Stravinsky: The Firebird, complete (SACD review)

Also, Fireworks; Tango; Scherzo a la russe; The Song of the Nightingale. Antal Dorati, London Symphony Orchestra. Mercury SACD 470 643-2.

Maestro Antal Dorati’s recording of the complete Firebird ballet on this hybrid SACD from Mercury is self recommending. Recorded in 1959, it has been among my two or three top choices in this repertoire for nearly half a century. Presented on this disc in a new three-channel mix and in the two-channel stereo CD transfer supervised by its original recording director, Wilma Cozart Fine, in the early Nineties, the sound is exceptionally lucid, dynamic, and well spread out. Indeed, it is one of the best-sounding discs of any kind you’ll find, a real sonic treasure. There is some very slight background noise during the quieter moments, but it is hardly an intrusion and not at all objectionable. The performance itself impresses one as ideally balanced, with the colorful music fully realized, the drama intact, and the lyrical beauty clearly presented.

Accompanying the Firebird are three short works, Fireworks, Tango, and Scherzo a la russe, all nicely recorded in 1964. But the big surprise for anyone who hasn’t heard it is The Song of the Nightingale. It is nothing short of astonishing. For me, there has only been one other performance the Nightingale worthy of mention alongside Dorati’s, and that is Reiner’s earlier account on RCA Living Stereo. Yet Dorati’s recording actually has the clearer, more overtly spectacular sound.

If you’re not familiar with the piece, The Song of the Nightingale was an opera Stravinsky helped score, from which the composer excerpted the symphonic suite we have here. He always liked the suite best, saying “a perfect rendering could only be achieved in the concert hall.” The work recounts the story of a nightingale in the court of a Chinese emperor, a bird whose favor gets displaced by a mechanical bird.  When the machine breaks down and the emperor becomes so dejected he almost dies, the real bird must return and right the situation. It’s a fairy tale, and Stravinsky’s fairy-tale music fits it perfectly. More important, Dorati’s light, airy, fairy-tale direction perfectly underpins every facet of the performance.

For those folks who own SACD players and ancillary equipment, the recording us, as I said before, available in three-channel stereo, just as Mercury originally recorded them. Otherwise, you listen as I did, to the regular two-channel layer. Remastered in DSD (Direct Stream Digital), the results are not just satisfying, they’re outstanding.

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

JJP

An Evening with Dave Grusin (UltraHD CD review)

Monica Mancini, Patti Austin, Gary Burton, Jon Secada, Nestor Torres; Dave Grusin, Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. FIM LIM UHD 065 LE.

An Evening with Dave Grusin is not so much a live concert or even a musical event as it is a celebration. It celebrates over half a century of music from composer, arranger, and pianist Dave Grusin, whose work includes everything from the scores to The Graduate, The Midnight Man, and Three Days of the Condor to classical and jazz compositions, earning him Academy Award nominations, Golden Globe nominations, Grammy nominations, and several Grammy award wins. On this 2009 live performance album remastered by FIM/LIM, Grusin acts as conductor of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra and as host, with the guest stars listed above joining in. He makes his own best fitting tribute to himself in the music he plays and leads.

Among the tunes that most appealed to me were the opening item (heard in part below), Grusin’s own “Fratelli Chase,” a lively pop-jazz piece with a good deal of sparkle. Then there’s a lovely combo of Grusin’s music to On Golden Pond and a spirited hornpipe medley. A few tracks later we find an effectively sultry Porgy & Bess medley.

For more jazz than not, pioneering vibraphonist Gary Burton joins in as soloist on Bernstein/Sondheim’s “Cool” from West Side Story. Following that is more from the musical as Jon Secada and Patti Austin do a duet of “Somewhere,” Secada does “Maria,” and flutist Nestor Torres solos in “I Feel Pretty.”

Right in the middle of the concert, almost out of left field, comes a suite from Grusin’s movie score for The Milagro Beanfield War. It’s the best, and longest, piece on the program, full of musical invention, lustrous melodies, and delightful playing. It’s a light, lilting, lyrical work most of the way that, frankly, took me by surprise as I hadn’t remembered how good the movie’s music was, it had been so long since I’d seen the film.

The album ends with Henry Mancini’s familiar theme to TV’s Peter Gunn, with Gary Burton soloing, and then Grusin’s “Memphis Stomp,” which brings things to a roaring close. With great sound, great music, and great performers, it doesn’t matter that most of it comprises short bits and pieces or that the whole thing is so short; it’s what we expect of a pop-concert album, and Grusin provides it in spades.

Producers Larry Rosen and Phil Ramone and engineer Eric Schilling made the recording at the James L. Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami Dade County, Miami, Florida, in December, 2009. Producer Winston Ma and engineer Michael Bishop remastered the album in 2012 using Ultra High Definition 32-bit mastering technology and the PureFlection replication process.

The sound exhibits a terrific dynamic range and impact, with very deep bass and a quick, clear, clean transient response. The extended treble works well with the high end, showing off the cymbals and such. Instruments appear realistically spread across the soundstage, although orchestral depth is modest. The separation of instruments makes up for any lack of depth, however, and there is plenty of air and space around them. Vocals seem fairly well integrated with the orchestra, maybe a little close but natural to a pop concert. They also sound smooth and lifelike. Because it’s live, expect a touch of audience noise during performances and, of course, the inevitable eruptions of applause after every number.

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

JJP

Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole (CD review)

Also, Namouna, Suites 1 and 2; Scherzo in D minor. Alexandre Da Costa, violin; Carlos Kalmar, Orquesta Sinfonica de Ratio Television Espanola. Warner Classics 2564 65711-4.

Is it just me, or does it appear as though certain composers go in and out of vogue every few years? It seems like twenty or thirty years ago, everybody was recording Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Then, either I didn’t notice or nobody appeared interested in the man or his music. OK, you’re right; it’s probably just me. In any case, this new Warner Classics disc from Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa pleased me and brought back a ton of old memories.

The French composer Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo (1823-1892) wrote a number of works, but people today probably know him best for his Symphonie Espagnole in D minor, Op. 21, for violin and orchestra (1874). Interestingly, Tchaikovsky also liked the piece, and when he heard it and played it through himself, it so influenced him that he dropped everything and wrote his own violin concerto. But that’s another story. The one here is about Da Costa’s performance of the work, and how he and Maestro Carlos Kalmar view it.

The accompanying booklet note advises that a listener first hear a few other recordings of the work before trying Da Costa’s interpretation, suggesting that the listener will find Da Costa’s version much less hurried, much less fierce. So I did just that: I put on Yan Pascal Tortelier’s EMI recording with Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and listened to the opening Allegro non troppo. Tortelier was, indeed, faster and more overtly exciting. However, I also noticed that Da Costa was remarkably versatile, both in the lyrical as well as the more bravura passages. He takes his time developing the music, providing plenty of color as well as a deep sense of melancholy. You’ll find little that is in the light French tradition here, even though Lalo was French. Da Costa’s rendition is thoroughly Spanish inflected, filled with strong emotions and high drama.

Da Costa says, again in the booklet note, that “a conductor once told me, ‘If you play fast and you accelerate, it just shows fear. If you play slower and hold your tempo, it shows strength.’ That’s the key for me when I play Spanish music.” This style is particularly evident in the second-movement Scherzando, which comes off beautifully and is probably the most Spanish-sounding music on the disc.

Lalo’s Intermezzo, a kind of habanera, is full of power and passion. The composer said he wanted the work to be foremost a violin solo soaring above a conventional symphony, and that’s the way Da Costa and Kalmar play it.

The Andante begins gravely but soon gives way to a lovely, flowing melody on the violin, which Da Costa appears to take great joy in playing. Lastly, the performers provide a thrilling Rondo finale in grand fashion where they demonstrate their mastery of Spanish romanticism.

As a coupling, Maestro Kalmar and his orchestra offer two suites (of five movements each) from Lalo’s oft-neglected ballet Namouna. Its lighter moments are its best ones, and Kalmar brings out what must be the best in the score. While neither the suites nor the concluding Scherzo in D minor are among the most-memorable music you can find, it is all pleasant enough, with a ton of atmosphere and theatrics.

Producer and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the music in 2012 at the Teatro Monumental, Madrid, Spain. The results he obtained sound excellent, very clean and very clear, with a quick, well-focused transient impact, a wide dynamic range, good midrange transparency, and well-extended highs. The stereo spread is also impressive, as is the overall clarity, if it also sounds a trifle hard. The orchestra is a tad close, but the violin sounds especially natural, with good bite and resonance. Compared to the aforementioned EMI-Tortelier recording, however, the Warner sonics could use more depth and greater warmth. Still, without the side-by-side comparison (which the Warner booklet invites, understand), the sound of the Warner Classics is quite fine.

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

JJP

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, The Voyevoda. Yondani Butt, London Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6217.

Maestro Yondani Butt, if you remember, is the Macau-born conductor with the Gramophone Award and the PhD in chemistry. His more-important qualification as a musician, however, is his lyrical, sensitive bent, which served him so well in two previous recordings with the LSO I reviewed of Beethoven and Wagner. He is no less lyrical or sensitive on the present Tchaikovsky disc, if that is what you’re looking for in Tchaikovsky.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 in 1888, conducting the premiere the same year. In various guises a similar theme reappears in all four movements of the work, a theme the composer described as "a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate." But things are not all that dark, and before long the mood picks up. As the work progresses, we hear the character of the theme become more positive, as though Tchaikovsky were voicing an increased optimism with regard to fate, the symphony becoming more affirmative and optimistic as it goes along. Whether or not Tchaikovsky meant to conclude the work on a wholly positive note is a question critics and listeners have been arguing for years.

Now, here’s the thing: Compared to the recordings I had on hand by Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Muti, Bernard Haitink, and others, Maestro Butt is slower in every movement every time, sometimes considerably slower. Nowhere do we hear this better exemplified than in the introductory Andante segment of movement one, which Butt advances at a snail’s pace. A listener will, of course, find rewards in the later outbreaks of the Allegro con anima, so like Butt’s previous recordings, this is one of contrasts, sometimes extreme contrasts. He is big on lyricism and grace, but he doesn’t always play up the big parts to much effect, even in contrast. If Butt’s intention was to show the world how poetic Tchaikovsky could be and how sensitive to Tchaikovsky’s tone he could be, then he surely succeeds immeasurably. However, it’s at the expense of losing out on some of the work’s excitement. Be forewarned.

As we might expect, Maestro Butt is at his best in the slow Andante cantabile movement. Here, the changing tensions work to Butt’s advantage, the conductor handling the alternating moods deftly and creating a sense of restrained passion throughout with a sweetly flowing line.

Likewise, Butt’s treatment of the third-movement Valse has a lovely lilt to its step, a reprieve from the shifting tones of the previous movement. Then, the finale brings with it the requisite triumph and joy. Or does it? Butt seems to inject an air of hesitant unhappiness into the proceedings, making us question whether the composer wanted to end things on an optimisitc note or not. Still, I’d rather hear Tchaikovsky performed with a few more thrills and a bit more thunder than Butt provides, more of a red-blooded “Russian” account.

Accompanying the Fifth Symphony we find Tchaikovsky’s tone poem (or as he called it, “Symphonic Ballad”) The Voyevoda, Op. 78, which one should not confuse with the opera of the same name Tchaikovsky composed some years earlier, based on a different source. Tchaikovsky, ever despondent, would call the music “rubbish” and destroy the score after its premiere. Fortunately, a fellow musician saved it. It’s really quite colorful, and Butt brings out all the Romantic atmosphere and flair in it. I don’t know why Butt wasn’t this persuasive in the symphony. 

Producer Chris Craker and engineer Simon Rhodes recorded the music at Abbey Road Studios, London, in 2012. Nimbus has a long and distinguished history (going back over forty years) of producing natural, realistic-sounding recordings, and this one will not disappoint the listener in that regard. The sound is very smooth, if a trifle soft, and easy on the ear. The stage sounds wide, with reasonably open and airy sonics, even though a tad recessed. Hint: Turn up the gain. The recording displays pretty good dynamics and an adequate amount of definition without having to get bright or forward to do it. While the sound may not be the most transparent you’ll hear, it remains well balanced and, as I say, fairly lifelike. Let’s say it’s comfortable sound, pleasantly listenable.

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

JJP

LAGQ: Latin (UltraHD CD review)

Carmen suite and others. Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. FIM LIM UHD 070 LE.

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) is probably the best guitar ensemble since the Romeros. Which isn’t hard to understand when you consider that in 1980 Pepe Romero oversaw their formation. Since then, the LAGQ have recorded a slew of albums, winning a Grammy in 2005 for Best Crossover CD, Guitar Heroes. They recorded the present album in 2001 for Telarc, and FIM remastered it to the best possible audiophile standards in 2012. If you like guitar music, you’ll like the LAGQ.

Although Matthew Greif replaced Andrew York in 2005, the group has remained pretty much the same for over thirty years, this Telarc/FIM disc featuring original quartet members John Dearman, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant and Andrew York. The fellows generally play on guitars using nylon strings in order to reflect the sounds of numerous other instruments and effects. Indeed, on some occasions they appear to be imitating the sounds of an entire symphony orchestra.

On LAGQ: Latin the quartet performs seventeen tracks, starting with Sting’s Latin-inflected tune Fragile in an arrangement that includes Tim Timmerman on percussion. The LAGQ’s rendition is gracefully touching. Next is Eduardo Martin’s Hasta Alicia Baila (“Until Alicia Dances”), a sort of Cuban rumba with an infectious beat.

Then we get the centerpiece of the album, a suite of numbers from Bizet’s Carmen. It’s delightful and should please guitar fans as well as Bizet admirers. The opening Aragonaise shows true panache, the Habanera has a lovely lilt, Seguidilla displays a sweet gentleness, the Toreadors provides a thrilling energy, the Entr’acte is simply gorgeous, and the Gypsy Dance closes the suite in a colorfully spirited fashion.

Following the Carmen Suite, we find a whole series of Cuban, Spanish, Central, and South American numbers. One fascinating item is Leo Brouwer’s Cuban Landscape with Rain, containing--you guessed it--the sounds of rain from the guitars. There is also a delicious performance of Aaron Copland’s Paisaje Mexicano (“Mexican Landscape”) that is quite lyrical. And so it goes, each tune a little gem, each one beautifully, expertly executed by the LAGQ.

The program ends with a reimagining of the second movement from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez that floats softly, poetically, as on a light breeze.

Telarc Record’s producer Robert Woods and engineer Robert Friedrich made the recording at Studio A, O’Henry Studios, Burbank, California in 2001, and FIM producer Winston Ma and the recording’s original engineer Robert Friedrich remastered it in 2012 using the Ultra High Definition 32-bit mastering system and FIM’s PureFlection replication process.

The sound is, not surprisingly, sublime, one of the better guitar recordings I’ve heard. Not only is it ultra clear and ultraclean, it’s ultrasmooth as well. Each plucked or stroked note stands out transparently, with its own richness and warmth. As important, the dead-quiet spaces between the notes sets off each sound in sometimes startling contrast.

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

Wagner: Overtures (CD review)

Alexander Rahbari, Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557055.

Over the years the folks at Naxos have provided the classical-music public some solid, well performed, reasonably well recorded, and fairly priced discs. The present album, however, isn’t necessarily one of them unless you are specifically looking for something out of the way.

The strongest virtue of this collection of early Wagner overtures is that it offers up some little-known, little-heard music by the composer. Beyond that, I’m afraid it can get a little dicey. Pleasant, but dicey.

The most popular item on the album is the opening work, Richard Wagner’s “Rienzi” overture, the composer’s first big hit as it were, which he premiered in 1842. Maestro Alexander Rahbari and the Malaga Philharmonic give it an appropriately swaggering performance, emphasizing all the pomp and ceremony that Wagner could muster. There is definitely a reason why Rahbari starts the program with this number.

The other four works, though, are not so well known, and for a reason; they aren’t as interesting as the opening piece and certainly not as important as Wagner’s much-later material. Written mostly in the 1830’s, before people even knew who Wagner was, the disc’s early Wagner works show a marked inclination toward melodrama, borrowings from other composers; and, while pleasing enough, they lack the kind of invention we would later expect from Wagner. Nevertheless, they make intriguing mementos of the composer’s past and should be of value to anyone interested in the composer’s early efforts.

After “Rienzi” comes “King Enzio,” which Wagner wrote in 1832 as an overture to a play by Ernest Raupach. Beethoven’s Fidelio appears to have influenced the composer, yet Wagner’s piece seems a pale imitation by comparison. Still, Maestro Rahbari does it justice, I’m sure, in a first-time recording, and makes it seem a moderately engaging piece. “The Ban on Love,” 1836, sounded a bit too insipid for my taste, however, with the exception of some tambourines and castanets in the opening, which are admittedly kind of fun. “The Fairies” overture, 1834, has the promise of Weber but soon leaves that prospect behind and becomes slightly wearisome. “Christoph Columbus,” 1840, another rarity, fares better than most of the other early overtures and gives us some idea of Wagner’s future creativity.

The disc ends with “Faust,” an overture that Wagner began as the first movement of a proposed Faust symphony begun years earlier but revamped in 1855. It’s no “Rienzi,” but it does foreshadow the bigger, better things to come. Franz Liszt liked Wagner’s Faust overture so well he wrote his own, more famous Faust Symphony, encouraging Wagner to do some revising of his own. Anyway, the result in Wagner’s overture is more than listenable and quite engaging by itself.

Although Maestro Rahbari gives each reading a competent, if sometimes seemingly perfunctory, reading, the Naxos engineers do him no favors with their close yet reverberant and somewhat veiled sonics. The Malaga Philharmonic appears to be producing a smaller sound than that which eventually reaches our ears, but thanks to a magnification of the mid and upper bass, the whole thing appears bigger than it should be and a bit muffled. While the result is not exactly akin to throwing a blanket over the speakers, if you happen to have something on hand such as Klemperer’s superb old EMI set of Wagner orchestral music, you’ll immediately hear a greater transparency from the EMI recordings despite their age.

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

JJP

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances. Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573051.

Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) completed his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 in 1936. It would be his last symphony. These days, we see it as something of a transition for the composer, being less overtly Romantic than his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, or the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Third Symphony is also more concise than his previous works, pointing toward the greater modernity he would reluctantly adopt. Still, it is most definitely Russian in flavor, especially noticeable in the finale’s dance rhythms, and surely it is still Romantic in spirit. Leopold Stokowski conducted the Third Symphony’s premiere in 1936 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Stokowski’s much-later recording of it for EMI with the London Symphony is still the one to own. Nevertheless, this new rendering from Naxos with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is no slouch.

The Third Symphony received an odd reception at first. Critics thought that it was still too Romantic in nature, that the composer had never gone beyond the Romantic period, beyond the Second Symphony or the Second and Third Piano Concertos. The public at large, on the other hand, found the Third too modern and not Romantic enough. They expected more of the lush, spacious tunes found in the aforementioned works. Poor Rachmaninov: He couldn’t win for losing. I suppose that battle continues to this day; most critics expect modern composers to produce new, imaginative, innovative material, and many in the public just want something they can whistle on their way home from the concert hall.

Another unusual feature about the Third Symphony is that Rachmaninov wrote it in only three movements. However, the second movement is really a combed Adagio and scherzo, so maybe that gives the work a traditional four-movement arrangement after all. The first-movement Allegro holds many surprises, the two-part Adagio is conservative but committed, and the third-movement Allegro vivace is exhilarating.

Maestro Slatkin catches most of the passion and drama of the first movement while sustaining its lyrical qualities at the same time. He does not linger on or draw out the movement as much as Stokowski did, preferring to step along at a fairly quick gait. Regardless, the movement never seems short of breath, and Slatkin does emphasize the big themes with a gracious hand, making them appear as broadly lyrical as ever.

In the second movement Adagio, Slatkin slows down appropriately and takes his time defining the music’s poetic features. When an allegro vivace section breaks out, Slatkin handles it with a zesty good humor before things settle back to the sweetness of the opening.

Then Slatkin concludes the symphony with all the dash and élan the finale requires. Some conductors allow the movement to sink into the sentimentality of a Hollywood epic, but Slatkin ends it in a straightforward blaze of glory, the veiled Dies irae theme sounding appropriately ominous and resplendently optimistic at the same time.

As a companion piece, the disc includes Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, written in 1940 and among the composer’s last works. Slatkin pulls this quasi-symphony off pretty well, too, but unfortunately for him he has stiff competition from the justly celebrated Reference Recordings disc with Maestro Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. That recording is so overwhelming colossal, it tends to dwarf everything that comes up against it. Be that as it may, Slatkin brings a nobility and dignity to the score that I often find lacking in other recordings, the conductor ending the piece on a triumphant note, this time with the Dies irae (again) hardly disguised. In all, we get fine, grand, bold, powerful, poetic results from Slatkin and his Detroit forces in both the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances.

The Detroit Symphony was one of the stars of early stereo in the late Fifties and early Sixties, thanks to their participation in a number of fine recordings on Mercury Living Presence. This time out, Naxos recorded the music at the Detroit Symphony’s home, Orchestra Hall, in 2011-2012, and the orchestra’s star still shines. Interestingly, though, while the new Naxos digital recording is good, it is not really an improvement over the old Mercurys, which hold up to this day as some of the finest recordings you can find.

Anyway, the Naxos sound has fitting power and strong impact, with a reasonably wide dynamic range. It’s also ultrasmooth, with a mild resonance providing a warm glow around the music. Midrange transparency suffers slightly (especially compared to those old Mercury discs), but it remains pleasing all the same. Bass extension is taut and deep; and even though highs can seem at times a tad soft, they show good extension when necessary. What’s more, the left-to-right stereo spread sounds impressive, with a decent localization of instruments and a modest orchestral depth.

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

JJP

Emerson String Quartet: Journeys (CD review)

Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence; Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht. Emerson String Quartet, augmented by Paul Neubauer, viola II, and Colin Carr, cello II. Sony Classical 88725470602.

The Emerson String Quartet is not the oldest string quartet in existence, but surely it is among the most well known. Formed in 1976 and with only a couple of personnel changes, the group has released over thirty recordings and won three Gramophone Awards and nine Grammys for Best Chamber Music Performance and Best Classical Album. Did I also mention they are among the best at whatever music they attempt?

The Quartet as comprised here includes Philip Setzer, first and second violin; Eugene Drucker, first and second violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola; and David Finckel, cello. Joining them for the two sextets on the disc are Paul Neubauer, second viola; and Colin Carr, second cello.

The first of the selections on the program is the Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), which he wrote for string sextet in 1890 and premiered in 1892. He called it a “souvenir of Florence” because he composed a part of the second movement while visiting the city. As with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Night that follows on the disc, we often hear Tchaikovsky’s piece adapted for chamber orchestra, but there’s something a little more intimate about these original sextet arrangements.

The first movement is somewhat stormy, tumultuous in fact. The Emersons attack the opening not just with verve but with absolute rigor. The movement quickly settles down into a rapturous melody that the Emersons infuse with an even further enlightening energy. It’s still quite lyrical but on a spirited scale, especially in that drawn-out second subject with its delicious counterpoint.

The slow second movement, the Adagio cantabile e con moto, is serene, the Romantic centerpiece of the work. The Emersons capture its delicately rhapsodic nature without giving in to the temptations of sentimentalizing it. They bring out all its most lovely contrasts, the strings almost literally singing their parts. It is sublime.

The final two movements, marked Allegretto moderato and Allegro con brio e vivace, increase in tempo and gusto, sounding far more rhythmically vital and “Russian” than the rest of the work. In the Emersons’ hands, these sections bounce along at a zippy yet never breathless pace, the third movement sounding particularly folksy in its presentation. The finale begins with a quick dance tune that the Emersons handle in vivacious style, producing a sunny, warm-hearted result.

The final number on the disc is Verklarte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), Op. 4, a single-movement sextet written by the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) in 1899, one of his first important works. Apparently, his inspirations were a poem by Richard Dehmel and his feelings for a young woman, Mathilde von Zemlinsky, whom he would eventually marry. Audiences at first did not appreciate the piece, finding it too eccentric, too avant-garde for them. Today, we recognize Schoenberg’s occasional dissonances as a part of the work’s beauty. Besides, it was only the start of Schoenberg’s modernism.

Anyway, the Emerson players perform Verklarte Nacht with great urgency and drama, charging it with notable expression through their nuance and coloring. One has little trouble following the music’s interrelated themes (especially with the words to Dehmel’s poem reproduced in the accompanying booklet) as its story unfolds in a miniature tone poem. The Emersons emphasize the warmth, stillness, passion, and pathos of the poem, their playing again immaculate.

Sony recorded the Quartet at LeFrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New York, in 2012. The miking puts the players fairly close, creating a wide left-to-right stereo spread; meaning you’re not far away from them. There is nothing hard, bright, or edgy about the recording, though. The sound is smooth and natural, with a pleasantly warm ambient glow around the notes that in no way detracts from the acoustic detailing. For a small chamber work, its sound is impressively big and luxuriant.

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

JJP

The Best of Play Bach (UltraHD CD review)

Jacques Loussier Trio. FIM LIM 067 LE.

There is a reason why a good number of audiophile discs are either classical or jazz and why many audiophiles prefer listening to these two genres. In a nutshell, it's because the classical and jazz genres are among the only ones that use few or no microphones when playing live. What difference should that make? It means that when people hear a classical or jazz recording in their home, they have a chance to compare the sound (at least in their mind) to their remembrance of the sound of a live event. With most pop, rock, and contemporary music, home listeners have no chance of comparing a disc's sound to anything live because in reality the "sound" of pop, rock, and contemporary music depends upon the microphones and loudspeakers used at the live event. For instance, even a singer in a small nightclub using the club's PA system gives us the sound of the PA system as much as it does the singer. And it's the sound of a recording that interests audiophiles as much as or more than the music itself. That's why we call them "audio"philes.

All of which brings us to the Jacques Loussier Trio, three jazzmen who have been bringing us their jazz renditions of popular classical tunes for a really long time. Combining classical and jazz, they are an audiophile's delight. The Loussier ensemble has done Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Handel, Mozart, Ravel, Satie, Vivaldi, Schumann, you name it, and Loussier's own involvement in jazz interpretations of classical music dates back to the 1950's. So he knows what he's doing.

Pianist Jacques Loussier has worked with several different trio partners over the years. The album lists the lineup here as Loussier on piano, Vincent Charbonnier on bass, and Andre Arpino on drums.  Loussier made his first Play Bach album in 1959, and this current one, The Best of Play Bach, he made for Telarc several years ago. Now, the folks at FIM have remastered it to audiophile standards using their UltraHD and PureFlection technology.

In The Best of Play Bach we get what Loussier feels are the best numbers from his Bach series, this time recorded by Telarc in SACD multichannel surround sound but here remastered in two-channel stereo. The eleven tracks total about an hour's music and include some of Bach's most-popular tunes.

The program begins with the familiar Toccata & Fugue in D minor. If Stokowski could arrange this organ piece for full orchestra, I guess Loussier felt he could do the same for a three-piece jazz trio. In any case, it works pretty well (and you can hear a snippet of it below). It's easily recognizable as Bach yet turns nicely jazzy a few minutes in. Then it alternates between a free-form jazz and Bach motifs for most the remainder of the piece. It's quite fetching, really, whether you're a jazz fan or a classical music aficionado.

Next up is the Air on a G String, which in an earlier recording many years ago by the Loussier Trio became an international best seller, and one can see why with this newer version. It's not only jazzy, it's easygoing, seemingly improvisational, and thoroughly engaging.

And so it goes through a lovely Prelude No. 1 in C major that rocks toward the end; a resounding Gavotte in D major that will give your woofers a workout; and a sweetly affecting Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring that for me was a highlight of the set.

Three movements from Bach's Italian Concerto (Presto, Allegro, and Andante) constitute the longest sustained work on the disc.  The music is lively, imaginative, and pensive by turns.  The album then closes with a pair of virtuosic pieces: the Fugue No. 5 in D major and the Pastorale in C minor, the latter another highlight, particularly for its remarkable bass solo.

FIM (First Impression Music) and their subsidiary LIM (Lasting Impression Music) brought the music to the present audiophile UltraHD album in 2013, using the latest advances in 32-bit technology for the transfer. In addition producer Winston Ma used some new, innovative engineering he calls Pure Reflection or, 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. I don't doubt him.

Anyway, the Jacques Loussier Trio recorded these Bach pieces for Telarc in 2003-04 in discrete multichannel SACD, although, as I said earlier, LIM have remastered it in straight two-channel stereo. Interestingly, LIM employed the same mastering engineer, Michael Bishop, who mastered the original SACD for Telarc.

Everyone at LIM did a good job with the remastering and transfer. The disc's sonics are terrifically clean and highly dynamic. The highs sound beautifully extended, and the bass can be awesomely deep. The cymbals sparkle, shimmer, and sizzle as the case may be, and the drum attack is impressive. There is also a good stereo spread, with plenty of air and space around the three instruments. Clear strings, strong impact, a well-defined piano, a full ambient bloom, and accurate imaging complete the sonic picture, and a fine picture it is.

As always, FIM/LIM have packaged the disc well in a handsome, glossy, hardbound book arrangement resembling a Digipak with the booklet notes fastened to the inside and the disc itself inserted into a static-proof liner, further enclosed by a thin-cardboard album sleeve. Just don't forget that these audiophile products aren’t cheap. Remember my warning in advance against sticker shock.

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

JJP

Angels and Saints at Ephesus (CD review)

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca B0018437-02.

Because recorded liturgical music like chant has largely been the province of monks over the years, record companies have given rather short shrift to their female counterparts. The folks at De Montfort Music, Decca Records, and the Sisters at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus (the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a monastic community located in rural Missouri) are clearly changing all that. When they made their first album, Advent at Ephesus, they surprised most of the music-listening world by producing a best-seller. There is no reason why this second album, Angels and Saints, shouldn't probably do the same.

The album's back cover describes the sisters thusly: "Consecrated to the Queen of Apostles, their lives are dedicated to contemplative prayer especially for priests. They support themselves primarily by making priestly vestments. Professing full obedience to the Church's teaching, the community upholds a loving commitment to preserving the liturgical heritage of the Church in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and traditional monastic Office. This is their second recording with De Montfort Music and Decca Records."

The Sisters possess voices of the sweetest purity. While there may be no obvious virtuosos among them (or if there are, they would be too modest to admit it), as a group they continue to sing like angels, their voices harmonizing with celestial precision.

From what I read in the accompanying booklet, the Sisters chose each of the seventeen selections on the program to enrich their (and our) spirituality. As they say, they are "called to embrace a liturgical spirituality" because their lives "literally revolve around Christ as a many-faceted jewel.... The feats of the angels and saints reflect the light of world in their own way, reminding us to follow them.... These interspersed feasts are especially commemorated in song. The saints and angels are honored either in hymns written for them or, in many cases, hymns written by the saints themselves. Thus, we have a variety of composers represented from saints to clergymen to laypersons. No matter the author, the songs are deeply moving, some sung in English, some in Latin.

Whatever the occasion, the Sisters blend their voices in a most celestial manner, and it's hard for a person not to feel moved by the beauty and commitment they bring to their singing. As for favorites, it's impossible.  Nevertheless, I felt particularly taken by the tranquility of "Duo Seraphim" and "Veritas Mea"; the part singing in "Jesu Dulcis Memoria," and "Ave Regina"; and the simplicity of the late Medieval Sequence "Emicat Merides."

The program ends with a number that on its own could well become a best-seller: "Dear Angel Ever at My Side." It has all the ingredients for popular culture status in its sentiment, sincerity, and powerfully gentle presentation. If you liked the Sisters' first album, you'll surely like their second one as well.

At little more than forty-three minutes, the disc doesn't provide much material for a Decca classical album. However, maybe Decca figured it was really a crossover product, and the pop fans among its audience wouldn't expect as much. Or maybe the Sisters just ran out of breath. Who knows. In any case, you know it's a good album when the worst you can say about it is that there isn't enough.

DeMontfort Music recorded the Benedictines of Mary at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in February, 2013. The venue seems fairly reverberant, so expect a richly resonant sound. Still, there is an exceptionally good clarity to the voices, even if they are sort of enshrouded by a veil of room reflections. The resonance tends to make the singing all the more comforting. Besides, we might have foretold to hear a chorus performing in a church setting to sound about the way we hear the sisters on this disc, so all is well.

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

JJP

Violin Lullabies (CD review)

Featuring works by Brahms, Gershwin, Ravel, Schubert, Strauss, and many more. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Hagle, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 139.

Who doesn’t like a lullaby? Everybody likes a lullaby. For many of us, it was the first music we ever heard. Lullabies are so popular that almost every classical composer of the last few hundred (nay, perhaps few thousand) years wrote some of them. Violinist Rachel Barton Pine and piano accompanist Matthew Hagle have chosen over two dozen examples of the genre for performance on the present disc. The playing is beautiful and the music relaxing, all of it inspirational in its way.

Ms. Pine explains in a booklet note that while the repertoire for the album had been in the back of her mind for quite some time, the birth of her first child actually inspired the program, which she plays on a 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu, Cremona.

While I admit that I’m not overly fond of albums containing bits and pieces of things, I can easily make an exception with this one. I also admit that the older I get (which is beginning to verge on ancient), the more sentimental I become. Thus, the Brahms Wiegenlied (“Cradle Song”), possibly the most-famous lullaby ever written, that opens the program practically brought tears to my eyes. It’s positively lovely, with committed, heartfelt playing from Ms. Pine, whose own child must certainly be lucky to have so talented a mother to play these things for her now and throughout her life. Ms. Pine says that some of these lullabies are part of a bedtime routine for her child, which she sings to the baby every day, often joined by her husband an octave lower. The cover and inlay photos, incidentally, are those of Sylvia Pine, age two weeks.

Bits and pieces notwithstanding, I think I could listen to this stuff all day. Also called berceuse in French and wiegenlied in German, there is more variety in the lullaby or cradlesong than you might suppose. Ms. Pine’s collection illustrates the point with as many variations of the theme as possible in a seventy-nine minute album. She describes them as “short and elegant” pieces, and surely they are, most them composed for violin and piano.

Of course, I have my favorites on the disc. The aforementioned Brahms, for sure; an even more wistful one by Amy Beach; a Scottish-inflected one by Ludwig Schwab; a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that never sounded more soulful; a particularly endearing piece by Faure; a more austere one by Sibelius; a jaunty number from Pauline Viardot-Garcia; and a mystically Romantic one by twentieth-century composer Alan Hovhaness that fits right at home with the composers of the nineteenth century.

Then, too, you’ll not mistake Stravinsky’s lullaby from the Firebird for anything but Stravinsky. And there is Schubert, as you would expect producing one of the most melodious lullabies of all, as is the Schumann that follows it. Over a dozen more complement these selections, each of them a perfect little gem from the likes of Respighi, Falla, Grieg, Reger, Richard Strauss, and more.

Obviously, the violinist in such material must be completely in tune with the mood of these pieces and must display an emotional sensitivity to go with it. Ms. Pine has the credentials, the virtuosity, and the temperament to offer up this music as a part of herself. One couldn’t ask for greater versatility in a performer.

Cedille founder, producer, and president James Ginsburg and ace engineer Bill Maylone made the album in 2012 at the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, Illinois. What they got for their trouble is one of the most realistic violin sounds I’ve found. You can hear every nuance of the bowing, every rasp, every stroke, every quiver, every detail. The piano is fine, too, although it is well in the background providing a soft accompaniment.

You may access additional lullabies from Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Hagle at iTunes:  https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/funf-lieder-op.-49-no.-4-wiegenlied/id634009865?i=634010273&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

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

JJP

Costello: Il Sogno (CD review)

Michael Tilson Thomas, London Symphony Orchestra. DG B0003284-02.

The name “Elvis Costello” (born Declan Patrick MacManus) probably isn’t the first one that leaps into most people’s minds when they think of big-scale, classical orchestral works, but I suppose if Paul McCartney could do it, so could Costello. The Italian dance company Aterballetto asked the rocker in 2000 if he would compose an original ballet score for their production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Costello went for it, producing Il Sogno (“The Dream”). What we have on this recording is a revised concert version of the score conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Since Costello wrote the score for a ballet, the music is necessarily episodic, although with the help of Tilson Thomas, the composer was able to connect the various disparate elements together into something acceptably seamless. There is but one slightly jarring element, however. The first fifteen minutes or so are quite Romantic in mood and construction, harking back to pre-Stravinskian days. Then, out of the blue, the music takes on strong jazz inflections reminiscent of Gershwin. The jump is somewhat disconcerting.

Some listeners may think the whole enterprise adventurous; others will see it as awkward. Anyway, once we get past the transition, the music alternates between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in technique, with many of the melodies seeming to belong to a modern motion-picture soundtrack. Unless you’re a devoted Costello fan and have heard some of his non-rock compositions, the result is probably like nothing you might have expected from the man: laid-back, jazzy, and, as I say, Romantic. It passes a pleasant enough hour, especially under Tilson Thomas’s affectionate direction and with the LSO’s impeccable playing.

The sound the DG engineers derive from sessions with the LSO at Abbey Road Studios is agreeable as well. It will not win many audiophile awards because it lacks a real punch most of the time, yet it’s pleasingly smooth, with a wide stereo spread and a reasonably good amount of orchestral depth. Nothing to complain about.

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

JJP

Bruch: Violin Concerto (SACD review)

Also Korngold: Violin Concerto; Chausson:  Poeme.  Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Lawrence Foster, Orquestra Gulbenkian. PentaTone PTC 5186 503.

Arabella Steinbacher, for those who don’t know, is a German classical violinist who has won several important international prizes, recorded over half a dozen albums, and was a student of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation “Circle of Friends.” On the present disc she puts her talents to work playing violin works by Bruch, Korngold, and Chausson.

First up is the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by Austrian composer, conductor, and pianist Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Korngold wrote it in 1945, at the end of World War II, because he had vowed years earlier to continue writing only film music (think of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk) until the Allies defeated Hitler. When that happened, he turned to the Violin Concerto and further work in the classical field. Needless to say, the Concerto became a hit with the public, probably for its combination of Romantic lyricism and lush melodies, although many critics couldn’t help thinking it sounding too much like the composer’s film music and dismissed it out of hand.

From the outset we can see that Ms. Steinbacher is going to be doing an all-out Romantic reading of the music, if one that is clean and free of excessive virtuosic baggage. It’s an appropriate reading, given that Korngold used material from some of his more exotic movie scores, like Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse, Juarez, and The Prince and the Pauper in the first movement alone. Not all critics may not take it seriously, but Ms. Steinbacher does. She infuses the piece with an earnest emotion, excellent structure, and superb craftsmanship that not even the copious eruptions of obvious cinematic references can diminish. Her violin tone is sweet and fluid, like the music, and the violin shimmers with delight in every phrase.

Next up is the little Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25, by the French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), a work he completed in 1896 and has since become one of his most-famous pieces of music. Almost every notable violinist of the past century has recorded it, so Ms. Steinbacher had her work cut out for her. Fortunately, the music sounds lovely in her hands, if not quite so emotionally charged as Perlman’s (EMI), which remains my favorite in this work. Nevertheless, Steinbacher brings a longing melancholy to the music and emphasizes the dark, brooding aspects of the Russian story Chausson used as a model for the piece.

The program concludes with the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, by the German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). He premiered his revised version in 1867, and it has since become one of the staples of the violin repertoire. It has a curious first movement, a Vorspiel (or Prelude) leading directly to the second movement. This Vorspiel is like a slow march, with some ornamental flourishes along the way. It is here that Ms. Steinbacher is especially at home with the overt Romanticism of the score. While she may not exude the dramatic intensity we find in Heifetz’s classic recording (RCA), she does convey a warm, rapturous feeling as the opening music builds to its conclusion.

The second-movement Adagio is beautifully melodious and forms the core of the work. Here we find a series of broadly sweeping themes, with the violin aided by a graceful orchestral accompaniment. In this section, Ms. Steinbacher takes a backseat to no one, the notes flowing lusciously from her violin in endless delight.

The Finale begins quietly until the violin opens up with a vivacious theme in the form of a dance, which along with its lyricism reminds us of its Romantic origins, and finishes in a grand climax. Ms. Steinbacher plays it in a thoroughly charming and sprightly fashion and closes things on a befittingly sunny note. For lovers of multichannel sound in particular, Ms. Steinbacher’s SACD presentation seems an easy recommendation.

The recording date was July, 2012, and the venue the Grande Auditorio of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal. Although there is nothing spectacular about the two-channel SACD stereo mode of this hybrid disc (to which I listened), it is pleasantly natural and truthful. The violin sounds almost perfectly integrated with the orchestra, for example, not too far in front of it, not too recessed, and it appears most realistic in its tone. The orchestral sonics are also good:  ultrasmooth, slightly warm, nicely balanced, and lightly resonant. Orchestral depth is adequate, and left-to-right stereo spread is commendable, with the frequency extremes and dynamic impact modest yet comfortably lifelike.

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

JJP

A Grand Romance (CD review)

Jeffrey Biegel, piano. Steinway & Sons 30017.

According to my count, A Grand Romance would be the third album that composer, arranger, pianist, and Steinway recording artist Jeffrey Biegel has made for Steinway & Sons, following Bach on a Steinway (2010) and A Steinway Christmas Album (2011). On this current disc, we find a collection of short, Romantic piano pieces, described on the record jacket as celebrating “the intimacy of the relationship between pianist and public. Penned by composers who were highly accomplished keyboardists themselves, it represents a genre of pianism unashamed of sentiment, frill and facility, and luxuriating in the expressive sophistication of the instrument and the wooing of the crowd.” Well, woo it does, as Mr. Biegel’s piano practically makes one swoon in delight. It’s a charming bit of piano playing.

Also important, perhaps, is the fact that Mr. Biegel has chosen sixteen pieces of music from the Romantic repertoire that pianists these days haven’t overplayed or over recorded. In general, I don’t usually care for albums made up of bits and pieces of stuff, but when so much of the material here is both so pleasurable and relatively unknown, and, of course, so well performed, it makes for a good listen, one I hope to repeat often.

Things begin with the Caprice espagnol by Moritz Moszkowski (185401925). It’s a work that begins the show as a zesty curtain-raiser and then settles down into a sweet dance tune. The music offers a good example of Biegel’s versatility in handling passages of virtuosic intensity and restrained lyricism.

Following the Caprice is a delicate waltz (you can hear a bit of it below) called A la bien-aimee (“To My Beloved”) by Eduard Schutt (1858-1934). It’s lovely.  Shortly thereafter, we find the Nocturne in B-flat major by Ignacy Jan Paderewski ((1860-1941). This Nocturne is particularly affecting, with a gently nuanced performance by Mr. Biegel.

And so it goes, Biegel alternating slower and quicker numbers as the program proceeds. Further works by Henselt, Cui, Bortkiewicz, Schlozer, Levitzki, Sgambati, and Chasins continue in a similar vein. An especially enchanting one is the tone poem Reve angelique (“Angelic Dream”) by Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894). Another one is Arabesques on “The Blue Danube” by Adolf Andrei Schulz-Evler. It’s a melodious little piece (and it’s the longest work on the album at a little over ten minutes), and as always Mr. Biegel manages it with a deft hand (and with what appear to be about 800 deft fingers).

This is high Romanticism at its more winning and most engaging. To complement the music, Jeffrey Biegel’s pianism is both comfortable and dazzling.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded A Grand Romance in July, 2012, at Sono Luminus studios, Boyce, Virginia. The piano appears miked relatively closely and produces a big, rich, robust effect. It does not, however, spread clear across the room but stays a realistic size, well centered and occupying maybe half the space between one’s speakers. You’ll also note a pleasantly warm ambience that adds to the verisimilitude of the occasion.

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


JJP

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