May 30, 2013

Holst: The Planets (SACD review)

Walter Susskind, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4005.

Mobile Fidelity began life as a producer of half-speed remastered vinyl discs. When CD’s came along, they kept pace in the audiophile arena by transferring music to gold discs. These days, having largely moved away from gold discs and on to Super Audio CDs, they have found some good source material in the performances of Walter Susskind, such as this one where he conducts Gustav Holst’s The Planets with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The first and only time other time I heard this recording was almost thirty years ago when it first appeared on a Vox/Turnabout LP in the mid Seventies. It was during the quadraphonic era, and Vox had intended for listeners to play it back in four channels. But I heard it at that time in ordinary two-channel stereo where the sound appeared a mite blurry and noisy to me. Not being too impressed by the sonics at that time, I quickly forgot about the performance. Unlike before, however, I was able to hear it in cleaner, clearer stereo on this Mobile Fidelity SACD, and I regret not having given the performance more credit back then.

Mo-Fi is producing hybrid two-channel/multi-channel discs, so a person can listen to The Planets with or without an SACD player or rear channels. I listened in two-channel stereo through a Sony SACD player, where the sound now appeared better focused, and Susskind’s interpretation of this colorfully descriptive score thoroughly delighted me.

“Mars” begins things with a zesty, saucy bravado. I’ve read that Holst wanted this “Bringer of War” to ridicule the stupidity of war, and surely Susskind’s zippy rendition conveys this thought. Nevertheless, it’s the slower movements that most impressed me, “Venus” and “Saturn” and, of course, the ethereal “Neptune,” with their grace and refinement. Still, it’s “Uranus” that always seems to me the centerpiece of the work, the movement that combines the strongest tensions, the biggest outbursts of emotion, and the softest moments of repose. Susskind handles it superbly, the pacing immaculate. This is quite a nice reading, actually.

The sound, as I’ve said, is a marked improvement over the old vinyl. But one must play it somewhat loudly to enjoy it to the full, in all its spacious grandeur. At a soft or even moderate playback level, there seems to be a degree of cloudiness to the proceedings. Yet at volume, the sound is reasonably firm and well delineated. On the minus side, there is a minor feeling of compartmentalization about it, an absence of ultimate depth, some minor softness about the dynamics, and a lack of truly deep bass, all of which could intrude upon one’s complete surrender to a willing suspension of disbelief. Be that as it may, I’m sure it sounds realistic enough, overall, to please most folks, probably close to the original master tape. It’s an enjoyable disc, and I’m nitpicking.

The only flaw is that since my writing this review, Mo-Fi seems to have discontinued the disc. Alas, if you’re interested in it, you may have to do a search.

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


May 28, 2013

Cal Tjader & Stan Getz: Sextet (UltraHD CD review)

Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, Vince Guaraldi, Eddie Duran, Scott Lafaro, Billy Higgins. FIM LIM UHD 061 LE.

When you’ve got a good thing, there’s nothing for it but to make it better. That appears to be the philosophy of Winston Ma, president and owner of FIM (First Impression Music), who supervises the CD remastering of classic older recordings to today’s most-exacting audiophile standards. And what more classic a jazz album is there than Sextet, the celebrated 1958 recording with the all-star cast. To put it mildly, it’s never sounded better for home playback.

The players involved are Cal Tjader, vibes; Stan Getz, tenor sax; Vince Guaraldi, piano; Eddie Duran, guitar; Scott Lafaro, bass; and Billy Higgins, drums. Of course, not all of them were at the time as well known as they are today; but, still, it was a remarkable feat for Fantasy Records to gather them together for a one-time recording shot. No one figured just how memorable or how historic the occasion would be.

The session begins with “For All We Know,” which features Tjader on vibes and Getz eventually coming in on sax, the others providing accompaniment. It’s a good opening number to showcase the primary stars, and it’s wonderfully breezy and beautifully played. “My Buddy” follows, with even more from the bassist and pianist, again with Tjader taking the lead on vibes. The players had never performed before as a group, yet their contributions are so seamless, you’d think they had been working together for years.

And so it goes. This is jazz for people who say they don’t care much for jazz. I mean, how could one resist so affecting a number as their rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from the then-new stage musical My Fair Lady? It’s all quite easy to grow accustomed to when every member of the ensemble is so thoroughly professional and skilled his position.

While much of the music is laid-back and genial, there is a particular track that finds the group at its rollicking best: a fast dance called “Ginza Samba.” They swing in the best sense, backing each other with supportive figures in a remarkably able fashion. Likewise, after starting the album in relatively lyric form, the fellows do the final three numbers up tempo. Pick your mood.

For fun, see if you can make out the words whispered in the background. Interestingly, too, there were no rehearsals before the recording date, no alternates, and second takes. Although the album lasts only forty-two minutes and forty-seven seconds, you can’t help but have a great time with it.

Fantasy Records made the album at Marines Memorial Auditorium, San Francisco, California, in February of 1958. FIM (First Impression Music) and their subsidiary LIM (Lasting Impression Music) brought the music to the present audiophile UltraHD CD in 2013, using the latest advances in 32-bit technology for the transfer. Moreover, as it seems that every time producer Winston Ma releases a new series of discs, he’s added some new and innovative engineering, this time we get something called Pure Reflection, or as Ma calls it, putting the two words together, PureFlection. It’s an improved disc reproduction process that makes replication even more precise, and which Ma goes on to explain in several pages of detail in the disc’s accompanying notes. Let it suffice that the technology seems to work, and we get what Ma claims is a pure reflection of the original. The disc sounds darned good, so I don’t doubt him.

The modestly close miking used in the original recording produces a wide stereo spread, and certainly the high-definition UltraHD and PureFlection systems produce pure, clean sound, no matter that the master tape is over half a century old. It was obviously good to begin with, and it sounds good now.  The disc opens with Tjader on vibes, which ring out clearly and dynamically. When he’s joined by Getz on sax, we hear how really lifelike the instruments sound. Percussion, including piano, likewise display excellent transient response, and both ends of the frequency spectrum appear well extended. Just as important, there is a fair amount of depth to the group, with air and space around the instruments. A good thing just keeps getting better.

FIM/LIM have packaged the disc in a glossy, foldout, hardbound book-like case, with notes fastened to the inside and the disc itself inserted into static-proof liner, further enclosed by a thin cardboard sleeve. The liner and sleeve make sense for taking the best possible care of the disc, although it can be something of a pain trying to get the liner back into the sleeve properly if you’re as clumsy and nearsighted as I am. It’s a small price to pay for dust and scratch protection.

And speaking of price, don’t forget that these audiophile products aren’t cheap. Don’t say I didn’t warn you in advance against sticker shock.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 27, 2013

Mozart: Divertimenti Nos. 11 and 17 (CD review)

Helmut Muller-Bruhl, Cologne Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.570990.

Mozart wrote a ton of divertimenti (well, several dozen at least), light music intended largely as background entertainment for social gatherings--dinners, parties, and the like--for families that could afford them. The two we find here, Nos. 11 and 17, are fairly prominent examples of the genre, conducted by the late Helmut Muller-Bruhl and his Cologne Chamber Orchestra. Maestro Muller-Bruhl died just a few months after making the recording, so it’s something of a swan song for him. He went out in style.

The Divertimento No. 11 in D major, K. 251, begins the program.  Mozart wrote it in 1776, probably for the name-day of his sister Nannerl. It’s a relatively small work in six movements, scored for an oboe, a pair of horns, two violins, viola, double bass, and strings; and it’s filled with the usual series of charming melodies we would expect from the young composer. Muller-Bruhl provides a warm, sunny, yet highly refined interpretation of the music. This is old-school Mozart, not your slingshot period-instruments presentation.

Nevertheless, this is not to suggest there is anything staid or stodgy about the performance. It is chipper, outgoing, and thoroughly delightful. After giving us a frothy opening Allegro, Muller-Bruhl offers up the first of two highly polished minuets. Between them we find a particularly graceful Andantino in a flowing dotted rhythm. The piece concludes with a spirited Rondeau and a march in the French manner.

Mozart composed the Divertimento No. 17 in D major, K. 334, in 1780 for the university graduation of a wealthy family friend. The piece is almost twice the length of No. 11 and displays a degree of maturity and invention somewhat lacking in the earlier work. Again, Muller-Bruhl gives us a gracious, friendly, cultivated reading, with an especially felicitous pair of Menuettos, things we would expect of dinner music. However, this is not merely background music; no Mozart could be. These well-developed musical arrangements verge on symphonies; in fact, you might even consider them overdeveloped symphonies, with their six-movement design. Whatever you call them, they’re quite entertaining in Muller-Bruhl’s capable hands. 

So, what Muller-Bruhl gives us are cultured, what some people might call sedate Mozart interpretations, old-school Mozart you could say, with accomplished playing from the Cologne Chamber Orchestra. To add another plus to the affair, the total disc time is over seventy-three minutes, something we don’t always find in this age of frugal recordings. Anyway, if  some of today’s more frenetic performances tire you, Muller-Bruhl’s more gentle approach may be right up your alley.

Naxos recorded the music at the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany, in September of 2011. Typical of so many Naxos products, the sound is warm and full, with a slightly soft, veiled midrange and a slightly limited frequency and dynamic range. Still, these qualities are not severe and may be just what the music needs; they provide an easygoing atmosphere for Muller-Bruhl’s easygoing style. The moderately close-up miking allows for a big sound, too, very wide and acceptably deep.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 24, 2013

Mozart: In-Between (CD review)

Symphony No. 23; Piano Concerto No. 9; Schuler: In-Between; others. David Greilsammer, piano and conductor; Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor. L’Orchestre de Chamber de Geneve. Sony 88725430254.

Everybody needs a gimmick, I remarked the last time I reviewed an album by David Greilsammer. That was Conversations, a disc that offered four segments comprised of three piano selections each, two Baroque masterpieces as the outer movements and a modern work in the middle. It was clever, and Greilsammer pulled it off pretty well. With this follow-up album, In-Between, Greilsammer provides several works by Mozart as a young man, a composer “in-between” his earliest youth and his adulthood, along with the premiere recording of a modern contemporary piece called In-Between by Swiss composer and musician Denis Schuler. While Greilsammer again handles the music quite well, I’m not sure he and his producer needed the “in-between” gimmick to sell it.

Anyway, David Greilsammer is a prizewinning pianist as well as the Principal Conductor of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. Born in Jerusalem, Israel, he studied there at the Rubin Academy before entering the Juliard School in New York and making his solo debut in 2004. Apparently, one of the things audiences have enjoyed are his recitals juxtaposing Baroque and contemporary music, as he did in his earlier program. Now, he tries a similarly themed approach to Mozart.

Greilsammer says of the In-Between album, “Each of the pieces represents a different in-between situation, all guiding us towards the violent imaginary storm that occurs in Mozart’s heart. Once we have arrived inside this secret world, we suddenly find ourselves facing a battle between opposing forces: light and darkness, the human and the divine, childhood and adulthood, conservatism and innovation, solitude and the collective, love and hatred, past and present, dream and reality, father and mother.” I have only an inkling what he means, he gets so carried away with his highfalutin rhetoric. Fortunately, Greilsammer’s vague thematic connections cannot displace his excellent execution of the music, which sounds delightful.

The program leads off with Mozart’s Symphony No. 23 in D major, K. 181, written in 1773 when the composer was seventeen. Since it’s such a youthful work, that’s the way Greilsammer conducts it--youthfully, with plenty of exuberant energy. The symphony contains only three movements, in the Italian style of the day, and, coincidentally, Mozart wrote it after his third trip to Italy. It’s very brief, all three movements comprising less than ten minutes: fast-slow-fast, and more like an overture, really. Greilsammer has fun with it, even though the second movement isn’t so much fun as it is emphatically dramatic. The finale is ablaze with action, which Greilsammer appears to delight in.

Next, we get Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271 “Jeunehomme,” which he wrote in 1777 at the age of twenty-one. Here, Greilsammer both conducts the orchestra and plays the piano, and it’s also here that Greilsammer proves his worth. The piece has a delightful charm about it, and even if Greilsammer does go at it at a lickety-split pace, he never loses track of either the pulse of the music or the pleasures of the piano’s interactions with the orchestra. Meanwhile, the orchestra provides a flawless dialogue with the piano.

Then, after a typically rambunctious first movement, we get a surprisingly solemn and soul-searching second-movement Andantino that seems to come out of left field and which Greilsammer performs with great sensitivity. The final movement is also surprising in that it contains a lovely minuetto right in the middle of an otherwise presto presentation. It’s like a miniature concerto unto itself, and again Greilsammer impresses us with his spirited direction and virtuoso performance.

To conclude the program we find two passages from Mozart’s Thamos, Konig in Agypten, K. 345, another early work, interrupted between passages by Denis Schuler’s In-Between, written in 2010, and, finally, the aria “Venga pur, minacci e frema” from Mozart’s youthful opera Mitradate, re di Ponto, K. 87, which he wrote around 1770 when he was only in his mid teens. Although the modern Schuler work strikes an odd note alongside the Mozart, I suppose that’s the point. Schuler tells us he intended it to sound like breathing, the sound going in and out. Fair enough; but there seems little connection with Mozart outside of Schuler’s title coinciding with Greilsammer’s. In any case, I would rather have heard two longer Mozart pieces on the disc than the one longer work and four shorter ones, but we have what we have, and it’s all pretty good.

Sony recorded the music at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland in 2011, and they did a good job of it, too. The midrange is clear and taut, with an exemplary transient response. Highs sound reasonably well extended, and while the bass doesn’t need much low end, it’s there when necessary. The orchestra displays a realistic depth of image as well as being suitably wide. In the Concerto, the piano seems ideally positioned just slightly ahead of the orchestra, and even if it tends to change in size from time to time, it is hardly noticeable. A very light, warm, ambient bloom complements the music making nicely.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 23, 2013

Grieg: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances; In Autumn Overture. Havard Gimse, piano; Bjarte Engeset, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.557279.

Naxos has always offered good value for the classical buyer’s dollar, as this album of Grieg’s music demonstrates. The performances and sound may not rank with the absolute best, but they’re close enough for most folks, I’m sure, and the seventy-one minutes of playing time provide plenty to listen to.

The opening movement of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a staple of the piano concerto repertoire and therefore having many alternative rivals, is famous for its dramatic opening drum roll and cascading crescendos from the piano. Pianist Havard Gimse, Maestro Bjarte Engeset, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Naxos engineers nicely capture the theatrical effect of this opening, and, indeed, the whole of the first movement follows closely the excitement set out in the beginning. Throughout the work, Gimse follows this pattern in exemplary fashion. Tempos remain moderate but flexible; intonation is nuanced; transitions, as into the second subject, sound smooth and fluid; and Gimse seems always sensitive to Grieg’s designs.

The second movement comes across wonderfully hushed and continues to portray the beauty of nature as Grieg intended. It’s in the final movement that the Concerto itself begins to suffer, as the finale has never seemed to hang together well with the rest of the piece. The last movement is like a miniature concerto unto itself, very folksy in its outer sections and sweetly quiet in its middle. But it doesn’t have much to do with anything that went before it, and neither Gimse nor conductor Engeset can do much about that. In fact, by playing up the extremes, the performers only make matters worse. Oh, well; it’s not a serious complaint.

Accompanying the Concerto is the brief tone poem “In Autumn” and the suite of folk tunes called “Symphonic Dances.” They also come off well, very colorfully and pictorially presented, although I doubt that most buyers would be attracted to the disc by anything but the Concerto.

The Naxos sound is excellent in terms of the piano tone in the Concerto, very vibrant, clean, and alive. As for the orchestral sound, it’s a little less so, both in the accompaniment to the Concerto and in the coupling. I found it a bit lean in the bass and not entirely transparent in the midrange. Still, it’s more than adequate, broad and spacious.

Finally, I should mention that as good a bargain as this Naxos release is, one can still buy the two-disc, mid-priced Philips set that includes one of the best Grieg Concerto performances of all, with Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis, along with piano concertos from Schumann (Kovacevich), Addinsell (Dichter), Tchaikovsky (Argerich), and Brahms (Kovacevich again), making the Philips set one of the ultimate great bargains in the history of recorded music.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 21, 2013

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (HDCD review)

Christoph Eschenbach, Houston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD283.

The folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) usually take recordings that are either out of the catalogue or out of copyright and transfer them to CD from commercial tapes or vinyl discs in audiophile sound. This time they did something slightly different, taking 16-bit Betamax master tape and converting and processing it for compact disc. The results are up to HDTT’s typically high sonic standards, and the performance by Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, heretofore commercially unreleased, is quite good.

Gustav Mahler wrote the Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1888, premiering it in 1889, calling it at first a symphonic poem rather than a symphony and temporarily, at least, giving it the nickname “Titan.” Within a few years, however, he revised it to the four-movement piece we have today and dropped the “Titan” designation. The work’s popularity soared at the beginning of the stereo age, along with that of the Fourth Symphony, possibly because the composer scored the First for a very large orchestra, and with its soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts it makes a spectacular impression on the listener. Plus, the First and Fourth are Mahler’s shortest symphonies, making them ideal for home listening.

Anyway, you’ll recall that for the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe a protagonist facing life, with a progression beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, “Spring without End,” we see Mahler’s youthful hero in the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, “With Full Sail,” we find Mahler in one of his early mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter’s fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It may represent the hero’s first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler’s own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. The movement has long been one of the Mahler’s most controversial, with audiences still debating just what the composer was up to. Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic “of a deeply wounded heart,” as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, Mahler was a spiritual optimist and wanted Man to triumph in the end. In the final twenty minutes or so, Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing, making it an audiophile favorite for home playback.

Maestro Eschenbach has proved himself a sturdy conductor. Expect no idiosyncratic or revelatory performance here but a good, solid, serious-minded, highly refined one. Of course, I suppose a person could question the need for yet another straightforward interpretation of Mahler’s score with so many emotionally charged recordings already available from the likes of Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), Solti (Decca), Kubelik (DG), Bernstein (DG), Walter (Sony), Haitink (Philips), Tennstedt (EMI), Luisi (WS), and others. There is, however, something one can say for a performance that is all Mahler, with few excesses or exaggerations, and a recording that sounds as good as this one.

In the first movement Eschenbach takes his time with the morning mists and the coming of spring. Mahler marked the opening “slowly, sluggish or dragging,” and while “sluggish” and “dragging” can seem somewhat derogatory, I’m sure the composer didn’t mean them that way, nor does Eschenbach “drag” anything out. But, yes, Eschenbach’s account of the music does appear more leisurely than most other accounts. When the main theme enters some five or six minutes in, it has an appropriately youthful bounce. Eschenbach also shows a propensity for emphasizing contrasts by bringing the orchestra down to a whisper in quieter passages, making those big Mahlerian outbursts appear all the more earthshaking. So, even though Eschenbach may be a tad more relaxed than many other conductors here, you can’t say the performance lacks requisite thrills.

In the second movement the conductor moves implacably forward, not too quickly yet with enough momentum to keep listeners on their toes, so to speak. Then he introduces some heady tempo changes to keep everyone just a little off balance. Even so, the music is lovely in the Landler section especially.

The third-movement funeral march could have advanced at a little faster pace, and this is the only part of the performance where I thought Eschenbach’s reading seemed a touch undernourished and under characterized. Be that as it may, the music comes off as bizarre as ever, particularly in the second half.

In the finale, Mahler appears to ask if life’s upheavals truly come to a resolution in the hero’s victory over life’s tribulations, or if the triumph is illusory, a temporary conquest, as ironic as the earlier funeral march. You’ll hear nothing undernourished about Eschenbach’s reading here. He unleashes his Houston players in a flurry of power and excitement. Mahler wanted a stormily agitated and energetic feeling from the music, and the conductor provides it in aces, aided by a bass drum that sounds as though it could do some serious woofer damage if played too carelessly loud.

In all, Eschenbach offers up a more cultured, more lyrical Mahler First than we often hear. Although he lets the music speak eloquently for itself, there is much refined beauty in the conductor’s rendition of this familiar score.

HDTT transferred the music from an original 16-bit Betamax master, using a Sony PCM501ES digital processor feeding an Antelope Audio Eclipse converter and transformed to 24/96 resolution. With minimal miking (two Neumann KM83 microphones across the front of the orchestra), the recordist made the Betamax tape live at Jones Hall, Houston, Texas, in 1987.

Betamax?, I hear some of you asking yourselves. Yes, Betamax, which was quite a good recording format, even if it didn’t yield the bit rates of today’s digital masters. Regardless, the folks at HDTT do such a good job transferring it for today’s home use, it doesn’t matter where they got it. Believe me, it will satisfy most demanding audiophiles. The giant bass whacks alone will please most listeners; then add in a wide dynamic range, a very smooth, very extended frequency range, sharp transient attacks, and a broad stereo spread, and you get some pleasing effects. What’s more, the recording exhibits a good sense of orchestral depth and a fine, natural-sounding midrange transparency, making it all the more lifelike and attractive. But it is a live recording, so expect an inevitable outburst of applause at the end. That said, the audience is generally quiet during the performance, even when the music fades into almost silent intervals. In all, excellent sound.

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

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 20, 2013

Chavez: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, Meditacion; Moncayo: Muros Verdes; Zyman: Variations on an Original Theme. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano; Miguel Prieto, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico. Cedille CDR 90000 140.

So, who is Carlos Chavez, whose Piano Concerto is the centerpiece of this Cedille disc? Regrettably, I must admit that I had never heard of him before now, which only demonstrates how little I know. Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez (1899-1978) was a Mexican composer, conductor, educator, and journalist, the founder and director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, the very group who perform on this album. Chavez wrote symphonies, quartets, sonatas, incidental music, and concertos, and he was among the most influential composers of his day.

Fortunately, I can say I have heard of pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, who performs the Piano Concerto along with several solo pieces on the disc. Osorio is a piano virtuoso of international fame, and in my experience he has never demonstrated anything but sensitive, immaculate, committed, passionate  playing in his work. It was a pleasure listening to him on the Cedille disc, and even though I had never heard any of the music before, he made it appear vibrant and entertaining.

As I say, the centerpiece is Chavez’s Piano Concerto, written in 1940. Now, here’s the thing: If you’re looking for something Latin-inflected, this may not be what you want. While the booklet note says that Chavez adhered to local tradition and borrowed from indiginous native culture, I could hardly detect it. The fact is, there is more Stravinsky here than anything Hispanic or Native American; however, as Chavez’s style is to create constantly shifting dissonances, it’s hard to tell what might be buried in all the notes.

Anyway, there seemed to me to be as many Asian-oriented passages as anything else, at least in the first few minutes. Now, here’s the thing: You may find it as complex and scintillating as critics did at the premiere or as cacophonous as audiences did, which may explain why the piece has gotten so little attention since. Nevertheless, as a modernist, Chavez used cacophony as a part of his technique, so you live with it.

Although I had no other recording of the Concerto with which to compare this one, I can’t imagine another surpassing Osorio’s way with it. His playing is full of intense, nervous energy, which no doubt the Chavez work requires. There is nothing Romantic or sentimental, either, not in Chavez’s music and not in Osorio’s performance.

What we get here is an abundance of sharp contrasts and vibrant rhythms, with a good deal of percussion and flute backing up Osorio’s piano. But it’s always Osorio’s piano that is front and center in the music, with Osorio mining a seemingly inexhaustible fund of accents, textures, nuances, and brief flurries of melody.

Chavez follows the momentous first movement with a rather outgoing slow one, largely scored for piano, harp, and reeds. Again, it’s Osorio who rightly dominates, his playing always keeping the listener intently aware that this is music of an original kind, strongly characterful, but, again, never romanticized or nostalgic. Then, with the finale, we’re back to the cacophony of the first movement, where Osorio dazzles with his gymnastic finger work. It’s quite a bravura piece of music with a performance by Osorio, Maestro Miguel Prieto, and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico to match. Whether you’ll like it or not is another question.

Also on the program are three solo piano pieces, the first of which is Chavez’s Meditacion, an early work from 1918. As the name implies, it’s contemplative, sounding rather Debussy-like in its quiet, dreamy way. Osorio makes sure, though, that we don’t dismiss it out of hand as lightweight, and his alternating dynamism brings out the work’s more-creative development.

Next, there is Muros Verdes (“Green Wall,” 1951) by Jose Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958), a Mexican pianist, percussionist, music teacher, composer, and conductor. As with Meditacion, Muros Verdes comes across with an easygoing stillness. Then, the album ends with Variations on an Original Theme (2007) by the contemporary Mexican composer Samuel Zyman (b. 1956). It exhibits a remarkable variety of fast, slow, agitated, relaxed, and vibrant characteristics. Needless to say, Osorio puts his heart into it, and while it can sound somewhat as cacophonous as Chavez’s Concerto, it also sounds richly expressive.

Producer and engineer Bogdan Zawistowski and engineer Humberto Teran recorded the Concerto in 2011 at Sala Nezahualcoyotl, Centro Cultural Universitario UNAM, Mexico; and producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the additional solo pieces in 2012 at the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio at 98.7 WFMT, Chicago. The miking in the Concerto ideally integrates the piano and orchestra, even if the modest distance employed can result in a slightly recessed sound if played back too softly. The midrange is smooth and natural, without losing too much detail, the hall imparting a faint, pleasant glow to the music. At an appropriate playback level the sound is nigh-well perfect, with wonderful percussion effects. In the solo pieces, we hear a slightly closer, more-dynamic piano sound, near ideal.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 17, 2013

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Petrouchka. Jon Kimura Parker, solo piano. Jon Kimura Parker FP 0907.

Over the years there have been a number of piano transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, including several that Stravinsky himself wrote for two hands and four. The former the composer used to preview the work for producers and conductors and the latter he used for rehearsals. So, the new transcription for solo piano we get here from noted Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker is nothing innovative. It’s just something better, being more complex, more detailed, more demanding than any piano transcription we’ve yet heard of the Rite, and probably better played in this world-premiere recording.

Explaining his reasons for the new piano arrangements of old orchestral scores we hear on the present disc, Mr. Parker says in a liner note, “When I discovered Stravinsky’s piano duet version, my obsession with playing this music at the piano began in earnest. I noticed that Stravinsky, having arranged the duet primarily to facilitate ballet rehearsal, was less fastidious with details than I had expected. I became engrossed in adding instrumental lines that had been left out. From there, it was a natural evolution to try to manage it all myself. The Rite of Spring has been transcribed for solo piano before, in versions so bare as to be unsatisfying, or so inclusive as to be unplayable. However, it is well known that Stravinsky often composed at the piano, and many sections in The Rite bear this out. Petrouchka (1911) presented a different challenge, in that Stravinsky had already created a virtuoso solo piano suite from selected moments of the ballet. Upon reflection I chose to honor the tragic conclusion of the story by transcribing the ballet in its original and complete form.”

Listening to any transcription of a familiar work may take a little getting used to, and these adaptions of Stravinsky for the keyboard may be an acquired taste. Personally, I miss the vibrant percussion of a full orchestra. However, there is no denying that in Mr. Parker’s hands, The Rite, especially, reveals new depths of clarity and detail without losing much of its rhythmic pulse. This is no doubt a tribute not only to Parker’s fine piano arrangement but to his dynamic piano playing.

Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote The Rite of Spring for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where the music scandalized the country. To be fair, it had probably as much to do with Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography as with the music. Anyway, Mr. Parker’s piano score brings out all the primitive strains in the piece as well as its quiet lyricism.

Parker manages to capture all of Stravinsky’s rowdy, sensual, rhythmic vitality in his piano rendition.  Going in, I had some minor reservations about whether or not he really could pull it off. But the man is amazing. His virtuosity is dazzling and his expressive technique remarkable. You won’t be more than five minutes into the album before you forget there’s no orchestra involved. It’s almost uncanny how Parker is able to recreate the orchestral textures and harmonic nuances of the music. If you are fond of The Rite but have grown tired of all the new recordings of it sounding alike, you owe it to yourself to try this one; it’s like nothing you’ve probably heard before.

Stravinsky composed his ballet Petrouchka in 1910–11 and revised it in 1947. It tells the story of a traditional Russian puppet, Petrouchka, made of straw and sawdust, who comes to life and develops a life of his own, complete with emotions. The composer wrote it just a year after The Firebird and two years before The Rite, so he was flying high.

Petrouchka benefits a little less from Parker’s new transcription, probably because the music itself, while exceptionally melodious, is less innovative than The Rite and because the composer himself wrote a really good piano suite of the music with which many people are already familiar. Nevertheless, Parker’s complete piano rendering contains a good deal of color and excitement, and with the performer’s brilliant finger work the tale comes to life with passion and pathos.

Stravinsky wrote some spectacular ballet music, and Jon Kimura Parker’s piano transcriptions and his playing of them do both scores justice.

Mr. Parker recorded The Rite and Petrouchka for his own recording label in 2009 and 2012 at Stude Concert Hall, The Shephard School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas. The piano sound is rich, warm, mellifluous, and resonant. Its mellow bloom accompanies a strong impact from the keys, well caught by the audio engineer. Highs ring out vividly, and low notes make their presence known.  It’s the kind of big, brawny, yet intimate piano sound that fits the music perfectly. It lights up the room.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 16, 2013

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 99-104 (CD review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 85513-2 (2-disc set).

Time was, you couldn’t consider recordings of the late Haydn symphonies without mentioning Sir Thomas Beecham. The symphonies were among his treasures, and he spent a lifetime playing and perfecting them before recording them in stereo late in his career in 1959. The maestro’s experience showed, and for most of the late Fifties and Sixties, the Beecham records held sway.

By the late Sixties and mid Seventies, however, other conductors had come along to provide Beecham some competition, Otto Klemperer and Eugen Jochum in particular. Then came Colin Davis, Leonard Slatkin, Charles Mackerras, Sigiswald Kuijken, Roy Goodman, Christopher Hogwood, and others. But now that I’ve returned to these recordings, I see little reason to question their authority as some of the overall best of the lot.

Oh, there are individual favorites I still retain, like Klemperer in “The Clock” and Jochum in the “Military” Symphony, but as a set, these final six of Haydn’s twelve “London” Symphonies from Beecham are hard to beat. They got the nickname “London” Symphonies, of course, because Haydn wrote them while he was temporarily living in London. Four of the final six have descriptive nicknames that call them easily to mind: No. 100, the “Military” because of its march and the martial sound of its percussive instrumentation; No. 101, the “Clock” because of its second movement imitation of a clock’s second hand ticking; No. 103, the “Drum Roll” because of its...wait for it...drum roll; and No. 104, the “London” simply because it was the last symphony Haydn would write in London. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Beecham brings to the performances his usual joyous, cheerful mood plus a touch so light you can feel the music wafting out of the speakers, floating out the window, and into the breeze. Yet in the culminating “London” Symphony there is a nobility and grandeur to match Mozart’s “Jupiter.” The playing is felicitous throughout, the atmosphere always loving, always caring. Nothing about the performances seems anything but perfect. They simply remain head and shoulders above most of their rivals.

When I first heard Beecham’s Haydn symphonies on compact disc, unfortunately early in the CD era, I didn’t care much for the sound; they had not made a good transition to silver disc and sounded hard, edgy, and exceptionally noisy. It was one of my biggest disappointments not to have Beecham’s Haydn included in my then-new CD music collection. But a few years ago EMI remastered the symphonies, and in the present two-disc set they sound fine. There is still a touch of background noise if played loudly, but who plays Haydn that loudly? And the sound is still a tad thin in the bass. But a smoother net effect now graces the ear, warmer and less brittle. The midrange is perhaps not as transparent as it could be, but there is nothing, really, that should deter a listener from appreciating the performances to their fullest. A wonderful investment.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 14, 2013

Bach: Violin Concertos (XRCD review)

Concerto in A minor; Double Concerto in D minor; Concerto in E major. Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Christian Ferras, violin; Bath Festival Orchestra. Hi-Q HIQXRCD9.

This recording by violinist Yehudi Menuhin from the late Fifties is probably my earliest encounter with Bach’s violin concertos, and it was fortuitous because Menuhin played them so well. After buying the EMI LP in the late Sixties, I had it until the advent of the compact disc era in the early Eighties, at which point it became a casualty of the transition. After giving the vinyl away, I had always meant to replace it with a CD copy, but it never happened. I suppose by then I had become rather fond of Baroque music played on period instruments (or “historically informed performances” as folks call them today), and I probably thought Menuhin too old fashioned for my taste. Listening to the recording again, however, newly remastered to audiophile standards by JVC and distributed by Hi-Q Records, was something of a revelation. I can see now why I liked it so much all those many years ago.

The album begins with Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, which may have been the last of the three violin concertos the composer wrote, despite the catalogue number. Menuhin plays it with a flowing grace--Romantic by today’s standards, to be sure--but still lively. Unlike the practices of artists using period or modern instruments who try to emphasize the fast-slow contrasts they believe are most authentic by playing them ultra fast or ultra slowly, Menuhin sounds more cultured and refined for any of that, all the while providing the needed excitement in the music. Although we hear some of the dynamic variety we expect from a Baroque concerto, Menuhin doesn’t go to the extremes that some other violinists and groups currently favor.

Menuhin takes the first movement in a spirited manner; the slow middle movement in a serious, almost grave way; and the finale in a cheerful, fluid mode that skips along lightly and eloquently. All the time, the accompaniment by the strings and continuo offer him the utmost care and sympathy.

Next, we hear the Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, the “Double Concerto,” which Bach probably wrote somewhere between 1717-1723 and has long been a favorite of the public. Here, violinist Christian Ferras joins Menuhin in a fine pairing, their violin parts intertwining as a whole. They handle the opening Vivace movement in commendably animated style; the Largo is as lovely as any I’ve heard; and even with their relaxed speeds, the closing Allegro sounds energetic, echoing some of the composer’s Brandenburg work. Interestingly, the ensemble accompaniment more or less fades into the background on this one, practically disappearing from our notice.

The Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042, has long been my own personal favorite among the three violin concertos, and I’d quite forgotten how charming it sounded in Menuhin’s hands. Again, with its well-known Brandenburg connections, there is a more gentle touch throughout than I’ve heard in most other renditions, and Menuhin appears more expressive than I remember; the Adagio more somber, thoughtful, and contemplative; and the final Allegro happier and more content. In all, it’s a splendid disc.

Incidentally, the album lists the accompanying ensemble as both the Robert Masters Chamber Orchestra as well as the Bath Festival Orchestra. To clear things up, I went to the Web site of the Royal Academy of Music, where we learn that violinist Robert Masters was a “keen observer of the career path followed by the legendary Yehudi Menuhin and recognised by the late 1950’s that what Menuhin needed most was a grouping of exceptional musicians to accompany him on recordings, on concert tours, and in festivals. Yehudi greeted the proposal with typical enthusiasm, and by mid 1958 Robert had brought together the players--all drawn from the foremost chamber music ensembles including the Aeolian and Allegri Quartets--for their first concerts at the Festival Hall and recording sessions in the studios of EMI. It became known over the next 20 years as the Bath Festival Orchestra and the Menuhin Festival Orchestra.” And, apparently, EMI sometimes listed it as the Robert Masters Chambers Orchestra.

Two of EMI’s top people--producer Peter Andry and engineer Robert Gooch--recorded the music in 1958 and 1959 at London’s Kingsway Hall, the venue EMI, Decca, and other companies used for any number of fine recordings over the years. Here, they captured the solo violin pieces a little brightly but extremely clearly and cleanly; and JVC, using their XRCD and K2 remastering and manufacturing processes, replicate it on disc about as well as I would imagine possible. They also got a wide stereo spread, yet without stretching the image too far beyond the speakers. It’s a natural, transparent sound, the violin nicely integrated into the orchestral setting, with a modicum of depth, air, and ambient hall bloom adding to the feeling of realism. The second of solo concertos, BWV 1042, actually sounds a tad smoother to me than the first, and the Double Concerto appears a touch darker.

The packaging from Hi-Q continues to look quite lavish, the disc fastened to a slick, hard-cardboard Digipak case with notes bound inside. Sure, the whole affair is expensive, and it’s not the kind of recording for which everyone would be willing to shell out; yet there’s no denying how good it is, interpretively and sonically.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 13, 2013

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (HQCD review)

Calvin Hampton, organ. HDTT HQCD281.

Originally, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a collection of piano pieces, each of the short movements describing a different painting or drawing by his friend, Viktor Hartmann. The composer’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. All the same, Mussorgsky’s piano music never really impressed the public; then, many years later, Maurice Ravel orchestrated the music, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the years, we’ve had any number of good piano recordings of the work, but it wasn’t until the early Seventies that church organist Calvin Hampton transcribed the piano pieces for organ and recorded them for Musical Heritage Society. Since then, we have gotten a number of organ recordings. Still, it was Hampton’s controversial organ recording that people probably knew best, a recording as highly praised for its sound as criticized for its interpretation. Then, in 1982, recording engineer John Profitt heard that Hampton was performing the Mussorgsky piece on the organ in Rochester, NY, and figured he and his team could perhaps, in his words, “do Hampton’s masterful transcription better justice” than the earlier recording had. Thus, the impetus for the present recording, remastered here by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

I suspect that listeners may react to this HDTT remaster much as they did to Mr. Hampton’s earlier MHS recording, that is, with as much admiration as disdain. Let’s begin with Hampton’s organ transcription and his performance of it. On the plus side, Hampton’s transcription is very straightforward and unadorned, and that’s the way he plays it. You won’t find any ornamentation or flourishes here, just the notes of Mussorgsky’s music plain and simple. On the minus side, Hampton’s transcription is very straightforward and unadorned, and that’s the way he plays it. You won’t find any ornamentation or flourishes here, just the notes of Mussorgsky’s music plain and simple. In other words, everyone who hears the performance will respond to it differently. Those who like their music simple and unmannered will probably find great comfort in what Hampton provides. Those who prefer more character, more passion, a more individualized interpretation will probably find Hampton’s rending rather sterile.

Personally, I found Hampton’s realization of Mussorgsky’s tone poems somewhat lacking in color, in the drama behind the pictures. The organist appears more interested in what the music sounds like than in what the music represents. As a consequence, the performance seems to me too uncompromising for its own good, too devoid of life. Mussorgsky created little works of art, after all, to depict, well, little works of art. I’d have preferred the musician playing them to have brought those works of art more vividly to life. But, who knows, maybe I just don’t have enough imagination; for other listeners, Hampton’s readings may reveal a wealth of imagery.

By the time the second “Promenade” rolls around, however, Hampton has warmed more to his subject. “The Old Castle” is appropriately eerie, “Tuileres” sounds charming, and “Bydlo” lumber along satisfactorily. “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” comes to life more than almost anything else on the program, “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” argue convincingly, and “The Market at Limoges” seems lively enough. So, while Hampton doesn’t exactly light up the house with his playing, he is more than competent. It’s in the final four movements that I thought he lost some enthusiasm. “The Catacombs” and “Con mortuis mortua” seemed fairly perfunctory, and the big finish with “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” and “The Great Gate of Kiev” haven’t the impact or splendor I expected, the former seeming rushed and the latter a bit shaky.

HDTT transferred the music from a 15ips 2-track master tape, recorded live in 1982 at the Ashbury First Methodist Church, Rochester, NY. Here, too, in the matter of sound quality we may find contention among listeners, with audiophiles perhaps loving it best of all and ordinary listeners bewildered at what the fuss is all about. Let me explain.

The remastering sounds quite clean and quite clear transferred to an HQCD as I heard it. Transient response is outstanding, with every note exceptionally taut, beginning and ending in a thoroughly well-defined manner. The mikes pick up very few hall reflections, so the organ notes have a kind of clinical precision about them. There is good depth in the hall, though, and we appear to be hearing the organ from a comfortable distance. There are some very deep lows involved, again very well controlled. Nevertheless, without out much hall reverberation, the bass may not seem as superficially impressive as the woolly low end we too often encounter in these affairs. More important, absent a severe mid-bass rise in the response, the rest of the frequency spectrum appears all the more transparent

Two things did annoy me slightly, however: Hampton’s arrangement and playing style occasionally elicit what I can only describe as a few squawks from the organ; they strike an odd note I did not find particularly attractive. Then there is the matter of the minor but noticeable audience noise, especially conspicuous between movements and during quieter passages. I could have done without it, along with the inevitable 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

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 10, 2013

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-06.

To begin, let me admit a bias: I’ve been attending performances of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra almost since the day they first started offering concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area over thirty years ago. They are, in my opinion, one of the best period-instruments ensembles in the country; nay, in the world. Needless to say, their present recording of Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies did not disappoint me. If you think my highly positive predisposition toward the orchestra colors my judgment, so be it.

First up, we get the Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806), the piece that often gets lost between the bigger and more popular Third and Fifth Symphonies. Compared to them, the Fourth Symphony may appear lightweight and something of a letdown for a lot of listeners. Fortunately, Maestro Nicholas McGegan and the PBO provide the Fourth such a vigorous and spirited presentation that it sounds better than ever. Their performance reminded me of Hector Berlioz’s description of the Fourth as “lively, nimble, joyous, or of a heavenly sweetness.” Like a recent recording by Joshua Bell and the ASMF, McGegan and the PBO take Berlioz’s depiction of the work to heart.

After an appropriately slow, sedate introduction (Adagio), the main Allegro vivace takes over, the tempo as vivacious and “vivace” as one could want, with hints of the Pastoral Symphony to come. You can almost see McGegan gleefully dancing through the movement (as is his wont; he’s a very animated conductor).

The second-movement Largo (one of Beethoven’s most relaxed) flows gracefully and sweetly along.  The Scherzo takes us through genuine Presto territory and leads to a finale that inevitably reminds us of the first movement, if at a slightly less-heightened step. McGegan forces the listener to reevaluate the symphony’s worth.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 in 1812, about half a dozen years after he wrote the Fourth. Critics sometimes identify it with characteristics of the dance (“The apotheosis of the dance,” as Wagner remarked), and it should certainly radiate a sprightly charm. Like the Fourth Symphony, the Seventh begins with a lengthy preface, this time bigger and grander, before the entrance of the main theme, again in a Vivace tempo. And again McGegan and his players reward us with well-judged speeds and rhythms, all of them springing to life with the utmost lyricism. McGegan does it up most heartily.

The conductor next takes the Allegretto at a healthy but not extravagant walking pace, this “processional in the catacombs” never turning into the full-fledged funeral march we often hear. Beethoven marked the body of the third movement “Assai meno presto” (very much less fast), which has led conductors to puzzle over it ever since. McGegan takes a middle course, and the whole thing winds up less hectic than some period conductors have played.

Then we come to the finale, which should sound wild and swirling without going all crazy and breathless. You can hear a snippet of it below, where McGegan shapes it perfectly: fast, energetic, and exciting, yet refined and cultured, too. The PBO’s account of the Seventh Symphony stands with the best, most-thrilling versions on record, on period or modern instruments.

The orchestra made the recording live during performances in 2012 (No. 4) and 2009 (No. 7) at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California. I’ve listened to many a concert over the years at First Congregational, and I can attest to the recording sounding pretty much as I’ve always found the hall sounding. Which is to say, pretty good. However, by “pretty good” I don’t mean to imply that the recording is better than the PBO’s best non-live productions, like their Handel Water Music, Mozart Horn Concertos, or, especially, their Vivaldi Four Seasons, which are clearer, tauter, airier, more dynamic, and better focused. Nevertheless, as I say, both Beethoven recordings sound lifelike enough, with almost no audience noise. What’s more, the engineers edited out the applause after the first work, leaving only a burst of applause after the final piece, the Seventh Symphony. Perhaps in their next live production, they’ll eliminate the applause altogether. Or, who knows, since the applause is admittedly a minor detail, maybe I’m the only one in the world who disapproves of it interrupting my appreciation of recorded music. Of course, we expect applause at live events, and I have no objection; but a recording played in my living room is a different experience. Yeah, I know, picky, picky, picky.

Anyway, the present recording sounds warm and resonant, clearly a condition of the venue. There is a wide stereo spread, a quality of the microphone placement, no doubt, which needs to be relatively close in order to minimize audience noise. Inner detailing suffers a little from the natural reverberation of the church setting, and the high end seems a tad limited, perhaps because of the absorptive properties of the listeners themselves. Otherwise, the sound opens up nicely, with plenty of ambient bloom and at least a modicum of orchestral depth.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


May 9, 2013

Elgar: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending. Hillary Hahn, violin; Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra. DG B00003026-02.

I have to admit that it’s hard for me to remain attentive through music I don’t particularly enjoy. The Elgar Violin Concerto has been popular among the public for nearly a century, so there’s no doubting its quality, but I have never found it entirely compelling, especially not the first movement, which seems to me to drift from one place to another. There is a sweet second movement, true, and things do finally come together in the last movement, but it seems a long time coming.

Anyway, this is meant as no disrespect to Ms. Hahn’s violin playing, for which I have the utmost respect and admiration. I just don’t know that there is a lot she can do, even with her beautiful performance of the second movement, with something that other artists haven’t done better before her. The “better” in this case would be Zukerman’s recording (Sony), Menuhin’s (EMI), Perlman’s (DG), and, especially, either of Nigel Kennedy’s (EMI) recordings, in which Kennedy’s violin almost literally “sings” through the music. It is Kennedy’s greater expressive quality that almost (I say “almost”) makes me appreciate the work for the intimate, biographical outpouring of personal spirit it contains. Nevertheless, Ms. Hahn gives it her all, and while her tempos may seem a bit hurried in places and she misses some of the darker aspects of the score, she does convey much of the composer’s soul, as well, perhaps, of her own. Without a doubt, if you love the music, you’ll love Ms. Hahn’s way with it, especially with the late Sir Colin Davis leading the LSO in sympathetic support.

As a companion work with the Concerto we find Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” a piece for which I have a most heartfelt affection. It is one of the loveliest pieces of music ever written, and one of the staples of the repertoire for calming the frayed nerves of the weary traveler at the end of a long day. Ms. Hahn conveys the beauty of the lark’s upward flight with dignity and compassion, but, like the Elgar, it didn’t quite touch me the way another artist’s does, Hugh Bean’s celebrated performance with Sir Adrian Boult and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI, 1967).

In all, I’d say if you’re looking for this particular coupling on a single disc, or if you’ve got a yearning to hear Elgar’s violin piece for the first time, Ms. Hahn’s recording is one to consider. There is no questioning her artistry.

As to the audio quality, time was when I thought DG’s sound was too hard, bright, and edgy, but with this release it appears their sound is a little too warm and smooth. Maybe I’m just hard to please. A quick comparison of both the EMI discs mentioned above with this DG release makes the point. The EMI recordings have greater transparency, greater dynamic impact, and greater depth to the stereo image. No one is likely to find DG’s sound lacking, mind you, except dedicated audiophiles, who will probably not care for the sound of the EMI’s, either, so it may be a moot point.

A final note on the packaging: If you count the back cover picture of Ms. Hahn, the inside cover picture, the outside booklet cover, the back booklet cover, and the seven additional pictures of the artist inside the booklet, you will find eleven pictures of her in all. Now, I don’t deny she is a lovely lady and pleasant to look at, but it does seem like overkill, a certain waste of space that might otherwise have gone to more informational text about the composers, the artists, or the works involved. Oh, well; I suppose marketing is marketing.

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


May 7, 2013

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. Sony 88765469152 (remastered).

When I first started seriously collecting classical records back in the Sixties and Seventies, I always admired the performances of Columbia (CBS) recording artists like Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Bruno Walter, and Eugene Ormandy. But the sound of their recordings always disappointed me, most often being thin, bright, shrill, and devoid of anything resembling deep bass. Then along came the digital age in the early Eighties, and I sent away for a Japanese remastered CD of Ormandy’s Holiday for Orchestra, originally an LP from the Sixties. What a revelation; the engineers had opened up the frequency response and dynamic range, creating a whole new sonic world I’d never heard before from a Columbia/CBS product. Then when Sony took over the CBS catalogue in the late Eighties and began remastering many of the old titles themselves, I found a new wealth of material to enjoy. So, perhaps you can understand my delight when the folks at Sony told me they had completely remastered Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a recording they had already transferred to CD years before but this time have done up even better.

While Bernstein would go on to record The Rite of Spring two more times in stereo, a second for CBS and then one for DG, this first stereo version remains my favorite. It may have been among the composer's favorites, too, because upon hearing Bernstein's interpretation, I've read Stravinsky had one word for it: "Wow!" Of course, the composer may have simply been being sarcastic. In any event, there is no doubt the recording had an effect on him.

Wow, indeed.

Bernstein described The Rite saying, “Only one of your everyday volcanic masterpieces...a miraculous new creation of such originality and power that still today it shocks and overwhelms us.” I’d say “Volcanic,” “miraculous,” “originality,” and “power” are words that might well describe Bernstein’s 1958 recording, too. Bernstein at the time was just taking over the reins of the New York Philharmonic and about to shape it back into the best ensemble it had ever been. The Rite was only the beginning.

The thing with The Rite is that at the ballet’s Paris premiere in 1913, it (and, to be fair, the choreography) so shocked audiences that many of them booed and headed for the doors. By 1958 when Bernstein had his chance at it, the world had pretty much begun to take it for granted. So, the question was how to shock the world all over again. Bernstein did it through sheer energy, the power of excitement, producing a performance that continues to thrill us to this day.

Bernstein doesn’t take as much time as many other conductors do in building up the opening atmosphere, which Stravinsky called “a profound mystic sensation which comes to all things at the hour when nature seeks to renew its various forms of life.” Instead, Bernstein seems eager to get on with it, to get to the core of the work, shaping and releasing the tensions and ever increasing the rhythmic pulse like no one before or since. In other words, he begins turning up the heat from the very beginning and never lets it drop.

The conductor further described the music as “a kind of prehistoric jazz,” and because Bernstein was a master of the jazz idiom (just listen to his Rhapsody in Blue), he must have found The Rite ideally suited to his temperament. Under Bernstein, you really do get savage, primitive outbursts of sound and fury, with emphases on huge dynamic contrasts and a surprisingly flexible rubato.

In the opening movements of Part Two, Bernstein does take his time to establish the atmospherics of the piece, yet even here we can sense the pent-up energy impatiently waiting to burst forth. When it does, all hell breaks loose. Those highly palpable timpani attacks are downright electrifying, the conductor particularly consumed by the forward momentum of the piece. Adding icing to the cake, the Philharmonic play their hearts out for their new conductor, the precision of their playing remarkable.

Yes, I still like the recorded Rite performances of Georg Solti (Decca or Decca/JVC), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Pierre Boulez (Sony), Stravinsky himself (Sony), and others, but for a sheer adrenaline rush, this newly remastered Bernstein recording must go to the head of the list.
Columbia Records recorded the music in a single session at the Hotel St. George, Brooklyn, New York, in 1958. Now, in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the work’s premiere, the engineers at Sony have gone back to the original analogue master tapes of the Bernstein performance and remastered it for the present disc. What they got for their trouble, foremost, is a wonderful sense of presence. The sessions took place in the hotel’s massive Colorama Ballroom, an enormous room, which sounds every bit as large as it is in this spacious recording, even though the miking is fairly close. The sound is clean and clear, with plenty of orchestral depth and width. The midrange is as transparent as you would want, the highs are sparkling and extended, and only the deepest bass seems a tad wanting at times. A strong, taut impact and a sharp transient attack also help to make the music come alive. Still, it’s that sense of space, of ambience, that carries the day. It’s a terrific-sounding recording, with a raw sonic vitality that perfectly suits the music.

To top off a good thing, Sony’s production values are generally excellent, including their use of the original LP album cover art by Gray Foy and informative booklet notes and pictures. About my only concerns are the fact that Sony included only The Rite of Spring on the disc, about thirty-four minutes long under Bernstein’s astonishing direction; and that they packaged the disc in a three-section cardboard foldout, with the disc fitting into one end sleeve and the booklet into the other. In order to get the disc out or put it back in requires you slide it along the cardboard, not something I like to do with a quality CD; and trying to get the booklet out is a chore, too. In both cases I found the easiest method of extraction was to turn the package upside down and let the disc and then the booklet simply drop out. Nevertheless, these are minor distractions in an otherwise superlative product, which the folks at Sony are offering at a remarkably reasonable price.

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


May 6, 2013

Espana! (CD review)

Music of Albeniz, Falla, Mompou, Ravel, and Rodrigo. Various artists and orchestras. Harmonia Mundi 2908530.34 (5-disc set).

The one thing you won’t find in this five-disc set of Spanish and Spanish-inspired music is Chabrier’s Espana. What you will find are recordings selected from the past twenty-odd years of Harmonia Mundi’s back catalogue, and a whole lot of really well-performed and well-recorded music. The price is right, too, with HM marking down the set at much less than the individual discs would cost. Of course, if it’s only one or two items that interest you, you can still find the HM albums available separately.

Disc one contains a suite of twelve selections from the opera Pepita Jimenez (1896) by Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909). Here, we find performances by Susan Chilcott, soprano, and Francesc Garrogosa, tenor, with the Choeur d’enfants de la maitrise de Badalona directed by Montserrat Pi and the Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure conducted by Josep Pons. I’m not sure why Harmonia Mundi chose to start the set with this particular music except that they arranged the composers alphabetically; the opera never became a hit for Albeniz, and there are only a few moments in it that seem very interesting. In fact, if the tracks HM include here are any indication, it’s no surprise why audiences never warmed to it. The orchestral introduction is the best part of the show.

Certainly, one cannot fault Ms. Chilcott or tenor Garrogosa, however, who give it their best; nor HM’s engineering team who recorded it in 1994. The sound is warm and expansive, with good detailing and dynamics. Voices are nicely round and natural, too, never bright or forward, and they are well integrated into the sound field.

With disc two we’re on more stable ground. It contains two pieces by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946): El amor brujo (“Love the Magician,” the 1915 stage version, sung and spoken) and El retablo de Maese Pedro (1919, adapted from an episode in Cervantes’s Don Quixote). In the first piece, we find cantaora (flamenco singer) Ginesa Ortega, joined by soprano Joan Martin, baritone Inaki Fresan, and tenor Joan Cabero, supported again by Maestro Josep Pons and the Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure.

The singing and performances in both Falla works sound committed and passionate, with a most-sympathetic orchestral support from Pons and his players. HM recorded the music in 1990, and while it is not as vivid as some other recordings I’ve heard, it is quite realistic. The playback level is slightly higher than on the first disc, the upper midrange is a tad brighter, and voices are a bit more recessed. Otherwise, we again get a warm, natural-sounding acoustic.

The Harmonia Mundi producers devote disc three to violin and piano works by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The soloists are Regis Pasquier, violin, and Brigitte Engerer, piano. The two primary works on the disc are the Sonate posthume pour violon et piano (1897) and the Sonate pour violon et piano (1927). Also on the program we find Kaddish, Tzigane, Habanera, and Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure.

Needless to say, the Ravel music is not really Spanish but Spanish-inflected. Close enough, I guess. The soloists play all of it beautifully, but their way with the sonatas is especially haunting, occasionally jazzy in a bluesy sort of way, and a touch melancholy. The sound, recorded in 1990, balances the two instruments quite well and adds a lifelike resonance to the proceedings.

On disc four we find two pieces for solo piano by Spanish composer and pianist Frederic Mompou (1893-1987). The most important of the two pieces is Musica callada (“Silent Music” or “Voices of Silence”), a series of twenty-eight movements Mompou wrote between 1959-1967 and played by pianist Javier Perianes. Debussy and Satie probably influenced the composer most, yet Mompou’s work is highly original on its own. It’s mostly quiet, contemplative music, with certain mystic overtones about it.

The Mompou music is, as I say, very quiet, sometimes almost silent, and always fascinating. Perianes plays the pieces with great sensitivity, making them appear ethereal, gossamer, otherworldly. While the piano sound, which Harmonia Mundi recorded in 2006, can be a mite soft and distant, it always seems appropriate to the gentle nature of the material.

Finally, on disc five we get what for me is the best music in the set, four guitar works by Spanish composer and pianist Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), performed by guitarist Marco Socias, Maestro Josep Pons, and the Orquesta Ciudad de Granada.

Among my favorites is the popular Concierto de Aranjuez, and even though there are tons of good recordings of it, this one should rank high on anyone’s list. Socias’s playing sounds relaxed, unhurried, unforced, and purely entertaining. He communicates a vibrant tone and a gentle heart in all the music. Other works include the Fantasia para un gentilhombre, Musica para un jardin, and Tre viejos aires de danza.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the Rodrigo disc in 2001, with somewhat mixed results. The Concierto displays good orchestral depth, realistic imaging, a balanced frequency response, an extended high and low end, and a pleasant ambient glow. The guitar appears well integrated within the orchestral context. The other tracks, though, seem louder and brighter, not always to their benefit.

HM package the set in a sturdy slipcase, with each disc afforded its own cardboard sleeve. An accompanying booklet in both French and English complements the box.

To hear a brief excerpt from this set, 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