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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big 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 the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

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

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa