community by nurturing the careers of 34 emerging musicians. 2011-2012 AIR participants are Gypsy Jazz vocalist Mary Alouette, singer-songwriter ellen cherry, soul electric guitarist Nate Foley, R&B vocalist Jay Hayden, electronica musician Yoko K and clarinetist Rob Patterson. AIR participants will be mentored by established local musicians Dan Hovey, Seth Kibel and Connaitre Miller.

AIR concerts in the Mansion begin on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 7:30 p.m. with clarinetist Rob Patterson in the Shapiro Music Room. All AIR concerts in the Mansion begin at 7:30 p.m. Admission to Artists in Residence concerts is $12 for the general public and $10.80 for Strathmore Stars. Admission to AIR mentor concerts is $15 for the general public and $13.50 for Strathmore Stars.

Strathmore's AIR program cultivates local musical talent in the Washington, D.C. area. Emerging talents hone their craft through intense mentor relationships with established performers. Artists in Residence build their business acumen through professional development workshops, create school outreach programs and perfect their stage presence and expand their audiences during live performances. Each Artist in Residence is a featured performer in the Mansion at Strathmore for one month, in which they present salon-style concerts. The AIR experience culminates in the premiere of a new work commissioned by Strathmore, reflecting each musician's growth during the program. AIR graduates include Grammy nominated hip hop artist Christylz Bacon, celebrity jazz harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet, Saddle Creek recording artist Laura Burhenn and her band, the mynabirds, and ukulele chanteuse Victoria Vox.

--Michael Fila, Strathmore

Notable Women (CD review)

Music by Auerbach, Garrop, Higdon, Schwendinger, Thomas, and Tower. Lincoln Trio.  Cedille Records CDR 900000 126.

When I first read the title of this album, I'm afraid my regrettable male-chauvinist bias surfaced, and I looked forward to listening to it with about as much enthusiasm as watching a movie on the Lifetime Channel. However, after glancing at the contents, I noticed one of the composers was Jennifer Higdon, an artist I admired, so it gave me encouragement to proceed.

The album contains works by six female composers, all of the pieces brief, the longest one lasting about nineteen minutes, and played by the Lincoln Trio (Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano).

Things begin with the world-premiere recording of the Trio for violin, cello and piano (1992/1996) by Lera Auerbach. The brief Prelude is rather mysterious and a little disturbing in its eerie strains.  The Andante that follows is sweetly melancholic and oddly comforting, the opposite of the first movement. The concluding Presto changes the mood entirely in its heavily accented, pulsating rhythms. Here, the middle section recalls the opening movement, returning us briefly to the same enigmatic mood that started the work. It gradually intensifies again and ends triumphantly. Although the work is short at under a dozen minutes, it makes a good curtain raiser, especially as the Lincoln Trio play it, with appropriate enthusiasm.

The next selection, also a world-premiere recording, is Seven (1997-98), a collection of seven interconnected segments by Stacy Garrop. The composer says the Borg of the TV series Star Trek Voyager partially inspired her, so you can sort of guess at the tone of the music. I would have thought there was at least a touch of David Fincher's mystery thriller Se7en in there, too, given the music's mood and the kid of unusual aural effects Ms. Garrop's strives to achieve. The Lincoln Trio appear to be having fun with its often bizarre contents, and folks who enjoy modern music are sure to enjoy it.

From the only name with which I was familiar, Jennifer Higdon, comes the two-movement Piano Trio (2003). Compared to the first couple of compositions on the disc, Ms. Higdon's music seems positively old-fashioned and Romantic, which, by the way, I count as a good thing. In "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red" she attempts to characterize colors in music, with the results we might expect: one segment buttery smooth, the other brilliantly flashy. Again, the Lincoln Trio get a chance to display their virtuosity.

After that is another world-premiere recording, C'e la Luna Questa Sera? ("Is There a Moon Tonight?" 1998-2006), by Laura Elise Schwendinger. I confess it did not move me in any particular way, despite the rhapsodic manner in which it unfolds. Ms. Schwendinger intended the work to reflect the moonlight on Lake Como, surely a beautiful sight, but for how long might one continue enthralled by it in music? She gives it a pretty good shot, though.

Augusta Read Thomas provides the next selection, Moon Jig (2005), another piece of music inspired by the moon but this one more rhythmically intense than Ms. Schwendinger's. I'm afraid, however, that it, too, left me somewhat underwhelmed, notwithstanding its enthusiastic presentation.

The program ends with the world-premiere recording of Joan Tower's Trio Cavany (2007). She named the work after the home states of the people who commissioned it: the La Jolla Music Society in California, the Virginia Arts Festival, and the Chamber Music Society of New York. Talk about esoteric. What it does best is provide each of the three players in the Lincoln Trio a chance to shine in the spotlight, and each of them glows radiantly.

The question with most new music is how often one anticipates going back to it. Certainly, while I'm glad to have heard all the music on the disc, I can't say I'm too eager for a return listen anytime soon. It's music on which one must concentrate, and I'm not sure I'm ready for it just yet.

The sound, which Cedille engineer Bill Maylone recorded at Bennett-Gordon Hall at Ravina, Highland Park, Illinois, in 2010 and 2011, is realistic in its capturing a natural room resonance. The sonics come across refined and lifelike, with a soft, warm, ambient bloom around each instrument.


Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Martinu: Memorial to Lidice; Klein: Partita for Strings. Christoph Eschenbach, the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ondine SACD ODE 1072-5.

I have been saying for years that live recordings give up too much in audio quality for any potential benefits in spontaneity, but occasionally one like this disc sort of contradicts expectations. It's an excellent live recording of three equally excellent performances and gets high marks on all counts.

Christoph Eschenbach is in top form, and his Philadelphia players have never sounded better in works that commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. This is not to say that the music is entirely solemn, but it is appropriately elegiac and reminds us again of the horror those times.

Czechoslovakian composer Bohuslav Martinu's Memorial to Lidice remembers the town of Lidice, which the Nazis destroyed in retaliation for the assassination of a regional governor. It's a short work, about a dozen minutes long, but it is powerful, growing in tension and intensity as it proceeds. Another Czech composer, Gideon Klein, tragically died young in a Nazi concentration in 1944, composing his String Trio while in prison the year of his death. Eschenbach plays an arrangement for string orchestra made in 1990. These three movements, too, are heartfelt, made all the more so considering the circumstances under which Martinu wrote them.

The star attraction, however, is Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's celebrated Concerto for Orchestra, of which there must be dozens of recordings. Place this one among the best, the folk-inspired outer movements full of vitality and the central "Elegia" mournful and moving, with a note of life-inspiring freshness always present in all five sections.

Ondine made the recording live, as I say, in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, during May of 2005 and reproduced in five-channel SACD, two-channel SACD stereo, and two-channel CD stereo. The listener may play the hybrid disc in any conventional CD player or in an SACD player. Because the miking is slightly closer than is often the case in a live recording, we get less audience noise. During the whole of the presentation, I did not hear any coughs, wheezes, or sneezes; indeed, I was only aware of the audience at all when they broke out into an unfortunate applause after the final number. In the meantime, we get a wide soundstage, reasonably clear sonics, a minimum of compartmentalization, and some excellent transient response. The SACD layer appeared to me a bit cleaner and less fuzzy than the regular CD layer and a touch more dynamic; plus, of course, if you have five channels you should notice the additional hall ambience.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" (CD review)

Also, The Creatures of Prometheus; Fidelio; King Stephen; Consecration of the House.  Yondani Butt, London Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6144.

Is the world really waiting with bated breath for yet another recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony? Well, actually, no, particularly when there is already a plethora of good recordings available from conductors like Otto Klemperer (EMI), Sir John Barbirolli (Dutton Lab), Karl Bohm (DG), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Philippe Herreweghe (PentaTone), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Paavo Jarvi (Sony), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), even a cheerfully bizarre one from Hermann Scherchen (HDTT). However, when we hear a new issue performed and recorded as well as Yondani Butt's version with the London Symphony, it might be enough for Beethoven fans to give it a try.

Butt moves along the leadoff Allegro con brio at a commendably energetic pace, "with brio," with vigor and vivacity as Beethoven marked the tempo. Maybe Butt just understands the chemistry of the music; after all, how many other conductors have a Ph.D. in chemistry as Maestro Butt has. Just as he will do throughout the symphony, Butt emphasizes the contrasts: fast and slow, loud and soft. It makes for an exciting opening segment.

The second-movement funeral march can often be the downfall of a conductor, taking it too sluggishly and losing strength or too quickly and losing gravitas. Butt falls somewhere in the middle. While Klemperer and Barbirolli could get away with slow tempos here by injecting them with vitality and a steady forward pace, Butt's speed seems at first a tad too hesitant and spongy. However, when he reaches the climax of the movement about three-quarters through, it is another monumental contrast, and it goes a long way toward selling what could have been too soft an approach.

The Scherzo has plenty of zip and skips happily along with its syncopated rhythms. Then, the spirit of the Scherzo leads unaffectedly into the equally vibrant Finale, which Butt treats quite triumphantly, yet with high good cheer, if also with a slight degree of calculation. No matter, as he ensures the work ends on a high note, figuratively speaking.

At the time of the Third Symphony's première in 1805, some critics complained about its excessive length. Today, we take such lengths for granted as normal, the symphony having had such an influential impact on music thereafter. Indeed, the symphony's length is rather modest by current standards, so much so that Nimbus Alliance are able to fit four Beethoven overtures on the disc as companion pieces.

The Creatures of Prometheus, Fidelio, King Stephen, and Consecration of the House come off well, with the customary vigorous refinement we have come to expect from Maestro Butt. I especially liked the thrilling vivaciousness of Fidelio and the inevitable contrasts, again, in King Stephen.

What a pleasure, too, listening to a new recording that a company didn't do live. This one Nimbus Alliance recorded at Abbey Road Studio 1 and released in 2011. Along with Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, issued separately, they figure to be the start of a complete and welcome new Beethoven cycle.

Anyway, the sound is quite good, if perhaps a little more veiled than the much-older Klemperer and Barbirolli recordings I mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, without the direct comparison, I doubt that anyone would have any objections, the concern is so slight. More to the point, the Nimbus Alliance disc provides a wide dynamic range and a strong impact, with excellent timpani rolls; a smooth and well-extended frequency response, if a touch soft; a modest degree of orchestral depth; and a pleasant amount of reverberant bloom for a realistic hall ambience.


Percussion in Hi-Fi (HQCD review)

Dick Schory's New Percussion Ensemble; David Carroll and His Orchestra. HDTT HDCD237.

Truth in advertising: Percussion in Hi-Fi may not be classical, but it's definitely percussive.

People used to demo their hi-fi rigs with albums like this one to show off their playback equipment and impress friends and family. Still works. The folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), who re-release old, public-domain tapes and LP's on compact disc, have in this instance taken two albums from the mid Fifties and early Sixties--From Melody to Madness with Dick Schory's New Percussion Ensemble and Percussion in Hi-Fi with David Carroll and His Orchestra--and restored and remastered them on a single compact disc. As usual from this source, the sound, over half a century old, puts most new recordings to shame.

I wonder if the sound is so good because home stereo was still in its infancy back then, and audio engineers were still experimenting with optimum microphone placements and optimum stereo effects. Whatever the case, the sonic results in both albums on the disc are outstanding, even if the music is a bit hard to take in anything but small chunks.

HDTT starts the disc with the newer of the two albums, From Melody to Madness, recorded in 1960, providing the first twelve of twenty-three tracks. I'm not sure why they started with this set, given that it's the older one that to my ears actually sounds most pleasing sonically and interpretively. Maybe they were saving the best for last, I dunno.

Anyway, I didn't care much for the disc's opening number, "Caravan," which I hoped was not a bad omen, and in fact wasn't. From that point on everything is looking up, with more-pleasant music, leaner textures, and less-raucous aural response. I especially liked Dick Schory's version of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home"; the pulsating "Fascinating Rhythm"; the exotic "Safari Anyone"; and the surprisingly subtle "Autumn in New York," considering it was all done on percussion instruments (with about a dozen percussionists involved).

"Fly Now, Pay Later" is a kind of no-holds-barred percussion extravaganza, and it might be just the ticket for that demo exercise I referred to earlier. Then, while listening to "Stranger in Paradise," it reminded me of the Arthur Lyman Group, which also did this sort of thing back in the Fifties and Sixties and whose recordings  DCC Compact Classics have also preserved well on disc, if not so spectacularly as HDTT do it on this disc.

As I say, though, I had a preference, overall, for the music and sound of the second album on the HDTT disc, the one recorded even earlier, in 1956, from David Carroll and His Orchestra. Among their numbers, I enjoyed "Bali Ha'i" perhaps the best of anything on the program; "The Chimes of Swing" for, well, its chimes; the atmospheric "Malaguena"; the nuanced jazz of "Discussion in Percussion" and "Quiet Talk"; the delicate beauty of "Jungle Drums," and the unique flair of "Spanish Symphonique."

The booklet note tells us that the Carroll selections used six musicians playing an array of percussion instruments that included vibraphones, marimbas, xylophones, tympani, tam-tam, celesta, glockenspiel, orchestral bells, castanets, tom toms, triangle, maracas, bass drum, traps, greco cymbals, hand cymbals, claves, cathedral chimes, snare drum, tambourine, conga drum, guiro, cabaza, timbales, bongo drums, and field drums; plus, two men on piano, one on contrabass, one on harp, and two more on guitars. That's quite an ensemble.

Still, it's the sound that counts most here, and it does impress one mightily. You'll find everything that audiophiles cherish most:  a clear depth of field; sharp definition; a wide dynamic range; a strong impact; a well-extended bass and treble; a clean, well-balanced midrange; superb instrument separation; and a quick transient response. Of course, each of these qualities, particularly the last, may be as much a function of one's speakers as the disc, but if your system is up to the task, it should bring out the best in the music and vice versa.

Remarkably, too, the music seems to sound better the louder you play it. So turn this one up; it's bound to catch the attention of neighbors, even if you live in the middle of a desert. However, I'm not entirely sure how much of it a person can take at one time, or whether it's strictly one-off material, a few pieces heard now and again for a quick sonic pick-me-up. Certainly, you'll not want to play it much (or too loudly) if you have a spouse or partner not as committed to it as you are, and absolutely not if you've got even the slightest indication of a headache.

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


Classical Music News of the Week: September 4, 2011

Music Institute of Chicago Announces 2011-12 Concert Series
Paquito D'Rivera, Vamos family, Conrad Tao, CSO Musicians Among Highlights
The Music Institute of Chicago (MIC) presents a variety of extraordinary musicians, engaging repertoire, and international perspectives for its 2011-12 concert series at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, IL.

Highlights include the September 17 opening concert by jazz artist Paquito D'Rivera, Fischoff gold medalists the Calidore String Quartet in October, the multiple talents of the Vamos family in December, and acclaimed musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May. Noteworthy annual events include the Four Score Festival of contemporary music in March; the Chicago Duo Piano Festival, in its 24th season, in July; Family Concerts in December and March; the second annual Emilio del Rosario Memorial Concert, this year featuring musical prodigy Conrad Tao in May; and the Martin Luther King, Jr. concert with the 100-voice Brotherhood Chorale in January.

Saturday, September 17, 7:30 p.m.: Paquito D'Rivera and MIC Jazz Faculty Combo
Saturday, September 24, 7:30 p.m.: James Baur, guitar
Sunday, October 9, 3 p.m.: Calidore String Quartet, Fischoff gold medalists
Sunday, November 13, 3 p.m.: Organ Invitational Recital
Saturday, December 10, 9 a.m.: Family Concert: Blair Thomas & Company
Saturday, December 17, 7:30 p.m.: Vamos Family Reunion Concert
Sunday, January 15, 5 p.m.: Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Concert
Sunday, January 22, 3 p.m.: Cantare Chamber Players
Saturday, February 18, 7:30 p.m.: Cyrus Forough, violin with Tatyana Stepanova, piano
Sunday, March 4 and March 11, 3 p.m.: Four Score Festival
March 4: The Music of Charles Ives and Gunther Schuller
March 11: The Music of Aaron Copland and Mario Davidovsky
Friday, March 9, 7:30 p.m.: Generation Next/Composer's Lab Concert
Saturday, March 17, 9 a.m.: Family Concert: TBD
Sunday, March 18, 3 p.m.: Meng-Chieh Liu, piano
Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m.: The Lincoln Trio with Roberto Diaz, viola
Saturday, May 5, 7:30 p.m.: Quintet Attacca and Axiom Brass
Saturday, May 12, 7:30 p.m.: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Musicians, the Civitas Ensemble Saturday, May 19, 7:30 p.m.: Second Annual Emilio del Rosario Memorial Concert: Conrad Tao, piano
July 13–22, times TBD: Chicago Duo Piano Festival

All concerts take place at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston, a venue lauded by John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune as "a visual and sonic gem." Tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students (except where noted), available online or 847.905.1500 ext. 108. All programming is subject to change.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Leads the New Century Chamber Orchestra in Performances with Former Music Director Stuart Canin, September 22-25
San Francisco, CA, August 30, 2011: Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra open their 2011-2012 Twentieth Anniversary Season September 22-25 with concerts featuring the music of Bloch, Mendelssohn and Shchedrin.

Founding Music Director Stuart Canin returns to celebrate this important milestone in the orchestra's history with performances of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D Minor.  Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1, first performed by the orchestra during Stuart Canin's final season, replaces Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Shchedrin's Carmen Suite completes the program.

The program will be given on four evenings in four different locations around the Bay Area:  Thursday, September 22 at 8 p.m., First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Friday, September 23 at 8pm, First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, Saturday, September 24 at 8pm, Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, and Sunday, September 25 at 5pm, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. New Century offers an Open Rehearsal at 10:00 am on Tuesday, September 20 in the Herbst Theater for a price of only $8.00.

Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Return from Successful Music Festivals Tour
San Francisco, CA, September 1, 2011-- Music Director Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, with soloists Dominique Labelle, Yulia Van Doren, Diana Moore, Clint van der Linde, and Wolf Mathias Friedrich, have successfully completed a tour of the most prestigious summer music festivals--earning standing ovations for performances of Handel's Orlando at the Ravinia Festival, the Mostly Mozart Festival and the Tanglewood Music Festival and acclaim for a concert featuring works by Vivaldi, Corelli, and Handel at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in Connecticut.

September promises to be a busy month for the Orchestra as well.  Philharmonia Baroque will return to the local radio airwaves on Sunday, September 11 at 9 p.m. with the first broadcast of a new series of monthly programs on KDFC. The first broadcast features the music of Mozart, with performances and interviews recorded last season with pianist Robert Levin and Music Director Nicholas McGegan.  And on September 13, Philharmonia Baroque Productions will release an all-Vivaldi disc featuring Philharmonia Baroque Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock, the third disc in the new project marking the institution's return to commercial recording.

The Orchestra and Chorale's first performances in the Bay Area take place on September 16, 17, and 18 presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall. Conducted by Mark Morris,  the Orchestra and Chorale perform Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with the Mark Morris Dance Group featuring mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and baritone Philip Cutlip.

The Orchestra's own concert season gets under way September 22-25 with concerts titled "Mozart & Haydn: A Tale of Two Cities," featuring natural horn soloist R.J. Kelley performing a new "concerto pasticcio" assembled from newly discovered compositions for the instrument by Mozart.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has a presence throughout the Bay Area with regular season performances at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, Berkeley's First Congregational Church, and at two venues on the Peninsula: The Menlo/Atherton Performing Arts Center in Atherton, and the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto. Single tickets to Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are now on sale through City Box Office:, (415) 392-4400.

To subscribe to Philharmonia Baroque or to request a season brochure, please call (415) 252-1288 or e-mail For more information, call Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at (415) 252-1288.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Opens Subscription Season with "World Premiere" Mozart Horn Concerto, September 22-25
September 2, 2011, San Francisco, CA--Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque will open the upcoming season with a "world premiere" horn concerto, performed by the orchestra's principal horn R. J. Kelley. Initially written by Mozart in 1781, the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in E-flat Major was not published in its entirety until 1988, when sixty of the piece's missing measures were finally found. Kelley has constructed a "pasticcio" version of the concerto by assembling fragments of the first movement (K370b), and the recently-discovered manuscript of the second movement (K371), linked by the slow movement from Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major (K495). Kelley, one of North America's leading natural horn proponents, is a 29-year veteran of Philharmonia Baroque.

The program also includes Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 "Prague." Two compositions by Mozart's colleagues round out the program.

Tickets are priced at $25 to $90 and are available through City Box Office at (415) 392-4400 or online at If available, Student Rush tickets are $10 and go on sale one hour before the start of the concerts.

To learn more about all of Philharmonia Baroque's concerts, visit the Orchestra's Web site at

--Karen Ames Communications

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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.

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.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

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 also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information ( toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

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. 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 DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and 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.

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa