Mar 30, 2012

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik TMK1004CD2 (2-disc set).

Conductor and violinist Jeanne Lamon has been the Musical Director of Tafelmusik (or the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra as we currently know it) since 1979, just two years after its founding.  Tafelmusik is a period-instruments ensemble specializing in historical recreations of Baroque music, getting their name from the German word for "table-music," music performed during banquets and feasts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tafelmusik have recorded for several labels over the years and are now re-releasing some of their best material on their own label, Tafelmusik Media, the set under review among them. They originally released these six Brandenburg Concertos in 1995 for Sony, and it's good to have them back in circulation.

You'll recall that the Brandenburgs sound different from one another because J.S. Bach never intended them as a cohesive group. Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a few years later was a collection of six works for various-sized instrumental groups and various solo instruments. It's probable that Bach composed them at different times for different other occasions, and as was his wont, sort of re-arranged them for the collection he presented to the Margrave.

The most obvious comparison I can make in describing Tafelmusik's performances of the concertos is that of Trevor Pinnock's most-recent period-instruments recording with the European Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie. Pinnock is very marginally quicker throughout, Tafelmusik a touch more relaxed and reserved. Pinnock's group also seems to be very slightly steadier, the players more together, Tafelmusik a bit less polished and refined. However, for that matter, one can hardly tell them apart in most movements. Both groups get very good recordings, so for that matter, even their sound is pretty much alike. Since there's really not a lot to choose between them, and since both orchestras pretty much lead the field at the moment for historically informed performances of the music, I'd say one might make a choice in the matter according to one's predisposition regarding the conductors themselves.

Lamon and Tafelmusik take the opening movement of the Concerto No. 1 a tad slower than I'd like; otherwise, the playing is vigorous without being hurried or frenetic, a characteristic of the ensemble's readings of all six concertos. The trumpet in Concerto No. 2 is not as annoyingly forward as it can be in some recordings, and the piece goes by with a zesty warmth. Appropriately, Concerto No. 3, possibly the most popular of the set, sounds lively and spontaneous, without any sense of overdoing the tempos or stressing out the fabric of the music.

Concerto No. 4 is especially delightful, with a vivacious bounce in its step. No. 5 features superior harpsichord playing from Charlotte Nediger that raises this interpretation a notch above most of the rest. And No. 6 displays a wonderfully light hand, given the number of instruments involved, Ms. Lamon keeping the dance rhythms moving along at a healthy, vibrant, yet smoothly nuanced gait, particularly in the final movement.

Recorded in 1993-94 and done in Sony's 20-bit "high definition" technology at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio, the engineers obtained a natural, lifelike sound. The miking doesn't usually favor any one instrument or frequency range, so the sonic presentation appears quite well balanced. More important, there is hardly any veiling of the midrange, providing a fairly clear, clean sound. What's more, one notices a light studio resonance that supplies a pleasing ambient bloom to the activities and adds to the feeling of being at a live event.


Mar 29, 2012

Franck: Symphony in D minor (CD review)

Also, Lalo: Symphony in G minor; Faure: Pavane. Sir Thomas Beecham, Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise. EMI 7243-5-62949-2.

Until the rerelease of this disc, my reference standard for French composer Cesar Franck's Symphony in D minor was Monteux's recording from 1961 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo) and before that (because Monteux's old recording had long been unavailable on CD) Dutoit's digital recording with the Montreal Symphony (Decca). I have to admit that it had been many years since I had heard Beecham's 1959 rendering, and I had quite forgotten how good it was. But I have to stand by the conviction that Monteux still rules the day.

By comparison to Monteux's authoritative interpretation, Beecham's account sounds a tad more wayward in matters of pacing and a bit less magical overall, even if it is still quite fluid and graceful. Dutoit, whose performance is also very good, seems more matter of fact than either Monteux or Beecham, more suavely elegant, to be sure, but ultimately more mundane. Monteux is the more reposed and more insightful of the three, whilst retaining plenty of excitement. Although timings are much the same in all three accounts, Monteux seems more meaningful for his better gauged lingerings and pauses. The music is just as dramatic in all three versions, swinging from moody to energetic, but Monteux is that much more ravishing in the central Allegretto, with its prominent English horn solo, and in the playfulness of the slender scherzo-like theme that follows.

In terms of sound, Dutoit's newer digital recording is admittedly the most detailed, but it is really no more lifelike than the other two. Where Dutoit's recording comes into its own is in filling out the center of the orchestral field better, the RCA being slightly more prominent in the left and right channels. The Beecham EMI recording, on the other hand, sounds nicely balanced left to right, with good dynamics, but it is also a little brighter through the lower treble while being a touch muted in the upper highs. The result is that the Beecham sounds very slightly harsher, overall, than the other two.

One's final decision may rest with the couplings. EMI add Beecham's account of Edouard Lalo's Symphony in G minor, an oddly neglected work presented here with great sympathy and understanding in a heartfelt rendition that brings out all the pathos, melancholy, vigor, and charm of the piece. Although Lalo's Symphony is perhaps not the epitome of Western symphonic art, it has its moments, especially in its vivid finale. Beecham championed the work all his life, but it never caught on. Also on the Beecham disc you'll find Gabriel Faure's little Pavane, exquisitely molded. However, Monteux's disc has his enchanting interpretation of Stravinsky's Petrouchka on it, so it doesn't make decisions easy.  Fortunately, both the Beecham and Monteux discs come at a mid price, so maybe having both of them in one's collection isn't a bad idea.


Mar 27, 2012

Barber: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Korngold: Violin Concerto; Waxman: Carmen Fantasy; Williams: Theme from Schindler's List. Alexander Gilman, violin; Perry So, The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. OehmsClassics OC 799.

So, what are the connections among Barber, Korngold, Waxman, and Williams? There are always connections, right? Well, in this case, they are all twentieth-century composers, of course.  And they are all essentially Romanticists after their time. But, more important, they all either wrote at one point or another directly for Hollywood or allowed Hollywood to use their music in films. On the present album, we get a chance to hear mostly music they wrote for the concert hall, with the John Williams piece most obviously written for a movie.

The primary performers on the disc are a young pair of musicians (both coincidentally born in 1982) with enormous talent and potential, who provide the music with a Romantic spirit and youthful vitality. German violinist Alexander Gilman has performed and won competitions throughout the world and is also currently an assistant at the University of Music in Zurich. Chinese conductor Perry So has also performed worldwide, won awards, and is currently the Associate Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. With the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, the participants do the music proud.

The program begins with the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, by the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Of the composers on the album, it is only Barber who did not write directly for the movies, yet filmmakers used his Adagio for Strings in motion pictures like Platoon, Lorenzo's Oil, The Elephant Man, and probably others. Anyway, Gilman's violin floats above the orchestra, the tone heartfelt and sweet. It's surprising that two performers as young as Gilman and So would produce such a relaxed and moving an interpretation; I mean, you might have expected them maybe to have hurried things along with quick tempos, quirky phrasing variations, and extreme dynamic contrasts. It's good to see they resisted the temptations and present the music in a most-touching manner, intimate and soaring.

Next, we find the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 35, by the Austro-Hungarian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Folks possibly know Korngold best for his swashbuckling music for Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the like, but he wrote a considerable number of non-movie pieces as well. As we might expect of a composer accomplished in film scores, Korngold's work is rhapsodic and filled with references to his own movie music.  Its melodic richness could well underscore any Hollywood romance of the day. Again, Gilman and So treat the piece with reverence, soberness, and almost old-fashioned sentiment. It's exactly what the music needs, and the second-movement Andante is meltingly beautiful. Then, as Barber did in his concerto, Korngold ends his work in a rather rambunctious style, with Gilman and So letting their hair down, so to speak.

After that, we get The Carmen Fantasie for Violin and Orchestra by the German-American composer Franz Waxman (1906-1967). As you can guess, he based the piece on themes from Bizet's opera, so it gives the performers a chance at further exhibiting some bravura playing. Originally, Waxman had written the Fantasie for the movie Humoresque (1946) and later adapted it for the concert stage.

Finally, we hear the theme from the movie Schindler's List by American composer John Williams (b. 1932). The music is brief and appropriately serious. It also allows the orchestra a bigger role in the music making and provides opportunities for both Gilman and So to shine.

OehmsClassics recorded the program in 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa, to good, atmospheric effect. The sound is big and warm, the violin comparatively close, the orchestra placed effortlessly behind it in a wide array. There is a pleasing sense of ambient bloom on the instruments, which also tends very slightly to veil the presentation's overall transparency. Nevertheless, the rich, resonant sonics go a long way toward conveying the Romantic mood of the music, and it doesn't really affect the tone of the violin, which remains quite clear and natural throughout the proceedings. Add in a resplendent bass, solid impact, and a reasonably good depth of field, and you get a sonic presentation that's easy to like.


Mar 26, 2012

Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart (SACD review)

Tudor & Jacobean music for private devotion. Stile Antico, Fretwork. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807554.

First, a description of the music. Most of us probably think of Renaissance music as played either by minstrels for the entertainment of the masses or by choirs and such for liturgical services. Apparently, however, there was also a good deal of music for private, domestic devotion, secular religious music for use in the home. The present album offers a selection of fifteen songs from the English Tudor and Jacobean eras (1500's and 1600's), played by the English vocal ensemble Stile Antico, accompanied by the English consort of viols, Fretwork.

Some of the composers may be familiar to you, others not so much.  Among the better known names are John Taverner (c. 1490-1545) with "In nomine (Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas)," Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) with "Purge me, O Lord," John Dowland (1562-1626) with "I shame at my unworthiness," William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) with "Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?" and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) with "See, the Word is incarnate." Lesser-known names (at least to me) include Thomas Tomkins, John Amner, Robert Ramsey, Robert Parsons, Giovanni Croce, and, to a lesser degree, Thomas Campion.

I liked this line from Matthew O'Donovan, who sings bass with the group, from his booklet essay:  "In hindsight the shaking of the Church music at the Reformation could be said to represent little more than a historic example of evangelicals bringing 'pop' music into worship." Certainly, we hear the overlap of popular, secular, and ecclesiastical music in these tunes.

The singing is a special joy. While there are only about a dozen singers in Stile Antico, they almost sound like a full choir, their voices blending so well, the harmonies so exacting, the tone and timber so precise, so lilting, lyrical, and soaring. What's more, the five members of Fretwork also contribute to the performances seeming bigger than the sum of the participants, Fretwork's instruments lending subtle but solid support. Most of their work we hear during the introductions to the songs and in the purely instrumental number "In nomine a 4 nos. 1 and 2 by Robert Parsons (c. 1530-1570).

The songs offer a unique glimpse into the evolution of music as we know it. But, more important, the songs are beautiful in and of themselves and perfectly executed by all involved.

Recorded for SACD at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, in February, 2011, the sound is as realistic as one could imagine. In the two-channel stereo mode of this hybrid stereo/multichannel disc (which I listened to on a Sony SACD player), the voices sound well defined and well separated, with a wide front-channel spread and ample depth. The viol accompaniment is subtle and well integrated into the sonic field. To make matters even better, the acoustic displays a touch of inherent hall resonance for a warm and natural effect, an effect the multichannel layer would undoubtedly enhance.

To complete the package, we get a well-explained, well-illustrated booklet insert, which also contains the full text and translations of the songs in English, French, and German. The package itself is a Digipak, which I don't care for all that much, but I can forgive this one drawback when the Harmonia Mundi folks have done everything else so well.


Mar 23, 2012

Mark Abel: The Dream Gallery (CD review)

Seven California Portraits. Various soloists; Sharon Lavery, La Brea Sinfonietta. Delos DE 3418.

Musicians, composers and players, have been trying to merge classical and pop music, however one might define either genre, for years. Early composers like Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and their kin wrote music for the court, music for the Church, music for the upper classes, music the masses, and music for the family, each kind of music appropriate to the audience. Louis Gottschalk, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein fused American folk, pop, and jazz forms with classical structures; the Jacques Loussier Trio has successfully played classical pieces in jazz arrangements for ages; people like Wendy Carlos and Tomita have transcribed classical music for synthesizer; Paul McCartney has tried his hand at writing popular classical works; Mannheim Steamroller and The Great Kat have applied the principals of pop to the classics; and even Queen did A Night at the Opera.

Accordingly, American composer Mark Abel (b. 1948), who describes his work as "a post-modern synthesis of classical and rock," is in good company when he gives classical-pop fusion a try in The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits, attempting to describe in seven short vocal-orchestral art songs the lives of seven representative Californians. As a lifelong Californian myself, I can only guess at what Abel was trying to achieve here, California being such a varied and well-integrated state that to try to sum up its citizenry in a mere seven musical portraits seems futile, especially when most of his material is so critical; but I applaud the effort.

Each of the songs depicts a different Californian from a different city, some of the songs straightforward, some of them ironic, some satirically biting. Are they fair to the state? No, and I doubt that Abel meant them to be fair; they're as much personal, intellectual reactions as those of any novelist or poet. Abel is making a few perceptive insights here and doesn't try to pass them off as absolute examples of everybody in the state. Yet, when you listen to the texts of the songs, you recognize the types of people involved, and, yes, you probably know at least a few of them, they're so universal.

The "gallery" begins with "Helen" from Los Angeles, sung by Mary Jaeb. It's a grim note of despair, disillusion, and loneliness about a woman caught in the upward spiral of the American dream until it all comes tumbling down--the years of marriage, the child, the husband who finds a younger companion. Still, thinks Helen, there is always a new day. Shades of Gone with the Wind, yet, sadly, without Scarlett's firm resolve actually to do something to improve her situation.

"Todd" from Taft, sung by David Marshman, continues the reproachful trend as he describes a town built on hope, a town now derelict, a ghost of its former self, ravaged by exploiters. Then there's "Naomi" from Berkeley, sung by Janelle DeStefano. Naomi is a smug Berkeleyite who looks down on those without her knowing understanding of the world, those who just don't get it, yet she is a woman who clearly feels something may be just as wrong with her as with the people she faults. Abel writes of people who either lack confidence or have it stripped from them.

And so it goes, the singing uniformly informed, soaring, penetrating, affecting as the situation demands. The orchestral support tries to remain unobtrusive, although it does occasionally seem to overpower the narrative. Most of the sentiments are easy enough to identify with, especially "Carol" of San Diego (Delaney Gibson), a go-getter with an empty life filled to the brim with the nothingness she so cherishes.  Empty people, empty lives, empty dreams. The series ends with one person, "Adam" of Arcata (Tom Zohar), who chooses probably to leave the state for lands unknown. Anywhere but what he sees as a wasteland.

Let's agree these are not flattering pictures of Californians, and the easy knock against them is to say that anybody can condemn, criticize, and denounce. Yet inherent in all the bitter sarcasm are pointers to happiness. Recognizing a problem, after all, is the first step toward solving it.

Anyway, as I was saying, the singing and ensemble work are spot on, and the content is readily accessible. It's the actual music that may trouble some listeners; at least it did me because after a few songs I began to find it repetitious. True, the Berkeley segment shows promise in its street noises, and "Carol," "Lonnie" (Carver Cossey), and "Luz" (Martha Jane Weaver) evoke notes of menace, despondency, and heart. Nevertheless, there's a sameness about the melodies and rhythms that can grate after a while, perhaps part of Abel's intent. Using different singers for each song helps to create and communicate different moods, though, and the songs do have a certain magnetic appeal despite their apparent uniformity of approach. Then, too, if everyone found these tunes winning or engaging, maybe they wouldn't be classical anymore, would they? Maybe they would be pure pop. It's kind of a vicious circle, blurring the lines further between what is classical and what is popular music.

Delos recorded the album in Studio A, Citrus College, Glendora, California, at some recent date; the disc doesn't say, carrying only a copyright of 2012. The sound is close-up and fairly one-dimensional, with little or no resonant bloom or air. While the sonics appear reasonably well defined, dynamic, and wide ranging, they don't carry with them much of a stamp of reality. It sounds, in fact, like a typical pop album, which is probably appropriate to the tone the music is trying to convey.


Mar 22, 2012

Richard Strauss: Rosenkavalier Waltzes (CD review)

Also, Burleske; Capriccio Sextet. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Herbert Blomstedt, Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Decca B0004645-02.

I'm not sure we needed another recording of Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier Waltzes, but here we get two of them. Strauss was not too keen on arranging a suite of waltzes from the opera himself, yet he was never too happy with the suite arranged by Otto Singer and others, either. In 1944, with apparently nothing else to do, he finally got around to putting together a sequence of waltzes from Acts 1 and 2, along with some new connecting material to make the whole thing hang together better.

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in both this suite and the anonymous one of tunes from Act 3, along with two couplings, the Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, with the eminent Jean-Yves Tibaudet as soloist, and the Sextet that opens the opera Capriccio. Blomstedt's knowledge and direction of Strauss are beyond reproach, and whether we needed another recording of the music, this one is as good as any.

The waltzes owe a lot to those other Strausses, the waltz family Strausses, but, of course, they are pure Richard Strauss, too, with sweet, felicitous touches of Til Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben thrown in along the way. The Sextet is wonderfully serene and beautifully performed. And the Burleske is surprisingly Romantic, or perhaps not so surprising considering Strauss originally wrote it when he was only twenty-one years old (and revised it a few years later).

The sound is typical of Decca in that it is very robust, strong in the bass, and a touch hard in the upper frequencies. Oddly, while Decca recorded the Burleske more recently, in 2004, they recorded the other pieces almost a decade earlier in 1996. I wonder how much other good stuff these record companies have lying around unopened in their vaults?


Mar 20, 2012

Beethoven: Symphonies No. 6 & No. 8 (CD review)

Douglas Boyd, Manchester Camerata. Avie AV2242.

Douglas Boyd and the Manchester Camerata conclude their Beethoven cycle on Avie with these live recordings of the Sixth "Pastoral" and Eighth Symphonies. Having only heard one other disc in the Boyd series, I can't say the results entirely disappointed me, although I'm not too keen on his quick-paced yet fairly cautious readings, either.

Of all Beethoven symphonies, I'm guessing there are probably more folks who love the "Pastoral" best of all than any of the others, although certainly the Third, Fifth, and Ninth are right up there. I'm not talking about sheer popularity, understand, where the Fifth and Ninth would no doubt win the day. I'm talking actual love for a piece of music. The Sixth is simply the most loveable of all the symphonies Beethoven wrote. I mean, who can doubt the appeal of the work's continuously happy, bucolic, tranquil, frolicsome qualities? Not even a storm cloud can interrupt this music's playful, joyous charisma. Maybe it's why Disney chose it as one of the highlights of his 1940 animated movie Fantasia.

Also making the piece easily accessible is the fact that it's Beethoven only program symphony, the composer assigning each movement a description. So the music is ready-made to interpret by any listener. However, this programmatic agenda may also make it harder on conductors because they know that listeners are expecting a certain thing, and if they don't give it to them, woe be it to them. Then, too, over the years, practically every conductor on Earth has performed and/or recorded the symphony, which makes it harder still for any new recording to find a place in the hearts of fans. My own choices? Bruno Walter (Sony) almost owns the piece, his final, exuberant stereo recording now probably the most authoritative reading of all. But there are also the genial Karl Bohm (DG) version to consider, the glowing Fritz Reiner (RCA) version, the idyllic Otto Klemperer (EMI) rendition, and the surprisingly joyful Eugen Jochum (EMI); plus a score of others from David Zinman (Arte Nova), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), Andre Previn (RCA), Colin Davis (Philips), Tilson Thomas (Sony), Georg Solti (Decca), Andre Cluytens (EMI), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Pierre Monteux (Decca), George Szell (Sony), Ernest Ansermet (Decca), Gunter Wand (RCA), and others too numerous to mention. So where does Douglas Boyd's new realization sneak in, or does it?

The Sixth Symphony begins with an Allegro non troppo (fast, but not too much) that Beethoven describes as "The awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country." Admittedly, Boyd's opening does sound cheerful. It has a light step, a nice bounce, and a zippy gait without sounding frenetic. Although it perhaps loses a little something in overall grace by not slowing down at least occasionally but continuing to forge ahead at all times, it makes up for it in sheer exhilaration.

The second movement Andante molto moto (walking speed, with much motion) the composer calls "The scene at the brook." Here, Boyd could really have relaxed a bit more; there may be too much "motion" and not enough "walking" involved. He moves things along at such a fast clip, it robs the music of some of its easygoing charm.

In the central Allegro, the "Merry gathering of country folk," Boyd shines, his quick tempos raising one's spirits, even if the music hasn't quite the flowing lines of several of the conductors cited above.

Then the "Thunderstorm" goes by in appropriately menacing fashion and fades just as quickly into the final Allegretto (moderately fast), which Beethoven calls the "Shepherd's song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm." Again, Boyd goes after it full throttle, perhaps following Beethoven's own metronome markings too literally because it's the only time the conductor's impetuosity seems misplaced. Nevertheless, his tempos are flexible enough that the music never becomes too static, and the symphony ends in a most-energetic manner. Still, I would not count Boyd's interpretation in the same league with the elite conductors I so favor.

Because the little Eighth Symphony has a cheerful character, it makes an apt coupling on the disc. As with the Sixth, Boyd adopts a decidedly quick tempo throughout, which doesn't exactly do anything for the more lyrical parts of the score. But at least it keeps the adrenaline flowing. The second-movement Allegretto scherzando comes off best with this approach, leaving the rest of the score to fend for itself.

Avie recorded the music live in January and October of 2009 at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England. It's among the best live recordings I've heard, miked neither too closely nor too distantly, with excellent transparency and air. It's also very clean, with little noticeable distortion, and well balanced from the upper bass to the lower treble. Dynamics seem a tad constricted at times, though, especially compared to my remastered Blu-Spec CD of the Walter recording from Japanese Sony. However, that may be a trifle unfair to the Avie disc, which does hold its own.

To make the situation all the more agreeable, we hear little or no noise from the audience during the performances, and the Avie engineers cut out any distracting applause.


Mar 19, 2012

Bach: An Imaginary Dance (CD review)

Cello Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 4. Charles Curtis, cello; Anthony Burr, organ; Naren Budhakar, tabla. Entertainment One EOM-CD-2127.

By now, cellist and composer Charles Curtis has probably gotten his audiences used to his doing unusual musical things. He's been a celebrated musician for a number of years, specializing in experimental music, minimalism, modern interpretations of classical pieces, and the like. It is no accident that he has been a Professor of Contemporary Music Performance at the University of California, San Diego, since 2000. In his present album, An Imaginary Dance, two of his colleagues on organ and tabla join Curtis for new looks at three of Bach's well-traveled cello concertos. For purists, this may be sacrilege. For the rest of us, it's simply different, fascinating, and mostly fun.

Curtis, who arranged most of the music with Robert Sadin, performs the suites with Anthony Burr on organ and Naren Budhakar on tabla (a small drum from India, played with the hands). The effect of these three seemingly disparate instruments is surprisingly effective, if, as I say, different.

They begin with the Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009, with Curtis playing the Prelude solo. Then the tabla joins in the succeeding movements, with a light organ accompaniment. It's the plan of attack Curtis employs in all three pieces. As Bach intended most these movements as dance numbers (probably for listening, not for dancing, however)--allemandes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and such--the added rhythms of the tapping drum and the further lyricism of the gentle organ backdrop make the music agreeably vibrant and alive. Whether you feel it actually enhances the music is another story, since Bach's solo suites are pretty good all by themselves.

Curtis makes the point in a booklet note that Bach himself rearranged, transcribed, and reorchestrated many of his own works for other instruments and often left it to the individuals playing the music to work out the accompanying ensembles for themselves; so what Curtis is doing today might not have probably bothered Bach much. Indeed, he might have gotten a kick out of these new arrangements had he had a chance to hear them.

Curtis goes on to say that his arrangements, like so many others, offer mere "decoration, adornment." Fair enough. Not even he takes this sort of thing too seriously; music is, after all, for our entertainment, our enjoyment. He further suggest the tabla "hints at the ancient dance traditions of the world" and "the organ, too, brings at times a rawness and verve that are far removed from church services." Again, fair enough.

There is no question Curtis plays with a lively, virtuosic style, his colleagues adding rhythmic vitality and a lilting and sonorous accompaniment. The result is undoubtedly to hear the music almost for the first time, bringing a new dimension to well-worn territory.

Entertainment One recorded the performances at Music Recorders, Hoboken, New Jersey, I assume in the last year or so; they don't specify a date, but the disc bears a 2012 copyright. The engineers have miked the cello up close, making it sound very clean, very clear, and fairly natural, yet without much ambient air or resonance that might have added greater richness. The attending instruments also sound good, although there isn't much sense of their spatial relationship to the cello beyond various degrees of left-to-right stereo separation. There is also a wide dynamic range involved, sometimes getting a bit too loud but assuredly realistic. In short, while the acoustic can sometimes seem a trifle dry, the instruments themselves sound pleasantly warm and comfortable.


Mar 16, 2012

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern. OEHMS Classics OC 408.

When I saw Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's name as conductor on this disc, I thought it might be a historical recording, perhaps one from the man's heyday with the Minnesota Symphony back in the Sixties and Seventies. I hadn't thought about him in years and figured he must have retired by now (if not passed away). Then I looked at the recording date: February, 2011. Yes, Maestro Skrowaczewski is very much alive and kicking and probably already planning to celebrate his ninetieth birthday with some new releases next year. It's good to have a musician of the old school still with us, and it's good to hear him conducting a traditional Romantic classic like the Brahms First. At least, we can expect a thoroughly informed interpretation from him.

Here's the thing with Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and his Symphony No. 1. He probably felt intimidated by Beethoven; after Beethoven's death, composers were reluctant to continue in the symphonic field where Beethoven left off. Many of them felt that Beethoven had already said it all, and they were content to deal with concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and the like. Brahms spent in excess of a dozen years, from 1862-1876, deliberating over various ideas for his First Symphony, finally premiering it in 1876. The public and critics hailed it a success, and it has more or less remained in the basic repertoire ever since.

Here's another thing I have to confess: Of Brahms's four symphonies, I have never really cared for the First as much as the other three. While I recognize the symphony is something of a musical precedent, that does not in my book necessarily make it a great piece of music. I have always found the opening movement too busy, too messy; the Andante too overtly, lushly Romantic; and the third movement too humdrum. For me it is only the finale that is at all interesting, where Brahms saves up his big theme. Nevertheless, I'm always willing to listen to a good performance of the work, and there have been plenty of them over the years.

Contrary to what some conductors do, who begin slowly and build incrementally, Skrowaczewski gets the first movement off to a properly grand, almost majestic start, and then he slows the pace considerably and stays there for the duration. You certainly can't accuse him of hurrying the music because he caresses it with strength and care. His primary goal appears to be in clarifying every note and every phrase as though he's afraid we might miss something. At times, this means his approach may appear lethargic; but so be it. Oddly, though, I seem to recall his rendition of the same symphony with the Halle Orchestra some years ago being quite a bit more intense, but, unfortunately, I didn't have it any longer for comparison.

In any case, Skrowaczewski's new rendering is a bit different from most, and it doesn't really touch other, more-vigorous, more-exalted performances from people like Szell (Sony), Boult (EMI), Abbado (DG), Walter (Sony), Wand (RCA), Haitink (Philips), Mackerras (Telarc), and especially Klemperer (EMI). This new one, in fact, may appear too old-fashioned to appeal to everyone.

Understandably, the two inner movements benefit the most from Skrowaczewski's leisurely style, the second-movement Andante sostenuto particularly lovely and lyrical. The third movement, usually reserved for a quick-moving Scherzo, Brahms replaces with a gentle Allegretto, a kind of shepherd's hymn, and the conductor handles it without incident, providing a solid, perhaps even authoritative-sounding rendition.

Yet it's the finale we all wait for in the First, the high point of the symphony, the crowning glory with its instantly recognizable main theme bursting forth radiantly no matter who's conducting. Here, again, however, Skrowaczewski tends to be so cautious, or so excessively fastidious, taking the lead-up so slowly we have to wonder if the principal melody is ever going to appear. When it does, there is no denying its brilliance. Nevertheless, it tends to sound a tad mechanical compared to the way some of the aforementioned conductors handle it. So the work ends not quite on the high note it should but on sort of a hesitant stutter.

In short, if you're looking for ultimate electricity, vitality, or excitement in this symphony, you're probably not going to find it with Skrowaczewski. Instead, you'll find a dignified, carefully crafted reading of a noble rather than high-spiritual quality.

OEHMS Classics recorded the music at the Kongresshalle, Saarbrücken, in, as I've said, February of 2011. The engineers obtain clean, transparent sonics, although with a slight forward edge to the upper midrange. Bass, treble, and dynamics are fine, if not terribly extraordinary, while stage depth and stereo spread sound quite impressive. It's a good, modern recording without quite rising to the highest of audiophile standards.


Mar 15, 2012

Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus. Telarc CD-80636.

It seems as though every time a new Mozart Requiem appears, it's based on a different edition, each revision claiming to be more "authentic" than the last. I suppose it sells records.

In this 2005 Telarc release from Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony, the performers play the work from the Robert D. Levin edition of 1993. As you know, when Mozart died he left over half of the Requiem unfinished, and his friend and former pupil, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, completed the work from the middle of the "Lacrimosa" to the end (perhaps with help). Ever since then, audiences have complained that the second half of the piece didn't exactly sound like Mozart. Well, surprise; it isn't. I suspect that for the purist, the easy answer to the dilemma is simply to stop at the end the "Lacrimosa" and forget about the rest. (Or stop somewhere in the middle of the "Lacrimosa" to be doubly sure that your Mozart is pure.)

In any case, Mr. Levin says he tried to improve upon Sussmayr's additions rather than replace them, writing, "The traditional version has been retained insofar as it agrees with the idiomatic Mozartian practice." He corrected a few sections and pared back others in order to hear the vocal parts better, and so forth. The results of all these editions never seem to sound much different to me, but I'm clearly a barbarian.

Runnicles adopts a steady tempo throughout, with very few dramatic dynamic contrasts, making for an enjoyably smooth Requiem, one that both avid Mozart fans and casual listeners alike should find readily accessible. Still, there is a "however." It was not long before that Nikolaus Harnoncourt also recorded the Requiem (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), his interpretation sounding to my ears more vibrant and spirited, more emblazoned with fiery color, and done on period instruments. What's more, I think the DHM sonics were cleaner and more transparent, the massed voices, especially, sounding clearer than Telarc's.

So it's not as though this new Telarc has the field all to itself. Indeed, with so many competing Requiems available, it's hard to make a single recommendation. Certainly, Runnicles is in the running.


Mar 13, 2012

Pleyel: Symphonies in B flat and G (CD review)

Also, Flute Concerto in C. Patrick Gallois, conductor and flute; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla. Naxos 8.572550.

OK, so Ignaz Joseph Pleyel is not exactly a household name. However, if you are an enthusiastic classical-music fan, you may have heard of him. He was a prominent figure in his time (1757-1831), a French composer and piano builder born in Austria, a pupil of Joseph Haydn, and the prolific writer of some fifty classical symphonies and a ton of other stuff before retiring from music into the business world. How prominent was he? People of his day thought of him as more important than Mozart and a successor to Haydn. Today, if it weren't for a few record labels like Naxos, Chandos, CPO, and Denon, we probably wouldn't know who he was. Such are the vicissitudes of life.

Next, you may not be quite aware of who Patrick Gallois is, either, so let me remind you. He's the conductor on the disc and the flute player on the final piece. He was the principal flutist for the Orchestre National de France from 1977-1984; he's been a celebrated soloist for years; he's been the Music Director of the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla since 2003; he's been under contract to both DG and Naxos as a soloist and a conductor for quite some time; and he's got a discography that numbers over seventy-five recordings. Yes, of course, you know him.

Now that we're a little clearer about the participants, let's take a look at the music. The album begins with two of Pleyel's multitudinous works, the Symphony in B flat major (Benton 125) and the Symphony in G major (Benton 130), which Pleyel wrote somewhere in 1780's. In the same way that Carl Friedrich Abel's symphonies resemble early Mozart, so do Pleyel's symphonies sound like early Haydn. They are elegant, charming, bouncy, cheerful, and endlessly entertaining. The music is light and airy, with delightfully lilting melodies.

Using an orchestra of modest proportions (a booklet photo shows about thirty-five or so players and a note says there are thirty-eight involved), Gallois is able to produce buoyant rhythms and clear, clean textures appropriate to the tunes. The slow movements are particularly lithe, radiating a special glow that is hard to resist.

As appealing as the symphonies are, the Flute Concerto in C major (Benton 106) is the highlight of the program. Even though this concerto comes from late in Pleyel's musical career, one can understand after listening to it why the man was so enormously popular in his era. Hedging his bets, Pleyel issued it in simultaneous versions for flute, violin, and cello. He had it all cornered. Anyway, Gallois has it all cornered as well, conducting with a liquid, flowing hand and playing with grace and sensitivity.

Smooth and lifelike, the sound is among Naxos's best. They recorded the album at Suolahti Hall, Jyvaskyla, Finland, in January of 2010, obtaining excellent stereo separation and imaging left-to-right and front-to-back. We also hear a pleasant ambient bloom, but not so much resonance that it veils important detail. The ensemble, relatively small, not much more than a chamber orchestra, reflects those of the Classical Period, and the Naxos sound provides ample transparency for them. Dynamics are not especially strong, yet they do not need to be. This is fairly easygoing music, and as such it doesn't require much crash, boom, bang. The engineers miked it to reveal a suitable distance, too, giving the listener the feeling of being in an actual concert hall, the whole presentation doing just about everything right.

On a side note, Naxos have filled out the disc with a generous seventy-nine minutes of music. So, yes, you get your money's worth here, a proposition all the more attractive when you consider the relatively low cost of the disc.


Mar 12, 2012

Falla: Works for Stage and Concert Hall (CD review)

The Three-Cornered Hat; Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Tributes. Raquel Lojendio, soprano; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; Juanjo Mena, BBC Philharmonic. Chandos CHAN 10694.

Spanish composer Manuel Maria de Falla (1876-1946) wrote some of the most colorful music Spain ever produced, and this album offers three of his best works, done up in splendid Chandos sound.

The program begins with his two-act ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three Cornered Hat), a lighthearted tale of attempted seduction, which the composer wrote in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The music, based on a well-known Spanish folk tale and several popular Spanish folk tunes, is continuously rhythmic and infectious, here presented by the BBC Philharmonic under their current chief conductor, Juanjo Mena, with soprano Raquel Lojendio. While the performance is most fetching, the real question, I suppose, is how it compares to the famous 1961 stereo recording by Ernest Ansermet, who conducted the music's première, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca and LIM). The answer is that Mena and company almost hold their own.

Maestro Mena displays a good deal of spark in select passages, sometimes igniting a fiery response from his performers, while also taking a more relaxed, though eloquent, approach throughout much of the rest of the piece. The soloist is especially effective and her phrasing impressionistic. OK, I have to admit that Ansermet seems more consistently animated throughout, yet that should take nothing away from Mena's more easygoing and evocative interpretation. I also have to admit that for me the music itself gets a little static by the halfway point, and Mena's slightly casual reading doesn't exactly make it any better. However, that's just me, and I have no doubt the present recording, particularly the exhilarating conclusion, will more than satisfy most listeners.

The second item on the program is Noches en los jardines de Espana (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), for piano and orchestra, which Falla originally wrote in 1909 as a set of nocturnes for piano alone and orchestrated for a première in 1916. Here, pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet joins Maestro Mena and his BBC players for the recording. Falla described the music as a set of impressions of three gardens in his country, and if any performance is to succeed, it must call to mind the visions, even smells, of those gardens. Here, I found Mena's performance more to my liking. It clearly evinces the proper moods and atmosphere of the various gardens, and Bavouzet's piano playing is dynamic in support.

The program ends with Homenages (Tributes), a suite for orchestra Falla completed in 1939 and was among his last works. In four primary movements Falla pays his respect to four fellow composers and musicians (Enrique Fernandez Arbos, Paul Dukas, Claude Debussy, and Felipe Pedrell), and in the music he draws upon some of his previous work. Not terribly "Spanish" in flavor, the Homenages are, nevertheless, quite full of distinctive character, specifically the way Mena does them up. And although they are understandably dark and elegiac, they can be rather exuberant affairs at times as well.

Chandos recorded the music at MediaCityUK, Salford, England, in June and September of 2011. The sound is vivid enough, yet natural, too. It hasn't the immediacy of the old Decca recording I mentioned earlier, but for a lot of folks the softer, warmer Chandos sound may be easier on the ear, depending on one's playback equipment, of course. Additionally, the Chandos disc has a nice balance between soloists and orchestra, with a fair amount of transparency, air, and depth to the instruments. The acoustic is somewhat resonant, so we get an adequate sense of hall ambience in the music without losing too much detail or definition. Bass sounds taut, and highs, while not prominent, sound well extended.


Mar 9, 2012

A Tribute to John Williams (CD review)

An 80th Birthday Celebration. Guest appearances by Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma; John Williams, various orchestras. Sony 88691942532.

My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines "classical music" as "of, pertaining to, or constituting the formally and artistically more sophisticated and enduring types of music, as distinguished from popular and folk music and jazz. Classical music includes symphonies, operas, sonatas, song cycles, and lieder." A pretty broad definition, huh?

OK, how about the American Heritage Dictionary: "Of or relating to music in the educated European tradition, such as symphony and opera, as opposed to popular or folk music." Still pretty general, isn't it? Try the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music: "Popularly, all art music as against popular music." Yet even more general. Oh, dear.

I bring this up because I've often wondered which classical composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries might be as popular and highly regarded a hundred years from now as composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, or Copland are these days. Modern composers have produced a ton of serious "classical music" in the past fifty years, but will it still be selling in the year 2112? Is it even selling today?

Maybe it comes down to how one defines "classical music." Mozart wrote Don Giovanni as serious music for the courts and upper classes and The Magic Flute as popular music for the more-common public. These days, we consider both works equally as "classical music." What about Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operettas or Schubert's lieder or Gershwin's music for jazz band or cinema: Classical or popular music? If Liszt had been around in the 1930's and written Les Preludes directly for the Flash Gordon serials, would we still consider it classical music? Is Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto "classical music" or not because he wrote it for a movie?

I mean, some modern composers seem to think that if they write anything the general public might like, anything with melody or rhythm or even harmony, must be too common and, therefore, can't be very good. Modern composers often strain to be different, to be pathfinders in order for listeners to take them seriously, and some of them appear to look down their noses at composers who simply work for a living giving the masses what they want.

Now, don't get me wrong; I don't want to sound like a Soviet censor. I just believe that we might get along better if we judged all music equally--from Romantic to avant-garde, from traditional to experimental--and didn't automatically shrink from any music that happens to conform to older norms.

Which gets me to my point (finally): Will critics of serious music ever consider film music "classical music"? Is classical music primarily a matter of intent, complexity, structure, or design? Maybe, yet symphony orchestras all over the world play concerts of film music and fill their halls with it. Therefore, is film music "classical" if a noted symphony orchestra plays it? I posit this hypothesis: A hundred years from now, film composer John Williams may be among the most-popular "classical" composers of his generation, still selling recordings (in whatever medium exists a hundred years from now), still being performed by symphony orchestras, and obviously still celebrated as a "classical" composer of big-scale symphonic works.

That doesn't mean I think the music of John Williams is any better or more important than the music of a thousand more innovative, more creative, more "modern" composers of the past half century. I just think in its general appeal, Williams's music will last longer than the music of most of his more "serious" contemporaries.

And, as an example, we come to the album under discussion, A Tribute to John Williams. It contains fifteen of his personal favorite pieces, most of them familiar to almost anybody with ears, all of them conducted by Mr. Williams himself with various orchestras over the years and recorded between 1991 and 2012 by RCA, Sony, and others. They include works for movies, television, concerts, and festive occasions, all of them "symphonic," all of them "classical" by at least somebody's definition.

The program begins with the jubilant "Sound the Bells!," made with the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles in 2000. It's an appropriate curtain-raiser. Then it's on to more-familiar ground with music from Jaws, the charming "Shark Cage Fugue," recorded with the Boston Pops in 1990. Following that is the enchanting main theme from Sabrina, with soloist Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1996. And from the sublime to the ridiculous, we get the humorously boisterous "March" from 1941, with the Boston Pops, 1990. It's great, good fun.

And so it goes, with more tracks from E.T., Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Schindler's List, Tintin, and the NBC Nightly News. But you don't always get the movements you expect, like the haunting "Dartmoor, 1912" theme from War Horse.

In addition, we find the undoubtedly "classical" Elegy for Cello and Orchestra with soloist Yo-Yo Ma and the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles, 2001. Perhaps what I found most memorable, however, was "Going to School" from Memoirs of a Geisha, again played by soloist Yo-Yo Ma for the motion picture soundtrack in 2005.

Then, for sheer brilliance, there's the penultimate number on the program, the "Throne Room Theme" from Star Wars, with Williams leading the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra from 1990.

The album ends with the multifaceted Happy Birthday Variations, previously unreleased though recorded in 1999. It makes an apt conclusion to Mr. Williams's birthday celebrations and further muddies the waters, leaving us wondering more than ever just what constitutes "classical music."

The recordings all sound good, but they are not always entirely realistic or natural. The sonics are more in the tradition of motion-picture soundtracks: multi-miked, in many cases one-dimensional, slightly forward, always clear, but just as often light.


Mar 8, 2012

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (XRCD review)

Also, Schubert: Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished." Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24027.

I have to admit, conductor Munch's Beethoven did not move me very much. It probably has something to do with the 800 other recordings of the Fifth Symphony currently available, but it may also have something to do with the interpretation being rather plain and unadorned. After hearing such electric performances over the years as those from Carlos Kleiber (DG) and Fritz Reiner (RCA and JVC) and such authoritative ones as those from Karl Bohm (DG) and Simon Rattle (EMI), it's hard to get too excited about so straightforward and conventional a reading as Munch's sounds.

On the other hand, the companion piece, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony gets excellent treatment.  Indeed, Munch produces one the finest recordings of this work I have heard. It is neither too lax and yielding nor too hard-driven or overbearing. Munch delivers a performance that is smooth and refined, to be sure, but passionate as well and strongly committed. The Allegro has all the forward drive one could want without being at all pushy, and the Andante is gentle, relaxed, and glittering with sensitivity and beauty.

Of course, the reason some people with deep pockets buy products in JVC's XRCD audiophile series is because they can expect some of the best possible sound from the best possible source material, and again the JVC engineers do not disappoint. The old, 1955 stereo sonics, originally recorded by RCA, have a strong dynamic thrust and a clarity that makes most of today's digital reproduction seem flabby by comparison. There is a small degree of brightness in the first strings and a touch of tape hiss audible in quieter passages, but such distractions are largely insignificant.

The question remains whether it is worth the high asking price of the JVC disc for essentially a single great performance lasting less than twenty-four minutes. That decision I can't answer for you. And with equally good performances of the Schubert "Unfinished" from conductors like Eugen Jochum (DG import), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Charles Mackerras (Telarc), and Erik Jacobsen (Ancalagon) at about half the price, the choice is even harder.


Mar 6, 2012

Bach: Air - The Bach Album (CD review)

Includes Air, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Largo, Double Concerto, Ave Maria. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Steven Mercurio, English Chamber Orchestra. eOne Music EOM-CD-7785.

American concert violinist, chamber musician, and recording artist Anne Akiko Meyers "wanted to include some of her favorite Bach pieces on the disc," including the famous "Air" from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 with which she begins the album. The album offers an outstanding showcase for her talents and is one of the highlights of a discography that includes over two dozen recordings.

Ms. Meyers performs the "Air" in an arrangement by Jeff Kryka, her playing with the English Chamber Orchestra under Steven Mercurio easygoing and soulful, making a pleasant introduction to the music to come. The violin is especially rich and sonorous while being clean and clear, too, another trademark of the performer.

Next come the two violin concertos, No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 and No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042, which Bach wrote somewhere between 1717 and 1723, around the same time he was also writing the Brandenburg Concertos if you hear any similarities. Here, Ms. Meyers continues her expressive style, taking her time with the music yet eliciting much vitality from the scores. The most-direct comparison I can make is with Hilary Hahn, another gifted violinist, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on DG. One would have to say it's almost a toss-up, Ms. Hahn being a little quicker, zippier, in the outer movements, and Ms. Meyers perhaps a touch more comfortable and more compassionate. If I have a slight bias toward Ms. Hahn, it's probably because I've lived with her recordings longer. However, if you factor in the clarity and accuracy of the recorded sound for Ms. Meyers, it might sway the decision in her favor. In both cases, the accompanying ensembles provide solid, unobtrusive support.

As a break between the violin concertos, we get the little Largo from the Concerto for Harpsichord in F minor, BWV 1056, transcribed for violin. It is, as we might expect, completely lovely.

Then we come to the centerpiece of the program, the Concerto for 2 violins, strings and continuo in D minor, BWV 1043, in which Ms. Meyers plays both parts. I mean, why not, when you own two Strads, a 1697 "ex-Monitor/Napoleon" and a 1730 "Royal Spanish." As each instrument sounds different from the other, it's an ideal combination. Here, I actually did have a preference for Ms. Meyers over Ms. Hahn and her colleague for Meyers's more relaxed, flowing, lyrical, yet vital approach.

The album ends with the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, again arranged by Jeff Kyrka. It makes an appropriately gorgeous ending for a wholly delightful Bach presentation.

eOne Music recorded the performances at LSO St. Lukes, London, England, and the Performing Arts Center, Purchase, New York, in May and September of 2011. The sound is consistently smooth and natural, a bit darker and fuller in the Double Concerto, Ms. Meyers well out in front of the rest of the ensemble. I would have favored a more neutral balance, but at least you can't mistake who the soloist is. Although the acoustic is slightly warm, midrange transparency is excellent, making the music come to life in a most-realistic manner. It's quite a beautiful sound, really, to complement the beauty of the performances.

Finally, I hate to be petty in criticizing anything so minor about the album, but there is the matter of the packaging. Beyond providing some attractive pictures of Ms. Meyers, it provides little else. The booklet notes never touch upon the two violin concertos at all, and only on the back of the jewel case do we get any information on the disc's contents, and that so small it's hardly legible, with no track timings whatsoever. Nor does calling it simply The Bach Album on the case's spine help one to identify what's inside. Ah, well, minor quibbles, as I say.


Mar 5, 2012

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Britten: Cello Symphony. Johannes Moser, cello; Pietari Inkinen, WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln. Hanssler Classic CD 98.643.

The cello has never been the most popular instrument around which to build a concerto, so it's not surprising that so few cello concertos exist and that early composers seldom saw fit to write them. But that didn't stop two of the twentieth century's most important composers, Shostakovich and Britten, and it doesn't stop German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser from pursuing a passion for new and modern music, even if one can hardly call the two pieces on this disc "new" or "modern" anymore. Still, they make good companions, coming as they do almost contemporaneously.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote his Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107 in 1959, dedicating it to the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who also premiered it. Stalin had been dead several years by then, so Soviet-Russian composers were a little freer to express themselves without the threat of heavy government censorship. Shostakovich scores his concerto for a relatively small chamber orchestra, from which the cello emerges the solid leader.

The first movement is a rather lively, even humorous march, which Moser pulls off in fine fashion, never flashy yet very precise in a rendition filled with vitality. The second, slow movement Shostakovich supposedly modeled on Russian folk music, and it does have a plaintive, soulful quality to it under Moser. The third movement takes us into much more dangerous territory, the complete opposite of how the work began, and it must have given the government overseers some cause to doubt the composer's intentions to produce music conforming to the Party's pedestrian cultural tastes. This Cadenza takes us directly and without pause to the brief, throbbing finale, in which Moser's cello almost cries out for some kind of release.

The second work on the program is the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 by the English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). It was again Rostropovich to whom Britten dedicated it and the performer who premiered it. Britten uses a much larger orchestra than Shostakovich did, and the general tone of the music is different and more varied. And again in this recording we get a most eloquent and reflective response from Moser and his cello, which practically speaks aloud to us in musical terms, especially in the second-movement Presto with its bizarre, eccentric, yet wholly fascinating mood changes. All of which leads us to a lengthy finale of grand, formal proportions, Moser guiding us with his cello through a series of intricate passageways running hither and yon in slightly dark places.

Moser proves his worth as a virtuosic performer, keeping one glued to his playing even when the music is less than ideal for easy accessibility. Moser makes it accessible and all but forces us to enjoy it whether we want to or not. He's a most persuasive, almost mesmeric artist.

The sound, recorded in 2011 at the Koln Philharmonie, is excellent. Although in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto the cello seems a bit close at first, one gets used to it, and the instrument's proximity does serve to remind us of its dominant importance, after all. More important, it emphasizes and reveals the instrument's rich, resonant sounds, with a fine sense of depth in the small orchestra behind it. There is also a fine sense of air around all the instruments and plenty of transparency in the midrange.

Remarkably, in the longer Britten piece the sonics are just as clear and just as lifelike within a wonderfully natural-sounding acoustic setting. The very top end might have been a touch more extended and open; otherwise, it's an impressive recording overall.


Mar 2, 2012

Beethoven: Symphonies (CD review)

Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Christian Thielemann, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88697927172 (7-disc set).

Let me make it clear at the outset that I don't usually recommend complete sets of anything by a single conductor and orchestra. No one set can include the best-possible recording of every work. Therefore, it is a much better idea to collect individual recordings by separate artists. That said, if it's a complete set of the nine Beethoven symphonies you're really after, there are already any number of good choices from conductors like Bohm (DG), Jochum (Philips and DG), Zinman (Arte Nova), Bernstein (Sony and DG), Klemperer (EMI), Walter (Sony), Abbado (DG), Norrington (EMI/Virgin), Karajan (DG), Solti (Decca), Muti (EMI), Harnoncourt (Warner), Wand (RCA), Rattle (EMI), Herreweghe (PentaTone), Gardiner (DG Archiv), Hogwood (Decca), Pletnev (DG), and many others, even a recent addition from Chailly (Decca).

So where does that leave this new Sony entry from Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic? The fact is, it has its ups and downs like all the rest; just a few more downs than ups.

The first thing I noticed about the Thielemann set was the packaging. It is so attractive, one cannot overlook it. The folks at Sony have transferred Thielemann's nine performances to six CD's and then include a bonus DVD, all done up in a beautiful boxed album. In this case, it's a real album, too. If you're old enough to remember back to the days of 78's, before long-playing (LP) records, it would sometimes necessitate two or three 78's to encompass a single performance; as a consequence, record companies would insert them into individual sleeves within a hardcover "album." Well, that's what the Sony people have done here: They give us a hardcover album with bound pages of text and pictures and then sleeves for each of the discs. Sony beautifully wraps the album in cloth and further encloses it in a sturdy cardboard slipcover, also cloth wrapped. It is, as I say, most impressive.

The next thing I did before listening to the music was to watch the DVD, a kind of promotional documentary, forty-four minutes long and called "Making van Beethoven," where we not only get to see Thielemann rehearsing and conducting in concert but listen to him and others explain their goals in recording the symphonies. The documentary is in widescreen, 1.78:1, and comes in two spoken languages--German and English. In the doc, the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic tells us that since the orchestra has undergone a big turnover in personnel in the past decade or so, this was "an ideal time to make a new recording of the Beethoven cycle." Thielemann says he tried to incorporate period techniques, informed historical performances, and a whole lot of improvisation to make the music come alive like never before, "to give birth to it anew." Above all, he says, one must never slavishly observe Beethoven's tempo marks to the letter; one must "interpret." Fair enough.

Then I proceeded to the music, to which I spent the better part of a week listening. Should I start with the bad news? Sony recorded the symphonies live at the Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna from December 2008 through April 2010. What's so bad about that, you ask? The "live" part. I have only heard a handful of live recordings I've ever liked, and this collection is not one of them. I know that most of the major record companies are doing it, and they always justify it by saying that live recordings are more "spontaneous" sounding, more electric, than studio or hall recordings without an audience. However, the cynic in me says they're doing it because it's cheaper to record live, the audience essentially subsidizing the production. To be clear, Sony originally recorded these performances live for reproduction via Blu-ray, so I suppose the images of the audience are, indeed, important. Whatever, the sound tends to vary from good to average, from close-up to slightly distant, vague, and veiled. And no matter how hard they try, the audience can never be entirely quiet. At least Sony spare us any applause.

Now, to the music. On disc number one we find Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, where for all of Thielemann's talk about wanting to invent the symphonies anew, the interpretations sounded suspiciously conventional to me. There is nothing at all wrong with them, understand, and the Vienna players are extraordinary, the ensemble among the finest in the world; the readings simply don't have any additional spark in them that I haven't heard before in any of the other recordings listed above. It's true, though, that Thielemann puts a bubbly bounce in his step for the finale of No. 1; he makes the Larghetto of No. 2 seem particularly lovely; and he works up a good head of steam in the closing Allegro molto. It's just that, overall, these new renditions don't really surpass anything already available.

Moving on, we get the Symphony No. 3 "Eroica," that grand, dauntless work that was evermore to change the way the Western world looked at music. After experiencing some minor disappointment with Nos. 1 and 2, I enjoyed Thielemann's rendering of No. 3 a little better. However, my enjoyment only came in the second half. The first two movements seemed rather routine, the funeral march positively...funereal, with little compensating control of tension. To the conductor's credit, the Scherzo shows more zip, and the Finale brims over with heroic yet lyrical power. The sound could have had a greater range and impact, however; it's merely OK without being exceptionally lifelike or transparent.

On the third CD we find Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, and again we face erratic readings. Thielemann's Fourth has to be among the slowest on record, and as in the first three symphonies, his enthusiasm comes and goes in spurts, making the music a series of starts and stops. Moreover, he appears to apply a heavy hand even to the lightest moments. The sound here didn't help, either, as it appeared a bit duller and more distant than in the previous recordings.

Then I came to the Fifth, and it delighted me that Thielemann seemed more energized than he had been before. Maybe the performance doesn't crackle the way Carlos Kleiber's version does, yet it shows a lot of spunk; and only in the lead-in to the final Allegro does it actually drag. Fortunately, it goes out in high style. While the sound is a tad more hollow and veiled here than in the previous recordings, it has a stronger impact. Still, there is not the kind of midrange clarity I'd liked to have heard.

Another day, another symphony. By day three I was up to disc four, Symphony No. 6, the "Pastoral Symphony," and hoping for the best. Certainly, there are few other more genial, cordial, smiling, or happy symphonies than this one, so it's hard for any conductor to do it much harm. Again, Thielemann takes some of the slowest tempos I've ever heard, although this time the leisurely pace doesn't really hurt anything, emphasizing as it does the music's lyrical qualities. However, it doesn't exactly help the cheerfulness of the music, either. The Scherzo does come off with a certain panache missing elsewhere, and the storm is properly menacing. Yet the ensuing "Shepherd's Hymn" hasn't all of the "thankful feelings" it needs; rather, it simply sounds peaceful, without the accompanying note of intense gratitude. Compare Walter, Bohm, Reiner, Jochum, Klemperer, or Zinman and you'll hear what I mean. On the brighter side, in terms of sound this one appears to capture a greater stereo spread and a better stage depth than the Thielemann recordings that precede it in the series. What's more, the sound is smoother and a tad more open than the others.

Compact disc five contains the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Frankly, by this time I didn't have high hopes for either of them; I doubted that Thielemann was about to change his quiet, calm, collected demeanor even for the inspired dance rhythms of the Seventh. Imagine my surprise, then, when Thielemann came through in No. 7 with one of the highlights of the set. While it doesn't quite burst forth with as much passion as I'd have liked, it's close enough. The second-movement procession moves along commendably; the Scherzo is festive and buoyant, though a touch too weighty; and the final movement displays an abundance of forward drive. Happily, the orchestral sound is cleaner and more robust than before, too. It would have been an entirely felicitous combination all the way around if only the audience were quieter.

Although Symphony No. 8 is one of Beethoven's most effervescent creations, it takes Thielemann a while to let all the bubbles flow freely. The opening tune is not quite as exuberant as it could be; nonetheless, from there on the work assumes the disarmingly cheerful attitude we have come to expect of it. The third-movement Minuet is stately in the grand manner, setting up a needed contrast with the vigor of the closing movement, which is perhaps more vigorous here than it is jovial or laughing. As in the Seventh, the sound is clean and open, with the audience noticeable between movements.

Finally, we come to the jewel in the crown, the mighty Ninth Symphony, the "Choral" Symphony, and like everything else in the set, it's a mixed bag. As usual for Thielemann, he begins slowly and builds even slower. The opening Allegro appears to go on forever, never quite catching fire except in isolated pockets in more stop-and-go pacing that robs the music of its flowing pulse. Even in the second-movement, marked Molto vivace (very quick and lively), the conductor seems hesitant to let loose, bordering on sluggish at times. Worse, there is very little bounce, sparkle, or lilt in his step, Thielemann content to plod through it. The only place in the symphony where the conductor's wary approach works well is in the Adagio, which benefits from his broad tempos and comes off all the lovelier for it.

And the big choral finale? Here, it isn't so much a matter of slow tempos as it is a general lack of pizzazz that hinders the performance. The mounting tension does work well, though, and the ultimate releases of pressure are gratifying. Thielemann also observes dynamic contrasts nicely, and his singers perform well for him. So, even though it's not a razzmatazz finish, it is more than competent. Still, it's not something I would consider a primary recommendation in the work, especially not with such ordinary sound--wide but somewhat flat, lacking much dimensionality and slightly veiled and congested.

It's kind of odd that when you watch the DVD and see Thielemann talking, rehearsing, and conducting in so animated and energetic a manner, you think you're about to hear interpretations that will revolutionize the way people view the Beethoven symphonies forevermore. Yet when you hear the works in completed form, Thielemann's readings seem almost old-fashioned, often lacking in drive and momentum, more concerned with atmosphere and mood and creating pockets of excitement than in anything lasting or satisfying.

Dedicated Thielemann fans and Beethoven completists will definitely want the set. Other potential buyers might consider investigating it thoroughly before investing.


Mar 1, 2012

Vivaldi: Concerti con molti strumenti, Vol. 2 (CD review)

Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Classics 7243 5 45723-2.

I suppose one should pursue what one is good at. In the case of Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante ensemble, what they've good at over the years has clearly been interpreting the work of Antonio Vivaldi.  Nearly half of Europa Galante's recorded output for Virgin Classics and Opus 111 would appear to be works of Vivaldi. Darn good thing he and his group do it with such popular appeal.

In this instance they provide their second volume of Concertos for various instruments, the various instruments being violins, violos, flutes, oboes, cellos, horns, bassoons, timpani, harp, and harpsichord, all in assorted combinations in seven separate concertos. As usual, I came away from the album unable to tell or remember one piece from another, except in the case of the opening work, the Concerto grosso a 10 strumenti, per violino principlae, 2 corni da caccia, tympano, 2 oboi, 2 violini, alto viola con basso, RV 562a. This is the biggest, broadest, and most imposing piece of music on the disc, making an appropriately theatrical attention-getter to begin the show.

Biondi and his players perform all of the concertos in a typically lively style, a hallmark of his success. While the readings may not be as polished as those by some other Baroque interpreters like Pinnock and the English Concert, Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, and their kin, Biondi's enthusiasm makes up for any small deficiencies and quickly wins the day. Although I must say, in his defense, that he has calmed down somewhat since his first heady days on Opus 111. Nevertheless, the speedy tempos and wide dynamic contrasts remain, if not at quite so breakneck a pace.

The Virgin Classics sound is robust, to say the least. It is slightly closer than I'd like to hear, rather large in a melodramatic sense, fairly well detailed but a tad soft around the edges. For listeners who like their Vivaldi big and bold, Europa Galante should again fill the bill.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa