Jan 31, 2013

Adams: Shaker Loops (CD review)

Also, The Wound-Dresser; Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Nathan Gunn, baritone; Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559031.

It’s not hard to understand why composer John Adams’s (b. 1947) Shaker Loops is one of this modern composer’s most popular works. As conductor Simon Rattle has explained, Adams’s music has “always seemed to be moving forward in space, that I would imagine while listening to it that I was in a light aircraft flying rather fast, close to the ground.” Very true. Adams’s tunes have a wonderful forward momentum, and in Shaker Loops, especially, a strong rhythmic beat.

The present album contains four works quite different from another, particularly for a composer best known as a minimalist. The disc begins with a real barnburner, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” Two minutes into this thing and I felt as though I were back on Northern California’s coastal Highway 1 in my 350Z. It’s very exhilarating (the music, as well as the Z), Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony with all stops open. Following this high-octane piece are two downers, “The Wound-Dresser” and “Berceuse elegiaque,” both slow and rather gloomy affairs, the former a musical setting for Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name. Can’t say I enjoyed either work too much, but maybe I was in a bad mood before I started. If I wasn’t, these two numbers would have assured it.

The main piece of music on the disc is the four-movement Shaker Loops from 1978, which has rightly made Adams famous. “The Loops,” writes Adams, “are small melodic fragments whose ‘tails,’ so to speak, are tied to their ‘heads,’ creating loops of repeated melodies....” The “Shaker” part of the title derives from Adams’s attempt to recreate the feeling of a Shaker religious ceremony as they shake in religious ecstasy and divine meditation. The final movement has always reminded me of the film music of Bernard Hermann, something out of Psycho, for instance.

The Naxos engineers capture all of the shaking and trembling and pulse of the music, much of it percussive, in one of their very best recordings. They miked the orchestra fairly closely, producing excellent definition and impact. Indeed, listeners with playback systems too bright or too hard may not appreciate the immediacy of the recording, but those with generally well-balanced systems should find the recording eventful, to say the least.

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


Jan 29, 2013

Elgar: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Smetana: Selections from Ma Vlast. Zuill Bailey, cello; Krzysztof Urbanski, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Telarc TEL-34030-02.

Most casual listeners probably know English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) for his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 more than anything he wrote, but his Cello Concerto comes close. He wrote it toward the end of his career in 1919, and because he published it just after the close of the Great War, a lot of it sounds pretty melancholy and solemn. Nevertheless, it has become one of his most-popular works. Cellist Zuill Bailey, Maestro Krzysztof Urbanski, and the Indianapolis Symphony do a fine job with it, even though the 1965 EMI recording with cellist Jacqueline du Pre, conductor John Barbirolli, and the LSO remains a benchmark in the piece.

Elgar once remarked that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.” Zuill apparently takes the composer at his word, producing a robust, responsive, yet earnest and mature interpretation.

The first movement of the Concerto offers a pensive, bittersweet reminiscence of a quieter, more placid world before the War. The second movement Scherzo seems to represent the War itself, and the final two movements the War’s aftermath.

The opening Adagio has a big, bold part for the cello that starts immediately, although it strikes a rather solemn mood and grave air. Under Bailey this opening is dark-toned, brawny, and deeply affecting. Although the introduction may be long, slow, and heavy, Bailey makes it alive and exhilarating. The cellist never becomes morbid or depressing but projects the flowing, pensive state of a barely suppressed melancholy. Then, in the Scherzo he adds an aura of light with a really zippy pace, cavorting here and there with the orchestra as though a leaf in the wind. Following that, the third-movement Adagio--the soul of the work--seems more than reflective or contemplative; it seems a full-blown lamentation, most touching, if a little jarring in its musical juxtaposition with the preceding Scherzo. Nevertheless, as Elgar and Bailey remind us, war can be more than jarring.

In the finale, Elgar is all over the place, marking it “Allegro - Moderato - Allegro, ma non troppo.” Bailey keeps it part grave, part celebratory. The Great War, devastating in its consequences, was over, and there were new opportunities on the horizon, a new world shaping up. Things begin in a big, breezy style, which Bailey handles in big, bold fashion; then it transitions into various guises: lyrical, energetic, enthusiastic, melodramatic, sad, quiet, and, finally, exuberant. One could hardly ask for a more expressive rendering than that which Bailey gives us.

The coupling seems a bit odd to me, three selections from Ma Vlast (“My Homeland”), the set of six tone poems by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). I suppose the lives of the two composers on the disc did overlap somewhat, and certainly both the Cello Concerto and Ma Vlast concern issues of war and peace. Still, it seems a stretch. Besides, why only three selections from Smetana’s poem cycle? Why not four? There was room on the disc. Or, better yet, why not the complete work on a separate disc? Who knows. Maybe the orchestra only played three movements at the concert from which Telarc produced the album. I’m sure we should be grateful for what we have.

Whatever, the three Smetana pieces are “Vysehrad” (The High Castle), “Vltava” (The Moldau), and “Sarka.” Having heard so many fine recordings of the entire work over the years from so many fine conductors like Vaclav Neumann (Berlin Classics), Raphael Kubelik (Supraphon), Antal Dorati (Philips or Newton Classics), Paavo Berglund (EMI), Libor Pesek (Virgin), Antoni Wit (Naxos), and others, I couldn’t see as much color in Urbanski’s accounts of the scores. While one cannot seriously fault Urbanski’s performance, there is not a lot in it that sounds significantly better than what we already have. Even the currents of the Moldau seem to be moving too fast and too perfunctorily for us to appreciate them.

Telarc recorded the music live in concert at the Hilbert Circle Theater, Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2012. They miked it fairly close up, presumably to minimize audience noise, and in this regard it largely succeeds. There is little commotion from the folks in the seats. The cello is front and center, as we would expect, maybe a tad too much so. The orchestra sometimes appears a bit too far behind them rather than around them. Still, it all sounds quite nice, with a modest degree of depth and air to the orchestra. I suspect it’s just about the kind of sound the composer wanted, in any case. It’s a good, solid sound, with plenty of firm control.

Unfortunately, the Telarc engineers did not edit out the closing applause for each work, so our concentration gets disrupted at the end of each piece. Alas....

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


Jan 28, 2013

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 4 (XRCD24 review)

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin and conductor; London Philharmonic Orchestra. DG/JVC 480 674-1.

German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter made her recording debut in 1978 at the age of fifteen playing Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 with the eminent conductor Herbert von Karajan; one of the world’s great orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic; and the prestigious record label Deutsche Grammophon. Several years later, she recorded Nos. 2 and 4 with Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI. It was an auspicious beginning to her recording career to say the least, and she has never looked back, now recognized as one of the leading performers in her field. About a quarter of a century later, in 2003, she recorded all five of the Mozart violin concertos again, this time with the London Philharmonic, which she also conducted. The present, 2012 disc presents three of those concertos on a JVC remastered XRCD24/K2 audiophile disc. 

The disc’s title is actually Mozart: The Violin Concertos (Highlights), but I think the designation “Highlights” is misleading. It makes it appear as if there are only portions of the concertos involved when, rest assured, we get three complete violin concertos. It’s just that originally DG issued the five concertos along with the Sinfonia concertante in a two-disc set, so this single-disc audiophile release contains only three items from that bigger package; thus, the possibly confusing “Highlights” tag.

The two big questions, of course, are whether Ms. Mutter’s newer interpretations improve upon her early ones and whether JVC’s remastering is worth the money, both highly subjective judgments. Let’s start with the performances.

The newer interpretations have plenty of zip and thrust and a greater rhythmic bounce than the earlier ones. Ms. Mutter entertains slightly quicker tempos than before, perhaps as a nod to the period-practice crowd. Still, these are essentially gentle, cultured, mature, and lyrical readings, never overstepping the bounds of tradition. The older performances seem a modicum more reserved, more classical in tone. Moreover, the slow movements in the newer performances are as heartfelt as ever, so there is really nothing lost, unless it’s the more Romantic, dreamy-eyed sentiment of Muti and Karajan. If anything, Ms. Mutter is today better able to make her violin cry out in joy and passion. Her intonation, phrasing, style, and delivery are, as always, spot on, graceful and articulate.

All I can say about the JVC remaster is that the disc ain’t cheap, but it sure sounds good. Unfortunately, and here’s the rub, while I usually have the original discs for side-by-side comparisons, this time I did not have the regular DG set available. What I did have were Mutter’s old Muti (EMI) and Karajan (DG) discs, as well as the knowledge that in my prior experience every XRCD I’ve ever compared to its original counterpart has sounded better (although in some cases just barely). I have no reason to think the same isn’t true here.

Sonically, the JVC XRCD24/K2 remaster sounded superior to the Muti and Karajan in every way but one: The Muti recording seemed a touch more dimensional. The engineers miked the newer Mutter performances a bit closer than either the older EMI or DG, thus losing a very little something in orchestral depth; be that as it may, the closer sound reproduces a truthful air and space. In every other respect, the JVC product sounded best. The newer recording is clearer and cleaner for one thing, with a fine sense of presence and occasion. It also displays a greater dynamic range, a stronger impact, and a sharper transient attack. In the matter of frequency balance, the JVC is more neutral, the older recordings a touch brighter and less natural. There is also in the JVC a realistic bite on the violin sound, yet without any forward edge or hardness. More important, the JVC remastered sound appears smoother and firmer than the older sound, more lifelike all around.

In a nutshell, if you like Ms. Mutter’s earlier interpretations of the concertos, you will no doubt like her newer ones as well; they may lose a little something in formal classical feel and design, but they make up for it in joyous spontaneity. In terms of sound, the JVC remaster is hard to fault; it’s a tad close but sleek and polished, with no hint of distortion.

Just remember, the JVC disc isn’t for everyone; you can buy DG’s two-disc set much cheaper than this single disc, and I cannot even vouch absolutely for the JVC’s sonic superiority; therefore, I could not in all conscience recommend the remaster without qualification. JVC clearly intend the product for well-heeled audiophiles. What’s more, you may have trouble finding it for sale, short of ordering it from Europe or Japan, where it would be more prohibitively expensive given the shipping costs involved. Nevertheless, if you’re really intent on pursuing it, several places you can buy JVC XRCD’s in the U.S. include Elusive Disc (http://www.elusivedisc.com/) and Acoustic Sounds (http://store.acousticsounds.com/).

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


Jan 25, 2013

Hummel: Piano Concertos, Volume 1 (CD review)

Piano Concertos in A minor and in G; Introduction & Rondo in F minor. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano; Didier Talpain, Solamente Naturali. Brilliant Classics 94338.

Some guys can’t catch a break. Take Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). He’s like the Alex Smith (deposed starting quarterback of the S.F. 49ers) of classical music. Hummel was extremely popular in his day, but it wasn’t long after his death that his music faded into obscurity. While the Trumpet Concerto and a few of the piano concertos continue to get some love, it isn’t much. The fellow wrote at the very end of the Classical Period at a time when listeners were looking toward composers of the new Romantic Age. Hummel apparently never adapted well enough to survive, and audiences passed him by. Now, Brilliant Classics are doing their part in reminding us who Hummel was with this first volume of his music, all of which they say are premiere recordings on period instruments. Let’s hope it works out for them.

Let me begin by telling you about the little Piano Concerto in G, Op. 73, even though the disc places it second on the program. It’s a delight, sounding a lot like Mozart. In fact, if you didn’t know every Mozart piano concerto by heart, you’d probably swear it was early Mozart. Played on period instruments by Solamente Naturali (“only natural”) heightens the illusion. Hummel published the Piano Concerto in G in 1816 but adapted it from a mandolin concerto he wrote in 1799. Under Maestro Didier Talpain and pianist Alessandro Commellato (who plays on vintage fortepianos, an 1825 model for the Concerto in G and an 1837 model for the Concerto in A minor and the Introduction & Rondo), the performance is light, bouncy, airy, simple, and direct. It should have a wide appeal.

The Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 85, which opens the program, is one of Hummel’s best-known concertos; it dates from around 1816, and the composer published it around 1821. Here, we find a full orchestra and many more Romantic leanings. It’s much closer to Chopin and Liszt than to Mozart. The first movement starts with so lengthy an introduction that one might ask, Now eventually you do plan to have a piano in your piano concerto, right? Finally, about four minutes in, the piano enters. This time, Commellato’s playing, adapting to the tenor of the piece, is more mature, the Allegro Moderato appearing remarkably like Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. That’s not surprising, considering that toward the end of Hummel’s life he became a kind of mentor to the younger pianist and composer. Commellato also provides a more virtuosic performance here than in Op. 73, the more-complex music of Op. 85 giving him more opportunity for dexterous finger work. The fortepiano from 1837 has a slightly richer, mellower tone than the earlier one, too, reinforcing the lush Romantic connotations.

The album concludes with the Introduction & Rondo brillant in F minor, Op. 127. Written in 1833, it would be the last of Hummel’s works published in his lifetime. The mood changes altogether in the opening movement, this one somewhat dark and heavy. It’s still well within the Romantic genre, yet in a rather somber, melancholic vein. Then, in the second movement things brighten up considerably, with Commellato handling both temperaments handily. All three items on the disc offer dazzling performances, possessing grace and energy and polish aplenty.

Brilliant Classics recorded the music at the Studio of the Slovak National Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia in 2010. The music they obtained is a tad close for my liking, but it is wonderfully open and detailed, and the clarity is often exemplary. Although depth is only middling, the stereo spread is impressive, the dynamic range is ample, and the impact good. A little more distance, though, would have provided a more-resonant response, so the sound goes more in the direction of ultra-transparency than it does for concert-hall realism. The sound of the fortepianos displays excellent transient lucidity and sharpness of attack, even if it’s a bit too wide to be entirely lifelike.

To hear a brief excerpt from the Piano Concerto in G, click here:


Jan 24, 2013

Audiophile Reference IV (SACD review)

Various works and artists. FIM SACD029.

There is no doubt that FIM, First Impression Music, is first and foremost an audiophile label. Its president and producer, Winston Ma, is a dedicated audiophile for whom sound is everything. Fortunately, he is also a music lover and recognizes good music. Therefore, the contents of his discs must not only sound good, they must be worth an enjoyable listen.

The Audiophile Reference IV disc is a Super 24-Bit hybrid SACD, meaning the folks at FIM have done it up in one of the premier processing modes around, and because it’s a hybrid disc, you can play it on an SACD player or on regular CD player. As the album’s title implies, it contains bits and pieces of audiophile material, much of it taken from FIM’s catalogue of XRCD material, the kind of stuff that dyed-in-the-wool audiophiles sit around and listen to when they’re not talking over the top of the music. I’m not really keen on these kinds of compilations because there is never enough of any one thing to interest me, but when we get the kind of sonic results heard here, it’s hard not to want to see what new delights are around the next corner. Kind of like popcorn; you can’t just eat one.

There are sixteen tracks on the disc, comprising over seventy-five minutes of music. Selections include everything from classical to jazz to folk, but thankfully no hard rock or rap. Among the highlights for me were Saint-Saens’s lovely “The Swan” from his Carnival of the Animals; a composite group of tunes and noises on “Olde London”; a traditional Chinese set of variations called “Yang City”; excerpts from Handel’s Messiah; and Pachelbel’s Canon in D done by a percussion ensemble. Well, everyone else has done it on every other kind of instrument, so why not percussion.

The sound in each of the numbers is outstanding, particularly in terms of timbre and clarity. At times, I felt that maybe a piece was a bit too forward or too aggressive, but after a moment’s listening I usually found it sounded, in fact, just right. The only direct comparison I was able to make was with the live recording “High Life,” featuring Swedish sax player Arne Domnerus; it’s a selection FIM remastered from the celebrated Proprius disc Jazz at the Pawnshop. Comparing the FIM version with an original, first-generation pressing of the Proprius disc, I found the Proprius sounding maybe a bit brighter, the FIM sounding deeper, smoother, and more naturally balanced. That they did not sound more alike, though, was probably my biggest surprise; I hadn’t expected such a difference. In any case, the FIM was mighty good and sounded remarkably real.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album click here:


Jan 22, 2013

A Glossary of Classical Music Terms

By John J. Puccio

If you’re like me, from time to time you may have to look up an occasional musical term; thus, with the help of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, and other such reference works, I’ve compiled this little guide to some of the most commonly used classical music expressions you might run across, alphabetically arranged.

If you need to refer to the glossary again, you’ll find it in the left-hand column of every page.

A cappella: Without orchestral accompaniment.

A piacere: An indication for a performer to play according to his own pleasure, especially in regard to tempo and rubato.  

Abbellimenti: Embellishments; ornamentation.

Absolute music: Music free of extramusical associations, usually thought of as the opposite of “program music,” where the music describes something, a scene or a poem. People sometimes call absolute music “abstract music.”

Accelerando or accelerato: Faster, or becoming faster.

Accent: An emphasis on one pitch or chord; a stress or emphasis given to certain notes.

Accompaniment: The musical background for a principal part.

Adagietto: A tempo a bit faster than adagio. Also, a brief composition in a slow tempo.

Adagio: Slow, somewhere between andante and largo. Also, a brief composition in a slow tempo, especially the second, slow movement of a sonata, symphony, etc.

Affabile: Gentle; pleasing.

Affettuoso: Affectionate; tender.

Agitato: Excited.

Air: A song, tune, or aria in general. Also, in Baroque suites and later, a movement of a melodic rather than dancelike character.

Alla: In the manner of.

Alla breve: A tempo mark indicating quick duple time.

Allargando: Slowing down, becoming broader, usually with a corresponding crescendo.

Allegretto: Moderately fast but not so fast as allegro. Also, a short piece in fast tempo.

Allegro: Fast. Also, a composition in fast tempo, especially the first or last movement of a sonata or symphony.

Allemande: A dance in moderate duple time, first appearing in the 16th century.

Allentando: Slowing down.

Alto: A female voice of low range; sometimes called contralto; also, the second-highest part of a four-part chorus and, applied to the clarinet, flute, saxophone, etc., the second or third-highest member of the family.

Amabile: Amiable; with love.

Amore or Amorevole: With love.

Andante: A moderate or “walking” tempo, between allegretto and adagio.

Andantino: A short piece of andante tempo or character; sometimes, also, a tempo very slightly quicker than andante.

Animo: Spirited; sometimes written as “con animo” or “animoso.”

Appoggiatura: An ornamental or embellishing note, usually melodically connected with the main note that follows it and taking a portion of its time.

Arditamente: Boldly.

Ardore, con: With ardor.

Aria: A composition for solo voice; also, a short instrumental piece of songlike character.

Arpeggio: The notes of a chord played one after another instead of simultaneously.

Articulation: The characteristics of attack and decay of single tones or groups or tones.

Assai: Much, as in “allegro assai” or quite fast.

Atonality: The absence of tonality; the absence of key or tonal center.

Attack: The characteristics of the beginnings of a sound.

Bagatelle: A short, light piece, usually for piano.

Barcarole: A boating song of Venetian gondoliers or any song in imitation of the style.

Baritone: The male voice between bass and tenor; also, when applied to instruments (oboe, horn, saxophone), any size above the bass.

Baroque: In music history, the period from approximately 1600 to 1750. In personal history, the period following a visit to Harrah’s Tahoe Casino.

Bass: The lowest of men’s voices; also, as applied to instruments, the lowest and usually largest of any family.

Battaglia: It., battle. A composition that features, drum rolls, fanfares, and the general commotion of battle.

Batterie: The percussion group of an orchestra.

Bel canto: It., beautiful singing. The Italian vocal technique of emphasizing beauty of sound and brilliance of performance over dramatic or romantic expression.

Berceuse: Lullaby.

Bitonality: The simultaneous use of two (sometimes more) different keys in different parts of a composition.

Bourdon: Usually, a low note of long duration, like a drone or pedal point.

Bourrée: A 17th-century French dance.

Breve, brevis: Short. A note value that is brief.

Brio, con; brioso: With spirit, vigor, or vivacity.

Cantata: A composite vocal form consisting of a number of movements based on a continuous text.

Cantabile: Singable; songlike and flowing in style.

Capriccio: A humorous or capricious piece of music.

Chanson: Song, for one or more voices.

Chant: A general term for liturgical music similar to plainsong. More specifically, the liturgical music of the Christian churches.

Chorale: A hymn tune of the German Protestant Church. Also, a choir.

Chord: A combination of three or more tones sounded simultaneously, two simultaneous tones usually being designated as an interval.

Chromatic: The scale that includes all of the twelve pitches contained in an octave.

Classical: All art music as opposed to popular music. Also, the period of music from about 1770-1830.

Clavier: French term for keyboard.

Coda: A concluding section or passage, more or less independent of the basic structure of a composition, usually to indicate closure or finality.

Con: With.

Concerto: A composition for orchestra and solo instrument or small group of instruments.

Concerto grosso: An important type of Baroque concerto, characterized by a small group of solo instruments against a full orchestra.

Consonance, dissonance: Subjectively, combinations of pitches that are pleasing or displeasing.

Continuo: From Baroque scores on, the bass part, usually performed by the harpsichord or organ together with a viola da gamba or cello.

Contralto: The lowest female voice; usually, the same as the alto voice.

Counterpoint: Music consisting of two or more melodic lines that sound simultaneously.

Crescendo, decrescendo: Terms for the increasing or decreasing of loudness.

Cyclic: Compositions in which related thematic material is used in all or some of the movements.

Diminution: The repetition or imitation of a subject or theme in notes of shorter duration than those first used.

Dirge: A vocal or instrumental composition written for performance at a funeral.

Divertimento: An instrumental composition in several movements, light and diverting in character, similar to a serenade.

Dolce: Performed softly, gently, sweetly.

Dynamics: The aspect of music related to degrees of loudness.

Elegy: A piece of music with a mournful quality; a lament.

Embellishment: Ornamentation; auxiliary tone.

Ensemble: A group of musicians performing together.

Entr’acte: A usually instrumental piece performed between acts of an opera or play.

Epilogue: A coda or concluding part.

Espressivo: Expressive, expressively.

Etude: A musical composition, usually instrumental, intended mainly for the practice of some point or technique, sometimes designed purely for study, sometimes also for public performance.

Exposition: In sonata form, the first section containing the statement of themes. In a fugue, the first as well subsequent sections containing the imitative presentation of the theme.

Expressionism: The use of distortion, exaggeration, symbolism, and abstraction as means of emphasizing and conveying a composer’s subjective ideas to a listener.

Extemporization: Improvisation.

Falsetto: The male voice above its normal range.

Fanfare: A short tune, a flourish, for trumpets and the like.

Fantasy: Fantasia; a composition of fanciful or irregular form or style.

Finale: The last movement of a musical composition or performance.

Flauto: Flute, although up until the middle of the 18th century, it used to mean recorder.

Flourish: A trumpet call or fanfare; a showy or decorative passage.

Forte: Loud.

Fortissimo: Very loud.

Fugue: A polyphonic composition based upon one or more themes enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions or stages of development and a marked climax at the end.

Gigue: In Baroque suites, one of the four standard dance movements, often the final one; evolved from the Irish or English jig.

Giusto: Just, right; fitting tempo or strict tempo.

Glee: An 18th-century form of English choral music, unaccompanied, in three or more parts.

Gregorian chant: The liturgical chant of the Roman Catholic Church, named after Pope Gregory I (Pope from 590 to 604), whom tradition says first formulated the repertory.

Gross: Large, great.

Ground, ground bass: A short melodic phrase repeated again and again as a bass line, with varying music for the upper parts.

Harmony: The characteristic of music consisting of simultaneously sounded pitches or tones as opposed to simultaneously sounded melodies or lines.

Hymn: A song of praise, usually to a god or hero.

Idee fixe: Hector Berlioz’s name for the principal subject of his Symphonie fantastique; a “fixed idea” recurring in all movements of a musical work.

Impressionism: A term borrowed from painting in which there is a concern for light and its perception rather than the symbolic, literary, or emotive value of the thing perceived; thus, there is an avoidance of traditional musical forms. A composition suggesting lush harmonies, subtle rhythms, and unusual tonal colors to evoke moods and impressions.

Impromptu: Character pieces marked by an offhand or extemporized style.

Improvisation, extemporization: The art of creating music spontaneously in performance.

Incidental music: Music used in connection with a play.

Interlude: Music played between sections of a composition or dramatic work.

Intermezzo: A light theatrical entertainment introduced between the acts of a play or opera.

Interval: The distance (in terms of pitch) between two pitches.

Kapellmeister: Originally an honorable title (chapel master) for the conductor of a small or private orchestra, band, or chorus; now an old-fashioned provincialism for conductor.

Key: In a tonal composition, the main pitch or tonal center to which all of the composition's pitches are related.

Key signature: The sharps or flats appearing at the beginning of each staff to indicate the key of the composition.

Klavier: Piano.

Lament: Compositions commemorating the death of a famous person; a song used at funerals or mournful occasions.

Landler: An Austrian dance in triple meter, very much like a slow waltz; it was popular in the early 19th century before the waltz came into vogue.

Larghetto: Somewhat slow; the diminutive of “largo” and, therefore, slightly faster.

Largo: A very slow tempo.

Lauda: Hymns of praise or devotion in Italian.

Legato: Played with no interruption between notes.

Leitmotiv or Leitmotif: Leading motif. Coined by Wagner to designate certain motifs used in association with certain characters, ideas, or situations in his music.

Lento: Slow.

Libretto: The text of an opera or oratorio.

Lied, Lieder: Song, songs.

Lieto: Joyful.

Litany: A series of solemn supplications addressed to God or the Saints.

Liturgy: The authorized service of a Christian church.

Lunga, lungo: Long or long rest.

Madrigal: The name for several different types of Italian vocal music.

Maestoso: With majesty; stately.

Maestro: Master; an honorary title for a distinguished teacher, composer, or conductor.

Magnum opus: A great work, esp. the chief work of a writer or artist.

Mass: The most solemn service of the Roman Catholic church; a musical setting of certain parts of this service.

Measure: A group of beats or pulses marked off in musical notation by bar lines.

Melody: Musical sounds in agreeable succession or arrangement. The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.

Meter: The rhythmic element as measured by division into parts of equal time value.

Metronome: An apparatus that sounds regular beats at adjustable speeds, used to indicate an exact tempo.

Mezzo, mezza: Half loud, moderately forte.

Minuet: A French country dance introduced at the court of Louis XIV around 1650.

Moderato: In moderate speed, i.e., between andante and allegro.

Modulation: Change of key within a composition.

Molto: Very.

Motet: An important form of polyphonic music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, usually an unaccompanied choral composition based on a Latin sacred text.

Motif, motive: A short, generally fragmentary rhythmic figure that recurs throughout a composition.

Moto: Motion; usually used to indicate a tempo somewhat faster than indicated.

Movement: An independent division of a musical composition.

Neoclassicism: A 19th-century trend in music characterized by features of 17th and 18th-century music.

Nocturne: A piece of music appropriate to the night or evening, usually a romantic character piece for piano, with an expressive, dreamy, or pensive melody.

Non troppo: Not too fast.

Notturno: A nocturne. Also, a term for a variety of multi-movement works, intended for performance in the evening.

Obbligato: Obligatory, in regard to an instrument or part that must not be omitted.

Opera buffa: Comic opera.

Oratorio: An extended musical composition with a text more or less dramatic in character and usually based upon a religious theme, for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, and performed without action, costume, or scenery.

Ornamentation: The practice of embellishing musical works through additions to or variations of their essential rhythm, melody, or harmony.

Ostinato: A constantly recurring melodic fragment.

Overture: An instrumental introduction to an opera, oratorio, or such work.

Paean: A song of praise.

Partita: An instrumental suite common chiefly in the 18th century; also, a set of variations.

Piano, pianissimo: Very soft. Sometimes ppp and pppp can indicate further degrees of softness.

Pitch: The perceived highness or lowness of a sound.

Pizzicato: Played by plucking the strings with the finger instead of using the bow, as on a violin.

Poco, un poco: Little; a little or somewhat little.

Polka: A lively dance of Bohemian origin, with music in duple meter.

Polonaise: A slow, stately, festive dance of Polish origin, in triple meter, consisting chiefly of a march or promenade.

Prelude: Originally, a piece of music intended to be played as an introduction; later, a relatively short, independent instrumental composition, free in form and resembling an improvisation.

Presto: Very fast; and prestissimo, the greatest possible speed.

Program music: Music inspired by a program, for instance a nonmusical idea, which is usually indicated in the title and sometimes described in explanatory remarks or preface. Thus, program music is the opposite of absolute music.

Psalm: A sacred song or poem.

Recitative: A style of vocal music intermediate between speaking and singing. It is used particularly in opera, where it serves to carry the action from one aria to the next.

Renaissance music: Music of the period from about 1450-1600.

Resonance: The transmission of vibrations from one vibrating body to another; the prolongation of sound by reflection; reverberation.

Retrograde: Backward, i.e., beginning with the last note and ending with the first.

Rhapsody: An instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation; an ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm; an epic poem, or a part of such a poem, as a book of the Iliad, suitable for recitation at one time.

Rhythm: The pattern of regular or irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats.

Ritardando: Gradually slowing in speed.

Rococo: A musical style of the middle 18th century, marked by a generally superficial elegance and charm and by the use of elaborate ornamentation and stereotyped devices.

Romance, Romanze: Slightly different meanings in different countries, but generally short, lyrical songs, usually with romantic, historical, or legendary subjects.

Romantic, Romanticism: An important movement in literature and music in the 19th and early 20th centuries, essentially a reaction against the intellectual formalism of the Classical tradition, characterized by a call for return to simplicity and naturalism, subordinating form to content, encouraging freedom of treatment, emphasizing imagination, emotion, and introspection, and often celebrating nature, the ordinary person, and freedom of the spirit.

Rondo, rondo form: A work or movement, often the last movement of a sonata, having one principal subject that is stated at least three times in the same key and to which return is made after the introduction of each subordinate theme.

Rubato: An elastic, flexible tempo, allowing slight accelerandos and ritardandos according to the needs of musical expression.

Saraband: A 17th and 18th-century dance in slow triple meter and dignified style.

Scherzo: A movement, usually the third, of sonatas, symphonies, and quartets (rarely concertos) that Beethoven first used to replace the minuet. The scherzo is generally characterized by a quick tempo, vigorous rhythm, and elements of surprise.

Segue: An indication to the performer to proceed to the following movement or section without a break or to continue in the same manner.

Sentito: Expressive.

Sempre: Always; as in “sempre legato,” legato throughout.

Serenade: Originally, a vocal or instrumental piece performed outdoors in the evening. Today, it usually applies to lighter multi-movement works for winds or scorings intended for orchestral performance.

Sinfonia: (1) Symphony. (2) In the Baroque period a name for orchestral pieces of Italian origin, designed to serve as an introduction to an opera or operatic scene, an orchestral suite, or a cantata.

Sinfonietta: A small symphony, usually scored for a small orchestra.

Sonata: A composition of usually three or four movements for solo instrument, often with piano accompaniment. The normal scheme for the movements is allegro, adagio, scherzo (or minuet), and allegro. A slow introduction sometimes precedes the opening allegro.

Soprano: The uppermost part or voice; the highest singing voice in women and boys;    a part for such a voice; a singer with such a voice.

Sostenuto, sostenedo: Sustaining the tone to or beyond nominal value and thus sometimes with the implication of slackening the tempo.

Spirito, spiritoso: Spirited.

Suite: An ordered series of instrumental dances, in the same or related keys, often preceded by a prelude. More commonly, an ordered series of instrumental movements of any character.

Symphonia: Usually, the name for various types of early orchestral music that eventually led to the modern symphony.

Symphonic poem: A type of 19th-century and later orchestral music based on an extramusical idea, either poetic or realistic. Also called a tone poem, a form of program music.

Symphony: A composition for symphony orchestra in the form of a sonata.

Tempo: The speed of a composition or section of a composition as indicated by tempo marks or by the indications of a metronome.

Tenor: the adult male voice intermediate between the bass and the alto or countertenor; a part sung by or written for such a voice, esp. the next to the lowest part in four-part harmony; a singer with such a voice.

Theme: A musical idea that is the point of departure for a composition.

Timbre: Tone color.

Time: Used variously to indicate meter, tempo, or the duration of a given note.

Timpani: Kettledrums.

Toccata: A keyboard (organ, harpsichord) composition in free, idiomatic keyboard style. From about 1600 the name was also used for a festive brass fanfare.

Tonality: A system of organizing pitch in which a single pitch (or tone, called the tonic) is made central. A composition organized in this way is said to be in the key of whatever pitch serves as the tonic.

Tone: A musical sound of definite pitch; also, the character or quality of a sound.

Tone color: The quality (“color”) of a pitch as produced on a specific instrument.

Transition: Commonly, a passage (bridge) that leads from one main section to another.

Transposing instruments: Instruments for which music is written in a key or octave other than that of their actual sound.

Tremolo: Usually, a tremulous or vibrating effect produced on certain instruments and in the human voice, as to express emotion.

Trill: A musical ornament consisting of the rapid alternation of a given pitch with the diatonic second above it; to sing or play with a vibratory or quavering effect.

Triplet: A group of three notes to be performed in place of two of the same kind.

Troubadour: Any of a number of 12th and 13th-century poet-musicians of southern France; trouveres were the northern France equivalents of the troubadours.

Tune: A melody or air.

Tuning: Adjusting an instrument to its proper pitch.

Tutti: Italian, “all.” In orchestral works, an indication for the whole orchestra to play a passage.

Variation: The modification or transformation of a musical idea in a way that retains one or more essential features of the original.

Verismo: The use of everyday life and actions in artistic works; introduced into opera in the early 1900’s in reaction to contemporary, idealistic conventions, which were seen as artificial and untruthful.

Vibrato: A pulsating effect, produced in singing by the rapid reiteration of emphasis on a tone, and on bowed instruments by a rapid change of pitch corresponding to the vocal tremolo.

Virtuoso: A person who excels in musical technique or execution.

Vivace: Quick; lively.

Vivacissimo: Very quick.

Vox: Voice, sound, tone color; voice-part; note, pitch.

Waltz: A dance in moderate triple time that originated in the late 18th century as an outgrowth of the Landler.

Word painting: The illustration through music of the ideas presented or suggested by the words of a song or other vocal piece.

Zusammen: Together, e.g., after a passage in which an instrumental group has been divided.


Jan 21, 2013

Elgar: Enigma Variations (HDCD review)

Also, Vaughan Williams: The Wasps; Fantasia on Greensleeves. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-129.

It seems a shame that most Americans probably know English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) only for his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, and then only because so many people hear it played during graduation ceremonies across the country. But he wrote quite a lot of other orchestral material, too: marches, symphonies, concertos, and the like. This new recording from Reference Recordings gives us one of his other well-known works, the Enigma Variations, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps suite and the Fantasia on “Greensleeves.” Although one can certainly find a multitude of other available recordings of these pieces, few of them combine the expert performances and audiophile sound we find here.

The program begins with The Wasps, subtitled Aristophanic Suite, by English composer and folklorist Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Yeah, the first thing I did when I heard this music years ago was look up “Aristophanic.” Seems the word wasn’t as hard as it sounded; it simply refers to Aristophanes, the ancient Greek satirist who liked to skewer Greek society. The Wasps was Vaughan Williams’s first stage work, and it includes a number of traditional British folk tunes, which Maestro Michael Stern and his Kansas City Symphony play with high good spirits. It’s fun stuff, especially the overture, which begins with sounds of a swarm of wasps.

Next, we find the Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” a coupling by Ralph Greaves of two of Vaughan Williams’s arrangements of the famous ballad. The “Greensleeves” melody has been around seemingly forever, a booklet note suggestig that the first mention of it in print occurred as far back as the sixteenth century. It undoubtedly predates that time period considerably. Today, listeners probably know Vaughan Williams’s orchestral arrangements of the tune as well as any version it. Stern takes his time to get the full measure of the work, yet he never lags or dawdles. It’s quite beautiful.

The final piece on the disc is the Enigma Variations, Op. 36, by English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Elgar premiered it in 1899, making it his first big success. He began these fourteen variations by writing an improvisation and then continued to toy with it, bringing into the work all kinds of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Stern plays each of the movements fairly straight, attempting to make each one of them as entertaining as he can. Perhaps Stern’s interpretation is not quite in the same exalted league as the classic accounts by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) or Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), but it’s a very fine reading just the same.

Maestro Stern brings out all the color, picturesqueness, and delight the Enigma Variations have to offer. Moreover, there is a serious air of mystery around the music. The conductor also seems to delight in the score’s contrasts, emphasizing the composer’s lyrical charm, brawny athleticism, and stately, aristocratic grace.

The Reference Recordings team of producers and engineers, which includes producer David Frost, recording engineer Keith Johnson, and executive producers Tam Henderson and Marcia Martin, recorded the HDCD at the Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, in May of 2011. As always, the folks at Reference Recordings trade off a little something in the way of ultimate transparency in favor of a more lifelike presentation. You are very much in the audience for this one, sitting in the auditiorium. They do the miking at a reasonable distance, not too close, not too far away, capturing a smooth, warm response, with a pleasant hall resonance. One senses an excellent depth, air, and dimensionality to the sound, the bass deep and taut, the highs well extended. Just as important, there’s a wide dynamic range and a strong impact involved. Indeed, the range is so wide that much of the music may appear at times too low in volume, encouraging you to turn up the gain, which might not be the best idea when the loudest passages come around. Anyway, you’ll find a comfortable setting with a little fiddling of the dials and soon settle in to a most-realistic listening experience.

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


Jan 18, 2013

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” (CD review)

Also, Cello Concerto. Mario Brunello, cello; Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. EMI Classics 50999 9 14102 2 1 (2-disc set).

This two-disc release from Maestro Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia features two of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s (1841-1904) most popular works, the “New World” Symphony and the Cello Concerto. It’s always good to hear them again, even though there is already a boatload of excellent recordings available, even though the two discs provide short measure on playing time (about forty-four and forty-two minutes each), and even though the folks at EMI give us live concert readings of both works.

Disc one contains the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” which Dvorak wrote in 1893 while serving as director of the New York Conservatory. Many listeners over the years have heard instances of American idioms in the music, especially African-American spirituals and Native-American influences, when in fact Dvorak said most of the music was original, probably inspired more by his native Bohemia than anything else. Its title, “From the New World,” only came about because Dvorak happened to be living in New York at the time he wrote it. While to some degree local tunes may have affected the composer, the music seems mostly Czech in flavor. At the very least as Leonard Bernstein once remarked, one might consider it multinational.

Whatever, Pappano, chiefly an operatic conductor, gives us a big, bold, operatic treatment of the score, with big, broad strokes through a strong introduction. Then Pappano maintains a steady step through the rest of the first movement; maybe too steady because it doesn’t seem to have as much dynamism as it might. It does come to life toward the end, however.

The slow, quiet, second-movement Largo, with its famous cor anglais melody, sounds sweetly flowing and is one of the highlights of the set. Unfortunately, the rustlings of the live audience often intrude on the serenity of the scene. A zesty rendering of the Scherzo comes off well, providing an appropriate contrast. Finally, Pappano ends the piece in a blaze of glory, although one continues to have the feeling he’s holding something back, even when his speeds belie the notion.

So, what we have in Pappano’s Ninth is a nice, easily digestible performance with lyric beauty and grand gestures. Still, when one considers the competition, it’s hard to see Pappano’s version standing out in any particular way. Maybe it’s just hard to make a dent in a list of recommendations that includes Kertesz and the LSO (Decca), Reiner and the CSO (RCA or RCA/JVC), Dorati and the New Philharmonia (HDTT), Macal and the LPO (EMI), Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic (Denon), Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos), and so many more.

Disc two contains the Cello Concerto in B minor, which Dvorak wrote in 1895, rather late in his career. Still, it has become one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time, and there is no mistaking its late Romantic trappings, its abundance of melody, and its strong emotional involvement.

The pace of Pappano’s reading of the Concerto is even slower here than in the Symphony, the gestures broader. What’s more, solo cellist Mario Brunello, undoubtedly a virtuoso player, seems often to force the music, as though he were trying his best to ask us please to listen to him by his overemphasizing each note and each pause between notes. Again, the competition in this work is so intense, one can hardly find room for this recording in a lineup that already includes such notable recordings as those from Starker, Dorati, and the LSO (Mercury), Gendron, Haitink, and the LPO (HDTT), Wallfisch, Mackerras, and the LSO (Chandos), Rostropovich, Karajan, and the BPO (DG), Ma, Masur, and the NYPO (Sony), and the like. 

EMI recorded the two works in live concerts at Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, in 2011 (the Symphony) and 2012 (the Concerto). The engineers miked it relatively closely, presumably to diminish distracting audience noise, but there is still some coughing, wheezing, and shuffling of feet that becomes especially annoying during quieter passages. Worse, the close miking renders a somewhat flat sonic picture, with good detail and good separation of instruments but little air or depth. Then, too, there is not a lot of lower midrange or upper bass warmth, making the sound appear slightly hard, thin, bright, and forward. So, what we get is more of a movie-theater sound, despite its being recorded before a live audience.

The bursts of applause after each selection don’t help much, either, serving only to disturb one’s appreciation for the performances. I don’t know why record companies feel the need to retain the closing applause in live recordings; maybe they think it adds to the realism of the occasion, but, really, we listeners are in our living rooms; we know it’s not a concert hall. I prefer that record companies simply give us the performance and not the noise.

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


Jan 17, 2013

Popov: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Shostakovich: Theme and Variations. Leon Botstein, London Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80642.

Here’s another name, Gavril Popov, that might not be too familiar to all music lovers. He was a Soviet composer (1904-1972) who never really got much of a chance to show his stuff in the repressive regime of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s when he was in his prime. The conductor on this Telarc release, Leon Botstein, in a booklet note says that Popov’s Symphony No. 1 “fits into the category of great music in the orchestral repertory that requires advocacy.” In other words, since nobody knows about it, somebody’s got to speak up for it. Thus, the Telarc recording.

The First Symphony had exactly one performance, in Leningrad in 1935, and the Soviet musical censors immediately banned it as being too “formalist,” meaning it didn’t conform to the government’s ultraconservative musical tastes. Apparently, no one ever performed it again in Popov’s lifetime, and folks only rediscovered it and played it again a few years ago. It has still not caught on, much to the annoyance of Maestro Botstein.

One can understand, however, why not everyone in the world knows the piece. It’s gloomy as hell. The Symphony is in three movements, which the composer described as representing “1) struggle and failure, 2) humanity, and 3) the energy, will and joy of the victor’s work.” Interestingly, the three movements get progressively shorter as they go along: The massive, hectic first movement, an Allegro, is over twenty-three minutes long; the slow second movement, a Largo, is sixteen minutes; and the quick third movement, a Scherzo, is nine minutes. I assume the composer intended for the music to diminish in length by 3-2-1 to reinforce his musical themes, but I’m not entirely sure why.

In any case, the whole work is full of conflicts and contrasts, which seem to delight Maestro Botstein. The first movement alone has enough ideas in it to fill three symphonies, including a slow middle section that comes out of nowhere and leads to the “failure” indicated by the composer. This first movement begins with a big bang, goes on through all sorts of gymnastic convulsions, and ends with a repeated whimper, fading into nothingness. The second movement is so melancholy it would leave Jack Nicholson’s Joker with a frown. And the third movement seems actually to be bouncy and, in its odd way, cheerful. I guess that’s what Popov meant by “joy.”

Accompanying the Popov First Symphony is as opposite a piece of music as one could imagine, Dimitri Shostakovich's Theme and Variations, Op. 3 (1922), a student work that no one ever performed during Shostakovich’s lifetime. It is very much in the lightweight vein compared to the tumultuous Popov piece, the Shostakovich smooth, straightforward, and romantic, almost chamber-like in tone.

The Telarc sound is every bit as good as their finest recordings: very natural, very dynamic, very wide ranging, the percussion especially impressive, and the big bass drum making its presence felt all through the First Symphony. Everything comes together to make a fascinating if not wholly satisfying album: the first-rate sound, the obscure First Symphony, and the virtually unknown Variations. Well, it’s different.

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


Jan 15, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt, Incidental Music (XRCD24 review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, Beecham Choral Society, with Ilse Hollweg, soprano, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD2.

It wasn’t too long ago that I listened to and recommended the low-priced EMI reissue of this incidental music for Grieg’s Peer Gynt performed by Sir Thomas Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The recording first appeared on LP in the late Fifties, and EMI subsequently reissued it on LP, cassette tape, and CD over the years. Now we find it in yet another incarnation in the Hi-Q Records XRCD/K2 series of audiophile discs. The interpretation oozes the usual Beecham charm, long one of my favorites in this music, and the sound is obviously better than ever.

No, Beecham does not give us all of the music Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. Beecham provides about forty-two minutes’ worth. If you want the complete incidental music, you’ll have to turn to people like Per Drier on Unicorn or Neeme Jarvi on DG. Beecham’s extended selections are more like the suites, which you can find on any number of fine recordings. What Beecham brings to the table is his characteristic twinkle, lighting up the music with enchantment and charisma aplenty. And, naturally, the extended selections include Grieg’s most-famous movements: “Wedding March,” “Ingrid’s Lament,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” “Morning,” “Ase’s Death,” “1st Arabian Dance,” “Solveig’s Song,” “Anitra’s Dance,” “Return of Peer Gynt” (Storm Scene), and “Wiegenlied” (“Solveig’s Lullaby”).

What the Hi-Q disc does not include are Beecham’s recordings of the Symphonic Dance, the overture In Autumn, and the Old Norwegian Folksong with Variations, which EMI later added to fill out their reissued CD. These selections did not appear on the original LP, which is all that Hi-Q offer. Given the high price of the Hi-Q product, some potential buyers may understandably be annoyed at the short, forty-one minute playing time; just think of the disc as offering quality over quantity. If you’re looking for something less expensive, I’d suggest the EMI Beecham disc, Raymond Leppard’s Philips recording of the two suites, or Oiven Fjeldstad’s Decca issue of highlights.

The sound of the Beecham recording belies its 1957 production date, when EMI made it in Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London. Hi-Q have remastered it using JVC’s XRCD24/K2 processing, a technology I’ve described in the past that is meticulous, time consuming, and costly. It results in the best possible transfer of information from a master tape to a compact disc, but, as I say, it ain’t cheap.

As always when I have the opportunity, I put the new audiophile Hi-Q edition in one CD player and the regular-issue EMI CD in another for instant comparisons, trading out the discs from time to time to be sure I was listening to the sound of the discs and not to the sound of the players (although, to be fair, the players sound practically identical). The first thing I noticed in the comparison was that the Hi-Q disc sounded slightly smoother, with slightly better definition and separation of instruments. Next, I noticed that the Hi-Q product was slightly firmer and clearer overall; it was slightly less veiled, as though removing a fine layer of gauze from the sonics. I also noticed that the Hi-Q sound was slightly stronger in dynamic range and transient impact, with slightly more-extended highs and slightly tauter bass. By contrast, the EMI disc, already quite good, sounded slightly softer, less forceful, and less transparent. Be aware of the word “slightly” here; the differences are not night-and-day.

I noticed a touch of background noise in both masterings that is the merest shade more pronounced in the Hi-Q edition. Also, the vocals on the Hi-Q are sometimes a bit brighter, edgier, and harder-sounding. We might expect the better mastering to display more greatly any small deficiencies in the original tape, and that’s what happens. Nevertheless, these are such minor concerns, they are hardly worth mentioning in so fine an edition.

The Hi-Q packaging, too, is first-rate. The disc comes housed in a Digipak-type container, with a cardboard cover and back, bound text and pictures in the center, the CD fastened to the inside back cover. With its glossy coating and original cover art, the package couldn’t look better.

Note, however, that remastered audiophile discs are not for everyone; the differences between the sound of better masterings and pressings and the equivalent regular releases are usually so small that most people probably wouldn’t notice them. Remastered audiophile discs are for well-heeled connoisseurs attempting to squeeze the last ounce of fidelity from their stereo systems. It’s here that audiophile remastering companies such as Hi-Q, FIM, JVC, HDTT, and the like fill a need, providing the best-possible product regardless of price.

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


Jan 14, 2013

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Sandra Trattnigg, soprano; Fabio Luisi, MDR Symphony Orchestra. Querstand VKJK 0607.

When Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in 1901, not everybody liked it. Because today it’s probably Mahler’s most popular work, that may seem surprising. Modern audiences generally consider the Fourth one of Mahler’s most accessible works, it’s so tuneful yet so mature. Equally, the music is on a big scale yet feels quite intimate, and listeners seem to appreciate the music’s contrasts going from grand, eloquent sections to quiet, personal ones, from deadly serious passages to mischievously satiric ones. A lot of home listeners, especially, have found Mahler’s music a good way to enjoy themselves and to show off their stereo systems. Whatever, with this disc we get yet another Mahler Fourth, this one from maestro Fabio Luisi, who gave us such an excellent Mahler First just a few months previous (although, to be fair, that was a newer recording than this one and with a different orchestra).

Mahler meant for his Fourth Symphony to be something more than absolute, nonrepresentational music, and even though he didn’t leave a descriptive program for it, he did leave enough specific directions for each movement to give people an idea of what the music was all about. One of the composer’s followers, conductor Bruno Walter, said of the symphony: “In the Fourth, a joyous dream of happiness and of eternal life promises him, and us also, that we have been saved.”

Mahler marks the first movement as “gay, deliberate, and leisurely,” and he begins it playfully with the jingling of sleigh bells, an effect that also provides a positive sign of hope. In the second movement, Mahler introduces Death, using a vaguely sinister violin motif. He marks the slow, third-movement Adagio as “peacefully,” and it is a kind of respite from the oddities of Mr. Death in the preceding section. In the fourth and final movement, Mahler gives us his vision of heaven and salvation as exemplified by the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler loved. Here, the composer wanted the movement to sound so unaffected he insisted upon a soprano’s part sung with “child-like bright expression, always without parody.”

Maestro Luisi takes most of the first movement at a leisurely pace, perhaps to emphasize the music’s casual charm. But later he tends to rush through some sections, this time perhaps to suggest that not everything would be easy along life’s path. Still, the interpretation doesn’t seem as colorful or as graphic as it could be, being perhaps a bit too leisurely and casual.

In the second movement, Luisi is slower than many other conductors. Nevertheless, he imbues the piece with a keen tone of irony and dread. The whole thing is appropriately weird, if not as persuasively eerie as I’ve heard it done before.

Mahler said the Adagio was one of his personal favorite movements. Its contrasting moods hint of good cheer on the one hand and profound seriousness on the other. There is no doubt this is Luisi’s best moment, too, the music flowing as beautifully as I’ve heard it, a hushed stillness surrounding every note.

Finally, while soprano Sandra Trattnigg may miss a little of the childlike quality the singing needs in the final segment, she is wonderfully evocative, her tone sweet and strong. And Luisi’s fade-out into silence at the end is bewitching.

In all, Luisi’s performance is as compelling as almost anyone’s...almost. But unless one is a Mahler devotee or an avid music collector, there are other, more vivid recordings one can find at low or reasonable cost. Among them, I would count Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw (Philips), George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (HDTT or Sony), Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA or JVC), and Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), with additional good performances from Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, Georg Solti, Klaus Tennstedt, Simon Rattle, and others.

Although Luisi’s Mahler First release derived from a 2012 recording, this one comes from a 2005 recording made in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Right off, one notices the sound has an excellent sense of depth, miked at a moderate distance for a realistic stereo spread. It is a tad light, though, and hard at times, yet the limitations are never distracting. There is a good separation and definition of instruments, too, with a lifelike degree of air around them. Dynamics could be a bit stronger, however; they appear a touch restricted in their range and impact.

To hear a brief excerpt 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

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa