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:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.

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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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