Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Bernard Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. Philips 410 398-2 (2-disc set).

OK, so I’m thirty-plus years behind with this review. Better late than never. Not only that, the record company, Philips, has gone out of business, and the disc hasn’t been in the catalogue for over a decade. However, if you’re interested (and why else would you be reading this if you weren’t?) you can find the disc used, and ArkivMusic still makes the recording available new by reproducing it under authorization from the Decca Label Group.

Anyway, the Mahler Seventh Symphony recording in question is Maestro Bernard Haitink’s second of three stereo recordings for Philips. Haitink has always been an expert practioner in Mahler and made his first recording with the Concertgebouw in analogue over ten years before this one. Then he made present Concertgebouw recording digitally in 1982, and another in the mid Nineties with the Berlin Philharmonic. Maybe he wanted to continue recording it until he got it right. In any case, it’s his first recording I like the most for its more-vivid interpretation (unfortunately, available only in a box set of the complete symphonies); the recording under review I like second best for the sheer beauty of its interpretation and sound; and the Berlin account I like least because by then Haitink seemed to have let a lot of the wind out of his sails.

How much you will like Haitink’s 1982 account may depend upon your own view of the Seventh Symphony, one of Mahler’s more problematic and ambiguous works. As I wrote a few weeks earlier, it’s a transitional piece, connecting the darker Sixth Symphony with the triumphant Eighth. Of course, musical scholars point out how Mahler connected all nine (or ten or eleven) of his symphonies, forming one grand musical statement. If there is a grand scheme in things, the Seventh has long been the neglected stepchild of the lot. While the other symphonies get most of the love, the Seventh often goes wanting.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote the Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and it is probably his most biographical work. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler’s works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations. I remember one critic once explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling through rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a nightly walk into the morning, the whole thing a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.

So, what is Haitink’s view? It’s certainly not the high-powered outlook rendered by conductors like Georg Solti or Claudio Abbado, who point up every contrast in the work and emphasize its darker, more-bizarre side rather than its purely lighter moments. Haitink, on the other hand, seems intent on being as solid and straightforward as possible, all the while stressing the music’s expressive delights. Some listeners will simply find it slow and dull, which is probably what a lot of people would think if they had only heard one of the more dynamic readings around. In fact, Haitink did take a more leisurely approach to the symphony this second time around than he did the first time, losing a little tension along the way. He made up for it in sheer attractiveness, though.

Haitink builds his reading of the Seventh around Mahler’s two central Nachtmusik segments, which are quite magical and atmospheric. The opening movement is more progressive than most, starting out very slowly, very gravely, and building momentum. Haitink’s handling of the Scherzo is less bizarre than it is under many other batons, and even the troublesome Finale, which can oft-times resemble a haphazard succession of anticlimaxes, comes across as a well-shaped series of purposeful variations. You may not agree with Haitink’s vision of the Seventh, but it’s hard to deny it doesn’t hang together well, start to finish.

One minor drawback, however: The penalty for taking your time through this massive symphony is that it might not fit on a single disc. Haitink’s rendition takes a pair of discs, with the first two movements on disc one and the final three movements on disc two. Even so, having to change discs is a small price for so lovely a performance. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is one of those pieces of music that begs for different interpretations, and doubtless it’s worthwhile having several versions in one’s library. For me, Haitink’s rendering is one of them.

Philips recorded the music digitally at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, in December 1982, and it was another fine job by the recording team. From the mid Sixties to the late Eighties Philips seemed able to do no wrong in the Concertgebouw. Their recordings always sounded substantial, full, deep, dynamic, ambient, and, above all, realistic. This one’s no exception; the sound is glorious. You hear one of the world’s great orchestras in all its glory, with the hall lending its hand in resonant bloom. Nevertheless, when Decca started recording the orchestra, they never seemed able to capture that same golden glow. Decca’s Concertgebouw recordings have always sounded flatter to me, closer, more “hi-fi.” Indeed, I cannot think of another recording of the Mahler Seventh that sounds better than Haitink’s ’82 digital effort, reproduced here.

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


Down by the Sea: A Collection of British Folk Songs (CD review)

Settings by Grainger, Holst, MacMillan, Moeran, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, and others. Hilary Campbell, Blossom Street. Naxos 8.573069.

No, it’s not the song by Men at Work. Nor is it part of the refrain from The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.” It’s an album of classic British folk music, arranged for choir by various famous British composers.

Hilary Campbell, founder and director of the chamber choir Blossom Street, laments the dearth of British folk song on the concert platform, despite the public’s continued interest in the subject and the number of prominent British composers who have contributed to the field. Obviously, the present album is her attempt to amend this issue. Certainly, one could not find a better advocate of the genre.

In addition to leading the Blossom Street choir, Ms. Campbell is a freelance musician based in London, the Musical Director of the Music Makers of London, office choirs at L’Oreal and Hearst Magazines, Choral Director at Blackheath Conservatoire, and Assistant Conductor of Barts Choir. She is also the 2012-13 Meaker Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, the first choral conductor so honored. Busy woman.

As far as concerns the Blossom Street choir, there appear to be between ten and twenty-three members. I say that because a booklet picture shows ten of them, and underneath the picture the booklet lists twenty-three: six sopranos, five altos, six tenors, and six basses. I suppose the number varies depending on the material they’re singing.

Of course, the composers on the album didn’t actually originate the folk songs for which they are famous. They collected them, arranged them, reset them, reinterpreted them, what have you. A folk song by definition is one that originates among the common people of a country and is passed on by oral tradition from one generation to the next, often existing in several different forms. Only these days, modern composers have often made their own folk-song arrangements the standards by which we have come to know them.

Anyway, Down by the Sea is a collection of folk and folklike songs with a nautical theme, all about sailors and whalers and often the girls they left behind. It begins with the tune you can hear an excerpt from below, “Lassie, Wad Ye Loe Me?” arranged by James MacMillan. Folk songs and poems are often big on dialect. See Robert Burns. The choir sing it like angels. Not only is there a remarkable smoothness to their presentation, there is a commendable integration of voices. The singers combine as one, strong and flexible, never losing focus. The four sections of the choir come through splendidly, each a distinct segment of the whole but with such seamlessness that you never notice them as separate entities unless forcing yourself to do so.

And so it goes through fifteen selections. Composers represented include the aforementioned MacMillan, plus Alexander Campkin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Judith Bingham, Peter Warlock, John Duggan, Percy Grainger, Hilary Campbell, Gustav Holst, John Byrt, Stuart Murray Turnbull, Paul Burke, Kerry Andrew, Andrew Bairstow, and E.J. Moeran.  Moreover, seven of the songs make their debut on the album with world-première recordings.

Favorites? The opening number, to be sure. In addition, Warlock's "Yarmouth Fair," a snappy ditty; Grainger's setting of a traditional Scottish melody, "Mo Nighean Dubh" ("My Dark-Haired Maiden"), a really sweet love song; Holst's "Awake, Awake" in which the sopranos hold forth with wonderful supporting accompaniment from the others; Byrt's jaunty "Among the Leaves So Green, O." The last half dozen items on the program become quite hushed, the choir most evocative and atmospheric.  Then the album closes with Moeran's "The Sailor and Young Nancy," a fairly traditional folk tune from Norfolk about a sailor bound for the West Indies saying good-bye to his love, whom he promises to marry upon his return...if ever.

If there is any minor complaint I have about the album, it is that its fifteen tracks add up to less than an hour of music. I understand that rehearsing and recording more numbers would have cost more money, but, still, a CD can hold up to eighty minutes, making this disc’s fifty-five minutes seem a bit short. Just sayin’.

Naxos recorded the songs at St. Philip’s Church, Norbury, London in November 2012. The acoustic lends the choir plenty of reverberant air, making them sound like an even bigger group than they are. Yet the resonance takes little away from the clarity of the voices, just adding a greater degree of mellowness and space to the proceedings. The high end (upper midrange, actually) can sound a touch bright at times, but it is not especially distracting and probably contributes to the choir's overall definition. So, while it may be a tad too reverberant and occasionally too bright for some listeners, it is probably a fairly accurate representation of the singers in this church environment.

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


Tchaikovsky: Capriccio italien (XRCD24 review)

Also, Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol. Kiril Kondrashin, RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24013.

Years ago, a reader took me to task for praising what he considered the unnecessarily high price of JVC’s XRCD series of audiophile remastered discs. In his opinion, paying upwards of a dollar a minute for a half an hour’s music was a rip-off. He had, of course, a point; especially today when you can only find some of these things used at even more exorbitant prices. These remastered discs from JVC, FIM, Hi-Q, and others are expensive, and they do not provide any longer playing times than their counterpart LP’s provided when they first appeared back in the old vinyl days. 

On the other hand, you get what you pay for. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Bugattis are very expensive automobiles and generally only seat two people. But if you have the money and the desire, the cars are worth the price. The cost of the JVC discs isn’t only in their manufacture, although the packaging they come in is undoubtedly more costly than an ordinary jewelbox. The price factor comes into play in the extra time, engineering, and equipment required for JVC to make the transfers. This isn’t brain surgery. No one is forcing a person to buy JVC’s remastered discs or anyone else’s. And since their superiority over the regular product is only slight at best, no one is even recommending that people do so. But if you want the best, you pay for the best. It’s that simple.

Anyway, moving on. Kiril Kondrashin had been conducting music for a long time before he struck it rich accompanying Van Cliburn in RCA’s historic recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in May of 1958. Thereafter, Kondrashin became much better known, especially in America, and continued to record for many years. Several months after recording the Piano Concerto, RCA asked him to do a series of recordings for them, one of which is this coupling of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. I remember the album at the time of its release being stunning. Audiophiles considered the LP version among the best demo fare of the day, and, of course, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one, even though I was just in high school at the time and didn’t really have the money for too many classical records.

Nevertheless, I bought it, and the LP remained in my collection for many years until it succumbed to the CD revolution. Foolish me; I figured at the time that literally all of the great recordings of at least the stereo age would quickly make it to compact disc. Well, this one took quite a while, and I never did buy the RCA CD issue. So I have only a memory with which to compare this JVC remastering.

Frankly, in the Tchaikovsky Capriccio italien I was expecting more. JVC’s 2003 XRCD24 remastered disc begins with what sounded initially to my ears like something much too bright and hard. As the music continued, I realized that what I was hearing was a very clear, very clean high end, a fairly transparent midrange, and very little compensating bass. Kondrashin’s rather slow performance also took me somewhat aback; I remembered it as being more vigorous and exciting. Yet both the sound and the interpretation grew on me, and by the last few minutes of the piece, the conductor had, indeed, built up a good head of steam, and even the sound was showing signs of low-end response.

The Capriccio espagnol, however, was an entirely different case. Recorded on the same day as the Capriccio italien and engineered and produced by the same team of Lewis Layton and Richard Mohr that brought us Fritz Reiner’s great “Living Stereo” recordings, the Capriccio espagnol sounds almost entirely different from the Capriccio italien. The sonics appear smoother, less bright, and more weighty in the bass; and the performance is exhilarating from the very outset. Go figure. In fact, I’m willing to say this is the best Capriccio espagnol currently before the public.

Is the price of the JVC disc worth the thirty-one minutes of music it holds? Not by any practical standards I can think of, especially since you can buy the regular RCA edition new for about five bucks, and it even contains additional music. But is the JVC disc worth the price if you enjoy it immensely and play it multiple times? Then, yes, I’d say maybe so, even if the JVC album is practically unavailable at the moment except used from a limited number of sources. In fact, at the time of this writing, I noticed somebody at Amazon offering it used for an asking price of nearly $2,000. If anybody would like to tender that offer for my copy, I’d be glad to entertain the bid. :)

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


Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (SACD review)

Markus Stenz, Gurzenich-Orchester Koln. Oehms Classics OC 652.

Oh, joy. Another live recording.

Readers who wish to avoid having to read a personal rant may safely move on to the next paragraph. I mean, even the phrase annoys me. Is a studio recording or one without an audience a “dead recording”? I know that many conductors and record companies swear by recordings made before a live audience, saying it makes the performance more spontaneous and all. Leonard Bernstein insisted on doing most of his recordings live from the early Seventies on, saying that he liked the results better. Maybe he felt the audience inspired him the way no empty hall could. I dunno. What I do know is that I’ve heard very few live recordings I thought sounded better than more-controlled studio productions. In a live recording the engineer has to minimize audience noise either by placing the microphones too close to or too far away from the orchestra for my liking, and still I usually hear or sense the audience’s presence. Then there are the unfortunate bursts of applause that some engineers, conductors, or record companies persist in retaining. It seems to me that the primary reason for most live recordings is economic. It’s expensive to pay an orchestra for a studio recording session, and, therefore, a paying audience helps subsidize the recording costs.

That said, there is surely little to criticize about the performance on the present disc. Markus Stenz has been the conductor of the Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne since 2003, and the orchestra itself is one of the oldest in Europe, tracing its origins back to 1827. Moreover, the orchestra premiered a number of big works in its time, including both the Mahler Third and Fifth Symphonies. Furthermore, Stenz himself has already proved his worth in Mahler by recording most of the symphonies and songs to good effect. His Seventh is no exception.

So, what’s the Seventh all about, this typically massive Mahler symphony? The conventional answer is that it’s a transitional work, connecting the darker Sixth Symphony to the triumphant Eighth. Of course, musical scholars are keen on pointing out how Mahler interconnected all nine (or ten or eleven) of his symphonies, forming one grand musical statement. If there is a sublime scheme in things, the Seventh has long been the neglected stepchild of the lot. While the other symphonies get all the love, the Seventh often goes wanting.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote the Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and it is probably his most biographical work. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler’s works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations, and with practically every conductor on Earth having recorded them, we get a variety of readings. I remember one critic once explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling through rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a night walk into morning, a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.

Maestro Stenz takes a more middling approach than most conductors, attempting to make the music all things to all people. He opens the symphony (when "Nature roars") on an appropriately heavy note, setting us up as Mahler intended for a journey from darkness into light, for as the composer himself commented, it was a work of "predominantly cheerful, humoristic content." Well, whether you believe that or not is beside the point. I suppose you could say that most of Mahler's work was "humoristic" if you count the various ironic, sardonic movements.

Let's say that Stenz carries out the composer's instructions that "the music must always contain a longing for beyond this world." Stenz provides an airy, singing, otherworldly quality to the playing. This is particularly evident in the two Nachtmusik interludes that bookend the middle movement. These serenades have a lilting yet shadowy air about them, the second one more pastoral than the first.

Then, speaking of "shadowy," the central Scherzo is a kind of demonic dance macabre, which Stenz pulls off pretty well, without making it too melodramatic. Although it's still a little creepy, it's never a caricature of itself. It seems more of an inevitable piece of the bigger composition than sometimes occurs when a conductor gets carried away with the bizarre nature of Mahler's creation. The unrest is there, but it's mostly just mysterious without being cacophonous.

That brings us to the Finale, one of Mahler's more unruly movements. Many listeners hear echos of Wagner's Meistersinger in it, the fairground, the hustle and bustle, and, naturally, the jubilant fanfares. They're surely hard to miss. Stenz guides us through the hurly-burly pretty successfully, never letting the music simply march along from one Wagnerian crescendo to another but smoothly laying out the plan and seamlessly connecting the dots. In other words, Stenz ensures that Mahler's music remains of a whole, building and releasing the conflicts and stresses in perfectly natural, free-flowing rhythms, ending on a wonderfully triumphant note. It's a most enjoyable reading.

Producer and engineer Dieter Oehms recorded the music live for multichannel and two-channel stereo SACD, June 23-27, 2012 in the Kolner Philharmonie (Cologne Philharmonic Hall), Koln, Germany. I listened only to the two-channel SACD layer where I found the sonic value of the live recording remained high despite the relatively close miking. There is a moderately good sense of depth to the orchestra, and we get a reasonably wide dynamic range and impact. However, the miking also reveals flaws in the orchestral execution. What's more, the midrange sounds a tad too soft, warm, and weighty much of the time where you might expect more transparency (the orchestration is lighter than in most Mahler symphonies). High-end extension sounds impressive, and occasional bass thumps make their mark. One almost never hears the audience, thankfully, but there is a slight background noise present during quieter passages.

Oh, and there is no applause at the end to interrupt our final appreciation of the music. With no applause and a quiet audience, it’s almost like a non-live recording. Which is what they should have done in the first place.

For some years now my favorite recordings of the Mahler Seventh have been those from Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, his earlier analogue account for its greater tension and his later digital one for its greater beauty (both for Philips). As for Stenz, his interpretation holds up pretty well by comparison, offering some of the same combinations of tenseness and delight. Nevertheless, the Gurzenich Orchestra cannot match the Concertgebouw for sheer richness of tone, lushness of character, or precision of playing.

One last note: While the music never sounds rushed, Stenz is able to move it along well enough to fit on a single disc.

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


Rejoyce: The Best of Joyce DiDonato (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano. Erato 5099993412124 (2-disc set).

It seems like just a few years ago that American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was a young, upcoming opera singer. That was well over a decade ago, and she’s already issuing a “best of” album. I suppose that shows my age and how fast time flies. Here, we have a collection of thirty-one selections recorded over a ten-year span and spread over two discs, with half of dozen of the numbers newly recorded (2013).

As I’ve said before, I know next to nothing about opera, despite my having heard a ton of it live and on record over the years. For my taste, most operas are too long, too slow, and too melodramatic for my limited attention span. That said, it’s hard not to like the best operas and doubly hard to resist a good operatic singer like Ms. DiDonato. While most young tenors and sopranos seem to disappear from view after their first performance or two, Ms. DiDonato is one of the survivors, a woman who has proved her worth over the past decade or so, becoming one of the world’s truly great singers. Gramophone magazine awarded her “Artist of the Year” status in 2010, and she won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo in 2012.

Although Ms. DiDonato began early on in her career specializing in vocal music of the Baroque and Classical periods--Handel, Mozart, Rossini--she has expanded her repertoire since then, and the present collection additionally contains works by Bellini, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, even Rogers & Hammerstein and Arlen & Harburg.

Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust lyric-coloratura, mezzo-soprano voice, with a good deal of control and flexibility, which she amply demonstrates on the many tracks offered here. Whether the situation demands a display of love, pain, joy, anger, or sorrow, Ms. DiDonato is ready with the appropriate vocal gesture in a tone so pure, it kept even this non-opera fan in rapt attention. In short, she is able to do almost anything with her voice, exhibiting a remarkably wide vocal and emotional range.

I won’t try to list all thirty-one operatic arias and popular songs in the album, but I will tell you the composers involved, the accompanying orchestras and conductors, and a few of my own favorite numbers. The music comes from the pens of Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Porta, Orlandini, Giacomelli, Mozart, Gluck, Rossini, Bellini, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Heggie, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Arlen & Harburg. Providing the accompaniment are Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert d’Astree, Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante, Kazushi Ono and the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon, Yannick Nezel-Seguin and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Edoardo Muller and Antonio Pappano with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia-Rome, Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra, and Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. That’s quite a supporting cast.

Among my favorites, I liked Handel's "Ombra mai fu," of course, a part of which you can hear below. It amply demonstrates Ms. DiDonato's rich timbre and ability to adapt to almost any part. I enjoyed Handel's "Crude furie degl'oridi abissi" not only for the virtuosic nature of DiDonato's voice but for the greater dimensionality of the orchestra behind her. Vivaldi's "Non saria pena la mia" and Orlandini's "Col versar, barbaro, il sangue" show off the singer's gymnastic pliability; Mozart's "Voi che sapete" and "Aprite, presto aprite" display her lighter side.

But trying to find favorites among favorites is a thankless and futile task. Still, I think it was her Mozart and Rossini I enjoyed most. Runners-up, though, include her excursions into Broadway and movies with selections like "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel, “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music, and "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. As I've said, she appears able to do anything, and I confess to shivers of delight with "Over the Rainbow."

Now, I’m sorry if I seem a little vague about who’s recording and releasing what these days, but here we have an Erato/Warner Classics release of recordings made between 2004 and 2013 by EMI, Virgin Classics, and Erato. I think the answer to who and what lies in the fact that Universal Music Group bought EMI in 2012 and subsequently sold the Parlophone Label Group, including EMI Classics and Virgin Classics, to the Warner Music Group. Then Warner announced that they would absorb the EMI Classics artist roster and catalogue into their Warner Classics label, and Erato Records would absorb Virgin Classics. So, I suppose we can look forward in coming years to a ton of old EMI and Virgin material re-released under the Warner or Erato labels. That it will thoroughly confuse the classical-buying public seems a mere afterthought.

Anyway, the sound understandably varies a little from one track to the next due to the time span covered, the different venues, and the number of ensembles involved. However, there is a surprising uniformity among them, all of it miked somewhat closely and sounding slightly “pop” as opposed to most full-scale opera recordings. Most of the items are studio productions, but at least three of them, with the Houston Grand Opera and the Kansas City Symphony, are live recordings and don't sound quite as good as the rest. The voice throughout is often close, very well focused, well defined, with clear but occasionally one-dimensional ensemble accompaniment (although this, too, varies, and the best tracks display a good deal of orchestral depth).

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


The Rascal and the Sparrow: Poulenc Meets Piaf (CD review)

Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano. Steinway & Sons 30015.

This is another of those “theme” albums. Except the theme is a little nebulous. According to the record jacket, critic Claude Rostand described French pianist and composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) as “a lover of life, mischievous, bon enfant, tender and impertinent, melancholy and serenely mystical, half monk and half rascal.” A nightclub owner gave popular French singer Edith Piaf (1914-1963) the nickname “The Little Sparrow.” They were both French, both popular in their field, and roughly contemporaneous. On the present album Italian-American pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi performs piano arrangements or elaborations of music by both musicians, and to very good effect. Especially when he plays them so well, so sensitively, so captivatingly.

If you’re not sure about Pompa-Baldi, he has over a dozen recordings to his credit, most of them for the Centaur label. In addition, he received third prize in 1998 at the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris, winning a special prize for the best interpretation of a contemporary work written for the competition (Tumultes by Serge Nigg). Later, after winning the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition, he won a silver medal at the eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001, where he also received a prize for the best performance of a new work (Three Impromptus by Lowell Liebermann). After moving to the United States, he served on the piano faculty of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and currently serves on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has been a Steinway Recording Artist since 2003, and now that the folks at Steinway & Sons are recording him on their own label, one hopes he’ll continue to get exposure.

The Rascal and the Sparrow contains twenty-seven short selections, seventeen written by Poulenc and ten taken from Piaf standards. Things start out with Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour” (“Paths of My Love”), a delightful waltz tune you can hear in part below. It’s an attractive way to begin the program because the song is so delightful with its slightly melancholic tone and always lilting rhythms, done to perfection by Pompa-Baldi, who caresses every note. All of the tunes follow suit.

Poulenc's "Hommage a Edith Piaf" (Improvisation for piano No. 15 in C minor) is probably the most-obvious thematic connection between the two musicians, although no one knows if Poulenc and Piaf ever met. Pompa-Baldi's delicate, graceful style brings both musician’s music vividly to life.

The first of the Piaf arrangements (elaborated for piano by Italian pianist and composer Roberto Piana) is "Hymne a l'amour," again a beautiful rendition of a lovely song. And so it goes. These are love songs done in a grand yet gentle manner. Who could ask for more?

Among my favorites? Certainly, that opening number I described,“Les chemins de l’amour.” Then there's Piaf's "Un grand amour," "Mon dieu," the immortal "La vie en rose," and, of course, "Non, je ne regrette rien." They sound heavenly in Pompa-Baldi's hands, each a virtuosic tour de force. As for more Poulenc, there's the haunting "C" from Deux poemes de Louis Aragon, the Debussy-like "Le Pont" from Deus Melodies sur des poems de Guillaume Appolinaire, "Nos souvenirs chantent," "Le depart," and many more.

Pompa-Baldi offers up a bouquet of fragrant blossoms, and while every song is different, they combine to create a single, smooth-flowing stream of poignant melody. It's a captivating album.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the album at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, in April 2013. The sound is full and lush, with a wide dynamic range and a mild hall bloom to provide a realistic ambience. It's a little warmer and softer than some music might require, but for the French bonbons presented here, it seems perfect. There's an airy lightness enwrapped in the resonance that offers the music its own special charms. And those long, lingering decay times add to the leisurely nature of the songs.

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


Ravel: Bolero, La Valse (SACD review)

Also, Pavane; Rhapsody espagnole; Daphnis et Chloe. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Minnesota Orchestra. Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4002.

A few years ago, I found myself lamenting the passing of a good many audiophile record labels, forgetting that Mobile Fidelity had not been out of business for long before they had regrouped and begun producing high-quality products again. True, they no longer produce everything in the 24K gold format they used to, and they are now more into multitrack discs, but it’s good to have them around in any case.

Like Telarc some time ago, Mo-Fi saw the potential in multitrack SACD, a sonic potential that I find perfectly valid because on the occasions I’ve listened to a Super-Audio compact disc through my Sony SACD player, they have sounded pretty darn good. However, I believe that most people who have bought into multichannel sound have done so for the specific purpose of listening to movies in multichannel surround, not for listening to music alone. So, anticipating this dilemma, the folks at Mo-Fi are doing as the folks at Telarc and other companies still making SACD’s have been doing, producing discs in hybrid, dual-layered, two-channel and three, four, and five-channel SACD’s so they’ll play both on regular stereo CD players and on multichannel SACD machines. Like it or not, however, I continue to do my own music listening in the old-fashioned, two-channel mode in my living room, and I do my movie watching in a separate home-theater room equipped with 7.1, non-SACD playback. There is no multichannel SACD music in sight for me, I’m afraid, but, as I say, I like what I hear from the two-track SACD format.

Anyway, it’s good to have this collection of short Ravel pieces from Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra on CD. Vox originally recorded them in the mid Seventies and released them on LP in both two-channel stereo and four-channel quad. The performances, packaged back then singly and in a four-disc box of LP’s, got great reviews. But when the CD era dawned and Vox first remastered them onto compact discs, they didn’t sound as good to me as I had recalled from the old vinyl days. Then, in 2004 Mobile Fidelity did a splendid job bringing the sonics back up to speed or better in their Ultradisc Gain 2 mastering process, so it was nice to hear Skrowaczewski’s Ravel again the way I remembered it.

A booklet note by MFSL chief engineer Shawn Britton tells us that Vox did the original quadraphonic versions of the recordings in Sansui SQ, which was stereo compatible, but that the “folded-down stereo” version yielded artifacts from the SQ-encoded rear channels. In the present remastering, he says, Mo-Fo have recreated the channels discretely in both the two-channel stereo and SACD layers, and in stereo there is no longer any interference from the rear channels. This may account for the sound being even better than I remembered it from LP days. Not that I found the sound absolutely perfect, as good as it is. As Marc Aubort, one of the original engineers on the project, writes additionally in the booklet note: “The top end and especially the bottom end were rolled off before it went to tape to prevent boominess.” That may account for the treble not appearing as extended as I’d like and for the bass being solid but not particularly deep. The result, however, is extremely vivid in the midrange, and its crystal clarity more than makes up for any minor losses at the extremes.

Of the five pieces of music presented on the disc, I enjoyed La Valse best of all. It’s a sardonic work, and the conductor nicely captures its wry undercurrents as well as the purely lyrical waltz qualities. It is, in fact, among the best performances of La Valse I’ve heard and is itself worth the price of the disc. Bolero builds up adequate energy through the conductor’s excellent control of ebb and flow and pays off in its passionate response, one I’ve heard in few other recordings. The Pavane pour une Infante defunte is wonderfully atmospheric, leisurely and serene; the Rapsodie espagnole colorful; and the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe appropriately characterful, with the welcome inclusion of an additional segment, “Chloe Is Accosted,” that is now in 5.0 channels for those with the capacity for such playback.

It’s a nice package, undoubtedly sounding better in multitrack SACD playback than I had the opportunity to hear it. The only drawback: Since I first heard the Mo-Fi SACD, the company decided to withdraw it. So if you really want a copy, you’ll have to seek out it out used and probably pay through the nose. Nevertheless, Mo-Fi still make another Skrowaczewski Ravel album from the same source available in SACD that includes the Daphnis et Chloé Suites Nos. 1 and 2, Ma Mère l'Oye, and Valses nobles et sentimentales. It’s equally good.

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


Haydn: Cello Concertos (CD review)

Also, Myslivecek: Cello Concerto in C major. Wendy Warner, cello; Drostan Hall, Camerata Chicago. Cedille CDR 90000 142.

Cellist Wendy Warner has produced several very good albums, mainly playing in duets and trios. This time she goes it alone (well, if you don’t count the chamber orchestra behind her), soloing in the cello concertos of Joseph Haydn and Josef Myslivecek. And she not only tackles the project by herself, she goes head to head with some pretty tough recorded competition from Mstislav Rostropovich and, especially, Jacqueline du Pre. Upon direct comparison, Ms. Warner acquits herself well.

Although there are five cello concertos bearing Haydn’s name, there are only two, the ones Ms. Warner plays here, that the composer probably actually wrote. However, for many years scholars had their doubts even about these concertos. They feared the C major Concerto lost until a musicologist found a copy of the score in 1961; and they had suspicions about the authenticity of the D major Concerto until a signed manuscript turned up in 1951.

Anyway, Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote the Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major somewhere between 1761 and 1765. It’s an early work and roughly contemporaneous with his Symphonies Nos. 6, 7, and 8. He wrote the Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major, the more familiar and popular of the two works, about twenty years later in 1783. Although No. 2 sounds obviously more mature and complex, it’s still Haydn, so it’s as delightfully charming as all of his material.

Ms. Warner and Maestro Hall keep things humming along in proper Haydn-like fashion throughout the First Concerto. While the performance may not have quite the sweet, easy flow of du Pre's, it's so close you'd never really know the difference except on direct comparison. Besides, Warner's playing sounds equally spirited and lyrical, and the sound of the new recording is cleaner and clearer. And even though this early concerto may not have the more-serious intentions of the later D major Concerto, it presents some passages that require virtuosic playing, which Ms. Warner negotiates with ease, especially the long, singing Adagio, taken a little quickly but most gracefully.

Ms. Warner ensures that the Second Cello Concerto is always brilliant and expressive with her passion and precision. Equally passionate and precise is the Chicago Camerata, who provide admirably sympathetic support. Again we get a highly melodic second movement, which Warner handles beautifully. Then things come to a close with a playful Allegro, also nicely managed, with Ms. Warner never trying to outrace the composer out the door. The quality of the playing, reading, and sound may be enough to make one almost forget the du Pre recording.

As far as Czech composer Josef Myslivecek’s (1737-1781) Cello Concerto in C major goes, there is no date on the manuscript. Myslivecek was another of those composers who was relatively well known in his lifetime but whose music quickly fell out of favor after his death, to the point where we hardly hear anything about him anymore. His Cello Concerto gives us some indication why both Mozarts, father and son, admired him so much. Because Myslivecek wrote mostly operas and violin concertos, the Cello Concerto is actually an arrangement of a violin concerto. Compared to Haydn's cello concertos, Myslivecek's seems a tad more serious; it also seems a longer time before the cello finally joins in the fun. Yet when it does, Ms. Warner jumps on it with abandon, producing a lively and, perhaps oddly, sensual interpretation. The composer marked the central Adagio "grave," but that shouldn't worry you. It's still light and airy, and Warner's cello playing floats the music gently over us. The final movement, in the cadence of a minuet, is cheerful and bright, Ms. Warner ending the piece on a formal but upbeat note.

The three concertos total about seventy-three minutes, so in terms of content alone, the disc provides good value. The fact that the performances and sound are so very good makes the album almost irresistible.

Cedille producer James Ginsburg and ace engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music at College Church, Wheaton, Illinois in November, 2012. As usual from this source, the sound is excellent, smooth, natural, realistic. Yet there is plenty of transparency in the midrange, air around the instruments, quickness and impact in the transient attack, and a broad range in the dynamics. The cello sounds nicely placed just ahead of the rest of the ensemble, and it never appears strained. It's one of the better-sounding recordings I've heard this year.

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


Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (CD review)

Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. United Classics T2CD2013009.

In the first decade of the home-stereo era, the mid Fifties through early Sixties, RCA made a series of celebrated recordings with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others. The recordings were so good and became so popular, they’re still available in a variety of formats today. The RCA Munch recording of the Mendelssohn Fourth and Fifth Symphonies under review appeared originally on LP in 1958, then on CD and SACD from RCA, on XRCD from JVC, and now on disc from United Classics. No matter how you play it, the Fourth, especially, is a wonderful performance.

Of course, there is hardly a lack of good Mendelssohn Fourths available these days (Abbado, Blomstedt, Sinopoli, and Klemperer among my own favorites), but Munch’s was doubtless one of the earliest great stereo versions and one of my first recollections of the piece. Coupled with an equally good Mendelssohn Fifth Symphony from a year earlier, the album makes an easy recommendation, particularly when you can buy it at so reasonable a price.

Munch’s interpretation of the Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90Italianhas all the forward drive you could want, with plenty of adrenaline flowing in the famous first movement. Munch begins the symphony with a thrilling surging of pace that get the blood racing like few other conductors in this work. When the second subject arrives, it does so under Munch in a sweet, graceful arch, returning to a variation on the opening. Then he takes the Andante briskly, almost to avoid any major contrast with the opening movement. It's not exactly the "slow march" we usually hear. The third movement is a kind of minuet that Munch has a little fun with. Finally, Mendelssohn said of the Fourth that he thought it was the "jolliest" of his works, and the final Presto (based on an exuberant Neapolitan dance) proves it, with Munch bouncing it around for all it's worth. You'll hardly find a better, more-spirited performance no matter what the cost or age.

What surprised me, though, was how much I liked the accompanying Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107Reformation.” I don’t suppose it should have surprised me; it’s a splendid piece of music. I just keep thinking of it in terms of its slow, heavy opening movement rather than its superbly light second-movement Allegro, a movement that suggests the “Scottish” Symphony in its delightful, folksy simplicity. Mendelssohn actually composed his Fifth Symphony a year or so before his Fourth; however, he wasn't too keen on it and dismissed it out of hand. Nobody heard the music again until some twenty years after the composer's death.

Anyway, after a fairly grave first movement, the second-movement Allegro vivace dances merrily along, reminding us this is, indeed, Mendelssohn. And again Munch makes the most of it. The work concludes with a Finale quoting Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," which Munch handles with appropriate dignity and splendor.

I’ve owned this recording for several years now on a JVC XRCD remastering that costs a small fortune to buy, and I find it slightly but significantly more dynamic and better defined than the standard RCA product. This United Classics edition is not quite up the JVC standards, either, but it still sounds plenty good.

Like other RCA Munch recordings of the Fifties, there are things to like about the sound and things maybe not to like. It is an exceptionally realistic recording, with plenty of clarity in the midrange and treble and some solid, well-defined bass. On the minus side, it can also be a tad hard and bright in places. And like many of RCA’s “Living Stereo” recordings of the time, there is almost too wide a stereo spread.

The recording’s sound is fine in any format, but on this United Classics disc we hear what may be a bit more noise suppression than on the JVC disc. The sonics are very smooth, with the noise reduction having little effect on the high-end extension. A quick switch to the JVC, however, reveals the newer product displaying some slight loss of detail, definition, and focus. Nevertheless, if you don't have the JVC disc for comparison, the United Classics sound (or the RCA) is still good and surely belies its fifty-odd years.

Certainly, United Classics have priced this edition of the recording right. I noticed a number of retail outlets on-line offering it new for well under ten bucks, making it hard to resist.

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


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on the Bare Mountain; Khovanshchina Prelude. Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Decca UCCD-7240 (Japan).

A few weeks before this writing a reader asked me if I had ever heard conductor Ernest Ansermet’s 1959 recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition because he thought it was quite good. Yes, I had, but I also had to admit it was many years earlier on an old London LP, and I hadn’t thought about it since then, probably because I didn’t care much for the sound. Anyway, I told him I’d try to get hold of the compact disc and give it another try. You’ll find the recording these days on a regular British CD from Decca, an Australian Eloquence CD from Decca, a remastered SACD from Esoteric, a remastered copy in various formats from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), and the one reviewed here from Japanese Decca.

As you know, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) originally wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition as a piano suite in 1874. He called these vivid tone poems “sound pictures,” but they didn’t go very far with the public. Afterwards, several people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded version being the 1922 one we have here by French composer Maurice Ravel. From that point, the music took off and became the basic-repertoire piece we know today. Anymore, because the Mussorgsky/Ravel work became so popular, almost every conductor and orchestra in the world have recorded it, so the competition is understandably intense, with recordings by Fritz Reiner (RCA/JVC, 1957), Riccardo Muti (EMI, 1979), and Lorin Maazel (Telarc/FIM, 1978) heading up my personal list of favorites. It was, therefore, the Reiner, Muti, and Maazel recordings to which I compared the Ansermet rendering.

Interestingly, the first thing one notices about the Ansermet recording is that his Suisse Romande orchestra sounds smaller than the others, almost chamber size. It's not really the size of the group or the quality of the venue, however, and Victoria Hall, Geneva is one of the finest recording locations in Europe. It's just that the Suisse Romande group doesn't have the big, plush, rich sonority of a Chicago or Philadelphia Orchestra, nor do they create quite so luxurious an impression.

The performance is another story. Ansermet handles the Promenades and gnome well, the visitor casually browsing the pictures, the misshapen dwarf extraordinary. The Old Castle has a proper mystery about it; the quarreling children are a bit tame but fun; the ox cart sounds appropriately lumbering; and the ballet of the "Unhatched Chicks" is cute. The two Polish Jews have their rich man-poor man chatter, which comes off with befitting personality; the marketplace is lively; and the catacombs are nicely spooky.

Then we come to the big finish, the "Hut of Baba Yaga," the witch flying through the air looking for human bones, and the "Great Gate of Kiev" with its majestic climax of processions and bells. Here, Ansermet is particularly effective, creating a truly grand, thrilling experience. It's a good rendition, overall, although I still wouldn't quite place it the category of a Reiner or a Muti.

The real highlight of the disc for me was the accompanying material, particularly Night on the Bare Mountain in the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement. Ansermet takes his time to shape the music and make it both spiritual and scary. Lastly, the program closes with the Prelude  "Dawn over the River Moscow," which Ansermet shapes with beautiful, pictorial grace.

Decca producers James Walker and Michael Bremner and engineers Roy Wallace and James Lock made the recordings in Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland in 1959 (Pictures) and 1964 (Bare Mountain, Khovanshchina). The sound is reasonably clean and clear for old recordings.  A bit of noise reduction has clarified the sonics in Pictures nicely, removing most (but not all) hiss without sacrificing much high-end extension. During quietest passages, one still notices the background noise, though, and as with most noise reduction, it has sucked out a touch of midrange air and life. It's little to fret over, though, and the quick transient attacks, wide dynamics, and general lucidity more than make up for it. When Decca first released the LP, I recall reading that it was something of a demonstration piece. Unfortunately, by the time I heard it on LP, it was in re-release and perhaps not so well pressed. Now we have it in pretty good shape, which most listeners will find pleasing enough. The sound in the two couplings, from about five years later, is noticeably quieter, smoother, and fuller.

Bottom line: It’s all a matter of personal taste, of course, but for my money, I’d rank my own favorite Pictures as those from Reiner (RCA/JVC) first for its characterful performance and vivid sound; Muti (EMI) second for its colorful realization and dynamic impact; Ansermet third (Decca) for its incisive interpretation and acceptably good sonics; and Maazel (Telarc or LIM) fourth for its expressive reading and wide-ranging audio.

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


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (CD review)

Also, “Haydn” Variations; Alto Rhapsody; Academic and Tragic Overtures. Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 62760 2 8 (3-disc set).

Two prefacing comments: (1) I am not the biggest fan of the Brahms symphonies, my appreciation limited to the final movement of the First Symphony, much of the Second Symphony, little but parts of the opening and third movements of the Third Symphony, and most of the Fourth Symphony. (2) I am a fan of Otto Klemperer, whose command of the basic Germanic repertoire--Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mozart, Mahler, Mendelssohn, and Wagner--I find largely unequalled (well, OK, except Bach). Klemperer is, along with Bruno Walter and Sir Adrian Boult, the only conductor who can make the parts of the Brahms symphonies I enjoy come alive for me. That said, I welcomed with open arms a few years ago this three-disc set of remastered Klemperer Brahms from EMI in their “Great Recordings of the Century” series.

These works by Brahms were among the first things Klemperer recorded when he took over the Philharmonia Orchestra from Herbert von Karajan in the late Fifties. They showed him to be a towering figure on the podium, who enjoyed the respect of music lovers for the next two decades as he had for a half century before. Now he gets their respect through his many recordings. The three discs in the set include not only the four symphonies but the Haydn Variations, the Alto Rhapsody (with Christa Ludwig), and the Academic and Tragic Overtures.

Klemperer’s way with the First Symphony is as granitelike as always, yet the music flows almost unconsciously from his direction. The famous march tune in the Finale is, of course, as prominent as ever and crowns the work for the heroic tones that precede it; but even the prior three movements show the power and conviction of both Brahms and Klemperer. The conductor clarifies points a listener might not know existed by presenting the music as directly yet as profoundly as possible. People criticized the conductor early in his career for being too literal with his interpretations, but by 1957 the world had caught up with him and recognized his genius. Frankly, though, I hadn’t heard these recordings since their old LP days, and was expecting the worst. It didn’t happen. While I remain largely unconvinced the Brahms symphonies represent the greatest music in the world, I enjoyed every minute of them.

Folks often consider the Second Symphony Brahms’s “pastoral” symphony because of its often casual and bucolic manner, and certainly Klemperer brings out these qualities. His is a more angular vision of the piece, however, than Boult’s more romanticized and curvacious rendering. Still, Klemperer’s way with the Second is lovely and serene, building to a nice climax in the energetic final movement, which tends to be perhaps a bit too rowdy for the nature of the preceding movements but blame that on Brahms, not Klemperer.

Although audiences had to wait six years for its appearance, the Third Symphony takes up where the “Pastoral” Second left off. But it is perhaps even more personal, and especially pastoral in its middle sections, with familiar and graceful tunes in the first and third movements. Klemperer seems surprisingly gentle in molding the inner sections while standing typically firm in the outer ones, the payoff being a reading of the Third more appealing than any I’ve heard. Despite my initial reservations about the work, listening again to Klemperer, poetic yet strong, makes me think no one may match his performance.

The Fourth is probably Brahms’s most wholly satisfying symphony, with much of it standing up well to repeated listening. The opening movement begins most gracefully and builds in drama using some of the composer’s most memorable tunes. The second movement is as placid as ever, and its heart is in the right place. The third movement Scherzo is cheerful, festive, and exuberant, leading to a powerful and relatively serious Finale. Klemperer’s manner is more severe in the Fourth Symphony than many of his fellow conductors like Blomstedt, Walter, or Abbado, with Klemperer driving the music more steadily forward until each movement culminates in the appropriate degrees of joyfulness or excitement. Not everyone will respond positively to Klemperer’s approach, but it is a feasible alternative to many of the more spontaneous but often more sentimental interpretations of his rivals.

The sound in all the works is quite good for its age, although if played at a high volume there is a small degree of background noise one can note. At normal volume, the sound is quiet enough, though. The recording dates range from 1954 for the “Haydn” Variations, a mono recording, to 1962 for the Overtures, with Klemperer having recorded the symphonies in 1956-57. EMI remastered and noise-shaped them in 1999 (releasing the present compilation in 2004) using the Abbey Road Technology Prism SNS system (ART), but an even newer remastering might have rendered the First Symphony, particularly, even quieter. The mono Variations are actually the most transparent, but the others are in good-sounding stereo. In fact, several of my favored Boult recordings disappointed me when I put them on for comparison; they sounded rather plump, overly plush, alongside the decade-older Klemperer things. Oh, well. Maybe it’s time EMI remastered and cleaned up the Boult discs, too.

Anyway, the Klemperer recordings display a wide stereo spread, good dynamics, and a satisfying low-end thump. What’s more, the sound stage often appears deep and three-dimensional, the sound quite natural in every respect except perhaps the highest violins, which tend to be a bit hard. I have already enjoyed this set immensely for several years and will no doubt continue to do so for a very long time.

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


Chopin: Souvenirs (CD review)

Warren Mailley-Smith, piano. Sleeveless Records SLV1002.

At some point in the career of almost every pianist, he or she decides to release an album of favorite Chopin short piano pieces. It’s understandable; Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was one of the foremost champions of the piano, a man whose music remains as popular today as ever. As I recall, the second LP I ever bought, some fifty-odd years ago, was Van Cliburn’s My Favorite Chopin, so British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith is in good company with his sixth album, Chopin: Souvenirs.

Mailley-Smith appears to be a rising star in England. His Web site tells us that “the award-winning concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith has made his solo debuts to critical acclaim at Wigmore Hall London and Carnegie Hall, New York. In 2011 he made his much anticipated debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.” He is in increasing demand as a solo concert artist and has received over thirty invitations to perform for the British Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, Highgrove House, and Sandringham House.

“Mailley-Smith studied at the Royal College of Music where he won numerous postgraduate prizes including a Countess of Munster Award and the French Piano Music Prize. He then took further private studies with Peter Feuchtwanger and the late Ronald Smith.” His solo career “now sees him performing in festivals and concert venues across the UK, accepting invitations from further afield to perform in Europe and the U.S. His concerto repertoire includes works by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and he works regularly with duo partners Rowena Calvert (cello), Susan Parkes (Soprano), and Matt Jones (violin).”

Mailley-Smith specializes in Romantic repertoire, which he plays most deliciously, sometimes a little flamboyantly, always Romantically. It’s hard not to like his pianistic technique, although some listeners may find it too fanciful, too dramatic, too ostentatious; too much playing to the audience, if you will. Certainly, no one can accuse him of not being virtuosic, though. He is a most-skilled practitioner of the art, with the kind of poetic style that may seem old fashioned in an age of clarifying, analyzing, and elucidating every note. It seems to me that the best pianists--Pollini, Ashkenazy, Perahia, Argerich, Brendel, Kovacevich, Rubinstein, Gilels, Richter, Michelangeli, Janis, et al--generally combine the two approaches. We’ll see how Mailley-Smith proceeds in his career, and whether he can equal what only a handful of pianists have already accomplished.

That said, there’s a lot to like here.

Mailley-Smith opens the program with the Fantasie Impromptu No. 4, Op. 66, an excerpt from which you can hear below. The track pretty much exemplifies everything the man does on the disc. It’s lush and it’s plush, and it will blow your house down. Not that it’s slow or lackadaisical, however; indeed, it is fleet and surefooted. It’s just that Mailley-Smith so caresses each note, it sounds as though he’s making love to the instrument (a Steinway model D). This is not only Romantic piano playing, this is a romance between the performer and the music. It’s quite hypnotic, actually.

And so it goes through fourteen items on the disc, each one played in a smooth, flowing, polished, yet thoroughly engaging manner. Mailley-Smith performs with flourish and sensitivity, pointing up every ornate contrast the composer has to offer.

With the exception of just a few items, the numbers on the album duplicate the program presented on pianist Idil Biret's very fine collection of favorites for Naxos. So, I had a good comparison there without having to dive into five or six different CD collections of nocturnes, waltzes, etudes, etc. And what I can say is that Mailley-Smith acquits himself very well next to his older compatriot, matching Ms. Biret in virtuosity and sensitivity and surpassing Naxos's slightly clearer but edgier sound. While it is still open to question whether Mailley-Smith will ever match Pollini or Rubinstein in Chopin, we shall see, but he's off to a promising start.

The Nocturne No. 2 in D flat, Op. 27 is as creamy and dreamy as anyone could wish for. The Etude No. 8 in F major, Op. 10, nicknamed "Sunshine," is all bright light and sunny skies. The famous Prelude No. 15, Op. 28, "Raindrop," exudes the sort of beauty you want, with a wholly appropriate gentleness of touch. The "Minute Waltz" comes through with flying colors, and sounds less breathless by the end than we sometimes hear it. Then, there's a degree of melancholic dignity in the Waltz No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 64 that’s refreshing.

Interestingly, both Mailley-Smith and Biret open and close their programs with the same two selections, the aforementioned "Fantasie" Impromptu and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Just as interesting is Mailley-Smith's inclusion of the Souvenir de Paganini, a delightful little set of variations one doesn't often encounter. It rounds out a program that quite won me over. Mailley-Smith provides the kind of Romantic expressiveness that makes him a crowd pleaser.

If I have any minor argument with the disc, it’s that it provides less than an hour (55’05) of content. Surely, the pianist has other favorites he could have included, or was it a matter of cost considerations in recording? I don’t know, and it’s a small matter in any case.

Producer and engineer Alex Van Ingen recorded the album in June 2009 at champs Hill, West Sussex, England. The sound is among the best I've heard for a piano. It's rich and resonant without being hard or harsh. The piano has just the right amount of warm, mellow clarity to make it appear real, as though it were on a stage just a few rows ahead of one. Nor does it stretch clear across the room as sometimes happens in these solo affairs, but remains anchored out firmly between the speakers, with just enough width to simulate a live situation. I couldn't have been happier with the sonics.

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


Domingo: Verdi (CD review)

Placido Domingo, baritone; Pablo Heras-Casado, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Sony 88883733122.

For the past four or five decades, two tenors have dominated the operatic scene: the late Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Pavarotti may have had the more thrilling voice, but Domingo had the richer, more versatile voice. It’s always a pleasure when the man releases a new album.

The back cover of Domingo’s latest CD (2013), titled simply Verdi, explains that “for the first time the world-renowned tenor has released an album of baritone arias--an exceptional document of Domingo’s discovery of opera character new to him, and a tribute to Verdi, who has played a crucial role in Domingo’s career. ‘Verdi is a wellspring of great music, and every lyric singer is grateful to him. So for me this recording is a special celebration and an act of thanksgiving and love toward Giuseppe Verdi.’” What goes without mention here is that doing an album of baritone arias is also a nod to Domingo’s age, since the man is as of this writing in his early seventies. Not that I believe he isn’t still fully capable of doing tenor arias; just saying. Besides, he has already recorded every major tenor aria there is, so perhaps it’s best to give him the benefit of doubt.

Anyway, Domingo provides well over an hour of music on the album, eighteen tracks from nine different Verdi operas, starting with “Perfidi! All’anglo contro me v’unite!” from Macbeth. No, these aren’t the most-common numbers for non-opera fans, and as I have less interest in opera than I should, I found most of them only vaguely familiar. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that Domingo has the talent for them.

As always, the voice is still strong and flexible. The intonation remains remarkably accurate, and the tone smooth, mellow, and mellifluous. What's more, although these are baritone arias, Domingo's natural tenor continually manifests itself. Some minor tremolo creeps in at times, whether intentional or not. It's not distracting, and many listeners will welcome it.

And so it goes through further selections from Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, La traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Ernani, Il Trovatore, Don Carlo, and La forza del destino. The voice remains relatively strong, and if anyone doubts the power, one has only to listen to "Si, la mia figlia!" to learn otherwise. The control is still there, the projection, the phrasing, the precise articulation and control, even at his age, if not always so exacting as in his prime.

As important, the poetic qualities of Domingo's voice continue to manifest themselves. Listen to the lyric flow of "Di Provenza il mar, il suol" or "Il balen del suo sorriso," and you'll see what I mean.

On several tracks other singers join Domingo: soprano Angel Joy Blue, tenor Aquiles Machado, baritone Fernando Piqueras, and basses Bonifaci Carrillo and Gianluca Buratto. Maestro Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana lend commendable, sympathetic accompaniment throughout.

The greatest tenor of all time? The greatest baritone of all time? Perhaps the greatest singer of all time, period? Who knows. I won’t take sides. But it is pleasurable listening to his voice again, even in its mature years.

Domingo made the recording in 2012-2013 at the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia” Auditori, Valencia, Spain and Angel Recording Studios, London, England. The sound displays an acceptable depth of field for a recording of this sort. There is good dynamic impact, too, making for a fairly realistic presentation. Clarity seems fine most of the time as well, although there are occasions when the orchestral accompaniment can be a touch bright. It's an overall welcome sound, in any case.

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


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, The Oceanides; Pohjola’s Daughter. Sir Mark Elder, Halle Orchestra. Halle Concerts Society CD HLL 7516.

Is it the “Halle Orchestra,” “The Halle,” or simply “Halle” these days? I’m never sure. The disc’s accompanying booklet and case list the orchestra only as “Halle.” Nothing more. Like Cher. Or Liberace. I dunno. In any case, it’s the oldest orchestra in the U.K. and the fourth-oldest in the world, founded by pianist and conductor Charles Halle in 1857. It makes its home in Manchester, England, playing under its current Music Director since 2000, Sir Mark Elder. Maestro Elder rather quickly endeared himself not only to me but to the world with his sensitive, engaging musical interpretations. This is saying a lot considering that the Halle has worked under such distinguished conductors as Hans Richter, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, James Laughran, Kent Nagano, and others. On the present disc, Maestro Elder gives us the Second Symphony and a couple of tone poems by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).

The disc opens with the two tone poems, first Pohjola's Daughter and then The Oceanides. One can tell from the outset that Elder is going for a lighter, brighter mood than one usually hears in these pieces. Given the dark nature of the former work and the broad proportions of the latter, Elder takes them both in a more sprightly vein than I thought I would like. Still, I found them pleasingly listenable even without the substance I had been expecting. While the seemingly cheerful tone may not be entirely appropriate, it adds an unanticipated dimension to the works.

Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and it has subsequently become one of the man’s most-popular pieces, perhaps the most-popular of all judging by the number of recordings you’ll find of it. Although the public quickly dubbed it his “Symphony of Independence,” no one’s sure whether the composer actually intended any symbolic significance in the piece. Even so, it ends in a gloriously victorious finale that surely draws out a feeling of freedom and self-reliance in the music.

Like the two tone poems that precede it on the disc, the Second Symphony, too, seems somewhat lightweight under Maestro Elder's direction. Certainly, it begins well, tripping daintily along as it should in a most sunny style. But it never seems to build to as powerful a climax as it should. Nevertheless, it's hard to resist those heroic fanfares Sibelius keeps throwing at us.

The composer marked the second movement an Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow the conductor more personal expression. Yet I didn't hear it in the music; it all seemed of a piece to me, with not much quickening or slackening of the pace. Well, I shouldn't complain: The orchestra plays convincingly, if not with the power or richness of a Berlin or London Philharmonic; and Elder's affection for the music appears evident in every note.

In fact, Elder's handling of the third-movement Scherzo is the highlight of the program. It's an appropriately dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme that works beautifully.

The only serious disappoint I had was with the Finale. It should be explosively radiant, thrilling, and patriotic. Again, I didn't hear it. It seemed much too mild-mannered to me, much too gracefully lyrical where it should have been dramatically propulsive. Of the five other recordings I had on hand, Elder's was by far the longest and least intense. Maybe he was trying his best to be different and not give us a stereotypical reading of the music as nationalistic propaganda. If so, I commend his initiative, even if I feel he misplaced it. Please, give me the thrills; it's more fun.

So, as I say, the problem for Elder’s recording is that there is already such heady competition in the Symphony, it rather makes the present disc irrelevant. Sir John Barbirolli gave us a definitive Second with the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky Gold) and another with this very orchestra (EMI); HDTT recently remastered Pierre Monteux’s LSO account; George Szell’s Concertgebouw rendering still sounds attractive (Philips); Herbert von Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic produce greater passion (EMI); Colin Davis and the LSO show more authority (RCA); and Osmo Vanska and the Lahti Symphony seem more dynamic (BIS). Against such formidable rivals, Elder’s disc, as good as parts of it are, doesn’t quite stack up.

These days the Halle Orchestra release their recordings under their own label. They made Pohjola’s Daughter in 2007 at the Bridgewater Hall, The Oceanides in 2006 at BBC Studio 7, Manchester, and the Symphony No. 2 live in 2012 at the Bridgewater Hall. Some people love the sound and spontaneity of a live recording; I don’t. To my ears, live recordings often don’t sound as good as those made in a studio or an unattended hall, and live recordings often introduce audience distractions. Here, if you listen to the disc, you’ll see what I mean.

The sound in the non-live recordings of the tone poems is fairly close but warmly natural and detailed, with no trace of hardness or edge. The brass sound especially realistic, there is a good feeling of depth to the image, and one hears a pleasant ambient bloom throughout. The sound in the live recording of the Symphony is closer still and slightly harder and raspier. It makes the definition stand out, true, but at the expense of losing a degree of smoothness. On the positive side, the audience remain very well behaved during the performance, so you won't hear much in the way of shuffling feet, rustling paper, coughing, or wheezing. On the negative side, however, you will hear a burst of unfortunate applause at the end.

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


Paganini: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, 24 Caprices; Rossini Variations; The Carnival of Venice. Michael Rabin, Yehudi Menuhin, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Salvatore Accardo, violin; Sir Eugene Goossens, Alberto Erede, and Franco Tamponi, conductors; Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. EMI Classics (France) 7243 5 75332-2 (2-disc set).

Good things come to those who wait. I just never expected to wait twenty years.

When the CD age dawned in the early Eighties, I had a long list of things I wanted to get on compact disc. Over the years the list shortened, and by just a few years ago it was down to only two items.  Now, with my finding the Paganini, I’ve completed the list.

Michael Rabin recorded his remarkable performance of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto way back in 1960 with Sir Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra. I didn’t come to it until the late Sixties, however, by which time it had gone on to the budget label, Seraphim, and later I managed to find it on an EMI Electrola German issue. The sound wasn’t so hot, but the interpretation was the best I had ever heard, and the best I’ve yet to hear. In its opening movements Rabin’s violin sings lyrically and melancholically and plaintively, and in the final movement it struts and dances, the cock o’ the walk. Never have I heard such verve, such exceptional vibrancy and wit and energy, as in Rabin’s reading. Indeed, the only minor drawback for some listeners may be the traditional cuts Rabin makes in the score, but the very conciseness of the result for me works in its favor, rendering every note all the more succulently.

But that’s not all. I had never expected the sound to be much more than passable; it was the performance I cherished. Besides, the later recording by Itzhak Perlman, also on EMI, was sonically splendid enough if it were just sound I was after. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover that this first-time transfer of Rabin to CD also sounds magnificent. In fact, in many ways it surpasses Perlman’s rendition. Rabin’s violin sounds perhaps a touch too close, and its tone is just a tad bright, but it is marvelously clean and alive; and the orchestral accompaniment, while somewhat recessed overall is, nevertheless, highly dynamic, with plenty of low-end sock. Moreover, there is hardly a trace of background noise you’ll notice, unless you turn up the volume to the threshold of pain. 

All in all, this two-disc set is worth its price for the First Violin Concerto alone, but there is more. It’s filled out with Yehudi Menuhin’s recording of the Second Concerto, also from 1960, and also splendidly transferred to disc. Menuhin hasn’t quite the zip or dash of Rabin, but the Second Concerto makes a fine companion. As does Frank Peter Zimmermann’s playing of Paganini's 24 Caprices, recorded in 1984-85. Although you’ll find these violin studies in bravura showmanship done equally well or better by (who else?) Rabin, available on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, who’s to argue with icing on the cake with Zimmermann’s renditions. Finally, there are two short Paganini pieces done by Salvatore Accardo, with Franco Tamponi and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe backing him, recorded in 1983, and these pieces, too, are appealing and well recorded.

Perhaps the only snag in this affair is the fact that as of this writing only EMI Music France has made the set available (at mid-price). But various sites on-line have it available, like and For me, it was worth every penny of its twenty-odd-dollar asking price, and I see now that you can get it for much less than that. Besides, who knows, maybe someday Warner Classics, the new owners of EMI, will see fit to issue it in this country.

Oh, and that one remaining item on my list I finally found? The Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony with Eugene Jochum and the Boston Symphony on DG. Practically every critic in the world at the time of its mid-Seventies release on LP recommended it, yet the folks at DG still have not released it on CD in the U.S. Maybe they are still waiting to give it a big entrance. Meanwhile, DG did issue the recording on CD in Germany, and, yes, I found it, almost by accident, at a German import site. But all of this is beside the point. The Paganini is available; think about it.

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


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa