May 31, 2012

Orff: Carmina Burana (CD review)

Sally Matthews, soprano; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Radio Chorus. EMI 7243-5-57888-2.

Since moving to the conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic some years ago, Sir Simon Rattle has been advocating live recording with a vengeance. I admit this often produces more lively and spontaneous results, having a real audience during the performance, but it doesn’t always do a lot for a recording’s sonics. Such is the case with Rattle’s release of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, that perennial favorite of music lovers the world over, as well as movie directors and television producers.

First, the performance. The soloists, chorus, and orchestra seem at first glance letter perfect, as we might expect from these people, and Rattle’s interpretation is vigorous, to say the least. The reading is, however, perhaps a touch too slick for its own good, lacking some of the earthiness the work might have found by its being slowed down a tad rather than taken at such extreme tempo changes. Rattle’s slowly and softly articulating one section of the music and then blasting it out fast and loud in the next can be exhilarating for a while but ultimately taxing on the mind and the ears. Nor do his singers always provide him the best support.

Created in 1937 and based on thirteenth-century manuscripts in Latin, French, and German, the Carmina Burana songs divide into three parts covering the pleasures of springtime, drinking, and love, all within the framework of “Fortuna,” luck or fate. Under Rattle, everything seems quite energetically pursued, but, as I say, those drastic changes of pace tend to undermine the whole enterprise.

The live sound, made in the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2004 does not appear to me as convincing as most studio recordings, the way it’s miked making some instruments fade into the background or suddenly jump to the forefront. The solo voices come off best, very clear and natural in their presentation, but the orchestra fares more poorly. The sound, quite dynamic, is rather bright in the climaxes and fortissimos, somewhat muted at other times, and slightly thin overall. Frankly, despite the newer digital origins of the Rattle disc, I found it inferior to the older, analogue recordings of Andre Previn (EMI) and Eugen Jochum (DG), whose interpretations seem to me more refined, more robust, more consistent, and, yes, better recorded.


May 29, 2012

Silfra (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka), prepared piano. DG B0016798-02.

I know what you’re asking: What the heck does “Silfra” mean?  And what exactly is a “prepared piano”? First things first. According to Wikipedia, Silfra refers to an area “located in the Þingvallavatn Lake in the Þingvellir National Park in Iceland.” It’s “a rift that is part of the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. By virtue of its location in the Þingvallavatn, Silfra contains clear, cold water that attracts scuba divers drawn to its high visibility and geological importance; divers are literally swimming between continents. The rift claims a shallow depth nearest to the bank, but deepens and widens further out.” The disc’s booklet note says that the place “is preternaturally still, colored in shades of blue and green not found anywhere else. To snorkel there in a snowstorm is to be suspended in an ancient space, feeling tiny and surrounded in all directions by an unending otherworldly landscape.”

Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist/composer Volker Bertelmann (who sometimes goes by the alias Hauschka when performing on the prepared piano) took their inspiration from the “otherworldliness” of the Silfra region to compose and improvise the twelve selections on the disc. So, what we’ve got here is an experimental album of music recorded the first time the performers played it. The participants tell us “there were no retakes. These are the moments that brought these ideas to life.”  While it may not be high art, it is mostly appealing. 

Oh, and what is a prepared piano? According to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary, it’s “a grand piano that has been altered for some modern compositions by having various objects attached to its strings to change the sound and pitch, and performance on which typically involves playing the keys, plucking the strings, slapping the body of the instrument, and slamming the keyboard lid.” Sounds kind of wild, no? In this case, not quite. The twelve pieces of music Ms. Hahn and Mr. Bertelmann perform sound sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes frustratingly common, yet continuously fascinating.

The first piece on the program they call “Stillness.” One can understand why. It feels as though it’s simply floating out there in the aether. Unfortunately, it’s very brief, under two minutes, and could have gone on longer.

The second piece is just the opposite of the first. “Bounce Bounce” sounds like an Ozark bluegrass hoedown. The artists tell us they intended the music to represent unrest, a rubber ball bouncing back and forth. I found it rather noisy.

“Clock Winder” was by far more to my taste, a series of sounds like the innards of a clock in motion. It has a strangely disquieting yet vibrantly humorous quality that is quite fetching.

And so it goes. Other tracks include “Adash,” with its weird, occasionally eerie stretches of rhythms and vibrations. “Godot” is, as the name implies, all about waiting, with Bertelmann’s prepared piano playing any number of parts in a quiet conversation with Ms. Hahn’s violin. At a little over twelve minutes, it’s the longest work on the disc.

“Krakow” is the most conventional piece on the program, a lovely melody the performers made in advance of the other music. It is the least gimmicky and sweetest music of the bunch in its lightly melancholy way.

I think you get the idea. Most of the music is serenely forgettable, to be sure, yet its misty, atmospheric, impressionistic visions and its varying harmonies and sensations beg one to listen again. Despite its not being great, classic, or enduring music, it might just be something you find yourself returning to a few times more than you initially anticipated. Of course, it helps to have two world-class artists to bring it all off. Otherwise, it would merely be a couple of people appearing to make it up as they go along.

Recorded and mixed at Greenhouse Studio, Iceland, in 2011, the sound is fine for what it is, with Bertelmann’s piano contraption spread widely across the soundstage and Ms. Hahn’s violin a bit more precisely located. Depending on the tune, the sounds of the instruments can be slightly vague or almost startlingly lifelike. But I don’t suppose the performers intended any of their music to be particularly realistic in any traditional sense, so the oddity of the sonics probably contributes to its overall eccentric, experimental feel.


May 28, 2012


First-generation stereophonic copy of the original stereophonic master. HDTT KLIPSCH-1.

First, let me allow the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) to explain their new release, KLIPSCHTAPE, better than I could: “In the 1950’s, Paul W. Klipsch, inventor of the famous ‘Klipschorn’ corner bass horn loudspeaker, began recording live performances in stereo as ‘reference’ recordings to aid his own loudspeaker research and development. The 1950’s saw enormous activity and expansion in the Hi-Fi world which was spearheaded by the emergence of stereo recordings for public consumption, and during the latter half of the decade, the first stereophonic reel-to-reel tapes became available, produced by recording companies such as RCA, Mercury, Westminster, and others. The tapes proved to be so popular that in 1956 Paul Klipsch would jump on the reel-to-reel bandwagon by founding the Klipsch Tapes Division. Headed by the redoubtable Mr. Klipsch and assisted by future recording engineer John Eargle, KLIPSCHTAPE produced a total of seven titles, and marked one of the first attempts by an equipment manufacturer to make direct tape masters available to audio enthusiasts. Klipsch’s tapes were among the earliest stereo recordings ever offered to the public, and survive today as a prime example of primitive but exemplary ‘purist’ recording art. Unfortunately, Klipsch’s tape enterprise lasted only about 2 years, and is today a virtually unknown and forgotten fragment of audio history. However, thanks to the kindness of the present-day Klipsch company, which has made the original master tapes available to us, we have been able to carefully transfer and preserve some of Klipsch’s amazing recordings to CD.”

What HDTT have done is take selections from three of Klipsch’s tapes and transfer them to CD. The disc contains twelve musical tracks and ends with an interview with Klipsch. The music comprises small jazz ensemble pieces and large organ works, so the results show off most aspects of a speaker’s range and power. Whether you actually enjoy the music is probably secondary to the recording quality involved, but in any case it is fairly well performed and fun overall.

Now, here’s the thing: Most people today are unaware that the state of stereo recordings hasn't really improved much (or at all) since the early Fifties. I listen daily to brand-new recordings that haven't nearly the depth, breadth, range, or fidelity of the Klipsch tapes, which were among the first of their kind. Strange world.

The disc begins with the Flem Ferguson Trio (what a wonderful name) playing the “Tin Roof Blues.”  It’s pleasant enough and gets the program off to an arresting start. Following that is Weldon Flanagan (another great name) playing the Wurlitzer pipe organ in “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Remember, these are live recordings made in acoustically amenable surroundings; play this one loudly and you’ll experience a truly gigantic effect. Then we hear organist John Eargle (who would later become one of the world’s most prestigious recording engineers) playing an Aeolian-Skinner organ in the “Carillon Sortie,” followed by the Joe Holland Quartet doing “I Think You’re Wonderful.”

Next is an impressive organ recital by John Eargle that includes Bach’s Toccata in D minor, Langlais’s Arabesque for the Flute, Gigue, Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir, and Alain’s Litanies.

From the final demonstration tape, we get three numbers by Flem Ferguson and his Dixieland Jazz Band: “Lady Be Good,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” and, the best of the lot, “Muskrat Ramble.” If you can’t find any demo material in here, you just are trying. The tapes carry with them a few background noises associated with live, unedited performance. You live with it.

The disc concludes with a June, 1954, television interview with Paul Klipsch, about ten minutes of audio. He’s an amusing gentleman, and the information he provides, while rather elemental, is nevertheless captivating.

In terms of recorded sound, Paul Klipsch was a purist in the literal sense. He made his tapes using Stephens C2-0D4 condenser-type microphones with transformers bypassed; Berlant series 30 recording machines; and IRISH Brand Shamrock 300 tape, some of the best products available at the time. In Klipsch’s own words, “Unlike most tape copies, where a good deal of ‘engineering’ and ‘dial twiddling’ have been employed in the duplication processes, KLIPSCHTAPES are recorded and duplicated without anyone ‘riding the gain or tone controls.’ Throughout a given piece the volume level is thereby the same as in the original performance. There are no tone controls; the flat response maintained results from the use of precision equipment throughout.”

To be sure, the sound of the HDTT disc is quite good, if not quite in the absolute audiophile category we know today. However, to be fair, there are only a handful of topflight audiophile discs in that category, so maybe the point is moot. This HDTT disc displays an excellent separation of instruments in the jazz pieces, with the kind of wide left-to-right stereo spread we would expect from early loudspeaker demonstration tapes. Transient response is relatively quick; the dynamic range is reasonably expansive; impact is strong; lows are taut; and midrange definition is fine, if to my ears a trifle soft. Most important, I found no noticeable distortion even at very high playback levels. Maybe in some of the jazz numbers there could have been a tad more air to the acoustic (they’re a trifle close and dry), yet in the organ pieces one hears a good sense of ambience and occasion, with lifelike hall resonances.

In all, the disc provides not only splendid sound and rewarding musical experiences but a valuable historical document that should interest most hi-fi fans. Although there is not a lot of content involved (about forty-four minutes of music, plus an additional ten minutes of interview), it’s a matter of quality over quantity.

As always, the folks at HDTT make the music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from Redbook CD’s, 24/96 DVD’s, and HQCD’s to 24/96, 24/192, and 16/44 Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit


May 25, 2012

Saint-Saens: Complete Symphonies (CD review)

Jean Martinon, Orchestre National de l’ORTF. Brilliant Classics 94360 (2-disc set).

Do I see a trend here? Well, it’s a trend that’s been developing for the past decade or more: Smaller record companies are licensing older recorded material from bigger companies and re-releasing them.  Think of PentaTone, Newton Classics, FIM, HDTT, and now Brilliant Classics. The case in question here is Jean Martinon’s recordings of the complete Saint-Saens symphonies, which Martinon recorded for EMI in the early-to-mid Seventies. The thing is, it’s not as though the EMI editions are hard to find. A quick glance at Amazon shows there are actually four different EMI editions available new, two from the parent company, one from EMI France, and one from EMI Japan. Yet in 2012, EMI apparently licensed the recordings to Brilliant Classics, and they all sound pretty much the same. Whatever, you can never have enough editions of these fine Martinon performances, so the more, the merrier.

French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote five symphonies; however, only one of them, the Third “Organ” Symphony, became at all popular. Even so, its popularity is so immense, it doesn’t matter that the others have found relatively little favor. They’re still interesting, but quite overshadowed by their big brother. It’s good to have them all together in one package if for no other reason than curiosity’s sake. Who knows; a person familiar only with the Third might soon find a new favorite among the others.

Anyway, Saint-Saens wrote his first two symphonies, the Symphony in A major (c. 1850) and the Symphony No. 1 in E flat (1853), while he was still in his teens. Then, he wrote the Symphony in F “Urbs Roma” in 1856 for a writing competition, which may explain why they aren’t quite as mature and well developed as the later works. Even the Symphony No. 2 in A minor (1859) is a relatively early, youthful piece, especially when you consider that the composer didn’t write his monumental Third Symphony until 1886. Thus, what we have are four symphonies written when Saint-Saens was in his teens and twenties, and the final one over a quarter of a century later when he was in his early fifties.

Disc one of this two-disc set begins with the little Symphony in A, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime and seldom recorded. That’s OK; I doubt that anyone could do it more justice than Martinon. There’s plenty of youthful vitality in the work, and Martinon seems to delight unapologetically in it. There’s a lot of Mozart and Mendelssohn in the music, too, which Martinon enjoys as well.

Next come the first two numbered symphonies that Saint-Saens published. Symphony No. 1 begins with a delightfully lilting Adagio that shows the influence of Schumann. The second movement is reminiscent of Bizet; the slow movement of Berlioz; and the finale typical of much French ceremonial music. Martinon pulls all of it off with finesse, making it appear more original and substantial than it probably really is.

Then, disc one concludes with the Symphony No. 2, the best of which comes early, in the first-movement Allegro. It displays a lively seriousness not found in Saint-Saens’s early works. The symphony soon transitions into a more-temperate and completely charming Adagio. The Scherzo and finale return to the energy of the first movement, where Martinon maintains the music’s Mendelssohnian mood and style.

Disc two opens with the unpublished Symphony in F, subtitled “Urbs Roma” (Rome city or city of Rome). Martinon manages to infuse it with a grand sweep that is really quite engaging, especially in the vibrant if slightly dark Scherzo. Still, the work is really just a prelude to the composer’s monumental “Organ” Symphony that follows.

With Martinon’s handling of the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, we get an elegant, graceful, refined reading. Not that it doesn’t catch fire, but if you want something more dashing and exciting, I recommend Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA or JVC) or Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), who are more explosive in the work. Nevertheless, Martinon pumps up the adrenaline levels, too, while providing a relaxed, expansive, wholly sympathetic interpretation.

The recordings, which EMI made in 1972 and 1974 for the four early symphonies at the Salle Wagram, Paris, and in 1975 for the Third Symphony at the Eglise Saint-Louis de Invalides, Paris, sound uniformly good, if a tad on the warm, soft side. The stereo spread is wide, although the stage depth seems somewhat limited, except in the Third, where it opens up a little more. While the bass could be deeper for the organ, it’s a minor concern. Dynamics also seem a bit restricted; again, not to worry. Overall, this is an extraordinarily smooth, accommodating sound.


May 24, 2012

Grooving Classics: A String & Percussion Fest! (XRCD review)

Harold Farberman, Colorado String Quartet; Ethos Percussion Group. FIM XR24 044.

This is an odd but fascinating one. Sonically, the disc sounds better than almost anything you’ll find on CD, no surprise considering it is a fairly recent XRCD24 recording from First Impression Music, FIM, whose audiophile work has been consistently good. Yet musically, you may have to get adjusted to some of the arrangements and interpretations.

Except for the unfortunate title, Grooving Classics, which conjures up in my mind visions of John Travolta and bell-bottom trousers, we have conductor Harold Farberman’s sometimes scintillating, sometimes eccentric reworkings of famous classical music for string quartet and four-person percussion ensemble. Some of it works; some of it, well, not so much. Call it an adventure.

Things get off to a good start with the second movement Andante from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. The “twinkle, twinkle little star” variation works well with a toy piano and various light percussion, joined in the “surprise” by the strings and a big timpani drum. But that’s followed by Farberman’s curious reworking of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which he so distorts as to be almost unlistenable. To each his own, I suppose. The “Can Can” from Offenbach’s Le Contes d’Hoffmann comes off well, probably because it’s rather raucous music to begin with; the popping of champagne corks (balloons, actually) adds to the fun. Then, the Adagio from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony suffers from a peculiar combination of instruments, as do some of Tchaikovsky’s dances from the Nutcracker.

However, there are also some outstanding items on the album, among my three favorites being Strauss’s Fledermaus overture; the traditional “Red River Valley”; and with the Northwest Sinfonietta a special track of Faberman/Bizet’s “Habenera Fantasia” from Carmen. You can also find the latter two pieces on FIM Super Sounds! (XR24 066) and FIM Super Sounds! III (XR24 073). Anyway, as I say, it’s hit and miss.

Beyond questions of musical taste, however, there is nothing amiss with the sound. The production team can’t be beat: Producer Winston Ma, recording engineer Keith Johnson, and editing engineers Tam Henderson and Paul Stubblebine. Keith and Tam you may recognize as the guiding forces behind Reference Recordings. Recorded at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, New York, in 2005 and using 1/2” analog tape at 15 ips, their work results in a startlingly real sonic picture, with as extended highs and as well-controlled lows as you’ll hear anywhere. The stage dimensions are wide, the dynamics are strong, the ambient bloom is warm and natural, and the overall effect is as clean as it gets. Pick the few pieces you like best, and you have a first-rate, modern (albeit expensive) XRCD demo disc.


May 22, 2012

Debussy: La Mer (CD review)

Also, Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune; Images. Daniele Gatti, Orchestre National de France. Sony Classical 88697974002.

I have never been as big a fan of Italian conductor Daniele Gatti as most of the world, but I have to admit there is a lot to like in his new recording of Debussy orchestral works. Where his sometimes flamboyant style can be annoying to me on occasion, he pretty much lights up the Debussy music, especially La Mer and Images, which sound effervescent and imaginative and, well, new again.

The program begins with La Mer, which French composer Claude Debussy (1962-1918) wrote in 1905 as a symbolic representation of the sea. The composer purposely meant for the first movement, “From dawn to noon on the sea,” to be less colorful and scintillating than the other movements, yet Gatti infuses it with a lovely life of its own. After a warmly atmospheric introduction, it opens up beautifully about halfway through to a rapturous melody. In the second movement, “Play of the waves,” Gatti is appropriately playful and light, the dancing waters luminescent, sparkling, and magical.

Then comes that well-known third-movement finale, “Dialogue between wind and waves,” which Gatti pulls off in splendid fashion. It’s such familiar music, it’s hard to believe anyone could do anything particularly innovative with it without upsetting Debussy’s perfectly tuned impressions. Nevertheless, Gatti does just that, managing to conjure up a sweetly rugged vision of the sea that maybe even the composer didn’t imagine. In the end, Gatti’s enthusiasm enriches the experience, making his performance of La Mer one of the more powerful and creative you’ll find. The interpretation bears comparison to those of Martinon, Karajan, Previn, and Stokowski, and that’s compliment, indeed.

Accompanying La Mer, we find a rendering of Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune that isn’t quite as ethereal, dreamlike, or sensuous as those of Karajan or Martinon, but it is a solidly vivid characterization and should not disappoint Debussy fans.

After that, we get the Images for Orchestra, based on work Debussy wrote for piano. The composer intended the Images to be less impressionistic than La Mer, more precise in style and meaning, which Gatti understands. He fills his performance with energy, to be sure, yet it is well-directed energy without an ounce of flab to the reading. There is no romanticizing here, nothing soft or vague. Whether it fully captures the Spanish idiom it reflects is a matter of taste, I suppose, but I found it full of flavor, if in its structured, glowingly ardent presentation.

The sound, recorded in the Salle Lieberman, Opera Bastille, Paris, and Alfortville, France, in 2011, is almost ideal for these works. In the La Mer and Preludes it’s delicate and open, with a wide, deep stereo separation; good tonal balance; a clean, natural lower midrange; and a moderately resonant acoustic. There is a slight forwardness to the upper mids, but it’s mild. While bass could be a bit stronger, dynamics are fine. The Images benefit from even greater impact and more sharply focused definition than La Mer, which is as it should be. Both venues suit the varying temperaments of the music.


May 21, 2012

Byron Janis: The Chopin Collection (CD review)

Byron Janis, piano. EMI Classics 50999 6 02898 2 7.

Although American pianist Byron Janis has recorded for several companies--including RCA, Mercury, and EMI--it is for his work with Mercury in the Fifties and Sixties that I personally know of his work. I have long been a fan of his Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Schumann recordings, but I seem to have lost track of him after his lifelong bout with arthritis flared up in the Seventies and he went into semiretirement. But in the mid Nineties he recorded these Chopin pieces for EMI, and he apparently has been working continuously ever since. This is all the remarkable considering that he celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday the year of this writing.

Anyway, what we have here is a collection of Chopin mazurkas, nocturnes, waltzes, and impromptus that Janis recorded in 1996 and 1999. EMI released most of them in the 1996 album Byron Janis Plays Chopin, now out of print; and in this 2012 rerelease the company adds several more pieces that Janis recorded a few years later after the pianist accidentally discovered two unknown versions of Chopin waltzes. Altogether, the eighteen selections on the disc provide a superb representation both of Chopin’s brilliance and Janis’s artistry.

My own favorite pianists in Chopin have long been Maurizio Pollini and Arthur Rubinstein, but after hearing Mr. Janis, a pupil of Vladimir Horowitz, I can easily see how one might change one’s allegiance. Janis’s smooth, easy, gentle, flowing style here belies his reputation for fierce drive and nervous tension. In Chopin, at least, the man remains relaxed yet completely in control.

The program opens with the Mazurka No. 1 in G minor, Op. 24, which Janis plays at a moderate pace; no helter-skelter showmanship for its own sake here. He follows it with the Nocturne in E flat major No. 2, Op. 55, maintaining the same low-key manner as in the mazurka, allowing the music to float softly to our ears.

“Above all,” says Janis in a booklet note, “the essence of Chopin’s music was zal, the Polish word for ‘bittersweet.’ It expresses all of the tenderness and humility of regret borne with resignation. ... It was his way of depicting the tormented history of his beloved Poland.” And so it goes, on through the rest of the selections, each a delicately polished gem. My own favorite tracks, for what it’s worth? The Nocturne in B major No. 2, Op. 32; the Waltz in A minor No. 2, Op. 34; the Mazurka in B flat minor No. 4, Op. 24; the Nocturne in F sharp No. 2, Op. 15; the Nocturne in D flat major No. 2, Op. 27; and the two concluding Waltzes--G flat major No. 1, Op. 70, and E flat major, Op. 18 “Grande valse brilliante.” Lovers of Chopin’s music can hardly find better.

The piano sound is full and rich, the EMI engineers having well captured the instrument’s mellow, resonant tone. It’s not too close, either, and doesn’t stretch clear across the room as some piano recordings are wont to do. Instead, the instrument sits comfortably before us as a real piano might, producing warm, calming music.


May 18, 2012

Mozart and Beethoven: Ballet Music (CD review)

Roy Goodman, Vasteras Sinfonietta. dB Productions dBCD148.

English conductor, singer, and violinist Roy Goodman has been a professional musician for over five decades, leading any number of well-known ensembles like the Brandenburg Consort, the Parlay of Instruments, the Hanover Band, the English Chamber Orchestra, and the European Union Baroque Orchestra. During this time, he’s made over 120 recordings and premiered over 40 contemporary works. But on the cover of the present album, Roy Goodman Conducts Mozart and Beethoven, he strikes a goofy pose worthy of Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat. Paint a little mustache on him and pretend he’s doing rumbas. Happily, there is nothing goofy about his performances of ballet tunes from Mozart’s Idomeneo and Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus.

The program begins with the little four-movement ballet sequence that closes Mozart’s Italian-language opera Idomeneo, which he premiered in 1781. Goodman produces a lively and buoyant opening Chaconne, followed by a lovely, flowing Larghetto. The conductor ensures that the transitions are seamless, so everything is of a piece. The next two segments Goodman takes at exhilarating speeds, though never hurried, offering up a conclusion both exciting and celebratory.

Beethoven’s dance music for The Creatures of Prometheus is much more extensive than that for the Mozart work, of course, Beethoven’s eighteen movements comprising a full ballet, starting with the familiar Overture. Again, Goodman gets the show started in invigorating fashion. Most of Mozart’s music here is pretty lightweight, to be sure, and without the actual dances as visual markers it’s not easy to follow the story. Fortunately, in Goodman’s hands you don’t need a story (and, yes, if you do need a narrative to follow, you can always read along from Goodman’s booklet notes). Goodman keeps the proceedings moving along at a healthy clip, maintaining the drama and the fantasy of the music neatly tied together. It’s all quite delightful, really.

Goodman does suggest in his notes that the music of Creatures may have marked a turning point in Beethoven’s output from the Classical period to Romanticism. And maybe that’s why Goodman presents it in so fluid, imaginative, and nonrestrictive a manner. As a final observation, if you recognize the theme in the last movement, it’s because the composer would use it in the finale of his Third Symphony a couple of years later. If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best.

The engineers at dB Productions recorded the music on May 6-11, 2011, in the Vasteras Konserthus, Vasteras, Sweden. It sounds vibrant, with excellent midrange clarity and transient response. The Vasteras Sinfonietta is a chamber orchestra of just over thirty players, so the recording captures a fine intimacy. Although the sound is a tad thin in the bass and maybe a little forward at times in the lower strings, it is no cause for alarm because there is also a touch of hall resonance as compensation. The engineers miked the affair at a moderate distance, producing a slightly constricted stage width but rather good depth. With dynamics that are not particularly extraordinary but more than adequate, the result provides an enjoyably realistic listening experience, with a sense of you-are-there presence. The eighth-movement Allegro of The Creatures of Prometheus is especially useful in showing off the recording’s depth and transparency.

And why the goofy cover picture? Who knows. Maybe Goodman was up to being a little silly, or maybe he just wanted to get our attention. He did--with his exemplary performances.


May 17, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D (SACD review)

Also, Serenade melancolique; Bruch: Scottish Fantasy. Arthur Grumiaux, violin; Jan Krenz and Heinz Wallberg, New Philharmonia Orchestra. PentaTone Classics SACD 5186-117.

I have always thought of Arthur Grumiaux as a rather sedate violinist, a refined and cultured gentleman seldom given to flights of fancy or overt showmanship. Thusly does his 1975 recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto strike me, a classic example of allowing the music to speak for itself. For comparisons, I had on hand two other skilled exponents of the bow whom I highly admire, Perlman and Heifetz, both of whom are more outwardly showy and energetic in the work. Well, there’s no denying that Tchaikovsky requires both technical virtuosity and a strong degree of passion, and I don’t mean to imply that Grumiaux hasn’t qualifications in either department. There is emotion in every note he plays. It’s just that his appears to be a more effortless passion than the others display.

Perhaps the man expressed his relaxed and sensitive approach to music making even better in the disc’s companion piece, the Bruch Scottish Fantasy, where Grumiaux allows the often-lyrical and rhapsodic folk tunes literally to soar. It is delightful.

The sound, which Philips recorded originally in four channels but made heretofore available only in two-channel stereo, is, like the performances, easygoing, warm, and slightly soft in its two-channel presentation, even in its SACD layer played back through a Sony SACD player. I found this especially apparent in the comparisons I made, the Perlman on a Chesky gold remastering, the Heifetz on one of  JVC’s XRCDs. Both Perlman and Heifetz sounded noticeably more focused and precise, with better orchestral depth. I’m not suggesting, however, that there is anything wrong with the PentaTone sound, and, indeed, many listeners may prefer it to the more analytical presentation on the Chesky and JVC discs.

A final concern: Why buy PentaTone? They make hybrid SACDs containing a multichannel layer (from 3 to 5.1 channels) and a regular two-channel layer. They produce some recently recorded work and some older, quadraphonic pieces. And, as I say, they are capable of holding up to 5.1 channels. But since Philips recorded the Tchaikovsky and Bruch in four channels, not five-point-one, the record company chose to keep it that way rather than try to synthesize a center channel and/or create a separate bass. I’d say if you have the capability of playing things back in the Super Audio CD format, PentaTone offers that distinct advantage. Another plus is that PentaTone probably mastered even the regular stereo layer to disc as well as it could be. I found the sound reasonably quiet, and, slightly soft or not, still quite natural and pleasant.

Then there’s a final reason for considering this particular PentaTone release: As far as I can tell, no one but PentaTone is still making the performances available new (although one can certainly find used Philips copies available). In any case, it’s a disc worth looking into.


May 16, 2012

Famous Marches (CD review)

Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra. HDTT HDCD251.

When I was growing up in the late Forties and Fifties, the most-prominent names in the classical world were Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski; but not far behind was Eugene Ormandy. Ormandy took over the Philadelphia Orchestra right after Stokowski and continued in the post for well over four decades. Yet, even as a youth I didn’t consider Ormandy a “great” conductor.” As odd as it seems, I (and I’m sure many others) viewed Ormandy as simply a workaday conductor, somewhat foursquare, competent but never special. It was an unfair evaluation, to be sure; after all, Ormandy excelled in many areas, particularly in the music of Bartok, Nielson, Orff, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, and others. Still, there was this image we had of a fairly ordinary conductor that millions upon millions of people just happened to love. Oh, well....

Anyway, this album of Famous Marches from Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra tends to put the lie to his being straightlaced; in these marches we see a meticulous conductor who presented the music almost exactly as we always imagined it. This was no letter-perfect Toscanini or wild-eyed Stokowski; this was a man who tried to put as little of himself into the music as possible, letting it speak for itself. Which is to say, these marches are not the most creative, distinctive, or scintillating around, but they are probably pretty close to being everything most listeners would hope they’d be.

Each of the thirteen selections on the disc is a genuine “famous” march. You name the march, it’s probably here, starting with Sousa’s “Star and Stripes Forever,” which you might have expected to close the show, but it makes a nice curtain raiser. Ormandy gives it an appropriate flourish.

Among my own favorites on the program are Gounod’s “Funeral March of the Marionette” (think Alfred Hitchcock Presents); Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida; Bizet’s “March of the Toreadors” from Carmen; Schubert’s regal “Marche Militaire”; and Elgar’s first and best march, “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1,” known to high-school graduates the world over.

Musically, Ormandy takes the “March of the Marionette” at a slow and stately pace. Gould’s “American Salute” exhibits a great thrust and vigor. The Aida march shows much splendor, even if Ormandy doesn’t seem particularly imaginative about it. Bizet’s “Toreadors” enter with a speedy rush as though already chasing bulls around the ring; while it’s probably a tad too fast for my taste, there’s no doubt it generates quite a lot of excitement. Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” has a genuinely magical appeal to it. In Prokofiev’s satiric march from “The Love for Three Oranges,” Ormandy provides a wonderfully faux-noble pomposity. Johann Strauss Sr.’s “Radetzky March” displays an impressive strut. And, finally, for sheer pomp and circumstance, you can’t beat Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” in which Ormandy goes all out to impart as much grand enthusiasm as possible; he may not capture all the drama of the music as well as Sir Adrian Boult or Sir John Barbirolli did, but it’s close.

In terms of the remastered sound, it comes to us from HDTT, High Definition Tape Transfers, the company that uses high-quality open-reel tapes in the public domain as its source material. I found the sonics, recorded by Columbia to a 4-track tape between 1959 and 1963, excellent, as I have found everything from HDTT. However, it was only after listening to the entire disc that I began thinking I’d heard it all before. I had. I checked out my own collection afterwards and found myself amazed to find I already had it in my collection! Well, close: What I had was a two-disc set of the same marches and more from Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra remastered by Japanese CBS/Sony in 1983, a set I’d bought some thirty years ago and hadn’t had the chance to listen to more than once or twice since. So not only did I have my notes on the sound of the HDTT disc, I had another, different remastering of the same material from Japan (presumably taken from the master tapes) for a side-by-side comparison. I’m happy to report that the HDTT sound was just as good as or better than the Japanese remaster.

The HDTT sound, which Columbia recorded in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, at various times, is at times massive and warmly reverberant and at other times close and slightly dry. In any case, it’s always big, big, big, as it should be in these marches, with a modest-to-strong dynamic impact and a superwide frequency range. Highs are quite prominent, maybe a little forward at times; midrange transparency is more than adequate; transients sound quick and lively; stage depth is realistic; highs are gleaming; and bass is evident when needed (that big bass drum is a band staple, no?).

And compared to the Japanese import? The HDTT disc sounded a touch more open and airy and perhaps just a hair brighter, with a touch of pre-echo between tracks. The CBS/Sony discs sounded maybe a shade warmer and smoother. It was so close, though, that one could argue a case for either side. However, the point seems moot because the Japanese discs appear to be out of print and unavailable even in Japan, just as the domestic Sony product has disappeared from the catalogue. No matter; the HDTT disc holds its own quite nicely.

As always, the folks at HDTT make their music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from Redbook CD’s, 24/96 DVD’s, and HQCD’s to 24/96 and 24/192 (on select titles) Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit


May 15, 2012

Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (CD review)

Also, Lux Aeterna; Mosaics. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony. Naxos 8.559701.

If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror movie Alien, you’ve heard a part of Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony, or if you have any Mercury LP’s or CD’s, you might have heard Hanson conducting any number of recordings he made in the Fifties and Sixties. Hanson (1896-1981) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, conductor, teacher, and musicologist who gave the world quite few good musical compositions as well as an equal number of good audiophile recordings. On the present disc, we hear his Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” and several shorter works, Lux Aeterna and Mosaics, all recorded by Maestro Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle Symphony in 1988, 1992, and 1994 for the Delos label and re-released by Naxos in 2011. Schwarz’s disc makes an excellent alternative to Hanson’s own recording of the Second Symphony for Mercury.

Hanson wrote the Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major, Opus 30, in 1930, with the subtitle “Romantic.” The subtitle is entirely appropriate as the work sounds much like a continuation of late nineteenth-century Romanticism, with shades of his Romantic contemporaries Rachmaninov and Sibelius along the way. Hanson was something of an old-fashioned holdover in this regard, saying that his intent was to write music “young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in temperament”; with the Symphony No. 2 he obviously succeeded. Viewed today, it’s probably his most-famous, most-accessible work. It’s no wonder we hear bits and pieces of it throughout popular culture.

The introductory segment of this three-movement symphony begins with a grandly melodramatic sweep and then opens up to a beautifully melodic theme we’ll hear in various guises throughout the work. Schwarz takes particular delight in the more poetic aspects of the score, while giving full measure to its rhapsodic qualities. Although Hanson tended to throw quite a lot into the stew, Schwarz holds it all together without its becoming too sentimental. Alien lovers will, well, love it.

Hanson once said that he did “not believe that music is primarily a matter of the intellect, but rather a manifestation of the emotions.” The symphony’s Andante con tenerezza (“moderately slow, with tenderness”) reiterates some of the first movement’s thematic content, although in much altered form, with Schwarz taking more of his time with it than the composer did in his own recording.

The concluding Allegro con brio (“quick and lively, with vigor and vivacity”) starts with a flourish worthy of Hanson’s teacher Ottorino Respighi and The Pines of Rome before settling into its lush, rhapsodic closing material. Schwarz again emphasizes the recurring theme, this time on a more grandiloquent scale, closing the show in fine fashion.

As companion works, Schwarz and company provide two of Hanson’s briefer pieces, first the Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”), from 1923. It was a common chant for a Requiem Mass and probably came about as a result of Hanson’s fascination for sixteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Palestrina and for Gregorian chant. It’s a rather somber, almost melancholic work, and Schwarz probably does more than anyone to make it seem more important and less pompous than it is. I admit it does exude a strangely calming effect.

The second filler, Mosaic (1957), is a later piece from Hanson, a brief set of variations in his usual brooding Nordic style. This is maybe Hanson at his most Sibelian, so take that as you will. Certainly, Schwarz does his best to bring out all the color and emotional intensity in the work.

Originally, it was Delos who recorded the sound, all three selections at the Seattle Opera House in 1988 (Symphony), 1992 (Mosaics), and 1994 (Lux Aeterna). The sound is quite expansive, stretching across the speakers and beyond, with a smooth response and a reasonable degree of depth besides. The midrange sounds a trifle thick, not as transparent in the Second as Hanson’s Mercury recording, which remains an audiophile choice, and there is just a hint of edge to the Seattle recording’s lower treble, evident in the strings from time to time. A strong dynamic thrust and a touch of ambient bloom complete a fairly lifelike acoustic picture.


May 11, 2012

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. RCA 88697 87147 2.

Maestro David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich continue their recorded cycle of Schubert symphonies with Nos. 1 and 2, which they released concurrently with No. 7 (8) “Unfinished.” As we would expect from this source, the performances and sound quality are quite good, and the disc makes a welcome addition to the catalogue.

The “however” is one of personal taste: I have never considered Schubert’s first two symphonies as anything particularly extraordinary. The composer wrote them while in his teens, and they lack some of the wit, charm, bounce, bubble, and inventiveness that mark his later symphonies. The major appeals of the present recording may be for collectors wanting some of the best available performances of Nos. 1 and 2 just for the sake of having them, whether they like them or not, and, of course, for those completests wishing to collect Zinman’s entire set. Still, the way Zinman plays the two works, one has a renewed respect for them.

Austrian Franz Schubert (1897-1828) was a prolific composer, writing nearly 1,000 pieces of music in his brief lifetime, primarily songs, yet he failed to publish many if not most of them and failed to gain the attention of the public at large. Given the number of truly great compositions he left us, it seems a shame he didn’t get the credit he deserved while he lived, but such is life. It is sometimes unfair. We live with it and, meanwhile, enjoy the music.

Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D major, D 82, in 1813, opening it with a grand statement in the Beethoven vein that, nevertheless, doesn’t seem on the face of it very remarkable. However, Zinman does bring out its life, its vitality, maybe its impetuous youthfulness. Moreover, there is an easy flow to the music, the rhythms dancing smoothly under the conductor’s direction. If the first movement is Beethovenian in character, the second is most definitely Mozartian, and Zinman approaches it with a light touch. The Minuetto and finale that follow are more dance-like than the preceding movements, and Zinman is careful to link these qualities to the composer’s later work.

The Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, D 125, Schubert wrote a year later, 1814, and it is longer and more ambitious than the First. Again, we get a slow introduction, followed by an agitated development section and a repeated theme. Zinman gives it plenty of spark, and the music comes across with an exuberant joy. The Andante finds Schubert playing with a set of variations, the theme again reminiscent of Mozart. Then, in a sudden burst of energy, we get a scherzo-like third-movement Minuetto and then a Presto Vivace in which Zinman with his zesty interpretation finds and delivers great delight.

So, even though I don’t see these symphonies as anything special from Schubert, Zinman almost makes one a believer. There may be more here than I thought.

RCA recorded the music in February and March of 2011 in Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland, to generally good effect. It exhibits fine overall imaging, depth of image, dynamics, and impact. The midrange sounds reasonably transparent, with a more-than-adequate separation of instruments. In all, the sonic image is open, airy, and slightly reverberant, creating a lifelike aural experience.

Heretofore (does anybody in the real world actually say “heretofore”? I dunno, but I like it). Heretofore, my favorite recording of these works was by Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (DG). And before that in the long ago, it was an ancient LP by Sir Thomas Beecham, mono and not very good sounding but still probably a benchmark in the works (although I don’t have it any longer to compare). After hearing Zinman, though, I think his reading is marginally sunnier, cheerier, and more penetrating than Abbado’s and RCA’s sound a touch cleaner. While it’s close, I’d say Zinman is now the man of the hour. I even like RCA’s artwork for the package.

If the RCA disc has any minor drawback, it’s the same as Zinman’s disc of the Seventh “Unfinished”:  It’s rather short on content. The two symphonies take up well under an hour of playing time. As I
say, a minor concern.


May 9, 2012

Kodaly: Hary Janos Suite (HQCD review)

Also, Dances of Galanta; arias from Hary Janos. Olga Szonyi, soprano; John Leach, cymbalom; Istvan Kertesz, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD257.

Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz (1929-1973) produced a remarkable string of successful recordings in his brief career, mainly during the period between 1962 and his untimely death by drowning a decade later. His performances of Bartok, Brahms, Kodaly, Mozart, Schubert, and in particular the nine Dvorak symphonies, most of which he made with the Vienna Philharmonic and as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony, remain among the best in the catalogue. Here we have an example of his work with the music of fellow Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, a recording remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

Kodaly (1882-1967) was still alive when Kertesz recorded the Hary Janos Suite and Dances of Galanta in 1964 for Decca Records, and the composer apparently enjoyed the conductor's performances of both pieces, especially the complete Hary Janos opera and the suite we have here. The folk opera Hary Janos (1926) tells of an old peasant soldier who returns to his village to spin yarns about his heroic exploits and fabulous adventures. Kodaly said he intended it to be a "mixture of realism and naivety, of comic humour and pathos." The public so enjoyed it that within the year Kodaly extracted a six-movement orchestral suite from it, which has become more popular today than the opera itself.

The six movements of the Suite bear the titles "Prelude: The Fairy Tale Begins," "Viennese Musical Clock," "Song," "The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon," "Intermezzo," and "Entrance of the Emperor and His Court." The titles are fairly self-explanatory, and Kertesz handles them with a deft touch, catching all of their whimsy and sweet sentiment. Moreover, the London Symphony Orchestra plays extraordinarily well, marking every turn of phrase with a radiant delight.

Under Kertesz, the "Prelude" begins with a sneeze (no, really) and progresses with vigor. The "Clock" displays an abundance of creative verve. The "Song," a lovely piece featuring key roles for various instruments including a cymbalom, is at first leisurely, wistful, gaining momentum in a dreamlike reverie.

"The Battle" segment was always the most demo-worthy part of the recording, largely because of Kertesz's enthusiasm for the subject matter and because of Decca's spectacular sonics. This one won't disappoint. In the "Intermezzo" that follows, Kertesz offers up a tensely effective dramatic contrast. It is also among the more easily recognizable music in the suite. Finally, Kertesz makes the "Emperor and his Court" as joyous and celebratory as any I've heard. It's a wonderfully infectious production.

The accompanying Dances of Galanta (1933) prove equally rewarding--glittering, incisive, lilting, sinewy, and resplendent by turns. Two final arias from the Hary Janos opera--"Poor am I still" and "Once I had a brood of chicks"--bring the album to a close.

This recording, which Decca made at Kingsway Hall in 1964, has always been something of a demonstration piece, and newly remastered by HDTT on an HQCD, it sounds better than ever. The stage is very wide and the sonics very dynamic. The range is enormous, with excellent air and depth to the acoustic. The midrange is impressively clear, if a tad forward and only on occasion a touch congested; the bass is more than adequate; the treble is well extended when necessary; and the separation of instruments is most lifelike. While the sound appears somewhat close up in the manner of much of Decca's work in the Sixties, it is not so close as to detract from the recording's overall realism.

As usual, the folks at HDTT make the music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from Redbook CD's, 24/96 DVD's, and HQCD's to 24/96 and 24/192 (on select titles) Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit


May 8, 2012

Bruch: Scottish Fantasy (CD review)

Also, Serenade. Maxim Fedotov, violin; Dmitry Yablonsky, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557395.

Like so many other composers, writers, and performers, Max Bruch (1838-1920) became mildly annoyed that people remembered him almost exclusively for one thing, in his case the violin concertos, and in particular the First Concerto. He did, after all, write hundreds of other works in a career that spanned over fifty years. But looked at in another light, I suppose it's better that people remember somebody well for one important thing than that they never remember the person at all.

Anyway, this Naxos disc aims to rectify the situation somewhat by presenting another famous piece by Bruch, the Scottish Fantasy from 1880, alongside a lesser-known work, the Serenade from 1900. The Fantasy is, of course, Bruch's compendium of Scottish folk tunes, over thirty minutes' worth, tied loosely together in five movements. Violinist Maxim Fedotov joins Maestro Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra in presenting both pieces.

Things begin rather oddly in the Scottish Fantasy with an introduction marked "Grave," which is exactly how violinist Maxim Fedotov plays it, literally. It's slow and solemn to the nth degree before giving way to the more familiar and frolicsome melodies that follow. However, Fedotov never really seems to let his hair down in this music, taking it all a tad more seriously than what some listeners may have in mind. Admittedly, I've become accustomed to the performances of Itzhak Perlman (EMI) and Jascha Heifetz (RCA), both of which are more joyous and outgoing than Fedotov, whose reading is somewhat more restrained and genteel.

It seems to me that Fedotov's approach to Bruch sounds better suited to the Serenade than to the Scottish Fantasy. The composer apparently first proposed the Serenade as a fourth violin concerto, which obviously never came off. Instead, we get a lyrical (yet long, almost forty minutes) set of generally Romantic themes, none of them easy to remember two minutes after hearing them. The work does not appear to have gone over too well with the public in 1900, incidentally, a public that was already finding music such as Bruch's rather old-fashioned compared to the emerging impressionism, expressionism, and such. Yet in Fedotov's hands the Serenade has a soothing lilt, even in the livelier sections. It may be entirely forgettable material, but it passes a pleasant time while it's playing.

Naxos's sound is in the big, warm category here, not revealing a lot of inner detail but most comforting to the soul after the stress of the day. For the record, so to speak, the Previn (his earlier one) is the best sounding of the three recordings of the Scottish Fantasy I had on hand, and the Heifetz is the thinnest and brightest. Still, nothing is so simple, because the Heifetz is also my favorite interpretation of the three. Oh, well....


May 7, 2012

Chopin: The Complete Preludes (CD review)

Vanessa Perez, piano. Telarc TEL-33388-02.

I was not familiar with Venezuelan-American pianist Vanessa Perez until I heard this Telarc recording of Chopin's complete Preludes. From these accounts, she certainly appears to be a pianist from whom we will be hearing much in the future.

Ms. Perez says, "The idea of recording all the Chopin Preludes came to me one night as I was playing them at home this past January. Chopin brings me back to my childhood [in Venezuela]. It connects me to every possible emotion, and to so many memories. It is music I have always loved, and that reminds me how truly blessed I am to be a pianist." Fair enough.

So, what are these Preludes of Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), and why did he call them Preludes? "Preludes" to what? In musical terms, a prelude might be any of several things: It might be a piece that precedes a more important work or movement; it might be the overture to an opera; it might be a wholly independent piece, usually of modest length, used to introduce a fugue or a suite; or it might be any music that opens or introduces a church service. But in Chopin's case, I think his Preludes are simply short, self-contained little piano pieces that kind of resemble improvisations but are, of course, well constructed, if a little rambling. My Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music describes Chopin's Preludes as "pianistic character pieces...each usually based on a short figure or motif."

Well constructed, rambling, lacking or not lacking in formal thematic development, Chopin's twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28, which he completed in 1839, allow for a good deal of interpretation, which is why we have gotten so many different performances of them over the years from piano giants like Argerich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, de Larrocha, Eschenbach, Kissin, Perahia, Pollini (still my favorites), Rubinstein, and many others. From what I hear on the present disc, Ms. Perez can safely take her place among them.

Ms. Perez plays with a deft, gentle touch, capturing the subtle nuances of Chopin's music with care, feeling, respect, devotion, and love. I enjoyed the way she takes her time with the music, never hurrying it, never over dramatizing it, never over emphasizing anything unnecessarily but letting it speak for itself in smooth, delicate tones. While it may, perhaps, seem to miss some of the brawn and bravura of a few competing recordings, I've never thought of Chopin's music as anything but serene and contemplative, just as Ms. Perez presents it. It might also be easy for critics to characterize Ms. Perez's playing as somewhat sentimental, but I don't see it that way. It never sounds romanticized, just affectionately performed.

Even the quicker items, like the No. 3 Vivace in G major and the No. 11 Vivace in E major, sound poetically graceful in Ms. Perez's hands. Moreover, the most famous of the Preludes--No. 7, for instance, the little Andantino in A major, and No. 15, the popular Sostenuto in D-flat major "Raindrop"--get exquisite treatment.

Ms. Perez has the distinction, too, of making the twenty-four Preludes sound almost of a piece rather than a disparate group of separate items. Under her guidance, they ebb and flow as a unified whole, giving the illusion of a single continuous work.

Filling out the disc are four additional selections: the Prelude in C-sharp major, Op. 45; the Prelude No. 26 in A-flat major (posth.); the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60; and the Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49. Needless to say, Ms. Perez applies the same careful, dexterous, illuminating style to them as she does to the Op. 28 Preludes.

Ms. Perez performed the works on a Hamburg Steinway CD147 piano, which Telarc recorded at Patrych Sound Studios, Bronx, New York, and released in 2012. The piano sounds beautifully balanced, not too close, not too distant, not too bright, not too soft. It projects a sweet, mellow, lightly resonant sound that nicely complements the meditative nature of the music.


May 4, 2012

Blessings, Peace & Harmony (CD review)

Gregorian Chant. Monks of the Desert, Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Sony Classical 88697 90204 2.

"...the kind of singing that we do calms the spirit and helps us live in peace with our world and with one another." --Abbot Philip Lawrence

Gregorian chant has always fascinated people, and you can find any number of recordings of it in the catalogue. Chant itself, traditionally a type of unaccompanied liturgical singing associated with the Catholic Church, has a long history, beginning with Pope Gregory in the Sixth century. It was he whom many early historians assigned credit for cataloguing and simplifying the music of the Church and after whom they named the particular kind of chant represented on this disc. Odds are, however, that Gregory had little to do with the chant we know today, which came to us mostly from centuries later. Chant does have the distinctions, though, of being among the earliest known music written out in the notation we recognize today as well as of being among the earliest examples of polyphonic music, that is, having two or more parts to produce a contrapuntal harmony.

Abbot Lawrence tells us in a booklet note that he and his Benedictine "Monks of the Desert" chose for this album to sing some of the selections because they were familiar to people, some because they were good examples of the music, and some because the monks had never done them before and just wanted to learn them. Fair enough.

About two-thirds of the music on the disc comes from the Catholic Mass. The other third come from devotional pieces, prayers for various occasions. Some of them will have titles familiar to most listeners, Catholic or not:  "Kyrie," "Gloria," "Sanctus," "Agnus Dei," "Salve festa dies," the program ending festively with five "Alleluias." The songs represent the Mass, the seasons, and, at the end of day, acknowledgement of Mary as the Mother of God.

Of course, it all comes down to the singing, and if the Monks weren't good, we wouldn't be discussing them. There are, as I say, certainly enough other recordings of chant out there to satisfy any listener. But the Monks are superb, their voices sounding as one. Although the disc booklet does not list any of their names except Abbot Lawrence (they are, after all, a modest and humble group who obviously do not wish to draw attention to themselves rather than the music), there is a picture of them, and they appear to number about fifteen. Yet the fifteen men are of a unified expression, their voices combining into a single, mellow, soothing, and wholly calming meditation. Their singing is beautiful in the extreme, their articulation, phrasing, even their breathing precise yet emotionally expressive.

The Monks of the Desert are a remarkably talented group of men who have clearly spent a good deal of time perfecting their skills. While I mentioned that their voices combine into a wonderfully integrated whole, they are distinct enough individually, too, making the overall result quite effective in more ways than one. As a group of its kind, they are as good as it gets. The monks would no doubt say they offer their songs entirely in the praise of God; we can only thank them for the comfort their voices bring us.

Sony recorded the music of the disc between 1996 and 2010 at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Abiquiu, New Mexico, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Santa Fe, New Mexico. In both venues, the choir sounds pretty much the same, with the Music Festival acoustic perhaps just a tad drier. In either instance, though, the sound is full, rich, open, and reverberant, the voices well rendered in a spacious environment fully complementing the nature of the music.

As a side note, I measured my blood pressure before listening to the album and again an hour later at its conclusion.  It was 126/80 at the beginning and 120/75 at the end. You think there's something to this relaxing effect of chant?

"It is always our hope that our singing will bring others to peace, inner tranquility and an appreciation of beauty. These values can help create a world in which peace and tranquility prevail."  --Abbot Philip Lawrence


May 3, 2012

Original Masters: Leopold Stokowski (CD review)

The Decca Recordings 1965-1972. Leopold Stokowski, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Decca 475 145-2 (five-disc set).

My guess is that the average man-in-the-street wouldn't know too many of the twentieth century's great conductors besides two instantly recognizable names: Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski. It's an interesting observation because we know the two men often took almost diametrically opposed approaches to their music making, Toscanini sticking scrupulously to the letter of a composer's score and Stokowski altering the score to suit his needs. People over the years have praised and damned both men for their methods, but it is perhaps Stokowski who has incurred the wrath of more critics.

Stokowski spent the bulk of his early career in Philadelphia creating a world-class, world-famous orchestra, leaving after twenty-five years to pursue a variety of conducting jobs all over the world, working well into his mid nineties until his death in 1977. Among other things, he did a series of recordings for Decca between 1965-1972 (when he was still a mere slip of a lad in his eighties and early nineties), and the record company has collected some of them in this five-disc CD set. As usual with Stokowski, there is controversy, both with the performances and with the sound, but I can't imagine the man in any other way. Stokowski without controversy would be like salt without pepper; the two went hand-in-hand, but it took away not a whit less of his genius.

Anyhow, we find on disc one a few of Stokowski's famous, or infamous, orchestral transcriptions of piano and organ works, starting with his celebrated rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue for organ in D minor. I was actually in my teens before I realized Bach had originally written this work for organ. I guess I grew up on Stokowski's version for orchestra. This was one of the last times he recorded it, with the Czech Philharmonic, and it's as good as ever; as are a half dozen transcriptions of other Bach works and another half dozen of things by Byrd (Pavan and Galliard), Clarke (Trumpet voluntary), Schubert (Moment musical No. 3), Chopin (Mazurka in A minor), Tchaikovsky (Chant sans paroles), Duparc (Extase), Rachmaninov (Prelude in C sharp minor, another of Stokowski's signature pieces), and Debussy (La Cathedrale engloutie). Whether or not you agree with Stokowski's rearrangements of these pieces, there's hardly any doubt they're entertaining.

Disc two contains several of the set's most outstanding performances, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 with the New Philharmonia and Scriabin's Le Poeme de L'Extase. The Fifth Symphony takes a mite getting used to. Stokowski makes a few cuts to the work and then takes it so broadly in several sections you'd think he'd fallen asleep; yet everything seems to work out just fine, leading to some of the most rousing climaxes imaginable. The Poeme is luxurious, too, but not so vividly recorded with the Czech Philharmonic as the man's earlier Houston interpretation (Vanguard).

Disc three I didn't care for as much as the rest. It includes Frank's Symphony in D with the Hilversum Radio Philharmonic and Elgar's Enigma Variations with the Czech Philharmonic. I used to own the Elgar on LP and finally gave it away because the sound was so unrewarding. Here on CD, the sonics are better, improved mastering perhaps, but the reading still seems excessively romanticized. The old man's Franck never caught fire for me, either.

Ah, but disc four presents a different story. It starts with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the New Philharmonia, a performance that does nothing particularly startling or innovative but turns out remarkably exciting. I could have wished for a less jaunty walk to the scaffold and a little more atmosphere in the "Witches Sabbath," but the work makes an excellent setting for Stokowski's showmanship and quite a demo piece. Following that are several works by Ravel, the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 with the London Symphony being another of the highlights of the box for me. It's sensuous, sensual, stirring, and as well recorded as anything in the set.

Concluding the show, disc five provides a somewhat mundane reading of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, quite a lot of sound and fury, followed by what may be the very best thing in the box, Debussy's La Mer, in a performance of unqualified expressiveness. Bringing up the rear is Messiaen's L'Ascension, a relatively modern work (1935) of poetic mysticism that sometimes eludes Stokowski's grasp.

Decca recorded all of the music, as I've said, between 1965-1972, and they utilized their Phase-4 technology for it, an attempt to recreate a spectacular sonic reproduction with close multi-miking. Arthur Lilley was the recording engineer in these sessions, and no matter where he recorded in Phase-4, the results sounded uniformly the same. The sonics will please some listeners and infuriate others, depending on the listeners' ideas about natural sound. On the plus side, the clarity, dynamic range, and impact are often quite impressive. On the downside, bass can vary, sometimes sounding distant or weak; louder passages can occasionally break up and sound very slightly harsh; and imaging is often flat and compartmentalized. Whole sections of the orchestra may speak at once while other sections go practically dead, a hole-in-the-middle effect sometimes evoked. It can be highly enjoyable most of the time and maddening at other times.

To their credit, however, these new remasterings sound as good as or better than any of the LP's of the same material that I remember, smoother, less hard, and less glassy. The best of the lot are Daphnis et Chloe and La Mer, which appear more unified than the rest. Note, though, that none of the sound is up to the work EMI engineers were doing around the same time in the early Seventies with their competing Studio Two discs. I should also mention that as with many other Decca boxed sets, the discs are difficult to get out of their individual cardboard sleeves without leaving fingerprints. Nothing is easy.

Nevertheless, while Decca's Phase-4 sound may be a little hit-and-miss--spectacular to ordinary--it's never bad, and the performances are so compelling they surely make up for it in worthwhile listening.


May 1, 2012

Whitacre: Water Night (CD review)

Hila Plitmann, soprano; Julian Lloyd Webber, cello; Eric Whitacre Singers; London Symphony Orchestra. Decca B0016636-02.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is an American composer, conductor, and lecturer who has enjoyed a remarkable spike in popularity these past seven or eight years, thanks in large part to several best-selling record albums of his mostly choral music, like his Light & Gold CD from 2010, and to his "Virtual Choir" projects on YouTube. In 2010 he signed a long-term record contract with Decca, the present disc his second release for the company.

You may have heard the aforementioned, GRAMMY-winning album Light & Gold. This one, Water Night, from 2012 is in much the same crossover-classical vein, the music sung and played by various groups including his own Eric Whitacre Singers and the London Symphony Orchestra, with a couple of well-known soloists thrown in and occasional Latin texts, which Whitacre, a student of the Juilliard School, seems to enjoy. I have no doubt that Water Night will enjoy the same kind of success that Light & Gold did, and it certainly deserves attention.

The question we have to ask, though, is, Why? Why does Whitacre get all the praise, glory, adulation, and profit that probably a thousand other talented classical composers don't get? I would propose several reasons: First, Whitacre strikes a central chord in listeners' hearts; his music is spiritually uplifting in the manner of Arvo Part's, with inspiring messages of hope and salvation for everyone. Second, Whitacre seems to be an old-fashioned Romantic at heart, his music sweet, amiable, and elegant; the tone tranquil; the tempos calm and soothing; the style straightforward, sometimes sentimental; the voices uniformly reassuring. Who wouldn't respond to that? Third, he has attracted some of the biggest and best names in the business to perform and promote his music, in this case the Decca record label, the LSO, soprano Hila Plitmann, and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Then, fourth, there is the man's pure sex appeal. OK, maybe you weren't expecting that one. But it's true. Just as record companies favor beautiful, young, female musicians who are not only talented but make attractive cover art, so does Whitacre himself ooze sex appeal. Just glance at his pictures: He's relatively young, with the rugged good looks of a movie star, trendy long hair, and a stubble beard so chic these days. He could have stepped off the front page of any voguish men's fashion magazine. So, yeah, he's got it all, and I'm sure he's deserving of every bit of it.

OK, I think we've established that Whitacre writes beautiful music. Can we truly call it "classical"? Of course, we can, and, besides, it doesn't matter how much it crosses over into pop. Music is music, and if you enjoy it, who cares what you call it. Will any of Whitacre's music become "classic," that is, lasting? That we won't know for forty or fifty years. Right now, I'd call his material pleasurable but not necessarily memorable. I can appreciate it while I'm listening to it, but I doubt I could whistle any of it five minutes from now. We'll have to wait and see on the "classic" end.

The program begins with what is one of the best numbers on the program, "Alleluia" ("Praise the Lord") sung by the Eric Whitacre Singers. The composer says in a booklet note that he's neither an atheist nor a Christian, but he finds this particular liturgical word enchanting. Although the hymn is little more than the repetition of the word "Alleluia," it conveys a wealth of feeling.

"Equus," with the LSO, one of the only purely orchestral tracks in the album, is an example of what Whitacre calls "dynamic minimalism." However, it is far more than that and sounds at times as though John Williams had written it for a Spielberg epic.

Another favorite among the nine selections is "The River Cam," with cello and string accompaniment. It is a piece of music in the British "pastoral" school, reminiscent of Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, Frank Bridge, or Ralph Vaughan Williams. It's quite lovely, and, for me, the best piece of pure "classical" music on the disc. I hope this one has a real lasting power.

The title tune, "Water Night," is one we heard on the Light & Gold album in choral form. Here, the LSO strings perform an orchestral version that I found even more affecting. Again, it follows a lightly meandering pastoral course, inspired by the poetry of Octavio Paz.

Then, Whitacre set some of the words from author Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" to music, here sung by Whitacre's wife, soprano Hila Plitmann with an accompaniment from the LSO. It's a charming lullaby and can almost bring tears to one's eyes.

And so it goes.

Recorded at St. Albans the Martyr Church, Holborn, London, and Henry Wood Hall, London, the sound is uniformly smooth and expansive, with an enormous dynamic range and solid impact. You won't find a lot of depth or air in the presentation, nor will you probably care. There are too many other things going on, like the superwide stereo spread and the extended frequency response. In other words, it is sound that matches and complements the music.


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