Sep 28, 2012

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Also, Le corsaire overture. Leonard Slatkin, Orchestre National de Lyon. Naxos 8.572886.

Before we begin, I have to mention again some of my favorite conductors in Symphonie fantastique recordings: Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Leopold Stokowski, John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, Charles Munch, and Jean Martinon. I mention these names because so well-traveled a warhorse as the Berlioz already has heady competition for any new recording, even when the recording comes from so notable a conductor as Leonard Slatkin.

For those of you like me who need a road map to keep up with the musical travels of Maestro Slatkin since his leaving the St. Louis Symphony in 1996, here’s a quick rundown: He was the director of the Blossom Festival of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1990-1999. Then, he was the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., from 1996 to 2008. In 2000, he became the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until September 11, 2004. He was also the Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1997 to 2000, and in 2004 became the Principal Guest Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Following that in 2005, he became the Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London. In 2006, he became the Music Advisor to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and then in 2008 the Principal Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Finally, in 2007 Slatkin became the Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and in 2011 the Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, the posts he currently holds.  Whew!

Now, to the music at hand. The composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), wrote his Symphonie fantastique in 1830, and it wasn’t long before it became one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. With programmatic elements similar to previous works like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and using a huge orchestral arrangement for well over a hundred players (Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result must have been extraordinary for its period; indeed, it remains extraordinary even today. It’s not really a traditional symphony despite the title, more like a psychodrama in five movements. Therein, the young Berlioz writes autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, the young man falling into a drug-induced dream, which the composer describes in his music. The woman reappears throughout the Symphonie in the form of an idée fixe, a “fixed idea” the young man cannot shake, a musical innovation Berlioz used to advantage.

As we might expect from Maestro Slatkin, he takes a fairly literal view of things, which in a programmatic work like the Symphonie fantastique may be the best course. He interprets the opening movement at face value, the Reveries--Passions, never quite animating it as much as I’d like but nicely playing up the contrasts as the dejected romantic of the score conjures up opium dreams and nightmares of his lost love.

The second movement describes a ball in which the young man catches a glimpse of his beloved.  Berlioz later composed a cornet part for this section, which Slatkin includes as a bonus track. Anyway, the conductor ensures the music itself sweeps and swirls in an appropriately questioning, probing manner.

Next, we come to the scene in the country, a slow Adagio. In it, the young man sees a pair of shepherd boys playing a pipe melody to call their flock, and all is well until, as always, the young man notices his love in the picture. Needless to say, the music shifts into a left sudden turn, which Slatkin negotiates smoothly, if without too much high drama.

Then we come to the final two movements that audiophiles so adore because they burst over with so much busy, vigorous energy. They’re ideal for showing off one’s audio system. The March to the Scaffold brings the young man to his death for the murder of his beloved, and the Witches’ Sabbath finds the poor fellow apparently at Judgment Day in hell. Beecham and Bernstein generated genuine electricity in these movements; Slatkin merely contents himself with some passing color. I’d rather have felt a little more of the young man’s agony. Still, it’s hard to go wrong in this music, and there remains much one can commend in Slatkin’s low-key characterization. At least he doesn’t let the excitement alone carry the day. It’s also nice to see that Naxos chose to divide the final movement into four separate tracks for an easy indexing of ideas.

Besides the alternative cornet movement, the coupling on the disc is Berlioz’s Overture to Le Corsaire. Here, too, Slatkin’s reading sounds admirably restrained and unaffected, with a dashing élan.

Naxos recorded the music in 2011 at the Auditorium de Lyon, France, to generally good effect. The sound is typical of much of Naxos’s work, perfectly adequate yet never quite reaching audiophile heights. The all-important midrange is refined and natural, if not entirely transparent. The high and low ends appear well enough represented, though not particularly extended except at the very end of the Symphonie. Dynamic range and impact appear a tad limited, so they don’t produce quite the force of an actual orchestral experience. In all, the sonics seem ideally suited to easy listening rather than really critical listening.


Sep 27, 2012

Vintage Cinema (CD review)

Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Telarc CD-80708.

It seems as though every time I’ve read the inside back cover of one of Telarc’s booklet inserts, I found they were using the latest and greatest new audio technology to record their music. This 2008 disc, for instance, says they used a Sonoma Direct Stream digital workstation with DAD AX-24 DSD converters, EMM Labs DSD converters, a Genex 8500 DSD recorder, EMM Labs Switchman MK2 monitored speakers, ATCSM 150 and SCM50, etc., which means little to me except that their sound doesn’t ever seem to change much. Nevertheless, I thought this particular recording from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops seemed distant, recessed, slightly foggy, and smeared. Maybe it’s just me. I put the disc away for a few days and went back to it later. It still didn’t sound very transparent or detailed. Despite my reservations, it appears natural enough if you’re comparing it to the sound you might hear sitting in the back half of an auditorium, which is maybe the point.

Anyway, the musical content this time revolves around old movie soundtracks from 1933 to 1962, starting, appropriately enough, with the main title and “Entrance of Kong” from Max Steiner’s score for the original King Kong (‘33). This score is appropriate because it’s often thought of as the first-ever complete movie music made expressly to underscore an entire film, music cues, themes, and all. Mostly, the first talkies borrowed pre-established classical music for their backgrounds until King Kong came along, so Kong sort of set the standard for movies to come.

Kunzel goes on to cover things like Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood, Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound, Franz Waxman’s Sunset Boulevard, Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant On the Waterfront, Bernard Herrmann’s North By Northwest, and others, twelve tracks in all. My own favorite, incidentally, is Elmer Bernstein’s score for To Kill and Mockingbird, maybe because I love the movie so much and the music seems so fitting.

Kunzel gives all of them the usual Kunzel treatment, sometimes overglamorizing them, sometimes playing them straight. There is never any question about the grandiloquence of the music, though, especially the big tunes like Robin Hood and King Kong, which Kunzel seems to relish. If you’re familiar with Kunzel’s work (and who wouldn’t be, considering he probably recorded more albums than anybody in history), you can safely add this one to your collection.

However, I seem to remember some years earlier Telarc telling us they would never produce an album with less than an hour of content. This one contains only fifty-three minutes of music. Surely, there was room for more. I dunno. As I say, it’s played well enough, and if you’re an old-time movie fan, you’ll find some fine music here. Personally, I don’t much care for little bits and pieces of things, so with sound I didn’t much care for along with it, the disc didn’t impress me. But, who knows, maybe it would impress you more than it did me.


Sep 25, 2012

Brahms: Serenades (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-05.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) didn’t complete his first symphony until he was around forty-three years old, supposedly because of the intimidating shadow of Beethoven. In the meantime, the closest he came was contenting himself with two Serenades in the late 1850’s (and at least starting a First Symphony, which he finally completed in the 1870’s). No matter; his Serenade No. 1 is still pretty close to a symphony, and it’s the match for any orchestral material the man ever produced, even if it did predate the première of his symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

This was the first time I’d heard the Serenades performed on period instruments, and it is quite a welcome change of pace. My three favorite previous versions have been on modern instruments, versions by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra (PentaTone), and Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca). I think now I’ll have to add one more version to my list.

For reasons known only to Maestro Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, they give us the Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16 (1860) first on the program. It is shorter than No. 1, about half its length, slightly darker, and less outgoing; and it has its special appeals, not the least of which is its chamber-music quality in which winds predominate (there are no violins involved).

McGegan’s reading of No. 2 is wonderfully lyrical and relaxed. The mood may be mellower than No. 1 but don’t tell that to the PBO. They play even the slower sections with a joyous enthusiasm. The piece is in five movements, in all of which the orchestra displays a boundless energy, creating a sweet spirit and a resonant atmosphere.

While I’m not sure that playing on period instruments improves the performance all that much, it certainly does nothing to distract from it. Indeed, the distinctive sonic character they produce does add a new flavor to the mix. With performing skills of such a high order and an interpretation so gentle and lovely, the musicians could be playing on penny whistles and make it sound right. The Quasi minuetto in particular has a lilting charm, and the closing Rondo, Allegro has an energetic bounce.

Then comes the Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11 (1858), which is alternately gentle, warm, lyrical, and always cheerful. It is a typically youthful work, the composer just in his mid twenties at the time he wrote it. It is also a fairly long work of its kind, close to fifty minutes, yet it is quite delightful, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies.

In No. 1 Brahms was much more youthfully high spirited than he would be in No. 2, especially noticeable in the first movement, which McGegan and his team play with appropriate vigor. Timpani in a period band always punctuate the music in such a commanding manner, and the PBO offer some of the best; that big, familiar opening tune never sounded better. Arranged in six movements, the Serenade No. 1 adds a robust pair of Scherzos to the general design for serenades set forth by Mozart.

Interestingly, perhaps surprisingly, McGegan adopts some fairly traditional tempos throughout the piece, never resorting to the kind of hell-bent-for-leather approach taken by some other period-instruments ensembles. In fact, the timings for McGegan’s rendering of both Serenades are within seconds, more or less, of the aforementioned conductors, with just a tad more bounce in the step of the PBO. Moreover, the long central Adagio has never seemed more moving or more faintly melancholic. Then, the ensuing Minuetto, Scherzo and finale blend in perfectly with everything that has gone before, bringing the Serenade to a glorious, rousing close.

The recordings come to us from 2010 (No. 1) and 2012 (No. 2), both made live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California. First Congregational has always sounded like a fairly lively acoustical venue to me, and in the past, the PBO’s live recordings there have been a bit too brightly reverberant for my taste. However, this time the engineers miked things a little closer and obtained a more flattering response. The sound of the Second Serenade is especially smooth, although neither Serenade appears quite as well detailed and transparent as the PBO’s studio productions. There is a pleasingly warm glow around the instruments in both cases, though, and while orchestral depth suffers somewhat from the close miking, the stage width no doubt benefits, so we get a nice, big sonic picture. Anyway, No. 2 doesn’t really sound “live,” but No. 1, recorded two years earlier, does sound live; one can hear and sense the presence of an audience, chiefly at the beginning of the piece, during the quietest passages, and, of course, during an unfortunate eruption of applause at the end. Still, as I say, the sound is warm and accommodating, not at all bright or excessively reflective, making for an easygoing listening experience.


Sep 24, 2012

Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Cross Lane Fair. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, BBC Philharmonic. Naxos 8.572350.

You know Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Well, if you don’t, you should. As of this writing, the prolific English composer and conductor (b. 1934) is the Master of the Queen’s Music, a title equivalent to the Poet Laureate of the country or the Archbishop of Tunes or something. To be fair, though, I rather suspect the English program his music more than we do in the U.S., so if you’re not quite sure about him or what he’s written, you have cause. Anyway, he’s written nine symphonies so far, and this third one is among the best. It’s good to have the composer’s own recording of it back in circulation from Naxos.

The Symphony No. 3 is big work in four slightly unconventional movements. It begins and ends rather quietly, with sometimes violent turns in between as it conjures up visions of seascapes, rock cliffs, and seabirds. Maxwell Davies suggests that the piece resembles a spiralling mollusk shell. He wrote the music in 1984 “at home in a tiny isolated cottage on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, on a clifftop overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.” To me, the music resembles some things by fellow Englishman Arnold Bax, who also wrote tone poems of nature and the sea, things like Tintagel, Northern Ballad No. 1, and November Woods. Then, too, there is always the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and his various descriptive, romantic tone poems and symphonies to consider as comparisons.

The composer himself leads the BBC Philharmonic, so we have to presume the interpretation is authoritative. Certainly, the music bespeaks of a rugged individuality of spirit, along with a kind of Debussy La Mer sensibility. Interestingly, Maxwell Davies also inserts a medieval Roman Church chant into the piece; I’m not sure exactly why except perhaps because of some religious connotations equating our lives with the wrath of God and Nature and because the chant variations give the work a pleasing texture.

After the long opening movement, there follow a pair of Scherzos, the second of which somewhat distorts the first. There is a vaguely jazz-inflected tone to these movements, at least part of which describes a flock of nesting seabirds spiraling upwards. The third-movement Allegro vivace introduces us to the final section, a brooding Adagio, even longer than the other sections, that tends to repeat some of the effects of the first movement.

There are some wonderfully evocative feelings and moods expressed in the symphony, although at nearly an hour, it probably overextends its welcome by a good fifteen minutes or more. This was only my second time hearing it, and I couldn’t help thinking again that it would have maybe been better as a shorter tone poem. Yet surely this is a fascinating piece of music, and it’s good to hear so relatively recent a work that hearkens back to the days of actual melody and harmony instead of mere noise.

The brief, quarter-hour accompanying work is a lighter piece called Cross Lane Fair. From 1994 it’s a genuine tone poem that evokes the sights and sounds of a fair the composer recalls from his childhood. Using pipes and bodhran (an Irish frame drum) as soloists with the orchestra, it’s quite a lot of fun.

The sound comes to us originally courtesy of Collins Classics, who recorded it in 1993-94 at BBC North Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK, and the folks at Naxos re-released it in 2012 along with several other Maxwell Davies discs. It’s among the best-sounding albums I’ve heard from the Naxos group, with a wide stereo spread, a good depth of field, a realistic tonal balance, and a fairly clear midrange.


Sep 21, 2012

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (HQCD review)

Martti Talvela, James King, Marilyn Horne, Dame Joan Sutherland; Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus. HDTT HDCD263.

Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt was among those older conductors who, luckily for us, lived long enough into the stereophonic age to have left us any number of fine stereo recordings. He was one of an elite group of conductors that included people like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Rafael Kubelik, Karl Bohm, Eugene Jochum, and their like. There were other conductors who came along during and after their tenures who offered more glamor, like Herbert von Karajan, or more pizzazz, like Georg Solti, and conductors like Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner who performed on period instruments using period practices. But it’s hard to beat the grace and refinement the older hands brought to the music, especially to Beethoven. On the present disc, the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) bring us Schmidt-Isserstedt’s classic 1965 recording of the Beethoven Ninth, and it couldn’t be better.

Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote and premiered his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, in 1824, and it would be his final completed symphony. Its use of vocals in the final movement gave it the title “Choral Symphony,” and the work proved to be at least as revolutionary as his Symphony No. 3. There are critics to this day who consider the Ninth the greatest piece of music ever written, and it’s hard to argue with them.

We can learn a lot about Schmidt-Isserstedt’s style from his handling of the first movement, the Allegro, ma non troppo, un poco. It sounds exactly right (Schmidt-Isserstedt’s handling, not Beethoven’s tempo markings). To give you an idea of that “rightness,” I compared his timing for the movement with other recordings I had on hand: Solti: 17:39; Jochum: 16:31; Schmidt-Isserstedt: 16:26; Bohm: 14.54; Norrington: 14:13; Zinman: 13:35. So Schmidt-Isserstedt is pretty much in the middle of the crowd when it comes to tempos, yet the pace actually seems quicker because he puts such emphasis on dynamic contrasts, making his interpretation as lively as any of the others. Still, it never seems hurried. In each movement, Schmidt-Isserstedt takes the time to elucidate, illuminate, and clarify every note.

And so it goes, always with Schmidt-Isserstedt keeping a bounce in his step but never overstepping the bounds of classical propriety. His is a thrilling yet elegant performance. The third-movement Cantabile is as beautiful as any I’ve heard, and then comes that big finish: the “Ode to Joy,” based on the poem by Friedrich Schiller and sung here by probably the finest quartet ever assembled for the occasion: Martti Talvela, bass; James King, tenor; Marilyn Horne, mezzo-soprano; and Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano. Along with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the best ensembles in the world, and the Vienna State Opera Chorus at the top of their game, one could not ask for more.

This is not a flashy Ninth, not a monumental one, not a grandiose one, not a zippy, rushed one. Schmidt-Isserstedt’s account is simply a most-fulfilling, most-pleasing, most-rewarding one. It’s a dignified, spacious reading, well balanced and relaxed, yet invariably riveting, a performance that is hard to fault and, thus, a performance easy to live with and easy to enjoy upon repeat listening.

Decca recorded the music in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, in 1965, and HDTT transferred it to HQCD from a London four-track tape. The sound is as good as any Beethoven Ninth on record and better than most. Let’s just say there is nothing seriously better. Clarity is outstanding, without being in any way bright or edgy, and while it may not be as ultimately transparent as some other recordings, it is more lifelike than most. The stereo spread is wide; dynamics are strong; transient response is quick; orchestral depth is moderately good; and bass and treble appear reasonably well extended. A pleasant ambient bloom and almost no background noise give the whole affair a natural, realistic feel. Very nice.

For further information about HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at

“Top of the world!”  --James Cagney, White Heat


Sep 20, 2012

Mozart: Overtures (CD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. EMI 7243 5 85060 2.

Time is a funny thing. When you’re a kid, you want it to go by in a hurry so you can grow up fast.  When you’re an adult, you’d prefer it slowed down...way, way down. I got to thinking about time when I saw that EMI had re-released Marriner’s Mozart Overtures in their budget-label Encore series.

It seems like only yesterday, 1982, when Marriner first released these performances, and they went straight to the top of my personal favorites. They were the best I had heard, and at the moment they’re still among the best we’ve got. To be able to buy them new for less than the cost of the old full-price LP seems a bargain, indeed.

The collection includes nine overtures: The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, La clemenza di Tito, Lucio Silla, The Abduction from the Seraglio, Don Giovanni, Idomeneo, Cosi fan tutte, and Der Schauspieldirektor. The thing about them is that there is so little one needs to say to describe them. They are not scorching, exciting, tranquil, relaxed, or radiant. They simply “are.” They simply are the way they should be, just as we always imagine this music to sound. Of course, Marriner is always elegant, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is always impeccable; that goes without saying. Otherwise, the performances are spot on, neither hurried nor lax, but glowing when they should be, witty when they should be, inspiring when they should be. It’s no wonder the Saul Zaentz Company chose Marriner to conduct the music for Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning Mozart movie Amadeus a few years later.

EMI’s sound is very early digital, but it was never hard or edgy as some early digital recordings could be. What’s more, the new mastering, which the folks at EMI do not indicate they updated in any way, is as convincing and alive as the old full-price disc. In any case, it’s good to hear this budget release sounds just as clean as the older edition. Understandably, there is little deep bass involved with Mozart, but there is a natural tonal balance, a wide stereo spread, a realistically ambient bloom, and a reasonable orchestral depth, and a modest transparency. It makes for a very fine reissue.


Sep 18, 2012

Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (HQCD review)

Also, Burleske in D for Piano and Orchestra. Byron Janis, piano; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD264.

First, let’s get the old joke out of the way about your being able to tell a true, dyed-in-the-wool audiophile because he only listens to the introductory fanfare (“Sunrise”) of Zarathustra. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Next, let’s consider the performance. In 1954 conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony made their first recording of Zarathustra in stereo for RCA. It became one of the earliest commercially available stereo recordings ever produced (and the earliest stereo recording of Zarathustra, period). Eight years later, in 1962, RCA audio engineers figured they had advanced the art of stereo recording enough that they asked Reiner to re-record the piece, which we have here. Subsequently, RCA released both the 1954 and 1962 recordings to CD in their “Living Stereo” series, and I was lucky enough to have both recordings on hand (the ’62 version on a JVC XRCD) for comparison.

The thing is, when Reiner made the ‘62 recording, he was in ill health, resigning from the orchestra shortly afterwards and dying the following year. His health issues may explain in part why critics for the past fifty years have pretty much agreed that this later recording was not quite as spontaneous, animated, or tension-filled as the earlier one. Indeed, the ’54 recording has withstood the test of time remarkably well, becoming a genuine classic, and there really hasn’t been anything to come along since to surpass it. Certainly not Reiner’s ’62 performance, which, by the way, is still quite good. What’s more, the ’54 recording’s audio quality holds its own as well, and in some people’s estimation still sounds better than the ‘62 one we have here. In any case, it’s the later recording HDTT remastered, so I was anxious to give it a listen.

A little more background: German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) in 1896, inspired by a philosophical novel by the German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss divided the music into nine sections, naming the sections after various chapters of the book: “Sunrise,” “Of the Inhabitants of the Unseen World,” “Of the Great Longing,” “Of Joys and Passions,” “The Grave Song,” “Of Science and Learning,” “The Convalescent,” “The Dance-Song,” and “The Night-Wanderer’s Song.”

It’s probably best not to put too much stock in the literal meaning of each of these sections but to enjoy them for their figurative spirit. In fact, Strauss himself, criticized at the time for trying to put Nietzsche’s philosophy into music said, “I did not intend to write philosophical music, or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its evolution, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

Listeners could always expect fine interpretations from Reiner, and I can’t think of a stereo recording he made with the CSO between 1954 and 1962 that didn’t thrill critics and audiences alike. It seems a little unfair that in ‘62 fans expected him to outdo his own ‘54 Zarathustra, since practically no one has done so to this day. Nevertheless, Reiner’s ‘62 performance remains vital, its vision still grand, noble, and eloquent. A simple glance at the timings for the work (about thirty-two minutes in ‘54 and thirty-four minutes in ’62) shows us that the conductor had slowed down a bit with the years and was taking things at a slightly more leisurely pace. This had the advantage, however, in producing a warmer, richer tone, which is especially telling in the final moments of the piece. It’s one of the most-affecting “Night-Wanderer’s Songs” you’ll find anywhere.

The companion music on the disc is Strauss’s early Burleske in D for Piano and Orchestra, with Byron Janis, recorded in 1957. Mr. Janis remains one of America’s preeminent pianists, and his performance of the Burleske remains one of the best you’ll find. 

RCA producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the music in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in April and May of 1962. The folks at RCA say in their original liner notes that they used six overall microphones for the occasion to capture the full impact of the 109-man orchestra. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered Zarathustra from an RCA 4-track tape (and the Burleske from an RCA LP) and then transferred it to HQCD. I put the HDTT disc into one CD player and the audiophile edition JVC XRCD of it remastered from the original master tape into another player and listened to them side-by-side, changing them out of each player from time to time to ensure fairness.

The chief difference I noticed within moments of Zarathustra was that the HDTT disc had a better left-to-right stereo spread than the JVC disc, the JVC for some odd reason favoring the left side of the stage. The HDTT, by contrast, distributed the instruments far more evenly and more realistically across the sound stage. Then I noted a marginally greater degree of clarity from the HDTT disc, while the JVC seemed to produce a greater degree of smoothness, although these qualities appeared to vary a tad as the comparison went on. Both discs displayed about an equal amount of roughness in the strings, no doubt a characteristic of the master tape, but for that matter the roughness was almost too small to care about. In addition, I heard a minimal level of background noise from both discs, with the effect perhaps heightened at times by the increased transparency of the HDTT. Bass was robust on both discs, and spaciousness and dynamics as well, but I’d give a small edge here to the HDTT.

Perhaps some day HDTT will favor us with a remastering of Reiner’s 1954 recording of the work. “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

HDTT remastered the Burleske from a 1957 RCA LP, and I actually found its sound a touch more pleasing than the Zarathustra. It seemed quieter and softer, with a warm, added glow. It’s quite nice, and even if the music itself is nowhere near as impressive as Zarathustra, it makes a welcome coupling.

For further information about HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at


Sep 17, 2012

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 3 (CD review)

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Sony Classics 88725420582.

With this 2012 release, Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes embarks on The Beethoven Journey, as he has titled the album, the first of several that will cover all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos and the Choral Fantasy. Whether he will then go on to do the Triple Concerto and the various sonatas, we’ll have to wait to see. As Andsnes notes in the disc’s accompanying booklet, this is the first time he’s recorded Beethoven at all, and his inspiration to do so was hearing snippets of the concertos playing in an elevator he used regularly. Mr. Andsnes is a fine, thoughtful, clearheaded pianist, and if this initial foray of his into Beethoven as pianist and director of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is any indication, we can only hope he’ll consider going as far as he can in the repertoire.

As Andsnes also points out in the booklet, there is nothing slight or lightweight about Beethoven’s first couple of piano concertos. In fact, it is only by comparison to the revolutionary ideas in the final few concertos that the early concertos seem of less consequence. Nevertheless, there is much to commend in all five of them.

Beethoven premiered the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, in 1798. It is one of my favorite works by the composer, and if it sounds more mature than his Concerto No. 2, it’s because he actually wrote No. 1 some ten years after No. 2. Anyway, here in the Concerto No. 1 we get a big, rhythmic opening movement, a playfully tuneful closing movement, and in between them one of the most tranquil, meditative middle movements a listener could imagine.

I enjoyed the fresh bounce Andsnes maintains in his playing. He certainly takes the first movement briskly, which perhaps diminishes slightly the joy of the music, yet it’s probably more in line with Beethoven’s own Allegro con brio tempo marking than most pianists observe. So, it may be all in what a person has become used to hearing. The playing of both the soloist and the orchestra are friendly and inviting despite the quick pace. Andsnes is able to bring out not only the grandeur in the first movement but the lyricism and turmoil as well.

The Largo is among Beethoven’s most sublime creations, and Andsnes gives it a heartfelt interpretation. Still, the pianist shows no signs of sentimentality, which some listeners will appreciate. Personally, I would rather have heard a little more old-fashioned emotiveness from him, but that’s probably just my age speaking. It’s lovely, really.

The final Rondo, Allegro is rhythmically joyous fun, and Andsnes appears to be having a good time with it. Although it’s maybe not as resilient or melodious as, say, Steven Kovacevich's performance for Philips (still the touchstone in these works), it’s close, and Andsnes’s finger work is astonishing.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, premiered in 1803, with Beethoven as usual the soloist. No. 3 is where a lot critics feel Beethoven found his own voice, and we begin to feel less the influence of Mozart and Haydn. Frankly, I find nothing wrong with those influences, but, yes, Beethoven is more creative here than ever before. The work is darker and more complex than Nos. 1 or 2, which in themselves don’t make No. 3 better, just different. The stricter, somewhat harsher moods Beethoven conjures up in No. 3 seem to suit Andsnes better, though, and he turns in a superb reading, both gravely somber and seductively sweet. While Andsnes fills the piece with a remarkable energy, there is always something just a trifle melancholy and lonely about all three movements.  Well done, sir.

Sony recorded the music at Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czechoslovakia, in early 2012. The sound is big (from so small an ensemble), yet it hasn’t quite the transparency or naturalness I’ve heard in a few other recordings. Nor is there much in the way of orchestral depth involved, so the sonic impression is one of relative flatness. However, there is a pleasant ambient glow around the instruments, a mild resonance that goes a long way toward compensating for any possible shortcomings. Moreover, there is a wide dynamic range and a strong impact that aid in overall realism.

A minor quibble: I enjoy nice-looking album covers. I enjoy at least glancing at them once in a while as I’m listening to a piece of music. The Andsnes Beethoven cover is as stark and nondescript as one can imagine; it looks as though someone simply typed the album’s title on a white sheet of paper. Since Sony plans to do more releases in this series, I hope they reconsider the artwork.


Sep 14, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, original first movement for No. 2. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 382.

Of Tchaikovsky’s six or seven symphonies (depending on how you regard Manfred), Nos. 4-6 get most of the attention, with No. 2 often the odd man out. In this newest cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies from Maestro Mikhail Pletnev, we get another of his well-ordered if somewhat dispassionate readings of the works. Still, given the lyrical, song-filled nature of the Second Symphony, there is much to commend Pletnev’s rational approach.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, in 1872, premiered it in 1873, and revised it extensively about seven years later. Critics and audiences liked it quite a lot, perhaps because of the abundance of Russian folk music the composer included in it, much of it coming from the Ukrainian region dubbed “Little Russia” and leading to the symphony’s nickname as the “Little Russian.” It is generally a joyous, jubilant piece, its festive nature undoubtedly contributing to its popularity.

By the time the opening movement reaches its second theme Allegro vivo, Pletnev has worked up a suitably red-blooded passion, something much of his Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for PentaTone has lacked. Then in the second movement we hear even more of the Russian folk-inflected music for which fans know the work. The composer marked it “quasi moderato,” and it is a kind of quasi march, beginning with march rhythms and then alternating them with several songs.

In the Scherzo Pletnev propels the music forward with particular vigor, although I still miss some of the ardor I hear in conductors like Jansons (Chandos), Muti (EMI), Abbado (DG), Haitink (Philips), even Pletnev himself in his earlier recording for DG. Nevertheless, the interpretation tends to blend well with Pletnev’s other well-reasoned Tchaikovsky readings for PentaTone.

It’s in the Finale that Pletnev comes into his own; maybe he was saving it all up for the big finish, just as Tchaikovsky did. In any case, there is a grandiloquent element here that Pletnev catches well, with energy aplenty. The conductor lights it up with a spark somewhat missing earlier.

As an accompanying piece, Pletnev plays Tchaikovsky’s original first movement of the Second Symphony. It is considerably longer and somewhat different in tone from the version we usually hear. Tchaikovsky had said of the original work, “My God, what a difficult, noisy, incoherent piece!” Perhaps so, but the original first movement makes fascinating listening, with its more melancholic mood and abundance of sometimes plaintive, sometimes rousing melodies. Tchaikovsky had favored the lighter, more rhapsodic qualities of the revision, yet it’s no wonder other critics of day preferred the composer’s first impressions. Incidentally, for a recording of the complete original Symphony No. 2, the reader couldn’t do much better than hearing Geoffrey Simon’s interpretation with the LSO on Chandos.

PentaTone recorded the symphony in multichannel at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in 2011, and they released it here on a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD. In the stereo SACD layer to which I listened, the sound was quite good, very robust, with strong dynamic contrasts, especially in the Finale. Although it is isn’t the most transparent sound you’ll find, it is fairly natural. The midrange has a most lifelike quality about it; the bass is modest, not too prominent, and like the dynamics makes its presence known primarily in the final movement; and the treble is a bit soft. Moreover, there is a reasonable sense of depth to set off the realism of the sonic picture, particularly evident in the SACD layer.

One small quibble in closing: At only a bit over half an hour, the Second Symphony most often these days comes coupled with more music than we find here, sometimes with another Tchaikovsky symphony. Even with the first-movement coupling the total playing time amounts to little more than forty-eight minutes for the entire album. It seems rather short value, given the price of the disc.


Sep 13, 2012

Rossini: Overtures (XRCD review)

Pierino Gamba, London Symphony Orchestra. JVC JVCXR-0229-2.

After Victor Company of Japan (JVC) had remastered so many old recordings by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, the first thing I wondered when I learned about this JVC release of Rossini overtures was why they had chosen Pierino Gamba’s 1960 recording instead of Reiner’s. After all, Reiner’s performances of six popular Rossini overtures are among the best ever put to disc, sonically and interpretively. Then I listened to Gamba and remembered why they did it.

When Decca first released Gamba’s LP, it went to the top of almost everybody’s charts, later continuing to appear on lists of recommendations from Gramophone magazine, Stereo Review, the Penguin Guide, and many more. Although I hadn’t heard the album in many years, there was no doubt in my mind about its quality less than two minutes into playing it.

Gamba leads performances of overtures from The Thieving Magpie, The Silken Ladder, The Barber of Seville, Semiramide, and William Tell, all of them initially appearing on the Decca label back in the days when Decca engineers were still using a relatively simple trio of Neumann M-50 omnidirectional microphones, with left and right “outrigger” M-50 microphones, plus a Decca pickup for the woodwinds. Gamba’s interpretations are crisp and unfussy, their precision reminding one of Toscanini. While this exactitude does lead to a small degree of coolness compared to the aforementioned Reiner as well as compared to others, like Marriner and the Academy and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, it also brings out detail one may never have noticed before in the works. The opening of The Thieving Magpie, for instance, appears to be literally alive right before you; and the closing galop from William Tell is uncanny in its technical proficiency. Yet the whole is as exciting as any Rossini on record, Gamba’s speeds sometimes verging on the breakneck.

The sound as remastered by JVC is excellent, as we might expect, very clear, very tight. If there is any slight lack of deepest bass, it is undoubtedly because that’s the way Decca recorded it. Nevertheless, what bass is present is taut and dynamic and makes a solid impression. Occasionally, one notices a touch of harshness about the highest strings, but that, too, one can no doubt attribute to the master tape. I cannot imagine it being anything introduced through JVC’s impeccable remastering process, and, in any case, it’s so small it’s hardly noticeable.

These JVC audiophile discs are, as you know, quite expensive, running about $30.00 a pop for no more music than was on the original LP. (I like to think this has to do with getting the maximum in quality regardless of cost). High priced or not, apparently the discs sold well enough for JVC to have mastered them in their Southern California facility as well as in Japan. According to the booklet notes, this Rossini disc was “mastered by Alan Yoshida at Ocean Way Recording, Hollywood, California.” The nice thing about the U.S. manufacturing, incidentally, is that the notes are in English, something you don’t get with the Japanese product. Otherwise, the mastering from both facilities appears to be equally good.


Sep 11, 2012

Handel: Water Music (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMG 507010.

A while back I got an urge to listen to Handel’s Water Music. The trouble was I had five or six different versions on the shelf, all of which I liked; and not having heard any of them in some time, I wasn’t sure which one I should listen to. So I listened to a few minutes of each of them, chose Trevor Pinnock’s period-instruments rendering on DG Archiv, and settled in. All of which reminded me of another period-instruments recording, one by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, that I had always liked but couldn’t find in my collection. I couldn’t find it, I quickly realized, because I had heard it years ago at a friend’s house and always meant to get it; but like so many good intentions, I never got around to it. Shortly afterwards, the good folks at Harmonia Mundi graciously agreed to send me a review copy of the disc, and it confirmed my initial impression. It is one of the finest interpretations of the Water Music I’ve ever heard and the best sounding to boot.

As you probably know, in 1717 King George I ordered up music from George Frideric Handel (1685-1750) for a festive river party the king had organized. In a letter to the King of Prussia, the ambassador Friedrich Bonet described the occasion thus: “Along side the King’s barge was that of the musicians, fifty of them, who played all sorts of instruments, to wit trumpets, hunting horns, oboes, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes, violins and basses; but there were no singers. This concert was composed expressly by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and first composer of the King’s Music. His Majesty so approved of it that he had it repeated three times, even though it lasted an hour on each occasion: twice before and once after supper.”

The business of the “fifty” musicians is interesting. The composer employed so large a number for the event because playing outdoors on the river he needed a relatively big sound in order to hear the music; shortly afterwards, a score for a smaller number of performers surfaced, probably done by Handel for more convenient playing indoors. It is this latter instrumentation that most period-instruments ensembles follow today, using twenty-five or thirty players as McGegan does. As for “it lasted an hour,” McGegan takes a little over fifty-six minutes. What’s more, it’s never been entirely clear what order the composer intended the music be played. Traditionally, there are three suites, although the exact ordering of numbers within the suites often varies from conductor to conductor, with some conductors choosing to combine all the music into one or two larger groupings. McGegan chooses the conventional three-suite arrangement and adds several Variations as well.

I usually use three criteria for judging the merits of any recording: its musical performance, its recording quality, and its overall presentation. McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra succeed on all three counts, so let’s look at them one at a time.

In terms of performance, you won’t find a better interpretation than this one. McGegan chooses tempos that appear perfectly judged, not too fast in the usual period-instruments manner and not too slow or old-fashioned. His rhythms sound spirited and invigorating without being rushed or breathless. His phrasing brings out all the delight and charm of the work without embroidering it in any way with eccentricities or mannerisms. In short, if Handel intended this music purely to entertain, McGegan does exactly that. Incidentally, some music historians are fond of mentioning that the little Suite in G major, the so-called “Flute Suite,” probably got played as dinner music while the king was eating on his barge, since it is the most lightly scored of the three suites; but if so, it must have been a remarkably short dinner since the piece lasts less than ten minutes. In any case, McGegan plays it quite delicately, followed by the most lavish and jubilant of the music, the Suite in D major, which McGegan plays in properly celebratory style, closing the show with much pomp and circumstance.

Then, there’s the sound, recorded at the Lone Mountain College Chapel in San Francisco, California, in 1987-88. Simply put, it’s the finest you’ll find in this music, and I’ve heard almost everything available. Where other recordings may sound clear and clean, the Harmonia Mundi recording does that and sounds real, too. It’s like comparing a picture of a pastoral landscape to actually being there and observing the landscape. Other recordings, no matter how good they are, tend to sound artificial by comparison, a little too slick and flat. With the HM recording you get transparency, air, attack, impact, range, and a terrific sense of the acoustic environment in warmth and resonance. It is one of the best recordings of any music you’re likely to hear.

Finally, there’s the presentation, where we find the disc’s one shortcoming. It includes only the Water Music, nothing more. Most other albums these days include at least one or more other items, often the Royal Fireworks Music. Still, it’s the music that counts, and when it’s the best, who cares if there’s no coupling. Besides, the other parts of the presentation are first-class: The Digipak container is beautiful, and the handsomely illustrated booklet insert is a joy. This one I have to add to my list of all-time favorites.


Sep 10, 2012

Music from the Spanish Kingdoms (CD review)

Circa 1500, Nancy Hadden. CRD 3447.

For people who enjoy early music, in this case music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this reissued CRD album, Music from the Spanish Kingdoms, with the early-music ensemble Circa 1500, is hard to beat. I don’t usually care for programs made up of bits and pieces of music, but this one strikes me as so well played, so well recorded, and so infectiously spirited, it’s hard to resist. Prepare for an hour of truly old-fashioned music making, like four-hundred-year-old music.

Musicologist Tess Knighton in a booklet note describes the music of the disc thus: “Throughout the Middle Ages the rulers of east-coast Spain...had looked across the Mediterranean and longed for a foothold in Italy. It was not, however, until 1442 when Alfonso the Magnanimous (d. 1458) defeated Rene of Anjou, his French rival for the kingdom of Naples, that such ambitions were fulfilled. Alfonso transferred his court to Naples and it automatically became a meeting-point for Hispanic and Italian culture; and from this time, sometimes referred to as the Neapolitan ‘Golden Age,’ a tradition for musical exchange between Spain and Naples was established that was to last for several centuries.”

Music from the Spanish Kingdoms offers up some thirty brief selections representative of the musical compositions that resulted from this Spanish-Italian union, a connection that lasted well into and beyond the Renaissance. Among the composers included on the album we find Juan del Encina (1468-1529), Adrian Willaert (1480-1562), Marchetto Cara (1465-1525), Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470-1535), Alonso Mudarra (1508-1580), Juan Vasquez (1500-1560), Josquin Desprez (1440-1521), Loyset Compere (d. 1518), Johannes Martini (1440-1497), Diego Ortiz (1510-1570), Giovan Tomas di Maio (d. 1563), and Figuel Fuenllana (1525-1585). You can tell by the names and dates something about their backgrounds and eras.

Most of the selections are songs, where both Spanish and Italian cultures happily coincided. Both countries enjoyed courtly love songs, so that is where the present album’s emphasis lies. Emily van Evera, soprano, supplies the vocals for Circa 1500, where Nancy Hadden plays flute, recorder and crumhorn; Erin Headley plays viola da gamba, lirone (or lira da gamba, a bass member in the family of stringed instruments) and fiddle; Paula Chateauneuf plays lute and renaissance guitar; and Andrew Lawrence-King plays Gothic harp, Spanish harp and psaltery (an ancient musical instrument consisting of a flat sounding box with numerous strings plucked with the fingers or with a plectrum).

Circa 1500 make a joyful noise. Ms. Evera’s voice is sweet and pure, with wonderful control. And the music is quite straightforward, largely unadorned and unembellished, and all the better for it. For the most part, the dance rhythms sound spirited and enlivening and the lyrical elements gently flowing and lilting. All of it is highly melodic, with Circa 1500 born to play it. Interspersed among the songs are a few purely instrumental tunes like Milano’s La Spagna, Desprez’s Il fantazies de Joskin, Martini’s Fuge de morte, and others, which also sound lovely.

CRD recorded the performances in 1989 at West Dean College, near Chichester, Sussex, England, and re-released them with new packaging in 2012. One can understand their popularity; the performances, as I’ve said, come filled with joy, and the sound quality is excellent. Ms. Evera’s voice stands out prominently but not because it appears miked any closer than the other performers. Her voice is simply the surpassing instrument here, the center of attention. More important, it sounds clear and clean, with a perfectly natural tonal balance. The other four instrumentalists spread out around and behind the vocalist in a warm, ambient group. Although ultimate transparency is not the point, they do sound most realistic.


Sep 7, 2012

Eternal Echoes: Songs & Dances for the Soul (CD review)

Itzhak Perlman, violin; Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. Sony Classical 88725 42006 2.

For the past four decades and more, Itzhak Perlman has been among the world’s premiere violinists; for many fans, the world’s greatest violinist. Not only has he recorded practically every violin concerto ever written, he has teamed up over the years with other prominent artists in recordings with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Andre Previn, to name a few. This time, he shares the spotlight with Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, Chief Cantor of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, and two small, supporting ensembles in an album of Jewish liturgical music that, as with everything he’s done before, makes for glorious listening.

So, what is an album of Jewish liturgical music all about? Let me quote from the album’s coproducer and music supervisor, Hankus Netsky: “It’s part concert music, part improvisation--very ethnic and the culmination of thousands of years of culture. It’s roots music--big-time roots music. It’s Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian and gypsy-influenced folk music with a very strong Jewish accent--as if it’s a Jewish prayer. At the same time, khazones (classic Jewish cantorial music, the traditional music sung by the cantor in Jewish religious services) can be considered Jewish classical music, not European concert classical music by Jewish composers but an art form in the way of tradition that raga is an Indian music. They took their religious liturgy and essentially made love songs to God.” The program insert goes on to say, “Elements of Yiddish folk song and theater music, Hassidic song and prayer, and klezmer music (traditional Jewish folk tunes and bands that play them) all surface within the liturgical canon of Khazones--songs and dances for the soul.”

Both artists, Perlman and Helfgot, show their virtuosic talents to good advantage. Perlman has lost none of the spark, spontaneity, precision, and feeling he has always shown in his music making. And Cantor Helfgot’s voice is simply amazing. It combines all the qualities of Perlman’s violin with the addition of sheer power, rich inflection, remarkable flexibility, and clean tone. The purity of both instruments--Perlman’s violin and Helfgot’s voice--provides a uniquely triumphant duo and one of the most pleasurable, listenable albums of the year.

Sony recorded Eternal Voices at Avatar Studios, New York City, in 2011, and it comes with the usual advantages and disadvantages of a typical studio recording. On the plus side, the sound is beautifully clear, rendering the cantor’s voice extremely lifelike and Perlman’s violin crisp and realistic. The engineers recorded both them and the accompaniment rather closely, however, which is why we get such startling clarity but also why the sound doesn’t capture much ambient information. So, as clear as it is, the acoustic isn’t entirely natural, nor do the orchestral ensembles appear too well integrated acoustically, the disc making them seem a bit two-dimensional. In other words, the recording quality is wonderfully lucid at the expense of producing more of a 2-D experience rather than a multidimensional one.

Let me close with only two criticisms, quite minor. First, at a little under an hour of playing time, the disc left me wanting to hear much more. Second, the album cover looks unsightly to me: two faces against a black background with a busy jumble of words across the top and bottom. But who cares about such trivialities when the music is so splendid.


Sep 6, 2012

French Orchestral Music (CD review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, French National Radio Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 79985 2 6.

Any Beecham recording remastered in EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series should be self-recommending. This disc is no exception, notwithstanding a few items among the collection being in mono. Beecham was fond of calling short pieces of light music “lollipops,” and this program brims over with them.

Things begin with a suite from Bizet’s Carmen, culled from the orchestral pieces in Beecham’s celebrated 1958 opera recording. The suite bursts with life, zest, vitality, and charm. I don’t believe anybody has ever done the music better, and it sounds as clear and lively in its full-ranging stereo sound as anything done today.

Following that, we find Chabrier’s Gwendoline overture, one of several performances taken from French radio broadcasts and done up in decent but not spectacular monaural.

Next is an unexpected treat, an orchestral arrangement of Faure’s Dolly, highlighting excellent 1959 stereo sonics and featuring some totally enchanting and enlivening music; you’ll find a few little gems in here. Then there is Saint-Saens’ Le Ruet d’Omphale; Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche and Espana, the latter one of Beecham’s biggest-selling earlier records, in mono from 1939; and finally Bizet’s overture from Patrie and “Carnaval” from Roma, both also in mono.

Beecham was a master of this kind of thing. He never failed to delight his listeners when he was alive, and he never fails to do so nowadays, thanks to the marvels of modern technology. Delicious ear candy.


Sep 4, 2012

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7 “Unfinished” (SACD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone PTC 5186 446.

First, let’s clear up the title. The Symphony No. 7 by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) as recorded here is the same “Unfinished Symphony” that most of us know as No. 8. You’d think that by now people would have settled the debate over the numbering of Schubert’s final symphonies, yet occasionally folks still number as the Seventh what the rest of us refer to as the Eighth; I suppose it’s because of some confusion with another of his unfinished symphonies, sometimes also referred to as the Seventh. Nevertheless, I think it’s counterproductive for some conductors and some record companies intentionally to confound the issue, in this case Maestro Philippe Herreweghe and PentaTone Classics possibly confusing their own buying public. It doesn’t help, either, that the PentaTone graphics department provided such busy, unhelpful art work for the cover. Oh, well, it would probably make no difference to Schubert, since as with the rest of his orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway.

Now, to the more important subject: the performances. This disc is, I believe, the second for Herreweghe in what appears to be a complete Schubert symphony cycle. While his earlier disc of the Ninth Symphony was perhaps not a Ninth for the ages, Herreweghe certainly offered for the most part a well-considered, well-produced interpretation.

Understand, Herreweghe may not one of those conductors who immediately pops to mind as among the absolute greatest conductors of our day, yet he never disappoints with his recorded performances. While he’s neither foursquare nor revolutionary, he never takes an easy route, either, as this Schubert recording and his previous one demonstrate.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 6 in C, D.589 (1818), nicknamed “The Little C major” to differentiate it from the Symphony No. 9, which is also in C major and nicknamed “The Great.”  Under Herreweghe, the slow introduction to the first movement sets the scene becomingly, leading into a sprightly Allegro. This is cheerful music, and Herreweghe does his best to keep it that way, even if the PentaTone sonics are perhaps a bit overwhelming for the occasion. Be that as it may, the performance, sounding only a little heavy, remains charming. If it doesn’t quite bring with it all the delight of Sir Thomas Beecham’s early stereo rendering (EMI), it isn’t entirely for lack of trying.

The second-movement Andante is something of an oddity, beginning with a beautifully light melody that suddenly and unexpectedly gets interrupted by some big, dramatic outbursts. Yes, it can be unsettling, but Herreweghe handles the transitions smoothly enough that at least this segment appears almost of a piece.

Herreweghe treats the Scherzo, also somewhat contradictory, in a wholly unified manner as well, the opposing forces jelling comfortably.

Then, there’s the finale, which Schubert never seemed to know when to end. Herreweghe’s solution is to play it relatively fast and move it along quickly to an end. It works reasonably well by its appropriately matching the sprightliness of the opening movement.

Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 7 (8) in B minor, D.759, “Unfinished,” around 1822. What Schubert left unfinished in two movements seems to us today perfectly complete, and Herreweghe for the most part has the measure of it. That starkly grim beginning that appears to promise something ominous or oppressive soon blossoms into the lovely flowing melodies we all love, alternating darkness and light. Again Herreweghe moves from one mood to another with an easy, confident command of transitions, at a somewhat slow but steady, persuasive pace.

In the second and final movement, Schubert surprises us by starting on a light, pastoral note and then turning it darker, the opposite of what he did previously. But this doesn’t confound Herreweghe, who takes it a brisk yet comfortable gait.

PentaTone is one of the few companies left recording in the hybrid stereo-multichannel SACD format. In the high-def SACD two-channel layer to which I listened, we find sound that is warmly dynamic. The SACD transient quality is fleet and its punch is impressive, the overall sonic character slightly cleaner and tighter than in the regular stereo mode (which one can play on any standard CD player), with a touch more air.

Recorded in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium, in 2011, the sound in both regular and SACD stereo picks up the acoustic nicely, offering a pleasant room resonance, which adds to the overall realism. As I mentioned earlier, although the sound is a tad heavy for the little Sixth Symphony, it works well for the “Unfinished,” contributing a reassuring richness to the proceedings.


Sep 3, 2012

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 “Titan” (SACD review)

Markus Stenz, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln. Oehms Classics OC 646.

“Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?”
--Educating Rita

Maestro Markus Stenz and his Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra were in the midst of a complete Mahler symphony cycle when they recorded this First Symphony, and by the look of things, they appear to have the hang of it.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) completed his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888, and it was a few years after the composer’s death that fellow Austrian composer Arnold Schonberg suggested that it encapsulated all that Mahler would elaborate upon in his later music. Mahler said he was trying to describe in the work a progression of his protagonist facing life from the lighter moments of youth to the darker years of maturity. Indeed, Mahler initially didn’t even want to call it a symphony but rather a tone poem, giving each movement a title it was so programmatic.

Anyway, the first movement, “Spring without End,” characterizes youth in the symbolic awakening of Nature from a long spring. Stenz evokes the mists of dawn quite well, never pushing too hard. Then as he is developing the whole youth vs. the vicissitudes of life business in properly dramatic fashion, we find Stenz handling things gently, too, with a nicely relaxed feeling, never pushing headlong into a rush.

In the second movement Scherzo, “With Full Sail,” Mahler is in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may or may not have meant to be ironic. Stenz keeps it that way, although perhaps takes it a tad too dreamily, even if his pace is relatively quick.

The third movement, an intentionally awkward funeral march, depicts a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, and it comes off as a sort of typical Mahler parody. It may be the young man of the narrative’s first glimpse of death, possibly a recollection by Mahler of one of his own youthful encounters with the death of a loved one. Stenz’s way with it is maybe a touch too superficial, but it still carries weight after its own bizarre Mahlerian fashion.

In the finale, Mahler conveys the panic “of a deeply wounded heart,” as the central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Nevertheless, Mahler, ever the spiritual optimist, wanted Man to triumph in the end, even though how Man will succeed is open to question. Here, in the final twenty minutes, Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing. I have to admit that despite all the energy Stenz and his players invest in this last segment, I would have liked hearing more individual expressiveness from them. Instead, while their music-making is undoubtedly exciting, it never seems to catch fire the way the performances of Solti (Decca), Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), Bernstein (DG), and others do.

So what we get from Stenz is a robust, well-ordered, well-structured First Symphony without quite the insight, introspection, or sheer emotional boldness of the very best interpretations. I have no reservations, however, about saying it’s worth a listen, particularly if you’ve heard and enjoyed Stenz’s previous Mahler symphony recordings.

Made in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall in 2011, the sound of this hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD does a good job capturing the warm, sweet resonance of the acoustic. At the same time, it also appears reasonably clear and natural, with a modest degree of orchestral depth even in the two-channel mode to which I listened through an SACD player. In addition, a fairly taut dynamic impact and modestly deep bass help provide the music a lifelike quality, especially in the SACD layer.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa