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:


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Meet the Staff

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

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

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

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

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa