Apr 30, 2013

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 “Emperor” (CD review)

Christoph Eschenbach, piano; Hans Werner Henze, London Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94602.

As of this writing, it was forty-odd years ago that “young” Christoph Eschenbach recorded the two Beethoven piano concertos that Brilliant Classics have re-released on the present disc. They were fine performances in their day, and they remain fine performances today. Like Master Beethoven’s works, things of beauty are joys forever.

Although I can’t recall much about Eschenbach’s recording of the Third Piano Concerto (I may never have heard it before now), I have fond memories of his Fifth. I used to own it on Deutsche Grammophon back in the old LP days but never got around to replacing it on CD. Still, it maintained a high place in my collection for many years, so it’s good to have it back where it belongs. Eschenbach combines brilliant technique and careful thought in equal measure to produce what remains one of the best “Emperor” Concerto recordings you can find.

As you probably know, Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, “Emperor,” in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would be Beethoven’s final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of the man’s most-popular pieces of music. However, the work’s epithet, “Emperor,” was not of Beethoven’s doing. In fact, he might not have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor Napoleon. It was most likely Beethoven’s publisher who nicknamed the piece “Emperor” or possibly the fact that Beethoven premiered it in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday. Who knows.

Anyway, any rendition of the “Emperor” must provide a big, bold, imposing opening Allegro, and Eschenbach does just that, the whole performance full of youthful energy, virtuosity, and daring skill. That first movement is as grand as you’d want. Yet Eschenbach offers much poetry; energetic, to be sure, but lyrical as well. Maestro Ozawa keeps the tempos brisk, yet they are never fast or rushed. So both the piano playing and the orchestral accompaniment are in accord, being enthusiastic and entirely within the Romantic tradition. The interpretation is never fierce, while always maintaining that belligerent attitude the composer was famous for.

Eschenbach and Ozawa take the slow movement even slower than usual, reinforcing the romanticism of the piece. Certainly, Eschenbach captures the melancholy of the music as well as anyone ever has. Then the team produce a rousingly heroic finale to cap off a wholly satisfying reading, which never wanders off into extrovert showmanship for its own sake.

Interestingly, DG released this recording of the Fifth Piano Concerto the same year Decca released their own version with Ashkenazy, Solti, and the Chicago Symphony, which tended to overshadow Eschenbach and company. Both recordings are in the same class, though, with Decca’s sound slightly more transparent, if a tad more hard-edged. Interestingly, too, both Eschenbach and Ashkenazy went on to successful conducting careers along with their piano playing.

The accompanying work, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (which opens the program), is not as successful under Eschenbach, Maestro Hans Henze, and the London Symphony Orchestra, although DG’s more-robust recorded sound might make it seem so. It’s not a matter of tempos so much--these are moderate--but contrasts and emphases. In any case, it’s at least a distinctive interpretation, the performers more than willing to stamp the music with the force of their own wills. I’m not sure, though, that it’s all that playful, imaginative, or charming as it is lyrically expressive. Henze seems more intent simply on making us like the music than in allowing us to like it.

DG originally recorded the Fifth Piano Concerto in 1973 at Symphony Hall, Boston, and the Third Piano Concerto in 1971 at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, London. The Fifth seems a little closer than I remembered, yet it’s also a little clearer. I recall the LP sounding somewhat soft and reverberant. So the transfer engineers appear to have cleaned things up a bit. The orchestra could stretch deeper behind the soloist, too; it’s pretty much in the same plane. That aside, the sound comes across naturally enough, warm, a trifle dark, with a strong dynamic presence. The disc also displays a realistic piano sound, crisply articulated.

While in the Third Concerto we find the LSO a bit more clearly recorded than the Boston Symphony, we also find a small, bright edge. Again we get little depth to the image but a very wide stereo spread and an even more forward piano sound than in Boston.

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


Apr 29, 2013

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (HDCD review)

Also, Messiaen: L’Ascension. Christoph Eschenbach; Erich Bergel; Houston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD261.

About a month before listening to this live recording of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), I reviewed another, newer live recording from an even more glamorous orchestra and conductor, the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle, which I liked largely for its lyrical grace. Here, in this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastering of a 1987 recording, we find the Houston Symphony under Maestro Christoph Eschenbach. While the Houston players do not match the Berlin ensemble for sheer virtuosity, Eschenbach and his Houston players turn in a splendid performance, and one can hardly beat the realism of the sound.

As you are aware, The Rite of Spring rightfully takes its place among the most influential and controversial works of the twentieth century. I recall an interview with the composer reminiscing about its premiere: He said people booed him out of the concert hall, and he had to leave by a side door, the music so outraged the audience. Today, of course, we accept the ballet as one of the staples of the classical repertoire. Theatergoers at the premiere, apparently used to elegant, refined dance music in their ballets, had no idea what Stravinsky was up to with his savage, often ferocious beats describing some kind of ancient fertility rite. Nor did they understand the choreography of the first performance. The composer subtitled his work “Pictures from Pagan Russia,” and one can understand why.

The score’s driving rhythms helped shape the path of subsequent twentieth-century music, making Stravinsky not only controversial but genuinely revolutionary. The question these days is how to approach it in the twenty-first century when practically every conductor on Earth, including Stravinsky himself, has already had his or her way with it. Certainly, the music’s combination of lyrical charm, fire, and passion need to come into the equation, and on balance I’d say the composer had things just right (Sony) in his own recording. Other renditions have emphasised the power of the work, like Sir Georg Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony (Decca or JVC); or the fierceness of it, like Riccardo Muti’s performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI) or Leonard Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (Sony); or the analytical aspects, like Boulez’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra.

With Maestro Eschenbach we get a well-proportioned approach, making it a good all-around performance choice; when you add in the beautifully remastered sound, it comes close to being a top-of-the-line choice. If it only weren’t for the slight audience noise and applause, that is. You do have to like the “sound” of a live recording, and I recognize that many people do.

Anyway, in Part One: The Adoration of the Earth, Eschenbach offers up an atmospheric Introduction and Augurs of Spring, with well-developed rhythms that never seem merely like a series of starts and stops. Although the aforementioned Rattle performance has the upper hand in matters of outright beauty and skill, Eschenbach more than compensates with evenly rising tensions and monumental crescendos. This is a ballet one can easily see dancers being able to handle without breaking their necks. When the big, rambunctious moments arrive, the Houston brass and percussion sections rise to the occasion, and Eschenbach delivers the needed excitement.

In Part Two: The Exalted Sacrifice, Eschenbach continues to show his understanding of Stravinsky by never pressing forward too fast but quietly building the atmospheric suspense. Still, he never loses the pulse of the music. Indeed, it is the score’s interludes of near silence that point up the extensive outbursts all the better. It’s a fine, spontaneous, well-thought-out interpretation that bears repetition.

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was in addition an organist and ornithologist, that last pursuit somewhat relevant to the disc’s coupling, L’Ascension (1933). Messiaen admired Stravinsky’s Rite for its rhythms and color, and although he worked largely in a religious context, he combined some of Stravinsky’s technique with his own methods, along with the occasional sounds of birds. Conductor Erich Bergel conducts the Houston Symphony in this one, and the piece makes a fascinating comparison and contrast with Stravinsky’s music, sharing some of its pictorial bearing.

The folks at HDTT transferred the Stravinsky piece (recorded at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, in 1987) from a 16-bit Betamax master converted using a Sony PCM501ES digital processor feeding a Digital Audio Denmark analog-to-digital converter at 24/192 resolution. HDTT remastered the Messiaen piece from a 1979 recording on analog half-track tape, 15 ips, with dbx type 1 encoding (the transfer made from an archival 16-bit Betamax backup) converted as before. So, interestingly, the source material is not particularly “audiophile”; it is HDTT’s meticulous remastering and careful disc transfer that make all the difference.

The results sound superb. You will hear a realistic sense of dimensionality, width, depth, and air, with a lifelike hall ambience. You will also hear good midrange transparency, well-extended highs, and thundering lows. Moreover, you’ll find a strong impact within a context of wide dynamics, further emphasizing the feeling of reality. However, the softest notes almost diminish into silence, tempting one to turn up the gain. I advise against it. The bass whacks in track ten, for instance, sound as though they could do some serious woofer damage. Yet there is an exceptional smoothness about the sound, which is remarkable given the amount of detail involved. Overall, we find a very natural-sounding response without being in-your-face about its focus and clarity. A small degree of audience noise from time to time is the only minor fly in the ointment, along with an unwelcome (at least, by me) burst of applause at the end.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

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


Apr 26, 2013

Bach: The English Suites (CD review)

Richard Egarr, harpsichord. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907591.92 (2-CD set).

The fact is, nobody is quite sure how or why these keyboard pieces got the nickname “English.” Bach probably wrote them early on in his career, maybe around 1715-1723, and they’re among the composer’s earliest keyboard suites. Bach didn’t even call them the “English Suites,” and they didn’t acquire the name until the nineteenth century when one of Bach’s biographers, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, declared that Bach had written them for an English nobleman. However, Forkel never backed up his claim, so who knows. The funny thing is that these suites have more in common with French suites of the period than English, particularly in their preludes.

Anyway, the German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote his six keyboard suites, BWV 806–811, for harpsichord, which Richard Egarr plays on this splendid two-disc set from Harmonia Mundi. Egarr has been the conductor of the Academy of Ancient Music for most of the past decade, but he also continues making solo recordings like this one.

If you've heard any of Egarr’s past work, whether conducting, playing solo, or in accompaniment, you know he favors lively rhythms and expressive phrasing. There is nothing genteel, sedate, or old fashioned about his Bach. The Suites bounce along with maximum zest, yet they never betray their essentially aristocratic origins. Egarr shows great imagination in his interpretations, which in the hands of a few other musicians I’ve heard can seem a lot alike.

Each suite begins with a substantial prelude (becoming longer and more complex as the suites go on), followed by six or seven dance movements--allemandes, courantes, gavottes, gigues, minuets, passepieds, and bourrees. While the melodies pour forth graciously from all the suites, it’s the final three I favor most for their smoother, more-flowing lines. And it’s No. 5 in E minor I like best of all for its noble heart and No. 6 in D minor for its sheer grandness and drama.

Most of all, though, it’s Egarr’s spirited presentations that make it all come alive. The performances and recording sparkle.

A number of years ago, it was 1978 to be exact, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi released one of the best-sounding harpsichord albums I had ever heard, Bach’s Goldberg Variations with Gustav Leonhardt. Since then, the album has been my standard of comparison for other harpsichord recordings. Richard Egarr recorded this Bach program in 2011 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, and it holds up pretty well next to Leonhardt’s disc. Both recordings have a reach-out-and-touch-it quality, although the older Leonhardt recording sounds a tad richer, perhaps because of the miking and engineering involved, perhaps just because of the nature of the different harpsichords used. In any case, the sound of Egarr’s disc is vibrant and clear, miked at an ideal distance for realistic listening.

However, be aware that a harpsichord is a fairly bright instrument compared to the mellowness of a modern piano. So, yes, the instrument can appear little zingy. Frankly, when played too loudly, the sound got on my nerves. But, then, that’s just me; I’ve never cared overmuch for solo harpsichord playing, period. Heard at a normal, natural playback level for the instrument, though, Egarr’s harpsichord sounds quite lifelike, with a glowing high end and plenty of snap in its transient response.

In the booklet insert Egarr writes an informative little essay on the Suites, and the folks at Harmonia Mundi provide the jewel case with a light-cardboard slipcover.

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


Apr 25, 2013

The Bolshoi Experience: Highlights from Russian Operas (SACD review)

Alexander Vedernikov, soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. PentaTone Classics SACD 5186 089.

I would never think of recommending a disc of music I didn’t much care for just because it sounded good, but in the case of The Bolshoi Experience, I admit I didn’t care for much of the content, yet the sound was so good, it was hard to resist.

The album contains selections from Glinka’s A Life for the Czar; Alexander Dargomyszki’s Russalka; Tchaikovsky’s Lolanthe, Queen of Spades, and Mazeppa; Rachmaninov’s Aleko; and Borodin’s Prince Igor. While the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra perform the pieces well, of course, with robust and spirited renditions by the Bolshoi singers and musicians, the arias and such themselves tend to be a little offbeat and even downbeat, with the exception of the familiar Prince Igor Polovtsian Dances that conclude the program. I’d say it’s a collection for the opera connoisseur rather than the casual listener like myself.

Ah, but the sound is splendid. The 2005 hybrid SACD release delivers regular two-channel stereo, SACD two-channel, and SACD five-channel sound. I confess I couldn’t hear much difference between the regular stereo and SACD two-channel stereo layers, to which I listened, although there did appear to be what may have been a touch more dynamic impact in the SACD version. However, that aside, the recording in both formats is splendid.

Not only is the audio balance nigh-well perfect, the imaging and dimensionality are quite convincing.  We get genuine depth in this recording, with the orchestra slightly in front of the soloists, and the soloists slightly in front of the chorus. I hope I don’t sound too clichéd in saying you’ll feel as though you’re in the concert hall listening to this one. Moreover, I’m sure the five-channel version, which I did not hear, would give a listener an even greater sense of reality with a little surround ambience. So, nice sound, even if I found the music a bit tiring.

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


Apr 23, 2013

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale, Volume III (CD review)

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen. CORO COR16109.

If you don’t know by now, The Sixteen is the name of a United Kingdom-based choir and period instruments orchestra, founded by Harry Christophers in 1979, that has been making records and winning awards for over three decades. Since 2001 The Sixteen have been releasing their material under their own record label, CORO.

On the present recording, a choir of about twenty individuals joins about half as many instrumental players to perform the third volume of Selve morale e spirituale by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The title translates to something like “a moral and spiritual forest,” and it contains a collection of liturgical works the composer wrote late in his career, around 1641. This third program in The Sixteen’s series includes twelve selections, including some with full choir, some with a doubling of strings, and one solo number. It’s a varied and, as always from this source, enjoyable anthology.

As we would expect, The Sixteen execute each of the numbers superbly, their singing clearly articulated, their phrasing precise, and their musical expression uniquely strong. They begin the program with the second Laudate Dominum, two psalms for eight voices, two violins, and organ. It exemplifies Monteverdi’s dictum: “recitar cantando” (“speak through singing”), meaning it’s essential for the singers to interpret the words intuitively, giving them more freedom of expression. Thus, a given set of words might have different inflections each time the singers perform them.

The first and second of Monteverdi’s settings for the Magnificat, the hymn of the Virgin Mary in Luke, 1:46–55, beginning “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” used as a canticle at evensong or vespers, are especially impressive. This is so even though the composer left the parts for altos and bass out of the first section when he sent it to the printers. Here, the voices of The Sixteen typify their blending together as one, producing the effect of a single instrument. It’s not accidental that Monteverdi spent the last thirty years of his life as choirmaster of St. Mark’s in Venice, the center of much of the ceremonial and liturgical life of the city. One can hear in the music how the Church must have used the piece on special occasions.

In the middle of the program we find the solo Pianto della Madonna “Iam moriar, mi fili,” sung by soprano Grace Davidson. It is something of a showstopper, exquisitely beautiful.

And so it goes through over seventy-six minutes of music. The singing is creative, dramatic, perfectly attuned to the needs of each selection, and precisely executed without sounding academic or stuffy. Favorites? Certainly, the first Magnificat that closes the show in a grand, formal manner; but also Beatus vir (Secondo) and E questa vita un lampo for their vitality and imagination; and Fonfitebor tibi Dominine (Secondo) for the simple, straightforward expressiveness of its three voices in solo and combination.

The CORO producers made the album at St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, in May and November of 2011. The sound they obtained there is quite lovely, the voices a trifle forward but smooth and natural, while remaining clear and detailed. The limited orchestral support is likewise realistic, and the two groups appear well integrated, neither totally dominating the aural setting. A light, agreeable hall resonance reminds one that the music is liturgical in nature, after all.

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


Apr 22, 2013

Noah (CD review)

Noah Stewart, tenor. Various orchestras and conductors. Decca 2775385.

Let me begin, unfairly or not, with a few minor quibbles. First, the American tenor Noah Stewart may have a fine voice, but it seems rather presumptuous of the album’s producers to call this, his very first recording, simply Noah, as though they expected everyone to know exactly who Noah Stewart was and how important he had become. I mean, not even the Beatles released the “White Album” with just their name on the cover until well into their career as a group. Second, while, as I say, Mr. Stewart possesses a fine operatic singing voice, the album doesn’t really give him much of a chance to display it, the album being composed mainly of pop material. Third, the songs seem almost randomly assembled, willy-nilly, from gospel to popular to folk to stage to classical. And, fourth, the fourteen numbers on the disc only amount to some forty-six minutes, about right for a pop album but hardly what we expect from a classical album, even if it is a crossover release. There, now that I’ve gotten that off my mind, I can continue in a more positive vein.

Stewart, born in Harlem, NY, in 1978, attended the Juilliard School before rising to prominence in the 2011 production of Madama Butterfly. According to his biography, in 2012 his album Noah, the one reviewed here, reached number fourteen on the UK Albums Chart and number one on the UK Classical Album Chart. I can understand it’s rise on the pop chart, but I’m not at all sure why it rose so high on the classical chart, as it contains only two selections that could one could even vaguely consider “classical.” Oh, well, it’s the music that counts, and he does a nice job with it.

Stewart possesses a big, strong, firm, well-controlled voice. The opening number, “Without a Song,” demonstrates the clarity of his singing. The traditional “Deep River” shows his versatility as a popular entertainer. Puccini’s “Recondita Armonia” finds him in more vocally gymnastic form, and he negotiates the hurdles pretty well, if perhaps with a few too many trills. Nevertheless, he keeps the thrills intact, despite the reverb the sound engineers apply to the proceedings.

And so it goes. With a number of different orchestras, choruses, and small ensembles accompanying him from one selection to another, we get perhaps a more-varied assortment of material on the program than one can easily digest. It’s almost like a “greatest hits” album, if one could say the man has greatest hits. Among other tunes are “Camps de Oro,” a lovely “Cara Mia,” and effecting renditions of “Hallelujah,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” and Shenandoah.”

The jury is probably still out on Mr. Stewart. It’s hard to find anything seriously to fault, yet he doesn’t give us nearly enough to work with. The closing “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night” close the show in quiet yet powerful fashion. While it’s all quite pleasant, don’t we have Andrea Bocelli for these kinds of things?

To compound the eccentricity of the disc’s somewhat scattershot collection of tunes, Decca recorded the album all over the place: MG Sound, Vienna; Sarm Studio, London; Germano Studios, NY; The Johann Strauss Hall, Vienna; GOSH! Studios, Vienna; Hit Galaxy Studio 2, Vienna; Air Studios, London, and The Pool Studio, London, the company releasing the product in England in 2012 and in America in 2013. The sonic results vary from one track to the next but sound typically “pop,” meaning the voice is always front and center, with various accompaniments busy in the background. The highest, loudest notes can get a touch bright, fuzzy, and raspy on some tracks, and there is a very wide dynamic range with which to contend, so keep an eye on the volume control. The overall sound is OK but nowhere near what we have come to expect from Decca’s opera recordings over the years.

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


Apr 19, 2013

Sousa: Music Wind Band, Vol. 11 (CD review)

Keith Brion, The Royal Swedish Navy Band. Naxos 8.559690.

The folks at Naxos continue their relentless march toward recording every march that American “March King” John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) ever wrote with this eleventh volume in their series of Sousa discs. Again it’s bandmaster Keith Brion leading the charge, this time with the Royal Swedish Navy Band. The music may be less familiar this time out, but Brion’s performances are as vigorous and authoritative as ever.

Maestro Brion has been doing this sort of thing for a very long time as a frequent conductor of concerts throughout the world and as the leader of his own New Sousa Band. And speaking of a very long time, a booklet note tells us that the “Royal Swedish Navy Band has its roots in the 1680’s and has operated uninterruptedly since then.” Now, that’s old.

Anyway, given that Naxos are pretty far along in their Sousa series, most listeners will probably find a lot of the material in Volume 11 unfamiliar. Nevertheless, there are some pleasing things here, not the least of which is the number that opens the show, the Mother Hubbard March. Sousa based it on a selection of nursery rhymes, and it sounds entirely delightful. You can hear a snippet of it below.

The program proceeds through twelve more items, most of them marches like Keeping Step with the Union, Wolverine, Globe and Eagle, On Parade, Liberty Loan, and Guide Right. Yet along the way we also hear several fantasies, settings for popular tunes, like In Parlor and Street (the longest piece on the disc at over eighteen minutes), In Pulpit and Pew, and Sweet Adeline. They are a bit unusual for Sousa and all the more charming for it.

As always, Maestro Brion’s conducting seems impeccable. He imbues each work with vitality, excitement, and full-throated military flair. What’s more, the Royal Swedish Navy Band, which employs thirty full-time professional musicians, play the music with polish, dexterity, and enthusiasm. Let’s just say they’re darned good at what they do.

Favorites? Well, as opposed to hearing just marches, I found it refreshing to hear the fantasies. In addition, there’s a pleasant little overture called Tally Ho that is quite melodious, and there’s Bonnie Annie Laurie, built around the old Scottish ballad, which closes the show in high style. Probably the most rousing march, though, is We Are Coming, one that will definitely get the blood to racing.

I also found Brion’s booklet notes on each selection worth reading. They reveal his personal involvement with the tunes.

Although I often find recordings of wind bands sounding overly warm and veiled, shrouded in resonance, it’s not so here. Naxos recorded the music at the Admiralty Church (Ulrica Pia), Karlskrona, Sweden, in 2010, and they obtained excellent results. The band sounds beautifully open and airy, with remarkably good midrange transparency for such an ensemble. Transient response and dynamic impact also sound good, making for a lifelike sonic presentation.

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


Apr 18, 2013

Bridge: The Sea (CD review)

Also, Enter Spring; Summer; Two Poems for Orchestra. James Judd, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.557167.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is one of those composers whom people may know better today as the teacher of Benjamin Britten than as a leading exponent of the British pastoral movement of the early twentieth century.

Be that as it may, Bridge followed a career in Romanticism until the First World War changed his disposition and outlook on music. From rich, flowing, descriptive tone poems his music took a turn toward harsher, more dissonant, more modern paths, and subsequently his popularity declined. Critics nowadays tend to praise his later, more-mature works, but that may be a reaction against Romanticism itself, which is only just beginning to make a comeback in contemporary classical music. Like it or not, however, it is Bridge’s early work that continues to sell and, I assume, to give people pleasure.

This Naxos disc brings together three of the composer’s best-known tone poems, The Sea, Enter Spring, and Summer, and it adds a couple of brief Poems for Orchestra, based on short poems by Richard Jeffries, for good measure.

While all of the music is delightful, the highlight of the disc is The Sea, sounding for all the world like Debussy’s La Mer. I suppose you could say of the early Bridge that he was England’s answer to France’s Debussy and Ravel, weaving intricate little tapestries of light and color, musical portraits that impressionistically and expressionistically touch the heart and soul. For instance, he divides The Sea into four movements--“Seascape,” “Sea-Foam,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm”--all of them pretty much self-explanatory. If you like the descriptive qualities of La Mer, you’ll like The Sea, which Bridge wrote just a few years after Debussy wrote La Mer, and it must have influenced him.

Maestro James Judd presents each of the pieces fluidly and meaningfully, never stopping to linger too long for sentimental reasons yet never relegating the music to the tired-warhorse bin, either. It’s a nice, forthright approach that captures most of the beauty and charm of Bridge’s work.

There are two “however’s,” though. The first “however” is that this Naxos release goes head-to-head with the justly famous 1975 recording of much the same material by Sir Charles Groves on EMI, which to my ears is more transparent sonically and more idiomatic interpretively. Moreover, the EMI disc contains not only The Sea, Enter Spring, and Summer, but the tone poems Cherry Ripe and Lament as well. The second “however” concerns the counterarguments that the budget-priced Naxos disc is cheaper by a couple of dollars than the mid-priced EMI disc, that the Naxos disc may be easier to find, and that a lot people will prefer the slightly softer, more-muted Naxos sound to the brighter, sharper-edged EMI sound.

In any case, a person can’t go wrong with the Naxos disc. It’s beautiful music, and it’s beautiful sound.

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


Apr 16, 2013

Auerbach: Celloquy (CD review)

24 Preludes for violoncello and piano; Sonata for violoncello and piano; Postlude for violoncello and piano. Ani Aznavoorian, cello; Lera Auerbach, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 137.


No, it’s not the distinguished American parapsychologist and chocolatier Loyd Auerbach. It’s the distinguished Russian-born American composer and pianist Lera Auerbach (b. 1973), who calls her present album Celloquy. No, again, “celloquy” is not a word you’ll find in the dictionary. More about that in a minute. 

Now, I have to admit that I am not too keen on most modern classical music. It appears to me that many modern composers of the past fifty or seventy-five years have concentrated more on creating their own unique musical sound worlds than on entertaining their audience. Indeed, it can even seem that practically the only orchestral composers still interested in things like melody and harmony and such are the ones working for Hollywood, people like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, composers that critics often look down upon as not really important because they take into consideration the preferences of their listeners. You know, like they actually want to produce stuff that people might enjoy. I exaggerate, of course, and I’m obviously a barbarian. I suppose one can say the same sort of thing about most modern artists; in their zeal for creativity, they feel they must move away from the past and develop something new and different, whether audiences like it or not. Audiences can catch up later.

However, Cedille Records just as often showcases modern composers who do reach out to their listeners, and such a case is that of Ms. Auerbach. Sorta. She begins the program with 24 Preludes for violoncello and piano, which she wrote in 1999. You’ll recall that a prelude, besides being a piece of music intended as an introduction, is a relatively short, independent instrumental composition, free in form and resembling an improvisation. Her preludes are obviously in the latter category, following in the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and the cycles of preludes from Chopin, Scriabin, and Shostakovich.

The composer’s 24 Preludes are nearly an hour long, some of them eerie, some of them playful, many of them melancholy, wistful, even forlorn. These latter moods work especially well with the naturally mellow, somber sound of the cello, played by Ani Aznavoorian and nicely complemented by Ms. Auerbach on piano.

Ms. Auerbach writes of her Preludes, “I wished to create a continuum that would allow these short pieces to be united as one single composition.” So each prelude is brief--one to five minutes--but forms a part of the larger, unified whole. Only listeners can determine for themselves how successful she was. I found the occasional strident contrasts among the mostly lyrical sections more distracting than frightening or enlightening. Still, the work in its totality needs the variety, and no one can like every note of every musical composition ever written.

More important is the sublime beauty of some of the Preludes, as with the excerpt of No. 12 at the end of the review. And equally important is how well Ms. Aznavoorian and Ms. Auerbach play them, both of them virtuoso performers.

Then, too, is the fact that not everything we hear is as it seems. Ms. Auerbach appears to have had a little fun with these works, throwing in teasing hints of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Offenbach, Bartok, and the like. She even suggests she included hints of the rock band Queen in No. 17. OK, I didn’t notice it, but I’ll take her word for it.

Auerbach wrote the first of the disc’s companion works, the Sonata for violoncello and piano, in 2002. It’s in a typical four-movement structure and alternates between passages of intense delight and ones of discordant energy. Although the piece was a bit too eccentric for my taste, one can sense the emotional turmoil throughout and certainly appreciate the superb musicianship of the two performers.

The final number on the program is the little Postlude for violoncello and piano, using a prepared piano; that is, one altered by placing things on the strings to produce new sounds. The piece is actually a transformation of the Prelude No. 12 heard below but distorted in various weird ways. It’s fascinating in its own bizarre manner.

Cedille producer and engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the music at The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, in August of 2012. The sound is smooth and natural, miked at a moderate distance that provides both detail and warmth. We also hear a mild reverberation lending a soft glow to the proceedings. It’s all very soothing yet very clear and focused.

Oh, and about that title, Celloquy. Apparently, it’s an expression of Ms. Auerbach’s own devising, a clever play on the word colloquy, meaning a conversation or dialogue. In this case, I assume she refers to the dialogue between cello and piano as they express their emotions to one another in music.

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


Apr 15, 2013

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (HQCD review)

Also, Capriccio Italien; Marche Slave. Kenneth Alwyn, London Symphony Orchestra and the Band of the Grenadier Guards. HDTT HQCD276.

Maestro Kenneth Alwyn’s account of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is one of which a person can say it has truly stood the test of time. The recording is famous for several reasons: First and foremost, the performance and sound remain topflight. Second, back in 1958 it was the first stereo recording of the 1812 ever released. Third, it was the earliest of Kenneth Alwyn’s recordings for any label. And fourth, it famously used slowed-down gunshots instead of real cannons, which is perhaps why they haven’t quite the bottom end of some other recordings, like those on Telarc’s disc with Kunzel, Mercury’s with Dorati, or EMI’s with Previn. But they’re fine as they are.

As of this writing, the only available CD’s of Alwyn’s 1812 were Japanese and Australian imports (the Japanese edition costing your firstborn), so again the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) come to the rescue, providing a remastering that belies the recording’s age. It is a topflight release.

Alwyn’s way with the 1812 is steady and exuberant from the very start. The minor drawback is that when it gets to the end, there isn’t the usual contrast and excitement one expects. Then, too, the horns are a bit shaky in places, and when the cannons come in they sound a little too thin to make much of an impact. In addition, the concluding accompaniment of bells seems a tad Raggedy Annie in the big, splashy conclusion. That said, Alwyn’s quick-paced reading manages to involve the listener from the outset and never lets go. And whether one likes the artificial cannons or doesn’t like their lack of bottom-end thump, they do sound the way I’d guess most listeners think cannons should sound, with a very dramatic roll of thunder. Moreover, the conductor provides an engaging interpretation that has entertained audiences for well over half a century; it’s hard to argue against that.

The conductor’s performances of the March Slave and Capriccio Italien that accompany the 1812 come off even better for me and must rank high on anyone’s list of top choices. The conductor never treats them as warhorses, instead developing a good deal of energy and excitement in the performances. Maybe the Capriccio will sound to some ears a mite rushed; so be it. The music comes off sunny enough, with plenty of good cheer and orchestral thrills. In the central section Alwyn seems so positively sunny and relaxed, you’d think he was conducting from the terrace of a southern Italian villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Collectors will want to have this disc in any case. I don’t blame them.

HDTT remastered the recording from a Decca LP, originally made in 1958 at London’s Kingsway Hall by producer Michael Williamson and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson. As I was listening to the HQCD, I wrote down the following descriptions of the sound: Quiet. Wide. Clean. Detailed. Well defined. Close. Solid. Rounded. Listenable. Taut. Impressive in its stereo directionality. Natural, if slightly too analytical.

The recording’s most distinguishing features are, in fact, its superior clarity, definition, transient impact, left-to-right stereo spread, and wide frequency range. There is virtually no background noise, the remastering engineer having no doubt applied a degree of noise reduction. Depth perception sounds limited, though. Bass is deep enough, although the cannons don’t have the wallop of some competing recordings. While the sound overall is not so transparent in the 1812 as that for Previn, Dorati, or Kunzel, it is just as realistic in its own, somewhat softer, flatter manner.

Let me put it another way: HDTT’s remastering is the best version of the recording we have yet to get for home listening. Period.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

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


Apr 12, 2013

Gal: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Symphony No. 4. Kenneth Woods, Orchestra of the Swan. Avie AV2232.

For a lot of potential buyers, it may be bad enough that they have trouble recognizing the name of Viennese teacher, pianist, and composer Hans Gal (1890-1987), to say nothing of trying to figure out why the album under review couples Gal's Second Symphony with the Fourth Symphony of German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Well, actually, the connection is somewhat nebulous but has something to do with people often "misunderstanding" both Gal and Schumann and with Gal having once described the Schumann Fourth as the composer's "most ingenious experiment in form." Fair enough, I suppose, if stretching a point. The main thing is that Maestro Kenneth Woods and his Orchestra of the Swan play both symphonies exceedingly well, which is all we really want.

Gal wrote his Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 53 in 1943, at a time when the world was in the throes of war and Gal himself was dealing with personal tragedy, the suicide of his eighteen-year-old son. Therefore, the music reflects some of that strife; yet it is mostly serene, contemplative, comforting, lyrical, and occasionally lighthearted.

Maestro Woods and his team play up the more tranquil sections deftly, like the long, slow introduction and the elegiac Adagio. Still, Woods finds himself at home in the sprightly, energetic moods of the second-movement scherzo as well, catching its bouncing rhythms in easy fashion.

The composer said he considered the symphony’s big, central Adagio “more consolation than funeral music,” even though it does have a very solemn tone. Nevertheless, Woods manages to make it quite affecting, quite beautiful, quite graceful; at least until the midway point when the high violins disrupt the tranquility of the setting. This is probably as close as we get in the music to Gal’s private adversities, but Woods does not overdramatize or over sentimentalize it. By the time the finale draws to a close, we recognize, at least in hands of Woods, a memorable and perhaps unfairly underappreciated work.

With Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, from 1841, we’re on more-familiar ground. Schumann actually wrote it as his second symphony, so it’s still a relatively youthful work, if revolutionary for its time. The interrelated themes and movements make it flow almost as though it were a long, single piece, and Woods does his best to help us hear the interconnected course of the music in this 1852 revised version. While the music remains stormy, tempestuous, rocky, and Romantic, of course, one does notice the similarities in mood and subject matter to Gal’s piece, so I guess the coupling works in its oddball way after all.

Avie recorded the album in December of 2011 at Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The sound they obtained is nicely dimensional, with both depth and width in the orchestral spread. Although the midrange is not exactly crystalline, it sounds well detailed, smooth, clean, and natural. The hall throws a pleasingly warm resonance over the proceedings, making the music easy on the ear without in any way clouding its definition. 

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


Apr 11, 2013

Honegger: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Pacific 231, Mouvement symphonique, Pastorale de’ete, Rugby. Takuo Yuasa, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.555974.

Because most other record companies produce maybe one or two discs a month, it isn’t hard to decide which one or ones to review. But because the folks at Naxos usually produce up to a dozen new discs a month, it’s a little more problematical which ones to request for review. Sometimes, they’re mediocre. Sometimes one lucks out and finds a gem. This one is a gem.

Performances and sound are top-notch for this recital of Honegger orchestral music, every bit the equal of David Zinman’s fine Decca recording of some years back and at up to half the price. It’s a bargain that’s hard to resist, especially if you’ve always wanted a topflight Pacific 231, possibly Honegger’s most-famous work, but haven’t cared to pay full price for the accompanying things on a full-price disc.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), like other composers I’ve mentioned before, was one of those modernists of the first half of the twentieth century who nonetheless clung to the last vestiges of Romanticism. We get visions in his work of emotional power, impressionism, and tuneful melodies aplenty. It’s a felicitous arrangement.

The album begins with his Symphony No 3, subtitled “Liturgique.” From 1945, it is no celebration of Allied victory in World War II but a liturgical lament for the souls lost in the War and the devastation the War incurred, ending in a prayer for future peace. It is quite a powerful and moving composition that deserves wider recognition, and Maestro TakuoYuasa plays it in such a way as to convey its varying moods significantly.

The four short tone pictures, Pacific 231, Rugby, Mouvement symphonique, and Pastorale de’ete, Yuasa plays just as well and express their visual images well, too, even if Honegger said he wasn’t trying explicitly to create any specific pictures.

The sound is nothing short of terrific. It’s one of Naxos’s best efforts, with not only a wide stereo spread, wide frequency response, and wide dynamics, but with one of the best recreations of orchestral depth I’ve heard on any of Naxos’s releases (or anyone else’s). While I noted a touch of congestion in the loudest passages, the sound is very impressive for the relatively few bucks invested.

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


Apr 9, 2013

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Apollon musagete. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI Classics 50999 7 23611 2.

Sir Simon Rattle remains one of the more glamorous big-name conductors in the world today and the Berlin Philharmonic one of the greatest of all orchestras. So it’s always a welcome treat when they release a new recording. The only minor snag is that either Rattle himself or the realities of the economy too often demand the making of those recordings live, a process I don’t usually like. There are maybe a handful of live recordings I’ve ever felt sounded as good as or better than a studio production. Be that as it may, EMI made this new issue in concert, and for me it diminishes the sound somewhat. But that’s just me, and I know that many listeners prefer the excitement and spontaneity of the live experience, and, fortunately, EMI spare us any applause.

Anyway, this time Rattle and his Berlin players tackle Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1947 revision) by the Russian-born U.S. composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The Rite, of course, is among the most influential and controversial works of the twentieth century, and I remember reading an interview with the composer reminiscing about its premiere: He said people booed him out of the concert hall, and he had to leave by a side door, the music so outraged the audience. Today, we accept the ballet as one of the staples of the classical repertoire.

Theatergoers at the premiere, apparently used to elegant, refined dance music in their ballets, had no idea what Stravinsky was up to with his savage, often ferocious beats describing some kind of ancient fertility rite. The composer subtitled it “Pictures from Pagan Russia,” and one can understand why.

The score’s driving rhythms helped shape the path of subsequent twentieth-century music, making Stravinsky not only controversial but genuinely revolutionary. The question is how to approach it in the twenty-first century when practically every conductor on Earth, including Rattle in an earlier EMI recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has already had his or her way with it. Certainly, it still needs a good deal of fire and passion in its presentation, such as the renditions we’ve had from Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca or JVC), Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI), Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony), and the composer himself (Sony). What we find here is Maestro Rattle and his virtuosic Berlin players coming through with plenty of civility and an appropriate enthusiasm when needed.

In the Rite’s “First Part: Adoration of the Earth,” Rattle approaches the score in a mature and dignified manner, particularly during the opening sections. The “Dances of the Young Girls” builds to a befittingly solid climax, if without some of the energy we hear from the aforementioned Solti or Muti. Rattle contents himself more with the beauty of the music than with all of its overt vitality. Even so, he captures the score’s rhythmic surges pretty well, maintaining a steady forward momentum throughout.

Thus, what we get here is a cultured approach to the first part of the score, with not quite enough red-blooded, gut-thumping liveliness in the reading for my taste. However, this is only a comparative reaction after living so long with Solti and Muti, as I say. In his own manner, Rattle presents a good argument for the music’s inner pleasures. And, in any case, when the conductor does let loose, as in the “Dance of the Earth,” he is as exciting as anyone.

In the "Second Part: The Sacrifice," Stravinsky combined an exceptional lyricism with an intense desire to conjure up a full breakthrough of spring after a frozen Russian winter. It's where the composer put his real meat and potatoes, and it's here that I enjoyed Rattle's interpretation a bit more. Maybe he just wanted to work into things slowly for a bigger effect at the end. So, in Rattle's hands, we get an emphasis on the atmosphere and poetic beauty of the score, with the more rambunctious parts taking care of themselves. Nevertheless, it's hard to forget the Solti, Bernstein, Muti, and Stravinsky recordings, along with others from Boulez (Sony) and Nott (Tudor) that also provided an abundance of beauty and excitement in the work.

Standing in stark contrast to the wild gyrations of The Rite we get as companion pieces on the disc the relatively traditional (though modern) Symphony of Wind Instruments and the neoclassical ballet Apollon musagete (the 1947 version of the original premiered in 1928). The latter is particularly lovely, sounding as much Romantic as it does classical. Rattle and his team perform both works wonderfully, with much luster and polish.

The disc’s sound is ultra quiet for its being recorded in concert. EMI made The Rite in 2012 and the other pieces in 2007 and 2011 at the Philharmonie, Berlin, where we find no noise whatsoever in the recording, no coughs, no wheezes, no shuffling of feet or paper, and, as I said earlier, no applause. I suspect, though, that EMI applied a degree of noise reduction because the sound is somewhat soft and almost too smooth in its response. While it doesn’t affect detailing much, it makes the slightly close-up miking a bit disconcerting for ultimate realism; one would expect a brighter, more well-defined sound at that range. In addition, the low end and dynamics vary a bit, from a little restricted to strong and punchy, with an especially impressive bass drum. Highs sound well extended, which is good, but depth is a tad limited, which isn’t, putting the overall sonic presentation on the dicey side. No doubt, though, it’s easy on the ear.

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


Apr 8, 2013

Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies (CD review)

Sierra Boggess, Anna-Jane Casey, Joyce DiDonato, Maria Ewing, Julian Ovenden, David Pittsinger, the Maida Vale Singer; John Wilson, The John Wilson Orchestra. EMI 50999 3 19301 2 3.

Music composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) were among the most influential writing teams in Broadway musical history, producing five shows in the 1940’s and 50’s that were not only stage hits but movie hits as well: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. In 2010 at the BBC Proms, The John Wilson Orchestra performed selections from the Rodgers and Hammerstein playbook to outstanding success; the present album is an outgrowth of that success, fifteen tracks from the five movie musicals, using the original or reconstructed motion picture orchestrations for each tune. With an all-star cast of performers doing the solos, the album can hardly miss.

The program begins with the Overture/Main Title, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma, the latter two items sung by English stage actor and singer Julian Ovenden, joined by American actress and singer Sierra Boggess in the second. Conductor John Wilson maintains a jaunty pace, with plenty of verve and excitement to the music, and the singers are splendid.

Next come five tracks from Carousel, starting with “The Carousel Waltz,” the orchestra sounding very big and positive and lilting yet displaying a heady forward pulse. After that are “If I Loved You,” with Ms. Boggess again and Ovenden; “June Is Busting Out All Over,” with American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the Maida Vale Singers; “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” again with Ms. DiDonato; and “Soliloquy,” with Ovenden. Ms. Boggess’s voice is charming, and Ms. DiDonato’s operatic voice is particularly persuasive.

South Pacific gets three tracks: “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” with English singer, dancer, and stage actress Anna-Jane Casey and the Maida Vale Singers; “Bali Ha’i,” with American opera singer and actress Maria Ewing and the Maida Vale Singers; and a medley of “Twin Soliloquies,” “Unspoken Thoughts,” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” with Ms. Casey and stage, concert, and operatic bass-baritone David Pittsinger. Ms. Ewing is excellent; Ms. Casey seems not only a case of perfect casting but typical of the kind of Broadway bravura audiences expect; and Mr. Pittsinger’s voice is appropriately commanding.

For unknown reasons, the album includes only one number from The King and I: the Overture.  Fortunately, Wilson and his orchestra play it well, and the music contains most of the familiar melodies.

The program concludes with three tracks from The Sound of Music: the Main Title and Preludium; “I Have Confidence,” with Sierra Boggess; and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” with Joyce DiDonato and the Maida Vale Singers. All of the voices seem well suited to their roles, and even the most fastidious fans of these movie musicals will enjoy how the various performers render anew the music and songs.

EMI recorded the music at Abbey Road Studios, London, and Chapman Recording and Mastering, Kansas, in 2012. The sound they obtained spreads out very wide across the speakers, with something of an exaggerated sectional effect. It makes for a spectacular presentation but not necessarily a very realistic one. As in the case with most soundtracks (even though this isn’t one), the sound has little depth and appears rather compartmentalized. The overall tone, though, is warm and smooth, with decent detailing, modestly firm definition, and stable transient impact. It seems about what I would imagine most fans want from movie and stage sound.

The package includes an excellent set of booklet notes and illustrations that provides most of the information you could possibly want to know about the composers and their music. With one exception: I couldn’t find any track times. It seems an odd omission, maybe an oversight.

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


Apr 5, 2013

Bach: Suites Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (CD review)

Hopkinson Smith, theorbo. Naive E 8937.

Like many other composers of his time, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) reused and rewrote much of his earlier material, often transcribing entire works for new instruments. So it probably would not have surprised him that musicians today are doing the same things with his music. Theorobist Hopkinson Smith follows up his successful album of Bach's Cello Suites 4, 5 & 6 transcribed for lute with the present disc of Nos. 1, 2 & 3, saying he transcribed the latter for theorbo because he finds the instrument more ideally suited in sound and aesthetic to the first three suites.

Fair enough, especially since Bach himself transcribed at least one of the suites for lute. Indeed, as Smith points out, “more than half of the continental lute music of the Renaissance is made up of adaptations of vocal works.” Whatever, the approach works and provides exquisite entertainment.

The theorbo, if you’re not sure, is a now-obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. The biggest difference between the theorbo and the cello, of course, is that as one would do with any lute, one plucks the theorbo rather than using a bow. Think, then, of the cello suites on guitar, if it helps.

Smith performs the suites gently, with conviction and ease, creating from them easy-flowing renditions. He adds sweetness and refinement throughout the interpretations, making them rich and well thought out, as friendly to the ear as they are to the mind.

The theorbo imparts a kind of Spanish or Mediterranean spirit to the music, helped no doubt by Smith’s ardent, sunny, bighearted playing. There is nothing rushed here, only soothing, relaxed music making.

For these performances Smith tells us he uses a type of theorbo “invented and developed by Sylvius Weiss in the 1720s,” which has “greater body size and longer string length to produce a fuller sound.” Smith simply calls it the “German theorbo,” and there is no question it works well with the music.

The suites, as you know, contain a little something for everyone, filled as they are with beautiful melodies, harmonies, and inventions of all sorts, but in Smith’s hands they are mostly lyrical. As he explains it, the “tempos may occasionally be somewhat of a surprise to listeners used to the solo cello version. With the resonance and fuller harmonies of the German theorbo, one tends to roll more with some of the more robust dance rhythms of these suites, with no need to rush through. The silence beyond the music is the constant friend and companion of any player of early plucked instruments.”

In other words, don’t expect the usual lickety-split of a period-instruments performance. Smith takes his time with the music, producing uniquely serene, lovely, contemplative renderings of the suites that reveal endless new pleasures.

The Naive engineers recorded the music in 2012 at the MC2: Grenoble, France. They miked the theorbo moderately close, providing a clean, warm sound that complements the rich tone of the instrument well. One could hardly ask for a more-precise, more-natural sonic presentation, very sharp, very clear, yet very resonant and natural.

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


Apr 4, 2013

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, Night on Bald Mountain; Khovanshchina; Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia. Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4004.

As you know, Modest Mussorgsky wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a collection of piano pieces, each short work describing a different painting or drawing by the composer’s friend, Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky’s idea was to create a series of tone poems as a tribute to the artist by depicting impressions of ten of Hartmann’s paintings hanging in a gallery and being viewed by passersby. Mussorgsky’s music never really impressed the public, however, until Maurice Ravel orchestrated them many years later in the form we know them here.

Maestro Leonard Slatkin and his St. Louis players brought these oft-recorded works to disc in 1975, but I wish he had taken more time to recreate the color and character of each portrait. As it is, he seemed to spend more time trying to elaborate on the beauty of the music rather than interpret the individual peculiarities of the paintings. The various “Promenades,” for instance, seem hurried, as though the visitors to the gallery were rushing to find an exit; the “Ballet of the Chicks” doesn’t seem too much different from “Children Quarreling at Play”; the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs” doesn’t have as much energy as I’d like; and “The Great Gate of Kiev” seems to lack necessary grandeur. For a definitive rendering, compare Fritz Reiner (RCA/JVC) and his Chicago Orchestra, where every miniature has its own unique and vivid distinctions.

The Khovanshchina excerpts and Night on Bald Mountain come off better, with a little more flair. Best of all, however, is Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, which Slatkin draws out beautifully, conveying a real sense of being in a separate place and time.

Vox originally made the recordings in two-channel stereo and four-channel quadraphonics.  Mobile Fidelity remastered them in their Ultradisc UHR GAIN 2 series, on two layers of a hybrid SACD, meaning you can play it in stereo on a regular CD player or in discrete four channel on a Super Audio CD player. In two-channel SACD stereo, as I listened to it, the Mussorgsky sounds velvety smooth and rich, with plenty of hall resonance, maybe even a little too much.

Bass is strong, too, as is treble when present. On the other hand, the Borodin sounds even better, slightly clearer and more transparent. I wondered about this and then noticed that the original cover jacket for the Mussorgsky LP lists only the Mussorgsky works, not the Borodin. There is no mention in Mo-Fi’s booklet, but it led me to wonder if Vox hadn’t recorded the Borodin at another time and place. I don’t know. But it does sound very marginally better than the Mussorgsky, which in its own right sounds pretty good.

I would guess that this release may sound best played through a dedicated SACD system in multichannel rather than the ordinary two-channel stereo I heard. Although I wasn’t bowled over by Slatkin’s rather conservative interpretations, I’d say if you have a multichannel SACD system, you might want to try and sample the sound. 

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


Apr 2, 2013

Haydn: String Quartets (CD review)

String Quartets in G major, Op. 76, No. 1; in D major, Op 20, No. 4; in D major, Op. 64, No. 5; in D minor, Op. 103; “Hin ist alle meine Kraft.” Endellion String Quartet. Warner Classics 2564 65720-7

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was to the string quartet what Vivaldi was to the
tone poem, what Bach was to counterpoint, what Beethoven and Berlioz were to orchestration, what Haydn himself was to the symphony, and what the Aflac duck and the Geico gecko are to insurance companies. Haydn didn’t invent the mediums, but he refined and popularized them. It seems only fair that people today call Haydn the “Father of the Symphony” and the “Father of the Quartet.”

Haydn wrote over sixty-nine authenticated string quartets and more than half a dozen others he may have written. A close friend of Mozart, a teacher of Beethoven, and instrumental in the development of not only quartets and symphonies but sonata form and the piano trio, Haydn was among the most-influential composers of all time. The present disc by the Endellion String Quartet offers a brief but illuminating overview of the man’s string quartets, providing three complete and two incomplete examples of his output, spanning many years of his work.

The program begins with the String Quartet in G major, Op. 76, No. 1, written in 1797. It’s a mature yet ebullient piece, played with cultured brilliance by the Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson, violin; Ralph de Souza, violin; Garfield Jackson, viola; David Waterman, cello). This high level of performance shouldn’t surprise one; the group have been together for almost thirty-five years as of this writing, with only a single personnel change in all that time. They play with a finely honed style and an equally committed passion, their instrumental sound melding together like golden honey.

Anyway, the first of the Op. 76 quartets is a good example of Haydn’s latter work. It’s full of high spirits, with a serene, hymn-like Adagio, a zippy Minuetto in scherzo form, and a wholly dramatic finale. As always, there’s a little something here for everyone, the sum total made to seem effortless.

Next, we hear the String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4, dating from 1772. The piece never really catches fire until its third movement, when its gypsy inflections come to the fore. Then the Endellion players give them full measure in the Finale.

The third item on the disc is the String Quartet in D major, Op. 64, No. 5, from 1790. It derives its nickname, “The Lark,” from the violin tune soaring above the lower instruments. It’s lovely, especially in the hands of the accomplished Endellion musicians, who seem to give it an extra lyricism.

The final two works on the program are brief and incomplete, coming from late in Haydn’s career. They supply an interesting curiosity and show us that even in the face of declining health and an ever-increasing workload, the man could still create music of sublime beauty. The Endellion Quartet do them justice.

Although the engineers for Classic Sound Ltd. recorded the music fairly close up (with a high output on the CD), the location imparts a lifelike resonance to the sound, which comes out appearing smooth, sweet, warm, detailed, and lightly reverberant. The venue was Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, England, and the date was July 10-22, 2012. In fact, the sound is quite impressive, with the instruments well integrated with one another without fanning out across the room yet with plenty of stereo spread and separation. The group sound as one unit while one can identify and appreciate each instrument. As I say, impressive.

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


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa