Aug 30, 2013

Liszt: Symphonic Poems, Volume 4 (CD review)

Jun Markl, MDR Symphony Orchestra. MDR Klassik MDR 1204.

Program music (music that tells a story, represents a scene, or illustrates a point) has been around for a long time. Vivaldi (The Four Seasons), Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony, Wellington’s Victory), and Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique) all practiced and extended the range of such descriptive music. But critics generally agree it was Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher Franz Liszt (1811-1886) who first applied the term “symphonic poem” to the genre of short narrative compositions he wrote and who certainly popularized the tone poem as we know it today. Maestro Jun Markl and the MDR Symphony Orchestra (Central German Radio Symphony, of which he was Principal Conductor from 2007-2012) here present Volume 4 of what I assume is their survey of Liszt’s complete symphonic poems. Oddly, however, I could not find anything about the first three volumes. Who knows: Maybe Markl is planning ahead by starting with Volume 4.

Anyway, the album contains four of Liszt’s symphonic poems, beginning with Prometheus, written in 1850 and revised in 1855. Liszt said he wasn't trying to retell the Prometheus legend but, rather, to create a series of moods related to the myth. Thus, we get music of a serious, contemplative, often bleak nature, with a dark, cloudy introduction and a series of melodramatic climaxes. That's just the way Markl presents it, although he may tame the dramatics just a bit, preferring a smoother, more sophisticated treatment of the story than some other conductors have given us. He never rushes the music but creates atmosphere at a relaxed but invigorating pace.

And so it goes throughout the program's other three tone poems. Under Markl, Les Preludes has a more studied feeling to it than an overtly exciting one as, say, Georg Solti offered in his London Philharmonic account (Decca). Les Preludes, premiered in 1854, may be familiar to different people for different reasons, by the way. The Nazis used it during the Second World War for propaganda purposes, forever clouding its appreciation for many listeners. For me, though, it will always represent the theme music for the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the Thirties. Thus, freed of any devious war connotations, the music has simply sounded thrilling and triumphant, a forerunner of John Williams's Star Wars and Indiana Jones material. Again, I like the way Markl allows the score to unfold at an unhurried pace, even if I miss some of the sense of urgency conveyed by the aforementioned Solti performance, as well as by Bernard Haitink, who may have provided the best of all worlds in his Philips recording, also with the LPO.

Next up is Hamlet, which Liszt wrote in 1858 and, of course, based on Shakespeare’s play. Liszt gave the character of Hamlet two distinct themes to represent the young man's indecisive nature: one theme slow and brooding, the other vigorous and volatile. Markl seems most successful here in clearly differentiating the two sides of the man. Liszt gives over the middle part of the poem to Ophelia, and, appropriately, Markl handles it as gently as possible. Despite the conductor making the music appear more drawn-out than usual, he turns in what is probably the best, most-characterful symphonic poem on the disc.

The final work on the program is for me the least interesting musically, though in some ways it’s the most ambitious. Liszt wrote Die Ideale in 1857 as a tribute to the German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller, naming the piece after a Schiller poem of the same title. The composer divides the music into several parts, representing the general ideals of the poem: aspiration, struggle, achievement, fulfillment, and triumph. The music has always seemed a little long-winded to me, and Markl does it no favors with his kid-gloves treatment. While he clarifies every nuance of the music in some detail, he seems more preoccupied with precision and execution than in feeling, emotion, except in momentary spurts. Be that as it may, if you like this particular Liszt tone poem, you could do worse. At least Markl doesn't try to glorify the music or make it seem more grandiose than it is. If anything, his intellectualizing of it makes it all the more appealing, even to a doubter like me.

MDR Klassik made the recording in the main auditorium of the Leipzig MDR Studio on Augustus Platz in February 2011. The sound is very big, moderately close, and quite wide. Yet it also displays decent depth, air, and ambience, so it isn't particularly unnatural in its presentation. Good midrange clarity, reasonable frequency extensions, and a modest dynamic range also help in making the music come alive. No complaints here; it's actually some of the better sound you'll find in this music.

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


Aug 29, 2013

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, complete (CD review)

Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 9 67689 2 1 (2-disc set).

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote the second of his big ballets, The Sleeping Beauty, in 1889 and premiered it in 1890. Unfortunately for the composer, while the ballet would go on to become one of his most-loved items, he wouldn’t live long enough to see it attain its ultimate popularity. It seems a shame, given how much self-doubt Tchaikovsky always had and with what little regard he held most of his own work. The Sleeping Beauty also enjoys the distinction of being the longest piece of music Tchaikovsky composed, usually abbreviated as it is here. (EMI’s packaging assures us it is “complete,” but they cut it by several minutes.)

Anyway, when Angel Records (EMI’s subsidiary classical label in America at the time) first released this 1974 recording on LP, it was both a blessing and a chore. The blessing: When Previn recorded it, it went immediately to the top of my recommendations for the work (on vinyl). Subsequently, I noticed its appearance on other lists as a top contender, including High Fidelity magazine's "Record Riches of a Quarter-Century," Gramophone magazine's "Recommended Recordings," the Penguin Guide’s recommended listings, etc. The “chore” I’ll come to.

Tchaikovsky’s music is a nonstop flow of inspired melodies, both graceful and dramatic. Previn’s performance is at once exciting, subtle, enchanting, and lovely. Unlike many other, higher powered productions, Previn's reading brings a true fairy-tale richness and delicacy to the score.

But that chore: The sound on the American-issued LP seemed a little dull and constricted, and the recording took many years finally to show up on CD. When it did appear on silver disc, the company packaged it in a hard cardboard long-box, with a plastic tray insert that held two separate jewel cases and a lavishly illustrated, twelve-inch story booklet, obviously meant for children. The box itself, clearly intended as a gift set, would not even fit on an ordinary CD shelf.

Happily, EMI rectified the former sins of their Angel subsidiary and the initial goofy CD packaging by issuing the complete Previn Sleeping Beauty in 2004 in a two-disc, slimline jewel box with proper notes and a budget price. And the EMI sound, like almost all of producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Christopher Parker's collaborations, is first-rate. In 2009 they re-released it in the pictured box at an even better price. The combination is unbeatable.

What’s more, although the new packaging indicates that the mastering is the same one they had done a decade earlier (“Digital remastering 1993 by EMI Records Ltd.”), it sounds to me somewhat different. The newer version seems very slightly brighter, cleaner, clearer, and more open by comparison to the older mastering.  I can only account for this in one of two ways: Either (1) EMI touched up the new mastering without telling anybody; or (2) I was hearing the differences among my three CD players (two Sony’s and a Yamaha), even though I kept changing out the discs every few minutes. Whatever, the set is still the best recommendation I can make for this piece, and EMI offer it at a price that’s still unbeatable.

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


Aug 27, 2013

Hildegard von Bingen: Celestial Hierarchy (CD review)

Benjamin Bagby, Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88765468642.

Everything seems to go in cycles, and what’s popular one day may not be as popular the next. For instance, after Mahler died, his music generally fell out of favor with the public until the Fifties and Sixties when the stereo/hi-fi era began and conductors like Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein, and Georg Solti revived audience interest. In the Seventies we had a renaissance in Chant; in the Eighties and Nineties we got a renewed interest in period instruments; and so on. Today, we seem to be in an age of the Singing Nun, with various groups like the Benedictines of Mary producing chart-busting albums. It appears to be an appropriate time, then, for the early music ensemble Sequentia to release the final album, Celestial Hierarchy, in their series of discs containing the complete works of the medieval abbess, writer, philosopher, poet, and composer Hildegard von Bingen.

Sequentia made this ninth and concluding entry in their survey of Hildegard’s work exactly thirty years after their first album in the run, which they made back in 1982, all of them for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. That’s both dedication and staying power. And releasing this final disc at a point where the meditative music composed or sung by women is so much in the public eye shouldn’t hurt sales.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), also known as Saint Hildegard of Bingen and Sibyl of the Rhine, was something of a jack-of-all trades. As I mentioned above, she was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and intellectual. Her fellow nuns elected her a magistrate in 1136; she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg and Eibingen in 1150 and 1165 respectively; and scholars consider one of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, an early example of liturgical drama and perhaps the oldest surviving morality play. Beyond her many volumes of visionary theology, she wrote a variety of musical compositions for use in liturgical services, which is what Sequentia have now addressed in their nine albums documenting Hildegard’s work.

Sequentia as currently constituted comprise seven female singers: Lydia Brotherton, Agnethe Chritensen, Esther Labourdette, Sabine Lutzenberger, Christine Mothes, Elodie Mourot, and Lena Susanne Norin; plus two instrumentalists on select numbers: Norbert Rodenkirchen, flutes, and the group’s cofounder Benjamin Bagby, harp. Mr. Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton founded the group in 1977, and even though with the exception of Bagby the performers have changed over the years, they perform together as if they had been doing it all their lives; that is, heavenly.

The music on Celestial Hierarchy represents the hymns Hildegard devoted to the angels, patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and confessors, as well as John the Evangelist and Mary the Mother of Jesus. That was the "celestial hierarchy" she celebrated. Praising God in word and song was an important part of Hildegard's worship, a practice she believed allowed her to reconnect with her origins and achieve a state of self-realization. The present album contains ten numbers (a little over seventy minutes) representing the devotions of her theology, a collection of antiphons (psalms, hymns, or prayers sung in alternate parts) and responsories (anthems sung after a portion of sacred writing by a soloist and choir alternately).

The songs float radiantly above us, sweet and ethereal, and Sequentia perform them with exquisite care and precision. However, I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Hildegard of Bingen’s music as I am about Sequentia’s performance of it. Hildegard's venerations of the Saints can begin sounding a bit the same after the first few items, and over an hour of them can become tiring to a novice like me. What's more, Sequentia use instrumental accompaniment, flute and harp, quite sparingly and only on three of the ten selections. I would advise a word of caution, therefore, upon entering these waters: If you are already a fan of Hildegard's work, you will find no better a collection of her music than the present disc; but if you are new to the genre, you may find yourself wondering if it isn't too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, since when is too much of something good ever a bad thing? I'd further advise the first-time listener to begin with track six, "O Victoriosissimi Triumphatores," with its lovely harp accompaniment.

Producer and engineer Nicolas Bartholomee recorded the album at the Church of Saint Remigius, Franc-Waret, Belgium in November, 2012. The acoustic is open and airy, very much like the large church-cathedral it is, with plenty of ambient air in the resonant venue. Voices are miked at a moderate distance for ultimate realism, and while they can sound perhaps a touch bright and ringing at times in this setting, they are reasonably rich and clear.

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


Aug 26, 2013

D’Indy: Symphony on a French Mountain Air (HDCD review)

Also, Ravel: Piano Concerto in G.  Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, piano; Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra.  HDTT HDCD298.

It’s always a pleasure to listen to a disc remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers): You can depend upon a classic performance not generally available on CD and a splendid remastering job. If you recall, the folks at HDTT remaster older recordings from tapes and LPs in the public domain, make them sound better than they’ve ever sounded before, and offer them to the public burned to various formats (FLAC, DXD, DSD, HQCD, HDCD, etc.). You can hardly ask for more.

In the present instance, HDTT have remastered an old favorite of mine, The Symphony on a French Mountain Air (Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français), Op. 25, by Vincent d’Indy in an RCA recording by pianist Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, conductor Charles Munch, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Munch’s performance is maybe the first time I ever heard this music, and it’s still the performance I most cherish, so to say I welcome this new edition is an understatement. Along with it, the same forces perform Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.

Composers have long shown interest in mountains, especially the Romantics with their obsessive regard for Nature and some modernists with their concerns for the mystical. Thus, we’ve gotten Liszt’s Mountain Symphony, Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Raff’s In the Alps, Hill’s The Sacred Mountain, Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain, and so on. French composer Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) wrote his Symphony on a French Mountain Air in 1886, using a folk melody he heard in the Cévennes mountains as a primary theme (thus, the work's alternative title, Symphonie cévenole). He initially planned the work as a fantasia for piano and orchestra, although the piano part never dominates, and some critics have even labeled it a sinfonia concertante, a mixture of symphony and concerto. Like most concertos, it’s fairly brief at under half an hour and contains three movements.

D’Indy didn’t write a lot of material that people listen to anymore beyond the Symphonie cévenole, and the fact is, with no disrespect, he may have lucked into the principal tune. Be that as it may, the Boston players seem fully attune to all the charmingly bucolic nuances of the Symphony, and Ms. Henriot-Schweitzer contributes a most-sympathetic piano part. There is a gentleness about the performance that is both poignant and striking, yet when the score requires its few big, showy moments, as in the animated final movement, Munch and his crew are well up to the task. With playing this sharp and instrumentalists this much on their toes, it's no wonder the performance continues to lead the field.

The disc’s companion piece is the jazz-inflected Piano Concerto in G major (1931) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Here, the situation is a bit different from the d’Indy; while there is little competition from rival d’Indy recordings (Dutoit and Plasson aside), there is formidable competition in the Ravel field. In particular, it’s hard to find anything that matches the brilliant performance by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Ettore Gracis, and the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI. Nevertheless, Ms. Henriot-Schweitzer's performance of the Concerto is energetically fluid while remaining free of any overtly idiosyncratic mannerisms. She and Munch seem of a single mind and purpose in communicating the work's bluesy-jazzy contrasts and its lyrical Adagio in an entirely unforced manner. The whole work comes across in a more-unified style than one sometimes hears it. So, while it's perhaps not as characterful or purely magical as Michelangeli's interpretation, it's quite good, especially that dreamy slow movement.

RCA’s celebrated recording team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the music at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1958, and HDTT remastered it from an RCA LP (LSC 2271) in 2013. To say they did a good job would be putting it mildly. With the judicious application of a little noise reduction, these Fifties recordings sound almost dead quiet even in softer passages. More important, the sonics are clear and clean, demonstrating the kind of transparency that most of us admire in the old RCA "Living Stereo" series. What's more, the clarity does not come with any undue brightness, forwardness, or edginess. The sound is generally smooth and natural, with fine stereo spread, separation, depth, and air. When the piano enters, the miking places it in a well-integrated position just in front of the orchestra but not way out in front or stretching from speaker to speaker. The aural presentation sounds as well focused, dynamic, and realistic as one could want.

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

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


Aug 23, 2013

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Also, Strike Up the Band Overture; Promenade; Catfish Row. Orion Weiss, piano; John Fullam, clarinet; JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.559750.

Let me begin by saying that I haven’t heard any interpretation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue I like better than the one I grew up with, Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 rendering with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It’s a recording I’ve liked so much, I’ve owned it on a variety of Columbia, CBS, and Sony discs, culminating a few years ago in my buying the Blu-Spec edition from Sony Japan. This is all by way of saying that no matter how good pianist Orion Weiss, conductor JoAnn Falletta, and the Buffalo Philharmonic play the piece, it doesn’t quite match the animation and potency of the Bernstein version. That said, Weiss, Falletta, and crew still play it darn well.

As you probably know, it was bandleader Paul Whiteman who persuaded a brash, young George Gershwin (1898-1937) to write a jazz-inflected showpiece for him and his orchestra. When Gershwin initially declined, saying he didn’t know enough about orchestration to do the work justice, Whiteman assured him that he could get Ferde Grofe to arrange it for piano and orchestra. That was 1924, Gershwin’s classical jazz became a new musical phenomenon, and the rest is history.

On this Naxos disc, we get a deep, sultry treatment of the score. While it doesn’t have the sometimes eccentrically paced spontaneity of Bernstein’s interpretation or the sheer energy of Gershwin’s own piano-roll rendition (re-recorded with Michael Tilson Thomas), this new Naxos performance does display a graceful spirit and an appropriately bluesy manner. Also, I have to admit that Orion Weiss plays a mean piano, at the same time applying a very smooth, very delicate touch on the keys, making his interpretation a charming study in contrasts. And when Gershwin’s big, lush main theme kicks in, the whole thing is, well, a kick.

Nevertheless, no, in the end I wouldn’t necessarily buy this disc just for the Rhapsody. Weiss’s reading may be fluid and flowing, but it lacks the idiosyncrasies of tempo and rhythm that elevate Bernstein’s rendition over almost all competitors. Sometimes being overenthusiastic works. However, I would seriously consider the Naxos album when you look at the accompanying material. The Overture to the Broadway show Strike Up the Band makes a terrific curtain raiser and a great introduction to Gershwin’s style. Promenade, a piece of film music reconstructed by George Gershwin’s brother Ira, is brief, snappy, and dapper. And Catfish Row, Gershwin’s concert suite from Porgy and Bess (restored by composer Steven Bower), includes many of the opera’s most-famous and colorful tunes. Ms. Falletta and her Buffalo players provide all of this music with the jazzy, folksy sophistication it needs. If you liked Falletta’s earlier Gershwin disc, you will no doubt like this one as well. She and her fellow musicians have a good feeling for the orchestral jazz idiom Gershwin perfected so well.

Naxos recorded the music at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in 2010 (Rhapsody in Blue and Promenade) and 2012 (Strike Up the Band and Catfish Row). Although the sound is a trifle on the warm, round, plushy soft side, the piano and orchestra show up nicely, and the wide dynamic range helps the sonics to pop. There’s a wide frequency range, too, with a satisfyingly extended treble and an occasionally thunderous bass, so even if the midrange transparency is mite too thick to be entirely transparent, the overall effect is natural and lifelike enough.

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


Aug 22, 2013

Mozart: Flute Concertos (CD review)

Also, Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter.” Jacques Zoon, flute; Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque. Telarc CD-80624.

Taken on its own, this is a delightful, zesty treat, the Boston Baroque playing on period instruments without sounding edgy, and flutist Jacques Zoon handling the Flute Concertos in D major (K. 314) and G major (K. 313) with considerable aplomb. It’s only when you compare the music making to other recordings of a kind that you may notice any minor, subjective shortcomings.

Starting with the Flute Concertos, I compared K. 313 to Jean-Pierre Rampal’s 1966 recording with members of the Vienna Symphony on modern instruments (Erato). Here, three differences popped out at me. First, Rampal’s playing seems slightly sweeter, more delicate, more nuanced, and more poetic than Zoon’s, whose work is, nevertheless, quite fetching. Still, I preferred Rampal. Second, the Telarc recording with Boston Baroque sounds much faster paced, as we might expect from a period-instruments group, although the Boston players handle it in stride. While this makes for a more-thrilling ride than Rampal’s version, it’s not quite so graceful. And, third, the Telarc sonics (recorded in Mechanics Hall, 2004) appear somewhat warmer and softer than the older Vienna recording. However, this can actually be a benefit to the period-instruments sound, so the choice here may be a toss-up. Overall, though, on two of the three counts I slightly preferred Rampal’s rendition.

In the accompanying “Jupiter” Symphony, the comparisons I used were those of two period-instruments groups, one of the earliest of its kind, from the Collegium Aureum (RCA), and a more-recent one from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi). In these comparisons, I noticed the same quick tempos from Boston Baroque and the same thicker, warmer sound. Yet here it was harder to determine a clear preference. After listening for a few minutes to the Telarc, the older RCA interpretation sounded rather conventional, and the sound, though more transparent, seemed thinner, more wiry, and more sluggish. With the Harmonia Mundi disc everything sounded so good all the way around it made for no contest. Then, after listening to all three discs again for a while, the Telarc seemed a tad thick and overheated to me. I dunno.

I suspect that listeners will have to decide on the Telarc recording based on its coupling and its reputation. If you like the pieces of music presented on the disc, if you like Boston Baroque’s fleet, lively style, and if you like Telarc’s well-balanced but somewhat heavy sound, you’ll like this release. It’s certainly fun to listen to.

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


Aug 20, 2013

La Voce del Violoncello (CD review)

Solo Works of the First Italian Cellist-Composers. Elinor Frey, baroque cello; Esteban La Rotta, theorbo and baroque guitar; Susie Napper, baroque cello. Passacaille 993.

As far as I can see, this 2013 release, La Voce del Violoncello (“The Voice of the Cello”), is only the third album from Canadian cellist Elinor Frey, and it’s the first one in which she goes it mostly alone. Although Ms. Frey may not yet be in the class of a Casals or a Rostropovich, she displays a commendable command of the cello and an obvious joy in playing the instrument that foretell a promising future.

As I’ve mentioned before, choosing what music to include on any album can be chancy. If you opt for popular items that you know the public enjoys, you risk going head-to-head with a catalogue full of formidable competition. If you choose to record more obscure, more modern, more experimental, or more avant-garde material, you risk not selling a disc. Here, in an album of solo works from the first Italian cellist-composers, Ms. Frey has chosen a reasonable middle ground. She has recorded twenty-three tracks representing some of the earliest-known compositions for the violoncello, following the genre over nearly seventy-five years from the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth, by which time the cello had become popular enough to spread throughout Europe and produce star performers of international repute. More important, the music Ms. Frey has chosen is accessible and charming, and she plays it expertly on an unnamed Klingenthatl-style baroque cello from the late-eighteenth century, accompanied on a few numbers by Esteban La Rotta, theorbo and baroque guitar, and Susie Napper, baroque cello.

Since Ms. Frey is just becoming known, a word about her: To quote from her biography, her honors include “the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Scholarship, where she studied baroque cello with Paulo Beschi in Como, Italy” and grants from the SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and the Canada Council for the Arts. She received a Doctor of Music degree in 2012 from McGill University and additional degrees from the Mannes College of Music and the Juilliard School. So, yes, she knows what she’s doing.

Ms. Frey begins this musical journey through the early baroque cello with Tromba a Basso solo by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694), only it’s not a solo since Mr. La Rotta supports her with a bass realization on the theorbo. If you’re not sure what a theorbo is, it’s a now obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. It produces a sound that complements the cello nicely. (I’ve gotten to know and enjoy the theorbo from my attendance at concerts by the Philharmonic Baroque, where my wife and I have become quite attentive to and appreciative of the theorbo playing.) Anyway, you can hear a moment of the Tromba a Basso solo below and get the idea. It’s a delightful work, delightfully performed.

Next, we hear two caprices by Giuseppe Maria Dall'Abaco (1710-1805), which sound a little more formal than the preceding Colombi piece yet have a sort of Bach-like feel to them. Ms. Frey invests them with a lively, rhythmic cadence that keeps our attention.

After that is a brief, anonymous sonata, followed by two toccatas by Francesco Paolo Suspriani (1678-1753). The sonata possesses a graceful lilt that makes it appear at once serious yet playful. Perhaps it's Ms. Frey's playing that imparts the latter quality. The Suspriani toccatas seem a little more solemn to me than I'd like, despite Ms. Frey's efforts to the contrary. Nevertheless, she ends the program with two more of Suspriani’s toccatas that close the show in fine, robust spirits.

And so it goes, with further pieces by Domenico Galli (1649-1697), Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1729), and Giulio Ruvo. Given the nature of the music and the early composition dates, you might expect a good deal of repetition or sameness, but Mr. Frey ensures that we take nothing for granted. Her style is continuously flexible and spirited, with an emphasis on creativity, clarity, and precision.

Among my favorite tracks on the disc were the aforementioned Tromba a Basso solo for its invention, plus Galli's Sonata No. 5 for its purely entertaining variations; Vitali's Passa Gali for its regal sophistication (and again its theorbo); Ruvo's folksy, lyrical dance numbers; and Vitali's Bergamasca, not only for Ms. Frey's playing but for the baroque guitar accompaniment.

I don't try to label albums as the best of anything because I've never been able to determine just what that means without sounding pompous or pretentious; however, I do know what I like, so I can say without hesitation what appeals to me. Come next January, I know I shall be listing La Voce del Violoncello among my favorite albums of the year.

Padraig Buttner-Schnirer recorded, edited, and mastered the disc for Passacaille Records, recording it at the Pollack Hall, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec in 2012. The cello emerges cleanly defined, clear, and richly resonant, as do the accompanying instruments. The miking is relatively close, so the sound is big, yet there is a pleasant ambient air around the instruments as well, making them resound fully throughout the room. Indeed, it is this warm, resonant bloom that makes the sound so appealing, yet it in no way distracts from the lucidity of the instrumental sound.

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


Aug 19, 2013

Sommernachts Konzert 2013 (CD review)

Music of Verdi, Wagner, and Strauss. Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony 88883712052.

You may have seen this on TV. PBS often airs these things during their pledge breaks (so you get to watch them what seems about 800 times a month). Each year the Vienna Philharmonic (under various notable conductors since they have no Principal Conductor) perform two major concerts of international repute: the New Year’s Eve Concert and the Summer Night Concert. The present disc contains eleven items recorded live at their Summer Night Concert 2013, conducted by Lorin Maazel. Its theme was the celebration of the 200th anniversaries of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

Here, I have to repeat what I’ve often said about these kinds of albums: More important than the music, they are documentations of live events, souvenirs for folks who attended and tokens for those who weren’t there to suggest what all the fuss was about. Yes, they can contain some good music, and, yes, they can be entertaining. But they are not always exemplars of great music or great sound. There are three primary reasons for this: (1) The music is almost always of the briefest, most-popular warhorse variety, which classical collectors most likely already have in abundance in their music libraries; (2) the live sound doesn’t always hold up well compared to that of good studio productions; and (3) listeners have to put up with a degree of audience noise as well as endure an outburst of applause after every track. Of course, listeners who enjoy recordings of live musical events will cherish the album for just these reasons, so one takes pleasure where one will.

Maestro Maazel gets the concert off to a regal start with Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida. The Vienna players perform it with a smooth, lush precision, yet it lacks the expansive grandeur that Karajan brought to it with these same forces over thirty years earlier. When I watched Maazel conducting it on the television broadcast, he looked as though he were falling asleep. Maybe that’s his style; I don’t know. Still, the orchestra does sound gorgeous.

Next up is Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. I found this performance more to my liking than the Aida moments. Maazel seems to understand the theatrical nature of this music and the grandiloquent impact the Prelude can carry. The big climaxes create the excitement the composer intended.

And so it goes, with selections from Verdi's I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, Otello, Luisa Miller, La Forza del Destino and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, and Die Walkure. Of these numbers, I preferred the ones with tenor Michael Schade (I Lombardi and Lohengrin; what a wonderful voice Schade has), as well as the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which Maazel conducts with much hushed Romantic fervor.

Oddly, Maazel's Ride of the Valkyries didn't move me the way other conductors’ versions have done, despite the absolutely glorious presentation the Vienna Philharmonic make of it. It seemed more sophisticated sound and fury to me than the dashing, thrilling music I so often hear from others.

The concert ends with a traditional Strauss tune, Long Live the Magyar!, that closes the show in an appropriately rousing manner. I have to admit that it did get the blood stirring, more so than most anything else on the program.

Incidentally, the folks at Sony provide no track timings, neither on the back cover nor in the accompanying booklet. However, my CD player's readout indicates the album contains a healthy 80+ minutes of content, about the upper limit of a compact disc.

Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the concert for Sony in the Baroque park at Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, in May 2013. The sound is fairly close (probably in order to minimize audience noise) yet rich and resonant. Definition is good, if at the expense of the sound being a tad bright and perhaps a bit too sharply outlined, making for some occasional edginess. Because it's an outdoor event, we don't get much in the way of room ambience, so any resonance we hear is probably the result of the acoustic reflectors used around the orchestra. There's not much depth to the image, either, making this more of a hi-fi presentation than a particularly realistic one. Strong dynamics help to reinforce this impression. And a slight background hiss accompanies the softest passages. Don't know why.

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


Aug 16, 2013

Ives: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Juilliard String Quartet. Newton Classics 8802197.

Don’t you just love the music of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954)?  It’s always so quirky, and the older the guy got, the more eccentric his music became. The present album combines two of his more-popular works, the early String Quartet No. 1, which is rather conventional for the man, and the later String Quartet No. 2, which dates from over a dozen years on and shows how unique (and curious) his music had become. The two works make a fascinating study in comparisons and contrasts, and you couldn’t ask for better performances or sound than these 1967 re-released recordings from the world-famous Juilliard String Quartet.

I don’t need to remind you that the Juilliard String Quartet is among the oldest continuing string quartets in the world. Founded in 1946 at the Juilliard School in New York, the group has won numerous awards over the years, including four Grammys, and recorded countless discs. Of course, all of the original musicians are gone now, but at the time of this recording, it still involved several founding members. The main thing is that they play impeccably, and no one has matched their performances of these Ives String Quartets. As constituted here, the group included Robert Mann and Earl Carlyss, violins; Raphael Hillyer, viola; and Claus Adam, cello.

Ives wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “From the Salvation Army”) somewhere between 1897-1900, just after he’d finished Yale. However, like many of his compositions, it never saw a public performance in his lifetime. The fellow was definitely ahead of his time in the field of modern music, and because his stuff was even more far-out than most modernists of his day, he didn’t have a lot of followers at the time. The First Quartet didn’t see a public performance until 1957, several years after his death, even though it is one of his more-traditional pieces of music.

Ives grew up loving band music, and one can hear its influence in almost all his music including the First Quartet. Further defined as "A Revival Service," the First Quartet abounds in faintly recognizable melodies, in this case hymns, as was Ives's wont. In all of the composer's work we hear familiar tunes that are just barely out of reach. Ives divides the "Service" into an introductory Chorale, a Prelude, an Offertory, and a Postlude, corresponding to a traditional four-movement quartet arrangement. The first section is a meditation, the second a zippy scherzo with lilting dance numbers, the third a beautiful slow movement, and the forth an Allegro finale.

The Juilliard Quartet play the piece with energy, dexterity, grace, variety; you name it, they do it.  There doesn't appear to be anything they can't handle with virtuosic ease. Given that the First Quartet is fairly straightforward (comparatively, for Ives), that doesn't mean that the Juilliard players perform it in any perfunctory manner. Instead, they invest it with all the spirit they can muster, making the music glisten with vigor. It's possible that no one may equal their rendition of the work.

Then, there's the Second String Quartet, and we're suddenly listening to something more reminiscent of Ives, the composer with the weird, atonal harmonies and sudden dissonances. What a difference a decade makes. The Second Quartet dates from around 1913-15 and shows how far Ives had moved along in his unique musical style. It’s filled with far more disharmony, discords, tonal disparities, argument shifts, complex rhythms, and transcendent conflicts than the First Quartet, and, therefore, makes for more-challenging listening.

Ives said he wrote the Second Quartet as a counterpoint to the "trite" character and style of typical concert quartets. I’m not sure if he was also referring to his own First Quartet. In any case, the Juilliard players manage to make it a lot less harsh than I've sometimes heard it played. What's more, the oddball interjection of familiar songs isn't nearly so jarring as it can sometimes sound. Ives also said he intended the work's three movements to represent four men "who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament." Fair enough; people can be pretty strange when they're in the midst of tensions and disagreement. And it's these contrasts that we hear the Juilliard players bring out most clearly in the music. It's not quite program music in the sense of a Mussorgsky or Strauss tone poem, but Ives clearly wanted to convey specific impressions, which the Juilliard performers are happy to exploit and still make it sound like music and not noise. The conflicts may get raucous, but the interpretation remains likable, maybe because the Juilliard players appear to like the music so much. Although the Second Quartet is not something you might want to listen to very often, this is the version to which you'll want to return as the mood strikes you.

Columbia Records (CBS) originally recorded the music at the Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City in 1966-67, releasing the record in 1967. Newton Classics re-released them on the current disc in 2013. The sound is quite good, very transparent, with each of the four players distinctly placed across the room. Detailing is more than up to the job, and the frequency response appears nicely extended. The sound is big and bold, well spread out but not entirely across the room--just fairly close up for maximum clarity. OK, maybe the stereo spread is a tad too wide for so small an ensemble, yet the disc sounds better than most anything being made today: beautifully realistic, immaculately clean, with remarkable separation and air. There is no harshness here, no brightness, no forwardness; it's all as smoothly and naturally recorded as you could want, putting real players and real music in your living room.

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


Aug 15, 2013

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonata No. 1.  Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Erich Leinsdorf, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA 82876-60860-2.

Just a brief note on an old favorite.

This is one of those legendary discs from RCA’s early stereo days and one of Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s first recorded performances in the West. Made in 1960, it is still one of the best readings of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto ever made and ranks up there with only a handful of equally fine interpretations of the work. The sound may not be quite equal to the best, but if you can give it some slack, the performance more than makes up for it.

Richter brings to the piece an unusual degree of brawny sophistication. The first movement, for example, taken at a faster-than-usual clip, seems in Richter’s hands as stormy and craggy as anything in the First Concerto. The second movement scherzo Allegro has a vigorous momentum; the slow Andante is as sweet and hushed as anything one could dream of; and the finale, with its folklike gypsy melodies, skips merrily along until reaching the work’s familiar signature tune. Richter comes through in each movement with an emotional drive and pianistic virtuosity seldom matched by modern artists. His spontaniety seems entirely unforced in a performance of eloquence, grace, and vitality, even if he indulges himself on occasion in some odd tempo shifts. Interestingly, too, I read once that Richter hated this performance; but what did he know?

The celebrated team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton put together the sound, as they did most of the RCA Living Stereo series back then. The sonics are OK but not quite up to what we have heard from other entries in the “Living Stereo” series. The audio is well spread out across the soundstage but perhaps loses a little something in ultimate definition and dynamic impact compared to the best recordings available of this work.

And speaking of the best recordings available, may I suggest that Richter can stand proudly with Gilels (DG and RCA), Kovacevich (Philips), Pollini (DG), Cliburn (RCA), Serkin (Sony), Ashkenazy (Decca), and others. That’s pretty heady company, and if I hold special places for the finesse of Gilels, the poetry of Kovacevich, and the incisiveness of Cliburn, I have to remember the price of this Richter reissue, with its excellent coupling of the Piano Sonata No. 1; then it looks even better to me.

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


Aug 13, 2013

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Uri Caine Ensemble. Winter & Winter 910 205-2.

With his Rhapsody in Blue composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898-1937) began a trend in classical music to infuse serious orchestral works with serious jazz. So it’s not a stretch to take several of the man’s compositions back to their roots with performances by a small jazz group, in this case the Uri Caine Ensemble: Uri Caine, piano; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Jim Black, drums; Joyce Hammann, violin; Mark Helias, bass; Chris Speed, clarinet and tenor sax; and Theo Bleckmann and Barbara Walker, vocals. The results we hear on this all-Gershwin album of instrumental and vocal numbers are different but highly appealing.

More important, Uri Caine is a jazz and classical pianist and composer. Among his sixteen record albums include a 1997 jazz tribute to Gustav Mahler that received an award from the German Mahler Society; a 2009 album called The Othello Syndrome that earned a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album; and reworkings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, and various Wagner, Schumann and Mozart selections. In 2005, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra named him their Composer-in-Residence through the 2008–2009 season. Yes, he knows what he’s up to.

If, like me, you grew up knowing and loving the full orchestral version of the Rhapsody, or even if you’ve gotten used to a smaller-scale rendition (Gershwin wrote the piece for the smallish Paul Whiteman band), you may find the Caine Ensemble’s jazz arrangement a bit unsettling. Like anything, it takes a little getting used to. Whether that happens or not, however, is problematic. My mother always told me I’d come to love Brussel sprouts if I just ate enough of them; to this day they make me gag. Although Caine’s jazz adaptation clearly didn’t make me gag, I don’t think I’d want to hear it too often without a dose of Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra thrown in more often than not.

The ensemble perform the Rhapsody first on the program, and, as I say, it may come as a shock to classical listeners not used to jazz. I mean, the Uri Caine Ensemble play the piece very jazzy, with some obvious riffs and improvisations but nothing that really disturbs Gershwin's original intentions. Each instrument, particularly the clarinet and piano, gets its fair share of the spotlight (it is Caine's group, after all, and he's the pianist). This is an enterprising new way to listen to an old favorite that never sacrifices the composer's intentions or the spirit of the music. Rather than hearing a jazz-infused classical Rhapsody, we hear a classical-infused jazz Rhapsody. While it might not appeal to everyone, especially old-time, die-hard classical fans, if you can keep an open mind, it is quite fetching. I loved it.

In order for the Rhapsody to work effectively, though, the musicians must be virtuosos in their own right and show the utmost respect for the music. Here, the Caine Ensemble excel, performing the work with consummate skill, innovation, creativity, and musicianship.

After the Rhapsody in Blue we get a series of eight Gershwin vocal and instrumental numbers done by vocalists Theo Bleckman and Barbara Walker, with the Caine Ensemble. The performers infuse these tunes, too, with some new twists, although it's all mostly recognizable as traditional Gershwin. The selections include "But Not for Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "I Got Rhythm," "I've Got a Crush on You," a slightly bizarre "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "Slap That Bass," a sort of spacey "Love Is Here to Stay," and "How Long Has This Been Going On." Good singing, good playing, good backup, lively, sympathetic style--it works for a delightful good time.

It will please audiophiles to know that in December 2012 at Avatar Studios, New York, engineer Ron Saint Germain recorded the music directly to half-inch, two-track analogue tape with no manipulation or digital processing. Yes, I said analogue tape. The sound is fully up to audiophile standards, rich and lush, yet wonderfully well defined, with a healthy amount of air around the instruments. Most important, there's a sonic impact that reminds one of being at a live event and a frequency range that puts one in the audience. Play it loud, and it only gets better, with every subtlety of every instrument clearly, naturally delineated and voices as clean as real life.

A final word, this about the packaging: The disc comes in a clothbound Digipak-type case, with a picture and info glued to the front and back. It’s really quite attractive. All well and good; then, inside you’ll find a booklet of the foldout-map variety that stretches to nearly two feet. Very inconvenient for trying to read comfortably. Otherwise, a classy affair.

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


Aug 12, 2013

Wagner: Organ Fireworks (SACD review)

Overture and prelude transcriptions. Hansjorg Albrecht, organ. Oehms Classics OC 690.

There is something intriguingly simple about having one performer play one instrument that simulates the music of an entire symphony orchestra. The performer is Hansjorg Albrecht; the instruments are the Cavaeille-Coll-Mutin organ and Kleuker organ of St. Nikolai Church, Kiel, Germany; and the music is Wagner. Mr. Albrecht doesn’t mean for his adaptations to replace full-orchestral versions of this material but rather as singular, workable alternatives to them. It’s certainly fascinating stuff.

Of course, it helps that conductor, organist, and harpsichordist Albrecht knows what he’s doing arranging and performing these Wagner transcriptions. Not only is he the Artistic Director of the Munich Bach Choir and Bach Orchestra, he’s done organ transcriptions before, having already recorded albums of Wagner’s Ring excerpts, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Holst’s Planets, and other such music in organ transcriptions. With that kind of background, we can expect him to produce good results.

So, Albrecht begins the program with the Overture to Tannhauser, very familiar material. The secret is making a single instrument substitute for a full orchestra, which he pulls off pretty well with his arrangements. Using all of today’s modern concert organ’s electronic setting devices and storage applications, he is able to duplicate quite a few different orchestral sounds simultaneously. The effect can often be startlingly impressive. It raises the question, though: If you’re going to use the organ to imitate all the voices of an orchestra, why not just use an actual orchestra? Hmmmm. Well, I suppose, for one, it’s cheaper; one performer, one instrument. But, more to the point, it’s simply a novel idea and a unique sound. For fans of organ music, Albrecht’s Wagner disc might be a good investment.

After Tannhauser, which Albrecht performs nobly, he plays the Prelude from Parsifal. As with the other numbers on the program, he executes the music with intense feeling and precise control. There is genuine pathos in the slow section and grandeur in the bigger moments, a kind of grandiloquence that only a huge concert organ in a vast hall can produce (short of a full orchestra).

And so it goes through the rousing melodramatics of The Flying Dutchman, the longing romance of Tristan und Isolde, and the festive thrills of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Albrecht catches many of the nuances of Wagner’s varied and colorful pallette, generating new ways to listen to old favorites. While I would never consider giving up the orchestral versions of Wagner from conductors like Otto Klemperer, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, George Szell, Bernard Haitink, Erich Leinsdorf, Leopold Stokowski, Sir Adrian Boult, and others, I’m glad I heard these organ transcriptions. They can be bewitching in their own way.

No, SACD is not dead. Long live SACD. There’s life in the old format yet, carried on by a small but dedicated number of European record companies like Oehms Classics, who recorded this one in 2012 at St. Nikolai, Kiel, Germany. I listened to the two-track SACD layer, not the multichannel layer, because I have but two stereo speakers in my listening room. However, I can imagine that given the full-blown resonance of the recording, it might sound rather spectacular in multichannel playback. Anyway, in two-channel the organ tends to get a little lost amidst the hall’s natural reverberation, the acoustic slightly blurring the midrange detail. Not that it doesn’t appear realistic, just a little awash in reverb. A moderately distant miking arrangement doesn’t help the instrument’s transparency, either. Still, it’s a big, round, dramatic organ sound, with plenty of dynamic range, bass, and impact, so maybe that makes up for any small lack of clarity. 

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


Aug 9, 2013

Pekiel: Missa Concertata La Lombardesca (CD review)

Also, Ave Maria, Audite mortales, Missa a14, and others. Eamonn Dougan, The Sixteen. CORO COR16110.

Most fans of early music will recognize The Sixteen, the choir and instrumental group formed by Harry Christophers in 1979 and specializing in tunes of the Renaissance, Baroque, and early Classical periods. What early music fans might not recognize so readily is the name Bartlomiej Pekiel (fl. 1633-1670), a prominent Polish composer of choral music in the seventeenth century who has today obviously gone out of style. Nevertheless, under the direction of singer and conductor Eamonn Dougan, The Sixteen here perform several of Pekiel’s few surviving compositions for choir and instruments, providing a fascinating glimpse into the music of a long-gone era.

Pekiel was the first non-Italian to rise to the position of Royal Maestro di Cappella, and as the disc’s booklet notes explain “set a benchmark for all native Polish musicians.” Mostly, he worked in the liturgical field, which we would expect, writing masses and such.

On the present disc, The Sixteen’s Associate Conductor Eamonn Dougan leads the group first in several selections from Missa a14 (the Kyrie and Gloria, the only surviving parts). There follows a series of other songs, motets, and dialogues, including select items from Missa Concertata La Lombardesca.

Frankly, much early music sounds alike to me, my being no expert in the field, and the fact that many Italian Baroque composers probably influenced Pekiel doesn’t make it any easier. Besides, to me most current pop music, rap, and jazz all sounds alike, so what do I know? The important point is that The Sixteen perform all of this music from Pekiel with an elegant touch. The soloists meticulously execute their parts; the divisions of the choir blend in a honey-like fusion; and the instrumentalists provide an unobtrusive yet often virtuosic accompaniment.

Among the various tunes on the program, certainly the Audite mortales stands out for its magnificent combination of voice sextet, solos, and instrumental ensembles, the music floating lightly overhead like the most delicate of petals on a breeze. It is strikingly attractive, singing and playing of the highest order.

Other highlights for me include Dulcis amor Jesu, O adoranda Trinitas, and the exquisite motet Ave Maria, with their wonderfully colorful and varied textures. In all, the album is another success for The Sixteen, who make one wonder if it’s really the music of Pekiel or the graceful manner in which The Sixteen present it that is more important. Not to diminish Pekiel in any way, but I rather suspect that The Sixteen could make the listings in a telephone book sound good.

Producer Raphael Mouterde and engineers Mike Hatch and Andrew Mellor recorded The Sixteen at St. Silas the Martyr Church, Kentish Town, London in October 2012. They couldn’t have done a better job. The sound is warm and smooth, the instruments showing good separation, body, and detail; the voices truthful, with no brightness, forwardness, or edge to them. The engineers miked the tunes at a moderate distance, offering an ideal perspective and depth of image. This is sound you could listen to all day, the kind that no matter how loud you play it, it never appears anything but natural. Incidentally, if the name Mike Hatch seems particularly familiar to you, it’s because he’s spent decades engineering these kinds of realistic-sounding records; this is a first-rate job all the way around.

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


Aug 8, 2013

The Never-Ending Waltz (CD review)

Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Telarc CD-80668.

Every album seems to need a gimmick these days. With Telarc’s The Never-Ending Waltz the deal was to string together snippets of famous waltzes into a continuous fifty-odd-minute stream. Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra play the music beautifully, of course, and, to be snide for a second, if you have an elevator in your house, it will do wonders for the ride.

As I sat listening, I couldn’t help thinking of those old “101 Strings Play the Classics” records of the 1950’s and 60’s, where they would give you about one or two minutes of every famous classical piece you could think of. The possibilities are endless, of course. With today’s writable CD’s, DVD’s, Blu-rays, MP3’s and all, people could take their own favorite Beethoven symphony movements and create their own new symphony. Let’s see, the first movement of the Sixth, the slow movement of the Fifth, the Scherzo from the Seventh, and maybe a big finale with the ending of the Ninth.

There is a method to this collection of excerpts from Kunzel and the Pops, though: While they play the music without interruption, they actually divide it into eight categories. They devote the first nine minutes or so to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr.; then the next section, called “Vienna Waltzes,” includes music by Lanner, Ivanovici, Lehar, etc.; followed by “Operetta Waltzes,” “Opera Waltzes,” “Waldteufel Waltzes,” “Concert Waltzes,” “Ballet Waltzes,” and, finally, “Tchaikovsky Waltzes.” So, Kunzel and his crew do cover the field. And, to be fair, the album does make for wonderful background music. The Cincinnati Pops play with a full, lush smoothness that is quite fetching, and Kunzel does have the measure of the music.

If it’s only lovely snippets of musical wallpaper you’re after, this album serves its purpose. Besides, who can tell, maybe it will encourage fledgling classical fans to buy complete sets of the material this album includes. Indeed, what the disc did best for me was make me want to listen to the original tunes in their entirety.

Telarc released the disc in 2006, and the sound is good, as we have come to expect from this source, especially in its imaging and its sweet ambient bloom. Still, it seemed just a touch softer to me, more slightly vague and muffled, than Telarc’s best stuff. Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I did my listening, or maybe I had my ears plugged up from a summer allergy. Who knows. Or maybe it was that the music appeared to me more lightweight than usual from Kunzel, and it influenced how I heard it. The album has no doubt sold a ton of copies in its time, and for its kind, the disc more than adequately fulfills its goals.

To listen to several brief excerpts from this album, click here:


Aug 6, 2013

Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings (CD review)

Also, Souvenir de Florence. Pierre Amoyal, Camerata de Lausanne. Warner Classics 2564 65218-2.

The Camerata de Lausanne is a small string orchestra of just over a dozen players, founded in 2002 by its leader, violinist Pierre Amoyal. They play with enthusiasm and virtuosity, exemplified here by their performances of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Souvenir of Florence.

Amoyal begins the album with the Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48, a piece the famously self-critical Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote in 1880. Yet, despite Tchaikovsky’s self doubts about most of his music, he was quite confident about the Serenade. He thought it was one of his best works, and it is.

The Serenade is a four-movement piece, drawn up in terms of high Romanticism. Some listeners may prefer the lusher, plusher sound of a full orchestra playing the piece, but Amoyal's smaller forces have the advantage of transparency on their side. Besides, his group create a performance that closely resembles that of one of my favorite conductors and ensembles in this work, Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra, although Amoyal takes the Elegie a tad slower and the Finale a tad quicker. But you hear the same spirit involved.

Under Amoyal the opening Andante gushes with vibrant but gentle good cheer, the composer’s lush melodies never seeming to end. The Waltz is pure Tchaikovsky, and Amoyal gives it a wonderfully lilting gait, making a graceful transition to the Elegie. Then, the slow movement goes by in a lovely, wispy fashion, perhaps not so affecting as Leppard’s version but close, with particularly smooth variations in the rhythm. Likewise, Amoyal gives us a seamless passage into the Finale, which eventually transforms into a lively Cossack dance. Although some critics consider this "light" music, Amoyal obliges one to take it seriously.

The second selection on the program is the Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70, which Tchaikovsky originally wrote for string sextet in 1890. He titled it a “Souvenir of Florence” because he composed a part of the second movement while visiting the city. We often hear this Tchaikovsky piece adapted for chamber orchestra, so the tiny Camerata de Lausanne makes nice compromise between the intended six players and the larger forces of usually several dozen or more players in a chamber orchestra.

I like what Julian Haylock writes about the Souvenir in the disc’s booklet notes: “If the String Serenade tends more towards the balletic side of Tchaikovsky’s creative psyche, the Souvenir de Florence possesses an almost symphonic sweep.” I confess I do not find the work as appealing as most other people seem to, yet I cannot deny it has its charms. I liked the way Amoyal maintains the music’s strong forward momentum, infusing the somewhat stormy first movement with a delicate tumult, the Adagio with a composed melancholy, and the final two movements with a folksy gusto and zeal. With playing of heartfelt beauty, the Camerata de Lausanne carry the day.

The recording location was Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland; the date was May 2012; the result is outstanding. The sound is resplendent, the kind that only seems to come around about every tenth disc or so I audition. Of course, it’s a small ensemble, so we would expect the sound to be fairly transparent. Still, you’ll find no soft mushiness here, nor any bright forwardness.  It simply sounds well focused, clear, clean, dimensional, and lifelike. The perspective is a little close, true, yet not so close that the players are in your lap. With a quick transient response, strong impact, and wide dynamics, it’s a most pleasurable presentation.

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


Aug 5, 2013

A Folk Song Runs Through It (CD review)

Piano music of Bartok, Janacek, and Kodaly. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons 30018.

Certainly, the folk music of the United States is rich and varied, but the folk music of central Europe is just as rich and varied, maybe more so, and has the distinction of being older. The Hungarian composers Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) and the Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928) drew upon the vast folk melodies handed down in their countries for generations, and on the present disc American pianist Andrew Rangell (b. 1948) plays several of these composers’ best folk-inspired piano works.

Rangell practices a light, often delicate touch on the piano, an approach that serves him well in the slower, airier scores. Nevertheless, he maintains a good deal of power in reserve, making his technique not only dramatically virtuosic but uncommonly sensitive and diverse as well. A short biography of Mr. Rangell indicates that he holds a doctorate in piano and has just recently recovered from a severe hand injury that sidelined his career for some seven years. I wonder if sometimes tragedy can’t be a blessing in disguise if you use it to your advantage, in this case forcing the pianist into a style he might not have adopted earlier. I would love to hear him return to recording Chopin (he released the Mazurkas for the Dorian label in 2003; now perhaps Steinway can persuade him to do the Etudes, Preludes, Waltzes, and such).

Anyway, the album begins with Janacek’s In the Mists, a four-part piano work that nicely complements the more-ethereal side of Rangell’s playing. Janacek wrote In the Mists in 1912, a few years after the death of his daughter and while Prague opera houses were still rejecting his compositions. Rangell concentrates on the music’s impressionistic atmosphere and comfortably conveys its sweet, melancholy flavor. It’s the second-movement, marked Molto adagio, that actually sounds the most folk inflected, and Rangell gives it an appropriately rustic, Romantic flair, while keeping the other parts lilting and flowing.

Next up are Bartok’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs (1920), followed by six Romanian Folk Dances (1915). The Improvisations are a collection of eight interconnected segments and range from poignant lullabies to bawdy tavern songs. Rangell takes it from a hushed whisper to a full thrust. I can’t say I enjoyed all of the sections equally--some are too raucous and blustery for my taste--but when Rangell is playing the softer stuff, he’s pitching a shutout. In any case, the Folk Dances are more to my ear, and Rangell appears to have the full measure of their country fiddle origins in Transylvania. Bartok made clever arrangements of the tunes he found, and Rangell does them justice.

Kodaly wrote Seven Pieces for Piano (1918) after falling under the spell of Debussy, so expect more wispy, mystical, brooding impressionism. The music seems to fit Rangell’s manner perfectly, making them an ideal pairing. Again, while for me it was all a bit too darkly low-key and dour, that doesn’t mean Rangell isn’t affording it all the feeling he can muster.

Rangell then closes the program with Bartok’s Sonata for Piano (1926), which except for the finale is probably the least folk sounding of the music on the disc. Most of it sounds like a dirge, a lament, and here Rangell is at his best conveying various kinds of grief throughout. Still, the music ends in a burst of good cheer with at least one clearly recognizable tune interjected here and there into the melody.  It’s all rather fun and concludes Rangell’s fascinating look at Central European folk-art music just after the turn of the twentieth century.

Producer and soloist Rangell and engineer Tom Stephenson recorded the music for Steinway & Sons at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Massachusetts in May, 2012. The piano sound they obtained appears entirely focused, with a good perspective if miked a tad more distantly than one usually hears. The venue provides a full, resonant acoustic, a mild hall reverberation giving it a realistic presence. Because there is a wide dynamic range involved, the overall volume level is a touch low.

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


Aug 2, 2013

Bach: The Musical Offering (CD review)

Arrangement for flute, violin, and organ by Helmut Bornefeld. Hannelore Hinderer, organ; Peter Thalheimer, flute; Sabine Kraut, violin. Carus 83.460.

So, what was the occasion for an arrangement of Bach’s Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV 1079) for flute, violin, and organ? Well, actually, it’s unclear for exactly what instruments Bach originally intended the work. Indeed, the composer himself wrote out the Trio Sonata for flute, violin, and basso continuo, writing the other sections possibly for solo fortepiano, although small chamber ensembles often handle the canons these days. It was the dedication of a new choir organ at the Stadtkirche Schorndorf, Germany, in 1976 that brought about the new arrangement by the instrument’s designer, Helmut Bornefeld. On the present, 2013 album, the Stadtkirche’s current organist, Hannelore Hinderer, flutist Peter Thalheimer, and violinist Sabine Kraut perform the work.

As you may know, The Musical Offering is a set of fugues and canons and such that Bach based on a musical theme King Frederick II of Prussia gave him. It came about during a meeting between Bach and Frederick in 1747, the meeting taking place because Frederick employed Bach's son C.P.E. Bach as a court musician. Frederick wanted to show off a new musical instrument, the fortepiano, which he had recently obtained. The King challenged Bach to improvise a six-voice fugue on a theme he gave him, which, eventually, Bach did, about two months afterward presenting the king with his “musical offering,” later publishing the variations as the set we now know.

The arrangement for flute, violin, and organ works well enough, although I wouldn’t want it as an only recording of the work. The arrangement provides variety by including some movements for solo organ, some for flute and violin only, and some for all three instruments. And, certainly, the three performers in the work do their job supremely well. Above all, they appear to enjoy the music and enjoy playing it. Their responsiveness carries over to the listener.

In addition to the Stadtkirche organ, the performers use a wooden Boehm flute and a period violin with gut strings and baroque bow. It’s a valuable combination of instruments that probably would have pleased and impressed Bach.

However, despite the best intentions of arranger Bornefeld and the enthusiastic performances of Hinderer, Thalheimer, and Kraut, it remains the Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale that Bach originally wrote for a keyboard, flute, and violin trio that stands out in the set. Although here, again, it’s hard to tell which keyboard instrument Bach proposed for the basso continuo--harpsichord, fortepiano, or organ. (Scholars are also uncertain as to Bach’s order for the music as well as the instrumentation, except the Trio, and also debate the meaning of the various puzzles the composer worked into the score, but that’s another story.) The present arrangement places the Trio in the penultimate position, followed by a concluding six-part Ricercar on organ.

Whatever, the four-part Trio shines as the centerpiece of The Musical Offering. With Hinderer, Thalheimer, and Kraut giving it their best, the music sounds most graceful, beautifully flowing, harmonious, melodious, and wonderfully realized all the way around. It is spectacularly good.

If there is any drawback to the disc, it’s that it contains only about fifty-one minutes of music. Of course, as I’ve often said, it’s the quality and not the quantity that counts. Therefore, if you enjoy Bach’s Musical Offering, you get your money’s worth.

Carus-Verlag recorded Bach’s Musical Offering at Stadtkirche Schorndorf in May, 2012. The organ solos sound sweet with their resonant church acoustics, yet remain clear and ultra clean, with a rich lower register. The duets sound realistic enough, with a moderate distance between the players, especially so with the organ, and a lifelike separation between the flute and violin.  In the trios the instruments stand clearly apart while sounding well integrated as a whole. The perspective makes them loom a little large, giving the music an added dimension and weight. Overall, the sonics are broad, warm, and sonorous.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa