Jun 29, 2012

Janacek: Taras Bulba (CD review)

Also, Lachian Dances; Moravian Dances. Antoni Wit, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572695.

Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928) has never been the most-popular writer on the musical stage, but there are several of his works firmly established in the basic repertoire. Among these are his Sinfonietta as well as the subject of this disc, his "rhapsody for orchestra" as he called it, Taras Bulba, a piece in three movements he premiered in 1918 and which he based on sections of a novel by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. The three movements are small tone poems describing various episodes in the life of the seventeenth-century Cossack leader and warrior Taras Bulba and his vision of liberation for his people.

While one can find any number of fine recordings of the work on CD, for example those by Charles Mackerras and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca) and Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon), this new release from Maestro Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic is almost as compelling, and one may safely mention it in the same breath.

The music opens with the "Death of Andrij," Taras Bulba's youngest son, who has fallen in love with the daughter of his enemy and fights against his father, only to have his father kill him. Wit takes the opening very gently, building the love theme carefully. As he does with the rest of the Rhapsody, Wit adopts a broadly lyrical approach, letting the musical pictures unfold gracefully and deliberately. Nevertheless, when the high drama arrives, Wit is ready for it and creates a heady forward momentum. In other words, you'll get both Romance and excitement from the conductor.

The central movement, "Death of Ostap," deals with the grief of Taras Bulba's eldest son, Ostap, for his brother, Ostap subsequently captured by the enemy Poles and taken to Warsaw for execution. Bulba the elder follows in disguise and calls out in anguish at his son's death. Wit recreates the pain of Bulba fairly effectively, the music gliding effortlessly along under his guidance. Mackerras probably adds a degree more passion to the atmosphere, but it's close.

The final movement, "Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba," concerns the capture and death of Taras Bulba, and his final prophecy that "A Tsar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!" Here, Wit clearly expounds upon the importance of Bulba's final exclamation and ends the work on a tragically melancholy yet triumphant note.

Coupled with the rhapsody we find two dance suites by Janacek, the Lachian Dances (1889-90) and the Moravian Dances (1891). Janacek based the suites largely on Czech folk music of his day and well before, the songs describing a countryside and traditions quickly fading. They exhibit a much lighter, more joyous tone than the Taras Bulba music, as we might expect, and hint of Dvorak. Wit appears to be enjoying himself, and so do we.

Naxos recorded the music at Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Poland, in 2010-2011, obtaining generally good results. The sound is very smooth and natural, with a wider dynamic range and transient impact than we usually find on a Naxos release. Although the sonic picture is a tad lacking in overall transparency, bit heavy, and a slightly close-up, there is a decent sense of depth and space to the acoustic. Along with a strong bass accompaniment, the organ pedals sounding quite deep and authoritative, the result is pleasing, if not entirely "audiophile."


Jun 28, 2012

Offenbach: Gaite Parisienne (CD review)

Also, Waldteufel: Waltzes. Manuel Rosenthal; Willi Boskovsky; Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 85066 2.

It might be the best seven or eight bucks you spent in a long time. This budget issue from EMI has the distinction of being not only authoritative but spectacularly well recorded. What more could you want for your hard-earned dollar?

In 1938 Manuel Rosenthal pieced together a little ballet from some of the most familiar bits of Jacques Offenbach’s operas La Vie pariesienne, La belle Helene, Orpheus in the Underworld, The Tales of Hoffmann, and others. Rosenthal died in 2003, just short of his 100th birthday, but in his lifetime he managed to record his Gaite Parisienne at least three times, the last one for Naxos when he was in his nineties. Anyway, the recording we have here was one the conductor/arranger made with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic in 1976 when he was a mere stripling in his seventies.

When I first came to the recording on vinyl, I was happily living with my old Fiedler RCA Living Stereo LP from the mid Fifties (now remastered by both RCA and JVC). Frankly, it took me a while to warm up to Rosenthal’s version, but because it sounded so good I gave it repeated listens and it grew on me. Unlike Fiedler, who takes the piece very briskly as a concert work and turns it into a joyously infectious occasion, Rosenthal plays his ballet as a ballet, as a work for dancers actually to negotiate. As such, it does not have the characteristic bounce and sheer adrenaline rush of Fiedler’s more lively account. But Rosenthal’s taking his time does produce some beautiful detail and refinement that is hard to resist, and by the time he comes to the climactic “Can-Cans,” he’s moving along at a pretty good clip. What’s more, his recording is still demonstration worthy, with an amazing bass drum and some incredibly quick transients.

Equally as pleasant, the disc includes four of Emile Waldteufel’s most popular waltzes--Espana, Les Patineurs, Estudiantina, and Acclamations--with Willi Boskovsky conducting the same Monte Carlo Orchestra and also recorded in 1976. If there is any small hesitation about the absolute quality of the Offenbach, there is none whatsoever about the Waldteufel. These are some of the best recordings of the four waltzes ever committed to disc, and the sound appears even better spread out (for reasons unknown) than the Offenbach. If you already have a Gaite Parisienne, that’s OK. This one will make a nice complement to it; and what do you have to lose for the paltry price of experimenting?


Jun 26, 2012

Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (UltraHD CD)

Also, Night on Bald Mountain. Lorin Maazel, The Cleveland Orchestra. LIM UHD 056.

Since 1957, all recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (or "Moussorgsky" as it's spelled here) have pretty much fallen under the shadow of Fritz Reiner's famous RCA performance, which today continues to stand up as the most colorful, most descriptive, most exciting realization of the work available. However, in 1979 Lorin Maazel and Telarc Records were the first people to release a digital version of the music, remastered here by LIM (Lasting Impression Music), an affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music). Because Maazel did such a credible job with the musical interpretation and Telarc did such a good job with the sonics, we must consider their collaboration though not superior to Reiner's at least in the same breath as the older man's. This LIM remastering simply makes a good thing better.

The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote his vivid collection of tone poems (or "sound pictures," as he called them), Pictures at an Exhibition, as a piano suite in 1874. Afterwards, several people orchestrated it, the most famous and most often recorded version being the one we have here, arranged by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922. Indeed, it really wasn't until Ravel orchestrated it that it became the basic-repertoire piece we know today. Anyway, because the Mussorgsky/Ravel work became so popular, almost every conductor and orchestra in the world have now performed it, most of them recording it, too. So competition is understandably fierce, with Reiner (RCA), Muti (EMI), and Maazel among the standout contenders.

The album starts out, though, with Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (1867), perhaps as famous as Pictures or more so thanks to Disney's Fantasia and Leopold Stokowski. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated the one that Maazel plays. Maazel's realization is not as thrilling as Georg Solti's rendering (on Decca, and, coincidentally, also remastered by LIM as a part of the album Romantic Russia), which still sets the bar higher than anyone for ultimate exhilaration. And the old Stokowski arrangement (remarkably, also available on a Telarc from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra) will hold an affectionately nostalgic place in the hearts of many fans. Still, Maazel offers up a good, sturdy performance, and one cannot fault the Telarc/LIM sound.

It is in the Pictures at an Exhibition, though, where Maazel shines. Mussorgsky based the various sections of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The idea of the work is that the listener is wandering through a picture gallery viewing the paintings, which the composer recreates in music, going so far as to give us a musical number, the Promenade, to accompany our stroll from time to time.

The Cleveland horns shine forth brilliantly from the very beginning, and command much weight. The Gnome and the Old Castle that follow carry solid characterizations, if not quite as vivid as Reiner or Muti brought to them, nor with quite the sheer orchestral virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony for Reiner.

It's really in the second half of the suite, however, that Maazel comes into his own. The Catacombs, the Hut of Baba Yaga the witch, and the gloriously expansive finale at the Great Gate of Kiev show Maazel at his best. Of course, a part of this impression derives from the excellent Telarc/LIM sonics, which really knock you out at the end.

Telarc recorded the two works at the Masonic Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1978, and while it's one of Telarc's earliest digital releases, it remains one of their best. Although there was always a good sense of orchestral depth in the Telarc recording, the LIM remastering refines the smoothness of the sound, its warmth, and its naturalness. Dynamics are splendid, with taut, solid impact, and bass and treble show up well extended. The ultraquiet backgrounds ensure a lifelike response, and a light hall resonance adds to the realism.

Given its attractive, high-gloss, hardcover packaging, its twenty-page bound booklet, and its static-proof inner sleeve, the LIM product is a class product all the way. Just don't expect it to come cheap. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


Jun 25, 2012

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (CD review)

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen; The Hilliard Ensemble. CORO COR16098.

The British Library’s press release for their exhibition “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination,” which ran from November 11, 2011 to March 13, 2012, tells us “it is the first to display richly illuminated manuscripts from its Royal collection in such large numbers. Including 154 colourful and gilded handwritten books, dating between the 9th and 16th centuries and previously belonging to the kings and queens of England, these exquisite items are real treasures of the nation. The manuscripts, on display in the PACCAR Gallery, offer unique insights into the lives and aspirations of those for whom they were made, enriching our understanding of both the monarchy and the Middle Ages.”

Fair enough. And what CORO (the record label of the English choir The Sixteen) did to accompany the occasion was put together this compilation album of medieval and Renaissance music inspired by the exhibition, featuring previously recorded selections from The Sixteen and The Hilliard Ensemble. CORO released the album in 2012, but they give no date or place references about the recordings in the package. I suppose we should simply be glad we have them because they provide a broad overview of choral music from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a sort of “Greatest Hits of the Renaissance.”

For those who don’t know the two singing groups involved, The Sixteen are a United Kingdom-based choir and period instrument orchestra, founded by Harry Christophers in 1979, that has been making records and winning awards for over three decades. Since 2001 The Sixteen have been releasing their material under their own record label, CORO. The Hilliard Ensemble is a British male vocal quartet originally devoted to the performance of early music and founded in 1974 by Paul Hilliard. They, too, have released numerous best-selling albums.

For this Royal Manuscripts compilation, the folks at CORO have provided eleven tracks, with a running time of over seventy-four minutes. These include something of a “who’s who” of Renaissance music: John Browne’s Salve Regina, Robert Wylkynson’s Jesus auem transiens, Richard Pygott’s Quid petis, O fili?, William Cornysh’s Ave Maria, Mater Dei, Richard Davy’s Stabat Mater, Guillaume Dufay’s Agnus Dei, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, and several anonymously written pieces: Hail Mary, full of grace, Lauda: Regina sovrana, This day day dawes, and Christus surrexit.

As we would expect from two such celebrated singing groups as we have here, they execute each of the tunes superbly, the singing clearly articulated, the phrasing precise, and the musical expression uniquely strong. Among the tracks I liked best was the first one, the program opener, John Browne’s Salve Regina, taken from the Eton Choirbook along with three others. The Sixteen sing in heavenly voice, and the acoustic, a little bright, otherwise affords them a sympathetic resonance.

The choir also beautifully sing Wylkynson’s Jesus antem transiens. Here’s the thing with this one, though: The recording favors the left side of the stage for the first half of the music and then slowly, gradually, moves to the middle and finally the right side. It’s a unique experience, the singing moving across the field of sound, I assume intentionally although the accompanying booklet makes no mention of the effect.

Certainly, one of the loveliest of all the songs is the anonymous Medieval carol Hail, Mary, full of grace, again with The Sixteen. It’s a combination of sacred and common verses, the kind of thing finding favor at the time.

The first time we hear the Hilliard Ensemble is in the anonymous Lauda: Regina sovrana, and it presents us with a change sonically from the previous tracks. There are only the four men involved, who sing unaccompanied, the recording sounds more neutral, the venue is more reverberant, and the monophonic Lauda (a song of praise containing a single melodic line) appears more chant-like.

And so it goes, the music sometimes highly religious in tone and content, sometimes symbolic, and always treated in the highest regard by both groups of singers. The album ends with probably the most-famous piece in the set, Tallis’s Spem in alium (“Hope in any other”), a forty-voice motet that The Sixteen handle a little quickly but with great flourish, closing the show in style.


Jun 22, 2012

Vespers 1612 (CD review)

Music of Viadana, Gabrieli, Barbarino, Palestrina, Monteverdi, and Soriano. Robert Hollingworth, I Fagiolini. Decca B0016794-02.

Titles are everything, and I suppose this one, Vespers 1612 (or 1612 Vespers if we read it literally), needs a little explaining. The Vespers part is fairly self-explanatory; at least, for those folks who know what Vespers are in terms of music. Just as a reminder, Vespers refer to a late-afternoon or evening religious service. In the Roman Catholic Church, they form a part of the service evenings and often held as a public ceremony on Sundays and holy days, most often containing evensong, a form of worship that’s sung.

OK, the album contains vesper evensong. But what’s the 1612 all about? For one thing, the year 1612 marked the death of the great Italian composer of vocal and instrumental music Giovanni Gabrieli, very influential early on in the musical development of the Baroque age. In addition, it marked the first public celebration of the Venetian naval victory at Lepanto in 1571, a celebration that went on for over 200 years after the incident as the festival called The Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. (The Venetians figured Mary had a significant influence on the outcome of the battle and, thus, dedicated the festivities and devotions to her.)

Maestro Robert Hollingworth and his award-winning vocal ensemble I Fagiolini have attempted in this album to reconstruct what at least some of the program for that initial celebration might have been like. What we get in the reconstruction are world-premiere recordings of Vesper Psalms by Lodovico Viadana, a composer who helped usher in changes from the Renaissance to the Baroque period; the 28-voice Magnificat by Gabrieli; and a seeming host of other pieces from the era of multi-choir music.

I mean, if you called the album Baroque Vespers, Vol. IV, or, heaven forbid, just Baroque Vocal Music, Vol. CCCXVII, it wouldn’t have quite the same ring, would it? Anyway, the program begins with several short pieces by Viadana (c. 1560-1627), including his setting for Psalm 109 and four others. We notice quickly that Hollingworth and his team have varied the selections considerably, so that we get large groups of singers followed by more-intimate arrangements for smaller groups, even individual voices. They are all lovely and display a wide range of styles.

Bartolomo Barbarino (1568-c. 1617) next contributes Exaudi, Deus, with its stirring cornett solo. There follow more psalms and multi-choir pieces by Viadana, Palestrina, Monteverdi, and Gabrieli, some accompanied, some not, some with soloists, some not.

These all lead up to the centerpiece of the program, Gabrieli’s Magnificat a20, a28. Con il sicut locutus. In ecco, one of a pair of seven-choir arrangements that survive incomplete. Hugh Keyte supplied the reconstruction in this first-time recording. The battle music that constitutes the middle portion comes as a welcome surprise.

The singing itself sounds precisely articulated, yet not without adequate expression. The instrumental and vocal accompaniment, augmented by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and De Profundis (Cambridge), is light enough never to intrude upon the primary voices, and that includes the unobtrusive and almost ever-present organ. For anyone interested in the early Baroque period (or for those who are not, who knows), these multifaceted works with their breadth of expression provide a uniquely moving, rewarding, and often spectacular listening experience. More of an event, actually.

The sound is quite agreeable, recorded for Decca at St. John’s, Upper Norwood, London, in 2012. The engineers capture a fine sense of occasion, with a wide stage, and especially good depth and hall resonance. Occasionally, one notices a very slightly hard, bright, glassy response from closer sounds, but it is not enough to be a problem. In fact, these qualities often provide a more sharply etched definition for the sonics. As it is, we get rich, resplendent voices set in an environment with just the right amount of reverberation to simulate the live space of St. John’s in one’s living room. In short, it makes pleasant listening.


Jun 21, 2012

Falla: El Sombrero de Tres Picos (SACD review)

Also, El Amor Brujo; Danza from La Vida Breve. Alicia Nafe and Maria Jose Martos, mezzo-sopranos; Maximiano Valdes, Asturias Symphony Orchestra. Naxos SACD 6.110018.

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was one of Spain's most important composers of the twentieth century, and this disc brings together two of his most popular pieces of music, the ballets El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician) and El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat); plus "Danza" from La Vida Breve.

Maestro Maximiano Valdes and his Spanish orchestra, the Asturias Symphony, present the music well enough, and the Naxos engineers do a reasonably good job capturing most of it realistically. The first piece on the disc, El Amor Brujo, is a rather grim work, about twenty-four minutes long depicting a jealous dead lover haunting his former girlfriend. Valdes performs it in an appropriately dark and foreboding manner. Conversely, El Sombrero de Tres Pico is a lighthearted tale of attempted seduction, the music lasting almost forty minutes. Together, we get quite an ample amount of music, when for a fill-up we have the "Danza."

I would not say, however, that Valdes is more colorful in his music making than Charles Dutoit or Ernest Ansermet were in this repertoire (both on Decca). Indeed, by comparison it is still Dutoit and Ansermet who offer up more vitality, especially evident in The Three-Cornered Hat. Yet listeners may find themselves divided on the merits of the sound of the discs, the newer Naxos issue being a bit more subdued, the Deccas brighter or more natural, depending, and definitely more sparkling. It's hardly a moot point, either, as one can find the original Deccas in various configurations on regular CD's and even remastered on audiophile (albeit costly) discs from LIM.

Anyway, the folks at Naxos offer the recordings on both a regular compact disc at mid price and a Super Audio Compact Disc at regular, full price. The SACD offers not only the standard stereo layer but a two-channel DSD layer and a 5.1 surround layer. The Naxos sound, particularly in SACD, is wide, deep, and extended, a tad fat in the upper bass, but fairly lifelike. While this may not be absolute audiophile sound even in its SACD format, it is more than adequate for the occasion.


Jun 19, 2012

Bizet: Carmen Suites (UltraHD CD)

Also, Grieg: Suite from Peer Gynt. Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. LIM UHD 059.

There is little doubt that for the past hundred-odd years people have found the opera Carmen and the suites derived from it charming. Yet French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) would never live to see exactly how popular his final completed opera would become, the work seeing a poor reception in the year of the composer’s early death. Sometimes, life is unfair.

Bizet set the opera in Seville, Spain, during the early nineteenth century, the narrative involving a beautiful and tempestuous Gypsy girl, Carmen, who lavishes her affections on a young but naive soldier, Don Jose. He becomes so enamoured with Carmen, he spurns his former lover, deserts his regiment, and joins Carmen and a crew of smugglers. When Carmen subsequently rejects him and takes up with a bullfighter, Don Jose becomes so enraged with jealousy that he murders her. How’s that for melodrama! Here, on this 1979 Telarc release remastered by LIM, we get two orchestral suites from the opera, containing most of the famous music.

LIM (Lasting Impression Music), if you remember, is an affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music), a company that for the better part of a decade has been remastering classic older material, using the original master tapes and state-of-the-art processing. These days, they are using a new Ultra High Definition technology utilizing 32-bit mastering. They are also working with a number of recordings from the Telarc catalogue, Telarc being one of the companies that pioneered the digital revolution in recording.

Anyway, Telarc Records, conductor Leonard Slatkin, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra chose to do two orchestral suites from Carmen, the first containing six items, the second two. Suite No. 1 contains the Prelude to Act I, Aragonaise (Prelude to Act II), Intermezzo (Prelude to Act III), Seguidilla, Les Dragoons d’Alcala, and Les Toreadors (Introduction to Act I). Suite No. 2 contains only two numbers, La Garde Montante and Danse Boheme, but they are individually longer than those of the first suite.

In Slatkin’s readings we get sturdy, straightforward interpretations of the score, without too much characterization from the conductor. If you want more color in these suites, I would suggest you look to Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI), Paul Paray (Mercury), Leopold Stokowski (Sony), or Herbert von Karajan (DG). While these are much older recordings than the Telarc, they still sound pretty good, and the realizations are more creative. With these Slatkin renderings, it’s the sound that’s king.

Still, Slatkin’s version of the Intermezzo does come across beautifully, and Les Toreadors, which Slatkin takes at a rapid pace, is wonderfully exciting, especially with Telarc’s big bass drum pounding away in the background. Nevertheless, it hasn’t quite the swagger we hear from the aforementioned conductors. The Suite No. 2 has fewer but longer entries, as I say, and Slatkin gives them a fair amount of spontaneity, closing the show with a huge burst of energy.

Coupled with the Bizet sets is a six-movement suite from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), taken from the incidental music Grieg wrote in 1875 to accompany Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. I liked these selections from Slatkin rather more than I did the Bizet because there seems to be more life, more vitality, to them. Here, I found a more convincing depiction of the events in the play. The “however” is that recordings from Oivin Fjeldstad (Decca) and Raymond Leppard (Philips) can be even more imaginative, and while they don’t sound as good as these from Telarc/LIM, they are a lot cheaper.

Telarc’s producer, Robert Woods, and engineer Jack Renner recorded the music at Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis, in 1979, and LIM’s Winston Ma and Robert Friedrich remastered it using their Ultra High Definition 32-bit processing in 2011, releasing the remaster in 2012. The sound they obtain is better than anything else you’ll find in Bizet or Grieg. The definition is rock steady, firmer on the LIM remaster than on the original Telarc disc, and the bass and dynamic contrasts are slightly tauter. What’s more, the LIM brings out the imaging and depth better, too. Now, we’re not talking about night-and-day differences, you understand, but listening carefully and comparing, you’ll hear the improvements. Whether the LIM remastering is wroth the extra money, of course, is up to one’s ears and one’s pocketbook.

As icing on the cake (or to seal the deal, so to speak), the folks at LIM also provide an attractive, high-gloss, hardcover package, a twenty-page bound booklet, and a static-proof inner sleeve. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


Jun 18, 2012

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572486.

As so often happens in the world of classical recording, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. I mean, when a conductor and orchestra have to decide on what piece to record, should they go with a relatively unknown commodity and lose potential buyers who have never heard of the work, or should they go with a popular piece and risk losing potential buyers who already have multiple favorite recordings of it? In the case of Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, they have chosen in Bartok to go head-to-head with Fritz Reiner's celebrated RCA recording and both of Georg Solti's high-powered Decca performances. That Ms. Alsop and her team acquit themselves reasonably well on this low-priced Naxos disc is a testament to their talents, which do justice to the composer.

The disc begins with probably the most celebrated music of Hungarian Bela Bartok (1881-1945), the Concerto for Orchestra, the composer's last completed orchestral work, premiered just a year before his death. It's somewhat ironic that after a lifetime of writing music, his final composition would be his most-lasting contribution to the classical library. Bartok said that he titled the piece a "concerto" because of its "tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner." He also noted that the work transitions from the stark grimness of the opening movements, to a "death song" in the third movement, and to a "life-assertion" theme in the last.

Anyway, Ms. Alsop treats this death-to-life progression as well as almost anyone, although there are times when one wishes she had made the contrasts even more pointed. Best of all, she never sentimentalizes or glamorizes the music in the style of, say, a Karajan. She keeps it spare.

The second-movement Allegretto moves along at a graceful, if fairly leisurely, pace. It lightens the mood considerably.  In the third-movement Bartok turns to dark yet lyrical material, which the composer described as a "misty texture of rudimentary motifs." Like the description, the music seems rather generalized, and Alsop handles it in a kind of wispy, dreamlike way, building in mysterious, almost spooky intensity as it goes along, a "lugubrious deathsong," as Bartok called it.

Next, we find a brief Intermezzo borrowing (or parodying) Shostakovich that sets up the dance rhythms of the Finale: Presto, where Bartok went all out to show the vibrancy of life. Alsop treats it gently, yet with much joy. It's a worthy realization of the score.

I wasn't quite as taken by Ms. Alsop's interpretation of the coupling, though, Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, written in 1936. The composer had by that time been experimenting with "arch" forms, mirrorlike sequences of ideas building in one direction to an arch and then reversing in the second half. While she keeps the shape intact, Ms. Alsop's actual rendition of the piece seems just a tad wanting in atmosphere, impetus, and drive. Incidentally, if you don't actually know the music yet it sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because Stanley Kubrick used it in The Shining, sort of eerie music for an eerie film.

Naxos recorded the performances at Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore, in 2009-2010. In the tradition of so many Naxos recordings, the sound is slightly warm and soft. There is a nice room resonance that lends verisimilitude to the listening experience, so one does feel involved with the actual event. Reasonably good dynamics and frequency range help, too. Midrange clarity is adequate for the occasion, as is a strong mid bass and a moderately good sense of orchestral depth.


Jun 16, 2012

Chopin: Waltzes (CD review)

Also, Impromptus. Arthur Rubinstein. RCA 82876-59422-2.

When discussing the great pianists of the twentieth century, no one could fail to mention the name of Arthur Rubinstein. Indeed, for many piano enthusiasts, Rubinstein might be the only name cited. Born in 1887, the Polish-American virtuoso made his piano debut at the age of seven, continuing to play and record almost continuously through his eighties, dying in 1982 at the age of ninety-five. Of the man’s many musical specialities in the course of this amazing career was Chopin, an interpreter of whom there was none greater. He recorded the Chopin Waltzes several times, this one his stereo collection from June, 1963.

Rubinstein recorded the most common fourteen of Chopin’s Waltzes because those were the ones directly attributable to the composer, as opposed to the five or six more that scholars discovered after the composer’s death. Rubinstein played them like few others: cleanly, with vigor but without fuss, with energy but without eccentricity. Every note seems right, every passage a work of considered excellence and maturity. Technically, one might hear the Waltzes played in a more letter-perfect manner, but one cannot doubt the intent of the composer or the pianist in Rubinstein’s performances.

So, why should one buy this disc? First, obviously, because there are no better performances of the Waltzes. Second, because the album has been remastered and sounds better than ever, clearer and more precise than in its first CD incarnation from 1984. Third, because the album now includes as a bonus Chopin’s four Impromptus, recorded by Rubinstein in 1964 and themselves as good as or better than any other recording of the pieces on disc. The Opus 66, “Fantasie-Impromptu,” will break your heart. And fourth, it is because the folks at RCA/Sony offer the disc at mid price, which is a bargain no music lover should overlook.

It was good to see RCA (now under the Sony umbrella) back in action a few years ago with a reissued line of mid-priced Red Seal classics, each a bargain in itself. Of two other discs I sampled at the time, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 (82876-59411-2) with Horowitz and the Brahms Violin and Double Concertos with Heifetz and Piatigorsky (82876-59410), stood out. Although both of the recordings had been available for a few years in their present remasterings on CD, their availability at mid price is commendable. Also of interest are the Mahler Fourth with Levine (82876-59413-2), Debussy’s La Mer with Munch (82876-59416-2), Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Richter (82876-59421-2), and Schubert’s Symphony 9 with Wand (82876-59425-2). In all, there were twenty titles in RCA’s re-released Red Seal Classic Library, each one as intriguing as the next.


Jun 14, 2012

Mayer: Violin Sonatas (CD review)

Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin; Anne-Lise Longuemare, piano. Feminae Records.

Several points attracted me to this album. First, I was unfamiliar with Serbian-born violinist Aleksandra Maslovaric and wanted to know more about her work. Second, I was unfamiliar with the nineteenth-century composer Emilie Mayer and wanted to know more her as well. Third, the three Mayer violin sonatas presented on the disc were previously unrecorded, and I wanted to hear what few listeners had ever heard before. So, here was a perfect and ultimately rewarding opportunity to find out a few things.

In a day and age when polite society expected women to be at home tending to the family, German composer Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) was out and about doing a man’s work, writing music. More important, she apparently went at with a passion, producing eight symphonies, fifteen concert overtures, and numerous chamber works and songs. Like her more-famous and influential contemporary, Clara Schumann, Ms. Mayer traveled throughout Europe performing and attending concerts of her music.

The Mayer sonatas presented on this disc are clearly in the Romantic vein--beautiful, flowing, and melodic--and Ms. Maslovaric, accompanied by Anne-Lise Longuemare on piano, perform them in an equally beautiful, flowing, melodic manner. The material may not be important or memorable enough to warrant more than an occasional listen, but those occasional visits will assuredly be enjoyable.

The disc begins with the Sonata in E minor, Op. 19 (1867), the longest and most-mature work on the program. Here, we get a lengthy and energetic opening Allegro agitato, certainly underlining the agitation part. Yet with the movement we hear any number of tempo and mood shifts as the various themes pour out of the violin. Moreover, Ms. Maslovaric seems wholly dedicated to displaying the music in its best light, whether dancing lightly through the notes or stressing their intensity. The ensuing Scherzo is a happy, bouncy affair, and Ms. Maslovaric imbues it with a tender care that ensures we don’t see it as lightweight or frivolous. The Adagio has a faintly melancholy tone, and the final Allegro shows a brilliance that matches the opening section.

Next, we get the little Sonata in E flat major, which survives in manuscript form only. It evidences a good deal of creativity, and one wonders why the composer chose never to publish it. The final work in the album, the Sonata in A minor, Op. 18 (1864), is also a relatively short piece, its four movements totaling around twenty-three minutes. It displays some of the same qualities as the E minor Sonata, although in more compressed form. There are strikingly lovely passages of high Romanticism juxtaposed with vibrant moments of excitement.

For fans of chamber music looking for something a bit different, Ms. Maslovaric’s decision to emphasize in her repertoire classical works by female composers comes as a welcome change of pace for the record industry, and her recordings make a welcome addition to the classical music catalogue.

Ms. Maslovaric recorded the album at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA, mastered it at Romanowski Mastering, San Francisco, CA, and released it in 2012. Although the piano sounds slightly bigger and closer than the violin, the piano is also somewhat softer and more resonant, the two instruments both exhibiting a smooth, rich, natural response. Output seems a little high, so you’ll need to adjust the gain when you start it up. The violin is particularly lifelike, and the two players appear well imaged, with strong dynamic contrasts to set them off.


Jun 12, 2012

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” (UltraHD CD)

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. LIM UHD 053.

Telarc originally released this album in 1981, and at the time I remember their sending me an LP of it to review. I’m afraid that for one reason or another, it initially didn’t impress me much. It seemed to me back then that both the performance and the recording needed more weight. That turned out to be an unfortunate judgment because I shortly came to like the LP very much. That’s why I find this remastering by LIM (Lasting Impression Music), an affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music), so remarkable. After all these years, it seems like an entirely new recording, both sonically and interpretively. Part of my new appreciation stems from LIM’s extravagant Ultra High Definition 32-bit processing, of course, and part of it is that I probably never gave the recording its proper due in the first place. In any event, listening again after all these years, I found it a complete delight.

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, “Emperor,” in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would be Beethoven’s final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of the man’s most-popular pieces of music.

Any rendition must offer a big, bold, imposing opening Allegro, with its long, grand introduction, which Serkin provides, the pianist adopting a moderate, never breathless pace, and Ozawa giving him the chance to create a most-heroic solo contribution. It’s a nuanced performance from Serkin, yet each facet of it works, from the softest passages to the most ardent segments. Beethoven intended the opening movement to be monumental, and Serkin and the orchestra respond to it accordingly. The players perform their duties in exemplary fashion, with no lack of power, passion, grandeur, or insight.

In the central Adagio, we get one of the loveliest melodies Beethoven (or anyone else) ever wrote, a brief duet between piano and orchestra, and Serkin handles it almost as tenderly as anyone. True, Serkin hasn’t quite the poetic bent of Wilhelm Kempff, with Serkin seeming a tad more mechanical and matter-of-fact by comparison. Still, it’s so close, I wouldn’t quibble. 

With Serkin, the hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro registers a distinctive character and takes the concerto on to glowing heights, Serkin playing in fine, melodic style driving toward a wonderfully refined yet exuberant conclusion. Serkin may have been up in years when he made this Telarc recording (he was close to eighty at the time), but he doesn’t show it. Of his several recordings of the Fifth Concerto, this one from Telarc is surely his finest, most glowing, most magisterial, most self assured, most exultant rendering of them all.

In terms of ranking the great recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, one must place Serkin among the very best, alongside Kovacevich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Kempff, Brendel, Pollini, Fleisher, Gieseking, Horowitz, Curzon, Rubinstein, Gilels, Cliburn, Perahia, and a very few select others. It’s that good. 

The audio, which Telarc recorded digitally in 1981 at Symphony Hall, Boston, and which LIM remastered in 2011 and released in 2012, is big and bold to match the performance. LIM’s 32-bit Ultra High Definition processing results in a beautifully natural piano sound and a dynamic orchestral support, making an almost ideal combination of instrumental sonics. We also hear a touch of ambient hall bloom, helping the piano appear rich and resonant, and there’s good clarity throughout without being in any way bright, hard, or edgy. In short, this LIM product is the best-sounding Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto I have ever heard, and a brief comparison to over half a dozen other recordings of the piece I had on hand confirmed this impression.

Considering, too, its attractive, high-gloss, hardcover packaging, its twenty-page bound booklet, and its static-proof inner sleeve, the LIM product is something of an audiophile’s dream. Just don’t expect it to come cheap. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


Jun 11, 2012

Music for the Berlin Court of Friedrich the Great (CD review)

Music of Graun, Nichelmann, Friedrich II, and Bach. Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902132.

According to the back cover of this Harmonia Mundi release, “The year 2012 marks the tercentenary of the birth of Frederick the Great, whose political and military glory has often relegated his musical talent to the status of a mere hobby. But Frederick II was not only the key personality of Berlin musical life for the whole 18th century--as is shown by the work of the composers presented on this CD, all of whom worked at his court at some point in their careers--but also an excellent flautist who left posterity a number of fine flute sonatas from his own pen.”

The disc contains five works from four composers, including Friedrich II, king of Prussia from 1740-1786. They amply display the creative breadth of the court’s musicians.

Things begin with Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771) and his Overture und Allegro in D minor. Like the other selections on the disc, the music is not particularly memorable, but it is noteworthy for its lively style, and the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, the award-winning chamber orchestra that has devoted itself to the study and performance of ancient music for the past thirty or more years, play the music with an undisguised enthusiasm. These works from Graun provide an exhilarating start to the program.

After that, we get the Concerto per il Cembalo concertante in C minor by Christoph Nichelmann (1717-1762), a typical three-movement work that features some invigorating harpsichord playing in the opening Allegro. If the ensemble tend to rush things a tad, I suppose it’s their prerogative; I’d have liked them to slow it down a trifle. As Nichelmann also wrote songs, one can understand why his central Adagio sounds so rhapsodic; it seems like something from the Romantic period rather than a century earlier. A quick little Presto concludes the piece.

Then we come to one of the many works by Friedrich II (1712-1786) himself, the Flute Sonata in C minor, Nr.190. The king was an accomplished flutist and composed over a hundred sonatas for the instrument. This sonata’s three movements follow the outline slow, moderately fast, and faster. The music is sweet, the solo flute and fortepiano gliding along effortlessly.

Next, we are back to Graun, this time with his Concerto per il Viola da Gamba concertata in A minor. I enjoyed this piece more than Graun’s earlier one on the disc, perhaps because of the lovely sonority of the instrument. The cello would later supplant the viola da gamba in modern orchestras, but it certainly has a plaintively distinctive sound. The work itself is one of the most pleasurable on the program.

The album closes with a piece by the most-famous composer on the disc, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), his Sinfonie Nr. 1 in D major. This was an early example of the then-developing symphony form, and as such it sounds more mature, better elaborated, than the concertos that precede it. The ensemble is no longer merely supporting a solo instrument but creating a variety of contrasting sounds of its own. We can see where it’s going and how the symphony form would come into its own with a few more decades. The Akademie play it with great zest, and even though they again seem to take things at a rather heady pace for my liking, they maintain a refined dignity in the process.

Recorded at Teldec Studios, Berlin, in 2011, the sound is very slightly on the hard, bright, metallic side; yet it displays excellent depth and clarity, too. The imaging is precise, dynamics are more than adequate, and while the frequency range doesn’t appear too extended, it’s sufficient for the music. There is also a good, rich tone from the harpsichord that comes as a welcome addition.


Jun 8, 2012

Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks (CD review)

Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik. Tafelmusik Media TMK1011CD.

In 1749 the British Crown commissioned George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), German born but by then long a naturalized British subject, to provide music to accompany a huge fireworks display commemorating the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The government held the celebration outdoors on the night of April 21 in Green Park in an enormous wooden structure built especially for the occasion.  Apparently, the affair was a huge success in spite of some disappointing fireworks and a part of the building burning down. That much we know. What we don't know is exactly what instruments the band employed for the première performance. The autograph score indicates 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, and four sets of timpani. It doesn’t say anything about strings, a condition supported by the King's own dictate that there be "no fidles." However, it's not that simple because an observer on the afternoon of rehearsal wrote that he witnessed some 100 musicians in the orchestra. Surely, this would suggest that Handel had added about 40 or so strings, against the King's wishes. Moreover, Handel's own later editions of the score indicate strings. 

With no immediate, reliable written witnesses of that first evening’s performance, we may never know which of the many recordings of the Royal Fireworks Music is closest to the historical event. Most recordings either use much-reduced forces, such as here, or modern instruments, like Charles Mackerras's versions with full orchestra and military band.

In any case, the Canadian-based period-instruments ensemble Tafelmusik use a small group of players that includes strings. While the full Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra includes six violins, two violas, two cellos, a double bass, and about a dozen or more other players, their booklet picture shows about sixteen people, which may be their actual complement for the Fireworks Music, I’m not sure. What is clear is that the ensemble is quite a lot smaller than probably played on the night of the work’s première; however, since subsequent performances in Handel’s day saw greatly reduced forces, too, this is not an issue with the Tafelmusik release. The present release, incidentally, is one the folks at Tafelmusik originally issued in 1999 and are now reissuing on their own Tafelmusik label. It’s good to have it back in the catalogue.

The Tafelmusik musicians under Ms. Lamon’s direction play in their usual precise yet lively fashion. The speeds when moving along in the faster sections never inch toward full-gallop mode but remain steady (and heady) at a moderate pace. The timpani, too, make an exciting contribution. This is no doubt one of the best performances one can buy in terms of execution and playing, and for me it is second only to Trevor Pinnock’s recording with the English Concert for Archiv. Still, the differences between Lamon’s version and Pinnock’s are so close that choice may come down to a preference in sound. Both sets offer elegant, thrilling performances.

Accompanying the Fireworks Music are Handel’s Concerti a due Cori Nos. 1-3. Although I would have preferred hearing Tafelmusik doing Handel’s Water Music, a coupling we find on many competing discs, the Concerti are fine, and, of course, immaculately performed, the two choirs of wind instruments particularly beguiling. Handel probably used these instrumental suites between parts of his various oratorios, yet they are by no means throwaway pieces. The first two works are the most exuberant and extroverted, the third one more sedate.

The recording, made at Humbercrest United Church, Toronto, Canada in 1997, makes the ensemble sound bigger than it is, thanks to the warm, spacious acoustic. Nevertheless, it also provides a reasonable degree of detail, with a full, rich tone. The recording hasn’t quite the midrange transparency or immediacy of Pinnock’s account on Archiv, but it’s close. For the person who hasn’t already investigated the Tafelmusik recording, there is much delight in store.


Jun 7, 2012

Vienna (XRCD review)

Music of the Strausses and Weber. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24025.

I love this stuff. I love waltzes, the Strausses, conductor Fritz Reiner, the Chicago Symphony, and audiophile remasterings such as this XRCD from JVC (Victor Corporation of Japan). What I don’t particularly like is the cost. But with an ever-diminishing list of audiophile material available to the music lover, I suppose we should savor what little we have and be willing to pay the price.

Here are the upsides to the JVC product: I like the music, of course, and the way Reiner plays it. Like almost everything the man conducted, it comes out fresher, more pointed, more secure, and more clarified than ever before. Sure, Willi Boskovsky put more bounce, more verve, into in Strauss waltzes, but Reiner adds the element of purity. I like the selections, three Strauss, Jr. waltzes: “Morning Papers,” “Emperor Waltz,” and “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”; Strauss Jr.’s brother Josef Strauss’s waltz “Village Swallows”; Karl Maria von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance”; and Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier Waltzes.” And I like JVC’s elegant packaging. Usually, I wouldn’t care for the Digipak approach. I always worry that I’m going to damage a part of the center spindle and then be without a case altogether. Yet JVC’s packaging is quite robust, and it simply looks better than most other such housings I’ve come across, save for FIM/LIM’s.

Most important, though, I like JVC’s impeccable 24-bit remasterings. Compared to RCA’s own release of this material, the JVC product is clearer and tighter, with greater dynamic impact. Using two separate CD players for instant comparisons (adjusting each disc for equal volume and trading them out to ensure I wasn’t listening to the sound of the players rather than the sound of the discs), I found the regular RCA sounding very slightly softer and more veiled than the JVC remaster, with less punch. Interestingly, the XRCD processing results in the JVC’s bass seeming less loud, but in compensation we get a heightened force, impact, and tautness, which is far more impressive than mere bass volume.

Still, there are always downsides, and here are a few negative aspects of the JVC disc: It doesn’t contain as much material as the RCA “Living Stereo” release, which also includes not only the material from the original 1957 Vienna album but four additional Strauss waltzes from a later Reiner recording. And the JVC issue is almost twice the price of the RCA.

Clearly, JVC XRCD’s are not the most practical purchases in the world. They are for those few pieces of music we cherish most and want to own and listen to in the absolute best possible form. Sometimes, the very best costs extra.


Jun 5, 2012

Tchaikovsky: 1812 (UltraHD CD)

Also, Capriccio Italien; Cossack Dance. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. LIM UHD 052.

“Caution! Digital cannons. The cannons of the Telarc Digital 1812 are recorded at a very high level. Low listening levels are recommended for initial playback until a safe level can be determined for your equipment.”

How many discs do you know of that warn you in advance they can destroy your sound system?

As of this writing, it’s been over three decades since Telarc first released its celebrated digital recording of the 1812 Overture. That was back in 1979, and it’s the recording with the big cannons that helped put the company on the map. Telarc Records had already released several other vinyl LP’s before then, but none of them had made the impression the 1812 did. Now, the folks at LIM (Lasting Impression Music), the affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music), have used some of the world’s most-advanced audio techniques to remaster the work on CD in their Ultra High Definition, 32-bit mastering process. If you’re an audiophile, you probably already have a few of producer-owner Winston Ma’s FIM and LIM discs in your collection, and you know what they can do. If so, this Telarc remaster might be just the thing to show off your system.

Anyway, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his 1812 Overture in 1880 to commemorate Russia's defense of Moscow against Napoleon's advancing army at the 1812 Battle of Borodino. As usual with the composer, he didn’t think much of his own work. He complained that he was "not a conductor of festival pieces" and that the Overture would be "very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” Be that as it may, along with a couple of his ballets, it has become his most-famous and most-performed work.

The 1812 opens softly with low cellos and violas playing the introduction. Be sure to keep the volume low or you may be sorry later on. The dynamic range is huge. This is one of the late Maestro Erich Kunzel’s more-animated performances, so you’ll enjoy how he creates, expands, and releases some finely tuned outbursts of energy. This is celebratory music, after all, and Kunzel makes sure we understand that. Overall, though, I admit I am still not quite as thrilled by Kunzel’s approach to the piece as most listeners, my finding it too often a little pedestrian and middle-of-the-road. I prefer the greater excitement of Andre Previn and the LSO (EMI), Sian Edwards and the Liverpool Philharmonic (EMI), or Antal Dorati and his old Minnesota players (Decca/Mercury). What I liked most on Kunzel’s disc, though, was his sunny yet urgent reading of the Capriccio Italien; and the listener might find the disc worth its asking price for that alone. The other track is the “Cossack Dance” from Mazeppa, which is quite brief.

Nevertheless, this Telarc recording is really about the sound. It’s an audiophile disc of the first order, and the more-than-acceptable performance of the 1812 is merely a secondary consideration. As we would expect, Telarc’s patented big bass drum does its best to keep our attention, and the cannons go off loudly enough to rupture a speaker cone. Indeed, as I mentioned before, Telarc and LIM warn us throughout the packaging to keep the volume initially low until we can determine a safe level of playback for our system. However, they don’t exactly clue us in as to what that safe level may be, as the cannons don’t come into the picture until the very end of the piece, by which time it may be too late. Then, Telarc/LIM exacerbate the problem with a lower-than-average playback level to begin with, about six or eight decibels lower than the output of most other classical CD’s, which may encourage some listeners to turn things up too high in the first place just hear it. Remember, there is an enormous dynamic range involved, meaning the difference between the softest and loudest notes. So if it starts quietly, you can be assured it will get louder before long.

Telarc recorded the album at Music Hall, Cincinnati, in 1978, releasing it the following year. LIM remastered it in their Ultra High Definition, 32-bit processing format in 2011, releasing it in 2012. The remaster is as free from distortion as anything you’re liable to hear, reproducing Telarc’s already splendid sound to the fullest and most natural. Not only is the bass deep (a booklet note says the cannon fire dips down as low as six cycles), the imaging is excellent, left-to-right and back-to-front. What’s more, we get wonderfully clear, clean, extended highs, especially evident in the Capriccio.

In addition, given its lovely, high-gloss, hardcover packaging, its twenty-page bound booklet, and its static-proof inner sleeve, the LIM product is about as audiophile as they come. Just don’t think it comes cheap. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


Jun 4, 2012

Fasch: Orchestral Suites (CD review)

Pal Nemeth, Capella Savaria. Dynamic DM8029.

Who?  German violinist, composer, and kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758) was another of those artists that audiences and critics respected during his lifetime but whose music soon faded into obscurity after his death. Remember, there were no phonograph records and no radio or television to keep the musical arts alive, and with changing attitudes in music, changing instruments, and changing orchestral sizes, older ideas often died or got lost along with their composers. Critics of Fasch’s day thought so much of the man, they would often hold his music in the same regard as that of Bach and Telemann. The present disc contains three of his orchestral compositions representative of his work.

The Suite in F major, a six-movement suite, starts with a typically French-sounding overture. Played by the Capella Savaria, a Hungarian period-instruments ensemble under the directorship of Pal Nemeth, the suite displays a pleasing and lively spirit. After the overture, there continue the usual dances and interludes: airs, bourrées, gavottes, plaisanteries (amusing pleasantries), and, of course, minuets, which end each suite.

For me, the most-delightful work on the program is the little Suite in D major, also in six movements. It has a most-regal and stately overture that is quite fetching. Nemeth then infuses the rest of the suite with an equal charm. The music is light and flowing, never raucous, edgy, or annoying in any way, the airs particularly lyrical and sweet, especially the second one.

The disc concludes with the longest of the selections, the Suite in A minor, containing ten movements. If one is listening to the album straight through, yet another of these sets may be a bit much, but taken one suite at a time, they can be quite satisfying. Anyhow, the A minor Suite starts in a more serious fashion than the others, finally giving way to a breezier, rhythmic pulse and more courtly moods. As before, the Capella Savaria play with vigor and finesse, and Maestro Nemeth’s direction appears impeccable.

Recorded at Saleszianer Theater, Szombathely, Hungary in 1999 and re-released by the Dynamic label in 2012, the sound is warmly and spaciously vibrant. The theater exhibits a rich, resplendent resonance, and together with the engineers capturing a good left-to-right and front-to-back image, the sonics are as lifelike as possible. The idea here was not to reproduce the most-transparent midrange but the most-realistic overall impression.  In this regard, one must count the recording a success.


Jun 1, 2012

Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (HQCD review)

Also, Concierto serenata for harp.  Narciso Yepes, guitar; Ataulfo Argenta, Spanish National Orchestra; Nicanor Zabaleta, harp; Ernst Maerzendorfer, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD259.

First, a brief, and I think remarkable, coincidence. About three weeks before this writing, I was listening to the car radio and the station was playing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. By whom I don’t remember, but it got me to thinking about the first recording I ever owned of the piece. It was by Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes and conductor Ataulfo Argenta with the Spanish National Orchestra on a London LP that I bought sometime in the 1960’s, a recording I dearly loved but had long ago abandoned at the outset of the CD era, figuring to replace it with the equivalent silver disc. It didn’t happen, and I finally forgot all about it. So, after the radio reminded me of the recording, I set out to buy a CD copy, to no avail. Decca had either never released the Yepes performance on CD or it was so long out of print that nobody had even a used Decca or London copy available. It hugely disappointed me. Then I happened to check HDTT’s Web site, and lo and behold, they had just remastered it! Sometimes, I think I’m psychic. And hugely happy.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) wrote the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra in 1939, and it eventually established Rodrigo’s reputation as a leading composer for the classical guitar. I say “eventually” because it wasn’t until Yepes and Argenta recorded it in monaural in the late Forties that it really took off worldwide. Even though Yepes would record the work again several times, this 1959 Decca release remastered by HDTT is their best collaboration, and I still think one of the best versions, if not the best version, of it on record. Best of all, on HDTT it’s even better than I remembered, sonically and musically.

Anyway, despite the fact that Rodrigo always claimed the gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez had inspired his writing the piece, one can’t help thinking that, given the year of its publication, the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War didn’t tinge it with melancholy. Rodrigo’s wife denied this, saying the slow movement drew on their happy days together and a miscarriage she endured. Whatever, it’s a lovely, evocative piece of music, and, as I say, nobody did it better than Yepes and Argenta.

The composer described the first movement Allegro con spirito as "animated by a rhythmic spirit and vigour without either of the two themes interrupting its relentless pace." Here, Yepes is lively but gentle, too, an ideal lead-in to the tenderness of the famous Adagio that follows.

Rodrigo said that the second movement "represents a dialogue between guitar and solo instruments” (cor anglais, bassoon, oboe, horn etc.). What he didn’t say was how utterly beautiful is was, something performances after performances have been saying for over seventy years. Yepes says it best with an interpretation filled with tenderness, naturally, and hushed passion. Some critics found Yepes too mechanical or even too lackadaisical, particularly during his later years. That may be; I haven't heard much from him. But not here. Finding a perfect partnership with Maestro Argenta, who helped tutor the young guitarist early in his career, Yepes produces one of the finest, most complete realizations of the score possible.

Then there’s that perky little closing tune, the one Rodrigo said "recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar." Yepes takes it at a moderate gait, without going all crazy with it. It closes the piece adeptly, maintaining the light, flower-scented mood of the rest of the work. After all, Rodrigo had described the concerto itself as capturing "the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains" in the gardens of Aranjuez. Yepes takes him at his word.

Other guitarists have done justice to Rodrigo’s masterpiece, to be sure, and I would not want to be without Bonell, Williams, Bream, the various Romeros, and others. However, for an all-around engaging, entrancing, spontaneous realization in early though still state-of-the-art sound, it’s hard to beat this Yepes-Argenta partnership in its present remastering.

The disc’s coupling, the Concierto serenta for harp and orchestra (1952) seems to have been Rodrigo’s attempt to duplicate the success of Aranjuez, this time using the harp. Certainly, no recording of it has surpassed that of Nicano Zabeleta and conductor Ernst Maerzendorfer for pure, magical charm. It makes a most-attractive pairing.

HDTT remastered the Aranjuez from a London LP, recorded in 1957 and released in 1959, HDTT burning it to an HQCD. The sonics have an excellent depth of field, the listener able to hear sounds well back into the orchestra with a realistic sense of air and space around them. Transient attack is sharp and strong, the guitar a little close but still quite natural and lifelike. With the remastering engineer’s judicious use of noise reduction, the recording sounds as quiet, clear, and clean as any new product. Rodrigo’s Harp Concerto comes from a DG LP made a few years later than the Aranjuez. While the Harp recording doesn’t have as much transparency or immediacy as the Aranjuez, it is still pleasant in a slightly flatter, more hi-fi sort of way.

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 Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa