Jan 30, 2014

Paraiso (UltraHD CD review)

Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax, with Jane Duboc, vocals; Jazz Brazil. FIM Lim UHD 074 LE.

Before actually sitting down to listen to this album critically, I probably heard it all the way through about half dozen times as background music. You see, around Christmas time the Wife-O-Meter discovered it sitting on the audio cabinet among a dozen other things waiting for review, and she thought it might be perfect dinner music for guests we had coming over. She fell in love with the Brazilian jazz album Paraiso and played it again and again whenever we had company. So, by the time I did got to listen to it attentively, it already felt like an old friend.

Legendary jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996) seemed like an old friend, too. He was playing “cool” jazz when I was a kid growing up in the Fifties. He made Paraiso in 1993, near the end of his career, for Telarc Records, and it became one of his most-popular albums (although I admit  I had never heard it until the present remaster). According to jazz critic and broadcaster Neil Tesser in a booklet note, “Gerry Mulligan discovers Brazil? That might seem an appropriate title for this, his first recording devoted to the richly flavored, intoxicating music that came stateside three decades ago and decided to stay. In the spirit of that most famous Brazilian-U.S. collaboration--between Jobim and Stan Getz--this one finds at its heart a surprising singer and a saxophonist of uncommon invention. Yet on Paraiso (Portuguese for Paradise), the partnership extends even to the compositions themselves: true American hybrids of North and South, for which the legendary jazz man himself wrote the melodies and Brazilian vocalist Jane Duboc concocted the lyrics.”

In addition to Ms. Duboc, a number of others join Mulligan to make the album come to life: Emanuel Moreira, guitar; Waltinho Anastaeio, percussion; Charlie Ernst, piano; Leo Traversa, bass; Peter Grant, drums; Norberta Goldberg, percussion; Cliff Korman, piano; Rogerio Maio, bass; and Duduka DaFonseea, drums. Together, they make beautiful music.

The songs all have a fine Brazilian atmosphere to them, with persuasive elements of bossa nova, samba, and chorinho (“little lament”), and while I couldn't understand the Portuguese lyrics, it didn't matter; the music's the thing. (The booklet notes do provide translations, but then they qualify the translations by saying they didn’t intend them as English lyrics. I guess the words don't translate well or go with the music or something.)

Anyway, the merging of Mulligan's soft, mellow sax, Ms. Duboc's fluid, honeyed voice, and the music's sweet, lyrical rhythms is hard to resist. Interestingly, even when the music is upbeat and swinging, there's a touch of melancholy one cannot miss (perhaps that “little lament” influence). It gives the tunes a slightly nostalgic, though never sentimental air, tinged with a warm, golden, nuanced glow. It's no wonder the Wife-O-Meter fell in love with the disc.

Incidentally, I had meant to point out a few numbers I liked best, but ultimately I couldn't make up my mind; they were all impressive. There are eleven tracks on the album, each selection lasting from about four minutes to a little over eight, some sixty minutes’ worth in all. It makes for a great hour.

As always, FIM do up the package in a hard-cardboard foldout container, with bound notes and an inner bound sleeve for the disc, which gets further protection via a static-proof, dust-proof liner.

Producers John Snyder and Gerry Mulligan, recording engineer Jack Renner, mix engineer Michael Bishop, and executive producer Robert Woods originally made the recording for Telarc Records in July 1993 at Clinton Recording Studios, Studio A, New York, NY.  Producer Winston Ma, mastering engineer Michael Bishop, and Five/Four Productions combined to remaster the recording in 2013 using 32-bit UltraHD technology and FIM’s PureFlection replication process.

The relatively small size of the various instrumental groupings participating in the music making lends itself to a fairly transparent sound, yet one with plenty of ambient bloom to provide a realistic feeling of being there with the musicians. What's more, there is a genuine sense of dimensionality involved, with air and space around the instruments. The sax sounds always mellifluous and sometimes mournful; the vocals are perfectly natural at all times; and the percussion, especially, appear vivid and taut. Factor in a smooth overall response, wide frequency extremes, and a strong dynamic impact, and you get a vivid, lifelike sonic experience.

More good news, especially for audiophiles who enjoy the sound of vinyl: Producer Winston Ma and First Impression Music have made Paraiso available on LP, mastered by the same award-winning engineer, Michael Bishop, who did the original recording. Knowing FIM, the sound cannot be anything but terrific.


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

Jan 29, 2014

Bax: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Also, Tintagel. David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.557145.

English composer Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) wrote tone poems in the first half of the twentieth century. Whether he called them “symphonies” or not, they were either genuine tone poems or collections of tone poems strung together into longer symphonic works. The two compositions represented on this disc illustrate the point: his final symphony, the Seventh Symphony (1939), and his most-famous short piece, Tintagel (1919).

Tintagel, of course, is Bax’s depiction of the rocky precipice on the west coast of Cornwall that mythologists and researchers think may have been the birthplace of the legendary King Arthur. Whether it really was Arthur’s birthplace or whether there really was a King Arthur is beside the point; Tintagel, the place, really exists. Like the actual location, the short, symphonic tone picture is all about rugged seascapes, craggy cliffs, and splashes of ocean spray. It’s a wonderfully evocative bit of music, which Maestro Lloyd-Jones exploits nicely. However, Tingagel tends to upstage the disc’s main attraction, the Symphony No. 7, which sounds a mite lightweight by comparison in its gentle Romanticism, as well as sounding somewhat imitative of Bax’s earlier work.

Anyhow, as I say, David Lloyd-Jones, who finished up his complete Bax cycle for Naxos, again served the music well with this recording, although I thought his interpretation this time out was a tad on the soft, leisurely side. Tintagel, especially, has more bite, more luster, and a more rough-and-tumble vigor in the hands of conductors Bryden Thomson (Chandos) and Sir Adrian Boult (Lyrita). What’s more, those recordings sound better, have greater range, and more transparency than the slightly bland-sounding Naxos disc.

Needless to say, however, the Naxos disc has the advantage of price, which may be its strongest attraction. After all, if you’ve never heard Tintagel before, you might not want to spend the money on a full-price disc just to hear it. In any case, you can’t go far wrong with this Naxos disc, and if you do like it, you can check out the even better Thomson and Boult recordings (the Boult-Lyrita disc being among my favorite recordings of anything).


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

Jan 27, 2014

Ravel & Scriabin: Piano Music (CD review)

HJ Lim, piano. Warner Classics 50999 9 14509 2 0.

The young Korean pianist HJ Lim charged onto the musical scene with a popular YouTube video of Rachmaninov and Chopin, followed by an appearance in Paris where she performed the complete Beethoven sonatas, followed still by an EMI Classics recording of the complete sonatas. When I reviewed the EMI set, I found Ms. Lim’s playing wonderfully virtuosic, her performances remarkably intelligent, if highly idiosyncratic, and her personal appearance strikingly photogenic. It was certainly a winning combination for any performer, and it’s no wonder Warner Classics (the new owners of EMI Classics) wanted to follow up the Beethoven with this album of music by Ravel and Scriabin.

The thing is, I thought Ms. Lim’s playing of the Beethoven sonatas a tad too eccentrically clinical for my taste and not quite introspective enough (at least compared to the many older pianists who have essayed the field). It was as though she were using the music to show off her virtuosic talents rather than use her talents to show off the music. Anyway, I found her performances of these Ravel and Scriabin pieces a bit more to my taste. 

Ms. Lim begins the program with the little Valses nobles et sentementales by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) where she demonstrates that she is still a belter, a tad heavy-handed in the bigger moments yet able to communicate the French composer’s soft, dreamy atmosphere when necessary. Nonetheless, under Lim these semi-waltzes never fall into sentimentality but maintain a steadfast twentieth-century mood of defiance. There is much variety in Ravel's colorful, evocative tone pictures, and Ms. Lim exploits the best of it with delicacy and precision. She isn't quite as dreamy as some pianists in Ravel's music, yet she communicates a quiet grace.

Next up we find several brief piano sonatas (Nos. 4 and 5), a couple of poems (Nos. 1 and 2), and a waltz (Op. 38), all by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Under Lim, No. 4 comes off with a gentle touch, No. 5 with a more fiery yet vaguely erotic tone, the poems properly contrasting, and the waltz "smooth and easy" as Scriabin himself described it. Each of them comes wrapped in Scriabin's usual Romantic mysticism, although Ms. Lim is careful to include his more fiery side as well.

The program concludes with one of Ravel's most-famous pieces on the disc, La Valse. Ravel had intended it in its orchestral form as the basis for a ballet, which the impresario Sergei Diaghilev rejected, calling it "a portrait of a ballet...a picture of a ballet," but not a ballet. In any case, audiences have loved immensely both the orchestral version of La Valse and the piano version we get here. More important to this review, Ms. Lim addresses the piece with intensity, power, and sensitivity. Ravel's ironic representation of the traditional waltz appears not lost on Lim, who well captures the work's intricacies.

Some listeners may continue to find Ms. Lim's playing a bit too analytical for them. Still, one can hardly doubt her personal commitment in these performances and the care with which handles every note and phrase.

Producer Andrew Cornall and engineer Philip Siney recorded the music for Warner Classics at The Friary, Liverpool, England in 2012. The recording does a good job capturing the sound of Ms. Lim’s Yamaha SFX 6295700 piano; I’m just not sure it’s the best-sounding piano in the world. While very clear, the Yamaha doesn’t seem to have the rich, mellifluous tones of a Steinway, instead producing what seems to me a slightly more strident sound. In any case, the sound of the recording is very clean, with excellent transparency and a quick transient response, matching the type of performances Ms. Lim provides. The Liverpool location displays a moderate miking distance and a modest degree of resonance, helping the piano to come through with excellent transparency most of the time, with only a few mild instances of cool or severe sound. The piano also appears well positioned between the speakers, never stretching the full length between them. Because the overall lucidity of the recording agrees with Ms. Lim’s reasoned approach to the scores, as I say, it’s no doubt a good fit.


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

Jan 26, 2014

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery. Orchestrated and conducted by Peter Breiner, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573016.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) originally wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a piano suite. He called his little tone poems “sound pictures,” but they didn’t catch on too well with the public. Years afterward, several people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded versions being the one by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 and to a lesser extent the one by Leopold Stokowski in 1939. From Ravel’s orchestration on, the music took off and became the basic-repertoire piece we know today. And that brings us to the current recording, a new orchestration of the work by the noted Slovak pianist, composer, and conductor Peter Breiner, which Breiner conducts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

In a booklet note, Maestro Breiner tells us, “In this recording I was trying not to re-create Mussorgsky’s orchestral sound, but a contemporary sound instead. I wanted to achieve this without using any unusual instruments and to stay within the limits of the traditional symphony orchestra, but with a substantial expansion in woodwind and percussion as well as unusual combinations and settings.... At the end a body of 104 musicians produces quite a spectacular sound in The Great Gate of Kiev.” How well you may like this new version and how you take to Breiner’s playing of it are, of course, matters of taste. From my own perspective, I found it a bit more difficult to get over Maestro’s Breiner’s rather overly relaxed conducting than his own orchestration of the music.

For example, I can't help thinking that some listeners might be a little disappointed with the opening Promenade, which Breiner takes at an almost-funereal pace, at least compared to more-common interpretations from the likes of Reiner, Ansermet, Slatkin, Maazel, and such. Not that Breiner's approach isn't justified, however; many people enjoy taking their time wandering through art museums, studying and enjoying each picture in their own leisurely fashion. It’s just that in terms of a musical performance, it doesn't always make for the most exciting or dramatic reading.

And so it goes, with Breiner providing slower than usual tempos throughout but compensating with huge dynamic contrasts as well. The results are certainly different, making some things like The Gnome more characterful (or grotesque, depending) than usual. Moreover, The Old Castle is appropriately gloomy; the peasant oxcart is properly lumbering, even more so than is customary, its pace punctuated by loud thumps from the percussion section; The Ballet of the Chicks is sweet and dancing; the marketplace bustles with energy and activity; and the Catacombs are suitably dark and eerie.

Which brings us to the two closing items, The Hut on Fowl's Legs, the hut of Baba Yaga the witch, and then the imposing Great Gate of Kiev, both of which come off well enough in Breiner's new version and under his easygoing direction. The Hut is especially impressive with its new percussive elements, and even though The Great Gate is slower than we normally hear it, it conveys a significant power and grandeur.

As I mentioned, Breiner says he wanted to create a more contemporary sound with his new orchestration, which he probably does. With all the added woodwinds, it's a smoother, warmer, more sophisticated sound, yet it's one that can also appear leaner than we get from Ravel, despite the expanded number of players. Then, too, while Breiner was going for a more contemporary sound, the added bells and percussion tend to make the whole affair seem more reminiscent of nineteenth-century Russia than modern Russia. In any case, it's a calm, plush, well-upholstered sound that is easy on the ears, helped further by the Naxos engineers.

Coupled to the Pictures we get two lesser-known Mussorgsky works: Songs and Dances of Death and The Nursery, both made up of songs arranged for orchestra by Maestro Breiner. They fluctuate from light and lovely to heavy and grim, always a touch melancholy, and continually fascinating.

Producer Wayne Laird and engineer Paul McGlashan recorded the music for Naxos at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand in February 2012. The sonic experience they obtained is typical of Naxos: big and bold, with a wide stereo spread, a mild reverberation, and, in this case, a good depth of field. Although the midrange is a tad soft, the bass and treble sound well extended. Good, strong dynamics complement the presentation and provide for a reasonably realistic hall sound.


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

Jan 23, 2014

Sharon Kam: Opera! (CD review)

Sharon Kam, clarinet; Ruben Gazarian, Wurttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn. Berlin Classics 0300547BC.

The last time I reviewed a recording from clarinetist Sharon Kam, it was of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on Berlin Classics, and I loved every minute of it. I loved it so much, in fact, that I listed it among my favorite albums of 2011. This time she is working with the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn under conductor Ruben Gazarian, and the subject matter is quite different--opera transcriptions for clarinet and orchestra. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it almost as much as the Mozart, and the Berlin Classics sound is as good as ever. It is an engaging disc all the way around.

Ms. Kam’s idea for the program was with the help of arranger Andreas N. Tarkmann to “trawl the rich stocks of Italian vocal music for suitable works and compile them into an interesting, diversified programme and then to write arrangements for clarinet and orchestra.” Ms. Kam explains to us that her husband is an opera conductor who one day told her, “If you love opera so much, why not go operatic yourself!” Which is what she has done on this album of music by Verdi, Puccini, Ponchielli, Wolf-Ferrari, and a strong helping of Rossini.

First up is a good example of the rest of the program, Rossini's "Del periglio al fero aspetto" from Maometti II, in which Ms. Kam's clarinet sings as sweetly as any vocalist could. The interesting thing throughout the album is that Ms. Kam never tries merely to offer up a collection of greatest hits. Indeed, unless you are a devoted opera fan, you may not recognize a lot of these tunes. Instead, Ms. Kam has found operatic music that particularly complements the soaring lyricism of her instrument. The combination is felicitous, to say the least.

Next, we find a collection of things from Giuseppe Verdi, normally piano-accompanied vocals that work exceptionally well for clarinet and orchestra. Incidentally, I should add that the chamber orchestra accompanying Ms. Kam plays smoothly and sympathetically under the sensitive direction of Maestro Gazarian. Anyway, these Verdi pieces are lush and lovely, and, in the case of the last item, bouncy, the playing from everyone, especially Ms. Kam, exquisite.

Following the Verdi is Rossini's little “Bolero,” a song he composed for fortepiano and voice. It is filled with charming melodies, which Ms. Kam exploits nicely, her clarinet floating gently in and out harmoniously in folklike sequences of romance and sentiment.

After that we get three tunes by Giacomo Puccini, operatic-influenced songs he wrote for piano accompaniment. Ms. Kam well captures the flavor of their bel canto nature. Then it's on to Amilcare Ponchielli and the chamber piece Paolo e Virginia, the only work on the program originally written with a clarinet in mind. Andreas N. Tarkmann says in a booklet note it's like “a little instrumental opera scene,” quite dramatic in its robust phrasing.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari gets a series of four tracks next, each of them originally intended as purely instrumental music--intermezzos and ballet interludes. This suite comes off as a kind of clarinet concerto, filled with happy, energetic, enthusiastic playing throughout. 

The disc ends with Rossini's "Nacqui all'affano" from La Cenerentola. It's typical Rossini and probably the song on the program most familiar to listeners, music overflowing with good cheer and performed in virtuosic style.

I don't usually like albums that contain bits and pieces of things, but with Ms. Kam's offering I have to make an exception. Her playing is so uniquely affecting and the arrangements so refreshing, the disc may go down as an early favorite of the year.

Producer, engineer, and editor Eberhard Hinz recorded the music for Berlin Classics at Harmonie/Theodor-Heuss-Saal, Heilbronn in 2013. Although the supporting ensemble and the venue are different from Ms. Kam’s previous album, the sound engineer remains the same, so it’s no wonder we get a similarly good recording. The clarinet sounds beautifully integrated into the acoustic field, just ahead of the orchestra but not so close as be unnatural. The midrange appears as clear and lifelike as you could ask for, and the frequency extremes, which are hardly a concern in any case, are more than adequate. There is also a warm, ambient glow to the music that is most attractive, the clarinet offering up fresh, pure, mellifluous tones.

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

Jan 22, 2014

Rameau: Dardanus, orchestral suite (CD review)

Also, Le Temple de la Glorire, instrumental music. Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik Media TMK1012CD.

Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) is the eighteenth-century French composer and musical theorist who took up music late in life and turned the operatic world upside down with his then-revolutionary ideas. Some critics greeted his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, with scepticism, but they came eventually to accept it. By the time the two operas represented on this disc--Dardanus and Le Temple de la Glorire--rolled around, the composer had well established his reputation.

What we have on the present album are not the complete operas, of course, but a selection of instrumental music from the operas, suites if you will, compiled by conductor Jeanne Lamon for her Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. It represented the first time Ms. Lamon and Tafelmusik had recorded music of the French baroque period.

The individual pieces on the program comprise overtures, airs, minuets, gigues, gavottes, and the like, and they represent a fair sampling of Rameau’s many varied moods and styles. Needless to say, Tafelmusik, playing on period instruments and in historical style, perform them with the ensemble’s usual efficiency, refinement, and precision. More important, Tafelmusik play with verve; that is, their enthusiasm always shows, making these works more than a collection of museum pieces but brilliant, vibrant music that comes alive for the listener.

I have no idea if Ms. Lamon’s switch some years ago from Sony Classical to CBC Records (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and then more recently to their own label benefited Tafelmusik in terms of distribution and monetary reward; I know the big record labels had to drop a lot of their artists for financial reasons. I also know the switch benefitted the listener because Ms. Lamon and Tafelmusik’s recordings for CBC and now Tafelmusik Media have been consistently good.

The music, originally recorded by CBC in 2001 and re-released here on Tafelmusik Media, sounds as good as ever. The sonics remain crisp, open, clean, and entirely natural, set against the backdrop of an entirely lifelike acoustic. Indeed, the quality of the recording rivals my longtime favorite Rameau recording, Hippolyte et Aricie with La Petite Bande on EMI Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.  It’s that good.

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

Jan 20, 2014

Schumann: Carnival (CD review)

Also, Faschingsschwank aus Wein. Susan Merdinger, piano. Sheridan Music Studio 8-84501-93323-0.

What is a Steinway Artist? As the folks at Steinway put it, “Without them, a Steinway piano is silent. But together, the artist and piano create music--such beautiful music that most professional pianists choose to perform only on Steinway pianos. For decades Steinway & Sons has cultivated special relationships with pianists from every genre. From classical pianists like Lang Lang, to jazz stars like Diana Krall, to pop icons like Billy Joel, to ‘immortals’ like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Arthur Rubinstein--more than 1,600 artists make the Steinway their own.” Pianist Susan Merdinger is a Steinway Artist.

Ms. Merdinger received her formal education at Yale University, the Yale School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, the Westchester Conservatory of Music, and the Ecole Normale de Musique, Fontainebleau, France, and is a recipient of numerous scholarships and awards. Among other things, Ms. Merdinger has won the 1986 Artists International Young Musicians Competition, the 1990 Artists International Alumni Winners Prize, the 1990 Dewar’s Young Artists Award in Music, the 2011 IBLA Grand Prize Competition “Special Liszt Award,” the 2009 Masterplayers International Music Competition, the 2012 Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition, and the 2013 International Music Competition of France.

What’s more, she is a laureate of the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition, Montreal International Concours de Musique, and William Kappell International Piano Competition. Additionally, as one part of the Merdinger-Greene Duo Piano Team with her husband Steven Greene, she won First Prize in the 2013 International Music Competition of France and First Prize in the Westchester Conservatory Chamber Music Competition and was a Semi-Finalist in the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition.

Although Ms. Merdinger’s name may not be as familiar to most listeners as some other concert pianists in the field, she has been performing internationally to great acclaim for several decades. On the present album she tackles Robert Schumann’s Carnival and does so with the expected ease of a Steinway Artist, as a thorough and gifted professional.

In Carnaval (“Carnival”), subtitled Little Scenes on Four Notes, Op. 9 (1834-35) German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote a series of brief piano pieces portraying various revelers at a masked ball during Carnaval, a festival held immediately before Lent in largely Catholic countries. In these short musical tone poems the composer represented himself, his friends, and his associates, as well as a few offhand characters from Italian comedy. A returning theme unites the twenty-one piano pieces, which contain, according to Schumann, coded puzzles of four notes each. He further suggested that "deciphering my masked ball will be a real game for you."

We’ll let the puzzles be and concentrate on the music, which Ms. Merdinger plays with consummate skill, despite the great technical difficulty in performing it. (In Schumann’s own day, few pianists attempted the piece, and Chopin, who took a dim view of Schumann’s work in general, apparently didn’t even consider it music.) Anyway, I would now have to count Ms. Merdinger’s account of Carnaval among the outstanding recordings of the score, recordings that include in my experience those of Alicia De Larrocha, Cecile Licad, Mitsuko Uchida, Nelson Freire, Claudio Arrau, and a few others I’ve probably forgot. Unlike some of these pianists, though, what characterizes Ms. Merdinger’s interpretations is her razor-sharp delineations of each piece. Yes, of course, she is sweet and mellifluous and flowing and vibrant and all the rest when necessary, and, no, she’s not quite as patrician as Arrau or as penetrating as De Larrocha, yet she is able to depict each of the people in Schumann’s collection with a clarity and precision that is almost surgical. Not that she is distant or overly analytical, however; her readings are warm and colorful, drawing fully on Schumann’s imaginative writing.

Ms. Merdinger's playing is from the outset radiant, energetic, and aesthetically poised. When she needs to apply bravura showmanship, she's ready; when she needs a delicate touch, she's there; when she needs charisma or charm or poignancy, she's on top of the game. These portrayals of Schumann's characters and events sound beautiful, precise, and exciting. The big moments come through with enthusiasm and the soft moments are heartfelt. I loved every minute of her presentation.

Accompanying Carnaval is Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wein ("Carnival Scenes from Vienna"), Op. 26 (1839), subtitled Phantasiebilder ("Fantasy Images"). Like its more-popular sibling, it, too, paints a series of pianistic images, although fewer of them. As in Carnaval, Ms. Merdinger delivers them in a concise, creative, expressive, utterly pleasing manner.

Engineer Mary Mazurek and editor Mark Travis recorded Carnival in 2011 at WFMT Studio, Chicago, Illinois and Faschingsschwank aus Wien in 2012 at Nicholas Hall, Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois. The piano sound in both works is dynamic and fairly close, with excellent body, clarity, and definition, perhaps a tad softer in the Music Institute location. There is enough natural resonance in each room to provide a realistic presence yet not so much as to veil detail. It's among the more-appealing piano sounds I've heard; very lifelike.

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


Jan 19, 2014

The Spirit of Turtle (SACD/Blu-ray review)

A Collection of the Most Innovative High-End Audio Recordings by Northstar Recording. Various artists. Turtle Records TRSA75538.

It’s a standard Redbook CD. It’s an SACD. It’s a Blu-ray disc. It’s FLAC file in PCM surround and stereo. It’s in two-channel stereo. It’s in 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s in 2.0-channel LPCM. Yes, it’s an audiophile release. Or, more precisely, it’s a two-disc box set from Northstar Recording Services and Turtle Records, a sampler of some of their best work, jazz and classical, from over a dozen of their previously released albums.

As the folks at Northstar explain it, “This High Definition Surround Recording was produced, engineered and edited by Bert van der Wolf of Northstar Recording Services, using the ‘High quality Musical Surround Mastering’ principle. The basis of this recording principle is a realistic and holographic 3 dimensional representation of the musical instruments, voices and recording venue.” You’ll find the music in multiple formats, including regular two-channel stereo playable on any CD player; two-channel and 5.1 SACD playable on a Super Audio Compact Disc player; and LPCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio multichannel from a Blu-ray player. There’s a little something here for everyone, but even though I have a Blu-ray player in my home-theater room, I listened mainly in two-channel SACD in my living system (going to the 5.1 DTS-HD MA format later for comparison purposes).

The idea behind these recordings is to capture, as the company says, “only the music.” Turtle Records, dCS, Northstar Recordings Services, and Kompas CD Multimedia have been doing this sort of thing for years, and the current discs include material from two decades of recording, all of them remastered and updated for a variety of today’s audio formats. I won’t try to cover everything, but I will mention a few of the tracks that stand out.

First up is what producer and engineer Bert van der Wolf says is the very first Turtle Records production, "Teardrops for Jimmy" with Tony Overwater and Maarten Ornstein. The pair play soft, quiet jazz, very pleasant, and the sound is most lifelike in its clarity and definition, yet warm and natural, too.

Next, we hear the Marc van Roon Trio doing "Noodling Effect," three guys just noodling around, improvising, on their instruments: piano, percussion, and bass. The music didn't particularly interest me, but the dimensionality of the sound is impressive, the clearly perceived distances between each player and their location within the recording environment.

The third selection is with a big ensemble, the Netherlands Philharmonic under Mario Venzago playing an excerpt from Gershwin's An American in Paris. The performance provides vigor and excitement, while the sound is remarkably transparent for a big group of players, the clarity and dynamics making one wish we had the whole thing to hear. Which, I suppose, is the point of any sampler--to persuade the listener to buy the complete album from which the music comes.

And so it goes, each track a delight to the ears. Among the things I liked best I would include Michael Gees improvising on a piano piece by Erik Satie; lovely and beautifully recorded. Then there's the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony exhibiting enormous impact, probably as much power as I've ever heard in a recording of this work. Christoph Pregardien singing Schumann's "Mein Wagen rollet langsam" sounds sweet and nuanced, both artistically and sonically. I also couldn't help liking the concluding track, "Mars," performed by Dean Peer and Ty Burhoe; it's audiophile the whole way with its precisely defined percussion, quick transient response, and wide-ranging dynamics. All of it fun stuff.

Two concerns, though: First, Turtle Records have packaged the two discs in a 5” x 10” longbox, as pictured above, rather than in a regular double jewel case. The two discs fasten to the top of an inside cardboard platform, and a twelve-page booklet stretches the length of the box. When I used to review movies, some of the studios would send out special box sets, too, and the problem was that I never knew where to put them. The longbox doesn’t fit on an ordinary record shelf, so you can’t really put it in among your other discs. You have to find a special place for the box or maybe keep it in a closet. Of course, you could always jerry-rig a jewel case or Blu-ray case for the two discs, but that doesn’t solve the issue of the booklet notes being the length of the original box. I dunno. Maybe you like special gift boxes and stack them in a corner or proudly display them somewhere. I dunno. A minor concern. Second, Turtle Records have priced the set rather high. For some people, maybe not a minor concern.


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

Jan 16, 2014

Live Is Life (UltraHD CD review)

Arne Domnerus and his young friends. Proprius PRUHD 914 LE.

Anyone who likes Jazz at the Pawnshop, which includes anyone who likes good jazz and great sound, will undoubtedly like Live Is Life. It’s basically more of the same. The album features the same star performer, saxophonist Arne Domnerus, and Five/Four Productions and First Impression Music have helped Proprius Records remaster it in the UltraHD format that renders audiophile sonics. Except for its price, the package seems pretty hard to resist.

Arne Domnerus (1924-2008) was probably the most-famous Swedish jazz saxophonist in the history of Swedish jazz. He was practically a national institution, so enthusiasts cherished almost any recording by the man. Jazz at the Pawnshop and Live Is Life, because of the additional benefits of their excellent sound, are among Domnerus’s most-popular albums. In Live Is Life, Swedish vibraphonist Lars Erstrand (1936-2009) joins Domnerus, along with pianist Jan Lundren, bassist Hans Backenroth, and drummer Rasmus Kihlberg.

The music itself is of the plush, laid-back variety, relaxing, never raucous, piercing, or too far out of the old-fashioned jazz mainstream. Domnerus and his colleagues know what dedicated jazz enthusiasts want and pretty much give it to them in fresh arrangements of old favorites that sound improvisational yet well rehearsed at the same time. It all comes through with a polished professionalism that probably earns them new fans to this day. Certainly, Live Is Life shows these performers at their best.

The program contains fourteen selections for a generous seventy-five minutes of material. Among the tunes you may recognize are Benny Goodman’s “Flying Home,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A-Train,” Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing,” Gene Krupa’s “Drum Boogie,” and Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You.” Among my own favorites are "Prelude to a Kiss" for its great vibraphone work; Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" for its energy and commitment; Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" for its remarkable percussion work (and sound); and Raymond Hubbell's "Poor Butterfly" for its lyrical beauty. The performers are swinging when they need to be and just as often poignant when necessary.

Producer Jacob Boethius and engineer Gert Palmcrantz originally recorded Live Is Life for Proprius Music at the Club Doppingen, Uppsala, Sweden in 1995, using Didrik de Geer’s microphones for optimum stereo effect. FIM producer Winston Ma and Five/Four Productions’ producers and engineers Michael Bishop, Robert Friedrich, and Thomas C. Moore remastered the album in 2013 using Ultra High Definition 32-bit technology. The result is a live recording with excellent presence and sense of occasion.

If you’ve familiar with Proprius’s Jazz at the Pawnshop, you’ll know what to expect from the sound of  Live Is Life. It’s that of a live performance in a small nightclub. There is an uncannily vivid sense of air and space around the instruments, with a wide dynamic range and an extended frequency response. Not only is the bass impressive, but the highs are clear and shimmering as any you’ll hear on record. It’s a truly reach-out-and-touch-it experience; one of those recordings where you feel as though you really are sitting in the audience with a small jazz ensemble playing a few yards away. You get the full impact of the instruments, with all their sonic nuances captured in a natural environment. You are simply there, the sound well defined, well etched, transparent yet with just enough of a lifelike ambient bloom and resonance to create the illusion of actually being in the time and place of the event. The cymbals glisten and shine, the drums are taut, and the sax, vibraphone, piano, and bass are mellow and vibrant respectively. It’s an impressive achievement.

As always, the premium price brings you a premium package: The disc comes in a hardback, book-like container with sixteen pages of bound notes. The CD has its own static-proof liner, housed in an inner paper sleeve. Is it worth the extra cost, considering that the standard Proprius product costs half as much? For audiophiles, even small improvements in sound may be enough to justify higher prices, and there’s no doubting this thing sounds darned good.

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


Jan 15, 2014

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves (CD review)

Also, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; In the Fen Country; Concerto Grosso. James Judd, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.555867.

I can’t think of a nicer way to spend five or ten bucks. This little Naxos disc is as lovely a way to spend an evening listening to music as I can think of.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) may not have begun the trend toward English pastoral music in the early twentieth century, but he was certainly one of the movement’s leading practitioners. Starting as early as 1900 with his aptly named Bucolic Suite, the man continued to produce charming, serene, idyllic tunes for full orchestra, strings, and chorus right up until the time of his death. In this Naxos collection, English conductor James Judd leads the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in some of the composer’s most famous short works.

The Fantasia on Greensleeves lends its name to the album, but I’m sure that’s only because it’s one of Vaughan Williams’s most-popular pieces. Judd takes it at a tempo that is a little more vigorous than we normally hear it, but which invests it with a new life and temperament. While this approach may seem a bit more distanced from its subject matter than that of some other conductors, Judd’s is a pleasant take on an old subject without doing any serious harm to the spirit of the work. The conductor’s rendering of the other pieces, like the Tallis Fantasia and Norfolk Rhapsody, seems more traditional, while his Fen Country appears more gentle and flowing than ever.

The Concerto Grosso, the newest composition of the group, written in 1950, is also the least rustic.  Vaughan Williams originally intended it for something like four hundred strings, a mighty big production, and while it shows only hints of the folk-music idiom the other pieces rather thrive on, it is perhaps the least Vaughan Williams-like and the least-familiar work in the set. Under Maestro Judd, however, it makes a nice contrast to the other melodies on the agenda, and Judd brings out most of the work’s splendor.

The sound we get from the New Zealand players may not be in a class with the Philharmonia or the London Philharmonic, but it is plenty good, nevertheless, thanks in part to Naxos’s wide stereo spread and warm, smooth sonics. Inner detail is not particularly telling, but the overall tonal balance is quite natural, which more than makes up for any minor deficiencies. If you cannot find or cannot afford the classic Vaughan Williams recordings by Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), Sir Adrian Boult (EMI), Vernon Handley (EMI), Andre Previn (RCA) and the like, certainly Judd makes an acceptable substitute, and you can hardly say the price isn’t right.

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


Jan 13, 2014

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (CD review)

Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902154.

Is there really any other composer whose music is so thoroughly and consistently charming as that of Franz Schubert (1797-1828)? Certainly Mozart and Beethoven come close, yet even they had a few hits and misses. But Schubert? Everything he wrote is a delight, even the two early symphonies on this disc, Nos. 3 and 4, written when the composer was still in his teens.

However, you wouldn’t always know how charming the music was if your only exposure to it was this period-instruments recording from the young Spanish conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado. Judging by the heady speeds and extreme dynamic contrasts he adopts from time to time throughout the performances, he seems to be trying to outdo Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel for outright energy and excitement. The thing is, Dudamel knows when to reign things in and apply a little more subtlety and nuance. Heras-Casado seems to go full bore every minute. You can even get an indication of this energy by looking at the album’s cover picture, where the conductor appears to be leaping into the air. (Either that or he’s lying down with his arms spread out; I prefer to think he was leaping.)

Anyway, things begin with the Symphony No. 3 in D major, D.200, which Schubert wrote in 1815, just a few months after his eighteenth birthday. As with all of his other symphonies, the composer never published the work in his lifetime.

From the outset, Heras-Casado throws himself headlong into the music, making the most of every dynamic contrast he can find. Thus, for example, in the opening Adagio section of the first movement, we get huge crescendos of sound; and then in the following Allegro con brio segment, we get an exhilarating tempo on top of the loud outbursts. It makes for an exciting interpretation, to be sure, but I'm not sure it's what every listener might want to hear in their Schubert.

I made two quick comparisons in the Symphony No. 3, the first to another period-instruments group, the Hanover Band conducted by Roy Goodman and the second to a modern-instruments ensemble, the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. In the case of Goodman, the playing is almost as heady, yet Goodman maintains a better balance of enthusiasm and musicality. In the case of Beecham, well, there just isn't any comparison. Beecham keeps the music floating along with such airy joy, it's really unfair to compare his presentation to that of Heras-Casado.

In the little Allegretto, Heras-Casado seems more in tune with the spirit of Schubert, still a bit zippy yet well controlled, with a sweet, bouncy rhythm. Then it's back to the races in the two final movements, which, in fairness, Schubert does mark Vivace, but still....

The other selection on the program is the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D.417, “Tragic,” which Schubert wrote in 1816, about a year after he completed the Third. Schubert added the subtitle “Tragic” a few years later, probably because it is darker and more serious than his previous symphonies.

The "Tragic" element in Schubert's Fourth Symphony has always been in question, though, since after its somber introduction, it does tend to get rather lighter in mood as it goes along. While Heras-Casado exaggerates this condition just enough to give us the idea, he promotes the heavier aspects of the score as well. So, for instance, the second-movement Andante is both ethereal and pensive, tough and determined. The Minuet is really a scherzo, and the final Allegro is nervous and aggressive. Overall, Heras-Casado seems better attuned to the complexities of the Fourth than to the simpler allures of the Third.

Completing the package, we get a light-cardboard slipcover, which unfortunately merely repeats the picture of Maestro Heras-Casado leaping for all he’s worth. It’s not an attractive picture and does nothing to enhance the album, so aside from promoting the conductor, I’m not sure what the purpose of the picture might be.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in 2012 at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla, Granada, Spain, where they obtained a very spacious and lively sound. However, the hall resonance can occasionally obscure midrange detail, and the very reverberation that might otherwise make a recording seem quite full here tends to make the strings sound a little bright and thin. That said, the clarity is still fairly good, the stereo spread wide, and the dynamics ample, although with, as I mentioned earlier, an impact that can sometimes spoil the elegance of the music.

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


Jan 12, 2014

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Symphonic excerpts (CD review)

Nina Stemme, soprano; Philippe Jordan, Orchestre de l’Opera National de Paris. Erato 50999 9341422 7 (2-disc set).

Described by Opera News as “one of opera’s most exciting Wagnerian Sopranos,” the Swedish dramatic-opera star Nina Stemme here gives us a taste of what all the fuss is about in excerpts from all four of Richard Wagner’s Nibelungen operas. It’s just too bad we get to hear so little of her on this two-disc album. She sings Brunnhilde in the immolation scene that concludes the set, and that’s about it. Otherwise, Maestro Philippe Jordan and the Paris National Opera Orchestra give us the usual orchestral extracts we’ve all got on probably multiple discs in our music libraries. Not that Jordan’s execution of Wagner isn’t good; it’s just a little redundant.

Anyway, what we have on two discs of excerpts isn’t quite as much as we might expect, either. The first disc contains only forty-four minutes of music, and the second disc but thirty-eight minutes. Since that’s only a few minutes more than a single standard CD can hold, Erato could almost have squeezed everything onto a single disc.  But I’m probably complaining unnecessarily since they have priced the two-disc set quite reasonably.

Anyway, things begin, of course, with Das Rheingold: the Prelude, Interludes, and Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. After those items, from Die Walkure we get the seemingly omnipresent Ride of the Valkyries, followed by the Magic Fire Music. Disc one concludes with Forest Murmurs from Siegfried, arranged by Wouter Hutschenruyter. Then, Maestro Jordan turns disc two over to Gotterdammerung, with Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March, and Brunnhilde’s immolation. The latter selection finally lets us hear what people are talking about, Ms. Stemme’s way with Wagner. Certainly, it is a highlight of the program.

Maestro Jordan's approach to Wagner appears less dramatic than that of some of his illustrious predecessors in this material--Solti, Klemperer, Szell, Karajan, Leinsdorf, Stokowski, Boult, and the like. Instead, Jordan seems to emphasize the music's more poetic elements. We see this best defined by the conductor’s development of the opening Prelude, the waters of the Rhine ebbing, flowing, rising up, and practically engulfing us. Not that one can ever call Wagner subtle, but Jordan's manner is gentle enough that the nuances of Wagner's tone pictures come through with an expressive clarity and not just as great bleeding chunks of orchestral bravura.

In fact, Jordan is at his best in the opening opera, with its singing hammers, simple characters, and inspiring melodies. Although the music he has chosen to present may be purely instrumental, it conveys the songlike qualities of the rest of the work and offers up a most-refined interpretation of the subject.

Having little room for anything else from Die Walkure, we get only the two big numbers I mentioned above. It seems a shame to condense an entire opera to about twelve minutes of music, but at least Jordan gives people what they probably most want. The trouble here is that so many other conductors have already given us excellent versions of the Valkyries and Magic Fire Music; Jordan's renderings seem a little anticlimactic.

If Die Walkure gets short shrift, Siegfried gets even shorter, the entire opera represented by only Forest Murmurs. Fortunately, Jordan's reading of the music is delicate, graceful, and elegant, while still powerful enough to give us a pretty good glimpse into Siegfried's maturation process.

Disc two concludes the set with three tracks that convey the stormy passion, fear, and dark foreboding of Gotterdammerung. Jordan provides a Rhine Journey and a Funeral March filled with plenty of atmosphere, the pictorial qualities ever in the forefront, yet with enough emotional force to have a strong visceral effect on the listener as well.

And then, at long last, we have Ms. Stemme doing Brunnhilde's final scene. She does, indeed, have a fine voice, powerful enough for a heroine like Brunnhilde yet flexible enough to give her character some color.

Maestro Jordan did this album after spending three years with a complete Wagner cycle in Paris. He calls these excerpts on the album "orchestral souvenirs of the Ring," and I suppose that's how we should view them. They are little reminders of a much bigger, more massive vision, postcards from a favorite vacation. They're fun to enjoy but no substitute for the real thing. Unless you just really hate Wagner, in which case such excerpts may be just what you need.

Produced, engineered, edited, and mixed by Jean-Martial Golaz for Opera de Paris Productions and licensed exclusively to Erato/Warner Classics, the album derives from recording sessions at the Salle Liebermann, Opera Bastille, Paris in June 2013. The sound is one of the best parts of the show. The orchestra displays genuine depth and breadth, with a realistic hall ambience to set it off. While not the most transparent of sounds, the music is nevertheless quite natural, with huge dynamic contrasts, solid impact, deep bass, and extended highs. It comes flooding over us in great sweeps and flurries, perfect for Wagner. Note, however, that there are times in big crescendos that the tone can turn a bit strident; still, it is never too bright or forward as to cause much concern.

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


Jan 9, 2014

Strauss: Don Juan (SACD review)

Also, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh FR-707SACD.

The thing is, these tone poems from German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) are so famous and so often recorded, most classical-music fans probably already have multiple favorite copies of them. So how are newcomers to the scene like Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra supposed to compete with the likes of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), or Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden (EMI)?  Well, what Maestro Honeck and his team offer are vigorous performances and excellent, live, hybrid multichannel SACD sound. Whether that is enough to tempt you in their direction is another story.

The program begins with Don Juan, Op. 20, the 1888 work that put a young Strauss on the map. The piece builds a tone portrait of the legendary Spanish lover, a portrait whose swashbuckling music harks back to Liszt’s Les Preludes and looks forward to Korngold’s The Sea Hawk and Williams’s Star Wars.

Maestro Honeck attacks the more-heroic aspects of the score with strength and vigor, making them sound as vital as under any baton. The quieter sections he takes rather routinely, however, so you won't get quite the contrasting nuances you will find with a few other conductors. With Honeck it's all about the excitement.

Next, we find Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24, from 1889, where we see an increase in the maturity of the subject matter if not always in the inspiration of the music. The piece describes a dying man thinking back on his life: the innocence of his childhood, the struggles of his adulthood, the achievement of material goals, and, finally, a long-desired transfiguration “from the infinite reaches of heaven.” It combines some of the heroics of Don Juan with a degree of introspection and sentimentality to create a poignant look at passing.

In Death and Transfiguration Honeck is all about introspection and soul-searching, starting with those long, drawn-out breaths at the start of the piece. The music can easily slip into the maudlin, but Honeck manages to make it more reflective than overtly emotional. Strauss's widow said that on her husband’s deathbed he told her that dying was just as he had described it in music so many years before. If that's the case, it's both dreadful and peaceful, ominous and tranquil, dramatic and serene, at least in Honeck's hands, and he builds a commendably steady momentum as the work unfolds. The conclusion is as touching as any I've heard.

The last item on the disc is Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28, from 1895. It’s a rollicking tale that ends in misfortune for the unfortunate rapscallion Till Eulenspiegel and his misadventures.  Honeck appears to see Till as an inelegant, rough-hewn type who believes his winning smile can get him through any mischief. It's here the conductor seems most happy, most forceful, most rustic and charming, the program thus finishing up on a strong note. Interestingly, too, while all three pieces on the disc conclude with the hero's death, it is in Honeck's handling of Till Eulenspiegel that we see most clearly the striking significance of that end.

Three unusual aspects of this 2013 Reference Recordings release are (1) Reference Recordings didn’t make it, Soundmirror, Boston did, and the folks at Reference Recordings are helping to distribute it under their label; (2) Soundmirror recorded it live; and (3) the disc is a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD, which Reference Recordings at this time were only just starting to get into. Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineers Mark Donahue, Ray Clover, and John Newton recorded the music at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in June 2012 using five omnidirectional DPA 4006 microphones, supplemented by spot mikes and post produced in 64fs DSD on a Pyramix workstation. Soundmirror has done a lot of good work before, receiving a ton of Grammy nominations, and the current disc is no exception if you enjoy the experience of live sound.

In the compatible SACD stereo mode to which I listened, the sonics were extremely dynamic and clear, if at the expense of a somewhat close-up perspective and a very minor degree of brightness in the upper midrange. Nevertheless, I found splendid definition, a good bass and treble extension, strong transient impact, and a spacious stereo spread. Insofar as concerns audience noise, I heard none. And no disruptive applause, either.

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


Jan 8, 2014

Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, “The Trout” (SACD review)

Also, Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A. The Beaux Arts Trio (augmented) and the Grumiaux Quartet (augmented). PentaTone Classics 5186 121.

Although Schubert’s “Trout” was probably the first piece of chamber music I ever fell in love with, I had never had a particular preference for any one recording until the appearance of this Beaux Arts rendition originally released by Philips in the mid Seventies. Then everything changed; the first time I listened to the augmented Trio’s sublime performance, I had to listen to it again and again. And then again.

The composer got his inspiration for the “Trout” Piano Quintet in part from a song he had written, aptly titled “The Trout,” and in part from an earlier quintet by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Schubert’s friend, Albert Stadler, wrote years later that Schubert composed his quintet “at the special request of my friend Sylvester Paumgartner, who was absolutely delighted in the delicious little song.” At his wish the quintet had to preserve the structure and instrumentation of the Hummel quintet, recte Septet, which at that time was still new. Schubert soon finished it; the score he retained himself.” In any case, Schubert really only quoted the song in the many variations of the fourth movement, yet the whole thing is a delight from beginning to end, filled with the kind of melodies you go away humming for days (or in some cases, like mine, a lifetime).

With Menahem Pressler, piano, Isidore Cohen, violin, Bernard Greenhouse, cello, Samuel Rodes, viola, and Georg Hortnagel, double bass, the Beaux Arts Trio and friends play the “Trout” with infinite skill, warmth, and affection. Yes, there are faster, more exciting versions available and more historically informed versions as well, but there are no more charming, more delightful versions you can buy. It’s appealing in every category by which one may judge music, a true classic of the recording catalogue.

With the PentaTone reissue, the coupling this time out is Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, with George Pieterson on clarinet and violinist Arthur Grumiaux’s Quartet. Philips recorded it in 1974, a year earlier than the Schubert but in the same Concertgebouw location, so both works have a similar sound, round and soft and faintly glowing. The Mozart is fine, of course, but I miss Death and the Maiden, the coupling on Philips’s own second CD release of the “Trout.” Naturally, either coupling is better than that of the original LP, which was none.

The folks at PentaTone remind us that both selections on their disc derive from the era of quadraphonics, when Philips and others were testing the four-channel waters. Philips wound up shelving the idea and just releasing the two-channel stereo versions on vinyl, but now we have them in four discrete channels if you have the SACD playback equipment to listen to them that way. I listened only to the disc’s SACD stereo layer on this hybrid multichannel/stereo disc. Interestingly, I found the sound of PentaTone’s “Trout” slightly different from that found on the Philips disc, the stereo versions most likely mastered differently. The first Silver Line Philips mastering of the “Trout” was a little bright and hard, and it overemphasized the violin. The second Philips mastering improved the situation, and this new PentaTone is better still at making the sound smoother and more agreeable. The snag is that if you don’t own an SACD player, you might not want to pay the extra money for the small improvement in straight stereo sound. Six of one....

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


Jan 6, 2014

Ravel: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (CD review)

Bolero, La Valse, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Alborada del Grazioso, Rapsodie espagnole.  Stephane Deneve, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Hanssler Classic CD 93.305.

I’m not sure the world really needs more recordings of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral music, given that we already have a plethora of fine recordings from the likes of Charles Dutoit (Decca), Jean Martinon (EMI), Andre Cluytens (EMI), Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Mobile Fidelity, Vox), and Geoffrey Simon (CALA), among others. Nevertheless, it isn’t stopping Maestro Stephane Deneve and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra from releasing this first disc in a proposed series of discs devoted to Ravel’s orchestral output. Fortunately, Deneve’s way around Ravel isn’t too shabby, so devoted collectors may want to take notice.

The album opens not with Ravel's ubiquitous Bolero, which comes last on the program, but with the slightly off-kilter La Valse. The composer described it as "...a form of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which mingled in my imagination with the impression of a fantastic and fatal whirlpool." Under Deneve's direction, La Valse begins softly and proceeds to go a little crazy in its own oddball way. Yet Deneve maintains a good control over the progressive flow of the piece, never letting it get too demonic.

Next, we find Le Tombeau de Couperin, a four-movement suite that Ravel intended as a homage to the French Baroque period. Deneve handles the music with elegance and style, all the while capturing their clearly twentieth-century impressionistic whimsy. If anything, Deneve is more successful here than with La Valse, perhaps with less competition to deal with.

Following Le Tombeau de Couperin comes Alborada del Gracioso ("Morning Song of the Jester"), originally an early piano piece. Deneve manages it with an appropriate playfulness, if perhaps a little less so than in the hands of the conductors I mentioned earlier. He also emphasizes the Spanish element effectively, if not always convincingly, and he directs the work's various tempo and rhythm changes smoothly.

Then we have the Rhapsodie espagnole, Ravel's first big success and the music next to Bolero by which most people probably know him. Deneve brings out its misty, enchanting lyricism nicely and again evokes the Spanish flavor with a fair amount of flair. The "Habanera" section sounds especially beguiling.

Finally, we come to Bolero, which by now must be ingrained in every person's mind from so much exposure. It generally lasts about fifteen to seventeen minutes, the recurring melody becoming more insistent as more and more instruments join in the fray. Deneve's account lasts just a few seconds over fifteen minutes, so no problem there, if a tad fast. There's no concern, anywhere, in fact, and the work sounds about as sinuous and seductive as any you'll find. However, whether it sounds as flamboyant and exciting as some rival versions, I will have to leave as a matter of taste. Certainly, this one will appeal to those listeners who insist on tonal purity above all, but until the very end it doesn't quite come to life and grab you by the throat as other renditions do. It's a bit more genteel than that. But I quibble; it will not disappoint most fans.

Producer Felix Fischer and sound engineer Martin Vogele recorded the album for Hanssler Classic at Liederhalle Stuttgart and Beethovensaal, Germany in 2012 and 2013. The sound spreads out nicely between the speakers, with no trace of a hole in the middle. It is also quite full, with an appealing ambient bloom making it appear even bigger. There is not much dimensionality to the sound, though, nor is there an abundance of transparency. Rather, it is a big, warm, spacious, moderately soft sound, given to loud outbursts of dynamic range, ample bass, and clean, clear highs.

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


Jan 5, 2014

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” (CD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre des Champs-Elysees. Harmonia Mundi HMG 501921.

The Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” in E flat major by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is probably the Austrian composer most-popular piece of music. This is in no small part because of its abundance of Romantic, dramatic, programmatic, and spiritual touches. The thing is, there are already about 800 different recordings of it available, some of them by very prominent conductors and orchestras like Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Gunther Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA), Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), and Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos). So, what might compel a listener to try this rerelease from Philippe Herreweghe and his Orchestre des Champs-Elysees?

Well, for one thing the listener might be an avid collector of all things Bruckner and want every recording of every piece of music the man ever wrote. Fair enough.

More important for the rest of us, however, is that Herreweghe’s recording has a claim to being at least one of the most historically accurate performances ever recorded. In the words of the ensemble itself, “The Orchestre des Champs-Elysees is devoted to the performance of music written from the mid XVIII to the early XX centuries (Haydn-Mahler) played on the instruments that existed during the composer's lifetime.” Meaning they play on period instruments and, insofar as they can, play in a historically informed manner.

The thing is, Bruckner initially wrote his symphony in 1874, which comes very close, within a quarter century or so, of the modern age. Could there really be an advantage to hearing the work played on period instruments and in a period style? Let’s look at a history of the symphony’s multiple revisions for a start. Bruckner composed the original version in 1874, as I say. Then he revised parts of it in 1877-78, among other things writing an entirely new Scherzo. In 1879-80 he again revised the Finale. In 1881 he premiered the revised version, but he quickly added a few more corrections before the second performance. In 1887-88 conductor Ferdinand Lowe prepared the proofs for publication, but these differed considerably from Bruckner’s autograph score; Bruckner accepted them anyway. By the time of the symphony’s actual publication, it differed substantially from Bruckner’s initial vision. Various revised scores have appeared over the years, but it is the 1878 version, which Bruckner regarded as the only valid one, that Herreweghe performs here.

Now, on to the recording. As we have come to expect from Herreweghe and his period forces, the reading is quite good. It just take a while for one to get used to it. By that, I mean Herreweghe’s rendering sounds a bit thinner, harsher, and less grandiloquent than most other recordings. That’s understandable, considering the ensemble he uses, with the period instruments. Still, there is much to enjoy in his rendition.

As you recall, the composer tells us what each of the movements represents, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a funeral, then a hunt, complete with horn calls, and then a brilliant culminating summation. Bruckner was a profoundly spiritual man, and his symphonies all illustrate the point, with the Fourth Symphony being the most programmatic of all.

In the first movement, Herreweghe’s manner can be a bit strict when it comes to nuances, and he could better characterize those opening mists. Nevertheless, the conductor does a good job communicating Bruckner's vision of Nature and his several scenic landscapes, reminding us of how much the composer admired both Beethoven and Wagner. He captures the heroic features of the first subject in lively, if not so grand, style; and he goes on to a pleasant statement of the ensuing, more peaceful, secondary theme.

The second-movement Andante should sound at least vaguely elegiac. Herreweghe takes this section, halfway between a nocturne and a march, at a slow but comfortable pace, without making it drag on as we sometimes hear. Even if he tends to lose a little momentum toward the middle, he makes up for it with the beauty and vitality of the opening and closing passages.

Following that we find a vigorous Scherzo, which Bruckner teasingly called “a rabbit hunt,” building a proper momentum as it progresses. The hunt and the hunters' meal come off colorfully under Herreweghe, with the conductor providing plenty of vigor to the affair.

Lastly, in the Finale, as with the Scherzo, Bruckner would again take the heroic opening theme and the more-idyllic second subject and rework them into his closing statement. Herreweghe handles them well, conveniently ensuring they don't appear too redundant by this time. Perhaps, too, Bruckner knew what he was up to reducing the more-obvious repetition of material from earlier in the symphony and keeping it more cheerful. Herreweghe steers a middle ground between optimism and tragedy, the light and dark side of the composer. The movement still seems to me too long, but at least Herreweghe makes it more provocative and exciting than some other conductors.

As you become more accustomed to Herreweghe's historical approach and historical instruments, the more you may come to appreciate his Bruckner Fourth. While I could not recommend the recording as the only one a person should own, there is no reason a person shouldn't have Herreweghe's account available as a feasible alternative to the bigger, grander recordings from Jochum, Klemperer, Bohm, Wand, and the rest of the more-modern interpreters. 

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music at the Auditorium de Dijon, France, in October 2005, and the company rereleased it in its present form in 2013. The sound is a bit too warm, soft, fuzzy, and reverberant for my taste, but it also appears pretty natural to a big acoustic space. In addition, the sound displays a wide dynamic range, so it starts off very softly and builds to a huge crescendo in the opening minute or two. It's fairly satisfying, if not entirely as transparent as it could be. Also, be aware that the period instruments are not going to sound as smooth as today's modern ones, so you have that to adjust to them as well, the upper midrange being a tad edgy. However, some solid, well-defined transient impact helps to make us forget many of the recording’s minor shortcomings.

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


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa