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.


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.


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.


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


Charpentier: Te Deum (CD review)

Also, Grand Office des Morts. William Christie, Les Arts Florissants. Virgin Classics 7243 5 45733 2.

If the opening "Marche de timbales" in Charpentier's Te Deum doesn't set your blood to racing, you probably don't have a heart big enough to appreciate the music. If that sounds like a typically snobby statement from a classical-music critic, so be it. But, really, I'm neither a snob nor a music expert; I just love those drums! I mean, they sound great, all the more so from a live recording. If you've been following this site for long, you know I don't usually like live recordings. So this is an exception.

Incidentally, speaking of good sound, do people still show off their audio systems the way they used to? Or does everyone nowadays deal only in home theaters and DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 this and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 that, with 800-foot 3-D projector screens between their main, front speakers? I dunno. But, as I say, this Charpentier disc is one of the few live recordings I've really enjoyed.

French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) wrote his Te Deum in D major, H. 146, somewhere in the late seventeenth century, the date is uncertain, for soloists, choir, and orchestral accompaniment. Since the opening section has a distinctly martial tone, he probably wrote it to commemorate a military victory, something folks today might consider a bit odd in what is primarily a sacred piece of music. Yet when you consider the relationship between religion and war over the years (especially as recounted in the Old Testament), maybe it isn't so unusual.

In any case, Charpentier's grand, elegant music could not find itself in better hands than those of William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble, as refined and polished a group of performers as exist anywhere in the musical world. The funny thing is, though, that as elegant as Christie and his performer are, they produce an unrestrained rendition of the music, full of Technicolor excitement. The choral singing is flawless; the instrumental playing is impeccable; and Virgin's engineers capture the results in the smoothest live sound one could imagine.

OK, granted not everyone appreciates a good Mass, a good celebration of and praise to God, and that's what this music is all about. But since most of us can't understand Latin, anyhow, it probably doesn't matter what they're singing. Just enjoy the voices and the instruments, which blend together almost preternaturally. And what a lovely ambient glow there is in the hall, without a trace of ringing or dulling, remarkable, as I say, considering the live recording.

In addition, the disc includes the Grand Office des Morts, a compilation of three pieces that Charpentier probably never meant as a whole. Yet it works wonderfully well. The package comes with good, concise booklet notes, too, with song texts in Latin, French, English, and German.


Respighi: Roman Trilogy (CD review)

Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome. Riccardo Muti, the Philadelphia Orchestra. EMI 50999 0 97988 2 3.

Italian musician, teacher, and composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) wrote his Roman Trilogy after studying with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which may have been where he got the idea for creating such pictorial material. Riccardo Muti and his Philadelphia Orchestra offer up excellent interpretations of all three parts of the Trilogy, the Fountains, Pines, and Festivals of Rome. Perhaps they are not quite so distinctive as those of Fritz Reiner in his old Chicago Symphony recording of the Fountains and Pines (RCA or JVC) nor as smoothly sophisticated as those of Charles Dutoit and his Montreal Symphony (Decca), but they are quite well characterized, nevertheless.

Although Respighi wrote the Fountains of Rome first (1917), it's the Pines of Rome (1924) that opens the disc, possibly because it's the most-popular work Respighi ever composed. The Pines opens with a big splash of color in "The Pines of the Villa Borghese," which Muti treats in appropriately bright, splashy fashion. The fact is, Muti's accounts of the three scores are among the best, most vivid you'll find. Then the second movement, "Pines Near a Catacomb," is initially gloomy until Muti opens the music up to a sincere melancholy, longing, and finally regal dirge. After that, Muti makes the third movement, "del Giancolo" pines, with its song of the nightingale, as lovely as I've heard, the tone relaxed and serene. It is a prelude, really, to the big finale, the "Pines of the Appian Way," possibly the single most-famous thing Respighi ever created. The march of ancient Roman soldiers as they return home along the Appian Way interrupts the tranquility of Nature and the chirping birds. Here, Muti captures the mounting urgency of the music, moment by moment, pretty well until it reaches a fevered climax, and Muti pulls out all the stops.

The Fountains of Rome are more festive and, for me, more colorful and descriptive than the Pines of Rome. Each of the four movements describes a celebrated fountain in Rome, the music, as in the other works, playing without a break. We hear noises of the country, noises of the city, noises of mystical creatures, and noises of crowds, among many other things, the music finally fading away into silence as night falls. In the Fountains, Muti is even more expressive than he was in the Pines. I love the way he flirts with Respighi's flashes of light and shadow throughout, and in the "Trevi al meriggio" fountain, Muti is at his best.

The Roman Festivals (1929) are for me (and probably many other listeners) the least-successful parts of the Trilogy. Respighi appears to have been trying to top himself in the work, and the music becomes somewhat hectic and bombastic as a result. At least Muti doesn't vulgarize the score, but there's not a lot he can do with it in any case.

EMI recorded the music at Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, in November of 1984. The engineers appear to give us on this 2011 reissue a transfer made for their first CD release of the material back in 1985. I could hear no differences in direct comparisons. Still, there's nothing wrong with that, since the sound is fairly decent. There is a forward quality in the upper midrange, however, that results in a certain degree of shrillness at times; it may or may not distract one from the performances, and in any case it comes and goes. The celebrated Philadelphia strings provide a velvety sheen, yet the sound does not seem so well upholstered as from some other recordings of this music. There's a slightly lean tendency to the EMI Philadelphia sound most of the time, with a wide range, solid impact, and reasonably deep bass. Still, it's not as impressive sonically as the Reiner disc I alluded to earlier, recorded, amazingly, in 1959.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa