Nov 27, 2013

Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Violin Concertos BWV 1041 and 1042; Concerto for Violin and Oboe; Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin BWV 1016 and 1017. Janine Jansen and friends. Decca B0019301-02.

When I first received this album, I asked myself, Didn’t I already review this thing? I mean, didn’t Janine Jansen record the Bach violin concertos years ago? I must have been thinking of someone else, Hilary Hahn, perhaps, Julia Fischer, Anne Akiko Meyers, or Lara St. John. Or maybe it’s just that I assumed a violinist of Ms. Jansen’s stature had already done them. In any case, Mr. Jansen is a fine violinist, and I enjoyed her zesty, alert Bach interpretations.

In fact, she never fails to provide anything but stimulating, energetic, compassionate performances of whatever she’s performing, and the Bach is no different. This should come as no surprise as the Dutch violinist and violist has been playing and studying the violin since she was six. In 2001 she appeared with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto, and in 2005 she opened the BBC Proms. She has toured internationally, recorded a number of albums for Decca, and plays on a “Barrere” by Antonio Stradivari, on extended loan from the Elise Methilde Foundation.

Following her customary recording practice, Ms. Jansen plays with a small ensemble of accompanists, this time a group of friends: Ramon Ortega Quero, oboe; Jan Jensen, harpsichord; Boris Brovtsyn, Cindy Albracht, Fredrick Paulsson, Julia-Maria Kretz, Tijmen Huisingh, and Monica Urbonaite, violins; Nimrod Guez and Pauline Sachse, violas; Maarten Jansen, cello; and Rick Stotijn, double bass.

Anyway, about the program: Bach wrote his two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 and No. 2 in E major, BWV1042, between 1717 and 1723, about the time he was writing the Brandenburg Concertos, so if you hear any similarities, especially in the opening movement of 1042, you know why. Ms. Jansen begins the music with BWV1042, probably the earlier of the two concertos despite the catalogue number. Here, she exhibits an incisive technique, pacing the work at a reasonably zippy pace yet never so fast as we hear from many period-instruments’ groups. She observes tempos that should keep most listeners involved and inspired. She also maintains a style that eschews too much flourish or ornamentation, preferring to keep herself pretty much in accord with the surrounding ensemble rather than completely dominating it. In this regard, it’s a somewhat self-effacing performance with wonderful tone, a performance that serves the music well.

Ms. Jansen’s rendering of the opening Allegro is bracing without being in any way hurried. The central Adagio is haunting enough if a tad less inspired than, say, Menuhin's rendition. Still, a minor quibble. The little Allegro assai that concludes the piece seems less weighty than the preceding movements, but that is hardly Ms. Jansen's fault, and she handles it in an appropriately playful fashion.

Next comes the Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, which is, for me, a more dramatic work than 1042, with a lovelier central section, an Andante of exceptional strength. Here, Ms. Jansen seems to take great care to ensure the work's structural integrity. The entire composition seems of a single piece, with the violin, too, taking its part within the music's structure rather than overpowering it. So, we've got vigorous yet relaxed readings of both concertos, ultrasophisticated yet with no undue ostentation. While perhaps one may sense a certain hesitancy in regard to ultimate tension and characterization, the readings more than compensate with their sheer comfort level and beauty. Besides, it's always a pleasure listening to Ms. Jansen's virtuosity on the violin.

The couplings for the album do not include the more-usual choice, the double violin concerto. Rather, it includes, first, the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060, a reconstruction of a transcription of a double harpsichord concerto. It is quite rhapsodic for a Baroque composition, and the oboe contributions sound particularly pleasing.

The final tracks on the program contain the Sonatas for Harpsichord and Violin Nos. 3 and 4, BMW 1016 and 1017. These are lovely works of four movements each, alternating slow and fast sections. Although Ms. Jansen's violin is clearly in the fore, for that matter the two players share the music almost equally. It's all quite charming, actually, and I can't imagine a listener not responding favorably to the interpretations.

Decca’s recording team made the album in Andreaskirche, Berlin, Germany, in June of 2013. A pleasant ambient bloom goes a long way in making this a most-realistic and most-listenable experience. There is not a lot of depth to the ensemble, yet the degree of hall resonance helps make up for it. The sonics are very smooth, slightly warm, and, while not exactly audiophile in their transparency, quite natural. Ms. Jansen's violin sounds nicely integrated into the ensemble, and as with the performances it never dominates her companions but becomes a part of the whole.

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


Nov 26, 2013

Stephanie Blythe: As Long as There Are Songs (CD review)

Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Craig Terry, piano. Meyer Sound/Innova 875.

Most readers probably know that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is an opera star who has favored audiences worldwide with her voice on stage and in recordings for the past several decades. What some readers may not know is that she also sings popular music, with a voice that combines the best qualities of Ethel Merman and Kate Smith. Indeed, her fondness for Kate Smith led Ms. Blythe to perform in 2013 works made famous by Ms. Smith on the PBS television show Live from Lincoln Center - Celebration: Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate.

On the present album, As Long as There Are Songs, Ms. Blythe sings fourteen popular tunes from The Great American Songbook, with one exception mostly songs from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. She demonstrates throughout the program that she is more than just a good opera singer but a good pop singer as well. She doesn’t sound like a typical opera singer trying to do pop material but a serious pop entertainer who could easily carry a Broadway show. She is, in fact, quite versatile and appears able to handle any tune from any genre, new or old, with ease.

One of my favorites on the program is "White Cliffs of Dover" (1941), the famous World War II song by Nat Burton and Walter Kent. Ms. Blythe sings it with heartfelt sentiment and waves of rhapsodic notes. It's quite moving.

And so it goes, through "Look for the Silver Lining," "Always," "Love," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "The Man That Got Away," “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." Show tunes, jazz, torch songs, Ms. Blythe does it all with equal success. And I would be remiss not to applaud Craig Terry on his sensitive and agreeable piano accompaniment.

Then there's also the bluesy and poignant medley of "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "One for My Baby" by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Sinatra's got nothing on Ms. Blythe.

The program ends with the most-recent number, Gordon Jenkens's "This Is All I Ask" (1965), a wonderful throwback to those earlier songs, and one with which Ms. Blythe practically knocks down the house. She puts most of today’s pop divas to shame. 

Probably the only thing I didn't like about the product was the booklet insert. Not the content of the booklet, which is quite informative, but the shape. It's a single piece of paper folded in thirds; but it's not folded to stretch horizontally but up and down. For the life of me, I couldn't find my way around, further complicated by having the back printed in the opposite direction from the front. I dunno. It’s certainly a minor quibble.

Producer Evans Mirageas and engineers John Pellowe and Miles Rogers recorded the album for Meyer Sound Laboratories in 2013 at Meyer Sound Lab’s Pearson Theatre, Berkeley, California. The location greatly impressed Ms. Blythe when earlier she sang there live; it’s a relatively small hall that provides an ideal acoustic for both intimate and grand vocal gestures. Moreover, Meyer Sound Laboratories captured the sonics using no filtering, spatial enhancements, or compression, providing a most lifelike presentation. Perhaps what many readers may not realize is that most recordings these days use a good deal of compression in order to minimize the dynamic range--the differences between softest and loudest notes--making musical recordings easier for some listeners to enjoy on car radios and iPods. However, such recordings are not always the most natural-sounding affairs. Meyer Sound’s recordings are, therefore, more realistic than most.

How does all this translate to what we actually hear on the disc? Obviously, it translates pretty well. We do hear the venue, and it does affect what we hear of Ms. Blythe’s voice. The hall appears slightly dry, meaning it doesn’t have the billowy resonance of some venues. This means we hear Ms. Blythe’s voice more nearly as it probably sounds rather than embellished by the ambient acoustic of the concert hall. What we get instead is an ultraclean, ultra-clear voice, with a truly astonishing dynamic range. I’m not sure everyone recognizes how much of a range the human voice can produce, from the gentlest whisper to the most earsplitting crescendo, and here we find it all.

Whether everyone will appreciate the sound is another story, though; it is different from what one usually hears on a vocal album, less smooth, less warm, and more real. The sound may not complement all loudspeakers, either, especially not brighter speakers that could aggravate the delicate balance of the high end. In any case, if you have a good playback system, you should appreciate the sound. The voice glistens with clarity, and the piano accompaniment remains natural and unobtrusive. Both benefit from a quick transient response, too, although, as I say, it could be a bit jarring if you’ve been listening to more compressed sound all these years.

To listen to an excerpt from this album, click here:


Nov 25, 2013

The Sound of Alison Balsom (CD review)

Alison Balsom, trumpet; various conductors and ensembles. Warner Classics 50999 0 19162 2 5.

Now that Warner Classics have acquired the EMI catalogue, it appears one of the first things they’ve done is reissue some of EMI recording star Alison Balsom’s biggest hits in the elegantly packaged new release The Sound of Alison Balsom. It’s a retrospective of Ms. Balsom’s Baroque trumpet work from 2002 to 2012, accompanied by various individuals and ensembles, period and modern. Fans of Ms. Balsom will no doubt already have most of these recordings, but folks new to her playing may want to use the disc to catch up on what they’ve been missing.

For those few of you who may not know her, British trumpet soloist Alison Balsom has been playing trumpet professionally since 2001. She is now a multiple award winner with eight albums to her credit; she was the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra; and she’s a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. What’s more important, she is a darn fine trumpet player. On the present record’s liner notes she credits legendary jazz great Dizzy Gillespie as her inspiration, so if you hear any signs of casual, easy, improvisational, modern-jazz inflections in her playing, well, you know where it probably came from.

The program here consists of short Baroque pieces from English composer Henry Purcell (1658-95), German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Italian violinist and composer Giuseppe Torelli (1650-1708), German composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1750), and Italian composer Benedetto Marcello (1686–1739). Her accompanists include Quentin Thomas, organ; Colm Carey, organ; Alastair Ross, harpsichord; Lestyn Davies, countertenor; Edward Gardner and the Goteborg Symfoniker; Thomas Klug and Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen; Jonathan Morton and the Scottish Ensemble; and, most recently, Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert. Throughout the selections, Ms. Balsom demonstrates the smooth, fluent, mellifluous style that has made her famous.

Things begin with five tunes from Purcell's King Arthur, which come across with considerable pomp, vigor, and enthusiasm, Ms. Balsom's trumpet effortlessly pouring forth her usual golden notes in abundance. If that sounds like hyperbole, just give it a listen.

Next come several numbers from Bach: a Sarabande, an Aria, a Badinerie, and Andantes from various suites, plus the Concerto in D (after Vivaldi). The Sarabande and Badinerie are particularly interesting as they are unaccompanied solos yet sound like small ensembles unto themselves.

After the Bach comes Torelli's Trumpet Concerto in D, its three movements lively and enlivening yet most refined. Following that is a selection apiece from Handel's Giulio Cesare, Albinoni's Sonata da chiesa, transcribed by Ms. Balsom, and Marcello's Oboe Concerto in C minor. The program concludes with three more numbers from Handel: the overture from Atalanta, the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, and the Amadigi di Gaula, arranged by Ms. Balsom. This is exquisite, well-chosen music, exquisitely well played.

The album provides a healthy seventy-seven minutes of playing time, nearly the limit for a compact disc, so you get more than your money's worth right there.

The folks at Warner Classics have done up the packaging most lavishly, enclosing the disc in its own sleeve within a hardcover book with a thirty-two page bound insert. The only minor snag was trying to get the disc out of its sleeve without leaving fingerprints on the playing surface. In any case, I wonder if the company is planning to do up all of its new releases so elaborately.

The sound, originally recorded by EMI in a number of different locations from 2002-2012, is uniformly good, if not always as absolutely transparent as some audiophiles might prefer. Still, it is nicely dynamic in all the selections, with in each case a pleasant, natural hall resonance to provide a realistic ambience. While the sound is a little one-dimensional much of the time, it also sounds well extended, which helps to make up for any slight deficiencies.

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


Nov 21, 2013

Classical Expressions (HQCD review)

Music of Khachaturian, Granados, Saraste, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Debussy, and others. Richard Amoroso, The Not-So-Classical Chamber Ensemble. HDTT DTR1.

In their own words, “Direct-to-Tape Recording Company (DTR) was founded in 1979 with the goal of capturing the sound of a performance as you would hear it if you were there.

Although the recording media have changed from the open reel and cassette tapes we originally used in 1979 to PCM digital in 1982 and later to Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and now to hard disk recorders, our philosophy has remained the same. DTR recordings are normally recorded with two microphones to capture a natural sound and the acoustic space of a performance. We use no equalization, compression, limiting, or other electronic tricks and gimmicks that can spoil the sound. Very few splices (if any) are used within each movement or piece in order to capture the musical ‘soul’ of a performance. The results of these efforts are recordings which duplicate, as closely as possible, the sound you would hear if you were at a live performance.

The music we are recording (primarily classical, jazz, and light classical) is served best by our recording techniques. By using only two microphones we avoid the myriad problems which occur with multitrack recording.”

Now the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have begun remastering some of DTR’s material, apparently making it better than ever (although I can only assume this because I had no standard-issue DTR disc on hand with which to make comparisons. I can only say that DTR’s recording techniques produce quite realistic outcomes and that HDTT’s processing produces an excellent remastering. For the audiophile, the HDTT product seems well worth investigating.

The present recording, Classical Expressions, features The Not-So-Classical Chamber Ensemble lead by Richard Amoroso. To suggest that they are a somewhat unusual ensemble for playing classical music would itself be somewhat unusual. Maestro Amoroso is not only the leader of the group but the chief arranger and cellist. Other members at the time of this recording included Ronald Amoroso, classical accordion; Patrick Mercuri and Regecca Mercuri, mandolin and guitars; Walter Pfeil, harp; Nick Mastripolito, piano; Nick D’Amico, marimba; John Leitham, string bass; and Harvey Price, percussion. They are all experienced musicians who either perform regularly in major symphony orchestras or teach music at major universities or both. So, of course, they perform well. It’s just that their blend of instruments (cello, accordion, mandolin, guitar, harp, piano, marimba, bass, and percussion in various combinations) can produce some musical results that are a little odd.

Fortunately, they don’t call themselves the tongue-in-cheek “Not-So-Classical Chamber Ensemble” for nothing. While their sound seems better suited to pop music, their enthusiasm, gusto, and pure musicianship carry the day. The sound may be a tad quirky for classical music, but different is not necessarily bad. They are, in fact, quite a lot of fun to listen to, and they have chosen to perform numbers on this album that complement their sound and style.

You can judge for yourself the quality of the performances from the opening track (reproduced below at much lower audio quality), Aram Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" from his ballet Gayaneh. Yes, the instrument amalgam produces some bizarre-sounding results if you're used to hearing this material in symphonic form, but, again yes, it is definitely a kick to enjoy. The performers sound as they're having as good a time as the listener, too.

And so it goes through a dozen brief tracks, some no more than three or four minutes each, which is the only real shortcoming of the album: it's only about thirty-three minutes long. Still, each item is of interest for one reason or another. In part this is because of the ingenuity and creativity of the players, and in part because each item uses a different arrangement of instruments, from solos to duets to trios to full ensemble.

A good example of the diversity on the program is the second track, "Nostalgia," by Eloysa Barroso, originally a piano piece, here arranged by Laurindo Almeida for two guitars. It's sweet and light and impeccably performed.

Walter Pfeil, formerly the principal harpist with the Minneapolis, Baltimore, and St. Louis Symphonies, demonstrates his skills in a solo performance of "Whirlwind" by Carlos Salzedo. It's gorgeous, and it pretty much stole the show for me.

The album continues through short works by Enrique Granados ("Orientale - Spanish Dance No. 2"); Pablo de Sarasate ("Zapateado," another showstopper); Sergei Rachmaninov ("Prelude in G," arranged by Richard Amoroso); and so on.

Among my favorites, besides "Nostalgia": Maurice Ravel's "Piece in the Form of a Habanera," delightfully transcribed for cello and harp; George Gershwin's "Prelude II," arranged for cello and guitar, a wonderfully bluesy little work; and Claude Debussy's "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," improbably but beautifully transcribed for cello and accordion.

Finally, for a bit of excitement, we have Schubert's "The Bee," Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Zequinha's "Tico Tico." The album presents an unusual assortment of tunes, as I've said, played on an unusual merging of instruments, yet it works. I just wish the program were longer.

Producer and engineer Bob Sellman recorded the music for DTR in 1981 using a direct-to-tape method that involved two Schoeps microphones and open-reel recording equipment. As a booklet note points out, Sellman used “no compression, equalization or limiting during its recording or editing. No splices or edits were made within any pieces.” HDTT remastered the original tapes in 2013, and I listened to it on an HQCD. The sound is about as realistic as you're going to find. There's an especially good sense of depth and space that lends to the illusion of being in the same room or hall with the performers. There's reasonably good transparency to the midrange, a well-extended high end, quick transient response, and plenty of air around the instruments. Never will you hear anything hard, shrill, bright, edgy, or dull. You may, however, hear a very slight tape noise in the background, but unless you're playing the music way too loud, you shouldn't notice it.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, blank HQCD discs, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at

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


Nov 20, 2013

Handel: Messiah, The Dream Cast (CD review)

Various artists. Decca B00002042-02.

If you were a really big record company, like Decca, and you had a vault full of old recordings, as Decca has, you, too, would probably want to think of ways of repackaging and selling your stuff again. So it is with this Messiah, made up of bits and pieces of Decca’s older Messiahs. The gimmick works better than you might expect.

Using seventy-seven minutes’ worth of highlights, the folks at Decca present us with ten different bands, choruses, and conductors, and seven different soloists, each doing a separate movement of George Frideric Handel’s familiar work. The problem I foresaw, and which I daresay you also see, was how all of these seemingly disparate elements were going to hang together; I mean, period and modern instruments, big and little ensembles, fairly recent (2001) and not-so-recent (1966) recordings. Yet it does work, sort of.

In the first place, the Decca engineers have apparently doctored the audio slightly so that most of the pieces at least sound similar. Unfortunately, this seems to have taken the bloom off some of the proceedings, dulling a few of the older period-instrument recordings in particular to take the edge off them and put them better in line sonically with their smoother, modern-instrument counterparts. They have also tried to match the playback levels as well as possible to ensure fluid transitions between movements. The result is not exactly of audiophile quality, but it’s listenable.

As to the music, at the very least you get to hear a variety of recordings, any one of which you might want to go out and buy as a complete set, which is, I’m sure, what the Decca brass are counting on. In any case, to name a few of the participants, you’ve got John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists opening the show, followed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony, Richard Bonynge and the English Chamber Orchestra, Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony, Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and so on. Marriner and the Academy players perform the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and Sir Colin Davis and the LSO close the show. Soloists include Arleen Auger, Jerry Hadley, Anne Sofie von Otter, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Bryn Terfel.


I dunno, though. It may be a dream cast, as the subtitle proclaims, but it’s also more than a tad disconcerting. Just when you get to like one singer or group, up pops somebody else. I’d say it’s a novelty more than anything. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad novelty.

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


Nov 18, 2013

Jazz at the Pawnshop (UltraHD CD review)

The Fifth and Ultimate Version. Arne Domnerus and friends. LIM UHD 071 (3-CD set + DVD).

Here’s the thing: If you who are reading this consider yourself an audiophile but you don’t own some version of Jazz at the Pawnshop, trust me, you’re not really an audiophile. It’s been around now in various formats for some four decades, so you’ve had plenty of chance to hear and obtain it. The recording has developed something of a cult following among those in the know, and for good reason. Now the folks at LIM (Lasting Impression Music, a subsidiary of FIM, First Impression Music) have remastered it for the fifth and probably not last time in a rendering they understandably claim is the best ever. It’s hard to argue with them; the performances are first-rate and, more important, the sound is terrific.

But why so many versions? LIM’s owner and producer Winston Ma explains it in a booklet note: After Proprius Music released the album in the late Seventies, it became almost an instant hit on LP, followed by a two-disc CD set in 1984. Proprius (and American AudioSource) continued to rerelease the set on CD for the next few years, and then in 1997 Winston stepped in. Sensing a good thing, his company remastered the recording in an HDCD 24k gold format. Subsequently, he decided to remaster it in every new and improved disc format that came along, including XRCD and SACD, even obtaining the original tapes for the second disc that folks for many years thought lost. Then, in 2007 he did it all over again in K2 HD, convinced that K2 was a superior Redbook CD format over all others. Sure enough, there was a sonic improvement. This most current iteration of the product, the “Fifth and Ultimate Version,” is in UltraHD, the format Winston believes as far advanced as conventional compact discs can go. What’s more, the new set contains a third disc of tunes that recording engineer Gert Palmcrantz discovered in his archives in 1990, later released as Jazz at the Pawnshop 2, plus a DVD of interviews. In terms of sound and substance, Winston’s latest UltraHD set is, indeed, the best yet issued. Unless you want to argue the superiority of vinyl over silver disc, which is another story entirely.

So, what’s the fuss all about? Jazz at the Pawnshop is some pretty good jazz in some pretty astounding sound. The album’s producer and engineer visited one of Sweden’s most-celebrated jazz venues, the Stampen (or The Pawnshop because of a pawnshop that used to be there), and found its acoustics ideal for recording. Then they set up their equipment to record live several of Sweden’s most-celebrated jazz musicians, a quintet that included Arne Dominerus, alto sax and clarinet; Bengt Hallberg, piano; Larss Erstrand, vibes; Georg Riedel, bass; and Egil Johansen, drums. After two evenings of recording, they came out with tapes of some of the best and most realistic-sounding jazz that anyone had ever heard. The subsequent LP and CD releases took off among audiophiles eager to demonstrate just how accurate their stereo equipment was when playing back music that live would have been largely unamplified.

The three discs in the LIM set contain six music tracks each and a couple of introductions. The numbers run high to jazz standards, starting with Philip Braham’s “Limehouse Blues.” The quintet play well together, with Dominerus’s sax tending to dominate the ensemble but with plenty of room for the other members to shine and solo as well. Because it’s live, in the background we hear quite a lot of room noise, the clinking of glasses, shuffling of feet, occasional applause, audience comments, and conversation. One goes into Jazz at the Pawnshop for the music, certainly, but also for the vivid sound, which involves experiencing the ambience of the small club itself.

And so it goes throughout the eighteen selections, like the traditional “High Life,” Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” Johnny Hodges’s “Jeep’s Blues,” George Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good,” Charlie Parker’s “Barbados,” Morgan Lewis’s “How High the Moon,” Matt Dennis’s “Everything Happens to Me,” Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Mood,” Bill Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and Harry Warren’s “Jeepers Creepers,” among others.

The package concludes with a DVD containing brief interviews with two of the music’s participants:  Lars Estrand and Georg Riedel, the interviews playable with or without subtitles.

In keeping with the importance of such an undertaking, LIM have packaged the four-disc set rather elaborately. The glossy, hard-cardboard case opens up in four sections, an inner sleeve fastened to each segment, within which lie the discs, each in its own static-free liner, the whole affair further housed in a handsome slipcover. The only trouble with this arrangement is that it leaves no place for the thirty-page booklet insert except loose inside. Open up the package, and you’re likely to have the booklet fall in your lap. Apart from that minor oversight, it’s a nifty layout.

Producer Jacob Boethius and recording engineer Gert Palmcrantz made the album on location at the Stampen (Pawnshop) Jazz Club in Stockholm, Sweden in December of 1976. The club’s excellent acoustics and the simplicity of the miking probably led to the results that have been pleasing audiophiles all these years: Neumann U47, KM56, and M49 microphones, two Dolby A361 noise-reductions units, two Nagra IV recorders, a Studer mixing board, and two old Ampex loudspeakers with built-in amplifiers. Remarkable, given that sonically this antique array puts most of today’s state-of-the-art digital equipment to shame.

I had on hand the original Proprius set from AudioSource, CDP 7778/9, for comparison, putting one Proprius disc and one LIM disc into separate CD players (Sony and Yamaha), adjusting for output and switching them out occasionally to be sure I was listening to the sound of the discs and not the machines.

The first thing I noticed was that both the Proprius and LIM exhibit an outstanding dimensionality, space, and air. You can hear in and around the instruments in a most convincingly lifelike manner. Both display exemplary transient quickness, too, and strong dynamic impact. Where the new LIM scores over its rival is in its overall greater smoothness, marginally superior, more-truthful warmth, more-extended high-end response, and tauter, crisper bass. These characteristics lend the LIM product an upper hand in listenability as well as naturalness. Then, after a while I could sense that the LIM rendered a more potent force on drums and displayed slightly wider dynamics. The more I listened, the less of a contest it became, with the LIM sounding better to me in almost every sonic category. Given the already high quality of the Proprius discs, that's quite a compliment to the LIM. Of course, we should not expect less, given the extremely high cost of the new LIM set, but maybe that's yet another story. 

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


Nov 17, 2013

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 2. Lang Lang, piano; Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic.  Sony 88883732252.

Sony’s release of the Prokofiev and Bartok piano concertos is these days kind of a quaint, old-fashioned, and highly welcome throwback. It’s a studio recording featuring a superstar soloist, a superstar conductor, a superstar orchestra, and a pair of superstar composers. It’s the sort of thing the big record companies used to produce almost on a monthly basis but now appear only in a blue moon. Economic conditions being what they are, about the only way to put together a star-studded cast is to record live, something that doesn’t always favor the best-sounding album. Whether the listener actually likes the new Sony disc seems almost beside the point; buyers need to prove to the record companies that there is still a profitable market for such items.

The superstar soloist is the relatively young Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang, possibly the most well-known young pianist on the world stage today. Although Lang Lang has never impressed me as much as he has other people with his up-and-down, sometimes bland, sometimes mannered, sometimes exaggerated readings, there is no question he has the measure of the Prokofiev and Bartok pieces on this disc. The superstar conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, a man whose work seems to me a little less energetic and electric than it once did but whose maturity and close attention to detail still produce music worthy of hearing. The superstar orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble beyond reproach that continues to dazzle the listener with its rich, lustrous perfection. And the superstar composers are Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Bela Bartok (1881-1945), two of the most-prominent innovators of the twentieth century.

The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 comes up first, and the performers do their best job with it. The composer completed it in 1921 from sketches he began in 1913. Of his five completed piano concertos, the Third is among the most lyrical and melodic, doubtless contributing to its popularity. It begins slowly and softly, quickly building up a head of steam with the piano’s entry and becoming ever more rhapsodic and tempestuous through its three movements. If I still prefer Martha Argerich’s performance with Claudio Abbado (DG) and Byron Janis’s with Kiril Kondrashin (Mercury) for their greater involvement and dynamism, Lang Lang’s treatment of the work is, nevertheless, refreshing.

The concerto gets off to an easygoing start but quickly picks up a head of steam, which Lang Lang carries out admirably. While he seems a little more cautious with it than some musicians, it blends nicely with the lyricism that comes after it. Then, too, we can probably thank Maestro Rattle for the careful, meticulously warm yet detailed accompaniment. The Prokofiev Third is, after all, one of those concertos where the orchestra plays almost as big a part as the soloist. I enjoyed Lang Lang's virtuosic skills quite a bit here, even if he doesn't seem as attuned to the work's more playful passages as he could be. Still, the finger work is so dazzling, one can't argue with the results.

The work's second-movement theme and variations sounds particularly pleasing, Lang Lang and Rattle both taking their time to develop the music. It's nicely airy and ethereal in the outer sections and properly rambunctious in the faster segments. Maybe Lang Lang approaches it a bit more Romantically than some other pianists, but it's an effective, seductive Romanticism, punctuated as it ought to be with outbursts of modern dissonance.

In the final Allegro Lang Lang is at his best, playfully dancing along on the keyboard while the Berlin orchestra bounces along in glorious partnership. This is the Prokofiev that always comes to mind when I think about the man's music. It is energetic, exuberant, witty, rhythmic, poetic, rhapsodic, clearly into the twentieth century yet easily accessible. And Lang Lang, Rattle, and the Berliners give us the best of everything.

The second selection on the program is Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which doesn’t come off quite as well as the Prokofiev but is still quite good. In the Bartok, Lang Lang shows off his technical dexterity to even greater fashion than in the Prokofiev, possibly because the work demands it. The pianist's hands are ever on the move; I don't think there's a moment in the opening movement that the soloist is at rest. It's also a little harder to come to grips with Bartok's pulsing rhythms and relentless forward drive than it was with Prokofiev's more-forgiving, more melodic concerto. So if Lang Lang seems a bit more distant to me in the Bartok, it's probably not the pianist's fault so much as it is the composer's.

A brief Presto interrupts the long, slow, sweeping second-movement Adagio before it settles back into its peculiar languor. Its opening passages allow the soloist to rest his fingers for a minute, and then Lang Lang reenters the scene on a quietly poetic note. He is almost eerily plaintive in these parts and most effective.

The concerto's Allegro molto takes it out in a blaze of glory, with first Rattle and his players and then Lang Lang leading the charge. It makes a fitting conclusion for a fiery yet well-tempered program.  The album deserves attention.

Producer Christoph Franke and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music in February and April of 2013 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. We hear good depth to the orchestra, a good ambient bloom to the hall, a good breadth to the image, and a good integration of the piano and orchestra. The dynamic range is wide, the bass and treble strong, and the impact more than adequate. However, it's not one of those recordings where the sonics knock you out. It's much more natural than that, especially if you set the playback at an appropriate level for maybe a tenth row center seat. Then, the sound is really quite impressive, the recording one of the best from the Berlin Philharmonic I've ever heard; and it's got a most realistic piano sound, too, not overly close or excessively distant. Although the sound doesn't display the kind of transparency we hear on some audiophile recordings, it's hard to fault Sony's work on any count, it's so lifelike.

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


Nov 14, 2013

Dyad Plays Puccini (CD review)

Lou Caimano, alto saxophone; Eric Olsen, piano. Ringwood Records.

Mixing jazz with classical is not new. The Jacques Loussier Trio, for instance, have been doing it for the better part of the last fifty years. Besides, audiophiles love the idea because they mostly listen to jazz and classical, anyhow, two genres most often heard live unamplified and, therefore, best to make comparisons in the quality of home playback equipment. So, here we have the jazz duo Dyad--Lou Caimano, alto sax and Eric Olsen, piano--playing music of Italian operatic composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924).

OK, Puccini may be the stretch. It’s maybe easier to imagine jazz arrangements of Stravinsky, even Verdi, than the bold lyricism of Puccini. Yet Caimano and Olsen do their best and come up looking for the most part pretty good. Just don’t expect as much classical as jazz. While Dyad begin with some of Puccini’s most-famous melodies, the tunes themselves tend quickly to get lost amidst all the lively riffing. What we get is not quite classical laced with a little jazz as it is jazz laced with a little classical.

Whatever, the music is still fun and extremely well played, so who cares how we define it. Whether it will please all classical fans or all jazz afficionados, however, is another question.

A little on the matter of the duo’s name: The word Dyad derives from the Greek, meaning “two” or “a pair.” That makes sense, given there are two musicians involved.  Dyad was also a word the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras applied not only to the number two but to matter itself. Well, for sure, the musical pair Dyad do matter. They make some beautiful sounds together; and maybe credit Olsen’s wife, an operatic soprano, with coming up with the album’s theme in the first place. She commented to her husband that the sound of Caimano’s alto saxophone reminded her of an opera singer, and, thus came about Dyad Plays Puccini.

You can hear a brief snippet of the opening number below, “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme. The waltz has a nice, bouncy cadence; Caimano's sax glides effortlessly; and Olsen's piano (a 127-year-old Steinway B grand) provides a sympathetic accompaniment.

"Ch'ella mi credo" from La Fanciulla del West is perhaps a better illustration of Puccini's lyrical style, and Caimano's sax here really does sound as though it's "singing." It's among the loveliest tracks on the disc.

Next, we get the Act I Overture to Madama Butterfly, and while it's not quite as effective in communicating Puccini's grand operatic style, it does offer a comely upbeat interlude. After that is "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme, one of Puccini's most recognizable melodies. However, taken out of its operatic context, I'm not entirely sure it works as well as some of the other tunes Dyad play. It seems a tad forced, as though Caimano and Olsen are trying too hard to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Still, there's much to enjoy, including the soulful alto sax and the sometimes playful piano interplay.

And so it goes through the album's ten selections, some hits, some near misses. "In quelle trine morbide" from Manon Lescaut comes off sweetly; “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi again seems a touch labored and not quite soaring enough; and "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly presents some of the nicest interplay between the sax and piano on the program.

The standout on the set for me, though, was “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. It clearly bridges the gap between opera and jazz, thanks in large part for its playing it straighter than most of the other songs. It's less an outright jazz interpretation and more an operatic transcription (and a very good one) that conveys the tragedy of the opera.

The final two numbers are "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from La Rondine, a pleasant, lightweight affair that gets a bit rowdy toward the end; and the ubiquitous "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, in which Dyad make a good stab at jazzing up a perennial favorite with uncertain results. I liked the Eastern overtones it supplies, with a prominent part for Olsen's piano work; yet it doesn't always catch fire or exhibit Puccini's noble, imposing scope.

Still, this is enjoyable album, filled with grace and poise, that kept me fascinated for its duration. If I have any minor criticisms, it's that I missed having track timings on the packaging (they're printed on the disc itself, but what good is that while you're playing the disc); and I missed an enclosed booklet of notes (there are only a couple of paragraphs printed on the Digipak container).

Lou and Eric produced the album themselves with the help of audio engineer Philip Ludwig, recording it at the Ridgewood Conservatory, Ringwood, New Jersey in July, 2012. The sound is maybe the best part of the show. The engineer has miked it at just the right distance to produce a natural, realistic effect, the musicians appearing slightly recessed behind the speakers instead up-close and in your face. Detailing is lifelike, too, yet smooth and resonant, with a good sense of the room in which they're playing. Dynamics, frequency response, impact, air, and general transparency are all equally fine.

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


Nov 13, 2013

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on Bare Mountain; Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis; Entr’acte to Khovanshchina. Symphonic transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski. Oliver Knussen, the Cleveland Orchestra. DG B0002123-02.

Most folks are probably familiar with Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano portraits, Pictures at an Exhibition, but fewer people have probably heard Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of them. Of course, we all know Stokowski’s rendering of Night on Bare Mountain from having seen Fantasia, and if that kind of thing appeals to you, then this disc might be right up your alley.

Critics often complained about Stokowski (and still do, long after his death) for his glamorizing of classical music, either by changing the music itself or by interpreting it differently than other conductors. Be that as it may, the fellow had (and still has) quite a following of loyal fans. Indeed, much of the man’s recorded work still impresses me, and I can understand why so many listeners adore him. This disc of Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions of several Mussorgsky works will either convert you or send you packing.

Stokowski made his version of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1939, more than a decade and a half after Ravel did his familiar reworking. My first and lasting impression of Stokowski’s version was one of greater fluency, greater poetry, and greater romanticism than the Ravel orchestration. Stokowski utilizes a lot more lush strings, which leads to much of this feeling. However, on most recordings it’s hard to tell how much of this effect is the result of Stokowski’s orchestration, or, in the case of this recording, the result of the Cleveland Orchestra and Maestro Oliver Knussen.

Anyway, the combination of Stokowski, the Cleveland players, Maestro Knussen, and the DG engineers provides us with an ultrasmooth, ultrasophisticated Pictures, much different from the Ravel arrangements I’ve gotten used to from the likes of Reiner (RCA), Muti (EMI), Maazel (Telarc), and Ansermet (Decca). In the process of refining the score, Stokowski and company render it less volatile, less explosive, and, well, less colorful. In fact, much of the color seems washed out of the work compared to the aforementioned renditions. However, the listener might find “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” fascinating for its herky-jerky dynamism, and certainly “The Great Gate of Kiev” comes across with a splendid grandeur.

More interesting for me was the shorter Entr’acte to Khovanshchina, which is direct, to the point, and incisive. Maybe it’s too short, though, for its own good. Knussen handles the other works, Night on Bare Mountain and the Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis quite well, too, although I doubt many potential buyers are looking just for these things.

I also wonder how much the DG engineers are responsible for the music’s smoothness, to the extent of having little apparent bite. The sound is so polished and comfortable and so multi-miked, one is in danger of calling it mood music. Yet the sound does not lack a deep bass or a strong dynamic impact. Curious. I think some listeners will respond to it quite favorably, especially if they have become tired of listening to the hard, shrill, bright sound found on some CDs. I didn’t find DG’s sound at all objectionable; I just didn’t find it particularly natural or realistic.

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


Nov 12, 2013

Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op. 2 (CD review)

Also, Passacaille. The Brook Street Band. Avie AV2282.

First, a word about the performers: The Brook Street Band is a group of four female musicians, frequently augmented by two or more additional players, who took their name from the London residence of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). It’s no wonder, then, that they specialize in the composer’s work and, in a nod to authenticity, play on period instruments. The Brook Street players are Rachel Harris and Farran Scott, baroque violins; Tatty Theo, who founded the group at The Queen's College, Oxford in 1995, baroque cello; Carolyn Gibley, harpsichord; and guest Lisete da Silva, flute and recorder.

Next, a word about the music: Generally speaking, composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote trio sonatas for two solo instruments plus a keyboard continuo; thus, a trio. Nevertheless, the continuo often embraced several instruments (like a bass violin or cello and some keyboard instrument like a harpsichord); so trio sonatas in actual practice can involve more than a specific disposal of instruments, particularly given that some early published editions indicate duplicate parts for the bass.

And even more about the music: Handel probably composed his six Opus 2 Trio Concertos around 1718, although he never published them immediately, and no manuscript copy exists. Nor can scholars pinpoint the exact order of their composition, despite their numbering. The present set begins with Sonata No. 3 in B flat, as good a start as any, and places No. 1 in B minor second to last. All of the sonatas alternate four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement, a pattern known as “da chiesa” (literally, “from church”). However, Handel never intended them for church service. Instead, he probably meant them merely as domestic chamber music for small gatherings, dinners, or entertainment at various London pleasure gardens.

Whatever, The Brook Street Band play them with delicacy in the slower movements and verve in the faster ones. A look at the Sonata No. 3 in B flat provides a good example. The opening Andante flows smoothly along, the instruments intertwining and interacting effortlessly in continuously graceful motions. It is both stately and comforting at the same time. The second-movement Allegro advances at a quicker, contrasting pace, yet the Band never take it so fast as to sound breathlessly exaggerated. Instead, it blends nicely with the other movements. The following Larghetto comes up sweetly inflected, never dragging, always moving forward at a light but steady gait, with some beautiful interplay among the performers. The sonata concludes with an elegantly high-stepping Allegro that brings the piece to a thrilling close.

The Brook Street Band is a group that apparently believes music should be played to be heard and enjoyed rather than fawned over for the virtuosity of its rapid-fire execution. This is music for the sake of music, not for the sake of the musicians playing it. That is to say, while the musicians are clearly virtuosos, they never draw attention to themselves at the expense of the music.

And so it goes throughout the six sonatas, each of them sounding poised and pointed, the bonus Passacaille at the end of the program uniting all of the players in a delightful little number. Even though Handel probably didn't intend for folks to listen to these works with the utmost attention, the Band force us to take notice with their joyful, precise, and accomplished musicianship. Handel was, after all, writing the pieces almost as background music, knowing full well his listeners would be eating, talking, or socializing while the music played, just as most listeners today go about their daily chores while music plays. So, Handel probably didn't mean these numbers as the concert-hall material we view them as today. Yet the Band play them as stand-alone concert pieces and demand our attentiveness through the spirit and accuracy of their approach.

What's more, by varying the instrumentation from one sonata to the next, the Band make each sonata sound new and fresh. This is especially important as Handel tended to reuse much of his own work, meaning that for many of us today who have heard a good deal of Handel, it could otherwise get a tad repetitious. It doesn't. The Brook Street Band ensures that their felicitous playing keeps everything innovative and alive. They're fun to listen to.

Simon Fox-Gal produced, engineered, and edited the album in February and March, 2013 at Raveningham Church, Norfolk, England. As with most Avie releases, this one sounds quite detailed, although it also appears rather closely miked. The musicians seem only a few feet away, and I'm not sure what occasion might prompt such proximity. In any case, there's a light ambient glow around the notes that precludes their being too hard or edgy at such a distance. Otherwise, expect reasonably quick transient attack times and a generally warm, natural response.

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


Nov 10, 2013

Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces (CD review)

Yolanda Kondonassis, harp, and various other artists. Oberlin Music OC 13004.

The idea for Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces was the brainchild of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who is not only a best-selling performer and author but heads the harp department at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Her concept for the album was to record several very personal Ravel chamber works performed by several very personal friends of the Oberlin Conservatory: faculty members, alumni, and resident artists. OK, the thematic relationships here may be tenuous, but the results are solid.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Oberlin Conservatory, it’s situated amidst Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Founded in 1865, it is the oldest continuously operating music conservatory in the United States, and in 2009 the government awarded it the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons. The Conservatory is releasing the present album on their own label, Oberlin Music, which they founded in 2007. So, yeah, Ms. Kondonassis and her friends know what they’re doing and do it well.

The first of four selections on the program is the Introduction et Allegro (1905) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The performers involved are Ms. Kondonassis, harp; Alexa Still, flute; Richard Hawkins, clarinet; and the Jupiter String Quartet (Nelson Lee, Meg Freivogel, Liz Freivogel, and Daniel McDonough). In the Introduction et Allegro we get some idea of how precarious Ravel’s position was in the musical world of the early twentieth century. Romanticism was on its way out; modernism, with all the experimentation that implies, was the coming rage. Ravel sort of straddled the line in 1905, producing a lushly Romantic, harmonic piece that clearly reflected more of the Debussy imagery of the previous century than the coming rhythms of the Stravinsky age.

Anyway, the Introduction et Allegro is lovely in every regard, the players ensuring that it floats and glides effortlessly. Needless to say, Ms. Kondonassis's harp is the star of the show, and she demonstrates with her subtly ethereal finger work why she is one of the world's leading harpists.

Next up is the String Quartet in F major, a four-movement affair that Ravel wrote in 1903, performed by the Jupiter String Quartet. The composer introduces his two primary melodies in the first movement and develops them further throughout the work. The music is very sensual in the manner and style of Debussy, with the Jupiter players giving it a heartfelt yet never overly emotional interpretation. It has a light, airy feeling to it, alway precisely articulated, with no one player dominating. The pizzicato strings of the second movement seem quite playful before falling into line with the work's more serious moods. The Jupiters display an energy and vitality in the final movement that brings the piece to a thrilling, agitated, and eventually jubilant close.

After that we find Chansons madecasses, a set of three songs Ravel wrote in 1925-26, becoming among his more controversial works for their apparent disparagement of his country's push for nationalism and ethnic solidarity. Performing the songs are Ellie Dehn, soprano; Alexa Still, flute and piccolo; Daniel McDonough, cello; and Spencer Myer, piano. Together, they produce nuanced interpretations, Ms. Dehn's voice delicate and expressive, the accompaniment beguiling.

The program wraps up with Ravel's Cinq melodies populaires grecques, performed by Ms. Dehns and Ms. Kondonassis. These five songs helped to solidify the composer's reputation for "aloofness," of being distant and, especially, apart from his countrymen and fellow musicians. Nevertheless, the apparent "inexpressivity" that many critics found in the music doesn't interfere with Dehns and Kondonassis providing exquisitely beautiful realizations of the folklike tunes. They conclude the album on a most positive and endearing note.

Recorded, mixed, and mastered by audio engineer Paul Eachus, he and producer David H. Stull made the album at Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio in January 2013. It's distanced just enough not to be right in one’s face yet close enough to provide a good deal of inner detail. Each instrument sounds clearly defined and well separated from the others, while combining realistically. There's a warm ambient glow around the notes that makes the whole affair sound quite comfortable and, well, intimate.

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


Nov 7, 2013

Opera Breve (SACD review)

Operatic transcriptions for violin and piano of music by Falla, Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Gluck, Rossini, Strauss, Gershwin, Saint-Saens, Humperdinck, and Raff. Philippe Quint, violin; Lily Maisky, piano. Avanticlassic 5414706 10402.

Fans of operatic transcriptions might enjoy the Opera Breve album. Fans of instrumental music might enjoy the album. Fans of violin and piano recitals might enjoy the album. Fans of violinist Philippe Quint and pianist Lily Maisky might enjoy the album. Fans of good sound might enjoy the album. In other words, there’s a little something for almost everybody here to enjoy, an album of music well played and well recorded.

For those of you unfamiliar with the artists, Philippe Quint is an award-winning American violinist who has performed with major orchestras internationally, received several Grammy nominations, starred in the major independent film Downtown Express, and recorded over half a dozen albums, of which Opera Breve is the second for the Avanticlassic label. He plays here on the 1708 “Ruby” Antonio Stradivari violin on loan from The Stradivari Society. Lily Maisky is a Paris-born pianist who has been playing the piano since the age of four. She, too, has performed extensively throughout the world and recorded for both DG and EMI.

As the album’s title suggests, Opera Breve is all about brief opera selections, transcribed for violin and piano by various people, including Mr. Quint himself. Things begin with the “Spanish Dance” from La Vida Breve by Manuel de Falla, in an arrangement by Fritz Kreisler. It’s a good indication of what to expect throughout the program. Quint tells us in a booklet note that “most of the recorded works are associations, reflections and memories that made me remember very significant people and moments in my life.” Fair enough. He goes on to say what some of those memories are about, but for the listener, the music alone is the thing.

Anyway, the “Spanish Dance” displays all the lively pizzazz Falla intended, Quint's violin darting and soaring through the notes, with Ms. Maisky's piano accompaniment following sympathetically. They make an enticing duo, each of them fully attuned to the other. The memory here, says Quint, is of street musicians playing the folk version of the tune. No doubt, folk musicians influenced his own playing of it, helping him provide much gusto to the rhythms.

And so it goes through "Lensky's Aria" from Tchaikovsky's Eugen Onegin, most wistful and serene; Donizetti's "Un Furtiva Lagrima" from l'Elisir d'Amore, solemn and equally serene; Gluck's "Melodie" from Orfeo et Eurydice, another number in the slow, Romantic vein Quint seems to prefer throughout the tracks.

However, the mood changes with a paraphrase on Rossini's "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville, which comes across with all the vitality and good humor of the opera. Here, it's fun to hear Quint's violin imitating the vocals, practically singing them. Next, Richard Strauss's Morgen offers a sweetly gentle follow-up to the more boisterous Rossini, played with exquisite care and attention by both Quint and Maisky.

Then we get four selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, a suite arranged by Jascha Heifetz:  "Summertime," "My Man's Gone Now," "Bess You Is My Woman Now," and "It Ain't Necessarily So." Quint shows a splendid feeling for the bluesy, jazzy atmosphere of Gershwin's songs and conveys the rich tapestry of the composer's colorful score.

The album ends with Saint-Saens's "Cantabile" from Samson et Dalila, Humperdinck's "Evening Prayer" from Hansel und Gretel, and, as a bonus, Joseph Joachim Raff's "Cavatina." They are all slow, Romantic melodies, played with much feeling, though never over-sentimentalized.

I'm not sure why Quint or the producers or whomever call the final item a bonus, though: There are only a little over fifty-three minutes of music on the program. I wish there were much more. Quint's sensitive, highly expressive playing and Ms. Maisky's admirably supportive partnership combine for one of the most-appealing albums of the year. Brief but appealing.

Avanticlassic recorded the music in hybrid two-channel/multichannel SACD at Teldex Studio, Berlin from July 12-14, 2012. As recording engineers do with quite a lot of music these days, they have recorded it rather closely, so it comes across very much in your face, and one has to play it back at a moderately low level in order for it to sound realistic. Be that as it may, the two-channel track to which I listened sounds nicely detailed, with a modest but attractive resonant bloom giving it life. The music fairly glows in this acoustic and sounds most alluring.

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


Nov 6, 2013

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (XRCD review)

Also, Liszt: Mephisto Waltz; Weinberger: Polka and Fugue; Smetana: Bartered Bride Overture; Dvorak: Carnival Overture. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24016.

This music will set you back about a buck a minute. That’s figuring you pay around forty or fifty bucks for a used copy of the disc (I don’t believe it’s in the catalogue anymore) for about forty-nine minutes of material. I want to make that clear up front; these JVC audiophile editions aren’t cheap. But I’d wager most of the folks reading this review spent a couple of grand in the past few years upgrading their equipment, no? So why not spring for the best music, too?

Maestro Fritz Reiner recorded this collection of showstoppers nearly sixty years ago when he was just starting to record with the Chicago Symphony in stereo for RCA. You can buy a couple of the items like the 1812 and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz alternatively on a mid-priced RCA “Living Stereo” CD for about a third or fourth the cost of the JVC, and on some editions you’ll get a Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony thrown in as well. So, why buy this one? Well, it sounds great. Will you notice it? I have no idea; it depends upon your playback system.

The disc includes some of the most electrifying performances ever of the 1812, Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, Jaromir Weinberger’s Polka and Fugue from Schwanda, Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride, and undoubtedly the best, most exciting version of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture I’ve ever heard.

Admittedly, however, you may find it disappointing that Reiner attacks the 1812 in a slightly abridged version and sans cannons. This is, however, a musical extravaganza all the way, not a special-effects fest, and Reiner does, indeed, make the most of the music. The final minutes, especially, are among the most thrilling on record, and the buildup to them will keep you just as riveted to your seat. With playing of the highest order from the Chicago Symphony and an interpretation that maintains the score’s musical integrity as well as its thrills, I think it would please even the composer, who famously disliked his own work.

RCA’s celebrated recording team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton made the album way back in 1955-56 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois, and JVC remastered it in 2003 using their XRCD24 K2 processing system. The now-ancient stereo sounds better than ever, dynamic in the extreme and reproduced at a fairly high playback level, which increases one’s anticipation from the outset. Just don’t have your volume set too high at the beginning. Bass sounds impressive; highs could be more open and shimmering, but they’re not bad; orchestral depth is superb; stereo spread is typically wide; and the overall smoothness sounds improved over the less-expensive “Living Stereo” transfer. I loved every minute of the program despite my over familiarity with the subject matter.

JVC as always not only meticulously pressed the disc but packaged it in a hard-cardboard Digipak container, the disc fastening to the inside rear cover. While most of the liner notes are in Japanese, what the heck. The music needs no translation. The only problem, apparently, is trying to find it.

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


Nov 4, 2013

Stravinsky: The Firebird, complete (CD review)

Also, Fireworks. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony. Naxos 8.571221.

Delos Records originally released this recording of the complete Firebird ballet with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony in 1986. Because it’s Schwarz and Delos, it means we get a typically well-controlled performance and an exceptionally clean recording. This time from Naxos, though, the disc comes at an even lower cost. Not a bad deal.

The Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote the Firebird ballet in 1910, and along with his subsequent ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), he would forever influence the nature of symphonic music, closing out the Romantic era and ushering in what today people call the Modern period of classical music. While I doubt that Stravinsky had any idea of the ultimate impact he and others of his generation were introducing into the world of music, we’re all probably the better for it. Certainly, the Firebird shows us the beginnings of these changes, although not nearly so much as the Rite of Spring would a few years afterwards.

Stravinsky had a good thing going in The Firebird. He based the ballet on various Russian folk tales he’d read about a magical bird that could grant help or harm to those who captured him. A young prince wandering through the enchanted land of Kashchei the Immortal happens upon the bird and captures him. The bird grants the prince a magic feather in return for releasing him. From there we get an adventure involving the prince, a group of lovely young maidens, an inevitable love interest, an argument between the prince and Kashchei, the usual conflict, and a final resolution courtesy of the bird. It’s all very exotic, colorful, warmhearted, and exciting.

Maestro Schwarz approaches the score above all atmospherically. There are very few histrionics going on here but rather a measured, clear-cut reading, the dynamic scope telling the tale. The opening is so quiet, you'd think the music wasn't even playing. Yet it's all very evocative, leading through a magical introduction to the entrances of the Prince and the Firebird.

Still, when the principal characters enter the scene, they do so with appropriate mystery and excitement. The Seattle Symphony's playing helps a lot here, too, sounding both refined and skillful. The "Entrance of the Enchanted Princesses" and their play with the golden apples seem especially well done, the music characterful, spirited, and enchanting. 

One of the highlights of the score for me is the gentle "Round Dance" at its center, which Schwarz manages with elegance and grace. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies Stravinsky ever wrote, and the conductor's delicacy with and respect for the music is most telling.

"Daybreak" marks the beginning of the ballet's more energetic segments, and Schwarz is no less compelling in these lively passages than he is in the more-lyrical sections. By the time we reach the climactic "Infernal Dance," we have to admire the conductor's ability to keep all the diverse elements of the score moving forward at an engrossing clip.

This is not, however, to suggest that Schwarz's version of The Firebird displaces my favorite recording by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra on Mercury. Dorati goes that one extra step beyond every other conductor of the work to make it a piece of sheer, intoxicating beauty, and no one may match Mercury's sound for clarity and power. Still, Schwarz comes close, and fans of the ballet should hear his interpretation at least once.

Accompanying The Firebird we find Stravinsky's Fireworks. It's a proper companion piece because it's the little work that so impressed Sergey Dyagilev that he encouraged Stravinsky to write The Firebird for his Ballet russes. Fireworks is kind of a tribute to the composer's teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who died before he could hear it. Although it's only a few minutes long, it has enough brilliance and intensity to make a lasting impression. Schwarz plays it with vitality and animation.

Noted recording engineer John Eargle made the album at the Seattle Center Opera House, Seattle, Washington in 1986 (Firebird) and 1988 (Fireworks). Much of the sound is subtle, fitting for the occasion, as The Firebird is mostly lovely, poetic music that needs all the subtlety an engineering team can afford it. There is a good midrange transparency involved, a wide dynamic range, a robust bass, plenty of strong impact when necessary, and a pleasantly ambient acoustic. Every note sounds clearly defined, yet with a natural bloom around it that reminds us of the actual environment of the concert hall. It makes for a most lifelike presentation, the orchestra never too wide, too narrow, or too one-dimensional. Indeed, there is plenty of depth to the orchestral field, further heightening our sense of reality.

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


Nov 3, 2013

Bach: Keyboard Works (CD review)

Hank Knox, harpsichord. EMCCD-7775.

Hank Knox has been playing the harpsichord for years, enough years to have produced dozens of record albums, toured internationally, and performed with conductors Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, Sir Roger Norrington, and Andrew Parrott, among others. He currently teaches harpsichord and continuo in the Early Music program at McGill University in Montreal, where he also conducts various instrumental and chamber music ensembles including the McGill Baroque Orchestra. But playing the harpsichord doesn’t always make one a rock star, so you may not be entirely familiar with Knox. Now you will be.

On the present album of keyboard works by German organist and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Knox performs a wide and diverse selection of the man’s work, from early to late. I must admit that while I enjoy a good harpsichord accompaniment in chamber and concerto pieces, I am not such a big fan of solo harpsichord music. Still, Knox is a creative and persuasive performer, helping me to rather enjoy what he did, performing on a replica of an eighteenth-century Dulcken harpsichord recreated by Richard Kingston.

Knox begins the program with the Toccata in E-minor, BWV 914, an early work (probably written sometime before 1710, despite its catalogue number). The piece seems fairly well represented on disc (I count about four dozen recordings listed on Amazon, with probably a few dozen more they don’t handle or are out of print), yet it may still be unknown to a lot of listeners. It usually doesn’t get as prominent a position on an album as it does here, most of the time just kind of filling up space. Anyway, it’s in three sections: an introductory Vivace, an Allegro, an Adagio, and a final Allegro in the form of a fugue. Knox plays the entire piece with spirit, but without trying to glamorize or exaggerate the rhythms. Instead, the piece sounds animated, not breathless.

Next up is the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D-minor, BWV 903, in two parts: Fantasia and Fugue. This, if anything, is even more brilliant than the preceding Toccata, with a good deal of elaborate finger work. Knox tells us in a booklet note that Bach had just bought a fancy new harpsichord at the time and may have been trying to show it off. Certainly, Knox shows off the work's ornate passages to good effect.

Then we get the Fantasy in C-minor, BWV 906, in a single movement. Although it's brief at about five minutes, it includes some of the composer's best melodies, sounding quite Romantic, actually, even if played rather more quickly than most performers would have executed it in Bach’s time.

The next selection, the three-part Ricercar a3, is interesting because it's a section of Bach's Musical Offering to King Frederick the Great. Knox handles it with subtlety and dexterity, allowing it to flow freely, with great refinement.

The final number Knox performs is the longest, Bach's Overture in the French Manner, BWV 831, which Knox informs us seems to be "an encyclopedic overview of all possible forms of keyboard composition" when Bach wrote it. Knox goes on to say it "captures the most essential elements of French harmony, rhythm, ornamentation, and form." Knox approaches the eight-part suite in an imaginative yet cultured style, varying his technique as need arises, from sweet and elegant to sprightly and energetic. Always, however, Knox appears to inform the music with period grace, making the performances feel both expressive and authentic.

Producer Hank Knox and audio engineer Brad Michel of Clarion Productions recorded the music at the Church of Saint-Augustin-de-Mirabel, Quebec, Canada in May 2012. A harpsichord can sound pretty “clangy” (if you know what I mean), especially if the recording itself is too forward or bright. However, this recording sounds just about right, capturing the instrument fairly close up yet within a natural ambience, with a satisfyingly real bloom around the presentation. The sonics are smooth (for a harpsichord), detailed, dynamic, and lifelike, with a convincing decay time adding to the illusion of reality.

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


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa