Jul 31, 2012

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (SACD review)

Richard Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music. Harmonia Mundi HMU 897461.62.

You may remember that the Academy of Ancient Music, a period-instruments group, already recorded Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos once before, some years ago under Christopher Hogwood. So why would they want to release another set in 2009 under the direction of Richard Egarr?  (Yes, I got to this one a little late, but better late than..., no?) Anyway, Egarr explains that this set of Brandenburgs differs from most other sets in several ways: First, they chose “to present them with one player per part, which certainly highlights the chamber aspect of the music” and “also allows for a balanced dialogue between soloists and tutti.” Second, they chose to adopt “what is referred to as ‘French’ Baroque pitch, i.e. A = 392Hz. This choice is suggested by the French-model (indeed French-played) wind instruments that dominated Bach’s area of Germany at the time the Brandenburgs were written. This has an extraordinary effect on the ‘richesse’ of sound in the music” and it “alters and improves certain usually problematic balances.”

Fair enough. But are the results worthwhile with so many other notable Brandenburg sets on the market? I mean, just the fine ones from Pinnock (Avie and Archiv), Marriner (Philips), Lamon (Tafelmusik or Sony), Leppard (Philips), Savall (Astree), Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre), Apollo’s Fire (Avie), and Leonhardt (Sony) could fill a shelf. Well, obviously, that answer one can only determine for oneself, but I can say I enjoyed this new set from Egarr, although not enough to give it a recommendation.

You’ll also remember that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a cohesive group. Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a few years later from Bach was a collection of six works for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that the composer had probably written at various times for various other occasions. More’s the better for us.

Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the Brandenburgs and arranged for the biggest ensemble. It is also my least favorite, no matter who is performing it. Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the pieces and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in some good playing time. Listeners probably know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so. Concerto No. 4 is Bach’s most playful, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure. Concerto No. 5 is another of my personal favorites, highlighting solos from the violin, flute, and, unusually, harpsichord. One of the smallest ensembles, eight players, ensures a greater clarity of sound. While Concerto No. 6 is for me the least distinctive work of the set and uses the smallest ensemble, seven players, it never actually feels small. In fact, its only real deficiency is its similarity to Concerto No. 3, if usually taken at a slower speed.

The first thing that strikes me about these performances from Richard Egarr and his AAM players is how gently they flow, how relaxed they sound. Egarr takes his time with them in an old-fashioned sort of way, rather than plowing through them in the quick-paced approach so favored by most other period-instrument bands these days. It comes as a pleasant surprise, even though it’s so different it may not be to everyone’s taste.

The lower pitch is also a surprise and goes well with the stately tempos Egarr adopts. The “however” here is that the lower notes also tend to thicken the sound somewhat, making it less clear and focused. The effect may take some getting used to.

And yet another surprise is Egarr’s decision to use a theorbo (a bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck) as part of the continuo in five of the six concertos. He calls the decision “a delicious luxury which I couldn’t forgo.” Frankly, I’m not sure he needed to do it; Bach didn’t call for it, probably for good reason, and it does rather sound a distracting note at times. It doesn’t help with the transparency of the sonics, either.

None of which is to suggest that Egarr’s accounts of the Brandenburgs aren’t worthy of a listen. For example, the trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin soloists in No. 2 are quite delightful. Moreover, No. 3 proceeds at a livelier gait than most of the others, and the players are immaculate in their articulation.

No. 4 is among the most-charming realizations of this little concerto I’ve heard. The sound is still a little reverberant for my liking, but it takes nothing away from the music making.

As I had hoped, Egarr brings off No. 5 pretty well, even if the second-movement Affetuoso (affectionate, with tender warmth) drags a bit. Interestingly, Egarr elects to use a guitar in here rather than the theorbo, and while it is hardly noticeable, it makes a nice contribution.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in 2008 at St. Jude’s-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden, London, for playback via a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD disc. The lower pitch makes the sound appear warmer than it probably really is, and the venue seems to inflate that warmth with its own natural hall resonance. The result, then, is a bit thick and veiled, even played back in the disc’s SACD mode, and not as transparent as one might expect from so small an ensemble. Oddly, too, despite the seemingly cavernous nature of the recording environment, there is relatively little space or depth to the sound. The harpsichord doesn’t come through very prominently, either, which may be good or bad depending on how you feel about harpsichords. Likewise, dynamics seem somewhat muted, possibly again because of the acoustic. Be this as it may, the sonics are pleasing enough, and they do tend to complement the gracious flow of Egarr’s interpretations, even when they won’t satisfy many audiophile listeners.


Jul 30, 2012

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, The Year 1941. Marin Alsop, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573029.

After listening for years to Marin Alsop’s recordings with the Baltimore Symphony, it came as a pleasant experience to hear her also as the Principal Conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, or OSESP). She took over the Brazilian orchestra on a five-year contract starting in 2012, and I believe this is her first recording with the group and the first recording in a complete cycle of Prokofiev symphonies she plans for Naxos.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-53) wrote the fifth of his seven symphonies in 1944, near the end of World War II. Next to his First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony is probably the most well liked of the bunch. The composer called the work “a symphony about the spirit of man,” his response to the turmoil of the War. As such it opens with the pain of that nightmare, a kind of prelude to the peace to come. By 1944 the Soviets could see an end to the War, and a relatively restrained opening Andante builds slowly, seriously and grandly, Ms. Alsop developing it with a gentle yet firm hand.

A Scherzo follows, which lightens the climate considerably. You can tell the composer initially intended the music for his Romeo and Juliet ballet; you can feel the same spirit present. Ms. Alsop handles it particularly well, especially the surging, constantly shifting rhythms.

Ms. Alsop’s high point, however, is the long, brooding third-movement Adagio, with its purely lyrical elements. Here, she brings out the delicate ballet-like qualities of the music. Although she takes most of the symphony at a fairly relaxed pace, she actually advances the argument of the Adagio at a greater intensity than we normally hear. It easily sustains one’s interest at a high level.

The finale should bring the symphony to a joyful close, and Ms. Alsop accomplishes this end in good measure. Her interpretation is passionate, melodious, and triumphant, carrying the piece to a fitting conclusion that I found quite satisfying.

Coupled with the Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev’s symphonic suite The Year 1941 makes an apt companion. The composer wrote it in response to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, so what we get in the disc’s two works is music about the early part and the winding down of the War. However, Soviet censors didn’t much care for the tone of The Year 1941 (not finding it momentous enough); Soviet critics didn’t much like the music, either; and Soviet audiences didn’t much respond to it. There are moments within it, true, that seem to border on satire, but one cannot deny the work’s overall honest significance. I’ve always rather liked its various blustery war moods, and I particularly like the vigorous way Ms. Alsop responds to them.

Naxos recorded the music at the Sala Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2011. Moderately distanced, the sound has a good deal of orchestral depth involved, if not so wide a left-to-right stereo spread. Still, it’s quite impressive in a realistic sort of way. While there are some good, strong outbursts from time to time, most of the dynamics seem a trifle subdued, the midrange a tad veiled, and the high end a bit muted. This might be the result of the miking, too. In any case, the sound is distinctly of the concert-hall variety rather than overtly “hi-fi.”


Jul 27, 2012

Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (UltraHD CD)

Also, Borodin: Music from Prince Igor. Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. LIM UHD 057.

This newly remastered audiophile edition of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite from LIM (Lasting Impression Music, an affiliate label of FIM, First Impression Music) takes me way back. I believe it was just the second album recorded by the then-fledging Telarc Records corporation. When it came out on LP in 1978, it made Telarc one of the first companies to release a digital recording of a major symphony orchestra. Their first digital album had been with Frederick Fennell and the Cleveland Symphonic Winds doing Handel and Holst, and this one with the Atlanta Symphony followed soon after.

I remember all this because I was writing for the $ensible Sound magazine at the time, and Telarc was kind enough to send me a copy of The Firebird Suite for review; I got rather excited since the recording was among the first of its kind. I also remember, though, that while I found the sound quite good, I was not as taken by Shaw’s performance, which seemed OK but not exceptional to me at the time. So it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to hearing it again after more than three decades, remastered to today’s best audio standards by LIM. And what would I find out? Maybe the newly invigorated sound would help me to appreciate Shaw’s rendition even more than I had before.

Anyway, the Russian-born, American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote his complete Firebird ballet in 1910, and along with his subsequent ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) would forever influence the nature of symphonic music, closing out the Romantic era and ushering in what today we refer to as the Modern period of classical music. I doubt that Stravinsky had any idea of the ultimate impact he and others of his generation were introducing into the world of music, but we’re all probably the better for it. Certainly, the Firebird shows us the beginnings of these changes, although not nearly so much as the Rite of Spring would just a few years later.

The Firebird could hardly lose. Stravinsky based the ballet on various Russian folk tales about a magical bird that could grant help or harm to those who captured him. A young prince wandering through the enchanted land of Kashchei the Immortal happens upon the bird and captures him. The bird grants the prince a magic feather in return for his release. From there we get an adventure involving the prince, a group of fair lovely maidens, an inevitable love, an argument between the prince and Kashchei, some physical conflict, and a final resolution courtesy of the bird. It’s all very exotic, warmhearted, and exciting.

In 1919, the composer devised a suite from the complete ballet, paring it down to about twenty minutes or so. Much later, in 1945, he revised the suite, making another, longer one, but Robert Shaw chose to record the earlier, more familiar arrangement. This original suite benefits from being more concise, offering all of the most-familiar music in a briefer form.

Under Shaw, the introduction has a suitably dark and mystical quality to it. “The Firebird and Her Dance” comes off well, too, with more color than I had remembered from my first listen so long ago. The “Round Dance of the Princess” sounds sweet and melancholy at the same time and conjures up comparisons to the work of Rimsky-Korsakov. “The Infernal Dance of Kashchei” displays a good deal of energy and generates a requisite passion. Then the anticlimactic “Lullaby” leads us effortlessly into the Finale, which Shaw infuses with much joy and jubilation, ending with a truly thunderous crash from Telarc’s patented big bass drum.

If I could find any “however” involved, it is that at a much lower cost one can buy Antal Dorati’s complete Firebird on a Mercury Living Presence recording, which remains the benchmark performance of the work and still sounds remarkably good. Alternatively, one could also buy Riccardo Muti’s rendition of The Firebird Suite coupled with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on a single EMI disc, both of which are excellent recordings interpretively and sonically. Nevertheless, Shaw’s rendition does have the benefit of LIM/Telarc’s superb sound, the best of the lot, and, the fact is, the performance is better than I first gave it credit.

Under Shaw’s direction, the two accompanying pieces by Aleksandr Borodin (1833-1887)--the Overture and “Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor--share a similar distinction with The Firebird. These performances may face stiff competition from Georg Solti and the LSO on LIM’s own audiophile remastering of Decca’s Romantic Russia, but they’re satisfactory in their own, more-romanticized, low-key manner, especially the choir, which sings splendidly.

Telarc engineer Jack Renner and producer Robert Woods recorded the music in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, in June of 1978. The sonics as remastered by LIM in their 32-bit UltraHD mastering process are sharply focused without in any way sounding hard, metallic, edgy, glassy, or “digital.” Indeed, the recording has a full, rich, fluid texture that probably replicates the sound of the orchestra and hall pretty well, a sound from LIM slightly smoother than Telarc’s own mastering. The miking is a tad close for my taste, but it does capture a wonderful clarity and in the Borodin very natural, lifelike voices, if not so much orchestral depth. As expected, the bass is deep and transient impact impressive.


Jul 26, 2012

Myslivecek: Symphonies & Overtures (CD review)

Michi Gaigg, L’Orfeo Barockorchester. CPO 777 050-2 (2-disc set).

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Josef Myslivecek? He was a contemporary (1737-1781) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer who came from Prague to Italy to Vienna to make his fortune, who wrote more symphonies and operas that practically anyone at the time, who engaged in business dealings with Mozart’s father, who people say had an influence on the younger Mozart, and who, like W.A. Mozart, died at a relatively young age, forty-three.

If you’ve never heard of him, well, neither have many people today. One listen to the first of seven symphonies on this two-disc set and you say to yourself, “Sounds a lot like Mozart or Haydn.” Then by the time you get to his third or fourth symphonies, you’re saying “Sounds a lot like Myslivecek’s first few symphonies.” The problem with the symphonies, which occupy the first disc, is that they show too little invention and seem all to sound alike.

The second disc tends to rectify this situation considerably, however, as the five overtures contained there are far more interesting, more original, more lively, more sparkling, and more glowing than the symphonies. I quite enjoyed them but couldn’t understand why CPI hadn’t put them on the first disc to get our attention. Likewise, I couldn’t understand why CPO arranged the symphonies in such an odd fashion, starting with No. 3, going to Nos. 5 and 6, then back to No. 4, 2, and finally No. 1. I thought the booklet would explain something about the arrangement being the actual sequence of their composition, but it mentioned nothing of the matter. Maybe the record producers arranged them in some kind of order of popularity. I dunno.

The most outstanding aspects of this album are the exuberant playing of L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Michi Gaigg, and the equally vivacious sound produced by the CPO engineers. The two dozen or so players in the ensemble ring out clearly and distinctly, with never an overly bright or unduly dull moment. The stereo spread is wide, the tonal balance is near perfect, and the stage dimensions show more than adequate depth. Disc two, especially, is a joy to listen to, although, as I say, the symphonies on disc one are a bit of a chore.


Jul 23, 2012

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (CD review)

HJ Lim, pianist. EMI 50999 4 64952 2 8 (8-CD set).

Beethoven so enjoyed piano sonatas, he wrote thirty-two of them between 1795 and 1822. While he probably didn’t intend them as a single cycle with any unifying subject matter, pianists ever since have been playing them in conjunction with other pieces in the series, sometimes presenting all thirty-two of them over a succession of nights. Then, with the coming of the sound-recording age, pianists clamored to prove their worth by releasing complete recorded sets. I confess I have heard in its entirety only one of the dozens of such sets currently available, that of Alfred Brendel (Philips), but I have other discs of select sonatas from the sets of Wilhelm Kempff (DG), Arthur Rubinstein (RCA), Sviatoslav Richter (EMI), Emil Giles (DG), Stephen Kovacevich (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), Claudio Arrau (Philips), John O’Conor (Telarc), Maurizio Pollini (DG), Murray Perahia (Sony), and Vladimir Horowitz (RCA). And, of course, there are what seem like hundreds of other single and multi-disc collections of the sonatas available, so choice is almost endless.

In 2009 Korean pianist HJ Lim burst onto the musical scene with a popular YouTube video of a Rachmaninov and Chopin recital she had done, followed by an appearance in Paris where she performed the complete Beethoven sonatas. These events so inspired the folks at EMI Classics, they signed her to record the sonatas in the set we have here. There is little question about EMI’s excitement: Ms. Lim’s playing is wonderfully virtuosic, her performances remarkably intelligent, if highly idiosyncratic, and her personal appearance strikingly photogenic. It’s a winning combination for any performer.

Let's begin our look at the set by noting how Ms. Lim has chosen to present it. First, she has laid out the sonatas over eight discs, four two-disc packages. Second, she has opted to record only thirty of the thirty-two sonatas, omitting Nos. 19 and 20, which Beethoven wrote for family, friends, and students and whose publication he suppressed. Fair enough. Third, she has organized the sonatas not chronologically but according to a personal thematic arrangement. Thus, you will find various of the most-popular works sprinkled in amongst less-familiar pieces. This has the advantage for the listener of spicing up the content with variety.

The first disc in the set tells us a great deal about the direction Ms. Lim will be taking in the whole cycle in terms of approach, survey, and sound. She starts by including three sonatas-- No. 29 “Hammerklavier,” No. 11, and No. 26 “Les Adieux”--under the thematic heading “Heroic Ideals.” In her extensive booklet notes, the pianist explains her intensions by saying something to the effect that Beethoven had a special relationship with his Creator, a relationship he tried to communicate in his music. She continues by referring to the myth of Prometheus, the demigod giver of arts and fire to mortals; to Beethoven’s temporary admiration for Napoleon; and to the composer’s increasing deafness. While her critical analysis of the composer’s life and her own individual reflections appear weighty, much of it also seems rather dry and academic, ultimately providing less insight into Beethoven’s motivations than they might seem. Likewise, Ms. Lim spends three lengthy paragraphs on the composer’s metronome markings, saying on the one hand that he was pretty definite about things but finally concluding that the markings probably don’t matter as much as the pianist’s having “the right feeling.” If it all begins to seem rather highfalutin and vague at the same time, it probably is. I’d advise just listening to the music and ignoring much of the categorizing and composer examination.

Ms. Lim begins with the “Hammerklavier,” that most brawny, lengthy, and difficult of all the sonatas. You’ve got to give her credit for starting right in with the heavy lifting and getting the show going with a rousing opening act. She attacks the Hammerklavier” with vigor and passion, demonstrating both a scholarly and dazzling command of the piano that will serve her well throughout the cycle. If I have any minor reservation about the performance, it is the same as I have about all of her work: namely, that she appears to have a youthful enthusiasm that leads her into very fast finger work in the outer movements and sometimes less than penetrating interpretations of the slower sections. She is blazing, to be sure, but a quick, simple comparison to someone like Alfred Brendel indicates she still isn’t as mature or understanding as she may be in a few more years. Although No. 26 is a little more traditional and Ms. Lim’s speeds a bit more conventional, she still doesn’t let much or any sentimentality show through in her reading, which can be both radiantly fulfilling and frustratingly severe.

The first disc also tells us everything we will need to know about the sound. EMI recorded Ms. Lim playing a Yamaha CRS piano in Faller Hall, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 2011. The result is one of the cleanest, clearest piano recordings you’ll find, with excellent transparency and taut transient response. The venue is modestly resonant, and the piano shows up warmly and richly most of the time, with only a few instances of cold or hard sound. Since the clarity corresponds well to Ms. Lim’s analytical approach to the music, it’s undoubtedly a good fit, and I have no complaints. I found it extremely easy to listen to.

Disc two finds five sonatas categorized under the heading “Eternal Feminine -Youth.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really thought about Beethoven in terms of “eternal feminine.” Still, I suppose Ms. Lim’s characterizations of Sonatas Nos. 4, 9, 10, 13, and 14 “Moonlight” do, in a way, fit that description. The music is of a sweeter, gentler nature than most of the other sonatas, Beethoven as the true romanticist, the passionate yet wounded lover. The “however” is that Ms. Lim plays them with almost the same dispassionate precision she applies to the “Heroic Ideals” group. As an example, she zips through the famous opening Adagio of the “Moonlight” lickety-split. For comparison, both Brendel and Kempf take a little over six minutes to complete the movement; Ms. Lim takes about four and a half minutes, a full twenty-five percent faster. It’s not that her playing doesn’t come highly charged with emotion; it’s that it doesn’t necessarily convey much in the way of tragic or romantic feeling.

Disc three begins the next volume, and it contains Beethoven’s three earliest sonatas, Nos. 1, 2, and 3, under the heading “Assertion of an Inflexible Personality.” The “personality” is that of Beethoven, and Ms. Lim explains in the booklet that the young composer was typically confronting fate through a youthful rebelliousness. Perhaps it’s Ms. Lim’s own youthful rebelliousness that’s at issue here; I don’t know. In any case, listeners may recognize the opening Allegro of No. 1 from its use accompanying countless silent movies, and Ms. Lim seems to have a good time playing up its extensive melodrama. Nonetheless, I rather enjoyed its minor rebellion, too. Likewise, she provides a youthful exuberance in the other two sonatas.

Something like the dramatic innocence of the first three sonatas, the fourth disc finds four sonatas in the category of “Nature”: No. 15 “Pastorale,” No. 21 “Waldstein,” No. 22, and No. 25. In these works, Beethoven follows a course characteristic of the newly flowering Romantic Age in describing the universal appeal and dramatic innocence of the natural world. Here, we find Ms. Lim in extraordinarily good form. Her “Pastorale” is especially welcome, a genuinely ardent, expressive, descriptive view of Earth’s wondrous landscapes. If I have any minor reservation, it’s that her playing is so dextrous and precise that it almost seems as though at times she’s showing off. Her rather fast, heady plunge through the “Waldstein,” for example, appears more intellectual than it does insightful, more engaged in technique than it is a revelation of the soul. Still, with piano playing so scintillating, it’s hard to argue with the results. Again, EMI’s recording is clear and strong, well sustaining the performance.

And so it goes. Disc five contains three sonatas, Nos. 5, 6, and 7, under the umbrella “Extremes in Collision.” By this Ms. Lim means that these sonatas are polar opposites, and to prove the point she tends to play up the differences. I quite liked her interpretations of the slow movements; the Adagio of No. 5, for instance, is exquisite. And even if her intensity doesn’t do much for me in some of the outer movements, I appreciate her conviction. Disc six takes us to the theme of “Resignation and Action,” containing Sonatas Nos. 16, 17 “Tempest,” 18, and 28. The “however” continues to be that while she is undoubtedly an exciting pianist to listen to, she seems not to capture fully the introspective moments of, say, the Adagio of the “Tempest” with the same deep emotion of a Brendel, Kempff, or Perahia.

Disc seven Ms. Lim calls “Eternal Feminine - Maturity,” reflecting back on the earlier “Eternal Feminine - Youth” theme, now from Beethoven’s older perspective and containing Sonatas Nos. 24, 27, 30, and 31. Then, the set closes with the category “Destiny” and includes two of the composer’s most-popular sonatas, No. 8 “Pathetique” and No. 23 “Appasionata,” along with Nos. 12 and 32. It’s as though she were saving the best for last, and certainly she does up the two named sonatas in fine, fervent style, with yet much hushed confidence in the slower segments.

In the end, I’d say that for anyone interested in a one-and-only, possibly first-time purchase of a complete set of Beethoven piano sonatas, Brendel or any favorite pianist from those at the top of the review might be a safer bet than Ms. Lim’s EMI set. This is not to say, however, that one should not hear or sample or possibly own one of the single discs from Lim’s set; nor should one avoid Lim’s complete set as a second or third or alternative choice in one’s collection. There is no denying her playing is brilliant and blazing, her interpretations vital, and EMI’s sound clear and natural. It’s just that Ms. Lim’s performances may be too highly personal as one’s only realizations of these works.


Jul 20, 2012

Adam: Giselle, highlights (CD review)

Andrew Mogrelia, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572924.

Giselle ou Les Wilis, which French composer Adophe Adam (1803-1856) premiered in 1841, has been around as a staple of Romantic ballet music for over a century and a half, and for good reason. The story of Giselle has all the ingredients for great listening: a supernatural, melodramatic plot involving dead spirits and curses and such; a young hero and heroine in love; a cruel if not downright evil villainess; and an appropriately rousing yet sentimental finale. It's hard for any conductor not to be able to bring out the beauty and excitement of the score, and Andrew Morgrelia does it as well as almost anyone in this set of highlights from his complete Naxos recording.

People have made many cuts, additions, and changes to the ballet's working score over the years, so having only the highlights isn't as drastic a situation as you may imagine. In fact, the shorter score is probably best of all for home listening. At about an hour, it has not only the advantage of conciseness but of continuity, presenting the work's best and most well-known music in a seamless medley.  Besides, the highlights fit nicely on a single disc. For those requiring the full score, I can recommend Mogrelia, of course, from which this set derives; plus Fistoulari's old recording with the LSO (Mercury) and Bonynge's with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Decca), all in two-disc sets. They include almost every bit of music Adam wrote for the work and additional material he didn't write, along with every possible repeat. However, I would also add that if it's only the highlights you want and you're willing to pay a little more for the very best, the folks at HDTT have remastered Jean Martinon's 1958 recording with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestre, and it benefits from not only the best performance of the music ever but the best sound as well.

Anyway, back to Mogrelia. His interpretation of the score is graceful and elegant in a smoothly Romantic manner. It's not quite as characterful as Martinon's version or the others, but at least it's close. Let's say Mogrelia's rendition is more genteel than Martinon's, Fistoulari's, or Bonynge's.

Mogrelia and his Slovak players produce a performance that sounds very balletic as opposed to one intended solely for the concert stage. That is, Mogrelia appears to be leading an actual ballet production rather than making a stereo recording. Although there is not too much in his rendering to set the blood to racing, there is a great deal of beauty and lyrical refinement involved. The Slovak Radio Symphony play with a charming ease, even if they are not always as polished as some other big-time orchestras in this work.

Naxos took the highlights for this 2012 disc from Mogrelia's complete set, recorded in the Concert Hall of Slovak Radio, Bratislava, in 1994. The sound is big, warm, round, and sometimes a little thick in a typically Naxos way, with a soft glow occasioned by the resonance of the hall. Moreover, while you also hear a kind of velvety texture to the sonics, which is pleasing and easy on the ear, there isn't a lot of orchestral depth or much dynamic punch involved, except in the first act March and a couple of other places where we find a few good bass thumps. Still, you get a wide soundstage and a feeling of sheer size, even if the midrange is a tad veiled.


Jul 19, 2012

Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 "Organ” (CD review)

Also, Danse macabre; The Carnival of the Animals; Allegro appassionato. Louis Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI Classics for Pleasure 0946 3 82233 2.

This is just a note in case you're counting the number of times record companies have released Louis Fremaux's recording of Saint-Saens’s "Organ" Symphony over the years.

EMI first released the recording in 1972 on their Columbia Studio 2 vinyl label, EMI's answer to Decca's Phase Four at the time. It was quite a spectacular LP in its day and recorded, as I remember, in four channels. But EMI never officially imported it to this country, and EMI's American Angel division never to my knowledge issued it over here. Instead, Klavier released it on LP in the U.S., Klavier being one of the country’s smaller record companies and specializing back then in taking up some of the slack left by the bigger outfits. Appealingly, the Klavier LP mastering was leaner sounding and in some ways more transparent than the original EMI. After that, in the late 70's, EMI issued a second LP of the work in their mid-priced Greensleeve series. This time the sound seemed even warmer and more bass dominant than before.

Then came the CD era in the early Eighties, and again it was Klavier who first issued a full-priced CD of the recording in America. And again the Klavier sonics were slightly more natural sounding than the subsequent, mid-priced EMI Studio CD that followed it in the U.S. After that, Klavier withdrew the recording from their catalogue. Meanwhile, EMI issued it several more times, the recording appearing in a bargain-priced, two-CD Seraphim set, on a mid-priced Eminence disc, and on the current Classics for Pleasure issue. In between time, a company called Royal Classics issued it (1994) coupled with a Dvorak Ninth Symphony conducted by Rudolf Kempe. Interestingly, the EMI English sound has remained consistent over the years--warm, mellow, bassy, and robust--just as Klavier's sound filled in a little more of the middle.

Why do I mention any of this at all? Because Fremaux's performance of the "Organ" Symphony is the only version I have ever felt was worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Charles Munch's famous 1959 RCA recording with the Boston Symphony (available on RCA or at extra cost on an XRCD audiophile remaster by JVC). The Fremaux performance deserves its multiple releases. The interpretation displays energy, zest, excitement, and grace aplenty, with a second-movement Adagio that flows over the listener in soft, warm waves.

My only minor concern at the moment is that if one wants the absolute best sound in the Fremaux recording, one has to find a used copy of the old Klavier (LP or CD), and that may be difficult without paying an arm and a leg for it. Maybe someday one of the audiophile houses--FIM or HDTT, perhaps--will remaster it, and we’ll have the best of all worlds. In the meantime, the Classics for Pleasure release contains not only the symphony, which is brief at well under half an hour, but good performances of the Danse macabre, The Carnival of the Animals, and the Allegro appassionato as well. It’s quite a bargain.


Jul 17, 2012

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” (SACD review)

Also, 12 Contredanses and the Finale from The Creatures of Prometheus. Andrew Manze, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807470.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” Op. 55, in 1804 and premiered it in 1805, marking something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all means. Violinist and conductor Andrew Manze tells us what it means: It means riveting music, even if his interpretation is more elegant than it is scintillating.

Manze, who specializes in repertoire from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, was the Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music from 1996 to 2003 and then the Artistic Director of the English Concert, both period-instrument groups. Since 2006 he has been the Principal Conductor of Sweden’s Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, who play on modern instruments. It makes no difference; Manze brings with him the adventurous sensibilities of a period-instrument conductor, making his performance of the Third Symphony something more than ordinary.

Accordingly, Manze takes the first moments of the symphony’s opening Allegro con brio in strong, broad strokes, followed by a highly charged, exceptionally heroic follow-through. For the first few minutes, the conductor maintains a constant forward momentum as though Napoleon himself were driving straight through Europe hell-bent on world conquest. These initial statements characterize a Beethoven with plenty of snap, the intensity always under Manze’s utmost control. However, the conductor is not excessively stringent about his tempos, varying them considerably over the course of the movement, becoming quite gentle at times and then almost violent. The orchestra is relatively small at about fifty-nine players, and they offer up a lean, clean, intimate-sounding Third, even though with the speed changes Manze takes, the performance may not appeal to all tastes.

With the Funeral March, Manze is more consistent with his pacing, not that that’s good or bad. He chooses to observe a steady, dignified tempo. While it is slower than Beethoven’s tempo markings would indicate, it’s close to what a lot of older, traditional conductors such as Bohm, Barbirolli, and Klemperer provide. More important, Manze keeps one’s attention for the duration, never allowing the music to sound like an actual dirge, even if it is one.

It’s in the Scherzo that Manze shows off his period credentials, taking the composer at his word and producing a very quick, bubbly concoction that’s hard to resist.

Nevertheless, it’s in the Finale where Manze and his players truly shine. Tying the closing statement nicely to the first movement, he opens broadly, then proceeds to a stately gait, followed by a gradual quickening. Manze adroitly controls the ebb and flow of the music while providing grace and excitement aplenty, especially in the big final moments. I enjoyed this interpretation immensely for its sensible, well-governed, yet bold enterprise, the interpretation seeming to get better as it goes along.

Coupled with the Third we find Beethoven’s twelve little Contredanses and then the finale of the ballet from The Creatures of Prometheus. It’s not only good music, we see the relationships in the music. Listen to the seventh Contredanse, the ballet music, and then the Finale to the Third, and you’ll see what I mean. Together, it puts the icing on a very tasty cake.

The sound Harmonia Mundi obtain is beautifully clear, detailed, and well balanced tonally, with just the right amount of resonance and air around the instruments. Recorded in SACD at Helsingborgs Konserthus, Helsingborg, Sweden, in 2007, the sonics are among the best I’ve heard in this work. I listened to the SACD stereo and regular stereo layers of this hybrid stereo/multichannel recording and found them both dynamic and wide ranging, the SACD sounding a touch more precise and forceful. If there is any small reservation I might have it’s that there is sometimes a bit too much activity from the left side of the stage, with not quite enough to fill in the middle. In fairness, I only noticed this effect on occasion, so it is probably not worth mentioning. Otherwise, we hear a strong, taut transient response, with a percussion and impact that never sounded better in a recording of the Third.


Jul 16, 2012

Betinis: Songs of Smaller Creatures (CD review)

And other American choral works. Christopher Bell, Grant Park Chorus. Cedille CDR 90000 131.

The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, publicly supported organizations that offer free performances at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois, each summer, have been entertaining listeners for years with frequently offbeat, little-known material. Here, the chorus goes it alone under the direction of Christopher Bell and present a collection of short pieces by modern American composers, some of the works descriptive, some serious, some humorous, some of them in world-première recordings, and all of them a pleasure.

The program begins with the music of Abbie Betinis (b. 1980), her three-movement vocal work that gives its title to the album, Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Song of Smaller Creatures. The composition begins with “The bees’ song,” a cute, expressive piece based on a poem by Walter de la Mare, a piece with lots of z’s in it. Next is “A noiseless, patient spider” from the Walt Whitman poem, followed by “envoi,” which uses a nonsense text by Charles Swinburne, the music sounding, as a note explains, like the hushed flapping of butterfly wings. It’s all very simple yet quietly haunting and moving.

After Ms. Betinis we get Buzzings: Three Pieces about Bees from Lee Kesselman (b. 1951). More of those z’s! The three pieces are “To make a prairie,” “A Bee his burnished carriage,” and “Bee! I’m expecting you,” all deriving from poems by Emily Dickinson. Like most of Ms. Dickinson’s poetry, the songs are brief, sweet, and meaningful. The choir sing them, as they do throughout, with clarity, precision, and, most of all, with feeling.

And so it goes, with music by Eric Whitacre (“When David Heard”), Stacy Garrop (Sonnets of Desire, Longing, and Whimsy), David Tredici (“Acrostic Song”), Ned Rorem (Seven Motets for the Church’s Year), and Paul Crabtree (Five Romantic Miniatures, which finds its inspiration in The Simpsons television show). The program ends with more from Whitacre, “Sleep.” As Whitacre notes, music often depends upon the “perfect balance between sound and silence,” and in this regard we may judge all of these presentations a success. The album will not disappoint lovers of choral music.

Producer James Ginsburg and Cedille engineers Eric Arunas and Bill Maylone recorded the music in concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois, in 2011. It’s a mildly reverberant acoustic, yet the sound is remarkably smooth and clean, with just a touch of natural hall resonance to give it a warm glow. The singers appear well spread out across the sound stage, and the engineers give them ample opportunity to communicate clearly and effectively. Because there is a sense of depth as well as breadth to the chorus, I would imagine it’s quite close to being there.


Jul 13, 2012

Andre Previn: After Hours (UltraHD CD)

Andre Previn, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Ray Brown, bass. LIM UHD 051.

Good classic jazz is classical anytime, and when you have Andre Previn involved, it makes the connection all the more pronounced.

Because Previn got his start in Hollywood and later went on to the world of classical music for the past fifty years--composing his own art music, chamber music, concertos, and operas and leading the Houston Symphony, the London Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic--it's easy to forget that he is also a superb jazz pianist. In fact, he has over forty jazz albums to his credit, nothing compared to his hundreds of classical recordings but nothing to sneeze at, either.

Anyway, here on this remastered LIM-Telarc album, old friends Joe Pass on guitar and Ray Brown on bass joined Previn in 1989 for the first jazz album Previn had made in over twenty years. Previn says he wasn't sure if he still had it anymore, but the music proves otherwise. He definitely still had it. I suspect it's in his blood.

Previn, Pass, and Brown sound as if they had been playing together forever. I suppose that comes of simply being good. The eleven pieces they play on the album are all very laid-back, easygoing in a winning, cozy manner. Previn, always a first-rate pianist--jazz or classical--is sometimes downright dazzling in his finger work. The music always sounds half improvised and half thoroughly planned out, which is probably the way all good jazz should come across. There is invariably that element of spontaneity about the notes, as though the performers were making it up as they went along; yet it all sounds so incredibly polished, you know it can't be so.

After starting with some familiar material like Harry Warren's "There'll Never be Another You" and "I Only Have Eyes for You," we get to a terrific rendering of Philip Braham's "Limehouse Blues." It's a version that the trio can only call their own. Joe Pass on guitar has first billing here, with Previn's piano taking wing about halfway through and Ray Brown's bass always providing a solid foundation.

Next, the fellows give Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" a particularly sweet, engaging treatment. Then Kern is back with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which is maybe the one tune in the set the guys do most conventionally. It's also the standout number in the set.

After a few more tracks, the penultimate number is a cozy rendition of David Raskin's "Laura," written for Otto Preminger's 1944 suspense movie of the same name. While it bears little relation to the song as played in the film, it holds charms of its own, not the least of which is the guitar accompaniment.

They end with "One for Bunz," a fairly traditional improv where the men were just fooling around, warming up for the next number, and the tape caught it all. They decided to leave it in.

Telarc originally recorded the music in 1989 at the Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, California. Although miked fairly close up, the sound has a warm, reverberant quality to it, which combined with the big size of the sonic image results in a very wide stereo spread for only three artists. There is a slight resonant veiling involved, yet the strong dynamic punch and reassuringly taut bass thumps more than compensate. Still, as I say, there isn't quite as much transparency or air around the instruments as you might hear on a few other jazz albums, such as the one LIM remastered a few years earlier, Jazz at the Pawnshop. Even though the sound is a tad thick, LIM's superdeluxe UltraHD 32-bit mastering process produces an experience close to what one might hear live, sitting a few feet from the performers. The piano feels right, too, and sonically the "Honeysuckle Rose" track is probably the best test of this lifelike effect.


Jul 12, 2012

Ades: Piano Quintet (CD review)

Also, Schubert: “Trout” Quintet. Thomas Ades, piano; Arditti Quartet; members of the Belcea Quartet. EMI 7243 5 57664 2.

The gimmick here is the coupling of a modern piano quintet, Thomas Ades’s 2001 piece, with a traditional piano quintet, Schubert’s 1819 “Trout.” In theory, the disc’s producers want us to hear, uh, I’m not sure what. How much alike they are? They aren’t. How much different they are? That goes without saying. How each composer was trying out something new and different? More likely.

In his booklet essay, writer Tom Service tries valiantly to make some comparisons between the two works. He says of Ades’s newer quintet, “...the architecture of the piece grows out of the transformations of its material. And in re-staging the challenges of sonata form, the Piano Quintet does not just articulate a contemporary creative perspective; it represents a vivid rethinking of the musical past.” He goes on to say of the Schubert Piano Quintet, “Schubert’s forms are no less elusive than Ades’s: the ‘Trout’ quintet is an essay in displacement and unpredictability that finds a contemporary resonance in the slipperiness of Ades’s piece. Both works make the familiar strange, and liquefy traditions in order to reinhabit them.” Yeah, well, maybe.

The fact is, Ades’s Quintet is typically modern, full of wonderfully bizarre sound scapes, fluctuating time schemes, varied pacing, and nary a remarkable melody in sight. It seems fairly lightweight next to the Schubert, something like an orchestra tuning up, but there’s no doubting it holds a fascination all its own, particularly in its cool, sometimes translucently lunar musical landscape. The Schubert goes without saying, of course, filled as it is with one memorable melody after another, flowing in quicksilver fashion.

I have no idea how Ades expects any five people to interpret his quintet, but since the composer himself performs it on the disc, I can only assume it to be authoritative. As for the Schubert, the group interprets it at a fairly brisk tempo, much as another relatively young group contemporaneously recorded it, Frank Braley and friends for Virgin Classics. Both ensembles show a degree of reckless abandon yet never sacrifice the work’s elegant beauty or simplicity. It’s quite engaging.

Insofar as concerns EMI’s recording, it is a tad brighter than most--perhaps a touch more transparent or a touch harder, depending on your point of view and how your equipment plays it back. I found the clarity of the sound nicely complemented the lively performance. This would not be my first choice in the Schubert, in any case, but for the collector it makes a fascinating alternative reading.


Jul 10, 2012

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 & 27

Christoph Eschenbach, pianist and conductor; Houston Symphony. HDTT HDCD254.

HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is a company that usually remasters classic, commercially available prerecorded tapes and LP's in the public domain, often to stunningly good sonic effect.  But here they apparently have done something a little different. No, the sound is still remarkably good; it's that I don't believe anybody ever commercially released the 1987 digital tape they used. If these Mozart piano concertos did appear on CD somewhere, the fact escaped me; nor could I find any reference to such a release in a Google search. In any case, let's take a look first at the performances and then at the sound.

Pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach took over as the principal conductor of the Houston Symphony in 1988 and continued in the post until 1999. He recorded the two piano concertos reviewed here in 1989, just a year after his tenure began, and in them he conducts a pared-down orchestra from the keyboard while acting as the soloist.

Eschenbach begins with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (1786), the first movement of which the pianist plays in a bouncy, ebullient manner, yet with a fair amount of grace and lyricism. The movement consists of three main themes, Eschenbach indulging in a good deal of speed variations among them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. The central Adagio seems even more solemn and melancholic than Mozart intended; however, Eschenbach establishes a lovely poetic feeling throughout. The Allegro finale finds the pianist and orchestra at their happiest, maintaining a steadier tempo than in the opening and conveying wonderfully high spirits.

Next, we get the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major (1791), which was Mozart's last foray into the piano concerto field and may have even marked the composer's final public appearance as a soloist. No. 27 is one of his most-mature works, one of his best integrated, and one of his easiest to like. The three movements hang together beautifully in terms of tone and theme, something we generally wouldn't see until the nineteenth century.

Eschenbach shows a steady control all through the work, bringing out both the seriousness and the playfulness of the piece. Nevertheless, he sometimes overemphasizes the contrasts and mood changes and loses a little subtlety along the way. Then, even though he takes the Larghetto at a tad too slow a pace for my liking, there is a lovely radiance about the final movement that is hard to resist.

Recorded live, digitally, in 1987 at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, the sonics are excellent in most regards. The big exception I'll mention up front: It's the "live" part. If you can tolerate the coughs, wheezes, shuffling, and other extraneous audience noises during quieter passages, particularly during the middle, slow movements of each concerto, plus the nasty outbursts of applause that follow each selection, you'll probably love the sound. It's very realistic, very much alive, very much a you-are-there experience.

The sound is a little closer than I'd like, too, but it exhibits a wonderful transparency, with plenty of air and space around the instruments. Although the piano seems a trifle thin, possibly a result of the acoustic, which isn't the warmest or most resonant, there is a pleasant sparkle to the piano notes and taut, clearly defined transients. Perhaps because of the slightly close miking, there isn't a lot of depth to the orchestral stage, either, just a very wide stereo spread. The strings are a touch forward, again accounting for the miking. The result is sometimes startlingly natural and lifelike. Besides, I'm sure a host of people enjoy live recordings and don't mind audience noise at all. Indeed, it may transport them more comfortably to the live event. If that's the case with you, this HDTT transfer may be exactly your ticket to an hour or so of unadulterated bliss.

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.


Jul 9, 2012

Mosher: 31 Chorales (CD review)

Rob Mosher, soprano sax; Micah Killion, trumpet; Peter Hess, bass clarinet; Nathan Turner, tuba. Rob Mosher.com.

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music defines a chorale as “a hymn tune of the German Protestant Church. Martin Luther, an accomplished musician himself, considered the chorale a pillar of his reform movement and played a very active part in building a suitable repertory of texts and melodies. The chorale harmonizations of J.S. Bach continue to be used widely and are regarded as models for the writing of tonal harmony in four parts.”

It is the latter segment of the definition that composer and saxophonist Rob Mosher says inspired him to write the thirty-one chorales in this album. Mosher’s official bio explains that he is a “melodic, lyrical composer and performer...a musician well versed in the jazz and classical worlds, committed to furthering the growth and combination of the two. Specializing on soprano sax, English horn and oboe, Mosher is a proven creator with a uniqueness of voice and an interest in exploring genre fluidity.” To celebrate his thirty-first birthday, Mosher decided to compose thirty-one chorales in thirty-one days, the results of which we hear on the disc, interspersed with a half dozen other pieces, thirty-seven tracks in all. It’s an ambitious project, to be sure, and one that in large measure succeeds.

Each of Mosher’s chorales, like Bach’s, is brief, most of them clocking in at two minutes or less. All the same, when you have so many of them, they tend to provide a good variety of material. He has devised four parts per work, performed by himself on soprano sax, Micah Killion on trumpet, Peter Hess on bass clarinet, and Nathan Turner on tuba. They combine to provide something like the sonority of a church organ, appropriate in keeping with the Bach theme. The tunes are mostly melodious, harmonious, and sometimes playful.

If there is any hesitation in my appreciation for these pieces, it is that there are stretches where the music begins to sound rather dirgelike and the same, occasionally lacking in ultimate spirit or invention. Then, just when you think perhaps you’re in for seventy minutes of pleasant tedium, along comes something like Chorale No. 5 or March March, which verge on humorous parody and are kind of fun after the solemnity of the first numbers.

From here, you’ll begin to hear bits and pieces of familiar tunes among the thoroughly original works, as though Mosher were taking a cue from Charles Ives. Then he falls back on a sort of sameness of spirit that again becomes a little tiresome. Still, it’s the kind of adventure I wish more composers would attempt.

Choral No. 9 is especially lovely; and the Prelude in C minor makes a nice change of pace, with its lilting grace and prominent trumpet solo. With Chorale No. 16 Mosher reminds us of the Christmas season; with Wagon Wheels the way West; and so on. A little something for everyone, including a particularly clever Wondersong, thumbs up! The program ends on a quiet note, almost a lullaby.  Nicely done.

Recorded in March of 2011 at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary-in-the-Highlands, Cold Spring, New York, the sound is close, full, and lightly resonant. The recording captures well the inherently mellow richness of the four instruments, turning them almost into one, given their similar tonal qualities. There is a degree of soft warmth about the sound that probably will not satisfy every audiophile, but it seems in keeping with the music and the nature of the performances.

I understand Mosher initially released these chorales one at a time on the Web, and he is now making them available separately or together as a download or on a CD at iTunes, Amazon, and the like. You can learn more at Mosher’s Web site: http://robmosher.com/.


Jul 6, 2012

Rubinstein: Symphony No. 2 "Ocean" (CD review)

Also Ballet Music from Feramors. Igor Golovchin, State Symphony Orchestra of Russia. Delos DRD 2010.

If you're like me, you probably instantly recognize the name Anton Rubinstein and then, after a moment's reflection, say to yourself, "Wait a minute; maybe I'm thinking of Arthur Rubinstein. Or Anton Chekhov. Or Anthony Adverse." And then it occurs to you that you don't really know a lot about this Anton Rubinstein fellow, despite the seeming familiarity of his name.

I had a vague recollection that Anton Rubinstein was a nineteenth-century pianist, no relation to Arthur Rubinstein, the twentieth-century pianist, and that was about all. Yet Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was more than a piano whiz on the order of a Franz Liszt or Frederic Chopin; he was also a conductor and a composer, and on this reissued Delos disc we get what some critics consider the best of his six symphonies, the Symphony No. 2 "Ocean," with Maestro Igor Golovchin leading the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia.

Rubinstein wrote his Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 42, in 1851, and like most of the rest of his overtly Romantic compositions, it went out of favor with the public not long after his death. Rubinstein appears not only to have been a dyed-in-the-wool Romanticist, but a rather conservative one at that. Apparently, a later revision of the symphony went on for seven movements and nearly seventy-five minutes. What we get here is the original version with four movements at about forty-seven minutes.

The opening Allegro maestoso starts with a cheery, chirpy little seascape motif, which skips along in a kind of Mendelssohnian manner, reaching a big crescendo early on. Then it settles into some light lyrical passages, making the first movement alone thematically all over the map. Supposedly, Rubinstein intended the symphony to be programmatic, expressing Man's struggles with the elemental forces of Nature, or some such thing. As generic as that appears, the music is equally vague, moving as it does from one thing to another rather quickly. I suppose Golovchin does what he can with it, but the music seems more than a little bombastic and unfocused to me.

The Adagio that follows is quite poetic and better concentrated. The composer described it being deep as the sea and deep as the human soul, again seeming more high-minded in his ambitions than necessary. It might be best just to let the notes float over one like gentle waves or sea breezes, which seems Golovchin's major goal.

The zippy little Allegro-Scherzo represents the gaiety of a sailor's dance, and it makes a welcome change of pace.

In the concluding Adagio, we're back to intimations of Mendelssohn. While Rubinstein's Second Symphony may have been one of the first of its kind in Russia, it's obvious why it never lasted long in the popular mind. Rubinstein seems to have owed too much to too many.

Still, one cannot fault Maestro Golovchin or his players. They conjure up good spirits when necessary, nobility, tranquility, and grandeur in abundance, and they do so firmly and precisely yet with much spirit and enthusiasm.

The coupling is Rubinstein's ballet music from his opera Feramors, written in 1862. It is breezy, airy, melodic, elegant, vital, and fun. Frankly, I enjoyed these diverse dances more than I did the symphony, and Golovchin seems no less enthralled by them himself.

Delos recorded the music in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1993 and reissued it in 2012. In the symphony, the sound displays good inner detail and clarity, with more than adequate orchestral depth. However, it is also a tad bright in the upper midrange and miked a little distantly, creating a relatively narrow stereo spread. Moreover, the bass isn't quite prominent enough to balance the forward higher end, so the result, while sounding fairly transparent, is also a trifle thin. The ballet music, though, sounds better in all regards, with an especially good dynamic range and impact.


Jul 5, 2012

Fennell Conducts Sousa (SACD review)

Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble. Mercury SACD 475 6182.

Conductor Frederick Fennell's recordings of John Philip Sousa marches, done in 1960 and 1961, have pretty much been in a class by themselves for over half a century. It was good to have them on Mercury Living Presence LP's, then a CD remastered back in the 1990's, and it's good to have them again on a newer Super Audio CD.

Fennell's way with Sousa is enthusiastic, to say the least. His exuberance overflows in tempos that are not always conducive to marching but always right for getting the blood running and the spine tingling. British critics seem to think these are typically "American" interpretations, meaning, I suppose, more enthusiastic and carefree than the English might play them. Perhaps. There is surely an aura of high good spirits about these Fennell readings.

The album combines two of Fennell's Sousa LP's, Sound Off and Sousa on Review. However, while there are twenty-four items represented, not every listener will be happy with the selections. Namely, the disc does not contain many of Sousa's best-known marches. You'll find no "Stars and Stripes Forever" here, or a "Washington Post" or a "Thunderer" or a "Semper Fidelis." What you do get are mostly lesser-known works from Sousa's output of over 100 marches: "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine," "Our Flirtation," "The Kansas Wildcats," "The National Game," that kind of thing. Of course, there are still a few old reliables: "The Liberty Bell" (can we listen today without thinking of Monty Python?), "Manhattan Beach," and "The Invincible Eagle." Fennell's Eastman Wind Ensemble closely approximates the size and disposition of Sousa's Marine Band, and Fennell said he tried to emulate Sousa's conducting style. I'm not sure. I rather suspect that Fennell is more ebullient in his performances than Sousa ever was.

In addition to Fennell's sometimes impetuous forward impulse, there is also a noticeable difference between the sound of the 1960 and 1961 recordings. The first twelve items are less weighty in the mid bass than the last twelve. The lightness gives them a degree more transparency, although I confess I preferred the greater realism of the fatter bass. The disc itself provides the music in three formats, with playback depending upon one's equipment. There is a three-channel layer for SACD, reproducing the recordings' original three-mike arrangements; there is a two-channel layer for SACD, again for SACD players only; and there is a regular two-channel layer for conventional CD players.  It's strong, vivid, well-projected sound in any case, especially in SACD.

Possibly the only drawback to the proceedings is that the SACD is more costly than, say, EMI's digital two-disc recording of forty-three Sousa marches by Lt. Col G.A.C. Hoskins and the Band of HM Royal Marines, which EMI offer at a bargain price. Ah, heck, buy 'em both.


Jul 3, 2012

Holst: The Planets (UltraHD CD review)

Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. LIM UHD 058.

Between 1914 and 1916, the years of “The Great War,” English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, premiering it in 1918. That might help to explain why the first two segments are about “War” and “Peace.” He named each movement after the astrological sign of a known planet at the time, not counting Earth, although the music doesn’t really describe either the zodiac signs or the planets so much as they express feelings about the various moods of the human spirit.

Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first performance and recorded the work regularly, his final disc for EMI in 1979 one of my favorites. However, I actually prefer Andre Previn’s 1974 EMI recording of it with the LSO even more than any of Boult’s, so personal preference is still a big part of the equation.

Which brings us, finally, to this 1986 Telarc recording by Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Apparently, both Previn and Telarc thought so highly of the conductor’s EMI analogue performance, they agreed to do it again, this time digitally. The thing is, even though the sound is digital, it isn’t necessarily better, nor is the performance.

The music begins on an auspicious note as Previn and the RPO introduce us to “Mars, the Bringer of War” with much menacing delight. Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war. Is Previn’s rendition this time more compelling than what he gave us earlier? I don’t thing so; there is just that nth degree of tension missing. Yet it’s still better than most such readings.

In the second movement, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” the RPO’s playing is quite lovely, and for me it is the high point of Previn’s interpretation of the suite. It’s sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We hear echoes here also of Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” written a few years before, and Previn was always a subtle and effective interpreter of Vaughan Williams.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” is a “nimble scherzo,” as the booklet note points out, which provides a little excitement after the relative calm of Venus. Be that as it may, Previn’s rendering does not seem as light or as fleet as in his EMI recording.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” follows, a big, boisterous Bacchanal, which is almost as much fun this second time around for Previn as it was the first time. Still, it seems to dance in a more carefree fashion in the earlier recording, this one a tad more rigid.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was Holst’s personal favorite section of the suite, and Previn gives it appropriate weight. I’m not sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it. In any case, it does have some lovely lyrical contrasts that Previn is more than happy to emphasize.

After that comes “Uranus, the Magician,” the section of Previn’s ‘74 disc I often use as a demo piece for friends. It has everything an audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from softest notes to loudest fortes; it exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra’s capabilities. As good as the LIM/Telarc disc is, I remain an admirer of the EMI presentation. Oddly, where Previn is slower in every other movement for Telarc, in this movement he’s faster and seems a little more matter-of-fact than before.

The suite ends with “Neptune, the Mystic,” its wordless female chorus (Women of the Brighton Festival Chorus) fading off into silence at the end. Previn is properly ethereal as the piece concludes in the most-distant reaches of space.

LIM’s remaster of Telarc’s Planets is quite good and an improvement over the standard Telarc product. However, that doesn’t mean it is “better” than Previn’s EMI analogue recording of a decade earlier. Telarc recorded the music in Watford Town Hall, London, in 1986; LIM remastered it in 2011 using their Ultra High Definition 32-bit mastering process, releasing the album in 2012. When I say the digital production isn’t inevitably better than the EMI analogue recording, I mean that different listeners will have different standards for judging the results. Since none of us can compare the sound of either recording to the actual experiences of 1974 and 1986, a person’s appreciation for one recording or the other becomes a matter of subjective judgment. Which one sounds more “real,” more “hi-fi,” or more “audiophile” can be very personal concerns.

The LIM/Telarc remastering is surely smoother and more dynamic than the EMI disc I own (itself a Japanese Toshiba-EMI remastering from 2005). Nevertheless, the EMI is more transparent, with marginally greater spatiality, dimensionality; the LIM/Telarc sonics are slightly thicker, fatter, heavier, warmer, and softer, the acoustic environment of each recording location no doubt the cause for the differences. Both discs exhibit excellent bass properties and quick transient response. One thing is certain: If you are already a fan of the Telarc recording, the engineers at LIM have improved it, so it won’t disappoint you. It’s not a huge, knock-your-socks-off improvement, but it’s noticeable. Meanwhile, perhaps someday LIM will approach EMI to remaster some of their classic material; I hope they do, and I hope they start with Previn’s ‘74 recording.

Anyway, LIM sweeten the deal with a handsome, high-gloss, hardcover package; a twenty-page bound booklet of notes; and a static-proof inner sleeve. It’s not cheap, but at least the company gives you your money’s worth. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.


Jul 2, 2012

Nostalgias Argentinas (CD review)

Piano music of Argentina. Mirian Conti, piano. Steinway & Sons 30010.

Argentine/American pianist Mirian Conti writes in a booklet note that “Nostalgia is a yearning for the past, be it in time or place--an aching to return home. Feelings of nostalgia are brought on by remembrances: images, smells, touch, music. For me, this recording brings with it nostalgia for my own musical past, for those Argentine composers lost or forgotten on the shelves of libraries, conservatories, and old pianos.”

She continues, “The 1920s represented a time of new musical tendencies in Europe and America. This was no less evident in Argentina where the continuous search for a national voice encountered many styles of expression. All of the music here, whether the musical language is romantic or modern, angular in its polytonality and accents or luscious in its impressionist mood, are without a doubt Argentine. They represent the many faces of classical Argentine solo piano music spanning from the 1920s to today. The composers were born between the 1880s and the 1930s and many of the pieces are based on either folk or popular dances.”

Fair enough. So, Ms. Conti waxes nostalgic for the music of her Argentine homeland, offering in the disc’s program over two dozen examples of dances from eleven different Argentine composers. The interesting thing, though, is that only two of the dances on the program actually date from the 1920s, the others written between 1947 and 2010. Nevertheless, they all look back to the Twenties for their roots, their inspiration, the “nostalgic” angle to which Ms. Conti refers. The works vary in style and tone, Ms. Conti’s piano playing is heartfelt, and the listening experience is a pleasure.

The album begins with Remo Pignoni’s Danzas tradicionales para piano, two traditional dances for piano. The first dance, “Por el sur,” is vibrant, and the second, “Como queriendo,” is Debussy-like in its sweet, Romantic impressionism. Ms. Conti plays the pieces with a conviction obviously drawn of love for this music. Her style is sublimely confident and polished, vaguely old fashioned yet contemporaneously appealing.

Next we hear a brief piece from Emilio Balcare, “La bordona,” a slow, sensual tango, which Ms. Conti performs as though there were three or four separate people involved in a small ensemble. The melodies and harmonies are infectious.

Horacio Salgan’s “Don Agustin Bardi” follows, a tango that sounds the opposite in style from the preceding one, Salgan’s being more pulsating, more vibrantly rhythmic. As we might expect by now, Ms. Conti attacks it with a wonderfully spirited vigor.

Then we get the centerpiece of the album, Carlos Guastavino’s 10 cantos populares, ten popular poems, as the name implies dances that are lyrical, songlike. Guastavino believed in the value of older musical traditions, admiring Chopin, Schubert, and Rachmaninov, so expect an older Romanticism at play here. He felt more-modern composers were destroying music, and when you listen to his compositions, it’s hard to argue with him. They are beautiful, especially given the loving attention Ms. Conti lavishes on them. Each piece shimmers like a tiny jewel, “No. 4” truly exquisite.

And so it goes through works by Carlos Lopez Buchardo, Floro Meliton Ugarte, Gilardo Gilardi, Mario Broeders, Osmar Maderna, and Julian Plaza. I could describe each of them, but I think you get the idea. Still, the composer I should emphasize before closing is Mario Broeders, whose work reflects a gentle, captivating melancholy. “Val criollo no. 3” is particularly lovely.

The album ends with a fast number, Julian Plaza’s “Nocturna,” a fine show closer and another excellent piece for Ms. Conti to demonstrate her sympathetic virtuosity on the piano.

Steinway & Sons recorded the album in 2012 at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia. The piano sound is gloriously rich and resonant, a single instrument practically duplicating a whole orchestra. The acoustic is just reverberant enough and the miking just close enough to produce a lifelike response with plenty of warmth and bite at the same time.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa