Sep 3, 2013

Bizet: Symphony in C (HDCD review)

Also, Jeux d’enfants; Variations chromatiques. Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Reference Recordings RR-131.

The folks at Reference Recordings don't issue a whole lot of discs in any given year, sometimes only one or two, but they are always so good, musically and sonically, it makes every new release a special occasion. Thus, it is a delight to welcome this latest RR entry into the catalogue, the music of French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875), performed by Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.

The first and most important item on the program is the one that starts us off, the Symphony in C, which Bizet composed as a student exercise at the age of seventeen. It's a remarkable work for any age, but doubly so given the composer's youth. And it's held up remarkably well, too, considering that Bizet thought so little of it that he filed it away and forgot it. Undiscovered in the Paris Conservatoire archives for some eighty years, it finally got its première in 1935. In terms of recordings of it, Sir Thomas Beecham probably set the benchmark with his 1959 EMI account, a performance I had in mind when listening to this new one from Maestro West.

I worried unnecessarily that West might not provide the same charm, the same light, winsome delight that Beecham had. I shouldn't have worried. West, after all, has been conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra since 2005 and before that was the conductor of the English National Ballet and the Cambridge Philharmonic. He brings the light, delicate touch of the ballet conductor with him, always exercising a spring in his step, a lilt to the beat, a bounce to the melody. And what enchanting melodies they are; it seems that Bizet from his earliest attempts at musical composition was able to offer a seemingly never-ending flow of brilliant ideas. His themes and West's direction give us a joyous, spontaneous, sometimes melancholy, always sweetly flowing and pleasurable rendition of the Symphony in C.

Following the Symphony, we hear Jeux d'enfants (Children's Games), which Bizet originally wrote in 1872 as a four-hands piano suite of twelve numbers. He later orchestrated five of them, the others subsequently orchestrated for the ballet version that debuted in 1932. That's what we get here, the first recording of all twelve items, including those orchestrated by Hershey Kay and Roy Douglas. (Previous recordings included only the Petite Suite, the five items Bizet himself orchestrated.)

Again, West and his players supply the kind of lithe, animated interpretation we found in the Symphony. The different sections of the score alternate between graceful, athletic numbers and slow, lyrical ones, nicely caught by the conductor and his forces. This is ballet interpretation of the first order, light and airy, colorful and impassioned.

The final selection on the disc is Variations chromatiques, which Bizet wrote for piano in 1868. It remained forgotten until 1933 when pianist, composer, and conductor Felix Weingartner orchestrated it. Quite unlike the youthful, energetic, high-spirited Symphony and Jeux, the Variations are dark and somewhat forbidding. Nevertheless, West infuses them with a dancer's agility and a suitably atmospheric mood.

The Reference Recordings team of producers Victor and Marina Ledin, executive producer Marcia Martin, and recording engineer Keith Johnson recorded the music in 24-bit HDCD at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California in April 2012. Skywalker has become a well-known recording venue, particularly for film music with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra in movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. How well the main sound studio suits an orchestra for audiophile purposes, however, was a question that interested me. Certainly, the studio seemed perfect for the Philharmonia Baroque in their Four Seasons recording, but that was a very small ensemble. Would a full orchestra sound as good done at Skywalker when the engineers weren’t using the venue to make a flat, forward-sounding film track meant to impress audiences when played back in a huge movie theater? The answer is yes. Reference Recordings did another fine job. Indeed, it’s among their more-transparent sounding discs, while retaining their patented dynamic range, sonic impact, ambience, and air.

As with all of their products, RR's sonics are big and bold, with an impressive power and authority. Yet the sound accomplishes this feat without being muddy, cloudy, or overly resonant. The midrange transparency remains intact while the orchestra blooms fully in all directions. We get a quick, strong transient response; a wide frequency range; a good sense of orchestral depth and room ambience; and a strong, often visceral force behind the notes. It makes for a remarkably realistic presentation, something we have come to know and love from Reference Recordings.

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


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. It will be published after review.

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa