Bach: Famous Transcriptions (CD review)

Leopold Stokowski, Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243-5-57758-0-1 (2-disc set).

Leopold Stokowski was mere slip of a lad in his seventies when he made these recordings of Bach transcriptions in 1957-58 with his handpicked Symphony Orchestra. No doubt people still find his orchestral arrangements of works originally written either for solo organ or small baroque ensembles an acquired taste, to say the least; but they’ve been around for so long and people have come to know them so well, a lot of folks take them for granted as being entirely “Bach.” If you can keep from making that mistake, you’ll get more fun out of the music.

This two-disc set contains a seventy-minute CD of eleven of his famous Bach arrangements, plus a DVD of a 1972 performance of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London. More about that in a minute. First, let’s have a brief look at the Bach, which begins with the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, continues with things like the “Little” Fugue in G minor, the “Air on the G String” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, the “Preludio” from the Violin Partita No. 3 among others, and, of course, the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor to close the show.

I prefer the old man doing the slower Bach items, Stokowski displaying a marvelous sensitivity and eloquence in the gentler music, although there is no denying that the big moments in the Toccatas come across with an excitement that is quite invigorating, too. Sure, the purists among us will continue to call Stokowski’s transcriptions corny or schmaltzy or commercial bastardizations of great music. Yet I’m not so sure that Bach himself wouldn’t have enjoyed them. Given the number of times Bach transcribed his own music for different instruments, I don’t think he’d mind what Stokowski did to it. Let’s put it another way: One should view Stokowski's arrangements of Bach as alternatives to the real thing, not as substitutes for them. One can go to the opera or symphony and still enjoy a good pop or rock concert. Well, some of us can.

Best of all, EMI’s sound, now over a half a century old, is fairly good for its age--reasonably deep, firm, solid, and robust, somewhat compartmentalized perhaps, but well spread out across the stereo stage. I slightly prefer this sound in Bach to Stokowski’s later Phase-4 recordings for Decca, now also available on CD (in a five-disc box, which contains some really great things). Even though EMI’s late-Fifties’ sound may still seem highly engineered, it is a tad better focused and better imaged than Decca’s, if not quite so spectacular.

The accompanying DVD contains the Debussy; it’s done in color but in monaural sound. Still, it’s fun to watch Stokowski at ninety counting the beats and waving his arms about, without baton as was his practice from about 1929 onward. Interestingly, the booklet note says he returned to London to conduct the London Philharmonic, but the listing on the DVD says he’s leading the London Symphony Orchestra. Take your pick. Also on the DVD, and of equal importance, is a promo for EMI’s Archive series of DVDs, containing one or two-minute audio-video clips from over two dozen performances by great artists of the twentieth century. Name the performer, and he or she is probably here, from soloists to singers to conductors. But, unfortunately, although EMI gave them individual tracks, the company provided no menu selections for them and no listings in the booklet. They are fascinating to watch, but if you want to find something in a hurry, you’ll have to type up a listing of track selections for yourself.  Oh, well....

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


Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Symphony No. 5. Colin Jacobsen, violin; Jan Vogler, cello; Antti Siirala, piano; Eric Jacobsen, The Knights. Sony Classical 88725471762.

I’m not sure the world really needed another recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto. I know it didn’t need another Fifth Symphony. Nevertheless, if we have to have them, and apparently we have no say on the subject, I cannot think of many other groups I’d more like to hear doing them than The Knights.

The Knights are a New York-based chamber ensemble, which, according to their Web site, is “an orchestra of friends from a broad spectrum of the New York music world who are deeply committed to creating original, engaging musical experiences.” Their stated goal is “to surprise audiences by constantly seeking new approaches to music-making and new exponents of the art form.” They strive “to play old music like it was written yesterday and inhabit new music in a way that’s familiar and natural.” Certainly, in the several albums I’ve heard by them (and reviewed), The Knights are accomplishing their mission.

First up on the disc is the Triple Concerto in C major for piano, violin, cello and orchestra, Op. 56, with soloists Colin Jacobsen, violin; Jan Vogler, cello; and Antti Siirala, piano; with Jacobsen’s brother and co-founder of The Knights, Eric Jacobsen, conducting. Beethoven wrote the Triple Concerto in 1804, and it has remained one of the composer’s most popular pieces ever since. It is, of course, actually a kind of orchestrated chamber trio, a sinfonia concertante where several instruments oppose the orchestra and each other, a style that had passed out of vogue by Beethoven’s time, although Beethoven was able to inject a little new life into it. I suppose you could say The Knights and their soloists also inject a little new life into the work.

Despite The Knights’ ambition to seek “new approaches” and “surprise audiences,” their music-making is not in the extreme; the ensemble’s rendition of things is not so new as to be eccentric or bizarre. Indeed, their interpretations sound lively but conventional. This is Beethoven, after all, not some avant-garde composer they can play around with too much. You’ll find no excessively exaggerated tempos here, no inflated emphases or contrasts, no wilful hyperbole or embellishment for the sake of being different.

I even hesitate using the word conventional to describe The Knights’ playing since the word may to some degree imply commonness, even mediocrity, in the performance, and nothing could be further from the truth. The Knights play with great enthusiasm and joy, communicating their delight in the music through their evident delight in the music-making.

The Knights play the Triple Concerto in a quick and lively style, but not too quick or too lively. It seems just right, as a matter of fact. The three soloists perform well with one another, too, the cello dominant, of course, the piano perhaps a trifle large but never overpowering, the violin always holding things together. The instruments dart teasingly, charmingly, in and out of the musical structure. First and foremost, this music demonstrates a friendship and a kinship among the players, the three soloists and the orchestra accommodating that happy relationship sweeting and fondly.

The Largo, which is brief anyway, the players take a bit more briskly than I might have liked. Still, they do the movement no harm, and it comes off with an appropriately serene air, leading smoothly into the exuberance of the finale.

Set against the relatively lightweight cheerfulness of the Triple Concerto, the disc’s accompanying work, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, trumpets its ominous, then gradually triumphant, notes of fate. Perhaps Beethoven wrote the piece in defiance of fate because he was beginning to recognize his loss of hearing by this time. As the composer put it, “I will seize fate by the throat. It will not crush me entirely.”

The Knights, too, attempt to seize things by the throat, imbuing it with an infectious excitement, particularly in the work’s grand conclusion. Yet it’s the performance’s opening movement that gives me pause. In a booklet note, oboist James Roe writes that “the first sound in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor is silence. This monumental work begins with an eighth-note rest. Contained in that diminutive unit of silence is the last moment of calm before fate intervenes, the last second before learning life-changing news. It is the end of innocence before Beethoven’s infamous four-note motif launches the fateful first movement.” Fair enough. The trouble is that The Knights barely give anything in the opening minutes a unit of silence or even a chance to breath, they move along so quickly. To me the outset of the symphony appeared not so much powerful, dramatic, or turbulent as it did a trifle perfunctory.

Nevertheless, once underway The Knights come into their own. Their natural spontaneity takes over, and they make the piece come alive. According to Beethoven’s own metronome markings, most recordings of the Fifth (well, most of Beethoven’s music actually) are too slow. Even though The Knights don’t attack the piece as some of the period-instruments crowd have, they do produce a fleet-footed interpretation filled with plenty of energy. The entrance into the final Allegro is thrilling, if perhaps lacking in the last bit of electricity generated by conductors like Carlos Kleiber and Fritz Reiner. All the same, not bad.

The sound is pretty good, too. Sony recorded it in New York City over several days in January, 2012, and because of the reduced orchestral size, we get a reasonably transparent midrange, complemented by a soft, warm, ambient glow from the recording venue. There’s also a good separation of soloists in the Triple Concerto and a moderately lifelike integration of them with the rest of the orchestra. While I suppose there could have been a greater depth and dimensionality to the sound and perhaps a stronger, wider dynamic response, these are minor concerns when the playing has such multidimensionality. In the Fifth, however, we get what seems a tad closer response with a greater impact.

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


Chopin: Ballades, Impromptus, Preludes & Nocturnes (CD review)

Yuan Sheng, piano. Piano Classics PCL0049 (3-disc set).

Because Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was one of the world’s great writers and exponents of classical piano music, the listener will find a plethora of great recordings of his work. So any newcomer had better have something fresh and original to offer in order to compete with the likes of Maurizio Pollini, Arthur Rubinstein, Murray Perahia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Krystian Zimerman, Tamas Vasary, Claudio Arrau, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Idil Biret, Daniel Barenboim, Garrick Ohlsson, Jorge Bolet, Earl Wild, and the like. But pianist Yuan Sheng and record company Piano Classics give it a decent shot.

Why? Four solid reasons, actually: First, Sheng is a consummate pianist and puts on a most-accomplished and most-entertaining show. Second, Sheng consulted the Polish National Edition of Works by Freyderyk Chopin, edited by Jan Ekier, “in which many authentic yet never before published variants of passages in various compositions came to the public’s attention for the first time,” Sheng adopting the variants whenever possible. Third, Sheng studied the oldest possible recordings of Chopin’s music, recordings dating back to the late nineteenth century when the recording artists were still in direct contact with the composer, and learned from their performances.  Fourth, Sheng plays the music on an original Pleyel grand piano built in 1845 and currently a part of the Frederick Historical Piano Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. Chopin himself favored Pleyel pianos, saying “Pleyel’s pianos are the last word in perfection.” Whether Chopin played this particular piano I don’t know, but what is a matter of historical record is that Chopin owned a Pleyel of this same kind, which he used in his Paris home during his later life. And fifth, the sound quality Piano Classics obtained is quite good.

So what we’ve got here is a set of well-played, historically informed, nicely recorded Chopin piano pieces that bear comparison to the best in the catalogue.

Although I have to admit that Chopin’s four Ballades and four Impromptus on disc one are not among my absolute favorite of the composer’s tunes, they are certainly among Chopin’s more virtuosic and innovative pieces. As important, Sheng handles them with ease. Sheng is a sensitive pianist yet one who can work up a good head of steam, too. So, we get dreamy, ethereal sequences of supreme expression juxtaposed with melodramatic sections of great vigor. These works also give us our first chance to hear the Pleyel piano, which sounds slightly less rich than a modern piano while providing a wonderful attack, mellowness, resonance, and clarity, the acoustic venue further flattering the intimacy of the response.

Among the Ballades, No. 3 stands out for Sheng’s sensible, balanced approach to the famous main melody and No. 4 for its cozy, flowing gait. Among the Impromptus, No. 4 demonstrates Sheng’s ability to make even so familiar a tune shine anew; the piece practically glows, it’s so lovely.

The music on discs two and three is even more to my liking, Chopin’s twenty-four Preludes and twenty of his twenty-one Nocturnes, beautifully executed. Although the Preludes are very brief pieces, lasting no more than a minute or two each, Sheng brings a remarkable individuality to each of them. Then we come to the most-sublime, most-Romantic Chopin of all--the Nocturnes, eight of them on disc two and the remainder on disc three. Sheng plays them with a delicacy worthy of a Pollini, taking great care not to sentimentalize them, soften them, or make them sound too melancholy. The Nocturnes Nos. 2 in Opuses 9, 15, 27, and 32 come off as charmingly as anyone has played them, for all the straightforward manner Sheng brings to them, as well as Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 62.

If there’s any minor concern about the set, it that’s it might be too much of a good thing. With three full discs of Chopin piano music, it may be more than some potential buyers want to have. I wonder if it might not have been an idea for Piano Classics to have offered each of the three discs separately or even as a single disc and a two-disc set, perhaps in addition to the three-disc set? Not everyone has the money for a big multi-disc collection, no matter how reasonably priced, nor the interest in all of the music. As I say, a minor issue.

Anyway, recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf, the official recording engineer for the Historical Piano Concerts Series, made the music at a near-ideal venue for this type of affair, the Ashburnham Community Church, Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in 2010 and 2011. The room imparts a smooth, warm ambience to the piano playing, while still maintaining a fairly good lucidity. We get a most-inviting sound, especially as Mr. Greenleaf miked the piano at a moderate distance, providing a lifelike setting for the instrument. The church communicates a light, welcome sonority to enhance the realism.

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


Sgambati: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Cola di Rienzo Overture. Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.573007.

For more adventurous listeners (who don’t want to spend too much money to pursue their musical escapades), Naxos gives us some music by eighteenth-century Italian composer Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914). Or maybe I should say Maestro Francesco La Vecchia gives us the music, as he seems determined to resurrect the tunes of as many obscure Italian composers as possible. In any case, you might find something of interest in Sgambati’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 16, and, who knows, if enough people show interest, maybe Naxos and La Vecchia will provide more of the man’s music.

As I say, La Vecchia has done this sort of thing before, taking nineteenth and twentieth-century Italian composers who made a mark in their own day and then became largely forgotten and recording their music for twenty-first-century listeners. The names of Alfredo Casella, Giuseppe Martucci, and Gian Francisco Malipiero come to mind because La Vecchia did a whole series of Naxos albums recording these men’s work. Maybe La Vecchia just has a soft spot in his heart for underdogs.

Anyway, here the conductor offers up two pieces by Sgambati, an overture and a symphony.  Appropriately, the program begins with an overture, Cola di Rienzo, which the composer based on the same poem by Pietro Cossa that had earlier inspired Wagner. Sgambati apparently wrote his overture as part of some incidental music for the poem, but he never published the music in his lifetime, and it subsequently disappeared until just recently. This may be its première recording; however, perhaps in a bit of modestly, the Naxos notes don’t say anything about it. Whatever, the overture is fairly long at over eighteen minutes and made up of a string of individual, stand-alone segments that proceed in a rather dour, solemn pace, with hints of the aforementioned Wagner in the background. It becomes more colorful as it goes along and, thanks to La Vecchia, more dramatic, too.

The centerpiece of the album is the Symphony No. 1, a five-movement affair consisting of a lively Allegro vivace; a dark Andante mesto; a cheerfully spirited Scherzo: Presto; a lovely and imaginative Serenata: Andante; and an elaborately embroidered Finale: Allegro con fuoco. Every section is melodious and rhapsodic, although it’s hard to discern any particular thematic centers to it nor remember much of it afterwards. While people like Toscanini and Wagner were fond of it (Wagner calling the composer “a true, great and original talent”), one can see why it never endured beyond its years. It’s all quite Romantic in style, with traces of Wagner again, Beethoven, Liszt and so on, even hints of Mendelssohn. Yet even though all of it is most pleasant, especially given La Vecchia’s loving attention, there is not a lot to take away from it nor a lot to draw one back.

Naxos recorded La Vecchia and his orchestra in the Auditorium di Via Conciliazione, Rome, in 2011. The sound they obtained is very smooth, warm, and soft, typical of many Naxos recordings. One can hardly fault it, yet it never seems to carry the weight, clarity, or dynamics of an audiophile recording. The sonics exhibit decent orchestral depth, though, and a sweet hall resonance.

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


Russian Nights (CD review)

Music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Prokofiev, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Liadov, Moussorgsky, and Khachaturian. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops. Telarc CD-80657.

Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra pretty much took over where Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops left off, both conductors and orchestras among the most popular classical recording artists of all time. Of course, it would have been nice to hear Kunzel conduct a single piece that lasted more than a few minutes, but, alas, it would not be on this album, something like his eighty-third Telarc disc.

This time Kunzel was doing Russian and Armenian composers, if not purely Russian or Armenian music. For example, the centerpiece of the album is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, which seems a little strange considering Telarc titled the disc “Russian Nights” and then features a composition of Spanish-inflected music. Oh, well; I suppose we get the idea. Almost everything on the disc is familiar territory, and while it is all neat and tidy, it is oddly flat. The performances seem to lack the last degree of flair and passion these red-blooded Russian works needed. The album reminded me that Georg Solti’s old collection of similar Russian showpieces exhibited more zeal and excitement than Kunzel brings to the table. Then, too, I couldn’t help thinking of Ataulfo Argenta’s 1956 rendition of the Capriccio Espagnol on a remastered LIM XRCD, a performance so overwhelmingly powerful and colorful, it was a hard act for Kunzel to follow.

Anyway, here we get things like Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, Prokofiev’s March from The Love for Three Oranges, Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker, and Moussorgsky’s Polonaise from Boris Godunov. They all sound appropriately showy, but my favorite pieces were the less flamboyant ones: Anatol Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake and The Music Box, and the star attraction, Aram Khachaturian’s “Love Theme” from the ballet Spartacus. This latter music demonstrates the disc’s wide dynamic range as well as the music’s wide emotional range. The sonics are quite spectacular if, as we’ll see, also problematic.

I began wondering as I listened to the Khachaturian if the wide dynamic range were not in itself some of the cause for the music sounding slightly earthbound. One has to turn the softest passages up in volume to appreciate them, and then the loudest sections knock you out of your seat. Now, I’m all for a recording displaying a realistically wide dynamic range, as long as it’s within reason. The result here, though, is that for the most part, you’re listening at too low a level and nothing seems to come to life except now and again. Add to this the fact that the Telarc engineers recorded the whole show in the smoothest possible manner at a moderate distance, and you don’t quite get the up-front, in-your-face presentations that these war-horses demand. The fact is, in terms of replicating a live experience, the wide dynamics would indicate a close-up seating position, while the smooth, warm response would indicate a greater distance. The contrast is a tad disconcerting.

Still, the Telarc disc provides good orchestral depth; good left-to-right stereo spread; typically good, if slightly overwrought, Telarc bass; some velvety polished highs; and those wide dynamics I mentioned. It’s almost, if not quite, enough.

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


Beethoven: Variations and Fugue (CD review)

Also, Haydn: Variations in F Minor; Schumann: Symphonic Etudes. Emanuel Ax, piano. Sony Classical 88765 42086 7.

At first glance, I couldn’t help thinking of Emanuel Ax as one of the new guard of emerging classical pianists. Then I remembered that his “emergence” was back in the early Seventies, when people were first giving him the recognition he deserved. So, on further reflection, I suppose he has now entered the ranks of the old guard, joining his elder colleagues Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Byron Janis, and the like in the pantheon of great pianists of our day. In any case, it’s always good to hear a new album by Mr. Ax, this time playing three sets of variations by three different composers.

Ax begins the program with possibly the most-famous set of piano variations ever written, Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 35, “Eroica” (1802). The piece got its “Eroica” nickname because the composer based the main theme on that of the final movement of his Third Symphony, the “Eroica” Symphony, a theme Beethoven also used in some of his contredanses and in his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. You might say he knew a good tune when he heard it. Although Beethoven originally planned to include thirty variations, he wound up with fifteen, plus the opening theme and a closing, summary finale, which Ax presents on the disc.

Not surprisingly, given the pianist’s unassuming style, Ax gives us Beethoven in these interpretations rather than Ax. That is, he does not impose any idiosyncratic gestures of his own but keeps the music as close as I imagine Beethoven intended it. The more straightforward Ax plays, the more lovely the music becomes. This is despite the fact that many of the variations are quite exuberant and outgoing, which Ax happily accommodates. Indeed, Ax plays these variations about as well as I have ever heard them played: spirited, nuanced, but never showy in any grand manner. The playing is delightful, the final variation especially touching.

In Joseph Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII:6 (1793) we encounter a musical world apart from Beethoven, one filled with subtle contrasts. The actual variations are not nearly so obvious as Beethoven’s, and the overall impression is one of reserve and restraint. Ax plays them with great refinement, a quiet dignity that is most appealing.

The album closes with Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 (1834-37), which are more Romantic sounding than either the Beethoven or Haydn sets, as we would expect. They also sound more complex, and Ax admits in a booklet note that they are difficult to play. Yet Ax performs them with clarity and polish, each of the variations exploring a different facet of piano playing. As a bonus, Ax includes five variations that Schumann left out of his original series.

Emanuel Ax made these recordings at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, in 2012. The engineers miked the piano at a comfortable distance, so the instrument does not stretch clear across the room; instead, it presents a lifelike width for a listener sitting a moderate distance away. The piano exhibits a dynamic response, a natural, lightly resonant acoustic providing a warm glow on the notes. Still, transients sound quick and sharply detailed, with strong, clear, sparkling impact. In other words, what we get is a most-realistic piano sound.

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


Respighi: Pines and Fountains of Rome (HQCD review)

Charles Munch, New Philharmonia Orchestra. HDTT HQCD268.

Listeners today probably know Maestro Charles Munch best for his RCA recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led from 1949 to 1962. Regardless, he made numerous recordings with other orchestras, among them several for Decca in the late Sixties. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered the present disc from a Decca/London Phase-4 recording Munch made with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1967. Munch was as good as ever, but the Phase-4 processing brings with it its usual advantages and disadvantages.

The HDTT remaster contains two of Italian musician, teacher, and composer Ottorino Respighi’s (1879-1936) most-celebrated works, the Pines and Fountains of Rome. Respighi wrote them as a part of his Roman Trilogy after studying with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which may have been where he got the idea for creating his pictorial material. Munch’s way with them is perhaps not so distinctive as that of Fritz Reiner in his Chicago Symphony recording (RCA or JVC) nor as smoothly sophisticated as that of Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (Decca), but the performances are vigorous and colorful, nevertheless.

Although Respighi wrote the Fountains of Rome first (1917), the Pines of Rome (1924) starts the program, possibly because it’s the most-popular work Respighi ever composed. Munch opens “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” with a huge splash of color, which sounds rather fierce but soon enough settles into an appropriately solemn but never gloomy tone for “The Pines Near a Catacomb.” After that, the third-movement “Pines of the Janiculum” (a hill in Rome, once the center of the Janus cult) remains in Munch’s hands a peaceful nocturne, beautifully serene and complete with its familiar nightingale at the end. Respighi’s big finale, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” may be the single most-famous thing Respighi ever wrote. The movement provides the scene for ancient Roman soldiers returning to Rome along the Appian Way, the sounds of their marching footsteps interrupting the stillness of the setting. Munch develops it nicely, building a reasonably strong sense of drama and excitement until the music reaches its climax. The performance is perhaps not so graphic or high-powered as those of Riccardo Muti (EMI) or the aforementioned Reiner, but it’s effective, nonetheless.

The Fountains of Rome sounds more festive to me than the Pines, more colorful, more descriptive, and less ostentatious. Each of the four movements describes a well-known fountain in Rome. As we progress through a day in the city, we hear noises of the country, noises of the city, noises of mystical creatures, and noises of crowds, among many other things, the music at last receding into silence as night falls.

The town awakes with “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn,” one of Munch’s best spots in the program. There is an appealingly quiet yet cheery feeling about it. “The Triton Fountain in the Morning” energizes the town and the listener, Munch giving it an extra brilliance. “The Trevi Fountain at Noon” is just as grand and impressive as we expect it to be. Then, “The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset” completes the show, with Munch communicating the sun going down with utmost tranquility and only a tinge of melancholy as the day closes.

The Decca engineers recorded the music at Kingsway Hall in 1967, utilizing their controversial Phase-4 recording process. Decca started using Phase-4 in 1961, a system that took multi-miking to the extreme and directed signals to ten and twenty-channel consoles before being mixed down to two-channel stereo. In terms of classical orchestral music, the sonic results ranged from flat, bright, and compartmentalized to spectacularly clear and dynamic (although often in a gimmicky, “hi-fi” manner, with whole sections of the orchestra coming to life and then fading away, occasionally provoking a hole-in-the-middle effect). Because the folks at HDTT work from original, commercially available tapes and LPs, neither adding nor subtracting anything (except in the case of a little discreet noise reduction), their remastering of the Pines and Fountains illustrates most of the benefits and liabilities of the process.

Let me put it this way: Listeners will either love or hate the sound of the album. There’s not a lot of room for opinions in between. Let’s start with the disc’s high points: As with HDTT’s other remasterings, this one retains the original recording’s wide dynamic range and impact. There is also very low distortion involved, with clean transients throughout. And the all-important midrange displays a commendable naturalness, smoothness, warmth, and transparency.

Be that as it may, there are downsides. The top end is pretty hot, especially noticeable at the beginning of “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” which highlights every high-end percussion instrument in the orchestra. That said, the highs are quite clean, so while they may sound forward or bright, they are not harsh or grating. We also hear a sectioning-off of the sound, at times one or the other speaker falling almost silent. The Decca engineers didn’t appear to treat the center of the orchestra too well, either. In addition, and somewhat surprising, Decca’s engineers failed to capture all the bass they could have and made no attempt to replicate any sense of orchestral depth.

Finally, there are only some forty-odd minutes of content on the disc, which may seem short measure. Keep in mind, however, that that’s all Decca provided on the original recording, so it’s all HDTT provide as well. Besides, it may be a blessing in disguise not getting the most-common coupling, the third part of the trilogy, The Roman Festivals, they’re such bombastic pieces.

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

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


Schubert: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (CD review)

String Quartet in D, D94; String Quartet in A minor, D804 “Rosamunde”; Andante in C, D3.  Diogenes Quartet. Brilliant Classics 94315.

It’s Schubert. What’s not to like?

Yet, has any other composer in history written so much music in so short a time, most of which went unheard and unappreciated in the man’s lifetime? He wrote around a thousand works, mostly songs, some symphonies, liturgical pieces, operas, incidental music, and a large body of chamber and solo compositions. On the present disc, the Diogenes Quartet offer volume one in what promises to be a complete series of Schubert’s fifteen string quartets. Let us hope.

The Diogenes Quartet came together as a group in 1998 in Munich, Germany, and have been going strong ever since. They comprise Stefan Kirpal and Gundula Kirpal, violins; Julia Barthel, viola; and Stephen Ristau, cello. The group has been pleasing audiences not only with the classics but with new, modern music as well, and their crossover programs with a jazz quartet lead by former Diogenes founder Max Grosch have been major hits. The ensemble owes its name, by the way, not directly to the ancient Greek philosopher but to the Swiss Diogenes publishing company.

Anyway, Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) probably wrote the early String Quartet in D, D94, with which the program begins, in 1811 or 1812, when he was in his early teens. Never mind the relatively high catalogue number, possibly a mistake. The work shows how much Schubert embraced the emerging Romanticism in music composition, as it is clearly well within the Romantic movement in spirit, complexity, themes, harmonies, and melody. Indeed, it is very typical of Schubert and points to the famous “Trout” Quintet to come. It bounces merrily along in the first movement, the Diogenes performers playing vigorously, robustly, yet with appropriate finesse. The main thing is that the players appear to be enjoying the music themselves, and their enthusiasm communicates to the listener.

The second-movement Andante con moto has a sweet lilt to it. The third-movement Minuetto swings cheerfully on its way, sounding the most “classical” of any of the movements in its design. Then, the concluding Presto closes the show in high style and good humor, again with the Diogenes performers in fine spirits.

The String Quartet in A minor, D804 “Rosamunde,” is the centerpiece of the album. It expresses an understandably greater maturity than D94, and at least in the beginning a darker, more melancholic mood. The D804 quartet was among the first of Schubert’s instrumental works performed publicly, and it’s the only one of his quartets published in his lifetime. It has a predominately gentle, lyrical quality to it, the music deriving its nickname from the composer’s incidental music (Entr’acte No. 3) for the play Rosamunde, which forms the basis of the quartet’s Andante. It’s also here that we notice most closely the similarities in the composer’s chamber pieces and his orchestral works. As always with Schubert, the whole thing abounds in beautiful, memorable melodies, which the Diogenes Quartet convey most pleasingly.

In between the two string quartets, the Diogenes players give us the little Andante in C, D3, a fragment Schubert left unfinished at his death. It makes a charming transition between the two longer works.

The Diogenes Quartet recorded the music in at the Himmelfahrskirch, Munchen-Sendling, Germany, in 2012. The sound is close enough to provide some good detailing yet not so close as to spread the four players clear across the soundstage. Still, a little more distance might have added a touch more resonance and air to the proceedings, which as they are tend toward the analytical side.

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


Suppe: Overtures (SACD review)

Also, Auber: Overtures. Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Mercury SACD 470 638-2.

CD, DVD, DVD-Audio, HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, HDCD, HQCD, XRCD, SACD. If you’re like me, you probably keep up with most new technology, but you still have a hard time deciding what to buy. Well, some people in the music business seem to think that SACD still has a good chance of success because a number of record companies continue to release their recordings in the format. Of course, they’re hedging their bets by releasing their recordings on discs that contain two layers, both SACD multichannel and conventional two-channel stereo versions on the same disc, with a regular CD player handling the two-channel layer.

So it was with Mercury, who in the early 2000’s launched a series of Mercury Living Presence recordings in three-channel stereo. That’s the way Mercury originally recorded them before the engineers mixed them down to two channels. So, now we have the opportunity to hear them the way Mercury initially made them. That is, if you have a Super Audio Compact Disc player and a multichannel sound system. If you don’t, then you listen to the two-track recording as I did.

The packaging says that “in addition to the direct-to-DSD (Direct Stream Digital) 3-channel stereo, the disc includes a new DSD stereo, plus the original CD transfer.” Despite the clumsy wording, I assume this means that the two-channel recording is the same one supervised by recording director Wilma Cozart Fine for remastering in the early Nineties on Mercury’s first CD’s of this material, but here Mercury transferred it to disc via DSD. If that’s the case, I couldn’t hear a lot of difference in the sound, but it’s so good to begin with, it hardly matters.

What does matter is that this disc of overtures by Franz von Suppe and Daniel-Francois Auber is probably the best you can find; maybe the best you will ever find in this repertoire. Paul Paray’s 1959 performances are not just spirited and lively, they are exciting, exhilarating, and intoxicating.Yet they never feel pushy or rushed. Moreover, they sound better than almost anything done today in the digital medium, the older recording’s dynamics, frequency range, orchestral spread, depth, and transparency all shining through brilliantly, with just a faint hint of background noise that is entirely unobtrusive.

If you are a first-time buyer who wants Suppe’s “Light Cavalry” or “Beautiful Galatea” or “Poet and Peasant” overtures or Auber’s “Fra Diavolo” among others, then this is a first-choice item, despite competition from Neville Marriner (EMI) and Charles Dutoit (Decca). And buying the album in the SACD edition makes sense even if you don’t have an SACD player because the new two-channel transfer is superb, maybe even a notch better than the earlier one. What’s more, the hybrid disc is only a few dollars more than the regular issue; and, who knows, you might buy an SACD player someday, and you’ll find yourself all set. The disc is a reference standard, plain and simple.

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


Dvorak and Suk: Czech Serenades (CD review)

Dvorak: Serenade for Strings and Nocturne for Strings; Suk: Serenade for Strings. Daniel Myssyk, Appassionata Chamber Orchestra. Fidelio X2HD FACD036.

Maestro Daniel Myssyk founded the Appassionata Chamber Orchestra in 2000 for just such music as we hear on the present disc. I say this because Appassionata is a relatively small Canadian group of about twenty musicians who play delicately and fluidly, just the characteristics that become the Dvorak and Suk serenades presented on the album. It’s lovely music done up in lovely style (and in lovely sound), a combination hard to beat.

Czech violinist and composer Joseph Suk (1874-1935) may not have become as famous, celebrated, or beloved as his mentor and fellow Czech, Antonin Dvorak, but people will probably remember his Serenade for Strings in E flat major, Op. 6 (1892) for ages to come. The story goes that while Dvorak was listening to some of Suk’s music, Dvorak commented that he noticed a definite melancholy streak in it and suggested Suk try something lighter and brighter, something like a serenade. Certainly, there is nothing melancholy about the Suk Serenade or the way Myssyk and Appassionata play it. The Serenade sounds elegant, graceful, refined, ethereal, as though floating on gossamer wings, Appassionata keeping it simple and serene. We get Suk’s expanded four-movement revision of the work here from 1895, all the movements shining gems, the orchestra making them sparkle all the more.

The Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22 (1875) by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) hardly needs introduction. Almost anybody would recognize its opening movement at the very least. Myssyk takes it at a tad more relaxed and flowing pace than one usually hears it, making it all the more radiant. Perhaps some listeners will find the interpretation a touch too romanticized, too sentimental, too dewy-eyed; I find it effortless, heartfelt, and committed to a degree one doesn’t often hear. The performance is delightful: tranquil, charming, and vivacious by turns.

The program closes with Dvorak’s little Nocturne for Strings in B major, Op. 40 (1882), which the composer adapted from an unpublished string quartet he wrote in 1870. Critics have suggested that its harmonic colors and chromatic progressions foreshadow some of the slow movements in Mahler’s symphonies. Could be. Although it may not be a dark and stormy night that Dvorak describes, it is a dark and shadowy night, to be sure, especially under Myssyk and Appassionata, the orchestra living up to its name, passionate and poetic.

For the sound, Fidelio Musique used a recording technique called X2HD, which they describe as “a five step, no compromise process, designed to create the most natural and realistic sounding high definition CDs and high-resolution files. The X2HD process relies mainly on the fact that a computer is not an audio instrument and therefore far from being musical. By getting rid of most computer processes and external hash, Fidelio gets you closer to the real recording session, restoring stereo spread, spatial positioning, preserving hall characteristics and the timbre of each instrument.” They further claim superiority over conventional recording and mastering by using SSD drives free of moving parts; capturing real stereo by “a real stereo microphone technique”; utilizing PPE (Pure Power Energy) equipment battery powered; incorporating “a direct recording hi-end encoding system with 24-bit/192kHz DCS A to D with dual power supplies directly feeding a Pyramix 7 audio workstation without mixer; real time bit per bit encoding without downsampling; and all tube analog components, including Schoeps M222 (tube) microphones. Essentially, they say, “Fidelio Musique’s recording technique for this album is identical to the one used by Mercury Records during the Sixties.”

So Fidelio uses some of today’s best, state-of-the-art equipment to duplicate what Mercury was doing over fifty years ago. And so much for progress. More important, however, than technical specs is what it actually sounds like, and that is quite impressive. Made at the Church of the Nativity, La Prairie, QC, Canada in 2012, the sound is as lifelike as one could want. It’s remarkably clean, smooth, open, airy, full, yet transparent, with a fine sense of depth, breadth, dimension, and spacial locality. There’s a good transient attack involved, too, with a wide frequency response, well-extended highs, and a realistic bloom and impact. The mildly resonant acoustic helps to complement all of these good qualities as well. It’s a quietly subtle audiophile disc.

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


New Year’s Concert 2013 (CD review)

Franz Welser-Most, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88765440712 (2-CD set).

The annual New Year’s concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic date back to somewhere between the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras. Or so it seems. Actually, the tradition got started in 1941 and has been going strong ever since. Companies recording the concerts over the past few decades have included EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and Sony; and, of course, the orchestra invites a different conductor to perform the duties each year. These conductors in recent years have included some of the biggest names in the business, including Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, and 2013’s maestro, Franz Welser-Most.

Welser-Most also conducted the 2011 concert, so he’s no stranger to the proceedings. What’s more, in addition to his post as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, he is presently the General Music Director of the Vienna State Opera and has strong family links to Johann Strauss ancestry dating back to the early nineteenth century. You might say that music, and especially the music of Vienna, is in Welser-Most’s blood.

For 2013’s concert, Welser-Most and the concert’s organizers divided the program into two major sections: The first part contains the usual Strauss, Suppe, and Lanner tunes; the second part celebrates the 200th anniversary of both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi with samples of their music interspersed with Strauss numbers. Sony recorded almost all of the concert, twenty selections, in this two-disc set.

Things get off to a typically rousing start with Josef Strauss’s Soubrette polka, a lively and explosive affair. Next, we hear Johann Strauss Jr.’s Kiss Waltz, one of the Waltz King’s sweeter concoctions. And so it goes through polkas, waltzes, quadrilles, dances, galops, fantasies, and marches. Welser-Most breaks up the Strauss family music with tunes from Franz von Suppe (The Light Cavalry Overture), Wagner (Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin), Joseph Hellmesberger (Between the Two of Us polka), Joseph Lanner (Styrian Dances), and Verdi (Battle Music from Act III of Don Carlo).

My own favorites among the selections include the aforementioned Kiss Waltz, Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres waltz and The Spinner polka, and Strauss Jr.’s lovely Hesperus’ Path Waltz.

Naturally, the festivities end with the inevitable Blue Danube Waltz and then the Radetzky March, as always with the audience joyously joining in. Welser-Most maintains the high standard of these affairs with vigorous, buoyant performances, and the Vienna Philharmonic play as faultlessly as ever.

Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the performance live for Sony Classical on January 1, 2013, in the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins. Normally, I’m not fond of live recordings, but once a year, every year, I make an exception for the New Year’s concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. The set is not so much a recording of  music as it is a recording of an event, and as such I suppose one can cut it a little slack in terms of ultimate fidelity. Most live recordings try to minimize audience noise; this one doesn’t. Indeed, it positively revels in it, reminding the home listener at every opportunity that there is a live audience at the concert enjoying every minute of the proceedings with their applause and laughter.

The engineers miked the orchestra fairly close-up and obtain a very big sound, with an enormous dynamic range and huge impact. The result is quite spectacular and provides plenty of visceral musical thrills. There is not a lot of depth, air, or even hall ambience involved, though, so don’t expect a particularly realistic offering here. Although the strings are somewhat bright, thin, and forward, we might expect that, given the circumstances.

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


Mozart: Horn Concertos (CD review)

Also, Rondo in E flat. Ab Koster, horn; Bruno Weil, Tafelmusik. Newton Classics 8802160.

Mozart’s four horn concertos are among his most famous, most recognizable pieces of music; accordingly, we find any number of fine recordings of them in the catalogue. In 1993 Sony Classics originally released the ones we get on this Newton Classics 2012 reissue with Ab Koster on horn, supported by the period-instruments band Tafelmusik lead by Maestro Bruno Weil. Period or modern, Koster and Tafelmusik do up the music as well as anybody, so it’s good to have them back at hand.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, as I’m sure you know, is a Canadian-based period-instruments ensemble founded in 1979 and specializing in early music. Jeanne Lamon has been the group’s primary conductor since 1981, and Bruno Weil, featured here, is their principal guest conductor. Soloist Ab Koster has been performing for even longer than Tafelmusik have existed, so he knows his way around a horn. Here, he plays the natural horn, on which he has also performed with such notables as Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Brüggen. The historical natural horn that Koster uses for the recording dates from the early nineteenth century, built by Ignaz Lorenz of Linz, and it must be a bear to control. The natural horn did not yet have the valves of a modern horn, the instrument’s range manipulated by various detachable tube lengths (called “crooks”) and by hand-stopping (the player’s hand working inside the bell of the horn).

Anyway, things begin with the little Rondo in E flat, K371, which, like Mozart’s other works for horn, the composer tailored for playing by his longtime friend, the horn virtuoso Joseph Leutgeb. The Rondo is the only movement of a horn concerto Mozart never completed, and even this Rondo he left unfinished. Scholar Robert Levin completed the version we hear on the disc. (Levin also reconstructed the Rondo for K412 later in the program.)

Maestro Weil’s conducting and the orchestral playing throughout the album are vivid, vivacious, and accomplished. The melodies flow easily, with quick yet relaxed tempos. The horn sound is wonderfully plush, mellow, well rounded, and mellifluent, Koster able to coax any number of remarkable effects from the instrument. And Koster’s own cadenza’s sound quite imaginative.

I enjoyed the performances of Koster and company immensely, and I have no reservation in encouraging anyone who enjoys the Horn Concertos as well as the sound and style of period instruments and period practices to sample them. However, I continue to prefer by a slim margin the Harmonia Mundi period-instruments recording with Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and soloist Lowell Greer. The PBO interpretation is every bit as lively and informed as Tafelmusik’s, and it has the advantage of an even more-natural orchestral setting. Then, too, while the Newton Classics/Sony recording can sometimes sound a tad more transparent than the HM one, it is also a touch brighter, so the sonic qualities pretty much even out.

If I had to fault the album at all, it’s that it doesn’t contain very much music at just barely over an hour. The Horn Concertos themselves are rather brief affairs, and the added Rondo in E flat is only five minutes long. Nevertheless, Newton Classics are only giving us what Sony originally provided, so we can’t blame them for short measure. Besides, it’s the quality of the music that counts, not its length, and Koster and Tafelmusik provide a high measure of performance and sound values.

Another minor snag relates to the packaging. It seems that whoever numbered the tracks on the back of the jewel case didn’t bother listening to the disc. The back lists fifteen tracks, but the disc contains only twelve. It took me a moment or two to recognize the mistake; the case lists the three cadenzas Koster devised as separate tracks, while the actual disc incorporates them into the regular tracks. So if you want to avoid confusion (if Newton doesn’t reprint their listing by the time you read this), you might want to renumber the tracks yourself.

Sony recorded Horn Concertos 2, 3, and 4 at Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands in 1992 and the Rondo and Concerto No. 1 at Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada in 1993, Newton Classics releasing them in 2012. The sound in Nos. 2, 3, and 4 is quite good, the horn well integrated into the orchestral accompaniment. The midrange appears reasonably well detailed, and the depth of image is fairly realistic, with the Netherlands venue providing a warm, ambient glow to surround the instruments. The Toronto studio, though, seems to produce a somewhat brighter, harder sound, with the horn at times sounding a bit too big or too close.

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


Brian: Symphony No. 1 “The Gothic” (CD review)

Eva Jenisova, Dagmar Peckova, Vladimir Dolezal, Peter Mikulas, soloists; Slovak Opera Chorus, Slovak Folk Ensemble Chorus, Lucnica Chorus, Bratislava City Choir, Bratislava Children’s Choir, Youth Echo Choir; Ondrej Lenard, conductor, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557418-19 (21st Anniversary Limited Edition, 2-disc set).

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was one of those early-to-mid twentieth-century British composers who refused to believe that the Romantic Age had ended and continued producing music in the Romantic tradition until his death at the age of ninety-six (although, to be fair, the First Symphony uses elements from far-ranging eras, all the way up until his own day). He didn’t complete his Symphony No. 1 until 1927, when he was already in his late fifties, yet he would go on to write over thirty more of them before he died. You might say he was a dedicated man; or a compulsive one.

Brian subtitled his Symphony No. 1 “The Gothic” in part because he found inspiration in the Gothic Age (1150-1560), in the beginning of Enlightenment, and in the massive and imposing structure of Gothic cathedrals in general. Goethe’s Faust, written in the early nineteenth century, also inspired him, so the music owes a lot to previous generations. It also owes a lot to Bruckner and Mahler and probably a dozen other composers, as it appears to borrow from everyone, particularly other British composers like Elgar, Bax, and Vaughan Williams.

The Symphony has the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s “largest symphony,” which is probably the main reason anyone remembers it today. Certainly, there are only a handful of Brian’s other works that anyone might remember. Brian wrote the First for performance by two complete orchestras, augmented by a battalion of choruses and soloists. At almost two hours and utilizing hundreds of players, it is enormous, indeed, one of the few examples in classical music of gigantic forces used to convey essentially spiritual themes.

Naxos recorded the music in 1989, releasing it on their full-price label, Marco Polo, re-releasing it on their Naxos label in 2004, and re-releasing it yet again on Naxos in the present 21st Anniversary Limited Edition in 2011. I recall trying to get through it when it initially appeared and giving up about twenty or thirty minutes in. This time I stayed the course, but I must admit it was still a chore. Brian divides the Symphony into two parts, the beginning purely orchestral, the second a new setting of the choral Te Deum.

In its defense, the piece has a wonderfully propulsive style, always moving forward with great momentum and, obviously, with great weight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have much of anywhere to go in its two hours. It rather meanders from one huge, sometimes wearisome crescendo to the next, punctuated only intermittently in the choral sections by moments of serenity and repose. However, the “moments” are too often far and few between. I daresay a person could play back any one of the set’s forty-six tracks and have no idea where in the first or second half of the work it belonged or how it differed from every other point. Nevertheless, Maestro Ondrej Lenard and his massive forces give it their all, trying perhaps to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. In a way, that’s kind of fun, and for those listeners with the patience to hear it out, there are a multitude of minor pleasures along the way.

Fortunately, the sound is quite good, especially given the sheer size of the forces involved. Percussion, which is understandably prodigious, comes through clearly, with a strong presence; the choirs are often startlingly transparent and real; the dynamic range is huge; and the sense of depth is reasonably natural. Oddly, however, I never got a real feeling for the immense numbers involved. Oh, well, that’s a minor concern.

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


Mendelssohn: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 6 (CD review)

Also, Fanny Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E flat major. Quatuor Ebene. Virgin Classics 50999 464546 2 1.

In all probability, most people even vaguely interested in classical music would recognize some of the music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), maybe bits of the Third or Fourth Symphonies or A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the very least. Even so, it’s doubtful those same folks would recognize much or anything from Mendelssohn’s older sister, the composer and conductor Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847). The two siblings were soul mates, however, and brother Felix would always let sister Fanny be the first to hear his newest compositions. Now, here’s the thing: Fanny wrote over 400 pieces of music herself, although given the times, her family would not allow her to perform them during her lifetime. To help remedy the situation to some small degree, the present album offers two string quartets by the more-famous brother and one by the sister.

As I said about the Ebene Quartet the last time I encountered them on disc, they constitute a fine group of performers who exhibit plenty of virtuosity, dash, charm, precision, and poise. The four members of this relatively young, French ensemble are Pierre Colombet, violin; Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Mathieu Herzog, viola; and Raphael Merlin, cello. They have been playing together for several years now and are becoming quite well known, not only for their playing of classical music but for their performances of jazz, which led some critics to fear the two genres might come into conflict in the ensemble’s more-serious interpretations. Apparently, it hasn’t happened. Not here, certainly. The Ebene Quartet’s playing is as fluid and cultured as any I have heard, and if anything their interest in jazz has only helped hone the spontaneity of their classical skills, which remain smooth and sophisticated.

In any case, they begin the album with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, a youthful work begun when the composer was still in his teens (begun around 1827 and completed in 1832). The composer wrote it in tribute to the death of Beethoven, basing it on a song he had recently written. Although No. 2 is an early work, it is quite mature in tone, and the Ebene Quartet play it with a simple, refined eloquence. The second-movement Adagio non lento is particularly expressive in the hands of these players, with a beautifully executed melodic line; and the Presto finale comes across with vigor, drama, energy, and, finally, repose.

Next comes Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat major from 1834, which one notes immediately is quite a bit shorter than either of her brother’s quartets on the disc, almost by half. There is also a more plaintive, melancholic mood about the piece, evident from the start. Fanny attributed her inspiration to Beethoven’s late chamber works. The Ebene Quartet play it with an intense commitment, while maintaining a high quotient of gentle Romanticism. The Allegretto has an especially lilting charm, and the finale is a flurry of high spirits.

The program ends with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80, from 1847, a piece he referred to as his “Requiem for Fanny,” who had died that year. Felix would die that year as well. The quartet is an extraordinarily heartfelt work, and the Ebene players perform it with dignity and passion. Unlike what you might expect--for the piece to sound somber and funereal--it seems more filled with a striking anguish than anything else. Nonetheless, there is a touching Adagio to remind us of the composer’s bereavement, followed by an equally moving conclusion. The Ebene Quartet remind us throughout that this is a work expressive of grief and loss.

The venue in which the Virgin Classics engineers recorded the music in 2012, the Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, France, seems ideally suited to the warmth and vibrancy of the Ebene Quartet and the music they make. The place is a converted granary in the tranquil French countryside, and what better an environment for the music of the Mendelssohns? The audio engineers miked things fairly closely, yet there is a good sense of place and space in the recording, with a fine touch of hall resonance and ambience. The quartet members do appear spread out rather widely across the speakers, making them sound somewhat larger than life; still, there is a good clarity about the sonics that more than makes up for any lack of ultimate realism. The violin sound can become a tad forward at times, too; it’s never out of character with the distance to the players, however, so it presents no problem. Detailing is always exemplary, and there is a good separation of instruments.

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


Cunningham: Gallery (CD review)

Three ballets and the Gastein Masterwork. Robert Ian Winstin, Prague Radio Orchestra; Petr Vronsky, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Lande, St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra. Navona Records NV5893.

Composer, pianist, and author Michael G. Cunningham, (b. 1937) is also a Professor of Theory and Composition, holding a Bachelor of Music degree (1959) from Wayne State University in Detroit, a Master of Music (1961) from the University of Michigan, and a Doctor of Music (1973) from Indiana University. Between 1967 and 1973 he taught theory and composition at universities in Michigan, California, Kansas, and Indiana. Since 1973 he has been in residence at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. The present disc contains a gallery of four of his works: three ballets and the Gastein Masterwork, each of them performed by one of the ensembles listed above.

According to his biography, “Cunningham has written several books on theory and composition, including The Inner World of Traditional Theory, Technique for Composers, Steps Towards Bach's Counterpoint, Medieval Creativity and Renaissance Counterpoint, and The Romantic Century. Considered an expert in the area of American popular song, 1920-80, he occasionally teaches a General Education course on that subject. As a composer, he has created music for nearly every medium, having written over 160 works, with over 100 instrumental compositions published by five different publishers. These pieces include thirteen works for orchestra, four operas, four other works for the stage, many works for voice and chorus, as well as a number of arrangements, and he has been a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers since 1969.”

First up on the album’s program is the brief, single-movement ballet Nyadina, performed by the Prague Radio Orchestra. Cunningham based the story on a 1938 film ballet about a beautiful nymph, and, in fact, like most of the music on the disc, it has a mysterious, impressionistic, cinematic feel to it, a sort of Debussy quality, very pleasant as it floats gently along. The conductor and orchestra handle it lightly, retaining its wispy, willowy, ethereal charms, increasing the tension toward the end.

Next is the three-movement ballet She, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic. This one the composer based on the celebrated adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard about the beautiful, ageless queen. You may remember the 1965 movie version of it with Ursula Andress. In any case, Cunningham’s music feels ruggedly venturesome, well representing the melodrama of the story. The players appear to take the work quite seriously, too, without exaggeration, and offer up a presentation of program music worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.

After that is the single-movement ballet Chrysalis at Mardi Gras, performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony. It’s a moralistic fantasy tale, a Cinderella-like story, rather more rambunctious than the rest of the selections but quite enchanting in its telling. With its relentlessly throbbing rhythms, it tends to come off the weightiest on the disc, with the St. Petersburg musicians doing their best to make it seem as eloquent as possible.

The disc ends with the four-movement symphonic work Gastein Masterwork, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic. Here, Cunningham offers a fanciful arrangement of what Franz Schubert might have written had he completed a proposed symphony he was working on while in Gemunden-Gastein in the Tyrolean mountains. Schubert probably turned it into a piano sonata, which Cunningham uses as a launching pad for his own music. It’s easily the best thing in the album, sounding very classically Romantic in structure, mood, and gesture. But could any composer or orchestra go wrong working from Schubert? Only in the finale did I find any small lack of Schubertian lilt in the playing.

OK, you might ask, if Cunningham has written so much material, why don’t people know him better? The short answer: Life is unfair. There is a delightfully meandering quality about some of his music that may remind one of the works of early twentieth-century English composer Frederick Delius, and even Delius’s music, championed by no less a proponent than Sir Thomas Beecham, was never all that popular. Anyway, Cunningham’s music, at least on this disc, is imaginative and easily accessible.  It’s worth a listen.

Navona recorded the album over a period of several years from 2008 to 2012 at Radio Studio in Prague, Czech Republic; Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic; and Studio 1, House of Radio, St. Petersburg, Russia. The sonic results, nonetheless, are fairly consistent.

The sound of the Prague Radio Orchestra displays a good separation of instruments, without appearing compartmentalized. There’s a sweet, natural, fairly clear air about it. The Moravian Philharmonic sounds like a bigger ensemble than the Prague group, the pieces they play probably scored for a larger group. It’s not quite as transparent a sound as the Prague Orchestra, being a bit warmer and softer, but it produces a solid dynamic thrust and wide frequency extensions at both ends of the spectrum. Although the St. Petersburg State Orchestra tends to sound the loudest and somewhat less smooth than the others, it’s still quite good in a more modest way.

One thing I didn’t particularly like: Navona decided not to include a printed booklet with the disc, electing instead to put all the information on the CD itself. So if you place the disc in your computer, you can find text notes on the works, study scores of the music, even some wallpaper and ring tones. While this may be all fine and dandy, I’d rather have had the text notes in my hand to read and enjoy without having to go to the computer screen or print everything out.

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


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 (CD review)

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. RCA 88725 46336 2.

Maestro David Zinman continues his excellent series of Schubert symphony recordings with this coupling of Nos. 5 and 6, leaving as of this writing only No. 9 to release. Maestro Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich bring to the music their usual enthusiasm, insight, expertise, and lively style, Zinman basing his recordings, according to RCA, “on the original editions of the scores, using 19th century instruments, and paying heed to historic performing practice.”

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) never saw his Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D. 485 (1816) played in his lifetime, the work not getting a performance until 1846, many years after his death. This seems surprising to me because the Symphony No. 5 is one of the composer’s most-delicate, most-delightful creations, yet like his other symphonic work, he never published it.

So, how is Zinman’s handling of the Fifth? When did you ever hear David Zinman turn in a mediocre performance? Never? Thought not. Here, he is not quite as genial as Sir Thomas Beecham, who with his EMI stereo recording practically owns the rights to the music, but Zinman is appealing in his own right, making up for any lack of cordiality with rhythmic incisiveness and dynamic flow. There is a wonderful Mozartian lilt in every movement, making the whole symphony a constant pleasure. What’s more, there is an especially scherzo-like bite to the Minuetto, and Zinman’s way with the finale is vibrant and radiant, just as it should be, if at a quicker pace than usual.

Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 6 in C major, D589 in 1818, and people today call it the “Little C Major” to differentiate it from No. 9, the “Great C Major.” Schubert finished No. 6 just after his twenty-first birthday, so it’s still a youthful work from a man who died young; in that regard, I suppose all of Schubert’s work is “young.” Certainly, much of it carries a pleasing, youthful spirit, even if Schubert intended his Symphony No. 6 to be weightier than No. 5.

In the Sixth we find Schubert more in a Rossini-style mode, with an increased orchestral size and a grander design than in the simpler Fifth, the Sixth coming as a direct contrast to the lighter, scaled-back dimensions of its predecessor. Still, there is much in Zinman’s interpretation to remind us that this is Schubert, after all, the music brimming over with grace, beauty, and civility. Zinman’s zesty rendering of the Rossini-like finale sounds particularly beguiling and bounces along in a cheerful, rousing fashion.

The recording engineers made the album in September of 2012 at Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland, obtaining much the same fine sound they have been getting all along in their Schubert series. The sonics are nicely full and wide, if a tad flat dimensionally, the balance smooth and the dynamics fairly robust. There is also good bass and treble extension, more than adequate impact, and decent enough transparency. A slight warmth and a hint of hall resonance add to the sound’s easy listenability.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa