Aug 31, 2012

Salon Mexicano (CD review)

Music of Castro, Villanueva, Ponce, and Rolon. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille CDR 900000 132.

Nowadays, we tend to look askance at “salon music” as a sort of shallow, lowbrow attraction for little old ladies at their afternoon tea. But throughout most of the nineteenth century, back when people didn’t have radios, television, Internet, CD’s, DVD’s, BD’s, or any other D’s at their disposal, they listened to music the old-fashioned way--live. And that meant listening to it in a theater, concert hall, or church for big orchestral or choral works or a living room or drawing room, a “salon,” for many chamber and solo works. The latter, understandably, became a more economical proposition. For example, Chopin and Liszt were but two of the illustrious pianist/composers who found performing in the intimate setting of the salon attractive.

The present disc offers twenty “salon” selections from four Mexican pianists/composers, exquisitely performed by the celebrated international pianist Jorge Federico Osorio. The music runs high to waltzes and other dances, rhapsodic and melodic.

The program begins with the Caprice Vals, Op. 1, by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907). It’s a beautiful, gently flowing waltz that a Viennese composer could as easily have written. Osorio provides a delicate touch and a lightly exaggerated lilt that gives a delightful animation and warmth to the piece. It’s gorgeous. In addition, we get six other pieces by Castro, all of them in a similar vein.

The next composer is Filipe Villanueva (1862-1893), represented first by his Suena Dorado:  Mazurka. There is genuine grace and charm here in a genteel but lively setting. Again, Osorio shows us how a performer can conjure up music that is sweet, refined, and lyrical yet powerful and concentrated at the same time. This is more than mere lightweight entertainment; it’s art. Further down on the program, we get five more such pieces from Villaneueva.

Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1948) follows, the most-recent composer of the lot, with his 8th Mazurca de Salon. The pieces by Ponce, of which there are four, sound like the most seriously “classical” art music on the program. They haven’t got quite the popular appeal of some of the other works on the disc, but they can impart a more lasting impression. As before, Osorio is expressive, nuanced, and singing in his piano playing.

The final piece is the only work on the disc from Jose Rolon (1876-1945), a contemporary of Ponce.  Rolon dedicated his Vals Capricho, Op. 14, to pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Its variations on the familiar tune “Over the Waves” by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas takes flight in a most virtuosic manner and closes the show in high style.

The titles of most of the pieces say it all: sentimental, melancholic, romantic, and poetic. The result is music both soothing and stimulating. Add Osorio’s pianistic command, and it seems to me a winning combination.

This is a recording from audio engineer Bill Maylone, so you know it’s going to be good. Cedille recorded the program in 2012 in the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio of 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, Illinois. The sound is of the reach-out-and-touch-it kind, where if you close your eyes, there is a piano in the room with you. The sonics are clear and clean, miked at a moderately close distance, with strong impact and articulation. It’s one of the best piano recordings you’re likely to hear.


Aug 30, 2012

Stravinsky: The Firebird, complete (SACD review)

Also, Petrushka, complete. Robert Craft, Philharmonia Orchestra. Naxos SACD 6.110081.

The benefits of this issue are that you get both the Firebird and Petrushka ballets complete, some seventy-nine minutes’ worth of music, on a single, dual-layered hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD, playable in both two-channel stereo and five-channel surround sound. And all at a most-reasonable mid price. Or at least it was available until Naxos apparently decided to withdraw the SACD and go only with the two-channel CD. Still, I’m sure the CD is equally fine.

Moreover, the Firebird is a world-première recording of Stravinsky’s original 1910 version as never heard before. Robert Craft, the distinguished American conductor who was friends with and worked alongside of Stravinsky during the last years of the composer’s life, leads the equally prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra. Craft tells us in an accompanying booklet insert that “this is the first recording of the complete original version of Stravinsky’s most popular work.... Among the many differences between the present recording and its predecessors is the restoration of two long, valveless trumpets on stage, each playing a single note standing out above the entire orchestra.” The MusicMasters label originally recorded Firebird in 1996 and Petruchka a year later, both of them in multichannel and both of them eventually showing up on the present Naxos disc.

All well and good, plus we get a pair of nicely executed performances of both ballets. The Firebird, especially, comes across as both ardent and comforting. My guess is that Craft was attempting to create the ethereal quality of a fairy tale here, which works reasonably well. However, the rambunctious entrance of Kastchei doesn’t seem to generate as much excitement as I would have liked. Maybe my listening was a tad unfair, though, because by coincidence, at about the same time I heard these recordings, I had just listened again to Mercury’s reissue of Antal Dorati’s celebrated 1959 recording of the Firebird,  also on a multichannel SACD and for only a few dollars more than this disc. The difference in sheer vitality seemed astounding to me, Dorati stirring the blood and Craft simply competent.

The sound of the two ballets on this Naxos SACD hybrid probably appears slightly different only because Stravinsky orchestrated the two pieces differently. The Firebird seems a bit warmer, cushier, and more lavish than Petrushka since the composer scored it for more instruments. Otherwise, both works display a wide stereo spread, an excellent orchestral depth, and a prodigious bass drum. However, played in two-channel stereo as I listened to them, they seemed a touch too resonant, with a few too many reflections that might have come off better in multichannel. The result is a somewhat reverberant sound that does not provide as much inner detail as, say, the aforementioned Mercury recording, which is in a class by itself sonically and interpretively.


Aug 28, 2012

Bizet: Carmen, complete (CD review)

Magdalena Kozena, Jonas Kaufmann, Genia Kuhmeier, Kostas Smoriginas; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI 50999 4 40285 2 7 (2-disc set).

Because so many people these days, particularly younger people, expect to get their music free or nearly free, and because the weak world economy has been making it hard for most orchestras to produce records, we are seeing fewer and fewer major symphony ensembles in new recordings. When we do get a few new recordings, the orchestras themselves most often release them on their own label, or they record them in front of a live audience in which instance the paying folk essentially subsidize some of the costs. So, it’s a pleasure to hear a new, 2012 recording such as this one from a big record label like EMI of one of the world’s great symphony orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic.

French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) would never live to see how popular his final completed opera would become, the work seeing a poor opening in the year of the composer’s early death. Nevertheless, nowadays Carmen is among the handful of most well-known operas the world over, the epitome of opera for a lot of opera fans and non-fans alike.

Still, to compete, any new Carmen contender has to come up against formidable rivals. We have great recordings of it from conductors like Karajan (DG and RCA), Bernstein (DG), Beecham (EMI), Solti (Decca), Abbado (DG), Plasson (EMI), Petrie (EMI), Sinopoli (Teldec), and others. Does Rattle’s new recording make the cut and join the ranks of greatness, a Carmen for the ages?  Maybe, maybe not.

Set in Seville, Spain, during the early nineteenth century, the opera’s narrative concerns a beautiful and tempestuous Gypsy girl, Carmen (Magdalena Kozena), who lavishes her affections on a young, unsophisticated soldier, Don Jose (Jonas Kaufmann). He becomes so enamoured with Carmen, he spurns his former lover, deserts his regiment, and joins Carmen and a crew of smugglers. When Carmen subsequently rejects him and takes up with a bullfighter, Don Jose becomes so enraged with jealousy, he murders her. After Bizet’s own death, critics and audiences found enough drama and romance in the piece to help transform French opera comique into the emerging Italian realism of Verdi and Puccini.

Over the years there have been any number of scores used in the opera’s production, Bizet having died before he could make any absolutely final editing of it. According to a booklet note, the text used for this EMI recording “is based on Fritz Oeser’s revolutionary 1964 Barenreiter edition, which was the first to restore not only the original dialogue but virtually all of the cut material, especially in the long first act.”

Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation overall sounds quite refined, smooth, and elegant, yet it seems to lack a little something in sheer earthiness, in rawness and swagger. In other words, it sounds a mite too pat, too polished, too safe, at least for my taste, even though his tempos are on the moderately quick side. This is not surprising to me, though, as I have found the conductor’s performances getting progressively more sedate ever since he took over the principal conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002.

The choruses--the choir and children’s choir of the German State Opera, Berlin--sound most cultured, letter perfect in their execution. The children, markedly, sing in charmingly sweet voice.

When Czech mezzo-soprano Kozena enters as the seductress Carmen, we hear a beautifully dramatic reading of the role, without being quite as sensual as some fans may like. The Habanera flows in wonderfully lyrical fashion, yet neither the singer nor conductor quite manages to wring from it the last ounce of lusty sinuousness.

Tenor Kaufmann as the naive, ill-fated Don Jose seems well suited to his part. When he and Kozena finally get to sing together, they make a good pair. However, I still don’t hear some of the sexy allure of competing versions. That is, this Carmen may not be as overtly melodramatic as it could be. Rattle and his players perhaps try too hard to tame it.

The celebrated Toreador tune, featuring baritone Kostas Smoriginas, comes off well, with a full-bodied tone and authoritative air. Indeed, it is one of the highlights of the set, not counting a few lifelike stage effects.

Nevertheless, things get more exciting as Rattle finally warms to the project and the closing action commences. It’s almost as if the conductor were holding everything back for a big finish. I suppose it’s as the Bard wrote in his famous play of the same name: “All’s well that ends well.”

The recording, which EMI made at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2012, is slightly more distant and veiled than I would have expected--not excessively so but noticeably. Individual instruments like castanets come over with excellent clarity and attack, but the full orchestra seems less than transparent. There is a relatively narrow stereo spread, too. I mean, half a century ago EMI made a more open recording for Beecham and his crew, so it’s hard to convince me that the state-of-the-art in audio recording has advanced that much over the years. Anyway, the sound is dynamic, with a wide range; and voices, all-important in an opera recording, are fairly natural. It helps a bit to play this one a tad louder than usual in order to nudge it into coming alive. Then it’s fine, and you’ll enjoy it.

EMI managed to get the opera onto just two discs, which they package in a hardbound Digipak-type container. It’s most handsome, with the discs inserted into sleeves on the inside front and back covers. Bound within the covers are more than sixty pages of text and pictures. However, the company do not include a libretto; for that, you have to go to EMI’s Web site and download it. This appears to me a massive inconvenience, not only to download but to store afterwards. Oh, well, the package is attractive in any case.


Aug 27, 2012

Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Adrian Leaper, Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria. Arte Nova ANO 304750.

Of Mahler’s nine, ten, or ten-and-a-half symphonies (take your pick), it’s the Seventh that often gets the least love. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler’s works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations, and with seemingly every conductor on the planet having recorded them, we get a variety of readings. I remember one critic long ago explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling along rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a nightly walk into morning, a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.

This Arte Nova reissue of the Seventh from conductor Adrian Leaper performing the work with the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra brings us yet another realization of the music, this one at low cost. At best, however, I would describe Leaper’s performance as cautious. It’s certainly sturdy and straightforward, but not entirely distinctive.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and admirers sometimes refer to it as Lied der Nacht (“Song of the Night”), probably in part because of its two Nachtmusik (“Night Music”) movements as well as its stylistic evocation of night.

Leaper opens the long first movement with an abundant degree of atmosphere and then moves into the whirling night music with relative ease. Mahler certainly intended it as a movement of contrasts, from its erratic nervousness to its moments of extreme stillness, and Leaper makes the transitions well enough, if not so memorably.

My own favorite performance of the Seventh Symphony is by Bernard Haitink in an old Philips analogue recording now out of print. Haitink, too, might face the criticism of being too straightforward, but he had the magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra working with him, making the music glisten and shine like the stars. By comparison, Leaper’s Gran Canaria Philharmonic is merely competent.

Of the two Nachtmusik movements that flank the central Scherzo, the first one is more jaunty, a march into the night, and the second a more serene serenade. Leaper takes both of them almost perfunctorily; they’re still curiously lovely, just not particularly distinguished. I would like to have heard either a little more of Mahler or a little more of Leaper in this music. Instead, it’s all a bit detached and bland.

Leaper’s handling of the Scherzo, while not as imaginative or energetic as I’ve heard, is probably the best thing about the performance. The conductor creates and sustains typically bizarre Mahlerian moods that range from humorous to grotesque to sinister.

The lively, vigorous finale brings us back into daylight, and whether Mahler meant for us to take it in a positive manner or ironically is anybody’s guess. Surely, “the dawn comes up like thunder,” as Kipling wrote. This final chapter is mainly light and cheery, which is what we hear from Leaper and his forces, with some mild grandeur along the way. Mahler and Leaper end the work in a brief, shining moment of glory that remains quite satisfying.

Arte Nova made the recording in 1995 at the “La Nave,” El Cebadal, Los Palmas de Gran Canaria, about a year after Maestro Leaper took over as Chief Conductor of the Filarmonica. The sound, miked at a moderate distance, displays a fairly good depth of field, a favoring of the upper midrange in the frequency balance, and a slight edge to the strings. The dynamic range and impact could be stronger, clarity greater, bass deeper, and resonance less. So, while the sonics are not at all bad, they are, like Leaper’s performance, sort of middle-of-the-road. Even the cowbells sound barely audible in the distance.


Aug 24, 2012

Pasion (CD review)

Milos Karadaglic, guitar. Christoph Israel, Studioorchester der Europaischen FilmPhilharmonie. DG B0017000-02.

Following the successful debut release of his album Mediteranno in 2011, Montenegrin guitarist Milos Karadoglic gives us much of the same in a program of Latin-American music, Pasion, from 2012. By “much of the same” I mean he provides skillful renditions of popular classical works, this time with perhaps a shade more panache and bravura than before.

Mr. Karadoglic goes by the single name “Milos,” and I hope it does not bespeak any vanity or pretentiousness on his part. I rather suspect that as he is a movie-star handsome young man, the name is merely another component in DG’s promotion of him, like the eight or so pictures of him we get on the disc cover, on the back, and in the booklet insert. When you’ve got a hot item, you go with it.

Anyway, Milos begins this newest album with Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, with the Studioorchester der Europaischen FilmPhilarmonie in accompaniment. It’s a brief piece, with a surging forward pulse.  I suppose it exemplifies the disc’s title, being fiery and passionate and all. It works pretty well as a curtain raiser, although I found the sound a little too big, close, and soft for my taste.

More music in a like vein follows, Jorge Morel’s Danza brazilera more subtle and subdued, with Milos’s playing even more nuanced. It’s quite lovely. Then it’s on to Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Prelude No. 1 in E minor, a popular tune that sounds reminiscent of Anton Karas’s Third Man theme but predates it by a decade. The Preludes are popular guitar pieces, and Milos does this one up pretty well.

And so it goes, with one of my favorite tangos getting a revved-up treatment from Milos and the orchestra: Carlos Gardel’s Por una cabeza. Any number of movies have featured it in their soundtrack, and here Milos emphasizes perhaps a bit too much the lilt of the dance rhythms. The music doesn’t really need further embellishment. Wait, I think I just saw Jamie Lee and Big Arnold dancing off the floor. Or was it Al Pacino?

By the middle of the program with Jorge Cardoso’s Milonga and Agustin Barrios Mongore’s Un sueno en la floresta, things take a turn toward the lyrical, the latter item among the most appealing things on the album with its extensive tremolo, that tremulous or vibrating effect that can sometimes sound corny but here works considerably well. The program continues with pieces by Leo Brouwer, Osvaldo Farres, Isaias Savio, Manuel Ponce, and Gerardo Matos Rodriguez.

When Milos performs live, he says “it's close to dreaming for me--afterwards I don't remember much about it. I just remember feeling very well, with a high level of energy and emotion.” That sentiment seems to describe his studio music making here as well. Classical guitar fanciers will enjoy another disc to add to their collection, and while they may find Milos’s performances a tad too flamboyant, there’s no denying they’re fun. Moreover, the Latin-American theme is intriguing.

DG recorded the music at St. Mary’s Church, Chilham, England, and b-sharp Studio, Berlin, Germany, in 2011-2012. The guitar is front and center, rather warm and ultrasmooth to match the playing. I would have preferred a little more bite to the strings. The orchestral accompaniment sounds slightly recessed but displays a strong dynamic thrust when necessary. This is slick, round, refined sound, light on transparency and heavy on atmosphere. 


Aug 23, 2012

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic. DG 00289 477 5377.

Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is not exactly the most manageable work in the classical orchestral repertoire. It is so big and unwieldy that no one wanted to play it in Bruckner’s own time, and not even the composer heard his original 1878 version in his lifetime. After conductors performed many truncated editions, it was only in 1935 that the public finally got to hear the original version. The poor thing is still something of a slow starter and among the least-recorded of the composer’s nine symphonies.

Anyway, Christian Thielemann’s way with it makes it seem even longer by his playing it more slowly than usual. Certainly, this brings out all the lofty, dramatic qualities of music, making it sound far more like Wagner than Mahler or Richard Strauss, fellows whose music critics sometimes compare to Bruckner’s. Indeed, under Thielemann the symphony times out at almost eighty-three minutes, yet, surprisingly, it fits on a single CD. The wonders of modern compression, I guess.

The first two movements alone take up some forty-two minutes, and if you can get through them (especially the long, ambiguous first movement), the third and fourth movements are a delight. After such deep, dark, heavy, and solemn opening movements, the Scherzo and Finale are breaths of fresh air. Thielemann’s strong suit is his ability to sustain the listener’s attention through most of the first half, leaving the second half to Bruckner. Thielemann maintains a firm concentration and a secure passion throughout, no matter how slow things get.

I wouldn’t say this displaces my first two choices in the work, however. I still think Sinopoli’s DG recording sounds more strongly characterized and Klemperer’s EMI recording the better sonically. DG recorded Thielemann’s performance live (as they did Sinopoli’s), and the result has a certain dull veneer covering it, although the engineers miked it reasonably close up. By comparison, the Klemperer sonics are much clearer and more open. The downside to Klemperer is that he’s more wayward and quixotic, and Thielemann is more straightforward and consistent. Maybe Sinopoli represents the best of both worlds.


Aug 21, 2012

Dvorak: Symphonic Poems (CD review)

Vaclav Neumann, Walter Weller, David Zinman; SWR Symphony Orchestra. Arte Nova Classics ANO 277760.

Toward the end of his career, after he’d made his mark with nine symphonies, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) turned his attention to things uniquely Czech, returning to Prague to compose a series of orchestral ballads, symphonic poems, three of them here based on folk songs collected by Prague archivist Karel Jaromir Erben. They are typical fairy-tale stories, often lurid and grisly, as so many folk stories can be, mostly about monsters eating people. The other tone poem on the album is quite different and concludes the program on a distinctly more upbeat note. Arte Nova pulled all four works from their back catalogue and offer them together on this single collection.

Things begin with The Water Goblin, 1896, performed by Vaclav Neumann and the SWR Symphony Orchestra. This wonderfully macabre little story tells of a water sprite who metes out his anger in retaliation for a reputed wrong done him years before. Neumann could be a most refined if somewhat restrained conductor most of the time, but in the first two of these tone poems, he is quite animated. What Neumann’s rendition slightly lacks is a sense of dread, suspense, or fear, replaced by excitement and thrills.

Next comes The Noon Witch, 1896, with Neumann again leading the orchestra. This is an even more frightful story than The Water Goblin, wherein a limping demon carries off naughty children at midday. Here, Neumann’s sense of adventure works a little better than it did in The Water Goblin, and he conjures up a pretty creepy characterization of the ogre. He also creates some extreme moments of quiet to set off the spookier moods of the music.

With The Wood Dove, also from 1896, Walter Weller takes over the conducting duties. This time the narrative is a bit more subtle than the outright monsters of the first two tales, and Weller builds the tension nicely. The plot involves a tree growing out of the grave of a man poisoned by his wife. A wood dove cooing in the tree so upsets the guilt-stricken widow, who has by now remarried, that she eventually commits suicide. The grimness of the story is more about atmosphere than outright shocks, and that is what Weller gives us, a colorfully chilling account.

The fourth and final work on the disc, In Nature’s Realm from 1891, is one Dvorak wrote several years earlier than the preceding ones. Unlike the dark fairy-tale imagery of the first three symphonic poems, this one has a pastoral setting, emphasizing what the composer saw as “a peaceful state of harmony in Nature.” David Zinman conducts the SWR Symphony in what seems to me the most-successful, most-comprehensive reading on the program, providing beauty, poetry, and power aplenty.

For anyone who doesn’t already own these pieces or for those who do but enjoy them so much they’d like to hear additional interpretations, the compilation offers a good, low-cost alternative to several other pricier collections. However, I have to admit that I still prefer Harnoncourt (Teldec or Warner Classics), Kertesz (Decca), and Kubelik (DG) in this repertoire, even if they do cost a little more.

Arte Nova made the recordings between 1986 and 1988 at the SWR Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Germany. The sound is rather one-dimensional, not too wide nor too deep, but compensating in part for this lack of dimensionality we find a reasonably balanced frequency response, if a tad thin at the bottom end. There is a small degree of hard edge to the sonics as well, which at least has the advantage of imparting a greater clarity to the midrange. In all, the disc offers good middle-of-the-road sound, with a pleasant high-end extension.


Aug 20, 2012

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

Also, overtures to The Creatures of Prometheus and Egmont. Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. DG 479 0250.

Three things surprised me about this recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony from Gustavo Dudamel. First, the boy wonder is no longer as young as I remembered him, being in his early thirties at the time he made this disc. Second, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has dropped the “Youth” from its title, apparently because the average age of its members has grown along with Dudamel’s. And, third, the youthful nervous energy I had heard Dudamel produce in earlier performances seems now replaced by a more concentrated, more focused joy and excitement. I liked this new rendition of the Third.

Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” Op. 55, in 1804 and premiered it in 1805, observing something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and still prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all means. Dudamel gives us a riveting, often scintillating interpretation of a warhorse that has already seen terrific readings from just about everyone. My own favorites include those by Otto Klemperer (EMI), Sir John Barbirolli (Dutton Lab), Karl Bohm (DG), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Philippe Herreweghe (PentaTone), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Paavo Jarvi (Sony), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), and even a cheerfully eccentric one from Hermann Scherchen (HDTT). Dudamel’s reading may not be quite as individual as these, but it’s in the running.

Without going all crazy on us with ultrafast speeds, Dudamel creates a vibrant yet appropriately grand, imposing vision in the opening Allegro con brio. Although the movement can occasionally exhibit some ferocious passages, under Dudamel it is consistently steady...and heady. The orchestra, maturing under Dudamel’s leadership over the years, sounds wonderfully nuanced, enthusiastic, and controlled, attacking each note with conviction and assurance.

The second-movement funeral march, sometimes the bane of conductors, doesn’t drag as much under Dudamel as it has under others, even though Dudamel takes it at a properly slow, funereal gait. It sounds dignified, almost classical in structure, with well-thought-out contrasts. Still, it’s a long time to maintain a steady tension, and not even Dudamel is entirely successful.

The conductor’s reading of the third movement Scherzo is fiery without being breathless or tiring. What it may lack in pure adrenaline rush it makes up for in its well-meaning spirit. Nevertheless, it was the one moment in the symphony that seemed ordinary to me.

Borrowing a tune from his Prometheus ballet, Beethoven wrote a finale that at once appears lightweight and gloriously triumphant. The conductor will have us hear the light, lyrical elements but emphasizes the more-weighty triumph above all. Dudamel’s Beethoven Third is perhaps not so unusually memorable as other renditions, yet it is a sensible, sincere, and distinguished account.

Lively realizations of Beethoven’s overtures to The Creatures of Prometheus and Egmont make a strong and entirely suitable coupling. Egmont is especially eloquent, forceful, and impressive.

The sound, recorded in Caracas, Centro de Accion Social por la Musica (Sala Simon Bolivar), in early 2012, is full, warm, and rich, never entirely transparent but nicely dynamic. There is a minor veiling of the midrange, thanks to a mild resonance, but it imparts to the music a realistic sense of hall ambience. While bass and treble extension could be a tad better, I’m not really complaining. The sonics are quite smooth and soothing and add considerably to one’s enjoyment of the music.


Aug 17, 2012

Mozart: Symphonies 38 & 41 (CD review)

Rene Jacobs, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901958.

The sound on this 2012 Harmonia Mundi rerelease is glorious, sensational, terrific, tremendous, superb, first-class, tiptop. Which is to say very good.

The performances, well, maybe not so clear-cut. Let’s say they’re a little more problematical, though fascinating.

The album opens with conductor Rene Jacobs and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, “Prague.” The popular nickname “Prague” came about because the composer premiered it in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), in 1787, in appreciation of the Czech people, who loved his music. However, it contains no specific Bohemian allusions, themes, or flavor.

What is different about Jacobs’s approach to the symphony is that, first, he performs it with a period-instruments ensemble. Well, OK, that’s not too different anymore, since the early-music movement has been going strong for many years, and one can find any number of other period-instruments performances of Mozart from the likes of Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, Franzjosef Maier and the Collegium Aureum, etc. Still, we don’t hear too many such performances.

What’s also different, of course, is that Mozart himself only wrote three movements for the “Prague” symphony, omitting a Minuet. Yet that is not a serious “difference,” either, as Mozart had done it several times before. No, the most striking difference about Jacobs’s reading is in his speeds. While Mozart indicated in his tempo markings variations like “Vivace” and “Presto,” Jacobs seems to take more than a few things either at a spirited gallop or at a routinely mundane pace. Now, don’t get me wrong. The early-music crowd have been debating tempos forever, with some of them declaring, for example, that in the eighteenth century orchestras routinely played faster movements slower than we do today and slower movements faster. Other folks have suggested that orchestras played everything slower back then and still others that orchestras played everything faster. Jacobs apparently adheres to the latter belief, at least most of the time.

To say that the opening Adagio-Allegro provides dramatic punch would be putting it mildly. Under Jacobs, it rolls zestfully and dramatically along, perhaps trying to capture some of the atmosphere of Mozart’s operas at the time, The Marriage of Figaro just before it and Don Giovanni just after. Allowing no cuts, Jacobs even with his bracing pace takes over fifteen minutes to complete it. Remarkable. It’s a long, breathless run. The Andante and Finale come up likewise animated and exciting but lose some of the beauty of their melodic line along the way. Jacobs’s approach may or may not be one Mozart might have taken, which is a bit beside the point: It doesn’t sound much like any “Prague” I’ve ever heard; it is, as I say, different.

Be that as it may, I found Jacobs’s reading of the Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter,” far more to my liking. The first, second, and fourth movements appear well judged, if a tad quicker and with a freer rubato (of tempo and dynamic accent) than the norm. Here, Jacobs provides stimulating interpretations that seem to me the equal of any I’ve heard. Nevertheless, in the Minuet Jacobs reverts to his Ferrari style and races through it in record time. What you don’t get with Jacobs is much of the lyricism or lilt of Mozart’s music, replaced by a theatrical energy and fleetness, which in their way can be quite refreshing.

Harmonia Mundi originally recorded the music at the Saal Tirol, Congress Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria, in 2006, and the sound they obtained is as vital as the performances. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is a relatively small chamber ensemble, so what we get is nicely transparent, ideally miked to provide wide stage dimensions and a touch of depth, too. Dynamic contrasts and sonic impact are strong, with a flat frequency balance and vibrant timpani support. There is a reasonable degree of air around the instruments, and along with the clarity of sound I described comes a pleasant ambient warmth. I can say without a doubt that even if you don’t like the interpretations, it’s hard to say these aren’t some of the best-recorded Mozart symphonies you’ll find anywhere.


Aug 16, 2012

Britannia (SACD review)

Music of Elgar, Davies, Turnage, MacMillan, and Britten. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc SACD-60677.

Besides being the Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles is the Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Guest Conductor of the San Francisco Opera among other things, so he is, indeed, a busy man. His album here of twentieth-century British music is along the lines I would have expected, a little daring, a little volatile, and a little sedate, too.

The sedate part starts and ends the program, Sir Edward Elgar’s First and Fourth Pomp and Circumstance Marches from 1901-1907 (with the Fourth coming first). There’s nothing sedate about the way Runnicles plays them, though. He goes at them with gusto. Probably too much gusto for my taste, as his tempos suggest something other than marches and tend to diminish the grandeur and ceremony of the works in favor of pure excitement.

Following the first Elgar piece is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise from 1984, and it is probably the best thing Runnicles does on the disc. Davies himself described the music as “a picture postcard,” and that’s how the conductor approaches it, as a tone painting. It’s really fun, lively, and picturesque.

The next couple of things, frankly, I disliked. But that’s just me, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with Runnicles’s readings of the music. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes and James MacMillan’s Britannia are simply too noisy for me. They seem typical of mid-to-late twentieth-century music that dispenses with anything approaching traditional melodies to create sonic impressions that jar the senses rather than soothe them. I’m old fashioned, I admit; I don’t want my senses jarred. Turnage’s work has elements of jazz infused throughout that are sort of fun, but, overall, I don’t think I’d want to revisit it. MacMillan’s Britannia is a bit more conventional, playing out a little like Charles Ives in that the composer sneaks in bits and pieces of other works--Arne and Elgar among them--to create a broad, modern canvas of British orchestral music.

Then, just before the final Elgar march, Runnicles gives us Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem from 1939. Britten wrote it on a commission from the Japanese government just before World War II, but the Japanese were dissatisfied with the Catholic references in it and never performed it. Britten was happy to take the money and run. Anyway, Runnicles offers it up in a most dramatic fashion, with all the power, intimacy, and proper repose it requires.

The Telarc engineers do a fine job on their end as well, capturing a good stereo spread, good imagery, good depth, and good, taut bass. However, in the hybrid SACD’s regular two-channel mode, playable on any standard CD or DVD player, there is a touch of veiling, a kind of mist. In the disc’s two-channel SACD mode played back on an SACD player, the sound clears up better and appears a tad more dynamic. So if you have an SACD player, more power to you.


Aug 14, 2012

Busoni: Clarinet Concertino (CD review)

Also, Eine Lustspielouverture, Gesang vom Reigen der Geister, Rondo arlecchinesco, Divertimento for flute and small orchestra, Tanzwalzer. Giammarco Casani, clarinet; Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.572922.

Ferruccio (how could I not like a guy with a name like that?) Busoni (1866-1924) was an Italian pianist, writer, teacher, editor, conductor, and, almost lost among his other endeavors, composer. After his death, with the possible exceptions of his Piano Concerto, his Turandot Suite, and his opera Doktor Faust, the popularity of his compositions went into serious decline, but in the 1980’s conductors began to rediscover him. This is the case with Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, who seems to be on a mission to resurrect as many overlooked Italian composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries as possible. On the present album, we find six of Busoni’s shorter orchestral works, all of which display a charm and wit deserving of reconsideration.

The program follows Busoni’s music more or less chronologically, beginning with the earliest piece, Eine Lustspielouverture, Op. 38 ( “A Comedy Overture,” 1897). The composer called this piece “Mozartian” in style, but you’d hardly notice. Mendelssohnian perhaps. Still, there are not the sweet melodies you’d hear in either Mozart or Mendelssohn, although there is a lively, cadenced thrust throughout that Maestro La Vecchia seems to enjoy about this “comedy overture.”

Following that, we find Gesang vom Reigen der Geister, Op. 47 (“Song of the Spirit Dance,” 1915).  Scored for chamber-orchestra forces, the work couldn’t be more different from the opening number. It is somber and intimate, part of a trilogy and recalling the Indian massacre of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. 

Next is Rondo arlecchinesco, Op. 46 (“Rondo harlequinesque,” 1915). Again, it’s something different, this time relatively light and amusing, a martial procession of instruments featuring a heap of mock heroics. La Vecchia has fun with it, as does tenor Granluca Terranova at the end.

Then comes the centerpiece of the album, the Clarinet Concertino in B flat major, Op. 48 (1918).  Like the “Spirit Dance” it’s scored for chamber forces, and it does sound Mozartian in its way, with clarinetist Giammarco Casini making a delightful soloist.

After that is the Divertimento for flute and small orchestra, Op. 52 (1920). Under conductor La Vecchia and with flautist Laura Minguzzi, the piece sounds more varied and mercurial than the preceding clarinet work. There are, indeed, passages of lively wit and others of exquisite beauty. It is among the best things on the program.

Finally, the album concludes with Busoni’s Tanzwalzer, Op. 53 (“Dance Waltz,” 1920), which reminds us that Busoni was of German ancestry on his mother’s side; the composer dedicated the music to the Austrian waltz king Johann Strauss II. However, the music takes a while to get around to its waltz themes, and then don’t expect quite the bracing, lilting rhythms found in Strauss. Nevertheless, it’s an agreeable piece, and La Vecchia does his best with it.

There is nothing about any of the music on the disc that cries out as “classic” in the sense that future generations may cherish it. The music is not imaginative enough, inventive enough, memorable enough, or rhapsodic enough for that. But it does take us on a journey from the lingering Romanticism of the late nineteenth century to the beginnings of modernism in the early twentieth century. And a fascinating journey it is, reminding us that some of Busoni’s students and followers were Percy Grainger, Kurt Weill, Edgard Varese, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Dimitri Tiomkin, Rudolf Ganz, Philipp Jarnach, and many others.

Naxos recorded the music between 2008 and 2011 at the Auditorium Conciliazione and ORS Studios, Rome. The sound displays a healthy dynamic range and impact, a fairly natural if slightly thick midrange, and reasonably good bass and treble extensions. While orchestral breadth and depth seem a tad limited, the lightly resonant acoustic helps to make up for it. Overall, the sonics are warm and smooth, with a light, pleasant hall ambience that makes it easy on the ear.


Aug 13, 2012

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, highlights (CD review)

Andrew Mogrelia, Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572931.

I had never heard Andrew Mogrelia’s complete recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet, which he made some two decades ago, but I had heard many good things about it. So it was with some hopeful anticipation that I looked forward to hearing these highlights from the complete set. At well over seventy-five minutes of excerpts, this highlights disc supplies the bulk of the work’s most-memorable music, and it did not disappoint me.

But why an excerpts album when the two-disc is only a few dollars more? Although many of Tchaikovsky’s fans regard The Sleeping Beauty as the best of the composer’s three big ballets, I have always found it has less to offer than Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, with some of the music sounding redundant to me. Thus, a highlights disc seems ideal for people like me.

Anyway, you remember the story, if only from the familiar Disney cartoon. An offensive and offended evil fairy places a spell upon a beautiful princess, condemning her eventually to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep forever. A more benevolent fairy modifies the spell, allowing her to awaken in a hundred years with a Prince’s kiss. Various other fairy-tale characters show up later in the story, until it all ends happily.

In the Introduction, Prologue, and preliminary scenes, which seem to go on forever, Maestro Mogrelia does his best to provide ample drive and forward thrust, which he does nicely. There is a minor relentlessness to Tchaikovsky’s music, though, which not even Mogrelia’s vibrant conducting can tame entirely.

By the time Tchaikovsky's more sweetly melodic tunes arrive, Mogrelia is ready for them with an elegant, graceful, rhapsodic flourish. Moreover, he well represents the fairies in the story early on, both the good ones and the wicked Carabosse.

When the three major acts of the ballet finally arrive with the entrance of the famous waltz, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the kind of performance we’re in for. Mogrelia provides all the vitality, beauty, and exuberance one could want, if not always all the magic of the fairy tale.

The “however”: Given the weak state of the economy when Naxos released this highlights disc in 2012, most of the major record companies (EMI, DG, Decca, Sony) were producing little or no orchestral music, so one couldn’t find a lot of newer recordings of The Sleeping Beauty available. Still, one could find several outstanding alternative older recordings, even though mostly in complete sets. Chief among them is that of Andre Previn and the London Symphony (EMI), which I find an even more enchanting account of the score than Mogrelia’s and in better sound. Then, too, there are renditions by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Royal Philharmonic (Decca), Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra (DG), Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony (BBC), among others to consider. Which is not to take anything away from Mogrelia, whose complete and highlights editions are very fine choices, indeed.

Recorded at the House of Arts, Kosice, Slovakia in 1991, the sound is typical of what one usually hears from a good Naxos product. On the plus side, it’s smooth, warm, mellow, lightly resonant, and easy on the ear. On the minus side, the midrange is not especially transparent, nor is the orchestral breadth or depth particularly impressive. In addition, the upper midrange can get a tad fierce in the loudest passages. Nevertheless, as I say, it’s a pleasant enough sound, and with a reasonably strong dynamic range and impact, it keeps one involved.


Aug 10, 2012

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (CD review)

Also, Hebrides Overture. Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre de Champs-Elysees and Choeur de la Chapelle Royale & Collegium Vocale Gent. Harmonia Muni Gold HMG 501502.

As practically every classical music fan (and a whole lot of others as well) knows, German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) started working on his music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was but a teen, composing the Overture in 1826 when he was only seventeen. But he wasn’t in any hurry, completing the work sixteen years later in 1841 while employed by the Prussian court. The King suggested he compose some complete incidental music for a new production of the Shakespeare play, and Mendelssohn complied, already having written the opening tune.

Maestro Philippe Herreweghe provides on the album all of the most-popular numbers from the work, without some of the smaller, less-familiar connecting music. It’s pretty much what most listeners expect. Moreover, Herreweghe’s approach to the score comes across as quite comforting, if not so airy, mercurial, or magic as the performances by Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Andre Previn (EMI). The music, of course, is highly programmatic, representing Shakespeare’s major plot ideas and characters, most notably Puck, Bottom, the Duke, and the fairies.

Herreweghe offers us a stately, sedate introduction to the Overture, and then opens it up with a fairly lively flurry of fairies and pixie dust. After that, the whole movement settles down into a more traditional approach, sweet and characterful. It’s indicative of the kind of performance we’re going to get, one filled with color and romance, yet refined and elegant, too.

Likewise, the Scherzo displays plenty of bounce; the March of the Elves offers a welcome rhythmic charm; and “Ye Spotted Snakes” is suitably enchanting, even sung in German rather the more commonly heard English of Shakespeare.

One minor disconcerting moment comes with the Nocturne, which Herreweghe takes at a brisker pace than one usually hears. While it perhaps matches the rest of his zesty reading of contrasts, it doesn’t entirely convey the gentle, enchanting atmosphere the scene deserves.

Fortunately, the Wedding March brings us back to the regal festivities of the play with a telling gaiety. The concluding tunes also go comfortably well, with the choral-orchestral Finale bringing us full circle to echoes of the Overture’s melodies.

The album concludes with a coupling of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave (1830-32). Herreweghe’s rendering seems a bit lightweight for the craggy countenance of the coastline it describes. It also seems a little too solemn for my liking, losing some of the strangeness and “Scottishness” the composer said he encountered upon visiting the site of the music’s inspiration. I suppose you could say it’s rather a Gallic vision of the Scottish landscape.

The sound, which Harmonia Mundi recorded in 1994 and have reissued here in their “Gold” series, is warm and resonant and a tad heavy, perhaps not ideally suited for audiophile listening but fitting nicely with the sort of Romantic idealism and adventure Herreweghe wants to communicate. The sound, like the performance, is at once cozy and intimate yet glittering and extrovert. You’ll find a golden glow around the sonics that is quite alluring, with reasonably wide dynamics and a smooth execution.


Aug 9, 2012

English Tone Pictures (CD review)

Music of Bax, Delius, and Ireland. Sir John Barbirolli, London Symphony Orchestra and Halle Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 79984 2 7.

I mean, who would rather having conducting English pastoral music than Sir John Barbirolli? Well, maybe Sir Thomas Beecham or Sir Adrian Boult, but close enough. Barbirolli was born in London of an Italian father and a French mother, but he was an Englishman through and through. Like Beecham and Boult, English music was in his blood and bones. One can hear it no better expressed than in this collection of short English tone poems, presented by EMI on one of their “Great Recordings of the Century” albums.

The program begins and ends with evocations of England, first up being Arnold Bax’s portrait of the fifth-century coast of Cornwall, “Tintagel,” the legendary place of King Arthur’s birth. The final piece is John Ireland’s picture of twentieth-century downtown London, “A London Overture.” The two works couldn’t be more different, but they are excellent, contrasting bookends for the collection. “Tintagel” is, of course, the more Romantic, in both senses--fanciful and adventurous yet sensual and passionate. The thrusting waves against the rocky shores are as metaphorical as they are literal.  Barbirolli deals with it exquisitely, at least the equal of Boult’s celebrated version on Lyrita. “A London Overture” is bustling, noisy, and crowded with the sounds of the city.

Next up are five pieces by Frederick Delius, the first three done by Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra from 1965-66 and the last two by Barbirolli’s and the Halle Orchestra done several years later. The nice thing is that if you have Beecham’s collection of Delius’s music on EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series, the present disc duplicates only one of the pieces, the “Irmelin Prelude.” The other four are “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” “A Song of Summer,” “In a Summer Garden,” and the totally delightful “La Catinda.” Wonderful material.

The sound is splendid throughout, with a slight nod, perhaps, to the later Halle recordings. The sonics are very wide spread, warm, and open, with plenty of orchestral depth and no holes anywhere. This is quite a good disc in every way.


Aug 7, 2012

Baroque Conversations (CD review)

David Greilsammer, piano. Sony Classics 88697929692.

Yes, it’s hard to sell a record these days. No matter how good an artist you are, you find that either people already own what you have to offer or that people want it free. That’s in part a consequence of the Internet these past dozen years. One can get a ton of music of all kinds in free downloads or on disc for ridiculously discounted prices. And I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of used album on-line. As a consequence, artists must have a gimmick, a hook to get them in the door. Such is the case, at least in part, with the 2012 Sony release Baroque Conversations. This is not to say the gimmick doesn’t work, however, nor that I disapprove of the approach. Let me explain.

David Greilsammer is a prizewinning pianist as well as the Principal Conductor of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. Born in Jerusalem, Israel, he studied there at the Rubin Academy before entering the Juliard School in New York and making his solo debut in 2004. Apparently, one of the things audiences have enjoyed are his recitals juxtaposing Baroque and contemporary music, as he does in this program. Now, you may object to my calling this a gimmick, which my Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines as “an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.” As I say, people need such an ingenious device these days, and if it works, more power to them.

Anyway, in this album Greilsammer offers four segments comprised of three piano selections each, two Baroque masterpieces as the outer movements and a modern work in the middle. Greilsammer tells us in a booklet note that his intent was “to see opposing worlds meet and converse with one another, in the infinite hope of witnessing the birth of a dialogue between the extremes.” Thus, the album’s title. He goes on to say that “little by little, by expressing all of the lyricism and madness hidden within them, these planets begin to stare at each other, move closer, talk, perhaps even touch one another, slowly, gently.” Fair enough, although I’d say he’s hoping for a little more than a lot of listeners may find in these pieces, because at least for me the contrasts far outweigh the similarities. But, then, I am not a fan of much contemporary classical music, so who am I to judge? Besides, if two planets ever did touch, we’d have a cosmic catastrophe on our hands.

OK, with that introduction you can probably guess what I’m going to say next. Greilsammer is an extremely sensitive, intelligent pianist with a load of talent. The Baroque pieces I found ravishing, brilliant, glowing from beginning to end with poetry and passion. It’s the stuff in between I simply found jarring, out of context. No planets touched; rather, they smashed into one another. Which, I suppose, is part of the album’s objective. Each listener will bring away from the experience something different, for better or for worse. And even if it’s for the worse, the listener should be able to understand why, which is a learning point of its kind.

So, each of the four sets follows the Baroque-contemporary-Baroque pattern. For example, the first set begins with the Gavotte et Six Doubles by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), followed by Piano Piece by Morton Feldman (1926-1987), and concluding with the Sonata No. 84 in D major by Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783). The Rameau dance variations are melodious, rhapsodic, falling on the ear gently, like a soft spring shower, even in the more rambunctious second half. Feldman’s Piano Piece from 1964 is likewise gentle, even quieter than the Rameau work, yet without much of the melody, the notes instead of gently dropping down upon us emerging slowly, almost hesitantly, as though creeping up and lying in wait. Whereas Rameau requires only an open heart to appreciate, the Feldman music takes patience. Still, it provides a cozy, slow interlude between the Rameau and the concluding Soler piece, which acts as a kind of closing Scherzo Finale.

In all of this, as with the rest of the album, Greilsammer plays dexterously, with zesty wit, a serious commitment, and a smiling intellectualism. I have to admit, though, that I would rather have heard just his performances of the Baroque material; but I suppose that’s what one can do if one chooses--program the album according to one’s own whims and fancies. This is especially so because sometimes, as in the second set, the modern music of Porat can be so raucously contrasting that it wholly disrupts any mood created by the older music of Couperin. This said, it makes the Handel Suite in D minor that ends the set all the more attractive for its sheer beauty.

If the disc, which also includes Frogerger, Sahar, Gibbons, Frescobaldi, Lachenmann, and Sweelinck, suggests anything, it’s that as music evolves, it doesn’t necessarily get better, just different.

Sony made the recording at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany, in 2011. It’s quite lovely, the piano sound sweet, very lightly warm, and resonant. The notes materialize clearly from dead quiet backgrounds, Greilsammer fully understanding the importance of the silent spaces in music and using them to good advantage. The disc displays a reasonably quick transient response, too, with a fairly strong dynamic impact, helping to reinforce a lifelike impression.


Aug 6, 2012

Massenet: Le Cid, ballet suite (CD review)

Also, Cendrillon, Thais, ballet suites. Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Brilliant Classics 94355.

It’s interesting (well, to me) that some composers can write a ton of music and years later people remember them for only a handful of things, if they remember them at all. Such is the case with French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912), who wrote a slew of popular operas, most of them soon going out of style. Today, we still hear the occasional performance of Werther, Thais, or Manon, and that’s about it. Except for the ballet suites from several of his operas, which we have on the present disc. They continue to entertain in purely orchestral form, as demonstrated here by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

The first selection is a suite of seven ballet selections from the opera Le Cid, which Massenet premiered in 1885. He based the story on the legendary El Cid Campeador (Rodrigo D#az de Bivar), c.1040–99, Spanish soldier and hero of the wars against the Moors. The ballet has become the most popular part of the music.

Anyway, Marriner has always been an elegant conductors and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields a refined of orchestra; it’s no accident that their performance of the Le Cid music demonstrates these qualities clearly, from the bracing opening number, Castillane, to the more leisurely Andalouse to the stately Aragonaise to the lovely Madrilene. Nothing seems to ruffle Marriner’s calm, dignified approach to a score that can sometimes get a tad raucous in its exuberance.

Massenet premiered Cendrillon (Cinderella) in 1899, and it contains all of the magic of the fairy tale. Moreover, under Marriner it delivers that magic fluently, graciously, and delightfully.

With Thais, first performed in 1884, Massenet added the ballet numbers later. The big tune we usually hear nowadays, of course, is the Act II entr’acte, the “Meditation,” which, unfortunately, is not a part of the ballet music. Instead, we get some fairly somber pieces that Marriner nevertheless manages to bring to life with a generous enthusiasm and spirit. Although neither the Cendrillon nor Thais ballet sequence is as creative, colorful, or characterful as that of Le Cid, they make splendid couplings.

The value of the album is having all three of Massenet’s ballet suites together in one place, performed and recorded extraordinarily well. It’s almost a no-brainer.

Marriner and the ASMF originally recorded the music for the Capriccio label at the Church of St. Jude on the Hill, London, in 1994, and the folks at Brilliant Classics made their own transfer in 2012. The sound is excellent, and I have no hesitation recommending it. The only “however” I would add is that in the early Seventies Louis Fremaux recorded the Le Cid ballet music with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI with sound of demonstration quality. More important, one can still find it on a budget-priced EMI as well as a now-deleted but apparently still available American Klavier disc. My own copy is virtually impossible to find anymore, being a gold disc that Klavier offered for only a short time. While the Brilliant Classics sound is, as I say, excellent, switching to the gold Klavier moves us into an entirely different sound world altogether, with greater impact, deeper bass, and even more pronounced midrange clarity.

But I’m not here to sell you on an unavailable audiophile disc; I’m here to describe the Marriner album, which is still superior to most of what gets produced anymore. The Brilliant Classics disc displays a modest stereo spread and a realistic sense of orchestral depth, with a wide dynamic range, good bass and treble extension, plenty of air around the instruments, reasonably good transparency, and a soft, warm hall ambience. It should not disappoint most listeners.


Aug 3, 2012

Autumn in Seattle (UltraHD CD review)

Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio. FIM UHD 043.

FIM owner and producer Winston Ma recorded the album Autumn in Seattle in 2001, initially releasing it in the audiophile XRCD2 processing format. In 2012, after hearing a number of newer audiophile mastering processes like SACD, XRCD24, K2HD, and DXD, Winston decided he had found one that genuinely improved upon the sound of XRCD2. He calls it UltraHD, a 32-bit mastering formula that does, indeed, sound different and in some ways better than his earlier release. We’ll look at the sound in a minute; first, the music.

Pianist Tsuyoshi Yamamoto has been a jazz artist for decades, and in ‘01 Winston persuaded him to do new renditions of some of his most-popular material for the album Autumn in Seattle. His accompanists are Ken Kaneko on bass and Toshio Osumi on drums. Winston describes the title tune as “warm, peaceful, even romantic,” and that pretty much sums all the music on the disc.

The first item is Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Way We Were” from the 1973 movie of the same name. The manner in which Yamamoto plays it, it sounds as laid back and friendly as most of us remember it from the film. Even more easygoing is Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which takes flight from the outset under Yamamoto and never lets go.

Then we come to the title tune itself, “Autumn in Seattle,” which Yamamoto wrote specifically for the album. It’s sweetly atmospheric, and like the other numbers, it is all Yamamoto and his piano, which is lightly resonant and expressively lyrical. He follows “Autumn” with “Misty,” a perennial favorite, only this time he takes it at a “more energetic,” upbeat tempo than he says he usually does. His seeming improvisations breathe new life into an old warhorse, and he allows his sidemen to introduce the piece. Although it won’t be to everyone’s liking because the cherished melody is often hardly discernible, it does take on a pleasant verve of its own.

And so it goes through another half dozen tunes, mostly music from motion pictures: “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” the theme from Spartacus, a medley from The Sound of Music, “A Time for Us” from Romeo and Juliet, and one of own preferences, “As Time Goes By,” featured in Casablanca. Dooley Wilson, who couldn’t play the piano, would have been proud.

Probably the best, and best-sounding, track in the album, though, is “No Problem,” which Yamamoto says inspired him in high school to become a jazz pianist after hearing a version by Art Blakey. The tune allows Yamamoto to demonstrate a wide flexibility of tone and color and provides opportunity for his accompanists to shine as well.

FIM made the recording in 2001 in Onkio Haus, Tokyo, Japan, and audio engineer Michael Bishop remastered it in 2011 via FIM’s UltraHD 32-bit processing system. The original analog recording, done on a Studer A829, is extremely plush and very dynamic, with good air, ambience, and transparency. The piano sounds especially lifelike in its transient response, and the music exhibits taut bass and extended highs. Does the new version sound better than FIM’s earlier XRCD mastering? Yes, in some ways, particularly in its velvety smoothness. However, I also found it subtly warmer, slightly softer, and a tad richer, which may or may not be a condition of the master tape. Certainly, it makes the album easy on the ear.


Aug 2, 2012

Rameau: Une Symphonie Imaginaire (CD review)

Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre. Archiv 00289 4745142.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was one of France’s great early composers of operatic and choral music, but he never actually wrote anything specifically for the orchestra alone. Maestro Marc Minkowski has attempted to make up for this oversight on the part of the composer by putting together an “Imaginary Symphony” (Une Symphonie Imaginaire), a purely instrumental montage or pastiche made up of bits and pieces of Rameau’s orchestral music interludes, overtures, and ballets. Although the result doesn’t quite gel, it’s a fascinating overview of the composer’s style.

The “Symphony” borrows from things like Castor et Pollux, Les Fetes d’Hebe, Dardanus, Le Temple de la Gloire, Les Boreades, La Naissance d’Osiris, Hippolyte & Arcie, Nais, and others. And it begins with an overture from Zais that features a wonderful percussion element that will have your subwoofer woofing on end. I wish I could say the whole enterprise pleased me more, but I found it slightly and understandably disjointed, like a best-of hodgepodge of Baroque favorites. At the same time, it’s hard to deny the genius of Rameau, and the music makes enjoyable easy listening.

Further supporting the pleasure of the music is the enlivening presentation by Marc Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre. The conductor clearly enjoys this music and offers it up in often brilliant, sometimes refined, occasionally beautiful fashion.

While I don’t usually care for live recordings, Archiv did this one several years ago with a relatively small group of period musicians miked fairly close up, giving a better sense of intimacy as well as definition to the proceedings. What’s more, I didn’t notice the audience once. Insofar as concerns the actual sound, it’s fine, if a trifle soft around the edges and somewhat limited in dimensionality.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa