Jul 30, 2013

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos 8 and 9 of Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione. Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico, Milano. Teldec Classics/Warner Classics 2564 64763-0.

You can find recordings of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) performed on period and modern instruments in arrangements for chamber orchestras, full orchestras, guitar ensembles, wooden blocks, tin drums, and glockenspiels. My own preference is for period instruments and a number of players that approximates what Vivaldi had in mind when he wrote it, so this release from Warner Classics of a 1993 recording by Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico nicely fills the bill. The fact that they do it up quite inventively helps, too.

That said, let me continue by saying that while Il Giardino Armonico play the Seasons splendidly and while I like period instruments, I’m not entirely sure any orchestra in Vivaldi’s day would have performed the concertos this way. Armonico’s way with them is, to say the least, unusual by today’s standards. Of course, they represent probably what any modern listener would want in a recording, considering that there are already hundreds of other, more conventional versions available. However, in the long run I’d consider the rendition of things by Il Giardino Armonico (“The Harmonious Garden”) primarily an addition to one’s other recordings of The Four Seasons rather than being one’s only recording.

Even though Italian violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, most folks probably only recognize him for his Four Seasons violin concertos, those little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, and howling winds. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they make up the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). People hardly remember the other concertos in the set.

I recall reading years ago that in Baroque times orchestras usually played fast movements slower than they do in subsequent eras and slow movements faster. Later, I read just the opposite. In any case, Baroque orchestras would probably have emphasized tempo contrasts among movements more vividly than we do today. If that’s the case (and it’s a case still debated), then Il Giardino Armonico must stand firmly behind contrast because they definitely fill their Seasons with differences and deviations from the norm. What’s more, they tend to overplay Vivaldi’s descriptive elements, making this an entertaining but decidedly unusual Four Seasons, one that will delight some listeners and infuriate others.

We hear from Spring onward that the Il Giardino Armonico players not only emphasize tempo changes from movement to movement but practice a volatile rubato within movements with their extreme ritardandos and accelerandos, often along with magnified dynamics. The effect is dramatic, to be sure, and fun, but Antonini and his team never convinced me that this is the way Vivaldi or his contemporaries might have performed things.

Anyway, Armonico’s two most persuasive movements are in the Summer and Fall concertos, the former because the playing is the most creative, the latter because the slight hyperbole seems best to fit the occasion of drunken peasants, baying hounds, fleeing animals, dancing, and singing. Armonico’s most traditional reading is of the first, Spring Concerto, wherein the players take things easy. Compared to the other concertos, it actually sounds a little mundane.

Where Armonico’s style works least best is in Winter. Here, ensembles over the years have interpreted the opening moments of the first movement either by following the accompanying sonnet to the letter, that is, first slowly shivering in the cold and then quickly running and stamping to keep warm, with abrupt tempo changes between the two; or maintaining a more consistent tempo throughout. Obviously, the Armonico group elect the first option, making the shivering very slow and deliberate and the running fast and exuberant. But it’s the slow, second movement that may seriously annoy some listeners. It’s one of Vivaldi’s most amiable, most comforting tunes, a warm, cozy number suggesting folks sitting inside a cottage by the fire, free from the wind and snow. Vivaldi intended it as a Largo and marked it “peaceful and content.” With Il Giardino Armonico the music sounds like another Allegro, racing along pell-mell and losing most of its charm in the process.

We get some fine playing from the members of Il Giardino Armonico but especially from first violinist Enrico Onofri. Moreover, the disc’s two other pieces, Concerto No. 8 in G minor and Concerto No. 9 in D minor, also from Il Cimento dell-Armonia e dell’Inventione, make excellent couplings because we don’t hear them often enough, and their creativity is boundless. Then, too, without having to compare them to a ton of other recorded interpretations, they seem just right. These certainly come off as spirited realizations.

So, in the end, for whom might Teldec/Warner Classics have intended this rerelease? It’s not my business to make guesses or to tell people what to buy, but if pressed I’d say the two primary audiences are (1) folks who already have 800 copies of The Four Seasons on their shelves and are looking for something unique to break the monotony; or (2) folks who have never cared much for The Four Seasons and need something as captivating as this one to get them excited. Still, as I said before, I wouldn’t want Il Giardino Armonico’s interpretation as the one-and-only album in my library but as a supplement to period-instruments recordings by the likes of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBP), La Petite Bande (Sony), the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), the English Concert (DG Archiv), or Tafelmusik (Sony). I think these other recordings are safer bets than Il Giardino Armonico, just as entertaining, and at least as well or better recorded.

Producer Wolfgang Mohr and engineer Lucienne Rosset recorded the music for Teldec at Lugano, Radio della Svizzera Italiana (RTSI) Studio 1 in 1993. Warner Classics released it 2013. There is some discussion in the booklet notes about Il Armonico’s choice of pitch, suggesting that if they had followed Venetian practices, the result would have been too “brilliant and aggressive.” Fair enough, except that the sound still appears to favor the high end slightly and might still appear too brilliant and aggressive depending on one’s speakers. It’s not excessively bright, though, just a little light, and this small degree of brightness may even contribute to the overall clarity of the sonics.

The miking is fairly close-up, providing good definition, if not the most entirely realistic perspective. The recording doesn’t offer a lot in the way of room resonance or ambience, either, but, as I say, it does supply good, clean, clear playback. Additionally, the small number of Il Giardino Armonico players (about ten) contributes to the sound’s transparency, as do the recording’s quick transient response and taut impact.

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


Jul 29, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartets (SACD review)

No. 3, Op. 18; No. 5, Op. 18; No. 16, Op. 135. The Hagen Quartet. Myrios Classics MYR009.

No doubt I’m showing my age when I still think of the Hagen Quartet as a young, new ensemble of Austrian players. In fact, the siblings first began performing as a group professionally in 1981, making them today among the oldest string quartets around. But, then, for me 1981 seems like yesterday. Since the quartet’s formation, second violinist Rainer Schmidt has replaced sister Angelika Hagen, joining first violinist Lukas Hagen, violist Veronika Hagen, and cellist Clemens Hagen. Together, they have recorded over forty albums for Decca, DG, Myrios Classics, and other labels. Following up a highly successful and internationally celebrated thirtieth season devoted to the Beethoven string quartet cycle, the Hagens offer the present album of three Beethoven string quartets, an album that illustrates the group’s virtuosity, sensitivity, and versatility.

The Hagens begin the program with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18, which was actually the composer’s first string quartet composition, probably written around 1798. This quartet’s most salient feature is its second-movement Andante con moto, a piece of music that is not only beautiful in anybody’s hands but especially so given the expertise of the Hagens. It flows gently along, and even in its most energetic moments the group keeps the tone relaxed and charming. Another unique aspect of the quartet is a concluding Presto for which Beethoven indicates a speed of some ninety-six beat per minute. That’s a heck of a fast pace, and the Hagens try to emulate it while still keeping the tempo as flexible as possible. Remarkably, they never make it appear breathless.

Next is the String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, a lighter work than No. 3, with greater lilt.  Beethoven patterned it more closely than No 3 on the quartets of Mozart, and the Hagens play it with great felicity. It’s delightful in every way, particularly in the Minuetto with its halting rhythms and in the Andante Cantabile with its melancholy overtones.

The disc closes with the last quartet Beethoven ever wrote, No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 from 1826, composed nearly three decades after his first quartet. There is quite a difference in style, with No. 16 being far more creative, inventive, and mature than his previous quartets, more completely “Beethoven” if you will. Here, it is again the slow movement that stands out, one the composer marked “cantante e tranquillo.” Beethoven would die shortly thereafter, making it, indeed, his final tranquil song. The Hagens afford it all the sweet peace the music deserves.

A most generous playing time of almost eighty minutes, pretty much the upper limit of a compact disc, puts the icing on the cake.

Myrios Classics recorded the music in 2012, No. 3 at Siemens-Villa, Berlin, and Nos. 5 and 16 at Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal. Although the disc is an SACD with the possibility for multichannel playback, it’s also a hybrid with a regular two-channel stereo layer to which I listened (albeit from an SACD player). I found the sound in both recording venues very wide for so small an ensemble, so expect the stage to spread across your two front speakers. It’s not quite as realistic an image as I’d like, it’s a tad bright in the lower treble, and the balance tends slightly to favor the left side of the stage. Otherwise, we get excellent definition, and certainly we hear a big, open, airy sound, with a a more than ample dynamic range.

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


Jul 26, 2013

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Tod und Verklarung. Francois-Xavier Roth, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden un Freiburg. Hanssler Classic CD 93.299.

Is it really such tall leap from the heroic swagger of Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes to the heroic swagger of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben? From Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Sea Hawk? Or from Korngold’s Sea Hawk to John Williams’s Star Wars? I think not. All composers owe a little something to those who went before them, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) was a natural step in the progression of the tone poem, here given a rousing rendition by Maestro Francois-Xavier Roth and his Southwest German Radio Orchestra. What’s more, the orchestra plays with the precision and solidity you would expect of a thoroughly polished German ensemble, helping Roth immensely to recreate Strauss’s picturesque musical poem.

A note before we continue, though, about the ensemble involved, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (also known in English as the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra or SWR Symphony Orchestra, and in German as the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestrundfunks or SWR Sinfonieorchester) is a radio orchestra located in the German cities of Baden-Baden and Freiburg.” Francois-Xavier Roth has been the orchestra’s Chief Conductor since 2011. Now that we’ve cleared that up, on to the music.

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a kind of tongue-in-cheek autobiography, a semi-serious self-portrait. Strauss was only thirty-four years old at the time, showing his supreme self-confidence by writing a musical autobiography as he did at such an early age. Mainly, though, he seems to have written it to get in a few digs at his critics, whom he convincingly silences through the music.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into seven parts describing seven stages in the artist’s life. The first segment, “The Hero,” obviously describes Strauss himself and does so on a large, swashbuckling scale. Here, Maestro Roth is appropriately dashing, with plenty of panache. Next, the music turns to “The Hero’s Adversaries,” his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion; Roth captures their trivialities, yet their possibly sinister nature as well. Following that is “The Hero’s Companion,” his wife, whom violinist Christian Ostertag sweetly defines in solo; then in the ensuing “Love Scene” we find from Roth not only a loving, harmonious wife but an apparently complex one.

“The Hero’s Battlefield” is the centerpiece of the work, where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them (musically) of his accomplishments with bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Roth provides it with an adequate urgency and excitement without too much hectic, bombastic action.

“The Hero’s Works of Peace” is another slow movement, again a remembrance of the composer’s previous tone poems as an almost-final rebuke of his foes. After that, the work closes with “The Hero’s Retirement from the World and His Fulfillment,” the longest movement, a concluding note of possible contentment and repose for a life of art well spent. However, Roth ends the piece more ominously than most conductors, so there’s still a question about the hero’s actual resolution of his problems.

Tod und Verklarung (“Death and Transfiguration”), which Strauss wrote in 1889, a full ten years before Ein Heldenleben, is much more serious in tone than the more playful later work, yet it pursues a similar theme. It describes the death of an artist, who, as he lies dying, thinks of life, the innocence of childhood, the struggles of manhood, and the achievement of goals. Finally, the artist receives a desired transfiguration "from the infinite reaches of heaven.” It is, perhaps, the kind of reflection on death that only a very young (or a very old) man could write.

Roth takes his time to develop the various motifs in Tod und Verklarung, keeping everything as somber as I’ve heard, yet without being too maudlin about it. In fact, in some sections Roth will positively startle you from your seat. Of course, the excellent recording helps here, too.

As this is apparently the first volume of Maestro Roth’s Strauss tone poems, he’s off to an auspicious start.

Hanssler Classic recorded the music at the Konzerthaus, Freiburg, Germany, in November 2012, and they did a really good of it. The acoustic sounds very spacious, with a realistic hall ambience. There is a good tonal balance, with perhaps a hint of mid-treble brightness and a slight veiling but in general more than enough detailing. A nicely controlled low end helps, too, given the resonance of the venue. The dynamic impact is moderate, the stereo spread wide, and the depth of image impressive. It’s a fine, lifelike presentation.

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


Jul 25, 2013

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, A Night on Bald Mountain, and others. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA SACD 82876-61394-2.

Many record companies continue to see something in Super Audio Compact Discs because even RCA jumped into the fray a number of years back with an SACD collection of their old “Living Stereo” recordings of the Fifties and Sixties. The idea is that some recording companies made many of these old recordings originally with microphones to the left, center, and right of the stage, the three channels subsequently mixed down into two-channel stereo. With the availability of multiple channels of sound on SACDs, the companies can now utilize the original mixes of three front channels to the fullest. And for those of us who don’t own an SACD player, most of these discs are hybrids, meaning there is also a regular two-channel layer that one can play on any regular CD machine. The theory is that companies can remaster the regular two-channel layer and make it sound even better than what they previously provided, as the folks at RCA have supposedly done in their “Living Stereo” series, the sound remastered via DSD, Direct Stream Digital.

Well, yes, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, RCA did slightly improve the sound of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Maestro Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The highs no longer sound quite so bright or hard-edged. However, I also happened to have on hand the audiophile-remastered JVC disc of the same Mussorgsky recording, and I found the JVC smoother still, with a marginally greater depth of image. But that’s another story. The differences among the two-channel renderings on the three discs are really so small that I doubt most people would notice them except on direct comparison, let alone care. So I suppose the point is mostly moot unless you really, really love the performance, which I do, and then you want only the very best version of it.

The main thing about this whole affair is that Reiner’s 1957 interpretation of the Mussorgsky work is still the best one available, each “picture” an elegant little masterpiece, and RCA’s SACD edition has certain advantages over its regular competition. The SACD sounds good in two-channel stereo, with wonderful detailing and range, if not quite so good as the higher-priced JVC. It offers three-channel performance for those able to play it back that way. And coupled with it you’ll find the additional goodies that also come on the regular RCA release: Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Marche miniature, Borodin’s Polovtsian March, Tchaikovsky’s March slave, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, all of them filled with the color and excitement you’d expect from Reiner performances.

Don’t you hate decisions? I’m glad it’s not my job to make them for you. But for myself alone, I can’t think of a better Mussorgsky Pictures than Reiner’s.

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


Jul 23, 2013

Mozart: Horn Concertos (CD review)

Herman Jeurissen, horn; Roy Goodman, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94644.

You might think that a fellow like Roy Goodman, who has specialized over the years in conducting early music and leading period-instruments ensembles like the Hanover Band, would when working with a modern-instruments group like the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra perhaps overindulge himself in historical practice and go all lickety-split on us. In these performances of Mozart’s Horn Concertos, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Not that Goodman doesn’t give us historically informed readings, but they are also graceful and relaxed, with horn player Herman Jeurissen making a most elegant contribution.

Mr. Jeurissen plays on a modern valved horn, and while his tone is not as plummy as many horn players I’ve heard, it is pleasantly warm and resonant. Goodman’s direction follows Jeurissen’s lead, fluent and articulate, the Netherlands musicians performing with precision, and all of them maintaining a sensible pace throughout the concertos.

Jeurissen and Goodman begin the program with the Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat, K.417 because despite the numbering, Mozart wrote it first. As the composer did with the other three horn concertos, Mozart wrote No. 2 for his friend, the virtuoso horn player Joseph Leutgeb. He wanted to give Leutgeb something that would show off his friend’s unique abilities on the natural horn, in the meantime the composer writing sometimes crude, joking, mocking comments about his friend throughout the score. This was the Mozart we see in the movie and stage play Amadeus. Leutgeb apparently didn’t mind the teasing, and the two men remained friends until the composer’s death.

Anyway, under Goodman No. 2 has a snappy gait yet still sounds mellifluent and urbane. In the finale’s familiar hunting theme Jeurissen is appropriately playful while pursuing the generally urbane approach of the interpretation.

No. 3 in E flat, K.447, No. 4 in E flat, K.495, and No. 1 in D, K.412 continue in a like manner, with Jeurissen making the Romance of No. 3 particularly affecting.

Coupled with the Horn Concertos we find some of Mozart’s unfinished horn works, reconstructed or completed by Mr. Jeurissen: the Concerto Movement in E, K.494A; the Horn Concerto in E flat, K.370B/371; and, just for fun, the Rondo: Allegro of No. 1 with Mozart’s original text read by Giorgo Mereu.

One minor thing that continues to annoy me about most albums of Mozart’s Horn Concertos is that by themselves they don’t quite offer enough material to fill out a disc. So, fair enough, the people involved usually include other bits and pieces of Mozart horn music as accompaniment, but which they most often spread out all over the place, as we see here. Personally, I’d rather just hear the four concertos and then at the end listen to anything else the program had to offer. Also, I’d rather hear the four concertos arranged numerically rather than chronologically. Of course, I can always program my CD player to play back the music any way I like it, but who wants to go to the trouble? Yeah, I’m just being difficult. Sorry.

At mid price, Jeurissen/Goodman’s rendering of the Horn Concertos offers good value. The only snag is that there are many other worthy contenders in a crowded field, including Dennis Brain’s celebrated mono account with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Lowell Greer with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi), Alan Civil with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Ab Koster and Tafelmusik (Sony or Newton Classics), Barry Tuckwell and the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca), Eric Ruske and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc), and a ton of others. Decisions, decisions.

Brilliant Classics licensed the recording from Olympia, who made it in 1996 at Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam. The sonics are round and slightly soft, extremely smooth, and very comforting. The engineers miked the players at a modest distance, narrowing the stereo spread somewhat but replicating a fairly realistic presentation. The horn sounds well integrated with the orchestra, never too far out in front nor enveloped by the other instruments. Although inner detailing could be better, the overall aural effect is quite pleasing.

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


Jul 22, 2013

Conrad Tao: Voyages (CD review)

Music of Monk, Rachmaninov, Tao, and Ravel.  Conrad Tao, piano. EMI Classics 50999 9 34476 2.

EMI Records has a long tradition of helping and promoting talented newcomers, and the present disc is no exception. Although Voyages is not the first album from enormously talented American pianist, violinist, and composer Conrad Tao (b. 1994), it is his first full-length solo effort.

I wish I could say the album was entirely successful, but it did not strike me that way. Of the five works on the disc, one of them, the Monk piece, is extremely short; two of them Tao wrote himself, and they did not interest me much; and the other two are by old hands, Rachmaninov and Ravel, which come off best. However, because the latter works are so famous, one may find any number of equally good competing discs with even more attractive material on them. Still, Voyages should please Tao’s fans, and it certainly shows off his pianistic versatility.

The program begins with Railroad (Travel Song) by Meredith Monk, a rhythmically dynamic piece that suggests the sounds and feel of a fast-moving train. It’s a fascinating little work that lasts about two minutes (you can hear it below). The only drawback I found in Tao’s rendering of it is that I never got the impression of the size and power of a locomotive and railroad carriages. Tao’s version of it is more like a night ride in a sleeping car--at once animated and restful but not exactly vibrant.

Next come some of the most-pleasing things on the album: five Preludes by Sergei Rachmaninov, which Tao chose from the composer’s Op. 23 and Op. 32 sets. They range from soft and ethereal (No. 5, Op. 32) to big and swirling (No. 7, Op. 23), both of which Tao handles in a very Debussy-like way, full of color, strong passions, and gentle persuasions. In the Rachmaninov, Tao demonstrates his poetic sensibility above all, while still projecting a skillful sense of authority (No. 2, Op. 23). If he had devoted the entire album just to the Preludes, I think I would have been happier.

Tao also does well conveying the surreal imagery of Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (“Treasurer of the Night,” or in some interpretations, “The Devil”). The pianist appears ideally suited to illustrate the sensitivity of the French idiom, and I enjoyed the open airiness of Tao’s playing.

Then there are the two works Tao composed himself: Vestiges and Iridescence for piano and iPad. Both pieces, the former in four movements, create small tone pictures of dreamy, changeable landscapes; both are easily accessible; and both are worth hearing. Once. I’m just not sure how often I’d want to return to them, as they seem rather lightweight, spacey, and pop sounding. But what do I know. At least they’re easy on the ears.

Producers Marina and Victor Ledin and engineer Leslie Ann Jones recorded the album in 2012 at Skywalker Sound, the world-famous venue in Marin County, California, not too far from me and one I have visited on several occasions. It’s not surprising the recording team found a suitable location for showing off Tao’s abilities. The sound is warm and comfortable, miked at a moderate distance for a piano recording, yet with suitable detail. Perhaps some listeners will prefer more bite to the notes, but the sound seems to fit the music nicely, especially Tao’s delicate approach to things. Then, too, the engineers capture a pleasant hall ambience that helps communicate the music in a most relaxing manner.

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


Jul 19, 2013

Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Amsterdam Bach Soloists. Brilliant Classics 94666.

This disc has a lot going for it. Thomas Zehetmair is a world-renowned violinist; the Amsterdam Bach Soloists comprise a little over a dozen players from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra; and while they perform on modern instruments, they adhere largely to historically informed performance practice. Thus, we get the best of all worlds: world-class playing; smooth, mellifluous sound; and convincing interpretations.

Bach wrote his two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 and No. 2 in E major, BWV1042, somewhere between 1717 and 1723, around the same time he was writing the Brandenburg Concertos, so if you hear any similarities, especially in the opening of 1042, you know why.

The program begins with BWV1042, which is probably the earlier of the two concertos, despite its catalogue number. Zehetmair and his players perform it in a lively style, with great flair; the ensemble is precise and spirited; and the reading remains animated without resorting to breakneck speeds. In the slow middle movement Zehetmair sounds lyrically refined; and in the final movement the whole group play as one, with an excellent, uniform response, exuberant and fun.

The program continues with BWV1041, which is probably the last of the specifically named violin concertos, again despite the catalogue number. Here, the entire ensemble begin the main theme, with the soloist quickly taking the lead. Zehetmair tackles it playfully, darting in and out of the accompaniment with a fleet ease. The tutti and solo parts alternate rapidly, and everyone involved appears to be on the same page in terms of the overall joy they bring to the music. In the Andante we find a more solemn or sedate mood, still played with much character. Then comes the finale, possibly the most virtuosic of all the music, with Zehetmair and company in full command. These are first-rate performances in every way.

Accompanying the two violin concertos are two violin arrangements reconstructed from harpsichord concertos, the Violin Concerto in D minor BWV1052 and the Violin Concerto in G minor BWV1056. Since Bach often reused his own material--re-arranging things for other instruments--it is quite possible that he initially wrote these two concertos for the violin in the first place and later transcribed them for harpichord. Whatever, they sound as though Bach had written them specifically for the violin, which is all that counts. Whether or not these transcriptions sound as Bach might have intended or if Bach even wrote the harpsichord concertos themselves is of little consequence when one hears how well Zehetmair and the Amsterdam Bach Soloists perform them. There is an air of authority about the music that pronounces all of it right and proper.

Yes, I would rather the coupling had been the usual Concerto for Two Violins, BWV1043, that we hear so often on these discs, but that’s neither here nor there. We have what we have, and it’s plenty good enough. And, besides, there’s that exquisite Largo in 1056 to consider.

Originally recorded at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in 1994 by Edel Classics and released on the Berlin Classics label, Brilliant Classics have re-released it in 2013. The sound is quite transparent, among the best I’ve heard in these works. It’s a small ensemble so we might expect as much. The miking catches the solos in clear, vibrant, natural sonics, without the violin being too far forward. Good dynamics and a quick transient response contribute to the lifelike effect, along with a realistic tonal balance and a fairly wide stereo spread. Like everything else about the recording, the sound is practically ideal.

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


Jul 18, 2013

Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Rondo in B flat; Choral Fantasy. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Clemens Hagen, cello. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Warner Classics 2564 60602-2.

I immensely enjoyed this Warner Classics recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto for a combination of reasons. First and foremost, you’ll hardly find a better played account. Aimard, Zehetmair, Hagen, Harnoncourt, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe take it more gently than I’ve heard it most often before (also surprising from Harnoncourt), yet it benefits from the tender, loving care. If I found any snag at all in it, it’s that I thought the piano sometimes sounded too big, too close, while the other two soloists seemed more realistically positioned. Well, we might expect that, I suppose, as the piano in this particular piece of music generally takes pride of place amongst all the instruments.

Second, I enjoyed the harmonious interplay among the three soloists, Aimard on piano, Zehetmair on violin, and Hagen on cello, as well as their non-obtrusive accompaniment by Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. True, no one is going to mistake this group’s work for the more grand and opulent performance by Richter, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI or Hi-Q), but look at what giants we had working there.

Third, I liked the two companion pieces on the disc, the Rondo in B flat, which may have been the original closing movement of the B-flat Piano Concerto, Aimard giving it a lively reading; and the Choral Fantasy, which is a sort of miniature, scaled-down Ninth Symphony, complete with a rousing choral finale.

Finally, I liked the sound: Very subtle, very refined, very natural. Perhaps not always so transparent as it might be, it always appeared wonderfully realistic and was a definite pleasure to listen to. In all, a most felicitous release.

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


Jul 16, 2013

Schumann: Carnaval (CD review)

Also, Kinderszenen. Canadian Brass. Opening Day ODR 7438.

German composer and music critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote Carnaval, a set of short, solo piano works, in 1834-35. Although various folks have orchestrated them over the years, including a ballet in 1910, I believe this is the first time anyone has arranged them for brass quintet. And if anyone could pull it off, it would be Canadian Brass, the world’s premier exponent all things brass.

Trumpeters Chris Coletti and Brandon Ridenour adapted Carnaval and the accompanying Kinderszenen for brass quintet, nicely maintaining the spirit of both works. Then it’s up to the players to do justice to the transcriptions, and that they do just that. Joining the aforementioned Coletti and Ridenour are Eric Reed, horn; Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone and baritone horn; Chuck Daellenbach, tuba; and Caleb Hudson, additional piccolo trumpet and Bb trumpet.

In Carnaval, Schumann portrayed masked revelers at Carnaval, a festive season occurring in mainly Catholic countries just before Lent. Schumann portrays himself, his friends, and his colleagues in the music, as well as characters from Italian comedy. It’s all quite showy and rambunctious, with Schumann going so far as to include in the musical notations an embedded puzzle that he expected people to decipher.

Whether you fancy the puzzle angle in the masked revelers is beside the point; the music is vibrant and colorful, expertly presented by Canadian Brass. I have to admit that there is a certain quality about these pieces on brass instruments that kept reminding me of Scott Joplin orchestrations, yet I mean that in the best possible way; undoubtedly Schumann influenced Joplin’s ragtime creations. The remarkable thing is that these Schumann pieces should work so well with a brass quintet. They almost sound as though Schumann intended them that way, with the added nuances the various brass instruments contribute. Of course, it helps that Carnaval is so vibrant a work itself, with so much energy to expend. Fun stuff, done up in high good spirits.

Accompanying Carnaval on the disc is perhaps an even better-known set of Schumann piano pieces, Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), which he wrote in 1838. In the work, Schumann looks back in fond remembrance of younger days. If Carnaval seemed a stretch for brass quintet, Kinderszenen takes things a step even further. Yet, again, Canadian Brass pull it off with an uncommon aplomb, combining their usual virtuosic playing with the utmost delicacy.

Like Carnaval, Kinderszenen comprises a set of descriptive tone poems, but judging their success in adaptation is another story. The various “Scenes” are more ephemeral than Carnaval, their mood more ethereal and sentimental. It takes all of Canadian Brass’s expertise to pull them off and not sound like a circus band. They handle it well enough, although I wouldn’t want these transcriptions to replace the piano originals. That said, the famous “Traumerei” (“Dreaming”) comes off more tenderly than I would have thought and exemplifies the sensitivity with which Canadian Brass approach these scores.

In short, the music on the program is endlessly inventive and entertaining, and Canadian Brass’s versions of it show just how flexible the music is and how flexible the group is performing it. If you’re a fan of Canadian Brass, you’ll no doubt find this album a fascinating listen.

Producers M.B. Daellenbach and Dixon Van Winkle and engineer Philippe Fages recorded the music for Opening Day Entertainment Group at Christ Church Deer Park, Toronto, Canada, in August 2012. They captured a pleasant hall resonance that gives the instruments a rich, mellifluous sound. With no undue brightness or edginess, we get plenty of detail from the group, plus a good separation of the players. There is also a realistic depth and air around the instruments making the whole affair quite lifelike.

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


Jul 15, 2013

Bach: Organ Works, Vol. II (CD review)

Robert Quinney, organ. CORO COR16112.

Robert Quinney, Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral, is a relatively young man (b. 1976) insofar as classical organists are concerned, and his playing shows it. His music is full of youthful dash, vigor, and élan. Whether or not you like your J.S. Bach performed with such enthusiastic verve is obviously a matter of taste, but certainly it’s good to have such choices available.

Quinney plays this second volume of Bach organ works on the Metzler Organ of Trinity College, Cambridge, which produces a gorgeous sound. This second volume concentrates on the composer’s early organ music, most of it from the 1710’s and 20’s.

Quinney begins the program with probably Bach’s most well-known organ music, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The organist attacks it with a fury, yet he doesn’t actually rush it too much. Compared to four or five other recordings of the work I had on hand, Quinney is the quickest but not by much. Let’s say it’s about 10-20% faster than the others. It’s enough, though, to supercharge the old warhorse with an extra degree of vigor that makes the interpretation sound like something fresh, new, and invigorating. Of course, he misses out on some of the music’s dynamic contrasts that he might have emphasized if he had taken more time, yet that’s the trade-off we have to accept for the additional thrills.

People of Bach’s day considered him “the world-famous organist.” He was a virtuoso on the instrument. Apparently, Mr. Quinney wants to make sure we still see Bach that way, with performances that point up the man’s virtuosity (and Quinney’s own). I have to admit, though, that sometimes Quinney goes so lickety-split through the readings, it’s hard to tell if he isn’t just showing off. He’s that good.

Anyway, among the other pleasurable pieces on the disc, we have the Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, with its wonderfully sonorous variations; the inventive Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564, that Bach wrote just before his more-celebrated one; the three refreshingly relaxed presentations of Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, BWV 662-664; and the very early Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540, which sounds both powerful and sensuous.

These are performances of strength and beauty, and even if you find Quinney’s style a little too relentlessly fast-paced, it’s hard to knock the sense of excitement and wonder he creates. Maybe this is Bach for the twenty-first century; I don’t know. I do know that while it’s a little different, it is not without merit.

Producer David Trendell and engineer David Hinitt recorded the music at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, England, in 2013. There is good depth to the setting, as we might expect from a large chapel organ and a room providing spacious, resplendent sound. Needless to say, any good organ recording lives or dies by its bass response, and this one lives it up pretty well. The bass is very deep and very taut. Overall, we get a realistic sound in every way; very impressive. Quinney doesn’t always allow too many pauses, however, so we don’t hear as much of the organ’s decay time as we might. Still, fans of organ music will no doubt appreciate this new entry in the field.

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


Jul 12, 2013

Guan Xia: Earth Requiem (CD review)

Yao Hong, soprano; Liu Shan, mezzo-soprano; Jin Yongzhe, tenor; Sun Li, baritone; Shen Fanxiu, organ; He Wangjin, Qiang flute; Michel Plasson, China National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Virgin Classics 5099993411929.

My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines a requiem as “any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead.” The most famous of these musical settings, of course, is the Requiem Mass of the Catholic Church, although Chinese composer Guan Xia didn’t exactly have this in mind when he composed his Earth Requiem in 2009. He wrote the work as a remembrance of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which took thousands of innocent lives. Rather than simply mourn this loss, which the work certainly does, it is above all a celebration of life. Michel Plasson and the China National Symphony Orchestra, chorus, and others, an ensemble comprising over 100 instrumentalists, 150 singers, an organ, and four soloists, do the massive work justice.

The composer divides the Earth Requiem into four parts: (1) Gazing at the stars, a “Meditation for Orchestra and Chorus”; (2) Heavenly Wind and Earth Fire, a “Trilogy on a Fixed Melody, for Orchestra and Chorus”; (3) Boundless Love, a “Romance for Orchestra, Soprano, Bass and Chorus”; and Wings of Angels, an “Ode for Qiang Flute, Organ, Orchestra, Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Bass and Chorus.”

The first movement, Gazing at the Stars, is sweet and gentle, under Maestro Plasson’s direction projecting an appropriate melancholy, a mourning of the tragedy. It’s all rather solemn, yet there seems to be a note of hope here, too, a longing that all will be well. Plasson and his players give it a resonant, emotional uplift that is quite touching.

The second movement, Heavenly Wind and Earth Fire, is considerably different from the first movement in that it sounds almost angry, outraged at the brutality of Man and Nature. The booklet explains that the music is all highly pictorial as it “attacks the odiousness of life and the hypocrisy of mankind.” Plasson does a fine job conveying the music’s shifting moods of suffering, desperation, and ethereal eeriness.

The third movement, Boundless Love, comes as a welcome relief from the tensions of the previous section, for Boundless Love is just that: all heavenly melodies and restful lyricism. The way Plasson handles it, it’s beautifully serene, representing the healing power of pure love.

The final movement, Wings of Angels, begins with the sound of the Qiang flute, which has a tone resembling a bagpipe and sets the stage for the work’s climax. The music here alternates between fast and slow segments, mostly slow, some of it reflecting Chinese folk tunes. I found this the most moving part of the Requiem, as it ends on a note of triumph for all humankind. While the music of Earth Requiem may not be earthshaking in its inspiration or originality, it is uplifting to be sure. That is to say, I don’t know if Earth Requiem will ever become a modern classic, but surely there is no doubt Maestro Plasson does his best to show it in its best light.

Oddly, Virgin list the final movement on the back cover of the jewel case and in the accompanying booklet as 4.23 minutes. Actually, it’s 14.23. I can see company overlooking the mistake once, but twice? The entire symphony lasts a little over an hour, 63.51 minutes.

Producer Guan Xia and engineer Daniel Zalay recorded the Requiem at the Beijing Concert Hall in March of 2011. The sonics they obtained are fairly open, widespread, clean, and detailed. Although there is a very slight forwardness to the strings that overly bright loudspeakers might exacerbate, I found it often added to the sound’s clarity. The chorus and soloists appear almost ideally integrated with the orchestra, nothing too close or too recessed. However, the singers can appear a touch edgy at times. Treble extension is good, the low end is somewhat light, and dynamics and impact are adequate for the occasion. Overall, the sound is a tad soft in the upper bass to middle midrange and, as I say, a bit sharp in the upper mids. Nevertheless, there is nothing distracting about it, and it does complement the spirit of the music nicely.

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


Jul 11, 2013

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 (CD review)

Martha Argerich, piano; Claudio Abbado, Mahler Chamber Orchestra. DG B0003398-02.

Listening to Martha Argerich play anything is a joy. She possesses the ability to communicate the most ethereal and the most grandiose passages with equal authority. And her fingers must have extra digits in them the way she’s able to command a keyboard.

It’s a little odd, then, that I didn’t find her 2004 recording of the Beethoven Second and Third Piano Concertos with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra quite as appealing as I expected. Not that they aren’t appealing; they are, in fact, excellent. It’s just that maybe I expected too much, or maybe I expected something a little different.

What we get is a performance of the Third Concerto that seems more sedate than I’m used to, more reserved, at least in part. Perhaps this was the effect of having Maestro Abbado leading the orchestra because the seriousness of the approach doesn’t affect Ms. Argerich’s solo passages much. It’s just that when Abbado leads the introduction and bridges, things seem to take on a heavier, more high-voltage tone that I’m not accustomed to hearing from the more-sensitive Ms. Argerich. Compare, for instance, Kovacevich/Davis or Perahia/Haitink and you notice at least a slight difference in mood, a certain lightness and brilliance missing with Argerich/Abbado. On the other hand, you could also say that because the Argerich/Abbado recording is more serious, it is therefore their intent to make it more challenging and more demanding. Nevertheless, Ms. Argerich is as persuasive as ever, and Abbado’s accompaniment is robust, to say the least. Personal preference, as always.

In the Second Concerto, though, we find a more relaxed, more stylish, yet more spontaneous approach than in the Third. The Second was actually Beethoven’s first work in the genre, and it remains among his best. Argerich/Abbado reach down into it more deeply than they do the Third, with more conviction, and with a seemingly greater rapport between soloist and conductor. It is very fine, indeed, one of the best available.

The sound, unfortunately, doesn’t always help the atmosphere of the recordings. Abbado follows his practice of insisting upon live recordings, and while the audience for each piece is very quiet, one can sense that maybe the audio engineers applied a little noise reduction and even toned down the highest treble to keep things quieter and more subdued. Although the sound is remarkably smooth and dynamic, it doesn’t have a lot of natural, lifelike bite, the frequency extremes seemingly clamped down. The orchestra appears fine by itself and Ms. Argerich is fine by herself, but together her piano is too close and big relative to the rest of the players, and they all seem a trifle compressed. Then, the audience erupts into an inevitable burst of applause at the end of each work, which I didn’t care to hear, either. Oh, well.

Regardless of my nitpicks, these are still very elegant, very refined, and exceptionally well played performances. For fans of these two particular Concertos, the Argerich/Abbado recording should make a good alternative to what they already own. Especially the Second.

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


Jul 9, 2013

Bruch: Scottish Fantasy (SACD review)

Also, Violin Concerto No. 1; Romance for Violin and Orchestra. Guy Braunstein, violin; Ion Marin, Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie. Tudor/BR Klassik SACD 7188.

If the rather imposing name Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie sounds only vaguely familiar to you, you might know it better as simply the Bamberg Symphony; in 1993 the powers that be gave it the name the Bavarian State Philharmonic, and they have gone by both names, hyphenated, ever since. More important, if the name Guy Braunstein is also only vaguely familiar to you, he has been the Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic since 2000, stepping down in 2013 to dedicate himself to a solo violin career. The present all-Bruch disc is his first major album as a soloist.

Braunstein chose to begin the album with the Scottish Fantasy in E-flat Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46, written by German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920) in 1880 and dedicated to the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. The Fantasy, as you probably know, is Bruch’s survey of Scottish folk tunes, about thirty minutes of them, loosely tied together in four movements.

The Fantasy starts off rather solemnly with an introduction marked “Grave,” which is slow and somber, indeed (listen to the excerpt below), before giving way to the more familiar and frolicsome melodies that follow. Braunstein infuses the opening with a good sense of atmosphere and emotion. The Adagio that follows has an appealing melancholy, which Braunstein never over-sentimentalizes. He ensures the Scottish airs have a lovely lilt, and he sweetly captures the flavor of the Scottish countryside. Then he brings a zesty spirit to the central Allegro and a quiet longing to the Andante. While Braunstein and Maestro Ion Marin give us a grander Finale than we often hear, overall this is a relaxed, broadly comfortable reading, full of charm and good will. It’s quite delightful, actually.

Next up is the Concerto No. 1 in G-minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 26, possibly Bruch’s most well-known work. The composer premiered a revised version in 1867, and it’s been one of the staples of the violin repertoire ever since. 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. Braunstein seems perfectly at ease with the Romanticism of the music, yet in an easygoing, if passionate, manner.

The Adagio is famously melodious and forms the centerpiece of the work. In its broadly sweeping themes we find one of the most soulful of Romantic slow movements. Here, Braunstein plays wonderfully, capturing all of the music’s inner tensions and heartrending beauty. In the Finale Braunstein provides a necessary good cheer without overdoing things, without wearing out his welcome. Instead, his playing is as light and lyrical as the rest of his interpretation. This makes a most congenial, most welcome addition to the catalogue.

Braunstein concludes the program with his own arrangement for violin of Bruch’s 1911 Romance in F-major for Viola and Orchestra, Op. 85. It’s beautifully lyrical, reflecting an earlier age of high Romanticism in its gentle melodies and rich harmonies. Braunstein gives it the same cordial treatment he afforded the previous works on the program, integrating the music seamlessly into the proceedings. As in the rest of the album, Braunstein’s rendering of the Romance sounds beguiling, and a little sadly pensive.

Tudor recorded the music at the Bamberg Concert Hall, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Germany, in 2011. They created a hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD of it, and I listened to the SACD two-channel stereo layer. The first thing one notices is an excellent sense of depth, air, and space to the sound. Very impressive. The solo violin is out front, of course, but not too far and, thus, not bigger than life as sometimes happens in these affairs. The midrange sounds clean and smooth and reasonably transparent, the highs fairly well extended, the lows a tad lightweight but adequate. Transient attack is fine, as is ambient bloom. In all, it’s one of the better SACD’s I’ve heard recently.

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


Jul 8, 2013

Basically Bull (CD review)

Keyboard works of John Bull and others. Alan Feinberg, piano. Steinway & Sons 30019.

Yes, as you can see, the album’s title is playfully misleading. Instead of what you might expect at first glance, American classical pianist Alan Feinberg plays mostly the music of Englishman John Bull. Feinberg has won numerous awards and received four Grammy nominations, along with touring internationally and building an extensive discography. His interest lately appears to be in contrasting older music and new, with Basically Bull reaching all the way back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with piano pieces by Elizabethan composer, keyboardist, and organ builder John Bull (1562-1628) and several of Bull’s contemporaries. Feinberg does it up in a vivacious, lighthearted manner, providing a good deal (73:36) of lively fun, even if much of the music on the disc appears a little dour in tone.

As Mr. Feinberg explains it, “While others provided popular tunes and simple dances for the new instrument called the ‘virginal,’ John Bull offered up experimental, challenging works, pieces that exuberantly overstepped conventional musical expectations. Fashioning a group of these works to function in concert and translating them to the wildly different timbre of the modern piano has been an exciting venture into the 16th and 17th century avant-garde. Bull’s music is brimming with invention and inspiration, power and passion.”

So, how famous was John Bull? He was among the most-celebrated keyboard composers of his day, contributed to the first-ever volume of keyboard music published in England, and may have even written the British de facto national anthem “God Save the Queen.” That famous. He was probably not, however, the inspiration for the character of the United Kingdom’s personification, that stout country gentleman used in political cartoons much as the U.S. uses Uncle Sam. That John Bull was the creation of Dr John Arbuthnot almost a century later.

Anyway, Bull wrote largely for the newfangled musical instrument called the virginal, a kind of early harpsichord and a precursor of the present-day piano. And he didn’t just write what everyone else was writing; he wrote new, daring, experimental tunes. Maybe it was partly because of his avant-garde musical style and partly because of his libertine lifestyle that Bull fled England in 1613. Certainly, though, his music doesn’t sound all that unconventional to us today; times change.

Bull’s keyboard music as represented on this disc runs high to galliards, spirited dances for two persons often written in triple rhythm, and various other slower, nimble, contrapuntal melodies, some serious, some religious, some whimsical. Of the twenty tracks on the disc, Bull wrote thirteen. The other numbers represent the work of Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), William Byrd (1543-1623), John Blitheman (c. 1525-1591), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), and John Redford (d. 1547). The interesting thing to note is that none of it sounds as though it comes from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, at least not as Feinberg plays it. It sounds much later, much more inventive, even Romantic. Bull was, indeed, ahead of his time.

Alan Feinberg’s piano playing is smooth, mellow, dexterous, masterly, and although virtuosic at times, never ostentatious. You could say it’s comfortably cozy and inviting. He allows Bull’s ornamentation to speak for itself while maintaining a firm, flowing grasp of the music. There was no reason for him to have turned this into the Feinberg show; it’s Bull who’s clearly on display throughout. Of course, it might have been fun to hear Mr. Feinberg perform these pieces on an actual, period virginal, but this is, after all, a Steinway & Sons recording so he plays everything on a Steinway Model D grand piano. As Feinberg says above, that was a challenge of adaptation, yet it’s one he obviously overcame with little difficulty. The program and the playing provide something different and something most engaging.

Producer Dan Mercurio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded Basically Bull for Steinway & Sons at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in January, 2013. They obtained an excellent piano sound, rich and resonant, with a light hall reflection to enhance the tone. The long decay time means a warmer, mellower, more realistic presence, making the sonics a delight to the audiophile as well as to the casual music lover.

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


Jul 5, 2013

Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 2 (CD review)

William Tell, Silken Ladder, Il Signor Bruschino, and more. Christian Benda, Prague Sinfonia Orchestra. Naxos 8.570934.

These days most people know Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) best for his overtures, of which he wrote a slew. Here, we have the second of four discs from Christian Benda and his Prague Sinfonia Orchestra, a set that encompasses all the overtures the man wrote.

There are any number of good recordings of Rossini overtures, and Benda gives us yet another good choice. Still, as I’ve said before, one needs to consider the competition before making any hasty decisions, and we already have Neville Marriner’s complete, three-disc set from Philips, a long-gone label but one still available new and used for a reasonable (sometimes absurdly low) price. And if it’s only a single disc of the most-popular overtures you’re interested in, you can find excellent bargains from the likes of, again, Marriner (Philips, PentaTone, or EMI), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), Piero Gamba (Decca or JVC), Peter Maag (HDTT), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Sir Roger Norrington (EMI), and others.  Still, Benda’s performances stand up to the best, and the Naxos sound and price are right.

Anyway, it is Benda’s apparent decision to include a few of the most-popular Rossini overtures on each of his four discs, along with several lesser-known overtures. Accordingly, Benda begins the program on Volume 2 with the biggest gun in the Rossini arsenal, Guillaume Tell, the “William Tell” overture (you can here a snippet below). As you probably know, Rossini divided the overture into four separate sections or movements: the Prelude or Dawn; the Storm; the pastorale or “Call to the Cows”; and the famous closing galop or “March of the Swiss Soldiers.” In terms of Benda’s interpretation, I suppose you could say that three out of four ain’t bad. Dawn arrives dramatically, with appropriate atmosphere; the Storm erupts with much sound and fury; the pastorale is serenely blissful; but the galop lacks the thrills provided by any number of other conductors. The Prague Sinfonia play well enough, and there’s no denying the music has elegance. Just not quite all the excitement one may expect, closer to an analytical approach in the end. Benda’s reading appears aimed more toward the pure music lover than the Lone Ranger fan, which is not altogether a bad thing.

The other big guns on the program are the overtures to the comic operas La scala di seta (“The Silken Ladder”) and Il Signor Bruschino (“Signor Bruschino, or The Son by Chance”), which Maestro Benda handles with grace, wit, and refinement. La scala di seta displays a good deal of zip and pizzazz; it’s truly an exhilarating experience, with a light, easy step for so quick a tempo. In Signor Bruschino we find both elegance and charm, yet Benda’s performance is not without a properly playful stress on the tapping of the bows.

Then, there are the less well-known works: the overtures to  Eduardo e Cristina (“Eduardo and Cristina”), L’inganno felice (“The Happy Deception”), Demetrio e Polibio (“Demetrius and Polybius”), and Sigismondo (“Sigismondo, King of Poland”), and the very early non-overture Sinfonia di Bologna, which Rossini wrote in his teens. These overtures are from largely serious, or at least semi-serious, operas, with an emphasis on typically Italian melodrama. Thus, you can expect Benda to be pretty earnest in all of it. Nevertheless, there is a goodly portion of lyrical delight throughout the pieces. This is especially true of Eduardo e Cristina, which demonstrates Benda’s ability to convey romance and adventure effectively.

One can perhaps see why not all of Rossini’s operas and overtures gained a full measure of popularity over the years. The fact is, not all of them contain the particularly inventive touches or memorable melodies. Even so, Maestro Benda makes a good case for all of them, infusing them with an élan that tends to carry the day.

If there is any one drawback I could name, though, it might be that there is less than an hour of material on the disc, including the non-overture. I can’t help thinking that Naxos could probably have included all of the overtures on three discs rather than four. Nevertheless, at so affordable a price, I shouldn’t complain.

Naxos recorded the music at Kulturni dum Barikadniku, Prague, Czech Republic, in 2011 and at Produkcni dum Vzlet, Prague, in 2012. The sound they obtained is quite good, well balanced, with no undue forwardness or dullness, a well-extended treble, fine low-end definition, solid midrange clarity and definition, reasonably sharp transient response, and overall taut impact. There is also a wide stereo spread and a modest amount of orchestral depth. A small degree of soft warmth tends to make the sound easier on the ear than it would otherwise. In all, this is one of Naxos’s better-sounding discs.

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


Jul 4, 2013

Sousa: Marches (CD review)

Lt. Col G.A.C. Hoskins, Band of HM Royal Marines. EMI 7243 5 85535-2 (2-disc set).

The remarkable thing about this two-disc set is that it contains forty-three Sousa marches. That’s about one-third of the March King’s total output and includes all the marches that Lt. Col. Hoskins recorded for three separate CDs between 1983 and 1985.

The main reason that EMI can accommodate so many of the marches on the two discs would appear to be the brisk pace with which Hoskins and his players dispatch the works. You can call them bracing or exciting or stimulating, but there’s no doubt some listeners will find them speedy. These are marches, after all; just how fast would a column of soldiers have to be stepping to keep up with the music? Of course, they’re concert marches, so the practicality of their tempo is beside the point. Still, they lose a little of their charm when Hoskins takes all of them at so fast a clip.

Nevertheless, they sound nicely recorded, EMI offers them at a low price (under $10.00 many places), and the two discs provide all of Sousa’s most popular pieces plus a number of less well-known ones, covering the entire time span of his march output. Yes, you’ll find “King Cotton” here, and “Semper fidelis,” “Manhattan Beach,” “The Liberty Bell,” “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Thunderer,” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” But you’ll also find “Powhatan’s Daughter,” “Kansas Wildcats,” “The Royal Welch Fusiliers,” “Marquette University,” “The Northern Pines,” “The Lambs,” “Jack Tar,” and many more.

Truly, a little goes a long way, though, especially when Hoskins and his Royal Marine Band hardly vary their pace. I made the mistake of trying to listen through both discs at once and found myself tiring less than midway though. However, I entertained myself further by getting up and comparing the sound of these EMI remasterings to the sound of the first disc of Hoskins’ original CDs I had on hand. The difference was striking. The new discs sound a bit thin in the bass and somewhat top heavy in the treble, but they absolutely sparkle compared to EMI’s first disc, which appeared to have placed a thick blanket across the front of my speakers, it sounded that muffled. So, kudos to the new edition.

It was interesting, too, that the remasterings of the earliest, 1983 recordings, the first fourteen on disc one, seemed to favor slightly the left side of the sound stage, but the ‘84 and ’85 recordings brought the stereo balance back in line. Hey, these may not be the absolute best Sousa performances on record or in the best sound, but for the money they represent a terrific value. And, who knows, taken a few at a time, they may just get your blood pumping, as they should.

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


Jul 2, 2013

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 8 (CD review)

Sir Mark Elder, Halle Orchestra. Halle Concerts Society CD HLL 7533.

The Halle Orchestra is the oldest orchestra in the U.K. and the fourth-oldest orchestra in the world.  Pianist and conductor Charles Halle founded the orchestra in 1857, and it makes its home in Manchester, England, playing under its current Music Director since 2000, Sir Mark Elder. Maestro Elder is quickly endearing himself not only to me but to the world with his sensitive, engaging musical interpretations. This is saying a lot considering that the Halle has worked under such distinguished leaders as Hans Richter, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli, and others. Here, Maestro Elder continues his series of Vaughan Williams symphony recordings (he’s already done No. 2) with Nos. 5 and 8.

First up is the Symphony No. 5 in D major, which English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) premiered in 1943 during the height of the Second World War. Interestingly, it represents a departure from the somewhat dissonant style of his previous symphony and a return to the more pastoral atmosphere of his Third Symphony, written some twenty years earlier. Maybe the composer felt that what people needed was a calmer, more tranquil tone at this point in tumultuous world affairs. In any case, the Symphony No. 5 is one of Vaughan Williams’s quieter works.

The opening Preludio is gentle and relaxed, especially under Maestro Elder. It perhaps reflects the composer’s interest at the time in the music of Sibelius, who wrote after hearing it that it was “like a caress from a summer world.” Sir Adrian Boult was the first conductor to play through the score, and Elder’s performance is very much in the Boult tradition. Elder’s first-movement reading is the essence of serene tranquility, with a zesty second subject interjected in the middle.

Elder takes the second-movement Scherzo at an appropriately moderate pace and properly emphasizes its restless contrasts. Then comes the ultra-calm Romanza, which Elder punctuates with an ultraslow delivery. I don’t mean that to sound like a negative thing, however; it’s quite lovely, even though I’ve never heard it taken quite so leisurely before. The final movement, marked a Passacaglia, is a series of variations, which Elder handles well, alternating the tone from calm and otherworldly to happy, triumphant, and exultant. Throughout, the Halle Orchestra play their hearts out; that is, with great apparent affection, as well as precision. 

The Symphony No. 8 in D minor, premiered in 1956, is the second-to-last of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies and the shortest of the lot. As it is also one of the composer’s lighter compositions with its exotic combinations of percussion instruments, it makes an appropriate coupling with the Fifth Symphony.

Vaughan Williams dedicated the work to Sir John Barbirolli, and I’m sure Barbirolli would have approved of Elder’s interpretation: It’s most expressive and thoroughly charming. Elder seems to delight in the composer’s use of vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, glockenspiel, and tuned gongs, although Elder doesn’t accentuate them extravagantly, with strings alone in the slow Cavatina third movement (which again Elder plays rather slowly). In closing, Elder and company take the finale out in a blaze of heroic glory.

The Halle Concerts Society recorded the Symphony No. 5 live and in rehearsal at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England, in 2011 and the Symphony No. 8 at the BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford, England, in 2012. The miking in No. 5 is not too close or too far away as most live recordings get made. It seems just right, yet there is absolutely no sound from the audience (and there is, thankfully, no burst of applause). Overall, we get a warm, slightly soft response that, in fact, suits the temper of the music nicely.

Symphony No. 8 sounds not too much different from the live No. 5 despite the change in venue, if just a tad better defined in the midrange, with a somewhat more extended high end. In both symphonies, the orchestral depth and dynamic range appear moderate, with a touch of hall resonance adding to the realism of the occasion.

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


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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