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:


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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