Dec 31, 2012

Steiner: Adventures of Don Juan (CD review)

Also, Arsenic and Old Lace. William Stromberg, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Tribute Film Classics TFC-1009 (2-disc set).

Austrian Max Steiner (1888-1971) wasn’t always the great movie-score composer he became; it took him a while to become known as the “father of film music.” He worked on Broadway for years as a musical arranger, orchestrator, and conductor before coming to Hollywood in 1929 and registering his first big hit with King Kong (1933), which thanks to Steiner became one of the first films to use an extensive, original, scene-specific musical score. After that, Steiner went on to do practically every big picture Warner Bros. and MGM made in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties--movies like The Informer, Now Voyager, Jezebel, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Casablanca, The Searchers, and Gone with the Wind--finally winding down his career in the early Sixties.

In this 2-disc set Steiner wrote the main selection, Adventures of Don Juan, for Errol Flynn’s 1948 tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler. The album’s producers--Anna Bonn, John Morgan, and William Stromberg--have reassembled the complete score for the film and present it in thirty-three tracks in another meticulous release from Tribute Film Classics. They even provide a bonus trailer track. Movie fans, film-music fans, as well as classical music fans in general will all enjoy the results.

It had been a full decade since star Errol Flynn made “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and by 1948 due to hard drinking and riotous living the actor’s health and career had fallen into decline. Still, thanks to a cheeky screenplay by George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz from a story by Herbert Dalmas (with uncredited assistance from Robert Florey and William Faulkner of all people) and fairly lively direction by Vincent Sherman, the movie made a welcome throwback to Flynn’s earlier swaggering movie roles.

Appropriate to a film about the legendary Spanish nobleman famous for his uninhibited lifestyle and many seductions, Steiner wrote a score that takes full advantage of situation. The music is dashing, heroic, Romantic, exciting, sentimental, suspenseful, and serene by turns. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Steiner’s godfather was, literally, Richard Strauss, whose Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, and, especially, Don Juan probably inspired the younger composer.

Co-producer John Morgan reconstructed and orchestrated a number of musical cues that hadn’t survived the sixty-odd years since Steiner first wrote them, so we welcome them. What’s more, the “London Processional” track sounds especially appealing, and audiophiles might want to single it out for demo purposes

When I first heard William Stromberg leading the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in movie music back in the days when they recorded for Marco Polo and Naxos, I was a little suspicious. How would a Russian orchestra do playing Hollywood movie scores? It didn’t take me long to realize they handled the music splendidly, and the conductor and orchestra have only gotten better with time. The Moscow forces play with a style and flair worthy of any Hollywood studio orchestra, but they add further polish, resonance, and richness to the equation.

In addition to Adventures of Don Juan, the set includes Steiner’s complete score for the 1944 Cary Grant black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (eleven tracks). Here, almost all of the musicians’ prepared parts survived the years. Needless to say, the music is delightful. Then, too, we also get an additional alternate track, “Baseball a la Brooklyn,” a trailer track, and even a trailer for WB’s 1953 horror movie “The House of Wax.”

Recorded in 96kHZ/24-bit audio at Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, Russia, in 2010, the Tribute sound is every bit as good as you would hope for this music. It’s extremely clear, clean, and dynamic, with a strong, audiophile-quality impact. It’s a tad forward, true, but it adds to the midrange clarity. Stereo spread is wide, occasionally seeming to extend beyond the boundaries of the speakers. Miking is fairly close, so orchestral depth suffers a bit, but, again, it helps the overall transparency. Highs are particularly sparkling and sound wonderful. In the last analysis, while the audio is not quite the ultimate in realism, it is quite spectacular, the way we expect movies to sound.

A lavishly illustrated, seventy-page booklet of pictures, text, notes, synopses, biographies, and such caps off a terrific CD presentation. You can find Tribute Film Classic products available at most retail outlets, or you can find out more about them by going directly to their Web site:

To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click here:


Dec 28, 2012

Passion & Resurrection (SACD review)

Music inspired by Holy Week. Stile Antico. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807555.

Stile Antico (“ancient style”) is an early-music vocal ensemble of British singers who formed in 2001 and specialize in music of the Renaissance and early Baroque. They have already recorded half a dozen albums for Harmonia Mundi, and this latest one, Passion & Resurrection, offers a series of thirteen selections based on texts inspired by Holy Week and Easter. It presents a cross-section of composers from England and the European continent that take the listener from Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through His Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the Crucifixion on Good Friday, and the resurrection on Easter day.

The composers range in date from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, some of them famous, some of them not so much. They include William Cornysh (1465-1523), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), Cristobal de Morales (c. 1500-1553), Tomas Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611), John McCabe (b. 1939), John Taverner (c. 1490-1545), Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), William Byrd (1540-1623), Jean Lheritier (c. 1480-1551), and Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1505-1557).

The program begins with William Cornysh’s “Woefully Arrayed,” a poem given fresh musical fittings from John McCabe over four centuries (and five tracks on the disc) later. McCabe’s version is a little secular sounding but still reverent. Did I have any favorites among the selections? Certainly, Thomas Tallis’s “O sacrum convivium” encapsulates everything good about this early musical genius. It’s beautiful in its harmonic structure and sung to perfection by Stile Antico.

There is an especially intent devotional quality to Cristobal de Morales’s “O crux, ave” that is hard to resist. And Thomas Crecquillon’s “Congratulamini mihi” is lovely in the extreme, while exuding a feeling of joyfulness, exultation, and inspiration. But to pick favorites among so many engaging tunes is fruitless. Take your pick; they’re all a joy.

The singing is the special pleasure of Stile Antico, though. Although there are only about fifteen persons involved in this particular production, they sound almost like a full choir, their voices blending so well, their harmonies so exacting, their tone and timber so precise, so lilting, lyrical, and soaring. I think I could listen to them sing anything. For the record, they are Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, and Alison Hill, sopranos; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Carris Jones, and Martha McLorinan, altos; Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, and Benedict Hymas, tenors; and James Arthur, Will Dawes, Oliver Hunt, and Matthew O’Donovan, basses. You’d swear there were two or three times their number singing.

Recorded in exemplary fashion by Harmonia Mundi at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London in 2012, the sound is most pleasing on the ear. HM recorded it in stereo and multichannel on this SACD hybrid disc, so depending on your playback equipment, you can listen to it either way; I listened in stereo on an SACD player, and it sounded splendid. There’s a sweet ambient glow around the voices, making them sound very much in a large, mildly reverberant church acoustic. However, the resonance is not so great as to cloud, veil, or diminish the vocals in any way. It simply makes them appear richer and fuller. The ensemble sound entirely natural in this setting, the voices miked at a moderate distance to provide a realistic presentation, the singers sounding warm, smooth, and lifelike, never bright or edgy. Each section of the choir--indeed, each individual member--comes across clearly and distinctly.

The foldout Digibook packaging contains an extensive, forty-five page booklet of notes, pictures, and texts. Moreover, a healthy seventy-one minute running time contributes to the album’s appeal. It’s all very impressive.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 26, 2012

Elgar: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Jacqueline du Pre, Janet Baker; Allegri String Quartet; Sir John Barbirolli, Philharmonia Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia of London. EMI 3 67918 2 (5-disc set)

There is no doubt that Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) was one of the grand masters among Elgar interpreters. There is also no doubt that it’s good to have all of this conductor’s EMI stereo recordings collected together in a single place. The folks at EMI have provided all of Barbirolli’s Elgar material from six separate discs in a low-priced, five-disc box set, which is a remarkable bargain.

The recordings include Sir Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Introduction and Allegro, Elegy, Sospiri, Falstaff, Cockaigne, Froissart, Enigma Variations, Pomp & Circumstance Marches Nos. 1-5, Serenade in E minor, Sea Pictures, and Cello Concerto. Yes, it is a quite a collection.

Now, given that each of the works has probably never seen a more authoritative performance and that the playing is practically flawless, you can see the value of the set. Personally, I find the string music with the Sinfonia of London, the Sea Pictures with Janet Baker, and the Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pre topping the charts, but I would not want to be without the other renditions as well. Barbirolli conducts the two big symphonies rather broadly, but you can hear his affection for the pieces in every note.

No one has really ever topped the 1965 performance of the Cello Concerto by young cellist Jacqueline du Pre and Sir John, though. A booklet note suggests that people initially criticized Ms. du Pre for having too much spirit, too much energy, in her interpretation, but Sir John, one of the world’s première Elgarians, defended her, saying that such exuberance was necessary in the young; besides, Elgar himself once remarked years earlier that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.”

The first and forth movements of the Concerto seem particularly noteworthy for their wistful, nostalgic look back at a calmer, more tranquil world before the Great War, and it is here that no one can accuse du Pre of being too spirited; she is, in fact, quite at peace with the world in a heartfelt performance that commands one’s respect from start to finish. Then, the Sea Pictures, sung by Janet Baker, are more like the Elgar of old, having been written over twenty years earlier, sounding in part, like “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” similar in mood to his pomp-and-ceremony days. The addition of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture in this set is icing on the cake, a wonderfully evocative, colorful, and affectionate orchestral description of Victorian London.

It’s true that several other conductors, notably Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) and Vernon Handley (EMI), have also recorded excellent performances of many of these works, yet it is Barbirolli who holds sway on so many of them that to have his recordings together in one box is priceless.

The sound, recorded between 1962 and 1966 with the three orchestral ensembles listed above, varies only slightly, from a tad heavy to a tad thin. But most of it comes off quite realistically, revealing some of EMI’s best sound from one of the company’s best recording periods (the Sixties and Seventies were good years for EMI audio engineers). The set is a no-brainer, and I hold it in my highest regard.

To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click here:


Dec 24, 2012

Horns for the Holidays (HDCD review)

Jerry Junkin, Dallas Wind Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-126.

Over the past thirty-odd years, the name Reference Recordings has become synonymous with excellent performances and audiophile-quality sound. Their 2012 release Horns for the Holidays is no exception and affords another excellent example of how good recorded music can be.

The concert that Maestro Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony perform combines popular Christmas songs with traditional and classical Christmas numbers for a most-joyous occasion. The program begins with John Wasson’s “Festive Fanfare,” a mélange of tunes that shows off the trumpets especially well. You might have to wonder how well a wind band can bring off these sometimes delicate selections, the answer being, very well, indeed. The Dallas ensemble performs like a precision instrument, all the players apparently virtuosos in their own right. As a group they sound as a single note, a single unit, and they bring with them all the nuance of a virtuoso force.

For the second selection, we get Leroy Anderson’s familiar “Sleigh Ride,” a song I grew up with and thought had been around forever. You’ll recognize it immediately and probably figure the same thing I did. But Anderson wrote it in 1948, a truly instant classic, here played with gusto by the Dallas Winds.

Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” gets a lovely concert-band arrangement that exemplifies the nuanced approach I mentioned above. Then, for a change of pace, we get David Lovreien’s “Minor Alterations: Christmas Through the Looking Glass,” in which we find any number of well-known tunes hiding out in other guises. It’s charming.

And so it goes. You’ll enjoy “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (“chestnuts roasting by an open fire”), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Deck the Halls.” Moreover, Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival” will no doubt delight you, and it will shake your rafters with its vibrant audio response; and John Wasson’s “Jingle Bells Fantasy” takes an innovative look at the old Christmas war-horse done up in new trapings.

The program draws to an end with the longest track on the disc, Alfred Reed’s “Russian Christmas Music,” based on Russian folk music; followed by “Christmas and Sousa Forever,” a clever interweaving of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and various Christmas favorites. It will make you smile and provides a befitting finale to a collection of joyful, festive tunes.

Producers Tamblyn Henderson and Donald McKinney and engineer Keith Johnson recorded the music at Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas, in 2011. As always, Reference Recordings goes for ultimate realism with this HDCD, resulting in a well-balanced, extended frequency range recording that offers plenty of impact. Bass is particularly lifelike, showing a strong, deep punch that makes you feel you’re in the hall with the players. A light, warm, natural hall resonance complements the sound, supplying an added verisimilitude to the recording. For a tour-de-force of winds, try the “Minor Alterations” track.

You can find Reference Recordings products at almost any retailer, and you can find more information about them at their Web site:

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 21, 2012

Mozart: Piano Concertos 17 and 22 (CD review)

Also, Rondo in A major. Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano; Petra Mullejans, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902147.

Listeners by now have come to expect great sound from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi recordings, whether they fully appreciate the performances or not. With this album of Mozart piano concertos with pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Freiburg ensemble, they get both. They get refined yet lively performances in some of the best possible recorded sound. It’s a pretty good deal.

Now, here’s the thing: You probably already have these piano concertos on disc. But do you have them performed on period instruments? Not only does the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Petra Mullejans sound different because of the period instruments, they play in a period style. And Bezuidenhout not only plays in a refined though spirited manner, he does so on a replica of an 1805 Anton Walter & Sohn fortepiano. These Harmonia Mundi recordings provide vivacious, nontraditional renditions of old favorites, done up in the fine audio I mentioned above.

The set begins with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453, which Mozart wrote in 1781 along with five others. The Concerto is lyrical and playful, with a much lighter feel than its companion piece on the disc, No. 22, written just the next year but sounding far weightier and more dramatic. Anyway, on the fortepiano, a less rich, less mellow, less robust instrument than today’s grand piano, No. 17 sounds wonderfully airy, poetic, and delightful.

Bezuidenhout’s playing is sprightly yet always cultured, even in so frolicsome a piece as this. While it’s true the second-movement Andante has a mildly melancholic air to it, Bezuidenhout plays it sweetly, never sentimentalizing it. Mozart himself was quite fond of the finale, so fond of it, in fact, he taught his pet starling to sing it. The pianist offers up a charming rendition of it, and one can almost hear the bird whistling along. Fine accompaniment from the Freiburg band under conductor Petra Mullejans make a good thing even better.

Next is the little Rondo in A major, K.386, which the composer wrote in 1782. It’s one of many Mozart fragments found scattered around the world. Although it is considerably less formidable than the concertos that surround it on the disc, it provides its own pleasures, being tranquil and serene in a rustic sort of way. Still, Bezuidenhout and company give it the respect it deserves.

The program concludes with the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major, K. 482, one of three piano concertos Mozart wrote in 1785. Because of the weightier tone of the first two movements compared to No. 17, I couldn’t help wondering at first if a modern piano might not have suited the music better. After hearing the fortepiano, however, sounding so clear, so transparent, and so intimate, I again had second thoughts.

The Freiburg ensemble may choose tempos that are on the fleet-footed side, but they never sound too fast or too rushed. They are almost always rhythmically gentle and flowing, carrying the music and the listener along effortlessly. A strong, pounding opening sequence in No. 22 gives way to much more delicate passagework interspersed along the way, carried out with virtuosic intent by Bezuidenhout and company. The central Andante projects a vaguely sorrowful mood, and the finale creates an appropriately zesty atmosphere with its famous hunting theme. I can’t say I’ve heard any of this music done any better.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in 2012 at the Freiburg Ensemble House, Freiburg, Germany. It is among the best-sounding discs the folks at HM have made. The sound is beautifully clear, revealing a wealth of inner detail. What’s more, one hears a very wide dynamic range and plenty of punch throughout. Indeed, the impact is sometimes so great, you’d think you were listening to a rock band. An extensive frequency response features good, clean highs and taut bass; and a mildly reverberant hall acoustic complements the piano and the band, producing a modest glow around the music, which along with the miking contributes, no doubt, to the realistic space and depth we hear on the recording.

To top off a terrific issue, Harmonia Mundi supply the jewel box with a light-cardboard slipcover. Overall, it’s one of my favorite releases of the year.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 20, 2012

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 (XRCD24 review)

Also, Piano Sonata No. 22. Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24018.

Ever since I first started listening to things like JVC’s XRCD audiophile remasters, I’ve become rather spoiled by them. Take, for instance, this Beethoven First Piano Concerto recorded more than half a century ago. The sound is rock solid. Not like most of today’s classical recordings that to me can appear misty, cloudy, fuzzy, excessively soft, or overly hard. With the exception of a touch of background noise (and, especially, a discernible bass hum), this older recording from JVC sounds just right, especially the piano, which is strong and steady in an unexaggerated way. The JVC XRCD issues may be expensive, but they provide great pleasure.

Sviatoslav Richter was a legend in Soviet Russia before being allowed to record in the West. When he did begin recording in America, among the companies he worked for was RCA in their “Living Stereo” series, one of the best places for any artist to record. Here, backed by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Richter brings a robust vitality to this first of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. The fact is, I hadn’t really thought about Richter’s recording much in quite a while until hearing it on this JVC release. It had been many, many years since I had first heard it, and I hadn’t remembered it being so thoroughly Romantic or so thoroughly powerful as it is, nor had I remembered how lovely and embracing the slow movement could be under Richter. Perhaps it’s just that Richter brings out the best in the music, I don’t know. Going back and listening to relatively newer recordings by pianist Stephen Kovacevich with conductor Colin Davis on Philips and Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink on Sony, also favorites, I found them good but not nearly so dynamic or persuasive as Richter.

I have sometimes found Munch and the Boston Symphony sounding thin, steely, and hard in their early RCA releases, but not quite here. There may be a touch of hardness to the sound but nothing thin or bright about this recording, made at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1960. It is, if anything, darkly aggressive and absolutely stable, well complementing Richter’s sturdy, energetic, and wholly realistic piano.

The companion piece on the disc, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 22, also comes off in a most vigorous and dramatic fashion. Richter’s way with the keyboard is both precise and incisive, making each note sound out loudly, clearly, purposefully. As with the Concerto, the Sonata offers a most impressive performance and a worthy coupling.

Naturally, for about a third the cost you can get Richter’s performance of the Piano Concerto and two sonatas on a mid-priced RCA release, but you wouldn’t get the sonic impact of the JVC. I cannot recommend any of JVC’s XRCD audiophile discs unconditionally, given their cost, but I can say that if you want the best, you pay the price.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 18, 2012

Franck: Symphony in D minor (CD review)

Also, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne; Hulda, Ballet allegorique. Christian Arming, Liege Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Fuga Libera FUG596.

The idea of the coupling on this album was to bring together a big, popular work with several other, less well-known pieces by the same composer. This is hardly a new concept, and numerous other record companies and musicians have already done it. It does, however, present two problems: First, it is not exactly conducive to selling a ton of discs to have unfamiliar titles on it. Second, the lesser-known works may simply demonstrate to listeners how much better the more-favored work is. There is a reason, after all, for certain pieces of art being more popular than others; they are usually better. Nevertheless, for most classical-music fans, the little ballet suite and symphonic poem that accompany Franck’s Symphony in D are welcome additions.

The big, popular work, the Symphony in D minor by French (Belgian-born) composer, pianist, and organist Cesar Franck (1822-1890), opens the show. Franck wrote it, his only symphony, in 1888, premiering it in Paris the next year, shortly before his death. It received a poor reception at the time, thanks largely to the musical politics of the day (leading French musicians disliked Franck’s blend of German and French musical traditions), but has obviously since become a mainstay of the classical repertoire.

One of the unusual features of the Symphony is that Franck wrote it in only three movements. The first movement, marked Lento - Allegro ma non troppo, begins, as Franck notes, slowly and builds momentum, though never too fast. Leading the Liege Royal Philharmonic, Maestro Christian Arming takes his time developing the themes in this movement, increasing the pace methodically and never making any sudden tempo changes. Instead, he makes Franck’s many shifts of key and tempo seem entirely normal and expected, he integrates them so smoothly. Indeed, if one were to be highly critical at all, one might say Arming was a little too refined, that Franck requires more gusto, more bravura. I don’t know; what we hear is persuasive enough, with adequate power when needed.

The second movement, an Allegretto, contains Franck’s famously fetching French horn melody. Franck himself described this section as resembling “an ancient procession,” and listeners through the years seem to have agreed. That’s the way Arming plays it, as a long, slow march, with a more enlivening theme developing toward the middle. Yet Arming makes it appear as a logical extension of the processional design.

The final movement, marked Allegro non troppo, takes us back in spirit to the start of the piece and sounds generally cheerful and exultant. Because Franck used a typically French cyclic style for the themes, we hear variants of the opening motif reoccurring throughout the work. Arming supplies plenty of energy here, without sounding frenzied or exaggerated. His interpretation stands up as cultured and well tempered to the end.

My preferred recordings for the Franck Symphony remain those of Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI), Pierre Monteux (RCA), Charles Dutoit (Decca), and Marek Janowski (Telarc). However, Maestro Arming makes a good showing of it, and one should not discount his recording in any way.

The first coupling on the disc, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (“What one hears on the mountains”) is an atmospheric tone poem, creating a mood rather than depicting any specific scenes. It is quite a lovely piece of music, portraying a lonely, isolated place somewhere high up in the mountains. Arming draws out this Man vs. Nature motif nicely, providing a quiet sense of desolation without letting the music become morbid or depressing.

The second coupling, Hulda, Ballet allegorique, is something we almost never hear on record or in the concert hall. It’s a little five-movement ballet suite from Franck’s long-forgotten opera Hulda, and the music comes as a treat. Under Arming, it is alternately lyrical and exciting, and always charming. The question is why more conductors haven’t recorded it.

A generous eighty-one minutes of playing time caps off a fine release.

Fuga Libera (meaning “free flight”), a label of Outhere Music, recorded the album at Salle Philharmonique, Liege, Belgium, in 2012. The sound in the Symphony is a model of natural audio reproduction. The orchestra stands before us at a moderate distance, the listener appearing to be perhaps twelve rows or so back. One still hears a wide stereo spread yet with a modicum of orchestral depth and good tonal balance. Bass is only modest, the highest notes seem a bit muted, and played too loudly there is a touch of forwardness in the lower treble. Midrange transparency also suffers slightly, while remaining realistic from this perspective. The overall effect is warm and lifelike, making a most pleasant listening experience. For whatever reason, maybe a change in miking, the accompanying items sound a tad more open and dynamic.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 17, 2012

Chicago Moves (CD review)

Music of Woodward, Cheetham, Baxter, Garrop, Deemer, Sampson, and Tower. Gaudete Brass. Cedille CDR 900000 136.

If you’ve never heard anything from the Gaudete Brass quintet before, you probably aren’t alone. They formed in 2004, and this Cedille album, Chicago Moves, is I believe only their third CD release. However, judging by the quality of their music, I should think it will be far from their last. The group’s goal is to present “serious brass chamber music at the highest level of excellence” and to encourage a “worldwide appreciation of the art of brass chamber music through live performances, recordings, education, and the creation of new works.” The present album contains six new pieces written expressly for the Gaudete Brass ensemble, all in world-premiere recordings, plus one slightly older work.

The program begins with the brief tune Gaudete by James Woodward (b. 1978). “Gaudete” means “rejoice” in Latin, so that’s what this opening music is all about. It sounds a cheerful, sometimes cheeky note, with some entertaining little harmonies bouncing around in it.

Next is the Sonata for Brass Quintet, a work in three movements by John Chetham (b. 1939). The first movement is sprightly, the second lyrical, and the third big and energetic. This is probably a better piece for demonstrating the prowess of the Gaudete Brass, their playing smooth, sophisticated, spontaneous, enthusiastic, and highly accomplished. The five members of the Gaudete Brass--Bill Baxtresser and Ryan Berndt, trumpets; Julia Filson, horn; Paul Von Hoff, trombone; and Scott Tegge, tuba--seem genuinely to be having fun playing this music together, and their joy is infectious.

After that is A Great Commercial City by Brian Baxter (b. 1985), the title referring, of course, to Chicago, the Gaudete Brass’s home port. Baxter based the piece loosely on the folk song “El-a-noy.” It may remind some listeners of Carl Sandburg’s famous ode to Chicago in spirit if not in tone: “Strong, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.”

Then, there’s Helios by Stacy Garrop (b. 1969). Helios was the Greek god of the sun, and the music describes his chariot ride across the sky. It begins with a fast and fiery sunrise and ends in a serene, sunset mood. Of all the music on the disc, this one is so well played, it stood out as one of my favorites.

Following that is the simply titled Brass, a three-movement piece by Rob Deemer (b. 1970). It explores the various sounds and textures of the brass instruments, a sort of “Young Person’s Guide to the Brass Quintet.” It’s the most-colorful music on the program, and the Gaudete ensemble make the most of it, offering up a joyous celebration of their own group. The movement “Slide” is particularly playful.

The final premiere is the title tune, Chicago Moves, a four-movement work by David Sampson (b. 1951). This one is also about the city of Chicago, going into more detail describing aspects of the place and its landmarks. Each movement is a kind of individual tone poem.

The album concludes with Copperwave, a Latin American-inspired piece by Joan Tower (b. 1938), which she wrote in 2006. It’s also a first of sorts, though, using a tuba rather than a bass trombone. Ms. Tower writes about it that “copper is a heavy but flexible mineral...and most brass instruments are made of copper. The ideas in this piece move in waves, sometimes heavy ones and at other times lighter--also in circles, turning around on the same notes.” It, too, is playful music, which brings out all the dramatic unity and immaculate playing technique of the Gaudete Brass.

Cedille’s topflight engineer Bill Maylone recorded the Gaudete Brass at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana in 2012. He miked it at a moderate distance, the sound obtained quite realistic. The stereo spread does not extend across the room, nor should it. Rather, we hear the sound of a well-integrated group of musicians playing in a mildly reverberant acoustic, with a good separation of instruments and no compartmentalization. The various members of the group sound as one, instead of a collection of separate players, which is all for the good. It’s the way any ensemble would sound in a real life, round and resonant. While midrange transparency is not as absolutely pristine as one might find on an audiophile disc, there is more than adequate air and depth to the sound, further promoting the feeling of actually being in the hall at a modest distance from the group.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 14, 2012

Bach: The Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Double Violin Concerto; Oboe and Violin Concerto. Lara St. John, violin; Scott St. John, violin; Ariana Ghez, oboe; New York Bach Ensemble; Eduardo Marturet, The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Ancalagon Records ANC138.

This 2012 album contains Bach’s two Violin Concertos and the Double Concerto that violinist Lara St. John and her brother Scott released about a decade before, but the album now also includes Bach’s Oboe and Violin Concerto, recorded some eight years later. Here’s the thing the disc illustrates: Ms. St. John’s playing style, execution, and presentation has improved over the years as maturity has tempered some of her youthful enthusiasm and further heightened her virtuosity. So for me the disc’s earlier-recorded Bach may not be among her best work, although it is still worth one’s attention.

Earlier this year, I had heard much of this music from violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and the English Chamber Orchestra on an eOne Music CD that I greatly admired. Thus, fair or not, it was with fond memories of Ms. Meyers’s fine interpretations that I listened to Ms. St. John’s album.

The first thing I noticed about the outer movements of the solo Violin Concertos is that Ms. St. John plays them fast. While they’re not breathless, they are quicker than most readings, quicker even than the period-instruments’ recording with La Petite Bande I hand on hand.

The next thing I noticed is that although the fast movements zip right along at a vigorous clip, they aren’t necessarily more exciting, more involving, more insightful, or more penetrating for all their speed than many more-relaxed renditions. Ms. St. John is

After that, I noticed that the slow inner movements are actually slower than ones I usually hear. There’s nothing wrong with this, either, especially since it does nothing seriously to harm or disrupt the beauty of the movements or the integrity of the work as a whole. Still, it probably creates more of a contrast than some listeners may care to hear.

Then, I also noticed a certain rigidity of attack throughout, without much gradation, ornamentation, or variation of nuance. Again, Mr. St. John’s interpretative manner might please listeners who prefer a fleet, unadorned approach, while it may simply strike other listeners as too complacent, too safe, merely a proficient playing of the notes without much feeling behind them. In other words, there is a degree of sameness about Ms. St. John’s renderings of the solo Violin Concertos, despite the vigorous playing. Fortunately, as I said earlier, Ms. St. John seems to have learned over the years to combine her passionate performance style with a genuine understanding of the music, as evidenced by her more-recent recording of the Mozart Third Violin Concerto for Ancalagon. 

Contrary to my feelings about the Violin Concerto tracks, however, I rather enjoyed the Double Concerto, which Ms. St. John performs with her brother Scott. Here, she puts her brisk pacing to use better here than in the solo affairs, keeping the music always on its toes so to speak and involving at least this listener thoroughly.

Finally, we come to Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin, on which oboist Ariana Ghez joins Ms. St. John, with Maestro Eduardo Marturet and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in support. This seemed to me the best performance on the disc, even though I didn’t care for the sound as much. The interpretation is graceful, flowing, easygoing, yet fully committed. It glides along effortlessly, carrying the listener with it. There even seems to be a better interaction between the soloists and the orchestra. Very nice.

Audio engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the two Violin Concertos and the Double Concerto at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, NY, in 2000, and the Avie label originally issued the album in 2002. Engineer Jose Leonardo Pupo recorded the Oboe and Violin Concerto at Sala Simon Bolivar, Centro de Accion Social por la Musica, Caracas, Venezuela, in 2008. In the New York sessions we hear a very smooth response, slightly close and well detailed. There is not a lot of depth involved, however, and not quite enough air around the instruments to provide an absolute realism. Compared to the Meyers/ECO recording on eOne I mentioned earlier, the St. John recordings also appear a tad veiled. In the final work on the disc, the orchestra is a bit more distanced, a bit thinner sounding, and a bit brighter in the strings. Neither of Ms. St. John’s recording venues quite contribute to sound of audiophile quality.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 13, 2012

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (XRCD2 review)

Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. JVC JMCXR-0006.

I hadn’t heard this performance in so long I’d forgotten I even had the RCA version in my collection. But when I heard it again in this JVC audiophile remaster, it all came back. How could I have forgotten about it? I don’t think it’s ever been out of print on vinyl or silver disc since RCA recorded it all the way back in 1955. Maybe it’s one of those things so close at hand, we lose sight of it.

In any case, the performance is outstanding in almost every way. It embraces passion, white-hot fury, forward impulse, and excitement in equal measure, perhaps only just missing out slightly in the ultimate lyricism of the dance. In this regard, I continue to prefer Colin Davis’s first, EMI interpretation, but there is no denying Reiner’s intensity. Nor can one argue with Reiner’s sense of balance. His reading of the Seventh is a cross between the bold momentum and drive of his Beethoven Fifth and the exquisite symmetry and repose of his Sixth. The accompanying Fidelio Overture is likewise incisive and fiery.

Now, factor in JVC’s superb XRCD2 remastering, and you have a disc that goes immediately to the head of the class. The sound, some of the earliest stereo available, is also some of the best in this repertoire and some of the best in the JVC XRCD audiophile lineup. It is solid, steady, clean, and focused, with all the elements in perfect harmony. The tonal proportions are musical and concordant, the bass is firm, the midrange clear, the highs shimmering but without fuzz or edge. There is no glassy ring to the sound, little hardness, and no softness. It’s just good music and good sonic reproduction. Play a few minutes of almost any new digital orchestral recording, and then play a few minutes of this one. I’m willing to bet you will find the early stereo superior in almost every way.

OK, so you know you can buy this music on an RCA “Living Stereo” disc for the half the cost of this JVC release and get the Fifth Symphony and the Coriolan Overture thrown in to boot. So what? You’re in it for the music, right, not just a bargain-basement price tag. Or are you the kind of person who listens to his music from behind the magazine or newspaper you’re reading, or from another room for heaven’s sake? This JVC remastering improves upon the sound of the RCA disc, if ever so slightly. Is it twice as good? Of course not. However, it is better, which I think is the point. And to the dedicated audiophile, “better” may be worth the few extra bucks.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 11, 2012

Bach: Partitas Nos. 2 & 6 (CD review)

Also, Toccata in C minor. David Fray, piano. Virgin Classics 50999 070944 2 2.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a “partita” is basically just a set of variations, which in the eighteenth century and Johann Sebastian Bach became a suite for solo instrument. In the case of Bach’s partitas, he wrote three of them for violin and six for harpsichord; on the present recording young French classical pianist David Fray plays two of the harpsichord partitas on the piano.

First, what you have to understand about Bach’s partitas is that he wrote them, in his words, “to refresh the spirits of music-lovers.” Although Bach modeled them in part on the then-popular French dance suite, he departed from the format in sometimes writing music for them that had nothing to do with dancing. Instead, we get six or seven highly original, often highly ornamented movements in each partita, sometimes lyrical, sometimes whimsical, sometimes bright and cheerful, sometimes moody and melancholy.

Second, you have to understand that Fray’s playing is equal parts brilliant, virtuosic, traditional, playful, and eccentric. Critics have compared him in this regard to the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, with whom Fray shares many characteristics, including a love of Bach and a penchant for showmanship.

Anyway, the program begins with the Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. It comprises six movements: A Sinfonia, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Rondeau, and Capriccio. Fray attacks them with vigor and enthusiasm, yet communicates much nuanced feeling as well. The pianist has said, “We shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging the expressiveness of Bach’s music; it’s not as though the Romantics had a monopoly on expressivity.” Fray furnishes a performance that is lively and dazzling in the faster movements to complement a refreshingly poised demeanor in the slower sections. These are not gut-wrenchingly sentimental readings but thoughtfully considered ones. The Sarabande, for instance, comes off with a kind of serene introspection rather than just being another stately dance, while the Capriccio displays a sprightly, driving gait.

Next, we get the Toccata in C minor, BWV 911, which stands in stark contrast to the partitas around it. Whereas the partitas sound generally upbeat and refreshing as Bach said, the Toccata is much more weighty and dramatic. Thus, it offers an effective counterpoint to its companion works on the disc. Still, Fray doesn’t keep it melodramatic, preferring to present its opposing themes in a serious yet rhythmically dynamic manner. It’s a most pleasing result.

The program ends with the Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830. It comprises seven movements: A Toccata, Allemande, Courante, Air, Sarabande, Tempo di Gavotta, and Gigue. Again, Fray jumps directly into the fray, so to speak. As he also says, “I try to make music like a conductor, not just as a pianist.... The piano constitutes a way of getting nearer the heart of the music. How do you balance the voices? How do you find a progression in a movement? How do you put the polyphony in place?” Certainly, he has found answers to these questions, as his interpretations are quite easily ones hard to forget.

Partita No. 6 is, indeed, the highlight of the set. The music sounds inspired, and Fray’s firm grasp of the music is evident in every note. Much of the work is moving in its sensitivity, and Fray’s approach to it is heartwarming, to be sure. The centerpiece is the Air, here a folklike dance that Fray pursues energetically, almost too much so. Yet one cannot help admiring and enjoying the infectious appeal of the presentation. This is not Bach for fogies.

Virgin did a good job recording the music at Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris, in 2012. A rather close-up piano provides ultimate detail. There is a beautiful glow provided by the lightly reverberant hall acoustic, which together with an excellent transient impact delivers a most-realistic piano sound. It’s one of those reach-out-and-touch-it affairs that seems as though the instrument is in the room with you.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 10, 2012

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, highlights (CD review)

Andrew Mogrelia, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.572928.

When Russian pianist, conductor, and composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) first presented his now-popular ballet Romeo and Juliet to the Bolshoi Ballet in 1935, they promptly pronounced it “undanceable.” Soon after, the public heard suites from the ballet, but they did not get to see it performed until 1938, the version we hear nowadays usually the revised 1940 score. Maestro Andrew Mogrelia and the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra recorded the full ballet in the mid Nineties for Naxos, originally issued in a two-disc set, and what we have here is a generous selection of highlights on a single disc.

Mogrelia gives us an atmospheric account of the score rather than an exciting, thrilling, or passionate one, with rather more odd tempo changes than I’d prefer between and within individual movements. Often, he favors a slower, more deliberate pace than some other conductors, which I’m sure dancers would prefer.

It worried me at first that the opening scenes in Verona's streets were a little too tame to catch fire, foreshadowing a degree of banality to come; but by the time of the Capulet party, things pick up considerably. Mogrelia is at his best, though, in the lyrical dance sequences and in the smaller, more intimate love scenes, where he builds the various tensions unerringly.

Since Prokofiev intended his score be highly graphic, taking us carefully through Shakespeare’s play practically scene by scene, the music is open to a wide range of interpretation. Befitting Shakespearean tragedy, with Mogrelia we get more emotion in the slower segments, yet with not always the passion or impulsive youthfulness the music demands. Even though Mogrelia reaches out and touches our heart at times, he leaves out a little of the melodrama.

So, while Mogrelia tends to tame the more boisterous parts of the music, he handles the more lyrical, romantic, and tragic sequences with a delicate hand. Maybe “The Duel” and “The Death of Mercutio” could be more exciting, but “The Young Juliet” at the beginning and “Juliet’s Death” at the end are most graceful and affecting.

The booklet notes describe the tracks pretty well, each segment clearly labeled to summarize the action of the plot. Not that Prokofiev’s work needs much explanation, the music already being so colorfully descriptive. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play should have no trouble following the plot.

Some people may disagree with the choice of highlights Naxos have assembled, and if that’s the case, one can always buy the complete ballet and program one’s own selections. Or perhaps a recording of the two ballet suites would be more to one’s liking. In any case, my own preferences in this music remain the complete recordings by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI), Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca), and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca).

Naxos recorded the complete ballet at the Concert Hall of Ukrainian Radio in 1994 and released this current set of highlights in 2012. The audio is quite nice, one of Naxos’s best-sounding recordings. It’s big and full, and a little close, with a wide stereo spread and a moderately good sense of depth. Midrange clarity and transient response are first-rate, and bass, though modest, is effective. The treble appears well extended, although the upper strings sound just a tad forward. It’s true that occasionally one notices that sections of the orchestra seem compartmentalized, yet it’s hardly anything of concern. It’s quite enjoyable sound.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 7, 2012

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (UltraHD review)

Joseph Silverstein, violin; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. LIM UHD 054.

When I first heard this recording in the early Eighties, Telarc had just released it on LP, and I’m afraid at the time it did not particularly impress me. As I recall, I found the performance too refined, too sedate, for my taste. I guess I had by then become used to more lively performances, many of them by period-instruments bands, and thought violinist Joseph Silverstein, conductor Seiji Ozawa, and players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra a bit too genteel for me. Well, that was then and this is now. Listening anew to the album in a recent LIM UltraHD audiophile remaster, I must admit the performance is rather refreshing and its approach not quite as relaxed as I remembered.

Sure, Italian violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, yet most people probably only know him for his Four Seasons violin concertos, the little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, dripping icicles, and howling winds. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they make up 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.

Silverstein begins the Spring Concerto at a deliberate pace, yet it isn’t slow or heavy. Where Silverstein’s performance, played on a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin, comes to the fore, however, is in the slow movement, where it is exquisite in its execution. Neither Silverstein nor Ozawa attempts to embellish the music any further than necessary so, no, we don’t get quite as imaginative an interpretation as, say, that of Alan Loveday with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca). Not that this is any kind of shortcoming, you understand. Indeed, Silverstein’s more direct, more traditional rendition is quite fetching, as I say.

Summer comes off well, too, and seems just as lively in its own way as Spring, perhaps more so. Silverstein’s violin tone is both velvety smooth and expressively animated. By the time he’s into the Presto, he’s worked up quite a head of steam and ends the music in high good spirits.

Autumn sounds rather plan and simple, especially in the beginning. There may be too much of a good thing in simplicity. Nevertheless, the playing sounds so cultured, it grows on you.

Finally, we come to the Winter Concerto, a section that for some soloists and conductors can be a bit vexing. The cold chattering of teeth and the running through the ice and snow require some finesse, which Silverstein and company pull off well. OK, maybe they actually get a little too hectic as they go along, but it is nonetheless quite colorful. The Largo’s “contented days by the fire” Largo are maybe a tad perfunctory, yet the performers make up for any small lapses with the swirling gales of the final movement. Fun stuff.

Drawbacks? Not really. The disc is expensive, to be sure. And there is no content beyond the four concertos, about forty minutes. Think of it as quality over quantity for those who can afford it.

Telarc Records originally made the album in Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1981. LIM remastered the recording in 2012 using their UltraHD 32-bit mastering system, a meticulious method of transferring material from the master tape to disc. The recording itself is relatively close, providing firm body, strong transient attack, and plenty of detail. What’s more, the chapel acoustic provides a pleasantly realistic glow to the music, a bloom that never detracts from the clarity of the sound; inner detailing, in fact, is now better than ever. More important is that the sound appears well balanced, with no sign of brightness, forwardness, edge, boom, softness, or the like to interfere with its lifelike playback.

Although I’m still partial to hearing The Four Seasons performed by a period-instruments band (putting the recording by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at the head of the list), for a recording on modern instruments (excepting Mr. Silverstein’s violin), this one is as good as it gets, and you couldn’t ask for better sound.

As always, the folks at LIM do up the packaging in a first-rate manner, with a hardcover foldout case containing twenty-four pages of text and pictures bound inside and a stiff paper sleeve for the disc, which is further enclosed in a static-proof inner liner.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 6, 2012

Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol (SACD review)

Also, Russian Easter Overture, Le Coq d’Or Suite; Borodin: Polovtsian Dances. Antal Dorati, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  Mercury SACD 475 6194.

Much of the material here dates from the earliest days of stereo, but because it’s a Mercury Living Presence recording, you’d hardly know it. Dorati was flourishing making recordings with the LSO in the mid Fifties and Sixties, and this disc, issued originally on two separate vinyl albums, one in 1956 and the other in 1959, is no different. The performances all sparkle, sonically and interpretively.

Things start out with the Capriccio Espagnol, given a rousing and characterful treatment by Dorati. It does not eclipse my favorite recording with Kiril Kondrashin on a remastered JVC, itself an ancient 1958 production, but it comes close, played with great character and verve. The suite from Le Coq d’Or, however, is peerless--vibrant, colorful, alive with musical nuance and detail; I loved every part of it. Following that we find the Russian Easter Overture, also well done, if sounding to my ears a tad rushed in spots.

The program concludes with Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor, and if it weren’t for Sir Thomas Beecham’s classic recording (EMI), Dorati would take top honors. Nevertheless, Dorati demonstrates plenty of pizzazz, plenty of panache in the music.

Mercury’s sound is much as we expect from this source, having been recorded with three microphones across the front of the stage, here reproduced in SACD three-channel or, if you have only a regular CD player, in two-channel stereo. I admit there is a certain small degree of boxed-in closeness about the sound, as though Mercury had applied a tad too much noise reduction to the lower treble, but it doesn’t interfere with the highest notes, which shimmer and glisten convincingly. Then there is the lowest bass in the Coq d’Or that is every bit as deep and impressive as anything made today. If you don’t already own these particular recordings or the music at all, Mercury’s hybrid SACD seems a good place to start.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 4, 2012

Audio Physic: 25 Years, Vol. 1 (CD review)

Classical sampler, various artists. Turtle Records TR75536.

Generally speaking (a phrase the Commander of the Confederate Army used when addressed), I don’t care much for sampler albums. Record manufacturers usually use them to promote their product, and audiophiles often use them to show off their playback equipment. Not that there’s anything wrong with self-promotion or showing off. It’s just that companies don’t really intend sampler albums for sustained listening; the companies mean for them to interest people in full albums of something else and for them to provide a moment or two of audio excellence to impress listeners sonically. Fair enough.

This particular album comes to us courtesy of the German loudspeaker company Audio Physic and the Dutch recording company Turtle Records. Both companies produce high-end audiophile products and are obviously out to prove the point. The album celebrates the loudspeaker company’s twenty-fifth year of business, and it contains sixteen tracks taken from the Turtle Records catalogue of classical music, each track lasting from about two-to-eight minutes, covering the past two or three hundred years, and performed by different soloists, small groups, and orchestras. More important, the tracks actually do sound great, and the performances, no matter how brief, are uniformly outstanding. So, yes, they are fun to hear, at least once.

I won’t try to cover everything on the program, but I’ll highlight a few things I found interesting. The music begins with the Second Concerto for Trumpet, second movement, by Andre Jolivet, performed by Peter Masseurs, trumpet; Frank van der Laar, piano; and Rob Dirksen, contrabass. It demonstrates a fine sense of space and air around the performers, a wide frequency range, and excellent transient attack.

“Wohin” from Schubert’s Die schone Mullerin shows off Christoph Pregardien’s faultless voice and the dynamics of a modern Steinway-D grand piano. Next, Haydn’s Quintet in D major, second movement, with the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam provides a good example of how realistically an engineer can record a small group without stretching them across the room.

The Renaissance singing of Cappella Pratensis on Pierre de la Rue’s Gaude Virgo is lovely and proves you don’t need an over-resonant acoustic for every recording of ancient vocal music. After that we get a contributions by Anima Eterna, a period band, under Maestro Jos van Immerseel in a selection by Hugo Distler that not only sounds beautifully and enthusiastically played but, of course, beautifully and enthusiastically recorded in clear, clean sonics.

And so it goes. A lute duet is fun because it combines a lute with gut strings with one using modern nylon strings, and while it’s hard at first to tell one from the other, the recording sounds so lucid, one soon notices the differences.

A passage from Mahler’s First Symphony, performed from an original score by the Netherlands Symphony under Jan Willem de Vriend has an enormous dynamic range. More important, because the recording engineer had the sense to give it some distance, it comes across sounding most natural.

I always welcome a little Bach from La Petite Bande, and then, following that, we have a passage by Locatelli from the Latvian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra that sounds about as transparent as anything I’ve heard and is one of the highlights of the highlights.

After a few more such numbers, the album concludes with the opening “Battle” segment of Wellington’s Victory by Beethoven played again by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. I guess Turtle Records were saving the biggest spectacle for last because it is, indeed, spectacular. Licensed from Challenge Classics, it offers a fine example of how this often rowdy piece can sound if properly recorded, offering not only strong impact but a good degree of lifelike stage presence.

Incidentally, the only thing that bothered me about the album concerned the packaging, which Turtle Records chose to do up with a black background, making some of the tiny blue text in the booklet and on the cover and back difficult to read (and in some cases darned near impossible). Really: Blue on black? Art directors, take note: Give those of us with diminishing vision a break, please.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 3, 2012

Elgar: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Sospiri, Salut d’amour, La capricieuse; Dvorak: Waldesruh’, Rondo; Respighi: Adagio con variazioni. Sol Gabetta, cello; Mario Venzago, Danish National Symphony Orchestra. RCA 88697658242.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote his Cello Concerto relatively late in his career, 1919, and because it appeared just after the devastation of the First World War, much of it sounds rather solemn and melancholy. Regardless, it quickly became one of the composer’s most-cherished compositions. Although the 1965 EMI recording by cellist Jacqueline du Pre and conductor John Barbirolli is still my benchmark in the work, the award-winning cellist Sol Gabetta puts in a fine performance in this 2012 RCA release with conductor Mario Venzago and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

Interestingly, Ms. Gabetta was only a few years older than Ms. du Pre when she recorded the work. Critics in 1965 initially faulted Ms. du Pre for putting too much spirit, too much energy, into her interpretation, but Sir John, one of the world’s première Elgarians, defended her saying that such exuberance was necessary; besides, Elgar himself once remarked that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.” In any case, in the present recording Ms. Gabetta walks a clear line between exuberance and somberness; perhaps one could call it a lively, though gentle, solemnity.

The first and third movements of the Concerto are especially noteworthy for their wistful, nostalgic look back at a calmer, more tranquil world before the Great War, and it is here that no one can accuse Ms. Gabetta of being too spirited; she is, in fact, quite at peace with the world in a heartfelt performance that commands one’s respect from start to finish.

The opening Adagio has a big, bold part for the cello that starts immediately, although it strikes a rather solemn tone, taken at a grave pace by Ms. Gabetta and Maestro Vengazo. Nevertheless, we also see from the start that Ms. Gabetta is infusing the work with an appropriately lyrical melancholy.

The second-movement Scherzo takes up almost immediately but requires a moment or two to develop. Once underway, Ms. Gabetta provides a virtuosic display of musicianship as she and her part in the proceedings playfully banter back and forth with the orchestra. While the movement almost appears out of place in the context of the rest of the piece, Ms. Gabetta does her best to integrate it effectively.

The Adagio is the soul of the work, and Ms. Gabetta delivers a moving rendition of it, reminding us of the seriousness of Elgar’s intent. Its relationship to the first movement comes through more obviously than ever.

The finale is the most exuberant section of the music, yet Ms. Gabetta reminds us, subtly, of what the piece is all about. It ends on a solidly positive note while still being contemplative on the whole. Ms. Gabetta never overdramatizes the piece nor sentimentalizes it. She steers a pretty straight course, keeping the emotional side of the music well grounded in reality yet still conveying plenty of emotion. If that sounds contradictory, Elgar meant the work to be as conflicting as it sounds, part grave, part celebratory. The Great War had been devastating, but it was over. There were new opportunities on the horizon, new lives to live, a new world to make. Ms. Gabetta would seem to understand this.

Because the Cello Concerto is a short work, under half an hour, the folks at Sony generously fill out the disc with a number of shorter pieces for cello and orchestra of similar tone from Elgar, Dvorak, and Respighi. Elgar’s Sospiri is touching in its plaintive longing; the popular, light, and beautiful Salut d’amour seems notwithstanding tinged with a degree of anxiety; and La capricieuse sounds sweet and Romantic as Ms. Gabetta dances gently through it.

The works by Dvorak and Respighi are equally appealing in Ms. Gabetta’s hands. She maintains a graceful, casual, flowing, and forceful mood throughout, each piece of music always complementing the others.

RCA recorded the album in November of 2009 at the Koncerthuset DR Byen, Copenhagen, Denmark, with generally pleasing results. Although the sound is fairly close-up, with a diminished sense of depth and space, it is not at all bright, hard, edgy, or particularly compartmentalized. It comes across quite smoothly, with a pleasantly lifelike warmth. The cello appears much closer than the rest of the orchestra, which is perhaps its only real shortcoming; yet as this is a concerto, after all, maybe it’s fitting that the soloist get as much as attention as possible.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Nov 30, 2012

Strauss: Ein Straussfest (UltraHD review)

Music of Johann Strauss Sr., Johann Strauss Jr., Eduard Strauss, and Josef Strauss. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. LIM UHD 064.

Maestro Erich Kunzel may have made more recordings than almost any conductor in history, but when it came to the music of the Strauss family, he didn’t quite project the delight of a Willi Boskovsky, the glamor of a Herbert von Karajan, the energy of an Antal Dorati, the elegance of a Josef Krips, the warmth of a Eugene Ormandy, the high spirits of a Lorin Maazel, or the Viennese charm of a Fritz Reiner or Zubin Mehta or Jascha Horenstein. Instead, Kunzel’s readings are more exhilarating than illuminating. That said, when the sound comes across as impressively as it does here in this LIM audiophile remaster of a 1985 Telarc release, it probably doesn’t matter. The sonics rather overwhelm the notes and carry us along, making us marvel anew at the creative genius of the Strauss family.

The program begins with a bang, with a real explosion at the start of the Explosions Polka. Then, we get three more quick-paced polkas and galops, again with sound effects such as, literally, various bells and whistles, popping corks, pistol shots, and thunderclaps in the Im Krapfenwald’l Polka, the Champagne Polka, and the Banditen Galop. Some purists may feel Telarc indulged in too many such aural effects, but one should keep in mind that when the Strausses wrote this music, audiences enjoyed and expected a degree of extravagance.

The first big waltz comes with On the Beautiful Blue Danube, in which Kunzel seems at first a little earthbound and mundane; however he soon warms up to the piece, even if he never quite gets the full measure of the waltz rhythms involved. Likewise, his handling of Tales from the Vienna Woods never exactly catches fire until well underway. It’s as though the conductor were holding something back for as long as he could and then still wasn’t entirely sure how to cope with the pulses of a waltz. There follow the Radetzky March, the Feuerfest Polka, the Auf der Jagd Polka, the Bahn Frei Polka, the Pizzicato Polka, and the Unter Donner und Blitz Polka, numbers that come off best.

If I have any reservations about the album, they include the short playing time (48:10) and the preponderance of fast tunes on the program, with only two waltzes (The Blue Danube and the Tales from the Vienna Woods). So it’s more of showpiece than I’d like. Still, with the inclusion of an outstanding Radetzky March, it’s hard not to enjoy the selections.

Although there is a certain lack of subtlety in Kunzel’s conducting and although the Cincinnati Pops lack the plush precision of a Vienna Philharmonic, the conductor and orchestra are clearly having a good time, and their enthusiasm shows.

Telarc recorded the album in 1984 at Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, releasing it the following year, and LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a division of FIM, First Impression Music) remastered it in 2012 in their UltraHD 32-bit mastering process. Engineer Michael Bishop, who helped with the original recording, supervised the remastering, and the meticulous UltraHD system did the rest. The sound is very dynamic, with a slightly improved transient impact over the original Telarc product. Yet we also hear a very smooth, warm, lifelike response, without a trace of brightness or edge, which is probably the best quality of the remastering. Music Hall imparts a pleasant resonant glow around the sonics that some audiophiles may think detracts from the disc’s midrange transparency and others may feel adds to the album’s overall realism. Adding further to the natural-sounding effect of the acoustic is a good measure of depth to the orchestra; it’s easy to listen “into” the players and distinguish their relative distances from one another. Thus, imaging, always a hallmark of Telarc, is better than ever. Finally, you’ll of course find the big Telarc bass drum in evidence throughout. This remastering is all about big, room-filling sound, which you get in spades.

As always, LIM dress up the disc with an attractive, high-gloss foldout container, the disc itself enclosed in an inner paper sleeve and a static-free liner. It’s a handsome package.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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