Jan 31, 2012

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (SACD review)

Also, Firebird Suite; Scherzo a la Russe; Tango. Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra. Channel Classics CCS SA 32112.

When Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) premiered his ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913, the audience pretty much rioted. Regular theatergoers used to elegant, refined dance music had no idea what Stravinsky was up to with his primitive, often fierce rhythms describing some kind of ancient fertility rite. The composer didn't subtitle it "Pictures from Pagan Russia" for nothing.

The score's pounding beat also helped shape the path of subsequent twentieth-century music, making Stravinsky not only controversial but genuinely revolutionary. In these times, we accept The Rite as an established classic, but, obviously, it wasn't always so. Which brings up the subject of how to approach it today; certainly, it still needs a good deal of fire and passion in its presentation, such as the renditions we've heard from Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca) or Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony). Maestro Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, though? Not so much so on this present disc.

In the Rite's "First Part:  Adoration of the Earth," Fischer handles the lyrical portions of the score splendidly, delicately and airily, with plenty of atmosphere. But he seldom seems to let loose as one might expect, despite a fairly quick pace throughout. It's not that the performance lacks energy; it has energy to spare. It's just that Fischer's interpretation seems a touch static at times, providing fewer thrills than it might.

The conductor has more success with the "Second Part: The Sacrifice," where he seems to be getting more in touch with Stravinsky's intensions. Here, Fischer combines his exceptional lyricism with the composer's intense desire to conjure up a full breakthrough of spring after a frozen Russian winter. Thank the tympanist, too, for his efforts in this regard. Nevertheless, the aforementioned Solti and Bernstein recordings, along with others from Boulez (Sony), Muti (EMI), and Stravinsky himself (Sony) have already provided us with plenty of beauty and excitement in the work; as a result, it's hard for Fischer's account to compete easily.

Where the current disc does excel is with the accompanying pieces. The 1919 suite of seven movements from The Firebird comes off especially well, very mysterious, moody, and exotic. The Scherzo a la Russe and Tango show us an older, lighter, more-playful Stravinsky, music in which Fischer appears to take particular delight.

This is a recording that the folks at Channel Classics seem to have meant as an audiophile demonstration piece, but it's also one that a person might have to own an SACD multichannel playback system to appreciate fully. The engineers recorded the performances at the Palace of Arts, Budapest, in 2010, and the two-channel stereo sound to which I listened on this hybrid disc is wonderfully cohesive, with a lifelike sense of stage depth and a wide stereo spread. Overall transparency, though, is only average, with a slight veiling of the midrange; a faint, thick blurring of detail; and a good deal of ambient hall resonance. Bass response, too, could be a bit stronger as well as dynamic impact, at least in the "First Part" of the Rite. By the "Second Part," however, the dynamics kick in a little better. It's a realistic sound, to be sure, if a tad distant unless played relatively loudly, in which case the music becomes a tad rough. So, on the one hand we get natural, potent sonics and on the other hand we get a somewhat heavy, clouded showing. I have no doubt that in its multichannel format the sound should come up even better than what I heard.


Jan 30, 2012

Faure: Requiem (CD review)

Also, Cantique de Jean Racine, Elegie, Pavane, Super flumina Babylonis. Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Paavo Jarvi, Choir and Orchestre de Paris. Virgin Classics 50999 070921 2.

Another Requiem? The public seems to love Requiems, which, considering they're masses for the dead, may seem a little odd until you recognize that the best musical settings for the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass are among the greatest music created. No, I'm not just talking about Mozart's or Berlioz's or Brahms's or Verdi's famous Requiems, which are somewhat dark, solemn, and heavy as befitting the occasion, but Faure's Requiem, which in comparison seems almost like a fairy tale. It's always fascinating to hear a new recording, a new interpretation, of it, like this one from Maestro Paavo Jarvi and the Choir and Orchestre de Paris.

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) remarked of his work, "It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death, and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. My Requiem was composed...for pleasure." For this reason, Faure's Requiem has become one of the most celebrated settings of the mass, perhaps almost as famous as those mentioned above.

Anyway, after initially writing the Messe de Requiem in D minor for soprano, baritone, mixed choir, organ, and orchestra, Op. 48, in 1888 using a chamber orchestra and small choir, Faure, at the urging of his publisher, had second thoughts and revamped it in 1898-1900 for full orchestra. He apparently was happy with that arrangement for the rest of his days. So that's the way folks played it until the 1980's, when British composer, conductor, editor, arranger, and all-around musicologist John Rutter found Faure's original manuscript for chamber orchestra, which Rutter himself and several other conductors have played and recorded. Still, it's the lineup for full orchestra and chorus that most people probably know best, and that's the one Jarvi and his forces perform here.

Using the traditional arrangement of the work, Jarvi takes a fairly straightforward approach to the score, never rushing anything, and in the process sounding a tad old-fashioned, which I count an entirely good thing. He does bring out some intense dynamic contrasts, though, the choir sometimes falling into such a quiet hush, it will tempt you to turn up the volume. Resist.

Baritone Matthias Goerne has a voice like rich honey, a voice that flows over the listener in golden tones. In the soprano part, we hear countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who does a beautifully commendable job. Faure meant for his Requiem to be placid and loving, and in this regard Jarvi and company succeed nicely. "It is as gentle as I am myself," the composer once commented. Maybe it's this quality of gentleness that has sold it to audiences over the years, and certainly it's the quality Jarvi exploits to the fullest.

The Requiem concludes in a glow of fairy dust, and this magical ending Jarvi also accomplishes successfully. It's a lovely production all the way around.

Because the Requiem is brief, a little over half an hour, the disc offers the four short choral couplings noted above. These come off well, too, with the Pavane especially light and airy.

Virgin recorded the performances live at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, in 2011. The sound is fairly close up on the orchestra, with the choir slightly recessed. There is adequate detailing, although it is a tad thick and soft overall, with a big left-to-right stereo spread and abundant ambient bloom without too much reverberation. While the orchestral sound is also a touch one-dimensional, perhaps because of the close miking, it is, fortunately, not at all hard or edgy.

Finally, I'm happy to report that the Virgin producer and engineers spared us any applause, so the disc maintains to the end the meditative mood of the music.


Jan 27, 2012

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Tuba Concerto. Heather Harper, soprano; John Fletcher, tuba; Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD244.

When English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) completed his third symphony in 1922, he called it the "Pastoral Symphony," numbering it some years later. The name conjures up visions of green English countrysides, perhaps rolling hills and sweet zephyrs blowing through the trees, a veritable wind in the willows. However, that wasn't the composer's intention. He planned the symphony in 1916 while serving in Northern France during World War I. He intended the music as an elegy for the fallen soldiers of a senseless war and as a meditation on peace.

Of the many recordings made over the years of this essentially enigmatic piece of music, my favorites have long been those of Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) and the one we have here from Andre Previn (RCA), now remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). Previn and the LSO bring out all the beauty and restrained power of the work in a performance of grace and polish. It helps, too, that the remastering makes it sound better than ever.

The symphony's first movement is wonderfully bucolic, Previn rendering those French fields with the utmost serenity and distinction. The music tends to ripple along rather like the work of several other English pastoral composers--Arnold Bax or Frederick Delius, for instance. Vaughan Williams remarked that he did not mean for the movement (or the symphony) to be programmatic, yet one cannot help picturing wooded hillsides and flowing streams in this segment. It may not be the most-exciting music in the world, but it is wonderfully relaxing.

Although the second, "slow" movement is hardly much slower than the movement that precedes it, it does maintain a more low-key mood, especially the way Previn coaxes the notes out. The trumpet cadenza, another reflection of the War and its devastation, never sounded more persuasive. Following that, we get what passes for a scherzo, which typically ought to be a relatively short, fast, light, often playful movement, but which here the composer makes rather dark, Previn taking him at his word. It is marginally the quickest and most dynamic music in the symphony and has a surging onward pulse, even if by the time it's over the tone has returned to that of the symphony's opening moments.

The final movement, marked Lento (slow), is the most creative and atmospheric section of the piece, with Previn underplaying it just enough to make it, with its wordless soprano melody (sung here by Heather Harper), hauntingly fascinating. This is not a big symphony in the conventional sense but music for quiet contemplation. As such, the "Pastoral Symphony" has never been among Vaughan Williams's most popular works (it may just put some listeners to sleep), but it is one of his loveliest and most thoughtful.

Accompanying the symphony we find the Tuba Concerto in F minor from 1954. It is short and sweet, or as sweet as a tuba can sound, and Previn ensures that the three movements bounce (or galumph) along in good spirits. The music stands in contrast to the nature of the "Pastoral Symphony" that precedes it and, therefore, makes an attractive companion. Surprisingly, it is not at all as ungainly as one might expect, with tuba player John Fletcher making it appear quite fleet and graceful.

RCA recorded the performances in 1972, and HDTT remastered them from an RCA vinyl LP (LSC-3281) in 2011. The sound is remarkably smooth and placid, like the music itself, flowing gently forward, yet with plenty of delicate detail and definition. This is not superspectacular, blockbuster sound; it is warm, natural, realistic sound, an orchestra in front of us in all its breadth and depth, if somewhat subdued. While there is some minor background noise on occasion, perhaps the result of a little judicious noise reduction, I don't know, it is slight. The orchestral imaging is, above all, what a listener will probably notice and remember most about the recording.

For information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.


Jan 26, 2012

Smetana: Ma Vlast (SACD review)

Walter Susskind, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4006.

Originally issued by Vox/Turnabout in 1975, this performance by Walter Susskind of Bedrich Smetana's set of descriptive tone poems has remained a favorite recording of many listeners for over thirty-five years. It's nice to hear it so lovingly remastered by Mo-Fi.

Smetana completed Ma Vlast, "My Country," in 1874 and dedicated it to the city of Prague. The work is, as most of you know, made up of six interrelated symphonic pictures, the first four, "Vysehrad," "Vltava" ("The Moldau"), "Sarka," and "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields," describing the sights and sounds of Smetana's native Czechoslovakia, while the last two, "Tabor" and "Blanik," celebrate famous military victories in Czech history. Incidentally, the composer requested that "Tabor" and "Blanik" never be played separately; that is, never without the other. Anyway, the complete cycle displays a varied number of moods and actions that have delighted audiences for as long as it's been around.

Maestro Susskind's way with the work is elegant and refined, much as we might find a Marriner or a Mackerras approaching the score. Not that the interpretation lacks energy or excitement--it would be hard to deny the music its due, no matter who was conducting it--but it does seem to lack an essential intensity that several other favorite conductors demonstrate.

Among the recordings I compared are the totally committed one with Rafael Kubelik and the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon, the involving account with Paavo Berglund and the Dresden State Orchestra on EMI Seraphim, the period-instruments version by Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players on Virgin, the stylish production with Vaclav Neumann and the Leipzig Gewandhaus on Berlin Classics, the winning rendition with Libor Pesek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Virgin, and the wholly involving interpretation with Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw on Newton Classics. By comparison, Susskind seems a tad lax, content to let the music set its own course, certainly not a bad idea. In any case, Susskind is best in the surging currents of "The Moldau" and the sweeping hills and valleys of the "Bohemia" section. Then again, the two rather bombastic concluding poems have never impressed me as much, so Susskind may not be at fault for not offering them up in a more rousing manner.

The sound, originally made, as I said, by Vox in the mid 70's, as remastered by Mobile Fidelity on this hybrid SACD issue is ultrasmooth, ultraclean, and uncommonly widespread, even on the stereo layer to which I listened, but by comparison again to the recordings mentioned above, it's also a tad too warm and soft. Interestingly, it's the Berglund and Dorati recordings I found sonically superior on my system (VMPS RM40s)--more detailed, transparent, and dynamic than the rest. And the Berglund, at budget price, is also the cheapest of the bunch I auditioned. But for those listeners who have always cherished the Susskind reading, it has undoubtedly never sounded so good.


Jan 24, 2012

Dvorak: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, The Water Goblin; In Nature's Realm.  Zuill Bailey, cello; Jun Markl, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Telarc TEL-32927-02.

Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker, Maurice Gendron, Gregor Piatigorsky, Lynn Harrell, Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier, Rafael Wallfisch, Pierre Fournier: There is a host of superstar cello players who have already recorded terrific performances of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. So, how does newcomer Zuill Bailey fare among the elite? Pretty well, actually. I had quite liked his Bach Cello Suites from a year or so earlier, and this new album is no less impressive.

For many years, composers sort of shunned the cello, at least as a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and the like pretty much ignoring it except in chamber works. Fortunately, by the late nineteenth century things picked up for the cello, and by the twentieth century it had taken a respectable place in the halls of classical music.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 in 1895, somewhat late in the composer's career, but it has since become one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time. There's no mistaking its late Romantic trappings, its abundance of melody, and its strong emotional involvement. These are the very qualities cellist Bailey, conductor Jun Markl, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra bring out best in the work.

Dvorak starts his concerto with an imposing orchestral introduction before the entrance of the cello, a preface that includes references to the work's two main themes to come. Markl accentuates the music without glamorizing it too much. Then, when Bailey enters, playing a 1693 Ex "Mischa Schneider" Matteo Gofritter cello, he ensures that listeners recognize all the rugged, mountainous power of the piece, while simultaneously bringing out its passionate, lilting sensitivity. It's an accomplished rendition.

Moving on, under Bailey the music of the central Adagio flows gently along like a slow-moving stream, the performer making it sound as wistful as I've ever heard it. Perhaps the illness and eventual death of the composer's sister-in-law, with whom he had once been in love, contributed to this and the final segment of the concerto. Bailey communicates the emotive intensity of the movement well.

Bailey and company guarantee the finale bristles with energy, ending appropriately enough with a touch of melancholy in the climactic love duet before the massive close. Overall, the performance hasn't quite the lyricism of Gendron's reading or the masculine boldness of Starker's interpretation, but it's close enough in both regards.

Accompanying the Concerto are two of Dvorak's more-colorful tone poems. The Water Goblin he based on a rather grim little folk tale that might scare the pants off any child who heard it. Maestro Markl plays up its macabre aspects in high fashion. In Nature's Realm is a more forgiving work, a paean to the enduring and uplifting spirit of Nature. Here, Markl lets the music soar and closes the show in fine form.

Telarc recorded the Concerto live in concert at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis, Indiana, in February of 2011. It's something of a departure for Telarc, recording live; at least, I can't recall their doing many or any live recordings before, although my memory probably fails me. In any case, how they got the audience to remain as quiet as they are is anybody's guess, since the miking is not particularly close up, except on the cello. The sound turns out to be typical of Telarc's previous work in that it's wide, full, and lightly reverberant. It's just a tad heavy, yet it reveals good inner detail and splendid clarity. The orchestra also displays plenty of depth, with good imaging all the way around. Although I wish the cello weren't quite so prominently placed up front, it's a minor concern in a most rewarding presentation.

Two issues I did have, though: (1) The album cover (shown above) looks fairly unattractive, the name "Dvorak" in blue against a dark background rendering it hard to read; and (2) the unfortunate burst of applause after the Concerto almost completely took me out of the mood the performers had so carefully built up for over half an hour. I hope Telarc's art design and their decision to record live are only temporary aberrations.


Jan 23, 2012

Canadian Brass Takes Flight (CD review)

Eric Reed, horn; Christopher Coletti and Brandon Ridenour, trumpets; Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone; Chuck Daellenbach, tuba. Steinway & Sons 30008.

The folks who comprise Canadian Brass have been tootling their horns for over four decades now, and audiences never seem to tire of their enthusiastic and virtuosic musicianship. Of course, the membership changes from time to time, with the current five players being Eric Reed on horn, Christopher Coletti and Brandon Ridenour on trumpets, Achilles Liarmakopoulos on trombone, and Chuck Daellenbach on tuba. No matter the makeup of the group, however, they always appear to have been performing together forever, they sound so well integrated.

This time out on Canadian Brass Takes Flight they perform a motley assortment of tunes that apparently not even they can adequately explain. It doesn't hurt the music, but it does complicate it.  For instance, on the back cover their publicist writes, "Canadian Brass truly takes flight with this new album--their premiere release on Steinway & Sons." Fair enough, given that the lead number is Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee and another is Bach's Air on the G String. But how to explain the inclusion of Kompanek's Killer Tango or Mozart's Turkish Rondo? Inside the Digipak we read, "Canadian Brass Takes Flight is a kind of 'state of the union' address, as the group's current membership revisits and refreshes examples of its unique contribution to the brass quintet universe--four decades of performing, four centuries of music." Again, fair enough. Maybe they mean the current disc to be a sort of greatest hits album, newly recorded. If so, there is little rhyme nor reason for the selections except that somebody liked them.

In any case, it's the music that counts, and the music is splendid, despite the sometimes jarring juxtapositions of the tunes. We get eighteen tracks that range from classical (Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov) to tangos to gospel to Dixieland jazz. Whatever the music, you can count on Canadian Brass to perform it in a lively, sprightly fashion, with the utmost precision along the way. Personally, I enjoyed the several Bach selections best of all, along with the tangos.

Things get a little static by the middle of the program, unless you are a devoted brass afficionado, but they pick up with Bach's Air. The album closes with three numbers in New Orleans jazz style, the group's usual opening number, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, here closing the show. While it's a mixed bag, as I say, it's undeniably fun.

Canadian Brass's new label is Steinway & Sons (or it's their co-label as this is a little confusing, too. The Digipak lists the recording as a cooperative project among Steinway & Sons, ArkivMusic, and Opening Day Entertainment Group, with the financial support of the department of Canadian Heritage, Canada Music Fund, and Canada's Private Radio Broadcasters).

Whoever produced the album engineered it well, recording the group at Christ Church, Deer Park, Toronto, Canada, in August of 2011. The sound they obtain is full and resonant, a mellow acoustic to match the richness of the instruments, with a pleasant sense of occasion in the ambient environment. The sonics are ultrasmooth, or as smooth as brass instruments can be. One can discern each of the five instruments clearly, spread out convincingly across the stage, miked at an ideal distance for easy listening.

Of minor note, the "brass" is not entirely brass. Again, I quote from the Digipak: "The Canadian Brass performs exclusively on instruments manufactured by Conn-Selmer, Inc. under the legendary brands Vincent Bach and C.G. Conn. Skillfully handcrafted, each instrument is a blend of classic design, elegant styling, and signature sound, beautifully culminating with the Canadian Brass trademark 24K gold-plate finish." All that glitters....


Jan 20, 2012

Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

Also, Exsultate Jubilate. Helen Donath, soprano; Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Robert Tear, tenor; Robert Lloyd, bass. Carlo Maria Giulini, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. EMI Seraphim Classics 7243 5 73702 2 6.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, K. 626, seems to maintain a perennial hold on people's musical interests and appreciation; it remains endlessly popular, never seeming to go out of style. Maybe it's because it was the last thing Mozart composed before he died. Maybe it's because of a morbid attraction about his working on a funeral mass at his death. Maybe it's because he left it unfinished, and people have always been curious about what he might have done with it had he been able to complete it. Maybe it's because for years there was always a mystery about who commissioned it. Or maybe it's because it's just good music that almost everyone enjoys. Who knows.

So, did Mozart divine his own death? Did he think he was writing his own funeral dirge? Or did a jealous rival, Antonio Salieri, secretly contract the work and then poison Mozart as the famous stage play and movie would have it? The reality is that a representative from a Count Franz von Walsegg surreptitiously commissioned the work, Walsegg wanting it to commemorate the recent death of his wife. The secrecy involved was because Walsegg was an amateur musician who sometimes passed off commissions as his own work. In any case, the truth isn't always as much fun as the legend. Fortunately, neither fact nor fable does anything to diminish Mozart's music.

The classical catalogue overflows with as many different types of Mozart interpretations as you can name, from chamber orchestras to full orchestras, from period instruments groups to modern instruments ensembles, from regular singers and choirs to boy sopranos and all-male choirs. Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini takes about as old-fashioned an approach to the Requiem as possible, using a full, modern orchestra and traditional mixed soloists and full choir in his recording of the standard Sussmayr edition of the score. (Most critics believe that in failing health Mozart asked his assistant, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, to finish up the work in the event of his passing, which Sussmayr did.) Yet if Giulini's rendition is the kind you're looking for, he does it about as well as anyone around and better than most.

Giulini lends the work his usual elegant, graceful touch, making the reading one of the smoothest, most refined, and most lyrical you'll find. Not that the performance is with its requisite energy and passion, however, as we hear in the Dies Irae and Domine Jesu movements. What's more, you won't hear a better team of soloists and choristers than the ones here, or a more-polished orchestral tone.

That said, let me put in a caveat: I wouldn't necessarily count Giulini's realization as an absolute first-choice recommendation since I realize that a lot of listeners prefer an approach more in keeping with what Mozart might have heard in his own time, had he lived. Still, if it's a big production you're looking for, done by a full, modern orchestra (and at an uncommonly low price), you can hardly go wrong here. For many listeners, it may be exactly what they have always wanted. Add in the little Exsultate Jubilate, K. 165, with Erika Koth, soprano, and Berislav Klobucar leading the Berlin Philharmonic, and you get a better deal still.

EMI originally recorded the Requiem in 1979, remastered it in 1998, and then reissued it on CD in 2000 and again more recently. It's hard to beat the Seraphim budget price, too, for a recording that still sounds respectable. Yes, it's a tad thin, and the upper midrange and high end can be a bit rough. Nevertheless, there is a good low-end response, a wide dynamic range, a strong impact, and at least adequate transparency. A broad stereo spread and a commendable stage depth complete a more-than-acceptable sonic picture.


Jan 19, 2012

Grieg: Peer Gynt (CD review)

Peter Mattei, Camilla Tilling, Charlotte Hellekant, soloists; Paavo Jarvi, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Virgin Classics 7243 5 45722-2.

Of the recordings I've now heard by Paavo Jarvi, this one of Grieg's Peer Gynt finds him most at home. Indeed, it is one of the handful of finest performances of this music I have found, and it is a treat for the ears as well.

People probably know Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) best for his incidental music to the Ibsen's play Peer Gynt as well as for the Piano Concerto, although my guess is that most listeners would be more familiar with one or the other of the Peer Gynt concert suites than with the complete incidental music. In any case, it is not the complete incidental music we get here, anyway; it's an abridged version, about sixty minutes, or two-thirds, of the original ninety minutes of music. If you want the complete score, you'll have to go elsewhere, to Dreier, perhaps, on Unicorn or to father Neeme Jarvi on DG. But for the listener who wants the best possible sound and is willing to give up a little something to have most of the music on one disc, this release should fit the bill.

All of the most familiar pieces are here, from "The Hall of the Mountain King" through "The Death of Ase," "Morning Mood," "Arabian Dance," "Anitra's Dance," "Solveig's Song," to the closing "Solveig's Cradle Song," and many more, twenty of the twenty-six sections in all. The soloists--Peter Mattei, Camilla Tilling, and Charlotte Hellekant--are uniformly beautiful in execution and the two choirs--the Estonian Girls' Choir and the Estonian National Male Choir--are in equally top form. The music still doesn't seem all of a piece to me, but that is the nature of the score, accompaniment as it is to something else.

Virgin's sound, recorded in the Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia, is mostly excellent, perhaps a touch forward and bright in spots and not as dimensional as I'd like it to be, but pretty well balanced all the way around. Bass is adequate without being overpowering; mids are natural except in the highest regions; and treble is light and airy. This is an outstanding set in almost every way.


Jan 17, 2012

Bach: Sonatas (SACD review)

Lara St. John, violin; Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp. Ancalagon ANC 139.

In the accompanying booklet note to Bach Sonatas, Dr. James Seymour Helgeson writes at length about what is "authentic" or not about today's performing practices. One thing he points out is that composers like Bach would transcribe their own works for various other instruments, often to accommodate the players on any given occasion. So it is not unusual that Canadian violinist Lara St. John would want to perform several of J.S. Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord in transcriptions for violin and harp. She has said that for these pieces she finds the harpsichord rather unsubtle in accompaniment and the modern piano heavy-handed. The harp, on the other hand, she feels better suits the spirit of the music. After listening to these unique, though not entirely inauthentic, transcriptions for violin and harp, I'd have to agree with her.

Accompanying Ms. St. John is Marie-Pierre Langlamet, the principal harpist for the Berlin Philharmonic since Claudio Abbado appointed her to the post in 1993; together, they perform five sonatas Bach wrote (or scholars have ascribed to him) for violin and harpsichord or flute and harpsichord. So, in the last three sonatas Ms. St. John has replaced both flute and harpsichord with violin and harp. Fair enough. On the program Ms. St. John presents the sonatas in chronological order, starting with the Sonata No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1014, and continuing through the Sonata No 3 in E major, BWV 1016, the Sonata in G minor, BWV 1020, the Sonata in B minor, BWV 1030, and concluding with the Siciliana movement from the Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 1031.

All of the works sound more delicate with harp accompaniment, lighter, airier, more diaphanous, more ethereal. Indeed, after hearing just the first sonata, I couldn't imagine wanting to hear it any other way. Still, it's the Sonata No. 3 that steals the show. It is particularly haunting, a little melancholy, and entirely enchanting, especially with the harp. Two of the four movements are adagios, ensuring a serene atmosphere, and the performers take the two allegros at a correspondingly relaxed pace so as not to disrupt the tranquil continuity of the piece. I'd recommend the album if this were the only selection on it, it's that good.

The final three works on the disc Bach the elder may or may not have actually written, but it's close enough. Ms. St. John's and Ms. Langlamet's playing of the Sonata in G minor, originally for flute and harpsichord, has a graceful, almost playful quality to it. Then, we get the Sonata in B minor, also originally for flute and harpsichord, which is probably the most creative of the pieces on the album; it is quite a lot of fun, actually, with the performers appearing to have fun with it as well. The two musicians conclude the program with the Siciliana movement from the Sonata in E-flat, a perfect ending to the proceedings because of its sweet, gentle character.

It's hard to argue against the amiably refined playing of Ms. St. John and Ms. Langlamet or their decision to perform together in the arrangements they do. The results are not just enchanting but sometimes stunning, turning familiar tunes into welcome new creations. Count the idea a success on my end.

The folks at Ms. St. John's Ancalagon label recorded the performers at Teldex Studio Berlin in January, 2011. On the two-channel stereo layer of this hybrid 2.0/5.0 SACD, the sound is warm and full, with a pleasant ambient bloom on the instruments. The recording is slightly close-up but not so much that the performers are in our lap; it's just close enough to capture the crisp, vibrant tone of Ms. St. John's 1779 "Salabue" Guadagnini violin and the rich, mellifluent moods of the harp. In the first sonata I thought the resonance of the low harp strings was a tad too prominent, but the issue disappeared by the second selection. There is no forwardness to the sonics, no edge, no brightness, nothing to interfere with one's enjoyment of the music.


Jan 16, 2012

Troubadours, Trouveres & Minnesanger (CD review)

And Other Courtly Arts. Rene Clemencic, Clemencic Consort; Paul Hillier, Theater of Voices; Andrew Lawrence-King, The Harp Consort; The Dufay Collective; Drew Minter, contre-tonor; Mary Springfels, The Newberry Consort. Harmonia Mundi Century HMX 2908166.

Listening to this disc and reading the extensive booklet notes that go with it are a little like taking a history course. It's a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, if you just sit back and listen to the music, the album can provide quite a lot of enjoyment, too.

The music here covers the Middle Ages; it's volume four of twenty compilation titles in the Harmonia Mundi "Century" series that also includes music of the Antique, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and modern eras.

The album reviewed here covers five areas of the Middle Ages. The first is the music of the troubadours of Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Troubadours were, as the booklet explains, the "first known representatives of lyric poetry which can be described as secular (that is, non religious) and more specifically as courtly." Today, we tend to think of troubadours as wandering minstrels or singers, but now we know they were more than that, at least in the beginning. Rene Clemencic and his Clemencic Consort, aided by soprano Pilar Figueras, perform three songs of the troubadours to start the program. While the tunes aren't exactly showstoppers, they do give us a feeling for the age, and the singing is splendid.

The next section of the album covers "The art of the Trouveres," who sort of took up where the troubadours left off, this time in Northern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Here we find seven song selections done by Andrew Lawrence-King and the Harp Consort, aided by the vocals of Stephen Harrold, Julian Podger, Ian Honeyman, Paul Hillier, and the Theatre of Voices. I found this selection of tunes somewhat hit-and-miss, but there is no denying the artistry involved.

The third segment of the album was my favorite, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, canticles (poems or songs of praise) from Spain in the 13th century, mostly dedicated to the King of Castille, Alfonso X the Wise. Here, the Dufay Collective present primarily instrumental music, and it's lively and engaging, practically stealing the show.

The next section of the program involves the music of the 13th, 14th, and 15th-century German minnesingers (singers of love songs). Again, we get more courtly songs of romance, performed by Mary Springfels and the Newberry Consort, with help from Drew Minter, David Douglass, and Kevin Mason. It's all quite lovely, actually, if a bit heavy.

The program concludes with two selections from the Carmina Burana. No, not the one by Carl Orff; that came much later, with Orff finding his material in the original Carmina Burana of the 13th century, a manuscript discovered in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuren. While I can't say I liked the music much, the Clemencic Consort, who opened the album, close it as well as one could expect.

The sound, which comes from several previously released Harmonia Mundi recordings bearing publication dates between 2003 and 2005, is uniformly excellent. Whether the ensembles are relatively large or simply duets, the sonics treat them with clarity and cleanness, featuring a wide stereo spread when necessary and a wonderful sense of presence. The acoustics are often quite resonant, providing a pleasant and realistic ambient bloom on the music. Dynamics are strong and pointed, and midrange transparency is top notch without adding any brightness or edge in the process. When the sound needs depth, we get depth; when it needs a quick transient response, we get a quick transient response; and when voices need a natural accuracy, we get a natural accuracy. Very nice.


Jan 13, 2012

Grieg: Piano Concerto (SACD review)

Also, Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2. Sa Chen, piano; Lawrence Foster, Orquestra Gulbenkian. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 458.

Despite the album listing the Grieg Concerto first on the cover and the spine, it is the Rachmaninov that begins the disc. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, in 1901, after a bout of depression that only a hypnotherapist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, could relieve. The composer thus dedicated the work to Dr. Dahl and went on to compose his Second and Third Symphonies, Third Piano Concerto, Paganini Rhapsody, Symphonic Dances, and a load of other popular stuff. Such is the power of persuasion.

Chinese pianist Sa Chen takes the opening movement of the Rachmaninov, marked Moderato, in a most Romantic, lyrical manner, matching what most of us have come to expect from the composer's intentions. However, she doesn't try to impress the listener with any untoward heroics, while yet bringing out the virtuosic qualities of her playing. She seems to enjoy emphasizing the beauty of the Russian melodies, using perhaps a lighter touch than many of her colleagues in the work.

In the central Adagio, Sa Chen appears a bit more leisurely than I've heard, which depending on your point of view either makes the music more appropriately lovely or just plain sluggish. I found her slower-than-usual tempo slightly obscured the primary melody's line, which sort of gets lost in the beauty of the notes.

The big finale really sells the Concerto, of course, and Sa Chen shines brilliantly in it. It features one of the most popular and instantly recognizable themes in all classical music, and the pianist makes the most if it, with conductor Lawrence Foster and Lisbon's Gulbenkian Orchestra providing a fine, nonintrusive accompaniment.

The pairing of the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, by Norwegian composer Edward Grieg (1843-1907) with the Rachmaninov is apt since many critics feel it was Grieg's work that inspired Rachmaninov. Anyway, Sa Chen takes much the same approach to this piece that she did in the Rachmaninov, bringing out the music's more lilting, more charming qualities at the expense of some of its brawnier aspects. At the risk of sounding sexist, it seems to me a gentler, more-feminine take on the Concerto than several other male pianists have recorded. Nonetheless, Sa Chen's interpretation is never without its own delights, not the least of which is her liquid-smooth delivery and polished, expressive tone.

The sound, recorded in the Grande Auditorio of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, in 2011, is warm and accommodating. Definition is a tad on the soft side, yet everything is easy and comforting on the ear without being flabby or dull. The recording nicely balances the piano with the orchestra, which we hear spread out broadly behind it. In the two-channel mode of this hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD to which I listened on a Sony SACD player, the dynamics sounded strong, sometimes even robust, with more than adequate bass and treble extension. While the PentaTone sonics may lack the ultimate transparency of several other recordings of this material (with LIM's remastering of Decca's 1973 recording of the Grieg with Radu Lupu, Andre Previn, and the London Symphony, you're in a whole other soundscape), they provide the advantage of a big, full, spacious, ambient aural presentation with luxuriant washes of sound, all of which goes a long way toward selling the music.


Jan 12, 2012

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, The Nightingale. Olga Trifonova, soprano; Robert Tear, tenor; et al. Robert Craft, London Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.557501.

I didn't care overmuch for Maestro Robert Craft's conducting of Stravinsky's Firebird, issued by Naxos a few months earlier than this release, but I found his reading of The Rite of Spring more to my liking. Craft is a noted expert in things Stravinsky, having been a close friend of the composer and a co-conductor on occasion. Still, that doesn't mean we're all going to warm to his interpretations.

While Craft seemed almost lackadaisical in his conducting of The Firebird, he seems positively energized in The Rite of Spring, if anything zipping through it at too hurried a clip. I compared his timing with several other conductors, Georg Solti and Colin Davis among them, and found Craft a full five minutes faster through a work usually lasting little more than thirty-five minutes.

Nevertheless, the quick tempo adds a degree of tension to the music that is most exhilarating in places, and it does little harm to the basic story idea. This is not to say I would recommend Craft's recording above classic interpretations from Muti, Solti, Monteux, Boulez, Dutoit, Dorati, Davis, Rattle, Stravinsky himself, and others.

Even more, I enjoyed the disc's coupling of Stravinsky's oft-neglected, complete one-act opera The Nightingale, although I am personally more keen on the music alone than on much of the rather static singing. Still, it's beautifully rendered by all concerned.

The sound, recorded in 1995 with the LSO for The Rite of Spring and in 1997 with the Philharmonia for The Nightingale and reissued here, varies only slightly from one work to the next. The Rite seems cleaner and stronger to me, the Nightingale smoother and softer. In louder passages there is a touch of stridency in the higher notes, but it's nothing to worry about, really. The bass line in the Rite is strong if not particularly deep. As we have a master conductor at the helm of both these pieces, it's hard to argue the worth of this bargain-priced disc.


Jan 10, 2012

Classic Chocolate (Dark Chocolate review)

What do you mean, It's not classical music? It's classic chocolate; same thing. Besides, a person has to have something to nibble on while listening to good music.

By John J. Puccio

Last updated: September 2022

Understand, I am not a chocolatier (I neither make nor sell chocolate) nor a chocolate authority (I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of chocolate or chocolate making) any more than I am a professional musician or musical authority. I am simply a person of a mature age who has spent a lifetime eating chocolate and listening to classical music. What you get here is exactly what you get with my music reviews: the opinions of one who loves the subject and has been lucky enough and lived long enough to experience a good deal of it.

Understand, too, that the following brief comments pertain to dark chocolate only, not milk chocolate or fruit-covered chocolate or nut-filled chocolate or any filled chocolate. A guy's got to have standards, after all, and mine apply to straightforward dark chocolate only, in commercially available products, mostly chocolate bars. (Since my youth, I always considered milk chocolate "sissy chocolate." Like it or not, the rather juvenile appellation has always stuck with me, and I still don't care much for it.)

Now, a word about how to eat fine, dark chocolate. OK, I know that sounds pretentious, telling someone how to eat, but let me at least explain how I've learned to eat my chocolate. The first thing is not to eat too much at a time. Like anything really good, a little moderation is in order. I eat only a segment of a bar a day, meaning that a single chocolate bar might last me four or five days. Second, biting off only a small bit at a time helps, savoring the aroma and letting the candy melt on the tongue for maximum release of flavors. In other words, I do not advise gulping down an entire gourmet chocolate bar in a single sitting.

Anyway, my list is nowhere near complete (there are only so many candy bars available to a person, even in a lifetime of eating), nor do I mean it to be anything like comprehensive. It is simply a starting place for considering the taste, texture, and fragrance of good chocolate. I've numbered my ratings from 1-10, the higher numbers indicating the more I liked the chocolate, with 5's and 6's being average and slightly above average. And I've rank ordered my list with the products I like most at the beginning.  So, let's start.

Chocolat Bonnat El Rosario: Here you'll find an ultrasmooth chocolate, not too intense yet crisp and deep, with a soft bouquet. Yes, I know that sounds a little like a snobby wine connoisseur describing a fine wine, but it's much the same thing. Chocolat Bonnat is a company that does, indeed, make fine, connoisseur chocolate. Just don't expect to find it in your local grocery store or corner market (I could only find it on-line). It's not only good, it's expensive. Remember when you were a kid and bought a Hershey bar for a dime? A Chocolat Bonnat bar will cost you approximately 80 to 200+ times that. Still, spending eight or fifteen or twenty-odd dollars on a single candy bar might be worth it for that special occasion. I mean, it might be fun to say you've done it just once; then you can rant and rave about how overpriced and overrated the chocolate is. 10/10

Amedei 9: The number "9" bar from Amedei tastes intensely of chocolate while being smooth, crisp, and creamy, almost as delicious as the Bonnat El Rosario. It's also remarkably pricey but maybe worth it for the taste, if, again, only once. 9/10

Chocolat Bonnat Madagascar: I confess a predilection for beans from Madagascar.  One thing you learn fast from tasting different chocolate bars is that cacao beans from different areas of the world do produce different-tasting cocoa and chocolate. The "Madagascar" from Chocolat Bonnat is just as smooth, creamy, and intense as the preceding two bars but adds a fruitier flavor as well. Expect to pay the price. 9/10

Amedei Blanco de Criollo: Chocolate doesn't get much better than this, a limited edition from Italy's finest chocolatier, Amedei. Like other Amedei chocolates, you know this one is coming well before it reaches your mouth; it has a succulent aroma. It also has a sharp, robust, flavorful taste, if perhaps not as distinctive as their brilliant No. 9. That said, at about $18 for a 1.75 oz. bar, it's among the most-expensive chocolates you can buy. That's close to $10 an ounce, so unless you're really well-heeled, it's probably an every-so-once-in-a-while prospect. 9/10

Amedei Porcelana: Again, very expensive, about $16.00 a bar at the time of this writing. However, it's just as profound, just as smooth, just as crisp, and just as creamy as the preceding bars, and many people will prefer it to any chocolate. Note, also, that most of the companies in this survey make a variety of dark-chocolate products, and I have covered only a representative sample from each outfit. 9/10

L'Amourette Criollo Single Origin Grenada Fine Estate 75%: L'Amourette is a small, San Francisco-based company that makes some very fine chocolate. This bar, made with 75% Criollo cocoa beans from Grenada, is among their best. It's a part of their "Gold Limited Edition," and, with its distinctive, fruity chocolate flavor and creamy smooth, if faintly chalky, texture, it is well worth the price. 8/10

L’Amourette Nicaragua Rugoso 80%: I don’t usually care for a chocolate content beyond the 70th percentile, but here is an exception. It may be 80% chocolate noir, but it’s delicious, deep, robust, yet delicate all at the same time. 8/10

L’Amourette Venezuela Amazonas, 75%: Another “Gold Limited Edition, this one is much like L’Amourette’s other chocolate bars but a touch smoother. The company uses beans from the wilds of South Venezuela, “close to the source of the Oninoco river.” After harvesting, “it takes two days to transport it by canoe to the nearest road.” The result is near perfection. 8/10

Chuao: Made in France by Patisserie Chocolaterie Pralus, this gourmet dark chocolate is made from prized beans harvested near the tiny village of Chuao, Venezuela. The product is flavorful, chocolatey, slightly smoky but well-balanced, pleasantly aromatic, delicious, and fairly expensive. Its packaging is very small to begin with, and inside we find a tiny square of chocolate tucked within an inner box and foil. For deep pockets, however, it may be worth it. 8/10

L’Amourette Chuao Venezuela, 72%: Using the same beans from Chuao, Venezuela, as Patisserie’s Chuao above, L’Amourette Chocolate of San Francisco makes an almost equally fine bar. The beans really do make all the difference, and the flavor is highly distinctive as described above. And about equally expensive. Worth it for that once-in-while treat. 8/10

Recchiuti Fève: "Fève" is French for cocoa nibs, which Recchiuti adds abundantly to this rich, bittersweet bar. The combination of roasted cocoa nibs, dark chocolate, sugar, and natural vanilla extract produces an elegant, slightly crunchy, always hearty and delicious confection. 8/10

Francois Pralus Maitre Chocolate: I sampled three of Pralus’s many 75% dark chocolate bars (according to their Web site, they make twenty-one different bars, using beans from all over the world), each consisting of cacao, sugar, and pure cocoa butter. They all melted on the tongue and lingered deliciously thereafter. Of my particular samples, the Madagascar Criollo was the crispest, deepest tasting, the most intense. The Costa Rica Trinitario I found slightly smoother and mellower than the Madagascar. And the Sao Tome & Principe Forastero was the marginally spicier tasting of the three. 8/10

Dick Taylor Madagascar Sambirano: I've always liked the flavor of beans from Madagascar, so this 72% chocolate bar was right up my alley. It's as tasty as anything I've sampled from the small gourmet chocolate maker in Eureka, California. Dick Taylor uses exactly two ingredients in their product: organic cacao from Akesson Plantation, Madagascar, and organic cane sugar. Chocolate and sugar. Whoda' thunk? The packaging says we should taste the flavors of molasses, orange, raisin, and toast. That goes beyond the limits of my palate; for me it simply tastes great, very rich and flavorful, with a sharp bite and mild aroma. 8/10

Dick Taylor Belize: Another 72% cacao bar from Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, this time made with organic beans from Belize and a little organic sugar. It has much the same taste as the bar above, only the label says flavors of dried plum, tart cherry, and jasmine. I'll take their word for it because to me it simply tasted like good, flavorful chocolate with a distinctly sharp bite. Beautiful. 8/10

Dick Taylor Colombia-Palomino: This is a limited release that the packaging claims smells of dried alfalfa, has the flavor of banana, and the finish of fudge. I don't know about the dried alfalfa, but certainly the other claims are valid, and the Colombian chocolate, 78%, is delicious. It's another great product from Dick Taylor Chocolate of Eureka, California.  8/10

Dick Taylor Mexico Soconusco 72%: I don’t know what I expected from this limited-release bar made from Mexican beans. A little spicier taste, perhaps? Nope. If anything, it seems a bit milder than the other Dick Taylor bars I’ve tried. Still, excellent chocolate, using only cacao and cane sugar. Wonderful aroma, too. 8/10

Michel Cluizel Noir au Grué de Cacao: A dark chocolate with cocoa bean pieces, this bar has a lighter flavor and aroma than most Michel Cluizel chocolates, but the cocoa pieces make up for it. The more I taste it, the more I like it. 8/10

Michel Cluizel Mangaro: With the Michel Cluizel label we get down to a more-affordable price level, although at about $6.00+ a bar it's still well above the average of a grocery-store product. Their Mangaro dark chocolate, with a 65% cocoa content, has a light coffee taste well balanced with a sweet, fruity flavor that's pretty hard to resist. 8/10

L'Amourette Chocolat Noir Carenero Superior 75%: The chocolate is ultrasmooth, slightly sweet, flavorful, with only a light chocolate scent but a deep chocolatey taste. It's easy to like and has quickly become one of my favorite bars. This San Francisco-based company makes a number of fine chocolates, which also includes a delicious 75% Cacao Rio Caribe Superior. Highly recommended. 8/10

Recchiuti Bittersweet and Semisweet: In addition to the Fève bar above, Recchiuti makes several other dark, intense, bittersweet and semisweet chocolate bars. Almost incredibly, given their cocoa content, they are not bitter or sour or tart but mellow and acute. I wouldn't recommend a Recchiuti bar as a starting place for beginners, but for anyone who already loves dark chocolate and hasn't already discovered it, it's great. 8/10

Cacaosuyo Piura Select: This rather expensive 70% dark chocolate comes from Peru and is made from beans and sugar, nothing more. Personally, I could have had a little less sugar, but there’s no question it is delicious, with a smooth texture, a mild aroma, and a beautifully balanced, fruity chocolate flavor. 8/10

Dandelion Chocolate Camino Verde: For this bar the small-batch San Francisco gourmet chocolate maker uses only cocoa beans from Ecuador and sugar to make a fine-tasting and wonderfully aromatic bar. For an 85% chocolate confection, it’s remarkably smooth and not at all bitter. 8/10

Vanini Dark Chocolate 74% with Cocoa Nibs: Like their 86% bar, this dark chocolate is made from Bagua cocoa of the Amazon rain forest. It's quite good, with a mild, delicate flavor tasting not only of chocolate but lightly of berries as well. Its minor drawbacks are that the chocolate has little aroma and for some users may taste a little too sweet. Fortunately, the cocoa nibs to some degree mitigate the sweetness. 8/10

Cailler L'Ecorce Dark Chocolate: Cailler is one of the oldest (est. 1819) and best-known chocolate makers in Europe (made in Switzerland), and thanks to distribution by the Nestle company they are getting better exposure in America. The product I sampled was their 70% cocoa bar, and it is very fine, indeed. The flavor doesn't come immediately but blossoms a moment or so after it hits the tongue. Then it tastes rich, hearty, and robust, an outgoing chocolatey experience, with a reasonably smooth texture, a mild chocolatey aroma, and no tangy or chalky aftereffects. 8/10

Vanini Dark Chocolate 86% Cocoa: For so strong a cocoa content the taste is surprisingly smooth and light yet still very chocolaty. It's a super-dark chocolate for people who don't usually like super-dark chocolate. Oddly, though, there is not much aroma to the bar. 8/10

John Kelly Dark Chocolate Espresso: This 73% bar is pretty serious chocolate. It has a deep, slightly spicy, slightly bittersweet taste and a mild chocolatey aroma, with just enough smooth texture (not too creamy nor too crumbly) to make it a pleasant tasting experience. 8/10

Chapon Chocolat Noir Perou Gran Nativo: This 73% cacao dark chocolate bar from the French company Chapon was a delightful surprise. It’s not cheap, but it is delicately tasty, with a deep if mild chocolatey taste, a pleasant if mild chocolatey aroma, and a smooth, gentle texture. 8/10

Cocoa Parlor Night Train 75% with Cacao Nibs: This California chocolate bar turned out to be a pleasant surprise, turning up unexpectedly at my local supermarket. The wrapper says it's USDA organic, fairly traded, gluten free, vegan, with no soy. The ingredients list premium cacao, organic cane sugar, and organic cacao nibs; nothing else. The taste is pleasant, not too sweet and not too bitter; the texture is soft and smooth and not crumbly; but the aroma is minimal. Still, it's a savory bar at a reasonable price. 8/10

Valdivian Ecuador Los Rios: Yes, most high-end chocolate companies import their cocoa, but how many actually make their bars at the source? The people at Valdivian make this 74% cocoa bar in Quito, Ecuador from three ingredients: Organic cocoa liquor, organic cocoa butter, and organic sugar. The result is very deep and satisfying, not too sweet but rich and intense, with mild hints of fruits and berries. 8/10

Michel Cluizel Plantation Mokaya: Slightly milder, slightly smoother, slightly sweeter and fruitier than other Michel Cluizel products, the Plantation Mokaya 66% chocolate bar can hardly fail to please a wide audience. 8/10

Original Beans Piura Porcelana 75%: This is a Swiss chocolate maker using a rare white cacao from Peru's Piura Valley to create a fine, dark bar. Not quite as sweet as their Malingas chocolate below, the Porcelana is well balanced, with a delicate texture, a deep chocolatey taste, and hints of fruit and nuts. Delicious. 8/10

Dandelion Chocolate Costa Esmeraldas: This is one of those bars you have to nibble to appreciate. The chocolate at first doesn't seem exceptional, but a second or two after lingering on the tongue, it fairly explodes with flavor. It's a tad sweet, with 70% organic beans from Ecuador and organic cane sugar, but it's really quite good. The packaging suggests it tastes of fudge brownies, with cherry undertones, and a hint of roasted nuts. The brownies yes; cherries and nuts, maybe. 8/10

Original Beans Piura Malingas 75%: Using Peruvian beans from the Piura Valley, raw cane sugar, and cacao butter, this Swiss chocolate has a smooth texture, a mild and pleasing aroma, and a slight taste of berries. Although it may perhaps be a tad sweet for some palates, it's certainly pleasant. 7/10

L’Amourette Chocolate Gold Criollo Venezuela Porcelana Cuvee Elite 75%: Whew! That’s a mouthful right there. This is one L'Amourette’s premium bars, using Venezuelan Cocoa, cocoa butter, and organic cane sugar. However, while I found it very rich and tasty, I also thought it was rather sweet and overly fruity. Chocolatey it is; but it could be stronger and less sugary. 7/10

Amedei Toscano Black 66 and 70: For those folks like me who can't afford the outrageously high prices of top-of-the-line Amedei bars, the company makes a relatively more-affordable alternative. These 66% and 70% cacao bars are intense, crisp, and distinctive. The only drawback is that while they are less expensive than their high-priced brethren, they are also rather meager in size, being only 1.75 oz. per bar. 7/10

Dick Taylor Jamaica, Bachelor’s Hall: Another craft chocolate from the Eureka, California chocolatier, this one made from 75% Jamaican cacao and organic cane sugar. The tasting notes say it has the aroma of apricots, the flavor of Graham Crackers, and the finish of dates. I’d go with the dates; it is a distinctive taste, although perhaps a bit strong for some palates. 7/10

The Xocolate Bar: It's been a while since Berkeley produced a good chocolate bar (Sharffen Berger used to before Hershey bought them and they moved away), but the Xocolate Bar helps in part to make up for the loss. It's 70% cacao, and being as it's Berkeley, it uses all organic ingredients. It doesn't have as distinctive a bean taste as other gourmet chocolates, but it is tasty and deep, with a faint but pleasant aroma and a reasonably smooth texture. Let's just say, you'll know you're eating chocolate. 7/10

Sacred Chocolate Twilight Dark: How can you not like an organic chocolate that bills itself "Sacred Chocolate"? This 69% cacao bar comes to us from Novato, California, using beans from Central and South America, with a high concentration of cacao nibs, maple sugar, cacao butter, and vanilla beans. In both aroma and taste, it's the vanilla that stands out prominently, the maple sugar contributing to its sweetness. Quite attractive all the way around, but not exactly cheap considering the tiny 1.33 oz. size of the bar. 7/10

Amano Madagascar: Amano makes small, delicately balanced, gourmet chocolate bars, the Madagascar has a tad less bite than their Cuyagua, Ocumare, or Dos Rios (see below) bars, with a strong but pleasantly chocolatey taste and a sweet bouquet. 7/10

B.T. McElrath Dark Chocolate Bar: You find a slick, ultrasmooth texture here, with a taste sweeter than it is intense. It's a flavorful bar, though with little-to-no aroma. Call it a dark chocolate bar for people who say they don't like dark chocolate. 7/10

Amedei Blanco de Criollo: No doubt a fine chocolate, as are all Amedei products. It's very chocolatey despite its being only 70% cocoa, with a mild but flavorful aroma and a slightly grainy texture. The two drawbacks are that its taste is not entirely distinctive when compared to its very high price (about $16 a bar, the equal of the Amedei No. 9 bar above, which to me is clearly the better tasting). The tiny size of the bar doesn't help its value, either. 7/10

Amedei Cru Ecuador: Yes, of course, it's good; it's Amedei, the Italian chocolate maker of renown. This one is 70% and has a good chocolatey taste, slightly bittersweet and smoky, with hints of fruit. The problem, though, is the price, which is still much too high for me to recommend with any enthusiasm. If you're new to the Amedei line and you're willing to spend a chunk of change, I'd suggest an Amedei 9 as the place to start. 7/10

Jelina 72% Dark Chocolate: There's hardly anything to complain about here. The bar is smooth and tasty, with a cool, minty taste. It is not, however, particularly chocolatey, nor does it have any distinctive aroma. So it is kind of bland, but in a good way. I've enjoyed it. 7/10

Frans 72% Dark Chocolate Thins: This Seattle chocolate is not exactly cheap, but you do get sixteen thin wafers for your money. The chocolate is made from beans, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and vanilla, and on first bite has a very slightly minty flavor but almost no aroma. The taste is light, smooth, and delicate. 7/10

Fortissima 80%: From the same French company, Patisserie Chocolaterie Pralus, that makes the delicious Chuao (see above) comes a stronger if less subtle product at a slightly lower price (although still weighing in at a hefty ten bucks or so a bar). Its taste is robust, faintly acidic, still smooth, lightly aromatic, but not particularly distinctive. 7/10

Michael Dunn Dark Chocolate 74%: From Rachel Dunn Chocolates in Concord, California comes this 74% chocolate, with beans from the Dominican Republic. When I talked with Master Chocolate Maker Michael Dunn recently, he told me he decided to fashion his own chocolate bars when he no longer liked what the major companies were making. He describes his chocolate as tasting like "home made bread and butter with elderberry jam evolving into red wine." That may be, but I did taste a slightly sweet fruit flavor intertwined with the rich, smooth chocolate. For more information, visit  https://www.racheldunnchocolates.com/ 7/10

Cacaosuyo with Piura Nibs: Described as “the best kept secret of the Incas,” this Peruvian-made bar won a gold international chocolate award in 2017. To me it tasted rather sweet and syrupy, which in part may owe to its contents: cocoa paste, sugar, cocoa butter, and cocao nibs. A pleasantly mild aroma, very small nibs, and a rich, fruity taste are among its high points. 7/10

K'UL 70% Dark Chocolate: This single origin farm-to-bar chocolate is from the Maranon River region, Peru, and advertises itself as the world's rarest cacao: white bean. It's certainly tasty, soft and slightly sweet, with hints of fruity flavors (the packaging says "floral, orange, butterscotch," but I could not detect the butterscotch). The aroma is distinct, too, although not overwhelming. Drawback: Like the Frans above, the size of the bar is tiny, about 1.23 oz. 7/10

Cultura 70% Haiti: This bean-to-bar chocolate contains only organic cacao and organic sugar. It has a delicious aroma and a good, sharp bite. Quite yummy, actually. 7/10

Chocolate and Love 71% Cocoa: A delightful surprise as I had never even heard of Chocolate and Love before this tasting. A product of Switzerland using cocoa from Peru and the Dominican Republic and all certified organic ingredients, the taste is delicately smooth yet sweetly flavorful, with just a hint of fruitiness. I would have appreciated a tad more bouquet and maybe a little more chocolatey flavor, but my qualms are minor. 7/10

Cachet Uganda 80%: Like the 71% above, this dark chocolate has a silky smooth texture and a pleasant, though more intense, chocolaty taste, with an equally pleasant chocolatey aroma. It took me a while to get to like it, but once I did, I have readily come back for more. 7/10

Cachet Costa Rica 71%: This Belgian dark chocolate has a smooth texture and a slightly sweet chocolaty taste, with an equally pleasant, light coffee flavor and aroma. It's really easy to like, I would imagine for non-chocolate lovers and chocolate lovers alike. 7/10

Alter Eco Dark Blackout: If you like an intensely dark taste, this 85% organic, bittersweet bar is a great buy. It's not only deeply chocolatey, it has a slightly fruity flavor and an ultrasmooth texture. 7/10

Amatller 70% Cacao Ghana or Ecuador: These Amatller dark chocolates have a bolder, tangier taste than their Extra Fine, with a hint of coffee in a slightly coarser texture. 7/10

Green & Black's Pure Dark Chocolate, 70%: Less creamy and less sweet than other Green & Black chocolates, this new bar may find a new audience for the company. The packaging is new, too, and the actual shape of the bar, the result tasting more "gourmet" than their other chocolate bars of equivalent cacao percentages. Its mild taste and faint but pleasant aroma complete the new product. 7/10

Green & Black's Organic Dark Chocolate, 85%: For an intense flavor while still tasting creamy smooth and slightly sweet, Green & Black's make an 85% cacao bar that's simply yummy. 7/10

Green & Black's Organic Dark Chocolate, 70%: Considering that this bittersweet chocolate contains no more than 70% Trinitario cacao beans, it tastes much darker. Perhaps it's because the folks at Green & Black's use less sugar (organic raw cane sugar) than most brands, I don't know. Anyway, it tastes very deep and very chocolatey, with a pleasantly mild chocolate aroma. 7/10

Amano Cuyagua Village: You don't expect to find an Artisan chocolate maker in Orem, Utah, but that's the case with Amano Chocolate. This particular bar uses a bean from the Venezuelan village of Cuyagua, and it produces a distinctive flavor, one that is perhaps an acquired taste but never bitter. 7/10

Amano Ocumare: The Ocumare is polished and aromatic, with a fairly heightened taste as well. Although it may appeal more to seriously serious chocolate lovers than to beginners, it's a definite contender. 7/10

Michel Cluizel Maralumi: There's a faint, tangy, bitter taste about Michel Cluizel's Maralumi chocolate, yet its fruity flavor overcomes any thought of a sour sensation. 7/10

Simon Coll 70% with Nibs: Maybe I’m just a sucker for cocoa nibs, but the Spanish chocolate maker Simon Coll has made a flavorful treat. They create their dark chocolate bars from chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa nibs, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, soy lecithin, and vanilla flavoring. It doesn’t sound as simple or all-natural as some chocolate bars, but with its slightly sweet, spicy taste and crunchy nibs, it’s not bad. 7/10

Lake Champlain Dark Chocolate 85%: Their 70% bar tastes OK, but their 85% is even better, not only more intensely chocolatey but smoother and richer, too. 7/10

Madecasse 70% Madagascar: These bars have an excellent symmetry, with a refined, semisweet chocolatey taste and a light, nutty aroma. They're priced fairly, too. (They also make a 75%, which is a little coarser and more bitter to my taste.) 7/10

Philip Marks Dark Chocolate 68% Bolivia: This is a fine, handcrafted chocolate bar with a perfect texture (not too hard, soft, chalky, crumbly, or chewy), a mildly pleasant aroma, and a healthy if somewhat conservative chocolate taste. My only concerns: While they say they "use only natural ingredients and superior chocolate originating from the source," they don't actually list their ingredients. Instead, they tell you to visit their Web site for more information; only I could not get the information from their Web site because it wouldn't work (scrolling was nonfunctional) on either of two computers I tried. And the bar is fairly expensive. 7/10

Guittard Epique, Blend No. 49: A 70% cacao bar from the venerable Northern California chocolate maker. This time they've added a touch of dried red fruit and anise end notes to the mix, and it's quite good--deep, dark, slightly bittersweet, aromatic, and well worth a taste. 7/10

Villars Dark Chocolate 72%: This Swiss chocolate boasts of its all-natural ingredients, with no additives or artificial flavors, and they seem to be on to something. It is fairly good, with an inoffensive chocolate taste, a smooth texture, and a mild aroma. 7/10

Michael Dunn Dark Chocolate 70%: Like their 74% dark chocolate, this bar from the Rachel Dunn Chocolate factory in Concord, CA is rich and smooth, if a tad less robust than their 74% product and a bit sweeter, too. It's supposed to have a note of licorice and fruit, but only the sweet, fruity flavor stood out for me. 7/10

Rausch Plantation Tobago Premium Dark Chocolate: With 75% cocoa from their Tobago plantation, this dark chocolate has a distinctive taste and aroma. I'm not sure if the word "Tobago" subconsciously made me think of tobacco, but, indeed, the chocolate seemed to have a mild tobacco flavor and smell. Although I do not smoke, I found the qualities pleasant enough, with an aftertaste that stayed with me for a good hour after I'd eaten it. 7/10

Galler Intense 85%: A good, intense flavor highlights this Belgian bittersweet chocolate. It's slightly chalky but light, too, with a most-pleasant aroma. 7/10

Peet's Sweets Fine Artisan Dark Chocolate: Not bad; the bar does almost everything right without being really distinctive enough to reach the highest levels. Its 72% cacao and its very mild chocolate aroma make it a pleasing proposition. However, I didn't find it quite sweet enough or smooth enough for my taste compared to other, higher-rated bars. 7/10

Michel Cluizel Noir de Cacao 72%: This chocolate has a light, smooth, creamy flavor, not as intense, though, as the company's Mangaro, which I prefer. 7/10

Michel Cluizel Vila Gracinda: A pleasantly light aroma characterizes this chocolate, complementing a lightly bittersweet taste. 7/10

Bissinger's 75% Dark: This very old and well-established brand has a good chocolatey taste and a luscious texture, and even if it's somewhat lacking in associated flavors and aromas, it's still quite appealing. 7/10

Neuhaus Dark Chocolate 80%: It seems that the more chocolate Neuhaus puts into their bars, the more I like them. I found their 52% and even their 74% bars rather bland, but I like this 80% one. And as with their other chocolate bars, this 80% one is ultra smooth, with just enough sweetness to take the edge off the heavy chocolate content. 7/10

Chocolove Extra Strong 77% Cocoa: This one grew on me in time. It has a wonderfully smooth texture and a very low melting point, meaning it dissolves on the tongue quickly. The taste is only moderately deep, given the cocoa content, and it's a tad sweet. But it's quite tasty. 7/10

Raphio Chocolate 72% Tanzania: You might not expect a gourmet chocolatier in Fresno, California, but, in fact, Raphio makes a full line of artisan chocolates. This one says it contains "notes of maple, toffee, and grapefruit." I found it fruitier than the company's much spicier-tasting bar made from Peru beans. This Tanzania bar is milder and tastes more chocolatey, with less of the spicy distraction of the Peru. 7/10

Raphio Chocolate 72% Peru: Here's another chocolate bar from a place you might not expect to find a gourmet chocolate maker: Fresno, CA. Raphio makes it with cacao beans from Peru, cane sugar, and cacao butter. The aroma is faint but agreeable, the texture smooth, and the taste markedly spicy and slightly sweet. It's a pleasant bar for someone wanting something a little different. 7/10

Simon Coll 70%: Like the Simon Coll bar with nibs described earlier, their dark chocolate bars contain chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, soy lecithin, and vanilla flavoring. Everything but the nibs, which distinguishes the other product. This one isn’t quite as much fun, but, still, it’s not bad. 7/10

MilkBoy 60% Cocoa with Essential Pine Tree Oil: Usually, I avoid additives to dark chocolate, but I couldn't resist trying this Swiss bar with a hint of "essential pine tree oil." Although the cocoa is only 60%, the pine oil gives it a lift, making the bar, well, taste piney. It's also supersmooth and pleasantly light. 7/10

Perugina 70% Bittersweet Chocolate: This is an odd one with a taste all its own. You'll either love it or hate, but it's hard to be indifferent about it. Personally, I don't find it tasting enough of chocolate but rather of flavorings, a sort of husky, smoky taste. I dunno. Still, it's good. 6/10

Moser Roth Dark 70% Cocoa: This German chocolate has the distinction of having each package contain five individually wrapped bars. Apart from that, the chocolate has the taste and texture I associate with its main ingredients: cocoa liquor and cocoa butter. Add a little sugar, soy lecithin, and vanilla extract, and you get a mildly bittersweet flavor, with a smooth essence and only the faintest aroma. 6/10

Chocxo Camino Verde Ecuador: This 72% cacao bar is quite pleasant to the taste, with a fine, delicate texture. However, it doesn't seem in any way exceptional. Described on the box as "smooth and balanced," with a fruity cocoa flavor, I found it only mildly chocolatey with little in the way of fruity strains. Still, there's hardly anything here to complain about, either. 6/10

Fearless Midnight Deep & Dark: The ingredients list 75% organic Brazilian cacao and organic rapadura (unrefined whole cane sugar). The candy's texture is finely coarse and melts freely on the tongue, and its aroma is pleasantly fragrant of chocolate. However, for me its taste was too strong, too sharp, too bitter. Perhaps a touch more of that rapadura would have made all the difference. 6/10

Neuhaus Extra Dark 74% Strong: Another Belgian bar, this one bragging of being a "warrant holder of the Court of Belgium." With a very mild aroma; a creamy, smooth texture; and a dark, chocolatey taste, it's fine if slightly nondescript. It does almost everything right, just not quite "right" enough. 6/10

Amatller 70% Extra Fine: This one may be a controversial choice. I like Amatller's Extra Fine dark chocolate more for its texture, which is luxuriously smooth, than its chocolate taste, which is sort of on the plain side except for a very faint nutty flavor. I also like the size and shape of the bar itself and its beautiful art nouveau packaging. 6/10

Republica del Cacao Manabi: All of the Republica del Cacao chocolate bars I've sampled have a very heavy scent of spices, a bouquet you can practically smell from a room away. They are also quite light on the tongue, melting nicely as their aroma spreads. The Manabi is a bit sweeter than most of the other products in their line, with a faintly pungent taste. 6/10

Burie Dark Chocolate: It's hard to beat Belgian chocolate, and the Burie company of Antwerp has been producing it forever. The texture is creamy smooth, the aroma light, the chocolaty taste quite fine. 6/10

K+M Extra Virgin Dark: This Napa Valley gourmet chocolate is extravagantly expensive, so I guess I expected a lot. What I got was a somewhat odd taste I couldn't place. Then I read the ingredients: organic cocoa beans (Madagascar), organic cane sugar, organic Manni extra-virgin olive oil, and organic soy lecithin. Ah, that was it: olive oil. I can't say I liked it, as it tended to overpower the flavor of the chocolate. If it sounds appealing to you, by all means taste test it. But it will cost you about fifteen bucks for a fairly average-sized bar. (Oddly, the second bar I tried did not taste so much of the oil, so, again, take your chances.) 6/10

MilkBoy Extra Dark 85% Cacao: Lovers of extra-dark chocolate may enjoy this product of Switzerland. While it's dark and intense enough to satisfy the demanding palate of the chocolate extremist, it is mild enough, smooth enough, sweet enough to please the casual fan. Its only minor shortcoming is that the taste isn't particularly distinctive. 6/10

Moonstruck Fortunato No. 4: A Peruvian single-origin dark chocolate, 68% cacao, this Moonstruck chocolate has an ultrasmooth texture that takes a moment on the tongue to melt and reveal its flavor. It has a dark chocolatey taste all right, yet mildly sweet, with just touch of floral bouquet (although, for that matter, not much aroma, floral or not).  It's worth a sampling, even if it's not cheap. 6/10

Raley's Purely Made 72% Cocoa Dark Chocolate: If you have a Raley's store near you, you might try this bar. Its texture is the tiniest bit chalky rather than too smooth, and its aroma is so mild as to be almost nonexistent. But it is dark chocolatey and pleasantly sweet. For a store chocolate, not bad. 6/10

JCOCO Noble Dark 72%: The best thing about this chocolate is the aroma, which is gentle and sweet, very alluring. The fairly smooth, chocolatey taste helps, too. 6/10

Michel Cluizel Los Ancones: This seemed lighter and chewier to me than the other Michel Cluizel bars I've sampled, yet it still possesses a distinctive flavor of fruits and flowers. 6/10

Amano Dos Rios: Despite its reputation (and cost), I didn't appreciate this bar as much as I had hoped I would. Its slightly bitter, excessively strong flavor sort of turned me away. 6/10

Lindt Excellence 70% Smooth Dark: Lindt & Sprüngli is one of the world's biggest and oldest chocolate companies, and their Excellence series of dark chocolates are all good values. This one is just what the name suggests: smooth, dark, semisweet, with a touch of fruit flavor. The bars also feel, unaccountably, cooler than most to the touch, perhaps because of their thin size. This and the Ghirardelli Twilight Delight below are the safest dark chocolates you can recommend to friends because they're good, they're easily available, and they're not too intense. 6/10

Ghirardelli Twilight Delight 72%: Ghirardelli is a long-established San Francisco chocolate maker, and this is one of their better creations: light, crisp, dark, fine, if a bit short on actual character. 6/10

E. Guittard Quetzalcoatl 72% Cacao: The E. Guittard company, another long-standing San Francisco Bay Area chocolate maker, produces a variety of dark-chocolate bars, among the better ones being the Quetzalcoatl. It is not entirely a "gourmet" chocolate in the exact sense, but it does have a distinctive chocolate flavor in a slightly coarse texture. 6/10

Vintage Plantations Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs: This artisan-crafted, small-batch chocolate is about as PC as it can get. They use organic cocoa beans, organic cocoa butter, cane sugar, and roasted and shelled cocoa nibs. However, it wasn't all to be liking. The texture is, as we might expect, somewhat crystalline and sugary, the taste and aroma not quite chocolatey enough. 6/10

Nirvana Organic 72% Belgian Dark Chocolate: Every gourmet dark-chocolate bar derives its flavor from the unique cocoa beans it uses, these Trinitario beans coming from the Dominican Republic. While the texture is ultrasmooth, the aroma is nil, and the taste is one you have to get used to. It's not exactly a traditional chocolate flavor, not coffee-like or spicy, either, but a tangy, smoky taste. Interesting to say the least. 6/10

Chocolate Santander 70% Colombian: A mild coffee flavor and scent highlight this moderately smooth chocolate. It has a distinct taste, to me a combination of vanilla and orange. It's pleasant if not entirely chocolatey. 6/10

Galler Intense 70%: Here's another 70% Belgian chocolate that is pleasingly bland. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it's true; it's neither good nor bad. Like most Belgian chocolate, the Galler bar is ultrasmooth but with virtually no aroma. While its wafer thinness makes it extra-light on the tongue, it has little actual flavor, instead merely being pleasantly sweet in a very mild, chocolatey way. 6/10

Hachez Cacao D'Arriba: Like several other brands, this one I enjoyed as much for its smooth feel as for its taste, which is a bit on the bland side. 6/10

Theo Organic Fair Trade Ultimate Dark: Made in Seattle, Washington, with 85% cacao, this one is for lovers of really dark, extra-intense chocolate. It has a deep chocolate taste without being too bitter, a pleasantly mild aroma, a smooth texture, and slightly roasted overall character. If I happened to like extra-dark chocolate (above 75%), I'd give it an even higher score. 6/10

Venchi Extra Dark Chocolate 75%: Venchi is one of Italy's oldest gourmet chocolate makers, taking pride in their all-natural ingredients. Here we find a product that is very rich, very dark, and very smooth, with a fruity, tangy taste but almost no bouquet. The problem I had with it, though, is that it doesn't seem to taste all that much of chocolate. 6/10

Equal Exchange Organic Panama Extra Dark: Produced in Switzerland from Panamanian beans, this extra-dark, 80% cacao bar isn't bad. Unlike many bittersweet chocolates, this one is really quite mild, with a sweet, chocolatey flavor and smell. 6/10

Chocolate Santander 70% Colombian Coffee: A distinct coffee flavor and scent highlight this moderately smooth chocolate. If you like coffee, you'll probably like this "dark chocolate with expresso coffee" bar, and you can kick the rating up a notch or so. I don't care much for coffee and thus my personal rating: 6/10

Divine 70% Dark Chocolate: From Ghana beans we get a delicate chocolatey taste, starting sweet but ending as it melts a tad bitter. A modest bouquet complements the flavor. 6/10

Lake Champlain Dark Chocolate 70%: Here we find a fine, smooth texture, a very light aroma, and a slightly fruity dark-chocolate taste. 6/10

Humboldt Dark Chocolate: Here's another "hand-crafted" artisan chocolate from Northern California, in this case from Eureka, Humboldt County, CA in the heart of the redwoods. It uses unsweetened dark chocolate (although the packaging does not say how much), sugar, cocoa butter, soya lecithin, and vanilla extract. It's not bad; nor does it taste especially distinctive, with very little aroma and a slightly gritty texture. 6/10

Lake Champlain Cacao Nibs & Dark Chocolate: Somewhere between Lake Champlain's 70% and 85% bars comes this 80% bar with cacao nibs. Its taste is intense enough, and the nibs tend to mitigate any bitterness in the high cacao content. 6/10

Cocoa Parlor Royal Dark 88: Using 88% Peruvian single-origin organic dark chocolate, this vegan bar from Cocoa Parlor is obviously deep and slightly bitter and a little chalky, but it's never biting, harsh, or sour. The texture is smooth enough, yet despite its high cocoa content, it has, oddly, little aroma. 6/10

Equal Exchange Very Dark: Produced in Switzerland for Equal Exchange, this bar lists its ingredients as "organic chocolate liquor, organic raw cane sugar, organic cocoa butter, organic unrefined cane sugar, and organic ground vanilla beans." From this we can infer that the product is organic and sweet. Emphasis on the sweet. It's quite smooth, like a solid liquor from which it's made, and quite sweet. A bit too sweet for my taste and not really chocolatey enough. 6/10

Tony's Chocolonely 70%: This is one big, hefty bar at 6 oz., so you get a lot of chocolate for your money. What's more, the manufacturers make the claim that their chocolate is obtained slave-free, which is certainly commendable and something I'd never considered before, but apparently such practices continue to exist in some places in West Africa. Anyway, the taste is smooth, fruity, nutty, and very sweet, with little chocolate aroma. 6/10

Endangered Species Bold + Silky Dark Chocolate: The cocoa content is the same as the company's "Natural Dark Chocolate" but with a slightly lighter, smoother texture, just as advertised. Now, if it only had a more distinct flavor of its own or a more distinct aroma, it might have gotten more of my attention. 6/10

Signature Select 78% Cacao Dark Chocolate: This appears to a Safeway house chocolate; at least, the one they now distribute. Indeed, it may even be the same chocolate as their Safeway Select I reviewed several years earlier. It's made in Switzerland and it contains 78% cacao like their old product, but this time out I found it had less of the bitter taste of their previous bar. Its medium-smooth texture and mild aroma make it a good, safe buy. 6/10

Beyond Good Madagascar: For a chocolate this intensely dark (80% cocoa), the bar is uniquely tasty. It’s still a little sweet for my palate, yet strong and slightly bitter as well. Hints of flowers and spices help. Ingredients are organic cocoa beans from Madagascar (where the bar is made), organic cane sugar, organic cocoa butter, and sunflower lecithin. 6/10

Dandelion Chocolate: Ambanja, Madagascar 70%: Containing only cocoa beans and cane sugar, this San Francisco gourmet chocolate bar should have been an instant hit with me. But I found the texture a little too hard, the taste a little too fruity and spicy, and the sugar content a little too high. In fact, I thought the sweetness overpowered the chocolate. Call it a noble effort on Dandelion’s part, but one I just couldn’t adjust to. 5/10

Pacari 70% Cacao: From Ecuador, "Premium organic chocolate from tree to bar" is their claim, using pure Ecuadorian Arriba Nacional cacao. According to their list of ingredients, the 70% consists of 64.38% cacao beans and 5.25% cacao butter, along with 30% cane sugar and .37% sunflower lecithin. The bar has a mildly pleasant chocolate aroma and a fairly pure though not particularly memorable chocolate taste. It's a rather innocuous, almost nondescript flavor, actually, and my only hesitation about giving it a higher score is that the bar is rather small (1.76 oz.) for the premium price it demands. 5/10

Ghirardelli Intense Dark, with Cocoa Nibs: The good: velvety texture, light and smooth, with cocoa nibs adding a flavorful note. The bad: despite the "intense dark" description, it's not very intense, almost milk chocolatey in taste, and there is almost no aroma involved. 5/10

Lindt Excellence 90% Supreme Dark: Obviously, this bar with its high cocoa content is for lovers of intense dark chocolate only. My only quibble with it is that it tastes fairly dry; I would have enjoyed a little moister, creamier texture. 5/10

Spokandy 70% Dark Chocolate: As the name implies, this is a candy bar made in Spokane, Washington, and in 2013 the company celebrated their one-hundredth birthday. So, they've been around. Their 70% dark chocolate bar has a slight but pleasant aroma and a light, sweet, smooth, pleasant chocolate flavor. Beyond that, however, it's somewhat nondescript. It's kind of a middle-of-the-roader here. 5/10

Dagoba Organic Dark: This chocolate wins lots of awards, but I could never find it quite chocolatey enough. It's still pretty good, just not very exciting and a little too bitter for my taste. 5/10

Republica del Cacao Los Rios: If you like rich, spicy, aromatic, faintly cinnamon-tasting chocolate, this is your ticket. For me, I prefer primarily a chocolate taste. 5/10

Republica del Cacao Esmeraldes: Here again we find a crisp, spicy, aromatic chocolate, possibly the ultimate for many chocolate lovers but a bit too acute for my taste. 5/10

Republica del Cacao El Ora: Over the years I've kept going back to various Republica del Cacao products even though I don't favor their overly robust taste. This one was definitely too spicy and crisp for me, but it's certainly an individual choice. 5/10

Hageland 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate: You do get your money’s worth. Hageland offers a slab of chocolate (10.5 oz.) the size and weight of a paving stone for a very modest price. They also brag that it’s “premium Belgium chocolate.” Well, it’s made in Belgium, so I guess that makes it “Belgium chocolate.” However, the chocolate has no distinctive flavor of its own, it’s slightly chalky, and it seems to melt easily so watch your fingers. The ingredients are cocoa liquor, sugar, cocoa powder, soy lecithin, and cocoa solids. 5/10

Dick Taylor Vanilla Raspberry: OK, call me a sucker. I love Dick Taylor's dark chocolate, so I tried some of their more exotic blends. They didn't impress me. I should know better than to stray outside the pure dark chocolate range. The addition of raspberry and vanilla bean just overpowered the flavor of the chocolate. Not as much as the bee pollen and fennel listed below, but enough to take away from the delicious flavor of the chocolate. 5/10

Wild Harvest 72% Cacao: The packaging describes Wild Harvest as being “Belgian Chocolate” that is “free from artificial colors, artificial flavors, and artificial preservatives.” That being said, the ingredients listed are dark chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and vanilla flavoring. Whatever, there is no listing as to where it is actually made, but it’s distributed by Unfi in Providence, RI. The taste is not bad, but it isn’t gourmet, either. It’s rather sweet, with a tinge of sour, too. 5/10

Dick Taylor Bee Pollen and Fennel:
OK. I said I was going to stick to reviewing only plain dark chocolate, nothing fancy, no additives. But I couldn't resist trying Dick Taylor's Bee Pollen and Fennel because I like and respect Taylor's products. Just not this one. The fennel, especially, overpowers the taste of the chocolate, so I didn't care for it. I'm not sure the pollen did anything. But that's just me. It's a distinctive flavor, to be sure. 5/10

Antidote Quinoa Crunch 70%: Capitalizing on the superfood fad, the folks at Antidote (Brooklyn based but made in Ecuador) use popped quinoa seeds in this particular chocolate bar. The taste of the quinoa so overpowers the taste of the chocolate, it’s hard to tell what the chocolate is like, except that it’s quite sweet. 5/10

Raaka Maple & Nibs, 75% Cacao: Yet another bar that's more than just dark chocolate. This one is made with real maple sugar, with everything organic. It's very sweet and tastes overwhelmingly of maple. Not bad, but not great dark chocolate, either. 5/10

Evolved Signature Dark: Everything's done right: organic cacao (72%), organic coconut sugar, organic cacao butter. Yet it has an oddly coarse feel and a vague hint of licorice about it. It is a deep taste, but one I didn't particularly take to. 5/10

Zazubean Nakid: With 73% cacao from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, cocoa nibs, and vanilla, this chocolate bar is made in Switzerland for a Canadian company. So it's got a little bit of everything going for it. I enjoyed the nibs and the hint of vanilla, but I found it overall too sweet and not chocolatey enough. 5/10

Nordi Dark Chocolate: Finland is known for many good things, like their civil liberties, their educational system, and their generally high quality of life. But chocolate? Not so much. This 70% cocoa bar from Fazer Confectionery isn't bad, just not distinctive enough to merit much praise. Combined with virtually no aroma, the bar is kind of bland, actually. 5/10

Chocolino La Dolce Vita: Despite the Italian-sounding name, Chocolino chocolates are "artfully crafted" for the company, which is located in Fresno, California. Using cocoa liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, soy lecithin, and vanilla extract, the bar is very sweet and very chewy. It's also not particularly chocolatey, because even though it's billed as "double dark chocolate," it contains only 55% cacao. 5/10

Neuhaus Dark Chocolate: Another in the line of Belgian dark chocolates, this bar's ingredients are cocoa mass (52%), sugar, butter oil, emulsifier, soy lecithin, and flavors. It's a little syrupy, quite sweet, and not particularly chocolatey or aromatic. If you like sweet candy and don't mind the somewhat bland taste, it might be for you. 5/10

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Lover's Chocolate Bar: This is definitely dark chocolate, 85% cacao dark. So expect a deep, robust taste of chocolate. But the sugar content appears fairly high, mitigating much of the chocolate's bitterness. What's more, the aroma and taste more than hint at vanilla, which is one of its ingredients. Finally, the bar has a decidedly cool feeling on the tongue. Interesting, but not entirely gourmet. 5/10

Hu Simple Dark Chocolate: Organic cacao, unrefined organic coconut sugar, organic fair-trade cocoa butter. No palm oil, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no gluten, no emulsifiers, no soy lecithin. Slightly coarse texture; faint aroma and flavor of licorice. 5/10

Newman's Own Organic Super Dark Chocolate: I really wanted to like this chocolate more than I did. It's USDA organic, it's 70% cocoa, it's Rainforest Alliance certified, and all that. Unfortunately, I didn't like the taste of it, which is slightly but unaccountably bitter. Its mild aroma is pleasant, though. 5/10

Endangered Species Natural Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs: Nothing much to complain about here except any distinctive flavor or aroma of its own. The cacao nibs are very small but give the chocolate a little more texture and "bite." 5/10

Alce Nero Extra Dark Chocolate: This one seems to do everything right. It's organic; it uses 71% cocoa from Costa Rica; it uses cane sugar; it uses nothing artificial; and it's all put together in Switzerland "by an ancient chocolate master." Yet its taste is rather bland and its aroma nonexistent. Go figure. 5/10

Cote D'Or 70% Noir Intense: The packaging proclaims this being "Belgium's #1 chocolate brand." I'm not entirely sure why except to suggest it's for the same reason Hershey's is America's #1 brand: It's smooth, inoffensive, very mild, and only slightly aromatic. I could neither like nor dislike it, but I found little about it to draw me back. 5/10

Endangered Species Natural Dark Chocolate: I found myself somewhat indifferent to this 72% cocoa bar. There's nothing really wrong with it except that it hasn't much individual flavor and almost no aroma. The texture is smooth but slightly hard. 5/10

Ghirardelli Intense Dark Cabernet Matinee: Ghirardelli added "a hint of natural blackberry and cabernet flavor" to their dark chocolate. Although a lot of folks who like flavored chocolate may love the result, I found it too sweet, rather like eating chocolate-covered cherries. 5/10

Chocolove Extra Strong 77% Cocoa: It has a wonderfully smooth texture and a very low melting point, meaning it dissolves on the tongue quickly. The taste, however, is only moderately deep, given the cocoa content, and there is little or no aroma involved. 5/10

Sharffen Berger Extra Dark: It seems like every time I've tried a Sharfen Berger dark chocolate bar over the years, they have had a slightly different taste. This one didn't taste as overly sweet to me as some of their dark chocolates. It also had a mildly pleasant chocolate aroma and a fairly smooth texture. 5/10

Hershey's Extra Dark 60%: The folks at Hershey have been experimenting for the past decade with various gourmet chocolate bars, this current one as good as any they've produced. It has an ultralight, whipped, and creamy essence, if not particularly strong on chocolate flavor. 5/10

TCHO Dark Chocolate "Chocolatey" 70%: There's a decent chocolate taste here, to be sure, but it's not particularly pronounced, nor are the bar's texture or aroma. In all, it's good but somewhat bland. 5/10

Dove Silky Smooth 71% Cacao Dark Chocolate: Neither here nor there. It's dark chocolate, not much more, with little texture, bite, aroma, or associated flavors. 5/10

Hands Off My Chocolate Double Dark 70%: This is an ultrasmooth Belgian chocolate, mildly sweet and slightly peanut-inflected, but with no real personality of its own and zero chocolate aroma. It’s much like the Dove and Godiva bars, with little to love or hate. 5/10

Godiva Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao: Sporting a new graphic design on their packaging, this product from the Belgium-based Godiva chocolatier is expectedly smooth but somewhat bland, guaranteed not to offend non-chocolate lovers with anything too chocolatey. No discernable aroma, either, yet mildly pleasant. 5/10

Lilly's Original Dark Chocolate: This chocolate bar and the Coco Polo Dark Chocolate below use a sugar substitute, stevia, a zero-calorie sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. There have been some health concerns over the years about stevia, but they seem to have been largely resolved. That doesn't mean I like it, though. I dislike all sugar substitutes simply because none of them, including stevia, taste like real sugar to me. Although the product claims to be all natural and GMO-free, I didn't really care for the taste, which doesn't seem chocolatey enough to me. What's more, it's the only bar I've ever tasted that feels chewy, which seems slightly disconcerting. Still, if you're looking for non-sugared chocolate, Lilly's and Coco Polo are not entirely bad choices. 5/10

Coco Polo 70% Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nibs: This chocolate bar also uses the sugar substitute stevia. It has some good-tasting cocoa nibs in it, but they don't negate the fact that the chocolate itself still tastes artificial to me, leaving a slightly metallic aftertaste in my mouth. 5/10

Antiu Xixona Dark 72% Cocoa Intense: On the plus side, this bar from Spain is a fairly large bar for the money, and there is no denying its chocolatey taste. However, it is also rather coarse and hard in texture, with a slightly bitter, alkaline taste. I did not care much for it. 5/10

Sharffen Berger "Nibby" Dark Chocolate: The overly sweet and overly fruity taste of Sharffen Berger's dark chocolate is somewhat mitigated by the roasted cacao nibs mixed in. 5/10

French Broad Peru 70%: For the eleven-dollar price of this tiny bar, I expected a lot more. Its fancy, hard-cardboard container says its ingredients are organic cacao and organic sugar. That's all, and the label "Peru" might imply the beans are from the country of Peru. But the texture of the chocolate is somewhat coarse and hard, and the taste, while chocolatey, is relatively sweet. There's no melting on the tongue here, just a solid and heavy chunk. Frankly, it tasted stale, and it might have been, despite its inner-seal, clear-cellophane wrapping and its "Best by" date of a year hence. So take my reaction with a grain of salt. (4/10)

Green & Black's Maya Gold: I bought this bar by mistake. I thought the designation "Maya Gold" referred to a regional cocoa bean. It doesn't. It refers to the addition of orange and spice flavors to traditional dark (60%) chocolate. It tastes exactly as you might expect, which I didn't care for. 4/10

Vgan Chocolate 85%: The packaging makes this Bulgarian chocolate sound like a health food: “vgan” (which I assume we are to interpret as vegan), “dairy free,” “gluten free,” “soy free,” with “no added sugars.” The actual ingredients are cacao mass, cacao butter, emulsifier, sunflower lecithin, bourbon vanilla, Himalayan salt, and erythritol as sweetener, which left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. It’s very dark chocolate, yet never too intensely so. Unfortunately, I didn’t care much for it. 4/10

Good & Delish MidKnight Premium Dark: Walgreens distributes this 70% German chocolate bar, which has a cool, velvety smooth texture but not a lot of chocolate taste or aroma. 4/10

Sharffen Berger 70% Bittersweet Dark: Since being sold and moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sharffen Berger chocolate has never tasted the same to me. It now seems too sweet and too fruity, drowning out the original chocolate taste. 4/10

Charlotte's Dark Belgian Chocolate: You know that California's Napa Valley produces some of the world's finest wines. Did you know that Napa also produces Charlotte's Confections? The flavor of this dark Belgian chocolate is rather too sweet for my taste, however, and not chocolatey enough. It's also a tad too grainy in texture, a little too much like homemade chocolate fudge. 4/10

Valrhona Guanaja 70%: This one has a good, balanced texture but a rather bland flavor. 4/10

Valrhana Caraibe Noisette: I probably should have checked the label more closely before buying this bar. I don't care for nuts in my chocolate, and this one tasted strongly of the hazelnuts they used in it. Otherwise, it's smooth, somewhat chewy, and obviously nutty. 4/10

Droste Superior: We now get into the fairly odd categories, like this Droste bar that I found both rich and chocolatey on the one hand and rather banal on the other. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde bar. 4/10

Heidi Grand'Or: Despite its Swiss-sounding name, the Heidi 75% "Intense" bar is a product of Romania. I would take that "intense" business with a grain of salt. It's actually a very mild chocolate, velvety smooth, a little chewy, thinly presented, with almost no aroma. Its taste will not offend, but it has little individual distinction. 4/10

Pascha Organic Dark Chocolate: This vegan, organic bar, 70% cacao, a product of Peru made for the Canadian Pascha Chocolate Company, would seem a purist's delight: It contains no genetically modified ingredients, no peanuts, no nuts, no soy, no dairy components, no eggs, no wheat, no glutin--just organic cocoa mass, organic sugar, organic cocoa butter, and organic vanilla. And, from what I can tell, no flavor. It has a pleasantly mild aroma but practically no distinctive chocolate taste. It's kind of like the asparagus of chocolate bars: You may not like it, but you know it's good for you. 4/10

Ghirardelli Intense Dark Cocoa Nibs: Since I rather like the taste of Ghirardelli's "Intense Dark" Midnight Delight, I figured this would be more of the same but with added cocoa nibs. Wrong. I should have been suspicious when I noticed after buying it that nowhere on the packaging did the company mention the actual cocoa content (their Twilight Delight contains 72%). Here, the bar was lighter in color than Twilight Delight, had practically no aroma, and tasted more like a slightly crunchy milk chocolate. And it's sweet. Very, very sweet. 4/10

Brix Extra Dark Chocolate Bites: A couple of years ago, I tried the Brix bar and thought it was well named: It was as hard as a brick. Figuring it might have just sat on the grocery-store shelf too long, I decided not to review it. More recently, I tried these little, individually wrapped Brix bites, and the same thing: too hard. Their advertising says the chocolate is "formulated to pair with the deepest red wines." Maybe I should have tried it with wine, I don't know. But even after it had dissolved on the tongue for a while, the 70% cacao content didn't taste or smell very chocolatey to me. 4/10

Ritter Sport Noir Extra Fine 73%: If it tastes awfully sweet, it is. Although the labeling says it's made "with fine cocoa from Ecuador," the ingredients list "chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, butterfat, and natural bourbon vanilla flavor." There is practically no aroma involved, a very chewy texture, and only a mild hint of chocolate taste. 4/10

Helsinki Heaven Goodio Arriba: This bar from Finland is advertised as being made from 71% Arriba cacao from Ecuador, its ingredients raw, organic, and vegan. The bar I got was well packaged and well sealed, but the taste was bland, a bit hard and coarse, and faintly acidic. 4/10

World Market All Natural Dark Chocolate: Distributed by Cost Plus Markets, this 72% cacao bar is about as bland and inoffensive as they get. Like the Godiva and Heidi bars, there is nothing bad about it, yet there is not much to commend about it, either. It looks like dark chocolate but beyond a mild coffee flavor and aroma, it has little chocolate taste about it. 4/10

Gold Emblem Select Gourmet European Dark Chocolate: Distributed by CVS Pharmacies, this European chocolate is made in Poland and may or may not be "gourmet" depending on your taste. I found its texture relatively hard, dry, and coarse; its aroma practically nonexistent; and its taste flat and bland. Not very chocolatey, that's for sure. 4/10

Pennsylvania Dutch Candies Dark Chocolate: It's very light, frothy, creamy, but, unfortunately, not very chocolatey. With only 53% cacao, it's more like a dark milk chocolate. With little aroma and a sort of artificial flavor, it's not unpleasant; just not very much like a real dark chocolate. 4/10

Dreamhouse Yummy 72% Dark Chocolate: This seems to be Rite Aid's answer to CVS's Gold Emblem above, and neither of them is, to me, a top-shelf chocolate. The Dreamhouse chocolate bar tastes sweeter yet less chocolatey than the Gold Emblem. Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and vanilla are the ingredients in the Dreamhouse bar, with, I suspect, a heavy dose of the sugar. 4/10

Sweet Obsession Dark Chocolate: Another one made in Poland, this one advertised as "Simply the finest chocolates on earth." It tastes very smooth, very delicate, very sweet, and largely devoid of chocolate flavor or aroma. It's a big bar at over five ounces, and since I bought it a local drugstore for a buck, it seemed like a bargain. What's more, it's not unpleasant; just dull and undistinguished. And did I mention sweet? Very, very sweet. 4/10

Whittaker's Dark Block: J.H. Whittaker & Sons Limited have been making chocolates in New Zealand since 1896, and I suppose you could call them the Hershey's of the country. Unfortunately, the 50% cocoa "Dark Block" bar I sampled tastes a lot like a Hershey's dark chocolate bar, too. With only 50% cocoa and a lot of sugar and emulsifier, it doesn't have a lot of actual chocolate taste. For a "dark" bar, it tastes less "chocolatey" than many milk-chocolate bars. It even smells like a Hershey's bar, and that's not a compliment. 4/10

Cadbury Royal Dark: Cadbury is one of the oldest and most-popular chocolate makers in England, the company tracing its origins back to 1824. "Royal Dark" is their semi-sweet bar, although I found nothing "semi" about it. It's just sweet. The ingredients list sugar first, then coco butter, chocolate milk fat, and natural and artificial flavors. It not only tastes sweet, it tastes lightly whipped. It tastes, in fact, much like a dark Hershey bar, which does not come as a surprise considering that the Hershey Company distributes it. 4/10

TAZA Stoneground 70%: Its taste is ultra-sweet yet slightly bitter, too, with a coarse, crumbly texture that kind of lies flat on the tongue. It may remind some people of homemade fudge, which is not entirely a bad thing. 4/10

Helsinki Heaven Goodio Arriba: This bar from Finland is advertised as being made from 71% Arriba cacao from Ecuador, its ingredients raw, organic, and vegan. The hunk I got was well packaged, well sealed, but stale and discolored. Therefore, you may disregard my rating as I may have gotten a bad sample. It tasted slightly of coffee. Stale coffee. 4/10

Hershey's Special Dark, Mildly Sweet Chocolate: If you like Hershey's classic milk chocolate, the kind every kid grew up with, you'll probably like their Special Dark, too; it's not much different. It's very sweet, possibly because unlike most other dark chocolate bars, the main listed ingredient in this one is sugar. And I would guess a lot of it. 4/10

Droste Extra Dark 75% Cocoa: Droste, an old Dutch chocolate company that has been in business since 1863, lists as its main ingredients chocolate liquor processed with alkali, sugar, soy lecithin, cocoa butter, and vanilla flavor. My wife said it tasted “bitter.” It reminded me of those old Flicks candies we used to buy in movie theaters. It looks like chocolate and has the texture of chocolate, just not the flavor or aroma of chocolate. 4/10

Cote d’Or Noir de Noir: When you find the first listed ingredient in a “dark” chocolate bar is sugar, you know you’re in trouble. There is no indication anywhere on the packaging what the actual chocolate content is, but it can’t be much. There is virtually no chocolate taste to the bar, no chocolate aroma, no hint of chocolate. Other ingredients include chocolate cocoa butter, soy, “natural flavors” (whatever that means), and milk. 4/10

Pacari Andean Rose: A product of Ecuador, Pacari has won awards for their chocolate. The promised essence of rose petals in this particular bar temped me to try it. If you’ve ever smelled a rose and wondered what the petals would taste like, here’s your answer. They have the flavor of rose petals, which are not very tasty and overpower any hint of the chocolate. The bar is also extremely sweet, not a good combination for me, and after eating half the concoction in three sittings, I had to give it up. 4/10

Finally, as I mentioned above, don't expect to find too many of these chocolate bar brands at your local supermarket. The best place to start looking is in your own locality for specialty stores and gourmet shops (google "chocolate shops" in your area). If you have to go on-line, the problem is that high shipping costs compound the high price of many of the bars. A ten-dollar chocolate bar could have a five-dollar added shipping charge. Nevertheless, you might check on Amazon (www.amazon.com), Chocosphere (http://www.chocosphere.com), or some such retail site.


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

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa