Oct 30, 2012

An English Fancy (CD review)

Music of Byrd, Hume, Lawes, Jenkins, Simpson, Locke, and Purcell. Trio Settecento. Cedille CDR 90000 135.

Could they do it again? An English Fancy is Trio Settecento’s fourth  traversal of early European music. The Trio--Rachel Barton Pine, violin, John Mark Rozendaal, viola da gamba, and David Schrader, harpsichord and positiv organ--already gave us three excellent albums of Baroque works--An Italian Sojourn, A German Bouquet, and A French Soiree--that were delights (although they claim this album is their last in this particular series). Could they do equally well with these sixteenth and seventeenth-century English pieces?


As usual, the Trio play the music on instruments of the era, meaning that Ms. Pine had to forsake her usual Baroque violin for a replica of a Renaissance one, which turned out, as she admits, to be harder to master than she thought. She writes in a booklet note, “The neck and fingerboard are shorter, the bass bar and sound post are thinner, and all four strings are made of raw gut. Needless to say, the Renaissance violin has a special voice, easily distinguishable from its successors.” That it does, and it is its “special voice” that helps make this album such a pleasure.

The music includes short pieces by William Byrd (1539-1623), Tobias Hume (1569-1645), William Lawes (1605-1645), John Jenkins (1592-1678), Christopher Simpson (1605-1669), Tomas Baltzar (c. 1631-1663), Matthew Locke (c. 1621-1677), and Henry Purcell (1659-1695). As always, the playing of Trio Settecento is first-rate, and the disc sounds superb.

Highlights? Let me name a few: The opening number, Byrd’s Sellinger’s Rownde, has a nice ebb and flow to it, with each musician getting a moment in the spotlight. The second item couldn’t be more different, a mournful dirge by Hume called Captain Hume’s Lamentation in which the viola da gamba provides a melancholy underpinning. The positiv organ introduces and holds sway in the Suite No. 8 in D Major by Lawes, a three-movement work odd in nature that comes across with a fascinating beauty.

And so it goes. There’s another suite that follows, again a three-movement affair, the Suite No. 2 in G Minor by Jenkins, that casts a sorrowful air, yet it’s played with such affection and the whole thing is so melodic that one hardly notices its dances are rather solemn. The longest piece on the program, a selection of seven movements from the Suites in G Minor and G Major, “The Little Consort,” by Simpson brims over with stately, courtly, sometimes rustic tunes.

Probably my favorite work on the disc, though, is a series of variations titled “John Come Kiss Me Now” by Baltzer that has a wonderfully infectious folklike swing to it. The music must also have been a devil for Ms. Pine to play with all the multi-stopping, particularly played on a Renaissance violin.

Seven selections from Purcell close the show, and listeners might recognize them most easily of all of the music on the disc thanks to the popularity of the composer’s stage works and his familiar style. Combining English, French, and Italian forms, the Purcell selections are fun throughout, and Trio Settecento play them with a casual ease that is most welcome.

An interesting booklet note, by the way, tells us that “string players of the period were instructed to tune their highest strings as high (i.e., as tight) as possible without breaking. This high tension produces a quick response and brilliant sound ideal for the quickly running and leaping passage work found in this repertoire.” Thus, Trio Settecento use a high pitch level to help reproduce the musical practice of the day.

Cedille’s chief engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music in Nichols Concert Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, in 2011. I tell you, if Maylone did the audio, I’m behind it all the way; he does some of the best work in the business. The balance among the instruments is as ideal as one could want, with none of them overshadowing the others, although, to be fair, the violin is almost always dominant. Moreover, there is a wonderfully agreeable ambient glow around the notes, a natural-sounding hall resonance that enhances the music and our listening pleasure. Midrange detail is excellent; dynamics are fine; and a moderately distanced miking arrangement gives the whole affair a feeling of realism.

Cedille fill the disc to capacity with 79:47 minutes of music. You get your money’s worth here, along with a lovely album cover.


Oct 29, 2012

Sound the Trumpet (CD review)

Royal Music of Purcell & Handel. Alison Balsom, trumpet; Trevor Pinnock, the English Concert. EMI Classics 50999 4 40329 2 0.

Alison Balsom is a fine trumpet player, so it’s always a treat to hear a new album from her. The trouble is, the popular trumpet repertoire is relatively small, and there aren’t really a lot of things in Ms. Balsam’s field she hasn’t already recorded. This time, she takes on music of the Baroque period, with pieces by Purcell and Handel. Moreover, Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert accompany her, which makes the disc a double delight since I didn’t even know he and his ensemble were still recording.

Because the English Concert are a period-instruments band and because Ms. Balsom is performing Baroque works, she plays a Baroque trumpet for the occasion. This is not the easiest thing in the world since the Baroque trumpet is quite different from a modern trumpet:  It has no valves, for one thing, making it more difficult yet more expressive to play. As she explains it, “we hear the breathing of the musician, the beginning of the notes, the complex beauty of the technique--in short, the human being in the sound.” She calls it “an adventure.” For the listener, it is a distinct pleasure.

As we might expect from such consummate artists, the solo playing shines, and the accompaniment is lively, enthusiastic, and precise.

Things begin with George Frideric Handel’s (1685-1759) “Sento la gioia,” edited and arranged by Trevor Pinnock. It makes a good curtain raiser, especially played with such love and affection as the performers do here. It’s also typical Handel, so you’ll recognize the style of the music and identify the composer instantly.

There follow a suite from King Arthur by Englishman Henry Purcell (1659-1695); the Overture to Handel’s Atalanta; Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne; a suite from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and later a vocal number, “The Plaint,” from The Fairy Queen with soprano Lucy Crowe; Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet, with countertenor Iestyn Davies; and the highlight of the set, the Suite in D from Handel’s Water Piece, drawn in part from his Water Music. It’s all a delight.

The program ends with Handel’s Oboe Concerto No. 1 in B flat, transposed into C major, edited, and arranged by Pinnock and Balsom. On the trumpet Ms. Balsom provides a gracious, vigorous, lyrical, and enlivening interpretation by turns.

EMI recorded the music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and Henry Wood Hall, London, in 2012. The sound is well balanced, the trumpet nicely integrated into the orchestral accompaniment. In fact, it’s some of the best sound EMI has produced in the past decade. The trumpet has a resplendent tone, clearly captured by the audio engineers, along with a pleasingly warm, ambient hall bloom that gives and richness and life to both the soloist and the orchestra. Moreover, the several vocals sound quite natural, and the timpani can be mightily impressive. The room glows with a smooth resonance, a reasonably transparent midrange, strong dynamics, and clean bass and treble extension.  It’s an enjoyable experience all the way around.


Oct 26, 2012

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Sonata for 2 Violins; Sonata for Violin and Piano. Janine Jansen, violin; Boris Brovtsyn, violin; Itamar Golan, piano; Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca B0017466-02.

It’s always a pleasure welcoming another recording from violinist Janine Jansen, who never fails to provide a stimulating, energetic, compassionate, yet wholly traditional performance of whatever she’s performing. Here, she plays the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto along with two of Prokofiev’s violin sonatas. They make attractive music.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, in 1935, just before he returned from a self-imposed exile from Russia and while turning to what he called a “new simplicity” in his music. The Concerto starts with a lonely violin solo that gets only a little bit hectic before settling down to a more modest, plaintive tone. Prokofiev was obviously softening his earlier dissonant style and relying more on melody, perhaps to appease the ultraconservative Russian musical censors of the day, who seemed to appreciate his new attitude.

Ms. Jansen begins by playing the Allegro moderato sweetly, with only a tinge of melancholy in a beautifully lyrical performance. Although it perhaps lacks something of the urgency of Heifetz’s old RCA recording, it makes up for it in its soaring lines and delicate nuances. Ms. Jansen’s interpretation emphasizes the beauty and poetry of the piece yet doesn’t overlook its strength. Incidentally, she plays a 1727 “Barrere” violin by Stradivari, and I can’t imagine its sounding any better in the past 200-odd years.

Following the opening movement, we find an Andante assai, with gently lilting melodies above a rhythmic arpeggio accompaniment and never sounding lovelier. Finally, Prokofiev closes the show with a pulsating, waltz-like finale featuring ever more-pronounced percussion elements overtaking the Gypsy swirls of the violin. Ms. Jansen gives the instrument a workout as the music comes to a sudden, climactic halt.

Regarding the two accompanying pieces, Prokofiev wrote the Sonata for 2 violins in C major, Op. 58, at about the same time as the Second Violin Concerto, and it displays a similar simplicity, which Ms. Jansen exploits nicely. The Sonata for violin and piano in F minor, Op. 80 no. 1, however, is much darker, a memorial for colleagues who disappeared under Stalin’s regime. It stands in stark contrast to the relatively unadorned grace and directness of the other two works, and again Ms. Jansen handles it appropriately, adding a touching solemnity to the occasion.

Decca recorded the Concerto at Henry Wood Hall, London, and the two Sonatas in Teldex Studio, Berlin, in 2012. The sound throughout comes up nicely defined, if just a touch hard. In the Concerto the engineers recorded the violin fairly closely for maximum detail, but the orchestra offers a good sense of depth. There is also a strong, deep bass response when needed, as well as quick transients, especially noticeable in the Concerto’s final movement. The recordings of all three works are clear and firm in the best Decca tradition.


Oct 25, 2012

Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor (SACD review)

Also, Bruch:  Kol Nidrei; Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme. Janos Starker, cello; Antal Dorati, London Symphony Orchestra. Mercury SACD 475 6608.

I’ve always thought of Janos Starker’s interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto on Mercury as typically masculine. Certainly, other men have essayed the work with equal poise and distinction from Gendron (HDTT) to Wallfisch (Chandos) to Rostropovich (DG) to Ma (Sony), but none of them seem to me to convey the same strength, the same virile character as Starker does. Starker’s version is a remarkable performance, indeed, although (to be punny) it may strike some listeners as a little too stark.

The real downside, you see, is that Starker gives up something in warmth and humanity--sensitivity, if you will--in his interpretation. He plays the piece with a clinical precision that rather overshadows the work’s romanticism, especially in the slow movement. Still, for the outright vigor of the piece, I have always favored Starker above everyone else.

But maybe I’m also just comparing sound quality here. For years I owned the 1962 Mercury recording on vinyl; then in the Seventies I bought it on a special Japanese audiophile LP; and in the early nineties I welcomed the Mercury Living Presence CD issue, remastered by the original producer, Wilma Cozart. This current SACD hybrid preserves Cozart’s CD mix (a new transfer of the old master) and adds a new three-channel rendition as well, if you have the player and speakers to accommodate it. In two-channel stereo, as I listened, it sounds as sharply delineated as ever, perhaps even clearer in the new SACD mode, with a wide, well-balanced stereo spread, and a cello that appears to be in the very room with the listener.

No other recording of the work sounds as natural or as impressive as this one, although the Gendron from HDTT comes close. Couple the Cello Concerto to a lovely reading of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and a less-interesting but still well recorded version of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, and you get a splendid album. If you don’t already own the CD, I suggest you at least give a listen to this SACD.


Oct 23, 2012

Liszt: The 2 Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Also, Totentanz; Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes.  Nareh Arghamanyan, piano; Alain Altinoglu, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 397.

This is only the second album for the relatively young Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, her first being a program of Liszt and Rachmaninov sonatas a couple of years earlier for the Analekta label. Audiences perhaps know her best for winning a slew of piano competitions over the past decade, things like the 2009 “Sparkasse Wortersee” Competition in Austria; the 2008 Montreal International Musical Competition; the 2007 Piano Campus International piano competition, Pontoise; the 1999 Armenian Legacy, First National piano competition, Armenia; the 1998 International Competition "Little Prince" for young talents in Zaporozhye, Ukraine; and the 1997 International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Yugoslavia. Here, she makes a good showing in the two Liszt Concertos, the Totentanz, and the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes.

Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) started writing his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major around 1830 and worked on it for a quarter of a century, finally committing it to paper in 1849, and premiering it in 1855. You might say he had plenty of time to perfect it. The fascinating thing about the First Concerto is that even though we usually hear it in three distinct movements--a traditional opening Allegro, a slow Adagio combined with a vivacious Scherzo, and then an Allegro finale--the movements are really like one continuous piece, with variations on common themes throughout.

The First Concerto begins in a big, grand manner, in the style of Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky, and Ms. Arghamanyan, Maestro Alain Altinoglu, and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra play it in just such a big, grand fashion, plus.

Yet Ms. Arghamanyan is quite sensitive and, of course, most virtuosic. So she handles both the grand statements and the more-poetic ones with equal ease. Moreover, Altinoglu conducts with a deft touch, lending a bravura accompaniment at times and a quiet support when needed. The heroic opening theme comes through in dazzling style, the lyrical second-movement Quasi-Adagio is as sweet as one could imagine, and following without a break the Scherzo and then the Allegro finale proceed in exemplary fashion.

Unlike my recent listening to another young virtuoso pianist, Lang Lang, doing Chopin in a manner I felt was more for effect than anything else, I found Ms. Arghamanyan’s playing searing and soulful. While her renditions of the Liszt concertos may not be quite up to those of Sviatoslav Richter (Philips), Alfred Brendel (Philips), or Leonard Pennario (HDTT), they are close.

Liszt began his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Minor in 1839, some sixteen years before premiering the Concerto No. 1, which is why you’ll sometimes find No. 2 listed first on a recording, although not here. The Second Piano Concerto is more like a typical Liszt tone poem than the First, so it’s a little different from what most other composers were writing at the time. As Liszt said, “New wine demands new bottles.” The Second Concerto is less overtly virtuosic than the First, and more rhapsodic, yet it displays any number of melodramatic elements as well. Ms. Arghamanyan again negotiates it dexterously, and aided by PentaTone’s excellent sonics, she and the orchestra make the most of the work.

The two couplings for the concertos also come up well. The Totentanz (“Dance of the Dead”), based on variations of the Dies irae, sounds appropriately menacing, if a bit softer in spots than I’d like. The Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies will remind listeners of another of Liszt’s famous works, the Hungarian Rhapsody  for Piano No. 1 (and the Hungarian Rhapsody for Orchestra No. 14). He believed in getting the most out of his music, and Ms. Arghamanyan plays it charmingly.

PentaTone recorded the music in both stereo and surround for this hybrid SACD at Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin, in April, 2012. They obtain from the orchestra some of the best sound I’ve heard on a PentaTone release. The Berlin Radio Symphony displays a wonderful depth, air, and transparency, not only in the SACD stereo mode to which I listened but in the regular stereo mode, too, without sacrificing naturalness, smoothness, or warmth. The slight snag is that PentaTone recorded the piano rather closely, and it sometimes dominates the rest of the ensemble. While the piano should be front and center, here it tends to stretch a bit too far across the stage and can at times overwhelm the orchestral support. Nevertheless, even though the recording doesn’t always simulate the most realistic balance between the soloist and orchestra, it does offer a dramatic effect, which in the First Concerto, being as dramatic as it is, anyway, is not entirely a bad thing. Overall, this is probably the best new Liszt recording you’ll find.


Oct 22, 2012

Domingo: Songs (CD review)

Placido Domingo, chorus, orchestra, and friends. Sony Classical 88691934932.

Spanish tenor and conductor Placido Domingo (b. 1941) has been making beautiful music since his stage debut in 1959, undertaking over 140 operatic roles, leading any number of orchestras, and recording over 100 albums. The present disc, Songs, is his first pop album in over twenty years.

Looking more and more like “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” Domingo may well be the greatest singer in the world. Heck, he may be the greatest singer of all time; his fans will no doubt agree, and it’s hard to argue against the point. This time out he sings fourteen pop numbers, all favorites of his, on eight of them accompanied by other noteworthy artists: singers Josh Groban, Harry Connick Jr., Zaz, Katherine Jenkins, Susan Boyle, Placido Domingo Jr., actress and singer Megan Hilty, and trumpeter Chris Botti.

Domingo opens the show with “Cancion para una reina,” a love song of exquisite beauty, which the singer caresses with subtle care. Next, we hear “Sous le ciel de Paris” in a duet with Josh Grobin; it’s lighter and a tad more upbeat than the first tune, the two men’s voices blending wonderfully but Domingo’s clearly the more powerful.

“Time After Time” features Domingo with Harry Connick Jr., and it has a breezy Sinatra-like style to it. Although Domingo and Connick have about as different voices as you can imagine, they make it work by approaching it in a casual, easygoing manner.

And so it goes. Among my favorite songs are the aforementioned “Cancion”; then “Come What May,” a duet with Katherine Jenkins; a meltingly affecting “Parla piu piano” from The Godfather; “My Heart Will Go On,” from Titanic, with Megan Hilty; “Eternally,” Chaplin’s song from Limelight; “Jalaousie,” possibly the most famous tango ever written; and a touching duet with Domingo and his son on “What a Wonderful World.”

You can usually sense Domingo holding back somewhat in his duets so as not to steamroll his singing partner. Now in his seventies, he’s still got the strong, mellifluous voice; the impeccable inflections; the emotional range and power; and the pure communications skills of a great vocal artist. He may go on forever; one can only hope.

Sony recorded the songs in 2011 and 2012 at various locations including Avatar Studios, New York City, U.S.A.; Abbey Road Studio 1, London, England; Studio Millenia, Valencia, Spain; CATA Studios, Madrid, Spain; and 71 Recording Studios, Zurich, Switzerland. So, it’s an international project. The sonics are typical of most pop recordings: The vocals are front and center, the orchestra spread out behind very widely but without much depth, transparency, or air. Nevertheless, it’s the voices that count, and they are firm and forceful, with no audible imbalances in the response. There are, incidentally, some nice percussive sounds on “Come What May.”


Oct 18, 2012

Le Boeuf sur le Toit: Swinging Paris (CD review)

Alexandre Tharaud, piano, and friends. Virgin Classics 50999 602552 2 8.

French pianist Alexandre Tharaud tells us that he has had an interest since childhood in the pop and jazz music of the 1920’s, especially the music played in the famous Parisian nightspot Le Boeuf sur le Toit. I also suspect that the popularity of Woody Allen’s 2011 motion picture Midnight in Paris, in which his main character goes back in time to the Paris of the Twenties, may have also influenced Tharaud’s decision to record the two-dozen or more tunes he does on the present CD. Whatever the genesis of the album may be, it’s a delight from start to finish, with Tharaud supported on several of the tracks by David Chevallier, banjo, and Florent Jodelet, percussions. What’s more, pianist Frank Braley, and singers Madeleine Peyroux, Juliette, Natalie Dessay, Behabar, Guillaume Gallienne, and Jean Delescluse join Tharaud on a select few songs. It’s hard not to like this music.

As Tharaud explains it, the cabaret-bar Le Boeuf Sur le Toit was a meeting place not only for Parisian musicians and composers of the 1920’s but for international musicians as well. As Tharaud explains it, “Every evening you would come across composers like Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and the members of Les Six...even Stravinsky! There were French popular singers like Maurice Chevalier, Yvonne Georges, Kiki de Montparnasse and then, among the throng, lots of artists, such as Man Ray, Diaghilev, Coco Chanel, Georges Simenon. Though they came from different worlds, everybody on the Paris scene came to Le Boeuf Sur le Toit for jazz and new music amidst the excitement of the Roaring Twenties.”

The program opens with Tharaud playing a solo arrangement of Chopinata, a jazzy collage of Chopin tunes put together by one of Tharaud’s piano heroes of the Twenties, Clement Doucet. Tharaud follows that with a number of piano arrangements by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Nacio Herb Brown, Al Lewis, W.C. Handy, and the like.

But it’s not all purely jazz and pop. Tharaud intersperses pieces by classical composers affected by jazz: Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, the aforementioned Chopin, and a really enterprising fox trot by Doucet based on themes by Franz Liszt.

Tharaud plays with verve and conviction, clearly reveling in a love for the music and finding the soul in it. He never tries to embellish it or hype it; he simply feels it, gently and delicately, and lets it flow lovingly from his piano. Moreover, his occasional guests make their own unique, wholly appropriate contributions, adding to the authentic feel of the music and songs.

A penultimate arrangement of Handy’s St. Louis Blues for harpsichord is fascinating, the entire show offering up high good fun.

Virgin Classics recorded the music in early 2012 at three locations: Ircam, Cite de la Musique, and Salle Colonne, all in Paris, France. The sound is warm and inviting, with a smooth vibrancy and a laudable clarity. One can almost picture the performers in a bustling cabaret, the imaging is that precise. There is also a strong dynamic impact and a rich acoustic resonance to help produce an overall lifelike response.


Oct 16, 2012

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos for 3 & 4 Violins. Christopher Warren-Green, London Chamber Orchestra. Virgin Virgo 7243 82005-2.

Another installment of Classical Candor, another Vivaldi Four Seasons. The recordings of this perennial favorite appear as regularly as changes in the weather.

But because the Four Seasons come in a variety of flavors and dozens upon dozens of recordings, before I get into this current release, let me recap some of my own personal favorites in various configurations. For modern chamber orchestra, I like the unique, almost surreal account by Neville Marriner and the Academy (Decca), the sane and sensible reading by I Solisti Italiani (Denon), and the refined and elegant rendition from Michelucci and I Musici (Philips Eloquence), which also benefits from a budget price. For a period-instruments interpretation, there’s the exemplary version by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), the deftly fascinating one by Kuijken and La Petite Bande (Sony), the highly original rendition from Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS) the stimulating Tafelmusik (Sony); the more conservative Pinnock-English Concert (DG Archiv); and to get the adrenaline flowing, Biondi and Europa Galante (Virgin Veritas). Finally, for a big, modern group and a thoroughly polished presentation, there’s Perlman and the LPO (EMI).

So, where does Warren-Green’s 1989 reissue with the London Chamber Orchestra fit into the scheme of things? Well, obviously, because they are a small, modern chamber group, their main competition includes Marriner, I Solisti Italiani, and I Musici. But the speeds Warren-Green and company adopt are more in line with Europa Galante, meaning they take things lickety-split. You get a little of both worlds, modern and period-instruments in the performance.

Not that this is entirely good, however, as the music sometimes seems too hurried to give much emphasis to the picturesque quality of the tone poems involved. There’s not a lot of color in some of the interpretations, like the opening of “Winter,” as there is pure energy. Still, it’s invigorating. It’s also nice to have the two fill-ups: the Concerto for 3 Violins, RV 551, and the Concerto for 4 Violins, RV 580.

The sound of the solo violin on Virgin’s reissue of their original 1998 release is a tad sharp and bright, but the body of the instruments sounds just right, if a little bass shy. Stereo spread is good; depth is inconsequential with so small a group, but it’s a trifle flat; and overall balance and definition are also good. This would not be my number-one choice for the repertoire, but I wouldn’t completely discount the disc, either, especially not when the folks at Virgin Classics now make it available for a bargain price.


Oct 14, 2012

Bach: Complete Orchestral Suites (CD review)

Robert Haydon Clark, Consort of London. Brilliant Classics 94413.

J.S. Bach wrote quite a lot of music for the orchestra, but most of it was in the way of concertos. Interestingly, his four Orchestral Suites, French-influenced Baroque forms much favored in his day, also include extensive parts for solo instruments with ensemble backup. Certainly, we’ve had enough recordings of the Orchestral Suites, but this one from 1990 with Robert Haydon Clark leading the Consort of London is welcome just the same.

Nobody knows exactly when Bach wrote these Suites. Even though they have catalogue numbers of BWV1066-1069, it doesn’t mean much since the numbering system isn’t necessarily chronological but by genre. However, some recent researchers believe that Bach may have written the Suites during the years 1716-1723, later revising them between 1725 and 1739 in the arrangements we know today. What’s more, Bach didn’t even want to call them “suites,” although they are sets of five to seven movements each; he called them “overtures,” a custom of the day in referring to a complete set by its first movement only. Anyway, when he wrote them and what he called them are beside the point; the main thing is that they continue to entertain us with their wit and charm.

From what little I can gather about the Consort of London, they play on instruments made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To be fair, though, the instruments don’t actually sound “period”; they appear tuned to modern values, and they sound, for all intents and purposes, like modern instruments. I dunno. The main thing is that the Consort play in a lively fashion, and all four suites fit neatly onto a single disc.

The Consort’s playing sounds consistently stylish and refined, and Clark leads them in generally well-judged tempi, never so fast that they disfigure the music, yet never so slow that they ever feel sluggish. More important, Clark maintains a hearty rhythmic pulse in every segment, with pointed contrasts and a smooth flow. 

If I had to criticize anything, it might be that from movement to movement one doesn’t hear as much difference in pacing or emphasis from Clark as one hears from some other conductors. In other words, in faster movements Clark is sometimes a tad slower than we expect, while in slower movements he’s a touch faster, creating a kind of sameness to each suite as a whole.

But I quibble. Clark handles the dance tunes throughout with an uncommon grace, the flute in No. 2 and the trumpet in No. 4 especially felicitous. Then there’s No. 3 with its familiar overture and famous “Air” that come off in regal, graceful fashion. There’s simply not much to complain about here.

Among my own favorites in this music on modern instruments are still the recordings of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca-Argo) and Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips); and on period instruments Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations (Astree), Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (DHM), Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque Orchestra (Telarc), and Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande (DHM). Although I don’t find Clark’s renditions of the music quite fitting into this company, he would not be entirely out of place among them, either.

Originally recorded by Phoenix Music UK at Henry Wood Hall, London, and issued by Collins Classics in 1990, Brilliant Classics have re-released it in 2012. The sound is reasonably rich and crisp. Even if it hasn’t a lot of depth or air, it does provide a realistic orchestral spread, with good balance amongst the instruments. There could be, perhaps, a bit more heft in the upper and mid bass to offer greater weight and maybe a stronger dynamic impact, but these are relatively minor concerns. Overall, there are few if any Bach Overture recordings as sonically satisfying as this one.


Oct 12, 2012

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” (SACD review)

Herbert Blomstedt, Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Querstand VKJK 1018.

My reasons for wanting to hear this recording go beyond the music, although certainly that was a prime motivation, Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony being one of the most-popular pieces of late nineteenth-century music ever written. No, it was also because of the great Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the oldest ensembles in Europe, tracing its origins back to the mid 1700’s; and because of its conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, who was not only the Gewandhaus’s principal conductor from 1998-2005 and is currently one of its Conductors Laureate, but had been the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for many years, where I enjoyed hearing him in person on many occasions. Then, there was also the fact that Blomstedt had recorded the Bruckner Fourth at least twice before, with the Dresden Staatskapelle and the S.F. Symphony, and I had liked them both.

The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, “Romantic” in 1881, and it would be his first really successful big-scale work. Still, it didn’t come easy. The public had greeted his first three symphonies with a tepid response, and it took Bruckner over half a dozen years to write and revise the Fourth. Fortunately, when he did finally premiere it, the public loved it, just as audiences have loved it ever since. Bruckner himself nicknamed it “Romantic,” and it became his only program symphony. His final revision came in 1886, the Nowak edition, which Blomstedt plays here. The composer tells us what each movement represents, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a funeral, then a hunt, complete with horn calls, and a brilliant culminating summation. The symphony easily communicates a grandeur and nobility of human spirit, since Bruckner was, above all, a profoundly pious man, his music clearly illustrating his spirituality.

In the first movement, Blomstedt sounds sweetly smooth and flowing throughout the lyrical passages, with more good cheer than we normally hear and not quite the gravitas. However, it also seems to lack some of the energy we hear from conductors like Klemperer (EMI), Boehm (Decca), Jochum (DG or EMI), Wand (RCA), or Blomstedt himself (Denon and Decca).

After giving us a disappointing second-movement Andante, more lackluster than elegiac, Blomstedt provides a nicely vigorous Scherzo, which Bruckner teasingly called “a rabbit hunt,” building a proper momentum as it progresses.

Then we get that big Finale that has always seemed to me to go too long and which Blomstedt doesn’t help by trying to make sound even grander and more somber than we usually hear it. Still, the architecture is strong, even if the conducting appears a tad listless. My advice: If you like Blomstedt’s conducting, stick to either of his two earlier renditions of the Bruckner Fourth.

The sound of this live, 2010 concert recording, made in stereo and multichannel and presented on a hybrid SACD, comes complete with audience noise, particularly between movements and an ending applause. I mean, what more could we ask for? Well, perhaps more transparency, for one. Although the dynamic range is very wide and orchestral depth is more than adequate, especially in the SACD mode, the midrange is a touch forward and edgy in the upper midrange and a tad veiled in the center. Worse, the recording doesn’t offer the bass response or the weight the music needs. Instead, we get a somewhat cavernous effect with an oddly narrow stereo spread and a slightly bright but dull overall response. Certainly, in the recordings I’ve heard of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, mostly on Philips, it sounds characteristically dark and burnished, but I’ve never heard it as varied in its response as here. As the disc is a hybrid affair, you can play it in CD stereo on any regular CD player or in SACD stereo as I did or in SACD multichannel surround. I’m not sure how much improvement the surround sound would offer the live recording, perhaps a bit more ambient noise enhancement.


Oct 11, 2012

Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major “Trout” (CD review)

Also, Variations on “Trockne Blumen”; "Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen." Braley, Capucon, Causse, Capucon, and Posch. Virgin Classics 7243-5-45563-2.

Can there ever be too many recordings of Franz Schubert’s most felicitous work, the “Trout” Quintet? Not when they are as exuberant, as intoxicating, as joyful as the one presented here by pianist Frank Braley, violinist Renard Capucon, violist Gerard Causse, cellist Gautier Capucon, and double-bassist Alois Posch.

Schubert wrote this little gem while vacationing in the town of Steyr in the north of Austria, a town he loved. But he apparently only wrote it for his own and his friends’ amusement because he never published it, and no one ever performed it in public in his lifetime. Still, it has proved enduring, and practically every chamber group in the world has since played and recorded it.

The present recording finds five people performing it who have played it together many times before. Yet unlike so many of the fine, mature recordings of the piece by artists like Brendel, Curzon, Richter, Ax, and the like, it’s a delight to hear what is so consciously a youthful performance by five relatively young, albeit rather well-known, European artists. After all, Schubert wrote it when he was only in his early twenties himself and at a happy time in his life. One might expect as much from its performance.

Almost every movement shows a vigor and cheerfulness that is hard to resist, although, curiously, the final movement, marked “Allegro giusto,” is hardly that. It’s only here that the quintet of players slow down, catch their breath so to speak, and end on a relaxed, though still cheerful note. The easy knock against the performance might be that it’s too glib, too superficial, and that’s true; however, we have to remember that the “Trout” is mostly surface glitz, anyway. If you want profound, try Brendel.

Accompanying the “Trout” is a set of variations on the song “Trockne Blumen” from the composer’s song cycle Die schone Mullerin. Schubert wrote it just a few years before his early death, and it contains more than a passing note of melancholy. The disc concludes with the very brief, very simple, and very beautiful quintet arrangement of “Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen,” another song setting of a poem, this one “celebrating the peace of the soul,” as described by Adelaide de Place in the disc’s informational booklet. It has a delicately expressive “Ave Maria” feel to it, and it’s a shame it lasts less than two minutes.

While the sound is not too spectacular and oddly seems to favor the left side of the stage, it is quiet and well balanced. All in all, I enjoyed this version of the “Trout” when I first heard it, and it continues to please, even if it is not at the top of the pile.


Oct 9, 2012

The Chopin Album (CD review)

Lang Lang, piano. Sony Classical 88725489602.

Chinese pianist Lang Lang turned thirty in 2012, the year he made this album. Turning thirty has become something of a rite of passage for most folks, a transition from youth into adulthood. So, might we expect a more-mature Lang Lang in this program of solo Chopin selections the pianist calls The Chopin Album?

Lang Lang has become something of a phenomenon the past few decades, an international superstar beloved of millions of classical and nonclassical fans alike. There is no doubting his technical skill and virtuosity, but his actual musicianship, his artistic sensitivity, has shown its ups and downs. Of the several of his albums I’ve listened to, he has not exactly bowled me over. In his Rachmaninov performances (DG), I thought he was more than a little bland, and while his Liszt album (Sony) seemed more robust, its sound failed to impress me.

In preparation for listening to Lang Lang’s selection of Chopin pieces, I first listened to a few minutes from several old favorite Chopin interpreters: Arthur Rubinstein, Maurizo Pollini, Idil Biret, and Van Cliburn. Now, I understand that some critics refuse to make comparisons and insist upon evaluating all musicians and performances on their own merits rather than upon how they stack up against someone or something else. While I agree in part, I don’t think one can make any critical judgments without comparisons. It is, after, by virtue of comparison that we understand the world around us: We cannot know “big” without knowing “small.” We cannot tell short or tall unless we have an understanding through experience of all sorts of heights. We cannot know if a car handles well or badly unless we have driven any number of cars. I remember back in the Fifties and early Sixties how the little Volkswagen Bug amazed many American drivers with its seemingly fantastic handling because the only cars most Americans had ever driven were big, ungainly Detroit beasts. The first time I drove a rear-engine Bug, it scared the daylights out of me it cornered so poorly because I was driving an MGA roadster in those days. So, yeah, I believe comparisons sometimes help in one’s decision-making.

Lang Lang begins his album with Chopin’s second set of twelve Etudes, Op. 25, which he plays with great enthusiasm, if not always with the kind of insight or feeling I had hoped for and invited the first of several comparisons. Here, I compared Lang Lang’s rendering of the Étude No. 11 in A minor, “Winter Wind,” to that of Van Cliburn, where Cliburn sounds urgent and exciting and Lang Lang more sentimental and extroverted. It was the beginning of various such comparisons that followed a similar pattern.

In the Nocturne in F major, No. 1, Op. 15, Maurizo Pollini is light, graceful, passionate, warm, and personal. Lang Lang appears merely to be generating a series of well-played notes, without much of the personal appeal or soul of Pollini’s interpretation. In the Grand Waltz Brillante in E-flat major, Op. 18, Idil Biret’s reading seems more filled with energy and communication; with Lang Lang we get more pushing and pulling of the music, speeding up and slowing down, with yet not quite the energy of Ms. Biret. Still, Lang Lang plays the piece quite smoothly, almost effortlessly.

In the Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, the famous “Minute Waltz,” Arthur Rubinstein is ultrasophisticated and suave; we experience genuine feeling in the music without the performance ever seeming over-the-top. Lang Lang, on the other hand, is dazzling, as we would expect, but not nearly as intimate. Then, in the Nocturne in E-flat major, No. 2, Op. 55, Pollini is rich and eloquent, whereas Lang Lang doesn’t sound as though he is playing the same piece of music, he takes it so slowly and dreamily.

A booklet note where Lang Lang speaks to Gramophone editor James Jolly tells us that for Lang Lang, “‘I’d no idea there were so many ways of expressing emotions.’ And Chopin, for Lang Lang, is a composer all about emotion.” Certainly, the pianist conveys emotion, probably better in these Chopin pieces than in the previous albums I’ve heard from him. Yet one is also probably better off hearing his interpretations by themselves, without making comparisons to cloud one’s appreciation.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Lang Lang is a very fine pianist, just maybe not a great one yet. For the time being, I’ll stick to my old favorites.

Sony made most of the recording in the Rundfunk-Zentrum, Berlin, in 2012, except the final track, Tristesse, from the movie The Flying Machine, featuring a vocal by the Danish singer-songwriter Oh Land. In the first nineteen tracks, Lang Lang’s piano sounds well judged, clear and focused, with good body and impact. It isn’t quite as resonant as the piano sound in the comparisons I made, but it holds up well enough.


Oct 8, 2012

Brahms: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Berg: Violin Concerto. Renaud Capucon, violin; Daniel Harding, Vienna Philharmonic. Virgin Classics 50999 602653 2 6.

The German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his only violin concerto, the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, in 1878. He wrote it around the same time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and they both display a kind of pastoral or bucolic atmosphere. However, it is the slightly later Violin Concerto that is a little more robust and rugged, yet more lofty and aristocratic, almost as rustic as it is rhapsodic, making it something of an opposition of charms.

As Brahms grew up in a period where classicism was giving way to full-blown Romanticism, he sometimes found himself caught between the two competing styles, and we hear this in the Violin Concerto, nicely rendered by French violinist Renaud Capucon, with Daniel Harding and the peerless Vienna Philharmonic in sympathetic support.

Maestro Harding gives Brahms’s orchestral introduction an appropriately long, grand sweep. Then, when Capucon’s violin enters, it continues the Romantic inflection both in its delicate flow and in its bracing individualism. Capucon executes the familiar main theme most lyrically, with a polished, lilting finesse. The soloist and the conductor appear to want to point up the work’s symphonic structure more than usual, which tends to make it all the more grand and imposing. Adding to the gravitas of the occasion, Capucon delivers a sweet yet firm tone that never lingers long on the more sentimental aspects of the score.

The entry of the violin into the central Adagio takes so long it almost makes us forget this is a concerto. However, when Capucon does begin his stint in the lead, he makes the most of Brahms’s poetic writing and provides practically a chamber-style rendering of the music.

All of the players attack the finale with gusto and end the piece in high spirits. I particularly enjoyed the uninhibited brio and vigor Capucon and Harding bring to the music, keeping it cheery and serious at the same time.

The coupling on the disc is the Berg Violin Concerto, written in the last year of his life by twentieth-century Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). The two works, separated by over five decades, make an interesting comparison and contrast, Brahms still rooting around in the past, Berg clearly looking ahead to the future.

In an altogether different musical world from Brahms, Berg worked within a strict twelve-tone structure. Yet possibly because the untimely death of a dear friend--Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler--inspired him to write it, Berg’s music is quite serene, harmonious, and accessible. Capucon and his fellow musicians allow the practically endless stream of melodies to glide forward in a delightfully graceful rendition of the score. All told, this makes a welcome companion piece to the Brahms.

Made by Virgin in 2011 at the ORF RadioKulturhaus, Vienna, Austria, the recording sounds refined and lifelike, enhanced by a lightly resonant acoustic. It’s also rich, smooth, dynamic, and warmly persuasive. The aural picture has a weight commensurate with the music, especially in the Brahms, and a clarity that becomes the Berg. Moreover, the Virgin engineers balance the violin with the rest of the orchestra impeccably, so while the soloist is still front and center, he never overpowers the accompaniment. As important, the violin exhibits a realistically detailed response, neither too bright nor too soft. Enjoyable music and enjoyable sound equal a winning combination.


Oct 5, 2012

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572207.

I trust this recording of the First Symphony signals the start of a complete Mahler symphony cycle from Maestro Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. If so, we certainly wish her success.

The Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) finished his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888 while still a young man in his twenties, and a few years after the composer’s death fellow Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg suggested that it summed up everything 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 beginning with 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 programmatic title. Whatever, we would see the same thematic and stylistic elements in his next eight, nine, or ten symphonies (depending on how you view Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth).

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the jewel case and read the back was that the timings for the first three movements under Ms. Alsop appeared to be longer than usual and the final movement slightly shorter. Checking with five or six other recordings I had on the shelf confirmed my suspicion. I figured Alsop would probably be providing us something a little out of the ordinary here.

In the first movement, “Spring without End,” Mahler represents his youthful hero in the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. Ms. Alsop handles the clearing of the dawn mists nicely, in addition to carrying off the awakening well when spring finally arrives. Throughout the movement, she emphasizes the rhythmic contrasts sharply, giving us a colorfully characterized, if somewhat deliberate, opening.

Mahler called his second movement Scherzo “With Full Sail,” and it finds him in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. Ms. Alsop tends to make it sound a bit more ponderous and calculated than usual, which might not appeal to all listeners. It’s as though she wanted specifically to point up the ironies and grotesqueries of the music, making them so obvious there would be no question of Mahler’s intentions. She may have overdone it. 

The third movement, a deliberately awkward funeral march, depicts a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, and it comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It may represent a young man’s first glimpse of death, possibly Mahler’s own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. Ms. Alsop delivers the satirical elements in somewhat straightforward fashion, yet with the familiar Frere Jacques melody sounding more ominous than ever. I enjoyed this section from Ms. Alsop, even though it seemed a tad mechanical to me.

In the finale, Mahler conveys the panic “of a deeply wounded heart,” as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Nevertheless, Mahler, always the spiritual optimist, wanted Man to triumph in the end, even though he left open to question how Man would succeed. In these final twenty minutes or so, Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing, making it an audiophile favorite for home playback. Anyway, I don’t hear as smooth a flow in this section under Alsop as I do from some other conductors. Nor do I hear the passion, the fervor, I hear in other interpretations, despite Ms. Alsop’s enterprising pace. Still and all, she does manage the more-lyrical elements in the movement well, and, overall, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy her rendition of the score. Although it’s a little different, it maintained my interest.

However, I don’t think I’d put Marin Alsop’s recording of the Mahler First alongside those of Sir Georg Solti (Decca), Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI), Jascha Horenstein (Unicorn), Leonard Bernstein (DG), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), Lorin Maazel (Sony), and others. No, I don’t think so. I rather expect that Ms. Alsop’s account may appeal more to Mahler completests and fans of the conductor.

Naxos recorded the performance live at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, in 2008. As with so many live recordings, the engineers miked it fairly close up in order to minimize audience noise. This results in respectable clarity and dynamic impact but not particularly good orchestral depth or hall ambience. So, the midrange especially sounds OK yet flat. There’s a decent bass response, too, necessary in the first and fourth movements, although overall the sound never seems to carry the weight necessary for the music. Mercifully, Naxos spare us any closing applause.


Oct 4, 2012

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Paganini Rhapsody. Lang Lang, piano; Valery Gergiev, Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre. DG B0003902-02.

Yet another live recording. Ho-hum. I’m not sure why DG, EMI, and other major record companies have been so keen these past ten or more years on recording so many performances before a live audience, but it isn’t helping the sonics of the recordings any. I suppose it’s a matter of economics, in essence the audience helping subsidize the cost of the production. Well, at least DG spare us any applause here.

Popular virtuoso pianist Lang Lang shows a mature if largely lackluster approach to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, appropriately focusing his attention on the work’s long sigh of a second movement rather than on the portentous introduction or the somewhat romanticized finale. Still, Lang Lang’s clearly conservative approach to the score tends to diminish some of the work’s appeal.

Fortunately, the pianist more amply displays his virtuoso technique in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where his fingers dazzle and the keyboard lights up, if sometimes in a fairly heavy-handed, even wayward, fashion. The biggest “however,” though, is that I don’t believe these performances match any of the over half a dozen classic interpretations I had on hand from Janis, Rubinstein, Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Argerich, Wild, Horowitz, and others, despite how skillful Lang Lang may appear. Needless to say, the eighteenth Paganini variation, the Andante Cantabile, still sounds ravishing, no matter who’s playing it.

Still, there is that nagging issue of the sonics because the live recording never seems to come to life. It’s more than a bit soft and vague, the instruments often seeming too recessed compared to the piano, which, miked closely, sometimes looms in the foreground twenty feet wide. Nor is the perception of depth too impressive. Fortunately, the dynamics and bass are OK, if not quite as solid as I’d like. A quick listen to Rubinstein doing the Paganini Variations close to fifty years earlier on an RCA Living Stereo disc makes one wonder just how far we’ve advanced in sound recording, if at all.


Oct 2, 2012

Adam: Giselle, highlights (CD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Brilliant Classics 94354.

French composer Adophe Adam (1803-1856) premiered Giselle in 1841, and since then it has been a staple of the Romantic ballet repertoire. And who better to record the ballet than Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields? I mean, can you really name any recording by Marriner and the Academy that hasn’t been at least adequate to the occasion and most often a triumph? This reissue from Brilliant Classics, derived from a 1994 Capriccio recording, is good, even if it’s not among Marriner’s best work; what’s best is that Brilliant Classics offer it at a mid price, further discounted to almost half that cost at various Web sites.

However, if there is any snag in recommending this Marriner reissue, it’s that it goes head to head with Jean Martinon's 1958 recording, which has been my own first choice in this work for as long as I can remember. Currently, the folks at HDTT have Martinon’s recording available as an audiophile remaster, which, I have to admit, is superior in every way to Marriner’s. But the HDTT disc does cost a few dollars more, so the budget-conscious buyer might prefer the Marriner release in any case.

Understand, both the Marriner and Martinon recordings are single discs of highlights. The fact is, people have made many cuts, additions, and changes to the ballet's working score over the years, and Marriner and Martinon provide really no more than extended highlights suites. Yet they suffice nicely, the shorter scores probably best of all for home listening. At less than an hour, Marriner’s highlights have not only the advantage of conciseness but of continuity, presenting the work's best and most well-known music in a seamless medley. For those looking to buy the full score, I would suggest Fistoulari’s old recording with the LSO (Mercury) and Bonynge’s with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Decca), both in two-disc sets. They include almost every bit of music Adam ever wrote for the work, plus additional material he didn't write. However, in its longer form, much of Giselle can sound like filler, and for me the complete ballet can quickly wear out its welcome.

Anyway, the story of Giselle has all the ingredients for great listening: a supernatural, melodramatic plot involving dead spirits and curses and such; a young hero and heroine in love; a cruel if not downright evil villainess; and an appropriately rousing yet sentimental finale. Marriner and the ASMF bring out much of the beauty of this score, if not quite so sympathetically or so fervently as Martinon and his French players do.

The fact is, Marriner produces a fairly gentle reading of the score. If we were watching the ballet live, it would be most graceful and refined. His rendering certainly doesn’t have the dash or élan, to say nothing of the excitement, of Martinon’s, so we’re talking about an altogether different rendition with Marriner, one that exchanges a degree of passion for a dollop of charm. And charming Marriner is, as always.  His is an elegant, suave interpretation from beginning to end. Just listen to the Retour des vendangeurs-Valse to get an idea of how graciously flowing Marriner and the Academy can make this music sound. Still, he can add an appropriate vigor to the proceedings, too, when needed, as in The Chase, the Marche des vignerons, and the Variations de loys.

OK, admittedly, Marriner can appear too relaxed, indeed too languorous, on too many occasions; yet it’s clearly part and parcel of his easygoing realization of the score, and you can hardly fault him for the consistency of his approach.

Capriccio Records made the album in 1994 at the Church of St. Jude on the Hill, London, and Brilliant Classics reissued it in 2012. The first thing one notices is that the sound has a reasonably wide dynamic range, a good impact, and a modest sense of depth. Along with an ultrasmooth midrange clarity and a warm resonance, they go a long way toward producing a pleasantly natural aura. While bass is unexceptional, the treble extension can impress one, and in a few instances the sonics can transport a listener to the concert hall. I don’t believe it’s great sound, but you’ll hear no complaints from me, either.


Oct 1, 2012

Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Piano Concerto No. 3. Mari Kodama, piano; Kolja Blacher, violin; Johannes Moser, cello; Kent Nagano, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Berlin Classics 0300331BC.

I’ve been following and admiring Maestro Kent Nagano’s career ever since hearing him conduct the nearby Berkeley Symphony from 1978-2009, during which time he was also the music director of the Opera de Lyon in France, conductor of the Halle Orchestra in England, principal conductor of the Los Angeles Opera in the U.S., and artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in Germany. In 2006 he became the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Canada and the Bavarian State Opera in Germany. He is, indeed, a world traveler and perhaps a world-beating musician. Here, he conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which features his wife Mari Kodama on piano, with Kolja Blacher, violin, and Johannes Moser, cello.

Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his Triple Concerto in C major for piano, violin, cello and orchestra, Op. 56, in 1804, and it has remained one of the composer’s most popular pieces ever since. Nagano’s performance is fleet-footed yet it never sounds rushed. The work is lighthearted, and Nagano tries to keep it that way. As the booklet note reminds us, it is actually a sinfonia concertante where several instruments oppose the orchestra and each other. It was a style that had passed out of vogue by the time Beethoven wrote it, although he was able to inject new life into an old form. Nagano’s soloists interweave their parts effortlessly, giving the piece a lyrical Schubertian grace.

After the fairly lengthy opening movement, we get a much briefer but exquisitely gentle Largo. Where the piano and violin saw their moment in the first movement, the cello dominates here, and Moser carries it off well.

The Triple Concerto has all the earmarks of an orchestrated chamber trio, and that is how Nagano and his players approach it, with a sublime interaction among the soloists. They combine with the orchestra to explode into a joyous finale, which finds Nagano and company in high, relaxed spirits.

Contrasting with the Triple Concerto, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, is darker, more serious, and more dramatic. With Nagano and Kodama, the work sounds a touch more melancholy than it usually does but in no way sentimental or excessively Romantic. Indeed, Ms. Kodama makes a most-powerful statement throughout, with playing that sounds assured, delicate, powerful, moving, and heroic by turns.

Recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, in 2006 (Piano Concerto No. 3) and 2010 (Triple Concerto), the sound is quite respectable, making an already good pair of performances even better. You’ll find excellent imaging here, with a wide stereo spread, a deep orchestral image, and plenty of air around the instruments. It’s all lightly resonant and natural sounding. Miked at a moderate distance, the midrange displays a reasonable clarity, while being warm and smooth. Bass and treble extension as well as dynamic impact are modest, but the music hardly requires them to be much more. It’s a pleasing, lifelike sound rather than anything overtly “hi-fi” or audiophile in nature.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa