Al Combate (CD review)

Rediscovered Galant Music from Eighteenth-Century Mexico. Javier Jose Mendoza, Chicago Arts Orchestra. Navona Records NV5902.

No, I didn’t know what “Al Combate” meant, either. Literally, it translates as “to combat.” It’s the title of the central piece of music on the disc, a work for orchestra, soloists, and chorus in eleven movements by the eighteenth-century violinist and composer Ignacio Jerusalem, born in Italy, moving to Spain and subsequently to Mexico, becoming a leading exponent in the New World for the Baroque and Galant music popular in Southern Europe at the time.

According to the disc’s accompanying notes, the mission of the Chicago Arts Orchestra, who perform Jerusalem’s music on the disc, along with that of Santiago Billoni, is “to breathe new life into forgotten works from colonial Latin America.” It seems the Church in America as well as its ruling class favored the Galant style (stressing a renewal of classical restraint after the elaborations of the latter Baroque era) and promoted its influence in Mexico. They persuaded Jerusalem and Billoni to leave the Old World for the New and practice their talents in the colonial arena. The current album with Maestro Javier Jose Mendoza and the Chicago Arts Orchestra offers selections from both composers to illustrate the point.

First, let’s examine the music of Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769). The album provides four of his works, including the aforementioned Al Combate, the longest piece. The first, though, is the Symphony in G Major, a piece in three movements: Allegro, Andante, and Allegro. It possesses a graceful allure, elegant and refined, particularly as performed by Maestro Mendoza and his players. The opening movement has a light, lilting charm; the Andante floats gently along; and the finale exudes a lively spirit, the orchestra sounding both precise and enthusiastic.

Next from Jerusalem, we hear a couple of songs with orchestral accompaniment: “Gorjeo Trinando” with mezzo-soprano Elda Peralto and “Cristol Bello” with soprano Eleanor Ranney-Mendoza. The singing is artfully executed and the orchestral support flawless.

Before getting to the program’s centerpiece, we get two songs with orchestral accompaniment from Italian violinist and composer Santiago Billoni (c. 1700-1763): “Mariposa Inadvertida” with Ms. Peralto and “Celeste Aurora Hermosa” with Ms. Ranney-Mendoza. They are captivating in their simplicity, the singers and orchestra in happy accord.

The program concludes with the title work, Jerusalem’s Al Combate. The first three movements comprise the overture, fast-slow-fast. The entire piece sounds mostly European in design and execution, including hints of Italian, Spanish, and even French influences. In the ensuing movements we hear numbers from bass Vince Wallace and countertenor Alexander Edgemon, supported by the orchestra and the Chicago Arts Chorale. There’s a little here from everyone, for everyone. Any fan of Baroque music would be sure to enjoy so distinguished a production as this.

However, something Navona Records is doing that I don’t especially care for is their decision not to include a printed booklet with the disc, choosing instead to put almost all their information on the CD itself. So you have to place the disc in your computer to access text notes on the works, study scores of the music, even wallpaper and ring tones. While I can understand their decision to save some money on printing costs, I’d rather have had the text notes in my hand to read and enjoy without having to go to the computer screen to find it. What’s more, I couldn’t figure out a simple way to print anything out without using more ink than it was worth (the page backgrounds are in black).

The Navona audio engineers used Nichols Concert Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago to record the music in 2012. Depth sounds a mite limited, but otherwise the sonics are exemplary. We get a good separation of instruments, fine midrange clarity, reasonably strong dynamics, and a well-balanced frequency response. What’s more, voices appear well integrated within the orchestral context. And best of all, we hear a pleasant ambient bloom from the hall, making the whole affair as realistic as it is entertaining.

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


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 John 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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa