Nov 29, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 28, 2011

Liszt: My Piano Hero (CD review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 25, 2011

The Golden Age of Hollywood (CD review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 23, 2011

Bach & Sons: Piano Concertos (CD review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 22, 2011

Dvorak: Tone Poems (CD review)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 21, 2011

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 19 and 23 (CD review)

Also, aria from Idomeneo. Helene Grimaud, piano; Mojca Erdmann, soprano; Radoslaw Szulc, leader, Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra and Symphony. DG B0016204-02.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a musical prodigy on the piano, a child genius whose father dragged him all over Europe to play before kings and courts. It's no wonder, then, that Mozart would produce some twenty-seven piano concertos during his relatively short life. He seems to have been born to the genre.

French pianist Helene Grimaud, who began playing the piano at the age of seven, also seems to have been born to the instrument. In the few recordings I've heard from her, she appears not only sensitive and virtuosic but more than willing to be herself as well, to reinterpret old favorites with new shadings of her own. Although I've not always agreed with her vision of things, I can certainly appreciate her desire not to be another sheep following every other pianist before her. If there wasn't room for a multitude of interpretations in musical performances, there would be no need for hearing more than one of anything.

Ms. Grimaud begins the program with the Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459, where she takes the opening Allegro vivace at its word with a vivacious tempo and characteristically imaginative phrasing. Then she makes the slow center movement all the more lovely for its straightforward simplicity and delicacy, wrapping things up with a snappy finale that seems only fitting.

Between the album's two concertos, Ms. Grimaud chose to ask soprano Mojca Erdmann to sing "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" - "Non temer, amato bene" from Mozart's opera Idomeneo. The music makes a charming and wholly appropriate interlude in the proceedings.

In the disc's final work, the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, Ms. Grimaud tends to race through the Allegro, even if the orchestra wants clearly to take their time. Perhaps she wanted to get to the ravishing central Adagio all the more quickly. Certainly, there is no questioning the radiance of her playing here, the tenderness in every note. No doubt, too, her extra-slow pace in the Adagio contributes to a small diminution of lilt and lift; alas, it's all a trade-off, a compromise. In the closing movement Ms. Grimaud is fleet, polished, and technically remarkable, if not quite so much fun as several of her colleagues, particularly Ashkenazy (Decca), Tan (Virgin), Curzon (Decca), Perahia (Sony), and Barenboim (EMI and BR Klassik).

DG recorded the two concertos live at the Prinzregententheater, Munich, May, 2011 and the aria in the Residenz, Herkulessaal, July, 2011. The concertos are miked close enough to reduce most audience noise, but the sonics are still rather soft and a little hollow, with a good number of extraneous sounds from Ms. Grimaud's footwork perhaps or hall resonance, I don't know. It's a distraction in any case and just one of the drawbacks of recording live. Otherwise, the piano is well out in front of the orchestra and fairly well delineated, the orchestral accompaniment smooth though not especially impressive. The vocal pieces, not done live, sound significantly cleaner and more natural, the voice sweet and clear. Not unexpectedly, the two concertos come complete with a disfiguring outburst of applause at the end of each.

Incidentally, there's one oddity about DG's labeling of the album: Neither the booklet cover nor the jewel-box spine mention the music involved. They only name the composer and the artist, Ms. Grimaud. I guess you are supposed to know instinctively (or simply remember) what Ms. Grimaud is playing on the disc once you've set it on your shelf. Or maybe the folks at DG figure people don't really care what Ms. Grimaud is playing, only that she's doing it.


Nov 18, 2011

Schubert: Trout Quintet (CD review)

Also, "Arpeggione" Sonata; "Notturno" Adagio. Jos van Immerseel, fortepiano; L'Archibudelli: Vera Beths, violin; Jurgen Kussmaul, viola; Anner Bylsma, cello; Marji Danilow, double bass. Newton Classics 8802087.

I'm sure there are as many "Trout" in the music catalogue as there are fish in the sea. Sometimes we wonder why record companies keep releasing the same warhorses over and over, but in the case Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, D667, one can understand the justification for so many releases. The work continues to sparkle with a freshness that that never fails to enthrall listeners. Regarding the present "Trout," Jos van Immerseel and company recorded it on period instruments some years ago for Sony Classics, and the folks at Newton Classics are now reissuing it in their own transfer. It's a worthy re-release in a crowded and highly competitive field.

Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in his short life wrote some of the happiest, most-felicitous, and most-moving music the world has ever known, with his "Trout" Quintet (written in 1819 but not published until a year after his death) among the most cheerful, and most challenging, of the lot. People called it "The Trout" early on because Schubert based the final movement on a series of songs, lieder, he had written some years earlier, variations known as "Die Forelle" or "The Trout."

Immerseel on fortepiano and the period-instruments ensemble L'Archibudelli provide a lively interpretation of the work, even if one is immune to the charms of period-instruments bands. Note, however, that one would never know this was a period-instruments recording from just reading the jewel box if one didn't notice the word "fortepiano" next to Immerseel's name or already know that Immerseel and L'Archibudelli play on period instruments. Newton Classics say nothing of the matter on the disc, the booklet, or the booklet insert. Of course, you might notice once you started listening to the music: a fortepiano sounds slightly less resonant than a modern piano, and gut strings, period tuning, and older performing practices sound different from modern ones.

Anyway, Immerseel and company take this "Trout" in a more vigorous fashion than most other performers do, with energetic rhythms and sprightly accents well punctuated. While it is hardly the leisurely, charming "Trout" we hear from musicians like Alfred Brendel et al (Philips) or the augmented Beaux Arts Trio (Philips or PentaTone), two of my favorites, Immerseel's reading has its own delights, at least if you like fast speeds. Personally, I prefer the more leisurely approach.

So, just how quick is this reading? The only other period-instruments version I had on hand was from members of the Academy of Ancient Music on L'Oiseau-Lyre, and in every movement Immerseel and his companions are faster. Needless to say, compared to modern accounts, such as those from the aforementioned Brendel and Beaux Arts, Immerseel is practically a speed demon.

Under Immerseel's direction, the first movement, an Allegro vivace, shows much life and animation, while at the same time a sensitive flow of melodies. The next movement, the slow Andante, may not be as graceful as we hear it in many other renderings, but it is still quite lovely and lyrical.

The Scherzo: Presto is particularly forceful, although the actual dynamics--the range between the softest and loudest passages--is not particularly wide, which may be one of the disc's only failings. The performers tend to play almost everything at the same level, without as much contrast as in others' hands. Nevertheless, it is fetching in its way.

The central Variations are as delightful as ever, despite their brisk tempos, and I might say the same for the finale. Schubert's indication for the last movement is Allegro giusto (cheerful, joyful, usually fast, and fitting or just right), which is a pretty general tempo marking, allowing for a lot of interpretative leeway. At least we know Schubert wanted something a little fast and lively, and he gets it here, the performers playing with more-than-enough gusto.

The next of the program's couplings is the Sonata in A minor, D821, for piano and cello, also called the "Arpeggione Sonata" because Schubert wrote it for an instrument called the arpeggione. Unfortunately, shortly after he wrote it the instrument went out of style, and today performers usually play it on the cello. Anner Bylsma plays it on a violincello piccolo. The piece is largely grave in nature, with occasional lighter moments.

The Adagio in E flat, D897, "Notturno," for piano trio that closes the show is sweetly melancholic and regal at the same time. It's a neat combination.

Where this release scores over many of its competitors is its recording, made in July, 1997, in Lutherse Church, Haarlem, the Netherlands. It captures a genuine sense of air and space around the instruments without ever sounding bright, forward, or edgy. Indeed, if it errs at all, it's on the side of being a tad too smooth and warm. The stereo spread is broad enough to indicate a modest distance, yet the clarity and impact of the music never appear too compromised.

I'm not sure how well received this recording of the "Trout" was when Sony first released it, but it certainly deserves this second chance on Newton Classics. It strikes a generally happy chord and brings a smile to the lips.


Nov 17, 2011

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

Kurt Sanderling, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Profil PH05020.

Maestro Kurt Sanderling began his musical career in 1931 and worked steadily in the field, mostly as a conductor, until he announced his retirement in 2002. He was a contemporary of almost every important musician of the twentieth century, he recorded a huge number of works for various labels, and his name is familiar to most classical-music listeners. It's surprising, then, that he was never fully able to break into the highest echelon of musical geniuses. Perhaps this recording of Bruckner's "Romantic" Symphony provides a clue.

While everything about the performance is in place, it never seems to take off, to soar, to inspire the way others do. The Fourth was Bruckner's only program symphony, with the composer telling us what he intended each movement to represent, from knights riding out of a medieval castle at dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds to a hunting song and large-scale summary in closing. More important, the symphony is one of Bruckner's most-beloved works, probably because of its easily communicated grandeur and nobility of spirit. Bruckner was, above all, a profoundly spiritual man, and his music illustrates that spirituality.

Yet Sanderling's interpretation never quite reaches the pinnacles of grand otherworldliness that other conductors of his generation attained in their recordings, people like Otto Klemperer (EMI), Karl Bohm (Decca), and Eugene Jochum (DG). A prominent mid-to-upper bass rise in the sound and a decidedly slow and calculated tempo provide Sanderling's reading with a degree of gravity, but they also tend to darken and deaden the work's tensions. The Scherzo comes off best, yet even here we find more robustness in the other performances I've mentioned.

The Profil label is stingy with their recording details, saying in the booklet insert only that THS Studio restored the sound and citing a date of 1994. I assume 1994 was the recording date, and by the number of coughs and wheezes I heard, maybe it was live. Or maybe the orchestra was having an off day. Anyway, the sound does favor the mid-to-upper bass, as I say, although it isn't enough to mask too much detail. The high end is fine, if not particularly extended, and the midrange is adequate. The stereo spread seems constricted a tad, but it will still fill up your listening room.

Incidentally, of the three comparison discs I listened to, the Klemperer sounds the most transparent. EMI always did take care with their productions.


Nov 15, 2011

Ireland: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, Legend; First Rhapsody; Pastoral; Indian Summer; A Sea Idyll; Three Dances. John Lenehan, piano; John Wilson, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572598.

I've sometimes wondered over the years why record companies regularly ignore many perfectly delightful, accessible pieces of music in favor of old warhorses or modern experiments. The Piano Concerto in E flat by English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) is a case in point. I can remember hearing only one other recording of it, a long time ago with Boult conducting, I believe, and liking it quite a lot. Yet, as with so many things over time, the memory fades, and until reviewing this new Naxos disc I had almost forgotten how charming the work is.

Ireland wrote the Piano Concerto in 1930 and dedicated it to his piano pupil Helen Perkin, a young woman who premiered the piece and with whom he apparently fell in love. He then began a second piano concerto, completing only the movement we find later on the disc, Legend, also dedicating it to Perkin. Unfortunately for Ireland, Perkin did not return his affections, subsequently marrying someone else, and Ireland withdrew both dedications. Kind of a sore loser, I suppose.

Anyway, the Piano Concerto exhibits Ireland's romantic impressionism, and as played by pianist John Lenehan, conductor John Wilson, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the music expresses good cheer, poetic yearning, and eloquent aspiration. Its three relatively brief movements move seamlessly from one to the next, the whole work essentially a love poem. The opening movement, marked "In tempo moderato," sets the tone for a piece that infuses a bit of Gershwin jazz with Brahmsian rhapsody. There is also a kind of free-spirited, freewheeling quality to the music making, nicely captured by Lenehan and the orchestra. The slow, middle section is really quite ravishing, a warmhearted duet between piano and players that clearly demonstrates the composer's fondness for Ms. Perkin, punctuated by an emphatic climax before leading directly into a final movement of much vitality.

Naxos couple five other works by Ireland to the Piano Concerto, and although they may not possess the same radiant distinction, they are worthy of a listen. Two of them, the early Pastoral and the later Indian Summer Naxos give world-première recordings.

The Legend for piano and orchestra (1933) comes next, and while Ireland may have intended it as a follow-up to his highly successful Piano Concerto, it is very different in mood. Instead of being cheerful and buoyant, it is rather dark, even gloomy, perhaps a musical picture of the West Sussex countryside he loved so much that he eventually retired there (in a converted windmill, no less). In any case, after its ominous beginnings, the work turns somewhat lighter, and Lenehan brings out the beauty in it.

The final pieces are for piano only, starting with Pastoral (1896), newly uncovered, a short piano work done when Ireland was still a student. The even shorter Indian Summer (1932) that follows is another landscape painting; A Sea Idyll in three movements is enchanting, with an air of Debussy about it; and the Three Dances that close the program are simple, bouncy, and bucolic in nature. Again, Lenehan does justice to all of the music.

One of the best recordings from Naxos I've heard in quite some time, they made it in the Music Room at Champs Hill, West Sussex, and at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, England, between 2007 and 2011. While the piano is well out in front of the orchestra on the two piano and orchestra pieces, the stage depth and stereo spread are impressive. The sound is perhaps a touch soft, yet probably no more so than one would find in a live performance, with a smooth, fairly dynamic response. At no time during the piano and orchestra recordings or in the piano solos is the sound ever edgy, harsh, or bright nor clouded or veiled. It is, in fact, just right for easy listening.

On a final note, I would point out the disc contains some seventy-seven minutes of music, a healthy dose for so low a price. Thank you, Naxos.


Nov 14, 2011

13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg (CD review)

Bach Reimagined. Lara Downes, solo piano. Tritone Records.

German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) published his Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, in 1741 as an aria and thirty elaborations on the theme for harpsichord. The present album attempts to do Bach one better by offering variations on the Aria by thirteen of today's leading musicians. Whether you think they did any better than Bach did, you'll have to decide for yourself as American pianist Lara Downes plays them in this world-premiere recording from Tritone Records.

The Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival commissioned these reimaginings of the Goldbergs in 2004, the thirteen composers including Fred Lerdahl, Bright Sheng, Lukas Foss, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, C. Curtis-Smith, Stanley Walden, Ryan Brown, Mischa Zupko, David del Tredici, William Bolcom, Ralf Gothoni, and Pulitzer-Prize winner Jennifer Higdon. Ms. Downes's own inspiration, as she recounts it, was the 1955 recording of the Goldbergs by the eccentric-genius pianist Glenn Gould, so she's well aware of what others have done with the piece.

The present composers come at the Goldberg from all directions, some of them sounding a lot like the composer himself, some of them clearly jazz influenced, some of them modern and atonal, some of them just a tad whimsical. There's a little something for everybody here, with Ms. Downes playing each of them with equally loving care.

For instance, the program begins with the Bach Aria itself, which I liked best of all, Ms. Downes's playing sensitive and moving. Next up, Fred Lerdahl's restructuring bears little resemblance to the original, and it's happy and bouncy. Jennifer Higdon takes things even faster, yet it's still playful. Bright Sheng prefers a slower, almost spookier attack, making a nice contrast with the sprightliness of what went before. And Lukas Foss gives us a delicate approach, which seems closer to Bach with a little Debussy thrown in.

Derek Bermel updates the piece to the twenty-first century in the imaginatively titled Kontraphunktus, perhaps a play on "contrapunctus," Latin for counterpoint; that's followed by a lyrically flowing version by Fred Hersch. The cutely designated Rube Goldberg Variation by C. Curtis-Smith is as clever as its name. Then Stanley Walden's account comes crashing down on us from another plane altogether.

As the program alternates slower, faster, louder, and softer variations, we next get Ryan Brown's Ornament, a piece notable for the apparent simplicity of its progression and Ms. Downes's responsive handling of it. After that is Mischa Zupko's turn, who gives us a dark, heavy treatment; David del Tredici with a wispy, romantic turn; William Bolcom with a felicitous one; Ralf Gothoni with a faux-baroque ornamentation; and finally a reprise of the original. It's quite a fascinating collection, actually, one we have Ms. Downes to thank for.

The album ends with three favorites of Ms. Downes: Dave Brubeck's Chorale, from his Chromatic Fantasy Sonata; Lukas Foss's Prelude in D; and J.S. Bach's Sarabande, from his French Suite V, BWV 816. Of the final three, it's still the music of Bach that fills me with the most joy, even if there is no denying the appeal of the more-modern material.

Recorded at Patrych Sound Studios, the Bronx, New York, in 2011, the piano sound is gentle and smooth, a bit reverberant, with good body and impact. The engineers miked it at a moderate distance to provide some studio ambience but not so distant as to obscure detail. More important, it doesn't stretch the piano across one's living room.

Two minor, nonmusical annoyances, though: First, the packaging is one of those Digipaks that unfolds into four sections like a road map, making it cumbersome to handle and read. Second, the disc case lists the track timings in a font so small and a color so faint against a dark background, one can hardly read them.  As I say, minor quibbles.


Nov 11, 2011

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also, Czech Suite; Slavonic Dances. Jose Serebrier, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 66656-3.

Maestro Jose Serebrier has been leading and recording orchestras for close to fifty years, making him one of the old guard among current classical conductors. By his own count, he has recorded the music of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) at least three or more times in the past, so he knows what he's doing. Now, he embarks on a complete Dvorak symphony cycle for Warner Classics, beginning with this disc of the Ninth Symphony and several accompanying works.

The program opens with Dvorak's Slavonic Dance No. 1, Op. 46, which gets things off to an energetic start. This was one of the composer's early successes, inspired as he was by Brahms's Hungarian Dances and urged to do so by no other than Brahms himself. Serebrier does a commendable job maintaining the work's forward thrust.

The centerpiece of the album, though, is the Symphony No. 9 "From the New World." Many listeners over the years seem to hear instances of American idioms in the music, when in fact most of it Dvorak said was entirely original. Its title, "From the New World," really only came about because Dvorak happened to be living in New York at the time he wrote it. While to some small degree local tunes may have inspired the composer, the music is clearly Czech in flavor. At the very least as Leonard Bernstein once remarked, one might consider it multinational. Whatever the case, Serebrier zips through the first movement with a healthy conviction, ushering in an even quicker-paced Largo than one usually hears. It's still quite lovely, if a little on the perfunctory side.

The conductor has a good time with the Scherzo, keeping it light and airy while still generating a good deal of excitement. However, both the composer and the conductor save up their big guns for the finale, which brings the work to a happy and jubilant close. Unfortunately, there are quite a few rival recordings, and with this one you'd really have to want the couplings to make it competitive. Otherwise, you might be better off with any one or more of my own favorites: Kertesz and the LSO (Decca), Reiner and Chicago Symphony (RCA or RCA/JVC), Dorati and the New Philharmonia (HDTT), Kertesz and the Vienna Philharmonic (London), Macal and the LPO (EMI), Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic (Denon), Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos) among others.

Now, speaking of couplings, the program concludes with the Czech Suite, Op. 39, followed by the Slavonic Dance No. 2, Op. 72, both of them showing plenty of color and rhythmic flair. In particular I thought the lyric simplicity and lilting beauty of the Suite was enough to make exploring the disc worthwhile.

Recorded at the Lighthouse, Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset in 2011, the sound is notable for its high-end sheen and fairly transparent midrange. It suffers slightly from an undernourished low end, though not by much, and a touch of treble harshness. So, the balance is just a tad off, while the clarity is exemplary. I had hoped for a bit more orchestral depth, too, made up for by a smooth upper bass and a pleasant sense of resonant bloom. Overall, the sound is reasonably realistic and brings much enjoyment.


Nov 10, 2011

Barber: Adagio for Strings (CD review)

Also, Violin Concerto; orchestral and chamber works. Elmar Oliveira, violin; Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 86561 2 (2-disc set).

I mean no disrespect to a fine conductor, but I have not always found Maestro Leonard Slatkin's musical interpretations to be in the uppermost ranks of great performances. Perhaps this is unfair, given that the competition among truly great conductors is so easily accessible on disc. But in the orchestral works of American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Slatkin comes into his own, and there probably isn't another conductor, short of Leonard Bernstein, who illuminates the composer's music so felicitously.

This two-disc set presents a well-rounded view of Barber's output from youth to old age. Among my favorites are, of course, the famous Adagio for Strings as well as the three Essays for Orchestra. The Adagio goes without saying, and Slatkin's slow, measured, and totally affectionate reading of it is one of the best on record.

The Essays date from the 1930s, 1940s, and the late 1970s, thus reflecting three phases in the composer's life. Actually, the contrasts are not as striking as the similarities; all three are lightweight but delightful. Well, OK, most of Barber is lightweight, but that's beside the point. The Violin Concerto is especially light, but it too is given over at times to some lovely melodies.

While Slatkin and his St. Louis players handle the orchestral duties, on disc two we find a number of smaller solo, duet, and quintet pieces (concluding with Slatkin again and the Third Essay for Orchestra). I didn't care much for the Cello Sonata, but in Excursions, Nocturne, Summer Music, and Souvenirs, we find delectable Impressionistic echoes of Debussy, Delius, and Satie. The music doesn't always go anywhere in particular, but like a pleasure ride in the country, the trip itself is worth one's time.

EMI recorded the purely orchestral sections in the mid to late Eighties, and they recorded smaller works in the mid Nineties, all in digital. I can't say any of it is the best sound I've ever heard, but it surely fits the relaxed mood of most of the music. I had about a half a dozen recordings of the Adagio on hand for comparison, almost all of them sounding clearer, sharper, and more detailed than Slatkin's account. Yet despite the softer, warmer acoustics of the EMI recording, the Adagio and the other pieces with the St. Louis Orchestra sounded just right to me. A deep bass and some clean midrange and highs are quite radiant as they beam through the mid-bass fog. The solo pieces tend to come off best, but, as I say, there is nothing seriously wrong with any of the sonics. The set offers the listener a pleasant, useful, and inexpensive way to get acquainted with an American original.


Nov 8, 2011

Vivaldi & Friends (CD review)

La Folia (Madness) & other concertos. Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra. Avie AV2211.

Harpsichordist and conductor Jeanette Sorrell formed the period-instruments orchestra Apollo's Fire in 1992 in order to create a new baroque orchestra in Cleveland. As the booklet note observes, "Sorrell envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners. Apollo's Fire, named after the classical god of music and the sun, is a collection of creative artists who share Sorrell's passion for drama and rhetoric."

Certainly, in this collection of baroque and modern music there is no want of creativity or drama, starting with an Iberian dance number by Vivaldi, followed by several transcriptions, and concluding with a recent partial tango, of all things. So, it's a diversified program, one that may be intriguing to some listeners or gimmicky to others. One cannot, however, say it's ordinary.

Things start out with the Concerto grosso, La Folia, arranged by Jeannette Sorrell after Vivaldi's Sonata Op. 1, No. 12. It's the aforementioned Iberian dance, with Moorish influences, a popular form all over Europe in the composer's day. Sorrell's arrangement allows all thirty or so of the players in Apollo's Fire to join in the fun. Despite the music being lively, Sorrell never takes it too fast, keeping it, as is her wont, to a moderate tempo. Nevertheless, the interpretation shows plenty of vitality and kicks off the album in fine style.

Next, we get Vivaldi's Concerto in B minor for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10, RV 580. Later in the program we'll hear Bach's transcription of it for four harpsichords. Here, however, we get to enjoy the interplay among the four string instruments.

After that comes Vivaldi's Summer Concerto from The Four Seasons in an arrangement by Sorrell that replaces the solo violin with her at solo harpsichord. Apparently, it was a widespread practice in the baroque period to transcribe string works for keyboard presentations. Whatever, the result is unique and worthy of a listen. Insofar as the reading goes, though, it seems fairly traditional, with a strong third-movement Presto that brings the music to a rousing close.

Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531 follows, exhibiting good color and several exotic interludes. Then Sorrell offers the Bach treatment of Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins, this time done up for four harpsichords. So, it's Vivaldi via Bach, and you'll hear a little of each composer in the music. The accomplished Apollo's Fire performers make both of the pieces seem entirely different (use your remote to switch back and forth).

The program ends with a modern work, the Tango Concerto in D minor for Two Violas da Gamba by Rene Schiffer (aka Rene Duchiffre, b. 1961), which closes with a tango. Why a modern tango, a purely twentieth-century genre, to end the piece? Well, why not? Schiffer writes that it's "because of the dance's signature elements of rhythmic simplicity and harmonic ostinato, which are also characteristic of many baroque dance forms, including the follia." Fair enough. Anyway, Sorrell and her group bring off this faux-baroque music as playfully as the rest of the album. Besides, Schiffer is the ensemble's principal cellist, so why not give him a shot.

The producers recorded all of the tracks in St. Paul's Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with the first track done live in 2008. It may be live, but it doesn't really sound it, with only occasional minor noises from the audience. Not too closely miked, the acoustic provides ample space, definition, and air for the instruments to breathe.

The other items, done in 2000 and presumably not recorded live, to my ears sound cleaner than the first track, with a slightly more-resonant ambience to the hall and a more-realistic presence all the way around. While there is not too much depth of field here, one can hardly complain about the clarity of the sonics. No disappointments.


Nov 7, 2011

A Steinway Christmas Album (CD review)

Piano Music for the Season. Jeffrey Biegel, piano. Steinway & Sons 30005.

What would Christmas be without Christmas music? And what Christmas could go by without a slew of new Christmas albums? This piano program, A Steinway Christmas Album, from American pianist, composer, arranger, and teacher Jeffrey Biegel is among the most expressive, creative, and delightful of the crop.

A rousing rendition of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" opens the show and demonstrates Mr. Biegel's dexterous, virtuosic, festive approach to the music making, giving the old chestnut a sparkling new setting. The next two numbers, by Percy Grainger and J.S. Bach, are in contrast to the first selection, producing more soulful, meditative moods.

In "Quiet Night" we get a novel arrangement of several perennial favorites, "Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night," written especially for Mr. Biegel in a touching and quite fascinating combination. Then we find Mel Torme and Robert Wells's "Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), a must in any seasonal collection, but this time Biegel does it up more sensitively than we usually hear it.

And so it goes with twenty-one tracks, most of them old standards yet all of them sounding somehow new and different. It's a thoughtful collection that also includes music written or arranged by Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Reger, plus a number of seasonal classics and a few more-recent ones.

Reger's delicate treatment of "Silent Night" and Biegel's extraordinarily lovely interpretation of it exhibit the kind of musicianship you find throughout the album. The entire program is a joy from beginning to end, and I say that without reservation.

You couldn't really have an impressive album of piano music without a really impressive recording of the piano, and this one satisfies the order. Recorded in 2011 in the Concert Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, the piano sound has a realistic body and resonance. While being fairly close up, it nevertheless reflects an appropriate degree of hall ambience, the acoustic producing a most-pleasant overall effect.

To its credit, the music on A Steinway Christmas Album is the kind a person can enjoy all year 'round, not just during the weeks in late December. Jeffrey Biegel is an accomplished concert pianist who presents the tunes as he would any serious classical compositions, with much exuberance, emotion, sensitivity, and good cheer as the case demands. The result is an album for all seasons.


Nov 4, 2011

An Appalachian Christmas (CD review)

Mark O'Connor and friends. OMAC Records OMAC-16.

Anytime's a good time for Christmas music, especially when it's done as well, as incisively, as precisely, as joyously as on this album from Mark O'Connor--American jazz, bluegrass, and classical violinist--and a bevy of famous artists. Among the contributors to the program are soprano Renee Fleming, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, bluegrass-country singer and composer Alison Krauss, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, jazz and pop vocalist Jane Monheit, singer-songwriter James Taylor, mandolinist Chris Thile, country-music singer and songwriter Steve Wariner, and others. It's an all-star cast for an all-star album, worthy of much repeat listening.

One reservation before getting to the music, though: If you're expecting authentic Appalachia bluegrass, you might be in the wrong aisle. An Appalachian Christmas is a pop album through and through, albeit a good one, with modern, sometimes jazzy arrangements and a big, plush sound. The aim appears to be to appeal to as many different types of listeners as possible, not just bluegrass purists or dedicated country fans. To that end, the album succeeds.

From among the sixteen selections on the disc, let me mention just a few. Things begin with Mel Torme and Bob Wells's classic "Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), here done up by singer Jane Monheit, jazz artists Frank Vignola and Gary Mazaroppi, and violinist O'Connor (who is on all the tracks). Like the rest of the music, it's up close, with good body, definition, and impact but little depth or air. Like the music itself, it's a pure pop sound, what we've come to expect from most albums of popular music for the past few decades. Audiophiles beware.

Next, it's "Away in a Manger" with opera star Renee Fleming, supported by O'Connor and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. OK, that's not exactly Appalachian country, to be sure, and, in fact, while being lovely the number seems rather overproduced for so simple a tune.

On the other hand, "O Christmas Tree" and Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" sound wonderful for their modest, unassuming presentations, the latter highlighted by a healthy, thumping bass. Then, we get James Taylor doing "Ol' Blue," a great old song but one that seems to have only tenuous connections to Christmas.

Although "Carol of the Bells" could have used more bells, the guitar and piano fill in nicely to complement O'Connor's violin. Which brings us to "Slumber My Darling," featuring the voice of Alison Krauss and the cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a touchingly melancholy rendition of the lullaby. It's kind of a showstopper, actually, and may bring tears to your eyes.

"Winter Wonderland" gets a snazzy, upbeat treatment, sung by Jane Monheit again. A few tracks later, Renee Fleming does "Amazing Grace" with just O'Connor accompanying her, and it's another moving moment in the album.

The mandolin in "One Winter Night" and "What Child Is This" is effective, as are the vocals of Steve Wariner in "Now It Belongs to You." Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" finds a pleasant new setting, eventually turning into a jaunty gigue with violin, synthesizer, and the London Studio Orchestra.

The program ends with a violin and guitar account of "Appalachia Waltz," which is as fitting a conclusion to the proceedings as one could want, even if, again, its relationship to Christmas seems flimsy at best.


Nov 3, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 00289 477 5573.

One can hardly fault Abbado's interpretation of the Mahler Sixth Symphony. The man has proved himself a modern master of all things Mahlerian, and this performance has certainly the touch of mastery about it. Above all is the sense of forward drive supreme. From beginning to end, the piece seems of a whole, everything in it rushing toward that final culmination of fate, tragedy, and death.

Abbado adheres to Mahler's final word on the subject, placing the Scherzo in the third rather than the second position as Mahler had originally envisioned it and omitting the third hammer blow at the end (perhaps Mahler was superstitious or maybe he just had an afterthought). The second-movement Andante, the lovely theme he wrote for his wife Alma, comes as a welcome respite after the turmoil of the big first movement, and it's here and in the Finale that Abbado comes off best. The Andante is blissfully serene, the Finale torturously determined. The Scherzo is more iffy, not quite as bizarre as I might have liked it. In fact, if I dare criticize any part of this reading, it's that it may be too much of a piece, too unvarying. I rather like the more diversified (some would say erratic or eccentric) renditions of conductors like Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti, and Horenstein.

Anyway, you'll get no serious gripes from me about anything but the sonics. Abbado and DG appear to insist upon recording everything they do anymore live, and the results here, although by no means unsatisfactory, are not always flattering, either. The acoustic seems to change from time to time, especially the bass, which sounds a little lightweight. The orchestra also seems more distant than necessary, although with a pleasantly realistic sense of depth; and the highs are at times clear and true while at other times soft and dull. Of course, one can hear the audience doing their usual shuffling and wheezing on occasion, although except for the final applause they are never very disturbing.  (To be fair, however, DG offer the closing applause on a separate track, so if you remember you can always program it out before you start.)

The recording is also available on an SACD in multichannel, and I wonder how much of the CD's odd sonics are due to not hearing the rear channels. I don't know, but the glorious Berlin Philharmonic deserve at least a little better.


Nov 1, 2011

Treasures of Christ Church (CD review)

Stephen Darlington, the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Avie AV2215.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, has been doing this kind of thing for close to five hundred years, singing beautiful songs. No, not the same choristers, although by the degree of polish they display, you'd think the present singers had been around for ages.

Cardinal Wolsey appointed the first Cathedral Choir director, John Taverner, in 1526, and the choir has been going strong ever since, led by such distinguished directors as Taverner, William Walton, Simon Preston, and its current leader, Stephen Darlington. The makeup of the Cathedral Choir includes twelve men and sixteen boys, the men lay clerks and choral scholars or academical clerks, the boys, students at Christ Church Cathedral School and ranging in age from eight to thirteen, chosen for their musical skills. The present disc lists seventeen choristers, five altos, five tenors, six basses, three instrumentalists on one selection, and organist (director) Clive Driskill-Smith.

The seventeen selections in the program contain works by composers from the sixteenth century to the present, all of the works having strong ties to the cathedral and its library of original manuscripts. I won't try to cover all of the selections, but I will point out a few tracks I found particularly affecting.

Zadok the Priest by George Frideric Handel begins the concert, the piece justly famous and exercising the choir's dynamic range. In contrast to the Handel, the next number is Set me as a seal by twentieth-century English composer William Walton, the music more personal and featuring more individual singing.

Speaking of singing, one cannot overlook the musical accomplishment of the choir. They perform with refinement and distinction throughout, the articulation precise, the harmonic integration letter perfect. The singing is a pleasure to the ear.

The next piece is one of my favorites, Thomas Tallis's Salvator mundi, a hauntingly lovely work sung with conviction. Almost of equal beauty is the Ava Maria of Robert Parsons, a more complex piece of music than its sixteenth-century composition date would indicate.

Benjamin Britten's A Shepherd's Carol is just famous and given a sensitive reading by the choir, with some especially fine solo passages. Likewise, Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock comes across with sweet assurance.

Of all the twentieth-century music on the album, John Rutter's Canticle of the heavenly city perhaps sparkles the most radiantly. Then, Thomas Weelkes's Hosanna to the Son of David brings the festivities to a fittingly triumphant conclusion.

Avie recorded the choir in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, England, in March, 2011. The choir likes to boast that their sound is as much a product of their venue as the singers, and certainly the Merton College setting flatters the presentation. As we might expect, the sonics are wide and spacious, yet they are reasonably intimate, too, a pleasant combination. Although miked at a modest distance, the organ seems a trifle soft and the voices at times a tad bright. Played too loudly, things can sometimes appear a bit fierce, but at a realistic volume level that approximates what one might hear live, the choir sounds clean and vibrant, the acoustic warm and accommodating, and the separation of voices excellent.


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