Dec 30, 2013

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Also, Swan Lake suite. Christian Lindberg, Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS-2018.

My favorite Tchaikovsky symphony. Not necessarily my favorite recording of it, but my absolute favorite Tchaikovsky. Oh, there are parts of the composer’s first three symphonies that are evocative and descriptive, the final movements of the Fourth are rousing, and the opening of the Sixth is achingly beautiful. Yet the Fifth Symphony charms me all the way through, despite the initially negative reaction of critics (and Tchaikovsky himself counting it a failure).

Favorite recordings of the Fifth? Of course. I love Maris Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos) for its combination of delicacy, despondency, and power; Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) for its sumptuous sound; and various runners-up like Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Leopold Stokowski and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Decca), and Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca). Then there are others that I simply admire, and I must now add Christian Lindberg’s new BIS recording with the Arctic Philharmonic among these “others.” Although I admire Lindberg’s recording, I don’t love it.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) conducted the première of his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 in 1888, the same year he wrote it. A related theme reappears in assorted guise in all four of the work’s movements, a theme the composer said was "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." Fortunately, the music is not as dark as the composer makes it out to be, and before too long the mood shifts. As the piece goes on, the thematic character becomes more positive, as though Tchaikovsky were expressing an increased optimism toward fate, the music appearing to become more optimistic as it goes along. It’s hard to tell, however, whether Tchaikovsky intended to end the symphony on an entirely affirmative note, and critics as well as listeners have been arguing the point for years.

Anyway, Lindberg begins by taking Tchaikovsky at his word, opening with a zippy reading of the Andante--Scherzo: Allegro con anima. Well, at least the composer indicated taking the Scherzo part with a spirited, animated fashion. But Lindberg goes it one better by taking the Andante at a faster clip than most conductors, too. I found it a little disconcerting but only by comparison. On its own, it sounds right and proper, if a tad less well characterized than I’ve heard it. So Lindberg gives us a zesty first movement, if a touch too straightforward for my taste, lacking slightly in dramatic contrast but making up for it in sheer exuberance.

The composer marks the second movement Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, meaning a slow, even tempo (a walking pace) taken in a lyrical, songlike manner, with some freedom. Like the first and third movements, the second opens very slowly and quietly, which Lindberg handles well. It's somber without being entirely gloomy and then opens up agreeably to a more-positive tone. While it perhaps misses some of the overtly Romantic, poignant emotions of my aforementioned favorites, it comes close, and Lindberg offers a sweet and tender interpretation.

The third movement is a Valse: Allegro moderato, a waltz that Tchaikovsky meant be taken at a moderate tempo. Oddly, it is in the concluding two movements that Lindberg tends to slow down more than many other conductors, at least at the start. In doing so, he loses some of the dynamism he built up earlier and has to race to catch up. Nevertheless, by the end of the waltz, he's got things moving at a stirring pace heading into the Finale.

The Finale begins with a tempo of Andante maestoso (a stately, moderately slow section), moves into Allegro Vivace (a brisk, vivacious section), and ends in Moderato Assai e molto maestoso (very moderate time and very stately). By now, Tchaikovsky has established his theme through its repetition in all the movements, and Lindberg emphasizes it powerfully in the opening moments of the final movement. Then the conductor opens up all guns, and even though he doesn't go full bore as some other conductors do, he provides enough enthusiasm and the Arctic Philharmonic respond with enough gusto and bravura to get one’s blood racing. Along with the excellent BIS audio engineering, this makes for spirited account of the symphony.

Coupled with the Fifth Symphony we find a twenty-five-minute selection of items from Swan Lake, a suite originally compiled in 1900. Here, I found Lindberg much to my taste, his seeming to have a natural affinity for the rhythmic pulse of ballet. The performance is intense and colorful.

Producer Ingo Petry and engineer Matthias Spitzbarth recorded the music for BIS Records at Harstand Kulturhus, Norway in February 2013. It's one of the best-sounding Tchaikovsky Fifths you'll find, reproduced in both stereo and multichannel on a hybrid SACD. In the stereo format to which I listened, the all-important midrange is clear and well defined yet radiates a soft, warm, ambient glow, well emulating the concert hall without the distractions of a live audience. When dynamics come into play, they do so with a fury, the range wide and impactful, the bass taut. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the miking is a bit too close, especially on some individual instruments, and then at other times everything seems right and natural.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 29, 2013

Vittorio Grigolo: Ave Maria (CD review)

Vittorio Grigolo, tenor; Fabio Cerroni, Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta. Sony 88883786372.

Another relatively young Italian operatic tenor I’ve never heard of. That’s not saying much, though, because I know little about the current state of Italian opera. In any case, Ave Maria is Vittorio Grigolo’s fourth solo album, most of them devoted to pop and pop-opera tunes rather than full-length operas. No matter; audiences seem to love him.

Grigolo grew up in Rome and was singing by the time he was four. He was nine when he started singing his own version of "Ave Maria," at which point his father had him audition for the Sistine Chapel Choir. There, Gigolo become a soloist with the choir, also studying for several years at the Chapel’s Schola Puerorum. By his early teens he was singing at Rome's opera house; and at eighteen he joined the Vienna Opera Company, at age twenty-three becoming the youngest man to perform in Milan's La Scala.

Today, he’s in his mid thirties and a heartthrob the world over. Or so people tell me. He devotes the current album to various renditions of the “Hail Mary” theme: four “Ave Maria’s” and an assortment of other Mary and New Testament tributes: “Maria, che dolce nome,” “Panis angelicus,” “O celeste verginella,” etc. Grigolo tells us, “I didn’t want to make an album of sacred pieces just because that’s what everyone in the classical world does. I want to let people know where I come from and to share something of my history with them--and to share some music which many people will never have heard before.” Fair enough.

But how does he fare in this material, especially compared to the numerous other tenors who have recorded it? That depends. He certainly has a fine voice, even though he is not so thrilling, so robust, so smooth, nor so dependable as others in the field. He also has a most-expressive voice, which might annoy some listeners, since he doesn’t shy away from sometimes using it in a most-theatrical manner, the inflections wide, the dynamic contrasts sometimes exaggerated, and the tremolo often evident. While Grigolo’s style may appeal to a broad audience and endear him to them, judging from what I listened to here it may just as soon turn off some dedicated opera fans who would rather he not be quite so obviously sentimental and flamboyant.

I might add, too, that the orchestra that accompanies him on most of the songs, the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta, sounds somewhat small and shallow. In the final number, however, the City of Prague Orchestra plays behind him, and it sounds fuller, richer, and more impressive. Still, the smaller Sinfonietta does provide a sweetly transparent sound.

Anyway, Grigolo begins the program with Padre Giovanni Maria Catena’s “Ave Maria” on which Grigolo's voice soars majestically, and one can almost feel that he's holding back his true power most of the time in order to communicate a more intimate tone. It's not bad.

On the next selection, "Fermarono i cieli," he likewise keeps his voice in check so as not to upstage the children's choir singing behind him. It's a lovely rendering of the tune, with Grigolo only occasionally bursting forth full power, which can be a tad disconcerting but no doubt exciting.

And so it goes. It isn't until the third and fourth numbers, Campetti's "Maria, che dolce nome" and Franck's "Panis angelicus," that Grigolo lets his voice soar, and these songs come across with great force and conviction. From this point on, it's pretty much Grigolo letting loose the full power and scope of his voice in dynamic contrasts that can't help make an impression for good or bad, depending on your attitude toward how a singer should handle these items.

Favorites? Well, they're all lovely, but I did take a particular fancy to Catena's "O celeste verginella" for the tender attitude Grigolo expresses in it. Then there's Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," with Grigolo producing a hushed sensitivity without blowing down the house. The traditional "Voglio chiamar Maria" sounds good with its deep organ accompaniment. A final number, Adam's "O Holy Night," sung with Jackie Evancho and the City of Prague Orchestra, is quite poignant. And, of course, it's hard not to appreciate Schubert's "Ave Maria" no matter who's singing it.

Without question, the album will satisfy Grigolo's fans, and it may even pick up a few new fans in the process.

Producers Chris Alder and Nick Patrick and engineer Neil Hutchinson recorded the music in a variety of locations, including Forum Music Village, Rome; Wathen Hall, London; and Smecky Studio, Prague in 2012-13. As I mentioned above, the chamber orchestra that accompanies Grigolo on most of the numbers is fairly small, and thus it produces a fairly transparent sound. Grigolo’s voice sounds well integrated on most numbers, not too forward but still front and center. The voice itself sounds well defined, robust when necessary, and the engineers captured it pretty well. There is a touch of shrillness occasionally in the highest notes and a bit of edge to the upper strings, but these things shouldn't be of much concern to most listeners.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 26, 2013

Leopold Mozart: Toy Symphony (CD review)

Also, Peasant Wedding; Musical Sleigh Ride; W.A. Mozart: A Musical Joke. Helmut Koch, Kammerorchester Berlin; Otmar Suitner, Staatskapelle Dresden. Brilliant Classics 94692.

The younger Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, usually so overshadowed his father, Leopold, that one hardly remembers that the elder Mozart also wrote music. Unless, of course, you saw the movie Amadeus, in which case you picture the older man as a rather stern-faced fellow with little or no sense of humor. Then we listen to a few of the more-famous works attributed to Leopold, and we have to reassess his attitude. I say “attributed” to him, by the way, because Leopold spent some time copying other people’s manuscripts, and he may have passed off more than a few of them as his own.

First up on the program is the Cassation in G for toys, 2 oboes 2 horns, string and continuo, best known as the “Toy Symphony,” whose original attribution went to Joseph Haydn before scholars decided maybe Leopold Mozart wrote it (and even then they aren’t sure). A cassation, incidentally, is a musical suite similar to a divertimento or serenade, so not only may Leopold Mozart not have written it, it really isn’t a symphony, either. None of which matters; it’s a delightful little piece of music.

Helmut Koch’s way with the piece is graceful and refined, but in taking such a serious approach he rather misses out on some of the music’s joy. I have no idea what Koch’s intent was in giving us so cultured an interpretation. Perhaps he wanted to show people that the work could be more than simple children’s fare played on toy instruments. Certainly the elegant playing of the Berlin Chamber Orchestra supports the theory. Perhaps he wanted to point up the work’s inherent humor by playing it more somberly than usual, allowing the subtlety of his performance to act as a contrast to the levity of the instrumentation. Or perhaps he just forgot that the music’s greatest appeal is in its sense of humor. Compare Paillard (Erato), Marriner (Philips), or Goodman (on period instruments, Nimbus) and you’ll find they appear to be having more fun with the piece. So, if you’re thinking of a one and only recording of the “Toy Symphony,” I couldn’t really recommend Maestro Koch’s rendering. However, as there are many other recordings available, Koch would make a fine alternative reading to set off the others.

With Leopold Mozart’s “Peasant Wedding” and Divertimento in F “Musical Sleigh Ride” Maestro Koch is on firmer ground. Here, Koch seems more exuberant, his style livelier and filled with greater pleasure than in the “Toy Symphony.” The conductor seems to understand that a peasant wedding is going to be a jubilant event, filled with rustic charm, which is how the music comes off. While it's still a tad more rigid than I would have preferred, it is nevertheless a pleasing interpretation, with the bagpipes and rattles highlights of the affair.

In the "Musical Sleigh Ride" we again get a tasteful rendition, maybe not so energetic or outgoing as I might have liked, yet there's no questioning the descriptive qualities of the third-movement Allegretto and others with their whiplashes and harness bells. Koch takes these sections at a moderately leisurely trot, as he does all of the ensuing movements with their sometimes incongruous marches, dances, and ornamental flourishes. Everything comes off in a most dignified manner, if that's how you see the music.

With W.A. Mozart's "A Musical Joke" (also known as the Sextet in F for Small Town Band), the son appears to be having a dig at some of his fellow composers for their clumsy writing. Apparently Mozart meant it as a parody, but the way Otmar Suitner and members of the Staatskapelle Dresden play it, you could hardly tell. They seem to suck much of the life out of the piece by presenting it with such gravity. Again, like Koch, Suitner may have been trying to make the music all the more amusing by giving it more weight. If so, he failed with this listener; the music's gawkiness just sounds awkward to me, not funny--not even its flat, out-of-tune moments. One may find more satisfaction from the aforementioned Paillard and Marriner as well as from a dozen other recordings.

Brilliant Classics licensed the recordings in 2013 from Edel Germany, the Leopold Mozart pieces recorded in 1976 and the W.A. Mozart piece in 1960. They last appeared on disc in 2005 from Berlin Classics, an album I did not hear to compare, but I can attest to their sounding pretty good in their current incarnation. The sound in the three Leopold Mozart pieces is clean and clear, almost ideal for the small-scale works involved. The stage extends from speaker to speaker with no hole in the middle; moreover, the midrange is nicely transparent, with a fine recreation of depth, air, and space around the instruments. The various bird calls show up especially well. These are, in fact, among the best recordings I've heard of the music. The W.A. Mozart Musical Joke, recorded a decade and a half earlier, sounds smooth and warm; it's not quite as transparent as the later recordings but still quite easy on the ear.

The bottom line for me on this rerelease is that the glass is only half full: The playing is excellent and the sound is good, but the performances are so-so. 

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 23, 2013

Bach: Complete Keyboard Concertos (CD review)

Also, Bach-Vivaldi: Two concertos. Julia Zilberquit, piano; Saulius Sondeckis, Moscow Virtuosi. Warner Classics 2564 63686-9 (2-disc set).

First, a word about Bach’s “complete” keyboard concertos. The “complete” business isn’t quite true, as Bach actually wrote not only the seven harpsichord concertos we hear on the present set but three more concertos for two harpsichords, two concertos for three harpsichords, and another concerto for four harpsichords. Additionally, he wrote miscellaneous other concertos in which the harpsichord plays a supporting role. All the same, this Warner set contains the seven Bach concertos for solo harpsichord, which we now know as the “keyboard” concertos because even though Bach originally wrote them for harpsichord, performers for years have also been playing them on the organ, fortepiano, and, as performed here, piano.

Next, a word about the solo artist, Julia Zilberquit, a Russian-born American who has won acclaim as an orchestral soloist, recitalist, chamber musician, and recording artist. The New York Times hailed her as “an outstanding soloist” following a 2012 Carnegie Hall concert with the American Symphony Orchestra. She has recorded several albums that have also garnered good reviews and performed worldwide with the Moscow Virtuosi, among other leading ensembles. She graduated from the Moscow Gnessin School of Music and Juilliard School and currently lives in New York with her husband and two children.

Finally, a word about the recording and its record company. As you know, in 2013 Warner Classics bought EMI Classics and are now starting to reissue some of EMI’s older recordings. But this isn’t one of them. The Zilberquit set derives from a recording session in 2001, the discs released the next year by American Heritage Society. The folks at Warner Classics reissued the set in 2013 on their own label. Don’t ask.

To complicate things further, the set begins and ends not with any of Bach’s seven original keyboard concertos but with a pair of works he transcribed for organ and orchestra from originals for two violins, cello, and orchestra written by his inspiration in concerto matters, Antonio Vivaldi. Ms. Zilberquit further arranges the two pieces for keyboard (in this case piano) and orchestra. In between the Bach-Vivaldi-Zilberquit arrangements, we get the seven purely Bach keyboard concertos. Almost, except, as I say, that Ms. Zilberquit plays them on a modern piano, and the accompanying Moscow Virtuosi perform them on modern instruments. Close enough; it’s still enjoyable music, well played.

On disc one of this two-disc set you’ll the aforementioned Bach-Vivaldi Concerto in D minor, BWV 593, for keyboard and chamber orchestra, transcribed by Ms. Zilberquit. Following that are Bach’s own Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052; Concerto in E major, BWV 1053; and Concerto in D major, BWV 1054. On disc two we find Concerto in A major, BWV 1055; Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056; Concerto in F major, BWV 1057; Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058; closing with the Bach-Vivaldi Concerto in A minor, BWV 596.

Probably the most popular item in the collection is the first one, BWV 1052, which Bach may have based on a now-lost violin concerto he wrote previously. Bach and his contemporaries often reused their own material and that of others. There were no copyright laws back then, and people considered imitation a high form of flattery. Note, for instance, that Shakespeare and his pals a century or more earlier based almost all of their plays on stories and histories already well known. It was sort of a custom of the times, whereas today we value originality above all. Anyway, Ms. Zilberquit approaches BWV 1052, as she does the others, with a dramatic flair that makes the music perhaps even more serious than it really is. Her manner displays a robust tension and release and exudes both a thoughtful intent and a feeling of playfulness at the same time. These are, in fact, qualities she exhibits throughout the set, and I found them most attractive. All nine concertos resonant with lively good will and, in the case of the slow middle movements, a keen sense of poignancy, tranquility, and reflection.

The Moscow Virtuosi under the direction of Maestro Saulius Sondeckis provide Ms. Zilberquit a precise and sympathetic accompaniment, the soloist and orchestra sharing almost equally in their musical duties but with Ms. Zilberquit coming out perhaps a nose ahead. It is her playing, after all, that you will remember most when you've finished listening, and you'll find it quite accomplished.

Incidentally, if you recognize much of this keyboard music, especially BWV 1057, from Bach's Brandenburg Concertos among other things, remember that he and his friends were fond of reusing their own material. Waste not, want not, I suppose.

The packaging is a simple fold-over cardboard case with the discs slipping into the front and back sleeves. Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide any place for the booklet notes, written by Ms. Zilberquit, except in one of the sleeves with a disc. This makes getting the notes or the disc a little difficult to get out without dropping one or the other or scratching the disc. A minor concern in any case.

Producer Vadim Ivanov and engineer Vitaly Ivanov recorded the music at The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Moscow in September 2001. Everything is a little close, yet it's also warm and smooth so it's still comfortable on the ear. The piano is front and center, of course, but not really in our face, and when the full ensemble comes in, Ms. Zilberquit sounds nicely integrated into the group. Depth of field appears moderate, dynamics are adequate, object definition is a tad soft, and frequency extensions meet the occasion. It's good, though not audiophile, sound.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Round-Up (UltraHD CD review)

Frankie Laine, vocals; Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. FIM LIM UHD 062 LE.

Of the approximately 17,586,312.47 recordings Erich Kunzel made in his lifetime, mostly for the Telarc label, Round-Up, an album of Western music, was among his better efforts. Maestro Kunzel and his Cincinnati Pops Orchestra present a series of tunes mostly made famous in Western movies and television, with a few traditional Western ballads and a supply of Western sound effects (cattle, coyotes, guns) thrown in for good measure. It’s really quite a lot of fun, especially when remastered in such exemplary fashion by the folks at LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a subsidiary of FIM, First Impression Music).

And then there’s the presence to consider of singer Frankie Laine on the album as well, doing up a few of the songs for which we knew him so well. When Telarc first released this album I couldn’t help remembering the time Mel Brooks was looking for somebody “like Frankie Laine” to sing the title song for Blazing Saddles, and somebody said, Why not Frankie Laine? Laine answered the call, not knowing at the time that Brooks’s movie was a parody. Anyway, Laine, famous in the Forties and Fifties for hits like “Mule Train,” “Cool Water,” “High Noon,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Rawhide,” and “Blazing Saddles,” recreates some of them here. He was in his seventies by the time he did the album but still in pretty good form. After all, his career spanned some seventy-five years, starting about 1930 and continuing until a final performance in 2005. I heard him in concert around the time of this album, and he was still a belter.

Round-Up contains twenty tracks, starting with a few Western sound effects and segueing into Rossini’s galop from William Tell so familiar to fans of The Lone Ranger. As usual, Kunzl handles the music with competence though not with any particular vividness. The William Tell is not a performance for the ages and does not generate the kind of excitement that, say, Muti, Gamba, Maag, Reiner, or even Norrington do.

But then it's on to more-conventional Western material with things like The Magnificent Seven, which fare better. Here, Kunzel seems more at home, and the piece comes off with great bravado.

Among my favorite items on the program is an all-too-brief anthology of TV Western themes that includes "Bonanza," "Rawhide" (with Laine, naturally), "Wagon Train," and "The Rifleman."  Another memorable selection is from How the West Was Won, in which Kunzel makes the most of the music's epic sweep.

Other notable tracks include a "Hoedown" of familiar Western dance tunes, the main theme from The Big Country, a suite from The Furies, and a choral-orchestral medley of "Ti Yi Yippee Ay," "Shenandoah," "Red River Valley," "Home on the Range," and "The Streets of Laredo."

Finally, Laine reprises a couple of his megahits, "High Noon" and "Gunfight at the OK Corral," always welcome; and Kunzel does good work with highlights from the underrated Silverado.

Be aware, however, that some of this music takes a moment to get used to, played as it is by a big symphony orchestra. We may recall most of these songs done with smaller studio orchestras or in any case much less weighty accompaniment. But I think anyone already used to Kunzel's way around a Hollywood tune will find most of delightful. And if some of these simple melodies sound too overblown for your taste, well, at least I’ve forewarned you.

Telarc producer and engineer Robert Woods made the album at Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio in September 1986. LIM producer Winston Ma and engineer Michael Bishop remastered the recording using UltraHD 32-bit processing in June 2013. The Telarc sound was already pretty good, and the LIM remaster and transfer take it a step further. In a comparison with the original Telarc disc, the LIM sonics appear marginally crisper, better defined, with a slightly greater sense of hall ambience, air, space, resonance, depth, tautness, and overall transparency. The dynamics seem to have a tad more punch as well, but that may be because of the aforementioned characteristics. Naturally, there is a strong, deep bass and a glistening, extended treble.

Incidentally, there are some gunshots on the disc that might not do your speakers any favors if you play them too loudly. Just saying'.

Of course, all of this audiophile improvement comes at a hefty price, but understand that your money also buys you a handsome, glossy foldout case, bound notes, and an inner sleeve with a static-proof liner.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 19, 2013

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (XRCD24 review)

Itzhak Perlman, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Hi-Q HIQXRCD25.

Another Four Seasons? Well, yes, but not exactly. It’s an old favorite EMI recording by violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman and the London Philharmonic done up in fancy new audiophile trappings from the combo of Hi-Q, Resonance Recordings, and JVC. If you’ve always liked the Perlman performance, it now sounds better than ever. Although it comes at a price.

Since recordings of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons appear so regularly, there’s little point in my describing them. There must be a hundred discs currently available, most of them sounding pretty good, so the choice is wide open. You probably have your own favorite recording of the piece, anyway, but in the event you don’t, here is some gratuitous advice from one who has seen most of the last hundred recordings of the work go through his living room.

First, be aware that the standard recordings of the four violin concertos comprising the Four Seasons fall into three broad categories, depending upon ensemble: chamber groups using period instruments, chamber groups using modern instruments, and full orchestras (or pared-down orchestras) using modern instruments. For period groups (which I tend to favor) I love The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO Records) and La Petite Bande (Sony) for their lively, small-scale interpretations and transparent sound; and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS) for their unique style, creative playing, and equally outstanding sound. Other good period-instruments recordings include the English Concert (DG Archiv), straightforward, fresh, and closely miked, but well recorded; and Tafelmusik (Sony), one of the best all-around renditions you’ll find. Among chamber ensembles using modern instruments, I like Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields (Decca) for their almost surrealistic approach to the score; I Musici’s second recording with Roberto Michelucci (Philips) for their subtlety and grace; and Solisti Italiani (Denon) and Janine Jansen and her Ensemble (Decca) for their no-nonsense presentations.

Which brings us in a rather long-winded fashion to the big-scale accounts using modern instruments and the disc under consideration, Itzhak Perlman’s analogue LPO rendering from the mid Seventies. It is in a class of its own, and for years I have enjoyed it more than any other full-orchestral account. Now, understand, when I say full orchestra, I don’t mean to suggest that the entire London Philharmonic was in on the project. The booklet insert does not say how many members of the orchestra participated, but I suspect they reduced the numbers quite a lot, making the sound a touch leaner than it might have been otherwise. On the other hand, the accompaniment appears a tad fuller than on any of the chamber recordings, so I’m counting this as a full-orchestral account.

Perlman is the solo violinist and the conductor in the performance, and the whole affair is as satisfying today as when I first heard it over thirty-five years ago. I’ve owned it on LP and on several previous CDs, and it continues to impress me. The interpretation may not be as vigorous as some of its smaller-ensemble rivals, but there’s an elegance and serenity about it that’s hard to resist. It is a smooth, relaxed, unforced, effortless reading that goes a long way toward negating any criticism of the work.

Perlman shows us he has always been a world-class violist with his smooth, supremely confident reading. Although this may not be the most-demanding material ever written for the violin, Perlman handles it with eloquence, grace, and refinement, all the while maintaining a lively, yet never hurried pace. His mastery of the violin is remarkable to hear, especially as it all seems to flow so easily and naturally. Perlman never indulges in extroverted mannerisms or flashy finger work for its own sake; he simply plays the music in a thoughtful, caring, and wholly engaging style that is captivating. Interestingly, it's his execution of the slow middle movements that are the most-charming parts of the playing and second to none on record.

What’s more, EMI’s analogue audio (recorded in 1976, digitally remastered in 1987, reissued by EMI in 2010, and remastered by HI-Q and JVC in 2013) is vintage EMI, among the best you will find in this piece. Producer Suvi Raj Grubbe and engineer Stuart Eltham recorded the music in May 1976 in Abbey Studio’s celebrated Studio No. 1. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot of deep bass or extreme sonic impact, but there doesn’t need to be; nor is there an abundance of depth to the sound stage, but, again, there doesn’t need to be. The violin appears well integrated into the acoustic field, in front of the orchestra but not sitting in our laps, and the violin tone is pure and natural. It’s clean, clear, warm sound that does nothing but contribute to one’s enjoyment of the music.

In the JVC/Hi-Q remastering and transfer, the sound is marginally tighter and more transparent than in the regular-issue EMI, with a more-realistic luster to the strings and a bit more-prominent decay time. The sound had better be improved, of course, given the higher price involved, yet there is no doubting the Hi-Q's greater transparency; if you have the right playback equipment, the differences will be worthwhile. Certainly, a performance as fluid and praiseworthy as this one deserves the best-possible sound.

However, this new release does bring up one obvious comparison: LIM’s remastered Four Seasons from Joseph Silverstein, Seiji Ozawa, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, originally recorded by Telarc in 1981. Both the Hi-Q and LIM discs will give your pocketbook a workout, and both of them sound better than their equivalent standard-issue products. The Hi-Q has the marginally smoother, more lively performance; the LIM has the slightly more dimensional sound. I suppose owning them both is the best choice, but it’s a costly one. If I had to choose just one? I dunno. It’s not a choice I have to make. It’s a weaselly answer, I know, but if you already have a favorite between the two performances, I’d go with the interpretation I liked best.

Be aware, too, that you can get the same Perlman performance on the low-cost EMI release I alluded to earlier, along with three companion pieces--the Violin Concertos RV 199, 347, and 356--made digitally a few years later (1982-83) with the Israel Philharmonic. It makes a fine, bargain issue, but it isn’t up to the audiophile standards of the current Hi-Q. Nor does it compare to the Hi-Q’s snazzy new packaging, which includes a glossy, hardcover Digipak-type case with bound notes, the disc fastening to the inside back cover.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 18, 2013

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir; Tiffin Boys' Choir; Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc 3CD-80599 (3-disc set).

This is about as enjoyable a performance of Mahler’s Third, his “Nature” symphony, as any I’ve heard in a long time, and the engineers at Telarc have recorded it as realistically as any around. In a package that offers three discs for the price of one, it’s a hard deal to beat.

I have to admit, though, that beyond the first movement here, I don’t find Mahler’s inspiration as compelling as a lot of other people do. Anyway, the first thing I did after listening to this massive symphony--all six movements and over 100 minutes of it, one of Mahler’s longest works--was to compare it to my one of my favorite interpretations, that of Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra on Unicorn, recorded some thirty years earlier.

Two things struck me: One, the older recording still sounded good. Not as good as the new Telarc, mind you, but well in the ballpark. The Horenstein seemed a tad brighter, slightly less well detailed, and lighter in the bass. The Zander seemed more naturally balanced, with slightly greater depth and impact, and, of course, that famous Telarc low end. But there were times when the top end of the Telarc appeared jarringly out of place, whereas in the same sections the Unicorn was smoother. Still and all, I’d go with the Telarc for ultimate sonic realism.

Second, the Zander reading is nearly the same length as the Horenstein in most of the movements, yet overall it seems marginally slower and in a few sections blander. I suspect this is because to my ears Horenstein puts a fraction more intensity into every phrase and every note. The exception is Zander’s handling of the second movement, which seems more animated than the rest of the performance. The result is just that much more involving than with other conductors. The other exceptions of concern are the huge first movement, which tends to amble along, and the fourth movement, marked Misterioso, which Zander takes considerably slower than Horenstein. As a consequence, Zander’s readings of these sections seem a tad less gripping than they should be, even though he does add perhaps a touch more atmosphere to things.

Nevertheless, these are minor issues in a rendition that is otherwise well structured, with a strong command of Mahler’s dynamic and emotional contrasts. As important, the singing is first-rate and that alone should sell the interpretation as much as anything else. Otherwise, some listeners may find Zander’s overall approach subtle and expressive while others may see it as somewhat deliberate.

The huge first movement, almost thirty-four minutes long, takes up the first disc; movements two through six are on the second disc; and Zander’s usual commentary is on the third disc. I didn’t have time to listen to the entirety of the Zander’s comments, but as expected in the part I did listen to the conductor is erudite and informative, and his lecture fascinating to hear. As I say, the whole thing is a hard bargain to overlook.

To hear a moment from each of the movements, click here:


Dec 17, 2013

The Great Fantasy Adventure Album (UltraHD CD review)

Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. LIM UHD 069.

Here’s Erich Kunzel (1935-2009) and his Cincinnati Pops Orchestra doing what they did best, presenting an album of short clips from famous fantasy and adventure movies. Kunzel sold a ton of this stuff, making him one of the best-selling conductors of all time. Telarc originally issued the disc in the early Nineties and the audiophile label LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a subsidiary of FIM, First Impression Music) remastered and released it in 2013. For the kind of thing it is, it’s pretty good.

Maestro Kunzel knew exactly what his listeners wanted and gave it to them, producing over ninety albums of short classical, jazz, and pop-orchestral material for Telarc Records alone. One wonders how he might have fared had he applied himself more often to longer classical works, but we have what we have. In the case of the present album, its presumably tongue-in-cheek title tells it all: The Great Fantasy Adventure Album. Well, maybe not quite all because a lot of what audiences might have considered “great” in 1993-94 we hardly remember today. For instance, can you even recall much about Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves, let alone its theme music? And although I consider myself a fairly well-informed movie and TV guy, I had trouble placing a short-lived television show called Wizards and Warriors. Nevertheless, there are a few choice items on the program that make the project worthwhile, Kunzel throws himself into the music with enthusiasm (if not always with the best results), and there’s no denying the fine quality of FIM’s remastered Telarc sound.

While much of the music is bombastic and, frankly, noisy, we probably wouldn't want our movie music any other way. The first few things on the program, for instance, are rather blustery affairs: Miklos Rozsa's El Cid "Fanfare and Entry of the Nobles," James Horner's Willow, Lawrence Rosenthal's Clash of the Titans, and John Williams's main themes for Hook seem equally inflated. Yet there are truly inspiring moments on the disc as well, Williams's music for Jurassic Park being one of the best scores he wrote.

And so it goes through twenty-one selections, a few of them purely sound effects, like a dinosaur tromping around and cyber technology ("T-Rex," "Jurassic Lunch," "Cybergenesis"). Among my favorite musical items: selections from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Henry V, The Rocketeer, Beetlejuice, The Princess Bride, The Hunt for Red October, and The Terminator.

Whether you find yourself attuned to Maestro Kunzel's handling of the themes is another story, though. He's certainly more than competent, but inspired? I dunno. Like you, I vividly recall that moment in Jurassic Park when we first saw those amazing CGI dinosaurs on the big screen, Williams's music soaring in the background in glorious Dolby Surround. Today, we take such matters for granted, but back then it was all quite astounding. Maybe it’s the passage of time that has blunted Kunzel's rendition; it doesn't seem to have the same impact I remember from Williams's own interpretation.

Telarc producer Robert Woods and audio engineers Jack Renner and Michael Bishop recorded the album in 1993-94 at Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, and LIM producer Winston Ma and mastering engineer Michael Bishop remastered the tapes in 2013. Yes, Mr. Bishop had the chance to do up his own project utilizing even better mastering methods and equipment and rereleasing the disc using even better transfer technology. The sound is big and bold, like the music, so everything works out well. Telarc's famous bass drum gets an expected workout, and the dynamic range shows off the various special aural effects pretty well. However, even remastered with meticulous care using FIM's UltraHD 32-bit "PureFlection" processing, there's a small degree of upper midrange forwardness I noticed in some tracks, as well as a small degree of thickness around the middle. Still, it's negligible, and I don't think anyone will care. Best of all for me was the newly minted high end, which sparkles, shimmers, and shines.

As always, LIM provide packaging worthy of the product (and its dear price): a glossy, hard-cardboard, Digipak-type folding case; an inner sleeve for the disc, with a static-proof liner; and a bound booklet of notes on the music and its production.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 15, 2013

Dvorak: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Romance for Violin and Orchestra; Mazurek for Violin and Orchestra; Humoresque.  Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Manfred Honeck, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0019303-02.

Although Dvorak’s Violin Concerto long ago took its place in the basic classical repertoire, it has never quite caught on with the public the way those from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and the rest have caught on. The Dvorak hasn’t quite the soaring lines, memorable melodies, and grand Romantic gestures we find in other popular concertos. Still, it offers its fair share of pleasures, and certainly this new recording from violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic makes the most of them.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 53 in 1879, premiering it in 1883. The famous Hungarian violinist, conductor, composer and teacher Joseph Joachim inspired Dvorak to write the piece, and the composer intended for Joachim to play it. As it turned out, Joachim didn’t much care for the finished work and never did perform it. Despite the violinist’s skepticism, Dvorak released the piece, and the rest is history, as they say. I dunno, though. Maybe Joachim had something; the music has never impressed me as much as the other staple items above have, even in the capable hands of Ms. Mutter. Indeed, the back cover announces that the Dvorak is “the last of the great Romantic concertos to enter Ms. Mutter’s discography,” and I wonder if there isn’t a reason for that.

Anyway, Dvorak begins the concerto with an Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too much), the "ma non troppo" marking used in all three movements. The violin enters almost immediately, and Ms. Mutter caresses the opening passages most tenderly, while still imparting a desired grandeur to the music. Joachim may have felt that the orchestra dominated the score, but Dvorak made some revisions before premiering it, and certainly in this interpretation, Maestro Honeck and his Berlin players share the spotlight equally with the violinist, never overwhelming her. If anything, it is Ms. Mutter's commanding execution of the music that tends to control the reading. The performance is tender, lilting, singing, rhapsodic, and a touch melancholic in every phrase.

The slow central movement, the Adagio ma non troppo, is the emotional heart of the work. Again, Dvorak's marking indicates he didn't want the soloist or orchestra to take things too slowly, possibly not to make the music too sentimental. Nevertheless, while Ms. Mutter does tend to stretch it out a bit more than usual, she never loses sight of the music's emotional grip. Even at a marginally slower pace than some other violinists have approached it, she is well able to communicate the movement's pensive yearning.

In the Finale Dvorak returns to the radiant, dance-like tunes of the opening movement, and Ms. Mutter shines accordingly. She has a good feel for Dvorak's Bohemian roots, and her violin skips along merrily. It's a delight, and along with Perlman (EMI) we must now count it among the best recorded performances of the work available.

Coupled to the concerto are the Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 11 and the Mazurek for Violin and Orchestra in E-minor, Op. 49. The former is a tuneful cantabile, the latter a more carefree folk dance. In both instances, the soloist and orchestra are at one and execute the music with precision and joy.

The combination of one of the world's leading violinists with one of the world's greatest orchestras results in a world-class set of performances that one can hardly fault. Both Ms. Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic play gloriously.

The program concludes with a brief piece for violin and piano accompaniment, the familiar Humoresque, Op. 101, No. 7. Ms. Mutter's inflections provide it with a memorable scope, making it a fitting ending to a noteworthy album.

Producer Arend Prohmann and engineer Stephan Flock recorded the album at the Philharmonie (Concerto, Romance, Mazurek) and Meistersaal (Humoresque), Berlin in June 2013. It's amazing how good an orchestra can sound when it's freed from the constraints of a live recording. The Berlin Philharmonic is a magnificent ensemble, but too often producers have felt it necessary to record them live, with all the consequent shortcomings that technique implies. Here, we get a big, full, warm sound, slightly close up but not overbearingly so. With an enormous dynamic range, a strong impact, and a wide frequency response, the resultant sound is very impressive, rather like being in the sixth or seventh row of the concert hall itself. The violin also sounds good, with a most-realistic string tone. It's good to hear the Berliners in all their glory again, especially when the recording engineer so well integrated the soloist into the occasion.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 12, 2013

Handel: Water Music (SACD review)

Also, Ouverture from the Occasional Oratorio. Manfred Huss, Haydn Sinfonietta Wien. BIS - 2027.

It seems as though every time a new recording of Handel’s Water Music arrives, it claims to be more historically accurate than any previous recording. Such is the case with Manfred Huss’s 2013 release with the Haydn Sinfonietta Wien, a group he founded and which has been playing on period instruments since 1991.

I’ll let Maestro Huss explain his position as stated in the booklet notes: “In 2007 a new critical edition of the score of the Water Music appeared, based on the newly rediscovered, oldest surviving copy of Handel’s autograph. This copy was made before 1718 and casts new light on many aspects of the piece. It was formerly believed that the music consisted of three separate suites rather than forming a single whole. Now, however, it is clear that Handel conceived all 22 movements as a vast single suite for the boat journey in 1717, although with a different order of movements from what was previously known, producing a work that is both varied and unified, with a ‘proper’ beginning (Ouverture) and effective conclusion (‘Trumpet Minuet’).” Accordingly, Huss and the Haydn Sinfonietta perform this new edition, playing the work as a single piece in twenty-two movements (although done in twenty tracks).

Anyway, as you probably know, the German composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was living in England when he wrote the music at the request of King George I, who ordered up music for a festive river party. In a letter to the King of Prussia, the ambassador Friedrich Bonet described the occasion in this way: “Along side the King’s barge was that of the musicians, fifty of them, who played all sorts of instruments, to wit trumpets, hunting horns, oboes, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes, violins and basses; but there were no singers. This concert was composed expressly by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and first composer of the King’s Music. His Majesty so approved of it that he had it repeated three times, even though it lasted an hour on each occasion: twice before and once after supper.”

Here’s the thing, though: the contemporary account indicates that the work lasted about sixty minutes, yet Huss and the Haydn Sinfonietta zip through it in a little less than fifty-three minutes. That’s not unusual given today’s propensity for period-instruments ensembles to play at a pretty heady clip, nor is it anything particularly bad. Indeed, the relatively zippy tempos make much of the music sound more exhilarating than a lot of traditional approaches. Still, I think my favored recording by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi) maintains the best of all worlds; they also use period instruments but they play at a slightly more relaxed pace, covering the three conventional suites in about fifty-seven minutes. And they sound better than anyone else doing it. Besides, no doubt some people enjoy listening simply to one or two of the three conventional suites at a single sitting rather than the whole thing.

Then, there’s the number of players involved: Remember, the contemporary account describes there being about fifty players in the second boat behind the King’s barge. The Haydn Sinfonietta Wien uses just over two dozen players, about half the size originally assigned to the project in Handel’s day. So, Huss may or may not be entirely as historically accurate as he claims, nor may his tempos be to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, he and his band give a good, rousing account of the music, which should be the main point.

Under Huss, the opening Ouverture, Allegro displays good zest, followed by the contrasting Adagio e staccato, which evidences an appropriate dignity. Some of Handel's famous horn fanfares come next, and they, too, sound forth with plenty of pomp while maintaining the same vitality as the rest of the fast movements. This is surely a Water Music of regal proportions, yet done up in energetic style.

Nonetheless, it remains a question, as I say, whether this particular performance, authentic or not, will appeal equally to everyone. Yes, it's historically in order and, yes, it's both noble and lively. But is it a sufficiently different interpretation from the multitude of other recordings out there to make it an essential buy? Perhaps to the avid collector. As a first and only choice? That's the issue. No part of the performance struck me as truly inspired, although individual parts come off well enough. The Air, for example, exhibits a wonderful bounce; the dances (which comprise most of the suite) an infectiously rhythmic gait, especially the several Bourrées; and the Hornpipe a splendid bravado.

However, I have to admit that toward the middle of this one long suite things begin showing a degree of sameness that is hard to explain. Certainly it’s not a lack of trying from Huss or his players. Maybe it’s just too much of a good thing, "too many notes" as the King said to Mozart in Amadeus. Perhaps it’s Huss’s pace that began to wear on me. I kept hoping he would vary his step more often, allow a bit more creativity and imagination to occupy the reading. So while most of the suite sounds fine, parts of it tend to drone on, even the 'Trumpet Minuet' that closes the show.

Coupled with the Water Music we find the Ouverture from the Occasional Oratorio, a brief piece in three parts, about eight minutes long. It has a appropriately ceremonial feeling to it and ends in a jubilant mood.

Producer Ingo Petry and sound engineer Fabian Frank recorded the music at the Auditorium Grafenegg, Grafenegg, Austria in March 2012, and BIS released it on hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD in 2013. I listened to the two-channel SACD stereo layer using a Sony SACD player. As with all the BIS products I've heard over the years, this one is nicely accomplished in terms of clarity, imaging, frequency range, and dynamics. It stands near the best recordings of the Water Music I've listened to, if not quite so full, rich, or deep as the aforementioned McGegan disc for HM.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 11, 2013

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in D minor (CD review)

Also, music of Panufnik, Takemitsu, and J.S. Bach. Alexander Sitkovesky, violin; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, New European Strings Chamber Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57440-2.

I assumed from their names and from the cover picture that young Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovesky and Russian conductor and violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky were father and son, but nothing that I could find in the booklet notes indicated their relationship. It turns out, Dmitry is Alexander’s uncle. Be that as it may, they make a smooth and agreeable team as soloist and conductor and in the Bach as co-violinists.

Unfortunately, I did not find their repertoire particularly well suited to my taste. The Mendelssohn is not the familiar Violin Concerto in E minor but the D minor Concerto the composer wrote when he was thirteen. Nobody ever performed it in Mendelssohn’s own day, and it was only in 1952 that Yehudi Menuhin exhumed and premiered it. Later, Menuhin took the young Alexander Sitkovesky under his wing, making him one of his protégés so to speak, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence why Sitkovesky chose the work for inclusion here, no doubt as a tribute to his mentor. In any case, there are reasons why most of us have not heard some pieces of music, and while one may find parts of the D-minor Concerto interesting, the jaunty final movement, for instance, which Sitkovesky plays with much enthusiasm, overall it does not strike me as among the composer’s strongest works no matter how well played. And well played it is, as are all the selections on the disc. Sitkovesky is a most-subtle and expressive performer, and it’s a pity we haven’t heard more from him.

Of greater interest is the Violin Concerto of Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), which displays more rhythmic vitality and more originality than the first work, albeit in an entirely different, more-modern style. Sitkovesky plays it with a feeling for its bouncy cadences and various mood swings. Again, the piece seems a tribute to Menuhin, as it was the older violinist who first performed it in 1972.

Following the Panufnik is a single-movement work called “Nostalghia” by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996). He dedicated it to the memory of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, and as such he marked it “calm and mournful.” Emphasize the last word. It is almost funereal and while quite lovely in most regards, it may put some folks to sleep.

Following this we find both Sitkoveskys performing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, also at a rather slow pace. Maybe they were in a mood to demonstrate their serious, contemplative side. Or perhaps after my having listened to a recording of it by Hillary Hahn on DG just a few weeks earlier and being mightily impressed, the Sitkoveskys’ rendition was, though exceedingly smooth and well executed, something of a disappointment.

EMI’s sound is hardly a disappointment, though. It is extremely natural, ultra-suave, warm, well balanced, and remarkably lifelike. If there had been more on the disc that I enjoyed listening to, I would probably recommend it without hesitation. As it is, I have some hesitations. And maybe the buying public did, too, as I have not been able to locate another recording by Alexander Sitkovesky since he released this album almost a decade ago. Which, as I mentioned above, is unfortunate. He’s quite talented.

To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:


Dec 9, 2013

Tango Tango (XRCD24 review)

Performed by Viveza. Master Music MSXCD 99310.

Given the number of movies featuring or about the tango, the documentaries, and the slew of record albums in recent years devoted to the subject, I think it’s safe to say the tango is back. Or maybe it was never gone. Moreover, after listening for the last couple of years to a goodly number of CDs devoted to the material, it is this album, Tango Tango by Viveza, originally released by Omega Records in 1998, that I have enjoyed most of all. So it’s a double pleasure to welcome it back on a 2013 audiophile remastering from Master Music.

First of all, the program contains some of the best all-around tango tunes I’ve heard performed, starting with the most popular tango of them, Jacob Gade’s “Jalousie” and followed by my own personal favorites, the hauntingly beautiful “Tango in D” by Isaac Albeniz and the equally enchanting “Por Una Cabeza” by Carlos Gardel (think Scent of a Woman or the ending of True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis dancing to it through the closing credits).

The other dozen or so tangos cover the ground with representative works from the turn-of-the-century to compositions of more modern origin, with those aimed at purely commercial success to those by classical artists; with dances from Europe, Argentina, and America; and, of course, with pieces by the Grand Master of the tango, Astor Piazzolla, whose tunes include "Allegro Tangabile," "5 Ano Nacional," "Fin de curso," "El Goy," "4. El Boletin," and "Aplazado." These tangos are not only rhythmic and danceable, they're appropriately romantic, swaggering, haunting, sensuous, yet nostalgic. In addition to the numbers I've mentioned, we find Bernardo Stalman's "Viejas Ideas," Franz Grothe's "Shreib mir einen Brief," Bill Runge's "Astor," E. Fernandez-Arboz's "Tango," Russell Guyver's "Un Crimen Pasional," Danny Gould's "Dango's Tango," Eduardo Oscar Rovira's "A Evaristo Carriego," and Igor Stravinsky's "Tango."

As important as the material is, the small group of Canadian musicians known as Viveza (Spanish for “lively” or “vivacious”) play the tunes with an understated style that does them all proud. The ensemble comprises Gwen Thompson, violin, viola, and guiro; Robert Holliston, guitar and piano; Mark Koenig, violin, viola, and melodeon; Wilmer Fawcett, double bass and guitar; with special guest artiest Salvador Ferreras, percussion.

How good are these musicians? Ms. Thompson began her professional career in 1971 with a dual appointment as Professor of Violin at the University of Western Ontario and Concertmaster of Orchestra London. She was head of the String Department of the Vancouver Academy of Music for twenty-five years, as well as holding a teaching position at the University of British Columbia. Wilmer Fawcett recently retired as Principal Bassist with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and Associate Principal with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Robert Holliston is the host of the Victoria Conservatory of Music's “Brown Bag Lunch” series. Also an active performer, he is currently Head of Collaborative Piano Studies at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, where he also teaches piano and music history. Salvador Ferreras frequents national radio as host and commentator. Mark Koenig passed away in 2006.

Yes, they are more than your average band. Their performances are certainly vivacious, but in a tasteful and restrained way.

Also of importance, the digital sound is smooth and natural, with the instruments well defined. In other words, the disc is wholly engaging on all levels. Rick Kilburn recorded it for XNTRiK Productions at the Western Front, Vancouver, BC in April 1998, and Master Music Ltd. remastered it in 2013. They transferred the sound from the master tapes to disc using 24-bit XRCD technology, the SHM-CD utilizing a polycarbonate resin substrate, and HR cutting. It all adds up to a superb rendering of the original sound.

Having the original Omega CD on hand for comparison helped me to determine the worth of the new Master Music edition. We take for granted these days that audiophile remasters in general show improvements, to one degree or another, in clarity, definition, smoothness, dynamics, even frequency range. What the Master Music iteration of Tango Tango also does is improve the music's dimensionality, its air and space and sense of depth. The instruments seem more fully separate from one another. Certainly, the added midrange transparency helps a lot in this regard, as does the extended treble and added bass tautness. To be sure, these differences are not night-and-day, and except on direct comparison one might not even notice them. Still, they all contribute to the recording's sense of realism and, thus, to the listener's enjoyment.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 8, 2013

Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (HQCD review)

Also, Haydn: Symphony No. 88.  Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD313.

Among the first conductors I remember liking on LP in the early Sixties when I started collecting classical music recordings seriously was Fritz Reiner, who in the early Fifties took over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra just a year or so before the dawn of the home-stereo revolution. He only made stereo recordings in Chicago from 1954 until just before his death in 1963, but they remain for me among the best recordings of all time. That’s why it came as a surprise to find that HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) had transferred to disc two recordings I didn’t even know Reiner had done, let alone had I heard, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88.

Of course, not everyone likes Reiner the way I do; he definitely falls into the special-taste category.  His insistence on strict orchestral discipline and musical precision results for some listeners in performances that may sound too sterile, too controlled. Not for me. I’ve always thought he brought out the best in any score he essayed, giving it a polish and control that allowed the music itself to bloom more fully. Such is the case with these two recordings.

The more important of the two is the crowning jewel in Mozart’s symphonic output, Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter,” Mozart’s final and longest symphony, which he wrote 1788, just three years before he died. Interestingly, scholars are unsure whether Mozart even got the chance to hear it in his lifetime, yet it remains one of the glories of the symphonic canon.

Understand, Reiner’s is not an interpretation one might mistake for a period-instrument or historical approach, except in one regard. Reiner practically attacks the opening Allegro vivace, putting the emphasis on the direction "vivace," as in lively or brisk. This is, indeed, lively and brisk to the point where if the Chicago players were using period instruments and there were fewer of them, it would sound like a historical performance at least in matters of tempo. However, with the full force of the ensemble behind the playing this is clearly a traditional rendering of the symphony.

And so it goes throughout the work, with Reiner carefully observing Mozart's notations and making not just a grand statement but a fully invigorating one, too. Not that all listeners are going to respond to it, however. The reading hasn't the monumental lines of Klemperer's rendition, the graceful refinement of Bohm's, the classical energy of Bernstein's, or the sheer joy of Jochum's. Instead, we get the rigidly direct phrasing for which people have come to expect from a Reiner interpretation.

Nevertheless, the Largo still sings beautifully, the Minuet still dances merrily along, and the Finale retains all the zest, spirit, and vitality one could ask for, one of the best on record. Even though this may be a go-for-the-throat reading of the "Jupiter," it's one of the most-exciting, most-thrilling, and yet most-moving "Jupiters" you'll find anywhere.

Coupled with the “Jupiter” is Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, written in 1787, a year before Mozart’s masterpiece. It’s further interesting to note that the older Haydn, one of Mozart’s inspirations, would continue writing music for close to two decades after Mozart’s death; yet Mozart clearly surpassed his mentor before his passing. What could Mozart have accomplished if he hadn’t died so relatively young? One can only wonder in frustration.

Anyway, Reiner handles the Haydn piece as he did the Mozart, with an exactitude and authority some listeners, including me to some degree, might resist. Given that Haydn would eventually produce 104 symphonies, it's remarkable that he was able to infuse each of them with such originality, keeping them all quite different from one another. Now, I'm not suggesting I could possibly tell any of the early symphonies, especially, from one another, but if you listen to them consecutively as I once did (on Antal Dorati's complete set), they do sound different from one to the next. So, expect in No. 88 some surprises. Although I have to admit that Reiner can’t quite match a Beecham or a Jochum for cheerfulness and charm in a Haydn symphony, I do find Reiner’s slightly more analytical approach fresh and, in its own way, maybe not entirely satisfying but affectionate.

RCA producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded both symphonies in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, the Mozart in 1956 and the Haydn in 1960. HDTT remastered the music from 2-track stereo tapes and burned it to an HQCD. You’ll remember that in the early days of home stereo it was RCA and Mercury who were doing some of the best, most-realistic recordings, with RCA’s team of Mohr and Layton among those in the forefront. That doesn’t mean everybody likes what they were doing; some people find RCA’s early stereo too wide, but I’ve never agreed. While they can sometimes have a sort of hole-in-the-middle effect, at least on some playback systems, these occasions have been rare in my experience. What I generally hear is wide, true, but faithfully wide, wide as in what a person might actually hear at a live event from a moderately close, but not too close, center row distance. That’s the way the orchestra sounds here.

The sonics are about as good in both symphonies as anything being recorded today. More important, the sound HDTT reproduces here is wide in breadth and wide-ranging in frequency response and dynamic range, perhaps a touch more transparent in the Haydn. It also displays plenty of orchestral depth, solid bite and impact, and a fine sense of hall ambience. In other words, it sounds real. What's more, it sounds better than any of RCA's own remasterings of Reiner's other Chicago performances to which I compared it, fuller, rounder, and smoother.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, blank HQCD discs, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 5, 2013

A Classical Christmas (CD reviews)

Here are two Christmas albums that are poles apart musically, instrumentally, and stylistically. Yet they’re both beautifully presented and remarkably entertaining.

Christmas Time Is Here
Canadian Brass. Steinway & Sons 30027.

Canadian Brass have been tooting their horns for over forty years, and it’s hard to argue with their enthusiastic and virtuosic musicianship. The membership changes occasionally, and with Christmas Time Is Here the lineup includes Eric Reed on horn, Christopher Coletti and Caleb Hudson on trumpets, Achilles Liarmakopoulos on trombone, and Chuck Daellenbach on tuba, with Bill Cahn, percussion. No matter who’s in the group, though, they always sound as though they’ve been performing together forever, they sound so well integrated.

This time out they give us their renditions of eighteen selections made famous in the Charlie Brown Christmas specials, mostly tunes by the late, great jazzman Vince Guaraldi as well as other, more-traditional numbers arranged by Brandon Ridenour. The thing is, the performers in the original cartoons played most of these songs on solo piano or in small, quiet ensembles. How would they translate as performed by a group of brass instruments? The answer: Pretty well.

Not that you won’t have to do a little getting used to them. Each of the numbers conveys a sweet, Charlie Brown Christmas mood, even if the brass players can't entirely communicate the same intimacy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. There are limits on what their instruments can do. Nevertheless, if you enjoy Canadian Brass, you know they can handle just about any genre, and the album is fun. Look for familiar tunes like "Christmas Is Coming," "O Tannenbaum," "My Little Drum," "Christmas Time Is Here," "Fur Elise," "The Christmas Song," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and many more.

Steinway & Sons, ArkivMusic, and Opening Day Entertainment Group produced the album in 2013 at the Coalition Music Studio, Toronto, Canada. It’s good studio sound, clear and dynamic. There isn't a lot of air around the instruments, though, just a soft, warm glow on the notes. It's comfortable sound, just clean enough to catch and hold one’s attention without being actually in the audiophile category of ultimate transparency. It comes across quite real, though, natural, helping the instruments to appear pretty much as they probably would live.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Joy to the World: An American Christmas
Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society. CORO COR16117.

For those readers who may not know, the Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus have been around since 1815, the second-oldest musical organization in the U.S. and the country’s oldest continuously performing-arts organization. Harry Christophers has been the Music Director since 2009. They specialize in historically informed performances, and on Joy to the World: An American Christmas they present nineteen mostly traditional carols in as close to their original renditions as possible.

Mr. Christophers tells us his aim was to offer up a survey of some of the most-popular Christmas carols sung in the U.S. The choir certainly presents them in exemplary fashion, their enunciation, phrasing, and emotional range immaculate. What's more, a thoroughly enjoyable and informative set of booklet notes tells us everything we'd probably ever want to know about the origins of each of the songs.

Among the items included we find "I Wonder as I Wander," "O Magnum Mysterium," "Joy to the World," "A Christmas Carol," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (in two versions), "In Dulci Jubilo," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," "Carol of the Bells," and many more.

The Sixteen Productions and CORO Records made the album at WGBH Classical New England Performance Studio, Boston, Massachusetts, in January 2012. Here we have what sounds like a pretty accurate account of real musicians in a real space. The light reflective conditions of the acoustic provide just the right amount of resonance to replicate a lifelike ambience. The voices remain smooth and warm, just as they would if listening to them in person, with no undue brightness or hardness. There is also a wide dynamic range involved, so the voices can swell from a softest whisper to a towering crescendo. Very nice all the way around.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Dec 4, 2013

Leopold Mozart: Symphonies (CD review)

Michi Gaigg, L’Orfeo Barockorchester. CPO 999 942-2.

The son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so obviously overshadowed the father, Leopold (1719-1787), that a person hardly recognizes anything by the father anymore, except maybe the occasional recording of the “Toy Symphony.” This CPO album aims to remedy that situation at least a bit by offering up four of the elder Mozart’s symphonic compositions other than the “Toy Symphony.” The results show us a far less-stern taskmaster than the grim-faced character we all met in the movie Amadeus.

Apparently, writing whenever he could to support his family, Leopold Mozart indulged himself often in the then-emerging popular style of “program music.” Proper Viennese musical circles didn’t always consider such music to be of the highest caliber, but its simplicity appealed to the masses, and the older Mozart found much favor with it.

The Sinfonia di cassia or “Hunting Symphony” brings with it a range of hunting calls, barking dogs, and simulated gunshots. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos come to mind. The Divertimento in D major or “The Peasant Wedding” uses a hurdy-gurdy, a bagpipe, and various vocal yelps from the musicians to recreate a riotous wedding scene. It’s a hoot. The Sinfonia burlesca presents four pieces based on representative eighteenth-century comedic types. And the New Lambach Symphony describes a journey through Western Europe. The designation New distinguishes the work from the Lambach Symphony written by Mozart’s then ten-year-old son the year before.

All four works display a mature if simple technique, with the Lambach being the more serious of the lot and the others somewhat frivolous fun. Conductor Michi Gaigg and the baroque-instrument orchestra L’Orfeo Barockorchester have a good time with music, and Ms. Gaigg directs with an exuberant touch. It’s quite a charming disc, actually, if a little lightweight.

CPO’s sound is quite good, too, not only natural in its tonal balance but conveying an excellent sense of orchestral depth. Unlike many recordings that are so close up or multi-miked as to seem flat and lifeless, this recording actually has listeners believing that an orchestra might be sitting in front of them. Although the L’Orfeo Barockorchester has only about twenty-eight period-instrument players in its company, they do sound most lifelike in tone and position and produce a bigger sound than their numbers might indicate.

I doubt this music will disappoint anyone, especially considering the varied assortment of works on the disc, their fine, exuberant performances, and the high quality of the sound. Not a bad deal.

To listen to a couple of brief excerpts from this album, click here:


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa