Oct 31, 2013

DeGaetano: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1; DVD “Journey of Passion.” Robert DeGaetano; John Yaffé, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Navona Records NV5929 (2-disc set).

American composer and concert pianist Robert DeGaetano apparently keeps a low profile. Since his stage debut in the mid Seventies, he's made only a handful of recordings. One cannot count this against his piano playing, however, because he is quite gifted, at least as evidenced by the virtuosic manner in which he performs the two works on this disc.

The first movement of DeGaetano's Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 3 starts out with all the frills of a late Romantic piece and then turns more rambunctious early on. It offers a little something for everyone, as if DeGaetano couldn't quite make up his mind if he wanted to go for the pure melodies and harmonies of the nineteenth century or the dissonance of the mid twentieth century. So we hear a bit of both worlds, along with a solid forward momentum and rhythmic drive. Then, along in the midst of the piece we hear some lush Hollywood tunes emerge, and you'd think it was the 1940's all over again. While it's certainly fun, ending in a blaze of glory, it's kind of a hodgepodge of fun, so one has to prepare for it.

Next we get a second movement entirely different, made up almost entirely of percussive effects, very playful, with the piano's entrance so late we wonder if it's ever going to show up at all. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating passage. Mr. DeGaetano says his music will often sound atonal, but that's "only because there are so many tonal passages being played together, each offering their own information. It's these varied resonances that interest me because they correspond to our contemporary world." Fair enough.

The third movement Adagio takes us back into the world of the nineteenth century, very soft and dreamy and atmospheric. In the accompanying documentary, he says it represents a striving for strong personal relationships. After that, we get a finale (yes, it's a four-movement concerto) of overt passion and power that seems borrowed from Charles Ives in its hinted musical references and, again, eccentric rhythmic thrust. The whole work makes a fascinating contrast with the coupled Chopin piano concerto, which leaves no doubt where it's coming from.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 when he was only nineteen years old, yet it has become one of the staples of the basic classical repertoire. Some critics have argued that it isn't much of a concerto at all, that the piano is so dominant, it is simply another solo piano piece with some reluctant orchestral accompaniment thrown in. That hasn't hurt its popularity, though, and you'll find recordings of it by practically every major pianist in the world.

DeGaetano's way with it is more vigorous than most, with Maestro John Yaffé and his Moravian Philharmonic players going along full bore. DeGaetano makes a grand statement, in any case, and the entire affair sounds less sentimentalized (ironically, less Romanticized) than most accounts. It's a refreshingly personal, robust interpretation of a familiar piece of music.

Producer Vit Muzik and engineer Zdenek Slavotinek recorded the music at Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic in September 2012. The sound is quite burly and fairly close. The piano appears well embedded within the orchestral context and spread somewhat wide across the stage. The midrange is a bit veiled, although detailing is still adequate, and the lower treble can be a tad forward. The dynamics, especially those of the piano, come through well enough, so the overall effect is somewhat pop oriented and should complement most mid-fi systems nicely. Audiophiles might want something a tad more transparent, with greater air, space, and orchestral depth, but that's another story.

The set also includes a DVD containing the making-of documentary “Journey of Passion.” It’s just over sixteen minutes long, and DeGaetano’s narration provides some reflections on his Piano Concerto and his recording of it, among other things.

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


Oct 29, 2013

Lavrova - Primakov Duo: Four Hand Recital (CD review)

Piano music of Milhaud, Czerny, Corigliano, and Schubert. Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov, duo pianists. LP Classics 1010.

Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov are award-winning Russian concert pianists whose friendship and musical collaboration has led them to form their own record company, LP Classics, of which the present recording is their second release. Presumably “LP” stands for Lavrova-Primakov, but back in the old days it stood for “long-playing.” Maybe we can think of it as meaning “lovely performance,” certainly a good description of their collaborative effort on this four-hand piano recital.

The first item on the extremely varied program is Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit (“The Ox on the Roof: The Nothing-Doing Bar”), Op. 58 by French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1970). It’s a delightfully bizarre, satiric work that Milhaud based on a number of Brazilian choro, generally quick, festive tunes full of counterpoint rhythms. Le Boeuf runs merrily along with a series of wholly charming melodies, almost all of them with up-tempo beats that have one tapping along. More important, the pianists seem totally in accord with one another, despite switching parts several times. Their playing is quite spectacular at times.

Next up is the Grand Sonata for Piano Four Hands in F Minor, Op. 178 by Czech-born Austrian composer, teacher, and pianist Carl Czerny (1791-1857), a fellow noted for his piano exercises. Czerny actually wrote piano pieces for four, six, and eight hands, so this one is among his less-ambitious works. I tease. The track makes a good change of pace, much more serious in a dignified, old-fashioned manner. Yet given the virtuosic playing of Ms. Lavrova and Mr. Primakov, it sounds spirited and joyous, Lavrova in the primary piano part, Primakov the secondary. Czerny structured the piece in four movements, the first quite energetic; the second, slow section most delicate and ethereal; the Scherzo merry yet sensitive; and the Finale slightly nervous, troubled, increasing in intensity, and ending on a strongly optimistic note. The pianists have a good time with it, showing off their pianistic skills in an imposing display of musical gymnastics.

After that is Gazebo Dances for Piano Four Hands by American composer and teacher John Corigliano (b. 1938). Corigliano's four dances go from an overture to a waltz to an adagio to a tarantella and offer the pianists another fine vehicle for their impeccable showmanship. Of course, all four dances come with Corigliano's surprises, so don't expect anything run-of-the-mill here, either in the music or the playing.

The album concludes with the Fantasie in F Minor for Piano Four Hands, D.940 by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Written in 1828 and among the composer’s final works, the Fantasie is probably the most-important piece on the program. With Schubert we enter an entirely different musical world altogether, one filled with elegance and grace, which is exactly what Lavrova and Primakov provide, this time with Mr. Primakov taking the primary part. There is a thoughtful perception and insightful response to the playing that makes their interaction sublime.

With performing standards of the highest order and music of color and variety, the album should provide a refreshing listening experience for almost anyone, no matter one's tastes.

Producer, recordist, editor, and mastering engineer Charlie Post made the album in August 2012 at the Adelphi University Performing Arts Center’s Concert Hall, Garden City, New York. Here, we find a comfortable, spacious, room-filling piano sound, a little wider than a piano might really sound live but certainly ringing forth with a beautiful tone and clarity. It's all rich and warm and dynamic, just as we'd want a piano to sound, with a pleasantly sonorous ambient glow.

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


Oct 25, 2013

A Playlist Without Borders (CD review)

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Sony Masterworks 88883 71092 2.

Remarkably, as of this writing the Silk Road Ensemble has been in business for some fifteen years.  How is that possible? I just reviewed their first album only...some fifteen years ago. Anyway, as you probably know, and quoting from their Web site, “Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, the Silk Road Project is a catalyst promoting innovation and learning through the arts. Our vision is to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.”

They are “an internationally minded performing arts nonprofit with cultural and educational missions to promote innovation and learning through the arts. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Project in 1998 taking inspiration from the historical Silk Road trading routes and using the Silk Road as a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”

Further, “The Silk Road Ensemble draws together distinguished performers and composers from more than 20 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Since the Ensemble formed under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, these innovative artists have eagerly explored contemporary musical crossroads. Their approach is experimental and democratic, founded on collaboration and risk taking, on continual learning and sharing. Members explore and celebrate the multiplicity of approaches to music from around the world. They also develop new repertoire that responds to the multicultural reality of our global society.”

There have been up to sixty members of the Silk Road Ensemble, but most of them do not work together at the same time. The lineup of musicians on the current album, A Playlist Without Borders, includes Kinan Azemeh, clarinet; Jeffrey Beecher, bass; Mike Block, cello and voice; Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, oud, acoustic and electric bass; Nicholas Cords, violin; Sandeep Das, tabla; Patrick Farrell, accordion; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Joseph Gramley, percussion; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Siamak Jahangiry, ney; Kayhan Kalhor, kamancheh; Dong-Won Kim, percussion; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Wu Man, pipa; Cristina Pato, piano, gaita; Shane Shanahan, percussion; Mark Suter, percussion; Wu Tong, sheng, bawu, suona; and Kojiro Umezaki, shakuhachi.

Obviously, the program of A Playlist Without Borders contains varied items representing varied countries and cultures. There are seven items involved, totaling a healthy seventeen tracks and seventy-six minutes of music. You may not like all of it, but there’s a little something in here for everyone.

The first selection is one of the longest, "Playlist for an Extreme Occasion," an eight-movement piece by jazz pianist and composer Vijay Lyer. It begins with a vibrant rhythmic thrust and then moves on to a number of other dance forms and variations. Lyer says he wanted the music "to connect with audiences in any situation and communicate a real joy in creating music in the moment." Thus, there is a sort of infectious improvisational jazz style to the largely up-tempo tunes. They're easy to like.

"Night Thoughts" by Wu Man uses several percussive and wind instruments to produce a distinctively airy and meditative sound. "Saidi Swing" by Shane Shanahan uses a traditional Arabic rhythm that is quite invigorating. And so it goes through the rest of the tracks, with traditional Turkish, Iranian, Gypsy, and even Cajun music.

The final number on the program, called "Briel," is by avant-garde American composer John Zorn. It's one movement from his longer "Book of Angels," and while it is hardly what we might call "classical," it has a definitely cinematic feel to it, beginning in a kind of Native American mode and then turning to any number of other influences including Jewish klezmer and conventional jazz. It is probably the most joyous track on the album. I'd liked to have heard more of it.

The Silk Road Project, Inc. made the recording for Sony Masterworks at Futura Studios, Roslindale, Massachusetts in March 2013. The sound is relatively close and well delineated, but not exactly natural in terms of width or depth. It's a little more pop oriented than that. Still, the definition is fine, without being forward or aggressive, and there is a pleasantly warm acoustic bloom around the instruments. Frequency response, dynamic range, and transient impact seem adequate to the occasion.

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


Oct 24, 2013

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (XRCD review)

Pierre Monteux, Boston Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24015.

I confess I had never heard conductor Pierre Monteux’s Tchaikovsky Fourth before I got this disc a few years ago, nor did I even know he had recorded it. To my knowledge it has never appeared in RCA’s “Living Stereo” series, only in an early regular edition. I suspect, however, that Monteux recorded it at the same time he did the Tchaikovsky Fifth and Sixth, recordings I have at least heard of although, again, never listened to. The upshot is that I had no regular Monteux recording with which to compare this JVC premium remastering. Let me just say it’s pretty good.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth is one of those warhorses that has never struck me as being all that worthy of its fame. The first two movements, frankly, have always left me unimpressed. The Scherzo, nevertheless, is quite lively and charming, and the Finale is everything one buys a high-priced stereo system to reproduce. This final movement is grand and exciting, full of bombast and brilliance in equal measure. And Monteux, whom I generally think of as a most-refined conductor specializing in the French impressionist repertoire, comes through splendidly, maybe not making the first two movements any more tolerable for me than anyone else but driving through the Finale with rousing vigor and spirit. Interestingly, my heretofore favorite recording of the Fourth has been Haitink’s 1970’s reading with the Concertgebouw on Philips, and Monteux’s timings are almost exactly the same as Haitink’s. With the exception of the sound quality, the two interpretations could be brothers, or close cousins at the least.

The sonic quality of this JVC XRCD is about what one would expect from a painstaking transfer of an RCA recording from the late Fifties (this one recorded in 1959). The RCA engineers were doing some of their best work with the Chicago Symphony at the time, and by comparison the Boston acoustics often produced a brighter, thinner sound than their Chicago counterparts. There is no exception here, the Boston recording being a bit top-heavy; and while producing a wonderfully extended high-end for triangles and symbols, it tends to render violins a mite hard and forward. Bass could also have been deeper. That said, the audio quality is nevertheless quite good: clean, relatively quiet if played at reasonable levels, dynamic, transparent, dimensional, and alive. Several of the loudest passages seemed to me to distort slightly, but it may have been my imagination.

Although I still prefer the more natural and resonant Concertgebouw acoustics, I cannot deny the sheer spectacle of the Boston recording in this JVC remastering. Whether it’s worth its high asking price, that’s for you to decide. I can tell you, though, that if Monteux interests you in this particular material, you can still find it from RCA at a modest price in a regular edition (which also includes Symphonies 5 and 6). However, if you want No. 4 alone and remastered to audiophile standards, this JVC product looks like the only way to go. Just don’t complain afterwards about the cost; you probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

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


Oct 22, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann: The Verdi Album (CD review)

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Coro del Teatro Municipale di Piancenza; Pier Giorgio Morandi, Orchestra dell-Opera di Parma. Sony Classical 88765492042.

Twenty-odd years ago, there was no doubt who the greatest tenors in the world were. Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras were riding so high that they united as The Three Tenors, further solidifying their dominance in the operatic world. Before them, we had tenors like Carlo Bergonzi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Nicolai Gedda, and Mario Del Monaco, the fellows I grew up with in the old LP days. Now, things are different. The record companies don’t seem to be producing as many full-length operas as they used to, and there do not appear to be any clear-cut kings of the hill in the world of tenors. So I suppose that German tenor Jonas Kaufmann has as much a shot at the title as anyone.

His credentials: Kaufmann has a fine tenor voice, not really a lyric tenor, but having more weight, something of a cross between a spinto tenor and a dramatic tenor. He’s also blessed with handsome good looks, with stylishly long hair on his head and a stylish stubble on his face. If this were the Fifties, Hollywood would snatch him up for a romantic musical. As of this writing, he is in his vocal prime, being about forty-four years old, he’s been performing on the world stage since 1995, and he has over a dozen record albums to his credit.

But does that make him the greatest tenor currently before the public? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your taste in tenors, I suppose. Anyway, I don’t have nearly enough experience listening to opera to make any fair evaluation of Kaufmann as a singer, so I’ll limit myself to some general observations about the twelve Verdi selections he sings on this album. For instance, it’s easy to hear the man’s voice has range, power, and flexibility. It’s also easy to hear his voice is slightly coarser and deeper than a lot of tenors; thus, the characterization above that he is more of a dramatic than a lyric tenor. Nevertheless, it seems to work reasonably well in these arias, despite their being in Italian and not the man’s native German. (Most of Kaufmann’s early success has come in Wagner.) My only serious quibble is that the program features mainly Verdi standards, things most of us, even we opera novices, already have on disc by our own favorite tenors. I dunno; maybe this collection will grow on me if I give it a chance. As it is, I’m not sure it represents Kaufmann at his best.

So, the album begins with one of Verdi’s most recognizable creations, “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto, which you can listen to below. It's a good song to begin the proceedings since it's not only familiar, it has all the wham and pizzazz you could want. It's the vocal equivalent of an overture, a curtain raiser, and Kaufmann belts it out with authority.

Next up is a number more to my liking: "Celeste Aida" from Aida, although for me it still needs a lighter, airier touch. That said, Kaufmann produces some welcome vocal contrasts, handling the piece neither too gently nor too robustly.

To repeat, I know next to nothing about opera. Yet I sense more of the baritone in Kaufmann's voice than the tenor. Not that this is a bad thing. It demonstrates the man's vocal range, which is clearly quite wide and stable.

And so it goes through the program, with selections from Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Luisa Miller, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo, La Forza del Destino, I Masnadieri, and Otello. There's quite a lot of different material in here, familiar or not, and Kaufmann makes the best of it. I wish I could say the same for the orchestral accompaniment, though, which seems a bit thin and flabby to me.

Favorites? The aforementioned "Celeste Aida"; "Di quella pira" from Il Trovatore, only because the piece is so ingrained in the basic repertoire, and because Kaufmann carries it out with such theatrical flair; "Quandole le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller because it's so very romantic, and Kaufmann sings it with such heartfelt enthusiasm; "Dio, che nell' alma infondere" from Don Carlo because Kaufmann's voice sounds so good in combination with Franco Vassallo's baritone; and "Niun me tema" from Otello because of the passion Kaufmann expresses in these closing passages from the opera.

I think most folks are going to like what they hear on the album. No doubt, it will please Kaufmann's fans. How much it may impress die-hard opera lovers, however, I couldn't guess.

Sony Classical recorded Mr. Kaufmann at the Auditorium Niccolo Paganini, Parma, Italy in March, 2013. The sound is big and bold, a lot like Kaufmann's voice. The voice is well out front, clean and clear, with a fine sense of bloom. The orchestral accompaniment seems to fade closer and farther away with the changing dynamics, but it's not objectionable. Occasionally, the voice tends to get a bit bright, almost harsh, like, obviously, on big fortes and climaxes, but again this is not particularly objectionable, and in any case some speaker systems may mitigate the situation. In all, this is probably the kind of pop-like sound that most listeners expect, and a sound that probably complements most home playback systems.

To listen to a selection from this album, click here:


Oct 21, 2013

Tchaikovsky/Ellington: The Nutcracker Suites (CD review)

Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York; various artists. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907493.

Here’s a clever, well-executed album with a clever, well-executed plan. It juxtaposes two versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on the same disc: the composer’s original 1892 version, performed by conductor Steven Richman and his sixty-piece Harmonie Ensemble/New York, and a 1960 Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn jazz version performed by a fourteen-piece jazz ensemble. The comparisons and, mainly, contrasts make fascinating listening.

Of course, the Tchaikovsky original is so familiar, the album’s producers probably needn’t have included it at all. Still, it’s nice to have the original on hand to make instant comparisons, as I have done with the brief excerpts below. Besides, the Harmonie Ensemble/New York play the original so felicitously, it’s a pleasure to hear them perform it, no matter how many other recordings of it you may have in your library.

So, first up is the original Nutcracker Suite, which Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) extracted from his complete two-act ballet The Nutcracker. Interestingly, early audiences didn’t much cotton to the ballet, but they did appreciate the twenty-odd minute suite, which in turn led to today’s worldwide popularity of both the complete ballet and the suite. Anyway, the suite contains eight movements:  “Overture,” “March,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Russian Dance,” “Arabian Dance,” “Chinese Dance,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Maestro Steven Richman formed the Grammy-nominated Harmonie Ensemble New York in 1979, and it now comprises over sixty or so members, drawing its players from the best New York orchestras and jazz groups. The Harmonie Ensemble/New York play with refinement, style, and élan. You'd be hard pressed to find a better reading of the Nutcracker Suite than the one you find here. It's not only colorful and exciting, it sounds as precisely articulated as any you'll come across. Along with its exacting execution, you get Harmonia Mundi's usual lifelike sound, making it a double success.

The real attraction of the album, though, is the jazz version of the Nutcracker Suite devised by jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Ellington once said "There are simply two kinds of music: good music and the other kind." This is good music.

The jazz ensemble features Mark Gross, alto sax; Scott Robinson, alto sax, clarinet, and bamboo flute; Bill Easley, clarinet and tenor sax; Lew Tabackin, tenor sax; Bobby Lavell, tenor sax; Ron Jannelli, baritone sax and bass clarinet; Lew Soloff, Bob Millikan, Steve Bernstein, and Stanton Davis, trumpets; Art Baron, Wayne Goodman, and Curtis Folkes, trombones; Hassan Shakur, bass; Victor Lewis, drums; and George Cables, piano.

Ironically, Ellington never much cared for the work he did on Nutcracker, never playing it in concert. Since its debut, fortunately, plenty of other people have played and recorded it, none of them any better than what we have here. I suppose it helps that Ellington wrote mainly dance numbers, and Tchaikovsky's piece is a ballet. The melodies flow out of the jazz ensemble with an easy feel for the manner of Tchaikovsky yet in an unmistakable Ellington style. It's the kind of traditional jazz arrangement that at once makes it appealing to jazz fans as well as to classical-music afficionados. In other words, it's accessible to just about everyone.

The Ensemble play it beautifully, too, every member of the group contributing his own lasting impression. I especially enjoyed Bill Easley's clarinet solos, Lew Tabackin's tenor sax, and Victor Lewis's work on drums. But for that matter, the whole ensemble swings. Nice work. A light-cardboard slipcover completes the package.

Audio engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the music at Avatar Studios, New York City and at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, Mary Flagler Cary Hall, New York City in 2010 and 2011. The sound has a nice zippy ring to it, with just the right amount of ambient bloom to make it sound real. An extended frequency response, particularly in the treble, and a clean, clear midrange help, too. While the orchestra doesn't display a lot of depth, it is wide and fairly dynamic, with a pleasant air around the instruments. The jazz ensemble is even more transparent, the smaller group coming through with great impact and sharpness of detail.

To hear a couple of brief comparison excerpts from this album, click here:


Oct 18, 2013

Rouse: Flute Concerto (SACD review)

Also, Ibert: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra; Debussy: Syrinx; Martin: Ballade. Katherine Bryan, flute; Jac van Steen, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Linn Records CKD 420.

There may be a few names here with which you’re unfamiliar. Let’s begin with Christopher Rouse (b. 1949). He’s a prominent American composer currently teaching at the Juilliard School, who has seen his music recorded by nearly a dozen record labels. Katherine Bryan is the Principal Flute of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and for the past decade or so has also been pursuing a successful solo career in the concert hall and on recordings. Jac van Steen (b. 1956) is a Dutch conductor who has been the Music Director of Het Nationale Ballet in Amsterdam, a faculty member at the Royal Conservatory of music and dance in The Hague, the Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker, the Music Director of the Neues Berliner Kammerorchester, the Music Director of Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, the Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle Weimar, the Chief Conductor of the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and currently the General Music Director of the Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra. As for Linn Records, you may know their high-end audio products, especially the famous Linn-Sondek turntables, more than you know their recordings, but I can assure you the recordings are every bit as good as their turntables, amps, preamps, speakers, and the like.

So, the present album comes with a prestigious pedigree.

Things begin with Rouse’s Flute Concerto (1993), which he wrote as the continuation of a series of pieces based on deaths that profoundly influenced him. The Concerto was Rouse’s response to the death of a two-year-old English boy murdered by two older boys. The Concerto is sweet and largely melodic, Rouse being something of a Romantic, and it’s written in an unusual (well, unusual for a concerto) five-movement arrangement. The work appears to have now become a part of the general flute repertoire, meaning that if you are a flutist (or flautist, if you prefer), you will probably perform and maybe record the piece at some point in your career.

Ms. Bryan is a flutist of the first order, her playing sensitive and flowing. She handles the Rouse Concerto in a like manner. The flute enters almost immediately, wistful and slightly melancholy, Ms. Bryan giving it an achingly beautiful turn. Interestingly, each of the five movements provides the listener with a different mood, so after the brief, slow introspection of the first movement, handled mostly by the flute, we get a stricter tone in the second movement, in which the orchestra plays a much bigger part. Still, Ms. Bryan's flute dances along within the proceedings at a fairly good clip, the music building to something of a frenzy, I assume representing the boy's death. The central and longest movement, marked Elegia, is a serious lament on the senseless killing. Again, we hear a warm, fluid voice from Ms. Bryan's flute as the melody takes flight and hovers for its few minutes' duration, as the whole thing builds to a huge climax before falling off into quiet. The fourth movement is a Scherzo, utilizing a number of percussive effects to punctuate the flute, and it serves to highlight Ms. Bryan's skillful playing talents. The final movement provides another slow, lyrical, spiritual note, much as the first movement had, but sounding more Celtic in its mood and phrasing.

Ms. Byran helps us understand why Rouse's Flute Concerto has entered the basic repertoire; it's sincere, direct, and moving. The composer says about the piece, "In a world of daily horrors too numerous and enormous to comprehend en masse, it seems that only isolated, individual tragedies serve to sensitise us to the potential harm man can do to his fellow. I followed this case closely during the time I was composing my concerto and was unable to shake the horror of these events from my mind."

The disc’s accompanying works are no less accomplished in Ms. Bryan's hands. The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) presents a contrast to the more-solemn Rouse piece. The Ibert is lighter, livelier, and more humorous, yet it offers Ms. Bryan an equal challenge in virtuosic demands. The album concludes with two short solo works, the first, Syrinx, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the second, Ballade, by Frank Martin (1890-1974), both of which Ms. Bryan plays with a strong emotional fluency, always graceful and poignant. As with the entire program, they afford the flutist ample opportunity to show off her versatility to good effect.

Linn Records producer and engineer Phillip Hobbs recorded this hybrid two-channel stereo and multichannel SACD in October 2012 at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, UK. The sound in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened is wonderfully airy, focused, and glowing, everything you'd expect from an audiophile recording. Ms. Bryan’s flute appears almost in the room with the listener, the orchestra realistically providing the needed support at an appropriately lifelike distance behind her. When the orchestra does come into its own, it does so with a commendable transparency, yet there is always a compensating ambient bloom from the hall that mitigates any possible hardness or harshness that the clarity could bring with it. The orchestral depth is good, the width (or spread) is natural for the moderate miking distance involved, and the dynamic range, frequency response, and transient impact are all exemplary.

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


Oct 17, 2013

Ravel: Dapnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Pavane pour une infante defunte; La Valse; Ma Mere l’Oye; Bolero. Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80601.

The music of Maurice Ravel is among the most poetic, imaginative, impressionistic ever written. It has the capacity to touch one’s soul as well as stir one’s blood. Unfortunately, while I found Telarc’s sound among the best afforded this composer, Maestro Jarvi’s interpretations left me largely unmoved.

Things begin with the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, which gets off to so quiet a start I wondered if my equipment was faulty. Then I realized that the output level of the disc was lower than usual, and I turned up the sound. Yet despite Jarvi’s delicate touch and lyrical vision of the work, plus Telarc’s patented big bass drum and deep low-end, none of the reading struck me as unusually inspired so much as unusually slow. The Pavane pour une infante defunte, on the other hand, appeared to move along at too brisk and lighthearted a pace to convey as much of the piece’s solemnity as I thought it deserved. I hear little of the radiance or sensuality in it that I hear under some other conductors. Nevertheless, I can easily understand how other listeners might find both the Pavane and the Daphnis performances sensitive and moving. La Valse fared better for me, though, nicely capturing the baleful irony of Ravel’s anti-waltz. I liked it a lot, and if it weren’t for the price of the disc, I could recommend a purchase for just this piece.

However, I found little joy in the Mother Goose songs that followed La Valse, finding them ofttimes more mundane than colorful; perhaps, however, this may have been a result of my own overexposure to the tales rather than any obvious deficiencies on Jarvi’s part. Then, the album concludes with the celebrated Bolero, likely Ravel’s most famous work. Yet, here, too, I found things slightly lacking.  Bolero should start slowly and repeat itself as it builds in intensity. What I found was that since Jarvi takes it at a healthy clip to begin with, the only thing it does is get louder. Ravel recommended about seventeen minutes for the piece. The four or five comparison discs I had on hand from Dutoit, Cluytens, Simon, and others, took from fifteen to seventeen minutes each. Jarvi covers the ground in a little over thirteen minutes, with a steadiness of rhythm that does no favors to the music.

Although Jarvi’s interpretations are earnest and occasionally elevated, with so much competition on the shelf for my Ravel listening, I doubt that I shall be coming back too often to the Cincinnati conductor in this material.

The major compensating feature of the collection is Telarc’s sound, which is luxurious in the extreme. The sonics are velvety smooth, well spread out, and nicely imaged, with a bass response to shake the rafters. The Telarc engineers again produce a recording worth listening to for the sake of its audio alone.

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


Oct 15, 2013

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Violin Concerto; Beethoven: Romances. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Christoph-Mathias Mueller, Gottinger Symphony Orchestra. Cedille CDR 90000 144.

Have you ever wondered which pieces of today’s music people might still be listening to in a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years? Probably not much of modern pop music; I doubt that Justin Bieber, hip-hop, rap, heavy metal, and the like will survive. Maybe a few folk tunes already a century old. But classical music is another story. Much of Beethoven will endure, Mozart, Bach, and, of course, there will always be 800 new versions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons available, no doubt played on instruments unknown to us at the present. Which brings us to the question of Mendelssohn. Possibly a few of his chamber pieces will continue; most likely the Third and Fourth Symphonies; certainly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And probably the Violin Concerto, here rendered quite elegantly by violinist Rachel Barton Pine, conductor Christoph-Mathias Mueller, and the Gottinger Symphony Orchestra of Germany.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 in 1845, making it his last big-scale orchestral work. Audiences pretty much loved it from the start, and it has remained among the most-popular staples of the violin repertoire ever since, right up there with the violin concertos of Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. In Mendelssohn’s concerto the violin enters immediately, without introduction or fanfare, and Ms. Pine's interpretation of the piece is sweetly gentle. She does not race through the music to prove her energy and enthusiasm to the listener. Instead, she appears to view the work as an extension of the Midsummer Night's Dream music, the entire concerto sprinkled with fairy dust. She dances lightly through the notes, virtuosic, to be sure, yet with a tender, sympathetic step. When the music calls for big outbursts, certainly she's ready as the occasion demands. However, this is essentially a sensitive, contemplative account of the score.

The second-movement Andante is likewise sweet and gentle, with a touch of wistfulness, maybe nostalgia, thrown in. Ms. Pine never makes it sound sentimental, though, so we can't get too weepy-eyed over it. Rather, she keeps it grounded, simple, direct, and beautifully effective. Then, in the finale, she goes out with an appropriately cheerful, sprightly bounce, wonderfully happy and entertaining. This is Mendelssohn's music as we've always thought about it, frothy and enchanting.

The second longer item on the disc is the Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). It’s hardly a major repertoire item, being among Schumann’s final works and one that never saw a performance until some eighty years after the composer’s death. Ms. Pine admits in a booklet note that she had never played the music before Maestro Mueller persuaded her to learn and record it here.

While the Schumann is a fairly long and fairly dreary piece, Ms. Pine gives it her best shot. The soloist and conductor make some minor adjustments to the score, which they believe Schumann and the composition's dedicatee, violinist Joseph Joachim, would have approved. And there is no denying that Ms. Pine puts in a heartfelt performance. It's just that it's still a dour piece of music, perhaps reflecting the composer's deteriorating state of mind at the time of its composition. Yet there are sections of soaring lyricism that transcend the work's otherwise relentlessly stern countenance. Moreover, Cedille's lovely recording quality further makes Ms. Pine's interpretation a pleasurable experience.

Filling out the program are Beethoven's two little Romances for Violin and Orchestra, No. 1 in G major and No. 2 in F major, both published between 1803 and 1805 and coming slightly before the composer’s more-famous Violin Concerto in D major from 1806. Beethoven scored both Romances relatively lightly, and in Ms. Pine's hands they come off well, being typically melodic, occasionally pensive, and always flattering.

Producer Steven Epstein and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music for Cedille in 24-bit digital at Stadthalle Gottingen, Germany in August 2012. Like most Cedille recordings, this one is quite good.  The sound is big, warm, spacious, and realistic. Orchestral depth is good, too, dynamics are reasonably wide, and definition, while not of the kind that might impress some audiophiles with its transparency, is lifelike, with a soft, ambient glow around the instruments. Ms. Pine's violin appears nicely centered in front of the orchestra but not so far forward as to be unnatural.

Finally, with a generous seventy-one minutes of playing time, the disc provides not only good interpretations and good sound but plenty of both. For me, it was worth a listen and will continue to be worth a listen for a long time to come.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Oct 14, 2013

Movie Legends: The Music of John Barry (CD review)

Nic Raine and guest conductors, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RPO SP 042.

British conductor and film composer John Barry (1933-2011) began his musical career in the late Fifties and continued to write hit movie music for the next fifty-odd years, winning numerous awards and nominations in the process. The present disc is a tribute to the man, featuring longtime Barry arranger Nic Raine and others leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in some of Barry’s most-familiar work.

But here’s the thing: Barry’s most-celebrated music is all the stuff he wrote for the James Bond series, starting with an arrangement of Monty Norman’s theme for Dr. No and continuing with Bond scores for the succeeding twenty-five years. Yet there is no Bond music whatsoever on this tribute album. None. Zero. Zilch. There are eighteen tracks from eighteen separate films, but not a single Bond in sight. I tried to find an answer to this enigma in the accompanying booklet, but no dice. There is only a little information on the RPO but nothing about the music or its selection. I can only guess, therefore, that maybe producer and conductor Nic Raine decided not to include any Bond because it would be too obvious, that most Barry fans already had plenty of the man’s Bond music on disc. But, really? Not even a single track? Someone new to John Barry’s music would assume from this disc that he had nothing to do with the Bond films.

Anyway, first up on the program is Born Free, a score for which Barry won two Academy Awards. I’ve always found the music a little syrupy, but it’s all a matter of taste. The public bought a ton of it, and it’s become one of Barry’s signature tunes. Nevertheless, despite its sometimes sentimental overtones the music comes up well under Maestro Raine, who gives it a vigorous workout. I hadn't heard the music in quite some time, either, and I couldn't help hearing hints of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia in it.

And so it goes throughout the selections. A few favorites include The Ipcress File for its low-key jazzy arrangement; Dances with Wolves for its singing melody; King Rat for its military cadences; Zulu for its dramatic engagement; Midnight Cowboy for its bluesy melancholy; The Quiller Memorandum for its lilting rhythms; and Out of Africa for its epic scope.

The rest of the music is fine, too, although it is largely lightweight. For the John Barry fan who already owns a few discs of the composer's Bond tracks, the present selection takes us through a good representative selection of Barry's output, about sixty-eight minutes' worth. Moreover, I can’t imagine a conductor handling the music any better than Raine does, his having known and worked with Barry for as long as he did.

Nic Raine produced and Gary Thomas engineered the recordings at Angel Studios, London, in December 2012. The sound is big and bold, much as we would expect of film music. It's also somewhat "pop" sounding, meaning it's close; well, almost clinically defined; and it’s fairly dynamic (or at least loud). However, you won't get much sense of the live occasion here, much orchestral depth, hall ambience, or air. This will be of little concern to the fan of film music, though, and the recording does provide a robust listening experience.

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


Oct 11, 2013

Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (CD review)

Also, Till Eulenspiegel's Lustige Streiche; Don Juan. Gustavo Dudamel, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0018913-02.

Gustavo Dudamel is the energetic young Venezuelan conductor who rose to prominence meteorically a short while back, going from leading the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra to becoming the Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony and the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On the present disc he is leading another one of world’s great orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, and recording for one of the oldest and most prestigious labels in the world, Deutsche Grammophon. He’s come a long way in a short time.

And to what does he owe his success? Talent, of course, and loads of it. Along with a remarkable degree of enthusiasm. I met a young fellow the other day who had worked with Dudamel as part of a choir; he said the man was the most inspirational conductor he had ever experienced, Dudamel communicating his spirit to the players in a most-exceptional way. Certainly, Dudamel always appears to love what he’s doing and seems to expend as much energy at it as a tennis star playing a five-set match. The man will never gain weight if he continues to show as much animation as he does leading an orchestra.

The result of all this, you might expect, would be extravagantly overblown showpieces, and in the beginning of his career, that’s how some of his work appeared to me. Yet perhaps it’s a sign of Dudamel’s growing maturity that this present collection of well-known Richard Strauss tone poems with the Berlin Philharmonic is actually a lot more reflective and lyrical than you might expect from the conductor. It’s also perhaps a sign that Dudamel wanted to play to the strengths of the older orchestra members. Or it’s a sign of respect for the orchestra’s other major recordings of Zarathustra (for DG and Decca) under the celebrated Herbert von Karajan. After all, Dudamel no doubt knew that many listeners would be comparing his DG recording with Karajan’s, especially the later digital one. He didn’t want to sound like the new kid on the block trying to show off and falling on his head.

This is not say, however, that Dudamel’s recording surpasses all others. For my money, there are still any number of conductors who have essayed these Strauss works to at least slightly more telling effect. Let’s start with the first piece on the program, and I’ll try to explain.

German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote the symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896, his inspiration a philosophical novel by the philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss divided the music into nine sections, naming the sections after various chapters of the book.

It might be best, though, not to put a lot of stock in the literal meaning of each of these sections but instead to enjoy them for their figurative spirit. In fact, Strauss himself, whom some people criticized at the time for trying to put Nietzsche’s philosophy into music, said, “I did not intend to write philosophical music, or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its evolution, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Fair enough.

Now, to Dudamel’s interpretation of Zarathustra. While maintaining Strauss’s spirit, evoking a good deal of sympathy for Nietzsche’s ideas, and sounding thoughtful, poignant, and at times quite elegant, the reading still isn’t quite as dramatic as Reiner’s (RCA, HDTT), as exciting as Solti’s (Decca), as contemplative as Haitink’s (Philips), as rhythmically compelling as Previn’s (Telarc), as clearheaded as Kempe’s (EMI) or Blomstedt’s (Denon), or as radiant as Karajan’s own (the two for DG and the several for Decca). I mean no disrespect to Dudamel; his is a fine interpretation. He’s just up against a ton of good competition. And if it’s sound alone you’re after, it’s hard to beat the Newport Classic/AUracle Binaural disc with Jorge Mester and the Pasadena Symphony (NCAU-10001).  Sonically, that recording knocks the socks off any other, if sonic sock-knocking is your idea of a good time.

The fact that DG afford Dudamel a live recording doesn’t do him any favors him, either, particularly in Zarathustra. The sound is fairly close up (presumably to minimize audience noise), with an enormous dynamic range but a relatively mild deep bass. You may not be able to notice it on the excerpt below, the famous Introduction to the piece, but it begins at such a low level, it may tempt you to reach over and raise the gain. It’s an organ-pedal note that’s barely audible here at normal listening levels. If you increase the volume, though, you face a crescendo a moment later that will knock you out of your seat or possibly damage your speakers. Certainly, while every audiophile wants a wide dynamic range, this may be too much of a good thing and sounds a little artificial in the process, smacking more of the control booth than the concert hall.

Anyway, moving along, whenever I listen to Zarathustra I can’t help thinking of the old definition of an “audiophile” as one who listens only to the “Introduction.” Well, ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey who can blame anybody; it’s the only part most people know. Surprisingly, the “Introduction” isn’t Maestro Dudamel’s strong suit; he actually seems most comfortable with the more poetic, more touching elements of the score. Under his direction "The Backworldsmen" segment comes off gracefully; "The Great Longing" is appropriately wistful yet optimistically grand; "Of Joys and Passions" could be a tad more intense; "The Song of the Grave" sounds a bit rushed but carries a sincere conviction; "Of Science and Learning" displays a sweet, singing lyricism; "The Convalescent" produces suitable emotion and vitality; "The Dance-Song" exhibits a pleasantly lilting if sometimes curiously halting gait; and the concluding "Song of the Night Wanderer" wraps things up in Strauss's own subdued, luminescent manner.

Maestro Dudamel takes his time through the two couplings, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and Don Juan, sometimes taking parts of them at a surprisingly leisurely gait. They don't sound slow or labored, however, despite their timings being a few minutes longer than those of most other conductors. Instead, Dudamel carefully builds up the pictorial elements, apparently having great fun with the melodramatic, almost cinematic, qualities of both pieces.

Throughout these proceedings, the Berlin Philharmonic demonstrate why many people consider them the greatest orchestra in the world. They perform flawlessly, producing a rich, lavish, robust, yet cultivated sonic canvas that is quite glorious to hear.

With a total time of almost seventy minutes, the album provides good value in terms of material alone. Dudamel may not yet be a master of this material, but he's coming along nicely, and in a few more years maybe DG will persuade him to revisit Strauss with the Berlin players (and this next time without the live audience).

DG made the recording live in January and February of 2013 in the Great Hall of the Philharmonie, Berlin. As I said earlier, the miking is fairly close, as it is for most live productions, so we don't get much sense of hall ambience or depth to the orchestra. We do, however, get excellent clarity and openness, with ultraclean definition, and a very wide dynamic range. Maybe too wide for the preferences of some listeners. Audience noise is almost nil (you'll hear only occasional background rustling), and the engineers spare us any applause, even at the end of the program. A quick transient response and a strong attack time add to the force of the presentation. Interestingly, bass response and impact are more apparent on the Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan tracks than on Zarathustra, the shorter tone poems sounding better to my ears than the longer Zarathustra.

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


Oct 10, 2013

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos for two violins, strings, and continuo. Nigel Kennedy, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI 7243 5 57666-0-1.

Quoting from a booklet note, “No living musician has done more to revitalize Antonio Vivaldi’s status than Nigel Kennedy--who has brought unimaginable sales of his work to every corner of the world.” Certainly, Mr. Kennedy sold a lot of CD’s of his earlier Four Seasons, but to hear the PR department talk, you’d think nobody else had ever recorded the piece. It is this kind of hyperbole that permeates the entire album.

Where before he had the English Chamber Orchestra to accompany him, Kennedy this time had members of the Berlin Philharmonic behind him, and apparently starting with this Four Seasons from 2004 they intended to record as much Vivaldi as the public could stand. However, I guess it was such a daunting enterprise, the public soon found itself exhausted with Vivaldi overload, and to my knowledge Kennedy and the Berlin players produced only one other Vivaldi album, called Vivaldi II.

In any case, Kennedy is a magnificent violinist with a bravura talent, which, unfortunately, sometimes gets in the way of the music. Listeners to these Four Seasons interpretations will find them either delightfully fanciful and innovative or annoyingly self-conscious. I’m afraid I’m in the latter group.  Kennedy invests each movement with so many subjective trills and frills and stops and changes of tempo that one feels the head spinning. Some of it, frankly, is just plain bizarre.

I rather expect Kennedy approaches his music here in the same way he approaches his status as a classical superstar, with the idea that image is everything. He appears to glory in his own reflection of the common, if nonconformist, man, complete with the once-curious haircut, facial stubble, working-class clothing, and London East-End dialect; and it is this brazen, nonconformist attitude that he brings to The Four Seasons. The thing is, the music, so quaint and expressive in its own right, doesn’t need further doctoring up. Well, maybe it did wonders for Kennedy’s disc sales, I don’t know.

More impressive to my mind are the fillers, Vivaldi’s Concertos for Two Violins in A minor and in D. Perhaps because people know them less well, whatever Kennedy does with them is less noticeable. They are quite vivacious in his hands, splendidly alive, although again somewhat quirky in matters of tempo and tone. As an extra incentive, at the time I first reviewed this recording, EMI offered the music in a two-disc set, the second disc being a seventeen-minute promo on DVD. Here the narrator again tells us how much Kennedy has done to revitalize the Vivaldi movement worldwide, and Mr. Kennedy himself expounds upon Vivaldi’s music and plays excerpts from the CD.

EMI’s sound does not strike me as among their best, it being a bit on the bright, hard, almost edgy side, with little compensating bass response to balance out the affair. There is not much depth to the sonic image, either, and, indeed, it’s hard to tell exactly how many Berlin Philharmonic players are attending the soloist. The result is not so much realistic or natural as it is theatrical.

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


Oct 8, 2013

Mater Eucharistiae (CD review)

Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Decca B0018696-02.

Singing nuns are big right now. Two previous recordings from Decca Records and De Montfort Music with the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles went straight to the top of the music charts in 2012 and 2013. There is no reason to believe that this first album, Mater Eurcharistiae, from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist shouldn’t do the same.

The booklet notes describe the Dominican Sisters of Mary as “a Roman Catholic community of women religious based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.” Their community “was founded in the Dominican tradition to spread the witness of religious life in accord with Pope John Paul II’s vision for a new evangelization. Through profession of the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, along with a contemplative emphasis on Eucharistic adoration and Marian devotion,” their community “exists for the salvation of souls and the building of the church throughout the world.” As Dominicans, their “primary apostolate is the education and formation of young people.” They “remain open to engaging the modern culture with new forms of evangelization in order to preach the Gospel and teach the Truth.”

Of course, they sing in a heavenly manner. Whether or not you prefer them to the Benedictines of Mary is probably a question of the material they sing and your preference for one venue or another. Like the Benedictines of Mary, the Dominican Sisters possess voices of the sweetest purity. While there are no obvious virtuosos among them (or if there are, they would be too modest to admit it), as a group they sing like angels, their voices harmonizing with celestial precision.

The Dominican Sisters sing nearly half the songs on the album in English, the native language of the composers. Accordingly, some listeners may find their repertoire more easily accessible than everything in Latin. First up is “Holy Mary Mother of God,” an excerpt of which you can hear below. It’s obviously a lovely piece that well expresses the whole philosophy of the Sisters’ order. As important, they sing it, as they do all the numbers on the program, with a gentle, fluid, always lucid grace.

And so it goes throughout a total of fifteen selections, some new, some old; some very old, indeed, like dating back to Chant based on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The choir sounds most expressive in each of the numbers, their voices blending well, their enunciation crisp. Favorites will be a matter of taste, of course, but my own liking was for the opening number, then "O Gloriosa Virginum" for the simplicity of its feeling; "Quid Retribuam" for its exquisite part singing; "I Am in Thy Hands O Mary" mainly for its enjoyable organ accompaniment; "Pange Lingua" for its evocation of the Middle Ages; "The Annunciation" for its purely popular appeal; and "Angels Ad Virginem" for its madrigal qualities. In all, a fine, thoughtful collection of spiritual choir selections, beautifully performed.

If I have any minor qualm about the album, it’s a criticism you’ve heard from me before: Not enough music. I suppose you know when you’ve become a full-fledged pop star when your recording company affords you only a limited recording time. Pop albums are notorious for providing a measly thirty or forty minutes of playing time, perhaps reflecting the old LP days when vinyl records would hold only about that amount of material. With the coming of CD’s, record companies were able to put up to eighty minutes of music on a silver disc, and with classical albums they did. Decca and De Montfort must think the Dominican Sisters are pop singers, not classical singers, since they give them only forty-three minutes of singing time. Relish those forty-three minutes.

Anyway, Decca Records, De Montfort Music, and the Dominican Sisters of Mary recorded the music at Motherhouse of The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in March, 2013. The sound is very dimensional and spacious, the voices and occasional organ accompaniment appearing much as they would in a large church setting. So we get a good sense of realism here, although it comes at the expense of some loss of inner detail because of the resonant acoustic. Still, the natural reverberation and the relatively lengthy decay time help to blend the voices nicely and offer a comfortable listening experience. There is a commendable distance between the listening position and the singers that also adds to the realism of the situation, and the organ (which is present on several of the selections) lends a hefty presence to the occasion.

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


Oct 7, 2013

Empassioned (CD review)

Piano music of Beethoven, Gluck, Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt. Viktor Bijelovic, piano. Kickstarter Limited Edition.

You may not know who Viktor Bijelovic is. He’s a Serbian-born pianist who, according to his Web site, “has already accumulated considerable experience on the concert platform both as a solo pianist as well as a chamber musician, with concerts in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malaysia and Yugoslavia” and Britain, as well as making several TV and radio appearances. “Viktor came over to London at the age of 11 to go to a specialist music school and then on to the Royal Academy of Music where he did Undergraduate and Masters Degrees. Winner of several prestigious international competitions, he has performed in many important venues, including Sadler's Wells with The Pina Bausch Wuppertal Tanztheater, The Salle Gaveau Concert Hall in Paris and The Kolarac Concert Hall in Belgrade. Viktor was a guest performer at the 2nd ASEAN Chopin International Competition in Malaysia in December 2006. Most notably, he has performed in front of HRH Prince Charles twice--at The Buckingham Palace, to mark the occasion of Prince Charles's 50th Birthday Celebration and in May 2006 to inaugurate the Tent at St Ethelburga's.”

Empassioned marks his second CD album, following the 2010 release of piano music by Chopin and Liszt. We’ll forget for the moment that “empassioned” is not actually a word in English because it’s close enough to “impassioned” for us to know what it means.

We should first, however, get out of the way the somewhat unusual manner in which Bijelovic opens the present program. He begins with a narrative track on which he explains a little about each piece he's going to play and why he chose each piece. The pianist says in the accompanying booklet that he decided to do this because it's the thing he does during live performances. He loves storytelling, believes music is a form of storytelling, and, thus, tells something of the background story of each piece he performs. Well, at least he doesn't do this before every track, just two or three minutes at the outset. It's really pretty interesting information, but once you’ve heard it, I doubt you'd want to play it too often again. Therefore, when you put the disc on to play it subsequent times, you'll have to remember to start with track two. A minor inconvenience.

Anyway, Bijelovic begins the musical portion of the album with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata." The pianist reminds us that Beethoven wrote it when he was almost deaf and, therefore, the stark contrasts between loud and quiet were his attempts “to push the boundaries of his own hearing." Bijelovic seems to take this information quite seriously, as he does, indeed, play up the dynamic contrasts to the limit. This is not suggest, however, that he exaggerates anything. The first movement is appropriately rugged and heroic, with its quotations from the Fifth Symphony in evidence throughout. The second-movement Andante con moto is straightforward, never dragging, yet moving in its clean-cut way. And the final movement comes across with fire or, as Bijelovic would say, "passion." Yet it's a controlled fire, with exemplary direction.

The second piece, German operatic composer Christoph Gluck's Melody, is actually a transcription by Giovanni Sgambati from Gluck's opera about Orpheus in the Underworld. Bijelovic plays it with a gentle, evocative, poetic touch. It's quite lovely.

Next, we hear Chopin's Ballade No. 1, which sounds wistful in Bijelovic's hands, and Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1, Op. 27, which Bijelovic describes as being "like an old man looking back over his youth." Certainly, there's a degree of nostalgia in the pianist's renditions of both works, a kind of sad longing for something perhaps lost or never attained.

Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune" ("Moonlight") from Suite bergamasque is among the most familiar piano pieces ever written, and Bijelovic handles it with a sweetly quiet lyricism.

Sergei Rachmaninov's Prelude No. 5, Op. 23 follows. Bijelovic tells us it is an "impassioned and brave work, which came out of hard times for the composer." While the music offers an intentionally sharp contrast with the serene beauty of the Debussy piece that precedes it, again the pianist never overemphasizes the differences, instead stressing the Rachmaninov work's own internal similarities and differences.

Bijelovic concludes the program with Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, a work the pianist tells us he's wanted to play "ever since he started the piano." It, too, is so familiar it hardly needs introduction. Indeed, it may be hard for some of us to disassociate the piece from the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons in which it has played so prominent a role. Nevertheless, thanks to Bijelovic's fresh playing and the audio engineers' splendid sound, the music comes across with a vigorous new appeal. The entire recital may be overly familiar to some listeners, but Bijelovic's performances make much of it sound new again. 

In a word, says Bijelovic, the theme that runs through the whole CD is "passion," his own passion and the passion within the music. Fair enough; the passion shows.

Audio engineers Adaq and Isa Khan recorded the music at Jacqueline du Pre Hall, St. Hilda's College, Oxford in February, 2013. The sound they obtained is excellent, clean and well focused. It's miked closely enough that we hear a fine clarity and transient response, yet it's not so close that the piano stretches all the way across the room. A very mild room resonance complements the acoustic, never muffling the sound but providing a realistic setting for the music. This is top-notch piano sound.

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


Oct 4, 2013

Sultans of String: Symphony! (CD review)

Chris McKhool, Kevin Laliberte, Eddie Paton, Drew Birston, Rosendo Leon, plus special guest stars; Jamie Hopkings and orchestra. Red River Entertainment MCK 2055.

Publicity for this disc, Symphony!, assures us it is a “crossover album,” in this case a fusion of jazz, pop, blues, and classical. I’d say the emphasis here should be on the jazz, pop, and blues elements, for the classical part does take a definite back seat, despite the use of a fifty-five-piece orchestra to accompany the headliners. In other words, don’t expect something like the Jacques Loussier Trio playing arrangements of famous classical works. This one is more pop-jazz than not.

In the event you haven’t heard of them, the Sultans of String are an award-winning Canadian instrumental group out of Toronto, Ontario, who combine bits of Spanish flamenco, Cuban rhythm, Arabic folk, and French Gypsy jazz. Founding members Chris McKhool and Kevin Laliberté started performing together in 2004, employing a combination of McKhool's six-stringed violin and Laliberté's flamenco guitar. They discovered that their particular brand of rhythms and melodies worked well onstage, and, accordingly, they began recording and touring with a full band.

The membership of the Sultans of String will give you an idea of the kind of thing they do: Chris McKhool, six-string violin and vocals; Kevin Laliberté, nylon string guitar, steel string guitar, electric guitar; Eddie Paton, nylon string guitar; Drew Birston, acoustic and electric bass, scat; and Rosendo “Chendy” León, percussion, palmas, drums, and jaleo. Also on the program are various guest stars on specific numbers: Bassam Bshara, Dala-Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine, James Hill, Larry Larson, and Paddy Moloney (of The Chieftains). Backing the instrumentalists are members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Ballet Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, and others, lead by conductor Jamie Hopkins.

You can hear a couple of minutes below of the opening number, “Monti’s Revenge,” inspired by a piece called “Csardas” by the Italian composer Vittorio Monti. “Csardas” sounds like a Hungarian Gypsy tune, and it’s clear the Sultans are having fun playing it. "Monti's Revenge" gets progressively more animated as it goes along, ending in a whirlwind finish. The players are each virtuosos on their instruments, so the music sounds quite accomplished, quite polished, yet quite spontaneous. And quite invigorating.

And so it goes through ten tracks. Indeed, if there's anything to complain about it's that like most pop albums, ten selections don't amount to much time-wise: about forty-nine minutes. Still, it's quality over quantity, no?

Among the tunes, a few I favored most were "Palmas Sinfonia," a Spanish flamencan-inflected piece; "Emerald Swing," a fiddle-swing Gypsy mash-up; "Sable Island," with Paddy Moloney joining in on pennywhistle and uilleann pipes; a lovely ballad entitled "A Place to Call Home"; and a vigorous Middle-Eastern piece, "Road to Kfarmishki," which opens with the sound of the Arabic oud, an ancestor of the modern guitar.

The only vocal on the program is "Will You Marry Me" by Chris McKhool, a very personal song. Then, things close with a guitar duet, "Encuentros," which has a lovely lyrical appeal.

As I say, the album's title, Symphony!, is a little misleading. There isn't a lot that one could seriously associate with a symphony here beyond the fact that the Sultans of String employ a modestly sized orchestra to accompany them. Still, if you enjoy modern popular music, the album represents a good cross-section of jazz, blues, Gypsy, Mediterranean, and, yes, maybe even a touch of classical.

Producer Chris McKhool recorded most of the music in Toronto, Canada, 2013, although Paddy Moloney recorded his contribution to the proceedings in Dublin, Ireland. The sound is rather hi-fi-ish, if that makes sense. It's close and flat, as in one-dimensional, yet with excellent definition and loads of punch. In fact, it's transferred at such a high gain that it practically blew down the house when I first turned it on. Like a lot of pop albums, the actual dynamic range seems a bit limited, though, with everything coming at one very loudly. Nevertheless, it all seems to work, if you don't mind a kind of Phase-4 clinical sonic approach rather than a purely realistic one.

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


Oct 3, 2013

Khachaturian: Masquerade Suite (XRCD review)

Also, Kabalevsky: The Comedians. Kiril Kondrashin, RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24014.

OK, since nobody seems to be making this particular JVC remastering available in the U.S. anymore, I’ll make the review brief.

I’ve heard quite a few of JVC’s XRCD audiophile remasterings over the years, but this is among the only ones for which I have never had the equivalent standard recording in my collection, so I have no basis for comparison to tell whether JVC’s very expensive processing of the master tape is superior to anything else available at regular price. I do know the album is currently available in RCA’s “Living Stereo” line at about $13.00 (along with Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol), whereas the JVC listed at the original time of its release for about $35.00. To make matters even more dicey, I notice used copies of the RCA currently on-line for as little as three bucks. However, if in the past you’ve heard a difference for the better in JVC XRCD remasters, as I have, perhaps the search and the costlier investment would be worth it to you. Otherwise, who knows; I make no promises.

In any case, I was familiar with Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite, if not this specific recording of it, and I was very much looking forward to it here. However, I was also a bit disappointed in it. It had been maybe twenty-odd years since my last hearing it, and I’d forgotten how very loud and often bombastic the work could be. This is a matter of taste, of course, but I also found even the two slow movements, the Nocturne and Romance, somewhat lacking in inspiration. I could hardly fault Maestro Kiril Kondrashin and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra for this, however, as they do their job with a splendid vigor and enthusiasm. To make matters slightly worse, RCA’s 1958 sound didn’t much impress me, either, remastered or not. The bass seemed plentiful and deep, to be sure, but the highs appeared a tad too bright and edgy for me.

Then I listened to the coupling, Russian composer Dimitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians, and it was an entirely different story. I had never heard the complete suite before, but by the time I reached the “Comedian’s Galop,” I realized I’d heard this familiar music time and again without realizing what it was. The whole piece, ten short movements in all, is delightful, witty, and invigorating. More important, the composer appears to have scored The Comedians for a slightly smaller orchestra than Khachaturian’s, because while RCA recorded both it and the Masquerade Suite at about the same time, the sound of The Comedians seems smoother, deeper, and more transparent. In fact, I found The Comedians, as short as it is (about fifteen minutes), probably worth the steep asking price of the whole disc.

Let me put it another way: If you’ve never heard the two RCA recordings on this disc before, as I hadn’t, and you’re willing to take a chance, you might consider looking for the JVC remastering if you have a very high-end system, very deep pockets, and infinite patience finding it. Or you might try the standard RCA Living Stereo edition if you have a more-modest system, and you want to be sensible about things. No matter your choice, you might find the Kabalevsky, especially, exhilarating and fun under Kondrashin’s direction. I know I did.

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


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa