Mar 29, 2013

Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Violin Sonata in F minor. Tianwa Yang, violin; Romain Descharmes, piano; Patrick Gallois, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla. Naxos 8.572662.

Because there’s a rule in the music industry that all violinists must record the Beethoven, Brahms, Violin Concerto in E minor. At Amazon I quit counting at a hundred, and I had quite a ways to go. The point is that somebody looking for a first-choice disc or just something to line up on the shelf next to a few first-choice discs may find the assortment of possibilities rather daunting. And the question here is, How does violinist Tianwa Yang’s interpretation, Maestro Patrick Gallois’s conducting, the Sinfonia Finlandia’ playing, and Naxos’s sound stack up against formidable competition from the likes of Perlman (EMI), Heifetz (RCA), Zukerman (Sony),  Szeryng (Philips), Chung (Decca), Chee-Yun (Denon), and a slew of other equally recommendable folks? The answer: Ms. Yang does all right, if maybe not quite in the highest echelon.
Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky violin concertos at least once in their lifetime, the listener will find perhaps hundreds of different recordings of the Mendelssohn

The still-youthful Ms. Yang, raised in China and now residing in Germany, began playing the violin in 1991 at the age of four, received her first media attention at the age of ten, made her first CD in 2000 at the age of thirteen, and debuted on stage in Europe in 2001. The present Mendelssohn disc makes the eighth album in her discography, so she’s not exactly a newcomer, and she does know what she’s doing.

Ms. Yang opens the show with the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, which Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered in 1845, his last large orchestral work. Audiences pretty much loved it from the outset, and it’s been one of the most-popular staples of the violin repertoire ever since. The violin enters immediately, without introduction or fanfare, and Yang takes it head-on. Indeed, she takes all three movements at a heady clip, outpacing all of the other recording artists I had on hand for comparison except Heifetz, who sprints to the finish line ahead of everyone. Not that Yang’s performance ever sounds winded or short-breathed, just quick and lively.

Anyway, Yang has a good grasp of the situation, producing a heady combination of excitement and passion in the faster sections and much beauty in the slower ones. She obviously possesses a remarkable technique, and she displays her virtuosity at every turn. Moreover, while her propensity is for lively rhythms and zippy tempos, she leaves enough spaces in her phrasing to allow the music to breathe freely and come alive. This isn’t a rush job but one of accomplished dexterity in the manner of Heifetz.

The second movement glides effortlessly by with a lovely luminosity. Then the finale exudes all the light, bouncy spirit one could hope for, if maybe a little too much for some traditional listeners.

Mendelssohn was only thirteen when he wrote the Violin Concerto in D minor, leading some critics to dismiss it out of hand. Nevertheless, it has its charms, not the least being its characteristically classical tone and structure and its slightly plaintive, sometimes melancholy solo passages. Yang continues her emotionally compelling reading in an effective Andante and a jaunty Allegro conclusion. 

The final selection on the disc is the Violin Sonata in F minor from 1833 in which pianist Romain Descharmes joins Ms. Yang. While neither of the disc’s companion pieces can touch the great Violin Concerto in E minor, they offer pleasant variety and accomplished playing, particularly in the Sonata’s whirlwind finish.

Naxos recorded the two concertos in 2010 at Hankasalmi Church, Jyvaskyla, Finland, and the sonata in 2011 at Clara-Wieck Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany. They obtained a nicely balanced sound, the violin well integrated with the orchestra and not completely dominating it as we sometimes hear. The midrange appears clean, the bass adequate to the occasion, and the dynamics steady. Maybe the sonics aren’t in the highest ranks of audiophile stardom, but along with a moderate degree of orchestral depth, they exhibit a welcome realism.

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


Mar 28, 2013

Declarations: Music Between the Wars (CD review)

Chamber works by Leos Janacek, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Paul Hindemith. Pacifica Quartet. Cedille CDR 900000 092.

I admit I find it hard to concentrate for any amount of time on much twentieth-century chamber music.
Largely, this is due to my having the attention span of a gnat; partly, it’s because I often find the music repetitious and unengaging. But I must also admit I found the three pieces on this Cedille album fascinating and appealing, particularly in the hands of the Pacifica Quartet, fascinating and appealing enough to keep me seated between the speakers for over an hour.

The three composers involved are roughly contemporaneous, the works coming from the period as the title says “Between the Wars.” Certainly, the First World War changed the entire world in general as well as the world of music. Mainly gone was the lush, lyrical Romanticism of the nineteenth century, replaced by the more daring, more experimental, sometimes atonal, sometimes disharmonic music of the twentieth. The Janacek, Seeger, and Hindemith pieces come from a period less than a decade apart, from 1922 to 1931, and they reflect a new age.

Of the three works, the opening one, Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 from 1928, is the most traditional. Called “Intimate Letters,” its four movements convey the composer’s feelings toward a loved one in his life, an affair beyond his marriage that he may or may not have consummated but according to his letters was apparently quite intense. The music alternates between strong, dramatic emotion, tranquil contemplation, and not a little melanchoy, some changes of moods occurring within seconds, which the Pacifica Quartet are quick to relay to the listener.

The Seeger piece from 1931 that follows, simply called String Quartet, is more atmospheric and moody, most of it sounding eerily sinister in its minimalist tone. The final work, Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 4 is the earliest of the compositions, premiered in 1922, and it is perhaps the most unconventional of the trio in that it can sound both modern and Romantic by turns; but, ironically, it is also the freer in its composer’s flowing, unscheduled, yet strict musical notations.

The Pacifica Quartet--Brandon Vamos, Simin Ganatra, Masumi Per Rostad, and Sibbi Bernhardsson--play with a welcome finesse and intense enthusiasm. And the Cedille engineers--Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone--capture the sound quite realistically, with a strong sense of presence and without a trace of forwardness. For fans of chamber music or for folks looking toward something a little different, Declarations makes an arresting listen.

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


Mar 26, 2013

Falla: El Amor Brujo (HQCD review)

Also, Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Amarito Peris de Pruliere, mezzo-soprano; Yvonne Loriod, piano; Manuel Rosenthal, Orchestre du Theatre National de L’opera de Paris. High Definition Tape Transfers.

Whenever I see or hear the name of French composer and conductor Manuel Rosenthal (1904-2003), I Gaîté Parisienne Rosenthal put together in 1938 from bits and pieces of Offenbach’s works. I also think of the several recordings Rosenthal made of the ballet, especially the one he did for EMI late in his life. But I don’t think of things like El Amor Brujo or Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), the two numbers we get on this remastered HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) HQCD. Rosenthal recorded the music in the late 1950’s for Westminster, and HDTT took the present copy from a Westminster 4-track tape. I had never heard the recording before, and I don’t believe Westminster or anybody else ever released it on CD until HDTT came along. Since both the performances and sound are worth hearing, one might view the HDTT disc as something of a godsend.
think immediately of Jacque Offenbach and the celebrated ballet score

First up is El Amor Brujo (“Love, the Magician”), the rather grim tale of a dead, unfaithful husband haunting his former wife and her new lover. The woman’s gypsy friends help her get rid of the ghost through a “Ritual Fire Dance.” Falla presents the story as a pantomime divided into three major parts for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, thirteen sections in all, each with its own track on the disc.

Rosenthal had a good feeling for the idiom, catching most of the color, excitement, and romanticism of the music. He maintains a strong rhythmic pulse throughout, yet never pushes the tempos or contrasts too far in any direction. He also brings out the rich textures in Falla’s tunes as well as almost anybody. There were times, it’s true, when I thought Carlo Maria Giulini in his justly praised EMI recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra sounded a touch warmer and more loving, but Rosenthal seems a degree more thrilling, making Giulini appear a little too refined. Regardless, it’s close.

If anything, Rosenthal’s way with Nights in the Gardens of Spain is even more compelling, or maybe I just like the music more. Here, Falla created a set of three nocturnes for piano and orchestra, each of them depicting a Spanish garden, the music characterizing the type of flora found there. This is some of the most descriptive, evocative music ever written, taking its cue from Debussy as much as anyone. Falla wrote a sumptuous score, and Rosenthal and Westminster did it full justice.

Westminster originally released the recording in 1959, and HDTT remastered it, as I said, from a 4-track tape. It sounds quite fine in its newly minted form, as we expect from this source. Burning the recording to an HQCD no doubt helps to retain most of the remastering’s luster. The highs are a tad brighter than I expected but quite realistic in their definition and transient response. The midrange is smooth, natural, and transparent. Bass shows up commendably taut and no doubt represents what Westminster initially captured. Orchestral depth is moderate, and Ms. De Pruliere’s voice seems appropriately lifelike. Although the miking places the piano in Nights a bit forward, it’s OK because it sounds so brilliantly crisp. Most of all, though, the dynamic range is wide, and the impact is impressive. I liked it a lot.

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

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


Mar 25, 2013

Raff: Symphony No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Four Shakespeare Preludes. Neeme Jarvi, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Chandos CHSA 5117.

Here’s another of those composers who was popular in his own day but whose music people forgot once he passed. The Swiss-German composer, teacher, and pianist Joachim Raff (1822-1882) seems to have been more influential than he was enduring, having a greater impact on future classical composers than on his future public. He wrote quite a lot, too: eleven symphonies, nine concertos, and a slew of other things--operas, suites, overtures, preludes, and chamber works--some of it descriptive, much of it Romantic. Whatever, Maestro Neeme Jarvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande provide a well-rounded overview of the man’s orchestral output, and, who knows, perhaps if enough people hear Raff’s music, the fellow will come back into vogue. There are certainly enough recordings of his work to earn him a top spot again, so at least some conductors still like him.

Raff wrote his Second Symphony in 1866, and it begins with an opening that resembles something by Sibelius, though long before Sibelius, with touches of Wagner and the future Richard Strauss thrown in. I had never heard the work before, so I trust that Jarvi knows what he’s doing. The initial Allegro has a wonderfully rippling gait, warmly melodious and rhythmic. It’s essentially sunny music, energetic at times, with a welcome ebb and flow.

There follows a slow movement of both grandeur and grace, beginning with a hymn-like motif of refined beauty. It proceeds to get more dramatic as it goes along but quickly returns to a pastoral calmness. Jarvi appears to give it full due.

The third movement scherzo is a rather blustery affair, which apparently Jarvi does his best to modulate. By around the two or three-minute mark, it settles into a far more lyrical mood before returning to its tempestuous roots.

In contrast to the preceding movement, the finale starts very slowly and builds up to a lively, almost frenzied middle section, with Jarvi and his players hanging on for dear life. It’s all rather spirited, if somewhat disjointed. While the music has much to offer in bits and pieces, one can see why it didn’t remain in the public’s fancy. Maybe Jarvi’s recording will win it some new friends.

The companion works on the disc are four orchestral preludes Raff wrote in 1879, overtures to Shakespeare plays although not really programmatic. We hear the preludes to The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, each piece lasting from eight to fourteen minutes. Rather than actual tone poems, they are more like little atmospheric pieces describing moods and characters in the plays, sometimes filled with sound and fury but signifying little. Still, Jarvi has a way with them that makes them fun, especially Macbeth, with its Mendelssohnian overtones. I admit I enjoyed these little preludes more than I did the symphony.

Chandos used their new 24-bit/96kHz technology to record the music in multichannel SACD, although as with most such discs, this one is a hybrid. So you can listen in 5.0 multichannel SACD, 2.0 SACD, or 2.0 CD, the latter from a regular CD player. I listened mostly in 2.0 SACD, which provided a pleasantly full and dynamic sound.

Using Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland as their recording venue in 2012, Chandos obtained, as I say, a pleasing if not extraordinary product. The highs seem a bit hard and fizzy on occasion; otherwise, the recording projects a widespread, well-balanced, well-orderer sound, with moderate depth and a smooth overall response. The SACD layer appears to have more impact than the regular CD layer and at times can be quite thrilling.

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


Mar 22, 2013

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (CD review)

Also, Theme and Variations, Scherzo, Capriccio, Fugue; Schubert: Quartet Movement in C minor, D703. Quartetto di Roma. La Bottega Discantica 225.

One cannot judge any group of performers merely on how precisely they play together or even on how virtuosic they can be; one must also take into account how expressively they respond to one another, how well the separate voices combine and interact. In all of these regards, the Quartetto di Roma, founded in 1995, succeed well. The group’s members--Marco Fiorini and Biancamaria Rapaccini, violins; Davide Toso, viola; and Alessandra Montani, cello--say their desire is to continue the distinguished Italian quartet tradition.

The players begin the album with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, which the composer wrote in his youth, beginning it around 1827 and completing it in 1832. He said he wrote it in tribute to the death of Beethoven and based it on a song he had recently written. The Quartet No. 2 may be an early work, but it is mature in tone, and the Quartetto perform it with a warm, easygoing grace.

The first movement comes off as particularly captivating in the Quartetto’s hands, lyrical and flowing. They handle the slow, second-movement Adagio non lento, eloquently. The Intermezzo seems appropriately serious though not quite as cheery or as folklike as I’ve heard it done. And the Presto finale strikes me as appropriately melodic, intense, and serene.

The interaction among the Quartettto di Roma members appears cultivated by years of association and offers the listener a polished, harmonious presentation. Their playing sounds relaxed in a cultured, civilized manner, making for easy and obviously pleasurable listening.

By coincidence, not long before my listening to the present album, I listened to and reviewed another recent recording of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, one by Quatuor Ebene on Virgin Classics. I won’t try to play favorites here or steer you to one or the other disc, but I will say the two performances are somewhat different in style and sound. The Quartetto di Roma appear smoother and more refined, Quatuor Ebene more robust and individualistic, with a tad cleaner recording. Which rendition you prefer may depend on what mood you’re in.

Filling out the Quartetto di Roma disc are several more, shorter chamber pieces by Mendelssohn and the single-movement Quartet in C minor by Franz Schubert. Mendelssohn’s Theme and Variations, Scherzo, Capriccio, and Fugue date from a period spanning about twenty years, but Mendelssohn’s publisher collected and released them under the single opus number 81. They are all delightful, of course, especially the unfinished Schubert movement and the Scherzo with its similarities to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, yet I would have preferred another single, longer work instead, another quartet perhaps. As it is, the disc contains less than an hour of music.

Discantica chose to record the music in 2009 at the Church of San Sebastiano al Palatino, originally a tenth-century basilica dedicated to Saint Sebastian, rebuilt in the seventeenth century and located on Rome’s Palatine Hill. It’s obviously a place with much history, and it makes a fairly good recording location for the chamber music of Mendelssohn and Schubert. There’s a mild reverberation present but never so much as to cloud or veil the sound too seriously. Mostly, the venue imparts a sweet warmth to the occasion, a pleasing resonance. The miking is relatively close, so the instruments loom somewhat large, and the group does tend to spread out across the room. While it’s not as realistic or as transparent as I’d like, the recording provides a big, impressive sonic picture.

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


Mar 21, 2013

The Strauss Family (CD review)

Willi Boskovsky, Johann Strauss Orchestra of Vienna. EMI 5 86019 2 (six-disc set).

I read somewhere that the performers in his orchestras didn’t particularly like working with conductor and violinist Willi Boskovsky, but he fashioned some of the most beautiful recordings of the Strausses ever made. First playing the violin with the Vienna Philharmonic, Boskovsky went on to lead and record the orchestra in Strauss waltzes in the 1950’s and 60’s, and audiences adored him, which in the end was all that mattered. His Decca recordings from those early years are still the yardsticks by which we must measure all Strauss waltzes. By the early 1970’s he was recording for EMI with the Johann Strauss Orchestra of Vienna, and he re-recorded much of the major Strauss repertoire for them. Then, when digital entered the scene in the 1980’s, he recorded them yet again!

What we have in this six-disc EMI box set is a collection of some seventy-nine of the Strauss family’s most famous waltzes recorded by Boskovsky with the Johann Strauss Orchestra in the 70’s (analogue) and 80’s (digital).

Personally, I find Boskovsky’s digital recordings slightly more sprightly and open than his analogue recordings with the same orchestra a decade before. Fortunately, most the recordings chosen for this collection are from the later digital group. The digital sound is a little less warm and slightly less full than the analogue sound, but it seems more detailed and carries with it no obvious digital brightness or edginess, so sonic differences among the various pieces on the six discs is practically nil. More important, all the performances are light and spontaneous, a total delight in every way, and except that the Strauss Orchestra appears to be much smaller than his old Vienna Philharmonic and miked a bit closer, they at least match the Decca renderings in spirit.

Among the waltzes are practically everything you’ve ever heard of: “The Blue Danube,” of course, “Roses from the South,” “Vienna Blood,” “Voices of Spring,” “Artist’s Life,” “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” “Emperor Waltz,” “Morning Papers,” “Accelerations,” “Lagoon Waltz,” “Du und Du,” “Wine, Women and Song,” “Danube Maiden,” and a few you might not have heard of like “Leading Article,” “Kiss Waltz,” “Watercolours,” and “Flight of Fancy.”

More important, EMI organized the music by Strauss family member, from oldest to youngest. The first disc includes several things by Strauss the elder; then there are works by the “Waltz King,” Strauss II, grouped as “Favorite Waltzes”; more “Waltzes” on discs two and three; and “Polkas” and “Overtures” on discs three, four, and five. Then on the second half of disc five and the first half of disc six, we have “Polkas” by brother Josef Strauss. And on the second half of disc six there are “Polkas” by brother Eduard Strauss. 

It’s a terrific collection of waltzes, polkas, overtures, and galops even if this box set, which EMI originally issued in 2004, may be a little hard to find anymore. Oh, and the folks at EMI have fixed one minor concern I had with a another collection of Strauss waltzes with Boskovsky. In a previous EMI set, they took “Tales from the Vienna Woods” from a session in which Boskovsky substituted a violin for the more popular zither. This time, they provided his later recording with Rudi Knabl on zither, and all is right with the world.

For fans of Strauss or Boskovsky, this is an indispensable set.

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


Mar 19, 2013

Lord Gallaway’s Delight (CD review)

An Excellent Collection of Dances & Gaelic Laments. Les Witches, with guest Siobhan Armstrong. Alpha Productions 534.

Quoting from a very old music publication, the French ensemble Les Witches describes the present album as “An Excellent Choice of the most celebrated Irish tunes, the finest English Country Dances & the best Scotch Humours, with several additional Fancies and Divisions never before recorded!”

OK, you might say, what’s a group of French musicians doing playing traditional Irish, English, and Scottish music? I suppose you could say the music transcends the boundaries of place and time, and Les Witches do as good a job as any I’ve heard of bringing this kind of music to life. The group comprises five members:  Pascale Boquet, lute and guitar; Odile Edouard, violin; Freddy Eichelberger, harpsichord and cistre (a sort of ancient mandolin); Claire Michon, flutes; and Sylvie Moquet, viola da gamba. Joining Les Witches is guest Siobhan Armstrong on the Irish harp because, as they say, you cannot have Irish music without a harp. And what better an exponent of the Irish harp than Ms. Armstrong, the head of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland.

Still, this kind of music is a bit of an acquired taste. All of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century Irish, Scottish, and English instrumental tunes on the album appear tinged with melancholy, either a quality of the people who wrote them or a predilection of the musicians who chose to include them. In either case, it doesn’t change the eighteen tracks on the disc, which are delightful in their way but whose mood tends to sound slightly the same after a while. A little goes a long way? It helps, of course, that the players use historical instruments, which makes it all the more authentic and fun.

Anyhow, on the opening number, “She Rose and Leit Me In,” the six instruments enter one at a time, creating a surprisingly rich and complex texture. And so it goes.

Flutist Claire Michon tells us in a booklet note that “with traditional musicians we share the pleasures of variation, ornamentation and improvisation, so expect to hear a bit of each style. Expect mainly, though, to hear gentle, committed, expressive playing, be it in dances or Gaelic laments. The music is melodic, sometimes rhapsodic, lilting, lyrical, and haunting. Most of all, it’s lovely, played with plenty of sweet, loving care.

While in fairness, I could not single out a “best tune” in the bunch, I know I strongly enjoyed the first number above, plus “Mary O’Neill,” “On the Cold Ground,” “Mary Halfpenny” (which sounds faintly of tinkling wind chimes), “Siege of Limerick,” and the closing air “Da Mihi Manum” (a melody that will have you close to tears). Yet, for that matter, they’re all gems, which, as I say, take a little getting used to. Once you acquire the taste, however, it’s hard not to want more.

Les Witches concocted their brew in 2012, with sound that is every bit as fascinating as the music. Indeed, the sonics steal the show. The highs sparkle, the midrange glows with clarity, and the bass, what there is of it, shows commendable tautness. There is a fine separation of instruments and a quick transient response, too. Most important, the recording venue imparts a sweet, natural resonance to the occasion, making the performances warmly lifelike.

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


Mar 18, 2013

Berlioz: Overtures (SACD review)

Sir Andrew Davis, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Chandos CHSA 5118.

You’d think that given the familiarity of Berlioz’s various overtures, there would be more stereo albums devoted to them. It doesn’t happen. If you look them up, you’ll find maybe a dozen or so discs devoted exclusively to the overtures. What most companies do is include a few Berlioz overtures along with Berlioz’s longer works, the Symphonie fantastique or Harold in Italy for instance. And, of course, we often get one or two of the composer’s overtures mixed into collections of other famous overtures. Seems a little unfair, but it means that this new SACD recording of seven Berlioz overtures from Sir Andrew Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra doesn’t have a lot of competition. Not that competition would have diminished the merits of this outing in any case; Andrew Davis does quite well.

Before we begin, however, I’d like to refute a claim I read once from a noted music critic who said that all conductors with the name Davis were boring, meaning Sir Andrew Davis and Sir Colin Davis. That, to me, is pretty unfair, making a generalization based on...what?  Both Sir Andrew and Sir Colin Davis have made tons of albums (Colin Davis far more and for far longer) and have millions of fans. No conductor attracts that much positive attention by being boring. I mention this because certainly there is nothing boring about Andrew Davis’s handling of the Berlioz overtures on this album, and they are almost as expressive, emphatic, lyrical, and exciting as Colin Davis’s RCA set. So, take that, noted critic.

Of the seven overtures on the disc, three of them Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote as preludes to operas--Les Francs-juges (1826), Benvenuto Cellini (1838), and Beatrice et Benedict (1862)--and four as self-contained concert works--Waverley (1828), Le Roi Lear (1831), Le Carnaval romain (1844), and Le Corsaire (1844). The concert overtures are like miniature tone poems, the composer basing them mostly on literary sources (Sir Walter Scott for Waverley, Shakespeare for King Lear, elements of James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron for Le Corsaire, and his own Benvenuto Cellini for Le Carnaval romain).

Anyway, the program begins with the fiery Corsaire, which conjures up images of dashing pirates and sleek pirate ships. Davis maintains a swaggering forward momentum that seems ideally suited to the swashbuckling music. Contrasted with the thrills of the Corsaire is the overture to the comic-opera Beatrice et Benedict. It is of a lighter, more capricious nature, which Davis delights in.  We see in these works why Berlioz was so influential in the development of the modern orchestra and modern orchestration, inspiring later composers like Franz Liszt (Les preludes), Richard Strauss (Don Juan), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Sea Hawk), and John Williams (Star Wars). It’s all quite vivid, heroic, and picturesque.

Les Francs-juges was Berlioz’s first substantial instrumental work, and he was justly proud of it. It sounds appropriately grim, somber, yet lyrical in Davis’s hands, and the Bergen Philharmonic seem more than up to the job, playing in rich, strong, precise accord.

And so it goes. Le Carnaval romain takes us back to the exhilarating pace of Le Corsaire, with a little more lilt in the melodies. Davis handles it in high style. Next, the score for Waverley bears the inscription “Dreams of love and lady’s charms, Give place to honour and to arms.” Davis does a commendable job with the work’s opposing ideas and readily points up the music’s importance to that of later Romantic composers. In Le Roi Lear we get all of Shakespeare’s emotion, turmoil, and poetry compressed into a few minutes. Davis and his players never overdramatize the piece, which I appreciated.

The program ends with the overture to Benvenuto Cellini, music I have sometimes found ponderous and boring in its melodramatic manner. Here, Davis is able to bring out a little more of its color and variety, ending the set in satisfying fashion.

In 2012 Chandos used Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, as the recording venue for this 24-bit/96kHz 2.0/5.0-channel SACD hybrid surround-sound recording. Like other hybrid SACDs, this one plays back in two channels on a regular CD player and two or five channels on a Super Audio CD player. I popped the disc into my Sony SACD player and listened to the two-channel stereo SACD layer.

The sound I heard was nicely dynamic, with a clean midrange and more than adequate lows. The sound field is a tad on the forward side, but not much. It hasn’t quite the warmth, air, or ambience of the Colin Davis set for RCA, but again it’s close. The clarity and impact of the recording show themselves most noticeably in things like Les Francs-juges, where the timpani and bass make a case for themselves.

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


Mar 15, 2013

Schubert: Trout Quintet (CD review)

Also, Adagio in E flat (Notturno). The Nash Ensemble. CRD 3352.

Does it sound familiar? No, I don’t ask that because the “Trout” Quintet is one of the most-popular and therefore familiar things Schubert ever wrote. I mean if this particular recording of the “Trout” sounds familiar, it might be because if you watch at least some British comedy, the British television series Waiting for God used portions of this very recording during its opening titles and closing credits. CRD originally released it over three decades ago, and they decided to reissue it in 2012.

Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the Piano Quintet in A major, D667, “The Trout,” in the summer of 1819 while visiting the town of Steyr in the north of Austria. A wealthy music patron in the area, Sylvester Paumgartner, suggested Schubert include in the music a set of variations based on the composer’s earlier song "Die Forelle" (“The Trout”). But apparently few people outside Schubert’s friends and family ever heard it in his lifetime since the work did not see publication until 1829, a year after the composer’s death. Nevertheless, today practically every chamber group in the world has played and recorded “The Trout” Quintet.

Britain’s Nash Ensemble quintet at the time of the recording (Clifford Benson, piano; Marcia Crayford, violin; Brian Hawkins, viola; Christopher van Kampen, cello; and Rodney Slatford, double bass) do as good a job with the music as almost anyone. In terms of tempos, they fall somewhere between the period-instruments liveliness of Jos Van Immerseel and friends (Sony or Newton Classics) and the easygoing geniality of Clifford Curzon and his Vienna partners (Decca). In terms of style, the Nash players combine some of the charm of the Beaux Arts performance (Philips or PentaTone), some of the joyfulness of the Schiff/Hagen Quartet recording (Decca), and some of the richness of Alfred Brendel’s rendition (Philips) thrown in. Meaning the Nash Ensemble is in good company.

The group get the music off to a smooth, graceful, flowing start in the first movement, yet with much freshness and vitality as well. Schubert marked it Allegro vivace, so I suppose the Nash players could have taken it a bit faster, but, really, it sounds just fine as they perform it, full of gentle good cheer. The second-movement Andante is more sedate and serious than the first movement, with the Nash Ensemble maintaining a serene sense of forward momentum, never pushing the music too hard.  It’s all quite comfortable.

The third-movement Scherzo displays a pleasantly youthful playfulness, again without leaving the listener groping for air. Then come the celebrated Variations, which mark the “Trout” as somewhat different from other chamber pieces, the Nash Ensemble having the fish splashing and gliding about in the stream most gently. Again, it’s the piano that stands out, as we would expect, with the violin coming in a close second. Finally, the work ends with an Allegro giusto that the Nash players perform with high spirits.

The little Notturno (Adagio in E flat for piano, violin and cello, D897), published in 1847, makes a sweet companion to the “Trout.” Schubert probably intended the Notturno as the slow movement of a larger work, which he never got around to finishing. In any case, it’s lovely, with to me its unmistakable Mediterranean overtones, and I enjoyed the Nash Ensemble’s unmannered interpretation of it.

CRD recorded the album in 1978 at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London, under the watchful eyes and ears of balance engineer Bob Auger. The sound comes across pretty well balanced, although the piano seems at times closer than the other instruments. Midrange transparency is fairly good, too, with a particularly natural-sounding violin and a warm, ambient bloom on all the music. The frequency response appears slightly subdued at the top end, and the double bass hasn’t a lot of weight. Still, it’s all pleasant enough and reasonably lifelike.

In short, the Nash Ensemble’s “Trout” offers a good performance in good sound, both of which come up a tad short of the very best recordings available, sounding just a trifle too straightforward and unadorned by comparison. In addition, CRD provides one of the best album cover pictures you’ll find. Drawbacks? Only one stands out: For reasons known only to CRD, the company chose not to provide a separate track for the fifth and final movement. So if you want to listen only to the Finale, you have to click to the fourth movement and then fast-forward through almost eight minutes of music until you get to the part you want. Of the half dozen other “Trout” recordings I had on hand, all of them include a track for the final movement. I dunno.

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


Mar 14, 2013

Elgar: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Sea Pictures; Cockaigne Overture. Jacqueline du Pre, cello; Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Sir John Barbirolli, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 62887 2.

English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 toward the end of his career in 1919, and because he published it just after the close of World War I, a lot of it sounds melancholy and solemn. Nevertheless, it’s among the most-popular things he ever wrote. Therefore, it’s good to have this classic recording of it so readily available, along with the Sea Pictures and the Cockaigne Overture, all of them remastered by EMI in sound that’s as good as anything around and at a mid price that’s hard to beat.

The fact is, no one has really topped this 1965 performance of the Concerto by young cellist Jacqueline du Pre, conductor Sir John Barbirolli, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The booklet note suggests that some people criticized Ms. du Pre at the time for having too much spirit, too much energy, in her interpretation, but Sir John, one of the world’s première Elgarians, defended her, saying that such exuberance was necessary in the young. Besides, Elgar himself had remarked years earlier that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.”

The first movement of the Concerto offers a pensive, bittersweet reminiscence of a quieter, more placid world before the War, with a big, bold part for the cello that starts immediately, although it strikes a rather solemn mood and grave air. The second movement Scherzo seems to represent the feeling of confidence and exhilaration so many young soldiers felt going off to War, the music creating an aura of light with its zippy pace, cavorting here and there. The third-movement Adagio--the soul of the work--seems more a touching, full-blown lamentation than a reflective or contemplative piece; it also seems a little jarring in its musical juxtaposition with the preceding Scherzo. Then, in the finale, Elgar is all over the place, marking it Allegro - Moderato - Allegro, ma non troppo, 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, and we hear the changes in lyrical, energetic, enthusiastic, melodramatic, sad, quiet, and, finally, exuberant tones.

The first and forth movements of the Concerto sound the most wistful, even nostalgic, and it is here that no one can accuse Ms. du Pre of being too spirited; she is, in fact, quite at peace with the world in a heartfelt performance that commands one’s respect from start to finish.

The accompanying Sea Pictures, sung by Janet Baker, appear more like the Elgar of old, having been written over twenty years earlier, sounding in part, like “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” similar in mood to his pomp-and-ceremony days. The addition on the disc of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture is icing on the cake, a wonderfully evocative, colorful, and affectionate orchestral description of Victorian London.

EMI first issued the Concerto and the Sea Pictures on CD in 1986, and this newer disc in their “Great Recordings of the Century” series improves further upon the sound. Using EMI’s “Abbey Road Technology” (ART), the remastering engineers noise-shaped the sound “via the Prism SNS system for optimum sound quality.” The sound compared to the older CD release is slightly smoother and a touch more dynamic. And, of course, the overall sonic picture is vintage EMI, with a realistic orchestral stage and a natural tonal balance. I might add that since EMI released this particular disc, they found it so popular, they released it three or four more times. So, as of this writing, you’ll find the exact same remastering in a number of different guises, different album covers.

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


Mar 12, 2013

Hear Here!

Seven suggestions for getting the most out of your home listening experience.

By John J. Puccio

There have been various hearing-aid shops, clinics, and Web sites called “Hear Here,” all of them devoted to hearing loss and hearing-loss prevention. It’s a clever title, and I hope they don’t mind my borrowing the phrase for this article, because it pretty much sums up what I’m about to say.

Understand, however, I have no intention of telling you what audio equipment to buy or how you should set up your own system. Despite what you may have heard from some other people--audio authorities and golden ears--home audio remains a very personal matter, and only you can decide what you like; I am not presumptuous enough to know your tastes. Besides, I am not an expert in the field. I do, however, have a very good 2-channel music-listening system (in my living room) and a 7.1-channel home-theater system (in a smaller, adjacent room), and I have written about audio and recorded music for over forty years. The fact is, most of you reading this article already know the stuff I’m going to say. My purpose is merely to offer a few obvious pointers for those of you who may have forgotten something you always meant to do.

It’s like an old audiophile friend told me years ago: “No matter how carefully you set up any system, no matter how much time you spend on it, there’s always something you’ll forget.” Well, here are some reminders.

1. Clean Your Ears
No, I’m not being glib or facile when I say this. I really mean it. It’s normal for everyone’s ears to produce and accumulate earwax. If it’s not removed, it can impede hearing. Commonly, people let it accrue unknowingly over time until little by little their hearing becomes obstructed. Of course, if you have exposed your ears to very loud noises in your lifetime, you may have a more severe hearing loss than you think, which no amount of cleaning will help. (And if you grew up with iPods or earbuds, your life is over.)

If you think earwax is a problem for you (and it probably is if you’ve never done anything about it before), there are several alternative solutions you might explore. The first and best solution is to have a doctor look at your ears. If a doctor sees an issue, he will take it from there.

Among home remedies, the one to avoid is the cotton swab or bobby pin. Do not go poking things in your ears; you risk rupturing the eardrum or at the very least forcing the earwax back into the ear canal, further impacting it and worsening the condition. No, the simplest, and safest, way to clean your ears is to let warm water run through them (for example, while you shower or with a bulb-syringe). Another remedy is to use a light mineral oil, a few drops in each ear, letting it stand for several minutes while you lie on your side, and then flushing with warm water. A further possibility is a dilution of hydrogen peroxide; again, let it stand in each ear for a few minutes and flush with warm water. Or there are various over-the-counter products you can buy that are essentially combinations of mineral oils and peroxide. The main thing is to cleanse the ear canals regularly, some doctors suggesting every week, others no less than once a month. 

Note, too, that home remedies are basically for minor wax buildup and daily maintenance. Again, consult a doctor if you think you have a serious hearing issue. Also, if you do use warm water in your ears, be aware of something called otitis, an inflammation of the ear that can develop when water remains in it. It's also called “swimmer's ear.” The best way to dry one's ears after showing or swimming is by using an over-the-counter product like Auro-Dri, which is basically a solution of isopropyl alcohol and boric acid. I've been using a few drops of isopropyl alcohol in my ears for about thirty years now, each morning after showing; but I hesitate to recommend anything medical that you haven’t already tried successfully or that your own doctor hasn’t approved.

Anyway, cherish your ears. You may not know what sounds you’re missing.

2. Speaker Configuration
People have been listening to sound through loudspeakers for over 130 years, unless you count the megaphone as a loudspeaker, in which case make that thousands of years. The most common speaker configurations people use for the home are (1) a single speaker, 1.0, monaural; (2) two speakers, 2.0 stereo, long the favorite of audiophiles for music listening; (3) two speakers and one or more subwoofers, 2.1 stereo, if the two primary speakers need bass augmentation, the .1 (or .2 or .3) indicating the subwoofer or LFE channel, low-frequency effects; (4) three speakers, 3.0, left, right, and center, or 3.1, three speakers and one or more subwoofers; (5) two speakers front and two speakers back, also with one or more subwoofers, 4.0 or 4.1; (6) three front and two back speakers, with or without one or more subwoofers, 5.0 or 5.1, the latter being in most common usage for films these days; (7) 6.0 or 6.1; and (8) 7.0 or 7.1, three front speakers, two sides (surrounds), two back, and one or more subwoofers. Naturally, there are further possibilities than these, specific needs and experimentation being the order of the day.

The advantage of having more than a single speaker is obviously to reproduce more fully and more realistically whatever sound is present in a a recording, a movie, or a broadcast. If there are 5.1 channels involved, the listener might want to take full advantage of them. Certainly, if you’re trying to replicate the experience of a movie theater, you might want a surround-sound system in your home. If you’re reproducing only 2-channel sources, like most music CDs, then a two-speaker setup might be more advantageous (many audiophiles feel that trying to simulate rear-channel activity from a 2-channel source only muddies up the front channels; as I say, personal taste). And if you’re playing back multichannel music CDs, like SACDs, then you might find a center and/or rear speakers to your liking.

The advantage of 7.1 (even though most movies on DVD and Blu-ray don’t come with discrete 7.1) is that it fills in the sound in the rear of the room better than not, especially for a listener slightly off center. Plus, a 7.1 receiver or processor usually provides several options to simulate additional rear-channel signals from a 5.1 source, so you don’t have to worry if there aren’t 7.1 channels actually encoded on the disc.

3. Speaker Choice
Here the reader is pretty much on his own, especially for the two main, front speakers. Nothing is more personal than one’s preference in loudspeakers, and one’s speaker choices are endless. Ideally, a good loudspeaker should reproduce the audio spectrum from 5 - 30K Hz evenly (or flatly), with no undue emphasis in any particular frequency range from the lowest bass to the highest treble; and it should do so with a quick, taut, well-controlled transient response, replicating sounds with precision, clarity, and a minimum of distortion. Unfortunately, no such loudspeaker exists, not here, not anywhere. No matter what the advertising hype tells you or how the reviews read, no speaker is perfect, no matter what the price. Usually, a speaker won’t reproduce anything like the full spectrum of human hearing, and it won’t reproduce the full spectrum evenly.

Then there is that matter of price. Remember, it’s all relative. I know a lot of people talk about their super speakers costing in the thousands of dollars--two, three thousand dollars for their 5.1 system. Yet if you break that down, a $3,000 5.1 speaker setup is only about $500 a speaker. In the broad scheme of things, that’s a mid-priced or mid-fi speaker. Why? Because you can buy speakers anywhere from $50 or $100 a pair to well over $100,000 a pair. Case in point: My old friend, the late Dave Wilson, sold his high-end speakers at Wilson Audio for some $200,000 a pair. Are they the perfect speaker, the Holy Grail of audiophiledom? No, but they’re close. And they damn well ought to be at that price.

My recommendation for choosing speakers is to use a little common sense. How many speakers do you need? How much can you afford to spend on them? Look on the Internet for speaker reviews and owner comments. Narrow down your choices and then listen, listen, listen. Do you have special likes, special tonal priorities? Do you want a nearly neutral speaker (the elusive goal) or one that is bass prominent, or forward in the midrange, or bright in the upper midrange and treble, or hollow, or boomy, or whatever. You’ll find them all out there. It’s best, naturally, to be familiar with the sound of live, unamplified music, so if you can get out to an orchestral or jazz concert once in a while, one unhampered by being reproduced through a stage full of loudspeakers, you might try to do it.

A few years ago I bought a pair of floor-standing VMPS RM40 speakers from the late Brian Cheney for my 2-channel living-room music system because they were the best things I could find for the money (although still pricey at about $6,500 a pair). Quite a ways back, I also chose Boston Acoustics and Energy e:XL speakers for my home theater because I thought they sounded as good as anything in their price range with movie material, and because they were small enough for the restricted space in my home-theater room. Would I have liked four RM40s in a home theater double the size of the one I have now? Sure thing. Heck, I’d love to have four of Dave’s Alexandrias, too. But for most of us there’s a limit to everything.

Be aware, too, that if you are going for full surround, not all of your 5.1 or 7.1 speakers need to be exactly alike (and obviously not the subwoofer), although, yes, the two main front speakers should be identical. For instance, the center speaker needs mainly to reproduce midrange frequencies, mostly dialogue. It does not necessarily have to be a full-range speaker. The side (surround) and rear speakers need not be full-range, either, if you’re using a subwoofer. The sub will fill in the lower frequencies nicely from about 100 Hz (Hertz = cycles per second) on down, and bass frequencies below about 80 Hz are omnidirectional, anyhow; that is, they don’t seem to be coming from any specific point and can appear to be coming from wherever the dominant note is coming from. So if a primary bass note is in, say, the 90 Hz range, the primary signal will probably come from one of the five main speakers, indicating its specific direction, and the bass woofer will fill in the part of the signal beneath that, appearing to come from the same place as the primary signal. Make sense? The upshot is that you can get away with smaller side and rear speakers than front speakers. You can even let the subwoofer do a lot of the work of the two, main front speakers as well, leaving the possibility of small satellite speakers in front. The only minor issue with small satellite speakers is that they can sometimes be too small to produce convincingly the big sound fields needed for things like symphony orchestras.

Exceptions? Of course. For example, the folks at NHT (Now Hear This) of Benicia, California, make a full line of speakers from satellites to bookshelves to floor-standing models that all sound good ( You might check out several of their relatively small, reasonably priced products, which along with a matched NHT subwoofer produce big, neutral, well-balanced sound. Or, for that matter, you might investigate all of NHT’s speakers; they are among the best values in the audio market, and these days they’re ones I would choose over my Boston Acoustics units. Still, I digress; I’m not here to sell you on anything in particular, only to provide general guidelines.

4. Speaker Placement
As crazy as it may seem, speaker placement appears to be a mystery to a lot of folks. I can’t tell you the number of homes I’ve been in where people have placed two fairly expensive loudspeakers in oddball locations: like both speakers sitting behind large pieces of furniture, or one speaker sitting on the floor and another on a mantel, or both speakers mounted on the ceiling facing downward, or one speaker facing a wall and the other upside down, etc. You can imagine how much tougher the situation may be with 5.1 or 7.1 speakers to locate.

In a 2-channel system, the two speakers should be at ear level and approximately as far apart as the listener is away from them. In a 5.1 or 7.1 home-theater system, the two main, front speakers would ideally sit next to the television left and right, at a height that approximates the listener’s ears from the central listening position. Floor-standing speakers may already be at the proper height for good listening. Bookshelf speakers may require a stand (or in the case of my home theater a column of large, 10” x 10” x 4” concrete building bricks, spray painted flat black, the bricks providing a solid, nonresonant foundation for the speakers). Furthermore, depending on the directionality (or beaming, usually of higher frequencies) of the speakers, you may have to angle them toward the listening area for best results.

The distance between the two front speakers, as I say, should be about the same distance the listener is sitting away from them. Thus, the listener would sit on one corner of the proverbial listening triangle. Still, some listeners prefer to have their speakers closer together and other listeners prefer them farther apart. Brian Cheney, who built and sold the VMPS speakers I use, recommended that his VMPS RM40s be relatively close together and angled in so that their sound waves cross about a foot or so in front of the listener. Again, I suggest you experiment.

In addition, in a 5.1 or 7.1 home-theater system the left/right front speakers should be approximately on the same plane as the TV so that the sound doesn’t appear to be coming from any higher, lower, closer, or farther away location than the action on the screen. The center speaker should sit on top of or just beneath the TV screen (unless you have an actual projection screen, in which case you could put the speaker behind it), so that dialogue seems to be coming from the middle of the screen.

Now, for the back speakers in a 5.1 setup, they should be on the back wall behind the listening position, preferably at the same distance from the listener as the front speakers or maybe a little closer, and slightly above the listener’s ears. In a 7.1 setup, the side (surround) speakers should also be at the same distance away from the listening position as the front speakers and, again, slightly above the listener. What’s more, Dolby Labs recommends the rear speakers in a 7.1 setup be relatively close together. Take a look at your own favorite movie theater for guidance. You’ll see loudspeakers positioned along the side walls, above the seats, and you’ll see loudspeakers on the back wall, again above the seats. Try to duplicate this arrangement as well as you can in your own home-theater room. That’s what it’s all about.

Warning: Speaker placement may require rearranging the furniture. I consider myself lucky in that the Wife-O-Meter has always been very accommodating. However, not all spouses may see things the same way. If you’re single, you’re probably OK. And later you can use the speaker-placement test as one criterion for a prospective mate.

5. Initial Speaker Settings
For a 2-channel stereo system, this should be simple, unless you’re using a 5.1 or 7.1 amplifier.  Be aware that filmmakers mix most of the motion-picture soundtracks you hear in theaters today for 5.1 tracks, with only a few in discrete 7.1. In order to play back these 5.1 and 7.1 combinations in the home, you’ll need a receiver or processor capable of reproducing and amplifying the requisite number of discrete channels. Also be aware that if you are going to play back more channels than are actually present in the source, you will have to set your receiver or processor to a “surround mode” that will simulate channels that are not really there. For example, most modern receivers and processors have several Dolby and THX surround modes (e.g., Dolby Pro-Logic IIx/Movie) that do a good job simulating center and rear channels from 2-channel sources and simulating 7.1 channels from 5.1 sources.

Moreover, if you are using a subwoofer, you will want to cross it over at a point that takes full advantage of a receiver’s, processor’s, and/or disc’s low frequency effects. Consequently, it’s best to adjust the receiver/processor crossover to your preference and the subwoofer to a by-pass setting, if possible. For instance, THX recommends 80 Hz as a bass crossover point. In addition, THX recommends that if you use a subwoofer, you set your other speakers to “Small.” If you don’t have a subwoofer, you should set your speakers to “Large” and allow them to reproduce their full frequency range. Have I mentioned experimentation before?

6. Speaker Balance
Now that you have chosen your speakers and placed them in their proper positions, the next step is to measure the distance from the listening position to each speaker and, if it’s a 5.1 or 7.1 setup, adjust for this distance in your receiver’s or processor’s setup menu. The idea here is that in a multichannel system not all of your speakers may be the same distance away from the listening position, so the equipment can introduce delays to compensate for lag times. That way, the sound from each speaker location reaches your ears at the exact millisecond it should, depending on the surround settings you have chosen.

After that, you should balance each speaker’s output relative to the others. Many receivers and processors have built-in programs, with microphones, to accomplish this and other calculations for you automatically. Nevertheless, I prefer to do it manually rather than rely on generalized estimates. As always, you have choice with most of today’s audio equipment.

Here’s what I did: I bought an inexpensive sound-level meter. Better yet for these purposes, if you own a smartphone or iPhone, you can download a sound-pressure meter for free. It uses your phone’s built-in microphone (which, again, hasn’t the widest range so you won’t want to use it for frequency response tests), but it doesn’t matter much when all you’re doing is comparing the midrange output of your various speakers to one another in order to balance them. And you can’t beat free.

My point is that any sound-pressure meter will do nicely for our purposes here, which is simply to be sure that each of your speakers is producing the same sound level at the listening position for the same measured frequency. For this procedure, you’ll use your 5.1 or 7.1 receiver’s built-in test tones, usually centered in the 800 - 1K Hz range, so even if the microphone is not completely linear, you’ll be measuring results at the same frequency, which should be relative to each other from speaker to speaker (except in the case of the bass woofer, which we’ll get to in a minute).

Now, your receiver’s manual will probably tell you that all of your speakers should produce the same sound level at the listening position. This is generally true. Just don’t trust your ears; use the meter. And then you might find you want to make some further adjustments according to personal taste. In my case, I have turned down the center speaker by three or four decibels; otherwise, I have found most DVDs and Blu-rays produce for my taste a little too much center-channel response, which tends to limit the left-to-right stereo spread.

Bass is always the bugaboo. Not only are the Radio Shack and smartphone meters relatively unreliable at the lowest frequencies, so is your listening room. Depending on where you take a measurement, the low-end sound level could vary by as much ten or fifteen decibels. The same goes for the placement of the subwoofer. Put it in a corner and it will produce louder bass (not necessarily deeper, but surely louder mid bass). Measure the low-end output in any corner of the room, and it’s liable to be quite a bit higher than in any other place. My suggestion: Stick to a bass measurement at the exact placement of your ears in the listening position and forget about the other locations around the room (unless you want to play around with expensive acoustic treatments, sound dampening pillars, and such). And here, too, because you may not be able to trust the meter entirely, you should also use your own judgment. Bass usually has to be louder in actual decibels than higher frequencies to sound subjectively as loud as they do, so again experiment. Then, too, some people just like more bass. And audiophiles often don’t like any deep bass at all because low-frequency overhang can muddy up the all-important midrange. Sill, movies are an entirely different matter, so, again, personal taste comes into play.

7. Frequency Response
Oh, dear. What can one do about a system’s frequency response? You’ll remember that nothing is perfect. Even if the speakers you just paid an arm and a leg for are absolutely flat in their response from 5 - 30,000 Hz, your own listening-room acoustics and seating position would doubtless mess them up. So, what to do? If you have a 5.1 or 7.1 receiver, you could leave it to the equipment’s built-in microphone and metering program to equalize and flatten out the room response, hoping for the best. Or if you’re looking to get the best from even a two-speaker system, you could buy a costly calibrated microphone and a costly one-half or one-third octave equalizer to help flatten out the sound. Or you could buy equally costly sound-baffling materials for the walls to reduce unwanted reflections and/or buy or build a series of bass traps (porous or resonating absorbers) for the room to dampen low-frequency energy. Or you could just play it by ear. Of the available options, unless you have very deep pockets or you have a finicky audiophile obsession, I recommend playing it by ear. If your system sounds too bright to you, turn down the treble slightly. If it’s too bassy or not bassy enough, adjust the bass slightly. If the frequency response is really out of whack, you probably need to investigate new speakers or take the ones you just bought back to the store and exchange them for something else.

Oh, and if you’re using a multichannel receiver or processor, don’t forget to turn off the unit’s dynamic-range suppressor (sometimes called the “Night Mode”). Nothing will kill the sonic impact of an otherwise great audio system more than limiting its dynamic-range. Dynamic range is the difference in measured output level between two different sounds, the overall dynamic range of a disc being the difference in decibels between its loudest and softest notes. If a disc’s output doesn’t go from very, very soft to very, very loud, it probably doesn’t have a very wide dynamic range in the first place, or the equipment has triggered the suppressor function by mistake, or you’ve gone and turned on the dynamic-range compression yourself, probably because you didn’t know what it was. Dynamic-range compression is good for listening late at night when you don’t want to wake up the house, but, otherwise, forget about it.

If you have any doubts or concerns, consider Mr. Neuman’s philosophy: “What--me worry?” You’ll get through.


Mar 11, 2013

Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 (HQCD review)

Malcolm Frager, piano; Rene Leibowitz, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. Van Cliburn, piano; Walter Hendl, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD270.

Like his contemporary Sergei Rachmaninov, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer and pianist, and like Rachmaninov, Prokofiev composed a number of piano concertos, five of them to Rachmaninov's four. However, in a bit of irony, Rachmaninov left Russia at the time of the Revolution, going on to produce fairly traditional Romantic music while Prokofiev chose to leave and then return to Russia where he almost continually butted heads with conservative Soviet censors for indulging in what they considered “anti-democratic formalism.” Be this as it may, both men left us a considerable body of works that remain popular to this day. The current disc collects two of Prokofiev’s more-famous piano concertos, Nos. 2 and 3, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) from two equally celebrated recordings.

The first item on the disc is Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, which he completed in 1913, played by pianist Malcolm Frager, with Rene Leibowitz and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1961 nominated the Frager recording for a Grammy, and since then the recording has become something of a cult classic, made all the more desirable for its unobtainability until now on CD. Thank goodness for HDTT.

In No. 2 we notice an opening section of light delicacy from Frager, a characteristic of the pianist we hear throughout the work, mixed in with all the hurly-burly. Because Prokofiev intended the piece in part as a requiem for a deceased friend, it can be somewhat somber at times. Yet Frager, with his legendary dexterity, keeps it pulsating forward at a healthy clip. It is unlikely anyone will ever surpass his warm, expressive rendering.

The second item on the disc is almost as good, Prokofiev’s even more-popular Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26, which he completed in 1921 from sketches he began in 1913. The late pianist Van Cliburn plays it, with Maestro Walter Hendl conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Unlike Frager’s recording of No. 2, Cliburn’s performance of No. 3 has never been out of the catalogue. Maybe it has something to do with the public’s continued delight in Cliburn as well as their simply liking the Third Concerto more than the Second. Whatever, here on HDTT it sounds better than ever. The Third is more lyrical and melodic than the Second, nicely complementing Cliburn’s style.

Like the Second Concerto, the Third begins slowly and softly, quickly building up a head of steam with the piano’s entry and becoming ever more rhapsodic and tempestuous through its three movements. Cliburn’s handling of the work’s central theme and variations is particularly stimulating.

However, while I could not recommend anyone more highly in No. 2 than Frager, I still prefer Martha Argerich’s performance with Abbado (DG) and Byron Janis’s with Kondrashin to Cliburn’s in No. 3, if only by a small margin.

Decca (licensed by RCA) and RCA recorded the two concertos separately in 1960, No. 2 done at La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, and No. 3 at Orchestra Hall, Chicago. HDTT’s remastering (and subsequent burning to an HQCD) of these performances sounds quite good, especially for recordings made over half a century ago. Or maybe they sound good because they’re over half a century old. I haven’t heard much in the past few decades to persuade me that today’s digital stereo recordings sound any better than what Mercury, Decca, RCA, EMI, Everest, Vanguard, Vox, and others were doing in the late Fifties and Sixties.

In any case, although I did not have the recording of No. 2 with Frager on hand for comparison, I had Cliburn’s RCA disc of No. 3, so let’s start there. What I heard tells me the HDTT remastering is slightly cleaner, slightly airier, and slightly more transparent, with a slightly better dynamic impact and slightly more-extended high end. No, these were not night-and-day differences; hence, the qualifier “slightly.” Still, the improvements in the HDTT sound were clearly noticeable and would probably make most audiophiles happy. Besides that, I don’t believe the Frager performance is even available on CD (at least, I couldn’t find it), so in that case one essentially gets a freebie with the HDTT disc.

The Concerto No. 2 displays good punch, with a reasonably flat frequency balance and a fine integration of the piano and orchestra. The overall impression seems a tad thick and heavy in the lower midrange, the piano sound crisp, the bass taut, and the orchestral support warm.

The Concerto No. 3 is a little more wide spread than No. 2, creating a bit more of a left-right effect, with the piano a touch bigger in the middle. The overall sound here is maybe a little clearer, with more sparkling highs.

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

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


Mar 8, 2013

Beethoven: Symphonies No. 4 & 7 (CD review)

Joshua Bell, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical 88725 49176 2.

Yes, that Joshua Bell.

In case you’ve forgotten or perhaps you never knew, award-winning violinist Joshua Bell has been the Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since 2011. Of course, he’s still a violinist, as he directs the orchestra from the concertmaster’s chair. Sill, it’s hard to keep up with all the changes in orchestras and conductors and doubly hard to think of Bell as anything but purely a violinist. Fortunately, his recordings should dispel any notion that he’s not fully up to the job. Here, he leads two highly accomplished Beethoven performances that help prove the point, the first recording in what promises to be a complete Beethoven symphony cycle.

Bell says that great conductors have fascinated him ever since he was kid, one of his first Beethoven heroes being Carlos Kleiber. Then, for a decade or more in his later career he dreamed of conducting as well as playing with an orchestra. He especially wanted the opportunity, he says, to combine what he had learned from historically informed conductors with the “power and flexibility” of a modern orchestra. He got his chance with the ASMF.

One can argue the advantages and disadvantages of an orchestra not having a traditional conductor, but Bell seems to do all right by the situation. There is nothing particularly new or revelatory about his readings; they are simply vibrant and spirited.

Bell begins the album with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806), which sometimes gets a little lost between the composer’s more influential and popular Third and Fifth Symphonies. By comparison, the Fourth can seem somewhat lightweight and maybe even a letdown. Nevertheless, in Bell’s hands the Fourth sounds more fleet-footed and important than ever. Hector Berlioz described the Fourth as “lively, nimble, joyous, or of a heavenly sweetness.” Bell takes him up on the description.

After the fairly lengthy introductory section, Maestro Bell leads the main Allegro subject at a brisk but never breathless pace, making it appear tauter than ever yet just as cheerful. The Adagio also feels leaner than usual, although Bell maintains a moderately slow speed. The Scherzo displays much vitality and again exudes a good cheer, leading to a finale of more substance and weight than one often hears. It’s a Fourth that offers the air of friendliness the music has always enjoyed while adding a little more vigor and power to the proceedings.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 in 1812, a half dozen years after the Fourth. Critics often associate it with elements of the dance (“The apotheosis of the dance,” as Wagner remarked), and it possesses a sprightly charm. The ASMF, always a refined ensemble, plays with commendable precision and grace, throwing a bit more verve and vivacity into things under Bell, who leads them in a spirited interpretation. He never hurries the rhythms in the opening movement, while making them all come alive in sprightly fashion. In addition, Bell points up the contrasts smoothly, almost effortlessly, giving the music less of the stop-and-go feeling some conductors impose upon it.

The second-movement, likened to a processional in the catacombs, remains solemn and invigorating at the same time. In other words, it never drags. The third-movement Presto under Bell is as ebullient as ever (disregard the booklet timing), moving nicely into the big finish, which comes off with requisite energy.

Indeed, if I had to characterize both performances at all, I’d have to say they are, above all, energetic, without being hectic or raucous. As for the qualities of the dance in the Seventh, well, maybe Bell doesn’t exactly define them as well as did the likes of Colin Davis (EMI) or even Karl Bohm (DG), who seem more balletic. Bell’s rendering seems more athletic, more like modern dance, with a bit more flinging around. In any case, it’s all great fun.

Bell and the Academy recorded the album at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London, in May of 2012. The sound is maybe not in the audiophile class, but it is lifelike enough. We hear in it good orchestral depth, good tonal balance, a warm studio ambience, and a wide dynamic range, with plenty of impact. Although the upper bass gets a tad heavy at times, it contributes to the music’s weight. Midrange clarity is not quite as transparent as I’ve heard, yet it is fairly natural and no doubt sounds the way it might sound live a short distance from the orchestra.

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