Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (XRCD24 review)

Itzhak Perlman, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Hi-Q HIQXRCD25.

Another Four Seasons? Well, yes, but not exactly. It’s an old favorite EMI recording by violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman and the London Philharmonic done up in fancy new audiophile trappings from the combo of Hi-Q, Resonance Recordings, and JVC. If you’ve always liked the Perlman performance, it now sounds better than ever. Although it comes at a price.

Since recordings of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons appear so regularly, there’s little point in my describing them. There must be a hundred discs currently available, most of them sounding pretty good, so the choice is wide open. You probably have your own favorite recording of the piece, anyway, but in the event you don’t, here is some gratuitous advice from one who has seen most of the last hundred recordings of the work go through his living room.

First, be aware that the standard recordings of the four violin concertos comprising the Four Seasons fall into three broad categories, depending upon ensemble: chamber groups using period instruments, chamber groups using modern instruments, and full orchestras (or pared-down orchestras) using modern instruments. For period groups (which I tend to favor) I love The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO Records) and La Petite Bande (Sony) for their lively, small-scale interpretations and transparent sound; and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS) for their unique style, creative playing, and equally outstanding sound. Other good period-instruments recordings include the English Concert (DG Archiv), straightforward, fresh, and closely miked, but well recorded; and Tafelmusik (Sony), one of the best all-around renditions you’ll find. Among chamber ensembles using modern instruments, I like Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields (Decca) for their almost surrealistic approach to the score; I Musici’s second recording with Roberto Michelucci (Philips) for their subtlety and grace; and Solisti Italiani (Denon) and Janine Jansen and her Ensemble (Decca) for their no-nonsense presentations.

Which brings us in a rather long-winded fashion to the big-scale accounts using modern instruments and the disc under consideration, Itzhak Perlman’s analogue LPO rendering from the mid Seventies. It is in a class of its own, and for years I have enjoyed it more than any other full-orchestral account. Now, understand, when I say full orchestra, I don’t mean to suggest that the entire London Philharmonic was in on the project. The booklet insert does not say how many members of the orchestra participated, but I suspect they reduced the numbers quite a lot, making the sound a touch leaner than it might have been otherwise. On the other hand, the accompaniment appears a tad fuller than on any of the chamber recordings, so I’m counting this as a full-orchestral account.

Perlman is the solo violinist and the conductor in the performance, and the whole affair is as satisfying today as when I first heard it over thirty-five years ago. I’ve owned it on LP and on several previous CDs, and it continues to impress me. The interpretation may not be as vigorous as some of its smaller-ensemble rivals, but there’s an elegance and serenity about it that’s hard to resist. It is a smooth, relaxed, unforced, effortless reading that goes a long way toward negating any criticism of the work.

Perlman shows us he has always been a world-class violist with his smooth, supremely confident reading. Although this may not be the most-demanding material ever written for the violin, Perlman handles it with eloquence, grace, and refinement, all the while maintaining a lively, yet never hurried pace. His mastery of the violin is remarkable to hear, especially as it all seems to flow so easily and naturally. Perlman never indulges in extroverted mannerisms or flashy finger work for its own sake; he simply plays the music in a thoughtful, caring, and wholly engaging style that is captivating. Interestingly, it's his execution of the slow middle movements that are the most-charming parts of the playing and second to none on record.

What’s more, EMI’s analogue audio (recorded in 1976, digitally remastered in 1987, reissued by EMI in 2010, and remastered by HI-Q and JVC in 2013) is vintage EMI, among the best you will find in this piece. Producer Suvi Raj Grubbe and engineer Stuart Eltham recorded the music in May 1976 in Abbey Studio’s celebrated Studio No. 1. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot of deep bass or extreme sonic impact, but there doesn’t need to be; nor is there an abundance of depth to the sound stage, but, again, there doesn’t need to be. The violin appears well integrated into the acoustic field, in front of the orchestra but not sitting in our laps, and the violin tone is pure and natural. It’s clean, clear, warm sound that does nothing but contribute to one’s enjoyment of the music.

In the JVC/Hi-Q remastering and transfer, the sound is marginally tighter and more transparent than in the regular-issue EMI, with a more-realistic luster to the strings and a bit more-prominent decay time. The sound had better be improved, of course, given the higher price involved, yet there is no doubting the Hi-Q's greater transparency; if you have the right playback equipment, the differences will be worthwhile. Certainly, a performance as fluid and praiseworthy as this one deserves the best-possible sound.

However, this new release does bring up one obvious comparison: LIM’s remastered Four Seasons from Joseph Silverstein, Seiji Ozawa, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, originally recorded by Telarc in 1981. Both the Hi-Q and LIM discs will give your pocketbook a workout, and both of them sound better than their equivalent standard-issue products. The Hi-Q has the marginally smoother, more lively performance; the LIM has the slightly more dimensional sound. I suppose owning them both is the best choice, but it’s a costly one. If I had to choose just one? I dunno. It’s not a choice I have to make. It’s a weaselly answer, I know, but if you already have a favorite between the two performances, I’d go with the interpretation I liked best.

Be aware, too, that you can get the same Perlman performance on the low-cost EMI release I alluded to earlier, along with three companion pieces--the Violin Concertos RV 199, 347, and 356--made digitally a few years later (1982-83) with the Israel Philharmonic. It makes a fine, bargain issue, but it isn’t up to the audiophile standards of the current Hi-Q. Nor does it compare to the Hi-Q’s snazzy new packaging, which includes a glossy, hardcover Digipak-type case with bound notes, the disc fastening to the inside back cover.

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