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.
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer
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 John 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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer
For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.
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
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