Feb 28, 2012

Bartok: Piano Concerto Nos. 1 & 3 (CD review)

Also, Divertimento for String Orchestra. Peter Serkin, piano; Seiji Ozawa, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Rudolf Barshai, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. HDTT HDCD248.

American pianist Peter Serkin (b. 1947) is into his fifth decade of performing, and while he is among the world's leading pianists, he has never quite achieved the intense following his father, pianist Rudolf Serkin, acquired. I suppose that's one of the drawbacks of performing in the shadow of an illustrious parent, unfair as it is. Anyway, on this remastered disc from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), we hear Peter Serkin in one of his earliest recordings, two 1967 performances of Bartok with Maestro Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony.

The album begins with the Piano Concerto No. 1, written in 1926 by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). It is not the most smiling work in the world, full of hard edges and blunt percussives. Although it displays much of the coarse dissonance typical of Bartok's work, it also utilizes a good deal of Baroque-style counterpoint. Along with his Concerto for Orchestra, which came much later, the First Piano Concerto remains one of the composer's most popular pieces.

So, how does Serkin handle it? Well, he's an extremely discerning, precise, and somewhat reserved player, so his interpretation is characteristically more reflective than it is edgy or exciting. The problem is, I'm not sure that's exactly what the music needs.

All three movements of the First Concerto seem more leisurely than one usually encounters in Bartok performances, making them perhaps a shade more scholarly than not. In the Andante, especially, Serkin imbues the music with an eerier quality than do most other pianists, taking it at a much slower pace; but that's about the only place his approach works well. One thing he does provide in abundance, though, is contrast, because after the ultraslow Andante, he launches into a pretty heady Allegro. Still, what I missed most was a compelling forward pulse, a building of tension and its consequent release. It is these qualities one finds in Bartok readings from pianists like Stephen Kovacevich (Philips), Zolton Kocsis (Philips), Krystian Zimerman (DG), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca).

Serkin fares better with the Concerto No. 3, written in 1945, maybe because it is lighter than the First. Bartok wrote the Third at the very end of his life, not even finishing the last few bars, and it might have been his way of showing the world that he had softened considerably from his younger, more defiant days. Here, Serkin, with his studied approach, seems more at home with the composer's newfound melodic normalcy, even if there still appears to be a degree of slackness in the rendition.  Be this as it may, when you factor in the excellence of the HDTT remastered sound, Serkin's Third might be a reasonable consideration for anyone who enjoys Bartok.

Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra comes from 1939, and on the present disc we have it performed by Rudolf Barshai and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Barshai helps it along with dash and élan in the outer movements and splendid atmosphere in the Adagio. You won't find a better reading than this one, and when you again count in the superb audio quality, you get a top-of-the-line choice in this repertoire.

RCA recorded the Piano Concertos in 1967, and HDTT transferred them to compact disc from an RCA 4-track tape. The sound is a tad forward overall, but it suits the music, and it provides an exceptionally well detailed experience, with plenty of air around individual instruments. The transient response is quick and taut, the piano firmly grounded within the orchestral setting, its attack strongly delineated. While the clarity and exactitude of the sound tend to diminish somewhat the apparent size of the orchestra, a fairly realistic stage depth helps the illusion of one's being in front of a live ensemble. Loud outbursts, cymbals, and triangles emerge impressively, as do all of the percussive instruments for that matter, including the piano.

Decca recorded the Divertimento in 1962, and HDTT transferred it from a London 4-track tape. It may not have quite as much orchestral depth as the RCA production, but it displays a better left-to-right stereo spread, with better fill. It also sounds a shade bright to my ears. Be that as it may, like the RCA recording it exhibits a vivid, vibrant sound, a wide dynamic range, and a potent transient impact.

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


Feb 27, 2012

Gershwin: Concerto in F (CD review)

Also, Rhapsody No. 2; I Got Rhythm Variations. Orion Weiss, piano; JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.559705.

American composer George Gershwin (1890-1937) made his name in the musical world in 1924 with Rhapsody in Blue, in which he fused American jazz and classical orchestral music. It probably seemed unique at the time, and it certainly proved influential. But maybe folks back then had already forgotten that the American pianist and composer Louis Gottschalk had done much the same thing some half a century earlier with his Night in the Tropics symphony and Latin American Symphonette. Be that as it may, audiences loved what Gershwin did, and in the following thirteen years before his untimely death, he practically changed the way people would look at serious music forever, with the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, the Cuban Overture, the opera Porgy and Bess, and a whole series of film and Broadway show songs.

In the present album American pianist Orion Weiss, conductor JoAnn Falletta, and the Buffalo Philharmonic present three of Gershwin's most-famous creations, the Concerto in F, the Rhapsody No. 2, and the I Got Rhythm Variations. Although I was not familiar with Mr. Weiss's playing, I have been an admirer of Ms. Falletta's work in Buffalo for some time and looked forward to their collaboration. They did not disappoint me.

Gershwin wrote his Concerto in F in 1925, and in its way it's a bit odd, the piano never quite dominating the proceedings the way you would expect in a concerto. An Allegro opens the piece in a big, robust, sweeping fashion, with Weiss and Falletta leading the way in a forward drive they sustain wonderfully. Supposedly, the Concerto in F was Gershwin's way of saying he could write a "proper" concerto after the popular success of Rhapsody in Blue a year before. The fact is, the Concerto is not as melodic as the Rhapsody, which is probably why it is not as memorable, yet the two works bear a marked resemblance to one another.

The second-movement Adagio evokes the languorous, soulful mood of a nocturne, particularly in the bluesy segment for trumpet and cornet and then in a more breezy and buoyant section when the piano enters. As Gershwin was a fan of Chopin, who wrote so many nocturnes, the similarities would seem appropriate. When the piano does appear, Weiss maintains a good, jaunty, yet poetic cadence.

Then the finale takes up where the first movement left off, big and brassy, Weiss's piano displaying a bravura temperament. Weiss shows us he's a spirited Gershwin interpreter, and one hope he returns for more.

Next up is the Rhapsody No. 2, which Gershwin wrote in 1931 for a Hollywood film, Delicious, with Janet Gaynor. The studio wanted the music to represent the hustle and bustle of New York City, prompting the composer originally to call it Rhapsody in Rivets. Fortunately, he changed his mind about that one. Here, everyone involved with the performance is again in top form, and the piece bubbles over with extravagant, effervescent enthusiasm.

Gershwin wrote the I Got Rhythm Variations for Piano and Orchestra in 1934 for a concert tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of Rhapsody in Blue. It would be the last composition he would fully orchestrate. He based the variations on the tune of the same name from his 1930 hit musical Girl Crazy, the variations marking various musical styles from waltz to Chinese to Arabesque. Weiss, Falletta, and the orchestra handle all of it with ease and practically bring down the rafters.

Naxos recorded the music in Kleinhaus Concert Hall, Buffalo, New York, in November of 2010. It's something a little different for the company in that rather than the warm and slightly veiled sound we often hear from Naxos recordings, this one is very open, very clear, very clean, and very transparent. Coupled with a huge dynamic range, strong transient impact, and deep, taut bass, the results are often startlingly realistic. The piano is somewhat close, true, but it fits in well with the rest of the sonics.


Feb 24, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 (SACD review)

Also, Marche Slave. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 381.

Maestro Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra continue their march through the Tchaikovsky symphonies, with only a few more remaining in the cycle. When they finish, PentaTone will probably gather all the recordings together in a complete box set. Who knows. In the meantime, Pletnev has not exactly knocked me over with his eloquent but rather cautious interpretations of Symphonies Nos. 4-6. With No. 1, however, he seems more in command, more in control; either that, or his recent conservative streak better suits the music of No. 1.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in G minor "Winter Daydreams," Op. 13 in 1866 when he was only twenty-six years old. It was among his first large-scale works, and in a way it was somewhat experimental for him. Always the self-doubter, he revised it during the next two years, premiering the completed piece in 1868 and then revising it further in 1874. Although the composer would go on to produce far more dramatic things, in the First Symphony he was at his most lyrical, his most rhapsodic. Perhaps that's why Pletnev, who seems to be becoming more restrained and careful in his approach to music lately, finds himself so secure in the music.

The symphony begins with a movement subtitled "Daydreams on a Winter Journey," which the composer didn't really mean as programmatic so much as evocative. He marked it Allegro tranquillo, and most of it is peacefully lyrical, with Pletnev making the most of it by taking his time in an easygoing, highly poetic manner. We can almost feel the snowflakes swirling around us as we imagine a musical traveler moving through the snowy countryside in an open carriage. Or some such picturesque image.

The second, slow movement, marked Adagio cantabile ma non tanto ("Leisurely, songlike, a little fast but not too much") Tchaikovsky subtitled "Land of Desolation, Land of Mists," and you can guess what sort of imagery that conjures up. Tchaikovsky wrote a lovely, plaintive melody for oboe that Pletnev draws out deliciously.

The composer abandons subtitles for the final two movements, a Scherzo and Finale. Pletnev elicits the best from the Scherzo, making it appropriately playful and doing a good job with the waltz tune at its core, one of the first of many such waltzes that would become a hallmark of Tchaikovsky's music. The Finale, which under Pletnev is perhaps a shade too relaxed, features variations on an old Russian folk song, making it the most "Russian" sounding part of the composition. Tchaikovsky always liked his First Symphony, something he could not bring himself to say about too much of his other work. The performance is also Pletnev's best work in his PentaTone Tchaikovsky cycle thus far.

The album concludes with the Slavonic March, Op. 31 from 1876, a patriotic and triumphant affair that predates the composer's 1812 Overture by several years but bears remarkable resemblances. Here in the Slavonic March Pletnev finally lets the brakes off and goes full throttle. It's among the best, most exciting interpretations of the work you're likely to hear.

Polyhymnia International recorded the performances at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in 2011. The sound they obtain is smooth and warm yet remarkably lifelike, captured in both two-channel stereo and multichannel surround on a hybrid SACD. As I heard it played back through a Sony SACD unit, it appears to have less of the ambient veiling I've heard on previous recordings from this source. Although the sound stage is not especially wide and the midrange not particularly transparent, the sonics do display a good orchestral depth, a strong bass, and a solid dynamic impact, so, overall, we get a pleasingly realistic aural presentation. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the sound best in the Marche Slave, perhaps because the music itself is so vigorous.


Feb 23, 2012

Hanson: Merry Mount Suite (CD review)

Also, Bold Island Suite; Symphony No. 2 "Romantic." Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Telarc CD-80649.

American composer, conductor, and teacher Howard Hanson (1896-1981) extracted the Merry Mount Suite from his 1933 opera, and it's anything but merry. The drama depicts some rather brutal encounters between early New England Puritans and newly arrived Cavaliers, the core of the conflict centering on the preacher's illicit lust for a woman. If it sounds a little like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, you'd be right. Hawthorne wrote the original short story, "The Maypole of Merry Mount." In the tale you'll find names like Wrestling Bradford, Marigold Sandys, and Sir Gower Lackland, which in itself makes it hard to take seriously. Anyway, the suite is much less dour than the opera, its four movements concertrating on the lighter, more ardent aspects of the story, at least as conductor Erich Kunzel and his Cincinnati Pops Orchestra interpret it.

The Bold Island Suite from 1961 gets its world première recording here; it's a series of three tone pictures portraying birds, the seascape, and nature on Bold Island, just off the Maine coast. The concluding composition, the Second Symphony, may be familiar to some listeners as background music in the movie Alien, and it is quite atmospheric. Kunzel and the Cincinnati players do their usual professional job interpreting all three pieces, and the album makes a strong introduction to the composer's work.

Telarc's sound from 2005 seems more refined than previous releases. I compared their Hanson offering to an earlier Telarc-Kunzel recording and found the older one brighter and more closely miked. I also noticed that the Telarc engineers used an entirely different chain of recording equipment here than in earlier days--microphones, consoles, preamps, monitors, interconnect cables--and that the company used Direct Stream Digital for their encoding, all of which may have helped account for the differences I heard. I'm not sure which sound I liked best, though. The new sonics retain all of the old Telarc trademarks of bass and dynamics while rendering the sound stage quite naturally, but the old sonics seemed more outgoing and robust. In any case, the new recording seems to fit the mood of the music pretty well, so I'm not complaining.

One might keep in mind, however, that Hanson himself recorded many of his own works for Mercury, including the Second Symphony, and they still sound terrific remastered on CD.


Feb 21, 2012

The Knights: A Second of Silence (SACD review)

Music of Schubert, Glass, Feldman, and Satie. Erik Jacobsen, The Knights. Ancalagon ANC 137.

"That kind of hovering, as if you're in a register you've never heard." --Morton Feldman

If you can't quite place who The Knights are, you may remember them from their award-winning 2010 album of Mozart violin concertos with Scott and Lara St. John (http://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2010/08/mozart-sinfonia-concertante-sacd-review.html). They are a small chamber ensemble of about three dozen players, led by co-Artistic Directors Colin and Eric Jacobsen and conducted by Eric Jacobsen. They're a lively group of musicians, and on the present album they offer a unique point of view.

A Second of Silence is a theme album from The Knights. The idea is to present music that evokes to some degree the "kind of hovering" mentioned by composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) above, the kind of tranquility offered not just by the notes of the music but by the silences, the quiet moments, between the notes and at the end of a piece. And The Knights juxtapose their choices of material from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries just to prove their point.

They begin with Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie (1866-1937), a French Impressionist ahead of his time whose music predated minimalism and other such movements. In his Gymnopedies he created quiet little works that demonstrate the album's point. The booklet note suggests they are examples of tranquillity drifting toward stillness. Fair enough, and The Knights perform them accordingly.

Next is Company, a four-movement work by American composer Philip Glass (b. 1937) originally written for string quartet and here arranged for chamber orchestra. The point is to compare and contrast Glass's twentieth-century minimalism with the earlier nineteenth-century Classical-Romanticism of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in several pieces that follow it: Gretchen am Spinnrade, Symphonies Nos. 3 and 8, and Des Baches Wiegenlied ("The Brook's Lullaby"). There are some striking similarities.

But the real question is whether any of this familiar music is any better executed by Erik Jacobsen and The Knights than on many other recordings of it. The answer rests on the high quality of the performances, which are flexible, precise, virtuosic, and refined, Jacobsen leading the group with a deft hand. So, yes, The Knights perform the music quite well, the orchestral sounds floating lightly around us, with the sudden bursts of enthusiasm the composers intended made the more startling and expressive for the clarity and accuracy of the ensemble's playing. The Knights emphasize not only the music's brief silences but the dynamics and phrasing in them as well. To my ears, The Knights sound most closely like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and that's about the highest compliment I can offer them.

The performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, for instance, is as ethereal as I've ever heard it and No. 3 as sprightly, energetic, and furiously lilting as you'll find, so beyond any significance the group is trying to impress upon us in the album, their renditions of the music are among the best available.

Interrupting the two Schubert symphonies is Satie's Gymnopedie No. 2, another magical little pause unto itself. And following that is a further tiny piece, this one by Morton Feldman called Madam Press Died Last Night at Ninety. It's in the same minimalist-modern vein as the earlier Glass piece, if quieter.

There is no doubt Jacobsen and The Knights perform all of the music on the disc in high fashion, and whether you appreciate the disc's thematic ideas or not, the interpretations and playing are first rate and probably warrant a listen.

Engineer Jeremy Tusz of Diapason recorded, edited, and mixed the disc for Ancalagon at the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Concert Hall, Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, Flushing, New York from June 23-25, 2010. Made in both two-channel stereo (to which I listened on a Sony SACD player) and multichannel surround and presented on a hybrid, dual-format SACD, the sound is clear and dynamic yet warm and smooth, too.

The sonics are wonderfully immersive, with great washes of sound caressing the ear in a most-welcome and realistic manner. Even without rear speakers, one can feel a splendidly ambient surround effect. The overall aural picture is a tad soft, while having excellent transient response and tautness, making for a most natural and enjoyable listening experience.

One minor criticism, though: Because The Knights are not (yet) a household name and because the album title goes nowhere in telling potential buyers what it's all about, I suspect the producers may have shortchanged themselves. I mean, Is this Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" here? Who would know that it contains primarily Schubert and others or that The Knights are a chamber ensemble? And the bizarrely surreal cover picture doesn't help. But what do I know? It'll probably sell a million copies.


Feb 20, 2012

David Russell: The Grandeur of the Baroque (CD review)

Music of Bach, Handel, Couperin, and Weiss. David Russell, guitar. Telarc TEL-33223-02.

Most people like the music of classical guitar, and there are few practitioners of the art better at it than Scottish classical guitarist David Russell. Maybe it's just longevity. He's been plucking the instrument since his childhood in the 1950's, winning major music awards and the hearts of millions of admirers all over the world. He has been recording since the 1970's, and he's been with Telarc since the mid 90's, this new album, The Grandeur of the Baroque, marking his seventeenth release for the company. Remarkable.

After his having covered the music of most eras, Russell returns to the music of the Baroque period, something he's done on several previous occasions for Telarc. This time, he covers five selections by Bach, six by Handel, four by Couperin, and six more from the less familiar S.L. Weiss, all of them in guitar transcriptions that work better than you might expect. Familiar music or unfamiliar, Russell handles all of it with consummate skill.

The program begins with the Toccata from Partita No. VI in E minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). It's a good curtain-raiser because while it is not extravagantly outgoing, it does afford Russell a chance to demonstrate his dazzling dexterity and prove his virtuosity without tearing the house down. The three Bach Sinfonias (Three-Part Inventions), Nos. 2,11, and 5, prove good counterpoints with their relatively serene, meditative moods.

Next comes the Suite No. 7 in G minor by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). It puts us into a more directly Baroque world, with Russell taking his time with the music and letting it breathe naturally in a perfectly relaxed yet regal manner. The Sarabande is especially appealing, although for that matter Russell plays the entire suite so well, so brilliantly and elegantly, it's hard to pick a favorite selection. Nevertheless, La Pantomime also stands out.

After the Handel, Russell gives us the Twenty-Sixth Suite from Book IV of Pieces de Clavecin by Francois Couperin (1668-1733). These pieces seem more thoughtful, calculated, and contemplative than particularly innovative or memorable. Still, that assessment may simply reflect my own personal biases in favor of German, English, and Italian Baroque music over French.

The program closes with the Suite in D major by Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750), an important composer of lute music in his time. In Russell's hands, the suite begins in a dignified and stately manner and then moves through a series of brief segments of varying temperaments. It's a pleasant and surprisingly catchy way to end the album. Indeed, some of the music sounds positively modern, and all of it sounds delightful.

Telarc recorded the album at Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio, and released it in 2012. The sound they obtained matches Russell's performances in clarity, richness, and resonance. While it's only one instrument, it sounds like a whole ensemble on occasion, the acoustic setting and slightly close miking producing splendid results.


Feb 17, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" (CD review)

Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HDCD247.

German conductor Otto Klemperer was one of those musical interpreters you either loved or hated.  Fortunately, more people loved him than not, and he left us a rich legacy of recordings that spanned a seven-decade career. His most lasting impression, though, probably came from his EMI stereo releases with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras, which he led from 1959 until just a few years before his death in 1973. The performance reviewed here, the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony "Pathetique," he made for EMI in 1961 and HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered and reissued in 2011. It is not one of Klemperer's greatest recordings, but it does provide a typically personal response to the score and a very well-recorded sound.

Anyway, people have responded to Klemperer differently over the years because he never produced a musical rendering that was quite like everyone else's. He believed in giving attention to every detail of a composition, and as he grew older this seemed to mean lingering a bit longer in every movement. As his tempos began to slow down over the years, his audiences began to see his readings either as more monumentally satisfying or more monumentally boring than ever before. His reading of the Sixth offers a little something to make a case for both responses.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, in 1893, premiering it just over a week before his death. It would be nice to think that the composer went out in style, but it wasn't to be. Although today we think of the Sixth Symphony as a staple of the basic repertoire, it did not go over well at first. Audiences misunderstood it. It wasn't until well after the composer's death that people took another look at the work and saw its importance; they even saw in it a possible foreshadowing of the composer's death. Since its publication, people have used the symphony's more-celebrated themes in motion pictures, cartoons, and popular songs.

It's not hard to understand why Tchaikovsky's intensions might have bewildered listeners in his day. The lengthy opening movement unexpectedly starts with a quiet Adagio rather than anything big or attention-getting, and it never divulges its main themes until well into the music. Then it gives us a second-movement waltz that isn't quite a waltz but does a wonderful job playing with waltz-like clues. Following that is a Scherzo in the form of a march, possibly a funeral march, that erupts out of nowhere in a tone wholly unanticipated, building to a frenzied climax. In closing, the finale brings us back to Earth, prompting us to recall the symphony's title, "Pathetique" (whether Tchaikovsky liked the title or not), which the composer intended simply to mean "fervent" or "impassioned," not necessarily "pathetic" or "pitiful." Nevertheless, the symphony's final deep notes fade off softly into a gloomy silence. Although the composer rejected the original subtitle of "Program Symphony," that hasn't stopped listeners from assigning the work any number of meanings, most of them involving death or fate or some such thing.

So, that's what Tchaikovsky apparently intended; now, what does Klemperer give us? I had never heard the recording before and wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Klemperer's strong suit was German and Austrian classical and romantic repertoire, after all: Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schuman, Wagner, that sort of thing; certainly, I thought, not Russian. What I heard, however, was a pleasant surprise and anything but run-of-the-mill. Klemperer's performances were never commonplace. If they were, he'd be just another conductor. Nevertheless, whether that means you'll like what you hear is another question.

Here's the thing: Except in the third-movement Allegro, Klemperer is really no slower overall than most anyone else. Yet his reading is, indeed, different. The first movement opens beautifully, building to the famous love theme flawlessly, which the conductor never sentimentalizes or glorifies but presents in a straightforward manner letting its emotion speak for itself. Klemperer follows it up with all the drama necessary in the movement's second half, the passion seldom flagging no matter the tempo.

The second-movement waltz flows effortlessly despite the halting gait required. Under Klemperer it loses perhaps a little something in charm, which it makes up for in conviction. The march that follows is probably the most-controversial feature of Klemperer's interpretation because it is conspicuously slower and more calculated than we usually hear. Still, the conductor justifies this measured approach by maintaining the music's tension commandingly from beginning to end. Although it will not please purists that Klemperer doesn't always follow the composer's tempo markings, one can at least appreciate that Klemperer doesn't fall into the trap of appearing too hectic or frenetic.

After that, Klemperer produces a finale as moving as that of any conductor I've heard, maybe for the very reason that, again, he doesn't become frantic in trying to prove anything. While this performance may not be a number-one recommendation in the symphony, it should prove a worthy counterpoint to other, more highly animated versions.

EMI recorded Klemperer's Tchaikovsky Sixth at Kingsway Hall, London, in 1961, and HDTT remastered it from an Angel 4-track tape in 2011. The detail one hears is excellent, with a perfectly natural response. The orchestra sounds big and wide without ever overwhelming the listener; it's close-up without sounding edgy or hard but smooth and clear. Yet, there is a reasonably good stage depth as well. It's a winning combination. The dynamic range and impact are also impressive, at some points startlingly real. A lifelike texture to the sonics further contributes to the feeling of being in front of a genuine orchestra, and with virtually no background hiss or noise, the illusion is complete. Say what you will about the performance, there is no question this is one of the very best-sounding Tchaikovsky Sixths currently available.

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


Feb 16, 2012

GRAMMY Classical Music Award Winners, 2011

Although I don't put a lot of stock in Oscars, Emmys, GRAMMYs, and such yearly awards, maybe because I'm not convinced they are anything more than popularity contests, it is probably a good idea at least to inform readers of this year's GRAMMY winners in the Classical Music category for albums released in 2011.

Best Orchestral Performance

Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic
Deutsche Grammaphon

Bowen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
Andrew Davis, BBC Philharmonic

Haydn: Symphonies 104, 88 and 101
Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Philharmonia Baroque Productions

Henze: Symphonies Nos. 3-5
Marek Janowski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin

Martinu: The 6 Symphonies
Jirí Belohlávek, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Onyx Classics

Best Opera Recording

Adams: Doctor Atomic
Meredith Arwady, Sasha Cooke, Richard Paul Fink, Gerald Finley, Thomas Glenn & Eric Owens; Jay David Saks, producer; Alan Gilbert, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Sony Classical

Britten: Billy Budd
John Mark Ainsley, Phillip Ens, Jacques Imbrailo, Darren Jeffery, Iain Paterson, and Matthew Rose; James Whitbourn, producer; Mark Elder, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Glyndebourne Chorus
Opus Arte

Rautavaara: Kaivos
Jaakko Kortekangas, Hannu Niemelä, Johanna Rusanen-Kartano, and Mati Turi; Seppo Siirala, producer; Hannu Lintu, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra; Kaivos Chorus

Verdi: La Traviata
Joseph Calleja, Renée Fleming, and Thomas Hampson; James Whitbourn, producer; Antonio Pappano, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus
Opus Arte

Vivaldi: Ercole Sul Termodonte
Romina Basso, Patrizia Ciofi, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, Topi Lehtipuu, and Rolando Villazón; Daniel Zalay, producer; Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante; Coro Da Camera Santa Cecilia Di Borgo San Lorenzo
Virgin Classics

Best Choral Performance

Light & Gold
Eric Whitacre; Christopher Glynn and Hila Plitmann, The King's Singers, Laudibus; Eric Whitacre, Pavão Quartet, and the Eric Whitacre Singers

Beyond All Mortal Dreams - American A Cappella
Stephen Layton, Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Hyperion Records

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Justin Blackwell, Scott Allen Jarrett, Paul Max Tipton, and Teresa Wakim; James K. Bass, chorus master; Patrick Dupre Quigley, Professional Choral Institute & Seraphic Fire
Seraphic Fire Media

Kjetil Almenning, Nidaros String Quartet; Ensemble 96
2L Lindberg Lyd

The Natural World of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
Paul Hillier, Ars Nova Copenhagen
Dacapo Records

Best Small Ensemble Performance

Mackey: Lonely Motel - Music From Slide
Rinde Eckert and Steven Mackey, Eighth Blackbird
Cedille Records

Frank: Hilos
Gabriela Lena Frank, ALIAS Chamber Ensemble

The Kingdoms of Castille
Richard Savino, El Mundo
Sono Luminus

A Seraphic Fire Christmas
Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire
Seraphic Fire Media

Sound the Bells!
The Bay Brass
Harmonia Mundi

Best Classical Instrumental Solo

Schwantner: Concerto For Percussion & Orchestra
Christopher Lamb; Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony
Track from: Schwantner: Chasing Light…

Chinese Recorder Concertos - East Meets West
Michala Petri; Lan Shui, Copenhagen Philharmonic
OUR Recordings

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Yuja Wang; Claudio Abbado, Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Deutsche Grammaphon

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4
Leif Ove Andsnes; Antonio Pappano, London Symphony Orchestra
EMI Classics

Winging It - Piano Music of John Corigliano
Ursula Oppens
Cedille Records

Best Classical Vocal Solo

Diva Divo
Joyce DiDonato; Kazushi Ono, Orchestre De L'Opéra National De Lyon; Choeur De L'Opéra National De Lyon
Virgin Classics

Grieg/Thommessen: Veslemøy Synsk
Marianne Beate Kielland; Nils Anders Mortensen
2L Lindberg Lyd)

Handel: Cleopatra
Natalie Dessay; Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert D'Astrée
Virgin Classics

Purcell: O Solitude
Andreas Scholl, Stefano Montanari, Christophe Dumaux, Accademia Bizantina

Three Baroque Tenors
Ian Bostridge; Mark Bennett, Andrew Clarke, Sophie Daneman Alberto Grazzi, Jonathan Gunthorpe, Benjamin Hulett, and Madeline Shaw; Bernard Labadie, The English Concert
EMI Classics

Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Aldridge, Robert: Elmer Gantry
Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein

Crumb, George: The Ghosts of Alhambra
George Crumb
Track from: Complete Crumb Edition, Vol. 15
Bridge Records, Inc.

Friedman, Jefferson: String Quartet No. 3
Jefferson Friedman
Track from: Jefferson Friedman: Quartets
New Amsterdam Records

Mackey, Steven: Lonely Motel - Music From Slide
Steven Mackey
Cedille Records

Ruders, Poul: Piano Concerto No. 2
Poul Ruders
Track from: Music of Poul Ruders, Vol. 6
Bridge Records, Inc.


Feb 14, 2012

Liszt: Les Preludes (CD review)

Also, Two Legends; Two Episodes after Lenau's Faust. James Conlon, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics Apex 2564 66586-1.

Les Preludes was the third in a series of symphonic poems written by Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and today it stands as undoubtedly his most popular. How popular? Even for people who don't think they know the piece, they probably know it. In the Thirties Universal Studios used the main theme as background music for the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials, and during World War II the Nazis used it in some of their propaganda films and radio shows. These days it shows up in popular culture with a severe regularity.

Liszt himself approved a preface to the music that began "What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?" Unfortunately, the preface didn't really explain the music or its meaning, which has had musical scholars debating the subject to this day. The main thing is that people have always seemed to appreciate the music's forward thrust, its heroic melodies, its memorable motifs, and its dynamic rhythms. And that is what we expect of any musical interpretation anymore--something big and bold and not a little theatrical. Which is where Maestro James Conlon and his Rotterdam Philharmonic are only partially successful in this reissued Erato recording from Warner Classics.

The album starts with Les Preludes, with Conlon tending to take his time through the opening Andante section, almost a leisurely stroll, and doesn't entirely build up the necessary tension for the more weighty Allegro passages that follow. Then when the familiar theme commences, it does so without as much fury as we might expect. Here, we could look to two other conductors who essayed the work with different approaches but similar pulse-pounding results: Sir Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink. Solti takes his time just as Conlon does, but he builds up a good deal more excitement by varying his tempos and contrasts more (greatly aided by Decca's robust sonics). Haitink, whom you would anticipate being more careful than the others, actually attacks the score more vigorously than either Conlon or Solti. Still, both Solti and Haitink seem to have a better handle on the bravura aspects of the music than Conlon does and provide a more-exhilarating ride.

The rest of the album is essentially filler to the more-popular piece, yet it's splendid filler. Indeed, I enjoyed the two scenes from Faust and the two Legends more than I did the Preludes. The Faust episodes--the "Procession by Night" and the "Dance at the Village Inn" (also known as "The Mephisto Waltz")--display all the energy lacking in the Preludes. The waltz is especially effective and downright spooky on occasion.

The two Legends of "St. Francis of Assisi's sermon to the birds" and "St. Francis of Paola walking on water" are understandably less histrionic than the Preludes or Faust music, and Conlon helps them come across with a placid, meditative conviction.

Erato recorded the performances in Rotterdam in 1983 (Faust) and 1985 (Preludes, Legends), and Warner Classics re-released them in 2011. The program begins with the later sound, which is good but not spectacular. It displays a wide dynamic range, a strong transient impact, and a realistic stage depth. The massed violins, too, are lifelike, supplemented by a taut bass response. Although the overall effect is a tad thick, soft, and reverberant, it is also mostly smooth, making the music easily listenable. Interestingly, it's the Faust music, recorded earlier, that offers the better sound, perhaps miked a little closer and appearing a little less muted.


Feb 13, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto. Ray Chen, violin; Daniel Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical 88697984102.

Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen tells us he chose the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos on the disc because "Maybe I bring something new and fresh to them." Fair enough. Both of the concertos have played major roles in the young man's career. In 2008 he won the Yehudi Menuhin Competition with the Mendelssohn work, and a year later he won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels with the Tchaikovsky piece. When you've got that kind of success going for you, you do what you do best.

I suppose the question about any new recording is whether it competes with or surpasses old favorites; and when it comes to warhorses like the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, there are many great recordings out there already from the likes of Perlman (Chesky and EMI), Heifetz (RCA), Chung (Decca), Gluzman (BIS), Repin (Philips), Mutter (DG), Zukerman (Sony), Chee-Yun (Denon), Chang (EMI), Milstein (DG), and a host of others. So, is any newcomer worth the listen? In the case of Ray Chen, sure thing, and just the coupling of two such important concertos should be icing on the cake.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 35 in 1878, premiering it several years later because the person he originally wanted to perform its first public appearance deemed it unplayable. Although one generally hears it in a big, Technicolor production, in Ray Chen's hands it comes off more smoothly and effortlessly than most others, Chen demonstrating a clean tone and a quietly virtuosic style. While his reading is more relaxed than weighty or dramatic, the playing is never lax. In other words, it's a more lyrical approach than we often find. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding, on the other hand, is more hell bent for leather than the soloist is. Not that the styles clash, however; if anything, we get two performances for the price of one.

Chen plays a 1721 "Macmillan" Stradivarius on loan to him. In an understatement that, given his playing, seems typical of the man's mode of expression, he says of it, "You need good tools." Yes, to say the least.

At one point during the central Canzonetta, I could have sworn that Chen's violin was singing, literally producing vocal sounds, and for the briefest split second I wondered if Sony had decided to add voice to the arrangement. This was before I realized it was the "song" of the violin. It was a remarkable moment in a remarkably tranquil reading of a piece that can often come off as bombastic.

Ray Chen
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote his Concerto for violin and orchestra in E minor, Op. 64 in 1844, and if you still aren't sure of Chen's talents, it's in the Mendelssohn that his gifts really shine. His penchant for creating serene moods is on full display in the opening movement, with Mendelssohn's music practically dancing off the bow. Not that Chen doesn't whip up an exciting head of steam, too, but it's in those magical Mendelssohnian interludes that he proves his worth. The Andante is meltingly beautiful, the finale as sprightly as pixie dust in the breeze.

Recorded in the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden, in April of 2011, the sound is warm yet nicely delineated, if without ultimate transparency. There is a very wide dynamic range involved and a good balance between the soloist and the orchestra as well as within the frequency spectrum of the orchestra itself, with no parts of the reproduction dominating the others. The miking is not too close, not too distant, yet close enough to obtain good, refined detail and strong impact. While the orchestral depth is only average, the overall sonics are spacious and resonant. No complaints here.


Feb 10, 2012

Weber: Clarinet Concertos (CD review)

Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra; Concertino for Horn and Orchestra. Michael Collins, clarinet and conductor; Stephen Stirling, horn; City of London Sinfonia. Chandos CHAN 10702.

Although the big draws here are the two clarinet concertos, British clarinetist Michael Collins begins the program with the little Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 26, J 109, which German pianist, conductor, and composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) wrote in 1811. It's a brief but varied piece of music, starting out rather darkly and then opening up to an agreeably light and lyrical set of melodies. Collins has a good time with its differing moods and gets a chance to demonstrate his virtuosity early on. The piece makes a nice curtain raiser.

Next, we get Weber's Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 73, J 114, also from 1811. Of the two clarinet concertos Weber wrote that year, this one is the more dramatic (or melodramatic, depending on your point of view). Collins in a booklet note calls it "operatic." Whatever the case, it is decidedly heavy, at least until the clarinet enters and lifts one's spirits. Collins provides a sparkling touch, his clarinet sounding both rich and refined, the City of London Sinfonia lending a splendidly intimate, small-scale support. The second-movement Adagio is especially lovely, and the finale bubbles over with a zippy enthusiasm.

After that, we get a change-up: the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 45, J 188, with Stephen Stirling, horn. Weber was only nineteen when he wrote it, a remarkable accomplishment, even if he did revise it extensively about nine years later. Stirling offers meltingly mellifluent sounds and an equally honeyed interpretation through the four-movement piece.

The program ends with what is surely one of Weber's most-popular works, the Concerto No. 2 for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 74, J 118. Like most of the world, I love this music, so it's hard for any clarinetist to go wrong. Collins doesn't disappoint. In fact, he is quite dazzling from the moment he enters. A tone of mystery and grief pervades the second-movement Andante, to which Collins adds a note of melancholy. Then the whole show closes in a sparkling display of pyrotechnic fireworks from Weber, Collins, and the orchestra. It's all scintillating and delightful, and while I may have other favorite recordings of both concertos, this new one from Collins and company must stand serious consideration.

Chandos recorded the album at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, in April of 2011. They obtained a big, well-integrated sound, the clarinet never too close or too distant, with the orchestra realistically spread out behind. The sonics are smooth and slightly warm, making for easy, comfortable listening, if not always allowing for ultimate transparency or dynamic contrasts. There is good stage depth, too, and a pleasantly resonant air further contributing to the illusion of hearing the music in a mildly reverberant concert hall.


Feb 9, 2012

Mozart: Requiem (SACD review)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876 58705 2.

Although this disc came out a few years ago, 2004 actually, I thought since I had recently reviewed several newer Mozart Requiem recordings, I'd throw this one in, too.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a pioneer in the early-music movement, is obviously an old hand at reinterpreting classical music from a so-called authentic point of view, most often on period instruments, so it comes as no surprise that he would return to Mozart's Requiem once more, this time with his own Concentus Musicus Wien. Using the version completed by Mozart's copyist, Xavier Sussmayr, as amended more recently in the new critical edition by Franz Beyer, Harnoncourt produces a ready answer to those who would suggest that nobody can do anything new with the old warhorse.

The conductor tells us in a booklet note that he quit performing in an orchestra to begin leading his own band when he decided he just couldn't play things like the Requiem in "harmless, sugary interpretations" anymore. His present performance, therefore, is vibrant, spirited, emblazoned with fiery color, his orchestra and his soloists--Christine Schafer, Bernarda Fink, Kurt Streit, and Gerald Finley--encouraged to produce an impassioned response.

This is not say it entirely eclipses several other similarly animated accounts, like the one with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic that came out just shortly before it, but because Harnoncourt's players are miked a little closer and because his group is quite a bit smaller and play on period instruments, the results tend to get us closer to the action and move the adrenaline faster. Abbado, on the other hand, is not really any more expansive than Harnoncourt, but as the sound is so much bigger, it seems broader in every respect. They are both good, lively interpretations, both recorded live, I might add, and the choice between them might not be easy to make despite their different approaches. I tend to fancy the new Harnoncourt recording despite some odd balance discrepancies in the choral-orchestral settings and its being made live, something I don't usually care for; luckily, his audience is quiet and unobtrusive. The big "however" is that I personally prefer several other period-instruments presentations to this one (see "The Basic Classical Collection"), so the matter for me is moot in any case.

Interestingly, another note in Harnoncourt's disc booklet goes on at length about how there is no actual "Mozart Requiem" and people should not call it such because the man never finished it, other hands, like Sussmayr's, Beyer's, and Harnoncourt's, revising it many times over. Nevertheless, the CD labels this recording Mozart: Requiem. Go figure. Also of interest, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi issued the music on both an SACD hybrid disc (double layered, two-channel and five-channel) and a regular stereo disc. I listened to the two-channel stereo layer of the SACD, presumably identical to the stereo issue and pretty much liked what I heard, be it live or not.


Feb 7, 2012

Holst: The Planets (CD review)

Sir Adrian Boult, Vienna Academy Chorus, Vienna State Opera Orchestra. HDTT HDCD 130.

English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, between 1914 and 1916, the years of "The Great War," which may help to explain why the first two segments are about "War" and "Peace." He named each movement after the astrological sign of a known planet at the time, not counting Earth, although the music doesn't really describe the signs or the planets so much as they express feelings about the human spirit in its various moods.

In any case, the composer asked his friend Adrian Boult to conduct the premiere, which took place in 1918. For the next seventy years Sir Adrian would re-record the work regularly, his final disc for EMI in 1979 my own favorite. One could say, therefore, that Boult was the ultimate authority on the subject; however, I actually like Andre Previn's EMI recording of it even more than any of Boult's, so personal preference is still a big part of the equation.

What we have here is Sir Adrian's 1959 rendering of the music with the Vienna Academy Chorus and Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Of the several Boult recordings I've heard, this one would not be my first choice, but it does have some nice things going for it, not the least of which is its realistic sound, well remastered here by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

The music begins on an auspicious note as Boult and his Vienna players introduce us to "Mars, the Bringer of War" with an abundance of gusto and menace. Then, in "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," the playing is quite lovely, although I didn't feel as much of the music's passion as in Boult's later EMI account.

"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" finds Boult unaccountably slowing down, his reading surprisingly uninvolving. Maybe it was because the Vienna performers were not as familiar with the English music as Sir Adrian's own British orchestras were; maybe they weren't as in touch with it; or maybe it was Boult's fault for not inspiring them enough. It's anybody's guess.

"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" comes next, and for a "bringer of jollity" the god seems positively solemn, Boult taking a very deliberate, calculated approach to the score. It kind of sucks the life out of it to do it so seriously, and it seems uncharacteristic of Sir Adrian.

Fortunately, Boult returns to form with "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," a movement I love, with Sir Adrian bringing to it an aura of wisdom that could only come of someone with the conductor's experience of life.

After that, Boult begins "Uranus, the Magician" vividly and then falls into the same deliberate pattern as in "Jupiter," ultimately failing to convey as much mystery as the music contains. Finally, in an unusual move for the conductor, he actually seems to hurry the concluding, magical "Neptune," with its wordless chorus diminishing into silence. It's almost as though Boult knew this wasn't one of his best showings and just wanted to get it over with. Whatever the case, it's always fun listening to Holst's music, and if Boult varied his readings of it over the years, one certainly cannot fault him for doing so.

Westminster recorded the suite at Mozart Hall, Concert House, Vienna in March of 1958, and HDTT remastered it from a Westminster 4-track tape in 2011. The sound is quite good, as we would expect from HDTT's choice of subject matter and their subsequent reproduction of the material, with a wide stereo spread and plenty of smooth transparency. Bass is not especially deep but its taut transient impact is impressive, and its dynamics are more than ample. The sense of stage depth is sometimes uncannily real, the separation of instruments splendid, and the warm concert-hall resonance most natural and lifelike. In a few places, as in "Venus," one notices an odd background noise, perhaps the result of some hiss reduction, I don't know; it's not particularly objectionable, so it should not be a concern. Besides, it beats the alternative.

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


Feb 6, 2012

Alison Balsom: Seraph (CD review)

Trumpet works by MacMillan, Takemitsu, Arutiunian, and Zimmermann. Alison Balsom, trumpet; Jonathan Morton, Scottish Ensemble; Lawrence Renes, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 78590 2 3.

I confess I'm not really up on the latest, greatest trumpet players, so this new album from British trumpet soloist Alison Balsom helped bring me up to date on one of the instrument's leading exponents. Ms. Balsom is a multiple award winner with over half a dozen records to her credit, the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra, and a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. More important, she's a darn fine trumpet player. On the present album, she performs three modern trumpet concertos and several shorter solo pieces. It's an entertaining program, although for me not entirely repeatable.

The program begins with Seraph for trumpet and string orchestra by Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan (b. 1959), who wrote it in 2010 and dedicated it to Ms. Balsom. She describes the music as both playful and meditative, which is true. If only it had a little more that a listener could hang onto, it might yet catch the public's fancy. As it is, it is quite rhythmic, and Ms. Balsom gets to demonstrate her virtuosity with it. The central Adagio has a mysterious and plaintive quality about it, sounding rather mournful and bluesy at times. The finale appears to be a series of fanfares, intentionally "ungainly" in the composer's words. While filled with several fascinating ideas, it is also a typically contemporary piece of classical music that did not exactly nudge me toward a second listening.

The Trumpet Concerto in A flat by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian (b. 1920), written in 1950, is more conventional than the MacMillan work that precedes it and, therefore, is more accessible to people like me. The composer infuses the music with plenty of melody and an abundance of Armenian folk tunes. Ms. Balsom's playing is sweet and sympathetic, encouraging our attention with her warm, vibrant tone. I found the piece a highlight of the set, framed as it is in a Romantic, old-fashioned sort of way.

The program concludes with the single-movement Trumpet Concerto "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See" by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) and premiered in 1955. He wrote it as an underscoring of German racism at the time and as a "plea for brotherly unity." It develops the theme of the old Negro spiritual in variations that continue in assorted imaginative and compelling styles for about a quarter of an hour. Ms. Balsom appears to be as adept a jazz artist as she is an accomplished classical musician, floating effortlessly from one mood to another. It's a fascinating work that might appeal to a wide assortment of tastes.

Between the concertos, Ms. Balsom plays a few solos, equally affecting. The trumpet is not the easiest instrument for people to enjoy, but Ms. Balsom certainly makes a good case in its defense.

EMI afford the music three different venues, although with similar results. They got the MacMillan Seraph from a live recording broadcast by BBC Radio 3 from Wigmore Hall, London, in February, 2011, during the work's première. In it, we find the trumpet fairly close up, yet with good depth to the orchestra and a reasonably natural-sounding acoustic setting. EMI spare us the closing applause. The Arutiumian and Zimmerman concertos they recorded at City Halls, Glasgow, in June of 2011. The sound is slightly warmer and more distant in these pieces than in Seraph, better integrated, with good range, although a bit veiled through the midrange. The trumpet solos, recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk, in October, 2011, sound the cleanest and most transparent of all, perhaps because the engineers had the least to deal with.


Feb 3, 2012

Cordero: Caribbean Concertos for Guitar and for Violin (CD review)

Concerto Festivo; Insula: Suite Concertante; Concertino Tropical. Pepe Romero, guitar; Guillermo Figueroa, violin; I Solisti di Zagreb. Naxos 8.572707.

Here's a pleasant surprise: Three pieces of modern classical music that are harmonic, rhythmic, and accessible, delights to listen to. It was as though somebody forgot to tell Puerto Rican composer and guitarist Ernesto Cordero (b. 1946) that serious contemporary music should be insufferable for 99% of the listening public. Throw in two world-class soloists, a world-class chamber orchestra, and a darn good recording, all for a relatively low price, and you get a genuine musical bargain.

Not that I think any of the three concertos on the disc will attain absolute "classic" status anytime soon or become a part of the basic classical repertoire. They are not quite in that rarified category that finds Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez; Cordero's melodies are pleasurable but not so memorable that they might stick with a person for long. I wouldn't expect people to be whistling the tunes when they finish the album. But I do expect they'll finish the album, and with delight.

Anyway, the program begins with the three-movement Concierto Festivo for guitar and string orchestra (2003), with guitar virtuoso Pepe Romero as soloist, accompanied by the well-established chamber ensemble I Solisti di Zagreb. A booklet note tells us that Cordero dedicated the piece to Romero, who in turn describes it as having "divine inspiration," so I suppose we can say the performance is as authoritative as it can be.

The first movement of the Concierto, Allegro elegante, alternates quick rhythms with highly lyrical sections, surprising one at each turn. Cordero marks the central slow movement Adagio con passione, so Romero takes it with a simmering passion. The finale, Energico, is just that--energetic--as well as the longest movement of the piece. It begins somewhat darkly, Romero's solo part entering late; then, when the guitar does come in, it's with a change of mood that proclaims the title of the work. My own favorite parts were the quieter, more songlike passages, which Romero plays with sweetly intense emotion.

Next up are two violin concertos that display a fusion of Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and African musical influences. The first of these concertos is the four-movement piece Insula: Suite Concertante for violin and string orchestra (2009), with violinist Guillermo Figueroa and I Solisti di Zagreb. The piece looks at different parts of the island, different landscapes, making the music quite picturesque. The meditative parts are particularly lovely and haunting in Figueroa's hands.

The program ends with the three-movement Concertino Tropical for violin and string orchestra (1998), again with Figueroa and I Solisti di Zagreb. It's the briefest and most vibrant of the music on the disc, although the slow movement, "The Mahogony Tree," strikes a note almost of sorrow. The conclusion, "The Golden Hummingbird," must have practically burned the strings off Figueroa's violin. In all, it's entertaining music with an abundance of soul.

Naxos recorded the music at Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall, Zagreb, Croatia in 2009-2010. The two solo instruments appear fairly close up, with the ensemble spread out widely behind them. Interestingly, though, both solo instruments sound a bit warmer and less distinctly detailed than the orchestra. Nevertheless, it's a clear and well-defined presentation in a pleasantly resonant acoustic, with more-than-adequate depth, breadth, and dynamic range.


Feb 2, 2012

Chanticleer: Sound in Spirit (CD review)

Warner Classics R2 61941.

Chanticleer is the immaculate male choir that has gained so much attention in recent years, winning numerous plaudits, and becoming so popular. Their disc Sound in Spirit is a slight departure from their usual early religious music, traditional American tunes and hymns, gospel, spirituals, Renaissance songs, and the like. I don't think it's their best material, but for lightweight music, it works well enough.

If I may quote from the album's producer, Steve Barnett: "It is the first Chanticleer recording to be conceived as a total experience--ideally it should be listened to from beginning to end without pause--thus there is no silence or space between tracks. It is the first to add outdoor ambient sounds." And I might add, it is also the first Chanticleer recording to sound like a throwback to the "New Age" music of the 1980's and 90's so beloved of a big segment of the record-buying public.

The music of the disc dates from the thirteenth century to the present, from chants and liturgical Latin texts to modern compositions written especially for this recording. The choir sings them magnificently, their voices as always sounding three times bigger than they are, with phrasing and intonation of unparalleled precision.

However, for many listeners the whole affair may sound like a single, extended, seventy-five-minute note. With the exception of two early works dating from the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries and one Native American-inspired piece, most of the music sounds so relaxed, so ephemerally vaporous, it borders on the transitory and commonplace. What's more, the recording, made at Skywalker Sound, is so resonant most of the time and the natural ambient noise of frogs, crickets, and a running creek so clichéd, that the album runs the risk of appearing like one of those old "Mystic Moods" concoctions of the Sixties.

I don't mean to be harsh. The music really is quite spiritual in nature, and the singers are glorious, as always. But the disc did not persuade me while listening to it that I would want to play it again as anything but background wallpaper, and I'm not sure that is what Chanticleer had in mind. OK, I know I'm just being a grump; most people will love it.


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