Apr 30, 2012

Khachaturian: Ballet Suites (CD review)

Gayaneh and Spartacus. Evgeny Svetlanov, Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 9256.

Much of the music of Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) has always struck me as rather noisy and bombastic, and that includes even his most-popular pieces like the ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus, which on this disc we see represented by a pair of suites. In their entirety the ballets can be a little tiring, so it's more common that we see just highlights such as these.

Khachaturian became one of the giants of music in the Soviet Union, yet like so many of his contemporaries, the Communist Party did not always favor his works. His Cello Concerto of 1946 was so out of line with the traditional guidelines of the Party that shortly thereafter they ousted him from the Composers' Union over it and other things, and it took him a while to regain their favor. Turns out, the Party's official disapproval so affected him, he later said he considered giving up composing and starting some new profession instead.

In any case, his first attempt at a ballet, Shchastye ("Happiness"), in 1939 did not go particularly well so he reworked it into the ballet represented here, Gayaneh, completed in 1942. It's the story of a young Armenian farm woman named Gayaneh. In the original version, Khachaturian had both a love angle and an Armenian national angle, but he later figured it best to go with the just the romance, adding local color with Armenian and Central Asian folk tunes. Because the music celebrated the friendships among the varied peoples of the Soviet Union, the Party leaders liked it. Afterwards, he finished Spartacus in 1954, the Soviet leaders pleased that he had chosen a "hero of the Proletariat," the Roman slave who led an uprising against the oppressive Roman Empire.

Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002) was a Russian conductor and composer who became almost as famous as Khachaturian; in fact, he, too, got into trouble with the government, only in Svetlanov's case it was because they said he wasn't spending enough time with the state-sponsored orchestra he led, and they fired him. The conductor made the present recording with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra just a year or two before he died, and one couldn't ask for more authoritative performances.

However, as a comparison, I used the EMI recording that Aram Khachaturian himself made with the LSO in 1977, coincidentally just a year or so before he, too, died. Svetlanov, as expected being the old hand he was at such things, holds his own with the composer quite nicely. Indeed, I found Svetlanov more lyrical than Khachaturian in the slower movements and almost as intense in the faster ones. What's more, even though EMI produced a recording of near-demonstration quality, the present Brilliant Classics disc holds its own as well.

Anyway, Svetlanov performs suites from both ballets, Gayaneh containing ten selections, Spartacus five. The composer himself extracted various suites from the ballets, and conductors have been making their own selections for many years now. This one contains most of the music we would easily recognize.

In Gayaneh, the stands-outs include the Lullaby because, of course, it's anything but a traditional "lullaby"; the Adagio, famously used by director Stanley Kubrick in his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey; Lezghinka and Dance with the Tambourines, with their scintillating rhythms; and, naturally, the Sabre Dance, a genuine show-stopper. Interestingly, Khachaturian later said he never cared for the Sabre Dance, writing it in a single evening and considering it something of a joke.

While Spartacus doesn't have quite as much recognizable music in it as that of Gayaneh, it does contain much good material. It may seem surprising but the Spartacus selections offered here are actually more serene than the Gayaneh pieces. Aegina's Dance is especially entrancing, and, again, it's the Adagio that steals the show, beautifully rendered by Svetlanov and his forces.

Recorded in January, 2000, in Moscow, the sound is excellent by any standard, as transparent and dynamic as any audiophile could want. While it's a tad close, it's not so close as to be a major detriment to the music, and only the orchestral depth suffers slightly, not sounding quite as deep or as open as one could wish. There's a nicely extended high end involved, some decent bass, and good transient impact all the way around. It's clean, enjoyable sound.


Apr 27, 2012

Schmelzer: Barockes Welttheater (CD review)

Freiburger BarockConsort. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902087.

The opening percussion sets the tone for the album. You know in a flash you're in for one wild and wonderful ride through the seventeenth century.

So, who was this guy Schmelzer, and why should we care? He was Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680), an Austrian composer and violinist who eventually worked his way up to serve as Kapellmeister ("conductor," "choirmaster," "music maker") in the Habsburg court. Why the interest in him? Because the Freiburger BarockConsort specializes in the music of less-frequently played composers of the seventeenth century, and Schmelzer fits the role perfectly. At least, he's not frequently played these days. In his own day, as a violinist he was apparently quite popular and as a composer had a significant influence on later musicians and composers of the era.

Titled Barockes Welttheater ("Baroque World Theater"), the album offers eleven of Schmelzer's dance suites, ballets, and sonatas, which the Freiburger ensemble chose to represent a typical evening's entertainment in the Habsburg day.

The program opens with Serenata con altre arie ("Serenade with other tunes") in five movements. The piece demonstrates Schmelzer's versatility and the BarockConsort's adaptability and virtuosity on a variety of instruments. You'll hear a kettledrum, bells, guitar, just about everything in here in addition to violins, violas, and lute.

Next, the Polnishche Sackpfeiffen ("Polish Bagpipes") sounds just as its title suggests, with a wonderfully earthy tenor to the proceedings.

Sonata amabilis a 4 ("Amiable Sonata") is just that, too, an amiable, affable, good-natured piece of music in a pastoral vein, the violin sweetly wafting in and out of the viola accompaniment. And so it goes, the selections alternating between bright and lively works and more serene, even courtly numbers.

The final piece, the Sonata in D "Battaglia," bears special mention in that it's the most obvious example of program music on the disc. It describes in musical terms a battlefield encounter, complete with a solemn introduction, full-on combat, and a final resolution. The battle rages until we hear only the military drum left standing. The work predates Beethoven's Wellington's Victory by nearly a century and a half.

Interestingly, too, a booklet note tells us that "a particular speciality of seventeenth-century Habsburg music was 'scordatura.' This term derived from the Italian 'scordare' means the 'mistuning' of one or more strings to a different note from the normal one. This practice makes it easier to play chords and alters the sound of the violin. Sometimes, as a special effect, a string was even mistuned in the course of a sonata."

Anyway, the Freiburger BarockConsort are an accomplished set of musicians, but don't expect them to play with the elegance of an Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Philharmonia Baroque, Academy of Ancient Music, or English Concert. The ten musicians of the Freiburger BarockConsort, members of the Freiburger Baroqueorchestra, play in quite a festive and exhilarating fashion (in the manner of Jordi Savall's Les Concert des Nations, for example), meaning they make up for any minor lack of refinement with the ultimate joy and enthusiasm of their music making. Enjoy the fun they're having.

Because the BarockConsort are only ten members strong, you would expect them to sound reasonably clear on disc, and you'd be correct. Recorded in Freiburg in 2010, the disc's sonic presentation spreads the players well across the sound stage, with each of the instruments lucidly delineated. Yet there is also a warm, resonant acoustic involved to provide a sense of realism to the occasion. A broad dynamic range, strong impact, good depth, quick transient attack, and a wide frequency response add icing to the cake.

Harmonia Mundi do up the package with attractive graphics; a well-written booklet insert in English, French, and German; and a light-cardboard slipcover for the jewel case.


Apr 26, 2012

Chabrier: Espana (SACD review)

Also, Suite Pastorale; Fete Polonaise; Gwendoline Overture; Danse Slave; Joyeuse Marche; Bourree Fantasque; Roussel: Suite in F. Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Mercury SACD 475 6183.

Better late than never. My catching up on great records, I mean.

I missed this classic recording when it first appeared on a Mercury Living Presence LP in 1960, as well as when Philips/Mercury later released it on CD in the early Nineties. There was probably even a Mercury Golden Import in there I missed, too; I don't know. In any case, it was an unfortunate loss on my part, but a wonderful catching up.

Paul Paray's performance of Espana is among the most joyous, infectiously exciting, and spontaneous I think I have ever heard. The playing is great; the interpretation is great; I think I'm in love. Seriously, this is not only a well-performed rendition of a popular warhorse, it's one of the most delightfully imaginative renderings you'll find as well. My previous favorites, a 1957 recording by Ataulfo Argenta and the LSO on Decca (and remastered on LIM) and a 1984 digital recording by Armin Jordan on Erato, are still by no means entirely eclipsed, but Paray brings just as much sparkle to the occasion, maybe more. Combine the excellence of Paray's Espana with the distinction of the companion pieces, and you get a delectable combination.

Moreover, Paray, as always, gets a superb production from recording director Wilma Cozart and chief engineer C. Robert Fine, the various selections made between 1957-1959 in the Cass Technical High School gymnasium and Old Orchestra Hall, felicitous spots for recording if ever there were any. About the only area in which the Erato disc excels the Mercury is in its depth of field, where there is slightly greater dimensionality to Jordan's orchestra, plus a touch more warmth. The Mercury engineers more closely miked their recording, and while it displays a little less depth, it also has more midrange transparency and openness. (To be fair, however, the LIM remastering of Argenta sounds remarkable, too, with enormous dynamics, although it costs an arm and a leg more.) In addition, the Mercury contains everything else found on the Erato issue, with the addition of the Roussel Suite in F, making the Mercury a winning deal.

What's more, the folks at Decca/Mercury offer the recording on a hybrid SACD, meaning in this case that you can listen to it in its original two-channel stereo (played either on a regular CD player or on an SACD player) and a three-channel version (SACD player only), which is the way the engineers originally recorded the piece before releasing it in stereo only. It's a remarkable recording, no matter how you look at (or listen to) it.


Apr 24, 2012

Handel: Atalanta, complete (CD review)

Dominique Labelle, Susanne Ryden, Cecile van de Sant, Michael Slattery, Philip Cutlip, Corey McKern; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorale. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-04 (2-disc set).

Nobody does baroque better than Nicholas McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. And nobody does Handel better than McGegan and the PBO, either. So, there's no wonder the team do such a good job with Handel's Atalanta.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote the three-act opera Atalanta in 1736, basing it on stories of the legendary Greek athlete of the same name. Although you often hear singers perform the number "Care Selve" from the work, hardly anybody performs, let alone records, the complete opera these days, and, in fact, the only other stereo recording of it I'm aware of is by McGegan himself, issued by Hungariton in the early Nineties. I haven't heard it, but I can't imagine its being any better than this new one, which the Philharmonia Baroque have released on their own label.

I doubt that anybody in our own time or in Handel's came to Atalanta for its story. Suffice it to say that the plot is rather slender. It's a pastoral love story set in ancient Greece and deals with a young man, King Meleagro (Susanne Ryden), chasing a young woman, the Princess Atalanta (Dominique Labelle) of Arcadia. But to complicate things, as operas and plays must do, he's pretending to be a shepherd and she a shepherdess, and neither thinks the other good enough. Then, to complicate matters further, there is another couple lurking about, a real shepherd and shepherdess.

No, folks go to these kinds of shows now as then not for the narrative but for the music, which in this case is charmingly light, graceful, lyrical, and easy to like. Unfortunately, it may be just as easy to forget, and for listeners not used to such things, the Baroque style of music and singing may get a bit monotonous after a while. It doesn't have, for instance, the earthy, robust lustiness of something like Handel's contemporaneous ode Alexander's Feast, which, coincidentally, I had the opportunity to hear live with the PBO and several of the same soloists as here just a few nights after listening to this disc. I vote for Alexander, a much bigger moneymaker for Handel, then and now.

The fact is, Atalanta was not a great opera in Handel's day and, naturally, doesn't compare to operas in the later traditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, or Puccini. With the exception of the aforementioned aria "Care Selve," there are few notable tunes. What's more, almost nothing lasts longer than a few minutes, the number of tracks on each disc--twenty-six and twenty-eight--giving you some idea of how quickly each song comes and goes. This may be a blessing for those listeners with short attention spans, or it may be a curse for those hoping for something more substantial.

Nevertheless, Maestro McGegan, an old hand at these things, keeps the production moving along at a healthy clip, the orchestral accompaniment always lively and the singing splendid, especially from Ms. Labelle and Ms. Ryden, although for that matter they all do good work. I would not be going out on a limb declaring this performance second to none in the music.

The PBO recorded the performance live in September, 2005, at one of their favorite venues, First Congressional Church in Berkeley, California. If you enjoyed the sound of their critically praised live recordings of Berlioz, Handel, and Haydn, you'll no doubt enjoy this set as well. Personally, I don't care all that much for live recordings, and this one demonstrates why. The sound is slightly bright, forward, and thin, with a bit too spacious an acoustic for my taste. Additionally, we hear background noise from the performers shuffling around on stage and from the audience, who burst into applause after every number as is the usual wont of opera patrons. Still, there is excellent clarity throughout the set, with well-extended highs and plenty of air around the voices and instruments. So, yes, if you enjoy the sonic experience of an all-out live performance, with everything that entails, this one fits the bill. Myself, I'd rather just do with the music.


Apr 23, 2012

Alison Balsom (CD review)

Alison Balsom; various accompanists and ensembles. EMI 509997 31660 2 3.

When I heard Alison Balsom's previous album, Seraph, I had to confess that I was not really up on the latest, greatest trumpet players, so I knew nothing about the British trumpet soloist. A little research 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; she was the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra; she's a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. And, more important, she's a darn fine trumpet player. For her current album, titled simply Alison Balsom, the folks at her record label, EMI, have gathered together thirteen of her most-popular recordings, making an enjoyable best-of set.

The program begins with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla's Esquala. It's a tango, of course, with a dazzling part for Ms. Balsom and an exciting way to open the show.

However, I might as well tell you now the four things I liked least about this enterprise, and they all have to do with EMI's booklet notes. First, the notes provide no details on who is accompanying Ms. Balsom on any of the tracks. In fact, there is no listing anywhere, booklet, cover, or jewel case back, of who's who. Second, there is no information on any of the composers, not even their first names. The album is all Alison Balsom, as though no one else counted or mattered. Third, there are no track timings listed anywhere, so there is no way to know how long anything lasts. And, fourth, the booklet itself folds out like a road map over a foot and a half long, making it very hard to hold, let alone read, and equally hard to fold back up. None of this is any reflection on Ms. Balcom, I'm sure, just shortsightedness (or neglect) on EMI's part.

Anyway, after Esquala we hear the Adagio from Marcello's Oboe Concerto in C minor, transcribed for piccolo trumpet. It's very sweet in every way.  After that we get even more variety: the traditional tune Shenandoah, which Ms. Balsom plays on flugelhorn with an organ accompaniment. It is quite dignified, and the deep, mellifluous sounds speak volumes about the great landscapes of America.

Next, we hear the Adagio from MacMillan's Seraph for Trumpet and String Orchestra, an angelic conversation between the trumpet and the other instruments of the orchestra. Following that is Rachmaninov's familiar Vocalise. This "song without words" is such a popular favorite, I have a disc in my collection devoted just to arrangements of it for different instruments and ensembles. Ms. Balsom's rendition is as affecting as any I've heard, even if the trumpet seems a little harsh for the piece's ethereal melodies.

And so it goes, with further works by Messiaen, Bach, Neruda, Debussy, and Lindberg. The only concerto presented in its entirety is Albinoni's Concerto after Sonata da Chiesta in D minor, a piece for oboe that Ms. Balsom transcribed for trumpet after she says she heard trumpeter Maurice Andre play it, and she fell in love with it. It gives her a chance to demonstrate her virtuosity while at the same time showing us her more warmly communicative side.

Despite EMI having recorded the tracks over a period of some ten years from 2002-2011, there is a remarkable uniformity of sound involved. All the recordings are smooth and warm, the trumpet ringing out in velvety tones. What I didn't hear, however, was any attempt at ultimate midrange transparency, much of a dynamic impact, and, except in the closing Piazzolla tango, much sense of depth to the orchestral accompaniment. These are recordings clearly meant to highlight the trumpet, placing it first and foremost in our minds. As such, it works fine.


Apr 20, 2012

Walzer Revolution (CD review)

Music of Mozart, Lanner, and Strauss Sr. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien. Sony Classical 88697914112 (2-disc set).

Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his wife, violinist Alice Harnoncourt, formed the Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953, making it the oldest period-instruments ensemble still performing. Harnoncourt is principally responsible for the whole period-instruments, period-practices movement we enjoy today, so we have to pay attention when he produces any new recording, such as this two-disc set titled Walzer Revolution.

The idea behind the album is to explore the origins of the dance we now know as the waltz. No, like most musical forms, the waltz did not spring forth in full bloom as it exists in these times. Instead, the waltz has it roots in the formative musical models devised by people like W.A. Mozart, Johann Strauss Senior, and Joseph Lanner, the composers represented in this set. Presented in a more-or-less chronological order, the tracks on the two discs chronicle the development of the waltz from the late eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth. You'll find no Blue Danube here; that came much later. These are historically informed performances of much earlier music.

The first disc begins with three pieces by the fellow who seems to have popularized so much in the music world, our good Austrian friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1751-1791): Kontretanz No. 1 KV 603, Kontretanz No. 1 and 4, KV 609, and Sech Deutsche Tanze, KV 571. The first examples of contredanses don't seem to have a lot to do with modern waltzes, but listen closely and you'll hear the familiar lilting cadences developing. While the six German dances that ensue have an especially "Turkish" flavor to them that Mozart apparently intended in disdain of Turkey (Austria was at war with Turkey at the time), these days we find them delightful.

Harnoncourt follows the Mozart pieces with music by Johann Strauss the Father (1804-1849), starting with the familiar Radetzky March. Only, like most of the music here, it isn't quite as we might remember it. You see, Harnoncourt plays all the music in the set from original manuscripts, some of the pieces getting world-premiere performances. The conductor plays the march with great fervor, using the earliest sources. Its connection with the waltz form, though? Tenuous at best.

Not so, however, with the more obvious Strauss Sr. choices: the Chain Bridge Waltz, the Shepherd's Quadrille, the Carnival in Paris, and the captivating Paganini Waltzes. All of these Strauss pieces sparkle with a luminosity that is hard to resist, especially the Paganini.

Disc two contains nine dances by yet another Austrian composer, Joseph Lanner (1801-1843), a direct rival of Strauss Sr. in the early nineteenth century. Together, the two composers pretty much set the pattern for and cornered the market on both danceable and concert waltzes. Lanner's melodies are, if anything, even more charming than Strauss's, beginning with the Pas de Neuf nach Saverio Mercadante with its wonderfully light gait. Hexentanzwaltzer is also a fascinating piece of business, and the concluding Die Schonbrunner Waltz sounds as though Strauss Jr. had written it. It's all quite pleasant, and, done up on period instruments and played from period manuscripts, quite enlightening.

Sony recorded the Concentus Musicus Wien at the Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, in June of 2011, and the sound they obtained is excellent. Dynamic contrasts are strong; the stereo spread is wide; transient response is quick, particularly during drum attacks; and highs appear well extended, the triangle ringing out clearly and cleanly. The miking is moderately close up, providing good detail but not the best sense of orchestral depth. And there is a slight forward edge to the upper midrange. Nevertheless, the sonics are quite robust, exhibiting a nice resonant air to the acoustic, and when you consider the exuberance of the playing, the result is very attractive, indeed.

The "however" in all this is that Harnoncourt is not the first musician to have essayed the development of the waltz through Strauss Sr. and Lanner. Other groups, like the Biedermeir Ensemble Wien (a quartet recording on Denon), have made similar recordings that include many of the same pieces of music. Still, Harnoncourt's historical approach is different from most of the rest, so perhaps the point is moot.


Apr 19, 2012

Chadwick: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Sketches. Theodore Kuchar, National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.559213.

I've read that around the turn of the twentieth century George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931) was America's most-prominent composer. Hard to believe, considering that today most ardent music lovers have hardly encountered him and that almost everybody else has never heard of him. The fact is, he didn't have a lot of competition around that time, with George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, John Cage, Walter Piston, Ferde Grofe, Virgil Thomson, and the rest coming after him. Chadwick was a conservative neo-Romanticist whose main rivals at the time seem to have been John Philip Sousa in an entirely different medium; the more progressive Charles Ives, whom hardly anyone could understand; and Edward MacDowell, an old-timer by then.

This Naxos issue couples two of Chadwick's most-popular pieces, the Second Symphony and the Symphonic Sketches on the same disc. Both of them are lightweight stuff, to be sure, but of the two works, it's the Symphonic Sketches that shows the most spark, at least under Maestro Theodore Kuchar and the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine.

The Symphony No. 2 begins in a rather lackadaisical fashion, no matter what Maestro Kuchar and his players try to do with it; but it soon picks up with a bouncy little Scherzo, a Mendelssohnian ditty that the composer introduced on its own and we often hear played by itself these days. There follows a solemn, drowsy slow movement that builds to a grand climax and a Finale that is quite jaunty, if still featherlight.

The more-provocative Symphonic Sketches really work like a small symphony, divided into four brief tone poems: "Jubilee," a bombastically festive piece; "Noel," a slow, tranquil movement; "Hobgoblin," the most creative composition on the disc and very reminiscent of Mendelssohn again or Mussorgsky; and "A Vagrom Ballad" ("Vagrant's Song"), a kind of impressionistic, tongue-in-cheek affair. Conductor Kuchar's way with things is to let them all unfold at their own pace, with, as I say, the "Hobgoblin" the most atmospheric.

The sound the Naxos engineers provide seems oddly bunched up in the center of the soundstage and lacks a real dynamic punch. Otherwise, the sonic presentation serves the music well, being slightly lightweight itself.


Apr 17, 2012

Part: Creator Spiritus (SACD review)

Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices; Ars Nova Copenhagen; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ; NYYD Quartet. Harmonia Mundi HMU807553.

Estonian composer Arvo Part (b. 1935) has long been a force unto himself. A writer largely of sacred music, he most often follows a minimalist course, not only observing the manner of Gregorian chant but using a compositional approach he devised himself, which he calls tintinnabuli, Latin for "bells."  Remember the "tintinnabulation" in Poe's "The Bells"? Same kind of thing, if not so obvious.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the oddities of his compositions, Part has become one of the leading composers of the past forty years.

I know there are some critics who are immune to what they may consider the repetitious ruminations of Mr. Part's New Age spirituality, but I admit a liking for the man's approach, combining as it does ancient tunes and texts with modern and inventive styles, rhythms, and tones. The fact is, this Part disc and many others get to me. The music is inspiring and dreamily poignant.

The present album, Creator Spiritus, is the 2012 product of conductor-director Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices, wherein Hillier has collected together some of Part's choral and instrumental chamber music drawn from different periods in the composer's career. The record jacket describes the music as "a powerful recording of ethereal sacred music," and I certainly won't argue the point.

The program begins with "Veni Creator" ("Come, Creator Spirit," 2006). This brief selection for choir, organ, and chamber orchestra sets the mood for the album: Under Hillier and his forces, it is very solemn, very still, very placid, and very moving.

Part based the second track, "The Deer's Cry" (2007), on a piece by St. Patrick from 433 A.D., and it is even more ethereal and uplifting than the first work. Hillier follows that with "Psalom," played by the NYYD Quartet. It is a leaner composition than the preceding items, the melodies haunting in their simple dignity and refined in their performance.

I think you're getting the idea. Of the rest, "Most Holy Mother of God" (2003) for choir alone is among the most affecting and most-conventional sounding of the lot, although it uses a single line of text repeated over and over in minor variations. "Peace Upon You, Jerusalem" (2002), a setting for Psalm 122, also sounds fairly traditional yet contains more expressive moods than many of Part's other works.

A booklet note for "Ein Wallfahrtslied" ("A Pilgrim's Song," 1984) struck me as curious. The note suggests "One can obtain an interesting overview of the music by using the fast forward button on a CD player." I'm not sure if the writer was kidding or not, but, well, yes, by fast-forwarding you would get an overview, while sort of missing the point of the music, no?

The concluding work, "Stabat Mater" (1985) for quartet and voices, is by far the longest piece on the program. Part based it on the familiar medieval poem, and it demonstrates his use of "tintinnabuli" in the way the words fade into silence like the sounds of a bell.

Obviously, this is sacred music for quiet contemplation, and as such I cannot imagine its being any better performed than here by Paul Hillier and his players. It's a lovely album.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music at Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark, in June of 2010 for playback via hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD. As I usually do, I listened to the stereo layer using a Sony SACD machine, where I found the sonics warm, smooth, and resonant, yet with plenty of detail and realism. Because the music is principally gentle and otherworldly, there is little reason for a wide dynamic range or a sledgehammer impact. Nevertheless, the performances sound just right for the occasion, which is the main thing. Sometimes, depending on the need, there is more reverberation in the acoustic setting than at other times. Naturally, it would probably sound even more open, airy, and reverberant in multichannel; still, it sounds pretty good in two-channel stereo as well.


Apr 16, 2012

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (SACD review)

Also, Beatrice et Benedict overture. Robin Ticciati, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Records CKD 400.

Most of my favorite conductors in the Symphonie fantastique over the years have been older folk, people like Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Leopold Stokowski, John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, Charles Munch, and Jean Martinon. So I thought it might be fun to hear what a relatively young man, Robin Ticciati, in his mid twenties and his Scottish Chamber Orchestra could do with this well-traveled warhorse. It becomes doubly fascinating when you consider that Berlioz was about Ticciati's age when he wrote the piece.

The composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), wrote his Symphonie fantastique in 1830, and it wasn't long before it became one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. With programmatic elements of predecessors like Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and using a huge orchestral arrangement for well over a hundred players (Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result must have been extraordinary for its period. Yet the music remains extraordinary for our own time, too. In the work's five movements, the young Berlioz wrote autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, the young man falling into a drug-induced dream, which the composer describes in his music. The woman reappears throughout the Symphonie in the form of an idée fixe, a "fixed idea" the young man cannot shake, a musical innovation Berlioz used to advantage.

Ticciati begins "The Reveries--Passions" slowly and builds the tensions incrementally, finally gathering up a good head of steam and arriving at a rather imaginative and effective climax before the music falls back into the distant mists of the composer's mind. Very nice.

"The Ball" also holds up successfully, the waltz having an abundance of lilt and élan. If it's a tad more vigorous than we might usually hear it, chalk it up to youthful exuberance on Ticciati's part.

The third-movement scene in the fields comes across with an appropriate air of serene, pastoral longing. This leads to the final two movements, which have given so many audiophiles delight over the years.

In the "March to the Scaffold" the Scottish Chamber Orchestra does its best, yet there is no compensating for a full orchestra, and while they produce a commendably transparent sound, it isn't exactly the biggest sound needed in the music. Then, too, Ticciati seems more interested here in simply making the music exciting rather than particularly dramatic, sardonic, or amusing.

Finally, we come to "The Witches' Sabbath," which under Ticciati is not quite as scary as Bernstein made it nor as creative as Beecham conjured it up. Still, it's fun in a more jaunty sort of way. It works well enough as parody, and again Ticciati provides loads of enthusiasm, making the ending as thrilling as ever.

As a coupling, we get the Beatrice et Benedict overture, based in part on Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Berlioz called the music "a caprice written with the point of a needle." It's light, sweet, lively, and exuberant by turns.

Made by Linn Records at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK, from October 7-11, 2011, for playback via hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD, the resultant sound is impressive largely because it's so lifelike. Using a Sony SACD player, I found the stereo layer produced a genuine sense of depth in the orchestra, a reasonably quick transient response, a strong impact (especially during those big bass wallops), ample clarity throughout the midrange, a wide stereo spread, and a fairly good extension of lows and highs. With plenty of warm, resonant air around the instruments, the sound is close to what a person might actually hear at a live event, at least as heard from a modest distance.


Apr 13, 2012

Titanic: Anniversary Edition (CD review)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Also, Gentlemen, It Has Been A Privilege Playing with You Tonight. Original motion picture soundtrack and I Salonisti. Sony 8869191475 2 (2-disc set).

I don't usually listen to or review movie soundtrack recordings because I generally find them dull and repetitive. Motion picture music is fine in a motion picture, where it belongs, but it doesn't often work in isolated bits and pieces. However, I did enjoy this two-disc, 2012 "Anniversary Edition" of music from James Cameron's 1997 Titanic. The first disc contains music composed by James Horner for the film, and a second disc contains salon music of the era from the ensemble I Salonisti. For anyone touched by the film, and that would be millions of people, this new set commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the ship's sinking (and the fifteenth anniversary of the movie) should move them even further. And it doesn't hurt that at about this time Cameron re-released the movie in 3-D.

The first disc sets the mood from the beginning with some of the movie's most-familiar music. There follows a series of diverse offerings--vocal, orchestral, and instrumental--that pretty much encapsulate the plot of the story. A few of the highlights include "Leaving the Port," "Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave," "A Life So Changed," the Celine Dion best-seller "My Heart Will Go On," and the concluding number, "Hymn to the Sea." There are fifteen tracks in all, and fans of the film will no doubt find them gratifying, if only for nostalgic reasons because they remind them of the movie.

It's the second disc that appealed to me more, titled "Gentlemen, It Has Been a Privilege Playing with You Tonight." It includes songs that the Titanic's salon orchestra might have played on that fateful night, a collection of pop and classical tunes popular at the time. Survivors of the disaster differ on what song the ship's band played as she went down; tradition has settled on a sentimental favorite, "Nearer My God To Thee," but it was more likely "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a number-one hit of the year before the sinking, or possibly "Song of Autumn." The album gives us all three songs, played by the salon orchestra I Salonisti, which consists of five players: two violins, a cello, a double bass, and a piano.  I Salonisti not only play the music for the film, they play the players themselves. They are an elegant and refined group, and their renditions of well-known classics like Strauss's Blue Danube, Suppe's Peasant and Poet, and Offenbach's Barcarole are especially welcome.

Lest the audiophile be worried about the sound, let me assure you that these discs are a cut above most soundtrack recordings. The London Symphony carries out the orchestral chores on disc one, the music recorded at Air Studios Lyndhurst Hall, London, in 1997, and originally mastered at Abbey Road Studios. Moreover, for this 2012 special edition, Sony remastered the sound of the first disc, so the sonics no longer seem so recessed but come out sounding vivid and smooth. The disc uses its deep bass sparingly to good effect.  Still, like most such pop and soundtrack albums, the perspective is fairly flat, with little sense of dimensionality or being at a live event. Of course, we're not at a live event; we're listening to a movie soundtrack.

The second disc of salon music, though, sounds even better than the first disc, more natural and more realistic. I suppose we should expect more transparency from so much smaller an ensemble. Nevertheless, there still isn't a lot of air around the instruments, so, yes, while it sounds more lifelike than the first disc, it also sounds rather one dimensional. It's just that with only five players, it doesn't make much difference.

It's hard keeping a dry eye listening to this stuff, particularly by the last number, so it's no wonder the film made as much money as almost anything Hollywood has ever produced. It probably works best if you've seen the film, but even if you haven't, this partially remastered set is a poignant experience.

The folks at Sony do a good job packaging the discs, too, using a double jewel case and a handsome, stiff-cardboard slipcover. Within the case, you'll find not only an informative booklet but a set of paper drink coasters and luggage tags with various "Titanic" emblems on them. Nicely done.


Apr 12, 2012

Bartok: The Piano Concertos (CD review)

Krystian Zimerman, Leif Ove Andsnes, and Helene Grimaud, piano; Pierre Boulez, Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, and London Symphony Orchestra. DG B0003885-02.

I know that a huge number of people prize the conducting of Pierre Boulez, but I have most often found his style a little too cold, calculating, and distant for my taste. Nevertheless, in dealing with the three piano concertos of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), that type of approach may be just what's needed, especially in the First Concerto.

The thing that makes this album unique, besides Boulez's typically analytical manner, is that a different soloist and orchestra perform each of the three concertos. I'd like to think that Boulez handpicked each artist and each ensemble to match each piece of music, but I can't think of any easy connections the conductor may have made. I rather believe that Boulez and DG just wanted to do something different to sell discs. But what do I know.

Be that as it may, to my ears Zimerman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bring off the First Concerto (1926) best of the lot. The First is not the most smiling work in the world, full of hard edges and blunt percussives, but it's a work that Boulez wrings the most out of with his careful, methodic technique. The audio engineers help him along these lines by using somewhat close miking and a relatively dry acoustic. The result is not at all edgy or severe, however, because the DG engineers manage a degree of soft warmth, too. Along with a clear and exceptionally clean soundstage, the results are quite soothing, given the austerity of the music itself.

The Second Concerto (1933) is a kind of contrasting bookend to the First, much less weighty and rigid; it actually has discernable rhythms and an overall jauntier demeanor to counteract the coolness of the First. However, with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic, it is not quite as lively as Zoltan Kocsis's performance for Philips, which tends to bring out more of the work's high spirits.

The Third Concerto (1945) fares better with Kocsis, too, because although it is the lightest of the three, Helene Grimaud and the LSO on the DG disc do not necessarily play it that way. Bartok wrote the Third at the very end of his life, not even finishing the last few bars, perhaps as a way of showing the world that he had softened considerably from his younger, more defiant days; yet Grimaud doesn't quite catch the core of Bartok's newfound melodic normalcy. Perhaps this is the influence of Boulez trying to tie all three concertos too closely together; I don't know.

In any case, sonically the three pieces of music appear remarkably alike, given that DG recorded them in diverse locations over a period of several years (2001-2004). Still, when compared to the Kocsis recordings for Philips, none of has quite the same bloom or energy. Maybe it's not needed.


Apr 10, 2012

Wagner: Orchestral Highlights (CD review)

Yondani Butt, London Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6164.

Every time I hear an album like this one of Wagner highlights, I think of the famous line by British music analyst, conductor, composer, and pianist Sir Donald Tovey, who wrote in 1935, "Defects of form are not a justifiable ground for criticism from listeners who profess to enjoy the bleeding chunks of butcher's meat chopped from Wagner's operas." Dedicated Wagner fans, Wagnerites, tend to use the comment to denigrate anyone who enjoys listening to selections from Wagner's operas, arguing that to appreciate fully the composer's work, one has to listen to it in its entirety. Fair enough. Except that there are also a good number of people who find Wagner's operas long-winded and tiring, most of these folks simply enduring with patience the long stretches between what they consider the good parts. I don't suppose either group will ever understand or accept the other's point of view. In any case, what we get here from conductor Yondani Butt and the London Symphony Orchestra are "bleeding chunks," for better or for worse.

I was not familiar with Maestro Butt's work until I heard his recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony in the fall of 2011. I found it surprisingly refreshing; perhaps not in the same league with a Klemperer, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Bohm, or Zinman, but certainly worthy of a listen. So I looked forward with some pleasant degree of anticipation to the conductor's approach to Wagner with the LSO. His readings did not entirely disappoint me, although (or because) they are not particularly traditional interpretations.

Butt opens the album with the Tristan und Isolde Prelude und Liebestod, which may seem a trifle odd a choice for a curtain raiser, its being so quiet a piece of music, yet it works well enough. Admittedly, Butt takes his time with the work, occasionally appearing close to leisurely; however, it's the kind of music that can benefit from a relaxed approach, and even if it never reaches the heights of ecstasy we hear in some other renditions, it is quite lovely in a dreamy, romantic sort of way. Besides, Wagner called the texts of his operas "poems," so it's entirely appropriate that Butt take the composer at his word and make the music sound as poetic as possible.

Next, we hear the Tannhauser Overture. Why not have started the program with it? Who knows. Whatever, Butt's tempos are again on the slow side, so the overture doesn't really get the adrenaline flowing. Regardless, it's a remarkably well-shaped performance and one that perhaps elevates the music beyond the mere showpiece we usually hear.

The third track is the Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure, which is just as lyrical under Butt as the previous numbers. As you can see, the first half of the program establishes a pattern for Butt's relatively gentle vision of Wagner. Whether that is what you want from Wagner is beside the point. If you're looking for something more vigorous, more dramatic or emotional, go with Solti (Decca), Szell (Sony), Tennstedt (EMI), Stokowski (RCA), Leinsdorf (Sheffield Lab), Haitink (Philips), Dorati (Decca), Boult (EMI), or Klemperer (EMI).

The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold comes after that. Here, Butt produces a very pastoral effect, soft and light, to introduce us to the grandeur of the closing. Although one might have hoped for a more majestic entrance at the finish, true to his poetic leanings, Butt doesn't quite come through with the power, relying instead on his more lyric course.

Butt closes the program with a balmy, sometimes melancholy picture of Siegfried's Rhine Journey; a reasonably moving and powerfully built account of the Gotterdammerung Funeral Music; and, not surprisingly given all that's gone before it, a fairly easygoing realization of the Ride of the Valkyries.

In all, these performances represent Maestro Butt's very special, very personal vision of Wagner's music. They are unconventional interpretations, to be sure, drawing out the noble, spiritual sentiments of the music, often at the expense of some of the more-familiar, red-blooded meat of the works. While the album may be a good antidote to the plethora of more histrionic readings available, it probably wouldn't function well as a one-and-only Wagner excerpts disc on a person's shelf.

Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, in June of 2011, the sound is quite good, with Nimbus Alliance providing the kind of clean, clear, realistic sound that EMI used to capture back in the Seventies with the LSO. This is natural, well-detailed sound, full, open, reasonably dimensional and dynamic, almost everything you can name that's good. Almost. OK, it's a tad soft and overly smooth, too, with a little less robust a bass as I'd like and a slightly veiled midrange. Still, it's some of the most listenable sound around and a pleasure on the ear.


Apr 9, 2012

Schubert: Symphony No. 7 "Unfinished" (CD review)

Also, Rondo for Violin and Strings in A Major; Polonaise in B flat Major; Concert Piece in D Major for Violin and Orchestra. Andreas Janke, violin; David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. RCA Red Seal 88697 95335 2.

The first thing we have to clear up is the numbering. Yes, this is the symphony most of us know as No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished." But sometimes folks number it Schubert's Seventh because of confusion with another of his unfinished symphonies, often referred to also as the Seventh. You would think that by now at least record companies would settle on a common numbering system, and since a majority of people usually think of the "Unfinished" as No. 8, I can't for the life of me understand why companies choose intentionally to obfuscate the issue. It seems to me counterproductive of RCA to confuse their own buying public.

Anyway, Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the first two movements of his "Unfinished" Symphony in 1822, and why he never completed it is anybody's guess; he would live for another half a dozen years, so it's not as though he died before he could get it done. Its being unfinished has given any number of composers opportunity over the years to complete it for him and listeners to divine into its incompleteness some higher purpose. Fortunately, most conductors have played the two movements straight and left the reconstructions and suppositions to others. Such is the case here, with Maestro David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra, who perform it on modern instruments but with period designs. Zinman is an old hand at this kind of thing, of course, having successfully negotiated the nine Beethoven symphonies in a like manner to excellent effect. His "Unfinished" is the second disc in a complete Schubert symphony cycle he's doing for RCA Red Seal, with a separate and simultaneous release containing Nos. 1 and 2.

OK, on to the music, and first up it is, indeed, the "Unfinished" Symphony, all two movements of it. Under Zinman, the opening Allegro moderato has mystery, strength, and dash. There is no scurrying around to outdo those who think the period-performance crowd have a lock on the piece nor any dawdling to satisfy those who think of the work as the first truly "Romantic" symphony. Instead, Zinman suffuses the movement with all the drama, glow, and passion one could want, yet he allows it to float along, too, on a most-lyrical plane. I found the first movement quite well done.

Although Zinman takes the Andante con moto at a quicker pace than one usually hears, it never seems rushed. Rather, it sounds vigorous and forceful while at the same time loving and unruffled. One could argue that it loses a little something in poetic delicacy and rhapsodic sentiment in the process; however, it more than makes up for it in dreamy longing and pure, old-fashioned excitement.

Schubert never wrote any full-fledged concertos, but here we find as couplings three of his smaller compositions for violin and orchestra: the Rondo for Violin and Strings in A Major, the Polonaise in B flat Major, and the Concert Piece in D Major for Violin and Orchestra. The Tonhalle Orchestra's soloist and first violinist Andreas Janke makes each piece seem very personal, his realizations filled with soul, so to speak. With excellent, unobtrusive support from Zinman and his players, the three short works come off as pure Schubert--light, airy, melodious, breezy, and completely charming, the Rondo coming off with all the trapping of the composer's "Trout" Quintet.

Yes, the disc is delightful, and it marks an auspicious beginning for Zinman, a Schubert cycle that promises to be as good as his Beethoven, which is saying a lot.

Recorded in May and September of 2011 in Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland, the sound, too, is excellent. It displays good overall imaging and an especially fine depth of image, with strong dynamic contrasts, and solid impact. The sonics are nicely transparent throughout, big and open and clean. The miking is close but not too close. And one can hear a light, pleasant, resonant air around the instruments that imbues them with a most-lifelike quality.

If this particular disc has any drawback, it's minor in that it contains only a little over fifty minutes of music. I suppose the way RCA have laid out the complete cycle on CD, they have some justification for so brief an album. Besides, it's not the quantity that counts here but the quality, something the disc contains in abundance.


Apr 6, 2012

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, complete (CD review)

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243-5-86254-2 (2-disc set).

I suppose all classical-music lovers have their favorite conductors and maybe even their favorite orchestras, which often constitute a fair share of their record collections. Among others, my favorites include Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic (EMI), and Andre Previn in his years with the London Symphony (EMI). Of course, Previn's repertoire back then was much more limited than Reiner's, Klemperer's, or Beecham's, but Previn's output with the LSO was amazing just the same. Hardly anyone has surpassed his Gershwin, Holst, Mendelssohn, Orff, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Saint Saens, Shostakovich symphonies, and Tchaikovsky ballets from the LSO period.

Such is the case with Previn's rendition of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the complete ballet on two discs. Coincidentally, Decca released a competing version the same year, 1973, with Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, and in the old LP days I owned both of them. However, when CD's came along I decided one version was enough and bought the Previn. I have heard any number of recorded excerpts and suites since then, as well as other complete recordings from people like Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra on Philips and Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic on Decca, but none of them have struck me as being as well balanced musically and sonically as Previn's view of things.

Previn's interpretation leans heavily toward the romantic side of the story, the lyricism of Shakespeare's words and the impetuous love that starts the plot in motion. It's a beautifully graceful account of the lovers' meeting and eventual conflict, yet with plenty of color and atmosphere, too. If it's not as hard-hitting, as biting, or as melodramatically exciting as Maazel's, well, think about the play. The first two acts are joyful and uplifting, the middle is gloom and doom, and the ending is pure sentimental corn. Previn nails down the beginning and the end, which if you were an oddsmaker would give his version the edge in betting circles for covering more ground better than anybody else's.

The sound holds up well, too, being in that class of EMI audio that tends never to appear flashy or subdued or bright or dull. It's perfectly natural, if not quite so sharply defined as several later digital recordings.

However, for those people like myself, the sound, ironically, may also be this particular release's only drawback. You see, EMI used the same mastering for this 2005 release that they used for their first compact-disc release years before, and try as I might I could not hear any significant differences between the newer CD's and the older ones. I wish they had remastered it using the Abbey Road Technology (ART) system, as they have for so many other classic performances in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. However, it was not to be; this one is in their budget-priced Gemini line (having gone from full price to mid price "Double Forte" and now to low price). Still, if you don't already own this set, various sources are offering it so cheaply it should be an irresistible buy. So maybe Previn's music making will reach more people this way. Let's hope.


Apr 4, 2012

Berg & Beethoven: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Isabelle Faust, violin; Claudio Abbado, Orchestra Mozart. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902105.

Alban Berg (1885-1935) was an Austrian composer of the modern era. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German composer of the late Classical-early Romantic period. What's the connection?  I mean, there's always a connection when musicians (or producers) pair up different composers on a disc. The album's back-cover note says it's all about "dialogue." Berg, it seems, set his concerto "on the threshold between tradition and revolution, between tonal music and the nascent 'serial' aesthetic; a century earlier, Beethoven had deconstructed formal Classicism to raise the solo violin to the status of a subject in its own right." Apparently, that's the connection, and a rather tenuous one it seems to me. OK, both works are "revolutionary" in their way, I suppose. The main thing is that they are good music.

It's especially reassuring to hear from Maestro Claudio Abbado again, this time as Artistic Director of the Orchestra Mozart, an ensemble formed in 2004 from "a number of instrumentalists of international standard." It's an orchestra of modest size but makes a big yet intimate sound. They handle both the early and late works with equal skill. And, of course, it's always nice to hear from German violinist Isabelle Faust, a musician of wide accomplishment whose name, unaccountably, a lot of people probably wouldn't recognize. Yet her very first recording won a Gramophone Award in 1997, she's won various other prestigious awards and competitions over the years, she enjoys a highly successful solo career, and she boasts an extensive discography. Suitable for a virtuoso of Ms. Faust's caliber, she plays a 1704 Stradivarius, the "Sleeping Beauty," on loan from the Land Bank Baden-Wurttemberg..

The album opens with Berg's Violin Concerto, which begins slows, softly, mysteriously. There's almost an eerie quality about it, which Ms. Faust explores and exploits nicely. Berg subtitled the piece "To the Memory of an Angel," a reference to the death of a close young friend, Manon Gropius, daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. The concerto acts as a sort of Requiem, then, for her death, helping Berg to relieve his mind. It is both mournful and, in a celebratory way, joyous, lyrical, and melodic. As per Berg's wishes, neither the violin nor the orchestra dominates the performance, each a joint partner in the enterprise. The second and final movement becomes a bit more raucous in the manner of much modern music, bringing with it a curious tenderness, which again Ms. Faust presents in a most-touching manner, especially as the violin leads into a Bach-like chorale at the end.

As moving as the Romantic-Modern Berg concerto is, it cannot compete in the face of Beethoven's monumental and purely Romantic Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, which still towers above almost everything else in its field. However, I don't think I've ever heard the concerto played more gently or more sweetly than it is here, perhaps to make the connection with the preceding Berg more obvious. Not that the pace is at all slow; indeed, Abbado keeps the tempos moving at a pleasantly moderate speed and never indulges in any untoward oddities of phrasing. It's simply a refined, pastoral, reflective interpretation, with Ms. Faust's violin singing meditatively and beautifully.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in November, 2010, at the Auditorio Manzoni, Bologna, Italy. Both the violin and the orchestra sound fairly close-up, providing plenty of detail at the expense of much depth of field (at least in the Berg; the Beethoven is a little better in terms of front-to-back dimensionality). There is excellent definition throughout, however, exemplary smoothness, and a good, taut impact in the lower-to-mid bass. Even in the Beethoven, it's not a particularly big sound; nevertheless, it seems to fit the music, and its effortlessness always caresses the ear most agreeably.


Apr 1, 2012

Mozert: Arias for Coloraturas and Coloring Books (SACD-RW review)

Anna Moffet Field, contrasoprano; Rt. Honorable Maestoso M. Micetrow, M.S.S.E., North Essex Sinfonia at South Wessex. Wicca Wecords BMW 750i.

It isn't often I get a chance to review the work of musical prodigy Michael Tilson Herbert Georg Otto Bernard Mozert the Lesser (1712-1723), father of the renowned flautist and Doppelganger M.T.H.G.O.B. Mozert the Greater (c. 1704-1724). So it's a distinct honor for me, knowing as I do the younger man's penchant for flouting the flute, to hear so authoritative an interpretation as that from Maestoso M. Micetrow and his incomparable North Wessex at South Essex singers, players, and occasional hangers-on.

A little-known fact about Mozert (the Lesser), and one that constantly bewitches, bothers, and bewilders almost everyone who hears it, is that he originally wrote his Arias for Coloraturas and Coloring Books in 1735 for the noted mezzanine-soprano Mifeter Callous, a notorious dropper of names and notes. However, after a furious row over having to do the second aria da capo a cappella, Ms. Callous threatened to have her uncle, at the time a powerful capo, have poor Mozert capped. As getting capped by a capo for an a cappella capo was not the composer's idea of a capital idea, he reconsidered the proposition and assigned the part to his niece, the Italian castrato Don Vito Ivanitchie.

Anyway, I digress with these mesmerizing antidotes. As I say, it isn't often I get the chance to listen to such lilting and diverting arias so deliciously transcribed for bullhorn and woodwinds, so the opportunity is not lost on me. Unfortunately, the point remains lost, so let me seize upon the occasion to relate a story of young Mozert's encounter one afternoon in his youth with the redoubtable balloonist Professor Oscar Zoroaster Marvel and their subsequent travails in a far-off magical land somewhere over the.... But I digress again.

Countersoprano A.M. Field does an ab fab job fielding every note she's thrown and pitching a perfect score throughout the series, her West Essex support well up on their game. My only ersatz caveat, and a pejorative one at that, would be Maestro Micetrow's penchant for slackening his gait out the gate, tending to pause and crochet at the second and third crochets while poor Ms. Field has to sit and sew. I'd swear I heard her walk off the stage at one needle point.

Be that as it may, the whole affair is well catered by Wicca producer Michel Bay, who did his best to feed all the players and capture their sound before they fled. Recorded at the Little Chapel of the Crying Nuns (El Minuto Chapelle a le Nunne de la Crynoutlouda), Isole delle Femmine, Sicily, in 1738, the sound is big and bold, with the tonal resonance of a fine, chocolatey mousse mixed with the fleeting scent of bitter almonds.

I should note in closing that three years after their meeting, Micetrow and Bay eloped and are now living with seven children near a small shrub in Lompoc, California. Swell the music, Maestro. I love happy endings.

Or, as the celebrated music critic Alphonse K. Traz once remarked, quoting Ben Franklin, "Hunger is the best pickle." Yawrp.


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