Strauss: Ein Straussfest (UltraHD review)

Music of Johann Strauss Sr., Johann Strauss Jr., Eduard Strauss, and Josef Strauss. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. LIM UHD 064.

Maestro Erich Kunzel may have made more recordings than almost any conductor in history, but when it came to the music of the Strauss family, he didn’t quite project the delight of a Willi Boskovsky, the glamor of a Herbert von Karajan, the energy of an Antal Dorati, the elegance of a Josef Krips, the warmth of a Eugene Ormandy, the high spirits of a Lorin Maazel, or the Viennese charm of a Fritz Reiner or Zubin Mehta or Jascha Horenstein. Instead, Kunzel’s readings are more exhilarating than illuminating. That said, when the sound comes across as impressively as it does here in this LIM audiophile remaster of a 1985 Telarc release, it probably doesn’t matter. The sonics rather overwhelm the notes and carry us along, making us marvel anew at the creative genius of the Strauss family.

The program begins with a bang, with a real explosion at the start of the Explosions Polka. Then, we get three more quick-paced polkas and galops, again with sound effects such as, literally, various bells and whistles, popping corks, pistol shots, and thunderclaps in the Im Krapfenwald’l Polka, the Champagne Polka, and the Banditen Galop. Some purists may feel Telarc indulged in too many such aural effects, but one should keep in mind that when the Strausses wrote this music, audiences enjoyed and expected a degree of extravagance.

The first big waltz comes with On the Beautiful Blue Danube, in which Kunzel seems at first a little earthbound and mundane; however he soon warms up to the piece, even if he never quite gets the full measure of the waltz rhythms involved. Likewise, his handling of Tales from the Vienna Woods never exactly catches fire until well underway. It’s as though the conductor were holding something back for as long as he could and then still wasn’t entirely sure how to cope with the pulses of a waltz. There follow the Radetzky March, the Feuerfest Polka, the Auf der Jagd Polka, the Bahn Frei Polka, the Pizzicato Polka, and the Unter Donner und Blitz Polka, numbers that come off best.

If I have any reservations about the album, they include the short playing time (48:10) and the preponderance of fast tunes on the program, with only two waltzes (The Blue Danube and the Tales from the Vienna Woods). So it’s more of showpiece than I’d like. Still, with the inclusion of an outstanding Radetzky March, it’s hard not to enjoy the selections.

Although there is a certain lack of subtlety in Kunzel’s conducting and although the Cincinnati Pops lack the plush precision of a Vienna Philharmonic, the conductor and orchestra are clearly having a good time, and their enthusiasm shows.

Telarc recorded the album in 1984 at Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, releasing it the following year, and LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a division of FIM, First Impression Music) remastered it in 2012 in their UltraHD 32-bit mastering process. Engineer Michael Bishop, who helped with the original recording, supervised the remastering, and the meticulous UltraHD system did the rest. The sound is very dynamic, with a slightly improved transient impact over the original Telarc product. Yet we also hear a very smooth, warm, lifelike response, without a trace of brightness or edge, which is probably the best quality of the remastering. Music Hall imparts a pleasant resonant glow around the sonics that some audiophiles may think detracts from the disc’s midrange transparency and others may feel adds to the album’s overall realism. Adding further to the natural-sounding effect of the acoustic is a good measure of depth to the orchestra; it’s easy to listen “into” the players and distinguish their relative distances from one another. Thus, imaging, always a hallmark of Telarc, is better than ever. Finally, you’ll of course find the big Telarc bass drum in evidence throughout. This remastering is all about big, room-filling sound, which you get in spades.

As always, LIM dress up the disc with an attractive, high-gloss foldout container, the disc itself enclosed in an inner paper sleeve and a static-free liner. It’s a handsome package.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic. Philips B0004113-2.

Following up on his highly acclaimed account of the Tchaikovsky Fifth, released in 1999, came his rendition of the Fourth Symphony, recorded in 2002 but unaccountably waiting until 2005 to see the light of day. Anyway, if you are familiar with Gergiev’s way with Tchaikovsky, that is, no holds barred, you will surely like his interpretation of the Fourth.

The lengthy first movement is practically a mini symphony in itself, most of it bluster, and Gergiev plays it that way, with plenty of gusto and excitement by the close. The second, slow movement has never struck me as memorable, and not even Gergiev can do much with it except hope to get it out of the way, although he does so with a graceful hand. Gergiev could have taken the pizzicato Scherzo more playfully, but it comes through fine, especially with the Vienna Philharmonic playing with such finesse. The Finale, one of Tchaikovsky’s biggest showstoppers, gets the full-bore, hell-for-leather treatment, starting strong and ending in an appropriately thrilling ride.

The thing that undermines the performance, however, is Philips’s sound, which the company recorded live, with all its attendant problems. No matter how loud the music gets, it always seems reticent, held back, distanced, and muted. Thus, much of the animation Gergiev attempts to generate rather evaporates within the softly shrouded sonics. The recording is also available on a hybrid SACD in multichannel surround, however, and for those of you with the appropriate playback equipment it may effect an improvement in the sound.

By comparison, the studio recordings of Szell (Decca), Jansons (Chandos), and Haitink (Philips) sound better and more open, while Monteux (JVC) may be best of all. In fact, a side-by-side comparison of Gergiev and Monteux was such a night-and-day difference sonically as to take my breath away. Considering that the Monteux recording is over four decades older than Gergiev’s, that’s quite an accomplishment, even if you have to pay double for the JVC audiophile edition to get it. And, incidentally, I like Monteux’s performance better as well.


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Michael Halasz, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Failoni Orchestra. Naxos 8.572939.

There was a time in the old vinyl era when record companies would barely fit Schubert’s Ninth Symphony on a single LP. Now, it’s commonplace to find not only the Ninth but an accompanying Schubert symphony on the same disc, in the case of this Naxos reissue, the Unfinished Symphony. Admittedly, the companion piece is only two movements long, but that’s not the point. It’s just an amazing world we take for granted these days.

Anyway, Hungarian conductor Michael Halasz gets the album started with the Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 “Unfinished,” which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) began writing around 1822 but never finished before moving along to other things. Halasz leads the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in a sympathetic performance.

I especially liked what Maestro Halasz does with the opening of the Eighth, beginning with a more than usually dark opening and moving on to a sweetly casual lilt, turning as it should into alternately light and heavy sections. Halasz maintains an exceptionally airy tone in the more lyrical passages, particularly in the second-movement Andante, that is most pleasant.

The history of Schubert’s last numbered symphony, the Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, the “Great,” is somewhat odd because while the composer dated it 1828, the year of his death, he probably didn’t actually write it in 1828. In fact, it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than 1828, maybe 1826, which makes little difference since, as with the rest of Schubert’s orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The public didn’t hear the Ninth until 1839, eleven years after the composer died. Anymore, audiences consider it one of the staples of the classical music world.

Here, Maestro Halasz leads the Failoni Chamber Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera in a reading that impressed me less than his Eighth. With a relatively small group, around a third the size of the Slovak Philharmonic, Halasz exhibits less power than I would have liked in this work and less dynamic punch. I can understand using a small period-instruments band for historical reasons and perhaps a small ensemble for greater transparency, but the Ninth is a big work that usually benefits from a bigger orchestra. With the Failoni Orchestra it sounds rather lightweight.

Halasz’s leisurely pace doesn’t do a lot to drum up much enthusiasm, either. Instead, the piece just seems to drift aimlessly along, without much spirit. Even the conductor’s sudden tempo shifts do little to generate much excitement. A steady but rigid Andante march and a fleet-footed but cheerless Scherzo hardly help the situation. The fact is, the whole performance appears more than a tad bland. Fortunately, it ends in a reasonably joyful Finale, although it’s probably a matter of too little too late.

Naxos recorded the Symphony No. 8 at the Moyzes Hall, Bratislava, in 1988 and the Symphony No. 9 at the Italian Institute in Budapest in 1994. The company initially released the two recordings separately, with different couplings, and then together in this 2012 rerelease. In the Eighth, we hear very good sonics with more than adequate body and size. Dynamics are fine, too, and the midrange sounds warm and smooth. While the stereo spread seems slightly constricted, there is a realistic sense of depth involved. In the Ninth the smaller orchestra does, indeed, afford a greater clarity throughout, although the hall imparts a bit too much reflective resonance, nullifying some of the benefits of the smaller ensemble. I preferred the more natural acoustic of the Eighth to the inordinately reverberant setting of the Ninth. Still, both recordings make for comfortable, easy, if somewhat dull, listening.

Here’s the thing, though: Unless you’re a dedicated collector of everything ever recorded or just a die-hard Schubert fan, you may find better recordings of the Eighth from Otto Klemperer (EMI), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Eugen Jochum (DG), Charles Munch (RCA), or Charles Mackerras (Virgin) and of the Ninth from Josef Krips (Decca/HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Charles Mackerras again (Virgin or Telarc), Georg Solti (Decca), George Szell (Sony), or Gunther Wand (RCA).

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Advent at Ephesus (CD review)

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca B0017837-02.

Because recorded liturgical music like chant has largely been the province of monks over the years, record companies have given rather short shrift to their female counterparts. The folks at De Montfort Music, Decca Records, and the Sisters at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus (the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a monastic community located in rural Missouri) hope the present disc may help rectify that situation.

The Sisters’ voices are sweet and pure. There are no outstanding virtuosos among them, perhaps, yet as a group they sing like angels, their voices harmonizing with a celestial precision.

The Sisters sing sixteen selections that celebrate various Feasts, Meditations, Offices, Masses, and Holy Days of the Church. With these selections, we find some songs in Latin, some in English, some Gregorian chant, some traditional, some anonymous, some dating as far back as the Fifth Century, most from Medieval and Renaissance times.

Among the hymns you’ll hear are “Come thou Redeemer of the Earth,” “Angelus Ad Virginem,” “Gabriel’s Message,” “Hayl Mary,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Benedixisti Domine,” “Maria Walks Among the Thorn,” “O Come Divine Messiah,” “Vox Clara,” “Like the Dawning,” and other such numbers.

It’s a wide and surprisingly diverse collection of devotional psalms and anthems the Sisters sing, with one thing in common: a single purpose in praising the Lord. Although the individual tracks are relatively brief (two-to-three minutes apiece) and the disc’s total playing time of just over forty-eight minutes may seem short measure, the songs do tend to have a similar spirit and feeling throughout, despite their variety, so maybe the album’s length is just about right for optimum listening pleasure.

The main thing is that the Sisters maintain a high musical standard, and the performances are the very ideal of serene contemplation. It’s all quite beautiful; you might even say heavenly.

According to the accompanying booklet, Decca and De Montfort Music recorded the disc at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in October of 2012, which seems remarkable given that I received the product in November, the very next month. The acoustic is appropriately reverberant for a liturgical setting, so expect the room reflections to amplify and smooth out the voices somewhat. Given the dozen or so persons involved, the stereo spread sounds a bit constricted left to right, affording them plenty of distance from the listener yet without sacrificing much in the way of clarity. The distancing tends, instead, to add to the resonant nature of the presentation, increasing the realism.

And to hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (XRCD24 review)

Also, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Benjamin Britten; London Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra. JVC XRCD 0226-2.

While upgrading to new and better hardware is always fun and most often rewarding, if one can afford it, the struggle to find suitable software--like audiophile LPs, tapes, CDs, or DVDs--to do the new equipment justice has long haunted the audiophile. Open-reel master tapes would seem to be the ideal answer but obviously impractical. Direct-to-disc and half-speed remastered LP recordings took up some of the slack in the old vinyl days, with gold discs taking their place early on in the compact-disc era. But now that the gold disc has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, one has fewer choices. 

Understand, during all the time I reviewed gold discs from Mobile Fidelity, Sheffield Labs, DCC, Chesky, Compact Classics, and the like, I often found improvements in the sound of the gold over their silver counterparts; but as I said time and again, they never convinced me it was actually the gold-foil that contributed to the sound’s betterment so much as it was their superior transfer engineering. The gold, I always figured, might have just added to the discs’ allure and justified their high price. Careful, expert, and time-consuming engineering of the tape to disc is where I considered the improvements to have come. This is where JVC, the Victor Corporation of Japan, entered the scene some years ago, followed by other companies like FIM/LIM and Hi-Q. The folks at JVC have eschewed the gold-plating route and gone with the best possible transference to silver disc, first remastering some of RCA’s best “Living Stereo” recordings and then doing some of Decca’s older product, such as here in their XRCD24 processing system.

Most of JVC’s choices have been consensus classics, and in the comparisons I’ve made with dozens of discs, I have found improvements--some slight, to be sure--in JVC’s product over the conventional equivalent. The folks at JVC have also packaged the product handsomely in Digipak-type foldout albums. Unfortunately, JVC have not eschewed the gold-disc price. They have been issuing exactly the same content as on the original LPs--no more, no less--and at a price almost double the cost of the conventional compact disc. Worth it? Not for most people, and, in fact, not for me if I didn’t already own the things I’ve gotten so far and didn’t already love each and every one of them. Let me just say I have not been entirely disappointed. The sonic improvements have ranged from barely audible, maybe not audible at all and only imagined, to clearly audible and extremely worthwhile. In most cases, the improvements have usually been in all-around smoothness, often in definition, and sometimes in dynamic impact, bass extension, and general tautness.

Yet it’s here that we run into the old audiophile vs. sceptic argument: The audiophile will argue that if you cannot hear the differences, it is because your equipment is not good enough to reveal them. Conversely, the sceptic will argue that if you hear differences, it’s because you want to hear the differences, especially if you’ve just laid out a chunk of cash for the new product.

My advice: Try one of these audiophile discs for yourself. Compare it to your old disc. If you hear no difference, take it back and never buy another one. It’s that simple. Here are a few JVC remasterings in which I have personally found some sonic improvement: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn (JMXR24004); Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (JVCXR-0225-2); Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (JVCXR-0224-2); and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade (JMCXR-0015), Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (JMCXR-0020), Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (JMCXR-0007), Respighi’s Pines of Rome (JMCXR-0008), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (JMCXR-0016), all with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Now to the subject at hand, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra:

Benjamin Britten wrote what he initially called The Instruments of the Orchestra for a school children’s film in 1946, basing his music on a hornpipe theme by Henry Purcell. The idea was to highlight and showcase each family of instruments in the symphony orchestra. It may seem overly simple to some listeners and perhaps even clumsily constructed, but it hit a chord with the public and continues to make for delightful listening, especially when presented so felicitously by the composer himself and the London Symphony Orchestra in this 1964 recording. Britten conducts the piece at a rather quick but enlivening pace, and it’s done without narration so you can better enjoy the music. Also on the disc we find Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Bridge being his mentor), played by the English Chamber Orchestra and recorded in 1968. The Decca disc’s inclusion of the Simple Symphony was not a part of the original Decca LP and is, therefore, absent on this JVC edition.

So how is JVC’s remastering of these Britten chestnuts? First, although I’d had the Decca disc for a very long  time, I had never really thought of it as an audiophile favorite before. It was always a good-sounding disc but nothing especially transparent or realistic in any audiophile way. Anyhow, when listening to an A-B comparison of the Decca with the JVC, the most noticeable differences showed up during the Young Person’s Guide in terms of the JVC’s very slightly greater smoothness. Whereas the original Decca disc sounded a tad glassy, steely, and hard, the JVC remastering seemed a touch softer, the edges delicately smoother, rounder, and easier on the ear. Other differences sounded more subtle, with the JVC remastering being perhaps a touch more dynamic overall and firmer in the bass.

Here’s the thing, though: My listening did not settle the matter of which disc was “best”; that is, which disc sounded more like the master tape. Usually, one can tell when a difference in sound is an improvement; it usually manifests itself, as I’ve said, in an increased clarity, resolution, dynamic contrast, bass tautness, etc., often along with increased smoothness. But without access to the master tape and direct A-B testing of the remastered product, one can never be sure. It is always possible, for instance, that in this case the JVC engineers simply softened the sound, either by intent or by accident, making it appear smoother and easier on the ear; or that they may have gotten it exactly right, duplicating the actual sound of the master tape. As I say, without my having access to the master tape, I can never know for sure. Therefore, “best” in this instance becomes a matter of which disc appears to a listener as preferable according to taste, not which one is more accurate, and for me that was the JVC by a slim margin.

The accompanying Frank Bridge Variations, however, reveal much less of a difference, indeed, practically none at all, and I daresay in a blind test I wouldn’t be able to tell the JVC remaster from the Decca original. Sonically, then, the disc’s coupling becomes moot.

So, would I recommend the JVC disc to anyone? No; it’s still too much an open question for me, the differences being too small on which to build a case. Besides, the disc is costly; it excludes the Simple Symphony found on the Decca disc; and the small, admittedly controversial sonic improvements I heard show up only in the Young Person’s Guide. Yes, I did enjoy the smoother sound of the JVC, but perhaps not enough to recommend one’s paying double the Decca disc’s price for it.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Drama Queens (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Alan Curtis, Il Complesso Barocco. Virgin Classics 5099960265425.

I have to admit I know next to nothing about opera, notwithstanding my having heard a ton of it live and on record over the years. For my taste, most operas are too long, too slow, too melodramatic. That said, it’s hard not to like the best of them and doubly hard to resist a good operatic singer. Which brings me to the disc at hand. Young tenors and sopranos come along by the dozens it seems, each one the next big thing. Most of them disappear from view before long, leaving only a select few to survive. American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of the survivors, a woman who has proved her worth over the past decade or so, becoming one of the world’s truly great singers. Gramophone magazine awarded her “Artist of the Year” status in 2010, and one can understand why after listening to her latest album, Drama Queens.

Ms. DiDonato specializes in vocal music of the Baroque period, and accordingly the album comprises thirteen arias from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Maestro Alan Curtis and the European Baroque ensemble Il Complesso Barocco in accompaniment. The selections are as follows:

1. “Da torbida procella” from Berenice by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760)
2. “Madre diletta” from Ifigenia in Aulide by Giovanni Porta (c. 1675-1755)
3. “Ma quando tornerai” from Alcina by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
4. “Lasciami piangere” from Fredegunda by Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739)
5. “Morte, col fiero aspetto” from Antonio e Cleopatra by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783)
6. “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Handel
7. “Intorno all'idol mio” from Orontea by Antonio Cesti (1623-1669)
8. “Brilla nell'alma” from Alessandro by Handel
9. “Geloso, sospetto” from Octavia by Keiser
10. “Disprezzata regina” from L'incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
11. “Sposa, son disprezzata” from Merope by Geminiano Giacomelli (c. 1692-1740)
12. “Col versar, barbaro, il sangue” from Berenice by Orlandini
13. “Vedi, se t'amo... Odio, furor, dispetto” from Armida by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Ms. DiDonato writes, “Why do we adore these queens of the drama? The answer, for me, lies at the heart of why we have opera: we yearn to open hidden doors to the richest, most complex, utterly human and profoundly moving emotions that we may not be able to access when left to our own devices. The crazy plots and extreme circumstances of the operatic universe give us permission to unleash our often too-idle imaginations.” Fair enough. And certainly the queens, princesses, empresses, and sorceresses of the album’s music provide Ms. DiDonato ample opportunity to exercise her own imaginative vocal skills.

The orchestra delivers a lively complement to Ms. DiDonato’s vocals, creating energetic, enthusiastic performances. In the biggest, most melodramatic numbers, Ms. DiDonato lets go with a commendable dynamism. She isn’t afraid to let her emotions show in these most-emotional of Baroque showpieces. There is nothing of the stuffy scholar here but, rather, full-blown theatrical interpretations.

Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust soprano voice, with a good deal of flexibility, which she demonstrates as the occasion arises. Whether the situation demands a display of love, pain, joy, anger, or sorrow, Ms. DiDonato is ready with the appropriate vocal gesture in a tone so pure, it kept even this non-opera fan in rapt attention. In short, she is able to do anything with her voice, exhibiting a remarkably wide vocal and emotional range.

Virgin Classics recorded the music at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, in 2012. The acoustic is lightly, pleasantly, reverberant, flattering Ms. DiDonato’s voice nicely. The overall sound, however, is a trifle bright and sharp, giving the instruments and vocals a slight edge. There is a modest air and depth to the sound, though, with a good integration of vocals and orchestral support. It’s certainly a clear, clean sonic presentation, given a modest nod in the direction of a natural, realistic atmosphere. While played too loudly it can get a bit severe, played at a comfortable level it can be quite enjoyable.


Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 1 (CD review)

Christian Benda, Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.570933.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote a slew of popular operas, but today most people probably know him best for his overtures. The present disc from Christian Benda and the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra (of which Benda is the Chief Conductor) and the Prague Philharmonic Choir is the first of four volumes of the composer’s overtures from Maestro Benda.

Choice is good, and Benda gives us yet another good choice. Yet before considering any new Rossini release, you should remember that there are already quite a few excellent discs out there, not the least of which is Neville Marriner’s complete, three-disc set from Philips, a long-gone label but one still available new and used for a reasonable (sometimes absurdly low) price. And if it’s only a single disc of the most-popular overtures you’re interested in, you can find excellent bargains on-line from the likes of, again, Marriner (Philips, PentaTone, or EMI), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), Piero Gamba (Decca or JVC), Peter Maag (HDTT), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Sir Roger Norrington (EMI), and others.

Yes, there is a lot of Rossini out there. Nevertheless, if you’ve sampled all of the above or simply want to hear everything that’s available, certainly you’ll want to check out this first volume of overtures from Benda because they’re really quite good.

The program begins with three of Rossini’s most well-known overtures. The first is La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”), which Benda infuses with a stately elegance, going on to develop a reasonable amount of tension and excitement. What’s more, Benda handles the more lyrical interludes with a quick-paced grace.

Next, we find Semiramide, in which Benda exploits both the urgency and the serenity nicely. Then, we get Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (“Elizabeth, Queen of England”), about which you are probably saying, “Huh?  I’ve never heard of that.” No, but Rossini reused the same overture later for the far more-famous opera Il barbierre de Siviglia (“The Barber of Seville”). Anyway, Benda’s fleet-footed performance serves it well.

After those items, Benda serves up four more overtures that are only slightly less popular. Here, we find Otello, Rossini’s recounting of Shakespeare’s play, the music typical of the composer’s work.  Benda gives it a lively, dramatic reading. Following that is Le Siege de Cornithe (“The Siege of Corinth”), a story “of love and duty.” Benda and his players treat it with appropriate attention to the duty part perhaps more than to the love element. Regardless, it moves along at a healthy clip. Moving on, there’s the odd little Sinfonia in D “al Conventello” Overture, in which you’ll recognize the first theme from Signor Bushino. Rossini was not above borrowing from himself. Again, Benda puts all his energy into it.

The album closes with Ermione (“Hermione”), from one of Rossini’s less-successful operas. The overture is of little consequence except for a few sections taken by a chorus. I had only heard it once before and have to admit that Benda’s rendition impressed me more than before.

Naxos recorded the music at the Kulturni Dum Barikadniku, Prague, Czech Republic, in 2011, and it’s one of the label’s best efforts of late. It displays a commendable dynamic range and impact, with a fairly clean, clear midrange and more-than-adequate bass and treble extension. The sound is not quite in the Orpheus (DG) or Maag (HDTT) league, but it’s good and on a par with most of the best. The smaller forces of the Prague Sinfonia help to produce more lucid sonics than we might get from an ensemble twice its size, and the Naxos engineers do their part to ensure a wide stereo spread and a decent sense of depth and air.


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Helmuth Rilling, Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra. Hanssler Classic CD94.615.

With so many praiseworthy sets of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos on the market from people like Pinnock (Avie and Archiv), Marriner (Philips), Lamon (Tafelmusik or Sony), Leppard (Philips), Savall (Astree), Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre), Apollo’s Fire (Avie), and Leonhardt (Sony), is there any reason to sample yet another one? Obviously, while people can only determine that question for themselves, there is no question that a mid-priced set such as this reissue from Helmuth Rilling on Hanssler Classic has a special appeal to budget-conscious buyers.

I wasn’t very familiar with Maestro Rilling’s work, so I found this note about him in the disc’s accompanying booklet: “Helmuth Rilling, born in 1933, has for decades been intimately involved in musical life, as founder of the ‘Gachinger Kontorel’ (a famous choir) and of the ‘International Bachakademie Stuttgart.’ In addition to his complete recording of J.S. Bach’s cantatas, issued in 1985, and the CD edition of all Bach’s works, of which he was the director, he has behind him an immense discography in a wide repertoire.” Fair enough; I guess I just don’t get around enough. In 1970 he organized the Oregon Bach Festival, which in 2013 takes place in Eugene, Ashland, Astoria, Bend, Corvallis, Lincoln City, and Portland. The Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra comprises members from American and European ensembles and from the music faculty of the University of Oregon.

OK, now, you’ll recall that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a cohesive group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several pieces for him, and what he got a couple of years later was a collection of six works for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that the composer had probably written at various times for various other occasions.

Maestro Rilling leads an ensemble of players on modern instruments in generally straightforward, non-affected performances. Although it’s a somewhat middle-of-the-road offering, it’s affable and entertaining enough.

The Concerto No. 1 is one of the longest of the concertos and arranged for the biggest ensemble. It is also my least favorite, no matter who’s performing it. Be that as it may, Rilling’s interpretation sounds very relaxed and easygoing, without its losing much in the way of spirit or vitality. Unlike so many of today’s period-instrument bands and modern groups trying to emulate period styles, the Oregon Bach players don’t rush headlong through things. Rilling takes the outer movements at a moderately slow pace and the slower, inner movements a tad quicker than usual. It works fine.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the pieces and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the major part of the playing time. Here, Rilling’s tempos are lively and the atmosphere invigorating.

Listeners probably know Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so; thus, it’s important not to upset their expectations. The conductor communicates a refined dignity above all, the music moving along at a healthy pace yet projecting a stately grace, too.

Concerto No. 4 is Bach’s most playful piece, with the soloists darting in and out of the structure. It always reminds me of children’s music for some reason, Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony or something like that, and Rilling does nothing to dispel the feeling, offering up a sweet and charming rendition, if a trifle fast in the opening movement for my taste.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my personal favorites, highlighting solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Because it requires a minimal ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound. For me, this was the best of Maestro Rilling’s work. There’s a smooth, flowing rhythm here, with some excellent harpsichord contributions. Very enjoyable.

While Concerto No. 6 sounds to me the least distinctive music in the set and uses the smallest ensemble, it never actually feels small. In fact, its only real deficiency is its similarity to Concerto No. 3, if a little slower. In it, Rilling goes out very stylishly, an elegant conclusion to the set, taken at an elegant pace.

Hanssler recorded the concertos in 1994 at Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene, Oregon.  They obtained a pleasing sound, with a reasonably wide stereo spread; a warm, natural response; and a fairly decent degree of depth and air. I suppose the recording could have better defined the instrumental sound, yet the whole thing is easy on the ear. For listeners who sometimes find Baroque music a bit hard or bright (a good friend always called it “that tinkly-tinkly stuff”), the recording’s sonics should satisfy them. While I would have liked to have heard a better separation of instruments, greater midrange transparency, and more extended highs in the larger concertos, what we get can be quite soothing.

Note, too, that the folks at Hanssler Classics have re-released this set several times now on disc, and one can find used copies of previous editions often for less than the cost of shipping. So, for any listeners wanting to sample the wares, new or used, they’ll find a lot of choice available.


Debussy: Prelude a l’Apres-midi (CD review)

Also, Nocturnes; La Mer; Berceuse heroique. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80617.

Under most other circumstances I would have to say Telarc’s sound on this recording is too ultrasmooth, but considering that it is serving the master impressionist Claude Debussy, it probably complements the music properly. For those listeners who fancy their impressionism mild and dreamy, this may be the best way to go.

My only concern with Paavo Jarvi’s interpretations of the Prelude a l'Apres-midi, Nocturnes, La Mer, and Berceuse heroique is that they seem more than a mite complacent. Next to classic recordings by Previn (EMI), Reiner (RCA), Karajan (DG), and Stokowski (London), Jarvi appears to lack some of their passion. Surely, in so serene a piece as the Prelude, this approach works perfectly well; but in something like the closing moments of La Mer, where the sea swells up and dances a literal storm, one senses little of the dramatic tension, the excitement and fervor, of the moment. There is, instead, a continued stream of soft, languorous relaxation.

Let me put it another way:  These readings may be easy on the ear, and they may make for pleasant listening while driving along a busy interstate, but they aren’t the most compelling performances for first-choice listening in the home.

Telarc’s sound is, as I say, ultrasmooth and somewhat soft, but it’s very broad and deep across and through the stereo sound stage, with excellent dimensionality and a solid bass line. In short, this is a pleasing but hardly earth-shattering release.


Orff: Carmina Burana (XRCD24 review)

Sheila Armstrong, Gerald English, Thomas Allen; Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra and St. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys’ Choir. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD8.

I’m not a big fan of Orff's music, but audiences seem to love it and you hear it used in movies all the time. Recorded in 1974, this performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra remains one of the best. EMI reissued it at mid price in their “Great Recordings of the Century” line in 1998, then in their “Masters” series in 2010, and now Hi-Q Records give us a JVC XRCD24 K2 audiophile remaster in 2012.

For those few of you who may not be familiar with the work, Carl Orff (1895-1982) based Carmina Burana on the collected songs and poems of medieval minstrels. A booklet note tells us “Carmina Burana --‘Songs of Benedikbeuern’--was the title given to a thirteenth-century manuscript collection of songs (mostly in Latin) found in a monastery at Benedikbeuern in southern Bavaria in the 19th century, by J.A. Schmeller, when he published it in 1847. Orff came across the collection in 1935, and was immediately struck by it, particularly by the illumination of the Wheel of Fortune reproduced as a frontispiece, and conceived the idea of setting the songs to music.”

The assemblage of tunes contains several dozen short vocal pieces, plus orchestral accompaniment, grouped together in four sections. The music is vivid and vibrant, especially in Previn’s hands, and it speaks mainly of the yearnings and pleasures of the flesh. For example, “Sweet, rosey-hued mouth, Come and make me well.” Or “Love flies everywhere, He is seized by desire. Young men, young girls, Are rightly coupled together.” Or “The girl without a lover, Does without any pleasure.” Or “If a boy with a girl Tarries in a little room, Happy their mating.” And so on in its earthy way; I think you get the idea. Ably supported by a boys’ choir, the soloists have a field day with lyrics like these. Previn brings out the rustic joy of the music with an obvious love for it, almost reveling in the vulgarity.

There were two advantages of the 1998 and 2010 EMI discs over the company’s very first CD mastering: Superior sonics and a cheaper price. The 1998 audio quality (the same mastering repeated for the 2010 disc) was very slightly smoother and a touch fuller than the first CD transfer. Being over three-and-a-half decades old, the recording was analogue, of course, but the Abbey Road Technology (ART) remastering from 1998 removed some of the edge one may have noticed in the earlier full-priced CD; not all of it, but enough. Now, the sound is even better in Hi-Q’s audiophile remastering, and it makes Previn’s interpretation, full of love and lust and other sensual delights, an even greater delight.

EMI recorded the music in Kingsway Hall, London, in December of 1974, and the sonic quality was well up to EMI’s customary high standards of the day. Hi-Q use the JVC XRCD K2 disc processing system and had JVC remastered and manufacture the disc in Japan. The XRCD K2 system is a meticulous technique that begins with the analogue signal digitized directly into K2 24-bit, sent to JVC for playback via Digital K2 to eliminate jitter and distortion, converted using K2 Super Coding to 16 bit, and encoded using a DVD K2 laser with JVC’s Extended Pit Cutting Technology, the operation controlled by a K2 Rubidium Clock supposedly over 10,000 times more accurate than a conventional crystal clock. What all this means is that the process is about as precise and accurate as you can get in transferring an analogue tape signal to compact disc.

As usual, I put the Hi-Q disc into one CD player and the latest EMI issue into another, changing them out from time to time during my comparison to ensure I was listening to the discs and not the players. What I heard did not surprise me, although it was not a night-and-day difference, just a subtle improvement in the sound of the Hi-Q product. The EMI appeared a tad forward and bright, especially during the predominately vocal sections, while being a touch veiled, too. The Hi-Q was just that much clearer and more dynamic. Remember, the differences I heard were not the kind you might even notice except on direct A-B comparison. Impact, transients, and bass were also tauter on the Hi-Q, and highs sounded better extended.

This is not to suggest that because the Hi-Q disc further clarifies the sound that it makes it any less forward or bright; it’s just makes it a bit more open and transparent. Surprisingly, perhaps, the biggest improvements I noticed were in the quieter moments of the music, the wider dynamic range and greater lucidity of the Hi-Q product effecting a better low-level response.

If you already own one of the EMI Previn discs and like it well enough to think it warrants an upgrade in sonics, the Hi-Q release may be just the thing you’re looking for. Moreover, if you don’t already own the recording in any form, you might consider Hi-Q if you have a really super playback system and very deep pockets because the Hi-Q doesn’t come cheap.

The only other recordings I can think of that compare favorably with Previn’s are Blomstedt’s with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Ormandy’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), and Jochum’s with the German Opera Orchestra (DG). Yet Previn has the definite advantage in sound if you go all the way with the Hi-Q remaster. Besides, Hi-Q Records package the disc in a very substantial and beautifully illustrated Digipak, with note pages fastened book-like inside. As always, it’s a first-class presentation.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 (HQCD review)

Carl Schuricht, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HQCD265.


For me, listening to a Bruckner symphony takes patience. Plenty of it. In part, this is because Austrian organist and composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote long symphonies. Very long symphonies. And in part it’s because beyond hewing to conventional four-movement structures, Bruckner ventured into new harmonic, even dissonant styles. Sometimes, the listener must sit and wait in vain for a major thematic element to manifest itself, and then wait some more for Bruckner to develop it. Nevertheless, when performed by the right people, Bruckner’s music can be quite satisfying, reaching heights of spiritual ecstasy seldom attempted by other composers. Among conductors who have brought joy to recorded Bruckner performances are Eugen Jochum, Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm, Bruno Walter, Gunter Wand, Herbert Blomstedt, Bernard Haitink, Sir Roger Norrington, and the man under consideration here, German conductor Carl Schuricht (1880-1967).

Schuricht never seemed to have gotten quite the credit he deserves, perhaps because he made so few recordings for major record labels compared to the conductors mentioned above, although to be fair he did a number of things for EMI and Decca late in his career. HDTT, for instance, took this Bruckner Third from a 1965 EMI recording. For the listener new to Bruckner or for the old Bruckner hand, Schuricht’s performances make a good starting point as he clarifies the composer’s intentions so well. In effect, he simplifies Bruckner for us while never diminishing the composer’s work.

Actually, none of Bruckner’s nine symphonies really took off with the public until he premiered his Fourth Symphony, maybe because the Fourth acquired a nickname, “Romantic,” and because Bruckner gave each of its movements descriptive titles. He hadn’t done it before and didn’t do it again. In any case, he wrote his Symphony No. 3 in D minor, WAB103, in 1873, revising it (as he was wont to do with all his works) in 1877, 1880, 1889, and beyond. What we get here is Schuricht’s interpretation of the final revised version of 1889 in an edition published by Theodore Rattig in 1890. Whether you agree that it’s the best version to perform, since it contains some major changes, cuts, and additions, is beside the point; Bruckner himself never seemed entirely satisfied with any of his compositions and often made revisions on the advice of friends, whether those revisions were good for the music or not.

The Third Symphony is grand, heroic, and often majestic, yet under Schuricht we hear more of the beauty, lilt, and lyricism of Beethoven and Schubert than of, say, the sublime, melodramatic intensity of Bruckner’s contemporary, Richard Wagner. Schuricht does not romanticize the music despite its being solidly grounded in the Romantic tradition. What’s more, Schuricht ties the various musical strands together as well as anybody. Bruckner tended to be a bit Raggedy Annie about his themes, so seeing the connections is important.

The conductor maintains a no-nonsense approach throughout the symphony yet still captures much of the work’s elusive beauty. The performance has a fleet pace while ensuring a smooth, orderly flow of ideas. This doesn’t make it any better a symphony--it’s still too long and too diffuse for my taste--but it makes it a lot easier to listen to than most other interpretations. Besides, the Vienna Philharmonic, always one of the world’s great orchestras, never sounded richer, more luxurious, or more precise.

Of all the movements in the symphony, it’s the Adagio that for me fares best, a lovely, rhapsodic set of melodies, which Schuricht handles delicately yet without sentimentality. The Scherzo skips along at a cheerily enlivening clip, followed by a truly moving finale. Anyone interested in the Bruckner Third Symphony might consider starting here.

EMI recorded the music at the Vienna Musikvereinssaal in 1965, where they obtained excellent results, transferred with loving care to the HQCD product to which I listened. The sound is very transparent, with a good sense of orchestral depth, a wide dynamic range, a broad stereo spread, a strong impact, and a taut bass. It’s a tad forward in the lower treble, giving it an additional clarity. Moreover, there’s just enough warmth, resonance, and acoustical air to provide a realistic sense of occasion. In short, this may be the best-sounding recording of any Bruckner symphony currently on the market.

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


Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Fabio Luisi, Vienna Symphony. Wiener Symphonikor WS 001.

Maybe it’s just me, but there appears to be a slew of new Mahler recordings every month. Is there any composer save Beethoven who gets as much attention in the music world? I dunno. I suspect it’s in part because Mahler’s music has so much variety that it appeals to all kinds of listeners and because Mahler recordings have such a wide range of frequencies, contrasts, and dynamics that they appeal to hi-fi enthusiasts.

Whatever, here’s another entry, a recording of the Mahler First that appears to be a part of a cycle of Mahler symphonies from Italian Maestro Fabio Luisi, the Chief Conductor of the Vienna Symphony and the newly named Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. Although I was not familiar with Maestro Luisi’s work until now, on this disc he impressed me with his precise yet passionate execution. Certainly a conductor to watch.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) completed his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888 while still in his twenties. Years later, fellow Austrian composer Arnold Schonberg suggested that the First summed up everything that Mahler would elaborate upon in his later music. Mahler said he was trying to describe in the First Symphony a progression of his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth to the darker years of maturity. Mahler even called it a tone poem at first rather than a symphony, and he gave each movement a programmatic title (which he later regretted). Maybe Schonberg was right because we do see the same thematic and stylistic elements in the rest of Mahler’s symphonies.

In the first movement, “Spring without End,” Mahler represents his youthful hero in the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. Luisi handles the long, lyrical opening sequence beautifully, evoking the delicate longings of Spring with grace and beauty and, symbolically, the humanity and culture that comes with it. We can hear in the music both the high spirituality and the moralistic suffering that would befall the hero and Mankind itself. Seldom do we find the music so carefully thought out, structured, and presented as it is here.

In the second-movement Scherzo, “With Full Sail,” we find Mahler in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. Again, we get both a dramatic yet intellectual approach from the conductor. He emphasizes precise outlines for the music, a little too deliberate, perhaps, but clearly underlining the hero’s fullest entry into a complex world.

The third movement is an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, coming off as a typical Mahler parody. It may represent the hero’s first glimpse of death or possibly Mahler’s own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. This movement has long been one of the Mahler’s most controversial, with audiences still debating just what the composer was trying to suggest. Perhaps life is as sardonic as the juxtaposition of the grotesque funeral march, the rustic music, and the lovely ballad depict? Be that as it may, Luisi makes the distinctions as obvious as possible for the listener.

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. However, we must ask at this point in the symphony if life’s tumults truly come to a resolution in the hero’s final victory over life’s ups and down, or if the triumph is illusory, a temporary conquest, as ironic as the preceding funeral march. Luisi wants us to be sure to see that as Mahler’s final question, and he nicely pinpoints the final dualities. There is nothing easy here about the music or our understanding of it. Life is not that simple say Mahler and Luisi: Get used to it.

With the music’s questions so well framed, Luisi’s interpretation is among the most satisfying I’ve heard in years. In a field already overcrowded with names like Solti, Haitink, Bernstein, Horenstein, Tennstedt, Mackerras, and the like, Luisi produces a distinctive mark of his own.

The Vienna Symphony made the recording in the ORF Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna, in 2012. I’m glad they chose to do it as a studio performance and not live, since they got a better-sounding recording out of it, free of extraneous audience noise. The sonics display an excellent sense of depth, a wide frequency response, and a strong dynamic impact. The music comes across as airy and open, with a bass that’s taut and well defined, if not particularly deep. Because there is a wide dynamic response involved, the general volume level is somewhat low, so handle the gain accordingly. Overall, the sound is a tad lean, yet it is also quite smooth and natural, conveying a realistic feeling of being in front an actual symphony orchestra.


Britten: Simple Symphony (CD review)

Also, Temporal Variations; A Charm of Lullabies; Lachrymae; Suite on English Folk Tunes. Steuart Bedford, Northern Sinfonia. Naxos 8.557205.

There probably isn’t another conductor alive who knows the works of Benjamin Britten better than Steuart Bedford. A booklet note tells us that he was an occasional collaborator with the composer and conducted Britten’s operas “throughout the world, including the world première of Death in Venice in 1973.” I don’t know if that qualifies Bedford’s interpretations as the most definitive ones--Previn, Hickox, Handley, Marriner, Rattle, and the composer himself being no slouches with the scores--but Bedford certainly makes them enjoyable.

I have to admit, though, that I liked the first and last of the five works on the disc best. They would be the youthful Simple Symphony (1934) and the far more mature but still enthusiastic Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974). The three other pieces, Temporal Variations (1936), A Charm of Lullabies (1947), and Lachrymae (1976) are a bit too serious and somber for my taste. Still, Bedford performs them all in an obviously loving manner, with no excessive affectations to mar the naturalness of the music.

The Naxos sound goes a long way as well toward helping one enjoy the album. The Naxos engineers have created a wonderfully clean, detailed soundstage, with instruments well defined and frequency balances well gauged. As the Northern Sinfonia is a relatively small group (Britten intended the music for chamber orchestras or even quartets), the textures would presumably be more transparent, anyway, but the Naxos sonics make a good thing even better. Well, actually, the relatively low price probably makes it even better. I mean, what more could one ask for than excellent performances in excellent sound at the such a reasonable price?


Tchaikovsky: 1812 (XRCD24 review)

Also, Marche Slave; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQSXR7.

After a successful musical career in Hollywood, pianist, composer, and conductor Andre Previn became the Music Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1967 and then the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968, serving in the latter post until 1979. Although he has gone on to do more good work with various orchestras, it was during his tenure with the LSO that he made some of his finest recordings, at first with RCA but mostly with EMI. Indeed, it is with the LSO during the Seventies that Previn made some now legendary EMI recordings, which are only just now seeing the audiophile remasterings they deserve.

In 2002 JVC remastered Previn’s EMI recording of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on an XRCD, but that seemed to be the end of it. Until recently, as Hi-Q Records have taken up the slack, using JVC’s XRCD24 K2 processing to do a series of remasterings of material by Previn and others. It’s about time, I say. Up until these releases, the best we could get from the EMI material were the regular reissues from EMI Japan, with their very slightly better dynamics and bass than the regular British product. Now, it’s Hi-Q and JVC to the rescue again.

Anyway, Previn always seemed to me to have a somewhat limited repertoire, yet what he did perform and record (mostly English, American, and Russian material, with the aforementioned Mendelssohn thrown in) was always among the best available. Certainly, that applies to the disc under discussion, Tchaikovsky’s popular 1812 Overture.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote the 1812 Overture in 1880 to celebrate Russia's defense of Moscow against Napoleon's advancing army at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. As usual with the composer, he didn’t like the work very much. He complained that he was "not a conductor of festival pieces" and that the Overture would be "very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” Whatever, along with a couple of his ballets and symphonies, it has become his most-famous and most often performed work.

Of the multitudinous recordings of the 1812, only a few truly stand out: Antal Dorati’s old Mercury Living Presence version for its sheer excitement, Erich Kunzel’s Telarc disc with its thrilling cannon fire, and Sian Edwards’s and Fritz Reiner’s sane and sensible accounts for EMI and RCA respectively would be on my own short list. But Previn’s EMI performance still tops the field, for me the most imaginative and atmospheric interpretation of the bunch, the one that holds my attention from beginning to end no matter how many times I listen to it. And that’s no mean feat, given how hackneyed much of the 1812 has become through sheer repetition. Apparently, I’m not the only one who likes what Previn did with the work, either, considering that his recording has been continuously in the EMI catalogue on LP and CD for over forty years.

In the 1812 Previn starts very slowly, building up the momentum incrementally rather than going for broke in the first half. Then, when he does heighten the music’s power, the piece really gets rolling. By the time Previn reaches the big climactic moments toward the end, he has created a genuinely exciting experience for the listener. The final five minutes are thrilling, indeed!

Previn goes on to handle the two couplings equally well. The Marche Slave, which I have usually thought of as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 without the cannons, has presence and bite. What’s more, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is supremely romantic:  lush, lyrical, and rhapsodic. Previn has the measure of all these works and isn’t afraid to let his emotions show. Maybe that comes from his Hollywood days.

EMI recorded the music in 1972 at Kingsway Hall, London, and obviously did a good job. However, I always felt the LP sounded better on the whole than the compact disc, the CD transfer seeming a little softer and woolier to me. So how would this newly remastered audiophile edition sound? After all, Hi-Q Records took the recording directly from the original master tape and engineered it employing JVC’s XRCD K2 processing, a meticulous technique that begins with the analogue signal digitized directly into K2 24-bit, sent to JVC for playback via Digital K2 to eliminate jitter and distortion, converted using K2 Super Coding to 16 bit, and encoded using a DVD K2 laser with JVC’s Extended Pit Cutting Technology, the operation controlled by a K2 Rubidium Clock they claim is over 10,000 times more accurate than a conventional crystal clock. I think what all this means is that the process Hi-Q uses, much as companies like FIM/LIM and JVC themselves use, is about as precise and accurate as one can get in transferring an analogue tape signal to compact disc.

I put the Hi-Q disc in one player and the regular EMI version in another and prepared to listen and compare, switching them out from time to time ensure I was actually comparing discs and not CD players. The first thing I noticed about the EMI disc, which I hadn’t listened to in a few years, was that it was a tad fat and clouded. The Hi-Q was tauter, more transparent, with a bit less upper and mid-bass overhang. In other words, there was less veiling involved. Next, on the Hi-Q I heard more bite on the snare drums, the overall transient quickness and dynamic impact better. High notes were more open on the Hi-Q as well, better clarified.

Each time I went back to the EMI issue, I heard a distinct muffling of the sound. Now, I know what you are really wondering: How do those cannons come off in the Hi-Q 1812? Just fine is the answer, tighter and better defined than on the EMI disc. Just don’t expect Telarc cannon fire; they aren’t quite in that league. I’ve long thought it odd, too, that the second bank of cannons on the EMI LP and CD never sounded as deep as the first round; I don’t know why this is, but it’s the same on the Hi-Q mastering.

Meanwhile, it is actually on the accompanying pieces that the Hi-Q sounds best. For whatever reason, the Marche Slave and Romeo and Juliet pieces seem even more transparent on the XRCD24 remastering. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe I was just becoming more used to the sound of both discs and better able to discern differences. In any event, I think the nature of the source material is such that while neither disc displays quite as much clarity, depth, impact, or air as it might, there is no doubt the Hi-Q remastering is the superior of the two. Even if it’s not a day-and-night difference, it’s plainly audible.

In addition to the precision processing, Hi-Q Records package the disc in a very substantial, beautifully illustrated Digipak, with note pages fastened book-like inside. It is a high-class product, although it doesn’t come cheap. Unless you have very deep pockets, it’s the sort of product you buy to replace a favored recording that you want to own and listen to in the very best possible sound. Even if it’s only marginally better, it should be worthwhile to dedicated audiophiles looking to obtain the last ounce of great sound from their multi-buck playback systems.


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (HQCD review)

Also, Symphony No. 7. Pierre Monteux, London Symphony Orchestra; Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HQCD266.

When I was very, very young in the early 1950’s, there were three conductors’ names I recognized:  Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, and Pierre Monteux. Stokowski because I had seen Fantasia and just thought the name sounded important; Toscanini because, well, he was Toscanini, the greatest conductor in the world for, like, forever; and Monteux because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he had been at that time the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for many years. So I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these musicians, and I certainly welcome Monteux’s Sibelius Second back into the audiophile catalogue.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote seven symphonies, and of them his First and Second are probably the most popular. The thing is, there are so many great recordings available, it’s hard to have a favorite. In the Second, I think about the stereo recordings of Sir John Barbirolli (Chesky and EMI), the pair from Sir Colin Davis (Philips and RCA), plus recordings from George Szell (Philips), Herbert von Karajan (EMI), Osmo Vanska (BIS), and others. Still, it’s hard not to like Monteux’s 1958 version, too, and given its excellent sound in this HDTT remastering, I’d put it near the top of any list.

Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, in 1902, conducting the première the same year and revising it a year later. Although the public quickly dubbed it his “Symphony of Independence,” there is some debate as to whether the composer actually intended any symbolic significance in the piece. Be that as it may, it ends in a gloriously victorious finale that surely evokes a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.

Monteux nicely develops the opening Allegretto without undue distorting, romanticizing, or glorifying of the melodies or rhythms. There is both poetry and power here aplenty. The conductor shapes the music well, starting gently and becoming dynamic and exciting by turns, while keeping the work’s traditional Nordic roots intact. The London Symphony Orchestra play it brilliantly, the engineers capturing a remarkable clarity of tone.

In the second-movement Andante, the longest section of the symphony, Monteux manages to hold our attention for the duration, despite the somewhat repetitious introductory pizzicato pace the composer demands. Following that, again we hear a powerful statement from the orchestra, with Monteux showing only a hint of darkness in the music amidst a veritable storm of passions, after which he ends it with an appropriate calm.

The third movement is an expected Scherzo, which Sibelius marks Vivacissimo (very lively). Once more, Sibelius starts it with a repetition of notes, and once more Monteux ensures that it doesn’t just become redundant. There’s a good deal of vigor and vitality in the conductor’s reading. Then, without pause, we find ourselves into the Finale, where Monteux puts an energetic spirit into the heroic main theme, sustained beautifully until the triumphant conclusion. Monteux makes grand statements of Sibelius’s grand statements.

The disc’s coupling is Sibelius’s little Symphony No. 7, Op. 105, from 1925. Here, we find Maestro Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic doing another of their finely polished, perfectly punctuated interpretations of the symphonies. The performance is as smooth and suave as the recording quality.

Decca recorded the Symphony No. 2 at Kingsway Hall, London, in 1958, and it remains one of their best efforts of the period. The folks at HDTT have remastered the sound to excellent effect, especially on the HQCD to which I listened, the sonics very full, very open, very clean, and very rich. You’ll find good detail and transparency here without the balance being too forward, glassy, or hard (although, to be fair, there is a touch of that involved, a common quality in early Decca stereo recordings). The stereo spread is wide, with a modest sense of orchestral depth, reasonably quick transients, and good impact. Decca made the Symphony No. 7 recording in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, in 1966, where they obtained a slightly smoother overall response, with an even wider stereo spread, a bit more depth, and a tad more distanced miking. If it’s not quite as transparent as the Symphony No. 2, it makes up for it with an easy listenability.

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


Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites (CD review)

Also, Lyric Pieces. Hakon Austbo, piano; Mark Ermler, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94402.

Casual fans of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) probably know him best for his Piano Concerto in A minor and his incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, although my guess is that insofar as the Gynt music goes, most listeners would be more acquainted with individual selections from the Peer Gynt concert suites than with the complete material. In any case, Maestro Mark Ermler offers up the two most familiar suites on this well-filled Brilliant Classics reissue.

The Suite No. 1, Op. 46 opens with “Morning Mood,” in which Ermler develops an expansively atmospheric tone but then sort of lets it fade into banality. His rendition of the “Death of Aase” hasn’t a lot of character, either; it simply sounds mournful and slow and little else. In the “Dance of Anitra” Ermler gets the rhythms flowing sweetly enough, yet they are not particularly memorable or enlivening. Then, in “The Hall of the Mountain King” we find Ermler communicating all the right notes but in a curiously underpowered manner. To put it another way, the conductor’s handling of the first suite is rather commonplace.

The Suite No. 2, Op. 55 begins with “Ingrid’s Lament,” and it comes off as one of the highlights of Ermler’s performance, with more color than most of the other selections. The “Arabian Dance,” like the “Mountain King,” should be among the most dramatic movements in the suites, yet Ermler plays it so safely it seems again only ordinary. However, in “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming” the conductor shows a power and urgency missing most elsewhere, helped by a more robust recording quality. Finally, in “Solveig’s Song” Ermler ends the way he began--with a banal interpretation--which at least gives the whole reading a degree of symmetry.

For more vital, characterful, moving recordings of the material, the reader might consider Sir Thomas Beecham’s EMI disc or Oivin Fjeldstad’s Decca disc of excerpts, Raymond Leppard’s Philips disc of suites, or Per Dreier’s Unicorn album containing most of the incidental music.

As a coupling, Brilliant Classics offer some of the Lyric Pieces Grieg wrote for the piano between 1867 and 1901. He actually composed sixty-six such pieces, all of them simple and brief, and the Norwegian pianist Hakon Austbo has selected fifteen of them for inclusion here. I enjoyed these items more than the Peer Gynt Suites because the pianist captures and conveys their essence purely and carefully, with a gentle touch throughout. The playfulness of the “March of the Dwarves” and the “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” and the beauty of the “Notturno” sound especially charming.

I believe it was Tring who originally recorded the Peer Gynt Suites at All Saints, Petersham, London, in 1993; and the Lyric Pieces come to us from Doopsgezinde Gemeente Deventer, the Netherlands, 2001. The orchestral sound in Gynt is nicely open, wide spread, and ultrasmooth. While there is not quite as much depth as I’d like to have heard nor as much sense of air, there is a fairly wide dynamic range and a good feeling of hall ambience. Impact and bass response are somewhat light, although “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming” comes off with authority. The piano sound in the Lyric Pieces is warm and resonant, not always perfectly defined but very comfortable.


Enesco: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 (SACD review)

Also, Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra Nos. 1-6. Antal Dorati, London Symphony Orchestra.  Mercury SACD 475 6185.

There is no end of recordings of these seven popular Rhapsodies for Orchestra, but among the very best have for many years been those of conductor Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra.

I confess that for the big two, Georges Enesco’s Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 and Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, I have long held a preference for the old Stokowski recordings available now on RCA Living Stereo and, even better, on a JVC XRCD. But for the Enesco and all six of the Liszt Rhapsodies on one disc, there is nothing finer than Dorati’s old Mercury edition.

Tempos and contrasts sound well judged, although not as effortlessly integrated as Stokowski’s. Still, there is plenty of color and excitement to Dorati’s performances. The big two come off with plenty of élan and sparkle; the Fourth Hungarian Rhapsody is appropriately “rhapsodic” (the word “rhapsody” as applied to music was apparently first used by Liszt for his earliest piano versions of these pieces); the Fifth appears properly moderated; and the Sixth, “The Carnival in Pesth,” is as jubilant and festive as any “Carnival” could be.

The sound is open and vibrant and very wide spread across the front speakers. It’s available on this SACD in its original three-channel format and in regular two-channel on a hybrid disc that one can play on an SACD player or a conventional CD machine. Mercury made the recordings of the Enesco and the Liszt Second and Third in 1960 and the other four Liszt Rhapsodies in 1963, all with the LSO. The later recordings sound very marginally quieter and smoother than the three earlier ones, but the differences are small, indeed.

If you already own this collection on the regular Mercury CD released in the early Nineties, there is not a lot of difference in the sound of the new one in regular stereo. I found the new SACD mastering very slightly brighter and a touch more revealing, but it may have been my imagination, even comparing them side-by-side in separate players. If you don’t already own the collection, though, the SACD hybrid would be a first choice, even if it is a few dollars more than the regular issue.

Finally, I should add in closing that not only is there a fine recording of the Roumanian Rhapsody by Stokowski available but also a disc by Willi Boskovsky on EMI that duplicates the Liszt items on this Dorati one.  Boskovsky’s renditions of Liszt are almost as good as Dorati’s, and with the prices of the two discs very low, it might behoove those interested in the repertoire to own all of them.


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